This is purely about writing, not about my ability to parallel park (which is excellent, I tell you).
Now that I’ve finished self-editing In Victrix (and am still flush with optimistic excitement, at least till the beta’s comments starts rolling in) there are a few things that hit me, in light of previous feedback, which I thought are worth talking about.
So let me present you a column about writing, about sensibilities, about art, and about (my) manners.
But first — What is Art?
This, undoubtedly, is more than I can answer. If we narrow it down, though, to “why I write”, I think the answer is simpler — and in a way provides a meaningful response to the question.
I write because I enjoy reading my stories. That has hit me ever so clearly when I was doing the first editing round In Victrix. I bloody well loved the story. It’s why “murder your darlings” is such a dubious advice — if you have a ‘darling’, a bit in the story that makes you go all tingly, why would you want to remove it? It’s an advice that should be taken in caution.
Don’t think for a moment I mistake myself for some literary genius. I’m not. I write enjoyable, entertaining stories, not timeless masterpieces, and I am well aware of that. I just happen to like them.
So let’s move on to the list of apology-worthy aspects of my novels.
Life in Rome and Egretia, as Felix points out, is carried out in the open. while Roman society was fairly literate by antiquity’s standards (from 5% to 30%, depending on era and the definition of literacy), it was still a far cry from today’s written culture. The Romans relied heavily on oral traditions and communications for their day-to-day lives.
Rhetoric had been an integral part of the ancient cultures. The Greeks have written many a treatise on the subject, and it was the basis of all studies and sciences since it included logic and the effective presentation of arguments. (The same kind of logic that led Aristotle to believe eels don’t reproduce but spontaneously generate from mud, and that women have less teeth than men and are therefore inferior — but that’s a subject for another day). Romans took it somewhat sideways, focusing on style like the sophists more than logic, but the same principles apply.
All that means that giving a good speech was an absolutely essential skill, and unless you were a mine slave at the very least you had learnt to listen to them if not give them. This is how you learnt important news, how you got your entertainment (outside of the games), and how you made your case.
So, Felix being a private investigator, things would occasionally end up in court — where, you guessed it, guilt would be based on who gave the best speech.
When things peaked in In Numina, I brought out the big guns — Cicero. He was one of Rome’s everlasting rhetoricians, politicians, and philosophers. His orations, in fact, have become the gold standard of classical Latin. And since he was on stage, I stole shamelessly from the great man, twisting his words to fit the supernatural crimes under discussion.
I may have gone just a tad overboard… Based on beta readers’ feedback, the final version went out advertised with “Now with 50% less Cicero!” — and there was much rejoicing.
In the between, I learnt how to trim down those speeches to the essentials, keep it moving for modern readers, and still maintain the orator’s word and the feeling of Roman courtroom speeches.
The climax of In Victrix isn’t a legal debate in the courts, but there is a certain element of presenting facts and persuading of guilt (I’m trying not to give anything away here). Instead of basic it on real oratory, I instead chose a path closer to the Agatha-Christie-grand-reveal-style at the end of Murder In Absentia. I’d like to believe it is at once both true to the form of public oratory and rhetoric that was so quintessential to life, and more personal, immediate, and approachable to modern readers.
Time and future reviews will tell.
The Historical Roles of Women
That is different from “the roles historical women filled”. There are plenty of examples from history about powerful women — queens, scientists, pirate commanders (several of those actually), and other trail-blazers — who participated in all aspects of life. There were cultures where women were equal and performed all public roles, from the battlefield to religion to politics, as did men.
Many of these examples seem to have been written out of the public patriarchal narrative, but if one just looks beyond cultural misconceptions they are easy to find. Anyone with an open mind in this day and age can find this information, both in non-fiction and in historical fiction.
But for many settings that wasn’t the norm, certainly not for the Roman society which is the basis of Egretia. And, of course, that has changed over the years — there is quite a difference between Middle Republican era to the Principate in women rights and roles. I’ve modelled some characters on notorious women (notably, Cornelia is modelled on Clodia and Servilia), but that doesn’t change facts: women couldn’t vote, let alone serve in the senate; there were important priesthoods reserved for women, but largely they were discouraged from the public discourse; they had rights, but legally were for the most part formally under the authority of a male paterfamilias.
