I love word clouds. There’s just something mesmerizing about them, and they can be so weirdly artistic, too. I got sort of addicted to them at work, actually, because we use them for various teaching purposes. I’ve done them for Aven three times now: once right after I finished the first draft, once after I’d done quite a lot of revisions, before I started querying, and now a third time, with the new round of additions and adjustments. It doesn’t change a lot — but I do like seeing what subtle shifts there are. Some characters come into greater prominence. Some ideas grow larger or smaller. Like I said: mesmerizing.
I love how bewilderingly complex Roman society was. Western culture has a habit of thinking of status in a very feudalistic way, even centuries after feudalism itself failed. (I’m not sure why this is, but I’d love for some sociologist to explain why we remain cultural inheritors in this way). We think in percentages and fairly clearly delineated strata. Lower class, lower middle, middle, upper middle, upper. Social class, economic class, and political power remain tightly linked together in our mental constructs, and there’s a tendency to project that backwards onto other eras, but the reality for the Romans was a much weirder system.
Like, there are patricians and plebeians, right? The patricians were the oldest families of consequence, those who had (at least supposedly) formed the original Senate, and the plebeians were everybody else. Except by the late Republic, the distinction was not just wealthy/poor, or even aristocrat/proletariat, thanks to all the other factors in the rest of this post. Initially the groups could not intermarry, but that changed in 445 BC. And by the mid to late Republic, lots of the plebeians were fabulously wealthy — even moreso than a lot of the patricians. And a plebeian could be considered “noble” if a member of the family attained high enough rank, thus ennobling all subsequent generations of the family. All patricians were nobles, but not all nobles were patricians.
Then you have the Orders, the census ranking: senatorial, equestrian, the Five Classes, and the Head Count. Designation of senator and equestrian depended entirely on income and net worth. Technically, senators were supposed to have their wealth derive exclusively from land, not from commercial ventures; the line between the two could be very, very thin, and senators were always finding ways to get around the restriction. The Head Count down at the bottom were those with no property worth assessing. Initially they could not serve in the legions, but the Marian reforms changed that, offering the poorest citizens a substantial chance for bettering themselves. All of the Orders were fluid; loss or gain of wealth could move you from one category into another, if you had a censor willing to either hear you out or overlook debts, and a Senate willing to accept new members to the rolls.
Then you have the cursus honorum (diagram from vroma.org, which I modified for Julius Caesar dramaturgy packet, at right). You had to be of senatorial rank to enter (though you weren’t automatically in the Senate just because you were of senatorial rank). If you’re a patrician, this means: military service (as tribune if you can manage it) < quaestor (the rank which conferred membership in the Senate) < aedile < praetor < consul < censor. If you’re a plebeian, you also have the option of serving as tribune of the plebs, a sacrosanct office with veto power. Each office had a minimum age, which after Sulla was two years less for patricians than for plebeians.
Then there’s the military ranking, which is another matter entirely, which can intertwine and intersect with the cursus honorum or remain entirely apart from it. Legionary < decanus < decurio < tesserarius < optio < centurion < primus pilus < junior tribune < prefect < senior tribune < legate. The legate might or might not be a senator, a praetor, a propraetor, or a proconsul. Or, you might have a legate and then also have a praetor, propraetor, consul, or proconsul placed above him, depending on the campaign and how many legions were in a province. And then there were also special ranks, like aquilifer or cornicen, and the auxilaries, who fit in sort of sideways. Philip Matyszak’s Legionary is a great source for all of this.
Then there are the religious orders. Some offices could only be held by plebs. Some offices could only be held by patricians. Some colleges had to have a half-and-half composition. Some positions were elected, some appointed, some bought.
Then there are the Tribes, to which every Roman citizen belonged and which were the basis for voting — except that the patricians and wealthy citizens were all in the more numerous but smaller “rural” Tribes (not actually dependent on where you live, though, but rather where your ancestors were supposed to have hailed from), whereas the poorer citizens and all freedmen got shunted into the few urban Tribes. Since votes went by Tribe, not by individual, that means an individual’s vote meant a lot more in a smaller rural tribe than a large urban one, and that the rural tribes could easily defeat the larger ones in a vote.
