Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mark Twain Slang (1862)

Caroline and old Mark Twain
One of the things I love about writing my P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries  is the richness of American vocabulary in the early 1860s. Another person who loved the language was Mark Twain. In 1863, the quick-witted, sharp-tongued, pistol-packing newspaper reporter named Sam Clemens was living in a Wild West mining town called Virginia City and had just started using the soon-to-be famous pseudonym "Mark Twain". The budding writer delighted in the latest popular slang words, some of which can be found in his early writings and letters home. Even his new name was slang. "Mark Twain" can mean two things: the depth of a sounding in the Mississippi River or two whiskeys on credit at a saloon. Here is an ABC taster of some of the other marvellous slang of the period.

Absquatulate = to leave abruptly
Bach (or Batch) = to live like a bachelor
Cheese it! = Shut up!
Dunderhead = fool, idiot
Eagle = a gold coin worth $10
Put some Killickinick in your pipe...
Flapdoodle = Nonsense
Gimcracks = A Knicknack
Hurry-Skurry = Rushed
Ironikle = Ironic
Jollification = Party, Celebration
Killickinick = Twain's beloved, yet cheap pipe tobacco
Lucifer = A Match (to light your pipe)
Mulligrubs = Grumpiness, Depression
Nabob = Wealthy and Important Man
"Undress Uniform"
Octaroon = Person w/ one Negro great-grandparent
Poltroon = Utter coward
Quirk = a Taunt, Retort
Rough = a Thug, Ruffian
Spondulicks = Money
Toper = Drunkard
Undress Uniform = Long Johns
Vamoose = to depart hurriedly
Whale = to Beat or Thrash someone
Xeromyrum = Dry Ointment
You bet! = common exclamation
Zephyr = a Gale

The first book in my P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries series is The Case of the Deadly Desperados. It is available in hardbackpaperbackKindle and MP3 audio download

P.S. For more Wild West slang, read my post about audiobooks.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Roman Murder Mystery!

[a guest post by Emily Robb, aged 15]

Emily Robb with sheep and helpers
There are five minutes to go until lunchtime: I’m frantically running around my school hall, straightening chairs, propping up toy sheep and running over what I’ll say when 120 Year 7s ask me if I did it; if I killed Marcia Dorothea.

This is in fact not quite as dark and worrying as it may sound.

As a year 11 History prefect it is often my job to talk to prospective students about the subject, help out at lectures and give girls a tour of my school but it is also frequently my job to step back in time, throw on an extraordinarily unflattering costume and act.

In the past two years I have dressed up as a Georgian, a 1920s ‘Flapper’, President Wilson, Neville Chamberlain and now a few weeks ago I became a Roman farmer named Davus in a murder mystery that the History and Latin prefects had organised. Poor Davus’ calm, albeit slightly dull, lifestyle had suddenly become threatened by the ghastly reality of being held suspect in a murder inquiry – and the terrifying prospect of being interrogated by a squealing mass of twelve-year-olds.

Year 7 detectives!
We were keen to make the event as enticing and exciting as possible and so, as a soon-to-be-released film issues trailers to its potential audience, the prefects got to work on some serious marketing. Our main concern was that the murder mystery was not compulsory; would anyone sacrifice their place in the lunch queue and turn up? We were constantly told by teachers that it would be fine – of course they’d turn up – they’re Year 7s: they’ll go to anything! Still we had doubts, so over the next term we started to get inventive and created as many intriguing clues as possible.

The first of these clues interrupted an orderly assembly for their year group when a video was suddenly projected onto the screen of what seemed to be an ancient Roman news reporter (my friend Polly, the Latin prefect), delivering what appeared to be an ancient Roman news bulletin – and an extremely dull one at that. Polly drones on in a dismally monotonous voice about a young girl named Cornelia, sitting under a tree and a cart which has been stuck in a ditch for a good many chapters now (Slight tongue-in-cheek Ecce Romani jokes – anyone remember Ecce Romani?)

suspects?
Just before one of the poor confused year sevens stuck up their hand to ask what on earth was going on, a very urgent looking arm is thrust into camera-shot, holding in its shaking hand a piece of parchment. A rather startled news reporter hurriedly reads through its contents; breaking news, you see, was not commonplace in Ancient Rome. With an exaggerated gasp and eyes aglow with the burden of death, Polly regrettably informs the hall full of twelve year olds that a murder has taken place and that it is from this point forth, their duty to find out who is responsible.

Enticing? We thought so. Next, various prefects arranged for mysterious clues to be included in the daily bulletin that is read out every morning to classes during form-time. These featured cryptic messages such as ‘Don’t be fooled. Refuse the priest a drink’ which would come in handy for them later.

A teacher with cameraman!
The final advertising effort involved quite a large amount of embarrassment on our parts and quite a lot of confusion on theirs. The day before the mystery was to take place the entire cast trudged unwillingly into the changing rooms at the beginning of lunch and worriedly got changed into Roman clothes – armour, tunics, religious robes: the whole shebang. This was definitely going to invite a few laughs at our expense. However we were pleasantly surprised and extremely encouraged by the fact that upon stepping out of the changing rooms and making a rather doleful walk into the canteen we were mobbed by large packs of year sevens, asking us questions and being frankly rather frightening. Nevertheless – the detectives were ready.

The Poster!
With these plans secured, we now felt slightly more confident that the young inspectors were actually going to turn up but we still had much to prepare. Between us, over the next few weeks, maps were drawn, suspects cast, scripts written and scenery planned. As Davus the farmer, it was I who had the misfortune of finding the body of the deceased – a tricky situation to explain when being rigorously interrogated by the surprisingly scary year sevens. However I was innocent (HOORAH!) and I was extremely glad about this; I’m not sure I could have borne the guilt and evidently may have cracked under the judgemental glare of the detectives.

On the day, we arrived a little before lunchtime to set up the hall where the murder mystery would take place. An extremely large poster designed to draw the year sevens in, covered the doors to the hall, with a special message from Caroline Lawrence – author of The Roman Mysteries – wishing the girls luck, at the bottom.

The corpse!
Upon entering the hall the girls were greeted by a rather sombre looking pathologist who showed to them the body (quelle horreur!) from where they were encouraged to follow the path and ask questions of anyone they may pass in doing so. As they journeyed through passageways, through curtains and over rivers the eager detectives seemed prone to beginning their interrogation rather tactlessly with the simple question ‘Was it you?’ Whilst rather dramatic piano music accompanied their travels, the girls questioned lumberjacks, jewellery sellers, mosaic artists, money lenders, slaves, guards, the two temple priests and myself; the farmer. All in costume we made a humorous scene; I surrounded by a field of toy sheep, others clasping cardboard spears and others dressed in head-to-toe religious attire.

signed first edition!
We were surprised and delighted by the amount of staff that couldn’t resist trying their hand at being Poirot or Miss Marple for a lunchtime; one teacher was even accompanied by his own camera man and a full set of thorough interview questions– claiming to be from the local news. The hour whizzed by, with girls still hurriedly filling in sheets in the last minute. The fun wasn’t over, though, as the next week in assembly we got to present the three winners and four runners up with their prizes. For the runners up, sugar mice and for the winning detectives who managed to correctly solve the murder in the shortest time beautiful signed copies of The Slave-Girl from Jerusalem by Caroline of course! What better prize for a Roman Murder Mystery than a copy of the Roman Mysteries?!

