Fantastic History #41: Heirlooms, Mementos, and Psychic Energy by Pat Esden

I’ve been an antique dealer and collector for most of my life, in fact I started actively buying from estates and working flea markets as a teenager. Since the beginning, I’ve been fascinated by which objects people are eager to sell versus what they feel compelled to keep. Even people who don’t like antiques will often hold onto a piece of heirloom jewelry or vintage teacup. Rocking chairs and kitchen implements are also often chosen as keepsakes. One time I bought an entire estate, except for a broken wooden milking stool that the owner couldn’t bear to part with. I asked the owner if it reminded him of a family member and was surprised to learn he hadn’t ever noticed the stool before that day. Still, he stood there clutching the stool like it was the most important thing in the world.

Incidences, like the man and his milking stool, have convinced me it isn’t always sentimental, aesthetic, or financial reasons that draw a person to keep a particular object. Sometimes the attraction happens at a deeper level. When a person uses an object for years, it’s bound to absorb their vibes and develop psychic energy—like a paintbrush used by an artist or a cook’s favorite mixing spatula. This energy may not resonate with everyone, but certain people will be attracted and experience a feeling of well being or garner strength from the object’s energy.

I’m not talking about a spirit literally being housed in an object or about psychometry. I’m referring to a subtle energy that radiates comfort. Of course, this can be experienced in the opposite way as well. Some objects can repulse a person, like a razor strap that was used for punishment or perhaps a wedding band from an unhappy marriage.

I do think this connection is stronger when the person who currently possess the object shares a personal history with the previous owner.

How about you? Have you felt drawn to keep certain heirlooms or mementos? Are there things you’ve gotten rid of because they gave off negative vibes? What do you think the correlation is between us and the objects we choose to keep?

My latest novel, THINGS SHE’S SEEN comes out October 22. It’s the second novel in the Northern Circle Coven series and centers on a young woman who was once known as “Violet Grace The World’s Youngest Psychic Medium.” As a newly recovering alcoholic, she keeps a journal where she writes poems and also saves small objects, such as a note from a long lost lover, a train ticket stub, and a fake ID given to her by a stranger who changed her life. These things bring back fond memories, reminding her of the good parts of her personal history. But more than that, touching them physically eases her anxiety and gives her a sense of hope.


Pat Esden would love to say she spent her childhood in intellectual pursuits. The truth is she was fonder of exploring abandoned houses and old cemeteries. When not out on her own adventures, she can be found in her northern Vermont home writing stories about brave, smart women and the men who capture their hearts.

She is the author of the contemporary fantasy Northern Circle Coven series from Kensington Publishing’s Lyrical Press, and the Dark Heart series from Kensington Books. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, the Mythopoeic Society’s Mythic Circle, George Scither’s Cat Tales Anthology, and the Fragments of Darkness anthology. She is a HOLT medallion finalist, and a member of RWA, and a Director-at-Large for the League of Vermont Writers.


THINGS SHE’S SEEN (Northern Circle Coven series book 2)

The coven’s under investigation. Its future is in peril. And for one troubled young psychic, the coming battle will threaten her newfound freedom—and brings back a dangerous desire . . .

Exploited as a child medium, Emily Adams escaped to grow up on the streets—and hit rock-bottom. She took shelter with the prestigious Northern Circle, intent on staying only long enough to get back on her feet. But the Circle is still reeling from a devastating supernatural attack and betrayal. And vengeful High Council of Witches investigator Gar Remillard is determined to make Em surrender the truth—and disband the Circle forever.

When Em’s psychic ability allows her to see Gar is haunted by a formidable ghost, her attempts to free him challenge Gar’s rugged French Canadian heart and rancorous loup-garou instincts. But even as their new alliance and past connection kindles into raging desire, a malevolent force rises up to destroy them—the Circle and even the High Council.

With all she’s grown to love on the line, Em must draw on her darkest nightmares and alliances with the dead to outwit and out magic a force who can imprison souls with a flick of the fingers and command legions of wraiths with one word. . .

Barnes & Noble

Fantastic History #40: An Interview with Marie Brennan

Cath: While this interview is predominantly about your new book, Turning Darkness into Light, readers might appreciate a little grounding in the setting and world of this book. To that end, would you talk about The Memoirs of Lady Trent? The history of the world borrows from our own nineteenth century, but clearly the world of Lady Trent is not our world. How would you summarize the series to people yet to have the pleasure of your work?

Marie: The Memoirs are the life story of a lady adventurer and dragon naturalist in, as you say, a quasi-Victorian world. In this setting, dragons are natural animals — not magical creatures like Smaug — and each novel of that series showed Lady Trent on a different expedition in various lands to study them, and invariably getting into trouble along the way. Because that’s what happens when you’re a protagonist. Turning Darkness Into Light then moves along to a sightly later period, a bit more like the 1920s, and concerns itself with the ancient past . . . and the effect it’s having on the present day.

Cath: Lady Trent is a dragon naturalist. The five book series is a memoir written by an older Lady Trent. Why did you choose the memoir format for this series?

Marie: To be honest, I more or less stumbled into it. When I began playing around with the idea, the voice defaulted to first person, and to a retrospective tone — which authors do all the time without framing the story as a memoir, but given the Victorian-ish setting, that seemed like a natural fit.

