Yep. it's Hades and Persephone

The archaeologists have uncovered the rest of the mosaic.  And there, sure enough, is Persephone.

Which means the guy carrying her off is Hades.  Which means you can't use this picture to predict who's inside.  It's a stock image, like putting Jesus on the cross over a modern tomb.

Of course, this one's a particularly exquisite stock image!  The intriguingly round damage in the centre is a bit of a bummer, but even so this mosaic will be gracing art history textbooks for the next century or so.

The press release on this mentioned the same thing I did in my last post: the style of this picture is very similar to one at the royal Macedonian burial ground at Vergina.  That other tomb is believed to be Philip II's, the father of Alexander.

Let me take a moment to talk about why the guy on the chariot could be called either Hades or Pluto.  In the original Greek religion he was Hades.  His underworld realm of the dead came to be known by the name of its ruler, but that wasn't originally the case.

By the time of Nicolaos and Diotima, the dead go to Hades, which is ruled by Hades.  This is kind of confusing.  In my books therefore I usually distinguish by calling the place Hades, and its ruler Lord Hades, which isn't technically correct but means you have some idea of which Hades is meant when my characters are talking.

Real classical Greeks had the same problem, so sometimes referred to the god Hades by his epithet Plouton.  The Romans picked that up and changed it to Pluto.

So technically I could call him Pluto in my books, but if I did, too many readers would imagine a lovable puppy dog, which isn't quite the reaction I want when discussing the feared Lord of the Dead.

I'm literally aghast

Merriam-Webster, who should know better, has decided that literally means the exact opposite of literally.  Google has followed suit.   They've decided that since most of the internet world has no clue how to use literally, that they might as well give up and give it the wrong definition.  

This will inevitably raise the age-old question whether dictionaries should describe the language as it's used, or the language as it should be used.  

But, if you're going to take the rubbish written on the internet as the definition of English, then it's only a small matter of time before school dictionaries tell u that u means you.  Looking forward to that, r we?

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad

Your quiz for today:  who said "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad"?

Was it Shakespeare?  Was it Homer?


If you googled for the answer, you probably think Euripides.  This is a classic example of something being repeated on the internet so much that people think it must be true.  The answer isn't Euripides.

In its usual wording as above, it comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  But he was rephrasing a saying that goes back more than 2,500 years.  The earliest use I know of is the play Antigone, where Sophocles quotes a version, which I've stolen from the Perseus translation:
For with wisdom did someone once reveal the maxim, now famous,
that evil at one time or another seems good,
to him whose mind a god leads to ruin.
Sophocles then adds:
But for the briefest moment such a man fares free of destruction.
Which is a variant of, "Well it seemed like a good idea at the time!"

And as the text makes clear, by the time of classical Athens it was already considered an old saying.  The origin must go back into prehistory.  Which is rather cool really for such a subtle idea.

Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing: an historical perspective

It seems to be the season for losing great writers. I'm sorry to say Elmore Leonard has passed away. His most popular work was a book-turned-film by the name of Get Shorty, though crime readers know him for 40+ other fine books.

But Leonard's probably best known for his ten rules of writing. They've been copied across the internet about a trillion times, so let me add to the total. Here they are, from a master of crime writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 

words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I know of some writers who follow these rules with religious zeal. Elmore Leonard himself noted that for every rule, there was a good writer who could break it with no problems. Leonard's rules describe his own rather sparse style very well, so it might be more accurate to say that if you want to be a super-successful writer of contemporary American crime fiction then here are some rules to live by.

I don't think Elmore Leonard's rules work quite as well for historical mysteries, and I'm not quite of the same style. So I thought I'd comment on which I think work and which are modifiable.

1. Never open a book with weather.

I'm totally with him on this one. Always open with action. Always! The weather can wait, unless it's raining frogs. I would definitely mention if it was raining frogs. Or bodies.

2. Avoid prologues.

Another big yes. Either the prologue's necessary, or it isn't. If it isn't, it should be cut. If it is, then you've just begun your book with an entire chapter of back story and exposition.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

I disagree with this. There's another important rule to always use the strongest, most descriptive verbs. A verb can work very hard for you when you pick the right one. Rather than go across the room, a character can walk, run, lope, crawl, stagger etc.

The logic for "said" is that any other verb distracts attention from the dialogue, which is true. But sometimes, if you're selective, it can add meaning. I'm happy for my characters to growl, mutter, shout and whisper. Because I write in first person, the choice of tag can tell us in a single word what Nico thinks of some other character's statement.
"How come I'm the one left holding the baby?" Socrates whined.
Or a non-said tag can tell us about Nico's hidden motives. My favourite for this is whenever Socrates upstages Nico with some brilliant deduction, Nico adds:

Socrates makes brilliant deduction.
"I was just about to say the same thing," I lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.

