Worlds of Words

Last weekend, I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, which brings together authors of every genre imaginable from around the world to talk with readers about their work. The entire University of Arizona mall is taken up with tents occupied by vendors selling books and exhibiting products, services, and information. There was also an area called Science City which focuses on STEM literacy.

I love walking through the festival and seeing the books for sale and meeting the authors exhibiting their wares. Bookmans Entertainment Exchange is a chain of used bookstores in Arizona and one of the sponsors of the festival. They had a large tent and it was especially fun to go in and discover they had a copy of my novel Owl Dance for sale. What’s more, it was sitting on top of a copy of Bridges of Longing by my friend Marsheila Rockwell. As it turns out, I’d just spent time visiting with Marcy and her husband Jeff Mariotte a few minutes before at a tent where they were selling their books.

Fun as it is to visit the vendors, my favorite part of the festival are the tremendous panel presentations. On Saturday morning of the festival I joined J.L. Doty for a panel on Scientists Writing Science Fiction. I discussed how science influences my writing and editing. For example, science brought me together with Steve Howell of NASA Ames Research Center to assemble Kepler’s Cowboys, a collection of stories about planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. I also noted that working in science doesn’t always influence my science fiction. The 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak is a big, spooky building, especially at night and it inspired me to write my horror novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. We also discussed bringing the discipline we learned in science to our writing. In that context, Jim mentioned how he writes without an outline. On the other hand, I do use outlines. In both cases, we think carefully about what we’ve written and plan our next writing sessions so we do any required research ahead of time.

I also moderated a terrific panel on building fantasy worlds. The panel included my friend Gini Koch. I was also delighted to meet Samantha Shannon, Erika Lewis, and Brian McClellan. We discussed the process they go through when creating their alternate worlds and how they keep track of the places within those worlds so they’re believable to the readers. I thought it was especially interesting to hear that Samantha was a fan of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, because I saw some influences in The Mime Order. That said, she noted that she’d actually removed some of the more overt influences because she didn’t feel they were working in the context of her work. The photo above was taken after the panel was finished and we gathered to sign books.

By itself, a terrific weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books would have done a great job of recharging my batteries so I could continue work on my fourth Clockwork Legion novel Owl Riders. However, just a couple of days after the festival, I was delighted to find a new review of book two of the series, Lightning Wolves posted at Geek-o-Rama. Reviewer Katrina Roets wrote, “Do you want to know how you know that you’re really enjoying a book? It’s when the power goes out and you curl up on the couch with a flashlight so that you can keep reading. Seriously. This happened to me last night.” Knowing that I wrote fiction that kept a reviewer reading through a power outage gives me a great, warm fuzzy feeling and makes me ready to write even more.

Nightmare Scenarios

As a horror and science fiction writer, one of my jobs is to concoct nightmare scenarios and present them as realistically as possible for your entertainment. In my new novel The Astronomer’s Crypt, I had great fun imagining anything and everything that could go wrong on a night at a remote observatory. I imagine everything from a dangerous storm, to people being hurt by the large machinery we have, to strangers who might appear on the mountain. I even imagine ghosts and an even more terrifying monster. As it turns out, I actually do work at an observatory, and one of my jobs is to make sure visiting astronomers stay safe. One of my duties is to give a safety presentation where I warn people about dangers they might face in an observatory environment. This includes staying away from areas where they could be hurt by machinery, watching for areas that are known to be slippery, and taking care if they go outside in strong winds. The safety presentation doesn’t include ghosts and terrifying monsters, because although I can imagine those things—have even had moments where I wondered if ghosts might exist—they have never done me, or anyone else at the observatory, any harm.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of some of the recent politics in the United States. In many ways, it’s the job of legislators and the executive branch to imagine every nightmare scenario possible. However, their job is more like mine as a telescope operator than my job as a horror writer. They should look at the reasonable and creditable threats to people’s health and security, act on them where necessary and give people appropriate cautions. The scary part to me is that the current administration is acting like the worst kind of horror writer in that they have been presenting absolutely every scary thing they can imagine, whether or not it’s reasonable. For example, the recent travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries feels like it would be as responsible as me telling visiting astronomers to avoid every Latino they might meet on the mountain because a suspected illegal immigrant once pulled a knife on a couple of staff members, then ran away. Yes, there are scary people and there are desperate people, but they are rarely scary and desperate because of their skin color or nation of origin.

