Monday, March 15, 2021

Up Yours, Brutus!

by Caroline Lawrence (author of the Roman Mysteries)

One of the first things that greeted visitors to the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum in the summer of 2013 was a jolly fresco of a phoenix above two peacocks (below). On the audio guide, curator Paul Roberts called this fresco a pub sign. It was found on a wall of a popina or fast food joint in Pompeii. The slogan reads Phoenix felix et tu: The Phoenix is happy (or lucky), and you!

What caught my attention was the phrase et tu which immediately called to mind Julius Caesar's last words according to Shakespeare: et tu, Brute.  Of course, as any Classicist knows, Caesar didn't really say et tu. He spoke in Greek: Kai su, teknon, which means 'and you, my child'. This is often interpreted as the poignant words of a noble, betrayed Roman to the young assassin who might have been his illegitimate child: 'Even you, my son?'


But the phoenix pub sign hints that Caesar might not have gone down quite that submissively on the Ides of March in 44 BCE.

One thing the Pompeii exhibition brought home to me was how obsessed the ancient Romans were with keeping away evil. A little research showed me that the phrase 'and you' – whether in Greek or Latin – is apotropaic.

Apotropaic is Greek for something that 'turns away'. It usually refers to anything that averts evil or bad luck. Apotropaic images include the raised palm of the left hand, erect phalluses, the unflinching gaze of a full frontal face and the eye amulets that are still so popular in the Mediterranean. Also apotropaic is the peacock, which has a tail full of 'eyes'. All these things 'turn away evil'.

The phrase et tu ('and you') has a similar meaning. It reflects back. Our modern equivalent might be 'the same to you!'. In Roman times, if a person approached you with good intentions, saying 'et tu' would be a blessing. But if they came at you with evil intent, the phrase becomes a curse. So whether Julius Caesar said et tu or kai su to the young man stabbing him, it meant the same thing: 'Back at you, punk!' or better yet: 'Up yours, Brutus!'


Check out my 30 plus history-mystery books for kids at www.carolinelawrence.com!


Monday, February 01, 2021

Pliny's Laurentine Villa?

A Visit to Laurentum and the possible villa of Pliny the Younger

Set of Pliny's Laurentum villa by Jason Carlin

My name is Caroline Lawrence and I am a teacher turned historical author. My best-known series of books are The Roman Mysteries. In the second book of that series, The Secrets of Vesuvius, a Roman girl named Flavia Gemina and her three friends are playing on the beach of their home town Ostia when they spot a man in trouble out at sea. They combine efforts to rescue him from drowning. When they get him safely to shore, clever Flavia deduces that he is the famous author and naturalist, Pliny the Elder. She is correct and the polymath gratefully promises to reward them over lunch the following day at his seaside villa a few miles south. Here's a passage from the book:

It was only a few miles from Ostia to Laurentum, a pleasant drive along the coastal road. The carriage crunched up the gravel drive of Pliny's seaside villa less than half an hour after they had left Ostia. A door-slave in a red tunic met them on the steps of the butter-coloured villa and led them through cool rooms and sunny courtyards to a breezy dining room.

Flavia and her friends gazed around in amazement.

The room they stood in was surrounded on three sides by water. Only a low wall and spiral columns separated them from the blue Mediterranean. Jonathan and Lupus immediately went to the marble parapet and leaned over.

'Careful!' wheezed Admiral Pliny, shuffling into the room. 'We're right above the sea.' 

(from The Secrets of Vesuvius page 17)

In book five of the Roman Mysteries, The Dolphins of Laurentum, Flavia and her friends return to this villa following the eruption of Vesuvius. This time they meet Pliny the Younger, who is only seventeen years old at the time. I assume he has inherited the villa from his uncle, who sadly died in the eruption of Vesuvius. The children's adventures include diving for sunken treasure and encounters with dolphins. 

Pliny the Younger & Flavia Gemina from the TV series


Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger were both real people. We know that the younger Pliny had a lovely seaside villa in Laurentum which he called his 'Laurentine'.  He writes about it in loving detail to his friend Gallus. (Epistulae 2.17) The letter is so detailed that many architects and historians have tried to come up with a plan of his mansion. Below is the plan my husband and I put together based on a close reading of Pliny's letter... and our imaginations. 


