Saturday, August 29, 2009

Diners, Drive-ins, Dives and how to tell them apart

I have to thank that show from the Food Network - first, for recommending Duarte's Tavern, where we went two weeks ago for dinner, and second for inspiring the title of this post. In fact, this does relate to science fiction and fantasy, as I will get to below.

When we first went to Duarte's, we tried to decide whether it was a Diner, a Drive-in, or a Dive. Drive-in was easy to exclude, because any restaurant that involves driving in and remaining in the car while receiving food is easy to recognize. However, we did spend a bit of time discussing the difference between a Diner and a Dive, and in the end we decided that alcohol was the key ingredient - to be specific, the presence or absence of a bar. Thus, a Diner would be a place that serves food but has no bar, and a Dive would be a place that serves food and also has a bar.

What I found interesting about this from a cultural standpoint - always the viewpoint from which I try to apply things to fantasy and science fiction - is that we were able to come up with such a systematic relation between different types of food establishments. Of course, this classification excludes certain other types of restaurants. But when you think about it, there are quite a few words for places where one consumes food - many of which have come from different cultures (off the top of my head I think of Restaurant, cafe, and bistro). So when you're designing an alien culture, or a fantasy world, it's good to think through what kinds of places people go to get food.

Inns are very common in medieval-style fantasy - like the Prancing Pony in the Lord of the Rings. I've encountered alien restaurants of various sorts in my reading. But as you're putting a world together it's worth considering how culture influences the way the people eat, and in what contexts.

Conceivably one could have a culture where eating food was a very private activity that should be kept in the home - and in such a culture you might have clandestine eating establishments (much as you can find brothels in ours, for a different kind of private activity).

Possibly you might imagine a culture in which food consumption was a highly competitive activity. Maybe eating establishments would be ranked on a tier structure, and competitions of various types might be used to decide who could go to which tier. Perhaps the greatest delicacies would require some form of combat - either a physical combat, or a combat of words and manners - to determine who got to eat them.

Or to elaborate on the concept behind the Diner/Dive divide, maybe there might be a particular type of dish or drink that might be served in one kind of restaurant but not in another, and this distinction could have social significance. Or possibly some activity like dance, or smoking, might be associated with food consumption in one type of establishment but not in another.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Point of View, Unreliable Narrators, and Subjective Experience

The other day I was writing about point of view and the value of separating a character perceiving, noticing, and understanding - and I realized that there was a connection there with the idea of unreliable narrators. I've posted about unreliable narrators before, here, and one of the things I remarked was that every narrator can be unreliable to some degree.

Because anyone can make a mistake.

Let's say you have an event - say a line uttered by someone - that your character witnesses. And let's say that your character mishears that line, because he or she is in a state of shock at the time, having just....something. Learned terrible news, or had an arrow shot through her arm, or discovered his lover was unfaithful, etc.

First of all, let me refer to the tried and true (if frustratingly opaque) adage, "show don't tell." In a close point of view, I personally would rather not be told by the narrator that a character is in shock and can't hear properly - that dumps me right out of the narrative. So what I would look for is evidence inside the text that the character is in shock. This would be things like incoherent thoughts, distraction by pain, etc. that you can demonstrate easily if your narrative is directly reporting the internalization of your narrator. Here's an example (made up on the spot :) ).

"Donner fell back, staring at the arrow that had impaled his arm. Anika was shouting - God, he couldn't move his fingers, he'd never be able to join the guard now! A figure in black loomed over him, while her footsteps thumped up behind - was this the physician?"

Ok, so at this point if you have Anika say something, the reader will know that Donner is in a highly distracted state and not able to string thoughts together rationally. The choice for the writer then becomes whether to have Anika actually deliver the line.

If it's not important for the reader to know the content of Anika's message, then you can just have Donner pass out, or you can figure some message was delivered when she shouted but Donner didn't get it. If this is the case, you can have Anika refer to this event later, saying something like "but I warned you that that was Ghori coming to finish you off - I couldn't have shouted it any louder." To which Donner could reply "Good thing you'd brought your broadsword, Darling."

On the other hand, if it is important to the reader to know the message content, you can have her deliver the line perfectly clearly. "Watch out, Donner, that's Ghori - and he's got the crystal!" Donner can perceive the words, allowing the reader to do so also, but so long as he doesn't react to them in a way that shows he has noticed or understood, he can show his lack of comprehension later and readers will not be surprised or confused.

