Madeleine Robins

May 19, 2016

Whitehall

Whitehall CoverI ought to have mentioned this earlier, but: about a year ago I was approached (doesn’t that sound mysterious?) about becoming part of the writing team for a serialized historical story called Whitehall, focusing on Charles II, his wife Catherine of Braganza, and his mistress, Barbara Castlemaine. Not a period I know well, and I was a little reluctant to take on something I’d never done before… and then I heard about the people who’d be on the team with me: series creator Liz Duffy Adams; Delia Sherman; Mary Robinette Kowal; and Barbara Samuel (and Sarah Smith coming in as guest writer on #11). In which group, in my own mind, anyway, I  was decidedly a Junior Partner.

When a group of writers like that invites you to play, you say Yes. Thank You. Which I did. And dived into research and reading and plotting, in the most unsual sort of collaborative process I’ve ever participated in. Once I got over the first flush of “wait, you–what? but I was writing that scene” push and pull of the thing, I began to realize how generous, and inventive, and fun all these people were.

We knew the story, of course: Charles, newly returned to the throne, finds his nation impoverished and damaged by the years of religious turmoil. He has to marry money, even if that money comes in the form of a Portuguese Catholic: Catherine of Braganza. Catherine’s nation, under threat from their larger, more powerful neighbor Spain, needs England’s military strength to keep her country safe. Meanwhile everyone in England , from the peerage to the peasantry, has an opinion, good or bad, about the new Queen.

What that outline doesn’t tell you is how rich the characters are: Charles, finally on the throne, enough of a king to realize that he cannot enact vengeance on the nation that killed his father and sent him on a decade-long flight through Europe. The original laughing on the outside/sorrowing on the inside guy–restless, thoughtful, deeply intelligent, taking the stewardship of his nation very seriously. Catherine, with the weight of her nation on her shoulders, who–against all self-interest–falls in love with her new husband. And Barbara Castlemaine, who loves her king, but realizes as well that her standing at court depends on maintaining ascendancy over the new queen. And a cast of secondary characters who scheme and want and worry, with–literally–the fate of nations on the line.

Whitehall is available from Serialbox: one episode a week for 13 weeks, available as e-book or audio-book. With five different voices telling one story, each of us with our own take on the time, the place, and the people. For what it’s worth, me, I’m Team Catherine all the way. At least one of my fellow writers is team Barbara. Where do you come down on this one?

 

April 16, 2016

I Remember It as Clear as Day

Filed under: Life,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:04 AM
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blocksLast time I was here, I talked about my earliest memory. I have long considered (because I’m a writer and my brain works that way) that it has some metaphorical connection to the person I became. And because it’s my life and my metaphor, I can say that. Years from now, when my life is being taught as a cautionary tale on millennial writers (as if), an educator can tell their version of what my life was, and why my mother going out to get lemons and leaving her 2 year old at home had nothing to do with anything.

What was lovely about that post was that people started posting their earliest memories, here and elsewhere. I really enjoyed reading them. But they also got me thinking about a memory I have that is utterly false, and yet still compels me.

From three-and-a-half until 13, I went to a school in Greenwich Village: The Little Red School House. It was very small, very lefty, academically very good, and formative for me in ways both excellent and not so excellent. I was a gormless little kid who generally did better with adults than my peers.  I was also physically small and clumsy. If this sounds like a perfect recipe for attracting the less kindly among my peers, you’re right. I suspect, with the wisdom of age, that I was the kind of kid who begged to be picked on because I was so clueless and annoying. Which doesn’t justify bullying, but does explain something of why it was me being bullied.

Anyway: the memory.  Until we were in second grade our “gym” period was held on the roof, which had some playground equipment, balls, etc., but also these big wooden blocks. The blocks were made of plywood, painted a deep forest green, and as best I can estimate from half a century on, most of them were 18-24″ long by 12″ by 6″. Big enough so that a little kid could carry one of them at a time. They were used on the roof only, for building the sorts of things one builds with blocks. And though it wasn’t allowed, the structures were frequently built by the kids to be stood on. I swear, it’s an amazement to me that we all survived to adulthood.

My memory is that on a rainy day, somehow the blocks had been brought down to my classroom (the 4s, or nursery school) and some of the boys were building a big wall out of them, six blocks or so wide and five or six blocks tall. That one of my chief tormentors, a kid named Mark, climbed to the top of the wall and stood there threatening to jump on me, and that suddenly the wall fell. My last memory is of those forest green blocks coming at me. The rest is silence.

