Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How I Write

Recently I've had a flurry of requests for information about my writing process from students working on advanced projects. 

There is a FAQS page on my website and also a page devoted to Writing Tips, but because I believe that fiction writing is a craft that can be learned through study and practice – and because I am a teacher at heart – I have decided to to post some of the more recent questions and answers here.

I hope this helps some of you with your advanced projects and creative writing. Remember, writing is a personal process. If you don't like my answers, ignore them! I can only tell you how I write. 

How do you begin planning your books before writing them?

I make a wish list of goodies I want to include: fictional characters, real historical figures, themes, topics, ideas, myths, places, objects, food, plants, animals and sometimes even lines of dialogue. Then I map out a story structure based on a combination of Hollywood screenwriting templates I like: John Truby's Story Structure, The Hero's Journey and Save the Cat!®. This keeps me on track but I am not slavish about sticking to the route. 

Do lots of authors use similar methods of plotting?

Yes, I think many authors find a template useful. Some people can bake a cake by instinct, but I need a recipe to work from.  

Do you ever start writing without planning? 

Sometimes it's good to pour a stream of ideas onto a sheet of paper but at some point I will need a structure. For me, writing is a balance of the logical list-loving Left Brain and the creative, intuitive, Right Brain

Do objects enhance a story? If so, why? 

Yes! Objects and artefacts help bring a world to life. They also please the daydreaming side of our brain; the creative Right Brain likes music, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. Objects also help ground a book historically. 

Do you find weapons are frequently used in your crime novels? If yes, why is it so? 

Yes! I love my Western guns and Roman swords. I get quite nerdy because specificity is good.  

What are the differences, if any, between writing historical fiction and writing fiction which is set in the modern day? 

For me none. I treat my modern day fiction just like my historical fiction, with great attention to detail, artefacts, slang, dress, etc. For me this isn't a chore, but a delight. 

How do you research the factual portion of the story beforehand? 

The internet has a truly amazing range of literature available at the touch of a keyboard. Most of my sources for the P.K. Pinkerton books, set in Nevada Territory 1862, come from newspaper archives and old magazines, like Godey's Lady's Book, which shows up-to-the-date fashion and recipes among many other delights. 

For my Roman Mysteries I use my own collection of classical Loebs in Greek and Latin with translation on the right: Pliny the Elder, Josephus, Strabo, Herodotus, etc. They will soon be available online now, too. 

Do you have any go-to reference works? 

For my P.K. Pinkerton books I use the vast catalogue of letters and photos made available to the public at Berkeley's Mark Twain Project. I also use the massive three volume journal of Alfred Doten. This latter has not yet been digitalised so I invested in my own copy via Amazon.com. 

Do you regularly use any libraries? Which ones? 

My husband Richard is a member of The London Library. I often send him off on a quest for specific titles. Very occasionally I use the Classics Library at UCL. But I am intrinsically lazy and use the internet for 95% of my research. 

Do you use any paid-for information resources?

In writing the P.K. Pinkerton books I used Harper Magazine's online archive. I could access illustrated back issues from the mid 19th century. I also tend to buy books rather than take them out on loan. I found a book called Letters from Nevada Territory (the proceedings of the 1862 Nevada legislature) at the Nevada Legislative Gift Shop in Carson City. It was expensive but invaluable.

How do you record what information sources you use?

I usually just jot down key phrases or sentences on my computer but sometimes I will read a passage onto my iPhone and listen to it while on the go. 

To what extent does the fact you write for children and young people impact your research?

The fact that I write for young people does not affect my research at all. I access anything and everything I can. Any modification or softening of material occurs in the actual writing process. 

Do you find there are any differences between researching for an academic piece and researching for fiction?

Not really. The difference comes in the writing. In fact, I try to make my academic writing as accessible as my fiction. So you might not really call my non-fiction articles and blogs "academic" as much as popular fact. 

When writing historical fiction, how do you balance historical facts with creating an interesting story for the reader?

I try to use all the most interesting and engaging historical facts to flesh out my hero's journey. 

How far do you think you can go with historical references, given that the reading audience may not understand or recognise them?

I don't care if people get them or not. I know they give a sense of authenticity to my stories! So I use the ones that are relevant to my story. 

