Monday, October 22, 2007

The Pict, My First Novel

Welcome to my book blog. My first historical novel, The Pict, is available on I'll post updates on my progress with my follow up novel from time to time. Feel free to contact me if you'd like to discuss The Pict, or anything else regarding writing or publishing books.


Kirsten Campbell said...

Hi, Jack. I've posted a review/critique of The Pict on my blog, if you're interested. It's pretty brutally honest, but I'd be really interested in seeing what you make of it. (Just hope I haven't completely missed the point!) Please feel free to remark on it; I'm always up for a discussion about Picts/Romans/history in general!

Jack Dixon said...

Hi, Kirsten. Thank you for your review. I find brutal honesty refreshing, and I think that your review is fair, incisive, and constructive. I appreciate the time you took to read The Pict, and then to tell me what you thought of it.

I do lean heavily in favor of the Picts in my evaluation of Agricola's campaign against them. I admire the Picts' (and later the Scots') insistence upon freedom from Empire, even at the expense of the economic benefits of Empire.

I have always been struck by the oddity of a successful Roman conquest followed by near total withdrawal, and by the distinct absence of subsequent Roman governance of 'conquered' territory. I also think that so momentuous a battle as Mons Graupius would have left at least a modicum of evidence, either archaeological or documentary, to corroborate Tacitus's account.

That's not to say that the absence of corroborating evidence proves that the battle was fabricated. Certainly, Tacitus could have been the only contemporary historian to find it noteworthy. It's also possible that all but Tacitus's documentation of Mons Graupius was destroyed along with incalculable knowledge that was lost to barbarian plundering of the collapsing Empire. These things are certainly possible, but I'm comfortable stating emphatically that they're not likely.

You didn't miss the point at all. I was, though, more intent on exploring the psyche of the man who led the fractious Picts against the Roman juggernaut, and how that clash might have reshaped him personally, as it no doubt reshaped Pictish society.

I think that documented history is more slanted in favor of dominant forces than most people think it to be, and my motivation is to write the story from the other side - to tell the stories from the perspective of the vanquished. That will inevitably place me at odds with commonly accepted historical views. I'm okay with that, as long as my writing is good enough that readers find it stimulating.

And yes, you're spot on - that was Tacitus with the quill in the corner of the tent. That's the only way that I can imagine he could have heard the words he attributed to Calgacus. Perceptive young lady, you are!


Kirsten Campbell said...

Hi, again. Thanks very much for the response; it's good to know you thought the review was constructive, and your reply's interesting. Made me think about my own stance on my work.

The Picts are quite admirable in that respect, aren't they? The archaeological record (ie, brooches, silver, etc.) seems to suggest they were quite happy to trade for Roman luxuries, but they definitely weren't for having them forced on them. I'm not much of a patriot, but it still gives me a warm fuzzy feeling when I think my ancestors were able to hold off the Romans. :)

The Roman invasion of Scotland is a bit of a puzzler, especially with regards to Mons Graupius. So far, as you've said, we've no definite evidence for such a battle taking place. It would definitely help if we had a writer other than Tacitus mentioning it. But we don't, and so it's really a matter of faith. For my part, I think the battle did take place, if not quite on the epic scale that Tacitus gives us. This is mainly because, although we've no archaeological evidence for Mons Graupius itself, the record of the Roman occupation in the Flavian period is quite suggestive. The forts in the Lowlands are quite small and spread out, webbing themselves across the landscape, but once you get past the Forth-Clyde isthmus, the line of advance is more concentrated, arcing alongside the Grampians up to about the Moray firth. The encampments on this line are much, much larger than those further south, some reaching over 100 acres. It definitely suggests that there was a large army moving as one up this route. Incidentally, the reason Bennachie is so favoured as the site of Mons Graupius is because Durno, the largest of these camps, lies just opposite, and it seemed to have been quite capable of accomodating the numbers given by Tacitus (as far as I can see, anyway).

