Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Wine-tasting for writers

Today Rob and I hosted about fifteen writers for a wine-tasting. We tasted a variety of wines from top-shelf to rock-bottom. The idea was to learn how a wine snob would approach wine as opposed to a hard-nosed detective. I asked Rob to find some flawed wines as a contrast to the good ones. As a non-wine geek, I have learned that I can tell the difference between bad and good wines, but that mediocre and good are harder to tell apart.

He arranged the afternoon into three flights of wine. Each flight looked at a different common style of wine. Here’s the fact sheet he prepared for the folks who attended today.


Sutter Home
White Zinfandel (rosé)
California, 2006

As the bottle proudly proclaims, this is the original “White Zinfandel”. While certainly not the first rosé produced from Zinfandel, it was the first made is the light-bodied sweet style and marketed aggressively. It is produced from Zinfandel grown and vinified in California´s central valley on a prodigious scale. It is a true mass-market wine.

Domaine Sautereau
Sancerre rosé, Côtes de Reigny
Loire Valley, France, 2006

Situated in the village of Crezancy this 18 hectare estate has been producing wine for 9 generations. Sancerre is primarily of producer of Sauvignon Blanc but Pinot Noir is also grown to make red wine and occasionally rosés such as this one.


Chardonnay, Oracle Vineyard
Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2003

Included today as an example of an overtly flawed wine. It has been “cooked” in transport. Wine is a living substance and poor handling can injure or kill it. This is one gross example of such abuse.

Domaine Dujac (Druid)
Meursault, Le Limozin
Burgundy, France, 2000

Domaine Dujac is a highly respect producer of red burgundy in Morey-St. Denis. This is an unusual example of a white, which is produced from purchased grapes of the Le Limozin vineyard (a village cru but one of premiere cru status). This is Chardonnay but made is a racy and refined style.

Alexander Valley, 2005

California Chardonnay – big, buttery, oaky. Love or hate it, this is what built the California wine industry into what it is today.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Barton & Guestier
Vin De Pays, Cabernet Sauvignon
France, 2003

This is a typical inexpensive table wine, a style produced around the world for everyday consumption. A comparable American example would be Charles Shaw (2 buck Chuck) from Trader Joe’s. Grapes, or juice, or even finished wine is purchased, blended and bottled by some entity which then sells the wine under its own brand. Occasionally, one finds a pleasant bottle in this category but they are intrinsically generic.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley, 1998

While this winery is within the Napa Valley appellation, the vineyards and winery are near the top of Mt. Veeder at an elevation of 1,800 to 2,400 feet. Robert Travers, the winemaker, strives to make intense, long-lived wines in the tradition of great red Bordeaux which express the personality of the vineyard – the terroir. Like nearly all Bordeaux, this is a blend with small portions of Cabernet Franc and Merlot added to the Cabernet Sauvignon for balance and complexity.

I suspect we will do another of these. The thought at the moment is to do a vertical flight (same wine, different years) to show how wines evolve. Also we’re thinking of pouring the wine in three different types of wine glasses to show how the vessel can impact the flavor.

What would you want to get out of a wine tasting for writers?

Using rejections constructively

I had one of those days where two rejections arrived at once. I do try to view every rejection as constructive criticism, even when I think the person might be cracked. If nothing else, this is a reader response and I try to ferret out any clues about what isn’t working. I don’t go crazy with it, but it does help. Still two at the same time is never pleasant.

So, in order to find ways to use these two constructively, I just papier-mached them into Coraline’s head. I feel much, much better now.

Palms passing in the night

Wednesday night as I was on my way to the KGB reading (which I quite enjoyed) I was writing on my Palm Pilot, as I do on the subway. A man standing in front of me said, “Is that a….Zire 71?”

“Zire 72.” I looked up, surprised at being addressed and more surprised that he almost got it right. Also relieved that he was dressed like a successful businessman. I pulled the case down a bit so the camera could show. “It’s got a camera. They don’t make it anymore, which is terribly distressing.”


“I like having the camera.”

“Yeah, but they have other cameras, like the Treo.” He held up his palm, encased in a translucent gel.

I explained that I liked the graffiti and didn’t like the thumb keyboard. He said, “Yeah, I noticed you really working the graffiti.”