I had a fantastic time organising and partaking in the murder mystery and would just like to thank Caroline for her generosity in giving the prizes; they really made it something special! When I look back on my school days as an adult it will be these moments that I’ll remember; not the horrific maths tests or the everlasting physics lessons – the moments where the staff and students work together outside the classroom to create something for everyone to enjoy. I won’t forget the fun I had as Davus the Roman farmer, in fact, after all the worrying, I think I rather prefer his comfy tunic to my school uniform.

Carpe Diem!

P.S. The louder of the two temple priests was the murderer; a priest with a partiality for the wine…

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Golden Sponge-Stick Comp 2012!


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] btinternet.com

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

COMPETITION RULES AND DETAILS:

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 21 2012.
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 18 2012.

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 2012)

I will be announcing the winners here on this blog in February 2013. Bona fortuna! Good luck!

P.S. If you don't know what a sponge-stick is, go HERE!
P.P.S. You could do this for NaNoWriMo for Kids

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pee-you! B'kak! P'tooey!

by Caroline Lawrence

Hey, KIDS! If you went back in a TIME MACHINE to ANCIENT ROME, what do you think would surprise you most?

I'm thinking THREE THINGS.

Roman funeral pyre
1. PEE-YOU! (the smell)
They washed clothes in urine (PEE) and then smoked them with sulphur (smells like ROTTEN EGGS). But those little MUREX sea-snails they used to dye cloth scarlet smelled even worse! Steaming piles of HORSE, OXEN and DONKEY MANURE sat right there in the streets. People had BAD BREATH caused by rotten teeth. (We know this because they DRANK PERFUME to make their breath smell better.) Daily sacrifices would have made a RANCID BAR-B-QUE smell. And smoke from a thousand braziers would have caused terrible SMOG. Also, they BURNED DEAD BODIES (cremated) in the graveyard just outside the town walls. Market-stall-keepers probably left FRUIT and scraps of MEAT to ROT! You wouldn't want to be downwind of the garum factories; there would be an awful FISHY smell from the blood and fermented fish GUTS. There would have been lots of SWEATY MEN and PERSPIRING LADIES because there was no deodorant! Have you ever smelled the sickly sweet smell of OPEN SEWERS in the heat? Urgh. Not to mention the PUBLIC TOILETS with multiple seats but no doors (see picture below). And some famous graffiti from Pompeii asks people not to POO in the street. Ew. At night they carried PINE-PITCH torches. But those might have smelled nice because they sometimes burned PINECONES as AIR FRESHENER.

Can you think of any other yukky smells?

soothsayer and sacred chicken
2. B'KAK! (free range animals)
I think there would have been ANIMALS everywhere in ANCIENT ROME. Walking through the Roman Forum, you would have to be careful not to trip over GUARD DOGS, LAP DOGS, SCAVENGING DOGS, Mangy half-wild CATS & RATS feeding on rotting food. You might see a goat herd driving his GOATS to the Forum Boarium, a cow herder driving his CATTLE to the Forum Boarium, a shepherd driving his SHEEP to the Forum Boarium. A priest leading an OX to the altar would be a common sight. So would a priest leading a RAM to the altar.  SACRED CHICKENS, FREE-RANGE CHICKENS, CHICKENS IN A MARKET PEN. SACRED GEESE on the Capitoline Hill were fierce enough to act as guards. Also, what about BUGS? There would have been NITS, LICE, COCKROACHES, FLEAS, FLIES, MOSQUITOES, WEEVILS and DUNG BEETLES. Guess what? Near Ostia's port of Rome there was an ELEPHANT farm to supply the GAMES. Maybe sometimes other WILD ANIMALS destined for BEAST HUNTS in the Colosseum got loose, too.

Can you think of any other animals you might have seen in Ancient Rome?


2. P'TOOEY! (superstition)
whistling in the latrines by Helen Forte 
Romans were INCREDIBLY superstitious and probably SPAT on the ground, KNOCKED ON WOOD, made RUDE GESTURES and grabbed their WILLIES to fend off EVIL. A non-rude SIGN AGAINST EVIL is to hold out your left hand palm first. Here were some NO-NOs that might bring BAD LUCK crashing down on you: Stepping over the threshold with your LEFT FOOT. SNEEZING on board a ship. CUTTING YOUR HAIR on board ship. Doing ANYTHING on the anniversary of a terrible DEFEAT. Romans wore good luck AMULETS shaped like MEDUSA's FACE, EYEBALLS and WILLIES. They feared the EVIL EYE and were wary of people with BLUE EYES. They studied BIRD PATTERNS to see what the gods were saying. Also LIGHTNING, THUNDER and WIND. It was bad luck to get MARRIED in JUNE! Any animal born with a DEFECT was a monstrum or PORTENT. Romans thought DEMONS lived in the SEWERS. To stop them POPPING UP you could WHISTLE. That's why they painted SNAKES & FORTUNA (good luck) on bathroom walls. A HARUSPEX was a man who looked at animal guts to see what the gods were saying. An AUGUR studied BIRDS and WEATHER. A SOOTHSAYER used any methods he could to foresee the future so you could stay safe. Also, most Romans had an altar called a LARARIUM in their house so they could make DAILY OFFERINGS to their special gods. And what do you find hundreds of in museums and at Roman sites? ALTARS. These were stone slabs dedicated to the god in fulfilment of a vow. You could make little offerings on them, too, sometimes even slaughter an animal, which was called a SACRIFICE.

Can you think of any other strange superstitious beliefs they held?

Threptus the beggar by Helen Forte
One of the things I try to do in my books is make them a bit like a TIME MACHINE to take you back to Ancient Rome. I start with an interesting character, put him in an exciting story and then mix in some of the SURPRISING and UNUSUAL ingredients of life in ANCIENT ROME.

My newest series is about a BEGGAR BOY turned SOOTHSAYER's APPRENTICE who lives in OSTIA the PORT of ROME. His name is THREPTUS and he is 8 years old.

We first meet THREPTUS in The Man from Pomegranate Street, when he is bidding four young detectives farewell. The youngest detective, LUPUS, tells Threptus to CARRY ON MY GOOD WORK and gives him a wax tablet.

THREPTUS then pops up in a short story called "Threptus and the Sacred Chickens" in The Legionary from Londinium and other Mini-Mysteries. Ingredients include a KITTEN, a SOOTHSAYER and of course some SACRED CHICKENS. 

Threptus the Roman beggar boy gets a mystery all to himself in The Sewer Demon. In that book, poor THREPTUS has to GO DOWN THE SEWER to look for CLUES!

Pee-you! (illustration from The Sewer Demon by Helen Forte)

Next comes The Poisoned Honey Cake. In that book poor THREPTUS is so hungry that he steals a honey-cake dedicated to a demigod and LOSES HIS VOICE. He has to solve the MYSTERY of how to get his voice back. This book includes ALTARS, SACRIFICIAL HONEY CAKES and SACRED CHICKENS.

I hope you will enjoy all the SMELLY, ANIMAL-FILLED and SPOOKY bits of my stories about THREPTUS, the Roman beggar turned soothsayer's apprentice. www.carolinelawrence.com

Monday, July 23, 2012

7 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction


"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"

mural in Virginia City Nevada
This famous opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is my key to writing historical fiction. I want my readers to really believe they are in the past and I also want them to learn about history. So whenever I start a new novel, I make use the following items, just as if I were going to a foreign country.