This in itself doesn't really prove anything; all it shows is that a huge Roman force advanced north. But the fact that a military presence was maintained in Scotland even after Agricola was recalled suggests they did manage to strike some kind of blow against the native population. The Inchtuthil fortress was obviously intended as a permanent base, and I remember reading (I think in Roman Scotland by David Breeze) that a fortress would only be built if the area had been taken. The glen forts, too, and the Gask ridge were held, at least until c. 86, before they were abandoned.

So, yes, the archaeology isn't too definite, but the way I see it, Agricola marshalled his forces for a march north, got as far as the Moray firth before being recalled, and somewhere along the line struck enough of a blow against the Caledonians to ensure a Roman presence for a good few years to come (my notes have the end of the second Flavian phase as late as c. 90). Perhaps in the time between Mons Graupius and the withdrawal, the Pictish forces had time to recover and revert to their more successful tactics, helped along by the troubles on the other frontiers.

And of course, it would help if someone as well as Tacitus had written something, but I suppose lack of evidence isn't necessarily evidence of lack. Maybe his father-in-law's campaigns gave him more of an interest in Britain than his peers. As far as I can see, Britain was dismissed a bit by other, latter writers (Aelius Aristides, for one). Though Severus came to Britain personally to oversee the invasion of Caledonia, and Constantius, Constantine and possibly Constans, all campaigned against the Picts. Interesting that the Roman emperors should take such a personal interest in them...

As for Calgacus... well, he's a fascinating figure, isn't he? I remember the first time I read about him, and thinking,What a character you must have been, to do all of that. I'm having an interesting time of it myself trying to get into the mind of the man who had the skill and the force of character to unite the tribes against the legions.

I don't fault you for wanting to tell the story from the Picts' point of view; my criticism was more that the Roman army would definitely have been more difficult to get the better of. My own story is more balanced PoV-wise, but I'll admit there's a slightly more pro-Pictish slant as time goes on. Marcus, my legionary protagonist, is finding it harder and harder to justify what he's doing and why to himself, and Tacitus remarks at one point (half in joke and whole in earnest), "Well, I can't blame them for not wanting to slave under Domitian!" I suppose my own distaste for imperialism just came through on its own...

You're right about the documented history, and I suppose that's the great thing about this particular time period: there's so much room for interpretation, and, as yet, no one can really tell you decisively whether you're right or wrong!

And yay, it was Tacitus after all! I just had a feeling - when Agricola said he would be recording what happened, I went, "Oh, really now?"

Anyway, I'd better stop writing now (I can get a tad over-enthusiastic about this whole issue, as I'm sure you can see...). Thanks again for such a positive response, and if my review proved useful at all, then that's good for me to know!

(Btw, what are your plans for your next books, if you don't mind me asking?)

Jack Dixon said...

Hi, Kirsten.

Yes, it’s refreshing to read a sincere evaluation. Those close to us usually can’t help but temper their criticism. Their motivation is to encourage and please us. It’s nice to hear good things, of course, but when it comes to writing, critical honesty is invaluable. I really feel that you did me a great service by being so sincere.

I’ve been fascinated by the Picts ever since I found passing references to them while researching various things (the origin of my surname, for one). Since American schools teach practically nothing about obscure histories (or else my mind was always on a girl named Roxanne when they did), I had never heard of the Picts. I had assumed that it was always Scotland, from the start of time. The more I learned about the Picts, the more I became intrigued, and I was eventually driven to write about them.

The Pict was originally part of a much larger work – a series of novellas that touched on various significant events and culminated in a point much different from the one I ended up with in The Pict. Circumstances interfered, forcing me to choose between putting that project (then 175,000 words and counting) on hold, unable to tackle the necessary edits to get it into shape for publication, or pulling the most polished of the novellas (The Pict) out of it and turning it into a publishable piece. At the time, I felt it was paramount for me to finally, actually publish something, because I had been writing for ages with too many frustrating roadblocks along the way. I needed the accomplishment of getting something into print. That’s not to say that I didn’t anguish over the final edits, but I’m sure I did The Pict a disservice – it has the potential for a first rate saga. But I was right about the encouragement I’d get out of actually publishing something.

I wish I had your experience and insight regarding Pictish history and the Roman invasion. How incredible it must be to stand among the forts and camps, and to see first hand the possessions that the Picts once held in their hands.

The Picts’ successful defiance of the Romans makes me wonder what the world would be like today had the Native Americans been as successful in their resistance against the U.S. throughout the 1800’s. They occasionally came much closer than most people realize. With that in mind, I wonder if Calgacus had any notion that the impact of his actions would reach as far into the future as I think they have. I doubt he did, or cared.

I got a good snicker out of putting Tacitus there in the corner of the tent. I wondered if anyone would recognize what I did.

I don’t at all mind you asking about what I’m doing now. I’m working on a novel set in the 13th century, in Languedoc, Acre, and Scotland. Of course, there’s a Templar or two involved, as well as a handful of Cathars, a number of French Catholic clerics, and more than a few determined Scots. I’ve tried to get them all to play well together, but it’s just not working out that way. My subject knowledge here is deeper than it was with The Pict. And it better be – I won’t have the creative leeway I enjoyed with The Pict. I’ll be more conscious of the PoV balance, because you’re right – credibility demands it. If nothing else, writing and publishing The Pict has been a great experience for me.

Nice as usual to chat with you. Take care, Kirsten!


Kirsten Campbell said...


I hear what you're saying about critical evaluations. At the moment, my only proofreader is my mum - so you can imagine how much constructive criticism I get. Though she does actually ask for the next chapters, so I guess that's encouraging. It was the same with my very first book - I gave what I'd written to a friend to read and not only did she demand to know what happened next, but she developed a bit of a crush on my hero! A bit alarming, but flattering! Gave me a hell of a confidence boost! :)

I'm glad, then, my evaluation proved helpful. I appreciate honest criticism more than anything, so I try to give it. But I do try to be fair - I can empathise with the "Nooooo! My baby!" feeling every writer must feel.

And your next book has some Templars, you say? Sounds very interesting indeed; I've only got a very basic knowledge of the world of the Templars. It's one of those things I wish I knew more about.

As far as creative leeway goes, I can sympathise. I love history, but my writer's brain tends to keep to the tenth millennium BC to the first millennium AD - where there's enough ambiguity to keep the imagination busy for a long, long time!

School really does the obscure histories an injustice. We did the Romans and Celts in primary school - fine - but I'd have loved to do the Picts and/or the Kingdom of Alba at high school, rather than having to do the rise of the bloody Nazi party for about three years running. It's all very relevant, I know, but by the end of fifth year I never wanted to hear the words "Hitler", "Reichstag" or "Weimar Republic" again.

I did very little Scottish history at school; I think there's a good percentage of Scottish people don't know that it wasn't always called
"Scotland". Luckily, I was the geeky sort of kid who read as many history books as fiction, so I pretty much learnt about it myself - especially about the Picts and the clash with Rome. I live just a couple of miles away from the site of a fort on the Antonine Wall, so my imagination has always been taken up by images of Roman legionaries and Pictish warriors fighting it out, and that's what led me to start reading about them, and - now - writing about them. I think they're the ones I've always felt closest to.

(What, can I ask, is the link between your name and the Picts?)

Also hear what you're saying about the publishing thing. I think most writers must have a love-hate relationship with their first-published book. There will always be that futile struggle for perfection, I think. God knows, I've had more meltdowns and weepy outbursts of OMG I IS TEH SUCK than I even want to think about. I can only imagine what actually seeing your name in print must do for your self-esteem as a writer, though (and maybe self-esteem in general). Even if you think you did The Pict a disservice, the encouragement and experience of its publication will no doubt have a hugely positive effect on your future works.

Right. I think I might have had a point somewhere, but it got lost under the rest of my rambling. Bye!

Jack Dixon said...

Hi, Kirsten.

Nazis for three years running? That must have been unbearable! We didn’t spend that much time on WWII at all, really. We did study Great Britain, of course, but all about England – very little at all about Scotland or Wales. Absolutely nothing about Ireland.

