Category Archives: Southern Discomfort

Two views of the 1970s

As I was a teenager during the 1970s, I have a fondness for the decade irrelevant of its actual merits. After finishing Southern Discomfort back in January, I reread one book on the decade and read a new one. They present such different perspectives they make a useful reminder that decades are not easily summed up. Black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight, right-wing, left-wing, they all shape our perspective. Richard Linklatter’s acclaimed Dazed and Confused was set in 1976 when I was in high school, but its Texas students might as well have been Martians for all I connected with them.

The reread was Thomas Hine’s THE GREAT FUNK: Falling Apart and Coming Together (On a Shag Rug) In the Seventies. Hine’s view of the decade is that the repeated blows of stagflation (stagnant wages + inflation), Vietnam, Watergate and the oil crisis left America uncertain about where it was going. But for a lot of people that was an opening: if the old ways weren’t working, why not try something new instead? New styles (“The seventies weren’t about bad taste, they were about rejecting taste as yet another form of authority.”), women’s liberation, sex manuals, mysticism and interest in the paranormal (one of the decade elements I played with in Southern Discomfort), consciousness raising, fashion revolution (when the big names in fashion declared the miniskirt was dead, nobody listened), Our Bodies, Ourselves (“The book’s message is that the system has failed us, so we must come together to fix things, and our feelings while doing this are as important as the hard facts.”) and being open to people whose new direction wasn’t the same as yours. Even allowing for nostalgic bias, Hine captures a lot of what I like about the decade.

By contrast, Ron Perlstein’s  THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (one of a trilogy looking at conservatives from Goldwater to Reagan) points out that faced with a chance to try new ways of doing things, a big chunk of America insisted they weren’t going to, and the hippies couldn’t make them. They wanted to believe America could and should be like the 1950s and hated being reminded otherwise, and they didn’t want to deal with the implications of Vietnam, Watergate or the Congressional investigations that showed the CIA and FBI had spied on American citizens in defiance of the law.

Enter Ronald Reagan. As Perlstein sees it, Reagan’s genius was that he divined what voters wanted to hear and gave it to them (while Perlstein was writing pre-2016, it’s hard not to see a parallel with Trump). Yes, America was the greatest country on Earth. Yes, we could be proud of what we’d done in Vietnam. No, Nixon was not a bad man (in an eerie echo of 2019, Reagan even compared impeachment to “lynching.”) No, the FBI and CIA were great American institutions, it’s the people questioning them who are bad. Never mind that his stories were often lies and also made no sense (if unelected goverment bureaucrats are bad, why are the unelected bureaucrats running the FBI and the CIA so wonderful?), they reassured people they were right not to doubt, right to think there was no need to change and try new things.

Reagan got a considerable boost from a new political funding mechanism called PACs, and from more sophisticated operations for polling and staying in touch with voters (it seems Sen. Jesse Helms was cutting edge with this back in the day). As a result, when Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination in 1976, it came right down to the wire at the convention before Ford won, only to lose to Jimmy Carter (whom Perlstein sees as offering a similar feel-good snake oil to Reagan, though with a Southern flavor).  At 800 pages, the book is a densely detailed read — the blow-by-blow of Republican infighting was more detailed than I really needed to know, though as I’ve said before, that’s a matter of taste, not a flaw in the book. One detail that might be a flaw is that while Perlstein portrays right-wing opposition to Roe v. Wade, more recent articles show there was a lot of acceptance and support for legalized abortion on the right; I dont know how the two reconcile.

What is a flaw in both books is the effort to shape pop culture to their themes. Hine argues that Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist both reflect the baby boom’s ambivalence about settling down and having kids. Perlstein sees The Exorcist as putting the modern woman in her place (a single mom needs the help of traditional Catholic ritual to save her child from Satan!) and sees cynicism (The Parallax View0 and nostalgia (American Graffiti) in the movies as a product of their time; new therapeutic approaches such as EST, Scientology and Primal Scream Therapy likewise show a desperate search for a way to deal with what’s gone wrong in the country

I don’t buy it (even though I’ve also described Parallax View as a product of its time). There were child-centered horrors before the 1970s and cynicism wasn’t new either; the entire noir subgenre of the 1940s and 1950s shows a corrupt world that can’t be completely purified. Scientology started in the 1950s and while EST and primal screams might be newer and look flakier than psychoanalysis, it’s not like going into analysis was a more sensible, realistic approach to self-healing (Robert Bloch’s fiction frequently equated it to the lowest of superstition). Not everything fits neatly into a worldview or an interpretation.

