Monday, May 30, 2011

The Prettiest Cannon in the Land

Remember the canon painting party? Our beautified three-pounder was back in action this weekend, and I have to make like one of those grandmas with a purse full of grandkid photos and share how good he looked:

Fellow lady of the artillery and I getting ready to move him--I'm carrying the implements used to clean his barrel out between rounds, and my lady comrade is carrying the stuff used to fire him. Plus drinking water. Because it was kinda hot. As in about 90 degrees.

I'm making like Molly Pitcher and working the front of the gun during a tactitcal demonstration.

Awwww! Doesn't he look precious, all freshly painted?

And--I wore the Hat of Win this weekend, on Sunday...but I haven't found any pics of it. What I can say is that I stabbed it through my hair with a couple of pins, and despite many gusts of strong wind, it didn't budge. I may have experienced near whiplash, but the hat stayed on my head.

I hope everyone had a good Memorial Day--as my friend said, if you see one of those older guys or gals wearing one of those hats (and I know you know what I mean when I say "those hats"--the embroidered ones that let you know he or she served) take a second to say thank you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Writing is Not a Transactional Endeavor

Buying a latte is a transactional endeavor. If you fork over $3.50, you will receive your foamy, hazelnut- or vanilla-flavored soy and espresso beverage. If it does not meet your standards of quality, you may complain, and in many establishments, you will have your money refunded or your beverage replaced. You pay, you receive. You put in, you get out. No ambiguity.

What does this have to do with writing? Not much. Because many very worthy things in life are not transactional.

I have the dubious honor of sending admissions decisions to the students who apply for the academic program I work for. I really, really hate it. Why? Because of how many people I have to tell "no." How many "denied" stamps I dole out. The most frustrating part of the whole thing is how many applicants view their admission as a transactional endeavor. "Well, I've been paying to go to school for three semesters. I've been taking classes." Yes--but you can put in and still not get out. You can take classes and even work hard and not get good grades. You can apply and not be accepted. It's not transactional.

Even theologically-speaking--last night at Bible study we were chatting about prayer, and expectations--and how we often view prayer in a transactional environment. I pray, I expect, I receive. Except--prayer and God are not transactional. God, I believe, answers prayer, but not in the same way you pay for a latte. Prayer is not the beverage counter at Starbucks. Academic and job applications are not a five and dime.

Neither is writing. I think this is what's so hard to deal with about the writing life--any art. You don't always get out, transactionally-speaking, what you put in. It's not fair. It's full of ambiguity. You could spend years writing brilliant, beautiful novels and never--never once--get a publisher interested. You could smack together something at the right time and create a bestseller. For motivated, goal-oriented people, it's scary. There are not necessarily goal points to meet.

So why do you write, if there's no promise of a shiny outcome? Why not spend that time in something with more definite markers of success? I have my answers--because I can't not write, because even if I can't expect particular outcomes, I sure can hope for them and work for them.

What are yours? Or--maybe I'm wrong. Would you say that creating art is transactional--that if you're not finding success it's because you're not putting the right things in?

PS This is definitely not meant as a rant-y life isn't fair post! Just a general musing :)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Surprise! Scarlett O'Hara Stays

I had full intentions of whipping out a dress this weekend. Then...I got distracted.

By the thought of making a new pair of stays. I've had Norah Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines sitting around for probably longer than is healthy for my project load and have been in love with the 1780s half-boned stays. They're exactly what I wanted--nicely splayed tabs on the bottom, the broad chest and straight-backed shoulder straps.

And what started as goofing around with some pattern pieces and a scrap of canvas turned into a full-blown project. The bulk of the work is yet to come--boning and binding--but I'm thus far very happy with the general shape and the fit.

Rather serendipitously for a spur-of-the-moment project, I just happened to have a couple yards of canvas lying around (purchased for tent repair...oops, sorry tents). And the fabric for the outside of the stays?

