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!)

Writing Events!

I wanted to recap on a couple writing events I participated in earlier this year, but they were both small enough that they didn’t quite merit a full length post.  So rather than taking the time to expound meaningfully on each one and really dig into it, I’ve decided to be lazy and crowbar them together!  (Plus this is my last full week before we take off for our three-month-long roadtrip through the Lower 48.  Oy, so much to dooooo.)

Panel Poster

 

SCBWI Panel

Earlier this year, I helped to organize an author panel and workshop in Fairbanks Alaska, riding on the coattails of the statewide librarian’s conference taking place that same week.  The panel featured Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous and Sweet Home Alaska, and local authors Cindy Aillaud, Lynn Lovegreen, Jen Funk Weber, and Marie Osburn Reid.

The turnout was pretty small, so we all managed to wedge in around a few large conference tables, and it was all very snug and casual.  The panel was more of a round robin, with the authors- or anyone else present with writing or publishing experience- sharing tips and advice.

Here I’ve picked out the best advice for you!  (Ain’t I sweet?)  Common core, at least in Alaskan school districts, has upped the need for informational stories for children, so there is a high demand for fic-informational (also known as faction).  National SCBWI conferences are awesome, and check out savvyauthors.com for even more networking opportunities.  SCBWI itself is very helpful for non-agented writers, but agents can get a much better deal than an unrepped writer can.  Take your time, and write what you love.

Following the panel, I ate too much candy and then Carole Estby Dagg presented about the stages of writing, from selecting an audience through writing and editing, and on to publication and marketing.  She approached the topic through the lens of her own work as a writer of historical fiction.

While I love a gal who plugs research so heavily (because research! I love it!), I think the most relevant thing that I pulled out of her presentation was the Shrunken Manuscript technique.

Shrink your manuscript to the tiniest print you can read.  Cut out all the open spaces: paragraphs, section breaks, everything, until it’s crammed onto as few pages as possible.  Then get three highlighters.  Everything with high emotion, highlight in red (or whatever).  Everything with high conflict, highlight in blue.  Every major plot point, highlight in green.  Then lay your whole manuscript out.  No matter how much you love them, any spots without color need to be either cut out or amped up.

 

AWG Reading

Just a few days after the SCBWI stuff, I attended an AWG meeting.  It was actually one of the meetings I usually skip- a chance to read some of your own work and get feedback.  But I had a short story competition coming up and I wanted a test audience for the piece I was planning to submit.  So why not?

I’d never done a critique group thing like this before, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect.  I managed to position myself in the seating circle so that I went dead last, which afforded me the perfect opportunity to chicken out, or for the meeting to run out of time, or all kinds of exciting possibilities.

None of which materialized.

I took my turn in the hotseat and read a short story I’d been prepping for a writing competition.  Historically, I have always been a terrible reader when it comes to my own works.  I stumble on words, read too fast, too quiet.  I get nervous.  But I knew this going in, so I had read it through several times out loud.  I find it’s harder to suck at reading when you memorize the piece instead. 😛  So the reading didn’t go as terribly as I’d been anticipating.

After I finished my reading, I whipped out my notebook.  The others in the group had lots of excellent questions and suggestions that really helped me zero in on what was working in the story, and what could use a bit more tweaking.  It was great to get some alternative perspectives on the piece, since I’d so thoroughly exhausted my own.  But on top of that, they were all very encouraging, and meaningful encouragement is sometimes had to come by in this line of work.

In the end, though, the critique must have done something right, because the piece took first place in the competition, leading to many a happy squeal.  So maybe consider trying a live critique some time, even if you never have before.

Until next time, happy packing writing!

Reblog: 7 Tips for Using Hands-On Research

internet

I think I’m losing my touch.  I can’t seem to shock my husband quite like I used to, at least when it comes to internet searches.  I had the above Firefox page up when he walked up behind me.  His eyes flared in brief surprise, and then he said, “Oh.  It’s NaNo.”  It wasn’t even a question.  (And I kind of love how I’m searching all this scary stuff and the ad gods decided, “Yeah, you need to read the Bible, lady.  Like now.”)

