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Tuesday, April 21, 2015 - 08:45

Congratulations to Barbara Schneider who won the e-book give-away of The Mystic Marriage! And thanks to all of you who entered. (The winner has been notified by e-mail.)

The Mystic Marriage
Full citation: 

Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4

Publication summary: 

A study of emotional, romantic, and sexual relationships between women in the English "long 18th century." A foundational work in the field.

Chapter 7: Communities

Today we'll finish up with the chapter in Donoghue that really hit home with me when I first read it. Too often when we think about pre-modern lesbians, there's a tendency to think in terms of isolation: that every woman's story will be a lonely coming-out story of thinking she's the "only one" and having to invent her identity and relationship from scratch. This idea has been reinforced by the popularity of the "social constructionist" school of homosexuality, which holds that there is no such thing as an innate sexual orientation identity, only patterns and concepts of social behavior that are structured and limited by the particular culture a person lives in. This school holds that there was no such thing as a "homosexual identity" before it was invented by medical sexologists in the late 19th century, and that there is no valid conceptual connection between modern gay and lesbian identities and historic persons who happened to engage in same-sex sexual activities.

Whatever one's emotional response to such a position, the research done on the history of women's same-sex desires and sexual activities in the last couple of decades has rather blown out of the water the notion that a concept of "lesbian identity" and even "lesbian community" didn't exist until doctors invented it around 1900. And that research helps provide a basis for telling stories about historic lesbians who didn't have to invent themselves from scratch, without having to throw historicity out the window to do so.

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends. Researchers looking for closely parallel institutions for women are often led to conclude that there was no pre-modern sense of a community of lesbians (or even to conclude that this lack indicates an absence of lesbian activity entirely). But this approach ignores gender differences in social and economic opportunities, as well as prioritizing certain types of erotic encounters.

An absence of 18th century lesbian “cruising places” should not be taken as proof that there was no such thing as “lesbian culture” or “lesbian community” in that era. For example, there is some evidence from late 18th century Amsterdam for small social groups of tribades, but the rarity of evidence is linked to a large extent with the general disinterest in prosecution outside of special circumstances.

In this final chapter, Donoghue looks at representations (including clearly fictional ones) of groups of women socializing around a common interest in lesbianism. Sometimes these representations are displacements of hostility against some other factor, such as the regular portrayal of convents as a hotbed of lesbianism. In other cases, suspicion of women’s political influence, especially when implemented through female networks, was expressed as a suspicion of lesbianism. In other cases, a conceptual tradition—such as the association of Sappho with lesbianism—was converted into the idea of an actual ongoing cultural tradition. Aside from fictional portrayals, there has often been a shying away among historians from an examination of the erotic aspects of women’s social and political networks.

The nun’s smooth tongue

Women-only institutions, such as convents and harems, were a common site for male fantasies about women’s sexual activities, not only with each other, but under an assumption that women with restricted access to men will be sexually frustrated and voracious in general. The heterosexual version of this assumption led to the borrowing of convent terminology as slang for prostitutes and brothels. Combine a prurient interest in what women might do in the absence of men with the virulent strain of anti-Catholicism present in England during this era and the fictional portrayal of orgies in convents or sexually predatory abbesses becomes a tempting blend of pornography and polemic. Examples mentioned in earlier chapters include Barrin’s Venus in the Cloister and Diderot’s The Nun. Less explicitly, works such as Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” weave a lesbian sensuality into a (hostile) depiction of the attractions of convent life, finishing with the image of the postulant sharing her bed “chastely” with a “fresh and virgin bride” every night “embracing arm in arm”.

The convent of pleasure

Among protestant writers, a positive vision of a convent-like all-female community is presented in works such as Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Sarah Scott’s A Description of Millenium Hall (1762). The potential for passionately-charged relationships among the women of these communities is still implicit, but without the overlay of religious hostility. Another genre of fictional portrayals of all-female communities grows out of a revived interest in classical Amazons. But in general Amazonian stories mock the idea of women-only communities, and avoid the erotic potential of such an arrangement.

Within this context, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure stands out as unusual. The story revolves around Lady Happy, who has been blessed with sufficient fortune (and an absence of male authority figures) to be able to reject marriage and disdain male suitors in favor of setting up an all-woman community to enjoy “all the delights and pleasures that are allowed and lawful.” Lady Happy’s male suitors, feeling themselves unjustly cheated of the chance to claim her fortune and her person, plot to infiltrate the community and, when this fails, to destroy it for spite.

Among the descriptions of sensual luxury, a rather overt lesbian aspect is introduced when a new guest notes to Lady Happy, “Observing in your several recreations some of your ladies do accoustre [i.e., dress] themselves in masculine habits, and act lovers-parts; I desire you will give me leave to be sometimes so accoustred and act the part of your loving servant.” The implication here is that romantic role-playing, accompanied by cross-dressing, is a routine part of the community. Lady Happy consents to this courtship and finds herself romantically attracted to the newcomer, asking herself, “Why may not I love a woman with the same affection I could a man?” She balks a little when the other woman, though using the vocabulary of friendship and platonic love, initiates kisses and embraces, claiming that they are not “sin” among friends. Just at the point when Lady Happy is overcoming her qualms and pledging her love to the other, there comes an accusation that a man has entered the community in disguise and—of course—it turns out to be Lady Happy’s lover. Other characters note that, in retrospect, they should have known when they saw how Lady Happy reacted to being kissed because “women’s kisses are unnatural”. Thus, even in a context which seems at first to embrace and endorse same-sex love within a women’s community, heteronormativity is restored at the end.

