A historic fantasy featuring an ensemble of fascinating female characters--the "daughters" (in various senses) of various classics horror fiction protagonists. This is the sort of book that often leaps to the top of my to-be-read list. I liked it...but I didn’t love it, which always makes me sad. So first: why did I like it? The premise is full of promise. Mary Jeckyll (daughter of the late doctor) finds information after her mother’s death that results in her taking responsibility for a young woman named Diana Hyde, evidently the daughter of her late father’s assistant who disappeared after being charged with murder (the assistant, not the daughter). They stumble into participating in Sherlock Holmes' investigation of the gruesome murder of a prostitute, and soon clues are turning up to a mysterious “Society of Alchemists” that appears to tie all sorts of threads together, including several other rather unusual women whose fathers were similarly connected to the Society. For anyone familiar with weird literature of the 19th century, picking up on the hints and clues will be a large part of the fun of this story.
The writing is solidly competent and the characters of the various women are distinct and colorful. What didn’t work for me quite as well was the structure of the plot, which feels a great deal like working through the collective origin stories of a band of superheroes without quite getting to the adventure they tackle together. Each character narrates her history to the others which, while, it fills in essential information for the reader, results in a very slow build-up. The need to fit these expository chapters in where they don’t disrupt the flow of the action (which is quite dense and break-neck) can lead to some strange pacing, such as when Justine Frankenstein tells the others her story in the aftermath of the dramatic climax. To be sure, there is a climax and a natural conclusion to the book, as well as a clear opening for a sequel. But this book feels like the set-up for that sequel rather than a stand-alone story.
The other narrative technique that didn’t entirely work for me--and I feel like this is a bit petty--is the meta-fiction of the story’s structure. One of the women is writing up the adventure, deliberately in the style of a penny-dreadful and told from the points of view of the various participants. This narrative is interrupted at regular intervals by commentary among the women, criticizing the wording, their portrayals, and arguing with the choices of the writer. The meta-fiction is that the lot of them are, in essence, hanging over the shoulder of the writer as she works and having their interjections and comments recorded in real time. But the feel of it, to me, was more like an MST3K running commentary--more oral than written--which kept throwing me out of the meta-fictional context. (That is, I might not have been bothered if the side comments felt more like something set down originally in writing than transcribed from audio.) To be fair, it’s an imaginative technique and has the dual functions of turning what might otherwise be a somewhat flat narration into a more lively time-disrupted sequence, and of introducing us to the personalities of the entire group of women long before they enter the storyline, which in some cases comes fairly late in the game.
So, as I said, liked it but didn’t love it, primarily for structural reasons in the writing. But if you're intrigued by the female viewpoint on the consequences of classic horror stories, this will be right up your alley.
It's a regular feature of my life as an author to feel like I have to justify and excuse the fact that I pay attention to what the world is saying about my books. You see, authors aren't supposed to pay attention to reviews--whether to what they say or simply to their existence. Authors aren't supposed to mention that what readers do to help spread the word about a book is important, because that puts undue pressure on readers. But it does matter and we do care. And to balance out my occasional pleas (both silent and out loud) for people to help spread the word, I like to share examples of when you, my readers, have made a difference.
Yesterday when I was doing my routine name/title search in Google to see if there were any new reviews or mentions of my books, I turned up something exciting. (I'm not going to apologize for doing regular searches like this. Often it's the only way I ever learn about great reviews, and when I get great reviews, I add those reviewers to my list of people to suggest for review copies in the future.) The Barnes and Noble book blog included Daughter of Mystery in a list of "50 Magical Romances to Read Right Now". I think it's the only f/f romance included in the list, based on a quick skim of the summaries. And I am quite certain that it was included because of one of those twitter crowd-sourced requests for books with a particular theme.(*) And that means, that it was you, dear readers, who brought it to the blogger's attention and saw that it was included.
I don't know if you can imagine how great it feels to see my work side by side on a list put out by a major bookstore chain with authors like Nora Roberts, Mary Robinette Kowal, K.J. Charles, Zoraida Córdova, and Ilona Andrews. And you did that. You did it by telling the world how much you love my books and finding opportunities to recommend them to other people. It matters. And I love you for it.
(*) I'm pretty confident that Daughter of Mystery was included based on recommendations rather than the blogger having read the book, because the summary turns Margerit Sovitre into "Lady Margerit" which is a peculiar error to make if you've read it.
