alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress – Part IV, Silly Monsters

After posting on other topics for a few weeks, I am back with the fourth and final installment of “Monsters of the Library of Congress.” This week is silly monsters. These guys just aren’t very scary.

“Les deux ne font qu’un.” Hand-colored etching, France: 1791

Contrary to popular (American) opinion, the French do have a sense of humor. This 18th-century etching shows Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as a two-headed monster pulling in opposite directions. He appears to be a goat, while Marie is a….dog? Her feet definitely have toes. The caption describes her as “Medusa-headed,” but those snakes look more like long-stem roses made out of pipe cleaners. You’d think if you were going to poke fun at your rulers as you worked your way up to killing them, you’d intensify your cause by making your caricatures of them more grotesque, and not quite so toothless. Maybe the French don’t have a sense of humor after all.

“They thought I was one of those fire belching dragons.” Pen and ink, by Daniel Carter Beard [1889?]

This guy reminds me of Sir Didymus from Labyrinth–cute, earnest, hapless, valiant. But with a tail. And a longer nose. And can I tell you that we had free HBO for a while when I was a kid and before it went away I taped Labyrinth and watched it over and over until I wore out the tape? Because monsters! Castles! Cheeky talking snails with Australian accents! Sinister masquerade! The Bog of Eternal Stench! David Bowie in eye-makeup and breeches! Every frame of that movie has been indelibly etched into my head and–<…..Long pause while I dash over to YouTube and waste an hour of my afternoon watching clips of the movie and reliving my dreamy adolescence….Goodness, but the costuming in that movie was gorgeous! Although, I am unsettled to find that a 16-year-old Jennifer Connolly looks disturbingly like Kristin Stewart….>–um, sorry, where was I? Right! Cartoons, monters, Library of Congress. I’m on it!

Nude, hairy monster

Details from “Represantant d’une grande nation,” J. Cooke [1799]

The French are much funnier when it’s the English drawing them. According to the catalog description, the guy on the left is “a grotesque monster, nude and hairy, representing the Constitution of the Year III.” The description also notes that the monster has “upraised hands.” Really–that’s what they noticed sticking up? His hands?

“The sea-serpent season upon us again,” by Frederick Burr Opper. Cover of Puck magazine, July 31, 1895.

My personal favorite. More political cartooning, this time lampooning President Grover Cleveland. The house in the background is  Cleveland’s summer home on Cape Cod, ‘Grey Gables’. I’m just going to state right now that I have never lived in a house that has a name. What is it about this monster that I find so endearing? I think it’s the collar and tie. Also the gap-toothed smile and the one-eye-open, one-eye-closed configuration. This mammoth sea serpent is at least as big as Prez Grovie’s Grey Gables, but I bet if you gave it a corn dog and petted its whiskers, it would totally take you for a ride in the ocean. Of course, since it also looks like it has a brain the size of a dehydrated pea, it might forget about its passenger and do a deep-sea dive, leaving you to freeze in the Atlantic currents, but, hey– you befriends your sea serpents and you takes your chances.

That concludes this offering of ‘Monsters of the Library of Congress’ (Shockingly, all images are courtesy The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs) Missed an installment? Want more? See Part I – Humanoids,  Part II, Beasts, and Part III, Machines.


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Trick Writer At the Rodeo

Bucking Horse, 1910

I was getting my hair cut today and my stylist mentioned that she thought there was a rodeo coming to town this weekend. Then she confessed that when she was a little girl, she wanted to be a barrel racing, bronc riding cowgirl. My mom used to take me to the rodeo at least once a year (she used to compete at pole bending, which is like the junior version of barrel racing) and while I enjoyed it all, especially the clowns and the chance to eat deep-fried mushrooms and pulled-pork barbecue (hey, this was before I went vegetarian), I LOVED the trick riders.

