Thursday, December 17, 2015

Free Fiction: The Teddy Bear Riot

I am so grateful to everyone who has taken a chance on one of my books. Here's a little Christmas gift to you, a never-seen short story from the depths of my files, one of the only Christmas stories I've ever written. I hope it brightens your day a bit.

The Teddy Bear Riot
copyright S. A. Bolich 2006

      If you talk to the cops they'll deny it. If you talk to the regulars down at the local watering hole you'll get a lot of snickers and sly grins but no confirmation. If you search the newspaper's morgue you won't find one word about THAT NIGHT. It never made the papers because, well . . . let's just say the local star reporter wants to keep his job. That, uh, would be me.
      It all started innocently enough. An orphanage full of needy kids, a Christmas toy drive, the local women's club decking the halls with the usual Christmas flummery. When I showed up to do the obligatory human interest piece, the kids were off on a mass shopping trip and the place was bustling with adults rushing around: the wives inside, the men outside unloading vans. What the wives didn't know was that their hubbies were generating a little Christmas cheer of their own while they carted the boxes and bags and bins of donated toys into the basement. I suppose I could blame what happened on the booze, but when you get down to it, the booze couldn't possibly have accounted for everybody seeing the same thing. Or for what they saw.
      The trouble started when Big Jim Shelby, who runs the sports bar on Main Avenue, started grousing about the lack of imagination displayed by the toy donors. "Teddy bears! Goddamned teddy bears everywhere!" says he, lugging in still another box with Paddington Bear staring solemnly up at him from under a cutesy little red hat. That got him a chorus of "Ah, stuff it!" from his fellow laborers, most of whom had contributed to the glut of bears by their hurried dashes into the local Toys n'Stuff in answer to their wives' command.
      "What d'ya expect with a twenty-dollar limit?" Mike Simms growled, which started Shelby off on a rant about the cost of keeping kids and how all the expensive, electronic, politically correct, child-safe, educational crap he put under his tree every year ended up sitting there neglected while the kids played with the blankety-blank boxes.
      "No imagination," Shelby opined. "That's what wrong with you guys."
      "Oh, yeah?" Charlie Dahl, who owned the local electronics store, was just lubricated enough to be belligerent. "And what did you buy the little brats?"
      "They're not brats!" Glen McGinnis, the local shrink, jumped right in trying to smooth things over. "These are good kids, and you know it."
      "Oh, yeah?" Mike Simms put in. "That's not what you called 'em when those three punks spiced up your punch at the picnic last year."
      A lot of snorts and chuckles greeted that. McGinnis turned red. "They apologized," he muttered. "And even they deserve better than somebody's hand-me-downs. If they didn't have us it would be a pretty grim Christmas for all of them."
      "Santa should show some imagination, then." Big Jim deposited Paddington Bear with the rest and helped himself to another beer.
      "You want imagination? Take 'em to see The Nutcracker." Charley gave him a not-so-nice grin. Everybody in town knew he thought anybody who went to the local rendition of the Nutcracker was nuts themselves. Ballet, you know.
      Joel Carstairs had ensconced himself early on at the top of the basement stairs to "supervise," which put him closest to the beer and farthest from the work. Now he got himself a brilliant idea.

      "I know! Let's stage it for 'em! Hell, we don't need wooden soldiers. We got all these bears."
      Seven faces turned to him. Everybody just sort of stared for a second or two, and then McGinnis, seeing Charley Dahl about to erupt, said, "Sure! We can line them up and--" He rummaged in a box. "Here's a doll we can use for Clara."

      He held up a three-foot doll in a velvet dress and hat that had seen better days. One of the other men jumped right in, smirking at Charley. "Great idea, Doc. Give 'em a little culture along with their presents."
      The rest of the gang went along, more to get in a dig at Charley than because they thought Carstairs was so brilliant. They carted the rest of the boxes in and then rummaged around until they had all the bears gathered up and lugged the whole works upstairs. Quietly I tagged along, interested now in seeing what sort of production this inebriated crew might come up with. Naturally, the wives busy hanging snowflakes and fake greenery and decorating the donated tree wanted to know what in creation they thought they were doing. The bears were supposed to be downstairs awaiting gift-wrapping with the rest of the stuff.
      Joel Carstairs swept them a grandiose bow. (He was really drunk). "Ladies, we are the entertainment committee and we have deshi--decided to, uh--"
      "Bring a little cultural enlightenment into the darkness of this establishment," Charley Dahl finished for him with a sly grin.
      Gina Dahl gave him a sharp glance that dripped suspicion. Joan Shelby climbed down off the ladder where she'd been hanging snowflakes from the ceiling and marched up to her husband, who had a double armful of teddy bears and a silly smile on his face.
      "Just what did you have in mind?"
      "Well, we had all these bears--"
      "And Clara!" Carstairs snatched the battered doll from McGinnis. "Don't forget Clara!"
      "Clara." Joan looked at them both, tapping her foot on the linoleum floor. "You're going to perform The Nutcracker? This I've gotta see."
      "Oh, yeah." Gina Dahl marched up and peered at her husband out of narrowed eyes. "I can just see Charley galumphing around in tights. What are you guys talking about?"
      "The bears!" Big Jim Shelby held up his collection. "They can stand in for the wooden soldiers, and that doll can be Clara, and, um--" He cast around for inspiration. "And that paper angel over there can be the Sugarplum Fairy, and--"
      Joan went up on her tiptoes and sniffed at his breath. "You're drunk!" She rounded on the rest of them. "You all are! We can't turn our backs for five seconds! Honestly, Jim, what are you thinking? This is a kids' party!"
      "Well. . . what can it hurt just to make a sort of Nutcracker stage over there, huh?"
      "You're missing a nutcracker, for one thing."
      "But not the nuts," Gina muttered.
      "There's a G.I. Joe doll down there." Carstairs staggered away and came back with a high-tech edition with desert camouflage fatigues and body armor and web gear with little fake grenades clipped to it. Joan looked from it to him and sort of snorted.
      "Whatever." She went back to decorating the tree.
      Five minutes later the men were tripping over each other and arguing about stage dressing as though they were mounting a Broadway production. None of them had seen The Nutcracker in years and what with the booze, none of them had a particularly clear idea of the plot. Occasional snickers from the ladies' side of the room didn't help all that much, and Charley Dahl kept making lewd remarks about Clara and G.I. Joe getting it on under the Christmas tree. Finally Big Jim got nasty and told him to shut up before he made him catch up his bar tab, which pricked up Gina’s ears in a big way. While Charley was stuttering through an explanation to his wife the other guys managed to get Clara and Joe in place center-stage and started dividing up the bears into "armies".
      "Too bad we can't make 'em move around," Carstairs said wistfully, looking around at stiff little teddy faces staring blankly back at him.
      "So make a wish," Big Jim cracked.
      Carstairs raised himself up with the elaborate dignity of drunks and raised his hand. "I wish, uh, I wish . . . you know," he finished helplessly. "We could make it real for the kids."
      "They'll have a great Christmas anyway," Doc McGinnis soothed.
      Carstairs got maudlin. "It's Christmas Eve and they're off shopping on, what? Five bucks apiece or something? Life ain't fair."
      "No, it isn't, but that's why people need to be charitable at times like this."
      Carstairs blinked at him stupidly. "Like what?"
      "Never mind, Joel," three or four guys chorused.
      About then Joan Shelby decided she needed a big tall guy to help hang the star on the tree. "Jim! I need a hand here."
      Jim had an armful of bears. He turned to see what she wanted and tripped over a box of decorations. He crashed onto his back, the teddy bears flew in every direction, and Glen McGinnis rushed over to see if he was all right. When he knelt down, his knee landed in the middle of a pint-sized bear with a pirate hat and a plastic sword left over from Halloween.
      "Avast there!" the bear cried in a tinny voice. McGinnis was so surprised he jumped right up again, while Joan rushed over and Charley Dahl cracked up laughing and Gina Dahl scowled and told him to shut up, Jim might be really hurt. Big Jim himself was thrashing around on the floor trying to get up, scattering bears everywhere and ignoring McGinnis trying to pull him up by one wrist.
      "Leave me alone, you quack," he snarled, beet red with embarrassment.
      McGinnis straightened up in a huff. "Well! Fine." And then his eyes got wide and he took a step back, and everybody turned to look at what he was staring at.
      The pirate bear was on its feet, waving its little sword at the rest of its scattered brethren. Paddington got up and bowed politely to Joan Shelby and marched over to stand behind the pirate. Joel Carstairs gave a strangled little scream and threw his armful of bears violently to the floor as one of them started to squirm under his elbow. He backed up and knocked into Charley, who had quit laughing to stare with his face screwed up in a suspicious squint.
      "How are you doing that, Jim?" he demanded, but Jim Shelby was backing away on his hands and knees, staring sort of sickly at the bears forming ranks behind the pirate.
      "Charge!" the pirate bear cried, and stuck its plastic sword into Jim's arm.
      "Ow!" Big Jim leaped up, or tried to. He tripped over the same box of decorations again and windmilled into McGinnis, who crashed into Mike Simms, who knocked Charley Dahl flat. One of the women screeched and Joan Shelby just stood there and stared until the doll Clara tugged politely at her sleeve and said, "Have you seen my nutcracker?"
      Joan turned white, her mouth opening and closing weakly with no sound coming out. The rest of the room was in bedlam, with the men trying to pick themselves up from the floor and mostly kicking and knocking each other flat again in the scramble. The women looked from the bears to their men, clearly torn between mother instinct and survival instinct. Gina Dahl gave Charley a narrow-eyed glare and leaned down to pick up the staple gun they'd been using to anchor the evergreen boughs.
      "Whatever you did to those bears, Mr. Electronics Whiz, you quit it, and right now." She brandished the gun toward a particularly sensitive area of his anatomy.
      "Gina!" Charley stared at her from the floor with the bewildered innocence of the unjustly accused. "What are you talking about? I didn't do anything to the goddamned bears!"
      "Gina, be reasonable." Joan had recovered a little, as well she might, since she wasn't in the direct line of the charging bears, who had taken to chasing Jim around the floor, their little arms waving. "It would have taken him a year to wire those bears to walk around, and I don't see a remote." She eyed Charley suspiciously.
      "Hey!" Jim yelped. "Get these damned things off me!"
      Everybody looked over at him. Mike Simms, who had managed to crawl out of the dog pile and get up, fell down laughing again. The bears had cornered Jim down by the door into the kitchen, but he couldn't reach it because the pirate was determinedly jabbing his ankle with his little sword and the biggest bear, a three-footer with shiny black boots and a fireman's hat, was waving his fireman's axe dangerously close to Big Jim's family jewels.
      "Just kick 'em out of the way!" Charley yelled. "You're bigger than they are."
      Jim kicked. A bear flew and hit the wall, crashed to the floor and lay still. Encouraged, he took aim at another, only to get the fireman's axe in the thigh. "Ow!" he yelled, clutching his leg and hopping on the other foot. "Would you guys do something!"
      Gina Dahl got a strange smile on her face. "I don't suppose there were any stuffed mice in those boxes, were there?"
      Joan gave her a brooding look. "Let's go see." Without a qualm she abandoned her husband and started for the basement stairs.
      "Hey!" Jim bellowed. "Where are you going?"
      "You guys wanted to stage The Nutcracker," Gina said serenely. "Let's do it right."
     Jim had to dodge a combined attack by the pirate and the fireman about then so he couldn't answer, but Charley picked up an evergreen branch that hadn't made it up onto the wall yet and started toward the bears with murder in his eye. The dog pile sorted itself out and everybody stood up. Joel Carstairs got upset when he saw Charley take a swipe at a defenseless-looking teddy and knock it halfway to the fireplace, fanning the double row of skinny striped stockings thumb-tacked to the mantle.
      "Stop it!" he called to Charley. "Geez, they're teddy bears!"
      "They're friggin' possessed, is what they are," Charley shot back. "And it's your damned fault."
      "Mine!"
      "Yours," everybody chorused, even the women.
      Jim was still retreating from the fireman, limping. Just about then Gina and Joan came back with their arms full of stuffed animals of every kind from giraffes to one oversized Mickey Mouse. The second she set that one down it charged off to take on the fireman, shouting, "Follow me, boys! At 'em, Pluto!"

