Category Archives: My Non-fiction

On Names and Where They Come From

Hello friends, and welcome to the post that will probably interest you if (1) you’ve read my scifi novella Three Keys in the Desert, or (2) you like reading meta about how writers come up with names for their characters.

If you’re part of group #1, I should tell you this post won’t expand the universe of the novella itself. What it will do is give you more background into who I am as an author and where my creative choices come from. (I’m not always into learning about the behind-the-scenes of the stories I like, so I just thought I’d disclose that up front.)

On the meaning of names

So, because Three Keys in the Desert was the first long work I wrote as an adult (the first draft of it, in 2007, was about 24,000 words) it was not only uncomfortably autobiographical but was also an amalgamation of all the things I loved and had always wanted to put into stories. Especially where names were concerned.

For this reason, a lot of the names I used in the novella meant something to me and had a whole backstory behind them. I made sure the names were always a reflection of the character’s identity, but often they also had personal significance to me, like my own secret little in-joke.

So, now I’m going to share some of those personal meanings, in no particular order.

1. Sol

As a kid I grew up watching the show “Chiquititas”, an Argentinian telenovela for kids. The storyline concerned an orphanage for girls in Argentina where everyone wore uniforms and sang songs every episode. If you’ve read the novella you can already see how the setting of that show is reminiscent of its setting 🙂

Sol was a character on “Chiquititas”, but in the first seasons (which are the ones I remember the most) she wasn’t actually part of the orphanage. She was the youngest girl on the show, maybe 10 years old, and lived in an apartment with a few of the supporting characters. I remember learning as a kid that “sol” was Spanish for “sun”.

Little Sol was truly a ray of sunshine. She smiled the most, she was the youngest and most adorable, and her life wasn’t as tragic as the lives of the orphan girls (at least at first). I knew very early on, when plotting Three Keys in the Desert, that my Sol would be none of those things.

Or rather, that she would be like an echo, or a memory, of that little girl.

 

2. Ebie

Growing up I loved a lot of what I call “old school HBO” shows. Most of them were historical fiction (for example, the amazing “Rome”), they had a huge budget, and they were doing things with historical narratives that I’d never really seen before.

I think the last show of this kind I watched before writing the novella was “Deadwood”. It was about a small 19th century settlement in the U.S. that transforms into a town, and the costs and benefits of civilization.

One of the characters on Deadwood was named E.B. Farnum. He owned a lodging house and over time became the town’s mayor. I doubt he was most people’s favorite character – he was cowardly, greedy, selfish, abusive to his employees, opportunistic. He had no backbone and no principles and not even good looks, or youth, or humor or wit to “redeem” him to the viewers.

Nevertheless, he was on “Deadwood” for as long as it ran, and he got a lot of attention and character development. If “Deadwood” was a show about human nature, then E.B. Farnum was a mirror of the worst parts of us ordinary folk. Arrogant, petty, a coward and often a fool. Nothing about him was attractive or interesting except his inherent humanity.

I remember thinking that of all the characters on “Deadwood” – the stalwart hero, the foul-mouthed brothel owner, the silly journalist, the compassionate doctor – E.B. Farnum was almost impossible to imagine being played by a woman.

I couldn’t find a single example of when a woman was allowed to play this sort of role, and remain on the side of “good”, and have significant character development over the course of multiple seasons. What would a woman playing the most cowardly, most wretched, most petty and mean and arrogant human who was still somehow perfectly average even look like? I couldn’t imagine a TV audience rooting for a woman who was all of these things, the way I was meant to be rooting for E.B. Farnum.

So, Ebie is named after him.

Of course, there’s almost nothing in common between Ebie and E.B. In fact Ebie is probably Farnum’s polar opposite. But when I created Ebie I thought of all her faults, and I thought to myself how far this flawed character was from the profound, “unattractive” flaws of E.B. Farnum, and I named her as a reminder to myself. As an aspiration.

Write more women who are flawed and “unsympathetic” and inherently, deeply, movingly human. Write about the ugliest parts of yourself. Women should be allowed to have their own stories, even when they’re only in it for themselves. Even when they’re not there to take care of anyone. Even when nothing about them is admirable.

