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What's Next?

As far as projects go, I've decided to revisit Knossos in the form of a murder mystery set in the period after the Thera eruption, when there was religious and social upheaval on Crete.  The WIP returns to the world of Knossos, Chapter 7, "Counting the Dead" and Chapter 8, "Inauguration Day."  Look for characters that featured in both chapters of that novel to make an appearance, as well as new ones, including my sleuth, a female scribe.  I haven't started writing yet, but am outlining heavily as mysteries have to be very tightly plotted.

Let's hope I succeed and that readers don't figure out who the killer is on page two!

For those interested in winning a free copy of Danae, head over to Judith Starkson's page to enter the giveaway and read the article I wrote for her.  And if you haven't already, bookmark her blog.  Every week she reports on interesting news about ancient archaeology, historical fiction, and anything she finds of interest.  She's written a book, Hand of Fire, about Achilles and Briseis, and shopping around a mystery with Hittite queen Puduhepa.

I'm also going to be reviewing some books by author friends.

A Few Words

Putting on my reader's cap today to discuss the annoyances of self-published authors who don't seem to get the idea that their aggressive marketing is more a turn-off than a turn-on.

Now don't be a hypocrite, you say.  After all, you're in the self-publishing business, too, and you're not exactly making six figures.  True, but I don't engage in the tactics I'm about to describe.  Furthermore, I'm also a reader.  I've received emails from other self-published authors urging me to deliver a quid pro quo review of their work.  I'm entitled to voice an opinion.

You see, this week I had to unfollow some writers on Twitter because of their spamming.  This is how I see it: if your Twitter account is dedicated solely to posting the same link to your book eight times a day, then what's the difference between you and a spambot?  If I groan when encountering your Tweets, because you have nothing fresh to say, why should I continue to follow you?

I'm not going to talk about what I do, because I don't make six figures, and I'm not as big in the field of ancient historical fiction as some of my acquaintances.  Instead, I'm going to tell you what they do, and why it works.

First and foremost, keep in mind that it only works because these ladies actually know how to write.  So many self-published authors shill for reviews and spam boards because in the midst of their aggressive marketing they've forgotten the most important thing: writing a good book.

The authors I want to talk to you about are Amalia Carosella (Helen of Sparta), Judith Starkson (Hand of Fire), and Libbie Hawker (The Sekhmet Bed, etc.)

All have Twitter accounts.  Judith and Amalia aren't self-published, but Libbie might be.  Also, Libbie doesn't post as often as Amalia or Judith, but all of them do the following:

  1. Share their research with readers

  2. Post about the writing process

  3. Share links to related historical news that might interest readers

  4. Engage with and get readers interested

  5. Write excellent fiction

Interview With Judith Starkson

I recently interviewed author Judith Starkson, whose new release, Hand of Fire, is the story of Briseis, Achilles' famous captive from the Iliad.

  1. I see you and I share an enthusiasm for writing about marginal characters in the late Bronze Age. What in particular drew you to Briseis rather than, say Chryseis or one of Priam’s lesser-known daughters?

I had a very specific question that drove me to Briseis, but before I get to that, I’m intrigued with these two possibilities and why they would or would not have worked in a similar way as Briseis did for a novel I could write. Chryseis, I think I’d have eliminated because she has a clear rescue plan set by the Homeric tradition. Her father comes and complains. He gets metaphorically kicked in the gut by King Agamemnon who says he prefers sleeping with Chryseis over sleeping with his wife—which would have provided a good inside joke since everyone knew that said wife later murders Agamemnon. Then the god Apollo takes the father’s part and forces, with a plague, the return of Chryseis to her father. The other reason Chryseis doesn’t work as well, I think, is that Agamemnon is such a total jerk. He makes too one-dimensional a villain and he certainly can’t be presented as offering anything positive to Chryseis. Achilles, in contrast, offers a lot of ambiguity—he has captured Briseis but he also speaks of her as his legal wife. He is willing to offer emotional and societal compensation for the harm he’s done. And while he’s a psychological disaster area, he’s pretty sensitive and deeply capable of love. That starts to make for an interestingly complex relationship rather than one where you’re just waiting impatiently for a knife to do the creep in as we are with Agamemnon. As to a lesser-known Priam daughter. First, due to the movie Troy’s misrepresentation of Briseis as a daughter of Priam rather than the princess of Lyrnessos that she is (Lyrnessos is a city allied to Troy), I’m kind of philosophically opposed to giving unknown Priam daughters any more airtime. Troilus and Cressida had their moment in the romance limelight even in the Middle Ages, but the ones we barely know about don’t offer much of a hook—we know they are all doomed. Their fates are pretty set. Briseis, bless her, disappears from the mythic/Homeric record without explaining what she does in the end, so I had the privilege of letting her decide and announce it via my novel. I know this sounds like she’s a living character somewhere, but yes, that’s pretty much the case with my characters. I’ve heard other writers talk this way, so I’m claiming sanity despite having gotten to know a host of imaginary characters who are living independent existences that they tell me about in order to get the story down on paper.