SummersLightningWolves

This line of thought takes an interesting turn, because in my Clockwork Legion novels Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves, I imagine Russians coming to America and influencing people to support them with the help of an alien swarm called Legion. Of course, there have been allegations that the Russians attempted to influence the most recent American election and there might have been improper contact between Executive Branch officials and members of the Russian government. In the worst case, this could be a serious nightmare for America and is plausible enough to deserve serious inquiry, yet this nightmare scenario is regularly replaced with worries that a transgender person might be in the stall next to your daughter at school.

Of course, perhaps the greatest nightmare scenario of all would be living in a United States where people are not allowed to question the President and the press are barred from open inquiry. I would rather face the worst nightmares of The Astronomer’s Crypt than live in that world.

World Building

This March, I’ll be moderating a panel called “Building Alternate Worlds” at the Tucson Festival of Books. To prepare, I’m reading the books by the authors on the panel and learning about the worlds they’ve built. This topic is particularly near and dear to my heart because I’m going over my notes and getting ready to start work on book four of my Clockwork Legion series.

Clockwork-Legion

In a very real way, books one through three of my Clockwork Legion series were all about building an alternate world. I started my story in a version of 1876 New Mexico that was mostly the world of history. I say “mostly” because the wild west of fiction is an almost mythical place built up through many years of literature and cinema. People come to western stories with certain expectations of the west and it’s hard to ignore those expectations even when they don’t entirely match the world of history.

I then dropped in a catalyst, which was an advanced alien called Legion who had traveled the universe and came to Earth. This alien is the embodiment of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal, which in a nutshell says you can’t observe a phenomenon without affecting it. Legion’s first interactions with humanity are accidental, but then he grows curious and decides to make the world a better place by attempting to unify humanity. The problem is that in the 1800s, much of humanity’s idea of unification is conquest through imperialism.

Over the course of the books, the world changes and we see the development of airships, mining machines, lightning guns, clockwork automata, and ornithopters. Legion influenced the creation of some of these things. Others were created to combat the imperialists who sought to use these inventions. Of course, the interesting story is less that these machines were created, and more how people used these machines. That’s where the world building comes in.

The idea of book four is to drop into this world-that-wasn’t eight years after the events of The Brazen Shark and see what people have done with it. I plan to open the story in New Orleans, where Ramon Morales is working in a law firm and his wife Fatemeh is trying to gain acceptance as an apothecary in a man’s world. Cotton farmers have sponsored the World’s Fair to show off new technologies they’re using in agriculture. This World’s Fair actually existed, but the technologies will be much different. They’ll be showing off the automata used to plant and harvest crops and the airships used in distribution. At the World’s Fair, Ramon will meet none other than Doc Holiday, who will drag him back to a wild west that neither he nor the reader will immediately recognize. I look forward to playing in this alternate world.

For those who wish to see the creation of this world, check out the first three novels of the Clockwork Legion series:

For those who would like a smaller dose of my Clockwork Legion world, short stories featuring these characters can be found in the anthologies Lost Trails 2: Forgotten Tails of the Weird West, Den of Antiquity, and the forthcoming Straight Outta Tombstone.

Women Marshals of the Old West

Marshal Larissa Seaton is a character who appears in my novel The Brazen Shark from the Clockwork Legion steampunk series. Brazen Shark-300x450 She also appears in some of my short stories set in the same universe, including the story “Fountains of Blood” which will be in the upcoming Straight Outta Tombstone anthology. In my world, President Rutherford B. Hayes appoints her to be a U.S. Marshal after her work recovering a lightning gun from Curly Bill Bresnahan in the novel Lightning Wolves. It’s a fair question to look back at history and ask whether it’s realistic to imagine a woman marshal in 1877.

