So you want to write an ancient mystery...

Historical mysteries are a sub-genre. There's at least one historical mystery for almost every time and place you care to name, but readers very clearly have their favourite periods. Mediaeval mysteries are huge, thanks I'm sure to the early excellence of Ellis Peters. The Victorian period is big, and so too are Ancients. Mediaeval, Victorian and Ancient mysteries have such a focus from readers and authors that each could fairly be called a distinct sub-sub-genre.

This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I'll point out some of the elements unique, or at least common, to my own little piece of the world: Ancient Mysteries. This is all very much Gary's view, so your mileage will definitely vary, but I at least have the advantage of having read some of what's out there, and I dare say a bit more than most.

I'll begin with some posts about existing ancient mystery authors, because the most important advice I can give you is this: read the authors who've gone before. If you're interested in ancient mysteries then you really want to rush out and read every author I mention.

Within ancient mysteries the big two are Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis. I'm fairly sure the sales records and general popularity would back me up on that. Saylor seems to be better known in the US (he's American). Davis appears to be better known in the UK (she's British). To these two I'll add John Maddox Roberts. These three were the first major ancient mystery authors.

I've read all three for many years, but when I began to write an ancient mystery myself, I studied all three very closely. What did they have in common? How were they different? What worked? What didn't work?

Two common things really stand out. Firstly, they all write Roman mysteries! In fact Rome became so popular with later authors that it's almost a sub-sub-sub-genre. (I'll stop with the subs now).

But the common point I'll concentrate on here is this: they all use fundamentally the same hero/heroine/patron character model.

Steven Saylor's hero is Gordianus the Finder, the only honest man in Rome. His wife is a rather strong willed slave named Bethesda. Gordianus finds himself working for an advocate by the name of Cicero.

Lindsey Davis' hero is Marcus Didius Falco, the most hard done by gumshoe in ancient Rome. He runs into a strong-willed aristocratic lady called Helena Justina. Falco finds himself working for the upstart new Emperor Vespasian.

John Robert's hero is Decius Caecilius Metellus, an aristocratic, young, insatiably curious troublemaker. He marries eventually a lady called Julia, who happens to be a relative of Julius Caesar.

Are you seeing a pattern here? The male hero. The strong female assisting. The patron.

People read historical mysteries as much for the joy of exploring the exotic time and place as for the mystery. For the ancient past in particular, so remote and exotic to us today, you can't get a complete experience without both the male and the female view of ancient life. Also it's the nature of the ancient times that men generally had greater social freedom. So a male lead with a strong female is not only the path of least resistance, but the one which fits most naturally into what readers will likely enjoy. The patron is a natural component too: someone to deliver a diverse range of missions, give entrée to high places and explain background which a highly placed man of the times would know and which the reader needs. (Patrons in ancient mysteries tend to be the princes of exposition).

I think of this as the Standard Model for ancient mysteries.

Different authors give different weight to the character types, but certainly the Standard Model prevails across many authors. Perhaps even most. For example Rosemary Rowe's excellent mysteries in Roman Britain feature a Celtic freedman called Libertus, his wife Gwellia, and a magistrate Marcus Septimus.

Which isn't to say everyone follows the model. Jane Finnis has her clever heroine Aurelia Marcella running an inn on her own in Roman Britain, plus doing the investigations. (Jane, by the way, is only partially sighted, and has to work with a high contrast screen and an automatic reader, but still manages to write in such a technically difficult field. When I learned that I swore I'd never again whine about my own writing problems.) Though he eventually marries, Margaret Doody's Stephanos is essentially an all-male affair, with Aristotle providing the brains. Caroline Lawrence has for her children's and YA Roman mysteries a girl called Flavia Gemina and her friends. The series opens with Flavia as a young girl and ends with her marriage. Caroline might actually be the most successful ancient mystery author ever, considering the number of her books in school libraries and the highly successful TV series made of them. She totally owns the entire field of YA ancient mysteries. (Which would make her a, I must stop this).

So my view is: the Standard Model evolved independently with many authors for a good reason. You don't have to use it, but you'd want to at least consider it.

I've been careful as I can to avoid dropping spoilers in this and subsequent posts to avoid damaging the fun for anyone who hasn't read the stories yet. Please avoid spoilers if possible in any comments you make too please!


Anonymous said...

