• Real People in Historical Fiction

OthoHistorical fiction is exciting to write because it offers opportunities to explore a different world from the one we live in. Inventing characters to fit into distant places and times is mostly fun, but mixing fictional characters with people who actually lived in another era ups the ante, not only with creative challenges but with a responsibility to abide by the historical reality.

Invented characters must be true to the times in which they are placed. A fifteenth-century damsel can’t go off to her job as a news broadcaster. But as long as we avoid anachronisms and don’t engage our characters in activities that couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened in the time and place we’re writing about, we’re free to have them say, do, and be whatever we please.

Not so when bringing real people to life in fiction. They’ve been written about already in contemporary records, history texts, or earlier works of fiction. Their existence was noted at the time they lived, with some degree of accuracy, if not always objectivity. Their lives, deeds, personalities, and manner of death (place, time, cause, etc) are often well known. We cannot tamper with those things.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use our creative vision to flesh them out. In fact, if we choose to include them in our fiction, we must flesh them out. Cardboard characters, real or invented, are of no interest to anybody. So we pour over the history books in search of the living people we seek to portray, then exercise our best talents to make them seem as “real” as they were in life.

In Rubies of the Viper, my mystery/suspense novel set in first-century Rome, the protagonist (Theodosia) and most of the supporting cast are invented, but six historical people also play important roles.

Four of those are future emperors at the start of the novel: Nero, Otho, Vespasian, and Vespasian’s elder son, Titus. Their lives, personalities, and characteristics are well documented in historical records. (Vespasian’s younger son, the future Emperor Domitian, appears in one of my scenes as a small child. Even though he doesn’t speak, I did my best to suggest the man he would become.)

I saw my role as recreating these future emperors as fully as possible without altering their true stories and essential natures. It was a challenge to start with the historical facts about each one and imagine how—on his rise to the pinnacle of power—he might have acted, talked, and related to Theodosia.

Nero actually was a pampered, self-indulgent prince, but he might by turns be bored, charming, treacherous, and (as emperor) merciless to Theodosia.

Otho actually was a blue-blooded patrician, but his ambition, ego, and boorish behavior might cause trouble for Theodosia.

Vespasian actually was a low-born soldier with an irreverent tongue, but he became a general, a national hero, and a well-respected emperor through organizational skills that might serve Theodosia in time of need.

Titus actually was “mankind’s darling” (according to one Roman historian), but he might seek to use Theodosia as a stepping-stone on his way to the top.

With the two real women in my novel, Poppaea and Flavia, it was great fun to be creative.

Poppaea actually did manage to marry both Otho and Nero, and her life as Nero’s empress is well documented. I was able to build her character to suit my needs, based on her historical reputation as a beautiful, manipulative, and ambitious woman.

Vespasian’s daughter plays a pivotal role in the book, but since she—the historical Flavia—was barely noticed in her time and died young, I had almost nothing to go by. So I was free to create an impish, bubbly, and clever teenager who adores her father and brother and becomes Theodosia’s best friend.

Could another author portray these six “real people” in a different way? Of course. Many already have, and many more will do so in the future. But no author can deviate from their essential natures (by turning Otho into a sweet, lovable man, for example) or the basic facts of their lives. And that remains one of an historical fiction writer’s greatest challenges: creating well-developed characters who function nicely in the context of a novel while remaining true to their historical selves.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• Avoiding Jabberwocky

In my first post on the subject of language (So… how would they talk?), I discussed what I consider the #1 linguistic challenge facing an author of historical fiction who attempts to bring ancient people to life while writing in modern English. I promised to post again to offer other thoughts about the choices involved.

So, okay, here goes… and please remember that I’d love to hear your opinion on this subject.

As I see it, the second most challenging linguistic decision facing a novelist who writes about the distant past is how much of the original language and how many archaic dates and place names to drop into an English book. Pile it on too heavily and the text becomes as incomprehensible as “Jabberwocky.” Include too little and some may say it lacks authentic flavor.

Consider this made-up-for-my-blog snip from a non-existent novel set in first-century Rome:

When they reached the ostium, Marcus embraced the senex, who had donned a heavy pallium in preparation for his journey in the procella.

“Vale, Pater. We’ll meet again on the Nones of Iulius, without fail. Please greet Mater warmly on my behalf and give Minor a basium for me.”

After his pater had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing impluvium, and walked into the triclinium, where his amici were assembled.

“Salve, Lucius.” He slapped the miles on the back. “How was Neapolis?”

“Unusually hot this aestas. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant little urbs!”

