Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Gem of Your Heart's Desire by Caroline Lawrence

One of my motives in writing historical fiction is to take the reader back in time. A powerful way of making that world seem real is to fill it with artefacts of the day. An ancient object can tell us volumes about daily life in past times, especially about the different ways people saw the world. 

Children in primary school (my readership) particular love objects they can see, hold, taste, smell and hear. Whenever I go for a walk to the park with my grandsons, they pounce on dropped items such as a used scrunchy, a broken key ring and even an unusual twig. Then they will compare, boast and squabble over these treasures like magpies. 

When I use Roman artefacts to detail a different historical period, I try not to just plonk them in. I try to make them significant and memorable. So I ask myself ‘How does this object illustrate the different sensibilities and/or mind-set of the time? How can this artefact be used to define a character?’ And finally, ‘How could I make this artefact a matter or life or death?’ 

Signet ring
In the very first chapter of my first Roman Mystery, The Thieves of Ostia, a Roman girl named Flavia Gemina discovers her gift for being a detective when her father’s signet ring goes missing in an ancient take on the locked room’ trope: the locked villa mystery

How does this object illustrate aspects of the ancient world? 
It speaks of literacy, identity and bureaucracy. 
How can it be used to define a character? 
The intaglio (carving in a ring) shows the divine twins Castor and Pollux and hints at the cognomen of the owner, Marcus Flavius Geminus. 
It also showcases his daughter Flavia’s gift for sleuthing.
How could it be a matter of life or death? 
Flavia finds the signet ring in a magpie’s nest along with a gold and emerald earring which she sells to the goldsmith. Later, she uses the gold he gives her to buy a dark-skinned slave-girl in order to save her from a dire fate. Nubia will be come her best friend.

Oil-lamp
One of the most basic Roman artefacts is an oil-lamp. A hollow clay vessel, it had a hole for oil and a hole for the wick and almost always some kind of decoration. Mention of oil-lamps remind my younger readers that ancient Romans had no electricity. 

I use an oil-lamp to help define Flavia’s character in Trimalchio’s Feast and other Mini-mysteries. In a Roman Mystery short story called The Case of the Citruswood Table I have her examine the scene of a crime. She deduces from a greasy handprint on the wall that the crime was committed at night: the perpetrator had been holding a clay oil-lamp that ‘sweats’ oil.
How could I make this article a matter of life or death? 
Simple. Have a breeze extinguish the flame or let the oil run out at a crucial moment in order to plunge the hero into darkness. 

Wax tablet 
Romans used to take notes and make wills on wooden tablets with beeswax. You would use a stylus to write on it. An ancient Roman could sign it with a firm press of their signet ring into its layer of wax. 
In my first Roman mystery, I introduce a feral child whose tongue has been cut out because he witnessed a crime. By book 2, Lupus is learning to read and write. The wax tablet will become his main method of communication and often a matter of life and death. 

Bronze Mirror 
Through a glass darkly’, the famous phrase from the Bible, should be translated in a metal disk vaguely’ as this replica bronze mirror demonstrates. 

We see ourselves all the time. In mirrors, shop windows, family photographs and a thousand selfies. From examining a replica mirror like this one I got the idea that identical twins separated at a young age might not have had a clear idea of their appearance. What if one twin grew up in Britannia in an iron-age round house? His only chance to see himself would have been in the blade of a sword or in the reflection of a pond. So he might not recognise his twin even face to face. If one twin were Roman and the other a Briton they might even fight each other! 

Beaker for breast milk 
A clay beaker like this one from the British Museum is a startling reminder that there were no sterilised baby bottles in ancient times. One end was placed against the nipple so milk could be expressed. The other is nozzle shaped; the baby would suck on this end. The grinning actor’s mask on it is apotropaic; it turns away evil and keeps the milk from curdling. Once full, the holes would have been plugged up, probably with beeswax. Or the beaker would have been set on a table or shelf in the baby’s room. Archaeologists think that these beakers would have been dangerous because they couldn’t be sterilised and might have harboured germs.


