Archive for the ‘reading’ category

The Sex Lives of Male Characters: Our Cultural Assumptions in Action

April 15, 2013

Today, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

My editor for The Shadow of the Sun was my dear friend Brett Shanley. We’d worked together on a number of projects by the time we came around to this one, though this was the first time he had edited me. One of his first observations, made in his usual quietly introspective fashion, was,

“Um, Ellion’s kind of a whore, isn’t he?”

Which made me laugh, and which I had to admit was true–but which I found an intriguing reaction to a male character, particularly from a male reader. Brett’s response was a valid one, and shared in prticular by women–but it stood in opposition to our cultural norms. That sort of deep thought and ability to look past our assumptions were among the things that gave Brett power as an editor, of course.

I find writing the sexual life of a male character surprisingly easy. It’s true that I am and always have been female (at least within the confines of this particular incarnation*), but I’ve got plenty to work from when it comes to the inner sexual lives of male characters. I believe, rightly or wrongly (and research does tend to bear this out, for what that’s worth) that the internal lives of men and women are largely the same: that where we differ stems partly from inborn traits but mostly from socialization. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is in the area of sex that the most data about the inner lives of the male of the species is most available. We need only look at 99% of what we receive through popular culture for clues.

Entire volumes and thousands of blog posts have been written on the male gaze and its effect on the way women perceive themselves; it’s not my intent to recapitulate that here. But if you want a broad sampling of what arouses men and how they process sex and female beauty, you need only watch movies, particularly those made to appeal to the male demographic. I don’t mean to assert that all men see women the same way, think the same things, etc.–but movies written and filmed by men for other men, which is most movies that are not romantic comedies, give us a good window into the areas of general agreement among that half of the species in Western culture.

Further, as a woman who has absorbed those images, I have absorbed, whether consciously or not, the same set of ideas about what is arousing. All women, whether conscious of it or not, who participate in popular culture have learned to see other women as sexual. Most heterosexual women map those images onto their psyches as things to be achievedthings we want to look at rather than people we want to touch, but we still know what is considered sexy: i.e., what men as a demographic want to look at and experience in their sexual lives. Most of us spend our lifetimes trying to measure up to those things. That, of course, is a somewhat different topic.

So, to drag this back around to the original question, I find it surprisingly easy to write a male character, even when it comes to his sex life, because I have access to an entire cultural heritage, have absorbed it as fully as any man. It’s actually far more difficult for me to stretch my brain around the rest of the experience of being male, because the clues popular culture gives us for those things are harder to access. Those are the areas where I must do the most research and extrapolation.

As usual, nrlymrtl has tossed me a question worth intense unpacking, because I still haven’t touched on how I write another person’s sexual experience. And that trick (no pun intended) is one of endless interest to writers (and readers, it seems!)–so I’ll roll that question over to another post tomorrow.

* I don’t believe in reincarnation. I don’t disbelieve in reincarnation. Neither truth would surprise me. As Alice said to Dorothy, “I’ve seen some weird shit.”

All the Myths I Stole

April 1, 2013
Cú Chulainn in battle, from T. W. Rolleston, Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911; illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

Cú Chulainn in battle, from T. W. Rolleston, Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911; illustration by Joseph Christian Leyendecker

In this week’s installment of the Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

The ancient Irish myth of Cuchulain is woven into the ancient history of this book. Are there other, specific myths that you pulled from in creating this work?

The short version of the answer is that I stole all of Irish mythology, and then went rooting around in the rest of the human mythology tradition for additional toys.

The Irish Myths

As nrlymrtl observes, I snagged Cuchulainn* from the Táin Bó Cúailngethe greatest of the ancient Irish myths. But once I got there, I didn’t stop with him. Cuchulainn is only one small part of that sweeping epic, and I am also using the overarching war in which Cuchulainn is a late entry: notably the story of Fergus.

I also pilfered the Conquest of the Sons of Mil, in which human men conquered Ireland. This is one of my favorite parts of the Irish myth-set, especially for the wonderful wizard Amergin–who, remarkably, I have not (yet!) co-opted to my tale. From this myth came the tale of the goddess Eriu, who in my story is the founder of Letitia’s ancestral line.

Not content with those thefts, I moved on to the First and Second Battles of Maige Tuireadh, which are two of the wars of conquest of ancient Ireland. In the First Battle, the Tuatha De Danaan  conquered Ireland, wresting it from the control of the Fir Bolg. In the Second, the Danaan, having fallen under the oppression of the Fomorians, fought to free themselves. From these tales came the tale of the many-talented hero Lugh of the Long Arm and that of the great healer Dian Cecht, whose magical cauldron could bring the dead back to life. His “technology” is the basis of the Basghilae, the undead warriors in The Shadow of the Sun. And Lugh’s unstoppable Spear, the Gae Assail, became the great treasure of Fiana.

