Saturday, July 2, 2016

Horses in Fiction: That Sinking Feeling

Something I haven’t really discussed before is how a horse person, someone who has lived around horses a long time, and especially the same horses, can tell the critter’s mood at a glance. And they can tell instantly—and I mean instantly—if there is something wrong. It produces that nasty sinking feeling you get when you discover someone has broken into your car, a total reversal of the good day you were just having. One second you’re bebopping down to the barn to say hi to the ponies or saddle up for a ride; the next you are wondering how bad it is and how big the vet bill is going to be.

That happened to me Tuesday with Nellie, and again last evening. Since I am writing this in the airport on the way to the Westercon science fiction convention in Portland, OR, you can imagine how much greater a kink that put into my reaction. Do I go? Do I stay? Do I wait and see and have someone check on her? As of 0430 this morning she was fine, thanks, so here I am. But still. Oh geez, it is a nasty feeling. Imagine how your fictional character riding through the wilderness or eluding pursuit will feel when he wakes up and discovers his horse standing with head down and a general air of “I don’t feel good, Dad.”

Let me start by saying that knowing something is wrong doesn’t have to be anything obvious like a horse holding a foot up or rolling in pain from colic. No, it’s lot more subliminal sometimes. In the same way that most people can tell when someone close to them is having a bad day just from facial expression or body language or tone of voice, horsepeople can tell from the way the horse is standing, the cock of the ears, the set of the head, the droop of the tail, or the look in their eyes that something is off. A certain curl to the lip should be a warning that Horsey is not in a good mood; splayed hind legs can indicate pain in the hooves or gut or irritation between his legs. If he’s “camped under” with his hind hooves far forward under his belly, he may be trying to ease his back or take the load off his front legs or hooves. Standing off-kilter with his weight oddly distributed may indicate pain in the shoulder or hip. That doesn’t include the normal “hip-shot” stance of a horse standing with one hind hoof cocked and hip sagging. He’s usually just asleep.

It’s all in the body language. If your character is supposed to be an expert horseman, then he/she would pick up on cues like these.

In Nellie’s case, she and Pilot were both in the barn, avoiding the heat and the gnats/flies/mosquitoes down in the pasture. Pilot was in the doorway, looking fine; Nellie was farther back in the shade where she usually stands, yet when I leaned over the fence to scratch her neck, her eyes were half shut. That right there was odd, because she didn’t look sleepy; she looked dopey. Plus, she didn’t look at me, which is unusual right there. She always pays attention when I come in, and she’s always hoping for treats. She’s big on sticking her muzzle through the fence and nuzzling my hand. And, in general, a horse will wake up to look at you, because you might be a threat.

She could have just been sleeping and lethargic from the heat. Or not. She just did not look right, so I went in and checked her. She still did not act interested, and when she went outside she was actually squinting in both eyes.  Cue stomach sinking a little farther. Then she backed up to the fence and started to scratch her tail.

Now, this time of year, tail scratching is not unusual. Gnats drive them crazy, and can make raw patches at the top of their tail or on their chest or belly. Sometimes if the dock area (just under the tail) is really dirty it itches. Worms can make them scratch their tails, but they were both just wormed not six weeks ago. Certain plants can make them itch or react. So that didn’t worry me nearly as much as the eye thing. Plus, she was so lethargic. And she kept shifting a little on her hooves. Ugly words like “sleeping sickness” and “founder” floated through my mind. I began trying to remember when I last gave them their vaccinations.  Eeee.

She felt warm, but it was a hot day and she is a black horse. Her hooves were cool, so it likely wasn’t founder. I did not have the means to check her temperature but there was nothing obvious to the eye that would cause a fever. No puffiness in her legs, no welts from bees on that silky hide, no cuts or open sores. Her eyes weren’t swollen or weepy as with allergies or bugs, and she perked up a lot when the sun sank far enough for the evening to cool off. So... no panic, but I checked her the next morning and she seemed fine. Her eyes were open and she was perky and eating well. Crisis averted, right?

Well... Last night she wasn’t just standing in the same spot in the barn with droopy (not squinty) eyes. She was also sweating gently. That can be anything from heat to pain to fever, but she was not at all distressed, just...off. A little. Enough to make me worry, not enough to rush to call the vet and waste everyone’s time. Half an hour later she was down in the pasture eating her head off. She was no longer sweating and walked and trotted fine, with no more reluctance to bestir herself than usual. She is not a horse to waste energy just running up and down like Pilot. She’ll run and buck and play, too, but she is just a more sedate horse than he is.

And at 0430 this morning when it was nice and cool, she was hungry and ornery and perfectly willing to trot up and take a treat from my hand. So, I’m guessing heat, and that I woke her up. Maybe it was a passing reaction to something she ate. And maybe a bit of bugginess, though there was no obvious sign of irritation in her eyes. After I washed her dock and tail with soapy water she hasn’t been scratching anymore, so it was likely just gnats. The eye thing still makes me wonder, but...

Such are the joys and perils of horse ownership, because they can’t tell you. You can only watch and guess and call the vet if you’re really not sure. But vets aren’t usually readily available in stories, so your horsey hero had better pay attention. And if he cares about his horse, he will be caught on the same horns of indecision as all of us—is he sick or isn’t he? Can I safely ride him or will he collapse under me? Maybe I should wait a day. But what about the bad guys chasing me? Aaaagh!

