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What We Keep

First boil your ostrich

 

In the course of researching any past culture and its ways one occasionally comes on something that begs for experimentation. Cooking for instance, which tends to be largely experimentation anyway when I get my hands on it.

 

Wanting to get the menu of various fictional dinners right, and to know what one would eat for breakfast, I acquired a translation of the classic work on Roman food, the first-century recipes of Apicius, by two mid-twentieth century kitchen scholars who actually made most of the dishes before publishing their text.

 

Billed as "A Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius for Use in the Study and the Kitchen," like many ancient texts this one derives only from copies of copies, preserved in two ninth-century versions of a fifth-century manuscript. Large chunks of it seem to be additions by the fifth-century editor, so there are the inevitable difficulties. One term, for instance, can mean either artichokes or mussels, which is going to make a difference in your recipe right there.

 

And there is the issue of measurement, because there isn't any, mainly. A sauce for boiled ostrich (should you be serving one) lists only the ingredients for the sauce but no quantities or instructions, other than to boil that too and pour it over the ostrich.

 

Naturally I want to make something out of this book, and am fortunate enough to have two mad friends who want to do so as well. When we can cook together again, I'm thinking of Chicken in the Numidian Way with the Spiced Wine Surprise.          

 

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The Plot Hole

 

I have just finished going over a copy editor's suggestions, fixes, embarrassing errors caught, and changes to be argued with, regarding The Border Wolves, the new fourth volume of The Centurions (out in April!) and I am reminded of when my son was about five and I read him Make Way for Ducklings. That was when I realized that even classics are not immune to the dreaded plot hole.

 

     "Why would they go back to that island and raise the ducklings after Mrs. Mallard said it wasn't a good place because of all the bicycles?" my son inquired.

 

     "Oh, well, they've all hatched now," I said, trying to get on with it.

 

     "The bicycles are still there," he pointed out, relentlessly.

 

     "Well, it's a plot hole," I said, giving up, and explained that writers sometimes put things in their books that don't make sense. He was aghast at this, and then fascinated. "By mistake?" he asked. He apparently hadn't thought of authors as fallible before, an illusion I was sorry to dispel.

 

     The dreaded plot hole waits for us all. Sometimes it gets past editors too and is discovered only when the thing is in print. I made an error in Roman naming conventions in the first Centurions novel in 1981 and now I am stuck with it. The Border Wolves contains an attempt to explain it away in historically plausible terms but I wish I had caught it then.

 

     Sometimes it's a corner we paint ourselves into. My Aunt Anne wrote novels and short stories, and during the Depression, when money was short and pulp magazines prolific, thriller serials that routinely left her hero hanging from a cliff, metaphorical or otherwise. In the next episode he would cleverly extract himself and get on with it.

 

     Deadlines and the need for cash often spurred her to finish a chapter without quite knowing where the story was going from there. In one episode she allowed the villains to bind her hero with steel chains and throw him into a well, where she left him until next month's installment.

 

     Unfortunately, when the time came she couldn't come up with any even faintly plausible way to get him out again. She sat down at the typewriter and after chewing the ends off several pencils, typed: "With one burst of superhuman strength, Jack broke his bonds and shot to the top of the well."

 

     My Aunt Anne remains an example for us all.

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The West Warlock Time Capsule

My parents on New Year's Eve

 

It's one of those dreary, gray January days that inclines a person to pessimism. The air outside is dank, the yard is a muddy slough churned up by the dog who is now tracking it all over the house, which needs cleaning anyway, and where did all that detritus in the corners come from, a miserable drift of cat hair, cracker crumbs, and nameless substances.

 

And then the mail arrives, bringing with it not one but two of the coveted green envelopes, checks from the Writers Guild for residual payments on my late parents' screenplays, extracted from various production companies on my behalf according to the Guild contract in force at the time they were produced. These envelopes are like lottery tickets — occasionally they contain several hundred dollars, and once I got one for thirty cents. Today's haul is $3.20 and $17.30, both for reruns of old Alfred Hitchcock scripts on heaven knows what channel: "Back for Christmas," "Banquo's Chair," and the wonderfully titled "West Warlock Time Capsule."

 

This time there is something else in there. I shake the envelope and a little gray mist comes out, gray as the day outside but warm and friendly, like a gray cat. It resolves itself into a tiny black-and-white television through which my mother's image takes shape, sitting at her typewriter, with a basket on the floor beside her, and suddenly I am four years old again. The basket has toys, dime store selections from which I am allowed to choose one every half hour, and play with my mother for ten minutes, if I will then leave her alone to write for the other twenty. It is an excellent system, although it has occasionally appalled people I have told about it, either in the conviction that I was a cruelly neglected child bribed with cheap toys to lead a solitary life, or in horror at the thought of trying to write in twenty-minute chunks, interspersed with conversation with a four-year-old. It depends on who I am talking to.

