The Agent Query Letter

Sitting down and pounding out 60,000 words or more is hard enough.

Sure, you can simplify the process by pounding out the same word, but the market for such works is limited. Hey, dinosaur porn is a thing, so I'm not saying the market for 'Repetitions of Oatmeal' is nonexistent -- I'm just saying pitching the book is going to be a vertically uphill climb.

As hard as writing a novel is, writing an effective agent query letter is harder.

You've got about five paragraphs, maybe 300 words, to distill your wit and wisdom down into something that will lift you above the other 30 or more query letters the agent will slog through with bleary eyes during their first cup of coffee. Every word is crucial, every sentence must be a glimmering thing of rare beauty. There is no room for error, even of the tiniest sort.

Writing a good query letter is akin to walking through a minefield. 

Are you scared yet, Grasshopper?

Well, don't be, because I'm here to help. 

Now, you're a smart egg armed with 'the Google' and years of experience in the publishing industry (i.e., you drink a lot). So you've already perused a dozen or more articles with titles such as 'How To Write An Effective Agent Query Letter' and 'Query Letters That Made Slugs Just Like You Rich' and even 'How To Briefly Conceal Your Towering Incompetence Behind a Throne of Lies.' You've made notes. The latest version of Word is open, blank page beckoning. The voices in your head are even silent, largely in anticipation of the delicious screams of agony they know are imminent.

Even so, may I offer a final few words of advice, gained at great personal cost?

Good.

Here are a few suggestions concerning tactics NOT to employ in your agent query letter.

  • Bribery is a no-no. Especially if your sole remaining financial asset is a powder-blue Chevrolet El Camino. I don't care what they go for an eBay. Strike that sentence, and you've got an extra 35 words to play with.
  • Claiming you are the next Harry Potter is a dumb move, because A) Harry is a fictional character, thus ruining the metaphor, and B) the agent started crying ten letters ago after seeing that six times already. Show some imagination. Game of Thrones is the new black.
  • Sly insinuations that the agent will spend their golden years kicking themselves out of remorse and chagrin if they pass on your project just won't work. You're the one tooling around in an El Camino, remember? Stick to writing fantasy, and leave the financial planning to people who doesn't consider 'under the couch cushions' a retirement fund. Just saved you another 60 words.
  • Your offer to appear at the agent's office and present the theme and story arc of your novel through the magic of interpretive dance must be omitted RIGHT NOW. Yeah, okay, the leotards set you back eighty bucks, but like the manager at Golden Corral said as he was tossing you out, 'this is a family restaurant, sir.'
  • Comparing your book to the latest best-seller by claiming to have ghost-written the latest best seller is bold and audacious. It's also fraud. Stop that.
  • Animated fonts, while clever, are seldom appreciated. Save that for correspondence with the IRS. 
  • Don't follow up your initial query with a query query, especially after a five-minute wait. Agents are busy people, and she may require up to an hour to reply to you.

The points above aside, below are a few suggestions and tips which will help you compose a sure-fire query letter.

  • Stick to standard business letter format. Place your name and address in the upper right hand corner, being careful to use a name which won't trigger any FBI fugitive search engines. 
  • Use the proper salutation and complementary closing. Never refer to a  potential agent as 'Bitsy Bookums.' Never end a business letter with 'Best, Georgia Correction Facility Inmate Number 2345235' even if that is legally correct.
  • Keep the tone formal and polite. Remember, the agent has a job, and an office, and expects a certain modicum of professionalism. You're a writer, which -- stop laughing! -- look, you should be able to PRETEND to be a functioning adult for ten minutes. Channel your inner Yoda and get to work.
  • Try to incorporate something of the tone of the book in the letter. But do NOT extend this thought to writing the query letter in the viciously belligerent persona of the book's villain. She got that letter already, and it wasn't funny then, either.
  • Be sure to include a word count. In plain old base ten arithmetic. Showing off your knowledge of hexadecimal by stating your book is 1396A pages long when it's really 80,234 words may be literally accurate, but is not going to win you any points.

Once you've sent the query letter, there's nothing to do but wait for a response. Lay in a sufficient stock of writer's foods -- Hot Pockets, oversized cartons of big box store Ding Dong knockoffs, and pure grain alcohol -- and wait. Experts agree that hitting refresh on your email page speeds responses by up to 9F# percent, and shaving is a socially-mandated form of oppression designed by the Lizard People to keep humanity bound to a crippling regimen of time-consuming personal hygiene.

It is never acceptable to follow up on a query by leaving voice mail messages which consist solely of muted sobbing. Hiring private detectives for clandestine observation of the agency is also a waste of money. 

You may be plagued with visions of the agent reading your query aloud to other agents, where the reading is met with gales of derisive laughter. These visions are entirely true, and the laughter is happening RIGHT NOW. Have another Ding Dong.

Next week, a two-part entry -- how to write an effective novel synopsis, and dealing with self-inflicted blunt-force trauma.

Keep writing, fellow writers.

Image at top: ID 28076311 © Gemenacom | Dreamstime.com

MidSouthCon News, and Ghost Stuff

Way Out West won the 2017 Darrell Award for best novel at MidSouthCon 35! Which was quite an honor, considering the stiff competition this year. If you haven't read the other nominees, you ought to give them a try. 

The Brotherhood of the Wheel, by R.S. Belcher, is the book with everything -- truckers, magic, the Knights Templar, and murder. Too, Mr. Belcher is a cool guy, and I really enjoyed meeting him at the awards.

Also up was Eagle in Exile by Alan Smale. If you enjoy alternate history sagas, you're in luck here. Alan's series explores the Roman expansion into North America, in a world in which the Empire is still going strong in 1218. Fans of Harry Turtledove will love this! Alan and I were a panel or two together, and he's a heck of a guy.

This MidSouthCon was, as always a blast. I didn't get as many pictures as I planned to, due to a busy schedule, but it was great seeing old friends and making new ones.

To everyone who signed up for some free books -- you will get them! I got sick as soon as we got home, and was in bed until last Thursday. So I'm a little behind, but you are not for gotten.

GHOST IN THE BOX

Switching gears for a moment, I'd like to introduce you to my latest DIY ghost gadget. Behold, the the hardware store miracle that is <drumroll please> the Fogbox.

Simply put, the Fogbox is a transparent, lighted enclosure into which an inert gaseous particulate is introduced. The Fogbox is then sealed, to prevent airflow disturbances from outside the container. The small trigger objects inside the container are then monitored.

The 'fog' shown in these images is merely a fraction of what would be used in a real investigation. Firing up the whole fogmaking apparatus also means cleaning it and all that afterward, and my internal Sloth Circuit is still stuck in lazy in the aftermath of my recent cold. But you get the idea.

After I witnessed first-hand the movement of a child's ball and the shaking of a nearby door at the Thomas House, I wondered just how force was applied to the ball and the door. That's how the Fogbox was born. Surround the toys with a thick but visible mist. If an object is moved, maybe the mist surrounding it will also be disturbed somehow. Would a ghostly hand be made visible? Could an area of influence be photographed and identified?

Heck if I know. But it's worth a try. 

Now, I know what some of you are thinking -- that's just a WalMart 10 gallon aquarium with LED lightstrips affixed to a plywood lid. Well, you're right, that's just what is is. But the lid was carefully cut, and the seals are airtight, after the addition of rubber gaskets. The gas is introduced through the valve on the right. The valve on the left allows un-gassed air to escape as the tank is filled. Both valves are closed once the fog fills the box. The big box and switch on the top houses the batteries. There's also a DC power connector, though I prefer to run on battery power to eliminate possible electrical interference by the wall plug.

The bottom of the aquarium is mirrored to enhance the 'glow' from the fog. 

Total cost? I didn't count everything up, but I figure around 50 bucks for the box, and another 40 for the stage fog machine. 

Expect a report and pics from a real site investigation soon!

PAIRANORMAL

 

I spent a couple of hours on the air Friday night, as the guest on TMV Cafe's radio show Pairanormal. Hosts Annie and EW and I had a blast talking about a number of topics, from hauntings to modern conspiracy theory. The show will be up on the Pairanormal Archives soon; you can check for it here.

Finally, a pic of my Tesla radio, because a listener in the Pairanormal chat room asked for it. Here ya go! It's a creey little rig, which works best late at night. There's some scary Children of the Corn radio going on out there, haunting the emptiness with that old time religion...

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something a Little Different

 

MidSouthCon 35 is coming up, and I'll be there. 

I'm on several panels, and of course I'll be at the Darrell Awards ceremony, as WAY OUT WEST was nominated this year. You can check out the full schedule here -- hope to see some of you there.

