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.
I’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
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.
The theme this week over on the Deb Ball is “the manuscript in the drawer”, and I thought I’d expand a little bit upon what I wrote over there. I chatted about this on Twitter a while back, too. I have been, across my life, a prolific writer. Since the age of 11, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I’ve started scores of projects. Honestly, it’s possibly hundreds — but that just sounds ludicrous, and lots of them were, like, single-page vague concepts anyway, so I usually just say scores.
The point is that From Unseen Fire is my first book on the shelves, but it’s so far from my first book that I hardly know where to begin. Here’s just a sampling of some of the things I’ve worked on in the past twenty-one years:
Age 13, a cyberpunk novel written at the behest of my 8th grade English teacher. We were supposed to write 50 pages of something over the course of the whole year. I turned in a 300-page novel. I’m pretty sure my teacher was both proud of my dedication and a bit dismayed at having to grade that mess. As I recall, the plot consisted of lots of spying and subterfuge to save a futuristic empire from a maniac warlord, or something. My parents read it and were alarmed that I knew what a concubine was.
Phantom of the Opera from the POV of the corps de ballet, cowritten with a friend. It was filled with every cliche trope you could possibly imagine — torrid love affairs, heroines struck down with blindness and/or tuberculosis, the Opera House catching fire, main characters madly in love with our not-at-all-self-insert OCs… the whole shebang. We role-played a lot of it out, too.
Something I started around age 14 that would have been sort of like Kate Elliott’s Court of Fives — fantasy focused around a competition w/ rebellion knitted in. Hero’s journey with female lead, too. This is one I had completely forgotten about until I tripped over it while combing through old files. I feel like a lot of “I’ve started to read fantasy books yet am not finding myself in any of them because it’s all boys doing boy things, well, to heck with that” attitude fueled this one.
“Wings of Glory”, which was something with…bird people? I don’t even know. I wrote a few highly dramatic interpersonal scenes but had no greater plot.
“Fire”, a secondworld fantasy that actually held the seeds of what would become the magic system of the Aven Cycle. There was a princess who did a lot of questing. This one I actually finished, about age 16, I think?
So. Much. Fanfic. Starting with a Star Wars series called “Days of the Alliance”, written and rewritten many times from ages 12-mid 20s, most recently with the characters as morally-grey Rebel SpecOps. My middle and high school friends got this distributed to them via inbox. I had learned a painful lesson about sharing anything to the Star Wars section of fanfiction.net, particularly if you had the nerve to be a girl writing these things, so I kept most of this closer to the chest — but I had the delightful experience of having friends begging me for updates!
(Dear Disney: I’d still super love to write this for real; call me).
Later on, through college, the fanfic was mostly Harry Potter based. I spent a lot of time exploring Bellatrix Black, Sirius Black, and Rowena Ravenclaw, in particular. The Blacks just fascinated me in a sort of Jungian “explore the dark mirror of your own nature” sort of way, while with Rowena and the other Founders, I was determined to write a more historically-appropriate version of the Founding of Hogwarts, since JK Rowling apparently can’t distinguish pre-Norman England from the 15th century. Then, post-grad-school, my attention turned towards Wizarding America, in concert with two of my besties, and we wrote a ton of material for a Tumblr Blog that was very successful right up until JK started trying to write America, which she does so poorly that it depressed us into giving up. (JK Rowling does. not. understand. this country).
A dystopia set in rural Virginia, also written and rewritten many times from about ages 16 on. In senior year of college, I re-envisioned it in my screenwriting class and ended up polishing it to the point where I felt willing to submit it to contests. It actually made it to the semi-finals of the Final Draft competition (a fairly large and well-known one) in 2011!
“Relics”, a rewrite of “Fire” in my early twenties that was somewhat better but still groaning under the weight of fantasy tropes. In this version, the questing princess had a bit more of a purpose: she had to go looking for the sacred relics that represented the eight magical elements of her world. (I told you it contained the seeds of the Aven Cycle’s magical system; I’ve been thinking about these things for a long time). This project was also a ridiculous worldbuilding timesuck. I’m pretty sure I charted the royal family tree back, like, eighteen generations. But, hey, if George R R Martin can get away with it…
(Also, looking at that map helps me pinpoint roughly when my handwriting cemented into its adult form).
