Storylines schools tour – looking back on a stunning week!
I had such a great time on my Storylines schools tour. The three other authors – poet extraordinaire Paula Green, picture book writer Juliette McIvor (of Marmaduke Duck fame) and Pasifika expert Jill McGregor – were fantastic to work with, and to share all the ups and downs with (mostly ups!)
Here we all are at the Vodafone Centre in South Auckland, after the last session on Friday. I’m in the caving suit I wore inside the Greek cave that features in The Bow, with a borrowed helmet care of Pete Smith of the Auckland Speleo Group.
There were some pretty keen students behind us, as you can see, and plenty of hands up at question time.
And here are some shots of us at work.
– and there’s always time for a bit of fun!
In fact, all the students I met throughout the week were amazing. There couldn’t have been more variety – we visited Decile 3 schools through to Decile 9 and 10s; sometimes we spoke to 20 students, sometimes to 300; and their ages ranged from Year 0 to Year 10, though – with my YA books – I generally presented to Year 6 and up, with the occasional Year 4-5 group added in.
Here I am at my old school, Epsom Girls Grammar, in their lovely new library – well, new by my standards!
What really amazed me, over and over again, was the courtesy the students showed us, and their enthusiasm. Personally, I prefer a touch of anarchy if it also means more energy and involvement from the students ( see the audience photo above at the Vodafone Centre). Almost always we struck just the right mix – gold. Some of the questions blew me away, they were so imaginative and unexpected.
The other thing that constantly impressed me was the commitment and care from so many of the teachers and librarians we met. These people really love their jobs and put everything into their students – very inspiring. Here’s the amazing Fiona Mackie with The Team at Pinehurst.
But Decile levels are often irrelevant – some of the best work and support is also happening at the so-called “lower” education levels. You can be proud!
Glendowie College Year 10’s read Murder at Mykenai
Glendowie’s magnificent Robin Harding wrote the Teacher Resources for Murder at Mykenai last year. Now she’s taught Murder at Mykenai to two of her Year 10 English classes.
Robin lent me a great pile of class assignments to read through. It was a fascinating process to find out how all these students related to the book and discover what they thought and felt. I’ve always believed that once a book is released out into the world, it is no longer “mine” but everyone’s.
Some of the class work was stunning, and I’ve chosen four examples to showcase what great students Glendowie College has – thank you, Grace, Nathan, Brooke and Maya!
Grace was asked to write a postcard from Menelaos to his older brother Agamemnon…
Nathan and Brooke had a series of questions to answer about the early chapters: Pandora’s box; a comparison between Atreus and Thyestes; Menelaos’s nurse’s actions in Ch 12; the switch in perspective between Ch 12 and Ch 13; Menelaos’s family relationship to Palamedes; the title of the book and its meaning; and a comparison between Odysseus and Menelaos (note: if you find the writing too small, just click on the page image).
How fast the world can change
No one who has lived through the Christchurch earthquakes needs to be told how the world around them can change within minutes.
But for some reason, we assume ancient ruins fall to bits really slowly. Sometimes that’s true, but often it happens much faster. The Parthenon, perched on the Acropolis in Athens, was incredibly well-built. It looked like this for over 2000 years.
Then the Turks conquered Greece. In 1687 the Venetians attacked the Turks, and the Turks stored their ammunition inside the Parthenon. When the Venetians shelled the Acropolis, a cannon ball hit the magazine and the whole temple blew up.
Here’s another example – the great hall at Mykenai, where Atreus pardoned his murderous brother Thyestes in Chapter 11 of Murder at Mykenai. This is what it looks like today. You can still see the round pillar bases and the central hearth.
Compare it to this artist’s impression of King Nestor’s great hall at Pylos. Compare the four pillars and the central hearth with the previous photo. Atreus’s hall would have been every bit as glamourous.
The palace of Mykenai burnt down in about 1200 BC, because of a massive earthquake like Christchurch’s. In one night it went from being a fabulous building to a pile of ashes. Nestor’s palace was destroyed around the same time, through enemy invasion.
War and earthquakes have ruined much of what people built in ancient times. But we tend to assume the land has stayed the same. Geology measures change in millions of years, right?
Yes and no.