And this never happened. I checked with my mother. I checked with my nursery school teacher (the perfectly wonderful Gertrude Asher of blessed memory). Neither one remembered such a thing; each was ready to say categorically that it never happened, because an incident that resulted in one kid being knocked out cold would have been reported, to say the least. Also: those blocks were never brought downstairs, regardless of weather. Also… see incident reports and repercussions to the aggressor party, etc.

And yet it’s one of the clearest memories I have of early childhood. There seems to be nothing else in my history which I might have conflated with school life to create the memory. I made it up out of whole cloth, or it’s a dream that lodged in my psyche and wouldn’t let go. Did I feel small and at the mercy of larger kids? You bet. And I have the m/e/m/o/r/y dream to prove it.

As a writer, this becomes part of a larger conversation for me about truth, and the difficulty of sorting out the objectively true from the subjectively true from, and how a false memory can color all the true memories that surround it. And in practical terms, how can you nest believed truth, perceived truth, and (for the purpose of fiction) actual truth in a way that works for–and perhaps even surprises–the reader. I have more than once used a dream as a way of illuminating a character’s state of mind or beliefs*; talking about this now, I’m suddenly intrigued by the notion of writing a character whose behavior is shaped by a false memory. A false memory that is so seamlessly integrated into the long line of memories that shape belief and behavior as to be unquestionable.

For the purpose of the story, the character would then have to discover that the memory is false, not in terms of perspective (“No, I was sitting there too, and Grandma didn’t eat the last cookie herself. I could see her give it to the dog.”) but in terms of possibility (“Grandma was already dead by that time.”). When a foundational memory gets removed from your structure, do you just go on with the life you’ve based on that memory? Do you actively reject that life? Does it continue to represent itself as a memory?

As the ever appropriate Mr. Shakespeare put it, “When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies.”

* It is not either cheating. Or a cliche. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to tell the story. So there.

April 7, 2016

My Mother Went Out for Lemons

Filed under: Around the House,Life — madeleinerobins @ 7:45 AM

maryjanesWhat is your earliest memory?

Mine is from when I was somewhere between two and three years old. I’ve heard that it’s unusual to remember anything that early. So I’m unusual: when my mother was still alive I asked her if the following thing ever happened and (subject to the Rashomon effect of her recollection being different from mine) I can say that it did.

As a small child my family lived in the top two floors (or more properly, the top floor and an attic) of a brownstone on 11th Street in New York City. Four years after this story we moved to another brownstone, also on 11th Street, where we lived in the bottom two floors.  But that’s neither here nor there in terms of this memory.

My brother would have been about six months old–I know this because it was spring (and both my brother and I were December babies, but it wasn’t swelteringly hot the way that summer in New York City so often is). I would have been about two and a half. And my mother was making dinner and realized that she needed a lemon. Rather than waking the baby and packing us both into the stroller and going down to the corner to fetch a lemon, Mom made a different call: she sat me down on the couch, told me not to move, and went out to buy a lemon. (more…)

March 26, 2016

Be Like Joe

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 1:27 AM

Joe and Julie

Joe and Julie

So there I was on Saturday at FogCon, hanging out with people (including BVC’s Kit Kerr, Nancy Jane Moore, and Laura Anne Gilman) and I got a call from my older daughter. A mother knows her child, and even at the age of almost-26, there’s a note Julie gets in her voice when Something Is Wrong. “Hi, Mom.” It’s hard to explain the tone: lower pitched, slower than usual, maybe a smidge of rue.

“Whassup?” I ask. I’m in the hallway, people are talking loudly, and, oh, yeah, the hallway is in the basement of the FogCon hotel, which means the mostly-excellent cell reception gets a touch dicey.

“I just thought I should tell you that Joe’s car was stolen today.”

Okay: Joe is her boyfriend, and Rover, the car, is their only means of transportation other than shanks-mare or public transportation, in an town where a car is pretty necessary. Julie is job-hunting. It’s not the best possible time for this to happen. Really, there’s NO good time for this to happen. And then there’s the: what does this mean for me, or require of me, or, you know: what.

“So what do you need from me?”

There’s a long pause, then she sighs and says “I just thought you should know, because, you know: parents and all.” So I express my condolences, express the hope that Rover will come home again, wagging his tail etc. We exchange love and I hang up and go back to what I’m doing. And later in the day I check in on Facebook, where all news is exchanged, and Joe mentions that his car was stolen. And their friends all condole, and give good advice, and Joe says thanks.

