Vercingetorix’s Virgin by Virginia Crow
Today I’m delighted to welcome author Virginia Crow, who has joined me on Writing with Labradors to talk about Vercingetorix’s Virgin, her contribution to Alternate Endings, the new anthology from the Historical Writer’s Forum.
Hi, Virginia, welcome to Writing with Labradors. I’m very excited about the release of the latest Historical Writers Forum anthology “Alternate Endings” and it was great to get an early look at your story.
Hello Lynn! Thank you for hosting me and my story on your fabulous blog!
You’re very welcome. Can you start by telling us a bit about what you generally write and how does this story fit into that?
I have to admit, this story broke a number of the constraints I normally wrap around my writings! It doesn’t really match up with any of them – at least not yet – I’ll explain more about that later on.
I absolutely love exploring history and finding the random events which have been tucked into the telling with seemingly little relevance. Only, they must have been significant enough to have been recorded in the first place! These events provide the bones, while the plot wraps around the flesh of the story. Because this is how I write, I don’t have a specific time period I write in, but Vercingetorix’s Virgin is the earliest to date!
Most of my writing has an edge of mythology, be it historical fantasy like my Caledon books, or cultural superstitions like in The Year We Lived. I find the extra dimension which this gives to both the plot and the characters absolutely invaluable. The incorporation of Roman religion allowed me to explore this aspect within the story, and the superstitions and beliefs which surrounded the characters is at the core of Vercingetorix’s Virgin.
Ancient Rome is a long way off. What first sparked your interest in that period?
When I was invited to write a What If? story, I spent a long time trying to come up with an idea. I tried to think of figures from history who I had come to know from researching my own books, sparing the life of my historical heroes, or altering the course of battles. But then comes the inevitable realisation that sometimes it is the unjust nature of events surrounding these historical figures which drew me to them in the first place! Did I really want to take that from them?
So I shelved those ideas and talked through a few different ones with my family. My sister suggested: What if the Gunpowder Plot had been successful? and I was leaning towards that. But I have to admit to knowing almost nothing about the Stuart period beyond what I was taught in school, and I just couldn’t motivate myself to actually research it.
Then came an invite from Pen & Sword to review Simon Elliott’s book Alexander the Great versus Julius Caesar. Bingo! This was exactly what I was looking for: something I had a deep interest in, but no real connection to. So, after reading and reviewing the book (which is fantastic, by the way, and I would definitely recommend!), I started to delve into researching that world…
That’s really interesting. I’d like to see your ideas about the Gunpowder Plot if you ever get around to it. To come to your story – it’s a very interesting concept. How did you come up with this particular alternate ending. I mean, when you first heard about the theme of the anthology had you already considered this one for yourself or did the idea come to you once you started thinking about it?
I knew I wanted something which would show a different ending but not alter the entire course of history. Every story I write focusses on little things which make big ripples. To tweak the Conquest of Gaul meant that big ripples were caused, but they were only as transient as those ripples on the water’s surface. Eventually, they would fade away and history would return to its course once more. But, I have to admit, I enjoyed inserting these two heroes of the ancient world. I’ve never really told the story of famous people (well, not exactly – although The Year We Lived might be an exception to that!), but the theme for the anthology meant that a significant event (and therefore significant persons) needed to be modified…
A very real challenge followed – to explore the precise manners and relationships of these two men – but the result hopefully worked!
I think it worked very well. Tell me a bit about the Vestal Virgins. Who were they and what was their importance in Roman society?
Like most people, I suspect, the first time I ever came across Vestal Virgins was in the Procol Harum song A Whiter Shade of Pale. I never really understood the reference, but then I never really understood most of that song anyway!
A few years ago, I visited Rome with two of my sisters. It was such an incredible place – history tucked in everywhere, hiding in plain sight. We behaved like real tourists with our sightseeing and one of the places we came across was the ruins of the Temple of Vesta. There isn’t much left of it now, but what is there shows the wealth and power which was given to this aspect of the Roman beliefs. While we were in Rome, I got one of those books with plasticky pages which you can hold over one another to see what these ruined buildings had looked like in their heyday, and there was a little bit of writing about each place.
This was where my interest in the Vestal Virgins sparked. One of the things it mentioned was the power Vestals had to pardon people who were being led to execution. That was it! A potential ripple on the surface of the water!
I researched more for the rest of the time we were in Rome, and continued after we returned home. I had an idea for a story based on this event, which then went on to follow a number of twists and turns (of course!) before concluding in the horrendous death of essentially being buried alive which awaited any Vestal who broke her vows.
Vestals played an incredible role in Roman society. They were deemed to be the very best of humanity. Their word was trusted intrinsically, they were never questioned, they were allowed to oversee legal affairs, and their touch and gaze carried the power of the goddess herself.
Vestals served a thirty-year tenure in the temple, they wanted for nothing and were given all they required. But thirty years must have seemed a long time, missing out on the prime of their lives. Many did go on to marry after their service was complete – in fact, a former Vestal was thought to be one of the best wives a man could have – but placing those things which had been forbidden into the hands of a person accustomed to never being questioned, did not always make for the most amorous marriage beds!
That’s fascinating, I’d no idea the Vestals were that influential. Or that some of them married afterwards. That really must have been an interesting adjustment. Have you written other short stories or is this your first? How do you find working in this shorter medium as opposed to writing full length novels? Which do you prefer?
