Kill Your Rituals, Not Your Darlings: A Guest Post by Harry Connolly

Harry Connolly (author of the Twenty Palaces Novels) has just released the epic fantasy trilogy The Great Way (starting with The Way Into Chaos). He joins us today to write about writing rituals.
 Great Way Final Cover eBook 3 copy

Kill Your Rituals, Not Your Darlings

by Harry Connolly


In a bit, I’m going to tell you a story about a newborn baby, a two bedroom apartment, and the nine people who stayed there during the Christmas holidays.



All my in-laws.

But first, a note about being a writer. Like many of my kind, I used to have a whole bunch of little rituals when I wrote. I had to be seated at a certain place at my desk, with coffee on the left side of my Brother WP75 (shut up I’m old) and a notepad on the right. Beside the notepad was a Bic medium point with blue ink and a grippy rubber section near the tip. (I used to believe that, by using cheap disposable pens instead of fancy ones, I was valuing the process inside my head over the tools I bought).

To fight distractions, I played music without lyrics, or music with lyrics in languages I couldn’t understand. That way I didn’t have to hear the pop songs my roommates were playing (lyrics were incredibly distracting) or sounds from outside like traffic or shouting kids.

I had to pull the curtains closed, and wait until after a certain time of day, and sit in a weird old chair designed for invalids (seriously).

Other writers do this, too. They need a yellow legal pad and a pen with brown ink. They need to be in their office with the floor vacuumed and the dishes clean. They need to swim for an hour first, then lift, then yoga, then sauna. Maybe they have a special mug, or something, anything that brings ritual and routine into the act of creation.

Like them, I told myself I needed to optimize my surroundings so I could be as productive and creative as possible. In fact, I created those rituals because I’d read somewhere that they made the work easier. That was the advice I was getting, anyway. You can see more on the importance of ritual to creativity here, although the article makes it clear that the ritual is actually doing the work, not fussing with our environment. Rituals! I made them.

And then life conspired to take it all away.

That Christmas in 2001 was just the end cap on a long process that started with music. The non-English lyrics began, slowly, to sound more and more like English words. I knew Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan wasn’t really singing “John Barleycorn” in his Qawwali devotional music, but that’s what it sounded like, and it disrupted my train of thought every time it came on. Out of the rotation it went, along with the rest of his stuff.

Then I switched jobs and lost my afternoon writing time. Then I moved in with my girlfriend and lost a private bedroom to write in. Things kept changing, and all the little rituals I thought I needed kept being taken from me.

Then came that Christmas.

I moved from Philly to Seattle in 1989. Total number of times I’ve gone back to visit my family since my mother died? One. Total number of times they’ve come out west to visit me ever? Zero.

It’s different for my wife. Her family is very close, and for years she flew back (or more rarely they flew out) twice a year. Later it was one visit a year, always at Christmastime. When the baby’s due date was established for the holiday season, my in-laws decided that everyone would celebrate in Seattle. In our apartment.

So we had my wife and me, plus my one-day-old son, plus my wife’s sister and brother, their spouses, and my wife’s parents. Also, our clutter and decorations. And about ten years worth of my wife’s canvases. Let’s just say things weren’t spacious before our guests arrived.

Anyway, I was used to waking early and working in the morning quiet, but that was impossible. There was no place to go that didn’t have people in it, and I wasn’t ready to give up my writing, even if I’d trimmed back my work time for the new baby. So I had to do the one thing I thought I’d never do. I went to Starbucks.

In a Starbucks, I had no control over anything: what seating was available, what music was playing, who was nearby—in fact, the location closest to home was known for troubled homeless people who sat for hours to get out of the cold and the rain, and they could be disruptive.

I mean, sure, I was glad to be out of that crowded apartment, and my in-laws were always happy to see less of me, but I was not at all sure I could work in that environment.

It was then that I understood that my rituals were hurting me.

I was treating my ability to work—what a less self-conscious writer might call a “muse”— as a hothouse flower. I was pretending that it was so delicate that it needed a special kind of pen, and a special kind of music, and a special chair/desk combination, when all it really needed was me and my willingness to focus and write. While that’s not exactly avoiding work, it is making each writing session into an ordeal that had to be arranged. Basically, I was working against myself.

Once I decided to do without, it was like having a weight lifted off of me. I was taking control of my own creative process rather than outsource that control to talismans around me.

And I’m luckier than some, because I never tied my vices to my writing. I’ve heard  of authors who quit smoking or drinking and suddenly found themselves unable to put words on a page. One activity was so tied to the other that they had become inseparable. Not a good place to be in.

That’s why I recommend that writers kill their rituals. That doesn’t mean to never do the same thing twice, or to give up a workout routine, or even to abandon a system that works (I have a system).

It does mean that we need to be adaptable. Don’t fetishize your tools. Don’t blow off a day because you aren’t in your special writing place. Don’t even tell yourself that the day’s word count will be more difficult than usual. The only thing we really need is what’s inside our heads.  Grippy pens are optional.

BIO: Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; currently, it’s the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released today. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system.

