Tempest Road jungle teaser

Faded jungle pathway with red script, a teaser for Tempest Road. "Out here, echoes of a particular soccer game ring especially loud..."

The book will be out in mid-October, 2017.

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An 8:23-a.m. Ramble

Lots of pain this morning. Bottoms of my feet, both sets of toes, left top of my foot (separate, somehow), knees aching, lower back disagreeable. This is ridiculous. I’m 42, I can’t be broken. Chalk the weight gain up to fatigue and pain (the eating beast self-perpetuates craftily) plus a liberal summer of milkshakes. Good thing I’m on my way to the gym, where sweat and pain are required. Then it will all be worth something.

I’m waiting on job news, both exciting and exhausting. Four phone chats. Five? Just give me entry-level work, for chrissakes. Foot in the door, turn the corner on my hole-ridden resume. I’ll work my way up. Delays in finding an afternoon nanny threaten to send me back to square one. I don’t like square one. I want responsibilities, adult interaction, a W-2. Kinda sick of hearing about the nobility and value in putting the kids (needs and schedules) first. Why can’t I put them tied for first while I work through a healthy hopper?

The house Wi-Fi took an inexplicable siesta yesterday. A little thing, first-world inconvenience, but the timing was excellent. Job research, Luanne’s paperwork, kids griping without reason to gripe. I need to get out of this house.

On Tuesday, I saw a heartbreaking moment. I’ll share that soon.

In the dark this morning, I revisited the sadness of ET. Would Elliott ever be okay? In real life, he’d be around 46, trying to explain loss to his own kids. I’m sure there’s a ton of manuals on the subject, and I’m sure most of them suck.

Tempest Road comes out in a few weeks. I want to celebrate it, share it with people, and then move on. I don’t want to entertain the fantasy of robust sales, this time. Hope can be a killer. The cover seems awesome to me–my idea, Greg Simanson’s work. I have about seven seconds to entice people with it. Seven seconds to pique a reader’s interest, because two thousand hours of sweat equity just looks like black type on white paper. And any fool can do that.

Sip the coffee, fill the water, get out to the gym. An essay on Sherman Alexie popped into mind, scrawled on the kitchen white board with my carbs-count and ‘gf’ for gluten-free days (wheat may not be hurting, but it certainly wasn’t helping!) and note to work on a friend’s website. At the bottom is a command, the way I imagine Mr. Alexie (ever the funny man) would put it: “Get a job, you bum.”

Swell.

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They way a number of creative brains work–speaking from personal experience–is that doing something unrelated to the creative process can provide the burst, the spark, the breakthrough. I don’t know the science behind it. Maybe it’s immersing oneself in mundane activity that forces the brain to go for a romp in fantasy-land.

I had one of these gem-finding moments while I was at Camp Hamilton with my son’s school last week. As one of the cooks, I was tired (early mornings in the kitchen) and I’d gone back to my cabin alone for a de-groggifying shower before the dinner prep started. Sitting there, showered and dressed and barefoot (painful foot issues set aside, for a spell) in a musty-smelling cabin in the woods, without a single item of technology in sight, I had a thought about technology. That’s a little counter-intuitive, isn’t it?

Sleeping bags, trees, breeze, pine needles, dusty windows, dirty laundry piles (four cabin-mates), distant screams of occupied middle-school kids, a bit of cellophane litter outside–and I have a thought about a digital sharpshooter’s scope? How does that compute?

Red lights from bank of walkie-talkies at Camp Hamilton lodge

The item I thought of, for the second book in my Woman at War series, is a pattern-recognition capability for my heroine’s rifle. It would be an expensive piece of tech, to be sure, and I’m willing to bet we (or someone) has something similar in the works, now. (In the story, June Vereeth would use the enhanced scope to target incoming aerial assault vehicles. A tri-layer crosshairs image, in four quadrants, would help the user re-acquire a fast-moving target.)

Whether any of this technology would work out for “Destruction” remains to be seen. The story is, after all, what I imagine warfare might look like in a couple hundred years. (Small victory: I won’t be around to be proven wrong, ultimately.)