Close rendering of subjective experience is a great way to show a character's understanding without leaving readers behind. In the case of a large battle, for example, the author would do well to know what is going on behind the backs of the nearest soldiers, but the point of view character will only perceive the most local evidence of that larger picture. As a writer, you can choose to use other points of view to put the larger picture together later.

If you happen to be working with a very unreliable narrator - an insane person, for example, or someone who is drunk or high, then all of these tools for the separation of perception and judgment - even action and judgment - will come in very handy. Cold Words (which is written in first person) contains a sequence where Rulii eats a drug-containing plant and then runs home: I had to take him from rational to irrational, gradually removing all of the kinds of thoughts that showed measured judgment, before I could finally have him take actions that were impulsive and dangerous to his friend Parker (and very uncharacteristic of Rulii's normal personality). In that scene, I reported Parker's actions only in the most basic way, and I wrote all of Parker's lines quite clearly, but never had Rulii respond as though he took them seriously.

A final observation: one of my pet peeves in reading stories is when I feel an author is keeping secrets from me. My measure of that comes from the choice of point of view. In a movie, where I have no evidence of people's mental states, I'm more willing to accept that "wait, that guy was working for the secret society all along." If I've been in his head, though, his motives are very important to his internalizations and his choice of action, and if the character knows something, I feel I should know it too. I actually find it more suspenseful when I know who's working for the bad guys, and I know that the good guys aren't aware of the same things that I am. This is one of the reasons why I tend not to use omniscient point of view, because then my authorly hand is more obvious, and I think readers can tell when I'm deliberately hiding/avoiding certain information. But when I can filter the story through a character's subjective experience, then I have a perfectly good reason for a piece of information to be secret: it isn't known to the POV character.

I love point of view tools. They can do some really amazing things.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

How we mark our identities

I've been noticing this a lot recently: people spend a great deal of time marking their identities in various visible ways. I've spent time working on marking my identity recently, because I'm thinking of getting a new author picture of myself, and I'm trying to decide what to wear so I'll look like who I am! Writer of fantasy about Japan, and her own created worlds, and alien languages, etc...

The question of identity is complex, because none of us are all one thing. The marks of identity parallel this complexity. While something like a tattoo is difficult to remove, it can still be covered up. People typically will adjust their appearances to respond to the perceived audiences around them, and to show alignment with different social groups. When I take my kids to school I wear very basic clothes; when I go out with friends I like to do "dressy casual"; when I go to a convention I wear an outfit intended to show my imagination. I'm not the type of person to put bumper stickers on my car, but even the type of vehicle we drive can demonstrate our identity to others. The type of pen we write with; how we carry our belongings with us. The list goes on and on.

This is something to consider when you are putting together a story, creating and dressing characters and surrounding them with objects. People are very likely to care deeply about their appearance in one way or another - even to target particular groups they want to offend!

I recently put up a question on my Facebook page about what kind of jewelry otters might wear - and I was surprised and pleased at how many people gave me great ideas. At one point I was trying to decide which of the ideas I liked the most, and then I realized I could probably use more than one. Why restrict myself? Why not have otters choose various jewelry styles to reflect their personalities and preferences?

I want to add language use as one more identity marker. This includes not only choice of words and politeness strategies, but also things like tone of voice. People who have heard me speak Japanese often remark on how I use a higher tone and smaller body language when I use Japanese. I've been asked whether I do this because I have to. The answer is this: I don't have to - but mannerisms that fit with my use of English don't have the same meanings to the Japanese cultural community. In order to appear to be the same person - with the same degree of forthrightness, and the same degree of consideration for others - I need to sound different in Japanese. Simply importing my English mannerisms into Japanese would cause me to appear much more brash and rude than I actually am, and it wouldn't serve me well in making the social alliances I look for. This links back to the question of aiming our identity markers at particular social groups. Often we'll do it very deliberately, and even when we do it subconsciously, we're typically very good at it.

It's worth thinking about for whatever world or universe you happen to be writing in.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My character needs backstory!

I thought I'd share a story from my writing life. After months planning the details of a new story - human scenario, alien scenario, alien physiology, language, culture, technology level, etc. - I started to write, got 212 words in, and had to stop. The problem? It felt too shallow. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, in the form of a scene-by-scene description, but I wasn't really feeling my main character, Lynn.

She had no backstory.

She had a job, a general background and knowledge base, but no individual history. And my characters need backstory - not that I ever insert it in pure backstory form in the text, but if they don't have backstory, then they always feel shallow.

Actually, I knew going in that Lynn had no backstory, but I thought I'd just figure it out as I dived in. Unfortunately, writing the opening didn't really tell me as much about her as I'd hoped. So I stepped back, thought about it, and realized two things:

1. Lynn's backstory should hand her an existing problem that could get worse or drive the conflict in some way.

2. Lynn's backstory should reflect my overall thematic issue choice for this story, namely, attitudes toward technology.

These are things that I think apply not just to my own characters, but to general strengthening of a character's role in any story. The character should fit the story. Whatever actions the character must take as the plot unfolds should not be easy, and it's more exciting when characters have something major to lose as well as gain (stakes).

So in this case, I had Lynn working as an engineer on a large-scale project (trying to avoid spoilers here) in which all information was considered highly valuable and worth protecting from spies and incidental observers. I had also established that Lynn was going to be played against the head of information security for the project. There was already an external risk to this information built into the outline... so I decided to get Lynn closer to a form of internal risk. That was when her backstory became clear to me.

Lynn has a relative who is a hacker, and for that reason has had trouble getting security clearance for her project. With her relative now in jail, she's been allowed on the project in a low level position. She's more gung-ho than most, but people are unwilling to listen to her suggestions because she's only been there five years for everyone else's ten. So she hacks the system to try to improve it herself. It gives her a secret - there's no way she can tell anyone what she's up to without endangering her place on the team, because with her relative in jail, no one would believe she's doing this for the good of the project. It also makes her highly invested in the project's success, so that when the external difficulties show up, she'll act to protect her work and that of her teammates. But she still won't be able to align herself with the head of information security, who constitutes a danger to her presence on this project she loves.

At this point I figure I have to put in the obligatory warning about beginning with backstory, or infodumping. Don't do this; go straight to the main conflict. The very fact that you know about a character's backstory will show up in that character's reactions to events.

Because I haven't yet started over with my story (and I will be starting over - bye-bye 212 words!) I can't say how I'll execute Lynn differently with her backstory. But I'm excited to work on it and find out.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A crazy anthropologist's view on close POV

Those who know me well (and even some who don't) know that I love to talk about point of view. On my publications page you can find a whole article I wrote about POV in 2006, for IROSF. This link will take you there if you'd like to see it - it deals with the tiny little words that authors use in order to create the sensation of point of view.

For this post, I thought I'd look at close point of view, but approach it from a slightly different direction. I call it the "crazy anthropologist's view" because later in this post I'll be talking about techniques I learned for writing field notes. What I'm really doing here is considering the distribution of two types of information:

1. information that the point of view character is aware of
2. information that the point of view character is NOT aware of

I'll start with information the point of view character knows. This can include perceived sensation, emotional reaction, and judgment based on past experience. It may or may not be conscious.

I've seen discussions on Absolute Write forum (among others) about the problem of using the pronoun "I" too much in first person narrative. In fact, I'd say it would also apply to the overuse of a character's name, or the pronoun "he/she" in close internal third person narrative.
In order to avoid this myself, I operate on the assumption that people are not highly self-conscious. One function of the pronoun "I" is drawing a distinction between you and another person, and it involves stepping outside to look at yourself a little. Here is my general rule:

Use "I" for actions by the protagonist that involve conscious will.

"I look at him."

I use this sentence when the protagonist is deliberately turning to look at another character, out of curiosity, surprise, indignation etc. Compare that with a situation where the protagonist looks at the other character and observes something, but hasn't turned intentionally to look. In that case, I'll be more likely to use something like this:

"He's looking at me, suddenly."

In order for the character to know that someone's looking, he must have observed the fact himself - but the action of his observation here is less important than the content of what he's observed. This will apply to all kinds of sensory perceptions including sound, smell, taste, etc. Judgments can be delivered by your protagonist without him or her having to use a pronoun for him or herself.

"It's hot today." "That curry was spicy." "Boy, what an idiot!" etc.

I go on about judgment a lot. This is because it's one of the major tools I use for characterization. You can learn a lot about an individual based on the way he/she/it reacts to a given situation. Here's an example I've cited before in other contexts, from "Cold Words."

"I've told him many times that decorative cloth is most appropriately displayed on a wall, not dragged through mud and weather, but I won't chide now."