My friends are often frustrated at my resistance to their suggestions of books or movies they think I’d like. “This is just up your alley! You’ll love it! You liked X so you’re going to love Y! I think this is really your sort of thing!” When I don’t want to deal, I’ll point out that I have an enormous to-be-read list already and mumble something about adding it to the list, or I’ll leave my movie-going up to the chance of which movies my friends are getting a group up to see when I happen to be available. But sometimes I’ll push back and point out that my friends’ recommendations—not just of things they like, but of things they actively think I’ll like—have a success rate that isn’t much better than random. So bringing something to my attention is fine, but when I say it doesn’t grab me, just accept that it doesn’t grab me.
Comic book movies are one of my weak spots in this process. And just like Lucy and the football, I have a weakness for believing that maybe, just maybe, this time the movie that all my friends are saying is the best Marvel movie ever will actually recapture the things that I enjoy about graphic novels, and will spark that sense of wonder I felt back at the beginning of the long chain of big SFX budget features that gobsmacked me by putting my comic book fantasies up on the big screen.
The thing is, what the movie makers are taking away from the success of comic book movies is exactly what makes me swear every single time that I’ll never again let myself be fooled into giving them one more chance. Explosions and long lovingly-drawn-out sequences of extreme meaningless violence. Not merely not my thing, but something that a movie needs to actively overcome by being extremely (and I mean extremely) good at everything else.
Thor: Ragnarok did not overcome.
Honestly, except for that one heartbreaking flashback scene with Valkyrie where we are allowed to pretend that the companion she sees fall in battle was her girlfriend (and we aren’t actually told that, we’re just tossed the crumb of not having it outright contradicted), all I came out of Thor:Ragnarok with is the memory of constant non-stop fight and chase scenes. Boring. Unutterably and mind-numbingly boring. And if you edited out all the scenes of violence from the movie, you might possibly have ten minutes left of pratfalls and embarrassment humor.
And yet, everywhere I look, people are calling it the best Marvel movie ever. People whose taste and opinions I ordinarily find trustworthy. So if you’re ever in a position of raving to me about how wonderful something is and how I absolutely must read/watch/play/try it and I get this pained and evasive look on my face and mumble something about there only being so many hours in a day, just…take no for an answer. Ok?
Readers and writers both have strong opinions about point of view, even when that strong opinion is, “Any point of view can work if you’re skilled enough.” I’ve heard authors proclaim that they’ll only use one specific type of point of view because that’s the only one that works for them. Fair enough. One can’t argue with what works.
I’ve found two ways in which point of view can be the key to telling the story I want to tell. One is in limiting what the reader is allowed to know, and thus positioning them with respect to specific characters in the story. One of the reasons I’ve stuck to a very tight third person POV in the Alpennia stories (at least so far—don’t count on it staying that way!) is to manipulate what the reader knows about the events of the story and the motivations of the other characters. An omniscient point of view can either remove suspense or leave the reader annoyed about selective omissions of information.
But a second reason I’ve found to choose a particular point of view is to break myself out of specific storytelling modes. This is particularly the case when I’m working with traditional tale forms, such as the Merchinogi stories. The immense weight of the original literary style of medieval romances can be hard to fight if you use the same tools as the original tellers. Medieval romances can be wonderful for their flights of description and their use of repetition and cadence, but they’re really bad at showing interiority. King Arthur may have done great deeds, but we don’t get a lot of insight into what he thought about those accomplishments, or why he made the choices he did. When I first started writing “Hoywverch,” I used the third person to match the original Mabinogi, but found the result more flat and simplistic than I cared for. Shifting to the heroine’s voice helped me break free of that flatness.
Retold fairy tales are another genre where the stylistic weight of the original material can feel overwhelming. In my first draft of “The Language of Roses”—my Beauty and the Beast retelling--I followed what has become my default mode: tight third person rotating between key viewpoint characters, with events allocated carefully to keep the reader in suspense regarding important plot points. And it felt like it was working fairly well until I decided to bring in the fairy who laid the crucial curse as a viewpoint character. She had an important role to play in setting up certain elements of the backstory that no one else had put together yet. But I found the scenes I’d given to her somewhat lackluster. She was thin. A cardboard prop. And the crucial world-building information she supplied felt wrong as something a character would ruminate over on her own.
And then, on this morning’s drive, the first line of her first scene came to me in a different voice. An accusing, critical, second person voice. And things clicked. It’s an omniscient voice: someone who knows everything that has happened in the past and who hints at knowing how the story will come out when none of the characters themselves do. (I have a suspicion just who that voice is, and that may shape some of the rewriting.) This isn’t a second person POV where the reader is being addressed, which is the version that people who dislike second POV tend to rail against—the “choose your own adventure” type that tries to force the reader into being a participant. It’s a voice that allows the fairy to remain a cipher while providing the reader with a very personal glimpse of her.
