Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Beckham as Achilles

In the talk I give at schools, How to Write a Great Story, I always start by telling them about Achilles and his heel and why it is necessary to give your hero an 'Achilles Heel'. Last week the great David Beckham tore his Achilles tendon. Britain's poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, wrote this brilliant poem about him, entitled 'Achilles'.

Achilles

Myth's river - where his mother
dipped him, fished him, a slippery
golden boy flowed on, his name on
its lips.

Without him, it was prophesied,
they would not take Troy.

Women hid him, concealed him in
girls' sarongs; days of sweetmeats,
spices, silver songs...

But when Odysseus came, with an
athlete's build, a sword and a shield,
he followed him to the battlefield,
the crowd's roar.

And it was sport, not war,
his charmed foot on the ball...

But then his heel, his heel, his heel...


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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shooting Soap

Every historical author needs at least one good expert source. One of mine is 'Hawkeye', a British gun-dealer and expert on Civil War period firearms.

I recently sent him a few pages of my first Western Mystery, to make sure I had details of the guns right.

In the first Western Mystery, The Case of the Counterfeit Injuns, my hero gets shot with a Smith & Wesson seven-shooter. It's only a .22 but my hero is only a kid. So how much damage would it do? Would a slug from a .22 knock down a 12 year old if fired at close range? Would it pierce buckskin? Or just bounce off? Can you even call a .22 a slug? Shouldn't you call it a 'pea'? It's tiny! (above)

I sent the relevant pages to Hawkeye and he sent back this fascinating reply:

I did a little test for you myself. Taking 10 rounds of modern .22 short, I pulled out the bullets, tipped out the modern nitro powder & replaced it with 4 grains of fine black powder, then put the bullets back on top. Fired from the old Eureka - barrel length 2 1/2 inches, it penetrated 1 1/4 inches of pine at 6 yards range. At the same distance it penetrated a soft leather belt pinned to a new bar of soap and exited the rear of the soap through a large hole. In my opinion the Smith & Wesson No. 1 with its 3 inch barrel would perform almost identically.


(above: Hawkeye's 2 1/2 inch barrel Eureka)

Ouch! So the answer to my question is yes, you can call a .22 ball a 'slug' because it can pierce buckskin and make a nasty hole at close range!

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Get the bang right

I am having another fun session shooting cap & ball Colts today at a shooting club in South London. My mentor - let's call him Hawkeye - is sharing some secrets of how the movies get it all wrong.

1. There are five other shooters in our blind and I'm nearly deafened by the reports from their cap & ball revolvers (they are mostly .44s) even though I am wearing 'ear-defenders'. I remark on this to Hawkeye and mention The Proposition, a great Australian film which starts with a shootout where the gunshots sound like popguns. 'In films,' he says, 'they never get the bang right.' I jump as another deafening shot goes off behind me. 'And the more powder', says Hawkeye, 'the louder the bang. Also, more powder meant the ball would be more accurate. It's trajectory would be flatter.'

2. In the real wild West, they never held the gun sideways or with both hands. 'I think Hawaii Five-O is the first time you see cops holding a gun with two hands,' says Hawkeye. 'And the Pulp Fiction type holding it on its side is ridiculous. And what Jimmy Cagney does in the old films is criminal. He jerks the gun downwards as he fires.'

3. 'In my book,' I say, 'I have a ball from a .22 knock down my 12-year-old hero.' Hawkeye snorts. 'Even a shot from a .44 wouldn't throw you against the wall', he says. 'It would take a .50 calibre ball, from one of the big Sharpe's for example, to knock you down.'

4. Hawkeye says for a while there was a ridiculous fad for ricochets on American TV Westerns. (You know the kind of thing: B'dang! B'dang!) Hawkeye says lead balls go thunk. They don't bounce off things.

5. In For a Fistful of Dollars, a machine gun stands in for a gattling gun. Wrong! (I also noticed lots of ricochets in that film, too.)

6. In The Good, the Bad & the Ugly there is a delightful scene where Eli Wallach's Tuco (right) makes up a gun using the best parts from others. Wrong! (In his autobiography, The Good, The Bad, and Me, Wallach admits he was just riffing and having fun).

7. One bullet wouldn't necessarily have killed you.
Shooter: Bang!
Shootee: Argh! (slumps to ground, instantly dead.)
In actuality, one of the Younger Gang was shot 28 times... and lived long enough to witness the age of aviation. According to Hawkeye.

8. Cool leather holsters with matching cartridge belts? Not so common. Men often carried guns in their pockets or on a piece of string or in a sack. Many so called gunmen didn't even know how to fire a gun properly. Says Hawkeye.

9. In the film Winchester 73, Jimmy Stewart's character shoots a bullet through a washer tossed high in the air. Hawkeye scoffs at this, too. He says that might happen if the washer was stationary, but never while flying through the air.

10. Did they ever get it right? 'Yes,' says Hawkeye. 'In John Wayne's last film, The Shootist, he tells the boy that although the grouping of the bullets is important, a target never shoots back. The important thing is not to flinch.'

