We’re All All Right

Chris Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics, spoke as he does every year at the annual Sonoma County State of the County breakfast, hosted by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. After the obligatory patting-self-on-back remarks by a couple of elected officials, Chris took to the podium to tell us, “We’re all all right.”

California is steadily recovering from the great recession, Thornberg says, and Sonoma County is actually better than the state overall. He predicts the following:

  • Even with the end of Quantitative Easing, interest rates will stay low
  • Housing prices are increasing
  • Wine production is good.
  • California is a strong economy; Sonoma’s is stronger than the state’s.
  • The labor market is heating up.
  • The stock market is not a “bubble.”


Sonoma County added 4,000 new jobs last year and our current unemployment rate is around 5%; the state’s is 7%.

Housing has not rebounded the way we all would have liked, Thornberg says, in part because there is still a surplus of single family dwellings. The flurry in home-buying a couple of years ago was investor buying, not family buying, and did not lead to a need for new home construction. Construction used to be 6% of the national GDP and it still hasn’t reached 5%. There is a lot of construction work, though; a lot of it is remodeling.

Even with the dry cycle and water shortage, agricultural jobs grew by 8% in the county and we added 29 new wineries. (I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.)

Thornberg says consumer confidence shows in increases in consumer credit, a 5% increase year-to-year from last year. This shows that people aren’t afraid to borrow. They think they’ll still have a job in a year.

County payroll gains are up $250 thousand per month year-to-year from last year, and the job opening rate is 3.5%. Incomes show an annual rise of 4%.

All of this shows that we are finding our way out of the dark woods of 2007 – 2010, but Thornberg warns that Sonoma County’s problem is “lack of growth.” He thinks the county should be an economic powerhouse, getting the benefits of the Bay Area’s growth, and that our problem (said humorously) “is Marin County.” He believes the SMART project, a commuter train from Sonoma County to the Larkspur terminal and BART, will make a huge positive difference. Housing costs are cheaper in Sonoma, but with gridlock on Highway 101, it is not easy to get to the city. SMART will definitely help; the continued widening of the highway will help some.

This time I really did get up at an outrageous hour; 5:30. It was just like the old days; stumbling about in the dark so I don’t wake Spouse, putting on uncomfortable shoes, etc. Ah, good times. I ran into several friends from the office, and learned a few more things that are going on in the county:

Art Wrangler:

The county has hired a half-time manager to work with Sonoma County’s “creative community” to put our arts on the map in as big a way as our wine and food is. Her name is Nancy Glaze (sp?) and they would never call her anything as disrespectful as an “art wrangler;” that’s all me. One of her first tasks is he “Creative Sonoma Forum” November 12 at 5:00 pm at the Wells Fargo Center. I might even go.

Microbusiness Help:

The Access to Capital project and its micro-loan component are up and running. Call (707)565-6428 to see how your microbusiness (five employees or fewer) or small business might benefit from this, or from other tools the EDB offers.


The county has spent $91.1 million on road repair. This is good if you live near one of the 100 miles of road prioritized for repair. Most of these are in Santa Rosa or on the 101 corridor. Since those are the population centers, this only makes sense. The ongoing Highway 101 project, funded largely by federal dollars, will top $2 billion by the time it’s done.


Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) is on target for 2016. It will run from Windsor to the Larkspur Landing ferry terminal.



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Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway; Tasty but Fails to Satisfy

A while ago I read Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. It was a new experience for me; far from a standard detective story. Although it is set completely in this world, it felt a little like reading New Weird. Sara Gran, the author, sets up a detective story that takes place in the eddies and air pockets at the edge of the mainstream. Claire DeWitt, for example, is an actual detective, but she became one when a strange book called Detection, written by a French detective named Silette, comes into her hands. Detection can’t be found online or in a regular bookstore, apparently; people stumble across a copy of it; in some cases it falls off a shelf at their feet. If you find the book, and read the book, you have been initiated into a strange fraternity of detectives, who treat the work almost as if it has a… well, not exactly spiritual, but at least metaphysical component. There are, maybe, a double-handful of Silette detectives, and Claire DeWitt is the best one in the world. We know this because she tells us so.

