Sunday, July 31, 2011

Golden Sponge-Stick Comp '11

A winner & a runner-up from 2010
Are you a budding young writer?

Could you create the next Flavia Gemina or Falco?

Well, here's your chance.

Burgess Hill School presents to you a national writing competition for all UK and international school and college students, The Golden Sponge-Stick Competition.

To enter the quest for this coveted prize, please read on:

The story itself:
1. Your story should be a Roman story and based in Roman times. It can be set in any part of the Roman world. It can be either a Roman short story or a Roman mystery/detective story/thriller.
2. Your story should be an individual entry and written entirely by you. Please would a parent or guardian/carer sign your entry at the end or on the back to verify this.
3. Your story should not exceed 1500 words in length. Handwritten and typed entries are both welcome but please ensure that the handwriting is legible.
4. Knowledge of Latin is certainly not essential but you should display some historical research and/or knowledge of Roman daily life in you story. If you do study Latin then it would be excellent to use some in your story or dialogue.
5. Your story should have a clear, logical point, a set of characters, possibly including a hero/heroine and ideally a series of twists and a striking ending!

Please send your entries by email or post to:

Jerry Pine
Burgess School for Girls
Keymer Road
Burgess Hill
West Sussex
RH15 0EG

email: j.pine610 [at]

Good luck in your quest for the golden sponge-stick!


1) A panel of judges will choose the winning entries for each age category.
2) The age categories will be split into four:
ages 8 and below; ages 9-11; ages 12-13; ages 14 and above.
3) In each category three prizes will be awarded; the best in each will receive the prestigious golden sponge-stick. Other classical prizes including books and vouchers will be awarded.
4) Entries are welcome now and the closing date for all entries is Friday December 16 2011.
5) The judges reserve the right to keep all entries unless a stamped addressed envelope is included for return of your entry.
6) All winners will be notified of the result by Friday January 13 2012.

Caroline with sponge-stick
Note from Caroline: Although I am posting details of this competition here on my blog, it is run entirely by Jerry Burgess and is his invention. I can neither read submissions nor give advice, but I can point you to my WRITING TIPS page.

And three points of clarification:
1. The competition is open to children from all over the world, not just the UK. But the submission must be in English. 

2. The competition is open to home-educated children as well as those attending day or boarding schools.
3. The cut-off age is 18 (i.e. entrants should still be 18 years old on 31 Dec 2011)

I will be announcing the winners here on this blog in January 2012. 
Oh, and if you don't know what a sponge-stick is, go HERE.
Bona Fortuna! (Good luck!)

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans, Greeks or Egyptians as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Should Pompeii have a Theme Park?

You might have heard me on BBCRadioFour recently, arguing for an historical theme park version of Pompeii to be built near the site. Why on earth should we do such a thing? Here are ten reasons I think it would be a great idea.

1. To preserve the ruins
Two to three million tourists pass through Pompeii every year. It is wonderful that there is such an interest in ancient history, but the sheer volume of people is slowly but surely destroying the remains, especially mosaics and frescoes. After my interview, someone tweeted this: thought your theme park idea interesting on BBCr4today - but would people visit theme-park and abandon Pompeii? My answer was: Yes! Only the keenest would visit the real Pompeii & it would ease wear & tear. By making our "Living Pompeii" more attractive to young, fun-loving and casual tourists it would make space in the real ruins for scholars, students and super keen tourists. They could in theory visit one or the other, or both.

2. To let visitors SEE ancient Pompeii
re-enactor girl rides horse at Archeon
When I say "Theme Park" I do not mean Disneyland (though there's plenty right with Disneyland) but something more like Archeon, the wondeful Dutch Historical Theme Park near Amsterdam. They have three periods: Prehistorical, Medieval and Roman, and all three are brilliantly reproduced. They aren't just fronts, but buildings you can walk into and look around, e.g. the baths, an arena for gladiatorial combat and a roman style villa. For Pompeii we could replicate one of the most famous streets, the Via dell'Abbondanza, with election graffiti, frescoes, shop signs, and upper stories as well as ground floors. Fountains would bubble and some could overflow, showing tourists why the famous stepping stones existed in such a dry climate!