Now, why did I choose Briseis to begin with?

While teaching the Iliad for a couple decades, I kept wondering with my students how Briseis, the young captive woman who sparked the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, could possibly have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows us. The half-immortal Greek killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She’s central to the plot of the Iliad and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow at being parted from Achilles.

I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome—which was the early suggestion of several friends. I started exploring who Briseis could be that would solve this psychological puzzle and that led me to writing a novel about her. The question preceded the concept of writing a novel and, unfortunately, when I started I didn’t know how to write a novel, so I took some time to learn that process with the help of an extended crew of remarkable teachers and critique partners.

  1. What makes your Briseis different from other portrayals of the character? How is your Achilles different?

When I first sent out my manuscript to agents—not the current version in the published novel, but a longer, less skillful version that still needed editing although I did not realize it yet—a legendary agent wrote back to me that he would dearly love to read this manuscript because no one had ever written a novel about Briseis and clearly this needed to be done. He thought the idea was brilliant. But, unfortunately for me, he said not to send it because he was definitely too old to take on any more clients and if I sent it, I’d harbor some hope that he’d take me on and he didn’t think that was fair. I’ve liked this encounter for many reasons, not the least because it affirmed what I thought I’d researched. There really isn’t any other modern portrayal of Briseis except the movie Troy and, I learned recently, an Italian film that is actually kind of similar to Troy. That is, a feisty girl who nonetheless falls for the handsome hunk and has sex with him and then disappears from our attention. My Briseis is the point of my novel. She’s not the sexual interlude, although great sex is included in the novel. For me sex wasn’t the point of including a woman in my tale of Troy. One of my more astute reviewers/interviewers asked me if I had intentionally spent almost half the novel without bringing Achilles on the scene. I can’t claim to have had a precise design from the beginning, but I definitely chose to develop Briseis fully first before I brought Achilles on stage. I created her as a strong but flawed and full-of-doubts young woman with a pretty impressive array of skills for surviving the crap that life dishes out. She enters the stage alone and she departs at the end in a manner that is quite different from the “happy ever after, arm-in-arm-with-her-man” romance arc style. So Achilles is part of her development, but it’s her growth as a human being not her romance that matters to the themes of my book. Fortunately, the historical record about women in the Trojan/Hittite Late Bronze Age milieu supports my portrayal of Briseis as a powerful, literate leader of a woman. This record has been rather recently revealed via huge cuneiform clay tablet libraries that were excavated and translated in the last decade or two. My Briseis formed up as I read translations of some of the tablets.

Now for Achilles. How is my portrayal different? In this case, I’m going to argue that I’m truly Homeric and most modern views aren’t, although mostly those views aren’t expressed in novels or movies but in literary criticism. A lot of people read the Iliad, the Homeric poem where all these characters are first introduced to Western Civilization, and conclude that Achilles is a violent, self-centered man of limited imagination. From my remarks already, you can tell I clearly don’t agree. I honestly don’t know how they read the same poem and get that idea. It isn’t what the Greek words say, but I’m telling you, people get pissed at my “read” of Achilles. One twenty-something young man was furious because he thought my sensitive, thoughtful Achilles was a wimp. I’d ruined his hero. He wanted blood and gore, and I brought him a poetry singing healer who is full of remorse for the harm his fighting prowess does daily, even while he refuses to stop fighting because that’s the only way he can protect his men, whom he views as his brothers. Remember what I said about psychological mess? Achilles is so full of contradictions that it’s amazing he doesn’t explode, and, frankly, he pretty much does, as I show in my novel. So I’m sticking by my complicated, sensitive guy. I’ll include one quote (Lombardo translation) from the bard himself in defense of my position. Here is how Achilles describes himself in the ninth book of the Iliad, as a mother bird taking care of her chicks, which in this case are the other Greek warriors:

“And what do I have for all my suffering,

Constantly putting my life on the line?

