From Historical Research to Historical Fiction with Jess Steven Hughes

Take a peek into the process of writing historical fiction with author Jess Steven Hughes.

by Jess Steven Hughes

Jess Steven Hughes

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. 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, plotting, setting, scene, dialogue, etc., I started by researching the overall history of the Roman Empire and the Celtic world. Such books included but not limited to: History of Rome – Michael Grant; Rome – M. Rostovtzeff; From the Gracchi to Nero – H.H. Scullard, Invasion: the Roman Conquest of Britain – John Peddie; etc.

I continued with geographical locations. I narrowed down the story to Milan, Rome and the Italian country side. This included studying: Muir’s Historical Atlas: Ancient and Classical – Edited by R.F. Treharne and Harold Fullard; Atlas of the Roman World – Tim Cornell and John Matthews; The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome – Peter Connolly and Hazel Dodge; etc.

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 – Kenneth Wellesley; The Twelve Caesars – Michael Grant; The Twelve Caesars – Suetonius, The Army of the Caesars – Michael Grant; etc. 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 (see above Invasion, etc). He was brought to Rome along with his wife and Daughter and ultimately pardoned by the Emperor Claudius. We don’t know the daughter’s actual name, I chose a good Celtic name, Macha. Caratacus was ultimately pardoned and disappeared from history, but there was no reason why I could not 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 a born in Rome. His parents were Gauls, but his father was a Roman Senator, one of the first Gauls admitted to the Senate under the Emperor Claudius.

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

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 whom had spent many 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 are interested in learning more about The Sign of the Eagle please check out my website .


1 comment

  1. One way to catch yourself when you’ve got too much of one thing and not enough of another is to use Margie Lawson’s EDITS system. You can search it on line. One of the things she suggests is that you highlight dialogue, action, internalization/narrative, and setting in different colors. Then when you see huge blocks of narrative and setting you know that there’s a spot that needs work. The bulk of the story should be dialogue and action. You can do it on paper or electronically in your word processing program. I find it very helpful to analyze my manuscripts this way.

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