The Trojans are back!

The new novel from seven talented members of the H-team is published today – and as ever, they’ve been weaving old stories together in new ways.

Cover of A Song of War

I wasn’t involved this time (deadlines!) and I can’t wait to find out what the team have done with the story we all ‘think’ we know.  Meanwhile, they’ve been kind enough to drop by and answer a few questions.  The first thing I wanted to know was:

What is it about the story of Troy that’s kept drawing people back to it for thousands of years?

Stephanie: The classicists out there are going to string me up for this, but I see the story of Troy as one of the world’s first soap operas, or at least an ancient version of “Game of Thrones,” sans dragons and white walkers. There’s adultery, gory battles, death, sneaky traps, and tons of other emotional plot twists. Not only that, but the story has been added to over the ages to give it even more tragic layers. It’s also easy for everyone to find a favorite character to root for: wily Odysseus, brave Hector, misunderstood Cassandra, noble Andromache, and so many others.

Vicky: I think Stephanie nailed it. It’s chock full of great stories! But also I think it continues to fascinate because of the surprising depth and complexity of emotions it explores throughout. One the one hand, there is empathy for the defeated–particularly for Hector, who emerges as truly noble–and, at the same time, frustration and exasperation with the devastation that results from Achilles’ unchecked rage. So it ends up being not “just” a battle story, but a moving exploration of humanity and of the costs of war.

Cover of Penguin edition of The Iliad

How did you share out the characters? Was there anyone everybody wanted, or nobody wanted?

Simon: As a general writer of Roman fiction and lover of all things Roman, even the mention of the Trojan war sets me off blathering about Virgil, Aeneas and the founding of Rome by their Trojan forebears. How could I refuse the opportunity to write the tale of a man that might be considered the progenitor of Rome? I think if there was one writer in this book destined for one character, that was me and Aeneas! Plus, he’s cool.

Stephanie: I think we were all in utter agreement that no one wanted to write from Paris’ perspective. He’s an utter punk that we all wanted to kick to the curb at one point or another. For me, Cassandra leapt off the page of possibilities, jumping up and down and shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” My passion is retelling the stories of misunderstood or maligned women in history, and Cassandra fits the mold perfectly.

Kate: Yeah, pretty much everyone hated Paris. I still remember Libbie cackling like crazy when she realized she’d get to kill him off. Otherwise, we all had our own obsessions in this story; everyone beelined for their own favorite and no one had to arm-wrestle over who got Achilles/Odysseus/Cassandra. A big advantage to having a huge cast of characters, when there are multiple authors involved!

Russ: I was made up to get Agamemnon because everyone hates him and I thought it’d be fun to try and write a story from his point of view (no baddie THINKS they’re a baddie). Agamemnon’s inciting incident for me doesn’t even occur in Homer’s story, it’s (mainly) in Euripides – the sacrifice of his daughter. Whatever the circumstances, that single act will have changed Agamemnon utterly… so for me, that was key to why he acts as he does. In truth, it was a pretty hard story to write in all sorts of ways, but it was fascinating to delve into the black soul of the High King (he insisted on capital letters for his title).

So, definitely ‘Nul Points’ for Paris there. Were you ever tempted to change the story because you really didn’t like the way things went in the original?

Simon: I (and the rest of the crew too, in fact) went a long way to try and rationalise all the magic and myth of the tale, to try and write a realistic, grounded and plausible version of Homer’s tale, while retaining the epic Greekness of the whole thing. Aeneas’ story, for example, is full of ghosts and visits from gods and the dead, and I tried to tweak this to fit the real world. In deciding how mythical we wanted the tale to be, we essentially walked that fine line between history and fantasy. We came down on the historical side this time.

Vicky: Right. As Simon says, we didn’t want to get too mythical or magical–because then it drifts into fantasy–but at the same time we had to make our characters believe in magic and the gods. After all, it wasn’t “myth” to them!H Team logo

Kate: I really would have liked to save Hector, dammit. His death gets me every time.

