RITA: Kinsale, Kinsale, and Chase

I've been going strong on my RITA reading, but somehow or other (wedding, honeymoon) have fallen behind on the actual writing-up of my thoughts. So this post is going to tackle two RITA winners -- plus, a bonus book! -- for reasons that should become obvious. Ultimately, what I've taken away from these three books is: location, location, location.

First up: The Sandalwood Princess, by Loretta Chase. Brief admission: Loretta Chase is currently my number-one favorite romance author, and for the past year and a half I've been reading everything of hers I could get my hands on. This one was a new one, and unlike many of her others it moved around a lot from place to place: India, onboard ship, a country manor house, and India again.

From a writers' craft standpoint, each of these locations provided a framework for a different part of the story:

  • India holds the initial moment of contact, where the thief-hero steals the titular princess statue from our heroine. But it is also the home of the sly, elderly whose failed long-ago romance is the impetus for the plot, and a foil to our hero and heroine.
  • On the ship back to England, our hero masquerades as a servant, a deception which succeeds but which does not prevent the heroine from stealing the statue back from the false master she believes to be the real thief. It is also a space where neither the hero or heroine is entirely at home, and being jarred out of a familiar setting leads to more intimate conversation than each might otherwise have permitted.
  • Once in England, the heroine realizes the statue is missing and follows the heroine north to find an opportunity of stealing it back -- which means convincing the heroine he was fired by his master once the statue disappeared from the ship. She hires him as a secretary/butler, which allows them to spend hours together in a cozy domestic setting, enjoying one another's company and falling even more deeply in love.
  • The thief ultimately has to steal the statue back, for some reason, and everybody goes back to India, where the final twist is revealed and both romance plotlines find a resolution.

Ultimately, the locations are a shorthand for the developing relationship, as often happens in romances (I'm looking at you, Pemberley, and every manor house descriptive passage you've inspired in two hundred years). It's usually a pretty good trick, even when the seams show.

But it has a downside: it can make your hero and heroine seem like they are an entirely different person when they are in a different location. Sometimes this is important, and can shake up a complacent character -- again, PEMBERLEY -- but sometimes it just starts to feel a bit whiplash-y for the reader. "Wait -- who the hell is this person with the same name as that person I was just getting to know? That person would never do this. What's going on?"

Unfortunately, this is what happened in The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale, which was absolutely jam-packed full of things. Anything that could be made interesting was interest-ified within an inch of its life.

The hero is a half-deaf hermit and former highwayman still wanted in England, whose best friend is a tame wolf. The heroine is the only survivor of a family wiped out by a malicious pastor's oppressive cult in her home village. (No, really.) They meet the totally squicky Marquis de Sade, and later a group of aristocratic snuff enthusiasts -- and, to clarify, not the "Oh look at my tiny dandyish habit" snuff. The "Oh look at me choke a woman to death during sex" snuff.

But I'm getting off-track.

I stumbled upon another Kinsale romance, An Uncertain Magic, which had the same rampant busyness. (Psychics! Repressed memories! Revolution in Ireland! The Sidhe! An adorable brandy-drinking pig!) What's more, it had the same unconcern with locations as the first one. Kinsale's places feel ephemeral, as though the characters are only tangentially rooted there. Perhaps this is because the couples in both novels are somewhat unrooted themselves: there's a lot of things that happen on the road, or in houses being falling down or being rebuilt, or in inns and waystations and the like. And I have to admit to being really, really fond of the hero from Prince of Midnight, mostly on account of how different he is from the usual alpha hero. (Very broken, and more than a little sad, and very aware that his desperation is not attractive, which paradoxically makes him quite attractive as a character.)

And maybe it's something about the way the two authors (Chase and Kinsale) think of characters. Chase's style is a much more invisible thing, a mostly realistic narrative voice. Kinsale, though, is a little more fluid and suggestive, a little more poetic, which can be very effective but which always kind of reminds me of Terry Pratchett's description of reading the human mind as "trying to nail fog to the wall." You get all these rich and evocative phrases, but the thread of a specific character's personality tends to wax and wane, disappear and reappear.

