Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On olives, longevity and litigiousness

There's something serious about olive-trees. Gnarled, ironhard, producing grey-green leaves and succulent salty fruits often for centuries on end, they are frankly a bit special. Nowadays there is a connoisseur trade in ancient olive-trees, symbols of a timeless rustic lifestyle, old masters with bark on them.

In Greece olive oil was essential as a staple crop for local consumption and export, as it still is, and in Athens the trees were under regular inspection. Amongst them the sacred olive-trees were especially precious, as the un-named defendant of a lawsuit in around 395BC knew well. Scattered across the farms of Attica, some of them little more than stumps with fences around them, these trees were thought to descend from one presented to the infant city by Athene herself and were protected by religious law.

We know of the case, though not its outcome, from the speech written for the defendant by the professional speechwriter Lysias. The piece of land in dispute had once been confiscated from a discredited oligarch and since then resold to the defendant, who had proceded to rent it out to a series of tenants. The accusation had been made, for reasons unknown, that he had uprooted and removed a sacred olive stump from his land. This could have resulted in his exile and the confiscation of his property by the state, so the man's defence was robust.

The speech touches on several aspects of Athenian society. First the defendant denies that there had ever been this olive-stump on his land in the first place, then blames the Peloponnesian War, in which the Spartan army had devastated olive-trees, which take a generation to grow large enough to bear fruit, as a scorched-earth tactic. Why, he went on, should he do anything so stupid as to destroy a sacred object in broad daylight, when anyone could report him? Even if he had managed to keep it secret, his own slaves could have blackmailed him for ever after. In any case, there were no other olives on that piece of land and its absence would have been obvious for all to see. He has offered those same slaves for torture - a common tactic implying an absence of anything to hide - but his generous offer was spurned by his accuser, who dismissed slave evidence as unreliable.

The details go on, but the speaker ends with a familiar appeal. Since Athenian law concentrated not purely on the case but on the characters of the plaintiff and defendant, he plays up his services to the city - financing a trireme for the navy, supplying funds for a play at one of the dramatic festivals (themselves semi-religious affairs) - and piles on the sack-cloth and ashes. How unfortunate I would be, he says, driven into exile, torn from my children, leaving my mother destitute and my house deserted!

All about a tree-stump. But in the Athenian context it was a matter of enormous importance, bringing together religious belief, social and political jealousy, the master-slave relationship, past history, civic identity and the love of going to law. Being rich enough to equip a warship meant that this defendant was also rich enough to hire Lysias, but he had to deliver every word of the speech himself. On the Hill of Ares, before the King-Arkhon and jurors, with the prospect of exile in front of him, this unknown man was on his own.

It's in this context that I wrote A Pig in the Roses, which includes a trial held in this court - full details are at, along with my children's story The House in Athene Street, my short story collection Voices in the Past and the latest Anglo-Saxon story, Starlight.

STOP PRESS: A Pig in the Roses is a miserly $1.99 this week at Smashwords if you use coupon ST73U (offer ends on June 3).


Monday, May 23, 2011

Regency Romance and Cats

Grace Elliot - cat lover and romantic

I recently met another English historical novelist on Facebook - Grace Elliot, and was interested to discover that by day she is a vet.
I interviewed her to find out how historical romance and the world of science and animal medicine might meet, as they seem strange bedfellows. Although people might think it a little odd, incongruous even – evidence based science versus flights of imagination - Grace expained that the two very different occupations make perfect companions.

Grace said:
"Vetting is an emotionally draining job and as a professional I must hold my feelings in check, whereas writing is about expression and helping others to experience emotion. After a demanding day’s work, writing is my therapy; a completely different skill that helps me leave the pressures of work behind. Immersing myself in plot and description has taught me how to switch off from the real world and escape for a while to a time of satins and silks, where real men rode stallions and a woman with opinions was considered rebellious.

Deborah: What made you embark upon writing historical romance?

