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[sticky post] Cleaning Up my LJ Reading List (sticky)

I'm using the fact that many of my remaining LJ friends are migrating to DW as a trigger to do housekeeping on my LJ lists. If you have me friended on LJ and are set up to get notifications when people unfriend you, here's why I might have done that:

1. You have an account on DW that I'm now reading.
2. You haven't posted anything on LJ in the last 2 years.
3. You haven't posted anything on LJ within the last year, and the previous posting history is scanty or isn't "social" (i.e., it's posting fics or poetry, but not conversation).

If you're using LJ for reading but not posting, please feel welcome to continue reading my postings here -- I plan to continue cross-posting my Alpennia.com blog indefinitely. (Alternately, you can read my Alpenia blog through RSS.) The only minor hassle is that I screen comments from people not on my LJ friends list, so there may be slight delays for manual approval if you comment. This isn't meant to be unfriendly, it's just a necessary anti-spam measure.

If you're active on DW and would like to interact with me there, I have the same account name there and would be delighted.

The Geography of Alpennia

Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

No more Mother of Souls teasers! So while I'm plugging away at Floodtide I'll have to come up with some new writing-related things to talk about.

I received a lovely bit of fan e-mail from a reader last week, and she had some questions that she has graciously allowed me to use as a jumping off point for a blog. The first question was whether I put my Alpennian research and development notes somewhere (presumably, somewhere that an interested reader could look at them!) and the second was whether I had a map of Alpennia.

To tackle the first: hoo boy do I have research notes! Do I have them in a form that would make sense to a casual reader? Not so much. I think I've previously mentioned that I have a database for characters, locations, and key vocabulary. The character records include a reference image (if I have one) and any key bits of description that I need to keep consistent. It might include notes on where the person lives, what their background is, relevant events in their history, and other characters they have important relationships to. Here's an example of my quick-reference page for Maistir Chatovil, the tutor to Aukustin Atilliet.

Chautovil bio entry

But that's more for keeping track of story elements, rather than background research. For the latter, I keep things in three types of places. One is a folder of webarchive files, downloads, and images that I've collected either for immediate use or future reference. Some topics are organized in folders (alchemy, clothing, European flooding, food and dining, gemstones, universities), others are individual items that I haven't classified (pdf of "A handbook for travellers in Switzerland", notes on early 19th century Heidelberg, list of Jewish salonnieres in Berlin in the 19th century, article "revolutions and nostalgia", article: The first Muslims in England").

I also have a massive list of web bookmarks (though I'm more likely to save off pages if it's something I really think I'll use). Along with the more usual topics, I have bookmark folders named things like "historic calendars", "music and opera", and "money wages and finance".

Once I started using Scrivener for writing, I've also made use of its scrapbooking function. So I have pages of links, clips of images, extracts of texts, and so forth. I tend to use that method for details that are relevant only to a specific story because I have a different Scrivener file for each book. (One reason I don't use the Scrivener character sheets is because I don't want to deal with copying over continuing characters for each new file. Also, I need the flexibility of a database format.) An example of how I use those pages is a detailed timeline of European political events in the 1820s and 1830s, with notes about what's going on in the novels and how the two interact. Another example is a page of notes on the structure and genres of early 19th century opera, and then an outline of the two versions of Tanfrit with notes about the named songs that get mentioned in the story.

All this, of course, is in addition to the actual physical books I use for research. I love an excuse to buy history books! But the diffuse nature of my research notes means that there isn't a good way to let readers "look over my shoulder".

Now... maps. Maps are a harder question. Alpennia is like one of those hypothetical geometric shapes that can't be represented in three dimensions. From the outside, I can point to a real-world map and say, "Here's the area where the borders of Alpennia touch the real world." And from the inside, I can say, "Here's what Alpennia looks like when you're traveling in it." But it's impossible to do both at once. I can't show a map of Europe that shows Alpennia as an actual country occupying space within it. So let's split it up into the two separate questions. Here is a political map (courtesy of wikimedia) of Europe after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (which is going to be approximately correct for the start of the novels) with a red circle identifying the approximate place that Alpennia intersects it.

Europe in 1815 with Alpennia

So what about an internal map of Alpennia? I confess that I've sketched up initial stabs at it several times, but have never sat down and worked out exactly what the distances are. And I'm definitely at a point where I need to do that. I have a fairly solid notion of the layout of the city of Rotenek. And I know the general compass direction and general spatial relationships of key locations. For example, here's my database entry for the town of Iser:

"Town on the Rotein, about 4 hours by coach from Rotenek, but more by river as it's around a long bend. It's a key staging place for river commerce as some barges unload there and cut across land; also the stretch above it is tricky and extra hands are needed to navigate it. It's on the road back from Fallorek and is where Chustin falls ill in Mystic Marriage."

Or similarly, I know that Margerit's home town of Chalanz is at a distance to the east of Rotenek that could be traveled in a single day in high summer by a hard rider who could afford to change horses regularly, but ordinarily is more like three day's travel by coach. The enormously varied travel times based on method and resources can cover up a lot of plotting needs! Need more travel time? Make the road bad.

One reason I'm hesitant about creating a public map of Alpennia is that one never knows when one need to put a town or river somwhere. Right now, significant parts of the territory are hidden by mist. In Daughter of Mystery I knew that Jeanne's family came originally from the region of Helviz, but it wasn't until Mother of Souls that I placed it in the northeastern part of the country, just on the border and crossed by the road Jeanne and Antuniet are traveling as they return from their summer trip to Prague. There are a lot of other places that haven't been pinned down sufficiently that I'd want to write their names on a map yet. Sometimes it's good to have the details shrouded in mist. But perhaps sometime in the near future I'll draw up some vague, sketchy, incomplete representations that I can share.

Laurel Bookstore Reading

Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

Didn't make it to the reading and discussion yesterday? You're in luck because a recording of it is up on YouTube. I haven't had a chance to review it yet, so please be gentle if I ended up sounding ridiculous.

Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

The current installment of working through the People/Publication/Event tags is a somewhat uncomfortable topic. One of the ways in which lesbian desire has been dismissed in literature (and then used to "prove" that lesbian behavior is sick or evil) is to take the trope of an asymmetric desiring/desired pairing and frame it as inherently non-consensual and abusive. The reasoning goes something like this. Lesbian desire always exists between an "abnormal" desiring woman and a "normal" desired woman. A "normal" woman will not be open to the erotic advances of another woman, therefore any such advances are by definition unwanted, and the "normal" partner in such a relationship must be coerced in some fashion, either physically, by power differentials, or by psychological manipulation. This framing presumes that the desiring partner is inherently disordered. Her disorder may result in genuine, sincere desire, but she will be unable to find a partner who willingly answers that desire, therefore she will be tempted into using coercion or force to satisfy it.

As can be seen from the dates below, this trope existed in parallel with the heyday of romantic/passionate friendship. What distinguished the two? The existence or implication of erotic rather than platonic love is one feature. Some of the works in this category make that plain: a passionate friendship turns destructive when it goes beyond the allowed limits--when one party becomes too exclusively possessive, tries to interfere with the other's heterosexual relationships, or initiates a more physical relationship. But to some extent, the two modes seem to have existed as part of a continuum. The specter of being deemed "predatory" may have been used to limit the aspirations of romantic friends, while the conventions of romantic friendship provided a setting which some people--in the way of all human relationships--turned to their own purposes.

Of course, we must keep in mind that these are literary examples and created to serve an author's purpose, not the characters' purposes. The full tag essay for Literary Relationships is linked here.

Literary Predatory Erotics

I've taken this label from Denise Walen's discussions. It includes non-consensual relationships, cases where a woman initiates erotic contact (or pretends to) in order to further the interests of a male character, and cases where the lesbian character is portrayed as literally monstrous.

Book Review: Minotaur by J.A. Rock

Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

There have been several times in conversations on facebook groups where people threw out the question "what do you look for in a LesFic book?" My answer has often been "beautiful writing," but it can be hard to explain what I mean by that. So now I have something I can point to and say, "That's what I mean by beautiful writing in LesFic."

Minotaur by J. A. Rock isn't a book that would ordinarily have caught  my attention. In fact, I bought it entirely because it appeared on the Book Clips series at The Lesbian Talk Show podcast(*). (I confess it's the first time I've bought a book based on being included in the series.) I was so impressed by what I heard that I think I pulled out my iPhone and called up the iBooks store while still sitting in my car at the end of the commute when I listened to it.

Minotaur is a fantasy. Or maybe it's a YA-ish story of adolescent rebellion in a home for wayward girls. Maybe the titular minotaur actually did terrify the town in a previous generation. Or maybe it's an urban legend, whispered among the girls at the Rock Point Girls' Home as a terrifying entertainment. Maybe Thera has a vivid imagination, or maybe the tangled imagery in the opening monolog is remnants of her being hopped up on stolen drugs. Maybe she's an unreliable narrator...or maybe she really will become a hero that slays a monster.

I read this story not knowing whether the promise of fantasy was genuine or a misdirection, and I won't spoil that aspect for other readers. At its heart, this is the story of an unwanted, neglected girl who turns herself hard to survive, then learns how to open herself again for love--both the love of friends and romantic love. The setting is a dreary, narrow-minded small town, still stuck in an era when the sympathetic counselor at the Girls' Home who shows too much affection for the girls is whispered visciously to be a "BD," which it took me a while to decode as "bull-dyke." So when roommates Thera and Alle begin exploring their tentative desire for each other, there are layers of confusion, ignorance, and despair to work through. They promise to stay together when they age out of the home, not truly believing such a thing is possible and each doubting that she is worthy of that sort of love.

As I said above, on the surface, it isn't the sort of story that usually attracts me. But the language--oh my, the language. J. A. Rock has an extraordinary command of voice, of description, of easing you into an alien world (in this case, the world of Rock Point) and making you care about the inhabitants, even when they're people you wouldn't much like in real life.

The only place where the book faltered for me was in an extended descriptive passage after the book changes gears when Thera leaves the Home. (I'm being a little cagey here to avoid spoilers.) There was a section that went on aimlessly and--dare I say--self-indulgently just a bit too long. The plot picked up again just about when I was at the edge of my patience, but I certainly wasn't sorry I kept going.

This is not a light and fluffy book. There are dark bits and violent bits and a few squicky bits. But it's solid and compelling and ultimately triumphant. (I'd consider that last a spoiler, except that too many readers of queer stories need to know they aren't going to get punched in the face by Queer Tragedy.)

(*) Full disclosure: my own podcast series "The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast" also runs on The Lesbian Talk Show.

Group Reading at Laurel Bookstore

Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

This Sunday February 19th at 4pm, a group of six Bella Books authors (including yours truly) will be reading and talking about why we write at Laurel Bookstore in downtown Oakland. (See link for details.) I'd love to see people there! Laurel Bookstore is incredibly convenient to public transit (literally just on top of the 12rh St BART station) and on a Sunday the parking should be easy as well.

Of course you'll want to buy some books while you're there, but as an extra enticement, I'll have some hard copies of my free story "The Mazarinette and the Musketeer" to give out.

Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

December is filled with bitter weather, made all the sharper by the constant troop movements that undermine all efforts to settle themselves in more comfortably. There's an eternal optimism (or perhaps just dogged persistence) in how the soldiers begin throwing up semi-permanent structures at each stop only to be ordered to abandon them before they can be enjoyed.

In my final copyediting pass of these entries, I always find that some of Abiel's regular spelling idiosyncrasies have slipped past me: staid for stayed, buisy for busy, prety for pretty. No doubt I've still missed some. I've only just noticed the auto-spellcheck function in this blog editor, so perhaps that will help with my regular spelling idiosyncrasies too.