A Trojan War retelling from the viewpoint of (of course) the prophetess Cassandra.
Steampunk Camelot. Honestly this one never got much farther than that general idea. Might be fun to revisit as a sort of Celtopunk project instead?
A few false-starts at Regency romances. I figure I read enough of them, why not give writing them a try? Answer: I get too bogged down in the history.
An Aladdin retelling set in the pre-Islamic Sassanid empire. This one I’d love to pick up again at some point when I can do the grad school level research required.
A high tech Trojan War set in outer space, where Troy is a space station & its walls are impenetrable force fields. Also never got much further than concept.
A story of the Fae set in Williamsburg VA in the 1760s. Another one I’d like to revive. Maybe as a short story?
“The Antares Project”, a steampunk AU I’ve been dabbling with since ‘06. This is the one I blogged about for the Deb Ball this week. It has a great world (based on if the US lost the War of 1812) and fantastic cast that I adore and no plot. A lot of great scenes written. No coherent story. Sigh.
And then the two I’m *actually* working on now in addition to Book Two: the Julie d’Aubigny-inspired space opera romp, and a secondworld fantasy with star-based magic.
And that list is so partial, y’all. Just the major things that sprung to mind. If I combed my files and old notebooks, there are so, so many more kernels. There are probably a bunch I have literally no memory of. Because I keep it all — I seriously never delete anything, and I’ve never thrown out a writing notebook. They’re all there, waiting, in boxes that are currently in storage. On my computer, the files are are all neatly archived away. But they’re there. Some of them I may never look at again. Some may only get glanced at with fond remembrance for the child I once was. Some may have good bits I can cannibalize and reconfigure. Some may actually be worth reviving.
I don’t feel that any of them were wasted effort.
Because the thing is this: If you want to be a writer, write.
Write things that don’t work. Write character profiles you never use. Write stories that don’t get past the first page. Write down hazy ides that come to you in dreams. Write ridiculous self-insert fanfic.
Yes, you do have to finish something eventually, if you want to publish, but all the false starts have value, too. It’s all training.
I’m so glad I’ve spent so much of my life playing with words.
If you’re interested in seeing bits and pieces of some of these false starts, join my Patreon! I share snippets of them from time to time — even the embarrassing juvenilia! 😉
Originally written for the Camp Nanowrimo blog this month!
That meme, right there? That explains a lot about who I am. I’ve got what some people call “high-functioning” anxiety, the kind that makes you a constantly over-wound spring but determined not to let anyone know that you’re screaming internally. I am a Slytherin, driven to achieve and to do so publicly — because if other people don’t know about it, does it even count? And if I’m not doing my best, if I’m not meeting all my goals and checking everything off my list, aren’t I just a lazy failure? Aren’t I letting myself down, and thus letting down literally everyone I’ve ever met?
Well, of course not. But the demon in my head doesn’t know that.
If any of that is sounding familiar, my sympathies. I know how rough it is. Here are a few things I keep in mind to help manage the mental chaos:
#1: Block off time for things that are not writing. This is hard especially when you’re on a deadline or trying to meet a daily Nano goal, but it’s a crucial thing to learn. Anxiety and stress quite literally fray your nerves, neurologically speaking. Your brain needs breaks, but if you’re like me, it’s tough to give your brain that permission. Lately, I’ve been using my bullet journal’s habit tracker to make sure I do things like read for pleasure, tend to my spirituality, and not fall asleep with my phone clutched in my hand. Checking things off on the habit tracker feels like achievement, which assuages the sense of “but if you’re not constantly working, you’re an unproductive loser”. I’m trying to redefine my broken brain’s perception of what productivity is — sometimes it has to be those things which feed your soul and keep you sane. That’s not an indulgence. It’s keeping yourself in top working order by giving your nerves a chance to rest and heal.
