Sunday, September 25, 2016

We Have Names, Too



This week, the Washington Post made a spectacular – and completely avoidable – contribution to the recent spate of sexist headlines that pretend accomplished women don’t have names.
Because the most important thing about her is that she’s Tom Waits’ wife, right? Um, no. She has a name – KATHLEEN BRENNAN. The AP reporter who wrote the story grudgingly mentions this at the end of the lede paragraph.
There is no mention in the story of Brennan’s own long list of songwriting achievements. And the fact that she’s the first female recipient of this award? That “unimportant” nugget of information was relegated to the tenth paragraph in a sixteen-paragraph story.
Now, let’s parse the blame here. The Washington Post chose to put the story on its web site and wrote the headline. The AP sent the story out without moving the first-female fact higher in the text or including a single complete quote from her speech.
How is this possible? Not just because it’s 2016, for goodness’ sake. But don’t you think people would be more aware after things like the horrible Olympics coverage brought this kind of crap into gold/silver/bronze relief?
Or how about when an NBC commentator credited an amazing gold-medal winning swim by Hungarian Katinka Hosszu to her husband? Or when Katie Ledecky’s world-record obliterating swim was demoted to a subhead? (And don’t start with me about Phelps’ achievement. Yes, amazing, but the hed could easily have said “Phelps, Ledecky swim milestone races” or something similar.)


This hurts especially much for me. I am a journalist as well as a novelist. I worked as a newspaper reporter for years. I know firsthand that sometimes, mistakes happen despite the best efforts of everyone involved. But this kind of thing? This is not a best effort. This is not trying. This is lazy, and this is sexist. The defense of “well, it wasn’t meant to be,” is not a defense. It is an excuse, and it is about time that the excuses run out. Because we have names, too.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bouchercon wrap up

by
Scott D Parker

Yes, another Bouchercon post. But in my defense, this is my first con so I’m all excited.
Last week, I wrote about my first impressions of the convention itself. Today I’m focusing on the panels that I attended. I’m not sure which person or group determines the subject of the panels, but they did an excellent job. There were so many panels to choose from, and the ones I liked best work on at the same time (natch) so I had to make difficult choices.

 
First up was “Of All the Ladies I Know.” The subtitle of this panel was “Corsets and Crime.” What this panel ended up being was how these authors—all women save the moderator—wrote historical fiction from a female author’s point of view. The big name that I already knew was Laurie King, author of the Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell stories. One of the reasons why I write my stories set in the past is echoed by a quote from CS Harris: “Historical fiction eliminates technology and gadgets and relies on the wits and brains of the protagonist.” When moderator Andrew Grant asked why many of them picked a male lead character, most of the women had come to the same conclusion, because women just couldn’t do what a man could do at the time their stories were set. One particular note about dialogue was made by King: If something is factually correct but would kick the reader out of the story, she changes the word.
 

“Murder by Numbers: Ellery Queen, Their Works, and the Magazine” was a great panel. James Lincoln Warren was the moderator and the panelists included not only the current editor and book reviewer for the magazine, but Otto Penzler and Shelly Dickson Carr, the granddaughter of John Dickson Carr. This panel started with a history of Ellery Queen, the character and author. Next it touched on the magazine, its genesis and how it’s doing today. What fascinated me most was the behind-the-scenes details provided by Janet Hutchings and Steve Steinbock of how the magazine operates. 

“On the Nickel: PI” focused on private eye fiction. The biggest name on this panel was JA Jance. One of my characters is a private investigator so I wanted to see how veteran authors covered the subject matter. One of the biggest revelations was the difference between a private eye in real life and a private eye in detective fiction. No matter the medium, when dealing with fictional private eyes, they seem to always be in conflict with the police. More than one writer on this panel concluded that a good PI works with the cops and the cops accept the PIs because, in the end, they’re all going for the same thing. Good private investigators work with the cops, and that becomes their bread-and-butter cases. That would certainly make PI fiction more difficult to write.

Another great panel was “Golden Years: the Golden Age of Mystery.” Martin Edwards was the moderator and Do Some Damage’s very own Claire Booth was among the panelists. I had to chuckle when I looked around the audience wondered by how much I brought down the average age. Martin was very well prepared for this panel and even sent out questions ahead of time to give the panelists time to think about their answers. An idea that never occurred to me was that the torch of the traditional mystery has been carried on by cozy mysteries. It makes sense. Martin dug deep into the topic, trying to figure out why Golden Age mysteries fell out of fashion but also why the authors on the panels still wrote them. When asked what they had learned from Golden Age fiction, Claire was the first to respond. “Structure.” Moreover, she liked the idea of playing fair with the readers—every author repeated this comment—yet still keeping them guessing. All of the panelists concluded that entertaining readers was most important when writing. What I particularly enjoyed were the responses from the audience when the panelist named their favorite unknown Golden Age authors.

Perhaps the most surprising panel that I attended was “Bleeding Love: Romantic Suspense.” Allison Brennan was the moderator and hers was the only name I knew ahead of time even though I have not read any of her books. I like the opening question: what is romantic suspense? The panelist concurred that is a dual ending, namely a Happily Ever After ending and the Bad Guy getting caught. The hardest part, Anne Cleeland said, was having to get the love interests to fall in love quickly. This was the only panel at which I asked the question. I asked if the TV show “Castle” could be considered romantic suspense. I thought the answer was yes, and every panelist concurred. My big takeaway from this panel was from Allison herself, saying that you could do almost anything you want in romantic suspense as long as you have an HEA ending. In fact, she said that if you figure out the setup, the book all but writes itself.

Naturally I attended the “Once in a Lifetime: How Did I Get Here?” panel because it featured some Do Some Damage writers, namely Russell McLean and Jay Stringer. I had met Russell once in Houston, but I had never met Jay. The panel was as entertaining as you would expect it to be and it was fun to hear the stories of how these authors became authors and all the interesting jobs they had before they were able to quit their day jobs and write full-time. I especially liked Jay’s commentary on the difference between a “writer” and “an author.” If you look at the photograph, you’ll see Jay, far right, wearing a hat. He took off the hat and said “this is a writer.” Then, putting the hat back on his head, he spoke in a more professorial style: “And this is an author.”
Side note: that leaves only Steve Weddle as the only DSDer I haven’t met. BTW, did you read his column on Thursday? Brilliant.
So, yeah, I had a great time in New Orleans. I even managed to dictate some new chapters on the commute back to Houston. I expect this will be the last post on this subject for a time, but you never know.
One of the people I met was Susan Simpson. She’s from Alabama, and she helps run KillerBooks. For all you mystery fans out there, I have to say this is a nicely curated site devoted exclusively to mystery fiction. If you haven’t had a chance, you should head over there and take a look.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Come Down

The downside of posting on Friday is, you've probably heard everything about Boucher Con you're willing to hear, so I actually have to come up with something to say, rather than reminiscing about a great weekend filled with great writers. I thought I could talk a little about the "come down" that inevitably happens to me after conferences.

First, I have a confession to make:

I am an extrovert, and I don't drink very much.

I know I've just shattered the writer archetype, but it's who I am. I thrive on social interaction, and I love being around people. Whether it's sitting in the LitReactor booth at AWP, talking to anyone who will listen, or hanging out in New Orleans with all my favorite writer friends - I am in my element.

I do, however, drink a lot more in these fun party settings.

So Monday morning I woke up at 7 am, in my own bed, and set to getting the kid ready for school. My husband went back to work, and I found myself at home, exhausted, a little hungover, and alone.

I know a lot of people have written about how Boucher really got them excited to get to work, write as many words as possible, and read everything they can get their hands on - and that's fucking amazing. For me, it's a more uphill battle. I don't think I could have survived another day of drinking and walking those uneven sidewalks, but the absence of 1800 people to bullshit with is palpable.

I've already promised myself I'm going to make the drive to LA more often, to see all the Southern California writers I got to spend time with over the weekend, and I even started logging into Twitter more often. I know for a lot of people, more social media is definitely not the answer, but for me, if I don't get that charge from awesome people, I wilt.

The challenge is to get the charge without screwing up the time management, and it's always a little harder post-conference. As I'm writing this, it's Thursday and I've started to get back into the swing, upping my productivity outside of my daily tasks at Dirge Magazine and LitReactor where stuff has to get done regardless of how I feel. Maybe next week I'll hit full stride again.

In the meantime, I'd love for all my writer friends to share their California events with me so I know where to go to see your beautiful faces.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Brokeback Writer

By Steve Weddle

If you've felt a disturbance in the Bookternet this week, you might have been surprised to find that Franzen isn't to blame.

