Fantastic History #37: Lean into your Strengths by Julie C. Day

What is the secret to writing a story with a rich, well researched world? Deep, abiding weakness.

While I learn quickly, I forget just as swiftly. All those names, dates, specific chemical bonds, burial rituals, details of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and understanding of the role of women in the ancient world swirl into an impressionistic mess. This is the sort of issue that hits many parts of my life, including my ability to write fiction. But that’s not my only writerly weakness. As a writer I have an abundance of tone and pretty, pretty sentences that power up the creepy and unsettling. But plot—dear, Lord—plot is never a straightforward exercise. And worlds, settings, that accurate description of architecture? None of it is going to slip easily onto the page. When I first started writing fiction my detail-deficient brain and plotless soul meant putting together a setting and story arc was hard. And then—thank, God, finally—I learned to embrace these weaknesses with almost boundless enthusiasm.

Lean into your strengths as a writer. That’s one of those pearls offered up to new and aspiring authors. Definitely a good suggestion, but I’ve discovered the converse is even more useful—lean into your weaknesses and leverage them as strengths.

Have a hard time with plot? Build a situation and a world full of specific details, details tied to scientific knowledge, historical facts, and a meticulous, Google-maps-inspired understanding of a specific location. Use all those details as thick bumper-guards that will direct your imaginings. And that’s plotting covered…

Thankfully, the power of details is a multi-pronged organism. As it turns out the most powerful crutch for a writer with a poor memory is the factual world! The known details of the Sumerian religion, a catalog of bioluminescent organisms, the lifecycle of the corn borer moth, my brain is ready to take it all in—on a temporary basis. But because the information is at its root fact-based, I know I can always return to the well and refamiliarize myself with the content. With the right level of organization, nothing is ever permanently lost.

As well as an MFA, I hold a Bachelors and a Masters of Science. I studied Microbiology in college and worked in biotech for awhile, but when writing fiction, but I can’t rely on any of that specialist’s knowledge—bad memory for details remember? But here is where my weakness leads to my most powerful strength. There is something about my magpie approach to creation, the need to read and reread information on so many disparate subjects, that encourages the collision of the unexpected and the seemingly unrelated. Which is exactly how the setting and concept for my upcoming novella The Rampant came about. What is my novella’s setting? you ask. Well, dear reader, it’s a stalled Sumerian Rapture in near-future Southern Indiana.

Of course, it is.

Some of the authors I envy for their—assumed—vast knowledge and associated retention: C. J. Cherryh, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin. But that is just never going to be me. When I started to plan The Rampant I was leery of any strict adherence to Sumerian practices and beliefs. Even with spreadsheets, bookmarks, and notes, cracks were a forgone conclusion, and whether my readers notice or not, my OCD-esque writer brain wants all those details sorted and correct. The layout of a lecture hall at College Park? The active season for grasshopper nymphs in New Hampshire? All those other story details from all those other stories? Yeah, I’ve got notes on that. But getting all those Sumerian gods, demi-gods and the associated details right? Well, that was a recipe for a never-ending cycle of stuck, and a huge distraction from the emotional heart of the work.

Riffs, impressionistic memories, concepts: those are the type of recollections my brain pulls forth. A merging of the Sumerian with my childhood memories of Southern Indiana—scaffolded with yet more research—now that is my natural medium. By melding those two bodies of knowledge—one containing all the excitement of the newly learned and the other containing emotional truths exhumed—well, my distractible personality was all in!

Sometimes my research involves reading old travel guides, books on ancient languages or translated texts not available online. In the case of The Rampant, I got lucky. To a large extent, the internet more than met my needs.

A sample of the research involved in composing The Rampant:
Tibetan coracles, because I needed a hand-built boat that utilized stretched hide.
• (Self) consciousness and the animal world, because…story reasons.
• The changing racial demographics of Columbus Indiana
• The Sumerian culture and religion.
• Translated Sumerian texts.
• Bioluminescent organisms.
• Beehive houses.
• The visual details of mummified bodies.
• The format of Christian catechisms.
• The lifecycle of corn borer moths.