Frankly, much as I love an evocative phrase, I want to keep my writing as rooted as possible. Maybe when I make it through all the relevant RITAs I'll start by taking apart a particularly admirable scene or two from some of my favorite novels. Hey, who ever said a comparative literature degree couldn't be useful?

Women Like Writing, But Nobody Writes Like Women.

Internet personality quizzes are my Achilles heel. I enjoy finding out what interval best embodies my complex individuality (major 7th, as it happens) and what the shape of my letter A's says about me on a fundamental level. If I'd been around in the late eighteenth century I would have been totally into phrenology, though it pains me to admit it. But there's something eternally seductive about the idea that my self is just a code waiting to be decrypted. I'm always looking for the key. So when Twitter alerted me to the existence of I Write Like, I jumped all over it. Into the machine went my favorite part of a blog post on my recent honeymoon in Helsinki.

I write like Chuck Palahniuk

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Um, really? I tried again, with a snippet from my rant about Red Dead Redemption.

I write like Dan Brown

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

This was going from bad to worse. I broke out the big guns. And by guns I mean penis -- I put in the steamy sex scene from my historical romance work-in-progress.

I write like H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Obviously I should be working on a Cthulu love story. As Maggie Stiefvater said, "Kraken are the new vampires."

But wait. I had put in a sex scene -- and a very purplish one, at that. We've already seen Dan Brown's name, and someone else on the internet has gotten Stephen King, so modern (male) genre authors are totally bring-uppable. Is Lovecraft really the closest thing this site could get to a romance author?

Online I found an excerpt from Danielle Steele's The Journey, and put in a goodly chunk of text.

I write like Kurt Vonnegut

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

At this point I was getting a horrible feeling that whoever built this site did not think women could write anything significant, memorable, or worth imitating.

Of course, modern romance authors are still kind of ghettoized, sure. So I went classical, and pulled the start of chapter 38 from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The one that begins, "Reader, I married him." Who does Charlotte Bronte Write Like?

I write like James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Like hell she does. (For one thing, she lived about a century earlier than Joyce.) I put in the opening paragraphs from the same book.

I write like Charles Dickens

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

At this point I started to go a little crazy, throwing anything and everything into that damn white frame on the site and growing increasingly sure that my outrage was more than just a figment of my imagination. Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own:

I write like Oscar Wilde

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Virginia Woolf, Orlando:

I write like H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

By analogy, then, I write like Virginia Woolf, I guess, but this thought was merely a damp handkerchief against the vast Sahara of my frustration as I kept going.

A poem from Emily Dickinson:

I write like James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale:

I write like James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth:

I write like J. D. Salinger

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

If you've noticed there's an elephant in the room, sipping tea and wearing an empire-waist gown and arguing that the choice of who to marry is screamingly important when it's the only real choice you get to make in your entire life, you're correct. I'd been avoiding putting anything by Jane Austen in here, because honestly it would break my heart to see Jane Austen writing like James Joyce, or Dickens, or frakking Lovecraft. But the question had to be answered.

Jane Austen's beautiful, perfect opening scene from Pride and Prejudice:

I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Okay, that passage is pretty famous. I kept going.


I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Mansfield Park:

I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Northanger Abbey:

I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Sense and Sensibility:

I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

In conclusion: no female author has ever produced anything important unless they are Jane Austen.

A sly thought occurred. I went back to the Gutenberg Project, and looked up the truncated and very sarcastic History of England that Austen wrote in her youth. I entered this passage:

"The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a YORK, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews and his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; and if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown and having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it. "

I write like James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Damn it.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 8

It would be remiss of me to approach so near National Grammar Day without bringing up punctuation. Punctuation sometimes seems like the appendix of the body of grammar, because oftentimes you can eliminate it entirely and still make something worth reading (I'm looking at you, James Joyce). But in reality it's probably something more like the spleen or gallbladder: you can get by okay without it, but things tend to run more smoothly with it in place. I think what I like so much about this sentence from the Practical is its sheer hypocrisy: look how many parentheses are there!

