What is a good process to write historical fiction?
August 8, 2020 10:57 AM   Subscribe

How would you even begin to write a novel set in the Roman Republic?

I absolutely adore I, Claudius and its sequel. I love historical novels like Pillars of the Earth, Augustus by John Williams, Sarum and London by Edward Rutherford, and other novels that transport you to a different time and place -- creating characters you can connect with, in a world you've never known, amidst stunning historical events.

I'd love to try to write one of these. There's an aristocratic woman from the Roman Republic whom I find fascinating and who possibly played a role in major events at that time. I have the idea of a novel that follows her as well as an enslaved young woman in her household, in the midst of these events. I've purchased and read a couple books about women and/or slaves in ancient Rome, but they are both highly academic and highly limiting. Very basic questions that I have seem difficult to get an answer on -- such as "What would this character do in the morning? Where and how would they be interacting with other people in their life? Would this character be able to go out into the street alone? How much agency would this character realistically have? What would the historical events that are happening look like on a day-to-day level?" And while I love novels like I, Claudius and Augustus, their focus on upper-class male characters feels rather distant from what I'm working on. Many other historical novels about the Roman Republic appear to be focused on various wars of the time, whereas I'm much more interested in day-to-day life.

I've started writing, and I find what I've written terrible. The feeling that the best historical novels have, of sweeping you into a world, of having a glimpse of all the details of regular life and of characters that feel both timeless and of their time, is totally absent. I am utterly stuck on plot - while I have a loose outline of the big picture of the novel, the day-to-day of these characters seems impossible to grasp for me. If anything, the outline seems to be hurting me, as it's tying my writing too close to the few big-picture historical events that happened, and not allowing life to breathe.

I'm now thoroughly stuck, and I've put the work down. I'm frustrated. To be fair, this is not an easy project I've embarked on, and just because I like reading this type of novel doesn't mean I am the one to write one. Though I have finished other large creative projects, I've never actually written a complete novel - just started a couple and put them down. And because I've chosen two subjects for whom there is very little extant historical information, this may be uniquely hard. But I truly do want to give this a shot. I should probably re-read I, Claudius. I should probably read other novels set in the Roman Republic, even if most of them seem to be about Great Men or Big Wars. I should possibly choose one of my two lead characters and focus on her.

But right now this is feeling overwhelming. Any advice?
posted by lewedswiver to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Let the historical details be the focus of your later drafts.

Margaret Atwood, when writing Alias Grace (set in 1843), said that she first focused on characterization/plotting/etc., then went back in later drafts to research and add in the day-to-day details. To do this, she started with some very broad initial impressions, as you have, and then wrote a first draft that was liberally peppered with brackets like [description of ship/voyage from Ireland] and [description of penetentiary] and [add more on Richmond Hill geography].
posted by mochapickle at 11:25 AM on August 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

You're actually doing great! You have a general outline and characters, which has given you a sense of what you need to know. Researching all of Roman history and society is a life's work, so you have to narrow that down a lot, and it seems like you've done so. Now you need to find some source materials to DO that research. You might have some luck over at reddit.com/r/askhistorians. Or you could call a library, or look for a friendly professor on twitter. Lots of experts are looking to be pretty accessible these days, and might be able to give you a reading list to get you going. If you read sources that are academic, they'll have source notes that can extend your search when necessary. Good luck!
posted by rikschell at 11:28 AM on August 8, 2020

I agree with bringing the matter to AskHistorians. I also recommend reading poetry, plays, or novels from the period you are writing about. Ovid's Ars Amatoria, for example, can give you some ideas about how Roman upperclass women spent their days (it is a pickup guide).
posted by chaiminda at 11:30 AM on August 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

No offense, but reading novels to learn history is like reading history to learn literature. If you want to learn about historical detail, you’re going to have to read history. The good news is, Roman primary sources were written before the fiction/nonfiction divide really calcified, so a lot of them are quite readable. They aren’t dry analyses like modern history is. Seriously, even if it doesn’t help your story, read Suetonius or the aforementioned Ovid for fun.

As for secondary sources, the last thirty or forty years have seen a giant boom in both everyday-life studies and women’s history. I haven’t read anything academic on Rome in 20 years, and even then I was more into Greeks, so I can’t recommend anything specific. But I feel like this is something Mary Beard would have at least written a little about.

Echoing others that the historical details aren’t really what you should be focusing on now, though. Unless your plot revolves around an historical event, which it doesn’t sound like it does, the details are just that. At the beginning, you should be working on filling out your characters and mapping your plot. That’s what makes readers get lost in your story, and it’s not any different in historical fiction than in any other genre.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:45 AM on August 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

This series is well regarded, here's volume 1: A History of Private Life, Volume I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. "First of the widely celebrated and sumptuously illustrated series, this book reveals in intimate detail what life was really like in the ancient world. Behind the vast panorama of the pagan Roman empire, the reader discovers the intimate daily lives of citizens and slaves―from concepts of manhood and sexuality to marriage and the family, the roles of women, chastity and contraception, techniques of childbirth, homosexuality, religion, the meaning of virtue, and the separation of private and public spaces."
posted by plant or animal at 1:05 PM on August 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Read Mary Beard’s extensive history of the Roman Republic: SPQR - she’s the real deal, and let’s you know how much speculation is involved in understanding history from millennia ago.
posted by dbmcd at 1:50 PM on August 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

Not sure if it helps but Lindsey Davis does this well.
posted by idb at 3:45 PM on August 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

I love SPQR - but I love it as history. It's not good for my purposes, because it's a broad sweep history centered around Mary Beard's thesis of what Rome is (namely, the expansion of citizenship), not something that allows me write a novel set in one specific time and place.

I think I've done a poor job of describing what my problem is. If I was writing a novel in the present day, I could start with the character, conflict, and plot, and just flow from there. Any situation they found themselves I could describe, because inherently I understand (at least know a bit about!) the social dynamics of a bar, or a university, or a sports stadium, or a grocery store, or a suburban household.

Whereas in the Roman Republic, I feel utterly at a loss as to who operates in what spaces and how. What one person's daily life is, their week is, their year is. Some of the more academic things I've read have been very frustrating too because of their data-oriented nature and hesitance to make specific claims.

On some level my question is more about writing process than it is about research. Perhaps I need to just dive back in, stop procrastinating, and do the work. Thanks all for their suggestions so far, and certainly open to any other thoughts from others who come across this thread!
posted by lewedswiver at 4:39 PM on August 8, 2020

I'm going to write you a list of possible resources, but you should also feel free to MeMail me. I studied Latin as an undergraduate, I do historical reenactment focused on Late Antiquity, and I've published some shorter historical fiction, so I have lots of thoughts about potential approaches!
  • Look for reenactment and Society for Creative Anachronism groups focused on ancient Rome. There will be Facebook groups, blog entries where someone describes putting together an outfit or a recipe, and people posting "diaries" of a day in their "persona"'s life. Exercise a little care (some people are enthusiastic about the Roman empire for gross and ahistorical reasons). But you should be able to find people who aren't locked into fantasies about empire and have thought deeply about mundane details of everyday Roman life.
  • If you don't have it already, check out Sandra Joshel and Lauren Hackworth Petersen's book The Material Life of Roman Slaves. They're archaeologists, and they write about how to use archaeological evidence to understand the pervasiveness of slavery in Roman life. They use a lot of other kinds of evidence, too. I think it's a really effective guide to the strategies we use to imagine the past.
  • Look for information about the Vindolanda tablets. These are letters associated with a fort in Roman Britain. They have lots of details about everyday life. There's a website with background information and text of all the letters with translations. That website isn't loading for me at the moment, but you can read a translation of the letter where a Roman woman invites a friend to her birthday party here.
  • Give yourself permission to dip into scholarly sources, or skim or read odd bits out of the middle, rather than absorbing every detail. Sometimes you just need to know the source of a dye color or whether people ate salad, and don't need to know how historians have altered their thinking about the value of studying meals over the last century.

posted by yarntheory at 5:04 PM on August 8, 2020

I write fantasy loosely inspired by history, not historical fiction, but I start with those Daily/Everyday Life in... reference books. They are probably filled with half-truths and outdated historical claims, but they give me a general idea of social history and material culture, enough to formulate further research questions. From there, I can seek out corroborating details online or in scholarly books & journals.

