Monday, April 07, 2008

Clue for a Mini-Mystery

In March 2008, I gave a talk at the Museum of London (MOL), asking fans to help me find a Roman artefact which could be a clue for a new Mini-Mystery in my forthcoming collection, The Legionary from Londinium and Other Mini-Mysteries.

I particularly asked for artefacts or objects which could stand in for orange seeds in a Roman Mystery adaptation of The Five Orange Pips by Arthur Conan Doyle, a Sherlock Holmes mystery. (see my previous blog, below) I said I would look favourably on objects from the MOL and objects relating to Boudicca's revolt in AD 60.

I already had two ideas of my own in mind. First, pomegranate seeds: because in the myth of Persephone they represent death. Second, copper scales from a soldier's armour currently on display at the MOL. These would have been perfect: light and easy to send, found in Roman Londinium and dating to the revolt of Boudicca. But nobody suggested either pomegranate seeds or scales from a legionary's armour.

However, there were over thirty entries, all of them good some of them very inventive. Where people sent me more than one idea, I chose the one I liked best.

Here were some suggestions for objects which could be substituted for orange pips in my adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mystery:

Aisling: five grape seeds from grapes used to make wine
Clare: gold coin of Fortuna holding a rudder (like one in the MOL) which was paradoxically cursed!
Clement: blue glass beads, once belonging to Boudicca
Emily: five exotically coloured fish scales from a poisonous African fish that only Nubia recognizes
Otana: five barley grains (barley was sometimes used as a punishment for soldiers)
Sanne: five mosaic pieces, each with a letter which makes a secret message
Sarah: part of a jewelry set, the letters on the jewels spell Boudicca
Sebastian: five human teeth from a murder victim
Vera: a strand of Boudicca's hair which point to her murderer
Victoria: five scraps of papyrus (the mystery comes in the form of a letter from Britannia)

Some ideas for artefacts which could be clues to a different sort of crime included:

Alexia: gladiator's trident, a murder weapon
Alice: leather bikini bottom, found under Titus' mattress, from a murdered acrobat
Connie: iron strigil, used to cut off Lupus' ear from behind
Connor: a Roman spoon with traces of poison on it
David: coin broken in half each half given to twins separated at birth
Elizabeth: green glass bottle, which held deadly poison
Emilie: a statue, when you turn its hand a trap door opens, leading to captured children
Gigi: a goblet, with traces of dried blood showing it was used as a weapon
Harry: ten hairpins, found in the river Thames: murder weapon (ouch!)
Helen: forged Roman coins forging currency was a serious crime in Roman times
Helena: iron brooch of a dog, stolen from the Emperor Titus
Jonathan: jewel, the only clue left from a murder/robbery
Joshua: a mosaic, from a burned villa
Libby: pieces of lead waste (mined in the Mendip Hills) used as a blunt instrument
Roberta: a leather bikini bottoms from the body of a female acrobat who slandered the Emperor
Rosa: iron slave chain and shackle, the murderer strangled someone with it
Susie: brooch of hunting dog, which means 'I'm hunting you, murderer'
Tatiana: theatrical mask, it comes alive in Flavia's nightmare and is Pluto
Theo: a ring, which says 'Curse your riches, Titus'
Zachary: a hammer, dry blood on it, attempted murder weapon for Publius Pollius Felix because he kissed lots of girls

I love all the suggestions, especially five-year-old Rosa's idea of slave shackles used to strangle someone. (It made me think of the first murder in No Country for Old Men.) I also loved Helen's idea about counterfeiting coins, and may use that in a future mystery. And I was very tempted to use Zachary's bloodstained hammer to give that naughty Felix a well-deserved scare!