3. To let visitors TOUCH ancient Pompeii. 
"Vespasian" & "Lupus"
"Don't touch!" is a refrain often heard on archaeological sites, and quite right. (I was at unpoliced Herculaneum a few years ago and kids were swinging on the columns) But what if kids were allowed or even encouraged to touch bronze statues, marble facing, iron gates, frescoed walls, granite paving stones? What if they could dip their hands in full fountains or stroke hand woven rugs for sale? What if they could recline in a litter, the comfortable means of transportation for lazy rich people?

4. To let visitors TASTE ancient Pompeii
illustration from brochure of now defunct Magna Roma
Food, glorious food! Ancient Romans loved street snacks: chickpea pancakes, spicy sausages wrapped in vine leaves, pistachio nuts in papyrus cones. (You can still buy roast chestnuts in paper cones by the Spanish Steps). So why not have a caupona or two? Or three? You can serve authentic Roman fast food to the tourists. We could start a new craze for the favourite drink of the Roman Legionary. Posca is vinegar-tinted water. It is extremely refreshing and the vinegar kills most bacteria, so it's healthy.  For a few years there existed in Rome a restaurant called Magna Roma. Run by a retired Etruscologist, it served "authentic ancient food". Nothing revolting like fried sows' nipples or stuffed dormice, but unusual meals like a gustatio of small fishes formed of chopped chicken liver and served on "lettuce waves" (the Romans loved presenting one food as another) followed by sea-bass in oenogarum sauce with plums and carraway seeds and finished off with a mensa secunda of celery poached in honey. No forks. Only spoons, knives, fingers and napkins. This could be a proper sit down restaurant like Magna Roma, which failed due to a combination of bad publicity and poor location.

5. To let visitors SMELL ancient Pompeii
a priest examines the omens
Dare I suggest that toilets at our replica Pompeii be like the ancient foricae from the Roman world? If so, tourists would enter through a revolving wooden door and find themselves in an airy room with a marble bench around three sides of the wall, with holes on top (for the obvious) and holes at the front (for the bottom-wiper sponge-stick) but no dividing walls and no doors so you sat right next to your friend and did what you had to do! Maybe there could be two versions of toilets in our replica Pompeii: the authentic Roman foricae and Roman-ish but private cubicles for the modest. Other smells could come from the food being cooked at cauponas and tabernas (see above). We could have authentic fullers, with people stamping wool in vats full of urine. Don't like that idea? How about this: gardens! Yes, we could plant fragrant gardens based on Pompeian templates. Thanks to modern archeology, we know exactly what plants they put in their inner gardens and orchards. Maybe the stalls could sell fruit in season: apricots, peaches, watermelon, apples, figs, olives, nuts, mulberries... That won't have changed in 2000 years.

6. To let visitors EXPERIENCE ancient Pompeii - It goes without saying that there will be gladiatorial combats. But what about a priest giving the morning or evening offering? A sale of slaves fresh off the boat? An orator defending a public case in the forum? The town crier announcing the time and various events in a big voice. A poetry reading? Even a more-or-less-realistic session at the baths!

7. To let visitors INTERACT with ancient Romans
a runaway slave
But who will be cooking the food, selling the goods, fighting the combats and reading the poetry, you ask. Re-enactors! In the world today there is a huge number of people who dress up as people from the past. These are men, women and children who leave their ordinary lives behind for a weekend or two per year to dress up in ancient garb and become someone else. Archeon theme park invites various re-enactment groups from all over Europe to come. They get room and board, but pay for their own travel and give their time for free. Each of them is an expert in their own field. As an historical author, I rely heavily on input from living history actors, as they like to call themselves. Some people think re-enactors should "get a life". I think re-enactors have at least two lives: their day-to-day life and their ancient alter-ego! I recently posted a POLL on my Facebook page, asking re-enactors why they gave up precious time to dress up and "inhabit" the past. The top three answers were 1. To learn more about their period, 2. To inspire children to study history, 3. To share their knowledge with others. All most commendable. It's great to stop and see how a mosaic-maker does it. Or watch a fresco-painter at work. Or ask a runaway slave what is branded on her forehead!

8. To let visitors TAKE AWAY SOUVENIRS from the replica Pompeii, not the original 
Instead of selling tacky souvenirs, the re-enactors and craftsmen could sell good quality replicas of real Roman artefacts. These could range from something as simple and cheap as a wax tablet and wooden stylus, to an amethyst signet ring carved with Castor and Pollux, the heavenly twins. Kids, teachers and researchers could by bronze strigils, styli, fibulae, hair pins and oil-lamps. They could buy rugs woven in the loom or mosaics made by hand. Imitation coins, jewelry, votive objects and tools all teach us more about the Romans. I adore replica artefacts and so do children at the schools I visit. There is something very powerful about handing a real object from the past, but a well-made imitation can be almost as inspiring. You can see my top twelve favourite replica artefacts HERE.

9. To channel casual tourists away from the fragile ruins.
I mentioned it above, but I want to say it again: with attractions such as the ones just listed, energetic school children and enthusiastic tourists would have a totally authentic immersive feel of Pompeii. They will then understand more about the actual remains when they see them. IF they see them. If they are happy with their ersatz experience, there is no need for them to drag around the real ruins. After a fun but exhausting day at replica Pompeii, only the keenest will want to visit the real site. And I think that is OK.

10. To fund more policing and preservation of the ancient site
author Caroline Lawrence tries out a litter at Archeon
In an ideal world, the "Pompeii Theme Park" would make a massive amount of money, just like Disneyland. It would have so much going for it from the start: a guaranteed volume of tourists, the fame, the fortune. This profit could then be channelled back to upkeep of the theme park but more importantly, to the real ruins themselves. One of the great things about a replica theme park is that it could also be hired out to film and documentary companies, like Empire Studios in Tunisia or Boyana Studios in Bulgaria, where the Roman Mysteries TV series was filmed. Also, you could have night-time events. One of my Twitter followers suggested semi-erotic adult night-time events with dancing girls and peeled grapes à la Up Pompeii or my favourite ancient Roman film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Brilliant!

And so, upon that note of peeled grapes and increased revenue for the real Pompeii, I rest my case.


P.S. Five fascinating facts I learned from Prof. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill at our Pompeii Panel on Weds 27 July 2011.

1. Pompeii has been "preserved" in a variety of ways over the past century and a half. These methods of preservation reveal Pompeii's more recent past.

2. It is not the volume of tourist traffic that is hurting Pompeii most, it is the lack of roofing.

3. The sections of Pompeii which are closed to the public are often in worse condition than the heavily visited parts.

4. Some streets of Pompeii were destroyed by allied bombs in WWII. Prof. Wallace-Hadrill says one of these ruined streets could be rebuilt as an historical theme park and populated by re-enactors.

5. Any schemes we propose are theoretical anyway as we have no power to implement them. Pompeii's preservation lies in the hands of the Italian government.

Getty Villa in Malibu at dusk
P.S. Would anyone object if it looked like the Getty Villa? No, but they might not be happy if it ended up like the slightly scruffy Pharaonic Village in Cairo. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Dirty Dozen Roman Artifacts

by Caroline Lawrence
(this is a longer and "Americanized" version of an article I wrote for the Classical Association Blog)

Whenever I visit schools to talk about my books set in Ancient Rome, I bring along some of my favorite artifacts. Most of these aren't real antique objects, but convincing replicas made by my re-enactor friends or bought in museum gift shops. But they are close enough to the original to give children a visible, tangible idea of how 1st century Rome differed from 21st century Britain or America. I let the kids look at them, sometimes handle and sniff them, even taste them. The Roman poet Martial mentions some of these artifacts in his fourteenth book of Apophoreta, poetic Saturnalia gift-tags. In these charming two-line epigrams the gifts sometimes speak in first person. e.g. the bedroom lamp which promises that no matter what it sees, tacebo: 'I won't talk.'