In my first Roman Quest, Escape from Rome, 12-year-old Juba flees Rome with his siblings – including his baby sister – in the middle of the night. His mother tells him to buy a slave-girl to be a wet-nurse once he gets to Ostia. In the meantime he has a clay beaker full of milk in case the baby wakes at night. But when their pursuers are almost upon them and Juba most needs the beaker to quiet his crying sister, he discovers that his other sister has fed the milk to a stray kitten she found by the Circus Maximus. Life or death!

Sardonyx cameo
My brother-in-law Stephen Pollock-Hill is a glass maker with a passion for cameo glass and cameo jewels. One day a few years ago he showed me (online) this stunning sardonyx cameo of Minerva from the time of the Roman emperor Augustus. It had just been sold at a Christie’s auction for $60,000. 
Why don’t you use this in one of your books? he asked. 
So I did. 
I made the so-called Minerva Gem one of the most important elements in Juba’s flight from Rome. It becomes a kind of talisman first for Juba and later, in Britannia, for a red-haired girl who befriends him.

When I teach a simple but powerful story structure to 8-year-olds, I always talk about step 2, the Desire, which is often the engine of the story, the thing that drives the protagonist. Screenwriters often use a concrete object to symbolise the hero’s desire. For example, in the 2014 film Paddington, the eponymous bear’s desire is to find a new home. But you can’t ‘see’ finding a new home, so the screenwriters give us a brief visual symbol. A snow-globe of Big Ben succinctly illustrates Paddington’s desire to travel to London and seek a new home there. 

Gem of Your Hearts Desire
This month (April 2017) I’m been struggling to finish the first draft of my fourth and final Roman Quest book, Return to Rome. The protagonist of this book is Bouda, the 13-year-old British girl who was raised as a cutpurse in the back streets of Londinium. She has been taught that ‘Gold and gems and pearls are the only thing that will keep you happy in this world.’ So she naturally wants gold and gems and pearls. Most of all, she wants the Minerva Gem. 

But what really drives her? What is her desire? And what concrete object can I use to symbolise it? I closed my eyes and asked my subconscious to find the answer. It came almost at once, a signet ring. Then I sat on my meditation couch and went into my intuitive right brain to write a possible passage that would show (not tell) the reader about Bouda’s driving force. 

She felt him take her hands and when she turned to look at him, he held her gaze. ‘Bouda. My father was the richest gem merchant in Rome. He had gold and gems and pearls. But those things didn’t keep him safe. Or my mother.’ She saw his jaw clench as he tried to control his emotions. ‘The gold and gems and pearls are not the end. They are the means.’
‘The means?’ 
‘They are the means to get what you want.’ He took a breath. ‘Bouda. What do you want?’
‘Safety!’ she replied. ‘To be safe. To not always be on the run.’ She felt her eyes filling with tears. 
‘No!’ he said. ‘That’s negative. That’s what you don’t want. What do you want? What does your heart desire?’ He had been holding her hands and now he lifted the two fingers with the signet rings on them: the Capricorn and the thunderbolt. ‘You didn’t choose either of these rings. But what if you could? If you could carve your heart’s desire on a gem, what would the picture be? What do you really want in this life?’ 

In Roman times, the design on an intaglio hinted at the owner’s name, career or favourite deity. But what is more appealing than a gem in a gold setting with an image that symbolises your life’s desire or passion? 


Last week I met two young fans for tea at the British Museum. Anna and Naomi are about the same age as my protagonist Bouda. Afterwards I showed them some of the objects that inspire my writing and told them about my idea of using a ring to show a character’s desire. I asked what picture carved on a gem would symbolise their heart’s desire. Anna replied a heart (for love) and children (for family). Naomi replied a heart (for love) and animals. I was able to tell them that in Roman times a Cupid often stood for higher love and the dolphin sometimes represented the soul. 

What image carved on a gem would symbolise your heart’s desire? 

Caroline Lawrence is author of The Roman Mysteries and The Roman Quests. The fourth and final Roman Quest, Return to Rome, will be published early in 2018.  

images © RomanBaths, © 2008 The Little Entertainment Group, © Christies, © BritishMuseum