Note to self: In the Western Mysteries I should avoid ricochets, people slammed against walls or knocked over by slugs, single shot instant death, amazing accuracy, and most important of all, I must get the bang right!

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ivory Bangle Lady - My Story

Sometimes I miss Rome so much I think I might die. I loved growing up there. The life, the colour, the warmth, the sophistication.

My family had a large town house on Pear Street, up on the Quirinal, with views over Rome and the River Tiber. It was far enough from Rome to be quiet, but close enough for a day’s shopping. The sun always shone and the sky was always blue and the birds were always singing. I grew up in green inner gardens full of cool shade, splashing fountains and the sweet scent of roses, grape hyacinth, jasmine and lavender. Our house had its own bath complex with a mosaic of golden sea-nymphs on the bottom of the swimming pool. I used to dive down and pretend I was a nereid like them. On festival days I my two sisters and I would sometimes go to Rome: to the chariot races. (Our bishop says we should not attend, but pater says a day at the circus reminds us of our spiritual race to keep our eye on the goal and not to falter. Our bishop also says that women do not need baubles and jewellery, but pater says as long as we wear only glass and not precious gems…)

My name is Julia Tertia, but they call me Tertia. One of my illustrious ancestors on my mother’s side was Sextus Julius Africanus, a scholar from Alexandria who wrote books on our faith and served under the Emperor Septimius Severus. My father is from Lepcis Magna, that emperor’s home town in North Africa; I was also born there and spent the first few years of my life in Lepcis. It is a great city, but nothing compares to Rome!

Recently, a young man came to ask for my hand in marriage. My father is a good wise man, and he let me meet Gaius before he made the decision that we be married.

I could see my appearance pleased Gaius when I came into the fountain courtyard where he stood waiting. He stared at me with his mouth open and then clapped his hand to his heart as if Cupid’s arrow had pierced him there. His looks pleased me, too. He has laughing green eyes, quite striking against his olive skin. His hair is black and glossy and his eyelashes are longer than mine. He is a rich young man of the patrician class, climbing the ladder of honours. He is also a believer, though he secretly worships some of the old gods, too. He says I am the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and he is always buying me jewelry and fine silks. I shouldn’t accept such things, but I do love them so, and as long as he does not give me gold or jewels, my conscience is easy.

I only wish they hadn’t posted him to Britannia to do his military service. When I first heard we were going to live in Eburacum I imagined a city made of ivory, because ebur means ivory. But it’s a faded crumbling city with more hovels than brick buildings. The frescoes are peeling, the mosaics are missing tesserae and the sky seems always to be grey. And it’s cold and dark this winter.

We bought some ivory bracelets to remind me of home, and I have now bought some jet bracelets here in York. The lady I bought them from told me that the material is magical, and will protect me from illness and the evil eye. The black bracelets also make a nice contrast with the ivory ones. I keep all my jewellery in a box that my family gave me, even though they might not approve of keeping trinkets in it as it has a Christian inscription on it.

We went to the games last week but it was a sad affair with a few dogs chasing a frightened deer. I cried and cried. My only consolation is that soon we will be back home in sunny lively Rome and oh! I cannot wait.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Since a flurry of press about the discovery of an Roman lady in York who may have come from North Africa, some Roman Mysteries fans have asked if she could be a descendent of Nubia, the African girl in my series of Roman Mysteries. I suppose it IS possible but this young woman lived in the fourth century, at least three hundred years after Nubia.

Recently, Dr Hella Eckardt and her team from the Diaspora Project at the University of Reading asked me to write a possible fictional scenario for who she was and how she came to be in York. Here's what I wrote about the woman they dubbed 'Ivory Bangle Lady'. It will be part of the schools pack when the Yorkshire Museum re-opens in August 2010!

I played historical detective and created the above scenario based on the forensic clues:

Her skull shape shows she was mixed race with definite African characteristics
Her bones showed she died young, aged around 19
Isotopes show she came from a hot place outside Britain
(possibly North Africa but certain parts of Spain and Italy are also possible)
Her diet matched that of the local population in York
She was buried in a stone sarcophagus, a mark of wealth
Her grave goods also indicate wealth and some might be clues
- bangle made of jet; jet a local material with ‘magical’ properties
- bangles made of ivory; and exotic material from tooth of elephant
- blue glass perfume flask from the Rhineland: again a mark of wealth
- blue glass bead bracelet: she liked blue?
- silver and bronze lockets
- two yellow glass ear-rings
- two marbled glass beads
- small round glass (!) mirror: she was concerned with her looks
- a bone plaque with the words SOROR AVE VIVAS IN DEO
('FAREWELL SISTER LIVE IN GOD')
indicating she was perhaps a Christian and almost certainly literate


Whoever Ivory Bangle Lady really was, she did not live long. She died around the age of 19 and was buried in York. The brilliant painting above is a re-imagining of her funeral with some of the other people from different parts of the Empire found in York and also some of the lovely grave goods buried with her.

For more information about this fascinating project, go to Diaspora Project at the University of Reading. Hella and her team have also found bones of two individuals they call 'Cold Isotope Guy' and 'Hot Isotope Guy'. (See if you can spot them in the picture above!)
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