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Scholar with textsWe authors—especially of historical fiction—cannot get along without our research books. (We also like to visit the places we write about, explore museum exhibits, and participate in archaeology and reenactments, but this post will talk about research of the armchair variety.) We prefer primary sources: journals, diaries, letters, histories, account lists, and literature written in the period, describing the people and events we want to write about; but that’s not always possible. For cultures that didn’t have a written language (the Iron Age Celts), or it was indecipherable (Egyptian hieroglyphs until the discovery of the Rosetta stone), or it was destroyed (Mayan books burned by conquering Spaniards); we have to rely on secondary sources. Books, essays, and articles by academics and other professionals in their fields are the best we can do for written research in such cases. But we have to be careful even with those. Just as in evaluating primary sources we have to keep in mind the biases and knowledge of the writer, we have to do the same with secondary sources. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of dreck out there—particularly on the internet—and historical fiction authors usually like to get as close to the truth as possible.

In researching Sword of the Gladiatix (soon to be available), I collected several books, articles, and pamphlets on Boudica and Roman Britain, most of an academic nature, a few of the more “popular” variety. The two biographies of Boudica I review below are the best by far of both types. You can read either or both and get a well-researched, readable history of the Iceni Queen, her times, and her legacy in popular culture. Which to read depends on your needs and nature. Continue Reading »

Boudica in stained glass.

Image of Boudica in stained glass in Colchester Town Hall.

It’s Women’s History Month and I’ve exhausted my favorite topic of Hypatia, Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. Time to move on to another fascinating woman who has been extensively mythologized: Boudica, Queen of the Iceni (a British Celtic tribe) in the first century AD. For those of you unfamiliar with her story, here is a brief summary.

Some Background

Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC and again in 56 where he had some military success against local tribes. He withdrew to Gaul and never returned to Britain. Roman influence in Britain grew over the next 80 years due to increased trade. The British tribes quarreled and Caratacus, the leader of the Catuvellauni expanded his tribe’s territory at the expense of the Atrebates. The Atrebates chief Verica appealed to Rome and gave the Emperor Claudius an excuse to invade Britain in AD 43. General Plautius led the assault and Claudius joined him with reinforcements. They took Caratacus’ stronghold Camulodunum (modern Colchester) and established the first Roman colonia—towns founded for Roman citizens—on British soil. Eleven tribal kings surrendered. Claudius declared Britain a Roman province.

Caractacus continued to fight, leading the western tribes in Wales in guerrilla actions against Plautius’ successor Scapula, known for his brutal pacification campaign in the south. Scapula finally defeated Caractacus in 51. Caractacus fled a to the Brigantes tribe (in modern-day Yorkshire) but was betrayed by their Queen Cartimandua and handed over to the Romans. In 59 and 60, the Roman governor Caius Suetonius Paulinus (during Nero’s reign) led the successful invasion and pacification of Wales and the Isle of Anglesey, the seat of the Druids. Continue Reading »

I get pitched a lot of books. I usually accept about one a month. I like most of them and write a paragraph or two on GoodReads.com, LibraryThing.com or Amazon.com. A very few get the full blog treatment. Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston is one of those I want to enthusiastically share with my fellow readers. Her novel has all the elements I look for in historical fiction: compelling characters, engaging plot, and fascinating setting.

About the book:

Hand-of-Fire-Cover-Large-203x300The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god; will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

I have a weakness for stories that shine a light on little known women or give silenced women a voice in the way Anita Diamant spoke for the biblical Dina (Joseph’s only sister) in her wildly popular The Red Tent. Starkston takes a similar approach through the story of Briseis. In the Iliad Briseis has only a handful of lines, yet she is a pivotal character in the narrative arc of the classic poem, sparking a rift between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost brings the Greek war against Troy to ruin. In the poem she expresses her love for Achilles in spite of the fact that he killed her brothers and husband, sacked her city, and reduced her status from princess to slave. A tall order to build a believable scenario where that could happen! Starkston does a beautiful job taking the slender clues about Briseis’ life and times and building believable characters. Briseis matures from an uncertain girl to a woman capable of determining her own destiny in this engaging story. Continue Reading »

I see these things going around the internet all the time: “Name ten things that no one else knows about you.” “Name five books that changed your life.” AND  “Tap ten of your nearest and dearest to answer the same question.” Shades of chain letters past. Although some are fun and others are silly, all are time sucks. I have to choose carefully or I’d never get anything done. But every now and again one comes along that I’m glad to participate in. The Writing Process Blog Tour is one, because it asks the questions that most readers are interested in knowing about their favorite authors. Hand-of-Fire-Cover-Large-203x300Thanks to Judith Starkston for asking me to join in. Judith shares my love of ancient history, penchant for visiting archaeology sites, and mission to highlight forgotten women. She has a wonderful novel coming out this month titled Hand of Fire: “The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.” You can see Judith’s contribution to the blog tour here and contact her through her website, Facebook, or twitter.   So here goes:

What am I working on?

