Tag Archives: Judith Starkston

Judith Starkston Writes: Archaeology and Imagination, On Building a Fiction Scene Set in Ancient World

Archaeology and Imagination:
Building a scene of historical fiction set in the ancient world
by Judith Starkston, Author, Guest Article


Judith and her writing buddy, Socrates

I open my novel, Hand of Fire, with an emotionally charged moment: a young woman trying to save the life of her dying mother. That’s a universal experience that transcends any particular historical period, but for this opening scene to succeed, I also had to place the reader in Bronze Age Anatolia since my book is set within the Trojan War.

So I had two jobs. First, to bring my reader inside the young woman, Briseis, as she fights against her fears—an act of imagination, of living inside the reality of a another human being. That’s the core of what any fiction writer does, historical or not. Second, to include precise details which make the reader see, hear and smell the physical world of this far away place and time. These two processes have to work in balance, with the emotional content being what the reader is aware of and the world-building slipping in concretely but surreptitiously. In this post I’m going to look at the world-building side of this equation, particularly at how I use archaeology in that process.

At its best, creating an ancient world without distracting the reader from the action and emotions of the story is a magic trick, a sleight of hand that never calls attention to itself. No reader should stop and think, “My, what a great deal this writer knows about palaces of the Late Bronze Age.” Historical fiction writers don’t hit the goal of invisible magic all the time, but that’s where we should all aim.

For this opening scene what did I have to work with? How could I show my reader that we’re in a small sleeping chamber upstairs on a nobleman’s estate outside the city of Lyrnessos not far from Troy in about 1200 BCE?

Mt Ida view to Aegean Sea

Mt Ida view looking out to the Aegean Sea

After a few paragraphs I used a violent storm blowing in to give the larger geography. Briseis imagines it “blowing in from some distant, dangerous place like Greece, blowing across the Aegean Sea and flinging itself against Mount Ida’s flanks.”

But how to “build” the room itself? From archaeology, what did I know about a room like that? I’d seen fragments and reconstructions of beds, and they are different enough from what you and I sleep on to make a quick point that, reader, you’re not in Kansas anymore. So in the first paragraph I said, “Briseis…adjusted the fleeces cushioning her mother’s shoulders from the leather straps pulled across the bed’s wooden frame. She got no response.” The bed description is tied closely to the actions and emotions, so I’m hoping the reader gets a picture in her head without stopping.

Bed fragments

Bed fragments, in the National Museum, Athens

Briseis’s worried brother is twisting his tunic, a small ancient detail, although that didn’t take much archaeology since everyone knows about tunics—but that’s the point here; it’s an easy way to ground a reader.

To bring the larger context of the room into focus, I added “the flickering light came from clay oil lamps, causing the geometric patterns frescoed on the mud-brick walls to lunge and recoil.” Then I remembered the many ceramic braziers I’d seen in museums, so I brought one in.

Corum Museum portable braiser

Corum Museum portable brazier

Central to my understanding of this world are the cuneiform tablets that have have been dug out of the ground in the thousands. So next up, Briseis prepares a sulfur and beeswax poultice on a portable brazier that was lit by a coal brought up from downstairs in a long handled bronze cup, and then she consults the clay tablets she and her mother use in their work as healers.

Corum Museum cuneiform tablet

Corum Museum cuneiform tablet

By now, several paragraphs in, I’m hoping my reader has left the modern world behind, but is mostly focused on the growing crisis. None of Briseis’s measures to save her mother has worked and this room is full of frightening, recoiling flickers—not unlike the flickering life Briseis is so determined to save.

Much later in Hand of Fire, Briseis participates in a daylong festival to their gods. Sometimes archaeology tempts a writer to include something so beautiful or so strikingly different that we have to work very hard at making sure we are not gratuitously including it, the dreaded “info dump.” There’s a silver libation cup in the Metropolitan Museum in New York that calls to me. It’s shaped like a kneeling stag with delicate branching horns, a checked collar and, around its middle where the lip of the cup is, a relief scene of priests making an offering to a god who stands in good Hittite fashion on the back of a stag. ( Stag Rhyton at the Metropolitan Museum )

I’ve never heard an explanation of why it so appealed to the Hittites to perch their gods on the backs of various animals as a sort of throne. It’s quite regal, showing the god’s power over nature, and I guess that’s the point. While full of wine, the nose of the stag would point down and gradually come upright again as the libation is poured completely out. I think this object perfectly expresses these particular people’s devotion to the gods, and it keeps the reader in a Bronze Age Hittite rite. There won’t be a mental blend with a Catholic chalice, for example, because it’s so different. The trick is to slide it into a scene that the action and emotions of the novel absolutely require and not to go too crazy with other details of sacrifice and offerings. It’s tempting—some of the translations from tablets of these rites go on for pages and pages prescribing different kinds of grain, beers, animals, types of priests etc. But sometimes you have to trust the one perfect detail to place your reader in this far away world, and I chose the stag rhyton cup.