Guest Post: D. B. Jackson on Top Ten Things I Do To Help Me Write

I would like to welcome the fabulous D.B. Jackson (in 2012 he wrote a fine guest post on “the history that isn’t taught”). Today he tackles a rather different topic about tricks of the writing trade.


Top Ten Things I Do To Help Me Write

by D. B. Jackson


Let me start by saying that I love my job. I get to make up stories for a living. That’s an actual job; I get paid for doing that. It still blows my mind whenever I think of it. I would never dream of complaining about my job in any way.

Except to say that sometimes being a writer kind of sucks. Not a lot, mind you. I mean, I did just say that I love my job, and I even meant it. But there are a few things about it that I love less than others. And there are a VERY few things — one or three or seven — that I love less than I do, say, going to the dentist, or paying parking fines. Writing can be lonely (except for all the voices in my head, which never seem to pipe down). We writers work in isolation most of the time, and that can be difficult; it can also make us a little funny. Not in a ha-ha way, but more in a when-you-see-us-coming-you-really-ought-to-cross-the-street-and-avoid-making-eye-contact way.

The writing profession is not lucrative, at least not for most of us. Sure, there are a relative handful writers who make A LOT of money, and most of us (I’m really not supposed to say this, but you won’t tell, right?) hate those guys. A lot. And while the business end of writing doesn’t make us much money, it does come with more than its share of annoyances. Someday, when you’re at a bar with a writer (we spend a good deal of time in bars) buy him or her a drink and then ask about things like “reserves against returns,” “basket accounting,” and the way publicity dollars are distributed among authors in your typical publishing house. Actually, you might want to buy the author two drinks.

For these, and a variety of other reasons that none of us really understands, writers are pretty idiosyncratic. Or put another way, we’re all just a little weird. And every writer has his or her own habits and rituals that help us get through the work day.

Joking aside, we all do little things that allow us to be more productive, to stay healthy and sane, and to ensure that writing continues to be something we love.  And so, here is my list of “Top Ten Things I Do To Help Me Write.” Enjoy.

1. I keep stuff on my desk — creative talismans of a sort — that help me maintain my focus. The most important item is a small ceramic sculpture of a Storyteller, the legendary figure of the Southwestern Pueblo cultures. I bought it in Acoma, New Mexico, in 1994 from a young girl whose mother was selling pot and bowls. At the time, my career was just starting and I didn’t know if I would make it as a professional writer. This Storyteller has been with me ever since. I can’t look at it without smiling and feeling fortunate to be a author.

2. Every book I have ever written has a bird of prey in it. Why? Well, I’m an avid birdwatcher and I love hawks and owls. And birds of prey figure prominently in my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle (written as David B. Coe). It is another way of reminding myself that I’m here; I made it to where I want to be, and I should never, ever take for granted whatever success I’ve enjoyed. So, for whatever reason, I always put a raptor or owl in my books. Look for them — you’ll find them.

3. Lots of authors listen to music when they write. Lots don’t. I do, but only certain kinds — either bluegrass or jazz. Always instrumental. I find that the improvisational quality of the music actually feeds my creativity.

4. Every weekday, before I sit down to work, I spend an hour at the gym working out. For most of my day I am pretty sedentary. That workout in the morning makes me feel better, helps me look better, and keeps me sane. For the same reason, I only allow myself a single snack in the late afternoon. No snacking before lunch, and no snacking after lunch before 3:00 pm. I do keep myself hydrated all day, but I don’t use food as a form of procrastination. If I’m not healthy, I can’t be productive.

5. I set concrete, achievable goals for every day I write, and I make myself meet them. I write fairly quickly — not as quickly as some, but at a good enough pace that I can generally write a book of 100,000 words in about three months. I didn’t always write that quickly — when I began, I wrote about 1000 words (or 4 double-spaced pages) per day. My pace today is about 2500 words per day (10 pages). But the actual number of words is not what’s important. The key is finding a pace that works for you, that allows you to get your work done at a good clip, but that doesn’t set you up for failure each day by demanding too much.

6. Another of my desktop talismans is a horoscope that was published while I was writing my first book. Essentially the horoscope said that I should pursue my passion and dreams, and that I should ignore those who don’t think I can be successful. That’s pretty good advice, and having that horoscope on my desk ensures that I don’t forget it.

7. I write full time. I’m very lucky that way — it’s my only job. And I treat it like a job. I work Monday through Friday — I do relatively little work on weekends. And I also work regular hours — I usually knock off from work in the late afternoon (unless I haven’t met my word count goal for the day). My point is that I reserve time for myself, for my kids, for my wife. If I didn’t, I would have burned out long ago.

8. I keep moving forward. Sometimes I will be working on a scene and I’ll realize that there are things that need fixing in earlier chapters. But I do not go back and fix them then; instead I make a note in an “Edits” file and I keep moving forward. For me, momentum is crucial. As soon as I stop to revise, I lose my rhythm and energy and my work in progress begins to languish. Make notes and keep moving forward. That’s what works for me.

