Writing historical crime novels – interview with R.S. Downie

Ruth Downie, author of historical fictionSome visitors to The Crafty Writer who have been following the non-fiction history writing series have been asking for something similar on writing historical fiction. So we asked Ruth Downie, author of Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (‘Medicus’ in the USA) to chat to us about writing historical crime novels. Ruth is married with two grown-up sons. She was born in North Devon and now lives in Milton Keynes. Her first book featuring Roman medic Gaius Petreius Ruso was published in 2006, and became a New York Times bestseller (albeit briefly, she reminds us!).  Her second book Ruso and the Demented Doctor (‘Terra Incognita’ in the USA)  is now on the shelves.

TCW: You won the Fay Weldon section of the BBC’s End of Story competition in 2004. Would you say this was your major break?

RSD: It was a huge stroke of luck. It was what spurred me on to finish the book, although not in the way you might expect. The BBC were thinking about making a follow-up, so they interviewed the winners about their writing plans. Somewhat desperate, I blathered on about a Roman novel I’d started. ‘Great,’ they said as they packed the gear away, ‘We’ll come and see you in three or four months to find out how it’s going.’

What I hadn’t dared tell them was that in the long gap between sending off the competition entry and finding out the results, I’d decided to give up writing. The novel was hopelessly stuck – but if I didn’t do something with it before they came back, I’d have to admit how useless I was on national television. So I dredged it up and for the next three or four months, I wrote like crazy. By the time I realised the BBC had changed their minds and weren’t coming at all, I was three quarters of the way through.
TCW: So Ruso wasn’t written before you entered the comp?

RSD: Not really. I had completed a couple of other novels which weren’t very good. Some of the early ‘Ruso’ material was created for a Historical Novel Society competition to write the first three chapters of a historical romance. I didn’t have anything suitable, so I drew out two characters from the backstory of one of the failed novels. On reflection, they were always more interesting anyway.  The ‘start’ was printed in the magazine and I was a bit taken aback when people seemed to think it was worth finishing.
TCW: Did you have an agent at this time?

RSD: An agent got in touch when she read it and, bless her, she stuck with me over many unproductive years until I finally finished something saleable.

TCW: Would you advise writers to enter competitions? What are the benefits?

RSD: Definitely! Working to a deadline and a specific word count is a good discipline. The occasional win of either money or kudos helps to convince your family that you aren’t just hiding behind the computer to avoid the washing up. Even if you don’t win, the worst you usually get is a long silence. Very rarely do you hear the depressing thud of a rejected manuscript on the doormat.

TCW: Did Penguin approach you or did you approach them?

RSD: I’m a complete wimp and rarely approach anybody. No, the good folk at the agency did all the selling. The people who say you have to be brave and tough to be a writer obviously haven’t met me.
TCW: Was Ruso always going to be a series?

RSD: No! I couldn’t imagine getting one book finished and published, let alone several.
TCW: Why historical fiction?

RSD: I did History to A level but it  never occurred to me to base any fiction in that period (1815 to 1939). Oh, apart from one very bad Western. I don’t know where it is and with luck nobody will find it in a drawer after I’m dead.

I wasn’t grabbed by the past till much later, when we took the children to Hadrian’s Wall. The discovery that Roman soldiers weren’t allowed to marry, but they were allowed to have relationships with local women, sparked all sorts of questions for me. What happened to the women if the men were moved on? What about the children? My parents are of the generation that can remember the GI’s being here in the War, and there seemed to be lots of parallels.
TCW: Was your decision to do a Roman detective novel based on market awareness or was it simply something you wanted to do?

RSD: I wanted to do something set in Roman Britain, using the tension between the occupiers and occupied. To be honest, I had no clue at the time what would sell or what other people were writing.

Later on, of course, I discovered that Lindsey Davis had been writing a fabulous Roman detective for years (the Falco series) and there were several others. Then, having half-produced a love story, I was firmly told that my novel had to have a crime in it. I thought very hard about that one, partly because other people were doing it and partly because crime wasn’t something I would naturally have chosen to write about. However, it seems to have worked. Having a mystery to solve helps to ground the plot and curtail its tendencies to meander about.

TCW: How important would you say market awareness is to as yet unpublished writers?

RSD: I know you’re supposed to study the market, but I think it’s crucial to fall in love with your subject first, because it will be renting a room in your head for months or probably years to come. I’m lucky in that both the Romans and Crime seem to have had a long spell in the sun recently. I managed to miss the Gladiator boat completely, so I was very surprised when my own novel sold several years later.

Maybe you do have to be a bit clued in, though. I work in a library, so I have some idea of what’s being read, and I do love to wander round bookshops (whilst trying to restrain the urge to see if they’ve got Ruso). From this I conclude that you’d have trouble selling a Western right now – but if it was utterly brilliant, who knows?

TCW: The Ruso novels are historical crime fiction. How important is it to have an awareness of the appropriate genre conventions when writing?

RSD: You probably need to know them even if you don’t intend to adhere to them. I’ve suggested having the bad guy get away with it or the good guy commit the murder for a change, but so far this hasn’t met with resounding enthusiasm from editors and agents. On reflection, I can see why. I think if you want to do that sort of thing you have to be either very well established or you have to decide to call it ‘literary fiction’.
TCW: What would you say about the statement: ‘If history doesn’t serve the story, change the history’?

RSD: There’s not much known about Britain during the period in which I write, but I do try and construct the stories around the documents and the archaeology we have. I think I’d say be very, very careful. It worked for Gladiator, but for people who knew that the Emperor Commodus didn’t die that way, the end must have been seriously strange.

