Making it up
Many things seem pretty easy until you actually have to try it. That's certainly the case with writing fiction. I'll confess that in the past I have considered it as rather the equivalent of playing tennis without a net. After all, why spend an afternoon in the library chasing down an elusive fact when you can just invent stuff wholesale. It's fiction, right?
Then I was asked to try actually writing some of the stuff. Historical fiction, based in the Roman Republic. The task I set myself was to be as accurate as possible. That is, based on what is known, the events of my story had to be entirely possible, based on factual detail, and never contradict reality. The result, I discovered, was rather like playing tennis with two nets.
On the one hand there was my bunch of fictional protagonists, and on the other the actual geography and chronology of real people and places. So to get person A to town B in a certain amount of time, I needed to check sailing conditions for that time of year, and then discover what sort of roads would take my character inland. Then I had to make sure that the real historical figure I needed my character to interact with was indeed there at that time, and check where he went after that.
Weaving fiction into a known set of historical events was great fun, and had an unexpected bonus. That is, because I kept strictly to the facts wherever possible, a lot of the fiction took care of itself. Events and people slotted neatly into my timeline simply because they were in that timeline to start with. And time and again I was spared the task of inventing a fictional character, group or event because research turned up a genuine historical person, group or event that was doing pretty much what I wanted anyway. Hooray for historical imperatives!
Anyway, the fiction has now been written and tied up with a pretty pink bow and sent off for editing. In another month I'll sit down and take a look at it with fresh eyes and make sure it is ready for publication. By then you'll be able to see and read more about it on this site and elsewhere. Don't worry. I'll supply the links.
Throwing off my er, chains?
It would appear that the baggage handlers on our national airline are contemplating a strike. They are unhappy with their overtime and sick leave arrangements, among other things. While reading about this, it struck me that while I am self-employed, I'm a pretty unreasonable boss to myself. Maybe I should go on strike to teach me a lesson.
Overtime? Well, if I work until 2am to get a chapter finished, I'm paid no more for doing so. Sick leave? I can take as much time as I like, but can't expect to get paid for it. And the work will just keep piling up while I'm abed. Then there's the pay. How about getting paid every six months (in royalties), with the payment anywhere between half again more or half less than expected - but usually less? And as for job security - I need to re-apply for employment every time, which in my case is usually twice a year. Pension? No.
How would my baggage handlers take those terms and conditions? Let's see. Morning commutes to an airport to load the 6 am flight in the rain can't be a lot of fun, while on my morning commute - between breakfast table and study - traffic consists of the cat crossing the carpet. I can't imagine anyone loading aeroplanes for fun, while I have written entire books for exactly that reason. (Oddly enough, these books have also done well commercially.)
And if it's a beautiful spring morning, I can spontaneously down tools and take a stroll to the local coffee shop. As my wife has just pointed out, I don't - but the point is that I can if I want to. It's just that first century Spain is currently more interesting than a mocha latte.
In fact it's shaping up as a busy year. I'll be teaching three courses and doing a bit of media consultancy work on ancient world epics. I'm hoping to have two books published this year, and to have another two ready for editing by next January. I'll also have several encyclopaedia entries written and want to publish two magazine articles on topics I feel strongly about.
Since I can't also fit in a strike, I guess I'll have to remain a (self-)oppressed mass.
Friends, Romans, foreigners
Recently I've been engaged in a project that requires me to put myself into the mind of a Roman from around the time of 100 BC. This is not as easy as it seems at first glance. We have inherited a lot of Roman culture (for example the text I am writing this in is called 'Roman script', and both 'Roman' and 'script'
are recognizably Latin words) and this makes it easy to think that the Romans acted and thought as we do.
But did they? For a start we have very little evidence about their thought processes. The best clues would come from contemporary texts, but in fact much of what we know about the last century of the Roman Republic was written after the wrenching social changes that gave birth to the Roman empire. Therefore I've been giving a lot of attention to two writers from the generation after 100 Bc - Cicero and Sallust.