I'll also be on Pro Row this year. For anyone unfamiliar with con-speak, pro row is a hallway outfitted with tables. Seated behind the tables are authors, usually in various states of hangovers. The purpose of Pro Row is to allow parents to bring their children face-to-face with actual writers. That way, when the parents issue dire warnings to the kids against ever taking up fiction as a career, the sunken, hollow faces of the writers add conviction to the admonition. It's a public service, really. 

Naturally, the writers also hope to sell a book or two, and introduce their works to new fans.

I've done Pro Row a number of times, and it's always fun. 

This year, though, I find myself in an odd position. My publisher is out of business, and my stocks of printed books are down to the single complete set with which I simply cannot part.

So what's a writer on Pro Row to do, if he is (temporarily) out of paper books to sell?

My first thought was to simply hide under the table. But the hotel staff was adamant I never do that again. The tables won't support my weight, so pole-dancing is out. 

So I'll be giving away free ebook copies of the Markhat Files series to anyone who asks. Free, gratis, no charge. Give me an email address and a preferred format, and I'll send you the whole series, just for the asking.

Why?

Why not? I'm between publishers right now. Maybe I'll pick up a few new fans. 

I'm bringing along some of my handmade art to decorate the table. The steampunk proton pack will be there, and Meralda's latching wand, and probably a vampire-built revolver or two. 

So look me up, folks. Get free stuff. I might also hold a raffle for a signed copy of a Markhat book, if I can scare one up between now and then.

See you at the Con!

Not Dead Yet

© Cherokee4 | Dreamstime.com

© Cherokee4 | Dreamstime.com

The title of this post comes straight from Monty Python. You know the scene, as the dead wagons collect plague victims, and one of the 'dead' keeps protesting, only to be thumped on the head and carted off.

That's been an excellent summary of the last few weeks. Watching the Markhat titles vanish, one by one, from Amazon was gut-wrenching. 

But that's part of the business. Publishers do close shop, now and then. It's not the end of the world, though it certainly feels that way as your books poof into oblivion with a single refresh of the page.

I am engaged in a number of efforts to bring the series back as soon as I can. Whether they will return with a new publisher, or as self-published titles, remains to be seen. I am working as fast as I can.

In the meantime, if you're a fan and you missed a book in the series, just email me. I'll send you a free one, in whatever format works best for you. It might take a day or two, but I'll get it out. It will have a plain text cover, but at least you'll be able to complete the series. My email address is franktuttle at franktuttle dot com (put in the right symbols, you know the drill). 

And of course you can still buy WAY OUT WEST by clicking below. 

WAY OUT WEST on Amazon as ebook.

WAY OUT WEST as print book.

The Mug and Meralda books weren't affected, either. 

ALL THE PATHS OF SHADOW ebook

ALL THE PATHS OF SHADOW print

ALL THE TURNS OF LIGHT ebook

ALL THE TURNS OF LIGHT print

I'll keep everyone posted here with any relevant news.

Thanks to everyone who emailed or messaged with expressions of support. Those meant a lot. 

In other news, it's nearly time for my annual pilgrimage to MidSouthCon, where WAY OUT WEST is up for a Darrell Award. If you're there too, look me up! I'm on a bunch of panels and I'll be out and about the rest of the time. This year, I won't be cosplaying -- I just didn't have the heart or the time to come up with a new costume, and the weight of the steampunk proton pack I've been taking is just too much. I came home from last year's Con a full three inches shorter than I was when I left, and my spine made funny crunching noises for weeks after wearing it. 

You can check out the schedules and events for the MidSouthCon on their webpage, which is here.

So stop by and buy me a drink, I mean, see me and chat. 

See you at the Con!

 

 

 

 

Markhat Interrupted

© Penguinline | Dreamstime.com - Cartoon Girl Working on Notebook

© Penguinline | Dreamstime.com - Cartoon Girl Working on Notebook

Well, folks, the other shoe has dropped.

February 28th of 2017 will be the last day Samhain Publishing offers any titles. After that, all the Markhat titles (except WAY OUT WEST) will go dark -- on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Itunes, everywhere.

Samhain officially ceases operations on the 28th. 

Rights reversions of the Markhat titles begins right after that. So I will retain ownership of the series, and will be free to do with the titles as I will shortly after the 28th.

So, all that said, just what will I do?

Beats me. I have several options open, which are:

  • Shop around for another publisher.
  • Self-publish all the titles myself.
  • Go hide in a damp hole, learn to gnaw on raw fish, and make a gollum sound when short furry strangers approach.

Frankly I'm leaning toward the third option at the moment. Damp caves are relatively cheap to own and maintain, and I already have the Gollum look down pat. Seriously, you've never seen me in a tattered loincloth, I can DO this.

But assuming I decide to remain part of polite society, I must choose between options one and two.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Finding a publisher relieves me of the time, work, and expense involved in getting new cover art. Of marketing. Of file conversions and distribution and a host of other practices required to put out a book.

But it also means finding another publisher. That will take months, and could very well take years, and might never happen at all.

Yes, the Markhat books did sell. Pretty well, at times. But modern publishing isn't just a jungle anymore -- it's a freshly-nuked radioactive mutant feral jungle, where each and every one of the surviving publisher-beasts is concerned not just with sales but with enormous sales. I know too many awesome mid-lister authors who are starting GoFundMes because their books got pushed into near-oblivion and the authors can't afford a five-hundred-dollar roofing job anymore.

Too, the time factor comes into play. A year from now, people will just scratch their heads and ask 'Markhat who?"

Which brings us to self-publishing. I can do that. It allows me to set my own prices. Package and brand the series as I choose. Pick my own cover art, my own look. 

Which is all very well and good, until one considers the cost of all that.

The Markhat books have been extensively edited by real professionals. I won't need to go through that process again. Even so, there will be costs. Cover artists don't work for free (nor should they). I could buy back the old cover art, but buying back ten covers even at reduced rates isn't going to be cheap.

So that's where I am with the series right now. There are a number of hard decisions to be made, and there will be an interruption in availability of the titles no matter what I do.

That's life as an author. I wish this was television, where every author is a fabulously wealthy lady or gentleman who travels about solving crimes or having adventures, but reality just looks at us writers and says 'Shut up and eat your Ramen Noodles, loser.'

If you're a Markhat fan, you can help by telling anyone who might like the series to snatch it up RIGHT NOW. Maybe by the time they're done reading them I'll have new books out, somehow.

If you're a publisher sitting atop stacks of cash, you can help by emailing me. Really, that would be incredible, and I won't even bring my loincloth to signings. 

Although I've always said I'd never do this, I'm seriously considering a Kickstarter or Patreon or GoFundMe page of my own now. Just out of curiosity, how many of you reading this would consider kicking in 20 bucks or so? And would anyone think I was making a mistake even asking for help?

I would like to close by thanking Samhain Publishing for all their support through the years. They were great, and I'll miss them.

Mamas, don't let your kids grow up to be writers.

 

 

Murder Most Frequent

© Crokogen | Dreamstime.com - Black And White Man\'s Portraite Photo

© Crokogen | Dreamstime.com - Black And White Man\'s Portraite Photo

I commit murder at least three times a week.

I should clarify that statement. I commit murder in my head at least three times a week. No one actually winds up on the floor bleeding, or decapitated, or, as it was last Tuesday, shoved into a meat grinder head-first (I was in a mood). No, the most I do is seethe silently until I can move away from my potential victims.

There are certain types of people I believe deserve to be murdered instantly by the most expedient means necessary. Nazis, for instance. Dog-fighters, or people who go to watch dog fighting. Child molesters. Rapists. I'd gleefully slaughter members of a dog-fighting ring with an old-school Tommy gun and never lose a wink of sleep over it. 

But the most common and frequent cause of my numerous rages is something I never really understood, at least until recently, and it's a genuine neurological condition called misophonia.

My form of misophonia makes listening to people chew (or slurp, or gobble, you get the picture) instantly and profoundly piss me off. It's a primal reaction, one that can't be ignored or simply shrugged off -- if you're making a lot of noise eating, I flat out want to murder you the whole time you're doing it. Yes, it's irrational. But it's also quite real.

I'll link to an article explaining misophonia in clinical terms, but basically, people with misophonia were stuffed into MRI machines while being subjected to the usual trigger noises -- people chewing, people smacking on gum, people gobbling down lasanga with their mouths open like a bunch of damned orangutans. I can only assume the test subjects were shackled and chained during the MRI, because frankly after a few minutes of that I'd be up and looking to whack the nearest neurosurgeon with a solid length of steel pipe.

