Monday, December 26, 2016

Dreaming of Alien Invasions

The other day, while I was out back throwing the ball to Holly the Pup, I began thinking about invaders from outer space. Was it in reaction to the chaotic and paranoiac times in which we live, where we seem to have as many enemies within as we have without? Was it an imaginative reaction to sitting under a vast and empty sky and wondering what might happen if it were suddenly filled with spaceships? Was it because I watched way too many trashy science fiction films during my misspent youth? Certainly any of these could lay claim for inspiring me, but it may also been because I was bored to tears and wishing that something interesting would happen, even an alien invasion. To Holly, every throw of the ball is different, every unexpected bounce a surprise to be anticipated and celebrated, but to me every throw is the same, time after time after time. She can go on for two hours or more without becoming one whit jaded, but, for me, my concentration begins to waver after two minutes, or less.

When you sit down and analyze the nature of any alien invasion, you realize there are limited possibilities for the nature of the invaders. I'm not thinking of their forms or motivations but rather their relation to us. I came to the conclusion there are four basic possibilities: 

  • They are superior to us
  • They are equal to us
  • They are inferior to us
  • They are unfathomable to us

The first aspect that pops to mind is technology, and the gut reaction of most people would be to assume an instant superiority to us. After all, they have space flight and we don't. They have to be superior to us, don't they? Not necessarily, and technology is only one aspect. The are other aspects of the invaders to take into consideration:
  • Technology
  • Society
  • Biology
  • Ethics

Take for example H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, not the first alien invasion novel, but the most famous and influential. The Martians were definitely more advanced than the English of the period in terms of technology. They had weapons like heat rays, black smoke and disintegrators, while the British army had only rifles and artillery. However, the Martians were inferior to us biologically, the reason our germs could lay them low. In film adaptations of the book, especially the unwatchable Tom Cruise version, the technological gap has almost closed. In fact, I'd say that in the films the Martians were about equal to us except for the gimmick of the force field--take that away and their machines blow up like any other machine. And yet they remain biologically inferior.

In John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, there is no technology with which to contend. There, the ambulatory plants have the advantage of biology and society. They are not heirs to the weaknesses of the flesh, nor are they burdened by conflicting social impulses. Their societal imperative, such as they could be said to have one, is clear--dominate and feed.

The aliens of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End appear to have technology so far ahead of ours as to seem like magic.They can make the spectators at a bullfight feel the pain of the bull and cause the sun appear not to shine in a specified area. They seem superior to us on all counts, even in the area of ethics and morality, which, of course, is the point of the book. However, we retain a biological superiority because the aliens are unable to make the evolutionary leap that is our destiny, though they can shepherd us toward it.

In The Midwich Cuckoos, again by Wyndham, we have aliens about which we can only guess. Are they technologically superior? We don't know because we never see evidence of actual technology. The same applies to society and biology, though we can at least assume there is superiority of some sort, if only because they can make a village go to sleep, protect it with some kind of dampening field and make every woman in the village wake up pregnant. Ethically? Who knows? We often perform experiments of "lesser creatures" and we consider ourselves moral and ethical beings. So why not them?

A few words about cinematic efforts at depicting alien invasions. Usually, we're treated to spectacular special efforts designed to make us think the invaders are technologically advanced--giant ships, exploding buildings, disintegrating people, etc. In reality, though, most of the invaders are about equal to us. That was the case with the aforementioned War of the Worlds films and is true also in such efforts as Independence Day and Battleship. Take away the force field gimmick and all their spaceships go boom. In Battle: Los Angeles, we just shoot the aliens. The examples of aliens truly technologically advanced is are as rare as technologically inferior aliens. While backwards aliens have appeared in print from time to time, I can only think of the Pakleds ("We go. We go fast.") from Star Trek as an example of "simple aliens" on the screen.

Will an alien invasion ever really happen? If we truly live in a universe of infinite possibilities, then the answer must be yes. No one knows what form it may take, but the odds of it being like anything you have read about or seen in the cinema or on television are low. Our imagination always falters when faced with the immensity of the unknown. Nor does anyone know if it will happen before or after the Zombie Apocalypse...yeah, at least we know that's coming.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Back to Hammershire County

A few months ago, I completed the long-held goal of writing a traditional British mystery. It was titled Murder in the Goblins' Playground, featured DCI Arthur Ravyn, and was very well received by readers who enjoy British mysteries in the "village cozy" genre. I've finished the second book in the series, again set in legend-haunted Hammershire County, and you can get a preview of it here:

Nearly forty years ago I found myself in Adams, Tennessee. It's not a well-known place anymore, except to students of the strange, but in the Nineteenth Century it was one of the most celebrated towns in the United States. It was the site of the Bell Witch incident. Despite the name, it was actually a ghost haunting. When I was there, more than a hundred years later, the town was still under the shadow of the Bell Witch. Businesses used Bell Witch-influenced logos in their signs. Not only could every single resident give detailed instructions on how to reach the original farm where the haunting took place, they all had stories passed down through the generations. And it was a fine irony that the mayor's surname at the time was Strange.

