“I’d love to be able to write with a whole story worked out in advance.”

Ruth Downie tells us about her experiences in writing the Ruso series of thrillers, especially Ruso And The Root of all Evils.

– Ruth Downie

Living with a writer must be a strange business.  While other people are off enjoying themselves, my longsuffering husband frequently spends his holidays trudging across wet and windswept hillsides while I enthuse over the stones and mud that are all that remains of the Roman occupation of Britain. Then when we get home, he has to share my attention with several dozen imaginary people – in particular a Roman Army doctor called Ruso, who’s stationed here with the Twentieth Legion.

One of the things that spurred me to write about the Second Century is how little we really know about the people who lived here. We have letters written by the Army and sporadic mentions in history books, but we never hear the Britons’ point of view in their own words. Part of the urge to write came from a desire to give a voice – an imaginary one, I have to admit – to the ‘barbarians’ whose thoughts and feelings  about being part of the Roman empire have been lost forever. So Ruso has a British partner called Tilla.

What I hadn’t realised at the beginning was that once the ancient tribespeople had a voice in Tilla, they might just start forming their own opinions about all sorts of things. And they might have some interesting observations to make about what their conquerors called Civilisation. After two novels set in Britain, it seemed like a good time to take Tilla across the sea and introduce her to Ruso’s family on their farm in the very Romanised South of France.

This was good news for Longsuffering Husband, who was pleasantly surprised to hear that I needed to do some research in a place that was warm and sunny. Even he – and he’s seen more of the Romans than any man should be forced to endure – thoroughly enjoyed exploring Ancient Gaul. After two thousand years, there are whole buildings still standing. There are open-air theatres and beautiful mosaics and massive aqueducts that once carried clean water into the cities. There are working bridges, and remnants of roads with the milestones still (although not very legibly) marking out the distance to the Imperial City.

It’s an inspiring reminder of ancient civilisation at its height.  But there are also the amphitheatres, once packed with spectators for entertainments that make modern reality TV look like the height of compassion and good taste. Not only did people and animals fight and die for the amusement of the public, but in a chilling combination of gore and efficiency, there was apparently a system for buying in spare condemned criminals from another town if you were short of victims.

My hero Ruso, having spent the first two books trying to impress on the barbarian Tilla the virtues of law and order and drains and education, was clearly going to struggle to find the moral high ground on that one. It was just the sort of conflict that writers – and hopefully readers – enjoy.

An amphitheatre, I discovered, is basically a series of arches cleverly built on top of each other. Inside, it’s riddled with walkways, like a giant anthill with an oval-shaped dent in the middle for the arena. Exploring the corridors that curve beneath the tiers of seating, it struck me that this was a wonderful location for a chase.  It would have to be on foot, of course. And if the place were full at the time, both pursuer and pursued would have to fight their way through the noisy crowds while they raced under the archways and down the tunnels and up the many interconnecting flights of steps, all the time worried about getting lost, because everywhere looks the same…

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much how it feels to be in the middle of a novel. I’d love to be able to write with a whole story worked out in advance. I do try and plan, but things never work out how I expect, and I often end up tangled in a complex plot and wondering how on earth I’m going to find the way out again in time for the editor’s deadline. And whether, when I have, it will make any sense to anyone but me.

When I started planning Ruso and the Root of All Evils the only things that were definite were that Tilla had to meet Ruso’s family (whether the family liked it or not, and it was obvious as soon as I thought about it that they wouldn’t) and that at some point there had to be a chase around a crowded amphitheatre. Oh, and since the south of France is full of wineries, there had to be a grape-treading scene. I’m not sure whether it was dedication to authenticity or simply an excuse to put off doing some work, but I decided I needed to know how it feels to tread on grapes before writing about it.  Believe me, when I describe the sensation in the book as ‘slimy’, it really is.

The rest of the story came gradually. The spendthrift stepmother, the dreadful teenage half-sisters and the other characters mentioned in the earlier books slowly came to life and found roles for themselves, along with a cast of assorted baddies, politicians, Christians (a subversive sect) and a widow next door  who was a little too attractive for Tilla’s liking.

There were also the murders. You need to have murders in a crime novel, as I reminded my husband when he woke up in the middle of the night to find me sitting beside him reading Dreisbach’s Handbook of Poisoning. He said he understood. He did look at me rather oddly, though. As I said, living with a writer must be a strange business.

*Ruso And The Root Of All Evils is published in the USA as PERSONA NON GRATA.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, February 12th, 2012 at 10:28 pm and is filed under Authors, Authors Speak, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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