Clarion Write-A-Thon: More on Retelling Catarina the Wise


Last time, I gave you some initial thoughts on “Catarina the Wise”. Today I want to dig a little deeper, because there’s something eating away at the heart of my process. Simply, the question: “Should this be a literal retelling, beat for beat, or should I capture the essence of it?”

I thought about the story’s themes related to equality and how they’re presented. The idea that education should be free for everyone, regardless of class, is not the “point” of the tale–but it is a message that is more powerful to a reader in the past than it is today. While the gender equality message is present, I feel it’s specific to cishet marital relationships and the father-daughter bond. It’s for this reason I think the story’s lesson has two different audiences. First, it’s a story about Italian, family-minded cishet men. My take is that fathers and husbands shouldn’t regard their daughters and wives as anything but equal. However, Caterina the Wise also presents as a lesson for the cishet women in these relationships, too. That is: it’s better to bend the existing rules than to try and change them.

I want to point out that Catarina doesn’t interact with other women in the story; her mother passes away off-screen early on. Her worth and value is shared through the perspective of her father and her abusive husband, the prince. When she gets in trouble, she does ask her father for help, which he provides, he then stops helping. I don’t know how much you know about Italian families, but the fact that the father left Catarina to her own devices is a huge deal. Huge.

After re-reading the story, Catarina’s methodology to teach her abuser a life-changing lesson feels wrong to me, because she lies about who she is, sleeps with the Prince, and has several children she then uses as leverage. She doesn’t simply leave him. She stays and changes him by teaching him a lesson–which…well, that’s problematic AF. In this specific instance, the fact that she is not the villain flips the trope that cishet women who use their sexual power are evil. Catarina is not depicted as such. Instead, she’s the heroine of a tale who beat the Prince at his own game.

Here’s where these resonate tones get complicated: I made a pledge to not include cishet white men in my stories to challenge myself. I’ve already decided I’m not going to simply flip the genders because that’s the easy way out for me; I don’t know enough about the power dynamics in queer relationships to write them well and provide the necessary, authentic subtext either. Instead, I’m looking at the essence of this story to see if that’s portable to 2020. Then, I’ll build characters around the abuser-victim dynamic who make sense for the story. So far, I’ve been leaning into the heroine’s name–Caterina the Wise–and the lesson of entitlement with respect to class. I don’t believe that lesson requires a sexual relationship (or the use of children as leverage).

Oh! I don’t think I mentioned this before, but the reason why I am not choosing the name ‘Barbara’ from Calvino’s retelling is because of its meaning. Barbara is a Greek name that is the root of the term “barbarian”. I don’t regard Catarina as being the villain in this story, and changing her name to Barbara (strange or foreign) from the Italian version of Catherine (pure) feels like an odd choice for her character.

Anyway, blogging about “Caterina the Wise” has been interesting for me; I hope you’re enjoying this look into my process. Short stories, in particular, are something I must read a couple of times to fully appreciate, understand, and unlock all their complexities.

Other Clarion Write-A-Thon Posts

About this Post: In exchange for sponsor support, I promised to highlight how I’m processing my identity as an Italian-American and daughter of an immigrant through brainstorming, story selection, and first drafts. If you’re keen on following my progress, warts and all, I encourage you to become my sponsor and sign up for my newsletter.

Clarion Write-A-Thon: Initial Brainstorming and Selecting the First Italian Fairy Tale

Hello readers,

Last week, I talked about what I’m writing for the Clarion Write-A-Thon. I spent some time this weekend thinking about the negative experiences I’ve had, and have been mulling over Colorism because it’s something I want to be mindful of when writing these stories.

Italian-Americans are sometimes treated differently because we’re not deemed white enough. There are stereotypes that shape this toxic view; Italians from the top of the boot are thought to be lighter-skinned than those in the south. The further south you go, the darker the skin tone–with Calabria and Sardinia residents being the darkest. In other words, where your family is originally from sometimes acts as a signpost for your perceived worth. (Which is nonsense.)

My own experiences have been really weird. Though I am white, I have olive undertones to my skin. There have definitely been times where I haven’t been white “enough” or, alternatively, not tan “enough” to call myself Italian. Mind you, I have never experienced these moments among people of color, and since I changed my hair color to blonde (which I did because I’m mostly grey and occasionally vain) I didn’t have as many issues as I once did. Now, I’ve managed to unpack some of those experiences and learn more about Othering, mostly to confirm: “Okay, so that’s what happened.”

Thankfully, I’m past the pain of my experiences–so much so they’ve faded to a small watermark. That said, I do know Colorism still exists. I just don’t know how Colorism started for Italian immigrants, nor do I know enough about the subject to speak to it authoritatively. Of course, Colorism and Racism aren’t the same, either, even though sometimes they’re conflated. It doesn’t help that Italian pop culture references often reinforce harmful stereotypes while, at the same time, whitewashing Italian cultures–especially anything that smacks of “Rome”. The adverse effect of that is reinforcing Colorism–either intentionally or unintentionally.

