Sunday, August 31, 2008

anatomy of a motorcade

William Snyder has a nifty article in Wired:

The mission of a motorcade is simple: Deliver the package safely and on schedule. That means avoiding everything from rush hour to dirty bombs. And, not surprisingly, there's some science to optimizing the armed caravan, whether it's a 40-vehicle convoy carting the president or a drug lord's four-SUV private platoon dodging the DEA. Here is the feng shui of motorcade layout.

Read the rest here. It's not deep, it won't save the world, and you can't eat it. But, hey, it's Sunday. Live a little.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

lost? find a cow

Most cattle that were grazing or resting tended to align their bodies in a north-south direction, a team of German and Czech researchers reports in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
(Read the rest here. Thanks, Cindy.)

I wonder if this study concerned only cows (i.e. females) or if it included bulls. The only time I've ever seen a bull is when I was chased by one many years ago in the Lake District (in England). Bastard. I've also been chased by a ram. Bastard. And dogs. Bastards.

I think most animals have a notion of direction. So it doesn't surprise me that they'd be able to tell north from south. For me the more interesting question is, why do they choose to align along a particular axis? And (because everything for me is currently related to Hild) does this have any connection with the changing mores of human burial over the centuries? ('Native' British burial alignment was often north-south. After conversion to Christianity, many Anglo-Saxons burials were East-West. I haven't the faintest idea why.)

Anyway, the article about cows caught my eye. I love to see behaviour explained via biology. I've just got Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others, by Marco Iacoboni, and am looking forward to the publication of Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes: Bodies, Behavior, and Brains--The Science Behind Sex, Love, and Attraction, by Jena Pincott, in a few weeks. I just hope they're both reasonably well written. I get so very critical (picky picky picky, and irritable) when I'm working hard.

Oh, and I just saw this article in the New Scientist; it seems elephants know a lot, too:

Add elephants to the growing menagerie of animals that can count.

An Asian elephant named Ashya beat this reporter at a devilishly simple addition problem. When a trainer dropped three apples into one bucket and one apple into a second, then four more apples in the first and five more in the second, the pachyderm recognised that three plus four is greater than one plus five, and snacked on the seven apples. (In my defence, I watched the video in a noisy and crowded auditorium.)

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday audio: hypnagogic #2

If you don't remember why I call these things hypnagogics, read last week's Friday audio post.

So. This is another of those weirdnesses. It's a poem. I was thinking about rhythm; I'd been reading Y Gododdin and falling in love with Old Welsh. This isn't that kind of rhythm, but it's, well, it's particular. The bad news is that I'm not convinced it makes sense. The good news is it only lasts 21 seconds. Enjoy:

Next week, I'll get back to real readings, a good meaty ten minutes of something from Stay. Then, well, I've promised Karina a reading from "Touching Fire."

Meanwhile, over on my research blog, Gemæcce, I have a post based on a delicious snippet of 8th C. Irish storytelling brought to my attention by Lisa Spangenberg. (Thanks, Lisa.)

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

take my vote--please

From: Pierce

I feel bad that you are unable to participate in the upcoming Presidential election. Seeing as how I trust your judgment completely, I have decided to give you the opportunity to cast a vote…sort of. I am ceding my vote for President to you. Tell me who deserves my vote, and so shall I cast it. I urge your other devoted readers to do the same.

Wow. Is that even legal? Okay, let's assume it is. Vote for Obama. Everyone: vote for Obama. Just in case I haven't been clear, I say again: VOTE FOR OBAMA.

Do I like him? Nope. I don't have to like him. I just have to have half a brain, an IQ in the three figures: another Republican in the White House will send this country down the toilet. It's that simple. And if you don't vote for Obama that's what you'll get. And here's what British people think of that:

It seems incredible, but...America could be on course to re-elect a Republican as their President. Not just any Republican either, but a belligerent 71-year-old who can't remember how many houses he owns, would happily nuke Iran and whose answer to global warming is to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive areas off the coast of America which don't even have much oil...Really, America is a strange, strange country. After a disastrous and illegal war, in which 4000 American soldiers have died, in the middle of an economic crisis largely caused by the investment houses that finance the Republican party, you would have thought it almost inconceivable that the Republicans could be re-elected. Could any political brand be more toxic? Has any party in history deserved to be thrown out at an election more than the Republicans in 2008?
(read the rest at The Herald--it's a Glasgow paper)

I loathe politics. I loathe network TV. But I take life seriously, and casting a vote is a deadly serious business. People have died for that right. All over the world, they're still dying for it. So last night and tonight I watched speeches from Denver. I watched Michelle Obama (and let me say, she has a great speech writer). I watched Hillary Clinton (and she would make a great leader of the senate or Secretary of State--anyone out there watching the other night think she hasn't already got something in her pocket?).

I think conventions are silly, and this one was no exception. (Except this was the first time I saw a friend on TV waving a placard--hi Jen!) And Hillary still doesn't have much of a sense of crowd rhythm but, damn, she was a professional tonight. I was glad.

I want you all to make sure you're registered to vote, and then I want you to fucking vote. Vote Obama. Sure, do it for me if you don't want to do it for yourselves. Just do it.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

retconning beowulf

This is a cross post from my research blog, Gemæcce.

I've been reading Beowulf again, this time Crossley-Holland's translation. I'm struck by its similarity to episodic television drama. (Radio drama too, of course, but apart from Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, radio serials were before my time.)

For example, halfway through, around line 1270, we get a recap, a Previously on Beowulf the Grendel Slayer moment: of them, Grendel
that hateful outcast, was surprised in the hall
by a vigilant warrior spoiling for a fight.
Grendel gripped and grabbed him there,
but the Geat remembered his vast strength,
[...] thus he overcame
the envoy of hell...

In daytime soaps characters often announce things the other characters already know. So we'd get something like, 'Hello Susan, identical twin to my amnesiac foster mother'. In Beowulf, starting around line 1335, we have:

...she has avenged her son
whom you savaged yesterday with vice-like holds
because he had impoverished and killed my people
for many long years...

Why does Beowulf need to be told what he did yesterday? He was there. This is for the audience, because some of them might have missed the earlier installment.

