Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Is it true about page 69?

Marshal McLuhan maintains that if you like page 69 of a book you should buy the book. Here's your chance to test that theory. Page 69 of my Civil War ghost story/fantasy is featured today at Barb Taub's site.

I invite you to take a look! I would love your feedback.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Things I am thankful for this Thanksgiving

This is a day for reflection as well as feasting, and though it has been a somewhat frustrating year, I have much to be thankful for:

I am thankful to still be here. I do have Stage 4 cancer.

I am thankful the meds are working (for now, anyway), and though it means I will probably never have hair again, hey, it also means I'll never have to shave my legs again. Win!

I am thankful that even though one of the nastier side effects is numbness in my fingers, I can still type, though I spend a lot of time correcting fumbles. I would rather fumble than silence the words in my brain trying to get out, which have always been enabled by my fingers.

I am thankful for my family, without whom much of my life would be meaningless and simply not possible.

I am thankful for good friends and neighbors, who have shown me how to be a better person myself.

I am thankful for all the readers who have risked a few bucks on my books. Their reactions have brought me much pleasure.

And I am thankful for life, with all of its rich, varied, and often frustrating experiences. We don't learn much when everything goes well all the time.

Pay forward your blessings and don't dwell on your hurts, and have a wonderful, safe, healthy, and happy Thanksgiving!


(corrected 3 December to correct some exceptional weird formatting)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Here's to you, Jack

I have a ghost at my heels these days. It's big, white, furry, and its name is Jack. It haunts me every time I step out the back door, an invisible presence bounding out from under some tree, eagerly anticipating a long walk or a ride through the woods. It nudges me toward the dog food barrel at the barn...until I remember that ghosts don't eat. Even the neighbor's cat is lonesome, crying plaintively when I appear, because his big fuzzy living cat bed is no longer in its accustomed place.

Oh, Jack, I miss you, buddy.

I had to do the "kind" thing for my dog on Monday. He was 15, a giant mutt most probably a cross between a St. Bernard and a Great Pyrenees with who knows what else thrown in. He was a rescue whose original owner thought the solution to a litter of unwanted puppies was to toss the whole bunch out of a moving car. It permanently damaged Jack's hips, which got worse as he aged, until finally he could only hobble and it was painful to watch him trying to get up and down. Despite an appetite like a horse he was never fat, but of late...bed slats looked better. Even so, until this weekend he was still happy to see me, eager to try and go, indomitable in his enthusiasm for life. Sunday that changed. The spark had gone out of his eyes. The lift of his head, the tail wag, were acknowledgement, no more. Nice to see you, Mom. Sorry, can't get up. And I knew. He was telling me it was time. So, despite an increasingly rigid resistance on my part to yielding even one single day to Death, I bowed to the fact that he wasn't having fun anymore.

Misery should not be the default state of life.

Thus, the ghost at my heels, treading every well-worn path we walked together. He was a funny old dog, amusing and strange. He hated being in the house because it upset him to be confined, and he slept in snowbanks because he had so much hair. He could sleep through dynamite but one whiff of my scent on the wind brought him running (geez, Jack, do I really smell that bad?). He could never lift his leg to pee because of his hips, which must have frustrated him no end, but at least the tires on my truck were spared from being watered every day. He never entirely trusted anyone, even me, and his hearing was ever so selective. Call him, and he would most likely grin over his shoulder and slink farther out of reach. But stick to my heels? Oh, yes. Like glue.

This was the dog who spent years ambling along in the wake of my horse despite his limp, eagerly running to go with me whenever it looked remotely like I might be going for a walk or heading for the tack room. He drove me crazy barking at me when I sat on the back steps to put on my shoes, telling me to hurry up, hurry up already. This was the dog who was so amiable that ours was the neighborhood canine Kool-Aid house where all the mutts for a mile around came to socialize. This was also the dog who startled the stuffing out of me one day when the neighbor's pit bull got too aggressive and nipped at my coattails. Wow! Where did this Jack come from, the white knight charging down the hill to ram the pit bull, inserting himself forever thereafter between me and Diesel even though that pit eventually became my friend? Jack never forgave him. Ever.

And this was the dog who, when I had to be in the hospital and recuperating for a month without seeing him, all but crawled into my lap the first day he saw me and wouldn't get out. And, when I resumed short walks outside to try and recover my strength, he trotted ahead of me as usual--until he saw that I couldn't keep up. At which point he fell back beside me and very carefully matched his pace to mine, glued to my knee.

This from the dog who wouldn't let himself be touched. Only on his terms.

He romped into old age with his best bud, Shelly, the Rottweiler next door, the both of them so increasingly decrepit it was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters with canes and walkers. But they never lost their enthusiasm, smiling and bouncing (sort of) like puppies. He quit chasing cats when he figured out he could no longer keep up even a little bit, and became the tolerant older brother ignoring the tails brushed under his chin and the blob of warm gray fur curled up against his side. His criteria for barking at cars coming up the driveway was a mystery known only to him. As watchdog he was pretty much a bust--but all he had to do was saunter around the house into full view to put strangers back in their cars, fast. Like I said, he was big.

And now he's gone, and I miss him. Yes, this is the wake for my friend Jack. Goodbye, buddy. You'll be missed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Revisiting Verdun...and a few old memories

One of my very first published articles appeared 23 years ago today in Stars and Stripes. I had actually sold it several months before, but the U.S. was in the midst of Desert Storm at the time, and the publication did not want to put an article with so solemn a theme in front of a lot of readers anxious about loved ones off at war. So they held on to it, and published it especially for Veterans' Day. I am proud of the fact that they thought so highly of it, and reserved it for a day special to everyone in the armed forces.

Verdun, City of Crosses (you can read it here in its original form), is about my first visit to Verdun, France, site of one of the fiercest battles of World War I. In this 100th year after the start of that terrible conflict, it seems fitting to share it again. The battle began in February 1916 and lasted months, claiming in the end nearly a million casualties. It was sobering to walk around the battlefield with its slender trees sprouting from myriad shell craters, to tour the museum, and to see the ossuary with its 130,000 never-to-be-identified skeletons resting underneath. Creepy, mournful, sad... There really aren't words for such an accumulation of death.

Just a few weeks later, I got my own taste of what it must have been like to fight there. Being in the Army at the time, stationed in Germany, I was accustomed to the yearly qualification requirements for personal weapons. That year, my company got stuck going to the rifle range in March. Now, March in Germany is not that pleasant, and that day was no exception. It was cold, rainy, windy, and there was mud everywhere. Mud, the scourge of the WWI doughboy.

Lying there atop a poncho that crackled with ice and did absolutely nothing to shield my shivering little self from the effects of lying in oozing slime that felt like it had been imported from Antarctica, I got an infinitesimal taste of what trench life must have been like during the war to end all wars. There were no lice, no rats, no snipers, no endless artillery shells dropping at random all over the range, but that mud... For three or four hours we took turns lying out there shivering, attempting to hit targets that seemed to swim out of our sights of their own accord, taunting us to quit shaking long enough to at least hit the damned paper. For once shooting in a gas mask didn't bother me, because at least it blocked the wind around my ears for a few minutes. When we got up, we were soaked, muddy, stiff with cold, and thoroughly, abysmally miserable. And that was only a few hours.

Imagine four years of it. If you survived that long. Not many made it through the whole war unscathed. And if they lived to go home, they never forgot the mud.

I am proud to be a veteran of the United States Army, but anything I went through during my service pales beside the daily misery of those who served in far harder circumstances. Desert heat, steaming jungles, arctic after day of acute discomfort, no sleep, constant tension...these are the lot of the men and women who serve in combat (and sometimes in peacetime), miseries quite apart from the fear of getting shot, or shelled, or blown up unexpectedly in your Humvee. I salute all of them who are now or who have ever served this country. Because of them, we all enjoy the freedom gifted to us when America was founded. May there always be more Americans willing to defend it than to tear it (and them) down.