Toward the end of December, there's brief note about Abiel being appointed to serve on a Court Martial (i.e., not a specific case but as a regular participant). As I mention below, this will be an unexpected turning point in his life, although I'm reconsidering the spin put on it that I'd picked up from family folklore about the matter. More on that later as events progress.

The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved

December 1864



Thursday  December 1st 1864

Still fair weather.  I sent a letter to my sister in the mail which went out this morning.  I sent 7 letters.  I was in command of the Regiment two hours today.  This P.M., took out all the men who had loaded guns and fired them off.  The 1st Division of our corps moved this A.M.; where they are going we do not know but suppose to Petersburg.  We expect to move soon.  Hard at work on my clothing for June and July.  Today got those two months nearly finished.

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Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

Alpennia is all about challenging and subverting default paradigms and tropes, simply by its existence and by the people and stories it focuses on. But it can be tricky to have the characters themselves challenge those paradigms without falling into the trap of pausing for set-piece speeches. Consider, for example, the problem of both portraying and challenging the types of social prejudice endemic to early 19th century Europe without turning my characters into 21st century progressive activists. Even those who were addressing racial, religious, and class issues in that era often did it in ways we'd consider wince-worthy today. And it was functionally impossible for people of that era to think about gender and sexuality in ways that my readers would consider truly enlightened.

So it's not uncommon for the "challenge" on the page to struggle to break free of simply identifying and acknowledging the problem. Luzie ponders how the working class in Rotenek would view all the grand ceremony around mysteries that are intended to benefit them just as much as to benefit the intellectuals and upper class participants who perform them. She has no answers, but we see her recognizing the problem. Akezze regularly tries to push Margerit to understand that the solutions she devises to the question of women's eduction are excluding groups that have barriers she hasn't considered. Antuniet and Jeanne consider Anna Monterrez to be almost like an adopted daughter, without understanding how the religious divide feels from her side, and how carefully she has to balance on that line to be accepted.

One default paradigm that Mother of Souls addresses is that of the standard romance plot. But even when the characters acknowledge the tyranny of that plot, they often seem helpless to challenge it effectively. Serafina watched the illusion of a romantic marriage die slowly, but she hasn't entirely shaken free of the assumption that the ideal form of love is a permanent partnership. The author (no spoilers!) of that annoying roman a clef that causes Barbara and Margerit so much trouble operates from two deep-rooted paradigms: that a close affectionate partnership must be completed by romance...and that a romance must be heterosexual. Our heroines' lives deny the latter, but fail to challenge the former.

When Luzie and Serafina start hammering out the plot for the opera Tanfrit, they butt heads over the question of a romance plot. Luzie knows opera; the shape of the genre absolutely requires it. Serafina only reluctantly surrenders a concern for historical authenticity (to the extent that the concept is even meaningful in opera!) and the contradictory evidence of both their lives. The finished work is a carefully crafted piece of art, but when Luzie falls into metaphoric thinking--into reasoning about the world from the internal rules of their own creation--Serafina reins her in. Tanfrit is fiction, not fact, and as fiction it follows the shape its creators gave it. Taking that shape and considering it to reflect eternal verities of the world leads to error. (Just how complicated those errors are will--I hope--eventually be made clear if/when I write the Tanfrit novel.)

This is the last teaser for Mother of Souls. (The chapter is followed only by a coda that echoes the opening prelude...and contains some very vague hints for Floodtide.) I'll have to think a bit about what sort of writing-related blogging I want to do for the next season.

Chapter 32: Luzie

The scene where Gaudericus refused Tanfrit’s gift of the forbidden book had been expanded and rewritten. Now they both came to realize it was learning, not power, they sought. And in a soaring duet they reject and refuse all sorcery, consigning the text to the fire and pledging themselves to seeking only wisdom and knowledge. That was the heart of the mystery, where the power of the music, amplified through the attention of the audience, would strike out against the…the whatever it was they were fighting. A blow that might be unneeded or might be their last hope of success. In the opera, the moment was Tanfrit’s glorious triumph before her tragic fall, when Gaudericus refused to return her carnal love. And then, as before, the river, the flood, the remorse, the dedication.

