Don’t Do What I Did: On Writing Historicals

I started my professional life as an academic. I spent my days researching, making notes, writing scholarly tomes, delivering papers, supervising the occasional student.1 Starting when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree I made a note of every single article and book I read, which included year of publication, where and who published it, in addition to jotting down any relevant quotes, and what I thought of it. In addition, everything I read was festooned with a forest of post-it notes.

I had such good habits. I was a model of good researcherliness.2

But then I left academia. I no longer wrote scholarly tomes. I didn’t have to back up every argument and idea with a flotilla of properly sourced footnotes. So I didn’t. I stopped keeping careful note of what I read. After all, no one ever says, “citation please” of a novel. So why bother? It’s a lot of extra work, keeping track of everything. It’s so much more fun just to read and research and enjoy and not have to stop constantly to jot down notes. Plus I was being environmentally sound, wasn’t I? Not wasting post-its.

I became sloppy. Really, really sloppy.

Fast forward to doing the copyedits of Razorhurst my historical novel set in Sydney in 1932. The copyeditor had a query about a particular gun deployed in the book. Now, I had researched that gun in great detail, but could I answer the CE’s query? No, I could not. I’d forgotten all my gun research3 and I had not kept a record of it. I had to learn about that gun all over again.

I also failed to keep a record of all the words and phrases I’d carefully researched to figure out if they were in use in Sydney in 1932. Words like “chiack” and “chromo” but also research on whether “heads up” and “nick off” were in use back then.4 So I had to repeat that research too.

And then, because I’m a total fool, I didn’t write down any of the redone research and had to look it all up YET AGAIN while going over the page proofs.

(And, yes, with a sinking heart I realise I have been every bit as careless with my research for the 1930s NYC novel. When I get back to it I am going to be so very good. I swear.)

Don’t do what I did.

If you’re writing anything—fiction or non-fiction—that requires research keep careful notes. Keep a list of all the books you consult, of all the conversations you had with people who were alive at the time, of all webpages. Write it all down. No matter how tangential.

Trust me, you’ll be saving yourself hours and hours and hours AND HOURS of work later.

TL;DR I am the world’s worst role model for writing historical fiction. Keep notes! Don’t be lazy! Don’t do what I did.

  1. I was a postdoctoral researcher so teaching was not part of my academic duties. []
  2. Yes, that is a word. I just typed it, didn’t I? []
  3. Guns are not my thing. It all went in one ear and promptly fell out of the other one. []
  4. “Heads up” was in use but probably not in Australia. “Nick off” was definitely in use dating back to 1901 and only in Australia. []

“Legitimate Rape” and Other Craptastic Beliefs From the Olden Days

During the course of my PhD research for the book that became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction I had to learn a lot about ye olden day beliefs about sex and sexuality, including conception. For instance I came across this in Thomas Laqueur’s book Making Sex:

Samuel Farr, in the first legal-medicine text to be written in English (1785), argued that “without an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” Whatever a woman might claim to have felt or whatever resistance she might have put up, conception in itself betrayed desire or at least a sufficient measure of acquiescence for her to enjoy the venereal act. This is a very old argument. Soranus had said in second-century Rome that “if some women who were forced to have intercourse conceived . . . the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve,” and no one before the second half of the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century question the physiological basis of this judgement. The 1756 edition of Burn’s Justice of the Peace, the standard guide for English magistrates, cites authorities back to the Institutes of Justinian to the effect that “a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent.” It does, however, go on to point out that as matter of law, if not of biology, this doctrine is dubious. Another writer argued that pregnancy ought to be taken as proof of acquiescence since the fear, terror, and aversion that accompany a true rape would prevent an orgasm from occurring and thus make conception unlikely.

Thus the statement of Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Missouri, that

from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down

does not come out of nowhere. It comes out of long debunked pseudo-science dating back centuries to a time when it was also believed that women could give birth to rabbits.

I naively thought that it did not need saying but it seems that it does:

There is no such thing as “legitimate” rape. There is no “true” rape. There is no “rape rape.” There is only rape.

USA, time to stop this insane discourse that has no bearing on reality. Wow. I leave the country for a few months and it goes completely insane.

STOP IT.

Getting Started

I have a writing problem which is shared by many writers: I struggle to get started.

I wrote about this problem a bit way back in 2009 when I confessed to almost destroying my professional writing career before it even started. The first six months of being a full-time freelance writer was one great big procrastinatory guilt-ridden hell.

Since then I have reigned it in so that it’s only a struggle at the beginning of a first draft.

For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.

And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.

The next day there’ll be more of the same. And that will keep on until for some miraculous reason I start typing actual words that turn into actual coherent sentences of novel-ness.

The next day the struggle will be a little bit less bad and every day will be better than the day before until I’m on a roll and the novel is actually being written.

By the time I’m heading to the climax and then the end of the book it’s really hard to not write.

It goes like that unless I take a break for a holiday, or get sick, or for some other reason stop work for four days or more. When I return to the book it’s as if I’m starting all over again. Aargh! It takes several days, sometimes more than a week, to get back into the swing again. Drives me nuts.

I have developed several methods of dealing with this annoying tendency of mine.

Procrastination is good

The first is to simply accept that procrastinating is part of my process. Often I’m unable to get started on a new novel because I’m not ready. I haven’t found the way in: the right voice, the right setting, the right starting point. I haven’t done enough research. All that futzing around is me finding a way in. It’s necessary and without it I can’t write my novels.

Though sometimes I’m just flat out wasting time. RSI has meant that I do way less of that online. I consider that to be a blessing because it pushes me out to the garden or out of the house altogether a lot more often. Nothing better for thinking things through than being away from my computer. Long walks, I love you.

Research

Not having done enough research is often the reason why I can’t get started. I need to know more about that world and those characters and what their problem is.

Before I could really get going with Liar I had to find out a lot more about lying. Why people lie, what kinds of lies they tell, the difference between compulsive and pathological lying.

Same with the 1930s New York City novel. I needed to know so much more about the city back then, about the USA back then, about how the USA wound up where it was in the early 1930s. So the idea kicked around for quite a long time before I could write anything down.

Sometimes a novel springs from research I don’t realise I’m doing. I’ll be reading a non-fiction book or listening to a fascinating radio show or see a great documentary and it will give me a great idea. That’s how my sekrit project novel, what I just finished first draft of, got started.1

Many books at once

I have learned to always jot down new ideas. For me they’re rarely ideas, per se, more often they’re a fragment or beginning. That way I always have a novel to turn to when I’m stuck on the one I’m supposed to be writing.

The first words I wrote of Liar are:

I’m a liar. I don’t do it on purpose. Well, okay, yeah, I do. But it’s not like I have a choice. It’s just what comes out of my mouth. If my mouth is closed then I’m cool, no lies at all.

That did not make it into the book. I don’t even know whose voice that is. It’s not that of Micah, Liar‘s protagonist. But I jotted that down in 2005 as the first spark of the book that was published as Liar four years later.

At the time I was on deadline to finish Magic Lessons, the second book in the Magic or Madness trilogy. I was also hard at work on the Daughters of Earth anthology. It was not a good time to start a new book, but I was stuck on Magic Lessons: so the day before it was due with my US publisher I started writing HTDYF.

Yes, I was a bit late with Magic Lessons. From memory, I think I was no more than two weeks late, which is not too bad. Starting HTDYF when I did meant that after I’d sent off the first draft of Magic Lessons I could get back to work on it. And in between ML rewrites and copyedits and proofs and having to write the last book in the trilogy I kept going back to it. It was a wonderful respite from what I was supposed to be writing.2

Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I have recently finished the first draft of my sekrit project novel. But I have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.

If I get stuck with the book I planned to work on I turn to one of the other books. Often I’m writing back and forth on several different books at once until one of them takes off. Sometimes I’m totally unable to decide and poll my blog readers or ask my agent or Scott. That’s how I went with Liar back in 2007 and put down the lodger novel and the plastic surgery novel both of which I know I’ll get back to some day. Actually I got back to the lodger one a few years ago before it was swamped by the 1930s NYC novel and then Team Human.

If I get an idea for a new book I always jot it down no matter where I am with the main novel I’m working on. Sometimes that novel takes over. The novel I just finished came to me very strongly a year ago when I was feeling overwhelmed by the sprawling NYC 1930s novel which had just hit 100,000 words with no visible sign of ending. I hadn’t, in fact, gotten up to what I thought would be the book’s first incident. ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND WORDS and I wasn’t at what I thought was the beginning. AARGH. In my panic I started a whole other novel.3

In conclusion: There may be a good reason you can’t get started. Procrastination can be your friend. It’s okay to flibbertigibbet from one novel to another and back again and then to another and so on. Other writers will have other solutions and processes. Do whatever it is that works best for you.4 Zombies should not, in fact, be added to all stories. Just the ones that need zombies.

  1. It’s a sekrit project for no particular reason. I just really enjoy having sekrit projects. Makes me feel like a spy. What? I get to have fun! []
  2. That’s one of the many reasons I don’t like writing books under contract. A contract for one book just makes all the uncontracted novel ideas seem that much more shiny. []
  3. Co-incidentally, or not really, me and Sarah Rees Brennan started writing Team Human at another point when I was overwhelmed by the NYC novel. I suspect there will be one or two more other novels before I finish the damn thing. []
  4. Unless it involves hurting anyone. []

Writing about Racism in the Past (Updated)

There’s an argument I get into about Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, which is set in England in the early 1800s. When I criticise the book’s racism the defender often says, “But they’re just reflecting the racism of the time.”

Here’s the problem with that argument for The Grand Sophy (or for Gone With the Wind for that matter). They were not written during the period they were depicting. They do successfully evoke the racism of their particular periods. However, a distinction has to be made between depicting the racism of a particular time and being complicit with that racism.

For instance, The Grand Sophy was written and published after World War II. That is, the book was written and published after there’d been an appalling demonstration of the logical end of anti-semitism: the Holocaust. Heyer is not critiquing racism in The Grand Sophy she’s re-inforcing it. Her Jew is not human, he’s a grasping monster. That’s not even as sophisticated a portrait as Shakespeare’s in The Merchant of Venice several hundred years earlier. So, yes, I have huge problems with it and haven’t been able to read that book for many, many years.

The fact that those attitudes were historically accurate for the period she’s writing about is irrelevant. You can show racism without condoning it. Heyer not only condones it, she revels in it. It’s clear that she thinks Jews are bad people, not that she’s showing that many people of the Regency period believed that Jews were bad people. That’s a huge difference.

Compare Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench both depict the racism of the period they’re writing about, but Mitchell’s text looks back on slavery with nostalgia, Perkins-Valdez absolutely condemns it while not reading like a twenty-first condemnation of the nineteenth century. Wench is one of the best historicals I’ve read.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I research and write a novel set in the early 1930s in New York City. A period when racism and sexism were everywhere.

In the 1930s NYC was even more segregated that it is now. People in Harlem lived in third-world conditions with much higher unemployment than the rest of the city. The only jobs available to most black women were as domestic help. But when the depression hit many white families could no longer afford help and those that could increasingly hired white women. There were black men and women with professional degrees, but few whites would employ them. They had to go into business on their own—tricky given that no bank would loan them money—or work in capacities well below their skills.

Racism pure and simple.

Some of my characters are white. Most have the racial attitudes of their time. If I depict them accurately they can only be read as villains by contemporary readers. But if I depict them as thinking and acting like a twenty-first century liberal white USian then I create a very unrealistic depiction of the time and place. Which makes me wonder why bother writing an historical?

That’s not to say that there weren’t white campaigners against racism at the time. There were. But they were white anti-racism campaigners of the 1930s. They did not think about racism in the same ways that many of us do now. Actually, they may not have thought about “racism” at all as the word was newly minted in the 1930s and did not become widespread until decades later. Reading some of the letters and lectures of these campaigners now can be horrifying. To say they are often paternalistic would be a kind assessment.

It’s a fine line. Obviously, it’s impossible to write an historical that’s a hundred per cent faithful to the time and place. I wasn’t around then. All my information is second hand. All of it is informed by my time and place. But I want to avoid truly egregious false notes. People saying and doing things that were not thinkable at the time.

But in doing that you can wind up in trouble with your contemporary audience. Someone I know, a white writer, wrote a book set in the 19th century and received a lot of criticism for not using the term “African-American.” Despite the fact that the term did not exist then. They were also criticised for using the n-word, which was in common use at the time.

The last word is a major problem. It is a hateful word bearing the weight of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow laws and continuing racism today. For many reading it in any context at all feels like a slap in the face. So is historical accuracy more important than the hurt of people reading your book?

During the period and place I’m talking about—NYC in the 1930s—it’s a word that was used a lot by most classes. Though a nice upper class white lady would not have sullied her lips with. However, when she hears it said, she’s supposed to be shocked not because it’s racist, but because it’s vulgar.

I think many white writers are reluctant to be accurate in their depiction of racism for fear of being seen as racists themselves.1 I fear it. I want to be a good person. But racism exists and white writers are part of it. The ways in which we write about race and racism are important because we can help shape thinking about them. And depicting the past as a magical wonderland full of enlightened, kind, good white people is not only wishful thinking it does not help us understand and combat racism right now in the real world.

I have no conclusions about any of this. But I would love to hear your thoughts.

Update: I seem to have managed with this post to give the impression that I am writing an all-white novel. I am not! I have never in my entire career done so! I will never do so! I was mentioning the white characters in this post because they are the ones who will be read as villians if I give them the racial attitudes that were prevalent at the time. Sorry for being unclear.

  1. And there are an awful lot of white people who seem obsessed with that particular word and seem to look for any excuse at all to be able to use it. To which, well, uggh. []

On Research for Novels

‏@DaniArostegui asked “Can you write a post on the research process for your novels? How much research do you do for a given book?”

The book I’m writing at the moment, Sekrit Project, was inspired by a non-fiction book. So one of the first things I did was work my way through the articles and books listed in the bibliography. Each of which led to other books and articles and so on. Footnotes and bibliographies will lead you in many wonderful and unexpected directions.

When I’m writing a book set during a different historical period as I am with my 1930s New York City novel I immerse myself in the music, literature, movies, radio, fashion, food (via cookbooks and restaurant reviews) and art and photography—from postcards to news photography to high art photography to people’s snapshots—of the period. Fortunately these days there’s a great deal of that kind of archival material available online. Though I do find it very helpful to spend time with the actual physical material. So I spend time in archives reading letters, official documents, reports, newspapers and magazines and other material.

