Sunday, February 7, 2016


A Few Random Thoughts has such great "today in history" moments and birthdays - today, presenting February 7 for the better part of 1000 years! (He did miss one author, Laura Ingalls Wilder was also born on this date.)

The Arrant Pedant has TWO new posts up ... one on the usage of "ic/ical" adjectives (do I actually write historic fiction ... ?) ... and one on a former habit of my own up with which I no longer put, which leads to such tortured phrases as "caller, what is your name and from where are you calling?" and (apparently!) "a love for which is worth killing." Eyagh!

Laura Wilkinson has a guest post at Tom Williams' blog this week, looking at costume and character, and the very great importance of shoes.

"I'm always saying" and other pitfalls in ANY kind of research - as reflected in the study of costume history. A really great post from Lauren at American Duchess, once again including wonderful photos that are also instructive.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dense, or Encompassing?

The work in progress has begun to insist to me that I have to work on a riot in which the citizens of my main setting burn down the synagogues.

Growing up, most of my closest friends were Jewish. My oldest friend, TEO The Elfin One, is not merely Jewish, but a teacher - a rabbi - as is her husband. I have known *about* anti-semitism all my life. But I have never KNOWN it.

To face this aspect of historical fiction, to know it must be a part of my own work, is not exactly difficult for me, but it is of course distasteful.

I've blogged before about how much I dislike writing battle scenes.

But writing what is, essentially, one of the earliest pogroms in what isn't even "Christendom" at this period ...


And it's not merely the content that daunts me, it is the wider prospect of the scene, as a part of its world.

Mr. X and I were emailing yesterday, and he was (as he has always been) one of my favorite readers, all "ooh and ahh" that I wrote the atheism post in like 15 minutes (I had been thinking about it for a day - if not, in some form, for months or years beforehand), and discussing the WIP and generally being that guy and that brain who ruined me for all the other guys' brains, and he said that this scene was going to be dense stuff.

And I thought about that.

And I realized that, if it were dense, it might almost be easier. Something that is dense is, perhaps, also self-contained. It has a shape, and boundaries ...

And this scene is encompassing, instead.

I need to contextualize this scene, this moment, this city of Ravenna in the year 519. It needs to be clear to see, in its place within Theodoric the Great's rule, and alongside Italy itself in this period ... when an old king has taken it on as his kingdom - and has no heir. It needs to have a view to Constantinople, which was becoming the new Rome, and where the Nika Riots would follow soon enough. It needs to find its place and focus in the larger picture of what people will insist upon calling the "Fall" of the Roman empire - and its connection to the imperial structures of Rome and of Constantinople, and also the so-called "Barbarian" cultures flourishing just to the north and west of Ravenna.

I need, too, to see the finer grain - to set this moment in the lives of my characters, and the marshy port city they occupied, to understand the weather and the moment and "why here"/"why now" ... The divisions between the minority Ostrogoths and the diversity of this place - the very scent of the wind, and the heat of the day ...

It's scary stuff. And not least because it is a riot, a racist mob setting fire to houses of worship.

And then comes the question.

How do I set this in the picture of the world I live in, myself?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

"Not In Front of My Students!"

It would mean a great deal to me if anyone who reads this blog would read this account of a terrifying moment at the Iowa caucuses this week. This piece is not about politics, it's not about the candidates. It is, purely and urgently, about fear. And fear has its place at this blog. And I want people to understand why that is.

Why it must be.

And also to see the other thread ... which is perhaps the most perfect testimony of what it means to be a teacher that I have ever read.

The affirmation. The shining, life-affirming reasons for gratitude.

Necessary Art

It has become necessary for me, sometimes, to go visit Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli's paintings. Sometimes, I just need to sit and regard her light.

And then the day can move along.

Breathe. Smile. Peace.


Flash! AAAAA-aaaaaahhh!

This is not generally a forum for my actual fiction, but today I felt like doing a writing exercise. Assigning to myself 200 words, I took on this challenge:

(I do #16 all the time - Write a story that’s happened to someone else, but write it as if it happened to you - when Mr. X and I write to each other about days we'd like to spend together, we often do it from each other's perspective. It's a GREAT one. ... Come to think of it, really any fiction writer does this all the time. Duh.)

23. Write a story that contains at least three of these elements: body lice, gasoline, a Hostess product, a childhood hero, an outdated slang expression, a song title or your favorite flavor.

Please don't hesitate to use the comments to do your own exercise from the 30 suggested prompts! (Colin ...)

Two dollars at a time.

Buying gas for The Tank two dollars at a time wouldn't get you far, but it'd get you through a day - and borrowing the car from mom and dad was a day-at-a-time proposition.

She stood there, March wind ruffling her hair, sun hiding behind a small but thick cloud here and there, and not knowing where to go. Less than two dollars worth, that's all she knew.

Where would the most cute guys be, within two dollars ... ?

Sub shop. No, not the sub shop. She was tired of that guy, and there was never a new one to scam on. Mall. Hit or miss - there were always her friends, there was always Johnny - but that was good ole boys and hoods, and girls she never had a word to say to. But sometimes.

She peered across the wide valley from the gas station to just past the middle school, and squinted while the wind pushed her hair in her eyes.

There really weren't any options. She pulled into the echoing basement of the parking garage, pulled out the key smack in the middle of Ashes to Ashes, and went in.

Image: Wikipedia
1975 Plymouth Gran Fury Custom Suburban station wagon

If anyone thinks this should be a contest, let me know what might make a good incentive ... winner would be chosen by popular vote ...

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


This morning, in a discussion at Janet Reid's blog, Donna Everhart pointed to a post at Rachelle Gardner's blog, which got me poking around there, and I found an exercise I'd love to try with Kristi and Leila in a few weeks. We're planning a writing mini-retreat, a few hours of time just to parallel play, undistracted except for the helpful tips of Gossamer the Editor Cat and Penelope the Publishing Pup and perhaps some tea and coffee, then spending a little time sharing or working out a snag or whatever comes up while we're writing.

Some know, but I have not blogged about it much, that my WIP was actually conceived very early in the writing stages of The Ax and the Vase.

In no way a sequel (and thank Maud, given that Ax has been put on hiatus), the WIP is about a relation of Clovis I. It takes place in a different world, and centers on a wider cast, and a diverse one. But I found the inspiration early in the going with Ax ... and so the WIP has been around for many years.

For a long time, I might pop over from my "real" work to this WIP, an unformed plan/idea resolutely left on a backburner, but I refused all temptation to hop after it and let it become an actual Plot Bunny. I would plug in research that did not fit in with Ax, but not allow myself to *work* on it in earnest.

And then work began in earnest, this past spring.

In short: the WIP has been with me for a long, long time.

And it has never had a title.

It took years for me to realize The Ax and the Vase kind of had to have that title. When it came to me, I felt almost like a moron, because, DUH, that had to be it. I was open to being told it could not survive, but I was also really skeptical anything else would work so well.

I want to have that "duh" moment now, for the WIP.

Poor thing, it deserves a title. It has been my focus now for long enough, calling it "WIP" seems dismissive at this point.

Also, I am excited to get together with Kristi and Leila.

Monday, February 1, 2016


There are times it frustrates me when people say they are atheists because of what people have done in the name of religion. PEOPLE do dunderheaded things in the name of all sorts of things, and though religion does have extreme examples, there are also extreme idiots (Richard Dawkins) screaming passionately about their atheism. He's as dangerous as any other zealot; and that is the issue: zealotry in human hands is the problem. Not G-d.

To withdraw belief in G-d because of human behavior honestly bewilders me.

It's like me and not having kids.

I never had children because I never experienced the bone-deep desire - the *urge* (so named because of its *urgency*)  to have a child.

This seems to me the very best of reasons never to have them. There have been other thoughts on the matter that have been a part of my life, but at bottom it's the simple absence of need to procreate or adopt, to be a parent, that has been ultimately responsible.

So I can see, very easily, the absence of need for G-d ... and for faith.

But many of the atheists I know once HAD faith - and lost it, because of other people. They experienced disillusionment and shame in religion, because of the jerks who espouse it (whether their own or not) and decided against G-d, because of man.

I suppose this is overwhelmingly arrogant: but this bewilders me.

Anything hideous ever done in the name of religion came about by the hands, and the tongues, of human beings.

Religion is a tool. It can be a poor tool, misused, No doubt about it. So can science and history; my blog is filled with examples of the wrongheaded invocation of history, the way we think it's some sort of plotline leading ever-onward to betterment, and how that must mean humanity now is the best humanity history has ever seen, because: history equals evolution.

Which: no.

So I ABSOLUTELY concur, that there are a hell of a lot of people out there blunting their blades, hammering with a tool meant to cut through confusion, or mistaking the philosophy and questioning of faith for final, firm truth.

But the idea that we then throw out all the tools, instead of sharpening or learning how to use them (for those interested in what those tools have wrought, or could) ...