Which voice is more suited to historical fiction books: first person or third person?

For me, the choice of first or third person is more a feeling of trial and error to see which fits the character and story best. 

When you write, do you generally use 1st or 3rd person?  

My output as of 2014 consists of 30 novels and two collections of short stories. Roughly two thirds of those novels and stories are in the third person voice, but my half dozen most recent books are in first person.  

Do you think that there is a certain tense which is more suited to historical fiction?

Again, it depends more on the character and story being told. Present tense can be very powerful even when writing about two bronze age boys. 

How important do you think it is to visit the location in which the book is set, even if it may have changed considerably since the period that you are writing about?

Being able to visit the location of the book is one of the biggest delights in researching a book. Even though the flora may have changed with the introduction of new plants, temporal aspects like migrating birds and food in season, quality of light, atmosphere, and "three-dimensionality" don't really change. 

How much do you feel you have to stick to the known facts about historical characters and how much do you use your imagination when creating their personalities?

I like to give my characters a certain amount of free rein which is why I try not to let "real" historical characters play too big a part in my books. I failed slightly by making ten-year-old Suetonius and 18 year old Gaius Valerius Flaccus love interests in the Roman Mysteries. But I've been more self-controlled about Mark Twain's cameo's in my P.K. Pinkerton books. 

How far do you modernise the language when writing a historical character’s dialogue?

For my Roman Mysteries I use modern English because Latin would have sounded modern to them. I try to eliminate English and American phrases and cliches, while introducing a few expressions like "Pollux!" or "Great Neptune's Beard" to give the dialogue a period feel. Finally, I sprinkle in real Latin words like palla, triclinium and strigil without italicising them. 

For my P.K. Pinkerton books I am much more careful to use authentic vocabulary, word order and slang. In fact, I've composed a whole dictionary of authentic and non-authentic words for Nevada Territory in 1862. 

Do you have any final tips for others who might want to write fiction? 

Yes: enjoy yourself. If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right.

To see a list of all my books, visit my Amazon page

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bad Bandit, Good Writer

Recently I re-visited Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits, a beautiful example of historical storytelling (with a generous dash of fantasy) for kids. 

Over half term, children in London were invited to attend free screenings of three classic films followed by a talk from a children’s author. This event was co-sponsored by the Rio Cinema in Hackney and Victoria Park Books. They invited me to give a talk following Terry Gilliam’s fun 1981 film about a boy kidnapped by bandit dwarves and taken on a journey through time. At 10am on a rainy Thursday, bookseller Jo De Guia introduced the film by showing some student-made trailers for books by the three authors. (Here’s the one they made for my latest book). Then, two dozen children and their parents settled down to enjoy the main feature.  

Francesca Isherwood, Caroline Lawrence, Conrad Ford
Joining me in the balcony above were Francesca Isherwood and Conrad Ford. Fran, now aged 22, played Flavia Gemina in the CBBC Roman Mysteries series seven years ago. Conrad is the son of a family friend, a filmmaker waiting for his first break. I benefitted from their comments and observations. Fran had never seen it; she and I kept ‘snapping’ comments. Conrad has seen Time Bandits many times and kept pointing out details we might otherwise have missed. I had watched a non HD version on YouTube a few days earlier, and it was a completely different experience seeing it on a big screen where we could absorb the fantastic amount of detail that went into its making.

Time Bandits is the story of Kevin, an English boy obsessed with history. Six dwarf bandits emerge from his wardrobe one night clutching a map that shows time portals in the fabric of the universe. They have stolen the map as they want to leave their boring job in charge of shrubbery and lead the more exciting life of bandits. But they are being pursued by God (AKA the Ultimate Being) and Satan (AKA Evil), both of whom want the map back. The dwarves take Kevin with them in their flight. No more spoilers in case you haven’t seen the film. 

Jo De Guia from Victoria Park Books introduces the film
From our lofty vantage point above the stalls, Fran, Conrad and I could look down on the kids and see that they were enjoying the movie hugely. Afterwards, everybody moved a short distance to the Hackney Library where families produced a picnic lunch. As parents and children munched sandwiches and crisps, I led a discussion of the film and then offered some practical tips on how to write a gripping story. 

