Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!

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Mid-Race Regrets

My father-in-law is an amazing athlete. I am… somewhat less amazing. But I’ve actually felt like I’ve been pretty good about exercising this summer. (You know, until I exploded my leg at least.) I was bike commuting to work every day. I practiced rugby twice a week. I even did a few crunches once in a while! Not too shabby!

Earlier this summer, Hubby and I were gearing up for our annual Midnight Sun Run with Dad, and I was dumb enough to express confidence in my abilities this year. My sweet darling laughed in my face and reminded me that I hadn’t done any long distance running since, oh, the last time we did the Sun Run. You know, two years ago.

“But I’m fit!” I protested. “I do all the things!”

Apparently not all the right things. He didn’t argue that I was in possibly the best shape of my life. He merely argued that I was working all the wrong muscles. That I didn’t have the stamina. That I’d start off at a quick trot and then be sucking wind and puking by the end.

Bah! I thought. I’ll show him!

Why does he always have to be right? Why can’t I be the right one once in a while?

I don’t know if it’s just because I have an incurable case of lit brain, but I find that there are many correlations between my writing life and my everything-else life.

This last month, in case you didn’t notice from the discernable uptick of stupidity and laziness around here, was a NaNo month. *waves tiny flag* And I had every confidence that I was gonna throat punch that puny word goal into the Stone Age. Because, come on, I’d been working on writing stuff every day this entire year with like three exceptions. Like three! How can you be more ready than that?

But it occurred to me right around Week Two that the writing I had been doing wasn’t necessarily good draft-like-crazy-for-a-month prep sort of writing. A lot of the writing I had been doing was things like taking setting notes, or drafting out blog posts, or editing second or third drafts, or popping out a piece of flash fiction. The truth was, I hadn’t drafted a new full-length novel since last November.

Much like my running race, I felt that lack of training pretty badly toward the end. I mean, I still throat punched the word goal, although maybe not quite to the Stone Age, but it required a lot more oomph that I thought it was going to.

I’m not saying that I regret those other styles of writing projects I’ve been working on this year. I don’t. After all, if I never paused in my drafting frenzy, I’d a) have nothing but a bunch of embarrassing first drafts sitting around, b) not have won short story contests or placed other shorts for publication, and c) have gone stark raving mad from the whirlwind of writing so much, so quickly, for so long.

But I think next time, I’ll set aside my other projects just a little sooner and work myself back up to fighting form. After all, during Camp sessions, I have the option of scaling back my daily word goals; I don’t have that choice in November. And as much as I struggled to write an average of 900 words a day last month, 1700 would be exceedingly difficult.

So what can I do to make sure that I’m ready for writing come this fall? Well, for starters, I’ve reinstituted writing daily- new words, not just editing old ones. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fiction, or all from the same project, but it does have to be new. Currently, I’m only requiring 500 a day of myself, but I’ll start to up that more as we get closer to November. (I know not everyone goes in for a daily wordcount. Some folks like to put in a certain amount of time, or energy, or however they gauge themselves. I just find that counting words works best for me. You do you.)

Another thing I want to do is to put in more preparation in the form of outlining. I think one of the things that made the end of the month so difficult was that I really jumped into the project with little more than an idea for an opening scenario. I had absolutely zilch planned out for anything past like chapter four. I used to write like this all the time, but I’ve found in my old age that the speed and the quality of my drafts go up considerably when I have a solid framework laid out beforehand. (If you want to argue that with me, I’m currently drafting a post comparing and contrasting pantsing and planning and would love your input! Shoot me an email or hit me up in the comments!)

Finally, I need to start setting aside more time for writing again. I’ve given myself about half the writing time that I had before and, although I’ve worked at using that time more efficiently, I still need more time to hit those higher goals.

So that’s my big plan! If my sixty-something father-in-law can straight up curb stomp me in every single race we’ve ever run together (while smiling and holding a conversation no less), I can put in the time and the training to get good at writing again. Hi-ya! *high kicks off a bench*

*breaks leg*

Designing Graphic Novels Class

ColorHello, internet! Would you believe that the good folks at Pearl Creek Elementary School have once again trusted me to teach a writing class to the impressionable younglings they’ve sworn to instruct and protect?  Because they have!