The other fun thing about punctuation is that it has drastically, visibly changed over the language's evolution. For instance, Jane Austen's most famous sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Note that comma after acknowledged -- nowadays we would leave that sucker out in the cold to die. But Jane Austen thought there should be a pause there, and so in the comma went, to signal a breath in the middle of what is otherwise a bit of a mini-marathon: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Butler is having none of this:Jane of course was writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Butler at the end of it. This century saw sweeping changes in not only the literacy rates but in the way reading was approached. Austen's time was still very rooted in oral culture. Letters were important, but were often read aloud to the family as a whole, and conversation was considered an art that required training and rules and delicacy. By the end of the century, however, writing (in the form of newspapers, magazines, and so on) had become the unquestionably central cultural medium. Butler, in his grouchy Victorianism, considers the rules of grammar and syntax a greater good than the actual behavior of words in a human mouth.

And, to fully illustrate the gap between language written and language spoken, here is Victor Borge's Phonetic Punctuation:

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 7

Alas! I have little time today. So I'll post on something brief: interjections! Anything can be an interjection if you punctuate it correctly. Airplane! See how that works?

And how lovely to discover that holla was a word in the Victorian lexicon! Though it had a completely different meaning, which puts it in company with other migratory words like gay and nice. Oh, language, with its twists and turns.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 6

The three words I'm considering are as follows (and I quote): drink, drank, drunk. Early in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect is warning Arthur Dent that hyperspace jumps are unpleasantly like being drunk. Arthur asks what is so unpleasant about being drunk -- Ford replies: "You ask a glass of water."

The joke hinges on the confusing nature of certain irregular English participles. A participle is the form of the verb that can be used as part of a compound verb, or as an adjective. The participle of the verb be is been, as in I have been confused. Most often the participle in English is identical to the past tense: I have walked to the store. But in certain cases, where the word has a long history and frequent usage -- verbs like be, do, get, eat, think, all the basic verbs human beings use all the time because human beings are almost always being, doing, getting, eating, or thinking something -- you get irregular participles.

And when you get irregular participles, you get confusion. I swim, but have I swam or have I swum?

Current grammatical common sense declares that drank is the past tense and drunk is the participle. Last night I drank some wine/Last night some wine was drunk by me. But drunk can also be used as an adjective as well as the past tense of the verb -- in fact, this problem has been confusing native and non-native English speakers for centuries now.

The Practical deals with this problem in an incredibly snobbish manner:

The Practical is an arch-suck-up, and only the writings of respected (white, male, usually dead) authors (who may be attempting to sound archaic on purpose) count. There is quite a list, as though Noble Butler wants to overwhelm you by sheer quantity of evidence:

Incidentally, my very favorite participle in English is quite rare and getting rarer. It is dolven, the past participle of delve. As in: This mine shaft was dolven in 1902.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 5

For the first time in this experiment, I find myself relieved to agree with the Practical, and on no less a subject than the passive voice: The passive voice is often talked about, but rarely defended. This is a travesty. I am uncommonly fond of the passive voice, because it is important and useful. The difference between the example sentences above is a nuance, but one of the best things about language is its ability to convey very fine shades of distinction. Telling beginning writers/students to avoid the passive voice as though it is the writerly equivalent of a cravat or corset is leaving out a very useful technique. It is one of the many things that makes me grumpy when I read George Orwell.

Orwell's objection to the passive voice is that it allows the result to stand out more than the agent. So that instead of saying, "I screwed up," a politician might say, "Mistakes were made." And there is some truth to that. But there is also a case to be made for keeping the passive voice, even in political speech. For instance: the celebrated phrase: "all men are created equal." There's your passive voice right there. The Declaration of Independence is a far from passive document, and this phrase more than any other has become an axe to wield against anything resembling inequality (as opponents of gay marriage are in the process of finding out). And though it goes on to mention that men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, it is not the Creator or the question of his existence that is important in this passage. It is people. For this reason, it is stronger and clearer to say that men are created or are endowed, since through the passive voice it becomes an existential condition. Man is a creature with rights.

For contrast, imagine this sentiment in the active voice: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, that the Creator endowed them with certain unalienable Rights. Man -- political, democratic, revolutionary man -- has all but disappeared from the text. He goes from the verb's subject to its object. And despite the presence of the word unalienable, it stands to reason that if God endows you with something, he could just as well un-endow you if he ever felt like it.

As is, strangely, the passive voice becomes the stronger voice, the voice that lets man take an active role in the creation of a new system of government.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 4.

Time to talk participles! From the Practical: (As a side note, how often do you think this male-active/female-passive paired structure crops up in this text? Frequently! It can be a little infuriating.)

Finally -- finally! -- we get explicit confirmation that Noble Butler looks upon his grammar as an attempt to scientifically classify the words of the English language.

Note how he cites Bacon, even though Origin of Species had already done its bombshell work on scientific thinking at the time of Butler's publication. Butler is non-Darwinian in his approach to taxonomy. For instance, this sentence: "To allow words to dodge from one class to an other, is not only unphilosophical, but ridiculously absurd." Butler is trying to set down the rules for the proper behavior of English -- which, as we have seen, requires a thorough philosophy of the categorical differences between men and women, animals and plants, people and animals. This refusal of allowing words to migrate form -- as though the rules of language were all thought up at once in systematic fashion -- is the product of an insecure and tyrannical mind. Butler wants to control English as a language because then he can control the beings the words represent. Reality is to be subject to philosophy, and to the common sense of the educated white Victorian male. The idea that nouns could become verbs is as anathema as the idea that primates can become people.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 2

In my last post I talked about grammatical gender, which is pretty straightforward even for us gender-impoverished Anglophones. Today, we enter the slightly more terrifying world of case. From the Practical:Put simply, case is the difference between the words I and me. I is in the nominative, which simply means it is the subject of a verb: I believe I can fly. Me is the objective case, which means it is the object of a verb: Fly me to the moon. To move from I --> me is to decline a noun, and declension is the complete list of forms a noun in a particular language can take.

We Anglophones are somewhat lucky that in modern English very few words are actually declined. At this point, you will be wondering why on earth I think this tiny and forgotten quirk of the language is interesting. Cases are boring, you are thinking. You are so completely wrong. Cases are the opposite of boring. They are terrifying.

What cases do* is encode the grammatical function of the word into the way it is spelled. Ancient Greek has four of them and uses them constantly. Latin, not to be outdone, has five. So the declension for the Latin word murus, which means wall, looks like this:

murus, muri, muro, murum, muro.

And in the plural:

muri, murorum, muris, muros, muris.

All these mean wall, but which one you use will depend on precisely what you are trying to say about this wall. But wait! you say. Some of those look the same! How do I know if the muri I see is a genitive singular or a nominative plural? The answer: you really don't. Context is usually helpful, but not always.

What this means: Latin will kick your ass if you look at it funny. It means that ambiguity is built right in, so each conversation or text is laced with grammatical minefields. And, my favorite part, it means that a lot of times you can take a sentence, shuffle the words around, and still make sense.

In fact, you can make a sentence that means two things at once, a sentence which contradicts itself in a clever way that you can never quite collapse into a singular idea. For instance, this first line from a poem of Catullus: Ille mi par esse deo videtur. Catullus is citing in Latin one of the most famous of Sappho's poems in Greek, and so readers in the know translate the line thus: He seems like a god to me.