Fancy riding demonstration at the rodeo of the San Angelo Fat Stock Show, Texas. Photo by Russell Lee, 1940

I could just see myself in a spangled vest and fancy white chaps, vaulting on and off my horse, swinging under his belly, and coming up to stand on his back as I galloped triumphantly around the arena, twirling my lasso. For a few weeks after the rodeo, I would practice crawling between my horse’s legs, turning all the way around in the saddle and facing backwards, and going from sitting to standing on the back on my (patient, sainted) horse, Najmar. I could keep my balance at a walk, but anything faster and I started to wobble and slid down on his back.

“Girl rodeo performer,” by Russell Lee, 1940

This surge of trick-riding memory started mixing up with the SF signal article I read yesterday about directions SF hasn’t taken. Particularly Kelly McCullough’s comments about the absence of Western crossovers:

In particular, given the success of paranormal romance and the rise of steampunk, I’m rather shocked we haven’t seen much in the way of fantasy/western crossovers. Seriously, who wouldn’t be interested in the intersection where Deadwood meets Game of Thrones. The history and mythology of America’s western expansion provides plenty of scope for dark, morally ambiguous stories with tons of drama and very high stakes.

This strikes me as pretty right. The only books I can think of along these lines are Emma Bull‘s Territory (2007), which retells the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the shootout at the OK Corral–with magic) and Ysabeau S. Wilce’s Flora Segunda series. And, OK, Cowboys & Aliens.

Before I got older and fell into the trap of romance novels (by way of Jane Austen, gateway drug), I was a fan of the Linda Craig pony mysteries. Originally written in the 1960s and re-issued in the 80s, they featured teen sleuth Linda Craig and her intrepid Palomino pony, Chica d’Oro. There are jewel thieves, treasure maps, ghost towns, ghost horses, and ancient secrets. The series was produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, also responsible for Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, etc. Like Nancy Drew, and that other childhood favorite, Scooby Doo, the stories contained supernatural teases, but mundane solutions.

I’m thinking I should channel all that. I’m thinking historical American West. A girl trick rider protagonist. The rodeo circuit, treasure hunts, shoot-outs, card games and land grabs. Plus magic. What do you think?

I leave you with “Pansy Den, Girl Vaquero of Santa Barbara”

Pansy Den, Girl Vaquero. From the San Francisco Call, November 13, 1910. [Library of Congress, Chronicling America]


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3 Things I Learned From Lynda Barry

Lynda Barry, June 2012

I’ve been a reader my entire life. I love books and I love stories, but I have always been jealous of my older brother because he can draw. When I was in junior high, I was so excited that we were given the option to take art classes. I thought that taking the class meant I would BE an artist. I wanted to get myself all paint-smeared and arty and make strange and beautiful things. But as some of you other daydreamers may also have learned by now, the pictures in my head didn’t much resemble the real world. Or the pictures on the page. When I drew a horse, it looked like a pig. When I drew a still life, it looked like a plate of spaghetti. My brother? His horses, people, skiers, hot rods and spaceships not only LOOKED like what they were, they had energy and style–you know, personal artistic interpretation. I kept hoping that these skills would suddenly erupt in me like a superpower, and that the next time I put pen to paper, I would blow my own socks off. We had the same genes, right?

Guess what? I’m still waiting for that art volcano.

Volcano erupting

Photograph by B. Chouet in December 1969. Courtesy USGS.

So, what was I doing signing up for a class with Lynda Barry, a cartoonist*? Well, for starters, it said right there on the application that she was teaching as part of the Indiana University Writers Conference. Not Cartoonist’s conference. Not Artist’s conference. Not People Who Can Draw a Horse That Doesn’t Look Like a Pig conference.

Lynda was teaching her ‘Writing the Unthinkable‘ class — which was incredible, and I urge you to sign up if she brings it anywhere in your vicinity. You might learn to write, you might learn to draw, and if you’re not interested in those things, Lynda will tell you stories about her Filipino granny, teach you a poem by Rumi, and sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ without opening her mouth.

Marlys gets inspired. Drawing by Lynda Barry.

So here are the best things I learned from her class:

1. Play with your food. Lynda told a story about watching a kid eat. The boy is moving his breakfast around the plate, and each time he brings a piece of bacon to his mouth, he holds it up and says, “I’m going to eat you” in a scary monster voice. Eventually, his mom notices what he’s doing, and he gets in trouble.

That’s the creative experience in a nutshell. As children, play and creativity are everyday things–you can’t separate them out from life. Playing and story-telling make stuff like eating a warmed-over hotel breakfast waaay more interesting by introducing power, fear, danger, and fun voices. You know, that conflict stuff writing teachers are always going on about. And this kid? He’s doing it naturally. But what’s his reward–a book contract? A movie deal? The praise and admiration of his peers? Nope. A nasty look and a sharp word if he’s lucky, and quick smack if he’s not.

What’s the message his mom is giving him? “Cut out that nonsense and get down to the important business of living your life without making it any more fun than it has to be.” Most of us internalize that message sooner or later (some of us a lot, lot later) and that’s what makes it hard to write. Or draw. Or make movies. Or whatever creative play that some stunted part of us is longing for.

2. Use the phone. Lynda has a great method for getting into a remembered scene and extracting the good stuff. She asks a whole set of questions like ‘What is behind you, What is under you feet, Where is the light coming from, etc.” (The exercise appears in her book ‘What It Is’ –sort of a companion to the class, but with autobiography and drawings. Or you can pretend you’re in the class and follow along with her instructions in this video on her Tumblr.**)

The questions are designed to prompt recollection of important events or “images” from your own life. But, you can use it for a story, too. You just call your characters on the phone, and ask them the questions. I mean, everybody has a mobile phone these days–it’s not like you’re not going to be able to get in touch. So, you’ve got your depressed suburban mom, your post-traumatic Afghan war vet, your streetcart vendor, your cheerleader, etc. all stuck and scared in the middle of the page, because you don’t know where they are, or where they’re going. So you call them up and say, “Where are you? What’s the temperature like?”

And my absolute favorite:

3. Pretend that you’re writing the story. “Wha?” you say, “Of course I’m writing the story. Otherwise, somebody else would be yelling at the dog for the unforgivable crime of breathing, and throwing their notebook at the wall.”

Are you sure? When we write, we listen to all kinds of voices. Ones that want to win the National Book Award, and ones that want to be published in Clarkesworld, and ones that want to write a best-selling trilogy, get a movie deal, and move to Key West. Those voices are loud, and they can lead you pretty far astray.

When you’re slogging through a story and it’s not going well, when it’s like marching neck-deep through the Cold Molasses Sea of Doubt & Obstinance, that’s the time to ask yourself, “If *I* were writing this story, what would I do?”

Lynda hanging out & drawing with us after class, May 2011. That’s my piece of brilliance in the lower left.

I had the good fortune to attend Lynda’s class twice, once in 2011, and again in 2012 (I know!). In 2011, Lynda only had a 50-minute teaching slot each day, and she generously spent the afternoons in an empty classroom, hanging out and drawing with anyone who wanted to stop by. This was about a month before I was about to head off to Seattle for Clarion West where I was going to meet 17 other aspiring spec fic writers and have to prove that I deserved to be there among them. This time spent doodling with Lynda was the best mental preparation I could have asked for.

My horse may still not look like a horse, but I had a good time drawing it.

*Besides having a complete fangirl meltdown. Ernie Pook! Fred Milton, Beat Poodle. Marlys the Greatest!
**Also don’t forget to watch the amaz-tastic time-lapse fungus videos. Fungus love–yes!!


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Favorite Things: Of Aprons, Elopements and Squirrel Sandwiches

I am not an apron kind of girl. I don’t do bows, frills, flounces, or flowers.

But, I do like to cook. And if I am making something messy like buttermilk biscuits, paranthas, or alfajores–basically anything that involves working with dough and flinging clouds of flour around–I like to wear my grandmother’s apron.

Apron hanging on a kitchen door

In a way, I never knew my ‘real’ grandmother. When I was 3, she and my grandfather were driving home from a livestock auction on a rainy winter night when their white pickup truck was slammed into by a tractor-trailer. They both survived, but my grandmother’s injuries were serious. She moved from intensive care to a regular ward to a nursing home. When she finally did come home, she was, as my mom would say, “not the same person.” She was listless, petulant, distant. After the accident, she mostly sat still in her chair in the front room of their log cabin, beside the Franklin stove.

A look through family photo albums shows the lost woman my mom was missing. Grandma in a man’s winter coat and rubber boots, carrying a rifle, heading off squirrel hunting with her sister. On vacation, waist-deep in the Chesapeake Bay. Leading my 5-year-old mom around the barnyard on the back of a Holstein calf. Her white hair tucked under a hunting cap, riding on her Saddlebred mare, Sugar. She was a Yankees fan, a backyard geneticist (chickens!), and she eloped with my grandfather–a German sailor who had jumped ship in New Orleans and made his way north–and for months didn’t tell anyone in the family that she was married, just kept bringing her beau to Sunday suppers with the family. I don’t remember a single photo of her wearing a skirt or dress – quite an accomplishment for a woman born in 1910.

Pauline was the second youngest of nine children born on a farm. The boys worked in the fields and the girls worked in the house. That’s just the way it was. She was a good country cook, and she cooked for her German sailor, too: fried chicken, chipped beef, potato salad, coleslaw, fruit cake, peach pie.

We spent a lot of time with my grandparents, especially after the accident, when we moved next door to help take care of them. I was always happy to visit– My grandparents were glad to see me, and they ate food that we didn’t have at home. There were packages of Nutter Butter cookies for my grandfather, and bags of chalky pink peppermints. There were cold slices of squirrel and rabbit refrigerated in margarine tubs, that we ate with Blue Ribbon margarine on Roman Meal bread. There was Braunschweiger and sliced genoa salami. Their dirt-floored cellar was a treasure house of canned peaches, pears, and fruit cocktail, jars of cinnamon-sugar applesauce, and big cans of Hi-C from the canning factory where they used to work.

And down behind the white Westinghouse fridge, where they kept six-pack glass returnable bottles of Coke (for Grandma) and Pepsi (for Pop-pop), was a flowered vinyl shopping bag, and two aprons – one red, one blue, hung on a hook.

Pauline Schroll tombstone, 1910-1981

I don’t like sports. I’ve never been hunting–I’ve been a vegetarian since I was fifteen. But, I, too, ran off and married my husband –another foreigner–and called my mom to tell her the news after the fact. I learned to ride before I can remember, and the feel of a horse under me is as natural as walking.

The cooking thing skipped a generation. My mom didn’t learn to cook until her husband taught her, and when he died when I was eight, I took over the cooking. It wasn’t until I had grown up and moved out and was visiting my mom, digging for some cobwebbed necessity when trying to make Christmas dinner in her neglected kitchen that I came across my grandmother’s apron.

It all came back to me. My whole childhood. My grandfather’s bolo ties, and his snoring in his armchair in front of the Orioles game. Eating squirrel sandwiches at the claw-foot table in the kitchen. Feeding the chickens, and stroking the feathers of the pale gold spring peeps. Sledding down the mountain lane in winter, and scrambling barefoot up trees in the summer, gathering black raspberries by the bucketful and spooning them with sugar over vanilla ice cream. Riding my Shetland pony, and falling under her feet when the girth slipped on her grass-fat belly. Crawling through barbed-wire fences, watching out for copperheads, playing tag with my cousins. Eating sassafras leaves, birch bark, and teaberries, and ‘cooking’ grass and acorns in a beat-up old saucepot on the tar-paper roof of the springhouse.

My mom didn’t need the apron, and I took it with me. When I wear it, I know the Pauline who I never knew. When I wear it, I continue the best of the women in my family. Women who know the Appalachian woods from the inside, who ride horses without fear, who marry the men they love, and ask permission later.

Self-portrait with apron