These artifacts help me get a little closer to the mindset of a first century Roman. Quite a few of them end up appearing as clues in my Roman Mysteries series of books. Here are a dozen of my favorites.

I. Clay oil-lamp
A clay oil-lamp like this reminds us that Romans had no electricity. Roman houses would have been dimly lit at night and smoke-streaked during the day. Fire was a constant risk. This fun oil-lamp in the shape of a sandalled foot is a replica of an oil-lamp found in Londinium. I bought this particular lamp at the Museum of London and as you can see from the scorched big toe, I've tried it out. It even has hobnails on the bottom. In my third Roman Mystery, The Pirates of Pompeii, Jonathan tells oil-lamp jokes (the ancient equivalent of light-bulb jokes) to cheer up children captured by pirates.

II. Strigil
This strigil or scraper reminds us that Roman bathing habits were very different from ours. They didn't use soap, but oil (hence the bottle) in a public ritual of oiling up, exercising, steaming, sweating and then scraping with the strigil. As you pulled the strigil across your sweaty skin, it would remove the oil, and along with it the layer of dead skin cells, dirt and sweat. You would get a bath attendant or slave to do your back. In Martial 14.51, a strigil tells us that if you regularly use him you won't have to take your towel to the cleaner's so often. Even more exciting is the claim by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History that some gladiators collected their scrapings (charmingly called gloios) and sold the disgusting mixture to rich Roman ladies.
To find out how rich Roman women used gladiator scrapings, read the sixth Roman Mystery, The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina.

III. Wax-tablet
Wax tablets like this one remind us that Romans didn't have email or text messages, or even a cheap version of writing paper. You had to use parchment, papyrus, thin sheets of wood, or re-usable wooden tablets with wax in a shallow depression. You would use a tool called a stylus with a sharp end for writing and a flat end for rubbing out. The wax on the famous tablets from Vindolanda has long gone, but clever archaeologists can still make out traces of letters and words in the wood underneath. In my fourth Roman Mystery, The Assassins of Rome, my mute character, Lupus, figures out how to retrieve a life-or-death message which disappeared after blazing summer sunshine melted the wax on an open tablet.

IV. Bleeding cup
This large bleeding cup (they also come in small) reminds us that Romans had a different concept of medicine and health. Bronze bleeding cups were used for both ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ cupping. In dry cupping, a flaming piece of lint was put in the cup and then applied to skin. The flame immediately went out and a vacuum sucked out the "bad humor". In wet cupping the doctor made an incision in your arm and drained a cupful of blood. This was the Roman equivalent of taking two aspirin. There must have been some benefit, people have been doing this since Roman times. A few years ago, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow was seen with distinctive marks of 'dry cupping' on her back. In my seventh Roman Mystery, The Enemies of Jupiter, there is a plague in Rome. Nubia and her friends see first-hand how bleeding is done by both experts and quacks. Not for the squeamish!

V. Roman spoon
A spoon like this reminds us that food was a constant preoccupation of the Romans. The strange kink in this spoon is a relic of spoons that could be folded in half for easier carrying in a belt-pouch. If invited to dinner, you took your own spoon. Some Romans took their own napkins, too. As well as dabbing your mouth, you could use it to carry home leftovers as a sort of 'doggy bag'. The sharp end on the spoon is for spearing goodies previously cut into bite-sized pieces by helpful slaves. Some spoons had little hooks on this end; they were snail-spoons. Martial's snail-spoon says, "I'm useful for eggs as well as snails, so why do they call me a 'snail-spoon'?" (Martial 14.121) There were no forks in Roman times, apart from the big ones used by gladiators, that is. I had fun with a dinner party scene from my first Roman Mystery, The Thieves of Ostia.