Two quarters ago, I did a NaNoWriMo group as part of the after school program.  And I’m at it again this quarter, with a class about designing graphic novels.  The idea is to help the kids design their own story, art, and layout style, which they can then spend the summer turning into a full graphic novel.  (Haha, we’ll see if the lazy imps actually carry through with that part.)

And now, with this handy dandy post, you can follow along too!

Week One (last Tuesday): Story

We briefly talked about the difference between a graphic novel and a comic, and then about what makes a story.  We did a little bit of brainstorming- talking about building a story based around a cool character, or a what if question, or whatever- and then set them loose.  This group of twenty kids ranges in age from five to twelve, so there’s quite the skill span, but the beautiful thing about art is that it’s adaptable to all levels.  They did great, and had fun decorating the covers of their workbooks.

Week Two (tomorrow! into the future!): Characters

Outline in hand, the kids will begin sketching their characters.  Ideally, they’ll do sketches of their main cast from a few different angles, and do at least one sketch of any secondary characters, recurring pets, or whatever other livey-movey bits they plan to include.  This will be their chance to decide how much detail they want in their art, and give them an idea of how much time that will take.

Week Three: Setting

Sketching the characters should give them a better idea of their art style, and so this week, we’ll hop into setting.  I want them to sketch out at least two scenes in detail, and then do a couple smaller sketches of maybe the buildings or trees or whatever that will be populating their backgrounds.

Week Four:  Layout

For this week, the students will begin thumbnailing the first few pages of their graphic novels, to get a feel for the amount of dialog, people, movement, panels, etc that will fit on a single page.  We’ll also work on the visual pacing of their story, what style of panels/sound effects/speech bubbles/all the things they want to use, and how much action they want to leave in the gutter between the panels.

Week Five: First page, rough

The kids will start working on their actual first page this week.  They’ll pencil in their panels, their characters, and the background, making sure to leave space for appropriate speech/thought bubbles, sound effects, etc.

Week Six: First page, final

In this the final week, students will ink their comics and put in all the finishing touches of color, text, whatever they’re going with.  At the end of class, each student will be sent home with their workbook, containing all the outlining and sketching we worked on for the first four weeks, and a (hopefully) complete first page.  And I’ll probably offer some kind of extravagant bribery to try to get them to come show me a completed graphic novel at the start of the next school year.  They’ll all be really excited about it, but maybe one will actually take me up on it.  We’ll see.

So that’s the plan!

The kids seem to be enjoying it so far (you know, one session in), and I am too.  I plan to write about an Alaska Native girl who joins her middle school’s Pre-Pre-Med Club (someone on the internet should seriously give me a better name for this) and has to struggle through the prejudices and expectations of her primarily white peers and teachers to prove herself.  Maybe I’ll throw up my first page at the end of the class for you all to admire!

In completely unrelated news, it’s another NaNo month! Yay, Camp!  Between a few submission deadlines, the graphic novel class, and a month unusually full of obligations, I decided to go easy on myself and set a low goal; I’ll be writing at least ten short stories, weighing in at at least 30k.  Totally do-able.

How about you fine internet folk?  Anyone else out there doing camp?  Lemme know your goals for the month so I can cheer you on!

Happy writing!

Conference Lessons: Character Creation

character

Sketch by Diane Wu

One of the last sessions I attended at last year’s conference was taught by author Robert Dugoni.  He taught us about crafting characters in his presentation, Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.

He opened with this idea: “Whatever your character is, make them like everyone else, but a little bit better.”  So characters should be real (and relatable), but also larger than life.  We must believe them and believe in them.  If readers don’t believe the character is able to do the extraordinary things they must do, they won’t care whether your character makes it or not, or just won’t believe it when they do.

While building up an interesting character, think about their strengths, inner conflicts, and weaknesses.