“I’m writing a novel on this.”

He laughed. “No way.”

“Yes. A lot of it on the subway, which amuses me no end. Writing graffiti on the subway..”

Aiming his palm at mine, he beamed his contact information across as the train pulled into a station. “You have got to contact me. My email is in there.”

I assured him that I would and then he got off the train. I pulled up his contact information.

Except it wasn’t there. The story I was working on was saving when he beamed and I think the address just didn’t take. That or he beamed me the wrong thing. It is frustrating. I sent an email to Palm’s NYC retail store, but I think it’s a long shot.

Drat. It was one of the more pleasant encounters on the train. I wonder what he was going to say.

Researching cherries for Shades of Milk and Honey

When I was in high school on the debate team, and then again in college, my coaches emphasized the importance of finding primary sources. My debate partner and I had that particular lesson hammered home when we lost a round because we had relied on a secondary source, a newspaper article. It was reliable, the Wall Street Journal, but our opponents had gone back to the primary source — the study quoted in the article — and was able to produce two different quotes that showed ours was out of context and in fact represented the opposite of what we had presented it as. It was humiliating.

So, when I’m researching now for a show or a story, I’ll follow the bibliography trail back as far as I can trying to find my way back to the primary source. This has lead to everything from realizing that in fact we had picked the wrong sacred tree for a show set in India, to discovering that a historical character in a story had a death in the family during the period I was writing about them. That moment of discovery is wonderful and leads to richer stories.

Now, it’s not always possible to get primary sources, but a whole slew of reliable secondary sources will often do the trick.

But my favorite of all sources is called, “the expert witness.”

For instance: I’ve been trying to find out what fake cherries would have been made out of for millinary purposes. I have a scene in which Jane is trimming a bonnet. It’s a small detail, but I wanted to know. I checked online first, because it’s easy. Then I headed to the library. Loads of stuff on period hats and how they were trimmed, but nothing on what artificial cherries were made of. It was very frustrating.

This meant it was time to contact an expert witness since I had exhausted my other availble avenues. I wrote to Mr. Keith Dansey at Hat Works Museum and explained my question.

He just wrote back and has given me permission to excerpt his answer here.

We do have at least one hat in our display collection trimmed with imitation red currants, not precisely the same fruit, to be sure, and dated 1920 somewhat later than the period you have focused on. These are made of glass and possibly exemplify a millinery tradition encompassing the early 19th century.

Additionally, an 18th century German chemist by the name of J. Strasser developed a method if making imitation gems from ‘paste’ which is a lead glass compound. Possibly imitation fruits might be made from this. On the basis of this flimsy evidence, my money would be on some kind of glass. Other malleable materials, say, wax or plaster present with obvious problems.

His flimsy evidence beats anything else I’ve got. So now, not only do I have my answer for the scene I’m writing, I have a great detail for a later scene in which the hat reappears. It gets thrown to the ground on a marble floor. I’ve got glass cherries on it. Making a cherry crack on impact is the perfect accent to the emotion of the moment. I’m delighted on so many levels.

Expert witnesses are wonderful.

Tangent Online reviews Talebones, #35, Summer 2007

Michele Lee at Tangent Online reviews Talebones, #35, Summer 2007. About my story, she says:

“Death Comes But Twice” by Mary Robinette Kowal is a style of horror (with a spike of science fiction) not seen often today. Obviously rooted in classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this tale of a medical experiment to ward off death addresses the reader directly and has a dark finale and the fine writing that readers have come to expect from Kowal.

I have to say that I’m really relieved that she recognized it as science-fiction, even though it’s way, way, way old school. I had in fact just been in a production of Jekyll and Hyde and had that startling moment of epiphany when I realized that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote science fiction. And snobby people say the science fiction can’t be literature. Feh.

It’s only temporary

I did not work on Coraline at all. So there.

Because we were nervous about money, I signed up with a temp agency right after we got to NYC. They sent me out on a gig last week, which was only one day long. It was very, very easy receptionist work. The company requested me for another project. This time, it’s a week long. The funny thing is, that I really don’t have time to do this temp job but, because of the way temp agencies work, I had to say yes to it. At the beginning, you have to take the jobs that come in so that you can establish a track record with the agency.

