Piracy is much in the news so it may be helpful to reiterate the true situation on those tempting sites that offer ‘free downloads’ of ebooks and audios. The copyright laws are exactly the same internationally as for print. An author licenses a publisher, but nobody else is allowed to scan and offer copyrighted works, either for sale or for free. Those sites claim to be legitimate, but they are not.

I enjoy what I do, but I work to earn my living and am entitled to be paid – I wouldn’t do it otherwise. Readers need to understand that however attractive the idea that ‘all information is free’, (the argument used by pirate sites), without royalties, many of your favourite authors will simply give up.

Ideas for Short Stories

Some time ago the great Terry Pratchett wrote a piece explaining why he no longer reads letters which give him plotlines for future books: he fears being sued, for one thing, by some determined ‘helpful’ person who claims to be owed royalties on the idea. Several correspondents have made quite detailed suggestions to me lately, so perhaps it’s time for a rant on this subject.
I understand all too well that it is good fun thinking up new plots – that’s what I like about my job! No decent author wants to be reduced to simply fleshing out someone else’s synopsis – so there is no point whatsoever telling me what you think I could write next. All the fun for me is making up my own ideas. I can only work from inspirations of my own.

By making such suggestions you could actually prevent me writing something good. One recent correspondent produced an elaborate scenario, about the place where I myself had already decided to set the next book (luckily I had a respected site archaeologist and curator witnesses!) My plot is completely different, being tailored to my own preoccupations – but otherwise, I would have been forced to dump it. It takes odd characteristics to make a decent author – you have to like to be solitary. And your imagination is single-minded. You are probably the kind of person who never plays computer games, although you might consider devising them. You go from being a ‘leave me alone; I can do it by myself’ kind of child, to being exactly the same kind of adult. Working alone is crucial to the job. I make no apology for that – and I’m not prepared to give up an inch of the territory, I’m afraid.

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Historical Errors?

I have not had a rant for some time, so let’s start the new century in fighting form: I have responded rather stroppily in Postbag about historical errors, a subject which intrigues me more and more. ‘I had to write’, people tell me – though I do find myself wondering why the urge is so strong. (I don’t know how they expect me to react, but I can reveal it does tend to be a ferocious snarl of ‘Bastards!’) Interestingly, nobody has ever written to tell me I have made an error in human relationships, which ought to matter far more.

It is a matter of professional pride with me to avoid historical mistakes if I can, and yet as I often point out (particularly to American teachers!), novels are fiction, not textbooks. Do a few slips really spoil the enjoyment that can be had from the body of work in general? I believe that I try harder than some other authors – but I also attempt more daring, more inventive stuff. If I stopped to check every tiny detail, the passion would be lost – and frankly, I would have no incentive to write. You can have a novel a year, written with flair but a few rough edges – or a pedantically correct perfect thing, honed for a decade and checked with numerous experts…

It wouldn’t be written by me. I’m not that sort of person.

And dear readers, would it be any fun?

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Deliberate Insertions

I have decided that in future every book shall contain a set of errors, in order to make life easier for the people who want to tell me what I have done wrong. These deliberate insertions will cover a range of the topics that exercise folk: language, the classics (modern studies), the classics (as vaguely remembered from 50 years ago at a minor public school), archaeology (real), archaeology (as dreamed up by amateurs), geography, spelling, natural history, and feminism. This will be in addition to the Approved Neologisms (“Lindseyisms”), of which my publisher formally allows me one per book. Special attention will be given to offending members of re-enactment groups with inaccurate details of military uniforms, and to enraging members of the medical profession by references to diseases from the New World.

At the same time, a game will be played of finding ancient inventions, agricultural practices, and social conventions which sound like errors – but which can be proved by literature or science.

Five points will be awarded for every ‘real’ error pointed out to me, but ten points will be deducted for each ‘red herring’ that works. Please note, the points will be merely to make you feel smug. There is no prize.

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And another thing: For east read west…

A number of people, some blatantly admitting they are seeking paid work as copy editors, have been writing to point out stylistic mistakes and typographical errors. If I am slow to respond, these tragic pedants quickly write again, asking why have I not answered? They don’t think I may have slain myself because of the errors that pepper my irritating work and their good work in telling me.

  • Saying ‘it is not your fault’ is disingenuous. It is my fault. But I am a crabby old lady, so beware of irritating me. Your compulsion is not mine. My compulsion is to think up new ideas.
  • Don’t be rude about my editor.
  • Nowadays novels are not transcribed by typists. The words, and their punctuation, are what I wrote on my computer. If, after those words have passed through many hands while being edited, copy edited and proofread, a few slips remain, I do collect them up later. I tell my publishers; they may make corrections, though obviously only in later editions. Or not.
  • I write Falco and Albia in the first person: terse, conversational, elliptical. Albia is very prone to dashing off comments. (“Never use very” – my English teacher.)
  • I have been removing pairs of commas around clauses when they were not needed for the sense or to indicate breathing. The copy editing rules are wrong; you should not have commas spotting prose like measles. I shall be deleting them much more scrupulously now I have been riled on the subject.
  • Do not tell me about ‘pubic pavements’ or the ‘marquis’ who should be a marquee. I know. I myself now view these two as faithful old friends.
  • Yes, Volusius should be Vibius on one occasion, but if you can write to tell me this, you must have realised what I meant.
  • I take no responsibility for anything in Latin.

Is what I meant easily understood in context? Then relax. My books – my work, my style, my possible dyslexia, my happy attitude.

