New Year Roman Games: No Lanes. No Rules
STEPPING BACK IN HISTORY TO ANCIENT ROME WITH AUTHOR ZARA ALTAIR
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Learn more about her and her books at her website.
The New Year: A Time for Games In Ancient Rome
The latest Argolicus mystery, The Roman Heir, is set in Ostia just outside Rome in January 512 CE. The young heir thinks his greatest problem is getting his father to let him go to the new year Games hosted by the new Consul. His father is viciously murdered and the young man changes from teenager to adult.
The games were extravagant events that went on for days. They were entirely free to the public but cost politicians so much they often went deeply into debt. Chariot races were the main event held at the Circus Maximus, which could hold 250,000 spectators. Aside from the cost of horses, chariots, charioteers, and all of their attendant grooms, the games also provided entertainment with musicians, wild animal hunts, acrobats, and other acts all paid for by the politician.
Even though the Games were held in January, inclement weather like rain or snow did not stop the Games. Whatever the weather, people flocked to the Games for the annual holiday.
Charioteers were like famous sports personalities today, gaining popular support with the people. They belonged to Factions represented by colors. By the time of the story, there were two main Factions - the Greens and the Blues. Loyalty to Factions was strong, often passed down through generations. Enthusiasm and support for Factions was high-strung resulting in fistfights in pubs and street fights much like soccer team support today. The closest modern day example of the fervor is the Palio horserace in Siena, Italy, where faction loyalty consumes the city.
The charioteers wore Faction colored jackets over their tunics so they were easily identified by the spectators. Around their waist was an arrangement of leather straps that protected them from the reins of the four horses. The reins wrapped around the charioteer’s waist. He guided the horses around the dangerous turns at each end of the Circus Maximus by leaning his body.
The Passion of the Games
The passion of the games were a mammoth spectacle that began with a parade of the game’s sponsor with musicians, acrobats, mounted guards, etc. Faction members held traditional positions to spur the crowd to cheers with chants and loud noisemakers.
Crowds loved the chariot races as there were no lanes and no rules. With 24 races every day, the Games were filled with excitement, drawing people from outside the city to celebrate the holidays. Chariot races were filled with danger. Wheels fell off, and charioteers lost their balance on the lightweight wood and leather chariots and were dragged behind the running horses by the reins wrapped around their body.
A Teenager’s Freedom
Teenagers enjoyed the Games as a time of no-holds-barred excitement much like young people in Europe today flock to the running of the bulls at the Feast of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain. They went not just for the event but for the freedom from usual social constraints. The Games offered an environment for young men and women to meet without the usual Roman parental guidance.
Philo, the Roman heir, gives up his dream of going to the Games as Argolicus searches for clues. The Games are background to the mystery. I hope you are tempted to add this story to your New Year’s reading.
Happy New Year!
Guest Post for Author Anastasia Pollack
When Writing Stops
You’re at some point in your story and all of a sudden you don’t know where to go next. If you stop writing, it’s not writer’s block. You just don’t know where to go next with your story. You may feel as though you have written yourself into a corner with no way out. Or, you get bogged down with detail and loose narrative drive and focus.
Whatever the reason, your writing stops.
Here are some ways to kick your story back in gear.
5 Ways to Get Back In and Move the Story Forward
And a McGuffin
I was working on a story and seemed to have nothing to say. I don’t believe in writer’s block, so I knew something was wrong with the story. I remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s advice that every story needs a McGuffin (an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot). Once I found the McGuffin, the dialogue I was writing came to life, and the story moved. I saw how the McGuffin would trail through the story.
If you find yourself staring at a blank page not knowing what to write next, take a look at your story. Look for missing pieces and overall structure.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries.
so you want to be a writer? Charles Bukowski
so you want to be a writer?
Charles Bukowski, 1920 - 1994
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.
don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.
Image source: Wikimedia
How Does Your Protagonist Stack Up?
You know your protagonist. Presenting your favorite character to the reading public and differentiating him or her to readers is challenging. You want your readers to like your protagonist as much as you do.
I decided to do a little experiment. I chose some relevant or similar protagonists and compared Argolicus
The first step was choosing other protagonists similar in some way.
The notes were my first impressions.
Inspector Jules Maigret - Argolicus used to have as much authority, but now he must rely on his acumen alone.
