Owls from the Dark Side

With the first novel in my Clockwork Legion series titled Owl Dance and the fourth, in progress, tentatively titled Owl Riders, you might think I have a fondness for owls, and you would be right. I find them fascinating, elusive creatures. They do an important job, eating vermin. A few years ago, a family of burrowing owls nested in a field near my home. Going by their nests on my daily walks, I developed something of a rapport with them. I would whistle at them and they would whistle back, sometimes doing a little dance going back and forth from one foot to the other. In fact, that’s where the title, Owl Dance came from. The photo below was taken at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson where I’m posing with my daughter and one of the world’s largest owls, a Eurasian Eagle Owl.

David and Myranda

The thing is, owls are not universally regarded as likeable or good. If you look at the photo above, one of the first things you should notice is the size of the owl’s claws. I was very aware when it sat on my arm that that owl was a powerful hunter. When I lived in the small town of Madrid, New Mexico, owls were known to hunt any cats running loose after dark. Sometimes I drive up to work at Kitt Peak National Observatory after dark and see a rather large owl sitting on the road. One time, the owl took off in front of me causing me to slam on the brakes. It was an awesome and terrifying sight.

Many Native American tribes actively dislike owls. They are believed to harbor the spirits of the dead. Hearing an owl hoot at night can be considered an ill omen. The following appears on the official website of the Mescalero Apache: “The owl is a night creature and the Apache people do not have contact with this animal. Avoid having a night owl near you. It is considered a bad omen if an owl hoots near you day or night.” These beliefs have also crossed over into Latino culture where there are stories of owls being associated with witches. In Owl Dance, my character Fatemeh is seen as a witch precisely because of her association with owls.

This brings us to my latest novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. astronomers-crypt-453x680 In Apache lore, there’s a creature known by many names including Big-Owl, Owl Man, or even Owl Monster. He’s something of a bogeyman in Apache stories. Sometimes he’s described as more human like and other times as more monster like. He often appears in the Apache Creation story, such as the version recorded in this post on Noah Nez’s Native Skeptic blog.

When I came upon descriptions of Big Owl, I began to wonder what a real creature that could have aspects of man, owl, and troll would be like. Of course, evidence suggests that birds are the modern dinosaurs. Thinking about the dinosaurs that became owls went a long way to picturing this kind of creature. The protagonist, Mike Teter, has the following vision in the novel’s prologue:

    On the dome floor, next to the telescope, stood a grotesque figure resembling an unholy merging of a predatory dinosaur and some kind of alien creature from a sci-fi movie. Its body crouched atop long talons that looked as though they could easily rip the tiles from the floor. The creature’s nose consisted of two slits above a sharp, beak-like mouth. But it was the eyes that froze Mike in terror. Dark. Mesmerizing. They were like black holes in space. Mike had no idea where the creature had come from or how it managed to get into the dome. But he did know one thing for certain. It wanted to kill him.

To see more of what happens with Big Owl, be sure to pick up a copy of The Astronomer’s Crypt from Amazon, Kobo, or Lachesis Publishing. You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series by visiting my website.

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.

The Future of Steampunk

I was on a panel yesterday at LepreCon in Phoenix, Arizona, entitled “The Future of Steampunk Literature.” As it turns out, my other panelist didn’t show up and I ended up being the only speaker. Still, it was a good conversation and I think several good points were raised that are relevant to questions about the future of any genre.

First off, I’ve encountered people who have suggested that steampunk has reached its peak in popularity and may even be past it. While I think it’s possible that steampunk has reached a peak in the general public’s consciousness, I see that the genre has a good strong, core following. I think this is helped by the fact that steampunk is not just a literary genre, but is strongly connected with the maker movement and has a vibrant music scene. Even if it didn’t have that strong core, I think it’s easy, especially for new writers, to put too much emphasis on writing to what’s popular and avoiding what’s not popular.

It’s true, the big New York publishers are going to base decisions on what they see in their marketing numbers and if they see steampunk on a rise, will probably buy more steampunk. However, they’re not going to be looking for what you send them in a month or two. They’ll be looking at what they already have in their reading stacks. If they see numbers trending upward, they’ll talk to authors and agents they know and perhaps get a few known authors on board. In short, the publishers are probably way ahead of you in the popularity game and it’s better for a new author to write what they’re passionate about than chase perceived trends. Of course, creating what they’re passionate about is one of the things steampunks do best!

Second, steampunk is a very multi-faceted genre. There’s alternate history, weird westerns, science fictional steampunk, magical steampunk, horror steampunk, post-apocalyptic futuristic steampunk and probably more than I haven’t thought of. Not only that, new authors are putting their own spins on it, punking up the diesel era, the atom age, and even going back to the stone age. Although these many facets can make marketing steampunk a challenge, the fact that so many people are being so creative with the basic idea speaks to the health and the vibrancy of the genre.

I can’t pretend to have any great insight into steampunk’s future, but the strong, evolving core following tells me it’s a healthy fandom and gives me hope that it will be a force in publishing and other areas for many years to come.

Clockwork-Legion

I continue to be on panels for the rest of this weekend at LepreCon, and will be engaging in more steampunkery. When I’m not on panels, I’ll be in the dealer’s room. Local Gamer Guest of Honor, Ben Woerner has graciously given me some space at his table. Be sure to come by the table and check out his cool samurai noir role playing game, World of Dew as well as my books. If you’re not at LepreCon or you managed to miss me, you can check out my steampunk books on Amazon: