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. 🙂
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  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 , 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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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’
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.”
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
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 Princebornuniverse, will be available later this month as an e-book. I hope you’ll check it out!
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!”?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!
As autumn closes with a celebration of gratitude, I’d like to say thank you, fellow readers and creators, for giving my stories so much love. This weekend I found that FOUR of my six Tales of the River Vinehit the top ten in free YA monster fiction ebooks on Amazon, and they’ve stayed there.
I’m floored, humbled, and thrilled all at once. To have stories that engage so many people…it’s as beautiful as the first snowfall of the year. I can never say “Thank You” enough!
2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the
publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River
Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in fresh
~A wee excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Stolen to whet your appetite~
Arlen sits in the other armchair, opposite Charlotte, and sips his tea slowly, all the mischievous sparkle gone. When he fixes upon Charlotte again, her stomach hardens: he bears the same expression as Dad’s partner did when he came to the door ten years ago. “We are not speaking simply of fairies and folk tales. We are speaking of that about which man no longer knows anything at all. Ancient, real, and powerful.”
Dorjan’s eyes drift toward the fire as he sucks the last of the jam off his fingers.
Charlotte spins her finger to spool the air. “Whatever. Just tell me what I need to know so I can get my sister out alive.”
“That is my point, Miss Charlotte. I doubt your sister lived past dawn.”
Need a little music while you read? I got you covered! I wrote about some of the composers and soundtracks that helped me with various points of the narrative of Stolen. Do check out their work for reading, writing, living.
While I wrangle kiddos and candy sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner with my family, please be sure to leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads! Every review, and I mean EVERY review, helps a writer become more visible on the virtual bookshelf.
My ineptitude in the kitchen is legendary. I’ve started no less than three fires in my oven. I’ve burned food to the bottom of pots so badly we had to throw the pots out. Even the most basic of cookbooks goes all twisty-turny in my brain so that I switch ingredients, switch steps around, mix up cooking times, etc.
But field research isn’t about doing what’s easy, or doing what we already know well. It’s time to step outside those comfort zones and experience something new, dammit!
Now granted, there’s only so much one can spend in the name of field research. It’s not like my family’s budget allowed for me to take a hot air balloon ride solely for “experience” to write “No More Pretty Rooms.”I simply drew on the experience of parasailing with an improperly buckled harness. Puh-lenty of excitement and terror in that memory from the teen years.
So to begin this adventure into canning, I get some books from the library with emphasis on making small batches with natural ingredients.
(Yes, I was won over by Marisa McClellan’sinclusion of many pictures so I had a clue what the finished product should look like.)
I poured through the recipes with focus on canned fruit. Something with a realistic fruit for Wisconsin, and with minimal ingredients to befit an impoverished pantry in the wilderness. (That, and fewer ingredients means a smaller dent on the food budget.) Gimme something with five ingredients or less, you books!
Look at that: four ingredients. Peaches are…okay, they’re a bit of a stretch, but doable, as peaches supposedly came to the American colonies in the 1600s. Since Wisconsin became a state in the 1840s, it’s reasonable to expect peaches are in the state by the early 1900s, which is when “Preserved” takes place. The only other items I need are a lemon, some sugar, and bourbon.
Welp, the kids weren’t gonna touch the stuff anyway.
That be a lot of peaches.
Okay. I gotta just hack them up to get the pits out, boil the jars, boil the fruit and then plunge them into ice, skin them, cook sugar water, pack peaches, pour some cooked sugar on them, add the bourbon, then cook the lot. Sounds straightforward enough.
So, first: a pot and a round cooling rack.
You know, the round cooling rack YOU DON’T HAVE.
NO! I WILL do this! I just need to utilize that beloved resource most assuredly available one hundred years ago: The Internet.
Aha! I can build one of my own with aluminum foil! That’s…not entirely appropriate, but at this point, I don’t care. I didn’t buy 6 pounds of peaches for nuthin’. I need the sensory experience of canning, not the…you know, technical whozamawtzits.
With foil grid thingey in place, I can start boiling the jars. I’m only making four pints’ worth, so I can get these jars done in one go.
Eeeeexcept they don’t fit in our pot.
Well…whatever, I gotta slice the peaches up.
“Eeeew, peach brains!” says Bash, all too eager to poke’em around. Blondie makes puking noises. “I’m never eating peaches again.” Biff just shoves a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth and continues reading his Calvin and Hobbes,devoid of interest.
“Scoot you, Mommy’s workin’.” I go over the book’s directions again to see what else I can do while the jars are heated. Hmm, I gotta simmer the lids, okay, and then cook sugar water into syrup, and boil the peaches for one minute at a time to be tossed into the ice-water for peeling.
Well I can’t wait to see you swing that, Jean, since you only have TWO WORKING BURNERS on that stove.
Bo comes in from work to find the kids munching supper and me staring at the stove, utterly flummoxed. “Well?”
