Between interning for The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, dayjobbing, and writing my own pseudo-Victorian fantasy, I’ve been pulling out my research fu.
I smiled when Pip and Tee asked me to post Victoriana to the Ministry Facebook page. See, after working at Black Creek, writing the Victorian Dark Fantasy, and cramming my last few terms with nineteenth century history, I know where to find Victorian things.
The Internet Archive
Ah, www.archive.org, you are one of my best friends. Sometimes, I think I may even love you. The Internet Archive is a free-access digital library. Because it’s free, it mostly has materials which are long out of copyright.
That means it’s absolutely fantastic for primary sources.
Seriously, you can read whole books online. For free! Admittedly, it can be a bit persnickety with search terms: it’s best to either a) have a hugely wide net, or b) know exactly which title you want. And don’t even bother with the basic search if you’re doing historical research: advanced search is where it’s at.
The McCord Museum/Musée McCord
I’ve used the McCord Museum for the dayjob, the Victorian Dark Fantasy, and for the Ministry. It’s a very well-maintained site—there are all sorts of virtual tours and exhibitions to explore online.
They’ve got an extensive collection of Victoriana, much of which is easily accessed online. Really, it’s one of my main go-to’s for visual references—especially Victorian clothing. (I owe what little fashion vocabulary I have to the McCord Museum)
The Victorian Web
This venerable website (and yes, it does look it—just bear with it) is one of the oldest scholarly/academic sites out there. It has articles on a wide range of Victorian topics, including some really niche ones (stained glass and gaslight, anyone). Plus, it’s a bit like Wikipedia in that you can follow a trail of hyperlinks, drifting from topic to topic…only it’s not a site that anyone can edit, which helps me sleep at night.
But come on, I was a university student in the 2010s. Of course I like Wikipedia.
Although I’ve heard the horror stories of profs purposely inserting false information to show how unreliable Wikipedia is, I maintain that it has its uses. First, it’s a good way to get a general overview of a new subject before diving into more detailed information, avoiding that grasping-at-straws feeling.
Second…Wikipedia is a good place to start your bibliography.
Let’s search…oh, let’s search Victorian Gothic.
Ignore the article itself and scroll down to “Further Reading” and “External Links.”
Aha! A ready-made list of scholarly websites and books! Gothic Revival; The Gothic Revival & American Church Architecture; An Episode in Taste, 1840–1856; Of knights and spires: Gothic revival in France and Germany; the Victoria and Albert Museum Style Guide…
It isn’t a full bibliography, but it’s a good place to start.
Public Library Databases
All history students know that articles take less time to read than books and usually have more specialized information. And thank goodness—you don’t need to be in university to access them!
Most public library websites have a section that says “Research” or “Articles” or something similar. If you’ve got a library card, you can click through until you get to the databases themselves: something like EBSCO or Gale Cengage or Academic OneFile.
Many will also have digital archives. I didn’t even sign into the Toronto Public Library site and found this 1912 picture of the dayjob’s Half Way House:
I credit my high school history teacher for a) getting me interested in history and b) teaching me how to get good at finding stuff. Yes, it’s great for writing—but also, it’s the thrill of the chase.
Which is why I sometimes get sucked down the black hole of Cool Victorian Stuff…but that’s a post for another day. 🙂
Criticism is part and parcel of the writing life. It’s funny, though—I always assumed that my general anxiety around evaluations would be my biggest stumbling block as a writer. As I’ve gone along, though, I’m discovering that I’m…ok with criticism.
More than that, actually. Even though I still get nervous as anything, I also crave it. Editorial criticism, anyway. Reviews are a different topic; let’s save them for another day.
I had two larger critiques come in recently: one for the first half of my Interactive Text-Based Online Game (hereinafter codenamed “The Game”) and one for my first Stonecoast packet. By the time this post goes live, I will have already Skyped with my mentor about her comments on said packet.
In both cases, they seemed to approach the topic of criticism quite carefully. Naturally, that set Anxiety screaming, “The other shoe is going to drop! The other shoe is going to drop! Wait for it wait for it wait for it!”
And then it was fine.
By “fine,” I don’t mean, “Everything was sunshine and rainbows and unicorns and fluffy bunnies.” There are things to fix: mostly coding for The Game, mostly the main character in the Victorian Dark Fantasy. So, not necessarily minor things, but still—
That’s it? I’m not missing an extra page of critique? Because really, those are good things to know. Frankly, if an editor ever said that a piece was perfect and there was nothing to change, I’d get very nervous.