My husband loves Lindsey Davis' Falco and no unattended book is safe from me, so I've read most of them.

What strikes me about all mysteries, no matter the setting, is that the basic motivations behind the crimes remain the same---because human beings committed them. And wrote about them, come to think. I suppose that also holds true for the motivation of the heroes (and anti-heroes) who solve the crimes.

It's the possiblities and twists that come from the specific constraints (and freedoms) of the time periods, the culture(s), the level of social and hard sciences, etc. that make these stories fascinating to me.

Sarah W said...

Whoops! I'm not wessonblog, I'm Sarah W.

I'm not technologically advanced enough to figure out the sign-in options for commenting!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Sarah!

Yes, you're right, human motivation hasn't changed at all. But the cultural constraints certainly have, and so have basic beliefs, and basic knowledge! One of the things I plan to write about later is CSI for the ancient world.

Aren't you awake rather early?

Amalia T. said...

I'm taking notes. Not that I write mysteries-- but it's good to know these things, regardless! Thanks Gary!

L. T. Host said...

Hmm... yes, I think you're completely right, Gary. Just realized that mine has the same structure. Though I don't know-- does Victorian era count as a historical mystery? I know it doesn't count as an ancient one, obviously. Or is this formula just successful in general?

Sarah W said...


Sydney is about thirteen hours ahead of Central US time, so I'm not sure if I was up early from your point of view, or just hadn't gone to bed yet. I'm often not sure of that anyway. But it's almost 11am Tuesday right now.

Regardless, I do wake up about 5:30am in my time zone to get in some writing time before turfing the kids out of bed and starting the morning chaos.

Loretta Ross said...

Sarah, are you sure you're awake now? I'm in Central US too, but it's Wednesday here. :D

Gary, are you also going to address pitfalls in writing historical mysteries? 'Cause I have a couple I'd like to suggest. I, too, study things by other writers, and I make up rules for my own writing based on what I feel does or doesn't work. Then I give the rules weird names to help me remember them. (Hence the weird names.) The two that apply specifically to historical works are:

1. The Overly Enlightened Good Guys Rule: Most of the characters should have views that are realistic for their place and time period. This is after reading too many Victorian-era books where ALL the "good" characters are liberal feminists who oppose racism and social injustice.

2. The Blue Monkey Rule: No civilization on Earth has ever been perfect. Please try not to imagine that your chosen setting was Utopian.

(Remember, I only make these rules for myself. I'm not trying to dictate anything to anyone else!)

Sarah W said...

Whoops! Nope, I'm obviously not awake at all. . . Thanks, Loretta.

Sorry for cluttering up your blog with my errata slips, Gary!

Carrie said...

Cool post as usual Gary. Thanks. :)

Gary Corby said...

L.T., definitely Victorian counts as historical; it's one of the most popular periods!

I occasionally see weird and pointless arguments online about how recent can a book be and still be considered historical. I think at the moment the consensus would go as recent as post-WW2. I'm thinking particularly of Clea's Moon, by Edward Wright, which stars a down and out Hollywood cowboy actor in the late 40s. That's about as close as you could come, IMHO.

I expect the Standard Model would work fine for Victorian times. Social conditions were in some ways pretty similar to ancient times.

It wouldn't work in general for Mediaeval, because you need to take into account the overriding importance of Church structure and mores of the time. Though having said that, Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death does use a variation.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Amalia and Carrie!

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, some posts on the pitfalls by all means.

Your overly enlightened ruler I call the danger of the Modern Man Sent Back In Time, and yep, the danger to the author of loving his favourite period too much is another good one.

But where does the Blue Monkey come in? Am I missing some obvious cultural reference?

Loretta Ross said...

No, sorry! It's really not obvious at all. Are you familiar with Sir Arthur Evans' excavations at Knossos? There was a fresco that had fallen into pieces. Using a few of the pieces and a lot of imagination, Sir Arthur "restored" it to an idyllic scene of a young man gathering saffron. A later researcher, having noticed a similarity to surviving frescoes in Africa, was able to reassemble it with a much greater percentage of original pieces into a picture of a blue monkey.

Gary Corby said...

I'd totally forgotten that story! I recall hearing it long ago. Sir Arthur was just a tad over the top, wasn't he?

_*rachel*_ said...

I guess it's a decent post to ask this question:

I've got a historically-inspired fantasy half-written, re-written, and recently re-plotted. No magic, just a world that's got a lot of parallels to our own. (If it matters, I'm drawing from the pre-Civil War US.)