Merritt Tierce, recipient of awards, critical praise and sweet, sweet book money, recently wrote a 1,700-word piece for Marie Claire about the "dark side" of something called "literary fame," according to the article's deck.

Here's the piece. The main argument seems to be that she had a book come out two years ago and has not been able to live exclusively off the proceeds of that 226-page "dirty razor of prose" published by Random House.

tl;dr? Aight. Let's roll.
Love Me Back was reviewed by The New York Times ("brilliant, devastating"), the Chicago Tribune (one of their dozen best books of 2014), Texas Monthly ("one of the most mesmerizing heroines in recent fiction"), the San Francisco Chronicle ("ferociously good"), the Los Angeles Review of Books ("extraordinary"), Electric Literature ("the greatest restaurant book on earth"), mentioned in The New Yorker (twice), name-checked by St. Vincent, blurbed by Roxane Gay and Carrie Brownstein, and translated abroad. It won the Texas Institute of Letters' Steven Turner Award for Best First Fiction and was shortlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Etc., etc., etc.
Everyone loved the book, so much that she has to move to "etc etc" when the praise becomes too much to mention. That's neat. Gracious, she must be awful happy.
I had an astonishingly good first run.
Which is, for the most part, over.
Publishing has moved on to Sweetbitter and The Girls and more Harry Potter. Publishing is always moving on. Foolish poet that I am, I didn't realize how hollow that would make me feel. 
Yeah. I'm felling you. The world is full of other books. That sucks.

So, she had a job, but quit the job when the book came out, thinking that she'd live on her husband's income while working on the next book, which she says gave her stress.
I haven't been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven't produced a Second Book.
Yup. Feeling ya. Writing is stressful. Writing for sweet, sweet book money is stressful. That sucks.

Jim McCarthy, an agent and seemingly smart and clever human, said this on Twitter:
You know when to quit your day job as a writer? When you either a) have banked enough to live on for more than a few years, or... b) have published multiple books and your earnings are remarkably consistent, or c) you have someone who is willing to support you.
See if you can take a leave of absence if you get to tour your first book. Take a sabbatical. But holy christ, don't QUIT.
No author of mine has told me they were quitting their day job without giving me agita. And they mostly made the decision AS BESTSELLERS.
This business is competitive, and it is fickle, and it is difficult, and I want everyone to make a living as a writer but BE CAREFUL. PLEASE
And also? It should be noted that there is ZERO shame it being a writer with a day job. It doesn't make you less of a writer or less serious 
Long story short? I actually bought and loved your book, Merritt Tierce, but you owe me a Xanax for making it through that article.

 Yes to all those things, right?

You can make a living as a writer, of course. Nick Mamatas put it thusly:


You have to, you know, write stuff to live as a writer. Then you have to sell stuff. No one is going to pay you to sit around in your sweats all day and just type words into Scrivener. Even the Medicis needed ceilings painted.

Tierce herself addresses this in the original post about not being able to live on the proceeds from a novel you published a couple years back:
I would like to be paid to write.
I would, right now, sign in blood a contract that would pay me $40,000 a year for the rest of my life. No advances. No royalties. No freelance checks, no honoraria, no prize money, no film or TV options.
Yeah. That would be cool. I'd like to be paid to play banjo. I'm arguably one of the top five or six banjoists (yes, it's a word. shut up.) in my entire neighborhood. I'd love to be paid to just sit around and play in house without having to sell tickets to a concert or sell CDs or merch. I'd love to fly to Paris every year and eat cheese. I'd love to get through a week without pissing blood. I'd love to watch a baseball game every stinking day. None of that is likely to happen. And no one is going to pay me $5 to "just write," much less $40,000. Gracious. That's some sweet cash right there. 

I'm with Merritt Tierce there. That would be super cool. Then she says this:
At this stage in my vocational life, $40,000 is probably well below my earning capacity. I have a terminal degree from the most prestigious writing school in the country, and I've published a book with a major house—these qualify me to apply for tenure-track positions at universities.

Who the what now? Well below the what? Most prestigious? Major house? Damn it. Damn it. Why? I was totally with you. And now, now it's as if, I mean. Look, forty grand is sweet, sweet cash. Maybe these words don't argue that the author is too good for forty grand a year to just write. I dunno. Are we saying forty grand is settling for less than the author is worth? Being handed forty grand to write is taking less than what the author is worth. I mean, I think that's the argument here. I didn't got to the "most prestigious writing school in the country" and I haven't published a book with a "major house," so I'm just working with what little brain I have. But, you know, forty grand ain't no insult.

