Mary & Eric, I appreciate y’all taking the time to visit Manic Readers and give us a peek into your world. I’ve read several short stories with
John and enjoyed them immensely.
For those who haven’t “met” John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, could you please give us a brief synopsis of the series?
The series takes place during the sixth century in and around Constantinople, then capital of the Roman Empire, although John
has wandered as far as Egypt and Bretania. As a close adviser and operative for the emperor, John often finds himself investigating murders. During the course of his adventures he’s encountered political plots, religious heresies and visions, riots and plagues. He deals with all levels of society, from senators, generals, and renowned charioteers to pillar saints, street women, and beggars.
As a Mithran in an officially Christian empire, John is an outsider and perpetually in danger, particularly since Empress Theodora considers him an enemy. His elderly servant Peter, who is a devout Christian who worries about his master’s soul, and the rest of John’s small and eccentric household play an important role in the books, as do friends such as Felix, the captain of the palace guards, Anatolius, a young poet as the series begins, and Madam Isis, head of a well-known establishment of
a certain type in Constantinople.
We see the city of Constantinople as a character in its own right and hope readers enjoy following John along its bustling streets, past its monuments, and through its churches, baths, palaces, and other magnificent buildings. The books all contain a certain amount of humor. We also try to capture the atmosphere of an era where people really believed in angels, demons, charms, and magical potions.
The books are extensively researched and historically accurate. Each book also contains a fairly clued murder mystery in the classic style.
How did the decision come about that writing a series together was the thing to do?
Though we had individually published work, the first extremely short short story about John was written jointly, so we began purely by accident as we have continued. At the time we had no idea we’d be writing novels about our protagonist a few years later, and so the first story — A Byzantine Mystery, in Mike Ashley’s collection The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits — features a strangely unfamiliar Lord Chamberlain. Our claim is the sixth century historian Procopius that venomous gossip, penned it, thus explaining differences in the character’s, er, character.
Works for me… 😉
I’ve read how different your writing styles are. Could you please give us a little vignette of a plotting/writing session?
It will be permeated by the aroma emitted by the coffee pot bubbling perpetually on the stove. Eric alleges indispensable artifacts when jointly plotting or writing are strong door hinges, and he also advises hiding the sharp knives before beginning either venture.
We begin the process by batting ideas back and forth until we settle on the mystery to be addressed, and then add plot lines. This is less painful than the next step, outlining the book. Eric likes to have a skeleton to decorate, whereas Mary tends to start typing and see where she ends up. We utilize our strengths and weaknesses during the writing process, for example Eric often covers scene description and Mary might be more active in the dialogue line.
Once the writing begins, we draft a chapter and then hand it over to the other party to give a polish. It is then set aside for the second draft, which pending editorial suggestions is almost always the final version. If one of us has a particular interest in a specific scene, they get first whack at composing it. Sometimes this means chapters are written out of order so adjustments are made as needed in previous chapters, and on one memorable occasion we wrote the first and last chapters first, leaving only the howling wilderness between them to be composed.
On those occasions where certain changes are needed, whoever feels strongest about the proposed change takes the decision.
So far our hinges are still on the doors, so as you see it works well for us although it may not for everyone, There is no room for ego in co-writing but fortunately neither of us has much of one!
I love it….I’m a big coffee fan too, well caffeine in general. I can’t imagine writing the first & last without a middle. I think y’all must be really strong, this doesn’t sound like it’s for the faint of heart.
Do y’all ever find so much togetherness difficult?
Strangely enough, we were asked his very question a day or so ago, but no, we don’t. It comes partly from years of working in the same room and partly from the ability to shut out the world when writing, one of the best tools a writer can acquire. It takes practice, but it comes in due course. Plus when you’re married, you have to get along or it will all end in tears!
Sounds a lot like the selective hearing that Mom’s and many husbands acquire. I can see & agree with the getting along but I definitely need my away time…
How much research is involved in the mysteries?
A great deal, and all of it saved for possible future use. Much of our research usage is “submerged” in the text and while a lot of it will not be used, in some odd fashion it seems to sink into the ink as it were, adding to our presentation of life in Constantinople, with its mean alleys cheek by jowl with lavish homes and the daily struggle for workers and beggars to survive compared to the luxurious layabouts in the palace.
One of the challenges of writing an historical is that you can never be sure when you’ll be brought up short by something that goes without saying today, but which — you abruptly realize — may not be true of the world 1,500 years ago. For example, did they have doorknobs? How would you go about opening a window?
Our stories occur in the interstices of history, and it’s time-consuming researching events and real personages to make sure there’s actually room for our fiction to fit into the recorded reality without pushing history out of place.
Very interesting. I’ve never thought of those little things like doorknobs & what. I guess that attention to detail is what makes the stories so good!
Is there a book or character that’s a particular favorite?
It’s akin to picking favorite children, but today at least Mary confesses to a fondness for Six For Gold with its talking snake owned by a diminutive magician and a manufacturer of dear little cat mummies among other shady characters, and Five For Silver,
a darker entry set during the plague of 542 AD , during which John’s investigation is set in train after his servant Peter claims to have had a visit from an angel. It also features a man who collects oracles, machinations involving wills, a man who dances with the dead, and much else besides.