As it turns out, Larissa of my fictional world was only appointed marshal seven years before it happened in real life. phoebe_couzins In 1884, John Couzins was appointed marshal for the Eastern district of Missouri and he appointed his daughter Phoebe as one of his deputies. When John Couzins was killed in 1887, President Grover Cleveland appointed Phoebe interim marshal. However, she only held the position for two months before a man was appointed as her full-time replacement. Not only was Phoebe Couzins the first woman to become a U.S. Marshal, she was the first woman in the United States to get a law degree and the first woman to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis. She was an early supporter of both women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. In later years, she actually renounced both and became an active lobbyist for the American Brewers Association.

There were several notable women deputies marshals with longer careers. ada-carnutt Perhaps the most famous was Ada Carnutt of Oklahoma. In 1893, she arrested nineteen men at the Black and Roger saloon in Oklahoma City for perjury. Shortly before Christmas that same year, she single-handedly arrested two forgers and escorted them to jail. The two heavily armed men supposedly scoffed at being arrested by an unarmed woman, but she pointed to the crowd around and told them she was willing to deputize every one of them to help her. Newspapers of the day noted that after the arrest she went back to her favorite hobby: china painting.

Even before Ada Carnutt, Mrs. F.M. Miller was making a name for herself as a deputy marshal in Paris, Texas. Unlike Ada Carnutt, Mrs. Miller had no problem carrying weapons. According to the November 6, 1891 issue of the Fort Smith Elevator, “The woman carries a pistol buckled around her and has a Winchester strapped to her saddle. She is an expert shot and a superb horsewoman, and brave to the verge of recklessness.” The article also noted that she was a “charming brunette” and wore a sombrero.

So, while true Larissa Seaton would have been the first woman U.S. Marshal in history if she existed, it wouldn’t be long before more brave women would stand alongside her. You can find Marshal Larissa in the following books:

The Magnificent Seven

About a month ago, after a meeting in Tucson, I saw the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke. magnificent_seven_2016 Because I was in Tucson for work, I was on my own, but I was pleasantly surprised when David B. Riley, an editor I’ve had the pleasure of working with on several projects walked in behind me. So, we got to enjoy watching the new version together.

In this version of the movie, a mine has opened near the town of Rose Creek. The mine owner, played by Peter Sarsgaard, wants to drive away the townspeople so he can have the entire valley for his mine. A woman played by Haley Bennett seeks out gunmen who will drive out the mine owner. It’s an interesting variation on the premise of a village terrorized by bandits.

The movie is, of course, the latest remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The premise of the 2016 version is a bit different from the others I’ve seen. Overall, the revised premise works. I only had one quibble and that was the mine owner’s implicit statement about America being founded on capitalism. In the 1870s where the film is set, venture capitalism was still a relatively newfangled approach to business. Most businessmen of the day would have been entrepreneurs relying on their own money and not the investments of others.

As for the other remakes, I’ve spoken a bit about the steampunk-flavored, futuristic anime remake, Samurai 7 in an earlier blog post. I was recently reminded of Roger Corman’s low budget science fiction remake called Battle Beyond the Stars, which is interesting because it stars Robert Vaughn, who played in the 1960 Magnificent Seven and featured one of the first soundtracks by James Horner. Sadly the new Magnificent Seven was Horner’s last soundtrack composition before he died in a plane accident.

One of the things that makes Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven compelling is the idea of seven very different people coming together to battle insurmountable odds for little or no reward. I especially liked the very diverse group in the latest movie which included an African-American, a Latino, a Native American, and an Asian. As pointed out by director Antoine Fuqua, this not only represents a cross section of America today, but America as it was in the 1800s.

