What Those ‘Richly Embroidered Wall-hangings’ In Your Fantasy Novel Really Mean.

(March 2016 – this post has been updated with new links to press articles on the discovery of some original Jacobean bed hangings in a Scottish castle – scroll to the bottom if you’re checking back)

As regular readers know, I like to embroider. I do canvas work and cross-stitch and thanks to an inspired idea by my sister, I’ve been learning Jacobean crewel work, courtesy of family and friends clubbing together to buy me birthday-gift-certificates for Royal School of Needlework courses at Hampton Court Palace. I’d like to show you what I was working on last weekend, not by way of an ego-trip* but to show you what nine hours of such stitchery looks like.

Jacobean rabbit

Yes, nine hours and as you will see, even this smallish design isn’t complete as yet. Granted, I’m still relatively new to this style of work. On the other hand, the tutor did remark I was making good progress.

Now let’s look at this. It’s a printed fabric but in very much the sort of design that crewel work was used for – embroidering with wool on linen twill – making curtains, wall-hangings, fire-screens and other decorative furnishings to brighten up – and insulate – homes in days of yore.

birds-curtain

For scale, those humming birds are about the same size as the flower in that first picture. If they’re too small to make out, click on the picture for a larger view. So just imagine how many woman-hours of stitching would be involved in say, making a set of bed curtains, canopy and valances decorated like that. Even assuming a practised needlewoman could work say, twice as fast as me. Even if that flower represented five hours’ effort, the labour involved is considerable.

This is what wealth meant, in the days before Ferraris and Rolexes. A significant measure of wealth was the ability to buy other people’s time and endeavour. You can see this in other day-to-day things historically. Dark fabrics with rich colours required multiple dye processes, so they were more expensive. High-status food like jelly/jello took a lot of time-consuming preparation and skill, starting with boiling up calves’ feet for hours at a time. This premium on personal labour has some consequences we might not expect today. When clockwork roasting spits came in, they were convenient but they weren’t a must-have item for the wealthy. It was more of a mark of status that you could employ a servant to manually turn your spit and roast your meat with personal care and attention.

And let’s not forget that you need good light for doing work like this embroidery; either natural daylight, which means whoever’s doing it needs decent glass windows which are costly, or expensive beeswax candles.

I know I’ll be looking at embroidered textiles in National Trust stately homes and castles with a whole new level of insight now. I’ll also be thinking carefully before blithely decorating any fantasy homes with those richly embroidered wall hangings.

*As a general rule, I am averse posting ‘look at me, aren’t I cool?’ stuff. ‘Read my books, they are cool,’ is an entirely different matter.

March 2016 – I’m updating this post with links to articles on the fantastic discovery of a set of Jacobean bed hangings found tucked away in a linen store in Dunollie House, Oban, during the restoration of a derelict Scottish castle. Yes, really!

The story from The Scotsman and some fantastic pictures

From the Oban Times, with close up photos and information on restoration and display plans

Genre sexism. Yes, it really has been one damn thing after another lately.

As I dash around getting the final things done before leaving for WFC, here’s a blog post from Adrian Tchaikovsky that’s well worth reading

Does SFF have a problem with women? Do women have a problem with it? A remarkable number of incidents over the last year or so have certainly put the issue in the foreground. It’s hard to avoid the feel of a storm getting ready to break. Here are some of the flashpoints. For the record, my personal opinion in each case is “yes, there is a problem”, but rather than tub-thumping, I’ve gone mad on links for those that want to read further

As well as all the points made here, I’m taking something else away from this post which Adrian probably never intended. You see, in recent conversations with other women within SF&F – writers and fans – about sexism in the genre, I’ve found myself saying ‘y’know, it seems to be one damn thing after another lately’.

But then of course, we ask ourselves, are we being over-sensitive? Because wider culture still encourages women to demur and defer and to put our own wants and needs second… So it’s good to see this post rounding up so many incidents, proving that no, we’re not just imagining this crap.