Choosing the Fairy Tale

Deep topics, right? So, how the F*&$ do I choose which fairy tale to retell? Well readers–I decided not to. Instead, I pulled out my copy of Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales. This 763-page book is a collection that includes fairytales like The Three Crones from Venice along with non-magical folktales. Then, I closed my eyes and opened it up. Whatever random page I opened up to? That’d be the fairy tale I selected for the week.

And so, the first story I’m retelling is called “Barbara the Wise” from Palermo, Sicily. The moral to this particular tale is quite interesting, because the lesson intersects with class-and-gender based stereotypes while championing a free and public education. I did some preliminary research about the Sicilian fairy tale, and found it by an alternative name: “Catarina the Wise” in Giuseppe Pitre’s Catarina the Wise and Other Wondrous Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales translated by Jack Zipes. (Apologies for the misspelling of Pitre’s surname. There should be an accent grave over the “e”, but I couldn’t get the accent to stick.)

I dug a little deeper to see if I could find any women writing about this story and came up unsurprisingly empty. What I did learn, is that Guiseppe Pitre (1847-1916) is literally an unknown champion of Sicilian culture and folklore in the 19th century. This is a huge deal. Anti-Italianism was rampant and deadly at the time. It’s also subtext in Little Women that often gets ignored or misunderstood, because Anti-Italianism doesn’t have the same meaning in modern times as it did to a 19th century resident. (See: Laurie.) If you’re looking for highlights, the anti-italianism page on Wikipedia has a good overview of how Italian-Americans were treated historically, and how that’s changed during-and-post WWII. Pointedly, there’s a long list of resources at the bottom you can check out yourself.

After reading “Catarina the Wise”, I wanted to learn more about its origins because I was surprised by how feminist it was. This story proudly declares gender and class equality–that’s literally the lesson. Prince and pauper both deserve an equal education and fair treatment, and the prince who doesn’t agree and tries to punish Catarina is taught quite the lesson. The locations mentioned–Palermo, Venezia, Genoa, Napoli–don’t read as an accident to me, either. The story tells me that Sicilians are no different from other Italians and are valued the same. Not should be. Are. Ugh! It’s a perfect folktale. Now, I just have to figure out how to retell it. Yeah, no pressure. No pressure at all. *whistles*

About this Post: In exchange for sponsor support, I promised to highlight how I’m processing my identity as an Italian-American and daughter of an immigrant through brainstorming, story selection, and first drafts. If you’re keen on following my progress, warts and all, I encourage you to become my sponsor and sign up for my newsletter.

New Class for Novelists: Adapting Your Novel into a Game


I am teaching a new class through the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers on Sunday, July 12th.

Adapting Your Novel into a Game with Monica Valentinelli
July 12, 2020
9:30 am – 11:30 am PST

Are you a novelist with a fascinating world? Have you thought about turning your novel into an RPG? In this class, gaming industry veteran will walk you through the ins and outs of adapting your novel to fit a gaming world. This class is customized for authors who have published at least one original novel or novella. It is not designed for adaptations of someone else’s work.

Join Monica Valentinelli to learn how to turn your book into a game. Limited enrollment (15); scholarships available!

To sign up for this class, please visit: How to Register for “Adapting Your Novel into a Game”.

Magic Monday Dispatches No 2: A Few Good Fantasy Worldbuilding Terms

To kick off my Magic Monday Dispatches, I talked a little bit about the definition of magic and offered twenty questions to help you worldbuild.

Today, I want to introduce a few worldbuilding terms I use to help you think more deeply about the magic in your fantasy world.

Ability: In this case, the skills and knowledge a practitioner possesses to perform magic.

Area of Effect: Or range of effect. When a spell is performed, all characters within range will suffer its effects. This is used a lot in fantasy roleplaying games, but it’s also useful if you’re thinking about ways to limit your magic.

Backlash: In this instance, an undesirable result caused by the spell. A type of failure. The spell could have been: the wrong incantation, performed poorly, interfered with, had the wrong components, defended against, etc.

Cost: I’m sure you’ve heard the words “magic must have a price” before. The cost of doing magic implies something that must be spent in order to influence the natural world. Costs can be scalable to complement a spell’s complexity and relay rarity or potency. A spell to summon a pixie might have more common components than one to hail a fairy queen, for example. Typically, the cost of performing magic becomes more complicated when types (or schools) of magic are added. Having necromancy and creation magic in the same setting, for example, might generate directly opposing costs and ritual requirements that include time of day, dried herbs or flowers, crystals, candles, animal/body parts, blood, etc.

When there’s no consequence or cost to using magic, then the scale of effect is harder for the reader to place. In these situations, the magic presents itself as limitless and the only thing stopping practitioners from significantly changing their environment is moral fiber.