Reading both books make me very glad I didn’t try to make Southern Discomfort any sort of statement about the era because that would be way beyond my abilities. Decades are big and complicated … but in a way, that’s liberating. All we have to do is carve off one small slice and make that real, not the entire thing; Dazed and Confused may not have worked for me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true to its era. Hopefully my book (allowing for the elves and the magic) is too.

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It’s always a relief when the hurricane doesn’t come where I am

I don’t mean any disrespect to the people in the Bahamas and along the U.S. coast who got pummeled by Dorian. But having lived in Florida most of my life, I always have a selfish sense of Thank God! when an ominous hurricane (it could have been a problem for Durham had it tracked further west) misses us.

That aside, this has been a weird week. Last weekend, TYG cared for the dogs for most of Sunday so I decided I’d use the time to put in a full day of work without them. Much as I love them, it really is much easier to think without them squished up against me. That way, I figured, I could make up for my lost down time by taking Wednesday off and just snuggling with them.

Instead, I spent the morning reading (and yes, petting the dogs a lot), then decided to do some Leaf work for the afternoon. That way Thursday when the dogs were at Suite Paws, I could do more creative stuff in blissful solitutde. Half working on Undead Sexist Cliches — which I think I’m going to retitle Sexist Myths and Why They’re Bullshit or the like — and half on some short fiction.

Ooops. Instead I wound up working the whole day on Sexist Myths (I guess the title change is a done deal, even if I change it again later). I had lots of information from Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex I’ve been meaning to record in my notes for the book, so I did that Thursday morning. Then I had to incorporate some of the details into Chapters One and Two, which I’d already written (I finished Chapter Two earlier this week) and then footnote it and insert the footnotes into the list, then change all the numbers on the subsequent footnotes. So that sucked up the rest of the day, plus some of this morning.

I also got my usual quota of Leaf articles done, plus I rewrote Bleeding Blue. It’s looking much better since I added more women to the cast, but it’s a long way from finished. I made some changes to Death Is Like a Box of Chocolates, adding to my protagonist’s personal stakes. Didn’t get that finished though.

Oh, I also submitted Southern Discomfort to DAW Books, so I guess I’m officially done with agent-hunting. I got two short stories back but I haven’t found a new market yet.

Plus I sold some of my books on Amazon (I don’t know which, I find getting specifics frustratingly opaque)

I did find an artist for the cover of Questionable Minds; my friend and fellow author Samantha Collins is available and she’s good, so I’m hiring her.

A productive week. If I can keep up the pace on Sexist Myths I’ll be satisfied. I may switch from rewriting Chapter Three next week — it’s a bit of a mess — to Four, Five or Sex, which are in better shape.

For an illustration, here are some grumpy cat clones I saw at Suite Paws when we dropped the dogs off.

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Filed under Nonfiction, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book, Writing

Worlds in collision: why I don’t write utopias

In a recent thread on Twitter (sorry, I don’t have a link), NK Jemisin took issue with people pushing for fewer dystopias, more utopias: people of color, women and gays (for example) all have good reasons not to feel optimism. Where utopian fiction is sunny escapism, dystopian fiction grapples with the darkness.

I see her point about the appeal of dystopia, but I think breaking utopia and dystopia into some kind of escapism/serious fiction dichotomy is wrong. Utopian fiction is traditionally educational, not escapist, starting with Sir Thomas More’s original Utopia. The goal isn’t to entertain with a fantasy but to show how an ideal society would work, or how we get from there to here.