Remember all those who have served on this day, and please, never forget those who never came home.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Falling out of love

I'm baaack! Like a bad penny, just when you think I'm never showing up again, here I am. August/September/October were less than stellar months, laden with radiation and chemo, the details of which I will not bore you with. I'm feeling better now, so here I am, still smiling every time I walk down the front steps and see this little guy.

The horses are now in winter hair, hanging around the barn most of the time in hopes I will show up with a) tacos, b) hay, c) a mud brush. The recent heavy rains have greened up the pastures again, though, so they are back to picking around for that lovely sweet green grass and bucking around for the sheer joy of it in the chilly air. Things are cooling off fast toward snow, however, and I am enjoying watching them while it lasts.

This morning I had an unexpected and long conversation with a friend trying to come to grips with divorce. It inspired me to come share a few thoughts. Over the past few years I have spent a lot of time helping various friends through the breakup of long-term relationships (12-25+ years). Having been through it myself, and long enough ago to have gained some perspective, what strikes me is how quickly and easily we fall in love, and how painfully and slowly we fall out. For the person ending the relationship, that process occurred within the marriage. For the person left behind, it is a bewildering, shattering, seemingly endless suspension of reality compounded by disbelief and overpowering reluctance. Coming together is a pretty effortless process aided by Mother Nature's urge to perpetuate the species. Leaving is...awful. Perhaps Mama Nature doesn't want us to go, having established the order of things she wants to see. All I know is that it often takes years to fall out of love.

How do you absorb the fact that the person you love no longer wants to be in your life? How do you keep from lashing out, clinging, or driving them farther away? How do you acquire the wisdom and maturity to give them the space they crave? Telling yourself you are better off without them is not the answer. Clearly your soul is not better off. Not yet. That pain is real. It is deep. It hurts with all the fire and passion of that first moment you realized you want this person in your life forever. Coals shoveled straight from Hell could not hurt worse. Divorce (which includes the breakup of any sincere relationship) shoves a clawed hand straight into your guts and rips out everything in its path.

It leaves you hollow inside.

Hollow is not all bad. Hollow means there is room for other things. Room to nurture something else. Room to grow. Hollow is an opportunity if you have enough left to seize it. Enough energy, enough wit, enough laughter, enough hope. Hollow is an open door to a different phase and another level of your life, one in which you are older, stronger, more experienced, and no longer yearning after the one thing you can no longer have.

It is a mistake to make one person the bright center of our lives. The bright center is in you, to shine where you please. Your mate chose not to shine it on you anymore. That is his or her right, though we wish/hope/demand that s/he honor the vows you both took to love, honor and cherish forever. You can't force a dying spark to revive any more than you can legislate love. But you can nurture the spark inside you and let it warm you instead of burn you out with bitterness and regret.

Divorce is like the ultimate war. It forces us to battle our own worst instincts. It sparks guilt, anger, whining, pettiness, greed, and sometimes outright cruelty. We can choose to indulge these things, or grow up and beyond them. Fortunately for us, we never stop growing up until the day we die. We are all, in a way, perpetual babies, because there are always going to be things we haven't yet encountered. Babies touch hot stoves because they have not yet learned about the danger. Young adults eagerly embrace relationships because they have not yet learned how easily or how deeply they can be hurt. The older we get the more cautious we become. Some call this cowardice. Others call it wisdom. What is wise is realizing there are always surprises waiting, and some of them are going to hurt. Divorce teaches us caution, but it should not teach us fear. If the one takeaway you leave with is "never love again" you will deny yourself the lessons learned from that first giddy love affair.

The first of which should be: broken doesn't mean irreparable. No matter how shattered you feel, all the pieces are still there. How you pick them up and put them back together will shape the rest of your life--and that is in your control. Just don't expect it all to come back together overnight. The hooks of love come out but slowly, and often in nasty little jolts over months or years of memory flashes that can break you to tears. That's normal. Grieve. Then go fill up that hollow space with something awesome.

Easier said than done, I know! But there it is, my (slight) wisdom for the day. Have a lovely weekend, everyone, and I wish I were at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington, D.C. right now!

Friday, August 1, 2014

Horses in Fiction: The New Horse

I had a request for a post about working with a new or strange horse, which is a fantastic topic, actually. One of the very first articles I ever published was in Horse Illustrated years ago, dealing with a horse’s mindset. When you buy a new horse, most of the time you will have no idea where it’s been or what it really knows. A friend of mine was almost killed last year when her horse bolted with her unexpectedly. She and the horse ended up draped over fallen logs in a ravine. Turns out, it was not unusual behavior for that mare, but how was my friend supposed to know that?

 There is a reason that horse traders—and horse trades—have achieved a near-mythical reputation for dishonesty and underhanded dealings. Someone wanting to get rid of a problem beast is NOT going to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth regarding said beastie’s history, health, or soundness.

The well-broken, docile equine, of course, will stand quietly while the green newbie rider tries to figure out which foot to put in the stirrup, crab-crawls up Horsey’s side, and flops into the saddle. The less forgiving horse may react in any number of ways, from leaping or sidling sideways to going straight up to backing away, or pitching a spectacular bucking fit. Newbie can get badly hurt, if not outright killed, simply by baffling his mount, jerking on his mouth, or giving him an inadvertent cue. The horse will respond as he has been taught, surprising his new rider. Hello, hospital.

The way any rider who is not completely arrogant and/or stupid approaches a strange horse is not the Hollywood leap-into-the-saddle-and-race-away cliché. It really does pay to make an effort to get acquainted with the beast. Back when horses were simply commodities, easily come by, not greatly valued except as living machines, I daresay that a good many folk skipped this step, beat the horse into submission, and rode away. To build a far more fruitful relationship, one in which the horse trusts you and doesn’t constantly balk, snort, or attempt to run away from any odd occurrence (or alternately attempt to bite, kick, crowd you against a wall, or turn its hindquarters to you in threat every time you go near it), approach him with confidence and a soft voice. Speak to him. Pat his nose. Stroke his neck. Pick up his hooves. Brush him all over. Be patient if he resists a little, and wait him out. Reassure him that you are nothing to fear. He doesn’t know you from Adam’s off ox. Depending on his prior treatment at the hands of humans, he could be flighty or calm, trusting or fearful, expecting good treatment, or expecting the worst. How he reacts to your approach will tell you a lot. If he cowers, lays his ears back, looks away from you, or backs away, you have a problem, at least temporarily. On the other hand, there is a scene in my novel The Mask of God where the hero is given a horse that walks right up to him and sniffs his hand because she expects to be treated well and be rewarded for her trust.

People who don’t care what the horse thinks flop the saddle onto its back without regard to the fact that it lands on living and sensitive flesh. They jam the bit in even if the horse is trying to cooperate, which of course just teaches the horse he’s going to get hurt no matter what he does, so why bother to cooperate? The best way to turn a horse sour is to constantly confuse him, hurt him, and fail his expectations.

Every horse is likely to respond differently to a rider’s cues. Squeezing with your legs or booting him with your heel are pretty standard to get him to go, but he may not understand your combination of leg and rein. Therefore, he might not canter or halt or move in the direction you wanted him to go, when you wanted him to do it. This can lead to awful battles between the frustrated horse and the frustrated rider. A good rider will understand that the horse is trying, sit quietly, ask nicely, and give him space to figure out what you want from him. I knew a woman who bought a horse that stopped on the long line every time it tightened up. She finally discovered he’d been a roping horse! He wasn’t defying her; he was doing just what he had been taught, which was to keep that line taut between himself and the “calf” on the other end. All that knowledge is embedded in the horse’s brain. They have associative memories, and they don’t forget.

