Friday, March 4, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: A Visa to the Ancient World

Novel Adventurers are very happy to welcome our guest blogger today. Gary Corby is the author of The Pericles Commission, the first in a series of murder mysteries set in the ancient world.  He lives in Sydney, Australia, with one wife, two daughters, four guinea pigs, and two budgies. You can catch him on his blog at, on twitter, and on GoodReads

Novel Adventurers is all about different cultures and storytelling, so this is the perfect place to discuss a question close to my heart: when you write a book, does it help to visit the places you're writing about?

The answer should obviously be yes, but I write murder mysteries set in the ancient world.  My detective Nicolaos walks the mean streets of ancient Athens as an agent for the up and coming young politician Pericles, keeping the city safe from enemies both domestic and foreign, while his fellow citizens go about the job of founding democracy, drama, philosophy, history and science.  The adventures of Nicolaos are really an invitation to come join the world of classical Greece, and watch what happens as western civilization is born. 
There lies a problem, because short of a time machine, visas to 460BC are hard to come by.

Can I really bring this ancient culture back to life?  Well if I can't, you'll never know the difference, because you can't go back in time to check me.  But wouldn't it be nice if I could have some assurance that the people I describe, the architecture, the way of life, the shops and the food and the ceremonies and the way the children played in the street, had some patina of reality?

Fortunately I can, sort of, because some of the places I write of still exist.  Dotted around the eastern Mediterranean are some amazing ruins.  They're ruins, yes, but with a little imagination and a lot of archaeology you can tell immense amounts about the life and times of our cultural ancestors.

It's possible to visit the Acropolis in Athens, for example.  There's a slight problem with that, because the Parthenon that everyone goes to see hasn't been built at the time I'm writing.  Yet I've stood there and discovered for myself how far you can see in each direction and felt the breeze.  More importantly for my books, I've stood on a rock outcrop next to the Acropolis, one which is called the Areopagus, and which figures heavily in my first book.  In fact it's because I've stood there that I was able to write my first book.  

I once visited Ephesus, which back then was a thriving Greek city just within the borders of the Persian Empire.  Ephesus was abandoned in medieval times, which was bad news for the city but wonderful news for me.  Ephesus today is part of Turkey and a magnificent ruin totally worth visiting.  Unlike Athens, which is covered in some pretty awful modern buildings, Ephesus is there to see as it was in Roman times.  Not my period, but it's not so hard to walk the streets and subtract the Roman additions in my imagination.  The same applies to Olympia, where the ancient Olympic Games were held.  Needless to say, Ephesus and Olympia feature in my second and third books.  

So it can be done.  The other places—very important places!—to get a visa to ancient Athens are in Paris, London and New York.  The Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan are my friends.  Also the Getty and any number of smaller museums.  In a very meaningful way, they have more of the ancient world than the ruins in Greece, because they can show you the everyday things like cooking utensils, and kids' toys.
So I might not be able to live in ancient times, but the archaeologists can get me a visitor's pass.


  1. Oh Gary, many thanks for the tips on getting the visitor passes! Now how about the travel budget? Any tips for us there? J

    I remember the view and the breeze atop the Acropolis too. What a great place to let your imagination run wild. I can't wait to check out your novels. Thanks for the fabulous post!

  2. I read THE PERICLES COMMISSION and enjoyed it very much. My question is more cultural than archeological. The role of women in classical Greece was less than ideal by today's standards. Was it a challenge to bring a strong female character like Diotoma to life on the page, given the time and place you were writing about?

  3. Gary, thanks for blogging with us today and sharing these insights into your books. Next time you time travel, can I come along? It sounds like so much fun!

    I've been to a few ancient sites in Iran, and I your post brings back exactly how those places felt, almost like I was breathing ancient air. You mentioned Ephesus... Do you have any plans to set a book farther into the Persian Empire?

  4. Thank you so much for your post, Gary! I discovered the joy of ancient historicals a few years ago and when I heard about your book, I knew I had to get it!

