Is It Cheating?

the centurion's wifeI’ve already read this one once, and the reason I’m reading it again isn’t because I loved it–I did, it’s a great book–but because it’s in the same era and setting as my historical novel. Rereading this and some of the others I have which are set in the same time in history is one way I do my research. Although, to a certain extent, it may be cheating. I’m not sure–and I’m not sure I care. (How’s that for attitude?!)

Writing a historical is a new challenge for me. The general research is fascinating, and I’ve had a blast discovering that many of my thoughts and ideas are feasible–so much so, sometimes, that I can see God’s hand in directing me . . .  okay, yes, I have to share this with you, even though it’s not really part of this post idea:

My novel opens with Jesus carrying His cross to Golgotha and goes on from there. The day after the Sabbath, my main character is in the marketplace, haggling with a merchant over the price of fine linen, when a woman rushes up and says, “He’s gone!”

She’s announcing that the tomb is empty, and the scene is supposed to crackle with excitement, but I had to stop and look something up. What on earth am I going to call this woman, this friend whom the merchant would call by name? My brain froze, and all I could think of was Mary and Martha. I went to a handy-dandy website that lists the names found in the Bible and their meanings, and found “Joanna,” which means “God is gracious.” Perfect.

Next day, I’m having a cup of coffee with Luke, rereading the gospel we’re studying on Sunday mornings, and I slip to the end of the book to the place where my novel opens. On the first day of the week, a bunch of women went to the tomb to find it empty. Guess what? Among the women was one named Joanna. Guess what? There’s a reference to her in another place in Luke, a verse I’ve skimmed over I don’t know how many times. And guess what?!  Joanna’s husband is Herod’s steward! Can you imagine what I can do with that?! You wouldn’t believe my giddiness over finding this fascinating tidbit for my story! Squeeee!!!

Now, back to my post:

People who read historicals are sticklers for the facts. I know this, and it scares me silly. That’s why right this minute my opening three chapters are getting fact-checked by a college professor friend. Even in The Centurion’s WifeOke and Bunn got dinged for a scene where tea was served. (This time, the reader’s conclusion is in question. It’s quite feasible that tea was imported during the era, considering the scope of the Roman empire, and that rich Romans would have served it.) So the technical aspect of writing this novel is always foremost in my mind.

It reminds me of the movie, Somewhere in Time, with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve. Jane’s character existed in the ’20s, and Chris’s character was modern. Still, he fell in love with her. By some fluke, he managed to travel back in time for just an instant and meet her. Then, by design, he went back for what he thought would be forever. A time-traveler scientist had told him to rid himself of everything modern and concentrate on the era he wanted to go back to. The trick worked. Then, just as he and Jane were falling in love and planning a future, Chris found a new penny in his pocket. The sight of it ripped him right out of the era.

That’s the experience for readers of historicals when they come across an anachronism. And I’ve been doing everything I can to prevent that.

One of the things I couldn’t discover using research texts and websites was how to write for this era. A very technical question: Do I write everything in very formal language? Can I use contractions? How often should I use Hebrew or Latin?–assuming I could do so and pull it off.

In Bunn and Oke’s book, the language is a blend of both formal and informal, which works great. One thing that seems difficult, even for them, is developing a voice that is distinct to each character. I’m not quite sure how to do that either, but I hope I can figure it out. In contemporary books, we can drop the “g”s off -ing endings or add slang, but what’s slang in Biblical times?

A bonus of reading The Centurion’s Wife is that Davis Bunn actually went to Israel and Jerusalem, something I’ll probably never get to do. Is it cheating for me to garner setting ideas from them? I’m not stealing their descriptive passages verbatim, but I rely on them to help me get snippets that lend to authenticity. They’ve included something I’ll never experience: the smells of the setting. You can’t sniff the air off the computer screen and expect to actually smell camels.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I do have several books set in the Roman empire–novels by Sandi Rog and Francine Rivers aside from this one by Bunn and Oke. I intend to immerse myself in these to help me create the same world for my own novel.

Is that cheating?




About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
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8 Responses to Is It Cheating?

  1. I don’t think it’s cheating. After all you could just as well read travel novels, or blogs, but they wouldn’t nearly as fun. I would think the authors would be complimented, as long as you don’t use their verbiage, as you certainly wouldn’t do. You’ll come up with something creative only using some of their facts. As for your divine coincidence? That’s an exciting confirmation this is a story you were meant to write! Gives me goosebumps. Can’t wait to read this one, Linda.


  2. Gay Ingram says:

    Several of my novels are placed in a historical setting – one of the reasons I enjoy writing in this manner is the research required. I don’t consider it cheating. I read, read, read and make notes of anything that will help me capture the sense of that particular time and culture. If a snippet ends up in my story, it’s always written from my perculiar viewpoint and style.


  3. K.M. Weiland says:

    If it’s cheating, then I cheat too. Sometimes the best way to get a sense of an era is through stories.


  4. contrerassons says:

    The same would be true of old movies in historical time frames…My boys recently watched a Sarah Plain and Tall DVD. They laughed at all the wrong glitches for the time—while I cried for the plot of the movie. Somehow the problems usurped the emotions for them…. and they could not enjoy the movie.(At some point, their laughter also ruined the movie for me, too.) So accuracy is essential for the flow of your book or movie.

    I recently read that “ideas absorbed instinctively by one’s emotions will be difficult to displace by reason.” That’s what we do with fiction. That’s why I’m on guard for what my boys read—so their believe system isn’t undermined by what entertainment they read…That also makes it hard to discern historical accuracy/beliefs of the time from modern biases especially when you use fiction to derive your historical accuracy.

    But there is a hole in the research between the encyclopedia rendition and how people really lived—that’s what makes fiction great.

    Cheating? I wouldn’t call it cheating, I would call it: seeing through the eyes of one who’s been there–maybe not in body, but in imagination. For me, I need all the help that I can get.


    • Linda Yezak says:

      “But there is a hole in the research between the encyclopedia rendition and how people really lived—that’s what makes fiction great.” Couldn’t have said it better myself! 😀


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