While I was still planning book five, the one set at Laurentum, I was invited to the Bologna Book Fair. It was the perfect opportunity to take few extra days to travel to Ostia to do some research. Pliny's Laurentine villa is only a few miles away. I didn't want to hire a car, but I could take public transport. But in those pre-smartphone days it was tricky to find. Here is my original account: 

It is a mild spring day in mid-April of 2002. Although rain had been forecast all week, so far I have been blessed with beautiful spring weather. I catch the 3pm train from Ostia Antica and arrive at Cristoforo Colombo just ten minutes later. 

Stazione Cristoforo Colombo via Google maps

A friend has given me a map and directions. Once out of Cristoforo Colombo station, I turn right, walk along Lungomare Amerigo Vespucci a few hundred metres to the petrol station, then turned right again along Via Cristoforo Colombo. It is very dangerous walking along Via Cristoforo Colombo because there is no pavement.
The traffic roars past me, only inches away. After about ten minutes I glimpse a road through some woods to my right, blocked off for traffic but open to pedestrians.

(There's now an entrance closer to Cristoforo Colombo station)

Gratefully, I leave Via Cristoforo Colombo and go past the barrier into  a peaceful nature reserve. A sign informs me that I am in the Pineta Castel Fusano (Pine Woods of Castle Fusano). I am surrounded by whispering umbrella pines and oak trees. Although it is a Saturday afternoon, the place is almost deserted. Only a few elderly couples stroll, some kids on micro-scooters, one or two young people on bikes. This road is now called the Viale della Villa di Plinio (Villa of Pliny Road). It runs along the course of the ancient Via Severiana. Although Septimius Severus - the Emperor who built the Via Severiana - lived about a century after Flavia, an earlier version of this road almost certainly existed in the time of my books.

The reserve is pancake flat, perfect for walking. There are picnic tables in the shade of the umbrella pines and even a drinking fountain. I stroll between pine trees, hawthorns, myrtle, oaks and poplars.

In a clearing near a crossroads, I spot some ruins marked by a modern brick arch. These are certainly the remains of a large house, but did it belong to Pliny? I can see traces of a large colonnaded central garden and rooms on the side. The baths are where you would expect them to be. But there is no sign of the famous sea-view triclinium. or Pliny's later additions like the annex to which he retreated during the mid-winter Saturnalia festival while the slaves had parties in the main house. No ball court, and certainly no heated swimming pool... The bath complex does have wonderful black and white mosaics like those you can still see in Ostia, but these are more commonly from a slightly later period. I spot tritons (half man, half fish), seahorses, dolphins and a wonderful crayfish.

Arch & mosaic of the so-called Villa di Plinio by Ugo Becattini

(A few years later, while watching the TV episode based on my book, I wonder if set designer Jason Carlin saw photos of the modern arch and used it for his design.) 

Back in 2002, I pretend to be Flavia and take a few steps towards the place where the sea-view triclinium would have been. The coast is now about half a mile away and I find only a forest glade. Is that a fence beyond? Yes. Pushing through a hole in it I find myself on a traffic-free road called the Via dei Transatlantici.

As I take notes, the afternoon sky grows dark. There is an ominous rumble of thunder and some rain spatters down onto my notebook. The drops are blood red. Later, my friend Barbara Cooper tells me that this red rain is due to dust from the Sahara desert which has been blown over Italy. But ancient Romans would certainly have taken this as a bad omen. 

The rain soon stops and I walk towards the sea. At the place where the Via dei Transatlantici meets the Via Litoriana I come upon a sign telling me I am leaving the nature reserve. There is a list of some of the animals still found in this parkland: cinghiale (boar), tasso (badger), donnola (weasel), puzzola (polecat), martora (marten), volpe (wolf), istrice (porcupine), scoiattolo (squirrel), and lepre (hare).

Presently I reach the Lungomare Amerigo Vespucci, the present coastal road. Now I know where I am. I can easily find my way back to Cristoforo Colombo train station. But before returning I decide to have a restorative snack at one of the beachfront cafeterias. 

A few minutes later as I sip Coke, munch peanuts and gaze at the sea, I decide it is unlikely that the villa I just visited belonged to a Pliny. But my jaunt helped me learn about the flora and fauna of the area, and gave me the good idea of using ominous red rain!

