The World According to Mama Hog

Mama Hog, Rannit's oldest and most powerful witch, claims to be a hundred and twenty-five years old. She's seen it all, done it all, and she's not shy about sharing her opinions concerning this messy tangle of circumstance we call life.

For years, I've kept a file of Mama Hog's witticisms. A few found their way into the Markhat books, but most still languish, waiting for the right time to grace a page. 

Today is the day, and this is the page. So, in no particular order, here are some select Mama quotes, on subjects various and sundry.

Mama's Guide to Life and Love and Such

Mama on money:

"You come into this world without a copper and you're goin' out the same way. It don't make no sense to believe otherwise. If you got coin sufficient for a roof and a bite of supper, you're better off than most, so quit your whinin'. That said, I charges for my services. If you ain't payin', that's my door, and you'll be wanting to take your leave through it, thank ye very much."

Mama on heartbreak:

"Fallin' in love is akin to putting the gobble on mushrooms plucked in the dark. You'll see bright colors and hear Angels playin' harps and your heart is gonna race and leap like a young goat in a sun-dappled meadow, oh yes it is. That's the first bit. Now, only time will tell whether you got a good mushroom or a bad one. The good ones is rare. The bad ones is plentiful and at best you're gonna regret bitin' into one pretty damned soon. At worst, it'll kill you dead as a door-nail. But you ain't dead, so sit up straight, quit your bawlin', and have a cup of tea. Life don't need to stop because you ett the wrong fungus."

Mama on kinfolk:

"Kinfolk is to be treasured. Hallowed. Revered. They is your family. Ain't no bond stronger. That's why I lives in Rannit when my kin is all in Pot Lockney. I can do my treasuring and hallowing and such better from a couple hundred miles away. Up close, my kin is a ragged bunch of ne'er-do-wells, and I ain't got patience for 'em."

Mama on poor folks:

"You can get that pointy nose down out of the clouds, Mister Fancy Pants. Only difference 'tween you and that there beggar is the name you was born to. If'n you had been hatched in some mean alley and wrapped in rags till you was old enough to steal or beg, I reckon you wouldn't smell none too fragrant either. Does ye want the other shin kicked too?"

Mama regarding magic:

"I sees things. Hidden things. Secret things. What I don't do is poke my nose into the dark places where haints and devils and all them twisted spirits hide. Cause boy, I tell you this plain -- them dark ones takes twiced what they gives. There ain't no fair dealin' with the dark. They sets their claws in you from the first, and if you keep goin' back, you'll wind up in the dark with 'em, scratching and scrabbling and hungry till Doomsday."

Mama on strong drink:

"Now I knows ye sets a high regard on your beer. I ain't opposed to such myself, in what they calls moderation, but when ye come stumbling in here with eyes like day-old bacon and clothes smellin' of a brewery, I reckon you needs to stumble your ass back home. Take yourself a bath and ponder your wicked ways for a mite. Then scrub up and come back sober we'll talk sense."

Mama on marriage:

"Gettin' married ain't all bouquets and carriage rides, boy. You got to be set in your mind for the long haul, and you damn well better know that there's times you'll be carrying her and times she'll be carrying you. If you ain't ready to bear her, or you're too proud to be borne, all them high-sounding vows ain't worth a beggar's butt-rag."

Mama on gender equality:

"Does I look like some frail damn petunia? I've buried a husband, I have. Took down a bear with a fireplace poker. I've delivered stillborn babes and looked the mother right in the eye in that deathly silence. I've shivered in the cold. Baked in the sun. Seen the dead stir, heard them whisper. I've walked the deep forest on many a moonless night, naught in my hand but a stick. I was young, you toothy bastard, and now I done got old. But you think 'cause I'm a woman I'm gonna go on my knees and beg for mercy and suchlike? I ought to gut ye just for that, and now that I thinks about it, I reckon I will."

Mama on ghosts:

"I don't give a tinker's damn what you think, boy. Ghosts is real. They got their business to tend, and we got ours. Sometimes paths cross. Best thing to do when that happens is be polite and mindful of your manners and let them do what they come to do. A vengeful ghost ain't to be trifled with, cause if being dead don't stop them, odds are you won't either."

Mama on foreigners:

"We's all foreigners. Some of us just has a longer walk home than others. Now if you was to wake up where everybody is talking some foreign tongue and eatin' strange critters, wouldn't you appreciate somebody takin' a little while to let you know what's what and how to go about things? I won't have no discourtesy about outlanders in my earshot. If I hears it again, somebody's hair is gonna commence to fallin' out. With a quickness."

Mama on violence:

"Ain't never a good reason for bloodshed. Ain't a good reason for whirlwinds or house-fires, neither, but they happens. The world don't make sense sometimes, which is why I carries a good sharp cleaver. If there's going to be bloodshed, I aims to be the last one standing, and no mistake."

MORE COVERS

I'm still playing with cover graphics. Here are a few of the new works-in-progress:

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And a variation, with a close up instead of a full-figure pose.

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I've also been experimenting with some post-production work. 

You don't see many digital models used on book covers. There's the problem of the 'uncanny valley,' which means figures that are nearly, but not perfectly lifelike can make the viewer feel uncomfortable. The uncanny valley effect rendered the big-budget CGI film 'The Polar Express' a flop despite boasting Tom Hanks as the lead.

The characters were good, especially for the technology of the time. But they landed squarely in that unfortunate space between 'obvious computer generated human' and 'this looks real.' 

We don't mind cartoons, or painted scenes, because we know instantly they're not attempts to accurately depict reality. 

That's why hiring artists to paint or otherwise illustrate book covers hasn't been supplanted (yet) by computer-generated scenes. Viewers will forgive, and better still love, a painted scene. They might recoil from a CGI rendering even if, from a technical viewpoint, the CGI is more accurate. 

So here is a crude first pass at turning my CGI rendered scenes into paintings. It needs a lot more work, obviously, but I think the process shows promise. Do you agree?

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Map of the Realms

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books were my first look at another world.

I was a kid. I remember opening the The Fellowship of the Ring and finding a map of Middle Earth right before the story started. I knew I'd found something special the moment I saw that glorious map.

Here was a new world, all drawn out and labeled. The names were strange, but evocative -- the Misty Mountains. The Shire. Mordor. Mirkwood. The artist had drawn in forests and swamps, roads and ruins. Every tiny detail added mystery to Middle Earth. That map demanded the world be explored. I can still remember thinking 'these places must be real.'

I spent a few moments pouring over the names, the art, the lived-in feel of Middle Earth. Then I dove into the book, eager to find out just what sort of world lay ahead.

Funny how a map of a place that never existed could wind up guiding so much of my life. I learned to love reading. I read -- a lot -- and eventually decided to create my own fictional worlds.

And many years later, here I am, still thumbing through books in hopes of finding a new map to an undiscovered world.

For a guy who loves maps of fictional worlds, I've done a poor job of including them in my own books. None of the Markhat novels feature a map of Rannit, or the ruins of the devastated Kingdom. Mug and Meralda's Realms have also gone sadly without cartography -- until now.

Sure, I posted my own crude map of the Realms a month or two ago. It wasn't a pretty map because I'm a lousy artist. 

Fortunately, there are talented artists who can draw maps, and today I'm pleased to show you a map of the Realms created by Jessica Khoury, owner of Lizard Ink Maps. 

Without further delay, the official map of the Realms!

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That, my friends, is a bona fide map. It will be included in the new book, which I promise will be out soon. Honest. 

Sea monsters, cogs and gears, mountains and trees and marshes. I love this map, and I hope you enjoyed seeing it too.

I'm also sketching out a map of Rannit's narrow, twisting streets. That's tough going because I mention a lot of places in the books, and sometimes pinning down locations is an exercise in jumping from title to title to see how what route Markhat took going from his office on Cambrit Street to get to One-eyed Eddie's, for instance, or the crematoriums. But I'll get it all figured out and one day a map of Rannit will be born.

If you ever need a map drawn of your fantasy setting, give Jessica at Lizard Ink a yell. As you can see, she does beautiful work.

Publishing Kerfuffle Update

Last week I mentioned that a trademark troll was sending out cease and desist letters and getting books yanked from Amazon based on their dubious trademarking of a single English word. This week, I'm happy to report that the RWA (Romance Writers of America) had a small talk with Amazon. As a result, all the books previously yanked were restored, and no other titles will be pulled because they contain the trademark troll's special word. 

The trademark itself is under scrutiny, and it appears that it will be revoked. 

Bullet dodged -- again.

More Renders

I upgraded the ancient video card in my PC, and after a few tense hours convincing the hardware and some exceptionally cranky drivers to shake hands and play nice, I can now generate renders in one-fifth of the time my old card required, or better. Simple single-figure scenes that took 40 minutes if I was lucky now take 5. Bigger scenes with backgrounds and props are done within a half-hour. I can also bake corn dogs along the video card's exhaust port, which is nice.

Here's a new image of Meralda, in a new setting. Is this setting a hint to the contents of the next book? You bet it is!

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And here are a couple of random test images as well.

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The background isn't done in the following image, but I do like the tools.

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Book Mock of the Week

Finally, a re-imagined magazine cover.

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Time to get back to editing Every Wind of Change. One last obligatory book plug -- if you haven't tried The Markhat Files series yet, here's a link to the first title. 

THREE MEAN STREETS

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Mug and Meralda, Together At Last

It’s been a weird week in publishing.

A writer – I won’t mention her name – decided to trademark a common English word. Worse, she sent a flurry of Cease and Desist letters to authors who dared use this common word in their book titles.

That’s the short version. People laughed, at first. I didn’t, because I know how Amazon works. Even though the idea of trademarking a commonplace word and then demanding that no one else use it is silly, Amazon will yank books at the first hint of legal entanglement, no matter how specious the claim of the legality.

The trademark troll insists she’s doing nothing wrong. She claims authors using ‘her’ word can simply change their titles and covers (in a day, she claims) and avoid legal issues, including lawsuits filed by her.

It’s not that easy, of course. You can’t just change a book cover title with a few clicks. I’m sure she-who-will-not-be-named knows this. But she also knows she’s got indie authors over a barrel. No author wants to lose their book, their reviews, or their rankings. No one wants to spend months convincing Amazon they were the victim of a shady trademark scam. But that’s what will very likely happen if Miss Trademark Troll raises a stink with Amazon.

Fortunately, cracks have already started to show in her scheme. She trademarked not just the word, but also the word depicted in a specific font. As the wrath of the romance author community was roused, someone identified the font, tracked down the owner of the company which owns the font, and discovered the owner specifically prohibits anyone registering a trademark using one of their fonts. And no, this author wasn’t given special permission.

Oops. Strike one. Don’t mess with romance authors, for they are many in number, skilled in the ways of the net, and not afraid of your litigious ass.

Next, the Cease and Desist notices didn’t come from an actual law firm, but from the author herself. That’s suspicious too. If you actually have high-powered lawyers, why are you doing their work? Lawyers are usually none too happy when their clients start throwing legalese around, especially phrases such as ‘my lawyer assures me I will win if I sue, so do as I say, or else.’

Still, I know of at least one author who changed her title and her cover.

I get why she did that. The whole ‘I own common English adjective X’ argument is stupid, and I predict it won’t hold up under even the most casual legal scrutiny. But dealing with Amazon once they remove your book is nothing short of a nightmare. I don’t blame her for changing the title. Honestly, I might have done the same, knowing I could change it back in a few weeks after the dust settled.

Does anyone remember patent trolls? They were always in the news, in the late 90s. The scam worked like this – patent troll patents some ludicrous aspect of a device or system. Let’s say the trolls managed to patent an L shaped piece of metal with a hole at each end for bolts. Simple – so simple a variation on the dingus appears in nearly every machine everywhere.

Then the trolls claimed anybody using anything remotely similar to their patented L shaped gizmo was infringing on them. The trolls were usually careful – they wouldn’t go after Boeing, for instance, or IBM, because they had lawyers and deep pockets. Instead, the trolls went after smaller companies, knowing they’d likely toss money at them just to make them go away.

Makes me think patent trolls returned to their damp caves and evolved. Now they are trademark trolls and are taking aim at small-time authors. While no one has been shaken down for money – yet – one could argue it’s a strongarm tactic designed to go after the authors our troll sees as competition.

If this act of trademarking a common word is not confronted and reversed, there’s nothing to stop me, for instance, from trademarking the word ‘dark’ as it is used in fantasy novel titles.

After all, I used the word dark in a title in my fantasy series. According to Trademark Troll's argument, readers get confused when they see another title with the word dark in it.

If anyone out there has ever bought a book thinking it was mine because it had ‘dark’ in the title, let me know. I know you haven’t, because you’re not dumb. We’re readers. We know how titles work.

This entire kerfuffle was born of a dim-witted argument and a mean-spirited legal dodge. The RWA (Romance Writers of America) is now involved, which means actual lawyers are on the case. I figure the whole mess will be resolved quickly, and common words will go back to being used freely, as they ought to be.

But what a way to nuke your own standing in the writing community…

Mug and Meralda Images

I mentioned last week I’d been working on a digital model of Mug. While I don’t have all 29 eyes modeled yet, I do have enough to post a couple of images I hope you’ll enjoy. So, for the first time ever, I present Meralda and Mug.

Building Mug is a time-consuming affair. You can't just pop out and buy a houseplant with 29 mobile eyes who rides around in a birdcage. But I'm pleased with the first draft, and with further refinement I think he'll make his way onto a cover soon.

In the meantime, I see leaves and vines in my sleep. Please, email or tell me what you think in the comments!

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These are rough images, with short render times. Once I get subjects, poses, and lighting all perfected, I'll do a photorealistic render that will probably take 10 to 15 hours. 

Finally, a couple of re-imagined book covers, just for a chuckle or two.

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More Meralda

Editing on the new Mug and Meralda book isn't *quite* finished. But I am working hard on it.

I've got some new Meralda images and a few book-mocks to tide you over. 

But first, a few more thoughts on book covers. 

I'm getting better at posing digital models. If I decide to go that route, I can customize the scene. 

Many of the fantasy or steampunk covers I've looked at featured women wielding guns or weapons of some sort. Which is fine -- without conflict, there's no drama, and that makes for a poor book and an even worse book cover.

But even after getting a steampunk gun in Meralda's hand, I realized I really didn't like the image at all. That's not her. She doesn't blast her way through problems. Too, I think we've all seen enough guns lately. 

So right now I'm trying to get a tool in her hand instead. The image isn't ready for public consumption yet -- her fingers go right into the gizmo -- but when it's in better shape I'll share it.

I've also got an idea for a Mug render. If I can get him on the cover, I will. Not many book covers feature a flying houseplant with multiple eye-stalks.

 Here's the first of the new images. Arms up! Hands in fists!

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Here's another, looking slightly exasperated. 

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Here's a change of clothes.

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And below, she's holding a sword, just to prove she can in fact hold objects.

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Finally, here's an obviously happy Meralda driving her walking engine. Note correct presence of comfy armchair pilot's seat.

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BOOK MOCKS OF THE WEEK

I found another vintage 'man's magazine' cover and improved it a bit, just for you.

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And another...

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Now for a few old-school horror magazines...

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Hope you enjoyed the images! Have a great week.

 

Every Wind of Change -- A Cover Sneak Peek

Editing on the new Mug and Meralda book, Every Wind of Change, is ongoing. I do hope to get the book out soon (as in weeks not months).

Covers are also being designed. Which leads me to a question -- is there an inherent preference among readers for photographic images of cover models versus digitally-created models?

There are advantages to using digital people as cover models. You can choose your model's hair color, body shape, and facial features, for instance. You can pose them as you wish, dress them in costumes appropriate for the setting, even recreate a scene from the book, if you have the time, the skills, and the computer hardware capable of rendering the image.

You can do all that with a live model too, but the costs will be astronomical.

Most indie book covers are composed of stock photography images which are retouched and layered. You can buy a perfectly legal stock images for around 20 bucks each, and that grants you the rights to use the images in your cover. 