1862 Directory
1. Guide Book
Before I travel to a new country I always read a guide book about the history and customs. I do the same thing with travelling into the past. At the moment I’m reading books about the history of the American Civil War and the Silver Boom in Nevada. One of my best guide books is the 1862 Directory to Nevada Territory, an exact facsimile of the Wild West version of the yellow pages... or should I say 'Google'?

Bret Harte 1836-1902
2. Phrase Book
Just as it’s good to learn a few phrases when travelling to a foreign country, I like to get the speech patterns of the past down. For my Roman Mysteries, I made the language modern but used lots of Latin words. For the P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries I’m storing up choice phrases from the letters of Mark Twain and the diaries of Alfred Doten. (e.g. Americans in the 1800s didn't use many contractions, but they loved the word ain't.) I also listen to audiobooks to get the speech rhythms right, just as I'd listen to some language podcasts before going to Italy or France. One of my current favourites is Great Classic Westerns read by marvellous narrators like Bronson Pinchot. I also love the stories of Bret Harte.

Dressing the west
3. Clothing
Take the right clothes for climate and culture. Wearing period clothing can really get you into the mindset of your characters and make them seem real and immediate. For my Roman Mysteries, I wore a linen stola and woollen palla, plus leather sandals based on a Roman template. For my new Western Mysteries series, I have bought a buckskin jacket and cowboy boots. At the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival, I learned my buckskin was actually pigskin! And one of my best experiences was a demonstration of what western women wore under their skirts during the 1860s. This took place during a Civil War reenactment weekend in Virginia City at the Tahoe House Hotel. (left)

4. Food and Drink
The 19th century diarist Alf Doten tells me what he ate and drank on the Comstock in the 1860s. When I go to a foreign country, I want to eat what the locals do. Otherwise I may just as well stay home. Same thing when writing about the past. However, I do draw the line at grizzly-bear-cub mince-pies and oysters from tin cans, both dishes which Alf Doten appreciated. And I won't try the Pousse L'Amour drink in Professor Jerry Thomas's book on cocktails published in 1862: How to Mix Drinks, Or: The Bon-Vivant's Companion. If I did, I'd never get anything written!

Anne Dinsdale, weaver
5. Eyewitness - Talk to Someone Who’s Been There
It’s always a good idea to talk to a native of the foreign country if you can. The historical author has a wonderful resource in re-enactment events. Men who dress up as Roman legionaries usually know exactly what each piece of armour is for. Women who wear corsets and hoop skirts can describe how itchy and dusty they get. A Nevada Cowboy Fast draw expert told me why you usually only have five bullets in a six-shooter; it’s safest to leave the first chamber empty. Living history experts are the closest you’ll get to interviewing a person from the past. There are a lot of amateurs and experts eager to share their knowledge with you.

Virginia City rabbit
6. Go there!
Even if your story takes place centuries or millennia ago, it’s always useful to visit the site of the event if possible. You’ll meet people who are experts on the history of their region and who might know things not in books or on the internet. Also, you’ll get an idea of climate: wind, air, light, pressure, humidity, etc. I always like to make a note of what food is in season, what flora is blooming and fauna are migrating. Research is a great excuse to travel. Writing an historical novel gives you lots of fun goals as well as icebreakers for starting conversations with the natives.

7. Souvenirs
Whenever I visit the setting of one of my historical novels, I try to bring back a period artefact. It can be a genuine antique or a convincing replica. There is nothing like handling an object from your time period to bring it alive. If you write for children you can bring some of these artefacts to festivals, libraries and schools and let the kids handle them. My three favourites are my replica sponge-on-a-stick (ancient Roman toilet paper), my as of Domitian (an antique coin) and my brass spittoon from the 1890’s. (left)

paperback cover
These seven factors all contribute to making your setting real and your research fun. Employ them when you write and your book will become a time machine to transport your readers to another place and time.

The first book in my P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries series is The Case of the Deadly Desperados. It is available in hardback, paperback, Kindle and MP3 audio download


Book #2, The Case of the Good-looking Corpse and book #3, The Case of the Pistol-Packing Widows, are out, too!

And you can find out about all my books on my website www.carolinelawrence.com

Sunday, May 27, 2012

12 Useful Writing Tips for your Second Draft

University of Westminster
On a recent glorious sunny summer Saturday in London I attended a Raindance course with Linda Seger on writing SCENE and DIALOGUE.

Yes, I've been a published author for over a decade but it's always good to have reminders, things to check as you go through a draft. And no, her class wasn't for novelists like me but for screenwriters. Still, I reckoned I might be able to adapt some of her tips. "Great writers are both artists and craftspeople," said Seger at the start of her one-day seminar. "Technique is what you fall back on when the writing doesn't flow naturally."

She didn't really give us techniques, but she did show examples of good scenes and dialogue. While she was speaking, I swished her advice around in my head with stuff I already know from studying John Truby and Blake Snyder, and came up with the following DOZEN USEFUL WRITING TIPS which I will apply to the second draft of my current work in process.

TIP 1. The main job of a SCENE is to move the story forward. If a scene doesn't move the story forward, bin it! A scene should also be specific, accurate and visual thus letting the reader/viewer know WHERE & WHEN the story is taking place. One of Seger's favourite CATALYST SCENES is the murder scene from Witness.

TIP 2. A TURNING POINT in a scene is when circumstances make it impossible for the character to keep doing what he's doing. Most scenes have two but some have more. We watched the Rolling Bus/Oncoming Train scene in The Fugitive.

TIP 3. Don't forget to ESTABLISH where your action is taking place and show the GEOGRAPHY of the location (house, town, spaceship, etc) if necessary. Seger showed us the opening sequence of Downton Abbey as an impressive example of this.

"Crossing the Threshold"
TIP 4. You often get a SHOW STOPPER scene at the end of Act One. Christopher Vogler would call this CROSSING THE THRESHOLD, Snyder would call it Fun and Games and Truby might remind us that act divisions are irrelevant. Seger showed the Family Dance Scene from Billy Elliot. She also talked about what she called MAGIC & WONDER scenes. These all seemed to involve flying and music. Her example was the flying and music scene from Out of Africa.

TIP 5. Be creative in transitions from one scene to another, try using an EMOTION instead of an OBJECT to ease the segue. A relative of Seger's claimed people only have four main emotions: MAD, GLAD, SAD OR SKEERT (scared). However, the emotion Seger chose for her example was more subtle; she showed us transitions showing characters being REFLECTIVE (i.e. pensive) from the Paul Haggis film Crash.

TIP 6. When in doubt, use an odd number of pages/minutes, turning points, or characters in a scene. Seger claims the optimum length for scenes seems to be 3 1/2 minutes or multiples thereof: 7 minutes, 14 minutes or -- rarely -- 21 minutes long. (eg. the Opera Scene in Moonstruck)

TIP 7. Like SCENES, the job of DIALOGUE is to advance the story. Your main character will often have a MISSION STATEMENT (e.g. Jerry Maguire). Truby would call this the PLAN. Sometimes it can be stated quickly and simply.

TIP 8. Seger then breaks her own rule by suggesting an easy trick of making EXPOSITION dialogue more interesting: have two characters question your protagonist, (or bring him the problem), instead of just one. Then they can bicker, interrupt each other, show different agendas, etc. A good example of this is the exposition scene in the lecture hall near the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (I kept thinking of Blake Snyder's POPE IN THE POOL technique.)

TIP 9. Add excitement to a scene by giving some of the characters ATTITUDE. (Presumably this increases conflict, which is always interesting.)

TIP 10. We all know about using different rhythm, sentence length, vocabulary, dialect, etc, to differentiate one character's dialogue from another but what about introducing SOUNDS? A character could sniff, snort, slurp, grunt, even imitate animals as Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer do in The Last Station. (A good example of this in literature can be found in True Grit, where author Charles Portis has one of Lucky Ned Pepper's gang make animal noises instead of speaking. It's funny and memorable.)

TIP 11. Dialogue can even communicate a story's THEME, via two characters putting forth their world views: Character A is the mouthpiece of the author and presents the theme, while Character B presents the contra-theme. Seger showed us a scene from Amadeus, where Salieri defends his hatred of Mozart to a priest. Truby would call this the OPPONENT ARGUMENT and suggest that a story's TAGLINE is another way to present THEME. Blake Snyder would argue that this is the job of the OPENING IMAGE. I say: why not use all three?

TIP 12. As the author of a series where my hero has to learn how to understand people, I especially liked Seger's reminder that SUBTEXT in DIALOGUE could be expressed in non-verbal BODY LANGUAGE. She ended by showing us clips from the episode of Frasier where Frasier and Lillith have an innuendo-packed debate on television, with amusing hair-loosening and body language.

Unlike many of my more talented writer friends, writing rarely just flows with me. I need all the techniques I can get. I hope you find some of these useful as well.

For more info on Raindance Courses visit www.raindance.com

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Pompeii


Vesuvius by moonlight
It all started with the dreams. I had been having them for months. Well you couldn't really call them dreams once you saw what was inside them. It was fire and rivers of flaming death, people of Pompeii being engulfed by the blaze in the horrific streets and children screaming for their guardians with black sooty tears streaming down their blackened cheeks.

I used to wake from those dreams in a cold sweat, trying to shake off the nightmarish visions shooting like daggers into my mind. I shakily sat up and looked around with bleary eyes, and breathed a sigh of comfort.

I was not in a Hade's furnace but in the cool moonlit bedroom of our house in Pompeii. I threw back the light covers of the bed and silently slid my feet over the edge of the bed and onto the cold, stone floor panels. I needed a drink.

As quietly as I could I navigated my way through the dimly lit Atrium to the kitchen, my bare feet echoed through the house. I quickly got hold of the rope hanging like a snake over the top of the well, it was a modern inside well so the cook and maids would not have to go outside to wash or for water. I looked over the side and tried to see the bottom of the well, but it seemed to go to the centre of the earth, (good job the world is flat.) I said to myself recalling what my father had said to me the day before. The bucket came into view, I couldn't be bothered to get a glass. I lifted the heavy pale to my lips and let the water run down my parched throat.

I felt more alert now, and then I noticed a sound. There was a small growling coming from outside. I dropped the bucket back down the well and winced as it sploshed loudly into the water below, (guess it did have a bottom after all).

I warily tip-toed over to the window; the stars were glinting like precious stones in the velvet of the sky. Leaning out of the granite sill I peered down the street, expecting to see a stray dog wandering around, but there was nothing but the monochrome streets of Pompeii stretching far into the out of sight shadows.

I listened.... There it was again I scanned the horizon of moon swathed hills and a movement caught my eye. It was over the biggest mountain of all. Vesuvius. Squinting into the darkness I stared for a moment, then a burst of fiery, glowing sparks made me jump. I just froze with my eyes wide in terror. The ground shuddered beneath me. It jerked me into action I took to my heels and ran through the door and was over taken by the dog as I dashed back through the atrium, down the corridor and into my room and leaped like a hurdler into the covers. I yanked the covers over my head and clamped my hands over my ears, trying to block out the terrifying sound that had been haunting my dreams only minutes ago, the rumbling had grown louder but now it was calming into nothing again. The only thing that could keep me from screaming was the thin belief that this was not real and that I was dreaming." I'm dreaming" I whispered as the world fell away.Tm just dreaming..."

I opened my eyes groggily and pullingthe sheet off my head sat up. A maid bustled past the doorway and there were voices in the street outside, of merchants, slave dealers and children. I fell back against the pillows again, and studied the ceiling. Had it all been a dream? It was so real though, the shudder of the earth, the sparks, the cold of the stone floor. My little brother Acanthus rushed in pulling a wooden horse on heels behind him. He held it up to my face and attempted to make horse noises. I smiled and picked him up " Good morning Acan'" I said tickling his chubby tummy "Cassia!" he gurgled through ticklish laughs. He seemed to only be able to pronounce people's names so far.

Father seemed to be a little concerned about Acanthus, saying that most children aged 3 could speak fluently but Acanthus could only squeal and play make believe games with his toy animals. But to me he was the best little brother ever born. He ran out again, making unsuccessful dog noises as he went.

I fetched my robes from a neatly folded pile near the door, then promptly dropped them as a crash sounded from the street. I ran to the window clutching the crumpled garments round my bare arms. The crash had come from a stall selling chickens, one of the crates holding the birds had seemingly fallen off and the merchant was leaning down to pick it up, but no sooner than he had stooped, another chicken crate rolled off the pile. The merchant looked on in bewilderment before the chickens could escape any further down the street. I looked in the other direction and noticed the pandemonium that was breaking out with the animals. Bulls pulling at their nose rings, dogs yanking savagely on their leads and weirdest of all was the centurions sleek black horses rearing up in terror and making in gallop for the gates of Pompeii.

I ducked inside the window again and shivered, something wasn't right. The thing that unnerved me the most was the horses, they usually didn't flinch is they were prodded with a hot poker. But this was different, it seemed that they thought the only way to live was to get out of Pompeii. It was just so surreal.

Father suggested that we went around the market that day. I protested that I had a head ache in attempt to stay inside and ponder about the odd happenings. But my mother only said that the fresh air would do me good.

So after worshiping the house hold gods for the morning, we set out in our good robes and Acanthus in my mother's arms with pinched cheeks to make them look rosier than usual. We strolled down through the different stalls and tents browsing at the assorted merchandise that was on sale.

As we walked I noticed the air was anything but fresh, there was a stench of rotten eggs in the air and still the animals in the street were acting oddly. It seemed to me that any animal that was not tethered or ridden had disappeared. I shook my head, no it was just a coincidence.

I stopped at a stall selling bread and a plump woman smiled warmly at me from behind the table. The rolls were golden and risen so I smiled back and reached for my purse, then jumped back in alarm as a small brown object landed with a thump on the table. The woman screeched and I took a closer look at the thing, then gasped. It was a sparrow.

I picked it up, it was dead, but still warm. As I stroked the tiny bird, more soft thumps were happening around us. There were a few screams and then a stunned silence fell over the town. I turned round, to my horror the cobbles were strewn with feathered bodies. I put down the sparrow under a tree stump and choked back a tear. Suddenly the silence was broken and the townspeople started to chatter again. Some pinched themselves dazedly.

I was the first to move. I simply ran, I heard my father call after me but I didn't turn around I carried on running dodging around d the birds lying in my path. All of a sudden there was a sound, not quite a rumble, not quite a growl. Then I screamed that scream I had bottled up. All manner of living creatures came scuttling, running, crawling, running and slithering up behind me the townspeople had not screamed, but simply parted like the red sea in awe to let the creatures past. They were all heading for the gates and so was I. in the crowd of animals there were mice, rats, snakes, worms, lizards, cats, insects, and so many others. Then I turned to face them and the animals rushed past, in a stampede of fear, but I stood my ground the ground shuddered violently and in front of me the road buckled and I fell over as the earth itself tried to regain control of itself. Then my head snapped upward. And the sight was incredible. The mountain was swelling at the peak. The animals continued to flash past me but I could only hear my own heart in my ears. Then the summit exploded, sending boulders flying into the air and tumbling down onto nearby houses, the mountain started to bleed molten rock and I suddenly Knew the end was hear, with that my heart tried to beat out a life time's worth of beats in one minute, then one last rock came falling down towards me, I didn't try to move I just let it's shadow grow bigger around me and closed my eyes, what happened was right it was meant to be. It is destiny.

I love this entry in the 2011 Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition by 12 year old Anna from Stamford High School. It is so descriptive and dramatic. It puts you right there during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Bene fecisti, Anna! 

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Letters to Procula

Facere Scribenda et Scribere Legenda: Words and Deeds in Pliny's Vesuvius Letters

Mark Wells as Pliny the Younger
IV a.d. Id. Aug.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
Although I most fervently protested our foolish excursion, Gaius Caecilius insisted that a summer at Misenium would do me good. There is no slight intended to you, my dear, but you must understand that he is yet a young man, and the looming prospect of impending marriage this fall seems only to encourage him to linger longer here by the Bay of Naples. Of course, he needs little encouragement to stay here with his uncle; the two of them have become thick as thieves ever since Gaius went away to Rome. The rhetoric he studied with Quintilian and Nicetes of Sacerdos was certainly evident when he so eloquently convinced me to venture to Misenium this summer! Though I know he is a grown man who has received a notable education and will soon marry you, a beautiful young woman of the best family, Procula, my heart still longs for my little boy whom I raised in my house after his father died when he was so young. I long for the days when Lucius Verginius Rufus (his guardian, you know) ordered his tutoring at home, and we would escape to Stabiae in the summers. Oh how wonderful were those days! In parting, I assure you that Gaius Caecilius looks forward to the wedding, and I shall remind him about writing to you. He will not forget his duty, do not worry!

Id. Aug.
Gaius Caecilius Cilo sends greeting to Procula,
So sorry to have put this off so long. Quite rude of me, I know. Anyhow, I remain entirely faithful and look forward with great anticipation to our wedding come fall. My Uncle Pliny is a great character, and I am sure you two would get along famously. A bit of an odd bird of course, but with a sharp mind like his, one cannot fault him! I should imagine that he would practically risk death to make an interesting scientific discovery. Well then, until the fall!

XIV a.d. Kal. Sept.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
You must have patience for Gaius Caecilius, my dear. Misenium has him quite distracted, and I can only imagine that his correspondence must be brief! But he is a learned man with his uncle's thirst for knowledge. You must allow him this summer to explore scholarly pursuits before the wedding and the start of his political career. You need not worry about him as a husband; he is not one to take needless risks, and he is far more likely to have his head buried in a book than to go out cavorting at all hours. His letters may seem flippant, but gravity of character is one thing that my son has been blessed with to an extreme degree. Ever since his father died when he was very young, Gaius has attempted to shoulder a responsibility as my protector, even though his guardian, Lucius Verginius Rufus, was entirely capable of providing for us. In short, dear Procula, do not fret about any reluctance Gaius Caecilius may show in his letters (or in his lack of letters). His intentions are good, his heart true, his intellect vast, but he is awfully shortsighted, and he is utterly devoted to scholarly pursuits with his beloved Uncle Pliny at the moment.

XI a.d. Kal. Sept.
Gaius Caecilius Cilo sends greeting to Procula,
This letter writing business is not my forte, I suppose, but I shall endeavor to persevere, Procula, just as you must endeavor to bear with my hurried correspondence. Perhaps time will improve my letters. My intellectual venture with my uncle are simply engrossing; do forgive me for this neglect. Uncle Pliny is always intent on new scientific discoveries, but I find myself favoring less adventurous paths to knowledge. He has posed many questions to me, and I find myself writing of them in a scholarly fashion. I can only imagine how fabulously you two will get along. Misenium is a fine place to spend one's summer, and indeed I think that I may purchase a villa out here eventually and we may spend our summers here. What with Uncle Pliny so nearby, there would be very fine company and the seashore itself is beautiful. I can imagine that you must be longing to leave the stifling heat of Rome, but be warned: this area is oft afflicted by earthquakes, little tremors that serve to frighten the women and annoy the rest of us. We have had a rather lot of these little tremors in the past few days, it seems that the gods are angry, which worries Mother (her respect for the gods crosses frequently into blind terror, I am afraid). I shall write again soon, but be also prepared for a letter from my mother, whom I have seen furiously writing away, presumably attending to wedding details. Until my next letter, vale!

X a.d. Kal. Sept.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
I have enclosed a list of wedding preparations, and I hope that you will oblige me in looking them over. I attempt to while away my time here by planning for the wedding, but there is only so much that I can do in Misenium. My brother Pliny truly enjoys it here, and I can tell that Gaius Caecilius does as well, for they adore their scholarly pursuits and their long baths and their dozes in the sun. Unfortunately, I fear that my brother takes a far too foolhardy approach to his research. Do you know, I think he would even risk his own life in pursuit of his beloved sciences! But he is also a greatly selfless man, though I am not sure that he considers protecting his own life for our sakes to be a selfless act.  My time here at Misenium is made ever more uncomfortable by these little earth tremors, which grow more frequent all the time. Pliny and Gaius assure me that they are a harmless, even everyday, occurrence, but they do rather trouble me. Please do look over those arrangements for the wedding, and let me know what you think!

IX a.d. Kal. Sept.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
My son and brother have spotted a dark cloud over Mt. Vesuvius, and though they do not seem concerned, I must admit it frightens me that the gods must be angry, and so I am writing to you. Gaius has continued studying, but Pliny decided about an hour ago to examine the phenomenon more closely, and ordered a boat made ready. However, just now before he left, he received a message from Rectina, wife of Tascius, requesting help in escaping from their villa which lies directly underneath the mountain. Pliny has now ordered his warships launched and set off to rescue the people leaving along the Bay of Naples close to Vesuvius. He himself headed for the villa of his friend Pomponianus, at Stabiae. Gaius and I have remained at Misenium, where we shall be safe.

IX a.d. Kal. Sept.
Plinia Marcella sends greeting to Procula,
My dear, I must keep writing to you in order to keep my head. We had very violent tremors overnight, and I was fiercely afraid. Pliny has not yet returned, and I have no intention of leaving without him, so Gaius has continued to read his books in the library despite the admonition of a dear friend of his uncle's who is visiting from Spain. We finally chose to leave the house, but knew we could not abandon my dear brother. The ash fell down all around us, the sky went black. I just knew that it was the end of my life at the very least, and I begged Gaius to continue on without me, so that he could marry you and live out a long life. Not at all dramatic in the moment, I assure you. My son refused, Procula, and I think that speaks greatly to his character. Instead, we left the main road, and sat down against a building, shaking the ash off our backs every so often. It was a long and awful wait, but finally a hazy yellow daylight dawned, and we found our way back to the villa. We have just discovered that Pliny has not yet returned, and I am sick with worry over what this means. Procula, thank you for putting up with the long-winded letters of an old, fearful, and rambling woman; I know that your union with Gaius will be very blessed.

IV a.d. Kal. Sept.
Gaius Caecilius Cilo sends greeting to Procula,
Awfully sorry not to have written, dashed awful few days, you know. My uncle Pliny has turned up dead after a very brave attempt. It seems that some fumes from Vesuvius simply snuffed the life right out of him. His slaves tell me that he was calm until the last, first arriving at the villa of Pomponianus and taking a bath, dining, and sleeping soundly. When ash began to fall heavily, he was wakened, and joined his friends on the beach, where the fumes of Vesuvius overcame his weak windpipe, and he passed away suddenly. My uncle's great love of science and his bravery and selflessness proved his undoing, but I can take comfort in the fact that he died with a good friend, after helping numerous people escape with their lives, and after witnessing an amazing and terrible phenomenon of nature. The dark cloud did not lift until the VII a.d. Kal. Sept., and then his body was discovered, looking more asleep than dead. I am sorry to place a burden of such sad news at your feet, Procula, but it may cheer you to know that I was named my uncle's heir, which is a great honor to be accorded to me. We shall still marry in the fall, though I will most likely remain in Misenium for a short while to take care of affairs before returning to Rome. I shall see you in Rome quite shortly, dear Procula.

Eleventh grader Marina Macklin from Warrenton, Virginia, USA took first place in the International category of the Golden Sponge-stick Competition for 2011 with this impressive epistolary story alternately narrated by Pliny the Younger and his mother. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Perseus


Vyst moved, in his underground chamber, for the first time since a hundred years.

Jupiter was having yet another party in Olympus. Banquets were laid out for all the gods so that they could eat till their hearts content. Recliners were put out, covered in the softest velvet. A son had been born to him finally. His name was to be Perseus. He would be a healthy boy with the world at his feet. Slowly the boy grew up. Gods grow at a rate of 3 human years per minute until they are 16, when they stop growing. As Perseus grew he began to resemble his father. The gods watched in awe. This little one was so much like their king yet no one knew what his future would hold.

Vyst could feel his fingers now, and soon his toes. The gods had paralysed him when he and his minions had first broke out of their domain in Vesuvius. They had planned to overthrow the gods and over take the world. They captured the city of Pompeii before the gods could stop them and buried the whole city in ash before giving themselves up. Now that Vyst was beginning to regain his powers he could plan to take revenge on the gods. From one of his hypnotised minions he found out that a son, the heir to his kingdom  had been born to Jupiter. Vyst had puzzled out how to take revenge on the gods, yet he still needed to draw a proper battle plan.

Jupiter was very anxious to protect his son’s. He made sure that he was accompanied by the strongest of forces, constantly. After all this was his one and only heir. Though one day Perseus complained that his bodyguards were always scaring off his friends and he wanted to go out on his own. After a lot of persuasion his father finally gave him permission to go out on his own.  Perseus’s joy knew no bounds. With his new born freedom Perseus immediately ran out to meet his friends, when he spotted an odd looking shrub nearby. He went to investigate the cause of the abnormality. Though as soon as he walked towards the shrub he was sucked in.

Vyst had spent ages on this plan. He needed a safe and secure stepping stone to hatch his new idea. First he thought about killing Juno, yet this did not seem possible as the gods were always protected, especially Jupiter’s wife. Secondly he thought about manipulating Pluto, God of the Underworld. Though this idea seemed far fetched. After a few hours of toiling and eating tacos he finally got to a conclusion. He knew exactly what to do. He knew from his minions that Perseus was always whinge about not being allowed to go out on his own. As soon as Jupiter gave in and let him free, he would ambush Perseus and kidnap him. Jupiter would deeply regret his decision and all the gods would be angry on him for losing the son and heir of Olympus .

In Olympus, Jupiter was getting a little worried. Perseus was not back yet from his daily excursions and he started to regret his decision. As it started to get late. He sent out a pack of bodyguards to find Perseus and bring him back. Though the search party came back in vain. Jupiter was at his despair. Being the god of the world he had an advantage. He scanned the earth all over for him. He found traces of him near a shrub that was not far from Olympus. ”Aha!” thought Jupiter. Perseus had vanished off the face of the Earth at the entrance of the Underworld. This could only mean on thing, Perseus was in the Underworld!

Vyst had manipulated the minds of the guards of the Underworld. He had made them disloyal to Pluto and loyal to him. They allowed him to capture Perseus in front  of their very own eyes. He was gagged and blindfolded. Vyst laughed “Watch out Pompeii,” thought Vyst, ”I’m making a come back. This time I am bigger and better than I was before.”

Jupiter himself entered Pluto’s domain. When Pluto had found out about Vyst’s master plan he was gob smacked. Yet the big problem was to confess to Jupiter about the disappearance. He knew his brother well, and he knew that there was no limit to his temper. Pluto was waiting at the entrance to greet his brother. He had dismissed his guards when he found out that they were Vyst’s spies.

Vyst smiled wildly when he found that Pluto was not entirely oblivious to his plans. Vyst wanted Pluto to find out a little about his plans. Vyst’s idea was to let the gods watch their planet demolish. He would set them free yet they would have nowhere to go to.

Before Jupiter went to go and see Pluto he went to consult the Oracle. As the green smoke cascaded out of the Oracle’s mouth it said ”You will find your inner strength when you sacrifice the family you love for the life you love.”

Jupiter was now trying to digest this information. Pluto was now telling him that Vyst was fully awake, powerful, and he had captured his son. Jupiter’s eyes danced with anger as he threw a thunderbolt. The ground shook with fear. Jupiter cursed Vyst with the worst possible things he could imagine.

As the silly gods were still thinking Vyst had already gathered his minions and was ready to overthrow Olympus, Perseus was lying in the corner unconscious. Vyst was about to give his battle cry when the ground erupted. Jupiter in his almighty form pushed through the earth. Yet Vyst was no coward. He told his enemies to attack. They charged at Jupiter with every ounce of their strength. Jupiter was already losing his balance and he had to hold onto a rock to keep stable. “Give up now"cried Vyst, "Give me your son and all will be well” Jupiter was shocked by this remark that his knees gave away crushing a few dozen of Vyst’s warriors. Jupiter could see the damage that was being caused on earth, volcanoes were exploding and earthquakes were erupting. He knew what he must do. He recalled the Oracle’s words "...you sacrifice the family you love for the life you love." He was ready to accept his destiny, he just hoped Perseus would accept his. His last words to Perseus were, "I’ll miss you kid, but Uncle Pluto will take care of you" and he left for all eternity.

Vyst kept his promised and was never seen again.


Nirali Patel's fun story about a taco-eating Titan and a father's sacrifice took third place in the youngest age group of the Golden Sponge-stick Competition for 2011

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Wanted for Murder by Diana Luc


Shadows seethe at my unwelcome presence as I retreat once again into their dark depths. Hidden, unseen and invisible, I watch as people pass me by, their faces glowing alive in the ever-still rising sun. They do not stop. They do not stare. Why should they? I am no-one. I am the dead.

I turn to the face on the wall.

I am one of the wanted.

And apparently a murderer too, I remind myself.

A shift in the market does not go unnoticed by me. There. A pair of keen grey eyes locks onto my own, paralyzing me, boring deep into my mind, searching hungrily for information. They are very old eyes, I tell myself.

For a moment, I wonder if I look like that.

Yet that thought vanishes as another rings out urgently in my mind: Has he made the connection? Have I been discovered? Panic fills me as my heart rises with fear. With one shaking hand, I tear the parchment so that my face rips in two; with the other, I pull my hooded robe up. Hundreds of shards of paper cascade onto the rich soil, squashed under my cheap, wooden shoes. Just like that, my identity crumbles away in my hand, and I free it into the sun and the wind, watch it as it is swallowed up by the blue, blue sky. They remind me of the mosaic patterns in Master’s bedroom; the vivid painting of the thousands of swan swimming in the huge lake still haunts me to this very day. Even though I know it must have perished in the fire, and even though it would have been stained in Master’s blood when I killed him, I briefly close my eyes to savour the sweet memory of happiness, of safety, of Young Master.

The illusion of peace is swept briskly aside as I return to danger. Wincing as I gingerly take my wrongful place in the sun, I disappear into the crowd.

*

It doesn’t take him long to find me.

‘Minerva Tiberius.’

It is not a question but a simple statement.

‘You will address me as Juno,’ I say with weak confidence. Juno is the goddess of family, of marriage, of women. She is the wife and sister of Jupiter. Minerva is a horrible name; I don’t want to be clever and learn poetry and medicine; that’s what boys do. It is much simpler to stick to the uncomplicated matters of life, the safer side of the world. But I know with a sinking heart that safety is beyond my reach now. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons why I threw away my old life.

‘Juno.’ His voice sounds bored, like he is just toying with me. It makes me want to hurt him, scratch him with my nails, push him hard so that he knows what it’s like to fall down to the bottom. Instead, I clench my fists into an angry ball. This time, I know Jupiter will not forgive me if I murder another innocent man, annoying though he may seem.

‘Follow me,’ the man says almost lazily, bringing me back to the present. ‘And wipe your tears. It is drawing too much attention from the crowd.’
I hadn’t noticed I was crying. I am surprised he can even see under my cloak; although I suppose that is the basic things an assassin must learn to do – to be observant. I must confess, even after a month on the run, I am still not good at spying. I can’t differentiate between a lie and the truth. I can’t distinguish who is my friend or enemy.

My instinctive reaction is to obey his orders, and for a few moments, I stumble after him, weaving my way through the noisy market crowd. Then I stop, because I remember I am not a slave-girl any more because my Master and Mistress are dead, and the only person I will ever follow is not here, perhaps even dead like his parents before him.

The man notices I don’t follow and turns back to me. Already I can see the signs; his muscles are tensed and his stance is strong. He is not afraid to use force if he has to.

‘Why should I trust you?’ My voice is barely audible but I know he can hear it.
There is a moment where we both stare at each other, daring each other to make a move.

Then: ‘Minerva?’

My name is called out in the silence, even though the market is not silent at all. The world is polluted with noise but my heart remains dead to the world. The clanking of sestertius’ being exchanged in the market stalls clink to the beat of my thundering heart that is furiously pounding away. I recognize that voice.

A familiar figure emerges next to me and clutches my arm. Young Master leans in towards my ear and whispers fervently, ‘Minerva, we must go. This place isn’t safe. We can talk more on the boat.’

I do not understand but I nod my head, lost for words because I am so happy that the person I love is right in front of me, talking to me, pulling me along –

Oh.

As we move steadily through the throng, my senses turn on again. Now that Young Master is here I can breathe once more, take in the smell of grapes and olives and apples and onions. It does smell good, I realize. Perhaps there is some joy in life after all.

*

Inside the ship, I meet a whole crew of people just like the grey-eyed man. I think to myself – friend or foe? Do I really trust these people? As soon as I think this, however, Young Master’s hand slips through mine, and gives it a sharp squeeze. I know I can trust him.

One of the lads scurries over and hands me a tin of Picenian bread; the fine biscuit crumbles once inside my dry mouth.

I set down the empty metal tin in the folds of my robe. Confession time.
‘I’m so sorry, Young Master. They killed Mistress right away. I tried to save her, I really did.’ A pause. ‘Then they started to burn the villa.’

His eyes are blank as he asks me the question I’ve been dreading all along.

‘What about my father?’

‘We could have escaped.’ I hang my head in shame as I confess all of this. ‘We could have escaped the villa. But Master wouldn’t go. He said he wasn’t going to leave Mistress. He said what was the point anymore when there was nothing worth fighting for. I said he still had you but he simply refused to leave the villa. He asked me to cut his throat. I- I – I…’ I what? What should I say?

I’m sorry? I did what I was told?

What young Master says next surprises me. There is no sadness in his voice but raw determination and confidence. ‘I need you to come with me to Caligula’s palace.’ His eyes search over me. ‘The people of Rome hate him. You know it, I know it. He is crazy, unfit to be our emperor. The crimes he has committed…they are unforgivable. Tonight, we are going to assassinate him. But you must help us first. Please, Minerva.’
And I have made up my mind.

*

Caligula lies asleep before me. Even now, his sleeping face loses none if its hostility. His sister, Lady Julia, lies before him, drunk and unconscious. I pity them that the last moments they have together is the time they use for vulgar intimacy.

Young Master was right; Caligula is evil. Yet why then do I still hesitate when I see Young Master raise his knife? In the seconds the silver blade moves towards where the emperor’s heart lies, I sprint to take the blow.

I don’t even feel it when the knife comes crashing into my chest. Red colour blossoms on my white dress where the knife connects with my body and I topple forward onto Young Master.

His chin rests upon the crown of my golden hair and my skull vibrates with every word he cries out: ‘Why, Minerva? Why did you defend that villain? Don’t die on me…’ And he weeps right there, my beautiful Young Master who is so confident actually starts crying.

I have only seconds left. ‘Don’t kill Caligula. You’ll only regret it. This is revenge for your father and mother; it needn’t be like this. I love-’

Caligula wakes up. His mind must be foggy from all the wine but he can still comprehend what is happening enough to call out to The Praetorian Guard outside. The rest of our crew flee for their lives but Young Master just holds on tight to me even when I plead for him to let go. The last thing I see is Young Master’s brave smile as he shelters me from harm and danger.

This great short-story by Diana Luc from James Allen's Girls School, Dulwich, won first prize in the 11 - 13 category of the 2011 Golden Sponge-stick Competition. Well done, Diana!

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Perfect Crime


1: Nex-violent death, murder
“Laws are silent in times of war” Cicero

A quick, rapt, knock on the door - that was all it took for me to become embroiled in a crime like no other. Perfect, almost, in its attention to detail, its clues spanning decades, its conclusion leading me deep into the murky circumstances surrounding the end of the Roman republic. Julius Caesar is busy trying to find the conspirators, tearing his dictatorship apart from the inside, while Cicero bemoans the loss of his second wife and daughter - by the end of next year they will both be dead. It is the day before the Ides of March BC 44. This is the story of my life.

My name is Aulus Cornelius and on the day before the last flames of the dying republic flickered back into life again, I was sitting in my small, but pleasing garden, watching the light from the brazier quiver and then disappear. I felt my eyes begin to grow sleepy and then gradually close, the papers I had been reading earlier lying forgotten and forlorn on the dewy grass...

Clash! The fierce pounding at the door awoke me from a dream of chariots at the Circus Maximus exploding along the well-trodden, scorching sand... I splashed a little water onto my face to fully waken me from the dream, before, dressed only in my tunica belted at the waist, I hurried to the atrium to see who my nearly-blind door slave had let in this time. Praying that my wife had not been disturbed, I saw a man, lacking a toga (probably a slave), a grey band on his finger (confirmed slave), looking agitated and in a definite hurry.

Realising time was of the essence, I made a move to quickly change in to my toga, but the man waved his hand (mute), indicating this wasn’t important. With his other tired hand, he thrust a ragged piece of parchment in the vague direction of me, which I carefully unfurled. The message shocked me to my very core.

Stopping on the way only to grab a snack ladled with a generous helping of garum (fish sauce) and to utter a hurried prayer to Jupiter, we soon arrived at the house of Cicero. I took another quick look at the message, in disbelief - “Come quickly Aulus!” Scribbled at the side, almost illegible - a single word. NEX.

2: rhetor - orator, speechmaker
“All pain is either severe or slight, if slight, it is easily endured; if severe, it will without doubt be brief.” Cicero

The mute slave escorted me quickly through the handsome back-courtyard of the Cicero household, up a sharply curving staircase and through a wooden door, attended by a dim glow of light from a brazier (lit around 5 hours ago.) Cautiously, I rounded a corner, finding myself abandoned by my guide and stepped into the triclinium. Mosaics of cavorting fish and all manner of other sea-life glistened all over the floors, accompanied by a simple geometric pattern as a border. A single rose stood in one corner of the room, but, paying this no heed, I was transfixed by the two men in front of me. One sat in the corner (Name: Tiro, Cicero’s freedman), calmly ready to take notes on a wax tablet (Tironian Shorthand, a method formulated himself), while the other, a man known as the finest undisputed orator to cross the face of the world, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who, in a change to his usual manner, was frantically  pacing back and forth.

Cicero explained in detail the strange events plaguing his household over the past few days, which I will summarise for you here. On the Nones of March, his papers were scattered all over his house, like the shattered remnants of the Pompeian forces, dispersed after the Civil War. Only a few papers were too badly damaged to be repaired, those containing notes on Sextus Roscius (Cicero’s first major defence.) A few days later, a statue of the Goddess Minerva was stolen from his house; similar to how Verres (a successful prosecution for Cicero) had pilfered whatever he pleased from his unfortunate Sicilian people. Finally, and here being the crux of the matter, just this very day, a slave of Cicero’s was found dead, stabbed repeatedly in the sizable garden of the house (again representative of a case of Cicero’s, namely, this time Clodius killed on The Appian Way.) Someone was terrorising Cicero and they must have had help from the inside. I was on the case.

Lightning illuminated the inky black sky, enveloping the city of Rome, as I carefully reclined next to Cicero to quiz him on how he had let evil run amok in his very household.

“Why can I believe you?” I asked him, taking a sip from a glass of water, thankfully placed by my side.

“If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?” he replied, before reinforcing his respectability as an orator.

“Anyway, what reason would I have to lie?” He queried, “Did I ruin my (which he emphasised) own papers and kill a trusted slave of my household, just for the sheer fun of it?” he demanded

I left the question unanswered.

Next, I prompted him further, taking him back through the mists of time to the fateful incident a few hours ago. “When did you last speak to your slave?”

“It must have been a few hours ago... yes... yes... it was, around the third hour of the night (it being around the 5th hour now), while he was going around lighting the braziers. I had passed him on the stairs, paying him no attention...and the next thing I knew he was lying dead in the garden.”

“Can I see the body?”I asked.

“Of course, of course,” he answered (he seemed to be averting the topic), “But surely you need to talk to the witnesses first?”

“Ah, yes...the witnesses,” I said humouring him slightly (I’ve done this job for 20 years, as if, I’ve never come across a witness before) and let him usher me out of the room and down the corridor. As I walked, I pondered why Cicero, the great orator, he who had stood up to Sulla, he who had fought for the rights of the Sicilians, the last honest man in the republic, had lied to me.

3:  perfectus – perfect
“It is a true saying that “One falsehood leads easily to another” Cicero

I was sitting in a room I didn’t want to be in, sipping a cup of well-watered wine I didn’t want to drink, speaking to a man who very clearly did not want to speak. Marcus Tullius Cicero had led me across an inner courtyard, the sound of gravel cracking under my feet and into a room, which, at first sight, appeared to be a slave’s quarters.

I interviewed Tiro in this room, allowing the bad omens of things to come (the increasingly darkening sky) to not cloud my judgement. He couldn’t tell me anything I didn’t know already and I began to pine for the warm, heavenly covers of my bed with my wife beside me. Before another (so-called) witness of minimal importance could be forced upon me, I slammed the cup of wine heavily down onto the table (but spilling little) and demanded I see the body. Cicero received me with as much courtesy as he could muster, before leading me back down the same corridor and into a small recess. My disillusions with the case were beginning to fester - how many more lies would I have to stomach before the night was up?
Cicero drew back the sheet lying in the alcove and with a convincing gasp announced that the body was gone. I had had enough. “You blithering blockhead, “I ridiculed him, “Gods immortal, why didn’t you leave (I stressed this) someone guarding the body?”

Cicero tried to reply but I cut him off, with a swift cut of my hand through the air, “What’s more, you don’t seem to want this case to be solved at all! Surely you of all people would know that the killer could be at loose at this very moment, hidden within these very walls. Do you want me to solve the case or not?”

And suddenly, it all clicked into place.

4: Idus -The Ides
“The first duty of a man is the seeking after and the investigation of truth.” Cicero

The sun gradually pulled itself from the horizon, poking its tender head over the trees on the Field of Mars. “At first, I suspected Tiro,” I began, “After all, who knows you better than Tiro himself? But on reflection, it couldn’t have been Tiro; he would never have harmed your works no matter what.”

Watching the red and orange embers climb higher in to the sky, I continued, “The first thing that drew my suspicions was the red rose in the triclinium. It couldn’t have been placed there for me, as if I hadn’t found you, I would probably have met you in the tablinum. Thus I assumed it was put there before, but not too long, as if I remember, the petals hadn’t wilted yet, so maybe, a private discussion between you and your slaves.”

Cicero smiled, but faintly. “Another point of interest - the lighting of the braziers. You told me you last saw the dead slave two hours ago, lighting the braziers, but I clearly remarked to myself the flames were dim - thus lit around 5 hours ago.”

“Couldn’t he have lit some lamps first before becoming distracted?”

“He could have done,” I replied “but I found it unlikely. Why on earth would he light the braziers three hours after the setting of the sun?”

“Let us assume, therefore, you were having a secret meeting with your slaves (sub Rosa = secret) before I arrived and from then on proceeded to lie to me at various intervals. I wouldn’t call you a stupid man Marcus, so you must have been planning something and lying deliberately. You said to me, if I can’t trust you, who can I trust? The answer was no-one and the conclusion? A hoax.” I took a breather, exhausted.

Cicero, a morose twinkle in his eye replied, “The law courts are rendered useless because of Caesar. I abandoned my wife for some young, arrogant play-thing, who mocked the death of my only daughter. I am a bitter man Aulus. I’ve engaged you and I’ve entertained myself with this charade, why can’t you allow an old orator a bit of fun once in a while?”

“I could have had other cases, important cases going on,” I protested.

“In the middle of the night?” he queried.

“As a matter of fact,” I answered and it being the last thing I ever said to him, “I was meant to be assessing Caesar’s safety for tomorrow; today, now.”

“I’m sure it was of no importance,” he sighed, “Well, I really must grab some sleep now. I’ll see you for the senate meeting in a few hours, I trust?” He swept out of the room, the twinkle back in his eye.

And despite, all my workings, my deductions, my cleverness and my reasoning, I realised I had been played by Marcus Tullius Cicero after all.

This very clever and assured piece of writing (with a twist!) by Adam Cunnane from Cheadle Hulme School, Cheshire shows the young author's admiration of the orator Cicero and of Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series. Nothing wrong with that; it's how we all learn to write. It took third prize for the over 14s in the 2011 Golden Sponge-stick Competition. (It must have been hard to choose, Jerry!) Well done, Adam!