I’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 Wife, Oke 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?