Thursday, March 28, 2013

Finding gold: diorama style

Earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to visit Sutter's Mill, the place where gold was first discovered in California, setting off the Gold Rush and forever changing this once relatively-untouched area.

And forever changing the way of life for the native peoples.

In the wonderful museum near the mill site (it has been lost to the river, but a replica now stands close to the original siting), you can see two human figures in a lifesized diorama: James Marshall bending to pick up the glint in the mill race, and the Native American standing nearby watching. I hope it isn't irreverent to say it, because I do truly deplore the fate of the people who were here first, but the look on the Native American statue's face honestly did look like, "Oh, crap."

The water in the exhibit really did run!

The museum is well worth a visit with some great artifacts and good explanations--and yes, in an exhibit case some (fake, but based on reality) chunks of gold the size of bread boxes. There are buildings scattered among the incredibly beautiful, green grounds: a Chinese apothecary business, a working blacksmith's forge (more on that in another post), a still-in-use Grange Hall, and others.

The most impressive feature is probably the American River itself, a blue so bright it seems fabricated. And oh so bitter cold. Not the thing you'd at all want to stand in all day, panning for gold.

. . . . .

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Penis theft: not again

Yes, penis theft is in the news again, with this article on Yahoo commenting in turn on an article in Pacific Standard magazine.

Penis snatching (or shrinking) makes its way into our news every year or so. It would be hysterically funny, this Freudian fear that someone has snatched your penis, made it invisible, or made it smaller, were it not for the fact that the people accused of doing this nonsensical act are often killed.

Yes, killed.

For the crime of penis theft.

It's considered an act of witchcraft...and it dates all the way back to medieval Europe. The Malleus Maleficarum, the famous witchhunting Bible, has several passages about witches stealing men's penises, including one in which a multitude of snatched penises are stored in a bird's nest. Whenever I hear about these modern-day reports, I blog about them, so here are some archival posts if you are interested:

These posts date, in order, from October 2009, May 2008, and April 2009.

The image is from the 1489 edition of De Lamiis, a book about witchcraft. It shows witches calling down the rain.

. . . . .

Monday, March 18, 2013

National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers: second annual!

A year ago, I established (in my own mind, and on this blog) March 19 as National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers. I was responding to a friend who was exhibiting despair on Facebook about his writing career after decades of trying. The original post is here.

A year later, that guy has spent serious amounts of time with a Hollywood actor who is working on producing a film based on his novel. He doesn't need the pep talk anymore!

But many people do. Writing is the most serious "spec work" there is. We can spend years on a single novel, with not a bit of encouragement other than our own sincere belief that it can find an audience. Our work is often lonesome, unless if we have the focus and poor hearing to work in cafes and other public spaces. We're driven to write, and we hope that when we reach "The End," a literary agent will be eager to represent the work, an editor will fall in love with it, and it will see its way into print.

It's difficult to get published these days, as countless mournful forums on the internet testify. It used to be hard, and the gatekeeping was stringent. But these days the hatches have been battened down and fewer books find publishers. It's the economy. It's the book industry.

But we have to keep our chins up. We never know when good news is coming. And if it makes anyone reading this feel better, out of all my published acquaintances--from undergrad to grad school to writing workshops and retreats--only one has had an effortless path. (Hint: his book was about kites and jogging just a little bit faster.) I know dozens of people who hit the bottom of despair's tank...but their feet found purchase at the bottom and let them drift back up to the surface. We can't give up when our feet are itching to shove against that dank interior and rocket us to air, to gusty inhales.

Chins up. Believe in yourself, in your craft. If you are genuine in your search to improve your writing and tell a compelling tale, then publication will come. It may not be for this novel. It may not be for #2 or even #3. But devoted workmanship and a steady diet of reading others' quality work will yield results. For everyone who is craving publication today, acknowledge the desire and reassure yourself that you are doing everything possible to make that happen, by:
A. Sitting in the chair, eking out sentences until the book is done
B. Spending serious time and thought in revising--not just rearranging sentences and fixing commas, but truly re-evaluating scenes and how characters behave
C. Encapsulating the story in an elegant paragraph you embed in the query letter
D. Researching the correct literary agents to send it to

"Yes" is a word we delight in hearing. We can't hear it with our chins buried in our chests.

. . . . .