Magazines and newspaper and books looked so different back then. You don’t fully appreciate that until you’re touching them and turning the pages.1 For instance, I was surprised that so many books in the early 1930s had advertisements in them. I stupidly thought that was a more recent innovation.

For historicals I find the Oxford English Dictionary absolutely indispensable. I am constantly looking up words to make sure a) they were in use in the 1930s and b) that they meant then what they mean now. There’s also Ben Schmidt’s wonderful blog, Prochronism that looks at anachronisms on shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey. In which he points out, to take a recent example, that the cliche of “the defining moment” only dates back to 1983.

Schmidt makes great use of Google books’ n-gram viewer, which may be my favourite tool for this kind of research. Here’s the historical graph of the usage of the words “vampires” “zombies” and “unicorns” over the last two hundred years:

The blue line is vampires, the red zombies and the green unicorns. Click on image to go way bigger

Depending on your historical period you should also talk to living people about it. Some of their memories can be wonderfully evocative and useful to your story.

For Team Human the research was considerably less full on. Sarah Rees Brennan and I re-read classic vampire novels such as Dracula as well as catching up on the vampire novels we’d missed over the last few decades. Sarah had me reading L. J. Smith; I put her on to Tanith Lee’s Sabella. All the other research was mostly searching online to see how short the days are in Maine in autumn and stuff like that.

I never wait until I’ve done all the research before I begin writing. That way leads to never writing a sentence. You can never do all the research it’s simply not possible. Much better to start writing and when you come to something you don’t know insert square brackets. [find out if taxis were yellow back then] [what kind of toothpaste did they use] [is "I'll call you back" anachronistic] etc.

I tend to research the square bracket queries when I’m stuck with the writing or simply need a break from it. Though some days I’ll stop and look things up immediately if it’s easy. Today I had to check if the word “slapper” was used in the 1930s. No, it wasn’t. Not in the sense I needed it. In that sense it only goes back to the 1980s and it’s primarily British. So a big fat no to anyone saying it in NYC in the early 1930s. With my handy OED subscription2 and the n-gram that research took about ten seconds.

My bedtime reading when I’m deep in a project is usually books from the period I’m writing about. That way I’m pretty much always researching.

Hope that helps.

I’ll leave you with a link to Lisa Gold’s blog where she talks about getting more out of your online searches.

  1. Or at least I don’t. []
  2. You don’t have to subscribe. Many libraries have subscriptions that you can access if you’re a member. []

Jim Crow, Antebellum Propoganda, Civil Rights & the Color Line

Sibylle asked:

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but is this question [have you heard of Joel Chandler Harris] somehow connected to your reading of Slavery by Another Name by Blackmon?

You are not reading too much into my question. It is indeed related to my reading of Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name or, rather it’s related to the research I’ve been doing for my book set in the early years of the 1930s in New York City. I asked about Harris because I’d never heard of him and only vaguely knew what the Uncle Remus stories were. Yet his name kept coming up in a lot of reading I’ve been doing. I was curious to know whether he was still being read and how he fits into modern USians reading histories.1

How did I get there?

I began my research reading everything I could set in, or about, the early 1930s in NYC. I expanded backwards to read about the Crash, the beginning of Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance.

But it soon became apparent that there was loads I wasn’t understanding because I didn’t know enough even earlier US history. For example, while reading Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South edited by William Henry Chafe, Raymond Gavins & Robert Korstad (which I highly recommend) I realised that I didn’t know when or how the Jim Crow laws originated. I didn’t know if they were federal, or state, or local, or all three. I didn’t know if they were restricted to the South. They weren’t and New York was, in fact, the worst of the Northern states. Though there were restrictions on where African-Americans live throughout the entire country. The color line was more of a wall. (Don’t believe me? Read this excellent account, Jim Crow in New York by Erika Wood and Liz Budnitz with Garima Malhotra from the Brennan Centre for Justice. You can download it for free.)

Before I started my research for this book I didn’t know very much about the Civil Rights struggle in the North. For those of you who are interested I highly recommend Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North by Thomas J. Sugrue. Reading that book side by side with Or Does it Explode: Black Harlem in the Great Depression by Cheryl Lynn Greenburg (yet another wonderful book) has done an enormous amount to widen my understanding and (I hope) improve the book I’m writing.

Finding out the answers to my many questions meant reading further back in time and realising that I didn’t really know a lot about Reconstruction or how Reconstruction ended and the North ceded control of the South. It also meant learning about how the myth of the Antebellum South emerged—you know that magical place of happy black slaves and beautiful white women worshipped by gallant white men, where the only poor whites were mean and trashy and deserved to be poor?—which was so pivotal to cultural understandings of race in the USA after the Civil War and Reconstruction. A myth that was as much constructed in the North as the South. A myth that overrode facts, such as that the crime wave in the wake of the Civil War was almost entirely the doing of renegade whites, not of black slaves gone mad with freedom. A myth that will not go away.

I realised pretty quickly that I needed to know a lot more about how 19th (and then early 20th century) USians thought about race, which led to learning about “scientific” explanations of race and the so-called science of raciology. It meant learning more about Physical Anthropology as well as 19th century theories of Biology. And the way in which Darwin’s theories of Evolution were co-opted by white supremacists.

It also meant learning about the different political and philosphical positions of Booker T. Washington and W. E. Du Bois and many other black thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries such as Marcus Garvey. If you haven’t read Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk I highly recommend it.2 You can download it from Project Gutenberg.

That’s what happens with research. It grows and blossoms and one path leads to another, which leads to another and so on and so on.

That is how I wound up reading Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. That is why I am currently reading The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars by Elazar Barkan.

And that is why I may never finish this book. But, hey, I’m learning a lot writing it . . .

  1. I am aware that my methods of finding out are not exactly scientific. []
  2. Yeah, I know I’m doing that a lot. []

MySpace v FaceBook

Danah Boyd is an ethnographer who’s done a great deal of work on teenage use of the internet in the USA. Her work is absolutely fascinating and I think every writer of Young Adult books should be reading it.

She recently gave a talk about race and class in the MySpace v FaceBook divide. You all need to read it, like, NOW:

If you are trying to connect with the public, where you go online matters. If you choose to make Facebook your platform for civic activity, you are implicitly suggesting that a specific class of people is more worth your time and attention than others. Of course, splitting your attention can also be costly and doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be reaching everyone anyhow. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The key to developing a social media strategy is to understand who you’re reaching and who you’re not and make certain that your perspective is accounting for said choices. Understand your biases and work to counter them.

While on tour last year I was sent to a number of very poor schools. At those schools the vast majority of students did not have access to a computer at home, let alone a computer of their own. They were able to use computers at school and at the library. At the poorer schools I visited I was asked if I was on myspace; at the wealthier schools they wanted to know if I was on facebook. I know that’s a small samples size—a handful of schools in northern California, Ohio, and Michigan—but it’s right in line with Danah’s research. I told them that it was better to get in touch with me via my website because a) while I have a myspace account I don’t use it and b) I don’t have a facebook one. Very few students contacted me and those who did were from the wealthier schools.

This year when I go on tour I will be giving the teens who want to contact me a business card with my email address and website on it. I know I’d have a better shot at communicating with them if I used my myspace account and joined facebook. First though I’m going to see if giving them a card works better than just telling them how to contact me.

I did not enjoy being on myspace. The walls around myspace and facebook freak me out much like walled communities offline do. I like having my blog where anyone can read it without having to log into a different space.1 I do not want to maintain multiple blogs and moderate multiple sets of comments.

Yet I want to be able to stay in touch with the wonderful students I meet on tour.

I’ll see if giving them cards works. If not I suspect I’ll have to suck it up and deal with myspace again.

How do you other authors deal with this? How many of you are on myspace and/or facebook?

How many of you having read Danah’s research would reconsider myspace?

  1. Part of what I like about Twitter is that you don’t have to join Twitter in order to read it. You can directly link to an interesting Tweet from anywhere. However, there are very few teenagers on Twitter. []

A Fabulous Letter

In my research for my 1930s NYC novel, letters are far and away the most evocative and useful primary source. This letter, obviously, is not from my period but since reading it a couple of days ago I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

On the 7th of August, 1865 in Dayton, Ohio, former slave Jourdan Anderson declines his former master’s invitation to come and work for him again:

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

It gets better and better after that. Read the rest of the letter here. (Found via Twitter, though sadly I can no longer remember whose.)

A Little Bit More on Lies

An anonymous reader sent me this link to the top five things people lie about:

    1. Age
    2. Alcohol Consumption
    3. Sexual History
    4. Changed Appearance
    5. Job

I am very pleased to see that I haven’t lied about any of them.

Well, except no. 1 when I was little in order to get into bars.1 Oh, and no. 5 a few times when I didn’t feel like answering the usual questions you get after you say you’re a writer. “Have you published anything?” “Would I have heard of you?” “Can you set me up with your agent?” I said I was a dental assistant. Oddly, that didn’t inspire any questions at all.

How about youse lot? Any of you lied about the top 5? What are your most common lies?

Feel free to be anonymous.

  1. Don’t try that at home, kids what are under 18 (in Australia) or 21 (in the USA). []

Today is L-H day

I have booked five lindy hop lessons with one of the studios Frankie Manning once taught at. Today at 4pm I have my first lesson.

I am afraid. Very afraid.

If you don’t hear from me by tomorrow, you’ll know what happened. Remember me fondly!

And now I am off to hear many eleven year olds screaming super loudly. The first pre-season New York Liberty game. It will be chaos. I love chaos!

Invisible Audiences? Invisible to Whom?

One of the discoveries I made while doing research for my PhD thesis, which ultimately became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, was that women had always read and written science fiction. I found letters to science fiction magazines from women as early as the late 1920s, a short story contest winner in 1927.1 This was contrary to so many people’s views that there were no women engaged with science fiction until the 1950s. (Though some said not till the 1960s.) There were also a few women who attended science fiction conventions from the very beginning.

As I read through fanzines and science fiction magazines from the 1920s onwards, I found many article dismissing these women, which is largely what Battle of the Sexes is about:

The letters were from bored housewives with nothing else to do, the stories by women were crap and only published cause it was like a dog walking on its hind legs, and the women at conventions were only there because their boyfriend/husband dragged them along. And look how few in numbers! See? There are no women in science fiction!2

What those arguments have always failed to recognise is that the majority of readers/viewers of anything are not active in their engagement with a genre/show. Vastly more people were reading science fiction magazines than ever wrote a letter to the editor of an sf magazine or fanzine or went to a con. There are always huge numbers of people who are avid readers/viewers who are never counted by the people who are active in their engagement so those active fans start to assume that they are the centre of their genre and no one else exists.

Throughout my time as a doctoral student (which was pre-internet) I would meet people I never would have pegged as science fiction fans, who upon hearing of my research would start reminiscing about the sf magazines they read as a kid, of the Heinlein/Le Guin/McCaffrey books they adored, and their love affair with Star Trek/Doctor Who/Blake’s Seven. Most of these people had never heard of fandom, had no idea there were conventions etc. They just loved science fiction on their lonesome. I met others who had heard of it but there was no way they would have attended a con because back then it was all white boys and they knew they wouldn’t fit in.

Science fiction cons have been white and male for most of their existence. I remember the first con I went to more than a decade ago. I was terrified. It was mostly male. And, yes, I was sexually harassed. (A very common experience for women at cons.) But I also met many wonderful people who have remained friends to this day and before too long I discovered WisCon, the feminist convention, which was a much more hospitable place for me.3

There has long been speculation about why there are so few non-white fans of the genre. I have always been convinced, based on my research, that it’s hard to know how big that readership is. If as a woman in the 1990s I felt uncomfortable walking into a convention that was about 30% female how much more uncomfortable would someone not white feeling walking into a space that was 99% white?

Over at Deadbrowalking: the People of Color Deathwatch there’s a wild unicorn check in where people of colour who read/watch genre and love it are putting up their hands. So far there have been more than 900 comments. And many of the people talk about their parents’ love of science fiction and their grandparents too. Those 900 plus declarations are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more fans out there who don’t own computers, or if they do, have no idea that Deadbrowalking exists.

As I read through the pages and pages of comments over there I couldn’t help thinking about all the “Science Fiction is Dying” panels at cons I’ve seen over the years. I’ve always been bewildered by that claim and the prevalence of those panels. But it wasn’t until I read all the wild unicorn comments that I realised what those panels are really about. They’re talking about their brand of science fiction: the stuff that began in the late 1920s and and has been largely white, male, and all too frequently misogynist and racist. They’re not talking about the other streams that were growing up in Japan and China and Europe and, yes, the USA and elsewhere. They’re not talking about feminist science fiction or manga or anime or YA. None of that counts to them.

They’re saying that the white, male-dominated science fiction of boys with their hard science toys is dying.

And, you know what? I won’t weep if they’re right.

  1. Which is essentially when USian science fiction began. []
  2. Not an actual quote. Just my paraphrase. []
  3. Though I know of a few cases of women being harassed there too. []

Five Thousand Dollars Raised for NYPL: Yes, I’ll Be Learning to Lindy Hop

So, you lot won, I’ll be learning to lindy hop. Margaret Miller and Lauren McLaughlin have volunteered to go with me for at least part of the process. As has my husband. I’m sure it won’t be the worst thing I’ve ever experienced.

Thanks a bunch, evil minions of John Scalzi, Maureen Johnson and John Green—John Green, being the evil-John-Green-minion-in-chief. But most of all thanks to my husband who stepped in at the last minute to make sure the $5,000 total was met. (All thanks sarcastic in case you were wondering.)

The New York Public Library really does thank you all. Truly, I’m so thrilled that we’ve raised five thousand dollars to help them out. If you’d like you can start making those pledges real now. Or you can wait until I start delivering proof that I’m learning the lindy hop.

I will blog the whole process from my first lesson on. I’ll be doing this properly. There will be more than one lesson. Final proof will take the form of three YA author witnesses approved by John Green. They will watch me dancing the Lindy Hop and testify to their witness on their blogs. There will be no video.

