Dido is back, and so is the breathtaking action of the first instalment, Race to the Death. However this enjoyable and stirring adventure is really about family, the bonds that bring individuals together in a shared endeavour not only to survive but also to win and maybe to forgive and to love too.
Dido is the only girl ever to have raced to victory at the Circus Maximus in Ancient Rome. Chariot racing was big business and hugely popular but also a matter of life and death. In this sequel set in AD 38 we watch as Dido, now in hiding from the Emperor Caligula and with a price on her head, takes on new challenges and displays both courage and determination but loyalty and understanding too.
Within a few pages I was immersed in the vivid world created by Annelise Gray and once more willing Dido on in her battles to follow her dreams. She is a fabulous character, likeable but determined, strong but kind, and utterly compelling. The carefully plotted storyline, full of thrills, danger and secrets, engages the reader completely and the mix of real people and historical facts with the excitement and drama gives Rivals on the Track an authenticity that encourages you to feel part of the events as they unfold. The horses, particularly Porcellus and newcomer Jewel, are an important part of the story too of course and horse loving readers will lap this up. The relationships between the characters are developed further in this second story and the growing maturity of Dido and the family dynamics provide moments of thoughtful tenderness balancing the excitement well. This, I think, ensures a wide audience appeal. There are new friendships forged, old rivalries resurface and running through all of this is one family trying to overcome past hurts and bitterness. It is always the mark of a successful story when the reader does not want to say ‘goodbye’ to these new friends as you turn the last page. I’m very much hoping it’s ‘see you again soon’ instead.
The fascinating characters are at the heart of this story’s appeal, especially the wonderful Dido, but what makes this book work so well is the historical detail that brings the characters and their surroundings to life in such stunning fashion. Therefore I am especially delighted to welcome Annelise Gray to the blog today to tell us a little about her meticulous research for the Circus Maximus series and to provide her advice on writing a historical novel.
Why I love historical research and 3 tips for writing a historical novel by Annelise Gray
I am never happier than when in a library. The smell of books, the sound-muffling carpet underfoot, the bleeping sound as the librarian checks out volumes under a scanner – all make me feel incredibly contented. I wander around the stacks, clutching a scrap of paper scribbled with shelf marks and return to my desk, laden with the next batch of volumes to be pored over and mined for glimpses of gold.
When I was in my twenties, I worked as a professional researcher for hire. After finishing my doctorate in Classics in 2004, I had little idea of what to do next. I knew that I wasn’t cut out for academia and although I’d really enjoyed my experience of teaching in a local school over the previousthree years, I felt that I needed to try something different to see if that was a path I’d want to come back to. So I handed in my notice at the school in the hope that by taking a leap of faith, I might land somewhere. It was an uncharacteristicallyrisky thing for me to do, but it paid off. A couple of weeks later, I received an email from my college Director of Studies, Mary Beard, asking if I’d be interested in meeting the historian Bettany Hughes, who was looking for a research assistant to help her in the writing of her first book, a biography of Helen of Troy.
You couldn’t have designed a job I’d have jumped at with more enthusiasm. Research was always the bit of academic life I liked best. I met Bettany, signed up for the mission and for the next eighteen months, I was the Della Street to her Perry Mason, heading off in dogged pursuit of whatever information she wanted me to track down. It was a brilliant experience and afterwards I went on to more freelance research jobs, including two stints on drama seriesabout ancient Rome at BBC Specialist Factual and even a week’s work putting together material on the history of labradors for Ben Fogle.
Since I was a child, my real dream was to be a writer. Working for Bettany not only gave me a valuable insight into the business of writing and publishing a book, it taught me a lot about the kind of research that really works to bring a story alive, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Bettany was absolutely passionate about wanting to delve into the sort ofdetail that would give her readers a sense of the sights, tastes, smells and even the soundscape of Bronze Age Greece. I found those lessons invaluable when I was writing my first historical novel for children, Circus Maximus: Race to the Death and its sequel Rivals on the Track. Characters are the thing that make you care about any story. But to invest fully in their fate, it helps if you can feel like you’re there beside them. Good and thoughtful historical research is what makes that possible.
Below are my 3 tips for writing a historical novel:
1. Respect the history….
I have an image in my head that guides me. Known facts (such as the dates when a historical figure lived or died) are footprints on a sandy shore. I am careful to plot a path that doesn’t disturb them. Similarly, I wouldn’t invent anything which feels historically inauthentic. I research enough to make sure I am as familiar as I can be with the historical setting and period detail of my story – the clothes, the customs, the physical landscape and so on. Often key ideas and plotlines for the storywill emerge from that.
2. ….but don’t be a slave to the history.
You have to accept that you will probably never know as much about your period as an academic who had studied it for twenty years. It’s also important to remember that history isn’t a fixed and immutable thing. Often the joy of writing a historical novel can be about imagining yourself into the perspective of characters to whom history hasn’t given a voice. In the Circus Maximus series, I’ve written about a girl – Dido – who becomes a charioteer, a character for whom there is no known historical precedent. And that makes you actually ask different and interesting questions about the world in which she lives – what does it look like from the perspective of a rebellious, horse-mad, 12-year-old girl?
3. Know when to stop researching and start writing.
It’s very easy – especially if you love research as much as I do – to go on researching for ever. But it can become a form of procrastination, an excuse not to get on with writing. You have to understand the world you want to write about enough for you to start. But you also need to remember that your reader is going to turn the page not because they are enthralled by the accuracy of yourresearch but because they want to know what happens to your character. While I’m writing the Circus Maximus books, I try not to stop just because I’m not certain what characters might be eating, for example. I keep a running list of research queries and I go back and check them at the end of the first draft.
Which takes me back to the library…my happy place.
Thank you, Annelise for this enlightening look at how to bring history to life for young readers. The library is my happy place too! I would like to thank Annelise for taking the time to write this and also Fritha Lindqvist for her help in preparing this post and Zephyr Books for my review copy of Rivals on the Track. If you have missed out on the blog tour so far please take a look, each post has been fascinating and they continue for a few days yet. Full details are given below.
Circus Maximus: Rivals on the Track is published by Zephyr Books today, 3rd February, and is available to purchase at your local bookshop on online at bookshop.org