When I began developing Little Wyvern, the village at the centre of "Village of Ghosts," I took some cues from Adams, Tennessee. Anyone looking to develop a village as a ghost-themed tourist destination would want as many ghosts as possible, which would mean dragging every single family skeleton out of its closet, kicking and screaming if necessary. Secrets would be bared. All secrets. More than enough motive for murder...which is exactly what happens in the formerly sleepy village of Little Wyvern. Add in some quirky English characters, a hidden adversary, and a Warlock back after more than 350 years, and you have a mystery worthy of DCI Arthur Ravyn and DS Leo Stark from the Hammershire Constabulary.

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My Favourite British Author Wasn't British

Several years ago I was affiliated with the Friends of the San Diego Public Library, eventually becoming director of book sales. Most of our money, with which we funded various  projects the City saw fit to leave unfunded, came from weekend book sales. Some of our books came from Library castoffs, but most came through direct donations. I evaluated and priced books before they were added to our stock. I probably should mention at this point, and it will certainly come as no shock to anyone who knows me, that in addition to being director of book sales, I was also my own best customer, which is why I never had money for any other vices. I recall, in particular, one very large donation from a man who was moving back east and was paring down his mystery library to what he considered "the very best and most important." We got the leftovers.

The "leftovers" were nearly a hundred boxes, all packed to bursting with hardcover mystery novels, every one of them not only with a dust jacket, but with an archival Mylar book cover to protect the dust jacket. Unpacking, evaluating, pricing and shelving the books was a task for many months. As I worked, I found myself setting aside certain volumes for my own purchase. I soon noticed that nearly all the books I was purchasing were either written by British authors or were set in England. That brought up an interesting remembrance. Many of the mystery writers of my youth were British. There was, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, along with Sayers, Allingham, Tey, Marsh, Fleming, Wentworth and dozens of others. However, when I was young, my favourite British author was John Dickson Carr...the only problem was that he wasn't British.

John Dickson Carr
30 Nov 1906 - 28 Feb 1977

No, as it turned out, he wasn't British at all, but was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The only other times I've been so shocked about a nationality were when I learned that Patrick McGoohan had been born in Queens, New York, and that Patrick Macnee had been an American citizen since the Fifties. Carr was taken with the same notion as was I--that the British were the best mystery writers, and he wanted to be one of them. In 1932, he relocated to England to seek fame as an English writer. And find it he did.

Although Carr wrote short stories and many standalone non-series novels, he's mostly known for three things: 1) Dr Gideon Fell, an erudite detective based on G.K. Chesterton, 2) Sir Henry Merrivale, an amateur detective with more than a passing resemblance to Winston Churchill, and 3) writing the best locked-room mysteries ever.

A lock room mystery, for those who need to know, is a story about a crime (generally murder) that takes place within a venue where the crime would be impossible. The crime often takes place in a room locked from the inside with no point of egress (hence the genre name) but it can also be an open area, such as a beach or a tennis court where the victim is absolutely alone. I always divide locked-room mysteries into two categories, those written by Carr and those written by everyone else. In the end, the locked room mystery is solved and the culprit outed, but in the very cleverest way possible.

Both Dr Fell and Sir Henry were created by Carr to solve the locked-room mysteries churning in his mind. Of the two, Dr Fell was more serious, usually tinged with morality and the supernatural, a walk down a darker path for all concerned. Sir Henry was less serious, almost comic, though his murders were just as dastardly  and the solutions just as clever. When reading Sir Henry's tales I was known to laugh more than a few times, but when reading a story featuring Dr Fell I was much more likely to look over my shoulder to make sure nothing dire was there.

As I mentioned, I mistook Carr for a British writer, for in those years all I had to go on were his writings, which often seemed more British than actual British authors. It was not until the Seventies, when he was writing a regular book review column for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that I read of his true nationality. Even though I was a little dismayed (I had to shed two decades of wrong assumptions), he remained one of my favorite (American) British authors, and does so to this day.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Humorous Galaxy

When I was a lad, my parents used to drag me to one thrift store after another. I did not resent these regular outings into the realms of cast-offs and other people's junk. Not at all. While my mom and dad were looking for who-knows-what (I really paid no attention), I was scarfing up paperbacks, comic books and old magazines, most of them for no more than a nickel or a dime--well within my meager budget. I especially liked finding copies of Galaxy, a science fiction magazine that started publishing in 1950, founded by an Italian company looking to break into the burgeoning American SF market. I liked the stories, but I was especially attracted by the covers, which were quite often very a time when humor was as rare in science fiction as romance.

I don't think I ever read an SF story where the characters actually turned out to be Adam and Eve (though I think there may have been a TZ episode like that) but that did not stop an artist from painting a picture that evoked the biblical story (left). Likewise, the cover on the right was strictly for laughs since it did not actually illustrate a story. Despite the little green man and the alien cow, it readily calls to mind the old image of a cow being hit by a train or a truck (farmers used to purposely put old cows on the tracks or in the road) for which the irate farmer would demand fare compensation. It was about this time that I realized that whenever science fiction writers were writing about faraway worlds, strange alien beings or civilizations visited by time travelers they were not writing about those things at all--they were writing about us, about our world and about the events of our own time. That's one of the reasons why old science fiction at times seems dated, not because of the writing style but because the social conditions which inspired those stories have changed.