In this sentence, Rulii is expressing his judgment about the fact that Parker wears clothes. I've seen aliens judge humans for their clothes before in SF/F, so it's not an unfamiliar problem. In fact, Tom Ligon was the one who pushed me to take this concept further than just the typical one of surprise or disdain. When I wrote the sentence, I was taking advantage of the fact that people (of all sorts) do a lot of teaching of manners to those unfamiliar with them (children, newcomers, aliens), and had Rulii react like a parent/teacher of his culture toward Parker.

Let me call attention to the word I use for the clothes, "decorative cloth." Having Rulii use this word does something very specific: it establishes the function of cloth in his society for the reader. This is information that Rulii knows, and though it's not something he thinks about consciously, it's something really important, because it lies close to the heart of the misunderstanding between humans and Aurrel.

One of the things that I learned in my anthropological studies was how to pay attention to the words that people use to describe things. In particular, it was critical to pay attention to the metaphors people use for familiar and unfamiliar things, and to the judgments implied by those words. Anthropologist Edward Sapir (working in insurance before he got into anthropology) noticed that people tended to smoke around empty gas cans - a far more hazardous thing to do than smoking around full gas cans because of the volatility of gasoline vapor - because they felt reassured by the word "empty." To them, the word "empty" implied on an unconscious level that they were safe from the dangers associated with the presence of gasoline. Not such a good plan.

When you think about your character's judgments, think about labels he or she uses, which can imply information that he or she knows unconsciously about the society he or she lives in. This can allow you to create sensations of belonging, of closeness, or of discomfort and alienation, without having to explain them.


Enough for now on the topic of what the POV character knows. What about things he or she doesn't know?

This is where I like to call on the difference between observing something, noticing it, and understanding/judging it. Here's an example from my experience in language classrooms: a student can listen to Japanese or French all day, but unless they notice features of the language, they can't possibly learn them. On the other hand, they can notice these features and learn to use them without ever being able to explain how they work.

Say you have a boy and a girl talking to each other, and you happen to be in the boy's point of view, but you want to tell the reader something about what the girl is thinking. This is a moment when you can easily go "argh!" and throw up your hands, or decide that close POV was a mistake and you really need an omniscient narrator (which is a perfectly valid choice, if not always the right one).

This is where I go back to my experience learning about taking field notes. Field notes require the anthropologist to observe social interactions and write down every detail of what happens as quickly as possible without casting judgment. So instead of saying "the atmosphere was tense in the boardroom" you would record that the CEO was red-faced and scowling, and the people at the table were either sweating or sitting in closed body positions with their legs crossed in a direction away from the CEO, and that one guy was biting his fingernails every few seconds, then pausing, then biting them again. The idea of this kind of recording is to remove the level of summary judgment that we can so easily fall into, and provide the evidence to a reader, so that the reader can draw the same conclusions that we do.

This is exactly what we do as writers.

So let's go back to our boy and girl.

Situation 1: The boy is keen on getting a good reaction from this girl and having her judge him favorably. He'll be observing her, looking for evidence of that. So we can have him look at her: "He looked at her." Then we can describe what he sees on her face, in her body posture, her movements, etc. and show her feelings - or in this case, his perception of her feelings, for the reader to understand. We can then show the conclusions he draws from her motions, and his emotional response to the receptiveness, or standoffishness, he perceives in her. This situation thus includes all three parts: observing something, noticing it, and understanding/judging it.

Situation 2: The boy wants a good reaction from this girl, and observes her as they talk. He sees her posture and movements, and her expressions - notices them, but doesn't understand them. We still show the evidence of her emotional state so that readers can pick it up clearly, but instead of heading into his conclusions about her emotional state, we can give him expressions of uncertainty and confusion about the meaning of her behavior. This gives us observing and noticing, but not understanding it - which leads to a different kind of judgment. On the other hand, it doesn't have to mean leaving the reader behind.

Situation 3: The boy would be better off if he got a good reaction from this girl, but he doesn't know this and doesn't pay proper attention to her. Maybe he's looking at something else in the room, or talking about his own prior concerns. In this case, we can't give lots and lots of descriptive evidence of her state of mind, because he's not paying attention and wouldn't be able to notice. However, if it's critical for readers to understand her state of mind, we can still give her one highly relevant cue of body posture, expression or words that he'll observe, and which will deliver an explicit message to the reader who is looking for it, but he will remain in the dark. This is observing, but not noticing or understanding.