She saw that finale differently now.


“Yes?” Serafina turned, her hands still trying silently to guide the musicians to her vision.

“It was a tragedy—that Gaudericus couldn’t love her the way she wanted—but it wasn’t wrong. It was only his nature. Serafina, promise me you’ll never throw yourself in a river. Not for me. Not for anyone.”

Serafina looked confused for only a moment, then said solemnly, “I promise I’ll never throw myself in the river. But never forget that we wrote that story. We chose that ending. We don’t know what was truly in their hearts. We don’t even know that Tanfrit really did drown herself.”

That wasn’t what she’d meant. Luzie swallowed hard and tried once more. “I want you to find…to find what you’re seeking. I wish I could have been it.”

Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

Abiel begins the month still on leave (due to his battle injury). After working his way through several major cities and then to his childhood home in the area around Newburgh NY (on the Hudson River), he begins November by heading out to the western part of the state to visit his beloved sister Susan and all the extended Potter inlaws and their neighbors in the area around Andover, Alfred Center, and Wellsville.

The memorandum entries are quite brief during this month, but tell a vivid tale of visits and entertainments. The election is held while Abiel is there, giving him a chance to vote in person. (I wonder what the arrangements were for soldiers to vote in the field in that era?) Eventually it's time for him to head back to his regiment, with a several-days stop in D.C. to visit old friends, hang out with a number of rather celebrated people, and enjoy a lavish Thanksgiving dinner. His company is delighted to have him back, with a touch of relief as they feared that--what with his hobnobbing with Colonels and so forth--he might have been tempted to pull strings for a more cushy posting.

The Diary and Letters of Abiel Teple LaForge 1842-1878

Transcribed, edited, and annotated by Phyllis G. Jones (his great-granddaughter)

Copyright © 1993, Phyllis G. Jones, All rights reserved

November 1864


Tuesday November 1st 1864  Up and breakfasted at 6 A.M. Took my leave of the kind people.  John took me up to the cars.  We parted with many kind wishes and I was whirled away from friends whose kindness will ever remain fresh in my memory.  At Hornillsville [Note: presumably Hornellsville] I got on the wrong train and instead of stopping at Andover [Note: not the better-known Andover MA, obviously, but a small town 10 mi east of Wellsville] had to go on to Wellsville and stayed all night. [Note: the "Alfred Center" that has been mentioned several times is midway between Hornellsville and Andover.]

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Originally published at Alpennia.com. You can comment here or there.

If I had to sum up Lundoff’s collection Out of This World: Queer Speculative Fiction Stories in a single word (which would be a totally unfair thing to require me to do) it would be “versatile.” This volume touches base on a broad variety of genres and subgenres yet succeeds in being a unified stylistic whole. There is everything from steampunk horror to hard-boiled alien invasion to magical police procedural, each story both drawing lovingly from its literary inspirations and turning them upside down.

When I say the collection is a unified stylistic whole, I’m not talking specifically of the titular theme of “queer speculative fiction.” While I appreciate the market targeting signaled by that title, non-default identity here is pervasive but casual. The characters, in their myriad genders and orientations, are all queer in some fashion, but queerness is never the central point of the story. It simply is. Someday we’ll be able to expect that sort of inclusion in stories without needing to be reassured of it in the marketing (which can have the down side of inspiring non-queer readers to pass on by).

With collections, I’m never sure whether to say something about each individual story or simply touch on the highlights. Let’s go for the former. “Great Reckonings, Little Rooms” is a straightforward alternate history involving Shakespeare’s fictional sister, his inspirational Dark Lady, and presenting a somewhat different fate for Kit Marlowe than the one in our history books. There’s a gritty, immersive familiarity with the Elizabethan setting that inspires one to double-check exactly where the timeline diverged from our own. “Medium Méchanique” is also set in an alternate version of our history: a steam-punky supernatural horror story that asks just how far a woman would go to be reunited with her true love. Shudderingly gripping with just a touch of gruesome in places.