A good way for your fictional heroes and villains to end up somewhere unexpected is to expect their new horse to act just like their old horse. Kind riders develop a decent relationship with their mounts. Indifferent riders try to force the horse to do what they want, whatever it takes, and blame the horse for not being as well trained as they expected, or defiant, or stupid.  The rider who takes that crucial few minutes to let the horse see him, smell him, hear his voice, and develop some trust that he won’t be hurt, will end up with a horse that will cross rivers willingly, stand in the face of danger, and jump where he cannot see, all because he trusts that his rider is not going to get him killed by doing so. A great many horses have been disappointed in this hope, but that is for another post.

There may be times your hero has to jump on a strange mount and go. For an experienced rider, this is usually not a big deal unless the horse is completely untrained or trained to something far different. A carriage horse may never have been ridden in its life, for instance. For a less experienced rider, this change of horse could be a prelude to disaster if the horse is at all sensitive. For wonderful plot quirks, however, try giving that horse a sore back (wonderful for inducing bucking) or hoof (he won’t make it far), an overly sensitive mouth (perfect for the sudden rear straight up), or special training (miscues galore!). A friend of mine had an old circus stallion that demanded to do tricks before he’d do anything else for the day, and the first time she casually lifted her lunge whip, he reared up—exactly as taught.

The possibilities for your remounts are endless, but it comes down to getting to know your new horse—or not bothering, and paying the price.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Life after internet

Yes! There is life after internet! After the humongous storm that swept through here last Wednesday, I was without power for four days and only got internet access back today. Talk about internet withdrawal! But you know what? I got so much done: one book for my publisher edited, one book of my own revised and turned in, and some actual time for just...reading. For fun. What a concept.

I am suddenly quite grateful for the fact that my low-output wells have resulted in many unsuccessful attempts at getting trees to grow around my house. Two big pines at the end of the driveway (far from the house) snapped off about 15 feet above the ground. Fortunately the horses were well down in the pasture far from any trees. The damage farther toward town, though, was awesome and rather miraculous in that no one was hurt, let alone killed, despite falling trees smashing 44 homes in a trailer park where I once briefly lived 20-odd years ago. I have always believed in Fate (for good reason). Days like that sort of reinforce my belief in the universe.

Stay safe, everyone, through heat and drought and ice storms and thunderbangers!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Art imitating life in The Mask of God

The Mask of God
I am deep in revisions of the latter books of the Fate's Arrow series, which starts with The Mask of God. I set out to write Mask based on the conflict in the Middle East. This was 1989, mind you, before bin Laden, before 911, but deep in the midst of the endless conflict over there. I wanted to sort of turn the whole "infidels" and "heathens" thing inside out, with the agnostic folk of Sevakand as the so-called infidels and a wild variety of warring Christian sects as the barbarians. This is in no way a slam at any religion; I only wanted to look at how alien people who live right down the block can be to people who refuse to make an effort to understand them. This applies to both sides.

This is an overriding theme throughout the series, but now that I've come to the fourth book, and the characters have achieved a good deal of new understanding, I find myself struck by the very strong parallels between the protagonist's dilemma and what is currently happening on the southern border of the U.S. Alarion, my young and charismatic prince, really, really doesn't want to be messiah to the "heathens" south of his own borders, all those warring tribes. On the other hand, he is a prince of Sevakand. His House claims sovereignty over those tribes, which means he is obligated not to leave things as they are. The tribes are desperate, cut off from technology and better medicines, food, luxuries, etc. that are prevalent in Sevakand.

Helping them would be the noble thing to do. But... how could you possibly assimilate hundreds of thousands of nomadic people who refuse to farm and think raiding the neighbors is fine sport? Where would you put their horse herds? What if they refuse to get along? Is it right to put his own people in danger or deprive them of necessities to accommodate the newcomers?

Tough questions, in the book and the real world.

What feeling do you get when you discover the book you're reading seems to echo the real world (especially if it's an older book?) That there is no hope of changing the human race? Or is that why we are so strongly attracted to heroes--because they routinely do? I'd like to hear your thoughts.

If you'd like to explore the world of Ariel and its interesting problems, check out the Mask of God page on my website.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Behind the scenes of the writing life

I’ve been challenged! My editor, Irene Radford ( included me in a blog tour soliciting information about various writers’ process and work. So here goes:

What am I working on?
The Mask of God: Book 1 of Fate's Arrow
New writing has been set aside for the moment. I delivered the fourth book in The Masters of the Elements series, Delver, to my publisher earlier this year, and now I’m revising the latter books in my Fate’s Arrow series. The first book, The Mask of God, is out, with books 2 (The Mark of God), and 3 (The Heart of God) already delivered. I also have one book to critique for my writing group and one that I’m editing for my publisher. So...I’m busy.

Oh, and I’ve been happily creating trailers for my various books, which you can check out on YouTube:

There is also a trailer for The Masters of the Elements, created by Deby Fredericks.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I try to turn the tropes inside out. The Masters of the Elements has nary a sword or dragon or king in sight, but the struggle is very real, if different. The elements (Wind, Fire, Water, Earth) are all very much alive and intelligent, and quite careless of the mortals who co-exist with them. The magic is different as well: a dance, a song, the ability to listen and communicate, are the keys to controlling them. 

In Fate’s Arrow, I went 180 degrees from the usual dysfunctional royal families found in fantasy. I wanted to explore the relationship between two brothers who must stand together, and what happens when both gods and immortals start trying to drive wedges between them. How far will love stretch when duty demands unconscionable choices? And watching one character whose entire reason for existence is to create chaos fulfill his purpose...well, that was just bonus fun!

In Heaven’s Shadow is way, way out there when it comes to defying classification. It is at once a ghost story, a historical novel, fantasy, and a sweet sort of romance, with a heroine who embodies innocence and yet still manages to get herself in hot water over and over.

Mostly, I write the stories I want to write, and they tend to be genre mash-ups in many cases, bringing in whatever interesting elements I feel are necessary for the story.

Why do I write what I do?
 I love history, fantasy, and works that stretch the imagination, so my stuff tends to combine all three. I started out to write straight historical fiction, but fantasy called, so now the history is usually found as a foundational element, or an overlay on a fantasy world. Like George R. R. Martin, I mine history for real situations that inspire (or depress) but always reflect real human choices and behavior.

How does your writing process work?
I am a total pantser when it comes to story. All I need is a blank page, a bloody ritual to force my muse to cooperate, and a first line conjured from...somewhere. After that, the story just builds line by line, the characters take charge, and it all somehow races off to a conclusion I had no idea was out there. The writing process is rather amazing. I don’t know where those words come from. They just do.

With historical stuff, when I know the story will be set in a certain time or centered around a particular event, I will do my homework first, so I don’t write in some incongruous detail that leads the plot off in totally implausible directions. It’s better to prevent than to correct, in that situation. I try very, very hard to get the particulars right for any era and character, which means hours and hours delving through books and internet sites and asking questions.

That's it! I now challenge Clare L. Deming and Deby Fredericks to hop with me!

Clare once applied to be an astronaut, but when that didn't work out she turned to writing fantasy and science fiction so that she could tell stories about stars, planets, and other fantastical places. You can find her here

Deby Fredericks  is the author of Seven Exalted Orders and creator of Wyrmflight, a blog for kids (and anyone else) who love dragons. You can find her here

Friday, June 27, 2014

Delving into The Mask of God

I love summer, even though it is generally comes with a huge slowdown in income and a certain amount of nail-biting. The additional spare time, however, is much appreciated, as it lets me focus not only on projects in hand but on getting other "to do" list stuff done.

As part of that, I've updated my website with information related to the world of my "Fate's Arrow" series, which begins with "The Mask of God." I love to draw maps, both because it's a fun exercise in worldbuilding and because it lets me be consistent and clear in my head as to what is where. I can remember back in my army days when I spent a week in a jeep with a 1:50,000 map of a small portion of West Germany glued to my face, reconnoitering my platoon's deployment area in the case that we ever went to war with the Soviet Union. I closed my eyes and saw contour lines for days afterward. Fantasy maps don't have to be that detailed, thank goodness, but mine do reflect the reality of terrain and why cities tend to grow up where they do. These were both hand-drawn and will be joined by a map of Yarom at some point if I ever finish it.

