19 April, 2020
In an effort to follow my own advice, I’ve been sticking to a Monday-Friday routine of normal work. As I am a writer of short stories and novels, writing is my work. (And attempting to market that writing, which is a whole other ballgame.)
Anyhow, I quite often get asked how I go about writing my stories. So as this blog is meant to be about my personal experience of the COVID-19 lockdown, I thought it might be fun to describe the process of researching and writing my current novel, a Roman historical mystery set in third century Britain. The working title is Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl.
Here’s how I began the book.
Getting the Idea
Some years ago my husband’s work took us to live for a while in a West Country village, in the Somerset Levels south of Cheddar. This is an ancient flat place, a watery landscape broken by canals, rivers, willows, and winding lanes. To the east are the swallowing sands of the Severn Estuary; to the west the magical tor of Glastonbury.
Needing to know more about this bewitching landscape, I went to the Museum of Somerset in Taunton. There I was immediately captivated by the Roman Somerset exhibition, featuring a wonderfully preserved mosaic floor from Ham Villa which depicts the story of Dido and Aeneas. Beyond the tiled floor, a silent lovely Roman lady is captured by the arcane cinematic arts of the twentieth century, moving eternally around her elegant chamber .
Nearby I found displayed a hoard of 9,000 Roman denarii, spilling out of the container they were buried in. These beautiful silver coins would have been worth ten years’ wages for a Roman soldier, £265,000 in modern values. The hoard was dated to no later than 224 AD, and had been carefully buried in the estate office of a previously unknown Roman villa at Shapwick, eight miles south of my home. This was the first inspiration for the book.
Why, I wondered, would anyone bury a fortune, a lifetime’s savings, in the estate office of a villa, and never retrieve it? I was intrigued.
I obtained a copy of the report of the 2002 archeological dig of the villa, following the finding by metal detectorists of the silver hoard. Apparently, the west wing of the villa, where the hoard was found, had been burnt down and later demolished. Carbon dating suggested the fire occurred in the very year the hoard had been buried, AD 224. The large villa was never rebuilt, although remains of a substantial farmhouse on the same site suggested continuous occupation for several centuries more.
So someone had left an unclaimed fortune, buried at around the same time as a disastrous fire. Other people had soon after built a farmhouse on the same spot, and then lived there for many more centuries. I was tempted to imagine the descendants of the same Romano-British family, reduced in circumstance somewhat perhaps after the fire and ignorant of the fortune under their feet, who stayed on in Shapwick alongside the ruin of the old villa.
The next tantalising clue was a lead pig found buried on the Mendips, now in the British Museum. This lead ingot was smelted at the time of the Emperor Vespasian, in the first century, but still from the nearby Vebriacum lead mines. The mines in the Mendip Hills were valued for thousands of years because of the lead, but also because the ore contained silver. In Roman times, precious metals always remained the property of the Emperor. The silver was extracted and sent to the Imperial estate in Rome, while the extracted lead remained the property of the mine lessee, to sell as he chose. Once the silver had been smelted out of the ore, the pure lead ingots would be stamped officially to declare the silver had been taken out.
Except for one tiny detail. This pig, despite its official stamp, still contained the silver. Someone at the Vebriacum mines was engaged in the highly dangerous crime of defrauding the Emperor. In nearby Wookey Hole, today more famous for its high quality Cheddar cheese, Roman centres for minting counterfeit coins have been unearthed.
So there it was: a large unknown burned-down villa; an unretrieved buried fortune of silver coins; evidence of fraudulent mining; manufacturing of counterfeit silver coins. All within a few miles of each other. A story begging to be told.
So that’s how I got the inspiration for Governor’s Man: the Bronze Owl. All that remained was to write the story. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?