Writing Diversity in Dialogue

March 10th, 2015

Hello, friends. I hope you have a celebratory libation in hand. I certainly do, because today is Rivals in the City‘s birthday! As many of you know, this has been a long time coming, and there were definitely times when I feared it would never happen at all. But March 10 is here, and Rivals is now on sale in bookstores across Canada and the U. S.

Rivals in the City, by Y S LeeDespite the jubilation, this is also a bittersweet day for me. The publication of Rivals also marks the end of the Agency quartet – the last Mary Quinn adventure, the last time I write dialogue between Mary and James, and probably my last romp through London, 1858-1860.

Don’t worry: I’m not finished writing novels! I’m just ready to try a new setting. Despite the fact that I’m eager for change, though, it’s hard to leave this world behind. It feels like a second home to me (a family cottage?), and I’ll miss it dearly.

To mark this special week, I wrote a guest post called “Writing Diversity in Dialogue” for Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo’s very fine site, Diversity in YA. If you read it first there and are just finding your way here, welcome! I’m re-posting it here this week, though, because there’s no comments section at DiYA, and my desire is to start a conversation about this sticky subject. So please, let me know what you think, either in the comments below or on Twitter (I’m @yinglee). I’d love to discuss this to the next stage in good company.

Writing Diversity in Dialogue

One of the delights of the written word is the power – in fact, the necessity – of creating your own mental pictures and soundtrack. Only you know just what the heroine looks like when she’s angry; only you know the precise music of her nemesis laughing. Setting plays a huge role, too: contemporary America vs. medieval France vs. a planet far, far away. As readers, we are our own casting directors, cinematographers, and composers. I’m here today to argue that we should be our own dialogue coaches, too.

As a genre, historical fiction – which I love, and which I write – is prone to spelling out accents. Often, it’s not enough to mention in passing that a character is a stableboy or a visiting German aristocrat; the characters’ words are spelled out so that we can see, on the page, just how outlandish their pronunciation is. And that’s not all. The real problem is that historical fiction is especially prone to spelling out lower-class accents.

See the bias here? Everybody has an accent; that much is obvious. But in novels where lower-class accents are spelled out, the upper-class accents are rendered in standard English spelling. The not-so-subtle subtext is that upper-class accents are “normal”, while lower-class accents deviate from an invisible, correct norm. Add to this the fact that working-class accents are most frequently used to provide comic relief or create pathos, and what we have is proud and unexamined social snobbery written openly on the page. We should be embarrassed. We should repudiate this. We should complain, bitterly, so that writers and editors re-think assumptions about class, accent, and the ways we report speech.

When I wrote the Agency novels, I solved the problem by representing dialect (irregular grammar) but not accent. I might write a character who says, “I don’t know who done it.” I might even write, “Dunno” instead of “Don’t know,” on the grounds that everybody, across the social spectrum, uses contractions in speech. But I assume that my readers can imagine what “I don’t know who done it” might sound like, spoken aloud. I won’t write, “I daown’t knaow ‘oo dunnit!” It’s patronizing, it’s ugly, and it’s an invitation to readers to feel superior to that character.

But whether they were mudlarks or monarchs, all these characters of mine were native speakers of English. When writing Rivals in the City, I found that I had a fresh problem: how to write dialogue for a character who speaks imperfect English. A character, in fact, who spoke only Chinese until a couple of years prior to the action of the novel, and who speaks with a distinct Chinese accent.

I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spelling out his pronunciation. Still, I felt stuck as to how to convey his accent. Stereotypes of Asian accents in English are usually patronizing and ugly. While French accents are heard as charming, and British accents register as classy, Asian accents are fodder for the unfunniest kinds of jokes. How many times have you heard a French or British person congratulated on speaking “without an accent”? Yeah. Asian accents are the stableboys of the accent hierarchy.

In the end, after a lot of deliberation, I wrote this Chinese character’s dialogue as I would that of any other. His vocabulary is more limited, because he’s relatively new to the language. Figures of speech perplex him. But for me, the clearest and most respectful way of signaling his difference was in giving him words, hearing him speak, and having him articulate his confusion and discomfort with London life in the year 1860. I think that was enough.