    It's really interesting what you said about how the museums can help a writer so much. It's very true that the small stuff counts and makes one's writing more authentic.

    I would love to know what is the most interesting or surprising thing you have found in your research.

  5. It's a pleasure, ladies. And thanks so much for having me here!

    VR, the answer is finding strong women is actually quite easy. Queen Gorgo of Sparta was the brilliant advisor behind three Spartan Kings. The real Diotima was deeply respected by both Socrates and Plato. Aspasia was a genius of rhetoric, and probably wrote the most famous speech of the ancient world. Phryne held unbelievable power for a courtesan, Queen Artemisia not only fought at Salamis, but was the best commander on the Persian side. (Xerxes said, in the heat of battle, "My men have turned to women, and my women to men.")

    The social position wasn't really all that different to Georgian and early Victorian times.

  6. Hi Heidi, good to meet you! Nico takes a tiny step inside the empire in the second book. I expect he'll go further during a later adventure, but I really can't say for sure. I'd love to get him to Susa or Babylon.

    Since Athens and Persia are currently in what amounts to a cold war, any job deep inside Persia would certainly be a dangerous mission for our heroes.

  7. Supriya, for travel budget you need to break into a museum and steal all the ancient Athenian drachmas on display. If you totaled them all up there'd be enough to live on for a few years.

    Alli, the most surprising thing...hmm...there are quite a few weird and wonderful habits. One I haven't mentioned in the books (yet) is that when men went to the agora to shop, they might carry their coins in their mouth. No pockets in a chiton! Clearly personal hygiene isn't what it used to be.

  8. I really enjoyed The Pericles Commission- I learned a thing or two as well!

    I loved Ephesus, especially the residential area you had to pay extra to enter. It was totally empty of tourists, but filled with exquisite frescoes and mosaics.

    My daughter liked it too because she found a turtle crawling in the grass. :)

  9. Hi Stephanie,

    A few scenes in the second book occur at for-real places among the ruins. They obviously weren't ruins at the time, of course! So when you read it, you'll know exactly where they are.

  10. Awesome! Gary, could you tell us a little bit more about how to put in the everyday experience of the ancients organically? Like food or smells, the smaller details that people may not think of but add to a story when those details are present. You mentioned kids' toys and coin-in-mouth habits. How do you bring in those smaller details in your work without it sounding "Oh! And this is really interesting too!"?

  11. I really enjoyed your book Gary. In fact I'm hoping to visit Greece this summer and if I do I'll be thinking about your work!

  12. That's terrific, Tana! I hope you have a great time. Remember to take the sunscreen. It's a bright sun in those parts.

  13. Hi Jenny, the best suggestion I have is this: that if you were writing in contemporary times then you'd automatically insert life details without even thinking about it, because you know the answers off the top of your head.

    For ancient times then, get to know the period well enough that you're as at home in an ancient Greek agora as you are in your local shopping mall. Then when you come to write, the details will drop in without you having to think about it.

    I did give myself one big advantage: I positioned Nicolaos as a young man who's just finished his compulsory 2 years in the army, and only begun to live an adult life. So there's plenty he doesn't know that he has to learn, and we learn along with him. It's my simple method of giving me more scope.

  14. Gary - you HAVE already mentioned that ancient Greeks carried money in their mouths at the agora :) It's in one of the first chapters of TPC, which I am currently enjoying. In fact, the reason I got up late today (eh-hem 0930 EST) was because TPC kept me up last night. I can't wait to find out what happens. When are your next books scheduled to be published in the US? Thanks!

  15. OMG, you're right Suze. Would you believe I totally forgot that I'd put that in? I had to open a copy to check. Talk about Author Fail.

    I pulled that detail by the way from A Day In Old Athens, written back in 1910 by a guy called William Stearns Davis. It's still very readable.

    There's no finer compliment to an author, than to hear his book kept someone up late at night, so thank you very much!

    Book 2 in the series will be called The Ionia Sanction, and it releases in the US on 8th November. You heard it here first! The Australian release date will likely be very similar, but I that's not decided yet.

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