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My Library Adventures

bookstackI used to work at the public library. When I told people this, they generally reacted with great enthusiasm, especially the readers, since I think there’s a tiny part of every reader’s soul that’s a librarian—“That would be so great, being surrounded by all those books!” When I explained that my job involved taking carts of books out, putting them back on the shelves, then returning for more carts, they became less enthusiastic. That part of my job was hard and sometimes unpleasant; there’s the problem of making room on the shelves that are already packed full, the problem of never having time to actually read the books you were putting away, the problem of constant sore feet and lower back pain. Having great co-workers was essential, because the job itself was often tedious.

As for the myth of the quiet, peaceful library, come around just before story time and see how quiet forty children are when they’re racing around the shelves while their parents ignore them. This happened ALL THE TIME. I saw moms with their heads bent down over their cell phones while their children were sobbing nearby, unattended. The only thing worse was the parents who told their kids to put books back after they’d yanked them off the shelves. As if three-year-olds remember where they got things or know the alphabet. (Fine. Some kids that age know the alphabet. I did. They still have no idea of shelving conventions.) Every one of the shelvers developed a cringe reaction to those words because the least pleasant job of all was going through the shelves looking for books that were out of place.

The real joy of working in a library is not having access to all those books, though that’s a bonus too. It’s seeing the sheer variety of human beings who come through its doors. No one is turned away. Even the grimy, unwashed man we all knew used the library as a shelter didn’t get worse treatment than being gently told he couldn’t sleep in the chairs. I saw people who came solely to use the Internet and others who bought piles of books from the book sale shelves and people who checked out fifty DVDs at a time as well as those who came for books.

And I got to know them. The young man with mental disabilities who came every Wednesday and checked out exactly five DVDs, then had us circle the date on the library calendar handout that they’d be due. The women who always came for story time on the same day and time with kids we knew were too young to appreciate it, just so they could spend time with other moms. The man in the wheelchair who couldn’t reach the floor outlet, who had the biggest power adapter for his computer I’d ever seen. The three boys who used the computers to play Minecraft together, two of whom tormented the third to tears and made me wish I was there as a mom rather than a library worker. The seventy-year-old man who hit on me as I showed him how to use the computer catalog. (That’s funny in hindsight, but at the time was just seriously awkward.)

But there’s one man I’m never going to forget. This encounter happened when I was putting away books in the middle grade section, which was near one bank of computers. I could clearly hear, but not see, a man having a conversation on his phone. (NOTE: Don’t have loud conversations on your phone in the library! Everyone can hear you! There’s a point at which it’s no longer eavesdropping and more a matter of pretending not to be interested in someone’s prostate problem.) He was talking to a potential employer and sounded enthusiastic and articulate. It became clear over the course of the conversation that this man really needed this job and was willing to put forth whatever effort was necessary to get it. Finally, he thanked the employer and hung up, but remained at the computer chair. I was really curious at this point to see who this guy was, so I hurried to finish my cart and then wheeled it out around the shelves so I’d pass him.

This is where I got a real shock. I’d built up this picture of a young man, not dressed up (the job was some kind of physical labor) but not a slob. And he pretty much matched that description. But he was also covered in tattoos. Both arms, down his neck into his shirt, and up into his scalp and under his hair. Intricate, colorful, beautiful tattoos. He looked like the cover of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. And I immediately felt ashamed of myself for being startled and for having that instant’s reaction that someone who looked like him could sound like the stupid picture I’d built up in my head. My second reaction was Is that employer going to think what I did when he sees him? Is he going to forget about the enthusiastic, genuine guy he spoke to? Because I couldn’t imagine I would be the only one who’d have that reaction. And it made me a little sick to think he might lose out on something important because of that.

I’m not sure there’s a moral to that story, except that it taught me to be a little more careful about what I assumed, and because I wished I could have found out what happened with the job. I saw him again about a month later, at the same computer. This time he was there with his wife. We talked for a bit about children, and they both said how nice it was to have some time away from their young kids. They had a babysitter for about an hour and they spent it at the library. For all libraries these days are shifting focus toward their media collections and free Internet access, the public library never stops being a haven, even for non-readers. I think that’s wonderful. (Except for being hit on by the seventy-year-old man. I am never taking my wedding ring off again.)

