From the postbag

All letters to Forum are read by Lindsey and the most interesting for other people are published here (anonymously, if people wish), with Lindsey’s answers. We also include funny notes that appeal to us. Please go to Frequently Asked Questions as well.

As an American fan, I wonder if it would be possible for the publisher or some dedicated fan to do the legwork involved to furnish your website with a glossary of terms (too late for the books), especially –as you put it in a fine “rant”– the “bolshie British Midlands, in the mid Twentieth Century” slang. Context usually provides enough of a clue, but it would be helpful to be sure of what exactly “po-faced,” “nobble,” “dabchick,” and “hoicked” mean (to pick just a few from the volume I’m currently reading).

And many other folks might like to know the Latin terms; what a sistrum is, for example.

In truth I have been quite daunted by the scale of the task you want me to undertake. I haven’t even been able to think about it. As an author, I pride myself in having a large vocabulary. English English is a particularly varied and subtle language which draws on many sources, and I have a personal liking for precise technical terms. That said, yes I always try to make meaning plain from context. I believe a novel should stand on its own, without a vast paraphernalia of explanation.

The problem with providing a glossary is that the words that puzzle you probably don’t coincide with words that puzzle others.

What I can say is that I typed “po-faced,” “nobble,” “dabchick,” and “hoicked” into my normal search engine and definitions came up immediately for all of them. Sistrum also was defined straightaway, with pictures. Apart from sistrum I wouldn’t call any of those other four words particularly unusual, local or slangy; nobbling juries is proverbial in the UK. So readers who are stuck should turn to the ubiquitous Google, I feel.

I understand it’s no good asking for specifics of future plans for Falco & Co., but I do want to give customer feedback in the form of falling to the ground and weeping and wailing: “No! You can’t leave it all there! Will Vespasian take the loss of his chief spy with equanimity or will Falco be hired to investigate his disappearance? Will Thalia have a viable baby which Falco will have to adopt? Was Anacrites alive when he went down the drain (and thus possibly still alive and dangerous) or was he dead (and still possibly dangerous)? Will Laeta become even more dangerous now that Anacrites is done for?”

Unless years are jumped into the future to show at least some of the end results, there’s going to be a continuing stream of questions like this. (Jackie Britton, December 2011)

for Jackie and others:

Oh come on, the snakey spy is dead; you don’t think Falco and Petro are inefficient??? And am I the only person who sees that the administration chose to involve them specifically to get rid of a difficult problem?

See Master and God on imperial executions: The Emperor wants to get rid of you. Officers arrive with swords. There is no trial. They just kill you. Better not put an obituary notice in the Daily Gazette. Just die quietly.

And no, it’s no good asking for specifics when 1) I don’t reveal my plots in advance and anyway 2) I may not have any idea of the answers myself. These are characters in books, invented folk. At some point books have to end and you just have to imagine the people living happily ever after. Or unhappily, as Falco would indubitably put it.

 Several readers have queried the mention of algebra in Nemesis, imagining this to be a mistake.

Algebra, in some form, was known in Egypt and Babylon. Diophantus of Alexandria is called the ‘father of algebra’. I am not so mad as to invent a fiction that would lay me open to error-spotters!

As an Anacrites fan I was sorry to lose him (we think) at the end of ‘Nemesis’. After all we’ve been through together, any chance of a resurrection? –Alan Brout (Jan 2011)

He is dead. Amazing that so many people suspect he will reappear like Moriarty. Who really believes that Falco and Petronius don’t know what to do with swords??

People have asked whether Falco is translated into Latin and have offered to do it:

I’ve had requests like this before. In principle, I am open to offers just as I am for any language, but foreign-language books don’t start with the text – a publisher has to show interest first, then they generally arrange their own translator. So far, none has approached me for a license. The market would be very small, and realistically, it’s not attractive commercially.

Brian Duncan writes: Do you Twitter? I tried to find you there but it wasn’t apparent. Maybe an alias? I’d like to follow if you do. If not, then please do get on with it. You know it’ll happen one day.

You know it will happen one day??? – I don’t think so!

