Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jess Steven Hughes brings Ancient Rome to teens

Hooray! More historical fiction today! My guest is Jess Steven Hughes, whose YA novel The Sign of the Eagle takes place in 71AD, and deals with the love and law in Ancient Rome, as well as the cultural interplay between Celts and Romans. Jess shares some background on how he came to write this intriguing story.

*  *  *

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 lead 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 the two novels I am currently writing, 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.
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 in The 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 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. 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 ultimately 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, etc.,  religion, the military (Celt and Roman), descriptions of city life, especially, in Rome, etc.
It was only after I had conducted sufficient research that I wrote my story. 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 very 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.

*   *   *
Learn more about Jess Steven Hughes at his website

You can purchase The Sign of the Eagle from the publisher, on Amazon, and at Barnes&Noble.


  1. Congratulations on your success of getting your novel published! It certainly sounds like you went through all the right processes to ensure you were writing a great story. It's not a quick process, is it! But well worth it in the end. I wish you all the success in the world. Your cover alone has me very intrigued!

    1. Thank you, Allyn for your kind remarks.

  2. I'm with Allyn, your book cover is beautiful, Jess. How fascinating to have a background as a police detective and an Ancient Mediterranean History academic! Congrats on the The Sign of the Eagle.

  3. Thank you for the kind remarks, I appreciate them.