Eeek! My writing motto is: Never use one word when ten will suffice. So writing short stories is always a challenge for me! Back in January 2020, before COVID, I set my New Year Resolution to enter a writing competition/journal each week. It was a very ambitious target but, courtesy of my obsessive nature, I managed to see it through. I got one short story shortlisted and a poem published, which might not seem like much for 52 weeks, but I felt quite proud of them both!
But more than that, I learnt how to make this style work. I finally perfected (good enough for me, anyway!) the art of writing in different genres and different lengths. Since then, I’ve had a few more acceptances too, which is fantastic.
After writing Vercingetorix’s Virgin, I’ve dabbled with Alternative History a little bit more. I have an idea to possibly one day publish an anthology along the lines of “What did the Romans ever do for us?”, pointing out how different life would be without their input. It might never come to fruition, but you never know!
I love that idea! I bet it would be popular. And just wow about your Story-a-Week project. I could never manage to stick to that – very impressive.
To move on to your characters, what was it like writing Julius Caesar? He’s such an iconic historical character – what did you want your readers to learn about him from this story?
Firstly, I have to explain that I had preconceived ideas about Julius Caesar. I had come across him in school as the first Roman to conquer Britain. That was my first misconception, but it was not my last. And that quote, Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) has absolutely nothing to do with Britain!
So I had to undo everything I thought I knew about him.
Thankfully, my dad is something of an Ancient Rome/Ancient Greece enthusiast – my siblings and I always suspected it was because he was there when it was all happening, and we say that only half-jokingly! – so there was plenty of pointers he could give regarding where to look for more information concerning Caesar.
For me, it wasn’t the case that the more I read about him the more I liked him. It was more like: the more I read about him, the more I pitied him. Here was a man who built up an empire but was left with so much that he was entirely alienated. All his work and campaigning ultimately counted for nothing. His successor would go on to murder Caesar’s son, establish himself as an Emperor on the basis of the conquests Caesar had made, and even re-model Caesar’s calendar to deify himself on an equal footing.
Ultimately, what we tend to remember the most about Julius Caesar is his death. How sad is that? His work, his conquests, all forgotten as his own people turned on him.
So, when I came to write him, I wanted him to be connectable. I didn’t want a distant, aloof figure, because I honestly don’t think that was how Caesar wanted to be. Ironically – since he made himself dictator – I think he missed people. So, for the sake of Vercingetorix’s Virgin, he is someone always trying to reach out without being seen as weak; someone seeking to cement his legacy, but who knows it is unobtainable; someone who is looking to put right the relationships he had failed to rectify the first-time around.
In many respects, Vercingetorix was the anti-Caesar. Writing them both – especially as they interacted with their seconds and the Vestals – was a brilliant contrast to explore.
That makes Caesar sound much more human, somehow. And rather vulnerable. It makes me wish that he really could have had an alternate ending.
So now that you’ve tackled Caesar, do you have any other alternate endings that you’d like to write about one day? What are they?
I have written one other alternative history story. It’s called The Triumph of Maxentius, which is based on the question: What if Constantine lost the battle of Milvian Bridge? This would have had major repercussions for the Christian religion and this was the exact topic of that story.
Because of the gap in time but the huge impact they left, I’ve found Roman history is my preferred era for alternate endings!
And one day, I might have a go at the Gunpowder Plot one, too…
Ha! I’m going to keep an eye out for that one. Virginia, this has been great and I hope a lot of people go on to read your amazing story, it’s well worth it. What else are you working on at the moment? Anything recently published or in the pipeline?
My obsessive nature coming into play again, I am a strict NaNoWriMo participant. Having avoided it for years, I signed up in 2019 and now I refuse to be beaten by it! So all this month I’m chipping away at a new – rather different – novel. For the first time, I’m attempting a dual timeline story. Set part in the 3rd Century, and part in the 18th Century, this book draws from the story of the Amcotts Moor Woman. It is steeped in early church history and runaway Jacobites – a sop to my passion for theology and history!
I’m terrible for starting books, though, and never seeing them through. Maybe this one will get finished but I suspect, if it hasn’t been written by the end of November, it will join my increasingly growing pile of “I-will-get-around-to-it-one-day” books. Time will tell!
That sounds like an amazing project. I hope you do manage to get it finished. Either way, I’ll be following your progress through November as I struggle to get started with my own new book.
Virginia, thanks so much for joining me on Writing With Labradors. It’s been lovely to have you and good luck with the publication of the anthology and with NaNoWriMo as well.
Virginia Crow is an award-winning Scottish author, who grew up in Orkney and now lives in Caithness. She comes from a large family of writers and readers, and has been surrounded by books her whole life. Her favourite genres to write are fantasy and historical fiction, sometimes mixing the two together. She enjoys swashbuckling stories, her favourite book being The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas and she is still waiting for a screen adaption that lives up to it!
When not writing, Virginia is usually to be found teaching music. She believes wholeheartedly in the power of music, especially as a tool of inspiration, and music is often playing when she writes. Her life is governed by two spaniels, Orlando and Jess, and she enjoys exploring the Caithness countryside with these canine sidekicks.
As well as books, she loves cheese, music, and films, but hates mushrooms.
Readers can find out more about Virginia on social media here:
Alternate Endings is available on Kindle and in paperback on Amazon.