In a moment of snark in a previous post, I posed the question, “Why does it seem like every other historical fiction novel is set in ancient Rome?” (By the way, Rome is the new Middle Ages if the list of new books is any indication.) This is not terribly new in traditional “histfic”, but there are more and more fantasy books set in this time as well. In a Goodreads discussion, author Chris Northern, author of the Price of Freedom/Freedom’s Fool series took me to task.
I asked him, using small words that even I could understand, to explain why that was. Here’s his answer. Enjoy.
I enjoy the mix of history and fantasy, but some people are uneasy with it. Why do you think they go together so well?
History and Fantasy are tied together by numerous silken threads. Fantasy develops naturally from history for the simple reason that a fantasy social and
political structure must be based on something, and picking a historical period is the simplest method available. The high medieval period has been the default choice for a good while, but it has become far more common to reach further afield geographically and temporally for a framework to define fantasy stories.
And we are kind of burned out on the pretend-medieval theme, I grant you. So why Rome?
Rome is not one commonly used, but for me it was the most obvious choice. When I first settled to write The Last King’s Amulet, the first novel The Price of Freedom/Freedom’s Fool fantasy series, I desired a background where a central, magically powerful state expanded and contracted in cycles, more or less at the whims of a ruling class that were competing with each other as much or more than they were with other nations. I also had in mind a fantasy Falco, the protagonist of the murder mystery series by Lindsey Davis. The adoption of the Roman Republic seemed natural enough, and has defined the series ever since.
Ancient Rome burns bright in European and World History for more reasons than I can begin to address here, though I will make every effort to touch on as many as possible. To begin with, though little noted, is that it is one of the few cultures to so obviously encompass a complete cycle of political development and decay to its own self-destruction. Beginning as a Kingdom, transitioning into a Republic, Democracy and enduring a surprisingly long time as an Imperial Dictatorship as stubbornly maintained economic incompetence corroded the wealth of the empire to the point that the difference between the Barbarians and Rome itself was wafer thin when the latter swamped the former and the Dark Ages ensued.
The centralisation of power, the physical and social isolation of an increasingly centralised ruling class, the drift away from pragmatic response to economic and political problems… these are all things that led to the downfall of Rome as geopolitical power, and are all echoed in modern times, which I think is one of the reasons there has been a resurgence in interest in Rome. We see the decline of Rome going on around us on a daily basis – for Rome, read Washington, London, Brussels, concentrations of powerful individuals living in an echo chamber where voices of dissent are marginalised. No one told the Emperor Diocletion that his ‘great new idea’ of universal price fixing on all goods was a terrible idea because no one around him knew any better, all potential voices of dissent having been removed from the ruling society. We see that our own society, now more-or-less global, has its own systemic problems that will not be address, that cannot be addressed, because of the prevailing culture of advancement only of those who accept the ruling elite’s views.
So basically, it’s easy to make analogies…..
Much is made of the military might of Rome, the invulnerable Legions, with little reference to the fact that the Legions fought well in significant part because they were, as individuals, advantaged economically by the society they were fighting to protect and expand. When that advantage was no longer a factor – token coinage that had no value and a shattered economy that offered little in the way of goods to purchase – the soldiery ceased to be invested in winning battles. It is also little mentioned that one of the primary reasons the Republic and early Empire won wars even though they routinely lost battles, was because they always had enough wealth in reserve to raise more armies. War is never a cheap undertaking and if a nation simply does not have a robust economy that generates wealth, wars are less likely to be successfully prosecuted. Lost wars cause loss of territory, confidence and social cohesion, as well as cause further economic difficulties.
Still, Rome burns bright in history as one of the longest lasting empires, territories of economic and social stability, that the world has ever seen. Little wonder that it resurfaces in the collective psyche when our own times become increasing unstable. Perhaps we recognise the parallels and subconsciously fear Rome’s ultimate fate – a decent into barbarism and poverty that we know can persist for centuries. Not a cheery thought, but perhaps one worth a little more than a passing glance.
Thanks, I’m smarter now than when I started…… Where can people learn more?
