Remarkable Females in Ancient China (1)- Dugu Qieluo

If you are curious why I’m doing this series because you missed last week’s post, check it out here
qieluo

Who is she:

  • Wife to Yang Jian, founder of the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD) which was built on the demise of the Northern Zhou dynasty when Yang Jian made its last Emperor yield the throne to him
  • formally known as Empress Dugu in life or Empress Wenxian after death
  • The seventh daughter born to her parents- a general of Xianbei (a major nomadic group residing in what’s now eastern Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Northeast China) ethnicity and a Chinese lady of noble birth

Notable life events:

  • Named Qieluo for tagara in Sanskrit which has a host of Buddhist connotations, most notably Valerian which is a herb used for incenses
  • Married Yang Jian at the age of 14
  • Dissuaded the Emperor Xuan of the Northern Zhou dynasty, husband to her eldest daughter, from making her commit suicide through “intensive begging and pleading, kowtowing and bleeding” (now that’s the perseverance of a mother!) 
  • Persuaded her husband to ascend to the throne when he was indecisive on whether to continue making the last Emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty his puppet or ascending the throne himself
  • Instrumental in the deposing of her eldest son from the office of Crown Prince to be replaced by her second eldest, who became the second and last Emperor of the Sui Dynasty
  • Known for being jealous
    • Abolished all of the high ranking positions for royal concubines and drastically cut back on their numbers (She was the first Empress who was allowed to make decisions regarding the system regarding royal concubines, ahead of the Empress Wu of the Tang dynasty aka the only female Emperor of ancient China)
    • When they were both middle aged, she killed a palace slave of noble descent that her husband had bedded once, prompting him to ride away from the Imperial Palace in anger

Why is she remarkable:

  • It was well recorded that she was loved by her husband, which is far from the norm for most royal couples of ancient China. Furthermore, she
    • was the first Empress to give birth to all of his children (10 of them in total, 5 princes and princesses)
    • and her husband was the first and one of the two royal couples in ancient China ever recorded to live together daily as opposed to apart in separate palaces
    • was mourned intensely by her husband who later expressed a wish to be reunited with her after death when he became very sick just prior to his own death
  • She was the only Empress considered to be equal to her husband in status during his reign by court officials and maintained her influence on him throughout her life. This was opposed to many Empresses who gained power after the demise of their husbands and exerted or even usurped power from their own sons.

Moonlake’s thoughts on her:

I’m not normally drawn to Court women (Empresses and Dowager Empresses and the like)- those few I know are too ambitious and power-hungry for my taste (this could be the way they are portrayed but then again I have a general aversion in taste against anything related to Court intrigue and politics). But I think I admire Dugu Qieluo and in particular, I admire her known jealousy. Well, not for the sake of her jealousy per se, but to the extent that I feel that she’s authentic to her womanhood in that respect. Ancient China was a monogamistic society and I’ve grown up with the impression that women of that time mostly accept that as their due. I understand that- most people conform to societal norms, but on a deep-seated level, I think I am repulsed due to my feminist streak. Going back to Dugu Qieluo, it might be a trait gifted to her via her Xianbei lineage (apparently the Xianbei society had some matriarchal traits).

The other thing that made her stand out for me was that she didn’t have to seize power by force or trick at all (as I said above, I have no admiration for ambitious individuals in general, I don’t care what great deeds they have done), it just came about naturally for her.

*Note: I mainly used Chinese sources but there is an English Wiki on her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dugu_Qieluo

Also, I’m going on holiday in November so there will be no blog posts during that time. But I will come back in December.

Remarkable Females in Ancient China- coming to you soon!

ancientChinesewomen

Yes, I’m creating yet another lot of quarterly serial posts both so I can more or less stick to it and it might dovetail into other related posts (still chewing over possibilities).

So essentially, this lot of new posts will feature remarkable female figures from ancient China that I compiled mostly from Chinese Wiki and other Web sources. And now you wonder what I mean by remarkable and why I’m doing this lot of new posts, don’t you?