 This cover by Emsh was one of my favorites, the aliens taking something that would be considered a work of art and gently mocking it. Nothing malicious or racist in it, just a reminder that the way we see things is not how everyone else sees them. It is a lesson I learned long ago and took to heart. It's a reminder not to take oneself or one's beliefs too seriously or to expect others to see things as you do. The world would be, I am sure, a much nicer, much calmer place if we would just get over ourselves and not see every slight, real or imagined, as a reason for a declaration of social or cultural war. Science fiction was really good at pointing out human foibles because they could approach the subject by a side door, so to speak, and get people to agree without really understanding what they were agreeing to, until it was too late. David Knight, my English teacher in 7th grade, told me: "If someone complains that a science fiction story is maligning some group or person, all the writer has to do is deny it--no, I'm not writing about anyone except these giant intelligent insects that live on a planet I made up in my mind." It was another lesson I took to heart back when I started writing in earnest...which, oddly enough, was back when I had Mr Knight as a teacher. I don't write much science fiction these days, except for the steampunk novels, but in all my writing I try to keep in mind that when I create characters and groups they are always more than mere words on paper, even if I don't realize it at the time.

The last Galaxy cover I want to share is not a humorous one, but one which grabbed my imagination and remained in my mind. I really liked the image of a rocketship, probably on a planet far from Earth, which landed so long ago that an alien jungle has started to claim it. When things get caught in my mind, they tend to percolate, sometimes for decades before they come to the surface in some story. For the ancient spaceship, it took more than thirty years to find its way into a story. It became the subject of a quest in a story called "Beneath the Eye of God," which mixed elements of the Crusades, Indian mythology, the Jewish Diaspora from England in the Middle Ages and an article I read about planets existing between galaxies. It was part of a loosely connected series that I called Tales of Lost Earth, a time when Terrans are so dispersed that even Earth has become a legend. When I published a collection of my stories a couple of years ago--Beneath Strange Stars--it was one of the ones I included. So the spaceship came from Galaxy, the world came from an article I read, but what about the Crusades and the Jews being persecuted in England? If you're guessing Ivanhoe, you'd be correct, but Ivanhoe, by way of an episode of Leave It to Beaver. It's funny how things get processed by the mind.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Some Very English Murders

I've always had a weakness for mystery and crime stories set in England. I'm ever ready to read about some stalwart Scotland Yard inspector, a clever London detective, or even a blue-haired dear old thing who views the world through the prism of her archetypal English village. I am also a fan of English whodunits in film and on the telly, from Morse to A Touch of Frost to Midsomer Murders. And I've always wanted to join the ranks of those who have penned some very English murders.

This is not a unique desire. The great classic era mystery writer John Dickson Carr was born in Pennsylvania, but he wanted to be a British writer so badly he moved house and family to England. I did not think that was an option for me (I can imagine the Wife rolling her eyes had I voiced the suggestion) so I decided to write a very English mystery without changing my lattitude.

Actually, it's something that I've wanted to do for a very long time. I was held back, mostly, by a lack of confidence. Yes, I've written in British settings before, but those instances were different. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, we're talking about an England more than a hundred years old...a little hard to fact-check me. And in the steampunk novels I could easily dismiss any mistakes..."Yeah, well, that's an alternate timeline where things went differently, isn't it?" A lame excuse, perhaps, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it. With a mystery set in the modern age, there is not much wiggle room.

My detective, the location in which the mystery takes place, and the case itself all began separately and went through several changes before coming together. DCI Arthur Ravyn went through many names, as did his assistant, DS Leo Stark. Something I do when I've got nothing to do is to write down dialogue for my detective, usually discussing aspects of a case or interviewing some yob. They all helped me flesh out the character of the detective. As I mentioned, he went through several names before he became Arthur Ravyn. I'm nor sure where the name came from, but it just hit me as the right name. Of course, when a name comes to me, the first thing I do is Google it, just in case there is a reason it came to me. Google has saved me from some embarrassing moments.

The location, Hammershire (pronounced Hammer-sure) County, made its first appearance in print in the story, "The Woods, The Watcher & the Warding," in Sherlock Holmes: Cthulhu Mythos Adventures, the only Watson-narrated story in the book. It was a properly creepy place with many isolated villages and ancient secrets. A tagline that established itself very early was, "Hammershire County is a place where change comes slowly, if at all, the past intrudes upon the present, and old things often refuse to die." Long before I had any stories to tell, I found myself drawing maps and naming villages. There is a strong Lovecraftian thread running through Hammershire, but for the mysteries this is toned down somewhat.

The event which precipitates the story has lingered in my mind for a long time--a man runs into the snug bar of the local pub after visiting an ancient megalith and dies. Various men died in varied ways and for different reasons before the incident took its present form. What finally set it in my mind was the decision to locate in in Hammershire County, as if the spirit of the place gave me a direction I lacked.. When all three came together--detective, location and specific event--I finally had the basis for the book I wanted to write. Writing it was, if not easy, then certainly a pleasure.

