06 Dec

Why I’m switching to romance

Over the summer, as my child started to sleep through the night and my mental powers of cognition started to return, I did some hard thinking about my writing career and which direction I want to go. I wrote a business plan. I thought about numbers and I thought about the number of stories rattling around in my head, wanting to get out. Ultimately, I decided to set aside some writing projects I’d been working on for a while and start something new and, seemingly, entirely different: historical romance. I have an eight (!!) book series planned, set in Gilded Age America — the first book is 1896 New York City.

Why romance?

I have two main reasons. First, I’m ready to write happy endings. Second, historical research is fun.

Happy Ever Afters

If you know anything about popular romances, you know that they always end with a couple happily together. Maybe with some sexy times, or maybe just with an as yet unconsummated plan to spend their lives together.

That’s not the sort of ending that I’ve written in the past. I have often written from songs, and you know what makes a good emotional song that gets stuck in my heart and my head and tickles around until it comes out as a novel? Tragic death. And you know who often dies? The lady.

I spent most of the summer reading about Spanish colonial California and working on a novella (that I thought would be a short story, but it kept growing) from the California ballad South Coast but as powerful as the story in that song is, I ultimately dropped it because it’s unavoidably about the death of a woman, who is half Native American in my mind, and you know what? Too many Native American women are dying in the present day.  When I went looking for an article to link just now, Google autocomplete filled in “missing” after “native american woman” and that’s why I can’t write that story.

It’s a real pain for the Native American community and I am not going to be the one to add to that.

So that story’s in the drawer and I’m not sure I’ll ever take it out. I still love the song and I have no regrets about reading up on the Spanish and Mexican presence in Alta California. The song is tragic as all getout and the story was going to make you cry.

But so is the news, and there’s enough of that, don’t you think? I don’t think I’ve ever strayed into woman-in-refrigerator territory,  but I don’t like looking back and seeing the stories I’ve written that involved dead ladies in various ways. I’m not going to write that any more.

The other draw of the Happy Ever After right now is the utopia/dystopia dichotomy in fantasy. I use fantasy here to indicate an imaginary world, which could be scifi, or Tolkienesque high fantasy, or historical fiction (which really can only be a view of the past through the lens of the present). Dystopian literature stands as a warning of future dangers, to show our characters fighting the good fight against tyranny and injustice. Utopian stories show the possibilities of a better world.

Haven’t there been a lot of popular dystopian stories lately? The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, all that sort of rah-rah grim, dark world and brave hero(ine)s stepping up? Well, in the last year, for those of us in America with a progressive and liberal bent to our thoughts, the dystopia has become far too close to the everyday reality. We have rallied in the streets and taken up arms to fight against tyranny and corruption.

To me, writing fiction in that vein seems beside the point right now. I don’t doubt that others will take up the dystopian stories and write brilliant novels that will become our generation’s 1984, but the news makes me want utopian fiction. I can’t spend my workaday life fighting, and go back for more grimness in my leisure time. Therefore, romance and happy ever afters.

I’m not the only one feeling this way either. Romance is a progressive and feminist genre, so it’s no surprise that established romance authors are part of the resisterhood. You can read articles on the subject from Salon and Entertainment Weekly.

Historical Research is Fun

Seriously, half the reason I like writing stories is because it sends me out reading other stories. The writers’ internet is overflowing with jokes around “don’t check my browser history.” Since I’m not writing thrillers or murder mysteries I don’t have to crack wise about the FBI watching me, but I end up looking all sorts of things. Did you know that by the 1840s California was overrun by horses and cattle, and cowhides were basically used as currency? That Mrs. Lucy Carnegie, in 1894, was the first female member of the New York Yacht Club? That the florist business in early New York City was dominated by Greeks? All these facts and more I have learned recently and all these details go into making my stories come alive with verisimilitude.

Writing stories set in the 1890s is particularly fun/dangerous because Google books has scanned a vast amount of printed matter, now out of copyright, and made it available online. Do I want to know what sort of clothing my gentleman wears to a party in 1896? I search for men’s suit and restrict the years to 1890-1900 and peruse the ads of the day until I have enough clues to narrow down and choose his wardrobe. It’s tempting to just sit and read vintage periodicals, and I admit I’ve ordered a couple antique books that weren’t too expensive so I can thumb through them. I’ll be sharing some of the things I find on the blog as I continue. Not everything fits into the story, but some of it is too to pass up!

