The Writing Process with Jo Nesbø
Interview with Jo Nesbø by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association detailing his beginnings in childhood as a storyteller and his writing process.
My favorite quote is the one above: You don’t really know your characters until they start speaking.
Know your story. Know your characters. Then write.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy.
Gathering Research Bits
While The Roman Heir is in editing process, I’m scouring for ideas for the next several stories. Never forgetting setting, I’m looking at meadows and woods for The Vellum Scribe.
The Vellum Scribe
Although I went to Italy for initial research, I was in the north at Ravenna, the political center and king’s seat, at the time of the Argolicus Mysteries. Except for The Roman Heir, set in Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, the mysteries are set in the far southern province of Bruttii. Cassiodorus mentions the area frequently in his letters, where I found the venal Governor Venantius in The Used Virgin shortchanging locals and creating arbitrary punishments.
Research When You Can’t Be There
For a sense of place when I’m unable to travel I cruise around Google Maps to find a particular location. Then once I know the location I look at related images and videos. For the Argolicus mysteries, I’m watching videos and collecting images of southern Italy, especially around the town of Squillace. Argolicus’ estate is in the hills above the town. Here’s a modern quick tour of the town.
And a friendly tour of the Ghetterello river which runs from the hills, down to Squillace from Massimo Castelli. This one’s in Italian but you can see the valley and surrounding hills.
The waterfall in the Gheterello surrounded by boulders is the setting for an ambush in a future story.
Books for Details
For a sense of time, I turn or return to books. Currently, I’m rereading The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century ed. S.J.B. Bamish, Federico Marazzi. My son bought it for me as a birthday present a year ago. The book is one of my main sources for political goings on at the time of the Argolicus mysteries. Look at this. There are at least three good stories in just this one passage.
….at least one town, Squillace, is prey to violent troubles that suggest conflicts with the special aim of seizing the episcopal see. More than one bishop there has been killed, and visitors have to be appointed. A priest, Celestinus, is complicit in the murder of his bishop and kinsman at an unnamed town which may well be Squillace. Again, in an unnamed town which may perhaps be Squillace, the bishop is murdered by a creditor to whom he has made over Church property to settle his debt. The archdeacon Asellus allows the murderer to be killed in a riot before he could reveal if he had accomplices.
The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century ed. S.J.B. Bamish, Federico Marazzi p. 192
The Transformation Process
One absolutely essential quality a historical fiction author needs is the ability to transform dry text like this (I Ieft out the various footnote references) into a story with interesting characters who interact within their political, cultural, and physical setting.
Imagination makes the story.
Zara Altair combines mystery with a bit of adventure in the Argolicus mysteries. Her Argolicus Mysteries are based in southern Italy at the time of the Ostrogoth rule of Italy under Theoderic the Great. Italians (Romans) and Ostrogoths live under one king while the Roman Empire is ruled from Constantinople. At times the cultures clash, but Argolicus uses his wit, sometimes with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court.
Formative Ideas Behind the Author
Every author draws from personal history when creating characters. The main character, the protagonist, along with the antagonist derive from your experience to emerge as rich, engaging people in your story. Behind the list of characteristics, flaws and shortcomings, physical makeup, and the like, intentionally or unintentionally the author draws from personal experience.
Often the tiny details, some never revealed in the story, or mere hints, emerge from the author’s own life experience.
My childhood heroes were without superpowers. The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on the radio. And the non-human Lassie (in books). And in newspaper comics, Brenda Starr, Reporter.
A little later my father, an Episcopal priest, who devoured Georges Simenon with the Larousse by his side listened to The Whistler and The Shadow as we drove each Sunday from services in Arroyo Grande to services in Atascadero, California.
As we drove along the oceanfront and then inland to rolling hills and oak trees, the mysteries and revelations of human behavior gone wrong fascinated my young imagination. The question The Shadow asked at the beginning of each episode made me wonder about every person I met: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
That question was the start my lifelong pastime of making up stories about strangers I saw. As an adult, my notebooks filled with sketches of people I saw who sparked some mini-story in my head. An innocuous looking housewife who harbored a secret jealousy that ate at her heart. A hobo—now street person—who had once been (fill in the blank).
Observation: The Author Skill
Both detectives, The Shadow and The Whistler, watched and listened. I've been a mystery fan ever since.
I didn't find my voice as a fiction writer until I started writing mysteries with a central character who delves into moral ambiguities in a time when murder was not a crime.
All those mini-stores over the years were accumulated into flawed character background to challenge my protagonist with their secrets. A person can do good in the world and yet perform a base evil like murder.
Those observations of strangers—how they moved their hands, or walked, or stood at attention ramrod straight or with drooping shoulders—help populate stories with characters with idiosyncrasies and deep or shallow motivations.
Other than Brenda, I never quite found a female heroine until around 10 years ago when I read John Julius Norwich' The Normans in Sicily. And then, Sikelgaita!
Her’s is not a name on everyone's lips. However others have romanticized her. (See image above)
When Robert Guiscard saw her he dropped everything stunned by her presence, divorced his wife, and married her.
Married with children (9)
Fought at his side in full armour in battles
Loyal to the end over many years (27) until his death
I admired her because she was not a single woman with superpowers defying all odds but an embodiment of a multi-faceted woman.
Real People, Heroes, and Imaginings
Your story begs for believable characters. Writers can borrow from real life, observations, their personal hero set, and imagination to create characters who resonate with readers. When it comes to Write What You Know even your heroes have a place in rounding out characters.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos, are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
She consults with a select group of writers as The Story Bodyguard.
The bulk of this article was originally posted as a response to David Amerland’s Sunday Read: Superpowers, June 4, 2017.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.