9. I always — ALWAYS — write with a dictionary and a thesaurus by my side. It’s not that I use a thesaurus incessantly to come up with new, novel, innovative, fresh words. (See what I did there?) But sometimes I’m stuck for a word. Sometimes I want to know the precise meaning of the word I intend to use. Sometimes I need to know when the word I’m considering entered the language. Between the dictionary and the thesaurus I can usually find the information I need.

10. Sometimes I don’t write. Sometimes I take a few hours off to hike or birdwatch or take my camera out and shoot some pictures. Sometimes I take my guitar out and play some music. I can’t write well if I’m not fresh, and I can’t stay fresh if I don’t do things that I love to do.

So there’s my list. Do you have one, too? What does yours look like?


D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, will be released in hardcover on July 8. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.


In Defense of Unlikable Women: Guest Post by Kameron Hurley

I am excited to welcome writer Kameron Hurley with this excellent guest post.


IN DEFENSE OF UNLIKABLE WOMEN a post by Kameron Hurley


A fall-down drunk who’s terrible with relationships and makes some selfish, questionable choices, goes in search of love, and fails at it.”

This is actually the general plot to two films – the well-received, critically applauded film Sideways and the much maligned, controversial film Young Adult.

One follows a drunken, frumpy loser who steals money from his mother to enable his soon-to-be-married best friend to cheat on his soon-to-be-spouse; the other follows a drunk, frumpy loser who drives to small-town Minnesota to try and hook up with her happily married ex. Both films created stark, harrowing portraits of their protagonists’ pathology and inability to connect to others. Both protagonists are even writers! The biggest difference in the reception of these films, I’d argue, is that one featured a male protagonist – and thus was critically celebrated. The other told the story of a deeply flawed woman, and become instantly “controversial” because of its “thoroughly unlikable” heroine.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels, too. We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathize with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But what we love about many male heroes – their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim –become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Author Claire Messud takes this issue head on in an interview when her interviewer say her female protagonist is unbearably grim, someone the interviewer wouldn’t be friends with. Messud responds:

“For heavens’ sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”


Male writers, and their male protagonists, are expected to be flawed and complex, but reader expectations for women writers and their characters tend to be far more rigid. Women may stray, but only so far. If they go on deep, alcoholic benders, they best repent and sober up at the end. If they abandon their spouses and children, they best end tragically, or make good. Women must, above all, show kindness. Women may be strong – but they must also, importantly, be vulnerable. If they are not, readers are more likely to push back and label her unlikeable.

I actually wrote a recent guest post where I noted that in grad school, I sometimes drank two bottles of wine in a sitting and smoked cigarettes. A couple of commenters on another forum said I must be an irresponsible alcoholic. I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be on hearing a 23-year-old male college student occasionally drank two bottles of wine in a sitting.

Boys will be boys, right? But women are alcoholics.

And so it goes.

But why is this? Why do we read the same behaviors so differently based on the presented sex of the person engaging in them?

I’d argue it’s because women have been so often cast as mothers, potential mothers, caretakers, and servants, assistants, and handmaidens of all sorts that’s it’s become a – conscious but also unconscious – expectation that anyone who isn’t – at least some of the time – must be inherently unnatural. And when we find a woman who doesn’t fit this mold, we work hard to sweep her back into her box, because if she gets out, well… it might mean she has the ability to take on a multitude of roles.

Let’s be real: if women were “naturally” anything, societies wouldn’t spend so much time trying to police every aspect of their lives.

I like writing about complex people. I like writing about women. Hence, the women and men I write are flawed and complex. They have their own messed up motivations. They don’t always do the right thing. There’s not generally a rousing ending where everyone realizes they were a jerk and has a big hug. Life is messier than that, and so are women. We’re not any better or worse than anyone else. I’m flawed. I often make poor choices. I’m very often selfish.

So are many of the people I put on the page. And to be dead honest, I like them a whole lot better that way. Roxane Gay gives several examples of successfully unlikable heroines in fiction in her article “Not Here to Make Friends.” (which I strongly recommend you read). As Gay writes:

“…(this is) what is so rarely said about unlikable women in fiction — that they aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not. They have neither the energy for it, nor the desire….Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.”

There is something hypnotic in unlikable male characters that we don’t allow women, and it’s this: we allow men to be confident, even arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic. But in our everyday lives, we do not hold up such women as leaders and role models. We call them out as selfish harridans. They are wicked stepmothers. Seeing these same women bashing their way through the pages of our fiction elicits the same reaction. Women should be nurturing. Their presence should be redeeming. Women should know better.

Female heroes must act the part of the dutiful Wendy, while male heroes get to be Peter Pan.

Pointing out this narrative, of course, isn’t going to fix it. But I do hope that it makes people more aware of it. When you find yourself reading about a gunslinging, whiskey-drinking, Mad Max apocalypse hero who you’d love if it was a guy but find profoundly uncomfortable to read about when you learn it’s a woman, take a step back, and ask why that is. Is it because this is truly a person you can’t empathize with, or because somebody told you she was supposed to be back home playing mom to the Lost Boys, not stabbing her land lord, stealing a motorcycle, and saving the world?

