Tuesday, January 28, 2014

January Cold Randutiae

A couple years ago, we had one of those winters that never really got started... hardly any snow, and the temperatures weirdly high. Spring came and I felt like I'd been cheated. That's certainly not happening this year. And here in Cambridge, our frequent temps of 10 and 20°F (-12 and -7°C, approximately) are downright balmy compared to the -20 and -30°F temps (-29 and -34°C) a friend in Minnesota is having on a regular basis. For me, it's something to laugh and occasionally whine about, because I'm damn lucky, but for a lot of people, it's creating a lot of suffering and is downright dangerous… I wish everyone could be okay.

A heartfelt thank you for everyone who clicked on my Seabane Isn't Real post! I just took a look at the hit count and was touched that my readers are taking my request seriously.

Work has been enjoyable lately but also intense and energy-sapping. Hence, no blogging. But I've been keeping a little list of randutiae that bears mentioning, so here we go.

Sherlock. So, Sherlock has returned for a third season in the USA and I'm having some trouble trying to keep straight whether Sherlock has come back from the dead as a total and unforgivable asshole (as in the first episode) or as an entirely forgivable and endearing asshole (as in the second episode). I find his characterization inconsistent, but Benedict Cumberbatch is such a fine actor that I believe in every individual moment completely. Also, these new episodes are FUNNY. And (if you're allergic to spoilers, skip the rest of this paragraph), that kiss in the first few minutes of the first episode was the most entertaining (and hilarious) TV kiss I've ever seen. Fly through a plate glass window, adjust the trenchcoat, ruffle the hair, OH MY GOODNESS. About Mary -- notice I'm not going wild with excitement that they've introduced an important female character. You know what, I'm sincerely glad they have, but I'm tired of treating tiny baby steps as if they're a revolution for the industry, so I'll leave it at that.

Downton Abbey. I have a lot of words about why I'm done watching Downtown Abbey (serious spoilers ahead), but this evening I'd rather do something else with my energy. So instead I'm going to link to an article in the Guardian in which two thoughtful women, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Bidisha, present opposing opinions about whether the rape scene in the second episode of the most current season was acceptable television. I appreciate both women's perspectives, but I especially appreciate Bidisha's, as I am sick to death of the frequency with which rape is portrayed shallowly in entertainment media. I also feel that this particular case -- the rape of Anna, whose husband will certainly retaliate if he finds out -- should be an opportunity for people to talk about what a serious problem it is in our society that there are too many women and children who suffer rape and other violence but are then unable to tell the men in their lives -- fathers, brothers, husbands, partners -- the truth of what's happened, out of fear that those men, rather than giving them the real support they need in that moment, will retaliate in a fit of violence that is understandable but in fact selfishly makes the woman's or child's situation worse.

Among Others Audiobook. I recently read and very much enjoyed the novel Among Others by Jo Walton, and I'd like  to make a special point about the audiobook, read by Katherine Kellgren. Wanting to rest my eyes, I switched to the audiobook at about the 20% mark, and I'm SO glad I did! I would've loved the book either way, but this was one of my best audiobook experiences ever, up there with listening to Barack Obama read Dreams From my Father. At first, I thought it might be a disaster, not because Kellgren reads with a very strong and distinct Welsh accent (this is appropriate to the book) but rather because she reads with a distinct tone of voice that is so different from my inner voice that I was momentarily thrown. It only took me a few minutes to get over that, though, because in fact her tone is just right, and so much more spot-on my own. I laughed out loud so many times! I've now used the word "so" four times in this paragraph (not counting that time), which demonstrates the passion of my recommendation. :o)

The Ides of March. I enjoyed George Clooney's movie The Ides of March, which stars Ryan Gosling (spoilers ahead), but I felt that what was IMO the biggest flaw in the plot was demonstrative of the casual systemic sexism in Hollywood. Namely… why would she kill herself? Why would she kill herself? I felt like maybe the reason she would kill herself is because she's not a real or believable character and exists only to serve the plot. It's a crack in the movie. The actress (Evan Rachel Wood) did a wonderful job with the role, but the movie would have been a better piece of art if she'd been more legitimate a character.