I didn’t realize until I got deeper into the story how many advantages there were to that approach. It let me get away with a great deal of description and exposition that also doubled as characterization, and opened up space for perspective; Lady Trent comments on her own youthful foibles, which I think invites the reader to also reflect on where they might still disagree with her. It wound up being the perfect way to tell the story, so I wish I could take credit for having done it on purpose!

Cath: Fantasy’s fascination with dragons is enduring and deep. There are parallels between the nineteenth century fascination with antiquities and ancient history in our world with that of Lady Trent’s desire to study dragons and the ancient sites associated with them. Why did you choose to present dragons as an anthropological/archaeological study in the series?

Marie: One of the first things I did for this series was make a list of fun pulp adventure tropes, and “ancient ruins” were pretty much at the top. So of course that meant I had to invent an ancient civilization whose ruins could be relevant to the plot! And it’s such a Victorian mood, discovering the past while also charging at top speed toward the future. I shamelessly borrowed everything from the ruins of Abu Simbel to the decipherment of Linear B to the legend of Atlantis, and only regret that there are all sorts of awesome archaeological things I didn’t manage to work in there, like the Terracotta Army.

Cath: The world of Lady Trent is not ours. Sometimes writers of fantastic history choose to integrate a fantastic element into our world, but your books are secondary world books. Why did you choose to invent a new world rather than use this one?

Marie: My previous series, the Onyx Court, was set in London at various points during its history, and I did epic piles of research for it. Which was a lot of fun . . . but it also meant I knew the standards I would hold myself to if I set this story in the real world. It would wind up shackling me: I couldn’t just make up an ancient civilization and stick it into the past, then expect everything after it to stay the same. Plus I wanted the freedom to address issues like colonialism without making them exactly the same as they were in real history. Scirland is still a colonial power, but the imbalance isn’t as great as it was in our own nineteenth century, nor as unilaterally tilted toward the West. Making up a secondary world gave me the freedom to play around with the details to suit my story, without feeling like I was misrepresenting the actual past.

Cath: Now onto your new book! Turning Darkness into Light is about Audrey Camherst, as she translates ancient Draconean tablets. You use the epistolary technique in this novel to brilliant effect, telling this story through newspaper articles, letters, and journals. Can you talk about your decision to use this technique?

Marie: There’s a tendency for authors to do a clever thing they wind up regretting later. It happened to me with the titles of the Onyx Court books (all of which are quotations from period literature that end in a verb), and it happened with this setting, when I decided to make not only the Memoirs but a short story I wrote later on consist of in-world texts. With those data points in place, it felt wrong to write anything else in that world as a conventional piece of fiction.

And in fact, the original idea for this book was something else entirely. I was going to write an in-world novel — a contemporary of Lady Trent penning a sweeping historical epic about the downfall of the Draconean civilization. I soon realized the downfall of a civilization makes for a depressing story, though, so it slewed sideways into being a Draconean myth, and from there into Lady Trent’s granddaughter translating such a myth, with associated complications in the present day. Which naturally lent itself toward alternating between the text of the myth and what’s happening in the present moment — and for the present moment to itself be a text, I had to turn to diary entries, letters, and so on. Which was a fun challenge, but also made me tear my heart out from time to time . . .

Cath: A lot of fiction being written right now examines ideas of difference and prejudice. Your book takes these issues and confronts them head on. One could say that prejudice is the driving mechanism of the book. How much did what is happening in the world today influence your decisions to examine Scirland’s reaction to Dragonkind?

Marie: I try not to actively foreground those kinds of thoughts, because past experience tells me it results in me writing very preachy fiction. But yes, I have no doubt that I was influenced by current events. I do know I consciously chose to make Audrey bi-racial, half white and half her world’s equivalent of African, because there’s not enough racial diversity in fantasy. And of course if I wanted there to be conflict around an ancient mythological epic, then there had to be conflict around the people in the present day for whom that epic is important. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a great deal of romantic nationalism, i.e. the promulgation of the idea that racial groups had some essential (and unified) identity expressed in their culture, especially in their literature. So it was a natural move to bring in those issues . . . which are sadly all too topical these days.

Cath: An important element of this novel is the story and translation of the Draconean tablets, prose akin to ancient Eddas. What were your influences for writing such text? How did you so skillfully manage the discussion of the translation of the work as the characters were considering it?

Marie: It helps that I’ve done translation work myself, though not professionally. I studied both Latin and Old Norse, along with various other languages for more conversational purposes (none of which I’m fluent in). That gave me a footing for asking useful questions of people who specialize in cuneiform and Akkadian, which I used as a basis for the Draconean language.

I also have an academic background in folklore, so I was already familiar with many of the world’s great epics, and before I began writing I dove into a binge read or re-read of quite a few: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Mahabharata, Journey to the West, the Kalevala, the Popol Vuh, and so on. The fingerprints of those are all over what Audrey and Kudshayn translate.

Cath: I can’t talk about the ending of the book, because I certainly want people to read it spoiler free. However, the story is more about friendship and professionalism than it is about romance, and I applaud how the book is more about these things, because this can be an empowering message for young women. What do you hope readers take away from Audrey and her journey?