Stories teach us empathy, and by limiting the expression of humanity in our heroes entirely based on sex or gender does us all a disservice. It places restrictions on what we consider human, which dehumanizes the people we see who do not express traits that fit our narrow definition of what’s acceptable.

Like it or not, failure of empathy in the face of unlikable women in fiction can often lead to a failure to empathize with women who don’t follow all the rules in real life, too.

Stories matter. Fictions matter. It all bleeds out.

Be careful what you cut.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.    Visit for upcoming projects.

Sex in 2012 (Smugglivus 2012)

This is more of a housekeeping post:

The fabulous book reviewing website Book Smugglers hosts a seasonal cornucopia of guest posts in December, more or less around the theme of your favorite something (often books, films, games, etc) of the year.

I wrote a guest post for them on my favorite literary sex of 2012 and expanded it into a discussion of why I think portrayals of positive consensual sex are so important in fiction (and film/tv, but I focus on fiction).

You can find my guest post at Book Smugglers.

Guest Post: D.B. Jackson on the history that isn’t taught

I’m pleased to have author D. B. Jackson here today to talk about his new historical fantasy mystery release, THIEFTAKER, set in colonial Boston.

By the way, this is what I said about the novel: Thieftaker is an excellent blend of mystery and magic set in the turmoil of Colonial Boston as revolution brews and political factions collide. The setting is vividly painted, and the story is a fine portrait of a man caught between his bitter past and its legacy, and the constant dangers and reversals that dog his attempts to build a new life for himself.”


Did you know that throughout his adult life, Samuel Adams was afflicted with a mild palsy that made his head and hands tremble?  I hadn’t known either.

Did you know that women in Colonial Boston — and other North American cities in the second half of the 1700s — enjoyed a good deal of financial and social independence, and that it was not at all uncommon to find single women, usually widows, running their own shops and taverns?

How about this one:  Did you know that in the 1760s, at least until the British occupation of the city began in the autumn of 1768, Boston had only one law enforcement official of consequence?  It’s true.  His name was Stephen Greenleaf and though he was Sheriff of Suffolk County, he had no officers at his command, no assistants to help him keep the peace, save for the men of the night watch who were almost universally incompetent, or venal, or both.

My newest book, THIEFTAKER, which was released by Tor earlier this week, is the first book in a historical urban fantasy series set in pre-Revolutionary Boston.  The series follows the adventures of Ethan Kaille, a conjurer and thieftaker, as he solves murders and grapples with the implications of the deepening divisions between the colonies and the Crown.  I have a Ph.D. in U.S. history, and though I often used my history background in the worldbuilding I did for my earlier fantasy novels, this is the first project I have undertaken that allowed me to blend fully my interest in history and my love of fantasy.

Not surprisingly, I had to do a tremendous amount of research for THIEFTAKER, its sequel (THIEVES’ QUARRY, Tor, 2013), and several related short stories.  And one of the things that struck me again and again while I was reading through documents and monographs, was that so much of the past is lost to us in the glare of Important Events and Important People.  As Kate put it to me as we were exchanging ideas for this post, “What about the history that isn’t taught?”

By way of example: THIEFTAKER begins on August 26, 1765, a night when a mob of protesters rioted in the streets of Boston to vent their frustration at Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act.  (In the book, the riots coincide with a murder that Ethan has to investigate.  But I digress.)  The homes of several British officials were ransacked, most notably that of Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.  Hutchinson blamed James Otis and Samuel Adams for much of what happened that night, viewing them, with some justification, as the leaders of the growing rebel movement.  But one name you almost never find in history textbooks is that of Ebenezer Mackintosh.  Great name, right?  You might think that a man with such a name would attract some historical attention, especially when you learn that he was the leader of the mob responsible for so much destruction and subsequent political upheaval.  But though as a co-called “street captain” he had a strong following among laborers and unskilled workers in Boston, he was never “important” enough in more formal political circles to draw the attention of scholars.  That said, he does play a crucial role in THIEFTAKER, as do Samuel Adams and Sheriff Greenleaf.

In addition to learning about some of the people who don’t usually find their way into “taught” history, I also learned a tremendous amount about the city of Boston itself, including the ways in which city officials sought to adjust to circumstances as population centers grew, making urban life more complicated.  During the middle decades of the eighteenth century, Boston experienced a number of devastating fires, not least among them the Great Cornhill Fire of March 20, 1760.  This fire began at a tavern called the Brazen Head and swept through the South End down to Boston Harbor, destroying three hundred forty-nine buildings and leaving more than a thousand people homeless.  Miraculously, no one was killed.  (I should note here that I have written a short story about this event — “The Tavern Fire” — which appeared in the AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR anthology edited by Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray.  The story can now be found at the D.B. Jackson website.