A character’s strengths can be physical (muscles, speed, laser eyes, etc), mental (humor, a knack for lateral thinking, mind reading, etc), or moral (loyalty, a sense of justice, compassion, etc).  As with all  things, there’s room for overlap, so don’t stress categories. (Is resilience mental or moral? Is the ability to perform magic a physical trait or a mental one?  Who cares?)  Whatever you choose, make your characters’ strengths just a little bit stronger than average.  And be sure that these strengths come up throughout the difficulties that your characters encounter.

Consider as well the inner conflicts that plague your character.  These are different from the conflicts that the antagonist or the plot inflict on them, and from the internal conflicts that arise throughout the story.  (This caused a bit of confusion for me during the presentation at first.  I kind of wish he’d used a more dissimilar term, but I figured out what he was talking about eventually.)  Inner conflicts are things like anxiety, addiction, insecurity, low self esteem, a huge ego, phobias, or guilt.

By Mr. Dugoni’s definition, an inner conflict is not the same thing as a weakness.  A weakness is something you can fix, but for whatever reason, you don’t.  Inner conflicts are a part of who you are.  For example, your character may learn some better coping mechanisms for dealing with their depression, without ever being ‘cured’.  Mental illness is an inner conflict.  A refusal to wash the laundry until you’re out of underwear is a weakness.  (I am weak.)

Also, characters must have what Mr. Dugoni called ‘self regard’.  Self regard is recognition of one’s own shortcomings.  Plus, it makes their development more plausible.  A character who doesn’t realize they’re a misogynist isn’t going to change.  If you don’t realize there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.

So now that you have this cool character, how to you show all these traits to the reader without telling?  Mr. Dugoni specified these five ways:

Physical Appearance  A character’s physical appearance changes how they interact with the world.  When learning about this aspect of character, I immediately thought of CM Schofield’s character Tony (who is a tiny fairy in a human world) and Madison Dusome’s character Adrien (who is a skinny, scrappy one-armed orphan).  Both these authors are fantastic at showing their characters’ personalities and strengths through the lens of their physical differences.

How They Dress  People wear what they wear for a reason, and these sorts of details tell us something about them.  So think about how your character might express themselves through dress.  I also like to consider makeup, piercings, tattoos, anything unnatural that a person chooses to add to their body.  Do they wear their uniform even on their days off?  Do they favor Gothic Lolita?  Leather and spikes all week, and an airy dress for church on Sundays?  Think about what they wear, understanding that your readers will be forming ideas about why they wear it.

Physical Behavior  Think also about the way your character carries themselves.  How do they sit, stand, walk, or run?  Stance and cadence can tell us a lot about a character, like the difference between James Bonds’ cool, one-hand-in-pocket smirk and Steve Urkels’ bespectacled, face-scrunching squint.  Whenever your character guffaws, slouches, sneers, or pops a knuckle, it tells readers something.

Dialog  How does your character speak?  What does their diction say about their past and experiences?  Consider word choice, phrases, accent.  Even topic choices can tell us something about characters- for example, think about the Lego Movie and the differences in voice between Batman (gravelly, growly tone and an insistence on trumpeting his own awesomeness) and Unikitty (high, cheerful tone and a refusal to hold an unhappy thought).

Character Insight  Each of us sees the world through a different lens, a lens which is carved and polished by our past experiences.  How does your character view the world?  Who do they vote for?  What do they believe in?  What do they argue about?  What’s worth fighting for?

Use all of these cues to show readers your character, and what’s going on in their head.

So!  Once you have a realistic, believable, and interesting character, toss them into the shark tank of your story.  How does the character change over the course of the events?  Mr. Dugoni talked about change as the different levels a character starts at and finishes at.  I pictured it like this:

CaringLevels

The important thing is that the level your character is on changes over the course of the book.  If your character starts out only caring about themselves, they’d better open up a bit more by the end of the book.  Characters that don’t change levels probably aren’t changing much elsewhere either, and that’s boring and unrealistic.

Of course, characters can change in both directions.  Just as a character can start out only caring about their mom and their cat, and eventually become the hometown hero, a person can also move in a more selfish direction.  But Mr. Dugoni warns that that’s a hard sell.  Most people don’t want to read a story about a caring, generous person who becomes a self-absorbed miser.

