'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Thursday 20 November 2014

Guest Post: Frances Watts - Roman Omens and Baked Dormice

Kids' Book Review is delighted to welcome award-winning author Frances Watts to discuss her latest book, middle fiction novel The Raven's Wing. Frances shares the challenges and excitement of the research needed to write historical fiction.

Last year, I fulfilled a dream: I went to Ancient Rome.

At uni, I studied both literature and history, mainly Roman history, and when it came time to choose a major I was torn. Although I chose literature, I did always think that one day I’d like to immerse myself in history again.

When I started writing, I saw my chance—why not write historical novels? But I didn’t quite have the courage. History is so…big. I was overwhelmed by the thought of the research involved, by the responsibility to Get It Right.

Writing the Sword Girl series, set in a medieval castle, gave me both practice and confidence. Because the books were aimed at a younger audience, I could paint the setting in quite broad brushstrokes, though I always aimed for historical accuracy as far as possible. (I must confess, however, that the talking swords, talking cat and crocodiddle in the moat are not strictly accurate…)

And I loved the research. The more knowledge I acquired, the easier it became to walk those medieval streets. And so I finally felt brave enough to don Roman sandals…

painting of cithara player

From the outset, I knew I wanted to write about a girl on the cusp of womanhood. Rome was such a patriarchal society, but there are plenty of examples of women who nonetheless managed to subtly, cleverly exercise power and influence events (Augustus’s wife Livia for one). How did a girl grow up to be such a woman? I wondered.

As well as being a reflection of Ancient Roman life and times, though, I wanted to make the story feel contemporary. The Raven’s Wing might be set more than two thousand years ago, but at the time Claudia would have been a modern young woman, interested in fashion and music and, of course, love. She’s just like a teenage girl of today, trying to work out who she is and what she wants in life.

sea creatures mosaic from the Archaeological Museum in Naples

As I was mulling over the kind of book I wanted to write, I was collecting the kind of small details that I find so exciting. I’m a bit of a magpie. Some glittering scrap catches my eye—a beautiful fresco of Livia’s garden in the Palazzo Massimo on a trip to Rome; a reference to Roman augury and omens; a recipe for baked dormice—and I want that bright, shiny nugget for my book.

I started with the big picture. I wanted to set my book in the Augustan era, so I started my reading with political and social structures, famous figures and significant events. I was looking for a period of relative peace, so the focus could be on daily life, and c. 38BC the only political occurrence of note (more like a footnote, really) was the introduction of a new marriage law. Perfect!

Inspiration for Claudia's father

Once I had the time frame worked out, it was time to get stuck into writing the story. This was the part I had feared, really—the fact that Claudia couldn’t take a step until I knew what she was wearing, what she would have been seeing, smelling, hearing. I decided just to tackle one question at a time. So: books on architecture, dress, food, household structures (including slaves)…and thank heavens for the internet. How long would it have taken to get from Arretium to Rome? A Stanford University website about transport in the Roman Empire will calculate the answer. And I travelled; in museums from Rome and Naples to New York I studied sculptures (great for period hairstyles and Roman noses), furnishings and mosaics.

I’d started out fearing the demands of historical novels, but now…well the word that comes to mind when I think about the experience of writing The Raven’s Wing is ‘enriched’. And I’m hooked. Last year my artist partner brought home a book on Japanese woodblock prints and my magpie’s eye was dazzled. Which is why I am writing this guest blog post from a samurai house in 1857 Edo (Tokyo).

Frances Watts is the author of popular picture book and junior fiction titles including Captain Crabclaw's Crew, The Fearsome, Frightening, Ferocious Box and the Sword Girl series (KBR review). The Raven's Wing is Frances' first book in a series of standalone historical novels for middle fiction and teen readers. Visit Frances' website and Facebook page to keep up to date with her latest book news and writing projects.