My other lazy research technique is browsing the references & bibliographies of Wikipedia articles. This article has some plausible-looking sources on Roman women's lives.

For what you're doing, I think reading historical fiction is totally fair game. Ancient Rome is a popular setting and it makes sense to have an awareness of what other writers have done. Primary sources are another way to immerse yourself in your setting, and they're often more interesting than academic nonfiction.
posted by toastedcheese at 6:16 PM on August 8, 2020

In light of your update, I should add some more details to my comment about the process for Alias Grace.

Atwood also said that her process required a lot of redrafting after the draft where she started adding in the specific historical details. As she researched, she found more details and historical color that both transformed and informed the plotting and characterization she'd already written. Her early drafts looked NOTHING like her later drafts, but it took working through that whole process & sifting the research and the story back and forth for a while to get to that final draft.
posted by mochapickle at 6:16 PM on August 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

For your first draft, as mochapickle says, just leave the details out and make shit up for your first draft.

I mean you have your story, in the very bare bones in your head, right? Write the things you want to happen in rough order, with less detail than you'd find in a finished novel, like an outline. It doesn't have to be good right now.

Just write it down. Make bits up. Use shitty sources like teledramas and comic books and fucking Life of Brian. Whatever. This bit doesn't have to be accurate. In fact, *nothing* you write needs to be. It's fiction. Let go of the idea of authenticity for now and just make the book happen. This bit kills more novels than you'd think.

Get the thing started.

And know, for sure, that your first draft will suck. Of course it sucks. It's like eating sourdough starter and being upset it doesn't taste like bread. It's not bread yet, and your book is going to be a few drafts off being a book.

If you let yourself get bogged down with authenticity, you will never make it to the end of your story. You will always find something else to research, some other part of the old Roman world we're vague on and some other turn of phrase you'll worry isn't the right tone.

Once you have your bones you can worry about other things. And again, I stress that this draft will suck. It won't read like a novel. It'll be full of holes and vagueness and LOOK UP HORSE NAMES and INSERT BREAKFAST FOOD and whatnot and you can't show it to anyone.

But what it will have is proof of concept - are your people interesting? Is your plot worth reading? You'll get an idea of what you need to research to move forward, specifics and details, and can then make best use of your time. You can change things as you go, even big stuff like whole characters and arcs and the settings, once you have an idea of what you want from them. But you won't have that until you get the bones down. No novel is perfect on the first pass. You'll be quite a few drafts off it being done. But no bones, no book.

Lastly, write it for your eyes only. Don't write it for a dissertation panel or the judges of the Hugo or for Mary Beard or even for me or mochapickle. Just write what you want to read. You're allowed to do it badly and for your pleasure only. There are literally millions and millions of words of terrible fanfic online that were written exclusively for the pleasure of the author, and they are as valid an exercise as I Claudius or Pillars of the Earth.
posted by Jilder at 6:47 PM on August 8, 2020 [4 favorites]

Diana Gabaldon offers four tips for writing historical fiction.
posted by kbar1 at 9:04 PM on August 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

One of my very favorite blogs, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry will have some useful information in the Resources for Teachers and Resources for World-Builders sections. It is geared more towards military history as that is the author’s area of study, but has some great background on day to day life during the Roman period. He will be finishing a four part series on farming in the Roman era on Friday, and I would definitely recommend the Practical Polytheism and Lonely City series as well.
posted by Jawn at 9:30 AM on August 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

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