A student on one of our online writing courses back in 2014, David Barbaree (above) has just had his debut novel Deposed – an epic thriller set in the time of Emperor Nero – published by Bonnier Zaffre imprint Twenty7. Here, in a piece from the What Cathy Read Next blog, David talks about how he researched the novel and the challenges he faced when creating an authentic and believable Roman world.
I suspect different time periods present different challenges and opportunities when researching and writing historical fiction. If, for example, the subject matter is 19th-century England, there would be – I would guess – an endless amount of material for the novelist to wade through. A reasonable itinerary of, say, Queen Victoria, may be possible. This would be very different to my experience researching a book set in Ancient Rome. I found that there was somehow both too much information and too little. Conceptually, I divided my research into three categories: i) facts; ii) events and personalities; and iii) ethos. Whether there was too much information or too little depended on the category.
I considered ‘facts’ to be the well documented aspects of Roman life in the first century AD. The way Romans told time; their manner of dress; the soldier’s uniform. When I first started writing Deposed, I agonised over getting this type of information 100 per cent correct. It paralysed my writing. Far too often, I would stop and chase a fact down a rabbit hole only to emerge days later. It was only after I accepted that I wouldn’t be able to get every single fact correct that I was able to press on and finish the book. I had to remind myself that I was writing fiction, not an academic dissertation. Although I worked very hard to ensure the book was accurate, mistakes inevitably snuck through. Recently, after publication, someone smarter than me, with more knowledge in the area, told me that the book contains a reference to Roman soldiers wearing greaves when at the time they didn’t. Naturally, I was mortified. But not as mortified as I would have been when I first started writing the book.
I had a very different experience with the second category, events and personalities. When I started researching the book, I had a general understanding of the period: Nero was a monster; Vespasian (Nero’s eventual successor) was provincial and cheap – and this was usually reinforced by the modern historical accounts that I started with. But when I finally turned to the ancient sources, I was surprised at how little survived and how flimsy the original sources seemed. For example, the terrible acts the early emperors were accused of were merely uncorroborated rumours written decades after the fact. This led me to think more and more about the reliability of the extant record. I began to prefer the view of the ancient sources as propaganda, at least in part, encouraged by subsequent emperors. This perspective provided me room to manoeuvre as a novelist and the confidence to stray from the ancient sources. The Nero in my book is not Suetonius’s Nero, or Tacitus’s. He is my Nero.
The third category was, in my view, the most important. Ensuring that the characters of my book were true to the emotional, moral and philosophical make-up of a first-century Roman was vital to ensuring the reader could immerse themselves in the story. Mistakes with this category would be more devastating to the book than any other. Hopefully, this final category is one that Deposed gets right throughout the novel and – fingers crossed – Ancient Rome can come to life.
David Barbaree is a lawyer and a Curtis Brown Creative graduate. He lives in Toronto with this wife and daughter.
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