Ah, Peronelle! You are patient now. Patient enough to stand outside the gates of Betencourt for days to see what might befall. You were not so patient when you were…but no, you were not young. It has been very long since you were young, hasn’t it? The fée are young only once and old for a very long time. But one may be foolish and impatient at any age. Do you remember when you were young, Peronelle? Do you remember your parents and the glittering tower where you dwelt with them? Do you remember the guests and the balls and the hunting parties when they would ride out to slip between the worlds and tease those in mortal lands? Do you remember learning to walk the worlds for yourself and how to draw glamour after you to hide the truth from mortal eyes?
And having made that choice, I now needed to know what to do with all my other points of view. That second person wasn’t going to work for all of them. I wanted differentiation. But at the same time, having one character’s scenes in second and the other three POV characters all in third felt unbalanced. Well, it isn’t really three—more like two and a single chapter from the remaining character. What if (I thought)…what if I gave one of them a first person approach? What if my Beauty (who isn't named Beauty) tells her own story? That would work well for her: the confused innocent who is still sorting out her place in the world and how she feels about it. Yes, that feels right. While the third primary viewpoint character (who is definitely not the Beast) is more knowledgable, more controlled, more deliberately distanced. Third person works for her.
Now my immediate reaction to this idea was, “You know, this is one of the features of N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning novel The Fifth Season—a feature that is a key element of the plot—and maybe it’s going to look a little bit like you’re being a copycat?” Well, heck. If you’re going to be a copycat, copy a great writer. You can make any approach to point of view work if you do it well, and if you don’t do it well, it doesn’t matter that someone else did make it work. But I’ll acknowledge that the idea of mixing first, second, and third person in the same story isn’t some fantastic new invention I came up with.
Maybe I’ll make it work, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll finish up the whole story and decide I need to unravel it and do something different. But when I heard that voice snarking at Peronelle, something clicked into place. And any author can tell you that when you feel that click, you should pay attention.
This description of a group of flamboyantly-dressed women "crashing" a medieval tournament and setting tongues wagging can't help but send my imagination racing. Think of what a great opening for a movie it would make! It's the sort of image that feels anachronistically modern...except that it was recorded as an actual event in a historical chronicle. And though there may have been some interpretation and exaggeration in the telling, there's no reason to doubt that the essential facts are true. Who were these women? Why did they show up at the tournament in masculine dress? Whose clothing was it? Husbands' or brothers'? Was it planned or spontaneous? Did they try to participate in the tournament itself? If so, did they succeed? What happened afterward? Was "matrimonial restraint" reimposed on them or did the experience change their view of themselves and what they were capable of?
Knighton, Henry. 1995. Knighton’s Chronicle 1337-1396. Edited and translated by G.H. Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-820-503-1
Latin text and modern translation of a historic chronicle of the 14th century.
I don’t usually include primary texts in this project, in part because there’s more value in reading the interpretations of historians (of which I am only an amateur) and in part because the selection and excerpting of relevant sections is itself an interpretation process, which I am hesitant to perform. But in this case the relevant excerpt is short enough to include in its entirety. So I’ve included both the original Latin (for fun) and Martin’s translation.
Martin suggests that the claim that these cross-dressing women appeared at multiple tournaments was most likely a generalization from a single noteworthy event. The claim that they were rained out every time they appeared supports this suggestion, as it seems an unlikely coincidence (excluding the possibility of actual divine displeasure). Martin also suggests that a previous editor is mistaken in locating the tournament in Berwick (a location I included in my previous discussion of this event). The chronicle did discuss a tournament in Berwick in an earlier entry, but this specific description doesn’t indicate a location.
Nota de dominabus in hastiludiis. Illis diebus ortus est rumor et in gens clamor in populo eo quod ubi hastiludia prosequebantur, quasi in quolibet loco dominarum cohors affuit, quasi comes interludii in diuerso et mirabili apparatu uirili, ad numerum quandoque quasi .xl. quandoque .l. dominarum, de speciosioribus et pulcrioribus, non melioribus tocius regni, in tunicis partitis scilicet una parte / de una secta, et altera de alia secta, cum capuciis breuibus et liripiis ad modum cordarum circa capud aduolutis, et 3onis argento uel auro bene circumstipatis in extransuerso uentris sub umbilico habentes cultellos quos daggerios wlgaliter dicunt, in powchiis desuper impositis. Et sic procedebant in electis dextrariis uel aliis equis bene comptis de loco ad locum hastiludiorum. Et tali modo expendebant et deuastabant bona sua, et corpora sua ludibriis et scurilosis lasciuiis uexitabant, ut rumor populi personabat.
