(Originally aired 2018/09/08 - listen here)
Heather: This month, The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is delighted to welcome author Kelly Aten to the show. Although she writes in a number of genres, she's here today mostly to talk about her historic fantasy series, The Arrow of Artemis, and especially the third book, The Sagittarius, which should be out from Regal Crest by the time this airs. Welcome, Kelly.
Kelly Aten: Hi, thank you for having me.
H: Why don't you tell us about the setting and premise of your series and how you came to write it?
K: The setting and premise of The Arrow of Artemis series, which includes books, The Fletcher, The Archer, and The Sagittarius, it is set about 29 BCE. It seems oddly specific, I know, but it's set in ancient Greece. The very first book actually focuses on a young woman whose father's dying. She inadvertently saves an Amazon who's travelling to give news to another tribe. And with her father dying and the fact that she has killed men who were responsible to the local land owner of the area, she knows that she's not safe where she's at. Her home is going away, women are not allowed to hold property. So even though her father is a very famous Fletcher for the king or of the area…God, I can't remember my own books, sorry. [Heather laughs] When he dies, and her mother has been long dead, when he dies, she will not have a place. She would have to leave anyways. So he begs this woman that she saved, this Amazon, to take her away. And so she travels with the Amazon to another tribe and then eventually back to the Amazon's home tribe and she seeks to become an Amazon. The first book is very much of a coming-of-age story about this main character, Kyri Fletcher, who is looking for her place in the world, who's searching for a new family to essentially replace the one that she's lost. From there, that coming-of-age book really turned significantly darker in the second book where she has a lot more at stake and she faces a lot more adversity. It does not end so well. I think that's prevalent when you see reviews online. The Archer doesn't end as well, it's a bit of a cliffhanger.
H: Well, that's a usual middle book thing, you have to ramp up the stakes in the middle book.
K: Well, so this series was actually never intended to be a series. Here's the history, I wrote The Fletcher after completing my first Xena fan fiction. Actual, legitimate, original Xena fan fiction, Xena/Gabrielle. I was bored a couple years ago. After moving across the state where I live, I really had no hobbies, nothing to occupy my time. I was reading too much, meaning beyond my budget. [laughs]
H: Wait, wait, wait, wait, how can you read too much?
K: Beyond my budget, how is that? laughs]
H: Wow, okay.
K: You can only read so many books and then you start delving into free books, and it just goes downhill from there.
H: And it spirals down the drain at that point. Yes.
K: Oh, man, yes. And there are some really good free and low cost books out there, but there were enough bad ones that I said, "You know what, I'm just going to do this myself." I had started a Xena fanfic a long time ago, not a long time ago, maybe seven years ago and I just stopped. I did maybe 20,000 words. I was never a writer so that was hard. It was something I tried to do, I was never a writer, and I decided I'm going to finish this. So I finished it. And that world, it was amazing. I did a lot of research. I did a lot of research on Ancient Greece, on the warfare battle, weapons, the ships that they used in Rome. I did a ton of research.
H: Yeah. Now you've got the research and nothing to do with it, so...
K: Exactly. Well, it stayed with me and I ended up going on and finishing another book that I had started which was an urban fantasy. I started it also about seven or eight years ago, and I finished that book. But the ancient Greece wouldn't leave my head, it would not. I ended up writing two more books, which was The Archer and The Sagittarius. It was never going to be a series, that coming-of-age was never going to be a series but when I posted it online, so many people said, "Well, what happens to Kyri? We want to know more about her life." And you know how you just don't want to disappoint people. So...
