Why I downloaded six volumes of 18th Century agricultural essays this morning

Today I went to Google Play, found five volumes of A New System of Practical Husbandry by John Mills (there are more generic names than that, but not many!) and I downloaded them all. And then I downloaded An Essay on the Weather by the same author, too. Of course the real titles are much longer than that because they are eighteenth century books.

Why did I download six massive tomes about obsolete horticulture? Not because I’m into reconstructing old farming methods (much less old British farming methods, which would never be applicable here in California without a tremendous lot of tweaking I am noit qualified for). I grow some fruit trees, some herbs, and kale in my little backyard, and when the weather cooperates perfectly, also some tomatoes. That’s it. Not wheat!

I’m revising The Drummer Boy for what I hope is the final time before submitting. I think I have solved its problems by turning it into a trilogy. As I go along I find more little places where I need more information to prevent idiotic errors. The world of The Drummer Boy is set in a backwards corner of a sort-of-Central/Eastern-Europe, and it starts at what is kind of equivalent to the 1890s-1900s. That is, there are automobiles and telephones and electric lights and iceboxes that use ice blocks, but only in some places. In other places, farmers are living an eighteenth-century life. I figure what was new and scientific in the mid 1700s would be sufficient for my farmers 150 years later.

But of course I can’t depend on this source either! Because, again, the climate, soils, and traditions are different in this fictional place as compared to Britain. So this source is only going to help me think about things, really. It’s better than where I started, though. Oh my. I started with James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, again, not as a final source but to accumulate a few sparks for some of the celebrations and activities Yanek might encounter in his rural childhood. Here Frazer is useful because a lot of the book is a compendium of facts from wherever he could gather them. He had a narrative to uphold, and he wanted it to be generally applicable, so Swabia and Tahiti and Macedonia and Yorkshire were all grist for his mill, when he found them. And–bingo! he had a few Central/Eastern European anecdotes that fit right in with what I wanted to do. The “need fire” which in which Yanek participates is from The Golden Bough.  And the “last-sheaf” celebrations that Yanek adores so much are derived from his extensive discussion of Corn Dollies, which appear in various forms all over the landscape. I can no longer tell you which details were from Central/Eastern Europe and which were from somewhere else and which I made up. I could look it up, though.

It’s an obvious idea, of course–to use the last little bit of grain and straw to make one or another kind of decoration/figure/amulet for a ceremony/game/party/prank which may or may not carry over into other times of the year and which may or may not have various kinds of symbolism relating to the passage of time, fertility, sex, death, or outright foolishness. You can explain the widespread appearance of Corn Dollies either by independent invention (because it is such an obvious idea and the specifics vary so much) or by diffusion (because if your neighbors are wrapping up teenagers in bundles of straw and flowers and chasing them around the fields, or your other neighbors are braiding the stalks into figurines and stealing them from each other, doesn’t that sound lot a lot of fun?

However–it’s a good thing I wasn’t clinging to an obsolete mythological thesis for all of the verisimilitude in the book. I have been looking things up as I encountered them, and then one day I was musing online about something to do with the harvest–the use of the scythe, I think–and (ljuser)heleninwales linked me to a video of some people recreating nineteenth century agriculture and I realized what I did not realize before: that you don’t bring the grain in as soon as you cut it. I should have known, right? I’ve seen haystacks and I’ve seen stooks, though I didn’t know that was the name for the grain set out to rest before being taken in for storage. But haystacks are just hay, which is not grain, and I didn’t know the significance of stooks until I saw these videos and heard them named and discussed. So, of course, that needed a sentence or two of revision in each of three or four spots. Not hard to fix, but necessary. Because I’m not going to be that author that gets that review that starts out with “Kemnitzer’s book is appealing on the surface, but for a story that spends so much time in the fields and forest, it is much too vague and inaccurate about country ways.” At least I hope not.

So today I was on that bit about the last-sheaf again, and suddenly felt the need to have a better handle on how long the grain stands in stooks before it comes in. I searched on the question, and guess what came up? This extensive writing by John Mills. And it’s so delicious to read why it’s better to cut the grain before than after rain, and how to keep it from sprouting in the sheaf, and how wheat from India did not grow well in France in the eighteenth century. If you follow Jo Walton you know how ecstatic she can get when she finds a good source on ancient philosophers and poets. Well, that’s exactly how I felt when I discovered these! I felt the same way during my first visit to Prague when I discovered the National Agricultural Museum and its exhibit on František Josef Thomayer, an influential early designer of urban parks and public gardens. My whole being thrilled as I was struck by the revelation that here was exactly what I needed! And not just for the novel. For my heart!

Clearly I need more and more of this material, especially if I can find the equivalent that is related to the interior of Europe. Translated: I can just about read the words to a children’s folksong, with a dictionary, in Czech, but not a centuries-old treatise on agricultural techniques written in Polish, German, or please preserve me, Russian with its maze of Cyrillic letters.

(I’m not really a blind-sentimentalist for “old country ways.” That’s why I need truthful information about the work my rural characters do, and their beliefs about and relationship to the land and all the stuff in it)

A Bright New Year

I used to participate in a set of newsgroups dedicated to reading and writing science fiction. It was my first experience online, just about. Sometimes it was exhilarating. Sometimes it was terrible. It foreshadowed Twitter and Facebook in a lot of ways. I made some mistakes, didn’t always behave well, but the biggest mistake I made was discounting my own intuition about a certain dynamic that I saw there.

“It’s just a bunch of crazy right-wing science fiction fans,” I muttered to myself as I withdrew from participation after being hounded one too many times for saying something so radical as I thought traffic safety engineering was a good idea (seriously, Pete McCutcheon’s response to that, as to most things I said, was to accuse me of complicity in Stalin’s purges.). It wasn’t the traffic argument–it was something later, just a long, long, exhausting, unproductive, and I thought, unimportant series of similar arguments. I thought: I can use my energy better finishing these novels that have a better view of the world. But this here is not what I’m talking about today. Nope, it’s a simple thing, a little thing, a trivial matter of taste. I had my misgivings about this stuff all along, but “it’s only pulp fiction, don’t like, don’t read.” You know, you shouldn’t dislike stuff too vehemently online because that’s tantamount to censorship (hush, never mind that people do dislike stuff vehemently online all the time).

And now–a couple decades later–the world view of those people is ascendant in the world, not just the US: over and over they “win” elections through fraud and manipulation, and even where they don’t, they find ways to dismantle everything good about civilization, every freedom, every protection, every advance in scientific thinking and every commitment to beauty and free expression.

The thing I only barely registered opposition to at the time and which I believe I ought to have made a Principled Stand against is dystopian fiction.  I’ve always thought it was cheap, unimaginative, easy to dream up, usually not well thought out even given all that. I ask myself: “Can’t they think of anything better than this? Is this all they think we’re capable of?”

Rarely does dystopian fiction strike me as a credible warning. When it is, it’s very powerful, you can see how the world in the story got that way, what the decision points were, what could have been different. Usually, it’s ahistoric, or the history in it is shallow and unconvincing, it’s just a fantasy of misery. And of course, the protagonists are the One True Somethings–they escape or they take over and we’re supposed to believe everything will be all right now, except when it’s 1984 or its imitators in which we’re subjected to watching the person we’re supposed to identify with break and wallow in his Terrible Human Condition. When we’re invited to gleefully embrace Jack London’s Iron Heel stepping on the face of everyone forever and forever.

It’s that gleeful embrace that gets to me even more than the paltry imagination. Because I also suspect that often the writers and aficionado readers of dystopian fiction are not just interested in that kind of future–they desire it. They read WHAT IF HITLER/THE CONFEDERACY WON and go “sounds great!” They read about tyranny, torture, subjugation, and they think “that’s the ticket.” They stay up at night imagining how to destroy civilization and stratify the community as rigidly as possible.

I think it’s urgent that we do better on all fronts. Let’s imagine a better future and work for it. Let’s write a better future while we make those phone calls, march those streets, talk to those people, defend those ballot boxes, whatever we have to do. But let’s not give in to despair or embrace the darkness.

I’ve seen people say “If you imagine a utopian world, though, there’s no room for a story because there is no conflict.” That also betrays a lack of imagination. Do you really believe in a world so perfect that it works to the same degree for all people and solves all problems without making any others? What makes you think people would or should settle for whatever they’ve got, once it’s better than what they had before?