Firstly, I can’t say I have a tight definition on remarkable- I’m mostly just looking up specific names that I came across that piqued my interest. However, I think it’s fair to say that if a female name has passed down through such a long time in history then that is remarkable in itself.

As to why I’m undertaking such a project, well, I’ve been noticing for a while that I have greater difficulty writing female characters compared to male characters despite my gender. In terms of my genre of Chinese fantasy, I found that I’m often boxed in by this idea that Chinese women in ancient times didn’t have much agency. And that obviously presents a major problem for fiction- a story of a protagonist without agency is going to be very dull to readers. So my solution is to do more research into this topic and dig out examples where women do have agency. Plus, I’ve found that I don’t much like researching for novels so this is my perfect excuse to do it on a consistent basis.

Stay tuned next week for the first episode of this brand new series!

Reflections on My Outlining Odyssey

beige analog gauge

Every now and then I like to reflect on things and that time has rolled in again.

But first, a bit of context for those of you who hasn’t read previous posts: I started outlining my WIP in Dec 2016 and was originally planning to finish outlining at the end of this year. I deliberately decided to experiment with a more comprehensive outlining process to address the issue of writing myself into dead corners. But now there is a minor change of plans and I’ve already gone ahead into draft 1. Still, I think I should be able to claim that it was an outlining odyssey that I had undertaken (and I just like the sound of the word odyssey so bite me :P)

So what were the main take-aways from this journey that lasted 1 year and a half?

  • I’m happy with the general process now which mainly involves iterations on the traditional outline (just paragraph summaries of your scenes, you can put anything there, mine tend to be event summaries with bits of dialogue)- I think it allows me to produce outlines that are the tightest I’ve ever written so far
  • I use an Excel tool to supplement the traditional outline and it usually invites in my inner critic so bad that I can only use it in small doses every day. I think it’s a needed tool and gives me important insight but not sure if it’s worth the time inefficiency. Maybe move to the editing phase, not sure.
  • In between iterations, I have some natural cooling periods and I decided to use time more efficiently and invest them into collaborative short story ventures (think I might have mentioned this)
  • Micro goal setting is definitely a valuable accountability tool. If I just have a big goal and no micro goals then it’s very easy to get off tracks for months and not do anything writing related

That’s it for this week. Next week, I will talk about the idea of a new serial post that I am considering. Stay tuned.

Fiction writer with Aphantasia: So What?

so-what-1462746_960_720So nothing, I reply.

What are you talking about, Moonlake?

Well, let’s me go back to the start. One of my FB writer friends pointed me to this article: https://www.facebook.com/blake/posts/10156834777480504

Briefly, the article talks about the condition called aphantasia which is basically an inability to visualise things in your mind. And guess what? I’ve got this condition, I’m a fiction writer with aphantasia. So what’s the big deal? Nothing, I just never knew this condition existed before and many don’t. So this is a FYI post essentially. Plus, I don’t think I had it as severe as the author of the article. Sure, I can’t ‘see thing’ in my mind and I’m often not taken with prose that is very ‘graphic’ but certainly, the joys of reading isn’t down to appreciating concepts only. I appreciate the beauty of language and prose. Just as I enjoy reading fiction, I can write it fine and I am working to be a published fiction writer. And so, everything’s fine. 

And oh, don’t run away just yet.  I’m also talking about my reading plans today. 

What’s writing to me?

girl writing on a black keyboard
This is an update on my old post “What does Writing Mean to you?” that I wrote 3 years ago. Reading that old post again made me realise 2 things: 1) a lot of what I said still remain true: I see writing as freedom and self-expression and the intrinsic worth/quality of my work is important to me as opposed to commercial potentials; 2) I was a bit of a ‘tentative writer’ back then- unsure of whether I want to be published or not. But now I can confidently say that I do want to be a published author and I’m now working towards becoming one.