The bottom line is that your character will know the second she lays eyes on her horse that she might have a problem. How that impacts your plot is up to you, but oh the possibilities! Just don’t forget to add that instant sinking feeling to the hero’s reaction, because I guarantee you, every horseman feels it.

Monday, June 27, 2016

New Free Fiction from S. A. Bolich

Mondays are my day to let you know what's going on in my writing world. Aside from getting ready for Westercon this weekend, I'm setting up a newsletter (stay tuned) and updating my website.

My best intentions of putting a new, previously published story you may not have seen up every month didn't happen, but I did finally get a new one up today to replace Wishes and Horses. You can check out Kraken's Honor, originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2009, on the home page of my website.

Cheers!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Gun, the Vase, and Me

I don't normally do political posts for the time-honored reason that no matter what you say you're bound to offend somebody. But as the debate rages over gun control, with all the predictable, cynical political posturing, I feel compelled to offer my view as an historian, a former army officer, and an American old enough to have seen a lot of changes in this country. Some of what I see rings loud alarm bells for me. So here’s my take.

First let’s establish that it is the inalienable right—nay, the responsibility—of every individual to protect himself from harm. Any species reluctant to exercise its survival instincts is doomed to extinction. How we protect ourselves depends upon the circumstances and the tools at hand. Mankind, being a big-brained sort of creature, long ago invented tools for that purpose that are far superior to sticks and stones and bare hands. Given that capability, I find it rather stupid that a good many well-meaning folk want to limit our possibilities for self-defense to the nearest vase when an intruder violates our personal space. Only in Hollywood does the vase drop the intruder unconscious on the floor; in real life he will keep coming, and now, on top of wanting to rob or rape you, he is bloody, in pain, and angry. At this point, running for the closet is not going to help you. And dithering about whether he’s just there to steal the TV could get you killed.

Basic survival has bred into the human creature greed, aggression, ambition, and an ability to use violence in offense and defense. The glory of humanity is that the majority of people use their big brains and reasoning capacity to manage those instincts for productive purposes. The shame of humanity is that some people revel in them, or are too mentally ill to overcome them and go untreated. What are we to do when confronted with these aberrant individuals? Not everyone lives next door to a police station.

For those who can't see themselves ever wielding a gun, how fast can you run? How good are your negotiating skills? Good enough to talk down a guy intent on harm? Do you have the slightest idea how to throw him off his game? Have you ever once treated yourself to a day learning how to defend yourself in an unexpected situation? Or do you trust solely and adamantly in your safe neighborhood or the designated violence-wielders of policeman and soldier to keep you safe?

If you do own a gun, can you hit the broad side of a barn with it?

As adults, we make choices every day. Some of them should involve the remote possibility of becoming involved in something unexpected and dangerous. I once had a clearly disturbed street person wander into my workplace and confront me where I happened to be at the front desk. He immediately launched into a diatribe about the people standing outside on “his” street corner (waiting for the bus). He was agitated and rambling but at least communicative, and I was fortunate in that I managed to find the right words to get him to peacefully go back outside. At which point we called the cops in case he went after the people on the corner. I remember wondering what I could do with the pen in my hand to deter him if he pulled out a knife or a gun or lunged at me with flailing fists. Not much, I’m guessing.

That was a school, by the way.

Am I advocating that every business keep a gun at the front desk or that everyone run out and buy one? Of course not. I hope that overall, our society is still one where you can expect to go about your day in peace, and that never in your life will you feel so threatened as to wish for a gun. But America has strayed a long way from the place I grew up in. My country is more violent, less civil, more volatile, and hugely divided, and our society is growing less predictable and excitable by the day. Ask anyone who has been trolled on the Internet how fearfully easy it is to collect death threats or to stir up the mob. We have pundits and politicians and professional activists who deliberately engage in setting various segments of the populace against each other, some from self-righteous ignorance, others from the calculated knowledge that the surest path to power is to make people afraid of each other. This may be political gamesmanship to them, but to ordinary folk caught in the resultant hatred and violence, it is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Does a gun in the house guarantee you’ll get a chance to use it before the intruder gets to you? No. But at least under the Second Amendment you have the option.

Does the Second Amendment Still Have Value?

Most arguments for gun control purport to limit themselves to particular weapons or circumstances surrounding gun ownership such as background checks. Gun control advocates say they are not trying to eliminate Second Amendment rights, only institute “common sense” reforms. That sounds good in theory, but history teaches us, in excruciating detail, the effect of human nature upon law. Many are the power brokers who will push the limits of law for their own purposes. For the true believers in gun control and disarmament, no state is satisfactory until only agents of the state have guns. The case study in British disarmament is here for those of you serious enough and honest enough to inform yourselves with the other side’s facts. It is also a blueprint for what the anti-gun lobby is trying to do in the U.S.

I can hear the screams of "paranoia!" and "right-wing conspiracy theorist" from here. But have the people doing the screaming ever spoken with a woman who crammed herself onto the floorboards of a car with her sister while a neighbor tried to drive them out of East Germany? I have. The neighbor died; the woman and her sister somehow survived the hail of state-owned bullets. Have those people ever met someone who remembers a dark, cold, frightening journey through the forest as a four-year-old, fleeing the gang rapes, the beatings, and the unspeakable terror in Berlin as the Soviet army moved through the rubble, making sport of hunting disarmed German civilians? I have. Have those people ever stood at the edge of a minefield that was sown, not just to keep enemies out, but citizens in? I have.

