Beth Deitchman

Reader, Writer, Wannabe Slayer

Voting Your Conscience

When I was a graduate student in the late 1990s I took a seminar about postcolonial literature and theory. We spent a lot of time discussing how colonizers oppressed those they conquered by taking away their ability to understand and make meaning in the world by, for example, making it illegal to teach or speak their native languages. The term we bandied about for this and other similar processes is epistemic violence. It is a brutal, devastating tactic that worked. Imagine one day not being able to find your way around your city because all the street names had been changed and all the informational signs were written in a language you didn’t know. Imagine the sense of dislocation, of fear, of confusion.

I found those discussions fascinating. But I remember one afternoon looking around at the mostly white faces in the room and thinking about how sterile the discussion was. There we were, eager graduate students, sipping our tea or coffee from travel mugs, talking with great passion about our assigned reading in the safety and comfort of an air-conditioned seminar room. So I asked why we weren’t talking about the physical violence—the raping, mutilating, and murdering—perpetuated by colonizers. Why weren’t we talking about bodies? I don’t actually remember the answer. I’m sure we did talk a little bit about the physical violence, but then we retreated from the blood and gore and stickiness to the clean, pure realm of theory.

I’ve been thinking about that particular day a lot lately because I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so bothered by my friends who insist that they are voting for Jill Stein (or Gary Johnson) because they have to vote their conscience or their principles. I admit that I don’t know many people who are so angry with the major parties that they are choosing to vote Green or Libertarian. But the ones I do know often include the caveat that they “have the luxury of voting their principles because they live in [insert solidly blue state] here.” I saw something like this posted by a complete stranger on Twitter just last night. He was arguing with an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter and then tweeted that because he lived in California he had the “freedom to vote [his] principles and would probably write in Bernie.” I asked him if he would still write in Bernie if he lived in a red or swing state. So far he hasn’t replied. If he says no, I’ll know that he understands more than he lets on about what is at stake for millions of people in this country. If he says yes, then I’ll wonder how he can privilege his principles (which are by definition abstractions) over the actual safety of millions of other Americans not so lucky to be born a white guy. But when challenged about this privilege, so many of the people complaining that Hillary is just as bad as Trump (a mind-bogglingly infuriating statement by itself) say that they refuse to let FEAR dictate their votes. Of course they won’t. They have nothing to be afraid of.

So these same voters can fantasize about how a Trump presidency might be good for America. Like a controlled burn in a forest. Burn down the old establishment! Then a new one can rise like a phoenix! But think about what this means for the Americans who do not have the luxury to indulge in that fantasy. Think about the Americans whose hard-won rights will begin to evaporate. Think about their actual lives, their actual bodies. Think about what it is like for a Black man to drive in states where the police force has demonstrated a willingness to support officers who kill them. What does it feel like in that man’s body when he sees a flashing light behind his car? What does it feel like to be shoved onto the ground with a gun in your back? What does it feel like for a bullet to enter your chest? What does it feel like to die on the street? What does it feel like to be that man’s wife or child? Think about the young Black man walking down the street who is subjected to searches because a cop thinks he looks suspicious. What does it feel like to have some stranger’s hands patting you down when you’ve done nothing at all wrong? What does it feel like to be afraid of cops?

Think about the immigrant whom Trump wants to round up and deport. What is it like to be pulled from your home? To be sent back to a country you fled? What does it feel like to be separated from your family? What does it feel like to be denied entrance to this country because you are Muslim?

And think about the woman who, if Trump gets his way, may be forced to carry a baby to full term no matter the consequences to her health or the cause of the pregnancy. Do you know what pregnancy is like? Do you know what giving birth is like? Think about it. Imagine the pain. The blood. Imagine someone you love being forced to go through that. Then imagine what might happen to the actual child. Will she be adopted by loving parents? Will she end up in foster care? What will her life be like? What might happen to a woman who gets an abortion? Will she go to jail? What happens to bodies in jail? What happens if she gets an infection from the illegal abortion? What happens to her body?

What happens to the body of a teenager harassed because he is gay? What does it feel like to be told that you are an abomination? What does it feel like to be denied a marriage license because some clerk objects to your right to get married?

These are only a fraction of the questions I could ask about many different Americans’ lives. If you find them uncomfortable it is because they are meant to be. It’s easy to retreat to the safety of abstractions. That’s why I find my friends’ conviction so disappointing. That’s why I find their desire for more ideological purity in their candidates so frustrating. They are privileging their fantasy—because what else could the notion of an ideologically pure candidate be—over the reality of millions of Americans’ lives with nothing at all at stake for themselves. I don’t know how anyone’s conscience could allow that.

p.s. The Hillary supporter replied to Mr. Principles with “Vote Garfield.”

Emily June Street Blog Tour!

When my Luminous Sister Emily and I started writing together in 2012, she sent me several chapters from a beautiful fantasy novel that takes place in a world called Lethemia. Her poetic language hooked me immediately. The intricately imagined details of the story’s world—its fashion, magic systems, cultures, and languages—fascinated me. The epic story enchanted me so much that after three years and several revisions, I still love to read it. Now that story is finally available for everyone to read and to love! Luminous Creatures Press released The Gantean, Tales of Blood and Light Book One yesterday. To celebrate, I’ve invited Emily to answer some questions on my blog. She covers a lot, including how her writing process works, how she developed her love for editing, and the trouble with the STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER. Enjoy!

You’ve been working on this series—especially book one—for a long time. What has surprised you over the course of writing / revising / editing the books?