Anyone who has studied Latin will find that passage a quick-and-easy read, albeit a curious one. Other readers will probably roll their eyes in disgust. Much too confusing for the average English speaker to bother deciphering.

Would it help to italicize the Latin words, as shown below?

When they reached the ostium, Marcus embraced the senex, who had donned a heavy pallium in preparation for his journey in the procella.

Vale, Pater. We’ll meet again on the Nones of Iulius, without fail. Please greet Mater warmly on my behalf and give Minor a basium for me.”

After his pater had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing impluvium, and walked into the triclinium, where his amici were assembled.

Salve, Lucius.” He slapped the miles on the back. “How was Neapolis?”

“Unusually hot this aestas. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant little urbs!”

To my mind, those italics don’t help. Rather, they call attention to how many “foreign” words the reader faces… and quickly paging through an entire book filled with italicized Latin words would be a major turnoff.

In writing Rubies of the Viper, I decided on a few simple linguistic guidelines. I would:

  • include Latin words that have survived intact and are easily comprehensible today, such as villa, atrium, pergola, and Saturnalia.
  • include a few other Latin words that were bound to come up in my story but had no obvious translation into English, such as palla and stola (common items of women’s clothing) or quaestor and praetor (titles of specific government officials). And, of course, I would try to provide enough description and/or context at first mention for the words to make sense.
  • translate into English such Latin words as these from my snip above: ostium (entry door), senex (old man), pallium (cloak), procella (storm), vale (farewell, good-bye), pater (father), nones (seventh day of the month), Iulius (July), mater (mother), minor (younger, distinguished a girl from her mother), basium (kiss), impluvium (pool), triclinium (dining room), amici (friends), salve (hello, greetings), miles (soldier), aestas (summer), and urbs (city).
  • translate into English the names of months and major places, such as Rome, Naples, Greece, Athens, Corinth, Britain, and Antioch. I made an exception for small towns whose names carry special historic resonance, such as Reate, Caere, Pola, and Stabiae.

So, by my own guidelines, had the passage above occurred in Rubies of the Viper, I would have written it as follows:

When they reached the front door, Marcus embraced the old man, who had donned a heavy cloak in preparation for his journey in the storm.

“Good-bye, Father. We’ll meet again on the seventh of July, without fail. Please greet Mother warmly on my behalf and give my sister a kiss for me.”

After his father had left, Marcus crossed the atrium, taking care to avoid the overflowing pool, and walked into the dining room, where his friends were assembled.

“Hello, Lucius.” He slapped the soldier on the back. “How was Naples?”

“Unusually hot this summer. Fortunately, I was able to spend time in Stabiae. Such a pleasant town!”

Most other contemporary authors who write about ancient Rome don’t use lots of original Latin either. Some drop in tidbits, like triclinium or impluvium, for flavor. Perhaps they opt to use Pater/Mater as terms of address instead of Father/Mother, or Salve/Vale instead of Hello/Good-bye. Some may choose to use the original place names (Roma, Neapolis) instead of modern English versions (Rome, Naples). They may italicize the non-English words, or not. But it’s a safe bet that all authors of historical fiction wander through the same minefield of choices before coming up with the linguistic scheme that suits them best. There’s no right or wrong answer… just the one that fits a given work of literature.

The biggest trick, of course, is knowing when to stop. Once you start dropping in Latin words (or Ye Olde English or any other archaic language), why use one original term and not another?

That was one benefit to my decision to use modern English almost exclusively. I didn’t have to make those choices more than once.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—

• So… how would they talk?

Interesting. Enlightening. Gratifying. Perplexing. All describe readers’ online reviews… from an author’s point of view.

Sometimes, readers post gratifying comments, the kind you want to feature on your website.

Other times, readers post perplexing comments, as in the case of one reviewer of Rubies of the Viper who wrote: “Roman slaves did not use ‘ain’t’ or double negatives. That is new world slang and its use is really jarring in a novel set in ancient Rome.”

Another wrote: “Having someone in Rome say ‘ain’t’ and ‘he don’t’ puzzled me at first, then made me laugh. There HAVE to be better ways of showing class structure in Rome–where they spoke Latin–than using ungrammatical English.”


Those comments raise a number of linguistic issues that I’d like to begin addressing here. Other posts on the subject of language will come later (see Avoiding Jabberwocky). I would love to hear your comments on this topic.

Let’s start with three basic assumptions:

  1. First-century Romans spoke Latin, not 21st-century English.
  2. First-century Latin would have sounded just as contemporary (perhaps even slangy) to 1st-century Roman ears as 21st-century English sounds to 21st-century British, Canadian, Australian, or American ears.
  3. Illiterate 1st-century slaves and freedmen would not have spoken Latin in the same way as their well-educated patrician masters.

