Shaking It Up

So my wife and I used the last of our groupons for the year. We're fortunate that she acquired so many earlier this year because with our current financial hardships, none of this would have been possible.

A year ago for my birthday, I drove up to the North Country. I had the day off and I wanted to go up to the mountains so that's what I did. I stopped at Canterbury, New Hampshire. There's a shaker village there. Don't know what the shakers are? They're like quakers but awesomer.

I didn't know they were awesomer at the time, but as our groupon (actually I think it was NH Daily Deals), we got a reduced admission and got to take the tour (which normally costs $17 per person). So that's what we did over the weekend. We headed up to Canterbury and took the guided tour, which is one of the better guided tours I've ever been on. And it was there that we learned about the shakers.

Dude! Dood! I've never experienced Christians like these. Truly, I was moved, and I'm not even Christian! Civil equality, feminism, hard work, scientific advancement, all in the 18th century! Don't think about all that being part of a religious sect back then, do you? They invented the clothes pin, the washing machine, the circular saw, the dorothy cloak, the rotating oven, and the flat broom. And most of those were invented by women! They boiled the sheets of the sick every day, changed clothes every day, and considered all labor equal and important in the eyes of god. So while they fell into typical gender roles in terms of work, that was more a matter of upper body strength and there was no difference between working in the laundry and plowing the fields. They were all fine work to be cherished.

The method invented for drying clothes in the winter was AWESOME! And really, the method for tracking everything in a proto-socialist society (you only owned your toothbrush and your comb) was super awesome. Everything (from a spoon to your short) had a demarcation. Each building had a letter and each room/drawer/cupboard had a number. So if someone found your missing shirt under a bench, you would return to your room and find your shirt laundered and pressed and in your shirt drawer because it had D.14.7 embroidered in it which means that shirt is stored in the 7th drawer of the 14th room in the Dwelling house.


It's actually pretty sad that there are only three shakers left in America (in Maine). The New Hampshire village has been turned into a museum, and I'm glad it was. I would have hated to miss out on learning about these people. I will absolutely use some of this stuff somewhere in a story.

(Also, Ken Burns did a documentary on them, if you want to learn more and can't make it out to one of the villages-turned-museum.)

It's the little details

I've said this before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: To help your reader believe the fantastic, make sure they recognize the mundane. It's an easy (lazy) hand-wave to excuse inconsistencies in fantasy by saying "this isn't the real world" when so much of the book mirrors the real world. Rarely do we create something newly whole. More often, we take what's familiar and twist and turn it until the picture looks different.

Why? Because if everything was new, the plot would get stuck in the mud of explanation. And in the end, you would resort to comparisons to the things we recognize and the reader simply associates the new thing as the old thing and all your creative effort is a waste. Don't reinvent the wheel. It's round and it works. Reinvent the people and their history and their religions and their culture.

For this reason, I love going to historical events/museums and the like, so I can pick up on the minor details I had assumed were X but proved to be Y1. That is why I would go to a place like Old Sturbridge Village twice in ten days2. For that same reason, while trying to find things Good Ken might find interesting on his vacation, I recommended the mansions in Newport, RI.

The mansions are were the captains of industry gathered near the end of the 19th century for "summer homes" so they could exult in no taxes and exploitative employment practices. (That's not always true, but when you see where the Vanderbilt's "cottage" the Breakers, you'll want to beat them with sticks.3) Having already listened to the main audio tours, I dove into the "aside" tour items, little things they include as extras in various rooms. How did the servants live. What were the obligations of the family's children to society, etc etc. And I took notes. So many notes! So many ideas that I want to incorporate. The way the houses were built, where the placed what rooms and the importance of those rooms and their placement. What servants wore. What the art was painted on4, and so on. They even had mini-bath tubs designed for masturbatory purposes. Ingenious!

Perhaps the thing I like most about including these little details is when someone responds, "That's awesome. Wouldn't it have been cool if we had had those in real life?" And then I can say, "We did!"