H: Yeah, I have a series that started with a stand-alone book too. Yes. [laughs]
K: See? You understand completely. Then I wrote The Archer and I was not going to make it a cliffhanger, but sometimes when you're writing and you get to a certain point in the book and you say to yourself, "I think this is the end," and you're like, "Oh, this is a bad end." Within maybe half an hour after I finished writing The Archer, my girlfriend looked at me and said, "Yeah, I think that's a good ending. It's kind of a dick ending but it's a good ending." [Aten and heather laugh] Within a half an hour of those words, I started writing The Sagittarius obsessively. And there's no way I could have put the two together, The Sagittarius is significantly larger than the other two books. Hopefully, that will make people happy. But yeah, so in ancient Greece, the reason why I said oddly specific 29 BCE is because there are characters in the third book that are actually real historical figures. Just two, only two figures. That's why I said 29 BCE because looking at the timeline, those are when those two figures existed together. Because while some of the stuff wasn't explicitly there, obviously, it's set on Amazon tribes, not something that we have definitive proof. I did a lot of research on that, too. There are some things that I tried to be very accurate on. I did a lot of research, like I said. But other things, some places and people are made up.
H: I'm curious because since you mentioned that you first got interested in the setting by writing Xena fanfic and then Amazons, of course, everybody thinks about the Amazons in Xena which are not particularly historically grounded. Which take on Amazons are you working from?
K: As far as…
H: Yeah, is there some particular historical theory about them that you're working from?
K: There really isn't. The thought was a tribute to the Xena series. When you have the “Uber”, which is the character set in a new time, but then there are other ones where you did your own thing with the characters. And they were definitely inspired by those two characters. As far as the take on the Amazon tribes, I did a lot of research, they didn't have any definitive proof. They had some proof of maybe further East, where they found significant tribes of women with larger bone structure, they were clearly warriors, symbolizing that they were buried with their weapons. That was the closest that I could find to proof of Amazons besides statuary and depictions of the Roman gladiator arenas, they called them Amazones. But there weren't actual documented proof of Amazon tribes. And what I did was, you know, you look at all of these fictional stories of Amazons-- and I made it what I want it to see, if that makes sense. If you could pick an Amazon tribe that's trying to live in a world that's primarily male dominated, how would this tribe logistically exist? And how would they continue to exist, right? You have to have contact with men, some of them have relationships with men, which goes into more in the second and third book, how does that work? And I decided that a sister city. So not all the women are with women, but there are no men or boys over a certain age that are allowed to exist in the Amazon tribe, the Amazon nation, right? I don't know if you've ever heard of the Michigan women's music festival that was in Michigan for 35 years until they finally stopped? I actually based some of my idea on that, which was you could only have boys under a certain age at the festival. Anything over that age, the men were not allowed. That was also my thinking, it's a comfort level and a very female-centered society.
H: Has history always been an interest of yours in general or was it very much centered on this one particular project that sparked your interest?
K: I wouldn't say that traditional history has been an interest of mine. I don't romanticize the 1800s. Civil War, I was forced to watch a lot of videos as a kid, so, no. [Heather laughs] I could do without ever hearing the rump pum pum drums again. Once you go a little further back to medieval times, I mean, who hasn't romanticized medieval times? But I'm too logical where I look back and I say, "Oh, it was not such a good time for women." And I just can't. Unless it's just a fantasy, it's hard for me to think outside the box and say, "Oh, I would love to have lived then." There is a romantic quality to the 17 and 1800s maybe in London, or even further back medieval times. Who wouldn't want to be a princess? [Heather laughs] But honestly, I would have rather been a knight. But going even further back, I think my first huge exposure to historical fiction was the... Is it the Earth Children's series Jean Auel?
K: I started reading those when I was maybe 12, probably too young. They're giant books.
H: [laughs] As I recall, yeah, that's usually younger than they would suggest but... [laughs]
K: There's definitely a lot of adult content involved in those books. But one of the things that caught my attention through those books was the ancient depictions where she did a lot of research about all the basic things that you take for granted now. How do you even cure leather? How do you make things? How do you knap flint? Just these basic things. How do you carry fire from place to place? Weave baskets. Basic skills that the ancient cultures had. That was one of the things that really fascinated me and that has carried through probably my entire life. So when I wrote these three books, it was just as much a tribute to her books, because I looked up medicinal herbs and I watched a lot of videos and read a lot about how did they actually make arrows before you had modern tools for making arrows, straightening the staves and using flint to drill holes and stuff like that.