Later, I discovered that other archaeologists came to the same conclusion that I did. Excavated in the 1930's, this villa has five different levels of rebuilding and occupation with the earliest during Flavia's time. Although it is like Pliny's villa it almost certainly not his. Some now call it the Villa della Palombara after the wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) that used to roost in a large oak tree nearby. 

If you decide to visit on foot, I suggest the blue-dotted route below. The first few photos show landmarks on the route from the station to the entrance of the park. However your up-to-date device may tell you otherwise. 

Right out of Cristoforo Colombo station then right again...

Go north over the train tracks via Via Cristoforo Colombo

Carefully along busy Via Cristoforo Colombo...

And into the park via this entrance!

You can read the entire archaeological report HERE. It's in Italian but has a good introductory paragraph in English and some great diagrams and photos. 

You can read my book The Dolphins of Laurentum in hardbackpaperback or ebook formats. And you can buy the complete Roman Mysteries TV series on DVD HERE.

NB: At the time of writing this, February 2021, the Official Site says that the villa is closed to the public (presumably fenced off) unless you reserve a place to go with a group of 30 or more. If this is not possible, you should still be able to catch a glimpse of the villa. And at the very least you will get a feel for the trees, animals and atmosphere of the region where Pliny the Younger enjoyed his Laurentine Villa. Buon viaggio! 

 


Saturday, January 09, 2021

How Audiobooks Helped Me Find a Voice


by Caroline Lawrence...

When I was a teacher, I discovered that students prefer one of three learning modes. They are either predominantly visual (and learn best by seeing things), auditory (they like hearing things) or kinaesthetic (they get it by doing things). Of course this is a generalisation. Most students are a combination of the three. But good teachers will use all three modes to reach their students. 

The same goes for storytellers. 

In the world of storytelling I think movies appeal to the visual mode, plays to the auditory and platform games to kinesthetic learners. 

A writer of novels depends on visual and auditory modes. We all know authors who are superb at capturing dialogue but not so good at painting the world. And vice versa. An author will strive to be good at both. 

My main mode is visual. I want to be able to see my world and I want my readers to see it, too. 

For me, dialogue has always been a challenge. Following a conversation I can rarely remember exactly what was said, only the gist. This was a disadvantage when my son still lived at home. He favours the auditory mode and could always tell me exactly what I did or didn’t say. 

When I was writing books set in ancient Rome, I didn’t try to make the dialogue sound Latin. I just wrote in plain English with a smattering of Latin words and tried to avoid modern idioms and ideas. (A reader once took me to task for using the word ‘weekend’ which is not an ancient concept.)

But everything changed when I wrote a series of four books set in Nevada during the early 1860s. In researching my P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries, I discovered a vast wealth of primary sources. As well as books and short stories, there were diaries, letters, newspaper accounts and even reports of the proceedings of the Territorial Legislature. 

The literature of Nevada and California around the time of the American Civil War is often dubbed ‘Sagebrush Literature’ after the scrubby little plant that dots the Nevada deserts and perfumes the air. ‘When crushed,’ wrote Mark Twain, ‘sage-brush emits an odor which ain’t exactly magnolia, and ain’t exactly polecat, but a sort of compromise between the two.’ 

The most famous of these ‘sagebrush writers’ was Sam Clemens, who would become Mark Twain. But there were a passel of others who were just as drily witty. Like Clemens, Dan De Quille, Andrew Jackson Marsh and Alf Doten were all journalists at one point. By dipping into their articles, essays, journals, stories and poems, you taste the primordial literary soup from which Mark Twain emerged. 


Here are some examples of slang that has passed out of use: 

Hell did pop - Alf Doten

He kicked up thunder - Doten

Flew like a streak of chalk - Doten

The new mines are a bilk - Dan De Quille

In ‘borrasca’ – out of luck - De Quille

He did it in a hurry-skurry fashion - A.J. Marsh

The whole capoodle - Marsh

The council met at high 12 - Marsh

I got the dead-wood on him - Mark Twain

I don’t care a snap - Twain


1860s slang that is still around: 

Stuck up - Twain

Don’t get huffy - Twain

They entered the saloon to take a nip - Marsh

Keep your shirt on - Twain

That girl is one in a million - Twain

Ruffle your feathers - Twain


Phrases to make you chuckle: 

First it blew, then it snew, then it thew, then it friz. - Doten

I like myself first rate and think I am some punkins - Doten

Expectation stood on tiptoe - Marsh

You are a liar from your midriff up - Marsh

Cast soft glances upon his manly form - De Quille

He was a love of a dog, and much addicted to fleas - Twain 

The cat let fly a frenzy of cat-profanity - Twain

Would have made a Comanche blush - Twain


Some phrases require further research: 

A basket of champagne - Marsh

Three cheers and a tiger - Alf Doten

Living on alkali water and whang leather - Rollin Daggett


I wanted my characters to employ these same delicious words and expressions. I wanted to have these phrases in the top drawer of my brain so whenever I reached for an idiom or word it is right there. 