Commissario Salvo Montalbano - Not as volatile but certainly as doggedly persistent. And, yes, his helper, Nikolaos, sometimes gets the bits he misses.
Cadfael - As compassionate without the religious fervor.
Father Brown - A certain naȉvete which allows people to share intimacies. Bernie Gunther
Gregor Reinhardt - None of the angst, but keen observation skills and an ability to navigate political infights.
Gordianus - In the thick of politics, but centuries later.
Falco - At the other end of the social strata, but equally keen to solve a problem.
Commissario Guido Brunetti - Unencumbered by family matters, Argolicus must still navigate a political maze.
Brother William of Baskerville - Argolicus is well read and bookish, but a novice in theology.
World and Ethos
Looking at the comparisons I was struck how each of these engaging detectives is surrounded by a world readily recognizable to readers. And, that each protagonist has an ethos that carries him through the obstacles in the world.
I decided that the world of early 6th Century Italy is the milieu for my protagonist but not necessarily the selling point. The protagonist, especially as sleuth, is the central selling point.
When I first published the Argolicus Mysteries, I thought of them as historical stories. Reflecting on the reviews I notice that the character and the setting are what draws readers.
After doing the protagonist comparison, I came up with a new description.
Meet Argolicus, a learned man, who turns detective at the bidding of neighbors who know him as trustworthy, wise, and fair. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the self restraint of Epictetus, the theology of Arius, and the empirical insights of Marcus Aurelius all sharpened to an edge by wry humor and ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers politics, and digs into the deepest secrets of the human heart.
I found this experiment revealing. Comparing my protagonist to others in the genre helped me form a clear description to engage future readers.
How A Review Can Change Your Novel Details
Careful reading of reviews can give a novelist clues about fine-tuning the novel and how to improve future stories. Thoughtful reviews can even trigger action to change.
I work hard to make my historical information as accurate as possible, down to making sure the Latin words are not too many but appropriate. In The Roman Heir I had two spelling choices for the term for the head of the family: the original Latin pater familias and the modernized spelling paterfamilias. The bulk of my readers are in the United States so I originally chose the modernized spelling.
Although most of my readers are in the United States, I am keen to build and overseas audience. I received a review from a reader in The Netherlands
A murder mystery set in 512 AD. In The Roman Heir, with less than hundred pages a quick read, we meet Argolicus, a former praefect of Rome, who was asked to deliver a book to Philo, the son of Pius who dwells in Ostia. Argolicus arrives just after Pius was murdered brutally, which left the seventeen old Philo as heir. Argolicus offers his help to find the murder. His straightforward manners upset the local families. Pius was the local leader in Ostia, not just another patrician from Rome with a second house in this harbor city. What is revealed in a series of interview, is shocking. Fact-finding, putting aside emotions lead to the murder, even before Pius's funeral is there. Zara Altair throws in a lot of Latin and local flavor to have the story set in ancient Roman society, except paterfamilias that's not written properly. A convincing plot that definitely should have a follow-up.
The reviewer had studied Latin for six years and took issue with the spelling.
I knew that the reviewer fit the parameters of my readers so I took note.
It was easy for me to adjust the spelling to pater familias in Vellum with search and replace. Then I uploaded the new version to digital sellers like Amazon, ibooks, Kobo, Google and the like.
Strive For The Best It Can Be
I made the decision to change the text based on several factors
Weebly's Big Fail: Missing Header 1 Tag
Many authors want a simple and good looking website to post their author bio, books, blog articles, and media kit. And most authors would rather be writing than messing around with setting up a website. Free and inexpensive alternatives like wordpress.com, Wix, and Weebly offer a simple solution to be online without a lot of fuss.
Weebly offers some beautiful themes for authors and a fairly simple construction process for pages and blog articles. However, if you are an author using Weebly, the site lacks one important ranking factor for search engines: the Header 1 tag.
Why is the Header 1 Tag Important?
Behind the scenes search engines like Google are looking at your website. H1 tags are important because:
How To Add an <h1> Tag to Your Post
<h1> tags are simple HTML you can add to your post and pages on Weebly.
The Title component on Weebly is an <h2> tag which is useful to separate blocks of texts in the rest of your post. These tags are an easy way for readers to skim down the page. In addition, from a user experience (UX) standpoint, they add important white space on the page. White space makes your text easier to read by breaking up passages into chunks.
The easiest way to add your own <h1> tag is to use the embed feature. Scroll down on the left under Basic. The embed code is at the bottom.
