UPDATE – WE HAVE A WINNER! Thanks so much to everyone who entered the “Win a signed copy” draw. It was great fun reading your messages and especially the entertaining offers of bribery (which of course I resisted)! Congratulations to G Goldschmeid, whose name was first out of the hat – please check your email as I’ll need to know where to send your copy of “Terra Incognita”.
We interrupt this broadcast to bring you news of rock-bottom bargain prices through July for UK Kindle versions of MEDICUS (the first book in the series) and MEMENTO MORI (the latest). 99p each! Yes, really! I think the recent sun here must have gone to somebody’s head. Whatever the reason, if you buy from Amazon.co.uk, you may wish grab one or both while you can.
Meanwhile for readers elsewhere who can’t access the UK bargains – a free book draw! The prize will be a signed copy of whichever book in the MEDICUS series you choose.
There’s a reminder of what the books are here. If you choose anything but MEDICUS itself, it’ll be an American edition hardback – MEDICUS will be a UK paperback because that’s what I have in the stock box.
How to enter – simply leave a comment below before midnight on Sunday 8 July, stating which book you’d like if you win. (This is also running in my newsletter, so if you sign up for that you could enter twice.) Please remember – this is only for people who live outside the UK.
I’ve always thought of Parracombe as a peaceful and picturesque little Exmoor village, but when William of Falaise (relation of the more famous William the Conqueror) moved in sometime after 1066, he decided he needed a massive wooden castle to keep the natives in order.
The site is now called Holwell Castle and there’s a great view of it across the valley from Christ Church, where an information board helpfully explains what all the lumps and bumps are.
In case that shot from the churchyard isn’t entirely clear (and to be honest I was confused at first) here’s a close-up.
RED – the MOTTE. Anyone looking out from the castle keep that was built on top must have had a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside.
BLUE – the ramparts of the BAILEY, which had a wooden palisade on top to protect all the buildings inside. You can still see (but not on this photo, sadly) the flattened rectangle of ground where a large hall once stood.
YELLOW – this is where you have to imagine a massive wooden gatehouse.
The site is on a private farm so you can’t usually visit, but yesterday afternoon we seized the rare chance of a guided tour. Fortified with the tea and cakes being served in the church, a large group of people set off in the sunshine to explore the earthworks in the company of an archaeologist. As I know next to nothing about the Normans, I hope I haven’t mangled his explanation too much.
The wooden structures are long gone but the earthworks, which were probably dug by reluctant locals, are brilliantly preserved.
Here’s part of the ditch that surrounds the motte, and although it’s silted up over the last thousand years, it’s still far too deep to see out of. (Note the lone model for scale and the absence of Large Group of People – they really were there, but it seems a bit rude to post pictures of innocent bystanders without their permission.)
William and his followers would have reached the motte via a drawbridge, but modern commoners have to scramble up the side. It’s a lot steeper than it looks.
The reward at the top: a temporary elevation to Queen of the Castle and a grand view of the valley and some dirty rascals down inside the bailey. You can just see the church on the right.
AND… as if that wasn’t a perfect enough afternoon (cake, countryside, sunshine, good company, archaeology) this was how the day drew to a close. Wow.
Nobody could accuse us of being stuck in the past here at Downie Towers. Well… not in the very distant past, anyway. Today we’re venturing into the daringly modern times of the eighteenth century, where events turn out to have some even more up-to-date parallels. I’m delighted to welcome Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, authors of the bestselling America’s First Daughter, to talk about their latest book, My Dear Hamilton.
Me: Can I get an embarrassing confession out of the way at the start? Having failed to pay attention in history lessons, when I first heard the title I thought you must be writing about Emma, lover of Lord Nelson. Of course I feel silly now. News of the hit musical has reached us even down here in the depths of the West Country. But in case any other Britons are wondering – “My Dear Hamilton” is the story of another woman altogether. Can you tell us a bit about Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and why she deserves to be better known?
Stephanie and/or Laura (see how seamlessly they blend together?): Ah, it makes sense that British readers might want to forget our Hamilton, because he was an American Founding Father–probably known as a traitor to your king, if King George stooped to notice him. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t just a pamphleteer and scrappy American soldier, but also the economic architect of America’s modern financial system. And he didn’t do it alone. He had at his side a remarkably intrepid, loyal, and strong wife–Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, one of America’s most important and longest-living Founding Mothers.
Me: Thank you! What is it about Eliza’s story that you think will resonate with modern readers?