In contrast to Shakespearean plays with similar motifs, however, the audience is not in on the secret until the final reveal. In experiencing the play real-time, they would have been shown a genuine and convincing love story between women, only very artificially “saved” at the very end.

New cabals

If the preceding examples show contexts where an all-female environment creates the potential for same-sex passion, a different set of texts show that passion as the purpose of forming the community. The roman à clef Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediteranean (1709) has one episode (among a much larger quantity of material) giving an account of a group of women who are clearly indicated as joining together for the celebration of same-sex passion.

The narrative voice coyly frames the description with assertions that there could be no “irregularity” in their affections and activities because what could women do together, after all? But in the publishing context of the day, this was (among other reasons) a necessity to avoid libel charges, given how transparent the portrayals were. Although the descriptions of the activities mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, the rules of the community not only exclude men, but exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men (marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, but male lovers are right out).

The women join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion (and secrecy) but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Most of the descriptions of the women (including those meant to represent contemporary figures) do not indicate gender role play or cross-dressing, but there are a few exceptions. One woman (meant to represent Lady Frescheville) is described as mannish in style (though not in dress), and another (representing Lady Anne Popham) is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [i.e., clothing] of the other sex”. But this is not as part of “butch-femme” role play, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment.

The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. This couple (along with other of Wharton’s lovers of both sexes) also appear in the fictionalized Memoirs of Europe (1710) by the same author. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.

Although the formal organization of this lesbian community is most likely fictional, the emphasis in the book on the need for secrecy from the outside world (and especially from husbands), the difficulties of pursuing erotic relationships that had no social standing or protections, and the extensive network of connections across gaps of class, status, and age create a plausible picture of how lesbian-oriented women may have found each other and gained at least some social and emotional support for their relationships. The accuracy of the specifics, though, is suspect given that all the women disguised in this characters were connected in some way to Whig politics.

A similar, transparently disguised social network of “tribades” is portrayed in William King’s viciously satiric The Toast, created primarily to express his personal hatred and feud against the Duchess of Newburgh. Images of organized associations of lesbians also feature in a group of late 18th century French texts that take a more libertine and pornographic look at what are depicted as sex clubs. While these are fictional and of dubious relation to actual practice, a non-fictional travelogue by a German visitor to London in the 1780s notes matter-of-factly the existence of organized societies for “females who avoid all intimate intercourse with the opposite sex, confining themselves to their own sex…called Lesbians.”


The most pervasive connection or network for 18th century lesbians was a conceptual and historical one, tracing the practice back to Sappho. Despite the counter-claims of some Sappho scholars such as Joan DeJean [whose work I will cover at some future date], Donoghue points out the extensive awareness of the connection between the historic poet Sappho and the tradition of Sappho as a lover of women, giving rise to the use of “Sapphic” and “lesbian” as descriptors in this sense. Thus even superficially innocent references to the ancient poet were available as allusions to passion between women.

This section goes into some detail regarding the translations and versions of Sappho’s work that were popularly available in the 18th century and the ways in which they acknowledged or deliberately concealed the references to love between women. There was also the complication that, for many, Sappho stood in for the idea of intellectual and literary women in general, and therefore female scholars even more than male ones found themselves straining to discount the “taint” of lesbianism for the most famous Lesbian. This tension is played out in various fictional portrayals of the poet.

Sappho enters, as well, into the tension between viewing same-sex passions as a new development in the 18th century, or as a continuation of a longstanding phenomenon. The classical Sappho could be used to imply lesbianism was something of the past, no longer practiced, and perhaps conceptually divorced from the “unaccountable” affections between 18th century women. But those educated enough to have access to literature of the previous century, such as Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” (1633) or Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies would find it harder to dismiss lesbianism as an ongoing tradition.

This chapter concludes with a somewhat confused collection of polemical tracts against what was perceived as the rise of lesbian behavior in the 18th century, making reference not only to classical sources such as Sappho and Diana, but to pernicious foreign influences either from that default source of vice, France, or more exotic locations such as Turkey. The clear lesbian context of these writings gives us the connection for unambiguously identifying slang terms for lesbians and lesbian sex such as “the game of flats” and “Tommy”. There are extensive excerpts from the writings of Hester Thrale, whose venom against both male and female homosexuality led her to speculate extensively on the sex lives of her contemporaries.