Though, of course, in those conversations, we remind ourselves that we have a duty to each other and the women who come after us to assert the value of women’s writing, just as the women who inspired us have done for decades.

But y’know what? It gets exhausting. If you’ve been wondering why some women writers’ tempers are on a hair trigger these days, the sheer relentlessness of this stuff is why. And I know I’m not the only one who’s found herself on the brink of saying ‘Y’know what? To hell with it…’ and just walking away…

How your choice of good books and new authors to discover is going to shrink and shrink

So, this week, Waterstones announced they’re expanding their range of kids and teens toys for 2014.

Er, were they not watching Borders’ demise? What part of ‘bookseller’ are they struggling to understand?

It seems other business minds are none too impressed by their current strategies.

“…so many copies of the latest Jamie Oliver and Sharon Osbourne there will be no room for the newest upcoming authors; Waterstones seems to have decided it is in competition with WH Smith and Tesco.

Recently one of my top authors went to his local branch to see how sales of his novel were doing: there were no copies left, they had sold out, and he asked if they’d be getting any more in. No, he was told, they wouldn’t. In what other business do you sell out of a product then not bother to re-stock what’s obviously popular?

Not to mention those of us who might like to point out the flaw in their reasoning that male SFF writers (sold at discount in the front of the store) outperform female authors (sold at full price, at the back/upstairs/behind signs saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’) More on that from Cheryl Morgan.

Not that things are any better in the US, now that Barnes & Noble are the sole book chain. As this sorry tale from Mindy Klasky makes clear.

Yes, I have a dog in this fight. I’m an author who’s seeing her income eroded year on year by changes in the industry I can do nothing about.

But if – or as looks increasingly likely, when – the day comes when I simply have to quit because it makes no financial sense for me to carry on – I will still be a reader.

And I don’t want to be a reader offered a narrow, impoverished, pre-selected by electronic sales figures morass of pap!

Convention programming, inclusiveness and diversity.

I see the programming at the recent WorldCon and for the upcoming World Fantasy Con is being widely discussed, most particularly concerning perceived lack of fairness/relevance of the topics under discussion to anyone other than comfortably-off, mature, white men.

Panel parity is a very good way to address the very real problem of cultural inertia in fandom, as we discovered at UK’s Eastercon this year. Because panel parity is NOT about giving poor inadequate girlies/others a place on platforms which they cannot otherwise win on merit.

It’s about expecting convention/event organisers to offer the best possible breadth and depth of current viewpoints & opinions that they can muster from their programme volunteers.

The whole event will benefit by way of more interesting and varied debate – because a homogeneous panel of four white men (or women or any other group) will be far, far more inclined to only offer four variations of the same viewpoint or to debate the pros and cons of a single argument based on generally the same experience.

Looking forward, hopefully seeing that inclusiveness will encourage other folk from under-represented groups within fandom to volunteer in future.

Provided they don’t see bombastic white men talking over and dismissing any one else’s contribution – which apparently did happen at WorldCon. That’s something else con-organisers/panel moderators need to come down on hard.

For those who haven’t already seen them, here are the related bloposts before and after our event.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mary Robinette Kowal has posted an online survey to get some actual data on the current state of fandom. Please do go and complete it and then read the current results – quite an eye-opener! Her blog post and link to the survey are here

Is lack of a genre-reading-culture at home a factor in the low number of SF writers of colour?

Let me explain – and then please let’s share as many perspectives as possible in comments. I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference this weekend, where the future of that genre was discussed. The lack of black and Asian writers among up-and-coming writers was noted, and regretted, not least given the importance of new perspectives in encouraging a genre’s development for everyone’s benefit.

