America isn’t perfect, but it is home…

statue of liberty

America is a country of great contrasts. We started from lofty ideals, but struggled to share them equally. Even though equality was a fundamental concept, America still struggles with that concept today.

We have great sprawling metropolises, and stunning natural beauty. In some places, the two overlap. Soaring bridges span wide valleys, and dams hold back man made lakes to sustain a growing population. America loves to build and grow, often without considering the cost.

The rich and poor live in the same communities, although the wealthiest can afford some extra distance. There is contrast aplenty here, from opulence to squalor. We have a whole spectrum of social and economic differences.

America produces great science, engineering, and works of art. But we also struggle to educate, feed and clothe our poorest citizens. Citizenship has even become a point of contention, as some Americans try to keep out ‘undesirables’ from other lands.

We have darkness and light blended into the fabric of our society. We built the nation with slavery and forced the natives of our land to resettle far from their homes. Americans called it progress, even when it held men, women, and children in bondage.

We patted ourselves on the back in the last century because we’d overcome all that darkness. The civil rights movement, desegregation, and reservation casinos proved our moral fiber. We went to war against drugs, communism, and terror. Our failures haven’t taught us much.

America is the home of the brave, and the land of the free. But the pandemic and a year of protests has shown there are still many of us who don’t embrace the ideals America was founded on. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness aren’t words to take lightly. Too often lately, the actions of Americans have mocked those ideals.

Yet, America is my home. I was fortunate enough to travel to a lot of other countries. Those travels showed me how many different ways humans live on this planet. The American Way isn’t the only way. In fact, it’s often the worst way. Still, having visited so many other places, I’d never want to live anywhere else.

This love and loathing I have for my home country is a big part of Fantastic America. I wrote scenes that allow readers to see the contrasts, without passing judgement on how they came to be. The best and the worst are on full display, without commentary, or without any more than I could manage. The series is meant to delve deeper, to highlight more of those contrasts. I hope you’ll enjoy the journey, as much as the story about miracles, magic, and monsters.

Growing as an author…

person writing on notebook

I’m never satisfied with what I write. At least, not in the long term. For example, I’m taking an online writing course for opening chapters right now. I have a lovely first chapter for Fantastic America, but didn’t feel it started quite the way I intended it. I’ve finessed the words enough times to know it needed another set of eyes.

I’ve had beta readers and crit partners go over the scene. While it worked, and I liked it, there was still something missing. So I sent it to another editor, and BAM! She put her finger right on all the troubles I’d noticed but been unable to overcome. Some I didn’t even know needed adjustment. At last!

The point of that is to say, we never outgrow learning. It isn’t just craft either. When talking about genre, writing process, marketing, and the business of writing there is always something else to learn. It is sometimes painful, but isn’t there a saying about art and pain?

Learning is a lifelong pursuit for me. The fact that there is more to learn, other options to explore makes me happy. It means I have another topic to devour, more lessons to make my writing journey and my writing richer for readers. As long as I keep digging, my material has to get better, right?

I’d like you to meet Chaz Buhrman…

mysterious child shining flashlight on face covered with blanket
Chaz was a ghost hunter.

Imagine a ghost show, where a team of investigators search for evidence of hauntings. When magic returns to the world in Fantastic America, Chaz Buhrman is ghost hunting. In the short story that introduces him, “Midnight at the Sultan’s Palace” he ends up at ground zero for a ghostly display right out of a horror movie. It changes his ideas about paranormal activity in an instant.

That isn’t the end of his story though. Chaz is famous for his ghost hunting cable TV show, Spirit Searchers. He also runs a museum in Las Vegas, dedicated to weird and paranormal items from around the world. His Halloween specials from the museum are fan favorites every year.

But the solstice changed everything for him. As a consummate professional, Chaz is forced to reinvent his show. Without missing a beat, he transitions from paranormal investigator to ghost interviewer. He tries to sound a warning about wraiths, but has little success at first.

Chaz has been all over the world hunting ghosts before the solstice events herald the return of magic. The ghosts he meets after the Sultan move him to pity their condition. He seeks out other paranormal investigators who feel the same way to build a network of advocates for ghosts.

His advocacy goes largely unnoticed, but his results on TV keep him in the public eye. When we see Chaz in Fantastic America, he’s been sounding his warning for months. Only with Ashley Monahan’s help does he make any real progress. Ashley recognizes a kindred spirit and stays in touch with Chaz. They cover different aspects of the same phenomenon, maybe they can help each other out.

