Ancient world board games and phone apps

These last few days have seen me try to get a bit ahead with my other writing activity, namely mobile apps for Android or Apple mobile phones or tablets. So not too much on the word front this week. I did add a couple of reviews for numbers 3 and 4 in the excellent Fargoer series by Petteri Hanukkah (on Goodreads: Fargoer 3 – Of Fire and Stone and Fargoer 4 – The Roots of Evil, and also on Amazon.co.uk with Amazon.com pending) but otherwise it has been time spent in code development.

Coding is a funny thing, and shares a lot of oddities with writing. In both, you can sometimes see very clearly what you want to do, but actually doing it is a different story (ha ha). For reasons unexplained, the supposedly inanimate compiler or word processor seems to thwart you at every turn, twisting your fine and apparently clear intentions into a confusing mess! And it always takes longer than you expect…

Anyway, the next app target is a game which seems to have been popular across several parts of the ancient near east and elsewhere. There are rough outlines of what might be boards for the game in the city of Petra. The Greeks said they had learned it in Egypt, and passed it on to the Romans, and it eventually made it all the way north to Viking lands. It changed its name and some of the rules as it migrated, but the one I will release in a few weeks is called Seega. It’s a little bit like draughts in that pieces can only move one place at a time. However, you capture not by leaping over an enemy, but by sandwiching an enemy piece between two of your own. Also, the board starts out empty, and the first stage of the game is to take turns placing pieces into the empty squares. The later variations in other counties used different size boards, and different original layout positions, so you can expect to see other games in the same family come out through the rest of 2013.

To check Seega out (when it’s released) go to the major app stores – iStore, Google Play, Amazon Appstore, or Barnes and Noble – and search for DataScenes Development. More details and links will follow before too long. RIght now there are just two games in the stable – Senet and Aseb (also known as the Royal Game of Ur) but one of my goals for this year is to at least double the count. Senet is always the most popular across all of those app stores, presumably because more people know the name.

I have really enjoyed getting to grips with these ancient world board games for several reasons. Firstly, we do not have clearly defined rules for any of them, and we suspect that there would have been local variations or house rules in different places anyway. So part of the task has been to piece together several different opinions about the rules, and provide several play options so that people can experiment. Some are more interesting and challenging than others! Then there are problems of putting together some simple visuals and creating a reasonably strong AI strategy.

For the most part these games have not retained favour in the way that Chess or Go have done, but they have some really interesting features of game play and, at least in my opinion, deserve another airing. Enjoy!

Festivals

For me, no doubt like many others, today meant going back to work after the holiday period – though the comparative emptiness of the underground train made me wonder how many people are staying away until next Monday!

So this naturally made me think about festivals, and the various ones I have written into In a Milk and Honeyed Land. In historical terms we know only a little about what festivals actually were celebrated in Canaan, and still less about the details of the celebrations themselves.

We are pretty sure that there were spring and autumn feasts, and it is highly likely that there were also particular days used to honour one or other deity. We do have written records of similar events further east, in Mesopotamia, and it is likely that the various religious ceremonies recorded in the Hebrew Bible owe their timing at least in part to these earlier traditional festivals. The timing is logical given the agricultural base of the culture – seedtime and harvest, winter and summer are good times to look forward with anticipation or backward with gratitude.

In keeping with the general theme of the book, I have written these as low-key events – plenty of food, wine, singing and dancing for the townspeople to share with one another, a ritual sacrifice of a locally caught animal, and so on. They are community-scale events, repeated dozens of times across the area in individual towns and villages, rather than great assemblies or pilgrimages involving the region as a whole. I have assumed that, human nature being what it is, these were times when normal social conventions and constraints were loosened, resulting in a whole mixture of personal delights and indiscretions. Writing about these events, and seeking to imaginatively fill in the gaps in our knowledge, was a lot of fun!

Other news – In a Milk and Honeyed Land is now listed at the excellent book promotion site askdavid.com, a splendid resource for writers and readers. So here’s looking forward to a productive and satisfying year!

A happy recapture of the past!

I treated myself for Christmas to a very old copy of Star Rangers by Andre Norton. This was first published in 1953, though I came across it in the early 1970s, in the science fiction section of Godalming town library (a place where I spent many happy hours and borrowed many exciting books). My “new” copy is in the old style of s-f novels – the cover is in garish colours and has almost nothing to do with the plot, and the title is picked out in rather psychedelic colours.