A comment from the floor was particularly interesting. A keen crime reader recounted a conversation with a male, Muslim, British Asian colleague at work. He explained that crime fiction wasn’t something that would ever be read in his household and among his wider family since its focus on death and violence would be considered unwholesome and negative on cultural and religious grounds. Not ‘forbidden’ in any heavy-handed or dogmatic fashion but simply because, well, why would people want to read something like that, as opposed to more positive, uplifting fiction?

This is one story. As we all know, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, given my interest in the complexities of systems leading to unintended negative outcomes, as opposed to simplistic answers like ‘publishing is sexist/racist/ableist/other-ist’, I’m really curious to know more about this, in the UK, in the US and from as many other places and religious and cultural perspectives as possible.

I know I became a fantasy writer in no small part thanks to being raised reading Tolkien, CS Lewis, Alan Garner, Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones – during a childhood spent in markedly non-multicultural areas of the UK in the 1960s/70s. I have absolutely no clue what my contemporaries from a black and Asian background might have been reading at the time.

Come to that, I don’t know what kids in Birmingham, London, Leicester, Bristol and other culturally diverse areas of the UK are reading at the moment – though I do know that writers such as Malorie Blackman are being read and enjoyed in schools here in the Cotswolds – where it can still entirely possible to count the visible ethnic minority kids on the fingers of both hands in schools with over a thousand enrolled. So that much (and more) has changed for the better.

Okay, folks, over to you. Let’s see what where this discussion might lead us.

Here’s what I have to say on Twitter Silence Day- and look how many places I have to say it!

Here we are, on Twitter Silence Day. And that’s a significant part of the point, as far as I am concerned. Yesterday I saw a lot of opposition to this idea on the grounds that it was letting the trolls win by default, with people being silenced. Er, no, see here, this piece you’re reading, this is me being not in the least silenced. Because Twitter is by no means the only place on the Net to share opinions and enthusiasms, discuss differing points of view and generally communicate in a civilised and enjoyable fashion.

So that’s something Twitter might like to bear in mind. If enough people decide that Twitter’s particular corner of the Net is becoming a place it’s no longer fun to be, on account of the trolls, then Twitter is finished. So they might like to take some action – some more effective action than a ‘Report Abuse’ button which is itself open to all manner of abuse and in any case leads to a form for the target to fill in, for each and every vile tweet. How practical is that for an answer, when those who are targets of what increasingly seem to be co-ordinated attacks are getting threats and insults on a minute by minute basis?

What else will Twitter Silence achieve? I’ve also seen it dismissed as a ‘pointless gesture’. It’s certainly a gesture but I don’t see that it’s pointless. When you are the target of an unjustified and unpleasant online attack, no amount of other people muttering between themselves about how it’s appalling is worth anything at all to you unless those people also make some public show of professional respect and/or personal sympathy and solidarity. Otherwise the tacit statement is ‘well, since it’s actually not my problem, you’re on your own and it’s up to you to deal with it as best you can’. And yes, I am talking from personal experience here. So as far as I am concerned, joining Twitter Silence to make that statement to those who’ve been abused is very well worth doing.

But isn’t it just some ego-trip? That was another of the accusations being levelled at people when I signed out of Twitter last night. Oh, right, you think that you’re so important people’s lives will be empty if they can’t read about what you had for breakfast? Er, once again, no. There are certainly some people whose absence will be noted and noteworthy – and I was very heartened to see the likes of Val McDermid, Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Balding, to mention only a few, signing off around the same time as me last night. People with that level of public profile making a stand does send a message.

For the rest of us, this is about collective action and that’s what makes Twitter Silence not in the least about individuals being silenced or the trolls winning or anything of the kind. Collective action works in ways that individuals trying to fight back on their own does not. Ask Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Look at the effectiveness of shunning in pacifist communities. One person making a stand by staying away from Twitter as a means of saying online misogyny is not acceptable can easily be ignored. Hundreds, hopefully thousands, ideally hundreds of thousands are much less easy to dismiss.

