Competition fever!

There’s competition fever here at Downie Towers, with the caption competition running till the end of July, plus two more chances to win goodies. Apologies to those who’ve heard this all before, but in case you haven’t…

First, a chance to stock up your summer reading bag with books of your choice, or to win one of the splendid titles on offer:

Graphic showing titles on offer for Summer of History draw

Would you rather visit ancient Greece, or go to Tang Dynasty China? Meet the Jeffersons at Monticello, or travel to Paris in the 1920’s?  How about Ireland, or Alcatraz? To help you choose, there are links to all the authors and their books below.

Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Vicky Alvear ShecterCatherine Lloyd, Elisabeth Storrs, David Blixt, Sophie Perinot, Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn, Weina Randel, Jennifer Robson, Donna Russo Morin, Eliza Knight, Heather Webb, Allison Pataki, Stephanie Thornton, Kristina McMorris, Greer MaCallister, and Sarah McCoy

Books can be sent to winners in any country within reach of The Book Depository, which is all of these, so pretty much everyone can enter. Do it by 1 August!

Secondly, as of this moment there’s still time for US readers to enter the Goodreads giveaway draw for one of five free copies of VITA BREVIS. Go for it by 28 July!

Vita Brevis goodreads

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

Badly dressed for the Bard

Big thanks to Fiona and the staff at the lovely Walter Henry’s bookshop in Bideford, who marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on Saturday with tea and cake and fine hospitality. The collective noun for a gathering of  local readers, writers and historians should probably be ‘a gossip’ but we fell respectfully silent to listen to a sonnet by the late Bard, read by his living namesake, writer Liz Shakespeare.

Peter Christie explained why he believes Shakespeare came to Bideford: we know (I didn’t, but I do now) that the King’s Company came all the way to Barnstaple to flee the plague in 1605, so having travelled that far, surely they would travel down the road and play the only other big town in the area? Whose plays were being watched in contemporary accounts of money being ‘wasted’ on the theatre?

Finally Janet Braund Few entertained us with a demonstration of Elizabethan costume and manners. Something we clearly needed, since several of the wenches present had turned up wearing men’s breeches and in a further assault upon modesty, not one of the married ladies present had her head covered.  We had all, as the saying goes, let our hair down.

Rather than shock any sensitive readers with photographs of this scandalous attire, here is a picture of a bag.

Bag with pic of Shakespeare and "The Bard is my Bag" printed on it.

And here’s the book I bought to go inside it, recommended to me by children’s author and farmer (so she should know),   Victoria Eveleigh.

IMG_20160425_132950412_HDR

 

 

An honour!

Thrilled to hear that TABULA RASA is included on Nancy Pearl’s list of reads for 2015!  You can see the full list of recommendations here. Also, warm congratulations to Mick Herron, another British crime writer who’s doubly honoured by having TWO of his books on the list – a real achievement!

All this is rather nicely timed as it coincides with the launch of the paperback edition in the UK today, under its smart new cover:

TABULA RASA paperback cover

A Year of Ravens – Rebellion is stirring!

“Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Briton . . . and these are their stories.”

Cover of A Year of Ravens

Seven authors, seven styles, seven tales – all fitting together to tell the story of the Boudican revolt as you’ve never heard it before. It’s been a privilege to be involved with this project, and I’m delighted to announce that A YEAR OF RAVENS will be published on 17 November.

Here’s where to find out more:

Amazon UK

Amazon USA  

Kobo

Apple

Nook

Print copies, USA

A YEAR OF RAVENS: A NOVEL OF BOUDICA

Lest anyone should think absolutely nothing’s been happening at Downie Towers while the  editor was drafting her feedback on Ruso 7 – here’s news of a completely independent project. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the award-nominated team who put together A Day of Fire last year, and this is what we’ve been up to:

A YEAR OF RAVENS: a novel of Boudica

Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Celt . . . and these are their stories. 

A novel in seven parts by Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, SJA Turney, and Russell Whitfield, overlapping stories of warriors and peacemakers, queens and slaves, Romans and Celts who cross paths during Boudica’s epic rebellion. But who will survive to see the dawn of a new Britannia, and who will fall to feed the ravens?

Due for release November 2015.

There’s a page for the Facebook-savvy here where you can find out the latest. Meanwhile, here are a few suggestions of what the great queen might have looked like. I can’t help thinking they tell us as much about their creators as they do about the woman herself.

According to Dio Cassius, Boudica was “very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh;  a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch.”

Here’s an eighteenth century take from John Opie:

Boadicea Haranguing The Britons.  John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.
Boadicea Haranguing The Britons. John Opie, R.A. (1761-1807). Oil On Canvas.

 

Thomas Thornycroft’s Victorian version is on the Embankment in London:

Statue of Boadicea Boudicca Queen of the Iceni who died AD 61 after leading her people against the Roman invader in UK
Statue of Boadicea Boudicca Queen of the Iceni who died AD 61 after leading her people against the Roman invader in UK

 

And here’s one created this very morning!

