Circus Maximus: Race to the Death – Annelise Gray

Stars: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’ve already included this book on my blog, but when I was asked to be part of the blog tour I had to say yes! This is a brilliant historical fiction book which really encourages you to think about the past and its affect on people then, but also in the present. To read my original review, click here:

Annelise Gray has penned a pulse-pounding middle grade historical-adventure set in the Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stage of the ancient Roman world. This is where the best horses and charioteers compete in a race to the death, and one girl dreams of glory. Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is about a girl trying to find a foothold in a world dominated by men. It’s about revenge and redemption, survival and hope, and finding the courage to follow your dreams. Fellow children’s author Gillian Cross calls it “heart-stoppingly exciting”!

Annelise writes exclusively for my blog about the value of good historical research and how it makes the reader feel like they are right there beside the characters they are invested in.

Why I love historical research and 3 tips for writing a historical novel

I am never happier than when in a library. The musty smell of books, the sound-muffling carpet underfoot, the bleeping sound as the librarian checks out volumes under a scanner – all make me feel incredibly contented. I wander around the stacks, clutching a scrap of paper scribbled with shelf marks and return to my desk, laden with the next batch of volumes to be pored over and mined for glimpses of gold.

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a professional researcher for hire. After finishing my doctorate in Classics in 2004, I had little idea of what to do next. I knew that I wasn’t cut out for academia and although I’d really enjoyed my experience of teaching in a local school over the previous three years, I felt that I needed to try something different to see if that was a path I’d want to come back to. So I handed in my notice at the school where I worked in the hope that by taking a leap of faith, I might land somewhere. It was an uncharacteristically risky thing for me to do, but it paid off. A couple of weeks later, I received an email from my college Director of Studies, Mary Beard, asking if I’d be interested in meeting the historian Bettany Hughes, who was looking for a research assistant to help her in the writing of her first book, a mytho-biography of Helen of Troy.

 You couldn’t have designed a job I’d have jumped at with more enthusiasm. Research was always the bit of academic life I liked best. So I met Bettany, signed up for the mission and for the next eighteen months, I was the Della Street to her Perry Mason, heading off in dogged pursuit of whatever information she wanted me to track down. It was a brilliant experience and afterwards I went on to more freelance research jobs, including two stints on drama series about ancient Rome at BBC Specialist Factual and even a week’s work putting together material on the history of labradors for Ben Fogle. 

Since I was a child, my real dream was to be a writer. Working for Bettany not only gave me a valuable insight into the business of writing and publishing a book, it taught me a lot about the kind of research that really works to bring a story alive, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. Bettany was absolutely passionate about wanting to delve into the sort of detail that would give her readers a sense of the sights, tastes, smells and even the soundscape of Bronze Age Greece. When I later came to write my first book  – a history of the women of imperial Rome – I tried to remember those lessons. I found them even more invaluable when I was writing my first historical novel for children, Circus Maximus: Race to the Death. Characters are the thing that make you care about any story. But to invest fully in their fate, it helps if you can feel like you’re there beside them. Good and thoughtful historical research is what makes that possible.

Below are my 3 tips for writing a historical novel: 

  1. Respect the history….

I have an image in my head that guides me. Known facts (such as the dates when a historical figure lived or died) are footprints on a sandy shore. I am careful to plot a path that doesn’t disturb them. Similarly, I wouldn’t invent anything which feels historically accurate. I research enough to make sure I am as familiar as I can be with the historical setting and period detail of my story – the clothes, the customs, the physical landscape and so on. Often key ideas and plotlines for the story will emerge from that.

  1. ….but don’t be a slave to the history.

You have to accept that you will probably never know as much about your period as an academic who had studied it for twenty years. It’s also important to remember that history isn’t a fixed and immutable thing. Often the joy of writing a historical novel can be about imagining yourself into the perspective of characters to whom history hasn’t given a voice. In Circus Maximus: Race to the Death, I’ve written about a girl who becomes a charioteer, a character for whom there is no known historical precedent. And that makes you actually ask different and interesting questions about the world in which she lives – what does it look like from the perspective of a rebellious, horse-mad, 12 year old girl?

  1. Know when to stop researching and start writing. 

It’s very easy – especially if you love research as much as I do – to go on researching for ever. But it can become a form of procrastination, an excuse not to get on with writing. You have to understand the world you want to write about enough for you to start. But you also need to remember that your reader is going to turn the page not because they are enthralled by the accuracy of your research but because they want to know what happens to your character. Once I’ve started writing, I try not to stop just because I’m not certain what characters might be eating, for example. I keep a running list of research queries and I go back and check them at the end of the first draft. 

Which takes me back to the library…my happy place.

I don’t know about you, but it’s made be very keen to dig into some historical research myself! Thank you Annelise for such an insightful piece.

Like the sound of this book? Buy it here:

Emily x

📚 Book gifted by publisher.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s