Outside of piracy, the proliferation of electronic versions of books online is one of the wonders of the digital age. Of all the items I found online, Thompson’s 1903 The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia: being Babylonian and Assyrian incantations against the demons, ghouls, vampires, hobgoblins, ghosts, and kindred evil spirits, which attack mankind, tr. from the original Cuneiform texts, with transliterations, vocabulary, notes, etc. was the most inspirational. It’s from Thompson’s translation of “The Seven Evil Spirits” that I uncovered one of the novella’s key characters, the Rampant. And yes, Babylonian is different from Assyrian which are both preceded by Sumerian. But here is the beauty of cultures both ancient and new, things blend and morph and bleed between their supposed edges. As Thompson says in his notes on “The Seven Evil Spirits”:

This story is the sixteenth tablet of a series called the “Evil Demon Series,” of which we have an Assyrian with a parallel Sumerian text. Presumably, therefore, it was a very ancient legend.

For me that was enough to consider it a Sumerian reference. In fact, this particular text helped form the basic premise of The Rampant: the end times have stalled because one of the Seven Evil Spirits has decided to hide out instead of joining the rest of his brethren on Earth. Now humanity is stuck in a seemingly never-ending apocalypse. Sickened by the ongoing misery, our protagonists, sixteen-year-old Emelia Bareilles and Gillian Halkey travel into the Sumerian lands of the dead, determined to force a change.
Not that Thompson’s book contained the only translations I read. The Oxford University’s Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, which included an online searchable collection of translations, was also hugely beneficial. Late in the process, I used the Text for the novella’s epigraphs. But first came my browsing of content which included the first known reference to Gilgamesh, the Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Nether @orld,” along with another Sumerian poem “Inana’s Descent to the Nether World.” My underworld, including the Sumerian Netherworld, started to take shape from these ancient fragments.

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I make no claim that I’ve recreated the Sumerian land of the dead in The Rampant. For me that really wasn’t the point. But what I did—what I attempted anyway—was to craft a fantasy world in which the Sumerian elements I referenced felt accurate to those with a far deeper knowledge than my own. And isn’t that what storytelling is all about in the end, that feeling of reality the reader experiences—both physical and emotional—despite the clear knowledge that all of it is nothing but one brain’s reaction to words on a page?

Julie C. Day has published over thirty stories in magazines such as Black Static, The Dark, and Podcastle. Her debut collection, Uncommon Miracles, was released by PS Publishing in 2018. Her novella, The Rampant, is forthcoming this fall from Aqueduct Press.

Julie lives in a small town in New England with her family and a menagerie of variously sized animals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and a M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can find her at @thisjulieday or at her website. Café writing and long baths with paper books are also a thing.

Fantastic History #35: An Interview with Karen Abrahamson

Cath: Death by Effigy is a powerful book that recreates a time and a culture with precision. What interested you in writing the book?

Karen: Writing this book was the result of a decade or more of a love affair with the Burmese puppets. In 1997 I travelled in Myanmar (aka Burma) and while I was there I researched the puppets for a non-fiction article I was writing for a magazine. I came back and wrote my article, but there was so much more to the puppets and the Burmese culture that I wanted to write about. I actually wrote a different novel about the puppets, but they kept cropping up in my writing and at one point I wrote a 10,000 word short story about Aung, the aging puppet singer. When I decided to expand that story I added the fantasy element of Yamin, the mischievous page puppet, but it was from Aung’s POV. Then one of my first readers told me that the novella came alive whenever the nats (spirits) and Yamin appeared and suddenly everything made sense. Readers needed to understand a creature like Yamin and the only way to do that was to have his POV be front and center. So that’s how the story came to be, but really it was all about the Burmese culture. The blend of Buddhism and Animism was so front and center in real people’s lives that I really felt it when I traveled there. The blend was so unique, it simply had to be written about. From there, it was a matter of doing a lot of research and then letting the ideas ferment in the imagination.

