Saturday, July 30, 2016

Grey Peace

Callie turned off the light. As darkness settled in the room, the sounds of the city shifted. A distant train horn blared then fell silent. The hushed whisper of traffic deceived her ears with its ebbing and flowing like an ocean. From the pillow in her new, quiet neighborhood, Callie envisioned the city’s infinite complexity. From the gap in the curtain, she saw the haze of lights hanging below the clouds. The rain’s first drops pattered on the window. The grey peace tempted the Muse that dwelled in her mind, but sleep stole her away.

Never Say Goodbye

I’ve been working on my fourth novel since 1994. It’s been such a long time that it feels surreal to say that it’s being published this fall. The Muse for this particular story has been around so long that it’s an old friend I'll be sad to say goodbye to (I’ve come to realize there seems to be a Muse for each one). There has been a special Muse serving as an advisory role for this novel, and it’s one of the reasons why I’ve been almost reluctant to finish writing the novel: my brother, Matthew.

This week would have been his 45th birthday. The idea for this novel came to me the week he died in July 1994. It was my way of keeping him alive, but it has evolved into a complex work of speculative fiction that very much reflects the anxieties of our time: governments exploiting their citizens, big data serving as an overlord of surveillance, and revolutionary movements that struggle to promote their idea of freedom. The first draft of this story included a group that was much like the hacktivist enclave Anonymous, so it was kind of eerie when they actually popped up as a real thing in the 2000s, and really became well-known during the Occupy Wall Street movement. Other unsettling things that I conceived back then came to pass as well, and have matured in the novel.

The basic concept has remained the same: what if ancient Sumer never collapsed, but became a space-age super power? A young woman with the powers of an oracle has been suppressed by her guardians. One night she indulges in a psychoactive drug at a club, inadvertently quotes an ancient text, and attracts the attention of an emissary of the gods, sent to right the balance of power in this society. She re-enacts Inanna’s journey to the underworld, and emerges as one of the gods’ emissaries on earth.

While mythology plays a strong role, so does the idea of colonizing space. Research and mining colonies are scattered throughout the solar system, but are in early stages of development. The government promotes living off-world, but most people aren’t interested until all the comforts they want are widely available. It’s very much a pioneer’s life, so in order to build the luxury colonies needed, mass incarceration fills the gap by sending prisoners to do hard labor on the colonies. People are convicted of minor offenses (frequently falsely) and sent off-world. This was also an opportunity to explore the Overview Effect, written about by author Frank White. An avid supporter of space programs, White interviewed a number of astronauts about the profound change in perception of Earth after having seen it from space. Because space has always fascinated me, too, I attended several events that featured the astronauts he interviewed (plus, he was in one of the coolest writing groups I ever belonged to, and miss dearly as everyone got caught up in the usual life stuff). You can check out one of the videos here.

Lords of Kur is the longest novel I’ve written, and the most layered in terms of themes, characters, and worldbuilding. It’s a true departure from following the life of a real woman marginalized by history, as I have done in the first three novels and a few short stories. I suppose it’s no accident that I finished it almost exactly on the twenty-second anniversary of when I started it. The fifth novel to come is also one that has been waiting in the wings a long time, so I struggle with impatience. But I’m a few short weeks away from the editing phase, and I’m delighted with the cover art. Very worthy of my brother’s style. It’s been somewhat of a melancholy journey without him. He was the artist; I was the writer. We helped each other on our respective projects, and I can only imagine what we could have accomplished together. I continue the endeavor without him. It goes without saying that Lords of Kur will be dedicated to him. It’s a story that gave me strength for years, and I hope it finds its audience.

The Arsonist's Locket

(originally published April 14, 2016, for one of Chuck Wendig’s weekly writing challenges)

Gregor crouched in the darkness and wiped the soot from his hands. No fire had been as satisfying as this one. The house was built like a fortress with grates covering the windows. He blocked the doors to prevent the captain of the guard and his family from escaping. He hoped the pompous duke watched in horror from his commanding view at Bell Rock Manor. The spate of fires across the city were no coincidence. Vengeance spread in memory of Gregor’s dear sister, Sadie, who was burned at the stake for witchcraft.

As industrial innovations accelerated over a few short years, the king and his men saw fit to reform religion. When the decree came, the king unveiled new statues in the capital’s cathedral. Gone were the horned god of the hunt, the sorceress, and the rugged blacksmith. The aspects of the natural world they represented were replaced with austerity. The faces of the gods appeared stern. The new rituals were equally cold; no ecstatic songs were welcome any longer in the redesigned and stark chambers for the congregation. The gods now favored an unyielding aristocracy that wanted to keep the rest of society under tight control. The Old Ways, as they were now called, were not tolerated.

The duke’s men enforced the decree and swept the city for practitioners of witchcraft, making examples of the women and men who chanted over candles and collected seashells and feathers for their shrines. Sadie shunned the decree and continued to read tarot cards for worried wives and young women who yearned for something more than long shifts in the factories that churned out textiles at a rapid pace.

