The world I built

 

Fact, historical fiction, & fantasy, oh my!

It might be because I grew up in a land where history is still lurking behind a sheer veil, always present and within the reach of not so much individual as a tribal memory, that I look on it a way not easy for a Western mindset to understand.

To me and so many people of my blood and ancestry, history isn’t just a dead account of ancient battles and who whacked whom when. It’s WHY the whacking took place. It’s WHO did the whacking and WHO got whacked. In my head, history isn’t a dead letter, it lives. I can close my eyes and BE those people who once walked the ground on which I took my own first toddler steps. My umbilical is tied back to something greater and vaster than just a single gentle mother

I am a child of my people and of my past, part of something much bigger than myself, a mosaic in which I am just a single tessera but which, seen as a whole, makes for a huge complex picture of a world.

I can close my eyes and BE those people who once walked the ground on which I took my own first toddler steps. My umbilical is tied back to something greater and vaster than just a single gentle mother.

Hold that thought for a moment, and let me step back a little here.

The Secrets Of Jin Shei By HoshiakaWhen I wrote the novel, “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, it was not my own historical background that I referenced, but that particular time frame and setting, a land inspired by Imperial China which I called Syai and it became the foundation of an entire alternate world.

I wrote it as historical fantasy – as a sweep of history which takes place in an imaginary country – and I succeeded so well that I have been rapped on the knuckles for being “wrong” about some historical detail despite there being no historical detail to be wrong about. What this said to me is that I got the SENSE of history right, a sense of this being “real” in some aspect of it, that people feel that it has been rendered with enough verisimilitude for them to be able to believe that it (or something very like it) must have REALLY happened.

I fast-forwarded my story 400 years and wrote “Embers of Heaven”, which is set in the same land as “The Secrets of Jin-shei” but after four centuries have wrought their changes on the people and the social fabric of that country. A lot can change in four hundred years, and much – too much! – did change, here; This second book was still inspired by China but this was the China of the Cultural Revolution, much harsher, much more visceral than the first novel set in Syai – and yet, and yet, “Embers” has some of the most lyrical passages I have ever written, some of the most tender scenes of love and caring and passion that I have ever conceived. Set against the harshness of the milieu, these scenes shine.

But more than that – I extended the geography of this world. There are other countries in this world I am creating, just as there are countries which are not China in this our own familiar world. I introduced Ellas, which to anyone reading the scenes set in it can simply be nothing other than what maps in OUR world is Greece.

And having established the fact that my imagined world is is a complete world, I then wrote a third book set there. “Empress” is a historical fantasy just as lush and lyrical as the previous two, but this time set in the glory days of the empire of Byzantium, a story based on the immortal tale of the relationship between Emperor Justinian and the Hippodrome-bred actress and courtesan who became the Empress Theodora. If you pay attention you will notice a tiny detail in “Empress” – there is a caravan which is preparing to set off for exotic lands far away to pursue trade in silks and spices… a land called… Syai.

I am drawing a map here.

Six hundred and fifty years after the events of “Empress”, the empire which I called Visant still exists – it is old now, and rotting from the inside, and ripe for all kinds of disasters and outside influences… and I come full circle here.

Go back to that first paragraph. Read it again. Read it carefully. Because here is what I am writing about now: a historical fantasy about 14th century Balkans, my own history, my own past, rich rich rich with story. The novel is already well wrapped in the layers of history and of drama, but here’s the thing.

When I wrote the Jin-shei novels, editors and booksellers sometimes INSISTED that these things were pure historical fiction, which they weren’t, and marketing them as such tended to doom them because the history buffs got annoyed when I committed “faux pas” atrocities against known and accepted historical fact. And the fantasy buffs who would have loved those liberties, never found them because they didn’t look for this book where it was shelved, with “real” historical fiction.

When I first offered “Empress” for publication, I was given to understand that it would be considered much more acceptable if I went back and reversed my careful filing off of the serial numbers and retold the story as a straight historical fiction, without inventing an empire called Visant or an Emperor and Empress called Maxentius and Callidora, or a religion which I coldly and deliberately created so as to be parallel but NOT identical to Christianity.

I declined. This wasn’t THAT world, our world, the real world. This was a parallel world of my own creation where I had the freedom to follow what history I needed to but then to people it with characters and incidents and events and faith and social constructs that I required to tell the story that I wanted to tell.