1 The basic lesson I've learned is that people weren't stupid. They were quite innovative. They were simply innovative with the tools and technology available to them at the time. Eliminate stainless steel, electricity, and microprocessors and a lot of our ingenuity would start to look much the same.

2 For free! Old Sturbridge Village gives you free entrance back to the site within ten days and any new guests get a 25% discount. That's hot!

3 All these places have a lot of gold leaf. There is one room that Vanderbilts...built that the preservation society thought was silver leaf. But that didn't explain why the silver wasn't tarnishing. So they brought in a portable x-ray machine and discovered the patterns were actually platinum leaf. Do you know how expensive platinum was in 1897?!?! And they used it to decocrate their walls!!!!

4 We all hear about oil on canvas. So a tour guide was stuttering while pointing out a painting. "Oil on...oil...oil..." and I'm thinking, Canvas, woman! Say canvas! This painting was particularly interesting because it looked like the artist had painted the entire canvas black before starting. While that is a practice, in this case it didn't seem to serve the subject matter. The black was showing through and inhibiting the portrait of the family member. "Oil on ebony." WHAT WHAT? On ebony? HOW AWESOME!!!!

A New Adventure!

Groupon Queen discovered that we lived near the nation's third largest living history museum, Old Sturbridge Village. This is a village as you would have found it in 1835 New England, and many of the buildings are actually from that period transplanted from one of the various states. Actors/educators are in period dress and conduct themselves in particular professions, so there's a printer, a tinsmith, a potter, etc. This was REALLY cool and I learned a ton! (My understanding of how a grist mill works was informed by Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow and 19th-century mills did not use a rotating millstone of that fashion, if that fashion ever existed. Also, I learned how a sawmill works and a schoolhouse and...and...who the hell can fit 12 people in a house that small?!)

There was also Fife and Drum corps there today playing a variety of music. And some of the early 18th-century muskets are as tall as I am. How the hell could anyone aim with something that large? You'd need a stand to rest the barrel on! (They also had a seven-barrel musket that you might recognize if you've watched the Richard Sharpe miniseries. I don't know if it appears in the novels.)

Inevitably in these places, I end up taking pictures of the placards instead of the actual structures because I want to be able to go back and reference their information later. (I did this for a map at a Greek Fest for the Middle East c. 2nd millenium BC and it was pretty awesome.)

The one I was most enthused about today was the information on the mill. Aside from showing the proper way to turn the millstone (they laid on top of one another like two donuts whereas I had thought one vertical rolling around the other), they also explained how millers kept their business. People brought their grains that needed milling and would pay the "Miller's Toll," 1/16th of the milled grain that the miller could then sell to those people who did not raise their own crops.

I love the phrase "Miller's Toll" and am devoting considerable effort to finding a story that will fit with it. I'll let you know if I come up with anything.

The Destruction of the Cloud

I have been a long-time Twitter follower of GalleyCat (an arm of Media Bistro that focuses on publishing) until they posted this article on Monday. Now, as GalleyCat expands its number of contributors, I have found the quality has become more circumspect. This is always a risk with expansion. But said article pushed me over the edge. The stupidity of such a premise offends me to such a degree that I cannot stomach to see their name appear in my Twitter feed any more, so I unfollowed.

If you don't feel like subjecting yourself to the article (and I don't blame you if you do), betting that new technological concepts can be easily exploited by a fear-inducing headline, GalleyCat published an article about Apple's announcement about cloud storage. (Not necessarily a shocker given their pre-announcements and that Amazon and Google are doing the same thing.) GallyCat's statement: Keep your novel on hardcopy because an EMP could destroy the cloud.

Now for you non-science fiction readers, an EMP is an electromagnetic pulse. Did you see the first Clooney Oceans Eleven movie? Don Cheedle sets off a device in a van that blacks out Las Vegas? That's an EMP. They have them in the Matrix too. They're concept.

In reality you create an EMP as part of the effect of a nuclear detonation. I'll write that again: nuclear detonation. In addition to the actual blast and a wave of radiation, there's also a pulse that fries electronic gizmos, power grids, and the like. Blackouts, hard drives wiped, etc. A study shows that an EMP could destroy the cloud!

No shit. An EMP could destroy most anything electronic. That's like saying a nuclear bomb might destroy your house. Telling people to keep a copy of their manuscript on hardcopy because of the risk of EMP is Chicken Littling new technology and not worth my bandwidth. There are two really important facts to keep in mind about this whole premise:

1) Major companies like Apple and Google do not have only one tier of servers and multiple tiers are not kept in the same location. If the servers should fail (a much more likely event than an EMP), back-up servers at a different location take over. So even if someone detonates a nuclear bomb in the atmosphere and EMPs the cloud servers, other cloud servers spin up and you continue doing what you do.

2) A FUCKING NUCLEAR BOMB WAS JUST DETONATED IN THE ATMOSPHERE! I don't know about you, but I have more important things to worry about than my manuscript. Like armageddon.

The Bill of Rights c.1791

The general rule is that no sign exists until after someone does what the sign instructs not to do (thus my favorite sign is "Do not lick the C-4"). You should consider the Bill of Rights to the American Constitution much like a sign. The reason why those 10 items were enumerated? Because they happened.

I bring this up because one of the most frequent mistakes I see by fantasy authors is applying modern freedoms (and specifically American freedoms) on their fantasy medieval settings. The guard comes and arrests the main character and the main character insists he cannot be arrested unless the guard tells them what he's being arrested for. Oh no, my friends, they absolutely could come and arrest you and not tell you what you were being arrested for. That's why we have an amendment that says you can't do that. Because you could do that. But now you can't.

I think the one that gets me the most is when a main character or a friend screams, "We have a right to [x]!" Son, you don't have a right to shit. You only get the rights the king provides to you and those can and will be changed when the king feels like it because he is appointed by god and/or is god and thus his will is not only a matter of rule but a matter of mandate from heaven, so you should really stop complaining that you can only hunt squirrels now.

Such mistakes are most frequently made by American writers. We're so accustomed to our freedoms being the "right" freedoms that it can be a shock when you find out that modern countries don't necessarily share such rights. (And I'm not talking about communist China, I'm talking about the United Kingdom not having the same provisions of free speech as the US. The right to free speech that we enjoy isn't enjoyed by every G-8 country in the West.)

So read over the bill of rights. Hell, read over all 27 amendments. You may not have to worry about limiting your president to two terms or prohibition, but read them for the signs they are. Until those signs were written, people did them. Soldiers lived in your home whether you wanted them to or not. Your punishment was cruel and unusual (or at least cruel, given its frequency I would assume it became usual). You don't have a right not to incriminate yourself or worship what religion you wish or assembly or a free press.

You only have the right to the law that is dictated by a single man and can be changed just as quickly (unless you've created some kind of parliamentary legal body in which case it comes from a collection of men and can be even harder to change).

Oh, and do not lick the C-4.

Being Factual in an Alt History Story

I've been doing a lot of research for PATAPAN. I've nailed down most of what I needed (or what I didn't already have). I am taken aback by how many people are shocked that I would do research for an alternate history story. I'm changing the history as it's been taught to us. It's important that I get as many details as I can accurately so that readers can understand the points I'm changing are intentional changes and not just errors on the author's part.

Sure not everyone who reads it will be so into history that they know more about Benedict Arnold than he was a traitor and possibly at West Point. But it seems lazy to just write about history without keeping factual when I don't intentionally change things. A few train rides digging through Wikipedia refreshing what I already knew is enough to keep a novel set in the Missouri Territory ringing with honesty.

The story is set in the town of Arnold, Missouri just southwest of Saint Louis. The town is real (an exurb of the city) but was not founded at the time the story is set. I am writing a scene right now and the main character and his friends are crossing the river to Saint Louis. I'm curious how many people will think I've made a mistake or believe it's a change I've made for the story. Saint Louis at the time of the Louisiana Purchase was actually part of the Illinois Territory and not part of the Missouri Territory.

