Discoveries I Made While Researching The Peach Widow Background
Every story presents new research challenges when writing an historical mystery. For The Peach Widow I needed background on farm dogs, inheritance law, and natural poisons.
My first challenge was looking for background on inheritance law concerning a second wife and children by a previous marriage. After all the wonderful and informative responses from scholars about the time of Theodoric in Italy, I was frustratedto discover that Roman Law attorneys have no such enthusiasm for writers. Each one I approached did not respond.
When Murder Was Not A Crime
That drove me to more online research. I made a story-changing discovery as I dug deeper. Murder was not a crime.
That means a public crime. No police. No trial. Each family had to deal with the consequences once the murderer was revealed. That gave me a whole new layer for Argolicus as he makes his way discovering a killer. He also had to help the family come to terms with what they could and could not do for recompense.
The Big Farm Dog
The farm dog, Pup, plays a crucial role in the story. I read about Roman farm dogs and discovered the Pup most closely resembles the modern Dogo Argentino, a big dog breed that originated in Argentina.
To arrive at that conclusion I looked at a number of illustrations of both Greek and Roman dogs, read descriptions from the time, and then looked for a modern equivalent.
The Natural Poison
Another challenge was to find a natural poison source that would be readily available to a poor murderer who did not travel far. I needed a substance that grew locally. After researching natural poisons and plants that grow in southern Italy, I identified oleander. I could plant clues early on and bring the poison to light later in the story.
Setting is important in any story. In historical novels, setting details give the reader a sense of what is around the characters. Without setting the characters are "floating in space" with nothing to ground them to surroundings.
In the video of the mosaic discovery, the details of vibrancy and varied images are a fine example of the style of flooring in Italy and the Mediterranean.
Setting details are the perfect way to enrich historical fiction without an overload of info-dump. When characters in The Roman Heir gather in a new room to meet the murdered man's widow, the description is brief but sets the tone of the meeting.
Aemilia Atia, Philo’s mother, had left her bedroom and gathered everyone in the entertainment room when she learned of the guest. The floor was covered in a dizzying array of black and white mosaics and the walls were painted with intricate scenes of trees and flowers and young people playing musical instruments in nature. Braziers, next to seats, warmed the room from the winter cold. Slaves brought trays of gustum: small tidbits of fruit, cheese, and salads for nibbling placed on platters and bowls around the seats, but no one was eating.
Homes at the time of the story (512 A.D./C.E.) were highly decorated. A floor plan of the house in Ostia illustrates the elaborate mosaics in every room. Even the kitchen had designs on the floor, though not as elaborate as other communal rooms. In the scene with the widow, the characters are gathered in the room marked number 10.
Italian homes of the time were not limited to vibrant and intricate flooring. Walls were painted in bright colors often with detailed figures. These are the walls in the "side room" where Argolicus first sees the body of the murdered Patrician.
Our current Western decor--from rustic to industrial to modern--is far from the colorful indoor life of Italian life at the time of Theodoric.
Visual imagery is a powerful aid in writing research, especially for historical genres. I find myself looking at images as I write scenes to help me get into the story.
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.
The Argolicus Mysteries are set in early Sixth Century Italy. At that time the country was governed by two sets of laws. Native Italians (Romans) inherited a set a laws from the Roman Empire which had collapsed the century before. The Ostrogoths under King Theodoric held to their ancient tribal customs.
The Roman Rule
Neither of these sets of laws held murder as a crime as we understand it. For the Italians, murder was a family matter and was settled usually without any sort of judicial finding by the family. Because murder was not a crime there was no legal recourse. The family could not call on what we would call a police force to investigate. The family was responsible for discovering who had committed the murder,
The extent of the investigation was mainly based on the family’s wealth. If they could afford to hire individuals outside of the family, they had that much more help in solving the murder. Poor families were left to their own devices and often murders went unsolved.
One exception to involving public officials was if the murder had a direct impact on the public good. However, the determination of the direct impact was decided by ruling officials.
The Ostrogoth Rule
The ruling Ostrogoths valued human life according to position and station. If someone was murdered, the family was responsible for accusing the murderer. If the murderer was identified he had to pay a fine (wergild) to the family of the deceased. The tribal leader made the final decision. His throne was often a wooden chair covered by a bearskin. Underneath the bearskin was a human hide to remind him of his power over life and death. Once the wergild was paid, the matter was settled.
Argolicus and the Law
Argolicus has the skills a family would need to find a murderer--patience, an analytical mind, and a willingness to listen. Because of the challenge to Italians with obtaining what they feel are right consequences, he also helps them make decisions about what to do once the murderer is identified.
As a writer, I need to guide the character through the discovery process and finding a solution with what to do once the murderer is identified.
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.
The Peach Widow
Get your copy of The Peach Widow.
After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.
A distressed widow. Greedy brothers. A huge farm dog. Argolicus unravels the threads.
Argolicus and Nikolaos Visit A Farm
When Argolicus, is asked by his mother to counsel a grieving widow on the laws of inheritance, he finds the law will serve her cruelly. Her stepsons want her out and there is no recourse.
When a field slave falls during peach harvest, suspicions grow when Argolicus and Nikolaos learn more about the family and suspect that the death may not be from natural causes. As they question the family, they discover greed and begin to distrust the stories they’ve been told.
History and mystery. Order your copy today.
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.