But in the end I went for Otana's Five Barley Grains. Although barley grains aren't strictly an artefact, there are some ancient Roman barley grains in the Roman exhibition at the MOL. Also, Otana didn't just suggest the barley grains and leave it there. She gave me two pages of back-up research, citing Roman authors, telling me why barley grains would be good. She taught me some things I didn't know about Roman legionaries. For example:

Soldiers who were bad or clumsy at drill were often punished by having their allowance given in barley rather than wheat.
Vegetius, De Re Militari book I

If a cohort exhibited misconduct or cowardice they were often 'decimated'. This means that every tenth man was beaten or killed. The remaining men received rations of barley instead of wheat and were ordered to encamp outside the camp on an unprotected spot... It was a public disgrace for a soldier to receive barley rations.
Polybius, Histories fragment of book VI

Barley bread was much used in earlier days but has been condemned by experience, and barley is now mostly fed to animals.
Pliny the Elder, Nat Hist

Barley Grains could therefore be a perfect substitute for Orange Pips in The Legionary from Londinium. To an ordinary person they would seem harmless and inoffensive, but to a soldier they would mean disgrace and punishment and could easily tie in with Boudicca's revolt. So I am going to use Otana's idea.

Thanks to all the entrants, who will each get a signed copy of The Code of Romulus.

Well done to the three honourable mentions - Rosa, Helen and Zachary - who will each get a signed version of The Legionary from Londinium when it comes out next year.

Contratulations to Otana! She will get a Roman Mysteries tee-shirt, a signed copy of The Legionary from Londinium and of course her idea will appear in the book itself, with a credit to her.

Thanks also to Sandra Hedblad and the MOL for hosting this event.

And thanks to all who attended! Keep reading and writing!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How to Write a Mystery

How to Write a Mystery

right: Roman spoons. Could one be a clue to a mystery?

On Sunday 16 March I did a workshop at the Museum of London, asking fans to help me find some clues for my next collection of mini-mysteries. The new collection of Roman Mysteries short stories is going to be called The Legionary from Londinium. At least two stories will be set in Roman Britain. Here is the essence of my talk:

My name is Caroline Lawrence. I am the author of a series of books set in first century Rome. They are history/mystery novels for children aged 8 – 12.

My main character is Flavia Gemina, a highborn Roman girl whose mother died in childbirth and whose father is often away at sea. Flavia is the leader of the group. She is extremely bright and confident. She is a truth-seeker and hates injustice. Flavia is also bossy and impulsive. These two qualities often get her into trouble. But deep down she is kind-hearted and just wants everyone to be happy.

Flavia’s best friend is her slave-girl Nubia. She is the faithful sidekick. Most slaves in Roman times weren’t from Africa, but Nubia is. Whereas Flavia is good with her head, Nubia is good with her heart. She is good at sensing when people are good or evil. She is also very gifted with animals. And she is musical. Like the mythological hero Orpheus, she can sometimes calm wild animals with her music.

Jonathan is Flavia’s Jewish next door neighbour. He is the funny one. He speaks four languages and can recite all the psalms. He is good at hunting and also at inventing things. But Jonathan is a pessimist and often looks on the dark side of life. He also suffers from asthma, which means he can’t always keep up with the others.

Lupus is a mute beggar-boy whom they first see in the necropolis outside the walls of Ostia. He is an orphan, and mute, for his tongue was cut out when he was only six years old. Once he learns to trust the other three, he becomes a valuable ally in their investigations. Lupus is good at being sneaky. He can follow people and eavesdrop on them. He is also good at disguising himself and hiding in small places. He is the wild one.

My original idea was to write a story where the four friends are in Pompeii, trying to solve a mystery, when Vesuvius erupts. Then I decided to write another book first, one which would introduce the characters and their world. And because it was to be a series of mystery stories, I started out The Thieves of Ostia with a mini-mystery at the beginning to introduce Flavia the Detective.

'Flavia Gemina solved her first mystery on the Ides of June in the tenth year of the Emperor Vespasian.'

So begins The Thieves of Ostia. Flavia’s father has lost his precious signet ring. He is a sea captain, and needs it to seal important documents and letters. It also has sentimental value because it was a gift from his dead wife, Flavia’s mother.

