Writing The Falco Series by Lindsey Davis
I have been writing now for over fifteen years, though it has passed in a
flash. I always wanted to write historical novels, which were what I primarily
read as a girl, but I never intended to cover the Romans. My interest was the
political history of England in the Seventeeth Century and I did begin my
published career with romantic serials about the Civil War for 'Woman's Realm'.
The Romans came later - first the love story of the Emperor Vespasian as seen
through the eyes of his mistress Antonia Caenis in 'The Course of Honour'
and then my Roman detective, Marcus Didius Falco. Falco began as something of a
joke: would it be possible to place a forties-style private eye two thousand
years ago? Rome at that time seemed an ideal alternative to the big metropolitan
settings of so may 'gumshoe' novels - a huge, dangerous, colourful city that saw
itself as the centre of the world. It was full of characters on the make - and
really did have men called 'informers', who hid behind pillars listening for
information they could sell, or who actually took people to court in order to
receive compensation like modern 'ambulance chasers'.
So Falco was born, a wise-cracking cynic, originally struggling hard to make
his living in a grim topfloor apartment above a decidedly mean street. There he
waited for people to bring him jobs he didn't want for which they probably
wouldn't pay him; his calling was despised and dangerous, his rewards very
uncertain. More recently he has come up in the world, for the stories are not
formulaic and this gives me scope to investigate wider aspects of Roman life.
Now he runs a kind of detective agency in Rome, in between acting as an overseas
agent for the Emperor in various Roman provinces. He has worked in modern Spain,
Syria and Libya - and several times in Britain. The stories have included
'police procedurals', a serial killer hunt, a classic whodunnit with a body in
the library, and thriller-style adventures. 'The Accusers' revolves
around courtroom drama, while 'Scandal Takes a Holiday' has a seaside
location with a missing person hunt.
AD 70 was a lucky choice in several ways. I tapped into the huge interest
people have in this period and there is a lot of material in the field of
archaeology, my personal starting point for much of the background and some of
the plots. In the past decade or so many more fascinating things have been
discovered, especially in London, which I featured recently in 'The Jupiter
Myth'. It is such a wonderful time to write about that I am never short of
ideas. If Rome itself fails me, there are all those different provinces,
including several exciting ones where I have yet to take my characters. I myself
try to visit Rome at least once a year to keep my inspiration up-to-date, and I
sometimes go to other Roman places in the year as well. There are many wonderful
museums featuring the period; as well as the National Museum in Naples, a
favourite is at St Germain en Laye near Paris. I am an addict of archaeological
sites, which do so much to put it all into perspective.
Sometimes you have to use a lot of imagination, if only foundations are left,
but at the best you are transported back in time. My favourite in Britain is
Fishbourne Roman Palace at Chichester, to which I was able to devote a whole
book ('A Body in the Bath House'). In Italy I love Pompeii and
Herculaneum, of course, and often visit in November when they are almost
deserted. For me, the most astonishing site there is the enormous seaside villa,
thought to have belonged to Nero's wife Poppea, at Oplontis. I am particularly
fond of the remains of the port at Ostia, near Rome, where 'Scandal Takes a
Holiday' has just been set.
Where next? I am working on that - literally!
Copyright © 2004 Lindsey Davis
Digging The Dirt With Falco by Lindsey Davis
Didius Falco has never been a text-based 'tec. It wouldn't suit him, and to
be honest it wouldn't suit me. I struggled with the classics. When I started
writing fiction about the ancient world, I did seek inspiration back with the
Latin authors - Martial and Juvenal, Horace, Ovid, Virgil, with Tacitus and
Josephus for period history, especially the lives of Caenis and Vespasian in 'The
Course of Honour'. But instinctively I look first to archaeology.
This goes right back to a school Archaeological Society. Ah, the thrill of
sitting in darkened rooms - with boys! - as we scrutinised slideshows of
excavated post-holes; post-holes that were often rather hard to discern, I fear.
I diced with travel-sickness as we went by coach on field trips to the Roman
cities of Chester, Lincoln and York. My home town of Birmingham never featured,
and nor at that time did London. Although something has always been known of
Londinium, there were serious gaps, some of which are now being filled in most
exciting ways. Changes in legislation during my lifetime have encouraged big
developers to report archaeological finds, and allow them to be excavated; much
of Roman London lies under the 'City' - the modern financial quarter, where
expensive offices are constantly being rebuilt - to the benefit of archaeology.
