Wonder Woman, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy Fulfillment

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A few days ago, I finally saw Wonder Woman, and it was as delightful as the internet had promised me it would be. I want more movies like this. I want sequels. I want prequels that just focus on the Amazons kicking ass thousands of years ago. I want spin-offs. And I want more heroines, all over the place. More movies focusing on women as central characters, unapologetically, from all kinds of stories and backgrounds and cultures and facets of the multiverse. I want princesses and generals and princesses who grow up to be generals.

I love that the major sentiment women have expressed after seeing this film has been: “Is this how guys feel all the time?” What a powerful thing it is, to come out of a movie feeling like you can take on the world.

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This dovetails with another thought I’ve been having lately: how much articles like “Not in this day and age: when will TV stop horrendously airbrushing history?” and “Women writers must stop falsely empowering female characters in history” annoy the living daylights out of me.

The basic premise of these articles (both of which appeared this summer) is that women couldn’t express feminist ideals before feminism existed — that writers should stop ascribing “modern” viewpoints to pre-modern female characters. Apparently not wanting to marry a guy who makes you miserable is a “laughably liberal” 21st-century ideal.

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Let’s set aside that such complaints register a pretty narrow and (yes, I’ll say it, despite the esteemed source quote of one of those articles) uninformed view of women in history. I could point to example after example of women throughout time and across continents who demanded some degree of agency and control over their own destinies — and, in fact, I’m doing so over on Patreon!

And let’s also set aside that these complaints about ahistoricity are always centered on women‘s supposed societal transgressions: whether it’s sexual agency, domestic and economic power, disobeying their husbands, whatever, the thinkpieces always want to complain about women not behaving as they expect. Funny, isn’t it?, how the complaints about historical realism are never about suspiciously literate stable boys, the unlikelihood of landless rogues being able to afford the upkeep of warhorses, or the preponderance of male tavernkeepers in an age when brewing was a primarily female occupation.

But even if we grant the articles’ premise that modern historical fiction creates anachronisms in the independence/sexual agency/snarkiness of its female characters — Why in the name of Juno shouldn’t it?

Women are finally beginning to get their own degree of fantasy fulfillment in sci-fi and fantasy. Yet in historical fiction — a genre that has long placed female characters front and center, showcasing their emotional journeys — writers are disparaged for doing the same. Though, I suppose, it’s also worth noting that historical fiction is a genre where male authors have long been taken “seriously” and female authors have been dismissed with the same derision as romance novelists.

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I resent the implication that my modern fiction — the books I read and the shows I watch for pleasure, for personal enjoyment — shouldn’t reflect the sorts of heroines that modern women want to see and enjoy. I resent the implication that any girl discovering history through a fictional lens (as most of us do) should be denied the sorts of role models she deserves.

I’m a historian. A persnickety one, sometimes. I twitch when New World fruits and vegetables get mentioned in Old World stories. I flinch when I see patterned fabrics in pre-industrial-manufacturing societies (looking at you, Hobbits). I’ve spent hours combing my own manuscripts for words that wouldn’t be conceptually available to my characters, even though they’re speaking another language (it is shockingly difficult to discuss energy-based magic without the language of the atomic age — another upcoming Patreon post).

But let me state quite flatly: if my historical fiction features an unusually high proportion of smart, sassy women, I have no objection whatsoever. I’ve no doubt that some will take umbrage at the Vitelliae and their patriarchy-challenging transgressions — and I simply could not care less.

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Give me fantasy fulfillment in every genre — just as men get and have always gotten.

“I witness to the times that brought them in”

Time is weird.

Yesterday was 10 years to the day since I graduated college. I’ve lived in Staunton for almost nine years now, and I’ve worked for the ASC almost seven of those years. I’ve been in this apartment for almost five years.

And at the end of this week, that will be different. I’m upending my life a bit — an instinct it seems like an awful lot of people are feeling this season. I have so many friends who seem to be using this summer to restructure their existence — moving, changing jobs, going back to school. It’s something in the stars or in the air — people are feeling a need to… to evolve.

Evolution means gaining something, but it almost always means losing something, too.

I’m starting to think part of maturity is realizing that… that’s okay.