"Until five years ago, despite being an avid reader, I was prejudiced against the romance genre. Mistakenly, I had the impression romance was light weight fiction, a flimsy read for ‘losers’ (Before you throw things at the screen, let me say that it took me reading Prince Charming by Gaelen Foley, to see how utterly wrong I was.) In a eureka moment I realized there was enough pressure and angst in the real world, to make the escapism of reading historicals a sensible way of staying sane.
I describe myself as a ‘guerrilla’ writer. As a wife, mother and working woman, I take advantage of every spare moment and ruthlessly hunt out moments that would otherwise be lost to watching TV soaps (or doing housework!), to spend them writing instead."

Deborah:Tell us about your Regency debut novel, "A Dead Man's Debt" and what inspired you to write that particular story.

‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ is a story of blackmail, duty and unexpected love. I wanted to explore how an independent minded woman (Celeste Armitage) would fair in the Regency world of etiquette and restrictions. As a foil to unconventional Celeste, the hero, Lord Ranulf Charing, is a man hamstrung by duty who subjugates his own desires to protect the family’s reputation.
The inspiration behind the story for ‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ sprang from a portrait of the young Emma Hart (who later married Lord Hamilton and became Horatio Nelson’s mistress) The painting by George Romney shows an innocent yet lush young woman, scantily clad with a hint of bosom, brazenly staring out of the canvas with an allure that is quite hypnotic. It struck me as sensational for an 18th century work, that the sitter was not prim, proper, straight backed and starchy. At the time the picture must have been utterly scandalous.
So what if the woman in the portrait wanted to shock? From this, Lady Sophia Cadnum, (Ranulf’s mother) was born; a woman used as a brood mare, who resented her children. What if years later, this same portrait threatened to disgrace her son, forcing him to do the very thing she resented and marry from duty…"

Thanks Grace for taking the time to talk to me. You can find out more about Grace at
‘A Dead Man’s Debt’ is available on Amazon, Smashwords, Fictionwise as well as other eBook stores.

For more about Deborah -

Friday, May 20, 2011

Macaroni! And I Don't Mean Pasta

Every era has its extremes of dress. The Sixties had micro-minis. The Roaring Twenties had flapper dresses. Georgian England had macaronis.

Although today most fashion is geared toward women, the macaronis were men. "Macaroni" or "maccaroni", from the Italian word, maccherone, which literally means a boorish fool, described the height, and often the extremes, of male fashion in the mid 1700's.

Brought from the continent by idle young men on their Grand Tour, macaroni dress took the standard male wardrobe of wig, coat, waistcoat, breeches, stockings and shoes to absurd lengths. The express purpose was to shock people. And shock they did. Coats were tight. Huge buttons decorated short waistcoats. Narrow, dainty shoes sported buckles almost larger than they were. And copious amounts of lace, ribbon, ruffles and whatever other outrageous decoration took the wearer's fancy trimmed the outfits, with everything in gaudy colors and showy fabrics like silks and satins.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of macaroni fashion was the wig. As in these pictures, macaroni wigs were excessively elaborate and tall, and, by contrast, crowned with a tiny hat that literally could be removed only with the point of a sword.

Macaroni clothing was never mainstream. While the fashion provided a wealth of fodder for caricatures, most people laughed it off as the blatant posturing of immature males.

The word remains in the vocabulary, although today its definition has constricted to pasta. But several vestiges of its original meaning linger to confound us.

The Macaroni Penguin, a large crested penguin native to Antarctica and the southern tip of South America, owes its name to the Georgian macaronis. English mariners in the Falkland Islands, off the coast of Chile, named the bird. With its flamboyant, colored head feathers, the penguin reminded the sailors of the macaronis back home.

And Yankee Doodle "stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni".

Next time, Yankee Doodle and macaronis.

Thank you all,
Welcome to My World of Historical Hilarity!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Rake's Progress Through Literature

Blake, Viscount Dangerfield must marry Wilhelmina Corbet, his cousin three times removed, or lose his inheritance. It is a codicil in his despised father’s will. That he must marry at eight and twenty, when life is just as he likes it comes as a shock, but to marry a drab hoyden just out of the schoolroom,  a hayseed from Northumberland, is deplorable. The last time he saw her she had her hair down and was climbing a tree.
When Willy comes to stay at Hawkeswood, she proves to be everything Blake feared and more, riding his father’s untamed horse and rescuing a fox cub with a broken leg. Blake grits his teeth and decides that after they marry, he will leave her in the country to raise his child, while he returns to London, where his men friends and the ladies of the opera know how to live.