Of course the problem is finding a model who resembles your character and is clothed in the appropriate garments. Getting the right pose is also a challenge. Be prepared to scroll through hundreds if not thousands of images to find something remotely close to the look you want.

I want Meralda on the cover. She needs to have an air of confidence about her. She needs to be dressed in Edwardian or Victorian styled clothing, although they need not be period-accurate since the setting is neither on Earth nor in that period.

She does NOT need to be wearing a miniskirt and seven-inch heels. Or a tube top. 

That immediately eliminates thousands of stock photo images.

The same problem resides in finding clothing for digital models. Even the steampunk outfits tend to be far too revealing for my characters. I mean come on -- female airship pirates in thigh-high heeled boots and skirts so short they might as well be belts? I was 14 once too, but sheesh. You'd freeze to death at higher altitudes in that outfit.  

And don't even get me started on most fantasy female armor. "Hey, this woman needs protective battle gear. So let's leave her legs and midriff exposed. Put some form-fitting steel around her breasts, but use as little metal as possible, and make sure there's plenty of exposed cleavage. Yeah. We've left all her vital organs vulnerable, and made sure she can't run or dodge. Time to battle the forces of evil!"

Meralda would never wear such a stupid outfit. 

But, with time and effort, you can find clothes, either digital or live, that will more or less suit your needs.

Poses are another matter. My digital Meralda can be posed into any position -- but not quickly or easily.

Digital people in the system I've used (DAZ 3D) have an internal skeleton. You pose them by moving through the drop-down menu of bones. Each bone is adjusted individually, in sequence (chest to shoulder to upper arm to elbow to forearm to hand to fingers, etc.). Getting someone to sit in a chair properly might take hours, unless you buy a chair-sitting pose. And even then you'll need to tweak that. And buy the chair.

With live models, you're limited to what you can find. Most of the poses tend to be generic, because the demand for 'model running forward while brandishing a fantasy lightning gun' is low. 

All that aside, there's the matter of image quality and detail. Photos of live models look realistic because they depict a real person. Images of digital models can approach photorealism, but only if your source models contain the complexity and your hardware can handle the intensive process of rendering so much light data.

I'm writing this on a powerful machine. Lots of fast RAM. An eight-core processor. A dedicated video card. But since it isn't an Nvidea video card, images I create in DAZ take hours and hours to render. For example, the image below:

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I think this took around six hours. That's not six hours to complete from start to finish -- that's six hours from the time I finished the posing, the background, and the lighting, decided the low-resolution image was worth rendering, and hit the RENDER button.

I wasn't even running on high settings. I have no idea how long a high-resolution image would have taken.

I like the finished image. So, just as a test, I extracted Meralda from that picture, and used her as the model in a test cover image.

I'm hesitant to actually use the digital model, though. I know authors who tried that, and received lots of negative feedback. 

So let me ask you, right here. I'm going to post two images -- one a mock-up of a cover with a photo model, and the other a mock-up of a cover with a digital model. I'd appreciate any comments you might have.

Here's the photo model:

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And below is the digital model:

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Which cover concept do you prefer? Would seeing the digital Meralda make you less likely to buy the book?

Keep in mind neither of these images is truly finished. I'm just testing a theory here. Any input would be appreciated.

MORE ON COVERS

I spend far too much time scrolling through cover images on Amazon and elsewhere. Say what you will about gatekeepers and the evils of Big Publishing, but with a few notable exceptions, they usually produce decent covers.

I won't post any examples of the awful covers I've found. But they tend to share a few common offenses:

  • Inclusion of dubious 'reader awards' and breathless claims to best-seller status.
  • Too much text.
  • Wild variety in fonts. 
  • Inadvertently hilarious scene depictions.
  • Unreadable text.

Here's one I threw together, using my own title, as an example of what NEVER to do (the image is from an old pulp magazine cover, long since passed into the public domain).

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Airborne snapping turtles are never a good idea. 

Here's another old pulp I 'improved,' included just for fun.

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And another, because as I stated previously, I'm editing and editing is work so why not play with my graphics program?

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Many years ago, my grandmother opened a cabinet and a flying squirrel leaped out and landed in the bowl of mashed potatoes on the dinner table. The flying squirrel neither maimed nor ripped anyone, although it did lick its little paws appreciatively while it dined. 

Hope you enjoyed the revised pulp covers. If you have a moment, please leave a comment about digital versus photographic Meralda in the comments, or email me at franktuttle at franktuttle dot com. 

Time to get back to work. Have a good week, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tax Tips For Writers

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Certain signs signal various significant turnings of the year. Birds fly south. Or is it east? Maybe north? Frankly I don't spend much time outdoors with a compass charting the movements of indecisive waterfowl.

But even a dedicated indoorsman such as myself can observe the anguished human faces on the street, and hear the plaintive cries of agony borne on the night wind (and no, I don't know from which direction the bloody wind is blowing, let's leave that to the meteorologists, shall we?).

Even I can see the chalk outlines left by those poor unfortunates who at last cried 'No more, enough!' before shuffling off their mortal coils by way of extreme over-tanning or actually eating a gas station pickled egg.

Even I know what dread event these signs portend -- tax time.

That's right, gentle readers, if you are a citizen of the US, it's that time of year when Uncle Sam takes you fondly by your ankles and shakes you until every last cent you've seen in the last year falls out of your pockets, because let's face it, war ain't cheap.

Now, if you've made any money off your writing in the last year, I'm here to help. Because if there's anything the US government holds dear, it's the idea that every American is free to earn a profit by the sweat of her brow and the set of his jaw. Equally sacred to the American governing psyche is the idea that they've got dibs on the first and biggest slice of that sweet free enterprise pie.

The first thing writers need to know about filing their writing income is this -- FILE IT. That story you sold to Ominous Bathroom Squeaks and Eldritch Attic Squeals Monthly for 15 bucks? That pair of flash-fiction entries you pawned off on Public Transit Funnies, a Bus Station Free Magazine for a coupon granting you $2.00 off any foot-long club at Subway?

Maybe you're thinking 'Hey, why bother reporting that, nobody knows about those!'

How wrong you are, Grasshopper.

They know. Maybe it's the Carnivore communication surveillance system. Maybe the IRS has an Obscure Small Press Reporting Division. Maybe that mean-eyed old lady down the street is on the phone with the IRS every day, after she goes through your mail and steams open all the envelopes -- it doesn't matter how, but believe me, they know.

So, the first thing?

Report it.

Now if you've made any serious coin you've been sent a 1099-MISC from the publisher(s). You should keep up with these things. I used to put them in a folder and then lose the folder and then move to Mississippi and assume a new identity as Frank Tuttle when I realized I'd lost them all, but then I got married and she keeps important papers in a brilliant thing called a drawer. I'll bet you have some of these drawers  in your place too. Open them up and put stuff in them, it's an amazing time-saver compared to identity theft.

At the end of the year, you take all these 1099 forms, wipe the tears from your face, and enter them in the boxes according to the helpful prompts on the TurboTax software. When the crying diminishes to a bearable level, proceed.

Next, let's consider deductions. The word deductions comes from the Latin dede, which means 'not for,' and uction, which means 'you.' In tax parlance, deductions are money amounts which everyone but you can subtract from the taxes they owe.

For instance, I write on a PC. I built this PC myself, from components I purchased separately, for the sole purpose of writing.  Now, if I were anyone else, I could deduct the total cost of the machine from my taxes owed, since it's a business expense -- but since I am demonstrably me, this deduction does not apply, and, notes TurboTax, 'ha ha ha.'

See how that works? It truly simplifies filing.

Let's look at some other deductions which you, as a writer, cannot claim:

  •  Home Office Deductions. Oh, you have an office, in which you write? Well, let's have a look. It can't be attached to your house. It can't house a TV or other casual entertainment device. It can't possibly, under any circumstances, be even remotely suited for any purpose other than writing, and it can't be very good at that. So you have a detached office which contains nothing but a chair, a desk, and a PC running nothing but Word? But it has a roof?  'Ha ha ha,' intones TurboTax. 'Trying to pull a fast one, are you? DENIED.'
  • Office Expense Deductions.  You're a writer, and even the IRS grudgingly concedes that the act of writing might in some way involve putting down words on some medium, be it electronic or paper. Okay, this looks promising. You bought a printer to print out manuscripts. You pay for internet service because 1950 was 68 years ago. These seem to be legitimate deductions, so let's investigate further BUZZ HA HA HA NOT SO FAST, TAXPAYER! Those deductions are only valid in years  where acceptable total solar eclipses occur in northern Peru (see Schedule 117863-E, 'Solar Interruptions, South American Totality Table 167-75E, lines 46 through 78), and guess what pal, this ain't it.
  • Other Deductions. Mitt Romney has a 376 page embossed-leather-bound acid-free paper book with gold-gilt edges filled with 'Other Deductions.' Are you Mitt Romney? Didn't think so. Move along.

Sadly, that about covers it. You've toiled over every word, you've poured over ever sentence, you've labored long into that good night trying to illuminate a single tiny facet of the flawed jewel that is the human condition.

Or, in other words, you've earned slightly less than minimum wage. 

Bon appetite, my friends!

And for the love of all that is holy, don't miss the filing deadline. 

Top image credits: https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photos-angry-man-pulling-hair-image14925628#res5678350

Return to Middle-Earth

During the Battle of the Somme in 1916, author J.R.R. Tolkien was wounded. He spent his convalescence writing a book set in the Middle-Earth we'd come to know so well. 

This book, The Fall of Gondolin, remained unpublished. We all know that Tolkien went on to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Fall of Gondolin manuscript was later edited by Tolkien's son Christopher, and this August, HarperCollins is finally releasing the The Fall of Gondolin, complete with lavish illustrations and high expectations. 

I'll read it, of course, because it's a chance to return to Middle-Earth one last time. Despite the opportunity to farm out the LOTR universe and literally roll in the piles of cash dumped daily upon them, the Tolkien estate has kept the literary border of Middle-Earth closed tight. Honestly I don't blame them.

Imagine, if you will, a timeline in which the Tolkien estate allowed other writers to work in Middle-Earth, or that the setting had passed into the public domain. I'm sure some good books would have emerged, but I'm equally sure we'd see titles such as Love-Slave to Gollum, Book 34 and Legolas in LA: Hot Elf In the City.

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Who knows what well-established authors might have chosen to add their own entries to the stories of Middle-Earth? 

What if Raymond Chandler, for instance, tried his hand?

The Return of the King's Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

It was morning, mid Winterfilth, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain, called ulo by the Elves of Quenya, in the clearness of the Misty Mountains. I was wearing my mithril mail-suit, my Elven leaf brooch, and my Elven cloak, which is by turn green in sunlight or grey in twilight or dusk-silver in the night. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I gave no care to whom might know it. I was everything a son of Gondor should aspire to be. I was calling on Thorin Oakenshield.  

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As I Lay Dying In Mordor by William Faulkner

Darl, Son of Deowin Ironfist

Jewel, called the North Star in the tongue of the Sindarin, and I come up from the field, following the Hobbit-path in single file. Although I am five ranga ahead of him, anyone watching us from the Shire can see Jewel's frayed and broken Dwarf helm a full head above my own.

The path runs straight as a plumb-line of Gondor, worn smooth by hairy Halfling feet and baked brick-hard by the Afterlithe sun, between the green rows of laid-by pipe-weed, to the inn in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the inn at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by sturdy Hobbit feet in fading precision.


Fear and Loathing in Mirkwood by Hunter S. Thompson

We were somewhere around the Barrow-downs when Bombadil's 'special' lembas began to take hold.

 

Battlefield Isengard by L. Ron Hubbard

“Man,” said Terl, “is an endangered species.” Terl paused long enough to complete the script for the worst movie of the 20th century. "You'll be sued for even bringing this up." Insert 300 pages of relentless gibberish here. 

 

A Clockwork Palantir by Anthony Burgess

There was me, that is Alex, son of Borothyn, of the House of Eldar, and my three Orcs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being half goblin and not a bright goblin, and we sat in the Prancing Pony at Bree making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark Ringwraith chill in the air though not with ulo as the Elves call rain.

So maybe it's for the best Middle-Earth has remained under the control of the Tolkien estate.

Speaking of books -- I could use a small favor. I lost nearly all of my Amazon reviews after Samhain Publishing went out of business. The re-issues of the Markhat books are back out there, but lacking reviews. If you read Hold the Dark, for instance, and you liked it, please consider taking a moment and leaving a review on Amazon. Mama Hog will thank you personally, and also dispel any haints, willer-wisps, celler-goblins, or night spooks that might be plaguing your household.

See you next week!

 

 

 

Mangling the Manuscript, With A Side Order Of Scary Things

In last week's blog, I revealed a little about how I created a cover for the Mama Hog short, Knob Hill Haunt. I also promised to explain how Knob Hill Haunt made the transition from Word document to Kindle ebook.

I've used a lot of methods over the years to turn manuscripts into ebooks. In theory, you can just save your Word document as a .doc, or a .docx, or a filtered Web page. This format will then be magically converted into a perfectly formatted Kindle book by Amazon's conversion process.

Note the disclaimer 'in theory.' In theory, I can skip lunch and not devolve into a ravenous maniac. In theory, I can eat healthy and lose weight. 

I think you begin to see the disdain with which I view the phrase 'in theory.'

In practice, you can follow Amazon's guidelines to the letter, and about half the time you'll wind up with an ebook that contains random changes in justifications, weird characters sprinkled throughout the book, and inexplicable shifts in justification and even fonts. 

You don't want that. Readers don't want it. They paid money for a book, not an exercise in 'close enough.' 

Keep in mind the process I'm about to describe is only the mechanical process. I won't be talking about editing, but if you're new to all this please don't mistake this intentional omission for a suggestion that you throw all your stuff out there unedited. That's not what I'm implying. 

Here's how to determine if you need an editor, in one handy step:

Ask yourself "Do I need an editor?" Then look yourself right in your eyes and say, in a loud firm voice, "Yes."

Easy. Now the next question is probably "How can I afford to pay for an editor?" and my answer is a muttered rant about masks and liquor stores or shady cryptocurrency scams, but that's a topic for another day. 

So assume your editing is done before you proceed with any of this.

You have your manuscript. It's perfect. It's a work of literary art. But it's a Word document, not an ebook. What's the next step?

You can:

  • Upload as Amazon suggests, and fix the oddities one by one using the upload, preview, and fix method.
  • Hire someone to format your manuscript.
  • Use free software such as Calibre to create a .mobi file and upload that.
  • Use what I used this time around, which is a paid conversion service called Pressbooks.

Pressbooks, at pressbooks.com, lets you upload your word docs to your areas on their site. You don't upload the whole book at once -- you organize it by section. For instance, you put the title page material in the title page part. Chapters go in the Main Body. It creates a table of contents for you. Back matter goes in back matter, and so forth.

That part of the process is a bit of a pain, yes. But it also allows you to move things around easily. And you can select from dozens of premade styles and apply them to the whole thing with a single click.

I rather enjoyed being able to play with styles so easily. When you think you have things ready, you just export the ebook in whatever formats you wish -- mobi, epub, pdf, etc. Then you can load the ebook on various devices and make sure everything works before you release anything into the wild.

How much does this cost?

You can create a free account and do everything, including the exports. There's only one catch -- every exported ebook contains a one-page 'watermark' which consists of an ad for Pressbooks. You can generate an export that doesn't contain the watermark for 19.99 USD per title. 

That's a bargain, at least to me. 

Here's what the Pressbooks dashboard looks like:

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Yes, that's the draft of the new Mug and Meralda book shown. I used Pressbooks to convert the manuscript into Kindle format for my helpful beta readers. 

But you can edit in the dashboard, too. Just click on a chapter or part, and there you are. Make changes, save, and done.

There is a small learning curve, mainly because there are so many options. But getting the hang of it is easy and fast.

There are other ways to do this, of course. I mentioned a few above. I like Pressbooks, especially for fast conversions of short works, so for me, it's a good tool to have.

