Saturday, October 25, 2014

Reasearch is Funny

It can be odd, the things you find yourself having to research as a historical fiction author (or the things you just want to research, whethery they have a place in a manuscript or not – research can be a labyrinth of rabbit holes teeming with plot bunnies).  Reading up on pattern welded steel swordmaking, brickmaking and architecture, and horse breeding/horseshoes is one thing, but then you find yourself needing to answer the question of whether and what type of scissors may have existed in your period, and confounded as to what exactly such tools might have looked like in use – not as artifacts, but as a part of regimens of toilette long lost to history, because they were *not* historical, and not recorded.

I know that Clovis was one of the reges criniti, the Long-Haired Kings, and I know from grave goods that Franks and so-called barbarians (get a load of the Swabian knot) took meticulous care of their hair and hygeine, even if without suds and “product”.  What I don’t know is what the *ritual* looked like.  I feel safe in assuming the king had body slaves, that this was not self-administered primping such as I indulge in the morning at my pretty little vanity table.  Though there once were scenes of Clovis’ mother, Queen Basina, tending to his hair almost as if it were his power and ambition itself, those are gone – and I cannot say I know that such “service” and personal interaction would align with the real picture of a Frankish queen and the familial interactions of the time.  I used the time spent thus to develop the difficult relationship of queen and prince, mother and son, and to draw in broad strokes the character of a woman Clovis wants nothing more than to shed, yet whose influence upon him was at least as powerful – if not moreso – than  his father, Childeric.

It is possible that the court of the time was sophisticated and rarefied enough the idea of this kind of tending and touching would have been unthinkable.  Yet this sort of maternal “indoctrination” feels authentic to me in a way that, as an author, I just beg off further research and write the story – because, sooner or later, *that* is the point, and (as we have noted before) I am NOT a(n) historian.  This is the limit of my responsibility, and my writing is always couched in service to the story above authenticity.

This is not to say I want to have Theodoric nattering away, say, while getting a haircut and receiving dignitaries; or to portray childbirth with willful inaccuracy – which is where those damned bunnies start hopping, and I find my prodigious ass lodged in a burrow too small for my ambitions, and get stuck.

As one of the more irresistibly charming agents I’ve met along my journey so far has insisted, I need to have food in the kitchen and furniture in the rooms.  I also need to know when to stop describing every stick of it, and when the recipes are not required.

One of the truisms of historical fiction and other authors working with much research must keep in mind is that research is like an iceberg.  Of the mass of what we learn along the way, really only the smallest tip should show itself; the rest is just what we need to gain authority in a period or world we’re building, unseen by any but us as we build it.  “Your research is showing” is a dreadful reminder that “show, don’t tell” has limitations.

It may be this that creates the sort of odd dissonance (resonance) between what we look into and what we end up writing.  In a way, the tension can be interesting.  Mostly, it makes you giddy as a writer – what to do, where to go?  You kind of turn into a rabbit yourself, or at least The March Hare, a bit frayed, a bit at loose ends, learning and then having to be your own arbiter:  “What, of what I have learned, should I share?”

I think most of us simultaneously love this part – and hate its implications.  There can be so much inspiration, yet not all of it is part of The Story … and we are, all of us, in service to The Story …


The History Girls take a long look at a mural and ask, "Who IS that crowned man?"  The answers are scholastically engaging, and the list of other answers tells us so much about the eyes of the beholders.

Gary Corby has an answer about another, more ancient piece of art - it was Persephone.

I found out this week someone I work with is a writer as well.  Who could resist "Nobody Craves Celery" (so to speak)?  I can't.  Bookmarked, perused, approved.

And, finally, please enjoy this charmingly odd, sweet clip inspired by The Rochester Bestiary.  Not your typical interneTV, this.

Friday, October 24, 2014


Just two mourning posts today.  I've got a post archived, but this just is not the time.

For anyone in reach, the Met has an exhibition of mourning gowns of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  I would love to see this, but though I'm on the correct coast, "in reach" just now has a proportion that keeps this event off my social calendar.