Isn't that the very last word in Luddite behavior? "It's of no use to me and it scares me, so HULK SMASH!" ... ?

Again: yes. The tools of religion have hurt many people. So have the tools that created the thing we call culture, or advancement. Innovation requires tools.

For me, it is an innovation of the highest order to grow spiritually.

I tried to do that without tools, without a congregation, without inspiration. I ended up making up a lot of religious tools for myself. Offerings, prayers, little personal rituals.

And it got me to a point where I felt I wasn't really that good an innovator, and I needed the help of something outside my own wee and paltry brain.

I reached for religion. My church.

There I found the literally-angelic voice that perhaps inspired me most, but I also found Miss B., with whom I sat at yesterday's services. She was the first who ever welcomed me in the congregation, and she is the very, joyous definition of Christian fellowship. Not because we sit around quoting bible verses at one another. But because she saw me alone as a guest, and made me a member, as fully and as lovingly as education and confirmation and that bishop who laid hands on my head.

Religion, for me - as filled with ritual and script as my church is - is far less about dogma, and so much about communion: the communion of souls. Of just nice PEOPLE. Of congregation. Coming together, and sharing the sunshine yesterday. That is a religious act as profound as the eating of an intincted wafer.

I may still not be the craftsman, with my tools, that (oh, say) Jesus, who was a carpenter, was. But I am part of a team now, a crew, a congregation. Of people I honestly do love, though I spend little time with them of late. And appreciate and respect.

I found the phrase, "Okay, we're past the angelic robes and the beard and the penis, and we're onto something BIGGER!" one day over lunch ...

Faith and hope and growing spiritually? Yes, go big.

Why try for faith, without exultation?

What else is faith for but to bring us together as human beings, and what else, at bottom, does ANY religion foster? Even those religions we condemn as perverted - geared toward exclusion as much as inclusion - geared toward WINNING, and punishment of sin - still require one heart and mind to link to another, and another.

We're only human. We don't always do that well. We don't do it well in business or in study, in reaching goals or explaining them. It's not religion's fault.

And human behavior is human behavior - and flawed, as often as it is beautiful - in the pursuit of whatever it is we do to connect ourselves to others.

An ass in a choir robe is just as much of an ass once the robe is doffed and hymns are suddenly to blame for all that is wrong in the world. The robe didn't sin, neither (perhaps) did the hymn. They were there before disillusionment, and they'll be there after.

If I am a poor painter, I don't blame the brush; not even the paint. It lies within me to learn, or not. Perhaps it lies within me to know I'm a better writer than I am an artist.

But it's not the tools' fault, if I don't sell paintings for stunning pricetags.

Dreams're Weird

Does this ever happen to you?

You dream so much, and so oddly - perhaps, or perhaps not waking UP with each fresh Hell as your brain presents them - that it ends up being such a bad night's sleep it feels like you didn't sleep at all?

Image: Wikipedia
By Gut Monk

Stupid brain, going around making up weird stories. Where'd it ever pick up a habit like THAT!?

Friday, January 29, 2016


My eldest niece's eighteenth birthday is upon us.

On the afternoon she was born, I was on my way into a job interview. I knew my sister-in-law had gone into labor, and called my mom from a pay phone to find out I was an aunt for the first time. I recall the day (accurately or not) as windy and bright, one of those blustery but not very cold winter days that can make your chest swell - and, if you have happy family news, can also make you turn up the radio in the car and drive with a smile on your face.

Instead of getting into my car, I got into the building, and ended up taking a job that was, on its face, the worst I ever had ... but which changed my life in a lot of very, very, very good ways. I'm grateful for that job. And I'm grateful for the photo I still keep on my desk at work now, of my infant niece, on her tum and lifting her face up, mouth full of little wet tongue, looking incredibly cute and incredibly funny.

That pic got me through that job. She'll never know how important she was, before she could even talk; her mere existence had the power to create joy in the hideous slog that was That Damned Job.

I'd been working at one of those big insurance agencies that sells itself as a financial planning outfit, assistant to some of the larger producers (agents) there, and custodian of the newsletter, orphan clients, and (bizarrely enough, for a luddite) the second-string IT go-to. It was a good job, and I worked with one of the best managers I've ever seen; she spotted what people were good at and what they liked to do, and did whatever she could to balance their duties upon these things.

At some point along that way, I impressed one of our clients, a guy we'll call Rick, and one day he sent me a note or gave me a call and dangled the old "I have a super high paying job of the sort you are in, know anyone who might be interested?"

I was pretty naive back then, but not entirely obtuse, and I thought, "Huh, that sounds like he might be asking me." I talked to my dad, he said, "Yep, you're being thrown a feeler there." I interviewed with the guy at a restaurant around the corner from my job, and we went from there.

When I walked in the door on my first day, I learned that Rick's current assistant had not been fired, and I was expected to lie about whom I worked for (another president, a new guy, whom indeed I was to support in addition to Rick). Um.

I also learned I was the fourth assistant in this position this CALENDAR year. I started that job in May, having begun these proceedings in, as has been noted, January.


When September came, and I was fired for not working enough overtime on the morning the CEO sent all the admins flowers because we'd stayed very, very late the night before, I have to say I all but danced out of the building as the daily stock prices posted on the front door went plummeting, and the company made headlines in the Wall Street Journal for all the very worst of reasons. The CEO, I was given to understand, sighed and rolled his eyes when he found out I had been terminated.

Nice attention to exposure to lawsuits, dude. But I didn't sue, I used their computers to look for a new job, as they had given me permission to do so, and got one I ended up loving, with a man I respect and still like to this day. Rick, whatever else he did that was risible and idiotic, had put me on a financial footing that commanded a much better fee in what was an employee's market.

I have a lot to be grateful for, from the worst job I ever had.

But the thing I remember most about it is: my niece. Whose nativity coincided with this sudden uplift in my career, and whose face got me through the trials it represented.

The improvement in my circumstances is tied oddly, but tightly, to her existence. When she was born, so was my own ambition, my professional drive and talent: my career, as it came to exist in real earnest.

I miss my nieces so much. They astonish me constantly, and seeing the older one this past summer was a revelation in: "Wow, she is NOT a little girl anymore." They are brilliant in such unexpected and distinct ways, and yet there is the constant temptation to see in them the threads of our family. Complete individuals, and scintillating ones, still they are shot through with this skein or that of recognizeable traits of my mom's and my dad's side of *our* side of their family.

Being an auntie and not a parent, I get to indulge in silly old lady surprise at how they've grown, how smart they are, how beautiful, how talented, all the "oh my how you've"'s privileges silly auntie-dom confers. Meeting elder niece's boyfriend this past summer, he was marvelously forbearing of my making a point of liking him.

Seeing HER, and the shape of the woman she is becoming, she was at least tolerant of those silly auntie privileges. At seventeen, you can't ask for enthusiasm from a lot of people, but she put up with me almost as if I were actually tolerable. And we laughed. There was a lot of laughter, with all of us, this past summer. And good food. Her dad's a mean cook, no matter how bratty a brother he was in a former lifetime.

I have a fire laid in my hearth, set up during the blizzard, and I have a mind to celebrate my niece's birthday by burning it. We sat around my brother's fire pit this summer, and there is both a beauty and a rite to a good fire that seems right as a small remembrance of my niece's celebration.

Of course, it's supposed to be like sixty-plus this weekend ...

... but maybe it'll cool down enough to accommodate a good fire.

Learning to Fly

The First Love and I were talking about how hard it is to find someone, and it brought to mind Douglas Adams' lessons on how to fly ...

All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it's going to hurt.

(The link, by the way, is eminently worth the click for the brief but full text.)

It's all very funny, of course, but there is an extremely bittersweet and painful truth in it: you can't get what you want most by concentrating on it to the exclusion of all else; and yet, distracting yourself from what you want most is almost impossible.

Almost impossible.

But that means ... it's still possible.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

KD James and Donna Everhart

KD James is a fellow Reider, and in a fit of clicking on other community members' names today, I found this post about a wonderful birthday gift. This is so worth a click and a grin, if only to read the things she photographed to share with the post itself, but I highly recommend reading the post too. Great gifts are enough to restore your faith in humanity. And happy VERY late birthday, KDJ!!

Also, apropos of my Reider friends - I am still crooked-smiling that Donna Everhart told me my writing voice is very Cormac McCarthy-ish, and then told the whole gang over at Janet's blog today.

Is Quantification Worse Than Objectification?

I have decided not to devote a whole big post to the article that had me so disturbed last night. I'll just leave it with a few quotes from the article ...

“(T)he thrill of quantification merging with the thrill of the chase” …

“The systematic, quantified pursuit of women tends to make men bitter and resentful.” …

You know,’ his grandmother told him, ‘we’re women too.’” …

“I didn’t even know this sphere existed in humanity.

And just to cleanse the palate of THAT human sadness, please enjoy this image, which Google says is labeled for re-use, so I am stealing it based on the plausible deniability that I trust Google's rulings on usage rights ...