Good historical fiction – be it poetry, prose or film – should transport the reader to another place and time. In our discussion, we first identified the seven distinct settings or ‘arenas’ in the film Time Bandits:

1. Kevin’s World, especially his Bedroom
2. Napoleon’s Castiglione
3. Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest
4. Agamemnon’s Ancient Greece
5. The Titanic
6. The Time of Legends
7. The Fortress of Ultimate Darkness

The Rio Cinema in Hackney, London
As we discussed the film, it occurred to me that when a competent criminal commits a crime, he leaves no evidence, no clues, no eyewitnesses and no DNA. A bad bandit, on the other hand, scatters the scene with clues, witness and DNA. 

Storytellers have to be bad bandits. We have to leave clues, present reliable and unreliable eyewitnesses, scatter our DNA everywhere. If we do, our readers will be captivated. Here are some Time Bandit-inspired techniques that writers could use to create vibrant historical fiction. 

CLUES. Props and artefacts are the clues the storyteller leaves to help us decode a world. Kevin’s home was crammed with 1980 props like microwave ovens, blenders and a television. When the film first came out, these were state-of-the-art. Thirty years later, they are historical artefacts vividly painting a place and time. Props in Napoleon’s world included torches, muskets, Punch and Judy. For Sherwood Forest we saw carriages, rope traps, bows and arrows. In ancient Greece a kind of Corinthian helmet, as well as swords and daggers were more or less accurate, as was a Mycenaean death mask like the one Schliemann claimed to have found. On the Titanic the props crew got the champagne glasses right, along with deck chairs and a tennis racquet. The Time of Legends gave us a cauldron and a giant ship, not to mention a giant who became part of the landscape in this strange world. The Fortress of Ultimate Darkness was a nightmare world where every object was a grossly inflated or exaggerated version of toy or picture from Kevin’s room. Conrad pointed out that even the plastic film that covered Evil's henchmen hearkened back to the protective covers over the couches in Kevin’s sitting room. Conrad also drew my attention to the giant LEGO pieces, chessboard and skeletons in the walls, all magnifications of items in Kevin's bedroom. 

Bad Bandits and their Map
The outstanding prop of Time Bandits is the MAP. More than a clue, it is a kind of talisman but also the object of the quest, what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin. The bandits have stolen it and the opponent, Evil, wants it in his battle against the Supreme Being. In storytelling, it is always good to make the goal visible. And if the goal is abstract, make sure you have a concrete symbol of the goal. 

‘WHAT WAS HE WEARING?’ Good storytellers have got to be geeky about costumes. Seeing Time Bandits on a big screen was a revelation. Fran pointed out that that one of Napoleon’s generals was wearing pink long underwear… and a corset! Agamemnon and his murderous wife Clytemnestra wear fine linen tunics and jewel-coloured silk mantles with gold thread. John Cleese as a foppish Robin Hood refused to wear tights but his outfit is still Lincoln green. 

SCENE OF THE CRIME. Gilliam is specific about the setting of the story. It’s not just any town Napoleon is invading; it’s Castiglione. It’s not just any forest full of robbers; it’s Sherwood Forest. It’s not just any ocean liner; it’s the Titanic. If it’s mythical, make it as detailed as any world, a technique at which Game of Thrones excels. 

TIME OF THE CRIME. Gilliam and the writers varied the time and place of the heists to make each arena more distinctive. Napoleon’s night time fortress was lit by torch and candle. Mist and rain shrouded Sherwood Forest. Ancient Greece – filmed in Morocco – shimmered with heat. The Titanic was fair weather, midday, until they hit the iceberg. Then everything got wet and white. 

SUSPECTS. When I write historical fiction, I often scatter a few genuine historical people in the background. Put in Napoleon and you know you’re somewhere around the year 1800; mention Castiglione and you know it’s 1796. Drop in Agamemnon and you know you’re in the world of Greek mythology. Set Robin Hood in among men in tights. Plonk Bertie Wooster types on the Titanic. 

MOTIVE. As writers, we need to find motives for all our characters’ actions. When writing a history-mystery story with a crime or crimes at the centre, we have to first establish the motive for that crime. Only then do we address the detective’s motive which is usually straightforward: to solve the crime and capture the perp. But we writers need a motive, too. Why have we written this story? What is our goal? Every criminal knows what he’s after. Do we?

