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Chariots and entry points

Note: In the interest of organization I've ported the entries from my mailing list over to my blog! This was originally sent on 11/21/2018.

Hi friends!

First off, thanks for subscribing and agreeing to receive yet another email in your surely already clogged and roiling inboxes. I appreciate it! I'm going to attempt to send these weekly, and I'll try to keep 'em interesting.

On that note:


The reason for writing this newsletter is to keep folks posted on the progress my comic book project.

Since the book is about the Romans and the Celts duking it out in first-century Britain, and I have never written a comic book before, writing the script has involved a lot of research about history and how to write a comic book. I'll dip into a bit of each in each of these letters.

One really surprising thing I learned about ~*technology*~ while doing research for the book is that the Romans and the Celts didn't have stirrups. We think horses were first domesticated in 4000 BC in Eastern Europe, and that rudimentary saddles were in use by 700 BC. But humans didn't figure out stirrups until they were invented in China sometime between 206 BC and 400 AD (quite a range, but I have reason to believe that dating archaeological evidence is pretty tough).

They did ride horses to get around, but without stirrups or the glutes of a demigod, horseback wasn't very comfortable for long journeys. Not having stirrups also makes a horse really difficult to steer. To be honest, I've found that horses are generally pretty hard to steer, even in non-wartime situations, but I'm not an expert.

Anyway, back to getting around the ancient Roman empire!

Depending on how wealthy a person was, they either: * Walked, which was probably Not Much Fun given the shoes and roads they had back then. * Rode chariots or spiffy carriages, of which there were many types. Some were covered, some were uncovered; some had seats (like the cisium, the ancient Roman taxi, which had a driver and seating for two people) and some didn't (like the speedy essedum, which was a standing chariot with two passengers); some sat one or two people while others (like the carpentum, the stretch limo of ancient Rome or the raeda, the public bus) sat more.  * Sailed, which was real practical for getting to some places (Carthage, Greece, etc.) and real impractical for getting to others (Britain, Gaul)

Before I started working on this project, I implicitly associated chariots with the classic ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and Egypt, but wouldn'tcha know it, I was kind of wrong! The Celts were really into their chariots too. A note that "Celt" is a catchall term for a pretty large group of people living in modern day Britain, Spain, France, Germany, and Belgium, who spoke "Celtic" languages. The term comes from the Greek "keltoi," their name for a group of people living in southern France. Modern archaeologists don't think there's much of a case for there ever having been a unified Celtic culture across all of those areas, a bit like there wasn't one unified culture amongst the indigenous tribes of North America. The Gauls especially were a bogeymen (bogeypeople?) for Romans -- they sacked Rome in the 3rd century BC.

It reminds me a bit of the usage of "barbarians" by Greeks and Romans: rather than objectively meaning "uncivilized people," the term started off as a way to classify any group of people who didn't live and behave like the Greeks. Later on, especially when the Athenians started in with democracy and enslaving people en masse, "barbarian" become a pejorative term that denigrated people who had their own versions of civilization, but whose defeat had to be justified. 

Again, I digress, back to war ponies: the big statue of Boudicca in Westminster even has her riding a chariot, with her daughters riding on the boards, hanging on for dear life. No hands, mom!

This is technically a Roman-style two-horse biga, which were often used in racing and ceremonial processions (the Romans didn't use chariots for war, but for the extremely popular sport of chariot racing and for travel), but as far as we know were similar to Celtic-style war chariots, just a smidge more enclosed. 

Unlike the Romans, the Celts in Britain and Gaul mainly used chariots for war: they allowed fighters to get up close to enemies without getting tired, and then jump off and start fighting fresh. Riding around on their chariots in a chaotic way was also one of the many shock-and-awe tactics the Celts employed, alongside spiking their hair up with lime, painting their faces, and screaming. Julius Caesar and Diodorus Siculus both describe Celtic chariots as being extremely loud. Caesar said that in battle Britons would "begin by driving all over the field hurling javelins, and generally the terror inspired by the horses and the noise of the wheels are sufficient to throw their opponents' ranks into disorder." A few historians also describe the war chariots as having goddamned SCYTHES on their naves (the open center part of the wheel that fits over the axle).