11 Sep

Working on a Romance MFA Syllabus

This is a crosspost from romancemfa.com – head over there for more updates on my Romance MFA project!

I’ve been working on my Romance MFA syllabus for over a month now. It hasn’t been a simple task: the number of books in the romance genre is overwhelming. I want to write historical romance: the number of historicals is overwhelming. I specifically want to write in the American Gilded Age: the number of books in the niche is limited, but the historical research I feel I need to do is overwhelming. And the number of existing romance authors, romance blogs, romance reading lists…

*deep breath*

It’s going to be okay, though. I have strategies. Or rather, one strong strategy which I am applying repeatedly.

Break it down.

Anne Lammott talks about using the “one inch frame”: you can only focus on the bit right in front of you. It’s a concept which holds for more than just writing. In recent years I have started teaching martial arts and learned to give minimal feedback to students. Maybe I can see four or five things she could be doing better, but if I tell her to fix all five at once, she’ll be confused and dispirited. So I pick one thing–maybe adjust her footwork so her knees will still be functional after practicing that kick for five years–and once she hears similar feedback from a couple different teachers, it will sink in and the kick will get better.

Here’s how I’ve been breaking things down to make my reading list. First, I needed some genre authorities. I searched for romance blogs. Now I have 150+ in my RSS reader and after a month I’m getting a sense of who is posting prolifically, who has a readership who comments, who has substance beyond endless !!CLICK HERE NEW RELEASE EXCERPT!!. I got wise to the fact that there are a handful of academic courses on the topic of popular romance which have been taught: here’s a good master list of romance syllabi. That seemed like a good way to get a handle on the genre, but the academics refer to it as “popular romance,” so I wanted to get the people’s view, too. I looked on kboards and found a massive thread called ‘Anyone a Historical Romance Fan?’, started in 2011 and still discussing historical romance reads in August 2017. I consulted a number of Goodreads lists. I also happened across the results of an NPR Books poll related to last year’s ‘Summer of Love’ theme. With 18,000 nominations in their poll, it sounded like a pretty solid source.

Putting together the lists from blogs, syllabi, Goodreads, NPR, and authors mentioned on Kboards gave me a spreadsheet with over 250 entries. Still an overwhelming number of titles, but some were starting to jump out at me as repeated mentions.

I went back to Goodreads and worked out a rough scoring system based on average rating, number of ratings, and number of editions. That didn’t help very much, but I also labeled the titles by genre. At this point, I have a pretty good idea that since I want to write historical romance, I’m probably not going to get a ton out of reading contemporary Western romance. (Too bad I already read a terrible contemporary Western before I really got my list together…) To keep things manageable, I had to choose a limited number of subgenres to read from. Maybe I’ll get into some additional subgenres later, but here’s what I’m starting with.


cover of Pamela, by Samuel RichardsonClassic Precursors & Early Romances

This is the easiest category to populate because the older the literature is, the more agreement there is on whether it is worthwhile, or was influential. I shall start with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, I shall not skip Austen or Bronte.


Gone With The Wind classic coverMid-Twentieth Century Romance

I have a couple books in this category that may not meet the HEA rules of popular romance but which crop up repeatedly when people talk about great romance stories. If you’re wondering if I’ll read Gone With the Wind, the answer is yes.


cover of Georgette Heyer's Grand SophyRegencies

You really cannot read historical romance without getting into regencies, and once you’ve done a minimum amount of research it becomes obvious that you cannot get into regencies without reading Georgette Heyer, though I shall read titles from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s as well.


cover of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen WoodiwissBodice Rippers

There’s a few authors and titles from the 1970s and 1980s that come up over and over as genre-definers, genre-changers, the first book that someone read from their mother’s stash that got them hooked. I can’t skip Kathleen Woodiwiss, for instance, if I want to have a full sense of the genre, even if the general report is that the lack of consensual sensuality seems pretty squicky to many contemporary readers.