I also put up the original history of Ariel and the entire glossary of names and terms you will find in the books. Since the series starts several hundred years after the founding of the colony and the war that shattered its peace, this is a good way to get grounded before diving in. It was once the foreword of the book, but too many readers don't read forewords and I had to try and integrate that information gracefully into the opening chapters. Time will tell as to whether I succeeded or not. :)

If, like me, you like delving deep into the worlds of the books you read, here's your chance to go behind the scenes on Ariel. Have fun!

You can get there from here.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Courtesy of Jay Lake, some reflection on hard truths

If you are tapped into the science fiction and fantasy community, you probably know that Jay Lake died today. He was a talented author with an outsize personality, a quick wit, and an exuberant love of life. He will be deeply missed by everyone who knew him, but I'm not here to eulogize him, because people who knew him better are doing that, and better than I could. His passing has sparked in me an urge to reflect instead upon a lesson he taught us all, founded in how brave he was. Not just because he fought very, very hard to stave off the colon cancer that killed him, but because he wrote about his struggles in detail on his blog. He spared himself and his readers nothing in describing what he was going through, and I salute him for that.

It is not something I can do. On occasion I have shared with you and my followers on Facebook the bare facts that I, too, am fighting cancer. It affects my lifestyle, my energy, my motivation, my ability to concentrate, and pretty much every other damned thing about my life. But I have spent my whole life battling a distressing tendency to whine, and so I will avoid dwelling upon the depressing details lest I slide over the edge into the yawning pit of self-pity. As I gaze unwillingly down the road winding in front of me that Jay has already traveled, I cringe from the knowledge that all the things he wrote about likely lurk in my future as well. Don't expect me to share them, though, as he has already said it better than I can.

What I do want to share is a way for you, the folk who still, blessedly, have their health, to help and process the fact that your own friends, loved ones, and people you encounter have some loathsome disease you are helpless against. At Miscon recently, a good friend was hesitant to ask me how I'm doing because she was not sure I wanted to a) talk about it or b) be reminded of it, especially since Miscon is one weekend of near-guaranteed fun where you go to forget stuff like that. Truthfully, I would have been disappointed had she not asked. Pretending cancer doesn't exist doesn't make it go away, or make it any easier for the person who has it. Showing that you care, that you remember that your friend is facing challenges, means so much more than the mild, unpleasant jolt that may occur when someone brings it up.

Be there for your friends. Don't tiptoe around them and make them feel isolated from the life they once had. I wrote a story last year about a woman who viewed her cancer as like looking through glass at the life she had left behind. Yes, that careless health she never knew she had or appreciated until suddenly she found herself breakable. Flopping down into a snowbank and laughing, tumbling in the grass, simply wrestling rocks around her garden--these became do-nots for her as they have for me, a barrier to the things she (and I) once did without thought. And that is truth, for on the other side of the glass is that life you had, and on this side is the reality of what life is when you have a disease eating you up from the inside.

Jay fought hard, and so will I, because what he wanted, like all of us, is more time. Time to live the life he thought he'd have. Time to meet his goals in life. Time to watch his daughter grow up and himself to grow old with his beloved Lisa. Time for someone to finally find the "real" cure for cancer. Thousands upon thousands of researchers are racing to try and do just that, but for him the goal line was still too far ahead.

Maybe it will be for me, too. I don't know. But yes, I want time to write the books I feel wanting to be on paper. Time for the books I've already published to find their audience, for word of mouth to grow that hey, here's a great writer you should try. Time for family and friends and more weekends like Miscon, and holidays with big family gatherings, and quiet days in my garden. Time to admire more sunsets and ride my horse through mountain creeks, and sit beside a campfire admiring the quick spiraling of sparks up toward the stars.

Jay ran out of time, but he taught us so much in the scant 49 years he had. Do me a favor and help buy more people more time. That next Starbuck's latte or idle $5 purchase? How about you donate that to cancer research instead, or to battling some other disease for which there is no cure? Think of how much good $5 multiplied by a few thousand, or a few million, people could do.

Go for it. And remember that the best remembrance for an author is to buy their books. Go read Jay's, and remember a brave and lighthearted soul who is gone too soon.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Words of wisdom from Daisy Banks

My guest today is Daisy Banks, who is sharing with us her hard-earned insights on pacing a story effectively:

Timing it right.

One of the things I have always struggled hard with in my writing is getting the pace and timing right. When I first started writing, I would spend an age during the first chapter lovingly setting the scene. Yes, I know you are smiling at that point. I’d linger over the most inconsequential things; being English, I could devote several paragraphs to the weather alone.

Thankfully, I found some wonderful critique partners, who, once they’d squashed the giggles my efforts induced, pointed out something very important to me. If I lingered over; the leaden skies and torrents of rain falling like silvery skeins--yes, I once truly wrote that line--my readers would throw the book up the wall and read no more.

“Honest?” I asked, full of hope my critique pals would say they were teasing.

“HONEST!” Came the reply. “Cut it.”

So, though it hurt, because I wanted to paint beautiful word pictures, I cut it. I didn’t just snip; I forced myself to be brutal and I savaged. I ripped out whole chapters. I discovered with my early efforts I could usually take out the first two chapters and no one would even notice because the action often didn’t start until chapter three.

The key word there is action. Experienced authors know readers want action or a situation to lure them into the story, not a lot of back story before the action begins.

Timing or pace in a story is the key to holding the reader’s interest, and despite my love of the season in which the story was set, or my wish to offer details about the character's environment and traumatic past, these things must wait.

I’d like to say the more I write the more I improve in some aspects of writing. The only people who can tell me that for sure are readers and I’m grateful when they do.

I have three new stories coming out in the next nine months or so and I hope people will find their beginnings compelling enough to want to read on.

In the meantime, while I’m waiting for those things to be ready to share with you, I thought I might offer the beginning of Your Heart My Soul, published by Liquid Silver Books.

Moonlight shimmered. The sliver of pale shadows on the grubby floorboards he crossed wavered like ripples in the shallows. William “Reliance” Smith sat and tipped his sailor’s cap over his brow. With no one about to cry shame, he lounged back, putting his feet up on the comfortable, red leather chaise. A dim pattern of blue light from across the street sparkled and played on the opposite wall, where yellowed paint flaked and peeled.
The windowpanes rattled in their leaded squares, buffeted by the wind outside. Or, on the other hand, perhaps their agitation had another cause. A small bloom of anticipation swelled in his chest and the fine hairs on the back of his neck rose. Might this be the night his dreams came true? He sighed and battled to hold down the ache inside.
How many times had he hoped before? All for naught.
Not a Jack lived in the wide world that’d make him tell of it, but he feared the flavor of the bitter cup of loss, had tasted it too long and too often. He shook the thoughts away. No matter what, he’d linger, as he’d promised his darlin’ for as long as need be. Unsettled as he was this night, he sought a fresh distraction to help him through the waiting and glanced around the shop.
Before God, he couldn’t deny it. Tonight, change hung heavy in the air, but not in the way he longed for. No sign of his sweet Sally to cheer him; not a breath of her fragrance in the stillness; no clatter of her red-striped heels over the flagstones outside announced her arrival.
A part of him long ago warned this vigil, it were a waste, and he’d never hear those precious sounds again. That time had gone … he’d only to glance at the star patterns in the winter sky to know it … but … what if he were wrong? Mayhap all these doubts, this waiting, it might be a test of his love. Perhaps the day would dawn when his Sal would come to him. One precious evening he’d find her here, and they’d be happy again as they’d sworn.
Faith must be the key. He’d a head start on others in that quarter, for his very name gave his offer of assurance to his family, to his master, and to his shipmates. They’d never yet found him wanting and nor would his darlin’ wench.
Yet this night his senses jangled, out of kilter. The room didn’t set right with him at all. If anyone asked, he’d have been hard put to say what had changed, but his gut told him for sure something had occurred.
A prickle rose on the back of his neck; the fine hairs stood like a hound’s ruff to warn of storms to come and his certainty grew. T’was said only those who’d made it ’round the Horn got the sense of predicting stormy winds. Well, he’d made it ’round the Horn and home twice—and tonight, in the twilight shadows, proof of it raced icy down his back.
You can find the rest of this intriguing story here. And new, coming this summer, you'll find:

