Just the Facts










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.



7 Responses to “Just the Facts”

  1. Susan Hobbs says:

    I love historical fiction and all things Roman. When will your book come out?

    • Susan:
      May I coin the phrase “music to my ears”? Thank you so much for your comment. The answer, I hope, is soon. I just finished up with my beta readers and am making revisions. A lot will depend on whether I choose traditional or self-publishing.

  2. Sherry Keller says:

    I read a lot of historical fiction because it makes me feel like I’m getting some useful information while getting a good story. Your book sounds interesting.
    I always wondered how long authors sat in libraries researching their facts for this kind of work. It never occurred to me that now they would be sitting at the computer.

    • Sherry:
      Thanks for your comment! It’s amazingly easy to spend hours on research, whether you’re at home or in a library. I spent the better part of day in a library in Scotland (and probably could have spent a month), flipping through pages of newspapers from the 1700s for a novel that I never finished.

      It’s fascinating how technology has changed our approach.

  3. Rosana Ekin says:

    Thanks for the instructive and well written ideas. I like your user-friendly style.

  4. Sandy Klen says:

    This has been a pet peeve of mine for years.

  5. Hi there, I discovered your blog via Google while looking for a related subject. I’ve been researching the great depression for a book, and going deep into the subject matter. Since I have family members who lived through this period, it makes the hunt enjoyable.