Alma proudly carried in the first course and set it on the table: sea snails fried in olive oil, garlic and pepper. The snails had been placed back in their shells and Alma handed each diner a special spoon with a small hook at one end to extract the snail...Flavia showed Jonathan how to extract a snail and then watched as he gingerly picked up one of the shells between finger and thumb and hooked out its contents. He paused to examine it: the snail was small and twisted and rubbery and brown. Jonathan closed his eyes, took a deep breath and put it in his mouth. (The Thieves of Ostia, p 37 )

VI. Nuggets of gum mastic
These little nuggest of mastic resin from the Greek island of Chios remind us that in many ways the Romans were just like us; this is their version of chewing gum.  I bought these in a small shop on the island of Kos, famous for its medical sanctuary. To me, mastic tastes like a combination of cumin and carrot, only sweeter. Pop one of these in your mouth and chew for a few minutes then take it out. It will have gone white, just like modern chewing gum. In fact you can still buy mastic gum today in Greece or in specialist shops. They say chewing it is good for stomach complaints. And of course it freshens your breath, like the fennel seeds in the bowl above. We know from Martial 14.22 that you could even get toothpicks made of gum mastic. In my ninth Roman Mystery, The Colossus of Rhodes, Flavia meets a good-looking, rich Roman patrician on his "gap year". He makes a bad first impression by ignoring her and also by chewing gum:

Gaius Valerius Flaccus rested his forearms on the polished stern rail and chomped his gum. 'My father left me a nice legacy,' he remarked, 'and I thought I'd see the Seven Sights before I begin to practise law in Rome.' (The Colossus of Rhodes, p14)

VII. Phallic amulet
This fascinum or charm reminds us that the Romans were deeply superstitious. This little willy flanked by two big ones wasn’t rude; it was designed to avert the evil eye. You can see a few tiny phallus amulets in the Roman Life Room of the British Museum, they were specially for babies and young children, who were particularly vulnerable. You can also see bigger "wind chime" versions with wings and bells on, to protect the whole house. I bought this particular replica at a Roman site (Empúries) in Spain. I had fun introducing this on the very first page of The Colossus of Rhodes:

Lupus stared in amazement at the little bronze pendant hanging from its linen cord. 
It was shaped like a part of the body. 
Part of a boy's body. 
A very private part of a boy's body. 

VIII. Glass ‘chariot beaker’
Beautiful glass beakers like this remind us that Romans had the ancient equivalent of souvenir mugs. This authentically-made mold-blown cup by Roman Glassmakers David and Mark is a replica of one from Colchester in Britannia (known as the "Colchester Cup"). Although none of this exact type have been found in Italy, versions of it must have been sold in the Circus Maximus, for it shows the spina (central barrier) of that arena in the middle band. Below the spina are four quadrigae. Right at the top, the charioteers are named: Antilochus, Hierax, Olympas and the winner Crescens, who holds his right hand up in triumph.
Naturally this beaker makes an appearance in my chariot-race-themed Roman Mystery, The Charioteer from Delphi, where Flavia and her friends meet an ancient Roman version of David the Roman Glassmaker. And of course all the charioteers named in the beaker make appearances, too.

IX. Wooden dice
Dice remind us that the Romans adored board games and games of chance, even though gambling was illegal apart from during the Saturnalia. When I visit schools, I bring cheap wooden dice in a wooden shaking cup. What I'd really like to bring is this beautiful rock crystal die from room 69 – the Roman Life Room – in the British Museum. I love this artifact so much that I made it a vital clue in my first book, The Thieves of Ostia, about dog-murder in Rome's ancient port. Martial's die claims to be better than knucklebones, which were also used for gambling (Martial 14.15) I also have an amusing scened at the beginning of The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina, where the Geminus household are throwing dice to see who will be crowned 'King of the Saturnalia'. When Flavia's turn comes she uses one of Lupus's special 'shaved dice' to ensure that she wins. Cheat!

