Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Historical Novelist Builds a Library

This week's guest blogger, Jess Steven Hughes is a newly published historical author, already working hard on his next two novels. And why not? He's certainly got the research covered! Here's a peek into how such a writer prepares for the dive into not just one but two ancient civilizations to make his story come alive. 

            Over the years I have accumulated a personal library of more than five hundred books on Celtic, Classical, Medieval, and Middle Eastern history which I use in the research and writing of my historical novels. This does not include various magazines, journals and other papers that I have collected, not to mention using the internet for the same purpose. I am always acquiring more information in an effort to make my novels as authentic as possible.
            Before I wrote my first historical novel, The Sign of the Eagle, and the two novels I am currently writing, I had to learn the fundamentals of writing fiction as opposed to writing history. This included plot, characterization, scene, setting, dialogue, descriptive narration, the difference between showing and telling, and so on. Only after I had attended writing seminars and workshops for several years did my abilities as an author of novels finally emerge..
            Always keep in mind that I write, first and foremost, fiction; I don't write history. I use historical events and backdrops for my stories. The Sign of the Eagle, recently published by Sunbury Press, is an example. The story takes place in Milan and Rome in 71 A.D. The main character, Macha, is a Celtic woman married to a Roman officer, Titus. He has been wrongfully accused of treason and conspiring to assassinate the Emperor Vespasian. Macha must almost single-handedly prove his innocence.
            Historians have speculated there were several conspiracies against the life of Emperor Vespasian, but only two appear to have been recorded, as found in The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius or in The Histories by Cassius Dio. Therefore, my story is a fictionalized account of one possible unrecorded attempt on Vespasian's life. I wrote it from what I believe to be a different perspective using an unlikely protagonist, a Celtic woman. Why not?
            Before I could fully develop The Sign of the Eagle—the characters, plotting, setting, scene, dialogue, etc.—I started by researching the overall history of the Roman Empire and the Celtic world. Such books included, among many others:
  • Michael Grant, History of Rome
  • M. Rostovtzeff, Rome
  • H.H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero
  • John Peddie, Invasion: the Roman Conquest of Britain

            I continued with geographical locations. I narrowed down the story to Milan, Rome and the Italian country side. A sample of the books I used includes:
  • Muir's Historical Atlas: Ancient and Classical, edited by R.F. Treharne and Harold Fullard;
  • Tim Cornell and John Matthews, Atlas of the Roman World
  •  Peter Connolly and Hazel Dodge, The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome

            I also had to consider historical events that occurred prior to those in my novel which were important to the story's background. Among these I included the great civil war of 69 A.D. known as the Year of the Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian). For this I referred to these books in particular:
  • Kenneth Wellesley, The Long Year A.D. 69
  • Michael Grant, The Twelve Caesars
  • Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars
  • Michael Grant, The Army of the Caesars

            In my story, Macha's husband Titus fought in this war against the forces of the short-lived Emperor Vitellius at the Battle of Cremona. Titus was part of one of Vespasian's advanced units.
            Other events included the invasion of Britannia in 43 A.D. and the eventual capture of the British Chieftain, Caratacus, Macha's father (see above Invasion, etc). He was brought to Rome along with his wife and Daughter and ultimately pardoned by the Emperor Claudius. We don't know the daughter's actual name, I chose a good Celtic name, Macha. Caratacus was ultimately pardoned and disappeared from history, but there was no reason why I could not use his daughter for a story.          
            For her background, I described her growing up being Romanized but clinging to many Celtic customs. Prior to the story, she married Titus, who was born in Rome. His parents were Gauls, but his father was a Roman Senator, one of the first Gauls admitted to the Senate under the Emperor Claudius
            Because I used a Celtic protagonist, I had to research Celtic as well as Roman customs of daily living, the role of women in the Celtic and Roman worlds, the gulf between the classes, slavery, religion, the military (Celt and Roman), descriptions of city life, especially, in Rome, etc. My research for these topics included:
  •  W.S. Davis, A Day in Old Rome by
  •  Jerome Carcopino, Daily Life in Ancient Rome
  •  Jacqueline Morely, A Roman Villa
  •  Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires
  •  The Epigrams of Martial, James Michie, translator
  •   Petronius, The Satyricon
  •   Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity
  •   Peter B. Ellis, Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature
  •   Miranda Green, The Gods of the Celts
  •   Ruth and Vincent Megaw, Celtic Art
  •   Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army
  •   Karen Dixon, The Roman Cavalry
  •   P.K. Baillie Reynolds, The Vigiles of Imperial Rome
  •   Stephen Allen and Wayne Reynolds, Fighting Elite: Celtic Warrior 300 B.C. – A.D. 100

            It was only after I had conducted sufficient research that I finally wrote my story. However, I wasn't finished. I had to run the gauntlet of two writers groups, The Spokane Novelists and The Spokane Writers Group, which month after month reviewed and bled all over my chapters until the manuscript finally met their expectations. Even then I wasn't through. I sent my manuscript to a "book doctor," an editor who had spent many years with Harper-Collins before going into private business. Fortunately, she is a very ethical person (there are some real charlatans out there) who was very thorough and answered all my subsequent questions after she had reviewed and returned my novel for more work. My efforts paid off. After many rejection slips, The Sign of the Eagle was accepted for publication.
            If you are interested in learning more about The Sign of the Eagle please check out my website


  1. A time period after my own heart-Jess. That 's an excellent bibliography you quote and as an author of a Celtic/ Britain AD 71 novel (The Beltane Choice)I know how hard it is to find useful reference material for the era. Best wishes with your future writing.

    1. Thank you, Nancy, I appreciate your comments and understanding. Best wishes on your future writing as well.