If you'd like a preview of Murder in the Goblins' Playground, Amazon has a new feature which allows you to take a look without leaving this blog:

The fun of writing it and comparative popularity of the book has inspired me to consider other DCI Ravyn stories. I'm not sure whether it's because of character or location, but I've already started outlining other books in the series, and as a note at the end of Murder in the Goblins' Playground states, the next adventure involving DCI Ravyn and DS Stark will be Village of Ghosts.

I hope you enjoyed this look behind the writing of Murder in the Goblins' Playground. It was a fun book to write and I look forward to my next visit to mysterious Hammershire County. The book is available in both print and e-book editions. For those of you enrolled in Amazon's Kindle Unlimited Program, you can borrow the book at no extra cost and read it at your leisure. If you'd to look at the book's page on Amazon, click the button below. And do consider joining my mailing list to keep up to date with all my writing projects.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

Something's Brewing and Brevity Of Pen

My co-administrator Arimintha recently published a collection of her one-act plays. I asked if she would share something about her experience with writing for the theatre...

I have been writing one-act plays for over ten years. I was fortunate to get involved with a theatre that would produce them and then lucky enough to have some of my plays produced for The North Park Playwright Festival at the North Park Vaudeville and Candy Shoppe.

Recently, I took some of these plays and some others that I had written and and collected them in book form. It is not a collection of every play I’ve ever written. Such a book would be too long, and there are some that I still probably wouldn’t put in.

A few factors go into how I write. Some involve story, I often start with a kernel of something – perhaps a visual I want to see, an issue I’m facing, or a subject I want to write about. Something’s Brewing was based on a creation myth I had started when I couldn’t sleep one night and then further expanded upon a few years after I had originally wrote it. Have a Nice Death was based on the visual of a Goth cheerleader. It’s In the Cards was based on the idea that Fate was a card dealer.

What I really want to talk about is why I write one-act plays and things to keep in mind when you are writing them.

I write them because they happen to be easier to get produced. The theatre I worked at produced one act plays every month and a lot of playwright festivals are looking for those as well. To have a full-length play produced can be very hard. You often have to either fund it yourself, or be already established. It’s not impossible, but it is much more difficult.

The other reason I do it is because I find that it is all the space I need to get a story across. I have been told I have brevity of pen and when writing one-act plays, this is a good trait to have. Boltin’ and Joltin’ was written for a short screenplay contest. I was given some parameters and a maximum page count. When I looked on the forums, many people were finding it hard not to go over the page count and also had trouble trimming what they wrote. My advice is to keep the parts necessary to your story. You may have a line you love or a subplot that you think is awesome, but check if it supports your story or if it can go without it.  Decide if it is necessary to the story or it's just your ego talking. When there is a call for submissions, you want to give them a complete play, not something that is part of a larger work. Even if it is from a larger work, it must be able to stand on its own and be a complete story.

Keep your staging simple, your cast small, and have a minimal amount of set changes. You only have so many pages to tell your story and a lot of times people will choose your play based not only on the material, but also how easy it will be to stage. A cast of ten or more is unwieldy. Intricate sets and lots of set changes are not always feasible. When I was directing for some playwright festivals, I would go through the first page and look at how many actors I would need to work with. Because these were plays that were less than 10 minutes, anything with more than four characters or more than one set would get put into the pile that wasn’t going to get read. There may have been some really great plays in there, but because of limitations, they had to go to the side.

The last part is about formatting and following instructions.  If you are submitting for a specific venue, follow the instructions given. The quickest way to be put into the rejected pile is to not follow instructions. In terms of formatting, if you are going to direct them yourself or they are being produced at a theatre that does not have hard and fast formatting guidelines, you can mostly make your own. The main thing to remember is to make it easy for the actors to read and make notes on. If submitting to a more mainstream venue, I would recommend using software like Celtix. It is a free program and has tools for various formats such as stage plays, screenplays, radio shows, etc.

I enjoyed very much writing these and rewriting them for this collection. As I read through them, some of them took me back to my early 20’s, which sometimes seems like a lifetime ago.  I wrote these to be easy to stage in smaller theatres which don’t have a lot of resources. Some of these I directed and had a specific theatre in mind while I was writing. Some I wrote and were produced later and then it was up to the director to decide how to stage them.  All of them were written with the limited resources of small theatres in mind and I hope you enjoy them.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Making Adjustments

Whenever I start reading a crime or mystery novel, the first thing I do is take a look at the copyright date. My reason for doing this is twofold. First, I need to know whether the film that will play out in the theater of my mind will be in color or black and white. My rule of thumb is that anything before 1960 will be B&W, while anything from the Sixties forward will be in color. Needless to say, that will also affect the garb of the characters and the vehicles they drive. Second, I need to understand the context of the currency, and that's the hardest part of reading a period crime novel. 