H: I confess that about 60% of my interest in history is material culture. It's just the physical material culture of everyday life and it's just fascinating. I think sometimes I write stories to be able to use that.
K: Well, and that's good. Because when I read historical fiction, sometimes that's why I read the stories for. Exactly what you're saying, that material culture, just to see. Because I'm one of those people that likes to read and learn how to do stuff. I mean, it might be just out there. And I'll fall down the rabbit hole and spend hours reading about just whatever, right? "Oh, I've never heard of that. What is this?" And then I'll start reading and I'm like, "Wow, I've just expanded my knowledge [Heather laughs] and something else probably fell out at the meantime."
H: You've written in several different genres in your other books. Are there any special challenges or particular delights of writing in historic settings that are different from writing, say, contemporaries or science fiction?
K: I think there are. One of the things I loved about writing in historic writing, obviously, was actually the research. Because like I said, I like learning new things and some of the things just fascinated me. I've always been fascinated by sword fighting because that whole knights and damsels kind of thing. But it's not heavily focused on sword fighting with my particular historic fiction, there is the archery aspect. I have actually had my own bow and arrows. I used to shoot years ago, I sold it when I moved to a much more populated area, you could shoot somebody. It was a past life for me, sort of. But watching all these videos and they're seriously some truly talented individuals out there that practice instinctive archery. I've had some negative comments on my book saying, "She's a Mary Sue." Right? My main character is a Mary Sue, nobody can do that. But I will point you to three different videos that practice instinctive archery, they make their own arrows, and they do exactly that. They can spin on a dime and shoot through a wedding ring. These are not impossible things, these people do this. It is more than a skill, it's instinctive, not everybody can do this. That was what I tried to come across with her is that she had this instinct that most people don't have, and it put her above and beyond in that particular aspect.
H: Yeah. But when you think about it, any skill like that by definition involves a lot of practice. How is it stranger to be able to shoot an arrow like that than to, say, be able to sink a basket from the other end of the court five times out of six, you know?
K: Exactly, and not everybody can do that even if they practice their whole life. I think that's one of the things that I love, the research is one of the main things that I love. And I actually do a lot of research for all of my books, even the simplest books. Some of them I find are a lot less research and those are actually the quickest books to write because research is probably 40% of my time. But one of the hard things about writing history, this particular historical fiction set in 30 BCE ancient Greece, it's really hard to come up with some of the things, find some of the data, some of the details. I would try to think of, I'd have a question that would come up. So when you're writing, and you come to a point, and you're like, "Oh, I don't know about that, I need to go look it up." It's hard to research stuff from that time period because there aren't really detailed records that you have. I just simply couldn't find the information and sometimes I had to make stuff up, sometimes I had to extrapolate with what I knew. There's not a lot of recorded data for the small stuff, like the inconsequential stuff that you might put in a story. But I like a lot of details. And if you don't have massive amounts of time or access to a huge library, you're forced to scour the internet for hours. And while I'm good at it, I have my limits.
H: Yeah. And the internet can be peculiarly specific in some cases.
K: Oh, yeah. Never depend on Wikipedia. [both laugh] Another thing when I did this particular series, not just this series, but all of my books, math! When I write, I like to be as detailed as possible. I have a map of where all my cities are located in Greece, right? All of the Amazon cities. And I had to figure distance based on one city, the approximate location to the approximate location of another, figure distance between all of these cities, travel times, how long would it take them to travel from one city to another? How long does it take for an ancient Roman ship to sail across the Ionian Sea? [Heather laughs] It's like, "Well, how do I find the speed of an ancient Roman ship?"