 

I open the other envelope and my father is there too, apparently asleep in his recliner, in a pair of black pinhole glasses that make him look like a bug but which he believed strengthened his vision, and indeed that treatment did allow him to stop wearing glasses. He looked like a praying mantis in them, though. And he is not asleep, he is dictating to Mildred, his secretary, who typed his scripts.

 

I put the checks in my wallet for the next time that someone is going to the bank, or I get the energy to learn how to use the mobile deposit app, and the little televisions fade out too. But the day has picked up somehow, more than twenty dollars' worth.

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Just a Few Suggestions: A Post in Praise of Editors

 

My normal approach to revising a manuscript:

 

     Read editor's notes. They are lengthy.

     Stomp about swearing and listing the many ways the editor is Wrong.

     Read notes again.

     Decide that maybe a third of them are sort of reasonable and I can do those.

     Begin at beginning of notes, as that is the easiest way.

     Decide that more than I had thought are sensible, and a couple are brilliant.

     Find four to stand my ground on.

     Decide that maybe I should do one of those too, because it's not half bad.

     Decide that it's not half good either and I will revisit it.

     Write cogent summary in defense of not doing the other three.

     The fourth one now somehow looks much more intelligent than it did.

     Do that one too.

     Admire the difference all this has made to a previously lumpy manuscript.

     Decide that I am adamant on the last three.

     Send it all off and have a drink.

 

     All of which is to say that a good editor is a godsend, and should be rewarded in heaven with the pleasure of removing the extra apostrophes in all those damn Christmas cards from the Baxter's.

     If you are a writer, you know the value of a good editor, or you should. No one is the best eye on their own work. I have read too many self-published books lately that prove that, clogging an otherwise good novel with clunky syntax, erroneous word choice, and characters who vanish for no reason halfway through the book. Writers who get too famous for their own britches also do themselves no favors by deciding that they are too good to need an editor. I've read a bunch of those too.

     So this is my Christmas carol in praise of editors, having just completed the above process for a book that will be out this spring. Thank you, Kit Nevile of Canelo, long may you inhabit the right hand Markup column.

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It seemed like a good idea at the time...

"Are you sure about this?"

 

I think there may be an arm of fate or a discerning muse who, if a writer has been Good, will keep her from certain cliffs. Both my new books are sequels, of a sort, and were intended to have been written years ago, but set aside for various reasons. When I had the opportunity to finish them, I found that large chunks of both old plotlines were trite, implausible, and in one case historically impossible. I am grateful to whatever anti-muse kept me from writing them as-is all those years ago.

    

I had to re-read the previous books, of course, and did so with some trepidation, but apparently I was more restrained in those, or possibly had a good editor who said, "Good grief, think again," or words to that effect. For whatever reason, the old ones seemed to me to hold up, although I did want to make the kind of marginal notes that I am in the habit of jotting down for writing students. You know the kind of thing: "Stilted dialog."  "Overused analogy."  "Can you find a fresher image?"  "This sentence has escaped you entirely."

 

One thing this new venture into old projects has taught me is this: Never throw away that manuscript that no one wanted. You never know when someone will, and if there are excellent reasons why no one wanted it, you will most likely see them now and do something about that. I can't remember how often I thought about tossing those, clogging up the basement shelves in those wonderful sturdy cardboard boxes that typing paper used to come in, just right for a manuscript. I think maybe it was the boxes I didn't want to part with. You can't get them now and I guard my small hoard of them. So here's to the muse that put them on the shelf for my own good, and the goddess of office supplies who whispered in my ear, "You may want those boxes."

 

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Oh do you write?

The office assistants felt the third chapter was slow.

Also it needs more dogs.

 

These are the encounters that make writers morose at parties, in case you were wondering.

 

Person at Cocktail Party: You're a writer? I love books! I bet I've read yours! Tell me some of your books!

Author: They weren't best sellers exactly. You really may not have heard of them.

Person ACP (apparently under the impression that there are only about 50 books published each year): Oh I read all the time, I bet I have.

Author: Names most recent book, favorite book, and the one that sold the best.

Person ACP: Oh, I guess I haven't heard of you.

 

Person Who Has Read Your Book: I just loved it! Have you thought of making it into a movie?

Author (who like every other writer on the planet daydreams ferociously about this): Well, of course, but it's not that easy.

Person WHRYB: My cousin works in Hollywood. I'll give him your name. He'll just love it. (He's on the crew of a reality show.)

 

Person Who Is Very Busy: I would write a book myself, but I just don't have the time.

Author: It does take time.

Person WIVB: I have a terrific idea though. No one else has thought of it. I'll tell you my idea and you can write it and we'll share the money.

Author: I have lots of ideas myself. And books don't make much money.