Conversely, a lot of dystopia is escapist. Hunger Games. Cyberpunk. It can be the horror of the protagonist being ground under by a corrupt system, or the excitement of being the rebel fighting against tyranny, but the goal is, as with most fiction, entertainment. It may satisfy because it speaks to our fears about the future or our experience of life, but I don’t think it’s inherently more serious than utopian fiction.

And that got me thinking, again, about how when I write stories that change the setting’s social order — Southern Discomfort, Atoms for Peace, Questionable Minds — I change some things, improve some things, but I don’t improve everything. In Atoms for Peace, women are much better off, 1950s sexual standards are looser, but people of color haven’t gained anything. In Southern Discomfort, the McAlisters prevented the worst violence of Jim Crow from affecting the black residents of Pharisee County, but women and gays aren’t any better off. And by 1973, younger blacks see the McAlisters as more patronizing and outdated than protective.

I could have shot for utopian, or closer to it, but dramatically it doesn’t interest me. A system that’s changed from our own, or in upheaval (in Questionable Minds, Victorian England is still attempting to fit psi-powers into the established caste system) has more storytelling potential for me than a utopia where everything works.

That’s personal taste, not a writing rule: I could imagine the alt.1950s of Atoms for Peace reluctantly embracing civil rights and still tell the same stories. But a setting that works imperfectly appeals to me more. That’s not meant as an excuse — if someone thinks Southern Discomfort should have had a larger gay presence, they’re certainly entitled to criticize my storytelling decisions — just a statement of fact.

Of course, I don’t write dystopias either. But that’s just because I don’t write the kind of SF that imagines dystopia, so no great lessons to learn.

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Making choices and Southern Discomfort

“In a world where all fundamental laws can be rewritten, it is also illuminating which of them aren’t.” says Mimi Mondal in the Hindustani Times. Her point being that worldbuilding in specfic always has political overtones. A world where being gay is unremarkable and acceptable is a political statement, but so is a book that doesn’t have any gay characters.

Which seems like a good launch point for discussing how I’ve handled such questions in both Atoms for Peace and Southern Discomfort. The first is an alternative history in which SF-movies of the 1950s are everyday reality; in the second, one small town has been changed by the presence of two elves as the unofficial leaders since its founding. As a result I changed some of the real world in each book, but not all of it.

In Atoms for Peace women have made huge gains compared to our reality. Much like WW II, the government needs them to make up for the manpower shortage caused by men entering the military or the National Guard. A lot of people still give lip service to the 1950s standards of our world, and plenty of people feel like that’s the way the world should be, but in practice women get to see a lot more adventure than they would have in our timeline (no disrespect intended to those real women who pushed the envelope).

Black Americans, however, are doing worse. Blaming integration and civil rights activism on ET agitators works just as well as blaming it on Communists did. In our 1950s, the federal government’s response to civil rights was influenced by the need not to look better than the USSR (Jim Crow did not serve that end); in Atoms for Peace that pressure is removed. So it’s not looking good.

Gays? Well nothing’s changed for them; they’re still in the closet and still barred from serving in the federal government (though some people are willing to turn a blind eye if the gay’s got valuable skills).

That’s all reasonable, I think, but Mondal has a point it reflects  my writing choices, not some abstract analysis. I write a lot of women into my stories; I don’t use PoC as often. So it’s not surprising I focused on changes that improve women’s lives. I probably could have made bigger and more positive changes to civil rights too (I really don’t see gay rights budging much), but I don’t like the idea of making everything better — it feels way too utopian. So I made my call.

In Southern Discomfort, by contrast, the big change was race. The black residents of Pharisee County have been better off than most of the south, but they’ve still had to deal with slavery and Jim Crow. The role of women and gays in Pharisee isn’t much different from the real world.

As with Atoms for Peace I think that’s a plausible set of changes, but I could have rationalized different ones. With Olwen McAlister around, women could have easily been given more respect. The McAlisters aren’t bothered by anyone’s sexual orientation, so it could have been a more gay-friendly community than typical for 1973. But again, I prefer better-but-flawed over utopian in my alt.Earth settings.