For example, Philip Marlowe is always paying off some informant, slipping him a dollar for some valuable information. Nowadays, try to buy info for a buck and your stoolie might say, "Hey, buddy, where's the other nineteen to go along with that?" On the other hand, he might decide to loosen someone's tongue with some liquor, some slugs of Old Forester. Even then, it's a cheap investment, since he can get an informant drunk, have a few shots himself, and still get change back from his $5...and that includes sliding a dime to the bartender as a tip. Even Marlowe's rates ($25 a day, plus expenses) sound picayune by today's standards, where a lunch can cost that much easily. It helps, though, when I remember that my grandfather was at the time making $3,500 per year, and that was a excellent salary, him being a stationary engineer. In comparison, a journalist on the same census report was listed as making $2,800 a year, with a teacher earning slightly less. Understanding Marlowe's rates also helps me to understand his clients. Somebody who could pay him $25 a day, plus expenses (let's call it $35) is pretty well heeled. Could you hire a detective for $450 a day? It explains why Marlowe's clients often wore diamonds.

In crime books, there are often robberies, kidnappings and murders. More often than not, the motive is money. When I read about a robbery that nets a cool $5,000 or even $10,000, my first thought is, You could have got that with a job at Burger guns involved. Even a ransom demand of $50,000 seems petty, less than a year's salary in a mediocre job. I remember an episode of the old TV series The Saint where an actress and an actor were kidnapped from the stage of an Italian sword & sandal film. The kidnappers wanted $25,000 for the actress, but only $5,000 for the musclebound actor. When the aggrieved actor complained to the kidnappers, he was told, "Well, we had to ask for something we thought they would pay." An insult in comparison, perhaps, but still a princely sum, equal to about $60,000 today...well, I guess it was rather insulting after all since that's still a mediocre job these days. When you move into the rather rarefied air of millions you begin to get away from actual sums and start dealing with ideas and concepts. A title like Million Dollar Murder evoked a response from a reader that had nothing to do with the actual sum. A million dollars was an unreachable amount, a synonym for "more money than you can imagine"...which was also a common line in crime novels back in the day. Today, a million bucks is a lot of money only in an abstract sense, a tenuous tie with tradition. In reality, it's not much to get excited about. Anyone in a mediocre job ($50,00/year) will earn that much in just twenty years. The whole point of citing a million dollars was to evoke the feeling that that was more than the average reader could ever make...doing something legal,

Even the lofty billion ($1,000,000,000) is on the verge of becoming an endangered species. If a million bucks was unimaginable, then a billion was inconceivable, the sort of thing that might cause an embolism if a crook considered it too long. Nowadays, billion has become the new million, which has become the new thousand. If this keeps up, the next time you pay your bill at McDonald's, you might have to say, "Sorry, I don't have anything smaller than the new Booker T. Washington $20,000,000 bill." It can get quite depressing reading a period crime novel, not for any action in the book itself, but because the devolution of our money really hits home. Sure, wages were low, but so were prices, and the money you earned actually had value. People might look down on what my grandfather earned in the Thirties, but his six kids never went hungry and always had shoes. 

So, when I read crime novels and money invariably enters the picture, I have to make adjustments to keep the amounts in perspective. However, it's too depressing to think of what that would be equal to now. I find it is better to immerse myself in the story and the times, adjusting myself to the book rather than the book to me. Yeah, I'm happier that way.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

SFBC Lifeline

I was pretty young when I discovered an ad for the Science Fiction Book Club, probably on the back cover of one of the many science fiction magazines I was reading at the time. There were more than a dozen SF magazines on the racks then, both major and minor, original and reprint. I don't remember how old I was or the name of the magazine in which I found the advertisement, but I do recall the title of the first book I ordered--A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, in two volumes, which I still have, though the covers did not fare as well as the books in my many moves across the country and around the world. I also remember taping the dime in place, folding over the flap and filling all the information requested on those much-too-tiny lines. When I received the two-volume anthology, I devoured it, and even now I read the stories in it from time to time. I still consider it one of the two best SF anthologies ever published, the other being Adventures in Time & Space. I love anthologies, but Treasury was not just another anthology for me. It was a key to other worlds, both future and past. Since it was a science fiction anthology, it mostly addressed the future of humanity on other planets as well as in deep space, but it also collected a kind of science fiction that was then fading from the scene in favor of a "new wave" of SF. Today, the stories and their language must seem quite alien (code word for quaint, dated or non-PC) to modern readers.

I lived in Chula Vista, a town set securely between San Diego and the Mexican border, a town most people barely notice as they pass through it to or from TJ. When I moved there, the population was 40,000-50,000 people, and we lived in a newly developed area that had once been strawberry fields. My parents paid $1 down, and the house itself was just $23,000. If nothing else, that will give you an idea what that dime was worth. I didn't know it at the time, but the SFBC was only about a decade old. It was founded in 1953 by publisher Doubleday. Like many other book clubs of the day (Detective, Mystery Guild, etc) the SFBC had its own presses and could offer hardcover editions at greatly reduced prices. Where I lived, I could get magazines, comics and pocketbooks at the dime story (Woolworth's or TG&Y) or drug store (Thrifty' ice cream around), but hardcovers were another story.

My parents were not big book readers, nor was my brother. My own children experienced many "bookstore weekends" growing up, but my own trips to bookstores as a lad were very few and very far between. So, when I came across the SFBC and its hardcover editions, I did not care that they were a little off-sized, were not entirely perfect-bound, or had dust covers that were not only sometimes plain but plain ugly. What mattered was that they were hardcovers. Each month, I received the SFBC bulletin (Things to Come), read it assiduously, and made my selections.

