Friday, May 30, 2008

My manuscript likes carrots!

There's a catchphrase on my primary internet community: "Bob likes carrots." It refers to how people in the besotted stage of a new relationship find a way to make EVERYTHING all about the beloved. So, if you're over the moon for your boyfriend Bob, and your friends are talking about carrot salad or the carrots in their garden, you butt into the conversation with a perky, "Bob likes carrots!" (This can be adapted to any obsession, not just a boyfriend or a girlfriend. If everything comes back to Torchwood or Aubrey/Maturin or The Daily Show for you, those can like carrots, too.)

Lately I find myself acting all "Bob likes carrots" over my work-in-progress. When I started this project, I decided I wouldn't talk about the details of my alternate universe scenario or my plot until the day it sells. (Please, publishing gods, let this one be the book that sells! I love these characters and want to write the rest of their series!) It's not that I'm afraid anyone would steal my idea outright. While there's plenty of plagiarism out there, I don't think people who are capable of writing epic historical fantasy sagas want to use someone else's idea--they have plenty of their own. However, I do think that it's possible that if I talked about all the details of my story all over the internet, some other writer might read about it on a blog comment, forget about it, and later have a similar idea because my idea put it in her subconscious. Far-fetched, but it could happen.

But my biggest reason for not telling all is that I think it's such a cool idea that I don't want to sort of spoil it by talking about it when it's incomplete and half-baked. I'd rather wait till I can say, "I'm writing about X, and the first book comes out in July 2011," or even, "My debut novel, which is about X, is now ready for preorder on Amazon!"

It's not that no one knows what I'm writing about. My critique partners know, as do a handful of other writers and friends I've asked for help and advice. My husband has been in on it since the beginning. Still, it's driving me crazy not to be able to talk about it everywhere. So my poor critique partners, especially The Other Susan, get an earful because they're the only ones who know all the details. And everyone else gets hints. "Bob likes carrots" hints. I will take any opportunity short of giving away the whole game to talk about my characters and their adventures. I caught myself babbling at my boss earlier this week about how some book she had in her office reminded me of my protagonist, and how he's just the coolest ever...and that's when I realized I'd turned into a Bob Likes Carrots writer.

I hope I haven't been boring everyone in earshot/blogshot to distraction. And I hope this book sells so I can talk about it properly.

The Prehistory of Sex (Book #52)

The Prehistory of Sex (Timothy Taylor, 1997) examines such evidence as we have for human sexuality from actual prehistory through the early stages of recorded history. Taylor debunks, or at least shows how scanty the evidence is, for a lot of popular myths--e.g. the idea that hunter-gatherers and early farmers lived in peaceful, egalitarian societies that worshiped a Great Mother Goddess. However, he too speculates detailed scenarios based on a skimpy handful of artifacts, so the main thing I got from the book is how impossible it is to ever really know how our remote ancestors managed gender roles, what they thought of homosexuality, etc.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Great Warming (Book #51)

The Medieval Warm Period (~800-1300) isn't quite as well known as the Little Ice Age that immediately followed it (~1300-1850). But those who have heard of it typically view it from the European perspective as a Good Thing--a time of prosperity and population growth fed by bountiful crops. Beautiful cathedrals sprang up across the continent, wine grapes grew in England, and the Vikings settled Iceland and Greenland and explored the edges of North America.

The Great Warming (Brian Fagan, 2008) presents the European idyll (though not without reminding us that peasants still lived on the edge), but then goes on to prove that warmer temperatures were bad for almost everyone else, because for much of the world, more warmth means more drought. The Classical Maya and the Anasazi cultures both collapsed during this period, and many areas of Asia suffered famine, just to name a few examples. It got a little repetitive, but it's a sobering reminder that we have more to fear from global warming than a few feet of rising sea level.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sovereign Ladies (Book #50)

Over the past five centuries, England has as often as not had a queen rather than a king as head of state, thanks especially to the long reigns of both Elizabeths and Victoria. Sovereign Ladies: Sex, Sacrifice and Power--the Six Reigning Queens of England (Maureen Waller, 2007) traces their lives, along with Mary Tudor and Mary and Anne Stuart. Space doesn't allow Waller to go into great detail about any of her subjects, and she isn't completely linear, but since the only one of the queens I'd studied in any depth was Elizabeth I, I still found it readable and informative. And it certainly illustrates the gradual, inexorable loss of royal power as England transitioned from a near-absolute monarchy to a democracy with a royal figurehead.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Feasting on Asphalt (Book #49)

I'm a big fan of Alton Brown, and I've enjoyed the vicarious travel experience of watching both series of Feasting on Asphalt. He really needs to do both coasts soon, but I digress.

The second series has a companion book, Feasting on Asphalt: The River Run (Alton Brown, 2008). It's a combination travelogue and cookbook, and I want to visit most of the barbecue places and try some of the recipes (though most of them are far too labor-intensive for everyday use).

