So you want to write an ancient mystery: pick your time and place

When in Rome, do as the Romans do...murder someone.

If you're reading an ancient mystery at the moment, then odds are it's set in Rome or Roman Britain.

Steven Saylor and John Roberts both write in exactly the same years of Late Republican Rome. Not only that, they use the same historical characters and sometimes even the same events. Both have a novel centred around the Catiline Conspiracy. This has its cool aspects. You can read side by side Saylor's Catilina's Riddle, and Robert's SPQR 2: The Catiline Conspiracy, and get totally different viewpoints from two great writers of exactly the same historical event.

I happen to know (because John told's that for a name drop?) that Saylor and Roberts have a gentleman's agreement not to read each other's books. I can't imagine anyone confusing the voice of Saylor for Roberts, or vice versa, but I suppose they're being understandably cautious.

Caroline Lawrence, Lindsey Davis and Simon Scarrow all write in the period of Vespasian and Titus. In fact Vespasian and Titus appear in all three series.

This means five of the biggest names in historical mysteries are focussed on two precise periods, separated by less than 120 years, whose total duration is less than 40 years, even though there are 3,000 years of ancient history to choose from. This is remarkable.

It's probably no accident that these two periods bracket the the end of the Roman Republic, to the end of the first Roman dynasty, the Julio-Claudian line founded by Julius Caesar and Augustus. In between, David Wishart has his Marcus Corvinus working crime in the reign of Tiberius, Robert Harris has a thriller in Pompeii, and PC Doherty has Roman mysteries and also wrote Domina, the best novel of Agrippina, the mother of Nero, which you're ever likely to read. There are lots of other mysteries set in the time of the Julio-Claudians, but I'd go mad if I tried to list them all, and I don't know them as well as these authors.

If your ancient mystery isn't set in Rome, then chances are very good it's in Roman Britain. Kelli Stanley, Ruth Downie, Rosemary Rowe and Jane Finnis for starters. Roman Britain is huge for mysterious deaths. (And I can only assume the surviving characters all settled in what later became Midsomer County, where their descendants carry on their homicidal habits to this day).

I think it'd be fair to say that Rome + Roman Britain covers 80% or more of all ancient mysteries, and I'm being deliberately conservative because I don't have exact numbers. I suspect the true percentage is 95%+.

If you're not in Rome or Roman Britain, then you might be in Ancient Egypt with PC Doherty, who has a successful Egyptian mystery series starring Amerokte, the Chief Judge of the Temple of Ma'at, or Anton Gill's Huy the Scribe.

After Egypt comes Ancient Greece with Margaret Doody's Stephanos at work during the rise of Macedon, and PC Doherty (again...the man's amazing) with his mysteries set in the time of Alexander.

It's astonishing how concentrated the historical mysteries are. Why these particular periods? The same question applies to later times: Mediaeval mysteries occur mostly in the abbeys and palaces of Britain. Victorian mysteries are mostly in London.

Where are the mysteries of, for example, Carthage? Or Phoenicea? Or India? Robert Hans Van Gulik wrote an excellent series of mysteries set in mediaeval China, starring Judge Dee. Technically mediaeval because the stories are 7th century, but they actually have an ancient feel to them because we tend to associate all things Mediaeval with the Church and Europe, which is a cultural bias. Yet his fine series seems to be sady under-appreciated. I think it's because English readers in the western world have trouble seeing what Mediaeval China means to them.

I've pondered long and hard about this. I think authors are writing, and people are reading, the periods which people can easily see had a major influence on their modern lives. This explains why Roman Britain is huge but not, for example, Roman Hungary. Many historical readers live in the UK, or are descended from there. When they read a mystery of Roman Britain, they read about their ancestors. The doings of the Roman Empire affects us to this day. When we read of Rome, even if we're not Italian, we can say to themselves, "Yes, the past was like this, and that's why my modern world is as it is." Every popular period for historical mysteries has a foundation point for some major aspect of modern western life.

If I have this right then the Golden Age of Athens should be screaming out for a mystery series. It's when western civilisation was founded, after all. I will be testing this theory in October when The Pericles Commission goes on sale. I'm confident I have it right.

Conclusion: You can't go wrong if you set your ancient mystery in Rome or Roman Britain, but for all our sakes, I beg you consider the other 3,000 years of ancient history and a whole globe of cultures. Go out of your way to show the reader why they should care not just about the story and the characters, but also the time they live in.


Stephanie Thornton said...

I've got a new one for you to check out, Gary. I was perusing the mystery section and caught sight of the spine of a book (talk about great marketing) and thought, "That looks ancient-ish."

It's The Sheen on the Silk by Anne Perry and it's set in... the Byzantine Empire!

I almost fell over when I saw the era. There's virtually nothing Byzantine in the world of fiction- this is set in 1273AD in Constantinople. I want to take it on vacation, but it's hardback and kind of big. I might just have to read it before I leave.

Carrie said...

Nice! I really enjoy stories set in China, such as The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, for starters. There's plenty laying around to grab onto and run with it. My own story is during the time of Augustus. Why? Because I like that time period.