I'm interested in all of this both because I like a good realistic battle scene and because I'm trying to be accurate in representing how long it would have taken folks to travel between cities in the first century AD. If there's anything in historical fiction that bothers me more than people not constantly dying of what are now minor illnesses and infections, it's zippy travel times. I found this pretty snazzy tool to help (thank you Stanford nerds!):

There's lots more to say about roads and travel in the Roman empire, but I'll save it for another letter.

OK BUT WHAT'S UP WITH THE COMIC, THOUGH This summer I took a three-week sabbatical to try and finish the script for the comic book (thanks, RC!). I estimate it'll be about 300 pages and change when all is said and done and edited. I'm a scootch over halfway through, and I've mapped out the whole story issue by issue so I can chip away at it until it's done.

I don't quite know why I decided to start doing this, besides feeling like it was the best and most available way to tell this particular story. I've been reading comics since I learned to read (thanks, Dad!), and it's always something I've wanted to take a crack at. The story of Boudicca herself has always fascinated me, and by fascinated I mean when I think about it a lot I start getting misty eyed and hearing historically incorrect sad bagpipe music in my head. A very long swords-and-sorcery take on a Celtic queen mounting a rebellion against Romans because she just wanted them to leave her the fuck alone, please seemed like a lot of fun to write.

And it has been! But oh, the rabbit holes. It's taken longer than I thought it would, though in retrospect I'm fine with that. I think I needed to do some learnin' about how comics work by taking a class and reading Scott McCloud and going over a few of my favorites panel by panel to take them apart and see what makes a page work. It's certainly given me a greater appreciation for the medium and for the comics I do love.

I went to ComicCon last month to try and sniff around for artists. While I didn't find anyone there, I did find two someones on a fun Facebook group I joined on a lark. I feel very lucky to be working with both of them: Unai Ortiz de Zarate is doing the inks and page layouts, and DC Alonso is doing the color. Unai just started working on page 1 this week, and if all goes to plan we should have Issue #1 done early next year.

Did I say I felt lucky? I meant to say that when Unai sent me the first character concept drawings of Boudicca and Aithne (one of Boud's two daughters), I cried a little bit. I mean...

...he's really good!

Unless you're doing the writing and the drawing (like some kind of monster hero, who are you, Alison Bechdel), creating a comic is a highly collaborative process. Intellectually, I knew that going into this. But seeing this rendering of the characters (and, based on them, imagining how Unai will handle the script) was, if I can be a tiny little bit cheesy here, something like magic.


WRITING IN GENERAL I'm currently taking a writing workshop through NYU, and it's been really wonderful so far. Each meeting includes a discussion of a reading about some aspect of craft and a discussion of three to four pieces written by folks in the class.

Something that's come up a few times is the idea of finding an entry point to a story. The first time was while discussing Toni Morrison's "The Site of Memory," which is a really fantastic read about a lot of things, including the difference between truth and fact. She talks about the narratives of slaves and former slaves written in the 19th century, and how much they had to leave out of their lives -- like the crushing violence and the immorality of the entire situation -- to appeal to the people who were publishing the stories. She goes on to discuss how those histories, along with the stories passed down through her own family, allow her to write stories through the alchemy of memory and imagination.

This is one of my favorite passages:

"Because, no matter how "fictional" the account of these writers, or how much it was a product of invention, the act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. "Floods" is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory - what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our "flooding."

In class this lead us to a chat about how to find entry points into stories we want to write (I suppose the more hand-wavey version of that question is "Where do the stories even come from, though??"). I don't have a formal method for doing this -- the idea for the Boudicca story came from a lifetime of reading a lot of history and listening to a Florence and the Machine song while trying to imagine a music video to go with it -- but I've found that trying to write things in different ways helps round out a story, or find an entry into it when one doesn't make itself apparent.   

After that discussion, I realized that when I run into a block in writing something, I often start going down research rabbit holes to procrastinate. Once I learned to recognize that this is happening, and I started asking myself something like "Ok, but how would walking for 10 days straight feel? What would someone who had never seen a Roman Legion see, the first time?" Writing is ultimately an exercise in empathy, and stepping back and trying to find emotional roots of your own within all your research and preparation is both necessary and helpful.

AND ANOTHER THING Oh wow, you read this whole thing! Thank you. Here is a hedgehog (hopefully?) enjoying a bath, as a token of my thanks. 

If you have any questions about the process of writing a comic book script/Celtic and Roman history, please let me know! 

And if you see any glaring historical errors, please do shout them at me! I just wanna learn.


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