A better world, a brighter future, to my mind necessarily creates new problems that demand new answers. Those stories are more work to imagine, because they’re not just replays of all the misery we’ve experienced throughout the centuries. There’s more to be found there, new things, shiny marvelous things, things you’ve never seen before.

Let’s write that, okay? Let’s write What Is To Be Done? for our age.

By the way, I made my pussy hat and I will be on the streets of my hometown January 21.


Something I wrote elsewhere: and more about Prague’s ethnicities

A while back my friend Heather Rose Jones (whose Alpennia series of lesbian-located historical fantasies you should really read for every reason: also, on her blog, she is developing a tremendous resource called the Lesbian Historic Motif Project) introduced me to her friend Alison Thurman because Alison was researching background for a novel she’s working on about the sixteenth-century alchemist John Dee when he was living in Prague. She was about to go to Prague for on-site research, and Heather knew I had done an amount of historical research in Prague as well (though mine was focused more on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) and she thought we might like to enthuse together. Which we did.

Alison  has a blog of her own, and once when she was wondering about what to write about next, Heather and I both suggested “More about the Rudolfine Prague” (that is, Prague in the time of “Mad King” Rudolf II, the monarch John Dee and his felonious partner Edward Kelley were in Prague to get the sponsorship of). Then Alison asked me if I would like to guest blog something in that area. It so happened that I did, and in specific I wanted to write about multiculturalism in that time and place. So I did, and here it is! 

Alert readers will wonder why the Roma are not mentioned in the piece. That’s because they arrived in Prague just after the time in question! I didn’t leave them out for any other reason.  If I had extended the account to the present day, there would be even more to account for. Though the Roma people have lived in Prague since the late sixteenth century, they still face discrimination.

Prague is also home to a substantial Vietnamese population, many of whom have come there as a result of a special diplomatic relationship between Czechoslovakia and North Vietnam in the days of the Vietnam War: many have small exquisite produce stores and other work in the markets such as Pražská tržnice.

And though it is not large, there is also a very visible community of Nigerians, some of whom wear “naval uniforms”-striking because Czech Republic is landlocked except for a tiny bit of dockland, wholly unconnected to the country, given as a courtesy– and work for boat tour companies on the Vltava River. Others own “Irish” bars in town.

All of these communities living together–sometimes peacefully, sometimes not–bringing all their cultures to bear on the problems of life in this small and beautiful city, makes for a heady inspiration for a writer like me. Often Europe is presented as a place of deep, singular roots, where the same peopled have been living with the same culture and “blood” for hundreds if not thousands of years. It’s pretty clear to me that that is an erroneous and misleading view of the place. It’s in some ways a lot like California: the western end of a large continent, where migration constantly agitates the mix and the best things arise from cross-pollination (for this analogy to hold, we would have to recognize Prague as being rather like the Fresno of Europe-though it is much older and more beautiful!).

Long time gone

I just realize it’s been two years since last I posted! Welp, there’s been a lot of activity in those two years, but not a lot of publishing.

The first year was taken up with my dog dying and three surgeries–two total knee replacements and a carpal tunnel release. Also, I got a puppy in between the two knee surgeries because a person who is rehabbing from knee surgeries needs a lot of exercise.

The second year was taken up with some more surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation–I fetched up with an aggressive breast cancer, already on the move, but really tiny and it had only gotten as far as one lymph node. I remember when “it’s in a lymph node” was a death sentence, but it is no longer. It’s too early by years to say I am “cured,” but my oncology team fully expects to say that some day. This month I start on a hormone blocker I will stay on for five or ten years depending on what the current research indicates, and I may also start on another  drug depending on whether I get assigned to the experimental or the control group.

So as you can see my profession for the last two years has been mainly “patient,” but I have been writing. I finished the draft of the great big novel, but I haven’t been in a place to do the final edits before submission. I’ve written a handful of stories and made healthy starts on some novellas. I can’t tell you how destructive illness is to the part of the brain that makes stories and finishes projects. Anyway, I’ve several stories in submission now and I’m ready to blog about my writing again.

Looking forward to sharing my progress with you!


Lots to catch up on

November was a busy month for me, and so I’ve fallen behind here. I should tell you why it was so busy! I have been writing and writing, mostly on projects I can’t tell you about till I hear back from people…that’s mostly it. I can tell you this much: I wrote a time travel story with no time travel in it, a first contact story with no contact in it, and a supervillain story with at least one too many villains in it. Also I have been working my way towards total knee replacement, which I now have a date for: not till February, but there’s a lot to do in preparation (I have to get tough!).

So what do I have to catch up on? Two publications, a guest blog, and a future publication (that I can talk about).

The guest blog is here at my friend Heather Rose Jones’ livejournal. She’s the author of, among other things, a series of fantasy novels set in Alpennia, a fictional European-like country in the eraly modern era (that is, not medieval). They’re really good, featuring smart, independent, largely lesbian, women who make sense in their own contexts, and solid, interesting world-building. And coincidentally, my blog is about world-building: why, for example, I have spent weeks physically researching a real-life Central European city for stories that are set in a secondary world that is most definitely not Central Europe.

All I’m going to say about that right now is that world has already produced several “plumblossom” stories (the ones I put up for free at Fictionpress or in The Slash Pile anthologies, or wherever–they are all interconnected and some day will be woven into a single book about rivalries among sentient trees and the people who serve them, as well as magicians both good and evil, semi-self-aware teargas canisters and other objects, terrible history, threatening conditions, and tentatively bright futures): most of a huge fantasy novel involving both a pig spirit and artillery nests, that needs serious sustained attention as soon as I clear the decks with these other projects: and the outline of a novel set in the medieval-equivalent time of that world, involving land fraud, magic, alchemy, and personal loyalty. In other words, I have been playing in it quite vigorously. You can read some of the stories here. The ones in that world are “A Day of Porn” (which is not porn), “The Greenest Boy in Town,” “Stromnik,” and “Striking.” Another story, “Picnic Day Night,” is available at The Slash Pile’s second Halloween anthology “Psychopomp” here.

Are you still with me? Because here’s something you can buy! Less Than Three Press Print(who else?) has published Tan-ni Fan’s anthology, Missed Connections, and it is available right now from the publisher and here and at most online distributors (that’s really true, too! I somehow ended up searching for Outside and I saw it in online bookstores literally all over the world!). It’s a great big anthology full of big juicy stories about second chances. My story, “Rab+Rob 4ever,” is not science fiction like a lot of my work, but it is fiction about scientists(well, science students, anyway)! Rob has a terrible memory for things that happened in his childhood, so it’s no wonder that when he meets Jack in his last year in college, he doesn’t realize that it’s the same person as Rab, the boy who trailed around after him in their preschool years. Jack (Rab) doesn’t seem any too happy to make Rob’s acquaintance again…

AASalvagesmDo you remember me talking about my beloved lesbian mechanics, Elisabeth and Melissa, and their adventures on Route Zero, the road that connects alternate universes? It’s pre-order time for their story at Less than Three. As of today, there’s a sale going on at Less than Three Press, and there’s only five days left till publcation day! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but I’m still new enough at this to be impressed with myself. Elisabeth and Melissa are the kind of mechanics you really want in your community. They have their own tow truck, and Melissa can find your part if it’s available anywhere in the state, and if it isn’t, Elisabeth can fabricate it from a similar part. Even if the car in question comes from nowhere in this world…Elisabeth has a past, though, and while the Grand Jury wants to talk to her, she wants to find out why this odd car’s radio is playing tunes from a future she used to dream about in her past. Contains a non-violent carjacking.

Well, that’s it for today! Watch this space for a giveaway of the A&A ebook!

Wendy Christensen, please contact me with an email address!

My method for the giveaway was: I collected the names of people who commented, liked or followed since I announced the drawing. I placed all the names into a numbered list in the order that I found them in my notifications (which means the list is not ran domized, but it might as well be). There were twenty-nine names, so I asked the algorithm at random.org to pick a number between 1 and 29. It chose 16. I have an image file of the names and the result page from random.org. It’s cumbersome to post, but I’ve saved it in case anybody’s curious about how it went.

Random.org chose number 16, who is Wendy Christensen. But I don’t have an email address for you, Wendy! I’ll give you three days — until midnight Pacific time, Monday October 27: after that I’ll run a new number from random.org.