Nonsense, says the dedicated anti-gun crowd. You’re conflating self-defense with war. Well, there are two kinds of tyranny: of the individual and of the state, and we are entitled as human beings to defend against both. But “militia” is an outdated concept, and besides, that stuff couldn't happen here. I daresay that is what the British Parliament thought before Dunkirk, when all the legal guns got left on the beach. Churchill was forced to issue a frantic call to America to ship rifles and sidearms to Britain to arm the Home Guard and the (previously disarmed by government decree) citizenry against what seemed an inevitable Nazi invasion. No doubt it is what the unarmed people of Leningrad thought before the German army showed up and 500,000 civilians starved to death in the subsequent siege. I daresay it is what the parents of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram thought, or the victims of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, or the civilians even now caught in the path of the ISIS barbarians who make sociopaths look sane. I daresay it is what any woman raped by a bigger, heavier male thinks, or the survivors of home invasions in nice neighborhoods, or what the victims of flash mobs thought before they were beaten senseless while shopping on a summer evening. Can our armies always protect us? Can the police always show up in time? Are we then supposed to rely on the vase to save ourselves?

Once upon a time, we understood at a gut level that there are nasty things in the dark that we need to defend against, and that survival is a personal as well as societal responsibility. For most modern humans, the worst thing out there in the dark is the unbridled ambitions of other members of our species. Civilization is wonderful, but in the entire history of the planet and nowhere upon it have we evolved the perfect, peaceful Utopia of wistful liberal dreams and SF visions. You cannot legislate away human nature. Some people will always try to dominate the rest. Some will do it violently, with fists, stones, clubs, knives, bombs, guns, and airplanes converted into battering rams. Eliminate guns, and criminals will simply use something else. Not so long ago in my town a WWII vet was beaten to death by two young thugs with flashlights. What then should we regulate?

One of the “reforms” continually touted by gun-control advocates is reducing the size of magazines. I agree that no civilian needs a thirty-shot mag, and if you can’t hit a deer with five rounds you shouldn’t be hunting. But any half-smart wannabe mass murderer already knows how to overcome that limitation, so what these reformers are really objecting to is any weapon that fires more than one bullet without reloading—pretty much any modern firearm. So I must ask: in relegating offenders to single shots—or clubs—should we be proud of having simply reduced their ability to do damage to one-on-one violence instead of one-on-many? Or should we instead think about how to return our culture to one of respect instead of self-indulgent rage?

We are not a third-world hellhole, many will argue. We live in a modern era, one too enlightened for civilians to need lethal weapons. Our laws, our institutions, and our common sense will protect us. Well then, welcome to the past. Every time the sun rises, we stand in the most modern era of human history. Tomorrow will be more modern than today. Next year will be more modern still. Yet in 1933, a majority of very "modern" people living in an industrialized democracy handed power, peacefully, through the ballot box, to the worst monster in human history. Twelve years later they were standing in the rubble of their country, and small children were fleeing through the dark to save themselves from the horrors coming behind.

The peaceful handover of power to Adolf Hitler led directly to my friend and her sister fleeing the bullets of East German border guards. Stalin and his minions did not believe in an armed citizenry either.

One citizen with a gun cannot withstand an army, however poorly trained. A million citizens with guns should make any government think twice about its foreign policy. Or its domestic ambitions.

For those of you now crowing that I’ve lost the argument by invoking Hitler, I commend to you a current and less clich├ęd example of poor voting choices. See once-prosperous Venezuela, History and Current Situation Of. Or Mexico, where desperate citizens are mugging corrupt cops and soldiers to obtain weapons to defend themselves against the drug cartels.

Too bad Santayana was right. Those who forget the lessons of history are indeed doomed to repeat them. Corruption at the top always leads to disorder down below. Always.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Self-defense is a basic human right. Unless, of course, you live somewhere like Chicago, which boasts some of the strictest gun laws and highest gun crime rates in the country. The 2016 toll in Chicago to date is noted here and here, along with the misguided policies that are contributing to it.

There are countless studies on gun violence, most of which cherry-pick their facts to support arguments for or against. This rather fascinating little site gives you the facts (a little dated but still valid) and lets you decide. You can argue what they mean to your hearts’ content. But consider this: in all "enlightened" Western societies, gun control policies are forcing citizens to become more dependent on state agencies that cannot keep them safe even as, culturally, the old norms of respect for other people's rights (and the belief that you will receive swift and firm retribution for failing to respect them) are fading. Never mind the high-profile failures of governments from Russia to Nairobi to France to the U.S. to prevent terrorist attacks that have killed thousands. What about fads like the knock-out game, or mobs of young, bored men assaulting women in Germany, or the growing number of out-of-control, mostly youthful flash mobs swarming shops and robbing or assaulting passersby for fun and profit?

These facts of "modern" life are not spotty clouds in an otherwise clear sky, as some would have us believe; they are the lightning strikes spat out by a society wherein the normal tensions caused by technological advances, demographic changes, economic stress, and injustice are magnified by instant communication of every passing thought and impulse. Couple that with an increasing hesitation to teach or demand respect for societal values, and these incidents indicate clear warnings of what happens when “authority” cannot or will not uphold its responsibility to maintain order. Over the past 20 years we have invented a million excuses for bad behavior, and our courts and prisons are consequently overflowing with people who truly believe they were entitled to do what they did. This erosion of a simple awareness of right and wrong should disturb any intelligent person.

Nobody wants to live in a society where everyone feels they must own a gun just to get through the day. The underlying problem is not guns but the breakdown of civility, and until we seriously address what we're teaching our kids, why do we insist on making it harder to defend ourselves against the growing number of people who never got the memo that attacking people is socially unacceptable? Even the former head of Interpol states that protecting every public venue is impossible, and that yes, an armed citizenry can reduce the death toll.

Here’s the thing. When a government stops trusting the majority of its citizens to act responsibly, that government is not protecting us but itself. When we allow any group, however democratically elected, to decide that a common item that has been safely used by the majority for centuries is now too dangerous for ordinary folk, there can be no end to fussy declarations that this, that, or the other thing must be removed from the people's hands for their own good. Where does it stop?

Instead, what we can and should do is what free and responsible societies have always done: decide by calmly reasoned consensus what is "unacceptable" and how to control behavior that crosses the line. As a society, we have already decided that mass murder is unacceptable. The debate hinges on what should be done to prevent it. Do we assume all people are closet-crazy and take away guns from everyone? Do we use prohibitive taxes and a byzantine licensing process to make it so difficult to own them that reasonable people give up? Do we allow only certain people "with a need" to own or carry them?

These things have all been tried in the crucible of democracy that is our republic, with various states experimenting with their own solutions. Yet the Newtown, San Bernardino, and Orlando shooters all used guns that had been acquired under these same laws. The latter worked as a security guard for a major DHS-affiliated agency. With two FBI investigations to his name, he still managed to beat the background checks, with full intent to do harm. Perhaps we should be examining the information-sharing habits of our law enforcement agencies—and the rules that have replaced common sense with an abiding fear of never stepping on a possible perpetrator’s sensibilities—instead of shouting about how nobody has a “right” to thus-and-such.

Balancing public security needs with private rights is undeniably difficult. While better intelligence is certainly needed, I cannot discount the fears of gun rights advocates who resist a national gun registry. Neither the left nor the right can resist pushing the envelope regarding their pet causes when in power. And neither side can currently claim that paranoia is limited to the other guy. How many millions of Americans on both political fronts are afraid of the outcome of this fall’s presidential election? If that is not fear of your government, what is? The right fears that Hillary will wield her executive pen or stack the Supreme Court to gut the Second Amendment. The left fears that Trump will somehow raise himself to dictator and reduce us all to serfs (completely discounting the power of the other two branches of government to check him). What then? Shall we call in the Praetorian Guard to assassinate him?

Can you tell that I’m tired of the hysteria?

Most mass shooters are mentally ill, members of a tiny subset of our population. The rest are driven by grievances or ideology that override societal values. Street thugs think themselves invincible, their actions greased by an American media that, sadly, glorifies violence and worships the gun, unashamedly teaching viewers that it’s “cool” to swagger up to your enemy and shoot him to solve your problems. And afterward people will cheer you as a hero. Yay! Is it any wonder so many unstable people dream of finding immortality in other people’s blood?

We don’t need to confiscate guns; we need to restore the respect we used to extend to each other as a matter of course. We don’t need to arrest children for pointing a finger and yelling Bang!; we need to teach them what happens when a real gun goes off. We need to teach them that guns are a last resort, not a first option. That they don’t make you cool, they make you dead, because that is their purpose. That the right of self-defense comes with personal responsibility—and that other people have the same right, and will exercise it on you if you are stupid enough to think a gun makes you God.

Most of all we need to teach them civility, a vanishing commodity in this country.

What we need, instead of blanket bans and vilification, is a return to the sober realization that trust is the root of a democratic society. Whatever laws we pass should always be aimed at deterring the aberrant, not depriving the masses, because otherwise we are just telling 300 million non-violent folk that they’re not really adults and can’t be trusted with grown-up stuff. Go stand in the corner, America, and take your beatings quietly.

How do we restore trust? Both sides need to compromise in order to reestablish that societal necessity. Stop excusing bad behavior while simultaneously punishing the law-abiding. Crack down on street thugs, but make gun ownership a responsibility as well as a right. Perhaps the necessary prerequisite is not a background check and a 3-day waiting period, or feel-good but useless restrictions on types of weapons and magazines. Perhaps it is a background check and three consecutive days of safety instruction under the eye of a licensed instructor at a certified range, where the behavior of the buyer is directly observed across a long enough period to get a feel for his mental state and intentions. The store ships the gun to the range and only after passing the course may the buyer take possession. Hunters in my state must take gun safety courses; why shouldn’t ordinary buyers?

The much-reviled NRA is happy to provide such courses and has the resources to do it. Retired police officers accustomed to assessing lies and unwarranted nervousness might jump at the chance to earn a few bucks and maybe deter a tragedy. Maybe a red flag would earn the buyer a chat with a behavioral psychologist. Yes, gun buyers would be put through an extra one-time hoop, but in so doing, they have “earned” the trust of their community and should be left alone thereafter to pursue their legal rights. And the state should not put purposefully onerous conditions on the range and instructor qualifications, or set too low a bar for a red flag.

This is a public-private partnership that could produce a win-win for the community. While it would not stop criminals buying guns on the ever-present black market, it might reduce domestic violence and guns bought legally for illegal purposes. Some cold-blooded killers could withstand three days of steely scrutiny; the depressed suicide or the angry guy brooding on his ex probably would not.

