About Gender

Before, any attempt at femininity felt like a miserable impersonation of the woman I couldn’t actually be. As I am, there’s no more pretending. The clothes I wear aren’t a disguise, but just the things I wear when I feel like it.

First off: I’m nonbinary.

I’ve identified as nonbinary for years, and it’s never exactly been a secret.

Shown: the pinned tweet on my Twitter page for a long while now

What is Nonbinary?

For those unfamiliar, nonbinary can be a little bit confusing, because it’s the equivalent of checking the box that says “other” instead of “mr” or “ms”. It means I don’t fit neatly into the female-ness I was born into, or the male-ness that I assumed was my only alternative. And it’s confusing because every nonbinary person is going to have their (or indeed his or her or xir, etc) own experience with and relationship to gender. It’s as broad a category as “non-English speaker” and “non-bird”– there’s a whole lot that that can include. So with everything that follows, please understand it’s my experience, not one that speaks for all trans or nonbinary people.

For me, that means I generally use “she/her” pronouns to save time and energy; “they/them” are fine, too; “he/him” is amusing sometimes, but there’s no dysphoria or insult attached to it.

When I present, it’s generally in a fairly “neutral” way– t-shirt, jeans, no makeup, bra sometimes, shoes from the men’s section. These days that’s considered generally normal for women’s fashion; decades ago, I’d be a weirdo trying to dress like a man. Turns out clothes aren’t gendered. More on that later.

What I was before

In the past, I’d tried wearing makeup, but I always felt like a clown. When I wore skirts, I felt like an impostor– one who wasn’t fooling anybody. When other women would talk about their experiences, I was at a loss. My experience was nothing like theirs. Constantly I felt like I was Doing It Wrong. Like every step I took, every word I said, every breath and thought was an error. The harder I tried, the more Wrong I felt.

And I did my troubleshooting– maybe I was just really bad at makeup? But when it was put on me by professionals, it still felt wrong.

Maybe feminine clothes all felt wrong on me because I didn’t have the “right” body type? I bought dresses made specifically for me, and it felt the same– like a weird costume meant for somebody else. Even attempts to “girl up” in small ways wound up feeling false.

Some have argued that the real culprit was a misogynistic society: that to be a woman is to be uncomfortable, to feel ugly, to be an impostor. If I disliked feminine things, they said, it was because of internalized misogyny, or because of impractical standards set for women. And come on, everybody hates seeing themselves in photos.

So I wrestled with body positivity. I found every single aspect of myself and looked at it, really looked at it, on other women. I studied the way the parts added up to a whole– how every aspect of the person in the mirror was reflected so beautifully on the people around me. I loved the looks that other people put together with hair and makeup and clothes. So why did it feel so right on them and so wrong on me?

For a long time I just let that be the background radiation of my life: that constant feeling of Doing It Wrong.

Looking back, I realize that feeling is called Dysphoria. According to the American Psychiatric Association:

Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender.

Kinda vague, isn’t it?

I’d heard of dysphoria in those kinds of terms– and with it the narrative of The Surgery, and the reflexive disgust when presented with one’s own anatomy, etc, the desperate need to be the “opposite” gender. But I didn’t want anything in those terms.

I spent some time thinking about it: do I want to be a boy? Do I want surgery? Do I want hormones? And resoundingly, the answer was no.

The term “nonbinary” was tossed around occasionally, but only as a vague idea, and only ever as a strict androgynous entity that used “they/them”. Do I feel my skin bristle when I’m called “she”? Do I prefer “they?”. Also no.

But then I started talking to more people and listening to more stories, I started noticing elements that resonated with my experiences and my feelings. And then I started learning that you can be androgynous-leaning-feminine or girl-and-sometimes-boy or “meh”. I learned that you can be a “she” but not a woman.

I took what was presented to me in those stories, and I tried that on for size. I put on the label “nonbinary” for a bit, and let it sit with me. And it felt right in a way that nothing had for a very long time.