Good decision? Bad decision? Too limited in rewriting the fundamental laws? Wish I knew.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.

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Once again, life thwarts my plans

Which is to say, this was a busy week in the non-writing areas of my life.

Wednesday we had the electrician come out to check some of our outside lights. That turned out to be more time-draining for me than I’d expected, as it was a constant “go inside and turn on the lights … turn off the lights … turn them on again …” It paid off (he identified the problem), but it took more time than I’d expected. And left me with very little time to concentrate on anything before the dogs went on afternoon walkies (I settled for research reading, which doesn’t demand creative thought). After that we had the guy in to repair the washing machine; I’m happy to say that after dealing with two other companies, Wright Appliance finally seems to be competent.

This morning I had unexpected extra dog watching, and at noon I had one of my appointments for the Alexander Technique, the body training I’ve been doing since last year.

It’s not just the time each side activity consumes, but the time it takes to get refocused on writing again. And I’m still too slow in my Leafs. Plushie’s neediness in the evening makes it very hard to make up the time then.

I did get a bunch of Leaf articles done, and even going slow, the pay is good. I got some more work done on both Let No Man Put Asunder and Impossible Takes a Little Longer, though those were the big casualties of this week’s lost time. But Impossible definitely works better in first person, as I said last week. However both of them reached a point where the relatively slight plot changes I’ve made so far have suddenly forced big changes in the next scenes. That stumped me quite a bit.

I submitted Fiddler’s Black to a new market, which means all my shorts are out. It’s been a while since that happened. And Southern Discomfort went out to five more agents.

I rewrote Only the Lonely Can Slay a couple of times, but there’s still something missing. It might be that Heather, my protagonist, needs more at stake, or maybe something else? I feel frustratingly close to what I want but I can’t quite jump across the last mental boundary to get there. I may send it out as is to a beta reader or two to get some insight.

So that was my week. On the plus side, I’m not battling a giant monster on a Silver Age Jack Kirby cover!

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Today I got that nibbled to death by ducks feeling

But first, a look at Plush Dog nuzzling with Tito, new sibling to Lily, the dog up the street we sometimes dog-sit for.

The feeling of having one’s day eaten up by multiple little distractions is in some ways worse than having one big project. With one major distraction, like a repair, I can block time and when it’s over, it’s over. Today, though, I had multiple distractions: washing-machine repair guy (third one we’ve dealt with, first one I feel good about), arranging an electrician appointment for next week, upgrading our security system, doing some research on the cost of a replacement washing machine (probably won’t be necessary), providing extra dog care … plus Plushie completely freaking out over the repair dude being In The House (we fenced off the area so the pups couldn’t get in his way).  And talking on the phone is not the best thing for my strained voice. However it’s definitely growing stronger every day so I must be nursing it sufficiently.

Despite that, it was a productive week. Though novel writing is still going slower than I want, and Leaf articles are taking way too long (not their fault, it’s me). So what did I get done?

I rewrote the first chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer in first person. It’s closer to urban fantasy as a genre than anything else, and first person is the default setting there. Plus I found I could work in a little more needed information with first-person narration.

I finished the first chapter of Let No Man Put Asunder and read it for writer’s group. The feedback was, as always helpful. As my voice frayed a little by the end of the reading, I skipped out on the usual hanging out after. A shame.

I sent a Southern Discomfort query off to five agents, queried two magazines about articles and one newspaper about an op-ed column.

I submitted A Famine Where Abundance Lies, and I may have found a publisher to submit Questionable Minds too.

I rewrote the story Neverwas, which is now titled The Impossible Years. It’s definitely closer to being readable, but I still lack the ending I need. I rewrote Only the Lonely Can Slay, and it’s coming along well. Here I have the ending and the general structure but I need more obstacles for my protagonist, Heather, to overcome. I was working on another draft today, when all the ducks began nibbling.

And I did my usual array of Leaf articles to help put bread on the table. I gave up on doing any of those today too, but I got them in, and some requested rewrites, every other day this week.

