February 29

Enslavement in Colonial America: Research for a book

Like most writers, I do research for my books. I’m aware of the argument that since I write fantasy I don’t necessarily need to as I can make anything up so long as it works within the world I’ve created, but I find that research can easily make your story richer, whether the research sparks an idea for your story or helps you understand your world better. I’ve done a lot of research on Colonial America to get a better sense of what Arabella is like as a character, her views on the world and what her life experiences would be.

Something I found interesting in my research was that slaves were both Black and White. Had I read that right? I didn’t recall learning about an Irish slave trade along with African Slave trade in American history class.  So I dug deeper. This is what I found:

Originally slavery started off being called “Indentured Servitude.”  The way most people hear about this is that immigrants would find a sponsor, promise to work for them for a certain number of years to repay the debt that brought them over, and travel to Colonial America, where they would keep their word. Becoming an Indentured Servant was not always voluntary though. Anthony Johnson was captured  by neighboring tribesmen in 1620 and sold to a Merchant. He was shipped to Virginia and sold to a tobacco farmer as an Indentured Servant. Indentured Servants were treated like slaves.

Servants had to obey their master’s whim, endure whatever punishment they deemed proper.  The master could also sell, loan, or trade them out. If a servant tried to run, punishments could be severe, and not necessarily fair.  A famous example of this is John Punch.  He ran away from his master with a Dutch and a Scott.  All three were recaptured and brought to court.  The Dutch and Scott were given several lashings and a few more years of service were added to their contract as punishment.  John, being from Africa, was sentenced to  indentured servitude for the rest of his life–not the rest of his master’s life, but his life.  The main difference between slavery and servitude was that if the servant survived to complete his term, the servant received a small compensation, like land or money to help the former servant set out on his or her own.

Anthony Johnson served fourteen years as a servant. Once completed, he was granted some land and the basic necessities to start his own farm. He and his wife started sponsoring other people to come to the colonies, taking advantage of the fact that by doing so they’d be awarded 50 acres of land. In 1654, Johnson’s servant, John Casor, claimed his contract was only for seven or eight years and that he’d paid it and should be made free.  It is unknown if  Johnson granted his freedom and changed his mind or if Casor left him to work for another man on his own.  But Johnson filed a lawsuit saying that Casor was his servant until Casor’s death, and won.

Some argue Johnson, from Africa, became the first legal slave owner of another man from Africa. However, some argue that John Punch was the first legal slave, making Hugh Gwyn the first legal slave owner.  And others argue that African slavery occurred from the moment the first one stepped on the American shores in 1619.  Whatever side you stand on, seven years after Johnson earned Casor as a slave, Virginia made this legal for everyone. And it spread from there.

So how do whites get into this atrocious playground?

From 1492 to 1921, the Irish fought for independence from England. In December 24, 1601, The Battle of Kinsale  took place. It was one of the major bids for freedom. The English won and were left with 30,000 prisoner of wars to deal with. King James I sold them to settlers in the New World. According to Dailykos,  “the first recorded sale of Irish slaves was to a settlement in the Amazon in 1612, seven years before the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown.” In 1625, James signed a proclamation that required Irish political prisoners to be sold to English settlers. According to global research, “Ireland quickly became the biggest source of human livestock for English merchants. Most of the early slaves to the New World were actually white.” The traders, in their zest, would sometimes steal English or French citizens by accident.

Ireland’s population in 1641 was 1,466,000 but by 1652 the population was down to 616,000. Some of the drop was due to people dying or being banished during the Confederation War, but 300,000 were sold as slaves. Since those who were banished or sold as slaves were not allowed to take their families with them, their was a growing number of homeless women and children.

As a solution to the growing homeless population, over 100,000 Irish children were sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. Upon their arrival to their new “home,” most of the children were given new names with the hope they’d eventually forget their nationality and ideals.

From 1651 to 1660 there were more Irish slaves in America than the entire non-slave population of the colonies! This was because the Irish were cheaper to buy. African slaves cost 50 sterling. The Irish cost 5 sterling. Since an Irish slave was easier and cheaper to replace than an African one, the owner was less worried about losing an Irish slave to abuse, or age.

Not all the Irish that were sent into slavery made it to their destination. Typically 37% to 50% of the people transported died, and in at least one incident 132 slaves were thrown overboard to drown. The ships’ supplies were low and insurance would only pay if the slaves died by accident instead of by starvation. Similar stories are found in regards to African slaves. If the slaves were “lucky” enough to reach their destination, they were inspected like cattle and sold. Because their skin color was so similar to their masters, they’d be branded with their master’s initials–women on the arm, men on the buttocks–to distinguish them.