But of course I didn’t stop there. By now you will recognize that I am an intellectual kleptomaniac. I started thinking bigger: I moved on to

The Atlantis Myth

If you dig deeply into the myths of the Tuatha De Danaan and Atlantis, eventually you will begin to notice certain overlaps. The names of the Danaan realms, for example: my Fiana/Finias, Faill/Failias, and Muir/Morias are lifted straight out of that area of overlap. The nation of Banbagor should properly have been named Gor for correct correspondence with the original myth, but early readers noted that the seeming reference to the Conan stories was a distraction, so I wedded that name to the name of the goddess Banba of Irish myth.

Likewise Hy-Breasail: this is one of the multitude of names of Atlantis in ancient myth, and I stole shamelessly from sources attempting to locate that place.

The Gods

Oh, I stole gods. The Irish/Celtic ones are easy to spot, notably Dana, Beal and Esus. But you can’t swing a dead cat in my story world without bumping up against a god or something named for a deity, and many of them are pilfered from elsewhere: notably just about every body of water, which follow the Celtic tradition of naming them for goddesses that supposedly inhabit them. But it wasn’t just Irish/Celtic gods I stole. I had my way with the Germanic and Greek pantheons and some of their myths as well.

The Afterlife

I stole not one but two of these myth-sets: the Irish, including the paradisal House of Donn; and the Greek, albeit with considerable embellishment. Of the veritable buffet of after-life options in the novel, most of it began, er, life elsewhere.


Why did I steal all these things so brazenly? Now that you see the framework of the amusement park ride I have created, what does it mean?
Those questions are left as an exercise for the reader. 🙂

*Did you notice I spelled it differently than nrlymrtl did? Neither of us is exactly right, as far as I can tell. There seems to be a lot of variation in people’s attempts to render the old Irish as English. I’ve been typing it that way for too long to stop now, which only means I had my formative experience of him with a different source than nrlymrtl.

The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along

April 1, 2013

The Shadow of the SunBeginning today, out in the wild places of the interwebs, a group of intrepid book bloggers is beginning an experiment so crazy it just might work: a Read-Along, or group reading, of The Shadow of the Sun.

This escapade is part of a planned series of read-alongs of Mercury Retrograde Press books, and I am delighted and humbled by their interest in our work–and unreasonably excited about the planned conversations. Participating bloggers include:

A Dab of Darkness
Coffee, Cookies, and Chili Peppers
Just Book Reading
Little Red Reviewer

What is a read-along, you ask? And how can I play? In short, a read-along is a sort of online book club that operates primarily on the blogs of people interested in participating. They seem to be most fun if you have a blog of your own on which to post your thoughts, but a good time can still be had by stopping in to participating blogs and joining in the conversations there. More detailed information on the Mercury Retrograde read-along series is available here.

There will be a list of links to the various posts in the read-along available on the Mercury Retrograde site, here, and we’re going to try to keep up with the read-along and all its various links as it evolves. It should be noted that this is the first read-along most of us have been party to, and we’re feeling our way through it. But if we come up with a better way of keeping interested readers informed, that information will be posted on the same page as well. So that page is probably the place to check in.

This particular read-along is being led by nrlymrtl, host of the Dab of Darkness blog. Here is the

Planned Read-Along Schedule

April 1st: Chapters 1-7
April 8th: Chapters 8-15
April 15th: Chapters 16-21
April 22nd: Chapters 22-28
April 29th: Chapters 29-END

Don’t have a copy of the book? Not to worry. For the duration of the Read-Along, you can download your free eBook here.

nrlymrtl is a master of spinning interesting questions–and she’s instituted the extra-juicy addition of a question specifically directed at me in each of her weekly lists. This should be a great conversation. See you around the blogs!

Genre-bending works: favorites and recommendations

April 5, 2010

Last week, John DeNardo asked me to contribute to SF Signal’s Mind Meld feature, which entertains a single question with a group of genre luminaries each week. I’ve been enjoying the Mind Meld feature for a long time, so naturally I was beyond delighted to be asked to play–but what excited me even more was this week’s question: What are your favorite genre-bending works?

I’m all about genre bending. Actually rule-bending in general. Rules and definitions just make me think about what they’re designed to exclude.