Slide the embed tag over to the top of your blog (or underneath your blog image). Then open it up to insert your tag.
Open Edit Custom HTML. This is where you will insert your <h1> code. Now you will need to insert your own HTML tag into the embed editor.
Create Your Tag
Start with this basic <h1> code and edit to match your Weebly theme.
<h1 style="text-align:left;font-size: (pixel size from theme 28, 32, etc.)px; font-face="Name of Your Theme Header Font"> Header text </h1>
To find your Theme Header font pixel size and name, you need to go into the Weebly editor for your theme.
Click on Change Fonts. You are not going to change anything in your theme, you are looking for the font name and size to use for your header 1 information.
Once you click on Change Fonts you land on a new page. On the left scroll down to General and click on the Paragraph Titles.
Once there you will find the information you need: the name of your font and the pixel size for the header.
Write down the name of the font and the pixel size. Now you can edit the HTML to personalize your Header 1 tag.
Mine looks like this.
<h1 style="text-align:left;font-size:28px; font-face="Playfair Display"> Header text </h1>
This is the code you will insert to Edit Custom HTML Save this header code in a text file, or a note keeping app like Evernote or Google Keep. You will use it each time you create a new post.
Go back to the embed segment in Weebly. Click on Edit Custom HTML. This is where you will place the code you have created. Just copy and paste from wherever you stored your code.
Be sure to add the title of the blog replacing the words "header text" with the title of your blog each time.
Click on the window to embed the code. You'll see your new Header 1 <h1> tag. Congratulations!
Weebly App Alternatives
Weebly offers two applications to add h1 tags. The free app simply named H1 Tag does a good job but you have to set it each time you use it for font, size, etc. Once you create your own HTML embed code using the instructions here, entering the H1 tag will be quicker than using the app. Your choice: a one time set up, or go through the complete set up each time.
Weebly offers a premium tag app named SEO Headlines which offers all header tags - h1 through h6. Weebly users have had many problems not only setting up the premium app, but also having the app lose all tags in previous posts. This loss required them to go back and fix all previous posts. Apps should make things easier not create nightmares. I do not recommend this app.
The One and Only <h1> Tag
Use the <h1> tag only once at the beginning of your blog article. You need only one <h1> tag per page, otherwise you will confuse search engines. Rather than noticing your page more, the search engine may just rank your page lower because it doesn't know which <h1> tag is the important one.
Continue to use the Weebly Title for all your subheadings in your blog article. It is an <h2> tag and tells search engines this is a section of your article. These tags help search engines understand the subject of your blog.
Author, Argolicus Mysteries. Enter a world in ancient Italy when Roman and Ostrogoth laws made murder a private matter. In a time when murder was not a crime, Argolicus helps solve crimes for individuals when politics and murder collide.
StoryShop the Creative Planner for Novels
I’ve been using StoryShop since I started as a beta tester in June 2016. I love it! I’m a big believer in planning before you write and StoryShop is a creative tool for brainstormers like me.
StoryShop allows me to capture and idea. That’s great because writers have ideas. But StoryShop lets you build, organize, and reorganize at will.
The online program was created by writers for writers so the program understands how writers create and facilitates building a story. The program is not static and users are encouraged to send suggestions for additional functionality. As a user, you can vote on suggestions to encourage the programmers to consider a suggestions.
For co-writers, collaborators, and ghost writers, the collaboration feature allows more than one writer to work on the story.
With StoryShop, you will:
In each StoryShop World you create your stories along with your relevant information. The Worlds feature is great for series as well because you can link Characters and Settings (Elements) throughout the series.
You can easily customize each World with visuals. The images are big and bold and serve as mind triggers to get the writer into the story.
The World contains as many stories as you want to create within that specific world. For example in my Worlds I have two one-off books - Father Trap and Contrast Legacy - as well as the Argolicus Mysteries.
When you select a world, all of the material related to the world is in one place - Characters, Elements, and Stories. So, each story in the series is held in one big World basket.
The story component is made for creative planning. As you brainstorm your story you can add plot elements (scenes) and rearrange them as your story builds.
You can add sub elements of a scene - a bit a dialogue, a physical description, etc. - as they come to mind. By the end you have organized each beat and all the scenes to complete the storyline.
You can tag characters and elements (blue highlights) in the scene to make certain everyone in the scene is there. On the other hand, if you are creating the story and find you need a character you can add a new character and add them to the scene.