It’s helpful to write all that down and see that despite my feeling right now, I had a good, productive week.

Below, Plushie lets the greyhounds at Piney Woods Park know that he’s the boss of this cell block.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Nonfiction, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, The Dog Ate My Homework, Time management and goals

Missed it by that much! Quite a big ‘that much’

Like most people I start off the year full of enthusiasm for my various year goals. In January that gives me the drive to complete 70 to 80 percent of them.

This January? Not so much. More like 54 percent. Part of that was having a really big goal list. Part of it was that one miserable week I experienced. And some of it was that several goals I’d written down turned out to be non-starters. Focusing on a single project one day a week (a novel, a short story, pitches) didn’t work because I’m back doing Leaf articles. It’s easier to handle them if I do a couple a day rather than clump them, but that means I can’t do a full day of anything else. So that one’s off the table.

Other ideas just need more practice. I want a more relaxing lunch break rather than rushing to eat so I can walk the pups. That takes a conscious effort. But I’ll get there.

The big disappointments for the month were a)not getting beyond a chapter or two in Impossible Takes a Little Longer; b)not getting anything done on the Undead Sexist Cliches book. Well and c)not selling anything I’d submitted to anyone, but that’s not within my control. I am very pleased that I submitted five stories (technically; some of them were the same story sent out twice), two articles and one column idea.

And I did finish Southern Discomfort and submitted that to eight agents (two refusals so far). I’ll keep sending it to agents until I’ve exhausted the list. Then I’ll switch to publishers. Then I’ll self-publish. Take that, uncaring publishing universe!

Tday I started work on rewriting another novel, Let No Man Put Asunder. This went slow too, and I’m starting to see why: I’m just thinking and editing as I go and it’s slowing me down. I need to let go and let the words flow.

I was pleased that this week I made real progress on two short stories, Only the Lonely Can Slay and Neverwas (that title will definitely be reworked). On Lonely I can actually see what the story arc should be; Neverwas is almost there. Once I get that, it’s mostly a matter or refining, fixing and improving. Being able to see progress makes me more optimistic about my ambitious goals for the year.

I did a fair amount of hanging out at Illogicon (yes, that was a goal) but I didn’t get out much the rest of the month due to my desire to rest my voice. I didn’t get as much bicycling in as I planned, either as I didn’t want to expose my throat to the cold.

I did get lots of Leaf articles done. And that helps pay the bills so yay!

Oh, and I found where my baby sister Keri was buried years ago, which was one of my goals for this year. I thought it would take a lot of work but it actually went smoothly: I checked the US Consulate records for deaths and births of American citizens abroad. That led me to ancestry.com, which, after I signed up, gave me a digital copy of Keri’s death certificate. I’m impressed with myself (I thought I’d blogged about this before but I can’t find it).

Despite what didn’t get done, I feel pretty pleased.

Below, Trixie nervously contemplates going to doggy day care. She loves it there, but she dreads the car trips.

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Filed under Impossible Takes a Little Longer, Personal, Short Stories, Southern Discomfort, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Undead Sexist Cliches: The Book, Writing

My plan was perfect! How could I have failed?

Ever since Wisp settled onto our porch, Trixie has been increasingly fascinated. Some evenings when Wisp is out there, Trixie will sit by the door sniffing for her.  When the blinds are open, Trixie watches, as you can see.

The past week or so, though, she and Plushie have gotten more frantic. Trixie claws at the door and sticks her nose under the blinds to get a better look. Plushie barks loudly from the couch. Almost as if they imagine Wisp is—

Tuesday morning it just reached fever point. It was freezing cold so they didn’t get much of a morning walk. They then channeled all that energy into barking their heads off. It was … distracting. And that was on top of being very sleep-deprived (even by my standards). Plus the bug TYG brought back from her travels was now in me, leading to hacking and sore throat and worries my voice was fading.

The long and short of it is that while I had a good Monday, Tuesday fell apart. I got some Leaf writing done, that was it. Otherwise it was sleep, or hacking, or dogs, or doing some budget-crunching that needed doing (not during work, but I did it anyway). As I thought we might have some emergency expenses, the paying stuff was a high priority.

