The Importance of Masks

I’ve embraced our new mask-wearing present. The evidence is now overwhelming that they slow the spread of disease AND protect the wearer.

I’m immunocompromised. I don’t want COVID-19. I know people who’ve been left with an array of side effects from supposedly mild cases. It is a nasty virus we don’t know nearly enough about. No, thank you.

Since I’m following the law, medical evidence and common sense, and wearing a mask, I figured I’d have fun with it. I’m a fashion obsessive–just check out my alter ego Instagram, Dr Justine Fancy Pants–I had to have stylish masks and what better way to support local designers? Most of us can afford the cost of a mask even if we can’t afford a dress.

I’ve bought masks from local NYC designers/stores Emme, East Village Hats, Junny, Salvage Cloth and Indigo Style Vintage. Check out the masks by local designers in your region. Support them if you can. It makes a world of difference.

My doctor recommends turning your masks inside out after use and putting it in direct sunlight for an hour. If that’s not possible hand wash with gentle detergent or soap. Always dry completely before wearing again. It’s best to have at least two masks.

PS: I haven’t been blogging because I missed the community that used to be here. When this was a regular blog there was a wonderful conversation in response to almost every post. I’m finding blogging here to silence soul sucking.

I miss the community of the old days but I accept those days are gone. The conversations now unfold on social media.

I have found an engaged community on Instagram ready and willing to discuss the intersections of fashion and politics during this pandemic and there are no trolls. I’m loving it. So I post my mini essays there. I will continue to post longer essays here and will soon be updating this site with my fashion research.

I don’t foresee returning to Twitter anytime soon. It was too depressing. I miss those of you I no longer interact with, but my mental health is so much better since I left. So . . .

Photos of me were taken by Scott Westerfeld.

On Not Writing Fiction During The Pandemic

Note: I’m not on Twitter. This is an automated tweet linking to my latest blog post. I will not see any of your replies. If you wish to discuss any of these blog posts with me, or anything else, leave a comment on my blog. I will respond. Or follow me on Instagram: @DrJustineFancyPants

I’m not sure I can write fiction anymore. I don’t know how to write a psychological thriller set here and now in this pandemic, this lockdown.

I think of those movies made during World War II that completely ignored the war. Were they set during a slightly earlier or slightly later time? Or an alternative universe?

Should I do that? I don’t think I can do that.

It’s Saturday afternoon in NYC. It’s 20c (68f) and the sun is shining, the air is crystalline, conversations and laughter (!) drift up from the street below, cars drive by, music blares. NYC sounds like NYC.

We’re in the sixth week of the lockdown.1 NYC shouldn’t sound like NYC. NYC shouldn’t be jumping. There shouldn’t be so many people out on the streets. Hundreds of people are still dying here every day. We’re supposed to be quarantining.

I haven’t been outside since Tuesday. My autoimmune disease has been in full flare. I was hoping to go out for a walk today. But, no, it’s impossible. There are too many people on my street.

It’s nothing compared to how busy the streets would have been pre-shut down. It’s our first sunny day after several days of cold and rain. Before the streets would have been jammed. The numbers that are freaking me out are tiny.

There’s no where in the USA it’s harder to maintain distance. NYC is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Our footpaths are too narrow, so we spill out onto the roads. Many of which are also too narrow. Especially today when there’s more cars cruising around than I’ve seen since this started.

It’s not that people are ignoring the lockdown. We’re allowed to go out to exercise, to shop for essentials. I look out the window: most are wearing masks, they’re trying to distance. But it’s impossible.

I’m hearing a lot of sirens today.

I stay inside and work. But I don’t turn to rewriting the YA psychological thriller or the adult one I’ve written ten chapters of. I haven’t touched either since before I spent the summer in Sydney. The summer of a million fires. The summer of having to wear masks to go outside because the air was unbreathable.

Back then I didn’t work on them because I didn’t know if I should include the fires, by which I mean climate disasters. Neither book, though supposedly set in this world, even touched upon how much hotter, more dangerous and unlivable our world is becoming. Leaving those realities out felt wrong.

