A Book to Inspire a Book

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

~ ALBERT EINSTEIN

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In my younger days I used to make semi-regular visits to thrift shops.  Some of those visits were necessitated by the demands of raising children; there are some things that a regular working family just can’t afford new.  But one of the things that I checked regularly was the book section.  People seem to have a way of suddenly deciding that they need to clear off a bookshelf.  Maybe it’s spring cleaning, maybe someone dies, but whatever the reason, boxes of books show up at thrift stores every day, and I’ve gotten some sweet deals by keeping my eyes open.  Take this beauty to the left:  First edition, published by Smith, Elder, & Co., 15 Waterloo Place, London in 1907.  First edition, naturally.  Set me back a whole dime at a little independent thrift store that had formerly been a mom & pop grocery.  I chose it to photograph because it was in arm’s reach of my desk.  And why is that?  Well, if those familiar with former aero-officer Clinton Monroe of Beyond the Rails fame could read this book, they’d recognize a great deal of his training, attitudes, and tactical expertise in these pages.  Ten cents.  Thrift store.  Books are magic.

But every book is a mystery before you open it, and that’s especially true of old books.  And not just the content.  Every individual used book has a history.  Maybe there is a cryptic inscription or notes in the margins written by a previous owner.  Perhaps it is stained with tears, or, is that blood?  What if you found a heavy, leather-bound tome on a thrift shop shelf?  What would it contain?

Now it gets interesting, yes?  If you are a writer of fiction, any style, any genre, this is your lucky day.  As a gift to you, I’m going to apply a defibrillator to your creative synapses, and you may feel free to take whatever results and run with it.

You hold that book, gravid with age and history, in your hands.  With a sense of awe and reverence, you open it.  What do you find?

A vanishingly rare first edition of a famous novel?
A book of poetry that seems to carry a much deeper meaning than it first appears?
A scientist’s notes for an invention the likes of which has never been seen?
A map to a ruin lost to history for a thousand years?
A formerly unknown tale penned by a famous author?
A diary containing the deepest secrets of an infamous villain?
The working sketchbook of a great artist?

Or is it something much more wonderful than the few possibilities I’ve listed here?  You see, writer, what little it takes to jump-start your creativity?  Case in point:  I reported Thursday on my birthday loot, including William F. Nolan’s book, How to Write Horror Fiction.  The book may be out of print, but for whatever reason, my daughter ordered a used copy.  Tucked between the pages when it arrived was a boarding pass for American Airlines Flight 9100 departing from Dallas/Fort Worth on July 9th, 2005, and a receipt from the Terminal C, Gate 22 snack bar.  Well, writers, is there a story there?

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Now, go forth and conquer!

In Other News . . .

Last week I said I was going to start acting like a “professional” author, whatever the heck that means.  I said that every morning was going to be filled with writing projects from whenever I got up, sometimes as early as 6:00 AM, until noon, and that something tangible would be produced, be it manuscript pages, outline sections, character descriptions, something.  It is now one week later, and what I have learned, or rather had imposed on that grand vision, is that I’m not that guy.  I don’t get the unmitigated pleasure out of The Craft that professional authors apparently do.  There are just too many other activities that I enjoy as much as, or (horrors!) more than writing, that I very quickly began to feel that writing was a form of self-inflicted punishment designed to keep me from enjoying the other things I love to do.

Does that mean I’m going to stop writing?  Far from it!  It means that I need to find the balance.  I schedule things I need to do, housework, gardening, and such through notes on the calendar, and I’m now going to attempt to put Writing, as in a day devoted to The Craft, into the cycle, and devote several hours if not the whole day to the process.  I’ll have to see how that goes.  Does this mean that I view writing as a chore similar to weeding out the flower beds?  I think perhaps it does, but a chore in the sense of one that is fulfilling in the doing of it; some people like gardening and the sense of completion that a well-tended patch gives them.  I feel the same about writing, and I will figure this out.  This may not be the solution, but I think I’m getting close to it.

