The Best Conference Ever

Last week, I got to check an exciting writer’s goal from my list – I attended the Historical Novel Society conference. I’d been dreaming of going for quite a long time, and it was amazing to finally make it to the event. I realize this sounds incredibly nerdy, but whatever, I love history and I love novels, so it’s the perfect combination as far as I’m concerned.

#HNS2017 (check the link for various fun tweets from the conference) was held in Portland, Oregon. I arrived the afternoon before the conference started, which gave me time to explore the city a bit. I went to a history museum (of course), saw some beautiful roses, and met some very nice people in a cool little wine bar.

The museum had many great exhibits, but I was particularly drawn to these hats. Definitely lingering research excitement from writing The Wardrobe Mistress

Special sessions and workshops made up the first day of the conference, and I took a copious amount of notes and got ink all over my fingers because apparently I can hardly write by hand anymore. My first workshop was about pacing in a story, and since I’m at the 80K word count on my latest novel, it was perfect timing for me to work all of the smart and creative tips I learned into my edits. As part of the workshop, we read a paragraph from book with gripping pacing, and then read the same paragraph, only rewritten in a way that made it fall flat. Conference chair and author/actress extraordinaire Leslie Carroll read the pieces aloud, and she’s so utterly compelling that even the poor example paragraph sounded good.

I also went to a workshop on historical firearms, hosted by Gordon Frye who also has a podcast called Gordon’s Gun Closet. It was fascinating to be able to see – and touch – these historical firearms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out muskets are quite heavy, especially with bayonets. The French style was considered to be a little more technologically advanced at the time (and seemed to take a bit more practice to handle than the British one), which I think would have appealed to a few of my characters in The Wardrobe Mistress, who can be a tad smug about the superiority of their country and its revolutionary ideals.

I’m trying to avoid the temptation to over-describe every wonderful little nugget of wisdom, each enlightening conversation I had, every time I turned into a complete fangirl because I spotted one of my literary heroes. There would just be so much if I recapped it all! A lot of highlights stand out in my mind, though. Inspiring keynote speaker Geraldine Brooks talking about the sparks that flare a story to life are the most exciting, but that ‘bum glue’ (gluing yourself to the chair and just writing) is the only way to truly get a book done. I remember glancing around, and seeing other authors nodding just as hard as I was. David Ebershoff, also a keynote speaker, mesmerized the crowd with the moving story of his journey to tell the story of Lili Elbe, which became his acclaimed novel The Danish Girl. Kate Forsyth raised goosebumps on my arms with her enthralling performance of Tam Lin. I’ve never before seen such a large group of people become so silent; I’m convinced she’s as magical as the faerie queen of the story (although much less nefarious, of course). There were so many fun, unique moments, too; sitting in on an impromptu tarot reading (using Kris Waldherr’s beautiful goddess deck), playing Cards Against Humanity near a group of mask-wearing quadrille dancers, staying up far too late because going to bed seems absurd when you’ve made new friends that you might not see again until the next conference, two years away.

So now I’m back home, mostly caught up on sleep, feeling refreshed to get back to work on my writing. I’ve only got about 15K more words before my work-in-project is ready for edits (she says blithely, as if edits won’t be substantial), and there’s a new kernel of an idea unfurling in my mind, something that sparked to life after an evening of socializing and trying absinthe for the first time. Is that cliché? Oh well.

 

In Search of Airplane Reading

I’m headed to the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland this weekend, and I’m extremely excited. It’s going to be an extravaganza of history and writing nerdism, and I’ve also been promised plenty of shenanigans, based off previous years. This is my first time going, but I’ll post a recap of some sort when I get back.

However, I need your help! I had no problem selecting which shoes to pack, but now I’m facing a larger problem. How do I narrow down my book choices? I’m downloading some e-books for airplane reading, and I am asking for suggestions! What’s your favourite read to make you forget that you’re sitting in a cramped little seat thousands of feet above the ground?

If you’ve got a recommendation, please comment! Alternatively, tweet it to me – @MeghanMasterson.