Wednesday I was worried my throat might be worse than it appeared, so I hit the urgent care in the morning. I was fine, but by the time I got back I was again, too distracted to focus. More Leaf!

Thursday I took the car in to get a recurring issue looked at. I took my computer but I didn’t get much done before starting on the paperwork for a loaner. Because like Scotland Yard in an old mystery, they are baffled (the VW dealer’s service people are really good so I take that as a sign the problem is challenging, not that they’ve screwed up). I came home in a loaner and mostly collapsed into extra naps.

Today I just threw in the towel and did more Leaf. As it turns out, we may not need the extra money, but still, it’s nice to have.

Not getting anything else done? Not so nice. I know sometimes it can’t be helped, but this was an exceptionally poor week.  I even skipped writers’ group because I was so tired and I hate skipping group.

Oh well, next week will almost certainly be better.

I did send Southern Discomfort out to three more agents. No One Can Slay Her came back with some positive comments (it’s always nice to be told “remember us for your next story” but not as nice as being accepted) and went out again. I started several other projects, but got nowhere.

But the weekend’s here. I can collapse, watch movies, finish the budgeting, etc., etc. And start over next week with renewed vigor and make up for what lost time I can.

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I’m getting those colored lights going!

Title is a paraphrase of Jean Kerr’s play, Mary, Mary. It’s a sort-of way of saying that while I’m zonked, I had a very productive week (if you want to figure out the context, I recommending reading the script or catching the stage play — the movie version is disappointingly dull).

While insomnia frequently allows me to get some extra work in, and at an hour of the day I’m not dealing with puppies, this week it was as much a hindrance as a help. TYG came back from her trip last weekend with the equivalent of con crud so she’s been coughing in her sleep pretty much every night (the cough’s lingering although all the other symptoms are gone). I sleep way too lightly not to wake up when she coughs, and then I can’t get back to sleep because she’s still coughing. And once I’m up, I can’t seem to get back to sleep at all.

I have the freedom to take naps throughout the day, whenever I want, but I can’t nap long enough to make up for the sleep I missed. I suppose I should have slept somewhere else, but I’m not sure it would have helped. TYG’s coughs are loud!

Despite all that I had a productive week. I resumed work on articles for Leaf so I have some money coming in, which is nice. Although due to being so tired, they kept taking much longer than I’d budgeted for them. That was frustrating. Another week I might have tried putting in extra hours to compensate, but I was too wiped.

I finished No One Can Slay Her (finally!) and submitted it, as well as sending off Rabbits Indignateonem, a flash fiction I finished last week. I also submitted queries for one article, one op-ed and sent Southern Discomfort to a few agents. I haven’t quite decided how I’m going to work submissions: at what point do I give up on agents (assuming I don’t land one) and submit to publishers directly? But I’ll figure it out.

I’m really pleased about this. Submitting stuff usually stops cold when I’m working on Leaf articles, and if I don’t submit, I don’t sell. So this is a big improvement.

I didn’t get much done on Impossible Takes a Little Longer. The rewriting is still going much slower than I anticipated, and it wound up being the main victim of the added time spent on Leaf articles. However the replotting for Let No Man Put Asunder went freakishly well. It actually left me wondering if I was doing something wrong, but on reflection, it’s just a very different book from Impossible or Southern Discomfort. Those both have rather tangled, non-linear plots; Discomfort has a large cast with several POV characters. Asunder has two first person narrators and a fairly simple set-up: freak event happens, two people caught in it become targets for a mysterious villain and they end up running across the multiverse to escape.

So other than lack of sleep, I think I’m grading this week as an A.

Below a couple of photos I took during an early morning drive recently.

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Hello, I must be going

I was supposed to finish up Southern Discomfort by now. But a surge of added dog care shanghaid me. I will have it finished later today, but I have no time for a longer post.

Here are photos of the dogs as a reminder they’re adorable even when they’re inconvenient.

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