Tomorrow, Ben Kane's second novel, The Silver Eagle (Preface) hits the shelves. I wrote about the author a few weeks ago and invited him to guest blog at the time. We met on an Arvon course in 2005 and he recently contacted me again to tell me his second novel was on its way as well as his second child (a girl, safely delivered and the whole family is doing well). I suggested that Ben write about why he has a passion for the Romans and how he goes about his meticulous research to get the detail right. His first novel, The Forgotten Legion recently went into paperback. Read on to find out more from Ben, including his recommendation for a "One Stop Shop" on the internet "for all things Roman". Yes. Really. From Ben's pen:
I’ve always had a passion for history, and military history in particular. As a boy, I devoured anything to do with soldiers and war, from the Romans to the Vikings and Crusaders. More modern conflicts weren’t excluded either, so I read all about the Napoleonic wars, the American civil war and World Wars One and Two. Growing up in a home without a TV, I think that books became my escape into the world of imagination. Although all periods interested me, I always had a ‘thing’ for the Romans – I’m not sure why.
Maybe it was Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff that started my interest? I read that at the age of nine or ten, I suppose. An iconic example of historical fiction, it is still in print 55 years after it was first published and is suitable for children or adults. While Eagle of the Ninth had a great impression on me, so did a textbook from my school library which was packed with richly detailed pictures of the Roman army, its soldiers and equipment. I never thought to see this book again, until a recent purchase of the seminal text Greece and Rome at War by Peter Connolly triggered a flood of memories. Easy to read and understand (not always a given with textbooks on ancient times), it’s a great addition to any enthusiastic reader’s library.
Perhaps another root of my love with the Romans is my love of Hadrian’s Wall. I didn’t see the wall until my 30s, but I realised then that I had nurtured an unconscious desire to see it since my childhood. Of course I had never acted upon this urge! It wasn’t until 2001, when I was working in Northumberland on Foot & Mouth Disease duty (my main career until 2009 was being a veterinary surgeon) that I got to see the wall in all its glory. I visited so many Roman archaeological sites and the little museum associated with each, and my imagination ran riot. As I wandered the rocky crags and the sites of barrack buildings, I pictured the wall in all its glory, and the men who must have served there. They had come from Syria, Spain, Gaul, Germania and of course, Italy itself. What must they have thought of the vast, windswept emptiness of the area? It must have been the equivalent of being sent to Afghanistan today. And what had the fierce local tribes made of the mighty legions and the wall that they constructed? It would have been the largest thing any of them had ever seen.
Unsurprisingly, it was then that the idea of writing a book about Roman soldiers first entered my mind. First and foremost I wanted my stories to make the reader feel as if he or she were right there with every sword thrust and every battle won. That was the easy part! I started writing every day, and buying textbooks about the Romans and their civilisation. Soon I realised that while I’d thought that I knew a lot about them, in fact I didn’t. Many hours and days were spent wading through glutinous texts about the Roman political system, and the intricacies of its complex military command structure. Others books were far more interesting – like one about the Hadrian’s Wall by David Breeze, which I’ve read from cover to cover more than once. Soon I had far more Roman textbooks than veterinary ones, and that how is how it has stayed.
Some texts I found just by visiting my local Waterstone’s, while others were taken from the bibliographies at the back of those I bought. I also find the way the Amazon website suggests books in a similar vein to those already purchased very useful. And then there’s the invaluable www.romanarmy.com, the ‘One Stop Shop’ for all things Roman. With hundreds of members all over the world, its forum is the best source of information on the web by far. It’s also a very friendly place, with authors like myself, as well as re-enactors, academics, artists and general Roman enthusiasts.
And the purpose of writing Roman military fiction? Apart from putting bread on my family’s table and paying the mortgage of course!? It’s simple – because I find the world of the Roman legionary endlessly fascinating, and I hope by writing gripping stories about them, full of accurate detail, that I can carry readers off to an exciting world where they can forget for a while the worries and strains of ‘normal’ life.