Monday on the blog tour – A Fantastical Librarian

Today I’m honoured to join Mieneke van der Salm, the award-nominated Fantastical Librarian. Check out her web pages for a wide selection of reviews and author interviews, and this link  for a chance to win a copy of VITA BREVIS wherever you live.

If I’d realised Mieneke was also a real librarian, I’d have tidied the shelves at Downie Towers…

The pleasure of being a guest

I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest twice this week – first on a virtual trip across to Alison Morton’s blog, where I was sharing a few mental meanderings about historical truth and donkey poo.  Alison is the author of the Roma Nova series, set in a world where the Roman Empire hasn’t fallen – so ‘historical truth’ is an interesting issue.

Then, while practially every other writer of historical fiction in the entire universe was at Harrogate (again, Alison’s blog will give you the low-down) I had the privilege of joining a group of visitors from the US on a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Just as we were turning to leave Sewingshields (near Vindolanda) the sun came out, the rain began, and magic happened.


.Rainbow over cliffs at Hadrians Wall

Blog tour: My writing process

Thanks to Judi Moore, multi-talented author of “Is death really necessary?” for inviting me to join the blog tour that hunts out the answers to four questions. Mercifully, “Is death really necessary?” isn’t one of them.

Judi’s answers can be found here.  Mine are below. I’m charged with handing on the baton, and have contacted a couple of writer friends, but the rules say you can offer up to three links – so if anyone fancies joining in, let me know.

1.      What am I working on?Cover of TABULA RASA

The seventh Ruso novel, provisionally called HABEAS CORPUS, and set in Rome. Thus my head will be in entirely the wrong place when the sixth, TABULA RASA, comes out later this year – that one’s set on the northern border of Britannia and will look very much like the cover on the right. (I believe that’s Hercules clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)

2.      How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Its genre is “Roman Crime” and there’s a surprising amount of it about. I’d normally reply that I’m more interested than most in the Romano/British tensions, having a leading character from each side and setting the books out in the far reaches of the Western Empire. Although of course Jane Finnis and Rosemary Rowe both set their crime novels in Roman Britain.

Setting HABEAS CORPUS in Rome is going to be a bit of a step in the dark, both for me and for Ruso and Tilla, who will have to be careful not to trip over the descendants of other fictional characters.

3.      Why do I write what I do?

Out of fascination with the era – so much ‘like us’ and yet so different. Also, the problem of how to get along with people who don’t share our culture is universal, and it’s especially acute during a military occupation. In a sense it’s easy for the people at the extremes. Their thinking isn’t challenged. It’s the people who rub shoulders every day with individuals from the ‘other side’ who have to make crucial decisions on how to behave, what risks to take and how much trust to offer. Peacemakers may be ‘blessed’ but they don’t have easy lives.

4.      How does your writing process work?

I know several writers who sit down at the desk and produce between 1000 and 5000 words a day. Clearly their brains work much faster than mine, and they have much better self-discipline.

Often the only way to make progress is to spend a lot of time getting it frustratingly wrong, then to go for a lone walk only to realise (on a good day) what I should have written. Thus many hours are spent producing words that end up in the ‘dump’ file the next morning. I keep a running total of the word count on a virtual sticky note on the desktop, just to reassure myself that I am making progress, if rather inefficiently.

What about planning, you may be asking? Oh, I can show you plans. Official synopses. Splendid creations in multi-coloured felt-tip. Photographs on whiteboards. Photographs of whiteboards. Maps with pins and stickers. Spreadsheets. Character lists. Charts drawn up using special software. Then you can wonder, as I do when these things resurface during a clear-up, what on earth most of them have to do with what’s in the book.



Can I try that question again, please?

One of the perils of combining a haphazard approach to research with a terrible memory is that I often recall useful things that I read a long time ago, but it’s impossible to quote them because I no longer know where they were. Worse, I sometimes wonder whether they really existed or whether I made them up for a story. So when someone asked me the other day whether doctors in the ancient world really did perform post-mortems, I was appalled to find myself in a minor panic, mumbling that I was pretty certain they did, and anyway, um,  surely they must have done…

Shelves crowded with books about Romans and Ancient Britain
The answer is probably in here somewhere. Or perhaps not.