Layout 1

The pleasure of being a guest

I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest twice this week – first on a virtual trip across to Alison Morton’s blog, where I was sharing a few mental meanderings about historical truth and donkey poo.  Alison is the author of the Roma Nova series, set in a world where the Roman Empire hasn’t fallen – so ‘historical truth’ is an interesting issue.

Then, while practially every other writer of historical fiction in the entire universe was at Harrogate (again, Alison’s blog will give you the low-down) I had the privilege of joining a group of visitors from the US on a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Just as we were turning to leave Sewingshields (near Vindolanda) the sun came out, the rain began, and magic happened.

 

.Rainbow over cliffs at Hadrians Wall

Blog tour: My writing process

Thanks to Judi Moore, multi-talented author of “Is death really necessary?” for inviting me to join the blog tour that hunts out the answers to four questions. Mercifully, “Is death really necessary?” isn’t one of them.

Judi’s answers can be found here.  Mine are below. I’m charged with handing on the baton, and have contacted a couple of writer friends, but the rules say you can offer up to three links – so if anyone fancies joining in, let me know.

1.      What am I working on?Cover of TABULA RASA

The seventh Ruso novel, provisionally called HABEAS CORPUS, and set in Rome. Thus my head will be in entirely the wrong place when the sixth, TABULA RASA, comes out later this year – that one’s set on the northern border of Britannia and will look very much like the cover on the right. (I believe that’s Hercules clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)

2.      How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Its genre is “Roman Crime” and there’s a surprising amount of it about. I’d normally reply that I’m more interested than most in the Romano/British tensions, having a leading character from each side and setting the books out in the far reaches of the Western Empire. Although of course Jane Finnis and Rosemary Rowe both set their crime novels in Roman Britain.

Setting HABEAS CORPUS in Rome is going to be a bit of a step in the dark, both for me and for Ruso and Tilla, who will have to be careful not to trip over the descendants of other fictional characters.

3.      Why do I write what I do?

Out of fascination with the era – so much ‘like us’ and yet so different. Also, the problem of how to get along with people who don’t share our culture is universal, and it’s especially acute during a military occupation. In a sense it’s easy for the people at the extremes. Their thinking isn’t challenged. It’s the people who rub shoulders every day with individuals from the ‘other side’ who have to make crucial decisions on how to behave, what risks to take and how much trust to offer. Peacemakers may be ‘blessed’ but they don’t have easy lives.

4.      How does your writing process work?

I know several writers who sit down at the desk and produce between 1000 and 5000 words a day. Clearly their brains work much faster than mine, and they have much better self-discipline.

Often the only way to make progress is to spend a lot of time getting it frustratingly wrong, then to go for a lone walk only to realise (on a good day) what I should have written. Thus many hours are spent producing words that end up in the ‘dump’ file the next morning. I keep a running total of the word count on a virtual sticky note on the desktop, just to reassure myself that I am making progress, if rather inefficiently.

What about planning, you may be asking? Oh, I can show you plans. Official synopses. Splendid creations in multi-coloured felt-tip. Photographs on whiteboards. Photographs of whiteboards. Maps with pins and stickers. Spreadsheets. Character lists. Charts drawn up using special software. Then you can wonder, as I do when these things resurface during a clear-up, what on earth most of them have to do with what’s in the book.

 

 

Io, Saturnalia!

‘Tis now the season, so in search of something appropriate to share, I turned to Macrobius’s “Saturnalia. ” This is not as jolly as the name might suggest, being largely a discussion on Roman culture, but there is a section of “witticisms”. Below is the best I could find. Please don’t build your hopes up.

Caninius Rebilius was consul (supposedly a year-long post) for a single day. “We have a watchful consult in Caninius,” observed Cicero. “He didn’t see a moment’s sleep during his term.”

Augustus, on noting that one Vettius had ploughed under his father’s memorial stone: “Now that’s what I call cultivating your father’s memory.” (Unusually, this is a pun that works in translation)

By way of excuse, I should point out that Husband owns a book called “Freud on Jokes” and that is not funny either.

You may be relieved to know that Mary Beard is currently working on a book about Roman humour.  It doesn’t seem to be out yet but it promises to be a lot more entertaining than Macrobius. There’s a taster here.

(Quotes are based on Robert Kaster's translation for the Loeb edition of Macrobius: tweaks and errors are mine.)

Writing – a spectator sport ?

A friend recently sent me this link to news of MASTERPIECE, a “reality show for writers” soon to be broadcast on Italian television. I read the article with mounting amazement, wondering, who on earth would go in for something like that?  And then I remembered.

It started with a conversation over the wine and peanuts one evening at a friend’s dining-table, when someone said, “Is anybody going in for this BBC thing?”

“This BBC thing” turned out be a competition called END OF STORY. Half a dozen famous writers had each written half a short story and the public were invited to submit their own endings. Someone did note that the small print obliged entrants to take part in a TV programme, but there was no need to worry: it was a national competition so the chances of that happening to any of us were infinitesimally small. Several of us agreed that finishing someone’s story seemed like a fun thing to do, and then we moved on to the business of the evening: the struggle to write something fit to be read aloud in response to whatever writing exercises this month’s leader had brought.

I had completely forgotten about END OF STORY when the phone call came. I was on the long-list for the Fay Weldon group! I had won a mug, a t-shirt and, better still, lots of kudos! The excitement of this news was slightly tempered by the memory of the small print, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. TV appearances were like accidents. They only ever happened to other people.

Until the next phone call.

Day later I was in Glasgow, one of a row of shell-shocked wannabe writers seated on chairs under studio lights.  Cameras were poised to catch close-ups of our reactions as the panel of judges delivered their verdicts on a screen in front of us. Professional writers, we were told, must expect to have their work critiqued. They were treating us like professionals. It was too late to point out that I didn’t really want to be a writer after all: that despite the encouragement of a very patient agent, my attempt at a novel set in Roman Britain was headed for the bonfire. That I’d decided it was time to stop wasting time with words and find something useful to do with my life.

I’m told I looked very calm, but that may have been something to do with the painkillers. It certainly wasn’t the Buck’s Fizz on offer in the dressing-room. I’m still not sure whether that was a sign of the BBC’s generosity or its need to get us to relax in front of the cameras. Either way, I’d turned it down.  I had enough trouble walking in a straight line as it was: earlier that week I’d managed to fall off my own shoes and crack a bone in my foot, and had to lurch into the studio on crutches. Maybe that’s why I didn’t run away.

After it was over they took each of us into a side room and asked, “How do you feel?” Since then I have watched hundreds of people being asked this question in front of cameras and to my amazement they all seem to know the answer. Whatever I managed to stammer evidently wasn’t interesting enough to broadcast. What I should have said was, Stunned. We contestants had begun to feel that we were all in this together, but now three of us had been eliminated. I wasn’t one of them.

 Setting up for filming at the foot of stairs.

Somebody’s bum looks big in this, but for once it’s not mine. Made it down the stairs on one crutch!

 Two of the objections to the idea of a ‘live’ writing contest are that writing is neither easy to do with an audience, nor very interesting to watch. Mercifully the BBC had thought of that, so the putting together of words was firmly in the past by the time we got anywhere near the cameras. However, being a professional writer involves all sorts of things that are nothing to do with writing. In the interests of entertainment and education, the producers came up with new challenges for us.

By some twist of fate the one who hated having photographs taken was sent for a professional photo shoot.  The one who was in the slough of despond because not only was her novel headed for the bonfire but she’d just failed an interview for her own job was to be given… an interview! I don’t think they filmed the moment when the production crew thought I’d done a bunk down the back stairs on my crutches, but it would have made good telly.

Finally we got to meet Fay Weldon, whose story we’d all attempted to complete, and who was both kind and generous with her critiques.  And then it was all over. I was alone on the way to Euston with a fresh challenge: how to manage an overnight bag, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of champagne and a crutch.

Endofendofstory

It’s all over. Still hoping they don’t film my feet. Only wearing those sandals because nothing else will fit round the bandage. (Yes, that is Big Ben outside. The finals were filmed in London.)

 Six END OF STORY programmes went out on BBC3 back in 2004. As I understand it, the twin aims were to encourage writers and to entertain viewers.

Did they succeed?

They certainly encouraged me. Shortly after it was all over they rang to say they were thinking of making a follow-up programme about the finalists. Could they send a camera crew round to ask about the writing?

Now the writing, as you’ll be aware if you’ve been paying attention, was on the road to destruction. (Destroying stalled novels was so much more fun in the days when we had paper. I had enough failed drafts in the bottom drawer to make a merry blaze.) But of course I still couldn’t say that to the lovely people at the BBC. They had pushed me through the streets of Glasgow in a wheelchair when the crutches got too much, and been enormously kind about my terror of interviews. So when two chaps turned up with a camera I burbled vaguely about working on a Roman novel. “Great!” they said. “We’ll be back in January to see how it’s going!”

I did my best to keep smiling.

Did they entertain the viewers? Maybe not as much as they’d hoped. It wasn’t until January had slipped into February, February into March that I began to look up from the frantic efforts to produce something – anything – to talk about next time, and to wonder if they were coming back at all. By the time I realised there would be no follow-up programme, the first draft of the Roman novel was almost complete.

That book later became the first in the Ruso series. The sixth should be published next year. The one contestant with whom I’ve kept in touch is also still writing.

My best wishes go to all the brave contenders on MASTERPIECE. I have much to be grateful for, and I hope it works for them as well as the BBC’s rather more restrained approach worked for me.

As for that foot injury – not even the humiliation of falling off my own shoes was wasted. Ruso suffers a broken metatarsal in rather more heroic circumstances at the start of the third novel. Believe me, those scenes on crutches were written with feeling.

For more thoughts on MASTERPIECE, here’s a debate in the Guardian. Anyone else care to comment?