City of the Dead was set in New Orleans, a few years after Katrina, and is a story of love, loyalty, corruption and neglect. Claire got clues from dreams and random occurrences. She also did a lot of drugs. It was New Orleans, and that didn’t seem so weird.

But I’m writing about the second Claire DeWitt mystery; Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. In this installment, Claire is back in the San Francisco Bay area, investigating the murder of an old friend and lover. Paul Casablancas was a gifted musician. It looks like he surprised a robber and was shot, but Claire doesn’t think so. This is the primary mystery, but the story also follows a mystery Claire and her friend Tracey (herself the subject of a mystery) solved when they were teenagers in Brooklyn.  Paul’s murder is not a who-done-it. Claire knows early on who pulled the trigger (and so, really, do we) but the story is about the how and the why. The backstory assumes much greater importance in this book.

And this book, really, is about Claire having another break with reality, as her mourning for her lost love takes her totally off the rails. Along the way the book is filled with interesting characters and strange after-hours clubs and “back rooms;” vintage clothing shops (all the women in the book wear vintage; we don’t know why). For, not comic relief exactly, but a lighter note, there is another mystery Claire is working on in Marin County, where a man who raises miniature horses is having them die. The horses are cute.

There was nothing really wrong with Bohemian Highway until the end. As she did in City of the Dead, Gran balances the backstory with the current mystery very nicely. Claire’s headfirst plunge into self-destruction is done very well, but I became bored with it after a while. And ultimately, because there was no real mystery about the killing, this book failed to satisfy on some level. Perhaps it was the final few chapters, which end on a cliffhanger and carried a miasma of desperation. “I know these aren’t selling well, but look! People will want to know what happens! Please, publisher, but the third one.”

I  recommend Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead easily. I say don’t be in a rush to pick up the second one. And we’ll see if there is a third.

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Food for Thought

I dragged myself out of bed at the outrageous hour of… okay, well, it was 6:45, fifteen minutes earlier than I usually get up. I showered, drank coffee, put on make-up and drove carefully through the curtain of ground-level fog to the village of Forestville, where Food for Thought was holding their Volunteers and Donors breakfast at the Oddfellow’s Hall. I qualify as a donor.


From Calabash

The hall was a bit chilly, but the tables were set with festive green-and-white checked oilcloths and beautiful bunches of flowers, including cosmos. The coffee, from Sunshine Coffee, was flavorful. The Forestville restaurant Backyard, which specializes in “locavore” cuisine, provided frittata, field greens, roasted potatoes and fruit for breakfast. On our table, a little card gave us the name of the farmer whose eggs were used — and the names of the chickens who produced them!


From Calabash, kale in the garden.

Diana and Fred, two Food for Thought board members, sat at my table, along with Rachel Gardner, and Shan Magnusson. Shan worked at West County Community Services for many years before moving over to Kaiser’s Community Benefit program. She says that it’s nice to be on “money-giving side of the desk for a change.”


The breakfast served three purposes; to say “thank you” to donors and volunteers; to introduce new staff; and to introduce Food For Thought’s new direction. Since 1988, the program has provided groceries, fresh produce, and prepared meals to people living with HIV disease. As the treatments for  HIV disease have improved, people are living longer and dealing with the challenges of aging with a chronic illness. At the same time, funding diminishes as the public and policy makers perceive the disease as “taken care of,” because in many cases it’s shifted from “terminal” to merely “chronically life-threatening.” FFT plans to expand its services over the next five years; providing food and meals to people with other chronic illnesses.


Amaranth, in case you were wondering.

In some ways, the program faces some challenges. FFT was born in the town of Guerneville, a town that had a high volume of AIDS cases in the 1980 and 90s and its office has always been in Forestville. It is seen, inaccurately, as a “west county program” because of its location ( 50% of its clients live in Santa Rosa). They want to be identified the countywide program they are.  Growth will have to be part of any expanded service.