Besides, sometimes when a story doesn’t go the way you want it to, facing the problem head on means that a new and better idea will emerge to solve it. On the other hand, I think you do have to choose what to use and what to leave out. The truth is invariably complex, and rarely leads towards the sort of satisfying conclusion you want for the end of a novel.
TCW: I’ve read many historical novels that are weighed down by too much historical detail. How do you achieve a balance between plot and background?

RSD: Hm, so have I! Perhaps coming to Roman Britain from a position of total ignorance wasn’t entirely the disadvantage that it seemed. I try not to use words that I wouldn’t have understood when I started. I don’t want people to have to pause during a chase scene while they try and remember what a Praetorium is.

I guess I try to give a few details that offer a flavour of a background and set the reader’s imagination working, rather than going into lots of description, because it’s boring to read and frankly, it’s boring to write, too. But I never really know whether the balance is right. Something what seems fine when you write it can look terrible the next day.
TCW: By the end of the novel, it’s clear that you are making parallels between ancient and modern sex trafficking. As a writer, do you believe it’s appropriate to impose modern morality onto a historical period? Why or why not?

RSD: That would be like going to somewhere that has an exotic cuisine and insisting on eating your own tinned soup, wouldn’t it? Obviously there are plenty of things about the past that we find unacceptable (witch trials, bear-baiting, hanging a child for stealing a sheep, etc.), but that’s part of its fascination.

I try not to put 21st Century views in the mouths of 2nd Century characters. But of course we all write from our own perspective and we don’t necessarily see the distortions we make. Fortunately not many people are offended by Romans who make racist remarks about the Ancient Greeks. I do slip in the occasional anachronistic joke, but I’m not sure if anybody notices. There’s a medic in the second book who’s heard that you can cure people’s problems just by talking to them – but as Ruso points out, that’s nonsense.

The sex trafficking thing interested me because there’s evidence that although abolishing slavery would have been unthinkable, the Romans were constantly tinkering with the system to make it more humane. One of the adaptations made by Hadrian (who was in power during the time I’m writing about) was to restrict the rights of an owner to sell a slave to a pimp or to a gladiator trainer unless they had been shown to deserve it. If Hadrian were around today he’d have no time for sex traffickers either.
TCW: How does this affect your characterisation and plotting?

RSD: I suspect most historical novelists reach some sort of compromise whereby the worst tendencies of the past tend to be displayed by minor characters while the hero looks good by comparison – less misogynist, racist, violent, cruel to animals or whatever.

My lead character is an Army doctor so he’s usually trying to stitch up the wounds rather than inflict them. If I’d given him the job of being the man who trains lions to eat Christians, I’d have had a worse problem. But of course he does have to face the ruthlessness of his age, and when violence erupts between the British and the Roman Army, both he and his British partner Tilla have to face up to the cruelties that their comrades are prepared to inflict. Both sides, of course, think they’re ‘right’, which provides for the sort of tension that writers love to play with.

TCW: How many more Ruso books will be in the series?

RSD: There are contracts in place for four. I’m currently proof-reading the third and writing the fourth. After that, it’s up to the publishers!

Well we’ve enjoyed having Ruth here so much that we’ve invited her to do a ‘how to’ series on writing historical fiction in April. So sign up to our RSS feed to keep informed. In the meantime, she’s offering Crafty readers an opportunity to buy a limited number of signed hardback copies of the first Ruso book at paperback prices.  Contact her via her website for further details.

Related posts:

  1. Writing historical fiction 1 – creating your historical world
  2. Writing historical fiction 2 – doing the research
  3. Writing historical fiction 3 – using fact in fiction
  4. Writing a series: tips from Ruth Downie
  5. When writing is a crime – tips from a real CSI

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14 comments on “Writing historical crime novels – interview with R.S. Downie

  1. Karen M on said:

    Thanks for this, Fiona. Interesting stuff, I’m looking forward to Ruth’s series. Also want to meet Ruso as soon as possible!

  2. Fiona on said:

    Hi Karen,

    Ruso is recently divorced and reluctant to get snared again. Mind you, a good woman like you could change his mind! He is a great creation.


  3. Karen M on said:

    Maybe I could sneak out and meet him while a certain other Roman detective is deep in his wine jar so he doesn’t spot my defection.

  4. Fiona on said:

    You hussy!

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  6. Karen M on said:

    Ruso’s brilliant! Gimme another.

  7. Rosalie Warren on said:

    Great interview. I don’t read much historical fiction but I’m tempted by Ruso!

  8. Fiona on said:

    Join the club, Rosalie – he’s very tempting!

  9. vanessa on said:

    I fell across Ruso when I was looking for the other Roman sleuth and so glad I did – great reading!

  10. Fiona on said:

    In case Lindsay Davis stumbles across this site, I just want to state that we have no problem in naming the ‘other Roman sleuth’. In fact, we’re great fans of Falco. And so, I believe, is Ruth. No reason we can’t enjoy both, is there Vanessa? Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Found your website while looking for another Ruso novel. Thoroughly enjoyed the first two. Love the characters, can’t wait for the third one.

  12. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Bev,

    Well I’ve read an advance copy of the third one and I can tell you it’s the best so far! I think it’s out in the US already. Ruth, when’s it coming out in the UK?


  13. Hi Bev and Fiona,

    Glad to know you’ve enjoyed the books so far!

    The third one will be published in the UK next April, and it’ll be called ‘Ruso and the Root of All Evils.’ It’s the story of what happens when he takes Tilla home to meet his family in the hot and dusty south of Gaul.

    Sitting here in an English November, anything hot and dusty is really hard to imagine…


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