      Pluto was missing in action but a stuffed dog sprang to life and went yapping off to snarl at three bears advancing on Jim from behind. Charley took another swipe at a draggled-looking Paddington and then abruptly sat down hard, his knees buckling from a jab from the pirate's sword. His tailbone smacked the linoleum and he turned loose a flood of words not normally allowed in orphanages. Clara clapped her hands over her ears and ran toward G.I. Joe, who was still standing stiffly beside the little bed the men had concocted out of boxes and wrapping paper for her. She shook him, shouting "Oh, save me!"
      Joe turned his head and saw Charley and a sea of bears surrounding his beloved Clara. At once he ripped a grenade off his web harness, pulled the pin, and tossed the thing at Charley. Dahl stared, absolutely flabbergasted, until the miniature pineapple was a foot from his face, when he finally threw himself to one side. The grenade went off where he'd been sitting, making a tiny crater well rimmed with scorch marks in the linoleum.       "Hey, this ain't funny anymore," Mike Simms declared, his eyes bulging half out of his head. "I'm outa here."
      "Coward!" Charley Dahl howled, on his hands and knees dodging bears advancing on him from every direction. "Get 'em off me!"
      "You're the one wanted to stage The Nutcracker! Be happy!"
      Mike took off for the front door, but a flood of stuffed tigers and donkeys and kitties and one bright pink bunny rolled between him and the door. A tiger hissed and made a swipe with all claws extended; the bunny leaped and attached itself to his leg, puffball tail quivering. Mike yelled and tried to shake it off, stumbling backward.
      "Mike!" three women shrieked, but Mrs. Simms' voice boomed loudest. "I paid twenty bucks for that rabbit! Leave it alone!"

      "Wanda!" Mike turned a betrayed look on his wife, and then he lost his balance and went down under a flood of charging stuffed animals.

      Macho instinct kicked in among the other men. One and all set their jaws and charged grimly into the melee, kicking and stamping. War whoops shook the room, underscored by Mickey yelling, "At 'em, at 'em!" and the pirate shrilling, "Avast, you blackguards! Stand and fight!" A tiny stuffed kitten apparently too dim to grasp the seriousness of the situation gamboled around the fringes, pouncing on friend and foe alike until someone accidently stepped on it. The women then started yelling at the men to not damage the toys while the men were yelling target information at each other.
      "That one! That one. No, stupid, the blue dog!"
      "Get the one in the cowboy hat!"
      "I don't suppose it ever occurred to you guys to just get out of the way," Joan Shelby remarked conversationally.
      "This is stupid," Gina said. "I'm calling the cops."
      "Why?" Wanda Simms asked. "The bears are winning."
      Gina snorted. "I want some toys left to give the kids, that's why." She disappeared into the office.
      Big Jim had found refuge behind the Christmas tree and was beating at the fireman bear with a light saber liberated from a Wookie doll. Where the Wookie came by it, no one ever figured out. G.I. Joe flung another grenade at Charley, who dodged and upset the ladder, which landed in the Christmas tree, sweeping a lot of cheap but fragile ornaments to glittering ruin. That earned a collective screech from all the women that was pretty much lost in the sound of an approaching siren. By now all that could be heard in the orphanage was a lot of swearing and battle cries from the combatants and barking and snarling and mooing and hissing from the Mouse King's army. Mickey was dueling with Paddington, who had found himself a roll of wrapping paper and was swinging it awkwardly at the mouse, hampered by the fact that he didn't have much in the way of opposable thumbs to grip it with. He had it tucked under one arm and was going at it with spirit if not much finesse. Charley was backed up against the wall, cut off from his rescuers, who found themselves besieged by soft-looking creatures with teeth that hurt and claws that drew blood when they raked at unprotected ankles and hands. Joel Carstairs staggered away with his head in his hands, moaning, "I didn't mean it! I didn't mean it!" and collapsed in a corner out of the action. Everybody ignored him.
      Gina and Joan exchanged glances, seeing the kids' Christmas presents fixing to rip themselves to shreds. Neither of them had a clue how to call it off. About then two cops made it through the front door, thinking they'd walked into the burglary reported by Gina. Instead they saw six grown men attacking a swarm of stuffed toys with all the grim ferocity of Marines advancing up Mount Suribachi. Their mouths dropped open and one reached for his night stick before the other one struck his hand up.
      The first one turned red and glared at his partner, who took another look and faded out the door to call for reinforcements. Two more cop cars screeched up about the time Charley Dahl linked up with his compatriots, still dodging G.I. Joe, who had now leveled his M-16 and was blazing away. Charley winced and swore and dodged tiny bullets peppering his face and the backs of his hands as he tried to protect his eyes. Mike Simms tried to rescue him and went down when a stuffed gorilla swarmed up his back and thumped him hard on the back of the head with a plastic coconut. Joe stopped to reload and Charley broke free to drag Mike's limp body out of the way of an angry tiger looking to turn his out-flung arm into mincemeat.
      The cops had no idea what to do. The one who had called for reinforcements came back in full riot gear with visored helmet and all. They looked at him and thought that was a pretty good idea, and departed to armor up. Then they all came back in and started a cautious advance, shield to shield like Roman legionnaires advancing on the Gauls. They attracted some attention from a few bears, but a couple of good blows with night sticks cleared a path. Encouraged, they started toward Charley, who was slowly losing to G.I. Joe.
      Big Jim finally felled the fireman and charged out from behind the Christmas tree. "Look out!" he bellowed to no one in particular, which naturally turned every head in the room. Wanda Simms shrieked a warning at Doc McGinnis, too late. Focused on Big Jim, he did not see a crafty little Geronimo bear sneak up and bury its little hatchet in his calf.
      He went down, howling, which set the cops off. They charged, swinging indiscriminately at everything in sight. That earned them the attention of both the bears and the Mouse King's motley army, which turned and launched itself in a multi-colored flood. The cops hesitated.
      G.I. Joe picked that moment to fling his last grenade. It missed its target--Charley--and unfortunately landed on the yapping Pluto stand-in. Black and white synthetic fur flew everywhere and the dog dropped in a pathetic heap. Mickey Mouse wheeled with fire in his big plastic eyes and made a beeline for Joe. Sheer ferocity and grief powered right over Clara's beau; Joe fired off the last rounds in his M-16, missing by a mile, and went over backward, hit the floor hard, and lay still.
      Clara screamed. Every human in the room froze, arrested by that child's shriek of grief. Clara, until now safely tucked up behind the bed out of the action, rushed into the thick, snatching off her shoe. "You monster!" she yelled, and flung it at Mickey.
      It hit the Mouse King squarely between the eyes, dropping him flat. Clara rushed by the motionless body and thumped to her knees beside Joe, sobbing. Everybody watched, stricken. Even the combatant toys broke off the fight. The Mouse King's army retreated in confusion toward the kitchen; the bears all lined up in a ring around Clara, watching sadly as she raised poor Joe against her shoulder.
      "Oh, my brave nutcracker!" she mourned.
      Joe feebly lifted one camouflage-clad arm. Everybody in the place cheered, even Charley Dahl. Instantly he slunk behind Big Jim, red as a fire engine. Everybody else ignored him, watching as Clara helped Joe to his feet and took his hand. He bowed to her, a little stiffly, true, but for a doll, it wasn't bad. Then Clara took his hand, gazing soulfully into his eyes.
      The lights blinked, dimmed, came back up again. Everybody looked up, groaning. Power outages on Christmas Eve? But the lights stayed on. When they looked back, Clara and Joe were lying stiffly side by side on the little bed, and all the bears were scattered lifeless on the floor.
      "Act Two," Joan whispered.
      But the Sugarplum Fairy did not alight from her perch atop the mantel. She remained a paper angel with stiffly spread skirts and gilded wings, looking down on the mess in the orphanage dining hall.
      Six embarrassed cops looked at each other and lowered their riot shields. "What the hell was that?" one of them asked the room at large.
      "Uh . . ."
      Even the women couldn't come up with an answer.
      "We'll have to report this," one of the other cops finally said. The oldest one, a sergeant, turned his head and looked at him.
      "Report what?"
      "Yeah," Charley said slyly, picking tiny rubber bullets out of the back of one hand. "I bet your watch commander will just lo-ove to hear about the teddy bear riot."
      "Get back on patrol," the sergeant said stiffly, and led the retreat out the door.
      Well, the women cleaned up the mess and exiled the men to wrap the boxes. They buried poor Pluto in the garbage can and propped all the rest of the stuffed animals around the room because it was too late to wrap them. All I could think of was what a waste it all was. A real wish come true, and it had degenerated into the usual dreary mess mankind seems to make of everything, of misunderstanding and hostility and outright war.
      But then the kids came trooping back from their shopping expedition, ruddy with Christmas snow and fizzing with excitement. And that room, that barren room with its cracked linoleum and peeling paint and blocked-up fireplace, suddenly sparkled. The wide eyes and open mouths and instant smiles poured magic—a much better magic—all over that place.  In two seconds they proved that it doesn’t take a miracle to make a kid happy, just an adult or two who cares.Every one of that mismatched army of fake fur and staring plastic eyes ended up in the fierce grip of a child with nothing else to cherish; even the older kids quietly sidled up and stroked a furry ear or two before smilingly handing them on to a younger child. Not one of those kids seemed to notice that some of the toys were a bit battered and scruffy. The littlest girl got "Clara"; wide-eyed and speechless with joy, she started to dance with her, circling and dipping in solemn imitation of some remembered TV version of the ballet as Tchaikovsky's timeless music poured from the tinny speakers set up in the corners. G.I. Joe looked on over a towheaded boy's shoulder. Was he smiling? I couldn't tell, because something got in my eye and I spent the next five minutes wiping it out.
      So maybe Joel Carstairs's wish wasn't wasted after all.
      I wrote up that moment, not the rest, but my editor got wind of it from a guy who heard the burglary call over the police scanner, followed by an urgent call for backup. Naturally he wanted to know where I was during all the excitement.
      I think he believed my story about having a flat tire and arriving late. I can put up with a little damage to my reputation for always being where the action is. But I have no intention of ever 'fessing up to how I got the bite mark on my right hand.
      That Pluto really had sharp teeth.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

I shared this on Facebook but I'll repeat it here. Several years ago, at my last "real" job before I started writing full time, management held a poetry contest Thanksgiving week and gave everybody a list of words to use. I must (immodestly) say that I won with the following entry, which is too dumb to sell and too fun not to share. So happy Thanksgiving, folks. I hope it's terrific.

Cranberry
Pilgrim
Giblets
A relative's name (Ex. Uncle Charlie, Grandma Mabel)
Mincemeat
Turkey
Football
Gravy
Leftovers
Pecan pie


`Twas the night of Thanksgiving, after the feast,
You could tell by the crumbs scattered north, west, and east.
The bones of the turkey lay stripped and forlorn,
Covered with gravy and bread ripped and torn.
The giblets were eaten, and the cranberry sauce;
The guys had retired to watch a football get tossed.
But I could tell from the way they groaned and they huffed,
That more than that poor turkey got stuffed.
Uncle Glenn had the couch; Cousin Joe had the floor,
My beloved was slumped somewhere near the front door.
"Another great dinner!" they proclaimed to a man,
But not one volunteered to give me a hand
As I cleared away dishes and tossed out the scraps
And secured the new leftovers in tight plastic wraps.

Now I do love to cook but that's not the point,
I could have used some help cleaning up the joint.
Instead there they sat, my fine Pilgrim band,
While grown men with a toy on the tube threw and ran.
"First down and ten!" they started to cheer,
And I guess I saw red when they called for more beer.
I confess that a wicked gleam came to my eye,
As I looked at my beautiful, untouched pecan pie.
I drew up a chair and sat down `midst the mess,
And what happened then--well, you can guess.

While the game got intense and the boys started swearing
And betting the very shirts they were wearing,
Through the din when the other team's quarterback got hurt,
I sat there and quietly demolished dessert.
Oh, it was good, all those nuts and that cream,
I didn't even care if it made me broad in the beam.
The dog got a piece; the kittycats, too--
I’d send it anywhere except to that crew.
Then the men trooped in smiling `cause the right team had won,
All wanting dessert, but too late--it was gone.

"Hey, the pie's the best part!" they wailed and protested.
"Then next year help bake it," I unblinkingly jested.
They looked so crestfallen I guessed maybe they'd got it,
And of course now I needn’t confess that I'd bought it.
*My* pecan pie burnt but the mincemeat survived,
And the joy on their faces my holiday spirit revived.

Ladies take heed and gentlemen take warning:
Things look quite different on Thanksgiving morning
Than they do by the end of that "relaxing" day.
So try sharing it *all* and keep the holiday gay!

Monday, November 16, 2015

How hard can it be?

Really. How hard can it be for Prince Alarion Aravon, newly minted victor on battlefields both earthly and arcane, to find his brother, King Traven, a wife? Well...

Not so easy if you know nothing about girls. And two of the candidates are fixated on you. And you're in love with one of the candidates. And one of those demure misses will do anything to be Queen.

Yeah. Easy.

But Alarion has not battled and won against the gods of Fate and Death and Chaos for nothing. Ever the diplomat (and a pretty fair hand with a sword when it comes to it), he is wise enough to spot trouble when it flounces toward him. But figuring out how to steer the right candidate toward the King without breaking his own heart or launching a scandal that will rock Sevakand end to end--that's a much trickier job. Because the courtly games cover a much, much deeper problem.

The first reader review of The Heart of God on Amazon sums it up rather well, actually:
The emotional intensity of this story will carry you along with it. Believe me, you will really care about the King's choice of wife—and not just because you'll be rooting for one or another of the candidates (though you will!), but because of the impact the choice will have on other characters. At some points you'll grit your teeth about what you expect to happen, at others the whole question seems a problem with no possible resolution, yet the story brings you to a satisfying conclusion. And there's more going on than courting—there's also politics, the intervention of the gods, and dark hints at existential conflict to come, which may threaten any peace the characters may have found for the moment. An excellent book, with emotional depth, characters you will love (and in some cases hate!), and an intriguing plot. I highly recommend it.
 I hope you, too, will enjoy reading this book as much as I did writing it. You can find it in both print and ebook at any major outlet.


Monday, November 2, 2015

Launch day for The Heart of God!

It's launch day! I've been waiting for this one for months, because this is one of my favorite books in the Fate's Arrow series. A little lighter, a bit tongue-in-cheek in places, it's a blend of intrigue, vengeful gods, and romantic misunderstandings wherein our hero, Alarion, finally discovers girls. King Traven needs to find a wife, and leaves it to Alarion to pick the candidates. There's just one problem. Alarion knows nothing about women. Not to mention that Fate has certain plans of her own.

I love this book because the reader is clued in to what everyone is thinking but the characters most emphatically are not, which makes for some humorous encounters and people working at cross-purposes with the noblest (and most despicable) of intentions. And poor Alarion: he hasn't the first clue how to dodge the amorous intentions of one of those women or hide his feelings from another.

Did I mention that he is clueless about girls?

I hope you will check out the Heart of God, which is available in both print and ebook today from Amazon and other outlets..


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Under Two Moons

Welcome to the Broad Universe Full Moon Blog Tour!
Moonrise. Can you see the light spilling up over the edge of the world, arming the night with possibilities? Oh, I can. I love the moon. I love the moon so much that it seems I can never have just one in my worlds. I adore the imagery you get from moonlight: the still, ethereal quality to the landscape that comes when the moon rises and the shadows yield, reluctantly, to the ghostlight of an orb that can only half command their obedience. The world is different at night; those who conjure moonlight onto the page are already armed with magic.

So how much more can you do with two or more moons? Oh, my children, come forth and listen to my tale, for the silent silver light of multiple moons presents such wonderful possibilities . . . and such wicked confusion. Really, there's always just one too darned many when you need it to be dark:
Evion hovered tantalizingly just short of a large cloud, drowning the stars in light. Claira had seen what she needed to see, garnering a few ideas for tomorrow night. Come on, come on, she wished the moon. This sand is cold. 
Evion disappeared behind the cloud. She waited a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dimmer light, eyeing a faint glow overhead that marked Clarus lurking below the eastern cliff. Carefully she worked her hands underneath her body to lift herself off the sand, and froze when a footstep scuffled not two meters away.
She fought wild laughter as the man relieved himself against a rock. Just like a cur, marking his territory. She burrowed deeper into the shadows, her face against the red sand to hide the white shine of it. The guard adjusted his clothing and began to stroll up and down in front of the defile, careless of the movement while Evion still hid behind its cloud. She swore under her breath, aware of bright Clarus sliding inexorably up over the cliff top.
And with two or more moons in the sky, are they really your friend?
Alarion glanced toward the Well of Winds but saw nothing, heard nothing but the frenetic howl of the winds. Kevan’s gaudily red-dappled App stallion clattered down the path behind him, picking its way over the rocks. Double shadows slid and leaped at every movement, a wickedly confusing dance that set the horses snorting. Hera still stood far over the northern peaks, sliding leisurely on its eccentric path across the sky. The mountains gleamed pale under Clarus, brushed with a dim red taint from the lesser moon, all jagged edges like bloody knives. Alarion jerked his gaze away, shivering, sick, his hand a cramped knot of pain.
The trail dropped through a confusing tangle of forested ravines. Dust puffed in silvery clouds when the horses plunged onto the traders’ hard-packed road winding toward the river an hour’s ride away. Sera pawed impatiently when Alarion reined her in to let the others catch up. With Habb and Kevan’s App crowding her tail, he glanced down at the rutted road, weighing the odds of breaking a horse’s leg against civil war.
“Let’s go.”
He brushed a heel against Sera’s side. She drove in powerful haunches, running hard in the third stride. Kevan’s stallion pounded behind; Habb floated effortlessly beside Sera, the knotted fly-whisks on his bridle streaming in the wind. Alarion let the mare pick her own way among the double shadows, running as if she rode her name. Soon the Street of Temples would be in an uproar, and Bren Shea awakening to a grim gift on his doorstep.
“Run, girl,” he told Sera. “Or we are all dead.”
And then there are all the wonderful scenes to be drawn when the moons aren't all benevolent and bright:
Hera was just rising over the long sweep of plain, a red and baleful eye like Death spying on them.
Think of being stalked by that moon and its bloody light!

Putting multiple moons into the sky is a fun and sometimes frustrating exercise if you care at all about scientific accuracy, which I do. I learned long ago how to tell the phase of our own single moon at a glance, but envisioning the paths of multiple moons traveling at different speeds, in slightly different orbits, makes my head hurt. My eternal gratitude goes to the gurus at space.com for stuff like this. And I am so, em, obsessive in my research that I use this site to make sure I have the correct moon phase for any given actual day that I use in my historical fiction. Will most readers know or care? Probably not. But I do. I'm not the type of writer who enjoys being beaten about the head and shoulders by irate history lovers who would object strenuously to my making the moon at Gettysburg a ghostly quarter peering down at the battlefield when it was really full and set at sunrise or shortly thereafter each day of the battle.

I think authenticity counts even in fantasy!

I am as inclined as the next writer to have my characters tryst romantically in the moonlight, to capture that rippling light onto water in the wake of moving ships, to paint the landscape in glorious silver light. But I also like to use the moon(s) to full advantage in my worldbuilding, and so you are likely always to find more than one in my skies, contributing to the hero's problems and solutions, each in their own eccentric way. The examples above are all from my Fate's Arrow series, which begins with The Mask of God, and is available everywhere. The third book, The Heart of God, will be available November 1. Get a sneak peek at chapter one here!

If you really like moons, check out the full blog tour! Below is a word from our sponsors, and a chance to enter for great prizes, including copies of my own Firedancer, Book 1 of The Masters of the Elements, and The Mask of God, Book 1 of Fate's Arrow.

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Heart of God: Humor, intrigue, and romance all in one


The most miserable part about dating is trying to figure out the opposite sex, isn't it? Young people (and, let's face it, all the rest of us) face that minefield of "What is he thinking? What does she really want?" from that first, timorous attempt to get together. Probably ninety percent of the time it's not what you think/hope. So how much funnier is it when you can look inside everyone's head and eavesdrop on what they're really thinking?

Welcome to The Heart of God, the third book in my Fate's Arrow series. King Traven must find himself a wife, and Sevakand's process means that the girls must court him. None of this find-a-suitable-noble-girl-and-call-it-a-marriage stuff; both parties get a chance to refuse. So he tasks his younger brother, Alarion, with putting together a list of candidates and awaits their arrival in Yarom.

There's just one hitch. Alarion doesn't know anything about girls. As in, he's still a virgin at 18, in a court filled with willing orvi who would gladly knife all their rivals in the back for a chance at his bed. He is in no wise prepared for the likes of gorgeous Elenya Gregor, who takes one look at him and forgets all about the fact that she's supposed to be vying for the King's hand, not his. Or pretty Miria devLacey, who innocently manages to spark all kinds of thoughts in his head that poor Alarion can't really do anything about. Or sad Linor Major, who everybody but her thinks would be ideal for the King--if she would just look at him.

