#writers, what #writinginspiration can be found in your #homestate? In #Wisconsin, one #setting to spark your #storytelling is #theHouseontheRock.

Featured

We drive, kid-free, through the silent Wisconsin countryside. Clouds hang silver and heavy over the corn and soy fields. The occasional tractor turns earth, the sporadic cow chews cud, the episodic cyclist scowls.

Yeah, sorry about my use of the thesaurus here, but I couldn’t help myself, not when I saw “odd” is a synonym for “occasional.” For amongst the normal, humdrum sights in rural Wisconsin, Bo and I are going to a truly odd place. One of the oddest in all the States, in fact.

Bo finds just the right music for our mission.

“What I want to know,” Bo ponders as we park, “is why no Bond villain ever stationed himself here.”

I nod. Christopher Lee’s funhouse set-up in The Man with the Golden Gun has nothing on this house.

No, the house.

The House on the Rock.

Like Dylan Thuras (in the above video), I also grew up hearing the tale that world-famous architect–and Wisconsin’s own!–Frank Lloyd Wright had spurned Alex Jordan’s own architectural designs, motivating son Alex Jordan Jr. to build The House atop a natural tower called Deer Shelter Rock…an area less than ten miles away from Taliesin. The tale is likely a crock, and yet…you know, why else would you build so flippin’ close to each other?

I’d only visited The House on the Rock once in my teen years. It’s the sort of place that sticks with you no matter who you are or where you’re from; one visit affected Neil Gaiman so deeply he set a piece of American Gods at The House on the Rock–and yes, they even filmed an episode of the television series there.

Sadly, my phone’s camera cannot do this place justice at ALL, but I do have a few snaps I can share mixed among the far better photos on the Internet.

House on the Rock’s exterior (from milwaukeemag.com)
Japanese garden set outside the Original House
Just one of the many clusters of self-playing instruments. There used to be one that played The Benny Hill theme, but they moved it. 😦
The House on the Rock is FULL of stained glass pieces. (from pinterest)
Sure, why not pack a cathedral’s worth of bells into one side of The House? Makes total sense. (Yes, there are more bells outside the photo.)
Kitchen/dining area from Original House. (from wikimedia.org)
The Lounge in the Original House (from tripadvisor.com)

One of the major architectural highlights is the Infinity Room.

It ain’t exactly a place you want to walk in when lots of people are there–it heats quickly, and, um, wobbles a bit. Still, I managed to get a shot with Bo while the natural light was good.

I didn’t say it was a good picture.
The Infinity Room exterior/interior (from pinterest)

Once you exit the Original House and Gate House, things start to get really weird.

Entry into “Heritage of the Sea” exhibit (from reddit)

Ah, the vicious Lake Superior Squid duals with the tempestuous Duluth Whale of Doom.

(Them’s the jokes, folks. For legit humor writing, talk to Bo.)

Yes, you walk a good three flights up and around this whale. (from tripadvisor.com)

Would it surprise you to know that tiny children sobbed as their parents dragged them by the whale’s teeth? I sure couldn’t blame’em–I was freaked out when I first saw all this, and I was old enough to drive a car. Bo, bless him, humors me as I grip his arm tight enough to leave a mark as we descend…yes, we not only have to climb up and around this mouth–we have to do it aaaaall again to get out.

The Streets of Yesterday’s a touch more tame. It reminds me of the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit at the Public Museum–a quiet, created thoroughfare.

The Streets of Yesterday (from cultofweird.com)

With dolls. Lots of dolls.

Soooooo creepy….

Oh, I’ll get to the dolls. Just you wait.

Anyway, here we transition with a big ol’ organ into room, after room, after room, of these giant orchestral mechanics.

One of the many giant engines and organ wagons on the Streets of Yesterday (from Cloudfront.net)

Mechanical orchestrics.

Soooo many rooms are filled with these giant self-playing orchestras. This one plays an excerpt from The Mikado. (from wikimedia.org)
Sorry my pictures aren’t better. 😦

You get me.

One of the many rooms of nightmare fuel: a mannequin orchestra with self-playing instruments (from tripadvisor.com)

This place just goes on….and on…and on…you move from room to room, warehouse to warehouse. You walk on yet another street of yesterday dedicated to cars, hot air balloons, airplanes. You pass hundreds of trinkets and trunkets of store displays, guns, circuses, dollhouses, DOOOOOOLLS, pipes, ivory carvings, costume jewelry, armor. Battle scenes complete with armored elephants and dogs.

Did I mention the dolls? Like the giant carousel FILLED with dolls?

I swear, this thing had to be at least two stories high. Of course, you gotta walk aaaall the way around it. (from pinterest)
Bo faces them down. I spot one (off camera, sorry) that’s tipped off its horse. Drunk riding, I guess?

And then there’s the room with the world’s largest indoor carousel.

Over two hundred animals, none of them horses. (from pinterest)
See what I mean? (from tripadvisor.com)
Just one of several walls filled with carousel horses (from tripadvisor.com)

In case you’re wondering what’s hanging from the ceiling, those are mannequin angels. Dozens, upon dozens, of mannequin angels.

Why?

Probably to fend off Satan from eating people.

Yup, the Devi’s mouth (and moving eyes!) is right smackin’ next to the carousel. Watch out Bo!

I walked down Satan’s gullet, stumped.

“What’s wrong?” Bo asks as we step out onto Inspiration point.

The sudden exit from hours among electric candelabras and mannequins makes my head hurt a little, but the foliage and peace of the forest around us more than make up for it. We’re at Inspiration Point, or Deer Shelter Rock. You can just see the Infinity Room behind the trees.

We must have missed something, I say, staring at a lone red barn on the far hillside (that I failed to get a picture of–sorry!). Wonder what that farmer thought, watching AJ Jr. haul materials and build his crazy concocted collection year after year after year. Did that farmer pay to take a tour like so many others in the 60s? Or did he just wave it off as so many ol’ Wisconsinites do and get back to the plow?

“How?” Bo takes a swig of apple juice as we sit on a bench. It’s our first break in three hours of walking, as our bodies are quick to tell us. “There’s only one way through this whole thing. The staff haven’t let us go off-course. What could we have missed?”

I grimace at the glass wall behind us. “We didn’t see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Bo rolls his eyes. He doesn’t remember the Horsemen from his childhood visits, and has been skeptical of their existence. “Well we’re not done yet.”

But how much left can there be? I ask for my curiosity…and my legs.

“We gotta double-back for another level and…yeah, the map here shows we’ve got a whole ‘nother room yet.”

Oh goody.

But I promptly told my leg cramps to shut up once we got there.

Organ room (and brewery room? Drum room? Steam boat engine room?) from Fangirlquest.com

This is, by far, my favoritist place at The House on the Rock.

See? Drums! Oodles of them! (from weburbanist.com)
And organs! Chords of them! (from weburbanist.com)
The one shot of mine that turned out in this room.
Gah, too dark!

Pillars–no, trees of drums and lights with delicate, narrow stairwells that wound and wound like vines. It was an other-worldly realm, a land of machine and music bathed in softly lit scarlet. It was a sort of room where you knew, you knew, magic awakens when the right song is played.

But alas, we had to move on. There was but one more pathway to the exit out, a pathway that went around the top of the carousel…

…and there they were.

Ladies and Gentlement, may I introduce Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War. (from staticflickr.com)

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah that walkway is so close to these guys Bo could literally reach out and touched Death–

–not that he does, thank goodness.

At last, we find ourselves back by the Japanese Garden and the exit from this one-of-a-kind place.

Outside courtyard, from tripadvisor.com

If Life’s Road ever brings you into Wisconsin, you must find a detour, any kind of detour to bring you to this place. It’s a day you’ll not soon forget, I promise you.

Want more information on this peculiar place? Check out the book The House on the Rock by Alex Jordan.

Fangirl Quest and Web Urbanist have amazing photo collections on The House on the Rock I only partly pillaged for this post. Check them out!

I think every land’s got to have a place like this–not something like The House on the Rock per say, but that unique oddity, that portal where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are frayed, and you can feel magic hum in the air you breathe. What would you say is your land’s portal to an Other-Where? Let’s chat in the comments below!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

The House on the Rock isn’t the only place to inspire a story. I utilized a bit of history from the Mississippi River Valley to help me write my upcoming release, the novella Night’s Tooth. You can read about it here, and pre-order it for just 99 cents here! The novella officially launches next Thursday the 29th, when I share my study of Charlaine Harris’ own fantasy western, An Easy Death. Don’t miss it!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Night’s Tooth is up for #preorder. Add some #indie #fantasy #western #adventure to your #summerreading today!

Good morning, you wonderful folks, you! (Or afternoon. It’s coffee time, no matter where you are. xxxxx)

Sorry for the quick informal post, but I just got my approval for pre-order and can’t wait until next week to share it with you.

I picked the official launch day for Thursday, August 29th. We’ll still do our weird Wisconsin tour and study of Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death, never fear. 🙂 In the meantime, please spread the word to kith and kin my latest tale’s just 99 cents and will be available in two weeks!

Oh, and before my kids’ latest skirmish over Lego spills into my work space, let me say that if you’d like to contribute some early reviews for this story, please let me know, for that would be awesome. 🙂

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#writing #music: #western #soundtracks by #composers @jayandmolly, @carterburwell, @MEnnioMorricone, #HarryGregsonWilliams, #JamesHorner, #ElmerBernstein, and #LeonardCohen

Once upon a time in the Midwest, a teacher told his 6th grade class to pipe down and watch something for social studies time.

Yay, a movie! we all think.

Only it wasn’t a movie at all. It was the Civil War miniseries by Ken Burns.

Now like many preteens, I was initially ecstatic to have something on a television screen during the school day. But also like many preteens, I was not what one would call appreciative of this thorough analysis of the Civil War. In fact, to keep myself from falling asleep, I’d count how many times “Ashokan Farewell” would play. (I distinctly remember reaching seven times in one episode.)

This was, you could say, my introduction to western period music.

To be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate Jay Ungar in any fashion. This is a beautiful string piece full of love and mourning. At one point I even learned how to play it on the violin. But in the early 90s I was a bratty kid who didn’t care and just wanted the stupid show to be over so we could get some lunch.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my mother enjoyed watching all sorts of older movies, including westerns. Yule Brenner, John Wayne, Gary Cooper–oh, they were a treat for Mom to see. Me? I had as much patience for cowboys and prairie women as I had for robots with plungers for arms.

(Gosh, I was a bratty kid, wasn’t I?)

Yet even my bratty self could never deny the epic score of those old-school westerns. Elmer Bernstein lassos you in with those opening staccato trills, brass galloping on as percussion rushes underfoot, strings sweeping across the open skies over this land of boundless possibility.

Fast-forward a decade or two, and my movie fanatic husband Bo is educating me on all sorts of cinema wonders. One viewing of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and I was hooked on the spaghetti western. I mean, that final showdown with the guitar, the trumpet, choir, bells, the literal hanging on the edge of the seat as the men’s eyes flash and fingers twitch and MY GOD WHO’S GOING TO DIE, WHOOOO?!?!

I’ve already gushed quite a bit about Ennio Morricone as well as where I spot his influence in recent soundtracks. Il Maestro is a storyteller with sound, make no mistake. His orchestras can speak for characters, tension, and setting without any help from a screen. Once Upon a Time in the West is a powerful example of this. Here the guitar strings hum with impending danger, the repeating triplet by other strings a feeling time’s relentless press onward into certain death. The dissonant harmonica not only speaks for one of the protagonists, but plays an intrinsic role in the story itself.

The guitar does seem to be one of the voices of the Wild West, isn’t it? Even in westerns with a genre twist to them, the guitar sings for the defiant free spirit of our lone hero. I love Harry Gregson-Williams’ use of the guitar to introduce us to a man without a past or name–just a wrist laser he uses to shoot down alien spacecraft.

Some epic tales of guts and determination inspire us so deeply that Hollywood’s keen to retell these stories as many times as consumer wallets will allow. A composer, however, doesn’t have to repeat what’s come before. Take James Horner–he died while developing his score for the remake of The Magnificent Seven. Thankfully, Horner’s friend Simon Franglen finished what Horner started, and we’re given a beautiful mix of indigenous and traditional instruments with a touch of a choir to take listeners back through the mists of time to find themselves cut off from civilization, lost to the raw landscape where power is brutal, and heroes the thing of dreams.

Not all stories are epic, however. Sometimes stories are just about a man and a woman trying to figure out life in a bitter, harsh land. Leonard Cohen’s music that speaks to this in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Not gonna lie–this is not an uplifting film, nor does Cohen’s music lighten its weight. His songs inspire hope for a connection, however brief, before the return of isolation and loneliness.

And then there are those rare, rare moments where Writer and Bratty Kid come together, where the frayed edges of past and present bind and wrap round the soul, warm and loving.

That moment came for me with the remake of True Grit.

Carter Burwell took “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a hymn I’ve known since childhood, and unraveled it, carefully threading its elements into various moments of his score. From beginning to end, this hymn never quite leaves the characters or the land…or us.

Thank you for joining me on this sojourn through the music of magnificent grit seen only once upon a time. If you feel another score is worth mentioning, please let me know! Maybe I can squeeze it in before the release of my novella later this month.

Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.

Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.