What the researchers found was clear evidence of abnormal structures in the brain among misophonia sufferers. Here's a quote from the article: "People with misophonia had more myelin, or insulation, around the gray matter in their prefrontal cortex. They also showed abnormal connections between this cortex and the anterior insular cortex, which is involved in processing information and emotions."

My brain is composed almost entirely of abnormal structures. I'm pretty sure there's a working pinball machine in there somewhere. Also one of those antique fortune-telling machines, because every day at 4:11 PM a squeaky mechanical voice says "Zontar knows your past, sees your future, insert a nickel."

Finally, science has explained why I become enraged when the guy at the next table chews with his fat stupid mouth open. 

Now that Science has explained misophonia, perhaps Law can offer me a defense. "I was clinically unable to contain my rage, Your Honor, and I still have no idea where I found that bazooka." 

Here's the link to the article. Here's another link to a parody video showing the Mr. Bean version of 'Fifty Shades of Gray,' because why not.

 

 

 

Alternative Facts and Where to Find Them

© Elnur | Dreamstime.com - The Woman Magician Isolated On The White Photo

I've had an epiphany.

All my life, I've been shackled by the chains of objective reality. The cold, unfeeling digits of my bank balance denied me the finer things -- Ferraris, thrice-yearly vacations in Spain, the powers of flight and invisibility. 

Like a fool, I toiled on, heavy laden by the seemingly inescapable burden of 'facts.' Worse, I bowed to the purveyors of so-called facts. Loan officers, 'No Trespassing' signs, doctors and their joyless pronouncements that a diet consisting entirely of vodka and Twinkies would soon prove fatal -- these were my jailers.

My only outlet, my only escape, was in my writing, but even there I submitted to what I believed were the harsh realities of publishing, best exemplified by my continual use of duct-tape to effect home repairs and minor first aid.

But no more. I am inspired by current events, empowered at last by brave leaders unfettered by reality. Because objective reality is merely one facet of existence -- there is another, more pleasant realm, that of alternative facts. 

Thus, it is with great pleasure I announce that the Markhat books have sold, in the last few moments, 2 million copies. 

Do my Amazon rankings support this statement? No -- but that's just another example of my suppression by the publishing elite. The true sales figures, the alternative fact sales figures, just jumped to four million copies. I mean eight million. Let's make it ten.  With options for movie rights, Markhat and Darla action figures, and of course the ever-popular Evis vampire doll, with Kung-Fu grip and rotating normal and fanged faces. 

I have never felt quite so relaxed. 

As a best-selling author, I will now enjoy the fruits of my alternative labors. I shall surround myself with opulence, demand only the freshest Twinkies, refuse suspect home-brewed booze in favor of something with an actual machine-printed label. I'll use only Duct Tape(tm) brand adhesive, not that knock-off crap from the Dollar Tree. Yes, it's wine and roses from here on out.

It appears the nearest Ferrari dealership is an inconvenient 80 miles away. Or is it? Presto, my Corolla is a Toyota no more -- now it is a finely-crafted Italian sports car, lovingly maintained, eager to conquer the road with the throaty roar of its high-performance engine. When the highway patrol pulls me over and suggests I was speeding, I'll confound them and be on my way after a quick explanation that while their radar may have claimed I was going 106 in a 30 MPH zone, my alternative explanation that I was maintaining a steady 28 MPH overrides their ludicrous assumption and have a nice day.

I urge all my friends to join me in this simple rejection of objective reality. We can be free!

Let's all meet up in Spain on Tuesday. Tell the airlines you fly for free, for life, because Frank said so. Be sure to seat yourself in first class. Take the plane controls for a while, you're a qualified jumbo jet pilot, and anyway those things fly themselves now. Mostly. But gravity is just a theory, I'm told, and pilots make a big fuss about how hard it is to land a 767 just so they can get in the plane first and not be pestered about the size of their carry-ons. 

Welcome to my brave new world. Now, if you'll pardon me, my shuttlecraft awaits, and my orbiting battle cruiser needs a shakedown cruise.

I think I'm going to like this place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Badlands

© Joeygil | Dreamstime.com - Man In Ruins Watching Television Photo

© Joeygil | Dreamstime.com - Man In Ruins Watching Television Photo

Fans of my blog (both of you, thanks gang) may have noticed I missed a few weeks.

I did, and I'm sorry about that. I'd like to say I just ran out of things to say, but the truth is quite the opposite -- I was full of things to say, but decided you'd probably had your share of furious rants and really didn't need another one shoved in your virtual face.

So I declared a hiatus. 

Now I'm back. No less frustrated, no less fearful, but back, and still determined not to add one iota to the miserable situation we must now all endure.

I'm also determined to detach myself from this mess somehow, to get back to work. Determined to do so, but utterly clueless as to how to accomplish this.

It seems easy enough, doesn't it? Just fire up the Beast of All Words, conjure forth Word, and start writing. 

Ah, if it was truly that simple. Because what I've been producing lately has been toxic. Even Mug and Meralda lost their spark, becoming suddenly older, wearier, bleakly cynical. And Markhat? That got so dark I deleted the last several chapters. I will not do that to my characters, or my readers. Neither deserves such treatment. 

Long I pondered. Many beers were consumed. Walls were stared upon. Much Pink Floyd was played, because if you need a soundtrack as you stare into the abyss nothing fits the bill quite like Pink Floyd.

I still haven't found any answers, aside from the flippant one I cited earlier -- fire up the Beast of All Words, conjure forth Word, and start writing. Again.

It may well be that the only way out of my mental morass is through it. I may have to let Mug and Meralda and Markhat and Darla have time and space to work through this, just as I do. Which will mean delays in getting new stuff out. But I suppose that's preferable to never getting anything new out at all.

I have at least decided I won't quit. No matter what strange shape the world takes on in the next several years, people will still, I hope, want books. I hope they'll still need stories in which good triumphs over evil. I want to believe people will still want to cheer on heroes. 

I won't quit until I stop believing all that is true. I hope that day never comes.

So, if you're  out there, and you're worried too, you're not alone. And if you've found a way to regain some sense of hope, please, email me the recipe. I could certainly use a fresh batch right now.

 

 

 

New York, New York

We've done a bit of traveling the last few  weeks. 

Our destination was New York City. I'd never been, and neither had Karen, but we've always wanted to  go so we packed our bags and boarded a Delta jet for the Big Apple.

All my life, I've been told that New York is a frantic hive of pushy, rude stockbrokers who are themselves endlessly victimized by predatory street gangs while everyone else ducks for cover in the crossfire. "New Yorkers will run right over you," quoth they. "They're not nice, like us," the ubiquitous 'they' added, taking a break from gerrymandering and passing repressive marriage-rights laws. "You don't want to go up there."

Well, we did, and we went, and I am happy to report that everything I've heard about New York and New Yorkers was the worst kind of odious hogwash.

From the time we landed at La Guardia to our last ride back there, everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Oh sure, not everyone is an angel -- those fake Buddhist monks all over Times  Square and the Park are jerks, no matter how wide their smiles. But they're actual criminals, so they don't count.

Things do move at a different pace than they do here in Oxford, Mississippi. People in NYC do talk a bit faster, and do walk a bit faster, and when they get to the counter they are ready with their order and they spit it right out. But that's not being pushy or demanding -- it's the natural consequence of living in such a small area with so many other people. If everyone hemmed and hawed and asked little Raymond eight times whether he wanted the chicken nuggets or the cheese sticks and then repeated the entire process because a phone call interrupted the delicate menu negotiations, society would collapse from sheer starvation..

So my impression of New Yorkers is that they are, by necessity, efficient in their casual dealings with strangers and retail and wait staff. Which is something I wish Southerners would adopt, right now, because the next time I am delayed 20 minutes because some kid can't mumble his way through a meal order I am likely to shift on my feet and engage in Hostile Glares.

And the food in NYC -- sweet nondemoninational deity of your choice, the food was indescribably wonderful. My favorite place was on Broadway, just off Times Square -- Angelo's, where the pizza and the pasta dishes are amazing. The prices? No worse that the Square here in Oxford. 

We also had a lovely meal in Chinatown, at the Golden Unicorn, which serves in the dim sum style. Dim sum works like this -- servers push carts around the dining room, stopping at each table. You point out which dishes you want, and they hand them out, and then a few minutes later another cart comes around and the process is repeated, until you are full or, in my case, you start getting fearful looks from fellow diners who've never seen anyone eat the bamboo serving dish as well as the dumplings before.