So there they are, each with an agenda, and only the reader gets to see what everyone is thinking in a delicious romp wherein the fun is well spiced with very real danger. Because at least one of those girls will do anything to be Queen.

Meanwhile, Fate, Death, and the Thousandth God are still playing their intense games, as Fate tries to shape the future she wants for the planet of Ariel, Death pursues his vendetta against Alarion, and the Thousandth God . . . well, he just can't resist the thought of a little chaos thrown in to make things interesting. And there over the border of the march, the heathen fanatics are now well stirred by Alarion's passage among them. An unexpected defection from the ranks of Alarion's friends is about to set the kettle boiling. Chaos? Even the Thousandth God may regret rolling his dice before it's all done.

The Heart of God will be available November 1, so mark your calendar! In the meantime, you can get a sneak peek at chapter one here.

You can also get caught up on the series with The Mask of God and The Mark of God.


Monday, October 5, 2015

The view from where I write

It's the last day of my virtual blog tour and it finishes with a flourish at Judy Thomas's Welcome to My World of Dreams site. It was interesting to be asked to describe the view from the spot where I write my books. Readers might get a kick out of what I see when I settle down with my laptop every day. They will certainly recognize the view in some of my stories!

It's your last chance to comment on this blog tour and earn a chance to win a $15 Amazon gift certificate to spend as you choose. Hop on over to Judy's place and get one last look at what makes me tick as a writer. I hope to see you there!


Monday, September 28, 2015

The "Voice" of In Heaven's Shadow

It's Monday and I'm back from the UK! I'll tell you all about that one in a future post but today I want to give a shout-out to Long and Short Reviews, which is hosting me today, showcasing one of my favorite books: In Heaven's Shadow. For a bunch of reasons I do really love this Civil War blend of ghost story and fantasy, not least because it was all kinds of fun writing the main characters. My article today talks about the "voice" of this story and how it developed from the very first line that popped into my head.

Even as a writer I can't explain where the words in my head come from or why it is so impossible for me to outline a story in advance. I need that blank page in order to even start a book, and I never know what will show up. But, in looking back at writing the first page of In Heaven's Shadow, even I get an inkling into how my subconscious works. It's kinda fascinating, actually...

Hop on along to Long and Short Reviews and read about the process of writing this novel. Leave a comment and you'll be entered to win a $15 Amazon gift certificate at the end of the tour. I hope to see you there!




Monday, September 21, 2015

The Archeolibrarian Digs In Heaven's Shadow

It's Monday and another stop on my Goddess Fish virtual blog tour. Today we're at the Archeolibrarian, which "digs" good books in a wide range of genres, including fantasy. I have an article up there today talking about all the things I wish I had known when I was first starting out in the writing biz. Oh, my, the ignorance... Makes me blush to think how naive I was!

To learn why rejection isn't always a bad thing and my top 8 tips for new writers, hop on along to the Archeolibrarian today. Leave a comment on the article and you'll be entered to win a $15 Amazon gift certificate (and no, you don't have to spend it on my books!).

See you there!


Monday, September 14, 2015

Books Chatter about In Heaven's Shadow today!

My virtual blog tour continues today at Books Chatter with an in-depth interview. Flora asked some interesting questions about In Heaven's Shadow, the characters (both living and non-living!), and what makes this book unique. One thing she asked gave me pause and made me step back ten years to ponder the answer. That was "How much of yourself is reflected in the book?"

Hoo boy! That one dug a little deeper than she knows. The answer is one reason it took me a couple of years to finish In Heaven's Shadow after a flying start in the 2004 NaNoWriMo writing challenge. Sometimes what we write strikes pretty close to home.

I hope you'll check out the complete interview at Books Chatter today. I would love to hear your thoughts on the book and the interview. If you leave a comment there you will be entered to win a $15 Amazon gift certificate in appreciation for your interest.




Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Smoke-free and loving it

So, after a whole month of living in the smokiest state in the union, we got rain last weekend that washed the air clean and cooled the whole place down. Like, thirty degrees. From low 90s to mid-60s, and chilly enough at night to need a fire in the woodstove. My whole body is wondering how we got to Antarctica so fast. It is always amazing to me how 70 degrees can feel like an oven in the spring and a refrigerator in the fall.

The camper is off the truck and back on its blocks, with only minor cussing in the process. It was such a pleasure to haul all the memorabilia and legal stuff out of the truck and back into the house! I do not feel so guilty leaving the place even to buy groceries now. I have a fair hope that the house and barn will still be standing when I get home.

Being a cancer patient, I am forced to think about survival every blinkin' day, but there really is nothing like a natural disaster to make you appreciate what you have or what you stand to lose. My heart hurts for all the families that were burned out and lost everything but each other. And that is the essential thing, isn't it? Things can be replaced, for the most part. Even the most precious memento does not, in the end, give us life; it only enriches it. The real treasure is in the people around you, the ones you will go on with. They can't be replaced, and so any day you get out with your lives is a good day, however horrendous the shock of coming home to a pile of ashes.

Thus far our state has been lucky. The death toll has been low, but even one life lost is too many. Send a few good wishes our way that the rains continue and the fires die out soon, before that number changes, or anyone else loses their homes. Thanks!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Chatting with Lisa Hazelton today

I had a fun interview with Lisa Hazelton today at Lisa Hazelton's Reviews and Interviews site, talking about the inspiration for my Civil War ghost story/fantasy In Heaven's Shadow. When I sit down to write I never know where ideas are going to come from. Does anyone? But in this case, my muse or my psyche or whatever puts ideas forward from the deepest, darkest depths of the subconscious clearly had something in mind.

Find out what that was by reading the whole interview on Lisa's site. And while you're there, leave a comment and you'll be entered to win a $15 Amazon gift certificate. It's all courtesy of the fabulous ladies at Goddess Fish Promotions, who work pretty hard to put good books in front of new readers. Thank you, Lisa, and thank you, ladies!


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Where oh where have all the good jeans gone?

So, okay, I'm getting ready for a trip to faraway places, which means (yay!) I get to shop for clothes. Unfortunately, this means shopping for jeans. Holy smokes, The last jeans I bought were acquired two years ago, and my, how times have changed. I had no idea.

I am a rider. I have a farm. I need to like, you know, wear something sturdy outside when building fence, hauling hay, etc. Women's jeans are... stretchy! Stretttttcccccchy! You cannot find anything that is NOT stretchy! They're soft! They're slimming! They're relaxed fit! They're....useless. I spent all afternoon hunting through the usual places for decent jeans that might last more than two weeks, slinking in vain from name brand shelf to name brand shelf to clearance rack. All stretchy. I spot Levi's, good old Levi's, inventor of the practical work pant, and guess what? They're EXTRA STRETCHY! And there is nothing under a size 10. Since when did I become a size 6, and even those hang on me like clothes on a line? I guess I'm supposed to buy a size 4 and squirm my way into them, letting the material ooze around all my bulges like swamp water engulfing the back 40. I am NOT a size 4! Yet (get this), the Daisy Mae-sized super-shorts are actual, real denim! Non-stretchy. Pre-shrunk. Faded just a little. Perfect! Exactly what I'm looking for. Except...you can only get it in shorts that barely cover the necessities.

So now, with steam seeping from my ears, I try the local farm store and go for the men's jeans that used to fit so well. Those sizes haven't changed since I was a tomboy down on the farm 'cause the manufacturers feel no need to flatter men into thinking they're smaller and fitter than they are. But alas, ye old standbys don't fit anymore either. I am in no way shrunken to the stick I was this spring when I was much sicker than I am right now. So what am I to make of the nicely fitting waist and hips and the acres of extra material stolen from Omar the Tentmaker billowing around my chubby little legs, eh? It seems women are either supposed to paint their jeans on or swim in them. Sigh.

Anybody have recommendations for jeans that actually fit AND have a useful life of more than three hours? I am SO listening.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Reading Addict Showcases In Heaven's Shadow

I have an article up today at The Reading Addict as part of my ongoing blog tour with Goddess Fish Promotions. Like so many readers, I want a book to take me away to new places, to experience adventures with people I don't know but would like to. I love immersing myself in new worlds, new places, and new cultures.