Flavia is determined to find his ring. She sees a bird's inky footprint on a sheet of papyrus and then spots a magpie in the fig tree. From these clues, she deduces that the bird is the thief. She devises a clever plan: she will leave something shiny on the desk. If the bird takes the bait, she will follow him to his nest and retrieve any other objects he might have stolen. The magpie takes the silver chain she has left and flies off. Flavia follows him out of the safety of her house into the necropolis, the city of the dead. She almost loses sight of the magpie, but finally sees him popping up out of an old oak tree. Flavia waits for him to fly off again, then scrambles up the tree. Sure enough, there is his stash. And not only does she find her father’s missing signet ring. She finds a beautiful gold earring worth a small fortune.

The real mystery of the book is introduced a few chapters later when Jonathan’s dog Bobas is murdered. Again Flavia must rely on clues like a quartz dice, drops of blood and the portrait of a man etched on a wax tablet. She and her friends interview witnesses and follow culprits. Eventually Flavia uses her deductive powers to solve the case.

In the seven years since The Thieves of Ostia was first published, I have written fourteen more full length mysteries and seven short mysteries. People often ask me how I come up with so many ideas and in such a short time.

I have lots of good writing secrets and am going to share two of my best with you today. And in return, you are going to help me, because I have a problem.

Before I tell you my problem, let me tell you two of my best secrets to writing a good story.

Anybody who has children of reading age - or has taught children - knows they won’t abide a boring plot. That’s why I like children’s books, too. The best ones are lean and fast and carry you breathlessly along.

When I first started writing, I couldn’t create a good plot to save my life. I took writing courses, read books, talked to other writers... Then one day a friend told me about a Hollywood screenwriter named John Trubywho offered an audio course on plot structure. As soon as I heard the first tape of his Story Structure course, I knew it was exactly what I needed. John Truby lists 22 plot steps which can make up a good story and 7 basic steps which make up every good story. Here is my version of his basic steps or ‘plot beats’:

Secret One - Good Plot Structure

1. Problem – your main character (X) has a problem
2. Desire – X wants something which will solve his problem
3. The Opponent – someone else (Y) wants something which will bring him into conflict with X
4. The Plan – X devises a plan to overcome Y, get the object of his desire and solve his problem
5. The Battle – X and Y fight over the desired object
6. Knowledge – whether X wins or loses the battle, he learns something important
7. New Level – X has either solved his problem or is worse off than before, i.e. either happy or sad ending.

This is all very simplified, but you can see how useful and effective such a structure could be. Structure this simple keeps you on track but allows plenty of scope for creativity. And you don’t have to stick to it slavishly. Like a road map, it merely points you in the right direction. It's up to you which detours and side roads you take.

Here is the 7-beat Plot Structure in a detective novel:
1. Problem – someone brings a mystery to the detective
2. Desire – the detective wants to solve the mystery
3. The Opponent – is hidden in a detective story
4. The Plan – investigation and surveillance, looking for clues
5. The Battle – the detective confronts the suspect, or sets a trap
6. Knowledge – the truth is revealed
7. New Level – the detective solves the crime or fails to solve it

In a mystery story, there has usually been a crime and there is a usually hidden opponent. These steps apply to him, too. If you are writing a detective story or mystery, you have to think of them.

Opponent’s plan
1. Someone has a problem
2. They want something
3. Their opponent is usually the law or an authority figure
4. Their plan usually involves breaking the law
5. They commit the crime
6. They usually do not learn anything
7. They are happy if they succeed but…

...something usually goes wrong. Then the steps are:
1. problem - someone is onto them!
2. desire - they have to keep their identity and/or crime hidden
3. opponent - the detective and/or the person who suspects them
4. plan - they often try to eliminate those who suspect them
5. battle - they confront the detective
6. knowledge - they usually learn they haven’t got away with it
7. new level – usually a lower level, as those who break the law should be

So you the author have to come up with the opponent’s original plan and crime and also work out the detective’s plan to uncover the crime and the opponent. Part of the detective’s plan, as I mentioned, is looking for clues which point to the identity of the culprit. The detective looks for objects which are out of place or being used in a strange way. He relies on sight, touch, taste, smell and symmetry, or lack of it.

