hrj: (Default)
 This is inspired by a discussion in the car driving back from participating on today's Women's March in Walnut Creek. (I was able to join a group of local friends to march together, which was so much more satisfying than going by myself.)

There's a lot of discussion of how progressive politics get undermined by "ideological purity" or what I've tended to call "portmanteau politics", i.e., the idea that people need to be unified on all positions in order to work together on any position. It's not a new phenomenon by any means. I can still remember back in the '70s and '80s how there were groups that felt you couldn't be a "real" feminist unless you were also a vegetarian. Or that to be truly anti-war one needed to be a complete pacifist and anti-gun. The list goes on and on. As a personal observation, it seemed as if the more closely aligned a particular social or political group was, the less tolerant they became of any remaining differences. And we see a lot of fracturing currently around priorities and intersectionalism and erasure of some of the most marginalized groups from larger movements. It is real, and it is a problem, and it should always be kept in mind.

But I'd like to look at progressive politics through the lens of the sort of conceptual category structure that I studied as part of a cognitive linguistics program. A lens that looks at categories (like "progressive politics") not as a fixed list, or a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, but as structured by things like concept-clusters and linked radial models, and fuzzy "goodness of fit" ideas.

One of the standard student exercises when I TAed classes on this material is to analyze the category "mother". Not as some sort of definitively describable set of characteristics, but in a way that captures all the different ways in which people use the word, and the ways in which they assign value to the relevant characteristics, and the ways in which the idea is extended and transferred and morphed into new uses. How do you describe the category of "mother" such that you could apply it equally validly to two individuals who share no relevant traits between them? This may appear to be a simple question, but even among the six people in the car this afternoon, it was immediately apparent that there was a diversity of opinions on which characteristics "counted most". How much more complicated is it to identify "the set of political principles that best represent liberty, equality, and justice"?

I think this is the sort of thinking we need to start bringing to the progressive movement. I think we need to construct an understanding of "progressive politics" that can see the underlying essential connections between principles, struggles, and actions even between two people who might not share any specific concern in common. I'm obviously not saying that "progressivism" can be expanded to include any sort of principle at all. Only that there are underlying connected concepts that can be found that can join people together even when they may disagree on specific actions. Identifying those connecting principles is not merely desirable, but essential, for we cannot each address every worthy goal simultaneously. And we need principles that will enable us to recognize and appreciate those who are working on a different part of puzzle, who are building a different part of the house, who may be making the dishes on which the food we are growing will eventually be served, courtesy of the labor of cooks yet to come.

These connections will involve constant negotiation and evaluation. They will almost certainly involve occasionally feeling uncomfortable with one's political bedfellows. But a successful progressive movement cannot be a fixed portmanteau of positions that one signs on to, all or nothing. That route leads only to the final schism between the last two "true progressives" once they identify the remaining issue on which they, too, disagree. 
hrj: (LHMP)

I’ve probably written on this topic before, but it’s one that’s very much at the heart of much of my historic research (and historical fiction), and one where I’ve watched a lot of evolution of approach in academia over the decades.

One of the strongest preoccupations driving the early beginnings of LGBTQ history--actually, let’s be bluntly honest and call it “gay and lesbian history” at those early beginnings--was the identification of historic figures who could be “claimed for the team.” The building of team rosters, as it were. Given an awareness of the strong forces of heteronormativity in most historic cultures, and of how evidence for non-normative sexuality tended to be left unrecorded, suppressed when discovered, discounted, and all the other techniques of erasure, there was a tendency to take any scrap of evidence for same-sex desire and to count it as overriding the rest of a historic figure’s life story.

On an emotional level, the impulse was understandable. After so long of being told that we were historic aberrations, that we had no history--in the face of even researchers of gay and lesbian history assuring us that sexuality was entirely a cultural construct and that our own identities had no meaning outside our own little window of space-time--there was a fierce...let us say, “pride” in reaching back into the ages and staking a claim: “this person was one of us, we are like them, they were like us.”

But a big problem with the metaphor of ownership is that it’s grounded in the framework of tangible, physical control and co-location. If I own an object, no one else can own it. In the realm of “owning” historic figures, this metaphor leads to the notion that if one is going to claim a person in the past as gay or lesbian, then they cannot be anything else. They cannot belong to anyone else. And if they do belong to another group, then they have been taken away from us--stolen, in the language of physical possession.

The other side of the “ownership of history” problem is the ways in which the pool of potential “owners” shifts over time with shifting understandings of intersectional identity (and even--to the extent that social constructionism is valid--shifts in the existence and nature of identity-categories). Thus, in the initial exuberance of the “owning gay and lesbian history” movement, next to no consideration was given to questions of bisexuality or to gender identities rooted in something other than physiology or to differences in the experience and expression of desire. In part, this was because there were a lot of conversations around those topics that simply hadn’t evolved sufficiently yet. In part, it was due to the relative(!) social power of gay and lesbian academics compared to those studying bisexual or trans topics. In part, it was a realization (conscious or not) of the necessary power of extremes: that certain progress of historic understanding could not be made without the shock value of statements like “Leonardo da Vinci was gay and Queen Christina of Sweden was lesbian” as opposed to presenting a more nuanced (and more accurate) but less controversial position.

I came back to contemplating this topic earlier this week when author Cheryl Morgan brought my attention on twitter to an article she had written considering Radclyffe Hall (and her semi-autobiographical character Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness) as a trans man rather than as a butch lesbian. I touched more briefly on this consideration in my commentary on Esther Newton’s 1984 article about Hall and her best-known character.

How then, as a lesbian and a lesbian historian, is one to react emotionally to the hypothesis that the author of what is probably the most iconic early novel of lesbian identity might equally (or more?) validly be understood as a trans man? I say “emotionally” very deliberately. From an academic point of view, data is data and analysis is analysis. But emotionally? That’s something different. That depends on how one constructs historic similarity and category membership.

This emotional question has haunted the relationship between lesbian and transmasculine identities literally for thousands of years. At the very least, since Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe presented the only possible and imaginable resolution (much less the only happy one) to being an assigned-female-at-birth person in love with a woman was to identify as--and physically transform into--a man. In researching lesbian-like themes in pre-modern history, one of the emotional frustrations for me is this recurring trope: that to love a woman inherently means that one must be a man. It wasn’t the only pre-modern understanding of same-sex desire, but it was certainly the one most prevalent in literature. (This is a topic I keep meaning to come back to in more depth, but it's rather fraught and I don't think I'm ready yet.)

To claim those literary characters and their real-life counterparts (such as Eleno de Cispedes or Catherina Linck) as “lesbian” under the metaphor of historical ownership is to deny the very obvious transgender interpretation and to “steal” them from transgender ownership. But to categorize every literary character who received a magical/divine sex change in order to facilitate their Happily Ever After with a woman, to categorize every “passing woman” or “female husband” or “mannish Amazon” as a trans man (or as being significantly toward the transmasculine end of a gender continuum) is to ignore the immense pressure of cultural models, historic misygyny, and the erasure of less visibly transgressive persons from our understanding of history.

This is where I keep circling back to my thesis that the underlying issue in these emotional conflicts is not that of identifying the precisely correct category membership of historic persons and characters, but of abandoning the idea of “historic ownership” based on categorical assignment. I remain quite skeptical about the idea that the internal experience of gender and sexuality is socially constructed, but I’m quite happy to embrace the notion that the categories we use to organize and label those experiences are entirely organized via the larger and ever-shifting cultural conversation. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen massive changes in the organization and understanding of categories and category membership on the lesbian end of the scale. How then could I assume that the categories understood and used by people in previous centuries would correspond sufficiently to the ones we use today such that we could argue over ownership?

It is too simplistic to say that we should abandon the idea of “owning” history entirely. To do so runs too great a risk of a de facto “ownership” by the most powerful and privileged cultural forces--the ones most able to take over the conversation and talk over the other voices. One only needs to look at the histories of non-dominant cultures and peoples in an ethnic/racial context to see the danger in that direction. But I think it’s important not to see “historic ownership” as a zero-sum game. Radclyffe Hall can be an icon for both lesbians and transmen. Iphis and Ianthe can be a mythic narrative for both. The early modern cultural model of “passing women / female husbands” provided a conceptual space for both lesbians and trans men to negotiate their way through a hostile society. History is not a ball that only one person can play with at a time.

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)

Under what circumstances am I a man writing gay sci-fi?

If the above question seems nonsensical to you, consider the possibility that it is because you are the default member of most categories you are included in. I put out a brainstorming call for today’s Random Thursday blog and got a request to talk about “the generic ‘man’” in the context of writing about female characters in a patriarchal society. As usual with random prompts, I reserve the right to go off in entirely different directions with a topic than intended. So I’m going to talk about the extra emotional tax of being a non-default case.

To begin with, let’s note the categories in which I am the unmarked default. For example, I’m white. And although I’m an atheist raised in a non-conformist religious tradition (Quakers), my cultural heritage can reasonable be described as generic Protestant. So if I’m buying something labeled “flesh-tone” I can expect that the color will match the tone of my flesh. And if a workplace schedules days off to coincide with religious holidays, I can expect that they will correspond with the days I grew up celebrating as holidays. So this essay isn’t about “poor, poor, pitiful me”, it’s about using the experiences I can best speak to in making my point, rather than appropriating someone else’s experiences to do so.

Talking about the “generic man” or “generic he” is a useful starting point, because it’s a discussion many people have had at some point. You know, the one about how “man” just means “person of any gender” and should be understood as such, not made a fuss over for being off-putting and exclusionary. Because a job listing that says, “we’re looking for a man who can do X” couldn’t possibly be intended to convey “and we aren’t allowed say so but we really don’t intend to hire a woman for this job”. Except of course when it does mean that. But in some ways, the ubiquity of the “generic man” makes it less useful as an example. So let’s talk about writing gay sci-fi.

Because I don’t. Except, of course, when I do.

Navigating the online categorization and labeling of orientation-related fiction means constantly having to investigate and evaluate and ask whether “gay” means “male homosexual”[*] or whether it means “homosexual of any gender” or whether it means “anyone in the LGBTQ spectrum” or whether it means “we want the progressive cachet of claiming we’re inclusive of the whole LGBTQ spectrum but when it comes down to it male homosexuals are the only group we care about.”

[* I realize the “h word” can sound dreadfully antiquated these days, but sometimes it carries the gender neutrality one needs for the purpose.]

A good example is the small Seattle book conference “Gay Romance North-West”. When I first heard of it, my reaction was, “Well, it’s almost certainly limited to m/m books, given the name.” But because I can’t afford to ignore possible opportunities, I paid the extra emotional tax of investigating the group in detail to see if my impression was correct. I say “extra tax” because I neither had the ability assume that my work would be included nor could I rely on the efficiency of being certain that it wouldn’t. As it happened, I was both right and wrong. The name had been established when the group was m/m centered, but the conference was non-specific. So last year I attended. But in addition to the “extra tax” of determining the exact definition intended, I pay the extra tax of attending an event whose name will more easily draw attendees who assume the default topic of m/m rather than expecting (or even seeking out) books with other orientations.

More often, I pay the non-default-tax in lost opportunity. If a review site, or a publicity opportunity, or a conference, or what have you identifies itself as “gay”, I just cross if off with the expectation that 80% of the time it specifically does intend to exclude me, maybe 15% of the time my presence would be tolerated but in no way supported, and the remaining 5% of the time may participation may be actively desired be I’m going to end up being marginalized anyway for the above reasons.

So what about sci-fi?

If you want to hear religious debates, ask a wide cross-section of people whether the category “sci-fi” includes fantasy. I use “sci-fi” rather than “science fiction” advisedly, although many of the same debates can be had for the longer form. In much the same way as “man” or “gay”, the category sci-fi can always be assumed to incorporate “science fiction”, but one pays an extra effort-tax to determine whether any specific usage welcomes fantasy.

The facebook/online group Queer Sci-Fi explicitly welcomes writers and readers of fantasy. The relatively new subgenre category of “sci fi romance” has solidly established an expectation that fantasy is excluded. The acceptance of fantasy as an integral part of the World Science Fiction Convention is taken for granted today, but if you go far enough back (or scratch deep enough beneath some surfaces) that acceptance becomes more tenuous. If I am in a literary venue that identifies itself using the label “sci fi” or “science fiction”, I pay the extra tax of having to determine whether fantasy is considered off-topic.

So there you have it. Picked apart into its components, and encountered in the right context, I might be perfectly acceptable to someone looking for “a man who writes gay sci-fi”. But it sure as hell isn’t the way to bet. And if that’s what you’re advertising for, don’t be surprised if people like me don’t even bother to ask.

My primary blog has moved, but feel free to comment in either place.

hrj: (doll)
Today's heading is from what is probably my favorite line in The Mystic Marriage, when Jeanne has thrown a bunch of random ores and chemicals into a crucible, describing them in terms of all her conflicting and chaotic emotions, and presents it to Antuniet saying, "This is my heart. I don't know if it will come through the fire, but it's yours, if you will have it." (This may be paraphrased; I'm typing it from memory.)

One of the extremely difficult things for me about self-promotion (and I'm not trying to speak for anyone else) is that it's a chaotic mixture of conflicting relationships. There's one relationship where I have created a widget and I'm making people aware of the existence of that widget in case they might find it useful and be willing to spend money for it. There's one relationship where I've submitted the work of my brain and hands for evaluation, and I'm soliciting judges to tell me whether it's any good. There's one relationship where I have created a gift of love and I'm desperately hoping it won't be the equivalent of the ugly sweater that gets stuck in the back of the closet.

But for me, personally, there's also the relationship where my writing is the equivalent of putting on my fancy duds, spending an hour at the mirror doing my face, and going out to a club hoping someone will want to dance with me. Or the equivalent of a peacock's tail, spread out to attract the attention of a potential flock. This aspect applies to all my writing, not just the fiction. It's my way of enticing people to look twice, to pause a moment and consider entering into some sort of interaction with me. You may say, "Look at that peacock--he thinks he's all that. Showing off so proudly." But the peacock's just working what he was given to work with. A peacock isn't going to attract attention with his beautiful song. Or with his ability to build a nest. Or by performing aerial acrobatics. We've assigned him the attribute of pride and vanity, but that's not why he's spreading his tail. He's just working with what he has.

And for me? Words are what I have. I don't always know if they will come through the fire. But they're yours, if you will have them.
hrj: (doll)
For the last several years, blogger K T Grant has hosted a month of guest-blogs about writing and reading lesbian-oriented fiction. This is the second year I've been able to participate, with an essay invoking the image of a jig-saw puzzle to emphasize the importance of portraying a wide variety of characters, experiences, and dreams in one's fiction. You can read it here.
hrj: (doll)
So there I am at the end of an intense multi-departmental meeting at work affecting one of my investigations, and in frustration I declaim, "Sometimes the assay is valid and yet the elephant is still purple." It was something I came up with on the spur of the moment. I've been finding myself doing that with increasing frequency: trying to break through communication gaps with a colorful (literally) and unexpected metaphors. Sometimes it's clear what I'm trying to convey; sometimes (as with the purple elephant) it needs a bit more unpacking. In the case of the purple elephant, the underlying communication is, "If your QC assay meets all the criteria for an acceptable process, and yet the test result that it produces is completely implausible in the face of everything else we know, maybe we need to re-visit what it means for an assay to be 'valid'." If you have a purple elephant in front of you, stop arguing that everyone knows that elephants aren't purple and that there's no mechanism by which an elephant could become purple.

Everyone's used to thinking of metaphors as colorful figures of speech, like the purple elephant. But the metaphors we need to watch out for are the ones that sneak in under the radar. The ones that both represent and shape our thought processes about how the world works. Because, in the end, they are still figures of speech (or figures of thought) and not a literal, true representation of the world and our experience in it.

Today's random blog was a prompt from a friend on facebook who suggested that I tackle, "sports metaphors and why not to use them." I wasn't able to get further clarification before writing this, so I have to go with what it sparks on its own.

One of the things my PhD research covered is metaphor theory. (Along with historic linguistics and medieval Welsh and prepositions and assorted other things.) I sometimes have fun claiming that I'm a doctor of metaphor. But while the linguistic study of metaphor can include poetic figures of speech, the field I studied in (cognitive linguistics) looks more at how metaphor communicates and structures meaning, and how that meaning is processed in both productive and destructive ways.

As a brief example, one of the systematic metaphors used in English (and keep in mind that not all cultures and languages share the same metaphors) is that events and activities of all sorts can be represented as physical motion through space. And, as a special case, that purposeful activity can be represented as an intentional journey through space. So we talk about "taking the first steps", about "encountering roadblocks", about "veering off on a tangent". Our activities have "goals", our co-workers can be "fellow travelers" (yes, I'm aware of the political history of that one), we may struggle with a "steep learning curve" (because it's harder to get some place if you're climbing a hill than walking on the flat). And on an even more abstract level, we talk about future states as some place you are "going" to. (Compare "I'm going to San Francisco tomorrow," with "I'm going to bake bread tomorrow.") Ease and difficulty, complexity and simplicity, cooperation and hindrance. All these things are familiar to us from moving through the world, and they make a convenient way of expressing our experience of less physical experiences. Pretty innocuous, right?

But one of the things that cognitive linguistics can demonstrate experimentally (by studying things like reaction time, differential responses, pupil dilation, and other things not under the experimental subject's voluntary control) is that the use of different metaphoric representations of a concept affects how we think about that concept. And, unlike the purple elephant, if the metaphor is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we don't need to process it consciously, or have it explained, then those effects on our thinking may also go unnoticed. We may mistake a "figure of speech" for a law of nature.

Take, for example, one of the current and popular metaphors in English for the experience of anger. "Boiling mad", "all steamed up", "under pressure", "need to blow off steam", "blow his top", "simmering rage". When the examples are brought together, it becomes clear that we have a mental model for anger that represents it as a steam boiler. The person experiencing the emotion is a solid container for water; incidents that provoke anger are the application of heat; the degree of heat and the effects it has on the water correspond to the intensity of the anger.

If all this were just a descriptive mechanism, that would be one thing. But then we move from describing the experience of the emotion to reasoning about appropriate actions to take in response to that experience. If a steam boiler becomes very hot, the steam creates internal pressure that must either be used for productive work (driving an engine--although notice how this part of the model is rarely invoked), or must be reduced (by opening a safety valve, "blowing off steam"), unless we want to have an industrial disaster where the body of the boiler is breached violently by the internal pressure ("blowing up", "blowing its top"). So if someone is angry, we reason, it's ok to allow them to act out and punch a wall, or yell, or throw things, because the alternative is for them to "explode".

Furthermore, we reason, anger/steam-pressure is the inevitable result of external input. If you heat the boiler, it will experience internal pressure. The boiler has no choice or agency. It's all the fault of the heat source. So, using this metaphor, the angry person isn't responsible for their anger, it's all the fault of the external forces that provoke that anger.

And yet, anger is not steam pressure. An angry person is not a boiler under pressure. Expressing anger is not the release of hot pressurized gas. None of this is "real". And one of the easiest ways to realize this is to contemplate how people talked and thought about anger before the industrial revolution. Before accidents involving over-pressurized steam boilers were something people had familiarity with.

So…sports metaphors. Team sports are a familiar experience and a rich source of descriptive metaphor. You're playing on the same team. It's important to score goals. Scoring goals results in defeating the other team. You have a game plan. There are rules of the game that everyone agrees to; if they don't then they aren't playing the same game. Not following the rules is cheating. There are referees who get to make judgments about whether something is cheating or not. Some people are on the field and others are on the sidelines. Some people are athletes and others are spectators.

All of that is language about sport itself. But we all take that language (and the underlying concepts that it represents) and apply it to a lot of concepts and activities that are not sports. And when we do that, we may be reasoning about those "target concepts" in ways that are meaningful to the sport, but not to the target. It's always a good idea to think about the language we're using, to recognize when we're applying metaphoric thinking, and to step back (there's a metaphor again!) and consider other ways we could talk--and think--about the topic at hand.

Metaphoric thinking isn't something to try to erase or eliminate. It isn't "bad". I'm not going to argue that one shouldn't use sports metaphors. But the specific metaphors we use can trick us into drawing unexamined conclusions and mistaking those conclusions for some sort of cosmic truth. I don't know if that's what my prompter was thinking about, but it's where I took it.
hrj: (doll)
Over on another blog where we've been squeeing about the hit musical Hamilton, I posted some thoughts I've been having on the above subject line. I'd been dithering about posting them here, but that community has gotten distracted by other events, so I figured if I hoped to have any discussion, this was a good place to repost them.