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Terror Dream (Book #48)

The Terror Dream (Susan Faludi, 2007) takes the sort of disconnect I and many of my friends felt about America's response to 9/11 and weaves a cultural study around it, tying the stories we told ourselves about 9/11 to earlier national myths created for the frontier. I don't completely buy that the frontier/Indian captivity narratives she brings up are so uniquely American. What I've read of 18th and 19th century British tales of cross-cultural interaction and gender relations strikes the exact same tone. But the longer section about life in post-9/11 America--with special focus on the mythic role of firefighters, the athletic men on Flight 93 (funny how we don't remember the names of the flight attendants who boiled water to use as a weapon against the hijackers like we do Beamer, Bingham, Glick, etc.), pregnant 9/11 widows, and Jessica Lynch--struck me as truth-packed. The nation felt powerless and rudderless, so it dug back into old cultural myths and pulled out some of the more sexist and simplistic ones to try to make sense of the world. Really, WHY did Jessica Lynch get portrayed as a cute, vulnerable little girl who somehow accidentally stumbled into the army rather than as a woman, a rational human being, who chose to serve her country? And WHY don't we honor those flight attendants with their boiling water or the female EMT's who died trying to rescue people at the WTC?

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Crossposted pretty much everywhere I talk writing because I'm feeling so gloaty...

Guess who just reached 300 pages on her WIP? ME, that's who!

That's 300 pages in Courier New, because I like the old-school typewriter look of the font. Makes me feel part of the great continuum of storytellers extending back in time, somehow. Actually, I'm at 302 pages, 66,875 words by MS Word's counter, to be exact.

I'm shooting for a 500 page draft, give or take, something between 100K and 125K for a word count. (One of the reasons I'm happy to be writing historical fantasy instead of romance is that writing short doesn't come naturally to me, and AFAICT you're actually allowed to go over 100K!) know, the end is in sight. Finally. I've got some thorny plot hurdles to overcome still, but I do know where I'm going. I just have to figure out how to get there. I can do that. The hope is to have the rough draft finished by August 15, which should be doable. Then maybe a week off, and a month or so of hardcore editing to try to whip this thing into marketable shape.

And then, unless my agent asks for major revisions...I may actually have a book on editors' desks seeking its fortune by the end of 2008! Woo! I'm so ready to get my work back in the market!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Private Arrangements (Book #47)

I've tried to read any number of books the past few years that are billed as the hottest, the freshest new voice in historical romance. Unlike many such books, Private Arrangements (Sherry Thomas, 2008) lives up to the hype. It's not a perfect book, but it's well-written, with characters and a setting that feel three-dimensional. (And for those of you who are tired of nothing but Regencies, this one is set in the 1890's.) To my especial delight, the hero and heroine aren't straight from Central Casting. The heroine, in particular, is delightfully ruthless and practical, not your usual romance saint.

American Creation (Book #46)

American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (Joseph Ellis, 2007) is a series of snapshots of events from the first quarter century or so of the American experience--from the time the Revolution became irrevocable through the Louisiana Purchase. It's thought-provoking and well-written, and I think I'll seek out Ellis's other work.

A Soldier's Wife (Book #45)

Here's a story for you: A little over 200 years ago, a beautiful young lady, petite and vivacious, the toast of her society, falls in love with a coltishly handsome young officer, and he with her. They seem well-matched, sharing a love for music and reading in addition to the more basic attractions of youth and good looks. But when our hero asks for permission to marry his love, her family turns him down. Though his family is as noble as hers, they're in dire financial straits and have a bad reputation, and he's a younger son with no prospects of inheriting a fortune and no accomplishments to suggest he's capable of earning one for himself.

Chastened and stung by this rejection, our hero goes off and devotes himself to his military career. He succeeds brilliantly, showing himself possessed of exceptional courage, intelligence, and integrity. He makes a name for himself, wins a fortune, and comes home a find that the sweetheart of his youth is still unwed and hasn't forgotten him. And so they marry.

All of which sounds lovely and romantic--remarkably similar to Persuasion, in fact. Only this is Persuasion done as domestic tragedy. Because by the time our hero and heroine marry, they haven't had any direct contact with each other for a decade (her family having forbidden them to correspond), and ten years changes people. Our hero isn't the cheerful, playful boy he once was--he's driven and hard-driving, devoted to duty and country above personal ties, a meticulous perfectionist who's impatient with the failings of others. Our heroine, in the meantime, has lost much of her youthful confidence, which isn't too surprising--being a single 30-something woman 200 years ago didn't exactly build one's self-esteem. And while she's far from stupid, she can't match her new husband's experience of the world, nor his ruthless, practical intelligence. Their marriage gets off to a bad start and never recovers.