#2: Celebrate the small victories. If anxiety is something that makes you super goal-oriented, learn to find some smaller benchmarks in addition to the biggies. Your end goal might be finishing your Nano project, getting published, hitting the bestseller list — but quite apart from the aspects of those things which are outside of your immediate control, those goals are also always going to be delayed gratification. That can make the day-to-day grind a frustrating endeavor. Give you brain a nice dopamine hit by finding things to celebrate more often: hitting a sprint goal, writing a smashing paragraph, learning a new word. Finding things to take pride and joy in on a more regular basis has really helped me to remember that the major goals do not have to eat my entire life or define my sense of self.
#3: If you need more help, get it. Whatever form that help takes — medications, therapy, changes to your life. I wish I had done so much, much earlier. Instead, I struggled for fifteen years, unable to figure out why every so often, my life just seemed to spiral apart beyond my ability to cope with circumstances. Finally seeing a psychiatrist and getting prescriptions to help with anxiety, depression, and insomnia helped immeasurably. They didn’t change who I am — but they dialed the trouble down to a level I could actually manage. That, in turn, made it much easier to actually write. Needing help does not make you weak. Seeking it out is not an indulgence. Accepting it will not dull your creativity.
This anxiety is always going to be a part of me, and in some ways, I’m okay with that. I like being driven to achieve. But I’m also really glad that I’m learning ways to keep it from counterproductively destroying my ability to function. It’s an ongoing process, to be sure! But then, so am I. And that’s just fine.
Trust me. I will not let you trip or lead you astray.
I know this path. I found it in the wilderness; I marked its stones and notched its trees.
Take my hand, and let me take you on a journey.
The road will wind and twist, and you may not be able to see around the curves. You may lose sight of the street we came from; you may not be sure what we walk towards. But take my hand, and look at the trees and the dappled sunlight. Hear the birdsong and the secrets whispered in the wind. Catch the scent of green life. Let your skin tingle. Step away from the world and out of yourself, or with yourself, or whatever you most need.
Take my hand, and take your time.
This is how it feels, putting a book out into the world. From Unseen Fire hits shelves today, and I’m asking readers to go along with me, and I know what sort of a journey I’m asking of them. It’s not the simplest, smoothest path. It requires some investment, and it begs some faith. By some measures, it’s a lot to ask.
My favorite books have always been those which ask this of a reader. The ones that lead me off the garden path and into the deeper woods. Books to savor, books to live in, books that release both their secrets and their hold on the reader’s heart more slowly.
American Gods. Kushiel’s Dart. The Name of the Wind. In the Night Garden. A Game of Thrones. Sandman. The Bear and the Nightingale. Daughter of the Forest. Watership Down. The Lord of the Rings.
Books that take the reader on a journey. And now it’s my turn, to tempt you off the path and into the wilds, to duck beneath the hanging branches, to slip between the hedges, to beckon you along with me, to some unknown adventure.
Today’s prompt for #winterlitchallenge on Instagram was “Tips to beat writer’s block”, and I realized… I have some feelings about that.
For one thing, I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think if writers are honest with themselves, what they call “writer’s block” is really an excuse. If I’m not writing, it’s not that I’m “blocked”. It’s generally a lack of time or focus. Lack of time can’t always be helped: I’m a human with a life. I absolutely do not ascribe to the maxim that if you don’t write every single day of your life, you’re not a writer. I write or do something related to writing most days, but work, family, vacations, reading, self care — these are all important, too. Sometimes, though, I’m just not making the time, and I have to be honest with myself about that if I’m being avoidant.
When the real problem is a lack of discipline — being unwilling to sit down and do the damn work — that’s worth examining! If I’m reluctant to engage with a project, that’s usually a symptom of deeper problems that need working out before I can continue. See my thoughts on tossing out Book Two’s outline for an example of that. I’d gotten nowhere on that project in a year. Something was wrong. Fixing it meant being willing to rethink a lot.
But, the situation’s not always that dire. Sometimes I just have butterfly brain. So, how do I refocus myself? Here are some of my tips when my attention on a project feels scattered or when I’m having trouble figuring out where the story goes:
Change POV: An excellent tactic for me, because my books are all multi-POV to begin with. There’s a scene in Book Two that I was excited about conceptually, but that I just couldn’t seem to get written. Then I realized: It shouldn’t be from Sempronius’s viewpoint. It was way more interesting through the eyes of his freedman, Corvinus. Voila! As soon as I tried that, 1700 flowed out of me in a single hour. I think this can work even if you’re writing a single-POV book, though. It might not be material you end up being able to use in your manuscript, but writing a scene or a monologue from another character’s viewpoint may help you find what you’re looking for from your POV character.