Christian:  I really wanted to write Achilles.  Despite Achilles’ modern rep as a sort of useless lie-about or a mere sword swinger, I’ve always been fascinated by him, and more especially by his status as the ‘perfect gentleman’ and ‘best of the Greeks’ among such figures as Pericles and Socrates. And, apparently alone, I’ve never really liked Hector, who seems too dense to see how he is being used by lesser men…  So I was happy to get to kill him (ducks… sorry Kate).

Libbie: I would have liked to save Hector, too. I’d counter that he’s a troubled character (as is everybody in “A Song of War”) but he was one of the few men in the story who was a genuinely good person, and who cared about the outcome for others. Overall, I really liked the way we cooperated to represent our world as a diverse landscape, with characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. In the West, we tend to think of heroes, or even of characters in general, as one particular type of person: white, young, and heterosexual. I really welcomed the opportunity to shake up the way people envision Troy and ancient Greece by showing a broader range of the cultural mix that existed in those places and at that time.

Russ: The thing with “The Iliad” is – so much is actually unsaid. It’s a vast tale with (literally) a cast of thousands … So you can weave stuff in that you want to without actually changing the “facts” as it were. We wanted to keep it real as Libbie and Si say above, but aside from the “no Gods” rule, there’s still massive scope in the story to look at fresh angles.

If you could ask Homer one thing, what would it be?

Kate: Why do so many names in the Iliad begin with P? Priam, Penthesilea, Polyxena, Patrocles, Phoenix, Polites, Paris, Penelope, Polydorus, Peleus, Philoctetes, Phthia . . .

Libbie: I agree! The P names have always jumped out at me. It makes me wonder if there’s some kind of linguistic significance that we don’t understand as 21st-century Americans and Brits, but that would have been very clear to the original audience for these stories.

Vicky: I’d want to know all the different versions of the story that had been sung over time and why he wrote down these particular ones.

Christian:  I’m with Vicky. There were dozens of versions of these stories in the Ancient World; I know at least one in which both Achilles and Hector are cowards; one of the original ‘big names’ was Memnon, Prince of Aetheiopia… an African hero at Troy!  Anyway, so many questions about why Homer (s) chose this particular thread…  My other question (which really burns for me!) is ‘Where did you get the ‘Catalogue of Ships’  The Ship list, in Book 2, is probably much more ancient than the rest, and may contain evidence of the actual Bronze Age world… as opposed to much of the rest, which is 8th and 7th c. Iron Age did it survive?  Please tell us, Homer🙂

Russ: Was your wife really called Marge? It’s a question that has bothered classicists for decades and they need an answer.

If Homer (or Marge) would like to respond, or if anyone has a good word to say for Paris, there’s plenty of room for comments below. Meanwhile, big thanks to the team for taking the time to join me and since it’s publication day TODAY,  I’m off to check the Kindle and get reading!

If you haven’t already, here are some of the places where you can find A SONG OF WAR:

Amazon UK

Amazon USA



Barnes and Noble

Friday on the Blog Tour – Hoover Book Reviews

Day 7, and the last-but-one stop on the tour today! Across the water to Detroit and Hoover Book Reviews,  which is a splendid place to browse if you’re on the hunt for contemporary fiction based in the ancient world – and more. (Nip across there and scroll down to where it says ‘categories’ on the right, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Big thanks to Paul Bennett, the man behind it all, for his very kind words about Vita Brevis.

Thursday on the blog tour – Roma Nova

Blog tour day 6, and thanks to the splendid Alison Morton for the invitation to join her love-me*-love-my-character series for a chat about Ruso. (*this part, as an Italian driver once said to my husband when discussing traffic lights, is ‘merely a suggestion’.)
Alison is the creator not only of thrillers but of a whole world, Roma Nova, in which Rome never fell but remains a modern European state – and believe me, you wouldn’t want to mess with it.

“We have to hope that our characters will forgive us…”

“…because we’re doing the best that we can.” Margaret George, Historical Novel Society conference, 2016.

