Fiona Forsyth, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
When I was teaching, I would “bag” the Cicero speech set for A level Latin. I’ve always found his oratory powerful, and the fact that he was a politician as well as a lawyer means that nearly all his speeches have a political/historical background which gave an added dimension to my teaching. His characters and language are vivid: it was inevitable that I would write stories inspired by him. In addition, we still have thousands of his letters, a unique and invaluable resource commenting on the events and people of his time.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
Every A level text I taught was research for my writing! It has limitations of course – I’m great at spotting an ascending tricolon, less great at knowing what my hero ate for breakfast. I realised that the Romans had a life in between civil wars and Vesuvius erupting, so my library is expanding to include books on food, house management, clothing.
The change I’ve noticed over the years is that online resources like JSTOR and Academia make getting hold of articles so much easier, so I can quickly find out about minting coins or loading a ship with amphorae. I’ve also realised that you can read an account of a battle, but re-enactors and museums are the way to find out the realities: how do you actually move in heavy armour or use Roman slingshot?
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
Peter Stothard brings imagination and compassion to his writing. I’ve just finished The Last Assassin, which looks at the Ides of March and its repercussions. Tom Holland’s Rubicon is an excellent overview of the Roman Republic’s downfall.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
First of all, read and review lots of books. I review for a couple of book blogs and it is a great way of meeting other authors as well as learning about different styles and approaches. Second, don’t listen to the people who tell you that books must follow a trend – set on islands, written by vicars, must include recipes. Write what you want to write. If you aren’t passionate about your subject matter, then what is the point? And finally, make contact with other writers – the Twitter writing community for example is very kind and supportive and you will pick up tips and advice on anything and everything.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
Cicero, always Cicero! He was reputed to be very witty and his range of interests was huge. He wrote philosophy as well as the famous speeches, and he knew – and often exchanged letters with – everyone. I’d pick his brains and get all the gossip.
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?
The assassination of Julius Caesar. It was badly planned, messy, and led to fifteen years of civil war. It changed everything for Rome.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
The list is long and concentrates on the ancient world, so I will limit myself to Steven Saylor, David Wishart and Robert Harris. But the most influential historical novelist in my life was Geoffrey Trease. I was about ten when I read The Crown of Violet set in fifth century Athens, and immediately decided I had to get somebody to teach me Ancient Greek. I nagged my school until finally I was allowed to study it in the Sixth Form. The amazing Mrs Barrett gave up free periods and lunchtimes to teach me, and I shall always be grateful to her. “The Crown of Violet” lead me to Oxford, teaching, Manchester Grammar School and my family. I wrote to Geoffrey Trease to tell him this and got a lovely reply – he must have been in his eighties, but was planning his next book, about the Suffragist movement. What a writer!
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
It always starts with a snippet I read in the sources – a rumoured plot, a poet sent into exile, the death of an old lady who snubbed the emperor. I get curious and start digging – I know almost straight away if I can make a story out of it.
Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?
I get everything boring – chores, yoga, cats – out of the way first. Settling to write takes forever, but I do a lot of thinking while I tackle the admin and social media. I also read a lot in the mornings, for research or reviewing. The bulk of the writing comes in the afternoon when I join Milk Wood, my writing group in the virtual world of Second Life. The people of Milk Wood were an important factor in my decision to go for it and get published, and they have been endlessly encouraging despite the fact that I’ve never met any of them in real life. The group I wrote with at Qatar National Library were also very influential, and the Library itself a fantastic research hub. Once I got published, I made friends with a group of fellow historical fiction authors who meet up every month to cheer each other on. Knowing and talking to other writers has been vital.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
It is a series set on the Black Sea and stars the poet Ovid as he languishes in exile at the end of the known world. The historical reasons for Ovid’s exile are shrouded in obscurity so this seems like a good place to start a series of mysteries. Ovid himself is a wonderful central character because he is in crisis. I think he missed Rome every single day of his exile.
Fiona Forsyth is the author of Rome’s End, a Lucius Sestius Mystery.