It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…

Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Bo and I visited one of the strangest–or should I say, “most creative”–places in Wisconsin. I’m keen to share my photos! (Well, and what photos I can find on the Internet that aren’t blurry.) Plus, there’s a world-building study of another western-fantasy, the official launch of my novella, some more author interviews, fun with kids, and more!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#AuthorInterview: #SFF #writer #AdrianTchaikovsky discusses #writing #openinglines, #worldbuilding, and other bits of the #writinglife. Thanks, @aptshadow!

Happy Thursday, everyone! While Biff, Bash, and Blondie go after each other–and occasionally me–with squirt guns, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Adrian Tchaikovsky. He’s penned over two dozen books, including the Shadows of the Apt series and Children of Time, winner of the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

In short, Tchaikovsky is an amazing creative soul that we should all get to know a bit better. 🙂 How would you describe what you do, Sir?

So basically I mostly write books about spiders. Also dogs, AI, shapechangers, insect-people and anything else that lets me get out of a human skull. There’s not much more to me than that, in all honesty.

Considering the depth and breadth of your work, your imagination must have been nurtured with rich inspiration from little on. Are there any folks or favorite authors from your childhood that helped spark your passion for storytelling?

Absolutely – my great storytelling guru from teenage onwards was Diane Wynne Jones.

(Insert girly squeal here) I’m a huge fan, too! Her life is such an inspiration, not to mention her use of classic literature to help create new timeless stories and her knack for building complete characters we readers want to cheer for time and again.

Oh yes, she vastly expanded my frame of reference as to what you can do with a story, how you can play with reader expectations, that sort of thing. The Homeward Bounders and Power of Three, especially. Jones pulls a number of switches on the reader in Power of Three, with regard to precisely what the setting is, who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, all that, which really opened my eyes. Before that, as well as cutting my teeth on Dr Who novelisations, I loved Tove Jansson, because she built such a wonderful world with her stories.

My home state of Wisconsin is a curious patchwork of farms and wild places. I love exploring this landscape in my mind, creating stories to give shapes to the shadows hiding just out of sight. Would you say the landscape around you inspires your writing, or has been utilized in some way to help build a story’s setting? That swamp you describe at the beginning of Guns of the Dawn feels like this horrible place I knew near my summer camp… 

So… actually no. I don’t tend to relate much to places I’ve been, per se. No more than places I’ve read about or seen pictures of. It all just feeds into the general melting pot in my head that I draw new creations from. I’ve never been in a swamp like that, but I seem to be able to imagine these places and put them on a page well enough to make them real to my readers.

All the more impressive, then, Sir, that you can stimulate the reader’s imagine to build such a real place known only in your own mind!

Now, let’s stick with Guns of the Dawn just a touch longer because it has an amaaaazing opener: 

I killed my first man today…

The air was hot,muggy with moisture, filled with flies. Emily had not known hot before she came to these swamps. Hot had once been pleasant summer days with the corn ripening gold in the fields. Hot had been the good sun and the rich earth, and the labourers scaring crows or bringing a harvest in; a picnic on the Wolds, with a blue, blue sky cloudless above. Hot was a fierce fire burning in the study when the world outside was chill. There must be another word for this all-encompassing heat.

I’ve already told my husband I’m treating myself to this book after I complete my pedagogical training this summer. 

Anyway.

So after a first line that provides the point of view, time, and controversial action, you launch us into a paragraph filled with extremely vivid sensory details further enriched by memories of the past. Thanks to these memories, readers get the impression of a narrator who cares more about the quiet life in the farm land–a stark contrast to one who’s said she’s killed a man. You strike a delicate balance of grounding readers in the present moment of the story while also flashing back into the narrator’s past and how the world once was. Can you describe your process of finding this balance? 

This is going to sound very zen, which frankly I am not in any way, but there is a big subconscious element to that level of my writing. I was never formally taught about writing technique, I just read a whole hell of a lot, and then I wrote a whole hell of a lot, and my writing got better with each book I tried. Although there is a definite conscious input, and as I’ve got better I’ve become more aware of things I can do deliberately to create an effect, a great deal of it just comes out of the way the words spill onto the page in their raw form.

Well paint me green with storytellin’ envy, Sir, because your opening lines are as consistently effective as those created by Diana Wynne Jones. A wee survey of your stories uncovers hooks both big and small.

From The Children of Time:

There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility—rotation meant that ‘outside’ was always ‘down’, underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.

From this paragraph we learn the story’s location, the time frame, and the narrator’s love of this created home. We are also left asking: “What happened to earth?” And we are driven to read on.

From The Expert System’s Brother:

It went wrong for me when they made Sethr an outcast.