Stephanie and Laura: Our modern political world is ugly–and due to the nature of social media, we’re all constantly exposed to rumor, gossip, and various villainies. Eliza’s vulnerability was supercharged. As the wife of a firebrand who clashed with more or less every other Founding Father, Eliza found herself the victim of newspaper attacks and public opprobrium when her husband confessed adultery. In addition, the Hamiltons believed they were caught up in a tangible and immediate fight for the integrity and preservation of the American union, and we were surprised at how many times their fears and struggles seemed to mirror things going on in the modern political arena.
Me: Given my ignorance about Alexander Hamilton, let alone Eliza, should I read up on the history before I open the novel?
Stephanie and Laura: No advanced reading required! We’ll fill you in and fully introduce you to Eliza’s American revolutionary world–including Alexander. But we always encourage readers to learn more after they’re done and provide resources for them to get a head start.
Me (cunningly hoping to pick up a few tips):I’m guessing there was a LOT of research – how do you decide what goes into the book and what ends up on the cutting-room floor?
Stephanie and Laura: That’s the hardest part of the job. Especially with someone like Hamilton who wrote so much and did so much, and Eliza, who accomplished so much in her own right and lived so very long. In the end, we focused on those things that most shaped or were shaped by Eliza’s own lived experience. We wanted to center her, not her husband, and that often helped us determine what stayed and what had to go.
Me (now I’ve picked their brains about that, moving on to something else that fascinates me as a writer…): How does a writing partnership work? Do you write alternate chapters? Work together? Do you always agree, or do you move forward by arguing?
Stephanie and Laura: We have complementary writing strengths and we’re well aware of them, so we tend to dole out sections to each other based on what we each do best. But we also write to a deadline, so when one of us falls behind, the other takes up the slack and if one of us can’t make a scene work, the other one comes to the rescue. We swap chapters constantly, and edit freely. We debate and disagree sometimes, but we don’t really argue because we always start from the premise that the other person has a point. If we do come to an impasse, we talk it out and inevitably come up with a third solution that is better than either of us originally envisioned. That’s one of the most magical things about our partnership!
Me: How about “Hamilton” the musical – what do you both think of it?
Stephanie and Laura: We’re huge fans and think Lin-Manuel Miranda made some absolutely genius storytelling choices!
Me: Many thanks to you both for taking the time in a busy launch week to stop by and chat. In the time-honoured way I’d like to end by asking: what are you both working on now?
Stephanie and Laura: We’re working on a project on women of the French Revolution together, and Stephanie is embarking on her next solo project featuring the Marquis de Lafayette!
Me: Excellent – we can look forward to learning some more history the easy way! Meanwhile I’d like to wish My Dear Hamilton every success. I’m off to read the copy I bought here.
The launch of a new book is always a grand excuse for wandering around the internet pontificating on things, and I’m grateful to the hosts who’ve kindly let me loose on their websites. It’s been a delight writing the articles, and here’s the current publication schedule.
I’m delighted to say that MEMENTO MORI, the story of Ruso and Tilla’s trip to Aquae Sulis (Bath) should be available on both sides of the Atlantic today! You can read the beginning here and listen to Simon Vance reading part of the story here.
This is what it looks like in the US:
and here’s the British edition:
The small print – The UK is just ebook at the moment but paper copies should be out very soon. Someone’s just asked about Australia and I’ll be checking that later today. Meanwhile, off to celebrate!
Not long now till Ruso and Tilla’s latest adventure goes public! It’s the story of their fateful trip to the busy shrine at Aquae Sulis (Bath) and you can find out more here…
…or listen to Simon Vance reading an excerpt from the book at Tantor Media.
On the left is Bloomsbury’s beautiful US edition. The British edition will follow soon – the cover design is still under wraps but I promise it will be worth waiting for! Newsletter subscribers will be the first to know when it’s being released – if you’d like to join them, please sign up here.
…although to be honest I’ve never been terribly confident about social occasions. Nothing illustrates my lack of prowess so well as the time I turned up to a party to find the hostess still in her dressing-gown with a towel around her hair. And that was in my home country. How much harder must it be to fit into a society where you don’t have the language?
It was certainly a problem for the highly mobile population of the Roman empire. What if you were a Greek-speaker trying to make good in the big city? Or indeed, a Latin-speaker who had moved east and now found all your neighbours chatting away in Greek?
Time to hire a language teacher and practise a little conversation.
Happily for us, some of those ancient conversations have survived. Originally written in Latin and Greek side by side, the “Colloquia” cover all sorts of situations the student is likely to face. Many are obviously for schoolchildren (there’s a lot about washing your face in the morning and saying ‘hello’ to the teacher) but amongst the others are “asking a banker for a loan,” “preparing for a lunch guest,” “afternoons at the baths,” “winning a lawsuit,” “going out to dinner,” and “getting ready for bed”. There are also handy suggestions for acceptable excuses.