The adult thriller begins on a plane. As did my last novel, My Sister Rosa. I love writing scenes on planes. It’s so contained, so intense. The characters are jammed in with hundreds of others, yet also in a tiny bubble.

But the airline industry may not exist the way I wrote it, after this pandemic is over. It may change as dramatically as it did after 9/11, or more dramatically.

I don’t know how to write fiction set in this world.

I work instead on non-fiction book proposals. Books that don’t ignore this world of bushfires, floods, tsunamis and hurricanes and all the other disasters made worse and more frequent by industrialization, by the steady rise in carbon emissions.

But these non-fiction books don’t touch on the pandemic, on this lockdown, on my world right now. That book can’t be written until this over, not well. Besides I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books.

When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

I can’t even read too much about it now. I follow the immediate news, I read a few articles, I listen to the ABC’s Coronacast, but too much of that and I start to freak out. Mostly I read books about the history and future of the fashion industry and talk about it with folks on Instagram.

My account there is a huge part of my mental health regime. It’s where I found a worldwide community of people, who care passionately about transforming the fashion industry from one of the world’s biggest polluters and exploiters of workers, into a sustainable, clean, and ethical one. A deeply important mission done while wearing gorgeous vintage and responsibly made clothes. That’s my kind of revolution.

Maybe when this pandemic is over I’ll write a novel set in that world.

  1. Or is it the seventh? I’m losing track of time. I know it’s Saturday because we do the weekend quiz with the family back in Sydney every Friday and Saturday night. We did the first weekend quiz last night. Thus Saturday. []

Lili Wilkinson’s The Boundless Sublime

This Tuesday, 9 August 2016, at 6 PM I have the great pleasure of launching Lili Wilkinson’s amazing new novel, The Boundless Sublime at Kinokuniya in Sydney.

The Boundless Sublime is a chilling thriller that deals with death, grief, brainwashing, cults, psychopaths, guilt, empathy, resilience and survival. Ruby Jane Galbraith’s brother has died under tragic circumstances that she thinks are her fault. Her grief and pain are so overwhelming she can barely function. It’s in this vulnerable state that she finds herself becoming involved with an, at first, loving community who turn out to be terrifying.

Too many of us are convinced that we are too smart to ever be conned or recruited for a cult but it turns out being smart offers no protection. All of us can be recruited when we’re vulnerable and no one is more vulnerable than someone grieving.

Join me and Lili as she talks about her brilliant book and all the research that went into it. She’ll teach you how to avoid being caught up in a cult!

How to Write Protagonists of Colour When You’re White

Step One: Ask Yourself Why

Why are you writing this book? Why have you decided to write a protagonist whose background is different from your own?

Is it because you want to make the world a better place? Because doing so seems to be the cool new thing? Because you lived for many years in a foreign country and you think that writing about it from that outsider’s perspective is voyeuristic and exploitative? Because you have the imagination and understanding to do so? Because you’re the reincarnation of an African king? Because you came across a cool story in the local newspaper and only you can do justice to that story? Because you’ve been part of the community you’re writing about since birth? Because the voice of the character came to you in a dream?

Once you’ve figured out why you’re going to write an Indigenous protagonist or Protagonist of Colour and can explain your motivations clearly you can move on to:

Step Two: Research

Writing from the point of view of someone from a community that gets less representation in mainstream culture than your own is hard. Especially when what representation they do get is largely negative and/or stereotyped. If you do not know people in that community, and have not spent time in that community, it will be an uphill battle to write from that point of view believably.

Which is why you must research.

As much as you can avoid accounts written by outsiders—all you’ll learn is how outsiders see them, not how they see themselves. Read books written by the people of that community. Watch TV and movies created by them. Look at what they write about themselves on social media. Listen to their podcasts.

Confusingly, you will find many of their accounts of themselves and their communities contradictory. Take a moment to think about that. Is it really confusing to have a wide range of opinions within the one community?