Well, that's where Scarlett O'Hara comes in. Those with a keen ear for anachronism were probably wondering what I was doing calling these 1780s stays "Scarlett O'Hara stays." But remember the bit when Scarlett needs a new dress, and the only fabric that can be found is the window hangings? Or, you know, Carol Burnett modeling the concept in a much more literal form?

And remember these curtains I made for the great room?

Well, I didn't canibalize the curtains--I had a very skinny couple of yards of sik leftover. Still. Curtains, clothes...Scarlett O'Hara stays.

Go, tiny blue sewing machine, go!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

It's Been a Long Week

Things have been draggin' here in Hyaline's world. But this is my plan for the next few days:

Awesomeness to include: Finishing 1770s Block Print Jacket of Joy, Starting Something Sparkly and New (Regency? 1940s Day Dress? Dunno...), and....drumroll....Finishing the WIP. Yeppers. I will stop being sad. And start being awesome.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

When You Should Include the Weather

There's a famous maxim on book openings: Never start with the weather. That's an excellent pithy reminder for an important point, which is not to set the scene, but to simply write the scene.

But I think it gives weather a bad name.

This weekend we participated in a living history event. For those of you not in the eastern half of the United States, I'll fill you in on the weather we've been having. It rained. A lot. And fierce 30 mph winds pushed a cold front down our throats that dragged temperatures to a range we consider normal for February, not May.

And as we huddled together under our fly (a canvas awning used for protection--albiet meagre--from the elements), it occured to me how very, very important weather is in a setting.

Consider this scene two ways: A group of embattled eighteenth-century soldiers (pick your side) plays a hand of cards, when one of their comrades arrives with a bottle of rum.

Exhibit A:

Taylor dropped the third ace from his hand, smiled broadly, and swept the trick. The last of the afternoon's golden sunlight spread over the weathered cards. The gradient light made the Jack Nick had laid look like it was winking him. Having a good laugh at a poor hand. Nick couldn’t help but laugh as well. Good riddance.

"Good play," Nick said, grudging his opponent's good luck. Three aces in a row, and nothing higher than a ten in his own hand. He leaned back against a tree trunk, stretching his back against the bark.

He shrugged his shoulders out of his regimental coat. Night would bring a chill that would have him wanting the coat back, but for now he could stretch his arms. Jennings appeared from behind the tree. He carried a suspiciously familiar bottle.

“Fancy meeting you boys here,” he said as he uncorked the bottle. He poured a liberal dose into the gil cup he kept in his hat brim while Taylor won the rest of the hand. Jennings passed the cup to Nick. He tossed it back, the fire tracing his throat like the last rays of sunlight tracing the horizon. Tomorrow might bring a skirmish, or a long march, or a rash of dysentery. But today all was well.

OK, now in this scene, the exact same thing happens. Except this time the weather is pretty much what we had this weekend--cold, windy, rain. Exhibit B:

Taylor dropped the third ace from his hand and plucked the cards from the table before the leak in the tarp above them could drop fat droplets of water on them. Nick was glad to see the Jack he had laid disappear quickly—it was a wasted card against Taylor’s hand. A wasted card like this wasted bloody day. Good riddance.

"Good play," Nick said, grudging his opponent's good luck. Three aces in a row, and nothing higher than a ten in his own hand. He flexed his feet inside his shoes, demanding that life flow back into them. They refused.

Taylor led the next hand, and Nick threw something from the low end of the suit, something he didn't care about losing. He huddled his regimental coat closer around him. The wind felt like it was driving daggers through the thick wool. His nose ran, drips quivering above his lip before he wiped them off.

Jennings appeared from behind a sodden tree. He carried a suspiciously familiar bottle.

“Fancy meeting you boys here,” he said as he uncorked the bottle. He poured a few drops into the gil cup he kept in his hat brim while Taylor won the rest of the hand. Jennings passed the cup to Nick. He tossed it back, the fire tracing his throat, warming him as nothing else could at that moment. Funny, he thought, how the only saving grace of a cold night on campaign could come in the form of a gil cup of rum.

So, this was hastily written and poorly edited. But I hope it illustrates my point--weather isn't merely something that's happening in your story. Your characters interact with it and, whether they intend it or not, it affects them. You can use weather to your advantage as a storyteller. If I wanted to give my characters a break, I let them have the weather in the first scene. If I wanted to bring them to the breaking point, I throw the frigid rain their way.

All the more so for stories set in the past. Today we can shut the blinds and put on Netflix and rather thoroughly ignore the weather outdoors (for better or worse). But in the past, people had to contend with the weather on an everyday basis. If it rained, a soldier still had to march. If it was 100 degrees, a farmer still had to work the fields. If it was freezing cold with a biting wind, a milkmaid still had to schlep her buckets outdoors.

So be aware of the weather--if it's sunny, raining, cold, hot. It adds a layer of realism to keep weather consistent with the time of year and the location, and can add a layer of emotional depth and dramatic interest. Not that you have to mention it all the time. Just don't forget it's there. Your characters are like mailmen--snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, shall stay them from the completion of a good plot arc. But it can sure mess with them while they're at it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Five: Getting Rained On in the most Historically Accurate of Modes

We have a living history event this weekend. It is going to rain buckets, according to That was a technical system of measurement. Buckets. Big ones.

I get a bit testy thinking about going and sitting in a field for two days with the promise of sodden shoes looming ahead of me. Of course, history wasn't all sunshine and bright breezes, so of course we must maintain the stiff upper lip and face up to unpleasant weather. But, for history afficianados, historical fiction writers, and those who like to revel in their modern comforts, a few reasons why poor weather really, really stunk back in the day.

1) Wet canvas smells like moldy cheese. OK, most people in the eighteenth century had actual homes to live in, so this one doesn't count for the average person. But if you were on campaign with the army, as we often are in our reenactment lives, this one's a biggie. Canvas tents don't leak too terribly when they're well made, and do offer quite a bit of protection from the elements. (Until the water gets too high and there's a four-inch-deep lake in your wall tent, but that's another thing entirely. And, yes, this has happened to me.) However, they develop an odd, slightly nauseating odor. An odor quite a bit like warm, sweating, molding cheese. Yack.

2) And wet wool stinks, too. All our guys' uniforms, and quite a bit of the ladies' clothes, are made of wool. Wet wool smells like a disgruntled half-bathed sheep. Why disgruntled? Smell it and you'll understand.

3) Your stove doesn't work. Neither does your oven. And the heating is busted, too. So here's the thing--our campfires are our cooking appliances and our main sources of warmth. Again, in a nice house, this is less of an issue, though damp wood is crappy for everybody. However, on campaign, wet wood and a driving rain combine to make starting a fire either difficult or impossible. Sometimes, if you've already gotten a good fire going, it can ride out a rainstorm. I've seen burning logs floating in rain-flooded fire pits. But for the most part, it's smoky, lukewarm output at best.

4) Which means when you get wet, you stay wet. Yes, you can change clothes. Up to a point. But people didn't have the inexhaustable closets we have today. Say you're rather poor--you may only have one spare shirt. And when that's soaked, well, you're just going to have to be wet. And on campaign, you have even fewer options than you might at home. Oh, and that campfire that won't start? It's also your only clothes dryer.

5) It's well....boring. Much of the best part about "back then" is all the outdoorsy things we can do--walks and games and roving from camp to camp visiting. There's only so much you can do under the cover of canvas--sewing and reading are decent distractions for a while, and card games can liven things up. But at some point, everyone gets a bit stir-crazy. Modern conveniences like movies, the webbernet, and even light to read by start to sound rather nice on a rainy day. And the challenge of staying dry starts to get a bit tedious.

But you know what? We always manage to have a good time. Even if it means huddling under canvas, eating cold food, smelling one another's sheepy scents, and playing round after round of whist. Because the most authentic thing of all is a stiff upper lip and a cheerful spirit.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Cover Pet Peeve--Accuracy and Historical Fiction

So, we should probably just confirm, for the record and for the purposes of this post, that I am a giant nerd. Also I'm a touch anal. And again, huge nerd.

But I have a slightly embarassing but very real pet peeve about book covers. In particular, historical fiction. To be specific, the horrifically inaccurate cover art depictions of ladies' clothing and general appearance.

Anal? Yes. Stupid? Yes. Better things to do with my time? Definitely, wholeheartedly, yes. Am I going to share anyway? Yeah, I think I need to.

So here's the thing. I know, rationally, that a writer has little to no control over the cover that his or her book receives when a publisher releases it. He or she may or may not even be able to give feedback, which may or may not be taken under advisement. So I know that, when I pick up a book with a cringeworthy outfit on the cover, it's not the author's fault. Rationally, I know this. But I still have a hard time divorcing my immediate perception of "Wildly innacurate" from the potential that this could be a prisinely researched book.

What I think that publishers don't quite get is that their editorial choices add up to one single perception for the buyer. And for a buyer of historical fiction, accuracy is often very important. So when you take a well-researched novel and smack a poorly researched bit of cover art on, it's doing your author a great disservice, because I'm already having to try to avoid the assumption that, if you don't care about your art department's accuracy, that you don't care about your writer's accuracy, either. It's not fair. But it's how the consumer thinks--even a consumer who's moderately educated in how publishing works. For someone who doesn't know that a writer has no control over the cover? Even more understandable that he or she might put the book back on the shelf.

Some examples that make my eyes hurt. Please note--this is NOT meant to bash the writers! However, it is meant to highlight that yes, some readers do notice this stuff. (It may also be meant as a slight cattiness outlet on a rough day.)

Wildeacre by Philippa Gregory

This cover makes my eyes hurt for one main reason: Hair. No one, save no one, had Herbal Essences hair in the eighteenth century. Either put it up, put a cap on it, or dress it properly to be worn down. Don't want to paint a lady with Hedgehog Hair? Don't do eighteenth-century book covers.

The Midwife of the Blue Ridge by Christine Blevins

Now, I imagine that the argument might be that this woman is on the frontier, so of course she's not wearing a fancy gown (I could totally go off on a tangent here, by the way, and I think I will in a future post). But I still don't know exactly what the bodice-y thing she's wearing is quite supposed to be. Is it a corset? Part of the Saint Pauli girl ensemble? Ye Olde Barmaid Supplies Unlimited sale item? Don't make your reader guess. Use clothes that actually existed. Like a sturdy pair of jumps.

The Queen's Dollmaker by Christine Trent

Just a complete lack of understanding of eighteenth century undergarments and gown construction. A lady wearing stays would never look that rumpledy. Let me get graphic--her breasts should not be poking out into the torso of the gown. She's not wearing a bra, people--she's wearing stays. The girls are going to be high and the torso, flattened. The gown is constructed in some fashion that I can only imagine was inspired by a 1980s McCall's Halloween costume pattern, because it it no way resembles proper eighteenth century draping--especially with the skirts, which should not be attached all the way across the front in the way they are, and are in desperate need of a pair of pocket hoops or a false rump or something. The neckline fits poorly--if this was meant to be seductive, it just made me want to stuff a kercheif down her front. And yes, bows were used in the eighteenth century. But why oh WHY must they ALWAYS appear on cover art?

The Frontiersman's Daughter by Laura Franz

I understand that this is a Christian fiction book. Therefore, I imagine they didn't intend to put a lady in her underclothes on the cover. Darn it all if they did anyway, likely trying to avoid the low-necked titilation of so many other cover choices. Here's the thing: Your leading lady is appearing in just her shift--her underwear. Plus she's doing that thing where it's hiked up to her neck--what I always consider the Urkel move of eighteenth-century fashion. And again with the shampoo ad hairstyle. Layers did not exist. At least, they didn't exist in an attractive way.

I hope this didn't come across as mean-spirited--I actually quite wish that publishers would have their art departments consult with costume historians (and other scholars) to produce the best possible product.

