Naming the Beast

I am pleased and proud to announce that Book One of the Aven Cycle now has an official and for-real title! Look for

A Flame Arises

coming next fall!

Titling this book might have been the most arduous part of the process thus far! I am, for the record, rubbish at titling things. Back in my fanfic days, I pretty much stole all my good titles from Shakespeare or song lyrics. Those options weren’t precisely available to me for a Roman-era AU fantasy, though, so we ended up turning elsewhere.

Initially, I liked the idea of using some Latin terms related to fire — Pyria, Scintilla, Ignis, etc — but my editor determined that those might be too obscure and, well, frighteningly Latinate for a general audience. So after bouncing around some other general phrases, I ended up turning to Roman poetry for inspiration.

img_9025Unfortunately, even that wasn’t as simple as it might’ve been. My favorites among the poets, Catullus and Ovid, supplied mostly phrases that would do better to title romance novels than something in the historical fantasy genre. So I had to hunt around for different sources. Eventually I found Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, which obliged me by talking quite a bit about elemental matters. Among those lines, I found the following gems:

quippe ubi nulla latens animai pars remaneret
in membris, cinere ut multa latet obrutus ignis,
unde reconflari sensus per membra repente
possit, ut ex igni caeco consurgere flamma?
–Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Liber Quarta

In sooth, where no one part of soul remained
Lurking among the members, even as fire
Lurks buried under many ashes, whence
Could sense amain rekindled be in members,
As a flame arises from unseen fire?
–Lucretius, Of Natural Things, Book Four

And there it was! Or, there it was… eventually. We actually spent quite a bit of time exploring various translations of igni caeco, but none of them struck the ear quite right. The most amusing part of the process was when Sarah and I were trying out synonyms on the phone — while I was sitting in my pajamas in an empty bathtub in Las Vegas, because I was at a convention and didn’t want to wake my still-sleeping roommates! I am destined, it seems, to have important conversations in decidedly odd locations.

I’m so happy to finally have the title settled! It’s so hard to even talk about a book without that. But now, I’ve got a title and a release date — and soon there will be more! Over the coming months, I’ll be hard at work getting A Flame Arises ready for print as well as working hard on Book 2 — and no, don’t ask me for its title yet! ;D By spring, it’ll be time for cover reveal, buy links, and getting all the publicity ducks in a row.

Figures in History: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

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Mary_Sydney_HerbertLady Mary Herbert, nee Sidney, was one of the foremost minds of Elizabethan England. More literary works in the period are dedicated to her than to any other woman, save only the Queen. She wrote and translated herself, and was perhaps the first female playwright in England; though her plays were never performed, one likely served as inspiration for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. When her brother, Philip Sidney, a famous courtier and poet, died in the war in the Netherlands, Oxford and Cambridge published elegies to him and refused to let her contribute — so she basically thumbed her nose at them, marched herself to a printer, and published them herself — in addition to completing Philip’s last great work and publishing it as “The Countress of Pembroke’s Arcadia”.

Lady Mary was part of a family of extraordinary women. Her mother, Mary Sidney, was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth during her early reign, and in fact nursed the queen through smallpox in 1562. The queen survived, but Mary Sidney was badly scarred and never really appeared in public again. (The queen was less than gracious about this). Mary Herbert was also the aunt of the later English poet Lady Mary Wroth.

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Me at Ludlow, geeking out over imagining my heroine running around this castle as a little girl

Mary grew up at Ludlow Castle (the ruins of which I was lucky enough to visit this summer), most often inseparably in the company of her sister Ambrosia. Their mother reportedly dressed them alike, and when Ambrosia died young, Mary was very greatly affected by the loss. To help her in her grief (and perhaps finally feeling a bit of pity for her erstwhile friend Mary Sidney), Queen Elizabeth suggested that young Mary come to court. Not long afterwards, her uncle Leicester (yes, that Leicester) arranged a marriage for Lady Mary with the much-older Henry Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. He probably had about thirty years on her, but this actually seemed to work out quite well for them. His first two wives had left him with no children, and then Mary popped out four in five years. He was so delighted with her over this that thereafter, he pretty much gave her whatever she wanted. Invite over poets and writers for readings? Sure. Write your own play and want your friends to come over and read it? No problem. Custom-made laboratory so that you can have botanists and chemists come work and study just because it interests you? Go right ahead.

We don’t have any letters or diaries that speak to the personal nature of their relationship, but those details suggest to me that Henry Herbert was utterly besotted with his clever young wife. When he died, his will left her a truly enormous sum of money on the stipulation that she not remarry — and she never did.

That brings me to really the only scandal anyone ever came up with surrounding the Countess of Pembroke. Truly, she was beloved at just an absurd level. The royal court of Elizabethan England was, at best, a petty and back-biting place, and at worst, downright cutthroat. Yet almost no one has anything bad to say about Mary. She was considered beautiful, gracious, talented, witty, and virtuous. The only teensy tiny little blot on that near perfect record is an implication that she might have started having an affair with a doctor sometime after 1600 — by which point she would have been in her 40s, past childbearing, and probably she would’ve married him if it hadn’t been for the loss of income that would’ve entailed. It’s also possible that the scandal-lite was being pushed by one of her own sons (who did not live up to their mother’s virtuous reputation) who wanted to force her to remarry so that they’d have more cash on hand.

Ultimately, her reputation in her own day is summed up in her epitaph:

Underneath this sable hearse,
Lies the subject of all verse,
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother.
Death, ere thou hast slain another
Fair and learned and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

If a female English-speaking writer were looking for a patron saint, you could do far worse than Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

“The selfsame name, but one of better nature.” – On evaluation, discovery, and improvement

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I opined about this a bit on Twitter earlier today, and it remained on my mind enough that I want to expand on it a bit here.

I go through a process, periodically, of evaluating myself. I call it “having a Come-to-Proserpina moment” — although it might even better be called a come-to-Ma’at moment, because it’s about weighing and evaluating how my actions speak for me. To focus those thoughts, I try to answer these questions:

  1. What adjectives do I want to use to describe myself?
  2. What adjectives would I like other people to use to describe me?
  3. Do my actions currently lead to those qualities?
  4. How do I need to change or redirect my actions to lead to those qualities?

It’s about being the person I want to be. How close am I to that goal, to that image I’d like to have of myself?

maat-sarcophagus.jpgThe evaluation is not an easy thing to do. Or, perhaps, not an easy thing to do well and honestly. An unscrupulous person, with little self-awareness, could easily say, “Yes, of course; what I do fits exactly the kind of person I want to be, and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t see me clearly”. Doing it well and helpfully, though, means taking your own ego to task. It means not assuming that your actions are correct just because you’re the one taking them. You have to be a little brutal and quite relentless. Your brain tries to squirm out of it, tries to shape excuses out of reasons. It’s like editing, a little, in a way — you have to pin down what isn’t working and be ruthless about it. And in doing so, you learn to cut away what isn’t helpful, what detracts from your strengths, and how to reshape the rest to better reflect the story you want to tell.

Every time I do this, I emerge stronger, more whole, more like that ideal version of myself. However discomfiting the process, the result is so empowering. It means that I can then feel more confident about my assessments and actions being correct — not just because I’ve made them, but because I’ve really questioned myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It’s important to ask those questions, even if the answer is yes, because that gives me a grounding and a sort of renewed dedication to myself. If I can say, honestly, that yes, my actions reflect the sort of person I want to be, then I can feel assured in going forth unafraid of what anyone else might say in spite or jealousy.

It’s not about not having flaws. The gods know I have those. Sometimes they’re inextricably linked to my virtues — my temper comes from the same place as my passion, for example. My stubbornness and my loyalty have similar roots. I will never eradicate the one without sacrificing the other, and I determined years ago that I was not willing to grey myself out in that way. But it does mean that I need to act in a way that supports my virtues more than my vices. It also certainly doesn’t mean I never backslide, never fail to live up to my ideals of myself. That’s why it’s important to keep evaluating.

I call it come-to-Proserpina or come-to-Ma’at because it’s a process of thinking of what those ladies would say of me, were I called to stand before them now. How do my actions represent me? What do they say that my tongue might not? If my heart were to be weighed against Ma’at’s feather, how would it balance?

In contemplating this for myself recently, I’ve realized that my main female protagonist is ending up doing this in her life. I didn’t set out with that intention, but that’s sort of what multiple rounds of edits are coming around to. She looks at her life, realizes it isn’t what her heart wants, and realizes that, if she wants things to change, she has to be the agent of that change. She can’t wait for the world to re-arrange itself for her.

A World of Figures Series: Ellipsis, Paralipsis, and Ennoia

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I’ve decided to start a new series of blog posts talking about my favorite thing: rhetoric!

Why do I love rhetoric? In short, because an awareness of rhetorical figures makes you a better speaker, a better writer, a better reader, and a better listener. It engages critical thinking skills that are supremely important in modern society. For a writer, it helps you to craft characters’ individual voices — different people are prone to different rhetorical tics and tactics. There are many fascinating things about language, but for me, rhetoric is the be-all and the end-all of them. Rhetoric is about structuring your words to achieve a desired effect — and what could be more important for a writer?

I was initially going to start this series with one of my favorite rhetorical figures, like chiasmus or anthimeria. I’m putting those on the backburner, though, to address something that’s become politically significant: figures of omission.

Take this example from Othello:

IAGO:
Ha? I like not that.

OTHELLO:
What dost thou say?

IAGO:
Nothing, my lord, or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO:
Was not that Cassio that parted from my wife?

IAGO:
Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.

Iago’s doing a couple of really rhetorically clever things here. First off, ellipsis — simple omission of words or phrases. Generally, ellipsis ought to be easily understood in context. Our brains are really good at filling those in. Another example from Shakespeare is in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “You this way; we that way.” I bet your brain had no trouble supplying the missing verb. If someone spoke those words to you, you probably wouldn’t even consciously realize that it was missing. Iago puts a twist on this form of omission, though, by creating gaps that can’t be filled in so quickly and easily. By saying “I like not that”, Iago makes the listener wonder what the antecedent of “that” is. By leaving out his explanation in the next line, he makes the listener try to come up with one.

We’ve also got something called paralipsis, the act of calling attention to something by pretending you’re not going to call attention to it. “I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like” is a denial that that’s what Cassio was doing — but it’s meant to plant exactly that idea in Othello’s brain.

And then there’s the ennoia, which Silva Rhetoricae (one of my favorite rhetorical references) defines as:”a kind of purposeful holding back of information that nevertheless hints at what is meant; a kind of circuitous speaking.” I see this in “Nothing, my lord, or if — I know not what.” That “or if –” is a sentence with no end. Iago intends no ending to it. But he does intend that Othello’s brain try to come up with an ending, and the rest of what he says clarifies what he intends that ending to be.

Now take this example from a couple of days ago:

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”

If you don’t know where that’s from, I envy you the rock you’ve been living under.

Donald Trump is employing ennoia in the same way that Iago did. He left a deliberate gap. His delivery showed that he trailed off intentionally, and then, like Iago, shrugs off the omission. He leaves it to the listener to find the end of that sentence, and both delivery and context indicated what he intended his listeners to fill in the missing information with. “Maybe there is, I don’t know” is a near-perfect analog for “Or if — I know not what.” And just as Iago meant it to be the dog-whistle of infidelity for Othello’s ears, Trump meant it to be the dog-whistle of violence to an audience that he knew would be receptive to such.

Ennoia is not a rhetorical device that one deploys accidentally. It has a purpose. Its entire function is to hint, to wink, to nudge, to draw the listener along to the conclusion that, for whatever reason, the speaker does not want to say outright.

Trump is also fond, as many politicians are, of paralipsis. It’s a convenient way to make an ad hominenm attack but wiggle out of getting criticized for doing so. This blog post chronicles some great examples across history, from Cicero straight up to the present day, and both The Washington Post and Huffington Post have commented on Trump’s use of the device.

Here’s the other thing about these devices of omission, particularly when used in a political context: they’re cowardly. They are the resort of someone who wants to mislead and misguide. They allow a speaker to claim, “I never said that.” “What I meant was…” “If people interpreted it that way…” They’re a way of avoiding agency and responsibility. They may be effective, but they are not devices that inspire confidence in a leader.

Words matter. So does the structure that those words come in — that’s what rhetoric is. Not just your choice of words, but the way you choose to present them. So does your delivery — that trailing off for ennoia points an audience towards how the speaker wants their brains to fill in the missing information.

Words having meaning. And so, it turns out, does the absence of words.

Mi dispiace; parlo italiano solo un po’

I am woefully, shamefully monolinguistic.

In spoken languages, anyway. I have some good solid Latin under my belt, and I used to be fairly proficient with American Sign Language (that skill has faded with disuse, but I’d love to regain it). When it comes to spoken languages, however… I’m pretty well useless.

I don’t have the ear for it, is the thing. And that’s a weird thing to say, as someone who has such an audiographic memory in English, and who prides herself on a certain facility with language. I took a year of French in high school (before switching to ASL), and I’ve been self-tutoring on Italian for about a year now. I can read both languages at a basic level — enough to pick up a newspaper and get the gist, enough to follow instructions. I can speak simple sentences quite slowly. But I have never trained my ear to hear other languages spoken at a normal speed. This embarrasses me. It’s something I’d like to rectify.

I recently spent four days traveling in France and Italy. Across France, really, to get myself to three days in Rome. And I was hellbent not to use English unless I absolutely had to. Armed with Google Translate, a willing attitude, and a charming smile, I set out to experience la citta eterna in its own voice.

This is an experience every English-speaking American should have.