“The Egyptian Cat” aims for a blend of humor and supernatural thriller, or perhaps a parody of both. It perhaps treads a bit closely to self-parody, opening with the main character sifting through submissions for an anthology of cat-related Lovecraftian stories. The concept is clever and works in the end, but I felt the prose may have been the weakest of the collection, at least in the opening. One of the overarching themes is how Lundoff plays to the strengths of her own experience. Her bookstore-running experience may have helped inspire “At the Roots of the World Tree” in which the clerk of a possibly sentient bookstore is tapped by Norse deities to help push back the day of Ragnarok. Clever, funny, and atmospheric. Another story drawing on traditional literature is “A Scent of Roses,” which takes a wistful and critical look at living with Tam Lin after he’s been won back from the Queen of Faerie. The Queen of Faerie is still drawn to brave and passionate mortals, and she doesn’t play fair. I held my breath through this one, unnecessarily fearing a depressing or tragic ending.

Going somewhat out of order, there were three stories that I’d tend to classify as “standard fantasy quest” tales: set in medievalish secondary worlds (all different, as far as I can tell, but they might easily have been different regions of the same setting). Each involves stock characters facing set-piece goal-oriented challenges. In terms of personal enjoyment, I preferred the stories with less stock settings, but these do expand the overall scope of the included subgenres. “At Mother Laurie’s House of Bliss” is a sorcerous police procedural set in a brothel, with a young man’s life depending on his ability to prove he didn’t kill the nobleman who dropped dead in his bed. “Beauty” starts out with a despised king’s son, born to a mother of the deposed Old Blood of the kingdom who shifts from merely trying to survive to the hope of claiming his right to the kingdom. Then you throw in a vampire bridegroom for the protagonist’s sister who kind of likes him better. Of all the stories in this collection, this one falls the closest to erotica, including a generous dollop of enemies-to-lovers as well as a rape scene. It may not be everyone’s thing. The third in this group is “A Day at the Inn, A Night at the Palace” in which our protagonists need to infiltrate a castle in the middle of a coup to deal with the aftereffects of magical body-swapping. Several unexpected twists at the end (including at least one subtle character possibility I almost missed) save it from being an ordinary D&D campaign tale.

One of Lundoff’s strengths is layering a bit of romantic comedy over the base genre. Like the third story mentioned above, “Spell Book and Candle” is a supernatural romantic adventure involving cats and a family heritage of magic, this time dealing with some tricky issues of magical ethics and the spirit of an unrestful ancestor.

I have to confess that for sheer whacky genre-blending, “Red Scare” takes the cake with its sci-fi / hardboiled detective / alien invasion / political conspiracy plot. I think it took me less than one page to accept that one wasn’t meant to ask the question, “Why are the colonists on this planet performing self-conscious gangster-movie roles with bug-eyed monsters in the wings and made-up drugs subbing in for moonshine?” No, you just plunge in and go with the flow. The setting never does make any more logical sense from an economic or sociological viewpoint, but I stopped caring because the in-story logic and action was so compelling.

There’s an art to choosing the last story in a collection, and “Vadija” was well placed to leave this reader wanting more. It’s a poetic, lyrical tale about survival and storytelling and coming back to our own beginnings. It’s interesting: although I know for a fact that I read this story on the page, it sits in my memory as an oral tale because the language is so beautiful.

In describing the contents of this collection, I have so far avoided using the word “diverse” because that term currently carries a weight of specific connotations, but in the ordinary senses of the word, this is a very diverse collection in terms of characters, themes, genres, and mood. You will never feel like you’re reading the same story twice, and many of these stories will make you long for an entire novel expanding on that seed. Highly recommended. Whether you think you’re the target audience for “queer stories” or not.

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