Tuesday, August 31, 2010
by Lisa Hughey
Literature or art dealing with sexual love is the general definition of erotica. Nowadays, erotic fiction encompasses a fairly large market and frequently is very explicit in nature. There’s body parts and A into B and sometimes C, bouncing breasts, and throbbing erections, multiple partners, dom/sub, BDSM, M/M, M/F/M, M/M/F (there’s a difference but I’m not really sure what it is!) there is a contemporary mainstream market for the masses who are buying erotic fiction.
But I agree with Juliet that the truly erotic stems from the forbidden.
In The Piano, (thank you Adrienne for abdicating on writing about this topic!) for the most erotic scene in the movie, the characters have all their clothes on. The movie was somewhat shocking in that Harvey did the full frontal nudity thing. But the image of Harvey Keitel crouched under the piano, exploring that tiny hole in Holly Hunter’s stocking with a single finger, as if he could plumb the mystery of woman by stroking her skin? Hot, hot, hot.
The most erotic movie I’ve ever seen was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. The sex in the scene was not really the erotic part. The set up is the wife and the lover are in the restaurant with the thief and if he finds out that they are lovers he will kill them both brutally. This is visually emphasized by the dead body on the banquet table adorned with other food and fruit. (It’s very dark) The lovers have sex anyway (in the bathroom). That scene is erotic. But because the threat of discovery is taken to an extreme level. It won’t just be embarrassing. The forbidden means death.
Because we are exposed to so much more explicit visual images and written language, writing the erotic scene (whether it’s erotic fiction or just plain fiction with a love scene) the trick is to find the forbidden in the relationship between the two and exploit it. Just as Sophie said, most of the time the tension in a sex scene is going to be the emotion between the two. The second the author sets up a reason why these two characters shouldn’t be together, the scene is ripe for the sexual tension to be exploited.
In my opinion, that’s what sets erotic romance apart from straight erotic fiction. The focus isn’t on the position or the place, it’s on the emotional impact the act will have on each character. As for the mechanics, the advice I was given years ago and still seems to hold is that if the scene makes you squirm in your chair, you’re on the right track.
And while writing sex isn’t my favorite element of writing, the truth is that sex or love is a natural and organic component of any love story. The physical expression of commitment and trust in a very vulnerable situation is always gut wrenching, if it is done right.
ps. Who chose this topic? :)
pps. And I haven’t seen The Cook...in years so if I’m a little off on the details, sorry!
Monday, August 30, 2010
Two weeks ago, I wrote about my search to discover where my last name, Coddington, came from. What I expected to be a fairly straightforward answer, that it’s an English place name of a common Anglo-Saxon type, got more interesting when I realized that most of the Coddington/Cuddington parishes in England had church foundations in the seventh century. That’s early, even in a country where plenty of villages date back to Roman times, and no small few are older than that.
Picking up the tale again, on GPT1 (Gene Pool Tour #1) we stayed in a time share in Staffordshire, of all places, because it was almost equidistant between so many of the Coddingtons. After a week spent sussing them out and reading their parish church brochures, my sister, Sarah, had had enough poking about. She insisted we spend a day doing normal sightseeing: a ruined castle and Sherwood Forest. I did manage to stick the priory church at Breedon-on-the-Hill on the itinerary because I wanted to see the Saxon stone carvings there.
After slogging around in the rain at the castle ruins at Ashby-de-la-Zouche (there are better castle ruins, but that was the closest), we turned up at Breedon around noon. In the car park, the first thing we saw was a couple in a Fiat Panda making a go of breeding on the hill without quite enough steam on the windows to ensure complete privacy. My father still thinks this is one of the punniest coincidences he’s ever witnessed.
We poked through the churchyard, then went in to see the carvings. Dad and Sarah zipped around and left Mom and me trapped by an old codger from Leicester who proceeded on a low-key rant (we were in a church, after all) about how Leicester had hardly any English people left in it, and how sick he was of all the immigrants. Uncomfortable, but not wanting to be rude, I read the church history brochure while my mother disengaged as gracefully as possible. One line in the brochure, however, nearly obscured this unvarnished view of English social tensions. It said that Hugh Candidus, a monk of Peterborough, noted in the 12th century that in the Priory Church of St. Mary and St. Hardulf at Breedon, there was a shrine to a St. Cotta in Anglo-Saxon times.
St. Cotta? Who was he? When did he live? How’d he get to be a saint? Might he have something to do with the Coddingtons?
The difference between the –tt- and the –dd- isn’t necessarily substantive. Medieval spellings make this quite clear. Even in the 21st century, I can’t tell you how many times my last name has been misspelled with –tt- instead of the double d. (We are not fairy squashers!) The long /d/ is often articulated in everyday speech as an alveolar flap, which is, strictly speaking, neither a /t/ nor a /d/. Many people pronounce ‘later’ and ‘ladder’ with the identical sound for the middle. It’s not phonemic, but exists as an allophone of both intervocalic /t/ and /d/ in American English. There’s an IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbol for it, a kind of small r-shaped thing. The original –dd- in Coddingtont has sometimes been spelled as –rr-. There’s an entire branch of the family, confirmed through DNA analysis, that spells their name Corrington.