Writer Bernard Cornwell was asked in a recent interview whether he saw the boundary between historical fiction and historical fantasy as being a blurred line or clear and distinct, and he said that he believed it to be totally distinct, that writers of fantasy have “a freedom which an historical novelist doesn’t enjoy… A fantasy writer might well ground his or her work in a real historical background, but they have no duty to that history. The historical novelist does!”

Cornwell is right.

It isn’t that I don’t feel as though I have a “duty” to history. I do. But I also feel the necessity to be able to break from the “real” history if I need to make a change to suit my story – in “Empress” I took two real historical incidents and I reversed the order in which they occurred because that was the way MY story fell out better, and it worked just fine; I also melded a little bit of two historical characters of the era, the scholarly bookish Justinian and the great general Belisarius, in order to create the character of Maxentius who would be a little of both and his own man who just happens to be in the shoes that a “real” historical character might have occupied in the annals of our own accepted historical record.

Now I have been urged to write my current novel – the 14th-century Balkans one – as a “straight” historical, because honestly, I couldn’t invent some of the stuff that was going on back then and there seems to be plenty of material in the raw history for me to play with – but it’s already bigger than me, and this story is part of the larger body of alt-history which I am building for that other world in which I write, and this is a part of the history of THAT world as much as my own forebears were part of the literal historical 14th century Balkan backdrop.

I NEED to mythologize and to render larger-than-life. I need the freedom of that empty canvas, not one already painted with a backdrop to which I absolutely have to hew. I need the space for my mind’s wings to spread out, for my imagination to soar, for my vision to see things that may or may not have been “Real”.

You might say that it would be all too easy to do something like that in a 14th century setting because primary sources are few and often iffy. That is true; researching details behind this story turned up stuff in the crevices of the stuff I already did know, osmotically, as part of my upbringing, stuff that astonished me and is almost too hard to believe. Bur a lot of such stuff is directly contradicted by other period accounts. I can literally pick the history I WANT to be true and I wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s still constraining. I don’t know these characters, these real characters, well enough to write their true motivations, and I balk at the idea of trying.

Make them semi-mythological, however, and I can get inside their minds and their hearts and their souls, I can imagine what they thought and they believed, and I can make something true spring up to hold and support them. That is my gift, the creation of worlds; if I use a historical base, a sourdough starter if you will, to bake the bread of my tale that is something that I use as a foundation – and what I create from that starter, from that foundation, is something that I have made from raw material mixed with pure imagination. It is what I love about creating stories like these.

There are many ways that history is taught “wrong” in our schools. Our children are never made to feel as though history is a part of them, only that it is a boring record of What Went Before and has nothing to do with their here and now. Who cares who was king when and which battle was fought where or who won, not when those facts are something that you have to learn by rote and regurgitate on command as a litany of “facts” as dull and dry and dusty as ashes. Our students are never shown that history as the fire that preceded those ashes, are never made to feel as though they themselves belonged in it.

The way *I* was raised – it is easy to reach out and lift the veil and look upon the years and the centuries that had gone before as being just someone else’s present, things that are happening to people JUST LIKE US but simply of another place or time. History can be a huge unifier for the human race because we are all living it, different parts of it that make the whole. Instead, it’s been as divisive as anything can be. History is iconically written by the “winners” of those battles which the children are forced to learn and remember; the “losers” of those battles find their voices stilled, silenced, erased.

There are many stones in the landscape of history which would reveal incredible narratives if they were permitted to be turned, and what lies underneath them to be examined.

This is the basic constraint of what we consider to be historical “fact”, and therefore also of what is strictly considered to be historical “fiction”, a novelized account of something that really happened and is on record as having happened. Because historical fiction that is true to historical fact is inevitably only true to that accepted account, the “winners” account. Deviate one iota from what is “known” to be true, and you’re already writing fantasy, because there is no way any more to document that other narrative that you want to tell. The loser’s side. Because of the silence in which it is wrapped.

But all the stories need to be told. And that’s why I choose to wrap my truths into the silver tissue paper of lies which is called “fantasy” by some. Because my stories aren’t a regurgitation of history-as-was. They are a retelling of an emotional and empathetic and wide-eyed greater truth – the things that didn’t “really” happen out there, but “really, REALLY” happened in here, inside the human heart and mind and vision. The stories that will resonate because on a fundamental level they are truer than the truth. That is the gift of fantasy. That is the world in which I choose to walk.