Maybe that will encourage people to be bolder in shutting down trolls online and demanding properly moderated websites rather than simply muttering about how it’s appalling but hey, what can you do? Maybe it will give someone pause for thought before they launch into posting about how something or someone is WRONG and being sucked into the online equivalent of shouting the same thing over and over again because they’ve come to believe the way to WIN at THE INTERNET is having everyone saying they are RIGHT. The road to trolldom is paved with such knee-jerk reactions.

And lastly, no, this isn’t about blaming Twitter alone for all the online misogyny there is out there. It’s about using Twitter to make a stand against online abuse, whatever its target, wherever it can be found. Because Twitter is supposed to be about communication, isn’t it?

Nigella – a perspective from a woman with 30 years martial arts experience.

I don’t often blog about political issues and I can’t recall ever commenting on a ‘showbiz’ story before. This is different.

My responses to those appalling photos of ‘celebrity chef’ Nigella Lawson being attacked by her ‘millionaire philanthropist and art collector’ husband Charles Saatchi have been rather different to most. ( For those of you abroad, the story is here).

I haven’t been sitting here muttering (or tweeting) ‘she should have slapped his face/punched him in the nuts’. I haven’t even been muttering ‘I would have kneed him in the nuts’. Firstly, both those responses come uncomfortably close to victim blaming as far as I am concerned. Secondly, I know exactly how difficult doing either of those things would actually be, especially from a hold like that, with both participants seated at a table. That’s setting aside the risks that a violent response from the weaker participant in a physical quarrel will simply generate more and worse violence from the stronger assailant and that’s not going to end well.

Which is not to say there aren’t things you can do in that situation. I have studied the martial art Aikido for thirty years now, which specifically enables smaller, lighter, physically weaker individuals to get the better of any sort of opponent,. So I can say with a fair degree of confidence that anyone trying to grab my throat across a dinner table will end up face down in the crockery. For someone without any such experience? That’s a very different matter indeed.

As an instructor, one of the first things we must do with new students is get them accustomed to being attacked. The ‘fright-freeze’ response is deeply ingrained and it short-circuits conscious thinking pretty much entirely. Learning not to panic under attack takes time – and that’s in a friendly, relaxed dojo atmosphere, where senior coach/my husband Steve and I have already demonstrated that however hard and fast we might launch a blow, we have the experience to make sure we won’t actually make contact, if the new student fluffs the response. Most usually by standing still, wide-eyed and mentally gibbering ‘ohshitohshitohshitI’mgoingtodie’. Incidentally, gender or physical size has nothing to do with this. The biggest, strongest chaps will respond in the exact same way, especially when they are taken by surprise. Which is something I do every so often, just to make the point. That they’re being unexpectedly menaced by a grey-haired, middle-aged woman in glasses half a foot shorter than they are, makes absolutely no difference to their instinctive response.

So one of the most important things we teach from the outset, is how NOT to get grabbed. Once your opponent has a solid hold, your options are much more limited and depending on the nature of the hold, getting free will require a higher level of skill and experience. We very rarely practise neck holds – not least because they are so dangerous. I once saw a very experienced black belt try, and fail, to get out of a strangle and end up unconscious on the mat. So primarily we teach people how to NOT get caught by the throat, and only examine escapes from dangerous holds with senior students with considerable care.

The other thing about neck holds is they often involve nerve strikes to inflict pain. We do teach more advanced students to use attacks on nerves as part of other non-neck-gripping techniques which involve controlling the freedom of movement of an attacker’s head. A good many of these nerve points are underneath and along the inside edge of the jawbone. Looking at those vile photos, I think it’s perfectly possible that Charles Saatchi could have struck one by accident. You don’t have to have martial arts skills to get lucky. When we’re training students in pins and holds that involve nerve compression, we always caution them to go slowly at first. Just because they’ve never done it before doesn’t mean they can’t get it agonisingly right by complete fluke.