Et sic nec Deum uerebantur, nec uerecundam populi uocem erubescebant, laxato matrimonialis pudicie freno. Nec hii quos sequebantur animaduertebant quantam graciam et prefulgidam expedicionem Deus, omnium bonorum largitor Anglorum milicie contulerat, contra omnes inimicos undecunque eis aduersantes et quali priuilegio triumphalis uictorie in omni loco illos pretulerat. Sed Deus in hiis sicud in cunctis aliis affuit mirabili remedio, eorum dissipando dissolucionem. Nam loca et tempora ad hec uana assignata, imbrium resolucione tonitrui et fulguris coruscacione, et uariarum tempestatum mirabili uentilacione preocupauit.
A tale of women at tournaments. In those days a rumor arose and great excitement amongst the people because, when tournaments were held, at almost every place a troop of ladies would appear, as though they were a company of players, dressed in men's clothes of striking richness and variety, to the number of forty or sometimes fifty such damsels, all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom's better sort. They were dressed in parti-colored tunics, of one color on one side and a different one on the other, with short hoods, and liripipes wound about their heads like strings, with belts of gold and silver clasped about them, and even with the kind of knives commonly called daggers slung low across their bellies, in pouches. And thus they paraded themselves at tournaments on fine chargers and other well-arrayed horses, and consumed and spent their substance, and wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity displayed their bodies, as the rumor ran.
And thus, neither fearing God nor abashed by the voice of popular outrage, they slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint. Nor did those whom they accompanied consider what grace and outstanding blessings God, the fount of all good things, had bestowed upon English knighthood in all its successful encounters with its enemies, and what exceptional triumphs of victory He had allowed them everywhere. But God in this as in all things had a marvelous remedy to dispel their wantonness, for at the times and places appointed for those vanities He visited cloudbursts, and thunder and flashing lightning, and tempests of astonishing violence upon them.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16a - On the Shelf for November 2017 - Transcript
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2017.
Sometimes it’s easy to tell that when it comes to history, my heart lives in the middle ages. Last week’s episode on women knights in shining armor was a lot of fun to put together. But the middle ages isn’t just about pageantry and castles. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been covering a number of publications that look closely at how medieval people thought about sex and gender. The essays in the collection Premodern Sexualities ask questions like “what does it mean when homosexuality is not considered an identity but being a prostitute is?” Or “what was the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation, and how did that affect how medieval law treated people with ambiguous bodies?” It can be easy to acknowledge today that gender and sexuality are social constructs, but it can be harder to accept that people in the past used such different constructs that it can be hard to draw clear parallels between our lives and those of our ancestors. When we encounter hints of homoerotic sentiment in the writings of women like Margery Kempe, do we work too hard to try to fit them into our modern identity boxes?
When I finish up the papers from the Premodern Sexualities volume, I look at the original text of Knighton’s Chronicle that I talked about in last week’s episode--the one about the gang of cross-dressed women showing up at a 14th century tournament. I don’t usually include primary sources in the blog, but sometimes it’s fun to let a text speak for itself. After that I cover an article on an unusual joint memorial brass to two women from 15th century England. Memorials like this gave me an idea for a future essay, so hold on to that thought.
After that, the blog is going to plunge deep into the pool of historiography and theory with Valerie Traub’s book Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. This book was a lot more dense than what I usually choose to cover and talks more about talking about history, than looking at the past itself. I’ll be continuing on a similar theme of historic theory for much of the rest of the year, covering the articles in a collection titled The Lesbian Premodern, which includes a lot of essays on what it means to think about lesbian history as a field of study, and the academic conflicts between various ways of approaching the study of the past. I’m finding the debates intensely interesting and it makes me want to find people to discuss the parallels between the study of lesbian history and the creation of lesbian historic fiction.
This month’s author guest is someone I can imagine having those discussions with. Farah Mendlesohn is publishing her first novel: a lesbian regency romance titled Spring Flowering. Farah is an academic with a background in history and literature and has a lot of interesting things to say about the social dynamics of gender and sexuality in the early modern era. And I can’t wait to read her novel, which should be on my iPad by the time you’re listening to this.
This month’s essay is going to be on the vocabulary of women who love women, looking at the words used in various languages and cultures across the ages, both technical language and everyday slang. You can tell a lot about how people perceived lesbian sexuality by the root meanings of the words that were used. But you can also learn a lot from the simple fact that such vocabulary existed and by noticing how and when it was used.
