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Frankfurt on my mind

Try to talk to a publisher in the middle of October, and the chances are that you'll be asked to leave a message. This is because the publisher will be fully engaged in the major event of the year for those who get books published for a living - the Frankfurt Book Fair. This five-day fair so dominates many publishers' lives they are almost shocked when you remind them that most members of the general public have never heard of it.

It's not as though the public have not had the chance. The fair has been a regular annual event almost since Gutenberg set up the first printing press about 500 years ago. The fair attracts publishers, large retailers, agents, TV and film people, academics and trade associations. Everyone involved in the book world is there - except authors. So I've never been there, but Frankfurt is very important to me, because that's generally where my publishers negotiate the publishing rights and licensing fees which have seen my books produced in over a dozen languages (and counting). This provides a substantial chunk of my income.

There's another effect as well - Frankfurt keeps me busy over the summer. This is because sometimes a publisher wants to take an idea international, or wants to produce a model of what a planned book will look like (this model is called a 'dummy'), to see what sales such a book can expect. For me as an author the timing goes like this. I produce something in July and August while the rest of the world is taking a break. (I did get to swim in the lake almost every day in July and August, so don't feel too sorry for me.) In September my raw prose is turned into something resembling a book, and in October, while I'm enjoying some well-earned repose, my work schedule for the coming year is determined by negotiations thousands of miles away in Germany.

Frankfurt is on my mind this month, because one of my latest productions will be on the auction block. That production is a book giving my take on the Greek and Roman Myths. The book itself came out at the end of August in the UK and will be out just before Christmas in North America. Naturally, I'm hoping that international publishers find it irresistible. I'd particularly like to see the book find a Greek publisher. There would be something particularly satisfying in seeing my explanation of those ancient legends written in the language of the people who originally told them.
Hooked on history
During the last month I've been asked the same question by people in three different professions; 'How can we get people enthused about ancient history?'

Each of these three professionals - a university administrator, a commissioning editor of ancient history books, and a TV researcher - know that the days of a tweedy professor lecturing the audience are gone for good. In a world of Ipads, 3D TV and always-on internet simply reciting names and dates from two millennia past is not going to grab anyone's attention. There's definitely a place for a tweedy professor (I rather fancy being one myself) but his place is for after members of the public have been hooked on history. The question is what draws people into the subject in the first place.

I've been musing on this question over the summer (it's been a busy one, of which I'll have more to say next month). My theory is that ancient history is so fascinating partly because it is a mixture of detective work and debate. The evidence is fragmentary in so many places that it can be interpreted in different ways. Was Julius Caesar a hero or a villain? Was Cleopatra a victim or a vicious seductress? Was the emperor Claudius murdered?

The other reason antiquity is fascinating is because it is so radically different from anything we experience today (with all those Ipads and internet stuff for instance). Yet the people of antiquity are totally human, with their quirks, kindness and cruelty. Yet the human drama of ancient Greece and Rome is played out on a very different stage. And so I ask myself; 'If I was a Roman, or Greek in a particular place or event, what would I think, feel and believe? How would I understand my world?'

That's what draws me in, and how I try to enthuse others.
Filling the map
Recently I've started playing one of those online games where you wander around a magical landscape and kill things. I'm currently working on Roman citizenship and first century agrarian legislation, and frankly, I need the light relief. Anyway, after I'd played for a week or so, a more experienced player took me by the virtual hand and showed that the area I'd been running around was a small corner of a much larger map.

I mention this, because I've noticed something similar in ancient history over the past few decades. When I finished my first university degree, I felt I basically knew my subject. Not all the details perhaps, but basically who was who and what happened when. Some of that certainty faded as I progressed with my studies, and came across entire eras, cultures, texts and wars that I had not even touched on as an undergraduate.

These days, when ever I start researching a book I do so knowing that I'm basically starting from scratch. A lot of what I think I know will turn out to be misinformed, and I will consult experts who astound me with the depth of their knowledge. So in doing a book I end up filling in another portion of my 'map' of the ancient world with a rich texture of people, places, things and events.

By now I know that the map will never be complete. There's simply too much to discover in the course of a single lifetime. After all, ancient history describes twelve hundred years spread from the Thames to the Tigris and beyond. At best I can play tourist and visit and report on the most interesting times, people and places. I'm rather glad that I'll never know it all. What would I do next?
The gestation process
Way back when, I finished my first book, and thought'That was fun! But there's this idea for another ...'. That was a decade ago, and every book sparks an idea for another two that just have to be written. So the backlog in my 'Ideas and Projects' folder keeps growing. And after each book is done it's straight back to the folder for the next proposal to present to a commissioning editor.

Then the idea bounces around the publishing house, and comes back adapted by discussions about the best approach. Then I prepare a timeline, with milestones such as the completion of research and notes, draft sample chapter, and completion of first draft.

After that, it's time to settle down, tune out the planet, and emerge blinking into the sunlight after about a year immersed in writing up the topic. Even though other things happen, I tend not to be really there. I once left a dinner party to write up the First Battle of Bedriacum while a fresh idea was still clear in my mind.

Once a book is written, it probably won't end up in the shops for at least another year. There's edits and re-writes, indexing, captions, indexing and design. And that's apart from the stuff that happens in the background such as publishers meeting with distributors and retailers to determine where, when and how the book will be published.

Then, once it has been released, assuming that the book gets good reviews and sales, the book starts to pay off the publisher's advance. Every author wants the advance paid off as soon as possible, both because that's when the book rewards the effort and enthusiasm put into it, and because this means that the public like the end product.

Overall, a the project will take about four years to go from notes in my ideas folder to something which earns royalties. It's not a quick process, but there's nothing more satisfying than helping an idea to become a book.
Videre est credere (Seeing is believing)
It is beginning to dawn on me that re-enactment is a much under-rated academic tool. When a member of the general public thinks of re-enactors, the general perception is of an amiable yet somewhat batty group of people running around the woods in fancy dress pretending to be civil war soldiers, Vikings or whatever.

Now some re-enactors will agree with this definition (I told you that they are a generally amiable bunch), but only if our hypothetical member of the general public will admit to a sneaking suspicion that it all seems rather fun, and he wouldn't mind giving it a go.

Yet I'm beginning to depend more and more on re-enactors. I am encouraged by their generosity and enthusiasm, and with most, their relentless determination to get things right. This is important for a historian. We can speculate how something worked, or what it might be like, but re-enactors give us the nearest thing to asking someone who has actually done it.

That's how we know (for example) that without a scarf a legionary's chest armour chafes his sternum, and that breathing can get difficult in a parade cavalryman's helmet. There's a lot re-enactment can't do, partly because the people inside the costumes are still 21st century humans, and have no choice but to sometimes think and act accordingly.

But until we get a time machine, it's as close as we'll get to understanding how some aspects of life in antiquity actually worked.

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