The core of FFT’s clients are people living with HIV disease. Lots of them still face stigma and discrimination, and they are understandably concerned about an influx of people using what they see as their services, and judging them.

On the other hand, nobody else right now does what FFT does. When it comes to providing groceries and meals, they have it down. They will be adding a congregate lunch service at Food For Thought, beginning November 1. They are already reaching out to programs like Meals on Wheels (which has a 40,000 square foot industrial kitchen available) and Ceres Project to identify overlaps, gaps and places where they can help each other.

Ron Karp, the executive director of FFT, is a strategic thinker who will move forward thoughtfully and carefully into this new territory.

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Do We Need Libraries?

“Don’t get mad,” Spouse said, “but I have a question. Are libraries as important now as they were twenty years ago, with the internet and Amazon and everything? I know we love them, but do we need them?”

He asked this because we were discussing a ballot measure that would increase our county’s sales tax by .75 of a percentage point. That money is designated for library costs and staffing; the unspoken promise is that libraries countywide will reopen on Mondays if it passes. Since the town where I live as already added a topper to the sales tax, it could mean that in my home town, sales tax will meet (or break) 10%. That’s outrageous. It’s inconvenient for me and it’s painful for people who make, say, minimum wage.

Spouse’s question stopped me in my tracks. Instead of spouting off my immediate, emotional response, which would have been something like,”Of course we need libraries!” I said, “I’ll have to think about that. Then I thought about it, for two days. Really, with the internet at our fingertips, Google and Amazon ready to sell us any book some for less than a dollar, who needs a library?

Here’s what I came up with:

1. The Internet. Yes, it’s all right at our fingertips… unless it isn’t. Yes, there still is a digital divide. In west county, there are people who can’t afford the internet, and those who can’t get wireless or in rare cases even dial-up where they live.  With more offices laying off human staff and requiring people to do business with them online, the library is a satellite office for… well, everything. There is no other place where people can get access for free. (Another reason why libraries should be open on Mondays.)

2. Reference books. You want to talk about something that’s expensive? Reference books. While I know many of us have decided a quick skim of wikipedia counts as “research” these days, that is not a good thing. Even if, like me, you want to own your books, you might not want to buy every reference book on the American Civil War, steam technology, or Percy Shelley. And, speaking of unsung superheroes, reference librarians are awesome.

Once again you have a financial divide; it’s working people or fixed-income people, not hedge fund managers, who can’t afford to buy a $90 book because it’s got the best plates of Caravaggio’s work in it.

3.  About those books. Sure, Amazon will sell you a book for ninety-five cents. It’s just not the book you want. The best seller, in hardback, will still cost you more than $20 new. And more and more communities don’t even have the chance to buy that hardcover book because there are no bookstores where they are. Some of these are cities like Salinas, California, but many are small rural communities who count on the Bookmobile to keep them connected. Libraries are branching out and exploring digital documents and e-books, it doesn’t always have to be a hard copy. And it doesn’t have to cost you each time you want to read one.

4. Inter-library loan program. They can get you almost any book. Yeah, you might be on a waiting list, but they will get it to you.

5. Social meeting space with a purpose. Libraries have meeting space available; they often provide free programs about varieties of topics. They have roofs and heating. They are safe, comfortable places to go to read, to browse, to use a computer, even to visit.

6. Child care. Libraries and librarians hate this, and rightly so, but for some parents, in school districts that don’t have after-school care, the library is a safe place for their children to wait until they are off work.

Do we need libraries? It depends on our values. More and more, our values are shifting to a sort of eighteenth-century European style, where certain things; access, education, justice, and good health were available only to an aristocratic minority. The New World flavor of that is “a monied aristocratic minority.” If we are true to our stated values, as a democratic society, then some things should be available to everyone. A library is a delivery system for access, information, education; and a way to provide a voice for people who don’t have other avenues.

