Medieval Helpdesk

If you have signed up for Scottish Book Trust’s mailing list, you will have received their Christmas e-mail complete with a link to suggestions of 21 ways to procrastinate online this Christmas. Check it out. There’s a website recommendation from me in there too.

My favourite was Caitrin’s link to the Medieval Helpdesk sketch on youtube:

Do you  have a favourite book or reading related website, video, blogs etc. that you would like to recommend?


Interview with David Wishart

Meet the historical crime writer who has made a career offering alternative solutions to Roman mysteries 

David Wishart is a cooking enthusiast. Dried herbs are strung across the ceiling of a kitchen bursting with pots and pans and other cooking paraphernalia. As we sit down to a delicious meal of homemade fish soup and pizza, he tells me enthusiastically about his pasta making machine and tarte flambée board. When he is not writing or experimenting in the kitchen, he is out on long walks with his two dogs, a pastime that gets his creative juices flowing. Aside from cleaning, which we both agree is a waste of time, the one thing you won’t find him doing is promoting his novels. “It’s something I’m ashamed of, but I don’t like networking or marketing. I’m not an author, I’m a writer. A writer just writes.”

After graduating from university with a degree in Classics, Wishart spent several years abroad teaching English, a role he describes as “the best job in the world if you like travelling.” It was while he was living in Greece that a strange dream inspired him to write his first novel, a mad sci-fi adventure where a six foot high table lamp, a giant bottle of aspirins and a teenage girl go in search of a powerful energy transformer masquerading as a pomegranate. “It’s off the wall and it’s fun,” he says. “I thought that I was a children’s writer and I would write science fiction or fantasy.”

His first published novel, however, was an entirely different beast. The inspiration for I, Virgil, a fictional autobiography of the Roman poet, came from an essay he had written as a student at the University of Edinburgh. “It wasn’t a crime book but it did have an historical puzzle and that’s what interested me.”

Wishart began to seek out other historical puzzles that would make interesting novel plots and the next one he came up with was “Why was the Roman poet Ovid sent to the Black Sea and never allowed back?” His novel Ovid was the first to feature Marcus Corvinus, the Roman nobleman sleuth who would go on to star in a whole series of historical crime novels.

“Corvinus started out as a real surprise to me. I had a sort of character in mind – middle aged, certainly, and very straight down the line – but I couldn’t get him to come alive.” Wishart spent three days in front of the computer unable to write until one day, while slumped in his chair in a dressing gown with a glass of wine in his hand, the character suddenly started talking to him.  “He wasn’t the person I had thought he was at all. He was 19 for a start, and he was this total immature, yuppie, spoiled brat. It was so surprising but he was absolutely right and I was chuckling. And after that the book wrote itself.”

The books in the Marcus Corvinus series are humorous, with the characters speaking in modern dialogue. The complex plots can generally be divided into two categories: political mysteries and whodunits. In both cases, Wishart likes to base the story around a documented historical event, using the facts to come up with a new, fictional solution. “It’s a bit like doing The Times crossword: you’ve got to produce an answer that covers all the bases. In crime novels you can’t finish up with the accepted explanation, otherwise it’s just an historical novel.”

Wishart works out the solutions to the historical mysteries he is writing about in much the same way Corvinus does. “I’ve got a list of characters and I imagine how and why each one could have done it.” Wishart, and correspondingly Corvinus, work through the list of key players, formulating theories and eliminating suspects as new information comes to light. “It’s almost like a checklist. At some point you’ve got to put a cross.”

Corvinus is kept on track during his investigations by his sharp-as-a-tack wife, Perilla. “He’s very clever but his enthusiasm and cleverness carry him away beyond the point where he thinks. He’s impulsive. Perilla is a lot more logical. She’ll be looking for flaws and problems. I can let Corvinus take the reader down the hypothetical path and then let Perilla stop that and take them back to reality. At end of the day it’s got to make sense. Perilla is a brake on fanciful plotting. She keeps me, not just Corvinus, on the right line.”

By unravelling the mystery in this way, Wishart ensures that the reader and Corvinus are always at the same level. He confesses to hating crime novels where the writer is purposefully withholding clues from the reader. “That’s why I like writing in first person: you get to assume the reader is fully apprised of what the character is thinking.”

One aspect of first person narrative that sometimes causes difficulty is that the reader must be able to empathise with the character. “Some aspects of Roman life would be completely alien to us and would break the empathy. For example, the real Marcus Corvinus wouldn’t have had an issue with slavery at all. Slaves were ranked below domestic animals. They weren’t people.” In the novels Wishart sometimes has to “blur over reality” so that modern day readers can identify with the characters.  The fictional Marcus Corvinus has developed a camaraderie with his slaves, putting up with his temperamental cook’s mood swings and concocting plans with his wife to help his major domo get a girlfriend.