Other Voices . . .

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been crossing Facebook paths with a most interesting fellow named Bonsart Bokel who produces an in-character steampunk podcast.  In celebration of Halloween month, he’s inaugurating a new feature thereon called S.C.P., Secure, Contain, and Protect.  I’m not going to try to tell you what you should think of it, but if you’re a fan of the “horrors among us” genre, you should definitely take a look.

If you aren’t busy next weekend, MileHiCon makes its 50th Anniversary appearance in Denver, and they have invited all of their living previous guests of honor.

MileHiCon

Here is your chance to see such luminaries as Mario Acevedo, Paolo Bacigalupi, Steven Brust, Liz Danforth, Chaz Kemp, Jane Lindskold, James Van Pelt, Robert E. Vardeman, Carrie Vaughn, Connie Willis, and David Lee Summers gathered in a single venue.  The convention will be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel – Tech Center in Denver on October 19, 20, and 21. You can get all the details at MileHiCon.org. Who Else Books, Massoglia Books, and Wolfsinger Publishing are all scheduled to be in the dealer’s room.  Not to be missed if you’re in town.

Last week Phoebe Darqueling looked at the Snow White story that Disney used for their feature film.  This week she compares the Grimm Brothers version with the Disney, noting that the Grimms added some material to pad it out, thus making it the only tale that they actually wrote themselves (they were dedicated collectors).  This is a fascinating read for literary historians and writers who want to see how stories develop over their lifespans.

The MovieBabble site specializes in film reviews.  Several reviewers post multiple times a day there. As I write this, the movie at the top of the page is Apostle, though it will almost certainly have been superseded by a new review within the hour.  Virtually all of their reviews are both fully informative and spoiler-free, which says a lot about the skill of their writers.  They also delve into the concepts and philosophy of film making, and is very much worth regular visits for anyone into the contemporary film scene.

The Writers Helping Writers site is a go-to compendium of useful (by which I mean vital) information for authors.  The several members hereof get into the grit and detail that isn’t often covered in the Big Successful Writer Telling You How To Do It books.  They offer free knowledge on their page, and some of the best comes from their Occupational Thesaurus.  They cover every aspect of a profession from knowledge needed and people they have to work with to sources of friction and ways to twist the stereotype.  Their latest entry looks at the General Contractor.  In the past, they have looked at jobs from Parole Officer to Exotic Dancer.  Every serious author should have this bookmarked and on their feed so they see every new entry.  I can’t do it justice in this little blurb; just go and see it for yourself!

Sci-fi fans need to pay a similar level of attention to The Firewater Site.  Here the owner takes in-depth looks at science-fiction movies and television productions.  He’s currently in the midst of an episode-by-episode review of the original Star Trek, including a timeline of real-world events to put each episode in context, and still finds plenty of time to bring in variety, such as yesterday’s post about Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.  If sci-fi in films and television is close to your heart, consider following this site.  I just discovered it recently, and you can take it from me, it’s quite a ride!

Finally, Richard of Cool San Diego Sights usually posts a portfolio of spectacular photographs of some themed aspect of our beautiful city, but this time he’s outdone himself.  He has discovered an interactive crime scene attraction in downtown San Diego called Solve Who! that immerses the visitor in the life of a detective investigating a murder.  He has provided a thorough writeup and a number of pictures on his website, so Law & Order fans who find themselves in the San Diego area and would like to spend an hour in the shoes of their favorite detective would do well to include this on their itinerary.

And that’s 30 for this week.  I’ve already found some intriguing new titles for my Thursday book roundup, so join me then to work on your TBR lists.  Until then, read well, and write better!

A Pirate Looks at 70

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.

Naked in Public

Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”

~ Terry Pratchett

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk public nudity. How much are you comfortable with? Do you offer just a quick flash like the opening of a raincoat, or do you like to streak through a public gathering? Do you keep yourself wrapped head to toe like a Victorian bride, or is it your style to go skinny-dipping in the city fountain? And what’s all this talk about nudity on a site for writers and their fans, anyway?