A Perfect Match from Taliesin Publishing

Coming later in the year:

To Eternity, sequel to Timeless from Lyrical Press
Marked for Magic from Lyrical Press

She is also the author of:

From Lyrical Press, a Kensington imprint:
A Matter of Some Scandal
Fiona’s Wish

From Liquid Silver Books:
Your Heart My Soul
A Gentleman’s Folly
Valentine Wishes

All are available on Amazon:

Find Daisy Banks here:

Twitter @DaisyBanks12

Cat fail--What awaited me when I got home from MisCon

How many cats does it take to catch one mouse? I don't know, because I'm still waiting. Four cats, one mouse; you'd think the little bugger would be toast by now, wouldn't you? It's been five hours and I'm still waiting. At this point I think I'm rooting for the mouse. If I could catch him without getting the hanta virus or contracting rabies I'd toss him outside. At this moment he's under my recliner while the cats languidly watch the exits. My feet are safely tucked up under me in said recliner, as I refuse to surrender the field to the little twerp. But geez!!!

Thus the cats have been entertaining themselves all weekend, I presume, since I was at MisCon in Missoula, Montana and can't really say. MisCon, as always, was a hoot, and if you ever get a chance to go, I highly recommend it. I met many delightful people, some of whom were kind enough to buy my books, which always warms the cockles of an author's heart. As always, I ate too much, laughed a lot, and learned quite a bit about the art and craft of writing. I hope my advice to the writers who submitted to my group in the writers' workshop was helpful more than hurtful and that their stories succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

Good fortune and safe travels go with everyone who came to Missoula. See you next year!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

MisCon: A Whole Weekend of Laughs

Yay! Memorial Day is coming, and with it MisCon in Missoula, Montana. Aside from being in a lovely area to visit, MisCon is just about the most fun science fiction convention ever. It's fairly small, which makes it more intimate and relaxed, but for some reason it is also just fun. The fans are enthusiastic, everything (including readings) is well attended, and the con hosts a barbecue on the back lawn beside the creek every year. Even though most years it is pouring rain that day, it does not seem to dampen anyone's enthusiasm, and who doesn't like sitting on the grass beside a rushing mountain creek to eat their hamburger?

At any rate, I'll be there if you're in the neighborhood, reading from The Mask of God and signing books, etc. Here's my schedule so you know where to find me. I am SO looking forward to that panel on cussing! :)

Fri 2:00 - 2:50 PM, Good Reviews, Bad Reviews, Upstairs 1 (Upstairs Programming 1)
Fri 4:00 - 4:50 PM, Writers' Workshop Meet and Greet, Containment Room (Upstairs)
Sat 11:00 - 12:50 PM, Writers' Workshop Great Hall, Great Hall (Upstairs)
Sat 1:00 - 1:50 PM, Anti-Hero, Hero, or Villain?, Containment Room (Upstairs)
Sat 7:00 - 7:50 PM, Art of Swearing, Containment Room (Upstairs)
Sun 10:00 - 10:50 AM, Author Book Signing, Containment Room (Upstairs)
Sun 3:00 - 3:50 PM, Reading: S. A. Bolich, Upstairs 3 (Upstairs Programming 3)
Mon 10:00 - 10:50 AM, Monday Morning Coffee Klatch (Hour 1), The Tent (2)
Mon Noon - 12:50 PM, Art of the Short Story, Upstairs 2 (Upstairs Programming 2)

I am looking forward to seeing old friends and making some new ones, so come out out! I'd love to see you.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Horses in Fiction: (Trying) to Work around Horses

Note that I did not say "work with horses" here. Working in close proximity to horses on something that does not involve grooming, tacking up, or groundwork is an adventure in itself. Oh my, the joys of maintaining a farm with horses around are many and varied. One of them is attaining close companionship with your beasts whilst attempting to improve their home (or yours). Really close. Like, beat them out of your back pocket because they are playing with the pocket flap while you're bent over close. Like, guard the shift lever knob of the lawn tractor because Pilot is trying to crib on it close. Like, get your frigging nose out of the tool bucket close. When horses are loose in the pasture and you need to do something there, your choices are always to lock them up somewhere else or live with their curiosity. Me, I enjoy the entertainment value. Most of the time.

Let me back up and explain how this subject sprang to mind. Every spring is, of course, the time when fences need to be checked and mended, the weeds get sprayed, the barn gets thoroughly scrubbed out and reordered, and general maintenance on the whole place gets done. Landscaping projects get started, and I get to spend a lot of time outdoors, in and out of the pasture and barn. My horses are currently on pasture, sleek, fat, and happy. So happy, in fact, that they have lost their initial exuberant attitude toward being out on grass and are now spending a lot of time lazing in the shade in the barn. This is lovely so long as one is not required to do anything related to the stalls or the corral itself.

My latest landscaping project is putting in small square edging bricks between the driveway and the yard. It looks really good, but there is a low spot at the end that needs filling. Since the manure pile has been nicely rotting down for years, it provides a good source of dirt, albeit a little rich to use without mixing it with less fertile soil. For filler, though, it's just fine, so this morning I got out my trusty lawn tractor and my dump wheelbarrow, hooked 'em up, and drove into the corral. And, of course, there were Nellie and Pilot swishing flies in the barn. Hoping for treats and/or their itchy spots scratched, naturally they came over to say hello.

Now a horse cannot say hello without getting as close as possible. This means sticking his head in the wheelbarrow (it's MANURE, guys. Yours. There are no treats here.), nudging the whole works to see if it might move and entertain him, and checking out in close detail the fascinating apparition that is the lawn tractor. The noise doesn't bother them, nope. In fact, I have to shoo them off quite vigorously or threaten to nudge them with the front end in order to get them out of the way when I'm ready to drive off.

Not at all discouraged, back they come when I make the second trip to fill the wheelbarrow. This time they are completely mesmerized by the shovel and the dent I am putting in their precious pile, which I have actually seen Nellie back up to and contribute to on her own over the winter. It is tough to dig with elán with a horse's nose two inches from the shovel tip. Likewise, the suspicious crunching noise behind me turns out to be Pilot checking out the possibilities in the round, hard-plastic knob on the tractor's shift lever. Meantime, sweet Nellie really wants her ears scratched, and butts me hard in the side to get my attention. Noticing the flies buzzing around her head, I now have to stop and go get the fly spray (she HATES fly masks and promptly rubs them off). This at least gets rid of Pilot, who is traumatized by spray bottles and goes nuts at the feel of the descending droplets. He even tries to duck out when I rub it on with a cloth, so for the moment the tractor, et al, are safe from his attentions. He's too busy watching me to see if I'm going to attack him with the fly spray.

As I climb on the tractor again to drive off, Pilot blocks my exit by presenting his butt to be scratched, knowing full well that I won't. Nellie gazes at me wistfully before turning to examine the new hole in her pile again. I slap Pilot's butt to encourage him to move; insulted, he moves off and glares at me over his shoulder. Tough, buddy, I've got things to do. I race them to the gate and manage to get the tractor and barrow through without also introducing two Thoroughbreds to the wonders outside the pasture. Do I want a third trip? No. Thankfully, it is now raining (thanks so much, guys, for the delay). I drive the tractor up to the house, park it beside the spot that needs filling, and trudge in to have lunch and write this post.