METHOD. We need to learn basic techniques like plot structure. And flourishes like scene deepening. We need to assemble the team, the archetypal characters who will help the hero on his journey. We need to plan, plan, plan. Keep going over the heist. Get it right. Get it down. And then, after you’ve planned it all out on the day you have to be ready to abandon that plan and go with your instincts. And all the time, keep your eye on the prize. What is this story about? What are you after?

OPPORTUNITY. Like any good pickpocket, cat burglar or heist-meister, we need to prioritize time to hone our skills. Crime is a craft. Writing is a craft. We need to make time to do it.
So, to sum up: If you want to be a Good Storyteller, be a Bad Bandit. Leave clues. Leave eyewitnesses. Scatter your DNA. 

What do I mean by that last one? The DNA? I mean find your own unique style of writing, which is already as much a part of you as your voice or your eyes. It’s back to OPPORTUNITY. You just have to find it. And the only way to do that is to write, write, write! 

My latest book is The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows, about a 12-year-old half Sioux detective in Nevada in the winter of 1862. It's out in two different hardback editions, the US and the UK. Terry Gilliam's new film The Zero Theorem opens soon. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Andromache's Plea

On Saturday 2 November 2013, Heffers bookshop sponsored the Second Classics Fact, Fiction and Children's Literary Festival, featuring luminaries like Mary Beard, Simon Scarrow and Lindsey Davis. One of the events was a balloon debate. Five of us were asked to plead the case of a character from Classical mythology and all but one of us would be chucked out of the balloon. I spent several hours crafting a moving plea for my chosen heroine, Andromache. I even brought a black scarf to throw over my head à la Leighton's moving painting.

Andromache in exile by Frederick Lord Leighton

I am Andromache. My name means Battle of Men
Though perhaps it should be battle of brothers
I had seven of them: a quiver full.
I had to be strong, growing up with that lot.
I heard them plan hunting trips as I sat at my loom
And my shuttle became a hunting spear 
in the thickets of warp and weft.

I heard them plan raiding expeditions as I sat at my spindle
And my winding skein was a file of men on a mountain path.

I saw them slaughtered by Achilles in one afternoon
Along with my father
While my hands were red up to the elbows
In a simmering cauldron of dying beetles 
with its floating strands of yarn. 

My life unraveled; the woe unwove me.
And when Artemis slew my mother
Nothing was left but an empty loom
A bare frame of my life… A taut spare web of grief.

Then you came, Hector. 
You became not just my husband,
But my father, my mother, my brothers.
You let me weave my unraveling weft 
into your strong warp.
And we became a new tapestry together. 
You took me away a place of happy memories
Made hateful by the son of Peleus
And you brought me to high-towered Troy.

We had a son, a little lord of the citadel.
I called him Astyanax, you called him Scamandrius
After the river where we once picnicked
A buzzing, honey-scented afternoon, among the asphodel.

My brothers taught me about the hunt
But you taught me about war.
You, and your house of strong women:
Hecuba, the matriarch
Cassandra, never afraid to speak her mind
Helen, the sister-in-law from Hades
Sparta, rather… Same thing.
And at the end Polyxena, who boldly went to her sacrifice.

The last time I saw you Hector, the time
you frightened our son with you horsehair plume
I begged you not to seek the thick of battle 
making me a widow and our son an orphan
But to guard the part of the wall by the wild fig tree
Where three attempts had previously been made
By the crafty Greeks. But did you listen to my strategy? 
No. You went out
And got yourself killed by Achilles.

Not long after that, they took our little boy up
the last remaining tower to throw him off.
But before they could lay hands on him,
he stepped into air of his own volition.
Lord of the citadel to the very end.
More courageous than a thousand Greeks.

And now the son of the man who killed my husband
My father and my seven brothers
Has taken me as his prize.
The psychopath son of Achilles, Neoptolemus: 
Red-haired, hot-headed, cold-blooded Pyrrhus. 

Hector foretold my future: 
To ply the loom for another woman
And carry a heavy water jug to and from the fountain.
Jostled by laughing children and happy families.
To remain childless 
or worse yet, bear children 
to a man whose house murdered my house.