Pour La Victoire, always meticulous and fascinating, with copious detail photos, also has a look at just one mourning gown, but a fascinating look it is.  In this case, too, the comments add to the post.  Take a look at a rare and endangered silk dress, circa 1867.


Another human tragedy today.  Someone at work said, "What is WRONG with the world?"

Same thing that's always been wrong with it.  We let everyone in.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Darwin's Barnacles and Dr. Livingston's beetles - the History Blog is on an interesting roll indeed!  All this and Tolkien references - who could ask for more?  Also, "Darwin's Barnacles" is a great title for ... well, pretty much anything at all. Get on that!

Nyki Blatchley on tribe-versus-nation - a worthwhile look at cultural attitudes toward:  other cultures.

Two Nerdy History Girls have a nice post about corsets in the 19th century - the good, the bad, and the mythical.  Be sure to check the comments for a point about the dress movement, which condemned corsets even at their peak.  The thing people often forget when shuddering in horror, or lusting to wear, corsets is this:  they were only very rarely tight-laced, and the sort of corsets people get frothy about in the 21st century were *not* sexy, nor even intended really to modify women's bodies sexually.  Just as today we wear fashions which have nothing to do with fornicating or procreating, FASHION, even in past centuries, had little to do with mating practices.

Finally ... Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.  Just 'accoz.

"Oh, G-d.  I can smell his face."  Hee.

Actually, Marcel represents an EXTREMELY good example of great writing - memorable, clear, and engaging voice.  (By which, though his portrayer does an extremely cute job, I mean writing voice, not actual actor's reading.)  Give it a shot, it's actually highly incisive writing; capturing the tone of a Liddel Kid, and the production includes a wealth of enjoyable peripheral detail.  Marcel is kinda OSUM, y'all.

Monday, October 20, 2014

French Origins

I've joked from time to time, when people who cannot wish to get bogged down in the answer have asked me, "What's your book about?" - and said, "It's about the guy who invented France."  Or, I've said, "If you go back far enough, the French are Germans."

That latter joke was once a theory one had to be careful with.  Nicolas Fréret, an eighteenth century scholar, who presumed to point out that the origin myth of France was false, was placed in the Bastille for his troubles.  Honesty has never been politically popular, after all.  Immortalized in the Liber Historiae Francorum, the tale goes that Trojan princes Priam and Antetor fled their homeland and built the foundations of France, in a city called Sicambria.

Sicambrian, indeed, was for centuries a term for the Franks, and made it even into Gregory of Tours' hagiography of Clovis and Clotilde, featuring in the scene of Clovis' baptism, where Bishop Remigius says to the king, "Bow thy head, o Sicambrian," exhorting him to love his new God.

Linguistically, unfortunately, the age and etymological derivation of "Sicambrian" is not a persuasive clue to Trojan origins.  And, as most of us are aware today, the Franks were clearly a society and tradition born of Germanic strains, the Greek memories being fables adopted to lay claim to classical prestige.

Claims of Trojan origin were common enough during the period, Britain having much the same sort of story to tell.  We sometimes place a kind of fetishistic worship of the classical period later in European history, but Late Antiquity bred these myths with noticeable regularity, and the early desire of a Gallo-Roman and Frankish society to present a noble lineage as they formed a cohesive identity may have been a healthy sign of formative unity - of a Church's growing influence - of the need of the educated noble elite to provide yet more nobility, dating beyond memory of pagan Germanic conquests and the cultural assimilations of a people in transition.

Nicolas Fréret spoke his piece about the history of France at a time when the Ancien Régime was in power, and - though the name came along later - ancien was clearly what they expected to be perceived as being; and far more ancient indeed than a pack of German barbarians.

Goes to show you how longstanding can be the prejudices of the winners in history - an ancient Roman slur making fun of the sound of northern languages influenced the inheritors of barbarian estates for so many centuries, here a millennium and a half beyond the "Fall of Rome" we're still sneering about the term and, obviously for at least twelve hundred years, outright denying the heritage of those northern peoples.  Nice work, Rome.