This month’s Ask Sappho question touches on the question of how women have communicated their desires in the past. Rose Herman-Pall asks “How did women in history signal to each other that they were Sapphically inclined, especially if they were in marriages to men?”
The question doesn’t specify a particular era or culture, but I’ll focus in the last several centuries in England and America, since that’s the context most listeners are likely to be familiar with. And this is going to be a lot more off-the-cuff than usual, so there’ll be no footnotes in the show notes.
In the past, when I’ve done research for historic re-enactment, or answered research questions for authors, I’ve always found it a useful exercise to take a question that starts out “How did they...?” and back up a step to ask, “Did they...?” I remember once someone asked, “How did medieval people get going in the morning when they didn’t have coffee yet?” That started a conversation on the history of breakfast as a concept, and the other changes in society that happened around the time that stimulating beverages like coffee and tea entered Western society, and the ways in which rituals around those beverages have become so ingrained in our lives that it’s hard to imagine life without them.
So let’s think about what underlies that question: “How did women in history signal to each other that they were Sapphically inclined, especially if they were in marriages to men?” There are at least three important assumptions here that we need to unpack before thinking about an answer. The first is that women needed some special way of signaling their desires to each other. The second is that women have always had a specific concept of lesbian desire as something different from the default. The third is that women would have viewed heterosexual marriage as a barrier to expressing those desires.
For those of us who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century--and that’s pretty much all of us at this point--it can be just as hard to imagine a world in which same-sex desire is not considered a separate, fixed, inborn orientation as it is to imagine a world in which people have never encountered coffee or tea. But when you look at women’s literature around romance, affection, and passionate expression during the last several centuries (and earlier as well, but I’m focusing on maybe the 17th through 19th centuries) it becomes clear that passionate and romantic feelings between women weren’t considered some special separate aberration, but were considered normal, natural, and desirable. It was women who didn’t experience sentimental attachments to female friends who were considered odd.
In a world where women are expected to call each other beloved, to speak of their undying devotion to each other, and to long for each other’s presence and embraces, in a world where it is utterly normal to exchange kisses, caresses, and embraces, both in public and in private, in a world where it is completely expected that people of the same sex will sleep in the same bed as a sign of their close emotional relationship--or simply for the sake of convenience--it can be hard to figure out what sort of special signal a woman would need to use to express romantic interest in her special friend.
I emphasize the word “special” because this isn’t to say that women didn’t have ways to indicate that they wanted to shift the intensity of the friendship. We can see some methods in the diaries of Anne Lister because she talks about them explicitly. She talks about mentioning certain works of literature that discuss same-sex desire to see if the other woman is familiar with them. Or maybe she kisses the object of her interest in a more lingering way than she would kiss an ordinary friend. But the fact that she kissed her would have been considered normal.
Another thing to consider is how geographically circumscribed most lives were before the 20th century. The vast majority of people you interacted with would be people you’d known all your life. People who lived in the same town as you--or if you were part of the minority who lived in a large city, people who lived in the same neighborhood or who were part of your family’s social circle. If you wanted to delicately hint that you wanted a deeper relationship with someone, you weren’t likely to be dealing with a stranger. It would be someone you’d known for some time. Someone whose opinions and responses you were already familiar with.
When considering the lives of pre-20th century women, it’s also important to understand that the dividing lines between sex and affection were drawn in different places at different times. Activities that we consider sex acts might have been considered ordinary expressions of very close friendship. A woman might want to make sure that the object of her affection felt the same degree and intensity of attachment that she did before committing herself wholeheartedly, but it wasn’t necessarily a negotiation that either of them would have felt needed to be done covertly. And they wouldn’t have considered the degree of attachment and affection between them to be something separate and apart from what other female friends felt for each other.
But--you ask me--what about the historic records we can find in which women that we would consider lesbians are criticized or punished? This gets back to the question of how society is drawing lines between concepts and behaviors. You will find women being criticized if they claim male social prerogatives. If they cross-dress. If they marry a woman in the guise of a man. You will find women being criticized if they explicitly resist the expected forms of society. If their attachment to a female friend leads them to reject what would be considered a desirable marriage. In some eras, if they are open about genital sexual activity of any type--with a woman or a man--this will be cause for censure. And in some eras, public discourse around stereotypes of female same-sex sexuality is used to communicate expectations and limits, and to create social divisions that prevent women as a class from advancing women’s causes. In eras when outspoken, socially active women were accused of lesbianism, the point wasn’t to control women’s sexual activity, but to control women’s social and political agency. Sex itself wasn’t the point, it was the weapon.