Your accuracy in portraying male characters, particularly those aspects of character we seek to hide, is scary. –Keith Brown (1 February 2007)

I’m delighted you enjoy the books so much and thanks for your kind remarks. ‘Particularly those aspects we seek to hide’ is wonderful. I am not sure I do that consciously, but as I always say, I can create male characters because I know some men; close observation is part of the novelist’s craft. Writing about men is no different to writing about dogs, lions, snakes, lawyers or any other distinctive creatures.

I am always surprised (understatement) at how many male authors can’t do it in reverse. From which it follows, of course, that I don’t think all men fail to understand women.

While it is unavoidable, and perhaps part of the fun, that there is ‘a lot of me’ in Falco, just as there is in Helena, I am very proud that he comes across as convincingly male. I have worked at it. I have to make him behave as I think he really would, rather than as I would sometimes like him to. It requires the author to be tough and ascetic, and never sentimental – even though the character himself may be.

I’m rambling. Having a new book out makes you introspective!

Is there any reason for Falco following the Blues? As an exiled Brummie in the West Country I like to think of the link back to Birmingham . –Ian Armstrong (11 October 2006)

Excellent thought – but in my vague Brummie way I just picked a colour at random, I’m afraid. Half the time I have to look up which is right…

I am confused. Are Falco and Helena married? He refers to her as wife and girlfriend. Did i miss the wedding or is it just as they become more established, he uses the term wife rather than girlfriend? –Sara Gilliland (4 June 2006)

I am sorry you are confused. The definition of Roman marriage was simply that two people decided to live together. So, from the moment Helena turns up with her luggage in ‘Venus in Copper’ they are married – but since it was also possible to have a contract, hold a ceremony, and so forth – and I suspect most people did – they have never actually had a wedding… It reflects both the state of the author’s research, and their own mutual insecurity, that this is unclear in the books – but the definitive scene discussing it occurs at the very end of ‘Poseidon’s Gold’. A lot of people miss what is being said there, but really it’s ‘we don’t need a ceremony, we are hitched.’

Never having written more than an essay in my life I’m interested in what happens when you finish a story and the editor gets her hands on it. Surely she can’t suggest major changes, just the odd word or two? –Pat Barnard-Smith (19 August 2005)

First, although many editors are female, mine is a man. I have had the same one as long as I have been published, which is in itself something of a record. Obviously by now I know in advance what he is likely to query, so I can choose whether to avoid comment, or to be mischievous and do it anyway…

In general, since I know he is a good editor I will stop and look again at anything he queries on a manuscript. If he thought it necessary, he could suggest a complete re-write, though in my case if that happened I think I would give up writing! He can’t over-rule me. But if he thinks a chapter or passage doesn’t work, or if he thinks something is not clearly explained, then I will consider how to improve it, because if my editor has been pulled up, so might any other reader be. The next thing to say, though, is that in most cases, I will find my own solution (sometimes just cutting out the passage that caused the trouble). Firstly, I think a professional author should take responsibility for their work. So what you get with my books is all mine. Secondly, I hate, hate, hate, anybody else rewriting my stuff. It never has the right rhythm. And it rarely comes out as what I really meant. Thirdly, if I disagree, I leave my own version.

I once had two different editors look at the same manuscript. They had different interests and made different comments – which meant I had twice as many queries and, frankly, I ended up in tears. However, it is interesting all of their notes were valid, though different. This raises the question, should every book be looked at by a whole team of editors – or in fact, would it be almost as good a book if the author were able to pick up their own typos, mis-spellings, inconsistencies etc, and otherwise had no editing at all.

There was another occasion when someone (an author, pretty famous) got hold of my ‘First Draft’ before my editor had seen it. They commented with amazement on how ‘clean’ the draft was – so I guess I do for myself what some other authors leave for their editors. But then, I regard it as part of my job to present as perfect a draft as possible. A novel of 100,000 words is a big project to control – but I think it is the role of an author to grapple with problems. How else do you learn? When I hear of agents/editors/ anybody else working on a book to ‘make it right’, my blood boils.