* * *

There's something I've been ruminating about regarding Hamilton -- something that doesn't in any way take away from the delight I have in the work. It's this: in the midst of examining the question of "who tells your story", and "who controls the narrative", and recognizing the agency of the women who are portrayed in this work, and opening one's eyes to new understandings that come from taking an intersectional perspective on history...

In the midst of all that, I keep coming back to thinking about not just "who tells your story?" but "whose story gets told?"

Within this particular historic and social context, and within this particular artistic and performative context, it also matters whose stories get chosen to be told. Whose stories can be told in particular ways, in particular contexts, and to particular types of reception.

A historian selects a particular subject for study ... no, let's take a step farther back. Our age and context privileges particular people as historians. A historian selects a particular subject for study. A publisher chooses to promote a particular biography outside the siloed academic book market. A talented artist takes note of a particular publication and that work, rather than some other work sparks inspiration. Every step along the way contains both of those questions, yoked in harness: who tells the story and whose story gets told?

That's pretty much the extent of my ruminations. I'm a bit worried that even bringing it up will seem like criticism: don't step outside the safe and narrow unless you're going to be perfectly perfect in every way. Don't be intersectional because it's impossible to intersect every plane in existence simultaneously.

But this question is a lens that I can't help but bring to every piece of history and historic interpretation that I consume. My own amateur historical research is very much focused on the question of "whose story gets told?" and it's not something I can dial down very easily. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project is pretty much entirely about both questions. Whose stories make it into the historic record at all? And who are the gatekeepers who both decide what gets told and how?

Hamilton--for as much as I truly and sincerely love it and the way it has been interpreted--is the story of a man. And, despite the race-bending musical interpretation, a white man. One who, despite his initial disadvantages, was supported and promoted and given opportunities that people who were not white and not male would not have been. And despite the emphasis in the musical on how his legacy was shaped and curated by the women in his life, it is still his legacy and life that we are focused on. And when it comes down to it, we don't focus on the stories of white men because those are the only interesting stories out there to tell.

Whose story gets told? And why? And who else's stories out there are equally fascinating, equally inspiring, that don't make it through all those filters and gates?
hrj: (doll)
Today's randomness prompt comes from Cathy Little over on facebook. (I'm never sure if people want to have their different platform presences connected, so I'm sticking to where the prompt was made.)

She asks: How did you know you wanted to/decide to write? [My daughter]* spends her free time writing stories.

(*Name redacted.)

I love this question, because answering it goes into all the different ways that writing can be a passion in one's life. I think there are two reasons to take up writing: because you're passionate about it, and simply doing so gives you joy; and because you're good at it, and doing so helps you make a living. I have the good luck to be able to intersect those two, although not necessarily always at the same time.

My joke is that I can date my writing career to second grade when I plagiarized my first poem. (Hey, the teacher said "write down a poem", she didn't specify "compose" as opposed to "inscribe on paper". It's not my fault she jumped to the wrong conclusion about authorship.)

My first original story was a collaboration with my older brother that we did as a combined history/english/penmanship final project the year we lived in Prague and were being home-schooled by our mother. (I was 11, he was 12.) This was entitled The Travels of a Time Machine and involved a trio of kids visiting all manner of key historic events with the time machine they built in the garage. (In retrospect, it's an excellent study in how we internalize misogynistic literary tropes. The two active characters were the boys who invented the machine and planned the trip, while the girl was the annoying tag-along comic relief, who also served as an "everyman" point of view because she didn't know in advance where the time machine was going. So the reader, through her POV, had to work it out from clues.)

I wrote a lot of emo poetry in my junior high years, keeping it private by the mechanism of composing it in a language I'd invented. The next actual stories I remember writing were for a high school English class on science fiction. There was a strong theme of "I'm really an alien from another planet and some day my people will come back for me." (See: emo poetry.)

But I didn't start working on longer pieces until my year off after graduating high school. The logistical reason for having the year off was that my Dad once again had a sabbatical year (like the one we spent in Prague) the year I should have been a senior, so rather than either trying to finish up at an American school in Munich or come back and do my senior year after a break, I just finished high school a year early. This left me free to do a lot of creative projects that year, along with sightseeing and teaching myself calculus. (Also doing some support work for my Dad's research, punching computer data cards and manually processing complex equations on a hand calculator. Kids, let me tell you about state-of-the-art technology in 1975…)

One thing we didn't have an excess of that year in Munich was English-language reading materials. This probably had a major effect on the amount of time I spent writing stories. I think I still have the output of that year in file folders somewhere. (I should probably get around to burning them.) I made a good start on maybe half a dozen various novels, all science fiction/fantasy of some sort. Mostly social/ecological fantasies exploring alien societies of various sorts, I think.

I wasn't really thinking in terms of writing for anyone else at that point. If asked, I'd say that I needed to write in order to get the stories out of my head because it was getting too crowded in there. (I think I wrote some emo poetry along this theme.) I had one dedicated reader that year in Munich: my youngest brother, who was so desperate for something--anything--to read that he was willing to make the deal that I'd let him read my stories as long as he never, ever commented on them. This probably wasn't necessary as a specification since it was hard to extract his opinion on things at the best of times back then.

When I started college, I continued writing extended fantasy worlds, returning to the use of invented languages as a technique for getting plot-prompts, as well as for exploring and developing the societies I was inventing. But I still didn't really have a writing community to participate in. There are times I'm so jealous of young people who are part of amateur writing groups, sharing their work with each other and getting feedback. No doubt such things existed. (I later found out that some girls I knew in high school were writing fan-fic at the time, but even though I'd tried to reach out to them, knowing we had common interests in SFF, I never managed to connect.) I did some creative writing for a college English class, but neither the teacher nor the other students had an interest in genre writing, so the only real feedback I got was, "I don't get this." I think I submitted one of the stories I wrote back then to a magazine, was rejected, and really had no idea where one went from there. I think I've written previously on the absence of mentors in my writing career.

But I wrote a lot, and plotted out even more stories than I wrote. And I did it just for my own enjoyment because there wasn't really anything else.

After college, I finally found science fiction fandom and had a chance at connecting with like-minded people. At this point, I'd shifted my writing output mostly into song lyrics, both in the context of the SCA and filk singing (though I was much more into writing original fantasy-based songs than parodies). The advantage of writing songs in this context was that there was a built-in venue for sharing them with people. The disadvantage was that sharing them required me to overcome paralyzing stage fright. In the long run, this was probably a good thing. I believed in my songs enough to want to break through. Song-writing was also a great exercise in paying very close attention to word choice and structure.

In the early '90s when I started grad school, I pretty much stopped writing songs. There are various reasons for that, but it would derail this particular essay. But I returned to writing stories, both novel-like-objects and--in yet another case of serendipitous context--short stories. Because when I needed a part-time job to support me in grad school (at least until I was able to take on TA jobs), I fell into working at a small SFF magazine. There's nothing quite like hanging out with authors and publishers to inspire any tendencies one has in that direction. And there's nothing quite like hanging out with published authors (and publishers) to give you opportunities to get your own work published. So by the time I finished grad school, not only did I have two novel drafts completed (one of which had been making the rounds of rejections) and several others in various stages, but I had 6 short stories published in professional venues.

Once the dissertation was finished and I could think about being creative again, I started working on the manuscript that became Daughter of Mystery. There are a lot of unfinished and unpublished stories in my files, both paper and electronic. Some may eventually get worked on again, some are best considered worthwhile practice of the craft but nothing that's worth a reader's time. (Unless the reader is stuck for an extended period without any other available reading matter.) But to get back the prompt that started this essay: When did I know I wanted to write? That doesn't even feel like a meaningful question. There was never any "want", it was always just "do". One might as well ask, "When did I know I wanted to breathe?" And that's the advice I'd give to aspiring writers. If you can substitute the word "breathe" for "write" and everything you say still makes sense, then you probably have what it takes to be a writer. And then it doesn't matter whether you're a professional writer or a published writer. The point is that you're a breathing writer.
hrj: (doll)
Why do I blog?

I ask that question on a regular basis. Sometimes I ask it as a whiny sort of "why do I even bother?" when it seems like I'm pouring my heart into this site and nobody even notices. Sometimes I ask it as a prompt to inspire me to get back to basic principles, when I'm looking for topics to write on. Sometimes when I'm re-organizing the structure of blog topics, I use it as a touchstone to prioritize what goes into that structure.

One answer was laid out in my very first LiveJournal post, on November 9, 2005 -- slightly over ten years ago:

I come from a long line of diarists. And I've been starting to feel a desire for some way of keeping connected with family, friends, and acquaintances in a more regular and more broadcast manner. Something more casual than individual communication but more personal and immediate than my web site. One of the clinchers came earlier this year when my mother had a cancer scare and I found myself desperately wanting a way to shout, "AAARRRRRRGHHHH!" to the world in general without the individual intrusiveness of e-mailing or phoning specific people.

[Note for those more newly come to my blog: my mother survived that one but succumbed to the next, six years ago.]

As an introvert, I often find blogging to be a more comfortable way of maintaining social ties than in-person gatherings, once those ties have been established. And similarly, as an introvert, I find interactions on blogs to be a way of building up a comfort level with new acquaintances or people I see only rarely, so that when we do interact in person, I'm less likely to freeze up and look for a hiding place. I don't do "instant friends"; I build relationships up in the long, slow laying down of layers. LiveJournal worked better for this before everyone moved to facebook. I'm not really a facebook sort of personality. I communicate in essays.

But a lot of my blogging falls more in the category of "content". So why do I do that? There are two main reasons, coming from very different angles.

1) Research is my life and soul. And sharing that research with others is both a way of giving to the world and motivating myself to work in a more organized fashion. If you've ever wandered around in my personal web site you know that "organized" is a relative term here. But having a place to "publish" drives me on to complete projects in manageable chunks. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project was a "gee it would be fun" idea for many years that only came to fruition when I hit on making it part of my blogging schedule. There are a lot of other things like that if you poke around my personal site.

2) Let's face it: I'm deeply insecure about my relationship to other people and the question of why anyone would want to talk to me or spend time with me. It's not rational, but it's there. And providing "content" is the bait on the fishhook. "See? I'm nobody, but I can write shiny things. Do you like the shiny writing?" There's a weird difference between the fiction and the non-fiction. Every time I promote my fiction, it's the emotional equivalent of going in for a job interview. "Let me impose on your time long enough to beg you to possibly consider that I might in some small fashion provide value to your life." But posting research and non-fictional blogs feels more like standing on a street corner handing out twenty dollar bills. People might walk on by, but if they take one, I have confidence that it wasn't out of pity for me.

And yet the inevitable shifts on the internet landscape require a constant re-evaluation of "why I blog." The interactive/community aspect has declined, not only on LiveJournal but on most personal blogs. Fewer than half my posts get any comments at all. The LHMP gets extremely few, which makes it hard to tell whether it's providing value to anyone besides myself. My blog is no longer the place where I shout "ARRRRRGGGGGHHHH!" to the world, and definitely not the place that I keep in contact with my family. None of my social media provides the sort of diary function that I originally envisioned. Even locked accounts feel too exposed and public for those sorts of thoughts.

Perhaps it remains simply a place to say, "I am here. I exist. See me."
hrj: (doll)
I don't tend to talk much about politics in my social media. I don't tend to share or re-post things to show what I support or oppose or to draw attention to worthy causes. It isn't because I don't care, but because I care deeply and achingly about so many things. Every moment of every day is filled with somebody's pain and horror and injustices so deep that it's doubtful they can ever be healed. There is no benefit to my caring. The horror I feel at the state of the world does no good for me or for anyone else. Nor has that horror touched me personally (although it has touched people I care about personally, on occasion). And I'm well aware that the intellectual horror I feel is nothing in comparison to the grinding, inescapable despair that so many other people live under on a moment by moment basis.

I don't tend to post things about specific individual events because who am I to say, "This horror is more worthy of attention than all those others"? I could rehearse the tragedies of the world every minute of every day and still neglect more than I recognize. In the same way that I could pour every minute and every penny of my resources into trying to address them and make no useful dent on even a single one.

And, in the inevitable way of things, I do care for some horrors more than others. And I do make my pitiful attempts to address some and not others. But for the most part I prefer to make these choices in private. Because they're my choices and not a judgement on the intensity of the horror or the worthiness of the cause. From the outside, it may look like I don't care and I don't act. I'm ok with that, because my caring any my little actions are nothing, really. Nothing to anyone except to me.

Most of the time it feels like the only truly useful thing I can do for others is to keep on with life, and try to be a good and kind and just person, and perhaps to create a few things that bring other people joy. It isn't enough, but it's something.
hrj: (doll)
While internet culture didn’t invent concerns around the question of anonymity and pseudonymity in public interactions, it has created interesting new tensions and opportunities, as well as ramping up the consequences (both good and bad) of the mutability of online identity.

I have been both lucky and privileged in my online interactions with regard to identity. I haven’t made any particular effort to keep my identity information hidden, though I am careful in some cases about what sorts of information I put online at all. But I’ve never had the misfortune of becoming a target for online malice of the sort that can make life hell. (I had brushes with that sort of thing in a couple of Usenet groups where being opinionated and female meant certain people consider me fair game. But Usenet was already going down the tubes at that point, so I lost very little.) And I’ve never been in a position where online malice had any chance of costing me my livelihood, my friends, my freedom, or my life. I say this all as preface to a discussion where I lay out an attitude toward online identity that not everyone would be able to maintain. It is my stand and not a judgment on anyone else’s.

When I was in junior high, my 8th grade English class was doing a couple of plays—not stage performances, just in the classroom. For reasons that I had a hard time articulating, I quietly traded the relatively minor roles I’d been assigned for a job doing props and scenery. As it happened, my English teacher was also my advisor/counsellor and called me in for an explanation of why I had done it. (I’m sure she meant it entirely out of concern, but at the time I felt rather threatened and definitely singled-out by the focused attention.) What I couldn’t explain then, but worked out later was that I was struggling so hard at the time to figure out who I was that I was frightened by the thought of playing a role, and of having the people around me remember that role and not anything about myself. It didn’t help that roles in question were male roles (the class was unbalanced towards girls and when has a school play ever had more female roles?) and villains. I felt I was being asked to be someone else when I never really had a chance to be me.

I have never had a problem with too much visibility. On the contrary, one of my superpowers has always been unintentional invisibility. I can walk through a party unnoticed. I can attend an event and have no one remember later that I was there. (Think I’m exaggerating? After I was guest of honor at OVFF in 2002, I searched in vain afterward for any convention report that mentioned my presence at the con.) And another of my superpowers is being a social chameleon. I can be so good at blending in that people with diametrically opposing viewpoints walk away thinking I agree with them completely. Obscurity and anonymity isn’t something I seek out. On the contrary, I’ve spent much of my life struggling to establish my identity—to get the people around me to see and interact with me and not with a reflective construct.

So for me there’s little attraction in creating online identities that diffuse my selfhood into multiple unrelated faces. There’s little attraction in developing a public mask that no one will connect with my everyday person. If I put the investment into developing a friendship on LiveJournal or facebook or Twitter, I want to get the payoff of that investment when the person intersects me somewhere else.

And when I started publishing fiction, the ability to carry over those investments and that social credit from one venue to another became even more important. Maybe there are people who positively enjoy creating a new identity for different creative endeavors—perhaps as a form of art itself. Not me. Pretty much from the moment I recorded my first filk song, I decided that my official pen name would be my real name – the whole thing – and that I’d use it for everything I created. I’ve always been a bit of a Renaissance woman. There’s no percentage in having a different name for each field I work in because I’d need dozens of them. And the fields merge into each other: medieval research into historic fiction, historic fiction into fantasy, linguistics into onomastics, historic re-creation into academic papers on textile history. I need that carry-over to avoid building every reputation from scratch.

When it comes to my fiction writing, there’s another consideration for me. When I came out as a lesbian back around 1980, I made a conscious decision to live without closets. (We get into the realm of privilege again here.) I never wanted to have to edit or compartmentalize my life in ways that my straight friends and co-workers were not required to. Not all my fiction has queer characters, but the vast majority of it does. When someone in the cafeteria at work asks me what I’m scribbling in my notebook, I want to tell them right out without any evasions. I don’t want to worry that a boss who googles my name will discover something I haven’t already mentioned in passing. I don’t want to give any hint that I might be ashamed or embarrassed about the stories I write.

So I don’t have a pen name. I created my Twitter handle to be as connectable to my identity as possible. When I post comments on blogs, I use my real name, the same as appears on my books and on my facebook account. My original website uses that same name for the domain. Because I want to be visible. I want people to see me. To acknowledge me. To recognize me in all senses of the word. It’s a deliberate choice and it puts me at risk in many ways, but I’d rather risk that than invisibility.
hrj: (doll)
I'd halfway promised to do this past week's Random Thursday blog on a description of my day job. In part, this was because the job was being rather intense, so it was on my mind. But the intensity was part of why I didn't (no lunch hour!) and I ended up opting to re-use to a Twitter flight instead. But now that it's Saturday, here's the promised job post.

I don't talk in a lot of specifics about my workplace because being specific would then entail spending a lot of time reminding readers that I don't in any way speak for my employer. I don't talk in specifics about the investigations I work on because somewhere in there is a fine dividing line between interesting conversation and "insider information". Very very occasionally, I'm privy to information that could affect perceptions of the company's stock value or speculative projections about upcoming business announcements. I'd rather be safe than sorry. So I'm not going to name my employer (though it would be trivially easy to figure out who it is) and I'm not going to talk about detailed specifics of my projects, just the general shapes.

I work for a biotech division of a Big Pharma company (with a capital "B" and a capital "PH"). Fortunately for my conscience, I work for a division whose product is unambiguously necessary and valuable for our patients. It's also a product where, while we may jockey against competitors for market share, there's absolutely no point in trying to "sell" it to people outside the key market. Conversely, it's an incredibly complicated drug (and will become even more complicated--in the name of becoming safer and more effective--in versions currently in development). The manufacturing process is long and involved, with a lot of potential failure points and a lot of nuances to the "SISPQ"s as we call them. (Strength, Identity, Safety, Purity, and Quality).

We start with a mammalian cell line with an introduced human gene that produces the protein that forms the essence of the drug. The manufacturing process starts with mixing up solutions (cell culture medium, various chemical solutions used in processing and purification) and thawing out a cryo-preserved vial from the "master cell bank" which was laid down a couple decades ago and has been sitting in a liquid nitrogen freezer ever since. The cells get scaled up until we have enough for a viable culture in a 200L culture vessel which is then split into other vessels until we have several running in parallel. The clock is ticking at this point because mammalian cells have a finite effective lifespan before their growth starts going wonky and the productivity efficiency falters.

Unlike, for example, a batch of beer (with which the cell culture process has a startlingly large amount in common), we do what's called "continuous perfusion" where we continuously feed in fresh cell culture medium and harvest off spent medium that has cellular byproduct in it. Among those byproducts is the protein we want. Pretty much all the other cell-piss (which is what it comes down to) needs to be removed in processing. We also don't want the cells themselves, and there are complex processes to avoid harvesting cells, or damaging the cells in the process (because we also have to remove any cell-bits that end up in the harvested material). And if you want to think about potential failure modes, consider a process that is designed to create the idea conditions for cellular growth…and then trying to make sure nothing gets in there to grow except the specific thing you want!

That's the first step, ok? Now we have an enormous volume of cell-piss to process. Let's say approximately 12,000 liters per day total from the several vessels. We start with a simple mechanical filtration to remove remaining cells and cell-bits (plus some other processes, but I'm doing a simplified overview). Then we concentrate it down and freeze it and put it in our -30C warehouse for a while. Why? Because first we have to make sure that the frozen concentrate meets all our quality standards before we invest in the next step of the process. This is where the discrepancy investigators come in. Hold that thought.

Once the frozen concentrate is declared A-OK, it moves on to purification. This involves putting it through a number of processes (I'll skip the details), each designed to remove a specific type of impurity: residual cell proteins, host cell DNA, inactive drug proteins, chemicals needed in the cell culture process that we don't need any more, viruses, and so forth. At the end of this purification process, we concentrate and freeze the result again and once more stash it in the -30C warehouse for a while. Why? I think you know the drill by now: because we need to make sure it meets all our quality requirements before we invest in the next step of the process. (See: discrepancy investigators. Hold that thought.)

The final stage is pretty simple and incredibly important: thaw it out and dilute it to the right concentration, fill a very precise volume into vials and freeze-dry it, package and label the vials. Make sure the final vials meet all our quality requirements (see: discrepancy investigators) and when it's all good, ship it off to the patients who trust us enough to inject the result into their circulatory system.

So what is it that I do? Any time something doesn't work the way we expect, I'm one of the people (discrepancy investigators) who figures out what happened, why, how, what the effects on product quality are, what the effects on our confidence in our process are, what additional information we might need to have confidence in our product and process, and--if necessary--what product we might need to reject because we don't have that confidence. It could be as trivial as someone leaving a blank on a document all the way up through discovering that our cells are producing a version of the protein that isn't biologically active. It's a very formal process with rigorous standards and multiple stages of review. And pretty much every investigation is different. (Because if they were the same, it would mean we hadn't fixed the problem the first time.)

So what was I doing this week? Well, one thing I was doing was participating in rehearsals for presentations to a national regulatory agency who will be inspecting our facilities and process next week to determine if they're ready to approve our "next generation" product. My part is to know everything there is to know about certain key investigations (whether I was the one who performed them or not) and be ready to explain and defend the process and the results.

Another thing I was doing (and this was the one that involved 5 hours of meetings every day) was helping brainstorm and write up a Risk Assessment, which is a document examining a particular "failure mode" and looking at all the possible consequences it could have and listing all the things we have in place (or could put in place) to manage or eliminate those consequences. Sometimes risk assessments are covering the normal production processes and explaining why they're properly designed. In this case, we're looking at an event where we didn't follow those processes correctly and trying to determine what the potential consequences of that mistake are.

In addition to these special projects, there's the normal daily routine: process new reports of events, triage them in terms of potential impact (most are fairly obviously trivial), assign them out to other investigators. For my own investigations, pull in production data, reports from Subject Matter Experts, personnel interviews, etc. in order to determine causes and consequences. Discuss failures with their process owners to identify corrective actions. Write everything up in reports and submit them for QA review. And just for fun, I sometimes get to do things like provide technical writing expertise (not because it's part of my basic job, but because I've been identified as being really good at it), or helping re-design a process, or pulling together historic data for a long-term review. I've ended up being one of those people who get e-mailed with questions like, "I remember something vaguely like this happening maybe five years ago. Can you dig it up?" And my favorites are things like when a director or VP drops by with a copy of a memo and asks, "I need the exact right wording to convey a very specific nuance. See what you can do with this." (Again, not because it's my job, but because I have a reputation for being good at it.)

One of the things I love about my job is that I need to know everything about everything. (Or at least: a basic familiarity about everything.) I need to know how all our equipment works from the HVAC system to the water distillation equipment to the laboratory equipment to the various instrument systems. I need to know the biological systems involved, not just for the cell culture but for microbial control. I need to understand enough about protein chemistry that I can interpret the quality data and have a sense of what possible causes to pursue when something goes wrong. Or to know when the apparent problem is so unlikely that it's probably masking something else I should be looking at. I need to know a lot of basic chemistry and physics. I need to understand all our information systems and how they inter-relate. (What's this? We received a shipment of a raw material and the computer spit out a list of required quality tests for it that we no longer perform? What the heck happened?) I need to have a keenly developed "smell test" and know when to say, "There's something non-obvious going on here and we don't look more deeply into it now we'll wish we had later." And on top of everything else, I need to understand how human beings interact with all those systems and to be able to identify when a system has been inadvertently designed to encourage the humans to fail.

Another part of "knowing everything about everything" is that we investigators regularly get shared around to balance workload. I'm officially assigned to a specific department (purification) for one specific product variant. But over the last decade I've done investigations for pretty much every stage and aspect of our process, either as a long-term assignment or as part of an ad hoc strike force. I'm very proud of the fact that my name has a habit of being brought up when there's a really tricky or really important investigation. It's not just a matter of job security (I'm not too worried about that at this point) but of pride in my work. And that's why you may sometimes hear me grousing about the intensity of the work, or the occasional long hours, but when I say, "I love my job" it is never never sarcastic.
hrj: (doll)
Nennius, the 9th century chronicler who is famously the earliest (and therefore, in some ways, the most reliable) author to mention King Arthur, apologized for the somewhat unstructured and non-narrative nature of his information by saying (in Latin, of course), "I have made a heap of all that I found." And later historians have been enormously grateful for his heaping tendencies--even more grateful than they might have been if he'd done more interpretation, organization, and processing of the information. (Not that I believe that Nennius did no interpretation at all.)

I often think about Nennius when working on my own research projects because I tend to be more inspired to make great heaps of thematic data than to synthesize theories and interpretations of them. Not that I don't plan to do analysis and synthesis, but all too often my inspiration moves on before I get to that stage.

Back when I first started on amateur historical research, this was a bit of a problem. I'd start piling up my data, perhaps start organizing and coding and rearranging it. Then I'd hit some sort of speedbump. Maybe I'd conclude that I didn't have the right background to do the analysis properly. Maybe I'd decide I needed more data before I could say anything useful. Maybe I was still thinking about what my purpose and audience were. And in a traditional, pre-internet context, those factors were a big part of deciding how to invest in the format of the eventual presentation.

As I've gotten more comfortable with the net, I've found that there's a great deal of value in simply making public heaps of what I've found. I've taken that approach for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Yes, I'm doing commentary and analysis along the way, but I didn't wait to have a complete and exhaustive bibliography first. I didn't feel the need for an over-arching theoretical structure (beyond "would this be useful to a novelist creating lesbian characters?"). I just started tossing stuff in the heap and figured any larger structure could come along later.

I did something a bit more structured with my Surviving Garments Database. This is a project that was originally conceived of as a hard-copy book. A published presentation of each garment with diagrams and descriptions and context. (I already knew at that time that including photographs would be prohibitively expensive, alas.) And as a fixed publication, it would be important to have as complete a list of garments as possible, so I set myself to the task of tracking things down, identifying publications, creating a database, and so forth. Eventually, I realized that I'd never come to a stopping point that way. (For one thing, there are a heck of a lot more surviving pre-modern garments than I'd ever imagined!) I concluded that the value to other people of having access to the database "as is" was far more than the value of having the fully realized project in finished form. So--with the aid of [ profile] scotica's web guru skills--I took the extremely incomplete database as it was and tossed up a searchable version on my website. And, other than a minor coding bug fix, I haven't touched it since then. It's been six years. I don't know whether it was the act of making it available that made me fall away from the project, or whether I was on the verge of moving on anyway and had the good fortune to have the impulse to web it before doing so. But there it is. (I would, in fact, be quite happy to hand off the raw data to anyone else who wanted to do more with it at this point.)

That step never happened with my Welsh Names Database. At one time, this project was my Grand Passion. It was one of the driving reasons why I decided to get a PhD in Linguistics. I was going to write the definitive, exhaustive reference work on pre-modern personal names from Welsh records. I have, I think, something close to 10,000 people's names in the database, covering the period from the earliest stone inscriptions up through tax and census records ca. 1600. I have an intricate system for coding source, date, and linguistic data about each name element, a system for determining standard reference forms, a coding system for analyzing overall personal name structures, and a 4-level "confidence code" for tracking how reliable each piece of interpretation is. It's not finished. It's far from finished. It will likely never be finished. Because I wanted it to be perfect and complete before I showed it to the world. In part, this was because at the time I was thinking of my primary audience as being amateur historians, such as people developing SCA personas. So I was trying to present the data in a way that would make it harder for it to be misinterpreted and misused by people with little to no background in the field. It would probably be better at this point to strip out much of the interpretation (or simply acknowledge it as incomplete) and put the half-baked data out with a powerful search engine for people to use as they please. Because otherwise my heap of data is going to sit there in a dark corner forever, decaying into random electrons.

I've done better with smaller data heaps. When I've had an impulse to pull together semi-raw data about some interesting topic with a much narrower scope, I generally have had an immediate presentation context that was amenable to throwing up on a web page. This is what I've done with my research project on the "shepherd's purse" motif in art, on depictions of picnic-like meals in medieval and renaissance art, with a web version of my great-great-grandfather's Civil War diaries and letters, and with any number of other things that had the good fortune to have been written up in a format that was easy to web. Many of them are incomplete (such as the diaries) but set up in a form where I can add material easily. It goes farther than the costumer's philosophy of "done is beautiful" -- it goes all the way to "existence is beautiful". (If you have never explored my personal website, take a few hours sometimes to poke around. It's kind of bare-bones in design, but chock-full of interesting articles.)

This is my life; this is my philosophy. Ego autem coacervavi omne quod inveni: I've made a heap of all that I can find. I hope that posterity will find something worth digging for within those heaps.
hrj: (doll)
Once upon a time, in a cozy small town, there was a plaza next to the park downtown where everyone congregated on weekends, and it was flanked by two businesses: Jo’s Coffee Shop and Alex’s Un-Coffee Shop. A scattering of small tables and benches filled the plaza and everyone mingled there no matter which establishment they patronized, or even if they patronized neither. Neighbor greeted neighbor, dogs played together with children out on the grass of the park, and everyone was happy.

Jo’s Coffee Shop had a shining brass and steel espresso machine and a wall of bins full of coffee varieties. All the baristas (none of whom were named Jo, but everyone called them that just the same) could pull a cup with flair. One specialized in making those little pictures in the latte foam that showed up in people’s facebook feeds. But mostly they just concentrated on providing good, fresh coffee to everyone who came in. They even had a rack of personal mugs for the regulars, though they had a knack of making every customer feel like a regular. And when Sarah or Leroy or any of the other elderly customers came in, chances are they found their cup paid for before they could unzip their change purse. Jo’s was an institution, but there was one thing they didn’t provide: anything that wasn’t coffee.

Alex’s Un-Coffee Shop sat cheek-by-jowl next to Jo’s and did an equally thriving business. If you wanted tea, or soda, or a milkshake, or fancy bottled water from artesian springs, or if the sun were over the yardarm and you wanted a glass of wine or a beer or a cocktail; if it were a hot afternoon and you wanted lemonade or if it were a chilly morning and you wanted hot cocoa, or if you’d just come in from your morning run and you wanted some gatorade, then you went to Alex’s. None of the counter staff at Alex’s were named Alex and it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to call any of them Alex, because at Alex’s you learned to pay attention to who was on duty.