From this sentence we learn the story’s point of view, that there is some powerful “they” capable of ruining someone’s life, and because one person’s ruined, so is our narrator. We are also left asking: “Who is this mighty ‘they’? Why should Sethr’s fate mess up life for the narrator?” And we are driven to read on.

Writing compelling openers is surely one of the most important challenges any writer faces. Do you have any advice for writers who struggle crafting their hook?

I am going to raise a hand and say that good lord I’ve had books where the opener has been a problem, and it is super important. Often it’s a matter of where in the story you start – easy to start things too soon and have too much lead-in. And there’s a huge pressure to start with everything on fire, meaning that certain types of storytelling are virtually extinct in the genre right about now. Sometimes I’d like to feel people would just amble with me a bit at the start…

I love the idea of ambling…and with over thirty titles to your name, there’s lots of ambling to do! Some of your titles are stand-alones, like The Expert System’s Brother; some are in trilogies, such as Echoes of the Fall; and then you have your TEN-book series Shadows of the Apt. I tip my hat to you for building worlds unique and complete time, and time, and time again, just like Jones. What thrills you about building a new world? How do you avoid the temptation of re-using elements? No writer wants readers to get déjà vu and think they’re just reading the same story over again.

Building worlds *is* the thing that thrills me, and I have a whole host of ideas yet to come. So far repeating worlds hasn’t been the issue (outside of sequels obviously). I’m more worried about repeating themes, because obviously there are certain things you come back to, each writer to their own, and there’s a real danger that you end up telling the same snippets of story over and over if you don’t remember to give them a different spin.

Another common problem for many writers–as well as movie-makers, I’d say–is crafting an action sequence that moves quickly and fiercely without confusing readers as to what’s going on. I know this was one of the toughest elements to hammer out in my own novel, which contains battles involving several key players duking it out all over the place. Your novels contain intense action on both an epic scale as well as an intimate one. How do you keep the language quick-footed without losing readers along the way?

Action sequences are very much an art of their own. Having a good grasp of the shape of the sequence is important I think – I plan a great deal anyway, and action sequences get thought through in the same way. A chase or a fight has a mini-narrative of its own, including opportunities to bring out character, to foreshadow, and to have their own emotional beats. A particularly big action scene can almost be a book in miniature.

How true!

Another resource that’s always helped me write action scenes as well as stay focused on the feeling of any given moment is music. For every author that tells me he/she loves having music to help set the mood for writing a scene, I hear from another author that he/she needs silence in order to write. Which camp do you call home and why?

I tend to listen to music when I write and have a series of playlists for different moods, to help me focus and blot out distraction. I generally listen to instrumental music from film soundtracks, computer games, and music written specifically for trailers (a good source of consistently hammery action music), Some composers you might not know who have some interesting stuff include Kyle Gabler, Lorne Balfe, and Bear McCreary.

(Gasps) GODZILLA?! Hell to the yes! Sign me up for some new composers to study later this year!

One reason I depend so heavily on music is because it helped me write when my children were small and at home all day. Now that my kids are old enough to attend school, I can usually find an hour of peace to write. Still, it’s extremely tough some days to balance parenthood and writer…hood. Authorhood. You get me. Do you have any tips for balancing writing and parenting?

Honestly my son’s 11 now so he’s more self-sufficient. I write in the mornings and very late evenings, though, which is a convenient way of working around family commitments.

Lastly, let’s talk about the ever dreaded Kryptonite. Writing Kryptonite, to be precise. There’s always something that can sap all creative power away in a heartbeat. For me, it’s a phone call from my sons’ school principal. It takes a good long while of watching my sons lose themselves in their own adventures with droids, transformers, and wild animals before my own creativity sparks back to life. What would you call your Writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?

Arguments with my son will do it, but as a sort of contributor to a general cycle of depressive ups and downs that are quite capable of just doing their own thing with me, without any actual outside stimulus. Writing is a big drive for me, though. If I’m not writing, it has a serious negative effect on my mental state all its own. So although a downswing can make it hard to get going, once I’m actually writing I can generally retreat into it from my problems.

I know just what you mean, Sir. Do I ever know just what you mean.

My deepest thanks again to Adrian Tchaikovsky for taking the time to talk to us today! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and his website, too.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We’re going to meander through some gorgeous western scores in anticipation of my upcoming Night’s Tooth.

Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.

Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.

It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…

Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.

Did you miss my August newsletter? Here it is!

We’ll also do some adventuring about Wisconsin and do a wee worldbuilding study of a recent western fantasy, Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death. More author interviews are on the way, too. I hope you’ll join me!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

The Tale of the Prophets’ Massacre: An Excerpt from Night’s Tooth, Coming Late August 2019

Happy August, everyone! To celebrate my upcoming novella’s release, I’d love to share a taste of it here with you. I’ve selected a moment inspired by the journal of one of La Crosse’s founders, Nathan Myrick. Here’s the original excerpt:

“In October of that year [1844] quite a colony of Mormons came up from Nauvoo [Illinois] and landed at La Crosse…. They built twenty-five or thirty log houses and made themselves quite comfortable….The pay was drawn by the elders in provisions to support the families of the settlement. Just as the river opened in the spring [1845], the men all came down from Black River, and the men stopped cutting…. News got out they were all going to leave. I went down to the settlement to see the elders and adjust matters…. That night they set fire to most of their houses and embarked in their flat-boats, and left by the light of their burning houses for Nauvoo.”

Naythan Myrick, A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin 1841-1900

This moment of Mormons fleeing in the midst of fire and smoke got my wheels turning, and I decided to put that moment to use in this moment of altered history. Enjoy!

~*~

Well.

No one’s going to say the Bent Nail don’t live up to the title.

After all the straight streets and prim houses, Sumac finds the uneven floorboards and slap on the walls a welcome sight. Hazy smoke from the potbelly stove near the bar table on one side of the room mingles with the smells of cheap brews, raw meat, and human sweat. It’s enough to make even the biggest hunters like Sumac dizzy. He braces himself in the doorway for a moment to let his senses adjust.

Talk pauses.

Half a dozen human men—railyard foremen, like as not—huddle together at one end of the bar, waggling their mustaches over the rims of their glasses, showering the bar with whiskey. The bar dog gawks at Sumac from amongst the wood-carved mermaids and glass bottles, his hand in some mechanized motion of wiping the bar table with a stained apron. Cold from outside snaps like so many ghost-jaws at the lantern flames at the far back marking the stairs to the second floor. A few strumpets lounge on those stairs for easy selling. Who wants to sleep in a cold bed?

The wall opposite the bar’s got a crooked stone fireplace surrounded by crooked benches like as not built from ties the railroad deemed unworthy of its locomotives. Two worthless barrel boarders, one young and one old, lay on those benches with their hats over their eyes, sleeping.

Sumac sniffs the room with superior disgust. Yes indeed, a slum like this is where all humanity belonged.

Not those golden boys, though. They sit at a table in the middle of the saloon with their cards and cigars like they own the place. Sheriff Jensen was right: they’re all too pretty to be trusted, what with their clean leather coats and matching haircuts. Any real hunter’s going to have a scar or three, a coat stained by seasons and life, boots caked with dirt and blood. This pack’s all preened for some sort of show.

The golden boys give Sumac the once-over with their violet eyes. Something shimmers on one—the gold earring of the pack leader. He bares his teeth and says, “What are you looking at?”

Territorial, that one.

Sumac shrugs and saunters over to the bar table. “Beer.” He listens as the golden boys return to their game, yip and snap over their cards.

The bar dog sets the glass down. “Visiting kin?” The words croak like they don’t want to come out. It’s a man’s face in front of Sumac, but inside’s a boy never quite grown up.

Kin.

Damn violet eyes. Sumac can’t help it if most of his sort has’em. “Nope,” he says, and takes a long, slow drink.

Crescents of sweat emerge beneath the bar dog’s armpits. “Must’ve been traveling, then, your pa.”

Sumac peers over the rim of his glass.

“Twenty-five years, or thereabouts?” The bar dog scratches the side of his neck. A scar’s there, jagged and angry: a bullet’s scar. “You’re the spittin’ image of’im.”

Sumac sets his glass down. He takes out a few Confederate buttons and the old apple peeler one of Mick’s bastards tried wielding for a weapon. “Sure,” he says, and looks at the human. Hard.

A faint smell of urine stings the air between them. It leaves the moment that fool bar dog moseys down to the foremen at the other end of the bar. One asks if he’s okay.

“Just caught myself rememberin’ somethin’ nasty, is all,” says the bar dog. “The Prophets’ Massacre.”

By the sounds of the card game the golden boys have paused a hand to hear the tale.

Sumac? He don’t look up. He just goes right on whittling the shanks of the Confederate buttons, biding his time while the bar dog speaks…

“The Mormons were here then, just a short while, back in ’44, but you don’t hear tell of the other ones who came along. Called themselves Stags of the Prophet, led by some holy man who promised all these crazy things, showed off this magic trick of turnin’ himself into a deer.”

An old strumpet laughs. “My pappy didn’t get scooped in to that. He saw the stag they used all chained up in a tent.”