I’m a big proponent of research.  Love me some research!  Knowing the right smells and feels and words can make the difference between a believable, immersive world, and a flat, boring one.  And while internet research is amazingly easy these days (as well as being super distracting), nothing beats hands-on, boots-on-the-ground research- and it’s mega-fun too!

That said, here’s this week’s reblog, from Delilah S. Dalton via Writer’s Digest: 7 Tips for Using Hands-On Research to Enrich Your Writing.  Enjoy!

 

7 Tips for Using Hands-On Research to Enrich Your Writing

They say, “Write what you know,” which is why my next book is about killing monsters in 1800s Texas. Not that I’ve ever killed anything bigger than a wolf spider, but I know what it’s like to spend a long, painful day in the saddle. When you’re writing about a new world, your readers will have an easier time making the jump from reality to fantasy if you can use telling details to win their trust. And that means that you should travel to new places and seek experiences and local culture that will enrich your writing. The key? Using all your senses.


1. See the place.

Traveling allows you to soak up the visual backdrop of a new place. If you grew up in the country, it’ll be hard to write a big city since you’ve never looked up at a looming skyscraper. Visiting the place you’re writing about will inform you of what the people wear, what they hang on the walls, what sidewalk vendors sell, what colors the mountains are in the distance. I’m from Georgia, and I’ll never forget what it felt like to see the Alps for the first time, to climb the stairs of the Duomo in Milan, or to take a ferry to Santorini. Mountains are so much bigger than I’d imagined, and the Mediterranean is such a specific crystal blue. The mental photographs you’ll take while traveling will make your descriptions richer and more specific.

2. Taste the food.

Even if you’re not writing Game of Thrones-style banquet orgies, place-specific food still plays a big part in any story…

Ready to read some more? Pop over to Writer’s Digest for the full article!  Happy writing!

Matter of Factly Fictional

vikings Silverdale_Hoard_group_shotToday we have a guest post that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.  (Even before I asked them to write it! I’ve been admiring from afar and all that jazz.)  Besides impressing me with their amazing ability to speak every language ever (including computers! They speak with computers, aahhh howww?), they always have the super coolest premises for their writing.  Let’s listen in as Antonius dispenses their wisdom!

Mary Poppins sang “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”, but I would like to adjust that: “Just a spoonful of facts makes the fantasy go down”. What do I mean by that? I mean that by researching and using facts, it will strengthen both your other-world fantasy and any other fiction.

To me, fiction is about presenting something that rings true. Even when suspension of disbelief is necessary (“all/some humans have developed the ability to fly”), readers should be able to nod along with your world. How do you do that? Well, most important is to keep your world’s rules consistent–even if it is a consistency that the reader won’t spot for a while–and the second is to get inspiration from reality.

> Did you know that long before western Norsemen (current Norway/Denmark mainly) attacked England–which kicked off what is referred to as the “Viking Age”–eastern Norsemen (current Sweden) had traveled into Russia and other countries east of Scandinavia? By 1000AD, Norsemen had traveled as far as Constantinople and Baghdad, and traded with both Christians and Muslims.

“But,” I hear you object, “that’s all well and good for anything set in our world, but what if I write other-world fantasy?” Even then, says I. Get inspiration from various cultures, try to get an understanding for them, and see what you can use. What weird facts do you know, and can that help you build a richer world? You don’t even need to mention it, not always. If you know that the streets of your city are covered with cobblestone imported from a nearby kingdom and that the workers were convicts, that’s going to influence how you describe things.

> Did you know that Erik Håkonsson (957–1024), Jarl of northern Norway, and later Jarl of Northumberland, wasn’t born in wedlock? In fact, his mother was a thrall, though his father was a jarl. It wasn’t until Christianity had ruled Scandinavia for half a millennia that being born outside of wedlock stopped a child from inheriting from their father.

Now, you write fiction, not historical documents, so don’t write dissertations about the cool things you found regarding 15th century courting habits in the middle classes of Korea. You may, however, need to spread a few bits of fact in there to show naysayer’s that you do know what you’re writing about, and to support more unusual choices in characters or settings.

