Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Space Seed (Khan Not Included)

I searched a number of articles to link for this story, but UK's Telegraph runs away with it, both for USING the phrase "space seed" - but also because they seem to be the only outlet who's used a photo of one of the actual trees grown from seeds which went into space.

What's the real headline?  If you want to know before you click (and you haven't already heard):  turns out, the spaceborne seeds' trees are now blooming six years earlier than normal terrestrial cherry trees blossom.

Special mention:  I love the early-1960s feel of the "cosmic rays" theory of causation here.  LOVE.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Another One

The History Girls have come up with another remarkable figure in history, Levina Teerlinc.  I think an awful lot of us have heard of Holbein, but even having been a Tudor nerd since puberty, I had NEVER heard of this woman, who served no fewer than four Tudor monarchs as a court painter.  Remarkable; as was her very career.  My thanks once again to The HGs.

Even more intriguing is the in-depth comment left by someone who has studied Teerlinc and has some observations of her own.

Gossie Again

Goss has once again run away to go visit Janet Reid, the Query Shark.  I do keep wondering where he runs off to - but am pleased he chooses good company!

Meat

Of the most recent four requests-for-a-full I had out (for those of you who aren't querying authors, a "full" means those agents who have asked to read the entire manuscript), I did not get any feedback from three of them.

One is a very very lovely woman I've met before whom I knew probably was not the right match for me, but you don't not-submit when someone gives the go-ahead - you never do know, in this world.  One seemed to me not really a personality match - and, indeed, I never even heard from her after submission, which from *my* end is a write-off.  Another was the ridiculously delightful Victoria Skurnick, who agreed to an interview on my blog as well (I need to get on that) but who, in the end, really doesn't do my genre, so as much as I adored her I knew it wasn't a good bet, and she was just as kind in letting me down as she was in opening the option to begin with.

The last one, though, whose name shall remain un-mentioned for now as I'm not convinced that book is closed, so to speak, provided nicely specific requirements and the salutation, "Back to work!"

The good news is, I agree with the feedback.  Indeed, during the last revision, cutting tens of thousands of words out of a completely ridiculous draft, I had thoughts cross my mind which reflect similar expectations.  So I'm going back to work - taking the butter knife back to the dragon's lair - and doing what I can to spread a bit of oleo.

The even better news than that is that this should not be a very big job.  It's a matter of some restoration, but not masses of new writing - nor of new cutting.  It's a matter of set dressing, essentially, and - of course - it does mean suspending any new querying for the time.  I won't pretend an excuse to suspend querying isn't welcome - even as sanguine as I am about the process, I don't think *anyone* would call it a pleasurable one.

And so today, back still hinky and kinky, enjoying my clean house, the open windows, a bout of laundry-doing, and the occasional nestle, I'm perusing scenes to see which ones are too free-floating--and SWEATING about my thoughts on which ones are "there" enough.  And, of course, dealing with the impulse to get into other things as well.  "Oh, wait, that character needs ..." and so on.  Some of it I should probably indulge.

But some of it I need to restrain as well - because here is the major thing:  this is not something I have endless time to fool around with.  An editorial agent (SQUEE) *might* care enough about my work to consider it twice.  The last time that happened, I took far too long, and the world changed by the time I got back to the interested party, and it transpired that there no longer was interest by the time I finished with the butter knife.

Part of the process of being a "potential" (published) author is learning, and learning-how-to-do at that.  I learned a lot, losing what I wanted to hope was a Dream Agent.

Not interested in losing another.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Collection

Congratulations (again!) to Tom Williams - he unveiled his cover this week, and I was slow to share it here, but it's a good looking design ... AND it's entirely authentic!  I love that in a cover, because it's remarkable how seldom historicals get that kind of graphical respect.

The History Girls have an excellent word or two for Michael Buerk (and an entire industry), on lookism and sexism - and historical beauty treatments - and the hideous catch-22 of women's conformation we still live with today.  The excellence here is that these words can actually be applied beyond the particulars of this one post - which is where good writing becomes great reading.

Finally, I am grateful to Two Nerdy History Girls for sharing this vid (worth a click-through to their post for a bit more on antique automata, with a little background and some other links as well):


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Oh Duck

In the words of Jinkx Monsoon, the phrase of this evening - as it must be, sometimes - is "Water off a duck's back" (to be repeated as needed, which seems to be an awful lot lately).

One of those personal problems one doesn't blog about in public (if one is a little old lady who still prizes, inordinately, the treasure and concept of privacy), which has been doing that silent looming thing so many of the more unspeakable issues in life like to do, is approaching a possible denouement I both desire and find absolutely terrifying.