Clockwork-Legion

In thinking about The Magnificent Seven, I’ve come to realize how much it and versions of Seven Samurai have influenced my Clockwork Legion series. In retrospect, it’s especially cool that I watched the movie with David Riley, who published the first of my stories featuring Ramon and Fatemeh in his anthology Trails: Intriguing Stories of the Weird West. In the Clockwork Legion series, I bring together seven heroes, more or less: Sheriff Ramon Morales, Healer Fatemeh Karimi, Captain Onofre Cisneros, Professor M.K. Maravilla, Bounty Hunter Larissa Crimson, Rancher Billy McCarty, and Samurai-turned-farmer Masuda Hoshi. They fight against the insurmountable odds of the Russian Empire aided by an intelligence from the stars. In The Brazen Shark, I even include a few direct homages to the original Seven Samurai. It opens when a village is attacked by samurai bandits and several minor characters in the novel are named after the original seven samurai.

Despite a few similarities, I see Seven Samurai and its successors as just one of many inspirations for my series. I hope you’ll saddle up and come along for the ride. You might just discover a few inspirations I didn’t even see!

Surviving At All Costs

I was born in Barstow, a small town in California’s high desert. Nearby is a ghost town called Calico purchased and restored by Walter Knott, better known as the founder of Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, California. Calico is now managed by San Bernardino County and serves as a tourist attraction. This weekend finds me in Southern California for my nephew’s wedding. On my way, I stopped off at Calico, which I last visited some thirty-five years ago.

Calico-1

Visiting places like Calico can help inform not only my steampunk and weird westerns, but my science fiction as well. It reminds me how people moving to new places must use their wits to survive by any means necessary, sometimes in harsh conditions. I was especially impressed by a few remaining examples of miner’s quarters clinging tenaciously to the hillside. This put the miners both close to work and gave them somewhat cool housing in the fierce desert heat.

Calico-2

People lived in Calico until the silver mines played out, then for the most part, moved on to other places where they could continue surviving by any means necessary. Most of what survives in Calico today is the former downtown area. With a few exceptions, most of the residences, including a small “Chinatown” have vanished into the desert. An $8 admission gets an adult access to a set of small shops and eateries. A short train ride and a brief self-guided tour through a mine on the town site give a little bit of history. There are campgrounds on site and campsite fees give access to the town. If I returned, I would probably camp and then visit. You can learn more by visiting the Calico Website.

Among the shops is a small saloon. This venue served a variety of soft drinks and a few local beers. The one I tried wasn’t bad and proved a nice way to cool off after hiking up the town built along a mountainside in the summer heat. It also provided some possible inspiration for a weird western story. Here, my daughters drink sarsaparilla, play poker, and enjoy music performed by a skeletal piano player. At the time I took the photo, “Ghost Riders in the Sky” was playing.

Calico-3

Watching Western films, it seems as though the wild west must have lived forever, but it was a very transitory time and place as people moved in, found ways to make a living, and moved on. It was a very diverse place populated not just by white people, but Native Americans and Latinos who had lived in the region for centuries. Asians had a strong presence in the old west as did African Americans trying to find a life after the end of slavery. I’ve tried my best to capture the transitory and multi-cultural aspects of the old west in my writing. You can see how well I’ve succeeded by reading Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves and The Brazen Shark which are available at Amazon, and as a special combination edition from Barnes and Noble.

Sharing Time

Susan over at Dab of Darkness gave me a shout-out in her post about being nominated for the Real Neat Blog Award. She has a wonderful review site and you can read her reviews of Owl Dance, SummersOwlDanceLightning Wolves, Culhwch and Olwen and even the very first edition of The Pirates of Sufiro. She also conducts author interviews and here’s her most recent interview with yours truly.

What I like about these award-type posts is that it gives me the opportunity to share some things I might not otherwise, plus I get to recommend some cool blogs. Although Susan didn’t “nominate” me outright, she did mention my blog and she came up with some cool questions. What’s more, one of the “rules” of this award is to bend the rules. So, I’m not treating this as the usual award post, just sharing some questions and answers, then recommending some blogs at the end of the post. Enjoy!