Watch for the latest installment of the history of my world – coming soon.

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Are you a god?

If you are a writer, yes.

In a very real sense what you do when you create a fictional world is neither more nor less than being a god of a universe of your own creation.

We writers, we artists, we take the building blocks of the familiar and go on to make something different from them, something rich and strange. There is a train station where all the trains to these places stop, and we all stand there on the platform selling tickets, tickets to OUR worlds, and we smile when someone picks one up and boards a particular train and sits there leaning forward with shining eyes full of anticipation.

The worlds we create can be filled with intricate and painstaking detail – or they can be just hinted at, with the larger picture there for you, the reader, to fill in when you lift your eyes from the words on the page and the ideas blossom in the back of your mind.

Some of the best world-creating moments are almost incidental – like in a fairly silly episode of Doctor Who named “Gridlock” where the premise rests on this ludicrous idea of a traffic jam that has literally lasted for lifetimes… and yet this silliness is lifted into the transcendent.

Right at the end of the episode, the Doctor speaks with passion and pain and longing and regret and nostalgia and the purest love, of his lost home, Gallifrey. The world is built, sketched in a a few powerful words, a couple of incandescent sentences.

I’ve never been to Gallifrey. I can’t have ever been there. It does not exist any longer – the Doctor said it’s been destroyed. But, of course, it never REALLY existed at all, outside the story, outside the Doctor’s own mind and heart and memory.

Gallifrey illustrationAnd yet some part of me thrills to the “burnt orange sky”, and the “mountains that shine when the second sun rises.”

 

(With a little search you can find a video clip of this brief scene online and it’s worth the effort.)

I do this thing, worldbuilding. I take pride in creating worlds that live and breathe.

And sometimes I get rewarded.

“I could almost smell the cold and the freshness of the air and the tremble of the earth,” someone told me the other day, in reference my novel ‘The Secrets of Jin-shei‘.

I took a reader into a world that rose, real, around her as she rolled into the heart of it. One journey into a sense of wonder, validated. There are moments of which entire days are made. This gave me one of those moments.

Professor Tolkien wrote about all this, powerfully:

Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons- ’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.

Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-stories

In a LiveJournal essay a few years ago I challenged my readers to:

“Take me to a place you’ve never been and make me homesick for it. Make me yearn for it and believe in it and love it and miss it as though it once belonged to me and I still carry it in my heart.”

It’s easy – well, easier, anyway – to write about a place one has personally known and loved. I have done it talking about the Danube and the way I feel about that river; I’ve done it about the places of my childhood.

But can you be homesick for a place you have never been, can never go? Is it possible for an Earthbound human to be homesick for a planet called Gallifrey, or a wood known as Lothlorien? Is it possible to be homesick for some patch of this our own world which one has never seen or visited?

For instance…

Oh, the moment in which the sun is not yet quite risen, not yet quite ready to pour itself around the shadowed crags in their veils of mist, but the day has started – and the light is pearly and nacred, shifting and shining, and the mists flow and coil around their great standing rocks and islands as though they are saying farewell to a lover. And the sky is lost in a brightening glow and the silhouettes of stones sharpen into individual sharp edges, and trees, and in between all there is the river, and the water is starting to change from darkness to a dull pewter glow which echoes the pre-dawn light to the glitter of sun on water as the first fingers of sunlight touch the ancient river and wake it into day once more, another day.

Already there are boats moving, and men silhouetted against the sky, and the faint shimmery lines of nets being cast into the water where the fish are waking, too, and waiting to offer themselves in the daily act of love and sacrifice that feeds the people of these crags, of this river. And the shadows are black, and the crags are charcoal gray and deep deep green in the faint light, and the water is turning golden and the sky is turning a faint blue, like the delicate shell of a bird’s egg, and soon the sun will come and the water will blaze with glory.

I am talking about a real place, the Li river, Guilin, China. But I’ve never been there. I’ve never seen this, outside of pictures.

River in China photo

I found this photo AFTER I wrote that paragraph above. I went looking for images that matched the view from my mind’s eye. I wasn’t describing the pictures; the pictures were found later to match and illustrate what I had already described…

And yet it’s there in my mind’s eye. And I can make myself homesick for it by letting the image live in my mind.

Perhaps it is possible to take a soul to Gallifrey. And make that soul love a place never seen, impossible to reach, a place that may never have existed outside the mind and heart of a character in a story…

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My first book audiobook – Paper and ebook and voice, oh my.

