Worldbuilding for Masochists Podcast — Expansion

Panoramic view of the Roman theatre in Palmyra (from Wikimedia Commons)

This week, I had the great delight to be a guest on the Worldbuilding for Masochists podcast!

Go listen. Listen to the episode I’m in, then go back and listen to the other eleven, then listen to the one I’m on again, then keep listening to new episodes as they come out.

The podcast as a whole discusses the process of worldbuilding for fantasy novels. So far they’ve covered basics like geography and deep-dives into things like fiber arts. I’m in the episode “The Play’s the Thing”, focusing on the arts and popular entertainment. A natural fit for a Shakespeare scholar, really, and I do spend a lot of time in the episode nattering on about early modern theatrical culture. We talk about the socioeconomic conditions surrounding art, how technology affects art, and the role that art and entertainment play in society and politics. Honestly, I could’ve gone on for another six hours. Recording the podcast was an absolute blast, and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it.

While I mention a few things to do with ancient Rome in the episode, I thought I’d expand a little bit here and talk about some of the pop culture that shows up in From Unseen Fire, and some of the things I’m building into Books Two and Three as well.

Panoramic view of the Roman theatre in Palmyra (from Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of the arts and entertainment in the Aven Cycle show up at the patrician dinner parties. Socioeconomics, after all! The people with lots of disposable income are the ones who can burn a lot of cash amusing themselves.

Dancers are mentioned both at the Vitelliae dinner party early in the book and at the Autroniae Saturnalia revels towards the end. Dance was a spectator sport for most Romans by the end of the Republic. Earlier in their history it may have had religious purpose and been something citizens even of high status would have engaged in, but as the centuries went on, it became considered more vulgar. Country peasants might have danced for pleasure, but for Romans in the city, dancing was something to watch, not do. The dancers would have mostly been slaves or perhaps freedmen and women of very low social status, on a level with actors.

What sort of entertainment did the Romans (and, thus, my Aventans) actually engage in? Wordplay tops the list. Riddles were a common form of game at parties, as Marcia Tullia shows us during the hunting getaway at her country estate:

“Let’s have a game, instead. I heard an excellent riddle at Appia’s last party. Dear, would you be so kind as to share it?”

The Romans loved puzzles and paradoxes akin to the Two-Door Riddle made famous by Labyrinth. They also played with visual puzzles like rebuses, and even carved riddles on some tombs and funerary monuments. Thinking of them trading these things at parties and in taverns, I’m reminded of learning the Green Glass Door riddle as a Girl Scout; we played it for a ridiculously long time. (And if you don’t know that riddle, oh please allow someone to tell it to you in-person rather than googling it). We humans are clever monkeys, and we like things which test our wits.

Poetry for the Romans came in many forms — some of them regarded as high art, others as common vulgarities. Nor did the poets necessarily limit themselves to one side of that spectrum or the other. As I mention on the podcast, my favorite Latin poet, Catullus, certainly did both. One of my favorite scenes is the doggerel poetry game that Autronius Felix plays with Urbanus, a character who is designed as sort of a mix between Catullus and Ovid:

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They then move on to skewering particular targets — political opponents of the Popularists. That’s also true-to-history. A ton of Latin poetry has either overt or implicit political purpose, and it’s often pretty crude. When we see Urbanus again a bit later, though, he’s reciting a more highly-regarded form of verse — which, I must confess, I pretty much straight-up stole out of Ovid’s Fasti.

But though we see a lot of artistry at the fancy dinner parties, entertainment is not limited to the upper crust of society. Music could be played and enjoyed by anyone. A musical education was part of patrician upbringing, though certain instruments like the pipe were considered improper for the highborn. Plenty of murals show highborn ladies, particularly, with lyres and similar instruments. Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned as popular legend would have it — because, for one thing, the fiddle hadn’t been invented yet, and also because he was nowhere near Rome at the time — but he was known to play the cithara, an instrument more like a lute.

Music served many functions in Roman life. It was used during religious rituals and during funerals, during festivals and in theatrical productions, but it also infused daily life. It’s from the ancients that we get the idea of shepherds playing upon pipes. In From Unseen Fire, as Latona walks with Sempronius through the markets after the Cantrinalia, she hears the flautists and other musicians hired by merchants to draw attention to their stalls. That’s historically-based — ancient merchants didn’t have commercials or mannequins to get the word or draw the eye, but they were plenty creative. Some would even have trained animals at their stalls — juggling monkeys and the like.

