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.

IMG_7756

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.

The Charms of Cartography

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!

IMG_5792

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:

IMG_5793

Reading Recs for Women’s History Month

Fuse Literary (the agency that represents me) ran a reclist on Tumblr for Black History Month all through the month of February, and they’re looking to do so again in March for Women’s History Month. Since this is an area of personal interest and importance to me, I took up the challenge when they asked for some recs — and I thought I’d share them with y’all, too.

Admittedly my list cants towards medieval and Renaissance studies in England and western Europe, since that was the main focus of both my undergraduate and graduate studies, with a hefty dose of the classics thrown in for good measure. I’m hoping that the recs I see this month will help me build a diverse to-read list! I need to expand my horizons past the bounds of what I focused on in school. And yes, not all of the historical fiction is perfect from the view of historiography (neither, for that matter, are some of the older nonfiction titles) — but that’s okay. Historical fiction doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to serve the purposes of getting readers interested in the topic and of raising the visibility of women in history.  My rec doesn’t mean that the book is 100% flawless — it means I enjoyed it, I think others would, and I think it helps the cause of women’s history month.

Historical Fiction

  • Daughters-of-RomeKate Quinn’s Roman series: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City, releasing this week. A fascinating era of Imperial Rome in which the women behind the fasces played a hugely significant role. I’ve really enjoyed these books — they were a major influence a few years ago when I was deciding to write Aven — particularly because there are so many different women in them. No woman has to be Everything. They can be difficult, stubborn, manipulative, unlikeable. They can — and do — make mistakes. And, they’re part of a vibrant world, one in which women played a huge role, both in public and in private.
  • catherine called birdyKaren Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, a YA novel (maybe considered MG now? I have trouble with that boundary since as a kid I read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted) depicting 13th century England through the eyes of a knight’s daughter. One of my all-time favorite books. Catherine’s voice is so wonderful, and it’s a great thing when a historical book makes a nine-year-old reader see herself in it.
  • Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, about her niece Nefertari. I really enjoy these for how they speak to the interplay of political power and religion in ancient Egypt, and to the role that women played in the establishment of the pharaoh’s power and legacy.
  • Stephanie Dray’s Cleopatra’s Daughter series, about Cleopatra Selene, the only child of Cleopatra to actually survive to full adulthood and make a life for herself. Michelle Moran also has a book on her. They’re quite different — Dray’s takes a slight historical fantasy angle, endowing Selene with the powers of Isis — but they’re both pretty revelatory for an interesting but often-overlooked figure in early imperial Rome.
  • Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, a novel about Restoration actress Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II. This book doesn’t shy away from the ugly things about the era, but it still represents Nell as a buoyant character, in spite of all the difficulties she faces.
  • DovekeepersAlice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers: the siege and fall of Masada through the eyes of four Jewish women. The narrative tone of this book is pretty different from a lot of historical fiction, but it’s an engrossing read.
  • Stephanie Thornton’s The Secret History, a novel of Byzantine Empress Theodora, one of the greatest true rags-to-riches stories you’ll find. I wish it spent a bit more time on her later life, but it’s still great for opening the door to one of history’s all-time most-fascinating women.
  • Jean Plaidy. Just. All of it. She wrote a ton of books from the perspectives of notable women, mostly medieval and Renaissance, mostly but not entirely English and French. She makes them all the heroines of their own stories — even when they’re the villains in each others’. They’re older books, so the historiography approach isn’t, y’know, fully modern, but I still love these books for making the women of famous eras so visible.

Nonfiction

So — What are some of your favorite books about women in history, fiction or nonfiction? I only have about eight books sitting on my to-read shelf at the moment, so clearly I need some more. 😉

History in Fantasy

I read a pair of fun Tumblr articles today from The Writing Cafe: “Your Fantasy Story Is Bothering Me, Pt 1 and Pt 2“. Apart from being a good giggle, it reminded me of a personal thesis I have: that a good fantasy writer ought, too, to be a good historian. I think this is true even if you’re writing second world fantasy, not earth-based AUs, because what a solid grounding in history gets you is an awareness of how worlds work.

7263041032_31c992469e_zYou get perspective. No country exists in isolation. Recently I’ve been reading A History of the World in 100 Objects, which really drives that point home. The earliest human civilizations engaged in trade. During the supposed “Dark Ages”, buried hoards in England had jewels from Sri Lanka. So think not just about where your characters live, but who their national neighbors are. What goods do they import and export? Who are they in competition with and who are their allies? (This topic can intersect a lot with making sure your fantasy world is diverse, too). Is your story’s focus nation relatively isolated? Then there needs to be a reason, and it needs to be feasible. Consider how Japan has periodically closed its ports. It’s easier for a country to isolate if it’s an island — but even so, the severance is rarely complete. The rest of the world doesn’t stop existing just because one nation stops participating in trade (a pet peeve of mine when it comes to a lot of dystopian fiction). And there need to be repercussions. What goods is your society without, if it can’t import them? What does it have a surplus of? How does the lack of new influence affect the culture? Who in your society is in favor of isolation and which citizens agitate for reopening the borders?