Marie: A lot of readers responded very positively to the fact that Tom and Isabella don’t hook up in The Memoirs of Lady Trent. I enjoy a good romance subplot as much as the next person, but I also adore friendship, especially between men and women — because media so often pushes the message that such a thing isn’t really possible (it will always turn to sexual attraction at some point), or that friendship and professional success aren’t satisfying enough on their own, especially for women.

Which isn’t to say romance doesn’t get addressed in the book at all. Like you, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that I think it’s important to talk about what happens sometimes when romance falls apart.

Cath: Can you talk a little bit about your next projects?

Marie: I’ve got a novella coming out this month, The Eternal Knot, that’s connected to the game Legend of the Five Rings, but can definitely be read by someone who isn’t familiar with the game. But my big news is that last year I wrote a collaborative novel with my friend Alyc Helms, and we recently sold the series to Orbit Books. That’s going to be the Rook and Rose trilogy, and it will come out under the joint name of M.A. Carrick — a fact which we’re trumpeting far and wide, because we want readers of our individual work to know that these books are our work, too.


Marie Brennan is the World Fantasy and Hugo Award-nominated author of several fantasy series, including the Memoirs of Lady Trent, the Onyx Court, the Wilders series, the Doppelganger duology, the Varekai novellas, and nearly sixty short stories. More information can be found at Marie’s website, her Patreon page, and on Twitter as @swan_tower.

Fantastic History #39: The Historical Becomes Personal by Chia Evers

Like Cath’s last post, this one will be a tribute to our friend and Unreliable Narrators co-founder Chris Cornell.

As many of you know, Chris, Cath, George, and I met at the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop in October, 2009. What you may not know is that I first collaborated with Chris months before the workshop, on what became “Revenant Harvest I: The Bitterest Fruit,” and I first met him at one of my favorite bars in San Francisco, the 21 Club, which closed in 2015.

“I spent a year in Vietnam, fighting the VCs, and now we are fighting the VCs here—the venture capitalists, but they are more relentless.” —Frank, former owner of the 21 Club.

The 21 Club, like so much of the “Old California” Chris and I both loved, fell victim to California’s endless boom-and-bust cycle, but it’s that same cycle that’s given birth to so much of the mythology that the Golden State spins around itself—as if it had been born in the Gold Rush and known nothing but exquisite success marred only by temporary, character-building setbacks ever since.

The reality is, of course, both more complex and more interesting—and that brings us to E’ville.

Welcome to Emeryville, California. E’ville for short. A nickname perhaps more appropriate in the last century, or at least more obvious back in the day. The murder capital of the country, or so they used to say. These days it’s all microbrews and Swedish furniture. Chain fajitas served on reclaimed wood. The underbelly of this town has been scrubbed clean. Scratch that, more like scraped and burned off, forgotten. E’ville belongs to a new age now, one with no time for heedlessness or equivocation. No time for a lost soul like me. The feeling is mutual, though despite every impulse I’m stuck here. Have been for almost a century. How that came to be, well, we’ll get to that eventually. Another day. For now I think it best to start at the beginning, when I stepped off the train with two dollars and thirty five cents. February 4, 1927. Alcohol was verboten, and never had it flown as freely as in the card houses and bordellos of that grimy port town. Oakland had a reputation as the heart of the criminal empire, but when they closed their doors to the vices of the day, those vices headed across the street to E’ville. And so did I.—Ross Weeper

E’ville, an eight-part, old-style radio serial, started out as a collaborative, shared-world project. George co-wrote Episode 2, all of us contributed plot seeds and references, and I swear the character I voiced, Cassandra “Cassie” Sharp, will make future appearances in my own work—but Chris was always the driving force behind it. “I wanted a challenge that combined my many creative interests,” he said, “and by god, that’s what I got. Every writer knows that nagging idea that takes hold of your brain and refuses to piss off while you finish that other shiny project on your desk. This wasn’t going anywhere until I delivered, so I did.”

Set in Prohibition-era Emeryville, once known as “the rottenest city on the West Coast,” E’ville drew from deep wells of both California history and myth, and the histories and myths of many of the people drawn to California over the years.

Some call Los Angeles the City of Dreams. Started that way for me, but wound up a nightmare.—Cassie Sharp

Chris was, himself, one of those people. He grew up in the Midwest and Mountain West, and made the Bay Area his home. He never lost his fascination with his adopted state, taking regular, solo roadtrips to visit places that interested him, from the mountains of Northern California to the strange deserts of the Salton Sea. And his clear-eyed love for the place shone through his fiction, as honest about its horrors as it was about its charms.


Chia Evers is a graduate of the Viable Paradise writers’ workshop, and a member of the Codex Writers’ Group. She grew up in Wyoming, spent more than a decade in California, and now lives happily in history-haunted New England.

Fantastic History #38: The Pacific Coast Highway and PCH Roadkill by Catherine Schaff-Stump

I am writing this post as a memorial to my friend Chris Cornell, who passed away in June. We had arranged for him to write an article about his research for his novel PCH Roadkill. Like Christopher Moore’s fiction, Chris Cornell’s book was a California story written by a Californian for Californians. It was easily my favorite of Chris’ work, even though I am not a Californian, and I regret that none of you will be able to read it, as Chris never had it published. It was a near miss, but it remains a tome in the world’s best secret library.

What is the plot? An alien is marooned in California while struggling to avert a cosmic disaster, and he crosses paths with a California slacker. Together the two of them forge a bond and save the world. It’s a brilliant, gentle buddy novel which shines as it examines the nature of true friendship.