Each book I ordered represented yard work for someone on our cul-de-sac. Every Saturday, I walked down one side of the street and up the other, push-mower trailing behind me, grass clippers in hand, asking people if I could mow and trim their lawns, pull their weeds, and otherwise attend to all their gardening needs that day for the princely sum of $5. Sure, not even lunch these days, but back then it let me order the featured selection of the SFBC and maybe one of the alternates. Doing yard work for others did not sit well with my dad, since I was so lackadaisical when it came to doing yard work for him. On the other hand, he only gave me a half-dollar a week, when I got anything at all. With books in the balance, is it really any wonder that I followed the market?

Another reason the SFBC was important to me was because it represented a lifeline to a world beyond Chula Vista, and I don't mean worlds in space. There was no SF fandom around me, no one I could talk to about SF and books. There were magazines, of course, with their letter columns, but that too, was another world, one beyond my reach because even then I led a rather insular life and was more than a little shy. Through the SFBC, I kept current with what the SF authors of the Fifties and Sixties were publishing.

By the end of the Sixties, I had been in and out of the SFBC several times. Some might accuse me of abusing the introductory offer (no longer a dime but a $1), but the truth is yard work is not the most rewarding of labor, nor is it as stable as some might think as a form of employment even though lawns always need mowing, walkways always need to be edged, and flowerbeds always need an undue amount of attention. The problem was, if I had the gumption to walk the neighborhood looking for work, then my clients' own kids could do the same, and in their own yards, by gum! Need I say that I went from being the weird kid at the end of the court, to being the weird kid at the end of the court who made trouble for other kids who wanted to do nothing more than watch television on a Saturday morning and jeer at the kid doing their parents' yard work? I went from unpopular to hated, but I didn't care.

I segued out of yard work and into "real" jobs that seemed just as transitory, such as inventorying LPs at White Front and making tacos. On the surface, I made more money, but by then the American dollar was beginning a wide death-spiral that has not yet ended, and I added a new word to my already too-big vocabulary--inflation. Couldn't afford two books for what I had paid for one, but I still counted it a bargain. Then came the much-vaunted, highly anticipated Twenty-First Century. The future I had been looking forward to arrived, but it wasn't quite what I expected--no colonies on the Moon, no shining cities on Earth, and ("sigh") no flying cars. That was when I parted company with SFBC and science fiction in general, turning to crime and mystery.

The SFBC no longer seemed a lifeline to the world of science fiction. Fandom was just a key-stroke away on the computer, and the SFBC had changed as well. I remember the last time I looked at the monthly bulletin. I barely recognized any of the names. True science fiction, as I counted it, was virtually absent. Instead, there were big comic books ("graphic novels"), art books, fantasy trilogies, and novels which chiefly existed not to provide a sense of wonder but a dumping ground for "strong female protagonists." Most of my series short stories have female protagonists, but they exist to tell a good story, not to advance an activist social agenda guaranteed to eject me from a story. It was about that time I noticed all my favorite science fiction writers were dead. So, I parted company with the SFBC and science fiction, one completely and one mostly, for the same reason--they no longer offered anything I wanted. Or had I slipped out of their target demographic? Like a dinosaur supplanted by mammals?

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Monday, March 7, 2016

Working for Books

People are appalled when I tell them my first real job paid $1.10/hour. I had had jobs prior to stuffing tacos for Taco Bell, but they really don't count. Mostly, they were day labor jobs or temporary gigs for specific tasks, such as one night inventorying LPs (remember them?) at White Front or doing odd jobs for the manager at Char-Burger. Even my summer job between high school and college doesn't count, since as a Fuller Brush Man (Boy, really, since I was 17) I earned, not an hourly wage, but a percentage of sales. As low as it seems today, the $1.10/hr I received from Taco Bell was the most money I had ever earned, and I got lunch and dinner free. I was able to pay my way through college, but more importantly I was able to buy books...isn't that really why we all work?

Back in those days, you could buy a sack of tacos and still get change from your dollar bill. I thought it was the end of civilization as we knew it when Ron, manager of Taco Bell #17, told me we were raising the price of a taco from 13 cents to 15 cents. "Who's going to pay that much for a taco?" I cried. Well, as it turned out, anyone who wanted a taco would pay that much. And if you didn't want a taco you could always get two pieces of chicken and a biscuit for less than a dollar, or two hot dogs and fries from Wienerschnitzel, around the corner from us, for about four bits. At the time the gas I put in the car was 17 cents/gallon (though once it dropped to 13 cents, but that was during a gas war, the kind that did not involve the Middle East), so earning $1.10/hr was not nearly as bad as it might seem today.

But back to books. At the time, some paperback books had increased their cover price to 35 cents, but most of the books in the racks (remember those revolving racks in newsstands and drug stores?) were still only a quarter. And comic books were still 12 cents, though there were rumblings of a change to 15 cents...yes, the end of civilization as we know it. The digest detective and science fiction magazines were 40-50 cents, but that was only a monthly expense. And it was still possible to get paperbacks, magazines and comics for only a nickle or a dime at used book stores.

