Where do ideas come from?
An e-fireside chat between two published authors
Don’t tell the wife, but I have a monthly e-tryst with a lovely group of female historical fiction authors. They’re all better than me and they all know much more about the periods in which they specialise.
A recent spin-off came about during an off-piste conversation with one of them, Jacquie Rogers, about finding great ideas and what to do with them in terms of research to make the story credible. It began like this:
ME: Remember Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame? She once said that great ideas float in the wind and pass fleetingly into our minds. Catch it, she said, while it’s there. Examine it, probe it, ask it what it’s doing there and if it has knocked at the wrong door, politely let it go. If it feels right, make use of it. I think she was saying an idea is looking for a home and if you’re too busy to bother, it will move on to the next person.
JACQUIE: Spooky, but exactly what I’ve come to expect of you! As it happens, I’m often asked, ‘Where do you get your writing ideas from?’ as if there is an ideas mine and all we writers need to do is dig.
I think there’s a nugget of truth in both these images. I find ideas are most likely to float nearby when I’m in the right enriched environment. The purposeful entering of that right environment works every time. Like you, I write Roman historical stories. Surrounding myself with the ghosts of our Roman ancestors, preferably in the places they lived, as recorded by their contemporaries wherever possible, does the trick for me.
ME: I’ve read two of your Quintus Valerius mysteries [The Governor’s Man and The Carnelian Phoenix, the former centred on third century Roman Britain]. Where did you find the inspiration? Was it an Elizabeth Gilbert moment?
JACQUIE: Well, kind of, it was an idea that took its time to form! Some years ago we lived in a small village in Somerset. I’ve always loved history and found myself at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton. My attention was caught by the Roman gallery there, and especially by the Shapwick Hoard, a glittering pile of over 9,000 silver coins that had recently been found by metal detectorists in the Polden Hills. The hoard had been carefully buried under the floor of a large, hitherto unknown villa, which had suffered a major fire in AD 224.
ME: Aha, I can see that would fire up the imagination, if you’ll excuse the pun. Something similar happened for me when I moved to Spain and found myself living on the site of an ancient battle I had hitherto paid no attention to. I know what I did with this nugget, one thing leads to another, so what happened when you found your little gem?
JACQUIE: A few miles north, at Charterhouse near Cheddar, are the spectacular remains of silver/lead mines that were exploited from the Bronze Age right through to Victorian times. These mines were known to the Romans, who made a beeline for them under then-General Vespasian at the time of the invasion. Lead from these mines has been found all around the Roman empire. Here’s the catch: silver and gold always remained the personal property of the emperor. Very near Charterhouse a lead ingot, now on display in the British Museum, was found. The ingot had been fraudulently stamped in Roman times as having the silver extracted from the lead, when in fact the silver was actually still there.
So not one but three ideas: a hidden Roman hoard, a villa ruined by fire, a mining fraud – all floated past me at roughly the same time. My subconscious did the job of linking them together into a mystery. But if I hadn't gone to the museums in a curious mood, and then dug more into the history and archaeology of that place and period, the book would never have been born.
ME: I suspect you had a head start on me, not least because you came at your research from an existing base whereas my background is journalism, an enquiring mind, yes, but switching from murder in Cardiff to political shenanigans in the Home Counties. But we still come back to the way ideas come to us and what we do with them subsequently.
JACQUIE: I have an academic background, which helps me research and build my Roman world for readers. For me the research process is cyclical, and it’s those floating ideas which dictate the initial round of fact-finding.
For example, in The Governor’s Man I needed a character with the motivation and clout to investigate the theft of the emperor’s silver. I knew the Romans had no direct equivalent of our civilian police forces. So who would do the detecting? My initial research quickly led me to the Hellenic and Roman Library in London; the papers and books I borrowed from there helped me create my series protagonist, Quintus Valerius. Quintus becomes a senior investigator from a real body of officers set up by Hadrian, known as the beneficiariate. They were headquartered in Rome but stationed for long periods round the fringes of empire. For my purposes Quintus needed to be an Italian officer sent to Britain. There he would inevitably be working with local soldiers, who by this time were mostly native-born in a country that had no living memory of pre-Roman times. But would they have also forgotten their Iron Age British cultural roots?
ME: I am so envious. You spend hours in libraries and museums, while I as a beachcomber living in far-flung places rely on dodgy internet connections to research online. Although I should mention my wife’s stunning library that has provided many hours of amazement that she should have bought so many helpful books before I even met her. It was meant to be! But you were on to something, so what did you do next?