We dare not name favorite characters as the others will object, but let us add we were surprised that John’s just mentioned elderly servant Peter has become something of a favorite with readers. It may be though because cranky and often complaining, he is devoted to John even though his master practices a different religion than his. Over the course of the series Peter has come to be regarded as part of John’s small family..
Eric would have to be dragged down into Justinian’s imperial dungeons before admitting to any preferences. He will say he thinks Five For Silver incorporated the most fascinating elements of the era, and that the later books are generally superior technically, with regards to things like pacing and plotting. He refuses to choose a favorite character because, whichever character he chose, it would not be Empress Theodora, which might be dangerous.
Too funny! I haven’t read all of the books yet but will making my way through them in the near future.
Why John and why the Byzantine period? Did one of you choose the era and the other choose the character?
The Byzantine period was chosen because one afternoon we had a call from Mike Ashley, then in the process of editing a collection of short historical mysteries to be published as The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits.
He asked if we could oblige with a possible contribution to a very short deadline, three weeks or so as we now recall.
It happened Eric was interested in the Byzantine period and had a number of books about it, so the research was easily done.
As for our protagonist, the initial story was simply a very short puzzle with a twist at the end. We didn’t really need, or have room to develop, a living, breathing character. What was wanted was simply someone close to the emperor who might plausibly have been asked to carry out an important and delicate mission. The Lord Chamberlain, a close adviser to the emperor, met the job description. Lord Chamberlains had historically been called on to carry out a wide variety of tasks, even that of leading the armies in Italy (as Narses did). However, the Lord Chamberlain was traditionally a eunuch, so we included it as a nickname
as a bit of color. The name John was an easy choice because, like today, it was wildly popular. And the result was, perhaps not surprisingly, A Byzantine Mystery.
When we unexpectedly were asked for more short stories about John, we had to begin to grapple with the character aspects we had given him.
I for one am very glad Mike Ashley called. I enjoy spending time with John.
What are the specific challenges you’ve found writing in this period?
The sixth century was a long time ago and the world, and to a great extent the people in it, were different in significant ways from people today. Not only did they live differently, but their beliefs were unlike ours. They did not see their world from our perspective.
It seems that many, if not most, writers of historical fiction, concentrate on ways in which people in the past were similar to us, or ways in which we like to pretend they were more similar than they truly were. To an extent that is necessary, because we need some degree of familiarity to engage our interest and sympathies.
However, we are most interested in the ways in which the past differed from the present. So we try to maintain a sixth century atmosphere. We don’t try to draw parallels to modern times far in the unglimpsed future for our characters. We avoid modern slang, which we find jarring and anachronistic.
It can be tough balancing our desire to keep our books readable with our desire to immerse readers in an alien culture.
I think y’all do an excellent job. I don’t expect characters from that era to have the same sensibilities etc as we do now. I prefer to read more “real” historical fiction.
Will we ever get to read y’alls supernatural Victorian thriller? What an excellent period for a supernatural thriller. The Victorians were very
into the occult.
Indeed they were, and in the necessary research we learned a great deal about the sort of tricks so-called mediums used to hoodwink their visitors. As for the novel, it is currently knocking on publishers’ doors but so far nobody has answered. We remain ever hopeful, however, that eventually it will get in, even if it has to climb through the unlocked pantry window!
What’s required to get those creative juices flowing for each of you?
Coffee and plenty of it! Fortunately we are able to switch back and forth between mysteries and freelance work on various non fiction topics.
Are your characters real to you? If so, have they ever changed the course of a story?
Yes to both questions. Going back to Peter, for example, he first appeared in a relatively minor role in Beauty More Stealthy in Classical Whodunnits: Murder and Mystery from Ancient Greece and Rome, another of Mike Ashley’s collections. But Peter would not be denied and kept popping up and waving when we began writing the first novel, and ultimately became one
of the recurring characters.
Ha, I love stories like that…
Favorite genre or book as a child?
Mary loved the four March family chronicles by Louisa May Alcott, and still rereads them every couple of years. As a teen, she favored science fiction, though less so than fantasy, tales of the supernatural, and Golden age mysteries. As an adult, the latter two genres form much of her reading, with side raids into Victorian literature and historical non fiction.
Eric grew up reading science fiction and fantasy from Tom Swift Junior to the Lord of the Rings and everything in between. Some time in his early twenties he suddenly felt he had already read enough science fiction and fantasy to last several lifetimes, and since then his reading has been a bewildering stew of genres and classic literature, both new and old, with big chunks of mystery often bubbling to the top.
I love Alcott too. I remember Mom reading them to us before I could finally read them on my own. Mystery, fantasy, supernatural, history..we have a lot in common, reading wise.
How do you like to spend your down time?
We both read voraciously.
Is there anything y’all would like to share?
We’d like to thank those interested in John’s adventures. He was such an unusual character we are ever grateful to Poisoned Pen Press for taking a chance not only on John but also his unknown biographers. We just turned Nine For The Devil in to the press and although once again, despite all vows to keep the plot as simple as ABC, the story up and ran away with us down very strange streets indeed. Still, we hope readers will enjoy the journey when John’s latest adventure appears.
I’m sure that won’t be a problem!
Mary & Eric, I thank y’all again for taking the time to visit Manic Readers. I’ve had fun learning more about both of you and John. I hope he’s around for a long, long time.
Visit Mary, Eric and John here ~