I’m curious, though: have you tried or run across other respectful, effective strategies for signaling difference through accent? I’d love to hear them. With any luck – because we’re going to keep reading and writing about diverse casts of characters, right? – this problem will be with us for a long time yet.

(This post was also published earlier this week at Diversity in YA.)

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Author Math

March 4th, 2015

One of the things I find consistently surprising in historical fiction is how very long it takes to get from one place to another. The Agency novels are set in London between 1858 and 1860. They’re too urban to make use of the railways that criss-crossed England and a shade too early for the first intra-city underground trains (the steam-powered Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863). Most of the travel in my books takes place either on foot or by horse-power: carriages, cabs, and of course, simply riding on horseback. By 1858, there were also horse-drawn omnibuses that, like our present-day buses, plied regular routes through the city.

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

An early omnibus (image from wikipedia)

The climax of Rivals in the City features a fair amount of running around between locations in central London. One of the first things I did when plotting it was create a chart showing the different sites, the distances between them, and how long it would take to move from one point to another. In order not to spoil the plot (Rivals will be published next week in the U. S. and Canada; it’s already available in the UK), I’ve renamed the locations after four of my favourite North American cities. This, of course, is a fiction upon a fiction; the real locations are London landmarks. Otherwise, here’s what my chart looks like:

Timing the final action

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 2.41.39 PMI assumed an average running speed of about 6 miles/10 km per hour – a pretty fast clip for a woman burdened with heavy clothes on slick, inconsistently paved, and poorly lit urban streets (it’s after dark). But I’m talking about the women of the Agency, an elite detective firm. Not only are they are in excellent physical form, they are responding to an emergency.

I assumed a horse trot of 7-8 mph, since poor road quality and night-time visibility again make it impossible to canter. With horseback, I also needed to allow tie-up time and the need to rest or change horses. Riding turned out to be not much faster than running, but riding made it possible for a character to arrive at an important location looking respectable.

As it worked out, the time elapsed for a series of important messages to be relayed was:

– 57 minutes: for a character to run from Vancouver to Toronto and back again

– 41 minutes, plus delays while tying-up a horse: for a character to ride from Toronto to New York, and then from New York to Montreal

– 30 to 35 minutes, plus time for marshalling and instructions: for a large group to walk quickly from Montreal to Vancouver

Rivals in the City, by Y S LeeThis left me with a space of 2 ¼ hours, the minimum period of time my heroine, Mary Quinn, would be alone in “Vancouver” after sounding the alarm. It turned out to be the perfect window of time to allow her to take action, imperil herself, yet receive help at just the right moment.

I love this kind of concrete plotting, and wonder if any of you do the same. How do you work out timelines, near-misses, and rescues?

(This post was also published yesterday at The History Girls.)

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Rivals in the City is almost here!

February 25th, 2015

Hello, friends. It’s official: we have a launch party for Rivals in the City!

launch invitation

The specifics, if the image is hard to read:

When: Saturday, March 7, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Where: Novel Idea Books, 156 Princess St., Kingston, Ontario

Yes, the launch party is happening before the official pub date of March 10. What does this mean? Why, it means that at the party, you’ll be able to buy Rivals in the City 3 days before it’s officially published!

There will be wine and nibbles. I’ll be there reading, signing, and almost certainly talking at warp speed. And I really hope you’ll come, too.

Until then, you can read the first chapter for free, as well as a deleted scene. And in less than two weeks, the whole novel will be here.

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Year of the Goat

February 18th, 2015

Or sheep. Or ram. Year of Some Delicious Herbivorous Quadruped, at any rate. Today is the eve of the Lunar New Year and, as my mother always points out, today is the day that counts. Your house is spotless, your hair freshly cut, your new clothes pressed, and you go back to your mother’s house for a celebratory feast. Actually, in my case, none of the above is true. Oh, well. At least I have dinner planned.

image ripped shamelessly from wikipedia

image ripped shamelessly from wikipedia

Because my family is (mostly) ethnically Chinese and culturally from Singapore and Malaysia, I take a pan-Asian approach to the meal. I’ll be making roast chicken with lemongrass, garlic and fish sauce; coconut-ginger rice (nasi lemak); and a simple Malaysian chopped salad (kerabu). We like to have a good stash of almond cookies on hand (here’s my mother’s recipe). And this year, my six-year-old asked, repeatedly and urgently, for char siu bao, aka Cantonese barbecued pork buns. These are crazily time-consuming to make when we live so far from a Chinatown, so they won’t happen this evening. But I marinated and roasted the pork last weekend, and froze some (I used Corinne Trang’s recipe in Essentials of Asian Cuisine). Sometime this weekend, we’ll make the bao dough together (the kids love kneading), shape the buns, and steam them. It’ll be the most time-consuming afternoon snack of my life.

