“The hero returned to his house.” Wait—what did Byzantine houses look like?



domus model

Model of a Roman city domus.

Writing historical fiction is like driving in a city you’ve never been to before: you have to keep stopping your progress to find out where you are and check that you’re going in the right direction. And you never know when you’ll get detoured.

I’m making good progress with my next historical fantasy, The Triumph of the Sky. I plan on writing seven major parts. (It’s predecessor, The Bones of the Earth, comprises three parts. I feel like numerology should be a part of fantasy stories.)

Set in the seventh century CE, the action moves from Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, to ancient Cappadocia to the Carpathian foothills and deep into ancient Anatolia.

While I have done a lot of historical research before starting to write, as I write I often stumble upon a tiny question that requires hours of research on the Internet as well as in books. These are usually about things we take for granted today, such as “What kind of clothes did people in Constantinople wear?” or “What were their houses like.”

I found some answers pretty quickly, such as “what kind of shoes or boots did Slavic peasants wear?” It turns out there are a lot of Web pages devoted to ancient clothing.

Then there was another that took a little more time. In an early scene in the book, the hero, Javor, returns home after a long journey. But what did wealthy homes look like in Constantinople in 603 CE? It turns out there is quite a lot of interesting information, and even pictures.

Javor in The Triumph of the Sky is a very wealthy man. (To find out how he got his riches, you’ll have to read The Bones of the Earth.) So it makes sense then that he lived in a Roman-style domus, the dominant style for wealthy homes in the Roman Empire. Remember that the term “Byzantine Empire” is a 19th-century invention. The people of the time thought of themselves as Roman, and Latin was the official language of Constantinople at the time—although most people in the city spoke Greek.

A domus was a single-storey structure, looking from the top like two rectangles, open to the sky in the middle. They were often fronted by small shops that opened onto the street. In my imagination, Javor leases those out to vendors of various things: food, household items and so on.

Entering the main door brings you to the atrium, a formal reception hall open to the sky. A basin in the centre collects rainwater, and drains it into a cistern below the house. It’s tiled and decorated with chairs and hangings to show off the owner’s wealth. In a corner was a shrine, and in the seventh century, this would include a Christian icon.

Rooms open on both sides, such as bedrooms. Bedrooms in ancient Roman cities like Constantinople were small, usually just big enough to hold a bed.

The dining room opened off the atrium, too. While in ancient Rome, rich people reclined on couches to eat, according to the research I have done this practice was fading out by the time of my story.

atrium

The atrium of a Roman Domus. The roof was open to the sky, and the basin, called the impluvium, collected rainwater and fed it to the cistern below the house. Source: Realm of History

Continuing through the atrium, the next, roofed room was the tablinum, the owner’s study. From it, the head of the household could view most of the house at once.

At the back of the house is another rectangle, the peristylium. This is a large garden with a peristyle roof—rows of columns that go around the perimeter to hold up the roof, which is open to the sky in the middle, like in the atrium. Rooms opening off the perimeter include the culina or kitchen, bathrooms and store-rooms.

Peristylum garden

While this is a villa, not a city domus, it gives you a good idea of what the peristylum was all about. Image: Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Romans spread this style of home across the Empire, including to their second capital, Constantinople. Over the many centuries of the Roman and Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, construction techniques, architecture and technology evolved quite a lot. But at the same time, older elements would continue alongside newer styles.

I hope you have a mental image of the style of house. The next question to answer: did seventh-century Cosmopolites eat meals while lying on a couch, like the wealthy of first-century Rome?

An adventuresome holiday



I have had some pretty adventuresome vacations: Banff, where I had my closest encounter with a grizzly bear; whitewater canoeing in Ontario and Quebec; and last year, when we got uncomfortably close to the wine country wildfires.

And last month, I encountered a different kind of adventure in Portugal. It’s a wonderful place, and my lovely wife and I fully enjoyed it—with one exception.

My pocket got half-picked. More on that in a little.

Today’s hot travel destination

When we arrived in Lisbon, we were immediately surprised by how crowded everything was: streets, shops, restaurants, hotels. We usually travel in September, to avoid the summer crowds, but as the locals explained, busy season lasts almost year round now.

Roxanne’s new friend: Gallo, the rooster who came back to life to save a falsely condemned man.

