Creating a Template for Mysteries

The Author Behind The Story: Interview

Zara Altair author

First Author Interview


My first author interview. I am excited. Thanks so much to fellow author Katherine Hayton for inviting me to interview for her website.
Enjoy the interview. If you have any questions, get in touch I love talking with readers and other authors.

Zara Altair – The Used Virgin
Please tell us a bit about yourself
Zara Altair combines mystery with a bit of adventure in the Argolicus mysteries. The Used Virgin is the first in a series of mysteries based in southern Italy at the time of the Ostrogoth rule of Italy under Theoderic the Great. Italians (Romans) and Goths live under one king while the Roman Empire is ruled from Constantinople. At times the cultures clash, but Argolicus uses his wit, sometimes with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court.
Zara Altair lives in Beaverton, Oregon. She is a fiction author writing in the historical fiction genre. Her approach to writing is to present the puzzle and let Argolicus and Nikolaos find the solution encountering a bit of adventure and some humor in their search. Her stories are rich in historical detail based on years of research. Zara is working on a historical novel Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic set in the same time period with Argolicus as the main character. To get on the reader list for Argolicus fans go here (copy and paste to your browser).
Zara loves reader feedback. Be sure to leave a review. Write comments here on the Author Page. Zara replies to all comments.
Author Q&A
What genre are your books?
Historical mystery. In Italy, giallo storico.
What draws you to this genre?
I’ve been reading in this genre since Nancy Drew for mystery and a gift subscription to monthly history books for kids.
Have you ever considered writing stories for other genres?
Yes. I’ve ghostwritten a number of steamy romance books and sometimes I write science fiction.
When did you first discover your passion for writing?
I’ve been telling stories since I was two when I sat on the back porch and told stories to Yoohoody, the owl who perched in the tree. I’ve been writing stories since I was seven.
What inspired your latest novel?
A phone conversation with my daughter. We were talking about how much we love the Italian day and she said, “Mommy, you should go to Ravenna.” Then she told me about Theoderic leading his people across the frozen Danube and eventually arriving in Ravenna. I thought, “I wonder what it was like then?”
I started researching and discovered a time of divided loyalties, intense theological differences, and a “barbarian” who lived like an emperor.
Do you have a teaser for The Used Virgin?
After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths. A young magistrate of mixed ancestry retires to find people are just as corrupt and venal in the provinces.
A corrupt Governor. A young girl. And old man.
A ruined reputation is worse than murder in Italy. Argolicus and his lifelong tutor, Nikolaos, discover evil, greed, and extreme extortion.
Argolicus unravels the threads.
What is your least favorite word?
Do you ever read your stories out loud?
Always. And in my writing group we read each other’s work. You can instantly hear the clunks or the stumbles over awkward phrasing.
What’s the first book you remember making an indelible impression on you?
Anna Karenina. I couldn’t stop. I read all night and finished just after dawn.
Do you have a favorite author?
In historical fiction, Robert Harris. My favorite is Pompeii. I love how his “Roman” is an engineer. And, the reader knows from the beginning that Vesuvius is going to erupt. From that moment on, it is a cliffhanger. Plus, for world builders, his alternative history, Fatherland, is a prime example of a character caught in the surrounding culture.
What are you currently working on?
Along with the next short story, The Peach Widow, I’m always at work on the novel Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic which takes place two years after the mystery series. Oh, and there’s that other contemporary mystery series that is percolating in my head with retired detective, Jake “Cozy” Cozzens.
If your book were made into a movie, who would you cast?
When I started, it was Tom Hardy as Argolicus for the smoldering undercurrent, but Argolicus is 32 at the time of the mysteries, so I needed a new actor. Argolicus Clive Standen. Nikolaos Dragos Bucur.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Write. Study story. Read in your genre. Start your author platform. It takes time. Have everything—author bio, book description, website, email autoresponder (emails written and sequenced), email opt-in—set up before you publish. Write. Edit. Keep writing. Connect with other writers. Plan you next book. Keep writing.
That’s all practical. Most importantly, believe in your story.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Katherine, thank you so much for the interview. Although writing is a solitary activity, sharing our individual stories is part of building a community.
Thank you, Zara. How can readers keep in touch?
Author WebsiteAuthor BlogFacebookTwitterLinkedinGoodreads,Amazon Author PageTHE USED VIRGIN
Thank you for reading.

Zara Altair

Ancient Hooligans Fought Over Religion

modern hooligans, writing research, Zara Altair

80% of Story Research Doesn’t Show

research books, novel research, story research, story development, story background

Research is background, not the story

Historical research, especially for a time when not much original material from the period survives, can be daunting. At any given time my desktop may be covered with notebooks, maps, and reference books. Or I may be looking at a collection of photos I took at the Domus dei tappeti di pietra (House of stone carpets). Or rereading a passage from Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church for a quick review of heresies.