On the whole, Wishart likes to portray Roman life as accurately as possible. He admits to already having a comprehensive knowledge of Roman history thanks to his Classics degree. He supplements this by further reading into the background of each novel. “The most useful source of research has been the 19th century Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities, two solid volumes of everything you ever wanted to know about Roman and Greek background.” He researches his topic thoroughly before starting to write. He stresses that “you have got to let the character tell the story” and for that reason he has to know everything he can about the background history so that the character doesn’t “walk in a direction you don’t know about.” He likens his theory to seaside binoculars: “you can turn them any way you like but when the money runs out the shutter comes down and you’re blind. If you think your character is going to turn right because you’ve researched that area and he turns left instead, it’s like the shutter coming down.”

He warns against letting the extent of your research show in the writing. “I find that very annoying because it breaks flow of plot. Research is a bit like an iceberg. One tenth of it appears in the book but the other nine tenths aren’t lost, they give the one tenth stability. The reader should think that if they got the author into a corner and said ‘tell us a bit more about this,’ the author could do it. It gives you street cred as an author.”

As well as schooling himself on the historical background, Wishart studies maps of Rome for place names and geography. Surprisingly, he did not actually visit Rome until after he had published several books in the Corvinus series. “Until comparatively recently my only source for the topography of Rome was an early 19th century classical atlas.” Although he planned several trips to Rome, he was always thwarted at the last minute by a series of disasters, from sinking ferries to outbreaks of farming diseases.  His sixth attempt to reach the city was successful but, “two days before we left the pope died. I feel personally responsible for that.”

While in Rome, he felt more connected to his characters, noting that they seemed to “come alive”. He describes an instance where “Corvinus almost took over.” While travelling on the underground with his wife, he noticed someone trying to pick his pocket. “I got him by the throat and I wasn’t letting go. The door opened and he kicked me and took off. I took off after him, grabbed him and I literally lifted him off his feet and slammed him against the wall.  He thrust this bag at me. He didn’t get anything and we won, but it wasn’t me, it was Corvinus.”

Having a strong relationship with your characters is, according to Wishart, the main advantage of writing a series of novels. “They’re all friends. You don’t have to get to know them as you would new characters. You’re straight in there and you can watch them develop. At the beginning, Corvinus had only his own opinion and that was it. Now he can see other people’s points of view, which is good.”

After fifteen years and as many books with Hodder & Stoughton, Wishart has moved to a small print-on-demand publisher with the latest novel in the Corvinus series, Bodies Politic. Being a “small fish” at Hodder, there was little money for marketing his books and he describes his frustration at seeing them disappear into a “publishing black hole”. He is much happier now that he is with PlashMill Press, who have recently launched a blog dedicated to promoting their authors and showcasing their work. Visit the blog now to find out more about Bodies Politic and to order a copy.

Portugese Palaces and Holiday Reading

Palacio Nacional da Pena, Sintra, Portugal

Palacio Nacional da Pena

Which palace would you prefer to live in? The one on the left, Palácio Nacional da Pena, looks all colourful and quirky from the outside, but inside the rooms are small, dark and overstuffed with furniture and ornaments. The one on the right, Palácio Nacional de Sintra, is less breathtaking from the outside (although the double chimney is quite cool), but the rooms inside are spacious and light and decorated with beautiful azulejos. It is also conveniently situated in the town centre, unlike it’s whacky counterpart which a one hour uphill hike from the Portugese town of Sintra.

We (my sister and I) decided that we would choose the Palácio Nacional da Pena on the condition that we could put a helicopter pad on the roof and redecorate the interior. Now who’s going to buy it for me?

Palacio Nacional de Sintra

Palacio Nacional de Sintra

Aside from gallivanting around picturesque palaces, we spent an enjoyable couple of days exploring Lisbon, eating Belém tarts and reading. I read two of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano Mysterieslight, lyrical Sicillian crime novels with mafia, drugs, femmes fatales and gourmet Italian meals all thrown into the mix. I didn’t start at the beginning of the series because although my parents have the first three or four books at home, my sister and I bickered about who would get to read them first with the result that neither us got to read them.

