When Bad Things Happen to Good Novels

I’ve written two (unpublished) historical novels, one set in Chicago in 1885 and the other in Italy in the early days of the Roman Empire (in 59 A.D.). I love doing historical research … and I also love getting the details right. You can never get everything right, because historians don’t tend to serve up the kind of detail that a fiction writer needs. But at least the writer can strive not to get anything wrong.

Recently I sat down to do a little tidying up on my Rome novel, with the idea of probably self-publishing it and selling six or eight copies. It’s a murder mystery (as is the Chicago book), so naturally I need to know a lot about how the Roman legal system worked. I tracked down an expert in Roman law at the University of Michigan, and he suggested I read The Criminal Law in Ancient Rome by O. F. Robinson. I promptly bought a copy and started underlining salient passages.

My story has a love sub-plot. The widow of the murdered man is in the process of falling in love with a handsome young slave in her father’s household, and of course he ultimately solves the crime, thereby freeing her from the false accusation, so now nature can take its course.

The details of how they become romantically involved are a bit convoluted. The budding of the romance rests, oddly enough, on the nature of her murdered husband’s will, because the disposition of the estate depends on whether his widow is pregnant. She isn’t, but she decides to pretend to be, so now she needs a surreptitious surrogate father.

And this is where the fecal substance encounters the rotating air circulation device. Here is the key passage from Chapter 4 of Robinson’s book: “…all the slaves in the house at the time of the suspicious death were to be tortured in order to find out the murderer, to discover if anyone had incited him, and to make it possible to punish for their failure in their duty all those slaves who had not prevented the murder — for which they were all liable to be put to death…. Until this [the torturing] had been done the dead man’s will was not to be opened…. While the torture was technically interrogation, not punishment, the two concepts were not always clearly distinguished; the whole purpose of the law was to compel slaves to guard their owners both from members of the household and [from] outsiders at the risk of their own lives….” An addition to the law (probably enacted at about the time of my story) “extended the rule so that all the slaves of the surviving spouse would also be tortured.”

Oh, dear. My love sub-plot can’t get under way until after a dozen or so household slaves have been tortured. But I don’t want to write a description of slaves being whipped or subjected to thumbscrews or whatever the Romans liked to do. And I’m pretty sure my six or eight readers would find that chapter and its aftermath unpleasant, if not worse.

I knew that the slaves would be tortured if they were suspected of the murder, but this passage suggests that the torture¬† could and probably did happen even if they weren’t directly suspected — and in my story, one of them is suspected, because it’s a murder mystery, so I need suspects! But worse, the whole love sub-plot just got breached below the water line and sank to the bottom of the harbor. It can’t get under way until after the torture, because the torture has to happen before the victim’s will is unsealed and read.

I love historical research. I hate historical research.

This is the advantage of writing fantasy novels set on other worlds. Nobody can fact-check you. You can shape the story rather more easily, because you’re not constrained by reality.

Now if only the agent who has my fantasy novel sitting on her desk would get back to me….

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1 Response to When Bad Things Happen to Good Novels

  1. Very interesting. It’s to your credit that you did that research in the first place, and were brave enough to understand the implications of your studies. I am drawn to historical novel writing myself, more probably located in the 1930’s because that is a period which interests me, but yours is a sobering tale so I shall probably continue to write the nonsense I more normally construct :0

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