The Price of Freedom (Freedom’s Fool) consists of four novels, to date: The Last King’s Amulet, The Key To The Grave, The Invisible Hand, and All the King’s Bastards.
I’m always fascinated by (and somewhat jealous of) people who can draw upon their family histories as the jumping-off place for historical fiction. That’s because I know embarrassingly little about my own roots. I mean, I had ancestors, I just don’t know anything beyond the fact I must have had great grandparents. Deborah Lincoln, on the other hand, has used family history to write her tale of Missouri before the US Civil War, “Agnes Canon’s War.”
Deborah Lincoln has lived on the Central Oregon Coast for ten years. S. She and her husband have three grown sons. She was awarded first place in the 2013 Chanticleer Laramie Awards (best in category) and was a 2015 finalist for a Willa Award in historical fiction presented by Women Writing the West.
So tell us what the book’s about?
Agnes Canon’s War is the fictionalized story of my great great-grandparents’ experiences during the Civil War in Missouri. Agnes Canon is 28 and a spinster when she leaves her home in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1852 to join a group of cousins who traveled to frontier Holt County in northwest Missouri. There she meets and marries Jabez Robinson, a doctor who was born in Maine and had traveled to the California gold fields and the army posts of the Southwest during the Mexican-American War. In the decade before the Civil War actually breaks out, both Kansas and Missouri are a battleground of politics and acts of violence, and Agnes and Jabez are in the thick of it. This is the story of two people who watch their family, their town, everything that keeps a society civil, crumble into a chaos they are powerless to stop.
What is it about this time period that intrigued you enough to write the book?
I had access to the basic facts of my ancestors’ lives, which were compiled by a cousin in the 1970s. The characters were so exceptional, the events so
extraordinary, that I didn’t want the story to die out. Agnes seemed to me to stand out from other nineteenth-century women, in that she chose to turn her back on her family home in Pennsylvania and venture into the unknown. She left behind six siblings, none of whom ever married or bore children, so her marriage and children were the only links to the next generation.
Jabez, too, was a fascinating and even romantic character: though he was born and raised in Maine, he held secessionist views during the Civil War and suffered from them. He was an adventurer, too, traveling to California and the Southwest in the 1840s, becoming a doctor in the face of all sorts of challenges, marrying his first love after a ten-year separation only to lose her within two months of the wedding. The “plot” was tailor-made for a novel, and though I left out lots of events and made up others, I hope I did them justice.
Without setting off the spoiler alert, what’s your favorite scene?
Several of my favorite scenes would give away too much. So I’ll choose an early one: a scene set in Cincinnati where Agnes and Jabez meet for the first time, an accidental encounter at a marketplace along the riverfront. I like it for the sense of being suspended between civilization and frontier, for the colorful characters and the bustle and excitement of an exuberant young town. It mirrors Agnes’s hope for and optimism in her future.
Writing is often said to be a lonely business, and the writing part surely is. You can’t have a group of people hanging around while you’re hunting and pecking your way to brilliance. What I do know, though, is that my writing has vastly improved since I got out of my cave once in a while.
Then on Wednesday night I attended a new group–Author, Author, at the Wheaton library. I was invited by my friend and colleague Jerilyn Willin. It was focused on how to actually sell more books.
What do writers groups do for me?
They get me out of the house. I run my company from home, and cabin fever is a very real and dangerous thing. In order to prevent turning into Jack Nicholson from the Shining, I need to get out among human beings.
I get to read other people’s work, including things I would never voluntarily read. I’ve probably read more poetry in the last year than in the previous 30. Romance novels? Superhero fan fiction? Really awful drivel that should never be inflicted on innocent human beings? Really good work from people who are hiding their lights under giant bushels? Yup, yup, yup and yup.
I’m learning how to proof and edit, and see my own mistakes reflected in glorious, painful technicolor in my critiques of others.
I get feedback from people who aren’t related to me or have a vested interest in soothing my ego.The Count of the Sahara benefited greatly from the feedback of strangers or at least people who don’t live with me. Next week they’ll get the first peek at my new novel, The Horns of Hattin.