Red lights from bank of walkie-talkies at Camp Hamilton lodge

I wrote much of the snowbound first book, “Endgame,” while in sunny San Diego. Palm trees and surf–and I’m trying to figure out how my heroes might survive in an ice cave. I’ve also penned fantasy scenes (for Doublesight shape-shifters and ogres) while sitting in my parked minivan, waiting for kids to get out of martial arts or piano lessons.

Somehow, it all works. Although it may drive my wife crazy when I pause from doing dishes to pen a note, I’ll keep doing it. I know I’m super-lucky. There’s a reason I don’t go anywhere without pen and paper, these days. Inspiration is everywhere.

Red lights from bank of walkie-talkies at Camp Hamilton lodge

A bank of walkie-talkies waiting overnight for owners, Discover Lodge, Camp Hamilton with EAS.

The Prince of Endless, pt. 2

I’ve been writing this material as screenplays, assuming (foolishly) that the format would actually be valuable to a Hollywood agent and, further down the fantasy road, movie director. I also thought I’d put this all into novel form someday. That might happen. For the time being, the scene setting, actions and dialogue (all in present tense) will suffice.

This all takes place in Verisye, a fantasy world not unlike others seen many times. There’s no real technology above crossbows, catapults and large-gear mechanisms. The biggest distinction is the Aviarinelle, a multicolored river which runs through the sky. It’s high enough that it courses past snowy mountain peaks, and it is endless to the eye. Occasionally, characters hear it or think they hear it, so the river serves as a kind of constant in place of any widespread religion.

Tagline for this story: In a fantasy world, two unlikely heroes race to save a boy prince who’s been kidnapped.

(Opening credits with “Would?” by Alice In Chains)

 

In early morning in a fogged-in swamp, two constables (police) creep along a wet boat dock. They are MARVELLA, a blond woman (our heroine) and IBIX, a tough, older man. Both wear the light armor and swords of their job, which is to protect their small nearby town of Dillingham. They are both afraid, swords drawn. Visibility is only twenty feet in the fog.

“We must be close,” Ibix says.

“Why in Gerji [hell] would a boat come here? The dock has been rotting for years,” Marvella says.

“Unknown. Damn this fog.”

Soon, the grunts and moans of a dying “man” are heard. At the sound of clinking armor, Marvella pushes forward to help him.

Close to the boat, which rammed the splintering dock, they reach an Ehara who has been mortally wounded in vicious combat (he still has a sword run through him). A smeared trail of his blood leads back to a broken section of dock, where he fell from the boat.

[Ehara are my own invention, a race of wildly-colored humanoids from the tropical southeast regions. They are thin and tall, averaging seven feet in height, hairless, and come in different hues with markings like tiger stripes, etc. in a different color. Their structure looks similar to an NBA player, but gives them phenomenal strength and mass (they can’t ride horses) and speed. The trade-off is that they are forbidden from magic use, they don’t believe in possessions and are generally altruistic. They are also mistrusted in much of the realm, thanks to the Knight Wars.]

Marvella says, “Ehara.”

Ibix comes up, surprised.

The Ehara man, beige-toned with green markings, perks up at their arrival.

“The prince,” he says, fighting to breathe/stay conscious. “My cousin…Dirkennion…in Greenhump. Find…Dirkennion. They took the Prince of Endless.”

The Ehara man dies. Marvella and Ibix stand up.

Marvella asks, “The Prince of Endless?”

“He means Endruskenlessinia. Everyone just calls it ‘Endless.'”

The two of them look at the boat in the clearing fog. An axe is buried in a bloody railing.

“Endless,” Marvella repeats. “Is this prince the heir?”

“I imagine so.”

~~~

Wall cornerpiece in York, UK

Greenhump is a hillside farming village so named for a large grassy bulge on one side.

DIRKENNION, an Ehara man with maroon skin and copper-colored stripes, wearing light clothing, is standing under a walking bridge being constructed. He is holding a large stone centerpiece in place while workers on ladders adjust other stones to complete it. The bridge crosses a steep-sided creek.

A worker grunts, “Sorry. Almost there.”

Dirkennion replies, “You are okay. Do not pinch your fingers.”

From the creekside, a VILLAGE ELDER watches with admiration. Others watch as well.

A worker says, “It’s in. Let go.”

Another worker says, “Careful. Slowly.”

Dirkennion ignores him and slowly lets go. The stones hold in place. People applaud. Workers clap happily and continue.

Soon, Dirkennion comes to the Village Elder.

“Well done, Master Dirkennion. What will we do without you?”

“I will be around.”

Village Elder gives him a pained expression. “Your time of service is almost complete. Where is the council sending you after this peaceful village? Greenhump is not very exciting, I know.”

“The peace has never bothered me.”

“You are Murrizza, an elite warrior. For two years, you have baled hay and plowed fields for us simple folk.”

Dirkennion smiles at him. “I go where I am needed, Master.”

Village Elder laughs, knowing Dirkennion is halfway joking with him.

 

to be continued…

 

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The Prince of Endless, pt. 1

The tricky thing about stories: You have to start somewhere. Though they are continual streams of thought, action, dialogue and description in the mind of the author, the story itself must have a jumping-off point (or jumping-in point). This can be an art form all by itself. Pick the wrong spot and you can either confuse the reader or put them to sleep with plodding (if necessary) detail. (Does anyone really remember what Tolkien said in 50 pages of Hobbit description? We just remember that they’re kind folk and we like them for being odd.)

The starting point for a world seems just as awkward and problematic. Do you spend a few paragraphs describing moss on a boulder, a peculiar fish in the sea, symbols etched artfully into the hilt of a dagger?

Since your world contains your story, it seems reasonable to use that story to describe the world, which then helps inform the story. (A tale about the crunchies in a cat’s litter box probably doesn’t fit in a realm of airlocks and thruster issues.)

So, where the hell do you start?

Bowness Summit, Lake District, UK

For 25 years (yes, that long) part of my brain has existed in the fantasy realm of Verisye. Dragons, dwarves, fighting with swords, all that stuff. Once this place was created (in high school, thanks in part to Elmore and Easley paintings and the Dragonlance chronicles) my brain gave it a sort of permanent-resident status. It couldn’t be un-created. (Excavators: Turn about, go bother the neighbor.) Not that I wanted to undo it or give it up in any way. The place was fun. Possibilities were endless, and I was King (or God). For once in his life, Justin had his own set of rules and victories. For an audience of one, it was a pretty sweet show.

As the initial concept expanded (and expanded and expanded) the overall story focused on two people: Valessha and Dirkennion. Theirs is a love story set among extraordinary times. (More on that later.) There’s also the significant problem of an unstoppable enemy (Kalimoraith, a fun villain) and why said bad guy shows up on the doorstep of a rather orderly world. (More to come.)

About three years ago, we had a series of foggy mornings right after Christmas. (I love foggy mornings, when my creative engine leaps right into fifth gear.) So over the course of a week, sitting in my leather chair in the foggy quiet (before the kids rose) I penned the scene outline for a new screenplay. (I think in terms of cinema, so this just made sense to me.)

Immediately, this became the story before the big love story and problems with Kalimoraith and so forth. A title of The Prince of Endless popped up and stuck. It’s like it was all etched into stone tablets and my brain took snapshots.

And how to start this story? Where?

How about two town constables (police) investigating a boat-wreck in a swamp?

 

–To be continued…

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Oversimplifying

On FaceBook the other day, there appeared an ad which a younger, less-mature me would’ve gotten really pissed-off about. It was for a weekend writing retreat (hundreds of starry-eyed writers crammed into a conference room) where someone could ostensibly learn to write a novel in 40 hours. Four-zero hours.

When I thought about it (and this feels like a gimmick sale) this would only make sense if someone gets the bones and structure and a few character details in place. Then, their story is done. (Well, not really.)

To get the bones and structure worked out is to simplify the overall narrative and arc into elemental terms. “Man falls in love with woman” becomes “boy meets girl” and so on. Naturally, life is that simple, isn’t it?

