The Inevitable Cycle Revisited

This past summer, I paid a return visit to one of my favorite places, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. In light of that visit, I thought I’d revisit a post I originally wrote for my Scarlet Order Journal three years ago on the occasion of another visit and share some new photos. Lowell Observatory is famous as the site where Percival Lowell observed Mars for many years, recording his observations of the canals he—and most mainstream scientists of the day—believed they saw. It’s also the observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Of course, in mythology, Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld and a figure closely associated with the spirits of the dead. Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill is also the site of Percival Lowell’s Crypt. The photo here is from my 2019 visit.

If you look carefully at the tomb, there is an epigraph, to the right of the door. It reads, in part, “Everything around this Earth we see is subject to one inevitable cycle of birth, growth, decay … nothing begins but comes at last to an end … though our own lives are too busy to mark the slow nearing to that eventual goal …” The words on this astronomer’s crypt go a long way to explaining what draws me to horror. Birth, growth, and decay are not only inevitable, but all can be frightening. Horror provides a mechanism for taking a look at the things that frighten us and getting a handle on them.

The epigraph continues: “Today what we already know is helping to comprehension of another world. In a not distant future we shall be repaid with interest and what that other world shall have taught us will redound to a better knowledge of our own and of the cosmos of which the two form a part.” The quote comes from Percival Lowell’s book, The Evolution of Worlds. Horror might be scary, but it reminds me that humans can overcome even the worst terrors to accomplish great things. In fiction that can be defeating a villain or a monster. In real life, we might conquer our fears to expand the borders of human understanding.

Right next to Lowell’s crypt is the telescope where he observed Mars for many years. This year, we arrived on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was my second opportunity to go in, and see the telescope. I got to ask questions about the building, the original clock drive and whether the original f-stop is still on the telescope. My daughter even had a chance to move the dome around. They had a public night scheduled, but our schedule didn’t allow us to return. Back in 2016, we were able to visit at night and we had a terrific view of Saturn. We could see resolution in the clouds and the rings were sharp and beautiful. If the ghost of Percival Lowell wanders the observatory grounds, I suspect he’s proud of the job the people there do of giving the public a glimpse at the universe, which can be at once scary and beautiful.

I hope my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt scares you when you read it. I also hope you’ll see how people overcome fear and accomplish great things. Even though I hope to show you scary things in that novel, I also hope to show you some of the beauty that this universe and the people who inhabit it possess.

The Astronomer’s Crypt is on sale for just 99 cents this month of October 2019. You can get copies at:

Last Call – Exchange Students

Editor Sheila Hartney and I have been enjoying reading the wonderful submissions that have been coming in for Hadrosaur Productions’ forthcoming anthology, Exchange Students. Although we have a full anthology at this point, we are willing to be tempted by a few more good stories and could make room for a truly exceptional story or three. That said, this is last call. We will be closing to all submissions on October 15, 2019. Any submissions received after the 15th will not be considered. The illustration below is a sneak peak at the cover art by Laura Givens.

Exchange Students is an anthology to be published by Hadrosaur Productions that will explore the vast realms of what it might mean to be an exchange student at any point in time, space, or across dimensions. Most of us have known foreign exchange students in our school years. This anthology imagines an exchange student program expanded to include students from the past, the future, fairies, trolls, distant alien races, and any other exchange student the author might dream of. The complete guidelines are available at: http://hadrosaur.com/ExchangeStudents-gl.php.

I’m really excited by the breadth and diversity of stories we’ve selected so far. The thing that makes an anthology compelling to me is to see what authors do with the concept. We have serious stories that take a good hard look at humanity and we have humorous stories. We have flash fiction that hits us with a cool idea and we have longer stories that allow us to get to know the characters better. Longtime readers of Tales of the Talisman Magazine will recognize some familiar names, but I’m pleased that we have many new authors as well.

At this point, I hope I’ve whetted your appetite and you’re now asking when you can get your own copy of the anthology to read. My goal is to publish this by February 15, 2020, so I can have it available at the Hadrosaur Productions dealer’s table at Wild Wild West Con in March 2020. The book will also be available in all popular ebook formats through vendors such as Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble.