But the biggest swerve of all, for me, was the retconning of Grendel. (Retconning is a fan term, meaning 'retroactive continuity'. It's putting a sudden new spin on the information we thought we had about a character, or event, in a long-running series.) Think of all the daytime soaps you've ever watched (or just read about--because none of us have ever stooped to that rubbish, oh no), or that moment in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman's character pauses dramatically and announces 'the hospital administrator you thought was a nice girl actually turns out to be A MAN!' In Beowulf we find that our good old-fashioned monster like any other turns out to be THE OFFSPRING OF CAIN!

I'm not a scholar. I haven't studied Beowulf at any level. Perhaps this is all old hat to the literary historians out there. But it's new to me, and extremely interesting. I've been under the impression that Beowulf was meant to be an epic, one-night performance, like an uncut Shakespearean play, but clearly it's an episodic drama. Why else would the scop put in reminders, rewinds and retcons? (Yes, I know the Anglo-Saxons drank a lot but, really, so much they couldn't follow one poem over the course of an evening...?) It's pretty clear to me that this piece was designed to be performed over several nights--Yule, perhaps, or during the multi-day visit of the king or ealdorman.


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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

vidding "Strings"

Wow. This is a vid response to Kelley's story, "Strings," put together by Karina. (Follow the link to find out about the music and images.) How very, very cool. Those who enjoy the vid might also enjoy this commentary on the story, by C.A. Casey, from Strange Horizons.

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My sweetie tells me there'll be an academic conference next May on U2. That's right, the band. It sounds very cool to me. Right now we're looking at schedules, trying to work out if my novel and Kelley's various screen and business projects will be at a stage where we can make a trip to the other coast. I think it could be enormous fun. I'm having visions of music and talking about music and drinking beer with people who write about music for two whole days, and then talking to agents about Hild (but, damn, I'd have to get my skates on if the timing is to work out). Huh.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

law enforcement

From Jo Ann

My girlfriend, after listening to a book review of one of your works on NPR felt compelled enough to buy The Blue Place and Stay for me. I usually don't even pick up the "lesbian tough chick" books, as I bore easily with the obligatory lesbian drama subplot that usually overshadows the actual plot, however, she insisted. I found I could not put The Blue Place down, and then had to immediately start Stay.

Since its years later after you completed Stay, but you do encourage us, your faithful reader, to provide you with comments to correct inaccuracies, you may have already heard...

A Glock handgun does not have an external safety to "flick" off.

I loved Stay and have now ordered Always. Can't wait to start.

You may be less than thrilled to know that I am a police officer. I read some of the blog of a "run-in" with law enforcement and it seemed to be one sided. I'd like to converse more on your perception of cops if you would give me the opportunity.

Seeing the abundance of correspondence you get, I don't expect to get a reply. I guess I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful articulation of a character that held me.

Here are some direct quotes from my comments on the blog post I assume you're referring to: "I've met many people in various branches of law enforcement and most of them are very nice. But they have a job to do, and their goals are sometimes at odds with those they're questioning." "Most law enforcement people are fine, upstanding (etc.) officers of the law, but it only takes a handful of less than fine, upstanding (etc.) to turn a citizen sour." "In this country, I've had nothing but good experiences but, still, I'm wary." My apologies if you find that offensive in some way but if you do, I'd suggest that in this instance you're leaping to unwarranted conclusions. I have nothing against anyone working in law enforcement (in this country). But, yes, I'm happy to chat more about this. I'll look forward to it.

I'm delighted you liked The Blue Place and Stay and look forward, too, to seeing what you think of Always. It delights me to hear that I didn't get the cop stuff utterly wrong. I know I screwed up with the Glock, though. I just made a bunch of assumptions; it's embarrassing. Anyway, since then I've been to the firing range and had a happy time making my ears ring (even with the ear protection) blowing holes in a paper target with a Glock 17. And a S+W .38. And a couple of other things. I liked the S+W best. (Kelley liked the Glock.) Mind you, I also liked the precision of the .22. Like a little scalpel. I can see why mob hitters used to use it for close-in work.

I couldn't agree more about the 'lesbian tough chick' genre and dyke drama. Tuh. I've never understood angst, either in life or in art. To me it's pretty simple: if you want something/one, go get it/her. If you fail, move on. If you succeed, enjoy. It's not rocket science.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Joe Biden

Obama picked Joe Biden. Big surprise. What did surprise me is Biden's relatively good record on quiltbag issues. According to Waymon Hudson at the Bilerico Report:

Biden scored a 78% from the HRC 2006 rankings on LGBT rights. I've gathered information on his votes and quotes about hate crimes legislation, employment discrimination, DADT, immigration equality and civil unions.
It's worth scrumming through.

For me the Obama/Biden ticket is utterly uninspiring but at least neither of them is an idiot, and if I could vote I suppose I would vote for them because, hey, look at the alternative.
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anglo-saxon in the round

This is a cross-posting from my research blog, Gemæcca, (which should actually be Gemæcce but I didn't understand the gender difference when I first built the blog, sigh).

Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum is holding an exhibition, "Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round." For all of us who can't actually get there, here's an audiovisual introduction to the show.

I think it would be marvellous to hold something like this in one's hand.

One of my most treasured possessions is a string of 73 Roman carnelians (first century AD). I wear them all the time, wrapped around my wrist. Most people don't notice them, but I smile to myself because I know I'm wearing jewellery two thousand years old. I positively lust for something gold from times past. A gold thrymsa would delight me beyond measure. Actually, a little sceatta would thrill me, just something the people I'm writing about might have touched.

Coins are on my mind because I've been thinking about money, and trade. Here are my current assumptions: that the economy of north of England, specifically Northumbria, would be still based largely on barter, or payment in kind, with hack silver being a rough and ready exchange where necessary. Coins were much more common in the south, particularly in Kent, with its Frankish trade, and East Anglia, with its brand new king's wic at Gipswic. So I've imagined Hild let loose at Gipswic with two small chest of hack silver, and then tried to work out what she could buy. And how.

First of all, she'd change some of her hacksilver for coin: gold and silver, which for convenience I'm calling shillings and pennies. I'm imagining the gold shilling is a biggish coin weighing about 4 grams and the silver penny is tiny and about 1g. I'm imagining gold was around eight times more valuable than silver, so one shilling = 32 pennies. I imagine you can buy a prime male slave (young, healthy, strong, well-mannered, and skilled) for two shillings, and for a penny a suckling pig or two dozen big loaves of bread. (A lot of work, too tedious to go into here, has gone into those assumptions so if anyone has better figures please--please!--share. I don't want to look like an idiot when this book is published.)

Then I had a lot of fun imagining the goods at Gipswic: the slaves, the imported glass goblets, the honey cakes, the Rhenish wine, the tiny perfume bottles, wheel-thrown pottery, cunning knives, ivory combs, gilt-bronze buckles... Then I had to figure out what it would all be wrapped in, and who would carry it, and how. And of course only a paragraph or two will actually make it into the book, but I feel hugely satisfied.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

bulletproof fashion

For those who have everything but worry some meanie might try spoil it all:

Harrods is now stocking a luxury range of 'ballistic daywear' for patrons who fear they are in the firing line.

A Colombian entrepreneur, Miguel Caballero, came up with the idea for the range as student while pondering how to protect his wealthy classmates from guerrilla revolutionaries.
(for the rest, read The Telegraph)

And it will keep you cool under fire...

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happy days for some

I came across this happy little article the other day:

Two women, one of whom is Coquille, will be getting married next May with the Coquille Indian Tribe:

As a federally recognized sovereign nation, the tribe is not bound by the Oregon's Constitution. The tribe recently adopted a law that recognizes same-sex marriage and extends to gay and lesbian partners, at least one of whom must be a Coquille, all tribal benefits of marriage.

The Coquilles (which tribal leaders prefer to pronounce KO-kwell) are probably the first tribe in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage, says Brian Gilley, a University of Vermont anthropology professor and author of the book, "Becoming Two-Spirit: Gay Identity and Social Acceptance in Indian Country."
(read the rest at The Bilerico Report)

I wonder if they'll get Hallmark cards:

Most states don't recognize gay marriage -- but now Hallmark does.

The nation's largest greeting card company is rolling out same-sex wedding cards -- featuring two tuxedos, overlapping hearts or intertwined flowers, with best wishes inside. ''Two hearts. One promise,'' one says.
(read the rest at The Advocate)

This domino effect reminds me of the mid-90s when dotcoms started offering domestic partnership benefits, and then the Fortune 500 followed, and then cities and some states followed them. It's all beginning to come together...

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday audio: hypnagogic #1

Late in 2006 and early 2007, when I was finishing Always and working on my memoir, my creative engine just wouldn't shut down. Every night, exhausted, I would start falling asleep only to have these weird dreamlike writing scenes drop into my head. I'd write them down, in the dark, on 3x5 index cards. In the morning, they were sometimes not legible. Sometimes even if they were legible they didn't make sense. Sometimes they sort of made sense but were incredibly strange. I have twenty or thirty of these snippets, which I call my hypnagogic writing. I don't edit them, because although they're strange, they are exactly themselves.

Here, by special request, is one of those snippets in audio format. It doesn't have a title, though I suppose, for ease of reference, we could call it "Rain." It's 37 seconds long. Enjoy.

Also, over at Gemæcce, my research blog, I've just done a post about Hadrian (his show at the British Museum, his wall, his boyfriend), which some of you may enjoy.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

nina hagen

For those who enjoyed "Antiworld" here's a little more Nina Hagen:

(via Karina)

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queer because of demonic possession

I thought this was a joke at first but apparently not:

WESTMINSTER, UK, August 15, 2008 ( - A priest of Westminster, the leading diocese of the Catholic Church of England and Wales, has written that promiscuity, whether homosexual or heterosexual, can lead to dire spiritual consequences, in addition to the dangers to physical health.

Promiscuity, as well as homosexuality and pornography, says 73 year-old Fr. Jeremy Davies, is a form of sexual perversion and can lead to demonic possession. Offering what may be an explanation for the explosion of homosexuality in recent years, Fr. Davies said, "Among the causes of homosexuality is a contagious demonic factor."

I grew up Catholic. Most priests I met were either not really there, just going through the motions--stuck in a role/job they didn't like but with no idea how to escape--or very reasonable human beings with a practical and engaging mindset. (See for example the second of these two video readings from my memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party.) I had the whole Catholic experience, including convent school, and never encountered a wingnut like this. Wow. The nuttiness is almost awe-inspiring. Except, of course, if left unchallenged it can lead to things like the Spanish Inquisition and witch burnings. I seriously hope Westminster sends this lunatic to a comfy and secure retirement home where he can mumble his muffin quietly in the corner and the nuns make sure he takes his meds.

While you're reading the article, listen to "Antiworld" by Nina Hagen, from 1982's Nunsexmonkrock:

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the beautiful sin

This is a cross-posting from my research blog, Gemæcca (which should actually be Gemæcce but I didn't understand the gender difference when I first built the blog, sigh).

Hild is still prepubescent, but I'm already turning my research attention to sexuality. (In writing terms, I need to have facts about four years ahead of character and plot development so my unconscious brain can be knitting things together without having to worry about taking things to places my conscious brain later finds impossible.) So a couple of weeks ago I started asking around regarding academic opinions of how people in early 7th C. Northumbria might have regarded women and their sexuality.

A friend of mine, who used to be a medievalist before turning her attention to queer theory and film and literature, contacted an expert in the subject. We'd all read the usual suspects (both medieval and queer studies texts*) but, really, there wasn't anything specific about the people and times I'm interested in. As with a lot of my work, I have to just take a lot of guesses and then make shit up. At least I'm not contravening what is known to be known.

Anyway, between the three of us we decided that the most likely scenario was that all women (that is, royal women before the founding of nunneries) got married, and that if they then wanted to have sex with other women no one would much care as long as they were discreet. After all, the point of marriage was alliance, household management, and the provision of heirs. Married girls loving other married girls wouldn't have any impact on any of these points.

So Hild will marry, she will have children. But if I want, she can also notice women. What she'll do after she notices them I haven't yet decided.