 

3. Vrei

Vrei’s name, like a lot of the kids’ names (including “Ebie”) is meant to sound like it was meant to be a real name but didn’t quite get there. I wanted to create a sense for the reader that the kids in Three Keys in the Desert had fundamentally different names than the adults. I wanted them to be less obviously gendered, less obviously derived from a recognizable language.

Vrei was named after the French word “vrai”, which means “truth”. There’s an extra note of appropriateness, I guess, since Vrei spends most of the story looking for the truth about a certain incident.

As far as I’m aware, “vrai” isn’t a given name among French speakers anywhere. So, I wanted Vrei to create a sense of “huh, your name is kind of like a real word, except it isn’t”. It fit with how the system saw the kids in the story – they were almost like real people, but not quite.

 

4. Claudia

If Vrei and Ebie were meant to sound like names that were not-quite-names, I chose Claudia because it was a name that sounded ordinary and “normal” in so many languages. Spanish, Greek, French, Italian, English. I don’t have to change a single letter, and Claudia and is still Claudia. (If you’re wondering, I usually pronounce her name the Spanish way in my head.)

As an immigrant myself, I wanted the “permanence” of Claudia’s name to be an indication of her privilege. If the kids in Three Keys in the Desert have identities that are sort of blurry, as far as the system is concerned, Claudia is someone everyone sees very clearly.

It was also important for me to give her (and the other adults) a name with several syllables, contrary to the names of the children. There’s something very “indulgent” in a name that long. In a way, the kids had to have short names because they were moved so frequently. The shorter the name, the easier it is for new people to pronounce and remember. Which is a dynamic that’s never applied to people like Claudia.

 

5. Bo

The reason I chose this name is probably the simplest one yet. In the early outlines of the novella, Bo’s character was referred to simply as “boy”. He was Sol’s boy, the boy Kim befriends, the boy no one takes seriously. And so eventually I just settled on calling him “Bo”, for short.

The point of his character, in many ways, was that the things that happen to him are completely random. Nothing – from Sol choosing him, to the later events of the novella – is really due to his initiative or actions. In my head, he played a role that girls often play in these sorts of narratives, where they just react to things older and more powerful people do around them and to them. So, he was just “boy”.

 

So, these were some of my personal reasons for naming the characters as I did. I mean, you can tell this story took over a decade to finish because I have paragraphs of things to say about the names alone, haha. Anyway, if by some chance you haven’t read Three Keys in the Desert yet, the ebook is on sale for $0.99 until tomorrow, so now’s probably your best chance to get it for cheap.

If you’d like to get an email next time I publish something (probably in uh… a pretty long time), you can subscribe to my New Release Mailing List.

Thanks for reading, and have a great day.

 

 

New article about “Black Sails”

MV5BMjMwMTMwNjA1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDgzNTEyMTI@._V1_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_It took me a while to like “Black Sails”, the TV show about 18th century pirates that seemed to be made out of every trope I loved as a child.

 

I watched it out of order: season 2, then 3, then 1, then 4. But once I got  hooked on the show’s mixture of fact and fiction, tropes I love and modern sensibilities, I fell for it hard.

 

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to write about some of my “Black Sails” feelings for Vice.com. The article is really only a fraction of what I think about the show, but it’s something I think needs saying. “Black Sails” broke new ground when it came to historic storytelling, especially on TV.

 

‘Black Sails’ Depicts the Untold Story of Queer Pirates >>

Review: The OA

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It’s difficult to categorize The OA as fantasy or science fiction or horror. A series that deals with angels, the science of immortality, and friendly-looking scientists who kidnap people to experiment on them in basements, The OA offers some fresh takes—as well as moments of muddled, clichĂ© philosophical “insights.”

The series’ greatest strength is arguably the aspect that I’ve so far seen discussed least. Brit Marling plays a young woman who disappears for seven years and then returns, able to see where before she was blind, and recounts the story of her abduction to a group of misfits at her small town in the US. Adopted at a young age by a couple in their fifties, who named her Prairie, Marling’s character was abducted after she ran away from her parents and tried to make a living playing her violin in the New York City subway. A well dressed, kind, and friendly academic by the name of Hap (Jason Isaacs) takes her out to dinner after apparently falling in love with the way she plays, then convinces her to accompany him to his house, takes her downstairs to what’s supposed to be his guest bedroom, only for Prairie (blind, at this stage) to discover he’s locked her in a glass box in his basement.