Gregor kept a pinch of her ashes in the locket she gave him on a winter solstice many years ago. He pulled the chain holding the locket from the inside of his shirt and kissed it when the fire reached the top floor of the captain’s house. “For you, dear sister.”

Bell Rock Manor loomed on the steep hill above the city of Raynport. Gas lights around the perimeter of the property replaced the torches of a newly bygone era. He removed a scrap of smudged paper from a pocket and dug out a shard of blackened bone. He reviewed his list. The members of the jury—done. The bailiff who twisted Sadie’s arms until her shoulders dislocated when they hauled her out to the stake—done. The captain of the guard was still screaming, but would be done soon enough. That just left one more.

Gregor glared at the mansion and spat on the ground, wiping his chin with the cuff of his jacket. “I’ll come for you soon enough.” He scuttled deeper into the shadows to enjoy his handiwork.

Nearby, the captain’s deputy reviewed the same list of names on a paper of his own. “I think we know who we’re looking for. Search the area; he’s probably watching. Send a squad to where he lives. I don’t care if we have to search every inch of the city. We’ll catch him.”

The deputy searched the area around the house, shaking his head. “See here, this is where it started. Underbrush piled up under the back porch and set alight. Smell that? Kerosene.”

Gregor sneered in the darkness. So what? You know how the fire started. Soon I’ll write your name on the list using my blacked spur of bone.

An idea flashed. He ducked out of his hiding place in the bushes and dashed down an alleyway. Debris shielded him from detection. When he emerged by the Rusty Cleaver, he crouched again to watch a homeless carny performer entertain a small crowd in front of the tavern. A jar of magefire sat on a crate behind him. An innocuous substance that made it appear as though things were really burning, the magefire caught Gregor’s eye.

 As the carny performer dazzled the small crowd by juggling flasks coated in magefire, Gregor swooped in and swiped the jar on the crate. He resisted the urge to douse himself in the substance and set it alight. The jar fit easily in his coat pocket. He turned the corner to the pyramid of empty barrels behind the tavern. He pulled one from the stack and rolled it to the area where deliveries were prepared. He spotted the reserved barrels for the duke. Prying off the lid, he crawled inside.

He had nothing but time.

Hours later, he was jostled awake as the barrels were loaded onto a cart. He relished each bump in the road—the cart lurched along on its journey, filling him with glee in anticipation of reaching his destination.

The kitchen staff at the manor rolled the barrels into the cellar. From his muffled perspective, he listened to them complain about the duke and his insufferable family. When silence descended, he crawled out of the barrel and looked around.

“Almost too easy.” Gregor jumped at the sound of his own voice. He clasped a hand over his mouth.

And now…to get to work.

He filled his pack with bottles of kerosene he found on the cellar’s shelves. He hoarded matches in his pocket. Before he left the cellar, he opened the tap on a barrel of mead and set the leaking alcohol alight. He whispered a prayer to the god of the forge and snuck into the passageway that allowed servants to pass unseen throughout the manor.

As the first explosion in the cellar rocked the manor in its foundation, Gregor grew reckless. He dashed into rooms and set pools of kerosene on fire without checking whether anyone was watching. With the fire alarming the manor’s residents, panic drove them in search of escape—and in search of the cause. Word of an arsonist on the loose had reached the manor faster than he’d realized.

Gregor set a lace tablecloth on fire in the second floor tea room and ran back into the passageway. Footsteps charged in his direction. The booted footsteps of armored guards. Spotting him, they hollered and gave chase. He ran back into the tea room. Frantic, he charged through the tall window onto the balcony overlooking the back of the manor. The view staggered him.

The back of the manse faced a cliff. Waves crashed on the rocks as the ocean carried in a storm. Lightning cracked the evening’s violet sky.

A table laden with porcelain shattered when the guards tore through the room to get to the balcony. His heart pounding, Gregor raced over the side and climbed down a trellis covered with wisteria in full bloom.

Amid shouting, guards circled around each side of Bell Rock Manor. Gregor ran to the cliffside. Dropping the bag of kerosene, he pulled the bottle of magefire out of his coat pocket and doused himself with it. The guards pulled back.

He clenched the shard of charred bone he’d taken from the heap of Sadie’s remains in one hand, and held the locket in the other. Kissing the locket, Gregor uttered a prayer of homage to his sister. He looked out to sea, where the asylum that once held him stood on a lonely and rocky island stood a short distance away. She had helped him escape. She sheltered him until they took her away from him.

With the flick of his hand, the magefire came to life and consumed him. The guards reared in horror, not realizing the harmless effects. The dive awaiting him, on the other hand, was another matter.

Delighting in being enveloped in magefire, Gregor screamed. Clutching the bone shard and the locket, he leapt from the cliff and into the ocean.

The guards stood over, watching the fire be quenched by the waves. No body lay smashed on the rocks.