Battle Lines

Today, I’m proud to announce the release of Hadrosaur Productions’ latest novel, Battle Lines by Greg Ballan. This is part two of Greg’s Ethereal War duology. In the first book, Armageddon’s Son, ex-CIA Agent Erik Knight is recruited to assist his mentor, Martin Denton, in discovering the identity of the mysterious thief who stole the Ruby Crucifix of Christ from the very heart of Vatican City. In order to solve the mystery, the agents must accept that the world as they know it is mere illusion, hiding a brutal physical and spiritual war of ‘Good’ versus ‘Evil’.

In Battle Lines, the hidden battle between good and evil approaches a boiling point. Each side accuses the other of violating rules set down by the Creator at the dawn of time. The theft of The Ruby Crucifix from Vatican City enrages the forces of light, while the unauthorized birth of Armageddon’s Son spurs the forces of darkness to take desperate, hostile action. As both sides prepare for war, a third party, the rogue arch demon Molec, escalates hostilities by issuing a forbidden soul bounty on light’s new prophet, who happens to be the son of the Hybrid, former CIA Agent Erik Knight. The Hybrid and his trusted ally, Martin Denton, must confront demons, angels, aliens, corrupt politicians and evasive clergymen each with their own agenda and hidden motives as they hunt down Molec in a desperate, final attempt to avoid a catastrophic, world-ending battle which would have repercussions across the galaxy and the multiverse.

I have really enjoyed working with Greg Ballan. He is a graduate of Northeastern University holding bachelor’s degrees in Marketing and Management. Greg enjoys several outdoor activities such as hiking, archery and shooting. Greg was an avid MMA fighter but realized after fifty, getting punched hurts … a lot! He discovered the safer hobby, learning the acoustic guitar. When he’s not working his full-time job as a financial analyst or exploring some unknown woodlands, he’s crunched over his laptop putting his warped imagination into words or penning a column about the outdoors or his latest misadventure avoiding house and yard work. I think you can see that Greg’s background helps him create realistic action and I’ve come to discover that Greg is a very spiritual person who cares about those around him. That really comes through in his writing.

In encourage you to pick up both Armageddon’s Son and Battle Lines.

Armageddon’s Son is available at:

Battle Lines is available at:

Vintage Justice

Reading is an essential part of any writer’s life. However, sometimes, I really do feel pressed for time to read. When that happens, my attention often goes to comic books. The best comics tell really good, tight stories and are presented with artwork I really admire. Lately, I’ve been spending time exploring the adventures of the Justice Society of America.

For those not familiar with the JSA, they were the original comic book super hero team, invented during World War II. The lineup included original versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom, along with heroes I’ve spoken about before like Sandman. Other members familiar to modern readers of DC comics include Dr. Fate, the Spectre, and Hawkman. Thanks to digital comics, it’s fairly easy to find their early adventures. In those stories, the Justice Society largely stays in the United States and roots out Nazi sympathizers and other criminals who want to undermine the war effort. Each hero usually receives their own assignment and we follow that hero’s story for a few pages, then move on to the story of another hero. At the end, they would come together to wrap up the case.

DC Comics has brought back the JSA in various forms over the years. Most recently at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer presented a JSA composed of elder heroes training a new generation. These stories are a lot of fun and we get to see children and grandchildren of those original heroes. Still, my favorite stories are those actually told in the original time period. I think there’s a lot of room for these kinds of stories, especially after I read the excellent run of Sandman Mystery Theatre. I was excited recently to find the graphic novel JSA: The Liberty Files originally published in 2004, that imagined early members of the society taking a more active role in the war effort.

JSA: The Liberty Files is one of DC’s so-called Elseworld stories. They ask what if the heroes existed in a different time and place than they did in the main continuity of the universe. Of course, continuity in comic books is relative since many heroes rarely seem to age beyond their thirties! The first story in The Liberty Files imagines Batman teaming up with Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite to track down a real Nazi Super-Man. Hourman is scientist Rex Tyler who developed a pill that gives him super powers for just one hour a day. Dr. Mid-Nite is Dr. Charles McNider, a doctor who can’t see well in regular light but has excellent night vision. Both Hourman and Dr. Mid-Nite were early members of the classic JSA.