It was possible that St. Cotta might have been St. Codda when written by someone else’s hand. Or even St. Cudda. The original vowel wasn’t pronounced as it is in either Standard American English or Standard British English pronunciations of /o/ and /u/. It was a bit more fronted and rounded, and when followed by the suffix –ington, the /i/ further fronted in a process called i-umlaut. It’s a sound change thing in Old English. By the 16th century, in the southeast of England, mostly Surrey and Kent, the rounded vowel eventually influenced the perception of the initial consonant producing the spelling ‘Quiddington.’ There are other geographical/social contexts where it looks like the rounding and fronting was lost very early, perhaps by the eighth century, and possibly due to influence from local British dialects (this may be a stretch; I’m still working on it) producing Cadda or Catta. That’s another story, though, and I’ve probably already delved too far into phonology for most folks as it is (and not enough for linguists -- sorry!).
After the trip, I began running down all the obscure Anglo-Saxon saints I could find. No other mentions of St. Cotta. Drat. But I didn’t give up. I went back to my maps.
I couldn’t help noticing that the Coddingtons, (shorthand for all the various spellings), appear in a ring around the Midlands of England. The answer to what this might signify might seem obvious to those of you who know even a little about the Anglo-Saxon period. It wasn’t clear to me because I didn’t know much more than that there had been Anglo-Saxons at some point. I’d been boning up on Roman Britain for a few years, but past 5oo AD, I was lost until the 15th century, and I was on shaky ground there.
Nonetheless, that ring of names kept niggling at me. It couldn't be a random distribution, but I don't do math, so I couldn't really prove that. I started checking on other common –ington names to see how they were distributed. Doddington, Billington, Addington, Ellington, Eddington and more. Sometimes I saw a suggestion of a regional focus to the distribution, as with Piddingtons in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Northamptonshire. Others ranged north to south and east to west. As one example, there are Doddington place names from Kent to Northumberland with lots in between. No other fairy rings jumped out at me. There might be some, but I didn’t find them.
[Image]Mercia in the 8th Century or so
Eventually, I learned enough to recognize that the Coddingtons formed a ring that roughly followed the bounds of the Kingdom of Mercia in the mid-seventh to eighth centuries. Boundaries were pretty changeable then, so it was a bit hard to tell given my lack of Early Medieval Britain expertise. The Surrey Cuddington where my family most likely came from was perhaps too far to the south and east, though the Chertsey Abbey charter from around 674 AD that first mentions that lands in Cuddington were granted to the abbey by Frithuwold, a sub-king under Wulfhere of Mercia. At least some of the time, then, Mercian interests held sway in the area.
Next I wondered what the link between these sites might be. The simplest reason appeared to be that they represented a monastic network. I learned that the growth of minsters, the Old English word for monasteries, exploded in the mid to later seventh century. As the Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity, they endowed the Church with extensive lands. Members of royal households often became abbesses and abbots in control of these lands. The practice gradually worked its way down the social ladder so that many landed families established their own minsters. Certainly many of these foundations were piously motivated, but the tax advantages of converting family land to Church land under family control seems to have been at least as big a factor.
I examined the Coddington sites more closely. I availed myself of the wondrous Ordnance Survey Explorer Series Maps, and pondered the many Coddingtons for hours. And hours. I stuck the maps up on the wall in my hallway and stared at them some more. To my delight, place name and geographic patterns emerged.
Most of the sites were within a couple of miles of a major Roman road. There seem to be Roman Roads everywhere you look in Britain, so that might not mean a great deal, but these included some of the Really Big Roads. The Dee Valley sites in Cheshire are close to the extension of Watling Street north of Wroxeter (Viroconium) to Chester (Deva). The Surrey site is on Stane Street from London to Chichester. The Nottinghamshire site is close to the Fosse Way between Leicester (Ratae) and Lincoln (Lindum). The Derbyshire site near Crich was close to the road from Derby (Derventio) to Rotherbury, and the ones in Herefordshire and Buckinghamshire are also close to major routes. The Vale Royal site in Cheshire is along a supposed Roman road from Chester to the saltworks at Northwich.
Most of these sites are also close to a major river crossing or bridge. The Cheshire sites are close to the Dee, the Derbyshire site to the Derwent, and the Nottinghamshire site lies slightly to the east of the River Trent. Three of these along the northern arc of the circle share some surprising place name clusters, as well.
Coddington, Cheshire sits next to Aldersey Parish and a couple of miles west of the crossing of the River Dee at Farndon. Coddington, Derbyshire sits across the River Derwent from Alderwasley Parish. Coddington, Notts, is a few miles east of an ancient crossing of the Trent near the Roman Ad Pontem, now Thorpe Parish, which sits immediately south of another Farndon.
It’s possible that 'Farndon' derives from an Old English fern root, but given the presence of the alder names, I think it’s more likely to come from the old Celtic root fearn, which also means alder. Alder trees grow well in damp soil, and once cut, their wood doesn’t rot in damp ground as quickly as most. It was often used for bridges in pre-industrial times. There’s a certain sense to riverside settlements using alder or fearn in their names, but why would these three Coddington parishes occur next to them? Once again, that doesn’t appear random. But why alders?
