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Monday, April 8, 2019 - 07:00

The main focus of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is, of course, research on specific topics that fall within the historic scope of the Project. But the question of what gets studied, by whom, and in what context is affected by the trends, fashions, and politics of the modern academic community. Who is doing that primary research? Who are they in conversation with (or arguing against)? What topics will be accepted as appropriate to the scope of their academic careers and which ones can they only tackle if they have job security? What are the frameworks within which topics of queer history can be discussed? How does the existing academic language shape both what is studied and how it is interpreted?

These are all questions that play out in meta-discussions that sometimes are interesting enough on their own to make it into this blog. (Or, more often, appear in collections that also include primary topics, such as the wonderful The Lesbian Premodern collection that I had so much fun with.) Discussions like this one remind me that there are some foundational texts that I haven't covered yet, in part because they're so foundational that you can glean the gist of their relevant content simply from the way other authors react to it. But there are a couple other reasons why I've put off tackling some key works like Foucault, Boswell, Cadden, and Dinshaw. In some cases, it's because they were created before the major surge in queer historical writing and focus on issues that feel like they're taken for granted now. In some cases it's because they focus so heavily on male topics (or heterosexual topics, or both) that I know I'll spend a lot of reading time for very little relevant content. (And will spend a lot of time commenting on how the arguments and conclusions of the work unwarrantedly assume the centrality of male/hetersexual issues.) But maybe I should identify a couple months to focus on these foundational, theory-heavy texts and just get them out of the way.

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Full citation: 

Dinshaw, Carolyn. 2001. “Got Medieval?” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:2 pp.202-212

This, and next week’s article, appear to come out of a conference session inspired by Dinshaw’s book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Which I have not yet covered. In general, this article is meta-commentary on the topics of the book, rather than discussing new data or interpretations.

Dinshaw discusses the context in which she wrote the book, including as a response to John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality in conversation with Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. A central theme is the search for an “affective connection” with history, not necessarily a mimetic identification.

In this paper, Dinshaw addresses three questions about queer history and community raised in the papers of the session. [The paper appears to be something of a cumulative response presented at the end of the session--a not uncommon format for such conferences.] 1. How do you write about the daily lives of women in history without erasing their particularity in the construction of a unified Other? 2. If queer historians are identifying and constructing a queer community across time, who gets to be in that community and who decides? 3. Where can this historic queer community be identified and “how can its power be unleashed?”

In addressing these questions of queer identity and community throughout the past, Dinshaw notes conflicting positions, interpretations, and evidence. Foucult tended to view queer men in the past as isolated and connected only by their exclusion. Boswell, in contrast, believed he had found positive, self-aware communities. But so much of this prominent theorizing was founded exclusively on male lives and male experience. What about the lives of medieval nuns that illustrate loving erotically-tinged relationships that were integrated with their religious communities? And what counts as “queer” once the concept expands from same-sex relationships? Who--or what--is queer in the context of queer history? (This ties in with Hollywood’s 2001 discussion of normative versus “natural” in the definition of queerness.)

The last part of Dinshaw’s essay is something of a call to action in how to use the concept of queer history and queer community across history as a force for developing a self-image that goes beyond the history of oppression and persecution.

As I say, meta-commentary, but interesting to see the discussion among those who are producing the literature I review here.

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Saturday, April 6, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 33a - The 100th Episode - Where My Heart Goes - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/04/06 - listen here)

I ran through a lot of ideas about what to air for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s 100th episode. The fact that it’s episode number 100 isn’t obvious from how I label the shows. For the first year, I did one show per month, and when I switched to a weekly format, it was convenient to keep the numbering by month and use the letters to distinguish the individual shows, so I could keep track of the different episode types more easily. So you may have to trust me on the math.

As I say, I ran through a lot of ideas about content. In the end, I circled back to the reason why I started doing the Project in the first place: as research and inspiration for my own historical fiction with lesbian characters. It isn’t quite the case that all my published fiction falls in that category--in fact, I’ve published only two stories that are set solidly in history with no fantastic elements of any type, though a lot more that include fantasy elements. But the research I do for the blog and podcast always harks back to my long list of historic story ideas, and the more research I do, the more inspiration I get.

So today, to celebrate having kept this show up through 100 episodes, I’d like to share one of those stories with you.

“Where My Heart Goes” was originally published in the collection Through the Hourglass edited by Sacchi Green and Patty G. Henderson. It was inspired by the real historical figures of Margaret Duchess of Parma, the bastard daughter of Emperor Charles V, who married into two of the most prominent families of 16th century Italy, and later in life served as Governor of the Netherlands, and by Laudomia Forteguerri of Siena, an intellectual and poet, who wrote a series of sonnets dedicated to Margaret, and disappeared from history after participating in the unsuccessful defense of Siena against the Holy Roman Empire and its allies. Their contemporaries praised the love and devotion the two women had for each other, and held it up as a model of female friendship. Later writers suggested that their friendship had not been limited to platonic ideals. The truth is hidden in silences and lost correspondence. My version of the story is one that can be fit into those silences and absences. If you want to know more about the historic facts, check out the podcast I did on the topic.

But for now, this is a possible truth, a possible history, a story that could have happened in those spaces and silences.

This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.

* * *


by Heather Rose Jones

Copyright © 2015


Siena had fallen. The news spread quickly along the roads to Florence, to Milan, to Venice. It came to me in Parma on a pale spring morning with the clatter of a messenger’s hoofbeats in the courtyard. After I paid and dismissed him, I hurried across the piazza to the cathedral to pray, clutching the pendant with Laudomia’s portrait between my hands as if it were a holy relic. Mother of God, let her be safe; let her be alive. It had been nine years since we had spoken or written. Nine long years of my own making—I could admit that now. It was like the stain of sin on my soul that she might have died without forgiving me. Now all that was left to me was to wait and pray, but the only words that came to my lips were from that last poem she wrote for me: May it not please God that I should ever live without my treasure! Ah cruel fortune, will you not arrange for my body to go where my heart goes? And I remembered when we first met, twenty-two years before.

* * *

I never believed Laudomia Forteguerri when she called me goddess and praised my beauty. I knew what I was. I always remembered how they spoke of me as a girl in the Low Countries when I was still “the little bastard”, before my father the emperor recognized me and betrothed me to a Medici and I became Madama. After that it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been hunchbacked or squint-eyed—though I wasn’t. I was only very plain, with a bit too much of my father’s lip and chin for beauty.

I never believed her when she said I was beautiful, but I believed her when she said she loved me, though I never knew why. It was easy to know why I loved Laudomia—everyone loved Laudomia. I loved her from that first day I saw her on the hot dusty road winding out of Siena as we passed Villa Olivia.

We should never have met. Rebellious Siena had not hung banners in my honor as so many towns had done on the road winding down from Verona through Mantua and on to Florence. I was tired—not tired of the gifts and fine gowns and being made much of. I was tired of sitting stiffly for hours before a crowd of strangers who spoke a tongue I couldn’t understand. I was tired of the constant presence of my betrothed: a man whose mercurial temper frightened me, though he always spoke me fair. Florence—that queen of cities that I would next enter as a bride—had welcomed me with cheers and song and endless banquets…and sidelong looks of pity, and whispers and glances toward my future husband that were filled equally of hate and fear. But he had stayed behind in Florence and now I was only tired. I saw no other fate before me. I was eleven years old.

* * *

We were still five days from Rome. Siena had fallen out of sight behind us among the winding hills when a splintering crack was followed by men’s shouts and women’s screams. The first wagon of our cavalcade had lost a wheel and driven a second off the road into a ditch. Madame de Lannoy drew aside the curtains of my traveling chair and said, “You needn’t fear, there’s nothing lost. But it will be some hours to repair the wheel and they need to unload the wagons to set them right. Would Madama like to take the air?”

I liked Madame de Lannoy, who had been set to teach me what I would need to know as Duchess of Florence—and even more as the emperor’s daughter. But a question from her was to be thought of as a command, and so I stepped down from my chair and looked to see where we had stopped. Just above the road stood a red-roofed villa, like many I’d seen dotting the hills all through Tuscany. Low walls spilled down towards the road showing glimpses of tall junipers and close-clipped laurel trees. In the stillness of the noonday heat, once the uproar of the accident had faded, I could hear the sound of music and laughter from the gardens beyond. And when the men in charge of the wagons returned from the villa in company with a wheelwright and smith to survey the damage, they were followed by a small crowd of bright-gowned ladies, peeking curiously through the side gate from the gardens.

I still remember how Laudomia looked to me then: tall and elegant, her dark hair braided up with pearls and her eyes bright with laughter. Only seven years older than me, but so assured! She spoke quickly with Madame de Lannoy in Italian—which I still stumbled to understand—then turned to me and opened her arms with a smile as bright and inviting as a statue of the Madonna. Madame de Lannoy said, “The Signora Forteguerri has invited you to take your ease while the wagon is repaired.”

Some said it was only one more move on the chessboard—that knowing who I was, Laudomia had calculated what my friendship might some day be worth. That was a lie. Every moment of that brief visit is burned in memory. They sat me on a chair beside the fountain, with my ladies and Madame de Lannoy standing by to make certain of the proprieties. Three girls were singing to the strains of a lute while another pair danced. Laudomia made me a garland of roses with her own hands and then a garland of poetry with her own mouth. And when two men began a jesting debate on the movements of the spheres, Laudomia bade them speak only Latin so that I might understand.

I had stepped outside the world into a garden of delights as only a painter could imagine, where no time passed and no cares could reach us. But all comes to an end, and at last my chamberlain came to tell us that the wagons were ready. I needed no prompting from Madame de Lannoy to give my thanks for their hospitality and welcome. And before Madame could think to protest, Laudomia had bent to kiss my cheek and said, “Write to me and I will send you the little verse I made for you.” From that moment my heart found a second home in Siena, wherever my body might lie.

She was beautiful—of course she was beautiful. But it was her soul I loved: that bright soul that burned like the Tuscan sun. And because of that, I believed her when she said she loved me too.

The Sienese villa faded like a dream when we arrived in Rome. But the pomp and splendor was left behind when we arrived at Naples. I became a girl again, with tutors and lessons and endless study. When I was set to learn to write in the Italian tongue, I asked Madame, “Would it not be proper for me to write to Signora Forteguerri to thank her for her kindness to me?” And Madame consented.

Castel Pizzofalcone, Naples, 18 August 1533—My most esteemed Signora Forteguerri, I hope you will not laugh at the mistakes in my writing. The time I spent in your garden made me very happy. I beg you please to send the poem you made for me as you promised. Your friend, Margaret of Austria.

* * *

I did not see Laudomia again for five long years. Can one fall in love only through the written page? She sent me that first poem, followed by others. I read them to myself in moments when I was alone. I knew the words by heart before my Italian had mastered their meanings. I never wrote to Laudomia about important things. My letters would be read by many eyes before they reached her. I didn’t tell her of my hopes when His Holiness died and it seemed the Medici marriage might be forgotten.

Castel Pizzofalcone, Naples, 2 December 1534—To the noble and wise Signora Forteguerri, It gave me great joy to hear of the birth of your daughter. I have sent with this letter a set of coral beads for her and hope that you will accept them. I have been reading the book you sent me of the Marchesa di Pescara’s poetry but I think that yours is better.

I said nothing when my father the emperor came to Naples or of the whispers that he would now marry me to the new pope’s grandson. I pretended not to hear the rumors that my betrothed Alessandro had murdered his cousin.

Castel Pizzofalcone, Naples, 15 June 1535—My most honored friend Signora Forteguerri, I thank you for the new verses you sent. It pains me to think that there is nothing I can write in return that would give proper recompense. As my own talents are so small, I send instead this small volume of Erasmus who, like me, comes to you from far to the north.

* * *

There was no need to tell her when I was wed to Alessandro de’ Medici, so I only described the beautiful red velvet zimarra I wore when I entered the gates of Florence at midnight with rows of blazing torches lining the roads, and how kind all the people were, and what they served at my wedding banquet. I didn’t tell her how one by one those around me were replaced by Alessandro’s creatures.

Palazzo Ottaviano, Florence, 28 October, 1535—My beloved friend Signora Forteguerri, I write to ask your advice on what may seem to you a small matter. Monsignore Giuliani has asked to dedicate a volume of poems to me. They tell me I should permit it to be polite, but I do not think he is a very good poet. It may be that you have spoiled me for any other verses than yours. What would you advise? I wish that I could ask Madame de Lannoy but she has returned to Naples. I long to have my friends about me and wish that I could see your face once more.

* * *

There were no letters to Laudomia in the confusion after Alessandro was murdered. She would not have expected that. I didn’t tell her how Cosimo de’ Medici kept me safe until my father the emperor removed my household to Prato and I could breathe again.

Palazzo Datini, Prato, 4 August, 1537—My dearest friend Signora Forteguerri, I have given thanks to God that you are again safely delivered of a daughter. We are settled comfortably here though we have not the elegant refinements of Florence. If you know of a musician who could lighten my days, I beg you will send him here. I long to see you again. We ride out hunting in the hills above the town and I sometimes wish to turn my horse’s head south and not to stop until I come to Siena. If only I could join you in your garden I think my heart could be at rest.

It was not Alessandro’s death that weighed on my heart but the question of my next marriage. An ordinary widow might use the black veil to turn away men’s eyes and thoughts but I could never be ordinary. There was a new Farnese pope, and popes have ambitious families. Once again, I was to be the bridge to Rome and this time the choice fell on Ottavio Farnese, the Holy Father’s grandson.

Palazzo Datini, Prato, 10 October, 1538—My beloved friend Signore Forteguerri, I am summoned to Rome at last. My noble cousin Cosimo de’ Medici will come to fetch me and I have begged him, as a sign of the affection he holds for me, that we might break our journey in Siena. Letters cannot take the place of your beloved face which I hold in memory as if it had been yesterday. Please write to tell me that I may come. There is so much I cannot write in these pages that I long to say to you.

* * *

She had not changed in my eyes—I think she could never change. And if I had still been a girl of eleven in her mind, I saw that fall away as she greeted me on the steps of the villa and quickly discarded the stiffness of Madama for the warmth of mia amica. Angelic beauty would not delight me more, she had written me, and she made me believe it. Villa Olivia was given into my hands for my stay, and I in turn sat Laudomia at my right hand and her husband at my left.

After that first day, we left formality behind. The olive-dotted hillside called to my restless spirit and we climbed up above the formal garden into the orchards. My ladies trailed behind and we settled on a marble bench with the entire countryside spread before us.

“You’re too young for widow’s black,” Laudomia laughed and twitched my skirts aside to sit as closely as clothing would allow. “Sixteen is far too soon to leave gaiety behind. Do you mourn Alessandro so deeply?”

“I rejoiced when I heard he was dead,” I said. Here there was no one to overhear. No need for anything but truth. “Alessandro was a monster and Ottavio is a brutish boy. If a black veil would keep all suitors at bay, I could pretend to a broken heart. But I am an emperor’s daughter, no one cares for my heart.”