It’s probably a good thing we only attempt this annually, but I’m so glad that we do. What are you up to this week, friends? How do you celebrate the New Year?

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Rivals in the City: a deleted scene

February 11th, 2015

Hello, friends. This post starts with a quantity of self-promotion but I’ll make it up to you with a deleted scene from the final Agency novel, Rivals in the City. In just four weeks, Candlewick Press will publish Rivals in Canada and the USA, and some very nice things are happening as a result!

To begin with, you can pre-order Rivals from your local independent bookseller, or through IndieBound, or B&N, or Amazon USA, or Chapters/Indigo, or Amazon Canada, or anywhere at all, really. It will have this glorious cover.

Rivals in the City, by Y S Lee

A Kingston launch party is in the works, with date to be confirmed.

Kirkus likes it, wooo! The highlights: “Intrigue, romance and the rich details of Victorian life are the focus in the fourth installment of this mystery series featuring a complex female detective. … As with the previous volumes, the elements of Victorian life are well-drawn, adding rich texture to the storytelling. … Readers of the series will find this addition deeply satisfying as both a mystery and a historical romance.” Here’s a link to the full review at Kirkus.

Over at Bustle, they included A Spy in the House in a listicle called “If ‘Agent Carter’ Is Making Your Life Amazing Right Now, You Must Read These 12 Books”. It’s such a rush seeing my book mentioned in the same breath as those by Robin LaFevers, Elizabeth Wein, and Sebastian Faulks. Oh, I’m going to be insufferable.

Bookriot’s Amanda Nelson is reading The Body at the Tower and you can, too! E-Volt is currently offering a substantial free sample of Mary Quinn’s second outing.

If you didn’t already know, the first chapter of Rivals in the City is already up, right here.

And finally, here’s another taste of Rivals in the City – a deleted scene that didn’t make the cut, but I still wanted to share with you.

The Background

Rivals in the City went through a huge number of revisions, so I had a lot of deleted scenes to choose from. My favourite, though, might be this one. It’s a scene I wrote in order to take the emotional temperature between Mary and James, eight months after Mary achieves financial independence – an event that entirely transforms her understanding of life.

I was reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, at the time, and was thrilled to learn that Dickens regularly dined with his mistress, the actress Nellie Ternan, in restaurants. Sometimes they had friends with them, but sometimes they appear to have been alone together. I’m not sure what they called it, but to me it sounds just like a date.

I couldn’t resist taking Mary and James on a date, too. I cut the scene – didn’t even finish it properly – because it contributes nothing to the actual plot. But the scraps remain. And because I spend so much time propelling Mary and James from one peril to another, sometimes it pleases me to imagine them doing something as mundane as going on a date. In Dickens’s favourite restaurant.

— The Deleted Scene —

When her bell rang that evening at a perfectly punctual five minutes before eight o’clock, Mary checked her appearance in the hall mirror one last time. It was quite a transformation from her usual minimal toilette. She was fragrant with her favourite soap and wearing, for the first time, her only evening gown. She’d taken care with her hair. She only half-recognized the young lady in the mirror: a thought would have amused her, had it not also made her uneasy.

After securing her cape over her shoulders, she carefully descended to the front door on a staircase suddenly made steep and narrow by her large crinoline. Anticipation and unease united to make her fingers stiff and awkward, and she fumbled with the doorlatch for a moment. At last, though, it opened to reveal James on the step, freshly shaven and wearing an evening dress coat.

“Good evening, Mr. Easton,” she said to James, in her most demure tones.