Fearn is also one of the Ogham letters, the Celtic alphabet used primarily in inscriptions in the sub-Roman and early medieval periods in Britain and Ireland. The letters have tree and plant names. They’ve been associated with both Druidic practice and the early Celtic Church. I assumed a lot of this to be faux folklore manufactured during Victorian times when anything Celtic was fair game for highly romanticized treatment. However, studying these place names made me willing to reconsider that. Particularly when it struck me that the first syllable of Coddington sounds fairly similar to Welsh coed, which means a wood, timber, or trees. Even more so when I finally noticed that the Cheshire Coddington and Cuddington west of Malpas are quite close to the site of what Bede describes as a major British monastery at Bangor Monachorum, and which is called Bangor-ys-y-Coed today. (First Breedon on the hill, and now Bangor under the wood. We poor Coddballs are doomed to indignity.)
Supposedly, the Celtic Church’s liturgical year may have been influenced by the Ogham tree names, which were also used as a calendar, with a month for each tree. The trees each had a spiritual significance passed down from druid times that the early Celtic Church may have incorporated. The Alder month was the month in spring in which Easter fell. The alder represented resurrection and the teaching of the tenets of Christianity. The cross has long been referred to as a tree. I think the Coed in Bangor’s modern name may have arisen out of an older symbolic use of ‘wood’ as the Cross.
Here’s Bede’s account of the monastery at Bangor:
For afterwards the warlike king of the English, Æthelfrith, of whom we have spoken, having raised a mighty army, made a very great slaughter of that heretical nation, at the city of Legions, (Chester) which by the English is called Legacaestir, but by the Britons more rightly Car-legion. Being about to give battle, he observed their priests, who were come together to offer up their prayers to God for the combatants, standing apart in a place of greater safety; he inquired who they were, and what they came together to do in that place. Most of them were of the monastery of Bangor, in which, it is said, there was so great a number of monks, that the monastery being divided into seven parts, with a superior set over each, none of those parts contained less than three hundred men, who all lived by the labour of their hands. Many of these, having observed a fast of three days, had come together along with others to pray at the aforesaid battle, having one Brocmail for their protector, to defend them, whilst they were intent upon their prayers, against the swords of the barbarians. King Æthelfrith being informed of the occasion of their coming, said; "If then they cry to their God against us, in truth, though they do not bear arms, yet they fight against us, because they assail us with their curses." He, therefore, commanded them to be attacked first, and then destroyed the rest of the impious army, not without great loss of his own forces. About twelve hundred of those that came to pray are said to have been killed, and only fifty to have escaped by flight. Brocmail, turning his back with his men, at the first approach of the enemy, left those whom he ought to have defended unarmed and exposed to the swords of the assailants. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the holy Bishop Augustine, though he himself had been long before taken up into the heavenly kingdom, that the heretics should feel the vengeance of temporal death also, because they had despised the offer of eternal salvation. (from Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, Book II, Ch. II)
I don’t think the Bangor monasteries were all at Bangor, though that’s been the common assumption. I think they were spread out over a wide range of British territory before the Angles and Saxons appeared, and that they had centers of teaching that served a wider community of farms and settlements. I think they kept up roads and bridges in the post-Roman period, as well as providing other services. They were central points for social and economic organization as well as religion.
The Coddingtons existed as part of this monastic network for a long while before they were called Coddington. After Æthelfrith’s massacre of so many of the Bangor monks, I think the network was crippled for many years. Around 625 AD, I believe Hugh Candidus’s St. Cotta began to rebuild the Bangor monasteries, establishing new teaching centers next to the old Alder-named locations of the old houses.
All that was left was to figure out who he might have been. Next up: The Secret Saint.
Friday, August 27, 2010
The PensFatales welcome Michelle Wiener, who is a freelance writer and editor, which is another way of saying she spends a lot of time online writing silly things on Twitter. She blogs about TV and other stuff here. She reviews mysteries and thrillers for RT Book Reviews, and she is THRILLED to be a guest on Pens Fatales.
<---- This is what she looks like when she reads the Internet.
Up until about a month ago, the tagline to my Facebook profile read simply, "I review porn." It wasn't entirely accurate, more about me trying to be flip than a factual description. What I was really doing was reading and reviewing erotic fiction.
It wasn’t something I’d set out to do. To be honest, my erotica frame of reference was limited to Anaïs Nin and a handful of stories submitted to alt.sex.stories that my long-distance boyfriend in college would email to me, which tended toward the "hot babysitter deflowers her 13-year-old charge" ilk. (I think he thought he was keeping the spark alive? Sort of endearing, but mostly missing the mark. By a lot.) (Also yes, I am that old.) (And nerdy.)
But I was about to lose my full-time job, needed something to keep me busy, and wanted to do something both creatively generative and challenging.
It was challenging. I think it must be very hard to write sex scenes, let alone scene after scene in book after book, and have them be always fresh and exciting and, you know, sexy. Who am I to judge an author or her readers on their proclivities, acts and language for such a deeply personal thing? Though I admit, I soon found myself compiling a list of words that completely turned me off. I won’t list them all here, but I will say that I never want to see a woman’s genitals referred to as a “crevice” again. I don’t want to judge! It may work for you! I just prefer the simple and obvious terms for sexy parts. (But not too clinical! “Labia” doesn’t work for me either.)