We were also struck by the number of very tall people we saw. I’m 183 cm tall (6 feet—I lost an inch. Aging sucks.) Men and women towered over us. And they seemed to come from all over: the U.K., Germany, Scandinavia, North America, France, eastern Europe. I know that Brits and Scandinavians are often tall, but I was starting to feel that there was a convention for tall people in Lisbon that I was not invited to (I told you I had shrunk nearly an inch from my younger days).

The next thing we found is that the locals are almost uniformly friendly and happy to help. And the food is fantastic. Great seafood and pastries. The local favourite is a custard tart, and they are fantastic.

Prices are more reasonable than in France, Italy or California, but more expensive than the Czech Republic. The currency is the Euro, so you also have to be aware of the exchange factor—which is pretty steep for Canadians.

An exciting and beautiful city

The Elevador Santa Justa: minimum half-hour lineup.

There’s plenty to see and do in Lisbon. There is lots of beautiful architecture, lots of history. We started in the Baixa (lower) district, the centre of Lisbon rebuilt after a huge earthquake in 1755 according to Enlightenment ideas: streets laid out in a grid pattern, grand squares, graceful buildings. Many of the sidewalks and pedestrian streets are paved with mosaic-like, shiny, slippery tile that apparently has cooling properties. Portuguese pavement, or calçada portuguesa is often made into beautiful, intricate and often playful patterns.

One of my favourite parts was the Elevador de Santa Justa. Built in the 19th century, it’s really an elevator that takes pedestrians from the lower Baixa to the Alta neighbourhood.

The guidebooks warn you that Lisbon is hilly, but really, the whole country seems hilly. We did a lot of climbing. Hence elevators and funiculars in various spots.

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Alfama.

We then went to Lisbon’s oldest district, the Alfama, whose name derives from the Moorish period. It’s on a hill crowned by the Castelo Castelo de Sao Jorge. If you go, don’t miss the display of the camera obscura, the periscope built into the keep from which you can see, in real time, the city around you.

A close call near the monastery

Take the metro to the western Belem neighbourhood. Don’t bother with the coastal train. The station is inconvenient, the line-ups long and the schedule restricting. But do go to see the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries. It’s 52 metres high, shaped like a caravel, the vessel used by the storied Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Not far from it is the 16th-century Torre de Belem, built to protect the city and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos or Jeronimos Monastery.

As my wife and I crossed the foot bridge over the highway between the Tagus River and the Mosterio, I felt something on my backside. I reached back and found my wallet halfway out of my pocket. That pocket, by the way, was buttoned, but the button was gone by the time I interrupted the theft.

I turned quickly to see a young woman and a man very close behind me.

I confronted her, announcing in a loud voice to any other tourists that she had just tried to pick my pocket. She and the man with her both vehemently denied doing so. I blocked their way on the stairway down from the bridge, hoping a cop would happen by, but of course none did. Eventually, I had to let them go on their way—which was down off the staircase, and around to the stairs on the other side of the bridge to go up again.

Eventually, I did find two police officers near the Monastery, and reported the incident to them. They thanked me, warned me about crowded areas, and said they would look into it. Takeaway: don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket in areas crowded with tourists, beacause they’re a draw for thieves.

The main takeaway: if you can, do visit Portugal. Lots to see, lots to do, very warm and friendly people, lots of great food, and reasonable prices.

Book launch: The Search for Starlight by Elyse Salpeter



My author friend Elyse Salpeter has just released the fifth volume in her Kelsey Porter mystery series that combines Buddhist spirituality with vigilante justice.

With The Search for Starlight, Elyse Salpeter culminates the journey of a young woman who has come full circle in her quest to find the murderers of her parents.

She just needed to complete a simple errand… how hard could that be?

As soon as Kelsey embarks on the Emperor and Empress’s request to locate a mysterious object and return it to them, her entire world is plunged into chaos.

Someone is following her, someone else has broken into her home, and now she believes the people she trusted most have all been lying to her.

As Kelsey unravels the truth, she learns that her journey to this moment has never been entirely her own. Until now.

Readers will love this novel, which holds the answers to all your questions that have arisen throughout the series.

Find it on Amazon.

About the series

When Kelsey was just ten years old, she witnessed her parents’ murders. Since then, she’s dedicated her life to finding the killers and bringing them to justice. Her journey took her on a spiritual quest around the globe that thrust her deep into Buddhist spiritual mysteries. She discovered things about herself, her parents and her very place in the universe.”