Mainly I’m surprised that I’ve kept at this particular story for as long as I have. I still don’t entirely know why I’ve spent so long on it—I have suspicions, but it’s also just another story among many I want to write, yet for some reason I’ve trained my determination on it for decades. So many times I read it and thought—this just isn’t working. Or: I clearly have no idea what I’m doing. Even so, I’d start over again and try to make it work.

One reason I’ve invested so much energy in a story that was so difficult is that I’ve written other books in the series, and I want to make the whole series happen. This first book is an essential piece of that puzzle. All the Lethemia books have been difficult, and all for the same reason: they flowed directly out of my unconscious without any structural planning. I’ve never been able to sit down and plot a Lethemia book at the macro-level. They are character-driven and complex. For many years, I also never had what I would call “a point” for The Gantean. I only knew I wanted to write it, and the reason I wanted to write it was because I wanted it to exist.

My revising process lacked focus for a long time. I didn’t know what this book had to say on a global, abstract level, and I didn’t like not having that as a touchstone. I figured out at least part of why the story was important to me about a year ago after some beta readers were making complaints about my main character, Leila, being too passive and wanting her to be a stronger, more hero-like heroine. When I first begin writing TG, I was a twelve-year-old girl, a weird mix of tomboy and ballerina. The fantasy stories I loved—Arthurian legends, Lord of the Rings—generally had heroes, not heroines, and if they did have heroines—or female characters of any note—they fell into three categories: 1) love interests, 2) slightly annoying secondary characters, or, a bit later, 3) STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS trudging the hero’s path.
The twelve-year-old girl in me wanted a character who felt—perhaps as I did—both insignificant and important, able to act but afraid to do so, and—and most important, a character who adapted and accommodated instead of constantly taking charge. I still believe there is a great feminine strength in this capability, and we do a disservice to female characters in all kinds of books by forcing them to follow the hero’s path. That belief has kept me gnawing at this piece. Though it has been a difficult story, it has been important for me, personally, to explore this character, even if it meant throwing away the mold about how to write a fantasy on my very first attempt.

As I deliberated (and agonized) over comments urging me to turn my lead into a more typical active character, I realized I wanted to stay true to the girl I’d been who wanted a different heroine, who wanted to see more of her own psyche reflected in a lead character—a lead both passive and active, who rarely turns to violence to solve problems, who is introverted, quiet, shy, and strong all at once. A lead who questions who she is, what she stands for, and never entirely knows. A lead with a fluid, watery identity. A lead who sees the value in adapting rather than struggling.
I guess I’m surprised by how steadfast I’ve been able to be, while making “risky” choices with The Gantean, knowing that it won’t appeal to some readers, knowing that I was wrestling tricky issues that I maybe should have avoided on my first attempt at writing a novel…

As always, the world of your books is richly detailed and thoroughly imagined. What research did you do to help you create the language, customs, architecture, belief systems and other areas that make up Lethemia and Gante?

Two things I knew right from the beginning: 1) I had a stark northern culture and 2) the element I wanted to represent in my heroine was water. Both of those are pretty standard fantasy tropes—connecting a character to an elemental power and having a “northern” cold culture pitted against a “southern” warm culture.

I wanted to do it a little differently. I didn’t want Leila to actually have an elemental power relating to magic; I wanted her to have a watery, fluid presence, a way of being in the world that was represented by water’s ability to adapt and flow and become whatever vessel held it. I see this ability to react to change fluidly as an underexplored aspect of what it means to be a “strong woman character.” It has been the condition of women for centuries to adapt—to life in their husbands’ families, to the changes brought on by politics and wars, to the cyclical fluctuations that are the essential part of female existence. This is an uncelebrated strength of women the world over, this ability to adapt and survive despite changing conditions over which they have historically had little control. I wanted to show that strength in Leila—not that she be some fantastical warrior assassin. I wanted her to be able to move like water around stone.

As far as the cultures go, one of my Pilates clients grew up in an Inuit village in Alaska, and I picked her brain about what it was like to grow up in cold, survival-intense conditions. She gave me great insights about the deep importance of community in this kind of culture—how if you get abandoned by the community, it’s essentially a death sentence; you cannot survive without the group’s support. I used this notion of interdependency to shape Gantean culture, though I took it several steps further by tying the magic into this communal way. I also took communalism to possibly negative extremes, giving the Ganteans rigid and unbending rules of how to behave and what to believe. I wanted the Ganteans to have a dark side—and this rigidity offered a starting point for that.

I researched people living in cold climates—the Inuits, the Sami, the people of the Siberian Steppes—to understand how Gantean society might survive, as well as to decide which natural resources they might use. Ultimately these details fused with my own ideas about what I needed, story-wise, to make something bizarre and (hopefully) unique. The Ganteans are certainly not meant to represent any particular culture, though I did use the Inupiat and Inuit language sounds to help guide my Gantean language—most of the Gantean words are made up, except for a few, which I loved too much not to use: tormaq, Pamiuq, The Cedna (a variation of Sedna, a female figure from Inuit mythology). I investigated the plants and animals that might survive in cold conditions and tried to make some of these species relevant to the Ganteans. I also wildly invented: snowcats (apparently no species of cat does all that well in Arctic conditions—their delicate ears freeze), Shringar fish (like sharks, but not), and arctic musk goats (I wanted to Ganteans to have access to wool, so I gave them some goats).

For the magic system, I really wanted the Ganteans and Lethemians to have different beliefs that described the same phenomena, similar to how all the cultures on earth have different beliefs that describe the same basic problems of existence: what happens after death, how the world was made, etc. So the two magic systems—Gantean and Lethemian—dovetail to hint at a universal logic of magic, while diverging to help show what the two cultures value.