It is difficult for many modern westerners to conceive of being thrown in jail for scholarship.  Yet no intellectual discipline has ever been clinically scientific in method, and respected in its own right, not completely.  Many "know" the story of Galileo (itself subject to subversions and simplifications), but few think of history or language as subject to the same censorship and pressure.

Fortunately, those who have endured censure have made room for an atmosphere, today, where being thrown in the Bastille for saying, "You know - if you go back far enough, the French are Germans."  I'm grateful for this much.

Even if my jokes are still really lame.


Janet Reid's love affair with Gossamer has extended just a little bit further, and Penelope has now popped up at her blog.  If Gossamer is The Editor Cat, shall we say that Penelope is the Publisher Pup?  Suggestions welcome (alliteration not required).

(And NOW to find an agent who'll love me for my *manuscript* ...)

In a promising move toward more of a professional platform, the next week or so here should see a couple of blog turns where I get to show off the other historical fiction authors I've gotten to know.  Tom Williams has tapped me for the One Lovely Blog tour, and his blurb about me is blush-worthy (if only I were capable of blushing).  And Faith L. Justice invited me to join a writing process blog tour.

These last two items have inspired me to follow up with Elizabeth Chadwick on the interview questions I sent some months back.  Also, though I didn't get a new interview at the Conference this year, I may revisit Victoria Skurnick, who was one of the many charming and delicious people we get at JRW, and who was most open to the idea.  So stay tuned, kids!

In closing, a link both more and less typical of these collection posts.  Because there's archaeology ... and then there's digging up DeMille ...

Monday "Off-ish"

This weekend was the James River Writers conference, my favorite writing event of the year, and I do have intentions to blog about it, but yesterday before it quite concluded, I recused myself from the fun and came home upon several warning flares from my back.  It did wait to go into full muscle spasm pain until after I got home, but yesterday was painful and very little productive, and today may not improve much - because, though I have good intentions of sending out the full request, getting into that trick my WIP just *most-intriguingly* played on me, and digging yet again into query research:  I do have to get groceries, do some tidying up around here, devise a method to huck laundry up and down two flights of stairs without killing my back, and call my bank about an unidentifiable $300 charge.  Also, my mom called, and wants me to come over and help her sort seasonal clothes for getting-rid-of.  The invitation is not one to turn down lightly - not least because this is the sort of thing I *like* doing with my mom - but a lot of me wants to, unfortunately.

Also, that back problem.  Combined with a nestle-happy kitten, it goes a long way indeed to making me want to stay right here with the laptop producing the illusion of productivity in a couple of the aforementioned activities.

Yet it is a beautiful day, and mom's been sick and I know how that makes you crave company, and I'd LIKE to help with this activity.

And it's 1:00 almost already, and the day is burning away as I dither on my blog.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

We Do Get Fooled Again

Lately, shared delusions of different types have been crossing my mind, both on the paths of my own tangential thoughts, and in things I’ve come across to read here and there.  Humans share ineffable bonds, and some of them we’d quite like to eff after all, probably.  We cling together in fear, in arrogance, and – above all – in ignorance.

We also forget and forget and forget, and therefore come to believe the silliest horsefeathers.  Such as, people were dumb and dirty in the past, as I’ve often gone on about.  Such as, we have evolved or changed or become anything new at all under the sun.  We’re very attached to this idea, that what today holds is ever better than yesterday … even as we yearn for yesterday with the sort of jealousy that can pervert itself nastily and become cancerous and violent.

I once sat in a church and listened to a long and angry sermon against evolution, actually, which … ended with a discussion of how we get flu shots because viruses grow and change and we have to conquer them with ever better drugs.  I’m not joking – evolution is wrong, but evolution totally happens.

We do this sort of thing a lot, and it is in sermons and on pulpits, in reaching out to each other and in quoting, being quoted, in rabidly nodding our heads together, that we gain some sense of self – this is someone I agree with, and therefore what I think, what I feel, must be RIGHT in some important way.

“It’s not just me.”

