“A Talent for Historical Accuracy” (by Thomas K. Carpenter)

Thomas K. Carpenter’s first paid print publication was in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in February of 2015. The story featured an ancient Roman sleuth,  Magistrate Ovid, working in Alexandria. The Magistrate Ovid series now includes a story for AHMM, as well as several novels. Its latest entry appears in EQMM’s July/August issue, on sale next week. In this post, the author, who works in a variety of genres, discusses some of the challenges of historical fiction—a form that EQMM’s founder, Frederic Dannay, once called the most difficult of all for a writer.—Janet Hutchings

Historical fiction can be tricky business, especially when it involves a mystery. The tiniest incorrect detail can undermine the plot, derailing the story off a literary cliff. These pitfalls are even harder to find when the history in question is a few thousand year ago.

Before I delve into my foibles, let me give you some background. The July/August 2018 issue of EQMM will contain the newest Magistrate Ovid story, “The Lightness of Man.” This story and the others published in EQMM and AHMM are about a Roman magistrate in ancient Alexandria. Ovid, after surviving his time as an officer in the Roman Legion, is given charge of the Rhakotis district, the poorest district of the city, a place with no political sway, which leaves him at the mercy of his Machiavellian superior—a man who has no love for him from their time in the Legion.

The location of the stories, ancient Alexandria, provide a wealth of interesting backdrops with the Great Library, the Lighthouse at Pharos, or the Tomb of Alexander, and famous personages in Euclid, Heron, Caesar, Cleopatra, or Hypathia. It’s a region with a clash of cultures between Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and dozens of other peoples others drawn by the city’s significance.

Yet for all these happenings there is still so much we don’t understand about the time. When exactly did the fire in the Great Library happen, or was it more than one event? Was Alexander’s body stolen from his tomb, and by whom? What did the interior of the Lighthouse look like?

Then there are the minor things, the bits of culture accruement, the detritus of daily life, that escape the historical writer, not due to a lack of research but to a lack of translation in understanding. In one of the early stories involving Magistrate Ovid, a story that never saw the light of day due to one of these mistakes, the crux of the mystery depended on a unit of coinage—the talent.

All forms of currency are essentially a unit of economic measure. In our modern times, we have the dollar, or peso, or for the technological risk-takers: the bitcoin. As I constructed the mystery, I imagined the talent as a gold coin like any other—after all, it was the unit of currency that described the early constructions of Alexandria. The Lighthouse of Alexandria cost 800 talents (which is about $3,000,000 in our time) to build.

What I failed to understand was that a talent was not a single coin. It was, in fact, the amount of gold coins that could be contained within a clay jar. Rather than a piece of currency that could be hidden in a pouch, or in the folds of a stola, the talent required two hands to carry, and let’s not even consider if multiple talents were integral to the plot (hint: they were).

Thus the carefully constructed mystery fell apart. Much as a clay jar full of gold coins would if you dropped it.

Thankfully, good readers, I did not encounter any such troubles in the latest Magistrate Ovid story, “The Lightness of Man.” While the details about the interior of the Lighthouse at Pharos were difficult to find, there were enough writings that an adequately representative picture could be surmised, and nothing that I uncovered that would derail the plot. Anyway, people tend to drive the conflicts contained within a story, and while the clothes and coinage has changed over the last two thousand years, ambition and greed have not. So please, pick up a copy of the July/August 2018 issue of EQMM (or better yet, a subscription!), and enjoy another thrilling and insightful adventure with Magistrate Ovid.

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