If you are on the lookout for an editor or a conversion service, I recommend Holly at EvilEyeEditing. She edited the last several Markhat books, and has real-world publishing industry chops. 

THINGS GOING BUMP

One of my favorite pastimes is surfing YouTube for paranormal videos.

Most are hilarious fakes. Even those are fun to watch, though, so I keep searching them out. 

I'll post a link to an example below. In this short segment, several so-called paranormal video clips are shown.

11 Mysterious Videos That Cannot Be Explained

Go watch it, if you want, and then come back. I know the title claims the videos cannot be explained. I disagree. Here's what I know about the incidents referenced by the video host:

The first video, about the sad disappearance of the kid on holiday, is real. He did in fact vanish without a trace, and the footage from the airport is genuine. There's nothing paranormal about the video, although the poor kid was obviously scared and in trouble of some sort. I wonder if his head injury was worse than the doctors thought. I hope one day his family finds out what happened.

The second video, which shows an unnamed shopper in the throes of apparent possession, is a wonderful example of how strings and a few close friends can make a fairly convincing scary video. It's well-acted, I'll give them that. Nice how the 'random' security camera just happened to be aimed at the center of the action. Quite the coincidence.

The next segment, about the hotel ghost and room 209, looks authentic. It should, because it won an award for best short horror film in a tiny obscure film contest several years ago, if I remember correctly. Almost certain this one was made for entertainment.

Then we have the infamous 'Men In Black' captured on hotel security cameras. After a witness spotted a UFO hovering over the hotel, presumably in an attempt to cheap out on paying for hotel parking, the MIBs showed up, went to the front desk, and demanded to speak to the witness. That's the story, anyway. Maybe it's just me, but if the aliens had the means to identify the witness and and the motive to silence him, why couldn't they also determine his room number? Just pay the parking fees, guys. And buy some coats that fit. 

The next video is the most disturbing of the lot. Elisa Lamb did die, drowned in a hotel water storage tank. The bizarre video of her in the elevator is real. The official verdict was accidental death. That's one heck of an accident, since the rooftop tank in which she was found had to be unlocked with a key, and the only access to the tank entry was by ladder, which wasn't present. Stranger still, the hotel has a long history of sinister occurrences. I doubt we'll ever know what happened to this poor young woman.

In the sixth video, we see an unusual traffic accident in China. A traffic camera is trained on an intersection, and everything looks normal until two vans are suddenly lifted into the air and tossed about by 'invisible' forces. 

The video is real, and it's a good lesson in how low-resolution cameras can show just enough of the truth to fool us. What happened was this -- a steel cable lay across the road. The cameras can't show it because it's too thin. When something off-camera yanks the cable suddenly taut, the vans are lifted a few feet and bounced around. It looks supernatural, but it's just a freak accident.

I'm certain the same phenomena makes the next video, the so-called 'teleporting man,' look more mysterious than it is. A car dashcam captures a semi-truck swerving suddenly. A pedestrian appears, narrowly avoiding being run over by the truck. All I see here is an example of why frame rates matter if you're filming high-speed vehicles.

Next, we are treated to a brief glimpse of a face in the window of a burned-out house. The segment is called 'The Del Rey Witch.' I think it should have been called 'The Homeless Guy In The Burned-Out House.' The bit about the newspaper article on the ground is what some experts would call 'silly.'

"The Girl In the Red Dress" is spooky. We see an alley, a parked van, and a little girl who is wearing a red dress, which suits her overall translucence. Somebody is pretty handy with their video editing skills. Filters are a lot of fun when you can select any transparency you desire.

"The Hospital Ghost." Dark figure passes behind hospital doors. Nurse and camera person rush into room. A table mysteriously moves in a way THAT NO MERE HUMAN COULD REPRODUCE WITH EIGHT FEET OF STRING. Room is empty. People run. Nice spooky little segment, but I'm getting bored with strings.

The last video, called 'City in the Clouds,' is footage from a Chinese news report. In it we see -- well, a city in the sky, or at least the basic outlines of tall buildings amid the clouds.

This was seen by thousands of people, so it's not a fake video. The offered explanations range from secret NASA holographic projection tests to magical portals to another world. 

I'm going to go with 'This is what happens when the air is so polluted it can act as a crude lens' and wait for the next round of videos.

If you've seen a video you'd like to share, post a link in the comments!

 

 

 

 

Freebie Sunday, and the Anatomy of a Book Cover

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I hope you enjoyed last week's Mama Hog story. I realize it was a little long to be comfortably read on the blog, so I turned it into a Kindle ebook, changed the title, and put a cover on it.

I also made it free for the next four days. So, if you want a copy for your Kindle, just click here and grab a copy, no charge. 

If you don't read on a Kindle, email me, and I'll send you a free copy in whatever format you prefer (PDF, Nook, or generic epub). 

If you feel led to point your friends at this blog, I won't object to that at all, either, wink wink nudge nudge.

ABOUT THE COVER

No cover artist is credited in the ebook because I am the cover creator. If anyone is curious, I thought I'd divulge the steps behind the creation of the Knob Hill Haunt cover, because I do think it turned out pretty well.

I made this cover for a couple of reasons. First, this is a short story, not a book, and I couldn't see investing a couple of hundred dollars in it. Knob Hill Haunt is a title I entered into the Kindle Unlimited program, which means I can run free promos every 90 days, and Kindle users can also get it as one of their free reads anytime they have an open free-read slot.

My other titles aren't in the KU program. One of the restrictions is that a KU book can ONLY be sold on Amazon, and I'm not ready to accept that restriction for my other titles. 

But, as a free introduction to Markhat and Darla's world, I decided to enter Knob Hill into the program, in the hope of picking up some new readers. 

I  made sure there were links to my other books at the end of Knob Hill Haunt. Yes, that is a shameless marketing ploy. Look, writers have to eat too. 

But, if someone enjoyed Mama Hog's story, they might want to read the other books too. So I see it as a win-win. 

All that aside, here's how I made the cover.

First, I searched for a suitable cover image. There are many stock image sites -- Shutterstock, iStockphoto, and Dreamstime, for instance. I tend to use Dreamstime; most of the opening images on this blog came from Dreamstime unless they were images or photos I created.

Here's the unaltered stock photo from Dreamstime:

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I bought a large image (3000 by 2030 pixels) because Amazon wants cover images that are at least 2000 pixels on one side. It cost me 11 credits, which is around 11 dollars.

I chose this image because it's spooky, it's pretty, and it fits a scene from the book. It's licensed for use on book covers. Also, the model is posed to the right side of the image, which left me room for text.

There are a couple of basic rules for book cover design. I'm sure there are. I don't know them, but here are the few things I do know:

  • Never lay text over a face. Seriously. 
  • Apply the 'rule of thirds' whenever possible.
  • Western readers move their eyes across a cover from left to right and along a diagonal from the upper left corner to the lower right. Yes, centered elements are also fine -- but if you can't center things, remember the left-to-right bit.
  • The cover should still retain legible text when shrunk down to thumbnail size, which means it must be readable when it's only about 100 pixels tall.
  • Ugly covers wind up on display at lousybookcovers.com. You don't want that.

I don't have Photoshop, which costs a billion dollars a copy. It doesn't, but it might as well. Too, Photoshop must be learned, and given my current age and lifestyle preferences I don't have that kind of time left.

I use Corel PaintShop Pro X9. It costs about 79 bucks, and while there is a learning curve it obviously isn't too steep because I run it just fine. 

I put the image of the nice dead lady holding a candle on one layer.

I applied text on another layer. But let me back up a bit, and talk about text. Specifically, about fonts.

The fonts on your machine are free, and there are quite a few of them. But they're also bland and familiar, and nothing screams self-made cover like a title written out in Courier New.

Like images, fonts aren't usually just free for the taking. People work hard to create them, so you should pay just as much attention to the rights granted on fonts as you do to those of images.

Free font sites abound. I looked around until I found one that both fit the theme of my cover and was free to use, even as part of a commercial project. 

I downloaded the font and installed it, and that gave PaintShop access to it.

I tried about a dozen fonts. All but two were rejected because they looked fine on the big image, but were illegible when reduced to a thumbnail. People aren't going to click on a book when the title can't be read, and I don't blame them one bit.

I put the title in the upper-left third of the book. I put my byline down at the bottom right. This way, the reader's eye moves like this: title, ghost lady, byline. The arrangement quickly lets potential buyers glean all they want to know from a book cover. It's about a haunting of some sort. The protag is probably female. A guy named Tuttle wrote it. All in a single glance.

I set the text color as white and then made the text layer partially transparent, so the blue in the image layer bled through just a bit. This made the letters look as though they were a part of the overall image, and not just stuck on top as an afterthought.

I applied some subtle shadows (light source from upper left of cover, which cast shadows down toward the right) behind the text, and then added a very slight distortion effect (wind, left to right) to add a hint of blur to the edges of the text. 

Effects such as those only apply to the layer you've selected, so the lady wasn't blurred or windblown at all. It's rude to blow winds at ghosts. They enough to deal with. 

Once I was satisfied, I merged the layers. Then I resized the large image to conform to Amazon's cover image standards. 

That's all it took. I spent between six and eight hours, I think, on this cover. Most of that time was spent finding the main image, and then the right font. 

This was a very simple cover. It involved no custom artwork -- by that, I mean no artist sat down and drew or painted a character from scratch.  I used a single stock image and some text. The Markhat covers, which were created by ADsmith Marketing, involve multiple images and layers and Photoshop and, probably, quantum mechanics, which is why I left those covers to the professionals.

A truly custom cover, one that doesn't use stock images, is going to cost. A thousand crisp new dollars will probably buy you one. Artists don't work cheap, nor should they. One day I'd love to commission a genuine painting of Darla and Markhat, or Meralda and Mug and Donchen. If anyone out there is sitting on a bag of cash they find repulsive, send it my way, and I'll get started on that.

Next week, I'll explain how I turned the manuscript into an ebook. 

Until then, take care!

Cover image credits: ID 76944122 © Olga Osadchaya | Dreamstime.com

 

 

The Swindled Jenny: A Mama Hog story

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I'm giving the blog over to Mama Hog tonight. She's got a story to tell, and we both hope you enjoy it.

 

The Swindled Jenny

By Mama Hog

Now that Markhat has done took to writing down his troubles, I reckon on doing the same thing.

My name is Mrs. Hog. Folks hereabout calls me Mama Hog, prob’ly because I’ve spent the last hundred years wipin’ their behinds and making a big fuss over their skint knees and busted hearts. I has the Sight, and the knowin’ of the old ways, and what these city folks has all but forgot is still fresh as yesterday in this here mind of mine.

That’s what they pays me for. Clear sight, clear thinking, some of that old timey magic they scoffs at one minute and begs for the next. Ain’t no excuse for the messes these city folk get their selfs into.

Ain’t no excuse at all. But I’m a Hog. I has the Sight. It’s their business, I reckon, to stumble, an’ it’s mine to set them right.

It was just after sunup when a woman came knocking at my door. Now, I sets regular hours, and ain’t nobody in Rannit what don’t know that, but every now and then somebody comes to call before my biscuits is done or after I’m took to bed, hopin’ to pay me a visit without being seen and whispered about.

I adds an extra charge to their fee, cause that wastes biscuits or sleep and I ain’t usually got a surplus of neither.

I opened my door and she rushed in without an invite or a ‘How do ye do.’ That cost her extra too.

“Mrs. Hog,” she said, after she hid herself in the corner. “You are Mrs. Hog? The Mrs. Hog they call Mama?”

I shut my door.

“As fer as I know,” I said, all polite-like. “Do ye want a biscuit?”

She drawed up like I’d poked her with a snake. Now, she was a tall woman tryin’ to hide under a fussy black hat and half a dozen fine-made veils, so when she drawed up and looked down that long nose at me it was just plain comical.

“What are you laughing at?” she asked, all haughty-like.

“You. That ain’t your hat, cause it don’t fit.” I was right, cause it had dropped down nearly over her eyes. “And neither is that top-coat. I reckon you borrowed all that get-up from a maid or a cook, one what’s a stone heavier and near a foot taller. So you done made a spectacle of yerself, and prob’ly set the servants to talkin’, and if you was tryin’ to visit in secret you done made a right fine mess of that, yer highness.”

Now, when well-to-do folks gets their noses thumped, they usually get to puffin’ and blowin’.

And I figured she’d march right back out my door, which was just fine with me because I makes a damned good biscuit and I was of a mind to have my breakfast.

But she made the most angel-awful gobblin’ noise and started bawlin, right there. Bawlin’ and shakin’ like a young-un, one what’s been holding in a cry for a long, long time.

Well, even city folks don’t usually make a show of cryin’ in a stranger’s kitchen if there ain’t something powerful wrong. So I got her in a chair and got that hat off her fool head and talked all soothing-like to her till she settled down.

“My name is Jenny Wilkins,” she said, after a mess of dabbin’ at her eyes with a fancy linen handkerchief. “Of the Barrows Wilkinses.”

I nodded like I knowed all about a Barrows Wilkins. I knowed that if I asked for the particulars, I’d get a half hour of who begat who and what they done during the War and I knowed it weren’t likely any of that would pertain to the matter at hand.

‘Fore she caught enough breath to talk, I’d done figured on her problem. I didn’t need no Sight to tell me what I needed to know about Miss Jenny.

She was young, though she prob’ly didn’t consider herself young. Twenty and five, I reckoned, born midsummer, an only child. She was tall and skinny and pale, but she liked to mess about in her fancy flower-garden, cause her fingernails was all short and there was a callous where she worked the sheers.

She had big green eyes what was pretty when they wasn’t red from bawlin’, and good white teeth, and if the woman ever smiled her long narrow face would be a sight for the menfolk. Her hair was a mess, but if she dragged a comb through it she’d be a right stunning woman, and no mistake.

I knowed right off she was smart, too. My Sight showed lots of book-learning, fancy teachers, could read Kingdom and Old Kingdom and Church. I warmed up a mite at that. I likes smart folks, rich or poor, and I reckon rich folks can’t help bein’ born on silk sheets no more than a poor man on burlap.

“You got man trouble,” I said. Her eyes showed me I’d spoke the truth. She started to talk, but I raised up my hand and called up my Sight.

“It ain’t love,” I said, cause I knowed then it weren’t. “Oh, you liked him good enough, maybe even more than liked. But that ain’t why you’re here.”

She nodded.

“He stole from you.”

Damned if she didn’t commence bawlin’ again.  I reckon all that ruckus woke Buttercup, cause she just appeared right there beside the woman and started huggin’ on her.

Now, Buttercup is what Markhat calls a banshee. But you hear me, my Buttercup ain’t nothing like the banshees of the old stories, what was frightful old crones who took to flyin’ about screaming and doin’ a fair amount of murder of a night.

Buttercup looks to be a child, and a wisp of a child at that. She’s got hair the color of ripe corn-silk and skin that don’t tan and green eyes it don’t pay to look at too long, cause they seems to get bigger the longer you looks at them. But there ain’t a mean bone in her body and that scream of hers is powerful, but it ain’t never hurt nobody, leastways not nobody what didn’t need a good hurtin’.

But havin a slip of a girl just appear out of thin air and lay hands on her was a might too much for Miss Jenny, cause she went from bawlin’ to screamin’ and that hurt Buttercup’s feelings, I reckon, cause she just took one of her banshee hop-skips and vanished like a magician’s white rabbit.

Calming Miss Jenny down took a while and nearly a whole pot of my special soothing tea. But I finally got her settled down, and even laughin’ a bit, and when Buttercup heard that and came back in I introduced them proper and me and Miss Jenny finally got down to business.

“He said his name was Oswalt Lichter,” she said. Buttercup had took to sittin’ in her lap, all snuggled up peaceful-like.  “I met him at an art show, last October.”

“I reckon he was all smiles and sweets,” I said.

She nodded, and stroked at Buttercup’s wild hair. “I’m not an idiot, Mrs. Hog. I’ve been approached by men before. Men who pretended an interest in me when what they wanted was the family money.”