What disturbed me more than unfortunate language choices was a common theme I discovered in erotic fiction: female characters who are somehow unable or unwilling to own their sexual desires. They're either too shy, or uptight, or inexperienced, or repulsed-but-secretly-curious by practices they think (or think they should think) are disgusting. And what they need is the right man to show them the way.
I am not talking about one woman's sexual awakening or journey of sexual discovery. I'm talking about stories in which the ostensible hero of the story cajoles, coerces, or commands the heroine to sexually perform in a way that makes her uncomfortable at first . . . until she realizes that this is what she needed all along.
It's too close to "she said she didn’t want it, but she did" for my comfort. Worse are the stories in which the heroine is under the influence of some sort of mood-altering aphrodisiac drug while she has mind-blowing sex – sometimes without even knowing she’s been drugged. I don’t need to explain why this is disturbing. At the very least, how satisfying can the sex be, really, if she’s not fully present for it?
What bothers me is that these stories perpetuate the idea that women do not have sexual desires of their own. This is an old, old, stubbornly persistent idea. It's at the heart of slut-shaming. It’s used to justify sexual assault. Again, I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s particular kink – I’m down with fantasies of seduction and submission, though I think there’s a line that should be honored between seduction and force, even in fiction -- and I truly don’t want to insult anyone, but frankly – I’m insulted by these stories. They’re not sexy; they’re depressing.
And it got to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore (pardon the pun; it was intentional). I really, really want to like the books I read. I want to lose myself completely in another world and meet interesting people and get caught up in their lives, and then I want to tell everyone I know how great the book I just read was. And I was having an increasingly difficult time separating my politics from my professional reaction, and I couldn’t very well write 750-word treatises for each book that offended me. I had to admit that erotica wasn’t my thing.
Which is not to say that I didn’t like any of the erotic novels I reviewed. I raved about quite a few of them. I learned that I prefer romance novels with spicy bits more than erotic novels with romantic bits, and that I prefer mystery novels to almost any other genre. So I’m reviewing thrillers and mysteries and crime novels now -- my mom says, "You're still reading about body parts, it's just that they're on dead people now" -- and I'm happier.
The fact that so many of them feature whipsmart female detectives who don't take no guff from nobody probably has A LOT to do with that.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
What to do? I looked through artists' anatomy books for intriguing views of the human form, and even made my way through a good deal of porn...*yawn*. But then I found the mother-lode of lovely nudes -- Victorian Erotica.
Victorians, the posterboys and girls of sexual repression and angst, knew how to do sexy. The women have all kinds of body types, from skinny to beyond plump. The men are mustachioed and randy. They smile, they play, they cavort. They have personality.
As an artist who loves to paint the human form, I know that what one person finds highly titillating, another skips over with no interest. But in general, a little mystery is at least as intriguing as overt nudity. A black stocking playing off a pale thigh, that muscular indentation on a man right below his waistline, a hint of a woman's breast peeking out from a lace bodice...
So is this what makes Victorian erotica so hot? Is it the obvious social repression, the constant knowledge of potential consequences that spurs on the exploration of the naughty and the downright lewd? And if so, is there a raging hot underworld of erotica in fundamentalist Muslim countries where a single act of infidelity could result in being stoned to death by one's neighbors?
The Victorians, despite laws against having Too Good of a Time, gave rise to a huge, vibrant culture of pornography that remains relevant today. Photography, painting, literature, poetry...it was one big old smut-fest, all wrapped up in bloomers and lace. Even now, Victorian tales of sex and depravity remain wildly popular.
"... was like feasting with panthers; the danger was half the excitement ... "
And dangerous it was; Oscar Wilde paid for his sexual adventures with several years in prison for "gross indecency", and never recovered his health.
But when it comes to Erotica...don't we all want to feast with panthers, if only for a moment, and if only in our fantasies? If you're going to write erotica, take a gander at the writings left behind by the Victorian masters of the genre. And if you want to paint nudes, get yourself a book of Victorian photographs. And if you're just looking for some terrific Victorian raunch, check out Lady Winterbourne's Most Intimate of Diaries. You feaster, you.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Truth is, I can barely take credit for the good sex scenes.
You see, I wrote them with my eyes closed, arms stretched out, fumbling for the keyboard in the dark, trying to insert Tab A in Slot B as quickly as possible so I could move on to the next part of the book. I didn't think about whether it was hot, or whether I was getting it right--I am simply a very linear writer, and I can't skip scenes in order to write something that comes later. If it has to be a sex scene today, written while I'm the cafe, red-faced and uncomfortable, so be it.
The goal was to later go back and clean them up. I'm not a great first draft writer, but I'm an excellent editor. I love editing. So when I got to the sex scenes, I expected to have to do a lot of work.
But every time I've landed back at the sex scenes to edit them, I find that they worked the way they were written. It's as if by stepping back and being a little embarrassed and letting my characters have a little room to move, as it were, without me getting in the way, they were able to do what they needed to do. And I don't just mean have sex. That's easy. Mechanical.
My characters work things out by having sex. As Sophie says about sex being a mechanical box to hold emotion, my characters already know that after they hop in the sack, when they get out of bed (or off the floor, or out of the back of the truck), they are different people, with different needs and issues. Geez, it's practically like I planned it that way.