But I am a visual learner. Auditory stuff doesn’t stick. 

So how did I get it in my brain? Audiobooks! 

I listened whenever I can. Not just during my daily walk or while travelling on public transport, but when I was making my breakfast, doing the dishes, putting laundry in the machine. Even little five or ten minute chunks could be useful. I’d often hear a phrase and pause the audiobook to make a note. (The audiobooks are all on my iPhone now so I can stick it in my pocket put in headphones and have it wherever I go). For a while I tried putting on Huckleberry Finn or Walt Whitman during one of my afternoon powernaps. Unfortunately, it’s a myth that you can learn while asleep. You definitely have to be awake. 

Here are the three modes of audio I employ to get the sound of period narrative in my head.  

Primary Sources - I love listening to books written during my time period, the mid-19th century. Mark Twain’s Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp has stories about the California Gold Rush, while it was going on. Ambrose Bierce, the cynical Civil War writer, also helps me get into the mindset of the period. Poetry from Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman set a mood. George Alfred Townsend’s contemporary account of Lincoln’s assassination, The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth, has more concrete descriptive detail than any other writer I’ve found; but is also richly peppered with period expressions. I even have Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens on my iPhone audiobook library, because that’s the book Twain and his pals were reading in 1861. 

Historical Fiction - True Grit by Charles Portis is famous for its quirky narrative and dialogue, all historically accurate. My favourite audiobook of all time is Donna Tartt’s reading of True Grit. It is pure genius. A couple of other great Western novels I listen to over and over are Boone’s Lick by Larry McMurtry (read by Will Patton) and Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker (read by Titus Welliver) 

Homemade Recordings - Some of the letters and legal proceedings I really want embedded in my brain are not available on audiobook, so I read them into my iPhone and then listen to myself reading them. This is doubly good because reading out loud involves the kinesthetic (doing) as well as the auditory (hearing) and the two together are a powerful tool. 

If you listen to something over and over, it becomes part of you, and even if you’re a visual thinker and writer like me, you can begin to achieve the special voice that tells your reader they are in another place and time. The spoken word on tape, CD or digital download is a fabulous resource for many writers and one that has not been available until relatively recently. Long live the audiobook! 

* *

My sagebrush-scented P.K. Pinkerton novels are set in the mile-high mining town of Virginia City in 1862, when a 12-year-old misfit detective hero named P.K. Pinkerton rubs shoulders with Mark Twain, Dan De Quille, Joe Goodman and other sagebrush journalists as they witness shootouts, fires, poker games and furniture auctions. 

The audio book of the first P.K. Pinkerton mystery, The Case of the Deadly Desperados, is read by Pat Rogriguez (above) with just the right amount of sagebrush-dry, deadpan humour. You can listen to a sample HERE.

(An earlier version of this article was first posted on the Booktrust site in 2012.)




  

Monday, July 13, 2020

Crossing the Threshold

by Caroline Lawrence

When I first started writing, I didn’t know how to write plot. Then I discovered story structure principles used by Hollywood script gurus like John Truby, Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder of Save the Cat! fame.

It was a major breakthrough for me.

At first I just used story structure as a guide to keep me on track.

Later I used story structure to help generate ideas.

But over the past few years I’ve come to realise that story structure is not just a tool of good storytelling; it’s the KEY to good storytelling.

At its most basic level, storytelling consists of two beats: The Desire and The Battle.

At slightly more advanced levels there are additional beats like The Problem, The Opponent, The Plan, The Revelation and The New Level.


At its best, storytelling includes fun beats like The Rubber Ducky, The Mentor, The Talisman, The Dance, The Miniature and Crossing the Threshold.

One of the elements I am currently obsessed with is that last beat, the one called Crossing the Threshold.

In many movies there is often a moment when the protagonist must leave their ordinary world and enter a world of adventure, usually on a journey or a quest for knowledge or a reward (i.e. The Desire). Think of The Wizard of Oz. A terrifying tornado lifts farm girl Dorothy out of black and white Kansas and deposits her in technicolour Munchkinland. In the first Harry Potter movie, Harry has to push a trolly through a brick wall at Platform 9 and ¾ to get on the Hogwarts Express. In The Matrix, Neo takes the red pill and melts into a mirror. This is borrowed from Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus.

In the Pixar's Up, Mr Karl Frederickson flies away from his ordinary world in a house attached to a thousand coloured helium balloons. Remember how WALL-E, in pursuit of Eva (his Desire) grabs onto a rocket and passes through a crust of junky satellites before fizzing through Saturn’s rings? Epic!

Sometimes Crossing the Threshold involves crossing an actual threshold. In the first Hunger Games film, the camera lingers on the train door. The train door! That’s because that single step up will take Katniss out of her ordinary world and into the world of adventure. The moment she steps on the train she has left drab District 12 and enters a world of colour and abundance, in short she is in the Capital. This transfer is reinforced by a long shot of the train snaking through wooded mountains to the big city. There are many crossings of thresholds in the first Hunger Games movie. I counted at least half a dozen. 

In Paddington, my favourite film of 2014, the bear from darkest Peru crosses no fewer than a dozen mini-thresholds, including the actual threshold of the Brown’s house. The writer/director, Paul King, knows the power of crossing the threshold which is why the camera lingers on Paddington’s paws stepping over it.


Sometimes there are Threshold Guardians, another fun trope. Threshold Guardians are people or creatures stationed at the portal between one world and another to make sure the hero really deserves to pass through. I always think of the old man by the bridge in a hilarious scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: ‘Stop! Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.’ 

Sometimes the threshold is to keep bad things out. This is the premise of many horror stories including Alien and Jaws.

Sometimes Crossing the Threshold marks the end of Act One. Or The Point of No Return. Or the beginning of the Battle. Sometimes the best Crossing of a Threshold comes right at the end: The Shawshank Redemption, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner

Why do we like this beat so much? I believe it is because everyone who ever lived can identify with it. We cross thresholds a dozen times a day, whenever we leave a room, a house or even a town or country. We also cross major Thresholds in our lives. When I visit schools, I ask the kids to tell me the Seven Major Thresholds they have crossed (or will cross) in their lives. ‘What’s the first threshold you ever cross?’ I ask. ‘The first time you leave a place you feel safe and go into a strange and unknown world?’

They all get it: When we are born! And the last threshold we ever cross? Presumably when we die. As Peter Pan says, ‘… an awfully big adventure.’

Our lives are a succession of journeys, some big and some little. Strung all together, they make up our life’s journey.


To discover more about this trope and others mentioned in this blog post, dip into my book How To Write a Great Story, delightfully illustrated by Linzie Hunter, who did all the illustrations on this page. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Ancient History Quiz (hard)

Molossian Hound, British Museum
Recently I was asked to write a quiz for a kids book site based on my first two Time Travel Diaries books. I sent them a quiz which they thought was TOO DIFFICULT. So I am posting it here. 

How well will YOU do? 

This quiz is based on some of the strangest facts I have come across while writing my first two Time Travel Diaries, the first set in Roman London and the second in Ancient Athens. If you dont know, have an educated guess! Answers at the bottom. 

1. The enamel in a skeleton’s tooth can sometimes tell you
a) where the person grew up
b) what colour their eyes were
c) what part of the world their mother came from
d) all of the above 

2. Athens was famous for producing some of the world’s most famous playwrights. Which of the following died after being attacked by dogs?  
a) Aristophanes (author of The Birds, etc)
b) Euripides (author of Medea, etc)
c) Aeschylus (author of the Oresteia etc)
d) Sophocles (author of Oedipus Rex, etc)

3. What did the philosopher Socrates use to slice a hardboiled egg?
a) A spear
b) A hair 
c) A fork
d) A stylus

4. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek word for
a) naked
b) athletic
c) muscular
d) exercise

5. Londinium (modern London) was founded by 
a) The Celts
b) The Greeks
c) The Romans
d) The Saxons

6. Certain animals frightened away evil spirits and were therefore used to decorate jewellery, clothing, walls and other objects used by Romans. Which animals were NOT used this way by the Romans? 
a) snakes
b) sharks
c) leopards
d) dogs

