What Kind of Research Went into A Shield in the Shadows
By Cheryl Bristow, aka L. A. Racines
Author of A Shield in the Shadows
Most people know very little about the Roman Empire of the Fifth Century. Fourteen years ago I knew nothing. All I knew was that I was going to write a historical novel about an era where people experienced massive dislocation and destruction coming at them in Tsunami waves.
As a sensitive child first learning about the barbarian crossing of the Rhine River and the resulting devastation in Gaul and Iberia, I was horrified for those people. Writing the book was a little like scratching a scab or revisiting an unpleasant memory. I decided to “go there”. I also wanted to know what I would have in common with the people of that era. I am an Anglophone Protestant raised in Francophone Quebec with a degree in Anthropology. I taught school for two years in Nigeria during the civil war there, and I have visited many countries, but this was new territory. Almost everything we know was different then.
All I remembered were a few Roman historical facts, the names of some famous Roman figures and the terms for the rooms of a home, and I had to build an entire world in my head. It was a lot of work!
To begin with, who were the barbarians and why did they invade? What was the political state of Rome? Who was on the imperial throne? What famous people were alive at the time? What was the state of Christianity then? How were women treated by both groups of people? What were living conditions like on both sides of the northern frontier? What about slaves? Education and literacy for men and women? And so on …
One factor I had to face early on was that Rome had a history of more than a thousand years. While things did not change then as fast as they do now, things did change. What I knew from the First Century of the Empire was not the same as what I learned about the earlier days of the Republic, nor the same as the much later era I was focusing on. This period is now known as Antiquities. It was pre- or early Medieval and although we used to call the centuries after the Dark Ages, and blame the barbarians for that, the clash and mixing of those two ‘civilizations’ was actually a chaotic cauldron of cultures that had to learn to find common ground. The barbarians, from the Greek word for ‘stranger’, learned a lot from Rome and in turn influenced Romans, and us, in profound ways.
I began with a thick academic history of the Romans and the barbarians. Then I read it again. And again. And then I bought many other books. Some equally thick, covering the same period. Gradually I began to understand together the geography and history and cultures of the Romans, the Huns, the Goths and other northern peoples of the time. I read Edward Gibbons book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (an abridged version, fortunately), and found it fascinating. I bought and read books on sports, ancient fashion, women in ancient times, Roman warfare, mountaineering, and more. I even read some of the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, Claudian the court poet, Orosius, the Christian historian of the time, and Jordanes, a Gothic historian who worked for Rome a hundred years later.
In order to keep a mental focus on the people experiencing life as it happened to them, I chose for several years not to read beyond the year 415, the year when Princess Galla Placidia returned home to her brother, the Emperor Honorius from her years of wandering with the Goths in Gaul and Spain.
This took eight years of reading. It was a lot of knowledge to absorb, but I loved doing it. What I began to reluctantly realize, though, was that the main story was not in Gaul with the Rhine crossing, it was in Rome. The barbarians who crossed the Rhine and cast a bloody trail through Gaul and Spain was important to Gaul and Spain, did so in a specific and fluid political context, and that story needed to be told, too.
That meant that I needed to find a way to bring one of the barbarians right into the center of the story in Rome, because I intended to link her story with that of Princess Galla Placidia who lived there at the time. That need led to a closer examination of the invasion of Radagaisus, the virulently anti-Christian pagan Gothic chief who brought at least a hundred thousand people, mostly Goths, from northern Europe into Italy in 405 AD. My barbarian of choice, of course, had to be a girl. Theona, the female protagonist of A Shield in the Shadows is a young, literate, Christian woman who attracts the attention of both Radagaisus’ younger son Roderic, and Marius, my representative Roman soldier. The three of them are very real to me now, and very dear, and I hope they become real and dear to you, too.
Once I began writing, the research continued. I used Google Earth Pro to explore the highways and byways of the alpine passes and the terrain of Montefiesole, the mountain behind the city of Florence where the final siege takes place. I used Wikipedia to check information from time to time, and I contacted a couple of the scholars who had written several of the massive books I had read on the subject. One got back to me and I will be forever grateful to him.
Dr. Thomas Burns was a professor of Antiquities at Emory State University. He supplied me with several articles and ancient sources relevant to my story, and gave me tidbits that were not in any of the books. He read the entire manuscript before it was published, and now recommends the novel on one of his class reading lists as well as to his colleagues in Europe.
The final bit of research was the trip to Europe to retrace Marius’s journey. We started in Trier where he lived, and ended in Rome on Palatine Hill, where Theona is sent after the siege of Montefiesole. I did not learn much that was new, but the trip does add coloration to the scenes I describe. And it was fun!
Would I ever want to spend twelve years doing research for such a project again? No, but I won’t have to. The work I have done is a strong foundation for continuing to write about this relatively unknown period. I know now where to find what I need, and that is immensely satisfying.
You can read more about A Shield in the Shadows on Amazon here.
Meet L.A. Racines:
Cheryl(a.k.a. L.A. Racines) is a native of Quebec, Canada, and a graduate of Montreal’s McGill University with an Honour’s BA in Anthropology and Sociology. She worked as a teacher in rural Nigeria for two years during the Nigerian Civil War, and then worked for a number of NGOs and charities in Quebec and Ontario.
Married to an Anglican clergyman, mother of two daughters and grandmother of four, Cheryl has, over the decades, written and published a number of freelance articles for various publications including Reader’s Digest (Canada), Decision Magazine, The Sower, Faith Today, Christian Week, and a variety of denominational and evangelical publications.
Cheryl loves research and studied broadly and deeply for eight years before beginning to write this novel. She has found great satisfaction in achieving a lifelong dream of writing a novel, and has been encouraged by the accolades she has received from readers from both Christian and non-Christian backgrounds. Her novel is published under the pen name L. A. Racines, which can be translated “Wings and Roots,” because Cheryl agrees with the old saying that “the greatest gifts we can give to our children are roots and wings.”
She is a member of The Word Guild, an association of Canadian writers who are Christian, and very active in the Healing Rooms ministry in her home town of Uxbridge, Ontario.