This blending of small historical details into the emotional fabric of a novel is the heart of the historical writer’s job. I hope I have built a picture of daily life at the time of the Trojan War in a compelling way that allows the reader to enjoy the story without distraction.


Hand of Fire, Synopsis~

The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

Judith Starkston, Biography~

Author Photo(1)Judith writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities.

She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website www.JudithStarkston.com.

Follow Judith Starkston on FB and Twitter

Visit on Goodreads Hand of Fire

 Buy Links


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Link to the tour schedule: Hand of Fire Fireship Press Virtual Tour

Advance Praise~

“But what is the difference between a good historical novel and a brilliant one?
I suggest you read Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire and you’ll discover the answer.” Helen Hollick, Historical Novels Review Editor and author of Forever Queen

“In Hand of Fire, Starkston’s careful research brings ancient Greece and Troy to life with passion and grace. This haunting and insightful novel makes you ache for a mortal woman, Briseis, in love with a half-god, Achilles, as she fights to make her own destiny in a world of capricious gods and warriors. I devoured this page-turning escape from the modern world!” — Rebecca Cantrell, New York Times bestselling author of The World Beneath

“In her portrayal of Briseis, Judith Starkston has cast a bright light on one of the Iliad‘s most intriguing sub-plots. With her fast-paced story, three-dimensional characters, and fascinating cultural details, Starkston has given historical fiction fans a tale to remember.” –Priscilla Royal, author of Covenant with Hell


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Celebrating Women Series: Judith Starkston on Powerful Hittite and Mycenaean Queens

Welcome to the 12th article in the “Celebrating Women” Series for Women’s History Month! It’s the first time I’ve coordinated an author guest article series to celebrate women in history or women making history! Thank you to Judith Starkston for offering the 12th article in this series. If you’d like to continue on with the tour, which runs March 19-31, 2014, follow along each day on the main blog or head to this blog page, Women in History, which will be updated daily with the scheduled link.


Trojan Women:
Women’s Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece

Part II: A Woman’s View from the Top:
Hittite and Mycenaean Queens
by historian and author Judith Starkston

One way to see how a society views women is to examine its leaders. Are women included and, if they are, to whatQueen-Helen-and-Paris-oil-painting-Guido-Reni-1631-©-Zenodot-Verlagsgesellschaft-mbH-Wikimedia-Commons extent? Both the Hittite and Mycenaean world had powerful queens. I’ll look in particular at Queen Puduhepa and Queen Helen of Sparta (both c. 1250 BC).

Hittite queens definitely wielded power in the court. When her husband, the king, died a Hittite queen continued as Tawananna, Great Queen and high priestess of the Hittite realm, which indicates an independent status. They were not, however, the primary ruler. Even while they continued as queen, their son or some other male relation took over as king. In an interesting sidelight, this meant that the new king’s wife did not take over as queen until her mother-in-law died. As you can imagine, this did make for some very strained relationships—the echoes of which we hear even through the ancient clay tablets of formal court business (Collins, 101).

Puduhepa is the Hittite queen we know the most about since she corresponded with Ramesses II, the Pharoah of Egypt, and she made religious declarations, treaties, and judicial decisions which were recorded by scribes. Puduhepa was the wife of Hattusili III. Before her marriage she was a priestess, “a handmaiden of Ishtar.” She was said to be very beautiful, and Hattusili tells us he married her following a vision he had in a dream. Many years into their marriage, Hattusili wrote that the goddess Ishtar blessed them with “the love of husband and wife” (Hughes, 188). Hattusili was frequently sick, and he depended on his strong-willed, highly intelligent wife to help him run the vast Hittite empire (Bryce, 13). He shows every sign of trusting her completely. We do not know if other queens, with less commanding personalities, had quite as much lee-way. Probably not, but they had great independence nonetheless.

stamp-seal-from-the-Louvre-probably-Egyptian-photo-©-Rama-Wikimedia-CommonsHittite queens regularly shared seals with their husbands, giving them the right to “sign” official documents and independently conduct the business of the realm. Puduhepa had her own seal. In fact, the stamp seal of Queen Puduhepa can be seen today in the Corum Museum, Turkey. Much as Puduhepa stands out as a distinctive woman, however, she could not have been treated with respect by the Egyptian pharoah and exercised broad political power unless queens generally could do many of the same things she did. Her reign is a window into what a woman at the top could do in the Hittite Empire.