Cover image 'Star Rangers'

So why write about this book? Well, Star Rangers was the first book that I read that made me want to write. As a young teenager, I even got so far as writing out in pen and ink – real ink, albeit in cartridges rather than from a bottle – the first page or two of a sequel. This draft is long since lost, which is probably just as well all things considered, but I can still remember the excitement of reading this book and feeling the desire to do something creative in response. Even now, one way I decide how much I like a book is the extent to which it makes me want to write – if it doesn’t trigger an impulse towards creativity in me, I don’t include it in my top shelf of books!

So, how was it to re-read the book? By way of explanation, I re-read some others of Andre Norton’s books (Judgement on Janus and Victory on Janus) earlier in the year, and found them heavy going. Those particular books, which I had enjoyed so much in my teens, had dated rather poorly. So it was with some trepidation that I approached Star Rangers. Happily, this book has aged extremely well. The storyline is still engaging, many of the issues have contemporary echoes (prejudice, illness brought accidentally to indigenous populations, social disintegration, etc). Alien species, unusually for that time, are treated sympathetically and creatively. Both physical and mental combat are handled well. There’s not a huge amount of character development, but the main individuals have to constantly adjust to changing situations which make their course of action increasingly constrained. The final discovery – which tact forbids I reveal in detail – still gave me a thrill of excitement when I read it yesterday, just as it did all those years ago. Great stuff.

That’s it for now… back to writing soon…

Progress on ‘Scenes from a Life’

This week has been a good writing week! Specifically, I have now got Scenes from a Life to about the 2/3 point… barring editing and such like which will mean going over those chapters several times in ruthless fashion. But in unpolished form at least, chapters 1 to 5 are complete, 7 is well on the way, 8 is fragmentary, and 9 has the basic shape laid out. 6 does not exist at all, though I have a reasonable sense what will be in it!

The story is set something like twenty years after In a Milk and Honeyed Land and, although it probably will not seem like it at first sight, aims to tie up some loose ends left unresolved in that novel. It starts in Egypt, well down the Nile near the town we now call Luxor – Waset at the time the story is set. The main character, Makty-rasut, is a scribe who works to create tombs – eternal houses – for the nobility of the region. We follow his story through a series of scenes both in the present time and as flashbacks to earlier formative events.

I find the scribal culture that Makty inhabits a fascinating one. He and others like him interacted with the elite of their day. Some of them moved up into those rarified ranks, while others remained at a level very roughly corresponding to what we would now call a professional middle class. A great deal of what we know of ancient Egypt and the surrounding lands was presented through their eyes, and therefore seen according to the presuppositions and ambitions of their class. Arguably, their culture also shaped the making of the religious literature that has come down to us in the Bible, since the evidence of archaeology and text is that Egyptian scribes found employment in the various Levantine states – including Israel – which emerged after the Egyptian empire in those regions collapsed.

I work in a very similar environment in today’s London, and anyone who has worked in IT will recognise many familiar features in the book. The way I write it, “agile methodologies” are not a modern creation at all, but a common and logical solution to the problem of directing the creative effort of a small team of talented but often opinionated workers. I hasten to add that although the attitudes and lifestyle I write about can frequently be seen around me, the individual people in the book are not modelled on individuals I know. Anyone who reads the book hoping to recognise one or other of my fellow workers will probably be disappointed! But maybe they will find some aspects of the professional life familiar.

Although the book starts in Egypt, it does eventually link up with the town of Kephrath. How and why it does is a matter for another day.

I’m hoping that Scenes from a Life will make it into print during 2013, and I will continue talking about its progress from time to time. Meanwhile, check out In a Milk and Honeyed Land for the background situation out in the Egyptian province of Canaan – http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx

A new review – and a giveaway this weekend!

First, I have set up a giveaway period for the short story The Man in the Cistern for this weekend – go to

Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cistern-Short-Stories-Kephrath-ebook/dp/B009QM4GQM/
or
Amazon.com – http://www.amazon.com/Cistern-Short-Stories-Kephrath-ebook/dp/B009QM4GQM/

for free Kindle copies downloaded December 14th-16th! Please check that the item is free in your specific time zone at the time of download.

This gives you time to read it and then buy the full length novel In a Milk and Honeyed Land for Christmas in Kindle, Nook or physical formats – see http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx for buying options.

