Last time I brought you an update on my Roman British mystery novels. More precisely, my efforts to market the debut of the series, Governor’s Man: The Bronze Owl, and my progress so far in drafting the follow-up, Governor’s Man: The Carnelian Phoenix.

So how have I got on in March, my eager Readers ask? Well, I wish you wouldn’t ask, because I’ve pretty much spent the time in a veritable slough of despond.

Not that I haven’t made progress, of sorts. Remember the seven literary agents and two publishers who were bound to lunge at the chance to publish GM1? They’re now 11 agents and eight publishers, three of whom have already declined the honour. You wouldn’t believe how long it takes to query a publisher/agent, by the way. If only they all just asked for the same thing, I wouldn’t be wasting good writing time tweaking my author bio, devising ever tinier elevator pitches, and collating different opening sequences to send. But I mustn’t grumble. I must earn the right to be rejected.

So that’s been as depressing as I expected so far, although early days. A lot more dejection still to come. And because I expect the process of approaching these luminaries to be a dead end, I have been doing some prep for Plan B. That’s the plan I mentioned last time, in which I stop being a writer and become a full-time self-publicist, IT guru and marketer. Can’t wait. So I got busy, and I’ve discovered the amazing Joanna Penn, of the CreativePenn podcast, and the equally impressive Mark Dawson of the Self Publishing Show. They both manage to combine spectacularly successful podcasting with actually writing reams of terrific books AND being their own publishers and publicists. And making money. Utterly crushing.

The other really critical bit of Plan B, however, was to write the next GM book. There I initially felt on more solid ground. I had my intrepid team of sleuths [Spoiler Alert: Quintus, Julia and Tiro all survive Book 1]. I have a destination for their journey [Rome}, and your actual real historical events, much more bloody and horrific than anything I could conjure up – don’t you just have to love the Romans? All that is left is to join the dots and get everyone off the ferry at Gesiacorum, over to Rome, and back again for tea. In 80,000 words. Nothing to this writing lark.

The first stumbling block was the time it took back then to cover the territory. Turns out those fancy roads may have lasted better than ours – not hard under austerity – but without internal combustion engines, apparently quite a slow way to travel. What did the Romans ever do for us, not inventing cars? Okay, so we’ll whizz across the Med by sea to save some time. From Marseille, according to my lovely big wall map of the Roman Empire.

And look – only 4-6 days to Rome with a fair following wind. Sorted. One small problem: I have never been to Marseilles, and could find nothing online to help me set the several key scenes needed in that busy and really ancient port. Yet again, the fabulous Roman library at Senate House in London, and indefatigable librarian Sue Willetts came to my rescue, albeit in a book written in academic French. A slow read. By the time I’d done that research, and then spent five days post-vax with my toes turned up (not complaining, would not pass up my AstraZeneca experience for any amount of real Covid) much of March had already cantered by.

Not a problem. I knew where my team needed to go, how many deaths have to happen (more or less, the more being adjustable upwards). And now I had a remarkable ending climax in mind, full of suspense, danger and rivers of blood, all researched from actual history of the order you just could not make up. Bless the Romans – again!

Some quick planning of scenes, and the real wordsmithery would begin. I’d done it once, I could do it again. And then, something stopped me in my tracks.

I just seemed to hit a brick wall. No amount of looking at the wall map, or devising new characters, or tweaking (too many) subplots seemed to get me anywhere near a plausible plot, where cause-and-effect would provide a lovely flow of clues, twisty action and rising suspense. I panicked, and did what I always do when panicking: I Googled. I researched. I re-read the classics of story, plotting, the three-act structure, character-driven writing, What the Reader Wants. I wept and screamed, snoozed on the sofa in my writing cabin, considered casting myself away on a (warm) desert island, somewhere Covid-free and writer-friendly. Anything to make the 80,000 words magically appear in Scrivener. Why couldn’t I make this story work?

I stopped, and thought again about the story I was writing. I re-Googled, but this time instead of classic story structure, I looked for words of wisdom by a whole range of genre writers who long ago cracked the problem of planning their stories over many years of practice. And I discovered that I’d been doing it all wrong. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to genre, it seemed. I’d been looking for structure in the wrong place.

My mistake was in thinking I was writing historical fiction. Which of course I am, and because I am creating a whole world of third century Europe for my readers, that’s where a lot of my attention goes. But actually my work is historical mystery, with the emphasis on mystery. That dictates a change of emphasis and attention when planning the story, and as we all know, paying attention is everything if you want a successful outcome. And the clue was right there in a Masterclass I’d actually paid to follow a couple of years ago, clearly not paying enough attention.

“Tips for writing a crime novel: 4 – Begin with the crime.” Duh! The crime is everything. The mystery has to lead the history. The crime/s and above all the motivations of the criminals are the real engines of my story. To know their motivations, I need to know their backstory. That was what I hadn’t done. I had spent oodles of time on my protagonists, and settings, and historical detail, and even the clues and red herrings I intended for my readers. What I hadn’t done was work out what was in it for the antagonists who actually carry out the four (or maybe five) crimes I’d sort of vaguely sketched in. But just like my good guys, the bad guys need rationales, valid reasons that seem defensible in their own minds. They need background to provide motivation. They need links to each other and to my heroes, links that need to appear very gradually so my readers begin to see the patterns, but not till they’re utterly absorbed in the characters, who all need to be rounded and compelling.

Now I realise I was just lucky with planning my first Roman novel, because of who the antagonists were in the life and world of my hero. All that had happened by chance, the story unfolded like a charm, and I hadn’t known it until now, probably because I’d lived with that story so long. My challenge now is to create a crime-led, motivation-driven work of pace and twisty suspense, a worthy Governor’s Man 2. Without the beginner’s luck of GM 1.

I can’t wait to begin again on Monday, properly this time.

4 thoughts on “How to write a mystery novel…second time round.

  1. I can’t quite tell from the screen shot if that map is from Orbis. If not, try orbis.stanford.edu.
    Good luck with GM 2 !

    1. Tabulae Geographicae, via Amazon. It covers the whole wall of my writing cabin. My darling husband framed it for me, and currently I spend a lot of time squinting at it while I plan the complicated journeying of my trio in Book 2. Must go to SpecSavers.

  2. BTW, I have Orbis sitting in my Scrivener research file, and do use it. But see preceding remarks about SpecSavers, as my MacBook is rather petite …

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