For those who have been harmed by guns, I grieve. I certainly understand your desire to "do something." For those like me who grew up with guns and have always handled them safely, yes, it is insulting to be branded as "unsafe" while the bureaucrats argue about how to prove we're not. But can we all please acknowledge that we don't live in a perfect world? That there are unique tensions in this country that preclude simple solutions? Yes, we need laws that weed out the crazies and restore trust in gun ownership. We don’t need laws so restrictive that they deprive law-abiding citizens of the basic right to self-defense.

If we are to call ourselves "free," we must be allowed to both exercise and defend our freedoms. The most basic freedom is life itself—and our right to defend it. Against a violent criminal, against a terrorist, against a stalker or abusive spouse, against foreign invaders—against, if necessary, the out-of-control government the Founders feared if power were allowed to accumulate at the federal level. Until nature or culture manages to cure the blacker side of human nature, I don't want to be reduced to throwing a vase at the bad guy while screaming into a phone for help I know can't get there until it's too late.

Do you?

Monday, June 20, 2016

How to Connect With S. A. Bolich at Westercon

How is that we're halfway through June already? This month is flying by. I am getting ready for Westercon in Portland, Oregon July 1-4, which means choosing material for readings, preparing for panels, deciding what I can and can't cram into one suitcase to haul down there on the plane... Books or hats? The eternal question!

Anyhoo, here is my schedule for the convention:

Fri Jul 1 4:00 - 5:00 pm
Battle Scenes, Lincoln

Is your battle scene battle worthy? In a real fight, are movements and actions even possible? Learn from pros how to create realistic battle scenes that keep your audience engaged in the action.

Fri Jul 1 5:00 - 6:00
If the Pen is Mightier than the Sword, What Have You Stabbed Lately?, Roosevelt

Our panelists discuss how to bring modern social issues and viewpoints (gay rights, feminism, war, poverty) into SF/F literature.

Fri Jul 1 6:30 - 7:00 pm
S. A. Bolich Reading, Madison

S. A. Bolich reads from selected works. (This will most likely be from The Wrath of God, the upcoming release in the Fate's Arrow series.)

Sat Jul 2 12:00 - 1:00 pm
Kaffeeklatsch, Multnomah
Small group discussions with authors, artists, and other interesting personalities (referred to as "hosts") Sessions are limited to the host and a small group of attendees.

Sat Jul 2 3:00 - 4:00 pm
Paranormal Romance, Jackson
Is this science fiction, fantasy, horror? Whatever it is, fans love it! Learn what makes paranormal romance unique from other genres and the inspiration for writing them.

Sat Jul 2 6:00 - 7:00 pm
The Wild and Wonderful Weird West, Sellwood 

From FIREFLY to THE DARK TOWER, works set in the Weird West are terrific entertainment. Writers discuss some of their favorite works in the field, dig into common tropes, and explore just what makes the West so wonderful.

Sun Jul 3 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading, Broadway

Broad Universe is a writer's guild that supports women authors of science fiction and fantasy novels. 10 Broad Universe members read from their work.

Sun Jul 3 1:00 - 2:00 pm
Writing Workshops and Critique Groups: What to Look For, Lincoln

Workshops and critique groups can be helpful and change your writing for the better. But they can also hinder an author and we can get stuck in a cycle of repeating things we may not fully understand ourselves. Chat with pros on what areas to watch out for when taking part in any sort of workshop or crit session.

Sun Jul 3 2:00 - 3:00 pm
Worldbuilding, Roosevelt

Writers talk about fleshing out their worlds. How much is too much? How much is too little? How do the features of a world enable its denizens, particularly the characters of the story? How do its constraints challenge them?

I look forward to seeing some of you at the con. Bring your books to sign as well, and track me down. I'll be wandering when I'm not in panels.

See you in July!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ready for Miscon

Well, a couple of days in the hospital last week set me back a whole week in my preparation for Miscon, the world's most fun science fiction convention, but I'm almost caught up now. It's held in Missoula, Montana every Memorial Day weekend, and if you're in the area I urge you to stop by. Here's my schedule:

Sat 11:00 - 11:50 AM, Fiction Slam Reading, Tent By the Trees (1)
I'll be reading a humorous short story at 11:20.

Sun 1:00 - 1:50 PM, Not Your Average Short Story Panel, Glacier
Panelists: S. A. Bolich, Dean Wells
If you’re tired of hearing the same old advice on short stories, this is the panel for you. Let’s delve deep into what makes a short story work. Is it like writing the last chapter of a book? Or more like a vignette? Does it include the same ups and downs as a novel? How do you know when it’s done?

Sun 3:00 - 3:50 PM, You Got Military in my Sci Fi, Gallatin
Panelists: S. A. Bolich, Larry Bonham
How does military SFF parallel our current geo-political situation? How does it differ?

Sun 4:00 - 4:50 PM, Current Trends in Sci/Fi, Fantasy, and Horror, Pavilion (2)
Moderator: S. A. Bolich; Panelists: S. A. Bolich, Manny Frishberg, Andrea Howe, Frog Jones
Let’s discuss the current trends in genre. Are we finally leaving grim dystopia behind? Is it possible for SF to imagine hopeful futures again? Is message fiction our future, or is there still room for silly fun? This will be an audience-participation panel where we talk about what people really want to see/read, as opposed to what the media and the big houses are focused on.

Mon 10:00 - 10:50 AM, Maps and Stories, Ballroom C
Panelists: S. A. Bolich, Brenda Carre, Vandy Hall, Todd Lockwood, Laurey Patten
How can storytelling and cartography influence each other?

Mon 11:00 - 11:50 AM, Write a Story on the Fly, Pavilion (2)
Moderator: Krista Wallace; Panelists: Carol Berg, S. A. Bolich, Diana Pharaoh Francis (Di), Krista Wallace
In this panel, the panelists will improv a story on the fly, one sentence at a time. It will be written down as they go, and will be read aloud at the end. Promises to be a rolickin’ good time!

I hope to see you there!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Fate's Arrow Gets New Covers!

Sometimes the progress of a book to publication is uneven and hits some significant bumps along the way. Sometimes the best intentions of all parties can't overcome the quixotic sense of humor the universe brings to creation. In the case of my Fate's Arrow series, the cover artist who originally signed on could not continue after the first book. I loved working with him; he gave me ideas about the world that were subsequently incorporated into the books because they were so logical and right, arising from how he interpreted the words on the page into visuals. But, alas, he had scheduling conflicts and so the publisher needed to find someone else.

That resulted in a rather large visual disconnect between the style of the first artist and the style of the second artist. For a series, that's a problem. A visual "brand" is very important to both the writer and the works. Fans can find a author's books on the shelf, or a particular series they're looking for, much more easily if the books are similar in appearance, using the same fonts, the same sort of visuals, etc. I have a whole series of Anne McCaffrey books in my library that hardly need her name on the cover. I know at a glance they're hers, and I can identify them from across the room.

Such is the power of branding.

Long story short, a wonderful artist, Fiona Jayde, undertook the job of bringing the covers visually into a thematic whole. And here is the result. I love them. She has done a superb job of capturing certain scenes and giving the covers the "fantastical" feel so necessary for conveying the genre to the audience. These books have a strong SF underpinning, but at heart they are epic fantasy, and she has conveyed that well.

So what do you think? Are they keepers? I think so. And the next three books will be coming soon! They are:

The Wrath of God, coming in Summer 2016
Alarion Aravon, eagerly awaiting his brother's wedding, followed closely by his own, must investigate the possibility that his old enemy Stoneshaker, god of earthquakes, may be reviving down in the province of An-Utah. But there's an earthquake of a different kind awaiting him.

The Judgement of God (Fall/Winter 2016)
The fallout from Alarion's journey to An-Utah is more intense than anyone could have imagined . . . even the gods.

The Hand of God (Spring 2017)
The conclusion to Fate's Arrow brings gods, believers, and skeptics alike to a fateful final confrontation among the strange, redstone pillars of the most powerful place on Ariel.

I look forward to seeing what Fiona comes up with next!

You can find out a lot more about these books and the world of Ariel, including maps, glossaries, concept art, and sneak peeks at the opening chapters, at the Extras page on my website. And if you like listening to authors read their own works, you can also listen to me acting out the opening chapters. It's not Oscar-worthy, but I did have fun. All those voices in my head, you know...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Horses are Cuckoo; It Must be Spring

Spring is well advanced in my part of the country, so much so that everything is blooming 3-4 weeks ahead of when it normally does. Lilacs in April? Sheesh! But the grass has been slow (everywhere but my yard), so the horses are hanging impatiently over the gates staring longingly at the pasture. I can feel them from here, this subliminal "I want out, I want out, I want out. Now!" sort of deal. They are manifesting their displeasure in brattiness on the lunge line and inattention under saddle, the usual spring nuttiness.

Fortunately, it only last a few days in that transition from winter sloth to "You want me to work?!" I wonder if, back on the medieval farm, the plow horses that had been happily eating their heads off all winter with nothing much to do ever gave a big "woo-hoo!" and took off bucking when hitched up for the first time in the spring. It would be a fun scene in a novel, a nice distraction when the hero needs it, or a chance for a down-on-his-luck farmhand to ingratiate himself into the farmer's household by catching the rambunctious beasts.

One thing to remember when turning the horses out, especially if it's for the first time in the spring. Step back. Way back. As in, get the heck out of their way, and not just because you might get run over in the stampede. Watch out for the exuberant high heels as they let fly with a buck or six on their way out through the gate. It feels soooo good to run and run after a winter cooped up in a safe stall or paddock. Often the enclosure is frozen in ruts where the churned mud has congealed iron hard. Sometimes there is packed snow and ice that forces the poor ponies to pussyfoot along in their restricted rounds. Very often the horse poop freezes in immovable piles before you can clean the place, which is like walking on round, unforgiving river rocks. For all those reasons, the horses can't wait to get out into the big pasture and go for it. So watch out, as they have no qualms about kicking you in the head on their way past.

And here's your bit of horse trivia for the day: the equine digestive system manufactures different bacteria to break down dry hay or green grass. That takes a few days, which is why when a horse is turned out cold-turkey after a winter on hay you are likely to be dealing with slimy green trails down his hind legs for days. We called that "scours" when I was a kid and it was just a fact of life every spring when the horses went out. The way to prevent it is to transition them gradually from hay to grass by turning them out for a couple of hours a day while continuing to feed the dry stuff in smaller and smaller quantities. I wonder how many savvy old farmers figured that out on their own?

Well...I was about to go out and play in the sunshine, but it's disappeared! It's pouring out there, doubtless related to that roll of thunder I heard a while ago. Must be spring!


