STET, Goddamnit!*

So I have been up to my neck, these past two weeks, in reviewing the copy-edits for Daughters of Rome. Copy-editing belongs somewhere around the fourth level of hell: not as bad as doing a headstand in a Portapotty, worse than having thumb-tacks pressed under your fingernails. It takes OCD to a whole new level: a good copy-editor (and mine is superb) is essentially a paid nit-picker. All those times during the writing process when I thought to myself, “Oh, don’t bother changing that tiny detail, no one will notice if it’s wrong.” Well, the copy-editor always notices.

If my copy-editor had worked with Shakespeare, he’d never have gotten away with having a ticking clock in “Julius Caesar.”

Daughters of Rome is the second book I’ve put through copy-editing, so at least I know the drill by now. I know that 214 comment bubbles is par for the course, not an indication of my book’s deep innate lousiness. I have more or less mastered the Track Changes program on Microsoft Word. I didn’t have to call my editor cross-country to ask what a penciled STET in the margin meant (a Latin term for “let it stand,” or put less politely, “no, damn it, don’t change that sentence, I wrote it that way for a reason!”) And I know that the tendency to come flying out of a sound sleep with a shriek of “Was velvet invented in ancient Rome?!” will wear off in about a week. (And no, it wasn’t.)

Writers, I have to say, are not much fun to be around during copy-editing. They will spend more time fact-checking on Wikipedia than talking to their long-suffering spouses. They will answer questions of “How are you?” with “Do you think anyone will notice if I move the Battle of Actium up a year?” They will slam their foreheads into tables, moaning, “How did I not realize that the Baths of Diocletian weren’t built for another 150 years?” Writers are not even terribly visible during the copy-editing process: the most you will see for a few weeks is the top of a head peeking over “Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire: A to Z,” which has been thumbed so thoroughly that the spine is now broken and the library is dunning for payment.

Another inescapable part of copy-editing is the notes. Writers are prone to these anyway–my husband is forever taking Post-Its off the fridge with such reminders as Research trident wounds or Google headless Romans York. But the notes I take during copy-editing reach a truly memorable level of lunacy thanks to a method of short-hand nobody but me can understand. Here are a few examples, verbatim, from Daughters of Rome.

Chapter 13: L’s wedding to FV; grade-B orgy. C goes to races; Reds lose; D adopted as Vit’s pet. C learns of DD’s disgrace.

Chapter 19: C and DD to Tarracina; idyll. M blue-balls Dom; meets D. L @ AP’s
house; finds out Thrax poisoned FV.

Chapter 22: M brings news of army; C is busted for fling. L helps AP move
out. D meets LL after watching Vit abdicate.

Chapter 24: Rome invaded.

So what did you do today? I invaded Rome.

Fortunately, copyediting is like childbirth: it may be painful, but it has to end sooner or later. Daughters of Rome has been poked, prodded, and patched, and is off to my editor. I have returned Tacitus: The Histories and 69 A.D: The Year of Four Emperors to the library, along with a large check to cover my late fees. The last Post-It note (Review routine torture scenes) has been retrieved from the refrigerator door. My husband’s favorite brand of ale is waiting for him with a card: Thanks for researching for me whether the Romans had platinum or mirrors. (No, and yes.) My work is done, and now comes my favorite part of the copy-editing process.

The bottle of champagne when it’s all over.

My second novel: copy-edited within an inch of its life.

*I adapted the title for this post from Florence King’s collection of essays: “STET, Damn It!” She had one of the better quotes on copy-editors, going something like this: “A good copy-editor is a pearl beyond price, but I got stuck with a web-footed brachycephalic cretin who should have been confined to an institution to make brooms.” Copy-editing makes us all testy.

Victorians In Togas

Nowadays, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema isn’t a widely known name in the world of art. He was famous during the Victorian era, but since everybody wanted to forget the Victorian era as soon as it was over, he fell into obscurity. “Chocolate box paintings,” at least one critic sniffed over his work, but I have a great fondness for Alma-Tadema. Why? Because over and over again, the man painted scenes of ancient Rome. Damn good ones, too. Here are a few of my favorites.

“The Roses of Heliogabalus.” Based on a nice little historical incident when Emperor Heliogabalus idly decided to murder his dinner guests by rigging a collapsible ceiling with about two tons of rose petals. There he is in the golden robe watching as everybody below starts to flail. You can just see the lady beside him whispering, “Darling, really. Two tons of rose petals? Wouldn’t it have been cheaper just to strangle the guests?”

“The Colosseum.” I like to think of this one as an illustration for my upcoming book Daughters of Rome. A dark girl, very queenly; she thinks the games are unbelievably tacky and refuses to look at the parade of gladiators below. Her sister, though, is irrepressibly curious and leans down to watch the fighters process on into the Colosseum. Their cousin, a little red-haired giggler, points out the trident fighter on whom she has a crush. If it were really an illustration for Daughters of Rome then there would be a fourth girl, but you’ll have to wait till next April to meet her. She’s blond . . .

“Unconscious Rivals.” Two women waiting for the same man. Does he know it? Do they know it? Either way, you just know this pretty little scene won’t end well. I picture the two girls confronting the man in question, pulling his toga over his head in a rage, and retiring best friends to the bathhouse.