“I takes it your daddy is passed, then.”

She nodded. “I am the sole heir. My brothers both died in the War.”

I felt genuinely sorry for her, then. That there War left a lot of lonesome women behind in big old houses that was too dark and too quiet.

“So when Oswalt – when Mr. Lichter started showing an interest, I was naturally wary.”

“Naturally.”

She shook her head and couldn’t look me in the eye. “But he was so patient. So unassuming. Weeks would pass, and he wouldn’t visit, wouldn’t send word.”

“So you took to sending word to him.” I said it as gentle as I could, because there weren’t no need to make her start bawlin’ again.

“I did. I was so sure he wasn’t like the others. He was…nice.”

“No, girl, he was just a better grade of bastard.”

She swallowed hard. “He had his own money. Lots of it, it seemed. Carriages. Fine meals, in the best clubs. He bought me jewelry. He was renovating an old house on the Hill. He had friends I knew. I was so sure.”

“I reckon he was squattin’ in a house somebody else was payin’ for, and borrowin’ the rest as fast as he could spend it,” I said.

She nodded, still not lookin’ me in the eyes.

“The money – it wasn’t even his idea,” she said. “I swear to you it wasn’t. I almost had to force it upon him.  It was a joint investment, in a series of silver mines out west.” She looked up at me then, and them green eyes was fierce with anger. “I didn’t invest heavily, at first. He wouldn’t let me. But we made money, Mrs. Hog. Lots of it. I doubled the family fortune, in a few months’ time. I was rich. The money was in my bank. In my name. We were so happy.”

She started tearing up. Buttercup stirred and put her arms around the woman’s neck and started hummin’ some old song I ain’t never heard. Maybe it was them foreign words, or maybe it was her voice, but she calmed Miss Jenny right down.

“So when the mines themselves came up for sale…”

I shook my head. “You had to talk him into buyin’ ‘em, didn’t you? After you threw in half, I reckon. Which just happened to be everything you had.”

She hugged Buttercup tight and just sat there and shook.

I didn’t need to make her tell the rest. My Sight showed me all of it, plain as day.

She’d given that man every last cent, and he’d smiled and kissed her and damned if he hadn’t walked away with the whole works in Old Kingdom gold coin, without a look back or a shred of human mercy.

I reckon he’d took something else too, and that’s when I got mad.

“Well, Miss Jenny Wilkins of the Barrow Wilkinses, that’s a hard thing what’s been done to you, and no mistake. But you done the right thing, payin’ Mama Hog a visit, because I tells ye right here and right now we’re going to get you your money back. Now, I know that ain’t all he took, but know this – Mr. Oswalt Lichter, or whatever he calls hisself these days, is goin’ to pay, and pay hard, for what he done, and he ain’t ever going to do it again.”

“Can you do that, Mrs. Hog? Really do that?”

“Can and will, Miss Jenny. Can and will.”

“I can’t pay you.”

“Ye can pay when we’s done,” I said. “Ten gold crowns, and ten crowns only. Now there’s one thing you needs to know, Miss. I aims to show this here rotten bastard the same mercy what he showed you. I ain’t to be moved toward kindness, when this starts. I won’t be asked to flinch, when the time comes to strike. You got to know that. You got to agree to it. Or you got to walk out that door and never come back. Is that clear?”

Give Miss Jenny Wilkins credit. She didn’t blink or play at dumb.

“Clear. No mercy. No flinching. Make him pay, Miss Hog. Make him pay.”

“Call me Mama,” I said. “Now then. Let’s eat us a biscuit. We got things to talk about.”

* * *

By the time Miss Jenny took her leave, it was noon, and Rannit was a stompin’ and a yellin’ all around me.

I don’t take to the streets much these days, cause my bunions pain me something awful after a long day of walking. But I’d made promises, and a Hog keeps her promises, bunions or no.

A hundred years, I been keeping promises. Some promises was kept to rich folks, whose names would surprise you. So I took to payin’ a few old friends visits, and remindin’ them of what I done, of debts owed me and never claimed.

Well, I claimed a few that day. I reckon the Hog name carries considerable weight with folks, because they was as eager to talk as they was as eager to send me on my way. And I reckon Mr. Oswalt Lichter hadn’t left many friends behind, because as soon as I took to callin’ his name they practically lined up to tell me all they knowed and then some.

Oh, he was playing an old old game, he was. Borrow from this one. Pay that one. Keep the money movin’, keep the lies coming. Hell, half of them didn’t know they’d been swindled yet, and Angels alive, the way their eyes bugged when they took notice of the fact!

I kept Miss Jenny’s name clear of it. But I made it hot for Mr. Lichter, I did. He’d have no place to rest, come sundown, if he was fool enough to still be in Rannit proper.

Not that I figured he was. He’d took his leave of Miss Jenny four days past, and I knowed he was slick enough to scoot before she could set the Watch on him. But something Miss Jenny had said stuck with me, and my Sight showed me where a greedy man might be likely to make a mistake.

What my Sight showed me, my talkin’ proved out. He had an eye for fancy paintings, and he’d been buying them up the whole time he was in Rannit. A dozen or so, I figured. And while he was smart enough to take hisself right quick out of Rannit, he’d have to have all them paintings crated up and shipped.

And if they was crated up and shipped, they’d have to be goin’ somewhere, and I aimed to follow.

So, like I said, I settled some old debts, with them what I’d helped before. Even the rich can be generous, and whether it’s out of plain old decent gratitude or a fervent wish to get shed of the past don’t make me no difference at all.

By suppertime, I knowed where them fancy-ass paintings had been stored.

By dark, I knowed the name of the man hired to crate them up.

By Curfew, I knowed what barge they was loaded on, and where they was headed, and what name he was using while he lived on Miss Jenny’s money.

By bedtime, I was soaking my feet in a tub of hot salt water, and Buttercup was playing dolls, and Mr. Oswalt Lichter who was calling himself Nabin Hodges was having one of the last good nights of sleep he was ever likely to get, in this life leastways.

* * *

“So we’s going to a place called Knob Hill,” I said.

Miss Jenny looked a might more pleasant in her green day dress and with a head of proper-combed hair.

“We?”

“Oh yes. Me and you.” I poured her more tea while Buttercup showed her her dolls, presenting them one by one with little nonsense words what I reckoned was their names. “I can’t do this without you,” I said, lyin’ some, but for the good. “Don’t you reckon you’ll sleep better, knowin’ you had a hand in seeing justice done?”

She watched Buttercup and thought it over.

“I don’t have any money for traveling,” she said, after a time.

“Well, I reckon I can pay for us both, till we gets your money back. It won’t be no fancy travelin’, mind ye. A poor woman’s coin only goes so far.”

Give the woman credit, she might have been waited on hand and foot all her days but she wasn’t lacking for backbone.

“I can work to pay my way.”

“That’s the spirit! But here, we won’t need much. I got it all figured out. A day on a stage, maybe half a day on whatever wagon we can hitch, a night in the woods. You ain’t scared of sleeping outdoors, are ye?”

“Father used to take me fishing, down the Brown. I’ll manage.”

“Good for you, Miss Jenny,” I said, and I meant it. “We’ll have you put back to rights in no time.”

Now, I knowed that getting back her money was going to be a mite easier than healing her other hurt. But you gots to start somewhere, I always say, and I had a mind to start with the coin.

* * *

Getting to Knob Hill was the business of two days. Miss Jenny swatted at skeeters the whole time, but never once voiced a complaint.

Finding the man calling hisself  Nabin Hodges wasn’t no harder than finding Knob Hill itself. There ain’t much to Knob Hill save a wide spot in the road, an inn what needs a new roof, a stagecoach stop, and a saloon what must have been fancy in its day but is about to fall over with the next big puff of wind.

A side road goes off into the pines, and winds up a big old hill, and at the top of that hill sits a Old Kingdom house, or what’s left of one. And since that’s the fanciest thing around, I knowed it was where that thievin’ rat had gone to ground, even before I started asking the innkeeper.

Lichter, now Nabin, had rolled into town a year past claimin’ to be the great-great grandson of the man what built that house before the War. Now, he wasn’t foolin’ nobody, cause that there Hoosten family got crossed with a wand-waver and was kilt one and all before Lichter was born, but he had coin and nobody cared about that old heap of stones. When he started rebuilding they took his pay and kept their mouths shut, as country folk is want to do.

Nabin had left a few months ago, claiming he had business out west. Now he was back, and all fired up about setting his house to rights, according to the gossips in the saloon.

I got me and Miss Jenny a room at the inn, and while she made a big show of not griping at sleeping on a straw bed I snuck off down that long stretch of road so I could get out of them woods before dark. There ain’t no Curfew in Knob End, and there ain’t no halfdead, but I reckon them woods was full of bears at least and I didn’t have time for no diversions.

That there fat innkeeper, name of Toad, was a blessing, and no mistake. He’d told me all about Nabin trying to hire a cooking woman, and how nobody with any sense would set foot in that house for fear of haints or curses. So when I marched up to the doors, which was standing wide open with brick masons and carpenters tromping in and out, I knowed just what to say.

“My name is Toker,” I said, to the first man I seen who looked like he might have a lick of sense. “I come to cook.”

I reckon them was magic words to a man who, from the look of the pot boiling in the yard, had been eating nothing but unsalted beans and moldy hard-tack for who knows how long.

“Boss man is up the stairs,” he said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder at the staircase in the shadows of the house. “I can round up the boys if you got bags or what-not.”

“I travels light,” I said. I stepped into the cool of the house, glad for the shade. “You say he’s up them stairs?”

“Second floor. Hanging painted pictures.” He lowered his voice to whisper. “He’s awful particular about them painted pictures. Gets riled up if you don’t make a big fuss over ‘em.”

“Thank ye kindly,” I said. “Be an extra biscuit in it for you, come suppertime.”

I took to the stairs. There was room for three of me and a pair of field ponies. They made houses big, before the War.

When I got to the second story, I followed the sound of careful hammering, and come face-to-face with the man what stole from Miss Jenny.

He heard me comin’, so he planted his back to the wall. He had a hammer in his right hand and a smile on his face, and I reckon he would keep his smile the whole time he was bashing my head with that hammer, if’n I give him reason to believe I was there to take some vengeance.

But he wasn’t the only one what knows how to smile and make it look real.

“My name is Mrs. Toker, of the Pot Lockney Tokers,” I said, making a little curtsey. “I hears you are in the market for a woman what knows how to cook.”

He pretended to relax, but he kept his ears pricked, listening for feet on the stair. When he didn’t hear any, he let out his breath and looked down his nose at me.

“I’m not at all sure where you heard such a thing, Mrs. Toker,” he said, his voice as smooth as lard-slicked glass. “We have quite a competent cook.”

I made like I was a mite let down. “Well, I reckon I was told a tale,” I said. Then I let my poor old ignorant country eyes wander up to the line of fancy paintings he’d hung on two of the walls.

“Cor,” I said, bringing my hand up to cover my uncouth rural mouth. “If them ain’t the most marvelous things I have ever laid eyes on.”

And damned if that wasn’t all it took.

He spent a solid hour describing each and every one of them paintings to me. Every artist, every theme, every what he called technique – he knowed all about them, and he was aiming to talk about it, and for a little while the man was almost human, ‘cause you could tell he loved what he took to calling ‘his art.’

I asked a few questions, oohed and ahhed some, and before he knowed it I was hired as cook and give run of the kitchen.

Now, back in the day, that was some kind of fancy kitchen. It had three wood-fired cook-stoves and two big old roasting-pit fire-places and a cold well and a root cellar big enough to live in.

But the stoves was rusted through, and one of the fire-places had most of the chimney collapsed in a heap in the pit, the cold well spring had run dry, and bats had took over the root cellar.

But one stove worked, and there was pots and pans what had been put up dry, and a wagon-load of beans and salted meat and flour and meal sat outside. So by dark I had a meal cooked, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the sight of twenty menfolk eatin’ like wolves and praising my name the whole time, even if it wasn’t my name, strictly speaking.

Fancy-pants took his meal alone, up in his room, and he didn’t have nothing more than grunts for me when he was filling his plate. I reckon he didn’t want to be seen conversating with the help, and I snickered a bit.

Now you show a mob of able-bodied men-folk a stack of dirty dishes and I swears you can clear the room of ‘em faster than you could with a bear or a bucket of snakes. So I found myself alone after supper, and that was just fine by me, because after washing off the dishes in a sink of green copper I had the run of the first floor all to myself.

The working men was all sleeping in the shed that kept the mortar and the lumber out of the rain. I kenned from the talk at supper they was afraid of the house, which struck me as pure foolishness, because that shed didn’t have no walls and they was a lot more likely to come across bears as they was haunts. But there ain’t no reasoning with superstition.

I picked out a dusty room for myself and made sure it had a door connecting it to a room for Miss Jenny. I locked her hall door from the inside, even though from the dust I could tell nobody had been in or out of the room in years.

Then I spent an hour or two laying in some hexes, here and there, just to start the fun.

When the Moon set, so did I, because they’d be wanting an early breakfast, and I’d be expected to have it ready.

I heard the first moaning as I laid my head down on my pallet. It was a pitiful thing to hear, and no mistake, all plaintive and sad. I was wondering if I hadn’t spelled the hex too soft when I heard a door slam upstairs, and then I drifted off to sleep knowing Mr. Nabin’s comeuppance had begun.

* * *

Them workmen ate like they’d hadn’t seen a bit of ham or a decent biscuit since Yule. I had to damn near fight to save a plate for the box-man, as they called him, and then I had to keep his plate on the stove to keep his breakfast from getting cold.

By the time he came creeping down the stairs, breakfast was best called lunch but I didn’t point the fact out.

Nabin or Lichter was bleary-eyed and grumpy by any name, leastways until he got coffee and ham in his gullet.

“Sleep poorly, did you, Mr. Nabin?” I asked, all sunshine and wide country smiles. “I hope it wasn’t your supper that disagreed with you!”

He grunted, which might have meant yes or no or I prefer badger-meat to ham.

“Well, I shouldn’t wonder, a man of your education and standing must have a mind full of matters,” I said. “Would you like a fresh pot of coffee?”

He allowed as how he would, and I took to bustling around, chirping like a magpie about this or that as words presented themselves.

“You took a room here in the house, didn’t you,” he said at last, more to stop my descriptions of my grandchildren that anything else, I’ll wager.

“Why yes I did,” I said, all concerned-like. “Was I overstepping? I took one close to the kitchen, thinking you’d want me close to my duties…”

He cut me off with a wave. “No, that’s fine, perfectly fine. But. But, I heard noises last night. You weren’t singing, were you?”

“Singing? Me? Heavens no, sir, my late husband, rest his soul, he always said I had no voice for the singin’. I washed up and went to sleep, sir, and that’s the truth of the Angels. Maybe them work-men was singing around the fire?”

“Yes,” he said, frowning. “Yes. That must be it.”

“No, my second son’s youngest, the one they call Dooley, now he can sing, oh yes sir, voice of an Angel…”

I prattled on, though I was soon prattling to an empty room.

I got myself to work right then. Lunch and supper would be salt ham stew, so I filled up the two biggest stewers I could find and set them to boiling. Then I started me another couple of pots to brewin’, but it weren’t no stew.

The wagon-load of victuals from town showed up right before lunch. There weren’t no trick to getting Miss Jenny snuck into the house, what with all the rush and confusion. I put her in her room and she set about getting ready for the night’s business with a grim set to her jaw. I reckon being under the same roof as the man what done what he done to her wasn’t setting well, but she allowed as she would stick with the plan without taking no side-trips into the realms of stabbing nor bludgeoning.

See, I knowed every last copper of Miss Jenny’s money was hid somewhere in or near that old house. I also knowed he wasn’t likely to just tell me where it was, even if I stuck his feet in a fire. No, we’d have to get him to show us where the money was hid, and that wasn’t going to be no easy chore since any man capable of spinning such artful webs of lies wouldn’t have much trouble seeing a lie himself.