I am a very visual writer. I sometimes basically close my eyes and just transcribe the movie that’s unfolding before me on the backs of my eyelids. I SEE things.

Some writers dictate their books into a recorder before transcribing them onto the page, and some use software such as Dragon to dictate their books directly onto the screen. But that is not the way I think, not the way I write. I need to see the words dance on the page. Not hear them.

For the same reason, I haven’t really taken to audio books the way others, my husband for example, have. I don’t take in stories JUST by listening to them.

But the times they are a-changing, audiobooks are becoming more popular and I have now taken a step into the future with my first book in audio format, ‘Embers of Heaven‘.
.
Embers of Heaven coverI listened to the sample on the Amazon page for the audio book and it’s eerie to hear my own words spoken at me. It’s well done, at least in the sample I heard. (I have to admit that I would probably have chosen a female narrator voice since my main protagonist is a woman and the final section of the book is pretty much a first-person journal-like narrative from her POV.)

My first audiobook. Huh. I feel all grown up now.

You can sample or buy it at Amazon HERE

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Quote of the DayBenjamin Franklin posterIn his own way, he was talking about building a world.

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ALL fiction is fantasy

Alma’s Bookshelf: “The Secrets of Jin-shei”

One of a series of essays on writing referencing my own books for examples

I spend half my life living in dreams, in alternate realities.

That might sound bizarre to some, even verging on pure lunacy – but it applies to every writer of fiction out there. Whether you’re writing contemporary thrillers, historical bodice-rippers, science fiction or pure fairy tale, you face one simple truth – whatever the world you’re in, it’s a world created by YOU.

There are places out there that feel like they have been torn out of the gritty gray reality of our own workaday world, where you can smell the smog in the streets and hear the squeal of brakes. It’s the kind of pure “reality” on which a lot of writers have built careers.

And then there are those, like me, who like to just make it all up.

The very first book I had published was a series of fairy tales, literary stories modeled rather more on the emotional and subtle and almost mystical fairy tales as told by Oscar Wilde. But every single one of those stories had one thing in common. They were set like tiny gems into a setting of their own particular world, a setting I took pains to build and create, a setting in which I lovingly breathed life into every leaf and every rose petal and every drop of sea foam I wrote about.

Worldbuilding is one of the most exhilarating, heady things that it is given to a writer to do. The process of building a world – star by star, tree by tree, shimmering piece of magic by shimmering piece of magic – is unsurpassed by anything that it is possible for the human mind to achieve.

True fantasy is extremely hard to do well, because you cannot rely on the familiar scaffolding of the world that your reader is already familiar with in order to tell your tale. The setting of a fantasy has to be so strong, so unbreakable, so seamless, that it is invisible – much like the real world is in a contemporary novel – and leaves its readers, at the completion of the book, waking up as if from a lovely dream.

But there is another kind of fantasy, one which I value even more highly, “historical” fantasy – the kind that magically invokes an otherness that is almost painfully familiar.

Historical fantasy is the kind that you read knowing, just knowing, that this IS in fact your own world… only different. The kind of book where the author has done a LOT of research into the details of his or her chosen period, and although choices were made for the sake of the story that may not match perfectly with the original historical events, those events are recreated in such a manner that the provenance of the fantasy itself is immediately warmly familiar.

The Secrets of Jin-shei coverWhen I began “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, this is the kind of book that I was writing. I took the rich tapestry of Imperial China, and I unraveled it thread by thread, and then re-wove it into a different world, a different China, my China, one that never really existed – but which owed everything to the time and place of its inspiration and which breathed the same mystical oriental air.

I researched meticulously – but this is not the kind of research that is done for a purely historical novel and aimed at checking facts. I was not going to exactly recreate the facts, I wanted to re-create the sense, the feel, the atmosphere.

My China, a land I called Syai, shared a lot of things with ancient China – not least a religion based on the Tao, and an Imperial court full of beautiful wives and concubines dressed in scarlet brocades and jeweled embroidery.

Most importantly of all, my central premise – the secret women’s language I called “jin ashu” and the bond of sisterhood known as “Jin-shei” that gives the novel its name — is real. There is a women’s language passed from mother to daughter over generations which has survived to the present day in this magical form, although the last of the women who learned the language, nushu, organically at their mothers’ knee are now almost gone. There was a sisterhood, known as “Jiebai Zhimei”, which sometimes linked women in strong bonds of friendship and which had its roots in this secret language that the women shared.