There’s always something to change.
Also, it’s never about you.
That’s the piece that I seemed to have learned, almost by accident. It’s that ability to step back and look objectively at a piece and say, “Yes. I see where this doesn’t work. Ok.” No different than someone saying, “Hey, one leg of that chair is a bit longer than the others.” Are you going to sit there on a wobbly chair denying it, or are you going to wobble for a minute, testing it, and then pull out the saw?
Of course, there are times when you whip out the measuring tape and realize, no, you’re right. Sometimes that happens. You just have to be sure.
(For instance, there was a query about fireplaces that sent me on a quest that was really fun – but also took way too long considering that all I did with my diagrams and photos was show them to my roommate.)
Caveat here: I’ve been lucky as a writer, in that all my editors and workshop members have mastered that balance of being respectful and kind and also not pulling punches. Personal attacks in critiques are not ok. I’ve never had that happen, but they kind of defeat the critique’s main purpose: making the work better.
Remember, it’s not about you. That goes both ways.
Like so many things, anticipation is usually worse than the actual event. I wish I could return to my 14-year-old self and say, “Hey, look! It’s going to be fine—honestly, it doesn’t hurt and you actually feel good after!”
Maybe the knee-jerk fear reaction never really goes away, but learning to love the whip makes it a lot easier to manage. As one of my Irish drinking songs says:
What would you do if the kettle boiled over?
What would I do, but to fill it again?
What would you do if the cows ate the clover?
What would I do, only set it again?
I can’t wait to get these pieces polished! 😉
So, my laptop died.
It was never quite the same after I mailed it home from New Zealand. For a while, I had one consistently good USB port, one which was dodgy, and one dead. Then the other day, I noticed that my laptop wasn’t charging…even though it was plugged in.
Unplugging, re-plugging, and all sorts of fiddling did nothing. To make matters even more fun (whee!), I’m currently in Virginia on a three-week interning spin with my dear friends Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. So, a bit far from home.
Fortunately, Pip and Tee are wonderful people. They drove me to Best Buy and waited while the Geek Squad determined that they might be able to ship my laptop back to Canada, where Future Shop might be able to possibly replace the power port to maybe extend my laptop’s life another couple of weeks.
And then they patted my shoulder as I coughed up the money for a new laptop.
There is never a good time, but this could have been better (oh hai, MFA tuition). But the most striking part of this whole experience was transferring the files from the old machine to this new one. The issue wasn’t one of space (again, wonderful friends that Pip and Tee are, I had the use of all the external drives I could ask for).
No, the main issue was time. Once that battery goes, the old machine’s done.
(And yes, I know about pulling hard drives…but I’m in Virginia. I’m not sure how or if I can get the old laptop home.)
So it was like standing in a burning house, wondering, “What do I save? What do I grab first? What can I leave behind?” All the while knowing that every second of indecision brings you closer to that final shutdown.
It’s probably the historian in me, but I like having links to my own past. Detailed records, a personal archive that is there, even if I rarely dip into it. Maybe it’s a security thing, knowing that I can always reconstruct things if necessary.
Obviously, getting the writing to safety is always top priority when things get squirrelly, which is why I’m actually pretty good about backing things up.
Pictures and music vied for second place. A 2011 family trip to Costa Rica, the last we took before my dad died. My New Zealand photos. Even just images for Black Creek and this blog – more a matter of convenience and posterity, but still.
iTunes is fine, so I grabbed whatever extra stock music and sound effects I could. Luckily, I pulled the raw Hapax files ages ago (they were large and numerous), precisely because of this fear of, “What if I need to go back in one day?”
That’s a fear I face now, with the videos. I got the final cuts of all my Black Creek videos, but very little raw footage or sound files. I can’t see why I would ever need to rebuild those videos from scratch, but if ever someone asked, I probably couldn’t. That worries me, even though it’s completely irrational. Again, I blame my historian streak.
But at the end of the day, the important things are really the things that are me. The writing, the music, the photos. Most other things can be found again, edited again. Music is challenging to replace; writing and photos can be almost impossible.
Which is why I will give the customary “Back your stuff up” speech. When my laptop died, I already had the entirety of my fiction backed up elsewhere. I did go back for a few university essays, but the writing was safe.
Most of my photos are on Facebook (though there are always strays). I’ve used Google Drive more and more lately; it holds the music for the kids’ opera, the videos, and a few other random documents. I have my own intern Dropbox now.
