24th January 2019
A belated Happy New Year, everyone! New Year, lots more reading opportunities! I hope you haven’t used up all your Christmas Book tokens and vouchers! An Author’s Mind has yet another cracking story for you! This month we are exploring the writing processes of author Zara Altair. Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in ancient Ostrogoth Italy. A mystery fan and history buff since childhood, she fell in love with Italy on one brief visit. Welcome, Zara!
Zara: Elizabeth, it’s a pleasure to be here on your site and talk to your readers. Thank you for the invitation. An Author’s Mind is a place of imagination.
Lizzie: Thank you for that! Now to business! In your own reading, what first draws you into a book?
Zara: What a great question. For me, it’s the blurb and the first few pages of the book. I want to know if the book is something I will enjoy reading. So, the blurb tells me if the story is within my reading spectrum. Then I look at the author’s writing style because I will be with the story for a while. Do I jump right into the story? Does the main character have a personality that is readily apparent? The main way a cover influences me is that the author cares enough about the book to have a professional looking cover. That indicates the overall professional approach to the book.
Lizzie: And now, could you tell us about the novel you want to talk about today – briefly, with no spoilers?
Zara: Certainly. Several threads run through the story of The Roman Heir – a naïve teenager; a sister with secrets; a corrupt patrician. And it’s down to Argolicus to unravel them. When Argolicus leaves Rome to retire to his estate in southern Italy, his powerful friend Boethius asks a small favor, deliver a book to a young man in Ostia. When he arrives in the dying resort town, he finds chaos and sorrow in the villa. The young book lover’s father was viciously murdered just hours before and the young man asks Argolicus for help.
Lizzie: How do you build your world?
Zara: Because the genre is historical fiction, I have a generous amount of background research about the civil, political, and social structure of early 6th Century Italy. But each story has its own world. The Roman Heir is set is Ostia at a time when it has lost most of its prestige. The big port of Portus is across the river and the town remains as a “seaside” resort for wealthy Romans. I had to do research about the town at this time, the social customs in Rome, and because the murder victim trades in goods, background on warehousing, distribution, and safekeeping. People are people no matter when they exist, so creating the characters is much easier for me than collecting all the details of the world around the characters.
Lizzie: When writing, do you like to plan in detail or set up a situation and see where it takes your characters?
Zara: A bit of both. I have an overall plan for the story and each chapter. The plan assures me that I am planting clues early on and developing the suspects in the mystery and a way the leads readers on. I have notes for each chapter so it fits into the overall story structure. But, once I start writing characters do and say things that I had not planned. Those surprises make the story more interesting for me and for the reader.
Lizzie: They say all fiction is autobiographical. What is the most significant event/setting for you personally in the story and why?
Zara: For every writer, his or her work holds bits and pieces of life and the people we meet: Characters, based on people encountered decades ago, or a sense of smell from a trip. I spent years teaching writing and, in this novel, the young man, Philo, is based on an exceptional high school student. The protagonist, Argolicus, has the reasoned determination of my son. Members of my writing group who know him have said more than once, “I can hear him saying that.” The setting in Ostia with the muddy marsh plants is based on years of rambling by the ocean. And as a sailor, the ships in the harbor and the boat journey to the harbor are direct experiences of being on board.
Lizzie: Could you lose yourself in this novel’s world? Why?
Zara: Oh, I hope so. I want readers to have a sense of the characters moving through the homes and streets, the harbor and the forum so the world feels natural to the characters.
Lizzie: How do you research a novel? How do you include what you learn?
Zara: For the series, The Argolicus Mysteries, I have done a lot of reading, travel to Italy specifically to interview history professors for more background and serendipitous finds. Each story has a specific focus. In The Roman Heir I researched shipping, and the details of Ostia and Portus at the time. I include the details as the characters move through the story. Every story includes about 20 per cent of the research details I accumulate. The broad background is important because I don’t know what specific details I will use until I am writing.
Lizzie: Is there an important theme (or themes) that this story illustrates?
Zara: Mystery always includes the theme of how little we understand other people. Argolicus peels back layers of revelation about a murder victim. The revelations lead him to the murderer. In this story, the theme is the secrets people try hide, reveal themselves in unexpected ways.
Lizzie: What does this novel tell you about the difference between fiction and non-fiction?
Zara: The allure of mysteries comes from a puzzle solution. Whether a reader discovers the perpetrator before the mystery’s sleuth, solving the puzzle is the attraction. In life we face disappointments, frustrations, fears, and disasters but a mystery can put together all the pieces because it is a work of fiction. In real life, not all puzzles are solved. We have to live with not knowing. I have known three people who were murdered at different times and none of these murders have been solved.
Lizzie: What comes next?
Zara: I am excited about the next Argolicus Mystery, The Grain Merchant. It’s a full-length novel which gives me room to play with more themes – social unrest, political intrigue, and slavery. Argolicus moves from his villa in the country to open the old family home in town. He is immediately drawn into local politics and a murder that could have many reasons.
Lizzie: How far along are you with your new project?
Zara: I am raising funds for editing and book cover creation on Kickstarter. The project is selected by Kickstarter as a Project We Love. I’d love for your readers to check it out. This is my first crowdfunding experience, and it is involved and intense. Readers can visit it by the link below.
Thank you, Elizabeth!
Lizzie: Thank you for your insightful responses! And we’re pleased to know The Argolicus Mysteries is an ongoing series.
If you’d like to know more about Zara Altair, find her on her website.
You can also follow her on:
If you want to dip into The Argolicus Mysteries, try Google Play Books for both print and audio versions.
And, if you’d like to investigate – and perhaps invest in – Zara Altair‘s crowdfunding project for The Grain Merchant, see Kickstarter .