Creating a new series
After I finished my big standalone novel Master and God, there were reasons why I wanted to write something a little less demanding in terms of research. Of course the reasons have been superseded, wouldn’t you know it? But by then I was really enjoying Albia.
After writing the Falco books for twenty years, it was a fascinating experience to create a whole new world. Yes, there are links to my previous work, but much is different. I always intended that this should not be Falco Lite, but a strong new set of books in its own right. Thank goodness, early indications are that readers agree.
I really didn’t want to write about a teenager (I’ve been one, that was enough!) and I was also keen for Albia to be fairly proficient by the time she takes the lead. While I did not have to create my heroine from scratch, we had known her when she was a child, so by jumping ahead by more than a decade I would have a woman who had in fact changed from the turmoiled adolescent who featured in her parents’ adventures. New readers can take her at face value, regulars will recognise her.
I have made her a widow. Breaching the conventions of crime genre, where many detectives are miserable marital failures, I have given her a short, yet extremely happy past marriage. Falco readers will be intrigued to see who she married, though you may remember a very subtle clue or two. If she ever has another marriage, maybe that too will be a happy one. (Frequent readers of my work may be able to guess that although I haven’t planned far ahead generally, I do know the answer to that particular question…) I thought she deserved it.
She has made mistakes - ah, Aulus, you foolish bastard! And in The Ides of April she makes another shocker. But isn’t it likely that a person who is very good at her job – organised, shrewd, businesslike – may at heart be quite good at life too? Although Albia says she expects nothing good to happen again, it may well be that I shall treat her kindly.
I had a lot of fun with the setting for this book. I explored the Aventine much more than before, because a key location is the famous Temple of Ceres. It provided major plot aspects: the great April Festival of the Cerealia, with its unique role for women devotees and its horrible ritual of setting fire to foxes. Temple life also threw up some characters who may recur.
The foxes gave me a chance to show Albia, that dog-lover from Britain, kicking against Roman tradition; she loathes the Cerialia ritual and is prepared to defy it quite bravely. As I have spent time observing urban foxes, I could draw on personal knowledge of these fascinating, controversial animals. Much of the fox lore is based on what I have seen in a garden I once had. I had other wild nature adventures there. Will Albia’s favourite dogfox, Robigo, become as noteworthy as Julia’s revived bee? Can I yet get Fledge, a mincemeat-eating baby bird, into a book?...
Albia was last seen going to live in Falco’s one-time apartment at Fountain Court. She is still there, which was good fun. Readers will recognise the rotting old place – yet Fountain Court has changed, and I enjoyed describing subtle differences, especially the hilarious new landlord with his grandiose plans for the plot. Up on the Aventine, I have given Albia her own circle of acquaintances, but I used some familiar characters, even if in new guises. Familiar locations feature: Flora’s caupona has a new lease of life, changed in the way that modern cafes will change, yet horribly the same. Don’t order the hotpot.
The murder plot is, for once, based on historical events. While I was writing Master and God, I came upon strange incidents that supposedly happened during Domitian’s reign: people in Rome and possibly elsewhere were killed after being attacked in a certain way (I won’t spoil the plot by giving details now). It reminded me somewhat of the notorious Mohuck episode in Georgian London, when people were attacked in the street, women especially but often victims chosen at random, giving rise to mass panic. The Mohucks were thought to be aristocratic thugs, possibly disgruntled husbands who were trying to keep their wives indoors at night (though does that explanation have a whiff of improbability?) Apparently no Mohucks were ever apprehended, but in Domitian’s Rome it is said that several of the criminals were caught and ‘punished’ (we can deduce how the punishment was carried out by the authorities…) I have used this scenario, giving Albia and some new cronies a chance to uncover one of the random killers. The final denouement will hold special poignancy for those of us who are old friends of Falco’s haunts.
In this book Albia encounters more than one of Domitian’s law and order officers – with often colourful results. It’s not easy for a woman in Rome to make useful associates, but she batters away at the problem and by the end of the first book she has acquired lasting allies, one in particular who will feature again.
I don’t yet know everyone who will be in this series or what will happen to them. If I did, it would be boring for me, and less fun to read. No, I have not planned out everything to the end of the series as people sometimes imagine authors do – I don’t even know how long the series will be. As a writer, I like things to develop as I go along. In The Ides of April I started to explore ideas, and by its end I had some plans – but Albia’s adventures are just as much a new journey for me as they are for you.
I hope when you start reading you will want to follow with me.
Enemies at Home will be the second Albia novel, to be published this time next year. Like the first, it is set in Rome, though this time it moves away from the Aventine. I have not decided yet whether Albia will eventually travel abroad, though she will not be going to Britain.
The second plot revolves around the guilt or innocence slaves in a household where the master and his new wife have been murdered in the course of a burglary… Well, so it seems. You need a few twists in a crime novel, don’t you? Quintus Camillus (remember him?) says ‘You know the proverbial answer: the cup-bearer did it.’ But we’ll see.
Before anybody asks, will Albia ever find out who her birth parents were? The answer is, absolutely not. I mean that. It is irrevocable. My thesis with Albia is that sometimes in life there are mysteries that can never be solved. Albia herself genuinely accepts this. She has made a new life for herself in Rome, it is much better than her early years in Londinium, and she is content. The fact that she has suffered gives her an understanding of other people’s tragedies, but the past no longer torments her. More mundane authors would provide a solution to her background, but that isn’t my way.
A Cruel Fate
Now for news of something completely different. I am also writing a very special novel for 2014. It is in a series called Quick Reads, which are books specially written for new adult readers and those who are less confident. This is what the organisers say about the project:
12 million adults in the UK find reading difficult and may never pick up a book. People’s reasons for not reading are varied but are often based in fear. Some people say they find books scary and intimidating, thinking they are ‘not for them’ or that books are difficult or boring.
Quick Reads sets out to challenge these beliefs and to show that books can be and are for everyone.
Each year we commission big name authors to write short, accessible books to literacy guidelines. The books are written in clear language and are full of the storylines, drama and emotional punch that would be found in the author’s other books.
Quick Reads is making real, lasting changes to people’s lives.
I was asked for a story set in the Civil War, so with great joy I am back in the Seventeenth Century, retelling what happened to various Parliamentary prisoners in the King’s prison at Oxford Castle in the winter of 1642/3. They were in the power of the appalling Provost Marshall Smith, whose regime was inhumane and degrading; many died. It has horrible resonance with modern news items about the treatment of prisoners-of-war.
After that… who knows? I hope you’ll read the next newsletter in a year’s time, eager to find out.
I will be interested to find out myself!