Like a bird who feeds her chicks

Whatever she finds, and goes without herself,

That’s what I’ve been like, lying awake

Through sleepless nights, in battle for days

Soaked in blood, fighting men for their wives.

  1. From the novel excerpt I’ve read, I see that Briseis keeps her traditional Homeric Greek name. Were you tempted to give her a Hittite name?

No. Confession: when I first started thinking about Briseis, I didn’t know about Hittites. That was more than ten years ago and a huge amount of the translation and analysis has happened in that decade plus. The Hittites are the lost empire. We totally forgot they existed, except for a misleading trace in the Biblical record. When I started researching, I figured I needed to sort out the Mycenaean Greeks in greater detail than I gained in many years of teaching and that would give me Briseis’s world. I gradually discovered I had a much bigger job to do—teach myself about a whole lost empire. No one back in my graduate program at Cornell was talking about Hittites in regards to understanding the Homeric world. That was back in the Jurassic Age, it’s true, but nonetheless, the idea of renaming Briseis wouldn’t have crossed my mind when I first got to know her. Indeed many of the key characters I worked on early in the process of writing the novel have Greek names because I hadn’t started thinking like a Hittite. Later, when the expansive world of the Hittites had begun to unfold before me, I started finding names by using the online “Repertiore Onomastique” on the Hethitologie portal which lists all extant names known from the cuneiform tablets of the Hittites. My somewhat irregular smash up of Greek and Hittite names seems reasonable in this geographical area where the two cultures intermixed and had close trade ties, so I kept the earlier names. The only time I changed a Homeric name, was to give Briseis’s father a distinctly different name than hers, which, since hers is a patronymic based on her father’s name, would otherwise have proved confusing. Having two important characters with names only a letter different than each other seemed to be pushing my readers’ tolerance too far.

  1. The Hittites wrote about the Mycenaean Greeks on clay tablets that became part of their diplomatic archive at Hattusas. Was the Hittite archive part of your research?

Yes, I used the archives because they are the “other half” of the story. The Mycenaeans tell us the story of the Greek invading army, but to know what Briseis’s world is like to we have to study the Hittites who are culturally, religiously, and politically similar/related to the Trojans and their allies such as the Lyrnessans. I wanted to build a historically accurate Briseis, even if she herself may have been a figment of Homer’s imagination. The woman I portray could have lived in that time and place to the best of our knowledge at this time.

  1. Have you been to any of the places you’ve written about, or are you a starving artists/armchair historian like me?

I’ve been lucky enough to go on two major research trips to Turkey, Greece and Cyprus (the sequel to Hand of Fire will move to Cyprus, I think). The first trip I went with both my husband and kids who were in high school and college at that point. We loved the trip, but my kids did label some of the ruins, “ruined ruins.” They tended to find the Roman ruins more exciting than the random-seeming piles of stones that make up most of the Bronze Age sites. This spring, my husband and I went alone, and I have to say, he’s now an expert at recognizing ashlar stone, fortifications, shards, signs of copper smelting and various other details that make a Bronze Age ruin come alive. We also explored Cypriot wine production, which is my husband’s area of interest, so he wasn’t complaining. I’ve enjoyed visiting the archaeological sites and meeting with the directors of the various digs so that I can understand what lies within those piles of rubble as best as we can. I also love being able to see the physical settings of the places in my novel first hand. So much of what I describe like the cities and buildings has to be reconstructed from scholarship. It’s great to be able to write the landscapes directly from experience. Our travels are a luxury that I definitely appreciate.

6. I’m very excited to hear about your forthcoming Queen Puduhepa mystery series. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else write about Puduhepa, and she’s such a remarkable woman. What inspired you to make her a sleuth?

She definitely stands out amidst the Hittite rulers. First because she’s a woman and a powerful one (not unprecedented among Hittites) and second because she’s clearly so smart and diplomatically skillful. We have her judicial decisions, her letters and treaties. They all point to a clever woman who could definitely solve crimes if she put her mind to it. Making her a sleuth seemed like a fun way to introduce her to the world. I’ve been saying lately that she’d be as famous as Cleopatra if she hadn’t been buried by the sands of time. Now that she’s been dug out, it’s time to make her a household name. For that, she needs to be fun to read about—and who doesn’t love a mystery?

Purchase Hand of Fire for Kindle and hardcover on Amazon.

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