Read the full review on Strange Horizons >>

 

Review of the first season of “Jessica Jones”

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Fashionably late, here’s my review of the first season of “Jessica Jones”! I actually wrote this the week the show came out, but for various reasons it took a while to get it it ready for publication.

Jessica Jones is without doubt the best TV show Marvel has produced to date, and possibly the most original main character they’ve brought to the screen since introducing the world to Tony Stark as Iron Man. The show is not without flaws, but everything about it feels fresh, unusual, exciting. Partly it’s because a show about a female superhero, especially one who drinks whiskey and crushes cockroaches with her bare hands without flinching, is tragically rare amid a sea of morally gray superpowered men. But partly it’s because Jessica Jones genuinely has an engaging yet disturbing story to offer.”

Read the full review at Strange Horizons >>

Three Indie Biopics About Women History Forgot

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Anna Maria Mozart in 17th century drag

I wrote a new article for The Toast on movies about historical women who’ve been essentially written out of history. Read about Queen Victoria’s favorite author, a 4th century Greek philosopher and the other Mozart genius!

Read the full article at The Toast >>

Edit: The Toast has tragically closed recently and they’ve taken the articles offline. So, here is the full text:

 

Three Indie Biopics About Women History Forgot

Do you love biopics? I love biopics. They allow us to consider how we remember our history, and whose lives we think merit a film budget and a production crew. I want to introduce you to three biopics you should know if you don’t already, all centering women who accomplished extraordinary things and were overlooked in favor of their male contemporaries. These three movies were either made on a small budget and received relatively little media attention, or were, for various reasons, barred from wide distribution in the U.S. While their accuracy varies, all of them will inspire you to reflect on the lives of women we know too little about.

Angel (2007)

Angel

Directed by Francois Ozon, this film is inspired by the life of 19th-century bestselling author Marie Corelli. Born to unmarried parents, a Scottish poet and a servant girl, Corelli (whose real name was Mary Mackay) rose to prominence writing what would today be considered “new-age” pulp fiction. A contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, her books outsold theirs and were collected by the likes of Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria — yet Corelli was, perhaps unsurprisingly, considered an upstart and a hack by most of the influential writers of the time.

The film Angel is based on a 1957 novel of the same name, written by Elizabeth Taylor (Corelli was the inspiration for several novels, both before and after her death). Angel Deverell — played by Romola Garai — is a 19th-century working-class woman who dreams of fantastical things and puts them into writing. When a publisher offers to buy her work if she changes certain aspects, she refuses. Her commitment to her vision and her belief in herself allow her to succeed despite the odds, but also prevent her from changing with the times. Both the novel and the film show Angel’s early days of struggle, her years of enormous success, and finally the end of her career, when the reality of World War I renders her extravagant stories irrelevant.

If you’re at all familiar with Ozone’s work, you won’t be surprised to learn that the movie is as over-the-top as Corelli’s novels – Angel is larger than life in her ambition, in her lust for perfection. It’s what draws people to her, makes men and women fall in love with her, buoys her when she encounters harsh criticism from the literary establishment. The movie ultimately shows her getting everything she wants, all while letting her be occasionally selfish and arrogant, without the need for “redemption.” If you’ve always wanted a movie about a badass 19th-century anti-heroine who managed to have it all, Angel is here for you.

 

Agora (2009)

Agora

Hypatia of Alexandria was a 4th-century Greek philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who lived in Roman-ruled Egypt. She attained a senior position in academia and taught many generations of students at the Platonist school in Alexandria. As none of her writings survive to this day, she’s been effectively written out of the history of Greek philosophy. Agora represents one effort to restore part of her legacy while exploring broader themes of sexism and classism. The film portrays Hypatia (played by Rachel Weisz) as a prominent political figure who made many scientific discoveries before her time – including finding proof of the heliocentric model of the solar system and inventing new scientific tools – only for them to be lost after her death.