SummerWords...a writers' feast in May/June

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be a presenter at the SummerWords Writing Colloqium, where T.C. Boyle (pictured) will be the keynote speaker. There is an impressive roster of writers presenting and teaching at this event, held at the American River College May 30-June 2 in Sacramento, and I hope to see as many of the sessions as I can.

I’ll be teaching a workshop on historical fiction 11:30-12:45 on June 1 
called “Delving into the Past” (come prepared to wrestle an idea into 
submission and build a loose outline for a novel) and later that day 
from 1 to 2 I’ll be giving a Shop Talk where I’ll read a bit of my work 
and discuss it.
A few highlights at SummerWords to look out for:
* “An Evening with T.C. Boyle” on May 31
* The release of Michael Spurgeon’s novel Let the Water Hold Me 
Down (each attendee will be given a copy!) Michael and I both 
attended the same small college in Maine—Colby—and the same 
graduate program at UA Tucson. Now we both live in the greater 
Sacramento area. Uncanny coincidences, and it was wonderful to 
meet with him a few months ago and share anecdotes from these 
shared academic experiences, although we hadn’t known each other 
at the time. I’m a little…cough…older than him.
* An incredible, diverse array of poets and novelists and even a 
literary agent! Names that may ring a bell are Anthony Swofford, 
whose book Jarhead I used as a text when teaching Critical Thinking 
at Bay Area community colleges, his wife Christa Parravani whose 
memoir Her was just released this month and is receiving a lot of 
buzz, and Christian Kiefer, whose novel The Infinite Tides has also 
received a lot of attention. I’m excited to meet the other incredible 
sounding writers I see listed on the colloquium’s website.
It sounds like the attention will be on workshops for this sessions, 
so writers should definitely check it out. And for readers, there will 
be shop talks and plenty of opportunities to hear wonderful work.
Tickets are only $95 for four days of “panels, workshops, readings 
and talks with writers and poets of regional and national prestige.”
To learn more and purchase tickets, please visit http://www.arc.
. . . . .

Friday, March 15, 2013

Do you love historical fiction? I have an idea for you...

If you’re someone who loves historical fiction, you should consider giving yourself the gift (or asking someone to give it to you! Spring birthday, anyone?) of attending the Historical Novels Society conference this June in St. Petersburg, Florida.

What is the conference? A gathering of people who love historical fiction.

Some of us will be writers, some of us will be readers, some are literary agents, some are editors with publishing houses. There are opportunities, if you’re a writer, to learn more about the craft of writing. If you have a manuscript you’re interested in pitching, you can have a free meet-up with several well-known agents and editors. If you’re a reader, there are opportunities galore to hear authors talking about their books, their research, the golden allure of the past.

I attended my first HNS conference in 2011 in San Diego. Besides listening in on panels that had so much great information I scribbled notes all over my conference brochure, I got to meet several people who are very important to me now.

And that’s the other part of conferences that’s so attractive: meeting like-minded people who form a community of people who love the past.

One was Susan Spann, then an unpublished author pitching a novel: this year, she’ll be coming as an author (and panelist) whose book will be published by Minotaur the month after the conference. Within two years, she has gotten a three-book deal and ushered the first of the series through to publication. I just met with her yesterday and saw the gorgeous galley (prepublication paperback version) of her novel Claws of the Cat

I met Susan when we started chatting in the conference bookstore (that’s another benefit of the conference; you can get your books autographed by the authors) and then agreed to meet up for dinner. We had a great time getting to know each other and I was psyched to learn she lived in the city I was about to move to. She’s now my closest friend here, and we have loved sharing manuscripts with each other, advice, cheering on, and fellowship. I’m not claiming you’ll meet a bestie at the conference, but you will for sure be surrounded by people who love what you love, and if you can strike up a conversation you might just make a wonderful connection.

I was also excited to have the chance to meet for the first time with my former Crown editor Heather Lazare. That’s one of the oddball things about publishing; you often never meet the people who have such an effect on your life. I had lunch with her and the ever-fabulous Michelle Moran.

I had many great conversations with people throughout the conference--too many to mention, but I’m excited to see you all again in a few months!-- and was happy to be in the same ballroom with people who love to read… and love to read historical fiction in particular.

I’ll be on a panel at HNS this year, “The Witchcraft Window: Scrying the Past.” If you loved The Heretic’s Daughter, or Daughters of the Witching Hill, or The Afflicted Girls, or my novel The Witch’s Trinity, come and hear us authors talk about what drew all of us to this topic. There are many, many other fantastic panels to choose from. See the conference website where the schedule is already posted.