Elyse Salpeter is keeping Book #1, The Hunt for Xanadu, at 99 cents for the rest of October. 

From the reviewers

“The Hunt for Xanadu by Elyse Salpeter is a remarkable novel, a fascinating and fantastical journey in time and space, and one of the most gripping novels I’ve read in a long time. It flies along at the pace of a thriller, with plenty of murder and mayhem along the way. But behind the thrill-ride is a spiritual story, an archetypal tale of mystery and darkness,riddled with fascinating and esoteric concepts in Tibetan Buddhism. Vivid characters, a truly appealing protagonist, unexpected twists, and crisp writing complete this unforgettable book. I can’t wait to read the next one in the series!”

—Douglas Preston, #1 bestselling author and co-creator, with Lincoln Child, of the Pendergast series

Elyse Salpeter

is an author who loves mixing “the real with the fantastic” in her books. She likes nothing better than taking different scenarios and creating worlds where things just aren’t what they appear to be.

Her five-book thriller series, The Hunt for Xanadu, The Quest of the Empty Tomb, The Call of Mount Sumeru, The Haunting of Cragg Hill House and The Search for Starlight are about a brilliant and fearless young woman named Kelsey Porter, whose life is steeped in Buddhist spiritual mysteries and who is constantly discovering the world around her is not what she believed it to be.

Elyse’s Dark Fantasy Series, The World of Karov and The Ruby Amulet takes us to other realms filled with magic and evil as a dark presence is seeping through the dimensions.

Her Young Adult novels, Flying to the Light and Flying to the Fire, are about a young deaf boy who is pursued by people for answers because he knows what happens to you when you die.

Elyse also dabbles in horror. Her horror novel, The Mannequins, is about a film crew that enters an abandoned mansion and disappears. Her horror collection, Ricket Row, is filled with creepy tales, guaranteed to keep you up at night.

When she’s not writing, Elyse is cooking, gardening, running around with her twins and eating shock food in her Gastronaut Club.

Visit her:

And follow Elyse on Instagram and Twitter @ElyseSalpeter.

Launch day—Torn Roots: Hawaiian Storm mystery 1



Torn Roots, the first Hawaiian Storm mystery, is now available on Amazon

What the critics are saying

“TORN ROOTS is wonderfully rich with plot and setting, but it was Mr. Bury’s command of the story’s pacing that impressed me most.”
—Eden Baylee, author of Stranger at Sunset

“I made the mistake of picking up this book and could not stop reading.”
—Frederick Lee Brooke, author of Doing Max Vinyl

“Made me feel like I was there in person!”
—Sue Devers

“I have never been to Hawaii but reading the detailed descriptions of its beauty in this book has made me feel like I’ve actually been there.”
—Joy A. Lorton

What it’s about

Torn Roots: Hawaiian Storm Mystery #1

Torn Roots, the first Hawaiian Storm mystery, is now available on Amazon.

Vanessa Storm thought her first week on the job as an FBI Special Agent in beautiful Hawaii would be about settling in. But she’s immediately sent to Hana on Maui’s rain-soaked shore to find a kidnapped woman.

Throw in arson, strident environmentalists bent on stirring up strife between local rights activists and foreign property developers, a chill local police lieutenant, a taciturn geologist, and top it all off with a rogue, unpredictable Homeland Security agent.

The case becomes a labyrinth twisting through the jungles on Maui’s volcano. Vanessa knows this case will explode into an international incident and lives will be lost if she doesn’t find answers fast.

Torn Roots is still available at a special introductory price. Get it now before the price goes up!

Cover reveal: The new Torn Roots!



It’s here! The new cover for the new, revised and expanded Torn Roots.

Once again, David C. Cassidy has hit it out of the ballpark. This is based on a photograph taken in Maui, the setting of Torn Roots.

Pre-order now on Amazon.

Torn Roots is based on a book previously published in an Amazon program that has since been cancelled. But this version retains a reader favourite, FBI Special Agent Vanessa Storm. It also adds some new characters, new chapters and new details.

What it’s about

Vanessa Storm thought her first week on the job as an FBI Special Agent in beautiful Hawaii would be about settling in. But she’s immediately sent to Hana on Maui’s rain-soaked shore to find a kidnapped woman.