“The Women of Amphissa.” This scene comes from a legend that Bacchus’s wild women revelers managed to run heedlessly into war-torn Amphissa during their festival celebrations, and once they passed out, the women of the town stood guard over them to make sure they were safe from enemy soldiers. Supposedly this was a purely altruistic action, but I’m seeing a few stern lectures coming from some of those standing figures, and I’m pretty sure the women waking up see it too. The girl getting a hand up looks like she’s thinking “One word about the evils of drunkenness before this Advil kicks in and I start hitting people. Oh Bacchus, I’m hung over . . .”

“Silver Favourites.” I’ve decided that this one is an illustration from my current book Mistress of Rome. The reclining girl with the wreath is my spoiled bitchy villainness Lepida; the seated girl is some equally spoiled friend, while her patient slave girl Thea feeds the fish in the fountain. “I’m educated,” she’s thinking furiously. “I speak Greek and Hebrew, I can read and write, I can sing and play the lyre–and I get stuck feeding the damn fish!”

“A Favorite Custom.” A day at the Roman baths: a swim, a sweat, and above all a chance to gossip. “That woman behind you, the one undressing? No, don’t look! Her arms are so disgusting–muscle tone everywhere! She has to be a pleb; they’ll let anyone into the bathhouses these days. Not a muscle to be seen in my arms, let me tell you . . .”

“Confidences.” Another illustration from Daughters of Rome. Two cousins confiding in each other: “My latest husband beats me.” “I’m having an affair with a soldier.” “We’re a pair, aren’t we?” Nope, no more hints.

“Among The Ruins.” Mother said if I wandered around out here long enough looking picturesque, boys would admire me and I’d find a husband. My arms are getting tired . . .

“The Favourite Poet.” Read that line again about how awful it is being young and beautiful and rich. And where is that slave girl with the drinks?

“Expectations.” There’s that marble terrace again. Boy, do I want this view in my backyard.

For a long time, Alma-Tadema’s work got dismissed as “Victorians in togas,” and there’s no denying its romantic quality. Give him a pretty girl in a chiton and a few marble columns, and he was pretty much set. But I like him anyway. For one thing, he was meticulous about research–he worked hard to make sure his details of Roman clothes, hair, and furniture were archaologically correct. And for another thing–well, they are pretty, aren’t they?

My First Award!

My blog “Ave Historia” has officially won its first award. Thanks to Susan Whittaker Griscom, it has received the order of “One Lovely Blog” which I count higher than the Order of the Garter any day.

Thanks, Susan! I’ll be looking to pass this on to other great blogs out there.

Let’s Hear It For The Bad Guy!

Let’s face it: everybody loves a good villain. No great book or movie is complete without one: without Lord Voldemort and the ever-rising body count of his victims, the Harry Potter books are just a cute kid series about a magical boarding school. Sometimes we end up with a sneaking liking for the villain; sometimes we read through a book with murder in our hearts and prayers on our lips that the bastard will finally get what’s coming to him. In any case, here’s my list for some of the greatest fictional villains ever to gnash their teeth.

1. Milady de Winter, The Three Musketeers (Alexander Dumas)

Dumas’s swashbuckler about a quartet of rapier-wielding French chevaliers is generously stocked with villains, including the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu and his “living blade” Rochefort. But it’s Milady de Winter we all remember, the beautiful blond assassin who schemes, seduces, plots, and murders her way through a trail of hapless victims. Her finest hour: imprisoned before she can murder her latest target and guarded by an incorruptible Puritan jailer, she takes a mere week to seduce the Puritan and wangle an escape–persuading him, on her way out the door, to assassinate her target for her, and of course take the fall.

Faye Dunaway as Milady de Winter in the original 1973 “Three Musketeers.” MdeW has been played by many actresses, including Rebecca de Mornay and Milla Jovovich, but nobody ever matched Faye Dunaway for silky menace.

2. Mordred, the King Arthur tales

The story of the semi-mythical King Arthur has been told by more authors than anyone can count, but they all hold one thing in common: Mordred. Sometimes he’s a scheming knight and sometimes a whining wheedler, but he’s always the poison apple in Arthur’s Camelot and he always brings it crashing down. His finest hour: when the sneaky little toad leads armies against his father, tries to marry his father’s queen, and ends up stabbing his father through the head in their final fight as he is killed himself with a spear.

Mordred in black, on the verge of killing King Arthur

3. Magua, The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper)

I admit I’m going more off the movie “Last of the Mohicans” than the book, since I find the movie splendid and the novel all but unreadable. Cooper’s villainous Huron warrior was no picnic; a vicious drunk who pursues the noble half-Indian frontiersman Hawkeye and his friends across hundreds of turgidly-written pages. But the movie’s Magua is elevated into something truly teeth-chattering: a cold and ruthless warrior who uses the the French and Indian War as a means to further his personal revenge against the English general who destroyed his life. You can’t call Magua a nice guy, not when he calmly cuts out the heart of the general while the man is still alive, telling him his daughters are next on the list . . . but Magua always wrings a certains sympathy from me. His finest hour: when he is wordlessly stared down by a quiet English girl and decides–arbitrarily, whimsically–to let her live.

