Written for the Tor/Forge July 2011 Newsletter
Last year when Tor asked me for an essay to accompany the publication of The Legions of Fire, the first of my Books of the Elements fantasy series, I explained that riding a motorcycle focuses my conscious mind and thus frees my subconscious. Plotting isn’t simply an intellectual activity for me. The really subtle, really complex structures come from my subconscious.
For this year’s essay to accompany Out of the Waters, the second book of the series, I’m going to write about how translating Latin helps me plot.
Okay, I know that motorcycles are sexier than Latin translation. Bear with me, though, because where I’m going with this may not be the place you expect.
I like to base my fiction on existing literature and historical events. Because I read Latin (basically to take myself out of the present) I frequently use classical settings. Sometimes I do it directly, as when I turned the Odyssey into the plot for the space opera Cross the Stars, but mostly it’s indirect. For example, Philip the Fifth’s invasion of Southern Greece at the end of the Third century bc became the template for my Military SF novel Paying the Piper.
But that sort of thing is minor: my interest in history and literature isn’t limited to the Classical Period. I based the Northworld Trilogy (an SF—basically space opera—series) on the poems of The Elder Edda, and many other non-classical sources have given me plots and settings.
Because The Books of the Elements are set in a world very similar to Rome in 30 ad, it’s only reasonable to assume that there’d be a direct connection between the plot and the Latin translations I’m working on at the same time. With a tiny exception, though, that hasn’t been the case.
Ovid is the only author I’m translating on my website. Specifically, I’m working with lyric poems from the Amores and also with sections of the Metamorphoses.
The lyrics are witty and often self-mocking. They’re not so much love poems as poems about love (broadly defined). They show the first-person viewpoint character (he certainly isn’t a hero) courting a woman, watching her go off with another man after a night of hard drinking, seducing the woman’s maid, and many similar slices from the life of a man who likes women.
Now, this gives me bits of business for my fiction (and not just my Rome-based fiction). Clearly, though it doesn’t help with plots for the action/adventure stories that I write.
The Metamorphoses is a wonderful ramble of epic length through Classical mythology. The title comes from the fact that the stories generally involve a change of some sort, but Ovid allows himself as much leeway in definition as the editor of a modern theme anthology would. For example, the attempt of Nessus to carry off Deianira, the wife of Hercules, doesn’t involve any change whatever (unless you want to count Nessus changing from centaur to fertilizer).
The Metamorphoses contains many connected narratives of some length. The Hercules Cycle runs for almost three hundred lines, and there are a number of longer threads. Even so, none would serve as the plot for an entire novel.
The unique thing which I gain from translating Ovid over reading an author in English of comparable quality (Kipling, say; or if I were a different person, Henry James) is the concentration which the task demands. When I put translations on line, I’m displaying my level of skill for the world to see–and to mock me if I screw up.
That doesn’t mean I won’t screw up, but it does mean that I’ll put everything I’ve got into the job. I kept working for a week on the description of Arachne’s tapestry until finally I realized that the rainbow wasn’t a literal image: Ovid was using it as a simile for the subtlety with which the weaver blended colors together.
When my conscious mind is focused that sharply on a translation, my subconscious can get on with working out plot problems. That’s how the Hercules Cycle helped me to plot Out of the Waters.
I said there was a tiny direct connection between my plot and the translation I was doing at the time. I needed an opening scene for Out of the Waters to set up the action to come. It occurred to me that I could use a stage show, a lavishly expensive mime of the sort that was popular in the Early Empire… and come to think, episodes from the life of Hercules–though not the same ones as in the Metamorphoses–would work perfectly for the purpose.
And so they did. Thank you, Ovid.