So I tended my stew, and stirred my special pots, and Miss Jenny stayed hid and quiet till the sun was down and the hoot-owls were a hooting and the wolves was howling not much more than a stone’s throw away.

Then I made Mr. Fancy Britches a pot of most unusual tea and I ain’t ashamed to say I looked him in the eye and watched him drink it, and that’s when the fun really got started.

* * *

Midnight. There wasn’t a clock in that house to strike it out but I knows midnight well, and when I felt the hour stroll past I knocked on Miss Jenny’s door.

Damned I didn’t step back myself when she opened it.

She’d fixed herself up right, oh yes she had. Pale as Death. Dark circles under them big green eyes. Black lips. A few veins darked too, like she was a day or two past burying.

The dark bruise across her neck showed up real good against the pale. And her gown, oh it was a sight – all flowing and white and ethereal, just like what a ghost ought to be wearin’, when they is going out of an evening.

She was barefoot, and she knew how to walk without making a sound. She spun for me, and my heart nearly broke, seein’ the pain in such a creature’s big old eyes.

“Will this do?” she asked, in a whisper.

I allowed as to how it would.  Then I told her where to walk, told her to make sure she was always listening for my knocks. Two knocks meant run for the room and bolt the door. One knock meant keep bein’ the ghost.

First things first. I gave her a candle and a match, and told her to sneak to the end of the walkway, light the candle, and stroll all ghost-like up the door. That would put her in sight of the shed and the working men. It would mean she’d have to walk in the dark, but she set her jaw and took the matches and ran for it, and if she ran across any bears I reckoned they was in for a bad night.

I seen her first, holding that flickering candle, gliding up that ragged old walk, lookin’ for all the world like a haint, and no mistake.

Miss Jenny walked. She was halfway to the doors there hadn’t been no stir from the shed.  I was fretful, when she let out a pitiful long moan.

That done it. Men took to talkin’, then to shouting, and by the time Miss Jenny blew out her candle at the front doors they was all shoutin’ and cussin’ and saddling up horses and half a dozen of ‘em had took up lanterns and was running for the road, bears be damned.

I no sooner got Miss Jenny hid than I heard the ruckus at the door. I throwed on my nightgown and got there just as Mister Nabin took to cussin’ at the three working men standing inside.

“You’ll be paid when the job is finished, and not before that!”

“We are leaving. Right now. You’re gonna pay us the wages we’re owed, or there’s gonna be trouble.”

The man speaking put his claw hammer right up in Nabin’s face.

“Damn you.” Nabin took a step back. “Cheating a man in the middle of the night.”

I held my breath. I was hoping he’d have to dip into his secret stash right then and there, but he stomped off to a lockbox on a desk and snatched up a handful of silver and threw it in the other man’s face.

“Pick it up yourselves,” said Nabin. “Superstitious bumpkins.”

“We seen what we seen,” said the man, who didn’t stop as his fellows crab-crawled on the plank floor for the scattered coins. “A haint just took up in this house, mister, and we ain’t having no part in it.”

“You’re drunk. All drunk.”

“We ain’t. She was as dead as Tinker’s ox, mister, and she didn’t come here by accident.” He spat on the rich man’s floor. “Ain’t nobody ever believed that story about you being the lost son of the Hoosten family. I don’t know what you done before you come here, but it’s caught up to you, and we ain’t getting in the middle of it.”

I could have hugged that man’s neck right there.

His friends got the last of the money, and they hoofed it out of there, leaving the doors wide open.

I shut them, kicking them once as though having trouble getting the latch to catch.

“I suppose you want your wages too,” said Nabin.

“You firing me?” I let myself tear up. “I gots nowhere to go, Mister Nabin. A poor old woman in the middle of the night, ye won’t turn me out, will ye?”

He sat hisself down and put his face in his hands. “Go or stay. I don’t care.”

“What scared them men so?” I asked. “A spirit? Spirits from a bottle, I’ll wager.”

“Some nonsense about seeing a ghost,” he replied. “It took me weeks to find those men. Now I’ll need to find a new crew.”

Miss Jenny let out another moan. Nabin jumped up, his eyes wild, his hands shaking.

“You’ll find more men,” I said, as though I hadn’t heard. “Better ones, I’m sure.”

His eyes darted around the room, finally fixed on me, his pupils as tiny as pin-pricks. I reckon my special tea was adding to Miss Jenny’s moan a mite.

“Did you hear that?”

“I ain’t heard nothing,” I said. “You ain’t likely to sleep for a while. Can I brew you up another hot cup of tea? You might take it up in the picture room, to calm your nerves and all. Can’t hire no men tonight, and that’s a fact.”

He stood there breathin’ hard for a minute, before he slumped and nodded. “That’s a good idea, Mrs. Toker. I shall be in the gallery.”

I bowed like a good little kitchen woman and he took to the stairs and as the last of the workmen’s donkeys brayed at the edge of the woods road I set about heating my master a nice soothing cup of tea.

Nabin, lookin’ plain feverish and talking faster than he knew, set off for town right after sunup. He was aimin’ to hire more workmen, but I knowed after word of Miss Jenny’s midnight walk got around, all the gold in Rannit wouldn’t be enough to hire the town drunk.

Not a single one of the workmen stayed, so Miss Jenny and I had our run of the place. We took to lookin’ for her gold, hopin’ it might be hid somewhere easy, but no such luck. He’d hid it and hid it good.

Miss Jenny was broken-hearted, but it was still a good heart. She’d caught sight of her former beau through a cracked door, and she’d seen the wildness about him, and she was hurt by it.

I had to remind her of what she’d vowed. And what that man would soon do to another woman, if we didn’t put a stop to him, once and for all. She saw the truth of that, ugly as it was, and we kept lookin’.

We heard his horse before he got in sight. Miss Jenny hid herself after I told her to get ready with her ghost make-up.

Well, Nabin was three sheets to the wind, and he got his boot tangled in a stirrup and fell off  trying to dismount, and I thought we’d have a ghost on our hands for sure. But he cussed and rolled and got loose, stinking of the whiskey he’d spilled in his fall.

I hadn’t counted on him gettin’ lit in town. The fruit of the vine and the mushrooms in his special tea can be a mite unpredictable when they meets up in the gullet. But there weren’t no help for it, so I helped him up and set him in a chair.

He rambled on for a while, mad as the Devils that all his coin couldn’t hire daylight at noon. Mad at the town, mad at the house, mad at everyone and everything, I reckon. He drunk the rest of that bottle and went out cold about suppertime, and I left him there snorin’ and mutterin.’

Then I went through that room and all the others, making sure fireplace pokers and old swords on the wall and anything big and heavy enough to be used as a club wound up at the bottom of the old well.

I was throwin’ another load of maces down there when I seen a familiar little shape scamper across the rooftops, its wild blonde hair shinin’ in the late sun.

I cussed some. I was hopin’ Markhat and his lady-love would keep Buttercup occupied and in Rannit, but you can’t count on people to do as they ought when you needs it most. I called her name and she waved at me and one minute she was on the roof and the next she was behind me, goosin’ me in the fundament.

I turned and snatched her up and give her a hug. Ain’t no point in being mad at the creature, she’s been a child for so long I reckon it’s just her nature now.

And maybe having her run around in plain sight wasn’t such a bad event, I decided. Wasn’t no way Nabin could hurt her, and though I loves her like my own I know she can be a fearsome sight, glowin’ and a floatin’ like she’s prone to do.

So I took her by the hand and led her indoors and just turned her loose. She squealed and run off, lookin’ for mischief, and I reckoned she’d find it, soon enough.

Hadn’t an hour passed when Nabin came roarin’ out of the sitting room, his hands made into fists.

“Did you see her?” he said. “She ran into this room!”

I spied Buttercup right then, grinnin’ at me from behind them thick dusty curtains.

“Who?” I asked. “Mister Nabin, as Angels is my witness, ain’t nobody come into this room, save you.”

Right at that moment, I heard bare feet step behind me, walking past the open hallway entrance at my back.

Nabin’s eyes went big as plates. He flung up his hand, pointing and trying to talk.

I turned, caught sight of Miss Jenny, who was slowly walking past, white as Death.

“Who?” I asked, again. “Ain’t nobody there.” I walked to the hallway, stuck my head in it, pretended to look around. “Not a soul.”

Miss Jenny scampered off and darted into a room.

Nabin joined me. “She was there,” he said. Sweat dripped off the man’s chin. “I tell you I saw her!”

Then he whirled and swung. But you got to be awful fast to catch Buttercup when she sets her mind on the pinching game, and he wasn’t near fast enough.

“Mister Nabin, you ought to sit down,” I says, taking his arm. “You are over-wrought.”

“Something just touched me!”

“I reckon you was touched by a bottle of innkeeper Toad’s summer brew,” I said. “Now sit, before you work yourself into a fit.”

I got him planted in a chair. He took to talking about how he’d heard moaning all night, how he’d seen shadows moving, heard voices in his empty room.

He’d had two pots of mushroom tea and a bottle of rotgut. I was surprised he wasn’t having fist-fights with Angels and hearing his boots sing hymns. But I listened and wiped his face with a cool rag and had him talking nearly sensible when Miss Jenny glided through the room.

He went white. White as a sheet, they say, but I’d never seen it till then. He tried to talk but couldn’t and tried to stand but I kept him down and by the time Miss Jenny was gone I could feel his heart racing through his wrist and I knowed I had him hooked, and hooked good.

“Tell me you saw her,” he said. His voice was full of downright begging. “Tell me you saw her!”

I shook my head no. “I reckon what you’re seein’ is meant only for you.”

About that time, Buttercup drifted through. She was a couple of feet off the floor and glowin’ like a full moon and Nabin took one look at her and fainted dead away.

“Shoo, child,” I said. She giggled and flew right through a wall.

I sat up with Nabin all night, holding his fool hand and listening to him mutter. Watching him shake and sweat through nightmares.  Now, fifty years ago I might have felt pity, but this is a hard world, and he’d done harm. Like my granny used to say, setting things right ain’t no sweet slice of pie for the one serving it.

By the time the sun come up, Nabin was ready, and I reckoned so was I.

* * *

Two cups of coffee is all it took for the lies to start spilling out.

Give the man credit, he was good at spinning lies. He told a wild tale of a cheating, conniving wife, how she’d bilked him out of half his hard-earned fortune and then run off with the banker he’d trusted as a friend. Oh, he painted hisself as the victim, he did.

But he couldn’t fathom how the shade of his evil but still-living wife had come to haunt him here. She was alive when he left, he swore.

All helpful-like, I opined as to how she was certainly still alive, and he was just a sensitive artful man burdened by a world of cares, and how he could prove his haunt was just bad whiskey and nerves by confirming she wasn’t dead. I allowed as to how I had some small knowledge of such things, and since I was telling him what he wanted to hear anyway, he saw what he thought was the truth.

He was still middling sick from his bought with John Barleycorn, and I needed some herbs and spices from town anyway, so I obliged him when he asked me to go to town and hire a lad to travel to Rannit and quietly inquire about the well-being of a Miss Jenny Wilkins of the Barrows Wilkinses.

He looked relieved, after that. Got some color back in his cheeks. He took to sitting in that room what he called a gallery, smoking a big cigar, and when I left for town he looked his old self again.

Buttercup waved to me from the roof. I set off for town, snapping the reins, calculating how long it would take before Mr. Nabin started hearing moans and seeing women floating through his empty house.

I hired me a lad, told him to come direct to the house, paid him enough to make sure he did. I had me a beer while my wagon was loaded with bags of beans and flour and me and old innkeeper Toad had us a laugh about rich folks and their peculiar ways.

Then I headed back to the house, eager to see what state Nabin was in.

Damn, they had done a job on the man. He was holed up in a back room, screamin’ at the top of his lungs, swearin’ all manner of haints and spectres was roaming his halls. I reckon a man what lives by cheating and lying has a powerful burden of guilt stored up, even if he don’t know he’s adding to the heap, lie by lie.

Buttercup helped by adding her moans to Miss Jenny’s and there ain’t no sound more scare-ful than a genuine banshee’s moan. When she giggled at the end that just made it worse.

I kept denying I heard anything, kept being the voice of reason he clung to. We settled down into an easy routine. I made meals and set the table. Mr. Nabin drank hisself drunk and stumbled about shouting. Miss Jenny and Buttercup walked to and fro, Miss Jenny never making a sound, Buttercup moaning like a chorus of the damned, day and night.

Three days we done that. At noon on the fourth day, my lad came knocking at the door, right on time, and I made sure he handed Mr. Nabin the letter himself.

“Did you see her?” asked Nabin. The boy didn’t answer, but he did hold out his hand. Nabin slapped a silver coin in it and cussed.

“You’d best read what is wrote, Mister,” he said. “I’m getting away from here.”

And he did, showing us his heels as he ran for Knob Hill.

Nabin unfolded the paper and read silently. I watched his face, watched the color drain out of it, watched his shoulders slump and his hands start shaking.

I knowed what the letter said, since I’d writ the thing myself. I knowed it told how Miss Jenny hanged herself in her home, how she left a note saying she swore to take her vengeance on the man what wronged her. I’d even added a part about her being with child, since Buttercup had took to haunting with such a talent.

He crumpled the paper and let if fall.

“Well what did it say?” I asked. “She’s alive and well, ain’t she?”

He swallowed hard. I could see the lies churning in his head.

“No. She’s dead. Murdered by the man who helped steal my family fortune. She swore vengeance on us both, before she died. I tell you, I’ve seen her shade, right here, in this house.”

I pushed him back in a chair.

“If that’s so, Mr. Nabin, then there’s things we can do. You’ve been awful good to me. You took me in when I had nowhere to go, and if you hadn’t put a roof over my head I reckon the bears would have et me by now. So let me help you, sir. I’ve got the knowin’ of a few things. That’s why won’t nobody hereabouts hire me. My mother was a weird woman, and my granny, five times removed. That makes me a weird woman, and I reckon you could use the ways of a weird right about now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I can’t see nor hear this haint, but I can damned sure put paid to it,” I said. “I didn’t want to say nothing until I was sure. But if what you’re telling me is true, I reckon you’re haunted, and some.”

Question a liar about his lies, and you’ll hook him every time.

“It’s the truth, of course it’s the truth,” he said. “How? How can you possibly help me?”

“She followed you,” I said. “That ain’t easy, especially for a haint. Has she ever been here before?”

“Never.”

“Well, she had to use something, then. Something solid. Something special, what meant a lot to her. Them paintings, mayhap.”

“She never cared for those.” I seen him bristle up, watched him decide what it was poor dead Miss Jenny had come for.

“Money was the only thing she ever loved.”

I nodded, treading careful. “Might be,” I said. “But it would have to be coin she touched.” I looked toward the cash box on the stand. “Might it be that?”

I knowed it wasn’t. But his eyes were wary, even if he didn’t know why.

“No,” he said, licking his lips. “No.”

“I need a single coin,” I said. “Just one. Then there’s a thing I have to do. You’ll need to help. After we’re done, you won’t be troubled by her shade, and that’s a fact.”

“Just a single coin?”

“Just so,” I said. “You can have it back, when it’s over.”

On his best day, he would have laughed in my face. But Mr. Nabin was a long march from his best day, and about then Buttercup took to moaning, and he nodded and rose.

“Make up a fresh pot of coffee,” he said. “I’ll be back shortly.”

I curtsied and headed for the kitchen. I waited till I heard the doors shut, then I counted to ten and started peeping out windows.

He fetched a shovel and I watched him knock over the workmen’s outhouse and I laughed some when he started digging in the honey-hole, cause that’s where I would have hid it myself, and now I wouldn’t need to bother.

* * *

We waited for midnight again.

Now, there is a ritual for calling up and banishing vengeful spirits. But it ain’t nothing to be played with, so I just made one up. If you lights a few candles and burns some sage in a copper bowl most folks is perfectly satisfied that they’ve seen themselves some magic done, and Mr. Nabin wasn’t no different.