It’s easier than ever to protect your data. Yes, emergencies happen. Yes, the unforeseen is…well, unforeseen. But if you can take any steps to mitigate potential disaster (knowing it’s not always possible)…then please, save yourself the heartache later.
Here are some photos that I would have been sad to lose.
With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, word count and pace-of-writing has been on my mind. For those unfamiliar with the term, National Novel Writing Month challenges writers to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s 1667 words per day.
Word count’s a really personal thing. Some people have bigger ones, some have smaller ones, but as long as yours works for you and gets the job done, it’s probably fine.
(Yes, I’m twelve. Why do you ask?)
I’m a fast writer and I can slog. In my third year of university, I made the wonderful discovery that armed with a decent outline, I could write a paper in a day. A hard, brutal, brain-numbing day, but a single day.
When writing Strix 2.0, I was motivated to push it out very quickly. I rewrote the novel essentially from scratch from late April to late June: 80,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day.
Then I wrote the Victorian Dark Fantasy. There was no pushing involved with this book. It gushed out (*snerk*) from late July to late September: 100,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day with a few 5000-7000 word days.
I’m not convinced this way is better.
After all, here we are in late October, and what have I done since then?
Pretty well nothing. I rested for two weeks while my betas read, and then I’ve spent the last two weeks editing. I’ve written a few blog posts and such for the day job. Looking at my Whiteboard of Doom, I see several things due in the next two weeks, all of them hitting just when I’m really, really tired.
This is the thing: writing is draining. Not just in terms of long nights, it’s draining in that you’re pulling out raw emotion, distilling it down, and putting it on paper. For me, this was particularly true of the Victorian Dark Fantasy. In one sense, it was an easy book to write, because the words wouldn’t stop flowing. In another, it was incredibly difficult for precisely the same reason.
When I was a little kid, I ran a lot of cross-country. My strength lay in pacing—I understood that if I went off the start line like gangbusters, I’d be too tired to finish. Far better to take a steady pace and pass the early leads later on.
I don’t seem to be very good at that while writing. I charge out of the gate and sprint the whole way, and I think the only reason I haven’t collapsed so far is that I’m young and spry and excessively caffeinated.
It’s a weird balance, though. On the one hand, yes, I’d love to take things slowly and not feel exhausted by the end of every project. I’m reminded of Spoon Theory: you only have so many spoons, so you need to consciously choose how to spend them. But at the same…there are so many things I want to write. There are so many stories to tell. And frankly, writing’s been pretty important to the ol’ budget this year.
I guess finding the happy balance between WRITING ALL THE THINGS and not dying is another aspect of professionalism. Full time authors can’t burn out, because then their circumstances become very precarious. If you don’t write, you don’t eat—so it’s probably best to ensure you can write consistently for years and years to come. The secret I need to learn is that word count means very little if it kills you.
So to all of you starting NaNo tomorrow: best of luck, have fun, write as much as you are able—and take care of yourselves. We’re all here cheering!
Originally, this was going to be a post about Thanksgiving, and how my warm-and-fuzzy love for my friends and families (biological and otherwise) overcame my knee-jerk reaction of “Screw. You.” After all, I have a lot to be thankful for.
But then I was still feeling sad, so I left it. And then I wondered if I still talk about grief too much, and why can’t I be an adult and keep my feelings inside? And then I started panicking about being a burden and a Negative Nellie. Then I wrote a really long post about my absolute dependency on work/writing as a means of distracting my mind from itself, but I deleted it.
So, anxiety isn’t fun. Neither is grief. Mix the two of them, remove every distraction, and you have yourself quite a party.
And now I’m here, wondering if writing about the grieving process is brave or just irritating. Does it shine a light into the dark spaces to discover that none of us going this is alone? Or does it just shine it into the eyes of everyone else, making them throw their hands up and cry, “Owww!”
It’s a question of public vs private processing, I suppose. And it occurs to me that I can drag history into this. Last year, during one of our special Halloween weekends at the living history museum, I was assigned to be “in mourning.” I got to wear a special black dress, a veil, and gloves, park myself in front of a casket, and talk about mourning customs (in character). It was some of the most fun I’ve had at work.
I’m never doing it again.