Nicole MacDonald said...

Oooh Steph that sounds good!

Gary Corby said...

That's interesting Stephanie!

Anne Perry is famous for her Victorian mysteries. (by coincidence I actually have her Dark Assassin on the desk beside me right now.) I've never heard of her doing a Byzantine novel.

Thanks for telling us!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie,

Augustus is of course smack inside the most popular period for historicals, so clearly you have good taste.

I confess I'm sadly weak on Chinese historical novels of any sort. Do you have any recommendations?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Nicole, I think this might be the first time you've commented. Welcome to the blog!

You're right, it does sound good. Must check my local bookstores...

AvenSarah said...

I think you're right about the reasons -- as well as the desire to be instantly familiar/recognizable to a readership (hence central Roman periods, & Roman Britain because it's taught in English schools) but I'd also add that those are times/places with comparatively well-documented and personalized history. The Regnal period at Rome, say, would be hard to write about "accurately" for lack of historical knowledge. That said, some other well-documented times and places are underrepresented --your period being one! So that bodes well for you, too!

Gary Corby said...

Sarah, you know the way to a debut author's heart!

Yes, the issue of documentation is very important. I was saving it for a later post, but since you mention it...good documentation works both for and against the writer. If you want to write a story closely bound to real events, as Saylor does, then good sources are utterly essential. If you want to give readers a feel for the times without tight integration to known historical events, then decent archaeological knowledge is enough to get by. I'm amazed no one's written Sappho as a detective. If nobody else gets there first, I'd love to do it myself. Same goes for Hypatia. In fact I'm totally convinced they would both be winners. Documentation is very weak in both instances but I feel there's enough known to fudge the rest sufficiently that readers would finish the book knowing something about their lives.

I'm intensely curious about there any time or place people would like to read that's missing?

Stephanie Thornton said...

Ohhh... Sappho is an intriguing character. There's one historical fiction I've read about her- The Tenth Muse.

There are a gazillion historical fiction books about the Renaissance, but you would think that would be prime fodder for mysteries too. Machiavelli, the Medicis, and all those artists- yum!

Of course, I also have a soft spot for Mespotamia- there's pretty much a black hole in fiction for that time period. I've thought about writing a Mesopotamian novel myself, but I need to finish my second Egyptian book and already know where Book #3 is going. (Not Egypt!) Maybe Book #4?

Loretta Ross said...

The reign of the Emperor Elagabalus (did I spell that close to right?) would make an interesting time for a mystery.

Since Sarah brought up the question of documentation, I'm going to ask how you balance researching things with making stuff up.

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie, there were two series, I think, featuring Leonardo da Vinci. But certainly the volume of books is nothing like what the period deserves. I'd guess the best mysteries of the Renaissance period are those of Margaret Frazer's Sister Frevisse, which are (inevitably) set in monastic England. There's also (inevitably) a PC Doherty series set at this time also in England. There are surely others set in Renaissance Italy, but I don't know them.

Gary Corby said...

Forgot to add...I would love to read some Mesopotamian mysteries. Please write them.

Gary Corby said...

Wow Loretta, you like them weird! Elagabalus was a return to the nuttery of the later Claudians. I seem to recall he was the Roman Emperor who sold himself as a prostitute? Yep, I can see how a detective in his time would have his work cut out for him.

On using sources versus making it up...welcome to my nightmare. Also welcome to my greatest source of procrastination. My basic rule is, "Don't break history."

People who've had to deal with me can tell you I obsess about every little detail. And I once even had Aven Sarah check some dubious facts for me. Thanks Aven!

As long as I don't contradict reality, then I'm free to make things up, as dramatic as I like. The problem is not knowing whether some ancient text somewhere that I forgot to consult flatly contradicts something I made up.

RWMG said...

I wonder how much your sample is language biased. Maybe there are lots of mysteries set in Gaul but written in French, or even in Roman Hungary but written in Magyar.

Gary Corby said...

That's a brilliant question Robert, and beyond doubt you're right. Yet known lists of historical mysteries rarely have foreign language authors.

Marketing people who understand this stuff tell me the biggest markets for historical mysteries are the US, UK, and...Germany!

I don't know of any native German historical mystery writers but surely there must be many. As it happens I do though right this instant have an ARC of In Free Fall by German author Juli Zeh, and so far it's proving very interesting!

The only non-English historical mystery/thriller authors that I can think of off the top of my head are Boris Akunin (Russian) and Valerio Manfredi (Italian). And, of course, Umberto Eco!

L. T. Host said...

Great post! I, too, try not to read too many other authors that write in my genres because it's too easy to get consumed with "Oh, they did what I did already-- everyone will just think I copied them!"

Which may be why I read mostly YA right now, because it's the only genre I'll probably never attempt to write in.

Loretta Ross said...

Where I think the reign of Elegabalus holds promise is not so much the extreme strangeness of the Emperor himself, but the ordinary people around him having to pretend like everything's perfectly normal.

Thanks for your take on research. I've been considering an historical myself for the past couple of months (not a mystery), but I'm a bit daunted by the research it would entail. I do that obsessive bit too. Once I spent two weeks non-stop research trying to find out if they would have sold kettle corn at a hanging in 1873 before I gave up and just didn't mention kettle corn.

Annette said...

I love this blog.

Though I don't write mysteries, I'm finishing a novel based in a place I don't seem much of in historical fiction -- ancient Sparta. My novel is set in 490-460 BC. Sparta had a socio-political perspective unique to ancient Greece, and opportunities for women unheard of in Athens. For me, it has been a treasure trove in which to write about everyday people, especially since my POV character is a young woman.

Gary Corby said...

I really don't think you need to worry L.T.

Think of all the authors who've done variations of essentially the same thing. There are all sorts of incidents that have been done a zillion times over. How many times has Waterloo been refought? JFK and Caesar assassinated? If your voice is fresh and different then it's a new world every time.

Just please, I beg you, avoid Romeo & Juliet with vampires, and incredibly dumb conspiracies involving the secret descendants of Jesus.

Gary Corby said...

Loretta, food is often my nemesis too. I spent a few hundred hours working out whether garlic was used in Classical Athens, whether apples were sold in the agoras of Asia Minor, how to make the garos sauce that was so popular at the time, and what Greek wine tasted like.

But I think of it like this...when I reach the point that I'm sure only an expert with a PhD is likely to catch me out, then I can stop. Of course, when I reach that point, sometimes I contact an expert with a PhD.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Annette. I think this might be the first time you've commented, so welcome!

You're not alone in your love of Sparta. David West, who often drops in here, is a Spartan sort of guy, and Valerio Manfredi who I mentioned above has written a couple of Spartan novels.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I'll get right on that Mesopotamian novel- Book #4? I might be getting ahead of myself.

Research is a great source of procrastination- I've spent countless hours looking up Egyptian foods, spices, trees, bugs, contraception, and who knows what else.

Research pays off though- I cringe when I find historical inaccuracies in historical novels. The one I'm reading now talks about the corn coming from Egypt during Vespatian's stint as Emperor of Rome. Love the book, but I cringe every time I see that since Europe wouldn't know about corn until Columbus's expedition to the New World.

Loretta Ross said...

But Steph, do they mean corn as in maize or do they mean corn as in grain? Like barley and such? Because, didn't the Europeans call grain "corn"?

And, wait! Woah! Contraception in ancient Egypt? Do I want to ask?

RWMG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RWMG said...

Of course the Romans imported corn from Egypt. If it's Lindsey Davis you're reading, Stephanie, it might not be a good idea to take it up with her:

Charles David Eyer said...

My book is set smack in the popular Roman era you mention: the Julio-Claudians. I think the the period covering the end of the Roman Republic and the first century of the Empire is very interesting to researchers and readers alike. Plus we have excellent primary sources like Tacitus to help our research. I too have considered a Mesopotamian series, but don't have time now to pull it off. And yes, British historians tend to call grain "corn", even though they generally mean barley and wheat. The Grain Dole becomes the Corn Dole somehow. In Nero's time, half of it came from Africa, one third from Egypt, and the rest from Sardinia et al. In my book, Vespasian spends a year in Africa managing grain shipments (and dodging turnips thrown at him).

Stephanie Thornton said...

I wondered as I finished the novel yesterday if there was a British/American quirk I was missing with the word corn. When an American says corn, we only mean the yellow stuff on the cob. One of the corn passages in the book also mentioned wheat which would have been correct to my American sensibilities- Egypt supplied Rome with plenty of wheat, but no maize.

Now I can add that to my list of English/American differences, like the hood/bonnet of a car.

Sorry Gary- I'll stop hijacking your comments now. :)

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Gary, I love your point about stopping the research only when reaching the point when an expert with a PhD might call you out (and then calling that expert anyway)...The thing is, there will always be someone who disagrees with either your interpretation or the accuracy of your ancient sources. I guess the moral is we're obligated to do the best we can, and then focus on the STORY...

Gary Corby said...

No problem Stephanie! The corn thing is funny.

Corn is an ancient Germanic word meaning the hard seed of any plant, but particularly cereal. It's cognate with kernel. The Latin equivalent is grain. Corn and grain therefore are (correctly) used interchangeably everywhere except the Americas and Australia.

Hence the total confusion.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Vicky, you just added another post to the series...about the overriding importance of delivering a story that people want to read.

Interpretation is a tricky matter and you're dead right it varies a lot. One thing I've noticed is how highly revisionist modern historians seem to be.

An example of where facts must beat interpretation is on physical history. For example I have a small bet with myself that when Pericles Commission releases, someone, somewhere, will write to tell me I forgot to include the Parthenon. But it hasn't been built yet! This gets trickier when you consider which buildings are up in the Agora, and which don't exist yet. It's very complex, but historians and archaeologists have a firm grip on it and my experience is they're all delighted to help. Which is how I know the Painted Stoa on the cover is being built at almost exactly the same time as the story.

I better stop or I'll write a small essay in comments.