I had a new review uploaded to the Amazon UK Kindle site this week and I was thrilled by it. The reviewer had caught a great deal of what I have tried to do with the book, and has written an elegant and sensitive review. Some extracts are:

This is time travel at its best… The period is thoroughly researched and the voice authentic. stories are told in a different way – slowly, carefully, step by step rather like the long journeys of Damariel… We read about unfamilar religious customs and values but can detect traces, beginnings of the world we know. We see also the more recognisable human dilemmas and responses to those changes… There is space and time to reflect. The atmosphere of that is captured….for those who can leave their twitters and instant lives to one side, and be patient..

The full review is at http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R32WD3AKDB8KLW/ref=cm_cr_pr_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B008T8HGRA&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=

Chiasmus seen on the streets of Hampstead Garden Suburb!

Some while ago I wrote a series of posts on the subject of ancient middle eastern poetry (for example http://richardabbott.authorsxpress.com/2012/07/24/%E2%80%98in-a-milk-and-honeyed-land%E2%80%99-and-ancient-poetry-2/). One of the topics I covered was chiasmus, a literary device where parts of a phrase or pair of lines of poetry are crossed over. A good example from the biblical book of Joshua is:

     Then still the Sun
and Moon was stopped

Now, at the time I commented that this is only rarely seen these days. Well, the other day I was walking in Hampstead Garden Suburb (in North London) when I saw a courier van making a delivery. Imagine my delight when I saw that the slogan on the driver’s cab was “Delivering the promise that others promise to deliver”!

How cool was that? It certainly made me look twice, and if I ever had need for courier services – which admittedly is unlikely just now – I’d look them up. Now, that part of London has a large Jewish community, and good representation of other middle eastern groups as well. So I did wonder if this was a bit of long-standing cultural identity being expressed in a commercial slogan. Whatever the case, it was great to see chiasmus alive and well in the year 2012!

To track down examples of chiasmus in In a Milk and Honeyed Land, why not check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx and get your very own copy!

5* Review for Fargoer 2: Autumn Flames

Back to a book review again. You may remember that I really liked the first story in Petteri Hannila’s Fargoer series (End of Innocence) and reviewed that a while ago. Well, I finally got around to writing about Fargoer 2: Autumn Flames after a series of rather busy weeks. As before, this is a short episode in the lives of the two central women, and their wider community. The stories are closely linked, but do not try to tell a continuous account of life in the northern forests.

This second story is set in and around the village community which Petteri has imagined for his stories, and I was very glad to be learning more about the people’s way of life. We are brought face to face with difficult issues for the community – death and succession of leadership, conflict with surrounding people, and the power of personal choices.

The review itself can be found at Amazon.co.uk or Goodreads so I won’t repeat it here. Once again, Petteri successfully drew me in to this particular culture, and once again I am looking forward to enjoying the rest of the series. The episodic format works for me as a way to introduce me to the values and practices of the people, and the interconnected stories of the two central women, alternating between cooperation and conflict, provide a central anchor point. Great stuff.

As for my own news – steady but slow progress on novel #2, Scenes from a Life, which I am still hoping will be available next year sometime. I had got rather bogged down in a particular chapter but have started making progress again.

Board games in the ancient world

Today I’m thinking about ancient world board games, for a couple of reasons. The first is that one such game, Senet, features quite prominently in my work-in-progress novel. This has the provisional title Scenes from a Life and, all being well, I hope to get that out into the wide world sometime next year. That story starts in Egypt, in and around the town now called Luxor but at the time Waset. It ends… well, you’ll have to wait and see! But along the way the game of Senet features quite prominently, both as a recreational pursuit and as a metaphor of progress and disappointment.

Senet is the Egyptian game about which we know most detail, since we have numerous preserved boards as well as pictures in tombs. But there are still huge gaps in our knowledge. We don’t exactly know the rules used in play, but there are more profound unanswered questions as well. Was it just a game? Or did people see deeper religious meanings in it? Could it have had a similar range of uses as a deck of cards today, which can be used for simple recreation, for gambling at both low and high stakes, for fortune telling, and a multitude of uses in between? So we know most about Senet – but there were others, with varying mixtures of chance versus skill factors. Sometimes we come across skilfully made, purpose-built boards, but other times we have found just rough hand-sketched outlines. The British Museum has one such, on the side of a large Assyrian bull figure – see http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/colossal_winged_bull.aspx. Other boards have been found roughly cut into stone in the ancient city of Petra, though in this case it is not clear what game is intended.