I am a “paragon of misery”. 
I do not fear death. I pray for it.
Like my brave little boy, 
I would throw myself from the ramparts of Troy
Or even from your balloon. 
That would be true bravery.
But if you judge me worthy, 
I will do something even braver: 
I will live. 

props did not help me!
How did I do? Well, Prof Paul Cartledge cannily chose the Odysseus' faithful dog, Argos. How many British would vote to save a poor pooch being tossed from the balloon? A goodly number. Ruth Downie chose Dido and won the vote of all women who've ever been lied to and abandoned by a cad like Aeneas. (Quite a few, as it turned out.) Rugby-loving, football-referencing Harry Sidebottom plumped for Hector: thick but noble, (and doomed). He got a robust number of masculine votes. But the deserved winner was witty, Diet-Coke-fuelled Natalie Haynes, who moonlights as a stand up comic and Booker Prize Judge. She made a moving and impassioned plea for Odysseus.

As for me, Andromache, I got tossed out first. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Roman Roads and Modern Bandits

It’s not every day you come to the rescue of Robin Hood’s mum… especially not on the Appian Way.

It all started with a tweet.

Agnes Crawford runs a bespoke tour company – UnderstandingRome.com – that takes people to the places she herself would like to see. Agnes grew up in London and studied Architectural History in Edinburgh. After university she travelled to Rome to teach English as a foreign language. She found a room in the fascinating part of Rome called Trastevere. One day she went to a friend’s birthday party and met an attractive Roman physicist. They married and she has now been in Rome for a dozen years.
Agnes first heard of me when some clever British children on one of her tours told her about my Roman Mysteries books.

She tweeted me and we became Twitter pals.

Ristorante Flavio al Velavevodetto
I’ve been to Rome at least half a dozen times before in order to research my books. This time I’d been flown over courtesy of the American University of Rome to be their Writer in Residence for a week. I wanted to do something I’d never done before, so I tweeted Agnes and asked if she could give me a sample tour in return for lunch and a review. She replied with an enthusiastic yes.

We decided on the Appian Way and the Aqua Claudia. She calls this tour 'Roads and Water' and it is one of her most popular itineraries.

Agnes usually gets a driver with a luxurious Mercedes but for our unofficial tour she picks me up in her sturdy range rover.

We go for lunch at a restaurant at the foot of Mons Testaccio, a mountain of broken potsherds located by the ancient docks of Rome. Amphoras which contained oil and wine could not be reused as the clay goes rancid. So they broke them up and made a big pile of them here. A BIG pile: Mons Testaccio means Potsherd Mountain.

Along the back wall of the Ristorante Flavio (what a good name!) are half a dozen glassed-over arches that let you look at a section cut into the mountain of shards. How fun is that?

After lunch of uniquely Roman food, we’re off to the Appian Way past the baths of Caracalla and the first milestone out of Rome. There’s a slight traffic jam here, for the ancient road is still in use, so Agnes takes a shortcut above (not through) the catacombs.

Finally we get away from the crowds to the part you always see on telly: the dove grey paving stones polished smooth by age, the flame-shaped cypress trees that always speak of graves and the lofty umbrella pines which host the creaking cicadas. Agnes is full of interesting facts and has all the dates at the front of her brain. She tells me the Appian Way first laid out by a guy called Appius Claudius (who should be far more famous than he is) and that it’s famous for being the route along which thousands of runaway slaves were crucified in the time of Spartacus.

Agnes is also an excellent source of fun gossipy facts, describing what the garden in an ambassador’s house looks like or revealing that another fabulous mansion was the setting for a scene of a recent movie. Someone who knows lots of Roman facts plus movie trivia is my kind of guide.

Agnes shows me the tomb of Metella, ruins of the bath house of Maxentius and the vast grounds of the Villa of the Quintilli which was so fabulous that Commodus confiscated it (Remember him? He was the evil Emperor from the movie Gladiator.) At one point we stop for photo op where you can see original Roman paving stones and cartwheel ruts.

We are back in the car and going slowly on account of the ancient and uneven nature of the road, when someone taps on the car window.

Agnes stops the car. It is a distraught German family consisting of a middle-aged father and mother in normal clothes, and their grown up son dressed as Robin Hood!

'Scusi. Do you speak English?' asks the mother. 'A car came and took my handbag with my money in it.'