Time period: 
Sunday, April 19, 2015 - 22:17
I decided to stick with the original release date for my official promotional blitz. Expect to see me talking about The Mystic Marriage all over the internet today. If you're reading about it here, I doubt you need me to talk the book up any more than I already have. But just for the same of completeness… In this sequel to the fantasy adventure Daughter of Mystery, Antuniet Chazillen sets out to redeem her family’s honor after the disastrous events of the previous book. A long-hidden book of alchemical secrets holds the key to success, but only if she can outwit the enemies hunting her and find a patron willing to finance her work. At her return to Alpennia, she turns to Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac for help with the latter. Jeanne is bored with the current round of balls and concerts and considers Antuniet’s plea just the thing to add spice to the season. Before long, she too is drawn into Antuniet’s world of intrigue and alchemy. The alchemy of precious gems throws two women into a crucible of adversity, but it is the alchemy of the human heart that transforms them both. Available from Bella Books Or from (Note: Amazon Kindle version will be released in about a month, but all e-book formats are available through the Bella website.) And remember: the chance to win a free e-book in conjunction with the Lesbian Historic Motif Project will run until the end of the day, Monday April 20!
Sunday, April 19, 2015 - 13:17
In a random twitter conversation this morning about hypothetical Duolingo for ancient languages, it occurred to me that I've never put my "Conversational Medieval Welsh" booklet up on the web. That has now been remedied. I actually have a lot of assorted research papers I've never put on the web. In some cases, I had a paper publication available. In others, the formatting was daunting. (In some cases, I have class materials that would make a good web article but they're image-heavy with pictures I don't have rights/permissions for.) I really should work on all that. Sometime when I have free time. Hey, you know what else I could throw up easily? It's been 10 years since I celebrated the 25th anniversary of my Laureling. I put together a collection of 25 articles representing both the breadth of my work and what I considered my "best work" at the time. I have it right here in pdf. Let's throw that one up on the web site as well. Some of the content is SCA-specific, but most of it is of more general interest.
Thursday, April 16, 2015 - 13:58
Last week I made rather a fuss about the importance of book reviews to authors, so this week I thought I’d talk about it from my point of view as a reader. I post about a lot of things on this blog in the format of reviews, simply because it’s a standard way of evaluating and communicating about my experiences to other people. Most of my non-fiction “reviews” have been more in the line of simple summaries of contents, although occasionally I might add some evaluative comments. (In some ways, the LHMP entries are just an expanded version of my book-intake posts.) But for fiction I tend to get a bit more long-winded and subjective. I've fallen in the habit of writing my reviews in two parts: one an attempt at even-handed criticism, and the other detailing my personal emotional relationship with the text. This is important because my overall take-away is very much influenced by the second part and I think it's important to show where I'm coming from. It’s been relatively recently that I’ve started making a point of reviewing every novel I read (and I have missed a few, for one reason or another). If you wonder why you haven’t seen that many reviews, the simple fact is that I don’t read a lot of novels. The way I explain it is that I use the same part of my brain for reading as for writing. So when I’m immersed in writing, I feel less urge to read, and if I’m reading something really interesting, it lessens my urge to write. When it comes down to it, there are very few books out there that I would read in preference to the ones I write. I guess that’s part of what makes me a writer. But when Daughter of Mystery came out, I found myself a bit more interested in seeing what the rest of the writing world was up to. I’d stopped keeping up around about the time grad school seized me by the throat and I’ve felt very disconnected ever since. In a way, that’s a good thing. It helps give me the freedom to be very picky about what I do read, rather than feeling I have to keep up with particular authors and series just because they’re what everyone is reading. And while I do prioritize those novels that are most in tune with my own reading tastes, I also find myself reading for a number of competing and conflicting reasons. For example, I’ve been doing my best to read more widely from the lesbian presses, simply because this is the industry I chose to make my publishing home at the moment. So I’ve been looking there for historicals and fantasies that either seem likely to be to my taste or are by people I might share a market with. A major “problem” I have is that I’m completely uninterested in contemporary settings—even for paranormals, though I’ve enjoyed a good urban fantasy as long as it wasn’t generic vampire/werewolf stuff. And—quite frankly—erotic romance doesn’t actively appeal to me, although some erotic content is fine if handled without damage to the plot. (And by “erotic romance” I don’t mean just “ordinarily this would be called porn but we don’t use that word”. I mean any book where sexual activity is explicit on the page. Not that I don’t enjoy good porn, in its place. But not when I’m reading for story.) In the SFF world, I've been reading for awards season (though not always exhaustively) and I've been making a point to read at least one book by authors who I've struck up online friendships with. (I can't possibly afford the time to read every book by every author I have some personal connection to, alas! I know too many authors and they're too prolific.) When I publish reviews here on my blog, I don’t use a “star” rating system. I’d rather discuss the details of what I liked or didn’t like. But since I’m also posting my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I have to convert my impressions into a numeric score—and a slightly different score for each site. One of the tricky things is that the calibration guidelines for the two sites don’t align in some parts of the scale and to be meaningful, I try to follow the explicit calibrations. 1-star
  • Amazon: I hate it
  • Goodreads: I did not like it
  • Amazon: I don’t like it
  • Goodreads: It was ok
  • Amazon: It’s ok
  • Goodreads: I liked it
  • Amazon: I like it
  • Goodreads: I really liked it
  • Amazon: I love it
  • Goodreads: It was amazing