Jeremy was a wiz for making tea. He knew exactly which varieties they had in stock, and which would come closest to what you were looking for. Alex’s didn’t always have all the tea varieties that everyone wanted, but they tried to keep the most popular ones available. And Jeremy knew exactly what temperature the water should be for each and how long it should steep. He wasn’t quite as good at remembering exactly what each customer took in their tea, but the milk and sugar and lemon were there on the sideboard for you to add yourself. On the other hand, if Carla were on duty, you asked for a cup of hot water and picked a teabag from the display because she never could remember exactly how much loose tea to add and she was a bit uncertain on the difference between pekoe and rooibos. Tea was tea to her.

Mikayla loved being on duty in the late afternoon when folks were likely to ask for a cocktail. She loved doing the mixing and pouring with the flair of an artist. And if they were out of your favorite tequila, or if the martini olives were looking a bit off, or if they were running low of an essential mixer, she could whip something up that was so inventive that you’d forget it wasn’t quite what you’d asked for. Mikayla wasn’t quite as knowledgeable about wine--she left that to Cary, but every week Cary drew up a menu of wine descriptions to help the rest of the staff make recommendations, so it was all good. Cary also had a framed poster showing exactly which type of glass each variety of wine should be served in, but you might find your wine being served in a teacup or a water glass instead. When Alex first set up the business there was a rack with all those different sizes and shapes of wine glasses behind the bar, but over the years most of them had gotten broken and with all the different things the place served it took a lot of planning to have specialized equipment for each individual drink. And, after all, the container wasn’t the important thing, was it? But during the summer Mikayla took the morning shift because that was when her kids were at soccer practice. And even if Alex hadn’t been quite strict about not serving alcohol in the mornings, nobody wanted cocktails at that time of day anyway.

On a hot Saturday afternoon, when you’d just finished mowing your lawn and came down to the plaza to relax, the most heavenly thing in the world was a glass of Alex’s lemonade. You’d know if lemonade was on the menu because there would be an enormous display of fresh lemons in the window. They’d take a couple and slice them up right in front of you and squeeze them on one of those old-fashioned juicer thingies. It was the freshest lemonade you could imagine. But the lemons came from Cary’s tree and if Cary were off on a wine buying trip that weekend, you’d have to make do with concentrate.

Pete loved to hang out with his buddies in the plaza on sultry August evenings. And his buddies were always considerate about not drinking beer on the evenings when Pete was there because Pete was in recovery and very serious about it and they wanted to support him. But Pete had a dilemma because he hated coffee. (He was willing to put up with the miasma of coffee at the twelve-step meetings, because you did, but he wasn’t about to drink it himself.) He loved a good chai, but he didn’t want to buy it at Alex’s because he’d have to walk past the bar to order it and he didn’t think that was a good idea. He’d tried asking Jo’s to carry chai but they’d stared at him like he was crazy and said, “We only do coffee; chai isn’t coffee.” So Pete bought little cans of chai at the supermarket on his way to the plaza and drank out of the can. Nobody else minded--it was a public plaza and you could drink whatever you wanted--but Pete always felt a little left out.

On the evenings when Pete wasn’t there, his buddy Mel enjoyed a beer instead. You were never quite sure what beer was going to be available. Cary did the beer stocking as well as the wine, but Cary wasn’t a beer drinker. You could pretty much guarantee that there’d be Corona and some sort of IPA, but after that it was a matter of what was on sale at the supplier. Mel considered himself a bit of a microbrew connoisseur and had offered to advise Cary a few times, but Cary always gave him a harassed look and said, “Maybe some other time, I have a lot to cover today.”

There had been one time, a few years ago, when a few folks had gotten together and talked about starting a new cafe on the third side of the plaza where the old Foster building had sat vacant since anyone could remember. Maybe an organic juice bar where you could get wheatgrass smoothies (Alex’s didn’t do fresh smoothies--not enough demand) and a more extensive variety of herbal teas (Alex’s had one of those assortment boxes from Bigelow, and generally everyone could find something in it that they liked). But the town council had turned them down for a permit because they were worried that there weren’t enough customers for three separate businesses, and if the new place drew too much trade away from Alex’s then they might end up with two empty storefronts on the plaza instead of only one. And between Jo’s and Alex’s, they had all the town’s drinking needs covered, didn’t they? Pete grumbled a bit, because he’d been looking forward to a place that had good chai and didn’t serve alcohol, and after the decision came down he pointed out loudly to all who would listen that the town council were all coffee drinkers, which didn’t endear him to the folks who patronized Jo’s because they thought he had something against coffee. Eventually things settled down and the town council moved on to debating whether to fund a new swing-set in the park.

Everyone loves coming to the plaza on weekends to sit and chat with their friends and sip their beverage of choice. If you drink coffee, you go to Jo’s and they’ll take good care of you. And if you drink anything other than coffee, you go to Alex’s and they’re sure to have something you’re willing to drink. If you come on the right day. And the right person is on duty. And you aren’t too picky.
hrj: (doll)
It is hard to argue with the focus that campaigns for diversity in literature have placed on YA books. (See, e.g., Cindy Pon & Malinda Lo’s Diversity in YA and the tumblr and twitter project We Need Diverse Books with too many team members to list conveniently.) Younger readers are the ones actively being damaged by a lack of representation and models in the books they read, and the ones least in a position to create or seek out diversity on their own.

But sometimes I feel like I’m being told, “You don’t need representation. You survived without it. You’re a Big Girl now; if you want books, make them yourself.” (Hint: I am.) Yes, I survived my childhood reading voraciously in the midst of a big empty hole where the books that might have reflected my inner life should have been. And I survived. (Some did not.) But I’d like to aspire to more than surviving. I’d like to read my favorite genres and see myself not just when it’s “important to the story” but casually, trivially, incidentally, and of course, sometimes prominently. I'd like to have the same pleasure-reading experiences that my non-marginalized friends have. I’d like some recompense for that big empty hole that still marks and mars my reading experience. I’d like to be able to pick up a book to read because everyone on my twitter-feed is raving about it and not have to assume that my identity will be casually erased. It doesn’t happen nearly enough.

One of my (not so) super-secret criteria when reviewing my favorite SFF and historical books is: am I given any positive evidence that people like me exist in this world? And, yes, I interpret “people like me” somewhat idiosyncratically, but it’s an index, not a recipe. A necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Sort of like the Bechdel test. A book can earn an extra star from me solely on this basis.

But—you protest to me—there’s an entire industry dedicated to publishing genre fiction about white American middle-class cis lesbians like you. What’s your problem? *ahem* I think you just nailed it. We need diverse books. And the lesfic industry falls down on the diversity aspect just as much as mainstream publishing does, only from a different angle. For me, one angle it fails greatly on is genre (not enough well-written SFF and historicals), but another is what feels like an unbalanced focus on lesbian characters specifically as sexual beings. When I say, "we need diverse adult books" I don't mean "adult" in that wink-nudge way. To a large extent, this focus is fallout from the same dominance of romance over other genres seen in straight publishing. But in the much smaller lesfic field, there seems a greater tendency for romance tropes to set the expectations for all books. This means that from both within and without the lesbian publishing community, there is a tendency for characters to be lesbian only when they need to be, either from the requirements of the genre or the needs of the plot.

I shouldn’t have to make this choice—the one I’ve been asked to make time and time again in my life—between being a fan and being a lesbian. Between loving the past and loving myself. Between the mind and the body. Maybe I’m old enough and tough enough that I don’t need diverse books, but dammit I deserve them.
hrj: (doll)
I agree whole-heartedly with those who have been uncomfortable with the single-minded focus in the last decade on the marriage equality movement. There are some extremely valid points that many of the direct benefits tend to accrue to the more privileged segments of the LGBT community.(The simple fact of having financial resources, job benefits, etc. that might be shared with a spouse is a privilege not enjoyed by all.) And I am fully aware that there are segments of the non-straight-cis-monogamous community that derive no particular benefit from the availability of marriage (although I have quibbles with a "community" defined as "everyone except a specific narrow category", but that's a different column). And I absolutely believe that job security, freedom from social and legal harassment, access to health services, and other factors have a far greater impact on everyone's day to day well being than access to marriage.


I also believe whole-heartedly that the overwhelming, focused, high-powered drive to achieve marriage equality was perhaps the best strategic move that could have been made. Because in the end the struggle will not be won solely by truth or right or justice. It will be won by strategy. It will also be won by the secretary who organizes the bullet-points in The Gay Agenda (™). It will also be won by the for-profit theme park that hires the contractors to build The Slippery Slope thrill ride. And it will also be won by the entrepreneur who gets Non-Toxic, Gluten-free, Minty-fresh Slope Lube into the impulse buy displays at the grocery store checkout.

In the grand scheme of things, marriage equality was an "easy" sell. It's mom and apple pie. It's Valentine's day and 4th of July fireworks. I know it didn't seem easy in the process, but the biggest thing going for the movement was the raw emotional appeal of the desire of two human beings who love each other, and who want to share their lives completely for the rest of their lives, to want to enjoy the same rituals, the same acceptance, and the same legal rights and privileges as everyone else around them. And it had going for it the utterly illogical house of cards that was the supposed case against marriage equality. We saw time and again that when opponents were allowed to state their case clearly and in detail they provided some of the strongest arguments for marriage equality that could be made.

And I think that marriage equality was one of the most powerful tools we had to stand before society and say, "In all our diversity, we're just like you, in all your diversity. Here is a point where we intersect. Witness and recognize our humanity." That parade of images of loving couples, poignant stories, and ecstatic celebrations broke through the walls in ways that arguments about wages and job security, about housing, about health care couldn't have done. (Witness all the ongoing incomprehension around those topics that we can't seem to make a dent in.)

And our opponents were right. Marriage equality is the camel's nose in the tent, the wedge splitting the log, the first skid down that slippery slope, the first few flakes in the avalanche. It achieved a symbolic victory that a more practical, less focused, and less emotionally fraught campaign would have found far harder to achieve. But it will mean a lot less unless we take that momentum--that human connection--that marriage equality gave us and move forward to claim full humanity, full equality, and full rights for all people in all fields of endeavor.