JACQUIE: My discoveries triggered a second, longer stage of research, including site visits to uncover what it was like to be a Roman Briton at that time. What languages would they speak, how would they dress, eat what food, what gods were worshipped, how did they feel about being ruled from Rome? The questions go on and on. I went to famous places like the sacred spring and baths of Aquae Sulis (Bath), Cirencester (how far was the amphitheatre from the east gate?), the length of the Fosse Way. And less well-known sites: the Roman ferry crossing of the Severn at Aust (were the cliff-faces there really striped in multi-coloured rock? Answer: yes!); a little town that in Roman towns had been a port, Crandon Bridge, now landlocked; the Roman docks of modern Sea Mills, in Bristol. I searched in vain for the forum in the Roman civitas of Lindinis, now the village-sized town of Ilchester (probably under the parish church — but we may never know).
A pivotal piece of research for my developing story was also the latest — the discovery of a palatial building in Southwark, which just might have been the offices and home of the Procurator, the financial controller of the province.
ME: Makes me feel somewhat static! But excuse me for interjecting so rudely to tell you about a moment of inspiration that arrived, heaven forfend, in a pub in Shropshire. My chum Bob Donaldson (himself a non-fiction author) has this alarming hobby based around secret codes. Not just cracking them but creating them. He even went as far as to create a modern version of the Enigma Code. Several pints in and that Elizabeth Gilbert moment landed – he mentioned the Caesar Cipher. Yup, the earliest known encryption method of substituting letters of the alphabet for others further along the line. I clung to that thought and the Agents of Rome novella trilogy duly emerged.
JACQUIE: Sometimes a line of research can even spark ideas for a new series. Finding out about Roman cargo ships and commercial shipping routes far beyond the Mediterranean for my second book, The Carnelian Phoenix, certainly captivated me. I created two new characters I might gift with their own adventures one day!
ME: Ah, ships and sailing. Father was an RN Commander and an avid reader of Forester’s Hornblower and the likes of Patrick O’Brian, and in homage I have sworn to take my protagonists to sea at every opportunity. They are always inventive enough to out-manoeuvre other vessels of their time, even create new shipboard weaponry. Such fun combining research with a large pinch of enthusiastic creativity!
I see we’re about to be timed out of our e-fireside chat, Jacquie, but there’s just time to sum up. What’s your take on the writer’s life?
JACQUIE: Writing is a lonely business, especially for historical writers, who by default spend most of their time communing with dead people. So the company of other writers has become essential for me. These are the only people who get it (apart from the long-suffering Him Indoors, who chauffeurs me on our motorbike around Roman sites and museums all over Europe).
Some five years ago I discovered the wonderful Swanwick Writers' Summer school, the longest-running residential event of its kind in the world, I believe. I’m already mentally packing for my first post-Covid stay there this August.
Since I’ve been published, I’ve discovered a range of brilliant writers’ groups, from professional associations like the Crime Writer’s Association and Historical Writers Association, to the essential Society of Authors, who do such a terrific job as the trade union for authors. There are many others, on- and offline. Perhaps the most positive have been the informal groupings I’ve joined with other like-minded writers, both local and scattered across the country. A regular Zoom catch-up with author friends like you, Alistair, over a glass of wine just about keeps me sane!
ME: I’ve never done a book signing or a talk to a book club. With my other jobs and living remotely, and being the shy retiring sort, it’s just never happened. Besides, I’m terrified of being caught out with a historical error, but then in my experience most readers just want a good yarn and accept that we’re writing fiction, after all. I’ve rehearsed my response should a crusty professor challenge me: ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story’…
I know that you are a tireless researcher and a warm and friendly soul, so what’s your experience?
JACQUIE: The company of my readers, both live and electronic, is the most thrilling part of my job. Recently I gave a talk hosted by my local indie bookshop. My subject was What we thought we knew about the Romans… but perhaps didn't, and drew directly on my research. The presentation itself was fun and clearly people enjoyed it, but the thrill for me was having forty people turn out on a dank evening of freezing fog to ask loads of questions about my characters, my research and my writing. These people believe in what I do, they tell me how much they enjoy it, and want more of it.
In these day of derisory royalties, the real compensation is the moment a reader comes up and asks where I’m sending my characters in the next book. The answer will usually involve snatching at floating ideas and turning them into the world of the next book, right there in front of a reader.
It doesn't get better than that!
Catch up with Jacquie and delve into her brilliant historical fiction:
Catch up with my writing here.
Watch this space for news and chat from the Alderney Literary Festival in March 2023, featuring established and debut authors in the world of historical writing. Barely any tickets remain but if you’re quick you can soak up the atmosphere on this amazing island in the English Channel…