Friday, April 19, 2013

The Wild East

Fun with History, Part 3

As I mentioned during my blog interview with Diane V. Mulligan, my secret is that I’m a total girly-girl. I have no idea how I came to write swashbuckling heroes and kick-ass heroines (or swashbuckling heroines and kick-ass heroes, if you prefer). As a child, my idea of the perfect pastime involved dressing the hair of a dozen dolls. As an adult, I have spent my last twenty-three years studying classical ballet. I don’t even have the excuse of developing a hidden talent, because no one who starts ballet in midlife—native talent or not—has a hope of success. That’s the age when professional dancers start thinking about retirement.

Yet here I am, writing about nomads and warriors and loving every minute (yes, even the ones that have me pounding my head against the desk). So when, halfway through the rough draft of The Winged Horse, I realized that I really could not duck a portrayal of the Tatar council (similar to the Afghan jirga but limited to the four or five most important clan leaders) for even one more scene, I knew I had to stop procrastinating and do some research.

I started with Jack Weatherford’s wonderful Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, stuffed to the brim with information on steppe peoples that I had read and promptly forgotten. But I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted pictures—better yet, videos.

Hello, YouTube. Here I hit pay dirt. Not so much in the short clips of Tatars doing this and that, often in Russian—as invaluable as those are. The short clips reminded me of a film I had seen and loved but not considered in this context: Sergei Bodrov’s study of the rise of Genghis Khan, Mongol (2008). Better yet, it revealed another film that I had not even known existed, also directed by Bodrov and set in eighteenth-century Kazakhstan: Nomad: The Warrior (2005). I found the DVD. And the hi-def version on iTunes. In English, no less. I watched it—and fell in love.

The thing about the steppe is that life changed slowly there in the pre-industrial age. Eighteenth-century Kazakhstan didn’t differ too much from sixteenth-century Kazakhstan—or, to judge by the costumes, the fourteenth-century entity known incorrectly as the Golden Horde. Nasan’s and Ogodai’s ancestors, contemporaries, and descendants.

Not so many council sessions as I would have liked, I admit. But enough to let me write the one I needed. And to give me the confidence to tackle the three other council scenes that for the good of the story need to precede this one.

But first I have to watch Nomad again….

Screen Shot from Sergei Bodrov's Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

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