Women were sold as sexual slaves to plantation owners and brothels. They were often bred, because while a woman may only have to serve ten years as a servant if she survived, her children were slaves for life. Most mothers would stay in servitude to stay with their children after their time was up.  Eventually Irish women and African men were coerced into having children together, though there were some voluntary matches. Eleanor Butler is a famous example of a white Indentured servant voluntarily marrying an African slave named “Negro Charles.” The goal for the, often forced coupling, was to produce children with lighter skin for a higher price. When this practice started to affect the profits of the Royal African Trading Company, it became illegal to breed the Irish and Blacks together.

From 1600 to 1699, far more Irish were sold as slaves than Africans. And selling the Irish as slaves didn’t stop. In fact, thousands of Irish slaves were sold to both America and Australia after the 1798 Rebellion.

In 1839, the English forbade the slave trade.

I knew from the beginning that my character Arabella was Irish and born in the late seventeenth century.  She could have been born a slave, or brought over to be made one. And if she managed to escape slavery, she was lucky to have done so. I have a new angle to explore because of this history. What is something that inspired an event, tradition or history in your story?  How’d it turn out?









February 22

Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is a bit controversial. I’ve heard complaints that judging a book or movie based on whether it passes the Bechdel test is unfair. A good movie is still a good movie, and I tend to agree.  But the Bechdel test isn’t meant to decide if a book or movie is good or not. The original Star Wars movies fail the Bechdel Test but the first two episodes of the prequel trilogy pass. The Bechdel test doesn’t even  determine if a show is feminist. In fact, there are shows that are misogynistic but still pass the Bechdel test. Instead the Bechdel Test is a standard for judging female interactions in a piece of media.

For those who aren’t aware, to pass the Bechdel test:

  1. There must be more than one female character
  2. who must have a conversation
  3.  about something other than a man

Other than a man.  That does not mean the movie or book passes the test if they’re talking about their father, grandfather, brother, nephew, because those are men! The topic of discussion doesn’t matter so long as it doesn’t involve men, so it could be something stereotypically feminine, such as clothes, hair, shoes, or they could talk cars or sports, etc.

However, the definition of “conversation” can come into question.  Depending on how you want to interpret the information, the last Harry Potter movie may or may not pass the test. The women do speak to each other.  Professor McGonagall tells Molly “I’ve always wanted to do that,” when she brings the stone statues to life and Molly calls Bellatrix a bitch.  Technically they’re communicating with another female, but if they’re talking at the character and the character they spoke to doesn’t respond–did they pass?

Some say yes.  Some say no.

There are times when it isn’t necessary for a woman to appear in a book or movie, such as if the story is in a male prison, and not every movie needs to pass.  The Bechdel test attempts to show how women are presented in the media.  They’re often trophies or shown as obsessed with men, but men have more to them than simply being interested in women.

Other Bechdel tests have emerged as well.  One is the Racial Bechdel test.  To pass that one:

  1. There must be more than one character of color
  2. At least two characters of color must have a conversation
  3. The conversation has to be about something other than a white person

The Movie Hachi with Richard Gere passes the Racial Bechdel test. However, the Racial Bechdel test has the same flaws as the traditional one.

The most that can be said for certain of either Bechdel test is that it gets people talking.

If you write books, do your stories pass the Bechdel test?  Does your favorite book or movie? Do you think the Bechdel test is good, bad, or neutral?

February 18

V for Vendetta: Body Language

I’ve spent some time recently watching V for Vendetta. For those who don’t know it’s a movie set in England. V is a terrorist both seeking revenge and trying to free the people from the military-state government that has formed. As a writer what caught my interest the most with this movie is the fact V always wears a Guy Fawkes mask. We never see his face.

While we never see V’s true facial expressions, we get a good idea of his emotional state from his body language. It could be how he tilts his head, places his hands on his body or a prop, or the tone of his voice, but we know when he’s angry, sad, lonely, etc. It’s an interesting study.

As writers we tend to focus on the characters facial expressions to convey their emotional state. V reminds writers that body language can say just as much, if not more of a characters thoughts and emotions. Capturing every mannerism is impossible, or at least unrealistic. Some of the descriptions will be far too awkward or would slow the pace too much, while others would be too vague with what you’re trying to convey or misinterpreted to mean something else. However, watching V interact with people on the screen, is a great reminder that when trying to convey a character’s emotions, don’t be afraid to turn the eye from the character’s face to their body.

