Friday, July 29, 2011

Forgotten Man

I don't like getting political on my blog--or, really, at all in public, believing that politics, religion, and sex shouldn't be discussed in polite company, but if you must pick one, pick sex every time. Yet, the current crisis of budget and debt permeates our discussion here in the good ol' USofA, and one quietly occurring change is to the pension plans for US military members. This hasn't gotten a lot of press, but additional cuts may be cropping up in the future.

Which made me think about the past, naturally.

In the 1930s, with the hardships of the Depression bearing down on the nation, the veterans of WWI were pretty unhappy. Many were out of work, which they felt was poor repayment of their services, and their desperation culminated in the 1932 Bonus March, in which they demanded early payment on their delayed-bonus certificates (which were not due to mature until 1945, more than a decade and another World War later).

Though the Bonus March gets most of the press about veterans and WWI, perhaps it's fair to say that payment of the bonuses was the rallying issue rather than the only problem. This is, recall, before the GI Bill that promises education and loan benefits to veterans, and many Depression-era WWI veterans felt abandoned as they drifted without finding work.

Which brings us to Joan Blondell.

In the musical film Gold Diggers of 1933, the director makes an interesting choice--the final stage number of the story is, rather than a mere flashy song-and-dance scene, a tribute to those downtrodden vets, with a piece entitled "Forgotten Man."




Busby Berkeley, choreographer extraordinaire, said that he was inspired by the Bonus March in creating this number, which impressed producers so much they insisted it switch to the final scene and displace another musical number. He made another interesting choice in this sequence--the inclusion of Etta Moten, an African-American singer, alongside Blondell. In an era when black performers were often not included at all, or relegated to comedic bit parts, the front-and-center performance by a black woman is remarkably progressive. Berkeley also included people of color in another number in the show, "Pettin' in the Park."

The more we change, the more we stay the same, it seems...except our current political issues are rarely eloquently expressed through musical numbers. Which is, I think, quite a shame.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Brief Lesson in Helping Others--Really Brief.

I was having a crappy day. Crappy couple days, actually. Work's been a bit of a drag, just kind of having a rough time of it with some projects not going well.

Then a colleague randomly dropped by my office to ask how some building renovations were going, and then--out of the blue--said some very nice, very honest, very complimentary things about my work.

It took two minutes.

It made me blush.

My day got a lot better.

When's the last time you thought about telling someone they were doing a great job, or always make you smile, or even just look really nice today? When's the last time you actually sent the email or dropped by or said the nice things that were on your mind?

I was reminded today that we never really know the impact our kindness can have on others--I'm making it a point that, when I think someone needs to be recognized for whatever great thing (even if it's little) they're doing in this often crazy and difficult and sludgy world, I'll tell them. Not just think about how great they are. Sometimes helping someone out is as easy as saying what's on your mind.

Random PSA over. Sorry for pontificating. Back to your regularly scheduled awesomeness.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Vacation and Scenic Inspiration

Apologies for the radio silence the past week--I was on vacation. Though there was an abundance of wildlife and hiking trails, gorgeous mountain scenery, and (score!) a nice clean pool, there was a distinct shortage of internet and, even, cell service.

Which was fine by me.

I spent the whole week reading, hiking, swimming, and learning about western Appalachian stuff including whiskey. (Given whiskey's historical nature, I may have to devote a post to "Interesting Things I Discovered about Whiskey" in the near future.)

Still, I packed my laptop, just in case. Mr. Hyaline asked if I planned to write on the trip--I didn't, really. "Oh," he said. "Just if you get inspired by the scenery?"

I laughed at him. I'm not, I replied, one of "those kinds" of writers who gets inspired by every little thing. Pshaw, as if landscape could spur my creativity.

I'm tough enough to admit I was wrong.

And I now have a setting for the third book in the little series I'm a' writin', plus a very, very rough outline. Plus a lot of motivation and excitement.

I couldn't spend five minutes gazing out over the bluff edge from our dinky lodge room balcony without seeing one of my main characters madly in love with this place.

I imagined narrow escapes on fast-moving rivers, and sweat-plastered treks up the sides of steep ridges.


Forests heavy-laden with mosquitos and enemy troops alike. (Our hikes revealed only mosquitos, no enemy pickets.)



And always, always, low, lush, green mountains envelopped in shrouds of mist and cloud.




Well, I learned my lesson. Don't knock it lest ye find yourself falling wholeheartedly into it. So, yes, I was inspired by scenery. I can't wait to visit these places again--even if I only do so by sketching them into words on a page.




How about you? Does travel, or scenery, or landscape inspire your creativity? If you could escape wherever you like to engage in whatever creative activity you wanted, where would you go and what would you create?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Is It Dystopian? Methinks Perhaps Not.

So, ya'll know that I've been working away at a post-apocalyptic project. Which means, of course, that I've been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic books to get myself grounded in what's out there. And one detail has me thoroughly confused.

The line between Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian. It seems to me that many books that I would call Post-Apocalyptic or perhaps even speculative are labelled as Dystopian. I've said in describing my project that it's post-post-apocalyptic and pre-dystopian--it's the story of how the emerging society after life as we know it is kaput tries to prevent the world from going down Ye Darke Road of Dystopia. So, clearly, I enjoy confusing these things more than is truly necessary.

There are some great articles already out there: This flowchart is hilarious, and this blog series explores a lot more deeply than I'm able to today.

But for me? When I think of "Dystopia" I think of the exact opposite of "Utopia." Or, perhaps more precisely, I think of Utopia gone horribly awry. And when I say "Utopia" I mean, in all seriousness, the 1516 book by Thomas More.

Yep.

You thought I wasn't going to go all historical on you today.

Thomas More wrote a rather scary story that was not intended to be frightening about a nonexistent but plausible place in which all of society's ills had been cured. Make no mistake--he is not subtle about this. You know how sometimes you see an allusion to a problem in modern society in sci-fi and are shown how it's been solved? Yep, More's not so crafty--his Part One is a discourse, in the form of a conversation, about What's Wrong with Kids These Days (or, less flippantly, problems of government, use of funds, crime, etc). In Utopia, set vaguely in the New World, these problems have all been addressed, and More describes the solutions and lifestyle.

I said this was a slightly scary story. It is, from a critical point of view. Conformity, control, and enforced communal living are a basis of the invented world. (My personal favorite tidbit--in Utopia, pre-marital sex is punished by lifelong celibacy--try being that parole officer.) But it's not meant to be scary--in More's depiction of Utopia, everyone is hunky-dory with the world they live in, the rulers don't abuse their power, and you, as a reader in sixteenth century England, are supposed to be dazzled by their radical but great ideas and wish you were a Utopian. In fact, my college lit course was split over whether we'd like to live there--and I, even as part of the "heck no" camp, feel I was at least partially influenced by the lessons of the great dystopian books more than an aversion to More's general idea.

Because you know, it could work. The right conditions, the right leadership, could make this society a pleasant one to live in. The wrong conditions, however, the wrong leadership--and it's a terrifying world.

This is where the classic dystopian novels--Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World--get it right. They take a society created to be perfect and make that pursuit of perfection the downfall. Because to enforce perfection, a society needs perfect control. That, I think more than anything else, is what we react to, what we rebel against when reading good dystopian fiction. Yes, the soma holidays in Brave New World appall the reader with an aversion to substance abuse--but it's the carefully created genetic reproductions and the claustrophobic need to toe society's line that really grab us. And you know, they do it without zombies or viruses or anything else to spur them. It happens because people wanted it that way. **Shiver**

(I could wax poetic about how dystopian literature's heavy hitters came out in the first half the 20th century, amidst social movements that scared people and fears of communism. But I won't, because you can draw your own conclusions.)

What about the books that had be confused? When I applied my historically-inspired definition, the classifications clarified for me. For instance--Whither. I read this recently, and while it was a great story, I'm not calling it dystopian. Why? Society was reeling from a biological disaster and the after-effects of widespread war, struggling to get by--not oppressing everyone still around in the name of the good of all. People had the freedom to do as they chose--limited by their circumstances, but still free. It was crappy, sure. But it wasn't, in my view, dystopian. I'd contrast this with the Hunger Games trilogy--I would classify this as dystopian, because the main challenge in living in Panem was not apocalyptic-y survival issues, but lack of agency enforced by the government. The Capitol's control spurs the conflict.

So--my final answer to what is and isn't dystopian: Crappy situation isn't the same as dystopian. Futuristic crappy situation, still not the same. Dystopian societies are deliberate, not created by apocalyptic happenstance. Dystopian societies are marred by the imbalance of freedom, by the pursuit of perfection resulting in the surrender (consensual or forced) of individual agency for communal or governmental control.

And my story? Not dystopian. But the threat of it serves as a motivation for the central conflict.