This means, technically, that an Amazon star ranking should generally always be 1 star more than the Goodreads ranking. In reality, I suspect people generally have their own internal calibration and tend to use a similar scale on both sites. I know that, for me, I’d have a hard time giving a book 2 stars on Goodreads if I thought it was basically ok with no major flaws. It would just feel…odd. So my own ranking, when pushed to the choice, tends to go something like this: 1-2 stars: I try to avoid ever finding myself reading anything I would give this ranking. I book would fall in this range if the writing were bad (that is, worse than merely pedestrian), or if the plot or characters were seriously flawed or completely illogical. 3 stars: If a book were simply not to my taste, but was solidly written and plotted, this is probably where it would fall. Or if I really liked the premise and characters but felt the writing or the plotting were flawed. 4-star Amazon: At a minimum, solid, competent writing, solid plot and engaging characters. Plus at least one extra: really good writing, a strong woman-centered story, at least the potential for romance between women, a setting or premise that pushes my buttons. 4-star Goodreads or 5-star Amazon: Must have go beyond competent to beautiful writing, solid plot, and engaging characters. Plus at least one extra from the previous list. 5-star Goodreads: As before, but with at least two extras from the previous list. My initial selection process tends to filter for overall setting and theme, so it's rare that I'd end up down-grading a book on that basis unless I'd been pulled a bait-and-switch. Solid writing, plotting, and characters are an absolute for me. I can’t turn off my brain and enjoy something for its premise if I keep getting slapped in the face by the writing style. A story that has one or two of those "extras" but weak writing can hold on to me long enough to finish the book, but it won't get top marks. But I’ll hold to my right to apply some very subjective criteria to bring a solidly competent book up to the “it was amazing” level. I’ve spent too much of my reading life in the company of books that barely recognized female characters as human, much less as important to the plot and interesting in their own right. Fuck that shit. And I’ve spent too much of my reading life in the company of books that either erased, discounted, or were oblivious to the existence of anything but heterosexuality. For me, personally, to be a truly great read, a book has to give me reason to believe that I might see that aspect of myself reflected in the story somehow. I have to be able to believe that the character I’ve been urged to identify with just might fall in love with another girl, rather than the boy. She doesn’t have to, but I have to believe it’s possible.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - 09:15
This is it! The last teaser from The Mystic Marriage. When Teaser Tuesday rolls around again, I'll have to come up with something else to post because the book will already have been released (for one whole day). Shh, let me tell you a secret. Some bookstores already have it on the shelves. If you're in the SF Bay Area, you can get it at Laurel Bookstore in downtown Oakland (where I'll be doing some sort of release event in a month or so, currently under discussion). I know Bookwoman in Austin TX has copies already. Possibly others, but I have no idea who. If you want to get it from your local SFF bookstore, you're probably going to have to go in and specifically request that they carry it. (See my previous comments on that.) And, of course, you have until next Monday to enter for a chance to win a free e-copy, which you'll be able to get instantaneously! * * * So, Antuniet thought, it had come to this in the end. She waited for the old despair to sweep in--the conviction that fate had allowed her to rise only for the fall to be greater. But she and despair had become estranged lately. * * * After Barbara was gone, the hours ticked by, measured by the regular faint tonk tonk of a drip somewhere out of sight. A gutter pipe, from the metallic echo. No windows gave any clue to the sun’s passage but the chill of evening quieted the sound. Then she was glad for the lack of windows. Powerful friends could do that much at least: an interior cell where the cold could be kept off with blankets. Good food and plentiful, when it came. It could have been far worse. Higher friends could do more, of course. Efriturik had spent no time inside these walls. He’d been released on oath as soon as the charge was laid. If truth could not be held as constant, even less could justice. There had never been any possibility that a son of Atilliet would suffer worse than humiliation and count that bad enough. What were the penalties for sorcery in the ordinary courts? Her imagination had never shied away from picking at wounds. Gone were the days when such a case would have been handed over to the church—not unless there were blasphemy involved as well. It was such an elusive charge, sorcery. So easy to believe; so hard to prove. And so rarely brought against anyone with standing. What penalty would Elisebet have sought had Efriturik not escaped her grasp by claiming privilege? It didn’t matter except to guess what she herself might face. And even so, would Elisebet have been mad enough to demand the ultimate penalty? It wasn’t right or just to have one law for princes and another for such as her. And yet, justice be damned, if she had the same right to appeal her case to Annek, she would, so long as honor remained. She slept in fits and starts with no dreams that she could recall. The nightmares that had preyed on her while waiting were satisfied with her waking fears now. In the morning, Jeanne came. She hadn’t slept well either; that much was clear. Even paint and powder couldn’t conceal that she’d been weeping. She wept again now, held close while Antuniet found herself playing the awkward role of comforter. Jeanne’s voice came muffled, “I meant to be strong for you.” “Hush, hush,” Antuniet found herself saying. “You needn’t be afraid. Barbara has all manner of ideas in train. Do you know? She even offered to bloody her sword in my name.” “She would do that?” Jeanne asked in surprise. “Well, I’m not as shocked as I should be,” Antuniet said in an attempt at humor. “For all her grand speeches about justice and law, I know she has few qualms about settling matters in dark alleys. I suppose I should be glad I’m under her protection. There was a time when I would have been on the other end of her blade, though God knows why she’s taken me in. I’ve brought no honor to her house or lineage.” She was babbling and she knew it. Jeanne wasn’t fooled.
Sunday, April 12, 2015 - 11:10