When I went to Ravenna to walk around and experience, I noted down times to walk between various places in the city in order to get a feel for how the protagonist, Argolicus, would get from place to place. When a character moves from place to place in the city I may not write, “Ten minutes later he arrived at the palace.” But I may know how long a conversation will last before the character arrives at the palace door and the conversation ends.

Here’s an example of how walking around gave me a sense of getting from where The People (Ostrogoths) lived outside the walls of the city to the western “Roman” section of town.

By the time they funnelled through the north gate of the wall around the city he was cranky. He just wanted to get back. At the second road after the gate Argolicus turned west out of the throng. The street here in the north of the city were calm. Everyone had already left for the first day of the Circus. They crossed the bridge over the canal and he heard music. Not everyone had gone to the Circus. The music got louder as they came to a large building. Women leaned out of the windows. Some stood along the wall. A few soldiers and merchants laughed, flirted, and went inside. As they passed the door Argolicus noticed two tall, well-muscled men slip through the door surrounded by four giggling women.

At the same time he realised he really didn’t know where he was or how to get back. He couldn’t call it home, he’d been here less than 24 hours.

Rufus the bodyguard noticed his confusion and nodded left at the next corner. With subtle head nods and eye movements he guided them left, right, left again, over a bridge on another smaller canal, down another road, a right. Then Argolicus saw a huge house. A mountain of form. He could hear fountains behind the wall. The mere size was opulent.

After two more houses, they were at the portico of his house.

From on-site research to story detail

Oh, and the tavern. My inspiration came from a walk to Theoderic’s tomb. On the way back I took a short cut across the northern part of town. Something was wrong with my foot. It hurt. I needed to take a break from walking and I saw a slight indentation in a wall where I could rest for a minute. Across the street loud music came out of a building. A young woman was in the street and she was glaring at me. Harsh stares were outside of my Italian experience–this was my fourth time in Italy. I was confused, and then…I got it! She was a prostitute and I was interfering with her space. From her point of view I was keeping trade away. OK, there was no one else on the street at that time, but that was not her concern. I limped away. Yep, research can lead to some interesting experiences well outside of books and still make it into the story.


Research: Going Deep for Details

The First Round Leaves Gaps


Even though 80% of research doesn’t make it into your story, sometimes in the middle of writing a scene you know you don’t have the exact detail you want. Then, it’s back to scouring for infomation. I was getting ready to write a dinner scene near the beginning of the novel Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic when I found that I didn’t know the seating arrangement for the small dinner party.

Even though at the time of the beginning of the 6th Century C.E. most people sat on chairs or benches, high level events for rulers and the pope still held to the old Roman dining tradition of the triclium. I needed to know where each character was placed in the room so lears, salacious glances, and downright glares would be obvious to the main character, Argolicus.

Not only did I need to know exactly how people were placed, but I needed to know the etiquette for how people were seated around the table. I never did find an answer that would translate to Ostrogothic Ravenna, but I had an understanding of how people ranked in Theoderic’s court system, so I was able to get all the characters placed in the room.

At the same time, working on the short story The Peach Widow the ubiquitous fish sauce garum plays a role not only at the table but in the plot of the story. I researched how the sauce was made then. Here’s a factory from the time. Imagine fish guts fermenting in the sun and you’ll get an idea of how this place must have smelled and why the garum factories were always outside of town. The best sauce was made from mackerel offal.


garum factory

If you’d like to approximate how the sauce tastes, here’s a quick way to reproduce the sauce. It is an acquired taste.

1 bottle of Thai fish sauce (approx. 24 oz.)

1 liter of white grape juice

In a large saucepan simmer the grape juice until it is reduced to a least half. Cool and store. When you are ready to make your garum mix the reduced grape juice with the fish sauce in proportion: 1/3 grape juice to 2/3 fish sauce. This will even out the saltiness of the anchove based fish sauce to the approximate sweetness of garum made from fresh makerel. Try it on vegetables, salads, and grains and legumes like rice or lentils.



Cover Image: First Sketches

First Sketches Before The Drawing

I have to admit, I’m excited. Watching an artist take an idea and change it into a concrete image is fascinating.

Here are the first sketches to iron out details before the artist begins the drawing. First the artist sent an overall preliminary drawing to hone in on details.

Argolicus cover sketch


We had more back and forth about details, especially the face and hair. Here’s the second sketch.

Argolicus Bust Sketch

If you are planning on publishing your narrative fiction, especially historical fiction, working with an artist is a great practice to set the details in your head so you can communicate with the artist.