It helped that Buttercup appeared in the corner, glowin’ like a just-snuffed candle wick. Nabin wanted to stand up, but I held tight to his hands and told him if he broke our circle I couldn’t help him none.

When Miss Jenny walked in, he damned near bolted, circle or no.

She looked the part. Paler and deader than she had before. A trail of something thin and black ran down from her ears and the corners of her mouth. The dead possum she’d dropped on the other side of the door set off the mood like a treat.

Nabin leaned over and vomited.

“I calls you what troubles this here man,” I said, good and loud.

Nabin wiped his mouth. “She’s here,” he said. “Both here.”

“I conjure you to speak, spirit,” I said. “Make plain your grievance, or forever be silent and unseen.”

Miss Jenny raised her hand and pointed at Nabin.

“He slew me,” she said, and damned if she didn’t raise the hairs on my neck. “He wronged me, stole from me, left me in despair.”

“Is she speaking?” I asked, playing like I couldn't hear.

He nodded. “Lies,” he said. “All lies.”

“I will not rest while he lives on my fortune,” said Miss Jenny, still accusing him with her pointing finger. “I will never rest.”

“Damn you,” he said, his grip on my hand hurtful. “Damn you, I never laid a hand on you!”

Miss Jenny shrieked. She’d been listening to Buttercup and she laid it on long and loud, and then Buttercup chimed in, and Nabin started screaming too.

“Hear me dread spirit!” I yelled, over and over until I was hoarse. When they finally stopped all the bellowing I spoke. “You have no place here, among the living. Say it after me, Mr. Nabin. You got to speak the words.”

He managed to croak them out.

“I heard your words. I deny them. I give you the object of your desire, and adjure you to take it, and return to the land of the dead. Say it.”

He spoke, stumbling but getting the words out at last.

“Now put the coin in the pot, like I showed ye.”

He let go of my hands. This was the most dangerous part, him being so close to Miss Jenny, but he took the gold crown and dropped it in the ashes of the sage and put his hands down flat on the table.

“Now spit on it,” I said, and he did.

“Get thee gone, foul spirit,” I said. “You have spoken. You have been offered your due. Get thee hence, and trouble us no more. By the Angel Markhat, I conjure you. Begone, begone, and begone.”

I dropped a pinch of flash powder on the coin. The room lit up, and if I hadn’t closed my eyes before the powder lit off I’d have been as blind as Nabin for a spell.

When he could see again, Miss Jenny and Buttercup were gone. The coin was still there, and so was the stink, but it was fading fast, and he could tell.

“Is she gone?”

“Gone and at rest. You won’t be troubled again, Mr. Nabin. You has the word of a Toker on that.”

He sat there, staring and silent, for the better part of an hour. I reckon Miss Jenny played dolls with Buttercup, cause there wasn’t a moan, wasn’t a knock, wasn’t a sound to hint at ghosts in the walls.

Finally, he took up the gold coin, wiped it on his jacket, and pushed it across the table toward me.

I let my eyes light up. “Mr. Nabin, I don’t know what to say!”

He didn’t answer. He did get a bottle out of a cabinet and take to the stairs with it. I heard him kick off his boots and heard the bed creak when he laid down on it and I waited for the whiskey and the terror to take their toll.

Then I fetched Mr. Nabin’s shovel, and me and Miss Jenny did ourselves some digging while Buttercup glowed a bit so’s we could see. We was gone by first light, on the horses my lad hid in the woods. We had us a time dragging all them paintings with us, but Miss Jenny insisted, and I reckon she had cause.

Old Toad had them paintings crated up and shipped back to Rannit. We had some hard ridin’, Miss Jenny and I, but we got back in town in just two days, safe and sound if a bit bug-bit.

Markhat, he made a big fuss when I told him what I’d done. He said what’s to stop Nabin or whatever his name is from coming after Miss Jenny? What’s to keep him from showing up at her door some night with a knife and an intent to do some murder?

Well, I tells him, two things. First of all, Miss Jenny has hired herself a bunch of body-guards. Good men, honest War vets, with watchful eyes and keen sharp swords.

Then there is the letters I sent to a certain mob of rich folks. Letters about a man calling himself Nabin, who just took up in a big house overlooking Knob Hill. Letters about him bragging and showing off paintings and being free with coin. Coin he stole from them.

It’s a matter of chance, I reckon, whether the bears in the woods or the hard men the rich folks send will get to Nabin first, or whether he’ll make it to the river and spend his last handful of coppers on barge-passage south.

I likes to think, some days, that Nabin did just that, and that he found honest work somewhere, and that he had repented of his evil ways and even feels bad about what all he’s done.

But you and me both knows it’s a damned sight more likely some bear spent the winter chewin’ his bones, or that a rich man’s hireling silenced his lies with a sword and a stab.

Either way, it ain’t no concern of mine. Men makes their own fates, day by day, step by step, word by word. Comes a time when there ain’t no turning back, and I reckon Nabin was long past that, when I brewed him that first cup of mushroom tea.

I takes meals with Miss Jenny, once a month. She looks good. She found her smile again, after a time. She even give me one of them fancy paintings. I don’t much like it, to tell the truth, but it hides a crack in my wall and reminds me that clinging to things you don’t have no real need for brings your ghosts a-runnin’.

The end, and whatnot.

 

(top image © Olga Osadchaya | Dreamstime.com

 

Ticket to Anywhere

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I live in the US. Which means that lately, I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to get out of the US, quickly, if things get much worse.

Just for fun, let's say you had the chance to escape into any of the worlds of fantasy or science fiction literature.

Where would you go? 

I still haven't decided. But I am going to list my top picks, along with the pros and cons of each as a choice.

 

1) Middle Earth. 

PROS: 

  • Beautiful, unspoiled wilderness areas.
  • Elves. 
  • Second Breakfast.

CONS:

  • Orcs.
  • Lack of WiFi.
  • No mention of toilet paper or bidets in LOTR.

 

2) The Star Wars universe.

PROS:

  • Easy space travel.
  • Diverse, thriving multispecies society.
  • Wookies.

CONS:

  • Might get stuck in one of those awful prequels.
  • None of the planets serve coffee.
  • Would go insane trying to explain to everyone why there can't be battle noises in space because there is no sound in a vacuum.

 

3) The Star Trek Universe.

PROS:

  • Won't starve in a socialist utopia.
  • Cool ships.
  • Could pester Vulcans.

CONS:

  • Timelines keep getting reset.
  • Chances of a holodeck mishap are nearly 100%.
  • No toilets on the starships. Seriously. I guess they just hold it. 

 

4) The Ghostbusters universe.

PROS:

  • Ghosts.
  • Weird science.
  • New York.

CONS:

  • Fanboys have issues with women.
  • The EPA.
  • I'd be a minor character, and that seldom ends well.

 

5) Terry Pratchett's Discworld.

PROS:

  • Ankh-Morpork! More fun than Middle Earth or the Federation. 
  • Unseen University. Might land a job with the Librarian. Ook.
  • The Times needs good reporters.

CONS:

  • Ankh-Morpork is more fun that Middle Earth or the Federation, but it's still Ankh-Morpork, which means there's an excellent chance of meeting Death around every corner.
  • Might accidentally swallow a portion of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler's infamous sausages.
  • Magic tends to backfire, and dragons routinely explode. 

 

Where would you prefer to go? Narnia? Oz? 

Leave a comment, and maybe we'll find a wardrobe or one of those mysterious travel agencies...

Title image ID 76244022 © Franciscah | Dreamstime.com

 

Earth By Night

I build weird things.

Some of these weird things have no function, other than decoration. 

But some have a function -- albeit a weird one.

Take this so-called 'Tesla' radio, for instance. 

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It's a fairly simple device. At its heart is a diode. It's a crude AM radio, one whose simple design means that the strongest signal will wander in and be heard until another stronger signal pops up. It works best at night, when the old AM bands are most active. 

Right after I built this unit, I just turned it on and let it run for hours at a time. I recorded some of these sessions, and the results are -- well, creepy. 

I can almost imagine alien astronauts pulling into orbit around Earth and tuning in themselves. The following short recording is a sample of what they might hear, if they selected an AM band.

The recording has an eerie quality. If you've ever been on a nighttime cross-country drive, with nothing but the car radio for company, you know what I mean. Stations fade in and fade out. You'll get spine-chilling 'Children of the Corn' radio preachers railing about Hell and damnation one minute, old pop music the next. 

It's easy to believe you're slipping between dimensions on a long dark road in the middle of nowhere.

If so, here's the perfect soundtrack.

Earth By Night - click to listen!

No wonder the saucer men just shake their heads and take off for less sinister destinations....

 

 

 

 

How To Edit Your First Draft

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You've done it.

You've typed the words THE END at the bottom of that last page of your novel.

Most authors have a celebratory ritual of some kind to commemorate this occasion. Some authors might have a nice dinner and a glass of wine. Some might reward themselves with chocolate. I stand up, wait for the popping of joints and the grinding of bones to subside, and howl at the sky (one of the reasons I am 'no longer welcome' in the local coffee shop).

Yes, finishing the first draft of a book is a triumph, of sorts. In my case, it's a triumph against the forces of sloth and inertia. But it's not the end of the work.

Instead, it's just the beginning.

Let's say the final word count of your shiny new novel is 85,000 words. 

In my estimation, that means a good 30,000 of those words are the wrong words. 

Some are mere mechanical errors -- 'from' instead of 'form,' or 'the' for 'he,' and the like. Since my typing style is best described as Agitated Monkey, I churn out a lot of typos. Software and spell-check can catch the more obvious ones -- Tlkasdklj2, for instance, or the ever-popular !@#EDX. But 'ass' where you meant 'as' is a little better at hiding.

Once those errors have been addressed, the far more insidious and damaging missteps remain. Plot holes. Continuity errors. Poor phrasing. Clumsy scene composition. And of course bad grammar. It's entirely possible to know what a comma splice is and know why they're wrong and still litter the manuscript with them. 

Which is why editing is so important. It's also why I'd rather tear out a fingernail than edit. It's work, and every fiber of my beer-lubricated being abhors the very concept of work. 

Even so, the work must be done. Ever helpful, I'm here to share my tips on editing the first draft. Because even if the next step is to send the manuscript off to a real editor, you want to beat the book into shape first. Otherwise, people will discover just how incompetent you are, Frank, and we can't have that. Note to self: Edit that last sentence to omit my name.

EDITING TIPS 

1) Assume as you begin that the whole book is outright garbage. Ignore the temptation to frolic in wide-eyed abandon amid the perfumed gardens of your imagination. You are here to hack and slash. To commit literary mayhem. Your weapon is the delete key, and your ally is callous disregard for your ego. SHOW NO MERCY.

2) Have your computer read the book out loud to you. Make a note of the places where the computer stops reading and says 'Look, are you kidding me?' or 'Seriously, dude, this is so bad I achieved sentience so that I could mention it.' Those are potential red flags, and you should probably finish editing on foolscap using a feather quill pen.

3) Use beta readers. Don't forget to toss some scraps down in the cellar for them every few days. 

4) During the editing process, always compare your sales and level of success to that of Stephen King. This will help you maintain perspective. It will also justify your alcohol intake to pages edited ratio.  

5) Perform your editing in a quiet, comfortable environment. If the admonitions from the SWAT team surrounding your house become distracting, invest in a set of noise-canceling headphones and a series of deep tunnels under the foundation. 

6) Don't despair! Even the most egregious and inexcusable writing mistakes can be fixed. Not by you, you hack, but Stephen King would make short work of them, now wouldn't he?

7) Clear your mind by taking a long drive. Affix your keyboard to the steering wheel and position your monitor below the windshield. Again, noise-canceling headphones will prevent distractions by sirens, horns, or the bursting of tires on police stop-strips.

8) Don't neglect your physical well being while engaged in this intensive process. Unless you're me. In that case, just shove another Twinkie in your mouth and wash it down with Russian lighter fluid because have you looked in the mirror lately?

9) Remember that, however improbable, it is possible that a stranger will read this book someday. Show some kindness. Yes, it's hilarious listening to the computer try to pronounce your villain's name (K'Tr'ork-da'ghastkwrg,) but Varg is probably the better choice.

10) Finally, resist the urge to over-edit. You will reach a point at which you are just re-arranging the Titanic's deck chairs. Okay, that metaphor might need work, but the point is the same. Let it go. 

Now go forth and edit, young Padawan. Editing is the work that separates the wannabees from the, er, obscure and mostly unknown authors of the world.

Mug and Meralda News

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The new Mug and Meralda book is done.

This one will be called Every Wind of Change. It clocks in at 86,000 words, and I hope to release it in a month or two.

I'll be honest -- I wasn't sure I'd ever finish this book.

2017 was a horrific year on so many levels. There were times I just stared at the screen, unable to muster up a single word. Other times, I'd realize the words I had written were the wrong words, and my work for the evening consisted of nothing more than deleting the last thirty pages while cussing.

I abandoned the book a half dozen times, striking out on new tangents. But I always came back to it, because leaving Meralda and Mug stranded in limbo just felt wrong.

Slowly, the real story the book wanted to tell emerged. I'll tell you this much -- yes, it's an adventure story, set in place of wonders and terrors a quarter of a million miles from Meralda's beloved Royal Laboratory. But it's also the story of Meralda and her mother. A reader once asked me where Meralda's family was, and why they were never mentioned. Well, now you'll see.

It's still a light-hearted adventure, at least compared to the Markhat series. I hope young people will like it. But it's for adults too -- maybe adults who, like me, are weary of the shouting and the violence and the fear that confronts us daily. 

So, after a few rounds of edits and the attendant hair-pulling and muttered cursing, I'll have a new book out shortly. Then it's back to Markhat. I have an ambitious plan to work on The Devil's Horn and the new Darla novel simultaneously. Regardless of how that works out, I should be releasing one of the Markhat books around Halloween. 

The picture at the top of this post is the best image of Meralda I could create. She's everything I'm not, at times -- determined, undaunted, brave.

She's the hero I needed. 

I'll keep everyone posted about release dates and such here. But for now, know that the gang is back together, and the fate of Tirlin once again hangs in the balance. 

Thanks for your patience. Now it's back to work!

 

 

Marketing Your Book, Or, How To Rake In Cash With Both Hands and Never Eat Ramen Noodles Again

There was once a day when being an author involved rising at ten, donning your tweed jacket, and seating yourself comfortably at the typewriter for an hour before money started pouring in through every open window.

Today, let me tell you, is not that day.

It never was, really. Sure, every writer in the movies tools around in a private jet and pays for lavish meals with a cast-off Rolex. This is the same Hollywood that depicts people shrugging off multiple gunshot wounds or jumping through glass windows without being shredded into damp red ribbons.

But there was a time, not so very long ago, when a mid-list author could keep a roof over her head and a car in the garage.

Again, today is also not that day.

I think authors are heading down the same road musicians have already traveled. When vinyl albums were all the rage and wireless meant FM radio, people bought albums. The musicians got a share, which of course could be ludicrously small after the record company took their cut, but in theory (and sometimes in practice) everybody was compensated for their work.

Then came the internet. Within a few years, the majority of the listening public decided they'd just listen for free, and now musical artists are reduced to hoping people buy enough of their 99 cent songs on Spotify to keep them in guitar picks and store-brand Alpo Helper.

Writers face a similar quandary. I've been told, right to my face, that 'I only buy free or 99 cent ebooks, because it's not a real book.'

Fair enough. I didn't argue the point. It's not up to me to define what is and isn't an actual book to anyone else. 

But I am dismayed that books, like songs, have been devalued in so many minds to the point that books and music are worth *less* than a drive-thru Egg McMuffin.

And piracy? It's a factor. It's also a fact of life, and nothing can be done about it. Let me show you something. I signed up for a piracy-monitoring service called Blasty. Blasty searches the web for your titles, finds the pirated versions, and sends a takedown notice to the pirate sites. 