People are still unemployed.  People I love, and cannot help.

Other people are trapped, frustrated, angry, and hurting.  Others are just hurting - and, by "just" in this instance, sadly we mean they are unfortunately self-absorbed.

This person has little to offer anyone, an unfortunate circumstance given that "may I bring satisfaction and joy" is a chief prayer in my life.  It's one thing to lack satisfaction of my own; it's another thing entirely to watch the people I love most unable to grasp it.

Earlier this evening I didn't get a certain agent, and it bums me out.

I succumbed to dread, irritation, and sadness - but life doesn't offer the luxury to indulge this for long.  Tomorrow is another (golden, eighty-degree) day.  I'm sucking it up.

I'm soldiering on.

Thank goodness for the wisdom of a drag queen.  "Water off a duck's back."  They're designed to shed the stuff - even float across it.  Surely I'm this ingeniously made ...


I'm off to wield a butter knife.  See y'all soon, with more relevant posts.

Designing Men

This article at Business Week tells the surprisingly gripping tale of a long and rewarding relationship in shambles.  The forces at work in this story – creativity and design, a friendship spanning decades, the brutal effects of legal action on a dynamic not only professional, but personal – are the stuff of the best literature we have.  And the building blocks here – fonts, and their design, which make a surprisingly interesting subject – are very much the stuff (literally) of writing.  Jonathan Hoefler almost makes the perfect betrayor, Tobias Frere-Jones his hapless, almost spousal, “victim” in the framing of the history of a relationship (I would say “partnership” – but that is the very point under contention; *were* they partners?) doomed now by lawyers.  And doomed (here is the literary part, kids) by the failure to communicate.  By diffidence and assumptions … the same things that doom so many marriages, love affairs … and partnerships, to be sure.

Font design is an unexpectedly emotional and political arena.  Most of us are aware that Lucida Handwriting makes a poor showing for a business contract, and many people are aware, or at least would not be surprised, that Comic Sans is a bit of a joke in the world of letter design.  But how many of us know that the choice or conception of a typeface design carries with it a raft of subjective baggage?  How many are aware that New York’s Helvetica subway signs   http://www.helveticasubway.com/ , so much a part of the city that people who’ll never go there in their lives recognize the font and the color scheme, raise in some folks a certain suspicion at their institutional strength bordering on the fear of brutality – and in others an almost happy satisfaction with its clean and reassuring simplicity?  How many knew just how strong the movement was, particularly beginning in the 1990s, to create messy, unpredictable – “punk” (hah) fonts?

Aggression and confrontation seem a counterintuitive part of something we might routinely imagine would be as boring as font design, and yet X-treem fonting was a big deal when it began, and its progeny are here to stay, even if their marketability may trump their nonconformity in the end.

Our heroes eschewed the paint-splatter or letters-cut-from-magazines scary effects of “edgier” fonts, but the success of the business that bore their name skirted trends like that.

The Business Week article documents the dissolution between these men with an almost leering set of insinuations about how much more the relationship was than a business arrangement.  “Divorce” is the word in the headline, and the very silence on the more personal aspects of a friendship which clearly goes back a very long way is suggestive in much the same way Victorian mores were on the topic of love which dare not speak its name.  The breathy description of Mr. Frere-Jones is heavy on pathos, casting him as a betrayed wife, and perhaps a bit of a naif or at least too delicate to be a Real Man in real business.

The entire crux of the article comes down to this:

One place where Hoefler has never referred to Frere-Jones as his partner is on any kind of contract.

At this point, I divorce myself from the engaging tale of a wronged woman (who happens to be a grown-ass man who signed, apparently, any number of legal documents NOT making a legal business partner of him, over a span of fourteen *years*) and have to consider agency over emotional outrage.  Frere-Jones, whatever his complaints, whatever the “promises” and expectations un-met – signed up to have them un-met.  His legal autonomy is no less than mine, he didn’t bother to know what he was signing up for – or he blinded himself wilfully – and the fact is, he appears very much to have participated in the truth of a situation which, no matter how often he and Hoefler teamed up to depict it otherwise publicly and for market reasons, he *could* have understood, perhaps truly did, and certainly had the responsibility to.

I’m no fan of the old “suck it up, Buttercup” school of writing off complexities in human relationships – but, as a feminist in particular, I’m not persuaded by “but but but”, “was gonna”, “coulda/woulda/shoulda” and “I THOUGHT” as legal arguments.  This is where the portrayal of Frere-Jones strangely feminized role as victim of his partner in this “divorce” falls flat.  It’s hard to see where Hoefler actively deceived F-J.  Flim-flammery and fraud are not the same thing, and Hoefler might not be the man I care to invite for tea – but, then again, neither is F-J, and the pair of them are both (so to speak) consenting adults.  With legal autonomy, and the power of their signatures.  If Hoefler took advantage – Frere-Jones let him, and could have done otherwise.

And that’s where the literary story gets *really* interesting, for me – because it’s so much more unusual than “bad man betrays wilting violet” at this point.  Frere-Jones isn’t Ingrid Bergman, pallidly and exquisitely being gaslighted by a paper-thin bad guy.  He made poor choices, he is a legal adult, and he didn’t get what he “thought” was his because he set no requirement that he should … I mean, you do not marry Henry VIII hoping he’ll change or you’ll be The One.  And Hoefler never even beheaded anyone.  I’m pretty sure.

Frere-Jones says that he agreed to this because Hoefler was always promising to formalize the partnership soon.

“Soon”, of course, is a word without legal basis.  It’s no way to have a child, plan for retirement, or conduct business negotiations – and what we have here is a negotiation.  Mounted with passive-aggression and self-interest and cross purposes – but a business negotiation, nonetheless.  The Elizabeth I-style prevarication and the failure to materialize, of a supposed mutual expectation, doesn’t change that.  The friendship doesn’t change it.  The strange framing device of this whole tale, in the trappings of some sort of unfulfilled union of a far more intimate kind, doesn’t change it either.  It may make the story more prurient, and sell Business Week advertising (using restrained, beautifully-immaculate fonts and graphics), but it ain’t journalism and it sure isn’t the truth of the story behind these two men, their business, their fame, their shared success – and their ultimate parceling out of what now can no longer be shared.

It’s a fascinating story, for a lot of reasons (design has never been my strong suit, but it’s always appealed to me), but I feel very sure it’s not quite exactly the story BW has told.  What IS fascinating is why Frere-Jones expects to be exempt from the requirements of personal autonomy and business the rest of the world has to deal with.  What IS fascinating is why Hoefler felt it was necessary to get more than the man he saw as being so valuable he proposed, when they were still semi-rivals, that they should join forces?  What were the dynamics at work, that the personal relationship had less weight for him than the potential business gains he saw in hooking up with Frere-Jones in the first place?  How strong and how deep *was* their friendship, after all?  Was it emotionally unequal?

Was there any of this behind-the-scenes folderol, with BW’s obvious (and also rather passive-aggressive) implications?  If so, what of that – does it matter, if they had a sort of intimacy which “should” have begged questions of the legal ramifications of their contracts?

In short:  Who? Are?  These characters?

Plot bunny it, kids.  Or maybe follow Henrik van de Keere down a different rabbit hole.  Or just throw a word or two in the comments, about your feelings toward Wachovia Celeste or the photos of these men or whether they SHOULD have gone DIY and messy with their fonts, for a buck.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

HR

What an odd little day it was in the context of HR.  My new employer has had more than one opening come up since I've been there, which would suit Mr. X remarkably well.  Somewhat as a tease, I've sent him several listings - but I've also been keeping my eyes open for a few others I know.  Today, I reached out to three people I know (other than him!) about different possibilities.

At the same time, I've received a come-on via LinkedIn.  My first instinct was to shut that down flat, but I told them to tell me more; I certainly know enough candidates, obviously.  Even if I'm happy and blessed, that's not enough - I'm like my mom in this; I love to make connections for people.  In a professional context, this is about as rewarding as human activity gets; if I put someone onto a job they actually got - and were happy with? - wow, what a remarkable feeling.  One of the best friends I ever made at a job (five positions ago) is the BEST networker I've ever seen.  She quietly connects people to jobs over and over again - and she herself is one of the best admins I've ever known.  She put me onto my gig at the utility company some years ago, and I've watched her hook people up time and again with various people she knows.  What she's done, and for how many people, who can thank her for their very LIVELIHOODS (I could, for a couple years there myself - and am still grateful).

What a thing that is to put into the world, to give to someone.

If even one of the connections I've thrown out to the winds ever came to that for someone, it would be such a blessing.  If several did ... what gratitude.

Images as Sources

Researching the WIP takes more than reading; it takes a lot of *looking* as well.


Queen Amalsuntha of the Ostrogoths
Image:  egyptsearch.com

One of the things this image did for me in stepping beyond Clovis and Gaul, into the lives of his sister, niece, and grand-niece, was to free me from the irksome presumption that the stars of contemporary histfic all have to be beauties by contemporary standards.  What it did *not* do for me was to indicate that the great eyes here were a symptom of, perhaps, Graves Disease, or provide an exact replica of (for one) Amalasuntha’s actual appearance.