But if you look at the words in strict order, you get this: He to me equal being to god seems. Note how to me and equal are close together, and how close to god is to seems. Because to me and to god are in the same case, there is no grammatical reason why this line cannot be translated as: He seems to god to be equal to me. Or even: He seems to be equal to me -- and I am a god. And if you try to resolve it by saying that me is not in the dative case (like god) but is an ablative (which would be identically spelled), then you get something else altogether: either He to my disadvantage seems equal to the gods, or He to god's disadvantage seems equal to me.

The word order in Sappho's poem is much clearer: It seems to me that he is equal to the gods. The plural gods prevents the line in Greek from the ambiguity of its Latin equivalent. Both Sappho's and Catullus' poems are about love triangles, about being so overwhelmed by the beloved that you can't even talk about her, but have to talk about the man sitting next to her at a party. Sappho's poem is a despairing sigh, but Catullus' tricksy word order embodies the struggle against the romantic rival within the grammatical structure of the line. Neither the love triangle nor the word order can be simplified or resolved.

A British study not too long ago found that Shakespeare's grammar tended to prod the human brain into a slightly more excited state, partly because it became a puzzle the brain constantly had to solve in a satisfying way. Latin poetry is like Shakespeare on steroids.

And this is just using two (or maybe three) of a modest five cases. Some languages have many more. Finnish, for instance, has fifteen of the things. For every Finnish word there are fifteen different ways to spell it, and another fifteen ways to spell the plural form. If you are inside the car, the auto, you are autossa. If you are getting out of the car, you are autosta. If you are sitting on top of the car, you are autolla, or falling off the top of the car, autolta. (The geographic specificity of many Finnish cases might explain why the Finns are so damn good at architecture. They're always thinking in terms of where something is.) The declension of the Finnish word kulta, which means either gold (the metal) or darling (the person), looks like this:

You'll notice the way the -lt- changes to -ll- sometimes for no apparent reason. This is something Finnish does just to mess with foreigners.

Be grateful, Anglophones, that all we have to think about most days is what the damn words mean.

* At least, this is what cases do in the Western languages that I have had the opportunity to study in depth. If anyone with a good working knowledge of Chinese, Japanese, Javanese, Thai, or anything else wants to chime in and correct me, I will be delighted.

National Grammar Day Preparatory Academy, Vol. 1

Did you know we have a National Grammar Day? It is true. It seems we have all manner of National Days lately, though I haven't yet tracked down which government office is ultimately responsible for the proliferation of Days. When I do, I fully intend to send them a card. The point is this: National Grammar Day is on March 4, and March 4 is fast approaching. Steps must be taken. Can we really expect to wallow happily in the mud of English usage for a mere twenty-four hours with no preparation? Of course not! Rash to even consider it!

With that in mind, every other day from now until National Grammar Day, I will be sharing my commentary upon tidbits from Noble Butler's A Practical and Critical Grammar of the English Language (1874). This book is dense, and coolly angry. Many footnotes take up more than half a page. It is obsessively taxonomical, and approaches English as though it were a rare and precious species of butterfly that must be thoroughly anaesthetized before being put on display in a quiet room somewhere out of direct sunlight with a shiny pin through its once-beating heart.

What fun!

Let us start with gender. Many of you are under the impression that we have no grammatical gender in English. According to the Practical, you are wrong:

I apparently have no gender, nor does my parent. Or, it seems, that sheep -- and maybe I'm the only one who finds the sequence parent-cousin-sheep-I-who a little bit hilarious. I am left wondering what the next word might be.

The Practical goes on to state that some classes of nouns "have no common gender, but only those which denote males and females." The example? Horse. Horse, it seems, is masculine, in contrast with mare. Apparently Noble Butler has never heard of either a stallion or a gelding. The Practical's advice for such nouns is either use both (brothers and sisters), circumlocute (children of the same parents), or:

Men get horses, and women get geese. Does that strike anyone else as a little unfair?

Lest you think I am reading unnecessary bias into this starchy Victorian tome, the following passage helpfully clarifies:

The upshot: speaking proper English requires having a full set of gender stereotypes in place before you even open your mouth.