 

Yoga for Desk People

A couple of years ago, I started doing yoga. I didn’t have any real intention to start, but the opportunity came up and my friend was also going to the class so I figured I might as well go too. Between my office day-job and my evening and weekend writing time, I spend an awful lot of time sitting at a desk, so any chance to stretch and move needs to be taken.

I loved the class, and I’m still doing yoga a couple times a week now, two years on. I’ve even managed to reach a point where I can have a decent session on my own at home. (My previous attempts ended with my mind going blank on what poses to do after about five minutes). Over time, I’ve become stronger and more flexible – not that I’ll be doing any crazy pretzel moves, but I can reach poses that I couldn’t at first. I’m better at those long, slow breaths than I used to be.

But it’s the mental benefits of yoga that surprised me the most. I never thought I would be a meditative person. I’m always thinking of plot holes and making up dialogue in my head and wondering what to cook etc. I certainly haven’t perfected the ability to let my mind enter a blank, quiet state, but improvement comes with time there, too. I find that regular yoga practise helps me to stay calm and focused. It can also re-energize and help me to shift gears between the very different worlds of my office job and slipping my mind back into the historical setting of the novel I’m currently writing. As an added bonus, I’ve also noticed it’s easier not to stress out over little things, like traffic.

Since I clearly recommend yoga, I thought I’d share my three favourite gentle stretches here, which are particularly useful for if you’ve been sitting at a desk all day. I’m not a yoga instructor though, so I’ve kept it to fairly simple stretches. I don’t want anyone to get hurt! I included additional links for each for added explanation.

Photo via Visualhunt

Arms and Shoulders

Stretch your arms as if you’re a cactus. Elbows bent at ninety degrees, fingertips pointing toward the sky. Look upward, stretching your neck and taking a slight back bend if that feels good (only go as far as it feels like it’s helping, there’s no need to force yourself deeper). It’ll open up your chest by pressing your shoulder blades toward each other. It’s especially helpful if you’ve been hunched over a mouse or keyboard all day. Take a deep breath and feel how much more open your chest and lungs are. This link has some further description.

Next, bring your arms forward as if you’re hugging someone, wrapping your arms around an invisible person (keep hands about face height or a little lower), right hand stacked on top of left, and round your neck and shoulders forward as well. It’s a gentle stretch between your shoulder blades.

Repeat steps 1 and 2, switching with hand is on top during the ‘hug’ part. You could easily do this one at your desk, if you’re not shy about any co-workers possibly seeing you. (The next two are better to do at home).

Low back and legs

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.  Bending at the hips, move into a forward fold, trying to press your stomach to your thighs. It’s okay to bend your knees – in fact, it’s easier to start that way to deepen the fold. It’s a good stretch for your low back. Do whatever feels comfortable with your arms; rest fingertips on the ground, gently grasp the back of your ankles, or clasp your elbows and rock gently from side to side. Hold for a minute or two, as long as it feels comfortable. If desired, you can gradually straighten your legs to extend the stretch into your hamstrings as well.

This link has a photo and some further description, while this one shares some more information on the benefits.

Legs

Lie down on the floor (use a blanket or a towel if the floor is too hard and you don’t have a yoga mat) and scoot as close to the wall as possible. You’re going to be lifting your legs up, resting them against the wall. It’s easier to start sideways, so your legs are parallel to the wall, and then inch closer as you lift the legs into the air, letting them rest against the wall. Feet can be touching, side by side, or you can stretch them further apart if that feels better. Keep your feet flexed so your toes sort of point toward your shins. Rest here for a minute or two, however long feels good. This one is also very nice to do before bed. It’s very calming.

More description and benefits at this link.

Bonus – eyes

If, like me, you spend way too many hours per day staring at a computer screen, it’s good to stretch your eyes once in a while too. Gentleness is the key here though. Let your eyes rest, unfocused, for a minute before starting the stretch.

Sit straight and raise your gaze upward, sweeping to the right, down, and back up, so that you do a full circumference of looking all around without moving your head. Try to move your eyes smoothly. Do this a few times, then switch directions, so you go to the left first for the second set.