All this talk of the lindy hop is especially fitting as one of the originators of the dance, Frankie Manning, died on the 27th of April. He was not only a pioneer and tireless evangelical for the dance but a true New York City boy through and through. He’s a huge loss, not just to the world of dancing, but to the city. Footage of him dancing was a big influence on my deciding to include lindy hopping in my 1930s NYC novel. It’s very fitting that I’ll be learning this dance in the city where it originated for a book set during the early days of the dance.

Here’s hoping lindy hopping doesn’t render my plantar fasciitis permanent! Or give me any additional injuries. But if it does I’ll know who to blame: MY OWN HUSBAND!

On Research

In the comments thread on my post about some of the research for Liar Kathleen asked:

Justine, is there a point in your writing/editing process when you have to make yourself stop researching?

I started answering the questions in the comments but it got too long so I have given my answer its own post. Lucky answer gets an upgrade!1

No, there’s no point in writing a book in which I stop researching. In fact, I was up at Central Park again this week checking out a few things for Liar that I’ll now be changing in the first pass pages.2

Especially when I’m writing an historical the research is all the time. As some of you may know my current project is set in the 1930s in New York City. Before I started writing I already knew a fair amount about the place and the period because of earlier research projects. So the first thing I did was to find out if there’d be any new books since I my research was now more a decade old. Then I started reading those new books and articles. At the same time I started writing the novel.

That’s one of the important things I have learned. Never leave the writing until you feel like you’re on top of the research. Because if you’re anything like me you’ll never get there. I’ve been at this for well over a year now and I still don’t feel like I know enough. I’m still finding out cool tidbits. Did you know there was a Little Syria in NYC in the 1920s? I just found that out yesterday. Now I’m wondering if it was still around in the early 1930s. What did it look like?

I used to do the research first and only when I felt like I knew enough did I start writing. But I never felt like I did. So—you guessed it—I didn’t start writing. The only reason I started my PhD thesis was because my scholarship was going to run out. But I learned my lesson: never put off the writing.

I write until I hit a point where I don’t know enough. If it’s a big thing—I’m writing a scene set in a buffet flat in Harlem but I’m not sure what one might have looked like—I’ll stop writing and go back to researching. But if it’s just a small thing I leave a note for myself [what kind of toothpaste? powder?] and continue writing.

Which means I’m always constantly rewriting—going back and filling in the square brackets, as well as changing stuff I’ve guessed wrong, and adding cool new details: Little Syria!3 That’s one of the many reasons I love writing historical fictions. The research is fun. And unlike scholarly research I don’t have to footnote everything. Or anything really.

It’s all of the fun with little of the tedium.

Kathleen also asked:

I’ve been doing a lot of historical/scientific research for my story and there is always so much more to learn. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve missing something or that a scientist somewhere is writing a breakthrough paper that will destroy my entire plot. Is this feeling just part of the fiction writing gig?

Yes, that feeling is part of any writing gig that involves lots of research. There’s always more to learn. But it’s one of the beauties of fiction. It doesn’t matter if some scientist makes a breakthrough that negates your plot because you’re writing fiction not a peer-review science article. A good story is a good story. Lots of my fave sf is based on outmoded science. Proabably all of it. Doesn’t matter.

All fiction dates in one way or other. But the good fiction outlives its datedness.

  1. Hope it doesn’t go to the answer’s head. []
  2. Typeset pages which have been proof read. I.e. these are the first page that look like the book will finally look. I check to see if I agree with the proof reader’s catches and to fix anything else that needs fixing. []
  3. Which may change the direction of the plot. []

Forensic Science & Lying + Tiny Sneak Peek at Liar

There were two fascinating articles in the New York Times yesterday both of which related strongly to Liar, my novel that comes out in October in both Australia and the USA.

Article the first by Natalie Angier is about a school were forensic science is one of the classes you can take and it’s insanely popular. This is increasingly the case all over the USA:

And though the forensic menu at New Rochelle is unusually extensive, schools everywhere are capitalizing on the subject’s sex appeal to inspire respect for the power of the scientific mind-set generally. According to an informal survey of 285 high school and middle school teachers conducted in 2007 by the National Science Teachers Association, 75 percent replied yes when asked, “Do you or other teachers in your district use forensic investigation in the science classroom?” A third of the respondents said the subject was woven into the regular science curriculum, a quarter listed forensics as a stand-alone course at their school, and one-fifth replied, we do both. Bring out your dead!

I really wish I had known about these classes before I wrote Liar because I definitely would have added forensic science to the curriculum of my invented school. When you read the novel you’ll know why it would have worked so well. Mmmm . . . maggots. You all know this novel is my first mystery/thriller, right?

The other article by Benedict Carey is about new techniques for determining whether people are lying or not. As you can imagine I did a lot of research on why people lie and how lies can be detected when I was writing Liar. The method the article discusses focusses on what people say when questioned not on how they say it:

In part, the work grows out of a frustration with other methods. Liars do not avert their eyes in an interview on average any more than people telling the truth do, researchers report; they do not fidget, sweat or slump in a chair any more often. They may produce distinct, fleeting changes in expression, experts say, but it is not clear yet how useful it is to analyze those.

Nor have technological advances proved very helpful. No brain-imaging machine can reliably distinguish a doctored story from the truthful one, for instance; ditto for polygraphs, which track changes in physiology as an indirect measure of lying.

“Focusing on content is a very good idea,” given the limitations of what is currently being done, said Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

It turns out that details are key:

In several studies, Dr. Colwell and Dr. Hiscock-Anisman have reported one consistent difference: People telling the truth tend to add 20 to 30 percent more external detail than do those who are lying. “This is how memory works, by association,” Dr. Hiscock-Anisman said. “If you’re telling the truth, this mental reinstatement of contexts triggers more and more external details.”

Unsurprisingly that’s one of the things successful liars talk about. Micah, the liar who is the protagonist of my next novel, puts it this way:

Details. They’re the key to lying.

The more detailed you are the more people believe. Not piled on one after another after another—don’t tell too much. Ever. Too many details, that’s too many things that can be checked.

Let them tease the information out of you. Lightly sprinkle it. One detail here, the smell of peanuts roasting; one there, the crunch of gray snow underfoot.

Verisimilitude, one of my English teachers called it. The details that give something the appearance of being real. It’s at the heart of a good lie, a story that has wings.

That’s also a description of writing fiction. There’s a lot of overlap between the techniques of the skilled liar and the skilled story teller. Though the study cited above makes it sound like Micah’s wrong: more details need to be piled on to be really convincing. Most people don’t tell what’s happened to them in the ordered way a story is written. They often spill out too many details that get in the way of the story. Micah’s right, though, that too many details leave you vulnerable cause they can be checked. Tricky situation for the liar.

I wonder if we’ll ever be in a position where we can absolutely know whether someone is lying or not?

The article mentions some of the limitations of the new technique:

It applies only to a person talking about what happened during a specific time — not to individual facts, like, “Did you see a red suitcase on the floor?” It may be poorly suited, too, for someone who has been traumatized and is not interested in talking, Dr. Morgan said. And it is not likely to flag the person who changes one small but crucial detail in a story—“Sure, I was there, I threw some punches, but I know nothing about no knife”—or, for that matter, the expert or pathological liar.

But it’s a huge step forward that more and more law enforcement around the world are shying away from coercion and phony science (i.e. lie detector machines) and looking closely at the words actually said and the context in which they’re said. Who knows maybe one day false arrest and imprisonment will be impossible.

Yes, I woke up in a utopian kind of mood.

Update of Lindy Hop situation (updated x3)

Quick Recap: I’m writing a book set in the 1930s in New York City. Some of the characters lindy hop. I jokingly asked my blog readers if they thought I really needed to learn it without any intention of actually doing so. John Green stepped in and offered a thousand dollars if I did learn it. And like that.

I have looked deep in my heart and not found a desire to learn the lindy hop. I have flashed back to hated dance lessons as a kid. To the mean yell-y or eye-roll-y dance teachers. The injury in my left foot has flared up again.1 Also I am unconvinced by all the people who swear I’ll love it. Many people swore I would love martinis and gin & tonics! I hate them! They taste like paint thinner.

I’ve been charmed and sometimes bemused by all the comments from followers of Maureen Johnson & John Green urging me to put my life and limbs at risk. But not enough to actually do it. However, since John Green made this about charity and I chose helping out the New York Public Library system more donations would definitely persuade me to learn the dance.

Right now one thousand, four hundred and twenty-five dollars has been pledged. Bless all you extremely generous pledgers! But it’s not yet enough to push me into a dance studio. I can give that amount out of my own pocket. That way I don’t suffer and the NYPL system doesn’t lose out.

So I’ve decided that unless people pledge more than I can afford to part with myself $5,000 I’ll donate the money myself and continue to study the lindy hop via youtube. I know most people don’t have much spare cash at the moment. But even small amounts will help. Helping libraries is more important than ever now that they are the only resource for so many people who have no where else to go for entertainment, for assistance putting resumes and job applications together, for somewhere they can just sit and think for a bit. I’ve met many teenagers in this city for whom the NYPL has been a refuge, a source of friendship, hope, and learning.

Monday’s the deadline.

If enough money is raised by then I will take lessons with my lovely husband, Scott. Lauren and Margaret, who are already dancing fools, have also agreed to be part of proceedings at various stages.

I will be learning this dance properly. Unlike John Green who only stood on that table for less than a second I plan to learn it so well that I can start lindy hopping whenever the music is right. I hate learning to dance, but I do enjoy dancing. So the lesson learning will take awhile. But I’ll keep you all up to date on my progress.

Proof that I have learnt the lindy hop will be provided by three reliable YA author witnesses approved by John Green, who will write their observations of my lindy hopping on their blogs.

I’m really hoping some of you will make donations. No matter how small! It would be great to give a big wack of cash to the NYPL system. It would help so many people.

I’m also really hoping that you won’t. It would be awesome not to have damage myself further.

Yes, I am torn on how this goes. And afraid.

Update: Because of Eric Luper’s vociferous complaints I have named an amount that has to be exceeded in order for this to happen: $5,000. And I’ve made the deadline Monday.

Update the second: As already stated numerous times there will be no video. I hate being filmed. Not going to happen.

Update the third: Okay a video did happen.

  1. Plantar fasciitis from my foolish attempt to learn how to run properly []

Lindy Hop Challenge

Hmm, the whole Should I Learn to Lindy Hop thing has gotten bigger than Ben Hur. There’s more than two hundred comments thus far. And not all of them are from minions of Maureen Johnson and John Green. I’m kind of amazed.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about: I asked if it was really necessary for me to learn to lindy hop as research for my 1930s novel. Yes, there is dancing in the novel. But I figured looking at youtube clips would be enough.

John Green instantly responded that he and Sarah Green would donate a thousand dollars to a charity of my choice if I learned the EXTREMELY DANGEROUS DANCE and continues to beat the drum of my destruction. I suspect this is revenge for my instigating John having to overcome his fear of heights. Which he didn’t. Not really. He’s on that table for like .05 of a second!

A number of other commenters have said they will also give money to a charity of my choice if I learn this dance. So, if I do this thing AND I HAVEN’T SAID I WILL YET then that money will go to the following:

Save Queens Library

Brooklyn Public Library: Support Our Shelves

Support the NYPL

Brooklyn Vanguard

Read this extremely moving letter from a NYC librarian for some of the many reasons they’re such a worthy cause. Basically, the city is cutting funding to the NYPL system right at a time when libraries are being stretched to breaking point because the downturn in the economy means more and more people are using libraries.

Almost every book I’ve ever written has involved large chunks of time spent researching in libraries. I love them. The NYPL system is proving invaluable for my lindy hopping 1930s novel. I love libraries and l love New York City. So if I have to damage myself learn the lindy hop it would be fabulous for NYPL to get something out of it.

You can vote and/or pledge money to the NYPL over there or here.

For those who don’t know what the lindy hop looks like:

Frankie Manning who was one of the lindy hops pioneers is featured. He died just last month.

To Celebrate Getting My Site Back

Did you know Buddy Ebsen of the Beverly Hillbillies could dance? Well, he could. He and his sister Vera had a most excellent vaudeville act together. He’d be the clumsy kid and she’d be the dance teacher. They appear together in Broadway Melody of 1936. He’s the one wearing a Mickey Mouse jumper (sweater)

I really love his goofy dance stylings. Halfway between dancing and falling over. Fills my heart with joy. Here’s the only good example I could find online. It’s from A Banjo on My Knee (1936). Buddy doesn’t start dancing until about 1:40. Enjoy. And keep your eyes peeled for his surprise dance partner who I have never ever seen dance before:

Very happy making!

Should I Learn to Lindyhop? (updated x 3)

Following my post of t’other day several people have been saying that I really must learn the lindy hop for my 1930s novel. And, in fact, if I don’t they won’t read my book.

I have several extremely sensible objections to learning the lindy hop. They are as follows:

Objection no. 1: My book is set in the early 1930s and the lindy hop was around later.

Tragically, this turns out not to be true. Multiple sources online say it began in the late 1920s in Harlem. *sigh*

Objection no. 2: I cannot learn how to dance.

This is absolutely true. I have physical dyslexia. I cannot folllow instructions. The instructor’s arm goes one way mine goes the other. It is not pretty. Or fun.

Objection no. 3: It looks dangerous.

I’m not sure if I have ever told you, my dear readers, about my sports curse. It has been the bane of my life. Every time I take up a new sport I damage something. I’ve broken a toe, many bones in my right wrist, the transverse process of vertebraes L1, L2 & L3 (bones in my back), torn cartilage, as well as mutiple sprained ankles. All of which has resulted in my having to have surgery three times.

And I haven’t even played that much sport!

I’ve not broken a bone since 1994. Or sprained an ankle since 2004. I fear that the lindy hop would take me back to the bad old days.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about. Here is the lindy hop. (The dangerous stuff is around the midway point.):

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performing the Big Apple (1939)

So do you still want me to learn the lindy hop? Even in the face of my extremely sensible objections? If so why? Is it because you hate me?

Update:
If I do this thing proof will be as suggested by Yza: the say so of three reliable YA author witnesses.

Update the second:
John Green has agreed to reliable witnesses. More on the challenge here.

Update the third:
And learn it I did. You will find the proof here.

Actual 1930s footage

A few of you were a bit scathing about my attempting to recast Kiss Me Kate as relevant to my 1930s NYC research. There can be no nay sayers to the following snippets of research.

First up the genius Duke Ellington & his Cotton Club Band with “Old Man Blues” from 1930:

Duke Ellington is far and away my favourite USian composer. Just for his & Billy Strayhorn’s “Far East Suite” alone. Oh, how I love “Isfahan”. Yes, I know they didn’t write that until the 1960s, but there was so much wonderful music before then. Including one of my favourite songs of all time: “(In My) Solitude” from 1934.

Next up a particularly nutty Busby Berkley number from Footlight Parade (1933):

Go, cats, go! The kid that shows up around the minute marks is SO disturbing. And I don’t want to be rude but Ruby Keeler? Not the world’s most impressive hoofer. She was no Eleanor Powell. Her singing wasn’t up to much either.

Footlight Parade’s one of my favourites of Busby Berkley’s insane extravaganzas. For some reason every single one of them features a woman putting on and taking of stockings very slowly. And many weirdo dance numbers. What is not to love? Added bonus: Footlight Parade has my favourite poster boy for ADD, Jimmy Cagney.

I’ve talked about Fredi Washington previously. If you haven’t seen Imitation of Life (1934) you really should and skip this next bit cause you wouldn’t want spoilers, would you? Reveals a lot about class, race and gender at the time. Plus I have a crush on Fredi Washington.

Here’s a pivotal scene with Fredi and Louise Beaver:

Lastly, more insanity. American fashion designers predict future fashions:

Oooh! Swish! Want. Pretty much every outfit. And the hair styles. Why aren’t we dressing like that? I sure would like to see Scott decked out in that last number. Bless!

Are you all starting to understand why I’m writing this book? Is just an excuse to swim about in an ocean of 1930s fabulosity. Music, movies, clothes, books. Everything really.

Researching NYC in the early 1930s

The book I’m working on is set in New York City in the 1930s. It’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever undertaken because I’m trying to write a snapshot of the city in the early thirties. Not just rich white people but everyone: American-born, immigrant, black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, servants, bosses, employed, unemployed.

It’s an impossible goal. No one book can capture everything. Or even come close but I like having crazy, unattainable writing goals.

And as you can imagine the research is immense.

So far one of the hardest parts has been finding letters and diaries by people, black or white, who weren’t reasonably well-off. There are letters for earlier periods but by the 1930s people weren’t writing as much.

The reasons are varied. Those who had jobs worked such insane hours for such low pay that there was little time. Those who had access to a phone—and there’d usually be one per boarding house, for example—would call home once a month or so instead of writing because that would work out cheaper than using paper and pen and buying a stamp. But many didn’t have jobs. They could hardly afford food, let alone paper.

Though there is collection of letters that were written to Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

    Selma, Alabama
    Sept, 1935

    Dear Mr. President,
    Please, please, dont let our checks be stop they say that they have close up. We can’t even get by now, what shall we do.
    Please when they open Work for the Women let us have a fire. our legs are acking now where they work us all the cold Winter And we did not have a fire. Please send us some more good meat. for we Cant get any it is so high. School is open We haven’t got any clotheing for our children and our self. Some got dresses and some did not. What shall we do. it is getting cold And we havent got no Coal + no wood we just can get a little food. Please see about us and when you send Any cover to Any thing We hope all Will get Some, Some get and the other dont, some get a raise And some get a cut. We thank you for All your are doing. Thank you.
    The Colored
    Women

    Burlington, Iowa
    Nov. 4-36
    President + Mrs. Roosevelt
    Congratulating you first on your success in staying in the “White House” for which I am well pleased.
    I want to write just briefly about my work in the campaign.
    First let me say most everyone takes for granted “Coloured”1 voters are Republican. We owe that party a debt.
    I worked day and night proving to the U.S.A. voters that phrase is not true. I think this election will convince all, because the Negro of today are more educated. Of course when there are more in one locality it is easier for them to prove their ability to fill worth while positions.
    I wasn’t working in this campaign to fill an office. I was working for the betterment of this community in which I live, and the men I worked so hard for I feel are real men that will back me up and show a few of my race folks here a little consideration.
    I struggle here trying to educate my boy (19 yrs.) and girl (17yrs.) and trying to keep this locailty a haven for them so to speak.
    I worked without pay so as to prove to the people here I wasn’t working for a personal cause.
    I’m not on relief. My husband is a Railroad chef, I worked at odd jobs since where I live my vocation isn’t patronized very much. Would like to obtain Ia. licinse but do not feel I can afford spending that much right now right on the verge of winter.
    Hope that sometime during your future talks over the radio you will mention what the value of the coloured votes has been to you if you think they are worth it.
    Trust that this letter will reach your hands.
    Happiness and Success to Both of You.
    Sincerely
    Mrs. I. H.

Both letters are from Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man edited by Robert S. McElvaine. It’s a treasure trove. As you no doubt noticed, neither letter is from New York City. So far, I’ve not found equivalent letters from black New Yorkers. But I’m still looking. Any tips from you, my faithful readers, would be most welcome.

I have however found a wonderful book by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression which very succinctly spells out just how disproportionately black Americans were affected by the Great Depression. They were already being paid less than white workers, but pretty soon they were lucky to be paid at all, as they were usually the first to be laid off or as the saying went “first fired, last hired.” In 1931 the black male unemployment rate in Manhattan was 25.4%. For white men it was 19.4. Black women had an unemployment rate of 28.5%; white women 11.2%. (And Manhattan had one of the lower unemployment rates—in Chicago in the same year: black men 60.2%, white men 32.4%, black women 75.0%, white women 17.4%.) A large part of the reason there were so many unemployed black women was that white women could no longer afford help at home. Also there were far more white women who stayed at home and did not seek work at all.

As I work on this book I keep getting Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” stuck in my head:2

    Them that’s got shall have
    them that’s not shall lose

It’s a beautiful song but so very sad.

  1. The “u” in “coloured” is original to the letter. Not this Australian introducing an error. []
  2. Technically I shouldn’t be listening to it. Was written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939 and not recorded till 1941. []

Thank you

A while back one of you wonderful commenters recommended the books of Thorne Smith as fun examples of 1930s NYC fiction. I have been reading much Thorne Smith of late and his books are strange and wonderful and full of much usefulness for my research. He wrote Topper which was turned into a marvellous movie of the same name with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett.

Another reader recommended Been Rich All My Life a documentary about the Apollo Theater dancers of the 1930s, which was truly wonderful and made me cry, and also gave me many leads. Because I am at the very beginning of my Harlem research I am embarrassed to confess that I had not heard of Small’s Paradise, a black-owned big nightclub in Harlem, which was also the only integrated nightclub and is now a school. I think Smalls will be making an appearance in the 1930s novel.

Now of course I can’t find either of the comments where those recommendations were made so I can’t find who to thank. All I can hope is that the two of you read this post and put up your hand. In the meantime: THANK YOU!

While I’m at it thanks to all the lovely folks who’ve been sending me links to 1930s sites and other tips and suggestions for the research for what is fast becoming the biggest book I have ever written. So much cool stuff to include! You’re all wonderful!

Please keep the suggestions coming. I’m especially interested in documentaries about the period. Liz Bray, one of the fabulous Alien Onions, told me about the 1930s in colour series that I managed to just miss in Australia and is no longer available on BBC’s iPlayer. But I will get my hands on it. I will!

Sometimes I have to pinch myself on account of the insane amount of fun I’m having with the research and writing this book. Tis almost too fabulous.

Thanks, all!

I love you, Emily Post

I am now the proud owner of a 1931 edition of Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage by Emily Post. Up till now I’d been making use of the Project Gutenberg edition. And while I adore digitised books—they certainly make research much much easier—you still can’t go past an actual held-in-your-hands book from the period you’re writing about.

I have been flipping through it all day, checking out the illustrations, enjoying the jacket copy and ads for other books. (None of that matter is included in the Project Gutenberg edition). It feels like a direct link back to the people of that era. I can imagine them holding it just the way I’m holding it. And I’m pretty certain some of them are mocking it just the way I’m mocking it.

Here is something you may have been blissfully unaware of:

The Dining-room

It is scarcely necessary to point out that the bigger and more ambitious the house, the more perfect its appointments must be. If your house has a great Georgian dining-room, the table should be set with Georgian or an earlier period English silver. Furthermore, in a “great” dining-room, all the silver should be real! “Real” meaning nothing so trifling as “sterling,” but genuine and important “period” pieces made by Eighteenth Century silversmiths, such as de Lamerie or Crespell or Buck or Robertson, or perhaps one of their predecessors. Or if, like Mrs. Oldname, you live in an old Colonial house, you are perhaps also lucky enough to have inherited some genuine American pieces made by Daniel Rogers or Paul Revere! Or if you are an ardent admirer of Early Italian architecture and have built yourself a Fifteenth Century stone-floored and frescoed or tapestry-hung dining room, you must set your long refectory table with a “runner” of old hand-linen and altar embroidery, or perhaps Thirteenth Century damask and great cisterns or ewers and beakers in high-relief silver and gold; or in Callazzioli or majolica, with great bowls of fruit and church candlesticks of gilt, and even follow as far as is practicable the crude table implements of that time.

Oh noes! I have been doing EVERYTHING wrong! Does it excuse me that we don’t actually have a dining room? Just a tiny table in our not very big kitchen? I worry that Emily is mad at me.

I can’t help but wonder what percentage of New Yorkers in 1931 found that advice even remotely useful, let alone the rest of the country. But that’s the thing, of course, Post’s Etiquette is as much aspirational as any thing else. Currently I aspire to having a dining room . . . I’ll work up to the English silver.

A most excellent research tool

Several people have asked me about my research for the 1930s novel. Specifically, they’re interested in writing a novel set in ye olden days and they want to know if there are any particularly useful tools/techniques I’d recommend. Something that applies to more than just the 1930s.

Why, yes, there is one single research tool I would recommend: the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the best value for money of all my online subscriptions. I could not write without the OED. I’m not even sure I could live without it. I hug its bits and bytes to my chest.

I probably spend just a tad too much time looking up words to see if they were in use in the 1930s and if they meant what I want them to mean. For example, so far today I have looked up “modernity”, “modern”, “enlightened”, and “progressive”. All of which were good to go. I was suprised (but shouldn’t have been) to learn that “hot” as in “sexually attractive; sexy” goes back to the 1920s, including the usage “hot momma”. Though “psycho” wasn’t used to mean “violently deranged” until 1945. Also a big no on “lame” to mean “inept, naive, easily fooled” or “uncool”. That usage didn’t start until 1942.

“Cool” meaning “doos” goes back to the early 1930s, when it was in use in some African-American communities. The OED’s first citation comes from the genius Zora Neal Hurston: “And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.” As I am currently re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God—oh, how I love that book!—this discovery made me vastly happy. Though it does mean only a few of my characters will be able to use “cool” that way.

Win some; lose some.

The OED on its own is not always sufficient, which is why I spend a lot of time reading books, magazines, newspapers, letters and diaries of (and about) the period. To see the words in context. It’s also important to remember that the OED merely lists the first in print use of the word, which means that the first time the word was spoken would usually have been years earlier. Especially pre-internet.

Although the OED may note that a word is primarily USian, it does not always say which geographical bit of the USA was mostly using it, or what communities. This is particularly true of a word like “gay,” which while it seems to have been in use in the 1920s and 1930s amongst some homosexuals, was definitely not used by others. In his book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, George Chauncey discusses the various nomenclature used by different gay communities to describe themselves. He points out that “gay” wasn’t as widely used as several other terms, and was pretty much unknown in straight1 communities, except to mean “happy.” Nor did it initially simply mean “homosexual”. Chauncey says that the “‘gay life’ referred as well to flamboyance in dress and speech.” The OED does not give as nuanced an account.

But the OED is an awesome starting point.

So, yes, sometimes I get lost in the OED for hours and hours. Way more than I ever did when I had a physical copy. It was too heavy and the print too small. The thought of looking stuff up made me tired. Dictionaries and encyclopedias and all other references books—they are what the internet was invented for. The news that at least one scholarly press is going all digital makes me very happy. So much easier to cart my research books around and so much easier to search!2

Now I just needs to find myself a good online dictionary of USian slang. Put together on historical principles naturally . . .

  1. According to the OED “straight” meaning “heterosexual” wasn’t in use until the 1940s. []
  2. Physical indexes are not always as useful as they could be. []

Best nominal phrase ever

Since I’m on the topic of my research I feel compelled to share this sentence with youse lot:

    Since his days in the state senate before World War I, and culminating in an explosive controversy involving Jimmy Walker, the flamboyantly corrupt mayor of New York during FDR’s governorship, Roosevelt’s political nemesis in state politics had been Tammany Hall, the ultimate, ball-jointed, air-cushioned, precision-tooled, thousand-kilowatt urban political machine.

Ultimate, ball-jointed, air-cushioned, precision-tooled, thousand-kilowatt urban political machine. Does that nominal phrase not fill your heart with joy? It does mine. I am imagining a ginormous Heath Robinson steampunk-like contraption wandering the streets of New York City demanding bribes, fixing potholes, and handing out bread, all the while puffing heavily on a cigar, and railing against the Governor.

That lovely phrase and, indeed, the whole sentence comes from David M. Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, which, thus far is my favourite non-fiction tome on the 1930s. As you can see, Kennedy has a delicious turn of phrase and a gift for communicating extremely complex ideas clearly and concisely. Concise may be an odd word to use for a book that is close to a thousand pages long, but trust me, it is the correct one. If you’re interested in that period I strongly recommend Kennedy’s book.

Sometimes I’m so deep in this research that I’m a little startled to realise that we’re not in a depression, there aren’t lots of wars in progress all over, the car industry isn’t in trouble, and there aren’t banks collapsing all around us.

Oh. Wait.

Never mind . . .

Maturity still not achieved

It’s pretty bad, isn’t it, that one of my favourite aspects of my 1930s NYC/USA research is the hilarious names I keep coming across.

Exhibit A: Rexford Tugwell.

Readers, I admit that I laughed for about half an hour. And then I made the mistake of telling Scott about Monsieur Tugwell. More laughter.

For the record, Mr Tugwell was a dead interesting bloke. A member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Brain Trust and thus a key contributor to the New Deal.

And yet, REXFORD TUGWELL!!!!

Your most recent lie?