Some artefacts I’ve used in my books include real Roman artefacts: a signet ring, quartz dice, volcanic rock, oil lamp, wax tablet, sponge stick, strigil and bottle, chariot beaker, lead curse tablets, etc…

Some I haven’t used yet can be seen in the Roman galleries of the Museum of London: key ring, coins, green glass bottle for fish sauce, iron slave shackles, bone pipe, gaming pieces, little votive figures of animals or gods and a leather bikini bottom, perhaps for a girl acrobat!

My other secret for coming up with plot lines or scenes is this: I steal.

Secret Two – Steal ideas

My favourite artist, Pablo Picasso, said ‘Good artists copy. Great artists steal.’

In the beginning of The Thieves of Ostia, I got the idea for the thieving magpie from Postman Pat.

In The Assassins of Rome, I adapted a Garfield cartoon in the opening scene about whether a cup is 'half full or half empty'.

In The Enemies of Jupiter, I got the idea for the culprit from reading an Agatha Christie mystery called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Of course by taking these ideas and setting them in Roman times with Flavia, Jonathan, Nubia and Lupus, they become very different. This is how most writers work, more or less. They take a good idea and adapt it to their own story.

I often steal ideas from the Greek myths and from Latin authors. For that reason some of the things that happen in my books really happened. Like a rabbit facing a lion in the arena. Or the plague and fire in Rome a month or two before the grand opening of the Colosseum.

The trick is never to steal whole chunks of a story, but just the ideas. Then modify the ideas a little to fit your own story. If you steal word for word then you can be sued. But if you steal ideas from lots of different places, and if you tweak those ideas, then you should be safe. Also, you are pretty safe if you steal from ancient authors and mythology.

And now for my problem.

My Problem

My next volume of short stories will be called The Legionary from Londinium. I’ve promised my publishers (and the Museum of London) that I will set some of the stories in Roman Britain. But I have a problem. My books take place in real time over the two and a half years of Titus’s rule, between June of AD 79 and September of AD 81. I have always intended their final case to be about the mysterious death of Titus on 13 September AD 81. Was his death natural? Or was he murdered? If he was murdered, by whom and why?

In July AD 81 my four detectives will be in Turkey, trying to break a slave ring. There is no way they can sail to Britannia to solve some mysteries and be back in Rome by mid September. So how can I have a Roman Mysteries short story set in Britannia?

In one of my other short stories, 'The Case of the Missing Coin', a girl call Pandora brings Flavia a problem. Someone has stolen a gold coin from her small bedroom. But her father won’t allow any visitors. So how can Flavia investigate? Pandora has to describe the room, and Flavia has to imagine herself there. The plan works. Flavia solves the crime at long distance.

I was reading some Sherlock Holmes short stories and in one of them, a young man brings the great detective a case which started in America. But Holmes doesn’t go to America. He doesn’t even leave his study. I thought I could do the same thing. Then I had an even better idea. I would steal the plot of the Sherlock Holmes short story I liked and make Flavia the detective and set it in first century Ostia. The story is called 'The Five Orange Pips'. You can read it in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or also online at Project Gutenberg for free.

An orange pip is a seed. I liked the story because a man opens a letter and when five orange seeds fall out he goes pale and recoils in terror. I love the idea of something as harmless as orange pips striking terror into the heart of a grown man. But the Romans didn't really know oranges, so I would have to have something instead of orange pips. I decided to go through, beat by beat, and change the story into a Roman Mystery.

The Five Orange Pips
The Five _________?

A young man, John Openshaw, brings a case to Sherlock Holmes.
A young man, Gaius, brings a case to Flavia Gemina.

