Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Prague

Recently I was in the Czech Republic, visiting Prague. Once I was there, I realized that the locals call the city Praha. This made me think about place names, since I too live in a place that is referred to one way by foreign visitors, and differently by those who live there: Switzerland.

Switzerland has four "short names," one in each of the four official languages:


Schweiz (German - with the articles der or die, depending on the case, as per my previous post that touched on the German language's changing articles)
suisse (French)
Svizzera (Italian)
svizra (Romansh - a linguistic descendant of the language spoken by the Romans)

But the official name of the country is:

Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft (German)
ConfĂ©dĂ©ration suisse (French)
Confederazione Svizzera (Italian)
Confederaziun svizra (Romansh)

which translates to Swiss Confederation in English.

And just to make things even more interesting, the country postal code is CH, short for Confederation Helvetia.

The Helvetii were Celts that lived in the Swiss midlands, encountered by the Romans when they moved up into Switzerland ca. the first century B. C. Helvetia is the female personification of the Helvetii and appears on the coins, and, in the past, on stamps as well.

Perhaps, given all this, it would come as no surprise to learn Switzerland doesn't have a single head of government, like a Prime Minister or a President, but that is another discussion, for another day. Let us return to the beautiful city of Praha, or Prague.

Four of us spent almost a week there, writing and revising, taking long lunch breaks to explore the city. We had beautiful weather and a wonderful time. One of our group had been in Prague 17 years ago, and she remembered saying at the time "If this city was restored, it would look like something out of a fairy tale," and the week we were there, she was reveling in the transformation of the city.

On one of our lunch-time rambles, we passed a sculpture in honor of the Prague-born writer, Franz Kafka. My first literary encounter with Prague was through a film version of Kafka's The Metamorphasis as a teen, which creeped me out enough that I elected not to explore any more of his work.

My next literary connection to Prague was through the young adult novel, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, part of a trilogy by Laini Taylor. I remembered the books as having a very strong sense of place, so when I knew that I'd be spending some time in Prague, I resolved to reread the first book in the series.

However, life got busier than expected in the weeks before I was to travel, so I didn't actually get to start my re-read until I was on the flight home. Given that it's a one-hour flight, that meant I was only able to read a few chapters, but even that was enough for me to delight in the details. Not just Taylor's descriptions of the city, but other things as well. Everything was so accurate, it was clear to me after my own visit to the city that Taylor had intimate knowledge of Prague.

One night we took a very enjoyable ghost-themed walking tour, one that stated in the promotional information that there were no "jump scares." So it was a delightful surprise when I started my re-read of Daughter of Smoke and Bone on the flight home to find that one of the characters worked as a jump-scarer on a ghost tour.

I love reading a book where the author nails the details. I can think of two books, both historical, which I enjoyed very much - the plot, pacing, character development and writing - until they got a fact so egregiously wrong that it threw me completely out of the narrative, ruining what had been, until then, a very enjoyable reading experience.

In both cases, the things the authors got wrong were tangential, quick "asides" that were essentially "flavor text," which could have been cut with no material impact on the story. Also, in both cases, a quick bit of online research to fact-check the author's assumptions would have enabled them to write essentially the same paragraph or sentence, with only slight alterations, in a way that reflected historical and geographic accuracy.

No fact is too small to fact-check. If we as writers are going to say that a character left her lodgings to go draw fresh drinking water in Venice, we should know the Venetians' source of fresh drinking water. (Hint: it wasn't the canals). And if, as a writer, you're going to say a character had a grandfather who made cuckoo clocks, don't say he's Swiss, and living up on a mountain. (Cuckoo clocks aren't Swiss, and even leaving that fact aside, the clock- and watch-making tradition of Switzerland is located in the flat midland region, not up an Alp).

Now that I'm home, I plan to finish my re-read of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, bringing my own memories of the city of Prague to the story, a perfect unexpected intersection of life and my literary world.


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