“I care.” Laudomia took up my hand and pressed it to her lips. “You are the sun that graces these poor hills.”

I didn’t believe her, but I believed the longing that stirred within me. Words didn’t matter. I only knew that she had no reason to say them except for love. My answer stumbled in confusion, uncertain what I desired. And then my ladies finally came in sight on the path, panting from the slope and looking affronted that I had outpaced them. The moment passed.

“How old were you when you were married,” I asked Laudomia.

“Scarce seventeen.”

“And are you happy?” I knew it wasn’t a question one should ask. I had never looked to marriage for happiness.

“Marriage suits me,” Laudomia said, but that was no true answer. “I love my children and my husband is kind.” There was an empty space within her reply and she searched my face for something to fill it. I didn’t know what I might give and so I stood and we retraced the path back to the villa.

Laudomia’s friends came to Villa Olivia the next day. Like bees they descended on the garden: poets and philosophers, musicians and artists, learned men and beautiful ladies. Though the year was beginning to turn, we filled the space around the fountain with couches and cushions, and tables spilling over with fruit, and braziers to keep the hint of chill away. There was wine and witty conversation, games of chess and dancing. Laudomia sat at my side again and held her cup for me to drink and slipped sweet grapes and comfitted cherries between my lips until we giggled like girls. This was what I’d tried to build at Prato. Perhaps I would succeed in Rome.

“They’ve come in your honor,” Laudomia whispered behind her hand. I knew better: they came to bask in Laudomia’s sun. And like the sun, she bade them bloom and they obeyed.

“A poem!” one man entreated her. “We must have a poem from our Muse!”

“And which muse shall you have?” Laudomia answered playfully. “Shall I be Clio and recite histories for you?”

“It is for you to choose,” he replied with a bow.

“Then I shall be the tenth Muse for you—my own translation.” She turned to me and I felt her hand shake as she passed me the winecup. “I think he is a great man—like to God—who sits beside you.” She held my gaze and I felt her words like fingers on my skin. “Meeting you, I cannot speak, or see, or hear—I tremble and turn pale.”

And I, too, trembled.

Later, when the twilight turned to true night and the gardens turned chill, when the dishes had been cleared from the tables and the braziers were being put out one by one, Laudomia took my hand and said, “I have one more poem to offer you tonight, if I may?”

She led me to my chamber and our ladies unlaced our gowns and laid them aside and saw that the sheets were warmed and scented before retiring. Then she whispered verses closely in my ear—I know well that you left heaven only to show me divine things—and made poetry of her hands and lips playing across my skin, with even the finest linen of our camisias too great a barrier to allow.

The wind was chill the next day and we made our garden in the hall with dancing and playful debates. At night she came to me again and taught my tongue new words. All thoughts of Rome and Popes and marriages left me for days at a time. But time was a serpent in our garden. Too soon I was driven out of paradise.

“Write to me,” I begged as they repacked the wagons and the men of my escort crowded the courtyard on restless steeds. “Write to me in Rome and remind me that you love me.”

“I will tell the whole world I love you,” Laudomia whispered. “And when you are acclaimed the queen of Rome, do not forget your poor friend who longs for you.”

* * *

Villa Madama, Rome, 6 June 1539—Carissima Laudomia, It is a fine thing, I find, to be the first lady of Rome. Ottavio troubles me not at all and I trouble him even less. The Farneses are not well loved here and the people of Rome find it no fault in me to hold them at a distance. My father the emperor has named me Duchess of Camerino and Penne and given the governorship of Abruzzo into my hands. I am finally able to begin to order my life as I see fit. Your friend the painter Franzetti presented himself to me and I have set him to work on the frescos we discussed. In a year the gardens here will be worthy of the guests I hope will fill them. In everything I do, my dearest wish is to honor what you have seen in me.

Laudomia was true to her word. She wrote poems for me openly now, her passion couched in the ordinary praise of princes. Flow, ancient Tiber, and reflect the image of a brighter truer sun!

Villa Madama, Rome, 10 January, 1540—To my beloved Laudomia, I send the portrait you requested by this messenger. I would not have delayed so long except for the need to find a worthy artist. Would that I could send myself! In summer when I travel to Camerino, I will pass your way.

* * *

Villa Madama, Rome, 23 November, 1540—Mia Carissima Laudomia, I beg you will pay no mind to the news you have heard and will visit me here as you have planned. The Farneses have been badgering me about that silly boy Ottavio, but my father the emperor is pleased, I think, that I keep him dangling. I keep the golden chain with your portrait always close to my heart, but the image will be a poor substitute if I cannot have the substance.

And Laudomia came as promised. I held a great banquet in honor of the astronomer Piccolomini who had dedicated his books to her, but it was truly to honor Laudomia herself. The people of Rome smiled to see us ride out together and called us inseparabile. It was a golden season—but seasons turn.

* * *

Villa Olivia, Siena, 1 March, 1542—My beloved friend Marguerita who allows me the joy to call her so, When I heard of the terrible news from Algiers, the one consolation that remained to me was to think that now we would both be widows together. I rejoice to know the rumors were mistaken and you are not doubly bereft of husband and father. You may not think it, but life can be hard for a woman left alone and I at least have the comfort of my children. I pray for your continued health and that you may find some small space in your life to think of me. If you are able, I pray your steps will bring you to Siena soon. I know not when I may find myself in Rome again.

* * *

It was the next year before I was able to answer her plea. The gardens at Villa Olivia seemed to be in mourning themselves, the paths sodden with dead leaves and the branches bare, though it was only the late winter that made it so. We sat in her chamber with only a few ladies in attendance, listening to a mournful air. Laudomia was full of somber silences and I knew nothing of the cause until I asked what I hoped would lift her heart.

“Join me in Rome,” I urged. “Your life is your own now; share it with me.”

She shook her head. “My darling Ghita, it is impossible.”

I took her hand and warmed it against my cheek. “Nothing is impossible. Your daughters are married, your son is in the care of his grandfather, what is there left to keep you here? Who could need you as much as I do?”

“Marguerita, there is talk.”

And what of that, I thought, but she laid a finger across my lips.

“They say you are bewitched—that enemies of the Farneses have made unholy bargains to keep you and Ottavio apart. They look for a place to lay the blame…and we have made no secret of our love. For now the world holds us blameless: you are famed for holding yourself chaste from men and my love is praised as pure and noble. But what would they say if I came to you in Rome now?”

All my protests were in vain.

“Marguerita, you must be wise. Silence the whispers. Give your husband a child. It is long past time. And I…I will marry again. It is the only way.”

That night when we were alone I wasted the precious hours in rage and lamentation but she would not be moved.

* * *

In time it becomes a sickness, I think—the desire to turn every step into a bargain. All my life I had been bargained away to others and I learned to set my own price. I gave myself to Ottavio and gained nothing except a swelling belly. I paid my debt twice over, with twin sons quitting me of what I owed my husband. Should I not be rewarded with more? The Duchy of Milan was, perhaps, too much to ask. My father the emperor had turned his heart elsewhere. So I asked for something smaller. And I stumbled, not in the asking, but in writing to Laudomia before that gift too was denied.

Villa Madama, Rome, 24 February 1546—My dearest and most beloved friend, Soon, if my plans prosper, there will be no distance between us. My father is pleased to hear of my sons and I have asked him, in return, to grant me the governorship of Siena…

I had not thought what it might mean to her, beyond a chance to be together. I had not understood that every drop of blood within her veins was of the Noveschis, the founders of the Sienese republic who still clutched tightly to the dream of freedom. Laudomia’s reply cut like an icy wind.