One of the things I really enjoy about using these distinctions is the possibility of creating something in a story that I can share with a reader - but not have any of the characters be consciously aware of it. When one of my critique partners comes back and shows that they've noticed what I've done, the crazy anthropologist in me gets an enormous grin on her face.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Three-person conversations

Three-person conversations, and any conversations involving more than two people, are notoriously difficult to write. Who are the main people in the conversation? Does everyone participate equally? How do I keep the third person in the reader's awareness when they're not saying anything, so they don't appear to come out of the blue when they do speak?

These are all good questions, and I've struggled through them just like everyone else, but I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the subject.

When I'm coming into any conversation, I want to make sure I start out knowing precisely the mood, motives, and voice/conversational style of each participant. This is critical even in a two-person conversation, because without this information, it's easy to have characters say things that the author wants them to say in order to get a story task accomplished - and if they're accomplishing author tasks, they won't come alive as characters and the whole conversation will fall flat.

Here are some questions you might want to answer about each person in the room where a conversation will take place:

How does this character feel (general mental state)?
How does this character judge each other person in the room?
What does this character want from each other person in the room?
What is this character's goal/purpose in the conversation?
What might this character stand to gain or lose depending on the success of the interaction?

And some voice and style questions:

Does this character feel comfortable speaking to others? In front of others?
Does this character enjoy or despise interruptions (or interrupt and hate to be interrupted?)?

Some of the answers to these questions won't just depend on the identity of the speaker, but also can change depending on circumstance. This is why it's so important to know how the speaker judges the other people in the room - a person asking a friend for something casual will speak differently from a person asking a colleague for an illicit favor in the presence of their boss.

Here are some examples of three-person situations.

1. Two people are talking to each other when another person arrives on the scene and tries to join in.

2. One person goes to ask a favor of another and brings a friend along for moral support.

3. Two people are talking when another arrives and decides that one of them has it all wrong and it's his job to explain the situation properly.

4. Two people are talking but a third is nearby and starts making relevant comments to indicate to the two that they're being overheard.

5. Two people are talking to each other and a third realizes that they aren't understanding each other at all, and tries to intervene to change the balance of their conversation (this happens in Cold Words between Rulii, Hada and Majesty).

In all of these situations, it's good to keep track of who the primary speakers are, and of the nature of the third's involvement. Each speaker will make conversational moves to align him or herself with the others, for particular reasons. A speaker will speak differently if she is intending her message to be heard by two people rather than one.

In my fantasy novel, for example, there's a situation in which my protagonist Dana's mother calls her on the telephone. This is ostensibly a two-person interaction, but because of the way the mother talks, halfway through the conversation Dana figures out that the mom is also making a show for Dana's sister, who is standing by invisibly on the other end of the phone. The cues to this are subtle - the mother makes comments about Dana's situation that are not quite fully appropriate to her, but have some ambiguity.

One thing to remember is that conversations aren't always entirely focused. A third person can interject something particularly relevant to their own situation, and the conversation can go in that direction for three or four turns, and then come back to where it was. Or someone can be distracted by thoughts of a third person in the middle of the interaction and become confused, as in the following example:

Evan turned to me. "Dana, what's this rumor I'm hearing about my dad?"
That took me by surprise. "Oh, well, he was looking for you, I think. But I told him if he wanted to see fireworks he should go down to the quad."
Above Evan's head, the first rally of fireworks soared up, blooming like flowers. I searched for Brian in the brightness but I couldn't see him. Thunder thudded into my ears.
"Yeah, well he's not here," Evan said.
I looked at him. "What?"
"My dad. He's not here."

This brings me to the issue of keeping track of a non-participant or low-level participant in a conversation. I have to admit that point of view and internalization do wonders in this regard. Even if a participant isn't speaking much, so long as the POV character cares about what he thinks, looks at him, or otherwise notices his presence, the reader won't lose track of him.

These are my thoughts at the moment, but I welcome questions and discussion to push the topic further.

A contest at The Healing Wars

Just passing on the news...

My friend Janice Hardy is having a contest on her blog, The Healing Wars. Send in your best chicken joke and win an advance reader copy of her forthcoming novel, The Shifter!

Here's the link if you want to participate, or if you're curious - but especially if you're chicken.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How to find "Cold Words"

I just thought I'd post about how to find my latest story in print, for those of you who'd like to read it.

"Cold Words" is out right now in the October issue of Analog magazine. You can typically find it at Borders or Barnes and Noble if you look in their magazine section. Here are a couple of reviews:

"This is an effective portrayal of the alien from several different points of view–between species, between clans, and between competing interests even among the same groups. Individuals may make friends, yet still see each other as predator and prey."

- Lois Tilton, IROSF

"Standout story of the issue was 'Cold Words.' The aliens were imho perfectly realized -- and realized as individuals -- from the inside out. I did not detect a single false note in the story."

- Michael Flynn, author of The January Dancer

Today's post will be short because I'm still half-asleep with jetlag.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The money agreement

My son asked me to explain money to him. This was in the context of telling him that his US money, which he had earned doing chores, wouldn't work in Australia - that he'd have to change it for Australian money.

The funniest things happen when I try to explain things to my kids.

This is what I came to. Money is not something that has value. It's something that people agree has value.

They say money doesn't grow on trees. It's true, and you wouldn't want to use leaves as currency, because the rate of inflation would probably be insane; there are just too many of them. But paper money is only one solution. In some areas of Africa, cowrie shells have been used as money; in ancient Japan, rice was used as money. Modern video games will sometimes have a form of currency, given an arbitrary name ("snelfus" in my son's favorite PBS Kids game), that players have to "earn" through various activities and then exchange for objects of value inside the game world.

The key is this: if you have something I want, I either have to

a. give you something you want, that you feel has equal value, or
b. give you something that you feel you can give to someone else in return for something of equal value.

In a lot of fantasy scenarios, you'll see bartering systems. In many of these, you'll also see gold, silver and bronze coins. I think gold, silver and bronze coins are pretty close to being "things of equal value," because you could argue that the metal itself has an empirical value independent of what is stamped on it. This certainly seems to be the case with pirate gold, where some coins would get cut in half to make sure all the pirates got equal shares.

With paper money, the agreement is the key. I offer someone $10 and they take it, not because they think the pretty paper I've given them is worth that much, but because they know that everyone else agrees it has that value and are willing to exchange it for goods of that value. The change of European money from francs, drachmas, etc. to Euros was a change in the fundamental underlying agreement.

I haven't given a lot of thought to how one could extrapolate this principle in an unusual way for fantasy or science fictional purposes. However, I think it has potential to be stretched. When I thought about it this way, for example, it suddenly made sense why certain vendors in foreign countries (I think specifically of Mexico) will accept American money. They accept it because they know other people who share their idea of its value, and with whom they can exchange it for things they want.

We're leaving tomorrow morning to return to the US, so look for me to blog again after I get home. I hope you're all having a good weekend.

My On-and-Off Australian Accent

Sorry I've been so quiet. I've been honing my Australian accent. Of course, I've also spent a week without the internet, which explains some things.

Whenever I'm in Australia, I find myself picking up an Australian accent. But it's interesting - this time, the tendency wasn't so strong as it has been in the past. Not like the time when I was 15 and by noon I couldn't remember what I sounded like before.

The difference, I think, is my kids. This time, I was talking to them a lot, and they don't tend to pick up the accent the way I do. My son likes to learn to say things in the Australian way, but he doesn't fall into it by accident. And my daughter doesn't pick it up at all (yet), though she understands it perfectly. I'm not sure when the tendency to pick up accents begins, but it seems to me there's still a possibility that they may pick it up later. I'll just have to wait and see.

Whether you pick up an accent or not has something to do with social alignment. I remember when I first came here, a single girl dating my soon-to-be-husband - I really felt silly not talking like everyone else. I got a lot of curiosity about myself, and was constantly being asked to act as a spokesperson for the US. People would bring up all the things they disliked about the US, and ask me to defend them, whether they had anything to do with my own behaviors and belief system at all. I took advantage of my ability to pick up accents and once actually launched into Australian for a full minute so as not to make myself look like a fool when I missed a train.

Now, though, I think it's a little unfair of me to try so hard to speak like an Australian. My kids are used to me speaking the way I do, and though their dad speaks Aussie (pronounced: ozzy), I do wonder if they think I'm being silly if I fall into the accent. Also, I know that people perceive group membership through accent a great deal, and I don't want the kids to get the idea that I'm not standing with them. This wouldn't of course be something they'd be consciously aware of, but they could still be more uncomfortable as a result of it. In fact, I haven't thought much about the issue during this trip - it only occurred to me this afternoon to look at my own linguistic behavior and ask myself why I'd done what I did.

Accents and judgments of social alignment are very closely linked. It's been interesting to watch this in myself.

I'm coming back to the US on Sunday, so I'm hoping to post again tomorrow... Jetlag could slow me down considerably once I'm back, but I'll be back to my regular routine as soon as I can make it.