“Chained up nuthin’!” The old barrel boarder coughs himself upright, words slurring. Drunk or tired or both, he spits into the fire and goes on, “I saw those crazy fools. Devil men, they were, pullin’ gold out of trees and wine from the flowers. And that holy man did change. I was there.”

The strumpets all cackle, the foremen banging their glasses for more.

But the golden boys? Silent. The young barrel boarder? Snoring.

Sumac? He’s checking his handiwork on that shank. Good and sharp. A handful of tacks can be mighty useful in a chase, especially when the runner’s got paws.

The bar dog’s wiping the table again like the memory’s spilling all over, staining it. “Mormons don’t much care for the Stags’ magic show, especially when the women folk get all interested.” He pauses, shudders. “Thought all of Prairie La Crosse’d burn that day. The whole land went wild in their fight, guns and fire beneath the full moon, people screamin’ like animals, animals screamin’ like people, cougars and wolves and bears all just, just crazed for hell’s blood…” He stops wiping the table.

Sumac knows the human’s fixed on him now.

“Then out of the burning tents I see your pa, walkin’ like there ain’t no fire or hell-screamin’, goin’ straight for the Stags’ holy man—holy deer, whatever he really was, but in that moment he was a buck, thirty points easy, and sure he weren’t a stupid buck, Gabby, because he charged right for that fella’s pa. And that man grabbed the buck like he weren’t nuthin’, and dragged him by the antlers into the smoke and embers at the edge of town. I heard gruntin’ and cryin’ for a time…and then it went quiet. The Stags fled, and the Mormons, they hopped their scows and took off down the river while we put out their damn fires.”

Well. Sumac never knew he could leave such a memorable impression on a young human like that.

Thoughts, comments? I’d love to hear’em! Night’s Tooth, a new Tale of the River Vine set in my Fallen Princeborn universe, will be available later this month as an e-book. I hope you’ll check it out!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

For the love of #westerns: one #indieauthor #writes her #fantasy world into a #timeless #genre.

Once Upon a Time in the West

I wish I could tell you just when it started, this love for the western. It should have been decades ago, when my brothers and I watched our old recorded VHS on the making of Star Wars yet again while Mom just wanted to sit and watch John Wayne in a classic like Stagecoach or The Searchers. But I had no patience for the kind of western where women clutch their aprons while Native Americans gallop by with villainous intentions and only John Wayne with his swaggering cadence can talk a coward into being a brave man just long enough to shoot the savage and save this little refuge of civilization.

Oh no. Iiiii had to sit and watch a rogue with a laser gun help out wizened old man and a snot-nosed kid who thinks he’s smart in the saddle hold out from attacks by corrupt powers….heeey…sounds, um…

Sounds kinda like a western. (More on that later.)

But aren’t westerns just glorified propaganda for western civilization uprooting native cultures? Don’t all their shoot-outs result in a lot of powder in the air, women swooning, and men clutching their chests going, “Aaaurgh!”?

Hardly.

Countless storytellers–be they writers, filmmakers, or game developers–refuse to leave the Wild West alone. Type “western” into the books’ search engine on Amazon, and thousands of results pop up. Western films have been regularly produced for audiences since 1903. That’s over a century’s worth of western storytelling produced by the United States; the number skyrockets when you look around the globe. And just last year, the best-selling video game was, of all things, a western.

What is it about this period spanning thirty years (or sixty, depending on whom you ask) that draws us back again and again?

I can’t speak for others, but dammit, I’ll speak for me.

A Hero uncivilized and unrestrained.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the antihero, and how this individual for good or ill lives by his own code to meet his own ends. In the western this character certainly exists, but there are plenty of heroes, too, who are out to right a wrong and carry out some justice…only, their means ain’t exactly pretty (see High Plains Drifter for the ugliest justice there is). Plus, these folks are by no means super-heroes or ramped up by crazy technology (unless, of course, you’re in Wild Wild West).

The hero–or antihero–of the western is often one of minimal means caught up in a conflict where the other side has more bullets, more men, more high ground. Jack Shaefer, a writer of westerns, elaborates on this point:

The western story, in its most usual forms, represents the American version of the ever appealing oldest of man’s legends about himself, that of the sun-god hero, the all-conquering valiant who strides through dangers undaunted, righting wrongs, defeating villains, rescuing the fair and the weak and the helpless — and the western story does this in terms of the common man, in simple symbols close to natural experience . . . depicting ordinary everyday men, not armored knights or plumed fancy-sword gentlemen, the products of aristocratic systems, but ordinary men who might be you and me or our next-door neighbors gone a-pioneering, doing with shovel or axe or gun in hand their feats of courage and hardihood. 

quoted in Jeremy Anderberg’s “21 Western Novels Every Man Should Read”

This is why I love Clint Eastwood in so many of his westerns. He’s shot, beaten, left to die in the desert, and God knows what else. We see him lose as much blood as he draws. He, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jeff Bridges, and loads others show their struggle for a better self in a world that rewards the greedy and vicious. The price to be paid when doing the right thing can be pretty damn high, and the heroes are willing to sacrifice it all, including their own goodness, to pay it.

The Magnificent Seven

Which brings me to my next point. (And to one of the happiness quotes I was challenged by the lovely Lady Shey to hunt down and share.)

“I was happy in the midst of dangers and inconveniences.”

– Daniel Boone

Action! Bang bang, punch kick kapow, boom blam CRASH!

In case you didn’t know from other posts, I’m something of an action junkie. (The fact that 1987’s Predator is another one of my all-time favorite movies should tell you a lot about me.) Westerns promise action. There may be tons of gun fights, or only a few. There may be a total blood bath such as in Django Unchained, or a drawn….out….showdown…years…in…the making….

That’s part of the western’s beauty. The climax can be a chess game of men, where pawns are removed one by one until all that remains are the kings of the board…and, perhaps, a rook. We have to watch their necks sweat, fingers twitch, eyes narrow, and wait, wait, wait for the moment where Hell will break loose–

Or, bullets fly and characters die in epic battle fashion, such as in The Magnificent Seven; we’re not sure who will survive the climactic battle, and because we know these heroes experience the broken bone and spirit of mortality, we cannot be certain any of them will make it at all.

(Unless, of course, you’re the townspeople of Blazing Saddles’ Rock Ridge, who all wind up breaking onto the set of another film and then the studio’s commissary for a huge food fight.)

Speaking of settings…

*

*

*

A landscape beautiful, terrifying, and untameable.

Western civilization may have crossed into the territories, but it is by no means in control of the land.

True Grit

Communities are rarely large, and their ties with “proper” society–towns and cities east of the Mississippi–are tenuous at best. The first transcontinental railroad wasn’t completed until 1869, the first transcontinental telegraph only a few years before that. If someone travels west, they travel a lonely road, or a railroad often unguarded. They enter territories that never belonged to them, and yet are determined to keep them.

Pale Rider

La Crosse was such a place, once upon a time.

I figured this riverside town would be the perfect place to set my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth. Wisconsin earned its statehood in the 1840s, sure, but it’s not like all of it was paved with pristine society by the end of the Civil War, right?

Well…the first settlers established the community of La Crosse in the 1840s a few years before that statehood, so yeah, Wisconsin still had a bit of wildness to it as far as governance goes, but by the end of the Civil War the log cabins had been replaced by a full-on city with one of the country’s first swing bridges for the Southern Minnesota Railroad.

La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1867

No longer did rail cars have to be ferried across the great river to journey west. The White Man had brought his roads and buildings and built them all square and orderly to the Mississippi River Valley. Man had conquered Nature.

As far as Wisconsin was concerned, the Wild of its West was lost.

I can’t write a story where the West ISN’T Wild!!!

The idea of La Crosse being so damned orderly and efficient at growing really galled me. It galled me so much I figured my main character, a bounty hunter named Sumac, would be galled too, and call it a damn shame.

Then it hit me.

Use the city’s history in the story. Show how this final bastion of “civilization” before the territories had its own moments of dark dealings. Perhaps, if I am very careful, sew some patches of magic goings-on onto time’s quilt of history, and in their threads tell a new tale of hunters who hide among us…

Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.

Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.

It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…

Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.

~*~

Intrigued? I sure hope so! 🙂 I’ll be posting an excerpt from the story in this month’s Exclusive Free Fiction from the Wilds. Once I’m done mucking through the formatting business, I’ll publish Night’s Tooth as an e-book and set its price for 99 cents. If all goes well with children and teaching, Night’s Tooth will be available near the end of this month.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite westerns in the comments below! You may also enjoy watching Cinefix’s very interesting breakdown of favorite westerns from across the decades, including the changes of tone and theme created by different directors in countries. (If you’re wondering when Star Wars was supposed to come up again in this post, watch the video.)

~Stay Tuned Next Week~

I’m super-stoked about next week’s interview! He’s a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a fellow fan of Diana Wynne Jones. After that we’ll study a new and unique Wild West set in an alternate America, then take a tour through some amazing composers for westerns before finally (fingers crossed and turning thrice widdershins) launching Night’s Tooth into the publishing wild!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!