Fictionalizing the Past

[My apologies for this late post. After coming home from university, I spent the late afternoon recording a video of me reading bits of my new book to you lovely people (this involved an accident with the retractable desk and making faces at the camera and checking whether “lamp” is really pronounced with a “p” or not). Then I spent the early evening editing the video, watching the software crash, editing the video again, finally starting the process to upload it to YouTube only to be told it would take 900 minutes to upload this lovely 5-minute video. At which point I nearly broke down and cried. After four hours, I eventually abandoned all hope & decided to do this post without a reading. *sigh*]

sketch of the Saalburg, by Sandra Schwab
The main gate of the Saalburg, a reconstructed Roman fort

When you’ve been reading and writing Regency-set historical romances for more than a decade, chances are that you’ve become quite familiar with the conventions of the genre, including the way the genre fictionalizes the Regency period. In other words, you know how the construction of this particular romantic fantasy works: the characters are typically from the upper classes (with an abundance of dukes *g*); the stories are typically set in London during the Season and / or on a lavish country estate; the hero is often tall, dark, and dangerous and might be a rake, but doesn’t suffer from syphilis; everybody has excellent teeth; nobody has any fleas nor lice. You also know exactly what kind of things are typically not touched upon: e.g., child labor, the massive economic problems after the Napoleonic Wars, the often dire situation of domestic servants.

You know this framework inside out, you know exactly what does and doesn’t work and what needs to be tweaked to fit the fantasy.

And then somebody on Twitter talks you into writing a romance novel set in ancient Rome.

And thus, you find yourself, for the most part, without any kind of framework.

For me this was certainly one of the most difficult parts of writing my Roman romance. It didn’t help that during the first few weeks I kept comparing my work to that of Rosemary Sutcliff, whose books I’ve adored since I was eight years old. No, this didn’t help at all. Instead it threw me into full-blown panic mode. How preposterous of me to think I could even begin to imitate Sutcliff’s work!

It took me a few days to realize that of course I wasn’t imitating Sutcliff’s novel. I was creating my own version of the Roman period, which in turn forced me to consciously think about how to fictionalize the past — something I hadn’t really done in years because I am so very familiar with the Regency period and the Victorian Age.

But suddenly I was forced to think about things like

  • How do you write about a world with completely different religious principles? (Funnily enough, my Roman hero ended up being the most religious character I have written to date.)
  • How do you write about a city that, for the most part, no longer exists? (The perfectionist part of me had a little melt-down over this.)
  • How do you write about slavery? How do you convey the full horror of slavery while at the same time making it part of the everyday life of your characters?
  • How do you explain an understanding of sex that was in many ways radically different from our own?
  • And why the heck wasn’t the Colosseum called Colosseum?!!?!? (This came up during a frantic bout of last-minute research last weekend.)
a sketch of Roman military standards
Roman military standards

Writing my Roman romance thus became a true adventure, which allowed me to not only explore a different time period, but also to question and challenge my own writing process and my process of translating the past into fiction.

Indeed, it also challenged me to rethink my own view on history and made me realize there are many aspects of the past we know little or nothing about.

A good example of this is the question whether or not centurions were legally allowed to marry. Though there are a good many grave stones that were erected by a centurion’s “wife”, they are not conclusive proof because the terms maritus (“husband”) and uxor (“wife”) were also used by partners who were not formally wed. Apart from formal, legal marriage, there were two other forms of socially accepted long-term relationships, namely concubinatus and contubernium. While the former refers to “lying together”, the latter term was used for a relationship where the partners lived together in one house. (Initially, the term denoted a community of people sharing a tent, and as such it was also used in a military context to refer to a group of eight soldiers sharing a tent during campaign or a room in the barracks in the fort.)

I have to admit that I found it slightly disturbing that my research often didn’t turn up hard facts, but forced me to make decisions about (key) aspects of my characters’ lives. (It gets even worse when you move beyond the borders of the Roman Empire!) (But hey, who would be stupid enough to do such a thing???) (Eh…um…)

Giving all the challenges of writing a romance set in a completely different period than what I’m used to, I am so thrilled that my first Roman romance it out in the wild. 🙂

covers of Sandra Schwab's Eagle's Honor: Banished

Here’s the blurb:

A proud warrior.
A brave woman.
A forbidden love that is tested by the intrigues of ancient Rome and the hostilities at the northernmost edge of the empire.

Centurion Marcus Florius Corvus has a splendid career in the legions ahead of him. Yet a visit to Rome and a chance encounter with an old friend change his whole life: He falls in love with one of his friend’s pleasure slaves and becomes entrapped in an evil scheme designed to destroy him. And yet—he cannot help risking everything for Lia, the woman he has given his heart to, even if it means he will be banished to one of the most dangerous places in the Roman Empire: the northern frontier of Britannia.

Do you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription? Then you can now grab a copy of the first part of the serialized edition of Eagle’s Honor: Banished: www.amazon.com/dp/B00X50PXC2/

If you don’t have a KU subscription, you can also pre-order the complete edition, which will be cheaper for you: www.amazon.com/dp/B00WMAKH4K/

Please note that this is a steamy historical with explicit sex scenes, some graphic language, and shocking questions about a centurion’s vine staff. And people eat, like, the STRANGEST things! 😉

Would you like to be among the first to read Marcus & Lia’s full story? Then leave a comment for a chance to win a digital copy of the complete edition of Eagle’s Honor: Banished.

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ki pha
ki pha
7 years ago

LOL Love the introduction. But Roman research is definitely different and more difficult because of the very little written records of the empire. Even when I studied arts and architecture of Greeks and Romans, that was only a small part into the lives of the people there. But I’m very interested in seeing how your research went in these stories.

Sandra Schwab
7 years ago
Reply to  ki pha

To be honest, I’m still worried I might have unwittingly made some super-horrible mistake with the research somewhere. Last weekend, I realized I had misunderstood / misremembered a passage from one of my research books. Luckily, it wasn’t a major point in this book, and I only needed to tweak one sentence. Still, major freak-out.

In the second book in the series, one of the settings is a small Germanic settlement – and that made things SO much worse. LOL. But I’ve found that re-enactors’ blogs & websites are actually great resources when it comes to the practicalities of everyday life.

7 years ago

I love the Romans (thanks in part to Rosemary Sutcliffe) so I am looking forward to this book! I shall enjoy learning more about them and their world thanks to your research.

Sandra Schwab
7 years ago
Reply to  HJ

Thank you, HJ. I’ve actually dedicated this book to Rosemary Sutcliff as she had such a great impact on my reading and writing. And there are various elements in the novel that are meant as an homage to her books. 🙂

Mary Blayney
7 years ago

And here I am stressing because I have to research a part of Regency life I am not familiar with — even after fifteen years and as many stories! So impressed you made such a big leap to a ‘new’ time. Will read with enthusiasm.

Sandra Schwab
7 years ago
Reply to  Mary Blayney

Mary, I have to admit I went into this Roman adventure rather naively, and it was only during the writing that I realized how much I needed to catch up on. 🙂 On the other hand, this naivety allowed me to throw myself wholeheartedly into the story, and I’ve had so much fun with it!


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