Then there are the four different voting bodies: the Senate, the Century Assembly, the Tribal Assembly, and the Plebeian Council. Certain offices or laws could only be elected by certain voting bodies, which overlapped, and a man could belong to more than one voting body simultaneously. The diagram at the right, which I found on Wikimedia Commons, is really the only thing I’ve ever seen that somewhat makes sense of that.
Then there are the relationships of patron and client; and, if you were not of the highest rank, you might be patron to some men but also client to someone more powerful than yourself.
And then there’s citizenship, the rights of which with regard to voting, taxation, and property were different for Romans, Latins, foreign-born, and provincials.
And then there are the slaves, who were considered property, who could be manumitted, who could buy their freedom, who could be beaten or killed (though it reflected poorly on the master), who could be used sexually, who could be sold away. But they were allowed to earn wages and to hold property. Some even had slaves of their own! They were recognized as people, though not under the same legal definition as Roman citizens were people; some philosophers early on debated whether or not they really had souls in the same way citizens had souls, but that sort of seems to be all pontificating, and the idea disappears by the late Republic. And there was a hierarchy among them, deriving largely from country of origin and method of being enslaved: educated Greeks who sold themselves for the chance of a better life in Rome ranked above slaves taken as prisoners in battle, but Romans didn’t scruple to make use of intelligent and capable of slaves of any ethnic background. And once manumitted, they became citizens. The men were enrolled in a Tribe (usually one of the larger urban Tribes) as clients of their former masters and could vote. Their children were natural Roman citizens like any other.
And then there are the Roman virtues, which are entirely intangible and almost untranslatable, but which were nonetheless quantifiable for the Romans and which affected a man’s ability to effect his will on others. Things like dignitas and auctoritas were so much more than their English derivates of dignity and authority, despite being nebulous and a very difficult thing for us to wrap our heads around.
So, you could be a plebeian of senatorial rank who held an augurship and had also gone through the cursus honorum, been tribune of the plebs, and eventually become consul.
You could be a patrician whose income fell out of senatorial rank because you were in too much debt or lost your sources of revenue. You wouldn’t necessarily lose your rank when this happened, but if the censors in office were sticklers for detail — or your political enemies — it was a possibility. If this troubled you, you could get yourself adopted by a plebeian family with a lot of wealth, if you had something substantial to offer in return (sufficient auctoritas, powerful allies, a daughter to marry off, etc). Or, if you were still a wealthy patrician but wanted to serve as a tribune of the plebs instead of spending all your money in an aedileship, you could pay a plebeian family to adopt you.
You could be an ordinary pleb of Head Count who nonetheless rose through the ranks of the legions enough to win a high enough military honor, or even serve as consul, thus making your family noble (but not patrician or senatorial).
You could be a woman of any class, and thus hold no office, but you were still considered a citizen, even though you couldn’t vote, and your son’s citizenship depended on your status, not the father’s. Officially you had no political power whatsoever. Unofficially you could wield quite a lot. Depending on the type of marriage you entered into, you could retain a lot of financial freedom as well. You could hold property, including land, write your will, testify in court, even deliver oratory on behalf of yourself or another. And if your husband, father, or other male responsible for you wasn’t too strict (or too observant), you could actually enjoy quite a bit of sexual freedom as well (as Roman authors were always lamenting).
You could be a slave who was manumitted, becoming your former master’s client and joining either his tribe or an urban tribe, probably still a member of the Head Count (unless he settled some property on you, not unheard-of), eligible to vote in the Tribal Assembly and Plebeian Council. And if you gained enough wealth, your sons might get to belong to a higher class and earn higher rank, or they could go into the legions and earn fame and power there.
You could be a pontifex who was also a senator who was also a praetor who was also a patrician. Or a pontifex who was also a senator who was also a proconsul who was also a plebeian.
(Or you could be Julius Caesar, a patrician from an ancient but somewhat fallen family who literally did everything. Except be tribune of the plebs, for which he had Mark Antony.)
So, seriously, how is this not great?
