Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Writing Historical Mysteries by Mary Reed

It's said the devil is in the details, and for the historical mystery writer it can be a devilish job establishing those smaller touches that so enrich a novel. Thus on one occasion we found ourselves asking but what about Roman doorknobs? Our series is set largely in and around the sixth century Constantinople court of Emperor Justinian I. However, it's not the wider aspects of Byzantine society that mean the most conflagration of mid-nocturnal petrochemicals so much as smaller arcane matters, often only briefly mentioned in passing. We cast our nets wide when researching and find there's much to be said for fishing in the backwaters for telling details, particularly trolling non-written sources. Thus examination of frecoes and carvings, statues and mosaics, coins and jewelry, manuscripts and triumphal arches -- even tombstones or the decoration of household items as utilitarian as oil lamps or wine jugs or as extravagant as court clothing and imperial sculptures -- has provided us with really useful and informative details on the furniture, amusements, tableware, ceremonies, weaponry, and so on of our chosen period. It turns out door pull would be a better description than doorknob, and this first century CE example is a fine specimen, reminding me of similar fittings on the doors of many British churches: http://www.ingramantiques.com/upclose/get/item/roman_bronze_door_pull_100_a.d./id/19/

Ultimately we tracked down enough information for our purposes -- though strange to relate after all the hoohah neither of us can remember for which book! Finally, here's a charming carving of a cat peeking out from behind a typical Roman door. And no door pull, you notice.... http://www.livius.org/a/turkey/side/side_cat.JPG

Mary says: "I am from north-eastern England, having been born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, a city famous for being the place to which coals are superfluously carried, not to mention the original stamping grounds of the Animals. I shall not go on too much about the general geographic area, for the descriptions in Catherine Cookson's novels cannot be bettered. And yes, we had a clothes mangle. In fact, I once mangled my younger sister's fingers by accident, but we don't talk too much about that." She and co-author Eric Mayer write the John the Lord Chamberlain Mysteries. Visit them online at http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/index.htm


  1. Mary, I love the cat on the Roman door. And I have to wonder how easy it is for you to get lost in the fun of researching!

  2. Just as a matter of interest, there being no sign of an actual latch, how did they keep the doors shut? I like Lindsey Davis's Roman mysteries and don't recall there even being a mention of this problem :O)

  3. Dana It's extremely easy -- at times Eric has to get out the grappling hooks to pull me away from the research and into writing mode! Mary R

  4. Dave, they had bolts, bars, and locks. There's a fascinating article about locks in Ward's 1911 work on Roman Britain, complete with drawings of some quite complicated keys. It's online at Lacus Curtius' marvellous website, see here: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Great_Britain/_Periods/Roman/_Texts/WARREB/13*.html#image67 Some details about bolts and bars can be read towards the end of Smith's indispensable dictionary (1875) on the same site at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Janua.html Mary R