'Was it just now?' asks Agnes.

'Five minutes ago. They were in a small silver car.'

'Oh I saw him!' cries Agnes. 'We were driving and he came very fast and I thought he's going to have an accident. They were going towards Rome. The driver had very short hair.'

'That's right,' says the father, who is on the phone to the police. 'Is there a police station nearby?”

'Yes,' says Agnes. 'Hop in and we'll take you to Carabinieri at Capannelle, where my mother-in-law lives.'

Gratefully, the three Germans pile in the back. I turn to the son.

'Why are you dressed up?' I ask.

'Just for fun.'

I nod sympathetically. Some of my best friends are re-enactors and I have been known to put on a stola and palla in my day.

Agnes drives Robin Hood and his parents to the Carabinieri and points them in the right direction.

Our good deed for the day accomplished, we drive on to the Aqua Claudia – a stunning stretch of aqueduct famous for appearing in the first scene of the most famous Italian film ever made: La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) by Federico Fellini.

What used to be fields of wildflowers at the foot of the aqueduct is now a golf course. 'Fellini appreciated the surreal aspects of Roman life,' says Agnes. 'He would approve.'
I am content. Agnes's 'Roads and Water Tour' was all I hoped it would be: peaceful, atmospheric and fun. 

Even if you don't usually do guided tours, this one is worth it because you will visit places difficult to get to without a car.
And in Agnes you will have the perfect guide: one not only versed in fun facts and gossipy trivia, but a Good Samaritan as well.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Last Chance for Pompeii Exhibition!

9.10 on a Sunday morning!
You've been meaning to go to the British Museum Pompeii Exhibition all summer but it finishes at the end of September. At time of posting this, pre-booked tickets are almost sold out – just a few left for September weekends – so you might have to show up early to get one of 500 tickets released first thing each morning (not necessarily for immediate entry) OR find a friend who is a Member (i.e. a Friend) with guest privileges to take you OR become a Member yourself. If you become a Member, you can go whenever you like, breeze past the queue and go straight in. Then you can check your emails over coffee or tea in the brand new Members' Room.

The exhibition has had rave reviews but one problem is that it is almost always too crowded to enjoy. My best tip is to get yourself a Membership, show up on Saturday or Sunday just before opening at 9am, join the orderly queue outside the gates, go straight in to the exhibition (no need to queue at that point), ignore the filmstrip (you can come back to that later) and go straight into the exhibition which you can then enjoy in blissful emptiness (above right). But don't blithely take my word for it: always check the latest on opening times.

I have already blogged about TWELVE FUN THINGS TO SEE but here are TEN MORE THINGS to look out for.

1. ET TU, PHOENIX? One of the first things you see past the inscriptions and graffiti is this jolly fresco of a Phoenix above two peacocks. Peacocks are real, but the Phoenix is a mythical bird of fiery resurrection. Curator Paul Roberts calls this a "pub sign". It was found on a wall of a fast food joint in Pompeii. The slogan says "The Phoenix is happy (or 'lucky'), and you!" What interests me is the expression "Et tu" which is used elsewhere in Roman contexts as an apotropaic slogan. Apotropaic is Greek for "turns away evil" and it refers to anything that averts bad luck. Apotropaic images include the raised palm of the left hand, erect phalluses, eyes and the unflinching gaze of a full frontal face. All these things "turn back evil". The words "et tu" (and you) seem to have a similar meaning. Our modern equivalent might be "back at 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, then the phrase is a curse. This puts Julius Caesar's last words, Et tu, Brute*, in a whole new light!

2. COMIC RELIEF? Next to the famous fresco of Dionysus and Vesuvius in the atrium room is a small marble relief showing the earthquake of AD 62 or 63. If you look closely you will see it is quite comical. For example, the two men depicting equestrian statues look silly and are staring straight out (an apotropaic device) and their horses are actual long-eared donkeys.  Humour is another apotropaic device so I think this sculpture may be saying something like, "We laugh in the face of earthquakes!"

first time seen by public
3. PANTHER TABLE - Curator Paul Roberts said if he could take home one item when the exhibition finishes, it would be this one. That's probably because it languished in a storeroom for many years and he was the first to show it to the public. Like the goat, snake and dolphin, the panther is associated with Dionysus, the patron god of the region. This wonderful table probably would have been painted.