The second reason for thinking about this today has to do with one of my other interests, namely writing mobile and tablet apps. Under the banner DataScenes Development, the games of Senet and Aseb (also known as the Royal Game of Ur) are already on the various app stores – Apple, Google, Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Search for them by name for whatever phone or tablet you have! Currently under development is Seega, a game which many people think is the ancestor of several games in Greece, Rome, and Europe all the way up to the Viking north. Development is going well on that, and the game now plays through successfully on my phone… though with a rather dismal computer strategy which gets bogged down about half way through the game! Keep watching this space…

Book signing and Java problems

Cornerstone Books Sat Nov 17th 2012Two things this time. First, the book signing at Cornerstone Books in North Finchley on Saturday went well. Some interesting conversations, some good contacts for the future, and some book sales! Now I have to think about how to follow this up.

Secondly, the Kindle Previewer program on my Mac suddenly stopped working a short time ago, and over the weekend I managed to get it working again with the help of a blog article by Adam Bien at
http://www.adam-bien.com/roller/abien/entry/if_the_kindle_previewer_won
It turns out that the latest version of the previewer (2.7.1) does not work with Java version 1.7 (also confusingly known as Java 7). So as and when some other program updates Java, the problem surfaces. In my case it was probably one of the application development programs I have installed, but as so many things use Java it could have been something different. Whatever the root cause, the result was that Kindle Previewer would not start up.

Fortunately the blog article tells you exactly what to do – follow the directions about opening the launch file and pasting in a specific line exactly as shown, and lo and behold everything works again. Basically what you are doing is forcing the previewer to continue to use the previous version of Java, rather than it automatically selecting the newest version. In brief, you need to find the launch file
/Applications/Kindle Previewer.app/Contents/MacOS/Launcher
and insert the following as a single line of text
export JAVA_HOME=”/System/Library/Java/JavaVirtualMachines/1.6.0.jdk/Contents/Home”
directly after the initial line
#!/bin/sh
If this makes no sense at all to people then there are step by step instructions and a couple of alternate options at the above blog.

A quick experiment suggests that there is not a corresponding problem on a Windows machine, but I am not 100% certain that I have exactly the same versions of everything installed there.

I imagine that Amazon will bring out an updated version at some point, but until then this will keep you able to use the previewer.

Writing about everyday life

One of the things I particularly wanted to do with In a Milk and Honeyed Land was to write about everyday life in a small town at the end of the Late Bronze age. There are plenty of novels written about Egyptian rulers like Ramesses, Akhenaten, or Nefertiti, and a fair number written with Moses as the main figure, or David a little later on. Some of them are well worth reading, and I dare say more will join their ranks in the future. But that is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the kind of life led by more ordinary figures.

This then raises questions about how to do the background research. Most literature that we have from the ancient world concerns the interests and anxieties of a small elite minority, since only these few might be literate or at least could afford to engage the services of a scribe. Every so often we get glimpses of other layers of society, but even these are seen through elite eyes. Fortunately, we have other resources in the form of archaeological digs. These, interpreted every bit as cautiously as a piece of writing, can tell us all kinds of things about everyday life. So we can get a good idea about the houses people lived in, the cooking utensils they used, their basic diet, their tools and weapons, some of the objects that featured in their religious habits, and so on. It’s a difficult business, sometimes, to interpret the cultural significance of some items, when there is no written explanation to accompany them. For example, large numbers of small modelled female figures have been found all around the Levant. These have been interpreted in a great many ways, including a goddess figure as a focus for worship, a magical or good luck charm for promoting fertility or safety in childbirth, and a children’s toy!

Now, the advantage of dealing with a small town is that I can include a good range of people within the same few houses. So Damariel, although poor and a politically nobody compared to a Pharaoh, is nevertheless on the edges of the elite. He can read and write, is responsible for the spiritual and worldly life of his people, and is entitled to correspond with other similar leaders in times of crisis. And of course almost all of the towns and city states in the region were also small. Town leaders might well style themselves “king”, but in most cases they only held sway over a few square miles of territory and maybe a couple of thousand people. It had been said of a character called Phicol, who the Hebrew Bible describes three times as “commander of the king’s army” (in Genesis 21 and 26), that he most likely commanded fewer men than the typical Fire Brigade in a contemporary small town. Titles were often grander than reality, and numbers of people involved were usually much smaller than we might expect.

Finally… only a few days now to the book signing event for In a Milk and Honeyed Land – Saturday November 17th at Cornerstone Books, from 10:30 or so until 3:30 or so. Cornerstone’s contact details are: Cornerstone Books, 45-51 Woodhouse Road, London N12 9ET, 020 8446 3056, http://www.cornerstone.co.uk/pages/1648.htm. Hope to see you there!

Writing, ancient and modern