In "Writer, Take Me Away!" I talk about how this applies to my own writing, and particularly In Heaven's Shadow, my Civil War ghost story/fantasy that blends my love of history with my love of fantasy and—almost!—meets my original goal for my writing career. I fully intended to get a history degree and then happily settle into writing historical fiction for the rest of my life. Really.

Somehow, that didn't happen! But I enjoy the heck out of what I write, and I hope you all do too. 

If you comment on the article you could win a $15 Amazon gift certificate. Hop on in and leave your thoughts!


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Saving the irreplaceable

Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to the news by now knows that my native state is burning. We have over 500,000 acres on fire in Washington alone and a million in the northwest, not to mention Canada, California, and Montana. The smoke has not cleared at all this week and is likely to get worse when the dust kicks up tomorrow as predicted. My pastures are cooked, the woods around my house are tinder, and I live in daily dread of a flicked cigarette taking everything I own.

So, my camper is still on the truck, currently hooked to my horse trailer, and I have uploaded the irreplaceable things as well as the legal documents required to re-establish identity and satisfy various government agencies, etc. That includes photo albums, because, yes, it is ever so difficult to replace 100-year-old pictures of dead people.

My parents as happy young newlyweds
In the general roundup of family mementos, I rediscovered my mother's diaries. She kept them faithfully, every day, for the first ten years my parents were married, then abruptly abandoned them one day a couple of months after her mother died and never made another entry. They are filled with the minutiae of a young housewife's everyday life in the 1950s, compounded by the difficulties of just starting out with no money, building their own house (literally, Dad built it with his own hands), cranky well pumps, crankier clunker cars quitting and getting stuck in our long, unimproved driveway at home, and a million daily difficulties. Chasing calves figures highly. She mentions many times that they slept in on weekends "as late as the kids would let us." Mea culpa!

What strikes me most, though, is how close and supportive my parents' combined families were. There are a million mentions of Dad's mother coming out from town to clean and help with us kids over the years, of her father and mine working together to fix machinery, harvest peas and wheat, doctor calves, and generally pitch in when needed at both places. This was especially apparent in the weeks following the birth of us four kids, when the various grandparents were very much in evidence helping out by babysitting my older siblings, cleaning, cooking, etc. Plus, the close-knit community of friends and neighbors is very much in evidence, ready to help out and be helped in turn. How I wish our modern communities were that connected.

It is odd to know that your mother did her usual chores on the day you were born, sauntered leisurely to the hospital at 10 p.m. and delivered at 11:40, interesting to be rated "a very good baby", and to know that though named Susan after a large host of relatives on both sides, I was Sue to my mother from day one. And I am humbled that not once in all those tough years did she complain. Only once does pain come through, in the truncated entries after her mother's death, and in one quiet "Didn't DO (underlined) anything" on a particular day a month into the grieving process. In a life filled with a busy round of caring for kids, helping my dad on the farm, ferrying kids to school, stopping in for coffee with neighbors on the way home, ironing, vacuuming, canning, weeding the vegetable garden, washing clothes, tending house, etc.--this was a cry from the heart, a mark of depression so profound she could not bestir herself to get anything done and felt guilty enough about it to mark it in her diary. The next day she persevered, carrying on because all that stuff still needed to get done no matter how she felt.

I have always adored and admired my parents and I wish they were still here to tell them so. Mom, I miss you, and admire you even more now. You weren't just a housewife. You were the rock of our family's existence, and nothing ever broke you. Yours was, all in all, a life well lived. Thank you.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sasquan fun

Wow. I just want to give a big shout-out to all the fans who turned up for the very last panel on the very last day of Sasquan and made it so much fun. The panelists all thought we would end up talking to ourselves; instead, the room was almost full, the audience was wide-awake and lively, and asked a ton of great questions. That was awesome! Guys, let's do that again someday.

To all who were there: I promise a new Horses in Fiction post in the very near future. If you have questions or a particular subject you would like covered, please post it in the comments. Until then, thanks for coming and I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Sue

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cover reveal! The Heart of God

Aaaaand (drumroll), Peter Benchley has released the cover for the third book in my Fate's Arrow series, "The Heart of God." He chose to illustrate a scene in the book where the hero, Alarion Aravon, finds himself in over his head with a girl. You see, Alarion is a bit shy around the opposite sex, and has never yet nerved himself to notice an orvi, one of the courtesans of the Sevakandi court. So when it comes times to help his brother, King Traven, choose a queen, Alarion happily throws candidates at him, feeling himself safe from having to do anything but dance with them.

Ahem.

The candidates feel a bit differently. Two of them are enamored with him, and one of them is not at all shy about advancing her case. He is angry and embarrassed (because, let's face it, he really doesn't know what to do about her), and Elenya just isn't interested in taking no for an answer.

I loved writing this book partly because Alarion is so clueless about women. It's a bit of a Shakespearean farce, actually, with everyone at cross purposes and misreading everyone else. I deliberately use a lot of POVs (points of view), sometimes even in the same scene, because I wanted the reader to be clued in to whatever the various characters are thinking about each other even as the characters themselves remain baffled.

The warfare in this book is far from the battlefield and ever so polite, though not without bloodshed. Here is no polite negotiation between Great Houses to throw two young people who've never met into a political alliance of convenience. In Sevakand, the King chooses his own bride from available candidates and the women are free to refuse. The consequences of a wrong choice are grim for all concerned, hence the invitation to Yarom for all parties to get to know each other. A bit like "The Bachelor," I suppose. With knives.

Will Alarion finally lose his virginity? Will the object of his affection remain within his reach, or end up his brother's queen? Will scheming Elenya get her hooks into the King--or Alarion? And what is Fate's intention in bringing three so very different women together to battle for the queen's crown?

Enter to win a copy of "The Heart of God" by leaving a comment with your take regarding the cover. The book will be available later this month. Watch for the official release!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Catching up and Worldcon schedule

Holy cats, could the last two weeks have been any more of a whirlwind? Why is getting ready to go on vacation so stressful? Answer: another question. How can a camper that has been quietly parked for a year need $1300 worth of repair? Aaack. I opened the door to put something inside, slammed the door...and the entire right-side window shattered into a jillion little pieces. And that was before I even put it on the truck. Groan.

Plus, the two roof vents that I knew were cracked and needed replacing turned into all of the vents having developed cracks around the base (and in their little plastic roofs), so all of the covers got replaced and the roof sealed. Thank goodness I keep it tarped all the time or it probably would have been worse. Then, of course, the propane tank turned out to be out of date (and the wrong type) which means I couldn't have gotten it refilled if I had tried, which meant a whole new tank, and... is camping really worth this?

Oh, yes. I joined my brother and sister and their spouses and a couple of their kids and helped pack in materials for the Forest Service in the Idaho panhandle. The Backcountry Horsemen of Washington and Idaho have partnered up to pack bridge timbers and decking and other stuff in where mechanized vehicles can't go or aren't allowed. The Northwest Youth Corps is rebuilding the trails, and doing a fine job, too. This particular trail happened to lead through old-growth cedar groves that have never been logged, so it was like riding through the forest primeval. Just wonderful. Exactly what the doctor ordered!

That is not me, obviously, as I was on the third horse back taking the picture. It was nice to just ride along and play photographer!

I have a bit of lull to catch my breath this week, though I am preparing for a rather intense blog tour that begins next Monday at Unabridged Andra's. Be sure to comment at any of the blog stops listed here to win a $15 Amazon gift certificate.

Then, eek! It's Worldcon already, being hosted right here in my home town of Spokane. That begins next Wednesday the 19th. Here is my schedule:

Thursday August 20, 12:00-12:30
Room 301, Convention Center

I'll be reading from one of my books, most likely "The Heart of God," Book 3 of the Fate's Arrow series.

Friday August 21, 7:00-9:00 p.m.
Room 300C, Convention Center

Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading. Twenty writers will read for five minutes each, a marvelous cornucopia of fantasy, SF, alternate history, erotica, and everything in between.

Saturday, August 22, 11:00-11:45Exhibit Hall B, Convention Center
Autograph session. Come and get your books signed!

Sunday, August 23, 12:00-12:45
TBD

SpoCon Presents: Sex of the Future
"A tongue-in-cheek, no holds barred, innocent exploration of the crazy things modern (or ancient) heroes have had sex with and speculation on what happens next."