A lot of my previous Wrongness started falling away. I stopped reflexively hating pictures of myself. I started feeling calmer, and it became easier to manage my temper. Without the thought of “what is she doing right that I’m doing wrong?” scraping at my mind, I found myself celebrating the women around me more often and more genuinely.

And here’s the other thing: as I got comfortable thinking of myself as nonbinary, I got a whole lot more comfortable with the rest. Dresses no longer feel like costumes, makeup no longer feels clownish, heels– well, heels are still hard to walk in, but that’s got more to do with my dexterity. Before, any attempt at femininity felt like a miserable impersonation of the woman I couldn’t actually be. As I am, there’s no more pretending. The clothes I wear aren’t a disguise, but just the things I wear when I feel like it.

It’s a feeling of rightness. Of being at peace.

And that’s really, really nice.

Why am I telling you this?

Maybe my narrative will resonate with some part of you. Maybe seeing one experience will make you think harder about your own. Maybe you’ll think about trying something new, or maybe you’ll find that you’re even more confident in where you stand right now.

May you find the best version of yourself, whatever that turns out to be.

A Worldbuilding Balancing Act, or: my beef with Beau Brummell

I’ve talked a little bit about the research that goes into writing fantasy stories. Even if the world you’re writing in is not at all the one we live in, I tend to think it’s safe to pull at least a little bit from our world’s history.

Would people with this technology level in that climate be wearing these fashions? Can these crops be grown on a large scale in that environment? Would those weapons still be used if that technology is available?

For me, I try to anchor my setting to a rough analogue of a specific time and place, because that makes research a whole lot easier. For example: I’m anchoring my current story to Europe in the mid-1800s, so it’s safe to assume that the same factory setup that is manufacturing, say, guns, is also manufacturing clothing. Because factory-produced cloth is going to be cheaper and have different qualities than homespun clothes, certain fashions are going to change– also, factory workers won’t be able to wear certain clothes that could potentially get caught in the machines, etc.

Without the influence of a major change like aliens or grand-scale magic, it’s safe to assume that certain shifts in things like food, fashion, etc, can move predictably over the years.

And then something happens that throws a wrench in the works.

Like a Mr. Beau Brummell.

English dandy George Bryan Brummell (1778 -1840), known as Beau Brummell. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Before he marched onto the scene, men’s* fashion changed frequently, often matching the gradual changes in style, fabric, and sillhouettes you you see in women’s fashion of the same time. Shortly before him, one of the big hip things was for men to wear tight hoes and knee-length breeches so they could show off their saucy, sexy calves, matched with long coats that could just about count as a gown in their own right.

A 1793 contrast between French fashions of 1793 (left) and ca. 1778, showing the large style changes which had occurred in just 15 years. Source: Wikimedia Commons
At this time, Beau was still a teenager and not yet a fashion icon.

But Beau was not a fan of the look of his day, and he was the 1800s version of an influencer. The influencer, in fact, when it came to men’s fashion.

According to Wikipedia, “He became the arbiter of fashion, and established a mode of dress that rejected overly ornate clothes in favour of understated but perfectly fitted and tailored bespoke garments. This look was based on dark coats, full-length trousers rather than knee breeches and stockings, and above all, immaculate shirt linen and an elaborately knotted cravat.”

He was so influential, in fact, that by 1815, you started seeing something familiar in the popular trends of the day:

An illustration believed to be from 1815. Source: Wikipedia

After this point, if you want to date the time period of an outfit (and historic fashion isn’t your special interest or profession), you pretty much need to base it of women’s* clothes, because western men’s formal clothes pretty much stagnated right here, save for small details. Lower-class and informal looks have more room for creativity, but only so much.

(*in this post I talk about “men’s” and “women’s” fashions as I understand the categories existed in their time. I know bits and pieces about gender nonconforming presentation, historical nonbinary and agender people and the things they wore, but not nearly enough to speak about those subjects confidently.)

So what’s this got to do with writing?

Let me ask you: what does 19th century fashion look like in a world where Beau Brummell didn’t exist?