The Heart of Robin Hood I saw this show recently at the American Repertory Theater here in Cambridge, Mass, and (spoilers ahead!) you know what, while I didn't entirely believe in the characterizations of Robin Hood or Marion (Why would she love him exactly? He's a violent, murdering thug! And why would he love her? He saw her once!), the staging is something special. On the stage roof and extending over the audience is the most enormous oak tree, and the actors are essentially aerialists. They enter and exit by climbing or descending ropes OR by sliding down this rather extraordinary steep slope at the back of the stage. You're sitting there watching the show and people keep suddenly appearing on stage by sliding down the back wall! The one moment when I did believe in Robin Hood and Marion's love was achieved by aerialist work. Also, randomly, the show contained the most magical and realistic snowfall I've ever seen on a stage. And it was funny, AND, there's a scene where Robin's gang uses the corpse of a man they've killed as a marionette and it is the FUNNIEST THING EVER, magnificently acted by the guy playing the corpse marionette. (My apologies to this actor; I'm kicking myself for not paying closer attention to the name of that character so that I can share the actor's name here.) Hints of a few Broadway shows – in the use of music, I found it reminiscent of Once, and in the depiction of animals, I thought of War Horse.

Hourly News. This is my new favorite phone app. It plays the three-or four-minute hourly news headlines from NPR, the BBC, the CBC, and a range of other options, including one as far away as Hong Kong. A great way to spend a few minutes getting the major headlines. I wish there were options from a broader range of worldwide sources, and hope this will come in time. Seems to be only for Mac devices, though?

The Perilous Gard. I recently reread and loved The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope. A wonderful book with some Tam Lin elements!

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. Curious about the hand-craftsmanship that goes into a Steinway piano? If you can get your hands on this documentary, do watch it, it's really fascinating. One thing I love about the process of creating these pianos is how many times a piano is sent to a new department in order to have practically the same manufacturing process applied to it as in the last department. These piano-makers repeat the same process repeatedly with each piano (something I can relate to as a writer), and that's partly what makes Steinway grands such wonderful creatures in the end. Each one unique.

Finally (have I really reached the end of my list?), I'm so happy to report that Bitterblue is a bestseller in Israel. Many thanks to my Hebrew-reading readers and to my Israeli publisher, Kinneret Zmora! That's the cover at the top of this post – click to enbiggen.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Seabane Isn't Real

Here's a brief conversation between Katsa and Po in Graceling:
Po looked puzzled. “What’s seabane?”

“I don’t know if you have another name for it in Lienid.  It’s a small purple flower. A woman who eats its leaves will not bear a child.”

And here's a line from Bitterblue:
Bitterblue examined the item in her hand. It was a medicinal envelope with a label written clear across the front: “Seabane, for the prevention of pregnancy.”

Seabane is a fictional herb. I made it up, not unlike the way fantasy writer Tamora Pierce made up a pregnancy charm for Alanna and her other fictional women.

Way back when I was an unpublished writer writing Graceling, choosing the name of this magical contraceptive herb was fun. I knew I wanted a plant name that, to the best of my ability to ensure such a thing, was not a known plant name in the real world in any language, because I didn't want to confuse my fantasy world with the real world and I didn't want to muddle readers ("What? Oregano doesn't prevent pregnancy!"). This left me with the task of making a word up, throwing different syllables together and deciding which ones sounded right.

Turns out that a lot of times, when you try to make a word up, you come up with a word that exists! (It's amazing how many things exist.) So I had to do a lot of checking on my "made-up" words. How? Well, I'm not a botanist, but I did the best I could. I looked my words up in dictionaries and encyclopedias, and of course, I ran them through Google searches.

Gradually, I settled on the word "seabane." It had the right feel, it was serviceable and vague-sounding in meaning… and at the time, when I checked in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and online, nothing came up – in particular, nothing plant-related. Significantly, the word didn't appear at all in the extended Oxford English Dictionary. So I decided it was a safe word to use, and began using it. Then I forgot about it.

A few days ago, my lovely Norwegian translator, Carina Westberg, contacted me with a question about the word "seabane." Where had I gotten it? Had I made it up? Did it have any significance she should know about before she tried to translate it into Norwegian? She told me that she'd done a Google search and all she'd found is that it's toxic to birds.

Toxic to birds?? That was surprising and interesting. So I did a Google search myself. And, forget about the birds. What concerned me much more is that amidst a lot of other things (including many legitimate conversations about my books), I found a very few tiny online conversations to the effect of one person asking, "What is seabane?" and another person answering as if it's an actual contraceptive.