My companion was very polite, but given the number of post-mortem examinations in the Ruso stories, he can’t have been too impressed. So it was mightily reassuring to rediscover this in Vivian Nutton’s “Ancient Medicine”:

“The best picture of what the average healer did may be gained from the papyri of Graeco-Roman Egypt, which extend mainly from the second century BC until the sixth century. They show us healers at work, summoned to carry out inspections of those injured in an affray or dying in suspicious circumstances, prescribing, running a family hospital, even writing their own books.”

So that’s where it was. Page 11.

That passage brings me to a great question  asked by Jane Finnis at the Heffers Classics Festival: “What lost document from antiquity would you most like to find?”

My answer at the time was that I’d like to find something – anything – by the Druids, in the hope of balancing the information we have from the Roman authors. Sadly, as Manda Scott observed, since the Druids didn’t have a written culture the chances of that happening were slim. She cunningly suggested rediscovering – amongst other things – the entire contents of the lost library of Alexandria.  Much too late, I’d like to revise my own answer:

The book I would most like to find from antiquity is one that definitely existed, but is known to have vanished by the year 850. It was written by a doctor called Rufus and was a “large compendium of self-help medicine designed for the layman (‘for those who have no access to a physician’).” (Nutton, p. 7)

Wouldn’t that be fascinating? I must have read about Rufus’s DIY medical book years ago, but it had drifted out of memory. Perhaps the idea wasn’t entirely lost, though. It seems G. Petreius Ruso’s attempt to write a Concise Guide to Military First Aid wasn’t quite as original as I thought.

My Next Big Thing

And now, a change of pace. First, a big thank-you to Caroline Davies,  who tagged me for “My next big thing” longer ago than I care to admit. It’s a set of questions that one writer passes to another, giving each of us a chance to blather (sorry, tell the world) about our own current project.

Caroline is a poet. Now I have to confess that collections of poetry are rarely my thing. They tend to remind me of my efforts at wholemeal pastry – very good for you, but heavy going. Not so with Caroline’s soon-to-be published collection, CONVOY. The clue is in the title – it’s the story of one of the Allied convoys that battled across the Mediterranean to take supplies to Malta during the Second World War. I read a draft a while back and loved it. It’s vivid and exciting and humbling, and all the more impressive for being a true story. So that’s Caroline’s Next Big Thing. Here’s mine –

Cover of US edition of Semper Fidelis

What is the working title of your book?

It’s called SEMPER FIDELIS. Thanks to my astounding ignorance, I had no idea when I chose it that this is the motto of the US Marines. I hope they aren’t going to pay me a visit and complain.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s the fifth in a series featuring a Roman Army medic serving in Britain. We usually see the Roman Army as full of tough highly-trained killers, but every one of them was somebody’s son.  I’m at the age where my friends’ cute little babies are donning uniforms, getting tattoos and being sent to countries where other people want to shoot them. Those of us who wait at home for news trust that their commanding officers will do their best to look after them, and it occurred to me that it must have been the same for Roman families waving their sons goodbye as they went off to join the Legions. But what if some of those officers didn’t have their men’s best interests at heart? Would mistreatment be dealt with, or would it be hushed up?

The series is now at the point in history where Hadrian visited Britain, and my characters are under serious pressure to put on a good show.

What genre does your book fall under?

Historical crime.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Someone who knows what they’re doing had better do the casting. Meanwhile I’ll be auditioning George Clooney and Daniel Craig over a long lunch.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Roman legionary medic is under pressure from his comrades to cover up a scandal, and from his wife to expose it.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’ll be published by Bloomsbury in the USA and Canada in January 2013. The UK shouldn’t be far behind.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There are quite a few Roman crime series being published now, but as far as I know, the trend was started by Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m fascinated by the interplay between the occupier and the occupied in Roman Britain, and the fact that so much evidence still lies buried under our feet. I wanted to write the sort of personal stories that have slipped down the gaps of history.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hadrian’s marriage was not made in heaven, and at about the time of the British trip, the Empress Sabina was involved in a mysterious disgrace. Only the flimsiest of details have survived in the records – but of course all is revealed in the book.

Tag time

And now I’m going to tag the Mysterymakers, three writers from the north of England “who love to talk about murder”. First up is a fellow-writer of Roman mysteries who will be familiar to regular readers of the blog – Jane Finnis. Look out for Jane’s Next Big Thing in the next few days, and through her we’ll get to meet the other Mysterymakers. After that – who knows?

How not to give the game away – in Czech

One of the challenges of writing a crime novel is to slip in enough clues to keep the reader – and the sleuth – guessing, while not giving away so much that there are no surprises at the end. I never really know whether I’ve got the balance right until someone else reads it.  Husband, having suffered endless “what-if” conversations during the writing process, already knows Who Dun It, so the someone is usually the agent.  My agent is a perceptive reader who doesn’t miss much, so on the occasion when she reached the bottom of the final page and STILL wasn’t entirely sure who the murderer was… I knew I’d erred too far on the side of caution.

At least I usually know where the clues are. Or rather, I thought I did.  I’ve recently had an interesting exchange of emails with the Czech translator, Viktor Janis, who’s working on the first book. Amongst the sort of questions translators ask, which are usually technical stuff about the Romans, there was one about language. There’s a point where Priscus, the hospital administrator, refers to someone whose job title, in English, is a generic term.  The character could be male or female. Not so in Czech. There isn’t a word that’s suitably vague, and as Viktor pointed out, to come down on one side or the other would give away more than either Ruso or the reader needs to know at that point.

We agreed a way round it, but it occurred to me that a translator who wasn’t as sharp might not have spotted the significance of the exchange. I’m grateful to Viktor for plucking out a totally unintentional and mistimed clue.

Here’s where to find the Czech edition of Ruso and Tilla’s first adventure, which will be published very soon.

Greenbelt, and the strange passing of time

I’ve been trying to think of something clever and entertaining to say about the Greenbelt Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse, but it was just… too big. Too exhuberant. Too thought-provoking, and too gloriously diverse to pull together in a few words. (Which is a poor show for someone who calls herself a writer, I know.) At times it was also too wet and too cold, but the wellies came out, the banners fluttered bravely over the tents up on the camping fields, and the atmosphere was as warm as ever.

Picture of red white and blue pennants flying over tents

Thank you to everyone who came to the events I was involved in. You made both sessions a pleasure and besides, it would have been very lonely without you. Especial thanks to the kind folk who chipped in with plenty of intelligent comments and questions at the end, thus saving us all from a potentially embarrassing silence. In fact halfway through the ‘Lure of Crime Fiction’ talk it was looking as though it would also be a very long silence.

Something strange happens to time when you stand up in front of people who are expecting you to say something sensible. Despite several rehearsals, the plentiful material I’d prepared shot past at fearful speed while my watch (carefully set out on the lectern so I didn’t have to consult my wrist, as if even I was wishing I was somewhere else) seemed to have stopped.  Then, strangely, I slowed down and the watch went faster.

Goodness knows what the patient listeners were actually receiving on the other side of  this time-warp, but as far as I could discern, nobody fell asleep despite it being the end of a very long weekend. For that, and for much else, I am enormously grateful.

Words and pictures

Huge thanks to Hasan Niyazi over at the Three Pipe Problem, who’s created this lovely graphic showing the different book titles:

Illustrations of all book covers together

Thanks also to Juliette Harrison, who’s just posted my recent chat with Hasan over at her PopClassics blog. If you haven’t seen either of these before, Juliette’s is a lively review of the use of classics in popular culture, and Hasan’s is simply the most beautiful blog I’ve ever seen. Now is a good time to visit them both!

“Doctor in the Castra”

I’ve always been impressed – overawed, indeed – by writers who can talk. Margaret Atwood. Ian Rankin. The sort of person they invite onto Radio Four. Numerous other authors with whom I’ve shared panels. Good grief, if they can all talk that well, why do they go to the bother of sitting down and typing things?

I, on the other hand,  find it is sometimes  possible to speak fluently and sometimes possible to make sense, but not both at the same time.  My writing is driven less by a burning urge to create, than by a burning urge to go back over the conversations I messed up in real life and re-write them the way I wish they’d gone.   So heaven knows what Ian Williams of the Catskill Review of Books actually recorded earlier this week for WJFF radio. I haven’t dared to listen.

Nevertheless, it was a real pleasure to talk with a man who, despite being descended from the rebellious Welsh, really does know his Romans. The title above is his, stolen from his blog.