As for what I’m doing tonight: I’m visiting Southern California with my daughter and son-in-law. We’re having a wonderful time. It’s just different enough from our Central Coast home to give us the right amount of culture shock, and the landscape is of course gorgeous.

Tomorrow’s the day!

You have one more day to sign up for the drawing for a free copy of my book Outside! Just go to the post where I announced it, right here, and leave a comment with a way to contact you. I’ll be on the road tomorrow so I’ll probably do it late in the day.

Other upcoming dates: the anthology Missed Connections, edited by the redoubtable Tanni-Fan, which has my story “Rab+Rob 4 Evar,” is coming out November 11, and is available for pre-order now. And my multiple-universes science fiction novella, A and A Salvage, is also available for pre-order and is coming out December 9.

These three stories are really quite different one from another. Outside is about a science lab administrator on a deep space station who takes great effort to ensure that his friends have a good time and learns that he needs to make even a greater effort: “Rab+Rob” is about an environmental sciences student who discovers his memory is even worse than he thought it was: and A and A Salvage is about a pair of lesbian mechanics who figure out that the origin of a mysterious car also gives them dangerous knowledge about the fate of old friends (I have more to say about the world of Outside and also more to say about the adventures of Elisabeth and Melissa from A and A Salvage, but those stories are not written yet).

Also, more details about this later, but I have sold another piece, a story about a fellow whose parents emigrated because they were told their child would marry a tree…

“The main character is an—”

“The main character is an—”

I was looking at a goodreads bookshelf and noticed that one of mine was on the shelf. I also noticed it was on a few other selves, including one labeled “Main-character-is-an-asshole.” My first response was to argue with it (just in my head, because if there’s one thing I know about being an author, it’s don’t argue with the readers), because first of all, I try to never write assholes, and secondly, I was pretty sure the main character of this particular piece was a sweetheart. A complete and total sweetheart. I could not imagine how anybody would characterize him as an asshole.

Fortunately for me, I was thinking about this in the bathtub, which always puts me in a pleasant meditative mood. Especially with our “exceptional drought” going on! These days, I only do spongebaths most of the time, really only doing a proper (but reduced) bath a bit more often than every seven days. So when the time rolls around for a real bath, I am very relaxed and thoughtful! So I laid back in the hot hot water mulling over what makes a character an asshole or a sweetheart…

And then I realized I had an even more interesting question in front of me, because the fellow I was calling the main character is probably not the same person that the reader was calling the main character when they shelved my book. And that was intriguing. Because although the story does shift points of view, I was pretty certain that the person whose opinion the reader was most likely to identify with was the total sweetheart’s and not his somewhat grumpier, less eager love interest.

So how had the reader come up with a different assignment from me? And what constitutes a main character anyway?

Romance readers and writers like to speak of the main character (often abbreviated MC) and the love interest (often abbreviated LI). They speak confidently of these two story roles even, in my experience, when the points of view carry equal weight in the narrative, take up equal space on the page, have equal billing in the blurb. Is there a rule about how these roles are allocated? Probably, but I did not find it in my navel. I came up with rather flimsy notions like “the main character is the one whose story we are most invested in” and “the main character is the one whose construction of the world they live and romance in is the most real and interesting to the reader.” I almost said the main character is the one who grows in the story, or maybe the main character is the one who overcomes the most interesting obstacles in the story, but what about the story where a person is being courted by a lovable and reforming rogue? I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen a story like that where the love interest is very clearly the rogue and the main character is very clearly the straight-arrow that the rogue reforms for. But how was it clear to me?

And if it was so clear to me there—well, if it was so clear to me in my own story that the love interest was the more difficult person in that case, but it was apparently equally clear to at least one reader that that character was the main one—what does that tell me about the characteristics of these two story roles?

I’ve got no answer for you. However! I can remind you that you still have till October 24th to comment on this thread over here to enter into a drawing for a free copy of my book Outside!

