Friday, February 16, 2018

Oh, Those Names!


One of the more annoying habits of our ancestors, from the perspective of a historical novelist, is their lamentable lack of imagination when it came to naming their children. This complaint applies particularly, but of course not exclusively, to the Russian nobility and the Russian royal family between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This apparent lack of imagination had several causes. Russians celebrated name days rather than birthdays, but it was not uncommon to name a child after the saint on whose day he or she was born, so that the two coincided. The more days in the calendar associated with Johns, Marys, or Gregorys, the more children carried those names. Saints could also rise and fall in popularity, so one can trace the growing cult of SS Boris and Gleb, for example, by the increased prevalence of those names among the population.

Another issue was family commemoration: entire clans had series of children named Nikolai or Boris or Anna or whatever after parents and grandparents and other relatives. Some families even gave two brothers or sisters the same names, confusing the picture mightily and forcing everyone else to distinguish between Ivan Petrovich the Elder and Ivan Petrovich the Younger. But even beyond that, there seems to have been a strong preference for certain names in the sixteenth-century Russian aristocracy. Ivan, Vasily, Fyodor, Dmitry, and Yuri—all names favored by the royal family—were often encountered among noble boys, whereas a lot of girls went by Anna, Elena, Anastasia, or Maria.

All this creates difficulty for a novelist trying to maintain some historical veracity. I managed to juggle the issue all through the Legends novels by focusing as much as possible on my own invented characters, whom I did my best to ensure had not just unique names but one form of their unique names (another problem with Russian custom that I’ll discuss someday). For the most part that worked, despite the pair of Yuris (uncle and nephew), the double Sigismunds (father and son), and more Vasilys and Ivans than one could shake a proverbial stick at.

But midway through my current work in progress, Song of the Siren, I ran smack into a dilemma. Bad enough that in 1542, when that novel is set, the Poles, who were in dynastic alliance with the Lithuanians, had two kings/grand dukes simultaneously named Sigismund—called Sigismund the Old (father) and Sigismund Augustus (son) to keep them straight. The Russians did them one better: then in a kind of political meltdown, they had become enmeshed in a conflict that I could explain only by citing the rival claims of three princes named Ivan. You can imagine the conversation from a poor reader’s perspective: Prince Ivan is fighting Prince Ivan for control of Prince Ivan. Huh?

I wrote it out, complete with a slap from my Polish character about the Russians’ not knowing any other names, unconcerned by his own people doing the exact same thing. Nope. Didn’t work. By the end of the conversation even I was confused, and I know a fair bit about the history involved. The other writers in my critique group were scratching their heads, and I didn’t blame them. I needed another solution.

As I’ve said before, I’m a historian first and foremost; the novels are fun, and I love writing them, but even if I can’t claim perfect accuracy—not least because our forebears tended not to leave detailed records of what went on in their heads at any given moment, any more than we do—I have mostly avoided changing the names of people who once actually lived and walked the earth. I grumbled and groaned and tried different tactics, but in the end I realized I had no choice: two of the Ivans would have to receive different names.

And so it is. In the historical note, I explain who they really were. And in fact, given how little we know about any of these historical figures, in some ways I find it works better to change their names, because now they are “mine,” in a way they were not before, and I don’t need to worry about someone noting I have them strutting around in the palace in Moscow when they were really besieging Kazan or some such thing. They can do and say and be whatever the story requires, beyond the broad strokes of the conflict that forms the backdrop to the novel.

Still, I must admit that I have acquired a whole new appreciation of diverse naming practices. They make a novelist’s life so much easier....

Image: Konstantin Makovsky, The Kissing Custom (1895). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. What are the chances that every guy lounging at the table is named Ivan?

Friday, February 9, 2018

Women at War

Almost five years ago (hard to believe it’s been that long!), I ran a blog series on the various roles that women held in the medieval and early modern world: Russia in particular, but also in the lands to the east, south, and west. The series started with “Women of Steel,”  which looked at why I made my main Legends heroine, Nasan, a Tatar instead of a Russian and what life was like for the nomadic women of the Eurasian steppe. The series continued through July 2013, and if you’re interested in the topic, you can follow it backward from “Taking the Veil.” By August I was facing up to the demands of the then-new book, long since published, with a post on how to tackle the subject of “Men at War.”

