Thursday, December 24, 2015

How much money to become a Roman Senator?

Money and politics have always been closely related. This was true even in Ancient Rome.

At the time of the Emperor Augustus, a man had to possess property worth 1 million sesterces in order to qualify as a member of the senatorial class. (There was no pretense of populism in Ancient Rome, and no shame about the class system.)

How much money was 1 million sesterces? Well, it is almost impossible to convert the amount into British pounds or American dollars. A Euro conversion would be even more difficult, given the financial disorder caused by the Greek debt crisis over the past several years. (Sorry—I couldn't resist.)

A sesterce, or sestertius, was minted as a small silver coin during the days of the Roman Republic. By the time of the Empire, however, the sesterce had become a large brass coin. (Yes, currency depreciation was an issue even in ancient times.)

An unskilled laborer in Rome earned about 3 sesterces per day. Employers in Ancient Rome couldn't outsource work to India and China. However, unskilled laborers did have to compete with unpaid slave labor.

Moreover, there was little industry in Rome by modern standards. (Some economists, observing the Italian economy today, would say that not much has changed.)

Roman legionaries were paid a fixed annual amount of about 900 sesterces. This was not a lot; but being a legionary was better than being a common laborer—provided an inept imperial legate didn't get you killed in a battle with the Gauls or the Goths.

A Roman legionary had no chance of attaining the Senate, barring an extraordinary change in fortune. Even if he saved every sesterce, a legionary would have to serve 1,111 years in order to earn 1 million sesterces, and thereby qualify for the senatorial class.

Given that the average lifespan in Roman times was about 28 years, this wasn't likely.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

What are the characteristics of good fiction?

Needless to say, part of this answer is subjective. My tastes today generally fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum between the bestsellers on the supermarket rack, and the more obscure works of “serious” fiction that are praised in the New York Times.

For example, I have never been able to read James Patterson with much regularity, and I was distinctly underwhelmed by The Da Vinci Code.

At the opposite extreme, I found Ian McEwan’s Atonement a nearly impossible read. I have been similarly thwarted in my attempts to read The Adventures of Augie March—another book that is beloved by English literature professors.

What sort of books do I like, then? Well, here are few of the criteria that I use to identify fiction that is both readable and worth reading.

Strong characters and a strong plot: Books that try too hard to be either bestsellers or great literature usually fall down on one side of this equation or the other.

It has become fashionable to talk about the cardboard cutout characters in The Da Vinci Code—but the book really is inhabited by shallow characters that speak, think and act only marginally like real human beings. (Of course, Dan Brown needn’t worry too much about my opinion of his work. More than 80 million copies of The Da Vinci Code and its companion novel, Angels & Demons, have been sold worldwide.)

On the other hand, there are those novels that endlessly explore the finer nuances of emotion and personality without the characters ever doing anything of consequence. If there is no struggle, no conflict—then there is usually no story, either.

This was a principle that I tried to keep in mind when writing Blood Flats. On one hand, Blood Flats contains a clear element of physical danger: The main story involves an epic journey/chase plot. At numerous points in the story, the life of the main character (Lee McCabe) is in danger.

On the other hand, though, there are several subplots that are more emotionally driven, relying less on physical danger: Lee’s relationship with Dawn Hardin, the history between Lee’s mother and Sheriff Phelps, etc.

Manageable length: Tolstoy’s magnum opus, War & Peace, contains about 560,000 words, or 1,300 pages. (To put this in perspective, the average first novel today contains about 90,000 to 100,000 words.)

I don’t demand that all novels that I read be as short as 100,000 words. However, if a novel is more than say, 700 pages, then it had better be good.

Where fiction is concerned, I definitely believe that there can be “too much of a good thing”.

I find that many mega-novels (arbitrarily defined here as being longer than 700 pages) would be more effectively broken up into several smaller books.

At 184,000 words, Blood Flats is about twice as long as the “average” commercial novel. However, it is paltry compared to War and Peace.

The author stays off his/her soapbox: If you have ever read Atlas Shrugged, you will recall that many-pages-long monologue by John Galt. (This is the radio address that begins with the words: “For twelve years you've been asking ‘Who is John Galt?’ This is John Galt speaking…”)

Maybe you applaud Ayn Rand’s ideas, and maybe you disagree with everything she ever said. In either case, I think you will have to admit that this mini-lecture embedded in the middle of Atlas Shrugged is a rather clumsy case of authorial intrusion. The impression I had when I first read this was that the plot and characters of Atlas Shrugged were simply a set of props erected to aid Rand in making her philosophical points. (And Rand stated this herself, in so many words)

Rand isn’t the only novelist who is guilty of authorial intrusion, of course. Plenty of other authors do this—both on the Left as well as on the Right.

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So those are my guidelines:

1.) A strong plot with character development.
2.) Not too long, and
3.) Light on the politics. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Eleven Miles of Night" and the Hellhound

Hellhounds are among the creatures that amateur filmmaker Jason Kelley encounters during his walk down the Shaman's Highway in Eleven Miles of Night. 

The concept of the hellhound, of course, has been around for a centuries, and has been a source of inspiration for artists drawn to the macabre. 

I like this illustration and short blurb from's Animal Planet:

BEARER OF DEATH? "Hellhound" is only one of many names used to describe ethereal, black dogs that roam hillsides and graveyards. With their glowing red eyes, super strength and speed, and a tendency to trail fire and brimstone in their wake, Hellhounds make for a terrifying messenger from the underworld. They are said to have been created by a group of ancient demons to serve as heralds of death, and seeing a Hellhound — some say once and others claim it takes three sightings — inevitably leads to the viewer's demise. Hellhounds boast many titles, including Black Shuck, Cerberus, Garm and Perro Negro. In the popular Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling referred to a menacing Hellhound as "The Grim." 
 AN ANCIENT LEGEND: Hellhound legends date back to the time of Vikings and sightings have been reported throughout history. These sightings, which are not confined to one region of the world, have more recently occurred near cemeteries in Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana and Ohio.
Note from the above that these beasts have been seen in Ohio--where Eleven Miles of Night is set.

"Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled.
He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural.
He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way."

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Read "Blood Flats" in Kindle Unlimited, or download a free sample now

Or buy it on Amazon. (The Kindle version is dirt cheap!)

“Meth, murder, and the mafia---a vast tapestry of a southern gothic crime novel with a Dickensian cast of characters.”

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“…the story is definitely one that a person can get lost in..”
 -Amazon review