As you work through the storyline you can quickly hit Notes to add a quick note to yourself and then return to working on the storyline. This feature helps keep focus on the work at hand but allows for notes to build on the plot or scene later.
I use the Notes frequently as I am building out the storyline. For me, the notes help me fill in plot holes. I can return to the note later and work on building a missing element in the storyline.
This feature also facilitates collaboration with co-writers working on the same story.
The world is your oyster when it comes to creating characters in StoryShop. The visuals help solidify your character’s features. You can add a visual background for each character. I do this for main characters but not always for secondary characters.
In the illustration, Ebrimuth, Argolicus’ Ostrogoth friend has both a character image and a background. Because he is a man of action in contrast to the thinking Argolicus, I chose an action image.
One of the bodyguards in the novel, Eboric, goes berserk when confronted. I wanted to capture that explosive element in his character image.
The images help me cement that character in my mind.
But it isn’t just images where StoryShop helps develop characters. You can add as much information as you want as well as links to web pages for pertinent background.
Marcus is the middle child in a family in The Vellum Scribe. The Character mode of StoryShop allows you to create relationships to other characters in the story. Character Attributes are physical attributes like hair, eyes, physical build, etc. Character DNA are questions devised by the StoryShop developers to help dig into your character’s personality and backstory.
I use Character Summary not so much as a summary but for the background and key aspects of the character that move the story.
Elements are pieces of the story outside of characters. They can be anything and everything that help create your story world - settings, McGuffins, armory, cultural role functions. For historical, fantasy, and science fiction writers especially elements are the building blocks of your story world.
I have the average monthly temperatures for Squillace, the vellum scribe’s book with links and images, the role of the Saio in Theodoric’s Italy, and others.
Elements allow you to keep your background research at hand while you are creating the story sequence.
The Creative Writer’s Creative Tool
StoryShop solves many challenges of the planning stage in producing a novel. The application is flexible. Take what you like and use it. For example, if you don't want background images for every character, you can skip uploading an image.
For series writers, your world and your individual stories are all connected as well as characters and elements. StoryShop has a tagging feature to interconnect among characters and elements.
Later in September the writing app will be added for a streamlined writing experience from planning to producing your novel.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in Italy under the Ostrogoth King Theodoric. Enter a world in ancient Italy when Roman and Ostrogoth laws made murder a private matter. In a time when murder was not a crime, Argolicus and his tutor Nikolaos help solve crimes when politics and murder collide in a province far from the King's court.
The Mini-Story that Builds Your Novel
Each scene is a building block to your story. And, each scene is a mini-story with the same components as the main story.
But the scene has one more function:
Pantser or Planner, It Doesn’t Matter
If you are a planner, you can plan out the basic storyline of the scene. As a writer, you know characters do and say unexpected things. You have a basic structure to keep them from going too far from the scene and disrupting the story plan. I’m not saying characters shouldn’t be disruptive within the story, just make sure actions are moving the story forward and not drama for drama’s sake.
Are you a pantser? Then don’t despair. You can review your scene after you write it to check that you have covered the basic scene elements. Some pantsers wait until the first edit to check each scene. Others check the scene and then go on to the next scene.
How to Check Your Scene
As you review the scene check each element to keep your story from going adrift.
The central character of the scene doesn’t have to be the protagonist. But you write the scene from the scene’s main character point of view. If you found you have jumped characters you need to edit to keep the scene centered on that main character.
The obstacle can be as physical as a fight to the death or as mental as trying to solve a problem. At the beginning of the scene the character confronts a problem. By the end of the scene, the character has either solved the problem--won the fight, figured it out--or is defeated. Every scene needs a challenge.
The reader needs to know where the character is. Who is in the room? On the field? On the street?
The setting can contribute to the obstacle by challenging the scene’s central character physically or adding and emotion overlay to the action and dialogue.
Worldbuilders need to add the special details around the characters as they speak and act.
The Emotional Arc
As the central character interacts with others through dialogue and action his emotional position changes. Whether she overcomes the obstacle or is defeated, she’ll have an emotional response to the consequences. The emotional arc is the key to keeping readers engaged and turning the page.
The Structure - Beginning, Middle, EndIf you have your central character in a setting that adds to the story faced by a challenge, you’re on your way. By the time the character has wrestled the challenge (middle) and either won or lost (end), you walked your scene through the structure.