You say “geeky”…I say brilliant. You’re really just a bit older than eighteen, are you not? I read like crazy too, when I was a kid. It’s nice that you did, too. It pays off.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to live close enough to walk to thousand-year-old history. The only thousand-year-old history here is long buried an unknown. It’s hard for Americans to understand that sort of history a touch away. I sat in a pub at Rothenburg ob der Tauber that was that old, and I was absolutely amazed by it.

Regarding Dixon and the Picts, I was reading about the history of my surname years ago, and I read that Richard Keith (of the Douglas clan) was the first. I don’t know how true it is, of course, but I read that he slew Camus the Dane. Supposedly, the Douglas clan chief pronounced him ‘noble,’ and his progeny was named after him – they called him “Dic,” it said. That may be total rubbish, of course. But the same article said that the Keith clan was descended from Picts. That particular piece was probably written when Pictomania was at its height. I can’t imagine that there’s any documentation to support that connection.

I’ve read that ‘futile struggle for perfection’ somewhere before. Either you and I think very much alike, or you’ve checked out the ‘interview’ I posted on AuthorTrek ( It was odd, you using those precise words. In any event, don’t have too many of those meltdowns…it appears to me you’re well down the path of brilliance. You’ve already accomplished much more than most in a very short time.

I was indeed very, very good to see my name on the front of a book. You’ll know what it’s like before long, I’m sure.

‘Talk’ to you soon, Kirsten. Take care!


Kirsten Campbell said...

Hi, Jack. Sorry my reply's a bit late coming.

Wow, that's slightly creepy about our word choice. I seem to be taking the words out of people's mouths a lot this week.

Yeah, the Nazi thing was unbearable. By the end I hated everything about them - but for all the wrong reasons. (grumbles) I think we only ever touched on Scottish history at all in primary school (though my Archaeology of Scotland lectures are rectifying that now - hurray!). And I was the same as you - nothing about Ireland. The most Irish history I ever learned in school was little snippets when we were looking at Seamus Heaney in Advanced Higher English.

Reading a lot really has paid off. I was known as a book and history nut in primary school - that was my claim to fame. Got a bit of a reputation as a know-it-all, to be honest!

As for living close to history - lol, the Roman fort nowadays lies under a park and, I think, the supermarket car park. We kind of forget it's there. :( Though I suppose we do have the Antonine Pub to remember it by...

That's really interesting about your name (I love mytho-histories of surnames - I am a geek, and proud of it!). Who knows how true these stories are - but I suppose legends must come from somewhere...

I imagine most Scottish clans were descended from the Picts, though - just some will have had more Gael or Viking etc. mixed in there. Was it the Keiths who were at Dunnottar? If that's the case, then there's a good chance they might have had strong Pictish links, what with Dunnottar being the site of a Pictish stronghold: "Dun Fother", beseiged 681. It's good to have my books on this subject to hand at the moment! :)

Seeing my own name in print is my greatest dream - but if I ever do manage to get anything published, it'll be a long, long time. I've still got a long way to go, both in terms of finishing a piece, and of actual skill.

Good talking, as always! Talk to you again soon, Jack.

Jack Dixon said...

Hi, Kirsten. No problem with the late reply. I know you have a lot going on – so many exams! My apologies, too, for being so slow to respond.

Yes, it was the Keiths at Dunnottar. Dunnottar looks so impressive in pictures. I’d really like to see it in person. One of the authors (Janet Elaine Smith) at the Independent Authors Guild ( published a trilogy about the Keith Clan. The first of the series is called Dunnottar. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list.

From what I’ve seen of your writing, you’re not far off as far as talent and skill go. Your writing comes across as relaxed and thoughtful, and it makes one want to read more. Have you written very much? I got the impression you have completed a couple of things (although I know that ‘completed’ is a difficult word for most writers). If you’re ever interested in having someone do an evaluation for you, I’d be happy to read anything you’ve written. I have absolutely no doubt you’ll see your name in print.

I’ll be publishing my next book completely independently, through my own ‘publishing company’. I’ve researched the process, and it’s not all that complicated. It takes a little money and time, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

Please feel free to contact me through my website ( if you care to use e-mail. The Contact Me link will get the message to my e-mail.

Take care, Kirsten. Talk to you soon!

Jack Dixon said...,