Then there’s politics and government. I went to a fascinating presentation at a convention once about how different kinds of societies give rise to different kinds of governing structures. You don’t get complexly structured bureaucracies in small civilizations; you get them when you have a lot of people spread out over large distances. And then, to manage that sort of sprawl, you have to have good roads and a solid system for transferring messages — traits shared by Achaemenid Persia, imperial Rome, Han and Tang China, and the Yuan Mongols. Higher literacy rates tend to lead to more democratic tendencies — or at least to more people agitating for them. Is power centralized or de-centralized? Are there gender disparities in who can hold power? Economic restrictions? Is military control tied directly into political control or is it a separate system? A lot of fantasy, with its medieval-western-Europe focus, tends to reflect an agricultural-based feudal society, but there are so many other options.

KangnidoMapReligion’s another big aspect of world-building that can be augmented by knowing your history. Faith doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere — it’s a product of topography, agriculture, climate. Your landlocked city probably isn’t going to revere a god of the oceans — not without really good reason, at least. Maybe the city was taken over by a different, sea-based culture somehow? Or maybe the city hasn’t always been landlocked? Did the geography change for natural or magical reasons? Do the people feel their god abandoned them? That’s a whole story right there. You can also think about how new religions grow, absorb, and replace the faiths that come before them. People don’t give up their beliefs readily, and even in violent, imposed conquest, certain traits will still carry over — look at how many pagan traditions from across Europe got re-envisioned in Christianity. The speed with which a religion grows has a lot of history-based influences as well: Think of the differences between early Christianity and early Islam. Christianity began as a religion of the disenfranchised, and poor folk, traditionally, don’t have a lot of mobility, so it took a few centuries before it got enough traction to become the dominant force in the land. Islam, however, gets its start with folk who had money (Muhammed being of the merchant class and married to the crazy-successful and seriously awesome Khadijah), and people who have money have access to that most convenient of conversion tools: armies. And, while Christianity got its start when the Roman empire was strong and ascendant, Islam started when the Byzantines and Sassanids were pretty weak. So Islam expands with unprecedented speed. How many religions are in the world of your story? How did they grow? Which are dominant? Which are old and which are new?

I could go on like this forever, because everything has history behind it. Every object you touch every day is just a recent point in a chain of events — and that’s true for every object your characters touch, too. It’s true for what they eat, how their houses are decorated, how they dress, how they talk, and what they talk about. That’s not to say that you need to give explicit descriptions of the historical context for everything, of course. You’re writing a story, not an encyclopedia. (A mantra I occasionally have to repeat to myself, with how much I love world-building). You do need, though, to be aware. If your characters are wearing silk clothing in a land without silkworms or have ivory jewelry in a land without elephants, some reader is going to wonder why.

So go forth and read, friends! Or listen! As I’ve posted before, there are some great history podcasts, and even when they nominally focus on, say, Rome or England, so much information about other nations always gets pulled in as well, thanks to the glorious interconnections of our world. Or look at some maps. Just exploring can be a great way to get ideas or to enhance what you’ve already constructed.

The Amazing Life of Flatware

Okay, y’all, this is why I find history so ridiculously exciting.

The Tokyo National Museum released information today regarding the dating of a blue glass dish found in a 5th-century tomb in the Nara Prefecture. Why is this super-interesting? Because the glass is of Roman origin. In 5th-century Japan!Japan-Roman-Glass

Imagine the life this flatware must have had. It starts off probably somewhere on the Italian peninsula, as scientists identified it as belonging to a style and composition of glass created in the Mediterranean region roundabouts the 2nd century CE. That it traveled from there is no big surprise — by the 2nd century, Rome pretty much owned the entire Mediterranean. They called it Mare Nostrum, Our Sea, for a reason.

Except this glass may have made it all the way to Ctesiphon, in the Parthian Empire that was then ruling Persia, in fairly short order, because it was found, that Japanese tomb, with a glass bowl originating from the Sassanid Empire. Okay, sure, the set could have been assembled at any point after that, too, but it makes sense that the Roman dish and the Sassanid bowl would’ve come together in the mid to late 2nd century. Ctesiphon (about 22 miles south of Baghdad) would be the largest city in the world in the 6th and 7th centuries, but in the 2nd century, it was a major target for the Romans in their (entirely doomed, what-were-they-even-thinking) attempts to conquer Parthia. They actually managed to capture the city not once, not twice, but five times — three of those in the second century alone! So perhaps this humble little glassware found its way to Ctesiphon during one of those periods, when Romans were a larger presence in the city. Did it travel with the Imperial regalia? Or was it just in the luggage of some tag-along senator? Or did it get passed through the hands of an enterprising merchant?

Over the next three hundred years, this flatware travels — unbroken! — across all of Asia. How? Why? I’m having so much fun speculating. Maybe it got traded eastwards as the Sassanids expanded, making its way into Central Asia through their contacts. Maybe it went south to the Persian sea and through the trade routes with India. Maybe it passed through the Sixteen Kingdoms. What houses (or palaces) did it live in? Who ate off of it? What conversations took place over it? What arguments? What seductions?

Then, in the fifth century, as Japan is trading extensively with China and Korea, someone, somewhere, decides to send it over the water. By this point, the empire that gave birth to this little glass dish has possibly already collapsed, certainly degenerated, but it’s still chugging along.

And some Japanese guy likes it enough that he decides to be buried with it.

And it stays there.

For over 1500 years.

History, y’all.

Oh my goodness, I’ve found the holy grail of describing things

Majnouna’s Tutorials.

People. Hands. Feet. Posture. Faces. Horses. Cats. Birds. Dragons. It’s meant to be a drawing guide, but the way Majnouna breaks down all the anatomical components of what make a living creature — it’s wonderful.

Thousands of Years of Moon Phases

Moon Phase Calculator

Ever-so-useful for setting the scene. 😉 I’ve used this for years. Heavens help me if the site ever goes down.

New Podcast Recommendation

The British History Podcast

I’m only about twenty episodes in, but I’m really enjoying this one so far. For one thing, the depth of the detail on Roman Britain is wonderful.

Gladiatrices

I knew gladiatrices — female gladiators — were a thing.

I didn’t realize how big a thing they apparently were.

I’ve been reading a book called Working IX to V (because who doesn’t love a Roman numeral -based pun?), which examines a lot of odd professions in the Roman world. The tagline for the gladiatrix is “flirting with death but not going steady.” The book points out that male gladiators were generally slaves or freedmen, whether born to slavery or captives of war, or else volunteers who, by signing up as gladiators, lost their civil rights and were declared infamous under Roman law. “Women, however, had few civil rights to lose” — and as such, many if not most gladiatrices were not slaves, but rather freeborn women who took the job for reasons of their own. Some might have been in it for the money. Some may simply have wanted to test and to prove themselves, as men did, but without the military route available to them.

Halicarnassus-reliefWhat’s particularly fascinating is that this seems to have caught on as a fad among the upper classes. Daughters of the nobility, bored to tears with their lives and seeking a bit of risk and scandal, trained as gladiatrices and performed in public. It was evidently enough of a problem that several emperors felt the need to legislate against it. That, for me, is a powerful indication of just how prevalent the practice must have been — not so much as male gladiators, to be sure, but more than an occasional novelty.

The 19 CE Tabula Larinas placed penalties on anyone of the senatorial or equestrian class who performed publicly, in addition to the counts of infamia that would already be laid against them. It also prohibited the recruitment of any daughters, grand-daughters, and great-granddaughters of senators or equestrians who were under the age of 20. In 200 CE, Septimius Severus banned all female gladiatorial matches, citing “a recrudescence among some upper-class women, and the raillery this provoked among the audience” as the reason for his edict. Considering that later inscriptions at arenas continued to advertise women competing, the ban seems to have been totally ineffective. Female participation in gladiatorial matches seems only to have ended entirely with the end of the games at the start of the 5th century.

Other emperors, of course, decided they’d rather support the scandal than challenge it. Nero and Domitian, ever the classy ones, defied the laws of their own empire by sponsoring games and late-night torchlit matches between well-known gladiatrices. (The term, incidentally, is modern; the Romans referred to such women as ludiae, or by using mulier or femina to modify the usual terms for gladiators).

Outside of these laws, written records of gladiatrices are somewhat sparse and generally critical. The satirist Juvenal lambasts women of the upper classes who performed as gladiators, decrying them as unwomanly and unattractive. Historians like Cassius Dio and Tacitus called the practice shocking and disgraceful. (Cassio Dio also noted women of the upper classes as performing in dramas, playing music, participating in beast hunts, and driving horses in the races). The archaeological record fills in some gaps. This article provides a good look at some of the material evidence. Inscriptions on tombs provide some glimpses into their lives as well as their deaths. Many studied privately, though a few attended gladiatorial schools. Like their male counterparts, most were teenagers, and most died young. Gladiatorial battles were not always or even often to the death, as modern media would have it — gladiators were expensive, and you got better investment by keeping them alive. Still, death and serious injury were very real possibilities, and so it makes sense that gladiatrices would have short careers, ended either by death or, in the case of those noble  ladies, by means of their relatives pulling them out of the games.

I’m finding this whole notion terribly interesting. It’s interesting to think outside the bonds of the condemnations given by the ancient writers, to think about what circumstances might have compelled women of varying classes to enter the arena. Something to keep in mind for future books, certainly.

Podcast Recommendation: The History of Rome

The History of Rome

This podcast, apart from being a wonderfully entertaining and comprehensive documentation of the Roman Republic and Empire, was also a major source of inspiration for me before I began writing Aven. In that October before NaNo 2011, I discovered this podcast and listened up through what had been posted at the time. With that percolating in the back of my brain, Sempronius Tarren and his schemes were born. The world took shape, the alliances and rivalries grew, and the echoes of the ages resounded in my mind.