Given that my next book is about a liar, I’ve been thinking about lies and why we tell them a great deal for the last year or so. Weirdly, writing this book has made me lie less. I told Scott as much and he pointed out that I’d told a lie just 30 minutes before I told him that. But it was just a tiny lie, I said.1 Still counts, said he. He’s right. It does.

I do have a few friends who never lie. I have other friends who lie constantly. Never about anything important. They’re all social, make-people-feel-better, don’t-upset-the-apple-cart kind of lies.

What was the most recent lie you told? How long ago did you tell it? Why did you tell it?

Those of you who don’t lie and are appalled by lies no need to comment. I have heard your position put forth very strongly by my non-lying friends. I understand and sympathise. But I want to hear from the liars on this occasion.

Thanks!

  1. I told someone I was allergic to wheat because I didn’t want to offend them by not eating their homemade cake. []

JWAM reader request no 23: Are you old enough?

Jenn S. says:

In one of your recent posts, you said, “There are many characters in my work that I could not have written twenty years ago.” I was wondering if you could expand on that briefly.

I’ve got a protagonist who I really like, but I keep wondering if I can write her realistically because I have less life experience than she does. I’m 24; she’s 38. I’m single; she’s been married and has kids. I’d freak at the sight of a zombie; she, an experienced mercenary, would immediately hack it to bits—etc. I would love to write her story, but how do I know whether to try it now or to wait a few years until I have more life experience?

You may not have enough life experience, but you should write her anyway.

One of the things I like best about writing is being able to create characters who are nothing like me. I’m long past high school age; but many of my characters are teenagers.1 I have no magical powers or fairies; Reason, Tom, Jay-Tee (MorM trilogy) and Charlie and many others (HTDYF) are and do. I’m not USian, but Jay-Tee, Danny, and Jason Blake in the trilogy are. I’m white; Reason, Jay-Tee, and Danny in the trilogy aren’t, nor is Charlie or any of the other characters in Fairy. They’re better at many things than I am: maths (Reason—actually, given that I’m innumerate, I suspect all the characters I’ve created are better at maths than me), sport (Charlie), making clothes (Tom) and so on and so forth.

There are readers who weren’t convinced by these characters, who don’t think I got it right. That will happen to you, too. All you can do is your very best and remember that even your best is not going to work for everyone. It won’t always be good enough.

Read memoirs and letters and journals of soldiers who are also mothers. Maybe some googling will find you communities of same. If you approach them respectfully they might even answer some questions for you. Ask women who are older than you and have children to comment on your work. Ideally ask older soldiers who are mums to comment.

Listen to their advice.

But also remember that even people of the same class and race and sex and sexual orientation and religion and profession from the same region can be very different. This is why it’s impossible to get it right for every reader. People are not all the same. Not even zombie-killing mercenary mums.

The more I write and the older I get, the more I know and the better I get at listening, and the more convincing my characters become.2 But you don’t gain writing experience by putting off writing a character you’re not sure you have the skills or knowledge to write. The way you get the skill set is by writing the character.

Your zombie-killing mercenary may be completely unconvincing when you’ve finished the first draft. Ask people what didn’t convince them. Then fix it. Might be that you won’t be able to get it right for many years. Some books take ages to write. Some never work.

In the comment that you quote above I meant to say not only that I couldn’t have written those characters then—didn’t have the writing chops—but also that I wouldn’t have thought of writing them. If that makes any sense. The kind of characters that I wrote as a teen were heavily influenced by what I was reading. They were V. C. Andrews or Raymond Chandler or Tanith Lee or Angela Carter or Isak Dinesen pastiches. Only, you know, MUCH WORSE than you’re imagining. I borrowed my characters from elsewhere, or I modelled them on myself,3 without realising it. I have a bigger range now. At least I hope I do.

Go forth and write your mercenary. What you lack in life experience you can make up with research.

Good luck!4

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. But, you know, I once was a teenager . . . []
  2. At least that’s the theory. []
  3. YAWN! []
  4. I know I’m getting repetitive but, honestly, where would we be without luck? []

Fred Astaire versus Gene Kelly

A frequently debated question is who was the best dancer? Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly.

The answer is: the Nicholas Brothers!

Feast your eyes:

Fayard and Harold Nicholas have never been surpassed. Just astonishing. Even Fred Astaire admitted the fabulousness you have just watched was the best dance sequence he’d ever seen. He was correct.

On the research front: Yes, that sequence is from Stormy Weather and yes it was released in 1943. But they were the top act at the Cotton Club from 1932. As you all know the Cotton Club was the top entertainment venue in New York City in the 1930s, which co-incidentally is when and where my next book is set. So rewatching the fabulous Stormy Weather totally counts as research cause it recreates many 1930s era Cotton Club numbers.

Next stop Emperor Jones from 1933, which I don’t even have to justify. Yay!

For those suggesting 1930s films: I much appreciate it. Just keep in mind I’ve been doing this research for well over a year and have been obsessed by Hollywood films of the 1930s since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Thus if it’s readily available on DVD odds are I’ve already seen it. But if it’s relatively obscure, or only just released on DVD, then suggest away!

Yes, this is research too

Eleanor Powell and Buddy Rich rocking out (starts at about 1:25 via Emma Bull):

Okay, I admit that this comes from 1942. However, part of my 1930s novel takes place on a cruise ship just like Ship Ahoy. Well, except for not being a sound stage. And, um, one of my characters adores the Tommy Dorsey band. So even though this is a future Tommy Dorsey band appearance that she will never see it totally counts as research. And also another of my characters can see into the future and uses that ability to follow Eleanor Powell’s career.1 Thus watching this clip is TOTALLY research.

Lord, how I adore Eleanor Powell. Broadway Melody of 1940 is one of my favourite movies of all time. I know everyone squees over her “Begin the Beguine” routine with Fred Astaire, which to be sure is deeply squee-worthy, but I also love this one (gets going around 2:15):

Eleanor Powell + boats = joy!

And Broadway Melody of 1940 totally counts as research because it was shot in 1939 and last time I looked that was in the 1930s.2

Just in case some of you have never seen “Begin the Beguine” here you go:

You’re welcome!

  1. Some of these things may not be true. []
  2. Even though my book is more set in the early 1930s. But never mind that! []

YA book recs for the holidays

Quite a few people lately have been asking me for book recommendations. They want to know what new YA they should be buying for the holidays. Sadly, I am in less of a position to help than usual.

For most of this year I have been solely reading books about (or published during) the 1930s. The only non-1930s books I’ve read have been manuscripts I’ve critiqued for friends. This means I have not read Hunger Games yet. Or the second Octavian Nothing or the National Book Award winner, Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied or Coe Booth’s Kendra which I hear is every bit as good as the wonderful Tyrell. Or anything, really. Nor will I be reading any of these, even though I dearly want to, until I finish the first draft of my thirties book in September.

Thus the only recently pub’d books I can recommend are the ones that I read ahead of time:

    Holly Black Kin. Part one of the best graphic novel ever. Faery and betrayal. Twelve and up.

    Cassandra Clare City of Ashes. Second book in the City trilogy. Sequel to City of Bones. This is the series I recommend to people who are looking for something to read after they finish the Twilight books. And guess who one of their biggest fans is? Stephenie Meyer. There’s love, action, adventure and it’s really funny too. Twelve and up.

    Shannon Hale Rapunzel’s Revenge. Also the best graphic novel ever. A non-wimpy Rapunzel. Hurrah! Twelve and up though I think this one skews in both directions. I think many ten year olds would love it. Adults too.

    Maureen Johnson Suite Scarlett. New York family living in falling apart hotel. Funny, witty, joyful with excellent pratfalls. Spencer may be my fave new character. Twelve and up. But I know many adults who are smitten.

    Margo Lanagan Tender Morsels. Can’t describe it. Beautiful, poetic, ferocious, excellent. Sort of a fairy tale but not. I think I have changed my opinion of bears. Listed as fourteen and up in the US. Personally I agree with Allen & Unwin’s decision to publish it as adult.

    E. Lockhart The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. The best book she’s written and I love all her books. A National Book Award finalist. This book is so amazing that I’m rendered dumb trying to come up with the words to describe its wit, genius, and splendiferousness. Just read it. Twelve and up.

    Lauren McLaughlin Cycler. Gorgeous sex-changing screwball comedy. Fourteen and up.

    Lauren Myracle Bliss. Clever creepy scary excellence. *Shudder* I have not been able to stop thinking about this book. Fourteen and up.

    Robin Wasserman Skinned. My favourite YA science fiction novel of the year. Philosophical and page turner-y at the same time. What does it mean to be human when your body is not your own? And how do you cope with high school when you’ve gone from being Queen Bee to the loseriest loser ever? Twelve and up.

That’s all I got, however, and I know many other fabulous YA books came out this year. So why don’t you tell us about them?

Don’t just give titles. Tell us why you’re recommending them. Don’t recommend mine or Scott’s books. I know about those. If you could also mention what age their publisher thinks they’re suitable for. Many of the people asking for recs are parents.

Thank you!

Strange maps

Found via pixelfish a blog devoted to strange maps, which I’m sure you’ve all been giggling over for years, but tis new and delightful to me.

I keep looking for detailed maps of NYC during the 1930s but so far have not found anything. There are precious few books directly about the period either. Though heaps on NYC in the gilded age and the 1920s. I wonder why? The 1930s were every bit as fascinating.

I predict a boom in books about the depression on account of what’s happening to the world’s economy right now. Is it bad that I’m glad that the current situation is helping with the writing of my book? I mean, I’m not glad that the economy is in the toilet and we may be heading into a depression . . . Just that it’s helping me understand the Great Depression better.

Er, um, look over there: flying monkeys!

Ethical dilemma

As I may have mentioned, the book I’m currently writing is set in New York City in the 1930s. This was a time when many people smoked and the health risks were not generally known. Advertisements at the time linked smoking with being liberated (especially for women), glamorous and sophisticated. I remember seeing a series of 1930s Camel ads in science fiction magazines that featured the US Olympic team—mostly swimmers and divers—extolling the health and fitness benefits of smoking. In the Hollywood films of the period it’s easier to count the actors who aren’t smoking than the ones who are.

An accurate portrait of the period would have to have at least some of my characters smoking.

I hate smoking. I hate the smell of it. I hate getting into a car that reeks of it or eating at a restaurant with smokers. I hate what it does to people’s health. I hate the industry built around it that has led to the untimely and painful death of millions of people world-wide, including two of my grandparents.

I will not promote smoking.

But I want to write a book that evokes the period as accurately and evocatively as I can. The haze of cigarette smoke was a large part of NYC right up until 2003 when the smoking bans—hallelujah!—came in.

What to do?

The next next novel (updated)

Because I am nearing the end of my next novel, and fast approaching my deadline, naturally my mind has turned to the novel I’ll be writing after this one. It will be set in New York City in the 1930s. Yup, I’ll be trying my hand at some historical fiction. Why not, eh? After all, it’s on my list.

And like, Cassie, who’s preparing for her next novel by only reading books about or set in Victorian England, I’m going to only read Depression era New York City books. Though because I am cunning I also get to watch many of my fave movies from the 1930s. An astonishing number of which are set in NYC. Damn I’m good.

I need no help with movie recs but I’d love to get recommendations for books, especially non-fiction such as histories and journals and collections of letters from that era. Novels would be fab as well. Preferably written and published then, but if a book is particularly good just set then should be fine.

Thanks!

Update: Thanks so much for all the suggestions. Just to be clear: New York City recs only. I have no need for general US recommendations. And as I said I’m especially interested in primary sources: letters, diaries etc. Thanks again for all the help.

Clothes in the 1930s

I’ve been toying with writing a novel set in the 1930s and without fail when I mention this I get the following response:

“Why? The clothes were so drab then! Set it in the 1920s!”

Everyone I’ve spoken to seems to think that the Depresssion meant no good clothes were made or worn for an entire decade. I blame Carnivale. My friends have visions of women in faded print dresses and men in worn suits covered in dust.

High fashion in the 1930s was the very opposite of drab. Think of the 1930s movies of Kate Hepburn, Greta Garbo and Carole Lombard. Think about the clothes they wore. Gorgeous! Insane! Over the top!

Yes, most people couldn’t afford those clothes, but that was true in the 1920s, too. Photos of NYC street scenes in the 1920s were just as grey as those of the 1930s.1 And, really, at what point in history have the majority of people worn haute couture?

One of the reasons I want to set my book in the 1930s is because of the sharp contrast between the very rich and everyone else. The clothes speak volumes.

Also the 1930s was the heyday of Madeleine Vionnet who invented the bias cut and totally shaped the look of the 1930s with her (mostly, but not always) slinky clothes. Vionnet is one of my favourite designers.2 She was a genius, who created some of the most beautiful clothes I’ve ever seen.


Photo by Ilan Rubin

This Vionnet dress is from 1938 and according to the New York Times is “made from silk tulle, panne velvet and horsehair with a silver lamé underdress and Lesage embroidery.” I’m betting it was not made in a day.

There were good clothes in the 1930s, okay?

  1. And, no, not just because they’re in black and white. []
  2. Also a really good boss who paid her workers above average wages (unlike, say, Coco Chanel) and covered their healthcare and training. []

Why all the research?

Enough of you have been emailing to ask why I wants to know about lying and DNA testing and race that I feel I should offer some kind of explanation, or several even:

  • I am hard at work building a lie-and-DNA-detecting robot.
  • I was bored.
  • Maureen Johnson made me ask you cause she’s too lazy to do her own research.
  • It’s for my new novel.
  • It’s procrastination to avoid work on my new novel on account of Scott took my IM capability away.
  • I am distracting myself from certain sad events on The Wire.
  • None of the above.

I hope that’s cleared everything up to your satisfaction.

More research: DNA testing and race

Than you so much for all the excellent liar info yesterday. I’m now halfway through Paul Ekman’s Emotions Revealed: Recognising Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life and finding it extraordinarily useful. Thanks to Gwenda Bond, Jenny Davidson and Malcolm Tredinnick for suggesting him. I’ll be chasing down all the other leads as well. You are all the best research assistants ever!

Since you were all so amazingly helpful on yesterday’s research question I have another:

Last year (I think) I read at least two articles about DNA testing being used in a classroom (or possibly classrooms) in California (but I may have the state wrong) to demonstrate that no one is racially “pure” and, indeed, to promote discussion about what race even is. The test gives the percentage of your DNA that comes from Africa, Europe, Asia or Native America. And many people get results they’re not expecting. The correlation between your skin colour and your DNA is not straightforward.

I have googled any number of combinations and have found articles on DNA testing and race. Even on DNA testing being taught in the classroom, but not on DNA tests being used to talk about race in the classroom.

If any of you can help with this I will be eternally grateful.

Questions about lying

Have any of you ever taken a lie detection test of any kind? (Polygraph or written q & a or some other kind of test I have not read about yet.) If so would you care to tell me about it? Feel free to be anonymous in the comments if you’d prefer.

And more generally: for those of you who have told lies and gotten away with it—what’s your method?

Do any of you believe you have the ability to tell when someone else is lying? Is it a general ability or just with people you know well?

Can any of you recommend any good non-fiction articles and books about lying? Most of what I’ve found so far has been deeply underwhelming.

Thanks!

And thanks for all the fabbie fairy responses. It was mucho gratifying to see that quite a few of your fairies are already in How To Ditch Your Fairy.

More market research

Vampires are so far ahead of the competition in my latest poll that it’s ridiculous. Fifty-four per cent of my readers believe there are vastly more bad books about them than anything else on the list. Lagging way behind are faerie and witches at 9%. Daikaiju and ghouls got no votes at all.

On the other hand, my last piece of intensive market research found that faery and vampires were the most popular creatures of the night. What to conclude?

  1. People love vampires when done well, but hate them done badly.
  2. There’s a massive opening for novels about giant monsters and/or ghouls.

Therefore, my next novel clearly has to be about a (reimagined) vampire who battles giant monsters with the assistance of an army of ghouls. Practically writes itself, dunnit? Though it does cry out for zombies . . .

Which leads to my next poll, which you will find to your right.

Snow research

I’m spending the weekend in upstate New York catching up with friends and researching snow for my next novel.

My research involved sitting in a rocking chair and staring out the window:


12:01PM


12:16PM


12:36PM (Can you see the red squirrel?)


1:33PM

Sadly, there is still not enough snow for snow shoeing, cross country skiing, or tobogganing. None of which I have ever done before even though my characters (pesky annoying things) have. But I have high hopes for tomorrow.

We went out for a walk. It were pretty and not scary cold (about 1C or 34F):

I was taught how to make snow balls, snow men, as well as snow angels. All of it fairly wet-making. But, I will admit, fun.

Apparently that big pile of sticks in the centre there is a beaver lodge. A conservation biologist told me so:

Here he (Peter Zahler) is telling me killer bee stories.1 Or it could have been the one about the crazed grasshopper mice or possibly wild boar. Peter has many fabulous stories:

Keep your fingers crossed for lots more snow tomorrow!

  1. You may recognise the name “Zahler”. Scott named one of his characters in The Last Days after Peter. []

Faerie, fairy, fey, whatever . . .

If I decided that the current poll was a wee bit of market research I’d be feeling quite happy that my next book1 is a fairy book. Thing is though that it’s not a f-a-e-r-i-e book. It’s a f-a-i-r-y book.

What’s the difference you ask? Well, in YA and children’s publishing land there are dark, scary faery like those that Holly Black writes about, who would as soon gouge your eyes out as look at you. And then there’s your pink, glittery, tinkerbell kind of fairy. A la all those of the Disney books etc. etc.

My fairies are probably more Disney than Holly Black. But they’re not pink. They’re not even visible. And um they help you do specific things. Like there are good-hair fairies and loose-change-finding fairies. You can’t fall in love with them, they can’t break your heart, or gouge out your eyes, and they don’t wave their magic wands to make pages turn.2 Like I said you can’t even see my fairies.

Thus I’m not sure the overwhelming popularity of Faery in the poll oppposite is going to help me any. It’s also made me a bit despondent about my Zombie Quintet. Not to mention the snow-boarding werewolf epic. And the daikaiju versus ghouls manga series.

Just as well I have an genuine certified-as-real-by-Holly-Black faerie story coming out at the same time as my fairy novel. It’s called “Thinner Than Water”3 and you’ll find it in the pages of Love is Hell edited by Farren Miller. I’m sure there are other faerie stories in there, too. Though Scott’s isn’t, but if you squinted as you read it, you could convince yourself it was . . . Sort of.4

Though if the poll were accurate vampires would be in the lead, given that there are way more vampire books than anything else. So bugger the poll! I’ll write my Zombie Quintet anyways and the snow-boarding werewolves and the daikaiju/ghoul manga. Maybe I’ll work my way through the list. I’ve already written about witches (Magic or Madness trilogy), and as mentioned above both faerie and fairy. I have a devil story, but that’s not on the poll. It just means figuring out a new take on vampires . . . Piece of cake.

I’ll go back to writing my next novel, now . . . Hava good weekend and don’t forget the aerogard!5

  1. coming in September of this year and no longer called The Ultimate Fairy Book []
  2. A very old person reference. My apologies to those under thirty-five who read this blog. []
  3. previously titled “Lammas Day” []
  4. Other stories are by Melissa Marr, Laurie Faria Stolarz, and Gabrielle Zevin. []
  5. Not that you need it where I am right now . . . []

Zombies, of course (updated)

For research purposes, I am going to drastically increase my zombie culture consumption.

Thus far I’ve been reading and loving The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman. (I read the trades not the skinnies—so no spoilers for the latest issues!)

I also plan to read World War Z, An Oral History Of The Zombie War by Max Brooks. So no spoilers, people!

Update: Forgot to mention I have read the entire and very excellent Kelly Link zombie oeuvre.

What other zombie books and graphic novels should I be reading?

And there’s the movies—because really the whole zombie thing is very movie driven.

Obviously I’ve seen and loved all the George Romero zombie films. Yum. My faves. Yes, even the recent Land of the Dead that I’ve heard quite a few people bagging. The only one of his I think is a bit sub-par is Day of the Dead and even it is totally worth watching.

I’ve seen The Dawn of the Dead remake. Very disappointing.

And obv. there’s 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks.

Not to mention Shaun of the Dead. Very droll.

There’s also Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie. Yes, that’s right I’m open to non-Romero voudun-style zombies.

Update: Also forgot to mention that, yes, I have seen the Resident Evil films. I love ‘em.

So what are the best zombie movies that I haven’t seen? And if you could sell ‘em to me and not just list titles. I’m trusting youse lot to be my zombie entertainment quality control.

Of fans and geeks

El and Rachel Brown correctly surmised that the fan half of my question was inspired by the bruhaha about whether John Scalzi should be nominated for a fan writing Hugo or not.

For the record: yes, Scalzi should, and I hope he wins for all the reasons that have been described in great detail here, here and here. I’m also not comfortable with people telling other people that they are or aren’t “fans” or “geeks” or anything else. Those are the kind of labels you get to choose for yourself.

The geek half was inspired by my being asked to contribute a story to an anthology about geeks and geekery. My instant response was to say, “No.” Not just because I can’t write short stories, but because I couldn’t begin to think of a geeky story. (Plus no way am I biting the head off a chicken. Ewww.)

Also I was just curious about how you lot define those words. Part of what’s interesting in the great Is-Scalzi-a-Fan debate is that there were so many different definitions of what a “fan” is, which led to much talking at cross purposes. Seems thesame is true of “geek”. Veronica defined it the way I would, but Cecil defined it the way I would define “fan”.

A number of people take “fan” to mean someone who loves something uncritically. I can’t help but laugh at that when I think of the number of letters I’ve had from self-proclaimed Magic or Madness fans who tell me in minute detail the stuff they don’t like about the trilogy, just as much as the stuff they do. Clearly, these are slippery, slippery terms.

Thanks everyone for such fascinating responses.

So why do I call myself a fan but not a geek?

Let’s take the word “fan” first. I’m not a fan of science fiction, which may sound odd for someone who did a Phd on it, which became a book. To be honest the whole PhD thing was never a passion. All I’ve ever wanted to do is be a writer, but as everyone knows there’s no money in that, so I went for an academic career to support my writing habit. The subject of my PhD was an accident. I’d read sf as a kid but I’d read lots of other things too and, honestly, I think the vast majority of sf (film, television or film) is on the nose. Many of the so-called classics of the genre like the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke or Star Trek or Blade Runner leave me cold.

It’s the world building that does it for me with science fiction, being transported to somewhere that is not like the world I know. I get that just as readily from books about places I’m unfamiliar with: Japanese crime books fascinate me; Australian ones not so much. I also get that button pressed by books from the past (Jane Austen, Tale of Genji,1 Elizabeth Gaskell, Miles Franklin et al) historicals, fantasy, westerns and so on. Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson create worlds that are almost completely alien to me. I adore their work.

I love the writings of Samuel R. Delany and Maureen McHugh and Ursula K. Le Guin. But I’m not convinced that it’s the science fictioness of their work that does it for me. I’m just as happy when they’re writing fantasy or memoirs or criticism or blogging or whatever else they choose to write. I love the way they string their words and sentences and paragraphs together. Yum.

If I were to be banned from reading one genre it would be less of a hardship for me if that genre were sf rather than fantasy or historicals. (Naturally, I exempt manga from all these categories.)

I’m also not a fan in the sense that Ulrika is talking about. That is I’m not a member of a community that came together around a love of science fiction in the late 1930s and is still going strong today. Or am I? I definitely feel like I’m a part of the WisCon community. For years I helped with the running of that particular science fiction convention. I was on the ConCom. Can you get much more fannish than that? And, like John Scalzi, I feel very much at home with many members of the science fiction community who definitely consider themselves to be fans.

However, I’ve never written fanfiction. So I’m not part of that thriving aspect of fandom. Nor do I read it. Though there are definitely books and stories I love, like The Wide Sargasso Sea, that are a kind of fanfiction—but the kind that plays around with out of copyright texts and thus gets to be published.

I’m happy to call myself a fan not just because of the WisCon thing, but because there are a lots of things I love. Elvis Presley’s voice. Cricket. Madeleine Vionnet and Hussein Chalayan’s clothes. The writing of way too many people to list here. I love Bring It On and Deadwood and Blue Murder and My Brilliant Career and ES and Nana and Osamu Tezuka and mangosteens and the food of countries like Spain and Mexico and Thailand and Japan and Italy and Ethiopia and the great wines of Australia and New Zealand and Argentina and South Africa and Italy and France and Spain and many other places.

I don’t think the word “fan” implies uncritical love. There are clothes of Vionnet and Chalayan’s that I think are naff, Cricket matches that bore me, Angela Carter books ditto, and Spanish food and French wine I’ve had to spit out.

So why aren’t I geek?

First up, the word is American and doesn’t have much resonance for me. I never heard it as a kid nor “nerd” neither. Not outside of a John Hughes movie. (That’s not true of younger Aussies.)

The people I know who are self-described nerds or geeks have passions for stuff that bores me. Video games, role-playing games, board games and the insides of computers. I have many friends who are into these things and, well, I am not like them in this regard. I do not know what “chaotic good” is, even though Scott’s explained it to me like a hundred times.

I’ve had flirtations with various computer games over the years, but my attention span for them is microscopic, and ulimately I’d much rather be reading a book.

Once I got into Go for about a year, to the extent that I was playing it with a bunch of Go fanatics on servers in Korea, and reading books on it. But it was largely research for a novel I was writing. When I finished writing the book my interest in playing Go lapsed. It’s still by far the best game I’ve ever played, but I doubt I’d even remember how anymore. I haven’t played since 1999.

Many of my geeky friends are also collectors.

I hate stuff. I spend a large chunk of my life recycling and throwing stuff out. I hate things that sit on the mantlepiece and serve no purpose other than to collect dust. I see no point in them. Nor in stuffed animals, or dolls, or collectable cards, or any of that. I love cricket but I have no desire for cricket stuff cluttering up my house and am endlessly giving away the cricket tat people give me (clothes excluded).

If I collect anything, it’s books, but I cull them ruthlessly and often. If I’m not going to reread it, or I’ve had it for more than a year without even cracking the spine and there seems little likelihood that I will, then out the book goes.

Also I have a terrible memory. Always have had. I can’t tell you what year Bring it On came out, or who directed it, or who all the actors are without looking it up. I have to read a book a billion times before I can remember any details about it and even then I’m pretty crap. I just did a test on Pride and Prejudice I don’t think I’ve read any book more times than that one. I got 5 out of 10. I would not be able to tell an original Vionnet gown from a knock off. I do not have the trainspotting gene.

So, yes to “fan” and to “enthusiast” (thanks, Bennett), no to “geek” or “nerd”. I’m also quite happy to be called a “dag”. Yes, I am also a “spaz”. (Though, Christopher, I say to you: Know thyself!) And “dilettante”? Oh, yes, that’s me. I have the attention span of a gnat.2

  1. I confess I have never finished The Tale of Genji despite repeated attempts. The bits I’ve read have been fabulous. It’s just that the book is so damned heavy and hard to read in bed. I know, I know . . . dilettante. []
  2. Except for blogging, apparently. Bugger but this was a long post . . . Sorry! []

What should I write next?

Remember way back when I asked you to help me to decide what to write next? You all told me the fairy book, which I dutifully wrote, but now I’m feeling all indecisive again. Can you help me out?