And then, about an hour later he posts: “I am warm and loved, and I have a roof over my head. In light of everything that has happened today, I still stand fast in my affirmation: Best Day Ever™”

Pretty much on the bad days and the good, when he’s angry or sad or sublimely happy, Joe will manage to point out that the day is the Best Day Ever™. As Julie pointed out to me this afternoon, “… it’s mathematically sound! I mean, literally each day is a culmination of ALL the good things that have ever happened in your life, but with the added potential of NEW good things!”

Rover was found in a nearby city today, somewhat the worse for wear. There will be the expense of getting her out of impound, and making repairs, but it’s still Joe’s beloved car, and it still doesn’t mean buying a new (old) car. All things considered, it could be worse.

What I love is that even on Saturday, Joe knew that. Even Saturday was the Best Day Ever™. Joe is officially one of my heroes, and I intend to internalize Best Day Ever™ if I can possibly do so. As Julie says, “Order now to receive an extra refill cartridge of PERSPECTIVE!”

March 19, 2016

Gallantry

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Semiotics — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM

GallantrySo I got into one of those conversations with an old, slightly older than I am, friend last week. Who has a hard time with the idea that unsolicited compliments from strangers on the street is a bad thing. “It’s nice. It’s… ” he searched for the word. “It’s gallantry.”

I think that in his head this phrase called up visions of Camelot, and courtly love and deep bows over the hands of delicately scented ladies wearing satin and lace (I’m pretty certain those are the images… I’ve known him for a while). And those are all charming images. And about as far away from my experience of a guy following me down the street cooing “chickie-chickie-chickie,” escalating to “why aren’t you talking to me, you stuck-up bitch?” as I can imagine.

On my mother’s fortieth birthday several men at a construction site saw her passing and (according to her) burst into a chorus of “God Bless America.” It made her feel a lot better about moving in to the woman-of-a-certain-age demographic. And I’ve always felt kind of good about the sort of exchange where the underlying message is “you’re a human female and I’m a human male, and that’s kind of nifty, isn’t it?” which often shapes into nothing more complex than “Y’all have a nice day, now.” I suspect that’s what my friend is thinking of when he imagines the “gallantry” of addressing a woman unknown to you on the street. 

The reality, as most women know, is a little different. Gallantry should not make its object fearful. Gallantry should not make its object feel dirty. Or like a piece of appealing wallpaper. Gallantry should be aimed at a target that welcomes it. Most street calls (barring “God bless America,” of course) are not.

Where’s the line between a pleasant exchange and a threatening one? Well, maybe at that point where what Robert Heinlein used to call “the gallant response” comes into it.* If someone says to me, “that color looks great on you” that might be nice. If the underlying message is that I am somehow responsible for the speaker’s state of arousal, that is not.

Look, I am rapidly aging out of the cat-call demographic. But I have daughters, and they are beautiful. And thank God, when someone attempts a “gallantry” they don’t like, they don’t put up with it. But afterward they are still, often, left with that shaky feeling of violation.

And there’s nothing gallant about that.

*for those who’d never heard the term: an erection.

February 17, 2016

That Which We Call a Rose

Filed under: Cooking — madeleinerobins @ 11:25 PM

I was paging through the Sunday Sweets on Cakewrecks, looking at many cakes which are technically gorgeous but rarely raise my creative pulse. I can’t draw, so hand painting a cake to look like a Wedgwood canister is right out. I get a little twee-d out at too much pink (especially at this time of year). There are creations so enormous and ambitious that I think the initial idea (cake!) has been forgotten. And so many of these cakes employ fondant, which usually tastes like sugary cardboard (home-made fondant is better… but making fondant is usually a step farther than I feel like going on a normal day).

And then I saw this:

rose

It’s a cake. And I immediately wanted to make it. 

I mean, look at this:

cut rose

And the miracle of it is… with sufficient practice, I think I could. Here’s the video tutorial, from Cake Style.

The beauty part? There’s no fondant, just buttercream frosting and colored molding chocolate. I’ve never tried making, let alone working with, molding chocolate. And I am suddenly overwhelmed with a desire (not yet a burning desire, but a fairly distracting one) to make molding chocolate, make this four-layered cake, frost it with buttercream (not pink), and make this rose happen.

It’s the process. I have said before that I get captivated by process; I don’t necessarily want to do something more than once, once I get it down. Of course I felt that way about sugar-molding too, when I saw some of that on display. Thank God I lacked a culinary blowtorch, or they’d likely be unsticking me from the kitchen ceiling even now.