You could make the argument that enough people were thinking about mass production, gunpowder, antibiotics, electricity, etc, that if the people we consider historically important today didn’t exist, somebody else would have eventually come up with those ideas. These kinds of advancements tend to build upon one another, with one technology presenting the opportunity for another.

I can’t say the same about ol ‘Beau and what he did to men’s fashion.

So what’s a writer to do? Do you stay with the historical trends and just handwave that some other dandy took Beau’s place as an influencer? Do you jut not mention coats and pants and hope people don’t notice? Do you examine pre-Beau trends and make up entirely new fashions that people might have worn if he hadn’t been around?

That depends entirely on the writer and the story they’re telling.

In my case, clothes and fashion don’t feature much in my story, so there’s nothing gained by my spending time, energy, and words coming up with new looks– and if the reader is already vaguely familiar with what I’m describing, then that’s reader time and energy that I don’t have to take up with my descriptions.

Still, I have to wonder: what might fashion look like in a world without Beau?

Down the research rabbit hole

Even when you’re writing fiction, there’s a whole lot of research involved, and a simple question can send you down into some really weird places.

I’m sure that sometimes it can seem like I’ve given up on writing entirely, but I promise, I’m still working hard at it. It takes a long time to put a book together, and putting words on page are only a fraction of the work that goes into it. Even when you’re writing fiction, there’s a whole lot of research involved, and a simple question can send you down into some really weird places.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For example:

I need to know how long it would take to properly clean and disassemble a gun, so I know how long the other character in the scene has to perform an action.

Turns out that time depends entirely on the kind of gun we’re talking about. It’s a trope at this point that a modern handgun can be disassembled and reassembled in a matter of seconds, typically while the petulant protagonist keeps eye contact with whoever just challenged them. But I’m not looking at a modern handgun, I’m looking at something significantly lower-tech than that.

So let’s look at rifles circa 1840.

Turns out that’s actually a turning point between flint-lock and modern weapons. And since our gun-wielding protagonist is lower-class, she’d probably be using an old gun rather than a shiny new one. So let’s look through the same database but back up a few decades, and search for guns in the first quarter of the 19th century.

I throw out the pistols and revolvers– I wanted this to be a rifle. Reading several paragraphs into the description of the first, I toss that one out as well: it’s a smooth-bore gun, meaning it’s about as accurate drunk as it is sober. I said this character is a pretty good shot, so that won’t do.
Which leads me to this one:

Picture from Militaryfactory.com

A rifled barrel, a little more than twenty years old at the time, but one of the first models to use interchangeable parts (and therefore relatively inexpensive and fairly easy to disassemble and reassemble for cleaning). And then I can start the process of watching Youtube videos of gun collectors talking about their favorite antiques.

That’s where I find out that in a pinch, the rifle can be converted into a smaller (and less accurate) handgun, and that it had an adjustable trigger to make it a good gun for sharpshooters (relevant to another character).
I also learned that the assembly of this gun requires a screwdriver, which would make it take significantly longer to assemble and disassemble than modern handguns. Plenty of time for the other character in the scene to get pretty far along his task.

And sure, I probably could have saved myself an hour or so of research by just making up a number and handwaving it as “it’s a fantasy story, don’t worry about it”, but from that I got a whole lot of detail that I never would have gotten otherwise.

It’s one of the things I really love about this job.

Turning Conlangs into Culture: Worldbuilding through constructed languages

This past weekend I gave a presentation at InConJunction in Indianapolis, and one of the attendees requested that I make it available online later on. So let’s give it a go!

First of all:

What is a Conlang?

Conlang is short for “Constructed Language”, meaning any kind of artificially and intentionally created language. You’re probably familiar with them, considering that fiction is absolutely rife with them.

Continue reading “Turning Conlangs into Culture: Worldbuilding through constructed languages”

On Gargoyles

We’ve been seeing a lot of gargoyles recently, haven’t we?

The beasts in I, Frankenstein, the heroes (mostly) in the 90s animated series, the living stone Constable Downspout from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. But this is actually a relatively new monster: an often-winged demonic-looking creature that is strongly associated  with rock and tends to perch high on rooftops like a sedimentary Batman.