And let me spend one paragraph indulging my paranoid side. Large information corporations like Google and Amazon (and Comcast and Time Warner) would like us all to believe that they can meet our needs. We can all sit swilling fine wine at the local bar,  connecting with some scrap of data that we need from our smart device. We don’t need to talk to each other, we don’t need to ask questions, and we only need that tiny little scrap. For God’s sake don’t go looking for context, or follow some interesting point the first scrap of data makes.  Here, we’ll even funnel down your search options so you never see anything that might challenge you or upset you. They certainly don’t want you walking into a building filled with data storage devices that might shake up your view point or make you ask a question.

So, even though it does drive up our sales tax, I will vote Yes on Measure M. Do we need libraries? I’ve thought about it. My answer’s “Yes.”


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Update: Station Eleven

It’s nominated for the National Book Award, along with Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast. Here is another great example of how the graphic technique can be used to tell any kind of story.

Anyway, Station Eleven. Go read it.

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The Book You Have to Read

 (Fair Warning: Despite my title, if you are someone who is terrified you’re going to get Ebola, don’t read this book yet.)

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, is a book you need to read. In a market cluttered with variations of the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic life, this one is the deepest and the quietest; the most poetic and the most literary in the best sense of that word. Yes, it’s a quiet, poetic literary “After the End of Everything” novel.

Station Eleven stretches out, backward and forwards in the story’s timeline, like an intricate spider web, and the enter of this delicate but strong narrative is Arthur Leander, actor and former superstar. Arthur had a huge movie career when he was younger. Now fifty-one, he feels his fame waning. At a performance of an unusually-staged King Lear, Arthur suffers a heart attack and dies. This happens in the first five pages of the book.

By dying, Arthur escapes that terror and panic that is only days away. An influenza strain, called the Georgian Flu because it was discovered in that country, is finding its way across the world, helped by pan-continental air travel. Jeevan, the young paramedic in training, and Kirsten, a child actress Arthur had befriended, are both present when Arthur dies, and both escape the flu.

Twenty years later, Kirsten, travels with the Traveling Symphony, caravanning (most of the actors and musicians on foot) from settlement to settlement in a recovering, post-high-tech United States. The Symphony plays classical music and puts on Shakespearean plays. Kirsten, now in her early thirties, feels at home with the Symphony. Things have settled down from the days of the flu, although the world is not safe, and people must do things they hate in order to survive. The two daggers tattooed on Kirsten’s arm attest to that. In a small town where Kirsten hopes to reconnect with two performers who stayed to raise their child, the Symphony comes to the attention of a leader who calls himself the Prophet and his henchmen. At first glance, this part of the story seems traditionally post-apocalyptic, and it is. Of interest, though, is the origin of the Prophet.

Station Eleven
moves back and forth in time, sharing bits from Arthur’s life, and following various people who are connected to him. We follow two of his ex-wives, his best friend, and Arthur himself. Absent from the story, but driving part of it, is his childhood friend Victoria, who lives on the island in Puget Sound where Arthur grew up.

Every primary character in the book, from before the flu or after, has some connection with Arthur.

Mandel is not particularly interested in the technology of survival and recovery. She is interested in the human spirit, the connections we make and how those connections nurture (or poison) us. The motto of the Traveling Symphony is “Because survival is insufficient.” This is taken from a Star Trek episode. Kirsten has adopted this as her personal motto and it is tattooed onto her arm. People walk hundreds of miles to perform Shakespeare, because survival alone is not enough. In an abandoned airport, Clark, Arthur’s best friend, creates a Museum of the Twenty-First Century to remind people of what life was like. Both Kirsten and the Prophet are inspired and guided by a strange, limited edition comic book (there were only two volumes, and only two copies printed) called Station Eleven, a study in isolation and humanity. Station Eleven was drawn and written by Miranda, Arthur’s first wife.

The book is beautifully written and often drily funny. Probably the people who will get the most enjoyment out of Clark’s pre-flu job, and the later discussion in the Museum, are people who have had a 360-degree evaluation or used some kind of management consultant. Jeevan’s stint as a paparazzo is funny but sad. I could probably write an entire column on his off-handed comment to Miranda about his job being like combat, knowing that later he will stay with his wheelchair-bound brother, an embedded reporter who was shot in Afghanistan.

