Tuesday, April 14, 2015

History Buff by J.P. Bowie

Like Lisabet I've always been fascinated by stories of the past. I loved history at school, majored in it, and when I started writing, one of my first self published books, was The Journeyer, and historical account of one man's journey through life starting when his family was all but wiped out at the battle of Culloden, Scotland. Think Outlander without the time traveling bit. My hero's name was also Jamie, but that was coincidental, as I actually hadn't read Outlander at the time.

The Roman era was another fascination for me. I wrote two short stories, 'Slaves to Love', based on the lives of gladiators and the men who loved them. I had entered the erotic phase of my writing and the setting seemed ideal for some no holds barred same sex coupling. The first story titled 'Lucius and Callistus' featured a young tutor crushing on a Gallic warrior captured in battle and forced into the arenas of Capua. Also in the Capuan gladiator school is none other than Spartacus. I really should have sent a screenplay of this story to the Starz production teams. Who knows, it might have bumped the series Spartacus out of the way. Right.

This story did not have a happy ending. Callistus survives the final battle of slaves against the Roman army, and seeks out Lucius only to tell him goodbye. A terrible blunder in m/m erotica I found out as I received many an email berating me for not writing a 'better' ending to the story. So to appease my disappointed readers I wrote a sequel, 'Warrior Prince', in which Lucius, still in love with his gladiator after many years, joins the Roman army in the hope of finding Callistus if even on the field of battle. As ridiculous as the premise is, it garnered decent reviews and sales - maybe because I gave this one an HEA?

What I love about writing historical fiction is imagining how people interacted with one another at say, a party or dinner date. I'm sure they enjoyed a good gossip, a whispered scandal just as we do today. Here's a snippet from Warrior Prince where Lucius is invited to a social gathering by a man he met under rather tense circumstances:

The invitation to dinner at the home of Venel Papni took me by surprise. Papni was an Etruscan shipping merchant of enormous wealth—and even more enormous girth. Some years before, when I was in dire straits financially and feared for my family’s welfare, I sold myself—there is no other word for it,really—to Papni to clear the debts my father had left us. The memory of it still fills me with shame. Although Papni himself was easy enough to please, my company being more what he craved in the end, the idea of prostituting myself was not something I lived with easily. However, the merchant and I had remained friends since then, and on occasion would dine together.
I had not heard from him in some considerable time, and had thought him finally bored with my company, so hisinvitation, as I said, came as a surprise. I sent Rufus with a reply saying I would be delighted to see him at his home on the night indicated on the invitation, and thought no more of it until the morning of the day I was expected.
Then I panicked. I had nothing to wear! Papni’s guests were all sure to be immensely wealthy, therefore wearing the finest oftogas and robes. I surveyed my poor collection of mostly hreadbare togas; the only one being in presentable condition the one I wore to my mother’s wedding. I was going to look like the poor relation—which of course, I was. Ah well, Papni knew my circumstances better than most, yet he still invited me. Perhaps my best tunic and a light cloak would suffice.
It was a lovely warm day, and the night promised to be balmy. Better without the heavy weight of a toga.
I took some extra time readying myself for the inspection I was sure would follow my arrival. If that sounds just a trifle arrogant, it just so happened that I knew very well the kind of guests Papni entertained—mostly old lechers who, despite the fact I am no longer a boy, would still find the occasion to rub against me, or stroke my arm as they engaged me in conversation. The only reason I went to these gatherings was because I felt grateful to Papni. He had helped me out of a nasty situation, and even though I fulfilled my part of the
bargain, he had not been as obnoxious as he could have been, given the circumstances.
× × × × ×
I entered his sumptuous villa through the cleverly designed atrium. The first time I visited Papni for the purpose of clearing the family debt, the gentle murmur of the fountain had calmed my jumpy nerves. I stood there for a moment, once again intrigued by its musical cadences, before entering the main room crowded with Papni’s many guests.
“Ah, Lucius…” He descended upon me in all his vastness, hugging me to his bountiful bosom and laying a smacking kiss on my forehead. He smelled of some exotic spice—I thought it a bit overpowering, but the night was young, and he was prone to perspiring heavily. “Come, have some wine with me. There is
a young man I wish you to meet.”
Papni always had a young man for me to meet on these occasions. One night when I was more in my cups than I should have been, I told him of my heartache over losing Callistus. Ever since then, he had been trying to find me the perfect partner, as he put it, and failing miserably at the task, much to his frustration. As many times as I told him I was not interested in finding a replacement for my lost love, he would
not listen. With a smile of thanks, I accepted a goblet of wine from one of his winsome, almost nude, male servants.
“Over there, see?” Papni, whispering as if to a co-conspirator, indicated a young man in an officer’s uniform. “His name is Flavius Sedonius, high-born of a family from Pompeii,and a tribune in the Imperial Army.”
At the moment that I looked over to where the young officer was standing talking with a mixed group of men and women, he chose that same precise moment to glance over at Papni and myself. Our eyes met, and he smiled and nodded. Out of politeness, I nodded in acknowledgement.
Beside me, Papni squealed with delight. “By the goddess Thesan, she who bestows love on all mankind, I knew you would both make a match!”
“Make a match? I have not yet said one word to the man.”
“But you showed some interest.”
“I was being polite.”
“He’s coming over!”
“By the gods…” I bit my tongue as the tribune approached, and I had to admit, he was definitely a cut above all the others with whom Papni had tried to interest me. He was not tall, my height only, but his body showed a power and confidence few men could equal. His coal-black hair was cut close to his scalp, and his eyes were a vivid blue. It was his eyes that made myheart lurch in my chest. If I had seen nothing more but his eyes, I would have sworn I was gazing at Callistus, if only for aninstant. I felt my wine goblet tremble in my hand as he smiled at me and held out his in greeting.
“Tribune Sedonius…” Papni could hardly contain his delight at introducing us. “May I present Lucius Tullius, a very dear friend of mine, and an able scholar and tutor.”
“A pleasure,” he said, grasping my forearm in his warm hand.
“Mine also,” I murmured, returning his grip. His arm felt hard and strong in my hand, and in my mind’s eye I could see him on the battlefield, proud and unafraid of the enemy before him. “You have returned recently from a campaign?” I asked, trying to ignore Papni’s grinning visage.
“Yes, in Gaul,” he replied. “Those devils just won’t agree to the terms we set out for them.”
I felt my chest tighten at his words. He’d been in Gaul, possibly facing Callistus in battle.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “You’ve turned quite pale.”
“Oh, I’m sorry…” My mind raced for some excuse. “Ah… I’m a little tired from preparing for so many classes these last few weeks.”
“You should eat something, Lucius,” Papni said, steering us both to the dining table, a meaty paw on both our shoulders. “Tribune Sedonius will keep you company while I attend my other guests.” With that he lumbered off, leaving me alone with Sedonius.
“Again, I’m sorry, Tribune…”
“Don’t be, and it’s Flavius, by the way.” He took my arm and led me to a couch by the table. “Our host is right, you should eat something.” He sat by me and smiled into my eyes. “The lark’s tongues in aspic are quite delicious.”
“Just some bread and cheese, I think.” I helped myself from the food massed on the table.
“A soldier’s rations,” he said, reaching for an apple. His hand brushed mine and lingered for a moment, his fingertips caressing the back of my hand. I felt a prickle of desire in my loins, and hastily pulled back from his touch.
His smile did not falter, but he shifted away from me just slightly. I felt the need to apologize… again. “I’m sorry, Flavius. I’m a little on edge tonight. You talked of Gaul, how terrible isit there?”
“Terrible enough. The Gauls are a hard enemy to beat.”
“They are fighting for their homeland, of course,” I said quietly.
“Yes, they are, and bravely too. Their one major weakness, though, is that they cannot combine their tribes. There’s a lot of infighting among the tribal chiefs. They are called kings. If they ever joined forces and made one big army, they would be almost invincible. Fortunately for us, they have not
accomplished that. It will be their undoing, in the end.”
As I listened to him, I thought of Callistus and his possible standing among the tribes. I would have thought he would see the sense of a union among the various tribes. He had told me that once back home he could raise an army that would halt the Roman legions in their tracks.
“Have there been setbacks?”
“Oh, indeed. As I told you, they are a hard enemy to beat—and well led at times. Only recently, we were forced to give up what we had taken from them. Their determination to win back their land, and the bravery of their leader, won the day for them.”
“Their leader?”
“Yes, a big handsome fellow with hair like wind-blown wheat. When all seemed lost, he plunged in among my soldiers, urging his men to follow. My men fell before him, and were scattered before we could regroup.”
I stared at him in silence for a long moment, my mind trying to deal with what he had just told me. He could only be talking about Callistus. In my eagerness to hear more, I grabbed his arm. “What became of their leader? Did you see him again?”
Flavius’ eyes widened with surprise, no doubt taken aback at my sudden interest in the Gallic leader.
“Why no,” he replied. “As I said we were forced to retreat, and the rest of my day was spent explaining our defeat to my superior officers.”
“Oh, of course,” I mumbled, releasing his arm. “Please excuse my lack of concern for you and your men. It was just that there used to be a gladiator here in Capua, a Gaul like the one you just described. He was a part of the rebellion led by Spartacus. I thought perhaps it was he… He was quite the favorite here in Capua for a time,” I added lamely.
Flavius continued to gaze at me, his expression still slightly puzzled by my reaction. “Well,” he said finally. “He certainly showed great courage. Perhaps his days in the arena helped to hone his fighting skills.”
“Oh, he was a great warrior before then,” I blurted. “It took ten men to hold him before he was taken into captivity!”
“Indeed.” Flavius regarded me coolly. “Your admiration for an enemy warrior is a trifle misplaced, don’t you think? He was responsible for the deaths of many of our fine soldiers.”
“Again, I must apologize. I must sound unpatriotic, which, of course, I am not. I expect I’m getting my memory of the gladiator confused with the reality of what he really is—our enemy." I hated myself for what I had just said. It seemed to me a betrayal of the man I loved, but I didn’t want to alienate Flavius. The kernel of an idea was beginning to form in my mind, and he might just be very useful to me, if I decided to go
through with it.