Here's a bit of history trivia for you. The Mississippi River didn't always flow the way you see it on a map today. The Army Corps of Engineers actually moved it, turning it from the west side of Saint Louis to the east side. If you ever go to Saint Louis and you hear about an area called Westport, you might be confused because there isn't any water nearby for a port. Well now you know. Saint Louis was the gateway to the west because leaving it crossed the Mississippi into the wild frontier (rather than being the first city you come to in the frontier as would be the case if it had been on the west side of the river).

Knowledge = (the battle)/2

I was watching a movie the other day and character A says of character B that he is a marksman. He can strike a man square in the chest at 50 meters. This was a modern piece with modern weaponry. There are different levels of writing what you know. The soul of some things can only be realized through experience. Others simply need research. In either case, you need to address a first-hand account of the subject and not just lend your interpretation to someone else's interpretation. That just becomes the operator/telephone game.

In this case, I immediately knew the writer had no idea what (s)he was talking about. 50 meters? Good god, not fifty meters! That's so hard!, wait, no it's not. On a standard marksmanship target range, the SHORTEST target is placed at 50 meters. The longest is set at 300 meters.

Rather than paying attention to the movie, I began to wonder if the writer had even fired a gun before or just thought a dramatically delivered line would go unquestioned.

Now I'm not a hunter. I've never killed anything larger than an insect. ...except for a bird that done under my tire when I was a teenager. I was, at one time, a certified marksman (my preferred range being between 175 and 250--though I ALWAYS missed 300. I never got the arc right). If you're going to write a book that includes modern weaponry, I recommend finding a local sportsman's club and renting a pistol, a shotgun, a rifle, and if they have one, an M-16. Each of them has different uses, different feels, and different results. A little research will dramatically improve your weapon choice and description. You'll also avoid throwing your reader out of your story when they realize you have no idea what you're talking about.

At the End of All Things

More and more often, one of the arguments against ebooks I'm hearing is: When society collapses and there is no more power to charge the ebook or run the servers or what have you, I'll be happy with my paper books.

It's a hyperbolic example, but not for the reasons I think they're intending. I think they're going with the "if the world ended" as an extreme example, but I think the extremity is to believe you'd have time for leisure writing once a power grid collapsed.

Without electricity, your entire day just got dedicated to survival. You'll need to learn how to make candles or lantern oil. You'll need to learn how to farm. You'll need to learn how to stockpile necessities for the winter.

When you have a finite number of candles and your daylight is spent staying alive, when exactly does all this reading happen?

(This all assumes you survived the initial riots that decimate the population and you don't use book pages for kindling on your first sub-freezing night.)

(A little binger to brighten your day. ;)


This story began as a ponderance. I thought of it from time to time. It sat in my brain like a seed. Will it sprout or will it just lay there? It sprouted a little, but I doubted enough to make a story out of it. My wife then asked me what I was talking about and gave the seed enough water to sprout. She demanded I write the story, you see. And I tend to try and write stories when they are asked for. I've always been that way and I'm not sure why it is.

This story also makes me think of a comment Hannah Mosk said on Twitter. She felt the phase should not be "Write what you know" but "Write what you've read." She felt that reading on a subject was just as good as experiencing something firsthand. This is a complicated argument to respond to because she's right and wrong at the same time.

"Write what you know" is not "Write what you've experienced" or we wouldn't have a lot of books written in a year. It means to know your subject. Know it, don't just wing it or half-ass it. Reading enough books, like she suggests, will give you the information you need to write on the subject. At the same time, a first-hand experience will always trump whatever you've read. Mork from Ork describes it best in "Good Will Hunting." You can read a book on the Sistine Chapel, but it won't compare to the experience of standing there and smelling the air. You can write about your experience at the Sistine Chapel or you can about how someone else wrote about his experience at the Sistine Chapel. It has a generational dilution effect. At some point, it will become a stereotype or a cliche and not an experience at all.

