Classicist Caroline Lawrence, a former elementary school teacher, has written over 30 historical novels for children in the past 15 years. Her biggest success was the Roman Mysteries series of books, 10 of which were televised by the BBC in the UK. She has just finished the Roman Quests, a four-book spinoff of the Roman Mysteries mostly set in Roman Britain. Here, Caroline tells how she used the Save the Cat!® beat sheet to plot and polish the final book of the Roman Quests, Return to Rome, published in the UK yesterday (January 11, 2018).

Return to Rome is the final volume of my four-part series about three young Roman fugitives in the Roman province of Britannia. This four book series is part of a “universe” I created in the Roman Mysteries, a 17-book series (supplemented by two volumes of short stories) about a girl detective from Rome’s seaport, Ostia. In the original series, Flavia Gemina solves mysteries together with three friends of different backgrounds and temperaments. The stories are packed with period detail and take place against a backdrop of real historical events such as the eruption of Vesuvius and the opening games of the Colosseum.

My Roman Quests series is set about 12 years after the last Roman Mystery, and although Flavia and her friends make cameo appearances as “heritage characters,” the protagonists are three Roman siblings and a girl they meet in Britannia.

In the first of this four-part series, Escape from Rome, 12-year-old Juba’s mother shakes him awake at midnight with the news that their father has been denounced as a traitor, their opulent house is being confiscated by the evil Emperor Domitian, and they are all about to be enslaved. Juba’s mother and father will delay the soldiers long enough for Juba to escape with his brother and sisters. Juba’s parents have given him enough gold and gems to fund the journey to Britannia at the furthest edge of the Roman Empire.

But the children have barely got out of Rome when they are robbed at knifepoint and left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Knowing his parents are dead, Juba trades his five-month-old baby sister to a childless woman in return for passage for himself and siblings. When they reach Roman London, a British girl attaches herself to them. Bouda is a pretty cutpurse who sees the three siblings as a chance to escape her grim fate.

Over the course of the next few books the four of them have adventures, rescue children, and quell a possible Druid uprising — all while eluding agents of the Emperor. Although each of the books is told from the four children’s different points of view, the first book in the series is mainly Juba’s, the second his brother’s, and the third his sister Ursula’s. This final volume, Return to Rome, is Bouda’s story.

One of the writer’s most difficult tasks is to write a richly detailed story with a strong narrative thrust. Because my books are full of historical detail, I need a compelling plot and characters to keep my young readers engaged. My initial breakthrough in writing came with the realization that story structure is essential not just for plotting, but throughout the whole writing process. As the story progresses I often change the details of some beats to fit in with the story’s own organic growth.

Originally I used the seven most basic steps of Truby’s 22 beat plot structure. Then I added elements of the Hero’s Journey. Recently I have also used a slightly expanded version of Blake Snyder’s beat sheet to map out the plot. One of my most useful tools is the Save the Cat! app. I often use it when travelling or away from my desk to check the overview of the story and make sure I am still on track. I am always revising the book as elements become clearer or fade away, so the final structure is often quite different from the initial version.

Here then are my slightly expanded STC! beats of the fourth Roman Quest in its final version.

by Caroline Lawrence – 52,500 words

ACT I  Britannia

How does The Roman Quests 4: Return to Rome hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the novel:

Opening Image: In a prologue we see 6-year-old cutpurse Bouda in Roman London, first escaping soldiers and then standing up to an older bully in her gang in order to present her Fagin-like boss Tyranus with a pearl. His approval equates love and she drifts off to sleep whispering his motto: “Gold and gems and pearls are the only things that will keep you safe in this world.” I don’t use prologues very often but I thought it would help readers sympathize with Bouda if they saw her as a brave little girl. This is my Save the Cat! moment, when we want to “Save the Cutpurse!”

Theme Stated: We jump to the present, seven years later. Now aged 13, Bouda has been helping Juba and his sister for two years. Although her original motive was to use them as a means of escape from her life in a gang, Bouda has grown to admire and love Juba, now aged 14. But she still craves material wealth and when she asks Juba to give her one of his gems, she can see the disappointment on his face. Later her patroness/mentor will tell her: “I can tell that Juba loves you. But he also loves what is good and noble. If you want to earn his love, you must seek the highest good.” Throughout the book all the major characters ask themselves How do I seek the highest good.

Set-Up: Bouda wants to be good and earn Juba’s approval, but old habits die hard. After a misunderstanding with him, there is a Stasis = Death moment when she is tempted to take his most valuable gem, a cameo showing the goddess Minerva, and run away forever.

Catalyst: In the middle of the night, at the very moment Bouda is about to flee, their patroness/mentor arrives. Flavia Gemina tells them that the Emperor Domitian has picked up their trail again and sent one of his most ruthless agents, a man called Tortor, (the “Torturer”), to find them. Flavia urges Juba and his sister Ursula to leave Britannia immediately, and promises that a young doctor friend of hers will accompany them.

Debate: Juba asks Bouda to come with them and, although his declaration of love is interrupted, Bouda agrees. Flavia’s parting words will be a kind of talisman for Bouda on the journey. She tells Bouda: “If you want to earn his love, you must seek the highest good.”