I have no idea what I ate. But everything was delicious. I'd go back there again in a heartbeat if it wasn't a thousand-odd miles away.

For breakfast, you can't beat the Applejack Diner, which was right across the street from our hotel. The food was, again, top-notch, and just listening to the waiters call in orders to the kitchen was a treat. 

Did we do anything besides eat, you ask? Well yes. We saw Cats, on Broadway, at the Neil Simon theater. Now, I've seen some solid theatrical performances in my time, but when everyone on the stage is a rising star, the show transcends the merely great and becomes a two-hour work of art that no DVD can truly capture. When Grizabella (played by Mamie Parris the night we were there) sang her last song, I looked about. Everyone was frozen in place, every face locked on the stage. You could not have heard a pin drop because just for a moment gravity itself was too mesmerized to bother attracting things. 

We also just walked around. Walking is the best way to see NYC, because driving there is best left to cabbies, Uber drivers, the NYPD, and the criminally insane. One things that struck me immediately about the city was the lack of any visible gas stations of car dealerships, at least on Manhattan. Here, there's a gas station every 300 feet, and my little town of 15,000 permanent residents sports nearly a dozen car dealerships. 

But get out your walking shoes for the city. And buy a Metrocard subway pass, because once you figure out the subway, it's a great way to get around.

My image of an NYC city subway car, I now realize, was heavily influenced by movies. I fully expected the subway car to be filled with bodily fluids, riddled with bullet holes, and be at least half-full of wild-eyed street preachers demanding donations while pickpockets craftily plied their trade..

Not so. Now, the cars aren't the gleaming, sterile science-fiction transport pods of South Korea or Tokyo, but they're not post-apocalypse wasteland railroad doom-tubes, either. The other riders were an amiable mix of tourists and ordinary people going to or from work. I saw one panhandler on the subway, a weary-looking woman who laid out tiny packets of face tissues down on vacant seats. Each tissue pack was topped with a note detailing her tale of woe, but she never got pushy about it.

Did I leave her anything?

No.. Because by that time I must admit I'd already handed out a few small sums to other tales of woe, and by then the business model of the panhandlers penetrated even my thick Southern skull. Anybody wandering the streets and taking gifts from strangers day in and day out probably makes more than I do. The next time we go back, I'm going to counter their pitches with one of my own, and see how that works out. 

I'll leave you with the obligatory set of my favorite NYC photos. Also, a sincere word of thanks to our friend Elyse Salpeter, a fellow author and New Yorker, who met us there and took us to Chinatown and generally acted as an unpaid tour guide because A) she's cool that way and B) New Yorkers are cool that way.

Enjoy the photos! Time for me to get back to work......

The author, upon spotting a free-range cheesecake.

The author, upon spotting a free-range cheesecake.

 

 

 

Steampunk Forever

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The present, it must be noted, sucks.

Part of the reason it sucks is because today it's perfectly acceptable to say 'this sucks.' Our forebears would have expressed the same emotion with far more eloquence and wit, stating perhaps something like this:

The times in which we find our ourselves inspire equal portions of horror and dismay. Chaos and banditry surround us at every hand, and unrest greets us at every turn. Men and women of all ages have been eternally subject to the whims of fate, but never before have these whims been so full of malice and contempt for the very faces upon which they blow.

Now that's just lyrical. But it won't fit in a Tweet, so we moderns proclaim 'this sucks' and go on to yell at people on Facebook.

So I'm resetting my personal clock to an 1888 that never was. In my new reality, Charles Babbage's mechanical calculating engine worked. Nicola Tesla found a wealthy financier, and from his laboratory came wondrous machines that put those of Edison to shame. 

Mighty airships ply the skies. Air piracy rises as well, and battles are fought in the heavens using Tesla's deadly rays, which dwarf and outshine the lightning. 

Scientific progress made leaps that our own history skipped. A new world emerged, sounding of the hiss of steam, the determined turning of gears, and the crackle and hiss of strange energies barely contained.

I think that's a world worth living in.

Of course, I can't live there full-time, but I can don my steampunk ghostbuster's aether pack and my Victorian clothes and wander around SF/F conventions without getting hauled away to answer a lot of nervous questions about the machine strapped to my back. 

I'll be cosplaying as a steampunk ghostbuster at the upcoming Memphis Comic and Fantasy Convention, where I'm also on a number of paranormal panels. 

(To read this entry in the large print easy-on-the-eyes edition, click here).

Yes, these are images of me, transformed into period-accurate photographs. I like posing for these, because no one smiled in photos until after 1950, and I just can't smile on command. 

I know, I know, cosplaying is generally thought of as a pursuit for a younger, thinner crowd. But I enjoy it so I'm going to do it. 

 

One of the (few) advantages of getting older is the realization that one no longer cares what anyone thinks of them. Act my age? No. I'll act as I wish, and if that offends anyone, I simply don't care. 

So, if you are planning to attend the Comic and Fantasy Convention, and you see this gentleman in the halls, stop and say hello. 

We of the year 1888 enjoy conversations with strangers, who most often are revealed to be friends we are meeting for the very first time. 

Also, look up my panel schedule, and sit in on a few! I'm bringing some of my DIY paranormal investigative gear, and we'll swap stories. It will be, as we say, a smashing good time.

 

 

 

Proton Pack Redux

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I made a few changes and additions to the Steampunk Ghostbuster Proton Pack this week. 

Most notably, it now has sound!

The small lighted Bluetooth player mounted at the top takes microSD cards, so I built a looping sound file to add some life to the thing. The track is 15 minutes long, and then it just repeats until I turn the player off.

I went through several sound builds until I found one I liked. The first couple sounded great, but were a bit too modern to fit the steampunk theme of the pack. Finally, I went back to the drawing board, laid down a background of hissing steam and shuttling gears, and then added in a few bells, the scrape of metal on metal, a bit of antique sewing machine, and a dash of randomly-reversed chime sounds.

I think the end result fits the build perfectly. I posted a short video with the sounds and lights running below.

If anyone is curious, I built the soundtrack using Audacity, which is a free sound editing program so easy to use even a Frank can run it. The image below shows part of the audio creation process. Each row represents a different audio track. You can move them, apply various effects, add, delete, and re-arrange as much as you like. Then you merge the tracks, and viola! Your very own audio track.

You can probably guess by looking at what some of the tracks represent. The top one, the fat one, is the steam hiss. The second from the bottom, the regular series of small ticks, is a clock. The rest are bursts of sounds I thought were interesting.

All the sounds were free, downloaded from www.freesound.org. 

As promised, the video is below. It's pretty dark, but dammit, Jim, I'm a writer, not a cinematographer.

CLICK HERE FOR THE YOUTUBE VIDEO

Proton Pack

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Above is my updated Steampunk Ghostbuster Aetheric Projector pack, which now has lights and sound!

I shot the image above in darkness to show of some of the lighting. Many of the following images show the pack in full light as well, to give you an idea of what it looks like.

Please ignore the battered work-bench. It's a workbench, which means it gets drilled, spilled, grilled, and milled, but is rarely polished and restored to furniture grade beauty. 

The gun-like object on the lower left is the aether emitter. It's connected to the main pack with thick copper cable, and the hook on the lower right of the pack acts as a holster.

A side view....

View of the uppser section. The globe on the left has interior illumination, as does the 'vacuum tube' assembly on the right. The blow disc at the bottom left is a plasma disk made with LEDs. The plasma pattern changes shape at random.

And that's most of it, lit up at once. The lights can be set to either remain on or flash a different rates; I find the flashing to be most effective, but it makes it difficult to catch a photo of everything lighted.

Below is a short video of the whole pack in action. I mentioned sound before, and yes, I can use my phone's Blutooth setting to stream audio right to the pack's speaker. I'll be building an audio file just for the pack -- I'm thinking steam hisses overlaid onto clocks ticking, with weird stuff thrown in at random -- but for this video, I just picked a song at random and turned it on. 

Click below, and enjoy!

https://youtu.be/pGSfHG8s03w

 

 

 

 

 

Markhat Art!

The painting above was done by local artist Thomas Grosskopf, and it's a beauty. Depicted are Darla, Markhat, Mama Hog, and a few of their fanged foes.

Thomas lives in Abbeville, a small town just a few miles from Oxford. We'd never met, until the librarian at my old alma mater, Lafayette High school, asked me to come and give a talk to the book club a couple of Fridays ago.  

I did, and I was gobsmacked when Thomas presented me with the painting above. Turns out he's a Markhat fan, and he certainly captured the characters. Mama Hog has never made a book cover, but that's a perfect rendition of her.