Yes, I tend to agree. But that's because I dislike Rule 3, hence I use more colourful tags. Rules 3+4 taken together creates more blandness than I like in dialogue. Leonard himself was not a dialogue sort of guy, whereas I use lots.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

My name is Gary and I have a dependency issue with exclamation points. Three per book is way too low, but there is indeed a rather low limit to these things. Where characters get excited, a nicely placed ! can avoid having to use the word "shout" too much. (Which would in turn break rule 3...I'm not scoring well here...)

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

The latter would be a terrible anachronism in my books. The former is an adverb, and a better choice of verb can help you avoid it.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Deliberately mis-spelled words to simulate a patois are a pain to read and a pest to type. So yes, avoid.

But this one's a tough problem for historical authors. I "translate" the speech of my characters from ancient languages such as Greek and Persian into modern English. Ancient people spoke with different accents, depending on where they came from and their social class, just like modern people, and somehow I have to reflect that in a way that's recognizable. The only alternative is for everyone from the fishwives to the statesmen to all sound like they went to Oxford, a subject on which I've previously written.

So generally I try to find speech patterns for various classes and locations that don't require mispelling and aren't too evocative of any particular modern population. (It clearly won't do for example for any of my characters to sound like a Frenchman.)

Yet you want a certain degree of consistency within a character group. My thugs and dockside low-lives do tend to sound Australian, since they'll say "mate", but otherwise they don't carry the nasal accent and even they are usually grammatically correct.

Yet you can't win on this. I noticed one reader review for Sacred Games in which the reader who otherwise liked the book was disappointed that a couple of dumb fighters had been given a southern drawl. Which came as news to me. I had to go back to my own book to work out who they meant. The reader had simply heard a different accent to the one I'd heard. So on this point, the historical author is pretty much doomed. Sigh.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Generally yes.

Though in classical historicals you need to take a brief moment to describe the clothing, because it's wildly different to modern wear. I did have such fun with Nico trying to put on a pair of trousers in The Ionia Sanction.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

And here's the big difference. People read historicals because they want to be in a different time and place. It has to be described! Though generally the best descriptions involve lots of verbs and not so many adjectives, so that the reader gets a feeling of a living, moving classical world, like us but different.

Best to avoid blocks of descriptive text though, but rather edge descriptions into the action. This is also a very common method in science fiction.  (In passing, SF and historical mysteries have a great deal of technique in common.)

The classical travel writer Pausanias by the way clearly had never heard of Leonard's rules, because he describes every building he sees right down to length, width and height measurements and even the colour of the curtains (I'm not kidding). I wish I could send Pausanias a thank you card.

10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

The best advice of all.

Working titles

I guess this might interest a few of the writer-types among us.  When you sell a book, the title on the front of your ms isn't necessarily the title that will appear when it pops out as a real printed book.  That's why they call them working titles.

The original working title for The Pericles Commission was The Ephialtes Affair.  At the time, you see, I was thinking in terms of an Agatha Christie title scheme.  The Mysterious Affair At Styles... The Ephialtes Affair.

Then I sold the book.  Or rather, my brilliant agent sold the book.

After the editors had finished recoiling in horror, it was clear the title would have to change.  To start with, Ephialtes is an incredibly awkward name for a title.  Secondly, affair has another meaning.  Was this book about a love affair with a Greek shipping magnate?

This is the point where an author needs to be more in love with the idea of a successful book, than in love with his own words.  Luckily for me, I'm entirely devoid of sentimentality.  The only problem was to come up with a new naming scheme.

It was me who came up with The Pericles Commission, but it could have been any one of the five of us who were thinking about a new title.  Consensus came when we realized this wasn't a Christie-like series; it was more like Robert Ludlum.   So I moved from an Agatha Christie naming scheme to a Robert Ludlum naming scheme.

Having learned the lesson with book 1, you'd think I'd get the title for book 2 right, wouldn't you?  I did, sort of.  The working title was The Magnesia Sanction.

All was well until the editor pointed out that in America, the only use of the word magnesia was in milk of magnesia, which is used to treat bowel complaints.  Perhaps that was an association we would wish to avoid.  

The Magnesia Sanction became The Ionia Sanction.   The city of Magnesia was in the province of Ionia, so it was an easy fix.  If anything it sounds better.

Which brings us to Sacred Games.  It's the first time my working title has survived!