The spate of fires that struck Boston changed the cityscape.  After Boston’s Town House burned to the ground in the fire of 1711, the new one — the now famous Old State House — was rebuilt in brick.  In the aftermath of the 1760 fire, city leaders passed an ordinance mandating that all new construction in Boston be done in brick or stone rather than wood. Faneuil Hall, which was destroyed in the Cornhill fire, was rebuilt in 1761 in its present form, again in brick.  Moreover, noting that attempts to combat the blaze were hampered by lanes that were too winding and narrow, city officials also decreed that several of the smaller lanes in the Cornhill section of the city be widened and straightened.  As a result of the fires, Boston in 1765 looked far more like a modern city than it had only half a century before and by the end of that year, many of the landmarks we associate with Boston were already in place.

Finally, to bring this discussion full circle, I should add that in the aftermath of the Cornhill fire, one of Boston’s tax collectors refrained from demanding payment from those citizens most grievously affected by the catastrophe.  He had no permission from his superiors to do this, but he felt that those most in need should be relieved from having to pay.  His name?  Samuel Adams, of course.  As it turns out, Adams might have been a political genius, but his personal finances were a mess.  Several times, he almost lost his home at auction because of his personal debts.  And his poor relationship with money extended to his early public service.  In the early 1760s, a committee of the town meeting did an audit to determine why the city of Boston suddenly found itself in a financial crisis.  The audit determined that tax collectors had failed to bring in some four thousand pounds owed by the citizenry.  Adams alone was responsible for more than half of the shortfall.

These lesser known historical facts are more than entertaining.  They are tiny gems that make a historical narrative sparkle, that add depth and flavor and richness to a historical setting.  Getting the details right on things like the Stamp Act and even the riots that took place the night of August 26, 1765, was relatively easy.  Over the years, much has been written about those topics.  But the “untaught” history, the small details that are harder to find, are also the ones that catch readers by surprise, that draw them deeper into both character and story.  And, I have to admit, they are also the rewards of historical research that I value most.  After all, readers aren’t the only ones who need to be entertained; this should be fun for us writers, too.

D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of a dozen fantasy novels. His first book as D.B. Jackson, Thieftaker, volume I of the Thieftaker Chronicles, will be released by Tor Books on July 3. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.


Recently there’s been a great deal of discussion on the topic of whether women did actually exist in “historical times,” by which I mean to say that all too often “common knowledge” of what women’s roles were in historical periods is a mythology. If writers and readers base their expectations of women in fantasy fiction on these erroneous stereotypes, then not only is our literature and our reading the poorer for it but it is also getting it wrong.

Today I offer a guest post by Australian writer Tansy Rayner Roberts on this very (and very important) subject.



Looking for the Women (in Ancient Rome)

by Tansy Rayner Roberts


I was inspired to write this after Kate’s post about looking for women in historically-based fantasy worlds.

It’s long frustrated me that a great deal of fantasy fiction in the long tradition of the genre underestimates women.  In particular, I am tired of worlds which are supposedly ‘based on medieval history’ and yet seem to be under the impression that women in the Middle Ages only turned up when a hero needed someone to marry, or to pour him a drink.

And I’m especially, especially tired of any attempts to interrogate the gender politics in fantasy fiction being shut down with the argument: it’s based on real history, so the sexism is AUTHENTIC.

I’m not going to lie to you.  Every historical period has been unkind to women, up to and including our own.  But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t complex and interesting possibilities available to women of all eras, in between stirring the turnip soup and being oppressed.

My favourite fantasy fiction is fed by history, by the nitty gritty details of things that really happened, people who had real lives, tossed around with magic because that automatically makes things more fun.

I wanted to bring my knowledge of Ancient Rome to what Kate has already talked about, largely because I think we can all take a rest from pure Anglo medieval-inspired fantasy for a decade or two, but also because Rome is what I know best.

Ancient Rome is packed with the types of historical issues we see people running up against when trying to write non-sexist stories set in mostly-sexist societies.  In Rome, there was a very clear division between the public and private spheres.  Sadly almost every historical document that survived to document their society was kept because it related to the ‘obviously important’ public sphere in which men were dominant.  Most of the sources we have about private life are conveyed in the words of men, such as the Letters of the Younger Pliny.

But while women had no technical power in that public sphere (which mostly consisted of military issues, senatorial politics and toga parties) they had immense power behind the scenes.  They had their own religious rituals which were considered just as important to the well being of the state as the public, mostly-male rites.  For a long time, scholars assumed women’s religion was less important because they weren’t allowed to make blood sacrifice, and it’s only recently that scholars have gone, um, maybe we only assumed blood sacrifice was more important than, say, baking the sacrificial cakes, because the men were in charge of it?  Oops.

Women of all social levels ran businesses, owned property and slaves, and moved freely around their local city or, if they preferred, the Empire itself.  Even aristocratic women could do those things, though they were more likely to have male relatives who wanted to control them.  The older a woman got, the greater her status.  Divorce was easy to achieve (as long as you weren’t too emotionally attached to your children, one hell of a loophole) but there was special social status granted to a univira, the rare woman who had only had one husband in her lifetime.

We know that Augustus, the first emperor, brought in legislation to try to control women, a little under two thousand years ago, and that tells us a lot about how unruly they had become!  In particular, he brought in a law to force women of the upper classes to remarry within two years of being widowed (and one year of divorce).  This was somewhat devastating, as divorcing your husband or becoming a widow had previously been the best way for  a woman to achieve independence.