“That’s enough of that,” said the squad captain with a shrug. “We don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

The storm raged above Raynport well into the night. No one saw the figure creep out of the water and into a seaside cave along the bay. No one heard him shout in triumph. He shook his fist at the shadowy asylum on the water, the locket still clutched in his hand.


(For Chuck Wendig’s writing challenge week of Feb. 8, 2016—my roll got me a combo of time travel and mythology, so here we go!)

Hafvilla. (n.) Norse. The state of feeling bewildered while lost at sea.

Lex faced the camera and smiled. “Next, on Arcane Fortunes with Lex Colson, I’ll set forth on my own journey to test the accuracy of the long-rumored sunstone. Did the Vikings succeed in navigating on cloudy days because of them?” He held the chunk of calcite up to the sky. “It’s a perfect day to test out our theory, so let’s find out!”

Lex gestured to cut the film. “I feel ridiculous in this outfit. This is like a Renn fest for fur fetishists.”

The cameraman burst into laughter. “Dude, you look amazing! The Vikings would think you’re one of them. Hoist that drinking horn high and make a toast to Odin!”

“Ha. Funny guy. I’m hardly worthy of a journey to Valhalla.”

“Don’t I know it, bro. That five-star hotel back in the city already has your champagne cooled. Hardly a warrior’s abode.”

“Hey, ease up. I’m planning on proposing to Jenny under the northern lights after we film this; give me a break!”

“Whatever. Just look good for the shot.”

With the obligatory b-roll shots taken, Lex made sure the cameras on his replica ship were secured. “Okay, so I’ll take a spin out there for a bit and be right back for the next scene.”
Steve waved and set his video equipment down. “Don’t go too far out, son. You know you can’t swim.”

“Ha ha, very funny. I’ll catch a walrus for you.”

Lex dipped the oar into the water and pushed. The serenity of the drifting boat made him pause and enjoy the scene. The rough Norwegian landscape made for one of the most beautiful episodes he’d ever filmed, and he was looking forward to the results.

A low mist crept across the water. The wind was light; no storm approached. Lex let the boat drift further into the fogbank. “This is perfect. Just the shot I need!”

He held the sunstone up to the clouds and faced the camera. “As you can see, the sun is completely blocked out now. Yet, if I hold the calcite up just so, a line of light catches on this mark here, showing I’m moving northwest. While this makes navigating across the Atlantic much more plausible when we consider the Vikings, it doesn’t mean it was easy, even in their seaworthy dragon ships. They were always one storm away from Valhalla!”

Amused, Lex ended the shot. He rowed out further to capture additional footage. He wasn’t aware of time passing until a flash of silver light rippled over the water. His gaze shot to the sky, but it was still foggy.

“Steve! Steve!”

No voice came from the shore.


The lapping water remained his sole companion. “Damn, how far out did I go?”

Lex rowed in earnest, eager to make his way back. “Oh man, we still have several more scenes to do, and all those people in costume in the mead hall waiting on our dime. Damn it!”

Just when his heart began to pound in panic, the shore came into view. The crew was nowhere to be found. He jumped ship and pulled it up the shore alone. “All swilling mead by now, I bet,” Lex said. “Here I come, guys, fill my flagon!” He hoisted the drinking horn to the air.

He passed a wooden rack with fish dangling from it. He pulled the small camera out of his pocket for an impromptu shot. “Did you know the Vikings cured their fish by the sea? 

Nothing better than fresh salt air to season the fish!”

A group of men stood nearby in full costume. Lex whistled. “Wow, you guys look so authentic—great job! Look at those beards!” He clapped a man on the shoulder as he walked by. “Very cool, bros. Love the axes, too. You borrow them from that show about Ragnar Lothbrook?”

Lex walked to the grand long house and whistled again. “Place looks more amazing every time I see it. I’ll be damned if this episode doesn’t earn us an award.”

He entered the building and stood, stunned. “Fuck me—if this isn’t a scene right out of Beowulf. Did I land on a movie set? Hey, who’s the director around here? I think I’m lost.”
Men stared. Dogs stared. Lex made his way through the crowd, apologizing if any film was rolling. At last, he saw the man on a gigantic throne. Dragons were carved on either side of it, like the figureheads on the ships. A one-eyed man watched him from it, nodding and tapping his finger along his own drinking horn. The main door to the long house opened, and two ravens flew to the man, cawing loudly as they landed on either side of his shoulders.

“Now, what did you see today?”

They conferred with their heads bowed for a few moments before the one-eyed king regarded Lex. “A stranger comes. And what news do you bring? Did someone raid your farm? You look like you barely escaped with your life—were you having a roll with your woman and need to rush out with just the blankets on?”

The men around him roared in laughter. Lex shrugged and smiled. “I suppose I deserved that. I do look ridiculous compared to you guys. What movie’s being filmed here? Beowulf?”
The king took a swig from the horn. “Beowulf. A worthy name in Valhalla, but no. This is but a mere tavern at the edge of Asgard. I come here to collect my thoughts when I need to get away from the wife. Right, men?”

Men with whorls of tattoos and rings in their beards laughed and joined him in drink. The great fire in the rectangular pit burned bright, flanked with spits of roasting meat. The power bar Lex had for breakfast now seemed woefully inadequate. His stomach agreed with a low growl.

Two growls accompanied him. He looked down to see two—wolves. He raised his hands quickly in a gesture of helplessness, much to the amusement of the watching crowd.
The king beckoned. “Freki, Greri—don’t judge a man by his hunger. Come here.”
The wolves trotted to the dais and came to rest.

Lex gaped. “This is one hell of a setting! This is probably one of the most authentic sets I’ve ever seen. Odin, the ravens, the wolves—the warriors—you have it all!”

Odin nodded and stood. He made his way down to the area by the fire. “Young man, what is your name?”

“Lex; I’m the host of Arcane Fortunes. Maybe you’ve seen it on the History Channel?”

Odin chuckled. “Arcane Fortunes, eh? Let me tell you of arcane fortunes…the wisdom of Yggdrasil, the coming of Ragnarok—when that good-for-nothing Loki steers Naglfar, a ship carrying an army of frost giants to destroy the world, and the wolf Fenrir devours me. A wolf devouring a god, you wonder—how can it be so? Well, I may have made my peace with that knowledge long ago, but it doesn’t mean I won’t fight. Come, let me show you something.”
Odin escorted Lex out the door of the hall. The night sky shimmered above. A colorful bridge covered the sky over the hall.

“That is Bifrost—the bridge between your plane and Asgard. I don’t know if Loki was involved in this prank, but you don’t belong here, my friend. Not that I don’t want to be a hospitable host. You’re certainly welcome to feast with us and enjoy. You’ll have a long journey home, though. It’s a long walk across that bridge.”

Lex stayed. He feasted and drank mead, and scratched the ears of the wolves. He recorded it all, or so he thought. After falling asleep by the fire, he was astonished to find himself back in his paltry boat in his pathetic fur outfit. He was still surrounded by dense fog.

He ran the camera. The video was blank.

“And I still have no fucking idea where I am.”


(originally published November 1, 2015)

Another year, another Boston Book Festival. Only this year was different in that I decided my time was better spent working on my own writing, rather than going to hear other authors talk about their published works. I was sorry not to go, but this fall has been a whirlwind. So much so that I’ve even been neglecting this blog a bit…but all’s well, and moving onward. The fourth novel is well underway, and I’m preparing a short story for submission to an anthology. But I participated in BBF in one small way, by writing a story for their One City, One Story program, where they invited writers to tell a flash fiction story about what home means to them. Here’s what I sent them.

A keychain shouldn’t be empty of keys, Callie thought as she placed hers on the bare wooden floor. The sunlight glinted off the various trinkets that found their way onto the rings over the years. Practical things like the tiny flashlight and bottle opener, and the fanciful, such as the silver-and-shell seahorse pendant from a trip to Mexico, and the enameled black heart, emblazoned with Emily Strange’s face and the words“Bad Girl Gone Worse” over a spiderweb.

Callie snapped a photo of the bereft keychain. “We’re officially homeless,” she said.
With the photo snapped and uploaded to Instagram with a poignant comment, Callie surveyed the empty room. The moving truck idled by the curb. Shafts of sunlight lengthened along the polished pine floor.

Callie couldn’t fight the emotional storm that descended. Reels of memories played, but one in particular brought tears to her eyes.

“I’ll never forget that moment—after the closing and this place was truly mine. It was empty and sunny, just like this. Diva the Queen of Wonder Dogs and Best Witch’s Familiar Ever was with me. It was her first time seeing the place. She ran through all the rooms and skidded to a halt right here to relax in the sun. Missing her still breaks my heart.”

Kissing her head, Jack pulled her in for a hug. “I know. I’m sorry. We can get a new dog after we settle into the new house.”

“It’s not that,” Callie said with a despondent sniff. “There are so many memories here. I’m happy about the house, but this place is a whole era.”

“A new era awaits.” His squeeze comforted her. “Come on. The movers are waiting.”

She said goodbye to twenty-five years as they drove through Somerville. The store-front ghosts of the past appeared in her mind’s eye. Disc Diggers and Someday Café in Davis Square; Arsenic and Old Lace in Porter Square; WordsWorth and the Tasty at Harvard. At least Bob Slate’s was resurrected, Callie thought as they continued to drive.

“To think people used to make fun of me for living in Davis Square,” Callie said. “And now it’s hipster central and exorbitantly expensive.”

Jack reached out with one hand to caress her neck. “Hey, we’re only a couple towns over now. We can still go to our favorites anytime. I’m sure it will be hip where we’re moving someday, too.”

Callie laughed. “Someday. That town has a way to go before anyone calls it ‘cool.’ Feels like the end of the universe at the moment.”

Jack laughed and turned on the music. As if on cue to summon her muse, Kate Bush, Nick Cave, and other prophets of the bygone era of her twenties conjured deeper memories. Maudlin sentiments lured like a will-o-wisp.

Remnants of snow banks from a month’s worth of blizzards clung to the curbs—filthy and battered sentinels of one of the harshest winters in recent memory. Spring’s warmth was slow to start, but the densely packed snow showed its age with deepening pits, revealing humanity’s wake—pollution and litter.

When they pulled up to the driveway of their new home, long-time residents pulled their curtains aside to peer at them. The moving truck hadn’t caught up yet. Callie got out of the car, smiling as she thought of the day the real estate agent showed them the house. They had barely crossed the threshold when both Jack and Callie felt that this was their new home. She opened the door and smelled the memories of the family that had left. Years of cooking, favorite colognes, and the mustiness of old things lingered.

“It’s all about the past,” Callie said. “That’s where home really is. Everyone’s too busy to notice it in the present. When you think of home, it’s always in the past.” 

The Gatekeeper

The wizened gatekeeper shuffled along at a maddeningly slow pace. With each churn of an arthritic hip. The keys jangled at his belt. They were ancient keys—both utilitarian and fantastical designs—all on an enormous ring. The cross-crossed paths on the university’s ground were coated in a light frost, making his journey even more perilous.

“By Odin’s beard, this is the last thing I need,” he muttered as he looked to the darkening storm clouds above.

When he reached the gate, he glowered at the ravens perched on its spires. They squawked in unison. The cloaked figure on the other side of the gate wore a broad hat and carried a well-worn staff.

The gatekeeper grunted as he fumbled with the keys. “Back from Midgard already?”

The ravens squawked again. The gate rumbled, and the cloaked man stepped through and onto the path that led to his home. “By my beard, eh? I’ll thank you to be quicker next time, else I feed your heart to the wolves.”

His hard, one-eyed glared still unnerved the gatekeeper, whose lips pressed shut and he placed the keys back on his hip again. 

Why I Left Facebook Groups

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley via Flickr CC 2.0
(originally published Sept. 22, 2015)

Social media has resulted in a sea-change for how the world communicates. But as everyone knows, it has its downsides. When I published my first novel in 2010, I was grateful for the many groups on Facebook that gathered indie authors to share their experience and talk about the writing life. Now, I can’t deal with groups. The reason behind this was reinforced recently in a blog post that appeared on Indies Unlimited, a great resource for self-published authors. They’re no longer taking paid adverts from indie authors. Why? Because thin-skinned authors can get really hostile about friendly advice.

The Era of the Troll

Alas, many a good thing has been ruined by mob mentality. The “sock puppet review” hysteria in 2012 that gripped the denizens of readers and authors alike led to widespread deletion of reviews on Amazon. Many fake reviews were removed, but a lot of authors lost perfectly honest write-ups that could’ve boosted sales. Also in 2012, the same lynch mob raised their pitchforks to LendInk in the name of ebook piracy, causing the site to be taken down (at least temporarily)—all in the spirit of rampant misinformation and people not doing their due diligence in figuring out what the hell was actually going on. Then bitter tears were cried over bad reviews on Goodreads. Granted, it smarts to get a one-star review, and some of those reviews are really nasty. The Guardian even published an article about an author who stalked a reviewer who gave her book a bad review. Yes, that’s incredibly creepy. But do we all need to light the torches for every perceived slight? Can’t we at least do our research first to make sure the monster in question is real? Or, at least maybe smurf-sized rather than Cthulhu-sized?

Aside from these incidents, which drew a lot of attention, there are daily battles that plague the self-publishing groups on social media and sites like Indies Unlimited—namely, the battles with trolls.
There were some Facebook groups I truly enjoyed, but as they grew, so did the problems. Half the posts were authors disregarding the no promotion policy or launching provocations simply to start a comment war. The other half of the posts were frustrated scoldings by beleaguered moderators. Because politely stated rules of the community were not enough, the banners at the top of the group’s page bore increasingly huge fonts: No self-promo here! We’re here to foster insightful conversations about writing and publishing, dammit! Be respectful, or else!

No matter how intimidating the banner was, it didn’t help. Attacks on the moderators got personal. In one group, the mods were trying to decide whether to shut it down because members had found their personal phone info and called them at home. Threats have been issued in some cases. As Gamergate has shown us, the internet can be a dangerous place, and it isn’t always taken as seriously as it should be. Indeed, the Supreme Court overturned a conviction of a man who posted violent threats against his estranged wife. The women who are still targeted by trolls in Gamergate report death threats all the time—and though this is an extreme example, there are many well-meaning people who volunteer their time curating groups who grow weary of the endless negativity and personal attacks.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC 2.0
I began checking in with the groups less. When I did return, I felt as though I had grown out of them. Relevant posts that didn’t break the rules were generally from beginners seeking advice. I’d chime in from time to time, but usually there were already a dozen comments saying something similar. I felt weighed down by the whole experience, and it taught me a lesson in time management. A lot of people I admired in those groups were gone, too. Because they were focusing on their novels. Like I should be. I tend to find deeper discussions on Google+ now; it eventually became my preferred venue for the world of publishing—so far, my stories have landed in an anthology, a literary journal, and I connected with a fantastic cover artist due to my G+ newsfeed.

Some moderators on Facebook pruned down their groups to eliminate the dross, including inactive members. Their newsfeeds became a wasteland, soon to be filled with self-promos with cheesy cover art and typos peppering the first page, if you bothered to click through to where the ebook was being sold. While the bad reputation of self-published authors is vastly overstated in some circles, you can see where it comes from.
There are legions of us who work really, really hard to produce quality work. We do tons of research to ensure the accuracy of the details in our novels. We apologize profusely for typos and fix them. We take helpful advice from our peers. We’re following our vision—and while no book will appeal to everyone, we do our best to be professional.

It’s difficult being an artist because you bear your soul to the world in the form of your work. But if you can’t take constructive criticism—from your editor, from beta readers, or reviewers, you may want to ask your heart if this is really what you should be doing. We all have the dream of our books taking off as best-sellers, landing movie deals, and being able to write full-time from the beautiful house we’ve chosen as our writer’s haven—be it deep in the woods or on a tropical island—but only a small percentage of writers achieve that. That’s not to say don’t pursue your dreams, but truly ask yourself how you feel being in the limelight—in good times and in bad. I may be delusional in saying I wish all “netizens” would follow the Golden Rule, but I do. Battling trolls should be left to hobbits and wizards.

Six Bells Chime

Photo credit: Nicholas Tonello via Flickr CC 2.0

(originally published July 2, 2015)

Another irresistible writing challenge from the inimitable Chuck Wendig. The theme: random song title—shuffle your playlist and write a story inspired by what shows up. For me, it was “Six Bells Chime” by Crime and the City Solution.

Mackenzie was too wild for the city. The crowds confined her spirit; she hated how people judged her for being from the country. They always said country with a drawl to mock her.
It all fell apart when she cracked a beer bottle against a financial analyst’s nose at a club. He said something about wanting to be her cowboy version of Christian Grey. I would’ve hit him, but she was quicker.

Outside, she pounded the graffiti-covered wall with frustrated fists until they bled. “Get me out of here,” she said. I kissed her bloody knuckles and promised to take her wherever she wanted to go.

So we packed up everything and hit the road.

Mackenzie calmed as tangled expressways became solitary highways. She pushed the passenger seat back and planted her boots on the dashboard. She napped with the brim of her hat over her eyes. The sleeves of her black t-shirt were rolled up, and a thumb hitched in a belt loop. She didn’t wake up until we were surrounded by fields and the occasional farm. As the sun warmed the truck’s interior, the smell of old clove cigarettes infused the air.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked her when she finally woke up.

She pushed the brim of her hat up, bleary eyed and smiling slightly. “Broken places. Let’s just wander for a while.”

“No destination?”

“I know what I want to find; I just don’t remember where to find it.”

“What’s that?”

“Home,” she said, squinting off into the distance. Dark clouds of a thunder storm passed miles ahead of us.

I gestured toward the windshield. “Nice to be out here again. Seeing the big sky.”

Her smile broadened. “I feel like I can breathe again.”
Photo credit: Robert Couse Baker via Flickr CC 2.0
We were good traveling companions. We knew when one or the other of us needed some quiet. Neither of us were very talkative to begin with. The more remote we got, the more interested Mackenzie was in the landscape. Sometimes we slept in the back of the pick-up, philosophizing or recalling old memories as we counted shooting stars.

“Wish I could see an aurora,” she mused, braiding with her long blond hair in the darkness.
“We’ll drive north if you want to, sweetheart.”

“Not yet. Not until I find it.”

“Can you give me a hint?”

She fell silent for a moment. A flash of flame appeared in her hands. The paper on the tip of the joint flared and broke away. “Nope,” she said on the inhale. “Jake, you know me better than that.”

“Queen of mystics,” I said, laughing as she passed it to me.

“A Sufi nomad with Taoist leanings,” she reminded me.

A shooting star ran long across the sky. It seemed to move in slow-motion—a fiery trail blazing toward a broken place Mackenzie wanted to call home.

Then came a long string of visits to the abandoned souls of the American heartland. The dilapidated barns and sagging farmhouses that had been neglected for years. She stepped in each one like she owned the place, exploring even the most dangerous structures that I didn’t want to set foot into. I followed her, though, rather than be called a chicken.

“What are we doing?” I asked, picking up a rusted shovel that disintegrated in my hands.

“Chasing memories.” She threw a rock at the one remaining light in the ceiling of the barn.