Consider the histories and novels that have been written about your community. It’s likely they’re every bit as contradictory. There is no completely unified community that agrees about everything. You know, other than, say, The Borg.

Ask the people you know well in that community questions. Listen to their answers.

If you don’t know anyone well from the community you’re writing about go back to step one, Why are you writing this book?

Do not jump onto social media to ask strangers about their community. Though some may be kind enough to respond it is not their job to teach you.

Step Three: Find Sensitivity Readers

When you have finished your diligent research, and have a complete manuscript you’re happy with, you need to have people from the community you’ve chosen to represent look at your book. Approach these readers in good faith and pay them for their work. Because it is hard work.

When someone critiques your book about their community it’s called a sensitivity reading. It’s called that because they’re reading to see if you have been sensitive to the community you’re writing about. If you have instead written stereotyped caricatures then critiquing your book is going to be even harder work. For some readers it will be painful work.

It’s best to have more than one sensitivity reader. Some readers might tell you the book’s fine, or only find a few minor problems with it, while others will find major problems. No community agrees on everything. Listen carefully and rewrite your book accordingly.

I had two of my readers tell me they found some of the dialogue of the black characters in Liar jarring. While other readers had no problem with it. I opted to change it. None of those readers had a problem with Micah’s use of the word “nappy” to describe her hair, though they agreed it might be a problem that I, a white writer, was using it. After publication some readers found it offensive. I discuss that at greater length here.

No amount of careful rewriting based on your sensitivity readers’ critiques will shield you from criticism. That is not what sensitivity readings are for. They are to show you how to write your book as accurately and as sensitively as possible.

And there you have it in three easy steps you now know how to write from the point of view of a Person of Colour or an Indigenous person. What could go wrong?

What’s Wrong With This Guide

Sadly, a lot goes wrong, particularly at step one.

Let me speak from my own experience, having written six books from the points of view of Teens of colour and an Indigenous teen. I went wrong at that first step. I did not ask myself why I was doing this. It did not occur to me that writing from an Indigenous or PoC point view was problematic.

If I had asked myself, these are the reasons I probably would have given: that I wanted to examine racism, and that I was trying to make YA more diverse.

My old belief that I couldn’t write about racism from a white point of view is garbage. Certainly books like To Kill a Mockingbird show that. But books like Mockingbird have other problems. Racism in Mockingbird is something that good white people save black people from. Racism is something that bad whites do, not a system of oppression that benefits all whites. There need to be more books in YA that examine white complicity in systemic racism.

I also thought I was saving YA by writing PoC and Indigenous main characters. It’s a notion that is dangerously close to the idea of the white saviour.

Once I’d proffered those two woeful reasons I would have explained that I was qualified to write these books because I spent part of my childhood living on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory of Australia and because I have many friends who aren’t white. At the time I doubt I’d have realised I was literally saying, “Some of my best friends are black”. Yes, I’m ashamed.

Arrogantly, I did not let what I didn’t know about my Aboriginal and PoC protagonists be a bar to writing them. I made my protags of the same class and gender as me, which I figured would give me enough commonality to write them convincingly. Spoiler: it doesn’t. I did not consider how much I didn’t know about the ways in which race and ethnicity shape class and gender. It is impossible to know what you don’t know, which also makes it incredibly hard to write believable characters’ whose experiences are far from your own.

All writers need to have the ego it requires to write. But we white writers also need to step back from feeling we have the right to write the stories of people with less power than ourselves. Especially because every year more books by whites are published than by any other race. In YA, not only are the majority of books by white people, so are the majority of books about PoC and Native peoples. When we write these books we are literally keeping books by PoC and Native writers off the shelves.

Outside of my books with multiple protags, I now only write white protagonists because I realised that I was part of the problem of lack of diversity in YA, not the solution.

There are books by white writers with PoC protagonists that are loved by some people in those communities. But I think we white writers can do more good by calling attention to the books by PoC and Indigenous writers and by thinking about PoC and Indigenous readers.

In answering the question of why you want to write a book about someone else’s community try to think of those readers before you think about yourself. Think about who is better qualified to tell their stories: you or them?