If this guy says he will eat your heart, he ain’t being metaphorical.

4. Miss Minchin, A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

She may not cut anybody’s heart out with a tomahawk, but this girls’ academy headmistress from a 19th century children’s book is one of the most evil bitches in literature. From the start, Miss Minchin resents little Sara, her newest and richest pupil whose quiet manners and adult intelligence make the headmistress feel like the greedy pretentious cow she is. When Sara is orphaned and left a pauper, Miss Minchin loses no time turning her former prize pupil into a scullery maid and making her life one long living hell of hunger, cold, and abuse. Her finest hour: when she spitefully makes a point of interrupting Sara’s birthday party to tell her about her father’s death, and bundles her straight on down to the kitchen to start scrubbing floors. Every time I read it, I long for a time machine and a machete.

The uncomfortable moment when a manipulative adult realizes that an intelligent child sees them for exactly what they are. Adults rarely forgive children for this.

5. Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott)

The classic anti-hero of literature. He’s introduced as the villain of this medieval set-piece, a dark and brutal Templar knight who hounds the heroic Ivanhoe, but he’s much more interesting with his forthright passions and his tangle of inner wounds than the hero, who doesn’t much evolve beyond loyal and blond. Ivanhoe spends most of the book lounging around on a stretcher recovering from a wound, while Bois-Guilbert stamps around swearing, scheming, sword-fighting, and swash-buckling. His finest hour: when he is trying his damndest to win the love of the proud and lovely Rebecca, not caring one whit for the fact that she is a Jew and by the standards of his day lower than pond scum. I always wish Rebecca had just gone for it, instead of pining for boring old Ivanhoe.

Ciaran Hinds as Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert in the 1998 mini-series Ivanhoe. Oh my, he makes my heart pound every time.

6. Courtney Massengale, Once An Eagle (Anton Myrer)

Oooh, he’s a nasty piece of work: an unnaturally charming psychopath who does his best to prolong the bloodshed of World War I, World War II, and Vietnam so that he has enough wars to vault himself up the chain of command in the US Army. He is the lifelong enemy of the book’s hero, a quietly heroic farm boy named Sam who fights through the century’s wars for all the right reasons and sees Massengale for the calculating snake he really is. His finest hour: Massengale has so many, it’s hard to pick. When he comes within a whisper of persuading McArthur to invade China, just to see what happens? When he deliberately witholds reinforcements from Sam’s men in the Pacific, ensuring the massacre of the entire division? Let’s go with the moment when Massengale, as an object lesson to his rebellious wife, tells her with quiet pleasure about the pet squirrel he starved to death as a boy because it nipped him.

Cliff Potts in the 70s miniseries of “Once An Eagle”: a young Massengale busy smarming his way up the military ladder.

7. Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling)

I know, I know–Voldemort is the real villain of the Potter series. Very true. But somehow I found this sugary little psychotic much scarier. There are plenty of villains who swish around in black cloaks planning to conquer the world. Villains in pastel twin-sets with kitten posters on their walls who talk sweetly about the necessity of torturing children for the greater good are much rarer and more frightening. Her finest hour: Forcing mouthy children to write I will not tell lies as punishment–in their own blood, leaving permanent scars on their hands. Anyone else think Umbridge never really got a good enough come-uppance by the end of the series?

I swear I had a few teachers in middle school like this.

8. Sheriff of Nottingham, the Robin Hood tales

Technically Robin Hood has evil King John to contend with in his fight for freedom, poor people, and the absent King Richard. But King John had enough on his plate without obsessing all the time about the misdoings of one outlaw archer, and all those medieval balladeers were smart enough to give Robin Hood a villain-on-the-scene: the Sheriff of Nottingham, heartless tax-collector and arch-nemesis who generally gets hoodwinked in the end of every story. His finest moment: he masterminds an archery contest just to capture Robin Hood, and Robin manages to win the contest and get away clean.

Alan Rickman chewed up Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” as the Sheriff of Nottingham – the best thing in it.

9. Obadiah Hakeswill, the Richard Sharpe novels (Bernard Cornwell)

A splendidly quirky villain to match up against Cornwell’s splendidly swash-buckling hero Richard Sharpe. Hakeswill is a frankly insane British army sergeant who manages to survive Sharpe’s enmity for several books, which is more than most villains can do. Hakeswill twitches, schemes, steals, murders, and has decidedly creepy habits of quoting inaccurate Scripture and talking tenderly into his hat where he stashes a picture of what might be his mother. His finest hour: his conviction that he can never die, born out by his adventures in India with a young Sharpe where Hakeswill is variously thrown into a tiger cage, a snake-pit, and three major battles without suffering a scratch.

Talk about chewing the scenery: Pete Postlethwaite as Hakeswill, twitchy and deeply scary in the Richard Sharpe mini-series.

