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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 September 2007

Roads to Rome... and speculations along the way

Note: there are spoilers in this post, about the HBO series "Rome."

I like to say that the book I'm working on these days has three themes -- eros, esthetics, and empire. Set in Regency England, it's the story of a love affair between a classicist/archeologist (one of those guys who traveled around the Mediterranean in the early 19th century in search of ancient cultures and artifacts) and a lady writer of silver fork novels.

If you follow the links above they'll take you to some earlier blog posts about the fun places my researches have taken me -- perhaps farther afield than in any of my books so far. And so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that the classicist/archeologist investigations should have led me to Rome.

Which I got to both by the high road -- I'm reading the Aeneid to keep up with my hero's precocious, classically-educated 12-year-old niece...

...and the low road -- I totally wrecked myself for writing earlier this week when I stayed up much too late watching disks IV and V of "Rome" the TV series.

Of course only in the service of my book. The other fun stuff (Clothes! Interiors! Architecture! What looks like animal sacrifice but probably isn't! Gorgeous naked people! Having what looks like sex but most assuredly isn't) -- watching all that stuff was a tough job but somebody had to do it.

And if you believe that, there's a famous bridge across San Francisco Bay that maybe I could sell you...

The TV series is big, sexy, splashy fun with wonderful plummy Brit elocution and lots of scenery chewing. Polly Walker provides the guilty pleasures as heartless sexy Roman uberbitch matron Atia. And James Purefoy manages to be both hunky and touching as the always hot and not always quite smart enough Marc Antony.

My favorite cast member, though, was a young Irish actress I'd never heard of. Kerry Condon as a very down-to-earth Octavia -- sister of Augustus Caesar, who gets the short end of just about every situation -- has a striking non-glam look that sets her aside from the rest of the cast. And she provides tons of presence against the fun, flashier Walker.

But what really surprised me about the TV series was how tied up it was with another theme I'm using in the book I'm currently working on. It's one that comes up so often in romance fiction that I'd taken it much too much for granted until I saw how much the plot line of "Rome" depended up it.

Fatherhood -- legitimate and not.

"One of the oldest stories," my classicist hero muses, thinking of Oedipus -- and of his own situation (as a father unknown by his own biological son).

And now that I think of it it seems to me that possibly one of the most perennial and least remarked-upon themes in romance fiction is the character in search of his or her real father.

Of course, when property was transmitted through primogeniture and primogeniture depended upon legitimate male descent, an entire society was built upon the notion of fatherhood. And since love doesn't necessarily follow marriage, and since for most of human history it was impossible to know for sure... well, fatherhood was always suspect, and voila you have any number of romance plots that link personal and public life at any number of points along the way.

It also seems to me that since the romance genre is always an effort either to understand men or create versions of them we especially like, the hero-and-his-father issue is awfully useful. I was surprised to read the same line in pretty much the same place in my friend Nita Abrams' novel The Exiles as I once used in The Bookseller's Daughter. "You're not your father, you know," the heroine tells the hero. Neither Nita nor I read each other's book before writing our own. And whereas I don't know about her, I do know that I had cause actually to say that line once in real life.

So it's always an available plot motif, and the writers of "Rome" use it like duct tape and baling wire to pull their series together. Lucius Vorenus's wife commits suicide rather than deal with the consequences of admitting one of her children isn't her husband's. Titus Pullo is the real father (or so the made-up story has it) of Cleopatra's son Caesarean.

Which works fine, in a potboilerish fashion that keeps the spectacle moving along. But there's also a place where I thought they did better than fine with it. In a tiny scene that's almost a throwaway, Octavia, who's been forced into a political marriage to Marc Antony, tells her former lover, Agrippa, that she's pregnant. Agrippa, who's left her to pursue his own political career, asks whose child it is. Octavia says she doesn't know, and asks what it matters when both possible fathers are so inadequate.

Leading me to look again at romance, and to consider whether in our genre the story behind the love story isn't often also one of successful or unsuccessful parenting and particularly the presence or absence of fathers...

Just thinking...

And wondering what you think as well about fatherhood as a theme in historical romance fiction.

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12 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Very thought provoking post, Pam. I have noticed in historical romances that a lot of the heros have father issues, whether the father was good or bad. It also brings up the whole notion of nature vs. nurture. Julia Quinn explored this in at least two of her Bridgerton books. I've also used it in my contemporary romances. I enjoy using it, because a boy's first cues about men come from their father, how to act, how to treat women. If a father has been disappointed in his life, it can affect how the son lives his own life.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Pam! (I haven't seen Rome, except for the first episodes at a friend's, but I really want to rent it and catch up). Parent/child dynamics are fascinating to explore (father/daughter, mother/son, and mother/daughter don't seem to be done as often but are also very interesting). I saw Glucks' "Iphigénie en Tauride" at San Francisco Opera this summer (great production!) and was thinking how many books, plays, movies, etc... have echoes of the Oresetia with its very complex child/parent (not to mention sibling) issues ("Hamlet", the Lymdon Chronicles, and The X-Files spring immediately to mind). A lot of my books have heroes, heorines, or children of heroes and heroines with questionable parentage. I find this theme particuarly fascinating in the era like the Regency when so much of who one was was defined by birth and bloodlines.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I agree with Elizabeth, that nature vs nurture is one of the important romance subjects, because it's when we fall in love, I think, that we reach a fulcrum between who we can't help being and who we want to be.
And Tracy's certainly right to bring up classical themes of parenthood -- the classical myths delve deep into biological knowledge that at the time was deeply implicated in parenthood.

Ultimately, where I'll be going with this, I hope, is some understanding of the first romance novels, written in 2nd century Greece, which is to say, Greece when it was part of the Roman empire.

That is after I finish the novel.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Dear Hoydens and Guests:

Due to a range of health reasons and family issues, I'm drastically limiting my blog and board posting. I'm sorry to say this is one of them. However, I'm sure I'll see all of you elsewhere on the blogosphere.

Warm wishes, speedy writing, and fab reads!
Keira

3:29 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

So sorry to have to say so long for a while, Keira. Warm wishes to you and your family and for a speedy return.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

First, I was a complete ROME addict!!! What an amazing show. *sigh*

I think the tension between father and son is always going to be pronounced when there is a major inheritance in the balance. Kings and their heirs are rarely on good terms, and the stress of waiting in the wings seems to have been hard on other peers as well. Lots of great fodder in there for novels . . .

6:41 PM  
Blogger Candice Hern said...

I'm another who LOVED the "Rome" series. The manager of the video rental store where I got them told me that "Rome" was basically "Deadwood" in togas, and that's all I needed to hear. :-)

I think the father/son dynamic always has the potential to be fascinating. One of my favorites themes to explore is the son who is never good enough for his father. So, you get either an over-achiever, determined to make Daddy proud, or a reckless gambler (for example) who knows he can never please Daddy so why bother trying. Or the one who does his best to live "down" to Daddy's expectations because deep down he believes Daddy is right about him, that he is no good. So many interesting possibilities for character motivation. You get a whole different set of complex psychological relationshops between mothers and daughters, but as a writer, I find the father/son dynamic the more intriguing.

11:04 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've never seen the Deadwood in Togas thing myself, Candice, since one of my giddiest, guiltiest "Rome" pleasures is how everybody makes with the Masterpiece Theater declamatory chatter. "Muth-ah!" Octavia and Octavian predictably protest...

But as to fathers and sons -- the opening complication of my current book is that my hero is really the father of his older brother's heir (only he and the boy's mother know this). My hero has stayed away, wandering the eastern Mediterranean for all of the boy's life, guiltily envying his brother for being the legal father of his son.

But when the older brother and his wife rent a villa in Italy (the boy is 14 and at Eton) my hero pays them a visit. Brother and sister-in-law are killed in a boating accident and voila, my hero is now his own son's guardian. Partly because he'd never tell the truth, he botches the emotional relationship. Be careful what you wish for.

It's not quite a back-story; there's a full first chapter devoted to it. But the real action starts up a decade or so later, when the "nephew" gets involved in a flirtation with my heroine, who has secrets of her own.

The hero being a classicist/archeologist, the notion of secret fatherhood has a lot of cultural resonance for him (and me).

8:37 AM  
Blogger Gabriele C. said...

As a historian, I had a few issues with the Rome series, but as entertainment, it was among the best I've seen this year. And Vorenus is sorta cute. :) I hope German TV will buy the second installment as well.

Father/son dynamics - oh yes, I have lots of that in my NiPs. A few uneasy sets of brothers, too, and that always ties in with the relationship to the father. :)

Pam, I have a lot of Roman history on my blog - I keep hunting down Roman remains in Germany and England.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Denise Patrick said...

What a fascinating post. I, too, think that the parent/child dynamic is a stepchild in many romances. For better or for worse, parents shape the children and what they become. In my Regency, I threw my hero for a loop by having him discover a terrible secret about the father he worshiped. Great stuff.

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