> Did you know that within their sphere, women were as powerful–if not more–than men? It was the land owner’s wife who had the keys to the food stores, and when the men were unavailable, it was up to her to defend the lands in case of an attack. Gender roles were firm, but women were not seen as lesser in the same sense that has been historically true in Western Christianity-influenced society. While parents arranged marriages for girls as young as twelve or thirteen (though generally with similarly-aged boys), a woman could divorce her husband for mistreating her, or mistreating their children, or for not keeping her satisfied sexually. Children were divided up between the mother’s and father’s family in case of divorce.

What counts as “unusual choices”? That depends on what you’re writing. As an example, let me present Helga Yngvesdotter (Helga, daughter of Yngve), a fictional character in one of my stories set in late 900s. She is far from the “rye blonde Nordic viking man” stereotype, but each step of the way I can “justify” if I ever needed to (and felt like giving anyone who’d object the time of day).

Her father was the Jarl of Håkeby (Håkeby existed at the time), and her mother was a Nubian raided from her homeland and sold as a slave in Constantinople. When her father and step-mother (her mother died when she was only seven, and her father remarried) were executed by the King’s men–as an example of what would happen to those that kept their faith true rather than converting to Christianity–she decided that since she had no brothers or uncles, the duty to avenge her father came to her.

Women would rarely be recognized as war leaders, but with the society as focused on personal strength and retribution, she could use that to gain the loyalty of the few of her father’s subjects who were still alive.

I at least enjoyed researching all the things that eventually coalesced into Helga, the last priestess of Ran, and I hope you will enjoy it too, once her story is published.

Antonius M. works with the literary speculative fiction genre, weaving threads of the human experience—historic and contemporary—on the loom of Scandinavian folklore. These experiences include trauma, mental health, first love, being transgender, and being a stranger. Their first publication is Solitary Duality in the anthology Summer Nights.

The Five Phases of Querying

QueryingAhhhh, querying… What else can throw a writer into such a frenzy of excitement and terror? For those of us on the hunt for a literary agent, a solid query packet can make or break our plans for publication. So imagine how excited I was at the conference to attend not one, but three breakout sessions on snagging the attention of that most coveted of business partners.

After cramping my hand with hours of feverish note taking, I give you the combined wisdom of these literary sages- and my plan of attack on getting the attention of an agent. (For those of you not after an agent but still looking to traditionally publish, just replace the word ‘agent’ with ‘editor’ and proceed.)

Phase One- Edit your manuscript.

As much of a pain as editing can be, it is absolutely crucial to selling your manuscript. Although some agents are willing to work with authors on heavy editing, getting a book submission ready is completely and solely the author’s responsibility. Don’t count on an agent being willing to spend a ton of time editing your work- after all, agents only get paid when you do. Expecting them to put in a ton of free work just because you can’t figure out how to clean house on your own isn’t fair.

Your first page will be your most vital, but the agents all agreed that your first three chapters (about fifty pages) should be pitch perfect before querying. Eliminate anything that slows the reader down. Remember that agents are busy, busy people. If you lose their interest for even a moment, you seriously risk losing it forever. Make that manuscript sing.

Phase Two- Research your market.

Once you have your belle all ready for the ball, figure out where it has to go. We all think our manuscripts are lovely, unique creatures, but odds are pretty darned low that they are so unique as to be uncategorizable (which is most definitely a word, no need to look it up, shhhh). This category is your specific genre.

Think about where your book would rest on a shelf. The chances are pretty slim of Barnes and Nobles putting up a new set of shelves and placing just your book there. So where would they put it? And make note of the same books in that section- these are your comp titles. (But when searching for comp titles, don’t find big names that don’t really compare, and don’t use books that just generally similar. Find books similar in a very specific way- whether that’s style, theme, audience, whatever. And keep notes on all this for your query packet later.)

Think also about all the kinds of people who would be buying your book. Maybe you’d rest on the YA fantasy shelf, but if your book also prominently features mammoths in prehistoric Alaska, also consider mammoth fans or paleontologists or Alaskans or anything else. Go deeper than just a genre. Know your exact audience and pinpoint precisely what would make them shell out fifteen bucks for your book. Not only will you need to know this for future marketing adventures (wheeee!), but it will also help you find the most perfect agent on the planet for this specific book.