Misusing Sensitivity Readers
In the last few years I have heard multiple stories about white writers in the YA, Romance and SFF communities misusing and abusing sensitivity writers. Writers who have employed sensitivity readers in bad faith, only wanting these readers to give them the Indigenous or PoC seal of approval. Spoiler: there is no such thing.

Sensitivity readers do not read your manuscript to give you cover. They read to show you how to make it better, how to make it not offensive. If they think that’s not possible they will tell you to kill the project.

Listen to them.

Writers who keep getting the same critique from sensitivity readers and ignoring it are acting in bad faith. If more than one person finds the same problem with your manuscript LISTEN TO THEM. And if it’s more than five or ten or, as in one case I heard about, twenty people pointing out the same problem? And you continue to ignore them and send your manuscript to yet another sensitivity reader? You need to stop. You need to burn the manuscript and go all the way back to step one and realise that you had no good reason for writing that book.

You also need to realise that you have trashed your good name in the community. People talk. People know what you’re doing and they’re appalled.

If you can’t take critique from the people who know the life experiences of your protagonist better than you do then STOP.

Pointing to the good reviews your book received once it was published, the prizes it won, is irrelevant. The vast majority of trade reviewers are white. The vast majority of major literary prizes come from white institutions. We white folk are not the best judges of accurate representations of any communities other than our own.

Nor is pointing to the Indigenous readers and Readers of Colour who’ve told you that they love your work. All too often they are so starved for representation that many have learned to be generous readers of even the worst representations. All too often I have heard teenagers say they’re just grateful to see themselves on their cover, to be able to read a book about someone like them, even if it doesn’t ring true.

Read the thoughtful analyses of books on Edi Campbell’s blog or on Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature. Some of the problematic books they discuss received multiple starred reviews and prizes.

What makes Edi and Debbie’s work powerful is that it is so clearly about the children and teenagers in their communities. Their mission is not to castigate white writers; it is to find books they can recommend wholeheartedly to those readers.

That is all the readers of any community that has been historically stereotyped and underrepresented wants: to read books that won’t make them roll their eyes, wince, or put the book down because reading it is too painful in the very worst way.

It’s Not About Us

Their work is not about us white writers. This debate about diversity in literature is not about us white writers. The only way to fix what’s wrong with publishing is systemic change at every point within the industry: from the CEOs of publishing companies through to the writers and editors and agents and sales reps and booksellers and librarians. Right now the majority are white. That has to change.

But we white writers keep centring ourselves. As Patrick Jones does in his recent article,
Writing While White, published in the June 2016 issue of Voya where he discusses writing PoC teen protags as a white man:

I shared the first few chapters with two award-winning black female authors who said, more or less, “No, you—as a white male—can’t tell this story.” I also asked a black female librarian from Flint to pre-read it. Her comment-slash-question, “Why didn’t you have them eating fried chicken and watermelon?”

Chasing told one black girl’s story; the pre-reader saw it as a white retelling a stereotypical story. I caved, but at the time, I didn’t think it was the best move. I understood the arguments about writing outside of race, but I didn’t accept them. So Tonisha became Christy.

Jones did the right thing in that he asked knowledgable readers to critique his book and they said, don’t do this. So he changed “Tonisha into Christy.” Well and good. Except that Jones does not seem grateful for their critiques nor does he acknowledge their hard work. He seems to have wanted his sensitivity readers to give him the PoC seal of approval and is annoyed that they didn’t.

Jones also doesn’t seem to understood what they told him. Maybe they did say to him, “No white man can write this story.” But it also seems like they were saying, “You, Patrick Jones, cannot write this story. You have not created a believable black girl living in Flint. You have created a stereotypical caricature of a black teenage girl living in Flint, who might as well be eating fried chicken and watermelon.”

He presents their thoughtful critiques as bad advice that he caved to. He says he understood their arguments but that he didn’t accept them. He describes the long-running debate about racism and the need for more diversity in YA as noise.