You can see more of Thomas's art at the Bozarts Art Gallery on 403 Main Street in Water Valley, Mississippi.

Thomas, thanks again for the stunning painting! It's always an incredible experience when your books inspire art. 

 

 

The Knocking Man

Finally. It's October.

I love everything about October. The scary movies, the Halloween decorations, the first hint of chill in the air. The falling leaves. The sight of my lawn mowers sitting idle in the corner of the garage.

Yes, it's my favorite time of the year.

(To read this in the large print edition, click here).

In honor of October, I'd like give you a free audio story that I think fits the spooky mood perfectly. By following the link below, you can listen to me reading my short story 'The Knocking Man.'

It's a half hour long, so settle back, grab something to drink, and hit the play button. I hope you like it. 

 

THE KNOCKING MAN on YouTube

 

For next week, I hope to have some new ghostly EVPs for you to listen to. I'll be taking my gear out to various cemeteries in hopes of capturing voices that are hard to explain. 

Until then, enjoy The Knocking Man. 

I've also added some new lighting features to my steampunk ghostbuster's proton-aether pack. The pictures are below. I plan to wear this somewhere, for Halloween, despite the sad fact that the things weighs as much as a brand new Chevy Volt.

Here it is, propped against my workshop wall, in dim light:

The shot below was taken in the dark, with all the lights set for always on -- they can also flash, which is the setting I'll use for some of them.

I'm pretty happy with it, especially since it's made from junk plumbing parts, an old motorcycle clutch, and the guts of a vacuum cleaner. 

See you next Sunday! And remember, if you want to leave a review for WAY OUT WEST, it's only a click away...

 

 

 

Broken Promises

© 3dalia | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-illustration-d-devil-author-render-writing-pen-image41641172#res5678350">3d Devil Author Photo</a>

Just last week, I claimed I wouldn't be talking anymore about the new Markhat book, Way Out West.

Turns out I lied. That happens a lot -- but Big Al's Books and Pals, the renowned indie book review site, featured Way Out West last week, and I just can't let that pass unannounced.

(To read this in the large print edition, click here).

You can read the full review by clicking below:

Review of Way Out West by Big Al's Books and Pals

Did they like the book?

That's always the first question that springs to mind when I get notice of a book review. Here's the book you spent months slaving over, sweating blood over, pouring your heart and soul into -- and now it's out there, all alone in the wild, facing its audience for the first time.

It's a scary moment. No two people are going to come away from a book with the same experience. I know of books that are beloved by people -- smart people, people with taste and discernment -- that left me scratching my head and wondering what all the fuss was about. There are even highly-touted books that I read and loathed. Which isn't to say they're bad books, by any means. They just weren't right for me.

So what if my book wasn't right for that particular reviewer? What if they read it, and hated it with the burning fury of ten thousand bright young suns? What if they publicly declare their hatred for the book to an audience of hundreds, or thousands? What if I've crawled so far under this heavy sofa out of sheer terror that I can't get free and my corpse is found years later, much to the amusement of the readership of Fark?

Two things happened, concerning the review in Big Al's. First, they liked the book. And second, I was able to squirm free of the sofa after a forty-five minute struggle. 

So it is with an immense sense of relief and no small level of back pain that I can post an excerpt from the review.

"It’s a wild ride of murder, intrigue, and time warps. New characters who play important parts are written with depth and style. Darla is sharp and takes on an impressive role as Markhat realizes he married up in class.

There are delightful surprises among the darkness of this tale and more twists in the plot than any roller-coaster ever invented."

Now that's the kind of review that I live for. Because it means that maybe, just maybe, the book worked.

Novels are a lot like engines made out of words and pauses and pacing. Mostly words. You try and put the right words in the right places, in the hope that the whole of them will take on a life of their own. You hope that the reader sits down and turns the ignition with the first dozen words, and that the book cranks right up and takes the reader on a ride they won't soon forget.

That's the fear of every writer when a review comes up. The fear that somewhere along the road from Chapter One to The End, the engine just sputters and dies, or veers into the dread ditch of boredom. When that happens, it's trip over, and another book is always ready to pick up the stranded and offer them a ride.

But that's the nature of the beast. You do your best and then sit back and hope for the best.While you work on yet another little engine that might.

I am especially glad that the reviewer picked up on Darla's growth too. I've got big plans for her, and she is rising easily to the demand. So much so that The Darla Diaries may start appearing sometime next year.

So that's one important review I can file under 'five stars.' 

Makes all the blood, sweat, and tears worthwhile.

(Top image courtesy of © 3dalia | Dreamstime.com)  

 

 

So Who's Reading My Books?

© Jrabelo | Dreamstime.com - Couple Sitting Together And Looking At A Book With A Worried Facial Expression Photo

I've been compiling statistics concerning my readership, particularly of the Markhat books.

How do I collect this data, you ask?

Nosey, aren't you, I reply. But since you asked, I managed to crack Amazon's mysterious book-ranking feature, so I now have access to some data not available to the public. 

(To read this is a large print format, click HERE).

Here's how my readership breaks down, ranked in descending order of total impact:

  • Readers chained in my basement.
  • That guy who's been stuck in the Dakar airport in Senegal since 2010.
  • Mrs. M. O. Feinstien, of Flushing, who still disapproves of the name 'Markhat.' Sorry, Mrs. Feinstein, it's too late to change his name now.
  • The pair of NSA analysts who started compiling a dossier on me since I searched 'airports in North Africa' just a few minutes ago.
  • The students of Miss Krieger's fourth-year World Cultures class, who despite being in Liechtenstein were assigned 'Brown River Queen' as required reading material. I think this was a clerical error, kids, but my no-refunds policy is still in play. Deal with it, or, as they say in Liechtenstein, 'komm damit klar.' 
  • The Dalai Lama. Thanks for all the fan mail, dude, and yes we've totally got to 'throw back a few suds' one of these days. You party animal you.

Armed with this vast array of data, I can now fine-tune my marketing efforts. And by 'marketing efforts,' I mean increase the frequency of the beatings down in the basement.

 Way Out West has already garnered reader reviews on Amazon. My favorite of these is the one below, which is a direct quote from the book:

Well done, RedHerrin, well done! And thanks. 

Seriously, book marketing is hard. I really have no idea what to do -- blog tours? Tweets? A barrage of 'Hey read my book' posts (like this one)? 

I've decided against pretty much all of those avenues. My plan is to just work on a new book and hope people like Way Out West enough to talk about it. 

So this is probably the last time I'll mention the book, unless there is an actual need to discuss it. I will announce the availability of the print edition, which should be ready in a few days. It will be priced at $9.99, which is about as low as I can price it without actually losing money on each sale.

That said, here's one more link to the book, and one more picture of the cover, for anyone who missed the previous blog, which announced the book's release.

WAY OUT WEST for Kindle

WAY OUT WEST for Nook

And the cover, which I love with a love most unseemly:

 

 

Way Out West

Here it is, folks.

The tenth title in the Markhat Files series, Way Out West, is now on sale in Kindle format on Amazon, and as a Kobo ebook from the Kobo site!

Here are the links:

WAY OUT WEST on Amazon, in Kindle format.

WAY OUT WEST on Kobo, in Kobo format.

Other formats will follow, probably later this week. There will be a Nook version, an Ibook version, and a Google Play edition. The print book will also be available on Amazon shortly.

(To read this blog entry in a large-print edition, click here)

I could have waited to do a full-spread release, but since 99% of my sales are Kindle ebooks, I decided to go ahead and launch today.

That's the cover above. I love this cover; the artist got everything right. I wanted Darla front and center this time, to reflect her equal role in the book. I think her expression is perfect -- she's clearly a woman to be reckoned with. 

The locomotive is there, too. The train in the book is named the Western Star, and I wanted it featured as well, since it's the setting. There's also a clue to a pivotal scene hidden in the cover, but that's for readers to discover on their own.

So what's this book about?

It's about home. About leaving home. About changes. About making those decisions that all of us face from time to time. Stay or go. Fight or flee. Play it safe, or take a chance.

I realized when I finished writing Way Out West that it was heavily influenced by current events. Like it or not -- and I don't -- our world is changing. Every year is the hottest on record. Society is in turmoil. There are storms brewing on every horizon, and unless you've got a vault stuffed with money, places to hide are hard to find.

Darla and Markhat are in the same situation. Old magic is creeping back into their world, changing the landscape as it moves and strengthens. Rannit's walls may have withstood the War, but they'll provide no defense now. Not when monsters stroll the streets.