Move to different scene, earlier or later in the narrative: This is, honestly, my primary tactic. I’m a completely non-sequential writer. It can be messy sometimes, but I cannot imagine trying to write a book in strict chapter order. If I’m not feeling a certain scene on a certain day, I bounce somewhere else. If you are a sequential writer, this may still be worth a try! Dive into a scene that takes place before your book opens or after it closes. Again, you may not use that material in the manuscript, but broadening your perspective may help you see the needed connective tissue in your plot.
Listen to music that inspires you: I am a fanatical playlist maker. I have them for books, characters, moods, all kinds of things, and I often find inspiration in the songs. Sometimes it’s just thematic — I need to write an action scene, so I’m going to put on the Indiana Jones soundtrack. But sometimes I find something more direct. Recently, “The Greatest Show” and “Come Alive” from the soundtrack for The Greatest Showman have given me a wonderful new direction to spin my space opera in.
Impromptu dance party: If you find yourself blocked in the middle of a long writing session, you might just need to move. I like spontaneous dance parties, but do whatever will get your blood flowing! Run around the block, throw a ball for the dog, go for a swim, whatever. Getting the physical fidgets out can help you refocus mentally and creatively.
Take a shower: I mean, c’mon, we all get our best ideas in the shower, right? Step away from the computer and go somewhere your electronics can’t find you. Let the hot water wash over you and let your mind wander.
Go for a drive: A lot of the shower advice applies here as well, though this can also overlap with listening to music that inspires you. I’ve worked out plenty of plot snarls and had scintillating character ideas on the highway. I talk to myself in the car a lot. I even act out conversations between characters, testing out the dialogue and cadence. Just make sure you can either keep it in your head till you get back home (a talent I’ve developed over the years — by repeating it a few times, I can keep about two pages’ worth word-for-word, when necessary) or that you have a way of taking verbal notes! Keep your eyes on the road!
Write a myth/legend in your book’s world: Historical, fantastical, contemporary — we all have myths. They might be religious in nature, they might be urban legends or ghost stories, they might be , but whoever your characters are and wherever and whenever they live, there are stories in their lives, too. Take a step away from your manuscript and write one of those! Maybe even in the voice of one of your characters, as though they’re telling it to someone else. This approach helped me flesh out the world of Aven and its magic a lot. I’ve rewritten the founding myth of Romulus and Remus for Aven’s purposes, and I’ve worked on some of the other great Roman legends as well. The framework I used was Aula telling bedtime stories to her young daughter, Lucia, so I got some character work in as well, but it also helped me flesh out historiography of Aventan culture. (And — I’ll eventually be sharing those stories on Patreon!).
If the problem is that you’ve lost enthusiasm for a project, then you need to approach it a different way. Why isn’t it exciting you anymore? Because if it’s not exciting you, it’s sure not going to excite a reader. Is it the characters? The plot? Does it feel like a retread? You may well need to step away from it for a while to figure all of that out. I have an alternate history project I’ve been working on off and on since 2006, and this is the problem I keep reaching: I get “blocked” on it because I have great characters and a great world, but no plot.
Overall, I would sum up my advice on feeling blocked as doing one of two things: dig deep, or try something new. You either have something bothering you about the story that needs rooting out, or you just need to look at it from a different angle for a little while.
This anthology of sci-fi and fantasy short stories benefits the Sirens Conference, an annual gathering dedicated to the diverse, remarkable women of fantasy literature: authors, readers, editors, bloggers, librarians, and more. Last year was my first time going, and it was such a dazzlingly wonderful experience. I cannot wait for this year’s gathering, coming up in less than two weeks! Each year, Sirens makes scholarships available to provide registrations across three groups of people: fans of color/non-white fans, those submitting exemplary programming proposals, and those with financial hardships. I’m utterly delighted to have contributed to one of the projects that will support those scholarships!
