Zara Altair: The Roman Heir

Mervi's Book reviews

A historical murder mystery set in the year 512.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Page count at GoodReads: 92 which includes the first chapter of the next mystery, the Vellum Scribe

Gaius Vitellus Argolicus is a former Roman praefect, known for his careful study of people and places which lead to fair judgments. However, he’s not good a politics and so he leaves Rome and returns to countryside. His old friend asks him to take a book to a scholarly young man. The man, Philo, lives along Argolicus’ route, so he decides to visit Philo’s family.

However, when Argolicus arrives, he finds that the house is in disarray because Philo’s father has been murdered. Servius Norbanus Pius was a man who didn’t care for the new king Theodrick’s reign and the way the king appointed new men in positions than had been long held by the sons of old Roman…

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A Review of Georgios Boudalis, The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity

The Vellum Scribe, Wiliarit, is a bookmaker. Early history of bookbinding and it’s relation to sewing and other crafts.

Variant Readings

In 2016, I gave paper that revisited the old question of the rise of the codex. There has been a lot of work done over the years on why the codex may have come to replace the roll, but there has been much less concern about the question of how: What technological developments were involved in bringing about the multi-quire codex with its characteristic stitching that became the medium for the transmission of literature for a millennium?

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Protagonist Deep Dive


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 List

The first step was choosing other protagonists similar in some way.

  • Good detecting skills
  • Historical
  • Italian

I spent several days adding and removing protagonists from the list. My aim was to attract readers who might like Argolicus.

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.

Altered Emphasis

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.

Zara Altair

Responding to Details in an Honest Review

how a review can change your novel

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 an 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

  1. Knowing my best reader base
  2. Providing accurate details, including spelling
  3. Wanting the best text possible for all readers

Honest reviews do help an author create the best books possible for readers. After this experience, I encourage writers to consider text changes after an honest review.

Zara Altair

Author Interview: Writing Historical Mystery

find the facts, quote from The Roman Heir, Zara Altair

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 ​

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
After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.

A naive teenager. A sister with secrets. A corrupt patrician.  Argolicus unravels the threads.

Argolicus and Nikolaos deliver a gift but arrive hours after a brutal murder. They look for an answer until they find that a man’s secrets do not go with him to the grave.
When Argolicus leaves Rome to retire to his estate in southern Italy, his powerful friend Boethius asks a small favor. Before he sets sail to the south, deliver a book to a young man in Ostia near the port at the mouth of the Tiber river.

When Argolicus arrives in the dying resort town, he finds chaos and sorrow in the villa. The young book lover’s father has been viciously murdered just hours before and the young man asks for help.

With just days to find the killer before his ship leaves port, Argolicus must probe the politics of the dying town. But with every investigation he makes, the circle of possibilities grows. Success seems out of reach and he must disappoint the family, until a ruffian accosts him and pieces fall into place.

Picture The Roman Heir, An Argolicus Mystery, Zara Altair, crime, historical fiction, Italian detective

The Power of Good Verbs

Andrea Lundgren

Writers are told to make their verbs work for them–which means picking verbs powerful enough to stand without modifiers and adverbs like “very,” “slowly,” “quickly,” and the like.

But sometimes this can lead to distracting the reader, where the verb used is so particular, so unique, and so unusual as to send them to the dictionary or make them ponder the term longer than necessary. It isn’t always that important to the story to say “he contemplated” rather than “he thought.” Sometimes, the best verb is a simpler one, the one that gets out of the way and tells the story without holding the plot up.

For example:

He ran his fingers through his hair in a hurried gesture before opening the door to his boss’ office. She was there, sitting behind the desk in pristine glory, and the words he’d rehearsed in his head for days on end suddenly…

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Countdown to Publish

The Roman Heir, An Argolicus Mystery, Zara Altair, historical fiction, mystery, Italian detective

Sunday Sojourn – Roma Nova

Creating an alternative past.