I’m busy right now, with work, but the joy of free-lancing is that I don’t know about next month. I might really need temp work next month. I hope not, but still.

So I spent yesterday verifying names on a mailing-list and then at lunch, I worked on proof-reading a manuscript, which is one of my free-lance gigs. So my brain was very tired by the end of the day. After work, I went to Altered Fluid (writing group) for the weekly meeting and then out to dinner with the gang afterwards. I’m just too tired to think about working on Coraline, which is just as well, I suppose.

At the moment, I find myself with the interesting dilemma of her feet. For display, flat feet will look better but the movement will be awful. With a puppet, I’d angle her toes up slightly like the sole of a clog, so that it would get good rollover and offer a more natural stride. (While I was reading the My New Leg blog, I kept thinking about how many of the movement challenges were mechanically similar to building a puppet let.) I was hired to make a doll, but I’m a puppeteer, so what I’m really making is a toy puppet. I know she won’t ever see performance, so the flat feet make sense it just feels very, very strange to build that way.

Maybe that’s just because I’m tired.

Charlies Diary: Tools of the Trade: Readings

Charles Stross has some excellent advice on Readings. Check it out.

A friend, who recently sold her first novel, wrote to me paraphrased: “help I’m supposed to be giving a reading from my work at a science fiction convention. What do I do?”

Readings, like signings, are one of the epiphenomena of writing: not a central part of the business, but people give you funny looks if your first reaction on being invited to do one is to shriek and hide up a tree.

Writing on the train

Good heavens. I just realized that I wrote 1520 words today. But I only wrote while I was on the subway. I use my palm pilot and usually just get a few lines in using graffiti, but took the train to Brooklyn today. Since I knew I’d be on a long time, I unpacked the folding keyboard and held it on my lap. 1500 words… maybe I should visit Brooklyn more often.

One Month

I realized late last night that we moved a month ago. Rob is celebrating by being in Oregon at IPNC. I spent the day hanging out with Livia Llewellyn, who has got to be one of the coolest people I know. It was so nice to spend time with someone who totally gets the theater/writing world parallels.

She’d had a rough day on Friday so I offered her cake and wine tasting. We went to the Hungarian Pastry Shop, up the street from my place for pastries. Oh my. Heavens. When you come visit, I’ll take you there too.

After indulging, we strolled over to Martin Brother’s Wines and Spirits, which has wine tastings every Friday and Saturday evening from 5:30-7:30. We tried a Chateau de Pourcieux Rose and the Wombat Shiraz. I picked up a bottle of the Rose, and Livia took home a bottle of the Shiraz.

All in all, it was a really great day. The only thing that would have improved it, is if Rob were home.

Reading, writing, and painting

I spent today alternating between writing, proofreading, working on Rob’s new website (I’ll show you when it’s finished) and painting. My eyes are crossing. I didn’t leave the apartment today. Tomorrow, we go to pick up some bookshelves (yay!) and a desk for Rob.

From Racine to Bradford

First of all, I have to say that Brad and his wife, Joanne, are fantastic hosts. Brad made an amazing meal, including a handmade spinach, prosciutto raviolli, a wonderful mixed vegetable dish with a vinegrette marinade and quite possibly the most elegant sandwich I have experienced–to say that it was a ham and cheese does not do it justice.

For those of you who are thinking, “Wait–isn’t Mary a vegetarian?” the answer is yes and no. I tend to be, but I am much more interested in good and interesting food than I am in being a stickler for no meat. So, knowing that Brad was a foodie, I was only too happy to eat whatever he wanted to make. Dinner was very, very good. My advice is to figure out a way to get him to cook for you.

Also, and I don’t usually say such things, his wife Joanne is distractingly beautiful. Also sweet and funny. The entire visit was quite wonderful.

We left about 8:00 this morning. In Indiana, we crossed over “Nameless Creek.” (I would have taken a photo, but the batteries are dead. Tomorrow, I’ll try to resume the photography of our trip.) We made good time to Ohio, except for Detroit and Chicago which had major road construction. I don’t mind being in the truck for days, but I am getting really tired of being jostled. There’s something about the way the truck, our belongings and the road interact that periodically causes us to get shaken back and forth so that our heads bounce against the seat backs. This is the first road trip where I haven’t wanted to read, even though I brought plenty of books.