RAKE is short for rakehell, a historic term for a man of immoral conduct, who uses women heartlessly for his own ends.
In Restoration English comedy  (1660-1688) the rake was a carefree, witty, sexually irresistible aristocrat. The merry gang of courtiers, of which the 2nd Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Dorset were a part,  combined riotous living with intellectual pursuits and patronage of the arts. After the end of Charles II rein, however, the rake took a dive into squalor. His fate was  sealed in debtor's prison, venereal disease or in the case of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, insanity in Bedlam.
In 18th Century England, a rake was seen to be someone who wasted his inherited fortune on gambling, wine and women incurring vast debts. He was also a man who seduced innocent young women and left them pregnant.
 This thoroughly unattractive rakehell has been turned into a brooding hero by authors such as the Bronte sisters, and later, Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. In modern historical romances, he continues to be redeemed by a feisty heroine.
My three novellas are available in e-book and are coming to print in an anthology, Regency Bucks soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Free historical short story

My historical short story, A New Dawn, is now available for FREE on my publisher's website.


Escaping a brutal father, Briony runs to James, the man she loves.
With his family’s blessing, they marry and prepare for a new life in a new country – America.
A wedding gift of two tickets to travel on an ocean liner is a wonderful surprise.
Full of anticipation and hope, they set sail.
Only, fate has sent them a challenge that tests, not just their strength and love, but their very survival.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ancient Greece for mystery-lovers... and for children

As I wrote my ancient Athens mystery, A Pig in the Roses, I grew rather fond of the hero's family: Diokles himself, the determined but harrassed merchant with a lot on his mind; his wife Helike, a bustling country girl making a go of city life; their young daughter Xanthippe, bright-eyed and curly-haired, desperate to achieve some grown up dignity in spite of the activities of her much younger brother Euphemos, a self-absorbed bundle of chaos.

One of the elements I tried to maintain in what is in places quite a dark book - it contains several deaths and some murky social undertones - was the picture of a normal family coping with a desperate situation while trying to maintain their normality. There was no criminal investigation in ancient Greece, and it was the duty of the family to pursue an offender and bring cases to court, so Diokles is knocked sideways when his wife's uncle Makron, earning a living in town as a stonemason and living with his hypochondriac ex-slave mistress in Diokles' house, is hauled before a magistrate and accused of murdering his brother, an elderly farmer.

The book is set in 431 BC, at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, a time of country folk abandoning their villages to cram themselves into every available living-space in Athens, of tensions and divided loyalties. The chain of events involves several murders and all the family becomes involved. Diokles bears the brunt of it, with his persistence, trading contacts and tendency to jump in with both feet, but Helike makes important contributions through her dealings with other wives and spiky encounters with another key figure, Melitta, a young Samian courtesan.

Xanthippe and Euphemos, too, have their parts to play, and it was involving the children which made me think there was a story for young readers to be made out of the family, or characters based on them. The result was The House on Athene Street, a 10,000-worder for the 9-12s. This is a much more straightforward plot. Those who read both books will recognise the family, but most of the names are changed and the hero is an elder brother, the 13-year-old Hermippos, created for the children's story. Athene Street keeps the social context, ditches the politics and goes for a kidnap and chase plot involving the youngest child, the Egyptian girl Tiya, who keeps a perfume-stall, Tiya's uncle Wenamun, a length of rope, a pottery horse and rider and a stroppy red-head up a tree. Hermippos, naturally, saves the day, with lessons learnt about loyalty, bravery, co-operation, difference and the persistence of small brothers.

The difference in writing between the two? Not much, really. The Pig is much the more complex and has elements which children will not (probably should not) follow, but still qualifies as a 'cozy'. The parents are seen in a protective role in Athene Street, with the children to the front of the action, and nobody comes to much harm except the villain's dignity.

Both books are Smashwords titles, are available in all the usual formats and are scheduled to appear at the main ebook sellers as part of Smashwords' premium programme. All the details, summaries, buy links and excerpts are on my website,, and my Smashwords page.