X. Brass seal box for wills
This little teardrop-shaped bronze seal box reminds us that Romans were concerned with law, order and munus (duty). It was every Roman’s duty to make a will and have it properly witnessed and stored. Wills were written on wooden wax-tablets, then bound and sealed, often with a small bronze box like this. You dripped sealing wax into the open box and it would stick to the wood and twine wrapped around it. There would be no way of opening the will or altering it without disturbing the seal. In this picture we see the underside of the seal box with holes for the wax to leak through. My unlucky thirteenth Roman Mystery, The Slave-girl from Jerusalem, has lots to do with will-making, death and funerals.
You can buy a seal box like this and in different models online at Armamenta.

XI. An ‘as’ of Domitian
This bronze coin reminds us that Romans were among the first to use the idea of a product brand in the picture of the emperor… on money. This as (a coin worth a fourth of a sestertius) is a genuine first century artifact. I bought it at the antique dealers opposite the British Museum. I'd prefer a coin of Titus who was the emperor when my books are set, but he reigned for a brief 26 months, so coins with his face are quite hard to find. In the final book of the series, The Man from Pomegranate Street, I try to solve the mystery of whether Titus's sudden death was natural or not. And if not, was he murdered by his younger brother Domitian?

XII. Sponge-stick
This delightfully disgusting object, a soft sea sponge on a stick, reminds us that the Romans were both fastidious and revolting to our modern sensibilities. This was a spongia, a bottom-wiper. You can read more about it HERE. The sponge-on-the-stick appears at the beginning of Lupus's special book, The Dolphins of Laurentum, and also features in the first of my new spin-off Roman Mystery Scrolls for early readers, The Sewer Demon

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Long Live Pompeii!

In preparation for a Classics Question Time panel about the survival of Pompeii in Cambridge, I've been reading Wilhelmina Feemster Jashemski's Letters from Pompeii and enjoying the charming 1960's illustrations as much as anything else.

Here is a wonderful description of her first visit to the House of the Silver Wedding in Pompeii (so-called because the king and queen of Italy visited Pompeii in 1893 to celebrate their silver wedding and watched part of this particular house being excavated):

I shall never forget the first time I went into this house. It was on a very hot day – one of the hottest I have ever known at Pompeii. When we turned the key of the front door and walked into the beautiful atrium, it was very cool. It felt as if the house were air-conditioned! I was ready to move in! The ancient Pompeian architects certainly knew how to build homes that were cool in a hot climate.

She also writes this:

I well remember when I read the Last Days of Pompeii. I believe I was twelve... I remember reading all night. My father came in several times and asked me to turn off my light. But as soon as I knew he was in bed, I would turn it on again. The book was too exciting. An entire city buried by the eruption of a volcano!

The famous German poet Goethe visited the Bay of Naples in 1787. After seeing Vesuvius and Pompeii he wrote this: "Many a calamity has happened in the world, but never one that has caused so much entertainment to posterity as this one!"

Long live Pompeii!

Caroline & extended family in Pompeii in 2000

Caroline Lawrence is author of 17 full-length Roman Mysteries and two volumes of Roman mini-mysteries for kids. She is also writing a spin-off series for kids aged 6-8 called The Roman Mysteries Scrolls with "more poo and less blood".

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Story Structure Masterclass

John Truby gives his Master Class in London 9 -11 July 2011
I have just finished attending my third Master Class with Hollywood script doctor John Truby. I came away with a list of ten practical tips to keep in mind as I plot out my next book. Most of them are things I already know from using Truby's principles over the past dozen years. A few are new to me. 

1. Be aware of the "character web" In a great story, all the characters are connected to each other in some way. This seems obvious, but it will be a good point for me to keep in mind as I start writing my third Western Mystery, which is a detective story set in a community.