Worth more than forty grand a year. OK. Well, if I go to work in the morning making twenty grand a year, you know what I'm worth? Twenty grand a year. If I convice my boss to give me a raise of a thousand bucks a year, you know what I'm worth? A sweet twenty-one grand a year. (I didn't attend the most prestigious writing school in the country, but I can find a calculator.)

Tierce says she took a job with the post office making $16.65 an hour, but the job made her too tired to write after. Which is how we get to the idea of being paid to just write.  Yes, writing is hard. Writing when you're tired is hard. Writing before work is hard. Writing after you've spent three hours trying to help your kid through some horseshit math crap called "lattice multiplication" is hard. 

You can make a living writing, even if you're writing after work, it seems.

Ester Bloom wrote about this, in response to the Tierce column. Being a writer isn't a job


You can write as part of your job, of course. Largely that will mean doing the kind of un-fun, unsexy kind of arranging words that pays the bills: content marketing, for example, or corporate communications. Nicole Dieker is an exemplar. With hard work, she has been supporting herself as a writer for years now.

Lincoln Michel responded to Ester Bloom's response thusly: The hell it ain't:

The fact that writing is hard and there are many hobbyists doesn’t mean it isn’t a job either. It is very hard to be a professional athlete or a head chef, and many people practice sports or cooking as hobbies. But we would not pretend an NBA player or a head chef doesn’t have a job.
The more important point is that something can be a job even if it doesn’t pay you as much as you wish it would.
And that's really the point, isn't it? It can be a job even if the pay is poop. You can go broke working a a job that doesn't pay enough to live on.

You can't get by for years on one novel. Who are the super-successful novelists? Evanovich. Grisham. King. Many others. Each of those writers has published a novel since you started reading this post. Patterson has published six. Not written. Published. No one gives a crap how many novels you've written. Did you ask the pizza person how many pizzas she made today? No. You paid for the one you consumed. When a publishing house buys your book, they pay for product, not process. Yes, even a Major House.

I'm with Tierce that writing is tough, stressful and that trying to live for years on the proceeds of one highly praised novel is tough. She said she's sold about 12,000 copies. If you get a couple bucks for each hardback -- after you've earned out your advance -- then 12,000 copies at two bucks is 24 grand. (I don't know the terms of her contract, of course, though I do have access to that calculator, still.)

Can you live for a few years on 24 grand? Some do. Of course, they'd much rather get paid 40 grand a year for just writing or playing the banjo, I imagine.

For what it's worth, I don't have a problem with anything Tierce said in her 1,700-word piece in Marie Claire. I think she's wrong on many points, but I appreciate her writing about what she's gone through. I've read as much of her fiction as she's read of mine, I figure, so I can't speak to the novel itself, though I've no doubt it's wonderful.

You can make more money by publishing more than just a novel every few years, of course. You can write columns and Kindle singles and stories. I published a short story in a glossy last year and that alone has made me more money than all my other writing combined. Publishing is weird.

Here's a list of magazines that pay writers

You know who is on that list? Marie Claire.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Ro's Jambalaya is Delicious

By Holly West

Just yesterday, as we said goodbye in the hotel lobby, Scott Adlerberg and I lamented about what we'd write for our Do Some Damage posts this week. He came up with a good one, so if you missed yesterday's post, here it is. What he said, although in my case, I'm reading Ro Cuzon's UNDER THE DIXIE MOON, which is also set in New Orleans. It's noir at its sweaty, gritty best and Ro's writing chops are top notch, particularly for this type of fiction.

Note: Having eaten some of his fine jambalaya this past week in New Orleans, I suspect his pork chops probably are pretty good, too.

I'm not too big on conference wrap-ups, I'm not sure why. Let's just say Bouchercon 2016 was a great conference where I strengthened many friendships and cultivated some new ones. This, for me, is what it's all about.

Beyond that, I want to mention a couple of things that stood out to me while I was at the conference, both of which occurred during Harlan Coben's interview with Michael Connelly. Harlan told us his breakout book--Tell No One, if I'm not mistaken--was the tenth novel he'd written. Furthermore, his advance for the first Myron Bolitar book was $5000. His advance for the fourth? $6000.