If I succumb to the allure of this cake I will document it, and return with notes. I’m kind of hoping I don’t, because once a cake is made it must be eaten, and I’m trying to not eat cake for a little while. But if anyone out there needs a rose cake and is willing to take this one off my hands…

January 21, 2016

Change is the Only Constant

Filed under: Publishing — madeleinerobins @ 10:42 PM
Tags: , , ,

In times of change it’s always useful to remember that everything is a time oChristmasCandlef change. Since the advent of print-on-demand, and then of e-books, there have been approximately 47 trillion articles written on The End of the Book As We Know It, the End of Publishing As We Know It, and so on. It’s easy to believe that the old ways were handed down from Mt. Olympus: a trade book shall require 9 months from the moment it is handed to Production, neither 8 months nor 10, but 9, and 9 shall be the number, forever and ever, hallelujahYea, verily, there is but one way to distribute books. Etc. But that has never been so; it’s a rule of thumb, not an amendment to the Constitution.

We forget that, in Jane Austen’s time, the author shared the expenses of publication. We forget that in many cases books were purchased by subscription: when the new canto of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was announced, you went to the bookseller and reserved your copy. The publisher didn’t create a big advance printing, he (it was pretty much always a he in those days) printed and bound enough for the subscribers, plus a small overage. Which meant that if something really caught on the publisher–and the printers and bookbinders who worked for him–were suddenly in overdrive. Even a hundred years later, when bookshops were more prevalent, this was the case.

I have been doing research on apprenticeships for a project I’m working on, which led me to a book from 1747,  The London Tradesman, a survey of many of the occupations available to the workingman. In the course of discussing bookbinding the book notes that journeymen bookbinders “seldom earn more than ten shillings a week when employed, and are out of business for half the year.”

Wait. Bookbinding is a seasonal trade? Or was? Are the poems not ripe until August? Is there a spawning season for travel journals? Say what? (more…)

January 6, 2016

The Long and Short of It

Filed under: Money,Movies,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:53 AM

tradingplacesOh, forever ago when I was young and foolish and had just moved back to New York City from Boston, I took a job at an investment bank. I had lived in dorms, or with room-mates, since I left home for college, and I really wanted to have an apartment of my own. And I wanted it within spitting distance of my childhood home in Greenwich Village, which was, on the face of it, ambitious to the point of insanity. So I took a job that paid very well, on the theory that I would work 9-5 and go home and write, right? Except that it was a job that ate my brain on a regular basis: there were days when I came home with my teeth clenched so hard that it took me hours to unclench. And getting any writing done was hard when all I wanted to do was slap someone upside the head. My boss was a truly smart, lovely fellow, and didn’t take himself, or his industry, very seriously. But guys who reported to him were not so relaxed or so enlightened, and they treated the support staff really poorly (which made me the one who had to take them aside and administer lessons in manners and common sense).

But I learned a certain amount about the world of finance and investment banking while I was there. The photo above is from Trading Places, a 1980s comedy about commodities training. And by the time it came out, I knew just enough about that world to understand what they were talking about, in a general sort of way, enough so that I was the first person in the theatre who cracked up at the business jokes.

Last week (after we’d gotten our fill of The Force Awakens) we went to see The Big Short, which I recommend unreservedly. The Big Short is about the housing finance bubble and how it burst in 2008. It’s well written and splendidly acted (Christian Bale and Steve Carrell are particularly good). It finds all sorts of clever ways to explain the esoterica of mortgage finance and how it all went wrong. And bing-bing-bing-bing-bing, it brought it all back.

See, at the investment bank I worked for the head of the brand new mortgage finance department. The–at the time–new idea of putting together large groups of mortgages into a bond made sense because 1) the securities would be made up of excellent, low-risk mortgages, and 2) the traditional default rate on mortgages was historically low. So these were safe, low-risk bonds–and (as my boss gleefully said) “they do good! They make it possible for people to buy houses! Everyone wins.”

Fast forward. I quit the bank so I could get some writing done. I met a guy and got married. I wrote some more books. I had a couple of kids. We moved out to San Francisco and spent a year looking for a new home. Even five years before the housing bubble burst, when we were going from Open House to Open House, there was something disturbing to me about the frenzied tenor of the housing market. There were flyers displayed in the entryways of million-dollar homes that talked about Zero-down Adjustable Rate Mortgages, and I saw people walking out with stars in their eyes and paperwork in their fists. My husband and I, being financially cowardly, eventually made an offer on a house that was a little short of our dream house, but that we could afford (with a solid down-payment and a traditional 30 year mortgage) and here we are to this day.