Music also played a role in war: horns and drums were used by the legions to keep time while marching and to give orders during battle.

Plays were also popular entertainment, though of a very different stripe from the early modern theatre that I spend a lot of time discussing on the podcast. The Romans had both tragedy and comedy, though no tragedies survive from the Republic era and few from the Imperial era. Seneca’s are the best well-known, while Plautus and Terence are the most famous of the comedic authors. Roman comedy tended to be quite bawdy and relied heavily on stock characters similar to those which would eventually develop in commedia dell’arte. Although playwrights could be well-regarded and plays themselves were entertainment for all classes, actors were of extremely low-status, on a level with criminals and sex workers.

In From Unseen Fire, as part of conversation at one dinner party, Old Crispinia asks Latona:

“Now, tell me what you thought of that play where I saw you last week. Damned frivolous piece of tripe, if you ask me—”

In the earlier draft, I actually named the playwright (Practus), but when my editor asked me to trim down on the total tonnage of the names I inserted into the manuscript, that was one it was easy to lose. I’m imagining Practus as a Plautus analog.

Fresco image of a man with a spear fighting a lion (from Wikimedia Commons)Gambling and board games were also popular with Romans of all classes. Gambling was technically illegal during the Republic and much of the Empire, but that was a law often honored more in the breach — and it was permitted during the Saturnalia, as when we see Aula dicing at the Autroniae’s party. The Romans also played non-gambling games with dice and markers; they had board games somewhat resembling checkers and chess, and in Aven Book 2 you’ll see (assuming it doesn’t change in edits) little Lucia playing tali, a game with knucklebones similar to the modern(-ish) game of jacks.

Now, you may have noticed that I’ve yet to discuss what’s probably the most famous form of ancient Roman entertainment: the games. Modern culture mostly focuses on the gladiatorial matches, but Roman games included many more exhibitions, including theatrical performances, staged animal hunts, and chariot races — which were the most popular part of the games in ancient times.

I’ve written a very large series of events for the Aven Cycle to take place at some games. Early on, they were in Book One, but as edits went on, they just didn’t fit there anymore. I briefly thought they might fit in Book Two, but, no, it looks like they’re going to be in Book Three. I do mention games in Book Two, though, and if all stays more or less as-is, you’ll get to see a little bit of Aventan tailgaiting!

So! That’s arts and entertainment in the Aven Cycle. Go listen to the podcast. Again. ;D

Word Cloud — Aven Cycle Book Two, Revised

Word Art

I turned in a new draft of Aven Cycle Book Two to my editor last week! And, as is traditional, I made a word cloud for it. The five most-often-used words in this draft (apart from articles and pronouns and such) are: Latona, Sempronius, Vibia, magic, more.

I’m glad to have this draft turned in, and I’m eager to hear what my editor thinks. The changes in this draft feel solid. The sequence of events is better paced, and the ending is a lot more emotionally-driven. It still needs some work, to be sure, but it feels like now that work can be polishing and smoothing, not full-on chiseling.

Jigsaw Puzzle Revisions

So for the past couple of months, I’ve been revising Book Two of the Aven Cycle. It’s been an interesting process, because while I’m not actually generating a ton of new content, it’s felt like that kind of heavy lifting.

Have you ever seen that thing where an artist puts together jigsaw puzzles that have the same die cut pattern, but different pictures? That’s sort of what it feels like I’ve been doing.

I needed to rearrange some major incidents in the Aven/Latona plotline. Her story’s pacing was all out of joint. Big chunks of story needed to be moved up a lot, and others needed to be sacked entirely. Sometimes, though, bits and pieces of a scene were not just still usable, but still desirable — an important emotional beat, or some necessary observation on the wider plot. Then, the trick becomes recontextualizing the old scene for the new pacing and character arc. How can I lift this conversation, or at least its main beats, and redress the setting? Do I need to adjust the dialogue for a different mood or sense of urgency? Practically, am I now referring to things that haven’t happened yet?
There’s a lot to keep track of.

I also have to do that without things falling too out-of-sync with the Iberian plotline, where Vitellius, Sempronius, and Rabirus all are. I think I’ve kept things fairly well-yoked, but as I approach the Big Moment in the Iberina plot, I’ve still got a lot of the Aven/Latona component left to get to. (I’m beginning to have a lot of sympathy for George R R Martin, trying to weave plotlines happening concurrently in so many different locations. Not coincidentally, the new project I’m percolating for consideration as this year’s NaNo will all take place inside a single city).

