Wonder Woman, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy Fulfillment

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.

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

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!

Figures in History: Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thesis: We have confused civil liberties with civic governance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WILL: You like that stat?

JOSH: I do.

WILL: Why?

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

WILL: Why is foreign aid important?

JOSH: It fosters democracy.

WILL: There you go.

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

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

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

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

JOSH: See.

WILL: “Except for all the others.”

JOSH: I know the end of the quote.

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

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

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

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

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

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. 😉

The Romans and Social Media

Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome

Just a quick note on this article I stumbled over today, positing that social media is just one link in a chain going back at least 2000 years. It’s got me interested in the book, for sure, and it’s gotten me thinking about the transmission of knowledge in classical times (and, for Aven‘s purposes, what changes when you have magical means of sending messages as well as mundane channels). I particularly enjoy the implication that social media is a natural correction of the effects of the corporatization of media (an argument I’ve also seen regarding fanfic).

What I think goes one step further is that isn’t just the distribution of information that goes back so far — it’s the need to comment on what everyone else is saying and doing. Roman poets were famous for this, for everything from incisive political commentary that could end in banishment to the Black Sea to exposing the dastardly doings of dinnertime napkin-thieves. They also chattered about the sex lives of the rich and famous with a perverse enthusiasm and dogged persistence that would be admired by any modern tabloid.

Truly, the act of getting up in everyone’s business is an ancient one.

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.

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.

Women’s Voices in History

I read an article earlier today discussing the historical silence of women. It addresses both past and present, in a way, drawing from many of the current issues where women are verbally abused, insulted, and threatened (especially on the internet) if they dare speak up on “men’s matters” — whether that’s politics, video games, comic books, or anything else men have decided is theirs. I certainly know how this feels. I have a bad habit of getting into political discussions on Twitter, which pretty much just puts a target on you for sexual slurs and vague death threats. The article, however, delves into the historiography of women’s voices, and seems to posit that not only have men always attempted to silence women from participating in public speech, but that they have always succeeded in doing so.

L'Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

L’Imperatrice Theodora au Colisée, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant

I disagree.

Yes, women have historically been discouraged from public speech and from publication. But there have always been women who spoke. In defiance of their cultures, in defiance of stereotypes, often even in defiance of the law, there have been women who spoke. And what’s even better — they were not, as the article suggests, always derided as freaks or androgynes. You need only look at what was written about Hortensia the Orator, as I discussed a while ago, to prove that.

But you want more? I got more.

  • Sappho was one of the most popular poets of the classical age; Horace named her as “worthy of sacred admiration” and Catullus used her as inspiration for his own works.
  • The women of Sparta were famous throughout the classical world for having razor-sharp wits.
  • Agrippina Major not only went with her husband on campaign (and once held a bridge against an attacking force), but when Germanicus was murdered, she publicly pursued justice for him. It was dangerous and ticked off Emperor Tiberius, but it won her a lot of acclaim from Germanicus’s supporters.
  • Cleopatra spoke somewhere between six and nine languages, depending on the source you’re looking at. She was definitely the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, and she also spoke Hebrew, which came in damn handy when dealing with her Judean neighbors. Yes, the surviving Roman sources condemn her for it — but of course they would, they were her political enemies. She held the Egyptian throne for a damn long time against incredible odds, and very often she did it because she could talk her way into or out of just about anything.
  • Empress Theodora, a much stronger ruler than her husband, began her career as an actress, but after marrying Justinian, went on to participate in Byzantine government councils, shaping many of the empire’s legal and spiritual policies. Famously, during the Nika riots, she told the men (including her husband), who wanted to flee, that “purple is an excellent color for a shroud”, which shamed them so badly that they stuck around to get things under control. She is a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. (How there has never been a major movie about this woman, I simply do not understand).
  • Not only was Wu Zetian one of the most impressive rulers of the Tang dynasty, but most of the stories about her, especially in her early, pre-imperial life, start with her standing up and saying something unexpectedly in public. Often suggestions about a better way to do something. And mostly people went, “Wow, that’s pretty impressive, let’s let her try that.”
  • The key diplomat behind China throwing off the rule of the Huns? Also a woman. She was working with her husband, a military strategist, and a scientist, but she seems to have done the bulk of the talking. And yet we’re now not even sure of her name.
  • When Oxford and Cambridge told Mary Sidney Herbert that she couldn’t contribute to their elegies for her own brother, she took herself to a commercial printer in London instead. She went on to publish more of her own works, her brother’s works, and her translations, as well as funding poets and scientists to work in her home.

And those are just a few of my favorite ladies.

That list doesn’t even touch the myriad voices heard by never written down, and so unknown in the modern age. Some times and places have been more friendly than others, to be sure, but social history reveals a lot more than traditional, chronological, top-down history does. Women have always run businesses, participated in politics, and influenced religion — officially or not, sanctioned or not, recognized by textbooks or not.

I whole-heartedly agree that more needs to be done to address the disproportionate representation of male voices in media, and I really enjoy the part of the article examining the words used to describe female speech, particularly those which are dehumanizing. Gendered slurs are a horrific but sort of linguistically fascinating study. In fiction and in life, women have so often been and so often continue to be the targets of belittlement, gaslighting, dismissal, and violence, all in the name of shutting us up.

But erasing the wonderful women who have made their voices heard throughout history does them — and us — a grave disservice, not least because it also erases the reasons it’s sometimes so hard to hear their voices, and ours.

And it isn’t because they weren’t speaking.