The hero and heroine of this little tragedy are Arthur Wellesley and Kitty Pakenham, the first Duke and Duchess of Wellington, and A Soldier's Wife: Wellington's Marriage (Joan Wilson, 1987) tells their story. Reading it saddened me, which sounds silly--why should I care that two long-dead aristocrats had a bad marriage? But they're so human and sympathetic when you plunge into their lives, reading their letters and her diaries. They were both good people, and it's so easy to imagine them each happily married to someone else. I'm sure it's the author in me, but I wanted to wade into the book and save them from themselves and each other! For what it's worth, I hold him more to blame than her simply because as the man (and, for that matter, as the National Hero), he was the one with power and agency. If he'd been more merciful, more understanding, more forgiving, she would've met him more than halfway. But I came out of this book liking both of them, and that's the problem! I want to give them Happily Ever Afters, dang it! Silly unalterable timeline, messing with my desire to fix the past...

(Which gives a hint of why I'm writing an alternative history. I can't stop wanting to fix the past, and at least in my books I can pretend to. Of course, my WIP is on a grander scale, with the fates of nations at stake--but maybe I can fix/prevent some bad marriages along the way!)

Anyway, I'd recommend this book even to Regency readers and writers who don't share my Wellington mania because there's such a wealth of detail about the everyday life of the British (and especially Anglo-Irish) aristocracy from 1790-1815. There are shopping lists, dinner menus, accounts of parties, details of nursery furnishings for a new baby--"Mahogany Crib-bedstead, pillars to screw out...and enclosed with mahogany sides and best brass socket casters...a set of dimity curtains, two fine blankets, a marella quilt and two mattresses of the best curled hair." (I have no idea what material/design "marella" is. Anyone? And is "best curled hair" human hair? If so, ewww!)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Going dark for a few days

I'll be mostly offline this afternoon through Tuesday evening visiting family in California. I hope I'll be able to check my email once or twice a day from my brother's house, but I won't have time for blogging until my return.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Another drabble...

As I mentioned back in this February post, I'm part of an online community that does a weekly writing challenge called a "drabble." One member posts a topic, anyone inspired by it can then post 100 words, more or less.

This week's topic is "two people in a dark room." I'm playing around with a potential romance arc for one of the characters in my WIP, so I decided to go for the most obvious interpretation:

“Ahh, Rebecca...”

She loves her name in his accent.

Sam always called her Becky--Sam who was alive this morning. Tomorrow she’ll despise herself, but she cannot bear to weep alone when she can assuage her grief in this man’s arms.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

He goes absolutely still. “Don’t do know who I am?”

“I mean your Christian name--no one ever uses it, and I’ve forgotten. I cannot call you ‘General’ here!”

Amusement ripples through him. “You could.

“You’d like that!” she accuses.

He laughs and tells her his name. But she wishes she hadn’t spoken, because this isn’t only grief now--it’s this man, and this moment, and knowing she’s wanted this since the day she met him.

I wrote that a few days ago off-the-cuff with very little editing. I trimmed for length, since my original take was well over 150 words, but that was it. Looking back now, I wish I'd found a different way to phrase the "assuage her grief in this man's arms" bit, because I think it's too formal/purple and detracts from the immediacy of the scene. But overall I think I did a decent job capturing something of the characters' personalities, which was my main goal. (Though it's tough for me as the one who knows these people well to judge how much of what I didn't have room to include explicitly made it through between the lines.)

I like this exercise precisely because it forces me to limit my word count. If you'd given me that theme but no length restriction, I could've gotten thousands of words out of that little scene, believe me. And if I do decide to pair these characters up and this particular interlude happens, I will describe it at greater length. But drabbles are still a healthy reminder that you can make a few words go a long way!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Blundering to Glory (Book #44)

Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns (Owen Connelly, 1987) is a concise but rich history of Napoleon as a commander. Connelly portrays Napoleon as a master improviser--a "scrambler"--whose genius was an ability to adjust on the fly when battles didn't go according to his original plan (which they almost never did).

Connelly contends in his conclusion that Napoleon was the greatest commander of all time, but as much as I enjoyed and learned from this book, I'm still not convinced that he was even the best commander born in 1769. (As I'm sure will surprise none of the ten people who read my blog, I'm a bit of a Wellington partisan.) I think what kept Napoleon on top so long was that no other country had subordinate generals who could compare to the marshals of the Empire. I swear half his great victories would've been defeats without Davout, or Massena, or Murat. And when you look at the diverse background of the marshals, it just goes to show how much everyone but France was limiting themselves by only allowing aristocrats to command. I mean, England was damn lucky that the military genius that was Wellington happened to be born in the body of a younger son of an earl. If his father had been a shopkeeper (like Massena's) or an innkeeper (like Murat's) he would've been lucky to be more than a sergeant in the British army.

But I digress. If you're looking for a good summary of Napoleon's generalship that's neither too technical nor too simplistic, this is an excellent choice.