Lethemia was an easier culture to shape than Gante, as it more closely resembles something common in fantasy books: a western feudal society. I gave the Lethemians a great deal of power and a great deal of magic. I also made them pleasure-loving, a more emotionally free people to contrast with Gantean starkness. They have a culture of privilege. That was fun, because I could include any extravagant or depraved thing in their world. I turned to other wealthy, powerful societies for inspirations, mostly empires of the past that commanded vast wealth and resources. There are dark realities underpinning all this luxury: the use of unpaid labor by the power classes to get work done. Lethemians own slaves and slavery helps power the economy on many levels. Nobles command nearly all the power, and the castes beneath them lead more difficult lives.

For Lethemia, I looked at lots of pictures online. Whenever I saw some detail of architecture or costume that inspired me, I collected it for future use. You can see some of these pictures on my Pinterest boards:
https://www.pinterest.com/lcpress/the-gantean/
https://www.pinterest.com/lcpress/lethemian-fashion/
https://www.pinterest.com/lcpress/lethemia-general/

Imagine that you have full creative control over the film version of The Gantean and that money is no object. You get to hire everyone:

I’m not that much of a movie or TV watcher. I try, but I usually end up opening my book halfway through. I prefer my stories in words. But everyone always wants to know the answer to this question, so I’ll try.

I picture Leila looking like a cross between Adriana Lima and Vanessa Hudgens, but could either of them pull her off as actresses? I don’t think so. So I’m going to go with Ksenia Solo, who has the right eyes and build, and is, apparently, a solid practitioner of her craft.

Costas could be Hayden Christensen, though I find him hit or miss as an actor. Max Irons would be a better choice, but either of them would need some contact lenses because Costas has noteworthy amber eyes.

Laith might be Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. He certainly has the edge, if not quite the more Arabic or Persian look I imagine. He’d be able to handle what’s coming in Laith’s story after The Gantean.

Miki would be a previously undiscovered major child talent, of course.

Tiercel might be well played by Richard Armitage.

Ghilene Entila, I just have no idea.

The Cedna could be Saoirse Ronan. She could do the acting, and her look is great (with a few modifications). She could also manage the age span that The Cedna has to go through in the series.

Angelina Jolie really is the only possible Lady Malvyna Entila. Hopefully she’ll consent without too many contractual add-ins.

Whew, I find this very difficult and would like to hand the rest of the characters over to a casting director.

Director: Someone who can handle complex fantasy without making it cheesy. Ang Lee was suggested to me.

Cinematographer: whoever did Peaky Blinders, so it’s nice and artsy.

Costumes: Sandy Powell, who did Disney’s recent “Cinderella.” She has a great sense of history and fusion.

Production Design: Patrick Tatopoulos, who did Dark City, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and 300, for that darker edge.

Locations: Gante: Iceland or Greenland. The Hinge might be Reed Flute Cave in China. I fear Lethemia would largely need to be a built set, though some parts of Ireland or New Zealand might serve for the surrounding countryside.

Thank you for your fabulous answers, Emily!

About The Gantean

The Gantean

After she is violently kidnapped from her stark existence on the cold island of Gante, Leila must learn to survive in a southern culture her native people hate. She has no choice but to adapt to a foreign new world. In this lush, intricate society, exotic temptations greet her at every turn, including a dangerous love affair with a man she never should have known. When civil war threatens, Leila is forced to choose between southern love and northern rituals.

But at what price?

Her choice may have widespread consequences even she cannot predict.

Available at Amazon!

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Emily June Street is a true Gemini: she teaches people Pilates by day and edits, writes, and formats by night (and very early morning). She is the author of three novels, The Gantean, Velo Races, and Secret Room, and her short stories have appeared in numerous publications. She likes to pretend she’s a superhero on her bike, and she has a collection of magic wands. She lives in California with her husband and her shoebox puppy, Stella.

Learn more about her writing and freelance editing, formatting, and self-publishing coaching at: https://emilyjunestreet.wordpress.com/ orhttps://luminouscreaturespress.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/EmilyJuneStreet

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emily.street.378

Liebster Award

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My sister in Luminosity, Maestra of Pilates, and Mother of Dragons, Emily June Street, tagged me to write this post. Although I’m not sure what the Liebster award is, I’m happy to play.

Here are the rules:

List eleven random facts about yourself.
Answer eleven questions posed by the tagger.
Devise eleven questions for the people you tag.

And so:

My eleven random facts:

1. Pizza is my favorite food.

2. I started keeping a diary in second grade. The entries are hilarious.

3. I first drank wine at my bat mitzvah. After singing the Kiddush, I threw back the wine, expecting it to taste like grape juice. Manischewitz does not taste like grape juice. I grimaced and said “Ewww.” Everyone laughed. So much for gravitas.

4. Fall is my favorite season. Spring second. I like the chaos of the changes.

5. I once got drunk with Judi Dench’s daughter.

6. Baby birds give me the creeps, but snakes and spiders fascinate me.

7. I prefer towns and villages to big cities. (But I hate the suburbs.)

8. I love thunder storms.

9. I have an Oscars speech ready just in case.

10. The music of the eighties makes me happy.

11. I like grammar.

And on to Emily’s questions:

1. What was your dream career when you were a kid?
Ballerina and manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I planned to wear a yellow and black tutu and yellow and black pointe shoes during games. That only lasted for a few months (after the Pirates won the World Series). Then I just wanted to be a ballerina.