But Syai, my ‘China’, is NOT the real China.

In the real historical China women did not have the kind of power that the women in Syai do. In the real China the women’s language and the secret sisterhood had considerably less global influence than portrayed in the Syai of my novel. I took the reality, unraveled it, re-wove it into a fantasy cloth rich with myth and legend and tradition and history – but only the memory of reality.

Syai is not China, any more than a painting is a precise likeness of a photograph.

When I first submitted the novel for publication, the response was that it was something that “transcended fantasy” – and the novel was subsequently sold to a publisher far more mainstream in outlook than I might have expected it to go to. Reviews have stated that the book is a “genre-buster” and have called it “mainstream fantasy”. It has been published in 13 languages.

And yet I was afraid that there would be people out there who would inevitably pick it up as a “pure” historical novel, and who would shred the culture and milieu of Syai on the basis of the historical inaccuracies on which has been built. Indeed, that happened. For example, one reader wrote in her blog:

I need another recommendation for a good book. The Secrets of Jin-shei turned out to be a pretty good book being female-centered and all. but I still don’t agree with how the author changed so many things with the Chinese culture … I can’t help comparing it to Memoirs of a Geisha…(I felt)l like I was enriched with the Japanese culture… after reading Secrets I couldn’t help but feel cheated. China was never a matriarchal society and yet that is how she portrayed it…”

But “Jin-shei” was never meant to be a factual representation of a culture or a world in the manner that “Memoirs of a Geisha” was.

“The Secrets of Jin-shei” is a dream, not a reality.

It is true, of course, that all fiction, even if set in the ‘real’ world, is fantasy, a story told about a place that seems real, but is not. But it is here, in the realm of fantasy, that this becomes something very important.

Think of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, if you like, as a Westernization of an ancient oriental fairy tale – of the kind that took the world by storm when ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” made its explosive debut on the cinematic scene. (One of my favorite reviews of “Secrets of Jin-shei” , from a place that went by the completely appropriate name of China Books, cited that movie: “Combine ‘The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood’ with ‘The Joy Luck Club,’ add elements of ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,’ and you have this astonishing novel.” )

It is a dream. An alternate reality. A place that could have, might have, should have existed… but never did, except in my heart and my mind.

Buy “The Secrets of Jin-shei” HERE

A fuller version of this essay appeared on the Book View Café HERE

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What inspires?

Travel by Book

Several books and movies have sparked my wish to travel.

Pearl BuckIn books, it was Pearl Buck’s stories of China, “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen, and Walter Scott’s Scottish tales.

I have been to Africa and Scotland; China, not yet. Of course, I’ve never found the road to Narnia, although I always feel the urge to explore the backs of wardrobes in the hope that someday …

With movies, it’s been “Best Little Marigold Hotel”, “Ghost and the Darkness”, “Gigi”,  “Breakfast at Tiffanys”… (I never read the last as a book it was the movie that nailed it down for me) .And any movie set in London, my favorite city.

Morse in Oxford

 

When it comes to TV, I want to go again to Morse’s Oxford.

AFAR magazine has their own ideas, Derek Richardson writes, and offers several more films and books that inspire the urge to travel.

 

AFAR’s FILMS that inspire travel HERE

17 BOOKS that inspire travel HERE

And for good measure, songs, including “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash

Songs to travel by HERE

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The Were Chronicles continue

Read an excerpt from Book 2, WOLF, Mal’s story, Wolf posterRead it HERE

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Literary Adventures for Every Day of the Week

“It can be easy to get stuck in a reading rut,” Julianna Haubner says at Off the Shelf, “so here’s a fun and untraditional angle to inspire your reading: a fantastic book for every day of the week.”

For example
month-of-sundays

A Month of Sundays, by John Updike:

In this update of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter, Reverend Tom Marshfield is banished from his Midwest parish in the wake of a sex scandal. He keeps a journal of all his thoughts and desires, and at the center of it all is his growing infatuation with a woman named Ms. Prynne.