The duo in the novel drive State Highway 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway, which is 659 miles from just under the northern border with Oregon to San Diego. It is a beautiful drive. Gapyear suggests 13 beautiful places along the way. Of note is Hearst Castle, an amazing place. One of Chris’ most recent road trips was to Hearst Castle, and he sent us beautiful pictures of the pools and the architecture. On this road trip you could stop in San Jose and see the Winchester House, see the magnificent scenery of Big Sur, and experience the dynamism of Los Angeles and San Diego. All along the way the ocean will make it hard for you to keep your eyes on the road.

I’ve never experienced the entirely of this trip. I’ve been to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. I’ve taken a train from Los Angeles to San Diego and marveled at the beach. California is beautiful country.


PCH Highway is a book that reminds me of all the best pieces of my friend. Although the Fantastic History blog tries to place information historically, I realize this summer has been the end of a part of my own history. Since November of 2015, Chris, George Galuschak, Chia Evers and I have been podcasting steadily at Unreliable Narrators. With Chris’ death, that phase of our life is over. We couldn’t bring ourselves to do it without him, and so we mourn the loss of it, as well as him. I have thought about golden times in my life before, pieces of time I remember very fondly. Unreliable Narrators was an effort of love for us, a chance to put something positive out in the world, especially in the world of the creative, where often rejection is the coin of the realm.

Now that Chris is gone, I feel adrift creatively. Certainly, I have other friends, and new opportunities will open up. But this time, these friends, this project, the way it was, this will never come again. Eventually the podcasts and the site will go away. Already, Chris’ website is gone. At World Con this week, his name will go by on the friends we’ve lost screen. People will gather and drink in his honor. The world moves on, and my life continues. You know you loved someone, truly, when the gap in your life left by them is unstitchable, uncloseable. I will often wonder, for the rest of my days, what Chris would think or do or say in situations. He was a traveling companion, a creative sounding board, a good friend. And more of this longing for his companionable, excellent company, which I can never hold again, this is what the future holds, because now I can only find that companionship in the past.

I miss you, man. I wish you were alive to write this column. I wish I could make jokes with you about the crappiest summer of my life, about the worst time line. But I have your writing and your memory, and I will make that last for my lifetime. I have to let you pass into history, but I’m not going to forget.

Summer, 2019

It has been a very challenging summer. I was really looking forward to this one. It was the first summer in thirteen years where I had an actual professor sized vacation, because I was no longer an administrator. A more superstitious person may take the following warning from my summer: Be careful what you wish for.

After Wiscon, which was wonderful, Bryon and I were looking at taking a lovely trip to Disney World early in June. Regrettably, his mother Phyllis went into decline and died two days before our vacation. She was 93, and as with all Alzheimer’s patients, the disease lingered a long time, but the end for her was swift. I moved our vacation to July, and yes, we were sad, but we had prepared as well as you can for that kind of thing.

My birthday came. On it, my good friend Chris Cornell died unexpectedly on a 100-degree day after collapsing at a BART station in San Francisco. Chris was one of the Unreliable Narrators, a writing group buddy, a mutual beta reader, and above all an excellent human being. He was 51. I am still grappling with the loss of Chris on a very personal level. I will tell you about my journey into cardio limbo in a moment, but instead of re-energizing myself regarding writing this summer, this despair of writing and struggling in what Chris used to call the worst possible timeline, mixes with my grief, anxiety, and depression, and produces a rather heady cocktail of antipathy regarding doing my trivial, entertaining art. It’s been that summer.

I did put in a request with July to be better. I kept going to the gym, letting my emotions out, doing what I could to let time get me back on my feet. July was gonna be great. I had CONvergence, and for the first time in years, since I was a self-pubbed author now, I was going to wear a costume. Bryon had spent all year making Queen Hippolyta and Antiope for me and my good friend Lisa. We had our postponed trip to Disney. We planned my annual fake family reunion, a celebration of the wonderful people who are good to me in my life. My grief would still be in the background, yes, but I was looking forward to some happiness.

July was canceled, every bit of it. Right before CONvergence, I had a heart flutter while working out, and an exercise stress test that indicated my heart was, indeed, doing funky things. However, we took off for CONvergence with a doctor’s blessing, and I promptly spent that weekend in the hospital. The good news? I didn’t have a heart attack, and the pipes are all clean. The bad news? I have been attached to a Zoll Life Vest all July awaiting diagnostic tests which arrive next week, finally. I can’t drive. I exercise minimally. I have gained about 10 pounds, and my depression hasn’t been nurtured like poison ivy, but it does pop up expectedly and often.

Welcome to August. Next week, I go to work for three days and have two days of medical testing. The following week I will have some answers, which could range from ideopathic tachycardia (We don’t know what’s going on. We can’t reproduce it, so just keep taking these meds, send your life vest back through the mail, and go home), to a reproduction of the trouble, which may involve a Frankensteinian burning/scoring of my heart to produce a regular beat, to installing a defibrillator because that’s what it might take if there’s trouble. I am taking the week of the 12th-16th off, just in case I need to recuperate or have something big done. Honestly, I just want to get my heart fixed and/or managed, so I can go back to teaching on time with everyone else. Yes, I want to go back to work. It’s also been that kind of summer.

I have plans to return to The Wrath of Horus. Honestly, I joined a Horror Writing Group recently, and if it weren’t for those deadlines, I probably wouldn’t have done anything this summer. In May, I was already having a monolithic writing crisis regarding how I was feeling about what I was producing. I was pretty convinced that it was the level up problem, and I would work through it. After Chris’ death, I have discovered a general disenchantment with the possibility of working hard to achieve my dreams in writing, and how hard I really want to work. There is malaise and disgust and sadness all revolving around my work. I am in a creatively dark spot regarding my abilities and my motivations, and a dark spot about my life and health in general.

In recent times, I have been preparing for class, and reading articles about how Americans have a groundless optimism. You too can achieve a dream, the mythology says, if only you work hard enough. I think not. I look at the people I know who have achieved in the arts, and I know they have worked hard. They are no different from the other people who have also worked hard, save that luck and backing have found them. Countless others, people with talent and ability, work hard and stay in the same spot. I believe my art will get better once I get through this summer of setbacks and get my head on straight, but I doubt whether my work will attract any kind of widespread attention. I am simply not in love with the idea of working, working, working, and always working to make that happen. I think I may have broken my heart, quite literally, working for something I cannot have. It’s a hard lesson to grapple with.

For now, I am trying to find my way back to happiness. The best I’ve been able to achieve is tepid on a good day. I love my life, my husband, my friends, and my job. I will love telling stories again. Right now I need to fan the tiny spark of passion I have for art gently. Another puff of wind and the flame will gutter out.

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.

Picture credit

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.

Fantastic History #34: An Interview with J. Kathleen Cheney

Cath: Your body of work is a dream for historical fantasy readers! There’s so much of it, and in so many richly researched historical periods. What draws you to writing historical fantasy?

J: I think there’s a two-fold draw here. When I consider a time period/place, I am often entranced by the external look of that setting—the clothes, the technology, the culture. The second part happens once I start researching a place or time and discover it’s far more interesting than I’d imagined. I’ll run across an interesting tidbit here or there, and I’m off on another tangent that might be a completely different story.

Cath: Can we talk about the world of Hawk’s Folly in Iron Shoes? What’s the premise of the story? How do you continue the story in the sequel? Were there any challenges in negotiating the time frame change between the two books?

J: The initial premise of the story came to me—honestly—in a dream. I woke up and recalled it all, but immediately thought I would never be able to sell it because it’s a version of the ‘widow saves the farm’ trope. However, I loved the idea of purchasing a horse only to discover it wasn’t a horse at all, so I wrote the story anyway—Imogen Hawkes must win the big race at Saratoga Springs (1905) in order to keep her farm out of the hands of an unscrupulous neighbor. She has a plan, but things go awry, and she ends up relying on magic—which her mother always told her was bad—to help her win the day.

There have been two sequel novellas (Snow Comes to Hawk’s Folly—1908—and Snowfall—1909) and I’m working on a novel now (Snow Haven—1933). Although most things about farming and horses stay the same, the town/city of Saratoga Springs changes fairly profoundly between 1905 and 1933. Many of those changes concern horse-racing and gambling, including periods where betting wasn’t allowed at the tracks and gambling was forbidden in the town’s hotels. Those rules changed even between 1908 and 1909.

Whenever my own research failed I could contact the Public Library in Saratoga Springs, and the research librarian in the history room always helped me out. I stumped her only once—on that question of gambling rooms in the hotels, but later found the answer in a column in the New York Times. Turns out the town council of Saratoga Springs outlawed gambling completely in 1909, even in private homes!

Cath: I am a fan of the Golden City series, and I love books that reflect generations of family. I know the first novel came from a short story which appeared in Apex and Abyss. How did you build a novel from that short story?

J: Well, in true-to-myself fashion, I wrote the sequel before trying to convert the novella to a novel. I pitched that second novel (The Seat of Magic) to my eventual agent, but she could tell it was a sequel to something. However, I had already started fleshing out the novella “Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy”, intending to make it a novel. That process allowed me to start the story in the novel a couple of days earlier and expand more on the backgrounds of the main characters. Later in the process, my editor asked me to make a couple of additional changes that took it farther from the original novella, but overall I’m happy with the final product.

Cath: The Golden City has selkies and sereia in an alternative Portugal. How did you adapt these stories to the historical and specific culture of Portugal?

J: The sereia were the easier in that sirens are actually mentioned in Os Lusíadas, the 1572 epic poem by Luís Vaz de Camões about Vasco da Gama’s trip to India and back. On their return journey to Portugal, the Portuguese sailors are ‘rewarded’ by Venus when they land on an island, chase the local nymphs (ninfas), have sex with them, and then are treated to a great feast where a sereia (siren) sings their praises.

In my works, that first interaction with Portuguese sailors colors the sereia’s relationship with Portugal. The sereia have their own epic poem called The Rape of Amado, rape being both literal and figurative. Their interactions with their neighbors (I placed their islands not too far from the Azores) are tense, even given that many of them bear Portuguese blood (via either rape or through the handful of sailors who stayed), use their language, and in some places follow their religion (thanks to Catholic missionaries). The Venus-incited betrayal also broke their ties to the Greek gods, leaving a mostly-agnostic populace behind.

The selkies were another matter. I only knew I needed after I began writing. (OOPS!) Therefore I had to research seals in the Atlantic. There are few seals on the northern coasts of Portugal, so my selkies are more closely related to the Caribbean Monk Seal (now extinct). They don’t interact with humans as much save in their human form, so having a selkie slip in and out of ports (as Erdano does) isn’t problematic. Because they generally don’t live among humans, the only adaptation they make is learning the local language… if they feel like it. They’re a race that is easy to transport from one culture to another.

Cath: Can we talk about the sereia matriarchy? How did that come about? Why is there such a shortage of male sirens?

J: Mumble, mumble, mumble… Okay, I worked that out when I started these stories, but that was almost a decade ago! And I didn’t write it down. I’m sure there was something in there about sex-linked traits, x-y sex determination, and recessive and dominant genes, but essentially, they simply don’t birth as many males. Fish are more likely to have a disparate gender dichotomy as well, so I didn’t feel too bad about that. (Fish have very interesting and changeable gender genetics.)

Cath: Where did you decide to make the important deviations in the story to create the alternative history of the Golden City series?

J: I looked at important points in the history of Portugal and asked myself how might magic have changed this. The two best examples of this are the disappearance of King Sebastião and the 1755 earthquake that destroyed Lisbon.
King Sebastião disappeared on a battlefield in Morocco, fighting a crusade. I would like to think that if there were seers among the Jesuits who helped raise young Sebastião, that one of them would have warned him to not go to Morocco. So… I changed that and kept the same royal family, the Hose of Aviz, instead of the newer one, the House of Braganza, which required inventing a totally new line of succession.

The earthquake that destroyed Lisbon, though, could not have been stopped by any form of magic. Seers might have given warnings and saved lives, but the city itself couldn’t be saved from the earthquake, tsunami, or the subsequent fires, so that series of events still happened in the world of the Golden City.

I mean, we honestly can’t grasp how much the world would change, but we have to try, right?

Cath: Can you talk a little bit about witchcraft in the books? It seems to be both accepted and not at the same time.

J: In this series we have two types of magic: magic that’s natural or inborn (witches) and magic that’s artificial or acquired (witchcraft). (Magical creatures such as sereia, selkies, and fairies are generally regarded with suspicion, but lumped in with the first group, since their abilities are inborn.) Each country decides how much it’s willing to accept the first group, but everyone frowns on the second because you have to sacrifice to acquire that power. Devices, tokens, and charms are a gray area because sometimes they’re created by witches and sometimes by sacrifice or demons.

Given all that, I actually try to keep all the historicals linked together. So the rules in The Dragon’s Child stories are the same as the rules in the Golden City and Saratoga Springs. It’s the level of acceptance that changes, given the culture and the church.

Cath: Perhaps my favorite character in the book is Gaspar. Trying to avoid spoilers, what can you tell us about how you conceived of the Meter, and his many lives?

J: I’m so glad that you like him!

When I started the Golden City series, I considered the group of Gaspar, the Lady, Anjos, and Vladimirova my competency porn. They were extreme experts who worked in the background, a combination of Leverage and Torchwood.

Gaspar was the one who would know everything about the witches and non-humans, but to have acquired that knowledge would take lifetimes, so he has lived over and over again, along with a partner who has been one kind of witch after another. (For example, the Lady was a healer in her most-recent previous life, giving him an intimate familiarity with that gift.) But for him the lines between his senses, between the past and present and here and there are all a bit blurred, as if worn thin by overuse, so he’s constantly living with input that normal people don’t get.

Cath: Miss Nadezhda Vladimirova is another character who comes from an interesting background. Am I right that you’ve written about her before these books? Can you talk a little bit about your research into Russian culture to come up with this character?

J: Although I haven’t written about Nadezhda Vladimirova herself, I’ve written about her ancestors. She is a direct descendent of the characters in The Dragon’s Child, and shares abilities passed down through them.
Russian culture is interesting to research because very little was recorded before the arrival of the Orthodox Church and writing. After that point, most writing was done from the perspective of the Church, so it’s slanted, and most research written in Russian is not translated into English, making it inaccessible. However, I originally did a lot of research to set up the Russian aspects of the world of The Dragon’s Child, and my three favorite books to use then were Dr. Eve Levin’s Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs: 900–1700, The Domostroi, and The Englishwoman in Russia. (I also read a lot of journals and biographies to get more of a feel for daily life.)

That all served as a distant backdrop for Nadezhda Vladimirova (and indeed, my other novella set in 1815 Russia, The Sparrow in Hiding.) I also spent a great deal of time looking into Russian folklore—like the rusalki. Russian lore seems charmingly inconsistent at times, but that allowed me more room to mold the characters to my will. Rusalki share their tendencies to call and influence humans with many other mystical races, along with their aquatic tendencies, and I ended up putting both of those skills to a more practical crime-solving use in this case.

Cath: You have written many rich fantasy novels as well as these historical ones. Do any particular periods of history influence your fantasies?

J: Honestly, I love that time period between 1860 and 1910 the best. Due to widespread industrialization, the technology level was changing quickly, so it’s an age of new inventions. Trains! Motorcars! There’s an increasing awareness of the rights of men (and more slowly, women), and a shift in influence from the state and the Church to the common man. There’s a rise in literacy and improvements in medicine. So many changes happening so fast make it a wonderful time-setting.