Lone Star LesFic is an extremely well-run event--still at that cusp where they're able to run it on donations and fundraising without needing to charge admission, but drawing a sizable crowd (I'd estimate maybe close to 100?) The hospitality is truly stunning and it's clear there's a strong, vibrant, and tight-knit literary community at its heart. Since I'd decided to spend this year trying some new book events and reaching out to more reading communities, I was delighted when LSLF accepted my application to be one of the authors on their program. (And it was even nicer when The Mystic Marriage was able to get a slight pre-release in time to have copies for the event.) The weekend kicked off with a group dinner Friday evening at a place featuring "good old-fashioned home cooking". (When I inquired about BBQ, thinking of the fame of said cuisine, it was pointed out to me that for BBQ you go to a BBQ joint -- it's taken too seriously to be a casual menu inclusion.) A number of the featured authors were included, as well as event staff and locals, although all the Bold Strokes Books authors were off at their own group dinner. The event itself was a one-day affair at a small conference center (that we shared with another group whose primary activity evidently involved sitting all day, given the number of butt-pillows I saw being carried into their function rooms!). There was a programming room that was spit in two for the panels and readings and combined for the opening and closing sessions, plus a general function room where the hospitality, dealers, fundraising displays, and book signings took place. It was a great use of space and gave a very "centered" feel to the event. (The two function rooms were accessible directly off the general-purpose room, which meant there wasn't any tendency for wandering off.) The programming consisted of three tracks (aside from the un-opposed opening and closing sessions): group readings, discussion panels, and signing sessions. With four time-slots (other than the opening/closing) this meant that authors who were participating in all the programing facets (which pretty much everyone did) only had one free slot to see what everyone else was doing. Lucky for me, my free period was opposite the "Lesbians in Historical Fiction" panel, so I got to hear Linda Crist, CF Frizzell, Del Robertson, and Justine Saracen talking about their research and how they incorporated it into their work. There were two other panels. (Not sure why they didn't fill the fourth available panel slot, but it may be that some authors declined to do panel discussions.) I don't know what went on in "Sexual Content in LesFic: How Much?" but I was on the panel for "LesFic SUper Powers: Vampires, Demons, Ghosts, and Psychics" along with Mavis Applewater, Therese Szymanski, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Barbara Ann Wright. Given that the intent of the panel was to talk about these themes in our own work, I had a bit of creative tap-dancing to do since my work doesn't feature any of those! (I talked about magic in the world of Alpennia, which wasn't too far a stretch, but there was a certain amount of creative interpretation of the discussion prompts.) For my reading, I picked Chapter 3 from The Mystic Marriage, which is the best introduction to Antuniet and Jeanne and their interactions. (Chapter 1 in isolation gives a somewhat misleading notion of where the story is going, and chapter 2 is all Margerit and Barbara.) The reading went pretty smoothly (yay for rehearsals!) but I can't really tell whether people liked it. We had a group Q&A after all 4 readings, which I had suggested as a substitute for the planned individual Q&A after each reader, because we got started a little late and I pointed out that it gave better time management to avoid running over. I guess the added benefit is it avoided an awkward silence after my reading since no one had any questions for me in the Q&A. (I invited people to talk to me about it later, but nobody took me up on it.) I know the book vendor sold at least one copy of The Mystic Marriage because it showed up during my signing session. (That may be the only copy of my books they sold, alas, because I didn't see the stacks on the table change height during the day.) I also signed the pair of books (plus booklet of "Three Nights at the Opera") I'd donated to the fundraising table. Someone got a real deal because the set together went for the same price as other individual books! I did get my Texas BBQ fix, because evidently there's a traditional exodus to a local BBQ joint after the conference closes. (I didn't choose wisely on my menu selection: took the beef rib which turned out to be way too greasy and not particularly flavorful. Should have picked the pork ribs instead.) I had a couple of nice conversations over dinner, and then it was back to my motel with a stop at Walgreens to pick up some Sominex in hopes of avoiding the previous night's sleep debacle. (I don't know what set it off, but even with all my usual techniques, I didn't get to sleep until 4am. On the up side, this means that when the motel security guard was pounding on a door a couple rooms away for half an hour at 2am, I didn't get woken up because: still awake.) Would I recommend attending LSLF? Definitely, if you're local enough to make a one-day convention cost-effective. You get a fairly large author-bang for your donations-optional-buck, which is hard to beat. Would I attend again? Probably not. As far as I can tell from the evidence, the attendees simply aren't interested in the sort of books I write. Not that I got any directly negative feedback, but there was an echoing silence of positive engagement. Over dinner afterward, I apologized to the event organizer for not being a good fit for their attendees' interests (which isn't something I could have known going in). I feel bad for the unknown author who might otherwise have been offered my slot and whose work might have been more in the lesfic mainstream and of interest to the conference attendees. And I feel bad for the conference bookseller who went to some trouble to stock up on my books (especially the pre-release of the new one) and got so little return on it.
Thursday, April 9, 2015 - 10:52
Anyone who know me at all personally knows how uncomfortable I am with self-promotion. I’m going to say some very uncomfortably self-serving things in this blog. (When I want to draw attention, I normally fall back on doing or making something so totally fabulous that everyone will just naturally want to be my friend and talk to me…which evidently makes me too scary or intimidating to talk to, but that’s an entirely different essay.) So you needn’t fear that essays like this one will become a common feature on my blog. But book releases are a special thing—a thing that only ever happens once for each book. As I’ve frequently mentioned, when Daughter of Mystery was released last year, I really wasn’t sure what to expect or what the rules were and I missed a lot of opportunities and made a lot of mistakes. Perhaps mistakes that couldn’t have been avoided. No doubt this time I’ll make an entirely different set of mistakes. But the one mistake I’m going to try not to make is to believe that if I just let my book sit there on the shelf being its utterly fabulous self, that the sheer fabulosity will make it successful. Bullshit. Fabulous things get overlooked all the time. And quietly fabulous things get overlooked a lot. So here’s where you—my readers and fans—come in. I’ve frequently mentioned how tickled I am that my reader reviews are so overwhelmingly literate and articulate. I think a well-written review helps persuade potential readers more than a simple “OMG this is great!” does. But you know what else helps persuade readers? Numbers. A year and a quarter out, Daughter of Mystery has exactly 21 Amazon reviews. (It would have had 22, but I think they took my brother’s review down because he was honest enough to mention the relationship.) That’s actually pretty pathetic numbers. Books that are a tenth as good as mine have ten times the number of reviews. You know why? Because they have energized fan bases. Amazon reviews drive visibility on the site. They matter. Daughter of Mystery has 14 Goodreads reviews. (More ratings, because Goodreads lets you rate without