10. Livia, I, Claudius (Robert Graves)

One of the great villainesses of all time–this Roman Empress could eat Milady de Winter alive and pick her teeth with the bones. She never personally lifts a single manicured finger in violence, but she slanders, disposes of, or outright assassinates an entire string of relatives in order to make her son the next Emperor of Rome. Her finest hour: getting rid of the current heir by recruiting a niece to stage a rape, masterminding an exile, then taking care of loose ends with an assassin. You can’t say the woman wasn’t thorough.

She may have been a multiple murderess, but she had style.

So these are my top ten villains. Honorable mentions go to the slithery Saruman from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the beautiful and ruthless Queen Cersei from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, the spiteful geisha Hatsumomo from Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, the coldly methodical Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and Big Jim Rennie from Stephen King’s Under The Dome – a small-town official who doesn’t swear by gosh because it’s against Jesus, but commits murder without a qualm. All of them, in their various ways, kept me turning the pages breathless to see what they’d do next.

Let’s admit it: sometimes it’s fun to root for the bad guy.

Cosmopolitanus: The Magazine for Roman Vixens Across The Empire

Last month’s Cosmo: Senator’s sexy wife Lepida Pollia spilled all about fashion, ambition, and her outrageous sex life!

On the cover this month: THEA: The Emperor’s Mistress Spills Her Secrets

Tunic by Guccius. Earrings by Tiffanius. To get Thea’s look, try kohl in Smoky Gray, liner in Wood Ash, rouge in Masada Magic, and lip rouge in Sandstone Neutral. Hair: Thea keeps it low-key with sexy waves. Or for the look she made famous, braid hair into a crest with a ribbon (Thea likes silver!) and toss over one shoulder for girl-next-door sexy. So cute!

35 Beauty Evolution: The Empress’s Style Progression
Commoner to queen means pastels and prints to sapphires and silk! Get this look for less than 300 sesterces
44 The Real Story: The Emperor’s Niece Takes Her Vows
Why she chose thirty years of chastity as a Vestal Virgin
56 Sexy vs. Skanky
Statues: totally naked or tastefully draped? You decide!
60 Confessions
Her parents caught her with a trident fighter–the day before her wedding!
62 Guy Confessions
He told her he’s a charioteer–but he’s just a lawyer!
64 Hot Sheet
Trends we’re buzzing about! Are gladiator sandals here to stay?

Just like Thea wears – cute and comfortable!

69 Mistress of Rome
Thea spills to Cosmo about Emperor Domitian, her surprising friendship with his wife, and how she keeps the most powerful man in the world happy. (It’s not what you think!)

We catch the Emperor’s mistress at home for some girltalk!

74 Not Your Mother’s Stola
New draping techniques put a sexy spin on this old-married-woman classic!
75 10 Steals at the Forum
Bargain-price accessories at the Forum Romanum–cheap and chic!
78 Beautiful British
In honor of our newly-conquered province, everything this season is coming up Celtic–neck torques, spiral brooches, and Brigantian jet, all plundered direct from the front!

Skip the blue face paint, but grab yourself some barbarian chic!

86 Wiggin’ Out?
Four wig styles that flatter everyone
88 His Picks
Ambergris: the new perfume guys love
92 Beauty Q&A
Use a bread-paste face mask to tighten and tone!
93 Beauty News
Get that Egyptian cat’s eye liner perfect every time

Cat’s eye kohl, just like Cleopatra!

102 Stud Meter
Arius the Barbarian hits the top! We can’t get enough of this surly-but-sexy gladiator. Meet his friends in . . .
104 Gorgeous Gladiators
Abs to die for–and they do! You’ll flip for these short-lived studs
107 Bad Hair Days Around The Empire
Mustaches and beards from Ireland to Syria. With hair like that, no wonder they couldn’t withstand our legions. Clean-shaven rules–literally!

A rare smile from taciturn bad boy Arius as he relaxes with his steady girl. Who might that be? No one knows, but she is one lucky lady!

Today’s hottest gladiators – go ahead and fantasize!
Note: Gladiator #2 died in the arena after Cosmo went to press

110 He Slept With A Slave Girl–Does It Count As Cheating?
First of all, don’t sell her to a salt mine
112 Arranged Marriages: Getting It Right
Learn to love the man your parents picked for you
116 Ask Him Anything
Does he have sex with his buddies? If yes, don’t worry . . . unless he’s the one on the bottom
121 100 Sex Tips From Rome’s Most Successful Courtesans
You can’t be seen associating with these women, so we did the research for you. You won’t believe Tip #47!

Rome’s priciest pros are here to help your marriage!

138 How To Impress the Emperor
With strategies like these, you’ll never be exiled to a desert island!
139 How To Shop For Slaves
Foolproof ways to avoid the troublemakers and bring home the pick of the market every time
142 6 Tips for A Perfect Massage
Win your husband’s heart with these tips from the masseuses at the Baths of Diocletian

He’ll be putty in your hands after Tip #4

150 The Cosmo Health Report
Unwatered wine can wreck your health (and your reputation). Read here!
154 Cosmo Gyno
The new birth control: auyt gum and acacia tips! It works for Egyptian women; now it works for you
155 Your Body
Maximize your trip to the bathhouse with a fifteen minute steam–great for the skin!

