Today we’ll finish the FAQ section Rivers included in the end of an anniversary copy of her book, which is the copy I happened to pick up.
How did you do your research for this series and how long did that process take? What materials did you use? Did you travel to Rome?
It’s been twenty years since I did the research, and most of my materials are in storage, but I remember spending months reading books about ancient Rome (early sources like Josephus and Caesar and the Gauls) as well as numerous other volumes. I wrote pages of notes and kept binders of materials divided into various categories at my side throughout the writing process. I collected maps and pictures as well. I was constantly researching as I wrote the book. Although I was unable to do on-side research, Rick and I were able to visit both Rome and Israel later, after the trilogy was published.
Ah, so this is interesting: Rivers’ view of research is to read primary sources like Josephus and Caesar and the Gauls. This is not the first time I’ve heard this view. Some years ago my conservative mother praised a book about George Washington that she had gotten for my father by noting that the author, who was not a historian, had spent twenty years “reading all of the primary sources.”
There is a reason we have training for historians—you can’t just read the primary sources and automatically understand them. You need context, and tools, and access to (and understanding of) scholarly discussion. Rivers would have been better off reading secondary sources—historical monographs and the like—which help explain and contextualize primary sources.
Let me offer an example. If you read a contemporary Roman polemic decrying social decay, as a layperson, you may take its claims at face value. Consider a similar document written today. Consider the result if a future historical romance novel writer were to base their research on articles from World Net Daily.
To be sure, Josephus and Caesar and the Gauls aren’t the equivalent of World Net Daily. I’m simply trying to ascertain where Rivers got the idea that Roman noblewomen were having sex left and right, and taking ancient polemics at face value suggests a possible avenue, particularly given that she seems to have focused on primary sources, and not on secondary interpretation.
On to the next question!
What is your writing process like? Did you have the whole series mapped out before you started? Or did the books come to you one by one?
The books came to me one by one. I always start with characters. I believe characters make the story. So I was focused on Hadassah and the people she would meet and serve. I wanted the other characters to represent different points of view on faith and the culture of the time. I intended A Voice in the Wind to be a stand-alone novel with a classical (tragic, but cathartic) ending. My editor’s reaction to that idea changed my mind. I knew the second book would be more focused on Marcus’ journey to faith, as well as the doctor who saved Hadassah. I was able to focus on Atretes (the gladiator) in the third novel (As Sure as the Dawn). There was so much to learn from him and I wanted him to find real love and return to his people. My editor wanted me to write a fourth book, but the question I was wrestling with at that time needed a different place and time.
There are so many parallels between first-century Roman culture and the world today. Did you see those parallels as you were writing the story? How intentional were you about that?
I wasn’t intentional at all, but I was amazed at how closely we (America) mirror the attitudes of Rome. It was disturbing and should be taken as a warning.
Um … okay. I mean, I’m not surprised Rivers believes this given how much like America she wrote Ancient Rome. It’s just that Ancient Rome was not as much like America as she thinks it was. (Or rather, on a larger scale, that the past is more complicated than “like America” or “not like America”).
There are a few more questions left in the FAQ, but I didn’t find them particularly interesting. So here I’m going to summarize.
In one question, a reader asked whether it was “difficult to stay pure in heart and mind as you were writing vividly about this culture.” This is interesting, because the implication clearly is that writing a book that involved a lot of sex and almost sex might make one think slutty thoughts and thus not be pure in heart. But the whole point of a romance novel—and certainly this qualifies—is sexual (or other) excitement. The whole concept of romance novels would seem to run rather counter to being pure in heart.
Regardless, Rivers doesn’t really answer the question. Instead, she says she tried to be “evocative without being provocative” and that she “wanted people to feel Hadassah’s passion for the Lord, her compassion for the people she served, her fear and concerns in a very real way.” Of course, Hadassah never came across as realistic. She felt forced, and some of her actions didn’t seem compassionate at all. Rivers adds that “I was creating someone I want to be,” confirming that Hadassah was intended to serve as a role model.
This leads to an interesting question—why a character intended to serve as a model Christian, filled with passion for Christ and demonstrating spiritual growth over time, felt so flat.
Finally: When asked whether she would change anything if she rewrote the book today, Rivers said she never rereads a book after publishing it, so she can’t say. Other readers wanted to know whether she would consider adding to the series now—no—and how Christians can “stand as a light” today when “there is so much darkness”—by living “entirely to please God” of course.
There actually is one last section remaining in the book—a discussion guide composed of “character reviews” of Marcus, Hadassah, Julia, and Atretes. Until next week!
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