Sign out conference hall HNS OXFORD 16

I’ve never been to the Historical Novel Society conference before, but after last weekend I’m wondering why. It was splendid. If you want to read a well thought-out blog piece about it, there’s one in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want a few photos, some scrappy notes and some Anglo-Saxons banging their shields and yelling, then, dear reader, you are in the right place.

The problem with reporting on writing events is that my photos are often – quite frankly – a bit boring. They’re mostly:Tracey Chevalier giving a talk

Panels – a row of people behind a row of tables.

Discussions – two or three people looking at each other across a low table.

Talks – one person behind a lectern. Or standing beside a table. Could be anybody, because they’re too far away to tell. On the right: Tracey Chevalier, Richard Lee of the HNS, an illegible screen and the backs of two heads.  Luckily the talk was much better than my photography.

The Dinner – lots of people leaning against each other and looking cheerful around a big table.

After the dinner–  people standing around clutching drinks and looking very cheerful, despite the absence of tables.

Whilst these sort of pictures are fine if you know the people involved, or if you have always wondered what the person who wrote that hideous torture scene might look like, they aren’t exciting. So, I have vowed to take (or at least show) no more of them.

In future, any panel that can’t come up to the standard of Paula Lofting and Regia Anglorum‘s “How to Build a Shield Wall” isn’t going to get a look-in.

Photo of re-enactors with shields and javelins

Although they might get a quote, because some things are too good not to pass on.

For instance, Jo Baker‘s contention that “Books start to be historical when the clothes start to be vintage.”

Melvyn Bragg‘s “History and fiction have been intermingled for ever. Herodotus made up the speeches for his Histories.”

Gillian Bagwell‘s hints on “Giving your writing the reading it deserves” including, Memorize the first line so you can look at the audience. (I’d never thought of that.)

Rory Clements on “Writing the Historical Thriller” – “If you find it easy, you are not putting enough effort in. You could do more.”

Hazel Gaynor on reclusive writers engaging with booksellers – “I’m putting my Brave Trousers on, and I’m going out!”

Carole Blake‘s sage advice to aspiring writers – “Ask around – don’t be so grateful that you accept an offer regardless.”

But where, you may be asking by now, are the Anglo-Saxons beating their shields? Was that them, above? No, there’s more. We’ll get there in a minute. First, I’d like to celebrate the glorious Battle of Fulford tapestry. (Not, as I inadvertently called it on Twitter, “the Battle of Fulford Tapestry,” an otherwise unknown medieval skirmish over needlework). It’s six metres long, it was displayed at the conference by its designer, Chas Jones, and you can find out all about it on this website. You may recognise the style.

Work in the style of the Bayeux tapestry



And this is how they got those lovely colours for the wool. I tried to turn all the labels around the right way before taking the photo, so with luck you can zoom in and read most of them.

Skeins of wool dyed with natural materials

There was, of course, a very fine Gala Dinner on the Saturday night.The guests included Queen Boudica, an elf, a witch, a monk, Tilla (or rather me, wearing her clothes), a gondolier, and Mrs Lincoln. On looking at the photos it’s clear that Tilla enjoyed the evening a little too much and all the photos she took were a bit blurry. This is her best effort at Mary Todd Lincoln, whose splendid outfit won first prize in the costume pageant.

Photo of lady dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln

So that, gentle reader, was a very brief roundup of some of the highlights of the HNS conference. In the year that marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, we will leave the final word to Harold Godwinson’s men. Some of whom are women. But as they say about historical fiction, it’s all lies anyway.



From Eboracum to Ipplepen

It’s been a busy few days – first, a long weekend in York, a city crammed with Roman activity past and present. Then down south to spend five days in search of the far more elusive Roman Devon.  Finally, with all photos downloaded and all mud washed off, there’s time to update the blog…

The Eboracum Roman Festival was a resounding success and will hopefully be back again next year.