Person WIVB: This one will. It's a great idea. (Proceeds to explain it at length while author looks for another drink.)

 

Person Who Has Just Finished Your Book: I really dislike books with swearing in them. Or drinking. Or adultery. Or spiders.

Author: Oh dear.

In some ways I'm with this latter group. I won't read a book where the dog dies. (Although I did just kill a horse.) I usually don't tell its author that over the shrimp toast.

 

I am aware that this makes me look like a grump. Put it down to my writing it on election day.

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The devil is in the details

Not a dog

 

Ever since I inadvertently put honeybees in the pre-Columbian southwest (they were a European import) and didn't realize my error until well after the book was in print, I have been an obsessive researcher of the kind of minutiae that, pre-internet, used to make authors throw up their hands and say "I don't care, it sounds logical and I'm putting it in," or scrap that lovely scene that relied on the presence of a piece of honeycomb. Did the Romans have window glass? (yes) Bound books? (only beginning with the late first century) Are marigolds a New World flower? (yes) Fly fishing in the Roman Empire? (only in the late second century)

 

I have never done anything as truly awful as the guy who thought prairie dogs were dogs and went on for pages about their big feet and floppy ears, but I have nightmares all the same. Even with the wonders of search engines you can spend hours when you are supposed to be writing chasing one fact for a two-sentence appearance in a 400 page book. This is known as verisimilitude, sense of place, and Some Kind of Disorder.

 

And then there's provenance. Not everyone on the Internet knows what they are talking about, believe it or not. If you are not willing to take the word of the first site you stumble on that Senator Mushrat is actually an alien lizard, then by all means apply that filter to your historical research. There's a lovely Facebook group where I glean a lot of interesting information, but the comments section inevitably bogs down in international squabbles over whose culture was better and thus who built whatever it was, not to mention the ongoing arguments about why Augustus could not have had blond hair (he probably did) and why an iron collar just the right size for a human neck, that says "I belong to Marcus Ginantonicus of the Sixth Legion, I have run away, please return," isn't a slave collar and must have been for a dog.

 

So much of what is accurate is counterintuitive, and so much that sounds right isn't. And there are so many fascinating things to investigate that aren't critical to your novel and actually fall into the category of Things That Are Interesting But Do Not Belong Here No Matter How Much You Like Them. It's so easy to spend a blissful two hours learning how sewage was disposed of and then realize that you have no place to put it that isn't utterly contrived, and the details are revolting anyway and emphatically not the ambience you are looking for. I have a little folder of these. One of these days someone is going to be appointed Aedile in charge of drains and I will be ready.

 

 

Photo credit: Joe Ravi

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Twenty-first century thoughts in a first-century head

The Appian Way in 2020.

 

I've been thinking lately that one of the ongoing problems for a historical novelist is putting twenty-first-century thoughts in a first-century head.

 

The temptation is strong. After all, we want these people to seem sympathetic to a twenty-first century reader. And the reader wants them to be good people too. Thus the very bad review I once got on a romance website where a reader complained that Aphrodite kept sleeping with men who weren't her husband. But when a first-century hero lectures Augustus on abolishing arena games, you know that someone hasn't done their research.

 

The treatment of women and the practice of slavery are particularly thorny. Your first-century hero isn't going to be a feminist. And your first-century heroine is unlikely to be either. Does he beat his wife? No? Good. A lot of men did, and he probably disapproves but it won't occur to him to give women equal legal standing. Does the beaten wife put up with it? She probably has to, but she may well hate his guts. Some things aren't different. But she's not launching a crusade for women's rights. She may be wondering how to poison him.

 

Those arena games entertained the mob and the aristocracy alike. Only Seneca came close to condemning them and that only because they damaged a man's inner fiber, not because of their intrinsic cruelty. I've had to tread lightly with those, mostly for my own stomach's sake. I imagine there were many who didn't care for them, but none who suggested abolishing them. They may be an order of magnitude higher than dog fights and cockfights, if you count animals souls as always lesser, but certainly on a par with the gleeful, hungry crowds who watched lynchings not all that long ago, and would do it again if given the chance. The games trouble me the most of the things that fall into the Acceptable-then-but-now-oh-my-god category, more than slavery or the status of women.

 

But it is the issue of slavery that seems to be the hardest for modern readers, and you can't write about the ancient world and ignore it. A great part of the economy ran on slaves in that pre-industrial empire. Because the subject is so fraught with anger and guilt and willful ignorance in our current world, ancient world slavery is the subject of recurring comment wars on every social media platform where someone mentions it. An argument between an archaeologist and a poster who wanted to insist that an iron collar from a burial site was for a dog and not a slave went on for days. Yet ancient world slavery was a different institution from the horrors of American slavery. Most importantly to my mind, it was not race-based. You could be born of a slave mother, or become a slave because you were captured in a war, or fell into debt, or were sold by your parents. Not a happy life generally, but not dependent on your skin color. Slaves might be highly educated, the better to serve their masters.  Many tutors, secretaries, accountants and so on were slaves. Furthermore, a slave could buy their freedom, and many did, and numerous freedmen became wealthy and powerful. Your first-century hero is going to own slaves unless he is one himself, if he has any social standing and means at all. He is not going to ponder the injustice of slavery in general, although he may free some of his slaves for services rendered and dislike the master who mistreats his own.