We seek that in almost ever level in our lives.  Those studies that show negative posts on social media “infect” related users and breed more of the same, complaint spawning complaint, because it is empirically true that misery loves company to death.  The way almost the whole world finds ways to make major events – especially catastrophes – “about ourselves”, finding ways not just to relate to the imponderable or epochal, but to own it.  9/11 was so powerful in this effect it gave us the story of Tania Head (not even her real name), one of the most famous survivors of the World Trade Center attacks, who happened to live in Spain at the time and was graduating a professional program at the time that brutality happened.  Before that, locally to my world, the Washington sniper drew half the east coast into a noose of fear that occasionally almost smelled like anticipation; living anywhere near those events conferred a sense of almost belonging to that threat, and of its belonging to us.  Anthrax scares in the mail had people psychosomatically ill all over the country, and gave the opportunity for morons or the mentally ill to frighten the wits out of crowds in strange places.

Yet, in this oh-so-enlightened world in which we are susceptible to shared delusions physical, emotional, and in many ways political:  we deeply enjoy looking backward at phenomena like the tarantism or the dancing mania of the middle ages, perhaps born out of plague and upheaval, and play a bit of down-the-nose-peering, to assure ourselves we are superior.  We, who deny – well, evolution, for one; or climate change; or the moon landing; or the HIV virus’ influence and connection to AIDS – love nothing so much as to look upon those who denied Galileo’s toppling of the heliocentric universe as the basest, risible ignorance.

It is intensely reassuring, for a species perpetually under the THREAT of the great unknowns of our lives, to hope, at least, we’ve risen out of some sort of darkness, surpassed ignorance, become *better* than we used to be.  There is a deep cultural, and *perhaps* pan-human need to believe in progress that leads us to look back, not in anger, but in the kind of bigotry that leads us to name entire swaths of time “The Dark Ages” and to peer morbidly at lost ideas of beauty or obsolete heirarchies of worthwhile attainments (or, very sadly, to look across the globe even in the present, presuming other cultures are stuck in the past) to prove to ourselves we are not “barbarians.”

The barbarians, of course, merely made the mistake of toppling a few things of their own, which for some reason we enjoy enshrining (from time to time) as pinnacles of human achievement.  Also, they didn’t write a very great deal, so we don’t have Viking Shakespeares to enshrine instead.  The barbarians get their vogue from time to time as well, but by and large “visigoth” didn’t become an insult in a perfectly balanced vaccuum, just for instance.  Or the word barbarian itself, which is an onomotopoeic word making fun of the way a foreign language sounded to a great lot of dead Romans who had a few funky habits of their own we occasionally stumble upon in order to make fun of.

We really are not better than ever before.

The consolation to that is:  we actually are not WORSE than ever before, either.  Our power to actually destroy ourselves probably skews the old bargain, to be sure.  But human nature is as a whole is full of the same greedy lot who don’t care about others … and the same breathtakingly beautiful, and the same generally decent, and the same petty individuals we’ve always had amongst ourselves.  The greedy ones regularly wreck the lives of others, the good ones give us hope, and the ones we know best sustain and madden and surround each other.

Stripped of all politics and consequence, human nature is a remarkably unchanging thing, for a dynamic so resilient and innovative and endlessly mercurial.  We fear together, and that makes us either dance together or believe we are sick together.  We are arrogant together, and that is born of fear too.  We are immensely capable and ingenious – remember how we all ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the HUMAN miracle and spectacle of the Chinese olympic opening ceremonies?  Both impressed at the show, and half-afraid of a nation so huge with such control over its people … and so many people to control … ?

WE only constant is change, in a way.  It defines and horrifies us, especially when the changes we have wrought and witnessed don’t go the way we expected, or would like.  It makes such a difference, and it makes none.

Only when we get to the deepest level – the individual – does the inevitability of change seem less a frightening unknown than a limitless potential.