Throw in arson, strident environmentalists bent on stirring up strife between local rights activists and foreign property developers, a chill local police lieutenant, a taciturn geologist, and top it all off with a rogue, unpredictable Homeland Security agent.

The case becomes a labyrinth twisting through the jungles on Maui’s volcano. Vanessa knows this case will explode into an international incident and lives will be lost if she doesn’t find answers fast.

Torn Roots is wonderfully rich with plot and setting, but it was Mr. Bury’s command of the story’s pacing that impressed me most.”—Eden Baylee, author of Stranger at Sunset

“I made the mistake of picking up this book and could not stop reading.”—Frederick Lee Brooke, author of Doing Max Vinyl

“Made me feel like I was there in person!”—Sue Devers

“I have never been to Hawaii but reading the detailed descriptions of its beauty in this book has made me feel like I’ve actually been there.”—Joy A. Lorton

Torn Roots will be published on September 29, and it’s now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Run and Hide by Alan McDermott



An independent book review

Alan McDermott knows how to push all the right buttons for the action-thriller reader.

The author of the fantastically successful Tom Gray series has crossed the Atlantic for his new series focused on the new character of Eva Driscoll: brilliant, beautiful and highly effective special operative for the CIA who’s been forced to go rogue.

Add in a quick trip to London to recruit some favourites from McDermott’s Tom Gray series—Alan Harvey (my favourite), Sonny Baines, Len Smart and Tom Gray himself—and you’ve got a guaranteed thriller.

As we can expect from McDermott, the plot starts in high gear and doesn’t let up. We meet the protagonist, Eva Driscoll, waiting for a hit on someone we soon learn is her late brother’s old army buddy. Rees Colback, though, is not without resources of his own, and thrills readers with a powerful, daring escape from government-sponsored assassins.

Thus begins an adrenalin-fueled escape and a journey across the U.S.A. And in the inimitable Alan McDermott style, the stakes get as high as they could possibly be as Driscoll finds her opponent is not just the President of the U.S.A., but the power behind the throne.

This being an Alan McDermott thriller, Driscoll is not without her shortcomings and downright faults. That’s part of the thrill and the tension. It makes her more believable and, it must be admitted, likeable as she comes to terms with the darker aspects of her past.

But don’t worry about the ending: McDermott has left the door open for a lot more thrilling adventures with Eva Driscoll, Rees Colback, and I hope Sonny, Len and Tom.

5 *****

Find it exclusively on Amazon.

Visit Alan McDermott’s website and blog.

Everything the new Progressive Conservative government in Ontario does hurts Ontarians



Ford's cuts

Ford’s cuts from June to August

Every decision. Every announcement. Every move makes us worse off.

Doug Ford and his Con-servatives campaigned on lowering hydro rates, gas prices and taxes for Ontario people, but never told us how he planned to pay for them. At the same time, he said he’d reduce government spending without cutting programs or public-sector jobs.

Then the first thing he did was fire a bunch of public servants, such as Monique Smith, Ontario’s trade representative in Washington. During a high-stakes trade dispute with Gilead. I mean the United States.

Choking on Ford’s hot air

The next decision was to cancel the cap-and-trade system. They replaced that plan to reduce carbon emissions with … nothing.

Even if you deny it’s contributing to global warming (yes, I said it), the oceans absorb a quarter of atmospheric carbon emissions, where they become carbonic acid. According to Smithsonian Ocean, this is already eroding coral reefs and leading to massive die-offs. Unchecked, this could drastically affect the food supply. For all people.

Higher energy costs

Cancelling the cap-and-trade system meant that programs it paid for were also cancelled:

  • rebates and incentives for homeowners to install energy-efficient furnaces, windows, insulation and other upgrades
  • rebates for electric vehicles
  • money for repairs to school roofs.

Remember how Ford promised “no cuts”? But immediately on taking office, he cut a program that funds education. This is particularly stupid, because it will only increase costs in the long run, and make school buildings less healthy. But who cares, right? Children can’t vote.

Ford also cancelled more than 700 renewable energy projects for small and First Nations communities. These would have substantially reduced their energy costs improved their quality of life. But the Cons don’t care about First Nations. In addition, these cancellations could require the province to pay millions of dollars in penalties.

Tesla is also suing the Ontario government over the cancellation of the electric vehicle rebates. Even if Ontario successfully defends itself, the suit will cost millions.

