Yes, I am a pirate two hundred years too late. The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder, I’m an over forty victim of fate, arriving too late, arriving too late.”
~ JIMMY BUFFETT, A Pirate Looks at 40
Today is my 70th birthday, one of those big milestones that my daughter likes to make huge; I like huge, heck, I’m looking forward to it. I don’t feel a bit different than I did when I went to bed last night. Sure, there are aches and pains, but the mind remains sharp, I still get around pretty well, and I still enjoy the surprises and camaraderie of a big family birthday party. Preparing this post a few days ahead, I thought I might write my “memoirs” here, a story of how I came to be a writer, and how that writing led to my involvement in a little niche called Steampunk. Maybe it will recall a similar tale in your own background.
The primary defining condition of my childhood was that there were no men in my family, not even bad ones, to serve as role models. Both parents had abandoned me by the age of three months, and I was raised by a great-grandmother, a woman whose prime had come in the Late Victorian, and whose parents had owned slaves. Her daughter, my maternal grandmother, lived with us, and was the primary breadwinner throughout my childhood. The chief lesson I learned from this was that women were capable human beings who didn’t need to be dependent on men to provide every facet of their lives with meaning. The chief lesson I didn’t learn, having no men around to teach me, was that women were substandard humans, valuable only for sex and housecleaning, to be used and discarded at a whim. These lessons have accompanied me through life and into my writing, and anyone interested in dynamic female characters who are interested in more than just finding Mr. Right need look no further.
Great-grandma used to read me the funnies as I followed along upside-down. I was reading far above my age bracket by the age of three, long before I understood the joke, and to this day I don’t laugh when I’m reading comic strips. I entered elementary school able to read anything they put in front of me. In third grade, the school established a little library in a utility room with the books divided by grade level. I always went straight to the sixth-grade shelves to pick out science books. One afternoon, I found a new librarian on duty who would only let me choose books from the third-grade shelf. I refused to take any, telling her I had no interest in reading those children’s books. She reported me for being insolent; two days later, she apologized, so apparently Mrs. Booth set her straight on my reading level.
Throughout elementary school, teachers were trying to get us to write, with various assignments and free time to wax creative, but nobody convinced me that it was enjoyable until fifth grade, when Ms. Warner in the corner (Room 5 at Sunset View Elementary, perched on the ocean-side slope of Point Loma) would give us prompts, time to write about them, then read our stories without revealing who had written them. Mine were terrible adventure fantasies about the kids in the neighborhood “Our Gang” going on grand adventures, hunting everything from buried treasure to live dinosaurs, but here’s the thing: The other kids loved them! I was hooked.
I wasn’t the greatest high school student, though reading and writing continued to be my top subjects, and I left school after 11th grade to join the navy and see the sea. Saw the east coast, the west coast (which, honestly, I’d seen before), some Pacific Islands, China, Japan, the Philippines, and a narrow strip of pestilent swampland called Vietnam. Thought I was going to make a career of it, but they very quickly beat that idea out of me. But anyone who is familiar with military life is familiar with the phrase, “Hurry up and wait,” and I very quickly began to carry a spiral notebook to places where I knew I’d be waiting, and writing, writing, writing. Sci Fi was a big early item, things in space with evil aliens. Spies were big (it was the heyday of James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and the love of the written word accompanied me back to civilian life.
Horror was a tangent I explored, specifically, a vampire hunter who may have been a vampire himself, and his eccentric sidekick. I invented the Combat Technician, a professional redshirt on a starship whose duty was keeping the science team safe on unexplored planets. An anti-hero of mine was Colleen O’Reilly (star of Chameleon, available in its entirety at the tab above), an IRA bomber who had grown a conscience and now offered her skills as a paladin in defense of the downtrodden. I tried a police procedural (Broken English), and returned to epic fantasy. I even wrote an epic poem, along the line of The Iliad, but nothing really stuck, and as I found my true-love and we began our family with surprise twins, the whole concept of free time evaporated like summer rain.
The twins were born in November of ’76, and we had found out the day before that there were two babies, so we couldn’t have been more unprepared had we been characters in a sitcom. Expendable income joined free time on the altar of child rearing. So it must have been early ’77, ten years before K.W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk,” that Bonnie and I were in the supermarket denuding their shelves of baby supplies, and I saw a paperback novel with a beautiful cover depicting a sleek airship with a forward-mounted cannon cruising a sky filled with coppery clouds. I knew I would have loved it, but we couldn’t afford the $1.25 for a paperback back then, and it was left behind.
But the seed had been planted. Steampunk was a thing, and although I had no clue what went into it. I was in love with the imagery. As well as being a writer, I was also a gamer. Wargamer, specifically, and while most wargames depicted historical battles from the Romans to the Viet Cong, many were also fictional, depicting both fantasy and sci-fi subjects. An old friend, who alas, was lost to me through his loud and obnoxious support of our recently elected president, turned me on to a number of these that had steampunk themes, and between those and some reading in the field, I formulated my own ideas of what a good steampunk story should include.
My first attempt was the Beyond the Rails series, and if the reviews, from Writing-dot-com to Goodreads to Amazon and points beyond, are any indication, I delivered a pretty good product. Four years after the publication of those first stories, I placed Brass & Coal, a steampunk ghost story, in an anthology. My imagination captured by the supernatural element, I completed Possession of Blood, a dieselpunk horror tale, a few months later, and this is the story I am waiting for word on from a publisher of horror. I talked last week about really wanting to do a different story, but let me make myself clear: That publisher is definitely interested in the 1920s serious version, and should they offer a contract for the series, I will become very interested in dieselpunk horror! It’s a wonderful feeling when a writer finds the place where he’s supposed to be, no matter how he gets there, even if it took him 60 years to find it.
But I think it’s probably better if you find it when you’re younger. So, how are you doing with that? Do you know that you’re home, or are you still looking for that genre with the right “feel” to match up with your talents and interests? If you are, take a look at what you like. Are you a big Lord of the Rings fan? Do the Marvel movies float your boat? Maybe your funny bone is tickled by a well-written rom-com. Or maybe like me, a surprise encounter with a book cover, a painting, a song, or an old photograph will send a jolt through your creative synapses. If it does, don’t ignore it! Seize it, pick at it, dig deep, and find out where it’s coming from. You may discover your true calling in a field that you never realized existed, and you can take it from one it has happened to, there is no feeling in the world quite like it!
In other news . . .
Some American writers who have known each other for years have never met in the daytime or when both were sober.”
~ JAMES THURBER
But we’ve crossed off that box! Most of you know that I am in the San Diego area, and each year the city graciously celebrates my birthday by hosting the Gaslight Steampunk Expo, one of the premiere SP conventions on the North American continent. When I heard that David Lee Summers, author of The Astronomer’s Crypt and a number of other fine works and contributor to the DeadSteam anthology, would be attending, I got in touch and arranged a pre-con meetup.
I don’t have the linguistic skills to express what a great guy, what pleasant company David is. We went across the road to the Fashion Valley mall and found a nice place to eat in the food court, hearty breakfast food without breaking the bank, and we talked of many things, mostly projects future and past. We learned about each others’ techniques, how we got to where we are, and where we’re headed from here. It was a magnificent couple of hours, and went way too fast. You can get to know David better on his web page. The takeaway? If you ever get a chance to meet someone you’ve liked on-line for a long time, don’t let it slip away!
Other Voices . . .
I have talked at length above about the art of finding your niche, but what happens when you find that niche, and the “juice” dries up, as it will do without regard to your skill level? Know as a writer that it’s going to happen, and it will be on you to get yourself out of it. Well, Cristian Mihai, blogging on Irevuo, has taken an in-depth look at writer’s block, and offers a list of excellent techniques for breaking it. I highly recommend that any writer, new or established, take the time to read this; I only wish it had been available in August of 2017, when my own year-long block began.
Are you one of the jillions of people who got swept up in Ready Player One, the Spielberg blockbuster based on the novel by Ernest Cline? If so, you won’t want to miss the drilldown by the crew at Nerd Lunch. When they cover a subject, it is well and truly covered!
And speaking of blogs that exist for no other reason than the simple amount of pure fun that can be extracted from them, be sure to stop by and check out my follower, Tim Nomel, as he and his partner Grace Willow tag-team life in the fabulous work, The Rebel Fish. I’m not going to describe the wit at work here; just go see for yourself!
Steampunk/Victorian author Phoebe Darqueling has a book launch coming up next February, and would like some opinions on her prospective book blurb. Anyone who’d like to make their voice heard in the work of a talented writer should pay her a visit right away.
The website and blog of sci-fi author T.E. Mark has recently landed on my radar, and now I’m transmitting it to yours. Anyone with an interest in the science, lack of science, and ramifications and consequences of time travel will have a delightful romp through the history of literature with this post. Highly recommended!
Finally, be sure to catch Karen J. Carlisle’s interview with Bryce Raffle, curator and driving force behind the newly published DeadSteam, a dreadpunk anthology containing seventeen stories sure to stand your hair on end just in time for Halloween.
And that’s 30 for this week. Go forth with your eyes opened, and ready to discover your own writing promised land; you never know when it’s going to present itself. You need to be ready.