Sunday, August 11, 2013

Writing "The Held Daughter"

This story took a convoluted path into being. It started with a pseudo-Wild West setting I was building for a novelette which would feature characters from their world's equivalent of the Qing Dynasty. The novelette was written and I was pretty happy with how it turned out. So I figured I would write more stories in this setting.

At some point I came up with the idea of a "held daughter" (which does not exist in Chinese culture). I already knew that historically boys have been adopted in order to continue the male line, but as far as I know girls were still married off when they came of age. But I liked the idea of a girl being able to carry on the line if no male heirs were eventually born. She would just have to wait, and wait, until her parents stopped trying.

The original draft was going to feature a girl of humble means, who at some point in the story tries to console herself with the fact the Emperor had been a held daughter as well (the title "Empress" would not work for a female Emperor because in Chinese the word literally means "behind the Emperor").

And the story sat for a while. In the meantime I watched Bu Bu Jing Xin, a drama set during the early part of the Qing Dynasty to get a better feel for the costuming, the decor, the customs, etc. for that time period.

Shortly after finishing the series (which is a marathon tear-jerker by the last 3-4 episodes), I realized that my story wasn't about the girl who compared herself to the Emperor, but the Emperor herself, before she became Emperor.

It is one thing for a common girl to be held back from marriage when her father only has a single wife to producer heirs, but when one's father is the Emperor and can take as many concubines as he feels able, it becomes conceivable that he may never give up his quest for a son.

Because of "The Held Daughter's" origins in another story I decided to keep the Cantonese dialect for names and Chinese words. Taishanese, a close relative of Cantonese, is the dialect that was primarily used by immigrant Chinese during the time of the Wild West. However, Taishanese is not well documented since it was the dialect of the poor and in the words of one of my Chinese acquaintances the Taishanese are "the hick Chinese." Rather than invent spellings, I decided to go with conventional Cantonese.

As an additional bonus, Cantonese tends to be easier on the eyes and tongue for English speakers unfamiliar with Mandarin. (And as a personal bonus for myself, I am non-Mandarin Chinese and I like to represent the version of Chinese my ancestors spoke.)

I also would like to add thanks to my Aunt Sally for vetting all the Chinese names I used. I showed up at Christmas last year with a print-out (not trusting my handwriting) of all the names I wanted and she was able to approve or suggest changes on the spot.

"The Held Daughter" is currently available free online at Galaxy's Edge until the end of the month, after which it can be purchased in back issues of Issue 3.