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On Prologues and POVs

I've been busy the past couple of months with conventions, prepping for Radcon and Norwescon and recovering from them afterward. They're so much fun, but a bit exhausting. I did, however, particularly enjoy a couple of panels I was on, and thought I'd combine some thoughts sparked by them into one post. And celebrate the new cover of The Mask of God from the fabulous artist, Fiona Jayde. Ain't it purty? We're redoing all of them because we had to change cover artists mid-stream the first time around. A series should look like a series! Watch for the re-dos of The Mark of God and The Heart of God coming soon, and the release of Book 4, The Wrath of God, in June.

Whenever writers get together there will always be an endless variety of opinions on "the rules" of writing. Everybody agrees the prose must be readable and the story engaging. After that. . . snort. Nobody agrees on anything. The subject du jour at Radcon was prologues and how they should be avoided like plague-carrying rats. Nobody reads them, say some. But if they're necessary to the story, put 'em in, say others. At Norwescon it was how shifting POVs are death. Or not. Can epic, multi-plot fantasies truly be written from one POV? The debate rages.

My personal opinion is that a writer can make anything work if they do it well. And I personally like prologues, especially in epics. In Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, the story starts before Merlin is even born, with a meeting of two people whose names we don't (yet) know. The scene seems irrelevant at first, but then she gradually reveals the meaning and we see that yes, this is indeed where the story starts, six years before we meet Merlin himself. Sometimes the author needs to go back thousands of years to lay the groundwork. Prologues are infinitely more interesting than trying to work all that backstory gracefully into the opening chapters, trust me. And so much easier.

Regarding POV shifting, otherwise known as head-hopping--eh, guilty as charged. I like to head-hop, because very often the Point of View character can't know everything the writer needs the reader to know for the story to make sense at any given moment. Carol Berg does single-POV, first person epics superbly, but I like to write in third-person, and to view a scene from multiple viewpoints when required. My Fate's Arrow series hops shamelessly from head to head, often in the same scene, because I as a reader like knowing what other characters are thinking, and it is often easier just to show the reader than try to awkwardly have the main character guess. So don't be surprised if you are suddenly looking through someone else's eyes on occasion, because it's not a mistake.

Now, how do I personally make these things work? I went through about four different versions of a prologue for The Mask of God, trying to lay the groundwork for this danged epic that was pouring from my head in such rich detail it was becoming a bar to getting the story off the ground. I learned a lot about the characters and the world but none of the early drafts were quite right.

This one was in the very first draft of the novel, which at that time had a working title of The King's Brother. So naturally we see the brothers who are the bedrock of the entire story. But beta readers wanted to know how that scene was relevant, so I scrapped it and tried again. In this one I wanted to show the very important backstory surrounding the colonists' rebellion against the theocracy that had conquered the planet and cut it off from the galaxy. And it was pretty cool and I learned a lot that made it into the books, but again, it wasn't quite right.

Finally, because there are two strong storylines involving both mortals and immortals, I started with the immortal who is really responsible for the whole darn thing. And thus we have the real opening to The Mask of God. Really!

You can read about the development of these various versions in more depth at my website here.

Enjoy! And if you're a writer struggling with "the rules," just write. Your beta readers will tell you if it's working or not. And have fun building your world!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Horse Trivia and...Radcon

Yeah, I know they have nothing to with each other, but Radcon starts tomorrow and I haven't got time to do two posts. So deal. :)

As I was knocking the mud off my critters the other day (oh, Winter, why couldn't you dump a little more of that clean snow before you leave?), I could not help but notice the difference between the two. As always at this time of year, Pilot is hog fat and round. As always, Nellie bears a remarkable resemblance to a slat. This is not for want of food, mind you. It is because she is a hard keeper and Pilot is an easy keeper. What is the difference you ask? Heh.

Easy keepers put on weight if they breathe on food. Hard keepers can chow down on acres of alfalfa and still look like candidates for the glue factory. The only time Nellie looks good is in the summer when she has unlimited access to grass. In the winter, no matter what I feed her, she loses weight and finally achieves an equilibrium where you can't see or feel ribs but she just looks thinner than she should. She just doesn't process hay as well (and believe me, they're getting the good stuff). This is partly because Pilot is a bully and it is difficult the way my barn and corral are configured to separate them. Mostly it is just her. When she's alone, she frets off the weight. When she is with him, he chases her around and steals the best stuff. On summer pasture, there's 20 acres and he couldn't hog it all if he tried.

Some horses, even alone in their stalls, don't keep well unless you pour the super-high protein food into them, a product mostly of the 20th century. Before that, they were just "hard keepers."

So there's your trivia bit for the day.