H: Oh, there are books on that. I think I've got one of them. [laughs]
K: Right. Right. It takes some scouring then you do the math. I had to actually look up, I'm like, "Oh man, I can't remember circumference." So I'm looking up pi r-squared. [Heather laughs] For instance, in the first book, obviously I already mentioned that she wants to become an Amazon so there are trials that she has to go through. You have to run around the circumference of the nation. I'm like, "Oh, crap, how big is this nation? What's the circumference? What would be a slow running speed if she's has to stay in the trees, a thick forest?" You're just making stuff up at that point, but you're trying to make it up as accurate as possible, which seems really strange.
H: Yeah, I get it. Then they're always the points where you simply cannot come up with anything and you figure out a way to fuzz it, you know?
H: She's doing this highly specific thing and I'm going to talk about this bit on the edge of it and you can imagine the rest. I don't have to actually say.
K: That's exactly it. I think the biggest thing about going too far back with historical writing is just finding the information that you're looking for. I said two of the characters in the third book are real characters. One is Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. He was actually born Gaius Octavius for anybody that's familiar with Roman history. He's the adopted nephew of Julius Caesar who changed his name. But he features in the third book, his coronation. And then one of the slave owners listed in the third book, Caecilius Claudius Isidorus. He actually was a real historical figure. When he died, he left behind over 4000 slaves, 3600 pairs of oxen, 250,000 heads of cattle, 60 million sesterces. He was a real historical figure. He died one of the richest Roman men and he was a former freedman. But he's listed in a couple of scanned books. If that tells you anything, they're books that have been scanned and put on the internet. They're like historical texts. Like, he was in the Natural History of Pliny, right? So trying to find some of the information on these figures and obviously he's just a head, I made up a lot of stuff about him because there are no details. So, that was the difficult thing about historical fiction when you go too far back into history, it's just finding the details.
H: I'm always specifically interested in how or whether authors have researched historical attitudes towards sexuality in writing these books. Now, you've set up a deliberately single sex community for the Amazons. Is there anything that you researched around classical attitudes towards sexuality and gender that went into how the dynamics of that worked? Or was it more 'here's a premise and here's how it feels like it would work out for me?'
K: I actually did a lot of reading about sexuality and gender of ancient Greece and somewhat of ancient Rome, they're kind of hand in hand. I did not necessarily include that in the community that I created. Because here's the thing, when you go so far back in ancient history, who do they write about? Men. There is actually some documentation of males in ancient Greece where it was common practice for an older male to take a younger male as a submissive sexual partner, but then they're still expected when they become an adult to marry a woman. And it was also degrading as a male on the receiving end if you were an adult, to be the submissive one. They were actually derided once they got older.
H: Yeah, it's all bound up in binaries of class and status as well as gender.
K: Yes, and like a mentor-mentee kind of role. As far as women, there's not a lot that I found about women. Women really had no value beyond birthing children. Some communities, women took up more valuable roles but still it mostly fell on the men. When you look over now at ancient Rome, women weren't ruling. They were upper class, they had upper class women. Now, one of the things that I found most interesting as far as gender is concerned with ancient Rome, is women were actually allowed to be gladiators. It was a very popular practice for the upper class women to become gladiators. It wasn't until about 200 CE that Septimius Severus, he was the emperor I think at the time, he outlawed women becoming gladiators. In the third book, it does feature female gladiators. That is an accurate historical thing, there were women gladiators. When it talks about what the women gladiators wore, they weren't allowed to wear helms. All of that is actual stuff that I researched about the female gladiators. And for the most part the female gladiators, they fought female gladiators. But in my particular story, I did have one female gladiator as The Sagittarius, which is the mounted archer. There are a lot of different types of gladiators. I did a lot of research on gladiators. On what they ate, how they lived, if they were paid, how they became gladiators... all of that stuff. I did a lot of research on ancient Rome in general. Even the slave trade. I had to do a lot of research on the slave trade of ancient Rome. The currency, that was another difficult thing to do. What the currency was like, how much a slave would be purchased for in the currency of that time, Just the general process of it as far as where they're brought in, how they're kept, how they're auctioned off, what the privileges and rights of slaves were. Actually, slaves in ancient Rome had a lot of privileges and rights. They were allowed to earn a wage. They could earn a wage, they could own other slaves. It was a lot of interesting research, but I tried to make it as detailed as possible. As far as gender is concerned, there were women gladiators. And it wasn't until I think a couple 100 years later when Christianity really started to take hold, that's when this Emperor banned women from competing in the arenas. It wasn't that much longer after that the gladiatorial games really started going away.