So, there I was, earning $1.10/hr, no longer dependent upon the largess of my parents, who really didn't approve of me reading so much anyway. With my minimum wage pittance, I could get nine comic books, or three 35-cent books, or four quarter books, or a magazine and two books, or...well, you get the idea. I had $1.10 in my pocket, and I was in book-lover's heaven.

Fast forward to modern times. With $1.10 in my pocket, there really isn't much I can do anymore. With the demise of the "dollar menu" at fast food places (which cost more than a dollar anyway) I would starve. I could get a digest magazine, if I had four more dollars, not that there is much to choose from...there were more than a couple of dozen then, only five now. You can't get a paperback for less than $9.99, for the most part, and books don't even fit in the old spinner racks anymore...they're as hard to find as bookstores these days. And comic books? Don't get me started.

But, you may argue, times changes. Prices may have gone up, but so have wages. Your current minimum wage worker can buy one magazine or two comic books (maybe), but must forget about that paperback until he's worked another hour. To get all that I could before, I'd need a job that paid at least $40/hr. Good luck on that. I'm glad that I kept most of my old books (darn that garage sale my mother held!) and bought books on the cheap when I could. Now that I'm retired, money is scarce, but I have plenty of time to read. That investment has paid a handsome dividend...unlike tacos, books don't have expiration dates.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dogs of S.T.E.A.M.

For those of you following the Paws & Claws saga, you'll be glad (or chagrined) to learn that Dogs of S.T.E.A.M., fifth book in the series, is available, both in print and e-book formats. Rather than tell you about the story, I wanted to share something about how the book came into being.

The first four books
Back in 2012, I wrote Paws & Claws: A Three Dog Mystery, first book in what was to become a series. At the time, however, I had no real intention of writing more about Levi, Sunny, Yoda and the Three Dog Detective Agency. It was something I had discussed often with Levi, and something I had put off for one reason or another. After writing and, ultimately, publishing it, I decided I did not want to let it end there. As I often did with short stories, I sat down and wrote a dozen or so titles which I thought might lend themselves to stories. The first book was based on true events (yes, even the spider money), but my fidelity to real events decreased with each succeeding book. The second (Flight of Raptors) was more fact than not; the third (K-9 Blues) was maybe 50/50; and the fourth (The Death & Life of an American Dog) was quite a bit more fiction than fact, though I always included real places, real dogs and cats, and illustrated the books with photographs rather than drawings. With the fifth book, which because of the title had to include steampunk, Victorian London, time travel and alternate universes, I realized I would have to reply more on fiction than actual events. After all, my dogs have never traveled into the past, journeyed into alternate dimensions or saved the British far as I know. They don't tell me everything. Be that as it may, I still wanted to illustrate the book with photos, use real Chula Vista-area locales, and include some of the animals that fans e-mailed me, a group I call "animals of character." I had four animals of character to work into the story to greater or lesser degrees. 

The first of these was June (r), a dog nominated by artist Jason Thompson. I was taken when I saw his picture of his little hunter up a tree. The only real change I had to make was to take out the leash which kept her from running after her heart's desire. It was a fairly easy matter. With Kelsey (l-front) and Sammy (l-rear), two Shih Tzu dogs nominated by Mike and Jenny Meyers, it was a little more complicated. I had two separate photos of the dogs which I needed to combine into a single photo. Since, within the plot, one of the Dogs of S.T.E.A.M. is drawn to their home because it resembles the dog's own Victorian Age, I took the two dogs and put them into a more appropriate setting. To make it look a little more authentic, I turned it into a sepia tone (for the e-book edition only) to give it the appearance of  being a daguerreotype. All in all, I think both photos work well in their own ways. The fourth dog was a Gordon Setter named Artemus Gordon (thanks to Lester Doyle), but because his appearance became much more than a cameo, and he was present at some of the events also represented by photos, I decided to forgo the usual photo of him.

This is the first book in the series where I used locales in addition to Chula Vista. I also included scenes set in South San Diego and in Otay, an unincorporated area a little south of Chula Vista. In addition to contemporary locations, however, some of the action took place in London of 1887, one of which was the London Gasworks, where the Dogs of S.T.E.A.M. raid one of the secret lairs of the sinister and nefarious Lord Cerberus, a dog like no other on Earth. For the photo above, I combined a photo of the Gasworks with two others, a full moon and a night sky. Using a graphics program called GIMP, I filled the canals with mist, painted moonlight on some portions of the complex, and deepened some of the shadows. Lastly, I gave it a sepia cast (e-book edition) to make it seem more like an actual period photo.

Kindle Edition
Print Edition
This was the first book in the series to have two different covers, one for print and one for Kindle. The print edition uses a photo manipulated in GIMP. I inserted two dogs (the one wearing goggles was itself edited) into a public domain photo of London. I liked the photo, except it had a big boat in the background, which was not only distracting but had nothing to do with the story. I took it out. Change the composite photo to sepia tone again, and Bob's your uncle. For Kindle edition, I used the same photo, but cropped it to a vertical format using a graphics program called Irfan. For the actual composition of the crop, I have to thank the Wife, who provided aesthetic advice. Recently I discovered a design website called Canva,com, a great resource if you are working on a book cover, an album cover, a poster or even a Facebook banner and have a working budget to $0.00. I used their layout tools to size the photo, then their typography section to add author, title and series number. It addition to a lot of free stuff, it has a learning curve that is mostly flat, and even has design education segments for those who need tutelage in the subject. I recently used the site to redo the cover of the short story The Dog Who Loved Sherlock Holmes. The original cover is on the left, the re-done one on the right. I think it a big improvement.