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The picture above is from my bullet journal, where I’ve been trying to stay on top of all of this. I listed out every scene in the earlier draft, by chapter, with the titles I used in Scrivener. Then I’ve been marking down when I migrate them wholesale (as I can do with most of the Iberian chapters), when I’ve migrated them with alterations, when I’ve struck them entirely, and where — as with so many — I’ve migrated only part of a scene, and what it’s now part of in the new draft. I’ve also made notes on some where I know I want to include a portion of a scene in the new draft, but haven’t found a place for it yet. Some of those may end up being jettisoned if there’s just not a place for them, but this way, I can tell at a glance what puzzle pieces are still hanging out on the table.

I’m wishing now I’d left a line in between each entry, though, because some scenes have been chopped up into three or four pieces, and it’s been hard to write small enough to note where all the pieces have gone!

A Much-Delayed Update

I have been woefully neglectful of this blog over the past six months! Apologies. Call it a hibernation.

What have I been up to? Well, I finished a draft of Book Two of the Aven Cycle and sent it off for editorial input. Eventually there will be revisions — many, many revisions — but in the meantime, I’m working on other projects! I’ve revived my own interest in The Seventh Star, a secondworld fantasy I began work on back when From Unseen Fire was out on sub, and I’m hoping to make good progress there. I’ve also still got the Julie d’Aubigny-inspired space opera rattling around in my head, in search of a coherent plot, and I’ve had some ideas for a couple of projects that I’m not ready to let out into the world yet, even as nuggets. I feel like sometimes, talking about a new idea can bleed the energy right out of it, y’know? So there are two ideas that I’m keeping to myself for a while — one sci-fi, one fantasy — which may see some more devoted attention in the coming months.

PaperbackGiveaway.pngI’m also getting ready for the release of From Unseen Fire in paperback! I’m so excited about this, y’all. Hardcovers are shiny and impressive, but mass market paperbacks have always been my dear friends. You can see a video of me unboxing my author copies and talking a little bit about why I think mass markets are so great, especially for genre books, over on Facebook.

I’m also currently running two giveaways of those lovely little paperbacks! You can enter on Twitter and/or on Instagram. Already have a copy of From Unseen Fire? Enter anyway! Then you’ll have an extra copy you can give to a friend who hasn’t read it yet. 😉

You can also pre-order the paperback now from your favorite online retailer — Or, even better, heads into a bricks-and-mortar indie store to ask them to stock it for you!

I’m also looking forward to attending RavenCon in Williamsburg, VA from April 5th-7th. They’re still accepting registrations, so if you’re in the area, come see me! Here’s my schedule for the weekend, which you can also find on the Upcoming Events page:

  • Friday: 6 pm (Panel) Can’t You Just Google It? Research Techniques for Writers / Room L
  • Friday: 10 pm (Panel) Alt-History with a Fantastical Flair / Room 8
  • Saturday: 10 am (Panel) Clothes Make the Character / Room F
  • Saturday: 11:25 am – 11:50 am (Reading) Room 4
  • Saturday: 6 pm (Panel) Writing Ancient Cultures / Room F
  • Saturday: 7 pm (Panel) Female Friendship in SFF / Room 8
  • Sunday: 11 am (Panel) National Novel Writing Month / Room 8
  • Sunday: Noon (Panel) Spirituality and Religion in SFF / Room L

In other news: I’ve upgraded to a Business level site here, which means I have greater room to play around with the site’s appearance. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be updating the layout to something a little spiffier.

I’ll also be experimenting with hosting some Patreon material here rather than on the Patreon website. The WordPress platform offers a lot more flexibility in display and formatting, which would be useful. I’m still learning how the plugin works, though, so bear with me if there are any errant posts or mishaps in the meantime!

Okay, I think that’s about it for relevant updates. I promise to be a more dedicated blogger as we move into the sunny seasons.

Happy spring!


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Which elemental magic would you wield?

Here’s your chance to find out what sort of mage you could be in the world of Aven!

Which elemental magic would you wield?

Take the quiz, find out what god or goddess has blessed you, then share your newfound powers with the world by posting your results to FB, Twitter, Pinterest, all over.