So getting back to our third assumption--that women who desired other women would have considered marriage to a man to be a bar to those relationships or to expressing those feelings. This takes a very modern position on the optionality of marriage. For most of history, marriage was not about making an individual, voluntary choice based on erotic desire or even on romantic attraction, even in eras when romantic attraction was held up as an ideal. Marriage was primarily an economic transaction--at the very least a major influence on one’s economic and social status. As a parallel, consider how absurd we would consider it to think that one’s employment should be based primarily on personal bonds of affection with the employer. Sure, in some cases you may be offered a job because of personal connections. And sure, in some cases you may end up having a personal friendship with your boss. But those things aren’t considered expected. A woman opting out of marriage because she didn’t have a pre-existing erotic attraction to the man she was marrying would have been considered as silly as we would consider refusing a job because you didn’t think your future boss was hot.
Another aspect of pre-20th century society that we sometimes have a hard time imagining is how strongly gender-segregated people’s lives were. (Think about that awful politician who said he had a rule never to be alone in a room with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Now imagine everyone in society thinking that way.) In a society that considers a woman suspect for any sort of emotional attachment to a non-related man, it’s not only expected that your close emotional bonds will be with other women, but that is considered desirable. Friendship, as the theory went, was only possible between equals, and men and women could rarely be equal. Women were expected to rely on other women to fulfill their emotional and affectionate needs. (Just as men were expected to rely on men for those needs.) In that context, the dividing line between affection and romantic love was functionally non-existent. The dividing line between ordinary physical expressions of that love and something that went beyond the norm was exceedingly fuzzy. And that dividing line would be negotiated between two women who already had established an emotional bond and engaged in a lot of physical expression of that bond already.
So, to a large extent, the original question presumes a universality to our 21st century experiences of desire, our expressions of desire, and our social expectations. We won’t find 18th century women secretly signally their erotic desires to complete strangers by using carefully color-coded handkerchiefs, because they had no need to do so. They would be walking side by side in the park, with arms twined about each other’s waist, leaning in for a kiss the way that good friends were expected to do, and then maybe lingering over that kiss just a few moments longer than they ever had before, to see how the other woman would respond.
Call for Submissions
And now for a special announcement. I’ve been pondering what to do with the occasional fifth show when there are five Saturdays in a month. And the idea that kept coming back, as persistently as a cat at feeding time, was to include some original lesbian historic fiction audio short stories. So I’ve posted a call for submissions on my website. You can find the link in the show notes. In January 2018 I’ll be accepting submissions of original, unpublished short stories of up to 5000 words and choosing two to record for the show. The text will also be published on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. I’ll be paying professional rates because the purpose of the Project is to encourage people to write and enjoy really great lesbian historic fiction, and you only get the best by letting authors know you value it. There are some content specifications, so be sure to read the call for submissions if you’d like to submit a story for consideration. Instructions on how to submit will be posted closer to the submissions window, but this gives you two months to get writing.
(I recently did a podcast on the topic of female highwaymen in history and literature, and the motif in modern lesbian romance. This is one of several reviews resulting from my reading for that podcast.)
The Locket and the Flintlock has a solid historic romance concept: the carriage bearing Lucia Foxe, her father, and her sister is accosted on the road by a gang of highwaymen and they are robbed of their valuables, including the locket that Lucia’s dead mother left to her and which she loudly protests the loss of. (This is, by the way, lesbian highwaywoman romance standard plot point A.) Alternating points of view between Lucia and the leader of the highwaymen, Len Hawkins, leave us in no doubt of the gender of the latter and that she will be the love interest. A reference to the poetry of Byron and to Lucia’s brother being off in the Peninsular Wars appear to narrow the setting down solidly to ca. 1812-14 or so. The Foxes are members of the rural gentry and Lucia is starting to age out of expectations for an advantageous marriage. The set-up is perfect for her to be swept off her feet by a dashing highwaywoman with a heart of gold whose philanthropic interests extend to supporting the anti-industrial actions of the Luddites.
Unfortunately the core of the story is obscured by the prose style, including overly detailed descriptions of the setting, and the characters repetitiously examining their every emotion, regret, second thought, and aspiration. Beyond that, the writing is solidly workmanlike, other than a tendency for the characters to explain their actions to the reader rather than to experience them.
