Why Cat Sews (Spiritwalker Monday 30)

(Note for the spoiler-wary: I have done my best to eschew spoilers, so if you haven’t read the books, there are vague references to plot herein, but I have tried to make this post basically spoiler-free except in the mildest way. If you have read the books, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.)


In chapter 1 of Cold Magic, our heroine Cat Barahal sneaks downstairs at dawn to return a book she’s not been given permission to remove from her uncle’s library. It’s clear she is well educated and from a family with a high degree of education for girls as well as boys.

While in the parlor, Cat notes that

(a)ll eight mending baskets were set neatly in a row on the narrow side table, for the women of the house–Aunt Tilly, me, Beatrice, her little sisters, our governess, Cook, and Callie–would sit in the parlor in the evening and sew while Uncle or Evved read aloud from a book and Pompey trimmed the candle wicks.

This sentence is meant mostly to describe the poverty of the household. I don’t go into detail about the arrangements, but the reader may guess that the family does not have enough money to heat and light more than one room in the evening.

Another way to show their straitened circumstances is to show that they sew almost all of their own clothing because they can’t afford to have their clothes made by others (the book is set before the era of inexpensive ready-to-wear clothing that can be bought off the rack in clothing stores). Mending is also a crucial part of economy, as well as refurbishing older clothes, re-purposing worn garments, and re-fitting them for a different person.

The mention of sewing, and how the family mostly makes their own clothes, also tells us something about the world, a time in which sewing, knitting, weaving, and other fabric crafts are not a luxury or a hobby but a necessity. People who could not afford bespoke clothing (made to measure by a tailor or dressmaker) had either to sew their own, buy used clothing at markets, or hope to obtain cast-off or stolen items by other means.

Sewing is mentioned in a second context as well:

Our governness, Shiffa, had been imported all the way from the Barahal motherhouse in Gadir to teach us girls deportment, fencing, dancing, sewing, and how to memorize large blocks of text so we could write them down or repeat them later.

Cat is portrayed as a sensible, practical girl who has learned a number of skills, some of which are specifically tailored to the role all children of the extended Hassi Barahal clan are expected to take up in service of the clan’s business, which is that of mercenaries, spies, and couriers. Fencing and memorizing text are skills clearly useful for spies and couriers. Fighting and spying are also skills that adventure novels highlight.

In book two, Cold Fire, Cat is thrown out into the wide world alone and far afield from the place she grew up. Basically, she finds herself with the clothes on her back and her sword as her only possessions. It would have been easy for me at this point to focus on Cat’s sword-craft.

Being confident with a sword is a useful competency for a young woman unexpectedly out on her own in an insecure and often dangerous world. Her ability to use the sword could become the most important and most visible of her skills as she continues her adventures.

But I did not want to imply that the skills most important to her ability to adapt to her new circumstances were solely or chiefly the skills that have long been culturally identified as “masculine,” such as fencing (fighting). I wanted to depict skills identified (in American society but by no means in all societies) as “feminine” as equally important to her survival.

Why? Because as a society we often tend to value the “masculine” over the “feminine.” “Masculine” is public and strong, “feminine” is private and (often) sexual, and frequently “feminine” concerns are defined as trivial and unimportant. Such definitions are cultural constructs, as is the relative value assigned to various skills and experiences.

For instance, is reading a “masculine” skill? In places and times when the literacy rate of men far outpaced that of women, or when boys were far more likely to be given an education than girls, reading was considered a masculine pursuit. It’s easy to forget that today, when one of the common assumptions in the USA today (again, this will be different in different places) is that girls somehow naturally tend to be better at reading than boys. This idea is pervasive now but in other times and places would have been considered radical or ridiculous.

What is Cat’s most important “possession?” What does she see it as? When Cat washes up in Expedition, she acts to secure the good will of the woman who has shown her hospitality by describing the skills she thinks would interest her host.

“Can I help in some way? I’m a good worker. I know how to sew, cook, read, and write. I must tell you, I have nothing, no coin, no possessions, nothing but my labor to offer you.”

Competency and willingness to work matter when it comes time for a character to adapt to new situations. Competent characters are more likely to adapt successfully regardless of whether their skills are culturally identified as masculine or feminine, of course, but as a society we tend to depict stereotypically “masculine” skills as more valuable or just tend to depict those skills at all, as if they are the only ones “people” will be willing to or interested in reading about.

In fact, a wide range of skills are necessary for societies to hold together, and in a fully realized world it is important to acknowledge more than a limited few.

