Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Messing About With Ancient History - Lucy Coats

Sticklers for historical accuracy may, possibly, want to look away from this post, as there will be talk of meddling and messing. You have been warned!

I've been mixing ancient history with geography for years - first with Atticus the Storyteller, in which my sandal-making hero visited all the places where the Greek myths were said to have taken place, then with Coll, a young bard travelling round Celtic Britain. The thing about ancient history, though - especially as far back as I like to travel - is that there's a lot of wriggle room, because there aren't that many verifiable facts. Also, my heroes were made up, so I could do what I liked, take them where I wanted to, as long as what facts I did use were as authentic as possible.

This time round it's been a bit different. I've been writing about a real character - probably one of the most famous women in ancient history. Everyone knows Cleopatra, right? Wrong. They think they do, because so much has been written about her - but most of that information came from the Romans, and those 'his-stories' were written well after she died. I say 'his-stories' for a reason. The writers were men - and they had an agenda. Cleopatra was a powerful woman, and the Romans didn't care for powerful women at all - they found them threatening. Thus the legend of the exotic seductress witch/siren was born - after all Cleopatra couldn't possibly have been intelligent and clever all on her own, could she? Or so the Romans thought, and they were the victors here, so they wrote the history which future generations have believed ever since.

I wanted to tell a different story - a story which no one had told before - a story about an intelligent, educated young Cleopatra before she ever became queen, before she entered onto the stage of world history. Surprisingly little is known about that younger period of her life - and that gave me the freedom to mess about a bit, to speculate, to research my socks off and then shake the few historically accurate scraps of fact around and come up with a 'what-might-have-happened' story of my own. Being me, I also wanted to throw the myths of Ancient Egypt into the mix - the gods and goddesses of the Ennead and the Ogdoad. That's the book I've just finished - and I'm just about to start writing the second of 'my' Cleo's adventures. However, before I started, I took a short break to catch up on my huge TBR pile. Bear with me here - it is relevant to the messing with ancient history theme!

The first book on the pile happened to be Jamie Buxton's Temple Boys, which comes out on 27th February from Egmont - I'm lucky enough to have been sent an early copy.  Like me, Jamie Buxton is a digger and delver into the territory of long ago (his imaginative riff on the Arthur legend, I Am the Blade and Heartless Dark are favourites of mine), so I took one look at the cover and the blurb - a gang of boys, Romans, a magician - and dived right in. Just my sort of thing, I thought, and it was - only the 'magician' wasn't at all what I was expecting.

Jamie Buxton has gone several notches above me here when it comes to writing about someone famous. He's taken the Biggest Historical Character of Them All - the one pretty much everyone in the whole world knows about - and told his (or should I say His?) story from the point of view of a small beggar boy on the streets of Jerusalem. What is more, he's done it in a way which made me think once again about how history is perceived by the generations of the future - and about how the facts of that crucial 'what-really-happened' story slip and slide through the backward-looking lens that is our past.

Temple Boys is based around a story about one man which is told around the world every single day - a story which has become a faith for millions. People everywhere wear the story's symbol around their necks. I know this story backwards. I know how it begins, how it ends, who the characters are, what each of them does - and yet in storytelling wizard Jamie's extraordinarily capable hands, the story of Flea and Yeshua became for me a totally new and thrilling tale which I couldn't bear to put down for one minute.

This is what truly compelling history - ancient or otherwise - for children should be. Not something dry and dusty in an old, forgotten tome, parading fact after boring fact, but something which grips the mind and makes the heart thud with excitement or fear, sadness or joy. I believe that the spell really good storytelling casts over us all is the way to pull children and teenagers into the past and make it come alive for them.  If I, as a writer, have to mess about with history a bit to make that happen - well, I'll take a few roars of disapproval from the sticklers for every young person who has told me that Atticus was the book which made them choose to study Classics or Ancient History at university. I think it's a price worth paying, and I hope that both Jamie's meddling with Yeshua/Jesus and my own with Cleopatra (when she comes in 2015) will infect lots of young readers with the history bug - preferably for the rest of their lives!

Lucy's new picture book, Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party is now out from Nosy Crow!
"A splendidly riotous romp…Miss the Captain’s party at your peril." Jill Bennett
"An early candidate for piratey book of the year." ReadItDaddy blog
Bear's Best Friend is published by Bloomsbury  
"Coats's ebullient, sympathetic story is perfectly matched by Sarah Dyer's warm and witty illustrations." The Times   
Lucy's latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books. 
Lucy's Website
Follow Lucy on Twitter

Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at Ed Victor Ltd


Damian Harvey said...

What a good post Lucy, I really enjoyed reading that - especially as I've been writing some little history stories myself. I've found it amazing to discover what I thought I knew and also that I didn't know what I didn't know - if you know what I mean. And it's such a thrill to find some little-known nugget to pass on.

Lucy Coats said...

Yes, that's the bit I like best, Damian - tripping over some lovely piece of information you didn't even know you needed to know. I think I've written here before about the power of serendipity. Usually I find that sort of thing in the place I'm least expecting it to turn up.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Now I REALLY want to read about both the Temple boy and your Cleopatra, Lucy! What a very good sales woman you are!

JO said...

Great post, Lucy - I'm a pedant when it comes to accuracy, but have no problems with making stuff up when there's so much we simply don't know, especially if that helps children understand that history is so fascinating.

If more of our politicians had read history as children, maybe they'd be in less of a hurry to repeat mistakes over and over!

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, Pippa - I'm glad I've piqued your interest! And yes, Jo - why is it that politicians never seem to learn the lessons that history teaches? Can they not see the repeating patterns?