Jess Steven Hughes: Researching the Historical Novel

Over the years I have accumulated a personal library of more than five hundred books on Celtic, Classical, Medieval and Mid-Eastern History which I use in the research and writing of my historical novels. This does not include various magazines, journals and other papers that I have collected, not to mention using the internet for the same purpose. I am always acquiring more information in an effort to make my novels as authentic as possible.

Before I wrote my first historical novel, The Sign of the Eagle, and the two novels I am currently writing, I had to learn the fundamentals of writing fiction as opposed to writing history.  This included: plot, characterization, scene, setting, dialogue, descriptive narration, the difference between showing and not telling, etc.  Only after I had attended writing seminars and workshops for several years did my abilities as an author of novels finally emerge.

Always keep in mind, I write first and foremost, fiction.  I don't write history.  I use historical events and backdrops for my stories.  I use historical events and backdrops for my stories.  My historical novel, The Sign of the Eagle, which was recently accepted for publication by Sunbury Press is an example.  The story takes place in Milan and Rome in 71 A.D.  The main character, Macha, is a Celtic woman married to a Roman officer, Titus.  He has been wrongfully accused of treason and conspiring to assassinate the Emperor Vespasian.  Macha must almost single-handedly prove his innocence.  Historians have speculated there were several conspiracies against the life of Emperor Vespasian, but only two appeared to have been recorded as found in The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius or in The Histories by Cassius Dio.  Therefore, my story is a fictionalized account of one possible unrecorded attempt on Vespasian's life.  I wrote it from what I believe to be a different perspective using an unlikely protagonist, a Celtic woman.  Why not?

Before I could fully develop The Sign of the Eagle, e.g. the characters, plot, setting, scene, dialogue, etc., I started by researching the overall history of the Roman Empire and the Celtic world.  Such books included, but were not limited to: History of Rome by Michael Grant, Rome, by M. Rostovtzeff, From the Gracchi to Nero, by H.H. Scullard, Invasion: The Roman Conquest of Britain, by John Peddie, The Agricola, by Tacitus, The Histories, by Tacitus, The Annuls of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, Rome Against Caratacus, by Graham Webster, The Celts by Gerhard Herm, The World of the Celts by Simon James, and more.  I continued with geographical locations.  I narrowed down the story to Milan, Rome, and the Italian countryside.  This included studying Muir's Historical Atlas: Ancient and Classical edited by R.F. Treharne and Harold Fullard, Atlas of the Roman World, by Tim Cornell and John Matthews, The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome by Peter Connolly and Hazel Dodge, and more.

I had to consider historical events that occurred prior to those in my novel which were important to the story's background.  Among these, I included the great civil war of 69 A.D. known as the Year of the Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian).  For this, I referred to: The Long Year A.D. 69 by Kenneth Wellesley, The Twelve Caesars by Michael Grant, The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, The Army of Caesars by Michael Grant and more.

In my story, Macha's husband, Titus, fought in this war against the forces of the short-lived Emperor Vitellius at the Battle of Cremona.  Titus was part of one of Vespasian's advanced units.  Other events included the invasion of Britannia in 43 A.D. and the eventual capture of the British chieftain, Caratacus, Macha's father.  He was brought to Rome along with his wife and daughter and ultimately pardoned by Emperor Claudius.  We don't know the daughter's actual name, so I chose a good Celtic name, Macha.  Caratacus was ultimately pardoned and disappeared from history, but there was no reason why I couldn't use his daughter for a story.

For her background, I described her growing up being Romanized, but clinging to many Celtic customs.  Prior to the story, she married Titus, who was born in Rome.  His parents were Gauls, but his father was a Roman senator, one of the first Gauls admitted to the Senate under Emperor Claudius.

Because I used a Celtic protagonist, I had to research Celtic as well as Roman customs, such as daily living, the role of women in the Celtic and Roman worlds, the gulf between the classes, slavery, religion, the military--both Celt and Roman--descriptions of city life, especially, in Rome, and more.  My research included A Day in Old Rome by W.S. Davis, Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jerome Carcopino, A Roman Villa, by Jacqueline Morely, The Sixteen Satires by Juvenal, The Epigrams of Martial, translated by James Michie, The Satyricon by Petronius, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah B. Pomeroy, Celtic Women: Women in Celtic Society and Literature by Peter B. Ellis, The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green, Celtic Art by Ruth and Vincent Megaw, The Complete Roman Army, by Adrian Goldsworthy, The Roman Cavalry, by Karen Dixon, The Vigiles of Imperial Rome by P.K. Baillie Reynolds, Fighting Elite: Celtic Warrior 300 B.C.-A.D. 100 by Stephen Allen and Wayne Reynolds.

It was only after I had conducted sufficient research that I finally wrote my story.  However, I wasn't finished.  I had to run the gauntlet of two writers' groups, The Spokane Novelists and The Spokane Writers' Group which month after month reviewed and bled all over my chapters until the manuscript finally met their expectations.  Even then, I wasn't through.  I sent my manuscript to a "Book Doctor," an editor who had spent years with Harper-Collins before going into private business.  Fortunately, she is a very ethical person (there are some real charlatans out there) who was very thorough and answered all my subsequent questions after she had reviewed and returned my novel for more work.

My efforts paid off.  After many rejection slips, The Sign of the Eagle was accepted for publication.

If you're interested in learning more about The Sign of the Eagle and when it is scheduled to be published, please check out my website:

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  1. So much goes into writing historical fiction, Steve,and your era more than most. Congratulations on your novel's acceptance for publication.


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