That sounds dark. Yes, there are dark aspects to the book, but I hope you'll come away from the experience with a sense that there is still good in the world, most often right at your side.

Mama Hog is back, of course. So are Slim and Buttercup, Evis and Gertriss. Magic and murder, guns and sorcerers, wise-cracks and close calls -- it's a wild ride.

I hope everyone enjoys the book. And if you do, (ENGAGE BEGGING MODE) please leave a review. 

I'll post updates when the other versions go live. It won't be long, so if Kindle ebooks aren't your preferred format, don't worry!

I do hope you enjoy Way Out West.

 

 

 

Not Long Now

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If you've been waiting for the new Markhat book, your wait is nearly over.

Editing is done. A bit of formatting remains, but not much -- I expect to release the new book, WAY OUT WEST, in a few weeks. Maybe just a couple.

This will be the tenth entry in the series. For anyone unfamiliar with the previous titles, they are, in order, as follows:

And now, WAY OUT WEST.

(To read this blog in a large print edition, click here).

Markhat has enjoyed quite a career, one I never saw coming the first time he walked onto the page and started cracking wise to all and sundry. He's faced murderous magics, grappled with sinister sorcereries, tackled mad magicians and phantom murderers and flat beers with equal aplomb.

So I'm thrilled to offer this latest adventure, and it's one I truly hope you enjoy.

I will tell you this much -- this one is set on a train. Specifically, a steam locomotive, bound for the wastelands left empty and in ruin by the War. The wastes are slowly repopulating, with towns springing back to life along the railroad, and Markhat's new case takes him to the end of the line.

Darla is a full partner in this story. I've come to enjoy writing her as much as I do Markhat. I've even toyed with the idea of a spin-off series featuring Darla'a own adventures, told by her (The Darla Diaries?). If someone can please provide me with an extra three to five hours a day, I'll get started at once.

Next week, I'll reveal the cover for WAY OUT WEST here in the blog.

Today, though, I'll provide you with an excerpt from the book. No spoilers, no secrets revealed -- just a single scene, to give you a taste until the whole book is available.

The scene takes place shortly after the Western Star leaves Rannit. They've just entered the plains, when the locomotive comes to a screeching unscheduled halt.

FROM WAY OUT WEST:

The bar car was pandemonium.

Shattered glass and spilled booze covered the floor. Half the occupants had their faces pressed to the windows while the other half made for the door.

Darla and Gertriss, bless them, were back to back by the door, pistols drawn.

“We didn’t do it,” I yelled, over the din. “Evis. Follow the crowd. Keep an eye out for long thin knives or people sneaking into sleeping compartments. Gertriss. Watch Evis. Darla. With me.”

Evis nodded and charged the door, Gertriss on his heels. Darla took my hand and we followed, shouldering our way through the crowd.

By the time we reached the platform between cars, the Western Star was stopped. Her steam engine still chugged, and her funnel still belched smoke, so I was at least reassured we hadn’t exploded. Yet.

I shoved a pair of hesitant riders aside and put boots on the gravel track bed. Darla hopped down after, and together we sprinted past the stopped cars, watched the whole time by rows of worried faces.

Gravel crunched behind us. I turned to see a small mob of brave souls following in our wake, led by the stumbling clown. He saw me turn and honked his red nose at me, nearly tripping from the effort.

The Western Star was nineteen cars, not counting the tender and the locomotive. I was huffing and puffing by the time we drew even with the engine, and unable to cuss when I saw what lay ahead.

“What the hell?” said Darla, who wasn’t even panting.

A mastodon, the biggest one I’d ever seen, was sitting on the tracks, waving its hairy trunk back and forth between its monstrous yellow tusks. And I do mean sitting—its back legs, all forty tons of them, were folded so that the beast’s wide ass was planted across the tracks.

The mastodon’s musk was so powerful my eyes began to burn, and I had to struggle not to gag. Horseflies buzzed thick about us.

“Those are Trolls,” said Darla, lowering her revolver and hiding it behind her skirt.

I nodded. Flanking the mastodon was a pair of Trolls, also seated, remaining still and silent in what I understood to be a Trollish gesture of friendly respect.

Huddled in a nervous mob at the locomotive’s blunt prow was Engineer Stoddard and a pair of sooty toughs I assumed were coal shovelers.

“Trolls and their horse,” I said.

“Why would they park their horse on the tracks?” Darla asked.

“Because they can park it anywhere they damn well please, I suppose,” I said. Engineer Stoddard turned, saw me, and smiled the kind of smile one reserves for delivering bad news to people you don’t like.

“Well, there he is,” he barked, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ve already sent for the basket of apples. You get to deliver it. That’s the Watchman’s job, dealing with Trolls.”

His burly fire-men snorted until Darla let them see her revolver.

“Apples?” I asked. “Why apples?”

Stoddard shrugged. “Because they like apples. How the hell should I know? They’re Trolls, they don’t make no sense. They stop the train. You give them apples, let them talk Troll bullshit until they get done. They move their Troll horse, and we waste a half a damned day getting back up to speed. That’s the job, fancy man. Now it’s your job. Here’s the apples.”

Rowdy came charging up, dragging one side of a bushel basket of apples while another conductor dragged the other.

“I’ll go with you, Captain,” Rowdy said.

“Hell you will,” snarled Stoddard. “That’s a Watch job. You’re with the C&E. Get back to your car.”

“Go on, kid,” I said softly. “I can manage.”

Darla stepped up and shot a killing glare at the engineer. “I’ll take this side, dear,” she said. Her revolver had vanished as quickly as a magician’s trick rabbit. “We wouldn’t want to impose upon the C&E by asking them to do a man’s job, now would we?”

I grinned and grabbed the other handle. Engineer Stoddard’s face turned the vibrant red of a ripe tomato.

“No indeed, wife,” I replied. “I’m sure they’ve got a full day of cowering to do.” I tipped my hat to the railroad men as we passed them. “Mind you don’t soil your underbritches, gentlemen.”

If they had any retort, the Western Star herself rendered it inaudible with a long billowing discharge of compressed steam.

Gravel crunched behind us, as the clown raced to catch up. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “Don’t worry about the Trolls, either. They’re friendly.”

“How do you know that?” asked Darla.

“Because we ain’t dead,” he replied. “Here, I’ll go first.”

And he did, charging up to the larger of the two Trolls before breaking into a clumsy, bumbling dance.

“That is either the drunkest man I’ve ever seen, or the bravest,” said Darla.

“Both,” I replied. The apple basket was heavy. We took our time, so I got a good look at both Trolls before stepping within smiting distance.

The rightmost was typical Troll—a towering mass of muscle and fur decorated with foot-long talons and piercing Troll eyes. He was naked, save for a cargo belt and an ornamental necklace made from weathered human skulls, each missing the lower jaw and strung together through ragged holes on each side of the cranium.

The Troll on the left was half the size of the other. His fur was dark, almost black, and though his eyes were every bit Troll warrior, they darted about constantly and something like a grin shaped his toothy maw.

“Is that a child?” whispered Darla.

“I think so,” I replied. “Unusual. They’re shy about bringing their youngsters around humans.”

The adult Troll started clapping in time to the clown’s ridiculous dance. “Ho, ho, ho,” it boomed, followed by a string of wet Troll words that might have been a cheerful greeting or a graphic description of the dismemberment to come.

We dragged the bushel of apples as close as I dared. “Greetings, Walking Stone,” I said, taking off my hat. “May your shadow fall tall and your soul grow to meet it.”

The Troll nodded but kept clapping. The railroad clown danced gamely on, gasping for breath but, by the Angels, keeping his too-large shoes shuffling in the gravel.

“Show him an apple before I have a stroke,” muttered the clown. “I can’t keep this up all damned day.”

Darla snatched up a ripe red apple. “For you and yours, Walking Stone,” she said, holding the fruit aloft. “A gift, given in friendship.”

The Troll ended his claps with a bellow and a laugh.

The clown dropped to his knees and vomited. Both Trolls erupted into fresh gales of laughter.

“It is good to be greeted with mirth,” boomed the adult Troll, in passable Kingdom. “We accept your gifts.” He switched back to a Trollish gargle, and the smaller of the pair marched forward, careful to keep his mouth closed and his fangs hidden.

“We are indeed a mirthful folk,” I said, as the Troll youngster approached. “Mirthful, friendly, and mostly unarmed. My name is Markhat. This is my wife, Darla.”

“I’m Jiggles,” said the clown, still mopping his chin with his filthy sleeve. “Pleased to meet you all, yer lordships.” He gave his false nose a desultory honk.