The Colloquia give a fresh and delightful insight into the everyday life of the empire, and I’ve just been reading them in Eleanor Dickey’s splendid translation.* They’re full of things that newcomers might have found useful to know, including what to say when things went wrong, such as,
“I haven’t got anything to drink – I asked for wine and nobody gave me any.”
Once the wine is supplied, there’s advice on how to toast one’s fellow-guests and how to thank the host at the end.
Of course not everyone was a partygoer. Someone coping with a relative who had over-indulged might want to say,
“Is this the way to behave when you are a respectable father?”
The following is aimed at slave-owners, but could be useful for parents too:
“Since you were slow to do your job, none of you may go out tonight. And be quiet – I’m going to punish anyone whose voice I hear.”
The passage about lunch reveals how a Roman guest could, unlike me, turn up at the right time every time – even though timekeeping relied largely on sundials and what was, in Britannia at least, an unreliable sun. The invited guest tells his host, “Just send a slave round when you want me to come. I’ll be at home.”
If only we still did that. Admittedly few of us have servants these days, but a simple phone call would save all that hanging around clutching drinks and making polite conversation while frantic preparations go on in the background. And no hostess would need to apologize for slipping away to put her clothes on.
*”Stories of Daily Life from the Roman World – Extracts from the Ancient Colloquia” by Eleanor Dickey, Cambridge University Press, 2017 ISBN 978-1-316-62728-0 http://www.Cambridge.org – Highly recommended!
Never mind the pumpkins and the witches’ hats: here’s a timely tale borrowed from our Irish neighbours. It wasn’t written down until about 900 years ago but may be much older. Unless a miracle happens, this sort of thing is the nearest we’re ever likely to get to the kind of story Tilla’s people might have been telling around the hearth late at night. So, here’s a snippet from:
The Adventure of Nera
Our story begins one evening as Queen Medb, her consort King Ailill and their household are settling down to wait for dinner in their stronghold at Raith Cruachan. Ailill decides to pass the time by setting the men a challenge.
Ailill and Medb have hung two prisoners during the day, and the victims are still outside on the gallows. Ailill announces that the first man who can fasten a supple twig around the foot of one of the hanged prisoners will be granted whatever he asks for.
Simple enough? On any other night, perhaps. But this is Samain. It’s the night when demons always appear. It’s the night when the dead are no longer bound by magic to remain inside their burial-mounds – and as if that isn’t bad enough, it’s very, very dark out there. One by one, the men venture out… and come straight back. It’s beginning to look as if Ailill’s generosity won’t be tested – but then Nera stands up and insists that he’s the man for the job.
Backpedalling slightly from his offer of unlimited choice, Ailill declares that if Nera can put the twig around a hanged man’s foot, he’ll win a gold-hilted sword.
Nera, heavily armed, goes out in the dark and twists a twig around the foot of one of the hanged prisoners. Success! But then it falls off. Twice he tries again, but the same thing happens. Luckily before he fails a fourth time, the hanged man speaks up and not only tells him how to do it, but congratulates him when he’s got it right.
Nera, no doubt thinking of the gold-hilted sword, is very pleased with himself – but then he realises the prisoner hasn’t finished. In return for the favour, the man demands to be carried to the nearest house so they can share a drink. The man clambers onto Nera’s neck and they set off.
Unfortunately when they get to the first house there’s no drink to be had. The building is protected by a ring of flames. This, explains the hanged man, is because the people who live here always rake the hearth-fire. He needs to move on.
There’s no drink at the next house either, because it’s protected by a ring of water. This, says the hanged man, is a house where they’re always careful to throw out the leftover washing and bathing water and all the slops before bedtime.
But it’s third time lucky – at least for some. The next house is undefended. The hanged man walks in to find used washing-water and bathing-water, and takes a drink from each of them. Then he drinks from the tub of slops in the middle of the house. He spits the contents of his mouth into the faces of the people who live there, and they all die.
“Hence,” goes the story, “it is not good for there to be water left over from washing and bathing, or a hearth-fire which has not been raked, or a tub with slops in it, in a house after bedtime.”
After this Nera returns the prisoner to his torture and goes back to the stronghold only to see it burned down and all the inhabitants slaughtered – or are they? That’s another story. Meanwhile – tonight is the night, friends. Rake your fires and put out your slops, or face the consequences.
You have been warned.
If you’d care to read the rest of the Adventure of Nera (which gets more heroic and dramatic but no less weird) it’s part of the Ulster Cycle of tales. The above is paraphrased from the translation in my aged edition of “The Celtic Heroic Age” edited by John Koch and John Carey.