After this point, it got tricky. I added and discarded classic erotica, contemporary, sci-fi and fantasy, paranormal, and numerous other titles that are hard to categorize but seem important. But then I remembered that I’m focusing on what I want to write, and that clarified my final genre.


cover of The Age of Innocence by Edith WhartonAmerican-set Historical Romance

I picked a few classics – such as Edith Wharton – and added half a dozen more recent romances set in America, mainly Eastern Seaboard, written 1970-2016. Depending on what your target genre is, of course, I’d recommend replacing this category with your own comps in contemporary, western, paranormal, contemporary paranormal western, or whatever niche you are looking to write in.

Want a copy of the finalized syllabus? I’ll be sending it out to my email list on September 15, 2017.

Subscribe to the Romance MFA mailing list

This is a crosspost from romancemfa.com – head over there for more updates on my Romance MFA project!

05 Sep

Status and projects update: a Romance MFA

stack of library books

I’m not gone. I have been writing and I have been working–I just haven’t finished anything recently…

Current projects include The Sapience Convention, now the title holder for longest ongoing WIP; a historical novella that was supposed to be a short story but had other ideas; a sword and sorcery serial that needs a serious rewrite; and a romance trilogy.

Wait, romance?

Yes, romance. Read More

09 Sep

A lullaby for my infant son

There are reasons that my literary output has been down lately; it’s because I’ve been focusing my creative powers in the biological realm. There is some possibility of crossover, however, as my new little muse has inspired this lullaby for the time of day which the Spanish refer to as la madrugada.

Babies aren’t cute at 2 in the morning.
This isn’t a song; this is a warning.
Close your stupid little eyes,
Stop your stupid little cries,
Pay attention, my sweet small fry
While Mama sings a lullaby.

Babies aren’t cute at 3 in the morning.
This isn’t a song; this is a warning.
Though your cries may conflict me
No judge or jury would convict me
If I left you in the park
For the hyenas in the dark.

Babies aren’t cute at 4 in the morning.
This isn’t a song; this is a warning.
The hyenas will hear you wail.
The hyenas will find you without fail.
They’ll sit and laugh at you,
Because hyenas are stupid, too.

Babies aren’t cute at 5 in the morning.
This isn’t a song; this is a warning.
Close your stupid little eyes,
Stop your stupid little cries,
Pay attention, my sweet small fry
While Mama sings a lullaby.


Perhaps there will be more lullabies in the future – I understand there will be more sleep regressions and fussy periods. If I can’t think of another lullaby I can always sing the one my mother says she sang to me: The Hostile Baby Rocking Song by Rosalie Sorrels. I suppose every parent must develop their own midnight lullaby variants.

04 Dec

Twice Sorry – A Russian Conspiracy Theory on the Alaska Purchase

Studying in Russia in 2003, I asked many Russians their thoughts on Alaska. One story I heard was that they never received any money for selling off the colony! I hadn’t heard that in my stateside history lessons, so I looked into it. Spoiler alert: I think it’s just a Russian conspiracy theory, but it did get me into some interesting history.

First, the American payment

America did pay out. We can all see a copy of the canceled check scanned from the Library of Congress.


$7.2 million, reportedly cashed out as gold bullion by Riggs National Bank in Washington, D.C. The $.2 m was for Eduard de Stoeckl, the Russian agent who had brokered the deal, and I imagine a good deal of that was used for palm-greasing. This is the same time period as Mark Twain writes about in The Gilded Age, after all.

It works out to $0.02 per acre, which is the factoid about the Alaska Purchase you may have retained from grade school. And as far as most English-language accounts of the sale go, that’s the end of it.

The Russian Conspiracy Theory

But let me translate the rest of the story, as circulated on the Russian internet:

In early July of 1868 the gold was loaded onto a ship named Orkney. On July 16, 1868, the Orkney sank before it could reach Saint Petersburg. The insurance company backing it went bankrupt.

No one knew what had happened until nearly a decade later, when a terrible tragedy occurred in Germany. On December 11, 1875, there was an explosion on the steamship called Mosel, preparing to depart from Bremen/Bremerhaven. Over a hundred people were killed and more injured. One of the injured? A US citizen named William Thomson, whose package had caused the explosion. He tried to shoot himself, but managed to linger for six days, during which he revealed the fate of the Orkney and other lost ships.

