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!
Murder on Amazon!
Murder on Amazon
Yes! “Murder at Mykenai “ has finally made its way onto what most people think IS ebook territory, pure and simple – Amazon.com. Go to http://www.amazon.com/Murder-at-Mykenai-ebook/dp/B00FLPBBE8/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1381553442&sr=1-1&keywords=Catherine+Mayo or just search under “Murder at Mykenai” or “Catherine Mayo”.
Amazon hasn’t quite equalled Google – when we want to buy an ebook, we don’t say “I’ll Amazon it”, in the way we say “I’ll Google it” when we’re searching for information. And yet, over the last few months, whenever I or my friends were checking to see whether Walker had managed to conquer the e-demons and turn Murder at Mykenai in to an ebook yet, it was to Amazon that we went.
But there are lots of other ebook sites, and lots of online bookseller sites which include ebook options, besides Amazon. And it’s not as though everyone is using a Kindle as their reading device. Lots of people have a different brand of pad or tablet, which can limit where and how they buy their ebook.
When I first got my iPad (yes, I’m an iPad girl) I went hunting round the iBooks store. There were a few delirious moments while I downloaded all my favourite Jane Austins for free. And then … maybe my choice of reading is weird. Different, anyway. I couldn’t find title after title of contemporary fiction I wanted. But there they all were on Amazon.
Grizzling and moaning gets you a long way – or at least, it gets non-computer-savvy people a long way when they grizzle and moan to much-more-computer-savvy family and friends. Before you could say “Pride and Prejudice” I had the “Kindle Store” app downloaded onto my iPad (thank you, Alan!) and I was away. It hasn’t done my credit card balance much good (“But darling, it was only $4.99” – only repeated umpteen times a month).
A BIG thank you to Walker Books Australia for persevering – they are new to the ebook process and I’m one of their first titles to go this way. Having listened to my writer friends wail about the head-scratching, hair-pulling ordeal of creating and lodging ebooks in cyberspace, it’s interesting to note that publishers can go through the same teething problems.
But here we are, at last. Crack open a bubbly – or a bottle of Mykenai Estate vintage 1295BC red, if you have one!
Murder at Mykenai ebook
It hasn’t quite made it onto Amazon, but Walker Books have told me that’s coming. In the meantime, here are 5 sites you can buy it from, with a few tips for eMorons like me…
1. JBHiFi NOW
Here’s a direct link to my ebook at a good price! https://books.jbhifi.com.au/Book/302990 No search panels required – this will take you straight there.
2. Bookworld Australia
Note: this is a different site to the NZ bookshop Bookworld in Blenheim
Just enter Murder at Mykenai into the search panel at http://www.bookworld.com.au
3. Dymocks Australia
This is their online store for both the ebook and paperback . Again, use the search panel at http://www.dymocks.com.au They haven’t loaded the cover art on to the site – rather boring of them!
They are a US based site http://www.ebooks.com Again, just use the search panel to find the book.
5. iTunes through their iBook store.
You need to have downloaded iTunes and the iBooks app onto your computer, iPad or iPhone. THEN, if you’re in Australia, you’ll find Murder at Mykenai, easy as.
BUT if you’re in New Zealand or elsewhere, you’ll have to reset your regional setting to “Australia” to find it. Being a bit of a computer ningnong, I have no idea how to do this.
Prequels and Sequels
How often do we wonder what happens to our favourite characters in fiction after we’ve read the final pages of a book? This urge to continue the story is what drives our love of sequels – trilogies, quartets and extended series, whose publication can span decades. And then there are prequels, those fascinating glimpses into our characters before they became the person we came to know and love.
Odysseus is and was no stranger to this curiosity. Murder at Mykenai is very much an attempt by me to find out what happened to Odysseus and Menelaus before the start of the Trojan War, based on a snippet of mythology about Menelaus’s father.
The Odyssey itself is a sequel to The Iliad, that epic poem about the destruction of Troy. In its pages we catch glimpses of other sequels, as the surviving kings were either swept away by storms at sea or returned to Greece to meet with rebellion and betrayal. And although Homer tries to reassure us, at the end of The Odyssey, that Odysseus and Penelope and Telemachus do finally live happily ever after, there have plenty of people who dreamed up a different picture.
Tennyson had Odysseus sail away from Penelope’s arms, westward through the Gates of Hercules. Nikos Kazantzakis has him head off in the opposite direction, accompanied by Helen, on the basis that she was a much more interesting character than Penelope and she and Odysseus must have been made for each other. Other, more ancient writers had him banished from Ithaka, all ignoring Teireisias’s prophecy of a happy old age at home.
Honore Daumier, on the other hand, has his own insight into Odysseus’s return, as we can see in the picture he drew of our hero’s homecoming night. I suspect from the fact Odysseus is lying on his back, he was snoring loudly through that great honk of a nose – something else Penelope needed to employ her much-vaunted patience to cope with.
And C K Stead has added to the tradition in his poem, The Death of Odysseus, in his new collection The Yellow Buoy (AUP). It’s a great poem and well worth tracking down.
My stunning Glendowie College book launch
Now I’ve had time to digest all the amazing things that have happened to me over the last month, I want to pick out one of the major highlights.
The most stunning way to start building a relationship between my book and the NZ school community was to have my school book launch at Glendowie College. To introduce Murder at Mykenai to 500 Year 9 and 10 students was incredibly exciting. They gave me such a warm welcome, they loved my start turn (the replica Greek Bronze Age sword), they laughed in a kind way at my blooper-of-the-day, and presented me afterwards with a very special bonus in the form of several large, A3 size, thank you cards.The messages, major and minor, are so generous and enthusiastic, and show that they really embraced what I had to say. What a fantastic first audience. I’m incredibly grateful to Robin Harding and the English department for organising the two sessions.
There are more photos, which I’m putting on my Facebook Catherine Mayo Author page. Yay!
A day of book launches
What a fantastic day I’ve had launching my book!
First of all a huge thank you to all the wonderful people at Glendowie College who made me feel so welcome. The PowerPoint presentation went really well – I’ve always loved pictures, so how come I’ve ended up a novelist? Ah well, it turns out I love words too. I didn’t get tongue-tied, giving my talk, AND I didn’t knock my glass of water over the computer, which was always on the cards.
And then a quick bite to eat and on to Alexandra Park to prepare for my evening book launch. The Park is a horse racing venue for harness racers – trotters and pacers – and I decided to mark the launch by sponsoring a race. The Bronze Age Stakes was the closest I could get to celebrating this great day in Ancient Greek style. They always had chariot races on special days.
Thanks so much to all my wonderful friends who came along – over a hundred of you – to help me set the sail and push my book off to a great start. And thanks to all of you who couldn’t make it but sent me such fabulous, supportive emails and messages. I was so flat-out signing copies, it felt a bit like a wedding because I only had a few moments to spend with each of you. And it wasn’t till after the signings and the race that I realised I’d only had a tiny sip of my wine, The Blood of Atreus red. Those of you who have already read the book will know why we called it that!
But – taking the wedding metaphor a little further – instead of marrying my book, I was actually letting it go, a lovable but grumpy teenager turned fully-fledged grown up at last. Such a strange feeling. No more revisions, no more editing – finished. It’s yours now.
If you go to my author page on my Facebook site (Catherine Mayo/Catherine Mayo author) I’ve set up a photo album so I can share some of the moments with those who couldn’t be there.