Whoever your character may be- a priest, a mobster, the baker from Belle’s hometown- create them in a way that makes them leap off the page (or pounce, or trip, or however they move).  Make them interesting, make them realistic, and make them powerful and flawed and changing.  Your story (and your readers) will thank you.

Happy writing!

New Years, New Goals

happy-new-yearWhew! We made it through another year, folks! Yay, us!

Man, last year’s calendar idea was spot on for me.  I did a waaaaay better job of keeping up on my resolutions this last year.  Apparently, my secret to success is a zillion tiny aspirations and check boxes.  So as successful as that was, I’m sticking with the calendar format.  But now, what to put behind all those little check boxes?

Each year, I try to focus on at least one goal for each of four categories: physical, mental, spiritual, and professional.  Physical usually involves exercise (*shudders*).  Mental often gets kidnapped by my literary passions by giving me an excuse to burn through a zillion “educational” books.  (My two favorites from last year were Sobel’s The Planets, which filled me with awe and science, and Larson’s Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania, which made me cry over and over.)  And professional really just means ‘writing’, but writing doesn’t end with ‘-al’, so it had to be done.

But writing goals are hard for me; specifically, submissions are hard for me.  I do pretty well at drafting, decent enough at editing, but any steps beyond that are super painful, and for one main reason: REJECTIONS.  Rejections send me into clawing, leg-kicking death rattles every time.  I stuck to my stated submission goals in the calendar one hundred percent, excruciating as it was, but the goals themselves were weenie, anticipating the inevitable rejections I just knew I would receive from each submission.  (They weren’t all rejected, but it sure feels that way sometimes.)  I spent the year telling myself that next year I’d make some real goals, that this year was only an experiment, etc ad nauseam, and now that that new year is here, I’m a little terrified.

But I have a plan!

As demonstrated by last year’s mini-resolutions success, I do better when big goals are broken into little bits.  And as demonstrated by the check box calendar success, I will do anything for the right to scribble in a tiny box. (Gotta check ‘em all!)  I knew I needed quantifiable, attainable goals that built on themselves toward a larger total goal.  I had all the information for success, I just hadn’t put it together yet.  Then, I stumbled across Kim Liao’s Why You Should Aim for a Hundred Rejections a Year a few months ago and read it with a budding sense of excitement.  This!  This was exactly what I needed!

I needed to defeat my fear of rejections by making rejections my box-check-y goal!  *Wonder Woman stance*

So here’s the plan.  This year, I will seek out 48 rejections, averaging out to four per month; I had thought to do 52, one per week, but the monthly calendar thing made it awkward.  (Either way, it’s a wee bit smaller than Liao’s suggestion, but I’m still peeing myself a little, so we’ll start there.)  Rejections count as queries that don’t result in an agent contract or a book deal, short stories submitted that don’t get accepted, story contests I enter that I don’t place in, anything like that.  If I submit something and it is published, it doesn’t count.  With the rejections as the goal, I hope to a) trick myself into submitting more, b) encourage myself to stretch toward more competitive venues that I’m too cowardly to so much as research now, and c) overcome my crippling phobia of rejections and stop viewing them as personal hate mail and invitations to go shoot myself alone in the cold dark woods.  Whee!

On that note, this may be a copout, but since this is such a wild departure from my usual submission goals, and given my propensity toward self-loathing, I’m only forcing myself to try it for four months.  If I’m getting nothing but the weepies out of it by then, I’ll reassess.  But I have high hopes for this.  Check-boxes make everything fun.

It’s a little unorthodox as far as goals go, but I’m excited to give it a try.  After all, it’s really just an inverted publication goal; if I’m sending out that many submissions, something’s going to stick, right?  *coughs*  Right.

So how about you?  What are your goals for the year?  What are you trying to do differently?  Let me know in the comments!  I’d love to chat about it with you!

Happy writing, and happy new year!  Here’s to new beginnings! *clink!*

 

PS- Want more details about my personal life? You can find my overarching goals for the year, as well as a copy of January’s calendar, by clicking on this elegant link! –> marcotte-2017-resolutions Enjoy!