Of course, the real question about Dogs of S.T.E.A.M. is:
"How did you come up with such a wild story? How did you plot a tale about some canine detectives from Chula Vista getting involved with a group of steampunk dogs from Victorian London, who then battle Lord Cerberus and his herald Lilith, not only for the fate of London and the British Empire, but for the destiny of myriad timelines, including ours?"
Actually, that was the easy part. I just wrote down everything the characters did and said. Yep, easy.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Back in the Day...

It's a phrase that's become something of an eye-roller..."back in the day." As soon as some character in a film, television episode or book says it, the viewer or reader knows what's coming, a double-barreled blast of nostalgia and condemnation. The speaker waxes a little teary-eyed at some activity or object in the ancient past (or so today's young swine think of it), lamenting its loss, then damning the present age and castigating those who played a role (or simply stood by) in the loss of whatever is being lamented.  The phrase seems to have replaced "Back in my day..." and for obvious reasons. By substituting the impersonal "the" for "my" we no longer make a personal claim to the time being remembered, no longer explicitly admit to be old(er), and it's something even a thirty-something girl can say when viewing the results of unfettered progress. I have to admit, I rarely say it when I look at the state of the world, for the future always brings change and all change is bad, but it occasionally slips out when I consider small press publishing.

Back in the day...

I had always written on the fringe of the small press, even when I first tried to interest editors in my short stories, though, back then they were listed in Writer's Market and The Writer's Handbook as "little" or "literary" magazines. I tried the big magazines as well, but I thought I might stand a better chance with the smaller markets. Mostly, no matter the circulation of the magazine, I garnered rejection slips, but the sting was often lessened by a personal note or a suggestion for improvement by an editor. Most things improve over time, and I put my writing in that category, for I was not so willful or arrogant to think my writing then was as good as it was every going to get. Unlike some starting writers, I was under no illusion that I was God's gift to literature. I took everything to heart, sometimes too much so, for an editor is only human (something I did not fully realize until I became one), but I did manage to improve, one story at a time.

I wrote a few novels in the Seventies and Eighties, but, fortunately, none of them ever saw print. Besides, I was much more at home with the short story format, enjoyed reading short stories, and could write one in a reasonable amount of time. When I came upon the Small Press as a thriving cottage industry in the Eighties I mostly put away the big writers market books and picked up smaller monthly publications like Scavenger's NewsletterGila Queen's Guide to Markets and Factsheet Five. The first two publications were very much oriented to the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, though sometimes an odd mystery magazine would sneak through the door. It was with Factsheet Five, however, I learned that genre publications were only the tip of the iceberg in the "zine" universe, that there were zines for every kind of writing, interest and outlook. Up to that time, I had written a short story every week or two, and though I continued to do that for another twenty years, I now had more zines than ever to submit to, more than I could ever hope to write for. I was a frequent patron of the post office, which was right across the street from us; I gave a large portion of my earnings back to the USPS, which should have endeared me to them, but I think that after a while they came to dread my visits almost as much as the mailman dreaded delivering my was quite heavy

As you might have surmised by now, it was all print and snail mail. No computers back then, no email or digital magazines, no electronic submissions. I went through reams of paper, cartons of envelopes and rolls of stamps. It may sound now like an expensive nightmare, but at the time it was an expensive dream, and a quite rewarding one, though of course not rewarding in any way that would put food on the table. There was a thrill in getting a magazine with my story in it, when the editor remembered to send it. Sometimes it was a very narrow window of publication, as with magazines that small and short funded, the first issue could easily be the last, and often was. In the Small Press, a magazine that published more once was the literary equivalent of an Old China Hand.

Everything has changed since then. Monthly market newsletters have gone the way of the magazines and journals they used to publicize. Trees are mostly safe from the actions of editors and prolific writers since magazines and anthologies are aimed at the burgeoning Kindle/Nook market, though sometimes a POD print edition is produced for contributors, No editor wants anything to come through the mail anymore. Small e-zine editors want everything via e-mail now and even the big fiction magazines (now almost as rare as dodos) have their own systems for electronic submissions. No waiting for the mailman...excuse me, letter carrier any more, just a little notice via Yahoo or Gmail...Dear Author, Thanks but no thanks...

Writers don't even need editors anymore, or even publications in which to hone their talents. Now they can go to places like Kindle Direct Publishing, SmashWords or Google Play, publish their unedited and unpolished prose, and really believe they are indeed God's gift to literature, no matter what others may say. I've been told that things are a lot better now because publishing has been fully democratized and millions of trees are no longer being sacrificed on the altar of the writer's craft. All that may be true, that much has been gained, but I think much more has been lost.

After all, back in the day...