Phase Three- Research the proper agent.

For pity’s sake, do not blast the same query packet to every human who comes up on a Google search for ‘literary agent’. Since you already researched your perfect market back in Phase Two, take the time to find out your perfect agent as well. Laurie McLean’s rule of thumb is ten percent- spend ten percent of the time you spent on a novel researching agents.

The nice thing about this day and age is that all the information we need to figure out our best agent is online. Check out agency websites, querytracker.net, agentquery.com, Publisher’s Marketplace. Look at an agent’s client list, what kind of books they’ve sold, who they sell to.  Follow them on Twitter, read their blogs.

(But seriously, don’t stalk agents, digitally or otherwise. They want to only be queried with those projects best suited to them, so that sort of info is probably pretty available.  You’re not going to find the secret chink in their armor by hacking into their private Facebook page and looking at pictures of their daughter’s third birthday. Just don’t.)

And if you find you have the time and money to do so, definitely try online events, webinars, classes, conferences. Anything that gets you interacting with agents (in a good way!) will help you sort out whom to query with what, and how to best do it.

Phase Four- Assemble- and check!- your packet.

Once you have your dream team of potential agents post-it noted over your writing desk, carefully ready their submission requirements. Not all agents ask for the same stuff! A query packet can include many things. The most common is a query letter, but the packet might also include a proposal, a synopsis, sample pages, a marketing plan- basically whatever the agent finds necessary to assessing your viability as a client. The most important thing here is to know exactly what the agent wants to see, and give them exactly that.

In the words of Andy Kifer, “Put together a packet designed to intrigue.” Make the query letter personal and interesting- butter up the agents about their list, about their talks, tout all the research you’ve by telling them how perfect they are for this manuscript. Sell your book, and sell yourself. Don’t make a synopsis that sounds like a fifth grade book report- inject the voice of the narrative, keep statements brief and powerful, prove that you can write an absorbing story from start to finish. Be very clear on what you have, and what you’re looking for. In each facet of the packet, make every sentence fascinate.

And then go back through it with a magnifying glass. Read it out loud. Get your friends to read it and give feedback. Edit. Reread. Make sure you spelled the agent’s name right. Eliminate all mistakes. And then send it through another round of beta readers. Do this as many times as necessary to get it just right.

Phase Five- Click send and get to work on the next project.

After all that work in phases one through four, Phase Five should be a cinch. You’ve done the legwork- now give that packet a kiss for luck and send it off.

But don’t just wait idle in the time it takes to receive a reply. Agents don’t want to work with a one trick pony- they want an author who can provide top notch work time and again. So get to work on your next masterpiece! If nothing else, it will keep your mind off the agony of waiting, and it just might produce your next best seller.

Best of luck in your querying adventures!

As mentioned throughout, this sagacity came from literary agents Danielle Smith, Laurie McLean, and Andy Kifer, all of whom are fun and nice and not at all terrifying demigods! Who’d have thought?

Keepin’ It Real

Will

My son, champion Questioner and unparalleled Stater of Silliness

As most of you probably gleaned from my complete disappearance from the internet, I am on vacation. (Unless those automated updates had fooled you. Muahaha!)

One of my favorite and most despised things about vacationing is that it gets me out of my routine. This is an absolute nightmare as far as parenting goes. But when it comes to recharging my writing batteries, getting body checked out of a rut is just what the doctor ordered.

As I write this post, I am sitting in the Rocky Mountains, enjoying one of the wettest summers this area has ever seen. I am also enjoying my parents’ indoor pool, a dearth of dirty dishes, and an abundance of cheap watermelon, as well as all kinds of other delights I am unused to. A far cry from my day-to-day in Alaska.

I’m pretty bad about writing when I’m on vacation. I think I’ve written just a couple times in the nearly three weeks I’ve been away. But I still think these few weeks have been fantastic for my writing. I hiked a mountain, toured a candy factory, and wandered semi-lost between jutting crags of red stone. I watched Native American music and dance, wandered around chatting up the reenactors at an 1830s fort, and was nearly drowned by three small children swarming up my spine in the swimming pool. And in the few days I spent in California before coming to Colorado, I scampered in the ocean, nearly got eaten by not one but two giant scary dogs, had the opportunity to buy a medical marijuana license for the scant cost of $25, and went to a massive white-and-gold building that looks for all the world like a fairy tale castle. I watched my baby brother get married!