Registration is open now and the conference is actually quite reasonable in price. It’s $350 for the weekend which includes all meals (and there’s also a few events on Friday too).  If you’re a member of HNS, it’s only $325. The guests of honor are well-known bestselling authors Anne Perry, Steve Berry and C.W. Gortner.

Please visit for more information…and hopefully to register! See you there.

  • Where and When

    Renaissance Vinoy Hotel
    St. Petersburg, Florida
    June 21-23, 2013

. . . . .

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Guest post on social networking

A friend from my former writers' group, Ann Marie Meyers, hosted me and seven other writers at her blog today to talk about striking a balance between writing and social networking. You can read it here.

To supplement what I wrote there, I'd add that in general I always try to do the hard work first, and the easy last. This always backfires when tasks are canceled and procrastinators exult, but in general I like coasting once the hard stuff is done. And for me, writing = hard, and social networking = timeconsuming but easy.

Well, "hard" isn't really the right word. Writing isn't hard for me. I love it. I get carried away with it. What I mean is, it's hard to get into the mental space required to write, whereas social networking requires no such mental preparation.

. . . . .

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Educate a Girl: Girl Rising

When it came time for my eldest to go to school, we were coincidentally also trying to purchase a home, so we spent a lot of time researching school scores and rejecting houses based on the schools they fed into.

Both my husband and I grew up in communities so small there was only one school, so at first we were taken aback to realize there were choices, and you had to figure out school boundaries, because it would be awful for your child to be doomed to attend a school that ranked only a four, when they should be attending a 10.

All that was set on its head for me on Sunday when I went to a screening of Girl Rising, sponsored by Intel. My dear cousin Karl Mailman and his wife Lynette, Intel employees, invited me. This film follows nine girls around the world as they struggle to attend school, a right we take completely for granted here in the U.S. (and often squander). I’m not talking about college. I’m talking about elementary school. I’m talking about the chance to learn one’s numbers and letters.

Did you know in some countries you must pay to attend school? And it’s not mandatory? A particularly chilling scene in the movie shows a 7-year-old girl in Haiti’s earthquake aftermath, trying to attend a tent school in the rubble, and being told by her former teacher that she had to leave because her parents had not paid.

In between the vignettes showing girls in Peru, Egypt, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and other countries, viewers are given statistics about how much good arises when girls are educated. The facts are compelling. We need to educate our girls. Here are a few of their facts:
1. There are 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary school worldwide.” - The UN’s Education First initiative
2. “Girls with eight years of education are four times less likely to marry as a child.”-UN’s Education First Initiative
3. “Educated mothers are twice as likely to send their children to school.” -Unicef

The movie isn’t easy to watch. But change can never happen unless people face unpleasant facts.

Is it fair that a three-year-old must carry heavy buckets of water every day, most likely destroying her own developing skeletal system, to cleanse the hands of her healthy, grown male relatives? Should an 11-year-old (11!) be sold into marriage, and the proceeds used to buy her older brother a used car? Should a six-year-old be sent to live with strangers to serve as their slave, called a “bonded laborer” (kamlari)?

Of course, as you watch it is impossible not to think of children you know at these same ages, picturing them made to do the same things.

I’m outraged at the fate of lost little girls (and boys) around the world, and glad to puncture the little bubble I live in. One of the best things I took away from the movie was the idea that helping just ONE person means the world. It’s overwhelming to think of changing entire villages a world away…but we can change lives one at a time and still do good. My eyes are tearing up as I compose this blog post here at my comfortable local Starbucks, my belly full of a warm scone and a decaf mocha, with sunshine flooding the windows, knowing that my child is now safe at school, learning: learning happily, safely, carelessly.

Please visit to find a screening near you or to donate ($50 can send a girl to school for a year). You are also invited to host a screening of the film; information to do so is on the site.

Final note: the girl pictured above, "The Phoenix," is Sokha of Cambodia. She was orphaned and lived literally in the dump, each day picking through the trash to find food and goods to trade for food. She's now a star student at a top school, and as you can see a beautiful traditional dancer. No child should ever have to pick through other people's trash while other kids attend school. As the film says, she was literally thrown away herself.

 . . . . . .