Break into Two: Juba, Ursula, Bouda, and a British boy named Prasutus set out with the doctor on a cold wet day near the start of the sailing season. They intend to cross the channel and join Juba and Ursula’s 16-year-old brother, who is now an auxiliary soldier stationed in Cologne. At the seaport of Camulodunum they narrowly avoid capture by Tortor. Prasutus sacrifices his dream of going with them to cause a diversion and give his friends a chance to escape. They make the dangerous channel crossing and land in France. They have left cold, wet Britannia, where they were mainly just hiding out, and have entered a new world of sunshine, olive groves and vineyards: France.

Act II – The Road to Rome

B Story: In the steam room of a bath house in the French port, Ursula asks Bouda what “desire” she would have carved on a signet ring. Bouda visualizes a green gem with a picture of an inner garden, symbolizing her longing for a home. It will be contrasted with the Minerva cameo, a real gem symbolizing Bouda’s desire for the security that material wealth can provide.

Fun and Games: As they set out on the overland journey to Cologne, they adopt disguises to throw Tortor off the track. Ursula pretends to be a boy and puts a mane on her wolfhound to make her a “lion-dog.” Juba hates the disguise because he has to pretend to be a slave, too, but Bouda enjoys playing the part of a doctor’s wife. We see the doctor treating patients in France and Germany and Juba manages to get some information from him that might prove useful: the predicted date of Domitian’s assassination.

Midpoint: They have almost reached Cologne, their destination, when it is revealed that Bouda has still been stealing things. She runs away in shame, leaving behind the Minerva gem, which Juba let her borrow. With the help of the wolfhound, Juba finds Bouda in the forest. He tells her he loves her and gives her the gem to keep. Bouda tells Juba she loves him, too, and they kiss.

Bad Guys Close In: Shortly after arriving in Cologne, where Juba’s brother has been posted, they are arrested by soldiers and taken to a commander named Trajan. The girls are released but Juba confesses he hates the Emperor and Bouda sees the Torturer going to the room where Juba is being held.

All Is Lost: They pray but are horrified when Juba reappears with his head bandaged.

An early version of the Dark Night of the Soul on Caroline's STC! app.
An early version of the Dark Night of the Soul beat on Caroline’s STC! app.
The beat and logline on Caroline's STC! app.
The final version of the Dark Night of the Soul beat and logline on Caroline’s STC! app.

Dark Night of the Soul: Juba tells them that he hasn’t been tortured after all, but recruited by Trajan who is brewing a plot to assassinate the Emperor. Juba agreed to help because Domitian has enslaved Dora, the little sister Juba had to leave behind when they left Italy two years before.

Break into Three: Now instead of running from something, they have a new proactive goal: to rescue baby Dora. Juba says he is going to Rome and Bouda says she will go with him. So do most of the others. “Then it’s decided,” said Juba, rising to his feet. “We’re all going to Rome.”

4-Point Finale:

Gathering the Team: They adopt new disguises for this final act set. With his bandaged head (which hides a tattoo of the date of the emperor’s assassination to ensure his loyalty), Juba pretends to be a walking advertisement of the doctor’s success. Bouda and Ursula become musicians with a pantomime troupe and they all travel together. Using the literary equivalent of a “travelling montage” I take them another thousand miles from Cologne to Rome’s seaport, Ostia. (Bouda never forgot that golden summer…)

Act III – Rome

Storming the Castle: At Rome’s seaport of Ostia, the doctor’s home town, they prepare a plan to infiltrate the Emperor’s palace on the day of his predicted assassination, so they can rescue toddler Dora. Juba already has an entrée thanks to the part he agreed to play, but to ensure toddler Dora’s safety they need the help of ex-pickpocket Bouda.

High Tower Surprise: Using all her skills including a mnemonic system to help her navigate the imperial palace, Bouda finds the Emperor Domitian alone and is about to kill him. But their hated enemy is weeping and he suddenly reminds her of Tyranus, her old gang boss. She can’t go through with it. Furthermore, Domitian treats two-and-a-half-year-old Dora like a daughter and she loves him like a father.

Dig Deep Down: Bouda sees Juba in his post as palace shrine attendant, ready to help the assassins. She convinces Domitian to give her baby Dora in return for the Minerva cameo, the object now legitimately hers that could have made her rich forever. Bouda is carrying a resisting Dora out of the palace just as the assassins arrive. She hears the sound of the emperor’s death screams as he is assassinated.

Final Image: Rome’s new Emperor Nerva releases Juba, who ended up only watching and not participating in Domitian’s death. Nerva lets Juba keep the Minerva gem, which he returns to Bouda. Holding hands, they set off towards Ostia together with Ursula and the doctor, and with toddler Dora riding Ursula’s big wolfhound. The final chapter is an epilogue that tells what happens to everyone including Bouda, who eventually marries Juba and settles happily in Ostia in a house with a green inner garden. We learn that she sold the Minerva gem to set up a fund for poor and orphaned children.