At the same time, it’s long enough ago that we can look back and spot some things that didn’t work out so well—like eugenics and the miasma theory of disease—and avoid those things. We get to create our idea of what a world like that would be like. (I always leave out the mosquitos.)

Cath: What is your next project, and what research are you doing for that project?

J: I’m one of those weird writers who have a lot in progress at the same time, but the main historical project that I’m working on is the story set in 1933 Saratoga Springs. I’ve planned to write this one for quite a while and knew I would need totally different research for 1933. In November of 2015, when World Fantasy Con was held in Saratoga Springs again, I took an extra day of vacation there and met with the research librarian at the Public Library. I did a great deal of my research for this project then but have been sitting on it ever since!

Most of that research involves how the town had changed (for example, when were the cast iron lions removed from the steps in front of the city hall?) and how the fortunes of the city suffered under the depression. So at this time, I’m working on integrating some of that into my plot. (Gangsters! who want magic!) So this will be an interesting stretch for me.


When your research drags you into foreign places…

When I chose the setting for my Golden City series (way back in 2009), I did so without a great deal of consideration. For the most part, that was because I was writing a single novelette. I was supposed to do 15,000 words and get out. Instead, I was still there, almost a decade later, regularly researching stuff on the Iberian Peninsula, Brazil, and Cape Verde.

One thing I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that Portugal, despite being England’s oldest military ally, does not end up with much of its literature/writings translated into English. I don’t know why.

Now, when I was working on a single novelette, that was acceptable. I could use Google Translate to work around some of the sections of various webpages and use my workmanlike Spanish to hack my way through other bits, but when I started working on novel-length fiction set there…I knew I was in trouble.

Big trouble.

Why Do It, Then?

I get asked this question regularly: Why did you choose to set this in Portugal? Above I noted that I did so without a lot of consideration. I saw that Portugal had tons of coastline, and that was what I needed.

But along the way, I also learned there are some advantages to working in a culture people haven’t often seen before.
1) It’s fresh for readers.
2) It leaves lots of room for mistakes.

WHAT? Number 2 was an unplanned benefit. What I’ve learned from my decade of writing for American readers about Portugal is that they know very little about Portugal.

Basically, the more commonly used a setting is, the more ‘experts’ there are on that topic. If you set a book in NYC, in London, in Paris…a gazillion readers will point out every little thing you get wrong. If you set a story during WW1 of WW2, during the American Civil War, during the Napoleonic Wars…enough readers will know that era to spot any glitch.

1901 in Porto? An unintended benefit of this was that I had very few readers who knew enough about that setting to argue with me about…anything.

But also, I simply came to love the setting. I dove into researching the history (although I changed a lot of it) and found a rich culture, a fascinating past, and centuries of relationships with other cultures, often very fraught (and often deservedly so.) And I think that all the effort I’ve had to put in has been worth it.

So how do I tackle researching in a foreign language?
In the course of the first three novels, I did a ton of research online, often using sites that were in Portuguese. Or Spanish. Or Catalan. In fact, I used sites with two difference dialects of Catalan. Am I an expert in any of those languages? No. I started with mild familiarity with Spanish and worked from there.

Here are some of the steps I took:

1) Use machine translation: A good example of this is Google Translate, where you can simply paste a paragraph into a box and it will give you a -passable- translation. There are major flaws in this, but if you’re looking at something simple, that’s the fastest way to read it. Also, some browsers (I use Chrome) have a popup or toggle that offers to translate entire pages for you into your regular browsing language. This has proven incredibly helpful, especially when I don’t know whether I want to try to read the whole page. HOWEVER, machine translation is not entirely reliable, so I strongly suggest having other sources…

2) Get a language buddy: When I hit a real snag with something I absolutely had to get correct, I turned to some of my friends. Christopher Kastensmidt (author of The Elephant and Macaw Banner series) lives in Brazil and is a fluent Portuguese speaker, so when I had a complex question, I went to him for help and he got me the answers I needed. I hit up Sue Burke (author of Semiosis), who lived in Madrid at the time, for questions in Spanish. I even had someone I could contact for Galician, although I ended up not using them. So use your writer buddies to your advantage. Ask around and find out who can help you.

3) Ask your writers group: I’m a member of a large online group, and when I needed something specific, I could always post the question there, and someone would know the answer. (This is a subset of #2).

4) Learn the language: Now, some of you will be saying, “This should have been point #1”, but I disagree. I know we would all love to be diligent researchers, but that takes time–time we won’t spend writing. We need to research efficiently. Therefore, this step came along later in my process, when I realized I was doing far more than just one story. I got a set of Portuguese learning CDs (I used Pimsleur), popped them in my car, and listened to them everywhere I went. To this day, I am NOT fluent in the language, although I managed to get around in Portugal well enough. What the lessons provided instead was an understanding of the framework of the language. That helped me to grasp all the things that the machine translations were doing wrong, so that I could use the machine translation better.*

5) Use Wikipedia as a portal: I’ve done this a gazillion times now. I go into the English Wikipedia to look at something about a city in Portugal, discover that the English version has almost no data, and switch over to Portuguese Wikipedia, which not-surprisingly seems to care more about Portugal than the English version does. I’ve written about this a lot online, so I’ll just insert a link to that information here Once you’ve got a handle on machine translation and its foibles, this can be incredibly valuable.