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Spring Book Recommendations

It’s time for my quasi-seasonal  recommended books list. Luckily, I’ve had a spate of happy reading lately so there are some great books to mention.

1. Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill. I’m impressed beyond belief with this book and its deep, lengthy, complex look at one woman’s life. Aminata Diallo is only 11 years old when she’s snatched from her village in Africa and taken to Sierra Leone to undergo the Middle Passage to South Carolina. Moving from owner to owner and living through traumatic events, Aminata’s spirit and luminous grace carry her through. The author’s research was thorough to the point of Ph.D.hood, I’d think; the list of referenced nonfiction books in the Author’s Note was years’ worth of reading.

I enjoyed the fruits of that research: learning how indigo dye is made, what it was like to be a slave at the time of the American Revolution and all its rhetoric referring to Americans as “slaves” of Britain, learning about the different languages of Africa and having a Muslim woman as the protagonist, on and on. Every page is rich with information and a loving look at this intelligent woman (did I mention the author Lawrence Hill is male and writes this in the first person? What an accomplishment.)

With such a topic, you’d imagine the book might be too painful to read. It’s not. Hill has a deft touch so that while you agonize for the fates that befall Aminata, you continue hoping a good end will come. And you will cheer when one slender yet unforgettable piece of happiness comes (back) to her.

I honestly think this book should have received a Pulitzer or Nobel prize. Maybe both. I’ve never read such a thorough and heartfelt book about a slave. Hill truly did this fictional woman honor.

2. Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. I LOVED this book. Pretty much perfect in every way, just like Mary Poppins. There are always books you read and enjoy, and then there are books that hit on topics that already fascinate you and seem tailor-made to you. For me, Splendors and Glooms was the latter kind of book. With Victorian orphans,  a mansion shrouded in snow, a locked tower, a character named Clara, dark magic, a smart and honest main character, inklings of romance and more….it was a sheer pleasure from page one to the end. I first learned of the book in the freebie magazine Book Page that my library carries; I dogeared the page it appeared on to remind myself, and then hunted down the book.  It’s considered a young adult book, but I relished it as an adult.

3. Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors.
The tale of a country noblewoman’s life in the years leading up to the French Revolution, this book follows her path through an arranged marriage to a brute, her necessary turn to courtesanship to support herself, and her imprisonment during the bloodthirsty days of revolution. I won’t give any plot spoilers, so will silence myself there. One thing I appreciated about this book is that it didn’t, as many books depicting the Revolution do, gloss over the fate of the Princesse de Lamballe. The viciousness of the Revolution almost seems apocryphal; did people really dip their bread in the freeflowing blood from the guillotine and exultedly eat it? Was the Princess of Lamballe’s story exaggerated and blown up out of proportion? If not, Paris was a desperately violent place, and how could you continue to trust your neighbor even after events calmed? The term “The Terror” best illustrates the era. This novel is unflinching.

