As most writers of historical fiction know, one of the great joys and adventures of writing about the past is that you get to immerse yourself in another world, a time and place not your own. The research phase is like planning a trip in a way, what is there to see, which people might you run into along the way. Once that phase done and you have a framework for your journey, you are ready to step over the threshold of time.
Much of the action in my first two novels takes place in Roman North Africa, the provinces of Africa Proconsularis and Numidia (modern day Libya, Tunisia and Algeria). When I began my research travel to Libya and Algeria seemed a little unlikely, but when the opportunity arose to go on a safari of Roman sites in Tunisia came about, this writer jumped at the chance. The emperor at the time I write about was Septimius Severus, the eventual victor in the civil war that followed after the death of Commodus. Severus was from Leptis Magna, in Africa Province, and as a result much of his attention was focussed on this southern part of the empire.
In the second and third centuries A.D. the bread basket of the empire was no longer Egypt but rather the provinces of Africa and Numidia which provided grain, oil and garum (fish sauce) to the rest of the Roman world. The III Augustan Legion was also stationed in Numidia and because of the protection this afforded the population, as well as the prosperous economy of the region, many sprawling cities grew up along the coast, the green mountains of the north and the sandy edges of the Sahara itself.
When I set out on this journey I had no idea what I would find. What I expected was to at least get a sense of the place, the light, the smells, the feel of the sand. What my eyes beheld was much more. As we sped along the Tunisian countryside in our 4x4, our driver Samy laughing it up and ululating his hi-pitched voice, every site we came to was a complete eye-opener. The ruins were some of the most intact I had ever seen with paved city streets, the walls of houses, mosaics where they had been laid, open to the sky.
The ancient cities of Thurburbo Majus, and Thugga came to life with the voices of the past and each new site gave life to my setting and my characters. The amphitheatre of Roman Thysdrus juts out of the Numidian plain like a titan, more intact than the Colosseum in Rome and surrounded by the vast olive groves that made its builder so wealthy. I could hear the roar of the crowd in the stones, see the blood in the sand and breathe in the dry, sandy air of the desert as I sat in contemplation beneath a sunlit arch, a world away.
Another character in my work is the desert itself. My work might have been very different had I not been able to spend time in the Sahara, to see the towering dunes, visit its oases or walk barefoot in the sand. Truly, out in the desert, time does not exist; it's just you, the sand, the sky and, if you are a writer, your characters coming to life breath by glorious breath. The desert can grab hold of one so completely.
It is amazing that a place seemingly void of life can fire the imagination in such a way, but it can and must have done for the people who lived there or travelled through so many ages ago. Upon returning to Tunis our small group visited the Bardo Museum which has one of the finest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. It is here that one can see how life influenced art in ages past.
There has been much discussion about whether or not it is essential for a writer to visit the places about which they are writing. Opinion seems to be divided and really, at the end of the day, every writer or other artist functions in his or her own way.
The Internet has helped immeasurably when it comes to research, especially when writing about places where it might not be safe to set foot; alas the world is a strange place these days. But, for this tale spinner, there is no substitute for a trek to some far corner of the world to see a temple, a landscape or a square of sand-covered mosaic beneath a blue sky.
Just for Fun
In the first blog entry for this site I asked if anyone could guess where the mosaic in the photograph is from. The answer is from the House of the Dolphins on the Aegean Island of Delos. So, if you guessed correctly, Hail to the Victor!