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GUEST POST: Integrating History in Your Writing Without Getting Bogged Down in the Details by Monica Burns

First, thank you to John for having me visit here again. When we were chatting about my post, I asked John for some topics. It’s hard to do a blog tour with a new book without new topics. Without one, you generally keep repeating the same message over and over again. Of course, that’s something history seems to do too. And in a way, it’s pertinent to my post today. John asked me how do I integrate the history of the Roman empire without getting bogged down in details.

Actually, it’s not as hard as one might think. The hardest part is finding just the right tidbits to add flavor to the read. History is a passion of mine. I love researching the eras that affect my works. There’s something romantic, intriguing and exciting about the past. I like to think of it as the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence type of thing. In fact, if there’s one thing history has taught me it’s that the more money you have, the better your existence. Guess some things never change. *grin*

When I was researching my Order of the Sicari series, I delved into all types of content about ancient Rome and its more than 500 years of history. When most people think of ancient Rome, they think of things like Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, the Roman Collessum, Gladiators, Christians being fed to the lions and other such imagery. While those things have been popularized by Hollywood, there are pieces of history that haven’t received quite the same attention. For example, most people don’t know that our current laws have a foundation in ancient Roman law. Another lesser known fact is that the US government owes some of its governing principals to the Romans. Like the ancient Roman government, the US is a representative government with three branches, executive, legislative and judicial. I freely admit that the military was some of my most fascinating reading. Rome’s army was a force to reckoned with. The army wasn’t just used for acquiring new territory. They also acted as builders, engineers and a police force.

So with all that food for fodder, exactly how do I go about writing my Sicari books without overloading readers like I did in the above paragraph? What’s the trick to not making my paranormal series read like a Roman history lesson? I think the short answer is this. I treated it like it was my own culture. I write the books as if the ancient Roman culture is still alive today in our world, just as it is for the Sicari. My characters might use technology and live with all the modern conveniences, but many of them still adhere to certain codes and practices from the past. I show that in small bits and pieces so it blends in, and yet creates a world that is uniquely the Sicari.

It’s the small, little known facts that I use to add realism to the work. An example of this is the peristylium. Most readers don’t know what it is, so I had to describe it for readers. I made it a part of the overall description and mixed it up when creating images of a courtyard situated in the middle of a house. Then there are the little things, like Marcus in Assassin’s Heart as he pray in front of small figures representing the deities he prays to. It only required a couple of sentences to show he’s following the “old ways.” Some of the rituals the Sicari follow have roots in ancient Roman traditions, but are not necessary true to form. The thing is, it’s the flavor that counts. It’s what makes a reader feel as though their peeking into a culture that’s evolved over the years.

Since this is fiction and it’s paranormal, I do take poetic license. For instance, my Sicari speak a hybrid of Latin and Italian, which over the last two thousand years has become its own dialect. So the language in the book won’t necessarily make sense to someone well-versed in Latin or Italian, but for someone who doesn’t know either language, it lends a real, authentic feel to the read.

One of the biggest things about Assassin’s Heart is that the book alternates between the present and ancient Rome. This is done through dreams the main characters have, and I’m able to show more of what the Sicari have evolved from, which helps create even stronger imagery for the present day characters. One of my favorite scenes is the battle scene with Maximus, the main character in the past. I like to think I really captured the battle scene in a vivid way, but read and decide for yourself as to whether you can easily see the battle in this unedited excerpt.

As he raced toward the nearest cohort, an image of Cass filled his head. Jupiter’s Stone, she was going to be a widow despite his promises to her. No. He wasn’t ready to give up that easily. He wasn’t going to leave Cass or Demetri to the likes of that treacherous fotte, Octavian. He tugged on the reins and the animal carrying him slid to a halt at the rear of the first company in the cohort.

“Retreat,” he shouted as his Prefect turned toward him. A split-second later, the man sank to his knees with an arrow jutting out of his throat. The soft whistle accompanying the deadly shaft said there was more on the way. Cak. “Testudo. Now.”

The minute he roared the command, the men threw up their shields and moved quickly into formation, their armor creating a tortoise-like shell to protect them. The whistling sound grew louder, and he growled with anger at the arrows flying towards his men. Just before the projectiles reached him, he threw up an invisible shield to block the arrows from touching him or his horse. In front of him, several missiles found targets through cracks in turtle-like formation, filling the air with more screams of pain, but most of the men had survived.