It’s funny you should ask. What I’m referring to here, of course, is psychological nudity. As a writer, everything that goes on the page comes out of your head. Your experiences inform your prose. My service aboard a wooden minesweeper, and the experience of cruising the Orient from Japan to Viet Nam and the Philippines on the deck of a tanker did a great deal to inform my presentation of the airship Kestrel. On the other hand, I’ve never been to any part of Africa, and everything you read in Beyond the Rails was a product of watching National Geographic nature shows and months of on-line research. If the reviews are any indication, readers think I did pretty well with it, but that isn’t the point.

If flying an airship and keeping up maintenance on a wooden hull came out of my head, then so did the dark scenes of villains performing despicable acts with their dire machines designed for no other purpose than the infliction of pain and suffering, and that is the subject I’m here to discuss today. As a writer, you are absolutely unable to put anything on the page that you are not aware of. That’s a simple fact, and is utterly unavoidable. As a reader, when you read one of your favorite authors writing about a cannibalistic serial killer, a manipulator of those at his or her mercy, or a terrorist preparing to murder a building full of people, your conscious mind may be thinking that you’re reading a superb story by a gifted writer, but your subconscious is wondering how the hell a seemingly quiet and gentle bookworm who has kids and probably a 9-to-5 job even knows about this stuff.

That is how being a writer renders you naked. Readers will always wonder, consciously or not, what the hell was done to you as a child, what your home life must be like, what kind of medieval boss you must have to draw such savagery out of your mind. You’re naked before your readers, and in the absence of hard information, they will speculate and try to fill in the blanks. As a writer, you must be prepared to accept the consequences, which as anyone who has spent time on this-here interweb thingie knows, can be pretty brutal, and run the range from hate mail to smear campaigns to death threats.

The same holds true for reviews. If your only interest is in being told what a wonderful author you are, you may want to stick to sharing your work with friends and family. Once you post a book on Amazon or some similar site, you have to take the good with the bad, and there will be bad; not everyone, after all, is going to find your style to mesh with their expectations. And even before the internet, reviews could be pretty brutal. Nowadays, with every Tom, Dick, and Harry able to post an opinion with a few mouse clicks, you can find yourself labeled a gutless hack, a blight on the face of society, or a writer who glorifies violence to no good purpose. You must be prepared to accept the existence of these statements and walk away without comment; the worst thing you can do is get down in the pit and mud-wrestle with these people. They thrive on the attention. You cannot outlast them, and they will dirty your reputation if you insist on engaging with them.

So, this, too, is what being a writer means. If you’re just starting out, and all you’re thinking about is book signings and late-night talk shows, don’t embark on the journey without considering the fact that in the wake of your publication, you will stand stripped bare, the core of your psyche and id exposed to the world, and you cannot control what they think. I don’t in any way recommend that you give up your dream, only that forewarned is forearmed. Be aware that there are some pretty nasty people lurking on the web, vile, feckless people whose only “contribution,” if you could call it that, is to stomp on someone’s dream. Know that they’re out there, be mentally prepared to shrug them off, and let your imagination take you on the journey of a lifetime. Just remember that the trolls are writing in public, too, and what they write exposes them as surely as your prose does you!

Other Voices . . .

Not Just a Mum is a delightful blog consisting of observations on family life by a woman who has one, kids, cats, and husband. Fun reading that really raises a point when the laughter stops and you realize that she’s talking about you!

I’ve gone about as long as I can without mentioning the crew at Nerd Lunch. The familiar gang of Carlin Trammel, Paxton Holley, and the Man Called Jeeg will tear up your funny bone with their zany and all-too-real observations on their weekly pop-culture podcast. This week they rifle through the 50¢ bin at their local comic book store to create some new old superhero teams.