To put this in perspective, we used to drive between Raleigh and Chattanooga a couple of times a year when I was growing up. I would read for the whole trip, even in the Nandahala Gorge. I’ve never had motion sickness issues. But in this vehicle, the thought of picking up a book is really not appealing.

However, I have gotten a fair bit of writing done.

We arrived safely at the Scalzi compound and were treated to another wonderful meal. You know how Scalzi is always going on about how fabulous his wife Krissy is? Yeah, there’s a reason for that. He’s not exaggerating in any respect. Corn on the cob, grilled portabello mushrooms, pasta salad… mmm. After dinner we watched fireflies on the lawn.

Wistful Writings: Prime Codex – Review

Prime CodexPaul Abbamondi just reviewed Prime Codex the anthology from Paper Golem that I have a story in.

A short piece that is positively sure to get you to mutter “a-ha!” at its cruelly twisted reveal, “Rampion” by Mary Robinette Kowal is the sort of story that is most enjoyable on its first read. Read it without distractions, and enjoy.

He says equally nice things about the rest of the anthology and closes by saying:

Prime Codex has a bit of everything as well: from crisp offerings of science fiction to haunting tales of pure, magical fantasy, everything within is worthwhile. An excellent debut from Paper Golem, with smart choices from Lawrence M. Schoen and Michael Livingston. Come on, order your copy.

My sentiments exactly.

Allergies, writing, packing, soup and the computer.

My allergies woke me up around 5:30 by making the roof of my mouth itch. It drives me crazy. The bonus is that I was up early enough to bake a raspberry coffee cake before the day got hot. And I didn’t feel at all guilty about taking a nap in the afternoon.

I spent much of today writing, which felt good. It’s one of the stories that I had an accessible backup of, in part because I’d uploaded the beginning of it. Handy that. I now understand why Jay Lake says that he emails his writing progress to himself at the end of each day. Smart.

I also did some more packing, but that’s pretty much status quo these days.

For dinner I made a beet and cucumber gazpacho that is the most stunning color I’ve ever seen in a soup. We had a spinach avocado salad with creamy wasabi dressing.

There is hope for my computer and the files therein. I tried Rob’s recovery cd and the mouse worked! Huzzah. But it wouldn’t load all the way because it was for a sony and all proprietary and stuff. BUT that means that it’s almost definitely a registry/driver issue. I’m downloading a LiveCD version of Ubuntu, which should enable me to get the trapped files off the laptop. I had backed up two days before the crash, but the two days included a logo design and some serious novel revisions. I have pdfs of the logo, but not the native editable files, unless I can get back into my computer. Wish me luck.

Tomorrow, I’m making a carrot zucchini bread if anyone wants to stop by for a treat.

It’s official! NYC

Mr. B– called today and said that we have the official-in-writing confirmation from the landlord. We move in on June 28th.


Matt Wallace reviewed Apex #9 and had this to say about my story.

Next up, flash fiction from Mary Robinette Kowal. It pains me to say this, but “Locked In” really didn’t get it done for me. It certainly didn’t have the impact that it seemed to have on others. I love Ms. Kowal to death, she’s a woman of many talents. She illustrated one of my stories and did a beautiful job. But this just struck me as a throwaway tale. The reason is the ending, I think. Because the story is well-written, and the narrative style was engaging (“the ball” is a great device). But where everyone else seemed to find the twist ending sick and shocking, I was let down. It was predictable and felt kinda cheap to me, like she hadn’t earned it. That sounds harsh, but that was my reaction, man. What’re you gonna do?

The interesting thing for me is that the “ouch” of this doesn’t come from the fact that he didn’t like it, but that the flaw that people seem to complain about in my writing is that it is predictable. Now, what I’m trying to figure out is if that’s a problem. See, in every case it’s been in a story where I wanted to the reader to understand what was happening before the character did. For me, when I’m watching a movie, or a play, or reading a book, it’s most tense when I know something bad is about to happen but the stupid main character is just blithely charging ahead.

I keep trying to do that because I like the sensation of mentally yelling “No, no, no!” at the main character. So, what I’m trying to figure out for myself is if the “predictable” tag means that there are people who don’t like that, or if I should tip my hand less about where we are going in a story.