 

 

 

Check the other days HERE

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García MárquezBrain Pickings illustration
Gabriel García Márquez’s Formative Reading List

At Brain Pickings, Maria Popova offers us 24 books that shaped one of humanity’s greatest writers, “along with some of the endearing anecdotes he tells about them.”

e.g.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner: “I became aware that my adventure in reading Ulysses at the age of twenty, and later The Sound and the Fury, were premature audacities without a future, and I decided to reread them with a less biased eye. In effect, much of what had seemed pedantic or hermetic in Joyce and Faulkner was revealed to me then with a terrifying beauty and simplicity.”

Read the whole story HERE

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Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

If you were airdropped, blindfolded, into a strange town and given nothing but a bus ticket, to where would you ride that bus?” Amien Essif asks at AlterNet.

You might be surprised to learn that there’s only one good answer, and that’s the public library. The library is the public living room, and if ever you are stripped of everything private—money, friends and orientation—you can go there and become a human again.

people in librariesOf course, you don’t have to be homeless to use a library, but that’s the point. You don’t have to be anyone in particular to go inside and stay as long as you want, sit in its armchairs, read the news, write your dissertation, charge your phone, use the bathroom, check your email, find the address of a hotel or homeless shelter. Of all the institutions we have, both public and private, the public library is the truest democratic space.

Read the whole story HERE

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A Pencil Shop, for Texting the Old-Fashioned Way
Pencil shop
Photographs by Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

A store devoted to pencils has opened in Lower Manhattan, Molly Young writes in the New York Times. “If the enterprise seems belated, well, it is. Who uses a pencil anymore?”

Pencils are like fax machines and margarine, she adds. “They do a job, sure, but other things do the same job better — pens, email and butter, respectively. You can write a letter in pencil, but it’s more adult to write in pen. You can solve a crossword in pencil, but it’s more courageous in pen.”

Framed vintage advertisements on the wall depict the likes of Booth Tarkington shilling his favorite pencils. (Tarkington’s advice to young writers: “Use pencils. Write on thick paper. Sharpen two or three dozen rather soft pencils before you work. Use pencils with erasers on them — and use the erasers!”)

Read the whole story HERE

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THIS ‘n THAT

Is it “anyway” or “any way“? “All together” or “altogether“?

More confusing words HERE

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Oh yeah. I’d go for this. And there would be a whole damn FOREST out there with my name on it.

biodegradable coffee  cup

 

Embedded with seeds, coffee cup grow into trees when thrown away.

 

 

 

earth porm shows us Plantable Coffee Cups HERE

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Quote of the day

Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” ~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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Alma Alexander     My books    Email me

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‘The world neeeeds books!’

MadisonThere is absolutely no way in hell you appreciate books as much as this third grader does. Nope. No way. Madison loves books. And she tells you exactly why in this video from the grand opening of one of five Little Free Libraries in Cleveland.

See the video HERE

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Women Who Changed History

They were strong, brave, and human, regardless of society’s expectations for them, Mark Pygas writes at Distractify.
Sufferage activistA woman suffrage activist protesting after “The Night of Terror.” [1917]

See all 52 women

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10 brilliant books that gave women excellent roles

From Meryl Streep’s tortured Sophie to Nicole Kidman’s right-on-the-nose portrayal of Virgina Woolf, every actress in this list captured their character so well you only see see their performance now when you read the book.

The Reader

 

“The Reader” by Bernard Schlink: When he falls ill on his way home from school, 15-year-old Michael Berg is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover—then she inexplicably disappears. When Michael next sees her, he is a young law student, and she is on trial for a hideous crime. As he watches her refuse to defend her innocence, Michael gradually realizes that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder. An Oprah Book Club selection.

 

Read the article

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Jodi Picoult says the F-word about Lit World Sexism

After nearly two decades as a highly successful author, Jodi Picoult is out on yet another book tour and not holding back on kickass soundbites about how shitty the lit world tends to be for women writers.

Read the article

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Amazingly awful books that you might find at your local library

Take a stroll through your local library’s aisles, and you’re sure to find a few hidden literary treasures, Happy Pace says.

Think I’m kidding about awful? Try this one, for example:
Ask a manDid you know that the best way for you to harness your inner womanliness is to defer all judgement to the penis-havers in your life? Seems counter-intuitive, but that’s what you’ll learn if you check out Always Ask a Man: The Key to Femininity by Arlene Dahl.

A couple of other gems

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THIS ‘n THAT

China bans puns

Digg reports that China’s media regulators have placed a blanket ban on the use of wordplay in advertisements and broadcasts, which have been deemed “contradictory in spirit to the promotion and continuance of excellent, traditional Chinese culture.”