2. What is one physical activity you want to do before you die?
I would like to ride a horse at a fierce gallop.

3. What is your favorite trip or vacation that you’ve ever done and why?
It’s a tie: hiking the Southwest Coastal Path in Cornwall in October of 1997 by myself and a two week trip to Tahiti in December of 2005 with my husband, Dave.

Cornwall: This was my first solo vacation. I wasn’t sure how I’d do with that much alone time, but it turns out I really like alone time. I spent every day hiking by the sea, encountering very few people along the way. I also made only one hotel reservation in St. Ives for the first two days of the trip. After that, I planned to wing it. I’m not a winger of things, but it worked out–except for a terrifying moment in a tiny village called Zennor where the hostel had closed for the season. Luckily, there were a few people in the village who let rooms to wandering travelers, so I didn’t have to sleep outside. During that trip I discovered the joys of an afternoon cream tea and that when left to my own devices, I do very well. Two good things to learn in my late twenties.

Tahiti: Pure gorgeous luxury with my favorite person on the planet.

4. Do you dance?
Every day. Usually in my kitchen.

5. Editing or drafting?
Editing. Dear God, editing. I love shaping stories, finding the perfect word, moving sentences around, fleshing out bits that seem thin–all that. The drafting. Oy. That’s a necessary evil to get me to the fun part.

6. Your favorite myth or fairy-tale and why?
The Arthurian legends. I’m having a hard time articulating why. There’s something about ancient, stony, misty, green England that appeals to me, although it is on a visceral rather than an intellectual level.

7. Where (and when) did you grow up and how do you think it shaped you?
I grew up in Evansville, Indiana in the 1970s and 1980s. We lived in a solidly middle class neighborhood near the school I attended for nine years from kindergarten to eighth grade. Farmland surrounded us–mostly corn and soybeans. Today it’s almost all gone, built over into strip malls, car dealerships, and subdivisions. I miss the huge stretches of green.

I think I have an earnestness that one might ascribe to being a Midwesterner. I’m also fascinated with mountains and the ocean since they did not form the landscape of my childhood; Southern Indiana is flat and landlocked. We had lakes and rivers, but those have visible boundaries. And don’t smell of salt.

As for growing up in the 1970s and 1980s: I remember the heart-pounding anxiety of calling a boy and hoping his mother didn’t answer the phone. I miss receiving letters, but I don’t miss busy signals. Technology still throws me a little for a loop, although that could just be part of my personality. I’m torn between appreciating the convenience of cell phones and being bothered by always being reachable. I harbor nostalgia for a simpler time, but who doesn’t?

8. You have $100 that you must spend on yourself by the end of the day. What do you buy?
A really fancy lunch and some books.

9. Pick any three objects or people to be stranded with you in a lost spaceship.
Dave, Ralphie, and a fully loaded Kindle. (Dave would also have a fully loaded Kindle and its charger in his pockets.)

10. What’s your favorite piece of music and why?
Beethoven’s Third Symphony. I love Beethoven, especially the boomy symphonies. My dad introduced me to the third symphony and we used to pretend to conduct it together. That’s a fond memory.

11. Pantser or plotter?
Pantser all the way. I never know where a story is going until I’m several drafts in.

And here are my questions for Jessica Grey, baseball aficionada and author of modern day fairy tales; Kristen Falso Capaldi, singer, songwriter, screenwriter, and all around cool lady; and Callie Armstrong, writer of hauntingly beautiful stories and bad ass Mama:

1. What was your favorite game when you were a child?

2. What is your favorite game now?

3. List five fantasy professions (besides full-time writer).

4. What is your perfect day like?

5. What is the first thing you ever wrote? Did you share it with anyone?

6. What name would you choose for yourself if you needed a new identity?

7. Where is the farthest place you have been from your home?

8. Where do you write?

9. Are you a morning person or a night owl?

10. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

11. Spike or Angel? (alternate question: Mr. Knightley or Captain Wentworth?) Feel free to answer both!

Five Hundred Words of Magic

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Emily and I just finished hosting a seven-week flash fiction contest over on the Luminous Creatures Press website. Emily gave the contest its wonderful name, The Winter of Whimsy and Wyrdness, chose all the photo prompts, and posted them each Thursday morning. She also put all the winning stories into e-book and paperback formats for our resulting collection, Five Hundred Words of Magic. My husband Dave pasted all the stories into a Word document so that Emily and I could judge blindly. Meanwhile, I got to read the stories and write a few comments about them. And I got to write a few stories of my own, inspired by the beautiful photos.

Today I proofread the collection, and I am proud to say that it is terrific! Look for it in early January, 2015.

Final week of the Winter of Whimsy and Wyrdness Flash Fiction Contest!

Today begins the final week of Luminous Creatures Press’s winter flash fiction contest. Emily posted the photo prompt on the LCP website this morning, and you have until Sunday at 7 AM (PST) to submit a 500-word story based on the photo. We select up to four winners a week whose stories will be featured in our upcoming anthology Five Hundred Words of Magic. All winning stories include some element of magic. You can submit your story in the comments section of the post.

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

Margaret Dashwood Outtakes, Part One

In honor of Jane Austen’s birthday, I decided to post a few scenes from early drafts of Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas. I imagine Lucy and Robert Ferrars might be mortified to realize that they didn’t survive the editor’s knife. (All errors in the French are mine as my lovely translators never got a chance to see these scenes.)

From Chapter Five, draft 2.1:

Marriage, Margaret soon discovered, had done nothing to improve Lucy’s manner. After the company had settled themselves for tea, Lucy turned her attention to her sister-in-law.

“I suppose I should be surprised to see that you remain unmarried, Miss Dashwood. By the time I was your age, I had already been engaged for some time. Of course, my first engagement could hardly match my eventual marriage; nevertheless, one would hope that a woman of your age could have at least excited the interest of one beau.”