Days passed and we kept driving. Our world turned grey when the rain came. She traced the lines of drops along the windows as we rolled down the road. Cracks of lightning illuminated the sky.

The sky stayed grey for days after the storm. We ate lunch in a rest area and watched as crows wheeled and cawed as they chased a hawk from their territory.

“Six crows,” Mackenzie said. “We’re close.”

The music matched the mood. Darker shades of rock, punk, and Goth that we loved. It was a perfectly composed soundtrack to accompany our journey.
Photo credit: Vincent A-F via Flickr CC by SA 2.0
A tree-lined road finally led us to her destination. A hopeful but almost teary smile haunted her features. “This is where it started,” she said.

A burned-out truck disintegrated next to an old one-room schoolhouse that also served as a church in this small town I forgot the name of as soon as we passed the sign. The building was in bad shape. Scorch marks from the truck’s fire clawed along the side of it. The steeple was open on one side, the planks probably torn off by a storm. Mackenzie stepped out of the truck and walked as if she wasn’t sure this was reality.

Her hands were up, her fingers seemingly tasting the air—she stared and closed her eyes by turns to drink in the environment. I heard her humming a favorite tune. She ascended the small steps of the building and ran her hand along the wooden railing. The varnish, if it ever had any, was long faded away. Her hands came to rest on a platform of bells. Each varied in size.

“It was like Morse code,” she said. “The ringing meant all kinds of things.” She struck them—six bells. A languid clangor, one after the other.

“What does that one mean?”

“I reclaim this place. I’m home.”

As she turned around and walked in the front door, I wondered if I would ever learn what that meant. A murder of crows flew out of the steeple and announced her arrival to the turbulent sky.
And for those curious about the song, it was featured in Wim Wenders’ gorgeous 1987 film, Wings of Desire (originally Der Himmel über Berlin):

Fan Fiction—and an Irresistible Urge to Write Someone Else’s Story

(originally published June 19, 2015)

Fan fiction can be a touchy topic. Some authors fiercely protect the worlds and characters they create, while others endorse fan works inspired by them. Hugh Howey happily promotes some fan fiction based on the Wool series. Several years ago, a person who loved my first novel contacted me about writing fan fiction about it. Why not? After all, Vlad Dracula and his family were not of my making. Sure, I took some artistic license in how I portrayed them, but anyone has free reign to write about historical figures.

While some of my earliest unpublished works are strongly influenced by other books or video games, I can’t say I’ve really indulged in fanfic—until now. I feel odd delving into a copyrighted world, even if the creators of the world don’t mind. Knowing 50 Shades of Grey began as fanfic based on the Twilight series doesn’t make me feel any better.

There are many sources of inspiration. People who know me well may guess if I were to dive into fanfic, it may be the Elder Scrolls games or George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. However, there is only one story that captures me like no other: Thief.

In 1998, I pulled the box off the shelf at a store, enchanted by the graphics and description. I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d come to love this world. Every game in the series has been amazing. I’d actually have it share the number one spot in gaming experiences alongside the beloved Elder Scrolls series. The Elder Scrolls has inspired me with its worldbuilding as well, but it was Thief that inspired me to put pen to paper.

In short, the world of Thief had (until the recent 4th installment) two factions of faith. The solemn and technology-driven Hammerites, and the pagans who worshipped nature. Both religions were replaced in the latest 2014 release. I miss the old gods, but look forward to seeing where this new lore may be taking us. It’s always been gloomy world—the City is ancient—one layer built on top of another, with eras of secrets and artifacts. Garrett, a pickpocketing youth, was taken in by a secret organization called the Keepers. Though he leaves them in favor of becoming a master thief, he’s continuously manipulated by the Keepers through the end of the third game.

The revamped version of the story is gorgeously gritty and dark. Yes, the longtime voice actor who played Garrett is gone, and the change upset me for a bit, but after 20 minutes of gameplay I was so deep in the storyline I didn’t care. And I want more.

While there have been consistent elements of the story throughout, there is plenty of mystery. The kind of mystery that tantalizes a writer.

In Thief 4, there are several sets of collectible items Garrett saves for his home in a broken clock tower. The paintings are cool, but it was the little snippets that threaded together the collection known as “The Pinned Castinets” that lured me in enough to write fan fiction.
With each pin discovered, a piece of the story is revealed:

  •         It was written that the Castinet daughters were married to lords of the highest standing, all to enrich the family reputation.
  •          Perhaps some of Castinet’s daughters found love. Others knew only the shame of a cold bed and an empty facade.
  •          But his youngest was lucky enough to find freedom from her family’s expectations.
  •          “I will show them all!” she wrote in her diary. “I will show them what true freedom looks like!”
  •          They said her broken body was found at the foot of The City’s walls, and all Dayport wept.
  •          And every summer for years afterwards, pale butterflies would flock to the site, then scatter.