There is no accounting for readers, anyway. Among the ‘favourites’ readers have suggested in my website poll is one book that has a ludicrous structure and another where I thought the subject matter was very difficult for most readers. You could say, an editor shouldn’t have allowed either (and possibly he didn’t want to; I can’t now remember). Then again, he was not at all phased by the ending of ‘See Delphi and Die’, which has caused more queries from readers than anything I have done in eighteen years…

I have heard of authors having appalling editors who scribble all over everything and demand pointless re-writes. I would move – but when you are trying to earn your living, that takes nerve.

While trying to think of an appealing ‘Subject’ title it occured to me that as a ‘resting actress’, currently I’m temping and not answering phones, that Falco might have a glamorous receptionist one who polishes her nails and wears shoes with very high heels…as you can tell this is a picture relating more to Falco’s time travelling Marlowe-esque days obviously and not a suggestion, which having read your web-site today, I would never, ever, do.

I wanted to write and say that I enjoyed looking through the web-site (this goes to all fellow maintainers) and found it very funny as well as informative. I read my first Falco novel in a villa just north af Milan, having run away from studying for my degree in any real shape or form. Since then I have devoured them whenever I can, the last being the paper back Scandal Takes a Holiday, which made very good reading from Norwich to London. –Catriona Ryan (13 June 2005)

Actually, in the early books in particular, Falco and Helena have a running gag about her being his assistant, left at home to field messages in a truculent manner, and it seems to me this is the nail-varnish person in action…

I am very sorry you have abandoned your degree, as I believe every girl should have a degree certificate to find at the back of cupboards from time to time, and remind her of the days when she could have gone anywhere and done anything, instead of landing up wherever she lands up, usually with an unsuitable bloke (Oh dear, I sound as if I’m writing one of those damned books again) Ginny can put that in Postbag if she likes. [Ginny the teacher likes and adds, even if you do land with a suitable bloke, one needs to be able to occasionally dream about the other possibilities life has/had to offer…]

I am glad you enjoy the books. Temping is very good training for being tolerant and unlike the nail varnish woman, in my experience. I sometimes hear from the people in the office where I was a scivvy, and they are wonderfully envious of my present life, just as I hoped bitterly that they would one day be…

I have a strange question. I revisited Shakespeare’s Globe in London recently and remembered to look for one of the paving slabs which has M.D.Falco on it. Is it our friend or someone different? –Lavinia Tomkiss (13 June 2005)

As for the slab, any good Roman would support community projects, and that must go for the author of ‘The Spook who Spoke’, I think…

It was rumoured that many authors of detective novels fell in love with the character they had created as the hero/heroine. Would you like to comment? -AK (5 June 2005)

This is an old one, and of course the people who think it’s a clever notion always mean WOMEN authors and never imagine that Conan Doyle was romantically attached to Sherlock Holmes or Chandler to Marlow… Even those who think that Dorothy L Sayers was in love with Lord Peter Wimsey tend to forget that she had a real-life secret affair with a very different sort of man.

I am very proud to have managed to create a fictional character women find very attractive – yet I am just as proud to have created Helena Justina and Antonia Caenis. And Nux the dog! But why fall in love with someone who is domestically unreliable, who speaks a language I don’t speak, and who is not physically present for the normal methods of inter-human consolation? – Not for me.

Creating someone who will be clever enough and charismatic enough to take the lead in a novel necessarily involves giving them talent and style – but never forget, critics say a lot of stupid things.

I attended a writing conference where the organizers hung signs with favorite and infamous first lines from mystery novels. “When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes” was displayed. A nice choice! I’m also partial to “Poetry should have been safe” and “Rats are always bigger than you expect.”

And so I was wondering: Do you fret over your first lines? Do they simply pop into your head while you’re gardening, or do you work at them, snapping pencil after pencil until they’re just right? Do you hope to convey tone or mood with them, or are they just lines that begin one of many chapters? Do you have any openers that you particularly like? –Mark, in Northern Virginia (25 January 2005)

Thank you very much for writing, and the news of my fame at writing conferences (I think I view them with caution, but this sounds decent… ) I am very proud of the ‘Silver Pigs’ first line, and indeed its first page. I do think beginnings are important because that is how the casual reader may get hooked. On the other hand, anything too clever may put people off, so it has to be judged just right. I am also quite fond of ‘The Accusers’: ‘I had been an informer for over a decade when I finally learned what the job entailed…’ which is a joke against myself really, finally finding a book about real Roman informers when I had been writing about Falco for 15 years or so, and letting him do things in court that he had only hinted at previously.
I hope this doesn’t destroy your image of authors, but I don’t use a pencil! I haven’t even used a biro for creative fiction since I got my first word processor. I stopped my editor using a pencil because it’s even harder to read than when he uses a pen – which he tends to do most on my first page, over which I have laboured hardest and longest…

Does that mean it ends up worst despite my loving attention – or does he just tear into the editing keenly then get bored after one page?