Roman soldiers march in Museum Gardens York
Setting off to march around the city.
The centurion of the LEG XX leads his men
Don’t argue with the centurion. He’s got a big stick and some very scary headgear.
More Roman soldiers march through the park
Best not to argue with this lot, either.
Children dressed as Roman soldiers
Hidden around the corner – the Roman Army’s secret weapon.
Barbarian parents assess their chances against Rome's smallest soldiers.
Barbarian parents assess their chances against Rome’s smallest soldiers.
Children vs parents, armed with foam pipe insulation
Into battle!
Parents are defeated by small Romans
Small Romans 1, Barbarians 0
Not all Roman games are violent.
Not all Roman games are violent.
Display of Roman food on stall
Time for some feasting
Traditional Arabic dancers with red skirts
And dancing, with Ya Raqs traditional Arabic Dancers


Display of reproduction Roman pots
And of course shopping – beautiful repro Roman vessels made by Andrew MacDonald of The Pot Shop in Lincoln.
Repro indented pottery beaker
This one came home with me.
Picture of dish with gritted surface, woolen braid and spindle
And so did this. It’s a mortarium, used for grinding up food (or medicines, presumably). The delicately-woven braid also came home…
Woolen crafts on stall
Made by the talented Catherine Stallybrass of Curious Works. (The spinning in the last pic is mine. Catherine’s is much finer.)
Beads on display
Terrible photo, lovely jewellery – a mini-display from Tillerman Beads. The blue ‘melon’ beads at the front are usually found in military contexts (I’m told) and would probably have been worn by men.
Bookstall with Simon Turney and Ruth
Oh look, some more people selling things! The Roman soldier, who removes his writerly specs when on parade, is Simon (SJA) Turney. The Romano-British woman clutching her phone is me. The Writers’ Tent also held Jane Finnis (whose books are set in Roman Yorkshire) and Brian Young, and we were delighted when Caroline Lawrence dropped by, too, but I can prove very little of this because I was so busy chatting I forgot to take photos of us all. Big thanks to Sandra Garside-Neville for this pic.
Display of repro Roman items
The spiky thing at the front is a caltrop, the Roman equivalent of barbed wire. Very nasty to tread on, both for people and animals.
The Multiangular tower in York museum gardens
Some parts of Roman York are still standing. This corner of the fort is now in the Museum gardens (the lower part is Roman, the top was built later).
Pic of screen with digital image of the tower
It was being surveyed by AOC Archaeology over the weekend – you can just about see it on the screen.
Picture of an urban privet hedge.
Archaeology is what makes all this possible. And often there’s very little to see. So hats off to John Oxley, City Archaeologist, who managed to make even this hedge interesting when he explained that the grave of the woman who’s now known as “ivory bangle lady” was found just behind it.  (There’s more about her in the Museum.) After his “Waking the Dead” tour (part of a great programme of Festival talks) I shall never walk through York Railway station again without thinking of the vast Roman cemetery that once covered the same land – and the burials that may still lie undisturbed beneath it.
Roman soldiers walking away
It was over too soon.  The tents are folded, the men have marched away (hopefully to return next year) and it only remains to thank the organisers for such a brilliant event – especially Sandra Garside-Neville and Kurt Hunter-Mann for their kind hospitality.
And then… it was the long drive down to Devon for some nuts-and-bolts archaeology.
Buttercups in flower
It may look like an innocent field of buttercups, but beneath it lies a Roman road. This is Ipplepen in South Devon, site of a Romano-British settlement that was only found in 2007. Not as spectacular as York, but hugely significant in the history of Devon, where evidence for the Roman occupation can be very hard to pin down.   Students from Exeter University are exploring the field next door this year, and it was a privilege and an education to spend a few days as a volunteer with them. This is the sort of thing we found under the buttercups:
Section through a ditch
Yes, I know it’s an empty hole in the ground. And yes, people are standing around staring into it. But this is MY hole in the ground – or at least, the left half is. The right-hand side was dug by someone else. It’s that shape not because we disagreed, but because of the way the original digger, many hundreds of years ago, worked with the angle of the rock. It’s just a part of the picture that will emerge over the coming weeks as the team dig and record and make sense of what they find. I promise there will be far more interesting things to see on the Open Day on 25 June – here are some pics from Open Day 2014.