For fun, I decided I’d try it with “Endgame,” a war/sci-fi novel told from the perspective of my heroine, sniper Captain June Vereeth. (Probably 2,000 hours of work, all told.)

(The story starts in the middle of a battle, when Vereeth and company are defending a fuel dump on a Hoth-like world.)

snowy mountain peak with treetops in foreground

Girl (Captain June Vereeth, in the midst of battle) shoots bag-guy enemy commander.

Girl meet boy (Dhani, equipment tech) in cave during battle.

Girl re-joins best friend (Prubius) and boss (Joffe) in battle.

Girl is nearly killed by falling, exploding enemy craft.

Girl and best friend are nearly killed by cave-in. Boss dies (crushed).

Girl, best friend, boy and two others are trapped, cut off from battle. Boy’s arm is pinned.

Girl, as ranking officer, orders removal of boy’s trapped arm (lest boy dies).

Girl tries not to panic, orders party to find a different route back to Base (main route is compromised).

Girl and party are saved from cataclysmic blast (fuel cache detonation) when bad guys penetrate the Base.

Girl wonders what to do (party is without maps or radio and is stranded 70 million miles from friendly territory).

Girl orders party to push on, mulling options and the war itself and the opposing side.

Girl and party emerge from cave tunnels, look back to see volcanic-blast aftermath of Base explosion behind them.

Girl and party are surprised to see planetary defense rockets (which were delayed by cyber attack) suddenly launch skyward, aimed at bad-guy cruisers in orbit.

Girl and party are nearly crushed by many tons of falling debris (those bad-guy cruisers).

Girl and party move on, knowing bad guys will be back (and will be as surly as ever)…

 

Okay, so this story doesn’t break down into really simple statements, after all. But it sure was fun to write!

Endgame cover by Greg Simanson Designs. Cover shows characters, rockets and a woman's eye against a green-ice background and twin suns, orange lettering. "The war begins" is added at the top.

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Gems of Philadelphia

Olde City. Fezziwig’s ice cream. An excellent pub an Race Street. A flawed bell.
I try to enter any travel experience with eyes wide open, so I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to America’s one-time capitol. My thoughts were, to no small degree, tinged by Bruce Springsteen’s sad, iconic “Streets of Philadelphia” which accompanied the 1993 Jonathan Demme film. (I was a relatively-cloistered eighteen-year-old when the movie came out.) Since then, tales of angry sports fans, crime statistics, a mean-streets boxer’s saga, and Mark Bowden’s Finders Keepers were my windows on a city that seemed forgotten. (Maybe it was thought of as New York’s lesser cousin, which is inaccurate.)
Tree with cool roots, foliage and brickwork in Philadelphia park
The Philadelphia I found was a trove of gems. We stayed in the Wyndham Historic District (very nice staff, great rooms, no complaints) which sits among the brick and cobblestone of the original city. The presence of Benjamin Franklin is everywhere, from his oversized bust beside a fire station to his actual grave (steps from the hotel) to his namesake blue bridge across the Delaware River. The guided tour of Independence Hall was short and sweet. I’m no history buff, but it was pretty amazing to be standing in that room looking at that furniture where the magical birth of our country took place (at least, in codified and legal form). Of course, we also took in the Liberty Bell, which is as much about the Abolitionist Movement as anything. Seeing the actual symbol of something so representative and positive was a first for myself and the kids.
A dessert-first sandwich board outside Fezziwegs Ice Cream, Philadelphia
Our discoveries went on. We stumbled upon brand-new Fezziwig’s Sweet Shoppe and quickly decided they offer the best milkshakes in the known world. (Their sandwich board outside compels one to indulge a little.) Olde City Grille offers excellent pizza, Stromboli and Spanakopita. The Race Street Cafe is really a pub worthy of any British city, tasty food modernized to present day. Beyond, the Race Street Pier juts out beneath the behemoth light-blue of the Franklin Bridge. Elfreth’s Alley, a centuries-old residential street, begs to figure prominently in novels. Lunch at Reading Terminal Market is a crowded but worthwhile mess of options. Nearby are numerous parks and green spaces for a few minutes of peace and contemplation (and shade for hot summer days).
Across town, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a gorgeous building flanked by amazing statuary (including the famous Rocky figure, removed to street level).
Side branch of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Yes, there are still problems and more than a few ruined people. The Delaware River is dominated by industry and rusting ships. The city is, naturally, far from perfect.
Many faces I saw, however, were happy and vibrant despite the heat and weight of the past. Philadelphia seems to be rising steadily, her people buoyed and her diverse gifts celebrated.
Sometimes, if we choose to focus on the positive of an experience, that’s what we’ll get in return. And we’ll feel welcome there.
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