Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Historical Research: The Greatest Puzzle

Writing historical fiction involves more than reading a book or two. A string of facts is not enough to make a story accurate; you also want to get the feel of a place, a person, a culture. You need tone, atmosphere, and character.

Otherwise, it reads like modern people wearing fancy dresses.

Finding depth behind facts isn’t easy. Still, there’s nothing more satisfying than putting together all the clues and stepping back to say, “I firmly believe this is exactly how it was.” It’s fun for the author, and it’s fun for readers.

Here’s an example:

In Sacred Fire, I needed to know how the Roman people felt about the Vestal Virgins. Were they indifferent toward them? Appreciative? Were the Vestal Virgins celebrities the people knew by name, or an obscure group everyone knew about but no one put any thought into?

The facts tell me the people were respectful. Everyone had to bow to Vestal Virgins when they passed on the street, and the punishment for walking underneath their litter was death. That tells me how the Romans acted, but it doesn’t tell me how they felt.

My biggest clue came from an account by the Greek historian Plutarch, who attended a Vestal Virgin's execution and wrote about it in detail. He said:

“The crowd opens silently for the passage of the hearse; not a word is pronounced, not a murmur is heard. Tears stream from the eyes of every spectator. It is impossible to imagine a more horrible sight; the whole city is shaken with terror and sorrow.”

That told me everything I needed to know. I depicted the Romans as having a sincere love for the Vestal Virgins. Puzzle solved.

Isn’t this fun?

I have another example:

I depicted Tuccia as having a close relationship with her parents. Critique partners asked me if Romans cared as much about their children as we do and whether or not Vestal Virgins were allowed to maintain relationships with their family.

Time to do some detective work!

Vestal Virgins were usually selected by lottery, but parents could volunteer their daughters. Considering the prestige of being a Vestal Virgin, you’d think they’d want to.

They didn’t. Caesar Augustus, who was very religious, once scolded patrician parents for not offering their daughters. He said the girls should be honored to serve Vesta, but that didn’t persuade anyone. This tells me the Romans cared more about their daughters than approval from the emperor or the gods.

As for maintaining relationships with their family, one Vestal Virgin was accused of losing her virginity when a man was found in her bedroom with her. She was acquitted because the man was her cousin; he was buying land from her and they were negotiating the details. This tells me the vestals kept in contact with their extended family.

Here's another clue about their family relationships: a man was put on trial and his lawyer (I believe it was Cicero) argued that they couldn’t execute him because his sister was a Vestal Virgin. He claimed the execution would devastate her, and the people should show her more appreciation.

This not only told me she had a close relationship with her brother, but it reaffirmed how much the Romans respected vestals.

If you’re doing research and find yourself making guesses, don’t give up like that! The clues you need are there. You just have to keep looking.


  1. I love all these details about Ancient Rome. Cicero, as you probably know, was a scoundrel in his own right, sarcastic and a master at self aggrandizement. He could have been making a joke with this comment.

    Are you still editing Sacred Fire (Great title by the way) or are you sending it out again?

  2. Thanks! I'm do a massive rewrite of Sacred Fire. I'm hoping to send it out again October 31 (for the third year in a row). I'm starting to wonder if that day is bad luck for me.

  3. That's really interesting. I don't write historical, but sometimes I try to research for my own interest. I always struggle to find accurate sources.

  4. I really enjoyed the post. I'm also researching the ancient world, Egypt actually. We know a lot about the Egyptians funerary practices but the details of their daily lives are elusive. Sometimes the only facts I can find are passing references from the ancient sources


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