What I tried to do with this scene was capture the social atmosphere of an upscale gathering and at the same time bring into focus what was going on politically and militarily. Lucius uses Flavius shamelessly to get what he wants, but of course, as with nearly all sketchy and spontaneous plans nothing goes quite right.

9 comments:

  1. And you do a fine job of evoking the times and the concerns of the players, JP. Good to have you back!

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  2. Thanks Daddy X - looks like everyone's on vacation this week. LOL

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  3. Yes, a vacation of sorts, checking on my chin the NH mountains to see how it came through the winter (just fine, it turns out.) Very little wifi availability. Right now I'm getting some by parking behind a now-closed real estate agency.

    Great handling of an historical setting and issues, JP. You make your characters feel real without sounding anachronistic.

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  4. Cabin! Checking on my cabin! And typing more or less in the dark.

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  5. JP, it's great to have you back.

    I empathize with your disappointment when readers castigated you for not giving them an HEA. Sometimes I find that sort of tyranny terribly annoying. I mean, there are some love affairs that may be monumental, but couldn't possibly last. Indeed, one problem I have with a lot of historical romance is that it blithely paints pictures of relationships that would have been well nigh impossible in the time of the story.

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    1. Right especially with m/m/ relationships which could result in death or a hefty prison sentence. Nothing gay about that!

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    2. Exactly. That's one of the things I loved about STANDISH. The danger inherent in M/M interactions is front and center. In fact, one of the characters is actually convicted and jailed. I was amazed and awed when the author pulled out a happy ending despite this.

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  6. I'll also add that I love that bittersweet feeling sometimes—there is something very deep in the need to say goodbye, fighting for just that one moment. Sometimes that feels more moving to me than a HEA. But don't listen to me because I apparently don't agree with most readers!

    Also, great to have you back, JP!

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  7. JP, I hope you're with us for a long time to come.

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