I didn't. I think I got lucky in my last two books by writing characters that are smarter that I am. But in the book I'm writing now, I'm actually conscious of what I need to put IN that mechanical box (I'm trying so hard not to make box jokes), and I think I'm getting it more right because of it. The sex is more interesting, even in the first draft. There are real reasons for what they do, and consequences as well, just like in life.
I hope I'm keeping the hotness, though. Because motivated is good. But HOT and motivated is even better. If you know what I mean. And I think you do.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Guess what? I wrote a sexy book. Yes I did, and it was even published. It had stuff in it that makes me blush to think about. It was full-on erotica, as spicy as I could make it, though since then I have learned that as erotica goes it was rather tame. Still, a few people said nice things about it, and all in all I was proud of the effort. (Don't bother looking for it - I used a secret pen name. :)
When I started writing mysteries and young adult I gently closed the door on that chapter of my career and didn't look back. Once in a great while I visit the web site of the small press that published me, mostly out of curiosity to see if they're still featuring it on their list. Occasionally I get a royalty check - enough to take a couple of the Pens out for a fast-food lunch.
I have great admiration for people who write spicy love stories. It's hard to do well, and I'm very glad I tried it so that I understand the challenge of writing erotica, or erotic romance as my good friend Rachelle Chase frequently reminds me. It's an important distinction: an erotic romance is, first and foremost, a love story.
Writing flat-out sex is probably a challenge as well, but one of a different sort. I imagine you need an encyclopedic knowledge of all the creative and clever ways human beings have discovered to escort each other to heights of pleasure, and I'm not about to sneeze at that.
But er...sheer variety is not my strong suit. So to speak.
Um. Anyway. Recently I wrote the first book of my new series, a paranormal trilogy for Harlequin Luna under the name Sophie Crane (March 2011). I knew when I started it that it was about a post-apocalyptic world where survival was difficult at best, and earthly pleasures are few. So I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when the characters ended up having sex. I mean, when there's nothing to eat but moldy Saltines and no TV or movies or alcohol, people are going to look for diversions where they can.
What surprised me was that the scene demanded to be told in fairly explicit detail. Now I haven't exactly been avoiding sex since my little foray into erotic romance: in every single one of my never-published books, in every Stella book, in everything except my young adult novels, people think about and talk about and sometimes even have sex. But I don't belabor the point. Why? Not because of any particular convictions about appropriateness of the subject matter or fear of offending people, but because it's not germane to the story. In the Stella books, if the poor gal ever does manage to get laid, I can't imagine it will improve the story much to know the details. Many of my readers have already let me know they'll cheer her on, but I doubt they are looking for particulars either.
In AFTERTIME it was different. Because Cass, my heroine, wasn't just having sex when she had sex. She was bringing everything to the table: her fears, her grief, her exhaustion, her quest, her fury. When she hooked up - and my, my, my did she hook up - it was an emotional release of a magnitude that surprised even me. It was a turning point, a moment of clarity, a bid for hope.
When Cass had sex, it represented a decision to keep on trying to survive in a world that had nearly crushed her. It was not neat or pleasant or expected; it was furious and violent and uncertain and messy - and every one of those details was important to get across the emotional importance of the scene. Leaving them out would have made the book lesser.
That's not a bad test for knowing when to be explicit.
I'm very, very proud of the love scenes in that series (though I am forbidding the kids and my dad to ever read them - uck!) I worked hard to get them exactly right, so that every physical detail was matched by the emotions behind it. I don't know how they'll be received - I'm sure they won't be to everyone's taste - but I am confident that I wrote the story of my heroine as it needed to be told, and in this story sex plays an important part.
I have this thing I say when Juliet and I do our Writing Emotion workshops: "Sex is a mechanical box to hold emotion." I think it's one of the smarter things I've ever said. Sex without emotion has its place and its readership; I doubt that readership is mine. People who like my books are probably character-driven, just like me, and when sex is necessary to tell the characters' emotion story, then that's what I do.
Friday, August 20, 2010
We must say that we are very intrigued by the concept of a "man shed." And we are wondering why we don't get one.
"That sentence is wrong, Daddy. It should be like this..."
So says my 11 year old daughter, who has more literary talent than me. One
day, if she wants, she's going to make some publisher very happy. In the
meantime, she rebalances my sentences.
We have two daughters, 8 and 11, and I have an office at home where I write
books. The office used to be our garage. It was converted long ago, and
it's the perfect hidey-hole for any writer. It's detached from the house,
and it has a door I can shut.
Being a writer at home is a dream job for any parent. My commute to work is
to stumble out of bed, shamble down the corridor, out the front door, across
the courtyard and into my man shed and shut the door behind me. Works just
Having a work-at-home dad does however make for a different world view for
our girls, and a different role model. Other children have normal fathers
who work in an office and come home in time for dinner. Our girls have a
dad who hangs around the house, and it's not so exciting when he walks
through the door. On the plus side I can take the girls to school.
Sometimes I pick them up in the afternoon. I can get them to after-school
activities. If you have children, you'll be all too aware of the phenomenon
whereby two children need to be in two different places on the same
afternoon, usually at opposite ends of the earth. This can drive a solo
parent to madness, if not speeding fines. 2 Kids + 2 Parents + 2 Cars means
never being late for music lessons, ballet, sport, and debating. In short,
a writer dad can be more involved. I pay for it by working at night when
the girls are asleep, but I was going to do that anyway.