To those assumptions, let’s add three equally basic corollaries:

  1. A 21st-century novelist writing about 1st-century Rome will write in a contemporary language (English, Chinese, Italian, Russian, etc). He or she will not write in Latin.
  2. That novelist will have important linguistic choices to make.
  3. Most readers will understand and accept those choices; unfortunately, some will not.

It’s worth considering how authors in previous centuries dealt with these same language issues.

Reading 19th-century novels about 1st-century Rome—great works such as The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), Ben Hur (1880), and Quo Vadis (1896)—you find characters of all classes employing Biblical- or Shakespearean-sounding constructions such as “Dost thou think ’tis time to leave?” and “Hast not thy father returned?” All three novels were hugely popular, so the linguistic choices their authors made must have sounded right to readers of the era.

Nowadays, an author who employed archaic words such as dost, hast, canst, thou, and thy would be laughed out of the bookstore. English has moved on, and so has the manner in which contemporary novelists portray the speech of ancient characters.

The question of the moment boils down to this:

How should a 21st-century author, writing a novel in modern English about 1st-century Rome, convey the speech patterns of educated patricians and illiterate slaves and freedmen?

I see a range of alternatives, each with its own downside(s).

  • One could write all the dialogue in correct English and assume readers will figure out that some characters surely are speaking correct Latin and others surely are not. One might even drive home the point early in the book that “So-and-so spoke poor Latin” and say no more about it. That would be the safest approach, but to me the subsequent dialogue would lack both sparkle and verisimilitude.
  • One could write all the dialogue in correct English and consistently tag each line spoken by a slave as “Stefan said in uneducated Latin” or “Lucilla asked in slangy Latin” or “Alexander remarked in proper-but-accented Latin.” In a book with several major slave characters—such as Stefan, Lucilla, and Alexander in Rubies of the Viper—tag lines of that sort would get old very fast.
  • One could attempt to create a “Br’er Rabbit” or “Uncle Remus” type of slave brogue in an effort to convey the sound of illiterate Latin. A hundred years ago, that technique was acceptable, but today it would backfire in unimaginable ways. Besides, it would be nearly impossible to read… and tiring!
  • One could use a few patterns of ungrammatical (but still common and comprehensible) English—“I ain’t” or “He don’t” or “Nobody said nothing”—to suggest the kind of ungrammatical (but still common and comprehensible) Latin that uneducated 1st-century slaves and freedmen must have spoken. To me, that sounded like the most reasonable approach, and it’s what I chose to do in Rubies of the Viper. The downside, of course, it that some readers will be turned off because “Roman slaves did not use ‘ain’t’ or double negatives.”


It’s true that uneducated 1st-century slaves did not literally say “I ain’t” or “He don’t,” because they were speaking Latin badly, not speaking English badly. But how else can an author who does not know Latin convey the essence of bad Latin grammar to a reader who also does not know Latin? And even if an author does know Latin, would dropping in bad Latinisms really be the best way to convey the flavor of illiterate speakers of Latin to a broad, English-speaking, modern audience?

To extend that thought… educated 1st-century Romans like Theodosia, Vespasian, Flavia, and Titus—and even educated slaves like Alexander—did not use English contractions or slang either. I guess I’m lucky that, so far, nobody has objected to contraction-filled, slangy (“Father’s so tight!”), dropped-subjects, bubbly-daughter, and generally casual-but-educated dialogue like this snip from pages 18-19 of the paperback edition of Rubies of the Viper:

“Oooooh, what wonderful goblets!” Flavia turned hers around and inspected it closely. “This is the biggest ruby I’ve ever seen, and… what an amazing design!”

“Looks like a serpent eating an apple,” Titus said.

“Is that your family crest?” Flavia asked.

“I’ve never seen it before.” Theodosia turned toward Alexander. “Are these family pieces?”

“No, mistress. My lord Gaius brought them from Rome last year.”

“Oooooh, they’re exquisite!” Flavia ran her finger around the edge of her goblet and down the raised silver face of the ruby-eating snake. “Look at this… even little rubies in the eyes. You’re lucky to have such beautiful things, Theodosia.” She made a show of pouting. “Father’s just so tight. Won’t spend money on anything. Everything we use is as dull and practical as what our slaves use.”

“Soon, my girl,” her father said, “you can squander Lucius Sergius’ money. Let’s hope he’s rich enough to buy you all the things you want.”

As I said above… I welcome your comments on this subject. Please do let me know what you think!

—text copyright © Martha Marks—
photograph copyright © Generale Lee (own work)