What are some good books to read? The only one I can think of so far is Hilari Bell's Farsala trilogy, where the Hrum are extremely Roman and the Farsalans are somewhat Indian.

There are always space westerns, of course, and plenty of fantasies that steal societies, but I'm looking for something that deals more with cultural and political issues than books that make conflict by pitting ur-Vikings against ur-Arabs. (Though those are fun to read!)

Any ideas? Things that draw issues and some setting from history, but are distinctly not set in this world?

Stephanie Thornton said...

I've never read any of these, but they sounds like books I'd enjoy. Come to think of it, I haven't read many mysteries aside from Agatha Christie and that was quite a few years back. It looks like I need to branch into your chosen genre before your book comes out, Gary!

Gary Corby said...

Wow Rachel, that's a tough ask. As you say there are lots of transplanted societies if SF and fantasy, and some include American Indians. The World of Tiers series of Philip Jose Farmer has American Indians living side by side with Teutonic Germans. He wrote Riverworld too of course. But these are all for adventure. I can't think of any transplanted society stories specifically to contrast the cultures.

You might try the TV series Firefly? Or Janissaries by Jerry Pournelle?

Does anyone have any suggestions for Rachel?

Gary Corby said...

Oh, you have some joyful reading awaiting you, in that case Stephanie! I'm sure you'd like some of these.

There've also been some Ancient Egyptian mysteries. Check out PC Doherty and Anton Gill.

Loretta Ross said...

Things that draw issues and some setting from history, but are distinctly not set in this world?

Well, it's not set in the US, but how about Nation by Terry Pratchett?

There was also a series set in, I think, both France and the Southern US in the early 1800s or late 1700s that was something like a modern woman from our world fell through a portal or something and found herself living the life of a duchess who was also a spy. Or maybe was married to a spy? It's been years since I read it and I don't remember the title or author. All I really do remember, actually, is a secondary character named Illya something that started with a K, because some friends and I were saying that it *had* to be a nod to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I'll see if I can figure out the title or author or something.

Loretta Ross said...

Praise be to Google, the ancient digital god of finding stuff!

This is from the publisher's info:

. . . shows how British history might have developed had the heirless Charles II been succeeded by his eldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth, instead of by his unpopular brother James.

[With magic and faeries.]

The series is "Carolus Rex", the first book is The Shadow of Albion and the authors are Andre Norton and Rosemary Edghill. Amazon listing here:

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Loretta!

Wow, Andre Norton wrote that? She was one of my fave authors as a child.

Bill Kirton said...

Great analysis Gary, and further proof (as if we needed it) that you're a professional. I only wish you'd done the same thing for early Victorian mysteries before I wrote mine. It would have saved me weeks of experimenting.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Bill! I am quite sure you know more about books and writing than I ever will.

(For those unaware, Bill's written some great novels, and back when he was a young lad, he was a BBC playwright, and a Prof. of Literature.)

Stephanie Thornton said...

Okay, Gary, I went out and bought the first two books in Davis's series. They sound fun and since they're mass market paperbacks they'll fit perfectly in my suitcase.

Although it looks like we're going to Greece now instead of Italy- you should ask Minotaur to release your book early so I can read an ancient Greek mystery while lounging on the beach in Crete.

Gary Corby said...

A fine choice! Both books and destination.

This means you'll get to see the Palace at Knossos!

You'll have great fun on Crete. Just don't order the rabbit.

Charles David Eyer said...

Hi Gary, I must say I have the opposite viewpoint about other authors in one's genre. I try NOT to read them because I don't want to subconciously copy them. I wrote a novel set in the Roman Empire and did it wihout ever reading Steven Saylor or Lindsay Davis (or even Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis-which I'm dying to read). My book is not a mystery but an attempt to imaginatively construct what is missing from Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius in telling the story of Nero's downfall, the Year of the Four Emperors, and Vespasian's rise to power. Its a trilogy. One book down, two to go.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Charles,

Well in my case I didn't get a choice since I'd read all these authors years before I tried writing my own book.

I see where you're coming from, and I'm sure it makes sense for some, but I think you'd find the majority of authors would recommend reading widely. I know Stephen King feels strongly about it.

I do though know of one instance where two authors don't read each other, which I mention in the next post...