In 1991, 12-14 million cubic metres of rock and ice fell of the top of Mt Cook/Aoraki. Our highest mountain is now 10 metres lower than it was, the rockfall probably triggered by an earthquake. This kind of event is more common than we realise. Often it’s big, catastrophic events that shape our countryside.
Here’s something similar that happened in Greece. In my last blog, I mentioned I was staying in a fishing village. It’s called Korfos and it’s one of the few good harbours on a mountainous coastline. I was searching for the ancient Mykenaian port nearby, because I’m planning an enemy invasion on this coast for my next book.
I assumed the port would be on Korfos harbour. Instead I found it way over the hills overlooking a funny little headland. That’s it on the right of the picture, with Korfos on the left.
I was really puzzled till I found out that, in the Late Bronze Age, Korfos harbour was a swamp. About a hundred years after the ancient Mykenaian port was built, an earthquake lowered the swamp into the sea and turned it into a harbour. And part of the Mykenaian port disappeared into the sea too, like the lost city of Atlantis, taking its own harbour with it.
There’s lots more I could write about. The lake in The Bow has vanished. The town round Tiryns fortress is buried under 10 metres of flood debris. The Narrows, where Laertes’s ships held the evil king Thyestes at bay, is the gap between two tectonic plates that are moving apart … the list goes on.
Same but Different
When I arrived in Greece at the end of May, I expected some things to be different but other things to be much the way they are back here.
The same: Jeans and tee shirts
Motorbikes and cars (lots of motorbikes)
But then I got some real surprises. Like thunderstorms.
I love thunderstorms. When I was a kid, I’d stand on the dirt road outside our cottage on Waiheke, with the rain pelting down and the mud squishing up between my toes. After each flash, I’d count the seconds till the thunder came – BANG!-rumble-BOOM-BOOM-bump-thud-grumble-mumble. Then silence for ages, apart from the splish of the rain in the puddles.
In Greece last month, I was chased through the hills by a thunderstorm as I searched for an ancient road to Mykenai. I stopped the car and got out to watch. I soon realised this was different to any thunderstorm I’d ever experienced.
For a start, I couldn’t see any lightning. But for the 15 minutes I stood there, the thunder never stopped. It groaned and muttered and growled away without a break, as if the sky god Zeus and his wife Hera were having an argument, with both of them insisting on having the last word.
And then there were the seagulls.
NZ seagulls drift through the air crying gkeee gkeee, when they’re not strutting about screaming Kaar Kaar Kaar at each other. That’s what all gulls do, right?
Wrong. After I’d finished searching for my ancient road, I returned to the fishing village where I was staying. By now I was hungry, so I walked along the waterfront to a taverna. As I sat there, I heard a mewing sound. I looked about for the cat – Greek tavernas always have at least one cat and often about six.
But there was no cat to be seen.
After a while I realised the noise was coming from the seagulls sitting out on the water – you can see them as white dots out beyond the fishing boat. Close up they look just like NZ gulls.
Then I remembered reading some English story or poem, years and years ago, which talked about the “mewing of gulls”. The phrase had passed me by – it was so unlike anything I’d heard gulls do and I put it down to poetic fancy (ie: silliness).
This morning I decided to look up the Oxford Dictionary and there it was: “mew n. the characteristic cry of a cat, gull etc.” In fact, in England, another word for “seagull” is “sea mew” or just plain “mew”. So European gulls are not the same as ours after all.
Sometimes it’s the big, obvious things that take you by surprise. But it’s just as much fun when some small unpredictable thing happens. It makes you look at everything in a fresh way, even the things that are the same.
Stranger and Stranger
A few weeks ago I was wandering through a Greek olive grove, searching for a 3300 year old city (as you do). The first thing I came across was a herd of goats. Soon after that I came across the goatherd, and when I asked him – in my very bad Greek – about the ancient city, he beckoned to me and set off through the trees.
I decided he must be leading me to some spectacular ruins, but instead we ended up at his camp, an untidy clearing with a rickety tin shed, some goatskins over a pole, a very friendly dog and her two young pups. By now I was starting to wonder what was going on.