Next, stretch your arm out in front of you, thumb up. Stare at your thumb while you slowly bring your hand all the way to touch your nose, keeping your gaze focused. Do this about ten times. Switch hands partway through if your arm gets tired.

Lastly, make sure you rest your eyes for a minute, letting them gently drift closed or stay unfocused before going straight back to another screen.

Check out this link for more details as well.

Happy Stretching! And make sure to do some deep breaths as well. Try to count to three for a big inhale, and then slowly exhale for a count of five. Doing that for even a minute really helps ease stress and reset focus.

Photo via Visual Hunt

 

And stay tuned for a new Bad Decisions in History next week!

 

A Quick Update

I must confess, I don’t have a blog post prepared for this week, but since I haven’t missed a post in a long time (it might even be over a year), I didn’t want to skip it completely.

Since I don’t really have anything planned, here’s a picture of my dog, Logan. He’s a good boy.

 

As for real updates, I’ve been writing like crazy, working on my WIP. After some research and plot-timing hiccups, I have now made it to 60K words, so I can happily say that the 40K Slump is over. Whew!

I’m also now into the three month countdown to publication day for The Wardrobe Mistress on August 15th, so I’m working on some special Marie Antoinette/French Revolution themed stuff to be posted soon!

Oh, and I’m on Instagram now –  @meghan_m_author. Come find me there!

 

My Favourite Churchill Quotes

Sometimes I lament the fact that I don’t have enough time to do all the reading I wish I could. Well, last week I came down with a terrible cold and, while that part sucked, on the bright side, it did give me plenty of time to read. I was barely capable of doing anything else. I seriously read like half a dozen books in four days. I even read the one that’s been sitting on my desk for a couple of months, waiting until I had enough time to get to it: The Wicked Wit of Winston Churchill by Dominique Enright.

Okay, I flipped through it. One doesn’t exactly read a book of quotations cover to cover in one sitting.

I don’t know why, but I imagined reading a book of quotations as a very grown up and fancy thing to do. Like, if you have time to read quotations, it means you’re mature and successful enough to have time for such leisure reading, and that you might flip through the book while sitting in an opulent art-filled study, maybe wearing a silk caftan or a smoking jacket or something. I was definitely not this classy, since I was surrounded by tea and Kleenex boxes and wearing my comfiest sweatpants. But, I did enjoy many of the quotes, for Churchill’s wit was wicked indeed. I curated some of my favourites here.

I bet he was a certain kind of perfectionist…

I always avoid prophesying beforehand, because it is much better policy to prophesy after the event has already taken place.

Same. It’s more fun being right.

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often

I think ‘No Comment’ is a splendid expression. I am using it again and again.”

But he could be self-deprecating…

On being advised his fly buttons were undone: “dead birds don’t fall out of their nests”

To a woman who declared that her baby looked just like him: “Madam, all babies look like me”

Accurate.

I always manage somehow to adjust to any new level of luxury without a whimper or complaint. It is one of my more winning traits

I think I have this trait too!

I’m going to make a long speech because I’ve not had the time to prepare a short one

Sometimes his wit could be rather cruel…

On Charles de Gaulle: “He looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in her bath”

That’s really specific.

This exchange is hilariously harsh:

Nancy Astor: If I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee

Churchill: Nancy, if I were your husband, I would drink it

But he could be pretty nice as well…

My most brilliant achievement was to persuade my wife to marry me

And wise, too…

A single glass of champagne imparts a feeling of exhilaration. The nerves are braced, the imagination is agreeably stirred, the wits become more nimble. A bottle produces the contrary effect.

Truer words were never spoken.

A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject

There are a terrible lot of lies going around the world, and the worst of it is half of them are true

He had some good advice…

Never stand so high upon a principle that you cannot lower it to suit the circumstances

Circumstances are indeed complex things.

You will never get to the end of the journey if you stop to shy a stone at every dog that barks

Ask a silly question, get a silly answer…

On being asked if Niagara Falls looked the same as when he first saw them: “Well, the principle seems the same. The water still keeps falling over.”