The Final Evaluation - Move The Story Forward
Once your scene is complete, you need to take a look at how it fits into the overall story. If it’s an info-dump about the story world you’ll need to lighten up by integrating the information into other parts of the story. If it’s a cute scene or a big fight you still need to review how the scene moves the story forward.
If the scene is the best writing you’ve ever done it still needs to move the story along. Every writer learns to put their darlings aside if not outright kill them. You can save expository information to sprinkle in other scenes. Save that adorable scene for another story or give it an impetus to move the overall story toward the conclusion. You’ll need your editor’s hat to make sure the scene is doing the job--moving the story forward.
Want to practice scene writing? What’s happening with that duck in the dark?
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in Italy under the Ostrogoth King Theodoric. Enter a world in ancient Italy when Roman and Ostrogoth laws made murder a private matter. In a time when murder was not a crime, Argolicus and his tutor Nikolaos help solve crimes when politics and murder collide in a provice far from the King's court.
The Roman Heir in Conversation
I'm speaking with avid reader Oleg Moskalensky about The Roman Heir on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 at 3 PM Pacific Time. (Convert to Your Time).
The wonderful thing for authors is that readers come from all vocations. Oleg is an IT consultant and developer of specialized programs and apps for business.
The story takes place in Ostia, Italy, and Oleg actually lived there when he was young.
Since Oleg is lively and opinionated, this will be an especially fun interview for me.
Be Part of The Conversation
Make this more than a talking heads conversation. Click the video link to add your comments and questions. Or join us here https://youtu.be/gjWEmAgG08EE.
I'll be talking about creating a mystery, writing about another time and place, and whatever else you and Oleg throw into the mix.
The Roman Heir, An Argolicus Mystery
You can pick up your copy of this Argolicus Mystery at Amazon or a version for your favorite eReader. There's still time to read before the interview.
If you enjoy the book, please leave a review.
I’m an indie author, and publish my books without the backing of a major publisher. That means no six-figure advances and no advertising budget. This makes it difficult to promote my novels so new readers can find them. But you can help me.
Honest reviews and genuine ‘word-of-mouth’ make all the difference. I’m not asking for one of those awful ‘book reports’ we did at school. All you have to do is leave a star rating and a couple of sentences on Amazon or Goodreads. Or a short review on your blog. Or tell your friends about it on Facebook or Twitter.
Let people know what you liked about this book, and why they might like it too. And if there was something you didn’t like, you can say that too: constructive criticism helps me write a better book next time.
But please, *no spoilers!*
Mystery in History
The Roman Heir is due for publication on July 22. The book went out to advance readers over two weeks ago, I’m getting feedback. That means I’m doing some editing like rewording or fixing those gosh darn typos. I’m extremely grateful to these advance readers who give me early feedback.
This is just the first round of final editing. I have two more steps before I upload the book on July 15. Aside from checking any other feedback from advance readers, I listen to the entire book read aloud. I did that chapter by chapter, but one last check. Then I read the book aloud myself to hear and feel the words as I speak them.
I’ve heard most of the story read aloud by members of my writing group as the story progressed. But, I’ve made numerous changes, especially since I presented early chapters to the group.
Spread The Author Word
Two days after the book release on July 24, International Thriller Writers is publishing my article for mystery writers, “Ten Ways to Hide Clues in Your Mystery” as a guest post in their publication The Thrill Begins.
The World of Argolicus Event
On July 22, the day The Roman Heir comes out, I’m doing a special live event on Facebook. I have slides and an overview of the historical background for the stories. The reign of Theodoric in Italy (493–526 CE) is a short time span in the vast spread of history. I’ll be zooming in on the highlights. After the presentation, I’ll answer general questions from the audience either about the background or writing or the stories.
The live event is July 22 at 9:00 AM. Use the Time Calculator to determine the time where you are. Looking forward to seeing you there.
Writing Doesn’t Stop
With the work on getting the story ready for publication, I’ve not lost track of the next story, The Vellum Scribe. I’m creating character background studies and filling in plot details. I’ve even written a bit of the beginning. Of course, as I dig deeper into the story, the beginning may change.
Looking forward to seeing you at The World of Argolicus event.
Enter a world in ancient Italy when Roman and Ostrogoth laws made murder a private matter. In a time when murder was not a crime, Argolicus helps solve crimes for individuals when politics and murder collide.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.