Granted, it’s always the haunting and slightly morbid stories that light my imagination on fire and summon the Muses. You should see my list of novels in progress.

After recently finishing the game for a second time, I was unable to let this story go. I initially refused to write about it. It’s not my world, after all! But then I checked in to one of my favorite flash fiction sites, Describli, and one of the images used for a writing prompt caught my eye. It may as well have come right out of the City where Garrett dwelled. And the prompt involved a visit to a witch. Suddenly, I knew what happened to the youngest daughter of the Castinet family, and I wrote the following story:

The Butterfly Girl

The girl was crumpled by the hearth in an endless fit of weeping. Her red gown and velvet cloak caused a stir when she rushed down the City's wharf to get to the witch’s house. She didn't care. Consumed in her own anguish, she only sought a cure to her problem. 

“I won’t marry him!” Sofia said for the twelfth time. “They can’t make me. I'll run away. All I’ve ever wanted was my freedom!” 

“You’re a long way from home, sweetness,” Agatha said, petting the girl’s head like she was a pet. She admired the comb in the girl’s coal-black hair. Shaped like a butterfly, jewels of pink, lavender, and pale blue sparkled in the fire’s light.

The girl looked up at her, confused. “But I’m from Dayport.” 

Agatha smiled. “Indeed you are. So knows every thief, pimp, and lowlife in the South Quarter. A little discretion would do you a lot of good.” 

“I have to leave the City.” Tears streamed down her face.

“And where do you plan to go?”

“Anywhere…a place where I can be free to live the life I want. To be an explorer, maybe. Do you think one of the sea captains will hire me? I can read, draw well, and can keep things orderly.”

Agatha suppressed a laugh. “My dear girl, women are not allowed on ships for a reason. Imagine one woman on a ship full of men, out to sea for months at a time. You haven’t thought this through.”

“What can you do to help me?” The last words were choked in a sob.

“How much coin do you have?”

Sofia held up her purse. Agatha weighed it in her hand. It was too light to do anything meaningful. The petted the girl’s hair again. “This hair pin will do.

The girl unpinned it and handed it to the witch without a thought. Agatha expected more of a fight. Some are too easy, she thought.

Agatha stood and went to the window. The hearth’s bright flame played on the dusty windows. In the grimy South Quarter, it was a futile effort to keep the glass clean. The City seemed endless. Superstitious folk who never left their own neighborhoods believed it was endless—and that nothing lay beyond it—no pastures or farms, no meadows or vast forests. That the zealous builders devoured all of nature in their plan to obliterate the pagan faith. In the darkest of nights, when the rain was driving and the hearth’s flame threatened to be blown out from the winds that spiraled down the chimney, Agatha wondered too. Maybe it does go on forever.

“There aren’t many of us left,” the witch said. “All but driven to the ends of the earth. A few communities remain. I know an honest captain who can take you to the sunny coast of Illyria. I’ll write you up a letter, and you can be an apprentice of the witches until you can maintain a shrine of your own.”

A smile broke through Sofia’s tears. “That sounds wonderful. When can I leave?”

“Whenever you wish.”

“Now, if you please. I need naught but the clothes on my back.”

“You can sleep in the attic until I make the arrangements. Shouldn’t be but a day or two.”

As a humble host in the poorest region in the City, Agatha fed her guest well. She shielded her from prying neighbors, who came to this relatively peaceful section of the wharf wanting to know about the pretty girl in the red dress.

The South Quarter factories churned in the distance, filling the sky with smoke and soot. Tradesmen and merchants filed in a never-ending procession down the Baron’s Road, on their way to buy and sell goods, and drink their fill in the mangiest of taverns. The girl watched the City in fascination from the attic window. This was nothing like the luxury of Dayport.

Soon enough, Sofia embarked on a ship and cried tears of joy at the prospect of freedom. She vowed to become the best witch in the land. Agatha waved and walked back to her house on the dock.

A torrential storm hit that night. As if summoned by magic, it rose up and smashed the ships heading out. The storm continued for days.

“The gods are angry again,” Agatha said. “There’s no pleasing them.”

When the news came, the witch endured her creaking knees and sore back to go down to the shore where the shipwrecks lay. The girl’s broken body lay by the city wall. The unusual sight of people from Dayport astonished the residents of South Quarter. Her red dress was sodden like blood and oil.

Pity flickered in the witch’s heart. She stayed until the bodies were cleared, and walked to the spot where the girl’s body had lain. She pulled the butterfly hair pin from her pocket and cupped it in her hand. She whispered a brief spell, and a spirit in the shape of a butterfly emerged from the jeweled piece.

A glittering display of pink, lavender, and pale blue, the butterfly spirit hovered in a circle. With each turn around the spot, another butterfly came to be, until there was a cloud of them.

“We all have to make sacrifices,” the witch said. “But you finally have your precious freedom.”

And from then on, on each anniversary of the girl’s death, a flurry of ghostly butterflies appeared and lit up that dark corner of the wharf for the night.