  1. If you could be an extra on a period piece (Outlander, Spartacus, etc.) what would it be and what would you be doing?

    Although I know the series finished a few months ago, I would have enjoyed appearing in Da Vinci’s Demons as someone working with period astronomical instruments such as astrolabes and armillary spheres who helps Da Vinci solve a mystery that required some knowledge of celestial motions.

  2. What makes you cringe?

    Recent wounds just starting to heal produce a strong cringe response in me. Good thing I’m not a doctor! Actually, new wounds usually don’t cause me to react that way, but I suspect that’s because the adrenaline from trying to help overrides the cringe response.

  3. What’s the most interesting gross fact you know?

    Despite what makes me cringe, I seem to have a high threshold for being grossed out and I’m not sure whether I find this fact more gross or more interesting. Apparently it’s quite natural for a woman to have a bowel movement while in labor—perhaps this shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the muscles involved in both activities. The interesting part is that it’s believed that this is actually an important part of the life process, imparting a baby with their first exposure to bacteria, helping to develop their immune system.

  4. It’s time for you to host the book club. Who do you invite (living, dead, fictional, real)? And what 3 books will you be discussing?

    I would invite Lafcadio Hearn to talk about his journey from being a newspaperman in New Orleans and collecting recipes for the first book of Creole cookery, La Cuisine Creole, to writing about life in Meiji Era Japan in Gleanings in Buddha Fields to collecting Japanese ghost stories in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. It couldn’t help but be a fascinating journey.

  5. If you had to choose someone to rescue you from the jaws of certain death would it be a superhero, supernatural creature, or a space alien?

    Vampires of the Scarlet Order

    The most interesting superheroes often have emotional issues they’re working through, and certainly in recent superhero movies, there’s a lot of collateral damage where those guys hang out. Not sure I want to be around those guys. Looking at the space aliens I’ve written about in the Old Star/New Earth series, a lot depends on the alien. Some have been friends in need. Others have had their own agendas. So, I lean toward supernatural creature, and specifically the Scarlet Order vampires. They work quickly and quietly and most of them have good hearts as long as no one is trying to screw them over. I just hope they aren’t too hungry when they rescue me!

  6. If you could, what book/movie/TV series would you like to experience for the first time all over again and why?

    The tricky part about this question is that when I think about the very best books, movies, and TV series, they’re great the first time and only get better in repeated viewings as I see things I missed before. The one TV series, though, that comes to mind is Star Trek: The Animated Series which was first on when I was about eight years old. The writing by such folks as David Gerrold, Larry Niven, and D.C. Fontana still holds up and I catch things in the scripts today that I didn’t then. Although many of the cells were beautifully drawn, it was animated with the limitations of a 1970’s Saturday morning TV budget. I would be delighted to go back and experience the episodes again where I’m more captivated by the magic of the animation and less critical of the execution.

  7. If everyone came with warning labels, what would yours say?

    Caution: Requires coffee to function properly.

    DLS with Pirate Mug

Here are some of my favorite blogs:

  • Lachesis Publishing is one of my publishers and has a regular blog featuring author interviews and helpful tips for writers.
  • Wyrmflight is a blog by Deby Fredericks covering any and all aspects related to dragons.
  • Earthian Hivemind is Steph P. Bianchini’s blog that covers topics of science and science fiction.
  • Karen J. Carlisle is a steampunk writer, photographer, and costumer in Australia who presents some great stories, writing tips, and sometimes even recipes.
  • Joy V. Smith is the author of the short story collection Sugar Time that I edited. She blogs and reblogs about topics of interest to writers.
  • eSpec Books published the anthology Gaslight and Grimm. Their blog not only announces upcoming publications, but gives some great behind-the-scenes insights into the stories plus author interviews, and they sponsor a monthly writing contest.
  • D.M. Yates is an author of paranormal romance who has handy tips about grammar plus some interesting crafting and cooking tips.