At least neither of them is as nosy or determined as Kalup was, that fiddler par excellence. I once had to mow an area that had never been kept short, so the grass was a couple of feet tall in places. A push mower is really not designed for this. Mine kept choking out every minute or so, which meant I spent a lot of time yanking the start rope. Kalup, who was munching said grass inside a temporary hot wire fence, kept watching me through all this but keeping his distance from the noise. However, when I walked away to help my husband and my brother-in-law hang a gate between this area and the regular pasture, Kalup seized his chance. He walked right over to the lawnmower and grabbed that starter rope handle. Fortunately for all of us, the mower also had a safety bar that had to be depressed at the same time the rope was pulled for it to start. Kalup was frustrated in his ambitions to start that thing, but I sure would have loved to have seen him do it. I know we could have won big money on America's Funniest Home Videos!

I love my horses. I love that they trust me and like me enough to want to come check out what I'm doing all the time. It is my choice to not run them off, in part because I like watching them exercise their curiosity and I'm always interested in what they will do. Your fictional characters may have much less patience, or much greater urgency, in whatever brings them into proximity with loose horses and tools. You can certainly write a great scene with personable horses and exasperated people, and have every bit of it be perfectly authentic. The horses will show up as though magnetized the second you get down to work, so take advantage of it and have some fun with your scene.

Until next time, happy writing, and don't forget to check out The Mask of God to see how I use my own fictional horses.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Horses in Fiction: The terrorist in the pasture

Aaagh. Some days having one horse sounds just so good. Something to know and remember about horses: being herd animals, they have to figure out how to live with each other just like everybody else. Since written law is pretty much out when establishing peaceful relations, that leaves the law of brute force to determine the pecking order within the herd. And trust me, if you have two horses, it's a herd.

Which means somebody has to be in charge.

Around here, that used to be Beau, my big, gorgeous Saddlebred gelding. After I sold him, it left Nellie and Pilot, both of whom were subordinate to Beau. Now he was the easy-going quiet type who never felt much need to throw his weight around. He was there first, he was bigger, and that pretty much said everything to the timid newcomers. Things were fine until Pilot discovered Beau wasn't coming back. Then that little turkey decided he was boss. And he has to show it. ALL the time.

Just like Average Joe who has suddenly been put in charge, Pilot became Mr. Control Freak (with rather hysterical exceptions. More about that later). Nellie, resigned to her fate at the bottom of the totem pole, sort of lets it all bounce off, but nonetheless, it is she who gets bounced out of the barn to eat her food in the rain; it is she who gets run off of her pile of food while he inspects it to see if she got something better than he did; it is she who stands in the rain while Pilot guards the door to the barn (which also effectively blocks both feeders). I finally got tired of him standing at her stall door harassing her, or alternatively, Nellie snatching a mouthful of hay and running outside to eat it, and just started feeding her outside. Naturally, this led to Pilot leaving his food untouched in his feeder and running outside to drive her off. Being afraid to be trapped in the barn when he came back, subject to his bared teeth, she stood around and watched wistfully while he ate her hay and then went inside to eat his own.

After a long winter feeding them both outside, which I hate, there is a reason I'm thinking about selling Pilot.

It's either that or remodel the barn, which was set up for one horse. How did I end up with three, now two? Don't ask. Horses accumulate like rabbits. Nobody can have just one.

The herd dynamic aside from that is somewhat interesting. Nellie, who was so ridiculously herdbound when I bought her that I spent the first month hand-walking her longer distances every day away from Beau to drive it into her little brain that yes, she was going to come back, and yes, she would survive ten minutes away from him, is much less enamored of Pilot as consort. Granted that he beats up on her, she still is less anxious to be separated from him, and if they get out, it is her you had better catch. You can lead her away from the pasture and Pilot will always follow; you can lead him away and she may decide she has better things to do than go after him.

Here is where it gets stupidly weird, and funny. When she is in heat in the winter, she sometimes will stand in the lowest corner of the pasture, staring soulfully down the hill toward the neighbors' horses (who must look much better as potential mates than poor gelded Pilot). She will stand there for three days, leaving her hay untouched. So who is stupid enough to stand down there with her, nobly starving to show his solidarity? Why Pilot, of course, Mr. Tough Guy, who also abandons his hay because he is so afraid of getting fifty feet out of her sight.

I love my horses, but if they're that dumb, I am not wading down icy trails through knee-deep snow to rescue them when they both know where the food is. If I put her in the stall he would just stand there and a) crib, and b) harass her over the door. And she would likely have a panic attack that would be much worse for her than going hungry by choice for a couple of days. As they say, you can lead a horse to water (or food) but you can't make them drink. Ask Pilot, who would not drink mountain water for two days until he finally got thirsty enough to just wade out in the creek and forget that it tasted different.

Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow. We worry greatly about our horses and forget that they have been successful survivors for as long as we've been around. So if your fictional horsey has a few quirks, don't worry about it. They add flavor to the story and authentic personality to your equines.

I finally published a book that has lots of horses acting like horses! The Mask of God is out, and the equines are very much part of the story. Check it out if you get a chance, and if you like these columns, do leave me a review of the book on the bookseller's site and spread the word. Thanks!

Friday, March 28, 2014

I know I've been quiet, but...

... I hate dragging my personal problems out in public. I have shared previously that I have cancer, however, so the long and the short of the long silence here over the past month is that I spent the first week of March in the hospital and the rest of the month recovering from it. The good news is that the docs seem to have fixed the immediate problem (yay! I can breathe again!) and things generally seem no worse than they were before. I am now actively working to regain my stamina, after two solid months of my lungs filling up, followed by getting a needle stuck in my back to drain it out, following by more fluid, another needle... You get the picture. That's (hopefully) all better now, and I am so looking forward to summer.

Now, if I can just get the weather to cooperate! I envy the folks in England who saddle up and ride anyway whatever the downpour. I used to do that when I lived on Ft. Lewis over on the west side of the state. I well remember taking dressage and jump lessons when the rain was bouncing off the mud puddles and dripping off Kalup's mane. I was younger then. And dumber. :)

While I've been out of the loop I've been pleased to see that the initial reaction to my latest releases, In Heaven's Shadow and The Mask of God has been wonderful. One reviewer called In Heaven's Shadow " of the loveliest, most moving stories I've read in a long time... filled with wonderful characters and delightful magic." Two more different books you will not find, but I enjoyed the heck out of writing them both. And Mask has horses! Lots and lots of horses, so you can see how I personally use equines in my writing.

If you encounter and like these books, by all means post a review. That is one of the best ways to help out an author you like and share the love for what you read. And I would love to hear what you think, good or bad. How else can authors know when they're getting it right?

Cheers to all of you who keep up with this blog. I promise to weigh in more often from now on!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Does "The Mask of God" go with "In Heaven's Shadow?" No, not really. As in, not at all, save that they are both new books out this month, and both written by me. Apart from that, there couldn't be two more different books. Which, I suppose, is still another problem for any writer who likes to write whatever occurs to them to write.  See, it's like this:
In Heaven's Shadow, which came out February 6 and I talk about here, is an historically accurate Civil War fantasy, a ghost story with magic thrown in for an offbeat and (if I do say so myself) rather beautiful love story. One reader has called it "one of the most beautiful and touching books" she's read in a long time. I cherish that comment and hope it makes it into a review somewhere because I want this one to touch the heart. I was a bit baffled by the reviewer who called it "fun," but what the hey, I did strive for some humor (and getting caught by the neighbor kid when your ghost husband is swinging you around really is funny). Perhaps that's what most caught her fancy about it. Be that as it may, this book is way off my usual beaten track. And I love it. 
The Mask of God by S. A. Bolich
The Mask of God, on the completely other hand, is another genre mix, but of a different type. It is both soft SF (being set on a long-lost colony world), and epic fantasy. The civilization has fallen from starships to swords but they have not forgotten their roots, oh no. Because their roots haunt them every single day in the shape of conflicts that ripped their society asunder, and alien tech (or is aliens themselves?) is forcing everyone onto paths they would not otherwise have chosen. Artificial gods who know they aren't real--but can't act in any way but how they were made to act--have gone to war and dragged the mortals in. And as Fate tries to bring about some vast and frightening web of destiny, Chaos her husband feels a fatal itch to toss his dice, Chance and Destiny, into the maze and watch what happens. And Death...what does he want? What Death always wants. Blood.
Now, do those sound like they came from the same author? Does it matter? All you want is a great read, right? I hope these give it to you, whatever your tastes may be.