That’s the language of someone who is not listening. Someone who mischaracterises this vital movement to change YA as being about whether white people are allowed to write PoC protagonists. This is a common misconception.

Later in the article Jones says he’s decided to stop writing PoC protags because he worries Teens of Colour might view his books as “perpetuat[ing] stereotypes.” But then he undercuts that central concern by saying he’s stopping because it’s all “too complicated and stressful” making it about him again.

He’s not alone. Indeed VOYA’s Editor-in-Chief RoseMary Honnold told Fusion that

she didn’t expect Jones’ piece to spark controversy. “Patrick Jones is a highly respected member of the YA library community and the YA lit community,” she wrote in an email. “The first person account of his own journey of questioning the efficacy of his writing about POC, extrapolated to that topic, in general, brings a human dimension to the article for his many admirers and colleagues in the field.” When asked if she had concerns about the headline before publication, she said she did “not at all.”

This is a complicated and stressful debate but the central question is not whether whites like me and Jones can write PoC protagonists. No one is stopping us white writers writing whatever we want. Let me repeat: the majority of books in YA in the USA with PoC or Native protags are written by white writers.

We whites have to stop hijacking the debate to talk about us.

By all means grapple with this question on your own, as Jones has done, as I have done.
But we have to stop taking up space on Twitter, in Voya, and elsewhere to do so. If you read all the other articles in that issue of Voya you’ll find work by Debbie Reese, Edith Campbell, Sarah Park Dahlen, Amina Chadhri, Marieke Nijkamp and others on the truly central issues around Native American and PoC and other communities’ access, safety, autonomy, constructions of intersectional identity and so forth.

But PoC Writers Get to Write About Whites It’s Only Fair We Get to Write About Them
We whites do not know as much about Indigenous people and People of Colour as they know about us. This is a large part of why when we write from their points of views we all too often get it wrong.

Yes, we’re all human. Yes, we all have the same physiology. We all experience love and hate and desire and jealousy. We all need to eat and go to the toilet. But I’m no longer sure that our white imaginations are enough to fill in what we don’t know about loving and hating and existing as an Indigenous person or Person of Colour in a world where whiteness is prized and white people hold most of the power. In a world where the vast majority of our publishing, film and television industries, and other media is run by, produced for, and about white people.

On Twitter writer Justina Ireland has talked about how:

Every PoC lives with a dual consciousness. It’s the idea that PoC have to take on two identities in order to survive in a hostile society. Meaning: we learn how to act white in order to be successful. At school, in jobs, and in publishing. We know what it takes to be white. Which is why PoC can write white characters effortlessly. Because we’ve all played a white person at one time or another. . . Bottom line: the oppressed are forced to learn to identify with their oppressors, it rarely happens in the other direction.—Justine Ireland.

White people do not have to take on two identities to survive in a hostile society. Our society is not hostile to white people.1

In a recent discussion writer Doselle Young put the difference more strongly, talking about:

the reality of what “playing white” entails. From my PoV, it’s about learning to instinctively bundle up, separate, partition and obscure almost every element of one’s cultural identity at the drop of a hat. To set aside the body language, dialect, the physicality, the casual modes of communication, and the unspoken values that all those things are used to express, as a daily act of survival. It’s about learning to do something monumental with casual ease. The fact, however, remains that this is actually anything but casual. It can often feel like a low-level but ever present source of stress.

If anyone thinks otherwise, take a gander at white folks’ reactions when a beloved celebrity of color decides not to obscure their cultural identity.

White people lose their damned minds.2

What happens when we reverse that? Do we, as white people, have the same kind of insights into POC experiences, that PoC have into what it is to be white? We do not.

How would you respond if someone you didn’t know started telling you about your identity? As Doselle Young puts it:

Would you, as a writer, really expect someone else to do better job with the most telling details of YOUR autobiography? What forces would they need to marshal in order to pull that off? How many interview hours, how much research, thought, blood, sweat and tears would it take to get YOUR story right?