While preparing for this move, I’ve cleared out all kinds of stuff. I’ve trimmed down my book collection by maybe an eighth — and I still have about eighteen boxes full to put into storage for the next few months. I took one box full of romance novels to the local nursing home and a sack full of blankets to the SPCA. I’ve sent off clothes to online consignment shops and unloaded a lot of costumes on the MLitt/MFA program. I finally threw away two rings given to me by The Ex, that I’ve for some reason kept in a drawer for seven years. I tossed some hair ornaments I’ve inexplicably been holding on to since college; some miscellaneous decor I’ve had since high school. I cleared out pounds of makeup that I haven’t worn in years and had to admit I never would again.

I am, as the above might suggest, a bit of a packrat. It’s the nostalgia, really. I’m a sentimental and foolish creature, and it shows in the little things I stow away.

I’m a ticket hoarder, for example — so I went through and kept the stubs for Rogue One, Return of the King, and The Muppets, because those, for various reasons, are important to me. I tossed the ones I couldn’t remember anything about. I kept tickets not just for a bunch of ASC shows, including the very first I ever saw in the Blackfriars Playhouse (pictured below), but for various musicals I’ve seen on Broadway and in London. I finally tossed some old mixtapes (mostly because I no longer have anything to play them on), but I kept notes and Valentines from high school friends. I have an incredibly large stack of cards, letters, and secret messages accumulated over the decades.

The whole process leads to quite a bit of navel-gazing. Who am I, and who have I been? I started to type a pontificating paragraph about “not being the person I was ten years ago, or even two years ago” — but I actually don’t think that’s true. I’m the same person in the ways that matter — but I am, dare I say it, a bit wiser? I’ve learned a lot — some of it for good reasons, as I’ve written a graduate thesis, held my first adult job, and lived on my own; some of it for less-fun reasons, as I’ve been hurt, gotten through a lot of heartbreak, and discovered that I apparently have an inherent tendency to give my heart to people who are less-than-deserving of it. I’ve discovered, as I think we all do, that the hangover you have at 31 is not the same as the hangover you had at 21 — but as How I Met Your Mother taught us, no matter how many times you learn that lesson and make a vow never to do that to yourself again… you still will, on occasion.

There’s the realization that, though so much has changed — nearly a third of my life, since I moved here, so many experiences, so many lessons — I still feel like something of an impostor adult. I may have had an excellent job, achieved many things, lived on my own, bought a car — but I know people my own age who have literally grown new humans. Some of them have grown two or three of them! Some of them have built families. Some of them are making a lot more money than me. Some have been braver than me. And yet — I sort of get the feeling that everyone secretly has no idea what’s going on, and suspects that no one else does either.

I’ve also realized that there are some people that I’m not in frequent touch with any more, who I wish I was — and there are people I’m definitely super glad aren’t in my life anymore. (If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be this: Life is too short for toxic friendships & relationships). There are a lot of folk who I bet I would’ve fallen out of touch with if it weren’t for the magic of the internet. And there are folk I’ve fallen out of touch with and then found again. My world is so rich with friends, even though most of them are somewhat distant from me. Hell, some I’ve never met in real life — and that’s something that hasn’t changed in the past ten years. I’m a child of the first generation to grow up online; I’ve always had friends, good and close friends, on the other side of a screen. But whether they’re internet-only friends, people I’ve loved since childhood, or newly-treasured connections made in the past year, it’s so magnificent to be able to celebrate their successes and their joys. And the support I’ve received as I enter this new phrase of my life has been absolutely incredible.

It’s good to clear out every once in a while — to figure out what you’re holding onto for no good reason. It makes the things worth keeping sparkle so much more.


Enjoy my musings? Show a little love on Patreon!

Constant Vigilance

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The theatre I work for just closed a new play, Shakespeare’s Sister by Emma Whipday, which explores the life of the hypothesized Judith. Whipday’s concept came from Virginia Woolf and her style was heavily influenced by Shakespeare in Love. I’m not sure what I was expecting going in — something lighter, more on the Shakespeare in Love side of things. What I got was an emotional gut punch.

Without giving too much away, Judith dares to write and is punished for it. So are all the women who help her. Her one male ally is temporarily embarrassed but suffers no real consequences. Some of her final monologues, responding to all of this, hit me really, really hard.

I am a woman who writes in what is still considered, in many ways, a man’s genre. And there are men in the world who wish violence upon me because I am there.

This is something that’s on my mind a lot, because of the world we live in, but it struck me particularly hard today following a Twitter exchange.

In the replies, women shared their dreams — the things I guarantee you most men take for granted. Walking home alone. Going to a bar by yourself. Star-gazing. Taking public transportation. Going for a late night run or dogwalk. Grab a snack from the convenience store. Wear high heels at night. Leave my keys in my purse until I actually needed them to unlock a door.

Simple things.

The replies also featured men who could not wait to remind us that we are not even allowed to imagine a world where we live without threat.

“You think rapists would obey a curfew?”
“Man-hating feminist bitches”
“This is sexist against men”
“You still wouldn’t be safe in the daytime.”
“Men want to be safe, too!!!”
“#NotAllMen”

And so forth.

None seemed to appreciate the irony that they were proving themselves the very threat that women fear — not just at night, but any time we dare to be female in public.

Of course not all men. But any man.

We walk with our keys between our fingers because we don’t know which man is benign and which is a threat. We look over our shoulders, we move briskly, we avoid eye contact because while we might not know which man is safe and which is dangerous, we do know that if something happens to us, we will be blamed for it. Why was she walking alone? Why was she on that street? Why wasn’t she paying better attention?

We’re not paranoid man-haters. We are living beings that have adapted to our circumstances.

Circumstances where men are so angry at a thought experiment that they feel compelled to remind us that we are never safe. That we should expect violence and harassment just as a basic condition of living.

I think conversations like this are important to have, because even good men so often don’t realize what the women in their lives go through on a daily basis. I’ve had male friends and boyfriends utterly horrified to realize how I’ve been conditioned to respond to potential threats. I know who the good men are by who listens, who modifies his behavior, who takes active measures to help women feel safe instead of threatened.

But I am exhausted of living in this world. Literally exhausted. It takes a literal and physical toll on our bodies, performing a thousand threat-checks every time we step outside (or voice opinions on the internet, for that matter). The stress and adrenaline are wearying and damaging.

So when one of the angry men came after me on Twitter, I did disengage. But not before asking him to examine himself. Asking him why women imagining their safety made him angry and violent. Asking him to figure out what poison in his soul causes him to react in the way he did.

Did it work? Of course not. I had no expectation that it would.

But if enough people speak up enough times — if enough women testify their experiences, if enough male allies call out their bros — then maybe the world gets a little better, a little safer, one dude at a time.

Meanwhile, it’s two hours later, and my hands are still shaking from the adrenaline spike.

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In which Cass launches a Patreon

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Cass Morris is creating epic fantasy novels and other SFF stories

What’s a Patreon? Excellent question! It’s like a Kickstarter, except instead of funding a project, you fund an artist with a monthly pledge. You start getting rewards immediately and will continue to do so at the level of your pledge for as long as you hang around.

Why do I need a Patreon? Having a book deal is a huge step, and it’s so, so exciting. But it’s certainly not the end of the road — nor a guarantee of success. I am so fortunate to have a marketing and publicity team behind me, but there’s still a lot that falls on my shoulders. Swag, website design, copies of the book for review, copies for giveaway contests, copies to send to libraries — there’s a lot about the promo that I’ll be working on, both between now and January and after the release. This Patreon will hopefully help with that, as well as giving me both the time and impetus to write more!

So what will you get out of this arrangement? Even a $1 pledge makes you an Aventan citizen! That gives you access to a special patrons-only feed which will be the first place I share any updates about the book (like the cover reveal), as well as blog posts, research materials, and various random thoughts that cross my mind.

I am so, so hoping that this will grow into an ongoing platform where I can share fun things with readers. It is no exaggeration to say that that is what made me want to be a writer: the opportunity to create worlds and invite people into them.

If you have a moment, please take a look. My gratitude will be unending. 🙂

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Visualizing FROM UNSEEN FIRE

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Tonight’s #17Scribes Twitter chat (and yes, I’m still part of that group even though my debut got moved two days into 2018 — they refused to part with me!) was focused on visualizing elements of our novels. I put together some image sets, and I thought I’d share them with y’all!