Still, we have some great examples of interesting women in Roman history, who had rich and fulfilling and complex lives, despite the patriarchal society in which they lived.  Such as:

The word ‘virago’ was supposedly coined by Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) to insult his rival Marc Antony’s wife Fulvia.  It means ‘women who acts like a man’ and referred to the fact that Fulvia joined her husband on military expeditions.  She wasn’t actually wielding a sword or wearing armour (not that I’d put it past her, she was a feisty lady), but it was apparently unusual for a woman to prefer to rough it in a tent with her husband rather than stay home in comfort with her children.

Having said that, we know of several other women who did the same thing, including Agrippina Major (the granddaughter of Augustus) who raised her children in military camps so they could be near her their father (and so they would all be far from the dangerous politics of the capital).  Later, the Empress Faustina Minor discovered that following her husband to war allowed historians to trash talk her reputation (though the accusations that she had affairs with gladiators had little to do with her own reputation and everything to do with how much the Romans hated her son, the Emperor Commodus).

While having a husband was the key to many social successes and honours in Ancient Rome, it was not always compulsory.  The Vestal Virgins were the among the highest status women in the city.  While there were some scary stories circulating about what would happen to a Vestal if she broke the chastity rule (buried alive for a start) they were nevertheless trusted to regulate that chastity themselves.  They were not shut away or guarded by eunuchs as some 1960’s movies might have you believe!

In fact they moved through the city in freedom and comfort, attended dinner parties, performed rituals, and took part in several business-related duties including the receiving, archiving and dispensing of the city’s legal wills and other documents.  They often had political influence, and had the same status in a law court as a man – which is to say their word had greater legal weight than any other woman of the time.
After thirty years of service (they sign up as children) each Vestal would be released with a generous dowry, and could either live independently or choose to marry.

One of my favourite historical characters (only partly because of the marvellous historical novel written about her, The Course of Honour by Lindsey Davis) is Caenis, the mistress to the Emperor Vespasian (he who built the Colosseum).  Caenis’ story is fascinating because it goes against everything we think we know about Roman society and their class system, and what women were allowed to do.

Caenis began as an imperial slave, serving Antonia (niece of the Emperor Augustus, mother of the Emperor Tiberius) as a personal secretary.  She appears to have had an eidetic memory, and served her mistress dutifully through a time of great political scandal.  When she was freed, she took the name ‘Antonia’ as was tradition.

But while freedwomen could run businesses and own property, one thing not allowed to Antonia Caenis was to marry above her station.  Her love affair with the ageing general Vespasian thus was unlikely to be officially sanctioned by the state, but the class divide broadened when he became the surprise Emperor of a new dynasty.  Luckily he already had two adult sons.  He and Caenis lived happily together in the imperial quarters, she providing him with great advice and wisdom, until her death.

Even in a world where the rules of marriage and social status were quite complex and technically restrictive, love and smarts could beat them all into the ground!
There are so many other specific women I could have talked about – the further they got from the city of Rome itself, and the lawmakers who thought it was okay to dictate what women should do, the more likely they were to take all kinds of freedoms for themselves that the law didn’t actually allow for.  Take mixed bathing – the public baths were supposed to have separate areas for men and women, but half the time they all jumped in together, with all the social ramifications that might imply, regardless of whether or not the current Emperor though it was a good idea.  In smaller towns we even have women running local councils, or breaking with all manner of traditions expected of ‘good’ Roman matrons.

Then there’s the time that the Emperor Augustus gave a lecture about what men should demand of their wives, with all the senators laughing up their sleeves because they all knew that the women of his family had other opinions on the matter.

If we learn nothing else from Roman history, it is that there have always been strong-willed women who get their own way, no matter what the law or the ideals of the society say about it.  Personality can rule over technicalities, and even a sexist society can produce some amazing, capable women, those who work with the system as well as those who work against it.

Too often, female characters only get celebrated in fantasy fiction if they are behaving like men, or taking on traditional male attributes – the kickass lady in armour, the sorceress who can zap you if you say the wrong thing, and so on.  But while I’m all for putting women in (sensible) armour and throwing them out on the battlefield, I also would like to see greater use of other female roles in fantasy – of women’s brains, in particular.  The further back you go in history, the smarter women had to be in order to exhibit and use the power they had.  So let’s see more of THAT in fantasy.

If a story starts with a maiden, let’s not assume that she has to get locked in a tower.  There are alternatives…



This post was written by Tansy Rayner Roberts for her Flappers with Swords Blog Tour.

Tansy’s award-winning Creature Court trilogy: Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts, featuring flappers with swords, shape changers, half-naked men and bloodthirsty court politics, have been released worldwide on the Kindle, and should be available soon across other e-book platforms.  If you prefer your books solid and papery, they can also be found in all good Australian and New Zealand bookshops.

You can also check out Tansy’s work through the Hugo-nominated crunchy feminist science fiction podcast Galactic Suburbia, Tansy’s short story collection Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press).  You can find her on the internet at her blog, or on Twitter as @tansyrr.