Everyone’s identity is complicated. All of us belong to different religions, cultures, subcultures, groups, clubs, kinship networks. We all come from particular families. One of the most common complaints I hear about white people writing Indigenous and PoC characters is that we leave out their families and friendships with people like them. We tend to give them absent brown families and present white friends.

All of which leads back to step one: Why are you writing this book?

Maybe you shouldn’t.

TL:DR: Think long and hard before you write a book about a community not your own. Listen to your sensitivity readers. Whose story are you really trying to tell?

NOTE: Thank you to Mikki Kendall, Scott Westerfeld and Doselle Young for all your hard work, brilliant writing, and wonderful conversation, and for your truly excellent notes on this post. Any remaining lack of clarity etc. is all on me. Thank you also to the too many people to name in the YA, SFF and Romance communities who have shaped my thinking. I.e. pretty much all the folks I follow on Twitter.

  1. Though it can certainly be hostile to other parts of our identities as many white women and most LBGTIQA and disabled and poor and working class and fat whites can attest. But our society is not hostile to our whiteness. []
  2. As an example of what Doselle is referring to think of the furore over the Obama’s “terrorist” fist bump. []

Last Day of 2014

The year is practically over so here I am again with my annual recap of the year that was as well as a squiz at what’s gunna happen in 2015.1

Books Out in 2014

This was my first year with a new solo novel since 2009. Five years in between solo novels!2 I was nervous but it seems to have gone quite well.

Razorhurst was published in July by Allen and Unwin in Australia and New Zealand. The reviews have been blush-making. Including being named a book of the week by the Sydney Morning Herald, of the month from Readings Books and making Readings’ top ten YA books of the year and top 50 books by Australian women in 2014 lists, as well being the Australian Independent Bookseller’s No. 1 Children’s Pick for July. Although Razorhurst isn’t out in the US until March it’s already received starred reviews from the School Library Journal as well as Kirkus.

Then, best of all, earlier this month I learned that Razorhurst has made the shortlist of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult), which is one of the biggest YA prizes in Australia.3

So, yeah, I’m more than happy with how Razorhurst has been received. Pinching myself, in fact.

Books Out in 2015 and 2016

I will have three books out in 2015. Two novels and a short story in a wonderful new anthology.

resized_9781743319789_224_297_FitSquareIn India this month my story, “Little Red Suit,” was published in Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy, but I’m going to pretend that’s 2015, as it will be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in February. Isn’t that cover divine?

The anthology is an Indian-Australian collaboration with half the contributors from each country. Some of them worked in collaboration with each other to produce comics as well as short stories. I was partnered with Anita Roy and we critiqued each other’s stories. Hers is a corker. I can’t wait to see the finished book.

“Little Red Suit,” is a post-apocalyptic retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Fairy tales were the first stories I ever told so it was lovely to return to the form. As I’ve mentioned, once or twice, I am not a natural short story writer. They are much more of a challenge for me than writing novels. So much so that I kind of want to turn this story into a novel. (Almost all of my short stories are secretly novels.) I hope you enjoy it.

RazorhurstUSIn March Soho Teen will publish the US edition of Razorhurst. I am very excited and will be over there in the US doing events in California and New York and Texas and possibly some other states. I will keep you posted. Yes, the Soho Teen edition will be available in Canada too.

Then in November I’ll have a brand new novel out with Allen and Unwin.

Let’s pause for a moment to digest that: in November there will be a brand new Justine Larbalestier novel, only a year later than my last one.

I know, brand new novels two years in a row! I’ve become a writing machine!

The new novel hasn’t been formally announced yet so I can’t tell you much about it other than it’s realism set in New York City, told from the point of view of a seventeen-year old Australian boy named Che.

The new novel will be published in the USA by Soho Press in March 2016.

What I wrote in 2014

I spent this year writing and rewriting the new novel. As well as rewrites, copyedits and etc. of Razorhurst. My novels, they go through many drafts.

And, me being me, I started a brand new novel out of nowhere, inspired by . . . you know what, it’s still a tiny whisper of a novel. I’ll wait until there’s a bit more before I start talking about it in public.