I think it’s especially noteworthy that all three of these works take place in city centers, and if they’re not outright urban fantasy, they’re close enough to it to wave hello.

That might be part of the reason behind the rise of gargoyles-as-monsters in the modern day– for the first time in history, we have a whole lot of buildings very close to one another that are extremely tall, (thanks to the invention of the modern elevator that made taller buildings practical).

The modern take on monstrous gargoyles dates back to the 1930s, with movies like Maker of Gargoyles and The Horn of Vapula (both from 1932).

Before then, European gargoyles were architectural details, meant to act as decorative rain spouts to keep water from damaging the mortar and masonry of the building (statues that weren’t water spouts were known as grotesques). They were often a chance for stonemasons to get creative, and so they’d often look like animals, people (often ridiculously exaggerated to make fun of them) or inside jokes.

Paisley Abbey gargoyle 10
One of the gargoyles in Paisley Abbey is made to look like a xenomorph from Alien

One story about the “origin” of gargoyles is of the dragon La Gargouille that attacked the town of Rouen in 600 AD. It was defeated by a travelling priest, but when the creature’s head and neck didn’t burn to ash with the rest of the body, the locals nailed it to the church as a warning to other evil creatures. Other origin stories speak of Celts who harnessed the powers of animals they had hunted by hanging them on the outer walls of their towns to “attract luck and repel evil”.

Repelling evil is the common thread across much of the gargoyle folklore: all their grotesqueness is meant to frighten away evil, and protect the people inside (or, sometimes, to frighten the people inside into behaving themselves).

So what about writing gargoyles as monsters? Really, that’s up to you. You can draw from the stories that have been written in the last ninety years, or you can give your own spin on our old architectural guardians. But as you write, here’s some ideas to play with:

  • What do they look like? Are they animalistic, draconic, humanoid, demonic?
  • Are they natural creatures, or are they constructs brought to life by some kind of magic or technology?
  • What is their relationship to stone? Are they made of stone, do they turn into it, do they simply resemble it, do they eat it?
  • Are they protectors and guardians? Are they the remains of defeated enemies used as a warning to others?
  • Why do they stay on the tops of buildings– do they fly, are they fast climbers, are they trapped there against their will? Did they get put up there so they’d fall to their deaths if they suddenly woke up?
  • What do they eat? Pigeons? People? Rocks?
  • If you’re dealing with modern fantasy, how would they be affected by things like light pollution, noise pollution, smog, acid rain, and other issues that would be a lot more prevalent in the 21st century than in the 6th century?

There’s a lot to think about, and a lot of room to play. So have at it, and have fun!

Fun with concept art

A lot of writers I’ve spoken to at conventions swear by the little extras at their table– I already have pins and little polymer dragons, but they particularly talk about the power of concept art and maps.

Which resulted in the following conversation:

Me: “Hey, do we have room in the budget for concept art?”

Partner: “For which book?”

Me: “I was thinking a map and some characters for the one I’m working on now… but maybe start with Urban Dragon? Arkay, Rosa, maybe Meph?”

Partner: “…If you add Terry to that list, by god I will make room in the budget.”

Sometimes it slips my mind just how much he loves Terry.

For those who don’t remember, Terry is the groundskeeper of the Hoarde’s secret base– a multidimensional amorphous conglomeration of eyes, teeth, bones, and miscellaneous viscera, who accumulated all those various bits and pieces from the trespassers they’ve devoured over the years.

They’re also an insatiable gossip and an utter drama queen.

Really, most of the Urban Dragon series can be boiled down to “mix one part sinister and one part silly, and add a bit of gore for good measure”.

I kept getting reminded of that trying to explain my characters to the artist. Arkay and Rosa are easy enough– I’ve described them to cover artists enough times that I’ve got that part down.

I spent a whole lot of time describing Meph’s physical features like he’s some kind of action hero, and then I tried to sum up his vibe: “he takes himself way too seriously, which usually results in him being either very flustered or very confused, especially when he’s around Arkay.”