Jennifer C. Wilson

Morning everyone, and welcome to the first Sunday Sojourn of June (where is this year going?). Today, I’m welcoming Alison Morton to the blog, and she’s taking us somewhere you may feel you know, but not as you know it, and explains how to create a new, fictional state…

Alison MortonNov16_sm

Hello, Jennifer. Thank you for inviting me into your blog world. Let me take you to an imaginary one in Central Europe, to a city state in the mountains. Its people are tough, its history long and its heroines valiant. Well, nearly always valiant; they do have their bad days.

This is Roma Nova! Founded sixteen hundred years ago when the Roman Empire was crumbling, this tiny country has struggled its way through history, survived  and thrived. Silver in the mountains, Roman engineering genius and a robust attitude to threats has brought them through. Roma Nova lives by core Roman values…

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Behind the Author: Real People, Heroes, and Imaginings

Sikelgaita, heroine of author Zara Altair,Image by Alayna at Deviant Art

Formative Ideas

Every author draws from personal history when creating characters. The main character, the protagonist, along with the antagonist derive from your experience to emerge as rich, engaging people in your story. Behind the list of characteristics, flaws and shortcomings, physical makeup, and the like, intentionally or unintentionally the author draws from personal experience.

Often the tiny details, some never revealed in the story, or mere hints, emerge from the author’s own life experience.

Childhood Heroes

My childhood heroes were without superpowers. The Lone Ranger, Sky King, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on the radio. And the non-human Lassie (in books). And in newspaper comics, Brenda Starr, Reporter.

A little later my father, an Episcopal priest, who devoured Georges Simenon with the Larousse by his side listened to The Whistler and The Shadow as we drove each Sunday from services in Arroyo Grande to services in Atascadero, California.

As we drove along the oceanfront and then inland to rolling hills and oak trees, the mysteries and revelations of human behavior gone wrong fascinated my young imagination. The question The Shadow asked at the beginning of each episode made me wonder about every person I met:  Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

That question was the start my lifelong pastime of making up stories about strangers I saw. As an adult, my notebooks filled with sketches of people I saw who sparked some mini-story in my head. An innocuous looking housewife who harbored a secret jealousy that ate at her heart. A hobo—now street person—who had once been (fill in the blank).

Observation: The Author Skill

Both detectives, The Shadow and The Whistler, watched and listened. I’ve been a mystery fan ever since.

I didn’t find my voice as a fiction writer until I started writing mysteries with a central character who delves into moral ambiguities in a time when murder was not a crime.

All those mini-stores over the years were accumulated into flawed character background to challenge my protagonist with their secrets. A person can do good in the world and yet perform a base evil like murder.

Those observations of strangers—how they moved their hands, or walked, or stood at attention ramrod straight or with drooping shoulders—help populate stories with characters with idiosyncrasies and deep or shallow motivations.

Personal Heroine

Other than Brenda, I never quite found a female heroine until around 10 years ago when I read John Julius Norwich’ The Normans in Sicily. And then, Sikelgaita!

Her’s is not a name on everyone’s lips. However others have romanticized her. (See image above)

When Robert Guiscard saw her he dropped everything stunned by her presence, divorced his wife, and married her.
Key concepts:
Stunning presence
Married with children (9)
Fought at his side in full armour in battles
Loyal to the end over many years (27) until his death

I admired her because she was not a single woman with superpowers defying all odds but an embodiment of a multi-faceted woman.

Real People, Heroes, and Imaginings

Your story begs for believable characters. Writers can borrow from real life, observations, their personal hero set, and imagination to create characters who resonate with readers. When it comes to Write What You Know even your heroes have a place in rounding out characters.

Zara Altair

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.
She consults with a select group of writers as The Story Bodyguard.

The bulk of this article was originally posted as a response to David Amerland’s Sunday Read: Superpowers, June 4, 2017.

Image by  Alayna at Deviant Art