Saturday, May 26, 2012

Attila in Love

When my archaeological mystery American Caliphate was published in April, I was thrilled.  That was a hard book to write, partly because I set the entire second chapter in sixteenth-century Spain.  Having never been to sixteenth-century Spain, I had to do some careful research to avoid costly and embarrassing anachronisms. 

For example, in one section, a wealthy Moor named Tomas Ibanez is horrified when his son tells him he plans to sail to Peru:


“Do you know who these Spaniards are?”  Tomas asked.  “These men who board ships to seek fortune in the Americas?  They are the ninth and tenth and eleventh sons of every dimwitted turnip farmer from here to Aragon, and half the purse snatchers in Iberia who never mastered their trade.  And those are just the priests.”

It came out nice, but only after many languid days reading old tomes in the bathtub.  Here’s what the original version looked like:

“Holy crap, do you even have an updated resume on craigslist?” Tomas asked.  “Do you even have an H1B visa?  Have you thought this through?  Tech stocks trading through the roof, and you want to take a cruise?  Sure, spend your days on Facebook,and texting away on that Smartphone.  But hey, why listen to me?  I’m the guy who told you not to buy the Escalade, not with gas prices what they are.”

Clearly the research proved worthwhile.  So this week, as I put the finishing touches on my short story Attila in Love, set in fifth century Eurasia, I had to kick myself once again into research mode.


Attila in Love (prior to research)

“Honoria,” Atilla called out, slamming the door.  “Where are you, my significant other? It is I, the great Hun.   I have returned home famished.”

“Be right down,” Honoria called out.  She set her romance novel at the edge of the couch and shook her head wistfully.  “Why can’t men be men, anymore?” she mumbled under her breath.

“There you are.  What, you have nothing prepared for my lunch?  All morning I am out with the pillaging and the sacking, and this is the thanks I get?  The most feared enemy of the Roman Empire, and I can’t even look forward to some Lunchables?”

Honoria kissed him on the cheek.  “Hi, Hun.  I was going to make burritos, remember.  Did you stop by the tortilla place?”
           
“Do’h.” Atilla smacked his forhead.  “I did, but only to burn it to the ground.  I can remember nothing these days without my Palm Pilot.  Now we shall perish of hunger like common Canadians.”
           
“Not to worry.”  Honoria swung open the heavy doors of the Sub-Zero and peered inside.  “How about I nuke us up some fondue?”
           
Atilla softened.  “With Ruffles?”
           
Honoria got out a family size bag.  “Cool Ranch.  Anything for my baby daddy.”
           
“Then after lunch I must leave you,” Atilla said, loosening his belt.  “I must meet with my consigliere.  Some of the southern Jersey capos are starting to get jumpy, and I must still cross the Danube before winter or the horses begin to stink.”
           
“But what about us?”
           
He took her in his arms.  “We’ll always have Paris.”



Obviously there was work to be done.  So I filled the bathtub with Calgon, got out my encyclopedias and my history books, and set to work.  I think you’ll agree that the following version is much better:

Attila in Love (after research)

“Honoria,” Atilla bellowed, punching through the fetid goat pelt that served as the door of his private quarters.  “Where are you, my concubine?  It is me, the great powerful Hun of Huns.  I have returned home famished.”
             
“Be right down,” Honoria called out.  She set her romance pamphlet at the edge of the yak and shook her head wistfully.  “Why can’t women be taught to read?” she said under her breath.

“There you are.  What, you have nothing prepared for my lunch?  All morning I am out with the pillaging and the sacking, and this is the thanks I get?  The most feared enemy of the Roman Empire, and I can’t even look forward to some fermented sheep’s bladder and a bowl of spiced mead?”
           
Honoria kissed him on the cheek.  “Hi, Hun.*  I was going to make steak tartar, remember.  Did you stop by the tartar place?”
           
“Aaargh,” Atilla smacked his forhead.  “I did, but only to burn it to the ground.  I can remember nothing these days without my scribe slave.  Now we shall perish of hunger like common Visigoths.”
           
“Not to worry.”  Honoria opened her dowry chest.  “We still have some leftover mutton lung.  Some yak’s butter, a pinch or two of connective tissue, and we’ll have a nice stew.”
           
Atilla softened.  “With jellied goat jowls?”
           
Honoria got out a family size bag.  “Cool Ranch jelly.  Anything for my scourge of civilization, and enemy of all that is holy.”
           
“Then after lunch I must leave you,” Atilla said, loosening his tunic.  “I must meet with my eunuchs.  Some of the southern Goths are starting to get jumpy, and I must still cross the Danube before winter.  Not that I care if the horses begin to stink.”
           
“But what about us?”
           
He took her in his arms.  “We’ll always have Paris.  At least until I raze every last standing brick, send her citizens screaming into the river, and ensure that neither grass nor grain will ever again grow where I have trod.  But at least until then, we’ll have Paris.”



In sum, if you want to save yourself from some really dismal cocktail party conversations wherein your friends and neighbors delight in pointing out that the gladiators in your story probably didn’t wear Rolexes, you’d be wise to remember the importance of research.

Note:  I’m not sure if they actually said ‘Hi hun,’ but they should have.

If you get a chance, stop by my blog: www.themummiesofblogspace9.com.  This week I’ll be talking about midcentury footstools.

11 comments:

Liane Spicer said...

This is LOL funny, William, and certainly gets the point across. Nailing the details is important in any kind of fiction, but historical fiction seems particularly fraught with opportunities to embarrass oneself.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've done a few western tales and this was an important element of those. Especially the guns and gear

Jewel Amethyst said...

There is nothing more "Spaceballsy" than a historical novel with 21st century technology or worst yet, the mention of a country or territory that did not exist in that century.

William Doonan said...

It's not only guns and gear and countries, it's also the stuff you don't even think about, like whether or not your characters actually had pockets back then.

Anonymous said...

Bill - doing research is about 75 percent of the fun. And with all the online resources you don't gotta get out of the chair.

Patricia Gligor said...

William,
Great post. You made me laugh!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading "American Caliphate" and I was impressed with the amount of research I knew the book required - even for an experienced archaeologist, like yourself.

While I don't mind doing research and sometimes I even enjoy it, I have my limits. That's why I don't write historical fiction. I admire those who do but it's too darn much research for me!

William Doonan said...

Thanks guys! It's not that I don't enjoy the research. I do, maybe too much. There's a fine line between reviewing documentaries and just watching TV, and I'm very good at crossing it.

john M. Daniel said...

Bill, "Attila in Love" is a gem, and your historical research paid off. You got rid of the anachronisms, and now all your details are appropriate for the time of Attila—including the fact that back in his day he spelled his name with one T and two Ls. By the way, if you're looking for an alternate title, might I suggest: "Attila Cows Come Home."

marja said...

Glad I stopped in today. You made your point and you did it with humor, my favorite type of blog. I especially enjoyed, "Hi hun".

Anonymous said...

Great post. The research can be so much fun, and yours really brought the story to life!!

--John Brantingham

Eileen Obser said...

Very funny; I love Attila -- the before and the after versions. What would humorists do if we couldn't use the Bogart line? It never gets tired, not to me anyway. You're a hun-ny of a writer, that's for sure.