6) Use social media: Take this one with a grain of salt. If your desperate for a quick translation or have a simple question about the language, ask on social media. I’ve used Facebook this way and have had some great results. Just be warned that you will get a lot of dross along with that bit of gold. Don’t assume the first answer is the correct one.

Admittedly, some languages are more different than others. I’ve recently started work in Finnish, and it’s absolutely unlike any language I’ve studied before (but in my first Finnish lesson, I quickly learned why speakers of that language often sound ‘depressed’ to outsiders.) I have studied Russian, which helped with my work set in Russia, but I have never tackled any other Asian language. I admit, I’m a bit lazy for that. As much as we enjoy researching, we’re writers instead of anthropologists for a reason. Most of us want to concentrate on the writing.

But if you find yourself lost in a different culture, don’t back away. There are a lot of things that you can try to help you wade through the unfamiliar. It’s worth trying.

*Machine translation often struggles with things that a language does differently than English. For example, Portuguese and Spanish are null-subject languages, which means that their sentences do not have to have a subject. She is an astronaut simply becomes Is an astronaut. Because the machine translation wants to put in a subject, it sticks in HE most of the time—He is an astronaut–creating confusion when you’re researching a woman. In addition, formal names are often baffling to the machines and end up being translated into nouns. (The name of the city, Porto, was constantly being changed to the port.) Learning a bit of the language helped me know which issues to watch out for in the translation process, and I could glance back at the original language sentence to see what should have happened instead of the gobbledygook that came out the other end!


J. Kathleen Cheney taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). Dreaming Death (Feb 2016) is the first in a new world, with the books of The Horn coming out in 2017, and the books of The King’s Daughter and sequels to Dreaming Death in 2018/2019

Fantastic History #33: Setting Fiction in the Long 18th Century by Kate Heartfield

Historians of British history talk about the “long eighteenth century.” It’s a phrase that comes to my mind often when I write fiction set in 18th century Europe. I have found that the key to writing in this period is somewhat paradoxical: you have to understand your setting as part of a vast context that covers a century and a half and several continents, but you must expect dramatic differences from year to year within that period, and even from month to month.

My next novel, The Humours of Grub Street, is set in London in 1703. I found pretty quickly that you can’t really understand the events of that setting without understanding the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and even the Great Fire in 1666 and the plague year that just preceded it. At the other end of the period, my Alice Payne time-travel novellas are set mainly in Hampshire in 1788 and 1799. Even though (some of) the characters don’t yet know how the French Revolution will unfold, or about the Napoleonic wars, it’s impossible to write well about that period without understanding the forces that were moving in Europe. The future for those characters has to inform the way we write; so does their past. We can’t understand the internal European political situation of the 18th century without having some sense of the impact of the peace of Westphalia back in 1648.

It’s also impossible to write well about the 18th century in Europe without understanding that the European powers were engaged in a massive campaign of imperialism, slavery and genocide throughout the rest of the world. It’s a century of trade and travel and migration. No country can be taken in isolation. One cannot understand any European country at the end of the 18th century without understanding the American and Haitian revolutions, and their causes.

All of those forces had a dramatic effect on the arts, science, literature, manners, food, and fashion. Let’s take fashion as an example.

Dressing one’s characters in the 18th century requires great care. Again, it’s all about context: If you’re writing a European woman in a “grand habit” or court dress in 1775, you need to understand that its heritage is a design decreed by Louis XIV about a century before, which was itself a deliberate homage to the gowns of his youth in the 1640s. Much depends on which country the woman is in, of course, and her class and even her political opinions.

As in any period, the fashions of the 18th century were always changing, from the lengths of stomachers and sleeves to the design of petticoats and stays. If you want to dress a woman in the 18th century, the first question to ask is: How many pieces does her dress come in?

This is also, for many cultural and economic reasons, a century of extreme and even ridiculous fashions, which are catnip for writers: the real world was stranger than fiction in many ways. You could write a woman with mouse-fur eyebrows, or ridiculous panniers jutting out from her hips. You could write a man with a crescent-moon beauty mark or a high powdered wig. But all of these things were particular to certain classes and certain places, and in many cases, the extremes of the fashions only lasted a few years. Put a woman in a ridiculous pannier in 1785, and you’ve made her an outlier. You’re saying something about her, whether you intended to or not. By 1795, the anachronism would be glaring.

Not only do you have to dress your characters in a way that would make sense to them, but you have to communicate all this to a modern reader, who might read a different connotation into an apron, or be thrown for a loop by someone handing someone else a pocket.

This can be a daunting setting to write, but it’s also a rich and interesting one, and the research is a great way to guard against ever writing a static, homogeneous culture, in any world.


Kate Heartfield is the author of the novel Armed in Her Fashion (ChiZine 2018) and the two Alice Payne novellas ( Publishing). She was nominated for a 2018 Nebula Award in the novella category for Alice Payne Arrives, and in game writing for The Road to Canterbury, published by Choice of Games. Armed in Her Fashion was a finalist for the 2018 Crawford Award, and the 2018 Aurora Award. Her novella “The Course of True Love” was published by Abaddon Books in 2016. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, Escape Pod and elsewhere. A former newspaper journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.