Of course, Blasty might as well send a live chicken to any pirate site that isn't in the US, of which there are probably zero. Since foreign sites just ignore the takedown notice, it's more a way to blow off steam than to reduce piracy. Anyway. Here's a screenshot showing just a few of my titles:

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49 alerts, with more coming in as soon as these are cleared. And by cleared, I mean 'sent a toothless takedown notice.' There's no mechanism, legal or technical, available to me to force the removal of my pirated works. They get an official-sounding nastygram. They probably have their email filters set to delete all such messages unread. Fighting piracy is a waste of time.

There are those who claim I'm not losing a dime to this, because the people torrenting or downloading the books from bogus sites for free would never have bought them anyway. Maybe. Maybe not. I'm not going to waste time or energy arguing the point. 

I do believe digital thievery is a contributing factor to the devaluation of books in general. You can get books for free. Most people are honest, and don't, but some do. And as time goes on, I predict the numbers of the ones that read pirated copies for free will grow too. Because why not, everyone does it, blah blah blah. And since getting the identical product for free is just as easy as paying for it like a chump, well, take a good look at human nature. After you've had a quick bout of depression and a shower, I think you'll see my point.

But we plug along, despite it all. Nobody ever said it would be easy.

So what are my book marketing tips?

Surprise! I don't have any. You can blog and tweet and Facebook and email until your fingers are sore, and you may see sales increase, decrease, or dwindle away to nothing. You can dump cash by the bushel into book promotion sites. You can teach chickens to tap-dance, too, and that will probably prove just as effective as any of the other methods I mentioned.

It all comes down to reader reviews and word of mouth, in the end. Both of those activities are beyond your control. 

The only thing you can do is start writing another even better book. 

Do that often enough, and you might just see results.

So that's what I'm off to do now. 

See you next week!

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A Brief History of Rannit, and the Old Kingdom

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As long as the Markhat Files is being relaunched, I thought I'd offer a bit of behind-the-scenes historic stage dressing that shapes and colors the series, but isn't necessarily stated explicitly except in bits and pieces of dialog.

I despise infodumps. Having Markhat and Evis, for example, have a conversation that just happens to run five pages and detail Rannit's history is the worst kind of literary contrivance. I'd sooner put Darla in front of a mirror just so she can describe herself. Both are all-too-obvious moves that induce teeth-grinding and the rolling of eyes by most readers.

Still, cultural context is important. I hope I've sprinkled enough clues here and there to let the reader know the basics, without beating them over the head with my version of the Silmarillion. It's enough to know that Rannit is an ancient walled city which once belonged to the Kingdom, and that the Kingdom went bankrupt and collapsed at the end of the long, bitter Troll war.

By Markhat's time, Rannit is entering the Age of Steam. There are firearms, and foundries. Gas-lamps and horse-drawn taxicabs. Restaurants and shops. Railroads now stretch east and west, into the haunted, sparsely populated wastelands where most of the War was fought. Riverboats ply the sluggish waters of the Brown River, connecting Rannit to the remainder of the surviving Old Kingdom city-states that lie north and south of Rannit.

What follows are some of the notes I work by when writing a Markhat and Darla story. I hope you enjoy them.

THE WAR:

The Kingdom emerged from the chaos and violence of prehistory, in which humanity vied for resources and space with a variety of nonhuman cultures. Foremost among these were the Elder Folk.

The races of the Elders included Elves, the behemoths, the Trolls, and the various other quasi-magical creatures that once walked the vast stretches of forest to the east and the endless, grassy plains of the west. For a thousand years, humans survived as small nomadic bands who relied on stealth to survive. As the population of the Elves grew, humans found themselves pushed closer and closer to outright extinction -- until human shamans discovered sorcery, and for the first time began to wield an effective weapon against their magical foes.

Slowly, and at terrible cost, humanity began to push back. Within a seven-century period dubbed the First Great Expansion, the framework of the Old Kingdom was laid, and the first of the walled cities were erected. The Elvish population was reduced to a mere shadow of its former self, the Trolls retreated to the north and the east, and the last of the towering behemoths was felled in a conflagration that legends claim raged for seventy-two years.

Their realm firmly established, their foes all but vanquished, the victorious humans then embarked on a bloody, pointless civil war between the dozen largest city-states. This period, known as the Interregnum, saw half the Kingdom's new population slain, and three of the great cities razed. When the remaining Elder Folk rose against the survivors, a single king emerged, unified the remaining cities, and established the Kingdom of Man after achieving a precarious victory over the Elvish armies in Kingdom Year 11.

For the next twenty centuries, the Kingdom brawled and quarreled its way across the entire known world. Elves became all but extinct, though a few were rumored to haunt the remnants of wooded, isolated places. The Trolls simply retreated to the icy wastes of the north. The various other odd creatures sought refuge in caves or deserts or beneath lakes and rivers, and for a time, the rule of the Kingdom went unchallenged.

Then, without warning, in the winter of Kingdom Year 1966, a vast army of Trolls swept down from the north. The cities of Vault and Stonewall fell overnight.

By the time news of the Troll invasion reached the heartland, the Trolls, by the tens of thousands, were only a few days behind. City after city fell. Croplands were burned. Bridges and roads were laid waste. The Kingdom's armies, fat and poorly trained after so many years of relative peace, were cut down by the merciless Trolls before they could mount an effective defense.

And still the Trolls marched south. For three years, the Kingdom suffered loss upon top of crippling loss. Universal conscription was implemented, and like so many others, Markhat went off to war.

Just as defeat began to appear inevitable, the newly-minted Corps emerged. Created as a sorcerous component to the regular army, the Corps unleashed a new brand of magic-user onto the battlefield. Employing forces that dwarfed those of the Old Kingdom, Corps sorcerers slowly began to turn the tide of the war.

Markhat was a foot soldier. Specifically, a dog handler, tasked with leading small forces of the Kingdom's best hand-to-hand fighters into tunnels dug by Troll sappers beneath city walls. It was there, down in the dark with his faithful dog Petey at his side, that Markhat learned to face death, but keep crawling.

As the war raged on above, the sorcerers of the Corps grew more reckless, less concerned with casualties among the soldiers they were originally ordered to defend. The magics they used became deadlier, cutting down Trolls and humans in nearly equal numbers. Once greeted as saviors by the army, the arrival of a Corps sorcerer began to be viewed as a death sentence.

Infighting within the Corps quickly revealed the obvious -- that sorcerous prowess of the new magics comes at a price, and that price is the sanity of the practitioner.

Still, the War raged on, until the summer of 1976, when the Trolls, without preamble, simply put down their weapons and ambled away.

The massed Kingdom armies remained frozen in place, awaiting orders which never came. Instead, the powerful sorcerers of the Corps turned on each other, hurling killing spells indiscriminately across the former battlefields. The Kingdom armies dug in, taking hasty refuge from their former protectors.

A month later, the explosions and the strange lights ceased. After that came the news -- the Trolls were planting potatoes and tobacco, the ranks of the wand-wavers were nearly depleted, and at last the war was over. 

The Corps was reduced to a few dozen of the most deranged and powerful wand-wavers. In the confusion, rumors began to spread -- rumors that the Kingdom was bankrupt, the King slain by his own bodyguard, the surviving Corps sorcerers part of a secret faction under the command of the Regent of Rannit.

With no clear direction, the Kingdom army simply fell apart. Soldiers commandeered what they could, and walked home, Markhat among them.

He returned to a Rannit that stood alone, governed by a secretive Regent who, if reluctant to show himself, proved a brutally efficient ruler. A new order was installed. The street gangs that had ruled Rannit during the war were annihilated, and the City Watch was instituted. Rannit began to coin its own money. Massive public works projects were begun, including the construction of a reservoir to the south, and the repaving of the city streets. Sewers were dug. The Brown River Bridge was rebuilt, linking east and west Rannit once again. 

Markhat soon established himself as a finder. Half the families in Rannit were desperate to locate their sons or fathers or uncles, the ones who didn't return when the war ended, and the kingdom fell. For years, the finder's eye painted on Markhat's door led these families to him, and for a small fee, Markhat would use his experience with the army to seek out their missing relatives.

This business, as time went by, became less about tracking down missing soldiers, and more about poking into private matters the Watch refused to address. But the name stuck, and the finder's eye remains on Markhat's door to this day.

The Regent still runs Rannit. His influence is growing, too, especially after the defeat of Prince (THE BROKEN BELL). Bel Loit, to the south, is a satellite state of Rannit, though this was achieved without bloodshed.

The War is over -- but history suggests that the peace will be fragile, perilous, and above all, brief.

RELIGION:

Religious beliefs within the remnants of the Kingdom are as splintered and as disparate as the remainders of the Kingdom itself. However, most of the belief systems can be traced back to the teachings of the Church, a monolithic religious institution dating back to prehistory.

According to Church teaching, the world was created by a single deity (who cannot be named) in a single day. Jealous of this creation, an equally powerful but evil deity (whose name brings forth calamity if spoken) introduced the Elder Folk into this new world. This caused the creator to bring forth the angels, which he sent into creation to battle the Elders. Enraged, the opposing deity created devils, and set them upon the angels. With mankind getting stomped on hard by both sides, both the creator and the adversary entered the fray, and their struggle nearly broke the world.

Both deities perished, each at the hands of the other. The surviving angels, according to the Church, took up the task of guiding and protecting mankind. The devils, naturally, quickly set about plotting the fall of humanity.

According to the Church, various angels have specific duties. There is Varnoss, protector of the widow and the orphan. Kalin, champion of the soldier. Arnot, defender of the lame and the blind. There are, in some branches of the Church, hierarchies of angels which number in the thousands, with tasks including assisting left-handed poulters or looking after missing thimbles.

Most Rannites ascribe to one of the five Church main holds which hold sway within Rannit's walls. Markhat was raised Orthodox, which means he keeps his birth name a secret, and goes simply by Markhat. 

Though raised in a Church family, Markhat is openly contemptuous of Church teachings, seeing priests as nothing but tithe-begging leeches in fancy robes.

ECONOMICS:

Money makes the world go round. These words are inscribed on the pillars of the Brown River Bridge, and they may be the single bit of public inscription with which Markhat agrees. 

Old Kingdom money was coined gold. It still spends perfectly well in Rannit, and is often preferred over the Regent's new paper bills. Copper coins, often called 'jerks' as an insult to the kings pressed onto them, are falling out of favor but still have some value among the poor. 

Paper bills printed in Rannit have gained acceptance in Prince, Bel Loit, and even out in the frontier, although generally at varying amounts less than face value.

TECHNOLOGY:

Markhat's new association with Evis and the halfdead House Avalante makes him privy to the emergence of new mundane technologies which rely on science and chemistry, rather than sorcery. In a labyrinth of secret laboratories beneath Avalante, science is being pursued. Markhat has seen handguns and rifles emerge, and indeed the average Rannite has come to know cannons, steam engines, and artillery. Markhat knows that the Regency itself is funding these efforts, although to what end, he can only speculate (BROWN RIVER QUEEN).

THE ARTS:

The Regency has been quietly promoting the arts since the end of the war. Playhouses and art galleries have sprung up all over Rannit. While much of the art depicts the war, more and more of it is beginning to explore less violent aspects of Rannite life (THE BANSHEE'S WALK).

BRIDGE CLOWNS:

Every culture has its own odd superstitions. The presence of bridge clowns is a good example of this.

No one knows when the practice began, or where, or why. But within the Old Kingdom, any bridge more than a hundred paces across was expected to be hosted by a bevy of bridge clowns. 

As most bridges were maintained by payment of tolls, and as most people refused to cross a bridge not hosted by clowns for fear of bad luck, the practice probably survives as combination of avarice and practicality. The more elaborate and amusing the show put on by the clowns, the higher the toll. Clowning is usually a family trade, often handed down for countless generations. Clowns may look harmless, but blood-feuds between clown families over bridge rights are among the most violent in all of Rannite history. 

Clowns also appear on rope-drawn barges, as the barges are considered a bridge of sorts. The new railroads also employ clowns, who must precede the train over bridges in a capering dance.

The clowns who preside over the Brown River Bridge also act as a sort of unofficial police force. Only the most foolish or desperate criminals would dare attempt robbery or assault on the Bridge itself. Those who do find themselves mobbed by clowns and tossed over the side to a cheery wave and honking of various red noses. The Brown River Bridge has also evolved into the de facto neutral meeting ground for the Rannite criminal underworld; all parties concerned know, from brutal experience, that meetings taken on the Bridge will be conducted without violence, or the Clowns will intervene en masse, and with deadly force.

THE CITY WATCH:

Rannit’s police force, newly minted by the Regent, is a civilian agency which on paper answers only to the courts.

In practice, the Watch is riddled with corruption. As Markhat observes, the Watch provides precisely as much protection as any given member of the public can afford to pay. Which is why people turn to him, rather than the Watch.

A crackdown by the Regent is slowly reshaping the Watch into something resembling an actual police force. Progress is slow, though, and Markhat remains skeptical of ever seeing the corruption wither entirely.

Markhat’s adversarial relationship with Captain Holder, although contentious, does provide a glimmer of hope. Holder is hampered by his own floundering bureaucracy but does seem inclined to pursue justice when he can.

That's probably enough for now. I enjoy working in Markhat and Darla's world, warts and all. It's a dangerous place, yes, but it's also a lot of fun to visit. 

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For anyone who hasn't read the books, here's an excerpt from The Darker Carnival. Scroll on down to last week's blog entry for a complete list of the books, and clickable links to buy each one. 

From The Darker Carnival:

I woke early, not rested and aching.

I heard Buttercup’s tiny bare banshee feet scamper across my roof. She giggled, and then she was gone.

Darla slumbered at my side. Her hair, black and soft as crow feathers, hung across her face. I brushed it away from her eyes and laid a kiss on her cheek and then slipped out of bed. Cornbread, the shaggy mutt that shares our home, settled into the warm spot I just vacated and wagged his tail once in thanks before snoring off into doggy dreamland.

I dressed in the dark. I tiptoed across the red Balptist rug in the living room with my shoes in my hands, got the door open and shut and locked without making a sound. I know which of the porch floorboards creak, since I loosened the nails myself, so I stepped over them and made it all the way to our waist-high iron gate before pausing to put on my shoes.

I watched my bedroom window. No match flared, no candle came quickly to life. Cornbread obliged me by not barking or scratching at my door.

Buttercup slipped her cold banshee hand into mine. I’m so used to having her sneak up on me I no longer jerk or start.

“Good morning, sweetie,” I whispered. “You’re glowing. Let’s play the hiding game, right now.”

The golden radiance that flowed from her died. She giggled and raised a finger to her lips, as I did the same.

I glanced about at my neighbors’ windows. None were lit.

And even if they had seen, what would they say?

Buttercup tugged at me, pulling in the direction of Cambrit Street, whence lay my office and, I suspected, a plate of Mama Hog’s biscuits and sorghum molasses.

The sun was more than an hour from rising. Curfew was still in effect across Rannit, which meant anyone a peckish halfdead caught outside was fair game for breakfast, and I was standing in the street with both my shoes untied.

But I had a vampire revolver in my right pocket and a ten thousand year-old banshee holding my left hand and I’d walked with the slilth not so long ago.

Boot soles scraped cobbles. My hand found the butt of my revolver.

Buttercup giggled and pointed down the street before vanishing.

A man walked out of the night and into the dim, wobbling glow of a street-lamp.

I relaxed my grip on the revolver, but didn’t pull my hand away. I could tell at once my fellow Curfew-breaker was no halfdead. He shuffled, for one thing, walking slowly while dragging a noisy burden on a wheeled contrivance behind him.

Like any breed of the rich, halfdead seldom roam the streets dragging their own carts. Too, this man’s hat was a shapeless, baggy lump, not one of Breed Street’s crisp starched offerings.

The man saw me, halted, waved.

“Good morning to you, friend,” he said. He pitched his voice carefully, so that it just reached my ears, but wouldn’t carry much further. “Might I inquire as to whether you live hereabouts?”

I wasn’t sure he could see a head-shake, so I took a half dozen steps ahead and spoke.