First off, how I picture lovely Latona: blonde and angular, a deceptive blend of delicacy and strength:

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Then… not really how I picture Sempronius. He’s not supposed to be ridiculously handsome! But I keep finding all these gorgeous actors who would be great at playing him…

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And the supporting cast. From left to right, the faces I imagine as resembling Gaius Vitellius, Ama Rubellia, Autronius Felix, Merula, and Vatinius Obir.

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Some pictures of Rome, the city of which Aven is my AU:

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And some of central Iberia, where about a third of the book takes place:

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And finally, how I imagine the interior of the Vitellian domus. Wouldn’t you love to recline on those pillows and share a good gossip… or a flirtation?

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A message from DAW

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Those of you who have already pre-ordered From Unseen Fire might have gotten an email today letting you know that the publication date has changed. Not to worry! I’ll now be debuting on January 2nd, 2018, and I’m terribly excited to have the chance to be “first out of the gate”, as it were, in the new year. 

Here’s the official word from DAW: 

We’re very excited to share From Unseen Fire with you! Our sales and promotional teams are just as excited, and they suggested moving the publication date back in order to give Cass’s novel the best positioning possible. The shift will strengthen tools like Advance Reader Copies and online preorders, and help this debut flourish in a competitive field. We want to give From Unseen Fire the best possible launch to build a lasting foundation for the entire Aven series.

It’s a bit longer to wait, but this year will still be full of wonderful developments. We should be doing a cover reveal soon, and we hope to have ARCs out by the end of summer.

Thanks, all!

Query Letter: A Success Story

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I’ve recently had a few friends come to me for advice on starting the wild ride that is traditional publication. My advice: Step One is, of course, finish the manuscript. Step Two: Write a kick-ass query letter — which is harder than it may initially seem. Querying was the theme of today’s #17Scribes Twitter chat, and at the end, I flung down a gauntlet: for anyone brave enough to share the query letter that landed them their agent.

So, my own challenge accepted, here’s the query I sent to Connor back in 2013:

Dear Mr. Goldsmith,

An assassination attempt forces Latona, an elemental mage, to unleash her latent powers, demonstrating potential that far outstrips her training. When the dictator who threatened her family dies, she determines to take this opportunity to change the course of her life, but she quickly discovers that ambition has a high price.

The city-state of Aven is a place where elemental magic shapes the rule of the land as strongly as law and war. In the power vacuum left by the dictator’s death, the conservative old guard clashes with the populist liberal faction over the best way to shape the nation’s future. Latona and her sister Aula, a widow whose frivolous nature conceals a scheming mind, use charisma and cunning to manipulate advances for the populists. Their paths intersect with that of Sempronius Tarren, a rising politician who dreams of a vast empire growing from his beloved city. He believes that the gods have equipped him with the necessary skills and thrown down this challenge – but in order to achieve his goals, he will have to break some of his civilization’s most sacred laws. Custom dictates that no mage may attain the highest political offices, but Sempronius, who has kept his abilities a life-long secret, intends to do just that. Aula sees in Sempronius a man with an extraordinary vision for their nation and the greatness to make it a reality, and she pushes her sister to cultivate an alliance with him. As their friendship blossoms, Sempronius encourages Latona to learn to wield the extraordinary magical power that is her birthright – but Latona’s husband objects to the idea and the alliance, and Sempronius’s secret could ruin them both and destroy their faction’s chance to reform the city.

Aven is a completed 106,000 word historical fantasy with series potential, inspired by late Republic Rome. I write professionally for the education department of the American Shakespeare Center, where I have worked since graduating in 2010 with an MLitt. from Mary Baldwin College. My undergraduate degree is a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. I blog both professionally and personally, and I am active on major social media platforms.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Cass Morris

There’s a lot that amuses me about this. For one thing, the idea of addressing Connor as “Mr. Goldsmith” is now pretty hilarious. He is now, definitely, “Connor” to me, “Agent Connor” if I have to explain who he is to other people but which does make him sound like special ops or something, and often but only in my head “Cooooooonnnnnooorrrrrrrrrr” if I’m having a flail. That initial word count is amusing, too. (The tale, as Tolkien said, grew in the telling). I can’t believe, in retrospect, that I didn’t mention having found him through one of his #MSWL tweets. Fortunately that didn’t seem to impair my chances; Connor got back to me within 45 minutes of my having sent this query, requesting the full manuscript. And, of course, the title’s changed, but y’all have been with me on that crazy ride. 😉

This was the thirty-first query letter that I sent out, and the letter did evolve over time — when the first ten or so didn’t work, I did some more research and rewrote a bit. Query Shark is a valuable resource, but I also learned a lot just from following agents on twitter and watching things like the #10queries lists.

And yeah, it was a frustrating process. For all the advice that’s available out there about writing query letters, so much of it is contradictory, making it hard to know if what you’re doing is right or wrong. Ultimately the whole process just seems like inscrutable sorcery — not least because so much of success may have less to do with the letter itself and more to do with that letter arriving in front of the right eyes at the right time.

But what’s super interesting to me is that, for as much as the book has changed over the past three years — and boy howdy has it — this query letter is still a fairly accurate description of the story. The main characters and their motivations are the same — but working with Sarah, I spent a lot of time turning up the saturation levels, so that those motivations are both clear and captivating. The revisions have also focused on what gets the characters from one emotional point to another — and a lot of that has meant upping the stakes in the action to match the dramatic language that catches the eye in query letters (and eventually on book jackets). So, so much has changed — but the heart of the novel has been constant.

Reading Recommendations (while you’re waiting for FROM UNSEEN FIRE)

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Hallo! Cold, grey, dreary wintry days always have me wanting nothing more than to curl up with a good book, so I thought I would share some of my favorites with y’all. Not just favorites, but favorites that, in some way or another, I think will be enjoyable to the folk who will like From Unseen Fire. Or, if you like these books, I think it quite likely you’ll enjoy From Unseen Fire!

Some are on the list because they’re Roman historicals: Colleen McCullough’s wonderful Masters of Rome series, and the exquisite explorations of famous or forgotten women by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, and Michelle Moran. Others are classical-flavored fantasies, like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives and Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes. Some are fantasies with elemental magic or other magical systems I find delightful, such as Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series or the works of Cat Valente. A few are nonfiction resources: Tony Perrottet’s Pagan Holiday and Philip Matyszak’s wonderful Roman resources. A great many are simply wonderful epic fantasies, often with historical aspects: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel trilogies, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters series, the tri-authored Heirs of Alexandria series, the works of Guy Gavriel Kay.

So while you’re counting down the days til September 5th (230, incidentally), give some of these a try, or revisit some old favorites!

Aven Cycle Suggested Reading

And while you’re on Goodreads checking those out, add From Unseen Fire to your “to-read” list!

A creative sort of evening

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I was apparently feeling in a rather creative mood tonight. I’ve updated the header banners on FB and Twitter:

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The old one was really only ever a placeholder, and I quite like this. The picture’s actually one I took while visiting Rome last summer! I think I’m going to redo it for the blog as well and possible adjust my overall theme to go along with it.

And then decided to try my hand at some lyrical playfulness, inspired by today’s intelligence report. I rewrote “Congratulations” from The Hamilton Mixtape in honor of the GOP’s invention of a new kind of stupid.

So yeah. It’s been an evening.

A Title… Again!

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With two years on sub, two years between sale and publication, an editor change mid-stream, and now this, the fourth title change, I’m beginning to think I might be the poster child for “don’t get attached, and nothing is certain until it’s in print” 😉

Book One of the Aven Cycle shall henceforth be known not as A Flame Arises, but rather as:

FROM UNSEEN FIRE

This was a possible title earlier in the process, and I quite like it. In fact, it’s even from the same De rerum natura quotation as the other title! But it’s the second half of the phrase rather than the start.

I know that to an outside eye, this might all seem ludicrous. How can the book’s title change? How can it change after information has been sent to distributors? Well, honestly, I don’t know much about the how on that, but my publisher certainly does, so I try not to fret about it. It’s all part of the complexity of the publishing world and the fact that surviving it takes as much patience as determination and talent. My father reminded me, when I got my book deal, that the achievement came with a condition: the book is no longer mine. At least, not mine alone.

It’s a slightly weird feeling, letting someone else not just hold your baby but dress it and feed it and decide what school it’s going to — but it’s also a feeling I’ve known was coming, have prepared for, and in many ways welcome. I knew I wanted to go the traditional publishing route rather than self-publishing because I wanted a team. I know I have a great one now, and I trust them. So when they say we need a change — a change occurs!