I’ve spoken on here before about the novel that I am writing. It’s a retelling of the events of the Aeneid from the perspective of the Italians, and more specifically, of Camilla and the Volscians. This is no surprise to anyone as I’ve talked about writing this book for a long time, ever since I wrote my first paper on Camilla.
Well, the book is past the halfway point of completion. There’s still a lot to do, and plenty of rewriting to be done, but I’m really pleased with the progress so far. It’s a much more organized project than my previous works, so it’s both easier and way more difficult than I expected.
One of my goals in setting out to write this was to give a more authentic view of the time period than what is given in Vergil’s writing. He did not have the same academic and archeological resources that we currently have to understand the Recent Bronze Age and Final Bronze Age periods, so his understanding of the people of this time was very different, and very skewed. I went on a bit of a twitter rant about it (okay, it hardly qualified as a rant) but my take on it is that he took his understanding of modern Volscians (or at least modern within their interaction with Rome in the last ~300 years) and applied a similar level of society on a tribe with the same name, only set sometime around the late 12th century BCE.
I was already aware of this going into the project. The Aeneid is, essentially, a historical fiction set in the epic style. Vergil is telling about the events (heavily bolstered by mythology, of course) that led to the founding of Rome, beginning with the arrival of the Trojans on Italian soil. What I have been attempting to do was tell this same story, but from the opposite perspective: the Trojans as invaders, rather than explorers and pioneers. A perspective that I have heard talked about in other places, but I really wanted to put it into a novel form.
So, I ran into my biggest problem: the historical landscape of Italy in the 12th century was very different than the way that Vergil wrote it. And this meant I had a choice to make: reject Vergil’s misunderstandings (though it may not be fair to call them as such) of the historical landscape, and apply more modern scholarly research to the story to give it a solid grounding in our world, OR, use Vergil’s creative interpretation of history to compose a story a little more rooted in fantasy than history. You all may be familiar with my love for fantasy novels already, so realistically this was not a hard choice for me. My story is told on the same landscape as Vergil’s — a place where native Italy has large cities and kings and queens, where the gods and divine creatures come out to play on the battlefield, and where Amazon-like women dwell in the Apennine mountains.
On the one hand, this is really, really fun to write. My Classics background means that I feel I have some credibility in making up elements of mythology that are authentic and appropriate to the narrative. But on the other hand, it makes my academic brain cringe. The academic and the writer in me are often in competition, you see. One wants to make things accurate in order to educate, inform, and demonstrate my own competence within the discipline. The other wants to run free with creativity, dragging in my favourite elements from Latin and Greek tales. This is the war I find myself at with, well, myself, over the course of writing Camilla’s story.
Ultimately I think this is something I just have to overcome, and accept that my story is not going to fall within the rigid confines of Historical Fiction, just as Vergil’s story does not. These are lessons that I am learning while going through the writing process that I feel are really valuable, because they challenge me both mentally and morally in ways that I’m not used to being challenged. I’m continuing my historical research to accompany the story because there are elements that remain important to have some accuracy to them – geographic settings, names of people and places, linguistic details, and especially trade networks and communication. Perhaps I’ll share some of these things on the blog as I sum them up into cohesive bits of knowledge.