I have been busy.  Too busy to write, maybe, but not too busy to be inspired. These experiences will still be in my mind when I get back to Fairbanks in just a few more days, and back into my routine of kids and cooking and cleaning. I’ll think about the bull pine and the thin air and the snakes and the hot sun while I walk with my kids through the blueberry bogs, the air thick with mosquitoes and the weak sunlight splintered through the spruce. I’ll draw on how hard it was to breathe when I write my characters hiking through the mountains. I’ll remember what it feels like to have clamoring skinny bodies pushing me underwater when I get to the scene where my MC goes for a desperate swim through mer infested waters.

Our surroundings and experiences help us to fill our stories with reality. No, I can’t travel to Paleithois, and no, unicorns don’t wander the forests ready to help a maiden out. But I can grant my writings believability when I fill my written worlds with realistic details, when I make the characters and situations relatable on a smaller, human scale. If Paleithois was real, what might their customs be and why? If unicorns did kick around the woods, what might matter to them? What might their benevolence cost them? And if I suddenly found myself transported to the peak of a mountain, how would it feel? How would I stay alive? What does it feel like to be drowned?

I come from a long line of people who talk at the theater. We’re horrible, horrible people who you would never want to watch a movie with. We will shamelessly demolish your favorite show while we eat all your gummy bears and take up too much room on your couch. My father is the worst of the clan, especially when it comes to war movies. He doesn’t care if the characters are made up. He doesn’t even really care if the battles are made up, or the towns, or the situations. But if you ever watch a movie with him, prepare to hear all about how they got the firearms wrong, the uniforms wrong, the terrain wrong, the tactics wrong, everything wrong, wrong, wrong. And that’s just on the movies he likes.

People do the same thing when reading books. They are willing to accept that there is magic. They are willing to accept that there are flying cars. They are willing to accept that Queen Victoria was actually an alien robot sent to enslave the human race with imperialism and corsets.

But their acceptance will only go so far. Those fat, lying whoppers are only okay if the details are all in order. If the magic makes sense for the world. If the flying cars mesh with the rest of the world’s technology and setting. If… uh… yeah, anyway, you get the point. We sell our stories when we underpin the lies with truth. When readers can sympathize with the characters, even if they’re a different gender or a different background or a different species. When readers can absorb a section, nod their heads, and say, “Yes. That is exactly right.”

I’ve never drowned. I’ve never fought a bear. I’ve never held my infant daughter. I’ve never gone to Brazil and I’ve never picked poppies in Afghanistan. I’ve never been shot with an arrow or made marzipan or lived in a convent or ridden a dragon. Some of those, I might do some day. Others, less likely. Others still, never. But I can write about those things. I can fill my fake worlds with experiences, some my own, some read about in books, some carefully researched, and some just made up and meticulously thought out.

So never stop wondering about the world around you, and never stop absorbing every experience you can get your hands on (safely, ethically, and legally, of course). Ask questions. Let your nephews dive tackle your ankles. Go for a hike. Do something hard. Learn to cook something new. The more you know and feel and experience, the more reality you can lend your writing. And you can only be better for it. (Again, assuming safety, ethics, and legality are observed. Seriously, please don’t go become a dangerous criminal in the name of compelling writing.)

So when was the last time a real life experience came out in your writing? What can you do to make an improbable situation ring with reality? Tell me about it in the comments!

Research

Research

Real Follow-Up Conversation
Me: “What are you talking about? That’s not me. I’ve only done… three of those things.”
Husband: “Okay.”
Me: “If it was me, she’d be getting thrown in the back of a car. And waterboarded. And slapped.”
Husband: “…”
Me: “Is it weird that I want to be arrested?”
Husband: “…”
Me: “I mean, I don’t want to commit any crimes or anything. I just want to be arrested. Like there was a mix-up or something.”
Husband: *leaves*
Me: So that’s weird?