I soon found out. The goatherd produced a battered saucepan into which he poured some white liquid from a 20 litre plastic container. When he handed it to me, I knew I had no choice but to drink. It was fresh goats’ milk and it was absolutely delicious. This from a man who had almost nothing – by our standards. But because I was a stranger, he wanted to give me something.
What I’d just experienced was a Greek tradition called xenia that goes back thousands of years. In Ancient Greece, kindness to strangers was a sacred duty. The sharing of food and shelter bound people together almost like family. In Homer’s Iliad, the Greek hero Diomedes and his enemy Glaucus, a Trojan ally, stop fighting and swap armour because their ancestors were guest friends.
And early on in my new book The Bow, Odysseus and Diomedes know they can trust each other for the same reason.
If you’ve read Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – surely one of the greatest (and funniest) books ever written – you’ll remember how Durrell was plied with food and wine by the peasants he met .
These days, we’re increasingly careful around strangers. A famous Dame Edna Everage quote goes: “My mother used to say that there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet. She’s now in a maximum security twilight home.”
I think my goatherd would have agreed with Edna’s mum.
Writing – and reading – can be an incredible adventure, even when most of it happens inside your head.
I should say, because most of it happens inside your head. How else can you go back in the past or forward into the future or sideways into another world? How else can you “become” someone else and experience all their fears and dramas and successes, and wake up safe and sound in your own bed the next morning?
But just occasionally we can actually travel to that other place and experience it face to face. I have just come back from a couple of weeks in Greece, where I visited some of the places I wrote about in Murder at Mykenai and The Bow – the fortresses of Mykenai and Tiryns, the site of the lake and the river in Argos, and the secret cave that occupies the middle of The Bow.
The fortress walls are made of enormous blocks of stone, some of them longer than me, and a good deal heavier. Here I am standing in the entrance – it makes you wonder how people 3300 years ago ever put that huge capping stone over the gate without modern cranes and machinery. The Classical Greeks later thought it must have been built by giants – by Cyclopses. Even the doorways to the tombs are huge.
The lake my heroes hide in, in The Bow, has silted up, and people now live on it and grow their crops. But the river is still there, and the reeds. The low, rounded hill on the right, in the middle distance, is the site of Bronze Age Argos.
There’s a shingle spit too at the river mouth, just as I described it in The Bow. It was pretty freaky to find something I thought I’d made up – though the weather was too calm to make the sorts of waves Odysseus and his friends encounter.
The big excitement of the trip was going down into the cave, which was explored in 1893 but forgotten about since. I met up with a bunch of Greek cavers and we had a fantastic time exploring it. Here’s a photos of me and Elissa at the far end, just before the crevice in which Odysseus … but I’d better not say any more, so I don’t spoil The Bow for you.
How did he die?
My Greek caving friends have explored the secret cave that forms the central core of my new book The Bow. In a month’s time, they’ll take me down there as well, to brave the mud and the dark, and see some of the amazing things they’ve found.
Some of it is wonderful – stalagmites and stalactites are always beautiful and exciting. Some of it is a little daunting – “expect some mud” was Nikos Leloudas’s warning. Much of the cave is up to 27 metres below the flood levels of the Mantinea Plain nearby ! So whenever it rains heavily, huge amounts of water come pouring through. Inevitably some of it stays there after the sun comes out.
I’ve been busy looking at predictive weather charts for this part of Arcadia. Fortunately June sees a big drop in rainfall, so I think we’re going to be okay! I’m remembering back to one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, where a cave under the sea gets flooded and The Five only just get out. I’m still haunted by the fate of the baddies who were trapped.
The scariest thing Nikos and his friends found was this skull. It looks as though it’s buried in mud, but in fact all the stuff around it is limestone. How long has it been there? That’s really hard to say – the growth of stalagmites will vary hugely. It could be as little as .007 mm a year, or as much as 1 mm. It depends on the amount of water dripping from the roof of the cave, and the amount of calcium in the water.
What we can be sure of is that this skull has been there for a while! Nikos believes that the skeletons they come across in these deep places are the remains of people caught in floods up on the surface, who were washed down into the cave. One group of bodies, in the nearby Kapsia cave, started turning into a rather gruesome stalagmite around 300 BC. Our gentleman here may not have been there that long.
