alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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How I Became a Romance Reader

I spent last weekend at a retreat with members of the Indiana chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Being around so many different romance writers, with different backgrounds, preferences, and aspirations got me to thinking about how I ended up among them.

I concluded that I became a reader of romance novels entirely by accident.

As some readers may know, I grew up on a small farm in the Appalachian foothills of southern Pennsylvania. Once a week, my mom and I would drive into town for groceries, and to Agway for horse feed. If it was a long trip, we’d stop at the Lincoln Diner for the gyros platter and the biggest, wettest baklava I have ever encountered. But we also went to the county library.

Adams Country Prison, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1851
Courtesy Library of Congress

At that time, the library was in the county’s old prison. And it had freaking turrets!! Can you imagine a better psychic place to start a relationship with books?

As soon as we passed through the front doors, I headed for the children’s room, and my mom for the adult fiction – probably to get herself some Westerns. I was starting to outgrow children’s books, but YA wasn’t the category it is now. In my library, the ‘Teen Reads’ section, was a single 8 x 10′ area against the wall of the lobby, stocked with some sad paperback copies of things I wasn’t interested in, like Sweet Valley High.

I scrounged around in the children’s room for what I could find –after all, I had been coming there weekly for more than 10 years, and had basically read everything I wanted to, some several times. Then I’d go to the adult section to see if my mom was ready to leave. The adult section was pretty boring, since all of the books were hardback and had the shiny paper covers removed. They were just plain dark covers with plain block letters stamped up the spine. Like I said, Bor-ing.

So I’d wander back out to the front, where the romance was shelved in the first few rows. They were shiny, colorful, gloriously tawdry mass-market paperbacks. And I started picking through them. There were plenty of contemporaries, but these didn’t interest me in the least–nurses, doctors, yachts, and businessmen — bleagh. But Pirates? Runaways? Castles? Mysterious portraits? Horses? Countesses? Murder? Ghosts? — God bless the historical gothic, and the cross-dressing Regency.

These books were at the reading level for eleven-year-old me. I started with the Regencies, which were short and which had a mercifully offstage approach to sex. Later I moved on to sweeping historicals, traveling the world with Vikings, Spanish conquistadors, British privateers and French revolutionaries. I had adventures, and I learned something, usually history. I know a lot more about the succession of the British monarchy than any U.S-ian should, but I learned a few other things as well!.

I read everything ever written by Victoria Holt, and moved on to Kathleen Woodiwiss, Valerie Sherwood, and eventually, Jane Austen. Somewhere in my mid-teens, I lost my fear of those plain dark covers with the plain-lettered spines, discovered the classics, and left romances behind. But now I’m ready to acknowledge that early love that surely shaped the reader and writer I am today: I’ll be writing my own historical romance novel in 2013.

Anybody out there have a serendipitous reading experience? An accidental, but life-changing read? I’d love to hear about it.


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Anglophile Edition: Chatsworth & Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

View of Chatsworth from the River Derwent

View of Chatsworth from the River Derwent
by Tom Herbert, via Flickr

Last spring, on the same trip where I slogged through the rain in the Lake District, I also had a posher interlude. I visited the Chatsworth Estate in the Peak District. (Notice how many Districts they have in England?). This is not normally my cup of tea. (Sigh, puns already.) I *prefer* hiking 15 miles a day through the mud to museums, galleries, plaque-reading & etc. But several years ago, I came across pictures of the estate online and was smitten. Add the fact that Chatsworth was likely the inspiration for Pemberley, that the current Duchess is an actual Mitford sister, and you can actually stay in the Hunting Tower on the estate, and…well. When I found out that it was an easy distance from my in-laws in Yorkshire, I knew we had to go.

Georgiana as Cynthia from The Faerie Queen, by Maria Hadfield Cosway

One of the most well-known residents of Chatsworth was Georgiana, wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. By the standards of any era, Georgiana was a larger-than-life figure. Like any properly fascinating personality, she was a heady mix of admirable and out-of-control:

Society beauty & fashion trend-setter. She set the fashion for extravagantly high wigs sprouting ostrich feathers. Whatever she wore was reported in the newspapers and copied slavishly.

Compulsive gambler. From the beginning of her marriage, Georgiana could not resist the card table. She repeatedly ran up debts, begged money from friends to pay them off, lied about them to her husband, and ran up more. The outstanding debt upon her death totalled nearly 20,000 pounds. Wikipedia estimates this amount as today’s equivalent of £3,720,000.

Best friend of her husband’s mistress. The Duke, the Duchess, and her friend, Lady Elizabeth Foster  (‘Bess’), lived and traveled as a threesome for 25 years. In 1785, both Georgiana and Bess were pregnant by the Duke at the same time. When Georgiana was in the doghouse with the Duke for her gambling debts or other indiscretions, she appealed to Bess to keep peace in the household.

Political hostess and fundraiser. She worked tirelessly behind the scenes for the Whig party, arranging for rivals to meet, for strategies to arise, and money to flow. She was also the first woman to campaign for a political candidate, in an election in 1784, for which she was castigated and caricatured in the press for her unwomanly-ness.

Unfaithful wife. The Duke was not the only one to find comfort outside their marriage. In 1792, Georgiana gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Eliza Courtney, fathered by future Prime Minister, Charles Grey. The Duchess was forced to give her up to be raised by Grey’s aunt and uncle, though she visited her daughter in secret.

Diarist & writer. She found time to write a novel, ‘The Sylph,’ in 1780. As a close confidante of the Prince of Wales, her diaries were invaluable to modern historians in reconstructing the happenings in the palace during the Regency Crisis & the serial illnesses of King George the III, presented to modern audiences in the fantastic, “The Madness of King George.” What-what?

Rockhound, mineralogist, & amateur chemist. I can’t really get behind her personally with the chemistry, but I think it’s a pretty impressive hobby for an 18th century noblewoman, and I do like a good rock. So did Georgiana. She “endowed Chatsworth with a collection of stones and minerals of museum quality,”* many of which are displayed in the halls of Chatsworth House, near the Faerie Queen portrait.

I leave you with more views of the estate

On the Chatsworth Grounds
by Kevin Smith, via Flickr

Another view of Chatsworth Gardens
by Kevin Smith, via Flickr

Chatsworth Lion
by Hunter333, via Flickr

*Amanda Foreman, The Duchess, p.269


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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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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


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Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress, Part III – Machines

Short post this time, because the dominant monster of this week has been the one inside my maxillary sinuses, gumming up the works with all kinds of intangible crud. I’ve been on a strict regimen of two naps a day, and I rouse for the hour when my desperate fingers scrabble open another blister pack of Tylenol Multi-Symptom Cold & Flu.

For today’s feature, I have two machine monsters.

Locomotive threatens an automobile at a road crossing

“The grade crossing monster,” by W.A. Rogers, 1911.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any additional info on this one. It looks like a pretty straightforward commentary on the perceived danger of railroad crossings to the fledgling automobile. In 1910, only 200,000 cars were manufactured in the U.S.* I like how the train, while clearly mechanical, has taken on the characteristics of a snake, with two stabbing fangs and a forked tongue.

Fierce machine monster rolling over a city

[Smoking monster engine destroying town], by Wladyslaw T. Benda, circa 1922

Straight out of a steampunk nightmare, this creature is a smoking, clanking ravener of humanity. Its relentless metal wheels roll over the houses and culture of the tiny towns below. Monstrous & mechanical, though it has headlamp ‘eyes,’ it is clearly indifferent to the lives it shovels and crushes. Presumably a metaphor for the First World War, I actually find it really disturbing.

Benda was a Polish-American artist and illustrator. He was proud of his heritage and often drew heroines in Slavic costume. He designed propaganda posters for both Poland and the U.S. during both World Wars. Later in his career, he turned from illustrating to making masks.

That’s all for the day. My snot-filled brain just can’t take any more.

Want more? See Part I – Humanoids, and Part II, Beasts

[All images from The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs]

*http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Motor_vehicles


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Picture Thursday: Monsters of the Library of Congress — Part II, Beasts

Welcome to the 2nd installment of historical monsters. Up today–animal and other ‘beast’ monsters.

7-headed beast from 'Revelations'

Woodcut. Apocalypsis Sancti Johannis. [Germany : ca. 1470].

Starting with some classic beast-action from the Christian bible, this 15th-century woodcut shows “Saint John seeing a…seven-headed beast that looked like a leopard rising out of the sea.” You can tell it’s a leopard because of the spots. I like how each of the seven heads appear both feline and human.

Sea monster

Sea monster, by Udo J. Keppler [1872-1956]

The sea, being all big and fathomless and salty, is a popular place to store your monster. Here, in a political cartoon from 1901, this cranky-but-not-violent looking sea monster in the shape of a lion (?) references Odysseus mythology to comment on the Tammany Hall corruption scandals in turn-of-the-last century New York. I think today’s political cartoons would benefit from more sea monsters. It could only raise the standard of discourse.

Carolina Fertilizer advertisement

Wood engraving, advertisement for Carolina Fertilizer, 1869

Sea monsters aren’t just useful for scolding naughty politicians into more moral behavior, they’re also good for….selling fertilizer? Apparently so. This ad dates from just after the Civil War and shows “prehistoric monsters” tussling (& dying) in a swamp. According to Carolina Fertilizer’s promotional strategy, their fertilizer “…is made from the PHOSPHATES of South Carolina, and is pronounced by various chemists one of the best Manures known, only inferior to Peruvian Guano in its FERTILIZING PROPERTIES. These PHOSPHATES are the remains of extinct land and sea animals, and possess qualities of the greatest value to the agriculturist.”* So there you have it: only inferior to Peruvian Guano. Can’t argue with that.

Lithograph of minister in boat surrounded by demons

“A minister extraordinary taking passage & bound on a foreign mission to the court of his satanic majesty!” Lithograph by Henry R. Robinson, 1833

I love the skeleton horse at the top – I kind of want one myself. I’d  feed it raw hamburger & the ashes of carrots. I’d always keep a supply of sugarplum fingertips in my pockets and…um, sorry. Pony love gone wrong. Where was I? Okay, so actually, this drawing is tabloid journalism, 19th-century-style. According to the catalog record, this is [a detail from] “the second of two prints surrounding the scandalous trial of Methodist minister Ephraim K. Avery for the brutal murder of factory girl Sarah Maria Cornell.[…] Avery has departed the scene of his crime where his victim, now expired, still hangs strangled from a post. Her shoes, kerchief, and a note reading “If I am missing enquire of the Revd. Mr…” lay nearby. As monsters fly overhead, Avery is rowed toward a shore at right where an inferno blazes and a man is boiled in a cauldron.”

Illustration showing 'drug habit' as a 3-eyed monster

“The new morality play exit demon rum–enter drug habit,” by W.A. Rogers, 1919.

More social commentary. This 3-eyed, fanged, and ugly dude with forked tongue appears in a pen and ink drawing published in the New York Herald, Jan. 23, 1919, representing fears of a new threat of drugs (as opposed to the familiar old threat of alcohol) to U.S. society. What you need to know is that the Constitutional Amendment (18th) kicking off the Prohibition Era in the US was ratified by Congress on Jan. 16, 1919. The fez and billowing pants presumably reference the idea that drugs such as opium and heroin hail from the Ottoman East.

And now I leave you, good readers, with this horrible, hideous, fantastical, impossible beast. Machine mosters and comic monsters are yet to come.

Woodcut of a rhinoceros, by Albrecht  Dürer, 1515

“The Rhinoceros,” woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1515

[All images from The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs]

*From Lives Between the Tides, by John Leland. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. p38-39