It also means I can be the Father From Hell when the boyfriends begin. Have
you seen the scene in Castle where the boyfriend rings the doorbell, and
Castle appears in the white coat with the severed head and the bloodied
knife? That'll be me.
A lot of people asked me, when I took to writing, whether I would actually
do any work. Surely the temptation to slack off would be overwhelming?
Umm, no. What's overwhelming is the temptation to work on the books every
waking moment. What's hard is to walk out of the office and pay attention
to the outside world. The girls know that when dad's in the office with the
door shut, it's like he's gone to an office somewhere else. They are
fantastically good about following this rule. In fact, working from home if
anything has made the work ethic role model more graphic than it probably is
for most kids. Plus they get a realistic view of how things really work,
since from time to time they catch me playing games or fiddling on twitter
instead of doing the work I said I was about to do. Naughty Daddy.
Two good decisions we made: I deliberately did not install wireless
internet, and we've put all our computers in that one office. When the
girls are online for homework or fun, they're right next to where I can tap
away at books. There's no such thing as unsupervised internet access in our
house. It also means the girls can peer over my shoulder to fix my
Thursday, August 19, 2010
When I set out to write a novel, I knew there would be trouble.
Sure, I had so tons of plot ideas, and characters screaming at me to tell their stories. I've never been lazy, so finding the time didn't seem like a problem. And I've always been up for a challenge.
But there was something important missing: Where was my angst? How on earth was I going to write a compelling novel without a deep, driving need to to write a brutally honest, heartbreaking novel?
I'd already figured out that I wasn't cut out to be a lawyer or an academic, and that my true calling was instead in the arts, from design to photography to writing. So why was I lacking that artsy angst?
The answer was staring me in the face: my parents.
My parents, with their perfect marriage coming up on four decades, raised a completely well-adjusted, happy child. Which is all well and good -- until you discover the child is going to be an artist.
I don't suffer from a single childhood trauma. It's great for falling asleep within 5 minutes of lying down, but not so great for coming up with characters as awesome as, say, Lisbeth Salander.
But because I'm so boringly well-adjusted, I approached the problem pragmatically:
Even though my parents raised me to lack angst, they also raised me with a tremendous sense of adventure. I got to travel around the world with them from a young age. As cultural anthropologists, that meant a lot of travel compared to most kids I knew. Because of those experiences, in my adult life I lived in 7 cities in 3 countries before settling down with my house in the Bay Area. If the situation presents itself, I'll go anywhere. If a food is offered to me, I'll eat anything (once).
So maybe I'm not cut out to ever write that deep, heartbreaking novel. Instead, I'll go with my strengths, which also happen to be what I love to read most: mysteries with a strong dose of international adventure. L.G.C. came up with a great phrase that captures up what I'm working on right now: An Indian-American pirate treasure hunt adventure.
I won't be holding my breath for any book reviews discussing my deep prose, but I'm having a hell of a lot of fun.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The day we brought Little Lemon home, I was so excited. His leaves were perfect. He smelled so good! And he fit right into the little hole we had dug like he was meant to be there.
I had such high hopes. Sometimes I watched him from my office window, just to check how he was doing.
But Little Lemon wasn't performing as I'd hoped. His growth was stunted. He wouldn't produce any buds, much less lemons.
What was I doing wrong?
My husband and I adjusted the watering. First more. Then less. We reconditioned the soil. We wanted to give him the very best after all.
Was it his friends? We'd planted the most advantageous companion plants nearby to discourage pests but maybe there were better options out there. Who knew what kind of effect they were having on him when we weren't watching!
Then there was that issue of where we lived. It wasn't the right kind of neighborhood, not for raising lemon trees. Too much saltwater. Not enough sun. But we loved Little Lemon and gave him every possible thing needed to succeed. Wasn't that enough?
The worst was other owners. The ones with trees with mature branches bowing under heavy fruit. I hid my envy while sipping perfectly tart lemonade as they bemoaned how their lemon tree's production levels meant they could hardly use all the lemons, so why didn't I take a few? As if I wanted their pity lemons from their overachieving tree!
Part of me pretended I was okay with Little Lemon's low production levels. After all, he was still alive and otherwise thriving. He was green and growing. Wasn't that enough? But deep down, for me, it wasn't.
When people asked me how my garden was, I would rave about my potato harvest, my blooming Gala apple tree but skim over Little Lemon, slightly ashamed. Whenever I would confess my worries, the ensuing advice grated my nerves. Everyone had a story about some other person they knew with a poor Lemon Tree. Everyone had some urban legend to share with some piece of advice. Spray the leaves. More mulch. Like we hadn't thought of it already.
I wondered what it would be like if I had gotten another Lemon Tree instead. In my deepest, darkest thoughts, I pictured switching him out with another, more mature Lemon Tree already in the midst of a production cycle.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit I run out every Sunday and check under the leaves, hoping for the best. My husband is convinced he'll pull through, but I've given up hope. Maybe my high expectations were too much pressure.
What if he doesn't want to carry all those heavy lemons? What if he doesn't want to be plucked? He doesn't exist for my own personal tart consumption, after all. He's still a happy little tree, and my selfish expectations aside, he's doing fine.