The heart of the book, though, is Arthur. Arthur’s art may be a guiding light that travels, as he does not, into the post-flu future, but his acts of kindness toward an unhappy child actress are what survive. Kirsten is shaped in more than one way by her memories of Arthur.

Most post-apocalypse books don’t deal with the human spirit. While characters like the Prophet are common, the battle is usually for control, and the focus is military. In Station Eleven, what is most interesting about the Prophet is where he came from.

A solidly literary writer, Mandel still takes the time to think through, for the most part, what society immediately after a catastrophic die-off might be like. There is an actual story in the book’s present timeline, not just endless meditations on aloneness. At the same time, Mandel knows exactly what it is she wants to explore here, and does it thoroughly. Instead of trying to ring all the SF “bells,” she sticks to the story she wants to tell. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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A Stranger Comes to Town

In all of the various plots that comprise stories, two of the most common are 1) A Stranger Comes to Town and 2) A Person Goes on a Quest. Cory Doctorow used this fact in one of his best titles: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town.

A writing acquaintance of mine postulated that every plot boils down to one of these two starting points. I didn’t think that was true, but it was a fun idea to play with.

Does it work with Shakespeare?

Midsummer Night’s Dream; Yes, it does, as two young couples inadvertently go on a quest.

Romeo and Juliette? Umm, no. Neither of the two titular characters are strangers in Verona.

Hamlet? Not really; Julius Caesar, not really either.

King Lear? Can we say Lear goes on a quest?

It works with Pericles. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

Other classics:

Robinson Crusoe? Yes, the main character left “on a quest.”

Let’s look at Dickens. Great Expectations; Pip’s encounter with a stranger changes events in his life.  Bleak House… well, it’s a stretch, unless the young heirs to Jarndyce and Jarndyce are both the “strangers in town,” and also two young people who have set off on a quest.

A Tale of Two Cities? Is Sydney Carlton the stranger? If so, then maybe.

Jane Eyre? Yes. Jane sets off on a quest when she takes the governess job.

Wuthering Heights? Can we count four-year-old, quasi-adopted Heathcliff as a stranger coming to town?

Basically, any book where the main character goes off to war fits in this category.

A writer who makes “a stranger comes to town/someone leaves on a journey” work really well is Stephen King.

The Stand, a quest.

The Shining, strangers (the family) come to town. Or, you can flip this one and say that the family goes on a quest to the Overlook Hotel, which ends badly.

It… “a stranger comes to town?” Not so much. Pennywise the Clown is not a stranger to Derry, apparently. The adults who return to their childhood home may count as strangers, because they have all changed. That’s sort of the point of the book, isn’t it?

The Dark Tower series is one long quest.

The point of “a stranger come to town” is that something is already jiggling out of true before the stranger arrives; otherwise, they would have no impact. I mean, right? You’d pour them a cup of coffee, give them direction to the nearest Best Western, and end of story. So, someone or something in the town needs something from the stranger, or fears something the stranger brings, or there is no story.

Quests by nature demonstrate a problem to be solved or a need to be filled. There is already trouble in paradise.The all-powerful One Ring must be destroyed. Someone must speak up for the town or the family in a place of power. An advancing army must be stopped. An alcoholic English teacher needs a job to support his family. Life in America as we know it has ended, and people must find safe shelter, clean water, and food. A young person has completed high school or college and feels incomplete and unsatisfied in the home town. An elderly person has lost all ties with the home town, or is drowning in grief, and must set out on a journey of healing. An engagement ends; a job beckons.

I’m a big fan of quest stories, but I like that occasional stranger coming to town too.






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Calabash 2014

Calabash is one of the most unusual, and most fun, fund-raising events in the county. Not only is there great wine and yummy food, music and a tranquil setting, the event features gourd art that is auctioned off.




