3 May, 2020

This weekend we’re all waiting to hear from the Government how and when the lockdown will be eased. So, as I’m still in limbo with nothing fresh to add – apart from how long my fringe has grown this week – I’ll share a bit more about the writing of my historical novel, Governors Man.

It’s a sideways step, via a short story. Bear with me.

Very soon after my visit to Taunton Museum (as related in my blog of 26 April), I found myself standing on a bumpy muddy slope, looking north to the Shapwick nature reserve. The main fold of the Somerset Polden Hills was behind and above me. Under my feet were the remains of a Roman villa burned down in AD 224. As I stood there the image of a young girl sprang complete into my mind: adolescent, dark-haired, a bit on the thin side, horse-mad, bursting with energy. Let me introduce you to Aurelia Aureliana.

Aurelia is restless, impatient of adult control, well-educated, and determined not to kowtow to current notions of how a young Roman woman should behave. She rides her horse with skill and a touch of recklessness, and tries constantly to avoid the mores and restrictions of her stepmother. (Stepmother? Where did she come from?) The indulged only child of a scholarly father, who is a Roman magistrate as well as a respected tribal leader, Aurelia refuses to limit her own horizons.

By the time I’d got back to the car, I had the story at the end of this blog all laid out: in which Aurelia rebels against her stepmother and goes away on a jaunt to visit her aunt Julia in the louche spa resort of Aqua Sulis (our modern-day Bath). Not alone, of course – even Aurelia can’t escape the close attentions of her tutor, groom and maid. But an adventure nonetheless, and one that quickly gets much more significant.

This short story became The Bath Curse, and formed part of the assignment load for an Open University Creative Writing course I took in 2014/15. I’m sharing it with you as an example of how not to write a short story. Reading it now is an unhappy experience. It comes across as heavy on description, and full of purple prose. I’d like to think my style has moved on a bit in the six years since!

It does though illustrate how an idea for a short story can outgrow its roots. The characters introduced here: Aurelia, who in the latest draft of the full novel is even younger; her maidservant Britta, who becomes Aunt Julia’s housekeeper; Irish slave Tuathal, who now won’t appear until Book 2 of the Governor’s Man series; and Demetrios, Greek classics tutor turned medical teacher to Julia; all of them have morphed into much fuller characters, with roles in what is now a historical mystery. And they’re just the supporting cast for a suite of major characters, including the eponymous Governor’s Man himself, Caius Quintus Valerius, Imperial investigator.

Aurelia and her companions on this gentle little road trip to Aquae Sulis turned out to be the springboard for a much longer story, one full of intrigue, murder and treason.

But more of that another time. For now, I hope you’ll enjoy hearing my early efforts at historical fiction, my short story The Bath Curse (copyright JS Rogers, 2015). You can listen to me reading it here.

(Main image courtesy of VisitBath)

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