This is not a charitable thought, but here it is: I am pretty good. I know this because I see what else is out there. My work is better than a lot of people’s (which is good to know) and not nearly as good as some (which is humbling, but also really good to know.)
I learn I am not alone in trying to sell my work…. making money from a book is WAY harder than actually writing it,and takes more work. I need to learn all I can. Yes, Erik and the BookFolks do a nice job, but ultimately authors sell their work.
There are other people out there (some crazier, some saner) who understand what it is to be a writer.
Even if you don’t go often, meeting other writers, getting feedback and lending an empathetic ear are important to the author’s journey.
Besides, when you drink in a group, you’re social. When you drink alone it’s just kinda sad.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that our great grandmothers had to fight for the right to vote, and that meant fight. Those Suffragettes were some bad-ass women, and God bless’em for it. British author Jacqueline Beard has written a novel that captures the tension of that time, and combines it with a murder mystery to paint a picture of the beginning and end of the Victorian age.
So what’s the Jacqueline Beard story?
I’m a writer and genealogist, and have traced my family back to 1517 in the county of Suffolk in England. I now live in the beautiful Cotswolds in Gloucestershire but visit Suffolk often. I am married with two children and a delinquent border terrier.
So give us a quick idea of what your book’s about.
Vote for Murder is a tale of two murders. A census night evasion has been planned in Ipswich following years of fruitless campaigning which left the suffragettes no closer to gaining the vote. When Louisa Russell finds an old diary, it leads to revelations about a Victorian Suffolk murderess. Louisa finds herself involved in suffragette protests while investigating two horrific murders – and the murderer is getting too close for comfort.
What is it about that time frame–actually frames, since you’re going back and forth– that intrigues you?
Where to start! Victorian murderess Mary Cage appears in my own family tree. She confessed to wicked, immoral behavior but despite all the evidence against her, she always denied murdering her husband. Mary lived in abject poverty in a society where the only help for the destitute was the workhouse. I wanted to get under her skin to work out how much the poverty contributed to her depravity.
The second murder involved a family of suffragists. My genealogy also includes middle class suffragists Ada and Bessie Ridley who had close connections to Millicent Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. I find the various factions of the suffragette movement fascinating; Millicent Fawcett’s mainly peaceful suffragists on the one hand and Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant suffragettes on the other. My book is set in 1911 when many suffragists throughout the UK hid themselves away to avoid the 1911 census. It was a peaceful protest but it wasn’t long before British suffragettes were chaining themselves to railings, performing acts of vandalism and breaking the law where they felt it necessary. Vote for murder contrasts the poverty of the 1851 murder with the relative wealth of the families in the 1911 murder. Interestingly there’s a Meryl Streep film coming out shortly called Suffragette. I will be first in the queue to see this at the cinema!
What’s your favorite scene in the book?
It’s not so much a scene, as a change of perspective. The book is written in three voices but the one I enjoyed writing the most was that of Mary Cage as she described, in her own words, the events that led her to the gallows, writing her personality to alter according to events. It was interesting to use the language and words prevalent in Victorian times and there were several colloquialisms peculiar to Suffolk that I was able to insert for authenticity. I researched real newspaper extracts of the murder and kept faithfully to the story while developing Mary’s fictional character.
It began as a writing exercise: Could I capture everything that goes through someone’s mind during just the 2 minutes of a horse race? I leave it up to you whether I’ve succeeded. Please enjoy.
On the Rail
“And they’re off, and Billy’s Buddy takes the lead off the rail followed by Pleazpleazpleaz, Penzance Pirate and BarTab…”
I love to hang over the rail and lean in just so I can feel them passing by, the vibrations running through the ground, along the rail and up my arms. God I love this game.
Broke even so far but this is the race, I can feel it in my bones…. One and four. That’s the exacta. Four’s the favorite, what’s the name… oh yeah, what’s it say on the ticket, Billy’s Buddy, and he looks like chalk—only real horse in the race. Runs like a champ on the outside, with that white paint sploosh on his forehead and the jock in all blue silks and already up by a nose. Velasquez—top jockey at the track so he gets the best rides, no secret there. Best riders, best rides, should be an easy winner against these dogs. Can’t make any money with favorites though.