The 140-character Pitch

Bunch of pencils

About a month ago I participated in a couple of Twitter events for writers, #pitmad and #carinapitch. These are Twitter things where for twelve hours or so, you can pitch your book in nice bite-sized 140-character elevator pitches for agents and editors to look at; the first was general, the second for Carina Press. I was encouraged in this by the Partner in Crime, who is a Twitter veteran and has done this before. The conversation went like this:

PIC: I think you should do this Twitter thing.
Me: I’m barely capable of tweeting. I’m not even sure that’s what you call it.
PIC: It’s fun, and besides, it’s good to see what people are interested in.
Me: But I’m not sure I want to be published traditionally.
PIC: Just do it already and stop whining.
Me: Okay.
PIC: (shines I Participated! badge)

So I did. And it was fun. First of all, it turns out to be REALLY HARD to condense a 110K-word book into fewer than 140 characters (since you also have to include the hashtags so people can find it). It was a real challenge, and that alone was worth entering. Knowing what to include, how to structure it so it draws attention—it’s a good skill to develop and is useful in other things, like writing cover copy and blurbs.

It was also fun to see what books other people were writing, and also what books the editors and agents were interested in. If someone (not an agent) liked your pitch, they’d retweet it; if an agent liked it, she’d mark it as favorite. I pitched my historical fantasy series and had two responses from publishers and a bunch of people liking it. That was nice too, a kind of validation that what you’re writing does, in fact, have appeal beyond your immediate family and the beta reader who’s very patient in telling you when you suck. I also found a bunch of really funny, creative people, and maybe even some new books to try. Mostly, it was an interesting challenge, and one I might try again—or at the very least peek in on the next time it happens.

Forget About the Rope

ropeSeveral years ago I was in a writing group with a bunch of friends. We’d take turns bringing stuff we’d written and having everyone else critique it. One of mine was a chapter from a young adult fantasy novel I was writing (that will never see the light of day). In that chapter, the two protagonists stop at an inn for the night. I described it as something like “not very high-class, but better than sleeping on a rope.” This was a detail I’d read somewhere about old flophouses and it amused me, so I thought I’d use it as a throwaway line.

Not one person believed it.

Everyone in the group said it was impossible. I repeated that I’d read this in an historical context and no, I wasn’t making it up: in some really cheap lodgings, people would sleep either by sitting on a bench and leaning against a rope strung across the room, or simply hanging on it in flophouses when the beds were all full. They accused me of either misremembering or, yes, making it all up. I gave up and just took the detail out. It annoyed me, because I knew it was clever and interesting and I of course knew better than they did, but I took it out.

Weeks later I got a phone call from one of the people in the group, who was very excited. “We saw it,” she said. “The rope. It was in a movie and people were sleeping on it. You were right.” I forbore gloating. Much.

Now, just because something’s in a movie doesn’t mean you can count on it to be true—often it’s the exact opposite. And the truth about the rope story, historically, is more complicated. Some of the records about it can’t be sourced. Some people who refer to it, like George Orwell who in Down and Out in Paris and London reported this as one of the cheapest lodgings in London (the “Twopenny Hangover”) never actually saw it. I’ve seen a picture of men sitting on benches, leaning up against a rope, dating from the 1930s, and I’ve found a song by Paul Graney called “Tuppence on the Rope” that refers to the practice, and that’s pretty much it. So would I go to the mattresses for this particular detail? Not really. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is that in historical fiction writing, I’ve found that sometimes I have to forget about the rope.

It’s kind of a hard call to make. At one extreme, it implies that you can never, ever write something true that someone without a lot of knowledge about your historical era might not believe. And there’s always going to be someone whose knowledge ends just where your obscure fact begins. This is where good beta readers come in. In researching my Regency fantasy adventure series, I came up with some historical facts I thought were cool that my beta reader said “That sounds too modern. No one will believe you didn’t just screw up.” And she was right. Real experts on the Regency period might know the truth, but the average reader would just believe I was wrong. And I didn’t need those details. So I forgot about the rope.

But that’s not really the point of this story either. It’s not about trying to game the system, working out whether something you’ve written will throw certain readers. What really happened was that I came up hard against the reality that there were some details I was including simply because I was showing off what I’d learned. I wasn’t writing for my readers; I was writing for the experts who would know I’d done my research and, I don’t know, pat me on the head and give me a cookie for Getting It Right. And that’s bad writing no matter how accurate your facts are. It’s one thing to have a visitor to Almack’s in 1812 make a comment about how no one’s going to introduce a new dance there in her lifetime as an Easter egg for those who know the quadrille and the waltz are coming along soon. It’s another to put Captain Gronow in your story solely to establish when that happens. For me, forgetting about the rope is all about examining my own motives. Am I doing it to look cool, or am I doing it to write the best story I can?

The writing group is long gone, but I still have those friends. They haven’t forgotten the story of the rope. For different reasons, neither have I.

NEW RELEASE—The Smoke-Scented Girl

The Smoke-Scented Girl

My new book, THE SMOKE-SCENTED GIRL, is available today! Set in a world very much like our own Victorian England, it tells the story of Evon Lorantis, a magician of the country of Dalanine who invents and refines spells for use in his country’s war against an implacable, seeming unstoppable foe. When the government brings him a mystery–a rash of fires, hotter and stronger than anything anyone’s ever seen–Evon sets out to discover what, or who, is causing them, hoping to be able to turn them to their country’s use in the war. But the truth behind the phenomenon is far stranger than Evon expected, and the woman responsible for the fires bears a secret that really might be able to win the war for Dalanine–if they can learn to harness it.

I really enjoyed writing this book. I wanted something that evoked the feel of early Victorian England, pre-Industrial Revolution but post-Regency. In Dalanine, magic is a commonplace, and even those who don’t study magic will have access to a few spells, particularly the communication spell that only requires a mirror and knowledge of the person you want to talk to. So in this world, magic takes the place of technology, and in Evon’s time people are just beginning to see practical, external applications of it, such as radiant heating and a form of X-ray “machine.” Eventually I plan to write a sequel featuring Evon’s best friend Piercy, who is a secret agent masquerading as a dandy and, like Evon, needs a change in his life.

Here’s the book for Kindle and in paperback.

Worldbuilding: The Gods of EMISSARY

Emissary

For my novel EMISSARY, the Pantheon was the first thing I created. I already had the idea of a woman who served the god of Death, and that this would be difficult because so many people feared that god, so I decided I needed other powers to balance against him. My husband (who is a long-suffering man who lets me bounce ideas off him) suggested that maybe these gods could come in pairs, one good, one evil. I liked the idea of pairs, but not of good versus evil because as far as anyone in that world was concerned, the god of Death was “evil” enough for any religion.

So I went with the concept of dualities instead: light and dark, creation and destruction, home and travel. There might still be “good” and “bad” paired with each other, but the idea was to show that each god was important and not necessarily harmful to humanity; destruction, for example, brings about new creation. I ended up with six dualities: sun/moon, sky/storm (this turned out far more complicated than I imagined), luck/fate, travel/hearth, forge/fire, creativity/madness.That gave me twelve gods, six male and six female. I deliberately didn’t make each pairing male/female, because I didn’t want the potential for one or the other sex to be identified with all the negative traits. This is how Kalindi, chief goddess of the Pantheon and goddess of the sun, is associated with her sister Kandra, goddess of the moon (and a whole lot of other things I’d love to explore in a later book).

Next I made notes about what each of these gods might be responsible for, other than the obvious. This led to the concept of people putting the sign of a god on their home or business, not just to proclaim their allegiance, but to invoke the good will of that god—which meant considering further about what that good will would look like. Nacalia’s supervisor’s “luck-eye” was a result of that thinking. It also meant working out what the worship of each god might look like. What would a mad god like Sukman want from his worshipers? Well, those worshipers probably would try to avert his attention by doing things that made them look already insane, so Sukman wouldn’t think they needed his attention. The theloi of Sintha, goddess of luck, put boxes full of tokens for people to take to see what their luck might be that day. Each god ended up with a longer list of things that someone might reasonably worship him or her for. (This resulted also in the creation of the twin gods, Hanu and Kanu, who are worshiped interchangeably because you can’t tell which you’re praying to until it’s too late. This is another thing I’d like to explore someday.)