One of the few things we definitely know about Hypatia is that she was killed by a mob of Christians and blamed for worsening the conflict between the governor of Alexandria (Orestes, played by Oscar Isaac) and the city’s newly appointed Christian leader. Agora chooses to portray these events in a subversive light, depicting Hypatia as a force for peace – she even risks her life to protect her Christian students. Early Christianity is depicted as a zealous cult that attempts to seize power by attacking minorities – including Jewish people and women – and recruiting disenfranchised young men to commit violence. (While the film received the blessing of Vatican officials, North American distributors balked at giving it a wide release.) All it takes for Hypatia to lose her life, her work, her legacy, is for Orestes — a former student of Hypatia’s who still regularly relies on her council — to remain complacent in the face of the extremists of the day. Hypatia loses everything because even the men who love and respect her don’t see the true danger she’s in; this depiction is a stunning indictment of casual cultural misogyny.

But perhaps the most amazing sequence of the movie has nothing to do with religious conflict. Early on in their acquaintance, Orestes – at this point one of Hypatia’s many young, rich male students – decides to court her. He creates a public spectacle, plays her a song, and begs for her favor, all with the certainty that she’ll fall into his arms. Instead, Hypatia shows up to class the next day armed with her menstrual rags, which she gifts him, in full view of his peers. It’s this mix of humor — Scenes About Menstruation You’ll See Nowhere Else — and the movie’s deconstruction of complex social issues and history that makes Agora worth your time.

 

Mozart’s Sister (2010)

Mozarts Sister

Maria Anna Mozart was born four years before her brother Wolfgang and was, by many accounts, as dazzlingly gifted as he was. She was also subjected to the same rigorous regime of musical training and traveling through Europe – playing for kings, queens, and celebrities of the period — when she and Wolfgang toured together, they were referred to as “the astounding Mozart children” and Maria Anna was billed first. When Maria Anna was fifteen, she was left in Austria with her mother while her father and brother continued touring. She continued to write music – none of which survives, although there is a record of Wolfgang praising it – and give piano lessons locally, but her performing career was effectively over. As a young woman, being on the road would have endangered her reputation, and her father preferred not to risk any scandal being attached to the family name. Mozart’s Sister focuses on Maria Anna’s last year of freedom, when she is fourteen and traveling with her family to France. It depicts her adventures at the French court, some of the family dynamics that led her father to halt her career, and her friendship with 13-year-old Princess Louise, who she meets at a remote convent at the start and end of her journey.

Among other things, Mozart’s Sister is about the ways in which the world betrays young women. Despite Maria Anna’s immense talent and popularity, everyone around her knows that eventually she’ll have to step back, stay home and relinquish her claim on greatness. She spends the film fighting against the forces of family and society that try to constrain her ambitions — she continues to play the violin, begins to compose her own music, and dresses in boys’ clothes to gain access to the French prince and become part of his entourage. She even attempts to gain entrance to the best music conservatory in France, where women are not permitted to study.

The film draws a parallel between Maria Anna’s struggle and Princess Louise’s fate of being brought up in the remote austerity of the convent while her brother, the heir, experiences court life in all its luxury. As the film draws to a close, Louise ponders how different the women’s lives would be, had they been born boys: “You would be your brother and I would be mine, and we would both reign.” The chief mission of Mozart’s Sister is to tell Maria Anna’s story and show that she lived vigorously, energetically, and fought against the circumstances of her birth.

So, those are my three recommendations. What are some of your favorite biopics about extraordinary women who haven’t gotten enough attention? Throw them my way!

4 Webcomics (Written by Women) You Should Check Out

tj_and_amal_cover_detail_view_by_bigbigtruck-d422o1r-702x336Over the weekend my article for Women Write About Comics, about some of my favorite free comics on the internet, got published! I’m really stunned at howbeautiful it looks. There are pictures all over, and so many different colors and a colorful background – none of my previous articles have looked like that!

Anyway, to read my recommendations for “The Less than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal”, “Check, Please!”, “Starfighter” and “The Substitutes” head on over to WWAC for the full article.