Book Launch Guest Post by K.M. Pohlkamp, Author of Apricots and Wolfsbane
In AD 54, Empress Agrippina conspired with Locusta to murder her husband, Roman Emperor Claudius, with a batch of poisoned mushrooms in order to place Agrippina’s son, Nero, on the throne. While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his rule by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’s son. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands. Her second attempt succeeded and Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, and lavish gifts. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.
But in AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence. Some accounts say she was raped to death by a giraffe and then torn apart by wild animals. While that tale tantalizes the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.
Not much else is known about Locusta, which incited my imagination. As a female engineer for my day job, I related to the challenge of going against traditional female stereotypes. I imagined the challenges she must have faced and wondered if Locusta’s gender ended up being an asset in a field where surprise would provide an advantage. That’s when a story began to weave in my mind.
Being inspired by history is distinctively different than providing a fictional telling of historic events. The plot of Apricots and Wolfsbane is inspired by Locusta’s life, but is not a replication. It is mixed with the product of my own imagination, and while those familiar with Locusta will recognize bits of her inspiration, they are still in for the unpredictable ride. This is the distinctive difference between writing an alternate history or pseudo-history, and using history as inspiration.
One of the ways I reinterpreted my inspiration was by changing the setting. I lifted the aspects of these Roman legends and placed them in my favorite time period, Tudor England. I gave my assassin, Lavinia, parts of my personality, pouring my own experiences and viewpoints into the narrative. The message I wanted readers to take away also affected how I told the story, and further separated Lavinia from her Roman idol.
Whether history has inspired an author’s novel, or they seek to more closely reinterpret, research is paramount if the novel’s setting remains period. It is the little details of a historical fiction piece that bring the world alive to the reader, that transport them back in time. And getting those details correct is time consuming and challenging.
Thankfully, as authors, we a have the world at our fingertips through the internet. [Insert the obvious rant about verifying the validity of your internet sources here.] While writing I predominantly use the internet in three ways (other than distraction and procrastination…)
1) Looking at a picture helps me describe my scenes. Searching for period paintings, art, and photographs on Google images can help place your imagination in the setting of your novel.
2) When researching, primary sources are always best. Google Scholar is a fantastic way to find trustworthy sources.
3) When all else fails, historic author groups on Facebook and internet sites are an invaluable source of assistance. I have a seen all sorts of detailed plot circumstances crowd-sourced researched this way - and have used that resource myself.
The voice of a historical fiction piece also brings the world to life. While most readers would not suffer through 350 pages of Olde English, finding a balance with our modern slang is critical. Anachronisms and contemporary words are jarring in a period piece and take the reader out of the setting. I write with a thesaurus open to quickly look up the word origin of uncertain words and then have other options readily available as required.
History can provide inspiration for an entire novel, or just a solution for a small road block. As authors, we draw inspiration from everything around us - just don’t forget to look back in time as well.
Find out more at the author's website https://kmpohlkamp.com/ and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @KMPohlkamp.