I am, of course, Spirit. 😉

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I’m super-curious to see what results folk get, so if you haven’t already told me on other social media, comment here with what element you control!

And, for the next week, there’s also a link to a new giveaway sweepstakes for an advance copy of From Unseen Fire at the bottom of the quiz, so don’t miss out!

Signed ARC Giveaway!

It’s the Ides of March! Some of y’all may know that I have a bizarre affection for this day. While working at the ASC, I blogged about it almost every year.

This year, though, I thought I would commemorate the occasion by hosting a giveaway for my own tale of cutthroat politics in the classical world!

Enter this Rafflecopter giveaway for your chance at a SIGNED ARC of FROM UNSEEN FIRE! That’s right — I’m giving away one of my precious advanced reader copies, which I will personalize just for you!

But hurry! The giveaway closes March 20th.

Enter Now!

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Pro Feminae

Today is International Women’s Day, and a group of the Authors 18 are writing about what that means to them and how feminist ideals have influenced their work.

I wrote From Unseen Fire long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements caught fire, but my heroine, Latona, would be all about them.

Ancient Rome was far from the worst time in history to be a woman. You had legal rights. You could own property. You could run a business and make quite a bit of money doing it. Unlike the Greek women, you had freedom of movement outside the house. Raping you was a severe crime (as long as you were a free woman, that is) and punishable by the loss of a man’s hands or genitals. If you were of middling or above social class, you probably got some sort of an education, at least enough to be considered literate. You could hold religious office and earn great respect for it. You could wield phenomenal political power behind the scenes, as women like Cornelia, Fulvia, Livia, both Agrippinae, Plotina, Sabina, Julia Domna, and Helena can attest. And, since Rome had decent sanitation and health care, as well as a plant that was so effective as birth control it was eventually driven to extinction, you were somewhat less likely to die in childbirth than other women before modern times.

So, not the worst.

But not, like, ideal.

You had rights, but you still weren’t, y’know, a full citizen. You couldn’t vote. You couldn’t speak at the public rostrum (except in a few extreme circumstances). You still belonged to a man, usually your father or husband, but if they were both dead, then perhaps a brother or uncle. Only if they all died and the courts couldn’t find anyone to take you on might you be named a woman in suo jure, in charge of herself. You might wield power behind the scenes, but if you came too far out into the open, you were considered a monster of some kind, derided either as mannish or as a succubus. Beating you was frowned upon, but legal. If you were lower-class, your career options were limited; if you were upper-class, they were nonexistant. Wherever you were, unless you were a Vestal Virgin, you were expected to be fruitful and multiply. Rape still, of course, happened, and if you didn’t have more money and influence than the rapist, bringing the violator to court and getting justice could be challenging-to-impossible; if you were a slave, absolutely impossible. Social expectations hemmed in your behavior pretty much everywhere.LatonaAesthetic

This is the world that Latona of the Vitelliae finds herself chafing against. Aven adds the component of magic, and Latona is incredibly gifted. She’s never been allowed to discover just how talented she is, though. Her parents were fearful for her, worrying that if she made her powers known, she would be a target for use and abuse by unscrupulous men. They’re also worried about her emotions; the Vitellians are known for their tempers, and Latona’s elements, Fire and Spirit, can so easily run out of control. They try first to hide her in a temple, but when her mentor dies, the new High Priestess, worried that Latona’s power and influence will outstrip her own, sends her back home. So her parents marry her to a wealthy but unimportant nobody, hoping it will keep her beneath notice. It doesn’t work. As readers will learn in the prologue (so this doesn’t really count as a spoiler), Latona is too fiercely devoted to her family to stand aside when they’re threatened. She uses her magic to protect them from a vicious Dictator — and while she keeps the magical manipulation secret, she draws the Dictator’s attention for her earthly attributes. She considers it a bargain she makes for her family’s lives; we would certainly call it rape. As though that weren’t enough trauma to be getting along with, her relationship with her husband, never more than dutiful, deteriorates after that, from cold and distant to outright emotionally abusive.