reviewing.) That’s really pathetic. Obviously, I’m happy about the people who have left reviews. But I get rather depressed about my book’s apparent inability to get more people excited enough to talk about it. Excitement spreads interest. Interest generates curiosity. Curiosity leads to people checking the book out. And I can’t count the number of people I’ve heard say, “I wouldn’t ordinarily have read something like this, but so-and-so convinced me to try it and I absolutely loved it!” I can’t get those readers if my greatest fans are just quietly appreciating the books in private as if they were a guilty pleasure. Discoverability is a major problem for small press books and for niche genres. Let’s be brutally honest here: my publisher doesn’t do any promotion outside the lesbian fiction market—and that market is pretty much assumed to be a closed class who only need to be provided with the information of a book’s existence. All the promotion outside that narrow market is on my head, and it pretty much means that I’m hand-selling books one at a time and desperately hoping that someone else will love the book enough to spread the word. That’s where you all come in. Here are some very specific things you can do to help The Mystic Marriage be a success—assuming that you’d like it to be a success. Keep in mind that success is essential to having book series continue to be published. If the Alpennia books are very much outsiders in the larger world of SFF publishing, keep in mind that serious historic fantasy is just as much an outsider in the world of lesbian fiction, which is dominated by contemporary settings, category romance, and erotica. A lot of lesfic readers who will reflexively buy every new contemporary erotic romance, give Daughter of Mystery a pass because they don’t know what to do with it. So I need that cross-over appeal. I write niche books and I need to find and fill that niche in every reading community it exists in. So that’s the pep talk. What can you do?
  • Read the books – OK, that sounds like a no brainer. I assume that people who read this blog do so because they enjoy my writing and my ideas and are predisposed to like my fiction as well. But it’s not actually a given. So I’m going to make a personal, emotional appeal: I will never judge anyone by whether they’ve read my books or not, but if you have ever tried someone’s books or stories solely because you liked them as a person and wanted to support their creative work, I’m not proud. I’ll gladly take that as a reason for having you read mine. And past evidence has indicated that you’re more likely to be glad you did than sorry, so it's not a big risk.
  • Tell people if you enjoyed the books – In person, in your social media, everywhere. Be as enthusiastic as your conscience will allow. Not just, “Hey what are you reading?” “Oh, this thing my friend Heather wrote.” but “It’s this great book [title]! It has [favorite story features] and I love the [best parts]! And it’s a series—I just finished the second book and I can’t wait for her to finish the next one!”
  • Post reviews – You don’t have to buy a book from Amazon to post a review there. (You do have to set up an account, but that’s trivial.) It’s just as easy to set up a Goodreads account and you can post the same review in both places. And then re-use the review on your personal blog, or facebook wall, or anywhere else. A review doesn’t have to be a formal essay. It doesn’t have to be long. (As noted above, specific observations are better than generic squee. But don’t forget to squee as well!)
  • Add the books to Goodreads lists and best-ofs -- Goodreads has a lot of features for helping people identify books they might enjoy reading. There's simple shelf-tagging. There are theme lists. Daughter of Mystery is currently included in "Lesbian Historic Fiction" and "Lesbian Fantasy". Other lists that it might naturally belong on include "Fantasy of Manners" and "Regency Fantasy". There are book groups with associated recommendation lists. Goodreads also has the option to ask an author questions, or to start discussions related to a specific book. All of these things increase visibility and engage people's interest.
  • Recommend the books – If you encounter people looking for suggestions to read, keep the Alpennia books in mind if they fit what the person is looking for. There’s nothing like the thrill of seeing someone recommend your book to a third party. (And it’s disappointing when someone who says they like your book never seems to remember it exists when they’re making recommendations. See comments about “guilty pleasures”.)
  • Pass on promotional opportunities – Not everyone will be in a position to do this, of course, but if you know someone who does book reviews or book blogs, someone who does book-related podcasts, if you’re part of a book club (either in-person or on-line), suggest the Alpennia books any time they’re relevant. If you’re reasonably local to me, I’m always happy to look into personal appearances. Personal connections got me a library reading, a bookstore reading, and a Q&A session with HS and college students who’d had Daughter of Mystery as assigned reading. The possibilities can be creative.
  • Help get the books into bookstores – Yes, I know, brick-and-mortar stores are so 20th century, and many people no longer have the luxury of having a local bookstore, not even a Barnes & Noble. But physical stores are still a great place for book discoverability, and bookstores rarely stock small press books without a special reason. If you have the opportunity, give them that reason. Special-order my books through your local bookstore and actively suggest that they order extra copies and put them on the shelves. (I had one SFF bookstore tell me, “We didn’t stock your book because we didn’t think it would sell, and since nobody came in and asked for it, obviously we were right not to have stocked it.” Just one person walking in and saying, “Hey, could you order this book for me?” might have gotten me into that store.) And here’s a further detail on discoverability: suggest that they shelve the book in the SFF section…not that one tiny shelf in the far back of the store where they cram all the LGBTQ books. People who buy lesbian fiction will already have heard about my books (it they’re going to hear at all). It’s the fantasy readers who need to be able to stumble across them.
  • Be enthusiastic – I can’t emphasize this enough. The minimal baseline for getting people’s attention for a book these days is “OMG this is the best thing ever! You have to read it!” A recommendation along the lines of, “I rather like it. If you’re into this sort of thing, you might check it out.” might as well be a thumbs-down.
  • Don’t anti-sell – There’s this thing that shows up in reviews sometimes that comes out sounding like, “This book is very good for a lesbian novel” or “If you like lesbian fantasy adventures, you’ll enjoy this.” A lot of potential readers will have a knee-jerk reaction to being told that a story has lesbian characters. “Oh, this isn’t meant for me.” I never want to apologize for my characters being women who love other women. And every time the books get described in a way that prioritizes the “lesbian” label, it feels like a big red warning label is being slapped across the cover. Lots of people have enjoyed Daughter of Mystery who would not have deliberately read a “lesbian novel”. Don’t feel you have to foreground this aspect of the books unless it’s a positive selling point. Because if you do, it comes across as giving your listener an excuse to reject it. And that connects to...