Friends’ Books: I’m lucky to be part of a writing community and to announce the release of books written by friends.
Quest of the Warrior Maiden by Linda C. McCabe: Based on the legends of Charlemagne and featuring a strong woman warrior protagonist. I met Linda years ago at the East of Eden writing conference; we were assigned to share a room at Asilomar, and a year later we voluntarily shared a room at the next gathering. We’ve kept in touch over the years and had a strange friendship involving the repeated loss of keys! Once her husband had to fly down in a Cessna to bring spare car keys to her. To his credit, he greeted her with a big kiss. Linda’s book is available through Destrier Books.
A Time to Cast Away Stones by Elise Miller: Elise’s novel is about the 1968 May Revolution in Paris, an event few talk about or know about. I heard snippets of it years ago in a writers group we both belonged to in San Francisco. Believe it or not, this group required writers to read their work aloud for critique; I’ll never forget how much my hands trembled in the beginning holding up my pages. Elise was confident and continued honing her novel, now available through Sand Hill Review Press.
Forged in Grace by Jordan Rosenfeld: Jordan’s novel is about a burn victim who learns she can heal people--but not herself--through supernatural powers. She also voyages to learn more about the events surrounding the fire, and the best friend who was there at the time. I met Jordan and was good friends with her during the time I lived in Gilroy and she was in nearby Morgan Hill. It was a bummer not to make her recent March 2 launch party, which I blogged about a few weeks ago. I read an early version of her novel, then called Little Alien, and thought it was great; I know the version she launched was much different and can’t wait to read it. Her novel is available through Indie-Visible Ink, a collective she formed with a wonderful roster of fellow women writers. (What a great name, a play on indivisible! Surprised it wasn’t already taken.)
Up in the Air  by Ann Marie Meyers. Anne Marie’s book is a children’s picture book. I know Ann Marie from the same group that Elise Miller belonged to as well. Such a fun community of writers! Ann Marie is from Trinidad and now lives in Toronto. What a climate change. Ann Marie invited me to guest blog at her site in a few days; I’ll provide a link soon. Her book is available from Jolly Fish Press. P.S. I was in error; her book doesn't launch until July. I'll show the jacket jpeg then.
Claws of the Cat  by Susan Spann: This is cheating, because Susan’s book isn’t out yet! But you can preorder it and then enjoy the best-ever summer beach read. Available through Minotaur, Susan’s novel is the first installment of a fantastic mystery series featuring a Watson and Holmesian combination: a samurai warrior (a shinobi, as I  learned, part of millions of fascinating facts Susan has hipped me to) and a Portuguese priest, set in medieval Japan. They’re great partners, because Hiro the shinobi is taciturn and very Japanese, hiding many secrets, while Father Mateo is a man of the cloth and concerned to do the right thing, even while violating cultural expectations. I’ve read two of her books in the series and am waiting expectantly for #3 (clearing throat)…they are wonderful books and I can’t wait for them to hit the world. Watch this space for lots of Hiro content as the launch date approaches. I met Susan at the Historical Novels Society conference in San Diego in 2011. We had a great time getting to know each other, and I was delighted to learn she lived near Folsom, a city my family was about to move to (and did). We’ve had many an impassioned breakfast talking about writing and publishing, many a hushed evening talking about the same, and a few great walks talking about…you got it…the same. Susan’s a dear friend and thanks to HNS for getting us together! (I’ll be blogging soon about the upcoming conference in St. Petersburg, Florida this June, which both of us will again be attending.)

Before I close, I want to say I saw an amazing documentary this afternoon, courtesy of my cousin who works at Intel, which sponsored the film: Girl Rising. It was emotional, stirring, and well worth its own blog post, which I’ll post in a few days once I get a chance to mull it over and think how to approach it. (This post on my book picks has been underway for weeks, a sad commentary on how slowly I create these posts.)

There is a connection between Girl Rising and this post: the idea that literacy, that reading, can change lives and improve lives. I’m so grateful that I live a life of words and joyous reading and happy writing. I wish this was a liberty people worldwide enjoyed.

More later!

. . . . .

Friday, March 01, 2013

Forged in Grace launch

Good friend Jordan Rosenfeld’s book Forged in Grace launches tomorrow at Booksmart in Morgan Hill. This novel is about Grace, irreparably scarred by a burn accident when a teen. Now an adult, she reconnects with the friend who was with her when it happened, and finally gets closure on their friendship and the circumstances of that afternoon. It’s psychologically complex: a great look at female friendships at the age when competition taints even the closest of relationship, and later at the age when one starts to assess one’s life and what’s been accomplished.

There are some amazing lyrical passages, and a nice reflective tone to the whole book. I had the fortune of reading this book in its early stages, and am so excited it’s out in the world now, much like tremulous Grace. The cover is a dream come true, eyecatching and aesthetically compelling! I was reflecting as I wrote this, that the cover must depict Grace…but then I wondered if maybe it was Marly, Grace’s friend. Or maybe we’re meant to wonder. Maybe Jordan can come do a guest post and talk about the book cover decisions.

Booksmart is a fantastic indie bookstore in charming Morgan Hill, just a short jump south of San Jose. Jordan used to work there so it’s the perfect place to launch her novel, embraced by the wonderful husband and wife owner team of Brad and Cinda Jones.

I got to know Jordan when I lived in Gilroy nearby. Many’s the long, complex talk we’ve had about the writing life and the craft of writing (she’s also the author of Make a Scene, a fantastic Writer’s Digest book on how to craft scenes. I always recommend it to my mediabistro students.) She’s been a fun and thoughtful friend, and I wish her all the best in her book’s success. If you live in the Bay Area, please attend her launch. If you don’t, please order her book to come to you.

3:00 Saturday, March 2
80 East Second St., Morgan Hill, CA

. . . . .