I mean, not Rome, specifically, but traveling somewhere that English isn’t the dominant language and trying to behave accordingly — trying, at least, to get along in a language besides the native tongue that so much of the world now kowtows to.

Let’s face it; I was doing this with a safety net. Almost everyone you’re going to encounter in the high-travel parts of France and Italy speaks at least some English. If you really get screwed, you can find someone to help you in your own language. There’s security in that, and I genuinely don’t know if I’d yet be brave enough to go farther off the beaten path, where that net didn’t exist.

What I found, though, is how much wonderful benefit there is in allowing yourself some confusion and embarrassment. I didn’t want to use the safety net if I didn’t had to. So I buckled some solid phrases under my belt, looked up extra vocab where needed, and proceeded to stammer and gesture my way through.

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I’m sure it was hideous. It certainly didn’t seem to take anyone very long to figure out that I’m an English speaker — although, strangely, a fair few guessed French before I opened my mouth — but many, very kindly, stuck to Italian when they realized I wanted to give it a try. It seemed to make a lot of people happy that I was giving it a go. I managed to get through a few transactions at restaurants and shops without resorting to English at all, and I felt so proud of myself — so stupidly proud, for managing fifteen or twenty words outside of my native language — but proud nonetheless. (I also started to get irritated at overhearing my fellow Americans who weren’t even trying. I mean, how hard is “grazie”?)

It can be unnerving, at first. I was most unsettled about my linguistic disadvantage when I was actively in-transit — getting across Paris from one train station to another, finding my way to dinner in Torino, navigating the Roman bus system. The rest of the time, though, I realized I could breathe a little and let the musicality of the Italian language wash over me. When I let go of the desire to understand perfectly, I found that I actually could pick out a word here or there. Perhaps, with greater immersion, I might actually get that skill I’ve always thought was beyond me — I might actually be able to tune my ear.

I sure hope that, even if I came off as “that stupid monolinguist American”, I also at least came off as “that pleasant American” and not “that jackass American”. I tried to approach every interaction with a slightly apologetic smile and a willingness to learn. I tried to bring myself as far along as I could, rather than expecting those I encountered to jump to where I was. It’s a humbling moment, to realize how many people have this experience on a daily basis — and how many of them do it without a safety net.

It’s also interesting to think about what it is that you get wrong. I’m terrible with prepositions, as it turns out. What must that sound like to a native speaker? What does it sound like to us, in English, when someone gets things wrong? And I’m interested in a scientific way about what errors people coming from different first languages make — are some cultures more prone to screwing up verb tenses than others? How about cadence? What was it about the errors made that made it so easy to identify me as una ragazza americana?

It’s the sort of thing, I think, that breeds empathy and compassion. Not just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but also thinking about how you get there. Too, thinking about how many concessions are still made for me, as an English-speaker, in so many non-English places.

So I urge you, my fellow native-English-speaking Americans, if you never have: Go abroad. Go somewhere that English is not the default language — even if it is still there as a safety net. Go somewhere where most of the conversations you hear will not be in English. Order a meal without using English. Ask for directions in another languagae, and try desperately to understand what you’re told. Get things wrong. Be corrected. Learn new words. Be laughed at a little. Blush a little. Apologize a little.

It’ll be good for you.

I think I might try Portugal next.

“Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity.”

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Warning: Thoughts about politics, history, democracy, and danger lie ahead on this 4th of July, the 240th anniversary of American independence.

Thesis: We have confused civil liberties with civic governance.

A friend shared an article with me the other day featuring an interview with Chris Hayes on the ideas in his book, Twilight of the Elites, and their relation to the current Brexit crisis.

The first thing I noticed was that the article uses the term “elite” twenty-seven times without ever defining who or what, precisely, that meant. (Also worth considering is this piece from the Washington Post).

The problem with the word “elite” is it that it’s become the replacement slur that “liberal” was before the left reclaimed it. Who are “the elite” that the article lambasts? Government leaders? Banks? Corporate leaders? Heads of universities? Celebrity political dilettantes? It doesn’t much seem to matter — the word manages to conflate the intellectual, the financial, the corporate, the governing all together. Just say the word “elite” and anything that follows must be sensible.

It’s delightfully inspecific, and it allows demagogues to rouse populistic fury without actually having to define goals or have a plan. Just turn your furor on “the elite” and everything will be fine. And that’s how you get people to ignore what experts have to say about the economy, climate change, gun violence, whatever — demonize “the elite” through one lens, and you poison the populace’s view of, well, anyone who knows anything. That concerns me. It’s why I don’t feel I’m under any more obligation to respect the Leave camp’s Brexit decision as “the will of the people” than I was in 2006 when “the people” of Virginia voted against gay marriage. A bad decision is a bad decision, whether or not it has popular approval and whoever you’re blaming for the the conditions that drove that approval.