But here’s where I’m going to make the connection (and adopt my Interpreter Voice). See, in the Victorian era, grief and mourning were hugely public displays. There were strict codes and timelines, depending on your relationship to the deceased. Dress was particularly prescribed. Widows wore full mourning—black clothing: especially crape, since it doesn’t combine well with anything—for a year. Second mourning followed for nine months. Widows still wore drab fabric, but with some trim and the veil worn back over the head. Finally, this all lightened to half mourning, a period of three to six months characterized by a gradual return to colours (greys, mauve, browns, etc.).
Children mourned their parents for a year.
Among the upper classes (and those aspiring to the upper classes) the grieving process was incredibly intricate and elaborate. This is where we find hearses drawn by black horses wearing black plumes, ornate headstones, long wakes with the body lying in repose…. During those first, numb days, as we were scrambling to make arrangements, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like for the Victorians.
After all, you’re not thinking clearly. You’re in shock. It’s very much like being in a dream; you look back on it later and wonder how any of it seemed to make any sense at the time (I remember showing up at choir rehearsal Tuesday night—two nights after—and being very confused as to why people were surprised to see me).
But I digress. My point was that while the outward display didn’t necessarily match what was happening on the inside, Victorian mourning didn’t hide itself. Somewhere along the line, we became uncomfortable with grief—our own and others’. We started shunting death aside. After the funeral, you’re kind of left to stumble along as best you can, never quite sure if you’re “doing it right.”
Of course, there is no right way, not really. That can be comforting, but sometimes, it’d be nice to know that the feelings at any given point are normal. Does this mean I prefer the Victorians’ mourning?
Not necessarily. It’s funny, though. Last fall, as I brightly responded to visitors’ comments about the casket’s small size with, “Wellington was big where it counted…in his heart!” I felt sorry for widows having to still wear mourning clothing two years on, because surely they’d be over it by then?
Now, I feel bad for the children, given only a year to mourn their parents. At least on the outside.
I guess no one, Victorian or otherwise, really knows how to handle grief. And perhaps that’s comforting. If no one knows what the heck is going on, no one expects you to have an answer.
But yeah, Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. I’m intensely thankful for all of you. Lots of hugs.
I’ve been editing the Victorian Dark Fantasy all afternoon, headphones in, as per usual. In keeping with the mood of the book, it’s been mostly Celtic music the past few weeks—both pseudo-Celtic-inspired-it-sounds-close-enough music and actual Gaelic-language folksongs.
I love them.
But it’s not just the bouncing fiddles and reels that have me wriggling with joy. See, lots of people know about using images as story prompts. You look at a picture and it triggers a story (or questions that lead to a story) on some visceral level.
Honestly, I mostly use music.
I’m not a musician, but music seems to bypass my squirrel-brain and punches me right at the level of emotion. Because I tend to hear everything at once if I’m not careful, it also helps quiet my brain down—the racing thoughts just get drowned out. And, like many writers, I use music to help get into the mood of a story/scene.
But for me, it also triggers stories. And that’s kind of awesome, because I’ll be searching for music to help with one story, and inadvertently stumble across another piece that sparks something else. It exposes me to a lot of cool stuff, both musically and story-wise.
Take the Victorian Dark Fantasy. Early thoughts had been clattering around for a while, but the story really only snapped into place when I found a lovely Scottish tune called “Mari’s Wedding” (or “Marie’s Wedding,” or “Mairi’s Wedding” or “Mairi Bhan”). Actually, the song only caught my attention because I wondered if it had anything to do with the play “Mary’s Wedding.” It doesn’t seem to. And aside from the fact that someone named Mari/Marie/Mairi is getting married, it has nothing to do with the VDF, either.
Except it does. Because listening to that song, I caught a flash of character—and then I started asking questions. I also started looking for more music, something that could help me enter this emerging world.
That’s the one that’s been making me grin like an idiot for the past two days. Because in this song about a young girl wanting to hook up with some sailors in Galway, I hear another conflict in this world. I hear opportunities to make my characters confront some really difficult choices. I hear the beginnings of another story.
After a very rough year, I think I’m finding my passion again. That’s a very, very good thing.
Naturally, I’m getting ahead of myself, still riding the “I FINISHED THE BOOK!” high. I do need to return to Strix. Not to mention a few other projects in the pipe…
But oh man, when I hear that chorus, I just squirm with excitement:
Téir abhaile riú, téir abhaile riú
Téir abhaile riú Mhearai
Téir abhail gus fan sa bhaile
Mar tá do mhargadh déanta…
I am pretty comfortable in the world of Strix/Hapax. At this point, it’s like being a native Torontonian or Dunedinite or New Yorker: you know how things work. I feel like I’ve carved myself out a nice little niche in this fictional world.