The elder Troll nodded. “We saw the wounded sky, and knew a hurried iron horse approached,” he said. “My son Iron-in-Legs wished to see his namesake, before we quit these lands.”

The Troll kid took the basket from Darla with a wink. He shoved a handful of apples in his maw and started chewing them before he turned and took the basket back to papa.

“Named after a train, is he?” I replied. “Well, that’s a first. Tell you what, Walking Stone. Why not bring your son on the train, let him have a closer look? He could even blow the whistle. Would he like that?”

The Troll tilted his head at me, and for an awful moment I was afraid I’d unwittingly delivered some dire insult. But then the Troll laughed and exchanged a few words with his son, whose responses were somewhat hampered by his mouthful of half-chewed apples.

“That would indeed be an honor,” the adult Troll replied at last. “Although our agreement with the iron road men does not extend to such liberties.”

“It does today,” I said, while Darla tried to shush me. “The iron road men will do as I say. Isn’t that right, dear?”

“I sincerely hope it is,” Darla said.

I made a sweeping gesture toward the Western Star. “Please, be my guests,” I said. “Bring your horse, if you wish. Our tender car has great big water tanks. He may drink from those.”

Darla bit back a snort.

“That is indeed most generous,” replied the Troll. He turned, and bellowed to the mammoth. It replied with a loud, clearly annoyed sigh and rose from its haunches to lumber up behind the Trolls.

I turned. “Follow us, friends,” I said, and I set off at a good clip.

“Mister, you should have been a clown,” said Jiggles. “You’ve got the damned mouth for it.”

“Never got the hang of juggling,” I replied.

“That engineer is going to be livid,” Darla whispered. “No wonder we’re never invited to parties.”

“Merely doing my part to establish trust and cooperation with our Trollish brethren,” I replied. Indeed, as the thunderous tromping of the mammoth and the Troll’s happy booming conversation reached the Western Star, dozens of faces turned our way. Most of the crowd milling about outside the train cars made their way hurriedly back inside.

Stoddard was the only man standing by the time my impromptu parade reached the locomotive.

“This is Engineer Stoddard,” I said, turning to face the Trolls. “He drives the hurried iron horses. He is delighted to meet you both, and he welcomes you aboard his train with open arms and a smiling, eager heart. Isn’t that right?”

“What the hell—” Stoddard began.

“Furthermore,” I added, “he invites your mighty horse to slake his thirst from the C&E’s complimentary and no doubt sparkling water. See that the tank car’s water cover is removed, Engineer Stoddard, that’s a good man.” I pushed the sputtering engineer aside and gestured for the Trolls to climb aboard. I’ve not spent much time around mastodons, but this one either knew the word water or his snout functioned as an exceptionally keen nose, because he was already pacing beside the locomotive, exploring its intricate workings with his trunk. “Follow me, gentlemen. Mind your heads. The opening may be a bit low for Trollish persons.”

Stoddard cussed but barked out orders. The mastodon eased tensions by lifting its tail and depositing a steaming ten-bushel heap of dung damned nearly in Stoddard’s face.

I swung myself up on the locomotive’s step and offered Darla my hand. I moved quickly inside to make room as a furry Troll foot came down on a locomotive’s iron bones for the first time in history, I guessed.

The pounding of human feet charging for the back cars sounded over the steady chugging of the steam pistons.

“It stinks,” opined the adult Troll, squeezing his nostrils shut. Even stooped and huddled as best he could, the adult Troll could barely fit his massive frame through the Western Star’s cramped locomotive gangway.

The younger Troll, though, managed to sidle his way all the way to the front of the engine. He gurgled out words that I’m sure meant ‘Look, Papa, shiny machines!’ before he charged directly into the engineer’s cab.

Stoddard, his face the color of burning coal, managed to squeeze himself past the Troll and plant himself firmly in front of the brass levers and wheels that operated the train. “If Trolls wreck this train, I swear I’ll see you pay for it,” he growled at me.

“Show him the whistle,” I replied. “The kid wants to blow it.”

Stoddard’s eyes bulged, but he reached up and pulled hard at a worn iron lever.

The Western Star’s steam whistle blew, three short blasts. “Tell him not to tear it out of the works,” said the engineer.

The kid didn’t need any prompting. His furry Troll paw closed on the lever and he yanked and let the whistle sound until Poppa Troll muttered something in Troll.

The kid let go. My ears rang, but I kept my smile.

“You can tell everyone you made the hurried iron horses sing,” I said. The elder Troll translated for me, and the kid responded finally with a single solemn Trollish nod.

“You do us honor,” said the elder Troll. He clambered down from the train and stretched, his briefly extended claws flashing bright and white in the sun. “Walk with me, as we depart.”

We walked. The kid took up the rear, stealing glances at the train and munching down apple after apple.

Darla came too, and didn’t bat an eye when the mastodon’s massive trunk, still dripping from his drink at the tank car, took a curious sniff at her hat.

“The hurried iron horse stank of more than the coal,” said the adult Troll as soon as we were well away from the train. “It stank of the magic your folk employ. The dark magic. You have a special word for such stinking magics…”

“Sorcery?” I asked.

“Yes. That word. Be warned. Such a stench alone is cause for alarm, for turning, for seeking a new path. But your peril is threefold. The radiant child approaches from the east. The gray fate from the west, drawn by the dark. This thing you call the train, it is to be a meeting place. You would do well to come with us. My horse may bear the happy burden of many friends.”

I nodded, choosing my next words carefully. “I am honored, Walking Stone, to be named among your friends. I must remain with the train, though, as my own friends are bound to it, and I am determined to see them safe.”

The Troll shrugged. He reached into one of the pouches attached to his belt, and produced a small bundle of weeds and sticks bound together with twine.

“Take this,” he said, tossing me the bundle. It smelled of sage and Troll. Mostly Troll. “You gave Iron-in-Legs a boon. I give a boon to you. This was blessed by a word from the Wise. Burn it in an hour of need. The smoke will bear the power of the word. May it serve you well.”

I nodded gravely. “I thank you, Walking Stone. You do me and mine honor.”

The Troll blinked, and we set out again, still meandering through the tall plains grass.

“You said earlier you are quitting these lands, Walking Stone,” said Darla, after a time. “Might I ask why?”

The Troll swiveled his big dark eyes about, and his voice fell to a hoarse Troll whisper. “Many things, dark and light, are awakening,” he said. “Waking, to walk. More join their number with every sunrise. The day is approaching when the old tales will be flesh, the old terrors born anew.” The Troll turned to look at me. “Do your folk not see this too?”

“We’ve seen,” I said, thinking of river monsters and the Slilth. “But what are we to do?”

“My folk seek our old lands, the lands of the low sun, the lands of ice and the skies of the cold fire,” said the Troll.

His son spit out a gob of apple-seeds and the elder Troll batted him casually on the back of his head.

“Just how far north are you heading?” I asked.

“As far as there is land underfoot,” he replied. His voice fell even further. “Though the wise among us say that may not be far enough. Even the face of the Moon is troubled, friend. This is a new thing that even the Wise have not seen.”

Darla’s hand closed on mine.

“We wish you well,” I said, when the mastodon halted, and the Trolls gathered by its side. “Safe travels, and warm beds.”

“It is a brave man who chooses to walk with death,” the Troll replied. “A brave wife who walks beside him. May your shadows fall tall and your souls grow to meet them.”

Darla gasped. She knew enough about Trollish etiquette to realize what a profound gesture the Troll just made by speaking the traditional blessing to us.

Both Trolls made flat-footed flying leaps from the dirt to the mastodon’s furry shoulders. The elder Troll bellowed, and the mastodon turned and trundled away north, trailing horseflies and stink.

Darla and I watched them go.

I didn’t realize for a moment she was shivering. It wasn’t cold.

“Look, that was all a lot of frontier hooey,” I said. “Trolls are worse than Mama Hog when it comes to seeing boogeymen behind every bush.”

“That’s absolutely factual,” said Darla. “But you know damned well everything he said was true. Every word of it.”

I frowned. “Radiant children? Gray dooms? Sorcery on the train? Someone knifed a Watchman, sure, but that’s just plain old murder.”

She turned to face me. “Even Bel Loit won’t be far enough, will it?” she asked. I could see her eyes moving, see her taking in the empty grassy plain, the wide blue skies, the retreating mammoth and its riders.

“Nothing coming but tomorrow, hon,” I said. “It’ll be just another day. Only difference is that I’ll be slightly more distinguished, and therefore irresistible.”