That was the broad picture and in this post I want to drill down a little bit into the type of writer I am and the type of author I hope to become:

  • I would want to focus on being a niche writer in Chinese fantasy which I define as fantasy set in fictional ancient China, starring ethnically Chinese characters. But I might dip into what I call traditional fantasy as well (basically epic/high magic/sword&sorcery fantasy).
  • I have a natural tendency to think up stories that best fit in a tight-fitting series ala LOTR style as opposed to what I call a standalone series in which books from the same series are only loosely related to each other. I plan to be publishing a complete series or at least blocks of 3 books all in one go (but don’t hold me fast to it yet *wink*).
  • I don’t plan to be an author producing high volumes every year because I don’t have the speed/level of skill to match and I also need as long as possible to produce something that matches my internal quality standard.
  • I’m heading towards the indie route because that I feel it gives me the most control and flexibility I can have as a writer. I think mindsets are changing towards indie work but I might as well set it down clearly here: that does not mean I will be producing work of lesser quality than if I went for traditional publishing. I will pay for professional accredited editing, book covers and other services as needed.

That’s it for this week. Next week, I will talk about books again.

Dissecting Character Grids (5)- Memories

Here, I think we are starting to get to the meat of a character, an important aspect that shapes a character’s personality, worldview etc. Before I dig into actual tips, I think this aspect is generally easier to fill for a character who’s older or with a wide variety of experiences. Or maybe that’s just the way I tend to conceptualise important memories.

I tend to think within life stages: childhood, coming to age, adulthood, middle ages etc. So in general, they often span the following aspects:

  • life/deaths experienced
  • coming to age ceremonies
  • love relationships incl. marriages
  • personal triumphs/tragedies
  • first time experiences

To be honest, I usually just let my mind wander across different life stages of a character and it will eventually throw up enough memories. Not sure that I can add further to this other than that I refer to Relationships and Past-times in a pinch.

Dissecting Character Grids (4)- Past-times

Firstly, I’m back! Well, actually this is my 2nd week back but you gotta give me some slack since I went straight back to work on Monday after arriving back in Melbourne on Sunday 10am. I didn’t realise how tired I was until I was nodding off on the train back to home after work while standing last Wednesday!

Anyway, back to this post where I will provide some personal tips on how to brainstorm how characters tend to spend their time. Essentially, I cheat a lot since I think about the following questions/prompts:

  • key individuals from the character’s social circle and the normal activity that character tends to do with each
  • hobbies of the character which usually come from talent section
  • activities that the character tend to on a day-to-day basis besides self-maintenance activities so could include housechores, a particular occupation/living etc.

And that’s it, short and sweet today.

Dissecting Character Grids (3)- Moods & Feelings

If you followed this blog from the start, you would know that I started off with just character moods but then I found that often what I put down is not a mood but rather a feeling (yes, I’m pedantic with definitions and technicalities). I tried to just focus on moods but it didn’t work and thinking about it some more, I don’t really think that I need to be making such fine distinctions since the goal of the character grids is just to brainstorm. So I just changed the label instead.

I don’t think tips really needs to be provided for coming up with moods & feelings for characters (other than an Excel sheet of moods&feelings candidates, I will put up a link to a Google sheet containing candidates for selected aspects of characterisation at the conclusion of this particular blog series) but I do think it is useful to think about two categories for moods & feelings:

  • The character norm: this is moods & feelings that a character tend to experience in his everyday life. They convey a sense of personality and how a character tends to behave
  • Story-event-driven: this is moods & feelings that a character experiences as particular story events happen to them. These might reinforce the character norm or might come into conflict with the character norm. I wouldn’t worry too much about whether it’s one or the other at this stage but this might be an useful area to consider later on.

By the way, I’m going on a 3 week holiday to China at the end of next week so there will be no posts during that time but I will come back. This series will continue and there’re still more author interviews lined up to go alive once I’m back so stay tuned for them and more!

Dissecting Character Grids (2)- Talents & Flaws

So this is the 2nd post in the series where I dissect specific components of the character grid, a method I use to flesh out my characters. Since I tend to fill in Talents and Flaws in a block, I’m just going to combine them in a single post.