4. BALL 'O' PIGMENT - In a bowl just on the left as you enter the triclinium (dining room) you will see a bowl with two greyish balls. This is how fresco paint came. You would chip off some pigment, grind it in a mortarium, then add egg and water and perhaps a few other ingredients. Finally, the paint was applied to the still-damp plaster. The plaster sucked up the colour and when it dried the painting became part of the wall. That's why these paintings have survived so well. These are the less exciting "white" and "grey" pigments.

5. The NAVEL OF THE WORLD or omphalos is shown on a fresco in the far end of the triclinium room on the right. This fresco screams Apollo. Cupids (the lolcats of the Roman world) frisk around with his bow, his quiver, his lyre, his tripod and possibly a runaway patera. The tripod is especially linked with Apollo because the Delphic oracle sat on one to prophesy. And Delphi was the site of the navel of the world. If you want to know what the navel of the world looked like, there it is underneath the tripod, looking like a fat bollard.

2000 year old loaf of bread
6. Still in the triclinium room is a glass case full of Roman-type "samovars" and portable hearths. Look out for a BRONZE KRATER WITH ARGONAUTS. A krater was for mixing large batches of water and wine. I only noticed the argonauts on my fifth visit, mainly because this room is usually so crowded!

7. ANCIENT PIZZA - OK, it's not pizza because they had no tomatoes in Roman times, but this round loaf of bread looks like puffy pizza. But what's that strange dent around its perimeter? London-based Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli recreated the loaf and came up with a possible cause: a piece of string was tied around the dough, baked in and then used to carry the loaf home.

8. In the culina (kitchen), look out for a PESTLE SHAPED LIKE A THUMB. It is made of white marble and is found below the hare mould for terrine and next to the beautiful sieve with the maker's signature punched in holes. The mortarium containing the thumb pestle has a fun panther face for draining liquid and on the bottom a crude apotropaic Medusa face for turning away evil when it's hung up on the kitchen wall. (You can't see this in the current display mode).

9. Also in the culina you will see a giggle-inducing FRESCO OF MAN DOING A POO (right). This is often cited as an example of Roman belief that demons or other nasty things lived in the sewers. The naked youth is being protected by two lucky snakes and the goddess Fortuna. The curators have placed this fresco in the culina room, because that is where most private Roman latrines were found: in the kitchen, usually right next to the hearth. Paul Roberts says this was because Romans classed wet and smelly things together. (For more about this, see my post on Demon in the Toilet!)

10. Near the end of the exhibition – in the same case as a soldier's sword – is a collection of treasures found on a little girl's charm bracelet. Ironically, considering the cataclysmic bad luck she experienced, most of the objects had an apotropaic sense... but what's with the shrimp? I have heard of apotropaic farting, but never an APOTROPAIC SHRIMP! Answers and suggestions below, please.

*Clever clogs among you might know that what Julius Caesar really said was the Greek version, kai su, teknon, but it makes no difference: the Greek phrase has exactly the same sense as the Latin, maybe even more so! Also teknon can mean "child" or "son", but also more derogative "kid" or even "punk". So Julius Caesar's last words to his final murderer Brutus had a meaning of "You'll get yours, too, punk!"

For more apotropaic images including two "kai su" mosaics, visit my PG-rated Apotropaic Pinterest page.

Caroline Lawrence writes history mystery books for kids aged 8 to 80. No. Really! All the pictures in this post are © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Roman Museum Canterbury

Too bad the Roman Museum in Canterbury is set back from the road. This fabulous resource needs to be more visible to kids, grown-ups, families and tourists.

The Museum came into existence thanks to the notorious Baedeker Bombers of World War II. These were Germans flyers who used the Baedeker Guide Book to inspire their hit list. By some miracle they missed the world-famous Cathedral that was the goal of so many pilgrims from the time of Thomas à Becket onwards. Instead, they devastated the surrounding area. But in so doing they exposed the remains of a Romano-British Villa with impressive mosaics and hypocausts.

I was invited to Canterbury by Ray Laurence, a professor of Classics at the University of Kent. He is famous for his animated TED talk on Roman teenagers. He is also passionate about the Museums of Canterbury and wanted to show me what was special about them. During a packed day, I visited this museum, the fabulously quirky Beaney Museum and watched Paul Burnett dig an Iron Age Site. I also had lunch with enthusiastic members of the Classics faculty.