Plus, he named the henhouse he built for his chickens “Chickenham Palace.” I approve.

I think I have a newfound love of reading quotations. Who else has some excellent words to share? What are you favourite quotations? Let’s be quotes snobs!

We’ll be better than this though

 

Troublesome Turns of Phrase

I try not to be obnoxious about spelling or grammatical errors. Language is a minefield of troublesome turns of phrase and some are bound to blow up. Just the other day, I went to a place for lunch that sold ‘ceaser salad’, but I didn’t say anything. There’s just no way to correct it without seeming petty and annoying, (although blogging about it has probably cancelled out all of that restraint).  Anyway, typos happen, especially in this age of mobile device usage. I’m horrendous for making typos on my phone and not noticing / not bothering to correct them. Especially with Twitter, because you have to delete your post and start again due to the lack of edit function.

However, lately I’ve been consistently seeing a few phrases used incorrectly and I can’t hold back anymore. I’m putting on my obnoxious hat and we’re going to have a short grammar lesson, damnit.

Deep seated vs deep seeded

Example: Marie Antoinette’s obsession with her image probably stems from a deep-seeded/deep-seated need for her mother’s approval.

Which do you think is correct?

It’s deep-seated. “But Meghan,” you might be saying, “that can’t be right. Deep-seeded sounds like the characteristic is part of me, and that’s what I meant. It has to be deep-seeded.” I know, trust me, I do. But would all these web sources lie? Besides, if you plant seeds too deeply, they won’t grow. Seeds need to be in a shallow enough depth of soil for sunlight to reach them, or else they die. And you probably don’t want part of your personality to die (well, maybe, I guess it depends what characteristic we’re talking about here). Probably ‘deep-rooted’ would work better for that kind of implication. Deep-seated also has the connotation that the characteristic is stable and solid, like a strong, supportive chair. (I’m realizing that this phrase was probably invented before rolling chairs).

Photo credit: RLHyde via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA

Another thing coming vs another think coming

Example: If Hamlet actually believes I’m going to listen to him rant about Ophelia again, he’s got another thing/another think coming.

Which do you think is correct?

Okay, this one hurt me, because I was wrong too. It’s ‘another think’! Using ‘think’ instead of thing makes it clear that the person you’re talking about needs to change their way of thinking, or come up with a new notion of the subject at hand.  The original phrasing of ‘another think’ predates ‘another thing’ by about a hundred years, although the latter has since become more common. ‘Another thing’ really does convey the same thing, but with less precision. In another few decades, I suspect it will be the norm.

Who knows, maybe this will happen with seep-seeded too.

Free reign vs free rein

Example: The way that Caligula has given Incitatus free rein/free reign is absolutely ludicrous and brings shame to the dignity of Rome.

Which do you think is correct?

It’s ‘free rein’, and so I must apologize for my terrible pun, but I don’t really want to because I have a soft spot for awful puns. ‘Free reign’ is commonly used to describe someone who is independently doing their own thing, and it almost makes sense, because reigning implies a monarch who answers to no one. However, the phrase originates from  the equestrian term, where to give the horse ‘free rein’ means relinquishing control and letting the horse choose the speed. In my experience, a lot of the time this will mean snack time for the horse. It makes sense – would you rather run, or eat?

Couldn’t care less vs could care less

Example: Having secured Henry VIII’s affections, Anne Boleyn couldn’t care less/could care less about Cardinal Wolsey’s futile disapproval of her.

It’s ‘couldn’t care less.’ It’s a scathing way to tell someone that you do not have an iota of interest or investment in whatever the subject is. ‘Could care less’ shows that there is some level of caring, even if low, and therefore implies that you might be persuaded to greater levels of interest. It’s not nearly as harsh. And if you don’t believe me, I couldn’t care less, because this one is pretty much self-explanatory. Actually, I think the mix-up happens mostly because of a slurring of the words when spoken, not so much because the difference isn’t understood.

So there we have it, some troublesome turns of phrase investigated and corrected. Now just don’t get me started on the spelling mistake of definitely vs defiantly.

This goat knows the true meaning of defiance

Of course, don’t forget that most of these phrases are kind of cliché anyway.