Visitors gathered round table under marquee
Sam Moorhead from the British Museum explains the coin finds to visitors. (2014)
Small bracelet made of twisted metal
Imagine the story this little bracelet could tell. (2014)
Roman soldiers talk to visitors
Winning the hearts and minds of the natives. (2014)

And now, it’s back to the thing that makes all this gallivanting possible – writing the next book.





Eboracum Roman Festival – counting down to 1 June!

Poster for Eboracum Roman FestivalI know… no blog posts for ages, and then two in a row. But just in case anyone’s missed the publicity so far… Eboracum Roman Festival is coming very soon, and it’s going to be spectacular.

There’s a splendid programme of events for all ages, and much of the festival is freely open to the public. Clicking here will take you to the page where you can book for the things that aren’t. There’s also more detail about individual events on the Facebook page.

I’ll be around over the weekend, sharing the Novelists’ Table with  fellow-scribes including SJA Turney, and giving a talk on Saturday afternoon in York Explore – the library and archive centre. Come and say hello, enter the draw to win a free book, and admire my lovely nearly-new Roman shoes, of which I’m very proud!






“What’s new & old & read all over?”

Judith Starkston takes a good look at the current state of fiction set in the ancient world for the latest edition of Historical Novels Review. This is technically a members-only publication but the many writers who chipped in with our opinions are allowed to leap the fence and go public!

As writing is usually a solitary occupation I was fascinated to see what the other contributors thought. Hopefully you will be too – just click the slightly wobbly photo of the magazine cover below (sorry) to take a look.

Many thanks to Judith, the HNR team and all my fellow-contributors.

HNR May 2016



I don’t post much on the Net about my family, partly because it’s of little interest to anyone else and partly because I like them and want them to carry on liking me.  Today is an exception, because family matters have been much on my mind of late. And the question of how family matters become history. And how all of history is really the version we choose to tell of the stories of everyone’s families.

It’s almost two years since my father died. My mother has now moved to a new home, taking all the items she wishes to keep and washing her hands of the rest with admirable practicality. Their house has become home to another couple, and I guess we’ve all moved on. But then there’s the Stuff. That’s moved too, but only from my parents’ home to ours.

View of clutter including a book called NO MORE CLUTTER

I have to admit that some of the things in that photo are ours (including the book on the right) but not all. Most of the Stuff consists of items that have been carefully collected over the years but which take up far too much space for my mother to house them. Or indeed anyone. I know much of it has to go, and that if we keep only the important things, Downie Towers will feel less like a junk shop. The problem is, how do you judge what’s important?

Some decisions aren’t too difficult. A bulging manila envelope found inside the “Old Photos” suitcase (my mother is very good at labelling) turned out to be full of the hair I’d had cut off when I was thirteen. That went in the compost bin, where it caused further consternation because every time anyone lifted the lid it looked as though one of us had buried a human head in there. I must ask my sister what she did with the collection of her own baby curls that came back to haunt her via the Royal Mail. My brother was spared, because by the time he arrived my mother seems to have lost interest in the preservation of body parts. I suppose we should be grateful there were no teeth.

There are books. There are photos: too many albums to count. There are postcards from family holidays, some sent by generations long gone. More books. There are records of the purchase & sale of houses, and the documents from Dad’s work as Executor for his own father. And more books. Proudly-preserved details of the achievements of children and grandchildren. Yet more books. Letters my generation was never intended to read, and which my sister and I chose to burn. The Guest Book from when my parents ran a Bed and Breakfast. Still more books. One of them held a folded place-marker I vaguely remember making, bearing the word “Daddy” in wonky crayon. I burned that, too. What else do you do?

In fact, what do you do with any of this stuff? It’s been here for months and I know that’s partly because I’m both sentimental and a terrible ditherer. It’s also, perhaps,  something to do with being an historical novelist. These aren’t just Things, they are Sources, and it’s hard to throw away sources even though I know I’m never going to write a novel about mid-twentieth century Britain. At least, not yet.