Empress Theodora
Image:  Wikimedia


If you take a look at the bust of (most likely) Empress Theodora, she has a similarly wide-eyed look.  It’s not much of a cup of tea for all modern viewers, but the repetition of a feature like this in art is likely less an indication that everyone in a given period of history suffered from thyroid issues than that this was a standard style in depictions of the period.

There may be a degree to which you can let such a portrait inform your description of a character, but there may also be a good deal of freedom from such a source as this, the latitude in which you (or I) can create a character who is of constrained beauty, but perhaps not outright ill a la Marty Feldman.  Or perhaps she is.

Amalasuntha
Image:  romancoins.info


The coin image is perhaps the most curious one, to my eye, because its exaggerated proportions – typical enough, for the tiny and inexact medium – call to mind a very old woman indeed.  The wizened-appearing flesh between bulbuous features, though, is deceiving:  Amalasuntha died at the age of only forty.  Though this was certainly old enough, in Late Antiquity, to put her well beyond the youthful blush of a beautiful princess, it seems unlikely that as queen she necessarily took on the appearance of extreme age.

It’s possible this again was an artistic convention – portraying the queen as aged in order to invoke veneration; downplaying her physical appeal (or delicacy) in order to emphasize her power, position, or charisma as opposed to her charms.

It’s possible, too, that the convention was propagandistic in another way – Amalasuntha was highly unpopular with her own Ostrogothic nobles, and the image could have been minted in caricature, an unspoken insult, by those who must serve her, but had control of the mints.

It’s also possible the limited medium of a coin disallowed realism, beauty, or any of the above theories with highly subjective messages (though we all know, do we not, that the craftsmanship and arts of the time were exquisitely beautiful, and we don’t buy into the whole “people of the past were a lumpen lot of mouth-breathing dullards without skills”, right?).  It’s possible we just had an unskilled craftsman on the job the day they minted coins in the name of the regnant queen, daughter of Theodoric the Great, ruler of the Ostrogoths.  Possible.  But, given Amalasuntha’s own Roman education, the cosmopolitan nature of the world she lived in, the wealth at her disposal and the importance, at this time, of any public statement – particularly one literally showing the face of the monarch, a woman already fighting against prejudices from all sides –

… I’m going to venture to guess there’s something subjective here – whatever that may be.

Amalasuntha
Image:  Wikimedia


One of the other things images of a historical character (or images of other people from a period) can do is to illuminate the style of a period not only in terms of its clothes and headdress and personal decoration, but what was most important societally in the setting.  When I was much younger, I could look at medieval art and see very little detail, and be fine with that.

Now we have not only costume blogs and papers, and those who study and write about not only surviving artifacts, grave goods, and descriptions, but the two- and three-dimensional art of a period, and who write about the minutest of details, who bring to life the way we dressed, the way we carved beads, the way we dressed our hair.  These things are invaluable to understanding the physical manner of life as it was once lived.

Theodora's 'do
Image:  Wikimedia


Susann Cokal, an authoress of my acquaintance, has talked about wearing a corset and eating period food in her research for Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, and many authors and actors make this sort of physical preparation a part of creating a character.

I cannot say I care to do this with, say, garum.  Dedication is one thing, but I see little need to make the research for my novel into a late-period episode of survivor, eating stuff that grosses me out, for the dubious pleasure of being able to minutely describe exactly what rotted-fish-sauce actually tastes like.  I leave the satisfaction of such knowledge (which, let's face it, may be about as “authentic” as the paleo diet) to those who post recipes for garum or what-have-you.

And yet, the level of insight and detail we can find in truly analyzing artifacts and images which appear to the casual observer to have little detail is in fact astonishing.  To those who make a profession of studying ancient hair dressing methods, or indeed cooking – to the costume bloggers who can take a centuries-old portrait practically down to its skivvies by detecting construction methods from imperfect drawings or even unfinished works, I and all authors working in the world of information access owe an indelible debt of gratitude.

It is possible to flesh out the textile or cosmetology of the world we must build, as authors, to a remarkable degree.  Indeed, for all I joke about archaeologists and poop, the mere matter of breakfast does not elude our grasp.  In a scientific age which can pinpoint Otzi’s social status and particular stomping grounds from the last meal in his stomach, scatalogical studies are positive boon.  I can tell you that King Clovis likely ate a great deal of seafood and possibly enjoyed beef (a very high status source of protein, the latter), but probably did not indulge much in pork, which tended to be an inland livestock, more to be found in forests than in the Salic grounds of Belgica Secunda, where the king grew up.