7. Which of the following fascinating objects was NOT found in Roman London?
a) An ancient version of a Swiss army knife
b) two pairs of leather bikini bottoms
c) an ivory knife 
d) an amber amulet in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet

8) The Roman god Mithras was popular from the first to third centuries AD. Which of the following groups people were his most faithful followers? 
a) high-ranking soldiers
b) retired soldiers
c) men
d) all of the above

9. The god Mithras wore strange clothes. Which of the following was NOT in his wardrobe? 
a) a Greek helmet 
b) a flapping cloak
c) leggings
d) a floppy hat like a Smurf

10. Today you can still visit the foundations of London’s Mithraeum, where the god Mithras was worshipped. Which American company restored it to its original position deep below their London branch and offers free access every day but Monday? 
a) Microsoft Corporation
b) Bloomberg LP
c) Google LLC
d) Walt Disney Corporation

Want to know more? Read or listen to Caroline Lawrences first two Time Travel Diaries. And check out her other 30+ historical novels for kids on her website: www.carolinelawrence.com.

_____

Answers: 1 = d (using DNA and isotopes); 2 = b (When he was an old man, Euripides was savaged to death by Molossian hounds); 3 = b (Plato has Socrates tell of using a hair to slice an egg); 4 = a (because Greek men exercised without clothing); 5 = c (London started life as a Roman trading post around AD 50); 6 = b (No shark has ever been found on Roman jewellery); 7 = a (something like a Swiss army knife WAS found, but not in London); 8 = d (In fact we think only men were allowed into his temples); 9 = a (Mithras is never shown with a Greek helmet); 10 = b (You can find London’s Mithraeum in the European headquarters of Bloomberg LP by Bank tube station)

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Historical Fiction for Kids

Historical fiction can do much more than bring dull names and dates alive; it can spark a lifelong passion. What got me into history and Classics was a book I read aged 18. It literally changed my life. 



My fave historical novels are those which combine historical accuracy with a great story and compelling characters. 

Here is a list of ten of the best, all suitable for kids or YA readers.

1. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault 
Classical Athens (c. 430 - 400 BC) ages 14+
A gripping tale of a boy growing up in Classical Athens during the time of the philosopher Socrates and with the Peloponnesian War as a backdrop. This book changed my life because it made me realise how fascinating history could be. Mary Renault is the Queen of Historical Fiction. She is my idol.

2. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian 
Nelson’s Navy (early 1800’s) ages 14+
If Mary Renault is the Queen of Historical Fiction, then Patrick O’Brian is the King. Almost as fluent in Greek as he was in Latin and most fluent in the language of ships and sailing, O’Brian is another one of my idols. My husband and I knew we were ‘meant to be’ on our first date nearly thirty years ago when we both named his Aubrey/Maturin series as our favourite books of the moment. My husband often says, ‘In Patrick O’Brian, a storm is more exciting than a battle, and a dinner party can be more entertaining than either of those.’ Master and Commander is the first of a 20-book series.

3. True Grit by Charles Portis 
Wild West (late 1800s in America) ages 10+
Mattie Ross – deadpan, devout and determined – is one of the great heroines of any period, and she’s only 14. Both movie versions were good, but this better than both rolled up together.  This is one of my top books of all time: ‘Fill your hands’ with it! The audiobook read by Donna Tartt is perfection. 

4. The Once and Future King by T.H. White 
Arthurian England (c. 500 AD) ages 8+
There are lots of fab books about King Arthur (like those of Kevin Crossley-Holland and Philip Reeve) but this one will always have a very special place in my heart. It is the closest to fantasy of any of the books on this list, and it is pure magic.

5. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe 
Roman Britain (c. 100 AD) ages 10+
Densely-written evocative depiction of Britain in the Roman period. Colder, grittier and with much more blue woad than my Roman Quests series, also set in Roman Britain. 

6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder 
American Pioneer West (late 1800s) ages 10+
The covers make them look babyish but they are most definitely not. Adults will love them, too. This is a vividly-told, clear-eyed reminiscence of a pioneer girl. Moving, quietly dramatic and humbling. Best of all, there are seven more books in the series.  