And the really, REALLY good news? There are horses in "The Mask of God"! Yes, yes, real live horses who are never quite characters in themselves, but individuals important to the story nevertheless. So go read it and tell me if I'm practicing what I preach, all those of you who enjoy the Horses in Fiction posts. I look forward to your reaction!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

And...In Heaven's Shadow is out!

What really lies in heaven's shadow? What's in that place between life and the afterlife, where the ghosts of the dead can still yearn for the living, and the living still have choices? Does love end there? Should it?

Lilith and Joab came late to love but they were happy as larks until the Civil War came along and smashed everything apart. Joab went off to fight Yankees and Lilith spent two years trying to keep their farm in the Shenandoah Valley going by herself. And then Gettysburg came along and killed Joab--but he didn't want Heaven. He wanted Lilith. So he bargained with God and came home to her...and that's when things get interesting.

Aside from scandalized neighbors and magic that pops out of Lilith at the most inconvenient times, her determination to make a life with her husband's ghost has a few bumps neither one of them counted on:
Joab's hand stole out, hesitated, and closed around hers. It felt like a moth had landed on her hand, so light it could have been just a passing breeze, but somehow Lilith knew she would have known the difference even if she hadn’t been watching.
“There,” she said in satisfaction. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
He didn’t say anything. After a bit, she dared to look at him. He had his head down, but even so, she could see he was crying. Shocked, Lilith reached to turn his head toward her, but he pulled away before her hand connected.
“Now what? Joab? What’d I do?”
“Nothing.” His voice came thick and low. He reached up and swiped at his face. “I just—I guess I didn’t think it was going to be like this.”
“Like what?”
“I—I want to touch you, Lil. Hold you. Take you up to bed and love you. This—” He flapped his hand around at nothing in particular. “This is almost as bad as layin’ curled up under a blanket up north, wishing I was here. I got through many a night dreaming about home. Now it just ain’t like I imagined, is all.”
Her throat got tight. “Joab—”
He jerked a hand up to shush her. Lilith shushed, reaching for his hand. She held on when he tried to pull away. It made her throat ache again because she remembered his hands as being so strong, but she kept quiet, cradling a thin piece of life between her hands. Just a little slice, a whisper of nothing, Pa used to say, but when nothing quit whispering, you didn’t have anything left at all. So she fought for her piece, and her man, and all that the war had left them.
"In Heaven's Shadow" isn't your typical ghost story, nor your typical love story, nor your typical fantasy, which is why I love it so much. Lilith is magical, funny, at times clueless, but very wise in her way of looking at life and death. Joab may be dead but he sees no reason to let it stop him from loving, honoring, and cherishing her for the rest of eternity.

Can they make it work? Better yet, will the neighbors let them?

Now you can find out, because In Heaven's Shadow is now available! Buy it in ebook here:

Barnes and Noble
Taliesin Publishing

Friday, January 31, 2014

Horses in Fiction: The Bored Beast

Oh, my, are my horses crabby these days. At least, Pilot is. He is a high-energy kinda guy who goes racing off at any possible opportunity just to burn off excess protein (thus, he gets grass hay, not alfalfa). This includes turning him out from the small (3-acre) pasture to the large (10-acre) pasture. Poof! He departs with a kick of the heels and a snort at full speed. With all the snow and ice we've had, despite his permanent access to the 3-acre pasture for the winter he is unhappy and hopes things will be different beyond the fence. Of late, he has taken to waiting until my back is turned gathering up hay and then gives the gate in the barn a good hard shove with his nose. Out he waltzes to explore the driveway. If I'm really lucky, I turn in time to prevent Nellie following him through. Twice I have been too late, and they've gone gallivanting up toward the house at a dead run, fortunately in the snow beside the driveway and not atop the ice in it. Even they aren't quite that stupid. Why not latch the gate, you say? It never used to be a problem. The bar slides hard now and doesn't catch as well as I think sometimes. Pilot always has to try...

He's bored. Bored horses are a problem. They tend to go sour in the pasture and the stall because they have nothing to do. This makes them crabby, often grabby with their teeth, and generally less fun to be around. Spending more time with them helps, and regular riding/work helps most of all, but let's face it, our heroes and heroines have better things to do than stand around petting their loyal steeds all day, and weather conditions don't always allow travel. Ergo, our heroes are likely to discover wooden fences with large scallops in the top boards from bored beasts chewing the wood. They may arrive at the stable to meet flattened ears and pushy demands for food/treats/attention/wide open spaces. Their sweet and loving companions may suddenly take after a stablemate for no discernible reason than that said stablemate is, em, available to be a target. In crowds, lower beasts on the totem pole suffer greatly from higher-rank critters' cabin fever.

How can you turn this to plot mayhem? Easily. My old gelding, Gallow, was an absolute fright every spring for the first three rides after the ice broke up enough to make the footing safe. I made sure there was still enough snow and deep berm alongside the road to run him into if he truly got stupid. Any long confinement will leave your horse champing at the bit (so to speak) and eager to get out and stretch his legs. Exuberant bucking from staid old creatures is not at all uncommon. Picture rabbits suddenly leaping into the air from a standing start, kicking out both hind legs for fun (otherwise known as a capriole). Now picture your unsuspecting hero sitting in utter surprise on nothing six feet off the ground.

This is a lovely thing to do to your hero's enemies. Fine. Give him the best horse in the stable for his getaway. The one that hasn't been ridden for three weeks. Give him the short-attention-span critter who loves to fiddle with ropes. Evil Overlord may be walking the next morning, tracking his mount, who has untied himself and everyone else and departed smartly for parts unknown. Give him the high-energy youngster who has the attention span of a flea and the manners of Godzilla. This child has difficulty concentrating through the saddle-up; after the first quarter mile of boring walking along beside everyone else he is going to be looking for entertainment, tired of having his attention redirected from yummy roadside plants to the trail. He will be lonesome stuck in his own space all by himself. He will start snuggling up to the nearest horse to the front or side, gawking at birds, clouds, large rocks, the tempting tail of the horse in front and pretty much everything else within his view because OMG I am so BORED!

Older horses just put themselves half to sleep shuffling along in the group, content to let everyone else look out for alarming things. Bored beasties look for ways to keep themselves entertained. This includes chewing/grabbing at the bit or shank (making inconvenient jingling noises with the right kind of bit, or sudden mayhem as he grabs it and bolts); playing with dangling bits of harness, grabbing at bushes as he goes by, fretting, dancing, head-tossing, and oh, my favorite, crowding, because he really wants to go somewhere else and everyone is in his way.

Do not be surprised if you come down to feed and your barn has been rearranged by bored Horsey. When Pilot gets out (not possible now that the gate latch sticks), rearrangement includes all of the grooming tools out of the brush box onto the floor, the lid off the dog food barrel and little crunchies all over everywhere, anything on any flat surface swept off in search of munchies, and a nice fat fertilizer deposit on the hay pile. Everyone's a critic. When Kalup got monumentally bored, you could expect to be picking things up for seventy feet in any direction. He didn't just investigate it; he played with it.