Where Two Loves Meet: the Joy of Cookbooks

Howdy, folks! ‘What gives?’ you’re thinking. ‘Last Monday of the month means comic day! What are these word things doing here??’ But uh oh, boy do I suck at technology!  So while I struggle to exorcise the demons from my drawing tablet, I’m gonna have to swap in next week’s post for now. Hopefully I’ll have a shiny new comic to puke onto the internet next week. Thanks for your patience!

LucidI am a creative person.  This shows up in my life in a lot of different ways.  I like to sketch and paint.  I like making up languages.  I enjoy building things, like my chicken house and ever more bookshelves.  But my two main creative outlets are writing and cooking.

Anyone who reads this blog knows how much I love writing.  And anyone who has set foot in my home for more than ten minutes knows how much I love making food.  If I hold any affection for you at all, I will have spent time daydreaming about the foods I could make especially for you.  (I’m looking at you, internet friends.  Pie-Pal Madison can vouch for this.)

That said, it should come as no surprise at all that I am just as addicted to cookbooks as I am to any other book.  Every time I get a new one, I read it like a novel.  I sit down and go through it page by page, ingesting it from introduction to index.  I stare at the pictures- for it must have pictures- and I tally up ingredients and I start crafting menus and planning dinner parties and imagining tweaks and adjustments right then and there.  I stay up late reading them, desperate for just one more recipe before I collapse.bowl

One of the many (many, many, augh, so many) books that I picked up while traveling this summer was Lukas Volger’s Bowl.  While books like 1000 Vegetarian and our 1974 edition of Joy of Cooking are regular workhorses in my kitchen, I really love a glossy, photo-packed cookbook with an itsy-bitsy, super narrow theme.  Bowl is filled with vegetarian recipes for ramen, pho, and their soupy one-dish kin.  Likewise, the other darlings of my kitchen are all very specific.  Louisa Shafia’s Lucid Foods is about crafting seasonally appropriate eco-conscious menus.  Wynnie Chan’s Fresh Chinese is about healthier alterations to traditional Chinese dishes.

Another kind of cookbook that sings to my soul is the narrative cookbook.  Like Herreid and Petersen’s Recipes from the Bun, which tells about how each recipe came to land on the menu of this iconic little food truck in Fairbanks.  Or Arevalo and Wade’s The Mac + Cheese Cookbook, which talks about the inspirations for every recipe, and the experimentation that went into their creations.  Or David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen, which probably has more stories in it than actual recipes.

PlentyWhen I get a tightly themed, visually gorgeous, narratively transporting book all in one package… *swoons*  So you can imagine, I’m always on the hunt for a good cookbook.  I’ve got a dedicated wishlist (Plenty, Charcuterie, 100 Days of Real Food, etc), but nothing in the world can stop me when I spy a cookbook that just has to come home with me.

This probably goes without saying, but all of this ogling over beautiful recipes in my shiny new copy of Bowl got me thinking: what kind of cookbook would I produce?

I cook a lot, and I joyfully muddled around through quite a few ideas over the span of days.  (I pestered my husband about it for like an hour before he firmly asked me to please stop, and then I festered on in gleeful silence.)  Burgers!  I could do a whole cookbook about burgers.  Ooo, or breads, I love baking bread.  Or maybe I could make like an Around the World in Eighty Recipes sort of cookbook, and feature something from everywhere.  Or dairy-free desserts, I can always do with more dairy-free desserts.

And then it came to me, and one word stole my every thought:

Crêpe.

A whole cookbook of crepe stuffings, all healthy, all flexible in their ingredients, and all with fifteen minutes or less active prep time.  I can already picture it! *squeals* Maybe the table of contents would look something like this:

 

Sarriette (Savory)

Quick Cassoulet- Tomato, Canelli Bean, Sausage, and Herbs

Garbanzo Tajine- Garbanzo Bean, Winter Squash, Raisin, and Spices

Chowderhouse- Clam, Potato, Carrot, and Cream

Chicken Caprese- Chicken, Mozzarella, Tomato, and Fresh Basil

Indian Dal- Lentils, Onion, Paneer, and Chutney

Ratatouille- Tomato, Eggplant, Winter Squash, and Herbs

Spanakopita- Spinach, Feta, Egg, and Garlic

 