And having said that… There were shades of grey. Most of our knowledge comes from the writing of the patriarchal elite, so we always have to look between the lines. Things changed over time, things changes between social classes (lower often less concerned with formalities, and offering more flexibility to women), and occasional individuals were exceptions.
My apologies and atonement
I tried to write the novels true to the Late-Middle-Republic period, with the legalities and views of a “typical”, low-class male. Felix isn’t rich but he’s educated, and is actually fairly open — he looks at people realistically, but doesn’t judge them.
Still, many beta readers for In Numina, what with modern sensibilities, found that jarring. In a bone-headed move to which I later offered unreserved apologies, I sent them a quote and asked whether they found that misogynistic. The results were unanimously overwhelming that it was… and then I revealed that the quote was lifted from another book, by a female author of Roman-era mysteries, who is always praised for her deep, touching, and realistic characters and interactions. I may have suggested that perhaps male authors are judged differently than female authors, and it’s not always the story standing on its own merits.
In this action I was hopelessly wrong. Though it was my own buttons about male roles being pushed (due to personal circumstances outside of writing at that time), it is no excuse. It was not my place to educate readers, only to listen to them.
And so, in an act of atonement, I have written In Victrix with a conscious attempt to do the subject of women’s roles in Egretia justice. This is a balancing act that tries to show powerful females navigating society, while remaining historically accurate about their options. It fitted the overall character arc for Felix, it ties things neatly with some other characters, and, most importantly, give those wonderful characters the voice they deserve. It was also bloody fun to write, to see Felix being beaten back (literally and figuratively) by well-rounded female characters.
I hope I did this subject justice.
Historical Authenticity: Slavery and Morals
I’ll bundle this together with the general idea of historical authenticity. I realise that this subject is may be very sensitive to some modern readers — but that is based on modern-era slavery (particularly the US), which was very different from slavery in antiquity in Greece and Rome. It had nothing to do with race, for a start, and it was not necessarily a life-long sentence. In some ways (for the luckier slaves) it could be a temporary socio-economic disadvantage. Then again, there were very harsh realities of slavery in the mines or the galleys, which no one should ignore.
Everyone had heard of Spartacus, but his rebellion was actually the third so-call Servile War (the previous two were in Sicily under Roman rule, about 30 years apart each). Clearly slaves resented being mistreated, and Romans understood the precarious situation they were in. Yet, at the same time that Caesar butchered a million Gauls and enslaved a million more (which made him effectively the richest man in Rome), Cicero freed his long-time secretary Tiro, and the two remained in correspondence for years. Tiro published his former master’s work, and the two were clearly close friends throughout their years, both when Tiro was in Cicero’s household and later.
Romans themselves were conflicted about slavery, in ways similar to their treatment of women. The paterfamilias was master, and his word was law, but that doesn’t mean that an abusive master wouldn’t be frowned upon. Similarly, legal testimony from slaves had to be extracted under torture, and if a master died in suspicious circumstances all his household slaves had to be tortured to ascertain complicity. And yet many Romans found those aspects distasteful and abhorrent, and it would (at certain periods and circumstances) reflect badly on a master mistreating slaves.
To complicate matters, as with women, things changed over time. Freedmen (ex-slaves) could not stand for elections, but their children could. They could also amass vast riches and personal influence. During the empire, palace slaves (the administrative clerks of the establishment) effectively ranked higher in terms of influence over the common populace.
When I set out to write fantasy based as close as a I can to ancient Rome, I chose a fantasy world for the freedom of mixing several elements (the Alexandrian lighthouse and museon, Greek maritime culture, and Roman elements from different eras), and for fear of getting things wrong (such as locations around Rome, or dates of events, or aspect of society that belonged to a different era than the one I chose, the Middle Republic). Still, I tried to stay as close as I can to Roman culture, ugly sides included. I don’t write Grimdark fantasy — I don’t include violence for its own sake, and I don’t aim for social nihilism and hopelessness — but I don’t shy away from the darker aspects. And that means that slavery was a fact of life, a social and economic driver.