The point of nerve strikes is not to inflict pain for its own sake. It’s to inflict pain in order to completely short circuit the attacker’s thought processes. To turn the tables entirely, so they’re now the one under attack, and crucially derailing their aggressive intent with a good dose of ‘ohshitohshitohshit-she’s going to rip my arm/head/leg off and club me to death with it.’

Not that we do things like that in aikido, the clubbing to death bit, I mean. The central aim of aikido is not to break your attacker’s ability to attack (by breaking their arms, legs, faces and ending up in court charged with assault) but to break their will to attack, by various means such as not letting them even make contact in the first place and thereafter, taking the initiative in the combat away from them so they end up being thrown or pinned as the aikidoka prefers. But I digress.

Learning how to do that calmly and effectively, especially when you’re caught off guard, particularly if a nerve strike is involved, takes a good deal of time and application. Advanced cookery skills will be little or no help.

So much for that. Why are we even talking about what Nigella could or should have done? Let’s talk about what Charles Saatchi actually did, as proven in those photographs. He grabbed her throat, hard. Are there any circumstances when doing this is a legitimate part of a conversation between two people, irrespective of their ages, gender or relationship? No, there are not. He assaulted her, as anyone with even passing knowledge of the law knew yesterday, even before news of his police caution broke. He assaulted her. I have no interest in Charles Saatchi’s self-serving version of events thereafter. Playful tiff? Fuck off. He assaulted her.

According to the papers, Nigella has now left home. I hope she gets all the support she needs amid all this furore and I am very glad to think that she has the money to take whatever action she sees fit, legal or otherwise.

But let’s just take a moment to consider all the victims of domestic violence who don’t have the protection of money, fame and influential family and friends. The refuges and services that have offered them quite literally a lifeline, have suffered sustained and increasing cuts in funding. Tory party thinking has long been that charities will take up this work, funded by wealthy philanthropists, the great and the good whose interests they so assiduously protect. Patrons of the arts, like, oh, Charles Saatchi for instance. Do we think that he will be donating to unglamorous causes like domestic violence charities? Well, he might well do so now, for the PR value. He is an ad-man after all.

But should vulnerable women’s lives be dependent on the capricious generosity of supremely privileged individuals like him? No. They should be protected by the society of which we are all members and by the government which is supposed to act in all our interests.

Women in SF&F Month – Inequality of Visibility for Women Writers

Over at Fantasy Cafe, April has seen a truly splendid array of posts by female writers exploring a wide range of issues relating to women’s writing, recommending any number of great books, highlighting some of their own favourite authors, flagging up examples of favourite sorts of characters – and more besides. Treat yourself to a good long browse.

Given my year so far has been majorly taken up with the Arthur C Clarke Award and with EightSquaredCon – UK’s 2013 Eastercon, my contribution is what’s turned out to be a lengthy piece examining the lack of visibility for women writers – how it arises, what it means and why it matters. Because it does matter – to us all, irrespective of gender. You can find the piece here.

Disability and fantasy fiction – more questions than answers

Here’s an interesting question posed on Twitter by Sally Hyder – why are there no disabled female heroes in books? Is this because readers won’t accept it? Or is that the publishing fear, not the reality?

I’m indebted to Kate Elliott for flagging up Oree in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms as an example of such a female – while acknowledging they are extremely rare.

Why is this? I don’t have any answers – but I am now pondering on my own, related experience. I have a crippled male hero in The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution – in modern terms, he has cerebral palsy and is closely modelled on a friend of my teenage years with CP in what he can and cannot do, his attitudes, frustrations etc.

Neither editors nor readers have had any problem with him as a character – indeed, he’s been seen as an interesting twist on Alpha-Male heroes. But when we were discussing cover art, one major US book chain’s representative was very, very anti the notion of a man on crutches on a book jacket – he reckoned that would be the commercial kiss of death.

Well, we’ll never know. Subsequent reader reaction would indicate that was an unrealistic fear. But I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. I’ve had too many well-informed Americans conclude that the (superb) cover art contributed to Southern Fire’s failure to find a US audience.