I’m also a bit concerned about the hole in his cranium above his eyes. Could it have been the result of a whack on the head? This particular cave has an entrance up on a slope above the plain, so it’s less likely to have been caused by a flood-driven tree trunk or other debris.
Rabies, Greek caves and bats!
I’ve just had my second rabies injection, ahead of my Greek trip at the end of May. Not because I’m an inoculation junkie, or even slightly paranoid. Dogs are common in Greek villages but mad dogs are rare these days.
No, it’s because the biggest carriers of rabies in Europe are bats. And the Greek cave I’m going down into has a large bat population – or did back in 1893 when the cave was first explored. I’ve used the original cavers’ account to write the cave section in my new book The Bow, complete with flailing bats that come pouring out of a low crack that my heroes have to crawl through.
My travel doctor explained that bat teeth are so fine, you often don’t know you’ve been bitten. So I could come out of the cave thinking I’m absolutely fine, and die horribly within a few months. A few near-painless injections at the doctors seems like a sensible alternative.
Rabies is one of the most terrible diseases you can get. Symptoms include paranoia, terror and hallucinations, hydrophobia (fear of water) and delirium. Once the symptoms appear, death is almost certain.
But once I’ve had my final booster, those rabid little critters can chew on me all they like.
Pruning by colours
It’s coming into summer, and my garden is full of colour.
Back inside, a parallel process has been happening. The Bow – my new project with Walker Books – landed on my editor’s computer screen at 85,000 words. Walker love the book AND they want it to be 60,000 words long. That’s 70% of the original length.
Six weeks later, the pruning’s done. I won’t say removing three words out of every ten has been unmitigated fun – sometimes it’s been exhausting and stressful. Slaughtering your babies (as Margaret Mahy so tellingly said) leaves you wading knee deep in your own verbal blood. Think leeches and other medieval forms of medical torture.
My old method of pruning was to print out a hard copy and attack it with pen or pencil. It generally looked like this:
With The Bow, I realised I could have huge amounts of fun onscreen, using highlighting colours. There were three themes or subplots my editor and I identified as spurious, and they were tagged in yellow, green or blue. Red was for re-writes and purple was for excess in general.
Here’s the same passage as the hack-and-slash version, with the highlights instead.
Not only can I see more clearly what I’m changing, I’m also seeing why I’m making the change. Every morning, once the highlighting was done for each chapter, I had a ball zapping all the coloured bits with my trusty mouse and delete button.
And it was exhilarating to re-read the chapter once the “extra” words were gone. Nearly every time, the new version felt clearer and stronger.
- Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive when you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.
Orwell sums up the whole process by saying: “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.
You can find the full essay on http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit
The best one of all is #3 – this has served me as snips, secateurs, shears, electric hedge trimmers and even chainsaw when required. You can paraphrase it by saying: if you can take this word or phrase or clause or sentence or paragraph or chapter(!) out and the writing still says what you need it to say, TAKE IT OUT.
My second book, The Bow, signed to Walker
Excited because Walker have signed up my second book, a sequel to Murder at Mykenai called The Bow. Publication date is June 2014 – an excuse for another party! The book tells how Odysseus came to own the great bow which he famously (and much later) shot the dastardly suitors with at the end of The Odyssey.
For Odyssey buffs, the Homeric version comes at the start of Book 21: Odysseus “though a mere boy at the time” has been sent by his father and the Ithakan elders to Messenia, to retrieve 300 stolen sheep and their shepherds. There he meets … but that would be spoiling the story.
How did Odysseus acquire such an extraordinary weapon as such a young age? After all, this bow was rivalled only by the great bow of Herakles (Hercules to non-Homeric buffs). I had to work backwards to find the threads that might have woven themselves together to create such a startling result.
As with Murder at Mykenai, I’ve taken a small strand of mythology and expanded it into a much larger story. And this is where the daunting part comes in! I was having so much fun, my word count ballooned out to 85,000 words – 25,000 more than Walker Books want.
Yup, three words out of every ten have to go. So right now I have my pruning shears in hand – you might think “chainsaw” rather than “secateurs”. And we’ve all viewed gardens that have been pruned that way. But it’s proving to be a really enjoyable exercise – a bit like polishing a gemstone. The more I rub away, the brighter and clearer the story gets.
Wish me luck!