Clearly, the path to becoming a best selling author can be a long and arduous one and most of us probably won't make it at all. Which is a little depressing to think about, right? But the information Harlan shared actually inspires me and makes me feel better about where I'm at in my career. My first two books did not sell very well and sometimes this gets me down but I need to remember that there will be other books (provided I stop f*cking around and finish the one I've been talking about for two years).

Other than that, I'm exhausted and happy and ready to work. So let's do it.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Beauty and Doom


With the New Orleans shindig over, it's time to get back to work. I have a novel to finish and a short story for an anthology to write, so those should keep me busy for awhile. Meanwhile, I'll be hanging around NOLA for a bit longer because I'm finally reading James Sallis' The Long-Legged Fly. I started it on the flight down to New Orleans and will be finishing it on the flight back (I'm writing this on the first leg of my trip, NOLA to Houston).  Sallis' novel is a beautifully crisp, affecting and evocative private eye novel so far, and I can't wait to spend more time in the presence of PI Lew Griffin.



As for New Orleans itself, say whatever else you want about it, for all the problems it has and has long had, it's one of those cities that contains an abundance of beauty.  No matter how many books you read or movies you see set there, that beauty strikes you when you're walking around or riding a streetcar. I wasn't surprised to read that other people have compared the city to Venice, Italy.  Different cultures, different histories, but I thought of Venice and my one visit there years ago as I was wandering around the French Quarter, Algiers, and Marigny.  The connection to Venice isn't just because of the physical beauty and the constant presence - in particular locations - of tourists, but because New Orleans, like Venice, has the aura of being a doomed city. At any time (and as everyone has seen), watery disaster can strike this city and threaten to wipe it out.  You get all that hedonism, that intoxication, that willing surrender to pleasure, and who knows when the end will come? Of course, the uncertainty about when and how things will end goes for everything and everyone anywhere in the world, but it just seems heightened and made more palatable in a place as sensuous and idiosyncratic as New Orleans.

Meanwhile, and not related to any of what's written here, I'm pondering whether I should open the crummy snack mix pack they just gave me on my plane flight. This junk after the food in New Orleans?

I need a drink.

Sadly, it won't be a Sazerac.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Answer Is In The Definition

Over the past few weeks there's been a bit of brouhaha in the realm of writers over cultural appropriation. You see, an author spoke at a festival and made some comments that freaked people out and around the world everyone had to stick their oar in.

Anyone familiar with the academic world has heard about the dangers of "cultural appropriation." It's a phrase used to denounce people who "steal" things from other cultures, sometimes with the aim to poke fun at that culture or -- worse -- belittle it. The debate on appropriation is one of the main fronts in the current culture war on campuses, and it's provoking heated, or overheated, conversations around the US and abroad.

The latest outburst comes in the wake of an American writer's keynote speech at a literary festival in Australia. Her name is Lionel Shriver, and she was clearly out to provoke a reaction, wearing a sombrero throughout her talk (an allusion to a kerfuffle at Bowdoin College last year, where a couple of students were censored for wearing "mini-sombreros" to a tequila party).
Shriver, as a novelist, makes several good points. As a writer, she wants to feel free to write about anything she wants. She's justifiably worried that "the kind of fiction we are 'allowed' to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we'd indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with." 
The speech brought the house down -- on her head. One novelist walked out in a fit of rage, and wrote about the incident in The Guardian, where she described Shriver's speech as "a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension."


This post isn't about Lionel Shriver and what she said, or the response to her comments. 

Not exactly.

I saw a comment online that irritated me. The result was that I started looking at this subject, and really assessing what cultural appropriation is.

Cultural appropriation... has little to do with one’s exposure to and familiarity with different cultures. Instead, cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions. 

Another definition?
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.

That's pretty generic. Of course, the description continues, although they shift the term to cultural misappropriation.

Let's head to Oxford Reference.

A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance. 

Sooner or later, as you dig into the definitions, they all seem to attach negativity to the term, and infer exploitation or subjugation of a minority culture. If that's the definition of cultural appropriation, we can just stop the discussion here and now. Certainly the idea of appropriating a culture and exploiting it for personal gain is wrong. Exploitation of any kind is wrong, especially when done with ignorance. Therefore, cultural appropriate is wrong.

End of discussion. What on earth have people been arguing about?

Where we step onto the slippery slope is the shifting definition of cultural appropriation, and what people presume or believe it means for writers.

