Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Okay, so, I know, Walk on Earth a Stranger has been out for a few years. And it’s actually been on my radar the whole time. But what gave me a shove recently was seeing a tweet about it being a Kindle special for $1.99. I’ve ignored my share of notifications about Kindle deals, but by a startling coincidence I was at that moment exactly in the mood for a detailed, well-researched historical novel, with or without minor fantasy elements, which I knew described this novel. So I guess it was meant to be.

I read the first book, then immediately bought the second, Like a River Glorious, and read that one too, then preordered the third, Into the Bright Unknown, which is due out next month. I expect that’s why the first suddenly went on sale, which is certainly an excellent strategy; you see how it worked for me.

So, the Gold Seer trilogy. I loved it. Let me see, where to start . . .

Okay, the first thing to know about this trilogy is that it is very much a historical, with only a minor snippet of magic in the first book – the main character, Leah Westfall, is a gold dowser. Which is super handy since this story is set during the era of the California Gold Rush. But this fantasy element is VERY minor in the first book. Leah’s gift develops a bit more in the second installment and one can definitely anticipate an even larger role in the third. As far as I can tell, there are precisely zero other magical elements in the trilogy, though there are hints here and there that Leah’s gift may not have come completely out of nowhere.

The historical setting is the point, though, not the magic. Tell me, how did you feel about Tolkien covering every. single. day during TLotR? Did you get bored by that, or did you enjoy traveling along every step of the way with the characters?

I inquire because – I’m sure you can see this coming – Carson’s book is very much a day-to-day travel narrative. From time to time we leap lightly over a few days or weeks, but virtually the entire book is taken up by Leah’s journey from Georgia to California, and let me tell you, there’s nothing like reading about the wagon trains to make the reader appreciate modern life. Dust, mud, rivers, desert – ugh, that desert! – mountains, heaps of scenery everywhere you look, not to mention loads of people with gold fever heading west with their children, their livestock, and occasionally their dining room furniture.

I was exactly in the mood for this story, as I say, but – without checking reviews – I would bet there are some readers who were all, Wow, this is sooooo slow. Not that things don’t happen, but still, that is one looooong journey.

The second thing to know about the trilogy: Leah – mostly called Lee – is a great protagonist, surrounded by great secondary characters. Mrs. Joyner is my favorite of the secondary characters. She develops and changes a great deal over the course of the first book, in a way that reminds me of Barbara Hambly a bit. She starts off kind of . . . well, thoroughly . . . unsympathetic. I started rooting for her about two-thirds of the way through and was definitely cheering her on by the end.

Another element of secondary character development I particularly appreciated is how so many of the minor characters have their own stories, to which Leah herself is tangential. They come into, and more importantly depart from, the narrative in a way that is unusual for a novel but seems very true-to-life of how people would have come together and then separated during the westward trek across the continent.

I will just add that the trek is grueling, that there’s not much law in force for most of the distance or in California, and that sometimes people die. Carson doesn’t linger on these scenes, but . . . yeah, this was a brutal period of history in a lot of ways. From time to time Carson does soften some aspect of the journey a little – I mean, this is before the germ theory of disease, but the guy who was training to be a doctor is surprisingly up on the importance of cleanliness. Which probably some people who practiced medicine were, but really, the 1840s were still solidly within the Dark Ages of medicine, the era during which often going to a doctor lessened rather than improved your chances for survival. Still, Carson makes her presentation of 1840s medicine believable.

Which kind of leads into the third thing you should know about this trilogy, thus: although Carson does soften the edges of the era by handing Leah and many of the secondary characters more modern opinions and attitudes in order to make them sympathetic to modern readers, she also handles social issues subtly enough that these attitudes seem neither jarring nor preachy. That’s a feat otherwise excellent writers sometimes fail to pull off. Leah and Jefferson and several others despise slavery, but in these decades leading up to the Civil War, lots of people did feel exactly that way, so that’s believable. Similarly, Leah rejects the common view of Indians, but given Jefferson’s background, this is totally natural. Leah also furiously rejects the way society treats women as chattels, but given her immediate backstory this would definitely be something she’s questioned and come to fear and hate. All those modern mores are completely integrated into the character backstories and make sense in story terms.