What do you think? Does my definition miss key points? (Answer: I'm sure it does!) What's the best dystopian book you've read? What about a book billed as dystopian that you'd call something else?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Giant Grasshoppers and Your Story : B Movie Sci-Fi and Writing, Part III



Why Biting Off More than You Can Chew Leads to a Tobacco-Juice-Stained Mess of a Manuscript but Still Isn't All Bad

I've blogged before about my love of B movies and the lessons they can impart to the fiction writer. I dissected the plot of Plan Nine from Outer Space to to discover what didn't work (answer? Nothing worked). I examined the effectiveness of the characters in Eegah (conclusion: when a hairy man-beast from a prehistoric era is your most likeable character, you have a problem).

Last night I indulged in The Beginning of the End, a bad rip-off of Them, in which 1950s hysteria over atomic anything resulted in a movie about a cloud of giant locusts swarming Chicago.

I love a good giant bug movie. Them, The Deadly Mantis, Horrors of Spider Island. All good stuff. In a really bad way. But they can illustrate very well the age-old principle of biting off more than you can chew.

Lesson? If you can't swallow an entire swarm of giant locusts, don't bite one. Or something like that.

So the plot is skimpy, the characters are sketches. I'm not going to nitpick this, because in your average movie about giant bugs, let's be honest--you're going for the giant bugs. Yes, the plot could have been better drawn and we could have had real, rounded characters instead of caricatures. But the problem--the real problem--with End were the bugs themselves.

It seems the creators of the film had just discovered that you could superimpose one film on another, and voila! Giant grasshoppers attacking stock footage of soldiers! Perfect!

Except...it doesn't quite work. In fact, it doesn't work at all. You just get random large bugs scuttling across the screen and not actually interacting with anything.

OK, so we can't be one-trick ponies. I know! We'll have the bugs scale a building! How to pull that off...Yes! We'll have a few grasshoppers climb a postcard of a building! That will work!

Except...the bugs are constantly stepping off the "building", which has a slightly odd glare to it.

What does this have to do with writing? After all, writers aren't special-effects artists. We don't have to worry about low budgets or non-existent technology.

But we still have to know our limits.

I might get crucified for saying this. Still, here's the thing--we're not limited by tech capabilities or dollars in our craft, but we are limited by talent, craft, and know-how. I'm speaking from experience here, not pointing fingers at anyone but myself. Not every idea a writer has is an idea he or she can pull off--at least not yet.

Confession time: one of my drawer novels is a multi-POV project that dealt with a lot of different issues, complicated plotlines, and twists I hoped no one would see coming. There's some good writing in there--I honestly do believe that. But as a whole, it's not there yet. It's not there because I wasn't there when I wrote it. Maybe someday I could revise it and it could be sparkling. Much more likely? I'm going to revise it and pare it down to something I can tackle at the skill level I'm currently at as a writer.

That's the thing about writing--a lot of other creative crafts, too. Unlike athletic prowess or beauty-queen competitions, your abilities as a writer will only improve and expand with time, experience and practice. What you're not able to pull off now--maybe it's a deeply nuanced character or a rip-roaring plot--is something you'll grow into.

What I'm not saying, however, is that you don't try the stuff you can't handle. We don't grow if we don't push ourselves. Write the stuff you're not sure you can do. Dive in. Try it. When it's done, and it's a giant grasshopper mess, don't try to peddle it to the world a la The Beginning of the End. One of the greatest skills in any art is to know when you have a haunting, stunning giant bug film--and when you have a reel of celluloid covered in tobacco juice.*

Practically speaking, this is where flash fiction, short stories, and other non-novel length works can be your friend. Devoting the time to write a novel that's over your head--that's commitment to something rather shaky. (Still not saying it's bad to take the risk--but you don't have to if you don't want to.) But a short story? Experiment. Learn. Grow.
*Other people call the nasty, staining brown spit that grasshoppers produce tobacco juice, right? Or am I a hillbilly?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Importance of Underpinnings

I could subtitle this post "When Costuming and Writing Collide," because I'm going to talk about my two loves today. Last weekend I took a short trip with my extended family, which was a blast--they're the sort of nutty, wonderful family that takes a full five minutes to start in on laughing at how Grandma used to frequent the local topless nightclub because they had good steak.

Anyway.

On our brief foray, we ended up doing something that, surprisingly, I've never done before: we attended a Civil War reenactment. It was a very small affair and it was kind of funny to be on the other side. I refrained from asking every costumed individual "Are those clothes hot?" and "Are you really going to eat that?" but I did enjoy being an observer.

And one thing I noticed, that I've noticed in my own reenacting group, was the importance of underpinnings. Several ladies attended, most with lovely reproduction gowns, but only one woman I saw was wearing a proper corset under her gown.