My contribution, “The Price”, is a small secondworld fantasy featuring a village witch and a devil-may-care warrior. It’s about what you want, and what you’ll do to get it. It’s about how to decide what shape your life will take. It’s about sacrifice, and where you draw the line between giving and giving too much. And it’s about the lingering pain, when the one you love decides something else is more important.
I’m rather proud of it, and I hope that you’ll give it a read, and support Sirens in the process.
It’s taken me a few days to process the Sirens Conference. For those that don’t know, Sirens is a small conference focused entirely on women (and non-binary folk and queer culture) in fantasy and science fiction. Basically, it’s a sanctuary for the marginalized in this genre. The attendance is overwhelmingly female/non-binary — I think I counted three or four dudes there, and they were, awesomely, there to listen and learn and connect, not to mansplain or talk over or patronize. This year’s theme was Love and Relationships. I had wanted to attend last year but couldn’t make it, and I was delighted to be able to this year. It was an absolutely amazing experience, start to finish.
The whole conference is such a celebration. Of women, of magic, of writing, of fantasy. The conversations were scintillating. From a roundtable on how our anxieties can either cripple or motivate us to a workshop on herbal magic to a panel on the role of love in fantasy novels to a keynote on imaginary friends and how writers never really outgrow them, every session I attended was just delightful and led to great discussion. Over the coming weeks, I expect I’ll be churning out quite a few posts based on those conversations. The chance to discuss writing-related matters that are so very important to me with others who are there, in the trenches, wrestling with their manuscripts and figuring out how to promote themselves and how to engage in the world’s wider conversations, was just so valuable. It’s an opportunity I rarely get outside the virtual confines of Twitter.
There was also a delightful yet natural emphasis on diversity, particularly racial, sexual, gender, and neurodivergent. I’ve been consciously trying to expand my reading along these lines, and I came home armed with a reading list that should certainly see me through 2017! Someone on the conference hashtag noted that a panel discussion about representations of love did not include a single straight white person on it. Every panel I attended was itself diverse, not because it was about diversity, but because the conference promotes the natural diversity of our world.
What made it so special, though? Was the feeling of community. It took me no time at all to feel right at home. Everyone I encountered was eager to say hello. At the opening reception, I got waved over to join a table simply because “You looked like the new kid in the cafeteria” — but by the next afternoon, I immediately had a new friend to sit with in any room I entered. These women are incredible: brilliant, funny, warm, snarky, sharp, and so talented. And I encountered no snobbery or stratification based on publication status — readers and bloggers entered conversations with fanficcers, casual writers, aspiring authors, and published authors alike. Everyone’s opinion got to be a thread in a gorgeous tapestry.
Best of all, I felt seen and heard. The whole experience was so wonderfully validating. Everyone there wanted to share with each other — share stories, share experience, share a plate of chips and salsa, share in a rousing rendition of Hamilton‘s “The Battle of Yorktown” at the end of the Ball of Enchantment. For a few days, I could be utterly myself, without artifice, and that was not only accepted, but cheered. It was a feeling I didn’t know had been missing until it was suddenly there.
I was a little excited to be there. 😉
Dolled up for the Ball of Enchantment
Obvy I did not take this picture. But it is me doing my thing at the end of the Battle of Yorktown.
I am so, so delighted that I can now consider myself a Siren. What a brilliant group to have connected with. I’ve got a reading list a mile long, and half of it consists of books and short stories written by new friends. And next year, I sure hope my fellow Sirens will be able to see A Flame Arises on this shelf:
I opined about this a bit on Twitter earlier today, and it remained on my mind enough that I want to expand on it a bit here.
I go through a process, periodically, of evaluating myself. I call it “having a Come-to-Proserpina moment” — although it might even better be called a come-to-Ma’at moment, because it’s about weighing and evaluating how my actions speak for me. To focus those thoughts, I try to answer these questions:
What adjectives do I want to use to describe myself?
What adjectives would I like other people to use to describe me?
Do my actions currently lead to those qualities?
How do I need to change or redirect my actions to lead to those qualities?
It’s about being the person I want to be. How close am I to that goal, to that image I’d like to have of myself?