Of course, then...what would I have to be catty about?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday Five--Things I Wouldn't Really Mind So Much about Living Back in the Day

So, it seems that whenever history-o-philes like me start waxing poetic about how we actually wouldn't really mind living back in the (fill in the century here), some wiseacre feels the need to remind us of those little inconveniences that life in the past would present. Some, of course, are totally valid. Like no running water. Notice I don't say no toilet. I can deal with that. But I like my running water. More on that later.

So, a Friday Five--historical difficulties I can actually deal with:

1) Complicated Systems of Undergarments. I like wearing a lot of clothes. The more the merrier (until July...but then nothing is pleasant, clothes-wise). I don't mind the corsetry and petticoat layers required to acheive historical style. In fact, I kind of wish we'd return to more formalized underthings--they make one feel much prettier, in my opinion, than something boring and cotton from a Hanes package. Despite the fact that this may be an overshare, I'm wearing a 40s style garter belt and stockings right now. For Kicks. And I've discussed before how Stays Don't Stink.

2) That Whole Not Voting Thing. Yes, this stinks on a theoretical level. But consider the way it could work for you. Your husband gets to vote. OK. Now, who makes dinner? And pie? That's right! You make dinner and pie! And who likes when you make his favorite dinner and pie? Exactly. You see where I'm going. He gets to go stand in line to cast your vote. For dinner and pie. And let's be honest--you like making pie anyway. (PS And we all know that you'll know, in that polygraph test that is inter-gender communication.) Before anyone gets all indignant that I'm trivializing women's rights, two points: Yes, I'm joking here and No, I'm not completely joking here. We seem to have a notion that women must have all been oppressed and unable to effect any change, and that's a belief I see bucked over and over again in the quiet histories of ordinary people. Women were smart. They found ways to assert themselves.

3)It's Really Hard Work. You're right. It is. Totally is. And I know I only really dig in on it a few weekends a year, but I do love it when I do it. Scouring tables. Jointing chickens. Hauling firewood. Stoking the fire (ok, not that part. I'm bad at that part. I make a boy with bigger lung capacity than me do that part). But here's the thing--hard work is really, really gratifying. Manual labor makes you feel alive. After sitting behind a desk more hours of my day than any human should, I've come to value the experience of fresh air and blisters. And you sleep great.

4) They Didn't Have TV (or computers or phones or whatever). Well, they did have books. And sewing. Two things I like a lot better than TV. And, whenever people comment on crazy-passionate lovemaking in historical films, novels, or nonfiction? My response is always, "Well, they didn't have TV." There are trade-offs, people.

5) No Toilets or Running Water. OK, yes, toilets are nice. But I think one would get used to privies and chamber pots without too much inconvenience. And giving up frequent showers in favor of less frequent baths and daily washbasin touch-ups wouldn't be a terrible swap--who doesn't like baths? But the part that would stink? No running water in the kitchen. Holy mackerel, do you have any idea how many buckets I go through washing stuff to cook, boiling stuff in, and washing up after? Now that's a pain.

So, what could you live without? What would you not be willing to deal with?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Writing to Market--Anathema, Accepting Defeat, or Valid Consideration?

I recently wrote a blog post that made me realize I had a lot more to say on the subject of one hot point in the comments—writing to market. First, my incredibly astute commenters did a great job of pointing out that a writer has to write what captivates him or her, what catches a lot of him or her and demands to be written. Yes. This is what writers do—give voice to dreamworlds and imagined landscapes and burning, compelling stories. If you don’t have a story wrapping you around its little finger, if the characters aren’t making you want to bleed them onto the page, it’s not worth writing.

But what about if you want to sell it?

I didn’t say publish it. I don’t say that because I believe that any kind of sharing could be considered publishing—after all, when I post this blog ramble, the button I hit is called “Publish” and, well, it is. It’s providing this content for the world at large. That’s publishing in a nutshell. But whether you want to self-publish or go the traditional route, when you decide you want to sell your writing, there’ s a new wrinkle in the question.

