Saturday, 21 August 2010

Write what you (don't) know

Quite often when I'm chatting to people they'll turn round and tell me that they've always wanted to write a book, and the next question, naturally, is: What would you write about? Disappointingly, nine times out of ten the answer is: Me.

The most trumpeted advice on where to start writing a novel is WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. It's also the worst piece of advice I've ever heard.

How many of us 'know' things that other people would be willing to pay to read about? Unless you're very fortunate, your life will have been a mixture of work, eating, sleeping, looking after the kids, with just enough excitement (holidays) and melodrama (holidays/falling out with other family members) to keep it from being too boring. When I started to think about writing a book the first decision I made was not to write about what I knew. Fiction is about pure invention and using your imagination to write about what you don't know.

Of course, some people can get away with writing, or not writing, about what they know. Katie Price began her career as an author by not writing at least three of her four biographies, before turning to fiction and not writing a string of best-selling chick-lit novels that have added to her prodigious fortune. If you've lost an arm and a leg to frostbite on some Himalayan peak or to a crocodile in the farthest reaches of a  Bornean swamp there's a fair chance someone will be interested in your suffering and the scent of gas gangrene before breakfast. Leslie Thomas used the defining moment in his life to write a book called The Virgin Soldiers about conscription in Malaya and didn't do too badly. Ditto Andy McNab. But generally, for mere mortals who haven't risked their neck on the field of battle, writing what you know isn't a good idea

A lot of very good writers have fallen into the Write What You Know trap, usually in their first and worst book. The main character's life will miraculously mirror their own and the mundane minutiae of their lives will inevitably put the brakes on the pace until it resembles that of a geriatric three-legged tortoise. Many more will have a Write What You Know manuscript festering away in a drawer that requires a clothes-peg over the nose to extract.

Then again, maybe it's a stage you have to go through, like puberty or hankering to play golf? I've just remembered that the first piece of serious fiction I ever wrote was a story about the death of an old man who'd lost his nose at Gallipoli and a young boy brought up in the sixties pinching apples, aping his comic book heroes and guddling trout. It wasn't very good, but I enjoyed writing it and I suppose, in a way, it was a tribute to my grandad and the comrades who were less lucky than he was.

Maybe you just have to get it out of your system.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Lost Fort

Beneath the school playground are the remains of Agricola's Lost Fort

ONE of the questions I’m most frequently asked is: Why did you choose the Romans? The answer’s simple. Dip your toe in the Roman Empire at any point over a period of a thousand years and you will find some fascinating event or some personality with the potential to provide you with a book.

From the early Republic through Julius Caesar to Caligula and on to Tiberius Constantine in the sixth century every period has a tale to tell. And we’re still learning about them.

That was what took me to Doune on Saturday for the archaeological dig open day at Doune Primary School. We know of literally hundreds of Roman sites in Scotland from Pennymuir in the Cheviots  to Cawdor outside Inverness, but the fort at Doune wasn’t discovered until 1983 when cropmarks showed the outline of its defences.

It’s in a classic elevated position guarding an important river crossing of the Teith only a few hundred yards from Doune Castle and would have dominated the surrounding area. Plans for building work at the primary school mean part of the complex will be lost when the foundations are dug, so a team from Headland Archaeology have been carrying out intensive investigations in what was the playground. They’ve made some fantastic finds, the jewel in the crown of which is a wonderful enamel-inlayed bronze mount for a horse harness of a type that hasn’t previously been seen in Scotland.
Doune is a classic Roman fort in a
strategic position above a river crossing
Archaeologist Paul gave me a tour of the site, along with a dozen other interested locals, showing the defensive ditches, the interior roadway and the pits which provided most of the finds. Only a small section of the fort has been investigated, but the foundations of several wooden buildings have been uncovered and it was amazing to think that what we were seeing had lain forgotten for two thousand years.

Doune would have played a key role in governor Julius Agricola’s invasion of Scotland around 84AD. Agricola’s campaign was recorded by his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, and we know he spent six years subduing first the druids on Mona (Anglesey), then the Brigantes in northern England, before finally turning his sights on the troublesome Caledonian tribes. The governor’ three legions pushed relentlessly northwards until they finally brought the Caledonian alliance to battle at Mons Graupius, in Aberdeenshire. The Romans were heavily outnumbered but, in a one-sided contest, Tacitus claims the northern tribes suffered 10,000 casualties and the Roman auxiliaries less than four hundred. Only a single Roman citizen died.

Agricola drove the survivors into the mountains, but didn’t follow them. Doune appears to be one of the so-called glen-blocking forts which were built in the years after Mons Graupius to ensure the Caledonians were kept bottled up in their Highland hideaways. It would have been garrisoned by auxiliary troops, possibly Tungrians or Batavians, but Agricola is also known to have been accompanied by British auxiliaries, and was only occupied for a decade at most.
When the Romans withdrew from Scotland (Tacitus accused the Emperor Domitian of throwing away everything Agricola had won) the palisades were removed, the buildings destroyed and the Roman fort at Doune was lost to memory.

Until now.

One of the finds: a piece of decorated horse harness