Before I delve into the tips, I want to firstly say that I interpret talents as skills/capabilities and in broad terms such that an inability or low skill level in something also goes under Talents. Does this lead to unbalanced characters with more flaws than positive aspects, you ask? I would say no, you will see in a minute.

In general, whether it’s talents or flaws, I tend to brainstorm a mixture of 2 distinct categories: major/story driving ones and minor/innocuous ones. So this is one of the tricks for keeping a character balanced; give them flaws/inabilities but they don’t have to be major ones and can have nothing to do with the story. The goal of the character grid is just to brainstorm character traits to get a better sense of how characters are like and relevance to the actual story is actually secondary here.

Now, let’s consider minor/innocuous talents and flaws. I usually draw them from 3 sources (there’re more that one can think of but remember these are personal tips so not meant to be exhaustive. In fact, I would appreciate it if anyone can leave comments that expands on what I put down here):

  • artistic (including calligraphy, poetry and literature)/musical pursuits  ie. whether someone is good/bad at drawing, playing a specific instrument etc.
  • the physical senses: sight, hearing, smell and taste. So far I don’t think I’ve made use of the touch as a sense but unless the character happens to be blind or has a specific occupation, I guess it wouldn’t occur to me to think that a particular character has a superior/inferior sense of touch relative to the average person
  • personal habits and past time: For innocuous flaws, I usually fall back on things like sweating, snoring that are personal habits, character traits like tendency to spoil loved ones or hold grudge depending on rough character orientation on the good/evil spectrum and in terms of talents, I drill down to details like good/bad at a particular childhood game in a pinch

Turning to story driving talents/flaws, I usually think about the following sources:

  • Fighting skills (weaponry, strength, stamina, dexterity, speed, magic powers etc.)
  • What I call reactional abilities such as:
    • Decision-making: how fast they can make decisions, are they rash in decision-making or do they weigh all of the pros and cons, what factors impede them from making an informed, rational decisions as the norm
    • Social interactions: leadership skills, negotiation/bargaining skills, are they stubborn/prideful
    • Ability to adapt to new situations and speed

The last part of the puzzle to character talents/flaws for me is that I constantly remind myself that most things in life is double-edged.

Dissecting Character Grids (1)- Relationships

Now that I’ve been using the 10 by 10 Character Grids for a while now and found that I liked them as a way to let me get into my characters, I thought I will start a series to explore each element of them in greater details, which is basically creating a tips series for different aspects of a character.

I’m starting with Relationships because I’ve noticed that I tend to get to the full 10 items on this aspect of a character grid relatively quick. But before I get to the tips, let me answer first the question of what would I have achieved by the end of brainstorming 10 aspects on a character’s Relationships?

So how do I come up with Relationships real quick? By essentially coming up with answers to the following questions:

  • What is the immediate family situation like?
    • Both parents still living?
    • How many parents does a character have (I’m writing fantasy, Oriental fantasy especially, so it is possible that I will be writing about polygamistic society)?
    • How many siblings?
    • How many spouses/ex-spouses?
    • How many children?
    • Who amongst these are significants in the life/mind of the character? What are the relationships between them actually like? Is it more in the realm of positive feelings like love and affection or negative feelings like competition and grudges and downright hate? Or a mixture of both?
    • Family values
  • What is the extended birth family situation like?
    • Do any of the relatives play a significant role in the character’s mind/life?
    • If so, what is the exact relationship like?
  • Friendships
    • Does the character have a lot of friends or only a few or none at all?
    • Who are the ‘notables’ in this aspect?
    • Are the friendships reciprocated?
  • Romance/love interest
    • Any? If so, who and how is their current status?
  • What is the character’s overall social standing?
    • What does acquaintances and people who know of the character generally view him/her as? Superior to themselves, on par or below themselves?
    • What is the basis of such a view?
  • General people interaction
    • Attitude towards strangers upon first meeting