But I digress, as usual. The point: I found this question so compelling that I began to talk to other people about it even before I wrote my post. Last weekend, at the book launch (actually the after-party) for Leona Wisoker’s fabulous Secrets of the Sands, the very knowledgeable cadre of fans and artists who had gathered to celebrate fielded a list of favorites that barely even overlapped mine. Though I’d intended to use their suggestions to augment my list for Mind Meld, I quickly realized John would have to give me control of the whole column to accommodate everything. So I answered his question, discussing a few of my favorite genre-bending works–and will share the responses of the luminaries who weighed in at Leona’s after-party here. Once the Mind Meld post goes live on SF Signal, I’ll link to it here.

And I’m adding the recommendations that spoke to me to my ever-growing TBR shelf on Goodreads.

Crowd favorites for genre-bending include:

Fred Saberhagen’s Dracula Series. It may be worth noting that what sprang to mind was the sixth of the series, but I have included the link to the series opening.

Mercedes Lackey/Roberta Gellis: This Scepter’d Isle

David Weber/Linda Evans: Hell’s Gate, also the first of a series.

Larry Niven/Steven Barnes: Dream Park–the first of a series.


Update: So many excellent ideas in the Mind Meld post. My to-read list has grown even longer. And when I came back here I realized I had typed “SF Site” rather than “SF Signal” in the original post.


I’ve fixed it, but I’ll be blushing about this ridiculous error for days. I am a great admirer of both sites and both editorial teams; I choose to blame post-launch fatigue for my error…but we all know that’s really no excuse.

A bit of well-deserved credit for comics and graphic novels

June 10, 2009

Rachel Fulton is a professor of history at the University of Chicago, a geek, and a person whose depth of thought goes right down to the center of the earth. Oh, yeah, and we went to college together.

Rachel turns a perspicacious eye on comics on her blog today:

Fencing Bear at Prayer: Guilty Pleasures

For those of you who think novels are important work but graphic novels or–heaven forfend!–comics are somehow lesser works, Rachel does a formidable job of dissecting the reasons why works incorporating both text and image have such impact on us…and why, just maybe, it’s okay to love them.

For ancient religion geeks

May 25, 2008

Wynette and I were discussing recently how difficult it is to write works that touch on ancient Celtic culture, particularly Celtic religion. There Be Dragons there: that area of study is a battleground among academics, and those of us who have other flavors of attachment to that tradition tend to have a difficult time separating what truths we can glean of that tradition from the fantasy-movies that popular culture has overlaid them with. I have found a better flavor of understanding, not to mention some emotional peace on the topic, from digging into academic source materials. In the course of preparing for this series I went so far as to spend months (really, months!) reading academic works on Irish archaeology and actually dragged Mark all the way across The Pond to walk those sites myself.

Turned out to be a religious experience, ironically enough. But I digress, as usual.

Presently, I am reading a book loaned to me by Ron: The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture by William Irwin Thompson (ISBN 0-312-80512-8) which essentially picks up where Frazier left off with The Golden Bough – with stunning results. I am going to buy this book; it is one I will find necessary to re-read fairly often.

In the section I am reading now, Thompson engages in a lengthy footnote on the topic of the original One World Religion (of the Great Mother, of course) and where Sumer, with its ultimately masculine tradition that became the backbone of the Etruscan, Roman, and Greek religions diverged from the continuing Mother Goddess trad of Western Europe, and recommends these books, which I am also going to hunt down, as context on that divergence:

Time Stands Still: New Light on Megalithic Science by Keith Chritchlow (London, Gordon Fraser, 1979)


The Silbury Treasure by Michael Dames (London, Thames & Hudson, 1976)

The Avebury Cycle by the same guy & publisher, 1977

It was this week, as I was reading Thompson’s book, eating my lunch, absorbing his discussion of the Great Mother as both womb and tomb and how that perception is reflected in Neolithic tomb-sites e.g. Newgrange (though he doesn’t mention Newgrange but rather Bryn Celli Ddu in Wales, and shows that picture)—when, because I’ve been following Thompson’s argument and have passed through the narrow tunnel into the inner sanctum of Newgrange myself, I suddenly saw what would have been obvious to anyone who breathed that religion: the entrances to those barrow-tombs are models of the vagina of the Great Mother, which in that way of thinking is a two-way street. But this is only one of many insights I’ve had into the profoundly male-female, always-about-fertility-and-yet-always-about-something-more, nature of that religion. So if ancient Celtic culture and religion are on your radar, do yourself a favor: pick up those books.