H: So having built up all of this store of research, I always think of it as the research compost heap that's just waiting for story seeds to fall into it, are you looking for other projects to use all that in or you want to move on to other historic settings?
K: The other research I have, like I said, maybe 45 pages of this research that I have for each of these ancient Greek books with names and places and just all of these details... it was really handy going from book to book. As far as writing more historical fiction, I don't know what I'll write, when I write it. It's whatever catches my eye. I have numerous books in the bank, you know? Stuff that I will write an entire page synopsis for my own personal use, and then when I finish a book I'll look and I'll say what's catching my eye. And I've even started a book that's caught my eye, stopped it and went to something else. And I don't usually do that. But sometimes something won't get out of your head, you can't force it. And you just have to go with what's calling you. One thing that I've been asked many times; if I would continue this particular world, this particular storyline. People want to know about Kyri, they want to know about Queen Orianna, of her tribe. And I know that I'm never going to write another story specifically about Kyri. It's set first-person, it's in Kyri's viewpoints. I'm never going to write another story. This story, for me in her viewpoint, ends in the end of book three. If I did another book of this time period, it would be about Queen Orianna and it would be one book of her life. Because I thought of all of the characters that I had of the series, she was the most interesting. She had a very interesting and difficult background and for someone so young she worked so hard and become who she was at the time she was. To me, there was a story there. Now, if I'm ever going to get around to writing that story, I'm not sure. I rationalized being able to write this story with-- I'm not sure if it would be first person again, like with the other ones or if it would be told third person-- I know that it would overlap with the series. But because of the way the first series is written, I didn't think it would be that much of a big deal. Because there's so much from her viewpoint that needs to be filled in. As far as other historical fiction, it's hard to say. I do have a good steampunk. While that's not traditional historical fiction, it's something that I would consider. The only steampunk-ish book that I have written is actually set on another planet. So, that's neither here nor there. But I wouldn't rule it out because stuff is always catching my eye. Sometimes I listen to a song and it's like, "Oh, that gives me an idea for a book." Sometimes I read a book and it gives me an idea for a book, right? Or watch a video. So if I read a book, a historical fiction book, and I say, "Oh, this time period is really fascinating!" Which is what happened when I was reading a lot of Xena fan fiction, like, this time period is really fascinating. You just get sucked in. So I would never rule out writing a historical fiction book, another series even, because it really just comes down to what catches your fancy.
H: Absolutely. What are some of the most fascinating facts you turned up when you were doing your research? Or is there some particular source that just really grabbed your fancy?
K: One thing that I have always, and I think maybe this was why I also wrote the ancient Greek series, is I have been a huge fan of the Greek and Roman myths for my entire life. You're forced to study mythology growing up sometimes. I've just always loved the Greek mythology.
H: Okay, did you put together an entire genealogical chart at age 10 like I did?
K: I'm not sure if I did that but I wrote fake plays. [laughs] They were terrible. I was probably about the same age, they were pretty bad. But while my series isn't dedicated historical fiction, obviously, because there's a lot of detail you don't know. Technically, Amazons are fictional characters, so there's a little leeway. But some of the interesting things that I learned is that there's a festival in ancient Greece that's called Mounukhia. The Athenians would offer Artemis little round cakes topped with little torches, and the name of the cake meant shining all around and they were likely in reference to the full moon. Which according to myth, shone on the Athenian fleet during the Battle of Salamis as they defeated the invading Persians. They would offer these little cakes asking for protection. So today, they petition Artemis for protection. Many offer cookies, cupcakes, and other small round cakes circled with candles, especially during the full moon in late April or early May. That's what they used to do. Now, here's the fact: is that that is the originating tradition behind a birthday cake. A lot of people don't realize that. [Heather laughs] I researched it, I found more than one reference that they suspect. Obviously, there's no one saying, "Well, we got this from the ancient Greek cakes." But that is most likely where the tradition of a birthday cake topped with candles came from, because they would offer these round cakes top with candles. That is what the cake actually meant. There are a lot of myths that I listed in the third book and the second book, even the first one. There are a lot of myths, like slight little myths where when they're doing a ceremony, it would kind of mention the myth behind the ceremony. And that's stuff I actually looked up, because I just find the mythology interesting. One of the other things that I wanted to note is I've actually had a lot of emails about the series when I had a post online years ago, when I first finished it.