I could have picked her out of a lineup as being the one who was dressed "right." Yes, I have a trained eye. But I bet you could spot the difference, too, even if you don't have much experience with historical clothing.

I want to reiterate--it was a great event and I am not in any way pointing fingers at these ladies. It was goshawful hot, and corsets are one of the more expensive or difficult things to make or purchase, so if you're starting out, you might not have one yet. Still. The look doesn't lie--with a corset, historical snapshot. Without, lumpy costume.

What the heck does this have to do with writing, you might ask?

Well, I'm going to take a quick tangent to answer that. My husband and I watch a lot of sci-fi--he really loves sci-fi, and I geek out a little on the "softer" sci-fi (I cop to loving Stargate). So we've been watching Stargate on Netflix for awhile, and the alien costumes are always bugging me. And I can't place why. I mean, they're often a little corny, and I swear that one of the races has potholders glued to their shoulders. But something else was off.

They're all wearing modern American underpinnings. That is, I assume this, despite generally not seeing alien skivvies, because the silhouette is built around a modern American silhouette.

How unrealistic is that? Every alien race we encounter would have come up with Hanes? No one would wear corsets? Or chest bindings? Or no underthings (no worries, that link is perfectly safe!)?

So how to apply this to writing. Unless you're writing modern America, don't write your characters in modern American underwear. This might seem trivial, except:

1) Underpinnings dictate the silhouette and shape of the outer clothing. So if clothes are a big thing in the world you're writing, whether it be historical, fantasy, or science fiction, know that the basics are more important than the details when it comes to the final product. Not saying you have to share all this with the reader. But you should know so you can accurately depict your characters' wardrobes if need be.

2) Underpinnings dictate how you move. A person is going to move differently in three layers of petticoats and a tightly-laced corset than in a 1920s style corselet. Think about how the clothes shape movement. If you're wearing stockings, you're careful not to get them snagged. If you've got a codpiece on...well, I've never worn a codpiece, but I'm sure it does something to your movement. Now, this isn't to say that all underpinnings are restricting--I've thoroughly bashed that point in this post. But--something to consider as you "block" your scenes.

3) Underpinnings reflect societal norms, ideals, and expectations. Ok, how about some fun image associations? When you see these women, what characteristics do you think of?

Image One: Early 19th Century:

Image Two: Mid-19th Century:

For me, on the first image, I think of natural, sensual, simplicity. The second, I think of delicate, feminine, romantic. Quite a bit of that is informed by the shape of the dress--in the first, simple brassiere-like corded corsets and minimal petticoats formed a simple, natural shape. In the second, an hourglass corset and domed hoop skirt or petticoats formed a romantic, exaggerated feminine shape. These external displays reflected societal preferences. And while the decor on the outside of the gowns supports this, it all starts with the underthings.

If you're a costumer, do you put underthings first? Or am I off my nut? If you're a writer, have you ever written about underpinnings, or thought about them in your world-building? Any great examples you'd like to share?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Join the Party!

One of my delightful critique partners, Haley Whitehall, is working at a fever-pace to unveil her new website this week. In spite of all the hard word this has entailed, she's up for a celebration, and is inviting everyone interested in a historically inspired, spirited good time to join the party!

The bash is going down on Twitter--just use the Twitter hashtag #LightonHistory on July 14 to get in on the fun!

Read more at Haley's blog! And yes, I'll be there with bells--or maybe a fab costume--on!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Thinking about Schedules

This summer is making me think about schedules. Schedules for writing, deadlines for sewing, to-do lists at work to check off. See, there's something about summer that, even as a grown-up person without a summer vacation, invokes a sort of free-wheeling, schedule shredding attitude. But I've found I work better with something to guide my time--a plan of when I'll do what, or a list of tasks, or a goal that I absolutely, positively can't fail to meet.

Which brings me to a more particular musing.

I tend to blog on a regularly irregular basis. That is to say, no real schedule, but I blog two-three times a week. And no set topics: I blog about whatever I'm thinking about, any particular day. Blogging habits are interesting--some bloggers blog every day, unfailingly, or blog according to other prescribed schedules (MWF, for instance). Some bloggers have daily themes or topics they stick to.

I can see the benefit of a schedule, making you accountable to yourself and your readers. I can also see the downside--I blog because I enjoy it, and don't want to turn it into a chore. Would a regular schedule tie me down? Would selecting specific topics for specific days--ie, Writing on Mondays, Sewing on Thursdays--kill the blog's spirit? (Do blogs have spirits that can be broken?) What do you, as readers, think?

Do you prefer reading blogs with regular schedules?




And another thought--what about regular topics? As a reader, I enjoy knowing I can find a particular feature from a favorite blogger on a weekly basis. At the same time, can these topics start to feel too rigid or flat? Are there some topics that just don't have enough flavor to sustain a weekly meal? If I were to pick up a more regular topical schedule, what topics would you want to see featured regularly?

If I were to blog on a regular schedule, what topics would you prefer to see me cover?



Well, that said--I'm heading off for a long weekend with family, then will be back for only a little while before taking a week's vacation with the Mister. This poll is open for a week--let me know what you think and throw any other ideas into the comments!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tension Makes the Dance

I like stretched comparisons. So when my husband and I were practicing our lindy in the kitchen the other night, and I was paying some extra attention to the tension in our arms and torsos, I started to think about how that related to writing, too. In particular--how tension, as it does in dancing, defines the movement between two partners in a written relationship.

First up--in partnered swing dancing, we use "tension" to mean the body position of both partners, the connection between the two partners, and how the lead's movements direct the follow and the follow responds. (By the way, I use "lead and follow" not "guy and girl" because leads can be girls and follows can be guys! Plus, it's more descriptive of what the roles actually do, and it's not a gender thing--it's a dance thing.) In really good partnered dancing, there aren't "cues" to follow most of the time--where the lead places himself or herself dictates--without so much as a hint--where the follow will go. If, of course, there's good tension.

Body Position Different dances require different proper body positions--in swing, it's athletic and at the ready, more springy than erect. Both partners have to have the right posture for the dance to work at its best. What about writing? Well, if you're going to write a relationship between two characters, you need two characters. I may have just made what seems to be a "duh" statement--but how many drafts, or even published works, have you read where one of the characters doesn't stand up on his or her own? Both characters need good posture, and it needs to be right posture for the relationship. You're going to have a really awkward dance if one person is in upright ballroom position and the other is in athletic, slightly crouched lindy stance. They'll have to learn to dance together if they start out in different postures!

The Connection The connection in dance refers to the places where the lead and follow touch. Take a look at Fred and Ginger:
Their connection points are at Ginger's back where Fred's hand is, at Fred's shoulder where Ginger's hand is, and their clasped hands. The most obvious connection point is the clasped hands--you see these the most in the fancy moves, because she's going to turn under his arm and he'll appear to be leading her with that hand most of the time.

He's not. It's a lie. The strongest connection point is his hand on her back. When you have a good connection, a follow should feel like the lead's hand is glued to her back except when he wants it gone, and she'll try to keep the hand where it's supposed to be. This will direct a lot of her movement--where he goes, she goes; if he turns, she goes where the hand directs her to go, which may be away from him or with him.

So, where do your characters connect? Is is an obvious but superficial spot like the hands? If you lose your grip, the you've got no other connection. Or is it a more solid spot, allowing them to communicate and dance together? This is one place where writers often develop the relationship through the story--you see the hands only at first, but the plot reveals or creates other ways the two are connected.

One other point--with good connection, the movement is organic, borne out of the connection and the lead's movement. The lead isn't shoving or pulling the follow. So, too, with your characters--one character shouldn't feel like he or she is forcing the other (unless that's a particular issue your characters are going to have to work out).

The Tension Itself So here's the thing--you can have good posture and a great connection, but still no tension. Tension is the resistance that the partners give each other. If one person has noodle arms, you have no tension, and the lead can't tell the follow to do anything. Imagine a cooked noodle--you push on it, it just flops. On the flip side, too much tension and you'll be too stiff to communicate with. The lead can't get through to a too-tense follow, and a follow can't tell if she's being led to do anything if the lead's tension is too heavy. Imagine a piece of uncooked spaghetti--push it too much and it breaks.

So, basically, characters can't be noodles, cooked or uncooked.

To make a relationship enjoyable to read--to make it a real dance--there needs to be tension. When the lead pushes, the follow gives--a little. Not all the way. This keeps them developing the relationship--too much tension and there's no give, no keeping the reader involved in the hopes that something will develop. Too little tension and the story just folds on itself--it's a done deal before it's really begun to develop.

And one more thing...it's supposed to be fun! (See, these folks dancing at the Savoy are having fun.) Sure, any developing relationship will have its angst--dancing with a new partner means getting used to all their little nuances and learning the moves they know that you don't. You're going to bonk your follow in the head or step on your lead's toes. But if it's all head-bonks and toe steps in your story, your readers are going to get bored. They want some fun, too--not just angst.

If your favorite romantic pairing in a book, or your current WIP's characters, danced out their relationship, what dance would it be?