In the second story, Batman, Hourman, and a more familiar Superman along with some other JSA members must determine who is killing American agents in Berlin. I like the dark, realistic artwork in these stories. I think they allow for a little more exploration of the characters, though I was a little disappointed to see Batman and Superman take the limelight away from the lesser known JSA members. There were also some points where I felt the JSA members could have avoided disaster if they’d been a little smarter. And really, the best superheroes do rely more on their intellect and how they apply their powers than relying on the powers themselves.

I know there are a few other modern JSA stories told in vintage style available and I do plan to look those up in the coming months. I find these appealing in much the way I enjoy steampunk and other retro-futuristic stories. In many ways, a steampunk world is like a good superhero world. It’s one where heroes use their intellect to apply science or magic to solve a problem. Like an “Elseworlds” story, steampunk is an alternate universe that asks what would have happened if different conditions were met than those which happened in the world as we know it.

You can explore my Clockwork Legion Steampunk World by reading the following books, maybe you’ll find your next favorite “superhero.”

A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

Taking Risks

I’ve heard the saying, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing grows there.” I don’t know who first said it and I can’t find an attribution. I’m guessing it probably started with a wise grandmother. Like most such sayings, it contains truth. As human beings, we need to explore and try new things to grow and develop. If we stay in one spot too long, no matter how beautiful, we begin to languish.

Last weekend, while attending the Bubonicon science fiction convention in Albuquerque, my daughter and I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and the only professional scientist to walk on the moon. After being an astronaut, he went on to become one of New Mexico’s senators. It occurred to me that Dr. Schmitt is a true embodiment of a person who pushed himself to achieve great things. Early in his career, he had to work hard to get a PhD in geology. During the era he entered the astronaut program, he had to learn to become a fighter pilot to convince the head of the Apollo training program, Deke Slayton, that he had what it took to be an astronaut. Even after going to the moon and coming back, he switched gears again to enter politics. I can’t help but admire his life’s journey.

People have sometimes asked me why I write in so many different types of stories. I’ve written science fiction set in the distant future, steampunk set in the past, vampires, and horror set at an observatory. I’ve tried my hand at editing and teaching. I’ve taught myself how to do layouts. Learning these things is one way I’ve moved out of my comfort zone to grow. That said, I was very comfortable back in 2008 as a full time writer and editor doing my own work, editing a magazine, and consulting for El Paso Community College. Then an old colleague came along and asked if I wanted to return to Kitt Peak National Observatory. I had to move out of my comfort zone to say yes to that proposition.

At Bubonicon, on a panel about large scale surveys in science, author and mathematician John Barnes made an offhand comment about how he is much more successful in his writing when he’s gainfully employed doing something else. I thought that was an interesting comment, because I found the same thing when I returned to Kitt Peak. I became a far more productive writer when I had to make time to write. I wasn’t going to stop writing. Taking the job helped me grow and find new time management skills in addition to learning about new instrumentation and new methods of astronomy when I joined the team at Kitt Peak.

My daughter stands with Dr. Schmitt in the photo above. She’s at a phase in her life where she’s applying for colleges and scholarships. This moves her out of her comfort zone, but she knows she needs to do it as part of her life journey. I love that photo because I admire both Dr. Schmitt and my daughter for taking chances to do great things.

That said, one should be careful about bashing comfort zones. Sometimes you can get hurt when you take risks. I’ve taken risks and had stories I thought were a sure thing rejected. There have been times where I’ve been reprimanded for doing what I thought was the right thing. I was grateful for my comfort zone as a place to retreat to, to heal from those painful experiences. The challenge after taking a risk and failing is not to stay in the comfort zone too long. Eventually you need to move out of the comfort zone so you can learn from your experience and then continue on to the next step of the human adventure.