Guest Post: Decolonizing as an SF Writer

I started online on GEnie many years ago. The GEnie bulletin board gave me a chance to meet with my friends and get to know new people (many of whom have since become my friends) online when otherwise I would never have been able to regularly interact with so many people in my writing/reading community.

The online world has changed considerably since that time. Now I’m on both Facebook and Twitter, as well as my live journal and wordpress blog (two platforms, same content).  Facebook and Twitter especially have allowed me to make contact with writers and readers around the world, and I feel fortunate to have this opportunity to open up my own perspective of the greater international science fiction and fantasy world, one that is easy (here in the USA) to overlook, not least because so little fiction that isn’t originally published in English gets translated and made available in this country.

So I’m so very pleased to be able to have a guest post today from Filipina writer Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. You can also read the post at The Future Fire and comment there if you wish.



Decolonizing as an SF Writer
By Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

As I write this, I am thinking of a young writer somewhere in the world who comes from a country just like mine. I write reflecting on the process of decolonization that I am going through as I consider history. This look back may be painful and I may have to face unhappy truths, but still it is important. I need to understand the source of the pain, to accept it, embrace it and find healing so I can reclaim what is mine and become the writer that I want to be.


Towards the end of the Marcos regime in 1986, Filipinos marched through the streets protesting not only against the dictator, but also against the continued presence on our shores of the American bases and the perpetuation of American influence on Filipino politics and economics.

While history tells us that we were granted independence in 1912, we know for a fact that the Americans never truly intended to surrender their foothold in our country. Their presence in the Philippines was guaranteed by the acquisition of a lease that granted them permission to establish and maintain Military bases in the Philippines.

In 1991, this lease expired and as the newly installed Philippine senate refused to grant an extension of this lease, America was forced to vacate the bases.
Ostensibly the Americans have left, but they haven’t really left us and what the American occupation has left behind is a great wound on the cultural soul of the Philippines.

Mark Twain, in his essay, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, speaks out against the Imperialism of the United States and in particular against the actions taken by the Americans in subjugating the Philippines and appropriating the victory of the Filipinos against the Spanish colonizers.

Mark Twain writes in his essay about the mindset of America in those days:   We have got the Archipelago, and we shall never give it up.

When I read this essay, I can feel the bewilderment of the patriots who had fought
and won the war against the Spanish, and I feel utter sorrow in knowing that our supposed allies painted us as being uncivilized and not fit to rule our own country. I also feel indignation on behalf of the soldiers who fought against the Spanish and who realized that they were facing another, more insidious enemy. The thing is, where Spain very clearly presented themselves as conquering overlords, America presented itself as a friend. It was an excellent strategy which confused us completely because what they did to the Filipino was a betrayal of that word “friend”.

Perhaps this explains why there is a keen edge to the anger we feel when we look at this history. We love and yet we cannot love because on the one hand, there is the face of friendship and the knowledge that the Americans were our allies. On the other hand we see the face of the trusted friend who betrayed us. We realize that we were never considered equals but in the eyes of our white allies, we were savages to be treated as children and to be condescended to as “the little brown brother”.

I quote history because as an SF writer who comes from a nation steeped in colonialism, this history is relevant as I seek to reclaim indigenous narratives and to break the impositions of colonialism on my culture.

In his book, “Oral Traditions of the Ifugao”, Manuel Dulawan writes of the colonization of the Ifugao and how the Americans employed public education as a means to neutralize and to Americanize the people. This move was so effective that subsequent governments adapted the principles set down by the American education system without realizing just how much damage this had done and was doing to the existing indigenous culture.

Dulawan writes: They have been brainwashed in the schools and in the churches and made to believe that their culture is backward and not worth keeping or learning. As a result, their sense of cultural values is disoriented.

He describes the effects of this cultural brainwashing as being traumatic, sad and painful and writes of how many of those who inherited or adopted the Christian religion assume the conditioned belief that anything of Ifugao cultural origin is either no good or inferior.

In Ifugao culture, the passing on of traditions and rites are done by native priests who are called Mumbaki. They are assisted in this by the elder tribeswomen who are also trained in the oral tradition. In the past, young girls would spend time with the elder women who taught them the traditions, the chants and the songs. Young boys were sent to spend time with the Mumbaki who passed on to the next generation the oral literature, the rituals of the tribe and the practices which were inherited from the forefathers.

During the American occupation, the passing on of the oral tradition was suppressed as the native priests and their rituals were demonized not only by the white colonizer but also by the white missionaries who followed in their wake. This meant that the true traditions and the original culture were slowly overlaid with the glaze of white culture and white belief.

Add all this up and it is no wonder that the psyche and the culture of the Filipino is so scarred and wounded to the point where we see the white and the west as being superior to us in all things.

Reading the history of conquest and colonization is a traumatic experience for the colonized. The Philippines went through not one, but two colonizers. I wonder how many colonizers other countries had to endure.

From reading these histories, it becomes clear to me that the erasure and subjugation of existing indigenous narratives were prioritized as these were viewed as being rival to the colonizing power.