Felix is what’s considered a “morally grey” protagonist. He is not blind to the harsh realities of the world, and plays within them to his personal advantage. Felix, while blasé about breaking the law, is in fact very egalitarian (by Roman standards) in his treatment of women and slaves. He openly prefers to approach them as equals, when the need arises.
So whenever modern readers chide him about being chauvinistic or unacceptably tolerant of social injustice, I’m left scratching my head. In the strict historical context the books are advertised with, he is actually far more modern in his worldview, as respectful of others as I can make him while still keeping him “Roman”.
I write historical fiction, ok? But for modern readers. So I sprinkle Latin terms from the Roman period to give colour to the society and culture, to give the reader a sense of rich historical background.
Each new term introduced must pass the test of whether it’s adding or detracting, of whether I can obliquely explain it in the text (glossary at the end notwithstanding), or whether the reader can just gloss over it without losing much.
I try to avoid contemporary slang and language, but without making the text too cumbersome for the modern reader. eg, I won’t use ‘kids’ for children, and I use ‘alright’ but never ‘OK’. I obviously don’t write the books in Latin (not the least because my Latin sucks, and the two people who’d read such a work would be offended by my butchering of the language), so it’s still obviously modern English with many of its colloquialisms. Where possible, when using a modern term I’d prefer one with Latin or Greek roots that are indicative.
And yet… The two most frequent comments I get are:
- Beta-readers and Editors: “This term dates to the 17th century, and is anachronistic for a Roman milieu.”
- Reviewers on public websites: “What’s with all the Latin lol DNF”
I’ll be the first to admit that my writing craft, my historical accuracy, and definitely my Latin could be improved — but I offer no apologies. I write in modern English, with a tone that is (or trying to be) reflective of the ancient culture to modern readers. It’s a very delicate balance, and I put a lot of thought into it, and sometimes I miss. (I’m not alone with it: David Wishart’s Corvinus series is consciously written in a modern language and slang. I adore it, but reviewers find it very polarising).
I did learn to tone it down a bit between works. I no longer assume that readers will have the historical background or Romanophiles (Hey! I was surprised as anyone that more than three people like my books), or conversely that fantasy lovers would forgive the foreign terms (apparently I’m no Tolkein, either). I no longer rely on the glossary and on readers discovering and relishing it like I do. Instead make the conscious effort I described above to introduce terms gently as befits the scene and the novel. I do hope my writer craft in this has grown (and feedback would indicate it is so), but above all — it’s a balance works for me and the stories I’m trying to tell.
So my patricians have a British accent, my plebeian goons sound like a New Yorker mafioso, and they both use defixio and cunnus indiscriminately. Live with it.
(And as a side note: sometime’s I can’t resist inserting a joke based on contemporary concepts, for the contemporary reader. I love this kind of humour in the books I read, so inserting these ‘Easter eggs’ into my works brings me joy — which, for me, is what’s writing’s all about.)
That goes somewhat together with the first point above. I find that alliteration is such a strong rhetoric tool. These days we can savour it when reading a clever turn of phrase, but I can see it playing an important part with the Roman-style oratory style (Romans were more concerned with style over the Greek’s more rounded focus on logic and arguments). I can see it firing the crowds then and now, and focusing their attention where the orator wants.
Then again, perhaps it’s just me.
Just as an example, a particularly juicy quote from Felix’s summation of the case:
A twisted, crooked path indeed, but one we must follow doggedly to understand the depravity of Milo, how he put personal petty peeves ahead of public prosperity.In Victrix
I go into the use of alliteration in more detail in the notes for In Victrix, but for me, these kind of tongue-twisters capture so much of Egretian/Roman life. The ability to do deliver a well-phrased argument was an integral part of life.
So, no apologies on this one 🙂
That’s it. Three serious subjects, one about the craft of story telling (and lessons in it), and a last one wholly lighthearted as a cherry on top. I do hope you enjoy my rambling musings (or why else would you have read the whole thing?), and if you do — you might want to try the free short stories or the full novels. They’re full of the yummy goodness you’re here for.