7. The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer 
Europe during Peninsular Wars (early 1800s) ages 14+
Based on the true story of a Spanish girl during the Napoleonic wars who sought refuge with British troops. She marries a British soldier, impresses everyone with her beauty and bravery, learns English in London and finally accompanies her husband on the Waterloo campaign for the story’s climax. My husband loves this book so much that he reads it yearly. 

8. Blitzcat by Robert Westall 
England during WWII (1940s) ages 8+
Great story about a cat during the Second World War by the same author who gave us The Machine Gunners. This is a story that has stayed with me, as all great stories do. Animal lovers will love it because he really gets into the head of a cat. 

9. My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Greek isle of Corfu (1930s) ages 8+

Supposedly this is a biographical account of the childhood of the conservationist Gerald Durrell and therefore not strictly fiction, but much of it is embellished and I love it so much that I’m going to include it on this list. It bears very little resemblance to the 2016 ITV series which is more about his mother. This one is about the joy of nature, life and family. Try the first few chapters. You’ll be hooked. 

10. I am David by Ann Holm 
Europe (late 1920s) ages 10+
A boy escapes from a concentration camp in a nameless country. With nothing but a map and a compass he crosses Europe in search of the mother he has never known. He is wary, distrustful, older than his years. And yet in many ways he is a baby, with his journey across Europe a kind of rebirth. Full of sensory detail and tiny joys as well as tragedies, this is the perfect story to put our current problems in perspective! 

Happy Reading! 

Caroline Lawrence is the author of over 35 historical novels for kids aged 7-14. Start with her first, The Thieves of Ostia, or her most recent, The Time Travel Diaries. Check out her website HERE

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mule vs Volcano

When I go into schools and stay on to do a writing workshop, I almost always set a task of writing a story called ‘Escape from Vesuvius’. There were at least 20,000 people living around the volcano in the first century AD and I reckon each one of them had their own story. We always start by listing the seven plot beats which I have adapted from Hollywood script guru John Truby. Sometimes we start with the hero’s weakness – or Achilles Heel – which will give us the lesson learned AKA step 6, The Knowledge. At St Lawrence Junior School yesterday we were running short on time so we started with his problem: volcano! Acting as the show-runner in a TV writers’ room I got the kids to brainstorm ideas for our hero’s gender, age, name and skills. We voted on them and quickly mapped out the basic plot. If possible I try to get them to come up with a subtitle and in this case we voted for Mule vs Volcano. We had just enough time for a few of the children to read their first paragraphs and they were great. 

But this morning I took a few hours to write my own version. Here’s what I came up with. 

Escape from Vesuvius: Mule vs Volcano 
by Caroline Lawrence 
(with the help of year 4 from St Lawrence Junior School)


It started like any other day. But that was the day I learned an apple can save your life. 

I woke at dawn, slipped on my tunic and splashed water on my face from the jug beside my bed. Then I let myself out of the front door and ran to the baker’s shop. Although our baker makes deliveries, I like to run whenever I can. Most afternoons I train in the palaestra of the Stabian Baths but I like to run first thing in the morning too, when the world is still cool and fresh and the sun is just rising. I run barefoot along the smooth pavements of my town, Pompeii. The soles of my feet are hard as leather. I usually take the long way round to the baker’s, then come back with three warm round loaves under my arm.  


My name is Maximus and I am sixteen years old. My household is small. Just me and my aged parents. We used to have a slave but never got around to replacing him. Our needs are few. My mother can only walk a few steps at a time but she weaves happily in her high-backed wicker chair while my father teaches me to speak eloquently in Greek as well as Latin. 

In the evenings I read passages of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey to my parents. My favourite story is the one at the end of the Iliad where Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy. I always hope that somehow this time Hector will escape, but of course he never does. The words of the poem are etched into my brain like letters in a wax tablet. That story is like one of Plato’s forms: it exists somewhere outside our world, on a higher level. 

Sometimes when I run, I recite that passage. It is as if I am Hector, running from Achilles. 

On that fateful day, I was having a lesson with my father in the garden. My mother sat nearby, in the shade of our apple tree. She was making thread from a drop spindle, turning a clump of wool into fine strong yarn.  

It was almost noon when we heard shouts coming from outside. I hurried out into the street. My neighbours were pointing north, and I saw something like a fat white thread of wool rising up on the horizon.