Puduhepa carried on diplomatic correspondence with Egypt on equal terms with the Pharoah. She co-signed with her husband the copy of the Egyptian-Hittite treaty that was sent to Egypt (Collins, 100).


During negotiations with Ramesses II regarding her daughter’s marriage to the pharaoh, she received exact duplicates of the letters he sent to her husband. At one point when she had to delay sending her daughter to him because she found herself short on the needed dowry funds due to a fire in her treasury house, she sent a down-right cranky letter to Ramesses pointing out that he hardly needed the money and should not rushing her. Her willingness to call to account Ramesses, clearly one of the most powerful leaders of the world at that point, speaks of her confidence in her position. Here’s an excerpt from her letter:

“Does my brother [i.e. Ramesses] possess nothing at all? Only if the son of the Sun-God, the son of the Storm-God, and the sea have nothing do you have nothing! Yet, my brother, you seek to enrich yourself at my expense. That is worthy neither of your reputation, nor your status.” (Hughes, 189)

Puduhepa adjudicated many challenging legal cases in the place of her husband; one, for example, regarded the ownership of sunken treasure once a ship had been attacked (Hughes, 189). She also ordered a complete reorganization of the Hittite state religion. It’s true that the Hittite pantheon was a mess with thousands of gods, many borrowed from wherever the Hittites happened to have conquered, and lots of “duplicate” gods, but you can imagine how much authority and power a pope would have to have in order to bump a few saints, rename a few others, combine this version of Mary with that one and reject another all together—you get the idea. She was both deeply devout and immensely influential.

I think we can conclude that Hittite queens had significant power in their own right.

On the Mycenaean side, the picture comes to us from radically different sources. Instead of treaties and other official court documents, we have myth and legend, passed on orally through generations until finally written down in epics, plays, and other literature. About Queen Helen of Sparta, we can’t even assert with absolute certainty that she was a real historical character. But for what it’s worth, and I think that’s actually worth a great deal, myth and legend paint a picture of powerful Mycenaean queens also.

The person who has made the strongest case for a powerful Bronze Age Helen and her sister Mycenaean queens is Bettany Hughes in her book Helen of Troy and in her BBC documentary on the same topic. I’ll quote her argument from her book:

“Time and again in literature and myth-stories [of the Mycenaean period] we hear that women are the kingmakers, that the right to monarchy does not pass from husband to son, but from mother to daughter. Men have to win a crown by winning a wife [in athletic/military contests held by the king for his daughter’s hand]. Helen’s half-sister Clytemnestra makes her lover, Aigisthos, king while her husband Agamemnon is overseas, fighting the Trojan War; Pelops (who gave his name to the Peloponnese) becomes King of Elis through his marriage to Hippodamia; Oedipus is crowned the King of Thebes when he marries Queen Jocasta. Even faithful Penelope, left at home by Odysseus, seems to have the prerogative to choose who will be her next king. And, of course, Menelaus becomes King of Sparta when he marries Helen.

Tradition tells us that along with his daughters Helen and Clytemnestra, Tyndareus had two sons—Castor and Pollux. And yet there is no suggestion that either of them will inherit their father’s title when he dies. It is Helen who will become queen and it is only marriage to Helen that will bring regal status and sovereignty over the Spartan territory. We hear from Pausanias, amplifying Homer, that it is not one of Menelaus’ sons, not even his ‘favorite son’, who becomes king of Sparta. Instead it is the children of Helen’s daughter Hermione who succeed to the throne” (Hughes, 78-79).

Queen-Clytemnestra-oil-painting-John-Collier-1882-Wikimedia-CommonsTo sum up Bettany Hughes’s case, rule of Mycenaean kingdoms passed through the women, and the rule was held in their name and through their authority. No wonder Menelaus ran after Helen when Paris took her off to Troy. She was his meal-ticket to power. Without her, he had no formal justification for rule. Hughes shows that this pattern is reflected throughout the mythological record of Mycenaean courts. Another piece in Hughes’s argument for a powerful Helen rests in the treasure she and Paris are said to steal when they run off to Troy. On the eight occasions in Homer when this treasure is mentioned, it is ascribed to Helen not Menelaus. “We hear in Troy that Paris begins to ‘fight Menelaus for Helen’s treasure’. If wealth was the honey-pot which attracted suitors like Menelaus, women like Helen appear to have owned and enjoyed the honey” (Hughes, 80).

It would be more persuasive if the Linear B tablets included the kinds of court documents that we find in the Hittite capital of Hattusa, but they don’t. In the Iliad the kings who have led their warriors to Troy do not seem to need their queens to conduct business, but war until the twenty-first century AD was a decidedly male dominated activity, and perhaps the queens are back home ruling the home front with absolute power of their own. Penelope and Clytemnestra seem to indicate that is the case. It is also true that as the Bronze Age shifts into the Iron Age—that is the age during which Homer actually sang/composed the Iliad—with massive upheavals of peoples throughout the Mediterranean, women lose the power they had. We see this evidence in everything from drinking rituals that shift from centering on women to excluding them (Steel) to loss of property rights. Perhaps Homer is reflecting his Iron Age reality in this case, rather than the earlier period he professes to portray. That is always a sticky issue when trying to use Homer as history—just which historical period might Homer be depicting.

However, I think it’s awfully tricky to explain away all those legends of heroes moving into town to compete for the king’s daughter and ending up king when they win. And then having to leave the kingdom to their daughters. Seems pretty fishy behavior for an entirely patrilineal society. But it isn’t the sort of academic history that scholars find so reassuring for good reasons. Fortunately this isn’t a graduate thesis and we don’t have to decide one way or the other. It’s a pleasure to ponder the possibilities from ancient pages.

Bibliography for this article:

Bryce, Trevor. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Collins, Billie Jean. The Hittites and Their World. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007

Hughes, Bettany. Helen of Troy. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Steel, Louise. “Wine, Women and Song: Drinking Ritual in Cyprus” in Engendering Aphrodite: Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus, edited by Diane Bolger and Nancy Serwint. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports, 2002.

Judith Starkston, Biography~

Author PhotoJudith writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire, as well as the occasional contemporary short story. She also reviews on her website, as well as Historical Novels Review, the New York Journal of Books and the Poisoned Fiction Review.

She trained as a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) and taught high school English, Latin and humanities.

As part of the research for her novels, she traveled extensively in Turkey. With her husband, she has two grown children and lives in Phoenix, AZ, along with our golden retriever Socrates.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JudithStarkston

Website:  www.judithstarkston.com

Hand of Fire, Fireship Press 2014, Synopsis~
(Cover not revealed yet)

Hand of Fire tells the tale of Briseis, the captive woman Achilles and Agamemnon fought over in the Iliad. When Achilles, the half-immortal Greek warrior, takes Briseis captive in the midst of the Trojan War, he gets more than he bargained for: a healing priestess, a strong-willed princess—and a warrior. She raises a sword against Achilles and ignites a passion that seals his fate and changes her destiny.

Achilles and a Nereid Attic red-figure vase photo by Marie Lan Nguyen

We’ve learned a lot through archaeology over the last twenty years about the people who lived in and around Troy and further east into the Hittite Empire. The civilization of the Hittites, sharing much the same culture as their allies the Trojans, was buried and nearly forgotten until the 20th century. Huge libraries of cuneiform clay tablets have been brought to light and translated.

The right moment to tell Briseis’s story has arrived—now that those clay tablets and digs have told us about her world. But the impetus for my novel came from a question that had bugged me each time I taught the Iliad. Briseis, being a woman in a patriarchal epic, gets only a handful of lines, but one thing Homer insists on is the mutual bond of love between Achilles and Briseis. Huh? Isn’t Achilles the guy who destroyed Briseis’s city, reduced her from princess to slave, and killed a lot of people she loved?

Yes, he is, but before anyone assumes “Stockholm Syndrome,” let me add some critical Homeric characterization. Achilles is conflicted and half-immortal. He’s the best warrior who nonetheless questions the value of war and wonders what the purpose of life is. Achilles is an existential hero who is way too fragmented and likeable to be a brainwasher. He’s the one in need of mental assistance.

So what, I wondered, drew Briseis to Achilles? That was my quest—to find the qualities in Briseis that could make her understand and need this odd if hunky hero, in spite of all the bad history between them. In that clay-stored history I discovered powerful women, queens and priestesses who served as healers and intermediaries with the gods. Mix in careful doses of imagination and Briseis emerged—strong and subtle enough to challenge the greatest of the Greeks. I hope I’ve created an historically believable Briseis in a fast-moving tale that finally gives this mysterious young woman a voice that epic tradition denied her.

Advance Praise for Hand of Fire

“Suspenseful, tragic, surprising and sexy” –Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown and The Chalice

“Absolutely loved the book. Couldn’t put it down. Wonderful writing. And, I see no errors whatsoever as regards the history.” –Professor Eric Cline, Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, George Washington University

“In her portrayal of Briseis, Judith Starkston has cast a bright light on one of the Iliad‘s most intriguing sub-plots. With her fast-paced story, three-dimensional characters, and fascinating cultural details, Starkston has given historical fiction fans a tale to remember.” –Priscilla Royal, author of Covenant with Hell and 9 other Prioress Eleanor mysteries

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