Willful ignorance is what’s currently driving politics here and in Europe — people who not only don’t know, but don’t want to know, are proud of not knowing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that I want educated, thoughtful people capable of complex, divergent thinking in charge of the government. And I want an educated populace, where the majority of people have the creative and critical thinking skills to look at multiple prongs of an issue, synthesize information, and make a considered decision — that’s part of my entire philosophy as an educator — but that’s not what we (or the UK, or, it would seem, large swaths of Europe where neo-nationalism is surging) have. It’s what we should strive towards, but we fall far short of creating a society where it’s truly possible for all citizens. The championing of anti-intellectualism has triumphed to the point that people often (as studies have shown) vote against their best interests based on unexamined perceptions, and we’ve demonized changing your mind as “flip-flopping” such that many people are impervious to learning new information if they think it might contradict what they already “know”.

The problem with democracy — as politicians and philosophers alike have known for millennia — is that it only works if people are informed and engaged. That’s why we have a constitutional republic instead of direct democracy. Most people quite simply do not have the capacity to make decisions on a national or global scale. That doesn’t make them worthy of contempt, it shouldn’t infringe their civil liberties, it in no way devalues their humanity — but it probably does mean they shouldn’t be driving national and international policy. It’s odd that this is a potentially controversial view to take, and it reminds me (as so many things do) of a line from The West Wing: “A funny thing happened when the White House got demystified. The impression was left that anybody could do it.”

We don’t question that not everyone has the requisite skills, intellect, interest, and dedication to be a surgeon, a Supreme Court Justice, the inventor of new cybernetic technology, or a world-class poet or artist. But we’ve stopped asking those questions about our lawmakers. Why?

This is what led me to the thought that somehow we’ve confused civil liberties with civic governance — that expanding basic rights to more and more people somehow means that everyone is equally qualified to make world-changing decisions.

I wish our education system better prepared more people to make good decisions, but the UK has just showed us — as have the Republican primaries — why tyranny of the majority is a bad idea — particularly when the evidence shows that a staggering portion of that majority had literally no clue what they were voting on. I share the wariness of leaders throughout history who felt torn between a responsibility to the people’s voice and a responsibility to protect the people from themselves when they’re about to hurl themselves off a cliff. Should we listen to “the will of the people” when that will decimates the economy? When it ignores ecological perils? When it denies civil liberties to minorities? How about when it says we shouldn’t let members of a certain religion into our country? How about when it says we should round up racial minorities and “degenerates” and put them in camps?

Democracy has always been a dangerous sword to hold. There’s a lot of irony in that our own Founding Fathers were, of course, mostly members of the financial and/or cultural colonial elite, and even once-impoverished and oft-indebted immigrant Alexander Hamilton feared direct democracy, saying in 1788: “That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity.” It’s a hard thing to grapple with, when you want to believe in the good of people… but know better than to give them total control. I suspect Alexis de Tocqueville would agree that the Brexit represents precisely the kind of tyranny of the majority that favors the sheer weight of numbers over the sense, rightness, or practicality of a situation. (de Tocqueville also believed that “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.” Make of that what you will).

In the information age, there’s almost no excuse for not educating oneself on major issues. A swipe of your fingers, and you can read both facts and opinions on almost any topic. (I do recognize that not everyone has internet access, but the majority of both Britons and Americans do — and certainly the ones crowing on social media about their allegiance to the Leave camp or the Trump campaign do). But there’s a dual problem here — not everyone has been given the critical thinking skills (a failure in our education system) to separate fact from fiction, or fact from opinion, or informed opinion from utter drivel, and, worse still, many people don’t want to seek out that information. Will, in fact, deny it when it’s put in front of their faces.

This is how we get not only science-blind phenomena like climate change deniers, but also the resurgence of tribalism and xenophobia — studies have shown that the more geographically isolated you are, the fewer different kinds of people you interact with, then the less likely you are to be capable of divergent thinking, to synthesize new ideas, and to empathize with people who are not like you. (And here we could get into arguments about gerrymandering and how reinforcing that urban-rural divide affects politics). A certain segment of society now has this perverse pride in ignorance, and it breeds further poor decisions — which in turn reinforce the ignorance and the destruction it causes. Our current system fosters incuriosity, such that, as news came out that many Britons voting Leave had had no earthly idea what they were voting about, I found myself thinking of the following scene from The West Wing:

JOSH: So, if we’re lucky, foreign aid’s going to be funded for another 90 days at 75 cents on the dollar. No one who’s ever said they wanted bipartisanship has ever meant it. But the people are speaking. Because 68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut.

WILL: You like that stat?

JOSH: I do.

WILL: Why?

JOSH: Because 9% think it’s too high, and shouldn’t be cut! 9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for, “I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about. Please, God, don’t ask for my input.”

WILL: Why is foreign aid important?

JOSH: It fosters democracy.

WILL: There you go.

JOSH: [in British accent] Well, well played, young man. Very good, yes, yes.

WILL: I don’t know if you realized, but for a second there, you changed voices.

JOSH: Someone said, “The best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter.”

WILL: Churchill. He also said “Democracy is the worst form of government.”

JOSH: See.

WILL: “Except for all the others.”

JOSH: I know the end of the quote.

I don’t know how we solve this ouroboros of destruction. I believe education is the foundation of it, but it’s going to take something massive to break the chain of self-reinforcing political anti-intellectualism to make the massive changes to our educational system that will have to occur in order to get the educated, critically-thinking populace our republic deserves. Perhaps, as has often been the case in history, the system will have to catastrophically fail before it can be repaired. I hope not — but the historian in me is wary.

When Brexit happened, Editor Sarah pinged me on Facebook saying it made her think of the Optimates party in my book. I told her that the book hadn’t felt as on-the-nose politically when I started writing it several years ago as it does now. Based on the historical Optimates of Rome, these are “the elite” of Aven — the moneyed patricians whose way of life is dying, who oppose expansion and immigration, who disdain innovation, who object to the expansion of citizenship, and who overall want things to stay as they’ve always been — because, hey, it was good enough for our grandfathers, right? But the world isn’t the same as it was for their grandfathers. One of my protagonists is a Popularist, himself a member of that privileged patrician class, but one who — yet he still has to wrestle with the wisdom of letting the Aventan populace make choices for themselves versus setting himself up to make what he believes will be the best choices for them. He doesn’t want to be a demagogue. He wants to be idealistic, to think that people can and will work together for the common good — but he’s got a pragmatic streak that nibbles at the back of his mind. He wants to use his privilege to help people, but he has to make sure that doesn’t come off as condescending — or as bribery. He knows that a person’s birth does not bestow them with the necessary qualities to govern — but he knows that not everyone, of any class, is going to have those qualities, either. He’s lived under a tyrant, and does not want to become one himself — and yet can’t escape this feeling that if everyone just went along with his ideas, everything would function so much more smoothly and prosperously. Much of his arc, throughout all three books, is going to focus on what happens when he tries to balance those conflicting views.

I hope he has better luck than we’re currently having.

Every 4th of July, I watch 1776. I love that musical because it shows the Founders as so human — and it speaks to the compromise that always hounds democracy. How fast can we effect change? What do we have to give away in order to get part of what we want? (Questions that Lin-Manuel Miranda raises in Hamilton). But I also love it because it reminds me of what I really do believe — we can be great. This country has almost never lived up to its dream of itself, but I still so fervently believe that we could. The underpinnings are there. The drive is there. American independence is a beautiful, monstrous, strange beast.

What are we going to decide to do with it as it grows?

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Word cloud for the June 2016 revisions

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Sisters, sisters…

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So this has been on my mind for a while, but the recent #Ham4Austen meme, courtesy of @Drunk_Austen, has revived my desire to chatter about it.

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Kindly ignore my tragic misspelling of Bennett; I stand by this statement anyway.

As the deal announcement for my forthcoming novel stated, the backbone of the story belongs largely to three sisters: the Vitelliae — who are, in the creativity of Roman naming conventions, Aula Vitellia Prima (called Aula), Aula Vitellia Secunda (called Latona), and Aula Vitellia Prima (called Alhena). As I’ve discussed before, my inspiration for them came from a painting, but I think it’s slightly more than coincidence that much of the novel has been written and revised while I’ve had not just thematically-appropriate HBO’s Rome and the BBC classic I, Claudius running in the background (I am nearly incapable of working in silence), but also Downton Abbey, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and the Hamilton soundtrack. Their relationships, with each other and with those outside the family, drive the story.

I wasn’t consciously adopting a pattern as I wrote, but nearly everyone who’s read the book thus far has commented on how the Vitelliae make them think of the Bennetts, the Crawleys, or the Schuylers. Sarah once asked me if it were intentional, and our notes back and forth are littered with references to Hamilton (not only because of the sisters — but a lot because of them). But it got me thinking just what the similarities and dissimilarities are, because my girls don’t align neatly to any of the characters they are, as a group, compared to.13516359_520496718154978_8947441272109785272_n

Pert, vivacious Aula Prima has the most in common, strangely, with Lydia Bennett — if Lydia Bennett had Angelica Schuyler’s political sense. She loves a good time, has a fondness for military men, and flirts with abandon — but unlike Lydia, she strives to keep her family out of scandal. Knowledgeable and adept, she hides a cunning mind and clever wit behind lively green eyes, pink cheeks, and bouncing auburn curls. In “a world in which [her] only job is to marry rich,” she turns her political ambitions towards her father and brother.