But the truth is, we have to make some choices. There is no such thing as ‘doing nothing.’ Inertia is effectively a decision to hand over large chunks of space in Downie Towers to the preservation of somebody else’s treasures.

I guess we siblings will divide all the photos between us. None of us has much idea who some of the people were, but comments like “Related to Nanny???” on the back of the pic below mean we dare not part with it.


And then we come to the books. Hundreds of them. Books, for my Dad, were a route to freedom. Books were what lifted him from being an eleven-plus failure, a boy who left school at thirteen, to being a man with a belief that most people could understand anything if they put their mind to it for long enough. Books made him a man who was awarded a Doctorate in political history at the age of sixty-five, after studying on top of a full-time and very demanding job. Books were what made him a man who in his eighties, despite poor health and failing eyesight, sat at his desk every morning to translate New Testament Greek simply for the love of doing it.

So I’m working through the books very slowly. The easy ones – the volumes on cricket, the annual editions of Colemanballs – have found homes, either with family and friends or with the charity shop. The few items the Library can use have gone there. I’ve snaffled most of the Ancient World items, and one day I might even read them. Books that are worth money are slowly being listed for sale. Last weekend there was an historic moment when our dining table reappeared from under the boxes of books I knew were only valued at 1p on Amazon but were too good to throw away. Surely a needy student somewhere must want a battered biography of Asquith, or an out-of-date textbook on constitutional law, or the memoirs of the wife of an Archbishop? What about those old paperback classics – the yellowing, tatty Thomas Hardy and James Joyce we were chucking out because we have Dad’s (pristine) editions?

In the end Husband despaired of me ever finding a student with these very special needs, and phoned the local charity bookshop. The organizer came that afternoon, filled a couple of carrier bags and tactfully confirmed that the rest of what was there was, basically, rubbish. So I went and did something else while Husband took them all up to be recycled. Because it was too painful to think about books which had been so proudly and carefully acquired over many years going to the tip.

Photo of soldiers outside First World War hospital
This photo is a treasure even if none of those men was Great-Uncle Harry.

It’s not all negative. When he wasn’t translating Greek, Dad’s mornings at the desk were spent writing his memoirs – 1000 pages of typescript that we haven’t yet got around to reading because we’re overwhelmed with Stuff. Maybe we need to crack on with sorting out the Stuff. Because then we’ll have time to find out how Dad himself wanted to be remembered. From a book. Of course.

Meanwhile, here’s a timely TED talk I’ve just picked up from fellow-scribe Vicky Alvear Shecter. It’s by author, illustrator and wise person Elizabeth Dulemba, asking  Is your stuff stopping you?








Park in the Past

In Roman times a basic marching camp could be built in less than a day – often by men who’d already carried heavy kit for many miles through hostile territory, and now needed somewhere safe to bed down for the night.

Park in the Past badge

Building a Roman fort in the twenty-first century is going to take a little longer. These days, even big men with swords have to negotiate the complexities of land ownership, planning permission and Health and Safety. Besides, these men (and women) are aiming to create something much better than a rectangular ditch with a few tents inside it. Park in the Past have a  vision of not only a full Roman military fort but an Iron Age village beside a lake, set in a beautiful area of the North Wales countryside that’s open to all.

It’s a hugely imaginative community project that’s working to give new life to a former quarry site near the aptly-named village of Hope, near Wrexham.

There’s lots of info on their website, and the site really is as stunning as their photos. It’s not yet open to the public but I was lucky enough to join a preview tour, and was bowled over not only by the potential, but by the way nature is already beginning to flourish, and reclaiming this former industrial site.

Some of the guiding lights behind the project are the people who run Roman Tours in Chester and the city’s annual Saturnalia shenanigans. They also organised my one and only close encounter with a Roman emperor a while back:

With the Emperor

The man with the gold wreath on his head is Domitian, exercising the power of life and death over brave gladiators. He was aided by a lot of cheering and booing from the crowd.