So this is where the beginning of From Unseen Fire finds her: wound so tightly she’s about to explode. She’s been gaslit into believing she’s dangerous, that she can’t control herself, that her emotions will cause chaos if expressed; she’s been told that claiming her power will only make her prey; she’s been abused and traumatized and has rationalized it all to herself as sacrifice; she has stood by while others were abused because she couldn’t save them without endangering herself and her sisters, though she hates herself for the inaction; she’s unhappy in her marriage and has been unable to conceive a child, and so she worries she’s a disappointment to her patron goddess Juno; she knows, deep down, that she is capable of so much more than the confines of her life have allowed, but at every turn, she gets nudged, coddled, bullied, or outright shoved back inside those suffocating parameters.

Her whole life, Latona has tried to make herself smaller, so that she’ll fit into the world around her.

She’s about to burst.

I think that’s a feeling a lot of women can relate to, no matter when or in what conditions they live.

From Unseen Fire debuts April 17th, 2018; you can pre-order it now from Amazon, B&N, or your local indie bookstore

And be sure to check out these other 2018 debuts featuring women taking action against injustice in society: 

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From Clarissa Harwood: New Novels to Celebrate International Women’s Day

From Samantha Heuwagen: International Women’s Day with Debut Authors

The Mages of Aven: An Ongoing Series

So remember back when I made a list of all 300+ mages in Aven but managed to refrain from naming them all?

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Yeah, well, that’s over.

Not all at once, though! I’m launching a new series on Patreon. 100 words at a time, I’m going to explore those mages. I’ve always loved the drabble format, and I’ve long used it to help me explore new characters and new worlds. In this case, I’m using it to flesh out the world of Aven, and to juice me up for working on Book Two!

I’ve shared the first five of those drabbles on Patreon, available for free to everyone! Subsequent entries in the series will be available to all patrons at the $3/month level and above.

None of these are characters in From Unseen Fire or the rest of the Aven Cycle — though their lives might be touched by those figures. These are the people of Aven, high and low, whom the gods have blessed with some degree of magical talent. Some may have quite a lot of power. Some may have very little. Some may use their talents well, and some may not. Some are allowed to live peaceful, productive lives; some are ensnared by power and politics.

I want to give you a glimpse at all of them, a window into this world — a few hundred windows, really! Short character studies that will, I hope, broaden the idea of what Aven is.

I’m throwing wide the gates. Come on in!

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Read the first five for free on Patreon — and pledge just $3/month to have the rest delivered to you on a weekly basis!

January Patreon Review

PatreonSupporterBadge (2)In the interests of enticement, I’ve decided to start keeping a monthly log about what goes up on my Patreon each month! So here’s what I shared, at the various pledge levels, in January:

  • Behind the Page: Adventures in Copy Editing
  • Sneak Peek: From Unseen Fire Dramatis Personae
  • Hamilblogs #29-30: “That Would Be Enough” and “Guns and Ships”
  • Aven Cycle Aesthetic Post: Corvinus
  • Figures in History: Sharp-Tongued Fulvia, Pt 2
  • Advanced notice of the Goodreads giveaway starting
  • Sneak Peek: From Unseen Fire proof pages (title page and header material)
  • Behind the Page: Airtable charts on Aventan magic
  • Poll: What makes you pick up a book?
  • Vlog #5: A talent I wish I had
  • Poem #4: Lycanthropic Kyrielle

Pledge now and you get immediate access to as many as 130 posts! More and more of it is starting to focus on From Unseen Fire, and once the book is out and I can worry less about spoilers (or, y’know, sharing things that will make no sense until folk have read it), there will be all kinds of Aven Cycle bonus material. In February, I’m also intending to get through “History Has Its Eyes on You”, “The Battle of Yorktown”, and maybe “What Comes Next?” on the Hamilblog. I expect to hit “Non-Stop” in March, which will be… a special event. I’m thinking of videoing the process, or at least part of it, because analyzing that song is going to be utter nonsense, and I can’t wait.

I’m currently $172 from my next goal. If I make it there before From Unseen Fire releases in April, I will do a random drawing and giveaway a signed Advanced Reading Copy to one of my wonderful supporters!

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Cover Reveal for FROM UNSEEN FIRE

It’s here, it’s here!

At long, long last, I can reveal the cover for From Unseen Fire:

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Isn’t it gorgeous? I’m totally in love with it. Thanks to artist Tran Nguyen, who really nailed a fantastic look, and to the whole team at DAW for getting this put together.

And, thanks to Unbound Worlds for hosting the reveal! I did a Q&A with them that gave me a chance to talk about some really exciting things, so head on over there to read it!