I am still the meat and bones and voice my parents made … and I am nothing I was even just ten years ago, or five, or yesterday.  It’s a hell of a responsibility, and it’s both a swelling and a dangerous pride.  I need reassurance.  But not by dancing through a plague.  Just in the ones I know best.  In sustaining and maddening and being close to them.  And in finding they do the same in return.

What is it like along your evolutionary development?  Did you go from crouching to standing tall, a deep breath filling your chest … ?  With whom do you dance … ?

It's Like Wearing the Corset ...

“Fake it till you make it!”

The little piece of wisdom above has become a facile mantra for a society increaingly occupied by the hectic schedule of life as we’ve constructed it, and particularly by professional frustration and ambition in an economy not well laid out for most of us to find the types and levels of comfort we’ve also set as a general expectation.

The fake-it mantra goes along with the “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” maxim (and there is a whole blog post in that one, considering how resolutely “casual” so many workplaces have become …), and various other positive-professional mottoes we try to post in our brains and daily behavior in order to attain – basically – whatever it is that passes for financial success, as compared to where we stand right now.

“Fake it till you make it”, though, has applications and effects apart from the financial, and the older I get the more surprised I am – and pleased – at how very well it works.

There are days at both the office job that provides me regular paychecks, and at the unpaid job I maintain as an unpublished (but persistently aspiring) author, when really it’s all just a game.  And that’s not a bad thing.  It can make The Game easier, actually, to make it *play*.  Life’s no fun if you never play – and, sometimes, play helps you do life a bit better.

If I’m not feeling satisfied or motivated or even competent at the paying gig, I’ll make a point of popping in the boss’s office with a drive-by handful of “I’ve done this and this and this for you” comments – or questions “do you need hard copies/lunch reservations/documentation for X-meeting” – and the effect is usually strongest on myself.  It’s like I won the role of Moneypenny in some play – and saying the lines and getting the responses makes me feel like I’m playing it well.

So I get to *feel*, “Okay, I am not a fraud.”

And I also basically remind myself, “Hey.  *I am not a fraud.*”

I’ve been doing administrative/secretarial work for close to thirty years now, pretty much to the exclusion of any other professional work.  It’s something I enjoy, and/but changing jobs as often as I have, it’s never something I feel I know completely – which is a good thing. 
One of the important parts of changing jobs is overtly playing the part of a competent professional.

Being able to do a job and demonstrating that I can do it, I have found, are vastly different things:  and the latter is the wiser course.

It’s a bit like feedback from a boss; if you hear “thank you” or “can we widget this, thus” now and then, fairly consistently, it makes all the difference in knowing where you stand.  Performance reviews don’t do that, never have, and never will – but the smallest acknowledgement of daily to-do’s coming along regularly provides good bearings.  And that works both ways (the corporate-speak phrase “managing up” comes to mind, though without the passive-aggressive intent).  Feedback of the “A, B, and C are done/need something to get X done/changed the way Y is done” variety keeps ‘em aware you’re there and functioning.

I know an author who spent something like a week wearing a corset and cooking medieval recipes out of turnips, in order to get a feel for her period.  We can hardly replicate “what it was really like” – but method writing like that makes sense.  It’s the same at a job.  When I wear the rold of Moneypenny, I realize that not only can I walk in those shoes, but I can project that to others, and that’s a useful reminder/demonstration/feedback on all sides.

It also encourages others to TREAT me like Moneypenny – or like an author.

I approach an awful lot of my life with some form of calibrated appearance in mind.  This isn’t affectation nor artificiality (it may be manipulation, though …).  It’s just an actor’s heightened way of going into any scene.  I dress for my job, or for time spent with my mom and stepfather, or for some specific group of friends (… or for the Conference, yes) – I behave in one venue in a way I would not in others.

“I contain multitudes” …

Many of us do this without really thinking about it all that much.  Many can’t release themselves from a single self-image (when I see women on TV who wear $600, 7-inch high heels for every conceivable occasion, heavy makeup at all times, and false eyelashes even in the middle of the day, I pity them the stultifying consistency of such “glamour”, since it cannot be special, maintained at all times; likewise men who cannot get beyond khakis and polo shirts no matter where they go bewilder me with self-imposed homogeneity).

