History-Making (and how the research began)

Ride into the Sun is set to be released on March 1, 2019. The E-book is available for preorder now on Amazon.

When the Barbera Foundation first contracted me to write a fictionalized retelling of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus’ life, I felt the pressure of the task. It’s a balancing act, curating the details of a figure’s life into an engaging and exciting novel while staying true to his personality — at least, what we know of his personality given that he died about 2200 years ago. It’s a conflict that wasn’t new to me. I’d grown up with my mom writing The Golden Hour series, a time travel trilogy that visited revolutionary Paris, Cleopatra’s Alexandria, and California in the throes of the gold rush. I’d also worked closely with Julia Belanova as she thought through her senior thesis Shirley, a musical based on Shirley Temple’s life. Together, we carefully constructed the story of a woman whose life expanded far beyond her career as a child star, a life that certainly had its share of controversies to consider. Then again, comparisons between a Roman general and a gang of 20th centuries tweens or the girl who sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop” can only go so far.

But, of course, it all has to start with the research. Though I was warned against it in middle school, I turned to Wikipedia at first. In many ways, I was fortunate to be assigned a figure from the B.C. side of history since (at least according to Wikipedia) no one had recorded any grand controversies with Scipio at the center. But beyond that, it gave me the license and the liberty to imagine a world totally different from ours. What could living in Rome in 200 B.C. possibly be like? After Wikipedia, I turned to the Harvard Libraries. The summer that I began writing the novel, I was a summer research fellow living at Harvard and my access to the Harvard Library system became crucial to this project. I depended on not only accounts of Scipio’s life (thank you, Livy scholars!) but also documentation on day-to-day life, military formations and weaponry of the time, ancient Roman architecture and political organization, wedding traditions, and culinary habits. Anyone of Italian descent knows just how important the dinner table is, but what exactly were they eating? (spoiler alert: eels!) I discovered the type of swords Scipio and his lifelong friend Laelius (who narrates the book) would have had, how long their journeys from Rome to Spain to Carthage would have been, and how truly unique Scipio’s experience was compared to his peers. 

Sitting down finally to write this novel, I found my initial anxiety over this balancing act fade. The historical record of Scipio’s Rome already contained so many colorful and intriguing details to inject into a story about Scipio, that I would have no problem painting his life as interesting. That doesn’t mean I didn’t editorialize. The garden, for instance, in Scipio’s home made of exotic flora was completely my own imagining. I thought a house owned by two brothers constantly returning from foreign lands should reflect their journeys and no doubt diversified tastes. I reminded myself that my role was as a story-teller, not as a historian, wedded to facts construed from whatever existing materials from the time have been left behind. Then again, don’t historians also construct narratives themselves, imagining worlds that once were or might have been? In either case, fiction or history, I was along for the ride.

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