Margaret resisted the urge to reply.

“Margaret is only eighteen, Mrs. Ferrars,” said Mrs. Dashwood. “Her sister Elinor was older than that when she married dear Edward. I have no fear that Margaret will marry when she is ready.”

“Oh, of course she will; after all, her sisters managed to make relatively good marriages,” said Lucy.

“But I believe,” Fanny interjected, “that Marianne and Elinor were quite lucky. Such felicity cannot be expected to occur a third time.”

“No.” Lucy’s agreement was emphatic. “And Marianne had her great beauty and vivacity to recommend her to someone like Colonel Brandon, while everyone knows Elinor has a steady head. But Margaret, what qualities does she demonstrate? She possesses neither Marianne’s shining beauty nor Elinor’s common sense. No, I am afraid—” But what it was that Lucy was afraid of, she could not say.

Margaret had had enough of Lucy’s prattle and, deciding the benefit outweighed the risk, performed a spell that would make the next few days bearable. She held in her mind an image of Lucy’s mouth moving but producing no sound as she whispered, “Je prends votre voix et le mettre dans ma poche.” It was a quaint little spell from an old book. The whimsy of the incantation had pleased her: “I take your voice and put it in my pocket.” Nevertheless, she had translated it to French.

Lucy realized immediately that something was amiss.

“Lucy? What has happened?” Fanny asked.

Lucy, eyes wide, shook her head and tried speaking again. She gestured frantically to her throat.

“You have lost your voice?” Fanny said, almost as frantic.

Lucy nodded.

“John, Robert!” The men stopped their conversation and attended the women.

“What is it, my dear?” John asked.

“Lucy seems to have lost her voice mid-sentence!”

John turned to Lucy. “Is this true?”

Lucy’s lips moved, forming the word “yes,” but no sound issued from her mouth.

“My dearest!” cried Robert, dropping to his knees in front of Lucy. “Try again. Slowly.”

Lucy mouthed a few more words, still unable to give her thoughts voice. Margaret arranged her face into a concerned expression. “Might another cup of tea help?” she suggested.

“Oh, yes, of course! Thank you, Miss Dashwood,” said Robert. Fanny bustled to the tea tray.

“Here, Lucy, dear, drink this,” Fanny said.

Lucy sipped her tea delicately and then set the tea aside. Aware of the company’s attention, she made much of clearing her throat. Again Lucy opened her mouth and again nothing issued forth.

“Not to worry, my dear,” said Robert. “You are merely fatigued from our journey. Perhaps you should not try to talk for a few days.” Margaret hid her amusement at the relief in Robert’s voice.

Lucy nodded, looking bewildered. Fanny rose and said, “I shall take you to your room, my dear.” She took Lucy’s arm and led her from the room.

The remaining occupants looked at each other.

“My word,” said John. “I suppose that came upon rather suddenly. Perhaps we should send for the doctor?”

“Oh, no!” Robert replied hastily. “She has been feeling a little unwell lately. Rest and a ramble in the country will set her to rights.”

Lucy’s mysterious silence contributed to the happiness of nearly everyone at Norland Manor. Robert, ever solicitous of his wife, nevertheless enjoyed speaking without interruption. Their children played with raucous abandon, never inhibited by their mother’s scolding. Fanny fawned over her sister-in-law, taking obvious pleasure in coddling her. Even Lucy enjoyed the attention her sudden illness inspired. Margaret and her mother passed the remaining days of their visit in relative peace.

The day before they were to leave, Margaret took one more tour of Norland’s grounds. She brought along one of her father’s journals with her, judging it wiser to leave the atlas hidden. Her wanderings took her to a favorite spot where a grove of oaks enclosed a little stone bench. She sat, enjoying the day’s calm for a little while before turning back to her father’s notes.

When she saw the name Bristlethwaite, she read with alacrity:

I spent the past fortnight in the company of Horace Bristlethwaite and his formidable wife, Eugenia. Both are sorcerers of uncommon skill, but Mrs. Bristlethwaite is also possessed of both wit and talent. While I do not subscribe to many of her views on magic, particularly concerning the training of servants, I have the utmost respect for her. She and Horace will make exceptional additions to the Mayfair Coven. We have sustained too many losses in this war. Bennet has only just recovered from our last battle, and had it not been for him, I would have perished. But enough dwelling on the darkness. I must return to my work; it gives me great comfort.

What could her father have meant by his reference to a battle? She had never known him to be a soldier. Could it have been a magical battle? Margaret sighed. She had so many questions but no way to answer them. She had been just thirteen when he had died, too young to understand who he was or to know what questions to ask him. During their lessons she put her attention more on the magic he taught her than on learning anything about him. Again she regretted that oversight. If only she could find some way to bring him back. I am being silly, she thought. Papa would never want me to waste my time thinking about such things. She smiled sadly as she imagined his response: What is done is done, my dear. No sense worrying about things you cannot change.

She turned her attention back to her book, but was almost immediately interrupted by the sound of shots. Jumping to her feet, she saw John’s dogs racing toward her, chasing a small vixen, with John and Robert not far behind on their mounts. The vixen dashed into Margaret’s little grove. In a moment the dogs would be upon her, tearing her to shreds. “Poor thing!” Margaret said. “Hurry, I will divert the dogs.”

The vixen stopped and fixed her with an oddly intelligent look. But at Margaret’s prompting, she dashed beneath a bush. Margaret, meanwhile, muttered the Distracted Dog Spell, a clever invention of her own, perfected on Sir Williams’s dogs. The incantation demonstrated a rare use not only of English but also of linguistic economy: “Squirrels!”