Anyway, one of the books I read while pondering this subject was the Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (Garland, New York and London, 1996). In that book I came across two pieces that I thought readers might enjoy. The first is a poem:

Etienne de Fougeres. Livre des manières

translated by robert L.A. clark

There's nothing surprising about the "beautiful sin"

when nature prompts it,

but whosoever is awakened by the "vile sin"

is striving against nature.

Him [sic] must one pursue with dogs,

throw[ing] stones and sticks;

one should give him blows

and kill him like any cur.

These ladies have made up a game:

With two "trutennes" they make an "eu," **

they bang coffin against coffin,

without a poker to stir up their fire.

They don't play at jousting

but join shield to shield without a lance.

They don't need a pointer in their scales,

nor a handle in their mold.

Out of water they fish for turbot

and they have no need for a rod.

They don't bother with a pestle in their mortar

nor a fulcrum for their see-saw.

They do their jousting act in couples

and go at it at full tilt;

at the game of thigh-fencing

they lewdly share their expenses.

They're not all from the same mold:

one lies still and the other makes busy,

one plays the cock and the other the hen

and each one plays her role.

** The meanings of the words trutennes and eu are unknown and unattested to elsewhere.

The second is an anonymous letter between two twelfth-century nuns:

translated by peter dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of the Euro­pean Love-Lyric, II. 479.

To C——, sweeter than honey or honeycomb, B—— sends all the love there is to her love. You who are unique and special, why do you make delay so long, so far away? Why do you want your only one to die, who as you know, loves you with soul and body, who sighs for you at every hour, at every moment, like a hungry little bird. Since I've had to be without your sweet­est presence, I have not wished to hear or see any other human being, but as the turtle-dove, having lost its mate, perches forever on its little dried up branch, so I lament endlessly till I shall enjoy your trust again. I look about and do not find my lovershe does not comfort me even with a single word. Indeed when I reflect on the loveliness of your most joyful speech and as­pect, I am utterly depressed, for I find nothing now that I could compare with your love, sweet beyond honey and honeycomb, compared with which the brightness of gold and silver is tarnished. What more? In you is all gentle­ness, all perfection, so my spirit languishes perpetually by your absence. You are devoid of the gall of any faithlessness, you are sweeter than milk and honey, you are peerless among thousands, I love you more than any. You alone are my love and longing, you the sweet cooling of my mind, no joy for me anywhere without you. All that was delightful with you is wearisome and heavy without you. So I truly want to tell you, if I could buy your life for the price of mine, [I'd do it] instantly, for you are the only woman I have chosen according to my heart. Therefore I always beseech God that bitter death -may not come to me before I enjoy the dearly desired sight of you again. Farewell. Have of me all the faith and love there is. Accept the writ­ing I send, and with it my constant mind.

I like the second better than the first, perhaps because I've always disliked the nod-nod wink-wink style of poetry, perhaps because the first is all about what's 'missing'--an irritatingly phallocentric view of lesbianism--and perhaps because the latter is by a woman in love and the former isn't.

* I can't be bothered to list them all. I've read dozens, and they all have such grindingly long and dull titles. But here's a random sample (the ones that came to hand first when I went to the shelf):

- Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, John Boswell (Vintage, 1995)
- Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia M.H.Smith (CUP, 2004)
- Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King's Wife in the Early Middle Ages, Pauline Stafford (Leicester University Press, 1998)
- Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints' Lives and Their Contexts, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (SUNY, 1996)
- Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, Bernadette J. Brooten (University of Chicago, 1996)

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

water footprint

Seeing as the English radio programme I linked to earlier today is currently unavailable, I thought I'd link to an English newspaper (the Guardian) article instead.

This is a pretty interesting way to look at ecological footprints. I honestly hadn't thought of it before. And, y'know, I should have. Water has always been an interest and concern of mine (exhibit A: Slow River) but apart from the ridiculousness of importing bottle water from Fiji, I hadn't considered the 'virtual' household use of us Westerners (and, oh ho, even using the word 'Western' is a big indicator of prejudice, privilege and world view -- no, not beating myself up, just noting it). Anyway, take a look. Let me know what you think.

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From the Ban to the Booker

Over at the BBC best-selling author Val McDermid examines the development of the lesbian novel and its transition from the margins to the mainstream.

She looks at the furore surrounding Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, the subject of an obscenity trial in 1928 and banned because of its lesbian content. Virginia Woolf's Orlando was published in the same year but escaped the censor. The programme includes a rare BBC recording of Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration behind Woolf's modernist masterpiece.

Contributors include Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters and Ali Smith.

(Thanks, Evecho.)

I've listened to the first segment (it's about 35 minutes) and it's fascinating. I'm hoping the second part might offer a clue as to why lesbian books (written by or about lesbians) in this country (the US) have cooties while those from the UK no longer do. (Sarah Schulman let off steam on this issue a while ago.)...

...though of course I have theories--which I'm making up as I go along but, okay, here goes. Basically, size matters.

In a big country (like the US), there's room for burly fiction niches. The sheer number of, for example, SF readers or quiltbag (LGBTQuIA) readers are enough to keep specialised imprints, and publishers, and booksellers, afloat. In a small country (like the UK), they're not. So in a small country, communities are forced to intermingle. The genre DNA stays mixed. The subspecies (queer books, SF books) don't diverge too far from the main branch--or perhaps they pull the main branch along with them. Then once societal stigma is lifted (in the UK dykes can get married, adopt children, serve in the armed forces) lesbian literature is quickly reintegrated. Here, lesbian literature is ghettoised. Here, good novels that happen to be written by lesbians and feature lesbian protagonists are doubly shunned: once by mainstream society and then once by the queer literati who want the novel to be about, y'know, The Struggle.

Then there's class. In the UK the production of literature is historically an upper class pursuit. Eccentricities like, say, fascination with girls or weird science are forgivable if you have enough money, education, and lead in your cut-glass accent to quash objections. In the US, though, writers have been fairly aggressive in fighting for the Man of the People mantle. (All crap, of course, but it's the legend; all the upper class eccentrics fled to Paris.)

I think Sarah Waters is absolutely right: you can tell when the writer of ostensibly straight fiction is a dyke. There are weird resonances. Ever since I read Daphne du Maurier's short fiction I knew, as surely as I know this keyboard on which I'm typing exists, that Daphne liked girls. I had no idea if she'd done anything about it, but I knew with vast certainty that she had Those Feelings. One day someone will come up with the same kind of programme to spot textual queerness that the people over at The Gender Genie use to rate text in terms of masculine or feminine (thanks Elisabeth). Then we'll all have some fun.

Anyway, go listen and let me know what you think.

*** EDIT: Part one has now been taken down, but part 2 is available here for the next five or six days. It's worth listening to. ***

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Monday, August 18, 2008


From: Robin

Could you describe a transcendent experience you've had, or possibly, created? I thought of this because I was listening to Olympic Michael Phelps hype talk on ESPN - and then they talked about how he's transcended the sport. It got me to thinking about authors, artists in general and how/when/if transcendence is considered. I admire your work and thought to ask you what you thought about it!

Good luck with Hild...

My first two novels were science fiction. I got gratifying reviews from many mainstream publications (the Los Angeles Times, New York Times Book Review, New Statesman and Society etc.) lesbian gay journals, and genre magazines. It was brilliant. I was manic with glee. One nagging annoyance was the insistence by many of the non-genre reviewers that my work 'transcended' science fiction. I'm sure most of them meant it as a compliment to me, but it's actually an insult to science fiction. Ammonite and Slow River are squarely science fictional. They're also, in my opinion, damn good novels. They don't have to transcend SF to do that. Really good SF is still SF.

So I wonder what the Olympics commentators meant. That swimming is normally boring but winning lots of medals reduces the boredom factor? That niches, like, y'know, swimming, needs transcending because hoi polloi won't take any notice? It's this notion of 'trancendence' when it comes to achievement that gets my goat.

But it occurs to me you might be asking about feeling transcendent. I feel ecstatic often when my writing is going well, when I have a direct connection to my creative well, when my conscious critical cortex is offline. I feel like god, but also like just a small part of a marvellous whole. It's how I know I've found the true line in my work. It's lovely.

I've also had non-writing moments of pure joy: once (strangely enough--because I hated and resented the whole Catholic thing growing up) as a teenager in church, as the sun was going down, streaming through stained glass windows and the organist played Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Beautiful. Once a few miles north of Whitby, on a gorgeous day, walking an old (ancient) cliff path high above the sea, surrounded by gorse and heather, when I flushed a pheasant by mistake and it did the trail-a-broken-wing thing to distract me from its chicks. Once at Whitby itself when I crossed the threshold to the abbey and felt history just fist through me.

For me the ecstatic/transcendent moment is an elevation, a thrill, and a moment of distilled calm all at once. It feels like magic. I feel privileged to have experienced it so often.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

I've loved you before...

It's Sunday. The heat wave is over. (It has been *hot* here in Seattle. We've been running our AC so much we got fretful about the noise for the neighbours and so had a sound baffling blanket thing fitted to the compressor. Now it just sounds like one jet on the runway, not two.) Anyway, I find I've been talking about boys a lot the last couple of days (especially if you count the penguin), so now it's time for some mushy, sentimental girl stuff. Here's some Xena and Gabrielle vidding.

(Thanks, Fran.)
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men in skirts

No, not kilts, skirts.

The Europeans are freaking The Sartorialist out. Thorny questions: what shoes to wear with the skirt? Should it be above or below the knee? Answers on a postcard...

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

sir penguin

I currently have two goals: to win the Booker Prize and to be Sir Nicola. Well, if a penguin can do it, so can I:

A penguin who was previously made a Colonel-in-Chief of the Norwegian Army has been knighted at Edinburgh Zoo.

Penguin Nils Olav has been an honorary member and mascot of the Norwegian King's Guard since 1972.

Over the years, he has been promoted through the ranks after being adopted by Royal Guard who visited the zoo.

During the ceremony, Nils had a sword dubbed on each side of his head, where his shoulders should be, to confirm his regimental knighthood.

Yay, Nils.

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emergency codpiece substitutions

(via Jennifer)

Codpieces are one of those bizarre accidents of history that must have made sense at the time but are now utterly giggle-worthy. (Funnily enough, I couldn't find a YouTube video about merkins.) Anyway, for this video blame my current obsession with all things medieval (or, this case, cod medieval...).

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Details thinks there's no such thing as bisexuality

This article in Details is a bit of a head scratcher: What If You Only Thought You Were Gay? Perhaps the author has recently arrived from the nineteenth century. The early nineteenth century. Or an alternate universe. The concept of bisexuality (not to mention polymorphous perversity) seems to have passed her by.

Or perhaps bisexuals have availed themselves of the latest invisibility technology. (For a truly interesting conversation about invisibility, visit Kelley's blog, and do read the comments.)

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Friday audio: Bare Hands

I was going to do a reading but after yesterday's screed I thought we could all do with a bit of music. This is a song written in 1982. (The whole thing is copyright Janes Plane; I'd release it under a Creative Commons licence but band members have long since gone their separate ways, I can't find everyone to make a new agreement, and we own it collectively--so, please, with this one, just behave. I listen to it now and yearn to fix it--a few too many choruses, I think--but, oh, I loved singing that song for an audience. Loved it.

This was recorded in Bridlington, a seaside town in East Yorkshire, at two o'clock in the morning after much drinking. (Hey, it's method singing...) We thought we were going to change the world. Maybe we did, a little.

Enjoy. Oh, and it should be played loud.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

You've been warned

There's an interesting article in New Scientist, "The science of fiction," by Keith Oatley. For those who aren't subscribers (they're doing a special offer at the moment--seriously, seriously cheap, go take a look), here's a reasonable precis from

"For the first time in history there is now scientific evidence that reading fiction has psychological benefits," writes Keith Oatley in New Scientist. Oatley is a professor of psychology and the leader of the Toronto team. He is also an award-winning novelist (The Case of Emily V.). On the phone from the University of Toronto, he explains that reading fiction appears to stimulate parts of the brain that govern empathy. "What you're doing when you're reading fiction is you're allowing yourself to become another person for a short period of time ... It loosens up your personality, your rigidities."