She kicked me in the shins, but her heart wasn’t in it. I grabbed her up in a fierce hug about the time the Western Star’s whistle began to blow.

“That man is furious,” Darla said as we put our backs to the retreating Troll horse and made for the train.

“Railroad men,” I said with a dramatic sigh. “Always angry, always in a hurry. They’re not serene like us.”

The mammoth bellowed in a long, sonorous reply to the train whistle. We marched on, the grass whipping about our knees.

A pale gray disk of moon rode high in the cloudless sky. If the face of it was troubled, I couldn’t discern it. I did wonder if Stitches was still up there, cataloging her trove of wonders, all alone.

The whistle sounded again, three short blasts, and then the Star’s steam engine groaned and roared. Great billows of steam shot from her undercarriage. A fat plume of black coal smoke began to pour from her funnel, and as we watched the mighty pistons stirred and the great iron wheels squealed as they turned.

We had to run to catch up and haul ourselves aboard. Darla was laughing, and I suppose I was too, and we stood there on the steps for a long time just watching the endless plains quickly pass us by.

....continued in WAY OUT WEST!

 

That's just a very small excerpt from the book. I do hope you'll come along for the ride. 

 

 

 

Real Life Hero

That was the scene in my front yard last February. I post it here because I'm tired of the relentless Mississippi heat, and it's a reminder that the stifling muggy days of summer will soon give way to autumn.

Of course autumn here generally means a quarter of an hour of cool, crisp weather followed by weeks of rain, but the temps do dip down below those required to bake a cake, and I for one will welcome the change.

(To read this in the large print edition, with black text on a white background, click here)

 Of course, it could be worse. Much worse. Not too far south of here, a storm dumped three feet of water as it passed over the Baton Rouge. I saw one parish sheriff report that most of the residents of his parish, some 155,000 of them, had lost their homes and most of their possessions to flooding. People were trapped on tiny hills along I-55 for days, with nothing but rising water on all sides. 

Out of all this, the so-called 'Cajun Navy' took shape, as commercial fishermen and anyone with a boat took to the water, rescuing trapped residents when no one else could. I was heartened to the people out in boats going after trapped and starving animals, too. There are still kind and brave souls among us, who risk life and limb simply because it's the right thing to do.

An Instagram user named Troy Green took this photo. Here's what heroes look like:

  https://www.instagram.com/p/BJG7vdvgbaF/

Amid all the ugliness and violence we see every day, just remember -- there are still good people in the world. People who will brave flood waters to rescue strangers. People who will pull exhausted dogs and cats and even horses and cows from the flood. People who do good.

Black and white red and yellow, I think this picture says it better than I ever could -- we're all quite literally in the same boat.

MARKHAT NEWS

The new Markhat book, WAY OUT WEST, has finished its last editing pass. The final manuscript is now off to the formatters, where it will be magically changed from a Word document to a ebook-friendly file. And a print version file. This will take a few weeks, but after that, it'll be ready for release. I'll announce a release date right here in the blog, so keep watching!

A week before the release, I'll also reveal the new cover. I've seen it, and it's beautiful. Darla joins Markhat on this cover, and I think it may be the best one yet.

MUG AND MERALDA NEWS

The new Mug and Meralda book, EVERY WIND OF CHANGE, is now halfway complete! 

A few readers have noted that we know nothing of Meralda's life before she became Mage. This book will address that gap, and introduce a new character rumored, by me right here, to be Meralda's mother. It's not a happy reunion. But it's way too eraly to be posting spoilers, so I'll shut up now.

In fact, I'd better get writing, or the book will never get finished. Take care out there, everyone!

 

Let The Games Begin

I'm riveted by the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Riveted to the precise same degree and to the exact extent that I am riveted by State Farm commercials. Actually, that isn't a fair statement. I might actually watch a State Farm commercial, whereas I can't be bothered to even glance at a screen displaying anything Olympic-related.

I know, that's a terrible, awful, unpatriotic thing to say. These athletes have spent their entire lives preparing for this event.  Nations have put aside their differences to participate. Fortunes have been spent preparing for the games. I stifle a small yawn.

(To read this in the large print edition, click here).

Sorry, but for me, the Games are just a vast waste of time and resources. But keep in mind I'd make the same claim about most sporting events, all of which ultimately boil down to people chasing balls around. I just don't care who scores the most touchdowns during a tennis match, or which team manages the most home runs during the Super Bowl. American football has cheerleaders, which is nice, but the camera keeps cutting away from them to show the game. 

I understand I'm in the minority in this regard. I don't begrudge people who do enjoy sports, although during football season everyone assumes I love them too, which leads to a lot of one-sided conversations about this quarterback's throwing ability or that defense's overall strategy. My neck gets sore from making the 'knowing nod' I've perfected over the years. I've tried politely saying "I don't follow football,' but that phrase is always met with a moment of confusion followed by the same 45 minute diatribe on football I always get. 

The Olympics might be more interesting if the sports featured were more in line with the current geopolitical situation. Here are a few events I'd like to suggest.

1) SCAVENGER HUNT. Ignoring the filth and pollution of Rio's waterways is the wrong choice. Instead, embrace the environment! Instead of swimming and kayaking through the pestilence-ridden sludge, assign each team a list of items they must retrieve from the murky waters. Human body parts, dead animals, cast-off furniture, specific bacterial pathogens -- imagine the thrill of watching swimmers drag limbless torsos toward the finish line while their rivals struggle to push an old Barcalounger ahead. Now that's a dramatic finish.

2) RUSSIAN ROPE-A-DOPE. If there's anything the Russian teams enjoy more than vodka, it's a solid regimen of performance-enhancing chemicals carefully designed to maximize physical prowess and evade detection by pesky drug tests. Let's make a sport of that by allowing rival teams to simply beef up with good old-fashioned crystal meth before a special one-on-one matchup. Play Benny Hill background music during the meets. 

3) MIXED MEDIA. Let's add the element of surprise to the Games by randomly assigning each athlete to a different team before the contests take place. Watch sprinters try to dive. See hockey players compete in bicycle races. Strap ice skates on weightlifters and fire up the Celine Dion tunes. I might even watch that.

4) MINEFIELD AND TRACK. I think the name says it all. Pole vaulting is a lot more fun to watch when explosions are involved. They needn't be lethal explosions, just ones designed to finally give these guys some real altitude. 

5) URBAN ENDURANCE RUNNING. Forget the boring oval track -- send the runners right through Rio, after strapping belts filled with cash around their waists. What is it the Olympic ads always say? "Records will be set. And broken." Darn right they will.

6) ROCKET ASSISTED LUGE. Sleds sliding down an icy track. Boring! Rocket-powered sleds blazing up the icy track from the bottom before being launched into the sky? Now that's athletic. All right, all right. Give the teams parachutes. Way to take the fun out of everything, Captain Buzzkill.

7) DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS. A table, some dice, pens and paper. Just play D&D the way it was meant to be played, but with dramatic lighting and a John Williams musical score. Still better than curling, which is just bloody silly. 

8) CALVINBALL. From the comic strip 'Calvin and Hobbes,' a game in which the players make up the rules as they play. Ghost bases! Invisible runners! Opposite zones! Scores of eleven hundred and sixty to blue. Listen, if people can get so excited about a game they'll actually sit still for three hours of soccer, Calvinball will take the world by storm. At least the inevitable post-game riots will be amusing to watch as furious crowds fight over whether a Phantom Double-Secret Fire Goal is valid if scored inside a five-point Silent Spy Zone. 

9) FASHION FOOTBALL. Play soccer -- but play it dressed in the formal attire of each nation, right down to the dress shoes and the corsages. Play must be executed while weddings, funerals, and other somber events take place on the playing field. Include the players in these events as ushers, caterers, even celebrants. Seeing pall-bearers defend their goal while carrying a coffin would add drama to the match. Huddle up, bridesmaids!

10) ARMS RACE. This will really shake things up. Before each Olympics, a single nation must agree to surrender a randomly chosen military asset as the prize in this bout. Athletes might be competing for a North Korean rowboat fitted with an antique SCUD missile, or they might be vying for a US-built Casablanca class aircraft carrier -- but they won't know until after the winner is announced. Great fun, especially as the cameras zoom in on the faces of horrified diplomats as they realize they must now deal with a nuclear-capable People's Free And Very Much Yes Democratic Republic of Lower Violencestan. 

You're welcome, International Olympic Committee. Please use any of these suggestions as you see fit, and as you have time to consider them amid the press of fraud scandals and bribe-laundering.