There are serious plausibility issues with the plot and setting. All the major characters are given to impulsive actions that should long since have proven fatal (especially to highwaymen). Two examples will suffice. Scant days after robbing the Foxes’ carriage, the highwaymen just happen to ride past Foxe Hall at a close enough distance that Lucia is able to recognize their faces (at night, in the dark) from her bedroom window. And having done so, Lucia sneaks out of the manor in the middle of the night, evidently in her nightgown (though with a cloak), and rides her horse bareback after the highwaymen to demand the return of her locket.
Plot holes and world-building holes abound, with the geography of the neighborhood being conveniently elastic depending on whether locations need to be nearby or completely unfamiliar. The author has done her research on many aspects of the historic setting (in particular the Luddite movement) but the presentation of the economics and logistics of early 19th century rural English society left me scratching my head. (There is a startling lack of servants at crucial points, and somehow the household and stable chores of maintaining a robbers’ hideaway don’t involve anyone actually doing domestic labor.)
That said, if you're forgiving regarding plausibility in your historic setting, and you’re willing to overlook the protagonists' suicidal impulsivity in exchange for lots of angsty self-examination and a few hot sex scenes, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this book.
It may seem premature to think about the results of some of my recent activity, but the fact is that there have already been significant results—and most of them are all in my head.
To recap: two weeks ago I took a weekend to master the workings of Hootsuite in order to automate regular promotional postings on twitter and facebook. (Also Mailchimp for maintaining a mailing list, see below.) It literally took an entire weekend (in part because coming up with the catalog of content was very draining) but now I have a rotating set of hundreds of different posts, referencing all my projects and publications (both on sale and available for free), with a variety of target links, posting at variable times of day, such that both twitter and facebook will see two to four posts per day, but (ideally) no one will always be seeing the same content in the same place at the same time. Someone who religiously follows my every post in either location may feel that it’s a bit relentless (and I plan to do a reality check with some of them at the end of the month), but the casual reader will just get the occasional reminder without it feeling repetitious. Having done the initial set-up and created a content spreadsheet (you knew there was going to be a spreadsheet, didn’t you) I anticipate that regular maintenance will only take a couple hours a month.
And there have already been results. The most concrete is the additional sharing that the posts are getting. I hardly expect anyone to boost all of the posts (and I’m immensely grateful for anyone who interacts with them in any way). But the “limited shotgun” approach makes it easier and more likely that my existence will be reflected into places where people may not have encountered me before. In essence, I’ve set up an automated pitching machine, making it very simple for people to hit things out into the world when one of the posts arrives in a convenient batting zone. Another benefit of having automated my promo is that I find myself having a lot more emotional space for focusing on promoting other people and their work. (As well—to be sure—as feeling the incentive to be sure my feeds have a proper mix of non-self-promotion content!)
But, for me, the most important consequence that I’m already seeing is that I no longer have that sense of each individual promotional post being a major emotional project that leaves me feeling drained and depressed. By separating the act of content creation and the act of sending that content out into the world, I’ve removed a major emotional weight from the process. (Or at least displaced it into a concentrated period set aside for the purpose.) I no longer feel like I’m drowning in invisibility and struggling just to draw one gasping breath at a time. I look at my timelines and I’m there. I’m present. I exist. To the best of my recollection, I haven’t had an episode of book-related depression in the last three weeks. I’m sure I’ll still have them, but maybe I can reduce the frequency. And—before anyone thinks to do so—please do not say anything along the lines of, “Don’t you wish you’d done this sooner?” This was a massive amount of emotional work. I had to fight through a lot to get to it. I did it when I could, and not sooner.
Along with automating the promo, I’ve put two major new things out into the world. One is a monthly author newsletter. The first issue went out this morning, and to encourage new subscribers, I’ll be giving away some books to a random selection of people subscribed by November 30. (I’ll put up a separate posting with the details about that.) Originally I was figuring that the November newsletter would be a “test run” to make sure the system worked properly, but I have over 30 subscribers already! The newsletter certainly won’t replace the writing-related content on my website (though I may be cribbing from some older essays on Alpennia world-building to recycle). There are people who simply don’t follow blogs who are happy to have a mailing list appear in their in-box. Once a month is a manageable schedule. Besides the hypothetical benefit to my fans/readers, it’s much easier to track numbers of dedicated fans via a mailing list than by trying to decipher blog traffic or other open-access contact points. The newsletter will provide two additional intangible benefits. Because I plan to use it as an outlet for material that is either exclusive to the newsletter or that will only be made publically available later, I’ll have more of a sense that I’m creating things for people who genuinely appreciate it, rather than tossing messages in bottles out into the waves. That gives me more incentive to create things like non-commercial short fiction. Secondly, the newsletter provides an opportunity for fans/readers of my work to feel a sense of community—at least I hope so! It’s a phenomenon I’ve never entirely grasped as an experiencer, but I know it’s important to many other people. Important enough to be worth creating.