So it’s a bit strange to be exploring a new one. In my slightly confusing and apparently hereditary manner of code-naming projects, The Next Next One has become simply The Next One—the Victorian-feeling dark fantasy which has nothing to do with Hapax, and about which I can’t really say more because it will fly right out of my head.
It’s a bit like baking bread, really. You can’t go around showing it off to people while it’s rising, or it won’t turn out properly.
But I digress. After so long thinking about Angels and Seraphs, aither and dimensions, it’s exciting to dive into a new world with new rules (though technically, I’m not done with Strix yet: there are still edits to be done). Crafting magic systems (on which I may do a separate post later) is ridiculously fun. It’s a thought experiment, basically. “If this, then that. And if that, then this other really cool implication too.” And so it goes, asking questions and gradually exploring all the little tucked-away corners of your new world.
Because this one is set in a Victorian-ish milieu, I do have a head start. “Hmm, I wonder what a nineteenth-century country inn would be like… OH HEY, I’M IN ONE ALL DAY, MOST DAYS!!!”
As is probably quite clear, I love my dayjob. Times like this, I really appreciate it.
That being said, there are still specifics that I don’t know yet. I had a decently detailed map of the Ecclesiat and a rough idea of the City’s layout. In this new land, I’m not quite there yet. Oddly for me, I don’t have the theology totally worked out. I’m not sure where things stand in relation to each other.
That’s all world-building, and that involves more research and mulling. In terms of plot, I think of my outlines as roadmaps. I know where I’m starting and ending, and key landmarks along the way so I (hopefully) don’t get completely lost, but there’s still room for side trips. In that way, starting a new novel, especially one set in a wholly new world, is a bit like embarking on an expedition. I have my map (sort of). I will know the terrain. And, very importantly, I know the people with whom I’ll be journeying.
PLUS: NEWS AND SUCH
Speaking of dayjobbery, I’ll be adding “blogger” to my list of job titles and contributing much more frequently to the Black Creek Growler. It is a blog about beer, brewing, and beer history. It makes me happy. You should read it. 😉
Sometimes people ask me how much of life shows up in my writing. I never find this question easy to answer. After all, I write fantasy. It’s all made up, right? How much life and research goes into that?
Imagine you’re making a cake. You start with some recognizable ingredients—eggs, butter, milk, flour, sugar—and then you change some of them. You separate the eggs, or cream the butter, or chuck some chocolate chips in on a whim. Then you mix them all together, and suddenly, it’s hard to tell where one ingredient ends and the next begins. And then, you throw it all under high heat, and when it comes out, it’s delicious and totally does not resemble the elements going in….although you’ll certainly notice if a cake is lacking sugar. Likewise, you’ll notice the chocolate chips, or extra spices, or what have you.
Writing is kind of like that.
Take a lot of different things. Change some. Mix them together. Let them react and transform. See something very different come out—with maybe a specific flavour distinguished here or there.
For me, it’s always interesting to see what gets chucked in. Writers are like kleptomaniacs at a grocery store. Random ingredients somehow end up in our mental baskets, and they sometimes get used in unexpected ways.
Looking for firewood in Australia one afternoon, our guide showed us how to knock over small, dead trees. In the current draft of Strix, three of my characters work together to knock down small, dead trees. At the time, I didn’t think about the experience as fodder for fiction. And then it was, and it was exactly what I needed. Kind of cool.
Likewise, I have a short story in the February issue of Black Treacle Magazine, wherein I shamelessly riffed on Black Creek (with the important caveat: I shamelessly riff on places, not people).
Likewise, the numerous times I’ve smiled at the delightful children’s doodles scrawled across my choir music wound up in Hapax—Praeton likes the random sketches and notes too.
Of course, sometimes you don’t know things, which requires research. I’ve never been flogged. Nor am I a celibate priest in his fifties. Nor have I ever gone for days without water. My list of Google searches would likely leave a few people scratching their heads.
And then, the magic of fictionalization happens. I guess that’s like tossing everything in the oven.
Assorted bits and bobs go in, and the results aren’t always predictable. Random bits of life that you don’t necessarily think about until the moment comes, and it just fits. Really, it’s just a reflection of the old saying, “Write what you know.” Write what you know, but watch it become transformed as you change it to suit the needs of the story.