Cath: Can you talk a little bit about your own travels in Burma/Myanmar?

Karen: I was there in 1997. It was a closed country then, or almost totally closed so I was only able to travel to a few places, like Yangoon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Kyaiktiyo, and I could only stay for one month. Aung San SuuKyi was under house arrest at the time and you had to be very careful what you said and did. I traveled alone and the people were SO gracious. They were incredibly poor and yet entirely giving. I met puppeteers and priests, carvers and neurosurgeons and retired politicians in my research into the puppets. But most of all I remember the people’s small kindnesses that were too numerous to mention. They demonstrated so much about their faith and culture in how they lived every day. Learning about the puppets from a puppet carver brought home the myth and tradition of the puppets and the troupes. Learning about the many spirits that inhabit the landscape and villages became the topic of my research when I decided to write fiction about the troupes. One kind neurosurgeon who was trying to ensure that the puppet tradition wasn’t lost helped me immensely by connecting me with German anthropological research into the puppets.

Cath: In what year, approximately, is Death by Effigy set? Why did you choose this particular time in Burmese history?

Karen: The story s set roughly about 1820 during the reign of King Bodawpaya. That king had the misfortune to have to deal with some of the earliest English envoys to Burma who were demanding that Burma be opened to trade. It must have been horribly difficult, because from his seat in Burma he was watching the same English take over the Indian subcontinent by removing the various Moghul princes one by one. It was a time of horrendous change and pressure on the culture both from the English and from Jesuit missionaries. Plus the Burmese royal families were rife with subterfuge and murder. All that angst and conflict is a great backdrop for a puppet troupe trying to maintain the old ways.

Cath: What kinds of historical research did you engage in to flesh out Death by Effigy?

Karen: I read anthropological research on the nats, books on the puppets and found a wonderful Burmese history book at a Yangoon street market that I mined extensively for the history of the country. I also managed to find the diary of the first English envoy to King Bodawpaya’s court. The diary wasn’t flattering to either the King or the man who wrote it, but it sure brought out the attitudes of the foreigners attending the court.

Cath: As Daniel Hand mentions in his preface to your story, Burma has been at the center of political and religious tension throughout its history. Your main character Aung struggles with religion in the book, as he knows nats are real. Can you discuss the shift in religion throughout Burma during this time, and how you used this in your book?

Karen: Burma has always been at a crossroads where different religions mix. As with Thailand, the country has a mix of Theravada Buddhism, with an infusion of Brahmanism/Hinduism all overlaid on a far older animistic belief in nature spirits (nats) and other spirits. Over its history, Burma played a central role in the maintenance of Theravada Buddhism, with a lot of cross pollination with Ceylon/Sri Lanka in ensuring the retention and strength and, dare I say, purity of the religion. In Burma itself, various kings had attempted to exterminate the nat worship because it was seen to undermine the purity of Buddhist beliefs. Monarchs built huge Buddhist temple edifices to gain merit that might help themselves and their country now and in future incarnations.

In Bodawpaya’s time the country was under extreme pressure from the English. In the west the English were removing the hereditary maharaja system of governance and were fighting a war against a royal family that was related to Bodawpaya. There were also East India Company traders at the doorstep demanding that the country be opened to trade. At the same time Christian missionaries—mostly Jesuits—were proselytizing in the countryside.

Given this background, I thought it was reasonable that Bodawpaya would be under tremendous pressure and would, like his predecessors, fall back on the religion he knew (Buddhism) to seek help to deal with the threat at his door. Unfortunately, in the world of my series, turning away from the spirits threatens the very earth that supports you because of the symbiotic relationship between humans and nats. Humans give offerings, which give power to the nats. The nats in turn support the land, which supports the people. Of course, if you turn away from supporting the nats, who knows what will happen… This stress and struggle become more evident in the books that follow in the series.

Cath: The idea that the puppet shows were almost the only way to criticize the government of Burma is interesting. Why did you choose to use a puppet troupe as the main focus of your story?

Karen: Well, the research that I’ve done on the Burmese puppet troupes indicates that the puppets were actually the only way to critique the powers that be. As for why I chose the puppet troupe as the main focus of the story—I loved what I learned about the troupes. The puppeteers apparently really thought of the puppets as their little brothers and sisters. When puppeteers bathed, they bathed their puppets. If they did their hair, they would do the same for their small kin. And then there was the way that the puppets were carved from a single tree so they were their own special family within the troupe. Couple that with the role of the troupes to share news and make social commentary and MY GOODNESS, there were so many possible stories to be told.

And then there were the puppets. They simply ached for magic and Yamin most of all, because as a Page, he would be younger-minded and more inclined to get into trouble, like any other young boy. Using him as a foil against the older and wiser Singer of the troupe simply made sense. At least to me.

Cath: Could you tell us a little bit about nats and how you portray them in the book?

Karen: The worship of nats (or Nats for the great Nats), is something far older than Buddhism. Nats come in a number of forms. There are nature nats that protect a hillside, a glen, a rice field, etc. Then there are great Nats. Most of these are the spirits of some great being like Min Mahagiri who was a warrior blacksmith. There were other great nats who were ogres and so on, so there is a pantheon of Nats.

Within Burmese culture, there are patron nats or Nats of villages, and areas. For instance, a specific nat will be the patron of a cluster of villages and thus you’ll see shrines to this nat in a village. In addition, each household has a shrine to the house nat. Min Mahagiri is also the house nat and brings blessing on the household.

Households, villages and farmers know that nats can be devilish beings. Proper offerings can ensure a healthy happy household, a good rice harvest, and healthy children. Failure to make proper offerings can lead to strife, famine and the death of children.

While I’ve tried to stay true to the basic beliefs, what the nats actually look like and how they act as individuals is all my doing and thus probably westernized. So I’ve taken the basic concept of these somewhat ‘slippery’ characters and have imbued them with the desire to survive. I’ve also given them the ability to know who their allies are—thus the relationship between Aung and the nats. Most of all, in writing this book and the others in the series so far, I’ve fallen in love with Yamin and his awareness of the difference between nat and man and his desire to explore the human side of the equation.Of course that causes more trouble…

Cath: While this book obviously has elements of fantasy, it also reads as the first book in a series of mysteries, and I see from your website it is! Aung and Yamin complement each other well. Why did you choose mystery as a genre to write in?

Karen: I have always enjoyed reading mysteries and I was once told by a writing mentor that I should try my hand at writing mystery even though my focus at that time was fantasy. The original story was written about Aung for a mystery workshop where we were challenged to write a non-fantasy mystery about a crime that would not be a crime today. I thought the destruction of a royal puppet would be such a crime. Today you might get a willful damage or mischief charge, but it wouldn’t be serious. Anyway, the story was good, but I decided to rewrite it as a novella and then Yamin’s point of view came in and there you go. I enjoyed writing Aung and Yamin so much that I knew they had to have other adventures and now there are three books in the series and a fourth waiting to be written.

Cath: Can you tell us about your plans for the next two books in this series?

Karen: The two books after Death By Effigy take Aung and Yamin and the wandering puppet troupe to other locations in Burma where they run into other mysteries to solve. They visit the home of the King of the Nats (Mount Popa) and the ruins of the once mighty city of Pagan (or Bagan). Through it all Aung is dealing with his age and the desire for peace and quiet, while Yamin continues his transformation from an ancient nat to something—well—else. At the same time, Burma is experiencing the challenges of missionaries and European traders in a country that isn’t really prepared for such things. The yet-to-be written fourth book will take place in Yangoon—a scary place with its population of westerners when you travel with a band of living spirits—one of whom is Yamin!

Cath: Where can people find out more about you or your books?

They can find out more about me on my website and on Facebook.