It never failed to amuse her that a simple word could have such an immediate effect. Margaret giggled when John’s dogs, as one, stopped their chase and looked up to the branches of the largest oak. They gathered around the tree’s base, barking up at the empty branches.

“Go on,” Margaret said to the vixen.

The young fox scrambled from her hiding place and streaked off down the hill just before Robert and John appeared.

“What on earth are the dogs doing?” John said as he slid from his horse.

“I thought your dogs were properly trained,” Robert said, still mounted.

“Margaret, did you see a fox? The dogs were chasing a little vixen. Would have caught her, too, had they not been distracted.”

The dogs were growing restless, still jumping around at the base of the tree, necks craned upward.

“I have seen nothing but the dogs, John. Perhaps there is a squirrel up the tree.”

“What a cacophony!” Robert cried. “Do you not train your dogs, John? I would never allow this sort of behavior from mine.”

Margaret glared at Robert’s back and then whispered, “No more squirrel.”

Suddenly the dogs bolted from the tree and swarmed around Robert’s horse, which panicked and shied, tossing Robert straight onto the ground where he sat, dazed.

“I say, Robert,” John said, striding over to help him up, “Whatever are you doing on the ground? Can you not sit a horse?”

Robert, who appeared unhurt in body if a little bruised in spirit, refused help, clambering to his feet on his own and stalking away without a word, a slight limp the only evidence of his misadventure.

John turned back to Margaret. “What on earth has gotten into the animals today?”

Margaret shrugged, struggling to maintain a mask of calm.

“I suppose I had better catch up to him. Come on,” he said to his dogs before mounting his horse and urging it to a trot. They set off toward the house, Robert’s horse trailing behind.

As soon as John and his dogs had left in a whirl of tails and flopping ears, Margaret laughed until her sides were sore.

The Awesome Power of Grammar and Punctuation, Part One

I have many reasons to be thankful for my writing partner, Emily. I’ve written about some of them before, and one day I’ll compose a post about our evolving partnership. Or I’ll simply provide a link to the post she writes. We make a good team, or as Emily told me last week, we’re part of the same Ka-Tet whose mission is to write great books. Along with some complementary differences, we share a number of attributes, including a wonderfully nerdish devotion to grammar and her sister, punctuation. During our bi-monthly writing lunches (and on many other occasions), we conduct passionate discussions about the importance of clear punctuation or sentence structure variation. I find these conversations exhilarating, though I imagine some people might not share our enthusiasm.

I understand why the topic could seem less than thrilling. For so many, the word grammar evokes memories of stern English teachers lecturing about the dangers of split infinitives, comma splices, and dangling modifiers. These infractions of grammar rules sound truly horrible—splitting, splicing, and dangling, oh my! It’s no wonder people cringe at the thought.

But our nerdy devotion allows Emily and me a different perspective on grammar and punctuation from that of the terrified high school student. We see those rules as tools for making meaning, both for the writer and the reader. A thorough grounding in grammar gives writers the freedom to make all kinds of choices for communicating their ideas and for telling their stories. And a keen understanding of grammar helps readers interpret what they read. Grammatical mistakes, however, cloud meaning, putting a barrier between the writer and the reader. For example, a misplaced comma can radically alter the sense of a sentence: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat Grandma!” One tiny mark changes that statement from an enthusiastic invitation to a cannibalistic exhortation. That is some awesome power on display.

Other tiny marks bear the same power. Consider a sentence such as, “I like Tuesday’s.” That apostrophe combined with an s signals ownership, so as a reader I’m left wondering what it is belonging to Tuesday you like. Take out the apostrophe and you get “I like Tuesdays.” Aha. So do I. I like Tuesdays, too. My friend Tiffany Aldrich MacBain has a fabulous post on her blog about just this issue.

Grammatical errors have the same result—confusion. Take the ominously named dangling modifier in this example:

Walking to the back of the room, heads slowly turn to watch me as they perform the traditional inspection of each person who enters.

In this case, “walking to the back of the room” modifies—clarifies, defines, describes—something in the full sentence that follows the comma. As you can see, there is an (amusing) error, and the italicized phrase modifies “heads.” But that doesn’t make any sense. The mistake takes the reader out of the narrative, forcing her to try to figure out what is going on. Sure, I can guess what the writer means, but, as I used to tell my writing students, what if I get it wrong?

The writer well versed in grammar, however, can choose to break rules to create specific effects. Take the passive voice; anyone who works in Word knows that it prefers active voice, alerting us to our “mistakes” in green. It has a point. The passive voice doesn’t provide a lot of information—we can’t identify the subject of a sentence structure in passive voice. There is no actor, in other words, as this famous example demonstrates: “Mistakes were made.” Sure, but by whom, Mr. President? Yet the passive voice can be valuable if, for instance, you’d like to use sentence structure to highlight a people’s plight: Native Americans were forced from their land and made to walk across the country. Here, using passive voice underlines the powerlessness of the Native Americans—they did not choose to leave their lands. Of course, if you wanted to spotlight the perpetrators, you would make them the subject of the sentence: The US Government forced Native Americans from their land and drove them across the country.

Like the passive voice, the well-placed sentence fragment can do a lot of work for a writer: Derek couldn’t sleep. His mind kept turning and turning. All damn night. Those three syllables, so abrupt and technically ungrammatical, emphasize Derek’s insomnia. They also create a rhythm for the passage, a short little burst of words next to a longer clause. (Isn’t this freakin’ cool?)

