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

A creative sort of evening

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

fromunseenfirefb1fromunseenfiretwit1-1

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

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

So yeah. It’s been an evening.

Suck It Up, Cupcake: An Inspirational Playlist

I don’t know about y’all, but I find music incredibly helpful. I make playlists for projects I work on, characters I’m working with, moods I’m in or think I might be in at some point in the not too distant future — really, for anything. I probably have over a hundred built across various platforms.

The past few weeks, I’ve been in need of a particular sort of motivation. Writing’s a tough business sometimes. But if you want to be a writer, lying down and letting the challenges ride roughshod over you just isn’t an option. You have to pick yourself up and keep going. Keep writing. Keep trying.

So here you go. A playlist partially born of my own cussedness, partially inspired by “Fuck Your Pre-Rejection, PenMonkey” and other blog posts of a similar nature, designed to help you screw your courage to the sticking place, grit your teeth, dig in your heels, and get the job done. Whatever that job is for you right now — writing your first draft, getting through your edits, sloughing your way through the query trenches, or anything else — if you don’t do it, it ain’t getting done. So suck it up, cupcake. Are you a writer or not?

spotify:user:1270613493:playlist:1v4DsiuzXt5TquZRG6l1tA

Also an inspirational gif party because why not?

Elsafuckitall

Barneychallenge

TinaFeyfreeingfailure

Enjolrastothebarricade IronManhatersgonnahatePercycomeatmebro Tianaalmostthere

MarthaIamgood

Creative Idealism vs Risk Aversion

Or, how the Great Recession damaged, and continues to damage, artistically-inclined Millennials.

To have a lifestyle that allows you to put creative endeavors front and center, to prioritize art above other concerns, you need one of two things: a safety net or the willingness to fly without one. And most of my generation doesn’t have either. We don’t have security, but we’ve become risk-averse in the extreme, unwilling to sacrifice what little we have scraped together. We’ve seen what happens when you take risks, when you don’t plan well enough, or when you put your faith in the wrong institutions. As students, we trusted that education and dedication would get us where we wanted to go. “Self-determination” was the buzzword of my high school, as though being capable and wanting a thing enough were sufficient in this world.

I know so many Millennials in similar straits to mine — mostly in theatre, some in writing, some involved with music or visual arts. The ones who are more sensible than I am wised up in college and went into computer science or medicine instead (higher debts, but higher chance of paying them off, too). The ones who are braver than I am, who do strike out and try to live entirely on their art, generally have to accept a pretty low quality of life in order to do so, or else they have to sacrifice a lot of independence. And the trade-off for the rest of us, struggling to achieve some sort of satisfactory balance, is less than stellar. “Selling out” for job security doesn’t bring the boons it once did. It’s still a survival game. Entry level jobs now require years of experience, tenure tracks have disappeared, and employers of all stripes are likely to hire the candidate who will ask for the least rather than who’s best for the job. We may have our heads above water, but that’s not the same thing as success. And we have to tread pretty hard just to stay there. For all of that, we’re told to be grateful — and the sad part is, most of us are. We know our situations could be worse. The lesson we learned from the recession was that we are never safe. Financial security is elusive to the point of being mythological. Even for those of us who are successful, or who have had familial or spousal safety nets to fall back on, I think that fear still lurks for anyone that’s even a little self-aware: This could all evaporate, and then what would I do? That’s what keeps us in this limbo. As I told a friend earlier today, I feel like it’s hamstrung our generation.

Lizziestillpoor

So what does this have to do with writing, specifically?

All aspiring authors, I think, dream of being the one to land that mega-advance that allows you to set aside mundane concerns and retire to a charming nook to pen the next work of genius — then of having sales numbers so spectacular that financial survival is never a problem again. We’re not stupid. We know the reality is nothing like that. But it’s still the stuff of our daydreams.

I won’t pretend to have intimate knowledge the inner workings of the publishing industry — I’m not there yet. I’m closer and better-informed than I was a year ago, but until I am a published author, what I’ve got to go on is still speculative and observational. That said: Writing is one of the few careers in the world where you can put in thousands of hours of work, never knowing if you’re going to get paid for it or not. (Though similar ideas certainly prevail elsewhere in the arts — that you should do it for the love, be grateful just to “express yourself”, and not expect compensation for your sweat and blood and time). And even if you do get paid for it, that seems to endow less security now than it used to. I’ve read various studies and observations from individuals in the industry, tracking the decline of advances from publishing houses over the past decade.  That makes it harder for writers to justify the hours and energy it takes to create. For my peers, that means the hours scraped out of lives already dominated by multiple jobs and energy already brought to its breaking point by financial stress.

Something of a sidebar: This doesn’t entirely derive from but does relate to the ongoing dispute between Amazon, Hachette, and others. It isn’t all Amazon’s fault, and it isn’t all Hachette’s. I’m not on either side here — I’m on the side, as I must be, of authors, particularly the new and unproved, who are hurt most by the fight and the conditions that created it. Advances and royalties have been declining since before they started feuding, for a wide variety of reasons — but this particular drama encapsulates a lot of the problem. The distributor, apparently under the impression that manufacturing costs account for most of the expense of creating a book, want more money out of e-books, arguing that lower overhead for the publisher should mean more profit for them. (This is, of course, never minding that most of the expense is not in the physical object but in the labor behind it from the writer, agent, editor, graphic designer, proofreader, typesetter, marketer, etc). When distributors take a bigger slice of the pie, there’s less left for publishers to give to authors. This leads to smaller advances. I suspect it also contributes to those advances being harder to earn back, royalties-wise — thus making it challenging for writers to see continued revenue. And then all of that tangles together with how much a publisher can afford to and will choose to spend on marketing and publicity, without which even great books will flounder into obscurity.

Taken all together, there seem to be a lot more impediments to making a sustainable career as an author than there used to be. As several analysts have pointed out, this ultimately discourages a lot of writers, or at least delays them from being able to seek publication, since writing has to be crammed into the hours not spent just trying to get by — and the creative world is weaker for that. As Evan Hughes pointed out on Slate back in May, “Diet Coke has a set formula of ingredients, so the actual beverage is not going to get worse if Walmart drives a hard bargain. That’s not necessarily the case with books, each of which is a unique product. If publishers make less money on every book, they are going to pay people less to write and edit them, and talented people will decide to do something else with their time.” This crux is particularly damning for writers of my generation who have learned to be risk-averse.

And yet — I am, essentially, an optimist. That impossible daydream tantalized and provokes me, so I continue to create and I continue to hope. I will wear myself ragged balancing my cost of living with my artistic drive. If I’m to be honest here, it’s at least as much cussed stubbornness and pride as it is idealism. I refuse to let conditions beat me down. I refuse to let the gray mists of discouragement swallow me up. I will be as tough and resilient as this course demands.

It’s exhausting. But I’ll keep going.

This was heavy. Here’s a playlist that I use to keep my spirits up: