On Bilingual Historical Research

When I tell people I’m fluent in Vietnamese, I immediately correct to say that I’m conversationally fluent in Vietnamese (and pretty rusty right now that I don’t use it very often). But you can plunk me in Vietnam and, barring some challenges with accents and dialects, I can understand and be understood.

Unless you plunk me down in a university. After studying Linguistics as part of my teaching degree, I know that this means I have BICS (Basic interpersonal communicative skills) but not CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency).

So I’ve been researching for my Trung Sisters proposal and prior to digging in, I had done some cursory research which was mostly in English, including English language books by Vietnamese scholars. Then I started digging into Vietnamese language sources — none of which are primary sources as the first write-ups of the rebellion occurred centuries after the rebellion to over a thousand years after the rebellion.

What I found is that researching only in English provided a story very different from bilingual research — to my delight and dismay.

Some interesting points — most of the English language references mention the Trung Sisters and also name their mother as Man Thiện, who was believed to be the granddaughter of the last Hung king (Hùng Vương). Their father’s name is frequently left out and in some cases it’s stated that their father’s name was not recorded. I thought this interesting, considering that he was the Lạc lord, or general in the region.

There is also scant information on the younger sister other than that she was co-queen.

Excellent, I thought. This gives me some narrative freedom!

Until I started digging through Vietnamese sources where the father’s name is easily found as well as mentions of a husband for the younger sister who also fought in the rebellion. AND, get this, references to the two sisters being twins — which does not work for my narrative at all. Trưng Nhị is still the younger sister and has a lot less information about her life.

Now it is accepted that these versions of the story were compiled later. A common footnote is that the people of that time did not go by surnames, so many of the names that are used to refer to them in the present day had surnames added to try to denote clan or familial ties.

The Vietnamese versions also, I assume, include quite a bit of oral tradition, folklore and legend that have risen around the cult of the two sisters. But if it is commonly accepted folk tradition, than I’m in somewhat of a bind to include it in my narrative. It’s not historical accuracy, per se, but it’s potentially historical expectation.

Between English, Vietnamese, and a lot of Google translate, I’m trying to compile a history that’s in bits and pieces and try for form a cohesive and plausible narrative that respects Vietnamese culture. It’s an interesting conundrum for sure.

For right now, the twin dilemma is huge. I’m going to have to work that one out.

Cover makeover: Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles

“Tales” is a three novella anthology in the Gunpowder Chronicles world which released in 2019. I originally requested an “object” cover since it was an anthology and the cover that Deranged Doctor Design came up with was amazing. There’s a library with a scroll and an opium-looking pipe with a dragon design. Steampunk-y gears in the background and the whole thing was awash in gold. :

Original cover: Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles- library with desk and scroll with red ribbon

Despite getting everything that I asked for and more, I didn’t feel as overwhelmed as I had when I saw the previous covers. After spending some time watching the reader response and sales, I could sense that there was a similar lack of enthusiasm. Beautiful cover, but wasn’t quite drawing readers in.

Undaunted, I thought — alright, let’s try a 3D box set so readers know they’re getting three stories in one volume.

3D Box set: Tales from the Gunpowder Chronicles cover with library and scroll + 3 spines showing in the box: Big Trouble in Old Shanghai, Island of the Opium Eaters, Love in the Time of Engines

Then a little research and word on the street showed that other fantasy authors had been through this as well and overwhelmingly preferred “character” covers to object covers. Lesson learned!

I didn’t have much time to test out the 3D cover because I had already enlisted DDD to re-vamp the cover. I provided some character details and sample models and suggested that multiple heroines could be depicted on the cover. The concept design they came up with was AMAZING. Look at those costumes — they were not a part of the original model photos.

Mockup version of cover: Two heroines with Chinese courtyard in background and gears in sky. Girl with glasses holding book on left, girl in armor with weapons looking down on right

I was just in LOVE with the girl with the glasses. Isn’t she awesome? And they have her holding a book too — my little geek heart was going pitter-patter. I thought she was a perfect depiction of studious Anlei in “Love in the Time of Engines”.

I loved this cover as well. The colors, the mood. That backdrop is amazing with the Chinese courtyard and the gears above it. But the two ladies might imply a sapphic story, and I didn’t want to confuse readers.

It seemed other authors were also wrestling with how to depict anthologies as some vendors prefer or even require 2D covers. So I requested that the designer move to a triptych design and the final design, once again, blew me away.

Final version of cover: Three heroines in three color bands, blue, orange, green. Girl in suit with weapons, girl with glasses holding book, girl in leather with two knives.

The cover totally reminds me of a superhero movie poster. I call it my girl power cover. It depicts three different stories with three very different heroines.

I might play with a 3D box version of this cover, but for now I’m going to try this makeover out and see if it makes people stop and click.