With Jess Steven Hughes
Tell me your story.
I am a retired police detective sergeant with twenty-five years experience in criminal investigation and a former U.S. Marine. I hold a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and a minor in Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations from the University of Southern California. I have traveled and studied extensively in the areas forming the background of my novels, which brings vivid authenticity to the unique settings for my historical novels, The Wolf of Britannia, Part I, The Wolf of Britannia, Part II, and The Sign of the Eagle. I currently live with my wife, Liz, and our three horses in Eastern Washington. I recently completed two more historical novels from the First Century A.D., The Broken Lance and The Peacekeeper. They will be published by Sunbury Press (www.sunburypress.com), a traditional small press (not an indie) summer 2017 and December 2017 respectively.
I had always wanted to write, but it wasn’t until I was in my early 40’s that I started. I was not interested in writing non-fiction. Several factors led to that realization. At the time, I was a police detective sergeant on the Long Beach Police Department in California, and my major in college was Public Administration. However, my minor and academic first love was Ancient Mediterranean History–I have traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean World. After I had received my Master in the above at the University of Southern California, I asked my Classical History Professor, Dr. David Hood, what were the requirements to teach Classical History? He answered in order to teach you had to have a Doctorate in Classical History, but you also had to be proficient (read and write) in six foreign languages. These included French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin and Spanish. I had taken only Greek, Latin and Spanish. I decided that I should seriously consider writing historical fiction instead, which was my favorite genre, especially, stories of the Classical Period.
Because there are many gaps in the historical timeline, I knew I could write about the Classical Period with greater leeway than many other historical eras. This allowed me to be more creative and imaginative about the events of the time.
Before I wrote my first historical novel, The Sign of the Eagle, and later, The Wolf of Britannia, Parts I and II, I had to learn the fundamentals of writing fiction. This included plot, characterization, scene, setting, dialogue, descriptive narration, the difference between showing and not telling, etc. Only after I had attended writing seminars and workshops for several years did my abilities as an author of novels finally emerge.
However, I wasn’t finished. I had to run the gauntlet of two writers’ groups, the Spokane Novelists and the Spokane Valley Writers Group, which month after month reviewed and bled all over my chapters until the manuscript finally met their expectations. Even then I wasn’t through; I sent my manuscript to a “Book Doctor,” an editor who had spent many years with Harper-Collins before going into private business. Fortunately, she is a very ethical person (there are some real charlatans out there) who was thorough and answered all my subsequent questions after she had reviewed and returned my novel for more work. My efforts paid off. After many rejection slips, The Sign of the Eagle was accepted for publication, followed by The Wolf of Britannia, Parts I & II, and more recently The Broken Lance and The Peacekeeper.
Tell me about your latest book.
My two latest novels, The Broken Lance and The Peacekeeper are exciting epic historical novels set in First Century A.D. Britain and Imperial Rome. They are a two-part series, each complete in themselves. They will be published by Sunbury Press (www.sunburypress.com) summer 2017 and winter 2017 respectively. Below are descriptions of the novels.
The Broken Lance
In Rome, when shaking hands with a stranger, you’d best count your fingers to see if they are still attached.
44 A.D. Ancient Britannia is wild, unpredictable, and merciless. The dusty streets of Rome are chaotic and dangerous, home to incredible opulence, deplorable poverty, and a political web that catches anyone who dares to question the empire. Both places call to young Roman cavalry sergeant Marcellus Reburrus, who must survive a world of political treachery in which one’s life can be taken in an instant—by friend or enemy.
After enduring a ravaging storm, Marcellus’s boots hit the shore of Britannia under the orders of Roman Emperor Claudius only to face deplorable conditions and a commander who would rather see Marcellus dead than reporting for duty. Despite the circumstances, Marcellus quickly makes a name for himself, earning awards for bravery, promotion to centurion, and further alienating himself from the evil commander.
Marcellus’s return to Rome brings a whole new set of problems, the least of which is dodging assassination attempts, unraveling conspiracies, and falling in love. From the underground caves of beggars beneath the city to the magnificent homes of the Roman elite, Marcellus uncovers an elaborate plot of betrayal, one that can bring down the entire city. Can he find the conspirators before they find him . . . and destroy everything he holds dear?
This beautifully descriptive novel brings to life the remarkable worlds of ancient Britannia and Rome—while following the brilliant Marcellus, whose entire life is turned upside down as he must solve a complex mystery . . . and stay alive amongst backstabbing senators, murderous traitors, and an extraordinary city whose legacy is both inspiring and duplicitous.
August, A.D. 45. Marcellus, a Spanish Centurion in the Roman Army, is unsafely ensconced in tumultuous and murderous Rome, a city that can claim its victims in an instant, and give its chosen ones glory at a moment’s notice. After confronting his nemesis and former commander, Anicius Pedius Gallus, in the boisterous Roman forum, Marcellus escapes yet another close call with a “Roman ally,” and races home to the object of his desire—Eleyne, a feisty, British-Celtic princess. And one that is none-too happy about being a royal hostage. But love counters betrayal in this harsh city, and the two are married against a backdrop of mysterious treacheries and secrecies. Even as the two start a family and Marcellus advances through the ranks, the evil Gallus seems to lurk in the shadows around every corner.
As a resident of Rome, Marcellus is no stranger to chaos, but when he’s thrust into the role of commander of the Watch’s Seventh Cohort, and must lead a ragtag group of men to quell a bloody riot numbering in the hundreds of thousands, can he do the job or will he be exiled from his reviled and beloved city? And when a new emperor takes hold of the reins, siding with scoundrels and slaughterers, and a fire ravages the city, can Marcellus save everyone he holds dear or will he be left alone with blood on his hands?
From the birth of Christianity, to the back stabbings in the Senate, to lives of the slaves and commoners, to the behind-the-scenes of the worlds of the Roman emperors, The Peacekeeper will bring the duplicitous, colorful, and raw streets of Rome to brilliant life, and will leave you breathless until the final page.
Where do you get your information and ideas for your books?
Always keep in mind, I don’t write HISTORY. I use historical events and backdrops for my stories. My historical novel, The Sign of the Eagle, published by Sunbury Press, a traditional small press, takes place in Milan and Rome in 71 A.D. The main character, Macha, is a Celtic woman married to a Roman officer, Titus. He has been wrongfully accused of treason and conspiring to assassinate the Emperor Vespasian. Macha must almost single-handedly prove his innocence.
Historians have speculated there were several conspiracies against the life of Emperor Vespasian, but only two appeared to have been recorded as found in The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius or inThe Histories by Cassius Dio. Therefore, my story is a fictionalized account of one possible unrecorded attempt on Vespasian’s life. He was considered one of Rome’s five “good” emperors and my favorite. I wrote from what I believe to be a different perspective using an unlikely protagonist, a Celtic woman. Why not?
Before I could fully develop The Sign of the Eagle, I had to conduct extensive research. For this I turned to my private library of over 500 books on Classical, Celtic, and Mid-Eastern history. I started with the overall history of the Roman Empire and the Celtic world. I continued with geographical locations, narrowing down the story to Milan, Rome and the Italian country side.
I had to consider historical events that occurred prior to those in my novel, which were important to the story’s background. Among these I included the great civil war of 69 A.D., known as the Year of the Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian). In my story, Macha’s husband, Titus, fought in this war against the forces of the short-lived Emperor Vitellius at the Battle of Cremona. Titus was part of one of Vespasian’s advanced units.
Other events included the invasion of Britannia in 43 A.D (The Wolf of Britannia, Part I & II) and the eventual capture of the British Chieftain, Caratacus, Macha’s father. He was brought to Rome along with his wife and daughter and ultimately pardoned by the Emperor Claudius. We don’t know the daughter’s actual name; I chose a good Celtic name, Macha. Caratacus was pardoned and disappeared from history, but there was no reason why I could not use his daughter for a story.
For her background, I described her growing up being Romanized but clinging to many Celtic customs. Prior to the story, she married Titus, who was a born in Rome. His parents were Gauls, but his father was a Roman Senator, one of the first Gauls admitted to the Senate under the Emperor Claudius.
Because I used a Celtic protagonist, I had to research Celtic as well as Roman customs re: daily living, the role of women in the Celtic and Roman worlds, the gulf between the classes, slavery, religion, the military (Celt and Roman), descriptions of city life, especially in Rome, etc.
Do you have a specific process when writing a book?
Once I am into writing a novel, I will finish each chapter, no matter how rough it is, before I go back to make any changes. I want to get the main ideas down on paper first.
Do you have a writing/reading quirk or ritual?
I hand write my first draft. Then I type it, after which I will pencil in the changes and retype the manuscript. I can’t type the first draft from scratch, it doesn’t work for me.
What is something you’ve learned about yourself through the process of writing?
I have learned patience, persistence, self-discipline, and developing a thick-skin. I belong to The Red Ink Fictioneers Group. They are a writers critique/support group based in the Spokane, Washington area which has been around for more than fifty years. Many of the members are established authors. Although they give constructive critiques, they have no qualms of telling you what works and what doesn’t in no uncertain terms. That is where I learned to write fiction. The college creative writing classes were worthless.
What do you think makes a good story?
A simple plot line with sympathetic and believable characters; a story that sucks you right into the action from the first line. I am not into literary fiction so perhaps that genre has a different criteria for a good story.
If you could only read one book over and over, which one would you pick and why?
There isn’t a single book I would pick. Instead, I pick a set of historical novels, a trilogy, written by Robert Harris about the fall of Roman Republic: Conspirata, Imperium and Dictator. We see the disintegration of Rome and the coming of Julius Caesar through the eyes of one of Rome’s greatest statesmen, the ill-fated Marcus Tullius Cicero. Despite his flaws and some disastrous decision making, he is still one of my favorite Roman characters.
What books are currently on your night stand?
I have an eclectic collection of historical fiction, history, action/adventure, mystery, historical mystery, science fiction and some classical literature.
How do you organize your books?
I alternate by reading one of each.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Robert Harris, John Steinbeck and Irving Stone (e.g. The Agony and the Ectasy)
Thank you for joining me on Of Quills & Vellum today, Jess! It was a pleasure talking with you.