Ford threatened to fire the CEO of Hydro One, Mayo Schmidt, along with the Board of Directors. Instead, they resigned. Schmidt, whom Ford called “the six million dollar man” (very original, Doug), now gets $9.4 million in various forms of severance payments. (Source: The Globe and Mail.)

To save $6 million, the Ford government is paying half again as much. Because more is less.

Reversing sex education

Ontario’s new Education Minister, Lisa Thompson, insists on calling the sex education curriculum developed in 1998 “the 2014 curriculum.” Photo courtesy CBC.

One promise Ford did keep was to scrap the 2015 sex education curriculum, announcing that teachers would go back to using the curriculum published in 1998. Then the Progressive Con-servatives started lying about it, calling it the “2014 curriculum.” People with clear heads and fewer sexual hangups immediately pointed out that curriculum is literally from a previous century. It does not deal with the realities facing school children today—including those in grade 3 and 4: sexting, online bullying, online pornography, same-sex marriage, homosexual parenting and recognition of gender complexity.

Cuts to the poorest

The Ford government of cons is saving tax dollars by cutting in half a planned increase in social assistance benefits. They’re punishing the poorest and most vulnerable people in our province.

When Toronto mayor John Tory asked the province for help in sheltering and resettling asylum seekers, Ford cancelled provincial support and blamed the federal government.

The cons are also cancelling the basic income pilot project. This was an experiment that guaranteed an income in three communities to test whether this would improve their quality of life and ability to find a higher-paying job. Cancelling it means the money spent already is wasted, with no data resulting.

But Conservatives don’t need information to make decisions. They decide based on what they believe.

That’s also apparent in the freezing of discretionary spending by Ontario public servants on things like newspaper subscriptions. Why bother being informed about what’s happening?

More police

Ford has frozen hiring in the provincial public service, as well—except for cops. He’s also rolling back civilian oversight of police. Sound like a familiar plan?

Money to punish

Punishing political opponents seems to be another priority for Doug Ford. Last month began his promised “line by line” audit of provincial spending over the past 15 years, when it was governed by the Liberals. This will cost $1 million, and won’t do anything to benefit anyone in the future. But it could be used to punish people.

Continuing on the punishment theme, the Conservatives have cut by nearly half the number of Toronto city councilors, two months before the next election. Ford also cancelled elections of regional chairs. Now those offices will be filled by people Ford appoints. The leading contender for the elected Chair of Peel region: the previous leader of the Progressive Conservatives and Ford opponent Patrick Brown.

Noticing a trend yet, Ontarians?

Withholding help is also punishment

Conservatives don’t believe in treating drug addicts (like Doug Ford’s late brother, Rob). So they’re cancelling any new safe injection sites. This effectively condemns hundreds of people, including children, to death by overdose, at a time when preventable overdose deaths are spiking in Ontario.

But who cares about drug users, anyway? Except for Rob Ford.

Speaking of drugs …

There will be no legal cannabis stores in Ontario until April 1, 2019. Recreational cannabis becomes legal across Canada on October 17, 2018. But Ontarians will have to wait six months before we can buy it at a local store.

The previous government would have opened government-controlled cannabis stores, operated by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, along the same successful pattern.

But that doesn’t fit the Progressive Conservative philosophy, or at least the Doug Ford strain. He wants to see privately owned stores selling cannabis. Which will bring big business into it. Already, small businesses are expressing worry about being squeezed out of this nascent market, and the company that owns Corona beer is spending billions to acquire the largest cannabis producer in Canada.

We’ll be able to order weed online, legally as of October 17. How this approach will keep it out of the hands of children is a mystery.

But that doesn’t matter. As long as we follow Doug Ford’s philosophy, right?

Don’t forget a cut that’s coming

The Conservatives campaigned on not increasing the minimum wage by a dollar an hour in January. Then Ford actually had the gall to say it was better for minimum wage earners, because his government would not take any provincial income tax on minimum wage.

Here’s the reasoning: the provincial income tax on a dollar per hour, assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, is about $800.

The increase in annual income of $1 per hour for that job would be $2,080. At the minimum tax rate, that would be a net of $1,768.

Photo: Creative Commons

$800 in your pocket is better than $1,768.

Because worse is better in Conservative Ontario. Less is more. More is less.

Don’t ask questions. Don’t get informed, Ontario. Just believe your Progressive Conservative government.