A good sweat followed by a good swim will have you glowing

161 Race Ready
Our fail-safe guide to the chariot races: the horses, the drivers, and the factions. Impress your man with your racing know-how the next time he takes you to the Circus Maximus!

Single? There’s no better place than the Circus Maximus to scout hot guys!

164 The Naughtiest Thing I’ve Ever Done
A wax plug with a little pig’s blood–my husband never knew I wasn’t a virgin!
166 Ask Atia
Our resident bad-girl columnist spills on barbarians, Vestal Virgins, and world domination Roman-style.

Have a question for Atia? She’s seen, heard, and done it all!

170 Weekend
Lupercalia festival this week! Get in the spirit by donning leather loincloths with your man and running through the city cracking a whip!
172 You and Him
Prep a slave by the bed with a fan for the next time you have sex–you’ll enjoy the cool breeze!
178 Healthy Sexy Strong
Want to look like a lady of leisure? A muscle-free physique is key
181 At Your Place: The Perfect Dinner Party
Impress your guests with stuffed sow’s udders, sea urchins in almond milk, and roast dormice rolled in poppy seeds. Our resident chef shows you how

Sea urchins always make a splash!

188 From Nessus–the Emperor’s astrologer reads your stars. He’s never wrong!
A bad month for Scorpio (don’t fall for a sweet-talking legionary!) but a good month for Taurus (a hot new slave might spice up your nights at home!)

He may look good, but Scorpios should pass him up!

192 Girl on girl action!
Don’t miss the new erotic poetry from Sappho

Bonus points: no rash from beard stubble!

193 Are You Mistress Material?

Mostly A’s: First wife, arranged marriage.

Mostly B’s: Sexy wife, second marriage.

Mostly C’s: Mistress on the side!

Hope you enjoyed this special Roman edition of Cosmopolitanus!

I Hated Your Book!

So my historical fiction novel Mistress of Rome has been out and about in the world for just over four months now, and it has been a learning experience. Mostly a very good one–I still wake up every morning deliriously happy that I can work from my couch and not have to put on uncomfortable shoes and trudge into a cubicle where I stare at Excel spreadsheets and pretend to care when my boss says that my “Tell Me How Lucky I Am To Work Here” coffee mug is not in line with the company mission statement. But being a writer has its bad sides just like any other job, and top on the list is dealing with negative reviews. Which will come, because everybody gets negative reviews. You can go on Amazon and the Bible has negative reviews. Even God doesn’t get a break on this one.

Mistress of Rome has gotten panned a few times, and that’s okay. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, after all, and I knew going into this that I wasn’t going to please 100% of my readers. The last thing I will ever do is be unprofessional and argue with a reader about their opinion, whether in person or on the web. And I have learned valuable things from some negative reviews–a Latin scholar, for example, who tactfully pointed out a few places where my Latin terminology was shaky, leading me to do some more careful research for my next book. But I have gotten some negative reviews so bizarre, so off-beat, or so flat-out filled with loathing as to leave me scratching my head. Here are a few memorable gems from readers who have contacted me with negative feedback, rephrased for anonymity but true to essence:

1. You’re going to hell for writing such a book.

Well, frankly, this one delighted me. I thought I’d have to be really really successful before anybody told me I was going to hell. I find the prospect doesn’t faze me much–a reader like this probably thinks Stephen King is going to hell too, and I always wanted to meet him. We’ll toast our feet on a little cozy Hellfire and watch Red Sox games together. Plus, whoever wrote that review is by the Bible’s definition passing judgment on their fellow man, and so will be joining me down below.

2. This book is sick and depraved. I can’t believe I finished it.

Um . . . if it was that sick and depraved, why did you finish it?

3. This book is a rip-off of Francine Rivers’s `Mark of the Lion’ trilogy.

Francine Rivers? Who’s that? (Goes to library.) Christian historical fiction, okay, that’s why I haven’t read it. (Reads first two books) Okay, serene slave girl, check. Big tough gladiator, check. Slave girl’s bitchy beautiful corrupt owner, check. Prisoners thrown to lions in arena, check. Overall Christian theme, okay, I don’t have that. Still, definite similarities. Will anybody believe I never read Mark of the Lion until after Mistress of Rome was published? Oh well. At least this review led me to Francine Rivers, whose work I am enjoying.

4. This book is a rip-off of the Starz Spartacus show.

Do I have to defend this one? “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” had just begun airing when my book released. I may work pretty fast, but not fast enough to see the pilot of a terrific TV show, write a plagiarized novel, and whip it through production before the TV show in question gets to episode 6. I’m a fan of “Spartacus,” though, so thanks for the comparison.

5. Your bio says you have a degree in Classical Voice. But that’s music, not history, so what are you trying to pull here? You think we’ll read `classical’ and think `classical scholar’?

Not trying to pull anything here, actually. It’s just the bio my publisher put together for me. I’m no classics professor, though I do float a terrific high C. I think most people out there know the difference between classical literature and classical music. If not, please see “Dictionary.”

6. This book has orgies, torture, orgies, premarital sex, orgies, drug use, orgies, rape, and more orgies. A new low on my `Most salacious books’ list.