 

The Charm of Foxes, with Exhibits

Remember that time I was randomly obsessed with wolverines? This time it’s foxes, because my sister’s dog recently chased a fox (which was much faster than him) and we couldn’t decide what kind it was. Naturally, I took to Google. While I still haven’t answered that burning fox-species question, I now know some more facts about foxes, the main one being that they are very cute.

Exhibit A: 

happy-fox-wallpaper

 

Exhibit B: 

fox-window

Note: There will be plenty more exhibits in this post.

The scientific name for foxes is Vulpes Vulpes. I assume this is because the scientist who decided the Latin name was so taken aback by the fox’s adorable face that he stammered repetitively and would later not admit it. Vulpes is also the name of the fox in Jean Craighead George’s delightful children’s/middle grade book, Vulpes the Red Fox. I happily read many of her books as a wee bookworm and was particularly fond of Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain. I still have not achieved my life goal of having a falcon named Frightful, though.

vulpes

Getting back on track with foxes, there are 12 members of the genus vulpes, including red fox, arctic fox, fennec fox, and gray fox. Fennec foxes win in two categories:  Most Petite, and Biggest Ears. Their ears can be up to 15cm (6 inches) in length, and help to keep them cool in their native desert climate. Typically, the only weigh about 2 pounds (1 kg).

Almost catlike, actually

This fennec fox has a bit of a feline quality

Foxes are found everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, and parts of Australia. Their coats and body type typically reflect their habitat. For example, during winter, arctic foxes are white, to blend in with the snow of the frozen north. Their fur changes to brown in the summer, to better match the tundra. They are well suited to the cold climate, with rounded bodies to reduce the amount of heat escape.

Some arctic foxes can defy gravity (at least for a moment)

Some arctic foxes can defy gravity (at least for a moment)

Unlike most other canines, foxes do not bark much, and prefer non-verbal communication. You might say they are the subtlest of all canines.  Foxes communicate with body language and yelps, some of which are blood-curdling and sound like torturous screams. The sounds are the only thing about foxes which are not charming.

For proof, please consult this YouTube video where a fox is randomly trying to play with a dog (adorable) and then makes some weird noises when the dog won’t play (creepy). Side note, my dog got quite excited when I played this video. I have a feeling he would have played with the fox.

Foxes are nocturnal, which is handy for them to make those sounds while you’re sleeping. They are believed to be among the most adaptable animals in the world, which ties into the saying ‘clever as a fox.’ They can quickly deal with changes to surroundings and food sources. ‘Urban foxes’ have adapted to human encroachment on their territory by learning to live within cities. It’s estimated that there are about 33,000 urban foxes in Britain alone.

Some foxes blend into pavement, so be careful when driving!

Some foxes blend into pavement, so be careful when driving!

Baby foxes are called kits or cubs. Similar to puppies, they are born deaf and blind. They are not able to thermo-regulate from birth, and need their mother to keep them warm. Fox kits stay inside the den with their mother for about a month, until their eyes have opened and they have gained some mobility. They are inquisitive and playful, learning the hunting skills they will need to survive. Fox kits grow up fast – they begin to venture out on their own around 7 months of age.

fox-kit

This little fox kit is building neck strength and coordination by adorably carrying a leaf.

fox-kit-and-mom

(I’m sorry, I couldn’t choose just one). This fox kit is about to learn what that expression on Mom’s face means.

arctic-fox-kits

Fox kits learn to defy gravity from a very young age. These arctic fox kits have brownish coats to blend in with the brownish summer landscape of the tundra.

Foxes are often depicted in mythology and popular culture, usually being portrayed as a cunning trickster, who may be quite charming and likable. One of the best examples of this is the fox version of Robin Hood, in Disney’s 1973 film, a fox so powerful that he inspired a generation of surprising adolescent crushes. Exhibit A; B; C; D – see, I’m not making this up. In fact, Disney has included a lot of foxes in their movies, although they seem to have varying levels of intelligence and Robin Hood is clearly the pinnacle of foxhood.

fox-heart