So lube up that slope and let's get sliding!
hrj: (doll)
I keep hoping that eventually the Random Thursday series will evolve into a sort of "ask me anything". I get such great blogging ideas when people give me prompts. And sometimes -- as in this case -- it pokes me to get something onto my website that has been languishing in almost-done-land for too long. (Although in this case, it's been languishing in "I'm going to set impossible standards for doneness land".)

Last week, when I posted my "how does she do it?" essay, [ profile] fighter_chick asked: What's your process for creating a well-researched SCA art project? Do you write up timelines and project plans? How long do you spend on research and testing phase? Do you do project books? Do you do something else entirely?

I fear this is going to turn into one of those "Argh, you're completely intimidating!" explanations, because I once wrote up a rather exhaustive explanation of my process in the context of a research project that was very much on the extreme end of complexity and effort. So I'll start off with a simpler version.

A big part of the answer is that I almost never start a historic art project from scratch. It's a bit like the answer to "how much research did you do for the Alpennia books?" The answer is either, "surprisingly little" or "I've spent my entire life on it." I have a compost-heap brain. I love looking at Big Pictures and learning a superficial amount about a broad interconnected set of topics. All those little individual facts and images settle into the compost heap and start to turn into mulch. I may forget that I know them. I may forget where I've seen them. (This is the "decomposition" part of the compost heap.) But at some point a seed falls into the heap and starts to grow.

This is the tricky point in the process. Because of the way my learning process and my memory work, I probably won't be certain about the specific details, dates, locations, etc. of the project-idea that just sprouted. But in the same way, I can be fairly confident that my rather amorphous "big picture" understanding is sound. When I go to start tracking down those details and to firm up the specifics, I may be tweaking details, but I rarely discover that I'm entirely on the wrong track.

Again, it's a bit easier to give examples from my fiction: when I started developing the plot about alchemical synthesis about magical gemstones for The Mystic Marriage, I had only a vague notion of the history of alchemy, the chemistry of gemstone synthesis, and the traditions regarding the magical properties of precious stones. But I knew that these fields existed. I knew that these concepts would work in the general historic milieu I'd developed. And so when I started the detailed research, I didn't have to make significant changes in my overall plan.

But the question had to do with more tangible projects, so let's take a look at a fairly simple one. A couple years ago, I wanted to enter a competition for "woodworking: tools". My constraints were that it had to be possible with the relatively rudimentary woodworking skills I have (without looking utterly amateurish), and with tools that I either already owned or would continue to have a use for. And I wanted to create something that I'd actually have a use for. This is where the compost-heap brain comes in: I let my imagination drift around thinking about wooden tools that I might have a use for in my SCA life. This means that I was thinking largely about the fields of textiles and cooking. (So, for example, a carved wooden cooking implement would have been one possibility.)

I love reading and collecting archaeological reports about everyday material culture, especially some of the less common materials, so I had a pretty good mental image library of surviving wooden implements to contemplate. And the concept I decided to pursue was a simple standing band-loom. I knew of one surviving example (from the Oseburg ship burial, which had a large variety of textile equipment), and I knew that the general structure continued in use at least through the 15th century because I'd seen a lot of them in manuscript images during a previous research project on textile work-containers. (I.e., what sorts of containers are people using to hold their paraphernalia when doing textile work of various sorts?)

Since I had that previous project to build on, it was a simple matter to pull up all the collected manuscript images of band looms, as well as going back to the same research sources to find other examples (that hadn't happened to include work-containers). And it was similarly easy to go online and find images and diagrams for the Oseburg band loom. The essential first step was simply knowing it existed and knowing what keywords to use. This is an example of how my research tends to have a long non-specific "tail" and then a relatively short, intense, focused pre-implementation burst.

After that, it was a matter of analyzing the structures of the looms and developing a design that would fit my practical needs, both in terms of manufacturing skills and for use. (Some of the examples were definitely not portable, and I wanted something that could be broken down and transported to events without disturbing the work-in-progress.) From that, I came up with a basic design concept and drew up some initial plans. Then I went lumber shopping and modified my idea slightly based on existing available lumber and hardware. (One non-historic aspect was using a carriage bolt in the bottom of the pillars to fix them to the base for easy dis-assembly. This substituted for a permanent mortise-and-tenon joint in the original.) Here's my LJ write up of that project.

To answer the specific questions:

Do I write up timelines and project plans? I have timelines in the sense that I'll often have a target event for which I want something complete. But I don't tend to do interim timelines. Anything that would require that sort of interim structure better not have an overall deadline! For any project that requires any sort of engineering (whether it's furniture or costuming or whatever), I've generally been sketching out ideas repeatedly for years before I get around to making the thing. I'm a compulsive doodler. I generally know I'm ready to work on something when I always end up doodling it the same way. That doesn't always mean that that's the final concept, but it means I've got a clear idea in my head. My garden plans work this way too. If I've doodled the same garden design for a year or so, I'm ready to start digging.

How long do I spend on the research and testing phase? Anywhere from decades to days. (See previous comments about "how long have I been researching Topic X?") I'll confess that I often don't do much in the way of "testing" other than concept sketches. I have the great good fortune to have a knack for visualizing things that are going to work without having to do proof-of-concept versions. This saves me a lot of time. I don't tend to think of it so much as an innate skill as being part of that general amorphous "big picture" awareness that takes account of material properties on an almost subconscious level. (I'll make a side note here that this same "general amorphous big-picture awareness" is also what makes me so good at my Day Job doing industrial failure analysis.)

Do I do project books? Do I do something else entirely? I don't tend to do formal project books as I go along. I may intend to, but then I get immersed in what I'm doing. I try to remember to take in-process pictures, but I'm not always good about this. I will usually try to do a detailed write-up at some point (not always when the project is complete) simply because I like sharing my experience and knowledge with other people. This often takes the form of a long, rambling, overly-detailed brain-dump. I'm going to link to one of those at the end. I do tend to organize my on-going research electronically, because it often involves scans and clips of images, or notes from reference books. Before I got quite so paperless, I'd have file folders full of xeroxes and sketches and notes. I've worked on converting those, even sometimes just by dint of scanning in the contents of the folders to pdfs so I don't lose track of them.

OK, ready for the overly-intimidating example? This question reminded me that I once put together a long rambling web article subtitled "anatomy of a research project" that goes into excruciating detail on how my mind tends to work. It walks through the process from initial observation (that then got buried in my notebooks and memories), to stimulus for further research (a random question on the internet that tweaked my memory), to how I approached looking into the question further, to my standard approach of data-collection and pattern analysis, to my experiments with turning all that research into physical artifacts. I think it was close to 20 years between the initial observation to the final write-up, but a lot of that time was spent in composting.

Here's the link. A bunch of the image links are currently borked and I need to go through in detail and trouble-shoot them (and if I'd gotten started last night, I might not have finished until dawn), but the text is all there and enough images to show what I'm talking about. I'd put the article together originally for a series of classes, but then had gotten stalled on putting in on-line because of questions on how to handle the images. (I'm a bit uncomfortable about the fact that I'm just going ahead and using my collection of scanned images, although they're all of historic objects, not of other people's analysis or work.)
hrj: (doll)
I confess, it bewilders me. I occasionally post on facebook about how I'm such a slacker because I didn't complete my current to-do list, whereupon someone will take me to task for being an over-achiever. (I swear I'm not humble-bragging. It almost makes me self-conscious about posting project stuff, except I consider it important to participate in the social economy of information exchange.) So, for those who might find themselves asking, "How does she do it?" here are a few answers. These are things that work for me. I give no warranties for other people's success.

I do context-anchored multi-tasking.
(I just made that term up.) I'm just as easily distracted as anyone else, so I organize my life so that the things I want to accomplish are anchored to a specific time, place, and/or accompanying activity. So, for example, I write at a particular time of day (although the specific time shifts sometimes based on other logistics) but except when I'm doing a massive editing push, I don't try to write in every waking non-work moment. I read fiction on the elliptical at the gym, which means both that I actually get some reading done at all and that I don't stay up until all hours finishing a book. The weekday-anchored blog topics are another example, and so forth for other activities. If there's a project that can be done in a single sitting, it happens on a weekend (after the writing session). If the project takes longer than that, it gets assigned a regular context that doesn't displace other things that need doing.

I front-load absolutely necessary chores. There are some things that absolutely have to get getting dressed for work, or fixing meals, or packing for trips. It works best for me to get those done at the earliest rational point in the process. When I get home from work, the first thing I do is: pack the next day's gym clothes, lay out the next day's work clothes, and pack what I'm taking for breakfast and/or lunch the next day (often I'll pack multiple meals at a time in advance). If I'm packing for a trip (or a medieval event, or anything similar), I try to do it at the beginning of the week before I go whenever possible. For me, doing things at the last minute is an open door to failure and dithering.

I embrace doing things half-assed. Yeah, I hear you all laughing. But one of the reasons I can get as much done as I do is because I don't require perfection of myself. I have a regular gym workout and do the dragonboating on top of it, but it's actually a crappy workout. I don't change it up much because that would require too much mental energy. I can stick with my program precisely because I never have to think about it: MWF I do pull-ups, MWThF I do 500 cal on the elliptical, Tu I dragonboat. And while I make a valiant effort to learn technique and improve in the paddling, I have no ambitions of making the competitive team, because I can't put in the time needed to become competitive and do everything else as well. I do a lot of fun things with my yard and garden, but there's a crap-ton of weeds in my flower beds and the grass is always way too long by the time I mow it. My housekeeping is livable but far from meticulous. I don't merely avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good, I avoid making the good the enemy of the get-it-done.

I believe in beginning as you mean to go on.
This ties in a bit with the multi-tasking. When I take on a project, I ramp up to a level that's sustainable over the long run, rather than diving in deeply and having to back off. That gorgeous garden that you've seen pictures of didn't happen all in one shot. I pretty much built it one bed at a time and one tree at a time. I long ago came up with a rule (sometimes honored only in the breech) that any plants I buy have to be in the ground before I go to bed the day I get them. Another yard-related limit is doing only as much work as will fill the green-recycling bin. (This is more practical than strategic since it avoids having mounds of vegetation sitting around for weeks waiting to be binned.) This approach tends to keep my ambitions to a manageable scale. When I make plans for my writing schedule, it has to be something I can do every single day--not a schedule where I'll burn out in a week because everything else is getting pushed back, and then have to stop writing for a while to get caught up. (This is why I've currently cut back on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project: it wasn't a long-term sustainable schedule given the other things I want to accomplish at the moment.)