  • Make connections to other things people like -- One of my readers recently recommended, "If you like Ellen Kushner's Privilege of the Sword or Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics, or if you think Georgette Heyer novels would be better with lesbians, Daughter of Mystery is a book for you." Now that's how you sell a book to people! I would love it if more people promoted the connections between the Alpennia books and better-known works that have the same target audience. (I'd love it even more if someone convinced the authors of those better-known similar works to check out Alpennia and if they subsequently recommended my work to their fans. This is, alas, something that is Very Bad Form for an author to do herself.)
So that’s everything I can think of at the moment. I’m sure you’re all creative enough to come up with more. The LHMP100 celebratory contest for a chance to win a e-book of The Mystic Marriage is still running and will be open through April 20. You currently have an excellent chance of winning if you enter (hint, hint). Now I’ll just go back to working on being quietly fabulous until next time.
Tuesday, April 7, 2015 - 09:08
I'm combining my celebration of publication #100 in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and the upcoming publication of The Mystic Marriage with an e-book give-away! Details at this link. [*] We're coming down to the wire. Next Tuesday I'll post the teaser from the final chapter and the Tuesday after that, The Mystic Marriage will already be released! (If you're one of the lucky folk coming to this weekend's Lone Star LesFic festival in Austin TX, there will be early copies available there.) [*] Let me tell you a secret. Promotions like this are a way of gauging reader interest and engagement. If relatively few people show interest in a chance at getting something free, it can make an author very sad. Sad authors don't write as much as happy authors. * * * The accusations against Antuniet had a trail that led back to her housekeeper, Mefro Feldin. Feldin had disappeared from Rotenek, but Barbara's blood was up and a hunt was just the thing to feed her fury. * * * “But you didn’t take those pretty trinkets just to hang about your neck, did you?” Barbara said, giving just the slightest emphasis to the words hang and neck. “Someone else was very interested in those stones.” It was a fraction better than a stab in the dark but Barbara knew she must tread carefully not to give her ignorance away. A shadow of guilt crossed Feldin’s eyes and Barbara probed again. “Someone came to you in secret asking questions.” Again the flinch. “You felt no special loyalty to Maisetra Chazillen. Why should you? She didn’t even pay your wages. And it was quite a come-down having to work for an alchemist. You were owed something extra for that, weren’t you?” She probed step by step, watching Feldin’s reactions. “Just some samples of the work, they said. Isn’t that right? And you knew which ones wouldn’t be missed immediately.” She knew she was inching closer to the truth. “You might have guessed what plans they had for those stones, but it was nothing to do with you.” Feldin nodded eagerly as if seeing a clear path out. “Who am I to question my betters? He said they’d be grateful. Important people, he said. They’d see I got what I was due.” “But they aren’t here, and I am.” Barbara pulled the woman closer until their faces were mere inches apart. Feldin’s breath stank of garlic and fear. “Do you know who I am?” “B…B…Baroness Saveze,” she stuttered as she turned pale. “No,” Barbara said softly. “I’m Lumbeirt’s duelist. I’ve killed two men with my own hands and sent a third to the executioner’s sword. Those who hurt people under my protection have a habit of disappearing. I tracked you down and I can promise you, there is no place on earth that I cannot find you if I choose.”
Friday, April 3, 2015 - 10:34
ETA 2015/04/21: The contest is now closed. Thanks to all who entered! When I started posting the Lesbian Historic Motif Project last June, I refused to speculate on how long I’d keep it going. Better just to see where it went. So now here we are at publication #100! And here I am just a couple weeks short of the release of my second novel The Mystic Marriage! So let’s celebrate both those events with a give-away. Here’s the deal: tell everyone about your favorite LHMP posting and win a chance at a free e-book of The Mystic Marriage. (Here’s the comprehensive index to refresh your memory, or you can just page through using the LHMP tag.) Of course, in order to be eligible, I have to know that you’re participating, so here are the logistics:
  • On Twitter: Post a link to your favorite LHMP entry and tell why you like it, then add the hashtag #LHMP100 or @ me @heatherosejones or both.
  • On Facebook: Post a link to your favorite LHMP entry and tell why you like it, then drop me an email to say you’ve done so (LHMP100 at heatherrosejones dot com). Feel free to urge people to check out The Mystic Marriage at the same time, but it’s not required. I’m not confident of the reliability of fb to get me notifications, so please notify me.
  • Elsewhere (LJ or similar, personal blogs, and whatnot): Same as for facebook: post a link in your blog or forum, tell people why you like the post and how you're looking forward to The Mystic Marriage, then drop me an e-mail to let me know (and, if you like, send me a link to your post).
Please be careful about only participating in appropriate spaces, either your own account/blog or groups/forums where such postings are acceptable. I’d hate for the LHMP to become considered spam! The contest will run from when this blog post goes up until release day, April 20 (end of day, by whatever your local date-stamp is). Winner(s) will be determined by random number generator. The number of winners will depend on the number of entries and I’ll notify you by whatever contact means you’ve provided to me. Notes 1. Don’t get too tied up in knots about picking a favorite! 2. Available formats include epub, mobi, and pdf. 3. The intent is to have one contest entry per person, not per posting. So feel free to have multiple favorite entries, but I'll be making the selection among unique people. 4. To preserve the appearance of impartiality, immediate family members won't be eligible to win, but feel free to post!
Thursday, April 2, 2015 - 08:49