Someone could write a thesis on this – if I had not destroyed the manuscripts to prevent them doing so…

Would like to know more about Petro and his cat. A sophististed layabout like Nux? (the cat not Petro). –Bill (19 Sept 2004)

No chance of the cat, I fear. I am copying this to Ginny in case she wants to raise the cat issue in Postbag (she has one, her only fault in my view). As for me, I garden, and I feed the birds. You can guess the rest, I’m sure. Unless you want something awful to happen to the cat Petronius has, best to leave it in its basket.

It is bound to have a basket, probably with ensuite ball of wool.

[Surely having a cat is not a fault! Neither of mine have baskets; one chases dogs even. –Ginny]

I have a wish that someday when I am ‘doing’ charity, junk and antique shops’ I will find the ms. of The Spook Who Spoke.–Nita Louise Knapp (8 February 2004)

Maybe we could get a spoof ‘sighting of manuscript’ story going… 

I’ve read all of the Falco novels and have enjoyed them enormously, though some more than others. I was wondering if you enjoyed writing one more than the rest? Is there one you can say is your own favourite? –Louise Coleman (17 August 2003)

My favourite novel has always been ‘The Course of Honour’, which I enjoyed writing partly because I had empathy with the heroine and also because I felt I was coming into full confidence as an author. I had the chance to revise it, after a long gap, just before first publication, and although there were some historical details to add, the basic draft still seemed absolutely right.

The Falcos appeal to me each for different reasons, from ‘The Silver Pigs’ being my first published book. It is already a long series and I don’t expect readers to enjoy all the books equally. For one thing, they are deliberately made individual and non-formulaic. Maybe we should take a poll?

It occurs to me that I’m not so interested in what Falco or HJ looks like, but what will Anacrites look like? What will attract Ma and Maia? What will make him look obviously not one to be trusted? –Terrell Bynum (15 April 2003).

Two-tone shoes and Roman hair mousse.

Perhaps there are legal reasons but I am curious as to why you don’t have a “Where to Buy” or “Purchase” page with links to your preferred book selling sources. It’s possible I missed it as I just found this site today. –Felice Smith (8 July 2002)

I know a lot of authors have links to a particular book-buying site from their WebPages. I feel quite strongly that we should in fact be fair to all booksellers and not single out any particular one. I have links to my publishers, to whom I owe such a large debt, and some if not all of them do sell by mail order. Other than that, I believe I should be neutral!

Have you ever been tempted to write a chapter or book from one of the other characters perspective? Knowing how Falco feels about certain people it would be interesting to find out what they think about him! Particularly the brother-in-laws he is so harsh about. –Linda Davidson (4 July 2002)

I started the Falco series in the first person because in a spoof ‘gumshoe’ it seemed natural to have this voice-over approach. It is useful for reminding me that I am writing as a man in theory, but does has the downside that everything must be seen from Falco’s own perspective with him present, or told to him by others. You are right that I miss sometimes being able to show scenes from other characters’ points of view, though I have learned to do without. The classic thing in a detective story is not to use the regular characters in that way, but to use the suspects and witnesses, but if I were really drawn to that style, I suppose I would have written that way. It’s interesting that “The Course of Honour” only has a few key scenes where I moved away from Caenis as the main viewer. (Thinks: why am I giving help to PhD students?…)

The obvious choice in the Falco books would be Helena, but I really do prefer to handle her more subtly, from his viewpoint. As for the brothers in law he hates, I think we can guess what they think. In fact, I think Falco has told us frankly what his family think!

Have you found out what your ‘average’ reader is yet?–Mary Emery (6 June 2002)

I never think of my readers as average, you know; they are all pretty special!