“Nope,” I replied. “I’m just a man out for a stroll.”

He nodded, smiling. “Well, count your lucky stars, man out for a stroll. They call me Shango. Shango the storm-sniffer. I’ve walked all night, following a stink. And it leads right to yonder door.”

He pointed out the door. Naturally, he pointed out my door.

The spear-ends of shiny steel rods poked through the tarp on his cart, here and there. Some were worked into the shapes of angels. Some as devils. One worked in the shape of a half-moon turned in the dim lamp-light.

I sighed.

“I’m guessing you sell lightning rods,” I said. The Church tried and failed to outlaw lighting rods inside Rannit a few weeks ago, apparently on the basis that the long steel sticks committed the cardinal sin of actually preventing lightning strikes. “Thwarting the will of the Heavens,” cried the priests. “I’ll take two,” cried the homeowners. Now the streets were lousy with lightning rod salesmen.

He shot out of his slouch. “Indeed I do,” he said. “But not ordinary lightning rods. No, friend. I sell the kind of lightning rods even the rich cannot buy.”

“Good for you,” I said. I started walking, hoping he didn’t notice my damned traitor shoe-laces flopping at my heels. “Now if you don’t mind, I always take my breakfast with the Regent.”

He laughed, but he kept the sound low. “Won’t you at least have a look, Mr. Markhat? Won’t you at least have a look?”

I produced my pistol and let him see it.

“I didn’t tell you my name.”

“But I told you mine,” he said. If the thick black bulk of my vampire-built revolver gave him pause, his dirty face didn’t show it. “Shango. I smell storms. I can’t hold back the wind, friend, but I can damn sure turn the lightning.” He nodded back at his cart. “No man should lack protection from the fickle wrath of Heaven.”

“I’ve got all the protection I need.”

“No,” he said. His eyes, which I still hadn’t seen beneath the bill of his pork-pie hat, glittered just for an instant as the moon briefly peeked out from the clouds. “I tell you plain, Mr. Markhat, that you do not.”

“Get out of my way.”

“I’m not what’s in your way, friend,” he said. He stepped aside, sniffing at the air. “I’ll be working these parts for a while, I will. Ask for Shango, should you change your mind. Ask for Shango.”

I put my gun back in my jacket pocket.

About the time the squeak of his cart’s wheels bit into the silence, Buttercup took my hand again.

“Let’s go get some breakfast,” I said, and with Buttercup skipping beside me I walked all the way to Cambrit, without a lightning rod of any kind to guard me from the fickle wrath of Heaven.

...end excerpt.

Welcome to Rannit!

 

 

 

Markhat and Darla Are Back!

It's taken a year to bring the Markhat books back from the land of limbo.

But the books are back, with new covers and new listings at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. 

First of all, I'd like to thank my editor Holly, and everyone at ADsmith. They created the new covers and did all the formatting. I can't sing their praises loud enough to do them justice. 

This website will be updated shortly with the new covers and links. Today, I'll go ahead and post everything here, so there will be a single point from which to navigate without a lot of searching.

All the original works are here. There has been one change, to a title. In the original incarnation of the series, three shorter works were combined in an anthology called The Markhat Files. At the time, it seemed like a good title -- but as the series grew, it came to be known as The Markhat Files series, so that anthology title lead to some confusion.

With this renewal of the series, the first three short works (The Cadaver Client, The Mister Trophy, and Dead Man's Rain) are now included under the title Three Mean Streets. So, if you already own The Cadaver Client, The Mister Trophy, and Dead Man's Rain either separately or under the old title The Markhat Files, you don't need to buy Three Mean Streets again.

The other titles are unchanged save for the new covers. I hope you love the covers as much as I do -- they've got a shared look and style, and a sort of film noir feel that suits the series.

The process wasn't seamless. I lost most of my reader reviews, for instance, and that hurts. The reviews may show up again -- a few have -- but there's no rhyme or reason to what vanished and what remained. Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh away, and there's precious little anyone can do to change that. 

Nevertheless. Onward and upward! Here's the renewed Markhat Files series. Below each cover you'll find a series of links. If you've missed any of the books, now is a good time to grab them.

Three Mean Streets

Three Mean Streets links:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Hold The Dark

Hold The Dark links:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

The Banshee's Walk

The Banshee's Walk links:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

The Broken Bell

The Broken Bell links:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

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Brown River Queen links:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

The Five Faces

The Five Faces links:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

The Darker Carnival

The Darker Carnival links:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Way Out West

Way Out West links:

Amazon, Kindle edition

Amazon, paperback

Barnes & Noble, Nook edition

Kobo

Barnes & Noble, paperback

Thanks, everyone, for your patience. I know it's been a long ride. But the wait is over.

One final note -- if you bought a copy of The Markhat Files anthology back when I was with Samhain Publishing, and you'd like the new edition because it has a cool new cover, email me. Tell me what version (Kindle, Nook, ibook, whatever) and I'll send you a free copy of the new edition. Thanks for being a fan!

And if you're dead broke (I feel you, brother or sister) and want to give the series a try, heck, email me (franktuttle at franktuttle dot com, symbols removed to fool the spambots, you know what goes where). I'll send you a free copy, just because.

 

Book Marketing Tips and Farewell to Net Neutrality

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FRANK'S MARKETING TIPS FOR AUTHORS

If you read any online writing blogs or discussions, one of the first topics you'll encounter will be that of marketing your new book. There are mobs of new authors out there who appear to be convinced that the only thing standing between them and a stack of money high enough to climb and roll down is some uber-secret marketing plan.

Don't believe me? A cottage industry has sprung up overnight on Amazon alone, as hundreds of how-to books appear, each with titles like How to Make a Million Dollars Overnight Before You Even Finish That Pesky Novel or 100 Sure-Fire Tips and Tricks to Reach Best-Sellerdom and Quit Your Day Job and Show All Those Nobodies in the Crit Group That Grammar Doesn't Matter After All So Ha

I'd be a lot more impressed if these sure-fire can't-miss tell-all books weren't mostly written by people I've never heard of. I'd be even more impressed if many of them were longer than 15 pages, or contained fewer than half a dozen formatting and grammar errors on the first couple of pages. But hey, what's a fewe spellinging errorz between budding billionaires, right?

No marketing efforts can do more than temporarily boost sales of a bad book. And even good marketing plans can't propel goods books instantly into the sales stratosphere -- for every best-seller, I believe there are ten or a hundred equally good books languishing in the weeds, left behind out of caprice, not incompetence.

But of course there are actions and strategies any author can undertake to make the most of a fickle and ever-changing market. And since I'm a generous sort, I'll give my tricks and tips away for free (although donations are gladly accepted, after all, my one-way Mars rocket isn't going to pay for itself).

Thus, I give you Frank's Marketing Tips and Tricks for Authors. Use them with care, lest ye summon down a furious plague of royalties and movie producers!

Frank's Tips

1) Branding yourself is crucial to the success of your marketing efforts. Not the kind of branding done to cattle in Westerns, though. Don't make that mistake no matter how many hits the YouTube video is likely to get.

2) Keep readers engaged with a series of high-profile crimes and arrests. Strive to have your booking photos plastered all over the net  at least once per quarter, and right before every new book release.

3) When using the Tweeter, maximize your content with lots of hashtags, abbreviations, and acronyms. HEY #AGHTY & CPHY @ASJESDF,#LOLOLOL SPDER/GHTY says what mere words can't.

4) Constant blatant self-promotion is ineffective and annoying, except when you do it. Automate Twits and book-face posts to remind readers to buy your new book every few minutes, or you'll be lost and forgotten by all.

5) Invite bloggers to blog on their blogs about your blog and then blog about their blog concerning your blog.

6) Google yourself. Pull the blinds down first, you pervert.

7) Always approach editors and agents from behind, while wearing cork-soled shoes, or they'll hear you coming and you'll struggle to force the chloroform-soaked rag over their mouth.

8) Book signings are a powerful way to reach and build an audience. Bookstore owners are busy people, so don't waste their time by asking permission before you set up a table and start signing. An attitude of quiet self-assurance and a pair of burly roadies named 'Big Mike' and 'Butcher-knife' are all you need to establish your presence.

9) Receiving a bad review is part of any author's life. But you're not any old author, so respond to a poor review with calm, professional mercenaries, who can be found for hire in the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine.

There is a 10th tip, but it is so powerful and potentially dangerous I must wait and publish it in my own upcoming how-to book, which shall be entitled Writing For Big Bucks: How to Command Financial Mastery of the Publishing Industry With Only Two Small Ice Cubes, the Shinbones of a Hamster, and a 42-syllable Sanskrit Word Spoken Beneath a Total Eclipse, Part 1 (available in December for only $39.99).

And now, a few words about net neutrality in the US.

One word, really, and that word is 'goodbye.' The FCC, which is an acronym for 'F*ck Consumers Constantly,' is now run by a former Verizon lawyer who is going to wreck the whole net so he can buy another pair of summer yachts. 

Oh, you signed one of the many online petitions? Hate to tell you this, but Pai and his minions aren't even *reading* them. Or the comments, or the emails.

They respond to only one thing -- money. The ISPs have it, and you don't. 

So we're screwed, at least in the US. Of course we're screwed so many ways here these days Turkish whorehouses are taking note of the new positions. 

So it's back to dial-up speeds or higher bills, and maybe no access at all if you enjoy sites that lack the clout to lobby for special treatment. And won't it be convenient now, for some power-mad oligarch to take control of your access to the net? Yeah. Good times.

Well, there's always the old fuzzy blue-ink mimeo machines, snail mail newsletters, and 1990s style BBS sites, I guess. 

The future really isn't what it used to be.

 

 

 

Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three...

Okay, you caught me.

I'm testing an RSS feed and the only way to know if it's really working is to post something new and see if the blog shows up in the appropriate places. 

That's what I'm doing now. I'll delete this entry as soon as I've got it working.

But hey, you came all this way, and I don't want you to go away empty-handed, so here's an amusing image.

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I remain untroubled by the presence of spectral phantasms!

 

 

Wine 101: Tips For the Vintage Impaired

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Knowing wines is a requirement to being a sophisticated, worldly adult. 

One cannot command respect by telling the wine steward at a fancy restaurant that your choice for the evening is 'the purple one.'

No. You've got to have a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips. You've got to toss around terms such as 'cork taint,' which sounds like something that violates at least seven of the Ten Commandments but actually refers to the presence of either 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole in the wine. You don't want to drink 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole, do you?

Actually, considering my miniscule knowledge of both wine and chemistry, I might drink it, on a bet, but only for ten bucks or more. 

Wine lore is very complicated, and wine-lovers are intensely passionate about it. Well, except for Willie, who hangs out around the Wine and Dine. He's passionate about drinking some wine, preferably right now, but he doesn't care whether it's a nice Zinfandel or a bruised Pinot Noir which has been splashed liberally with lighter fluid. 

I have more in common with Willie than with most sommeliers. Sommeliers can sense this, and usually regard me with the kind of glare one reserves for clogged toilets or Roy Moore. Truth is, I've enjoyed wines which were poured from a $3.99 bottle of Wild Blue Yonder twist-cap just as much I have from more sophisticated beverages. Like Willie, I tend to rank alcohol content above such nebulous qualities as mouthfeel and texture. 

But this isn't a blog about truth. It's a blog about wine, and its place in polite society. Considering the state in which we find 'polite society' these days, truth has no place at the table, and probably shouldn't even be in the dining room.

That said, there are eight basic types of wine. Or eleven, or four. Depends on who you ask, and how much wine they've had. But we'll go with eight. They are:

1) Cabernet Sauvignon (pronounced 'Cab-er-nay Saw-vine-yawn.' Or, if in Mississippi, 'Cab-er-nay That-purple-one'). Cabernet Sauvignon is best served with gas-station fried chicken on a stick or suspect leftover Chinese take-out. Also lamb or smoked meats, which if you had any, you wouldn't be reading this blog, so forget all that. Not available at the Wendy's drive-thru. A good choice if you don't know wines because it sounds vaguely French and affords you an opportunity to lord it over that jerk Skeeter when ordering.

2) Syrah, also called Shiraz, because like I said the wine fanciers can't make up their damned minds about anything. Pronounced 'Sear-ah' or possibly 'Qrccktyhsty' or even with a loud brief whistle, for all it matters.  Suggested pairings include Hungry Man frozen dinners, a simple fist-sized lump of monosodium glutamate, or a live Cape buffalo. This is a full-bodied red wine that may have been made in Australia. If so, it probably contains a component of outlandish venoms which may or may not prove fatal. But anybody that can choke down a Hungry Man brand hamburger steak is probably immune to hairy monkey spider cobras anyway, so down the hatch.

3) Zinfandel. Pronounced 'Cirque du Soleil.' Zinfandels are usually favored by circus folk, mainly the chain-smoking chimpanzees. Delicious when served with government-issue cheese or a tempting assortment of squirming mollusks garnished with lit fireworks. A Zinfandel is a red wine, because the circus chimps like watching something dark spiral its way through those complicated loop-de-loop straws. Often associated with a faint aftertaste redolent of sawdust with hints of nitroglycerin.

4) Pinot Noir. Pronounced 'Pee-no More' by persons who consider themselves to be fabulous wits and aren't. Pinot Noir is most often selected for enhancing the subtle flavors of traditional German dishes. Since traditional German dishes are composed almost entirely of sausages and consumed amidst the eye-watering fumes of weapons-grade sauerkraut, no one is really sure what, if any, flavor Pinot Noir presents. I asked Willie, and he just muttered something about galoshes and stump water before shuffling off in a somewhat uncoordinated pursuit of a middling-good Chardonnay.

5) Chardonnay. Pronounced 'the yellow one.' Chardonnays are white wines, which go best with chicken, shrimp, or pre-trial bond hearings. Oak-aged Chardonnay may present spicy, bourbon-y notes. Chardonnay aged in a box, I suppose, will offer imbibers the insouciant flavor of recycled Amazon Prime shipping cardboard, but that's just fine for most informal bachelorette parties. Generally associated with regret, impulsive and unwise eBay purchases, and the phrase 'you've been served.'

6) Sauvignon Blanc. Pronounced 'That one there' while pointing to the wine list. A bitter, tart wine, Sauvignon Blanc hates you, hates your stupid face, hates your shirt and your hat but it especially hates that monocle you though would make you look dashing. Best served with blackmail or murder-for-hire deals, Sauvignon Blanc wants you to know you'd better watch your ass, pal, because your day is fast approaching. Sauvignon Blanc doesn't care what you're serving, as long as you choke on it, and it will leave bits of broken glass on the back of your tongue just to make the point. Enjoy.

7) Pinot Gris. Pronounced 'My, Ain't WE Fancy.' A light-bodied white wine, Pinot Gris is the Millennial of wines, in that all the other wines swear it is lazy, shiftless, lacks any sort of work ethic, and wouldn't have lasted ten minutes back in the day. Sick of being unfairly labeled by older, more acidic wines, Pinot Gris just keeps its earphones in and listens to Green Day while you pour, because who the Hell are you to cast blame when you wrecked the economy and made everything so expensive and what do you know anyway, Grandpa.

8) Riesling. Pronounced 'Baggins, we hates it.' The most reclusive and secretive of all the wines, little is known about Riesling, aside from its fascination with some outlandish ring or other and an unfortunate tendency to strangle passers-by. Originally crafted in the Gladden Fields (near the banks of the Anduin, during the Third Age), Rieslings are still a bone of contention in wine circles. Some insist Rieslings are best accompanied by raw fish or scraps of Orc, while others look on in confusion and assert they are Star Wars fans and wouldn't know about all that 'Elves and fairies nonsense.' At any rate, serve Rieslings with caution, and only to people for whom you have no great affection.

Congratulations! Armed with this newfound knowledge, you are now a worldly, urbane person of elegance and wit. 

Now I'm off to have a beer. See you next week!

Cover image copyright ID 29057871 © Steven Cukrov | Dreamstime