Some people take this to mean that they shouldn't write a character from another ethnicity other than their own. Some people take it further, and think it means they shouldn't write from the perspective of a gender or sexual persuasion other than their own.

And if that's the case, then let's bear in mind that this doesn't just mean that white people can't write from the point of view of Asians or Aboriginals. It would mean that those groups couldn't write about white people either. (By population there are more people in Asia, while Europe, Canada and the US only make up 18% of the world's population.)

You see, the more I probe into this, the more it seems that the real issue is with white people writing about other cultures, and if you're a white, straight male, you'd really best stick to writing about your own kind.

The reality is that those from marginalized groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight, and, often, patriarchal,” Abdel-Magied wrote on Medium.**

So all of you non-Irish wannabes can just stop with the St. Patrick's Day celebrations and parades because you're appropriating Irish culture.... Right?

I have a very close family member who's trans. Since I'm white and straight should I not be able to write about that? I guess nobody should be able to research an extinct culture or society and write about them?

I think the key in the definition has to do with exploitation. If you want to use a cultural group to mock them or to gain from portraying them in a stereotypical way, then you will face criticism and backlash.

The real problem is trying to come up with one simple yes or no answer for whether or not writers can cross cultural lines with their characters. There is no one simple answer because it may truly depend on their motives and the manner in which they treat the group they're writing about.

In Canada and the US we've experienced the manifestations of the cultural mosaic and the melting pot. Canada's cultural mosaic approach sees people encouraged to retain their cultural heritage - a highly diverse culture. The Melting pot integrates new citizens as Americans first, and their cultural traditions and value get absorbed into the whole. A place or society in which immigrants of different cultures or races form a single culture

The result is that in both countries, people tend to have an awareness of cultural traditions and customs other than their own. 

The truth is, I think people actually, perhaps unintentionally, push writers into perpetuating stereotypes or the most commonly known elements of a culture with the push to get cross-cultural portrayals "right". 

I've been to Canada and the US. I've been to England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Belgium, Holland, Luxumbourg, France. Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Monaco. Been to Italy and the Vatican. Spent three months in Austria, more than three months in Germany and visited Switzerland. I also went to East Germany when it was still East Germany. Passed through Denmark on my way to Sweden. I've been to Costa Rica, been to Japan, been to Bali. And I've also been to Tunisia. 

And here's what I know from my own experiences. Wherever you go, people have their presumptions of your culture, which aren't always accurate. In Bali they assess you financially. Shopkeepers will ask where you're from and price their goods according to what they believe you can pay. In other places in the world, Canadians can often be defined first as being 'not Americans'. 

Everywhere I've gone I've learned things about the people there, and their customs. In many cases I've discovered things that surprised me, that reading a travel guide book didn't prepare me for the reality of. 

The group of people I've probably offended the most? Protestants from Northern Ireland. Look, I went there in 1990. I was a teenager, and although I'd experienced the collapse of the Iron Curtain and passed through Checkpoint Charlie and into East Germany, I'd never seen anything like the military presence that existed in Northern Ireland. There were freakin' gunmen positioned all along the border crossing with guns pointed at you. We're driving through Belfast (I was with an Irish family) and ended up by a military vehicle, which kept a gun pointed at us the whole time. To me, it was like entering a militarized zone. I'd never seen that amount or kind of military presence before in my life, and haven't seen it since. Of course, it didn't help that it was the Queen Mum's birthday and they were getting ready for a royal visit. However, that doesn't dismiss the fact that a week after I traveled back to the Republic of Ireland the route I'd traveled was blown up by a bomb.

And it doesn't matter that my grandfather and dad were/are Orangemen, or that my grandmother was Irish Catholic. Referring to Northern Ireland as being like a militarized zone earned me the criticism that I didn't know a blanking thing about Ireland.

Now, that was my comment after being there, made to an Irish person visiting Canada. And boy did it offend them. Was it a fair perspective of a person from my background and exposure? Sure. 

If I was writing from the perspective of a person in Northern Ireland during that time period? I wouldn't portray them as thinking of their country as a militarized zone, because to them, it would be normal. In order to really try to portray them correctly I'd need to step inside their cultural mindset and develop their perspective in the character.

However, here's another reality to consider. There is no universal truth for all Irish people. There's no universal truth for all Canadians. There's no universal truth for all people of any cultural group.

This is what leads to the suggestion that there's a right way to portray cultures in your writing. There isn't. Women don't want to be stereotypes, and cultures shouldn't be stereotypes either. Nobody should. Every person is more than just their culture. I don't mean to use 'just' as a knock, because a person's culture is important to them, and it can influence their beliefs and behavior. However, we all know that within any group of people there are a range of beliefs and customs, and these things can evolve over time. In fact, I recall when I took grade 13 social studies that we read about the cultural mosaic, and how families that immigrate often retained their cultural traditions with a rigidity that didn't exist in the country they'd left, and if they were to return to that country they'd find that they had become what would be considered old-fashioned or traditional, while the customs in the culture they'd come from may have relaxed or evolved to embrace or accept different values. 

Every person is an individual. I don't care if you're a woman writing about women - you may still not write a female character that fully embraces my values or customs. Does that make you wrong? No. Some men understand women better than other women do. 

Speaking as a Canadian, there are big differences throughout different parts of the country. In the town I grew up in some kids from the nearby reservation came to our school.  I spent the first 9 years of my school life in a class that year after year had over 90% white faces in the class photos. There was a year or two that there was a Japanese boy in our class. And he was loved. In a town that had been the site of a Japanese internment camp during WWII I can only speak to my recollection that Ben was popular and liked by everyone in our class.

As an adult I lived on the west coast, and I lived on an island that was served by a ferry that also went to a neighboring island that was a reservation. And there was a lot of tension between the residents of the two islands and a lot of hatred. I recall being cussed out by one of the Aboriginals for being white. And yet there were others from that island that came over and hung out with us.

I've also been to Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. I've been to Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk and felt welcomed. One of my best friends in high school was also part Aboriginal.

There's no universal truth for one culture's view of another or for how every person within a culture conducts themselves or what they believe.

Perhaps that's best example I can give is from my time in Tunisia. A group of us (from British Columbia) were at a restaurant and the waiter was asking where we were from and we said Canada. He automatically responded with, "Quebec." You see, with the history between France and Tunisia, people from Quebec had been traveling to Tunisia for a long time. They weren't accustomed to English-speaking Canadians visiting.

We said no and then tried to explain where BC was. It was all pleasant and fun until the poor waiter went to another table nearby and began to serve those clients. When they said they were from Quebec he said, "Canada," and they replied, "No. Quebec."

The poor waiter looked so confused. And perhaps that's one of those moments were you might just have to be Canadian to really understand; however, while the waiter most certainly accidentally offended those patrons, he in no way offended me.

If the current manuscript sees print, I may have to address this topic again. My protagonist is a French Canadian Aboriginal woman. One of the people she deals with is Aboriginal, and how culture can be a way to divide people is part of the theme of the book. Am I worried about it, in light of this recent controversy?

At the end of the day, there's only one thing that matters in your story. That you tell the story with the right characters, who are more than caricatures, and are all people. You may need to research a cultural group to really understand a character's motivations and customs, in the same way that you may need to research gender perspectives if you decide to cross gender lines, or may need to research teen trends if you're writing YA. As long as you're breathing life into your characters with sensitivity and consideration then you're fine. There will always be those that are offended, but to suggest that I don't understand what it's like to be a minority or to be discriminated against because of your race is inaccurate. I worked in Baltimore public schools, with ED kids, and had the crap kicked out of me literally because I was white. And as a Canadian married to an American I can tell you honestly that most people I've met in the U.S. have no idea I'm Canadian. Should that offend me? Should it offend them? I'd like to think the answer to both questions is no. I'm a big believer in respecting the local culture when you travel, and have always made a point of learning something about the place I'm visiting and the people who live there and respect local customs. That's why I didn't wear skirts that ended above my knee out in town in Bali, and it's why I said "GrĂ¼ss Gott" in the village where I stayed in Austria instead of "Guten tag."

I, for one, just can't worry about that because in this day and age, some people seem to want to be offended over everything. What really irritates me about this whole topic? To suggest that any individual is fully defined by the group they're culturally identified with. That's stereotyping, and whether people are black, white or pink with purple polka dots, they're people first. Every single person has a distinct past and heritage that's part of what shaped them into the person they are now... And some of us even evolve and our views change over time. I do not define all Canadians any more than I define all Caucasian women, but part of how we embrace other cultural groups and break down the stereotypes and destroy the myths about them is by respectfully and knowledgeably integrating them into our society in reality, and in our fiction.

** Not the comment that irritated me, by the way.