Stealing Stuff From History (The Roman Edition)

May 21, 2012

This is a guest with whom I feel a kinship. Not only is she into the ancient world, but she appears to love flappers too. Also, Romanpunk? Does it get cooler than that? Please, everybody welcome Tansy Roberts!

Guest Post by Tansy Rayner Roberts

I fell in love with the city of Rome through books. My teen years, in which I was mostly reading science fiction or fantasy, were punctuated with the discovery of historical novelists. The pattern, when I look, back, is pretty obvious: the ones that really captured my attention were all writing about the Ancient World, and while I had my flirtations with Troy and Egypt, it was Rome that held my heart.

The Reign of Beasts by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Colleen McCullough and Lindsey Davis were probably the most influential writers on me at the time, and the ancient city unfolded in my head, far more evocative than any fantasy map.

Writing is what I’ve always wanted to do, but when I started at university I had already decided that the last thing I wanted to study was creative writing – better to learn more about things I could write about, surely? I meant to study history: Vikings and Tudor queens, and the like. But I fell again, this time into Classics. Latin, the Caesars and Ovid overtook me, burrowing into my brain.

Through my whole university career – my BA, Honours and finally the doctorate – I was writing fantasy fiction, and reading about Rome. I was already well aware that fantasy as a genre was heavily built upon medieval (and faux-medieval) traditions, and so I gave myself the freedom to pour ancient worlds into my magical ones.

My first magical world, Mocklore, owed as much to my studies of Roman social history as it did to the influence of Fritz Leiber, Terry Pratchett or Dragonlance. I peppered my stories with ancient detail: with a Lady Emperor, distressed whelks, and pantheons of cranky gods. My second published novel, Liquid Gold, was written at the same time that I was taking a translation class on The Aeneid (specifically the Book in which Aeneas descends into the Underworld) and oh boy, it shows – not only did I kill off my heroine in the first chapter and send her off to an underworld of her own, but the text is full of complex in jokes which I’m not sure even I get any more! Not bad for a fluffy humorous story about pirates and witches…

Perhaps it was inevitable that university should get in the way of my writing career? After all, a doctorate isn’t something you take on lightly. It’s only in looking back that I realise I lost my way. I was never planning to take academia further into a career – it was writing I wanted to do, always – and yet it took over so substantially for nearly a decade of my life. Only having children threw me out of the university system, and thus allowed me to focus back on my REAL career (except of course that by this time I had kids, so finding time to develop any career was to take on whole new challenges).

Rome continued to invade my fiction, and it was no longer being subtle about it.

A month or so before Power and Majesty, the first book of my Creature Court fantasy trilogy, went to print, I got a call from my editor suggesting that actually we should really have a map. I hadn’t expected it, because the novel took place in a single city, but apparently they wanted to help the readers navigate the locations. I panicked briefly when I realised it was up to me to provide the map (what, no Cartography Department, HarperCollins?) but remembered just in time that I had a mother with mad illustrative skills. Thank goodness for that.

And of course I did have a map for her to use as reference, and make pretty. My magical city, Aufleur, was based solidly on my experiences travelling to Rome itself as well as the many books set in Rome I had read, and I had sketched one out roughly so I knew where all the suburbs and hills (yes, seven of them) were in relation to everything else. All well and good. Plus, I figured, Mum could use a map of the real Rome as a starting point.

Except as it turned out, my hybrid hodgepodge description of Rome bore no actual relationship to any real map of the city, then or now. The Forum and the Palatine and all the other reference points I had thrown in there were… well, let’s say differently located. And let’s not start on the entire underground city that had to be drawn so that it matched the aboveground city! It was a headache of epic proportions, and I was quite lucky not to get myself disowned.

But when I think about Aufleur, the fictional city in my head rather than the one my mother managed heroically to render on the page, it is the bits of real and ancient and imagined Rome in there that make me most happy. Details like all the posh houses being the ones up high, and the grubby poor ones being below. My favourite temples. The park overlooking the Colosseum (I don’t have one of those, it’s still a lake in my version of reality) which was built over the baths that were built over Trajan’s Golden House. Hot food bars. Vigiles and lictors. Priestesses with political agency. Cathedrals built over ruins. Tiny green grottos dug out of hillsides, and hidden in private gardens. Saturnalia. Blood, bread and circuses.

Then came Love and Romanpunk, my short story collection written around the idea that the Julio-Claudian family were all werewolves, vampires and other monsters (come on, it makes so much more sense). Finally, the women I had written about in my PhD thesis came to life in fiction… well, sort of. It was beyond delightful to be able to write madly, to add magic and smutty bits and basilisks, without anyone telling me that it was too entertaining (a genuine criticism I received of my academic writing) or that I had to include footnotes.

I’m sure that at some point I’ll manage to write some fantasy fiction that isn’t somehow infused with my obsessive love for and knowledge of Roman history, but it hasn’t happened yet. There’s so much good stuff still to use…

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.

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