Because of my interest in all things Roman, we went to the Roman Museum first. A colourful mosaic (above) welcomes you in and a suitably imposing looking Roman soldier encourages you to "Descend through two millennia of Canterbury's history" to Durovernum Cantiacorum. Apparently, each step down represents 100 years' worth of archaeological layers finally ending with the 300 AD layer. This is already a great lesson for kids that when you go down into the earth, you are almost always going back in time!

Where once you saw the back of a museum clerk beavering away at accounts, you now see a horse and cavalry rider, which is much more exciting. In fact for a while it was too exciting. This entry area used to be so dimly that the looming figure scared younger children, so they have bumped up the lights enough to show that horse and rider have "been in the wars". For those little kids who are easily scared, there is a mouse (reminiscent of Minimus from the Latin course) to show the way. (right)

This is my kind of museum. In other words, good for someone with a short attention span. A choice selection of real finds are protected by glass but many of the authentic replicas are touchable. Mannequins show what Canterbury's Roman market might have looked like, with suitable artefacts nearby.

A useful touchscreen computer (kids love these) tells us that although we know where the Temple was, we don't have a clue which god or goddess was worshipped there! Was it dea nutrix, the goddess who suckles two babes at the breast? Excavators found more than one of these little votive figures in Canterbury. They come from Gaul (France) and that is also where we find other examples of a temple right next to a theatre and with a water trough attached. Maybe a young visitor to the museum will grow up to be the historian who solves this mystery! In the meantime, here is an informative audio clip of Prof. Laurence talking about dea nutrix figurines.

Interactive is the key word here at Canterbury's Roman Museum. In one of the first rooms I found a couple of grown-ups playing a Roman board game (below). They were definitely not posed (though by this time Ray and I had been joined by Allison Coles from the University of Kent and a reporter from the Canterbury news.) I could overhear some more interactivity drifting in from a room up ahead: "Put down that sword, Max! Put it down. Let someone else have a go..." It was only a replica of the wooden rudis given to a freed gladiator. The interactive room has some brilliant tasks for kids. In addition to dress-up, there are colourful plastic trays with real artefacts, shapes to place them and information about them. There are some great replica artefacts, including bronze strigil, wood wax tablet and a sponge-stick! Children are encouraged to handle these and guess their function.

Other highlights of the Museum include:

a digital reconstruction of a Roman town house
cavalry horse-harness fittings (look behind the model horse)
rare tools: a spade, carpenter's square and mason's trowel
mosaics and hypocausts in situ
roof tiles with the paw prints of a Roman dog
painted fragments of frescoed walls
finds from Canterbury's Roman baths including gaming counters (or were these bottom wipers?)
votive figurines, including a horse goddess and the dea nutrix
a silver treasure with Christian symbolism
glass vessels, some with cremated remains inside

One of the best interactive features was a magnetic mosaic wall. This could have been cheesy, but it's great. The pattern and tesserae are authentic-looking. It's both clever and fun. Kudos to whoever thought this up. (Or borrowed the idea!) 

It is not until you reach the end of the museum that you see the original remains of the Roman villa and learn about how the German bombing brought this site and museum to light. You realise that the museum is situated exaclty where the Roman villa and bath house stood. Those who are keen to learn more can read the old newspaper accounts and even see photographs of the Sheppard Frere and the other archaeologists who dug in the early 1950's, but this is an optional bonus for budding aficionados, and cleverly placed at the end not the beginning.

The Roman Museum was due to close in 2009, but was saved by the simple argument that Canterbury is remarkable not just for its cathedral and archbishop, nor for having the oldest parish church and oldest school in the UK, but also for its Roman past. The case was put by my new friends Dr Paul Bennett, Director of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, and also Prof. Laurence. Thankfully the council listened to them, and invested. The result is a delightfully vibrant gem of a museum, one that deserves to be visited by adults and children alike.

P.S. To see more pictures from this museum and the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, go to my Pinterest page.

P.P.S. In a recent Canterbury Times article, Professor Laurence shares some tips on how to help kids get the most out of a museum visit.