by Lynne Gentry
When the crazy idea of dropping a 21st century doctor into a 3rd century plague popped into my head, I knew to do this story justice, I would have to expand my knowledge base, and it wouldn’t be easy. I had several strikes against me. First, I didn’t know anything about third-century Roman life. I had never been to Carthage and because of the political unrest, travel there was highly unlikely. Finally, how could I interview a real-life hero who had been dead for centuries?
But letting this story idea go was out of the question. So, I jumped into the research.
Using a combination of primary and secondary sources, I was able to build an authentic story world for a man I could never meet.
Before I tell you how one source lead to another, let’s talk about the difference between a primary source and a secondary source.
Primary sources are diaries, letters, or live interviews with someone who has firsthand knowledge of the time, place, or situation of interest. Primary sources give you a glimpse into the language, slang, and phrases used in the everyday lives of the people on the street so to speak. Primary sources provide you with the sights and sounds, lay of the land, the taste of the food, and the smell of the air. For example, I’ve been to a hospital and even had several surgeries, but going to a hospital is not the same as working at a hospital as a first-year intern. To get a “feel” for that terrifying experience I did several live interviews with first-year residents.
Secondary sources are written after the fact by someone who either witnessed the events or collected evidence and then wrote a report, biography, or scholarly research article or book.
Here’s a small sample of how my secondary sources took me on a rabbit trail that led straight to a surprising primary source while researching my real-life hero Cyprianus Thascius:
- Since I knew I couldn’t give Cyprian a call, I started where you’d probably start: I Googled him. I found several scholarly articles. At the end of those articles were extensive bibliographies. I ordered as many of the reference books or articles as I could find and afford. During the process of combing through these scholarly works, I discovered that after Cyprian was martyred his faithful friend and deacon Pontius recorded the events of Cyprian’s demise in a secondary work entitled The Life and Passion of St. Cyprian. I was able to find pieces and parts of that work on different university websites. The secondary account Pontius left behind gave me great insight into Cyprian’s personal struggle with his faith, especially after he was betrayed (the premise for book #2, Return to Exile).
- The real gold came when a different secondary source reported that Cyprianus Thascius was one of the most prolific early church biographers. Cyprian had left behind reams of his own thoughts on everything from paganism to how the church should handle those who sold out in order to protect their own necks. I was able to get my hands on a few of Cyprian’s letters to friends, etc. I love this passage he wrote to his friend Donatus:
“It is a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people, who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any of the pleasures of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are Christians … and I am one of them.” (Source: Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages, George Hodges, Henry Holt & Company, 1911, p. 6)
- By reading Cyprian’s own words (a primary source preserved by a secondary source) it was as if I was interviewing him in person (primary source). His journal gave me a sense of the cadence of his voice, the phrases he used to describe ordinary life, and his way of thinking, especially about matters of faith. I garnered great insight into this man who had been raised as a Roman pagan and converted to Christianity later in life.
It's always a good idea to obtain as much primary source information as you can. But when you can’t get your hands on an expert or actually go to a location, gathering as many secondary sources as possible will help you get the detail and the perspective that you will need to make your work come alive. Don’t be afraid to take a rabbit trail or two.
What surprising tidbits have you found when you followed a rabbit trail?
Lynne Gentry has written for numerous publications and is a professional acting coach, theater director and playwright with several full-length musicals and a Chicago children’s theater curriculum to her credit. She likes to write stories that launch modern women into ancient adventures, such as The Carthage Chronicles series (Healer of Carthage, Return to Exile and Valley of Decision). Gentry is also an inspirational speaker and dramatic performer who loves spending time with her family and medical therapy dog.
To keep up with Lynne Gentry, visit www.lynnegentry.com, become a fan on Facebook (Author-Lynne-Gentry) or follow her on Twitter (@Lynne_Gentry) and Pinterest (lynnegentry7).