I remember when I first moved to Switzerland swapping book recommendations with a friend. She said, ‘Oh there are these wonderful Italian detective novels but I’m afraid they’ll never be translated into English because they’re written in Sicilian dialect.’ It was the Inspector Montalbano books she was talking about, and of course they have been successfully translated into English, albeit almost a decade after being published in their original language. The Sicilian dialect is comically rendered as some kind of lazy London / New York accent in the speech of Montalbano’s colleague Catarella, who handles incoming calls to the police and passes on semi-accurate, semi decipherable messages (when he remembers) such as :

“Doctor Latte wit’ an S at the end jes’ called. He said that ’cause that they’re having that funiral service for that sinator that died and seeing as how the c’mishner gotta be there poissonally in poisson, atta furinal, I mean, the c’mishner can’t come to see youse like he said he was gonna . Unnastand Chief?”

Catarella’s appearances in the books are, however, so infrequent that I wonder why my friend thought his peculiar dialect would be a barrier to translation. Perhaps the books were originally written entirely in dialect but only Catarella’s small contributions have made it into the English translations to provide a little flavour? Regardless, the English versions are lively, colourful and delicious reads, ideal for whiling away hours on a sunny beach.

What are your holiday reading recommendations?

Stuart Kelly – The West Port Book Festival 2010

The largest monument to an author in the world or a steampunk version of Thunderbird 3?

I made these notes more than a week ago but I was debating whether or not I should post them because a podcast of Stuart Kelly’s event, where he talked about his latest book, Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation,  is available on the West Port Book Festival Website.

In the end I decided I would put them up for those of you who, like me, don’t take anything in through listening alone. If I’m going to retain anything in my head, I have to read it then rewrite it. I must have been responsible for the obliteration of a small forest while studying for Finals.

Another thing is that the podcast won’t tell you anything about the cinnamon cupcakes that were doing the rounds during the event, but I can tell you now that they were delicious.

At last year’s West Port, Stuart Kelly talked about his Book of Lost Books, which is about books you can’t read, perhaps because they have been lost, destroyed, are unfinished or even unstarted. This year he presented Scott-land, which is about books that we don’t read. Specifically, the works of Sir Walter Scott. “Nobody has been as famous and become as forgotten. He is the biggest ever literary failure.” And yet, Kelly said, “No author changed the physical reality of a country as much as Scott did.”

Kelly asked the audience to give him some examples of things that were typically Scottish. For every example we came up with, he pointed out Scott’s influence:

  • Tartan -Tartan was the outfit of a traitor at the time Scott was writing. He changed how people perceived it when he dressed George IV in tartan when the king visited Scotland.
  • Accents – In the Waverly novels Scott used the Scots language in prose.
  • Bank notes – every Bank of Scotland bank note has Scott on it, because he argued against the government trying to get rid of Scottish bank notes.
  • Phrases – Lots of phrases that were coined by Scott have been wrongly attributed to Shakespeare. Two examples are “The war of the roses” and “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

And let’s not forget that the iconic Scott Monument, which Kelly likens in his book to a steampunk version of Thunderbird 3, is the largest monument to an author on the planet.

When Kelly asked who in the audience had read any Scott, only a handful of people raised their hands and half of those had to read him. Kelly said he doesn’t see Scott ever coming back into popularity, which is a pity, because when he re-reads Scott’s novels he keeps finding funny bits. “They all have flaws, they all have purple passages, but they all have something good in them.”

One of the things Kelly likes about Scott is that “he is never patronising to his characters in the lower orders.”

On the whole, Kelly says that “Scott is a strange, weird and wonderful author. He wrote the first novel, to my knowledge, where a monkey solves a crime.”

Branching Out

If you’ve stopped by My Writing Life in the last week or so it might look as though I’ve not been up to much. In fact, I have been working on two new sections for the blog: My Reading List and Edinburgh Tea Tours. I thought it was high time I showed myself to be the multi-faceted individual that I am. I am not just interested in writing but in books and tea too.

Over the coming months I’ll be posting feedback under these sections about some of the novels I’m reading and places where you can get a good cup of tea in Edinburgh. In no way do I consider myself qualified to review anyone else’s writing or tea-drinking establishment so I will be offering only my personal opinion/experience.  I would love to hear about your opinions and experiences of these books and tea rooms too!

A L Kennedy, What Becomes – Edinburgh City Reads

Due to what I can only hope is some kind of administrative error, I worked two days last week and now owe the company £24. This negative salary has only compounded an already worrying financial situation and I have resolved to work harder at writing and to try to make some money from it.

After a couple of productive hours in the library bashing away at an article and a few less productive hours back at the flat, I braved the sleet and went to see A L Kennedy at the third Edinburgh City Reads event.

Who knew A L Kennedy was a comedian? It’s no secret. She even takes her stand-up comedy show on tour. And yet I was completely unprepared for the hilarity of her reading of Story of My Life, one of the short stories in her new collection, What Becomes. It was proper, laugh-out-loud funny. At one point I had to press my face into my hands to stop my wine from shooting out of my mouth. (Oh yes, another great thing about Edinburgh City Reads: not only do you get to be in an audience with an author for free – similar events at the Edinburgh Book Festival would cost you £10 –  but you also get a free glass of wine. I always feel slightly naughty sitting amongst all the ancient books in the reference library with a drink in my hand and have to take sips when I think no one is looking.)

After the reading there were the usual audience questions. I’m about two thirds of the way through my shorthand course so I thought it would be good practice to take notes in Teeline. It turns out I still can’t write as fast in shorthand as I can in longhand so I didn’t manage to get everything down. Here’s a summary:

A L Kennedy is a fan of Shakespeare and would have loved to have met him. She thinks romance should be like it was in his day, when people wrote poems and letters to their sweethearts and love was this enormous thing akin to being hit over the back of the head with a frying pan

She enjoys doing readings and likes to present new stories to see if they work. “I’m an auditory person. I hear [the story] in my head when I write. [At readings] I’m hearing if the music is the correct music.” She doesn’t like travelling to readings so much because it takes time away from her writing. She writes in hotels and on trains to try to get some of this writing time back. The only short story she got in the New Yorker was written on a train.

She doesn’t plan her novels, although she spends about three years researching each book. “I’m researching as I go. I kind of start [writing] when it feels right and see how it goes. I get to a hundred pages and do a rewrite…but it tends not to be a catastrophic rewrite or an abandonment.”

She says that she does not “literally experience the emotions of the characters” she writes but she tries to “follow characters about” so that she can describe how they think and feel.

She always worries that her writing is rubbish. “I don’t like anything that I do that much. It’s always some kind of failure, otherwise I wouldn’t write the next thing. If I thought that I’d nailed it it would be disastrous.”

Despite the author’s own misgivings about her writing, I thought the story we’d heard from What Becomes was excellent and I was very tempted to buy a copy of the book on the spot. Then I remembered that I’m working this weekend so that’s potentially another twenty-four quid down the pan. Thank goodness we have libraries!

Notes from the Continent

I spent New Year 2010 in Brussels and had a fantastic time eating waffles and mussels and drinking Belgian beer. I love European cities and Brussels is a particularly attractive one. Jean Cocteau said that the Grand-Place is the most beautiful square in the world. During the festive period the square came alive in the evenings with the Town Hall sound and light show. It made me laugh every time I saw it, this austere building blinged up with flashing lights and blaring out Christmas tunes. I tried filming it with my mobile phone but the resulting video was rubbish. Luckily there is a much better quality video on youtube courtesy of orbitox1.

It’s probably a grass-is-greener situation but while I was in Brussels I couldn’t help but regret that I don’t live on the continent anymore. I miss speaking another language, colourful old towns and reliable public transport. I miss being able to hop on an overnight train to almost any other European destination at a moment’s notice. I miss carnivals and festivals that we don’t have in the UK. I’ll tell you what I don’t miss though: those piddly little cups of tea you get in continental cafes. I’m sorry but I like my tea in a pot. A big one. And it has to be bitter so that you feel justified in pouring in liberal quantities of milk. And another thing I can do without is the freezing temperatures in winter. Sure it gets cold in Scotland, especially with all the snow we’ve had recently, but it’s never so bad that I have to wear thermal longjohns under my jeans and two pairs of socks.

Tea and temperature aside, one thing a Brit abroad can’t fail to notice is how uptight we are compared to our European counterparts. I remember shortly after moving to Switzerland being horrified that people I’d only just met wanted to kiss me on the cheek by way of a greeting. And I developed a serious crink in the neck from staring at the ceiling in communal changing rooms until I finally got used to the unabashedly naked people milling around me. While we were in Brussels my travel companion and I went to a bookshop cafe and I was shocked when he took a book off the shelf to read while he drank his coffee with no intention of buying it. “We’re not in the UK anymore,” he said. “Look, everybody’s doing it.” And sure enough when I looked around I saw – quelle horreur! – that every coffee splattered, crumb scattered table had a pile of pristine new books on it. Each customer had a cup in one hand, a book in the other, covers bent back with no regard for the spine. But even though everyone else was doing it, and the people who worked in the bookshop seemed completely unfazed by this poor treatment of their wares, I could not bear to bring a book that didn’t belong to me within such close proximity a cup of tea, even if it was only a piddly European cup, so I took out my notebook and wrote for a while instead about the appalingly relaxed attitude of the Europeans towards brand new books.