Then just a week or so ago I got the idea for yet another novel. So who knows which of those I’ll wind up finishing this year.

I continued blogging and managed to blog roughly once a week for most of the year. The most fun I had blogging this year was doing the Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club with Kate Elliott. I was very bummed when deadlines and travel forced us to call it quits. Here’s hoping we can get it started again some time in 2015.

I plan to blog even more next year. Er, tomorrow. Blogging, I love you no matter out of fashion you are. *hugs blogging*

Writing Plans for 2015

Well, obviously, there’ll be more rewrites and copyedits and etc for the new novel.

Then I plan to finish one of the novels that came out of nowhere. After that, well, who knows? Will I finally get back to the New York Depression-era novel(s)? The snow-boarding werewolves? The fairy godmother middle grade? Or one of the many other novels I’ve been working on for ages? Or something else that comes out of nowhere? Given that my last three novels came out of nowhere that would be the safest bet.

All of this writing is possible because I’m still managing my RSI as I described here. I’m continuing to be able to write as much as six hours a day. The few times I’ve written longer than that I have paid for it. It’s good to know my limits.

Travel in 2014

I was in the US briefly in June and then again in Sept-Nov, accompanying Scott on his Afterworlds tour. It felt like we went everywhere. Both coasts! Or all three if you count Texas as the third coast. Also Canada. It went fabulously well. Scott’s fans turned out in great numbers and many book sold and I met heaps of wonderful librarians and booksellers and readers and writers and some of them had already read Razorhurst thanks to my wonderful publicist at Soho Press, Meredith Barnes. It will be fun to go out on the road again in March.

Reading and Watching in 2014

My favourite new writers are Brandy Colbert and Courtney Summers, who both write realist contemporary YA, which I’ve gotta be honest is not my thing. That’s why I read a tonne of it this year: to learn and to grow. Both Colbert and Summers are dark and uncompromising almost bleak writers. Their books made me weep buckets. But there’s heart and hope in their novels too. I’m really looking forward to more from both of them. Courtney’s next book, All the Rage, will be out in early 2015.

I also read heaps of non-fiction this year. A Chosen Exile by Allyson Hobbs is a wonderful history of passing in the USA, which centres those who chose not to pass as much as those who did, and looks closely at the reason for deciding either way and how they changed over time. African-American family life is at the centre of this excellent history.

One of my fave new TV shows is Faking It because it’s silly and funny and kind of reminds me of my high school days at an alternative school though, you know, more scripted. I also love Cara Fi created and written by a dear friend, Sarah Dollard, who is a mighty talent. It’s set in Wales and is sweet and funny and feminist and touching and you should all watch it.

2014 was awful but there’s always hope

Although 2014 was a wonderful year for me professionally it was an awful year in both of my home countries, Australia and the USA, and in way too many other parts of the world. I would love to say that I’m full of hope for change in the future. I try to be. The movement that has grown out of the protests in Ferguson is inspiring and should fill us all with optimism. But then it happens all over again.

In Australia we have a government actively undoing what little progress had been made on climate change and stripping money from all the important institutions such as the ABC, CSIRO and SBS. This is the most anti-science, anti-culture and, well, anti-people government we’ve ever had. The already disgraceful policy on asylum seekers has gotten even worse and Aboriginal Australians continue to die in custody.

Argh. Make it stop!

May you have a wonderful 2015 full of whatever you love best and may the world become less unjust. Speaking out and creating art that truly reflects the world we live in goes part of the way to doing that. At least that’s what I hope.

  1. Yes, here in Sydney it is the 31st of December. I’m sorry that you live in the past. []
  2. Yes, I had a co-edited anthology and a co-written novel in those five years but you would be amazed by how many people do not count collaborations as being a real novel by an author. I don’t get it either. []
  3. If you’re from the US think Printz or National Book Award only plus money. That’s right in Australia if you win a literary award they give you money. Bizarre, I know. []

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.


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.


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?

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

    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.
    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.


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.


  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.


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.


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:



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


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! []