I know, too, that Theodoric’s capital, Ravenna, was in a part of Italy rich in marshes – and it’s possible, from there, to get a feel for the air (I grew up in swamp land), to evoke some idea of the way the marsh grasses might have sounded – to extrapolate from the geography, some of the diet and trade and people of this city.

I can look – truly look – at the relief sculpture above, and study others’ scholarship of course (that debt of gratitude) and consider how important pearls were in the makeup of both costume and toilette – and perhaps even the symbolism of each garment, each jewel.  I can also tell the difference between a chiton and dalmatic, and describe characters’ dress appropriately, from the Roman world to the Ostrogoths – and even create tension in the “other-ness” we can demonstrate in display.

Amalasuntha seems to have used her son’s upbringing to send messages about status and her royal expectations (and prerogatives) – and I can even deduce she may have worn red shoes.  I can make a point of her shoes, in much the same way I once made a point about a character by the way she brushed her hair – or another, in the way he loses touch with the day-to-day and loses touch with the way he sleeps, dresses, and ablutes, over the course of a story.

I can build a world one stitch at a time.  I can cover my characters in a thousand stitches … and draw from them each of their stories.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Collection

Most of these one star book reviews will make you want to shoot yourself (or, perhaps, their "authors") in the neck.  Some of them are slyly hilarious, though!  Thank you, Zuba, for sending me down this rabbit hole!

Kristi Tuck Austin has some words on rock stars and authors - and no patience for the reticent writers who ignore and short-shrift their fans.  Me neither, lady!

18th century France is NOW - in San Francisco.  A great piece again from The History Blog, with videos worth a look if you're curious about how to move your gilded historical salon across a couple continents and an ocean.  The clips on gilding and wood carving are the best, short and illuminating.  So to speak!

Finally:  Gossamer would like to assure you, "It's all all right.  You'll be okay.  Promise."



Just needed to get a photo in, keep the visual interest.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Collection

Just two quickies tonight:

One, a collection of fashion watercolors spanning a very interesting period in costume history, as rendered by the lady who wore and admired these clothes.  As primary sources go, witness testimony in such a form as this is impossible to beat.

Two, the use of asbestos for its fire retardant properties goes back significantly farther than you might think.  In Byzantine wall paintings, for example.  Yep, one more thing we didn't invent in the twentieth century, kids.

Mere Exposure - and Unflattering Fashion

I have long been confounded by the staying power of genuinely unflattering fashion.  Inverted box pleats over the belly, shag mullet cuts, poorly-conceived hem altitudes of all sorts, or WAIST BANDS ON BLOUSES (seriously, stop this right now - along with sublimation prints and gladiators).  Why do these things become popular - and how is it some things stay popular?  Sagging, boys:  twenty years now, and counting - when's this finally going to (you should pardon the pun) become un-hip?

Listening to NPR on the way home, a stray sentence that "this happens in fashion" in this story got me thinking - repetition not only takes us out of objective reality (where flattering fashion is clearly definable), but can inure us over time to things that initially we dislike.  When everyone's wearing a bouffant and dead-lipstick, we stop seeing how ageing the look is.  When the Macarena is everywhere, even hating it becomes a habit rather than a fresh sensation.  Music becomes a part of us, and we welcome its associations, the way it removed us from standard time once before, or the way it distracts us from standard time now - and clothes can do the same thing.

Growing up, I'd look at pictures of women in the 60s, and was mystified at how seriously geriatric they looked.  Loni Anderson and Farrah Fawcett were, for me, the first, most stunning example of how transformative fashion can be.  Photos of them from "before my time" (during their early, bouffant years) appeared to me strangely geriatric - and their looks a decade later, seemed to me *younger* looking by far than those early, stiff head shots.

But bouffants were repetitive, and forced their way into standard-issue fashion, though hardly anyone was the least bit better off for wearing one.  They became an accustomed repetition, like the Macarena, like political ads, like snark and extruded "food".

By our mere exposure to anything, we come to accept it, and by repetition, we come to accept it as part of the furniture.  Beloved or not, we can be inured to how ugly double-knit box pleats are on a perfectly nice figure, or what a complete pain in the behind gladiator sandals are to put on and wear, or how irritating That One Pop Song is (I won't subject you to mere exposure to that song title again ...), even as we find ourselves singing it brain-worm style for *days on end*.

Mere exposure and repetition can induce in us the magic of sacred time, as through music - but it has its negatives, and those go far beyond bad fashion.  Mere exposure to some truly awful things blunts their negativity.  But mere exposure to each other can be marvelous.

Go find a new person to expose yourself to - see if it doesn't shift ... well, someone's reality!