The disquiet I felt when I saw my fellow citizens gravitating toward San Francisco manses with massive price tags was based, in part, in my experience working in mortgage finance all those years ago. As The Big Short explains, the bonds that resulted from those sales were very often like Sunday’s fish stew at a high-end restaurant: made from the leftovers of Friday’s fresh-caught fish, and probably safe to eat. Probably. And the cynic in me believes that any time something looks too good to be true (like those Zero-down ARMs) it probably is. In The Big Short, the various people who figure out what is going on wind up betting against the market, shorting mortgage finance bonds. They all, eventually, make a bundle.

But as one character points out when his chums are celebrating the fortune their smart move has guaranteed them, each one of the bonds that failed meant families tossed out of their homes, people unemployed, schools underfunded, cities rotting at their cores. Nothing to celebrate.

I watched The Big Short with a sense of inside baseball: I actually understood some of this stuff before they explained it. But they explain it brilliantly.

At the end of Trading Places, the bad commodities traders are foiled, the good guys get rich, and everyone laughs and is happy. At the end of The Big Short some people wind up wealthy, but no one wins because the system is broken.

December 10, 2015

A Rule of One

Filed under: Marketing,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:56 PM
The Nativity of the Virgin by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

The Nativity of the Virgin by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) Italian, out of copyright

Hand washing. I’ll come back to it.

I have this theory. Or maybe it’s just an idea. It’s about the advantages you give your characters. And how many advantages you can give them without distracting from the story or making them unbearable.

Advantages? Beauty is one, and very common; but there’s also intelligence, skill, charm, grace, wit, fortune, discernment, athletic ability, good birth, kind parents, a person who encourages them to follow their dreams, etc. All of these things are wonderful. But most people don’t get to have them all. And if you write a character who does get them all, it’s sort of cheating.

This is particularly important in writing historical fiction, or fantasy set in an historically inspired context (it works for SF too, but to keep things simple I’m limiting my scope). It is easy, and tempting, to create a character who is ahead of her/his time: “You fools, feudalism is doomed! Let us storm the castle and demand the birth of democracy!” A reader may want to sympathize with a character who partakes of our sensibilities more than he does of those of his time, but some writers leave out any clue as to where that vision came from. Did the character emerge from the womb with her/his political aspirations fully formed? This stuff has to come from somewhere (Mary Todd Lincoln, who would probably have run for office if she hadn’t been a well-raised Southern belle in the 1850s, and stood behind her husband all the way to the White House and the Civil War, learned to value politics–and competition–by vying for her father’s attention with her 13 siblings).

Once you’ve opened the door to a character having a different attitude from the people around her/him the temptation is to give the character skills or gifts they couldn’t possibly have–or couldn’t have for the reasons we have them. Example: in Sold for Endless Rue I have two characters–an herbalist-healer and her apprentice–who are known for their skill, particularly in midwifery. And I wanted them to have a better than average track-record with live births and deliveries, so I had them wash their hands. Simple, right? Since Ignaz Semmelweis started talking up asepsis and hand-washing in the 1840s, incidence of maternal death from childbed fever has plummeted. Only my story takes place in 1205 or so, when germ theory was not dreamt of. So why would these women wash their hands each time they change tasks, before they touch a patient and after? The older woman, the teacher, was taught by her teacher that one should never bring the dust of one task to another lest they mingle. It’s a superstition that just happens to work out in the favor of their patients. And a modern reader can read that and think, aha! Asepsis! without Crescia and Laura having to have a conversation about washing away these tiny invisible carriers of disease…

So that’s my rule of one. You can give your character one advantage that no one else in the story has–if you can make a convincing case for it. But don’t try to give her/him two or three unless you want them climbing to the top of the barricades, waving a flag and singing the Marseilleise.

November 26, 2015

Thankful and Grateful and Mindful

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:36 AM

ar-lobster-02Tis the season of giving thanks. Or perhaps of giving gratitude. I’ve been thinking about this some–not least because Thursday is the American Thanksgiving, which really should not just be about food, but somehow always is (OK, maybe a smidge about the Macy’s parade, and in some households about football, or not killing Uncle Pete who always arrives drunk and has unfortunate opinions), but because I listened to a piece on NPR about a Japanese discipline of mindful thankfulness, which sounds like something I want more of in my life.

(more…)

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