“This is going to be an epic failure,” I say, and lob another peanut butter sandwich over the kitchen counter to Biff. “We don’t have a stock pot or the right cooling rack. And we don’t have four burners.” I tip a tablespoon’s worth of hot water from our electric kettle onto a small bowl with the lids.
“Waaaaaaaaaait, wait wait.” Bo puts his lunch cooler down and looks at the directions. “You did read this before you got started, right?”
“Yes!” I’m all indignant about it, but how well did I read it, really? I was so fixed on finding a recipe with minimal ingredients, let alone fixed on canning in general, that I didn’t once stop to study the logistics of it all. I just assumed one needed a pot, some, jars, and some fruit. Wasn’t that how it used to be?
If field research is to be helpful, we can’t treat it as some slipshod affair. One can’t try ice fishing without the right gear. One can’t learn to sew without certain materials. So one sure as hell ain’t gonna can fruit unless she’s got some basic tools like four working burners on a stove. Had I bothered studying the recipe’s logistics, I’d have seen the futility of this field research and saved myself a lot of time…not to mention six pounds of peaches.
“Honey. Schmoopie. Darling.” Bo takes me by the shoulders and kisses my forehead. “I love you. I love how smart and creative you are. You’re beautiful. You’re amazing. You’re not afraid to try new things outside your comfort zone. But with all that research and prep, you’ve been foiled by boiling water?” He turns off the burners, pulls down the Halloween Oreo cookies for the kids.
“No. I’ve been foiled by that flippity flappin’ stove.” I harrumph and try to peel the peach skins, despite the peaches not even being ripe enough for this exercise, or cooked long enough, or cooled long enough.
Of course, it doesn’t work.
Hmm. Maybe I can utilize my frustration into the narrator. Maybe he doesn’t get the canning done the way he normally does because he’s being distracted by taunts over transformers and peach brains and grilled cheese and…maybe not that last part, but still, there’s an emotional bit of field research done here.
And a wise lesson learned, too:
GET A NEW STOVE.
No, no…well yes, there’s that.
Always have a chest freezer in case you end up with two baking trays filled with peaches that will hopefully keep for a winter’s worth of peach cobbler.
Yes, okay, I GET IT. My point, patient writers and readers both, is this: never let ambition lure you into the field before your creativity–and your common sense–are ready.
October is almost here! That means a new installment of my monthly newsletter will be hitting your inboxes on the 1st. I like giving kudos to kindred creative spirits in my newsletter, as well as sharing updates about my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus and other writing endeavors. If you haven’t subscribed yet you can do sohere.
We only want to check out what’s behind this one corner before we continue on our way. Peek into this one strange window and then go back to our business. Stick our heads into this one rabbit hole, then move on with our lives.
But now with Aionios BooksI’ve found the rabbit hole and tumbled back into Wisconsin’s secret places. The more my editor Gerri and I dig into the world-building of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, the more I find myself going over the old notebooks and sketches. Then “Normal’s Menace,”the short story popped up–Oh yeah, my point of view experiment from last year…I sent it to Gerri for fun because it featured my pastry-obsessed crusader for children, a wolfish fellow named Dorjan. Gerri enjoyed it so much she suggested writing a series of short stories on the various characters involved in the River Vine world.
While I hadn’t been planning to spend time running around and away from the series’ narrative arc, I gotta admit–it’s been really fun. As I learned when experimenting with point of view, short fiction is all about the powerful, passionate moments. All the world-building, the character development, conflict and such–none of it can afford to be a slow burn, because moments don’t burn slow in short fiction. Anger, regret, desire, fear, defiance–when these feelings ignite within us, they burn our spirits until we crumble into ash, or forge us into something new.
These are the moments I now hunt for on the fringe of River Vine. They appear in the not-quite-common places: breaking up with a girlfriend…who is capable of eating you. Disagreeing with a boss…who promises to burn your legs off. Telling off a stranger…who somehow knows your nasty secrets.
Enter “The Boy Who Carried A Forest in His Pocket,” the first short story in Tales of the River Vine.
My sons love to pick up tree seeds and bring them home. Biff is very methodical about it, fixating upon the number of seeds he can stuff into his pocket, while Bash is already growing them in his mind. “What if they make trees in my pocket?” he asks as he skips along at my side. “Then my bed can be in a tree, and my comfies can sleep in trees, too!”
From this, my first short story grew.
“Just.” Jamie tosses his glasses onto the grass. “One.” He blinks, and suddenly Buddy sees nothing but light, beautiful, soft, warm, violet light, like he can sleep in a bed of violets, like he’s clothed in the royal robes of Jerusalem. “Trick.”
“Just. One. Trick,” Buddy echoes. He is very tired. Sugar crash, a voice in his mind says, and he believes it.
“The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket”
Each of the six short stories in Tales of the River Vine will be free to download as they are released one at a time in the coming months on Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook.I’d love to hear your thoughts on these stories, too, so please be sure to read, review, and share.
2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in new editions.Stay tuned!