All Roads DO Lead to Rome (Or How Ken Follett Changed My Life)

Now that I’m more or less back from my self-imposed break, I’ve been kicking around what to write about.

One of the first things I read and retained among the avalanche of “wisdom”, guidance, suggestions and, in a few cases, demands by writers with more experience and expertise than I had when I started is that nobody really needs another writer droning on about their “craft” and how they’ve cracked the code as far as writing process goes.

Although I would never be that presumptuous, I will say this much; there is no code, no secret formula, and if by “writing process” you mean how you turn your thoughts into words on a page, I just told you what the process is, at least for me. I take the thoughts and story ideas in my head, and I write them down. I’ve been asked by many people how I can be so “prolific”, and I will admit that releasing 7 books, all more than 450 pages long, in a span of about 19 months is a little unusual. Except to me, and the reason for that is the vast majority of the “writing” is done in my head, so that when I sit down to start or continue a story, I do so with the relevant parts already composed in my head. In fact, the most frustrating aspect for me is that my hands have trouble keeping up with my typing.

What I’ve learned is that this doesn’t appear to be a common method, so even if I were so inclined to go “blah blah blah writing blah blah blah craft”, it’s pretty likely that most people would find it useless. So I’m not going to talk about that.

Instead, I thought I would address a question that, next to “How the hell did you write so many books in such a short time?” is probably the most commonly asked question I get, and that is, “How did you end up writing about Rome?”

That, dear readers, is probably a lot more interesting story than me telling you how I write everything out in longhand on Yellow Number Two pencils only, but I NEVER erase, I always line through my deletions. (None of which I do.) No, I ended up here in Rome, where I plan on being for the foreseeable future, or at least until y’all get tired of me telling stories about it, in a very roundabout way.  As you might guess from the title, Ken Follett has something to do with it, which might seem puzzling since he’s never written about Rome.

It started when I was recovering from a serious injury I incurred while training on my bicycle for an upcoming race, when I was hit by a car. My left leg was shattered in 9 places; I was in the hospital six weeks, where I was initially told I would lose my leg, and was on crutches for six months. This was in 1989, long before the Internet, and when video games were in their infancy, so I had a lot of time on my hands to read. And I was, and still am, a voracious reader, but I never would have selected Pillars of the Earth on my own; if it wasn’t an outright war story or something of that nature that helped in my professional development as a career Marine, then I had little interest in it. My memory is that one of my teammates gave me the book to read, and I did so only because I had run out of everything else by the time I picked it up.

By the time I finished it, my world had changed. Oh, I didn’t know it at the time, although I was aware that I had a sudden interest in medieval history, and I became fascinated with the construction of Gothic Cathedrals. As most of you who have read my books know, I’m all about “full immersion research”, which is just a polite way of, as my mom would say when I was a kid, burying my nose in a book and not coming up for more than brief snatches of the outside world. But I wanted to know more, not only about the construction and architecture of what I consider to be the most tangible and substantial evidence of people who truly believed in God, but the time period itself.

One benefit of my accident was getting what was for me a large lump sum payment, and in the confluence of reading Pillars and receiving the money, an idea was born. It’s hard to describe my life at the time, now that I’ve traveled as extensively as I have, but at the time I had not even a glimmer that there would be more opportunities like this, so rather than tuck the money away, I took my then 11-year old daughter to London. Specifically, we went to see Salisbury Cathedral, and it was as awe-inspiring and had as much of an impact on me as I thought it would. Naturally, we took in a lot of other sights, like Stonehenge, where I picked up a copy of Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, and who is one of the writers  I would count as an influence in my own work. We went to the Tower, and Westminster, and I can safely say that neither my daughter nor I would have ever hazarded the wildest guess that 20 years later, my daughter would actually live in that city, and be a dual citizen of the United Kingdom and United States. I like to think that taking her on that trip, her first out of the country, opened up the possibilities and broadened her horizons, and set her on a road that enabled her to leave home to attend the University of Southern California as a start to what is now an incredibly well-traveled, cosmopolitan life.

But it was what I couldn’t do that has the most bearing on this story. Like all Dads, especially Dads of daughters, the words “I don’t know” just will not do, but unfortunately, whenever my kid would point to an inscription and ask, “What does that say?” all I had in my arsenal was that Dad’s Kryptonite. At that point in time, although I had Latin words tattooed on my body, the words “Semper Fidelis” was the sum total of my vocabulary in that dead language that is the basis for so much of ours.

When we returned, and I began college after my retirement from the Marines, once it came time for the foreign language requirement, I chose Latin, determined that should the chance arise again that I was with my kid in Europe and she pointed to something on a cathedral floor I could tell her exactly what it said. Take THAT, “I don’t know”!

That was what the two years of Latin I took was for, not Rome. Rome didn’t come into my life until my second year, when I faced a dilemma about filling my schedule, and the only class was an Ancient Civilization course. Meh, I thought; I might as well take it.

And that’s how what has become a passion for Ancient Rome started. By the time I took every other course offered by the incomparable Dr. Frank Holt on Rome, I was hooked and had taken the first steps on a journey that leads here, with me getting paid to do something I love to do, and paid very well at that.

It’s because of things like this; seemingly insignificant events that have an enormous impact on the direction our respective lives have taken, that I tell this story. I’m willing to bet that each of you, if you really thought about it, have those moments, where the course of your life took what turned out to be a dramatic turn. At the time, it was just a variation of one degree off your current course, but over the span of a decade, or two, or three, just like a one-degree change will land you hundreds of miles away from your original destination on a long journey, that “zig” when you would have “zagged” had you end up where you are right now.

And if you’re lucky, like I am, not only will it be in a wonderful new land, you’ll be able to trace your course back to that moment, and like I have, go back and thank some of the people who guided you to this destination. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to reconnect with Dr. Holt and thank him in person for all that he did for me, however unwittingly it was at the time.

Now if I could just get Ken Follett to answer my emails.


  1. Kevin Sharpe says:

    Hi Ron,

    I found your “I’m Back” entry quite fascinating on several levels. Looks like we have a few things in common besides the love of Ancient Rome! Like you, in 1989 I had an accident although it was on a motorcycle that did end up taking my leg. It didn’t slow me down as I was still able to walk around and enjoy ever inch of the forum and everything I could find when I have visited Rome. Like your daughter I have dual citizenship as well as my kids. I was born in South London before my father dragged us all over here in the late 60’s when I was six as Boeing needed engineers. It’s nice having a different outlook on the world around us and can sure be beneficial when you’re visiting family back in the old country. For my wife its Italy as her family heritage is all Sicilian.

    It seems that there must be many more stories related to the world of Ancient Rome. I often hope I will wake up to the news that someone had found a vault with parchments from those times that give us a better idea of what it was really like back then. From a fictional standpoint, it would be interesting to read how the decadence of Pullo would have done during the decades surrounding Nero. The political intrigue surrounding the heavy taxation and subsequent regional revolts due to the great fire.

    Well I would hate to get too far ahead as we haven’t even heard the next chapter from Gaius.
    Looking forward to the next book,

    Kevin Sharpe

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