Oatley got a bunch o' people to read Chekhov, and from his experiments (just go read the article, so I don't have to lay it all out here) he concludes that reading fiction improves the reader's social intelligence. To which I say, Well, yeah. I say, Duh. I say, Ya think? Consider your friends. Toll through them in your mind. I bet you a beer that the ones you like best are the ones who read for fun. They're kinder, wiser, more empathetic. (Plus reading is, y'know, delicious, which makes a person happier and therefore more pleasant to be around. How delicious? Read "Doing it for Pleasure.")

Anyway, back to the articles. Neither uses the phrase "mirror neurons," but I bet a functional MRI of those people reading Chekhov would show fireworks going on in the inferior parietal cortex.

There's significant research to show mirror neurons are probably the governing factor in the development of empathy. We learn from watching others; we learn how they think, what they feel, what they might do next. It's almost as good as having the experience ourselves. In fact, in a way, it is having the experience ourselves. Aud explains (to her self-defense students, in Always) how and why mirror neurons are crucial to our survival:

"You've probably all seen the way children imitate things to understand them. They'll pretend to roll out a pie crust right along with you, they make noises and pretend to change gears as you drive. This happens in your brain, too. When we see someone pick up a bottle, a whole set of nerve fibers, called mirror neurons, pretend to be picking up the bottle, too. Whether actually picking up the bottle or just watching someone do it, those neurons fire in the same pattern. Your body understands intimately how it feels. So when I shift grip, your brain shifts grip, too. And these mirror neurons are hooked into your limbic system, to the part of your brain that handles emotions. So your brain knows what it means when I'm turning the bottle like that. You know, deep down, in that intuitive part of you, what's going on, in a way that your conscious mind probably doesn't."


"You can look it up when you go home. For now, think of the mirror neurons as recreating the experience of others inside ourselves. They put us in the shoes of those others. We feel others' actions and sensations in our own cortex, in our own body, as though we ourselves are having those sensations, doing those things. In a very real way, we are doing those things. Think of your mirror neurons, your hunches, your intuition as a powerful advisor, an interpreter."

Recreating the experience of others inside ourselves gives us experience we might not have had otherwise. When we read about a woman choosing to hit someone, to some degree we experience that choice--and its consequences--ourselves. We learn from it. Reading fiction is a Good Thing.

But only good fiction. Good fiction is the stuff that doesn't traffic in cliche, that puts particular people in particular situations and describes how they feel, what they see (and hear and taste), how they respond, and what the consequences are. This is why, a year ago, I wrote a rant, which I'll share with you now:

When I write, dear reader, I don't want to build a careful tale for you to discuss with a smile in a sunny place, I want to own you. I don't want to be The New TV Series, I want to be pornography: to thrill you so hard you're ashamed but can't help yourself crawling back for more.

I want to write a whole novel that invades you. I want to control what you think and feel, to put you right there, right then, killing and being killed, fucking and being fucked, cooking and starving, drinking and thinking, barely surviving and absolutely thriving. I want to give you a life you've never had, change the one you live.

How? I will take control of your mirror neurons. I will give you tastes and textures, torments and terrain you might never find in your real life. I will take you, sweep you off your feet, own you. For a while. For a while when you're lost in my book you will be somewhere else, somewhen else, someone else.

I control the horizontal, I control the vertical. Sit back, relax, enjoy. When you're done, take a breath, smoke a cigarette, figure out who you are now, and come back for more.

It's more than a rant, actually, it's a dedication. A vow: with my next novel, I'm going to run my software on your hardware. You've been warned.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

good times and bad and MS

From: Patti

One thing that emerged from the interview that you rarely address in your Ask Nicola blog is how MS affects your life. After reading And Now We Are Going To Have A Party, I thought maybe it was your British upbringing that causes you to downplay it so. So perhaps it's the 'right, let's get on with it' attitude that keeps you pushing through the good times and bad?

Maybe it is--though sometimes, for a day or two, I don't push on, I give up. And maybe I sometimes just don't want to talk about it in public. Here are a few reasons why.

MS takes up a lot of space in my life. Right now I don't want to give it more by dwelling on it in this forum.

Illness is tedious. I realise that many people (Patti, this is not aimed at you, but at all the people who love to buy those memoirs of degradation and failure and heartbreak) love to wallow in their own squalor and adversity, but I don't. I don't drive people to numbness talking about my dreams, either. Or my therapy. (Perhaps that's because I've never had any. I take it out on you poor bastards, ha ha.)

That river in Egypt has its uses. La la la.

Also, it turns out I have talked about it--many times. A cursory search* of my website turns up these posts and of this blog turns up these. And for now I'm done. I'll let you know if that changes.

* I have search functions on all my blogs and on

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ammonite covers

From: Sly

I've seen I think three different covers for Ammonite. One is rather generic and I suppose doesn't really count. One is with an ammonite with blues and blacks with small bits of white and one is of a woman wearing some kind of gauzy full length garment walking along a beach done in pastel tones.

What I want to know is which do you prefer or like best?

By 'generic' I assume you mean genre: the original Del Rey cover in orange and yellow and red with a jellybean spaceship front and centre. I didn't like that one--I had my heart set on a fossil, and gorgeous blues and gold and silver--but, wow, it sold brilliantly for a first novel: well over 25,000 copies in the first few months. So I stopped complaining. The marketing people at Del Rey clearly knew their business.

Two years later, the reissued mass market paperback, designed to be published in tandem with the brand new Slow River hardcover, was cool because stylistically it matched the biologically-focused SR. But it dated really fast and, well, it still didn't have a fossil on the cover.

When Stay was being published, a few years later, Del Rey thought it would be good for the Little Book That Could to vaguely match that. They published a whole new, trade paper edition, and made it look much less science fictional: the woman wandering barefoot on the beach in a bedsheet look.

None of these covers work that well for me. But the cool thing is that they attracted different readerships, so it seems churlish to complain. But my favourite Ammonite cover, hands down, is the one I designed for the UK:

I forget who did the actual artwork but it was more or less exactly what I'd drawn in stick figures. I think it really represents the book (clearly the Germans thought so, too--they used the same artwork). On some level, though, they're all beautiful to me; they're all my first novel.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

xena and gabrielle

From: Janine

I'm not sure if you ever watched these episodes way back when, but Xena and Gabrielle had quite the following. A while back, I found a website created by some people all over the world. They wrote amateur-ish screenplays that began where the TV series left off, and included the romance that the series only hinted to.

