On the Dangers of Re-Reading Past Favourites

cover of Rosemary Sutcliff's Eage of the NinthWhen I was eight or nine years old, I read my first Rosemary Sutcliff novel, The Eagle of the Ninth – and fell in love with historical fiction and with the history of Great Britain. She has been one of my favourite authors ever since. Her writing is so vivid and her imagery so strong that I still remember scenes from books I read 25 years ago. And one of the last sentences in Blood Feud has such a great emotional impact that it has remained with me since I first read the book at age thirteen or fourteen:

I have been sitting here in the twilight, remembering, as old men remember the days when they were young, and the men who were young with them.

A few weeks ago, I picked up The Sword at Sunset, one of Sutcliff’s few historical novels for adults. It’s a retelling of the Arthurian legends, but it is more grounded in history than most other retellings. I hadn’t read Sutcliff for a couple of years, and reading her now was like coming home. There was this instant familiarity with her prose, an instant connection with her characters. It was wonderful! (However, I had to stop reading when Artos’s illegitimate son Medraut turned up because from that point on it’s basically all downhill – that’s one of the problems with retellings of Arthurian legends: they are so very depressing!)

I found reading this novel deeply nourishing, so naturally I picked up some of her other novels (most of them are now also available in digital formats…. *coughs* ….um….): Frontier Wolf and The Silver Branch (the sequel to The Eagle of the Ninth). Both of them are set in Roman Britain, and, indeed, I think Sutcliff particularly excelled at writing about Roman Britain. She brings history to life in a way I’ve seen it rarely achieved by other writers, and she makes you curious about history. Inevitably, you want to learn more about this time period.

And this is where things become problematic.

Especially when you are a writer.

So I was driving to university this morning, and I thought about how much fun it would be to write a romance set in Roman times.

In Roman Britain?

Well, not bad, but… hm…

The highway stretches along the edge of the Taunus, until eventually, you cross the river Rhine to reach Mainz – the old Roman camp Mongontiacum. And I’m reminded that this has once been the edge of the Roman empire, with the Limes, the large frontier wall, separating the empire from the lands of the barbarians.

And I thought, “Now, wouldn’t it be fun to write a romance set here, in the region where I live. And we have this wonderful reconstructed Roman frontier fort – what could be better for doing research?!?! And…. just think! It would be awesome!!!!”

Oh dear.

Thinking things like that is rather… um… dangerous because it leads me to online bookstores and…. um…. searches in online bookstores.  (Bad, bad things, searches!) And then I end up with something like this:

cover of The Complete Roman LegionsThe Complete Roman Legions.

Goes well with the map of imperial Rome that I’ve had for a couple of years.

And with the Roman games I bought at the Roman museum in Canterbury a few years ago. (Underground museum + I was the only person in the museum = SUPER-SCARY!!!!!!)