I love how I can rely on my friends and readers for interesting prompts for the Random Thursday blogs. This one came out of a Twitter conversation on how frustrating I find it to try to shop for work clothes, given the number of intersecting constraints that fall out of my life choices, including the need for bicycle compatibility. (And that’s before we get into my relatively strict preferences for fiber types and color patterns.) When a couple of people mentioned bicycling in skirts and I noted that I Don’t Wear Skirts For Work and that the reasons were complex enough they’d need a blog rather than Twitter, the response was, “OK, do it.” I was born in 1958 in a middle-class American family. That context means a lot of things, but in particular it means that—as a girl—I was put into dresses pretty much from the cradle and that the schools I attended required me to wear dresses at school almost all the way up through the end of high school. (If I recall correctly, they changed the dress code at my high school the very last year I was there.) This did not sit well with me. For the first part of my life, it wasn’t about gender presentation, it was about mobility. The family story goes that I never really crawled “normally”, I started out with a sort of “up on all fours” locomotion with hands and feet rather than hands and knees. Well, duh! Have you ever tried to crawl with skirts on? Once I got to school age, I would change out of dresses as soon as I got home into something more compatible with running around in the yard and building forts out of picnic tables such like. (There’s another vivid memory from this era: one time in kindergarten I decided it would be more practical to wear my shorts and t-shirt underneath my dress to go to school so it would be simpler to change when I got home. I recall being frustrated at not being able to explain the perfectly reasonable logic behind this to my mother’s satisfaction.) It was never so much that I actively disliked dresses—my mother designed and made a lot of my school clothes and I rather liked that—but I disliked compulsory dresses. And as a shy loner I never got into performing femininity as a bonding activity with friends. (No friends.) Long after I was out on my own, there were delicate family battlegrounds about what I was going to wear to special events like weddings and anniversaries. When I got to college, I pretty much ditched skirts entirely as everyday wear and never looked back. Except for costuming, of course. That was also when I discovered historic re-creation and an outlet for the creative sewing I’d always enjoyed. And it was also when I started figuring out that I wasn’t heterosexual. Clothing started getting even more complicated than before. I’m going to skip a lot of the rest of the autobiography and style development and jump to the present status. As a costumer, as a student of social sciences, and as a participant in corporate and academic cultures, I’m strongly aware of the use and unavoidability of clothing as a communication medium and a social signifier. I don’t fight this; I embrace it. But I embrace it on my own terms. When I switched from being just a grad student to being a teaching assistant, I made a massive shift in my wardrobe to symbolize “I am an authority figure and need to show respect for my position.” When I switched from having biotech jobs that entailed scrubs and lab coats to ones that involved desks and meetings, I made a similar shift for similar reasons. I’ve even gone through a few periods where I played with upping my game to blazers and scarves (though that has some practical aspects given the irregular temperature control at in the building). But what I don’t do is wear skirts or dresses. Some of that is practical. Both my grad school time and my corporate time have typically involved a certain amount of bicycle commuting. And—with a nod to my abovementioned friends who are happy riding bicycles in skirts—I’ve never been comfortable doing that, purely on a physical basis. But a lot of it has to do with specific signaling regarding gender relations. It may be simplest to jump over to talking about historic costume first. Most of my historic dress is in the context of the Society for Creative Anachronism, which allows for (let us say gently) a lot of personal expression in the re-creation of historic clothing styles. It was also in my first few years in the SCA that I figured out that it wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested in boys, but I was actively interested in girls. I was way too shy and socially inept to really be able to communicate this directly to other people. But in putting on costumes and trying out personas, I could test the waters. In a modern context, it’s been a long time since jeans and a t-shirt coded as “masculine” (as opposed to coding as “not femme”), but in the context of historic clothing, there are both much clearer distinctions between masculine and feminine styles, and (at least in the SCA) the potential for mixing those signifiers in ways that don’t map directly to modern expectations. From the beginning, I’ve done a lot of cross-dressing in the SCA not only for practicality (mobility, etc.) and for the sheer joy of creating a multiplicity of garment types, but for gender signaling. (See my article on this topic for a much more detailed discussion.) Because the SCA is about a sort of role-playing all the time, there’s a lower bar to trying out (trying on?) different roles than those people expect from you, and thus shaping their expectations. Back when I was still trying to figure out how to come out (which was harder than you might think in the ‘80s if you didn’t actually have a partner to be obvious with), wearing masculine-coded medieval clothing enabled me to break heteronormative expectations in the ways in which I interacted with women…and declined interactions with men. Even now, decades later, when pretty much anybody who knows me by my medieval name knows my sexual orientation, there’s a palpable difference in the sexual overtones of interactions with both men and women based on whether I’m wearing male-coded or female-coded costumes. Even solidly heterosexual women are happy to flirt and make admiring comments when I’m wearing a male-coded costume. And men who barely say hello to me under ordinary circumstances will come up and compliment me when I’m wearing strongly female-coded costumes. And that last point gets back to the topic of modern, everyday clothing. I’m not actually interested in having men notice what I’m wearing or feel that what I’m wearing gives them an invitation to interact with me on the topic of my appearance. I’m not doing it as a display for them. I’m not doing it as a social invitation to them. And frankly it makes me uncomfortable. In the context of the SCA, it’s an amusing sociological observation. At work, at family social functions, going through my everyday life, I choose to wear that shield of clothing that signals my opting out of heteronormativity. (Mind you, I don’t actually wear anything that would be unexpected if worn by a heterosexual woman—but I avoid wearing things that would tend to be interpreted as inviting male attention.) And yet, I do wear dresses. I love wearing dresses. I like swirly skirts and sweeping lines and necklines that show off my awesome collarbones. But I wear them in contexts where I either know or trust the people around me not to interpret them in unintended ways. (I think I surprised my girlfriend by wearing a dress for last year’s Golden Crown Literary Society awards banquet. But you know? A lesbian publishing conference is the perfect example of a place where no one is going to think I’m signaling heteronormativity! It’s probably one of the most comfortable places I know to wear dresses.) But I’m not going to wear them at work, whether I’m bicycling or not.


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