There is a fantastic book that will help you figure out what type of body language you can show for a particular emotion, if you struggle with that aspect in your writing. I highly recommend The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.  So, grab the book, if you need it and find a scene in your current Work in Progress and see how the scene reads once you replace descriptions of facial expressions with other types of body language.

January 31

Coldest Girl In Cold Town

Coldest GirlTana lives in a world where walled cities called Coldtowns exist. In them, quarantined monsters and humans mingle in a decadently bloody mix of predator and prey. The only problem is, once you pass through Coldtown’s gates, you can never leave.
One morning, after a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only other survivors of this massacre are her exasperatingly endearing ex-boyfriend, infected and on the edge, and a mysterious boy burdened with a terrible secret. Shaken and determined, Tana enters a race against the clock to save the three of them the only way she knows how: by going straight to the wicked, opulent heart of Coldtown itself.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a wholly original story of rage and revenge, of guilt and horror, and of love and loathing from bestselling and acclaimed author Holly Black.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is one of those rare Young Adult books that have me re-reading it both for enjoyment and to try to understand the author’s writing techniques. I’ve happily purchased this book and plan to continue re-reading and dismantling the book to my heart’s content.

Tana is refreshing. She isn’t a special snowflake, a lost princess or a chosen one.  She’s an ordinary girl with history and flaws, who is simply trying to survive in a world where vampires are a very real fear. She does her best, but she isn’t perfect. She makes mistakes and makes questionable decisions.  However, instead of her decisions being made because Black requires it, Tana has strong reasons for making them, giving her agency.

Black avoids stereotypes and tropes. Tana is not a virgin, but she’s not a hyper-sexualized being like I so often see in young adult books. She sits comfortably between those two extremes. Not all the characters in the book are heterosexual. Some are straight, some are bi and at least one is transsexual.

There is a bit of a romance in the book, but no love triangle, and Tana’s love interest is absent for half of the book. His absence allows Tana to figure out how to survive on her own, how to stay human on her own and how to save herself. She fights for herself and for other people, instead of waiting for someone to rescue her. Independent female characters with agency are rare in Young Adult fiction, especially when they have a romantic interest.

I love how Holly Black packs so much information about a character, or a setting in a single, descriptive sentence.  I keep re-reading her book partly to learn this skill and become proficient with it. I love her ability to show, and not tell. But, beyond her skills as a writer, I enjoy the story itself.

The book isn’t perfect. I don’t like Black’s trademark style of delving into the past every other chapter instead of staying in the story’s present. I know a few people who love that aspect to her books. I’ve always had mixed feelings on the ending. The story arc does end. However, there is room for a sequel. We’re left to decide if Tana manages to “cure” herself or if she damns herself, even with the help of her love interest. This wouldn’t bother me if I knew a second book was coming, but as of this writing, Black says she doesn’t anticipate writing a sequel.

If you don’t mind vampire novels that don’t follow the norm, pick up The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and give it a try.

January 20

New Papercuts Podcast Released

I don’t imagine I’ll do this often, but since I did take a year-long hiatus from this blog, I thought I should mention that I am a founding member of Papercuts Podcast and one of three hosts.

We use the podcast to praise/bitch about the state of Young Adult media. We feature: YA book and movie reviews, trope talks, author interviews and whatever else us girls find relevant. We recently released our latest Podcast.  This one is on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where the goal is to write 50,000 words in thirty days. We discuss tips and tricks on how to win NaNo. The reasons you should and shouldn’t do NaNo. What to do once NaNo is over and more.

Here’s the podcast.  Though if you want to see the real page with all the juicy stuff that’s included you can go to: http://papercutspodcast.com/?p=688.  Be warned, we don’t watch our language, hold back on threats, or hide our dirty minds.

Right click to download


January 13

Stoking the Motivational Fire in Your Writing

Writing has always been my companion. I tell people that I was born with a pen in my hand. Through my childhood, writing was my best escape from childhood bullying. It’s been my best weapon against loneliness and despair. I wrote my first novel-length story by the time I was twelve. As a college student, friends would complain that by the time they started reading my work, I’d have re-written half of it. As an adult, my motivation to write has waned. There could be any number of reasons for this, but I can’t say why.

I still love reading. I still enjoy writing, but where I used to get physically ill if I didn’t write every day, now I struggle to put pen to paper. I’ve been trying a few things out and I’m glad to say I’m getting some of my motivation back.