Thomson had been a Confederate saboteur during the Civil War and later gone to England. The British refused his services–but while in jail for drunken brawling, he met a man who, upon hearing of his profession, offered him a profitable job. Upon release he went to the port, got a job as a stevedore, and left a time bomb on board the Orkney. For this he was paid 1,000 pounds, roughly $350,000 today — an unheard of sum of money. When the money ran out, he pulled the same job once a year, getting insurance money for lost cargo. With the Mosel, his clock mechanism failed and went off early, putting an end to his criminal activity.

As a post-script, in 1975 a Soviet-Finnish searched for and found the remains of the Orkney, confirming that it had sunk after an explosion and fire. But! No gold was found.

That version comes to you from a content farmer on a website as dubious as the story.

But is it true?

Let’s dig in, though, because certain parts of the story are correct: William Thompson made a bomb that went off during the loading of the Mosel in Bremen. As he’d labeled the barrel containing it “CAVIAR”, the stevedores didn’t realize anything catastrophic would happen if it was dropped. William Thompson was one of several aliases used by Alexander Keith, a Scottish born Canadian who had worked with Confederates on sabotage  and blockade running and lived in the United States before decamping to Germany. His bomb on the Mosel was part of plan to collect insurance money on his cargo (the “caviar”) when the ship didn’t complete the second leg of its journey (he would have debarked in Southampton, while the Mosel continued to America).

Here’s what doesn’t add up:
In this version, the Orkney sinks in mid-July, 1868. The canceled check from the US Treasury clearly shows a date of August 1, 1868. (Other variations I’ve seen do correct the sinking to 1869.)

Involvement of the Dynamite Fiend

Alexander Keith, alias William King Thomas, alias George S. Thomas, alias Mr. Garcie

Alexander Keith, alias Alexander King Thompson, alias William King Thomas, alias George S. Thomas, alias Mr. Garcie, etc. etc.

Sources on Alexander Keith (he gets his own Murderpedia page…) don’t mention the Orkney as a sunk ship he might have been responsible, though he has been suggested as responsible for  the sinking of at least two other ships: the SS City Of Boston in January 1875 and the schooner Marie Victoria in 1864. But his connection to the Marie Victoria is doubtful and contemporary government reports (his crime inspired new legislation on both sides of the Atlantic) give the Mosel as his only confirmed maritime bombing.

There’s an 1895 report on to the United States Secretary of the Treasury on high & low explosives, which is nowhere near as thorough as the one given to the British Parliament by Her Majesty’s Inspector of Explosives, V.D. Majendie, Major R.A., directly after the Mosel bomb. In Majendie’s report, Keith’s deathbed confession is that he has a device on another ship, the Salier, which hadn’t yet left port — but when the Salier was searched, no bomb was found.  Major Majendie also goes into some detail on the process which Keith went through to get his timebomb mechanism built, as does an article in the Australian Town & Country Journal, March 26, 1876. These details rather make me doubt that Keith/Thomas had been sending out timebombs for the last decade — wouldn’t he have had a system down? Instead, he’s running all over Germany, talking to different clockmakers and giving them conflicting stories about what he needs the specialized mechanism for.

It needs to run for 10 days and then strike once, which the force or a 30 pound hammer. That’s, umm, for cutting silk threads in a factory. No, it’s a kind of a timer for the workmen in a factory… Look, can you just build the thing and not ask so many questions?


The Dynamite Fiend by Ann Larabee

Plus, I grabbed a copy of Keith’s biography from the library. And while some of the reviews have quibbled with the author’s narrative excesses, she does give him a direct route from America to Germany — with $45,000 in his pocket — in 1866 as he flees from the various people in North America he’s bilked out of large sums of money. In 1868 he’s still in Germany, living the high life in Dresden and presumably on hand for the birth of his wife’s first two children, born 1868 and 1869. There are no side stories about Keith being picked up for drunken brawling in England. Plus, while he doesn’t seem like the sort of guy to pass up £1,000 (between $8,000 and $9,000 at the time), he also does not look like the sort who would pass for a stevedore. His schemes are all about pretending to be an upperclass business partner.


Here’s the relevant passage on page 102 of The Dynamite Fiend. Judge for yourself.



The mysterious ship Orkney

And there’s the part where I can’t find any mention whatsoever of a ship called the Orkney going missing in 1868. The Lloyd’s Register of Shipping does have an Orkney Lass in the 1868-69 register, but as far as I can decipher, she’s on a route to South America, not Saint Petersburg. That’s how she’s listed in the 1866-67 register — and the 1870-71 register, too. That’s a 318 ton ship listed with Lloyd’s — there’s also a 66 ton smack of the same name in England, which is around in 1885 to help another smack in distress, and a 267 ton lumber schooner on the Great Lakes between 1874 and 1891.