My father came out a moment later, leaning on his walking stick. 

The smell of rotten eggs filled the air and soon ash was falling. The sky was getting darker, as when clouds gather. 

That was when I remembered the dream I’d had the previous night. The white-hot ghost of Achilles had been chasing me. 

I knew it was a warning, sent by the gods.  

‘We must go!’ I told Pater about my dream. ‘We must get away as fast as we can.’ 

‘But how?’ he replied. ‘I can only walk with the help of a stick and your mother can barely walk at all.’ Then he grasped my shoulders. ‘Son, you are fast. Save yourself. Run! Your mother and I have lived a good life. If it is the will of the gods, we will die a good death.’ 


‘No!’ I cried. ‘I will not leave you.’ 

If had been strong I might have carried my parents, one under each arm. But despite my name I am not powerful. I am fast, yes, but also skinny. 

Then I had an idea. ‘Your old chariot!’ I cried. ‘I can pull you in the chariot!’ 


When my father was young, he had raced chariots and he still kept his favourite in our storeroom. It was made of wicker, leather and beechwood and was very light: like a basket on wheels. 

‘Put on all your jewellery!’ I cried to my mother. ‘Pater, get anything valuable that we can easily carry! And bring some food!’ 

A moment later my aged parents stood in the small chariot as I pulled them out the front door of our house. 

Ash covered the pavement and street. People were already fleeing, carrying their belongings on their backs, holding children by the hand. Some had cushions tied to their heads to keep off the falling embers. Others wore napkins over their noses and mouths to keep out the ash. 

I hurried back inside and soaked two cushions in water from the fountain, then tied them to my parents’ heads. For myself I soaked my hooded woollen cloak in water and put that on. 

Then I grasped the two side beams of the chariot and pulled. 

At first it was easy enough, but soon I was coughing and wheezing. I was not used to pulling the weight of two people, even old ones who are not very heavy. 

As we reached the town gate, I had an idea. 

At the stables we could hire a horse to pull us. 

But as we reached the stables, I saw others had the same idea. 

The only animal left was a stubborn looking mule with a badly swollen front left hoof. 

‘That one’s Podagrosus,’ said the stable owner. ‘I’ll let you have him for a thousand sesterces. But I doubt you’ll get him to move.’ 

One thousand sesterces was a huge amount to pay for a lame mule, but I had no choice. I reached into my belt pouch and pulled out ten gold coins, almost all our savings. The stable owner greedily took them, then bit one to make sure it was pure. A moment later he was hurrying out of the stable. 

Left alone, pulled the chariot over to the mule, hitched him to it with a wooden yoke lying nearby, then grasped his bristly mane and tugged. 

‘Come on, Podagrosus,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’ 

The mule gave me a sideways look but did not budge.  

I took my father’s walking stick and beat his rear. 

It was like beating a marble statue of a mule. The creature did not even twitch. 

‘Stop, Maximus!’ called my mother, who has a soft heart. ‘Here!’ She reached down the front of her stola and pulled out a red apple. 

‘Look, Podagrosus,’ I said, holding it up. ‘A nice juicy apple, fresh from the tree in our garden.’ 

Podagrosus took a step forward. 

Holding out the apple, I backed through the open doors of the stable and onto the street. 

Podagrosus followed. 

I had done it! 

Suddenly the mule lunged forward and closed his teeth on the apple.

‘Ow!’ I cried. ‘He almost bit my hand off!’ 

‘I have one more,’ said my mother. ‘Use it wisely.’

‘Think, Maximus!’ I told myself. ‘Think!’ 

Then I had an idea. ‘Mater,’ I said. ‘Do you have any thread?’ 

‘Always!’ She pulled her spindle from down the front of her tunic and I took two arms’ lengths of strong woollen thread. I tied one end to the stem of the apple and the other to the end of my father’s walking stick. Then I stuck the other end of the stick into the yoke of the mule so that the apple hung about half an arm’s length before his nose. 

Podagrosus limped forward, always going for the apple but never quite able to reach it. 

By the time his swollen foot prevented him from going any further we had made it beyond a spur of the Milky Mountains near Stabiae, and I knew we would be safe. 

‘Well done, Podagrosus!’ I said and gave the tired mule the apple he had been straining after for three hours. ‘I promise we will take good care of you for the rest of your life. And all the apples you can eat.’ 


The End