You’ll see more of Chaz in Midwestern Magicians, the second book in the Magic Unleashed series!

Writing breakthroughs take time and effort (but mostly time)…

a writing on the wall

Sometimes I get stuck. Whether its foreshadowing what’s to come, describing a detail just right, or addressing a plot point without giving too much away. Whatever the problem is, the way through or around it doesn’t always present itself right away.

When this happens, I try not to stress out about it. If possible, I write on knowing I’ll have to come back to the problem later. Sometimes that later takes a really long time.

I like to think I’m a creative person (what writer doesn’t). Plot twists, character surprises, and subverting tropes are among my personal favorites. Sometimes, those elements get me off my path or into trouble. Getting back on track requires significant effort.

Sometimes, that effort isn’t enough. I have to let it go completely. I have a secret weapon against this kind of issue that I’m going to share with you. When all else fails, I take a nap.

The way my mind works, I won’t forget about the problem. Part of how I unwind before falling asleep is to think about the issues I have to deal with while I’m awake. The secret is, subconsciously I’m still attacking the problem . The solutions I come up with are far from 100%, and sometimes all I do is get in that nap.

But I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve jumped out of bed with a workable solution. Maybe its a gift of my muse. Or maybe my subconscious aligned all the pieces of the puzzle just right. Either way I can move forward with writing.

I’ve heard other writers talk about similar processes. Some call it meditation or something along those lines. Whatever it is, for some of us, not staring at the words on the page helps. So if you get stuck, give it a try. At worst, you’ll get a nap that may refresh you to keep trying!

Yesterday was a long two days…

man in white shirt standing near window

I struggle with insomnia (among other things), but I’ve tried to use my erratic sleep habits to my advantage. This blog is a part of my coping mechanism. If I can’t sleep, I write. If I can’t write, I game. When even that fails, I blog.

Yesterday, I didn’t have those options. thirty hours later, I finally got seven hours of sleep. That meant no writing, gaming, or blogging. But I’m alive and mostly well (for me). The work was right here waiting for me, as is the chance to say hello. Hello!

I wish I had a fantastic story to tell, or writing advice to share. Even an update on how my journey is going would be nice to post. I have none of that. I spent the day at the VA hospital. Turns out that troublesome kidney stone that sidelined me in March found a home in a corner of a kidney. I have to get it out with lithotripsy and preparing for that, and travelling took most of my already sleepless day.

I’ll recover from both ordeals though. I’m nothing if not stubborn. There is plenty of unfinished business for me (or my ghost) to continue. 🙂 No one wants me haunting them over how to build tension in their narrative or whatever. So I’ll be here, pecking away at the stories I still have to tell!

Animals in fiction…

unrecognizable person holding dog paw on grassy meadow

Animals tug at people’s heartstrings in real life every day (guilty). Storytellers have used this emotional connection since stories were first told around communal fires. Even Homer used Odysseus’s dog Argos to show loyalty and the connection between people and their pets.

I have no idea how many death scenes I saw in comic books, movies, or on television. But I remember in great detail when Artax gave in to despair and drowned in the Swamp of Sadness. Humans care for animals, domesticated or wild, sometimes more than we do people.

Different people and cultures prize different animals. Americans overwhelmingly choose dogs and cats as pets, but love exotic pets and livestock, too. Charlotte’s Web resonates with children is because of the emotional connection we feel to animals of all kinds (even Templeton).

The death of an animal is often central to character development, but other outcomes are just as valid throughout fiction. Black Beauty running free is a powerful bit of symbolism. Equally moving, is Mowgli outgrowing his pack before they turned on him. Simba reclaiming Pride Rock defined the entire Lion King movie. (Disney loves animal stories.)

Animals serve other functions in literature. Aesop and the Brothers Grimm used them in fables and fairytales to show lots of human characteristics. The industrious ant, the lazy grasshopper, the scary wolf, and the cunning fox all had lessons to teach. Learning wasn’t their only function either, the Bremen Town Musicians wanted a whole new life.

In my writing, animals have provided the same kinds of emotional connections. In my debut novel, Fantastic America, animals from other worlds reveal the changing nature of reality. An animal encounter also helps convince Ashley Monahan that not all magic is inherently evil.

