The Invention of the Pie Chart

I’m staying with my uncle outside NYC for a few days after the RWA conference. He used to be a printer so he’s explaining the mysterious workings of flatbed presses to me and letting me use his pretty impressive library (the heroine of my WIP is the widow of a provincial printer/newspaper publisher). Look at this, from Phillip Meggs’s A History of Graphic Design:

“[Playfair] introduced the first ‘divided circle’ diagram, called a pie chart today, in his 1805 English translation of a French book, The Statistical Account of the United States of America. Playfair included a diagram of a circle cut into wedge-shaped slices representing the area of each state and territory. Readers could see at a glance how vast the newly acquired Western territories were in comparison with states such as Rhode Island and New Hampshire. This engraving included a legend stating, ‘This newly invented method is intended to show the proportions between the divisions in a striking manner.'”

The first pie chart! Awesome.

pie chart made of wedges of different kinds of cake

In other news, my aunt is watching the Murder, She Wrote marathon. I’ve never watched much of the show before, and I’m really enjoying it! The mysteries are really well-constructed, the characters are engaging, and overall the show feels very generous-spirited. I do love a good cozy mystery.

Making someone a cake is an incredibly intimate thing

I moved this week! My new apartment is still filled with boxes but I can already tell I’m going to be very happy here.

I hired movers, which I’ve never done before. It was an interesting experience–I never thought about it before, but movers get a really unique insight into people’s lives. At one point, I was saying that I didn’t know where to put the leaf from the dining room table, and one of the movers said, “The most common place to hide a leaf is under the bed.” I had no idea! Then I mentioned that I wasn’t sure yet how we were going to lay out the furniture in our living room. The mover told me, “Well, the most common layout I see for this living room…” I was fascinated.

Then my roommate and I were watching Ace of Cakes, and Duff said, “Making a cake for someone is incredibly intimate thing. It’s like taking their joy and making it into a tangible object.” I’d never thought about it like that before. But isn’t it beautiful?

Duff with some cakes

People often relate to the world in really job-specific ways. It’s something I love to play with while writing–after all, half the fun of fiction is experiencing the world from inside someone else’s head. It can be difficult to capture because of course, I only have experience doing my own job.

It’s something that’s especially relevant to A Lily among Thorns, because my hero and heroine are both from quasi-upper-class backgrounds, and have both chosen to be tradespeople: my hero is a chemist who works for his uncle’s tailoring shop, and my heroine is an innkeeper. And they see themselves as defined by those things in opposition to a lot of the people they knew growing up. I worked hard to make that a part of their characterization.

Which is all leading into my exciting announcement that my workshop, “Making Your Hero(ine)’s Job Work for You,” has been accepted by the Emerald City Writers Conference! You should all register for the conference (when registration opens) and come! It’s going to be super fun. I had an absolute blast giving my sex scenes workshop last year and I know this will be just as awesome.

It's the most wonderful time of the year

EEEEEE it is December 24th! This means two important things:

1. My “Best Books of 2010, Most Anticipated of 2011” post is up at the Book Smugglers!

I won’t be around till later this evening to answer comments, but I am excited to discuss some of my new favorite books and TV shows with you, and also some of the freaking awesome stuff happening next year! Doctor Who Season 5 got a mention in the bonus “Best TV romances” section, which brings me to:

2. The Doctor Who Christmas special is tomorrow! EEEEEEE anything could happen! Here, have an adorkable video of the cast doing a dramatic rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”:

I'll have Gisborne excommunicated!

Hey everyone, just wanted to let you know that I’ve joined the blogging team at Favorite Thing Ever! (It’s…well, it’s NOT a review site, because we ONLY talk about things we love. Have you noticed I like talking about things I love? This is SO the site for me. Tagline: “Hope you like gushing, because we’re about to embarrass ourselves.” ♥ Anyway, it was started by a couple of my friends, one of whom wrote a sweet Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book about a pink stuffed bunny fighting the Zombie Apocalypse, and I was lucky enough to get asked to contribute!)

My first post is on the 80s BBC series “Robin of Sherwood”, which you all told me to watch way back in March! Well, I listened (generously enabled by Gwen and her Apartment of Snacks) and I have gushed! I really really love that show you guys. You should read my post, there’s a clip of the Sheriff of Nottingham saying “A ferret! That’s brilliant!” (Me and Gwen now say this to each other fairly frequently…I am still a little disappointed that the Sheriff didn’t send a literal army of ferrets to attack Robin’s camp.)