My final example for this post: the run-on sentence, while generally something worth avoiding, has its uses:

“Mom told me to go outside and play but I said it was too cold then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says oh Jeffrey and then told me to put on a coat so I did and I found the tree stump and came here—” He drew a breath.

I took this passage from a flash fiction piece I wrote a few months ago. Jeffrey is only six, and I wanted to communicate his enthusiasm—the kind associated with children telling stories as though they have to get all their words out on one breath. I left out punctuation to achieve that affect. Correct punctuation would actually have failed me:

Mom told me to go outside and play, but I said it was too cold. Then she did that thing where she rubs her head and says, “Oh Jeffrey” and told me to put on a coat. So I did, and I found the tree stump and came here.

There are too many pauses breaking up the stream of Jeffrey’s breathless recitation of events. It’s an adult’s voice, not a child’s.

I’ll be doing more of these posts in the weeks to come because I’m a grammar nerd and want to share my love with other writers. In the meanwhile, here are some of my favorite sources for answering grammar and punctuation questions:

Books:
The Elements of Style (William Strunk)
Style: the Basics of Clarity and Grace (Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb)

Websites:
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Grammar
Purdue Online Writing Lab: Punctuation
Grammar Girl

Interview on Laughing with Lizzie!

The lovely Sophie Andrews interviewed me about Margaret Dashwood and Regency Magic on her blog, Laughing with Lizzie.

She’s done!

I started writing Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas last September. Yesterday my writing partner Emily Street and I spent the afternoon formatting the paperback and then publishing the Kindle version for Luminous Creatures Press. (Not only is Emily a wonderful writer, but she’s also a whiz with anything technological.) She wrote a lovely post about our day that you can find on her blog. In between the beginning and the end, I wrote the first draft, let Margaret simmer, wrote the second draft, gave it to Emily for notes, revised, let Margaret simmer, revised…you get the picture. And now she’s done.

Margaret-Dashwood-and-the-Enchanted-Atlas-800 Cover reveal and Promotional

This morning I cleaned all the random bits of paper with notes about Margaret off my desk.

desk

Then I sat down and started working on another story.

Backwards and Out of Order: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Introduction: My Writing Process Blog Tour
Several months ago I saw this blog tour making the Twitter rounds. Several writers I follow posted marvelous accounts of their writing processes, and I secretly longed to be invited along. So when Karl A. Russell asked if he could tag me in his post, I was thrilled, not only because I get to join the tour, but also because it was Karl who invited me. I made Karl’s acquaintance through Twitter and the weekly flash fiction contest The Angry Hourglass hosted by Rebecca J. Allred. His stories consistently impressed me with their pure, cinematic style blended with poetic leaps. That a writer of his caliber had named me as someone whose writing he admired, well, let’s just say I’m still smiling. Thank you, Karl, for the invitation!

And so, here we go…

What am I working on?
I’ve got a few projects in the works right now, which seems to be my constant state. Book two of my Regency Magic series, Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, is currently in the hands of three marvelous beta readers. I’ve got more work to do on Margaret, but I’m not thinking about her until September.

Meanwhile, I’ve been writing short stories. The daughter of a good friend is in the hospital, so I’ve undertaken a little project to entertain her. I sent the first story, “Vivian MacBain and the Case of the Itchy Feet” (she likes Encyclopedia Brown mysteries) about two weeks ago. I’m planning to write at least one more before the summer’s end. This week I started work on “Vivian MacBain and the Case of the Purloined Puppets.”

I just finished a second draft of a super creepy story called “Irina Voshnikaya,” affectionately nicknamed “Vampire Ballerina.” Emily Street, my writing partner (about whom you’ll learn more below), gave me the idea after I confessed that I prefer theatre to film when I’m acting because I like to “borrow” the energy from the live audience to feed my performance. Emily thought that would make a great story. I agreed. At first I envisioned it being a story about an actress playing Hedda Gabler—she would need all the energetic help she could get. But since that would involve re-reading Hedda Gabler, I revised the setting to a performance of Swan Lake, and “Irina Voshnikaya” was born.

Although I’ve been absent for a few weeks, I try to get a story in to The Angry Hourglass as frequently as possible. I love writing flash fiction, but I’ll talk more about that below.

Finally, I’ve started research for a new novel about (non-vampiric) ballet dancers called Anna’s Piece. I’m planning to start the first draft in October—provided Margaret Dashwood edits go smoothly. So far by research I mean watching documentaries about ballet dancers, contacting a friend who attended North Carolina School of the Arts for an interview, making a list of all the dance books available, and reading Dancer by Colum McCann (a lovely book). I have every intention of dragging this old body back to a ballet class or two just to remind myself what it feels like. (And I’m dragging Emily Street with me!)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This question stumps me a little as I am not consistently faithful to any one genre. My two Regency Magic books, Margaret and Mary Bennet and the Bloomsbury Coven, straddle at least two genres: Jane Austenesque fiction and fantasy (of the Harry Potter variety). From the first genre, my work differs because it includes magic and from the second, because it’s set in Jane Austen’s England and borrows Jane Austen’s characters. I invent many of the characters, too, and they tend to resemble ones you’d find in Harry Potter. Both books feature young heroines rather than young heroes–so that’s another point of overlap and difference.

As for my other work—I’ve written a few horror stories for Ungodly Hungers, the first collection of short stories (actually the first book) that Emily and I published as Luminous Creatures Press. Having read only some horror—Dean R. Koontz years and years ago and Stephen King, also years and years ago—I can’t say how my stories differ, except that women populate them in higher numbers than men. However, I love Edgar Allen Poe, and I’d say that my story “Lucine’s Gaze” has Poe-ish qualities.