2. Not every hero has a "moral need". Especially in children's fiction, the hero's weakness does not have to be one that hurts the people around him. Examples of great heroes without a "moral need" are Rocky, Harry Potter, WALL-E, The Dude and any "travelling angel" like Mary Poppins or Crocodile Dundee. My hero, P.K. Pinkerton, has plenty of psychological weaknesses and doesn't necessarily need a moral weakness. 

3. When writing Detective genre, figure out the opponent's plan first.
This also seems obvious but is easily forgotten. 

4. The evolution of the Story World should reflect that of the hero.
This is new to me and it's going to be exciting to try to do this. I already have some good ideas.

5. 3-track dialogue is a valuable tool.  
Track 1 dialogue is exposition or drives the story; 
Track 2 dialogue presents values and concepts; 
Track 3 dialogue employs key words and symbols. 

6. Make each "reveal" bigger than the previous one.

7. Start the hero's "desire" low and raise it with each "reveal".

8. Indirect & direct approach in dialogue.

9. Figure out the theme and main plot points before you start writing. 
As Truby says, once a story is written "it's like cement. It hardens in your mind and is much harder to fix the problems." 

10. The seven beat structure (with added "ghost" & "story world") rules. 
More detailed that the three-act structure but simpler that the Hero's Journey or Truby's own 22 plot beats, the seven beat structure is the one that works best for me. Its power lies in its accuracy and also in its simplicity. There is plenty of room for "right-brain" creativity, historical detail and real events.

Writing is like baking a cake while at the same time juggling the ingredients and implements. There are so many aspects to keep in mind and you've got to get the proportions and timing exactly right. Every book is a fresh adventure and a new challenge, and it never seems to get any easier. That's why being a writer is such a great job.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Historical Inaccuracies Rule!

Try to avoid anachronisms
One of the challenges of writing historical fiction for children is to balance accuracy and fun. It's no good having a bazillion accurate facts if the books are dry as dust. And it's no good telling a ripsnorting yarn if your story isn't at least 95% accurate.

In my Roman Mysteries I was meticulous about getting historical details, events and people as accurately as possible, but I made my hero – the 10-year-old detectrix Flavia Gemina – as independent as any 21st century schoolgirl. Maybe more so. I needed to make Flavia and her pals accessible so that children could identify with them and enter the world and so absorb the details of the period. It was a balancing act, challenging but fun. I tried not to let too many inaccuracies creep in, but one or two per book were necessary. 

Virginia City re-enactor
I have the same problem with my new Western Mysteries series, set in Virginia City, Nevada Territory, in 1862. To me it is deeply thrilling. I have the Civil War, Indian battles, the Salting of Silver Mines, Runaway Slaves, Mark Twain & other priceless primary sources. Plus Virginia City is still there and chock full of museums, mine shafts, lively saloons (!) and historical re-enactors. But it's still going to be a hard sell to children aged 9+ in the UK. To them this time and place is deeply unsexy. Their grandfathers liked Western movies for heaven's sake. How uncool is that? 

So, in a bid to make the period immediately engaging and fun, I went to five of the most famous visual images of the Western: blazing six-shooters, the Stetson hat, sheriff's badges, swinging saloon doors and WANTED posters. The problem is, all five of these iconic artefacts are basically myth. Especially in Nevada Territory in 1862. But I decided to indulge myself with two of them. 
the author with replica Colt & badge

Myth #1 - Blazing six-shooters
This is the image of 90% of the Westerns you see on TV or in cinemas. The myth is so strong it has spawned Cowboy Fast Draw as a new sport, especially popular in states like Nevada and Arizona, where almost anybody can carry a loaded firearm. I had huge fun in May at the Genoa Cowboy Festival. I got to fire a revolver at targets with wax-filled cartridges. Anything under 1 second is considered good. The champions can draw, cock, fire and hit the target in under half a second. 
Denied! At the time my books are set – 1862-63 – cartridges were brand new. Most guns needed to be painstakingly loaded with black powder, cap, ball and wad. (I've tried this, too.) With this kind of ammo, misfires are common. When you DO hit something they often set the victim's clothes on fire. How often do we see that in movies? In old westerns, a bullet means instant death. In reality people often survived after being shot multiple times. That myth I can bust. Accounts of real historical shootouts are exciting, shocking and sometimes even amusing. 