Villa Olivia, Siena, 3 March, 1546—To her grace the Duchess of Camerino, Is my home no more than another pawn upon your chessboard? Come to Siena as friend and guest or not at all.

 Perhaps she should have made allowance. Perhaps I should have begged forgiveness. Perhaps and perhaps: the matter lay uncrossable between us, like the Alps in winter, for nine years. For nine years I neither saw nor heard from Laudomia, not when one of my sons died, not when I was finally confirmed as Duchess of Parma, not when we both found ourselves besieged by enemies.

* * *

All of Italy was suspended between the Empire and France like a bone between two dogs. But the bones had teeth. Siena was not the only city to cast their lot with France, and for that my father the emperor unleashed the Medicis who hungered to extend their reach south. And my foolish husband, thinking I could stay the worst if it came, made secret treaties with France that earned him only empty promises. We, too, had a greedy neighbor, and my father gave Gonzaga license to lay siege.

I thought of Laudomia throughout that ordeal, hearing how she had lent all her wealth to build fortifications, and had led a thousand women of Siena in defense of the city. The months dragged on and Gonzaga fumed outside the walls of Parma while my father gave him orders to let wagons through that I should not starve. I thought how Laudomia knew no such mercy and wondered if she went hungry. When the tide turned once more and Gonzaga was ordered back to his kennel, I wrote in secret to the leader of the forces outside Siena.

Palazzo del Vescovo, Parma, 13 June, 1554—To my beloved friend, Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, It has been long years since I knew your kindness in those dark months after Alessandro was murdered, but I have never forgotten. I beg you, if there remains anything in your heart of the love you felt for me, to show mercy to one I hold more dear than life itself. Within the walls of Siena there is a lady of grace and beauty and more perfection than can be imagined. Her name is Laudomia Forteguerri…

* * *

Siena had fallen and I waited, hardly daring to hope. The news came at last as I walked in the garden on a warm day in April. The walls shut out everything but the twittering of sparrows. When the messenger was announced I thought it must once more be news from Ghent where Ottavio had gone to make peace with my father. But then I saw the man wore Medici livery and my heart stopped.

“Madama,” he said, bowing deeply and holding out a sealed letter. “My lord the Duke of Florence sends greetings.”

My fingers trembled so that I could scarcely break the seal. I scanned the first few lines, passing over the empty salutations. For the sake of our friendship, I send you a gift that I found within the walls after the surrender. I read no further. “Where?” I demanded.

“In the wagon,” he said. “Madama, there are conditions. You should read it all.”

But I had picked up my skirts, heedless of dignity, and ran through the corridors to the courtyard to pull aside the curtains from the back of the wagon that stood there. Do not think that I would not have recognized her. I would have known her at the ends of the earth or the depths of hell. But I think she had been very near to the latter. The hand she reached to me was gaunt. I could feel every bone and when I helped her from the wagon only my arms kept her from stumbling. I buried my face in the hollow of her neck and could only sob, “Holy Mother of God be praised,” over and over again.

* * *

There were conditions.

“I am exiled from Siena,” Laudomia said as I plied her with comfits and fresh oranges and every dainty thing she had forgotten could exist on the face of this earth. “From Tuscany—from any place the Medici hold sway. I should have been imprisoned, he said. To make an example. But then he asked if I would swear to accept exile, and he brought me out of the city in secret at night and set me in a wagon…”

I took her hand and stroked it. “And your husband?”

She shrugged. “He fled to Montalcino with the others. Hope maintains them, but I think France will do so no longer.” Laudomia looked up at me, her hollow eyes full of uncertainty. “What is to become of me?”

I had asked the same question for myself so often in the dark of night, praying for guidance. Would she be willing to follow my path? “We are reconciled with my father once more, for the moment. He has traded peace in Parma for the custody of my son. I have been told to make ready to bring Alexander to him in Brussels. I have thought—” This I had not yet spoken to any mortal soul. “I have thought to remain in the Low Countries. God knows I cannot even see my own fate, but will you share it with me?”

She smiled, a thin smile like the winter sun striving against clouds.

* * *

A year passed before we set out: a cavalcade to rival the one that had brought me to Italy twenty years before. This time I shared my traveling chair, not with the stiff and formal Madame de Lannoy but with the lady of my chamber. As the roofs of Parma disappeared behind us I said, “There is a garden at the palace of Coudenberg, walled in with hedges of yew and eglantine. In the spring the paths are lined with crocus and hyacinth. The scent of apple-blossom from the orchards drifts through the air like angel song. In the summer, it will be filled with music and poetry. Will it please you, do you think?”

Laudomia nestled closely against me. Her arm curved about my waist and her lips brushed my neck as she whispered, “My heart goes there; it gives me joy to follow.”

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Where My Heart Goes
Friday, April 5, 2019 - 14:41

I'm a numbers geek. I like tracking and trending things. Crunching data is one of my self-soothing mechanisms. Twice a year, I get the cold hard feedback on how my books are selling. There are indicators I can follow on a more day-to-day basis: review numbers at Amazon and Goodreads, sales numbers at Amazon (though I can only approximate them based on fluctuations in the sales ranking). But in the final analysis, there's data that's only available from the semi-annual royalty statement.

Sometimes that data is cheering. Like the fact that Daughter of Mystery continues to sell consistently, even 5 years out. It's even still selling consistently in hard copy. (Like, roughly 20% of sales are hard copy.) In the last royalty period, sales of DoM were up from the previous two periods. I credit that to the regular word-of-mouth recommendations the book continues to get in an ever-widening circle. When I look at comparable books released around the same time, I can be pretty proud of the legs my debut novel has.

Sometimes that data is disappointing. It's disapointing to see that not only have sales dropped off with each successive book (which is probably to be expected with any series), but the longer out from release, the worse the sales of The Mystic Marriage and Mother of Souls are compared to the equivalent period for book 1. Both started out by selling about half what Daughter of Mystery did in its first year, but in the most recent period The Mystic Marriage is at a quarter of equivalent DoM sales, and Mother of Souls is at a sixth of equivalent DoM sales. Within a certain fluctuation, Daughter of Mystery is still selling at a fairly consistent rate. The other two are steadily dropping.

Why? It's always hard to guess. For one, I think it's just in comparison with the unexpected legs that Daughter of Mystery has found. When people recommend my books, it's only natural that they recommend the first one. Maybe people pick that one up and don't actually realize there are more? (There are always those who pick up the first book and then don't like it enough to continue, for whatever reason.) Another factor is that succesive books in a series don't get as much attention from reviewers, which can feed into the "there are more?" issue. It's a bit cheering that Mother of Souls saw a big bump in the last royalty period over the previous--quite possibly directly due to being given the Gaylactic Spectrum award--but honestly it would have been hard for it to have done worse than the previous period. So "cheering" is relative.

So, mixed results from this bit of data. But data is good.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2019 - 12:00

The anthology Rainbow Bouquet edited by Farah Mendlesohn marks something of a reorganizational reboot for Manifold Press, which specializes in LGBTQ historical fiction. Given that focus, I was a little surprised that only half the stories in the collection have historic settings (and one is clearly future/science fictional). That’s not a comment on the writing, only that I had a bit of expectation whiplash.

The historic stories cover mythic/classical Greece, an unspecified medieval monastery, the 17th century London theater scene, Regency England, 19th century Russia, and an assortment of historical ghosts in a modern English setting. Most of the stories have a romance structure (including one asexual romance) and various genre infusions add interest to the plots. There’s a fairly good balance between representation of male and female relationshps, though only one story touches on potential transgender themes. I found the historic elements well-grounded, including the nature of the relationships and the types of obstacles they faced.