Before the coming of the Americans, the Philippines had already endured four hundred years of colonization under the Spanish regime (1521-1898). It was a colonization that started with the suppresion and the eradication of many of our indigenous culturebearers. Where the American colonizers sought to erase the indigenous culture through the use of education, the Spanish brought with them Spanish friars with the intention of subjugating and exerting influence on the native Filipinos through the use of religion.

Reading this part of my country’s history, I see how the image of the strong indigenous Filipino woman was slowly and surely erased to be replaced by the idealized and hispanized version of what a Filipina should be.  The liberated women of our country were shamed and called lewd and bad and this Christianization inflicted a sense of shame and lesser worth in us.

In her essay “Silencing the Babaylan”, writer Gemma Araneta Cruz writes of the Babaylan and of the Spanish response to the presence of the Babaylan:  Fray Alzina (the Spanish priest)  and missionaries like him saw that the babaylan was a  formidable obstacle to Christianization who had to be discredited, if not destroyed and forever silenced.

Who are these Babaylan and what role do these women play in the cultural life of the Philippines?

When these Spanish friars came to the villages, they noticed the presence of strong women of influence. These strong women were the Babaylan who not only had the power to heal, they were the authority on mythological and cultural heritage, they were the harbingers of ritual and they knew astronomy.

It was during these encounters that the Friars saw how the Babaylan were a major force and a possible obstacle to their goal of hispanizing and subjugating the archipelago. It was then that the decision was formed to disempower the Babaylan.

In “Betraying the Babaylan,” Araneta Cruz describes the technique of divide and conquer which the Spanish employed to disempower the Babaylan and effectively erase them. The first thing that the Spanish did was to alienate the effeminate Babaylan from the women priestesses. They also gained the support of the tribal elite in their cause to wipe out the Babaylan through the use of bribery and promises of power. With the male Babaylan and the elite on their side, the Spanish friars went on to accuse the Babaylan of being of the devil and of practicing witchcraft.

While I narrate events that are specific to the Philippines, I find myself wondering if such events were also mirrored in countries that were colonized by foreign powers. How pervasive is that other culture? How much has it stolen from or killed of the original culture?

When I look at my country, I see how much these things have harmed our psyche and I also see the resilience of our culturebearers who employed whatever means was at their disposal to preserve our culture. Even so, the wounds have spread deep and there are certain things that demonstrate to us how deeply rooted colonialism is.

Even to this day, we see young women buying whitening creams because white is perceived as the ideal color. I long to tell my fellow Filipinos, there is nothing more beautiful than kayumanggi (brown).

At Eastercon, a good friend asked me who I wanted to read my work. It was a question that was unexpected and perhaps because I didn’t expect it, I gave the answer that came quickest to me. I want Filipinos to read my work and in particular, I want the people from Ifugao to read my work. Of course, I amended, I want everyone to read my work, but when I write, I am always thinking of the Philippines.

When I heard of the We See A Different Frontiers project, I was immediately attracted to the premise of an anthology that seeks to bring attention to stories coming from people and places who have endured colonization.

As a Filipino writer who engages Science Fiction, I see myself in conversation with the SF that comes from the West. A great part of existing SF narrative is that of the colonizer, but my narrative is one wherein I strive to reconcile my decolonization with the truth of my country’s history, the reality of where I am now and my vision of where I want to be.

I may transgress against the rules of SF because there are many things that I do not know about Science Fiction.  I did not grow up surrounded and soaked in its language as Science Fiction fans and writers from the West.  But I do know what SF looks like when seen with the eyes of the decolonized. It is a different SF, but it is still Science Fiction. As my Clarion West instructor, John Kessel said: Science Fiction is when I point to it and say that’s science fiction.

It is easy to be intimidated, and it is a struggle not to be so. And that’s why I think it is important for a writer of color to see other writers and fans of color in the field of Science Fiction.

In the course of this journey, I have been told that I need to learn English better. That I can’t possibly grasp the nuances of the English language the way a native English speaker does and that I will never be published as an SF writer.

And then, there are people who say that because I write in English, my narrative is contaminated and no longer true to the culture I come from.

The people saying those things may believe those things to be true, but I persist because I hear the voices of those who have admonished me from the moment I engaged this genre.

I hear the voice of my elder sister telling me: Don’t be stupid. Is this your dream or what? Are you going to let yourself be silenced by those words?

There is my precious grandaunt who told me: there are no limits. If this is what makes you feel passionate, then you must keep on writing it.

And there are dear friends like Aliette de Bodard who, when I was thinking of giving up, asked me: So, are you going to wait until someone else appropriates your culture?

And so I go and commit SF yet again.


*This essay was inspired by a twitter exchange between Djibril al-Ayad, Kate Elliott, Requires Hate, Aliette de Bodard and I.


Rochita was the first Filipina writer to be accepted into the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. She attended the workshop in 2009 as the recipient of the Octavia Butler Scholarship. Her short fiction has been published in The Philippines as well as outside of The Philippines. She has a livejournal at