Just call me the Marlon-Brando-in-"The-Wild-Ones" of teen soap viewers

So I may have mentioned that I’ve been watching Gossip Girl. I’m halfway through Season 2, and while I’ve noticed a decline in quality in terms of plot coherence (also: understanding how to correctly use the term “slander”), I still love all the characters so I’m willing to overlook it.

There’s something else the show does really, really well that’s important to me: it doesn’t judge its characters.

Here’s what I mean by that: say Blair just did something awful, like (WARNING: mild SPOILER for season 2 coming up!) posted a fake rumor to a gossip blog trying to destroy a teacher’s career because they gave her a bad grade. Why did she do this? Here’s the show’s answer:

1. Blair has problems with lashing out.
2. Blair has a lifelong dream of going to Yale and is afraid this grade might affect her admission.
3. Blair is under a lot of pressure this week because her divorced father (whom she adores but isn’t very close to) is visiting from France with his boyfriend.

Etc., etc. The answer is NEVER, “Because Blair is a bitch.” Sure, Blair often acts like a bitch, and has more feelings of anger and resentment than many of the show’s other characters, but that’s pretty much a non-issue for the writers.

The specific meanness of posting the rumor, whether it was justified, and what, exactly, the consequences are for Blair, the teacher, and various innocent bystanders, IS an issue, but that’s very different. Blair is never on trial AS A PERSON. When a scheme of hers backfires or hurts someone, it never feels like a judgement from the writers, but simply a plausible outcome of her behavior.

I could go on for hours about why I like this in a book or movie, but I think the two most important factors are:

1. I hate it when I feel like an author is bullying a character. Okay, that maybe sounds a little silly, but it actually really affects my reading. People root for the underdog, right? Well, I also root for what I call “narrative underdogs.” If I feel like an author is stacking the deck against a character or setting them up to look bad, it bothers me.

If an author creates a character just to be a terrible person and then punishes them for it, my first thought is “Well you MADE that character the way they are!” This is especially true if the terrible person’s punishment involves public humiliation and I can practically hear the author snickering gleefully. Which I think leads pretty well into factor 2:

2. I’m contrary. I instinctively rebel if I feel like I’m being told what to think or how to react. I have an irrational hatred of feeling as if an interpretation is being shoved down my throat. For example, if a hero and heroine exchange some charming banter, and then the heroine thinks, “Oh my, HERO is the MOST delightfully witty man I’ve EVER met!”…my first instinct is to say, “I’ve met wittier.”


“What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?”

Of course no author (or person, for that matter) is unbiased, but it’s a “show vs. tell” thing. If the writer shows me character A behaving like a jerk, probably I’ll think character A is a jerk. I might or might not LIKE character A, but either way I’ll think she’s a jerk.

(A romance I read recently that did this incredibly well was Eloisa James’s A Duke of Her Own. Way to create a full cast of characters, have some of them behave very badly indeed, and yet let me draw my own conclusions about all of them!)

But if the writer tells me repeatedly that character A is a jerk, very likely I’ll start looking for excuses for A’s behavior, no matter how awful it is, or be pushed into siding with her against character B, whom the writer keeps telling me to like.

And that’s the great thing: Gossip Girl never forces me to choose sides. It provides me with every character’s perspective and lets me decide for myself whether I think Serena is being passive-aggressive, or Dan is being unfair, or Nate is being adorable (hint: Nate is ALWAYS being adorable). It gives me the space, as a viewer, to figure out how I feel about the characters and situations. And that means that, most of the time, I can love all the characters even as I acknowledge their faults, and be on everyone’s side.

Are you a contrary reader? (“No” is an acceptable answer! I’m just curious!)

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know

Today I allowed myself one of the greatest geeky pleasures: a new library card. For a $100 contribution to the Friends of the University of Washington Libraries, I got a borrower’s card! I checked out three books: Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity, Byron’s Romantic Celebrity, and Romanticism and Celebrity Culture, 1750-1850.