Let’s check the slip, one and four for the exacta. Oh, Jesus, what’s the name of that…. RoundtheHorn, and I can get a really good look at the nag because he’s all by himself at the back of the pack. COME ON ALREADY, MOVE IT. Gimme a little love here for crying out loud.
“At the quarter pole, it’s Billy’s Buddy, Perfect Pitch a length back, with Bar Tab running on the outside…”
I can’t hear the rest because the perky little cheerleader in the floppy-ass hat with the, what is that a peacock feather? It ain’t Derby Day little girl, stop screaming. “Come on Bar Tab”, Sweet Jesus H Christ on a crooked crutch what is she six years old? I swear she just called him a “horsey”. Look at her, maybe twenty one, and all her brains inside her sweater. And that hipster boyfriend of hers, what a piece of work he is, a real mook.
“And RoundtheHorn trails going into the quarter pole…”
Come on, pick it up. It’s okay, I have’m boxed. Four horse can win long as one horse comes second… doesn’t pay as much but RoundtheHorn’s fifteen to one, so that’s four fifty plus the exacta…. We hit and it’s a mortgage payment. Make a move you frickin’ nag….
Look at that little dipshit she’s with. No one under forty should smoke cigars, it makes the little frat boy SOB look like he’s wearing his daddy’s clothes. Playing grownup and thinks he looks like Sinatra in that hat. Yeah, maybe Frank Junior. Jeez, I got concert T shirts older than this punk. And daddy’s got money, sure as God made little green apples. Why else would a little hottie like that…
Come on, one horse, you’re supposed to be a stalker. ‘Course so was Ted Bundy and look how that worked out….
Oh hell, they’re behind the scoreboard, check the screen. Those little circles with the numbers on them are moving around, changing position except for one… that little green circle with the 1 on it is still behind everyone else. You’re supposed to be a closer…. Coffee’s for closers, can I get you an espresso, you stupid can of dog food? Make a move damn you!
“And off the turn, it’s Billy’s Buddy with Bar Tab two lengths back, Penzance Pirate and Perfect Pitch”
I can’t hear the announcer for that girl screaming and bouncing around. She picked him ‘cause she liked the name. Well of course she did. And she’s proud of it, too. Sure didn’t look at his PP, and who bets a grey horse? Freakin’ amateur night. Didn’t daddy teach her nothing?
This is a numbers game, it’s science, and the numbers say he likes to close so make a move, Jose, come on, let him go. Let’s see, so Four horse wins and Round the Horn can comes second if he actually makes a FREAKING MOVE BEFORE DINNER. Numbers don’t lie, he ran a hell of a final quarter last time out. I can’t read my form right now ‘cause it’s all crumpled up in my fist and I’m beating it on the railing. Yeah, that’ll make him run faster, you dumbass.
“It’s Billy’s Buddy by a length, Penzance Pirate and Bar Tab with Booboo Kitty and RoundtheHorn moving on the outside…”
Come on Four you gotta hold on. I knew that jockey let you go too fast, you shouldn’t be front running… Velasquez knows better than that. Okay but one horse is making his move come on baby, that’s it… grind it, grind it….. Come on, one and four, one and four…..
She just won’t shut up, will she? And look at the way she looks at him. She wins on that little two dollar bet of hers and he’s in for a hell of a night. Hardly fair but that’s life, right? I could win the Triple Crown three times at ninety to one and never get a chick like that. Hell, even when I was hot Sheila never gave a…..
Alright about time, he made a move. The outside’s clear. Attaboy, what’s he sitting now, third? COMEON….
“And at the last turn, it’s Billy’s Buddy, BarTab and Round the Horn, followed by Penzance Pirate and BoobooKitty”
Make a move, make a move. Four horse, what are you doing? You can’t let up for Chrissakes . I know you got something left in the tank. Hold off that gray piece of….