Editor!Sarah and I have a joke of referring to Alhena as “And Peggy”, but there’s really much more to her than that. She probably has the most in common with Mary Bennett, and maybe a little with Edith, though I think she’s a bit softer than either. She’s a more minor character than Aula and Latona, but she has a lot of room to grow and develop, but at the onset, she’s bookish, and almost painfully shy outside of her own family (with, you’ll learn, good reason).

And then my dear Latona, middle sister and primary protagonist. She’d get along sparklingly a dinner party with Mary and Sybille Crawley, Angelica Schuyler, and both Elizas Bennett and Hamilton, but I don’t know how much she has in common with any of them. She’s a slightly different type. None of the Misses I mention start with as much tragedy in their backgrounds as Latona. She feels Angelica’s frustration and ambition, shares Mary Crawley’s sense of responsibility and Sybille’s social justice, would appreciate Eliza Bennett’s wit, Eliza Hamilton’s yearning for a peaceful and prosperous domestic life… but she also suffers a repression that’s personal, not just societal, and it’s colored her deeply.

So what has made early readers feel such resonance with these sisterly sets? Something in the structure itself, I suspect. A sister is different than a friend. Friends, you can choose (and the Vitelliae have those as well, as I consciously did not want to create a world where women had no social connection outside their families). But sisters, you’re given.

I am a woman with a sister, myself. Just the one, so a smaller set than the families I’ve discussed above, and we’re about six years apart. I would take a bullet for her, but our relationship hasn’t always been easy. That age gap is a bit weird — too far apart to be real allies as children, too close not to feel competitive. When I was in my most troubled years, she was still in grade school; when she was in hers, I was off at college. I often had an older sibling’s exasperation with being expected to be responsible and set a good example, not retaliate when provoked, and irritation with what she got away with that I hadn’t or couldn’t (parental leniency with younger siblings being a well-noted tradition — at least among oldest children!). I suspect that she often felt held to a high standard because of me, that I was something she was expected to live up to. We were both probably a little right and a little wrong. We get along much better as adults, but it’s because we’ve both learned to be more thoughtful, less antagonistic, more empathetic. We’ve learned about each other, not just what we like but how we work, rather than just assuming a genetic bond would either function or not. (To our mother’s total lack of surprise, we often find that our strife has been caused by our similarities, not our differences).

I hope that particular aspect of sororal relations comes across in my writing in a genuine way. It’s one of the things I really adore about the Crawley sisters. While the Bennetts certainly don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s never any real strife among them. Even when Lydia disgraces the family, she shrugs it off with almost no consequences, and everyone else sort of rolls their eyes, and life moves on. Everyone seems far more concerned about how Lydia’s actions reflect on them than about Lydia’s well-being. Lizzy never gives Lydia the dressing-down she had coming, nor do the other sisters air their grievances. ClawJQdUoAAz3lQSaintly Jane never shows impatience or irritation with her siblings. Mary never explodes with frustration at the mockery she endures. The closest we get to real sororal trouble are the sniping between Lydia and Mary, and then the jealousy that Kitty feels over Lydia’s popularity and invitation to go to Brighton — but those are only side notes, the background chatter of the novel. The disconnect between Lizzy and her younger siblings is more glanced at than explored. The reader is meant to dismiss them as silly and pointless (one of the things I like better about the 2005 movie is that you see more soulfulness out of Mary Bennett), and thus not to feel much sympathy for them.

On the other hand, Mary and Edith spend a lot of time at each others’ throats, snarking and subverting and outright sabotaging. But when their tempers aren’t up, they know that they do love each other — and that one day, they will be all each other has left. “Sisters have secrets,” Mary says, at the end of the series, and she’s right — and those secrets are rarely tidy and cute. Their relationship is far less sanitized than that of the Bennetts, and far more real. The Vitelliae aren’t quite so contentious, but they don’t always understand each other. Their personalities are different, and there’s quite an age gap between the elder two and the youngest. They’ll make decisions the others don’t agree with. They’ll be unintentionally hurtful. They’ll worry and scare each other. An older sister accustomed to being in charge may seem bossy. A much-sheltered youngest may struggle to have her maturity recognized. And a troubled middle daughter may feel misunderstood and like she has nowhere to turn, even among people who love her.