I use tools, but don't let the tools master me. I'm very fond of computer-based life organization tools: project planners, reminder schedules, information organizers. But too often a hot new tool turns out to take more time in interaction than it saves in efficiency. I've tried out several "to do" apps and have yet to find one that actually saves me time. Instead I stumble along with a combination of calendar reminders, flagged e-mails-to self, and sometimes just plain old post-it notes. For a while I was enamored of a packing list app that could be customized not only with specific items but with modules and special-purpose lists and whatnot. I could spend ten minutes selecting modules to put together the perfect packing list for any trip or SCA event type you could imagine. I still use it on occasion, but in general I've shifted to a storage-location-based method. (If I stare at the camping equipment shelves, it's immediately apparent if I've neglected to pack something important.) I've been trying various systems to organize background information for my fiction projects: timelines, character lists, research notes. But in the end, mostly what works is to use the same basic MS Office tools I use for my day job, because even when they aren't as specially suited to the job, they take no extra thought to operate. (And I don't waste any energy worrying that I might lose access to the data with my next operating system upgrade.)

I say "no" regularly. Over the decades I've come to a pretty good understanding of my needs and limits. I know what volunteer activities I can do that work with my strengths and which ones would be ten times more work for me than they would be for a different person. I've learned that anything a person does three times in a row might as well be a hereditary commitment, and I make a point of stepping back and letting other people take over if I'm uncomfortable with that. And--with somewhat more difficulty--I've learned to recognize when I'm participating in a social activity purely on momentum and not because it's contributing to my life. (This is particularly relevant to the SCA. I pick and choose events to attend very carefully, and this year I determined that for the sake of my sanity I'd take a complete, temporary break from the SCA in favor of book-related events.)

And let's be blunt: I can get a lot of projects accomplished because, on a day to day basis (and excepting my day-job), I'm not responsible to anyone else for my time. I don't have children. I don't currently have pets. My girlfriend lives on the opposite coast. My time is my own to organize. (Even my day job has a great deal of flexibility around the edges.) Before you envy my energy, think about whether you'd trade your own situation for mine.
hrj: (doll)
A delightful conversation on Twitter yesterday on the terminology of early 19th century printer’s plates gave me the inspiration for this column. Writers are often encouraged to seek out Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to ensure that the details of technical fields are accurate enough not to jar the knowledgeable reader (as well as simply being accurate for their own sake). Few novelists would consider writing a police procedural without some knowledge of what procedures police actually use. A science fiction story hinging on orbital mechanics should definitely be based on physics and not pure imagination. And woe betide you if you write a Regency romance and get the clothing badly wrong!

Unless you plan to write only on topics on which you have personal expert knowledge, chances are you’re going to make use of an SME at some point, either in person or by making use of information that has been provided publicly. (I’ll be talking about the personal angle here.) I’ve been on both sides of the equation in a variety of contexts, so here are a few tips that can help when planning for success.

The Economy of Information

Information may want to be free, but information-providers have the same constraints on their time, energy, and resources as a plumber, a surgeon, or a Starbucks barista. In short: the gathering, analysis, and explanation of data of any sort involves a commitment of time, often of significant amounts of money, and of mental energy, all of which are allocated by the SME based on their own personal needs. A successful SME interaction acknowledges this and gives the SME a motivation, not only to provide the specific information you want, but to continue to provide information to other interested people in the future. Very few writers have the ability to hire a researcher at market rates, so it’s important to be aware of what your SME will consider adequate compensation.

There are a lot of different information economies. In my day job (investigating manufacturing discrepancies), I rely heavily on data and explanations from SMEs in engineering, maintenance, biotech, computer systems, and so forth. While providing this information to me is part of their overall job, it isn’t a day-to-day measured “deliverable”. Complex questions may require them to interrupt other important work. So there is a balance between my right to expect their cooperation and my responsibility to see that their efforts are recognized.

Sometimes recognition is the only “payment” for information. I’ve spent a great deal of my life active in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a historic re-creation group where knowledge, expertise, and the willingness to share it are (in theory) repaid with fictive rank and status within the organization. It’s a far from perfect system, but it does create a formal context for saying “being an SME is something we value and reward.” On a more informal basis, a novelist might “pay” an SME with an acknowledgment in the front matter of the book (in addition to more informal thank-yous).

The darker side to these information economies is the tendency for generosity to provoke entitlement. Those who are not information providers often underestimate just how much work is involved. “It’s just a simple question—it would take you five minutes to write an answer.” But those five minutes don’t include the five years spent studying the subject, or the five hours spent verifying the details of that five minute answer. And perhaps even that five minutes is only one of a dozen five-minute questions, which adds up to an hour of the SME’s time. A requester who discounts the work involved in their answer may fail to provide proportionate recognition, undermining the SME’s willingness to cooperate in the future. I can’t count the number of times I’ve spent hours—even days—working on the answer to a research question, only to receive no response at all. Not a thank-you, not even confirmation that it was received and read. (And let’s not discuss the responses I’ve gotten when my answer to a research question was different from what the requester wanted it to be!)

Entitlement can come in the form of expecting an answer at all. Experts in a field may feel they’ve fulfilled any duty they have with publication or providing material on the web. If you cold-contact an SME, it’s a good idea to include an acknowledgment that they are not obligated to reply, even to refuse. Back in Olden Times before the internet, I felt that anyone who had taken the trouble to mail me a letter (an actual paper letter!) asking for help with a question deserved the courtesy of a reply. But as the ability to reach out with requests became easier, the number of questions increased to the point where I had to train myself not merely to say no, but to be comfortable with not having time to respond at all.

Brain-Dumps, Frameworks, and Reality-Checks

The amount and type of information you need is also going to affect the success of your SME interaction. Sometimes you know absolutely nothing about a topic and what you need is a complete brain-dump before you even know what questions to ask. Quite frankly, this is the point where you should start by reading a book. Or a Wikipedia article. Or something. Sure, you might luck out and be able to spend an entire day with someone who loves nothing better than to talk about their favorite subject at great length. Don’t count on it. Start by knowing something about your topic—after all, you must have had some reason to include it in your story in the first place. Maybe everything you think you know about it is wrong, but it’s a starting point.

More likely, you know at least a vague framework that you need to fill in with details and concepts. In my day job, when I went to an engineer and asked, “I need you to walk me through the equipment and process for distilling sterile water so I can identify the root cause of this failure and explain it in my report,” I started out with a basic knowledge of how distillation works and the related physics and chemistry. Similarly, when I asked my question yesterday about technical terms for printers’ plates, I started out with a vague idea of book-printing technology in the early 19th century. I knew enough to have roughed in a plot thread about someone absconding with the master printing plates for a book, knowing that they would be relatively heavy but not fragile. Then I did some key-word searches in Wikipedia to read up on the differences between engraving and etching and lithography. So my question was already narrowed down to “what would an educated non-specialist call an object that fits the logistical requirements of my plot?”

Sometimes the most helpful thing an SME can do is give you a “reality-check” on what you’ve already written. This will be helpful if it involves minor details that can be changed or corrected without triggering substantial revisions. It may be the only practical approach if your expert is helping with the overall “tone” of a topic that is easier to spot in an existing text. For The Mystic Marriage I had a friend who is a jeweler read the manuscript over to see if I’d bungled anything related to gemstones and jewelry. She caught a few details that were obvious to someone in the field (e.g., non-faceted stones are best displayed to advantage on a white background, not a dark one) but that I wouldn’t have thought to ask about in advance. Similarly, one of the protagonists in Mother of Souls is a second-generation immigrant and stands out as a different ethnicity than the society she’s living in. I’m going to be looking for some serious critiques from readers familiar with those experiences to let me know if I have the emotional “feel” right because my imagination alone won’t cut it.

[How] Do They…?

The thing that will contribute most to the success of your SME consultation, in addition to having a basic framework of understanding of your topic, is a willingness to accept the facts you're given and tailor your story to them, rather than the other way around. When answering questions about historic cultures, I always cringe when the question starts out, “How did culture X do activity Y?” Because all too often the essential first question has not been asked: Did culture X do activity Y?"

We can be blinded by the assumption that our own culture and experiences are universal. My favorite example of this is the costuming question, “What sort of underpants did medieval European women wear?” An interesting research topic, right? Look for examples in artwork, look for descriptions in inventories, look for mentions in medieval literature, maybe even find a surviving garment or two. But that first question has not properly been asked: Did medieval European women wear underpants? And when you dive deeply into the evidence and its interpretation, you discover that the answer is: “Despite several widely-distributed images of medieval European women naked except for a pair of underpants, women of this time and place did not normally wear underpants and, in fact, the wearing of underpants was used in art as a symbol of appropriation of male power and authority, and these images are actually evidence against the use of underpants by medieval European women.” [Cue an extended discussion in the comment thread here about this topic.]

In my day-job investigations, the question of “do we” always comes before the question of “how do we” or “what do we”. Do we have a written procedure for doing this task? Do we record this type of data? If I begin by asking “How do we keep track of this type of data?” I may already be developing invalid hypotheses if it turns out we don’t keep track of it in the first place.

There’s an even better reason for keeping your mind open when consulting experts (whether personally or via research): some of the most interesting plot twists come by serendipity. If you start with the idea, “I want to verify that this particular solution to my problem is correct” you may miss an alternate solution that works even better. In the original draft of The Mystic Marriage, I had a throwaway comment toward the end of the book about some nouveau-riche middle class family having made their money in railroads. One of my beta-readers pointed out that the date was decidedly early for railroad investment but that if I wanted transportation-related investments, then canals were all the rage. That one little change then inspired an entire major plotline in Mother of Souls about canal building, class conflict, magical weather interference and its effects on water supply, and a resulting key plot element involving flood-driven epidemics that will appear in the next book Floodtide. My original plot element simply required a new industrial revenue source, but if I’d stuck to my first idea (or not gotten feedback on that point at all), I would have missed out on that cascade of ideas.

Subject Matter Experts are an amazing resource for writers. They will save you time and effort. They can inspire entirely new directions of thought. At the very least, they can save you from making a complete ass of yourself in print. At the best, they may become so engaged in your work that they become a new source of reader contacts. But they should never, ever be taken for granted. In every interaction, prime the pump for the future—whether for your own benefit or someone else’s—by ensuring that your SME feels as well-rewarded for their efforts as you are!


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October 2017

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