I do have a vague memory of looking for information on this theory in the past and coming across a mention of a pocket watch found off the coast of Sweden that was linked to the lost Orkney — but I can’t find it now.


Finally, an an answer from an academic

In the 2002 edition of the journal Amerikanskii Ezhegodnik (American Yearbook), we have an article by A. Yu. Petrov titled “Money received after Alaska Purchase were spent on the Rail Road Construction in Russia.” Petrov went to the State Historical Archives and found a document on how the monies were spent. Specifically, it was spent abroad on supplies to build the Kursk-Kiev, Ryazan, Kozlovsky, Moscow-Ryazan and other railway lines.

Okay, yes — that does mean the cold hard cash never made it to Saint Petersburg. But only because international economics didn’t actually involve shipping massive amounts of gold around the world in 1868 any more than it does today. I know the Spanish Empire did it in the 16th century, but by the 19th century we have the telegraph and the ability to wire money.  Sorry, conspiracy theorists – no mysterious sabotaged ships, just international finance and economic development. The only remaining mystery is whether the Russians got any accrued interest from the United States after the year delay in payment — and I’m going to guess “no” on that one.


11 Feb

The Legend of Sarila – Inuit inspired kid’s film

sarila-posterRecently I found a kid’s film called “The Legend of Sarila,” which takes its inspiration from the Canadian arctic.

The story arc is straight up hero’s journey: leave home, pass trials, gain knowledge, mysterious helper, return home with rewards and establish new order. That’s fine. There are some reasonable portrayals of the Arctic landscape: caribou, seals, lichen, wide open tundra landscape. There are several scenes where I thought they really got the lighting right. There’s a wonderful warm glow that happens when the sun is low to the horizon in the north. It’s the golden hour for photographers around the globe, but at the higher latitudes it lasts a long while and you can enjoy it.

The destination for the little protagonist group (three friends, aka a love triangle) is Sarila, a mythical land of plenty. When they arrive, it is a beautiful, bountiful boreal forest: trees and berries and tasty tasty herbivores. Since that’s the biome that I grew up in, I was greatly amused and probably more positively disposed toward the film that I might have been otherwise.


Of course, it’s far from perfect. The carryover of actual cultural detail may be a bit thin, as this Animation Scoop review points out.

Given the beauty of the Inuit carvings of humans and animals, Legend of Sarila should be a visual feast. But the viewer looks in vain for that influence on the designs, aside from the occasional angle of a cheekbone. The animation is weightless and inexpressive, indistinguishable from countless other recent CG features.

The Legend of Sarila is apparently Canada’s first 3D animation. I’m agnostic on animation styles in this case, but I’ll throw in with the Animation Scoop reviewer and wish that there was a bit more artistic influence on the character design. I’ve recently been reading about Arctic facial tattoos (another blogpost soon!), but Sedna’s the only one who gets any. I’m glad they included those, but the portrayal of Sedna with fingers was the first wrinkle for me. Sedna is one of the legends that was part of my own childhood, so I take this a bit personally. The whole point of her story is that she doesn’t have fingers! Briefly, Sedna accidentally marries a bird. When she tries to return home, her husband calls up a storm and she falls out of the boat. Rather than helping her back in, her father, who doesn’t score a lot of points for contemporary supportive parenting, cuts off her fingers as she clings to the gunnels. The finger bits become sea mammals; Sedna becomes a fingerless undersea goddess who controls the marine food supply.

The Legend of Sarila - Sedna and Markussi

Even with these caveats, I’d say give it a watch if you have any interest in the arctic. It’s not long, and if you’re looking to expose your kids to a different biome — or, for those of already in the north — watch a story set somewhere familiar, it’s worth the time. Particularly if, like me, you’re looking for a distraction while working on a craft project. (Apparently quilting involves a lot of fabric cutting before any actual sewing happens. Who knew?)

As a postscript, I looked up the film online when I started writing up my reactions and discovered the biggest mistake that the film’s producers made: trying to market it in the US as “Frozen Land.” That lasted for about six seconds before Disney’s lawyers shut it down.