Here are the options:

  • The great Australian feminist monkey knife-fighting cricket Elvis mangosteen fairy novel . This one is written.
  • The compulsive liar book narrated by a—you guessed it—compulsive liar. Downside: will involve lots of outlining. I hates outlining. Plus it’s going to be so hard! Upside: whenever I mention this one folks get very excited.
  • The beginnings of cricket historical romance. Downside: lots of research and all my cricket history books are in storage in Sydney. Upside: yumminess. I am besotted with my protag and her love interest.
  • The baby killing ghost novel set in Sydney in the late 19th century in which the ghost does not kill babies nor do babies kill ghosts. Downside: research materials all in storage in Sydney. Upside: ghost story!
  • The plastic surgery running away from Hollywood novel. Downside: protag is a USian. I am not USian thus writing it will be really hard. All the sentences in my head are Australian. Upside: Very cool structure that makes me grin just thinking about it.
  • Werewolf snowboarding epic. Downside: I’ve never snowboarded making it tricky describing it plus I’d need to do a lot of research on wolves. Upside: Werewolves snowboarding!
  • Northern Territory multi-family multi-racial lots of killing epic. Downside: yeah, yeah, research materials elsewhere. Plus I’d need to spend at least a few weeks up there again, doing lots of non-book research. Fun but not possible for quite awhile. Upside: I love love love writing epics.
  • Kid who grows up in a Vintage Clothes Shop which her mum runs who can pick the best buys at fifty paces (much more interesting than this description makes it sound—honest!) Downside: I know nothing about the vintage clothes industry works. More bloody research! Upside: clothes, yummy delicous magic clothes.
  • Protag’s father goes missing presumed dead on account of he and protag’s mum very into each other. Mum is forced to take in a lodger to help pay the mortgage. She advertises for a female uni student but takes in a strange youngish man who has no visible means of support and yet pays the rent on time. He’s gorge and speaks a zillion languages but the seventeen-year old girl protag doesn’t trust him. Her twin brothers (eight) almost immediately fall under his sway. I could go on, but it’s just not very pitchable. Alas. Downside: Not very ptichable. Tis one of those books that’s clear in my head but takes months to explain. Sigh. Upside: tis very clear in my head.
  • Try to write a short story. I’ve had a brain wave for completely transforming a story of mine that’s never worked into one that will. It involves making the ending not suck (why did I not think of that before?!) and setting it a couple hundred years ahead of where it’s set now. It involves no research. Downside: I suck at short stories. Upside: Not starting from scratch and may lead to an actual good story. That would be cool!

My agent is most excited about the Liar book on account of its ease of pitchability but she also agrees with the famous children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom, who wrote

I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor.

The book described before writing it rarely exactly matches the finished book and sometimes doesn’t even come close. And if it did what would be the fun in writing? There’d be no surprises!

I could sit down and start writing any one of these. Yes, heaps need research, but writing first and researching sketchily as you go is fun. I do have the intramanets afterall. And it’s not that long till we’re back in Sydney where I can fill in some of my [did they have spin bowling back then? When did they first call them "googlies"] notes.

But I do not have a burning desire to write any of them at the moment. I do not have a burning desire to write at all. My one burning desire is to continue reading lots of lovely manga . . . But I did say I’d write two novels this year. Sigh.

What’s it to be?

Arduous Research

So I have a genius idea for a book1 that requires me to watch lots of old American movies from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. It’s tough but someone has to do it. Plus Scott’s never seen a lot of these movies and I consider that to be criminal. Do you know before he met me he’d never even heard of Preston Sturges? What kind of a life is that?

So far we’ve worked our way through the films of (natch) Preston Sturges, George Cukor, and Douglas Sirk. As well as almost all the ones starring Rita Hayworth (Yay Gilda!).

Today we watched Mildred Pierce. Bless it. Bless Joan Crawford and Anne Blythe. The role of Veda is such a hoot. Has a greater bitch ever graced the silver screen? Sure, probably, there’s always Eve Harrington in All About Eve which we watched the day before. Scott had never seen it and is now smitten. Who wouldn’t be? Such a fabulous movie!

Yes, that's Fredi Washington again. Write a book about her already!Watching these more-than-fifty-year-old movies I’ve been struck by how many of them are written by women and how many of them are driven by women. They have not just genuine starring roles, but also lots of juicy supporting parts. There are women older than forty in these movies.

Last time I went to the movies I sat through the regulation ten minutes of shorts and did not see a single woman. Not one. The time before that there were two women and both seemed to be in the girlfriend role and were a long, long, long way off forty. What on Earth happened in the intervening years? How come most of the good roles for women are now on the tellie?

I’d love to hear your theories. Lauren, ex-Hollywood producer friend of mine?

And bonus question what are your favourite movies from the first three decades of talking pictures? (Doesn’t have to be American.) I’d tell you mine but it would take hours . . .

  1. Scott does not believe in the existence of this genius idea. He thinks I just like watching the same old movies over and over. I’ll show him! []

Write me this book!

My intensive google research has revealed that there is no biography of Fredi Washington. I demand that one of you get off your arse and write one immediately! (Or use your better research skills to find me one.)

Who is Fredi Washington, you ask? Why, let me tell you:

Fredi Washington as Peola in Imitation of LifeFredi Washington was a light-skinned black actor and dancer. She largely starred in movies for the Jim Crow circuit and often with her skin darkened. She was such a compelling screen presence that the Hollywood bigwigs in the thirties offered to make her a big star if she’d pass as white. She told ‘em all where to go. Yay, Fredi! (I also want to know if that’s actually true.)

Ironically, her one big role in white movies was playing the “tragic mulatto”, Peola, in the original Imitation of Life.1 She steals the movie. Everytime she’s on screen she’s where you’re looking.

I want to know more about her. I demand to know more about her! I want a big fat bio on the scale of the Tiptree one. I want it to be as thoroughly researched and as beautifully written and I want it right this minute.

On your bikes, people!

  1. I totally recommend watching the two Imitations of Life back to back. The 1934 one followed by the 1959 Juanita Moore one. Fascinating to see the shifts in representations of race relations. Though in both, Peola/Sara Jane’s decision to pass as white seems inexplicable.

    If you were an alien watching the movies you’d be scratching your head trying to figure out what was so very terrible about being a black person. Other than the only other black people being servants, but there are so few of them you’d think maybe they’re off enjoying cool jobs elsewhere. In neither film are there any cafes with signs saying “Whites Only”. The black characters never have to sit at the back of the bus.

    There is one horrible scene of racism in the 1959 version, but it plays out like racism is just that particular person’s problem, not anything systemic. The most you get in the 1935 version are the kids at school looking shocked when they discover that Peola is passing. Their reaction shot lasts less than five seconds. []

Help! Urgent Request for SF Magazine Info

I don’t have the page numbers for the following stories. If anyone out there has them I’d sure appreciate your sharing said knowledge with me. And, yes, please pass this along to anyone you think might be able to help.

Your reward for helping me out? You get your name in the acknowledgments for Daughters of Earth.

Asimov, Isaac. “Profession,” Astounding Science Fiction, (July 1957):

—. “The Mule,” Astounding Science Fiction, (Nov-Dec 1945):

Hamilton, Edmond, “The Man Who Evolved,” Wonder Stories (April 1931):

Piper, H. Beam. “Omnilingual,” Astounding Science Fiction, (Feb 1957):

Reed, Kit. “To Lift a Ship,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, (April 1962):

Sheldon, Raccoona. “The Screwfly Solution.” Analog (June 1977):

Tuttle, Lisa, and George R. R. Martin. “The Storms of Windhaven.” Analog (May 1975):

Wilhelm, Kate. “The Chosen,” in Damon Knight, ed., Orbit 6. New York: Putman, 1970.

And, yes, I realise the last one isn’t a magazine.

For those wondering, nope, still not finished with the ms. of Daughters.

The New York Nexus

In 1999 Elizabeth Cummins published an article in Extrapolation, "American SF, 1940s-1950s: Where’s the book? The New York Nexus." This article is a response to Cummins. The short answer to her question, "Where’s the book?" is that I’m writing it. The long answer goes something like this:

In 1996, Judith Merril told me that I should write a book about the Futurians and the Hydra Club (that is, the people she hung out with in NYC in the 1940s and 1950s) because "we were amazing."2 Powerful though an injunction from Judy Merril was, it was not the only reason I decided to undertake such a project. The idea of writing about the postwar period had been growing during my previous research project on the battle of the sexes in sf. It had become increasingly clear to me that the postwar period was pivotal to the development of American science fiction. This importance had also struck Elizabeth Cummins as she worked with Judith Merril’s letters in the National Archive of Canada in Ottawa. Cummins was working on a complete Judy Merril bibliography, but what she found in those letters went far beyond bibliographical research. She worked with "numerous cardboard boxes of material that had been cursorily catalogued and filed" and describes the stimulating experience of "being immersed in the New York science fiction world of the 1940s and 1950s . . . I came away convinced that someone needs to write a literary history of that science fiction nexus" (314).

Judith Merril never had any doubts about the importance of the period or her role in it. She began her memoirs because:

some of my (male) friends and compeers began publishing politely laundered Autobiographies of their successes and I was snowblinded by the bleach in the detergent. Here were lists of stories sold, banquets attended, speeches given, editors lunched, even wives married and divorced, with never a shriek or tear or tremor or orgasm, and hardly a belly laugh anywhere. My memory (notoriously bad for facts and figures, but usually good for character and dialogue) insists that in those down and dirty days of ghetto science fiction most of us were young, passionate, frail, tough, loving, quarreling, horny human beings, testing ourselves against each other and the world. Somebody, I thought, should tell it like it was. (425)3

She was also clear that scholars needed to do work on the period:

the science fiction community I entered in New York in the early forties; that literary ghetto of the 1930s-1950s, with its brilliant and intricately interactive population and its clear/mad insights into both human and technological evolution (before the possibilities of wealth and mundane prestige brought in less intense practitioners), constituted a ‘movement’ (literary and sociological, as in ‘Bloomsbury’) of serious potential scholarly interest. (425)

In 1999, the year Elizabeth Cummins’s article was published, I was granted a three-year fellowship to write a book about the Futurians, the Hydra Club, and science fiction in New York City from 1938 to 1959. I immersed myself in the primary materials available at the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library (an extraordinarily rich resource which includes Donald Wollheim’s collection of Futurian fanzines). Then in September 1999, I made NYC my base and began my fieldwork. I decided to make talking to those who had been around during the period my first priority, and getting to archives—which aren’t going anywhere, right?—second. As a result I did not get to Judy’s letters in Ottawa, which had so inspired Elizabeth Cummins, until April 2001.4

I did not, in actual fact, read Cummins’s article until earlier that year. When I came across it I found myself smiling. How often do you read an article that tells you to write the book that you are in the middle of researching and writing? It’s a wonderful feeling. I too had been struck by the obviousness of it: anyone who has read the primary source material from that period would also recognize the need for such a book. Cummins’s article made Judith Merril’s letters sound fabulous. Judy had told me several times in e-mail, insisted really, that I needed to go to Ottawa. Now I wish I had gone as soon as I arrived in North America. Instead I interviewed and worked through other primary sources, something else that Cummins has called for:

If the secondary material continues to perpetuate factual errors such as that Judith Merril was responsible for calling the new 1960s science fiction "New Wave," or that one of her given names was Juliet, what other errors abound? As evidence of the new insights that occur when one goes back to the primary sources, we have the 1992 Foundation essays by Gary Westfahl in which he re-assessed John W. Campbell’s contribution to science fiction. (315)5

In 1985 and 1989 Judy Merril gave her papers, mostly correspondence, to the National Archive of Canada in Ottawa. During her lifetime they could not be quoted, and a proportion of them could not be consulted, without her permission. (Both Cummins and I had Judy’s permission.)

The Judith Merril fonds (archives) are approximately 15 metres in extent, contained in over 75 boxes. Some contain drafts of stories, cut-outs of early pulp publications, or newspaper cuttings but most are full of letters. Judy corresponded with almost everybody in the science fiction scene. Many of the Futurians are represented: Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, Donald Wollheim; science fiction editors: Tony Boucher, John W. Campbell, Ed Ferman, Horace Gold, Mick McComas; sf writers: Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke, Mildred Clingerman, Avram Davidson, Philip K. Dick, Carol Emshwiller, Philip Klass (William Tenn), Fritz Leiber, Katherine MacLean, Walter M. Miller, Mack Reynolds, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon. They range from passionate love letters to brief discussions of editorial matters.

In April 2001 I arrived in Ottawa and spent several days working around the clock, trying to get through all the letters in the few days I had. It was an impossible task but I had to make it manageable somehow. At first I decided I would only read through her correspondence with other well-known figures from the period, but a day’s work barely made a dent on the Fritz Leiber files and the Walter M. Miller ones are even more extensive. At the same time I kept coming across detailed correspondences with people I’d never heard of. Merril’s letters to her fans and readers reveal just as much about her and science fiction during the time as do her correspondences with other writers and editors. For example, in this response to a reader claiming not to understand "That Only a Mother," she sets out a great deal of the thinking behind the genesis and writing of arguably her most famous story:

October 5, 1948
Dear Mr. Swartz:
I seem to have left your letter at my office, where it was forwarded to me from the offices of ASF. I’ll do my best to answer it from memory.
So many people have told me they don’t understand the story, and almost always (as in your case), it finally turns out that they do, but just don’t believe it. What you choose to believe possible, of course is your own affair. But yes, I did mean that the mother refused to admit to herself that there was anything wrong with her child. And yes, according to at least four psychiatrists I know who have read the story, and an uncounted number of mothers who ditto ditto, the reaction is not only a possible, but even a plausible one.
Margaret, in the story, had been unable to have a child. She had been almost convinced that her husband’s work with atoms had sterilized him. When she found she was going to have one, knowing as much as she did about it, she was terrified that it might be a mutation. She had wanted a child too long to be able to admit that possibility to herself, and other people—the doctor—the newspapers—all did their best to help her sell herself on the fact that her baby would be normal. Day after day, for nine months, or a large part of that time, she told herself her baby would be normal. So it is not impossible that she developed a mental block which made it impossible for her to admit that there was anything wrong with the child.
I may add that the story was written because I saw an article in the paper (mentioned in the story) about infanticides in Japan, and I wondered what the reaction of a mother to a mutated baby would really be. Then, as it happened, an incident occurred which forcibly brought to my attention the fact that my own little girl had a perpetually objectionable drippy nose—which I had never noticed. That gave me a clue to a possible reaction, and I based the story on it. As I said above, later, a number of psychiatrists who read it bore me out completely in my extrapolation.
OK?
But you did understand it, you see.
Sincerely,
Judy Merril
6

There are a series of letters between her and Cyril Kornbluth (most from Merril to Kornbluth) as they laboured to get Mars Child written for serialization in the May, June, and July 1951 issues of Galaxy.7 At the time Kornbluth was living in Chicago. The writing always seemed to go a lot better when they were both in the same place. The following letter covers a number of Merril’s perennial worries: money, writer’s block, love.8

March 5, 1951
Dear Cyril,
So you’re wondering by now why you haven’t got Part III back yet?
I’m a sap. I should have come to Chi when I was thinking of it, mostly for the reason that I didn’t come. The same reason, I mean.
I was having troubles, and was discouraged, yes.
Then came this stuff, about which Fred says he told you, of Galaxy possibly folding. For which reason I decided I shouldn’t come and spend dough that might not come back so certainly after all. I was wrong; I should have come, and not stuck around here to get daily reports on the fluctuating health of World Editions.
Monday, finally, as you know, they paid off on Part I—then I began getting more rumors that seemed to add up to Part I being paid for and in print, and no magazine after the May issue. I took time out to do an article for Marvel and just yesterday got back to Mars Child.

Here, too, are market worries. It’s easy to forget that magazines with such long runs as Galaxy sometimes looked like they would not be able to keep publishing. Indeed, World Editions, the publisher of Galaxy, ceased publishing it in September 1951 when the Galaxy Publishing Corporation took over. Merril continues:

Pardon me I should blow off steam in your direction, when apologies it’s I should be making, but these gripes will out, and somebody ought to give my old man a course in Merril-psychology. After studiously avoiding discussing the story per se with him, because I know what he can do to my morale, I didn’t think to protect my rear guard, and discussed Galaxy and sale possibilities with him. Better I should have been in Chicago, fighting plot with you.

Her old man was Frederik Pohl. Things between them did not get better, and by the end of 1951 they were divorced:

Anyhow, time is getting away from us. The moving finger has not writ, and if it hasn’t writ enough to send you all I have been promising by Friday, then I shall make the earliest reservation and come too late with too little. No hotel rooms either.

She is, as ever, struggling to get work written on time. Writer’s block was a problem for Merril throughout her career.

I see what you mean about Part II being over-cut. Am restoring some; Fred did not go over it; he decided under the circumstances at World Editions, to sell it to Horace overlength as if it were 20,000, at 3c per, for fear that they would cut the rate on anything longer. So I might as well (since there is time; they’re holding out on going to press too) put back stuff that should be back. You did a beautiful job, though—some really tricky verbiage pruning.
One way or ‘tother, by Monday, the 12th, you will have either Part III, with ideas and suggestions in typescript, to come with, or me to ditto.
Who me? Depressed? What a silly thought!
The fact remains that the sooner it gets finished, a) the sooner we can submit to book publishers, b) the more chance there is of getting some money out of Galaxy, and c) the sooner we can start something else. Also, as of Saturday, Horace says whatever happens afterwards, the May-June-July issues have been made definite. (F. Pohl, my very own everloving husband, only looked wise and shrugged when I repeated same to him. But I’m working on believing what Horace says.)
Depressed, did you say? Bah!
So I shouldn’t be hitting you with this probably. One of us on the skids is enough. Only I do owe you some kind of explanation, and that happens to be it and I’m not in the mood to think up any cheerful lies.
All will doubtless be for the best, and I feel better already.
It sez here.
By the way—did we tell you—we found a house. Near Red Bank, New Jersey. Great big thing. Negotiations now going on for bank loan and such. Will move in mid–May if all goes well. Got to finish this damn novel and make some money.
Cheers and felicitations.
J. Merril Pohl
9

Money, or rather the lack of it, comes up over and over again. I was never under the illusion that science fiction writers in the 1950s lived in the lap of luxury, still, it was startling to this naive researcher to read of Frederik Pohl selling a story "overlength as if it were 20,000" in order to get a higher word rate. Almost all the other writers Merril corresponded with suffered from the same lack of ready cash.

The experience of reading those letters, of getting into Judy Merril’s head, demonstrated my faulty thinking—if only I had read those letters before I interviewed so many 1940s and 1950s figures (some of whom I would not be able to interview again) I would have an entirely different set of questions. And, more importantly, I would have understood their answers differently, having a much better sense of who people were, what their relationships with each other were, how they felt about each other.

Cummins was right: reading those letters—again, there are boxes and boxes of them—makes that period come alive. As I read, I began to get a much better sense of the lives of these science fiction writers, editors, fans in the 1940s and 1950s, something that numerous interviews and second-hand accounts had not conveyed so vividly. For example, a letter from Les Cole made clear what some of my interviewees had implied—Judith Merril had not been universally popular. In the letter Cole explains that:

An anti-Merril fan is one who does not care for the Merril personality. "I like her stories, mind you, but the times I’ve seen her I’ve had the definite impression she thinks her shit doesn’t stink; you might say I resent being patronized." This is not a direct quote; as I remember he didn’t use the word "patronize", but that was what he meant.10

Why are Judith Merril and her letters important to the history of science fiction? Because they throw light on a hitherto neglected area of science fiction scholarship. Neither Elizabeth Cummins nor myself are the first to draw attention to the importance of this period for the development of science fiction. Samuel R. Delany has several times called for more work on postwar science fiction that takes into account not just the stories and novels written and published but also the conditions under which they were published and their reception—that is, the culture of science fiction during that period (Delany 85).11

As Elizabeth Cummins points out, there is work on postwar sf. There are a "number of scholars [who] have written about the 1940s and 1950s New York science fiction scene. In histories, genre overviews, critical essays, and bibliographies" (314). However, no full-length work putting all of these previous efforts into context exists, and it should. A close examination of the period demonstrates that certain notions about science fiction’s reception by the mainstream do not hold up. For example, the conviction that mainstream accounts of science fiction, and of science fiction fans in particular, have always been dismissive—"science fiction fans are written off as unsocialized, media-obsessed weirdos" (Gomoll 5)—has long been held. Researching the 1940s and 1950s, I found many positive (or at least not negative) accounts of science fiction and fandom in mainstream magazines. As early as 1939, an article appeared in Harper’s Magazine that compared science fiction favourably to other genres in terms remarkably similar to those of Kingsley Amis’s 1960 New Maps of Hell:

A cowboy story could not possibly interrupt a stage robbery with a page of rhetoric about sunrise in Raton Pass, but the writer of science fiction can hold his audience enraptured with pages of talk about the FitzGerald Contraction, quanta, the temperature of distant stars, the molecular structure of minerals, and other matters which one would suppose to be far over the heads of the people addressed in the advertisements.
(DeVoto 446)

What he is praising in particular is the readers, the fans, who are "enraptured" by such high-falutin’ concepts and are obviously smarter than the readers of westerns.

During the postwar boom in publishing, many important writers and editors and magazines, such as the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, made their first appearances. Science fiction criticism was taking its first fledgling steps, and science fiction was having its first major impact on the mainstream. All this is reported in a September 1946 article in Harper’s Magazine on postwar science fiction:

Never in America had there been such general interest in scientific fantasies—television, radar, atomic power, super microscopes and telescopes, jet- and rocket-propelled planes, helicopters, robot-like electronic calculators—these and dozen of other marvels-turned-realities had all been forecast and their political, economic, and cultural consequences explored with startling fidelity by science fiction writers months and even years before. Suddenly more and more Americans bewildered by the seven league strides science had taken during World War II, were turning to science fiction for a hint of what the future might have in store. (Baring-Gould 283)

Searching for articles on science fiction in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years from 1926 (the first appearance of an all science-fiction magazine in English, Gernsback’s Amazing Stories) up to 1950 is instructive. There are no articles until 1939, very few during the war years, and then from 1946 on there are several articles every year. In the 1920s and through most of the 1930s the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature did not have a term for the genre; by 1939 it was using "pseudoscientific stories" and then "science in literature." In 1953, the Reader’s Guide began solely using the term "science fiction."12 These articles appeared in such places as Harper’s Magazine, Atlantic, The New Yorker, Life, Saturday Review of Literature, The American Scholar, Collier’s and Publisher’s Weekly. Science fiction stories were published in Collier’s, Madmoiselle, and Saturday Evening Post. Some of these articles were written by science fiction professionals like Asimov, Campbell, and Heinlein.

A 1949 article from the Saturday Review of Literature, "The S-F Phenomenon in Literature" by Claire Holcomb, gives a history of the field and then finishes:

Today’s s-f dreamer of utopia generally avoids the error committed by some of his literary ancestors, that of banning progress. Today we know that there must be change. Will that change be life-giving or life-destroying? Science fiction cannot give the answer. It can, however, be a tonic to the imagination and thus prepare hearts and minds to find—and accept—whatever answers there may be
. (37)

Holcomb’s article emphasizes the great interest the genre holds for scientists. She writes that "near our big wartime weapons research centers" at places like "Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Columbia University, Harvard Square, Berkeley" sales of science fiction magazines (Astounding in particular) were "exceptionally large" (9). She knew what she was talking about: the blurb following the article reveals that Holcomb "worked for a time on the Manhattan Project and later as New York field secretary for the Association of Scientists for Atomic Education."

Sf was taken seriously enough by the Saturday Review of Literature that it had a yearly round-up of sf. These round-ups by Fletcher Prattt are well written and researched and portray sf as a field of limitless commercial potential. For example, in his 1949 account of the field he writes:

They are the people of space, refugees from the pulps. The books that chronicle their adventures are published by houses of unfamiliar names from such places as Providence, Sauk City, Wis, and Reading, Pa. Few of these books reached the regular bookstores at first and fewer still were noticed by the reviews. But old-line publishers who were moved to investigate this phenomenon discovered that these books were selling in quite unprecedented quantities to a public which had seldom or never bought books before but whose devotion to this form literally knew no bounds…. One of the regular publishers, desirous of experimenting inexpensively with this form of literature, offered to take some of a specialist publisher’s remainders for reissue under the name of the larger house. "Remainders?" was the reply, "Listen, when one of our books gets down to where it would be a remainder it becomes a rare book and we charge double for it."
The big publisher was presently issuing a couple of science-fiction volumes on his own account. So have others; by 1949 at least seven of the familiar houses have science-fiction titles on their lists and more are in prospect. The prediction that the form would replace the detective story as the dominant type of escape literature has moved measurably toward realization.
(7)

These round-ups were written by a science fiction insider. Fletcher Pratt was a member of the Hydra Club who wrote science fiction and fantasy.13 (He corresponded with Merril from 1951 until his death in 1956.) But their publication in the Saturday Review of Literature proves that not only were the 1940s and 1950s important to sf, but that sf was important to the 1940s and 1950s mainstream.

Elizabeth Cummins ends her article by outlining her hopes that:

the writer of this literary history would come to the project without allegiance to concepts such as "the golden age of science fiction" and without a belief that it must be defined and defended in order to ensure that it really did occur or in order to ensure its mythological continuance. Equally challenging would be the need to maintain critical distance from the writers, publishers, fans, agents, editors, reviewers who would be a major source of information – in their surviving papers, manuscripts, and publications or in current interviews that the writer of this book would conduct. (317)

I have now spent years reading through their "surviving papers, manuscripts, and publications" in private and public collections across North America and in Sydney, Australia. I have interviewed and corresponded with Harry Harrison, Virginia Kidd, Damon Knight, David Kyle, Judith Merril, Sam Moskowitz, Frederik Pohl, Julius Schwartz, Robert Silverberg, William Tenn (Philip Klass), and others. This project began with Judith Merril. If I had not met her and received her injunction I’m not sure I would have undertaken it. I am aware of her failings, of the erraticness of her memory, her temper, her attention span. But she is one of the most compelling and wonderful people I have ever met. And reading her letters—so prolific and detailed that I now feel like I can account for almost every day of her life from 1944 to 1959—was like meeting her and being seduced by her charisma all over again. I’m not sure that I have the kind of critical distance that Cummins hopes for. I’m also not sure if it’s necessary or even desirable. But I am sure that any history focussed through the lens of Judith Merril’s personality and keen observations will bring this vital period to life.

Works Cited

Amis, Kingsley. New Maps of Hell. New York: Ballantine Books, 1960.
Baring-Gould, William S. "Little Superman, What Now?" Harper’s Magazine September 1946: 283-88.
Cummins, Elizabeth. "American SF, 1940s-1950s: Where’s the book? The New York Nexus." Extrapolation 40.4 (Winter 1999): 314-319.
Delany, Samuel R. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1984.
DeVoto, Bernard. "Doom Beyond Jupiter." Harper’s Magazine September 1939: 445-8.
Gomoll, Jeanne. "Introduction: Visualizing the future." Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through Science Fiction and Feminism. Eds. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 1999. 1-11.
Holcomb, Claire. "The S-F Phenomenon in Literature." Saturday Review of Literature 28 May 1949: 9-10, 36-37.
Merril, Judith. "Better to Have Loved: Excerpts from a Life." Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through Science fiction and Feminism. Eds. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australian Press, 1999. 422-42.
Merril, Judith and Pohl-Weary, Emily. Better to Have Loved. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002.
Pratt, Fletcher. "Science Fiction & Fantasy—1949." Saturday Review of Literature 24 December 1949: 7-9, 23.

Notes
1 I would like to thank Scott Westerfeld for his invaluable comments on the various drafts of this article. Also thanks to Emily Pohl-Weary for permission to quote from the Judith Merril fonds at the National Archive of Canada and to Anne Goddard of the Archive for all her assistance.
2 For details of my meeting with Judy Merril, see my article, "Researching the New York Futurians," Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, No. 82 Summer 2001, pp. 45-52.
3 Judith Merril’s memoirs, Better to have Loved, have been completed by her granddaughter, Emily Pohl-Weary.
4 My (lame) excuse for coming to Cummins’s article so late is that at the time I was so obsessively researching the 1940s and 1950s in New York City, reading only books written or published during that time period, particularly sf, listening only to music from the time, starting to dress in styles from the 40s and 50s—I do mean obsessive—that I was not managing to keep up with recent sf criticism.
5 It is a call I am very receptive to. My book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, details the debates about sex, men, women and feminism in letters and editorials in science fiction magazines.
6 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, Accession MG 30 D 326, vol. 10, Astounding Science Fiction folder, letter to Mr. Swartz, October 5, 1948.
7 The book version appeared as Outpost Mars in 1952.
8 Let’s face it, they’re the perennial worries of almost every writer.
9 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, Accession MG 30 D 326, vol. 10, Mars Child folder, letter to Cyril Kornbluth, March 5, 1951.
10 National Archives of Canada, Judith Merril fonds, MG 30 D326 Vol. 37, Les Cole folder 2-2, letter to Judith Merril, March 3, 1952.
11 Joshua B. Lukin and he have edited an issue of Paradoxa solely devoted to the 1950s.
12 Elizabeth Cummins also draws attention to this shift in terminology and the explosion of primary mainstream sources on science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s (Cummins 315).
13 His best known work was in collaboration with L. Sprague de Camp.

©2002 Justine Larbalestier
First published in Extrapolation, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 277-287.