Glad you enjoyed it! And can you please put your review up on Amazon too? Five separate mentions of the word “orgies” is bound to net me a few more readers.

7. This book doesn’t promote good values. The heroine has premarital sex.

The heroine’s a slave. What’s she supposed to do, ask her master for an engagement ring before he rapes her?

8. Dude, this is a boring book. It’s in ancint Rome and very boreing. Lots of beheadings.

Um, no beheadings actually . . . but I don’t argue with the sleep-deprived or the chemically enhanced.

9. The point of view changes are confusing.

I got this comment from enough readers to make it a majority opinion. I promise I will delineate points-of-view more clearly and smoothly in future.

10. Yr buk sux.

Thank you for your opinion. I haven’t heard from many fourth graders so far.

As you can see, my approach with negative reviews is to keep my sense of humor. Plenty more bad reviews will come my way, so I might as well learn to laugh about it. And for those many people who liked Mistress of Rome and wrote such nice reviews about it (on Amazon, on Goodreads, in their blogs, or just in a nice note to me), thank you for all the praise. All of you really made my day. Glad you could join me in ancient Rome – it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I think it’s a pretty cool place.

Mistress of Rome: The Movie

Several readers have written to ask me the following question: Will my historical novel Mistress of Rome ever be made into a movie?

I have to say, probably not. Historical movies are invariably big budget: it costs a lot of money to fund the necessary CGI, the on-location shooting, the sumptuous palaces. I shudder to think what the bill would be for all my Colosseum scenes–lions and tigers and costumed extras, oh my. HBO’s superb TV show “Rome” was canceled despite rave reviews and a big following, simply because it cost too much. And it doesn’t help that Rome is one of the most expensive places on earth to shoot film in. So I don’t imagine my little historical fiction novel will make it to the big screen, not unless I somehow turn into the next J.K. Rowling or unless Ridley Scott becomes my number 1 fan. Neither of which is too bloody likely.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t fantasize, of course. I always mentally cast my books as movies–it’s a useful exercise, trying to envision your characters in terms of real people. And useful exercises aside, I can always fantasize about getting to meet Clive Owen when he plays a hero from my book. So without further ado, here’s how I would cast Mistress of Rome–given, of course, unlimited control and budget.

The Men:

ARIUS: Sean Bean, now in his fifties, is really too old to play my taciturn gladiator hero, which is a pity. He has exactly the right combination of bitterness and savagery, and as we’ve learned from his stint in “Lord of the Rings,” the man knows how to swing a sword. Dominic Purcell might be another good choice; as the convicted murderer of “Prison Break,” he keeps a nice balance of passive misery that can boil over into sudden rage. Plus–very important for Arius–Dominic Purcell is a hunk. Other suggestions from readers: Ray Stevenson (a close second! I loved him in “Rome”), Aaron Eckhart, Kevin Durant.

DOMITIAN: Russell Crowe would be excellent as the charming, enigmatic, semi-psychotic Emperor of Rome. I’d love to see him play a villain, wouldn’t you? But in case Russell’s tired of the sword-and-sandal genre, I’ll happily take Kenneth Branagh. Put a few pounds on him and he’s a great Domitian: anyone who’s seen him as Iago in “Othello” already knows Kenneth Branagh can be a terrifying villain. No one’s better at projecting both charm and menace. Other suggestions: Leiv Schreiber, Billy Crudup, Michael C. Hall.

MARCUS: Really we need Derek Jacoby for my intellectual Senator, since naturally, I based Marcus on his performance in BBC’s “I, Claudius.” But for someone else suitably graying and distinguished, I’ll take Gabriel Byrne. Other suggestions: Hugh Laurie, Rufus Sewell.

PAULINUS: Scott Porter has the charm and quiet leadership necessary to play Marcus’s idealistic soldier son. He stole the show in “Friday Night Lights” as the paralyzed quarterback, by turns bitter, disillusioned, and charismatic. Other suggestions: Ben McKenzie, Josh Hartnett, Rupert Friend.

The Ladies:

THEA: Oddly enough, the casting of my quiet slave girl heroine gives me the most trouble. Scarlett Johansson has Thea’s smoky voice but is otherwise a bit too much of a sexpot. Anna Paquin looks right, but is too sunny. I’ll go with Amy Acker for the time being–a quieter sort of beauty, and anyone who saw her in “Angel” or “Dollhouse” knows she can play desperate, funny, smart, passionate, and everything in between. Other suggestions: Emma Watson, Camilla Belle, Gemma Arterton.

LEPIDA: For my bitchy and beautiful villainess, look no farther than Leighton Meester. Her turn as the ruthless teen queen on “Gossip Girl” is only a hair removed; Lepida with an occasional twinge of conscience. Take that away and she has Lepida to a T: the doe-eyed beauty, the raptor-like cock of the head as an enemy’s weak spot is identified, the sweet smile as the dagger sinks into an unprotected back. Other suggestions: Natalie Dormer, Megan Fox, Emily Blunt.