So we all play roles.  I need multiple roles, in order for any one of them to seem worthwhile or fun – being a slovenly hausfrau all day on a Saturday makes the odd Saturday night out with friends so much more fun, as does the pampering self-transformation from slovenly comfort to arch impracticality.  I need time with family and time as an employee and time as a friend, and time ALONE, just laughing at my dog and cat.  I need the demanding and yet transformative rituals of my day – getting up and getting dressed, as much as coming home, and getting dressed *down*.

It took me a long time to really believe I was a “real” author – not a laughable fraud.  This is true of a terribly large percentage of writers, and the way the industry is configured, unfortunately, encourages this, at least in traditional publishing.  Yet this isn’t on purpose – the more agents and editors I’ve met, the more delightful I’m aware that they are.  These are people who get to make a living not only doing something they love – reading – but they also get to act as conduits to bring new things they love to a whole audience.

I almost can’t imagine what that’s like.

But it’s certainly true that many of the editors and agents and designers and all the newer facilitators in a publishing world no longer strictly fashioned as a paradigm of “gatekeepers” (agents) and “keymasters” (publishing houses) SAY that this is what they love about what they do.  There is an undercurrent of glee – “I found something wonderful! I must have it! I must share it!” – and a very emotional kind of satisfaction in most interviews I read when I research agents, but also when I find articles and blogs and so on by cover designers and book doctors and editors who work outside publishing houses, helping authors to craft not only good work, but marketable work.  There is a mutual drive for satisfaction I’ve never seen in other areas of my own admittedly limited life, but it’s pretty wonderful.  The blogs I follow avidly all share this with a depth and clarity that is infectious:  they keep ME going, by telling me and ten thousand others, “you should KEEP GOING.”

This really isn’t faking it till you make it, of course.

But we all still have to fake so much.  We have to put on our Editorial Boots and kick the hell out of our manuscripts and plays and poems.  We have to put on the Authorial Jacket (with or without the little suede elbow patches; as your preference or genre or predilections dictate) and brave the autumnal blasts of rejection and revision and education until we’re tempered.  We have to wear a Marketing Hat, too – and live a bit online, and reach out, and plan, and consider, and be ready to Be Told, when it comes to supporting our work.

THIS is undoubtedly faking it, for most of us.

•    Faking like we have time in the week,
•    Faking like we are not scared out of our minds,
•    Faking like we really feel like we know what we’re doing,
•    Faking like it’s not annoying to have to do all this stuff without pay,
•    Faking like the friends and family around us who
     (a) overestimate the likelihood we’re going to Become the Next Bestseller, or
     (b) bitterly, ignorantly UNDERestimate it
     … are not discouraging beyond toleration,
•    Faking like there is anything at all about writing, other than the doing of it – all alone, at a wonderful desk or curled up with a beloved furbaby – that we can stand at all.

Faking it and knowing the fakery isn’t so much a lie as a *reminder* either works better and better as I get a bit older, or I am just finally getting, at my advanced age, just how well it always would have worked.

What’s your costume, what is the swashbuckling role you play … ?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Dresses Undressed

Nabbed this when I saw it at Two NerdyHistory Girls.  Though the music is a hair sad, and the veins in the ghostly hands which appear here and there are ... weirdly animated and eerie ... the CLOTHES are beautiful, gorgeously constructed, and this look at all the layers of dress in this period is instructive and interesting.  The micro close up lace shot is as gorgeous as it looks like it would be from this preview still, by the way.


Thursday, October 9, 2014


I happen to follow some of the most amazing blogs and at least two Tumblrs, and of the latter you should go get your eyeballs nurtured, because Mojourner's Photos rock the extra bomb-diggety, y'all.

Speaking of sites that have wonderful vitamals and nutriments for the yumming of your eyes, do you follow the Caustic Cover Critic?  Because - seldom updated, but always worth a look.  Enjoy the Hallowe'en special:  hilarious, intriguingly conceived, and scary on multiple levels.  Boo!