I didn’t love that it was 97 degrees, but while the Food For Thought volunteers are awesome and effective, they can’t control the weather. They covered the courtyard with a pavillion and lined it with tiny water jets that sprayed a cooling mist, but inside with the gourds and scores of people I felt a little bit like I was inside a steamer.

Food For Thought provides food and supplements to over 700 people in the county who are living with HIV disease. The agency does more than just that, though. They offer various programs, provide a comfortable meeting space and a glorious garden that circles the building.

73 artists contributed to gourd art for the auction. They ranged from the whimsical to the beautiful.

Food For Thought’s garden is a collaboration with the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. Bees and butterflies were still at work in the garden.






Cottonwood Catering’s chef Lynn McCarthy oversaw the wonderful snacks and appetizers that kept coming out of the kitchen as if by magic. There were some old standbys, like the endive spears with pomegranate seeds, but they also offered meatballs with peanut sauce, tiny dolmas and foccacia bread spread with goat cheese and topped with roasted grapes. They even  had steamed new red potatoes hollowed out and filled with a nicoise mix, minus the tuna.






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What I’ve Been Reading

The streak of excellent books is continuing, more or less, and I feel very blessed.  Here’s a sampler:

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Mitchell, of Cloud Atlas fame, has delivered once again, a stunning literary fantasy about time, personal responsibility, family connections, and power. “Oh, I can’t play with time and memory in a first person narrative?” he says. “Watch me.” And then he does. Go get this book and read it right now.

1215, The Year of the Magna Carta. Danny Danziger and John Gillingham published this charming overview of the life and times in 1215 in 2003. The book spends a couple of chapters on the disastrous reign of King John (they were right to make him a villain in the Robin Hood stories. What a jerk that guy was,) but most of it talks about other things; the landscape, the economy, the cities, farming, every day life and the political and economic pressures that led to that famous intervention in Runnymeade.

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King. This “sorta sequel” to King’s The Shining is not a perfect book, but it’s darned good. Danny Torrance, who survived the Overlook Hotel, now goes by Dan. He’s an adult, a recovering alcoholic whose “shining,” which had grown dormant, has suddenly sparked up again. Dan must rescue Abra, a girl whose shining is even stronger that his was, from the True Knot, a traveling band of immortal energy vampires. What is different is how much time we spend with the energy vampires, especially their leader, Rose. She is evil, but we come to understand her and even admire her at times.

Locke and Key; by Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez. Staying in the family, so to speak, I binge-read all six trade collections of Joe Hill’s horror-themed graphic novel. The concept and theme of keys is used wonderfully. The dynamics of the shattered Locke family are bedrock realistic and heartbreaking. Rodriguez’s artwork compliments this story perfectly. It is gory, violent, and scary, and at its heart is a family struggling to heal itself after trauma.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. She lives in Petaluma, fifteen miles from my home town. She wrote part of the book in the local Peet’s Coffee. I was going to try very hard to like it no matter what, but to my pleased surprise, this debut fantasy novel is pretty darned good! The title character is taken from her forest home where she was raised in seclusion, to try to claim the throne. Kelsea was raised by faithful friends of her mother, the Queen, who was assassinated. The odds are good that the “regent,” Kelsea’s Uncle Thomas, will have her killed before she reaches the capital city too. Kelsea has, in many respects, been well educated by her foster parents — and in other, crucial ways, left completely in the dark. She has to survive, learn to rule, make serious moral decisions that have frightening consequences, and in her spare time she must learn to use the magical jewel that is her inheritance. Kelsea learns truths about her mother that shake her; she is disillusioned but grows stronger by the end of the book. The backstory of how Kelsea’s people came to be where they are is plausible, although it isn’t yet fully fleshed out. I am not sure whether this is meant to be YA; Kelsea is 19, so it probably is. The hardcover got the full treatment too, with a great cover and even a fabric ribbon bookmark.

This is the first book of a series. Give it a try.

Right now I am about halfway through Last Plane to Heaven, a collection of Jay Lake’s short stories. I always admired Lake’s prose. I had trouble with his novels, but I liked the short stories of his that I read. This “final collection” reminds me just what a treasure we lost when he passed away earlier this year.

And last but not least, a great book for writers, aspiring writers and writing teachers; Fred White’s The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus. Fred and my writer friend Terry are married and I consider him a friend; and I consider this book to be one cool writing tool. Fred has broken basic types of stories into categories, and the categories into chapters. Each category has ten story ideas listed beneath it. For example, he has chapters titled “The Mystery of X,” “The Adventure of X” etc. In the Adventure chapter, there may be a category for treasure-hunting; for spying, etc. Fred provides a basic situation (and in some cases even the plot twist, as in, “… but the result is not what the doctor expected”).  These are great starting ideas right out of the gate, and I can’t wait to use them with my young adult writers group, but nothing stops the aspiring writer from playing with them, turning them sideways and even, as White suggests, blending more than one together. This book is a find.

I have got to say, whatever else has been bad about 2014, it rocks for books.


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“Strong Women Characters”… What Does That Mean?

Recently on Fanlit we had a discussion about “strong women.” It happened in the Comments section of John Hulet’s review of Islands of Rage and Hope.

The book has a nubile, bikini-clad 13-year-old super-powered girl in it. A couple of people besides the reviewer found this character to be over-the-top. Instead of being a “strong woman” she’s an implausible fantasy.

I’m a huge fan of super-powered teenaged girls in fantasy fiction, from Vin in The Mistborn series to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to River Tam in Firefly. That said, I realized while reading the comments that maybe we don’t define “strong women” very well. Strike that. Maybe I don’t define “strong women” very well.

When I think of “strong women characters” I usually don’t think first about physical strength. Honestly, I don’t usually care about any character’s physical strength unless it is the basis of the book. Often, by “strong” I mean strong-willed, effective, in control of her own destiny.

Thinking about strong women in history, the ones I’m drawn to, anyway, they tend to be intellectually or politically strong, surviving by wits, creativity, leadership and strategy. They are not physical prodigies. This doesn’t mean they aren’t brave; it means they don’t bench-press 350.

There are exceptions. Joan d’Arc was a military leader (although, apparently, not a great one, necessarily), there were plenty of powerful pirate queens and bandit queens. Genghis Khan included plenty of women in his mounted army. Many (most) of them were archers, and they were fearsome. Archery requires some strength but relies mostly on reflexes and accuracy.

Women in history I consider strong though, include (far from a complete list):

  • Cleopatra (the famous one)
  • Queen Elizabeth I
  • Empress Maud. (I said strong. I didn’t say nice.)
  • Matilda of Boulogne
  • Joan d’Arc
  • Florence Nightengale
  • Charlotte Bronte
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Ursula LeGuin

Far and away the majority of them are political leaders (although it appears that Matilda of Boulogne was a better military strategist than her husband Stephen of Blois, since when he was captured, she was the one who mounted the military siege that freed him, and who also brokered a treaty with a Scottish king that didn’t hurt Stephen’s chances, at all, of getting the British throne.)

In fiction, often when I use the term “a strong woman character” I’m being lazy. I mean that I want a developed, nuanced character. I also mean that I want the author to define her by her own traits and characteristics, rather than in relationship to male characters. I want her to be more than A Guy’s Girlfriend, A Guy’s Wife, A Guy’s Mother, a Guy’s Daughter; more than the student, the secretary, the assistant, more than the prize to be claimed or the object of the quest. I’d like it is she, to some extent, directs the plot through her actions instead of being acted upon by the plot. A recent book The Word Exchange, which has a fascinating premise, was basically ruined for me as the first person female narrator waited passively for each thing to happen so she could react to it.

I just finished Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King. It features a kickass super-powered thirteen-year-old girl. I liked the book but I thought she was too powerful and perfect. Through the second half of the book, even though she is powerful and perfect, she is acted upon by the points of the plot. The one time she makes a decision and acts, it is only so that she can make a rookie mistake, and the next part of the plot can happen.

Even a writer as good as King can succumb to the power of the fantasy thirteen-year-old. We never see her in a bikini, though, so that’s good.

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