Nor does Leah depend on having modern attitudes to render her sympathetic to the reader. Her defining characteristic isn’t a modern sensibility, it’s – in my opinion – a very old-fashioned sense of charity. She works hard not to resent Mrs. Joyner’s initial rejection, instead striving to see the situation from the older woman’s point of view. Later she works hard not to hate Reverend Lowry for what happens to his wife, but to be sympathetic to his point of view and his genuine grief. People have to be pretty bad – bad clear through, really – for Leah to totally reject and loathe them.

Leah’s certainly brave and generous and attached to her horse, but those are attributes we expect of any YA type of heroine today, right? Sometimes she gets angry and sometimes she gets confused and all that is pretty typical as well, and certainly sufficient for her to work as a protagonist. But the more I think about it, the more I think it is her sympathy and her concentrated attempts to view everything, with charity, from the other’s point of view, that sets her apart. Actually, this is something of an antidote to the modern day, where sometimes people seem to vociferously reject any point of view that differs from their own in the smallest detail rather than work for understanding. Leah’s sympathy for the points of view of others fits beautifully with the historical period of the novel, as it does seem like a virtue of that period.

Overall, two excellent installments in a vividly realized historical period. I’m glad the third is coming so soon – I know I’ll dive right in the moment it pings into my Kindle.

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Managing first-person pov

Here’s a short but possibly useful post on how to handle the lack of narrative flexibility you may encounter if you’re trying to write from a first-person point of view.

For example, this technique:

Time Delay

A detective on the trail of a killer corners him in a dark apartment. He takes several tentative steps. A shot rings out. The detective feels hot blood coming from his chest.

If you were writing in third-person POV, it would be easy to cut away from a scene of high tension for another scene with a different POV character (in this case, say, it’s the detective’s partner, lounging at a coffee shop). This is a great page-turning technique, leaving the reader to wonder what happened at the apartment.

A first-person novel, however, can’t cut away to a different POV scene. So instead of a physical cut, try time delay. First, end the chapter on a note of high tension. Then begin the subsequent chapter not with the next thing that happened, but with the narrator playing a little game of “You’ll have to wait.” In keeping with the same story line:

I hear a shot. And a jolt to my chest. And hot blood staining my shirt.

[Next Chapter]

When I was six, my father taught me a valuable lesson. “Son,” he said …

After this digression, which can be a full-on flashback or a short remembrance, get back to what happened at the end of the last scene.

I bet we see this a lot in first-person narratives where the author likes to end chapters on cliffhangers.

I’ve started to play around more with first person in some of my Works in Progress, so I instantly thought: you know, it would be kind of fun to try to end ALL the chapters on a cliffhanger…

Which reminds me of Zelazny’s Doorways in the Sand, which has the most playful narrative structure I can think of, where every chapter starts in the middle.

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Giant Perfect Novels

This post by Robin Sloan at tor.com caught my eye: The Joy of Giant, Perfect Novels: Hild by Nicola Griffith

I so agree. When I finally read Hild — which took a while because it is so big; I have to both be in the mood for a giant book and have time for it, which doesn’t happen all that often these days — but when I did finally read it, instantly it popped right to the top of books-read-that-year. Right to the top.

It’s a pure historical, btw, without a single bit of definite magic anywhere. It’s interesting how everyone treated it as though it were fantasy.

Here’s what Sloan has to say about it:

Some big novels are endurance contests, and at the end, you’re exhausted but pleased with yourself. Some big novels needed a better editor. Hild isn’t anything like those. It’s big like a hug, big like a feast, big like a heart….

Sloan writes short novels herself, she notes, and so the scope and breadth of Hild is something she particularly admires. I’m tending long-ish these days, but seldom with the pure day-to-day life infused into a novel that Hild pulls off so beautifully. That’s something I really enjoy in a novel — if I’m in the right mood.

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Recent Reading: Knife by RJ Anderson

Okay, so, Knife is a MG story that has been on my TBR pile for quite some time – Brandy at Random Musings having started nudging me toward RJ Anderson literally years ago. I finally tried it, and yes, it is a delightful story, one that turns the concept of the fairy story somewhat on its head.

In Knife, the fairies are classic garden fairies — little female sprites with dragonfly wings who live (this particular colony) inside a large oak tree in the back garden of a prosperous estate. Only these specific fairies are in trouble: a generation or two ago, they lost nearly all their magic and they’ve been declining in prosperity and devolving culturally ever since. They are now hanging on by their fingernails. Since they have lost their cultural memory, most of them also have no idea how much they have lost. Also, they’ve fallen well below replacement level reproductively: On her death, each fairy is supposed to leave behind an egg that hatches into a new fairy child, only some fairies don’t leave an egg, and if this strikes you as a thoroughly unstable situation that cannot maintain the population over the long term, you are so right. Also, the few remaining fairies of this colony are ruled by a tyrannical queen, who possesses the only significant store of remaining magic and who demands, and magically compels, total obedience to her commands.

As you can see, this is truly an awful situation, though one which the protagonist, a young fairy named Bryony, has grown up with and considers normal. Luckily for Bryony, by chance no one knows her true name, not even the queen, giving her more freedom to act than would otherwise be the case. Luckily for everyone, she hatched with more than the ordinary share of curiosity and courage…

What you should know about this story:

The first thing you should know about Knife is that practically nothing is quite what it seems, most especially not the things that seem most obvious. Any adult reader, on first encountering the fairy queen, is going to instantly say, “Wow, how convenient for the queen that she happened to have been absent from the colony when disaster struck and every other fairy lost her magic.” But it turns out that situation is significantly more complicated than that. There is in fact a definite tendency for the backstory to twitch sideways just when the reader thinks she’s figured out what’s going on. The same for the roles of many of the secondary characters – Bryony is surrounded by characters who surprise her, and also surprise the reader.

The second thing you should know about Knife is that the fairies are not human. They’re really not. I so enjoyed figuring out what Bryony’s people are like – and what they should be like – and how they ought to have this complicated relationship with humans, and why Bryony’s colony doesn’t, and how their isolation from humans has affected them. It’s hard even at the end to decide whether the ideal relationship is mutualistic or commensalistic or parasitic; the story definitely left me wanting to know more.

The third thing you should know about Knife is that it handles the issue of physical disability with grace and sympathy, without inserting heavy-handed lessons for the reader, and (possibly even more important) without offering special magic solutions. There is no Poof! Be healed moment. No. For a while I thought that kind of overly simple ending might be coming up, but it didn’t happen. In fact, the actual ending left me thoroughly interested in what might happen next.

The fourth thing you should know about Knife is that the writing is very good, in the “invisibly smooth” category of very good. Anderson’s writing doesn’t draw attention to itself, enabling the reader to fall right into the story. I would imagine that many younger readers would love this book – and it’s one I think older readers can enjoy as well. This was the first of Anderson’s books I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.

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The new young Queen of England!

Surely you’ve seen this story, right?

All Hail the New Ruler of England: Young Girl Finds Sword in Lake From King Arthur Legend

Young Matilda Jones was out on a walk with her father out near Dozmary Pool in Cornwall, which is, supposed to be the very same body of water where the legendary King Arthur left Excalibur after he was fatally wounded after a battle. The Lady of the Lake took the sword back, and it has remained there ever since, according to the legend. But that legend may need an update, as Jones ended up spotting a sword as she was wading around in the lake.

How about that? It’s not something that happens every day, that’s for sure.

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Interesting news

I hope you all had a wonderful weekend, whether you had big plans for Labor Day or otherwise. I had no particular plans, but it was still a most enjoyable weekend. Quite suitably for the unofficial end of summer, it was SUPER HOT on Monday followed by MUCH COOLER today.

I took dogs to the park, more dogs to the park, and yet more dogs to the park — that was Saturday and Sunday — and made lots of good things to eat and wrote the first part of a story set in the world of THE CITY IN THE LAKE. I’m having fun with it

This week let’s start on a broad scale:

Mysterious signals detected from faraway galaxy

I do enjoy mysterious astronomical phenomena.

Astronomers have picked up a series of mysterious signals emanating from a tiny dwarf galaxy three billion light years away – and scientists cannot rule out the possibility they were produced by an alien civilization….“Possible explanations for FRBs range from outbursts from rotating neutron stars with extremely strong magnetic fields, to more speculative ideas that they are directed energy sources used by extraterrestrial civilizations to power spacecraft.”

Three billion light years sounds like a pretty safe distance, just in case.

And, at quite a different scale, we also have this:

The Oldest Known Human Remains in the Americas Have Been Found in a Mexican Cave

An ice-free corridor between the Americas and Asia opened up about 12,500 years ago, allowing humans to cross over the Bering land bridge to settle what is now the United States and places beyond to the south. History books have conveyed that information for years to explain how the Americas were supposedly first settled by people, such as those from the Clovis culture….At least one part of the Americas was already occupied by humans before that time, however, says new research on the skeleton of a male youth found in Chan Hol cave near Tulúm, Mexico. Dubbed the Young Man of Chan Hol, the remains date to 13,000 years ago….“Scenarios of travel by boat along the Pacific shoreline, the ‘Kelp Highway,’ must be taken seriously, but alternative migration routes by boat from Europe along the Greenland ice margin or via Antarctica are also possible, though highly speculative,” lead author Wolfgang Stinnesbeck of the Institute of Geosciences at Heidelberg University said. “If travel by boat is correct,” he added, “then likely camp sites are now set underwater due to the early Holocene rise of sea level.”

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A Rat With a Dream: Ratatouille

Here’s one of Mari Ness’s excellent columns at tor.com: A Rat With a Dream: Ratatouille.

I always enjoy these; it’s just so interesting to see someone REALLY analytical take a movie apart. Plus all the behind-the-scenes information about the making of the films adds extra depth to her reviews.

Also, I naturally liked this movie, because rats! And cooking! Though it’s not really my favorite of the more recent bunch of animated films, mostly because the basic plot was so unbelievable. It’s the guiding-the-kid-like-a-puppet thing; I didn’t buy it and it was so central to the movie, so that was a little bit of an issue. Also, I had a hard time believing the ending. I liked Remy, though.

Let’s see what Ness says about the film…

Director Jan Pinkava had been standing in his kitchen when he originally thought of the idea of a rat with dreams of becoming a chef, which leads me to ask all kinds of questions about his kitchen, but let us move on. It took him another three years to write the script and to convince Pixar that small kids would be willing to watch a film about a rat, but by 2003, Pixar had approved his concept, agreeing that it would be their eighth movie….[Later] By this time, Pixar animators were almost accustomed to working well behind schedule. Thus, despite the deadline, Pixar animators and designers took several field trips to Paris for inspiration, where they dined at fabulously expensive restaurants, and also contemplated what it might be like to have a chase scene on the Seine River with a rat. (One of the film’s best set pieces, as it turned out.) They also, presumably a bit less pleasantly, took a brief trek into the Paris sewers, which featured in another of the film’s major set pieces.

Yep, as always, tons of great stuff in this review. I guess poking briefly into a sewer would be a price worth paying for the chance to dine at fabulously expensive restaurants, presumably on the Pixar / Disney dime.

Here’s the take-home message in a nutshell:

And astonishingly enough, for all its fantasy and insistence that yes, yes, you can achieve your dreams if you pursue them, Ratatouille is surprisingly realistic.

No one in this film achieves their dreams without hard luck and multiple setbacks. Even though they eventually help out, Remy’s family is not initially supportive of his dream….he film suggests that yes, you can succeed—if you are willing to try a second time, and a third time, and maybe even more times than that—something that echoes Brad Bird’s own life and Hollywood career, a series of ups and downs.

I think “realistic” is perhaps a stretch, but fine.

The whole review is well worth reading. Click through if you have a minute and read the whole thing.

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Back Cover Copy

I’m still a member of the SFBC, partly because it’s been interesting to watch it change over the past decade or so – it is far less focused on science fiction and fantasy, for one thing; now it offers lots of thrillers and nonfiction – and partly because I still find out about some interesting books from their mailings, and partly because I like seeing my own books in those mailings.

Anyway, I was looking through the materials sent in the most recent mailing and some of the blurbs – the back cover copy – caught my eye for various reasons. I want to show you four of those blurbs and see what you think of them.

1) Okay, the first blurb that stopped me was for Louise Penny’s latest Inspecter Gamache novel, Glass Houses. I liked the first couple books of the series, though I haven’t gone on with the series. Here’s the back cover blurb for this one:

When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a November day in Three Pines, Quebec, Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache knows something is seriously wrong. Legally, he can only watch and wait – and hope his fears are not realized.

From the moment its shadow falls over Three Pines, Gamache suspects the creature has deep roots and a dark purpose. When it suddenly vanishes and a body is discovered, it falls to Gamache to discover whether a debt has been paid or levied.

From the early days of the murder investigation to the day, months later, when the trial begins in a Montreal courtroom, Gamache struggles with actions he’s set in motion. And regardless of the trial’s outcome, he will have to face his own conscience.

…And I thought: What?

So I read that again from top to bottom. Honestly, I think it is possibly the most confusing back cover blurb I have ever encountered.

A mysterious figure . . . a creature. That “appears on the village green.” Huh. Legally, Gamache can only watch and wait? … So, like, he is legally prohibited from trying to figure out who put the “creature” in place? Well, whatever. Debts paid or levied? That’s a nice phrase, but what could it mean? Are we genuinely unsure whether this “creature” signifies one or the other? Gamache set things in motion, rather than the creature? Or its, presumably, creator? I’m assuming it’s more something like a scarecrow than something like, I don’t know, a living creature made by one of the evil witches in The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. “Creature” encompasses quite a few possibilities for those of us who read SFF as well as mysteries.

Honestly, many sentences in that blurb seems disconnected from the sentences that precede and follow them, and many seem to introduce an idea that is disconnected from everything else in the blurb. Far from intriguing me and making me want to investigate the book, this particular blurb just leaves me baffled. It is trimmed down from this description at Goodreads, but even the (slightly) longer version is just as confusing.

Here is what I think might have worked better: if the blurb writer was trying to avoid giving stuff away or getting into complicated details, he or she should have stopped trying so hard and been more specific about the “creature.” Further, the blurb as written seems to give agency to the “creature,” though I can hardly imagine it is animate. Also, the writer of this blurb should have drawn a connection between the “creature” and the concept of debts. Also, he or she should have drawn a further connection between everything else and the dilemma(s) Inspector Gamache encounters with regard to his conscience, or else left that part out.

Having looked up reviews on Goodreads to figure out more about the “creature,” I would suggest something more like this:

Two hundred years ago in the Pyrenean Alps, someone who felt he had been wronged might set up a cobrador, a tall hooded figure robed in black, signifying the existence of the debt and an intention to collect. When such a figure appears on the village green of Three Pines, quickly followed by the discovery of a body in the church basement, many of the town’s inhabitants begun to question their own past actions and possible guilt and the debts someone might feel they owe.

Inspector Armand Gamache…and so on; I don’t know enough about the rest to tackle the part about his conscience.

What do you think? Thumbs up or thumbs down on the blurb being more specific about the “creature” and the initial situation?

2) Okay, here’s another one, for a book by Stephen King / Owen King called Sleeping Beauties. To me, in this blurb, some of the sentences seem to have been chosen at random by a blurb-generating robot:

In a future that’s all too real and too near, something happens when women go to sleep: They are shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent. And while they sleep, they go to another place.

The men of our world are left to their increasingly primal devices. However, one woman, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the curse—or blessing—?—of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied? Or is she a demon who must be slain?

Set in an Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, this is a wildly provocative, chilling collaboration between Stephen King and his son Owen King.

Okay, does anything about this situation as described strike any of you as a description of a “future that’s all too real and too near”? That would fit Persona by Genevieve Valentine just fine. It absolutely does not fit this weird gauze thing in any way.

How about “wildly provocative”? What about this could possibly be described that way? Several things about this description fail to appeal to me, but it sure doesn’t help that the blurb appears to have been written with someone’s brain switched to “idle.”

3) Next, in contrast to the previous examples, I think this blurb, for a novel of Claire North’s, is not bad. It definitely put North’s book,The End of the Day, on my radar, which is fundamentally the function of back cover copy.

At the end of the day, Death visits everyone. Right before that, Charlie does. You might meat Charlie in a hospital, in a warzone, or at the scene of a traffic accident. Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole – he gets around. Would you shake him by the hand, take the gift he offers, or would you pay no attention to the words he says? Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He never knows which.

Despite all the benefits – travel, vacation time, decent pay, and meeting interesting people – Charlie’s job is about to get much more complicated. The end of all things is coming and Charlie’s boss, along with his three associates, are riding out. It’s Charlie’s job to get there first.

Now, this also has some confusing elements, plus awkward phrasing in one sentence (top of second paragraph; it should have been “a chance to meet” or something like that). Nevertheless, the initial setup is clear and fascinating. There’s no problem leaving the “gift” mysterious; that mystery is a feature, not a bug, in this description. Those first two sentences are certainly not the least bit generic. In fact, they’re so catchy, they make up for any flaws that might be noticed in this blurb. Plus the last two sentences are pretty darn catchy as well, even though we have to wonder where “there” might be. “All things” covers a lot of territory.

Okay, one more that I think is quite good:

4) This blurb is for a book by Mike Bockoven called FantasticLand.

Since the 1970s, FantasticLand has been the theme park where “Fun is Guaranteed!” But when a hurricane ravages the Florida coast and isolates the park, the employees find it anything but fun. Five weeks later, the authorities who rescue the survivors encounter a scene of horror. Photos soon emerge online of heads on spikes outside of rides and viscera and human bones littering the gift shops, breaking records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. How could a group of survivors, mostly teenagers, commit such terrible acts?

Presented as a fact-finding investigation and a series of first-person interviews, this chilling and thought-provoking novel probes the consequences of a social civilization built online.

First, that’s very clear. Every sentence works to establish the story and draw in the potential reader, provided the reader is into realistic horror. One sentence does strike me as somewhat awkward: Photos soon emerge online of heads on spikes outside of rides and viscera and human bones littering the gift shops, breaking records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. I might have written that more like this: As soon as photos appear on social media, the images of heads on spikes and viscera draped across dolls in gift shops break records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. But the blurb basically works well, I think.

Also, the thing about the “consequences of a social civilization built online” seems topical and relevant.

For certain values of “realistic” and “relevant” anyway. We’ve all seen recently how social media in Houston enabled efficient rescue efforts, directing efforts toward the people who needed help the most. I’m sure we’ve all seen those pictures of the nursing home residents, first in water up to their waists and then, following a Twitter and Facebook call for attention, of the residents safe and warm in a new location. I understand the authorities later began using social media extensively to help direct rescue efforts, and no wonder. Also, we’ve definitely seen how heroic and selfless and caring people are in emergencies.

So the thesis of FantasticLand, where I suppose a horribleLord of the Flies thing happens instead, seems a trifle iffy to me. Whether you’d call it realistic and believable or not, I hate that kind of scenario, so I don’t think I’m likely to read this one, even though the format sounds like something I’d like. Regardless, I would say that is good back cover copy. Especially when contrasted with the first two examples above.

Okay, what do you think? Which, if any, of the above examples would work for you?

I’m also particularly curious about whether awkward phrasing in blurbs bothers you or whether you pass right over it. I don’t tend to consciously notice it unless I’m typing in a blurb, and I don’t think I’d be inclined to judge a book harshly for that kind of thing. Back cover copy is hard to write, and for traditionally published books, the author probably didn’t write it anyway.

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Women’s Pen Names

Here’s an interesting post by Michelle Smith at The Digital Reader: The Evolution of Female Pen-Names from Currer Bell to J.K. Rowling

Here is the interesting point, which is not one that I had thought of before:

[T]he cultural reasons behind women writers concealing their names have shifted dramatically since the nineteenth century. Today female names vanish to avoid industry and reader perceptions of what women’s fiction is like. Historically, in the British tradition, female names were hidden because of the perceived inappropriateness of women writing novels. To understand this difference, it is important to know that the very act of reading novels was heavily policed for girls and women in the nineteenth century.