The evaluation is not an easy thing to do. Or, perhaps, not an easy thing to do well and honestly. An unscrupulous person, with little self-awareness, could easily say, “Yes, of course; what I do fits exactly the kind of person I want to be, and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t see me clearly”. Doing it well and helpfully, though, means taking your own ego to task. It means not assuming that your actions are correct just because you’re the one taking them. You have to be a little brutal and quite relentless. Your brain tries to squirm out of it, tries to shape excuses out of reasons. It’s like editing, a little, in a way — you have to pin down what isn’t working and be ruthless about it. And in doing so, you learn to cut away what isn’t helpful, what detracts from your strengths, and how to reshape the rest to better reflect the story you want to tell.
Every time I do this, I emerge stronger, more whole, more like that ideal version of myself. However discomfiting the process, the result is so empowering. It means that I can then feel more confident about my assessments and actions being correct — not just because I’ve made them, but because I’ve really questioned myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It’s important to ask those questions, even if the answer is yes, because that gives me a grounding and a sort of renewed dedication to myself. If I can say, honestly, that yes, my actions reflect the sort of person I want to be, then I can feel assured in going forth unafraid of what anyone else might say in spite or jealousy.
It’s not about not having flaws. The gods know I have those. Sometimes they’re inextricably linked to my virtues — my temper comes from the same place as my passion, for example. My stubbornness and my loyalty have similar roots. I will never eradicate the one without sacrificing the other, and I determined years ago that I was not willing to grey myself out in that way. But it does mean that I need to act in a way that supports my virtues more than my vices. It also certainly doesn’t mean I never backslide, never fail to live up to my ideals of myself. That’s why it’s important to keep evaluating.
I call it come-to-Proserpina or come-to-Ma’at because it’s a process of thinking of what those ladies would say of me, were I called to stand before them now. How do my actions represent me? What do they say that my tongue might not? If my heart were to be weighed against Ma’at’s feather, how would it balance?
In contemplating this for myself recently, I’ve realized that my main female protagonist is ending up doing this in her life. I didn’t set out with that intention, but that’s sort of what multiple rounds of edits are coming around to. She looks at her life, realizes it isn’t what her heart wants, and realizes that, if she wants things to change, she has to be the agent of that change. She can’t wait for the world to re-arrange itself for her.
So this has been on my mind for a while, but the recent #Ham4Austen meme, courtesy of @Drunk_Austen, has revived my desire to chatter about it.
As the deal announcement for my forthcoming novel stated, the backbone of the story belongs largely to three sisters: the Vitelliae — who are, in the creativity of Roman naming conventions, Aula Vitellia Prima (called Aula), Aula Vitellia Secunda (called Latona), and Aula Vitellia Prima (called Alhena). As I’ve discussed before, my inspiration for them came from a painting, but I think it’s slightly more than coincidence that much of the novel has been written and revised while I’ve had not just thematically-appropriate HBO’s Rome and the BBC classic I, Claudius running in the background (I am nearly incapable of working in silence), but also Downton Abbey, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and the Hamilton soundtrack. Their relationships, with each other and with those outside the family, drive the story.
I wasn’t consciously adopting a pattern as I wrote, but nearly everyone who’s read the book thus far has commented on how the Vitelliae make them think of the Bennetts, the Crawleys, or the Schuylers. Sarah once asked me if it were intentional, and our notes back and forth are littered with references to Hamilton (not only because of the sisters — but a lot because of them). But it got me thinking just what the similarities and dissimilarities are, because my girls don’t align neatly to any of the characters they are, as a group, compared to.
Pert, vivacious Aula Prima has the most in common, strangely, with Lydia Bennett — if Lydia Bennett had Angelica Schuyler’s political sense. She loves a good time, has a fondness for military men, and flirts with abandon — but unlike Lydia, she strives to keep her family out of scandal. Knowledgeable and adept, she hides a cunning mind and clever wit behind lively green eyes, pink cheeks, and bouncing auburn curls. In “a world in which [her] only job is to marry rich,” she turns her political ambitions towards her father and brother.
Editor!Sarah and I have a joke of referring to Alhena as “And Peggy”, but there’s really much more to her than that. She probably has the most in common with Mary Bennett, and maybe a little with Edith, though I think she’s a bit softer than either. She’s a more minor character than Aula and Latona, but she has a lot of room to grow and develop, but at the onset, she’s bookish, and almost painfully shy outside of her own family (with, you’ll learn, good reason).