(Yes; I do realise that I am not normal).
Before I began work on Aven, I had been entertaining the idea of a Roman-set fantasy for a while. It seemed to me that there was so much untapped potential there. Since so many fantasies get the typical western-European medieval/early-Renaissance treatment, but with Rome, you get so many different things — a more diverse population (not that, say, 12th century England was entirely homogeneous, but nothing to hold a candle to Rome, which had substantial populations from all over the Mediterranean and beyond), a complex religious system with archaic rituals and competing cults, a better (though by no means ideal) situation for women, layers upon layers of socio-economic-political strata, and, y’know, sanitation. I love my med-Ren studies, but limiting the fantasy genre to that aesthetic is just silly.
The thing that really triggered Aven in particular, though? Was this picture:
It’s my second-favorite painting of all time (after Titian’s Venus d’Urbino). I love how much of a story there is in those three women: the excited perching of the lady on the left, leaning in to impart some gossip or political news; the languid interest of the central figure; the piqued curiosity of the young lady on the right. The baths were such a social place for the Romans, much moreso than modern spas, and for both men and women, they could be important places to conduct business negotiations and political intrigues. There’s so much detail here, and so much personality, that it sparked in my mind and got some gears turning.
So, from Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Baths of Caracalla sprang the idea of the Vitelliae sisters, on whom I could hang my ideas for a Roman-based fantasy story.
Now that things are official and contracts are being signed, I feel it right and proper that I make this announcement here (and on attached platforms):
I am now being represented by Mr. Connor Goldsmith of Lowenstein Associates. He’ll be shopping Aven to publishers as well as working with me on future projects. I’m tremendously excited about this, and I’m looking forward to all the possibilities this opens up.
The phone call that decided this was also one of the more decidedly surreal experiences of my life. Connor wanted to talk with me on Friday — when I happened to be at Busch Gardens Williamsburg on a retreat with my boss and coworkers. I determined to find a relatively quiet place to take the phone call, which meant that I had the conversation in New France, pacing next to the empty queue line for the Le Scoot Log Flume (out of operations for the fall season), sandwiched between the dulcet tones of French Canadian country music blaring from a speaker on one side of me and the delighted shrieks of park patrons on Alpengeist, wafting across the river, on the other.
Given the strange and bewildering circumstances that have accompanied most major moments in my life thus far, it really seems only appropriate that this one be just a little bit bizarre, too.
Taken and adapted from The Polling Booth, because I like surveys and they’re a good way to kill time. 😉
– What age range are you?: Late 20s
– Male, female, other?: Very much female.
– If 1 is 100% Masculine and 10 is 100% Feminine, what number would you rate yourself for your country/background?: Er. I dunno. 8? I very definitely identify as very female, but I also definitely have traits that others would probably consider masculine… but I don’t view them that way. It’s just the sort of female I am. I have trouble with this question.
– Country and/or Ethnicity (if you are comfortable telling this)? Southern American with Anglo-Welsh heritage.
– Myers Briggs Typology? (Take the test here): ENFJ (which is an evolution. I used to be an ENFP, but that’s definitely shifted in the past few years)
– What number of years have you participated in Nanowrimo?: Every year since 2002, except for 2006, when I was directing a show, and 2009, when I was writing my Master’s thesis. I’ve won about half the time, and I’m hoping to fulfill a three-year streak this year.
– Do you write books outside of Nanowrimo?: Obviously, given the nature of this blog. 😉
– Did you write before you participated in your first Nanowrimo?: Yes.
– How long have you been writing fiction for? And if before Nanowrimo, what forms?: I’ve been writing seriously since I was eleven (there’s a whole story about how Star Wars changed my life that I should probably tell here sometime), and I’ve been a natural storyteller for as long as I can remember. I was always the kid coming up with ridiculously complex worlds for us to play in. I discovered fanfiction as a teenager and spent a lot of energy on it, honing my skills. I never gave up on original things, but there were definitely periods of time where they fell to the background. Its’s only in the past few years that I’ve shifted to original writing almost exclusively (though the occasional fanfic does still prick at me for attention).
Okay, so one of the things about The Antares Project is that, as it’s an alternate universe, there are some key changes to the world’s social and economic structures that I’m having to take some time to think through, research, and plan out. One of those is that, with the American South coming back under control of the British Empire in 1815 (as the Dominion of American States), slavery then ends with the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, the same that ended slavery in the West Indies, South Africa, and Canada.
But what does that do? What does it mean for the shape of that nation? Emancipation thirty years earlier than we had it affects a lot — what are the job prospects for the ex-slaves? (Especially since I’m introducing things like automatons as a new technology taking over a lot of manual labor). Do they stay in their home counties or move elsewhere? Do any re-patriate to Africa? (By the 1860s, almost all slaves had been born in America, possibly for a couple of generations — but in 1833, with the trans-Atlantic trade having shut down only 25 years earlier, some native to Africa might well still be alive and want to return home — but then how would they be able to get there? Would the abolitionist movement have provided for them in that respect?). And then of course my story takes place in the 1870s, so we’re then two generations on from emancipation — so some ex-slaves are still alive and around, but many black Americans had no personal experience of the institution. What are they doing? What place do they occupy, economically and socially? How is it similar to or different from the way the lives of black Americans and the way race relations evolved in our own history?
To try and get a feel for it (with an awareness that, as a white girl, this is ground where I need to tread carefully and educate myself as thoroughly as possible), I’ve been reading through the WPA Slave Narratives Collection — all freely available on gutenberg. It’s fascinating stuff — narratives taken in the late 1930s from some of the last people alive who were born into Southern American slavery, and thus some of the only records of that we have from ex-slaves in their own voices. Now, as a historian, I know to still be careful — the accounts were, after all, recorded by white folks, so we cannot assume a total absence of bias, and of course these are all things being remembered 70 years later, by people who are well advanced in years (I think the youngest I’ve read was 78, the oldest something like 105) — but it’s still fascinating. For one thing, they recorded phonetically, which some linguists have recently been looking into as a source for studying the evolution of black regional dialects. It’s helping me get a feel for the grammatical cadence, which is obviously important for writing the voices of some of the characters I’ll be creating.
The narratives show a wide variety of experiences, from the truly horrific to the what-the-people-in-question-chose-to-remember-as-benign-or-even-positive. I qualify that because, while no ex-slave’s seeming-positive remembrance of slavery should be interpreted as supportive of the institution of slavery, you obviously also don’t want to erase how these people experienced their own lives — and I think it’s very human that, in any terrible situation, many people will take the psychologically defensive measures of choosing to remember kindness over atrocity (especially 70 years later) and of finding things to take pride in and even to defend. It’s a survival measure, in many ways (akin to Stockholm Syndrome, I would guess, particularly with regards to interpreting a lack of abuse as a kindness, or meager gestures as great gifts), and I think looking at it in that light illuminates quite a bit.
There are also some truly hilarious stories from their post-slavery lives. I think my favorite is the old lady who said she didn’t mind taking out a fifteen-year loan on her house, ’cause she figured she’d be dead by then, so when she went and lived past 100 and the bank tried to collect, she wrote a letter to President Roosevelt to complain about it. And he, personally, made things right for her. Reading between the lines, it seems she may have been one of the very first beneficiaries of the social insurance programs that would become Social Security. But their post-slavery experiences are also really sad in a lot of ways, because so many of the ex-slaves had trouble getting on their feet afterwards and ended up dying in poverty. Many of them talk about how their children and grandchildren essentially abandoned them. You can also see a lot of how religion influences them. Many talk about when they were finally allowed to attend church, or when they got baptized, and almost all of the narratives end with a statement about how they’re pretty sure they’ll be headed to Heaven any day now.
Anyway, my point here is that historical research is fascinating and I wish we got more of this sort of thing in school. I think my next step will be to try and do some more looking into those places where slavery did end without a civil war, and how that affected the landscape for everyone involved. The best thing about writing historical AUs is that it makes me ask so many questions, and hunting down the answers broadens my perspective as well as helping to guide my writing. Yesterday I was working on Mr. Henry Thomas, who works at the customs house on Belle Isle in Richmond, whose son Antoine wants to move to Mississippi in search of more lucrative work — but Mr. Thomas is making him learn something about machines first, so he can be in control of them rather than at their mercy. And I’m working on Anne-Marie Thackery, an elderly ex-slave from Natchez, and the one grand-daughter who has stood by her, the very practical Maya Gibbs. Inspiration and education together make, I hope, for good writing.
When, in the space of a week, one agent tells you, “love the concept, but the writing didn’t grab me” and another agent tells you “love the writing, but the concept didn’t grab me”, this could easily turn into a rather depressing line of thought. After all, how can you win that game? How do you know which actually might need improvement? How can you feel confident in either, hearing that both have somehow failed? And when everything is so subjective, sometimes it can just feel like you’ll never know the mystical secret that will get you noticed in the right way.
Being essentially optimistic, however — early attempts at being sophisticatedly cynical never did quite take for me — I choose to look at it differently.
What it means is that both the writing and the concept have something that people do love. I just have to find the right person who takes to them both. After all, there are plenty of books I wouldn’t enjoy reading, even though they’re perfectly good from an objective standpoint, either because it’s not my preferred style or not my preferred kind of story — so I can hardly fault an agent for feeling the same. And I wouldn’t want someone who only felt lukewarm about my project. I want someone who loves it, all of it, like I love it. So I choose to see subjectivity as my friend.
It’s that time of year again! Sign-ups have started for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve already set up my profile and conned one local friend into joining the madness with me. I just realised that this is my tenth year of participation. (My first was in 2002, but I punked out in 2006, thanks to directing Romeo and Juliet that month, and in 2009, thanks to writing my Master’s thesis, which I guess are both okay reasons). I’m looking forward to continuing my winning streak — 2011 and 2012 were both very good for me. I believe 2013 will be as well. I’m so excited for it that I’ve already started diving into the forums — and I’m clearly not alone in wanting to immerse myself in Nano’s special energy as soon as possible. There are nearly 29,000 writers signed up as of this moment, and several forums have taken off like a shot — particularly the Fantasy Genre Lounge and the Reference Desk.
October at my real-world job is completely bananas. Especially this year. We host a conference towards the end of the month, where a few hundred of the experts in our field descend upon our Playhouse for almost a full week of paper presentations, staging sessions, shows, and festivities. My boss and I spend several weeks preparing ourselves and our volunteer coordinators and teams of helpers, and then spend a series 16-hour days herding the cats, guiding our volunteers, schmoozing the VIPs, and just generally being as capable and charming as we can manage. I’m presenting my own paper, so, y’know, no pressure there. This caps off a month where we’ve had two teacher seminars in a row, last weekend and this, a few leadership seminars, and a host of other normal, non-conference responsibilities that always crop up at the beginning of the school year. So, really, while Nano is always a bonkers challenge of its own, this year, it’s also a reward. After a month of bleeding out for other people (happily! I do love my job, it’s just seriously exhausting sometimes), in November, I get to retreat into a world of my own creation. I’m really looking forward to it.
This year, I’ll be working on re-envisioning my screenplay, Tallows House, as a novel, The World is Always Ending. (Working title, at least, thoroughly stolen from a Neil Gaiman short story). This is a pet project, and I freely admit that. I’m more interested in getting The Antares Project to a finished, query-able state, and I think it’ll meet with more success. But, it’s also at the fill-in-the-gaps-and-fiddly-bits stage, which isn’t good for Nanoing. I’ll share some more about TWAE’s premise later, though, and probably some character sketches.
Honestly, at this point the hardest part is not writing. I had a snippet of exchange in my head yesterday, and I just have to hope it’ll still be there to recall on November 1st. I’ve had a great idea for dealing with the timeline and communicating its non-linear bits, and I can’t let myself scratch down more than a few memory-jogging notes. But that’s part of the fun of it. I like letting the pressure to write build up, like a champagne bottle ready to pop.
A lot of fashion, some gadgets, some maps, some history — all perfect to get me in the mood for working on this project!