One of the first things that is noticeable in their work is a degree of what we would consider as, frankly, plain nastiness. From a 21st century viewpoint, the Romans of the mid-to-late Republic are remarkably pragmatic, ruthless and selfish. Empathy is not one of their strong points, and they are not big on charity even for their fellow Romans, let alone for the rest of the world. Politics (where admittedly, one sees few societies at their best) was not just dog eat dog, but dog ambush dog and then get a pack together to eat dog's friends and associates as well.
The world of 100 BC lacked some of the social concepts which we take for granted today. The Christian ethic which stresses compassion for the less fortunate and guilt for misdeeds did not exist. 'Sin' as a concept did not arrive in Rome for another two centuries. The nearest the Romans came was 'crimes against the Gods' - and for such crimes, as for any other crimes, Romans felt (or should feel) only shame for having let their society and themselves down.
Likewise, romantic love and chivalry are mostly medieval concepts. Insofar as a Roman male (a chauvinist in every sense of the word) felt romantic love for a woman, this was a character flaw which needed excusing. So we see Cicero denying that he married a young lady for love. He insisted it was just for her money. Likewise kicking a man when he was down or helpless seemed to the pragmatic Romans the very best time to do it. Their reward for an opponent who had fought gallantly was to make damn sure he would never do it again.
These days we tend to depreciate the Roman Republican virtues - their intense loyalties to friends and their fierce pride in their country. They were almost uniformly brave, stubborn, and uncompromising way past the point of pig-headedness, and they faced hardship without flinching (though they liked to complain bitterly about it). They were also capable of sly humour, unexpected and lavish generosity and slushy sentimentality.
To me the Romans of this period are fascinating individuals, and I love living with them in my research and reading. But like most people in a foreign country, I still prefer the values of my own society.
Over the last few weeks I've been preparing a course I'll be teaching over the internet for ICE Cambridge next year. It's on Greek Mythology. While researching I've found this interesting book which argues that the best way to consider Greek gods is as forces and concepts.
So, for example, we have the concept of love, which gives us Aphrodite; and the force of order, which gives us Zeus. Zeus is a force, because it is order that makes electrons orbit their atoms correctly, and all sorts of things that would exist even without humans to imagine them.
Interestingly, as the example of Zeus shows, the Greek gods even extend their operations into the modern world and areas which the ancient Greeks never imagined. This is why Hermes (as Mercury) is still to be found on the beret badges of the British Army Signals Corps, even though the ancient Greeks knew nothing of satellite communications and microwave transmissions.
However, maybe for the modern era we would need some new gods to cover some of the areas which the ancient Greeks never imagined. For example how about Quantum, god of the arcane, the counter-intuitive and downright impossible? I imagine him as a quirky (or even quarky) god, whose symbol would be a cat in a box.
Then there's Ipeeya, goddess of intellectual property. A loving, nurturing goddess when she guards your copyrights, and a vicious, grasping, mean-spirited harpy when you want to use someone else's.
All about Vesta
One of the things about living in the mountains is that some questions get a certain degree of consideration. For example, let's assume that an avalanche took out the gas and electricity supply. How long would it take for the necessities of life to be restored? Remember that the road would have gone too, and there's over a meter of snow just outside my front door and temperatures well below zero.
With such thoughts in mind, in November I invested in a serious wood-burning stove, which was about the size and cost of a small car. For this I stacked up a substantial pile of wood under the kitchen window, and at a stroke (well at several strokes of a wood-splitting axe) our house became energy-independent.
Suddenly it became apparent to me why the hearth was such an important part of the home in the days when everyone lived off the grid because there was no grid to be on. The stove has a flat top, so cooking is simply a matter of placing the appropriate pots or pans anywhere on the surface. The flames do an adequate job of illuminating the room, and the entire house stays toasty warm. Add a decent supply of non-perishable food (you can get rice in 50lb bags in these parts) and losing electricity and gas goes from a life-threatening problem to an inconvenience.
Fresh water is not an issue, as it comes white and pure from the sky, and lies around in large piles for months. All one needs is a stove to melt it on. If you like to make your own beer, as I do, the stove even keeps the brew at a decent temperature for fermentation, so none of the necessities of life are absent. They say that no man is an island, but given a decent stove and plenty of wood, I can see that in the past he could at least have been a peninsula.