Having established what the “portfolio” of each god was, I set about naming them. Some of the names, like Sukman, just came off the top of my head, but most of them were created with the help of the Baby Name Finder at www.babycenter.com. This is totally true. A good baby name generator is a writer’s best friend, because not only do you get names and meanings, you get countries of origin and alternate spellings and all manner of useful information. In this case, I typed in words like “home” or “destruction” and saw what names came up with related meanings. Then I took the ones I liked best and altered them a little, changing them until they sounded right. Some of them didn’t get changed much: “Chandra” (pronounced with a ‘k’ sound) turned into “Kandra” with just a spelling shift. “Ailausa,” goddess of destruction, was altered so much I can’t even remember what name it started as. Because symbols are important in EMISSARY, at this point I also came up with a symbol for each god. This was hard, because they had to be different from each other while still being related to the god they represent, and I’d already established some of the generic symbols Zerafine uses in her consolations. Sukman’s spiral ended up being more important than I’d first imagined, so I ended up glad that I’d put in that effort.

The last thing I did was just for fun: because I’d ended up with twelve gods, I figured I could map each god onto a month of the year, with five days left over for Atenas’s High Holy Days. It wasn’t relevant to the story except for a couple of comments Zerafine makes about the month of Ailausor (August) being so draining, but it was something I had fun with, and I’ve found I’ve never regretted being a little over-prepared. Again, it might come in handy in another book.

Having done all of this, I discovered that I had a very good sense of the world Zerafine inhabits—it wasn’t enough for a truly solid world, but it gave me a framework to hang things like government and architecture and social classes on. When I had to make later decisions about the world, I could refer back to the Pantheon and decide what would make the most sense in a world in which these particular gods governed much of human activity. Best of all, building the Pantheon was fun—and I’m strongly in favor of writing being as much fun as you can make it.

2014 in Review

bookstackThis has been a good year for reading. I didn’t read as many books as I usually do, but the quality of the ones I read made up for it. I used to do this whole elaborate year-end wrap-up–best books, worst books, new series, etc.–but over the years that’s sort of shrunk into “what did I love this year?” So here are five books I really loved from last year, some of them new releases, others books I missed when they were first released. (I put them in order by author’s last name, not being able to choose a favorite.)

Touchstone, Andrea K. Höst: This is a really simple story–the diary of a girl lost in a strange world, one day at a time–but the characterization and the cleverness of the setup make it shine. I think I read the whole trilogy in seven days. I still think Medair is my favorite of her books, but I’d have trouble setting the two against each other.

Greenglass House, Kate Milford: Beautifully written, beautifully conceived, rooted solidly in concepts of family and belonging, I was captivated by it from the beginning. I loved the characters, who were just quirky enough without being ridiculous, and the family relationship was great. It’s also got the best made-up role-playing game system I have ever seen in fiction.

A Stranger to Command, Sherwood Smith: This has been out for a while, and I have to confess that I didn’t read it when it first came out in print because I didn’t like the cover. I am full of shame. I have an epic love affair going on with Crown Duel, and anything to do with Vidanric is going to be a winner as far as I’m concerned, but this was an amazing story all by itself, full of intrigue and relationships. I would love to see another book about what happens between this one and Crown Duel.

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker: Again, I am full of shame for not having read this sooner. It’s just beautiful and clever, with interesting characters and a complex plot that reads so smoothly it isn’t until you’re finished and trying to explain it to someone else that you realize the depth of the plotting. I’m not saying I want a sequel–I think a sequel would be a bad idea, in fact–but the ending made me feel as if more was possible for the characters, like they’d go on living and doing things even though the story was done. Very enjoyable.

The Martian, Andy Weir–This one really grabbed me. I love hard science, I love survival stories, and this book had both of those cranked up to eleven. I’m not going to choose favorites, but this was definitely the one that got my blood pumping. I am totally looking forward to what Weir comes up with next.

I’m looking forward to a new year of reading!