Slow Death coverSeveral projects in various stages.  My most complete projects are two collections of short stories that are currently out as ebooks: Time Again and Other Fantastic Stories and Slow Death and Other Dark Tales. I’m proofing the print versions and recording the audio books. I’m in the final editing process of a historical novel Sword of the Gladiatrix which I’m very excited about. Here’s the back cover blurb: “Two women from the far reaches of the Empire, enslaved and forced to fight for their lives on the hot sands of the Roman amphitheater. They seek to replace lost friendship, love, and family in each other’s arms. But the Roman arena offers only two futures: the Gate of Life for the victors or the Gate of Death for the losers.” I hope it’s out by the end of the year. I’m also doing a final rewrite on another novel Twilight Empress (#1 of the Three Augustas series) and a novella prequel which I hope to get out next year. I’m in the early rewrite stages of two other books in the Three Augusta’s series. As far as new writing goes, I’m in the very earliest stages of writing a sequel to Sword of the Gladiatrix—which, unfortunately, has been taking a back seat to all these other projects. Continue Reading »

Hypatia from the "The School of Athens" by Raphael

Hypatia from the “The School of Athens” by Raphael

It’s Women’s History Month and I’m back with the latest installment on my favorite Lady Philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria. This year I’m tackling Hypatia’s sister philosophers. Hypatia didn’t spring from her father’s forehead fully girded and ready for combat in the primarily male world of Late Antiquity. There is a long history of women philosophers—”lovers of wisdom”— down through the ages, and Hypatia is just one link in that chain. More than thirty-five women are attested to in the records leading up to, and contemporary with, Hypatia—and those are just the women whose heads (and intellect) rose above the crowd enough to be noticed by the decidedly biased ancient historians. One, ARETE of Cyrene (c 400/300 BCE )  ran a school of philosophy seven hundred years before Hypatia. Nine of those women studied (what early nineteenth century scholars later called) Neoplatonism. Two (that we know of) taught both men and women.

Since thirty-five is far too many women to profile, I’ll concentrate on the Neoplatonists and leave the rest for another post. (Please go to Women-philosophers.com, maintained by Kate Lindemann Ph.D., professor emerita at Mount Saint Mary College – Newburgh, New York, for overviews on more than 110 remarkable women philosophers.) When telling the stories of women scholars in history, it is impossible to separate them from their male relatives and teachers. A little context: the vast majority of people—men and women—until recent times, were illiterate, uneducated, and labored in agriculture and resource extraction. Only a small elite could afford education and that generally was reserved for the sons.

But not always.

History is filled with fathers who educated their daughters (including Theon and Hypatia). Because of genuine affection, they had no sons, or the girls were too brilliant to ignore—it didn’t matter. It happened. (Even today, research shows that a father’s encouragement distinctly improves the chances a girl will do well, and chose a career, in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and math.) Because the educated elite was such a small circle, these women tended to marry inside it (if they married) and have children that followed in their footsteps. If they didn’t teach directly, they educated their children, who did teach. So let’s take a look at the Neoplatonists and the extraordinary women who contributed to this philosophy’s development and dissemination.

Continue Reading »

Princesses Behaving Badly book coverOnce upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess who wasn’t afraid to cheat, deceive, seduce or murder anyone who got in her way.

I like these kinds of books—collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. I have one on women at sea; several on women warriors; others on women explorers, mathematicians, and scientists. They generally follow a pattern of one to two page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration.

Continue Reading »

Hypatia: Hher Life and Times coverMy writing is drawing some attention. This time it’s my non-fiction collection of essays about Hypatia. A couple of months ago I received an intriguing email from a science radio show. Someone there had heard about my book and thought Hypatia would be a good subject for an interview. Ever eager to promote greater knowledge about this neglected woman scholar, I said yes and sent off a copy of my book. They loved it! Last month I had a lovely conversation with the producer and interviewer. This month the interview is up for your listening pleasure at Science for the People as “Hypatia and Women in STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Enjoy!

I had no idea when I pulled these essays and articles together a year and half ago, Hypatia: Her Life and Times would become so popular. I’ve sold copies around the world and it ranks in the top twenty of books on ancient history sold on iTunes (right after Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). Hypatia has quite a fan club in cyber space. If you want more information about the book, check out the this page on my web site. Thanks to everyone to who has supported indie publishing by buying and reviewing this book!

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