And then my dear Latona, middle sister and primary protagonist. She’d get along sparklingly a dinner party with Mary and Sybille Crawley, Angelica Schuyler, and both Elizas Bennett and Hamilton, but I don’t know how much she has in common with any of them. She’s a slightly different type. None of the Misses I mention start with as much tragedy in their backgrounds as Latona. She feels Angelica’s frustration and ambition, shares Mary Crawley’s sense of responsibility and Sybille’s social justice, would appreciate Eliza Bennett’s wit, Eliza Hamilton’s yearning for a peaceful and prosperous domestic life… but she also suffers a repression that’s personal, not just societal, and it’s colored her deeply.
So what has made early readers feel such resonance with these sisterly sets? Something in the structure itself, I suspect. A sister is different than a friend. Friends, you can choose (and the Vitelliae have those as well, as I consciously did not want to create a world where women had no social connection outside their families). But sisters, you’re given.
I am a woman with a sister, myself. Just the one, so a smaller set than the families I’ve discussed above, and we’re about six years apart. I would take a bullet for her, but our relationship hasn’t always been easy. That age gap is a bit weird — too far apart to be real allies as children, too close not to feel competitive. When I was in my most troubled years, she was still in grade school; when she was in hers, I was off at college. I often had an older sibling’s exasperation with being expected to be responsible and set a good example, not retaliate when provoked, and irritation with what she got away with that I hadn’t or couldn’t (parental leniency with younger siblings being a well-noted tradition — at least among oldest children!). I suspect that she often felt held to a high standard because of me, that I was something she was expected to live up to. We were both probably a little right and a little wrong. We get along much better as adults, but it’s because we’ve both learned to be more thoughtful, less antagonistic, more empathetic. We’ve learned about each other, not just what we like but how we work, rather than just assuming a genetic bond would either function or not. (To our mother’s total lack of surprise, we often find that our strife has been caused by our similarities, not our differences).
I hope that particular aspect of sororal relations comes across in my writing in a genuine way. It’s one of the things I really adore about the Crawley sisters. While the Bennetts certainly don’t see eye-to-eye, there’s never any real strife among them. Even when Lydia disgraces the family, she shrugs it off with almost no consequences, and everyone else sort of rolls their eyes, and life moves on. Everyone seems far more concerned about how Lydia’s actions reflect on them than about Lydia’s well-being. Lizzy never gives Lydia the dressing-down she had coming, nor do the other sisters air their grievances. Saintly Jane never shows impatience or irritation with her siblings. Mary never explodes with frustration at the mockery she endures. The closest we get to real sororal trouble are the sniping between Lydia and Mary, and then the jealousy that Kitty feels over Lydia’s popularity and invitation to go to Brighton — but those are only side notes, the background chatter of the novel. The disconnect between Lizzy and her younger siblings is more glanced at than explored. The reader is meant to dismiss them as silly and pointless (one of the things I like better about the 2005 movie is that you see more soulfulness out of Mary Bennett), and thus not to feel much sympathy for them.
On the other hand, Mary and Edith spend a lot of time at each others’ throats, snarking and subverting and outright sabotaging. But when their tempers aren’t up, they know that they do love each other — and that one day, they will be all each other has left. “Sisters have secrets,” Mary says, at the end of the series, and she’s right — and those secrets are rarely tidy and cute. Their relationship is far less sanitized than that of the Bennetts, and far more real. The Vitelliae aren’t quite so contentious, but they don’t always understand each other. Their personalities are different, and there’s quite an age gap between the elder two and the youngest. They’ll make decisions the others don’t agree with. They’ll be unintentionally hurtful. They’ll worry and scare each other. An older sister accustomed to being in charge may seem bossy. A much-sheltered youngest may struggle to have her maturity recognized. And a troubled middle daughter may feel misunderstood and like she has nowhere to turn, even among people who love her.
I don’t know everything that will happen to them. Their relationships have grown more complex in Book 1’s revisions, and I expect those discoveries will continue. I just know I’m looking forward to the journey — and I hope you are, too!
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!
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: