instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

What We Keep

The devil is in the details

Not a dog

 

Ever since I inadvertently put honeybees in the pre-Columbian southwest (they were a European import) and didn't realize my error until well after the book was in print, I have been an obsessive researcher of the kind of minutiae that, pre-internet, used to make authors throw up their hands and say "I don't care, it sounds logical and I'm putting it in," or scrap that lovely scene that relied on the presence of a piece of honeycomb. Did the Romans have window glass? (yes) Bound books? (only beginning with the late first century) Are marigolds a New World flower? (yes) Fly fishing in the Roman Empire? (only in the late second century)

 

I have never done anything as truly awful as the guy who thought prairie dogs were dogs and went on for pages about their big feet and floppy ears, but I have nightmares all the same. Even with the wonders of search engines you can spend hours when you are supposed to be writing chasing one fact for a two-sentence appearance in a 400 page book. This is known as verisimilitude, sense of place, and Some Kind of Disorder.

 

And then there's provenance. Not everyone on the Internet knows what they are talking about, believe it or not. If you are not willing to take the word of the first site you stumble on that Senator Mushrat is actually an alien lizard, then by all means apply that filter to your historical research. There's a lovely Facebook group where I glean a lot of interesting information, but the comments section inevitably bogs down in international squabbles over whose culture was better and thus who built whatever it was, not to mention the ongoing arguments about why Augustus could not have had blond hair (he probably did) and why an iron collar just the right size for a human neck, that says "I belong to Marcus Ginantonicus of the Sixth Legion, I have run away, please return," isn't a slave collar and must have been for a dog.

 

So much of what is accurate is counterintuitive, and so much that sounds right isn't. And there are so many fascinating things to investigate that aren't critical to your novel and actually fall into the category of Things That Are Interesting But Do Not Belong Here No Matter How Much You Like Them. It's so easy to spend a blissful two hours learning how sewage was disposed of and then realize that you have no place to put it that isn't utterly contrived, and the details are revolting anyway and emphatically not the ambience you are looking for. I have a little folder of these. One of these days someone is going to be appointed Aedile in charge of drains and I will be ready.

 

 

Photo credit: Joe Ravi

2 Comments
Post a comment

The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead is nearly here. Ordinarily I would be getting out the decorations, bringing Catrina and El Jefe up from the cellar and dressing them in their party clothes. This year, no. No party and less incentive to decorate. The decorations are just fluff anyway; the heart of the Day of the Dead is the ofrenda, the altar with pictures of our lost loved ones, and little gifts for them to enjoy: gin and poker chips for my father, chocolate and a china dog for my mother, brandy for my father-in-law, and his slide rule from the corner cabinet in the living room.

 

There is something about late October that pulls the curtains apart and leaves us staring into mystery, more than a little afraid. The leaves whirl around our heads in a mindless dance, carried on a wind that electrifies the cats' fur so that they also run a little mad. No wonder so many different cultures marked this cross-quarter day, midway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, as a hinge point in the year, when anything might visit from the other side.

 

The Day of the Dead has its origins among the Aztecs. It has some things in common with Celtic Samhain, that other end-of-October cross-quarter-day marker long ago coopted by the church to serve Christianity instead of the old gods. As on Samhain (pronounced sow-in) the veils between the worlds are thought to be thin and permeable, so that spirits may come drifting on the late October winds. At Samhain no one wants to meet them, and doors are closed and fires lit against anything riding that storm. But the Day of the Dead welcomes returning souls, says to them, "Come in, have a drink, smoke a cigar, remember how we still love you. You are our own. Who are you that we should fear you?"

 

So we'll set up the ofrenda, and maybe we'll put a picture of last year's party on it too, just to stay in touch. I've always thought of this party as a living entity, a hive spirit composed of the rotating cast of friends who come each year, bringing marigolds and bottles of wine and pictures of their own for remembrance. Then we'll stand on the front porch and admire the full moon and pay our respects to whatever comes to call.

3 Comments
Post a comment

Twenty-first century thoughts in a first-century head

The Appian Way in 2020.

 

I've been thinking lately that one of the ongoing problems for a historical novelist is putting twenty-first-century thoughts in a first-century head.

 

The temptation is strong. After all, we want these people to seem sympathetic to a twenty-first century reader. And the reader wants them to be good people too. Thus the very bad review I once got on a romance website where a reader complained that Aphrodite kept sleeping with men who weren't her husband. But when a first-century hero lectures Augustus on abolishing arena games, you know that someone hasn't done their research.

 

The treatment of women and the practice of slavery are particularly thorny. Your first-century hero isn't going to be a feminist. And your first-century heroine is unlikely to be either. Does he beat his wife? No? Good. A lot of men did, and he probably disapproves but it won't occur to him to give women equal legal standing. Does the beaten wife put up with it? She probably has to, but she may well hate his guts. Some things aren't different. But she's not launching a crusade for women's rights. She may be wondering how to poison him.

 

Those arena games entertained the mob and the aristocracy alike. Only Seneca came close to condemning them and that only because they damaged a man's inner fiber, not because of their intrinsic cruelty. I've had to tread lightly with those, mostly for my own stomach's sake. I imagine there were many who didn't care for them, but none who suggested abolishing them. They may be an order of magnitude higher than dog fights and cockfights, if you count animals souls as always lesser, but certainly on a par with the gleeful, hungry crowds who watched lynchings not all that long ago, and would do it again if given the chance. The games trouble me the most of the things that fall into the Acceptable-then-but-now-oh-my-god category, more than slavery or the status of women.

 

But it is the issue of slavery that seems to be the hardest for modern readers, and you can't write about the ancient world and ignore it. A great part of the economy ran on slaves in that pre-industrial empire. Because the subject is so fraught with anger and guilt and willful ignorance in our current world, ancient world slavery is the subject of recurring comment wars on every social media platform where someone mentions it. An argument between an archaeologist and a poster who wanted to insist that an iron collar from a burial site was for a dog and not a slave went on for days. Yet ancient world slavery was a different institution from the horrors of American slavery. Most importantly to my mind, it was not race-based. You could be born of a slave mother, or become a slave because you were captured in a war, or fell into debt, or were sold by your parents. Not a happy life generally, but not dependent on your skin color. Slaves might be highly educated, the better to serve their masters.  Many tutors, secretaries, accountants and so on were slaves. Furthermore, a slave could buy their freedom, and many did, and numerous freedmen became wealthy and powerful. Your first-century hero is going to own slaves unless he is one himself, if he has any social standing and means at all. He is not going to ponder the injustice of slavery in general, although he may free some of his slaves for services rendered and dislike the master who mistreats his own.

 

Writing about the past requires an honesty, I think, that precludes trying to give people who lived two thousand years ago the sensibilities of the progressive first world of 2020. The best you can do is to realize that for your characters, the first century is what they have to work with. It is what they do with it that matters.

2 Comments
Post a comment

De-bugging

There was an orb weaver's web in the herb pots this morning, strung between the mint and the lemon grass, and herself clinging to the zigzag lightning bolt than ran down the center of it. I applaud her efforts and those of her sisters, but perhaps not in my mint where I am bound to come upon her unexpectedly before morning coffee, which is when I wander about vaguely thinking of ways to fill in looming plot holes, or alternatively what to fix for dinner, which is occasionally the more pressing problem. So I hired the Husbandly Spider Removal Service to transfer her to the back forty under the willow tree. Nonetheless she is an elegant creature, all legs and black-and-yellow jacket, a predatory sleekness about her. It's been a strange season, bugwise. I found a large beetle in the bedclothes, which must have hitchhiked in on the dog. And the sunroom has been invaded by lizards, which strictly speaking aren't bugs, but have the buglike ability to materialize inside the house from heaven knows where.

     The natural world is flourishing while we have been hiding in our houses, and it probably wishes we would stay there. The garden had its loveliest spring this year when I couldn't invite anybody over to see it. Roses are like that, I suspect, and tend to be a little spiteful. The feral tomatoes, children of last year's crop, have sprung up everywhere, producing handfuls of tiny red fruit with wonderful flavor. Fred Undershed, the groundhog from next door, has eaten all the nasturtiums and gnaws the big tomatoes as they ripen. The sparrows have set up an entire bird village in the trumpet vine over the pergola, and the starlings line up at the birdbath, little towels under their arms, and splash all the water out with their mad flapping. None of them care that we are all afraid to come out of our own burrows.

     I suspect we had best remember that.

1 Comments
Post a comment