I am writing to entertain you and bring you solace. If something annoys you, it’s sad. But if you want to tell me what you have enjoyed, that’s wonderful.

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A Gentle Corny Rant

[an American reader asked: I just started to read “One Virgin” and I got to the Arval Brotherhood part where they are described as wearing “ears of corn” on their heads. Is this a mistake or just the usual British translation of all frumentum as corn? Will it be corrected for the American version? Do the British refer to heads of grain whatever type as “ears”?]


I have endured being told I should not mention maize, but now hang about! Corn is stuff that waves about like big golden grass in fields in Europe. It has done that since the dawn of history, thus making itself fundamental to the agricultural myths of the society in which I grew up and of which I write, and moreover it’s currently helping the oilseed rape in giving me hayfever. Corn does not come in tins or with sweet yellow relish sauce or with little plastic swords stuck in its ends. Ruth stood ‘amidst the alien corn’ (Bible/Keats) and it had ears, believe me.

This is where my preference for the Oxford Dictionary over all other forms of reference will be loudly justified: “3 The seed of the cereal or farinaceous plants; grain. (Locally the seed is understood to denote the leading crop of the district; hence in England corn = wheat, in Scotland = oats, in US, as in Indian corn = maize)” In ancient Italy it would have been spelt or emmer, ie wheat.

No, it will not be changed in the US edition. (“corrected”? Excuse me! Brief explosion from Brit side of Pond…) I particularly do not want this amended for you dear folk over there, because in English, the language in which I write, corn is such a really utterly basic term that I’m sorry but you are jolly well going to have to learn it, just as we have to learn that when you say corn you mean the yellow stuff that sticks in your teeth. Also – to stretch this to the utmost now I’m raving – in English, corn is a term for old, tired humour, thus in the case of the antiquated Arval Brethren implying a remote but pleasing pun, which would be lost if I let you ‘translate’.

Enjoy the rich diversity of another culture, my dears. If you can call this stuff frumentum, which is a dead foreign language, you can cope with a live vocabulary.

If you are interested in the Romans, you are taking yourselves to Europe – that exciting, exotic theme park, where the quaint characters inhabit a big playground in which we were here first and anything from the New world still has to prove itself. Our myths have the Green Man but not the Jolly Green Giant. Our corn bends. So do our ears, but that’s another byway.

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Corn Again

On reflection, this won’t go away. It’s already prompted me to eat corned beef and to discover that my corn relish is used up. Then to decide that actually, the question raises a very serious point.

When I first started being published in America, I did meekly accept all requests to change terminology which was supposed to be ‘too British for Americans to understand’. It hasn’t arisen for a long time, partly because my US publishers are models of restraint and perhaps because I have learned, when using unfamiliar language, to make the meaning so clear from the context that only the most crass copy editor would query it and risk the flak (flak = anti-aircraft fire, dear cousins, Brit slang for a colourful argument).

But the underlying assumption that British books have to be modified for the American market needs to be rethought. It’s loathsome. Nobody would ask for this to be done in reverse. Britons accept faucets and such, and tackle US books written in a strong argot because that’s an essential part of their flavour. (Come to that, we accept Ian Rankin and Christopher Brookmyre being indelibly Scottish, even impenetrably Scottish…)

So, what I am being asked to do if I change words or phrases for American editions is to pretend I am not English and to obliterate my ‘voice’ – yes, that great ideal, beloved of US writing classes. I don’t believe you would dare to expect this of a Spanish or French author, or a Latin American or Japanese author. Nor do I believe that an American author writing about a distinct region, using some of the patois of a native people or the street talk of a particular city, would – or even could – be asked to modify their vocabulary for other Americans. It would be denying cultural identity, absolutely politically incorrect. So is it right that an anaemic Mid-Atlantic tone is regularly applied to British books – and that this is accepted, even by British authors, as a proper thing to do?


Let’s get it straight now. I will correct mistakes, inconsistencies and passages that even I can’t understand in retrospect. Otherwise, don’t even ask. The Falco books are English in origin. Their ‘voice’ is not only English, but narrowly defined on occasions right down to the bolshie British Midlands, in the mid Twentieth Century, with influences from BBC Radio and middleclass girls’ education. This voice is crucial. If it means readers have to stretch themselves, then gung ho and jolly good show. Bolshie is another word implying the onset of a colourful argument; that will be obvious from the context. Enough said.

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A Corny Poem

I do know, you know, that there are people in America of great wit, charm, erudition, sense and style. One long-term correspondent who wrote to me, Frankly I can’t understand why there’s a controversy, but evidently my Muse did. She hit me with the following:

It would be a feat
to change “corn” to “wheat”
in USA versions
about Vestal Virgins.
Let him who is vexed
by “corn” in the text
take writing utensil
(a good pen or pencil)
and mark to delete
any “corn” he may meet
while reading his Falco,
then scribble in “wheat”.

But I, knowing Latin
(I had to bring that in)
shall make my commentum
by writing “frumentum.”

© Virginia Di Zenzo, 2001

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Gummy Corn

I read your corn rants with pleasure. This American would be very upset if you “translated” your novels for us so we could understand them.

One point, however. Corn (maize) should never stick to your teeth. If it does, either it’s too old or it was cooked too long. Corn should ideally be eaten raw off the stalk, when it is crisp and at its sweetest. Any corn in grocery stores is probably what I’d call “old”. (Age and cooking turn corn’s sugar to starch, thus the stickiness.)

Ann Stewart Sacramento CA