Making the Editor’s Cut by Nanette Littlestone
History (to me) is dry, tedious, and complicated. Who can remember all those names, dates, and places? And who cares? But historical research for a book I’m writing—now that’s different. Suddenly those names, dates, and places have meaning. They involve my characters.
The Sacred Flame is a story of love and betrayal set in ancient Rome in 216 BC. The main characters include a Vestal Virgin and an Equestrian commander. Who were the Vestal Virgins and Equestrians? What were the levels of government? What did the average house look like? What kind of food did they eat? What clothes did they wear? How did they get around the city? In short, I needed to find out anything and everything that dealt with daily life in Rome.
The common language for that time was Latin. Many of the words of that era have stayed intact: atrium, centurion, praetor. Citizens walked down the Via Sacra and along the Via Appia (the Appian Way). They shopped in the Forum Romanum and Forum Holitorium (vegetable market). They rode in carpentums (a two-horse open carriage). And they ate a special pastry called placenta (made from cheese, egg, and flour, topped with honey, and similar to baklava).
These are just a few of the facts I discovered through research. Sometimes the work was fun. Sometimes it was frustrating. Looking for “food in ancient Rome” brought up more information than I could ever wade through. Narrowing that search to “cherries” produced several hours of reading conflicting reports.
One source of information is usually not enough. History reports details tinged with the reporter’s bias, prejudice, and/or emotions. How much is actual fact is difficult to tell. Often there is a common consensus around battles, presidents, even the myths and legends. But if you’re researching a lesser known subject, the details may be more muddied. Determining the Vestal’s hairstyle led me to a fascinating debate. Some scholars purport that the Vestals cut their hair and kept it short throughout their service (according to statues of Vestals in the Uffizi). Other scholars maintain that the Vestals wore their hair in the sex crines or bridal style: divided into six parts and wound on top of the head. I preferred my character with long hair and adopted the bridal style for my story. You may make similar choices with your own book.
The web is a warehouse of wonder at your fingerprints. If you can’t find what you need on Google (or elsewhere), try looking in Google Books. I found a marvelous book on Vestal Virgins which turned out to be a doctoral thesis. Then I ordered a used copy through Amazon for a very reasonable price. The Online Etymology Dictionary is a great source for word history and easy to use. And don’t forget your library system. If your library doesn’t have what you want in stock, perhaps another branch does. Or use an interlibrary loan to bring a volume from a university library right to you.
One last note. Beware of Wikipedia. I use it often, it’s easy to read, but the information is not 100% trustworthy. Anyone can upload text and people don’t always check their facts.
History is fascinating. Research can be too. Readers love gleaning new ideas and bits of other cultures, other times, other places. The facts you find will make your story come alive.