I thought you and/or people you know might like a bit of light reading about another female kicking some arse. They made some pretty nice graphic art for this as well.

Also, thanks for posting that song on your blog today!

I am a dyke. I was breathing and had a TV in the nineties. Of course I watched Xena! Actually I was introduced to Xena by writers (and sweeties) Melissa Scott and Lisa Barnett. I was at OutWrite, in Boston. I didn't know anyone. I felt at a loose end. Melissa and Lisa took me under their wing. They invited me for a drink and dinner. "But first we have to watch this TV show." I watched it with them; it was Hercules. Starring an evil warlord called...Xena. I was hooked. Then she got her own show in September.

It was destination viewing for me the first two seasons. Marvellous. It made my week, every week. I'd never seen anything like it on television. (I got the videos. A friend bought me the six-foot tall cardboard Xena cutout--it scared many a guest at night as they crept to the bathroom in the dark.) There had been no Alias, no La Femme Nikita, no Buffy, no Witchblade, no Sarah Connor Chronicles. Nothing. Sadly, the Xena producers' need to have their demographic cake and eat it too, that is, their unwillingness to bring Xena and Gabrielle from subtext to maintext, ruined the show on an essential level. There could be no happy ending. We had to deal with crap episodes (I spit on Ulysses, spit on him!) and senseless plot arcs. And of course the characters themselves had no integrity because of the essential lie. But, wow, I still fucking loved it. A quick search of my website, particularly Ask Nicola, shows that I've talked about it a lot (20 times or more). I wish someone would make the film...

I'm glad you liked the Shakespear's Sister song. Strictly speaking it's seriously naughty for me to post it this way--but I couldn't find a YouTube clip with decent sound quality so I thought, ah, fuck it. If I get sued I'll put up a blog tip jar to pay for my legal defence.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008


I felt like doing show and tell with wine today. So here are two wines we've enjoyed in the last few weeks. The first is a wine from Verona, a Valpolicella, bought for us by a friend (hi Pam!) which we drank the other day when I hit the 50,000 word mark on Hild. It was lovely: soft-spoken, but with a kind of fruity heft just right for the hot-day-turning-to-perfect-evening. Despite the softness, it had some structure (unlike those flabby American merlots that everyone in the world except me thinks are so fine, pah). These were grapes from a land under cultivation for millennia. Well-bred, with a hint of steel. We spent an hour on that wine and a handful of walnuts as the sun was going down. Dragonflies added their titanium zip overhead; lamb and sausage braised with onions in the kitchen. We smiled at each other a lot, feeling full, and tired, and happy from a day's good work.

The second is the wonderful 21-year old Rioja we drank at our anniversary dinner.

Now this had more than a hint of steel, it was like a Toledo blade. Aromatic, haughty, as structured as a gothic cathedral. Brilliant, beautiful, the colour of an Anglo-Saxon garnet. And the dinner itself was wonderful. (There's a little bit, including the menu, in an earlier blog post here.)

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Saturday, August 9, 2008

Wonder Woman

This was very cool, right up to the very end, when Wonder Woman speaks. Not only is the voice wimpy, I mean, she sounds like a wuss, what she says is lame. Huh. But maybe the film will still be worth seeing. Action speaks louder than words. At least I sincerely hope so.

And here's a ten-minute 'making of' video that leaves out all the juicy background on William Moulton Marston. Wikipedia leaves a lot of it out, too, but anyone who knows the comic knows about the serious attention to bondage...

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Friday audio: The Blue Place #2

Here's the next reading from The Blue Place, in which Aud and the mystery woman she bumped into in the rain meet again in the police gym, and chi sao:

This is a longer reading--about 11 minutes--and better quality. I've upgraded the quality of TBP #1, now, too, so if you were put off by the initial bottom-of-a-well quality, give it another go.

I've have other Aud readings, from Stay. Let me know if you like this sort of thing and I'll keep posting them, otherwise I'll switch to songs for a couple of weeks.

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Thursday, August 7, 2008

Norwegian Constitution Day

From: George Hesselberg (

What a pleasure to have discovered your novels. If you happen to mention May 17 in a future writing, could I convince you to call it Norwegian Constitution Day, instead of Norwegian Independence Day?

Independence day is in June. Tusen takk!

Wow, I don't know how this one got lost in the queue, George, but, well, better late than never. Yes, yes of course I'll remember. (Hangs head in shame.) May 17 = Norwegian Constitution Day. May 17 = Norwegian Constitution Day. May 17 = Norwegian Constitution Day.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

an interesting conversation at Kelley's blog

For those of you who don't follow Kelley's blog, there's an interesting conversation going on over there about language and translation, under her post "When you are jadeando."

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contemplate your fucking navel

How Contemplating Your Navel May Lead You to An Understanding of Why Feminism is Fundamental

A post from Shakesville, a 'feminist blog, and a feminist's blog'. Read and discuss. Oh, and while you read, why not listen to Shakespear's Sister's 'Heroine'?

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

KUOW interview

Today KUOW (a Seattle NPR affiliate station) will re-broadcast my 2007 segment about self-defense and Always. The interview airs as part of the Sound Focus program on Tuesday 5 August, 2 PM - 3 PM Pacific Time.

You can listen live online or download a podcast after the show. The whole show sounds interesting, particularly the weightlifting judge, but if you're pressed for time you could just go listen to my segment on my website here.

For those who do have time for the whole hour, here's how KUOW is billing the show:

Musical Travels in Russia: Sarah Bassingthwaighte
A KGB detention cell is not the first place you'd associate with classical flute music. But if you walked by one of those old prisons a few years back you'd find Seattle flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte practicing there with her students. Sarah went to the old Soviet Union in the year 2000, playing in venues ranging from verdant gardens to dank jail cells. Sarah is a composer, flutist and teacher who's released a new recording inspired by her travels. Among the places she visited in Russia was the summer estate of the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. She speaks with KUOW's Dave Beck.