The very existence of an arena was unknown, until a recent dig at Guildhall Yard
exposed curiously curved stretches masonry which were recognised as the classic
ovoid of an amphitheatre.
Discoveries like this prompted me to set 'The Jupiter Myth' in
London. I could take advantage of the fact that many of my characters were in
Britain at the end of my previous book 'A Body in the Bath House'.
Historically, Julius Frontinus, who had played a key role in 'Three Hands in
the Fountain' would now be the provincial governor, backed up by my own
invention, and old favourite, Flavius Hilaris, the good civil servant. The arena
would have been newly constructed (its timbers have been dated, fortunately, so
we know this) and I could also explore another intriguing find of recent years.
Many of us In England had seen press reports of the 'bustum' burial in Southwark,
just south of the Thames. It contained the bones of a fit young woman and rich
finds, some associated with the arena, leading to claims that this was
'Britain's first female gladiator'. Well, local archaeologists think that is
unlikely, but it was too sexy, in every sense, to ignore completely. I see no
point in bending the facts as we know them, but an author of fiction can explore
the idea. Who my 'Amazonia' is you must discover from the book - but she goes
right back to 'The Silver Pigs' - and she's trouble!
As for Milo's waterwheel, that was discovered right at the point when I was
writing that chapter - the Museum of London archaeologists were amazed that I
had managed to put it in. They are now preparing a technical book about the
waterwheels, which are unprecedented finds - and they have asked
permission to quote my description of how a treadmill version may have worked!
Archaeology has given me a few headaches over the years. I survived the sheer
terror of descending into the still active Great Sewer under the Forum of Nerva
in Rome, wearing a plastic mac, wellies, and Marigold washing-up gloves to fend
off Weil's Disease (which is born in rats' pee and is frequently fatal). I have
choked on a grain of rice in Libya, while my companions, unaware of the gravity
of my plight (or so I tell myself), light-heartedly discussed how Agatha
Christie's booksales went up immediately she died... I have bitten back
frustration, looking at the fine stone theatres in Syria, knowing they were too
late for me, and that because they are so fine, nobody has ever explored what
earlier versions might have been on the spot. I have eaten Roman food (and not
choked). I have been greeted by knobby-kneed centurions in cardboard armour and
spectacles, and have not fled but have taken the opportunity to research the
fact that the ear-protectors on their helmets made them a bit deaf.
London had its own awkwardness. Key Roman features like the fort and the
bridge still have tantalising question marks. There was simply not space in my
story to include Greenwich, where I live, despite a recent TV programme about
its temple complex and the route of Watling Street. Then to describe a city
vividly in a novel involves more than just positioning its buildings on a map.
Archaeology tells me from their relics what kind of people were present: the
governor, the army, the customs service, then potters and glass-makers,
bar-keepers and wine-importers, sellers of fresh food and fast food. Historians
vouch for the trade in hunting dogs and the Vespasianic influx of those
supposedly civilising lawyers. Poets applaud Rutupiae oysters.
It would be a plodding old novel that simply stated these people were here.
My task is to imagine the colour of their lives and how they felt about the
province of Britain, which was new in the Empire and ripe for exploitation, yet
where the Boudiccan Revolt had shown Rome's presence to be both tenuous and
perhaps pointless. For this, the spirit of the place, my inspiration came not
from archaeology but a very unlikely source. I had been invited to be guest of
honour at a mystery convention in Anchorage, Alaska. Now I shall never be able
to put Falco in a frozen landscape, face to face with a large moose (such a
pity!) But Anchorage is perceived to be, and I think perceives itself to be,
what local folk call 'the end of the road' - the place where all the people who
are travelling to 'find' themselves finally come to a stop because there is
nowhere else to go. I recognised at once that this could be my starting point
for Londinium. The conversation between Falco and Silvanus in Caesar's Bar grew
directly from that idea: it gave me the city based on archaeological fact but
with a human context. It is a city of both drifters and entrepreneurs, far-flung
but up-and-coming, attracting not just worthy pioneers but the crazy and
feckless - and all sorts of exploiters and extortionists.
Archaeology rarely gives us pointers to crimelords and their gangs. But then,
really successful gangsters don't leave evidence of their crimes...
Copyright © Lindsey Davis 2003