Sheriff Tom Peasley
Myth #2 - Sheriff Badges, etc. 
Think of Gary Cooper in High Noon, dropping his badge in the dust as his response to the refusal of the town to acknowledge its authority. Or Henry Fonda in The Tin Star, where the sheriff's badge symbolises his redemption. Surely that's not a myth?
Denied! During my last research trip to Virginia City I learned that lawmen did not wear badges until 1874, a full dozen years after my first book is set. Nor did marshals, sheriffs or police (yes they had them too) wear any distinctive uniform for many years. So how did you know you were facing the law? Fascinating. I'm going to use the reality here, too, as it could provide lots of drama. But I'll carry on wearing my Virginia City Deputy Sheriff's star to parties and book launches.
The Duke in his hat

Myth #3 - Stetson Hats
Ten-gallon hats, Stetson hats & cowboy hats! Think of Steve McQueen and his disgustingly realistic-looking sweat-stained hat in The Magnificent Seven. Or John Wayne and his famous white(ish) cowboy hat. (right) Surely those are a legitimate icon of the 1860s? 
Denied! Most men in Virginia City wore something Dickens would have worn. Mr. Stetson didn't sell his first hat until 1865, a few years after my books are set. Mark Twain, (my vocabulary source for 1862), describes himself as arriving in Virginia City with a slouch hat, a soft felt hat usually of brown or black. That's the type of hat my character is wearing on the front cover of my book. So in my books my male characters wear plug hats, stovepipe hats or slouch hats. And my women are almost universally in bonnets. The dude on the black and white carte de visite up above is Tom Peasley, a famous Virginia City Sheriff from 1866.  

Myth #4 - Swinging Saloon Doors
Is there anything more iconic (or fun) about a wild Western town than The Stranger swinging in through those butterfly doors? The piano player stops, the room goes silent, everybody turns to stare and you can be sure there will be a fist-fight or a shootout before long.
Denied! One scholarly resident of Virginia City tells me that saloons there never had the famous swinging doors so beloved of Western movies. One reason may have been the hurricane force wind fondly known by the locals as the "Washoe Zephyr". It was strong enough to blow off tin roofs and carry away small mammals. 
El Indio

Myth #5 - WANTED posters
Think of all those great Western movies where the WANTED poster tells you exactly what the bad guy looks like. One of my personal favourites is in Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More, where the evil laughing baddie El Indio is freeze-framed mid-cackle and the image becomes his WANTED poster. 
Denied! My Nevada historian friend assures me that WANTED posters from the 1860s and 1870s were probably printed handbills with a plain verbal description. I have a replica of the WANTED poster for Lincoln's assassin up on my wall and she's right. Exclamation points, yes. Pictures, no. 

But swinging saloon doors and WANTED posters are iconic images from the Western genre, so I've decided that both of these particular myths will appear in my book and on my website. I want to tell readers – especially young readers – that this is a series about the Wild West, with cowboys and indians; gambling and drinking; horses and mules; guns and knives; action and excitement. I can do that instantly with saloon doors and WANTED posters.
So the naughty swinging doors became the portal to my website and the illustrated WANTED poster became the cover image for the book.

Wisely used, historical inaccuracies can be the spice to bring the past to life, but like spice they should be used sparingly and knowingly. The historical author should know exactly what she is doing and why. Inaccuracies through ignorance are not allowed, so if I get something wrong, don't be afraid to tell me! 

The Case of the Deadly Desperados is the Telegraph Family Book Club choice for June. Read the review and see questions for book group discussion HERE