The reason why I went on that rather long tangent is because WHAT'S BEHIND THE CROOKED DOOR? is a fairy tale noir set in Brooklyn. I've never been to Brooklyn. And while I can try to translate what I've seen from other media (movies, TV, books), it will not be the same as if I went to Brooklyn (to which I'll have to arrange a trip next year). Seeing things first hand will make it a thousand times more real than if I just try to paint what I've seen in other people's paintings.

And with that, an excerpt from WHAT'S BEHIND THE CROOKED DOOR? Same caveats as before (caveats I make with every excerpt--I post first drafts. I like comments, but don't freak out on the quality of the writing).


I went to a bar; I sat at the bar,
I met a woman named violet.
I bought us drinks; we drank our drinks,
Then we had sex most violent

I said farewell; I did not fare well,
I had no idea what else was in store.
I stumbled out; I passed right out,
Then awoke at the crooked door.


“Knock it off, Tommy.” I waved my hand back and forth, trying to smack the four-year-old away. I should never have given my sister a key. More importantly, I should ever have showed my nephew where I kept all my Nerf weapons.

“Tommy!” My voice cracked. I couldn't remember the last time I had that much to drink. Well, yes I could, now that I thought about it. My first year after college. I fell down the stairs and met that Greek girl. God that had been a good time.

Violet's passionate screams slapped me harder than Tommy and my makeshift Nerf broadsword. Slapped me right in the crotch. The audio came with blessed video, and I saw her clear as day. Rich brown skin, long black hair, curves to die for, breasts to kill with. She sat on top of me and rocked as hard as she could.

“Tommy, go to mommy,” I said. Better get the kid out of here before he got an impromptu lesson on anatomy. Yes, it's supposed to get hard like that. Yes, that's as big as it gets.

I was wet. Wet all over. Not an, 'I got so drunk I pissed myself,' which I have thankfully avoided to date. More a 'You're lying in the gutter and a crazy homeless guy is peeing on you.'

My eyes shot open. This wasn't my bedroom. This wasn't my apartment. This was an alley. This was the gutter. I really was lying in the gutter.

“Oh motherfucker!” I shooed the dog away. Too late. My pants were soaked. I could already smell it. I gagged on the overwhelming scent of urine. I breathed through my mouth until I was certain I wouldn't vomit.

Not that there was any guarantee. My head still pounded. I'm not what one calls a big drinker. I'm a social drinker to be sure, two-fingered Scotch on the rocks or a pomegranate martini.

Hey, don't judge. That shit is delicious.

I'm thirty-five years old, and this is my first hangover. If I could, I'd pull off my head and leave it on a shelf until this passed. How do people do this kind of thing every weekend? Why do people do this kind of thing every weekend? I didn't understand it in college, and I don't understand it now.

My roommates used to compete to see who had gotten the more drunk that particular weekend. My roommates were fucking stupid. This was nothing short of masochism. Might as well wear a studded leather thong and put a ball gag in my mouth.

“Good god,” I muttered as I stood up. I had to admit that was the best sex I had had in—ever. If getting drunk and waking up in the gutter while a dog peed on you was the price, it was a price happily paid. I would never have agreed to that beforehand, but hindsight was 20/20...

Well, right now, more like 20/80. Where the hell was I?

The alley was dark, just before dawn dark. There were no street lamps and nothing came from the end of the alley or from the windows above. There must have been a blackout. I looked around for sparks shooting from a transformer. Why the fuck I thought I'd find the transformer in that alley, I had no idea, and it wasn't like I could have fixed the thing even if it was there. I just wanted a definite explanation as to why everything was dark. When you can't remember how you got somewhere, even the most basic hard fact is reassuring.

A cloud passed away, and the full moon came out. It was huge. I don't think I had ever seen the moon that big. After making sure no one was around to see, I reached up and tried to grab it. Nope, still out of reach.

There was a door in front of me. I stood maybe three feet away from the side of a nondescript building. It could be any New York building. There wasn't a lot of diversity in this part of Brooklyn.