Lucid Being is a blog that defies description. It has a new-age, post-apocalyptic, turning points in history feel that would be a gold mine for a dystopian writer to mine – or a reader interested in getting off the well-worn path for a bit to settle back and enjoy.

J.A. Allen writes Scribbles on Cocktail Napkins, a blog that is mostly for writers about writing, but boy, does she have a sharp barb to her political harpoon! When something gets her going, she can really expound on the subject with great clarity. If you’re into well-reasoned political commentary, her last post is a doozy!

Eva Newermann is a Norwegian author of creepy sci-fi adventures, a paint artist, and a drone operator who regularly posts incredible photography of the rugged Norwegian landscape. She sometimes, as in her latest post, paints scenes from her books. Drop by and get acquainted. She has a way of commanding your attention.

Inmate Blogger is not a site for the faint of heart. I’m still not sure exactly how it works, but if you subscribe, as I have done, then each morning you will receive in your mail box about a dozen, give or take, blog posts written by prison inmates. I presume said inmates have earned the right to blog through good behavior or some mechanism, but their voices cover a wide range of tones. Some, as you might expect, are protestations of innocence, tales of being run over by the wheels of miscarried justice. I can’t comment on these. I don’t know the particulars of each case, and I do know that innocent people get convicted, but they make compelling reading. Most of the inmates are men, but there is a smattering of women among them. They write poetry, political treatises, book and movie reviews, poignant stories of the people they miss. One of them is writing a book a chapter at a time, and it isn’t bad. These are subjects most of us write about on our daily blogs, but they come with a perspective that most of us have never imagined. This is very much worth signing up for, if you think you can handle it.

The Art of Blogging is, as the name suggests, a blog about how to blog, and Cristian Mihai’s 18,000+ followers suggest he knows whereof he writes. He has a book available on the subject, and offers plenty of tips on the blog that you can incorporate instantly. I don’t often use the term “must read,” but if you want to up your game, this would be a good place to start.

Be sure to make a stop at The Firewater Site, where an ongoing series of in-depth reviews of Star Trek: The Original Series is underway, interspersed with a number of other interesting and often hilarious takes on various icons of popular culture. This is must-see blogging at its bet for any pop-culture fan.

Lifestyle blogger Simple Ula offers something everyone seems to need these days, tips for getting a better night’s sleep. I probably don’t need to mention that this is almost required reading if you’re of the unfortunate millions who suffer in that regard.

The blog Pointless Overthinking, which seems to mainly concern one man’s philosophy on the journey of life, asks a question of the day that, should you decide to answer it, would require some deep introspection.  He’s up to #153 today, and it occurs to me that if you were to sit down and answer them all, you’d have a pretty in-depth autobiography . . . Hmmm.

If you’ve heard about the FBI’s temporary closure of the Solar Sunspot Observatory and have been seeking more information, Kitt Peak Astronomer David Lee Summers’ blog yesterday carried the latest scuttlebutt.  A skilled story weaver and always a good read in book or blog format, you should check in and meet the scientist behind the writer.

A Dr. Who and Steampunk convention is scheduled for next weekend in Clarksville, TN. Info is available on their Facebook page or the organizers’ website, and here to grab your eye is their flyer:

ClarksvilleConThey found the compassion to include a message of comradeship with the fans displaced by Hurricane Florence. From their Facebook promotion:

Dear Geeks who have been displaced by Hurricane Florence – We know that many of you have taken refuge in Knoxville and surrounding areas like Chattanooga and Nashville, TN. So if you are here, we invite you to join us at Clarksville Dr. Who/ steampunk con 2018. Anyone displaced can show us your drivers license from North or South Carolina and get in free.

You may be far from home, but you can be right at home with us.”

It is certainly understandable if people displaced by a natural disaster have other things on their minds, but what a wonderful, inclusive community this is!

And that’s 30 for this installment. Be sure to stop by Thursday. I’m working on another bushel-basket of good reading, and you won’t want to miss it. Until then, read well and write better!