Living Self Defense
Self-defense is not just a skill; it's a world view. When you put on a seatbelt, when you choose an outfit, when you speak your beliefs, you are defending the life you choose. Seattle-based novelist Nicola Griffith bases her life and those of her fictional characters in the new book, Always, on that philosophy. In an archive from May 10, 2007, she tells Megan Sukys about the personal experiences that led her to see life as an attack waiting to happen.

Gavin Borchert Music Review
In the liner notes for this disc, composer Steven Stucky points out that both he and Esa-Pekka Salonen (the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director who considers himself "a composer who conducts"), see themselves as aesthetic descendants of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, who himself was influenced by the clarity and luminous textures of French music. It's especially apparent in his downright Ravellian 1937 Piano Sonata. Gloria Cheng, a passionate advocate of contemporary music, plays this and other sparkling virtuoso pieces by Stucky and Salonen.

You May Approach The Bench Press
A judges' robe pretty much erases the body of the person wearing it. And for years, that was fine with Faith Ireland. She was elected to the bench of the Washington state Supreme Court in 1999, after 16 years as a King County Superior Court Judge. She only thought about her body when her chronic back pain acted up. Then, during a routine jury screening, a potential juror introduced her to the idea of weight lifting to help with her back pain. That put her on a path to competitively lifting hundreds of pounds in national contests. It's called power lifting, and Faith Ireland is a national record holder in the sport.

I don't know who wrote the copy for my segment but, well, that's not exactly how I regard what I said. Let me know if you agree.

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Monday, August 4, 2008

developing characters

From: Janine

As a science teacher, I find it extremely interesting that I've surrounded myself with writers. I have friends who write sermons, poetry, prayers, fiction, non-fiction, etc. I've come to a place now where I sometimes think about the possibility of writing some of my own fiction, perhaps even science fiction.

The one idea that I struggle with is character development. I've asked others this, and I became curious about your writing. Your characters, especially Aud, are beautiful creations, and I've enjoyed watching them morph over time. My characters already appear in my head, fully-developed. That would make for flatness. I like round, curvy and complex.

What process do you go through when writing a story to develop your characters?

It's good to know people unlike ourselves. One of the things I find quite strange about this country is how people...flock. Neighbourhoods, bars, churches--the populations are quite homogenous. In England, there seemed to be a lot more mixing. Community was built on geography, on the village--the populations were smaller but more various in terms of education, aspiration, attitude. There again, I grew up there; my roots went deeper and wider into the community. Here in Seattle, where I've never been employed, or been to school, or attended a church, it's easy to only meet people like me. I have to make strenuous efforts to connect with people from different walks of life. And mostly, to be honest, it turns out not to be worth the effort.

Which is why a blog like this, and getting on the road when I have a new book out, is so rewarding. So thanks to all who share of themselves in this forum.

Getting to know characters begins the same way as getting to know people in real life. I ask a new person questions. I observe them in situations like a restaurant, or bad traffic, or suffering reversals--a bad day at work, coping with criticism, dealing with their mad/bad/sad brother. I compare carefully what they say with what they do. I compare what they say verbally with what they say with their bodies. I do the same thing with a character.

With a character, though, I ask by putting them in a situation: sit them on a sofa with a precious manuscript, their sweetie, and their dog. Set the house on fire. See what happens. This is what I did most recently with Aud: put her in a room with ten southern women and watched her try to explain her view of the world. I learnt a lot. In fact, I learnt the thing I'd been trying to learn for ten years: how and why Aud became fascinated by self defense.

The mistake most beginning writers make is that they try to build their characters. They assemble them from off-the-shelf components to fit plot demands--I need her to be angry here, and kick the dog, so that her brother forms a lifelong hatred of her, so he can murder her friend in chapter two--and expect them to be whole and realistic. Intermediate writers tend to constantly put themselves in the character's shoes, so the character, while living and breathing, becomes autobiographical. I've said before that art is a black box process, and finding, observing, and describing characters is part of that. Aud came to me in a dream and I spent the next fifteen years figuring her out (though only ten of those years actually writing about her). It doesn't get much more mysterious than that.

But for beginners, I'd say: make lists and then write scenes. Write a list of your character's favourite/least favourite novel, relative, outfit, meal, school subject and so on. Then write a scene where s/he is four and fifteen and thirty: the first time she is told off at school, the first sex, the first adult setback. Whatever. But pick small private moments and big public moments. Take her through embarrassment, joy, fear, envy, hunger. Give her some dialogue, describe her from inside her own head and from another character's perspective. And delight in it, in her. You'll find out a lot.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

name, rank, and serial number

In my Bad Self days, I was stopped and/or detained by the police for questioning more than once. I'd had dinned into me the mantra Give them nothing but I always found myself beginning to talk; I wanted, on some level, to be liked. I wanted to be a Good Detainee; I wanted them to understand I was a nice girl in terrible circumstances. (I wanted the world to be a reasonable place.) I always managed to shut myself up eventually, but, oh, the impulse was there.

Here's a video that explains better than I ever could why it's a bad idea, a very very bad idea, even if you're the most super innocent on the planet, to say anything to police if they want to ask you a few questions in connection with a crime. It's a 25-minute argument by a law professor for pleading the fifth.

Law enforcement people are not kidding when they say 'anything you say may be used in evidence against you'. Anything. And here's the kicker: nothing you say may be used in evidence for you, because then it becomes hearsay. The lawyer here talks too fast, and he's just a wee bit smug, but the information he delivers is excellent. I recommend that you watch it.

If for some reason you can't see the video, follow this link instead. (Thanks, Cindy.)

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

20 years of writers

Here's a tribute, put together by the Lambda Literary Foundation for the awards ceremony in May, to many of the writers from our community who have died during the twenty years. It's stunning to see how much talent we've lost. Just shocking.

(Via the Bilerico Project.)

This video made me weep at the Lambda Literary Awards. It was really hard to pull myself together to accept the award afterwards.

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Friday, August 1, 2008

Friday audio: The Blue Place #1

Today, it's a reading, the first five minutes of The Blue Place. Enjoy.

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