The second new project might not seem like a promotional thing, but I assure you that I have only selfish purposes in doing it. The lesbian history podcast will be publishing some original short fiction, and I expect to get two certain and one less certain return from this. 1) Lots more people will know about the LHMP blog and podcast. There’s nothing like a call for submissions to get the word out about a project, especially one that comes with the chance of professional-level payment. 2) One of the goals of the LHMP has always been to promote the creation and enjoyment of great lesbian historical fiction. Publishing stories is a very direct way to achieve that goal. 3) This is the less certain item. I hope that taking on this project (and succeeding at it) will enhance my professional reputation in ways that will improve the chances of future opportunities, whether in the same genre or more on the SFF side. My current limited plan to publish two stories is a manageable project, whether it’s wildly successful or whether it flops. If it’s successful (even if not wildly), there’s a better chance that I may be able to take on similar projects in the future. If successful, it may help connect the LHMP with parts of its intended audience that have been resistant so far.
So, all in all, I think it’s been a very productive last couple of weeks.
But Heather (you say), you don't write horror! You don't write supernatural fiction! What do you mean you want to feature Halloween content today?
Halloween marks the end of the ancient Celtic year--the time when doors open between this world and the next--and what better day to have set the beginning of the action of "Hyddwen", my Mabinogi-inspired story about a woman who repays her debt to an otherworldly queen by being her champion in a very strange battle. Morvyth follows the footsteps of many an ancient Welsh hero in crossing that boundary on the day that falls between the years. No one who does so comes back unchanged. And one of these days I'll start writing "Gwylan" which deals with some unexpected fallout from that visit.
For my other Halloween-themed link, I invite you to re-visit the podcast I did last year for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast, where I discuss Christina Rosetti's poem "The Goblin Market", including a full reading of the poem at the conclusion of the podcast. It's a spooky and frightening poem, but what I loved most was the shifting musical rhythms of the verses, with their repetitions and change in tempo. I've really started enjoying reading poetry as part of these podcasts just for the delicious taste of the language. (Hmm, maybe "delicious taste" isn't the best metaphor when talking about Goblin Markets!)
Margery Kempe seems to be a popular historic figure for "queering", that is, for identifying ways in which her actions and writings (and even her person) disrupted gender and sexual norms of medieval society. I'm not entirely a fan of this sort of approach. Just as the "search and rescue mission" approach (as labeled by Valerie Traub) popular in early gay and lesbian studies framed historic figures in terms of whether they could be "claimed" for modern sexual identities, the "queering history" approach similarly prioritizes the imaginations and interpretations of modern viewers over the historic material they examine. Studies like this that focus on women's social and emotional relations with each other are quite fascinating in their own right, but it seems to me that they do more to show that what we think of as the "norms" of pre-modern society perhaps are wrong-headed to begin with, rather than viewing Kempe as disrupting those norms.
Lavezzo, Kathy. 1996. “Sobs and Sighs Between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in The Book of Margery Kempe” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X
This is a collection of papers looking at issues in the historiography of sexuality, that is: how to study sexuality in historic contexts with consideration of the theoretical frameworks being used. In general, the approach is to dismantle the concepts of universals and essences, by which “history” has been used to define and persecute “others.” The papers are very theory-focused around how the study of the “other” points out the narrow and distorted picture of history in the mainstream tradition. One feature that these papers challenge is a clear dichotomy between a pre-modern understanding of sexuality as “acts” versus a modern understanding as “identity”. The papers cover not only queer sexuality by a broader variety of sexualized themes in history. As usual with general collections like this, I’ve selected the papers that speak to lesbian-like themes, but in this case I’ve included on with a male focus that provides an interesting counterpoint on issues of gender identity.
Lavezzo 1996 “Sobs and Sighs Between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in The Book of Margery Kempe”
The medieval mystic Margery Kempe wrote her book partly in response to interrogation for suspect religious views. One specific anxiety that was voiced against her was that she would “lead...wives away” to join her in her own personal forms of worship. This article looks at the use of sorrow and compassion for the passion of Christ, but also for the figures of Mary mourning as a form of homoerotic bonding between women. This had the potential to create a female community of religiously-oriented mourning, identified with the Virgin, but with the women’s relationships made acceptable by being mediated through the figure of Christ.