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Homes made out of Old Trains
Caboose(via Big Sky Fishing and Skiing)
The 1949 caboose of Samuel and Barbara Davidson on Mercer Island, Washington

Other train buildings

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Hieronymus Bosch painted sheet music on a man’s butt and now you can …

Hear it here

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Five Music Lessons for Writers

The great thing about being a writer is that no experience is wasted, Louise Marley once wrote.

“I’ve spent most of my life (thus far) as a classical concert and opera singer and as a teacher of classical singers. When I began writing, I discovered to my great relief that I had already learned a number of valuable lessons–music lessons–that set the stage for my life as a writer…I had learned the discipline of artistic life.

Fourth lesson: Sing with your own voice

Read the article

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Quote of the Day
QUOTE book lives~~~~~
Alma Alexander      My books      Email me

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But what is it?

I am primarily a fantasy writer. That is how I view myself and my novels. But literary critics often have trouble labeling me, putting my books into neat little boxes.

Midnight at Spanish GardensPerhaps that shows most vividly in one of my recent novels, ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens,’ a book that explores how our lives are changed by the paths we take, the choices we make.

Reviews were good, e.g. “the language is poetic and beautiful…characters are utterly compelling … on one occasion, I stood in a doorway,  flipping page after page, unable to take the steps that would lead to the end of my reading.” (Alana Abbott)

But Spanish Gardens uses a bit of fantasy to explore those choices, and booksellers and some reviewers don’t know how to classify it, what box to put it in.

I explored this problem a few years ago in an article that I wrote for The Interstitial Arts Foundation.

Interstitial art is made in the interstices between genres and categories, the foundation’s website explains. It crosses borders, is not constrained by category labels. “Just as how in nature the greatest areas of biodiversity occur in the margins of land between ecosystems, it is our belief that some of the most vital, innovative, and challenging art being created today can be found in the margins between categories, genres, and disciplines.”

Here is my 2009 article, a blast from the past as it were:

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It was a long time ago. A century ago. A millennium ago.

Well, all right, it was in 1999.

A man I met on a Usenet newsgroup concerned with writing – who became a friend, and subsequently my husband – and I collaborated on what must have one of the first few novels which could be described as “email epistolary”.

We each took on a character’s mantle, and we exchanged emails as these characters, within a given historical and political context – in this instance, the 78-day bombardment of Serbia by the United States and its often reluctant allies, in what became known as the Kosovo crisis.

Letters from the FireThe novel, ‘Letters from the Fire’, was written very fast, in pain and with passion, and got picked up for publication by Harper Collins in New Zealand, where I was living at the time. From conception to being on bookstore shelves, the book took just under six months – which has to be some sort of record in the publishing industry at the time.

The topic was hot, to be sure, and the themes were those of contemporary history – but it was a fictional account of those real events, a novel, and it was with a considerable amount of astonishment that I came upon a callow young assistant in one of the premier flagship bookstore on the main drag in Auckland, shelving the books… in the non-fiction section.

That’s a novel,” I told him. “It belongs in fiction.”

He looked at me with a gormless expression, and said, “Are you sure?”

Reasonably,” I said. “I wrote it.”

That’s bookend one. For bookend two, fast forward to 2004, with the release of my novel, ‘The Secrets of Jin-Shei.’ [Now published in 13 languages)

The Secrets of Jin-sheiThis was something which, as I wrote it, I conceived as alternate-history, or historical fantasy. The publishers had other ideas, and marketed it as mainstream, with most bookstores shelving it in the general fiction section.

Which had two complementary repercussions.

The first was that fantasy readers who might have loved this book simply never got to hear about it, because it wasn’t shelved in the section where they went to seek reading material.

The second was that mainstream readers, on the other hand, were uniformly thrown by what is essentially a very minor serving of magic in the book.

There appeared to be little I could do, despite repeated attempts, to convince people that the book was NOT in fact about China, about any China that actually existed, that there were certain aspects of the Imperial China which I used in the novel but that the land in which my own story took place was called Syai and did not, in fact, exist outside my own imagination. (And I STILL get questions like, “But what particular period of Imperial China were you writing about?”)

Part of the problem with the latter bookend is simply the fantasy cooties thing, something that apparently requires a warding off of the first order should its evil eye fall on your work – but as I keep telling everyone, ALL FICTION IS FANTASY. By definition.

