Writing Historical Fantasy – And How to be A Good Athenian Host with Karen Dudley

Joining us this week is Aurora-nominated author Karen Dudley, whose book Food for the Gods, is a greek mythological tale of love, murder, and interesting-shaped pastry. You can learn more about Karen and her publisher by going to Turnstone Books, and learning all about its imprint, Ravenstone.  Kraken Bake, the sequel, is set for a 2014 release. 


As a writer, one of the biggest challenges to writing historical fiction is how to get certain information across without slowing down your narrative with the dreaded info dump. I’m talking about social conventions, cultural practices, rules of etiquette; the kinds of things that are going to seem quite foreign to contemporary readers. When I sat down to write Food for the Gods  (which takes place around 420 BC), I knew I was going to have to figure out a way to do this—preferably a way that reflected the tone and style I wanted for the rest of the book. Fortunately, I remembered a wonderful kids’ book which I’d read years before. The Greek Gazette was published by Usborne and basically it was Greek history written as a tabloid. It was hilarious! And it was perfect. “Eureka!” I thought to myself.

And so, Food for the Gods—and its sequel, Kraken Bake—have all these great interstitial chapters with stuff like advertisements, recipes, and excerpts from self-help scrolls. I had a blast writing them, and they really do impart some important—and fascinating—information about the society of the time. If you’re having a hard time imagining what such a thing might look like, here’s a wee taste. And yes, number five really was a thing back then…

Excerpt from the self-help scroll Eukrates’s Guide to Wining and Dining in Athens.

Ensure your dinner party is a success by following these Five Quick Tips for Hosts:

1. Hire the best foreign chef you can afford for your symposion. In some circles it has become common practice to demand that a cook and his slaves eat before they arrive so you do not have to bear the expense of feeding them. Although some find this behaviour acceptable, it is, in fact, niggardly and vulgar. By offering to feed the cook and his retinue, you will, in addition to appearing magnanimous, secure his gratitude and through this obtain a vastly superior meal for your special dinner party.

2. Consider carefully any decision to invite Socrates to your symposion. Although he possesses a marked talent for sophistry and will impress your guests with his philosophizing, the man will show up looking like an unmade sleeping couch. In addition, it is said he consumes only barley rolls and water—the better to trough his way through supper when he’s out at parties. Apart from obvious aesthetic considerations, such behaviour will result in far fewer leftovers for the host.

3. When holding a symposion during the month of Pyanepsion, one must ensure that at least one bean dish appears on the menu, as this month is named after the boiled beans which the legendary Theseus offered the god Apollo after slaying the dread Bull of Minos. Do not, however, invite Pythagoras to your Pyanepsion party as he possesses some rather strange beliefs—namely that we live and die over and over again, coming back each time as another living thing. According to this mathematical ‘genius’, we begin this spiritual journey as beans (yes, that’s right, beans). Pythagoras therefore frowns on the consumption of anything that might be considered a (distant) relative. Needless to say, such beliefs are not conducive to a particularly relaxed or festive Pyanepsion evening.

4. Choose a symposiarch to direct the entertainment for the evening and keep the conversation clipping along. But exercise caution in your choice! Do not forget it is also the symposiarch’s job to water down the wine so the partygoers don’t get dung-faced, annoy the neighbors, and generally find themselves unable to converse in a coherent, philosophic manner. Many a dinner party has been cast into ruin by the appointment of an inexperienced or (worse!) reckless symposiarch. Remember, only Persians and other barbarians consume unwatered wine. Your typical Athenian, however, understands that drink enhances desire at the cost of performance.

5. Provide the highest quality comestibles and other party supplies for your soirée. Do not omit the bread dildos! In addition to providing pleasure for the flute girls and hetaeras at the party, your wife will appreciate the special treat as she spends her evening in the women’s quarters listening to the sound of your merrymaking. A few bread dildos should help alleviate any boredom she may feel and will therefore help promote marital accord.


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