“Firebrand” by M. J. Logue was a particular favorite, depicting the rough, crude world of the 17th century London theater, where an aspiring playwright explores her attraction to women and just where she falls on the gender spectrum through the lens of gender-disguise plots and cross-gender acting. Humor adds a delightful leavening to Kathleen Jowitt’s “Stronger Than Death” when an assortment of resident ghosts (some of whom have discovered the post-mortem joys of same-sex romance) come to the rescue of a struggling hospitality venue. I liked how Erin Horakova used the stylings of 19th century Russian literature to trace the delicate and diplomatic negotiations of two men sounding out each other’s interpersonal relationships. Cheryl Morgan’s “The Poet’s Daughter” toys with an alternate origin for the stories of Odysseus, with some jabs at how women are erased from history, though the story felt a bit slow-paced and drawn out.

This is a good collection for finding new authors to follow or just to enjoy a variety of queer short fiction with a historical bent.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2019 - 07:00

It isn't that I go into a writing project assuming that I know exactly what needs to go into the story and what would be superfluous, but it would be accurate to say that I don't go about writing entire chapters without a clear purpose to them. So when the editorial feedback (in this case, from my beta readers) comes back pointing out serious issues that can only be fixed by eliminating entire scenes, events, and characters, there's always a twinge involved.

As I saw it, the most important thing to establish at the beginning of Floodtide was the serious fix that Roz was in. She'd lost her job. She'd lost it in a way that guaranteed she wouldn't be able to get a similar one. She didn't know anyone in the city except people connected with that job. Oh, and did I mention that it's January? She's in a bad place and all the possibilities in front of her look worse. So I started throwing those possibilites at her, one after another. For a chapter and a half. So the reader would understand just how desperate her position was.

The problem? My beta readers didn't realize that the people and events in that chapter and a half were just curveballs being lobbed at my protagonist, they thought they were supposed to pay attention to them and care about them. Oops. And you know? They were right. Once I've tossed Roz out on the street, in the cold, at night, without anything to eat--and once I've given her a slim taste of hope and then snatched it back away from her, it's ok to sum up the rest of it with:

* * *

I walked for a long time after that. I don’t remember how long or where. All I knew was if I stopped walking I’d freeze. I forgot why it was important not to freeze. Walking made it look like I had somewhere to go. That was important, especially at night. I don’t know if it was one night or two. Probably not three. I don’t think I could have kept going that long.

* * *

Now, if you're interested in the contents of the former chapter 2 that no longer exists, I've included some parts of it in my author newsletter this month, which also includes other interesting bonus content, such as my "Who's Who in Alpennia" series, information on upcoming appearances, and notes on what other writing projects I'm working on. You can sign up for it here and back issues are always available.

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Monday, April 1, 2019 - 07:00

This article coincidentally touches on some of the topics that will be the subject of this month's podcast essay. What is the relationship between physiology, social performance and presentation, and legal status with respect to gender and sexuality? In tracing shifts in how these questions were asked and answered across time and space, we can begin to grasp a relativistic understanding of gender and sexuality categories. That, in turn, can help us identify both the commonalties and the distinctions between gender and sexuality identities in the past and those we are constantly evolving today.

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Full citation: 

Nederman, Cary J. and Jacqui True. 1996. “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 6:4: 497-517.

[Content note: This article deals with overlapping uses of the word “hermaphrodite” in medieval contexts. In some cases, it indicates a person of ambiguous genitalia, that is, an intersex person. In other cases, it indicates a person who combines aspects of performative gender assigned to men and women or who performs aspects of a gender not matching the one assigned to their physiology. Medieval theory did not clearly distinguish these concepts. I acknowledge that the use of the word “hermaphrodite” for intersex persons is considered offensive today and apologize for any harm that discussing the historic usage may cause for readers.]

This article looks at the concept of the hermaphrodite and related concepts and categories of sex and gender in 12th century Europe, especially within the context of Thomas Laqueur’s 1990 Making Sex, which questions the very idea of a “natural” or biological basis for sex differentiation. While Laqueur identified a fairly late development for the idea of sex differentiation in the 18th century, Nederman and True identify earlier challenges to the dominant prior “single-sex” model, which held that male and female operated as scalar variants of a single (male) nature.

Applying Laqueur’s approach, we can see that the boundary between male and female has shifted and varied across the ages. Phenomena such as cross-dressing, “masculine" women, and homosexuality challenge and help define how those boundaries are drawn and negotiated. Within this context, the concept of the hermaphrodite is particularly relevant. [Note that in this context, “hermaphrodite” does not necessarily refer to an intersex person in the physiological sense, but to any person who is understood to combine male-coded and female-coded attributes.]

Within the classical tradition (not necessarily reflected strictly in medieval use) the hermaphrodite is distinguished from the androgyne. The androgyne (as in Plato’s Symposium) represents a transcendence of gender in a unified ideal, while the hermaphrodite emphasizes sexual difference in a way that deforms the gendered components in the union. When applied to actual physical bodies, this raised the question of whether hermaphrodites were “poorly formed” intermediates between the two sexes (operating within the two-sex model) or whether they represented an intermediate state in a single (one-sex) continuum between clearly male and clearly female identities. Or should they be treated as an entirely separate “third sex” partaking of male and female elements but standing apart from both?

The authors argue that there is some evidence for this last position in 12th century Europe, as evidenced by medical, philosophical, legal, and literary texts. But the recognition of this third sex, rather than underminine the concept of a gender binary, prompted the need for stricter and more strongly enforced binary gender boundaries.

“Hermaphrodite studies” currently have a disproportionate focus on the period from 1500-1800 that is not entirely supported by the distribution of the evidence. Aristotle held that persons of ambiguous sex (he would not have used the term “hermaphrodite” yet) had an underlying “true” binary sex which could be determined by observation, especially of the genitalia. Isidore of Seville considered hermaphrodites to be a “portent of divine will”. Medieval evidence suggests that hermaphrodites were accepted as long as they conformed consistently to one or the other binary gender role.

The major theoretical works on sex difference [as available at the time of this article] including Jacquart and Thomasset’s Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, Laqueur’s Making Sex, and Cadden’s Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages do not treat intersexuality in any systematic way. Physiological intersexuality is lumped in with behavioral gender transgression (such as cross-dressing or homosexuality). Laqueur notes that, under the one-sex model, the question for an intersex person was not “what sex am I really?” but “which sex does my body best fit into?”

The 12th century is a rich era for examining this (as well as other) philosophical questions due to the eclecticism of the era’s scholarly sources and the rich intellectual growth that was in process. The writings of Aristotle and Avicenna did not yet have the dominance they would soon receive, and views on sexual difference drew on a much wider variety of Classical and Christian sources. This included an interest in hermaphrodites that would dwindle during the 13th and 14th centuries before coming to the fore again in the 16th.

Medical writings often accepted a three-sex model, based on models of procreation associated with Galen. Under this model, competing humoral properties of the uterus and sperm together determined the sex of the offspring, with the possibility for those properties to functionally cancel each other out resulting in a child neither male nor female. The article discusses other related models and theories.

In moral literature of the 12th century, there was a acceptance that a hermaphrodite was apart from male or female, but varying opinions whether a hermaphrodite was a “monstrosity” or simply a natural variant. John of Salisbury, writing moral allegories for courtiers, uses the hermaphrodite as a metaphor for one “who, by a sort of playful error of nature, exhibits the likeness of both sexes, yet retains the true qualities of neither of them.” Using the Ovid’s myth of the Fountain of Salamacis (in which the mythological Hermaphroditus features), he sketches three possible outcomes for a (male) person entering those gender-transforming waters: he may become an effeminate man, he may be transformed entirely into a  woman, or he may become a blended hermaphrodite.