Effect: Or consequence. The effect is simply what happens when the spell is performed.

Frequency: How often magic is performed and by whom. The frequency of spells performed can contribute to a backlash or it can stretch the practitioner’s limits.

Limit: A limit can mean 1) the maximum exertion a practitioner can extend for a spell or period of time. 2) the limit of what the magic system can do. Or 3) The number of magic practitioners able to perform magic. Building limits into a magic system is a good idea, but often we see a system holds infinite power but can only be accessed by literate characters or those with the proper blood/parentage. There are other ways to add limits without tapping into a user’s genetic makeup by introducing an element of time. Celestial events, time of day, age of ritual components, etc. are natural limits to performing magic because they are recurring states or access points. These limits force the player to conserve the use of magic until replenished. The mage must find new ingredients. The wizard must wait until the next full moon.

Magic System: Also known as a “school” of magic. A set of magical spells and rituals around a common theme. Fire, Water, Air, Earth, Solar, Lunar, Birth, Death, etc. Most magic systems that possess schools have more than one.

Scale of Effect: Or, magical potency. The scale of effect typically shows how powerful the practitioner (or their spell/components) is. A magician who can summon a thunderstorm steamrolls any character who can only conjure a glass of water. The reason why magic often has an associated price (or cost) is to limit its usage which reduces the frequency of magical effect.

Source: Magic can be found in sunlight, moonlight, earth, fire, water, air, metal, blood, words, etc. The scale of effect, limit, and cost can naturally stem from any of these, because the sources themselves aren’t limitless. Daylight doesn’t shine for twenty-four hours; a cloudy sky could spell disaster. The source of magic can be renewable (sunlight) or finite (crystal).

My Jan-Apr 2020 Progress Report

Hello readers,

Underwater Memories Interactive Fiction GameIt’s been a while since I’ve submitted a 2020 progress report and I thought I’d change that. (Yes, even during a pandemic.) It’s been the longest couple of months I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing due to COVID-19. That aside, I did write and develop some pieces I’m proud to share with you.

In January, I re-mixed a soundtrack to accompany a short, interactive fiction experience. It feels ironic to mention Underwater Memories, because its theme is grief and loss. Had I been in quarantine, I’m not sure I would’ve picked this same subject. I probably would’ve chosen something whimsical instead.

In February, I participated in the promotion of the Hunter: The Vigil Second Edition Kickstarter. I developed this tabletop RPG with an eye toward existing fans who love Hunter as much as I do. We funded quickly and managed to knock off a few stretch goals, too. I’m going through the chapters to add backer names and make cosmetic changes before handing in the final manuscript with art notes.

Haunting Shadows | Anthology | Wraith The OblivionMarch was fairly chaotic and includes a long and sordid story about a writing retreat-turned-sitcom. On the first day, the sun shines, the hibiscus blooms, the hawk perches on a branch nearby. By the time I left, I’d fallen ill for a few weeks and was in quarantine (both during that time and when I returned home). ICFA, which I’d planned to attend, was cancelled. Sadly, there is no way to know what I had as testing wasn’t available.

While I was on retreat, Haunting Shadows, a collection of short stories for Wraith: The Oblivion 20th Anniversary Edition debuted. The collection includes my story “Scritch, Scratch” set at the House on the Rock. I also announced I was running for the SFWA Director-At-Large position; I’m pleased to report I did win–thanks to the voting members. I also started teaching online classes through the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers for game writing and plan to do more.

Wonder Stories | Middle Grade Reading App | Mobile PhoneTwo interactive fiction stories I wrote for middle grade readers then debuted in April through the Wonder Stories app. You can read “The Case of the Popped Balloons” and “The Case of the Multiplying Bunnies” on your mobile phone. This app was set to debut at SXSW which was also cancelled due to COVID-19. My friend Greg Stolze launched a successful Million Dollar Podmate Kickstarter to fund new podcasts–including one with yours truly.

On a more personal note: I spent the first two weeks of April in strict quarantine and began journalling for our local historical society. I posted about my project availability as well, though I should mention I raised my rates. I’m now safer-at-home and have been spending quite a bit of time rearranging, sorting, etc. to tackle apartment therapy and spring cleaning. I’ve been feeling pretty “meh” lately, if only because there’s been a lot of news–both good and bad–in the past month. The cold spring weather isn’t helping: it’s a damp chill that seeps into your bones.

Looking ahead, I don’t know what the rest of Q2 will bring (other than a lot of writing). Forecasting seems premature. It is an uncertain time and this pandemic-caused turbulence is not exclusive nor personal to me. In the smallest of ways, that detail’s both sobering and comforting. It also means I’m focusing on shorter-term goals (what I can accomplish) to offset the uncertainty. I’ll continue to be conservative in any new announcements as well, because the pitch-to-production cycle has also been disrupted. What will this mean long-term for me? For any of us? I honestly don’t know, but I’m confident we’ll figure that out together.

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