 

Writing about the past requires an honesty, I think, that precludes trying to give people who lived two thousand years ago the sensibilities of the progressive first world of 2020. The best you can do is to realize that for your characters, the first century is what they have to work with. It is what they do with it that matters.

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By any other name

The rumors that Elvis is still alive have a little extra fascination for me currently, since I've been working on a book that includes the Nero Redivivus cult. Gullibility being nothing new, it was as dismayingly easy then as now to convince a group of people not adept at critical thought that a man who has been seen to die and be buried by several people has not actually died at all, and has been hiding in disguise all this time. The plebeians loved Nero since he was openhanded with them, and they strewed flowers on his tomb for years, so it isn't surprising that there were at least three manifestations of opportunists claiming to be Nero, tenuously based on resemblance to the late emperor and ability to play the lyre, in the twenty years after his suicide had forestalled an outright assassination.

     This book, a project I never expected, has reminded me once again why I love the Romans—they are so appallingly like us. Writing is a weird business, but since it's all I know how to do, I have made my living thereby all my life, in one way or another, either the doing or the teaching. Now, unexpectedly, the Romans have showed up again.

     My first novel, The Legions of the Mist, was set in Roman Britain, and my next three, The Centurions series, in Britain and Germany and Rome. Those were written for a book packager under the pseudonym of Damion Hunter, since the packager had been burned once by a writer who wrote a million-selling series under his own name and then got bored and quit. Any future series, it was decreed, went under pseudonyms so that other writers could be assigned. Alas, my series never even went to the contracted four books since the publisher was swallowed up by a different house which promptly killed all its current projects.

     Now a UK publisher, Canelo, has contacted me out of the blue and, hot damn, has republished those old Roman books, and even suggested I write new ones. I had got so tired of explaining, while I was writing things for the book packager, that all those names were really me, that I had sworn I wouldn't use a pseudonym again. Maddeningly, but fortuitously, we discovered that the old pseudonym has a small cult following among Roman reenactors and some recognition among Roman history buffs, and you don't want to waste that sort of thing. So we have compromised, and all my old Roman novels are out again as "Amanda Cockrell writing as Damion Hunter," which seems reasonable.

     Better yet, I have written a sequel to Legions, called The Wall at the End of the World, which is out now, and am writing that long-delayed fourth book in the Centurions series. I feel rather like Nero, except that I am actually me and definitely not dead.

 

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When I Was a Dog

Last week we met our creative writing tutorial students, always a dicey proposition: will they decide I am nuts, incompetent, otherwise peculiar? I never ask if they will be normal. They never are; writers just aren’t. And as always they prove to be a charming bunch, frighteningly talented, and seem to find me acceptable.

We began the evening with introductions: all grad students and tutorial faculty were instructed to tell one thing about themselves that no one knew. Well, that’s an invitation to...something. I cast about for something not too intimate, not likely to get anyone arrested, not too braggy. Free association led to the student from last summer whose daughter claimed to have been a rabbit, and then I remembered that I was once a dog.

I was four or thereabouts and my role model was our Dalmatian. I had my own collar, and a tail made from a ribbon. I had a leash too, which I insisted on wearing when my mother took us shopping. That got her yelled at in public a lot, but she was an indulgent mother and just smiled sweetly at the horrified shoppers. “She likes being a dog,” she said in that disarming Birmingham accent. I would pant happily and they would edge away.

I don’t remember how long I was a dog, but I do remember that there was enormous satisfaction in the companionship of our Dalmatian. I would nap on the living room rug curled against his warm flank, listening to his breath rise and fall. I was an only child and I think I sensed the need of a pack.

It wasn’t until I got to college and fell in with the students in my first creative writing class that I found a pack again. At Opening Convocation last week, the president quoted Oscar Wilde in her address to the newest students: “Be yourself,” Wilde is supposed to have said. “Everyone else is taken.” The academic in me can’t keep from noting that he probably didn’t say that, but it’s a fine sentiment anyway, if difficult to do. I think that until I was around forty, the strongest sense of being myself that I had was when I was a dog, except for those hours in writing workshop when we could come at it sideways, be ourselves by being someone else. To this day my writer friends are all a little mad. I have one who says her spirit animal is a buzzard. When we write we are allowed to be dogs and we will wear our tails proudly. Read More 
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