Last Thursday, we welcomed award winning historical novelist Lindsey Davis to a packed hall of more than two hundred members and visitors, for a thoroughly enjoyable hour and a half question and answer session, led with great skill by our Chair, Katrina Kelly.
To many, Lindsey is best known as the creator of Marcus Didius Falco, a detective working on the mean streets of ancient Rome in the first century AD. After twenty international bestsellers with Falco as her central character, she has also written a number of highly acclaimed books about his adopted daughter and private eye in the reign of Domitian, Flavia Albia.
Lindsey started the evening by telling us about her early life and first experiences as a writer – at the age of five to be precise. Inspired by her primary school teacher in Birmingham, she was soon immersing herself in creating stories whenever she had the chance so not surprisingly, she later gained a place to study English Language and Literature at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. After graduation, she decided to enter the civil service. Thirteen years later however, unable to tolerate the sexism and lack of opportunity that she and her other female colleagues had to endure, she resigned and the civil service’s loss became historical fiction’s gain.
With nothing to lose, Lindsey took the brave decision to become a freelance writer. After being shortlisted for the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize in 1985 (she told us a hilarious story of how she spent the whole night standing by her Amstrad printer as it churned out her entry in bright blue ink), she realised that she might well be able to make a living from writing.
She also decided that the subject of the Romans, rather than her first love, the English Civil War, was more likely to bring her success with the public. As Robert Graves had the Julio-Claudians covered, Lindsey decided to concentrate on a different period of Roman history. From the very start, she was determined to create strong female characters in her writings and her first (and favourite) book, The Course of Honour, about the Emperor Vespasian and his mistress Antonia Caenis, reflected that. Inspiration struck again soon after (whilst Lindsey was waiting for the Tube in fact), and the first in the Falco series was published with instant success – the rest is history.
My favourite part of the evening was without doubt when Lindsey discussed, in her witty and direct way, how exactly she goes about writing her novels. Historical accuracy is of key importance to her, so before she develops her storyline, extensive research is undertaken. Some of that research will come from archaeological finds, a passion of Lindsey’s since her school days – although kneeling down in a muddy dig for hours on end has never been a pleasure (I couldn’t agree more). In the past, she has also been an intrepid traveller and visiting the places about which she is writing has allowed her to get the fine details of her stories just right. Once her first draft of a story is completed, we all realised that Lindsey’s work had only just started – her publisher, copy editor, and book cover designer all give their contributions – and it makes Lindsey’s record of publishing a book a year for the past three decades all the more impressive. It’s taken me two days to write this blog!
After further questions from the audience, the evening drew to a close with an unexpected treat – a reading by Lindsey from her latest Flavia Albia novel Pandora’s Boy, which will be released on 5th April this year. And yes, she’s already started writing the next instalment . . . only twelve months to wait!
© Liv Sample