The Market.

I want to first distinguish between writing to market and writing to trend. I think they’re different. Writing to trend is chasing rabbit trails of hot-selling books, trying to make your story the next Twilight or Harry Potter or Eat, Pray, Love. Writing to trend means ditching what you love for what you hedge your bets might sell. It’s kinda like death to the soul of your writing—the passion is gone, you’re marrying the safe guy instead of the guy you love. To give it a clich├ęd metaphor. Writing to market, however, is being aware that there is an audience, that they have certain expectations, and, if you’re really serious about selling, noting that they buy some stuff and don’t buy other stuff.

I noticed recently that the market I’m aiming for (traditional publishing) isn’t really buying my stuff (introspective, character-driven historical fiction set in 18th century or 20th century America). Yes, there is some out there. But when I read agent wish lists and new releases and scan the bookshops, these kinds of works are in the minority, losing out to droves of pre-Revolution-era royalty/court stories. Not my thing, to read or write (nothing aginast these--I'm just not interested in royal people and the court—I like ordinary, hard-toiling stinky people). And I can see the great irony—when you write the book you wanted to read, to fill the void out there, well…sometimes the void is there because not enough people are interested in what you wanted to be reading the first place. (Questions of whether I should explore self-publishing, whether my impressions of what’s selling are skewed, whether I’m just an insecure nutjob, shall likely be addressed in future posts.)

I noticed recently as well that there’s a story that’s been begging me to write it for quite some time. It’s a story about an imagined future, not a reconstructed past. It’s a story aimed at young adults, not grown-up people. It’s a story built on choice, movement, change and external conflict more than development, relationships, and internal conflict. All of these things are, yes, palatable to the market right now.

And I thought…I can keep writing what I know is an uphill battle to get the market to notice. Or I can give this little story a shot—this story that happens to fit what the market is asking for. I decided to let the market influence me. I have no idea how it’s going to pan out, long term. After all, the market is fickle. So you have write what you love, regardless.

For right now? I’m loving this little experiment, my characters beg me to come play every free minute I have, and the writing is flowing like it never has before.

What do you think? Does considering the ultimate outcome of your project—selling, publishing, or otherwise—play into your decision of what ideas to pursue? Is it selling out to even open the door on The Market discussion?

And, as you consider these questions...May the Fourth be with you all...sorry, couldn't resist!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Block Print Jacket--It's all over but the Bling-ing

I finished the construction on Mother's jacket--just some final edge turning and a sleeve hem or two. Then the fun part starts--adding all the fluff and trim! Eighteenth-century ladies liked their bling:

Check those ruffles! And the petticoat trim! And the giant bleepin' hats! Even the maid sports some bows.

So, I decided on a simple pleated ribbon trim for the front of the jacket:

And how it will look with the stomacher put in:

Still undecided about how much to trick out the stomacher. I might leave it fairly simple to let the ribbon lacing really pop. Plus, stomachers are the fun wild card of eighteenth-century clothing. Easy to change up, add more bling to, remove bling from, make a new one entirely. Whatever I do now, I can easily change in a few years. Or months. You know, whenever I get bored.

The floofy pleated ribbon trim is easy to make. Just take a length of ribbon (I used silk ribbon, the kind that's used by ribbon embroiderers, so is easiest to procure inexpensively). Then, box-pleat the ribbon and pin it, like so:

I just work right from the spool, and cut the ribbon when the length is complete. This is easiest to do, as I did, with a glass of home brewed cider and a chorus of other women giggling along with you while they work. Just a tip.

Finally, take a running stitch up the center of the ribbon, yielding this:

I'm now working on a self-fabric ruffle for the bottom of the petticoat. Just a bit more work on the trims, finish the stomacher and the petticoat, and add in the lacing for the jacket front, and it will be done!

Except for the matching hat I now want to make for this. I mean, come on--a pink-satin-covered hat? How could I resist?