Oh, dear readers. If you are in need of a contraceptive, please talk to a medical professional rather than consulting a fantasy novel OR a conversation forum on the internet. Many of the random forums on the internet are about as reliable as a fantasy novel! If the Internet is your only safe option, try organizations with reliable information, like Planned Parenthood or even the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Of course, one nice thing is that we can use the Internet to fight the Internet. Please, readers: Feel free to click on the link to this "Seabane Isn't Real" blog post repeatedly, and send it to your friends for them to click on, too, so that if ever someone does a Google search wondering if seabane is real, this blog post explicitly stating that it's not will get bumped up to the top of their results!

(I won't get into how sad it makes me that some of our young people are so under-informed and misguided about safe contraceptive means that they do look to fantasy novels and unreliable parts of the Internet for answers.)

There's also a lesson here for the writers out there (um, aside from how scarily powerful our written words can be). Because actually, it turns out that something called "purple seabane" may in fact exist (though I have to say that after a great deal of research, I'm doubtful). Remember those birds? My Norwegian translator Carina found and shared a couple of websites where "purple seabane" is listed among plants and trees that are toxic to parrots, cockatiels, and other birds (like this list here at cockatielcottage.net). Huh! Back when I was writing Graceling, my Google searches did not bring up these lists. And the weird thing is that I can't find any mention of "purple seabane" anywhere else online, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and toxic plant databases. It only exists on these duplicated bird toxicity lists. So a few days ago, I returned again to the extended OED. Still nothing there. In the volume that would contain "seabane," it goes straight from "sea-apple" to "sea-bank." In the volume that would contain "purple seabane," it goes straight from "purple-red" to "purplewort." (Many thanks to the helpful reference librarians at the Cambridge Public Library who looked those up for me!) I'm now wondering if there might be a typo in these bird lists; if once again, shockingly, someone is wrong on the Internet. Or maybe there is such a thing as purple seabane? Further googling tells me that something called "purple seasbane" (note the extra "s") is toxic to dogs, but I can find no mention of that mysterious plant anywhere else online, either. Hm. I'm not sure. And ultimately, both whether it exists and possibly even my ability to know whether it exists are, like so many things, out of my control.

So, what's the lesson? Remember when I said above that I knew I wanted a name for my fictional plant that, to the best of my ability to ensure such a thing, was not a known plant name in the real world? I now realize that the key part of that sentence is "to the best of my ability to ensure such a thing." Writers: do you absolute best, and remember that this will involve getting things wrong. We will never have perfect knowledge or perfect control.

In conclusion: contraceptive seabane isn't real. And: (in the event it exists) don't feed purple seabane to your bird! And, finally: in moments such as these, a follow-up blog post can't hurt.


EDITED TO ADD only five minutes later: I had an inspiration the moment this post published, and tootled off to see what happened if I googled "purple fleabane." Turns out that purple fleablane, with an "f" and an "l" rather than an "s," exists, and further googling tells me that fleabane is toxic to many animals. I wonder if we have our culprit?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

New Year's Dreaming

Bulgarian cover for Fire! Published by Emas, designed by Zlatina Zareva. Click to enbiggen! ------>


My dear nieces (accidentally and with great affection) gave me a Christmas present of a terrible cold in which my head was like a TARDIS of snot, so I've fallen behind in some things, including blogging. (The TARDIS, for those of you who aren't Doctor Who fans, is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, such that it's capable of containing unimaginably huge quantities of stuff you would never think possible if you're standing outside it. And by the way, I'm not as obsessed with Doctor Who as it might seem given recent mentions on my blog (though I do rather love it). It's more that a character I'm writing about is often wearing Doctor Who pajamas, so it's always on my mind.)

As colds go, this one was massive, but also dreamy and contemplative, possibly because it coincided with the New Year. I should have some resolution thoughts to blog before too long. For now, I'll merely mention that my dictation software keeps insisting that I cooked a student in my crockpot this weekend, while I swear I merely cooked an (entirely legal) stew. And here are a couple pictures from my writing desk.

Local potter Tilla Rodemann, whose work I adore, made this teapot.

At the end of every workday, I write up a tiny plan for the next day. "FORGET ABOUT
TIME" -- because dwelling on how infernally long a revision is taking does me no good
whatsoever. It will take however long it takes. Journey, not destination; maybe if I write
this to myself a thousand times, someday I'll understand it on a cellular level.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Alternative Uses for Cats

When writing or reading seated while not at a desk, you should try to prevent neck strain.
Pile items on your lap to create a makeshift desk. Pillows, books...

whatever's available.

The best makeshift desk is a blissed out desk.