K: One person said that they were a student of history and they inquired why I used the term ere or erus instead of domine or dominus which you see in a lot of master-slave stories. I actually save all these links. And I found a couple different references, but one of them you really had to dive for it. But the person said that domine or dominus were what they termed as “silver” Latin. In Rome, they bastardize Greek words. And when they brought Greeks over, they had Greek slaves. They didn't use the silver-tongue Latin, they would use more of a...
H: As they say, the vulgar Latin. [laughs]
K: Well, it wasn't even Latin. Some of it was just Greek. It would be the difference between saying, "Wow, my master, look out there's a truck coming," versus "Hey, boss. Look out, there's a truck--" You know what I'm saying. Obviously, there are no trucks. But ere or erus were actually the bastardized less formal terms to address one's master or mistress at the time. And I thought that was really interesting, because you do see a lot of domine/dominus. And when you look it up, it is like basic silver-tongue Latin. When you start thinking about it, it made complete sense to me because look how we speak now. We don't speak very formal to each other. There's a difference between recorded language and language that people actually spoke. And again, that's another thing. It's difficult to really find this information when the time period is so distant.
H: Yeah, and the social dynamics of how people address each other and refer to each other. I mean, this is something I find fascinating and incorporated--probably at too great a length in my own writing--where the distinction between who uses which words is meaningful in the story.
K: It is, it really is. And if you want the story to be-- Even if it's kind of uh...
H: You want it to have that three-dimensionality.
K: Yes, even if no one else knows. If you take the time to put all of these details, it makes it more believable. And when you research, even if nobody cares about, when you put such details such research into your book, it helps bring the story to life to people.
H: Yeah, I think even if the readers don't realize they care, that they would notice the difference.
K: Yes, I think that's exactly it. And my last fun fact, I guess I'd call it a fun fact, I don't know. They're fun for me. But when I mentioned earlier that a slave can own another slave, that slave of a slave was called a vicarius. Now, for anybody that is a fan of the English language, when you live vicariously through someone, that is where that came from.
H: And it's the same word as vicar in the church!
K: Yes, a slave of a slave. [laughs] So, I don't know. There were a lot of things that I learned, some of the little facts. I learned a lot about PTSD. That was a challenge with historical fiction, is writing about PTSD in a way that you would be able to equate it to something like an ancient time. Because while PTSD is a modern term, post-traumatic stress disorder is a modern term, it is not something that is a modern affliction. It is something that has affected humans for as long as humans have been traumatized. You just maybe didn't know what to call it or what the symptoms were. That was harder research, for sure. But yeah, it was just fun learning some of these other facts that you can look and say, "Oh! Well, this is related to something that I know or do now."
H: So Kelly, if listeners wanted to follow you on social media or to find your books online, where should they go?
K: I'm obviously on Amazon. I am on the Regal Crest's website. I am on Twitter @wordnrd68, that's wordnerd without the E, 68. My website is www.katen-author.com. And then I'm on Facebook, katenauthor.
H: Okay. Thank you so much for being our guest on the show this week.
K: Thank you very much for having me. It's always interesting to talk with someone who appreciates some of the parts, some of the different books that I write. Like the details that you put into it. If you're a historical fiction fan, then you understand the detail of looking up the history of such things.
H: It's been delightful to talk to you.
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to K. Aten Online