And if the currently accepted definition of fantasy spills over into the mainstream shelves, or the mainstream books suddenly start having a dash of the fantastic – this should not be something that alienates readers from a book, bur rather it should be seen as an expanding of one’s horizons, an interstitial quest, a hunting for treasure in places you never thought to look in before.

Remember those optimistic, hardy, pretty urban weeds that spring with hope eternal from cracks in the pavement and put forth extravagant blooms as they dodge passing feet for a chance at a summer in the sun? That’s what we all are. Something beautiful in unexpected places, where you might least expect to see it. In the interstitial corners.

And perhaps it isn’t surprising that someone like Leonard Cohen put it best when he sang about there being a crack in everything. That, he said, was how the light gets in.

Read more about The Interstitial Arts Foundation HERE

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Quote of the day

ALL fiction is fantasy.” ~ Alma Alexander

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Alma Alexander       My books       Email me

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Meet the Author

Meet Alma AlexanderRandom, The Were ChroniclesI’ll be at “The Author visits” all week, the first stop on a blog tour for Random, the first book in The Were Chronicles, my new YA series. There will be a book giveaway, an exceprt from Random, a review, a guest blog post from me, hints about What’s Next.

From today’s interview:

Which character in a book would you enjoy having drinks and dinner with?

I’d love to share a rowdy dinner party with the entire royal family of Amber (if I could sit next to Corwin), or perhaps I could visit the Wales of Llewellyn’s era, as portrayed by Sharon Penman, and share Llewellyn’s table (one assumes these invitations mean one can speak a shared language, although my current knowledge of 13th century Welsh is pretty much nil…), or maybe I could have tea with Merlyn from “The Once and Future King”…?

The whole interview here

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10 Best Historical Novels

My novel, The Secrets of Jin-Shei, takes place in an Imperial China that never existed. In fact, I called my version of ‘China’ by another name and in an endnote discussed the differences between my world and historical Imperial China.

That didn’t stop my publisher from trying to position it as a historical novel, some
reviewers from discussing it as such, and some bookstores putting it in the history section.

This comes to mind now because of a story in Publishers Weekly by Alix Christie, author of Gutenberg’s Apprentice, in which she picks 10 of her favorite historical novels. One on her list is the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, a book that Jin-shei and its sequel, Ember of Heaven, have been compared to.

Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur GoldenMuch has been made of how a male writer could so convincingly inhabit the character of a Japanese geisha. But the novel’s real strength lies in the lucidity and modesty of its storytelling, a lack of fussiness that mirrors spare Japanese aesthetics. Golden’s achievement is to open up a sealed and foreign world in the form of an affecting coming of age tale.

“The historical novels I admire,” Christie writes, “inhabit their worlds so fully that as a reader I feel I’m breathing the air of that distant place or time. This has less to do with historical detail than with a freshness of language, tone and incident that makes the concerns of the characters so recognizably human that they feel almost contemporary. The ability to transport us into different minds is a hallmark of good literature generally; the bar is set even higher when a story’s setting is truly foreign.”

Read the article

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Buzzfeed asks:
Debut novelsFor example:

VonnegutDickens
Try your hand at all 81 titles

 

 

 

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Top 10 health and safety fails in children’s books

From The Hunger Games to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, children’s books can demonstrate a somewhat lax approach to disaster and death. Ross Montgomery, author of The Tornado Chasers, shares his favorite books for danger lovers.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

 

The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr: Look, if you open the front door and there’s a tiger outside, the first rule is that you don’t invite them in. Don’t come to me acting all surprised when he’s eaten all the sandwiches and drunk all the tea in the teapot.

 

 

Read the article

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THIS ‘n THAT

Oxford Dictionaries Book Quiz of Last Lines

Though a book’s opening lines may determine whether or not you take the book home at all, it’s as likely to be the last lines that stick in your memory long after you set the book down: they may tidily tie up events, or make you question instantly if there is a sequel, or see you muttering “Thank goodness that’s over!”

Take the quiz

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An Anti-Feminist Walks Into a Bar: John Scalzi brilliant’s Play in Five Acts
ScalziRead his blog

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been challenged for the past seven decades, the same amount of time it’s been in publication.

22 Mind-Boggling Facts About Banned Books In America

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Terry Pratchett’s Fury

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Quote of the Day

Daphne du Maurier
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Alma Alexander
My books

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