Our section story collection, The Painted Dog and Other Stories, fits more squarely in the fantasy category. I’m not sure how these stories differ from others in their genre. I aspired to a Neil Gaimen-esqueness in the real world settings I’ve chosen, but I don’t think I really succeeded.

After I finish Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, I’m taking some time off from Regency Magic to write a couple of novels that I think will fit more squarely under the heading “general fiction.” While Anna’s Piece got its start in a fantasy / magical realism short story, I’m going to explore keeping everything rooted in this world—specifically in San Francisco and the San Francisco Ballet. I’ve also got plans to write a historical fiction novel about a woman who grew up during the Depression. It’s based on a piece I wrote for The Angry Hourglass months ago. I have no idea whether or not these books will differ from others of the same genre in any significant ways, but I think that’s okay.

Why do I write what I write?
Regency Magic got its start in a tiny story in which Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice finds a magic book and becomes a sorceress. I had played Mary in a stage production of P & P and felt she deserved a little adventure of her own, which led me to think the same for minor characters in the rest of Jane Austen’s books. Plus I really like inventing magic spells. I intend to write five more books in the Regency Magic series: one each for Jane Austen’s published works and a final book currently called “The Avengers” because all the Regency Magic heroines will work together.

While the Regency Magic books adhere to an Austenesque style, I’m still discovering my own voice and style. I aspire to clarity, precision, and elegance in my writing, which is why I was so happy to discover flash fiction. It has taught me to write with more economy, lending more power to my writing. I’m also learning what I can leave out, allowing the reader more play for interpretation. That learning process has been revolutionary for this ex-academic who was trained to take readers by the hand and guide them through an argument rather than trusting them to supply the missing bits for themselves. Other writers posting to the Angry Hourglass have taught me so much, too: Karl Russell with his cinematic clarity, Kristen Falso-Capaldi with her ability to reach in and tug out my heart with the simplest words and images. The flash fiction community is filled with lovely writers who support each other’s work, which is an added benefit to joining it.

As for genre and that sticky question of fidelity, when Emily and I first started working together, I was certain that I would write fantasy fiction. We had bonded over reading George R. R. Martin, Mary Stewart, and J.K. Rowling. (We also bonded over our shared past as ballerinas and many other things). Emily writes marvelous fantasy with beautifully drawn worlds, which is why she often gives me notes like “how does this magic system work?” and “who made that law about magic?” But aside from the authors listed above, I don’t read much fantasy. My favorite authors are John Irving and Kate Atkinson. I’m keeping my eye on Anthony Doer, too. (If you haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See, go get it.) Lev Grossman has an interesting piece in the NY Times about moving from literary fiction to fantasy. For my next few books I’m moving in the opposite direction.

How does my writing process work?
When I started thinking about this blog post, I jotted down a few notes. The first one for this section reads, “Backwards and out of order,” which sums up my basic process. I started writing my dissertation by working on the final chapter. Then I wrote chapter four. Next came the chapter that ended up second, followed the chapter that leads the whole thing off. I wrote the third chapter fifth. Then I re-wrote the last chapter because I had finally figured out what the dissertation was about between writing chapters two and one. That’s when I realized I didn’t need the fourth chapter, so I cut it. Finally, I wrote the introduction. Naturally the finished product bears no resemblance to the dissertation prospectus I had written for my oral exams. (That’s a whole other story about how I don’t outline.) I’m planning to begin the first draft of Anna’s Piece right in the middle.

With all this backwards and out-of-order-ness, I go through a lot of drafts, leaving plenty of time in between for things to simmer on my mind’s back burner. I give myself permission to write pure shit for at least two of those drafts. No one sees the first one. Ever. Not even Emily, who reads all of my work. I find the first and second drafts painful, especially when I try to write things in order. On the other hand, I love revision. I love finding exactly the right word, making my sentences as crisp and clean as possible, and clearing out anything unnecessary—I have no trouble killing my darlings. Well, okay, I don’t so much kill them as move them into an outtakes file, but you get the point.

I tend to think best in writing, so I’ve always kept a journal for working through whatever is going on in my life. Now I keep a freewriting journal for each project to help me make sense of my stories, figure out sticky plot points, and generate ideas. Entries might be small notes like “start Anna’s Piece in the middle!” Or they might be long explorations of events in a book—how to get Mary Bennet back to Hertfordshire from London (with the Folding Spell, of course!). I’d be lost without these files.

Tag!
And now it’s time to introduce three writers whose work I admire:

Callie Armstrong

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A Southern writer transplanted to America’s Midwest, Callie writes haunting stories that linger with me long after I’ve finished reading them. She develops rich characters in beautifully drawn settings. I love the brutal honesty of her writing. She’s also one of my favorite tweeps.

You can find many of her stories and her musings about writing on her website.

Kristen Falso Capaldi

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Kristen is a high school teacher, a singer / songwriter, and a writer of fiction and award-winning screenplays. She writes with clarity and complexity, even in stories of as few as 150 words. Somehow Kristen manages to create stories that grab me and leave me breathless without any trace of sentimentality. Like Callie, Kristen is another favorite Twitter friend.

You can find Kristen at her new blog.

Emily June Street

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Co-owner of both Luminous Creatures Press and Flow Pilates Studio in Fairfax, California, Emily is a reader, a writer, a cyclist, an archer, a trapeze swinger, and a Pilates instructor. She is also the mother of two adorable canine dragons. Emily packs her richly imagined stories with excitement and gorgeous imagery. I count myself very lucky to have her as a writing partner and a friend.

You can find Emily at Luminous Creatures Press and her new blog.

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