I don’t know everything that will happen to them. Their relationships have grown more complex in Book 1’s revisions, and I expect those discoveries will continue. I just know I’m looking forward to the journey — and I hope you are, too!

The Charms of Cartography

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I love maps. I don’t know why, but cartography fascinates me. I find maps so beautiful. I particularly love historical maps — either maps that are, themselves, old, or just maps of earlier versions of our world. I’ve got a delightful book of maps of the Middle Ages, which shows changes to all of the inhabited continents from the 7th through 15th centuries. This year, I’ve even got a calendar of historical maps (June’s feature is a 1647 map of Iceland). The Game of Thrones opening credits utterly delight me. My favorite part of playing Civilization is typically exploring the map, figuring out where all the other civs are, locating the resources, and figuring out the best trade routes. In the fifth grade, when we were instructed to invent a state and make a map of it, I got marked down a few points for going utterly overboard and filling in damn near every available space on the poor little salt-dough construction with some item of interest.

I mention all of this because, when you’re writing a fantasy historical epic, having maps is rather crucial to keeping one’s head in place and places in one’s head.

I was bemoaning to my gentleman the difficulty in finding a decent map of late Republic Rome that I could mark up for my own purposes. Pretty well everything available is from much later on — Hadrian-era, sometimes, but often even later, 4th century. It makes sense — the archaeology is more reliable from that period, since things got knocked down and built on top of each other. But, though my story is an AU, it’s an AU based on the mid-first-century BCE, so using a map from so many centuries later would be an awful lot for me to have to un-see and work around, to recover what the city would’ve been like before all those baths and basilicas and palaces that the emperors built.

So, my gentleman asked me if there were any maps close to what I did like, and yes — my favorites have always been those in Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series. Those books are meticulously researched, and even though the maps have some question marks on them (This was the… Temple of Feronia? Or Juno Curitis? Pompey’s house was… probably here?), when it comes to the overall shape of the city, they’re wonderfully detailed. The books also include a map of the *whole* city, not just the famous bit around the Forum.

They’re also, y’know, only the size of a trade paperback page, so while a good reference, it’s not something I can really scribble on to add in the things I need. I want to keep track of who’s on which hill, how far between them, who can oversee the river from their house and who’s got a view of the aqueduct. I added or moved some temples, but — damn, where did I put them? I’d made my own map of the entire Mediterranean with the provinces , but the minutiae of the city itself was just too overwhelming a project to consider starting from scratch.

So, hearing this lament, what did my beau do? Scanned those pages in and had them printed up as full-size posters!

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I’m so thoroughly delighted and grateful that he went to the time and effort! Now I’ve got a Wall of Rome to draw my Aven all over! (It’s underneath the map of Roman Spain given to me by my BFF last Christmas). Twelve square feet of fun.

I won’t start marking it up properly til I’ve finished this round of revisions, but I’ve begun by plotting out the epicenter of the story:

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Now is the month of Maying

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“And thus it passed on from Candlemass until after Easter, that the month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in like wise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds. For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.”
–Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, Book 18, Chapter 25

Today marks the beginning of my favorite time of the year! We don’t have the best Beltane weather in Virginia today, but I’m sure it’ll perk up as May goes on, and from now til Midsummer — even through July — is when the world seems to resonate with me. It’s a good-luck time of year, warm and optimistic, as tender blooms grow into strong, vibrant greens. The world seems new and full of possibilities. And it is, as the songs says, a time for frivolous whims, for throwing self-control away, for divine mistakes.

Want to celebrate Beltane like I do? Indulge yourself. Eat something decadent. Wear heady perfume. Put on your favorite dress, or vest, or shoes. Listen to great music. Watch your favorite movie. Dance in the sunlight or in the pouring rain. Buy yourself flowers. Take pleasure where you can find it, in company or on your own. Spring and flourish in lusty deedsIMG_5241

Say hello to the world. Look at the sky and notice its colors changing moment to moment. Find flowers in different stages of blooming. Save a snail on the sidewalk. Watch the patterns birds make as they swoop and whorl. Breathe deep; seek peace.

Nourish joy. Be creative and courageous. Start a new project. Revisit one you haven’t looked at in years. Reach out to a friend. Take a picture of something beautiful. Write out how you’re feeling, or paint it out, or sing it out. Decorate your pathways with chalk.

Find someone or something to love today. A person, a moment in the sun, a flower blossom, a pet, a poem, a word, a wonder. Fill the world with love.

Celebrate. Because we’re alive and sharing this world. Because you have a soul and it strives. Because when the world renews itself, it reminds us that we can, too.