In Cold Fire, Cat’s skill at sewing gives her a way to make a place for herself in her new circumstances. It gives her a bit of status and respect, and as well creates an interesting contrast to her old life because in the city of Expedition, sewing (as well as tailoring for both men and women) is a predominantly male profession. Additionally, she mends while conversing with other women (because hand-work like sewing is a job that can be done while listening and talking), and the ties she builds with other people are crucial to her success in being accepted in a new place.

Sewing helps her to survive.

As a character, Cat sews because in the cultural landscape and time she grew up, she would have learned how to sew. She sews well because sewing well is a challenge she relishes. Because she likes fashionable clothes that flatter her figure, sewing is the only way she has to fit herself in such clothing.

As a writer, I emphasize Cat’s sewing because it is true to the character and the time andĀ  because it works well within the plot.

I emphasize her sewing because it allows me to give life to the world through details of daily life that intersect with the character and the plot rather than simply using discrete details pinned on like photos or backdrops. Sewing is a detail that helps to illuminate Cat: She is a very physical character, very active, and of course very talkative, but her facility at sewing also reveals that she is painstaking, likes to do things well, and that despite her talkative nature she is also a good listener.

Finally, I emphasize her sewing because I want to make a statement about the importance of all the different kinds of work that underpin human society, especially those that, in my experience, are too often brushed aside in the science and fantasy fiction that I love to both read and write.

Meme: A story I haven’t written

I’m not usually one for memes, but I’ll make an exception for this one. I saw it on Jo Walton’s Live Journal.


Tell me about a story I haven’t written, and I’ll give you one sentence from that story.



ETA: The meme is any kind of crazy idea, not a specific story (this is meant as for fun). Although a few people know some history of things that actually have not yet been written. šŸ™‚

Two Quick Questions re: (Spiritwalker Monday 31.1)

A quick additional post today to ask you all a question. Two questions, actually.


1. I’m finishing up my read-through of the copy-edited manuscript (the copy editor did a very good job overall). I’ll be sending it back to Orbit in a week and therefore will be making any final changes to the manuscript in the new few days.

In COLD FIRE I included an Author’s Note in the front matter of the book that briefly touches on the basic world-setting of the Spiritwalker Trilogy, lists the days of the week and the cross-quarter days used by Cat in order to clear up any calendrical confusion, and talks a little bit about the creole used in Expedition.

For COLD STEEL I’m cutting the discussion of the creole (although I will be writing a post about it that I will also post in the Extras portion of this site discussing the Antilles creoleĀ  of my alternate Earth).

Technically, because of the way the layout works, I have a little bit of space remaining in the Author’s Note (because of what I have cut). I don’t have to add anything, but I can add another paragraph or two if need be.

So I wanted to know if you had any specific (world-setting and thus non-spoiler type) question you wish was answered in the Author’s Note that will be found at the front of the book, a short paragraph or two that can be read before starting the novel.



2. I have a number of weeks to fill in for the forthcoming Spiritwalker Mondays. A few posts are complete or almost complete and I have as well a list of posts/excerpts I would like to write. Plus a short story or two.

But let me ask you: Is there a particular question about the Spiritwalker trilogy you would like to ask me? If so, do so here, and I will answer it as one of the Monday posts.

On that same vein, as a reader of these Monday posts, are you most interested in posts that directly relate to the Spiritwalker books or are you also interested in more general posts about writing and worldbuilding that may only tangentially reference the Spiritwalker books, such as the one I posted today?

I appreciate your input.

Perception and Filtering (Spiritwalker Monday 31)

I started this line of thought yesterday on Twitter while walking the dog in the park.

We are constantly making decisions about what is important. Decisions about what is important are also being made on a subconscious level simply about perception & what we intake from the environment around us, which we are perceiving and absorbing and filtering every moment of our lives on some level. In a similar way our unexamined cultural assumptions can cause us to do a lot of filtering we aren’t necessarily aware of.

We can’t absorb everything in our environment, so we block. But as writers and readers if we aren’t alert, we do the same without knowing it.

I think this question of perception and filtering is tricky. Maybe we walk a tight rope between being overwhelmed and being blinkered.

When my spouse and I got back to the parking lot with the dog, I headed for the side of the lot where we have parked the last few times we’ve been there. This time we had parked on the other side of the lot, and my spouse had to remind me that we were parked in a different place than usual.

I reflected how, in writing and even in reading, I tend to head for the familiar side of the story. Often if I don’t stop to think about it I just replicate patterns that are the most common in our culture and media, the things that I am told over and over again are the most real and authentic as currently defined and delineated by the society in which I live or, more properly, by the constant deluge of messages cascading down upon me through media, art, received knowledge, local patterns of human interaction, environment, and the very items easily available to me.

