There’s been a fair amount of recent chatter among the literati, critics, readers and even as far down the food chain as my kind of commercial “tell-’em-a-story” writer, about the purposes of fiction and particularly about historical fiction. Is it the job of historical fiction authors to hold up as accurate a mirror as possible to the period and real people of the story? Where does the “fiction” part of the job belong? Can you even write historical fiction and be authentic? What does “authentic” mean – in the context of controversial topics like slavery, invasion, colonialism, exploitation?
Then there’s the whole other — but related — subject of crossing genre boundaries. Are writers who cross romance, crime, thriller, even science fiction (in the case of, for example, steam-punk stories) with history simply confusing readers? Or just avoiding being pigeon-holed by publishers and bookshops?
I’ll hold my hand up now, and confess: I came to write historical mysteries without having a clue. In Taunton Museum several years ago I stumbled across a mystery (buried Roman hoard, dated 224AD) in the context of a crime (forged ingots), associated with a tragedy (burned down villa). My imagination went to work, and I found myself creating The Governor’s Man, a Roman military detective who gets himself reluctantly embroiled in a British crime investigation with the local Somerset inhabitants (who also regard themselves as Romans). It was inconvenient timing as I was already engaged on writing a different novel, but the more I told these imaginary people to go away, the more they wouldn’t.
So, what is a writer to do? I wasn’t a novelist then, still a university lecturer in a completely different field who dabbled in short fiction. Not a historian or archaeologist — both backgrounds which would have come in very handy. But I was a trained researcher, and lifelong Romanophile. So I went off to the British Museum, the British Library, the Hellenic and Roman Library of the Institute of Classics, and every local museum in the West Country. I walked fields, went to Roman sites, spoke to experts, examined artefacts — in short spent over two years researching my story before a single word went onto the screen. None of that makes me an expert in Roman-British history, nowhere near, but it did give me a feel for the context and a fear of making foolish errors. (Like inserting a wheelbarrow into the story. Whoops. Wheelbarrows had indeed been invented by the third century, but by the Chinese, not the Romans, alas!)
My research included checking recorded people of the period. Fortunately in some respects, although modern archaeology is beginning to tell us so much about this period in Britain, written records between 211 and 260 AD or so are very sparse. So I had a clear field. I just gave these imaginary people lives as authentic and accessible as I could, and hurled everything at them. Broken hearts, deadly diseases, truculent teenagers, power grabs, hangovers, sudden nasty death, hot baths, superstition and faith. And a puppy. Life, in other words. You might get chilly ankles wearing a toga in Britain, but your life-story is still just as valid, I reckoned.
What made me sit down at my laptop day after day all through lockdown was giving ordinary Roman British people voices. And because I personally love mysteries (and let’s face it there was enough wrongdoing and nefarious activity in Roman times) I dropped these ordinary third-century Roman Britons into jeopardy and murder along the way.
Where does that leave my writerly responsibilities? For me, it’s all about bringing the past to vivid life, as accurately as I can. Under the very ground we walk are buried millennia of human stories. The stories of people so remote and yet so akin. They had hybrid identities in an empire based on colonialism, with issues of class structure, gender identity, economic exploitation, crime, justice, technological innovation, religious practice: all have resonance for us today.
And giving my hero the central role of crime investigator/soldier/spy (a real body of detached soldiers, created by Emperor Hadrian) allows me to ask all those questions so beloved of mystery readers: Whodunnit? Why? How will he/she be brought to justice? I added emotional layers by gifting Beneficiarius Quintus Valerius a Londoner sidekick, and then catapulting him into a complicated British family life he never knew he’d left behind. No easy times for Quintus.
Isn’t that what life is all about in any century? That’s my justification for writing historical mysteries: to show that human existence, at its most challenging, everyday and fascinating, is really a continuous chain into the past. And at some level I’m probably descended from Roman Britons myself. There’s my authenticity, right there.
The Governor’s Man is available at the special price of 99p/c till October 22, ebook from Amazon. On sale in paperback, also on Amazon, and now stocked by the Malvern Book Cooperative.
The new Quintus-and-Tiro short story, Wolves of Viroconium, is due to be published in a forthcoming Roman anthology by Aspects of History in November.
Follow Jacquie Rogers on social media and YouTube at: Linktr.ee/jacquierogers