* These are seriously thoughts I've had about my lemon tree. I don't mean to imply these feelings are in any way comparable to the actual feelings one would have for a child, but I don't have any children, so here you go instead! *
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Grandma Nellie's 90th Bday with a bucketload of great-grandkids (the silly face picture)
Grandpa Dick at age 98
I've also had great parental examples.
The kind of marital example that marries and stays happy for fifty or more years. And when they weren't happy they worked through their problems, forgave each other their foibles, and got on with raising their families and extended families. The kind of love that almost hurts to watch when they give each other a peck or or hold hands in their eighties.
Wish I had a picture of either set of grandparents in a smooch
The kind of open-minded example that allowed me to grow up in house untarnished by prejudice and racism and to learn as much as I could about people who aren't just like me.
The kind of parental example that shows you must go to bat for your children even when you have no earthly idea how to overcome a challenge but you refuse to accept the current diagnosis.
The kind of character example that put no limits on what I could do or who I could be. Encouraging me to follow my dreams and not give up.
Which must be why I continue to write books and refuse to give up. One day this dream (with a lot of hard work and perseverance) will come true.
So thanks Mom and Dad, Mom and Pop, Grandpa Dick and Grandma Thelmeta, MaMae, and Grandmother Hudson for being awesome examples and giving me great genes.
Monday, August 16, 2010
My parents are great, but I'm giving them a bye this week in favor of going to back to our previous topic, names. I've always loved names of all kinds. Place names. Personal names. Surnames. Saint's names. Names of gods and goddesses. Made-up names. Porno names.
When I was eight or nine, I looked up the meaning of my names. Lynn: Boring and common, but redeemed by being a Celtic water word. Llyn in Welsh is a lake or pool. Linn in Northern England and Scotland is a pool at the foot of a waterfall, a waterfall, or a steep-sided mini-gorge in a stream course. Gail: For my aunt. Since I liked her, that was good, plus it can be construed as a variant of 'gael,' which supports the Celtic theme nicely.
Then there's my surname. Coddington. (Smith is my husband's name, and I only use it as a pen name.) Other than identifying it as an English place name, I didn't get very far with figuring it out until I made it a part of the trip prep for my family's first Gene Pool Tour of England in 2002. My parents, one of my sisters and I decided to visit some of the Coddington parishes as a means of getting us off the usual tourist runs.
We didn't know if our line of American Coddingtons had come from one of these parishes. We were pretty sure we came from an ancestral line out of Surrey -- from Bletchingley and Dorking, a proud pair of English place names, not quite rude, but definitely yuk-it-uppers. Not that English people necessarily find them so. I once asked a guy who lived in Reigate, smack between Dorking and Bletchingley, and who had just told an off-color tale from his Yeoman Warder days if anyone joked about those names. "Oh." His eyebrows beetled thoughtfully. "Because of dorks. No, not really."
raising the ugly specter of in-breeding. Gah.
My attempts at sussing out the meaning of Coddington (or Cuddington, as they're the same name in different guises due to spelling vagaries, sound change and vowel rounding issues over time) invariably resulted in a definition along the lines of "the settlement of Codda/Cudda's people." The -ing means 'the people of' in Old English (OE), and the -ton denotes their farm or settlement. This was neither helpful nor exciting.
More interesting, although not very flattering, was the interpretation offered by Reaney & Wilson in "A Dictionary of English Surnames." They posit the root codd as coming from an unattested Anglo-Saxon personal name or nickname, probably Codda. The meaning, they claim, is obscure, possibly coming from OE cod(d), which means a bag. Alas. Slang being nothing new, you know where this went. Codpiece. Cods. Charming. R&W write that the name might have been used for a man with a belly like a bag, and that doesn't improve matters. Especially since we have several of those in my branch of the Coddingtons. It appears that many other Coddingtons have escaped this self-fulfilling name curse. We have not been so lucky.
Uncle Merrill has been gone for decades, but the body-type continues.
The age of Coddington as a place name was the first thing to surprise me (in a good way) and prompt me to look more closely at whether we had been named for our stomachs, or other bag-like appendages. (Ew.) Domesday lists several Coddingtons, spelled variously. There is Cotintune in Cheshire. Cotingtune in Herefordshire. Cotintun and Cotintone in Nottinghamshire. Cuntitone (that one seems to have gone the opposite direction of the male cods) in Cheshire. Codintone in Surrey.
These correspond to the contemporary parishes or villages of Coddington, Cheshire (east of Farndon); Cuddington, Cheshire (west of Malpas); the other Cuddington in Cheshire, in the map above, west of Northwich; Coddington, Herefordshire (north of Ledbury); Coddington, Notts (east of Newark on Trent); and the almost vanished Cuddington, Surrey. In addition, there's a Cuddington in Buckinghamshire (west of Aylesbury); a Kiddington in Oxfordshire between Woodstock and Chipping Norton that used to be called Coddington or Cuddington, I don't recall which; and a defunct Coddington parish in Derbyshire that has been long absorbed into Crich.
Thus on that first GPT, we had Herefordshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire Coddingtons on our To Visit list. We made them all. We didn't make the Surrey Cuddington, the most likely candidate for our ancestral origins, because I hadn't found it yet. Later I learned that Henry VIII took it over to build Nonsuch Palace and have a hunting ground that made a continuous run from there to Hampton Court. He razed the church and village and sent the incumbent Coddington off to Ixworth, Suffolk with a fine priory recently liberated from the Church thanks to the Dissolution. The Surrey Cuddington parish persisted somehow as an odd, almost lost thing for many years, though they have a church now in Worcester Park.
Our visits to the Coddington churches showed that these parishes were older than the entries in the Domesday Book, which was done in 1086-7 AD. Considerably older. In the churchyard outside All Saints Coddington in Herefordshire stands a Saxon preaching cross. The church history leaflet claimed it was seventh or eighth century. The Coddington in Cheshire appears to have been founded in 627 AD through a charter out of Canterbury under Archbishop Honorius. This is shockingly early for an Anglo-Saxon minster. The Cheshire Cuddington near Northwich was established under the aegis of Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore. His term of office began in 668 AD. The Surrey Cuddington is mentioned in the charter documents for Chertsey Abbey in 674 AD. The surviving charter is probably a forgery replicating earlier documents that had been lost or damaged, but it's generally thought to be fairly accurate in confirming the abbey's known lands.
When we visited these parishes, I didn't know that there wasn't much of an Anglo-Saxon church in the early seventh century. The parish system was centuries in the future. English minsters were only beginning their development. There was an established British Church in the early seventh century, but Augustine and his Roman successors in Canterbury didn't typically get on well with the British bishops and clergy. When the two factions did talk they argued about precedence -- Roman or Celtic authority was at stake -- and how to calculate the date of Easter. This was a sticking point that seems to have represented tensions between the traditional Celtic liturgical calendar and that used in Roman observance. It was nominally straightened out at the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, but not fully settled in actual practice for many decades after that. By 700 AD, the Anglo-Saxon Church had grown tremendously with minsters, or monasteries, all over what was slowly becoming England. These places called Coddington were already old, established sites within this framework by the time Bede was a boy.
It's unlikely to be a coincidence that so many of the places called Coddington were established as such early religious centers for the emerging Anglo-Saxon Church. All these years later, almost 14 centuries, that history and a common name link them. I couldn't find any known links anywhere, so I started looking harder. There's more here than a random bunch of fellows named Codda or Cudda for their bag, er, bellies, leaving their names across the landscape. For one thing, they don't have the same kind of distribution that many other common -ington names have. There are none in Northumberland. None in Devon. They make a ring around the Midlands.
At this point, I'm going to break off. I'll resume this tale when my next turn comes around in two weeks.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Friday, August 13, 2010
I confess, when the fine Fatales asked if I’d blog and mentioned Parents as a potential topic, I made a little perplexed frowny face. I could opine at length on, oh, food, TV, sex, men. But parents? What have I got to say about parents?
But then I started thinking, just a little, and realized just how much I actually have been thinking about the topic.
For starters, there’s the whole concept behind my latest book: my Clan MacAlpin series follows a family of orphans (what else?!) in seventeenth century post-war Scotland. (Like how I got that bit of publicity out? Clever, huh?) I won’t explore why I chose to take the poor kids’ parents out of the equation—Adrienne already covered the cruel whimsy of authors yesterday, so ‘nuff said there.
But you could argue it’s impossible to think about life—fictional or otherwise—without contemplating parents. It always, eventually, comes up. Whether you’ve lost your parents, are a parent yourself, are estranged from a parent, or, like me, are lucky enough to still have both of them around.
It’s been a very explicit topic for me these past few weeks. I mean, consider my current summertime location. Though I live in San Francisco, the kids and I are on an extended visit…to my parents.
Boom…there’s a minefield of topics right there. Coming home again. When kids become parents. And the dreaded Becoming our parents. Gack.
And seriously. My perplexed frowny face? The lady doth protest too much. Because I am a parent, and honestly, even though my oldest was born nine years ago, it still sometimes wigs me out a bit. I worry I might never get used to the concept that I’m the one in charge. That I’m the one establishing boundaries, and setting examples, and answering questions about God and boys and moral fiber and stuff.
But for now it’s nice to be “home.” Like, at my parents’ home. The home where I can find high school paraphernalia rolling around in old dresser drawers. Where, if I wanted, I could wear jammies all day, because I don’t know the neighbors, or have a carpool to drive, or a dog to walk.
Where, for just a few weeks, I can foist all the hard calls onto someone else. Like, sure we can watch TV till late…we’re at Grandma’s, and it’s her call. Or, we don’t often buy cookies, but Grandma does, so please pass mommy the Oreos, honey.
See where I’m going with this?
So here I am in Florida, with my parents, and I find myself regressing to a different age, one where I sit elbow-to-elbow with my kids, eating Captain Crunch for breakfast (who can resist the lure of the crunchberry?), requesting special mom/grandma-made tuna sandwiches, and watching more TV than is good for any reasonable human.
I miss my husband and can’t wait to get back to my real home, but for now I’m enjoying every minute of being both a parent and a kid again.
Veronica Wolff is an award-winning, bestselling author with a soft spot for kilts and vampires. Not necessarily at the same time. Known for her Scottish time travel series, she's changing gears, launching two new series with the Penguin Group: The Clan MacAlpin Novels, featuring a family of strapping, seventeenth-century Highlanders, and The Watchers, starring a group of vampires and the teenaged girls who train to watch over them.