Now, about Radcon. Come on down to the Red Lion Hotel in Pasco, Washington this weekend if you want to catch up to me. I'll be on various panels over the weekend and reading from The Heart of God on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in Reading Room 2211. The full schedule looks like this:

Sat Feb 13 10:00:am
Evaluating Writing Critiques
Room 2203 So you've had a manuscript critiqued and you're trying to decipher the feedback. Some people say one thing. Some people have "rules." How do you tell the good advice from the bad? This panel will discuss how to keep the advice that benefits your writing while ignoring the bad.
Sat Feb 13 3:30:pm
S. A. Bolich Reading from The Heart of God
Reading (2211)
Sat Feb 13 4:15:pm
Resisting Rewrite-itis
Room 2209 Many promising manuscripts succumb to author anxiety that it's "not good enough yet" or "I need to fix this one thing" that proceeds to unravel the entire book. How do you resist the urge to polish and polish the first few chapters without writing the rest, or stuffing it in the drawer until it's perfect? Our pros provide tips on how to tell when your work is good enough and when to kick it out the door.
Sun Feb 14 10:00:am
The Hollywood Effect
Room 2209 Since its beginnings, film has had an enormous impact on culture, from feeding iconic phrases like "The Force be with you" to raising awareness and perpetuating or even creating stereotypes. What are the positive and negative trends in current film making? How does it impact our genre?
See you there!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Horses in Fiction: The Pack String

In glancing over some new manuscripts sent to me for critique (and remembering a good few from the past), I realized that it may be past time to talk about the casual assumptions so many writers bring to scenes with equine-equipped travelers. It seems that not many have stopped to consider the actual logistics of traveling with live beasties of any type aside from how far they can travel in a day and what the creatures might eat. So, let me share a few nuggets from a lifetime of a) packing in with horses, b) witnessing pack disasters, and c) listening eagerly to the yearly family stories of hunting trips gone awry. My dad was a terrific oral storyteller, and his return from elk hunting every fall was a treat, because there was always something.

Let me hasten to add that we always took care to trail-break our horses. All of them learned how to keep from killing or badly injuring themselves on picket ropes. All were taught as youngsters, like young and miserable Kalup here, to balance the dead weight of packs, usually before we broke them to ride. They learned how to maneuver around trees when loaded, how to deal with noisy or awkward packs (as the two-year-old baby, he doesn't have much of a load here, but look at all that weird stuff), and not to crowd up on the horse in front and drive it crazy going down the trail. But often Dad hunted with people from work who had their own horses, or guys who had never been around them at all. And oh, the stories! Horses that took one whiff of a bloody carcass and turned into prancing, dancing demons sidling over the top of everything in their path (including their handlers) to escape that awful thing bearing down on them (or already atop them). Packs slipping sideways on some round-backed nag. Neophyte pack horses bucking their way off trails, down sidehills, through ten-foot-high brush, floundering over small cliffs, landing upside down in rocks. One actually killed itself while tied to a tree. In camp.

NOT good times. There is nothing quite as scary or as helpless-feeling as watching a pack horse go berserk. And anything can spark it. A dangling strap. A bee sting. An uneven load that shifts worse and worse with every step. A pad working out from under the saddle. A rattling pot (or noisy gravel or other junk poured loose into a pack bag to teach a young horse). Elk antlers jabbing into a flank. Really awkward loads with crap sticking out every which way and cinched down as best the packer can. I read a really fascinating account by an old-time packer into the Idaho gold fields who remembered transporting the first piano into Couer d'Alene atop a mule. Also, one 800-pound piece of indivisible mining equipment. Just the weight boggles my mind. But the awkwardness!!! Holy smokes.

Bear in mind that all types of goods were transported by horse and mule in the heyday of medieval merchants. When roads were so bad that carts were impractical, anything large had to be transported by barge or by horse. Somehow. Last summer I got to watch my kinfolk loading up timbers and other awkward materials for the Forest Service for trail maintenance. Packing ten-foot timbers is an art, let me tell you. The bridge planking timbers shown in the first pic here are only four feet, and still required some serious thought and experimentation before they arrived at a configuration that rode well on the horse and didn't interfere with its shoulders or flanks. Four short timbers, two each side, weighed almost 200 pounds, a full load.

Now, think about really long pieces sticking out above or behind or even in front of the pack animal. Think about trying to maneuver through timber or around switchbacks on steep trails. Now stop wondering why traversing well-traveled European mountain passes was still so difficult.

I once critiqued a manuscript where the author had her city-bred hero starting on a spiritual journey across the wilderness with a pack animal. Okay. The problem was that he knew nothing about riding or caring for the animals. He had always had servants to do it. Learning to ride on your own is one thing; the basics are a matter of balance, figuring out how to get the beasties to go and stop and turn, and not triggering some unexpected reaction that leaves you broken and dying beside the trail. But packing...oh, that is a different skill altogether, and even the most experienced packers can run into problems. Look at the very specialized saddle shown in the first picture above, with all those ropes, the attached harness, and understand the fact that while one guy can load an animal by himself, it is ever so much easier for two. For a newbie with no experience of the animal he is packing to figure all that out, to understand that the load needs to be balanced for weight, to hoist it up by himself and figure out how to lash it on so it doesn't shift--that doesn't come in an hour, a day, or a month. Every load is different and requires experience to make it ride well.

Look at this picture of two nice-looking loads of assorted camping stuff, personal junk, and trash that had to be packed out of a permanent camp. Looks good, doesn't it? All nice and neat. Alas, the stuff was slithery and light, and despite the skill of the packers one of those loads came apart within half a mile. It could have been a spectacular wreck if the horses and people involved hadn't been so sensible. As is, they still spent a lot of time picking up the scattered pieces.

Please, author folks, if you are sending your characters out on a long journey with horses (or any pack animal), don't blithely assume it takes five minutes to get going in the morning, or that the average Joe can leap right in and pack his beast up without training. Or that the horse has been packed before, or will not come unglued when the ropes come untied. But hey! All that is excellent plot fare, isn't it?

Until next time, and I apologize that it has been so long.

If you want to see how I use horses in fiction, try my Fate's Arrow series, beginning with The Mask of God.