For me, an email that tells me Mr. A or Miss B felt ‘as if they were back in Rome’ is one of the best types of fan mail to receive. It means that I’ve done my job well. Achieving it is the nuts and bolts of being a writer of historical novels. If a convincing portrayal of the past hasn’t been realised, the reader might as well be reading a book that’s set in the twenty-first century ― and if they’ve bought a novel about ancient Rome, or the Vikings, they will not be pleased if that’s what they find inside. So transporting the reader to the writer’s chosen time period is right up there with a good story in terms of importance. It’s not an easy task. In fact, it’s a very difficult one to carry it off entirely. I have to confess that I’m still learning the skill.
Some of the proficiency comes from simple research: e.g. knowing what weapons Roman legionaries used in a particular century or decade, or the types of foodstuff that would have been present in Italy in the first century BC, etc. Often the historical events described in ancient texts are absolute gifts to the writer: think some of the things that Spartacus did, such as breaking out of a gladiator school with seventy-odd unarmed companions, his journey to Vesuvius, and then the incredible tale of how he and his comrades put to flight the three thousand legionaries first sent against them. Places are also relatively easy to describe. One has to have studied Roman buildings in texts and via useful platforms such as Google and various internet forums, and it helps greatly if one has also visited lots of Roman archaeological sites. In that respect, I’m lucky. For years before I ever became a writer, I visited such places out of interest. Britain is full of them. Europe, home to thousands more sites, is on my doorstep. Nowadays, I take regular research trips to Italy to visit the locations that I write about.
The ‘bare bones’ of scenes are therefore not that hard to describe well. It’s the portrayal of a time and the people who lived in it that is the tricky bit. The reason it’s hard is that I, like you, am a person of the twentieth/twenty-first century. I have only ever lived in this time period. My values, morals and expectations of the world have all been formed by my upbringing and the society that I’ve grown up in. To draw a parallel, these norms are quite similar to those of my parents, yet quite different. However, they bear little resemblance, if any, to the norms of a Roman who lived two thousand years ago. To write a plausible character of that time, it is therefore necessary to divest oneself as much as is possible from the values of today and to try to get into the Roman ‘mindset’. This is easier said than done.
There are plenty of texts out there that describe aspects of Roman life: attitudes to marriage, children, corruption, slavery, conquest and so on but there are also gaping holes in our knowledge. There is so much that we do not know about Rome and its people. In my mind, it means that we can only go so far in creating characters of that time, which means that to some extent they become artificial constructs. There is nothing that can be done about that. Unless and until more contemporary ancient material comes to light, one has to work with what is available. A good illustration of potential pitfalls for the writers of historical novels include attitudes to slavery and to women. Nowadays, there are few people who would condone such a practice as slavery or of denying women the same rights as men. Two thousand years ago, however, slavery was part of the fabric of life. Having a household slave to wash one’s clothes was as common and as normal as having a washing machine is today. Similarly, women had almost none of the rights that they rightfully have nowadays, nor would they have expected them. Conversations between characters are also an easy place to make mistakes. So many words and expressions must be avoided. It might seem obvious, but I have read many a novel where the writer used terms such as, ‘OK’, ‘Come on, you guys.’, ‘Let’s scope it out first.’, etc. Inevitably, I make mistakes, as we all do. At the end of the day, I do the best I can and apologise for any errors. As long as the majority of my readers are happy and there aren’t any massive bloopers in there, I’m happy.
Ben Kane’s author website: www.benkane.net
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Writing Historical Novels