Keep writing!




Cover Art and Dressing the Hero

fante dell'esercito bizantino VI century Byzant

Recreating History with Play

I’m working with a graphic designer to create not just cover art but an image to identify every book in the series of stories about Argolicus: the short stories and the novel Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic.We started with an image of a Roman soldier at the time 512 C.E. to 514 C.E. The style of the tunic is OK, but Roman and we’re changing it to Ostrogoth.

fante dell'esercito bizantino VI century Byzant 
Since the protagonist is not a soldier he’ll be holding a book not a lance. And this particular book, the Codex Argenteus, plays a significant role in the novel.
Then there’s the face. The hair had to go. Argolicus is dusty blond with curls. So I found a few male hair styles and sent them on as references. 
And the face on the soldier was a bit glaring and the models were all very pretty, so we needed a thinker.


I know, dark complexion but this is exactly how the process works. Then, we needed to change the tunic and give it some embroidery, worked by Argolicus’ Ostrogoth mum, rather than military leather patches. 


 Next, the illustrator needed to know where the embroidery goes on the garment. 

But this fellow, isn’t up on the social scale as high as Argolicus so I did a very rough sketch for the artist on embroidery placement adding a front panel as in the illustration above and shoulder patches.


All this for a recognizable image to tie together all the books in the series.

Book Cover and Marketing

Your book cover is the first thing your potential reader sees. Spend time and thought on how it will look. Examine other books, especially top sellers, in your genre. Notice the conventions and use them to your advantage while still making your cover unique. If you are planning a series, work with your graphic designer to set up a convention so all the books in the series are recognizable to returning readers. 
Keep writing!

Dog Details and Research


Meet Pup

In the current work in progress, The Peach Widow, Argolicus visits a farm to settle a dispute between two sons and their stepmother.

A farm. The farmer needs a dog. So, off I went to do some research for possible candidates for the farmer’s dog.

Writing about the early 6th Century in Italy requires a lot of extrapolation because the Emperor Justinian did everything possible to erase all trace of Theodoric and the Ostrogoths in Italy.

I started by looking for Roman dogs. The Romans had two strains of dogs guard dogs and hunting dogs. Farmers used dogs to guard their home, the land, and livestock.

Columella categorized dogs in his De Re Rustica (Rustic Things). He had advice for hunting dogs and for farm dogs. He suggests white dogs to distinguish them easily from wolves. Then he goes on to describe the best dog for a farm.

The farm-yard dog should be heavily built, with a large head, drooping ears, bright eyes, a broad and shaggy chest, wide shoulders, thick legs, and short tail. Because it is expected to stay close to the house and granary, a lack of speed is not important.

I was narrowing down on the dog. They require a studded collar to protect their neck. The dog should be trained to sleep in the house during the day so he can guard the farm at night.

Rome dog

I switched out the white dog for sheep and the black dog for terrifying thieves and came up with a white dog. While I went down a dog photo rabbit hole and read about Molossian dogs, the base of modern day mastiffs, one detail caught my attention.

In the Satyricon, Trimalchio has an enormous Molossian named Scylax (Pup), brought in on a chain and introduced to his guests as guardian of the house and slaves.

Of course, the giant white farm dog in the story must be named Pup.

Codex Argentius and Short Stories

codex argentius cover

Prequels and eBooks

I’ve started a series of prequels to Ravenna: A Mosaic. These are short stories of Argolicus in the time between when he is Praefectus Urbis in Rome and when he arrives in Ravenna at the beginning of the novel.

The first story, The Used Virgin is based on the Variae of Cassiodorus, iii. 46 in which Venantius the governor of Bruttia is rebuked for a very severe punishment. Scholars have puzzled over the letter. Who better to solve the mystery, than Argolicus, I thought. The story began.

My sister, a graphic artist, is helping me with an image of Argolicus which I plan to use for the short story series as well as the novel. We are starting with this image from Felix Ravenna: La croce, la spada, la vela:l’alto Adriatico fra V e VI secolo a cura di Andrea Augenti, Carlo Bertelli (2007) Skira editore,  Milano,p. 139.

We’re changing the sword to a book, the Codex Argentius, which is a key component of the novel. The image is of the silver book cover, probably not the original, but that’s what we will use. We’re changing his face, eyes (to blue), and hair, but I wanted to give her a 6th Century image for a beginning.

Once we have the graphics, done, I’ll release the first short story on Amazon.

The second short story, The Peach Widow, is now the current work in progress.

fante dell'esercito bizantino VI century Byzant

(disegno di Giorgio Albertini)

Zara Altair