Sucré (Sweet)

Chocolate Mousse- Chocolate, Whipped Cream, and Crushed Chocolate Wafer

Honeyed Stone Fruit- Nectarine, Peach, Cherry and Honey-Cinnamon Glaze

Dita degli Apostoli- Ricotta, Dark Chocolate, and Orange Liqueur

Lemonbars- Lemon curd, Shortbread cookie, and Whipped Cream

 

Of course, I’d need five to ten times this many recipes to fill out any self-respecting cookbook.  But still.  I think it’s a good start.  Anybody wanna be a recipe tester? 🙂

Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate

Curve Okay, real quick, think of a classic superstition commonly held by sailors. Got one?

It’s about ladyfolk on boats, isn’t it?

(Disclaimer time! I’ll be talking about menstruation. If you’re mega squeamish about things like that, maybe you should go read about helicopters or unicorns or something. See you next week!)

A few weeks ago, I was myself a ladyfolk on a boat. Furthermore, I was doing the ladyest of lady things- menstruating. Now, those of you who are regular readers, or who better yet know me personally, have probably already figured out where this was going. (Because research!)

If I was a girl on a boat pretending to be a ship’s boy or somesuch, could I pull it off? Since everybody on said boat knew that I was a girl, could I at least go without anyone realizing I was on my period? Could I do it without modern tampons? (Tampon history, go!)

I figured this was experiment enough for me. Setting aside all the other advantages I would already have over those swashbuckling heroines, I at least already knew I could make myself look like a boy. Just cutting my hair off was enough to get myself repeatedly called ‘sir’ in the grocery story. With the added benefits of breast binding and manly clothing, I’m confident I could blend in.

But then comes the ladytimes, and that’s where things would get tricky for me. I imagine this is true for most women, but despite the commonness of the girl-pretends-to-be-sailor-boy trope, menstruation almost never comes up. And I don’t know why! It seems darned important! (For just a few nautical cross-dressing examples, let alone the bazillions of books about girls whose stories cover months if not years of their lives without periods ever coming up, see Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb, The Pirates! series by Gideon Defoe, Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey, Bloody Jack: Being An Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy by L.A. Meyer, etc.  [My husband argued that some of these stories have the lady in question being taught how to change her rags, but I don’t think that cuts it.  Just because you know how to murder someone doesn’t mean you know how hide the body and evade prosecution.])

Menstruation is pretty taboo, I get it. I just don’t get why. I mean, half the population of the planet will in all likelihood have to deal with a leaking uterus for half of their lives. So why can’t we talk about this, even now that it’s been so thoroughly sanitized? I think that a story about a female pretending to be male would be much more realistic, not to mention more interesting, if we get the full spectrum of what that would mean for her and how difficult it would be.

Despite the hands on research, I think this experiment raised more questions than it really answered. For example, I took to sneaking used pads off the boat whenever we were in port, but what if I was at sea for months? Would I need a giant stockpile of wool rags? Where would I put all that? In a boat full of guys and devoid of privacy, how would I change them? How would I clean them? And if I couldn’t clean them, could I sneak them into the surgeon’s galley and stow it with dirty bandages or something like some kind of saltwater ninja?

One thing was thoroughly proved, though. I am not cut out for gender-bending cabin boyhood. Even after crumbling and using tampons four days in- between the crabbiness, the sleepiness, the vague but insistent refusal to jump in the water, and the half dozen daily chocolate raids in the galley, I was busted before the week was out.  Had I been busted by an eighteenth century sea captain instead of my mother-in-law, I probably would have been tossed overboard during the first storm. *sad trombone*

Alas, a pirate’s life is not the life for me, which just brought up even more questions. How does this work?? How are these characters not half-stupid with worry for at least a quarter of their time? And how are they so clever at evading detection, but that’s not even worth a mention throughout the story?

I already know I’m a failure, but how would you readers (or at least your characters) succeed at hiding? What clever menstrual hacks would you employ?  I’m itching to write a historical fiction now, so give me some ideas!

(Can’t get enough of menses? Go read Madison Dusome’s Menstruation and Magic! It’s great!)