“It’s BarTab and Billy’s Buddy, Billy’s Buddy and Bar Tab, neck and neck with RoundtheHorn and Penzance Pirate as they near the finish line…”
Come on, one and four, four and one I don’t care just finish it. Oh honey, give it a rest, your horse hasn’t got a….
“And it’s BarTab, with Billy’s Buddy and RoundtheHorn, followed by BoobooKitty, Penzance Pirate…..”
Is there a challenge? Let there be a challenge. Course not, God hates me, always has. Why toss me a bone now? Place and Show isn’t good for a damned thing. Crap, shouldn’t litter, I’ll drop it in the basket on my way to the window.
Sweet Jesus, what’s she gonna suck his face off? Let him breathe babygirl, he might need the oxygen later. And what’d she win, like nine bucks? What would she do to him if she hit a real long shot? Kid wouldn’t live to tell the tale.
Second and third…beat by a…’cause she liked the name…. Christ, amateurs are ruining this game.
So what is it about ancient Rome that has people all a flutter? It seems like the new hot topic in Historical Fiction is the Roman Empire. I will bet a quarter of the indie writers I connect with are writing about that particular period in time. And it’s not just fiction. My buddy Cameron Reilly’s “Life of Caesar” podcast is insanely popular and a lot of fun.
Oh, and those aren’t typos, he’s British. The language is English, deal with it……
Hi Alex. In a nutshell, what’s the new book about?
Carbo (the hero of the series) and his loved ones leave Rome for the sleepy Italian countryside, desperate to recover from their recent traumas. But a chance encounter with locally notorious masked bandits leads to a devastating outcome. Carbo has to fight his own demons and an evil conspiracy to save himself and his friends, and avenge his loss.
Bandits of Rome, the sequel to the number one bestselling novel Watchmen of Rome, follows Carbo as he plunges from happiness to despair, from the Italian countryside to the lead mines of Sicily. Will Carbo ever find the peace he craves?
Good cliffhanger question. So what is it about Ancient Rome that is so intriguing? Seems like a lot of British writers are focusing on it- it’s becoming the new “Arthuriana.”
I’ve always had an interest in Ancient Rome, which has grown deeper the more I have found out. They were a civilisation of huge contrasts. They had mighty
armies, a huge Empire, philosophy, art and architecture. They also had terrible cruelty and awful poverty. I am fascinated by the ordinary people of the Roman Empire who had to survive in the shadows of the magnificent buildings. My hero, Carbo, is a traumatised war veteran, trying to find peace, and consistently failing. He has to overcome his own inner demons, as well as his prejudices, to fight for what is important.
A completely unfair question to ask an author; what’s your favorite scene in the book?
One favourite scene is too spoiler-heavy to describe but is full of emotion, especially if you have read the first book, Watchmen of Rome. Another favourite part involves Carbo being sent to the lead mines as a slave, and I try to describe the horror of the existence of a Roman mine slave.
There is nothing like the feeling of holding a hard copy of your book in your hand for the first time. This is especially true in the case of my first novel, The Count of the Sahara.
I have published a number of books (you can see the whole list here) but until now, something’s been missing. I always felt in my heart that to be a “real writer” you had to have a novel published. And not just published, but published by someone who wasn’t you.
Thanks to the folks at The Book Folks, the dream has come true. My first novel, published by someone with a purely commercial interest in the works, and available to everyone is now out for the world to gaze in awe… and to take shots at.
Anyone who has ever been published knows that holding your book in your hand for the first time is an emotional experience, one that Kindle books–much as I love reading them–can’t match.
Today, I am a real author. Now to see if the world thinks my baby is ugly….
I’m thrilled that my short story “On the Rail” is going to be included in this years anthology from the Naperville Writers Group. Each year they get samples of writing from the membership and bind them in a paperback, called Rivulets.
This year is Rivulets 27. The launch will be held at the Naperville Library, 95th St
Branch on Saturday October 3 from 1-4:30. Join us for readings, prizes, and
getting to know some of the excellent local talent.
3015 Cedar Glade Dr
Naperville, IL 60564
Hope to see you there. If you like what you see, come join us on Wednesday evenings. There’s some great talent in the group.