I can’t wait to see how the art turns out, but I’m really most excited to see what this artist does with Terry.

My beloved eldritch abomination is either going to be a whole lot of fun for them, or else they’re going to be an absolute nightmare.

Character Creation: Face Blindness

Since I started doing author panels at conventions, I’ve gotten one question thrown at me a few times: “How do you come up with characters?”

And inevitably, my process is just a little bit different from the other authors at those panels, because mine plays a lot into my face blindness.

For those unaware, face blindness (or prosopagnosia) is a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. If I see you at a convention and I introduce myself to you twice, that’s why: I remember having talked to you, but I can’t keep in my mind what you actually look like. Like a lot of people with the disorder, I tend to compensate with other details– if you’re wearing a particular costume, for example, or if you’ve got a visible tattoo.

man person clouds apple
Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

I once had a pair of coworkers who would often be on shifts with me together. They were both blonde, both in their early twenties, and both fairly petite and thin. In my first few weeks on the job, I could be looking at one and standing next to the other, and I would have absolutely no idea which one I was talking to unless I looked at the nametag; sometimes I would continue a conversation I’d started with one coworker but speak to the other one, not realizing that these were two different people. After several weeks of working there, I got to know them well enough that I learned to recognize them– and at that point, I realized that aside from their hair and body type, they really looked nothing alike. In the first few weeks, I also had a bad habit of giving sales pitches to my coworkers as they were walking back from the bathroom, because I couldn’t recognize that they were the same people that had been hanging out with me a few minutes before. It was only when they visibly recognized me that I was able to say “wait, they know me? Oh, that’s actually my manager”.

That tends to come across in my writing.

“Believe it or not, age/race/hair/eyes really didn’t make a person much easier to identify. I was more interested in details that made him stand out: a hyena-like walk that was somehow both a sulk and a swagger; a penchant for bad spray tans and expensive hair gel; a tendency to wear designer clothes and colognes, usually with no regard to whether they actually suited him.” — Urban Dragon Book 3: Dance with the Devil

When I create a character, I tend to start with the role they have in the story, and from there I default to the way I would remember them if I were to meet them: what impression would they leave behind?

With Arkay, even before she was a dragon I knew she was overly energetic, mischievous, and overprotective, that she liked to pick fights, and that she was physically so small that people always underestimated her (which she found hilarious). The over-protectiveness developed into a dragon’s territorial nature; the fact that she was an Asiatic dragon informed her ethnicity, etc.

With Rosario, the first things I knew were that she was homeless because she found Arkay under a bridge, and that she was incredibly brave and kind– because you kind of have to be, to nurse a forty-foot dragon back to health. Details like her sexuality, her body type, and her ethnicity are all informed by the research I did based around those two details. Her gender was actually the last thing I chose for her.

Raimo was meant to be an overly friendly viking; the Contessa is an anachronistic embodiment of Medici wealth, power, and style, where stilettos are both the shoes she wears and the weapon she prefers.

Details like race and gender are often among the last details I choose for my characters, unless they’re intrinsically tied to some detail in that character. With both Arkay and Raimo, I couldn’t picture either of them as anything but Japanese and Scandanavian, respectively, because that was already built into those foundational details of the character.

That’s not to say they’re not incredibly important– the race and gender do so very much to inform a person’s experiences as they move through life and is a defining part of who they are, and they can radically alter the kind of tropes that play out with those characters– but they’re not the first places my mind goes when I’m creating those characters.

But if you’re ever wondering why I describe my characters the way I do– or, rather, why I don’t describe my characters with the kind of details other authors might– that’s why.

A matter of scale

Originally, the Urban Dragon books were commissioned by Cliffhanger Press, and that meant I needed to write them according to a very particular set of instructions.

Among those instructions was a wordcount: each of the nine stories had to fall between 18,000 and 25,000 words, and so I got very good at marking exactly how long each act of each story was going to be. Even after I got the rights and I was able to tweak it without restriction, it was difficult to stretch out a 24,000 word story into anything much larger than that. Continue reading “A matter of scale”