“Where’s the Centurion?” The din of the ongoing battle was so loud he wasn’t sure any of the men had heard his shout. A soldier pushed his way out of the small company to slam a fist against his chest before flinging his arm outward in a salute.

“The Centurion is dead, Legatus.”

“Not any more he’s not. You’re promoted to the rank of Centurion,” roared. “Now get these men down to the riverbank and get across the Tiber the best way you can. Regroup at the Porta Flaminia.”

He didn’t wait for the man to answer as he urged his horse forward to the next small company. At each group of soldiers, he ordered retreat. The air was thick with dust and smoke the closer he got to the bridge. Constantine had closed the gap between his army and Maxentius’s Second Legion, positioning catapults within striking distance of the front line.

Flaming missiles from the massive weapons sent men scattering like roaches exposed to light as the deadly balls of fire fell from the sky. With the line broken, it was impossible to hold off the advancing army. The fighting had not yet reached the river, and he saw two of his Tribunes directing the retreat across the makeshift structure that barely passed for a bridge.

Men staggered their way across the less than sturdy planks, while horses, some with riders, swam against the strong current in their effort to reach the opposite shore. Carefully, he negotiated his way through the carnage to where his Tribunes were shouting orders in first one direction and then another. Quinton was the first to see him.

“Cak, what are you still doing here! You said you were going to cross more than an hour ago.”

“I was detained. How many have crossed?”

“Two cohorts.”

“Two,” he exclaimed as his gut twisted. Less than a thousand men out of almost fifty.

“Maximus, you must cross the river now. The Praetorian Guard won’t follow anyone but you. And you need to ensure the Tyet of Isis doesn’t fall into Octavian’s traitorous hands.”

“Maxentius—”

“The Emperor is dead,” Quinton shouted, his horse rearing up as a ball of fire hit the ground near the bridge. “The battle is lost. You must go now. Crispian and I shall meet you at the Porta Flaminia as planned.”

He hesitated and looked over his shoulder at the chaos behind him. The cohorts he’d ordered to fall back and cross the river were doing just as he’d instructed. But in all the chaos that reigned, he doubted many of them would survive the crossing. With a sharp nod at the Tribune, he steered his horse down the riverbank and into the water. The Tyet of Isis was the last thing he was worried about at the moment. Praise the gods he’d manage to convince Maxentius to let him hide the precious box. At least it was safe for the moment.

Another fireball shot through the air to land directly on the rickety bridge. The sickly smell of burning flesh and death clung to him like sweat. Steeling himself to look back in Quinton’s direction, he saw his young Tribune’s horse without its rider. He started to go back, when another fireball landed directly on top of the animal.

Too late to help his friend. The only thing he could do was reach the south bank and retreat to the Porta Flaminia. From there he’d be able to take stock of what was left of Maxentius’s army and what sort of terms he could secure for the men. Shrieks of agony and terror filled the air as he urged his stallion into deeper water. All around him, men struggled to swim their way to the opposite shore amidst a growing number of bodies in the water.

Although tired, his large horse carried him safely to the south bank of the river. Here the chaos was muted. Whether out of years of habit or orders, the men who’d survived the crossing had fallen into rows of four men across as they trudged their way along the Via Flaminia back to Rome.

Creating the essence of the Sicari in ancient Rome and bringing that core imagery into the present for readers to enjoy has been a real pleasure for me. Blending history with the present to create a world that’s different from our own is about adding in small things so that they seem like ordinary things. Things like a handshake. In the US when we greet someone, we shake hands. When the Sicari see each other after a passage of time, they grab each other by the forearms, a greeting used by the ancient Romans in the army. It’s the little things like this that make the difference in my opinion, and it was the route I chose to take to keep my books from reading like a history lesson. It’s about entertaining the reader, because that’s the business I’m in, and I hope my Sicari heroes entertain people.

So do you like history mixed in with your reads? If so, do you have a particular time period you like to read about?

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An award-winning author of erotic romance, Monica Burns penned her first short romance story at the age of nine when she selected the pseudonym she uses today. From the days when she hid her stories from her sisters to her first completed full-length manuscript, she always believed in her dream despite rejections and setbacks. A workaholic wife and mother, Monica believes it’s possible for the good guy to win if they work hard enough.