My question seemed simple: what fauna flourished around Rome and Ostia in the first century?
Creating the world of my historical novel depended on getting the right answer, so I did what any good fiction writer does—I googled, purchased and read a variety of books (above), and even traveled to the place.
Obsessing the details is vitally important in writing novels, perhaps especially so for historical novels. I’m deathly afraid an incorrect detail will result in my being publicly shamed online.
Obsessing and worrying are some of the trademarks of a committed writer. They go right along with coffee drinking, bathrobe wearing and a few other habits (wink). Like our brothers and sisters the journalists, getting the details right can substantially impact the meaning and resonance of the work. Our job is to obsess and run to ground every detail.
As Joan Wickersham made evident with her book The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order,obsessing over a subject can sometimes lead to the real story. At a book reading in Boston, Joan explained that she had written many drafts of the book without success. For nine years she wrote and rewrote, looking for the best form and question to orient the work. At a Boston reading, Wickersham said the writing wasn’t very good, and that went on for years. Then, somewhere between years nine and ten, she found her method and the book’s center. That endurance brought forth a book that was a finalist for the National Book Award.
For writers—really good writers—obsessing the details is a must. If Joan had capitulated after eight or nine years, her final product wouldn’t have done justice to her father, her family, and their story. But once everything clicked, she knew it.
The same can be said of two other writers. Short story authors Dariel Suarez and Courtney Sender also write about profound topics: Dariel about communist Cuba, Courtney about The Holocaust. Each of them strives to animate their family’s—their people’s—stories. The right details contribute to doing justice to a story set in the Holocaust, for Courtney. Conveying the harsh realities of life in communist Cuba takes patience and deep knowledge, so that, eventually, Dariel can bring this unknown experience to the reader.
It’s safe to say that I am following their lead with my own work. For my novel set in first-century Rome, I wanted information about animals common at that time and place. The picture to the right is of a sign on Tiber Island in Rome, Italy. It’s title, translated in English is, “To Discover the City’s Fauna”.
I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the royal seagull and the cormorant on the sign. I did not, however, expect to see the brown rat and the coypu—rats!
If these animals were so prominent as to be featured on local signs, I thought, I must feature them in my book. Except, that is, if they weren’t there way back when. Many species have been imported over time. Sure enough, the Internet revealed that the coypu is native to South America, and had been imported to various countries for fur farms in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. So the brown rat was native at the time, but the coypu was not. My writing now reflects that.
If you were hoping for easy writing secrets, I can’t help you. All I can offer is that if you obsess the details, write diligently, and give your writing time to percolate, you, too, can find the satisfaction that comes from representing your own stories well.
That will have to do.