Alan of Lille, writing in The Complaint of Nature, which examines the relation between grammar and gender, expresses anxieties about the proper linguistic engagement with non-binary people. “He is subject and predicate, one and the same term is given a double application. Man here extends too far the laws of grammar. Becoming a barbarian in grammar, he disclaims the manhood given him by nature.” Alan implies that if one accepts the hermaphrodite as a third sex, one must create a whole new grammar (a barbarism!) for reference, resulting in the decay of language itself. [Note: clearly “pronoun panic” is not purely a modern experience!]

Peter the Chanter offers a more theological take on the question, proposing that “The church allows a hermaphrodite--that is, someone with the organs of both sexes, capable of either active or passive functions--to use the organ by which (s)he is most aroused, or the one to which (s)he is most susceptible. If (s)he is more active, (s)he may wed as a man, but if (s)he is more passive, (s)he may marry as a woman. If, however, (s)he should fail with one organ, the use of the other can never be permitted, but (s)he must be perpetually celibate to avoid any similarity to the role inversion of sodomy, which is detested by God.”

[Note: here we see one key aspect of the intersection of gender and sexuality in medieval thought. Rather than gender identity and desire being separate axes, desire is one of the types of evidence used to determine gender identity. Desire for a particular gender necessarily implies belonging to the opposite gender.]

The law was the realm where one no longer had the luxury of philosophical and theological debates. The law recognized only two sexes and enforced clear and drastic differences in what rights the two had. No one could escape the requirement to be legally classified as either male or female. Roman law held that an intersex person would be classified according to the preponderance of their traits, but remained fairly silent on the question of who would make that classification.

Medieval law took up the question in more detail. Azo of Bologna writes of the distinction between male, female, and hermaphrodite as medical phenomena, but then discusses criteria for assigning the hermaphrodite to the legal categories of male and female, invoking the “prevalence of its sexual development.” Gratian similarly judges that whether a hermaphrodite is sufficiently male to be allowed to serve as a witness depends on evaluation of the genitalia, while still recognizing hermaphrodites as a third sex. Rufinus of Bologna takes a similar approach, recognizing that hermaphrodites represented a category neither male nor female, and yet consisting of persons who will be treated legally as male and those who will be treated legally as female, based on anatomy.

Given the intense interest in 12th century writings in hermaphrodites, one might wonder if there had been a rapid increase in the number of intersex individuals. [Note: I think the authors are being tongue-in-cheek here.] But instead, it may be that the topic of hermaphrodites raised an intriguing intellectual problem of the sort beloved by 12th century philosophers. As persons who defied “natural” binary classification and yet needed to be fit into a binary system, they had a symbolic status representing the threat of “social disintegration, moral decline, and linguistic barbarism.” They challenged the ability to understand the world as ordered and logical.

But the recognition of hermaphrodites as a “third sex” in the 12th century doesn’t undermine Laqueur’s position that the “one-sex” model held sway at this time. Rather, they can be fit into the one-sex continuum model by acknowledging that there was a middle territory between “clearly male” and “clearly female.” Medieval people accepted hermaphrodites and by that acceptance undermined their ability to challenge the dominance of the gender binary. Instead, they provided a battleground in which the distinctions between male and female could be explored and ultimately enforced.

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Saturday, March 30, 2019 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 32e - Alphabet of Signs and Jade Generals by Ursula Whitcher - transcript

(Originally aired 2019/03/30 - listen here)


For the first episode of our 2019 fiction series, we have two flash fiction pieces by the same author. Establishing a historic setting and telling a story in that setting is challenging enough in short fiction of any length, but flash fiction really shows an author’s skill. When I thought about accepting very short pieces for the series, I decided that I’d be happy to include more than one story in an episode as long as the overall length met my target. This year, I bought two excellent flash pieces in rarely seen settings, both by the same author.

This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.

About the author and narrator

Ursula Whitcher is a mathematician, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared in venues including The Cascadia Subduction Zone, VoiceCatcher, The Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, and Goblin Fruit. That sort of combination of fields isn’t at all unusual among the people I know. The most recent times we’ve met in person have either been when she’s in town for a math conference or when we’re both at the same science fiction convention. But we first met through the Society for Creative Anachronism, doing medieval research and re-creation. Ursula can be found online at and on twitter @superyarn. I sense a theme here. I’m delighted to present her fiction on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.

 Ursula Whitcher

Our narrator for both stories is Jasmine Arch, who lives in a quiet corner of Belgium with four dogs, three horses, and a husband who knows better than to disturb her when she’s writing. Jasmine is a writer, poet, artist, and narrator. She works in health care and finds her creative outlets essential to recharge from facing trauma and disease on a daily basis. Her work has appeared in Illumen Magazine and she can be found online at or on twitter as @Jaye_Arch.

 Jasmine Arch

Introduction to “Alphabet of Signs”

Our first story is set in a Carolingian abbey--perhaps the Abbey of the Holy Cross, founded by the Frankish queen Saint Radegund, or one like it. In the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, I’ve covered two articles that talk about homoerotic imagery in texts from the abbey founded by Saint Radegund. Ursula notes that the story was sparked by a conversation she had with someone in the Society for Creative Anachronism who was researching the history of sign language. There are eleventh-century records of systems of signs used by people living under Benedictine monastic rule, for use when vows of silence were enforced. Valerie Garver's book Women and Aristocratic Culture in the Carolingian World was another source for thinking about the way Carolingian women's lives were described and recorded. This story comes to us in the voice of a woman in the convent where the queen retired from secular life.

Alphabet of Signs

by Ursula Whitcher

read by Jasmine Arch


I will tell you the queen was shining. Her hair was shining and her dress was shining, her sleeves banded in purple. I will tell you my voice is a man's voice, chanting at court. I will claim I made a copy of a copy of a verse, which we are not permitted, and go without my supper.

When the queen came, she was cold.

We are taught signs to hold the silence. We cupped our hands as she pulled the pins from her hair, let them clang on the stone, pulled her braid taut, snapped the strands bit by bit with the knife at her belt, and stuffed her fists in her sleeves.

When the queen came, they said she was wanton. Or a witch, or a saint. Her nose was longer without the braid wrapped at her temples. She walked in squares in the garden, between prayer and prayer.

They gave her a lamp at night, for being queen. Bitter olive smoke. She walked when she thought we slept.  The shadow flickered under my alcove curtain.

Queens do not sleep alone, in the cold. They have kings, or handmaidens. If she was wanton, the handmaidens (shining, standing in rows), they knew it, and were silent. I learned signs to hold in silence. I held her, traced her crooked nose and her smooth brow, and burned like a fiend or a saint.

I will make her immortal without speaking, without singing or chanting. I write her name in red in every book. She wore this red, riding away, when her son turned thirteen, and a King.

Introduction to “Jade Generals”

Our second story takes us to the other side of the world. Ursula says, “I wrote ‘Jade Generals’ as a present for a friend who asked for secret identities in Heian Japan. The story references Torikaebaya Monogatari (translated into English as The Changelings), a twelfth-century work of fiction about two siblings who swap gender roles, have various adventures in the Emperor's court, and then swap back again. The plot of Torikaebaya Monogatari involves a very naive bride; I knew I wanted to tell a story where the bride has her own agenda. When I realized that Heian weddings involved three ritual visits rather than a single wedding ceremony, that gave me the story's structure.”

Stories about gender disguise and same-sex marriage occur across many historic cultures, side by side with similar stories that have more the shape of transgender identity. I like versions, like this one, where both parties have the same understanding of the relationship, and the attraction is not rooted in the illusion. Where the secret to be revealed is not about gender identity but about the deep roots of their desire.

Jade Generals

by Ursula Whitcher

read by Jasmine Arch


On the first night, the councilor of the second rank brings Shizuko sake in a greenish-brown stoneware jar and picks a fight about the strategy of shogi. They're up till nearly dawn, arguing and laughing. At one point they try to estimate how many incense chariots an army actually needs. Later that morning, the councilor sends Shizuko a poem about falling maple leaves and the inevitability of desire. It's conventional language, but Shizuko giggles. She's thinking about how red her face must have turned, between the wine and the incense argument. She returns a poem about gold and jade generals, by the same messenger.

On the second night, Shizuko warms her room with sandalwood and cinnamon, and plays a soft song on the koto. The councilor compliments her lavishly but intelligently, and asks whether this incense came by chariot. It's clear, though, that the previous late night is taking its toll, and soon Shizuko is the only one awake. The councilor twitches a little bit, in sleep. Shizuko sets her instrument aside and curls around her visitor, as if she were holding a cat.

On the third night, the councilor takes a soft rice cake from Shizuko's hand and pulls it into pieces, hesitating. Shizuko watches the councilor's mouth start to form an ungracious, definite statement and says hurriedly, "I have a secret."

The councilor pauses, with the startled expression of a person who believes secrets are singular and hoarded treasures, rather than donned in layers, like one's robes. How strange it must be, to be such a learned and skilled administrator, and yet so unaware of other people's minds!

"You found out everything about my uncle," Shizuko notes, "his illustrious position, and his prospects. You never asked about my parents."

"I understood that they were dead?" the councilor asks.

"My mother's husband is dead. My father--that most honored prince--is very much alive, though not so lively a courtier as he was in his younger days. And as for my mother--do you not remember a woman who spent the summer sitting by a lake, painting pine trees covered in snow?"

The councilor holds out a piece of the rice cake, giving it back to Shizuko.

The rice cake is rather squashed, but Shizuko eats it anyway. There had been a small girl by the lake, of course, who wanted to catch a fish. And a rather larger one, who succeeded. "I have always admired you, Chiyo."

The councilor gulps her own bit of rice cake now, like a carp grabbing a fly, or a person marrying into the imperial family. Shizuko reaches out and hugs her, properly this time. Chiyo's muscles start out taut; but she relaxes, suddenly, and lays her cheek against Shizuko's hair.

Shizuko has taken a jade general, for her very own. Unlike in shogi, this puts them on the same side.

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Friday, March 29, 2019 - 07:11

I just hit "send". The manuscript for Floodtide has now officially been delivered to the publisher. And three whole days before the contracted deadline, too!

Yes, I'm kind of proud of that because, while I use deadlines to schedule and organize my project planning, I really dislike coming down to the wire. Things happen. Computers break. Networks go down. People get sick and don't have the energy to leave their beds much less do serious last-minute editing. (Wait, that was two weeks ago. Already ticked off that box.)

I haven't started a new writing project quite yet, although yesterday I had a fascinating idea for a contemporary fantasy/horror short story that's very different from my usual sort. I'd contemplate trying it for a palate cleanser except that what I really need to work on next is my paper for this years Kalamazoo Medieval Congress.

At this point, it will probably be a while before you hear any further substantial news. With this much lag time before the November publication date, I imagine other things will be ahead of it in the editing queue. If I'm lucky, edits will arrive sometime in June or July so I can get the next step taken care of before my international travel in August. But it is as the gods will.

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Writing Process
Wednesday, March 27, 2019 - 08:19

As regular readers (all six of you) know, every month my podcast does a round-up show that includes a list of new and forthcoming lesbian-relevant historicals (including historic fantasy). I get the content from three primary methods: 1) Buzz on the net; 2) Searching on Amazon using "released after" and keywords = "lesbian" + "historic"; and the topic of today's blog 3) checking the websites of those publishers who release relevant books often enough that they're worth checking individually.

But group 3 isn't actually a very efficient method and seems to be becoming less useful all the time. Why? Let me lay out some numbers and specifics.

I've talked previously about my aspiring database of relevant books. The older material in it is gleaned largely from goodreads lists and similar sources, so I know it's incomplete but it's likely to include the better known titles (and is more likely to be missing self-published book than ones with publishers, which latter is today's topic). But for the last year and a half or so, it's as complete as I can make it. Let's look at who's publishing these books and how often.

When I put together a "state of the field" survey at the end of 2018, I had 151 named publishers in the database (which includes single-author imprints, as long as they have a "publisher name" they're using). Of those, 94 (60%) only had a single title in my database. Obviously these are not candidates for checking in on regularly.

25 publishers have only 2 titles in the database, and only half of those published anything relevant in the last 5 years. These are spread across mainstream publishers (Harlequin Teen, Harper Collins), smaller queer/feminist presses (Less Than Three, Lethe, New Victoria), and singe-author imprints or at least, imprints where the only books in my database are by a single author (Golden Keys, Grove, Little Red WIngs, LZ Media, Riverdale Avenue, Sans Merci, Three Bunny Farm). So, again, not worth checking every month. I have to hope that their relevant books come to my attention by other means.

A similar pattern appears for publishers with 3 and 4 titles:

Three titles - 9 publishers, only 4 with any titles in the last 5 years, 1 mainstream (, 1 small queer press (Riptide, though only one author from them shows up in my list), 2 single-author (Broad Winged Books, LoveLight).

Four titles - 8 publishers, 4 with titles in the last 5 years, 1 mainstream (Little, Brown and Co.), 2 small queer press (Shadoe - though only a single author appears, Supposed Crimes), and 1 single-author (Venatic).

That leaves us with 14 publishers for which I have 5 or more titles listed, of which 3 don't have anything in the last 5 years. That takes us down to 11. 1 mainstream publisher (Riverhead), 8 small queer/feminist presses (Bold Strokes, Bella, Regal Crest, Ylva, Affinity, Bywater, Spinsters Ink, Sapphire) and 2 single-author presses (AUSXIP, A-Girl Studio).

So those 8 small presses are my best bet for regular monitoring, right? Let's look at the logistics of their historical output and their website interface.

  • Bold Strokes - recent average is 0.5 relevant books per month. Website has new and forthcoming pages will full  schedule as planned.
  • Bella - recent average is 0.3 relevant books per month. Website has new and forthcoming pages with full schedule as planned.
  • Regal Crest - recent average is 0.15 relevant books per month. Website has new and forthcoming pages with full schedule as planned.
  • Ylva - recent average is 0.06 relevant books per month (nothing in the last 2 years). Website has "new releases" page but not forthcoming.
  • Affinity - one book in the last 4 years. Website has "coming soon" page but not very useful.
  • Bywater - 2 books in the last 4 years. Website has "forthcoming" page.
  • Spinsters Ink - no books in the last 4 years (the one book 5 years ago gets them into this category at all). Included in Bella new/forthcoming pages.
  • Sapphire - recent average is 0.08 books per month. Website has "forthcoming" page.

All told, that's 8 websites to check, for an overall average of 1 book per month as output. During 2018, the year I started doing my "new and forthcoming" podcast feature, I averaged 8 titles presented each month. So even the combined output of the most prolific queer/women's presses only constitutes 1/8 of what I'm identifying. If there are publishers with a more significant output, I'm not finding their books at all (which would hardly reflect a good publicity strategy!).

When I started doing a systematic search (not only of new books but of past releases I might not have in the database yet) I identified 45 presses, based on both what I already had in the database and on the current state of lesbian publishing. A quarter of those 45 don't seem to have ever published anything historic, but 75% of them have at least one title in my database.

I started this analysis today because I was Twitter-brainstorming other presses I should add to my list. But the conclusions point out something else: most queer/lesbian presses seem to have published occasional historical titles, but nobody is putting them out with any regularity, much less focusing on them. One of the things that helps raise the bar in a field is having a publishing team that knows the genre -- that knows how to identify and develop promising talent, that knows the field and reader wants and expectations, and that know how to market that specific genre. Nobody in the queer/lesbian publishing field has that expertise currently, nobody is developing that talent, and nobody--absolutely nobody--has any clue how to market lesbian-relevant historicals, even within the lesbian reading community, much less across the entire reading public.

We're starting to see mainstream publishing have more openness to featuring queer female protagonists. There's an explosion of queer historic fantasy coming from mainstream SFF publishers. And mainstream historical romance publisher are starting to dip their toes into the water of allowing their current straight-romance authors to put out the occasional f/f novella. But those shifts aren't going to open up the field to authors of lesbian historicals who either don't have access to those markets (e.g., authors who aren't going to start by establishing a career writing m/f historical romance) or don't have the genre-familiarity and skills to sell to them. And at the same time as this shift, we're seeing some of the main queer/lesbian presses appear to lose interest in the genre. Those "top 8 publishers" discussed above? In the first three months of new/forthcoming lists on my podcast for 2019, they've only provided 2 books for the lists. Below the average for the last 5 years. And the ones that have significant "forthcoming" web pages suggest that rate may drop more for the year as a whole. Lesbian/queer publishing has never been strongly invested in lesbian-relevant historical fiction, and the situation looks to be getting worse, not better.

And yet readers are clamoring for the genre. Readers are begging for these books. Somewhere, there's a disconnect.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2019 - 07:00

It's time for the return of Teaser Tuesday! Floodtide doesn't have enough chapters to post a teaser from each chapter weekly up to publication day in November. I plan to do regular Tuesday posts intended to stir up buzz and anticipation. Some will include teasers, some won't.

I have belatedly discovered that I'm most happy with how my books start and end when they have some sort of "bookend" scenes that refer to each other but somewhow stand apart from the rest of the narrative. Not everyone has been quite as enthusiastic. I got a few comments on the epilogue of Daughter of Mystery that readers felt it was unnecessary. (In retrospect, perhaps, but since I had no idea I was writing a series, I wanted to make it clear that Barbara and Margerit got their happily ever after.) But bookending DoM with brief omniscient scenes made it a lot easier to set up Barbara as a character at the beginning, and to provide that HEA promise at the end.

In Mother of Souls, I bookended the story with a description of the river dynamics of Alpennia as they related to floodtide, which provided a foreshadowing at the start of the part the weather curse would play, and a foreshadowing at the end of the main plot of Floodtide.

I didn't do this sort of bookending for The Mystic Marriage and, in retrospect, I think I would have had fewer problems around the concluding paragraphs (and been happier with the result) if I had. If I'd begun the story with some sort of stronger metaphoric connection between Antuniet's life and her alchemical work, and then ended more clearly emphasizing the connection in her mind between creating alchemical gems and developing strong interpersonal relationships. Maybe someday I'll write those scenes just as an alternate version.

But for Floodtide, I knew I was going to do bookends again, and I knew what the theme of those bookends would be because it was the very first scene I wrote. Searching back through my old LiveJournal entries, I was startled to remind myself that I write the opening scene of Floodtide in August, 2014. Almost five years ago. To be sure, that's because I wrote it when I was just barely starting the draft of Mother of Souls, but there's also that two-year gap in getting the books out.

Here's what I posted in 2014 as my idea for the opening of Floodtide.

* * *

You know the scent of lavender on the fresh sheets when you get them from the linen press for the housemaids to take up? You breathe it in, remembering the long rows of purple spikes in the summer sun. Then you imagine the smile on the Maisetra’s face when she settles in for the night on a new-made bed with that scent still lingering. That’s what I always imagined love would be like. But loving Nan was like the hours spent stripping the lavender spikes for the stillroom, back in Sain-Pol. The sharp resin climbed up your nose, making your head throb and ache, and the memory of it clung to your hands and your clothes for weeks so that you’d think you’d never be free of it. That was how they found us out: because I was never free of thinking of her. I‘d watch her from the laundry room door as she went up and down the stairs to the family rooms, and find excuses to call her over to ask about some mending she’d brought down. Then at night, even when we were so tired we could barely talk, we’d kiss and cuddle in the narrow bed we shared. My head was so full of her and it was never enough. We had to keep quiet so Mari would think we were only whispering about the day’s work. I didn’t think she’d rat on us; lots of girls in service have their bit of fun. I don’t think Mari told, but someone did. Old Mazzik the housekeeper took Nan back into her parlor and closed the door for a long time and when Nan came out she’d been crying and wouldn’t look at me. Then Mazzik took me by the arm without a word and dragged me across the yard and out the back gate and threw me down onto the cobbles.

* * *

And here's how the opening of the manuscript currently stands:

* * *

You know the scent of lavender on the fresh sheets? When you take them from the linen press, you breathe it in, remembering the long rows of purple flowers in the summer sun. You think of the smile on the maisetra’s face when she settles in for the night with that scent still lingering. That’s what I always imagined love would be like.

But loving Nan was like stripping the lavender spikes in Aunt Gaita’s stillroom back in Sain-Pol. The sharp resin filled my head and the memory of it clung to my hands and my clothes. I’d say the prayers to Saint Cheler with my aunt as we distilled lavender water and mixed herbs to add to the soap. Sometimes I’d get a warm stretchy feeling at the base of my belly, like the one I got during the mysteries at church.

When I was in the middle of the lavender harvest, I’d forget about everything else. I wouldn’t think about how lucky I was that Aunt Gaita picked me out from my brothers and sisters to learn a trade and teach me how to behave proper in service. I’d forget about tending the boiler where the linens were soaking. My mind would wander off and she’d box my ears and threaten to send me back home to mind the babies. I knew she didn’t mean it, but the scent was that strong it could drive everything else out of my head.

Loving Nan was like that. I was never free of thinking of her. I‘d watch her from the laundry room door as she went up and down the stairs to the family rooms, and find excuses to call her over to ask about some mending she’d brought down. I’d lean close and breathe in how lovely she smelled. Then at night, even when we were so tired we could barely talk, we’d kiss and cuddle in the narrow bed we shared.

Nan was the one who taught me what to do with that feeling in my belly. We’d never meant it to go further than the ordinary sort of keeping company. Most girls in service have a special friend. You get lonely away in the city with no family about. But it did go further. I was so hungry for Nan we’d be up late into the night, trying not to make noise and wake Mari in the next bed, and then stumbling bleary-eyed through the morning chores.

I don’t think Mari told on us. Why would she? But someone did. That morning Mefro Mollin, the housekeeper took Nan back into her parlor and closed the door for a long time. I watched the door until Nan came out crying. She ran upstairs without looking at me. Mollin saw me standing there and took me by the arm without a word and dragged me out the door, across the yard, and out the back gate then threw me down onto the cobbles.

* * *

It's longer and has more details, but for all intents and purposes, it's nearly identical to that original idea. Not all my openings stay that stable from first idea to final draft! But the image stuck, and I always knew that the closing images of the book would touch back on the lavender metaphor. I didn't always know how they'd do it, but it gave me a clear end-point to work towards.

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