So I was delighted to have a chance to interview Gwen Katz on New Books in Historical Fiction. We discuss her debut novel, Among the Red Stars, which looks at the women who flew for the Soviet Union as combat pilots. Through the lives of an appealing and courageous bomber pilot, her dedicated but (through no fault of her own) politically suspect navigator and cousin, and the pilot’s best friend, a young man drafted into the Red Army as a ham radio operator, we get a full and fascinating introduction to this little-known element of the Second World War: women who battled to take part in the fighting and men who would much rather have stayed home.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction


Valentina (Valka) Koroleva and her cousin Iskra share a dream: to fly in defense of their Soviet motherland against the Nazi forces that have launched a surprise invasion in violation of Hitler’s nonaggression pact with Stalin. So when Valka receives a telegram announcing the formation of all-female fighting and bomber units, the two of them set off for Moscow without hesitation.

The number of applicants far exceeds the slots available, and the competition proves tougher than Valka and her cousin anticipate. But while they do not in the end become elite fighter pilots, they do make the cut for the night bomber unit: Valka as a pilot and Iskra as her navigator. Soon they are flying a shaky biplane constructed of wood and canvas, liable to burst into flames or crash without warning, against the German forces. Meanwhile, Valka’s best friend, Pasha, has been drafted into a ground regiment where he operates a ham radio under harsh conditions. He and Valka exchange regular letters, expressing their different experiences of war.

But fighting for the Soviet Union means coping not only with the enemy but also with Stalin’s paranoia. Iskra’s parents, arrested even before the war, cast a long shadow on her prospects for success despite her willingness to sacrifice her life for her country. Some of Valka’s assigned targets turn out to be people on her own side. Pilots shot down in combat or soldiers captured in an ambush are declared traitors to the state. And she learns that those in authority—or even comrades in arms—are at times the most likely to denounce those suspected of disloyalty, a category that includes  insubordination. So although Among the Red Stars is listed as Young Adult, in fact Gwen Katz has written a novel that, because it tackles difficult problems with honesty, will appeal to adults as well. It is also a riveting tale about women in combat, female friendship, and survival against the odds.


And don’t forget to check out her website, linked in the paragraph above, where she has a collection of artworks linked to the book.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Ever-Changing Algorithms

I freely admit to struggling with social media. While I worked to master Facebook and Twitter, the world moved on to Instagram and Snapchat, which have since been replaced by a dozen other sites and apps that I can’t even name, let alone use. I abandoned my LinkedIn account years ago, although LinkedIn seems as unconvinced of that fact as Yahoo, which still sends me messages about security breaches demanding that I log in to my supposedly deleted account. And although I unreservedly love Pinterest, even it gets quirky at times, usually because the site owners have either decided that their users are desperate for more ads or because they’ve initiated an upgrade to something that worked just fine before they messed with it and has stopped working now.

But no group of programmers loves to ring changes like the folks at Facebook. So it came as no surprise to discover, for the umpteenth time, that Facebook is altering its algorithms: this time, or so we’re told, to favor posts from friends and family at the cost of small businesses and publishers (unless they pay to promote their posts, presumably). According to the press release, this change is good for us, the users. And indeed, I would like to see posts from my close friends rather than click bait sent out by Russian bots. Wouldn’t you?

Only that doesn’t seem to be happening. My friend lists are still buried three layers deep at the side of the page, under News Feed, Messenger, Watch, Marketplace, Events, Groups, Fundraisers, and more. Not to mention Games (which I never play), On This Day (which is what?), and, of course, Ads Manager.

Now, the truth is that I don’t care all that much about having to search for posts from my friends. A lot of them do show up in my News Feed, and because I don’t respond to political news (I’m on social media as an author, after all, not a commentator), I see the bots only once in a while. And since I mostly get on Facebook, check notifications and messages, post on behalf of myself or Five Directions Press, and get off, I recognize that there may be ways to hide the Marketplace or the Fundraisers (although I couldn’t find a way to hide the Games) that I just don’t know.

But why punish small businesses that don’t have significant ad budgets? Is Facebook really in such desperate need of cash that it makes sense to disadvantage groups like the New Books Network, where a small army of volunteers produces interviews that range from public education to entertainment and which themselves run at a loss because they don’t charge their listeners?

Perhaps more fundamentally, why change a site just for the sake of change? One no sooner learns to navigate most social media than those in power introduce a new “feature” that, as often as not, upsets the apple cart for no obvious benefit.

Change is inevitable. We grow or we die. But it should be, when possible, purposeful. And call me naive or old-fashioned if you like, but surely making more and more money is not the only purpose worth serving. Especially if you do it while pretending you just want to bring people closer, even at some cost to yourself.