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Setting in Historical Novels by Fiona Forsyth

it is my pleasure to welcome the successful historical novellist, Fiona Forsyth, to the blog today to explain why she considers setting so important in historical novels. Thank you for your time today, Fiona.

Thank you for having me, Val and I must say, how much I envy the writer who steps outside her front door and has a little walk around (say) Edinburgh to refresh her mind before describing the setting of a scene in her latest murder mystery! (Sorry, Val, I do realize it’s a bit more complicated than that!)

I set my books in the world of ancient Rome, spanning the first centuries BC/AD. For my next series, I decided to explore the fascinating mystery of why the Emperor Augustus exiled the poet Ovid in AD 9, and so I began researching the town Ovid inhabited for the rest of his life: Tomis, on the western shore of the Black Sea (where the Romanian town of Constanta now stands). A dive into the Academia archive was needed for what little we know about Tomis at this time: there isn’t, for example, a street plan that I could find, but I maintain that this gives me quite a bit of artistic freedom. I also discovered that our main source for the town is – Ovid himself. I embarked upon a reading of the poems Ovid wrote in exile.

Unfortunately, according to these poems, Ovid was thoroughly miserable in Tomis, and he describes an environment of appalling rigour. He says that the climate is harsh and the locals barbaric. After reading what he has to say, you would be forgiven for assuming that everyone shivered in small huts all year long, deprived of even such necessities as drinkable wine (Ovid says that even the wine froze and you had to treat it as a sort of ice-lolly). This was all looking promising – harsh environment and hostile people equal lots of tension!

But when I did a little research, things were not as Ovid portrays them. The modern seaside resort of Constanta in Romania has what seems like a very pleasant climate for most of the year. Even accounting for climate changes over two thousand years, Ovid probably enjoyed gentle springs and balmy summers in Tomis. He is right that the River Danube occasionally froze over though!

As for the barbaric locals, well, Tomis was a Greek town and already six hundred years old when Ovid arrived. It had a wall and a harbour, mosaics and sizeable houses, temples and a marketplace. It was later chosen to be the capital of the Roman province of Moesia, so it must have been a sizeable and important town, with inscriptions showing that the main language was Greek – even the Romans would have regarded this as civilised!

Researching the setting therefore told me something important about the real Ovid: I now knew I could not entirely trust him as a source, and this has shaped his fictional character throughout the book. It has also made for an interesting tension between him and the locals. I can’t imagine any of Ovid’s new neighbours being impressed at his description of them and their town!

Nevertheless, I get the impression from the poems that Tomis was gracious to its ungrateful guest: and the modern city of Constanta has honoured its famous exile with a statue in front of the Archaeological Museum. I hope Ovid would be pleased.

The Author

Fiona Forsyth is the author of the Lucius Sestius trilogy and “The Third Daughter”. When recently asked to describe herself in five words, she came up with

“Thinking about the Roman Empire”.

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1 Comment

Jacquie Rogers
Jacquie Rogers
Oct 18, 2023

Oh dear, now I’ll have to add Tomis to the overlong list of places to visit on our motorbike travels. Clearly I can’t rely on Ovid for an accurate account. I do like the idea of wine ice lollies, though!

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