Return to Your Roots

Before I graduated High School I was surrounded by music. My brothers and I constantly had something playing on our CD player, or boombox. We’d dance at random intervals, simply because we really liked a particular song. I listened to songs over and over while I was writing. The music would become background noise, something I ceased to hear at one point, but writing came easily. When I got stuck on a scene in my story, or had no clue where my plot was going, I’d exchange music with one of my brothers. Usually that knocked the devilish idea I needed lose.

Music didn’t disappear once I left for college, but it became a much smaller part of my life. While surviving schoolwork, jobs, internships and a social life, I wasn’t surrounded by music. I exchanged songs with friends on occasion, but it wasn’t the same. Once I graduated with my BA, I moved to Idaho, and music took up even less of my life. I didn’t have a boombox. I had an MP3 off and on—I’m usually behind the times—and my background noise turned into movies I’d watched dozens of times over and over. Every once in a while I’d dig through my music collection and that was usually to get rid of a persistent, unending song.

Lately I’ve been returning to my music roots. I have a stereo and constantly have it playing a CD, an mp3 or the radio while I’m home. I haven’t turned the television on since getting the stereo set up in my room, and I have no immediate desire to change that. I’m shifting through YouTube and Pandora for songs that spark something in me; as well as taking recommendations from friends. My urge to write has grown significantly, though it still isn’t where it once was.

Research/Fill the Well

When I hear fill the well, it’s usually in reference to doing something physical outside of writing, like walking, going to a fair, getting out of the house. I do find those types of activities helpful, but I also find research to be equally helpful in filling my well.

While at work, if I’m not interested in listening to music, I’ll listen to documentaries on YouTube. It can be about anything, so long as it interests me. I’ve listened to videos on the history of guns, studied all the English royals, learned about Ivar the Boneless, Hellewise Pennington, and Aphra Behn. I’ve watched videos on writing, fighting, traveling, and so much more. Most of it has nothing to do with what I’m currently writing, but the new information swirls in my head, ready to be used. Sometimes, a completely random thing I hear in the video makes me look at my story in a different way, spawning potential plot bunnies for me to follow, thus getting me to write. By allowing myself to research outside of what is necessary for my book, I’m learning a lot, expanding my mind and opening the door to getting plenty more story ideas. Most importantly I’m filling the well.

Set Goals

Goals can come in different sizes. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to get a draft of my sequel completely written. Like most people I didn’t set any parameters on how I’d go about accomplishing this. This is partially because I see New Year’s Resolutions more as guides. What do I want to accomplish? And if, for some reason, I have to change the goal, I can. I’m not tied down to the stone it’s written on, so I won’t drown if I toss it in the lake.

If I write what I’d like to accomplish the next day down in my journal, I significantly increase my chances of doing it. Sometimes I’m very specific on what those goals are “I’m going to edit the entire fight scene in this book” or “I’m going to come up with new words for an hour.” Other times, I’m less specific, “I’m going to get some editing done,  or some new words written tomorrow.” Both are equally effective for me. I can celebrate my success in meeting those goals or commit to doing better in the next day’s entry, which in a weird way creates the accountability that I’ve been lacking. If you don’t keep a journal, I imagine you could post goals on your blog, or Facebook or Twitter. If you’re more private, finding a friend that will ask you “Did you make your goal?” may do the trick.

Those small, miniature, daily goals can help you work toward your big goal. If my daily goal always involves some kind of editing or writing, I’m making progress toward finishing a draft of my sequel and to completing my New Year’s Resolution.

Compete With Yourself

One thing I’m learning is that comparing yourself to other people leads to depression and writer’s block. Instead of thinking “I’m a failure. I’m twenty-six and haven’t published anything, but so-and-so is twenty-two and he/she has published so many books,” I’m trying to compete with myself. In the last few months, I’ve written down what my current word count is on the last day of each month. That way I can see how many words I wrote in the last month. I then tell myself, I’m going to write more the upcoming month. I’m going to compete with myself to get that higher word count. This pushes me to work harder without damaging my self-esteem or making me feel that no matter what I write, or how many times I re-write, I’m producing shit. It also helps keep the fire of motivation burning underneath me, so I write more regularly than I have in a long time. I’m sure I’ll experiment with other things to use against myself, but, for now, word counts work.

With bills to pay, a job to work, the stress of home life to contend with, life seems to do its best to drown the flames of your motivation. But hopefully some of these tricks will help you keep the flames burning. Have you tried any of these tricks? And what tricks do you use to stay motivated? Let me know in comments!