I’ve used a few animal motifs more than live animals. My short story, “The Quest for the Lioness” revolves around pieces of a relic from the last magical age topped by a sculpture of a roaring lioness. In that case, the ideals associated with lions were more central to the story than the actual animal itself. That’s a recurring theme around relics from the last magical age.

Animals can inform the reader of tone, character traits, or serve as emotional proxies. Dogs show loyalty, cats are aloof, rats represent filth, caterpillars show metamorphosis, lions represent courage, and snakes show treachery. Those are all real animals, fantasy is chock full of make believe animals. Dragons, unicorns, and gryphons represent human traits as well. Keep an eye out for animals in the next story you read, but beware of the feels!

Querying is ongoing…

close up photo of man wearing black suit jacket doing thumbs up gesture

I’ve said before that finding an agent is difficult. Not only do I need to find someone who represents the fantasy genre I write, we have to be a good fit for each other. This agent will make sure my manuscript is ready for market, send out the book to acquisitions editors, help me land a publishing deal with them, and handle my royalties once the deal is done.

There’s more to it than that, but the right agent will be my business partner. Finding the right partner is often the difference between a quick book deal and a steady career. The wrong agent can cause more trouble than most debut authors can recover from. The right agent, will be a champion of my story and the rest of the stories I write, for as long as we’re together.

If you’ve started on this part of your journey, or are about to, you have my sympathy. There are great stories of debut authors who sent out a query and were picked up by a terrific agent in no time at all. For every one of those stories, there are hundreds more of struggling authors who took months or years to find an agent. The entire publishing industry is based on subjective attributes.

How do you define a good book? A well written manuscript is no measure of the book’s potential. Maybe sales potential? It’s hard to judge that without publishing experience, and even then, what sells in one market may not do well in another. Genre is also not a perfect guide.

All of the criteria used to choose books to publish are based on the potential an agent and an editorial team see in any given manuscript. If a book like yours has done well recently, it may be an easy decision. The market may be saturated by books like yours. The editorial group may believe another work in that vein won’t sell at all. Subjective.

The best thing you can do as an author, is to write the best version of your story you can. That means sending your manuscript out to beta readers, a critique group, or partner (preferably all three). It will mean lots of self-editing, perhaps a professional developmental or line edit. Then more self-editing until you’ve polished your rough draft into a sparkling gem of a story.

Only then, gem in hand, should you consider looking for an agent. But that is only half the battle. You’ll need a query letter. A query letter is basically a resume to get an agent to read your book. They may have other submission requirements, like a synopsis, your first few pages, the fist chapter, or several chapters. The goal is to get agents to request the full manuscript.

If the agent of your dreams likes what they see, you will get ‘the call’. The agent and you will discuss an offer of representation. You’ll each have questions for each other, and want to feel comfortable doing business with each other. One of you may find the fit isn’t good, so it’s back to querying. In a perfect scenario, you mesh well, have similar goals, and a similar vision for your book. Mission accomplished, a contract is on the way!

Once you have an agent, the work is far from over. The agent may have specific changes for you to incorporate into your book. They know what editors are looking for after all. That’s another reason authors need agents. Once any revisions are done, the agent sends your manuscript out on submission. It’s much like querying between agents and editors. If you land on the right editors desk, they’ll offer a deal.

This is one of the most important aspects of your agent’s representation. Negotiating the contract. I’ll leave more details on this for another post, but there is good reason why many agents are also attorneys. Once the terms are settled, the publishing process truly begins. It may sound byzantine, but this is just the surface level of the process.

I’m still refining my query letter and sending it out to agents who may be a good fit from my perspective. I’ve done my research on these agents. I know they’ve represented books like mine before. They are also open to more books of the same kind. My query letter, personalized for that agent, demonstrates that I didn’t just pick their name from a list. As I said, querying is ongoing…

The seeds for epic stories grow from humble beginnings…

field of plants

Luke grew up on a moisture farm, Clark on a farm in Kansas, and Bilbo and Frodo had The Shire. Not all epic heroes and their stories begin as farmers, but the idea that great strength comes from humble origins has a deep history in literature. Real life inspired a big part of that history. Heroes seem to rise to the occasion, Audie Murphy and Sergeant York come to mind from American history.

There’s nothing that says humble has to be linked to the land. “The Last Starfighter” was a high school student from a trailer park. Lots of 80’s movies had some version of the karate kid beating insurmountable odds. The message was that anyone could achieve greatness if they tried hard and relied on their talents (and their friends – like “Revenge of the Nerds”).

Modern fiction, especially fantasy, has strayed from the humble beginning more often, but Rand Al’thor was raised in the Two Rivers. I think the trope is still alive and well, but it’s not for me. Which brings me to how this idea impacts my writing.

Ashley Monahan, the protagonist in my debut novel, Fantastic America, is not a farmer. She comes from average beginnings, but is already a local TV reporter when the story opens. She is a humble person to begin with, but not a shrinking violet.

Daniel Forrester, the antagonist of the novel, came from an equally middle class beginning. His family was proud to see him attend college and join the infant Department of Homeland Security. He’s already successful when the story begins.

Even Jerry Farmer, the undeniable villain of the book, had an average middle class childhood. His parents raised him and his older siblings in an unpretentious New England neighborhood. What his parents saw as his poor mental health impacted their decisions for treatment, not their standing in the community.

The humble origin may appear for characters later in the Magic Unleashed series, but not because I believe it makes for better characters. I’d much rather see either relatable upbringings or far out origins that give a character immediate depth. Arya watched her father beheaded in public, branded a traitor to the kingdoms he swore to protect. That’s immediate and powerful baggage.

The WORST character in my book is some people’s favorite…

Jerry Farmer is terrible.

In real life, I’m a reasonably happy person. I like people, and enjoy seeing everyone around me prosperous and joyful. When I needed a villain for Fantastic America, I had to construct a person a far removed from me as possible. The result is homicidal maniac and magic user, Jerry Farmer.

Even before the return of magic, Jerry was incarcerated in a mental hospital for his first kill. Unfulfilled magical talent can drive people insane, and Jerry literally grew up with specters of his abilities all around him. From a young age, Jerry could see ghosts. No one believed him, and his family went to great lengths to suppress his ‘hallucinations’, to no avail.

When we meet Jerry in the short story, “Bridgewater Bingo” he’s been locked away and regularly sedated for several years. The return of magic, allows Bingo, a wraith in the hospital, to help Jerry escape. Bingo has an agenda separate from Jerry. Like all wraiths, his instinct at self-preservation is stronger than any desire to complete his mission.

The worrisome part for me about these two horrible characters is how easy they were to write. Jerry loves to kill, especially women, and Bingo is a rather inept manipulator. Neither of them are anything like me, but there must be some echo of their psyche inside me as their creator. I feel guilty in a way for bringing them to life on the page.

I’ve had great feedback about them and their inclusion in the novel. That makes it worse for me. I’ve begrudgingly expanded Jerry’s part in Fantastic America from three small snippets to several interludes between chapters. His role and contributions to the story have expanded, too.

It’s hard for me to reconcile the loathing I have for these characters with the way they’ve grown since the short story. I needed a murderer, and Jerry fit the bill. I wanted him to have magic, to show how truly dangerous power in the wrong hands could be. Check. Later in the story, I needed a way to introduce the real mover behind the shadows in their world. Jerry was the perfect way to show him without revealing too much, too soon. Just know I don’t like him!

You can download, “Bridgewater Bingo” for free to see what I mean for yourself. The link is in the sidebar, or follow the same link here –

How I use music and lyrics in my writing…

chords sheet on piano tiles

This post may go off on a tangent, but I’ll try to stay on topic. Music helps me write, a lot of writers use music to help their mood. Sometimes I’ll even pick out a specific song or playlist depending on the scene I’m writing. Somber and serious music, or upbeat and funny, music gets my creativity more focused in the moment.

Songs can help me write scenes, tune out distractions, and channel a given emotion. Scenes are the backbone of modern storytelling, and music can elicit the tone I want to set in any given scene. I have a lot of quiet time to write, but sometimes life gets in way. Music (especially loud classical music) can drown out some disturbances.

Emotions a character may feel come through with more clarity if I match the right music while I write. Whether its adventure and excitement, fear and loathing, or dramatic internal conflict, music can help. Theme songs are good for matching the vibe (unfortunately they don’t usually last as long as other music).

As for lyrics, I use them for all sorts of things. I enjoy making lyrics (songs or poetry) into chapter titles. I also slide snippets of lyrics into my text from time to time. My favorite use of lyrics is to tie several chapters together through lyrics from the same song or poem.

In my debut novel, Fantastic America, I used the poem, “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. It’s a perfect fit, both in subject matter, and its antique phrases. The chapter titles tie each other together, beginning, middle, and end. Each one echoes events in the chapter and hints at what is to come. Most of my chapter titles hint at something.

If you’ve never read Yeats’ poem(s), I highly recommend it (or them if you’re into it)!

There are a few books I’ve read more than once…

white ceramic mug on white textile

There are only two reasons I’ll reread something. Either to see how I’ve changed since the first time, or because I feel I missed something. Age has a lot to do with the former, and insight with the latter. Both may be closely related, and accompanied by a sense of nostalgia. Fond memories alone aren’t my reason to read.

For example, I first read the Dune series (only through Chapterhouse) when I was fifteen years old. I thought I might have a different view in my late twenties, I was right. The backstory felt more real, my connection to Paul was more distant, but the urgency for his quest to succeed was stronger. Time changes us all.

By comparison, I reread “Time Enough for Love” by Robert Heinlein at least three times. It isn’t to see how I’ve changed, but to find other meanings in the book I hadn’t seen before. The characters, settings, and events have more meaning each time. Maybe lots of books are like this, but I reread so few I don’t’ have enough frame of reference.

Both reasons for me to reread are connected. I could even argue they are different facets of the same idea. Age and insight do go hand in hand. For me the difference is inward versus outward. Can I see more of a change in myself, or recognize more depth in the material? Both answers should be yes, but the devil is in the details.

I don’t expect my writing will change the world…

person holding a green plant

At best, I’ll entertain a few people. If, in the process, I plant a few seeds that grow into change in the future, that’s an added bonus. Words do have power, and they can prompt change. Once the right person reads the right words, a legacy from the past, change is possible.

I’m not so full of myself that I expect that today or tomorrow, or even in my lifetime. The best I can hope for is a few nodding heads in my old age. Honestly, that would be enough. I’d still like to be paid for entertaining so I can enjoy the fruits of my labor. That isn’t why I write. The long game isn’t about the money or sales figures, it’s always about hearts and minds.

So what do I want to pass on? If you’ve followed my blog, you already know the short answer is hope. When all else has failed, when there is no point to keep hope alive, that you keep going. Refusing to hope for a better world, a brighter tomorrow, and one more day to cherish the people we love.

Love is the reason not to give up hope. Whatever form that love takes. Whoever you love, whoever loves you back. Every label we’ve invented to keep each other separate, religion, sexual orientation, and race are poor substitutes for love.

Love nourishes every other aspect of life. Humans hardly agree on anything, but one constant in every society is love. Children grow up, choose a path the follow, grow old and die. Generation after generation rediscover the same hard truths. Love makes all that bearable, makes all the hard parts worthwhile.

I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep trying to attract new readers. I want my simple minded message to reach as many people as possible. Hope is holding on for one more day. Hope keeps love and life from fading. No matter how it looks to anyone else, no matter how long it takes to find. Hold on for one more day.

The undead shamble into the modern world…

zombie attack

In my debut novel, Fantastic America, zombies are one of the first threats to emerge when magic returns to the Earth. They are dangerous not only because they spread their condition to the living, but because they can appear anywhere the dead can be found. Cemeteries, hospitals, and funeral homes are risky places to be without special precautions.

Of course, zombies are only one kind of undead creature. Legends of vampires, ghouls, and ghosts may have some basis in fact as well. With so much conflicting information since the return of magic, who knows what dangers lurk in shadows?

One thing is certain, the undead are proof that the world we’ve known has changed. If the dead are restless, people can expect other changes, other horrors to rise up in this new world. The reality humans have known for the last six thousand years is no longer a reliable guide. Fear mounts day by day.

Yet life goes on. Even in the face of the unimaginable, people work, worship, fight, and love just like they did before monsters, miracles, and magic. Fear may be more widespread, but it hasn’t paralyzed the world entirely. Fear has slowed the pace of progress, and certainly made nights more dangerous. Each sunrise gives people a chance to go on with their daily routine, to celebrate their good fortune, and continue pursuing their hopes and dreams.

Sometimes what you expect is the last thing that happens…

cheerful teenager playing with grandmother guess who game while making surprise in light living room

This is true for plotting or pantsing. Sometimes your muse or your characters have other ideas. That’s ok , let the words fall on the page before you fix them. I promise, every word you have to write will find the appropriate spot. Your first job is to find that spot, or something nearby.

The scene may go to unexpected places. The characters may try to derail your plan. Or you may end up far afield of what you plotted for the story. It will all work out. You may keep your surprises, kill your darlings, or make something entirely new. No matter what you do, the words will be waiting for your decision. You alone are in control.

Worst case scenario, you’ll rewrite a few hundred words. Count your self lucky that’s all you have to do. I’ve had to rewrite four introductions for what I thought was the first book in my series. I was mistaken. Those were four introductions for four separate books.

What you need to prepare for is your muse showing you a better path. Call it what you will, but when you see your book in a better structure, pay attention. Sometimes our best work is intuitive (or inspired). Don’t ignore those weird intuitions. They can be lifesavers.

Description is important, but don’t get lost in the details…

gray scale photo of gears

One of my favorite writing guides is, The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White. My first brush with the guide was as a senior in high school. My favorite instruction is, “Vigorous writing is concise.” I haven’t always followed that advice, but the more I’ve written, the more I appreciate it.

When describing a scene, character, or event, our natural tendency is to include every detail we see in our mind’s eye. Be it colors, textures, emotions, or movement, we want the reader to get the full picture. The problem is, we sometimes obscure what is most important with details the reader doesn’t need. I’ve done it more than once or thirty times myself.

I’m a detail oriented observer. It’s only natural for me to include those details when I write. Fortunately, I’ve had critique partners who helped me see beyond the crush of description. In my writing today (I hope to) show enough to build the scene, imply enough for the readers’ imagination to fill in the gaps, and avoid extra words, sentences and paragraphs. (Thank you William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White)

You’ve built this incredible, expansive world for your characters. Naturally you want to show it off. You send your characters on a tour of the majesty you’ve created. They may have no reason, or a thinly veiled mission to find the butter for their toast. In the process the search every nook and cranny of whatever you want to show off.

Another peril of too much detail comes from what some writers call journaling. This is not much more than a record of what your character does, where she goes, or conversations she has. Its often filler material for the author to move a character from one scene to another, but they can’t bring themselves to say, “The next evening…”

Details can bring a scene to life, they can make a character memorable, and they can help with any aspect of your story. Too many details, or including them for no real reason, can leave your writing dense and confusing. If readers are assaulted by too many details, they won’t have any idea what they should focus on or remember for later in the story. Give your reader everything they need, you won’t be there to explain the story, but avoid unnecessary details.

My six favorite places to visit (Outside the US).

model figure standing on map

I travelled a lot when I was younger. I joined the navy right after high school and saw more of the world than I thought I ever would. Some of the places I visited were amazing, some were awful, and a few felt like variations on a theme. I’m thankful for each place I got to visit from Varna, Bulgaria to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

This post is all about my favorite places. These are cities and sites that I’d love to revisit over and over again. Each has a special memory attached, or a funny story. In some cases I’m just glad to be alive and in one piece. Some of these destinations even made their way into my books!

Number 1: Stonehenge, England. The standing stones of Salisbury plain have fascinated me since I was a kid. The idea that our ancestors brought some of the stones from over one hundred miles away is mind boggling. We can only guess at why they did all that work, but it had a big impact on me. I felt more spiritual there than in any church or synagogue I’ve ever been in.

Number 2: Athens, Greece. The Acropolis in particular was my goal as soon as I could get off the ship. Two of my shipmates and I hurried to Athens from Piraeus. We found a museum at the foot of the hill, and thought we were on a path to the Parthenon. We were not. Instead the stone stairs ended half way up the hillside, and we climbed the last little hint of a path to a rocky outcrop. We were behind the ‘off limits for your safety’ ropes on what turned out to be St Paul’s Rock. At least we saved a few Drachmas on admission…

Number 3: Rome, Italy. I joined the navy in part, because of a picture in the brochure of a sailor exploring the colosseum. I got to recreate that picture, explore Caracalla’s Baths, and St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City with a day trip bus tour group. Before the Vatican, we had a fabulous lunch and ordered too much wine. I was a bit tipsy on our way to the Vatican, but sobered up enough to answer the tour guide’s trivia questions.

Number 4: Stockholm, Sweden. The ship pulled into port at Gamla Stan (old town) Stockholm after following the archipelago from the sea. The transit to the city was breathtaking, so many islands, the water and islands holds a rugged beauty for mile after mile. When the city came into sight, it was one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen in real life.

Number 5: Jerusalem, Israel. I took another bus tour from Haifa, Israel to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We also visited a spa on the Dead Sea, toured Masada, and stayed over night at a hostel in Tel Aviv. It was all amazing. There is so much tension, hope, and violence focused in such a small area. I visited the Church of the Sepulcher, the stations of the cross in the old city, and I even stuffed a paper prayer into a crack in the Wailing Wall.

Number 6: Barcelona, Spain. For me, Barcelona is the kind of city that might spring up if New York City and Miami had a baby. There is so much excitement, the city never sleeps, but it’s also laid back like a beach town should be. I was able to visit Studio 54 in Barcelona before it closed. I still remember the at least ten foot tall (fifteen feet with her pedestal) Statue of Liberty in the middle of their dancefloor. Lady liberty had her skirt up as if to dance with the crowd to the pounding beat of the music that filled the cavernous dance hall. I knew I was in the right place!

Those are my favorites. I’ve been to other places, but wouldn’t rush back again. There are plenty of places I wish I’d never visited to begin with. I’ll make a post of my least favorite places to visit someday. I don’t travel much anymore, but the right destination might still be worth the effort.

Own voices in fiction…

womans faces in close up

Authors write what they know. So the own voices movement within publishing makes sense to me. An author of color should be free to write stories unique to their perspective. Likewise, stories about religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and other ethnicities should be told by members of their communities. This is the way, as is right, and good.

So what does that leave on the table? I’m a middle aged, white man with an overactive imagination. Unlike many other authors, I don’t write what I know, I write what I imagine. The main characters of my debut novel, Fantastic America, are a woman, a black man, and a serial killer. I have little or nothing in common with these characters, except that we are all human, live on versions of the same planet, and they sprang to life from my imagination.

I don’t feel like I’ve appropriated their stories. I’m not writing about Ashley’s religion, but I do write about her faith. I don’t write about Daniel’s struggle as a black man in America, but I do write about his effort to safeguard a country that has persecuted black people for generations. I don’t see ghosts or kill people, but I write about Jerry’s psychotic urge to kill.

My argument for writing these stories is simple enough. I write fiction, specifically fantasy. No one expects authors to stop writing about aliens, dwarves, or superheroes, those own voices don’t exist. They are make believe people, performing heroic make believe acts, in wildly different make believe worlds.

The characters I write about are all make believe. Fantastic America is an invention of how I imagine real people would react to fantastic situations. Not grounding those stories in an attempt at real people would undermine the premise of these stories. I’m still the only person who can write what I see in my mind’s eye.

So I’m going to lean into writing characters to be inclusive in my worldbuilding. I’m going to keep focusing on how they react, not the community they come from. I have no pretense about belonging to these communities. From my perspective, as simple-minded as it may be, we’re all part of the human community anyway. I refuse to white wash my characters to fit some preconceived, if well intentioned, notion of how I should write.

Emotions in writing…

collage photo of woman

Emotions, especially when writing fiction, are critical to successfully connecting to your audience. That’s a no-brainer of course, but executing those emotions on the page is not always so easy. Showing emotions, rather than telling your readers how someone feels, is one of the most written about topics for writers, with good reason.

Human emotion is complex, there are limitless nuances, and when written, subtext to consider. That poses a challenge for any writer, but new writers (those without a lot of writing experience) struggle to show all of that. It’s one of the first roadblocks fiction writers encounter leading to, “show don’t tell”.

Emotion is also a broad category. The picture above is a good slice of potential emotions, but there is always more to capture for your readers. The complexity and breadth of emotions can lead to a terrible writing sin, flat characters. Emotionless, wooden people who are more like posable action figures than living humans (or aliens, elves, unicorns, etc.). The alternative is just as bad, melodramatic, over the top characters who react in bizarre ways to plot developments or routine activities.

Once you get it right, emotions are the bedrock for your stories. How you use emotions can mesmerize your readers with your thoughtful portrayal of a character. This is another place you can lose that reader entirely. More than internal thoughts or dialogue, how your audience responds to how your characters feel grounds them in your world. Even if that world is inherently strange or difficult to understand, feelings are universal and timeless.

For every one of those stories that take our breath away, there are dozens that don’t quite capture our imagination. In my writing, specific scenes I’ve written come to mind that I’ve grappled with showing feelings. There is only one way to fix that. You have to write your way through it. Once you have words on the page (even words you don’t like), you can revise them forever.

So take your time, write what comes to mind. Examine it afterwards and ask yourself, would I feel this way in this situation? The answer may surprise you. It may be that you have no frame of reference for an emotion. Fortunately, we live in an age where you can find plenty of help framing an idea or feeling. So, write. Revise. Repeat.

My visits to book stores have changed…

man and woman reading books

Not because of the pandemic, either. Yes, I masked up. I used to just browse for what looks fun to read, and I still do that. The difference surprised me once I got in the store.

On my last visit to a book store I realized how much I’ve drifted away from the simpler joy of browsing. When I got inside, I zeroed in on the Fantasy section, which is normal enough for me. No stops at the Science Fiction section, or casual browsing till I got there, which is different.

Once I reached the Fantasy area my author instincts took over. I was on a mission for comparative titles to Fantastic America. Fun took a back seat. Eye catching titles got my attention not for how they looked, but for the design elements that might fit my books. The writer’s life, amirite?

The joy wasn’t drained from my visit, but I did have to start over once I’d looked through the whole section. Only after the business part of my brain was satisfied could I relax and just enjoy being in the aisles. I live in a smaller town, so a drive to find books is still something I look forward to. Even if my brain hijacks the opportunity for a while.

What did I buy during my visit? I picked up a comparative title, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I couldn’t really get into the Syfy series, but there are enough similarities to what I write, that I had to give it another chance. Books are always better, right? I also bought a few new boxes of Cards Against Humanity. It’s a terrible game that I absolutely love to play!

You see, there is still plenty of joy to be found in bookstores.

I’d like you to meet Haruko Sato…

In the world of Fantastic America, Haruko Sato has been a prominent figure in corporate and personal security since the 1970’s. From humble beginnings he built a financial empire around the International Ess Group of companies. Headquartered in New York City’s famous 9 West building, The Ess Group has divisions around the world. They are leaders in finance, tele-communications, physical security, cyber security, real estate, fine art, and higher education.

Sato-san’s origins are murky, but public records indicate he is a natural born American citizen. His parents immigrated to Los Angeles before World War Two. Beyond graduating high school in 1968, his education and early life are largely undocumented. His first rise to prominence was joining the former brokerage firm of Silverman and Baggs in 1971. Sato-san eventually bought out the partners and parlayed his wealth from that venture to found The Ess Group in 1974.

Beyond his vast financial holdings, Sato-san was active in politics for over a decade from 1974 to 1988. He remains a significant donor to a number of American politicians, including current President Michelle Grander. Privately, he also backs a number of foreign heads of state through the byzantine structure of The Ess Group.

Publicly, The Ess Group’s main focus is multi-national security for elite corporations, wealthy business owners, royal families, and major celebrities. They maintain a number of regional offices, safe houses, and secure compounds around the world. Sato-san has trained subordinates to run the day to day operations of The Ess Group. Never the less, he still maintains a firm grasp of the company.

He demands absolute loyalty. From his penthouse apartment over looking Central Park, Sato has re-cast his role as a modern day American Shogun. He calls an ornate observation room his Aerie, his lieutenants are Daimyos, and calls his financial holdings an Empire. He has become a self-styled Dragon Lord, and his closest confidants and employees accept this whole-heartedly.

Although he is officially retired, Sato-san is still the president of the company’s board of directors. He still issues company policies, directs strategic decisions, and makes long term plans for the growth of The Ess Group. Behind closed doors, Sato-san also directs the less savory, unofficial dealings of his Empire.

Beyond the personal body guards and visible security measures The Ess Group employs, Sato-san trains Federally sanctioned para-military forces. He deploys these units around the world. Like other private military contractors, much of the work of these security forces remains out of the public eye. This has led to a shadowy network of Ess agents who operate outside of traditional legal boundaries.

His New York Daimyo is Gavin Dalton, the de facto Chief Operations Officer for the entire Ess Group. Sato-san recruited Gavin directly from the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron, where he operated as a combat controller. Chael Gerges, Sato-san’s former NY Daimyo and current Major Domo further trained Gavin.

Sato-san operates largely behind the scenes. He has eschewed publicity and operated, especially in recent years, through intermediaries. His influence extends to boardrooms, governments, and organized crime syndicates on six continents. He is one of the only people not surprised by the return of magic.