Just Plain Wrong

There’s a complaint I keep noticing about some stories written by women about men who have romantic affairs with other men. It’s nearly, but not, symmetrical with the complaint women sometimes have about stories men write about lesbians. It’s this: the accusation that the characters are not men, that they are women in men’s disguise (or “chicks with dicks”). The nearly symmetrical but not really complaint is that men write lesbians who are not real women—they are fantasies. So, (some) men complain that (some of) the unrealistic characters they are reading about are the wrong gender, and (some) women complain that (some of ) the unrealistic characters they are reading about are not real. That’s a subtle difference, but I think it is significant, especially as I think that the thing they are reacting to in the writing is, in fact the same thing.

edit: I missed a crucial paragraph of this when I posted, so here goes:

“Chicks with dicks” is a hideous phrase, insulting to just about everyone: women, men, gay men, men whose mannerisms are more “feminine” than average. I’m not sure that “feminine” men should be called that, because the aspects of their behavior and character that mark them this way are not, generally, behaviors and personality characteristics that actually predominate in women either. I’m not sure that the label is completely wrong, though, as it sometimes seems to go with men who see themselves as rejecting aspects of masculinity they see as offensive. But I am interested in what drives the complaint behind it.

First of all when a man complains about “chicks with dicks,” I don’t think he’s reacting to characters who have physically or socially feminine markers. I think the aspects of a male character that throw men out of identifying with them, and which they identify as female, are not usually really feminine, but just wrong, and the men are grasping for what is wrong about the characters. Gender comes to mind because gender is the salient issue at hand in these stories written by women and purporting to be located in exclusively male sexuality. It’s not that the men are wearing the wrong clothes or using the wrong kind of hairbrush or deodorant. If they had those details or something like them, you’d think it was deliberate eccentricities on the part of the character. It’s more likely to be something about the character’s emotional presence, their expressions of self, the intangibles that you can stay up all night arguing about. But what these male characters are doing on the page that is wrong wouldn’t be right if you tried to make a female character do them, either.

But why do (some) male readers perceive this as feminized characters? I think, partly because they know that women wrote the stories, so the explanation “she doesn’t really know men because she’s a woman” is easy to come by. Of course it isn’t correct. But it’s an easy answer, so it almost has to be wrong.

Problematic influence: H G Wells

I got reminded about HG Wells today: his birthday was a few days ago. Here are some of the H.G., Wells stories that haunt me from early childhood (from when I used to literally crawl around in front of my parents’ bookshelf and sniff out things to read). Some of these are kind of science fiction, some are kind of fantasy, and some are horror stories. I don’t love them all, but they all stick with me the way that not much else does. These are from this site: it looks like it might be an uploading of part of the big fat anthology I read when I was a kid.

The Crystal Egg this is the story that my journal title “peeking into the rock” refers to. How much I’ve loved this story I cannot even express.

The Door In the Wall Another story fo the same type: mysterious glimpse into another, possibly better, world, eventually consumes a person’s imagination and everything else.

The Flowering of the Strange Orchid When you’ve read this plant-phobic horror story you don’t need to read any of the ones that came after.

The Diamond Maker lone inventor and his troubles

Aepyornis Island Large birds and a castaway orchid hunter

The Magic Shop The literal grandaddy of this kind of story, which I never get tired of. Why haven’t I written more of them myself? The only one I wrote was about a place trhat sold porn. The story wasn’t actually porn itself, though.

The Moth scientific rivalry and madness

A Slip Under the Microscope the most agonizing horror story of a student and the conse quences of an innocent mistake

There’s one at the same site called “A Deal in Ostriches” whose narrator is the coarsest racist (unecessary even for his time, thank you, though since I’ve seen plenty of not-racist and anti-racist and barely-racist material from his time I do not give that “for his time” argument much credit) which combines large birds and diamonds. I’m not sure if the narrator of “A Deal in Ostriches” is supposed to be shockingly horrible in his racism: if he is, I think the point might be lost on much of his readership. Given that there are so very many stories set in “exotic” locations which seem to turn on the superior faculties of the English narrator or the inferior faculties of the indigenous people, I am afraid I can’t excuse Wells. I tended not to remember these like the ones without this device in them, though when I face them now I get a belly-punched feeling that is way too familiar: yes, I noticed the racism as a child, and I recoiled from it. But I must have read the few stories without such content first, because those are the ones I can remember without trying.

Actually, now that I have wasted the morning on this little sentimental journey, I’m thinking that a lot of the terrible writing in the speculative fiction world is people rehashing HG Wells without advancing a step farther than he got, as if they didn’t have HG Wells behind them.

(reposted from livejournal)