Let a bored horse loose in camp if you want a distraction in your story. You will have much fun and cussing trying to catch him, because almost invariably horses who have escaped lose their minds. The excitement of being loose outside familiar environs gets them prancing and snorting and sidling/running away from outstretched hands (even with treats) and suspicious-looking ropes and halters. You will be chasing them until you stop chasing them, at which point they will likely abandon the game and come to you. So a fool will continue to chase, and be delayed for an hour instead of five minutes. And if your neatly ordered camp was quietly torn apart by a nosy horse in the night, why, it gives the opposition all kinds of time to catch up and inflict whatever damage is necessary to your plot.

Bored horses. God love 'em. And keep 'em far away from me.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

And the real In Heaven's Shadow cover looks like...

This! Ta da! The designer and I agree that this is a tough book to illustrate conceptually, because it is not a perfectly round peg to fit neatly into a round hole. After experimenting with sepia and full-color versions of various concepts, she had a brainstorm and came up with this. It captures the Blue Ridge that is the setting, the Civil War that is the backdrop, and just a twinkle of romance in the lettering.

I like it! What do you think? Looking at it, what do you think the book is about?

Better yet, would you "look inside" to find out?

"In Heaven's Shadow" releases February 6th from Taliesin Publishing. It's one of my favorite books, with a heroine at once shy and bewildered and brave, and very magical. It is about the constant tension between who we are and what other people expect us to be--and who gets to decide what is "respectable." I hope you'll like it.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The perils of being different: Illustrating In Heaven's Shadow

"In Heaven's Shadow," my Civil War/ghost story/fantasy, comes out next month (February 6th), and the publisher and I are still trying to figure out the perfect cover that best captures what the book is, as well as that will intrigue and attract readers. Covers are soooo important. You don't want to give the wrong impression and have disappointed readers slam you in the reviews; nor do you want to tailor it so narrowly to one audience that you leave out other people who might be attracted to the subject matter. There are ever so many internet memes going around laughing at classics that have been repackaged under really horrid covers from clueless publishers, or poking fun at old-fashioned covers that nonetheless did their jobs back in the day. The last thing you want is people laughing at your cover, or using it for an excuse to check out some other title.

So what to do? This book, like many books that are finding significant audiences these days, does not fit into the conventional pigeonholes that most publishers use to try and market their offerings. You know: romance, fantasy (pick a flavor!), chick lit, YA, or what-have-you. Cross-genre stuff and mash-ups often do extraordinarily well, but it does leave the cover artist and the marketing team in a quandary. Should they tailor it just to the fantasy crowd? Will too "gushy" a cover turn off the men looking for something new? Will people think it's paranormal romance if you put a ghost on the cover? Aaaagh! It's enough to send the whole team screaming into the night.

I very much appreciate my publisher's efforts to get the cover exactly right. "In Heaven's Shadow" is not a romance but it is a beautiful love story. It is not paranormal, but it has ghosts. It is a highly accurate depiction of the Civil War era but it is not, strictly, historical fiction. It is very much historical fantasy. You could even call it magic realism. Soooo, dear readers, if you were to choose what attracts you to a particular genre, what would you choose on the cover? What would draw you into a particular book if, say, you were looking for fantasy, or something historical, or romantic without the cooties? Would you, the pure historical reader, be turned off by an added fantasy element, or go with it so long as the era is properly portrayed?

Just askin'. I love this book. I want it to do well. But I begin to see why so many agents LOVED the writing and the premise and, indeed, the book, but didn't think they could sell it. Because they couldn't categorize it neatly. Because it didn't "fit" the norms. It wasn't the same as all the other "hot" books out there. And that's a rotten shame, because so many books don't fit neatly into the round holes and yet are great books. Thank you, Taliesin Publishing, for looking beyond the round holes at a slightly square book! Or maybe octagonal...

I hope--I really hope!--we can nail the cover, because I, for one, do judge a book partly by its cover, and have passed by good reads because of rotten cover art. So tell me, folks, what would turn you off? What would turn you on (keep it clean!). What about a cover makes you "look inside"?

Friday, January 3, 2014

In Heaven's Shadow and other cool places

Happy New Year! I had intended to write a reflective post about the past year, but that's a bit egocentric and I doubt that I could add anything particularly new or insightful. I would rather look forward, since a new year is a lot like the wonderful blank page that is the foundation of every new story. I adore that moment when I sit down to write something new. The page is limitless in its possibilities. That perfect white expanse, awaiting the mysterious little black shapes that spell out letters and words and sentences that turn themselves somehow into scenes and fantastic worlds. And the best part is—I never know where the story is going until it's done. That first sentence? I am always clueless what the world is going to be like, how the magic works, or who is going to inhabit my pages. It's a mystery, it is, and so is every new year until it almost imperceptibly becomes the old year viewed in our rear view mirrors.

What do I know about 2014? I know that I am writing Delver, the fourth and last book in the Masters of the Elements series, the most recent of which was Seaborn, released in September. We will all (including me!) finally learn why Fire is in rebellion against Earth Mother, and what the clans must do to prevent the ultimate firestorm sweeping away Metrenna and every living thing in the land. The story is already developing layers I had no idea were lurking in there. The story-within-the-story is poignant and shy and I hope I am good enough to capture it as it should be captured.

I also know that I will be publishing at least three other books this year, through Taliesin Publishing and Sky Warrior Books. The first is In Heaven's Shadow from Taliesin, a Civil War ghost story/fantasy that I wrote the only time I took up the NaNoWriMo challenge. I like this book a lot because it helped me deal with my dad's death, and it is offbeat and let me put on my historian's hat for once while still getting to put in some cool magic. I have a degree in history and I love to research, so this one was fun to write even though the themes of death and afterlife and respectability often hit pretty close to home. Did you know that the American mortuary industry was pretty much born amid the horrors of the Civil War, as both North and South struggled with the aftermath of battles that produced as many as 12,000 dead soldiers in one day? Before the war, most families buried their own dead; as the big battles began, it became necessary to find a way to preserve bodies well enough to ship fallen soldiers home to their grieving families for proper burial. While coffin-building and embalming took a quantum leap forward, the actual shipping was quickly abandoned as logistically impractical. The sad fact is, as the war dragged on, most families got only the word that their loved ones were dead, with no body to bury and only a funeral service to try and achieve closure. And when so many died at once, often torn to pieces by cannon fire, many families only ever got the thin hope of “missing” to cling to. Hope can be a terrible thing, as we will see when In Heaven’s Shadow comes out February 6th.

I am also launching a new high fantasy/soft SF series this year from Sky Warrior Books called Fate’s Arrow. I love the idea that humankind knows so little of what actually may lurk in the vastness of the unexplored universe. It leaves open the possibilities of what we may encounter on foreign planets when, someday, we may finally set foot there. And when unsuspecting humans encounter alien catalysts—well, who can say what is real and what is not when human wishing and human ambition meet the very stuff of Creation? Oh, my.

The first book in the series, “The Mask of God,” is in the last stages of production. The cover is looking awesome and I have only to return the final proof to my publisher. And then a story I started over 20 years ago will finally get out to the world, full of gods who aren’t gods but have all of a god’s powers—and a god’s single-minded purpose; human pawns who refuse to act like pawns; and two royal brothers who really only just want to get through the day without somebody taking potshots at them. These books are about love and loyalty and the deepest desire of the human heart to believe in something...but just what our hero finds to believe in may surprise you. And they’re about magic, that also has its own, inexorable requirements.

I plan to resume writing my “Horses in Fiction” blog series this year as well. I confess that I have not had the heart for it because my own riding was so severely curtailed this last year. It is tough having horses standing around the pasture that you are not medically allowed to get on and ride. But, rather than sit around and whine, I will play with them to the best of my ability and share what I know with you all. Heh, see there? In Heaven’s Shadow, which is set in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, is lingering on my tongue, as I hope the story itself will stay with you.

Have a very delightful new year, everyone. I hope we can share part of the journey together!