JULIA: Samantha Morton is a bit old for my fey and fragile Vestal Virgin, which is too bad because she’s my first choice after I saw her as the shaven-headed psychic in “Minority Report.” But I’ll go with Kerry Condon, who was by turns frail, uncertain, and serene as Octavia in HBO’s “Rome.” Other choices: Emilie de Ravin, Sophia Myles.

Minor characters:

THE EMPRESS: Connie Nielson, if just for a “Gladiator” tribute.

GALLUS: Ian McNeice was oily and amusing as the Newsreader in HBO’s “Rome.” He’d be just as good as Arius’s oily and amusing owner/manager.

VIX: It’s hard to cast kids, even in imaginary movies. By the time they film anything, the kids are too old. But it’s my fantasy, so I’ll pick River Phoenix circa “Stand By Me”–tough, muscled, and formidable even at twelve. Perfect to play Thea’s troublemaking child-gladiator son.

SABINA: Marcus and Lepida’s introspective daughter would have to be played by several actresses at different ages. But as the twelve-year-old who plays a critical part in the final crisis, I’ll take Dakota Fanning. True, Dakota Fanning is sixteen. But if I can cast River Phoenix when he’s dead, I can cast Dakota Fanning at twelve.

So, that’s my fantasy cast for my mythical movie of Mistress of Rome. Of course, even if it did end up being made into a movie, I would likely have no say in the casting or even the script. Stephenie Meyer was able to stipulate in her movie contract that none of the vampires have exaggerated fangs, and J.K. Rowling was able to put her foot down when some producer wanted to re-set Harry Potter in the United States–but most of us writers have no power over what happens to our novels when they get turned into celluloid. So if Mistress of Rome gets made into a terrible direct-to-video flick starring Fabio in nipple rings, don’t blame me.

In the meantime, if you’ve read my book and have your own casting ideas, I’m all ears.

Happy Father’s Day

I’m a daddy’s girl; always have been. I had one of those dads who read aloud to me, taught me to appreciate Miles Davis, and jogged alongside my bike holding it up as I first wobbled down the street. By the time I was in middle school we shared a mutual passion for C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books, and used to bemuse onlookers with our passionate debates on naval battle tactics of the Napoleonic Era. So in honor of my dad and in honor of Father’s Day, I thought I’d do a post today in honor of great historical fathers.

Unfortunately, historical dads get a bad rap. Pretty much across the board in most cultures and eras, fathers were not expected to interact much with their kids. You provided food for the kids, perhaps taught the boys to fight, but overall your wife did most of the hands-on nurturing. This was even more true of kings, who often didn’t even see their kids much since royal babies would be whisked off into their own entirely separate households within a few weeks of birth.

But there were some good dads out there, and quite a few daddy’s girls. Philip II of Spain, despised by Anglophiles because of his marriage to Mary Tudor and his failed Armada against Elizabeth I, was nevertheless a doting father to his daughter Isabella: he brought her to the study with him while he worked, allowing her to sort papers and translate documents while they chatted, and later she nursed him devotedly on his deathbed. Giangaleazzo Visconti, the first Duke of Milan in the fourteenth century, was a ruthless warlord who murdered his uncle and various cousins on his way up the ladder–but he doted on his daughter Valentina so much that he nearly declared war on France when he learned the French court was saying nasty things about her. Two famous daddy’s girls of a more ambiguous nature were Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I. Frankly, I doubt I’d be on good terms with a father who chopped my mother’s head off, or even just hounded her to death, but both girls seemed unable to resist their father’s charm when he smiled at them: Both prided themselves openly on being the daughters of Henry VIII.

Historical fiction has even more good dads and daddy’s girls. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father in the “Little House” series, who treasured Laura as the toughest and funniest of all his daughters. The scholarly father in Judith Merkle Riley’s “The Oracle Glass,” who favored his crippled intelligent daughter over all his other children, and honed her mind on Greek and Latin. Johnny Nolan from “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” a drunk and a bad provider but still a gentle man who adored and was adored by his daughter Francie. “Gone With the Wind” has two great father-daughter relationships: Scarlett and her peppery Irish father, who loves his eldest daughter because she has his fiery temper and love for the land, and Rhett Butler who nearly goes insane when his beloved Bonnie dies in a riding accident.

So happy Father’s Day to dads everywhere, of the past and the present. You don’t get nearly as much cred as mothers sometimes, but there are a lot of daddy’s girls out there who love you.

Sex With Kings

So I have to wonder: why all the fascination lately with royal mistresses?

Well, maybe I don’t wonder that much. From a historical fiction novelist’s standpoint, I can see why fellow HF writers like royal mistresses as characters for novels: they’re probably better-looking than a queen or princess who is the process of twenty-five generations of royal inbreeding, and they get better sex than queens or princesses. Also, they get great jewelry.

But still, from all the plethora of novels lately about royal mistresses, I have to wonder why modern readers have so much fascination with the women who had sex with kings. It’s not exactly a role model career, after all. It’s more like a precarious temp job which might have great perks, but which can be snatched from you at any time by middle age, your boss’s boredom, or an up-and-coming rival with tighter skin.

The perks of the job can be tempting, of course. The presents are terrific: Henri II of France gave his mistress Diane de Poitiers whole estates carved everywhere with their H&D initials. Fantastic jewelry is a matter of course, like the emeralds given to the Princess de Soubise by Louis XIV, which she wore to signal him when her husband would be out of town. If a mistress managed to have a child by the king, she could reap the benefits of rearing a royal bastard: half the dukedoms of England today were originally bestowed by Charles II on his illegitimate children. Even beyond the jewelry and property is the power. Charles II’s mistress Louise de Kerouaille advised him routinely on French policy. Henri VI of France valued his beloved Gabrielle d’Estrees as a diplomat as well as a lover, and eventually gave her a seat on his council.

The downsides of being a royal mistress, however, were considerable. Other women plotted non-stop to steal your job. The king himself might get tired of you. And however much power you had at the pinnacle of success, you usually had none when discarded. Louise de Valliere found herself in a convent after Louis XIV was done with her, shaven-headed and alone. Admiral Nelson (not royal, but far more popular than any king) begged his friends on his deathbed to look after his mistress Lady Hamilton, but she still died in miserable poverty.

Historical fiction novelists have done a lot with royal mistresses. Sighing novels have been written about Louis XIV’s Madame de Montespan, Henry II’s Alais Capet and Rosamund Clifford, Edward III’s Alice Perrers and Edward IV’s Jane Shore, to name just a few. Some of these novels are very good (Anya Seton’s Katherine is superb) and some are absolute dreck. I’ve benefited from the trend myself, writing a book about a (fictional) mistress of Roman Emperor Domitian. With the advent of feminism, perhaps we shouldn’t still be so fascinated by women whose life ambition was to have sex with a king. But it’s a guilty pleasure: these beautiful women with their pillow whispers and their great jewelry, standing in the shadows of history.

For Memorial Day

Memorial Day is upon us in a few short days, letting us know that finally–finally! – it is okay to wear white shoes. Actually, I think white shoes are inexcusable year round, but so are many aspects about Memorial Day. It’s a day everybody looks forward to, because we all get a three-day weekend and the weather is generally lovely, and it’s a good excuse to eat barbecue and drink beer. All very well in itself–but few of us bother to think much anymore about why we get this day off.

Because of the fallen.

Memorial Day was originally created to honor the fallen servicemen and women of the United States, but I like to take a moment and think about the fallen throughout history, whether they lived in the US or not. Greek soldiers sweating inside the wooden horse at Troy. Julius Caesar’s legions facing off against a narrow-eyed Vercingetorix at Alesia. Britons lining up in shield-walls, trying to put a halt to the Saxon invasion. English archers halting the most renowned army in all chivalry with a few showers of arrows at Agincourt. Farmboy sharpshooters hunting British soldiers through the marshes in the American Revolution. Germans and British curling up in the mud of World War I’s trenches, shielding their ears from the shells and their eyes from the mustard gas. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto flinging themselves up against Nazi tanks. Warriors today, in deserts and in jungles, on the sea and in the air.

Even more than the fallen, I think of those the fallen have left behind through history. It’s an iconic image, one that transcends time, place, or century: women waving their men off to war. Sometimes this was a chosen way of life: the Viking wives whose husbands went off cheerfully on seasonal raiding parties, and returned with longships filled with loot. Sometimes the fight in question was a desperate measure: Gauls forming desperate armies to keep the invading Roman legions from burning their homes and enslaving their families. And of course it isn’t always men to do the fighting. Plenty of French mothers during World War II worried for daughters who went to blow up Gestapo officers in the French resistance, and plenty of husbands today sit at home praying for wives piloting helicopters over sand dunes. Regardless of whether the left-behind were Highland wives or the mothers of knights, children of legionaries or husbands of Navy Seals, they all have one thing in common: the same sickening disbelief when prayers go unanswered and no one comes home.

That too has changed through the centuries. A medieval wife might be separated from her crusading husband for years, never getting a single scrap of news until finally some shame-faced companion brings her husband’s dried-up heart home in a box. So much easier to transport from the Holy Land, you see. Mothers of sons abroad fighting Napoleon got letters arriving weeks or months late. World War I widows sometimes didn’t even get the certainty of death, just a mumbled “Missing Presumed Dead,” which translates to “Pieces Too Small For Identification.” Wives of World War II got the fatal telegram. And anyone with a spouse in today’s military who opens the door to find two somber uniformed men on the doorstep knows that they’re in for a very bad announcement.

Memorial Day means more to me than it used to. Sure, I like having a leisure day filled with baseball and beer and barbecue–but now, I share all those things with a husband who is in the Navy. He does dangerous things from time to time, and will probably be called upon to do more. Unlike the women of centuries past, I do not have to worry about seeing dragon-headed Viking ships in San Diego Bay, or sword-carrying Italian condottieres beating down my apartment door looking for a little bargain-price rape. But the world is still a dangerous place, and as long as I have a husband who wears a uniform and carries a weapon, what happened to countless women throughout history may someday happen to me: a knock on the door, and news I do not want to hear.

So this Memorial Day, after the barbecued steaks come off the grill and before the Red Sox start playing the Royals, my husband and I will raise our glasses in a quiet, heartfelt toast:

To all the fallen–our honored dead.