There are some aspects of me reverting to defaults that I think are okay and even in some ways potentially necessary to mental health. Everything can’t be brand-new. Everything can’t be a climb uphill in a blizzard of new information and re-situating myself in my environment.

If we aren’t grounded in some familiar aspects, then we’re just lost.

I remember reading many years ago a science fiction novel by Cecilia Holland which I really didn’t understandĀ  at all because the author had done such a good job of making the aliens truly alien to my then-reading brain. I simply could not connect with the story. (I have no idea how I would react to the story now.)

But at the same time, I have to be careful. I have myself responded to stories or novels in which I find a character or culture to “feel” unbelievable only because it doesn’t match the stereotype that I may have based on my own narrow cultural assumptions about things as various as gender, history, language, identity, and money (and so on).

As a writer I must push back against and remain alert to places where I slide into the unexamined default. Last week’s post on Andevai’s character development is an example of how I started writing a book with the idea in my mind of a fairly stereotypical alpha male character who I later rethought and revised to turn into someone who I hope is more complex and not quite as stereotypical. (although readers’ mileage may vary)

What are your thoughts on this?

Can you think of an example in your own writing where you started with one idea and then realized that you were your own self maybe perpetuating an assumption or stereotype that you didn’t actually want to perpetuate?

Can you think of an example in something you’ve read whereĀ  your expectations weren’t met, or where what would have been a standard solution was undermined or overturned in a pleasing or unexpected way?


Andevai’s Character Development (Spiritwalker Monday 32)

This is a post about the writing process. It contains spoilers for Cold Magic and Cold Fire. In it, I discuss choices I made and ways in which I changed my mind throughout the drafting process. If you don’t want spoilers (and you’ve not read the books) or if you prefer to interact with only the final product and not see into a writer’s head as she discusses the process or if you’re not interested in reading about the writing process, READ NO FARTHER.

If you’ve read the books (or don’t care about spoilers), and if you find process interesting, read on. iow, this is a post for those who like the commentary on DVDs. Me, I never listen to that commentary. I like to see the final product in its pristine state. However, I’m happy to offer the commentary for those who are interested.

In the original conception of Cold Magic, a mage comes to the house with a legal claim to marry the girl. This story has always had the “forced marriage” trope as part of the plot. A “forced marriage” is any story in which two people have to get married because of outside forces. One might have to marry to secure an inheritance while the partner needs to marry because because she or he is destitute. An accidental encounter might impel them to marry because of societal strictures or for convenience’s sake. A fraud marriage might turn into a real marriage. Or they might both be required to accept a marriage arranged by others for reasons of political or economic or family alliance. And so on.

Cat was always going to have to marry a strange man who walked into her house with an unshakeable claim to her.

And the man was always of higher social status than Cat and her household.
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I Need Your Vote on Cold Steel (Spiritwalker Monday 33)

In honor of USA’s election day, a vote.

I am in the process of going through the copy edited manuscript for COLD STEEL. This is part of the production process that takes a book from manuscript to printed (or formatted e-book) finished copy.

After I write and revise a novel, I send the revised manuscript to my editor. She (or he) reads through it and requests editorial changes. We discuss any questions I have, and based on his/her comments and our discussion, I revise again. Typically, s/he will read it through one more time, and I’ll make a second round of changes, although usually this round deals less with major revision and more with details and those last bits of scenes that need burnishing.

This finished, final version enters production. One of the first things that happens is that the manuscript is sent to a copy editor. The copy editor’s job is to read carefully for grammatical and punctuation errors, for typos, for consistency in naming and details (does the character have brown eyes on page 34 and hazel eyes on page 213?), and for adherence to house style (Oxford comma, yes or no?). As well, a good copy editor will catch more subtle inconsistencies as well as confusing or illogical passages and may ask for clarification of descriptions or scenes that don’t quite make sense or aren’t communicated clearly.

The copy edit is also the last place the writer can, if necessary, made changes straight into the manuscript without having to worry about changing the line or page length. Once the typesetting and layout of a printed book is complete, it is expensive to change the layout if there are significant changes. Changes made at the proofreading stage are, therefore, frowned upon. That is why it is so important to make use of the copy editing stage to do any final cleaning up and polishing.

I have just completed my first pass through the copy edited manuscript.

Some writers have horror stories about egregiously bad copy editors who did such a bad job on the manuscript that the poor writer had to spend days “stetting” (stet==to let stand [the original]), and that certainly does happen. In my case, I have a very good copy editor, and the book you read will be better for her/his work.

But that’s not my question. My question is for you, the readers.

A brief aside: What follows may constitute an extremely mild spoiler, so if you hate and loathe all spoilerish things, don’t read on. However, if you don’t mind, no worries.

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