Of course that is true! But somehow I never actually thought of that in so many words.

Smith then goes on to discuss, though briefly, the use of gender-neutral pen names today.

I will add, I would LOVE to see a social experiment where ALL authors used initials on their books and, on their websites, pictures of pets or avatars or whatever rather than photographs of themselves. Let everyone just guess about gender for ten or twenty years. I wouldn’t mind a bit seeing everyone be totally wrong as they tried to guess the gender of their favorite and most-admired authors.

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Writing accents

Here’s a post by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff at Book View Cafe: Out of the Mouths of Characters: Writing Dialects and Accents

I’m sort of flirting with the notion of putting accents into the mouths of some characters in my next space opera, which is far-flung so people certainly do have recognizable accents, very audible to the point-of-view characters — which is what matters. Obviously no one speaks English as it’s written; everyone has an accent. What matters more is whether your pov protagonist hears an accent.

But as you all probably know, accents are tricky beasts to manage no matter what, and in general less is considered to be more.

Bohnhoff says:

Dialect, [Stan Schmidt] told me, in essence is like ’um’ and ’er’ and other speech affectations. Yes, people really sound like that, but reading it can undermine your story because the reader will be forced to slow down and sometimes sound things out. That can cause them to lose the thread of your story.

Also this:

As a science fiction writer, of course, I’m sometimes dealing with characters whose first language isn’t even a human one. Stan Schmidt had some advice about that, too. Specifically, he talked about the use of apostrophes in names and ”alien” words. I sent him a story in which I had created a name with an apostrophe: M’sutu. His first question to me was, ”What does the apostrophe do? What does it sound like? If it doesn’t do something in the word or name then don’t use it. You’ll only confuse the reader. He’ll wonder how he’s supposed to pronounce it every time he sees that word. Only use odd spelling conventions like that if they can be shown to make a sound.”

Now, personally I do generally think less is more when it comes to accents. I had independently arrived at one tidbit of advice Schmidt offered, which was to establish the accent early and then after that just use occasional visual reminders while mostly just not showing the accent in how you spell the words. So a character might start off dropping terminal g’s but then only do it occasionally after that. This seems to work surprisingly well in practice, given it doesn’t sound like it should work at all when you just lay it out like that.

I do think word choice and cadence can be better than accents as such. Though that can be tricky as well.

Here is a second post, this one by a freelance editor, about accents in fiction, which offers, among other things, a useful tidbit from Huckleberry Finn. Honestly, I had forgotten how much of a phonetic accent Twain gave the character of Jim.

Rose Lerner also has a good post on this subject. Lerner makes this useful point, among others:

Accents have nothing to do with intelligence or temperament.

Yes, in Regency England, your accent probably said something about your level of formal education, since formal education emphasized “proper” elocution and exposed you to other people who spoke in a certain way. But lacking formal education—even, dare I say it, being illiterate—doesn’t mean a person’s personality or understanding of the world is any less deep or complex.

(A small side-rant: anyone see How to Train Your Dragon? Anyone want to explain to me why the bumbling, aggressive Viking adults all had comic-opera Scottish accents while their open-minded, identifiable-with children spoke like West Coast Americans?)

Yeah I noticed that about How to Train Your Dragon, though mostly I was focused on the utter ridiculousness of the, ahem, training. I did enjoy the black-panther-dragon, though. Nice animation there.

Okay, one place I think accents are a) used a lot, and b) pretty well done are historical mysteries. Maybe historical fiction in general. The class differences in British murder mysteries are shown with dialect and accents, and quite a few authors do this well. I’ve been reading Anne Perry mysteries recently and she’s an example of someone who imo pulls this off, but she’s hardly alone.

Also, as I recently pointed to a post on Dorothy Dunnett, well, there you go. Dunnett’s better than almost anybody at almost every writing technique, and wow does she have scope in her Game of Kings series to deal with accents and dialect. There’s where I’d go to see someone do a great job with this aspect of writing. In fact, I should probably just go ahead and re-read that series . . . or maybe the Niccolo series, which I’ve only read once so far . . .

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