As you can probably guess, I’m thinking of writing a character who hero-worships Byron. This type of character was a stock joke in Regency traditionals: they always wore disheveled riding gear and a Belcher handkerchief in place of a cravat in an attempt to ape Byron’s fashion, disordered their hair, and wrote terrible poetry for the heroine. Often they were no good at day-to-day practical things like hailing a cab or remembering to bring an umbrella.

I guess I don’t really see what’s so awful about that? It’s not as if I’ve never bought clothes in an attempt to borrow someone else’s glamor or confidence. It’s not as if I’ve never written terrible poetry. And it’s CERTAINLY not as if I’ve never forgotten to bring an umbrella or missed a bus or left my groceries at the store because I was distracted by the characters in my head.

Plus I think, at the time, Byron was a bad-boy symbol of revolt against the politics and art of The Establishment. Like Marlon Brando or James Dean! (Did you know James Dean’s middle name was “Byron”??)

On a slightly related note: Gossip Girl fans, can’t you just see Chuck Bass and Nate as Byron and Shelley?

I also requested Electoral Behavior in Unreformed England: Plumpers, Splitters, and Straights. This being able to just check books out instead of requesting them through Interlibrary Loan from the Seattle Public Library and then not being able to renew them is heady stuff.

As I was walking back to my car, I passed two twenty-year-old boys talking loudly about how useless book-learning is.

BOY #1: What you learn in here doesn’t mean much out there.
BOY #2: Yeah, the stuff you do here isn’t necessarily applicable to the real world.
BOY #1: To make it in the real world, you don’t need all this stuff. You have to learn it out there.

It was like changes on a theme, and they just sounded pleased with how jaded and worldly they were. I couldn’t help laughing, since I was there to use the historical research skills I learned in college for my “real world” job of writing books!

"A ferret! Brilliant!"

1. Still deep in revision-land. I took a brief vacation yesterday for a “Robin of Sherwood” (the 80s BBC series) marathon with my friend Gwen. I loved it! Believe me, you will be hearing lots more about that once revisions are over. If you like tightly plotted drama, this show isn’t for you, but if you like humor, engaging characters, villages bursting into flame, well-dressed bickering villains, and some scenery chewing, then yes, this is a show you will probably love. I haven’t laughed so hard in weeks. Also, it gave me the subject line for this post.

2. A couple of days ago I found myself researching how long severed heads stay conscious after decapitation (yes, this was for the book). Luckily I am not the only person who has ever wanted this information. Check out the Straight Dope column. And extra luckily for me, a lot of the most colorful anecdotes are from the French Revolution so my characters can have heard about them! This is my favorite:

According to another tale, when the heads of two rivals in the National Assembly were placed in a sack following execution, one bit the other so badly the two couldn’t be separated.

I did some further research trying to determine the credibility of this versus the likelihood it was an urban legend, but all I could find was that that the anecdote is attributed to Samson, the guy in charge of the guillotine. If anyone knows more, I’d love to hear it!

3. Have any of you taken a workshop with Bob Mayer? If you have, then you may think this is as cool as I do! I think Bob’s a fabulous speaker, and luckily for me he’s a GSRWA member and lives in the Northwest and also sometimes does programming at libraries, so I’ve gotten to hear him present several times over the last year.

There’s a clip from the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line that he likes to show as a good example of how to deal with rejection. (I couldn’t find the clip anywhere online but I was able to find Bob’s blog post about it, which you can read here and which contains a transcript of the short scene.)

In it there’s a music producer/talent scout who rejects Cash’s gospel but likes “Folsom Prison Blues.” This character had previously mainly been interesting to me because he was cute, savvy, and kind of sarcastic, which are qualities I like in a man. But I was recently listening to “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” a song by the Drive-By Truckers (an alt-country band I recently discovered), and I noticed this lyric:

“Sam Phillips found Johnny Cash and he was high
High before he ever took those pills”

Yes! This song I love by my new band I love is in fact about that cute talent scout from that clip I’ve seen several times in Bob Mayer workshops! It’s an awesome world.

The song is about…well, it’s kind of complex song but what it’s mainly about for me is creative expression and why we do it, whether it’s for the money or the fame or the lifestyle or because of something else entirely. The backstory is that Sam Phillips promised to buy a Cadillac for the first guy he was producing who got a gold record, and it was Carl Perkins. Here’s a video of the Truckers performing an acoustic version of the song live:

It was the best audio quality I could find. The lyrics are here, too.

Hope you’re all having a great weekend!