That’s a male disabled hero. What about a female one? I would be much more cautious about writing one of those – especially following some hostile reader reaction to Lady Zurenne in the Hadrumal Crisis books. More women than I would have expected have been infuriated by her inability to cope – in the first instance – with being widowed and subject to male domination in a patriarchal society. They have found her thoroughly dislikeable – without, thankfully, condemning me as a betrayer of the sisterhood. That would be difficult given the presence of a very empowered magewoman, Jilseth, in these books.

The thing is, I can understand that reaction to some extent. I have read far too many books in the past couple of years where a woman’s role is still to be marginalised, patronised, passive and victim – apart from the minority of instances where she’s a menacing and/or vengeful bitch.

So I personally would be very wary indeed of including a disabled female character in a book without her condition being absolutely central and necessary to the plot. And then I would have to work very hard indeed to make her absolutely not a passive victim – and that would be very difficult indeed, in a narrative set in any kind of pre-modern society where reader expectations would be set by their own assumed knowledge of the historical disempowerment and invisibility of such individuals.

Now, having friends and family who’ve lived and worked abroad, often in developing countries, I know for a fact that viewpoint is more than a little skewed. When my parents lived in West Africa, we would see men and women who’d lost limbs to accident or disease out and about, making a living. Because otherwise they’d starve. We would see the mentally impaired and infirm being cared for by their families. A society needs to attain a certain level of wealth before they can warehouse the disabled out of sight.

But how to convey to the reader that their assumed knowledge is wrong without the benefit of out-of-story footnotes? It would be a very interesting writerly challenge – and if I had the right story, it would definitely be worth trying. But it would have to be for the right story, not just trying something for the sake of it.

Oh and by the way, any writer wanting to tackle this challenge should start by reading books like Sally Hyder’s own memoir, Finding Harmony. Sally has Multiple Sclerosis, not that you’d ever know it from her online conversation, unless she’s in the middle of plotting something like getting to the top of Ben Nevis in a motorised wheelchair.

As I say, it’s interesting question – and I don’t have any answers. Anyone else got any comments or observations?

How and Why Test-Readers/Copy-Editors/Any Fresh, Thoughtful Eyes Improve Creative Writing

This is really interesting. If you look back at the short story I posted yesterday, you’ll see that I have now edited one word. I have changed the line in question to

noting which pupils could now usefully be directed towards reading Jane Eyre and Northanger Abbey.

Because in the comments on my main blog, a reader wondered why only girls should be directed towards those books, as the initial text implied. That’s a very good question and the quick answer is self-evident. There is no good reason why only girls should read Austen and the Brontes. Indeed there are many good reasons why boys should read the full range of such classic literature.

The longer answer is more complex and more revealing. Writing this story, I was drawing on my own memories of A Level English, where, yes, we studied Keats. This is particularly the case because that first impulse to write this story was prompted by a friend I have known since that very class. It was her helpful phone that turned ‘varifocal’ into ‘verifcation’. We went to the same girls’ grammar school, so in my mind’s eye, the class I’m recalling is entirely female.

Then there’s the Twilight angle which you’ll see in the story. Again, I’m drawing on my own experiences going into schools these days and teaching creative writing. It’s invariably a dreamy-eyed girl who askes me if I’ve read Twilight. (To which my answer is always,’No, I haven’t got round to it yet, but I do read Kelley Armstrong and Patricia Briggs and now you’ve read all the Twilight books, why not give them a try’.) So once again, in that particular paragraph, my writerly subconsious is full of girls.

The key thing here is that while the longer answer is very illuminating, the shorter answer is the one that counts. Because there is no good reason why this line should only refer to girls. In fact, changing the word to ‘pupils’ actively improves the story in several subtle ways.

So there you go. A real-life, real-time example of the editing process and what it contributes to the books we read. Isn’t that great?