“Good evening, Miss Quinn.” After the briefest of hesitations, he bowed and kissed her hand. “I’m afraid our conveyance isn’t quite up to our gorgeous behaviour.”

Mary glanced past his shoulder and grinned at the sight of a hansom cab waiting at the curb. “I wondered how you’d escort me, under the new rules,” she confessed, slipping her hand into the crook of his arm. “A closed carriage is clearly indecent.”

“The streets are far too filthy for walking.”

“And I never learned to ride a horse,” she confessed.

“Plenty of time for that,” he said, offering a hand to help her into the cab. “I’ll teach you.”

She smiled at that. “By that time, we’ll be able to ride in all the closed carriages we want.”

“I can’t wait.” He stroked the inside of her wrist, finding the fraction of bare skin between her glove and sleeve, and she shivered.

Despite the hansom’s open design – they were clearly visible to anybody in the street who cared to look – it retained an air of privacy: a small space in which they fit together neatly, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. James took both her hands and smiled when she interlaced her fingers with his. Even through two pairs of gloves, his and hers, this felt indescribably intimate.

The cab turned with a creaking of leather and springs, and set off at a leisurely pace. “How was your meeting with the new client?” she asked. The question itself made her smile slightly, with its overtones of wifely concern.

He squeezed her hand, clearly hearing the same domestic notes. “Quite long, in the end. There’s talk of building a second railway line, to allow a fast train directly from the ferry port in Gravesend to London. They wanted my opinion.”

“That sounds promising.”

James made a non-committal face. “Possibly.” He was always guarded, pessimistic, about new business. “How was your day?”

Mary considered this invitation to change the subject. Anne Treleaven’s visit weighed heavily on her mind but she shied away from introducing threat and tension so early in the evening. Why shouldn’t she and James enjoy the novelty of dining together for once, free of threat and tension? They could discuss the case after dinner. “Varied,” she said, eventually.

A half-smile. “Sounds exciting.”

“It never quite seems to be a simple case of ooh-I-ordered-a-new-hat-and-had-luncheon-with-Miss-Smith.”

“If you ever said that, my first instinct would be to call a physician.”

“You have very strange taste in young ladies.”

He squeezed her hand again. “Someone’s got to.”

Verrey’s shone like a beacon in the fog, a miracle of gleaming plate-glass, burnished brass, and gaslight. A doorman in gold-braid opened the door with an obsequious bow, and Mary and James entered the building arm-in-arm. To all outward observers, they were just another rich young couple going to dinner. Privately, Mary hoped the shaking of her knees wasn’t also making her skirts tremble.

An attendant showed her to the cloakroom, relieved her of her cape, and indicated a small table at which she could make any last-minute adjustments to her hair and gown. Mary stared at her reflection, rendered unfamiliar by the blazing lights and plush furnishings. She didn’t look like an interloper; she was entirely plausible here, in this elegant setting. A good detective ought to be a chameleon, but the realization was startling nonetheless.

When she rejoined James in the dining-room, escorted to her table by yet another lackey, he was already seated. He glanced in her direction, looked away, then did a sudden and distinctly comic double-take at the sight of Mary in an evening gown, neck and shoulders on rare display. His eyes flashed with surprise and he half-stumbled to his feet. A sudden smile curved his lips. He pivoted slightly, until he stood between her and the attendant, and murmured, “Stunning.” Though his voice was nearly inaudible, his admiration rang in her ears, making her giddy.

It was a relief to sink bonelessly into the drawn-out dining chair. As James slid her chair towards the table, he stroked her spine with the gentlest of fingers, sending a powerful shiver down the length of her body. Speech was impossible. After a few moments, she remembered to breathe.

He sat down across the table and gazed upon her for a long minute. “Well,” he finally murmured, “if there are rumours flying about town tomorrow about my involvement with a young actress or dancer, you’ll know who she is.”

She smiled. “Outrageous flattery. I think, however, that I see a genuine celebrity in the far corner. Over your left shoulder, is that not Mr. Dickens?”

James craned his neck and was met with a frown of reproof from the eminent gentleman. He turned back to Mary with a small smile. “Indeed. Dining with a genuine actress, Miss Ternan.”

Mary met his gaze with a wicked smile. “Tell me again why you’re so set on perfect propriety when all the world knows about Mr. Dickens’s highly irregular domestic life?”

James swallowed his riposte as a waiter glided up to their table. Their meal was a beautifully cooked affair, accompanied by good wine and capped with French cheeses. As they dined and talked, Mary thought she would always remember this evening with perfect clarity. There was something about the exquisite staging of the restaurant, the dazzle of lights and elegantly pitched conversation. Perhaps it was knowing that this artful serenity existed within a dark, fog-choked, raucous city. For the first time that she could recall, Mary gave herself up to decadence. She felt nearly at home amidst such luxury.

— End of Deleted Scene —

And that’s my week, friends. What are you all up to?

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“Set Europe ablaze”

February 4th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is a spine-tingling sample of the women and men of the Special Operations Executive, England’s diverse group of volunteer spies that operated on nearly every front of the Second World War.

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944). Image via wikipedia

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944). Image via wikipedia

It’s up now at the History Girls. Hope you enjoy it!

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An excess of the sublime

January 28th, 2015

Hello, friends. This past week, our small bit of Lake Ontario achieved perfect lake-skating conditions: the ice was clear and dark, at least 4 inches thick (much thicker in parts), and incredibly smooth, with no snow on top. We saw hundreds of people – and quite a few dogs – out there, skating and walking along kilometres of frozen water. The World Ice-Boat Championships took place, too.

I’ve always been a bit nervous about skating on the lake – it seems like such an obvious way to “win” a Darwin Award – but this year, we were confident about the conditions. We went on Saturday and loved it so much that we were back again on Sunday morning, despite the snow that had fallen overnight.


Stepping out from the beach is exciting but not at all frightening: the water is so shallow that if the ice were to break, you’d end up in knee-high water. It would be unpleasant but no big deal. Further out, it got really cool: we could see through several inches of ice down to the bottom of the lake. We even spotted a couple of shipwrecks that, usually, only divers get to see. The light on Saturday was softly luminous, idealizing everything it touched. On Sunday, the sunshine was so intense that the whole world looked glittering and supercharged, even through sunglasses.

Our neighbours were out there, the kids passed around a hockey puck, and even our three-year-old, who normally goes on strike when confronted with winter, stomped and danced around on the ice. It was profoundly exhilarating – a degree of emotional intensity that had less to do with the joy of skating in gorgeous weather and much more to do with the constant awareness that we were standing on water deep enough to drown us. All that separated us from hypothermia and drowning was a few inches of ice.

This, according to philosopher Edmund Burke, is the sublime. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke argued that experience of the sublime “excite[s] the ideas of pain, and danger… [it] operates in a manner analogous to terror… it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”. (In contrast to the sublime, beauty is small, smooth, delicate and light – that is, pleasant and easily contained.) Burke’s theory had a huge impact on eighteenth-century literature, and also on luxury tourism. By the second half of the eighteenth century, privileged young Englishmen making their Grand Tours of Europe sought out the extreme peaks of the Swiss Alps, and revelled in remote locations during wild storms.

The sublime inspires, terrifies, and reveals the puniness of human endeavour in extreme contrast to the natural world. This week, I discovered that it also lodges deep in your subconscious and haunts you long after the encounter is past. I don’t think of myself as a particularly anxious person, and I enjoyed our lake expeditions. The shiver of the sublime is, after all, a pleasurable one. But on Sunday night, after two consecutive days of sublimity on the lake, I had a fierce series of nightmares about skating into open water, falling through holes in the ice, and much worse.

In the early hours of Monday morning, I decided that I need a new strategy for dealing with the reality of lake-skating. It might be entirely too sublime for me.

What about you, readers? Have you had a nose-to-nose encounter with the sublime?

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Hello, bandwagon.

January 21st, 2015

Is this where I get on? I’m talking generally about January-organizational-shiny-new-year-resolutiony stuff, and specifically about bullet journals. When I first saw the words “bullet journal”, I reflexively bristled; I thought it was a product, and I did not want to buy it. But when I realized that it was a concept – no purchase involved – I had my “Eureka!” moment.

It began when I read Stephanie Burgis’s blog post, Planner Love, in which she combines her day-planner with her to-do list and – this is the revolutionary part for me – her weekly goals. Yes! From there, I found Anindita’s link to her own blog post, Systems, which offered a refinement I love: she reflects on each past week and month and documents the things, large and small, for which she’s grateful – something else I want to include. From there, I hopped over to Kate Messner’s blog post about her bullet journal, and all was revealed. (I chose that link because I bought Messner’s picture book, Over and Under the Snow, for my three-year-old this past Christmas and it’s been such a hit.)

For many years now, I’ve kept a minimal calendar or desk diary – basically, appointments and social events – and a small haystack of to-do lists. The to-do lists are usually scribbled on the backs of envelopes or torn from the margins of other pieces of paper. This one’s unusual because it’s quite neat, and also because it’s alone:


The slips of paper float all over the house and drive Nick crazy. And I knew they were getting out of hand when my six-year-old waved one at me and asked, “Mama, is this one current or should I recycle it?” The final nudge came from Jessica Spotswood, who posted a photo of her bullet journal’s January spread on Facebook. So neat! So orderly! While I am only sometimes neat and orderly, I aspire to the brain of a librarian.

So this past week, I opened up the blank journal that my brother-and-sister-in-law gave me for my birthday. Isn’t it sweet?


And I set up my first month in a bullet journal. I started this on January 18 but, as the official Bullet Journal page points out, this is also a way of keeping a diary, so I filled in some activities for the first half of January. I imagine I’ll adapt the basic format, over time, to suit me. On the left-hand page, I’ve added an ongoing list of what I’m reading. (I’ve also smudged some names and phone numbers, for privacy reasons.)


I suspect my list of goals (right-hand page) is overly ambitious, but this is a great way of verifying that. In the past, all I had was a fistful of partially completed to-do lists and a sense of ongoing slippage. With this journal, I hope to be able to analyze on why certain goals weren’t met, and figure out how to change that in the coming month.

Keeping the journal is even spurring me to be more efficient. Now, when I have a few moments of down time, I go to the journal and see what three-minute task I could accomplish. It’s so much more satisfying than checking my email yet again, or reading the first two pages of a magazine article.

I’m writing this in the first flush of love for my bullet journal. I hope it will endure, and I’ll post about my experiences with it after the first six months. As for you, friends, are you busy organizing and goal-setting? Feeling laissez-faire? Watching things fall perfectly into place?

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I’m on TV!

January 14th, 2015

Last week, as I was leaving Novel Idea, our local indie bookstore, its owner Oscar Malan called out, “Oh, Ying: CKWS (the local TV station) is coming in to ask me about what sold well in 2014. They’d also like to interview someone with a book coming out soon. You wanna?” Which is how I found myself, yesterday, claiming my unspecified number of minutes of fame.

Here’s how the thing went down. I showed up promptly at noon, fairly spaced out because I’d been working on The Next Book. I was hungry because breakfast was five hours ago. I had tuque-head, because it was -24C outside, with the wind chill. And I couldn’t find my lip balm. On the bright side, I managed to eschew the stereotypical black turtleneck. Yes, indeed: my turtleneck was dark brown.

CKWS anchor Bill Hall was much better prepared than I and he couldn’t have been kinder. While his videographer was setting up, he chatted with me about the Agency – just a nice normal conversation about books. And when they were ready, he smiled and said, “We’ll probably just have that conversation again.” And so we did: one take, about three or four minutes long. I’m sure I talked too fast; I know I stumbled verbally a couple of times. I definitely failed to work in a couple of shout-outs that I’d planned (I’m sorry, Ann-Maureen! I’m sorry, Mary Alice! I imagined there would be more general questions.) On the bright side, I didn’t drool on myself and didn’t say anything terribly offensive. I think.

Anyway, it’s up now. I’m afraid you have to watch an ad before getting to the content. Oscar goes first, offering some excellent reading recommendations with his famous deadpan wit. And if you skip to about 4.55, you get me.

How about you, friends? Have you ever triumphed or failed on camera?


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Bikes, Bars and Bloomers

January 7th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is about the first bold women to ride bicycles, in the late 1880s.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

Juicy stuff! It’s up now at the History Girls.

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