John’s father Joseph was a wealthy businessman
Gaius’ father Lucius was a merchant of the equestrian class.

John's uncle Elias emigrated to America and fought in Jackson’s army
Gaius's uncle Marcus was serving in Britannia.

Some years ago Elias – a colonel – suddenly returned to England
Ten years ago Marcus – a legionary – suddenly returned to Rome.

John was living with his uncle and noticed strange behaviour.
Gaius was living with his uncle and noticed strange behaviour.

His uncle rarely went into Horsham but stayed on his estate.
His uncle rarely went into Rome but stayed in his villa.

His uncle played backgammon and draughts with John.
His uncle played board games with Gaius.

He let John deal with the servants in the running of the household.
He let Gaius deal with his slaves in the running of the villa.

His uncle has a room which always remains locked.
His uncle has a strongbox which always remains locked.

One day the uncle gets a letter from India.
One day the uncle gets a letter from Gaul.

The letter has the letters KKK inscribed on it and five orange seeds inside.
The letter has the Greek letter theta scrawled in blue woad and five _________? inside.

These seemingly inoffensive objects terrify his uncle.
These seemingly inoffensive objects terrify his uncle.


As I write this story, I will use the basic steps but will change the details. The whole style of the story will change. For example, there are two long paragraphs of preamble before Conan Doyle even begins. Then his story starts like this:

'It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand- made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage. As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney. Sherlock Holmes sat moodily at one side of the fireplace cross-indexing his records of crime, while I at the other was deep in one of Clark Russell's fine sea-stories until the howl of the gale from without seemed to blend with the text, and the splash of the rain to lengthen out into the long swash of the sea waves. My wife was on a visit to her mother's, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street.'

I might give my story a much faster, simpler start:

'It was a dark and stormy night in the Roman port of Ostia, and Flavia Gemina was in a bad mood.'

Already I have changed it from 1st person to 3rd person and made it much simpler. I have also ‘played’ with the idea of using Snoopy’s very cliché but effective opening line: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ Incidentally, that is the opening line of another one of my favourite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. But it was originally penned by a Victorian author called Edward Bulwer-Lytton who wrote a book called The Last Days of Pompeii. In fact, the phrase ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ even has its own entry on Wikipedia!

Here is Snoopy's whole novel:

'It Was A Dark And Stormy Night by Snoopy
Part I
It was a dark and stormy night.
Suddenly, a shot rang out!
A door slammed. The maid screamed.
Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon!
While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up.
Part II
A light snow was falling, and the little girl with the tattered shawl had not sold a violet all day.
At that very moment, a young intern at City Hospital was making an important discovery. The mysterious patient in Room 213 had finally awakened. She moaned softly.
Could it be that she was the sister of the boy in Kansas who loved the girl with the tattered shawl who was the daughter of the maid who had escaped from the pirates?
The intern frowned.
"Stampede!" the foreman shouted, and forty thousand head of cattle thundered down on the tiny camp.
The two men rolled on the ground grappling beneath the murderous hooves.
A left and a right. A left. Another left and right. An uppercut to the jaw. The fight was over. And so the ranch was saved.
The young intern sat by himself in one corner of the coffee shop.
He had learned about medicine, but more importantly, he had learned something about life.

But let's get back to my problem, and how you can help me.

Your task is to find something which could stand in for the five orange pips. Something from Roman Britain. It can’t be orange pips, because oranges were unknown in Roman times. But it could be another type of food. In the Roman galleries in the Museum of London, you will find green beans, grains, mustard, walnuts, cucumber, plums, figs, hazelnuts, cherries, grapes, shells, fish and chicken. But your clue doesn’t have to be food. It could be anything which has meaning and is light enough to send in a letter. Use your imagination (or steal an idea) to think how.

Also, you could find a different Roman artefact which could be a clue for a completely different Roman Mystery. Just tell me what the artefact is and how it could be a clue to a crime.

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]