Sunday, August 23, 14:00-14:45
Spokane Falls Suite A/B, Doubletree Hotel

The Road Goes Ever On...Realistic Journeying Before (or After) Motor Travel
How do pre- (or post-) auto travelers manage to cross continents without combustion engines? Do you carry food or hunt it? What about moving small groups or whole armies? How do fantasy quests compare to post-apocalyptic wanderings or to warfare on foot?

And there you go! I do hope to see some of you at Sasquan. If you can't come to the convention, I'll keep you posted as to the blog tour and hope to chat then.

Sue

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Fun with Unicorns (and Karina Fabian)

My guest today is Karina Fabian, whose books are always a good romp through some interesting places. But I'll let her tell you herself:

I’d like to thank Sue for hosting me on the Mind Over All tour. The books follow the adventures of Deryl, a human whose psychic abilities drive him insane. Not only is he dealing with the unwanted thoughts of others, but two aliens on opposite sides of a war are trying to use him to help them defeat the other. He fights his way back to sanity, pushes off their influence and travels to their worlds to begin peace and eventually save both worlds form destruction. If you’re interested in learning more, please check out the Mind Over trilogy page on my website.

As with any fantasy world, there are fantastical creatures in it. Since Sue is an accomplished horsewoman, and I’m sure folks here are interested in equines, I thought I’d share a little about the unicorns of Kanaan. Unicorns are a fun standard, but I didn’t want to do the usual pristine white horse with the flowing mane and the graceful spiral horn. Since they were supposed to be warriors in their own right, I decided to toughen them up. And I wanted them to fly, but wings were too clichĂ©. So, I switched things up a bit. Here’s a description from Mind Over All, where Sachiko, a human, sees one for the first time. Joshua, her fiancĂ©, has been to Kanaan before and made good friends with several unicorns.
“I do well enough if the horse is gentle,” Sachiko said when Josh just shrugged.
“They’re not exactly horses,” Deryl replied as he psychically called to the beasts waiting at the edge of the nearby woods.
While roughly horse-like in form and face, the riding beasts had heavy, thick shoulders and necks, and their broad foreheads bore a rhinoceros-like horn.  Their equine legs had folds of skin that attached to the sides.  There were three, and when they approached Deryl, they bowed politely in his direction.
Sachiko dropped her stethoscope.
Deryl snickered.  For a long time, he’d imagined her reaction when he could finally bring her to Kanaan, but of course, he’d planned on better circumstances.  Any circumstances would have been better than this, but with Tasmae asleep where Kanaan could not reach her, and Hope safe, he let his amusement at her reaction lighten his mood.  “Don’t worry.  They’re gentle.”
Joshua snorted.  On his first ride, the unicorn had jumped off a cliff with no warning.
“What…are they?” Sachiko asked.
“Joshua calls them ‘unicorns,’” Deryl teased, but Joshua was wiping Sachiko’s stethoscope with the corner of his shirt to put it away and didn’t bother to reply.
One of the unicorns bumped Joshua on the shoulder, nearly knocking him forward.
“Hey!” Joshua protested, but then did a double take.  “Glory?”
The unicorn tossed her head in a nod and blew on his dreadknots.  Joshua laughed and jumped to his feet to give the unicorn a hug.  “I know.  I grew out my hair.  Like them, baby?  How are you?  Have you been good, have you?” He crooned and snuggled against the unicorn as it continued to examine his hair. 
Joshua’s sweet talking apparently soothed Sachiko’s apprehensions.  In a few minutes, they had their packs on their backs.  The largest of the unicorns, a lovely bay with white stockings to match the white fuzz on his horn, kneeled in front of Deryl.  He mounted…
Here’s the scene from Mind Over Psyche, the second book in the trilogy, where Glory jumped off a cliff with Joshua. This was less than an hour after he and Deryl had arrived, unplanned and unwelcomed, on Kanaan, so to say she took him by surprise is an understatement.

They cleared the grove and paused at the edge of a cliff.  Joshua’s hand lowered slowly as he gaped at the magnificent view.  He whistled.
A gorge cut through the plateau, but he didn’t think any river had carved it.  For one thing, he saw no river or stream, despite the lush vegetation.  The cliff walls themselves were craggy and bare, and he spied shadows that made him suspect caves.  To his left, the canyon curved sharply; to his right, it opened about a mile away, the cliffs curling away without losing their height.  Were they on some gigantic mesa?  He turned his body slightly and leaned back, trying to look past the soldiers around him to follow the edge of the land.
He felt his unicorn bunch her muscles, and reflexively grabbed her mane as the animal threw herself over the cliff.
Joshua screamed.
His shout of terror turned to a cry of surprise, then a great whoop of delight as the unicorn shifted her shoulders and in an un-equine feat of double-jointedness, spread her legs sideways from her body.  The folds of flesh attached to her legs and side unfurled into great gliding wings.  She banked and soared into the canyon, landing just before it curved to the right.  Two of the warriors, then Tasmae, landed beside him.
“That was way cool,” he gasped, then said to Tasmae, “but how about some warning next time?”
She glared at him before retaking the lead.
You can read more about Glory – and Joshua, Sachiko and of course, Deryl – in the Mind Over trilogy.

About Karina:

By day, Karina is a mild-mannered reviewer of business software and services for TopTenReviews.com. After hours, she’s a psychic intent on saving the world; a snarky dragon who thinks he saves the world all-too regularly, a zombie exterminator who just wants her world clear of undead vermin, and nuns whose callings have taken them off our world. Needless to say, her imagination is vast, her stories legion, and her brain crowded. When she’s not converting her wild tales to stories, she’s enjoying time with her husband, Rob, their four kids, and their two dogs.  

Find Karina at:

Website: http://fabianspace.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/karina.fabian
Twitter:  http://twitter.com/#!/KarinaFabian
Google +:  https://plus.google.com/103660024891826015212

Thank you, Karina, for sharing you work with us today. Who wouldn't want a flying unicorn?


Friday, July 24, 2015

Live on Writestream today!

I'll be a guest at the Speculative Fiction Cantina today on Writestream Radio, talking about the genre in general, my books in particular, and reading from "In Heaven's Shadow." I hope you can join Michael Cantwell, S. Evan Townsend, and me at 6:00 p.m. Eastern/3:00 p.m. Pacific. Listen in, ask questions, and get some new perspectives. I should be a good time. "See" you there!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Horses in Fiction: The Balky Horse

You know, there is nothing quite as frustrating as a horse that refuses to go where you want it to go. There you are, up on your high horse (literally), the lofty rider looking down at the foot-bound peasants, the master of this magnificent beast who must accede to your every whim...

Or not.

Sitting in the middle of the beast gives you precious few options when Horsey decides he ain't going where you want to go. Whip and spur are overrated in this regard. Very. Sheer brutality may force him to quivering obedience, but I have witnessed occasions when even that didn't work. Horsey has many options for not proceeding where you want him to go, and when he takes a mind to stick in his toes, getting him to move can be a right puzzle--and a marvelous plot bender.

Suppose your rider really, really needs to go "thataway"--and Horsey balks? This may be two steps from the stable or ten miles down a lonely road. It could be the only open path between enemies closing in, or a desperate dash for help for a wounded comrade. It could just be that your rider is trying to show off, and now Horsey's recalcitrance is proving to be a severe embarrassment. Any of these scenarios can derail the hero's (or villain's) best-laid plans, so I highly recommend a balky horse when you need diversion, delay, or general frustration in your story. And here is what it looks like in a fear (as opposed to disobedience) scenario:

  1. Horsey unexpectedly starts to slow down for no apparent reason. He begins to pussyfoot, ears up, neck arched, perhaps snorty, and overall uber-alert, to what, you have no idea. Perhaps it is an upcoming crossroads, a huge boulder, a gate. Or nothing at all that you can spot. But he has, and in his mind it is growing to a boogeyman approximately the size of King Kong.
  2. Horsey plants his feet and refuses to take another step forward. The alternative here is that Horsey plants his feet, then immediately whirls to one side or the other and tries to go back the way he came. This can unseat the unwary rider. At the least, it can leave him or her hastily gathering up slack reins if this arrives out of the blue in the middle of a long trek. With luck, Horsey has not bolted, simply turned his back to the threat and is still obeying the rein.
  3. Rider gets Horsey turned forward again, puts a leg on...and nothing happens. Horsey is planted. He has given up trying to turn away (or keeps spinning), but he is so not not not ever, hunh-uh, going forward into that boogey hole. No way. He is quivering under you in his adamant refusal, staring a hole through the thing you STILL cannot see. Or maybe you can, and you are sitting there trying to figure out how to finesse him around that scary tree. Either way, you're going nowhere at the moment except a direction he wants to go and you don't.
  4. Horsey is about ready to launch to the moon, he is so upset. He is shaking, poised on his toes, and you can't poke a finger into a muscle anywhere, he is so tense. Be warned. He is in flight mode, and the only reason you are still standing here is because he has enough training to know he won't automatically get away with what he wants to do and enough brains left to want to try and work with you. His fear/pique has yet to build up enough to the point where he outright defies you and gives in to his own emotional state.
  5. Launch point. King Kong is in the building. This horse wants to be somewhere else, now, and he is not picky about what direction he takes so long as it not forward. At this point he becomes actively dangerous. Pilot actually leaped sideways off a mountain trail with me once into brush he thought was level, but actually was covering a steep drop to a creek. We went down eight or ten feet into a mess of downfalls and brush and miraculously did not break or even bruise anything. In his panic he didn't even really notice, just shot back up to the trail when I told him to move and stood there, shaking. Idiot child. 
Which brings us to the inspiration for this post today. Nellie's favorite resistance has long been balking, but I thought I had her completely through it until last month when she did it for the first time in years. Blame that one on too long a time off while I was in chemo. Being the universe's most herd-bound beast, she was anxious to get back to the barn, and I would not let her. Ergo, she planted herself (FACING the barn, mind you!) and took exception to my gentle leg urging her forward. No, we went sideways, back, and every direction but forward, which was actually the direction she wanted to go. This is simple disobedience, and the cure for her is simply to wait her out for a few minutes without letting her move sideways or back. So long as you don't pick a fight she will relax fairly quickly and accept a leg cue. At that point the trick is to keep her from charging back to the barn. We walk, quietly, and if we don't walk quietly we circle back and do it again until her mind is between my hands again and not in the barn.

For horses who choose to try and assert dominance this way, you can spend quite a long time forcing them to stand exactly where they stopped, not letting them turn away or back up, until they finally get bored enough to walk on. There is no need for swearing, whipping, or spurring. Patience is the answer to this one. Picking a fight just makes it worse by driving home the notion in the horse's head that any time they stop they will be beaten half to death. Don't. Just don't. Bring a book if you have to, but wait them out, because the first time they yield, you have won the war. You may have a skirmish or two afterward, but once they give it up the first time, they quickly figure out they have not actually died and the whole exercise becomes counterproductive from their point of view. And you have not installed a permanent fear memory in their heads.

Me on Pilot, who had just taken a huge jump into the river
after initially balking. Hence all the whitewater!
Pilot, on the other hand, is scarily stupid when he takes it into his head that he's done going where I want to go. I rode him off the place today for the first time since last year, down the road into the canyon below my house. He was slightly weirded out by the strangers parked at the trailhead, but we got past that. He didn't like the new gate the State put across the road to block motorized access, but after two or three attempts to turn away and a little opportunity to gawk at it he relaxed and walked quietly around it. He went willingly a quarter mile or so down into the canyon, to a spot where they dumped white gravel over the road to fix a low spot. This is, naturally, right where it drops off sheer on one side and the bank goes straight up on the other. This is not a good place to pick a fight, and this is, of course, where he decided he was far enough away from home now. Bear in mind that this horse always sidles to the right when upset. Guess which side the drop is on? And it is nearly sheer, and a very long way to the bottom. 

I do not like letting the horse win, but neither am I suicidal. He spun away and started leaping toward the edge in totally brainless style. I got him to sidepass to the bank and let him walk on. Small battle won, but yes, we were homeward bound at that point. He wanted to jig; I made him walk. Another small battle won. At the top where it widens out enough to be safe, I made him stop, and fought a few sidling battles there until he did. When we moved on it was at my will and he was obedient to both leg and hand. Yet another small battle won. We will leave the bigger one for the next time. 

While I made sure not to instill in him a permanent association with that white gravel spot as a place to fear or fight, I have no doubt he has a notion that he can "win" by simply turning back there. Next time, if I have to, I will dismount and lead him past it. But I will not fight him through it, because in this instance it might be a Pyrrhic victory. Simply riding him away from home on a more regular basis will likely fix the problem painlessly. But if I were the heroine of a novel who really needed to go down that road, I'd be in a pickle, which is where your heroine should be all the time, no?

Balky horses are great plot devices, and even the most well-trained nag is subject to the malady under the right conditions. Smart riders listen to their well-broken horse when this happens, because you just never know. King Kong might really be lumbering up the other side of the hill.

If you like these posts, you can repay the time it takes to put them out by buying one of my books. "Out of the Vaults," a fun collection of stories set in the Museum of the Arcane, is 50% off this month at Smashwords. Use the coupon code on the page to get the discount at checkout. Thank you, and enjoy!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Walking with cats

Oh, the whims of cats! Last week as I cut through my neighbor's property on my morning walk, his cat, Boots, who hangs out at my barn most of the time, decided to join me. He didn't tag along just for the first 100 yards; he stuck it out the entire way. I cut it short when we reached the county road, maybe a half mile. He did not want to go anywhere near it, which is an excellent decision on his part and I hope he never changes his mind. So, we strolled back again, stopping often to let him catch up, bonk my hand or my ankle, and purr. Then we would continue, with him all but lost in the grass, occasionally voicing a plaintive "Wait for me!" yowl but otherwise undaunted.

Today he did it again. I swear he was lying in wait, and he had no hesitation whatsoever (in fact, he was quite insistent!) about following me again. So...another relaxed stroll through the woods, and this time I found a loop that didn't go near the road, so we didn't have to repeat ourselves. It was a lovely morning full of dappled sunshine, tall cedars, and nodding flowers. And Boots, quietly threading through a mini-forest of grass and flowers much taller than he is, O great explorer of the wild that he is.

I laugh, but it's nice having a companion on my walks again. I still miss my dog, Jack, who died last November. Tomorrow I will try to get some pictures.

I got home to find the first review of Book 2 of my Fate's Arrow series up at Bookie Monster. It's four stars, so woohoo! And, if you leave a comment, you will automatically be entered to win a free copy, so go check it out!

I am torn about the cover of this one. On the one hand, it does capture many things well about this book, but as a horse person, the beast the hero is riding bothers me a bit (no, a lot). At my request the artist did tone down the my li'l pony aspect of it somewhat but still... Do you find it a turn-off, or would you  be willing to take a chance? I like the artist (nice guy) and he has some constraints on him, so don't blame him; it's just life in the publishing industry. I'd be happy to hear your thoughts and pass them on to the publisher.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

This and that

Well, today was interesting. I learned several things that surprised and or tickled my funny bone. First and foremost, this week's trip to the doctor did NOT result in an unexpected 2-day side trip to the hospital for a blood transfusion. That was delightful.

I also discovered whilst shopping for summer shorts that I possess an unexpected fashion treasure trove in my jeans drawer. All those ratty, beat-up barn jeans that are hovering on the edge of being made into cut-offs? Yeehaw, they are right in style! It would seem that "distressed" is the look and all I need do to be trendy is do what I was going to do anyway: cut the suckers off somewhere above the knee, turn up the cuffs, and sashay out the driveway. Who knew?

Aaaaand... I finally caught the culprit who has been drinking the dog dish dry down at the barn red-handed in the act. A big, beautiful whitetail doe (not unexpected). I have been keeping Jack's water dish full for the neighbor's cat, who spends most of his time over here. I could not figure out why it was dry every other day even in this heat (it's a big dish), but now I know. Mystery solved. Now if I could just keep her from raping my lilies...

It's 95 in the shade here at 6:35 p.m., so, since I pried my lazy bones out of bed and rode this morning, I shall lounge on the deck in the breeze tonight and guard the lilies. Oh, how I love summer.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Out of the Vaults is 50% off!

From now until July 31st you can hang out in the Museum of the Arcane for 50% off the usual price of the ebook version of "Out of the Vaults" at Smashwords. This collection of stories follows the adventures of the curator, Dr. Willoughby Thorne, and his faithful staff as they try to keep the most powerful artifacts in the world out of the hands of thieves, n'er-do-wells, and small children. This is not easy, because some of the objects in those vaults have minds of their own!

Use the coupon code SSW50 at checkout to get the sale price, and enjoy some light summer reading!

The direct link is here: www.smashwords.com/books/view/527098