Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Ramble about Vacant Graves

Vacant Graves is coming out soon and I felt I should say a few things about it. I firmly believe that an artist should never apologize for their work. All art is experimentation, and experimentation is, by its very nature, risk. That said, a little warning never hurt anybody, right?

Well, I've taken some risks with Vacant Graves. There are certain elements in Cruel Numbers that will make no appearance at all in Vacant Graves. It isn't that I was unhappy with Cruel Numbers. But if I'm going to spin Donovan into a series, I'm going to need some leeway. This means that a lot of his adventures are going to occur outside of the city--his 'safe zone,' if you will. For some stories, that translates into a distinct lack of zany Dutch inventors, violent wives, or sarcastic meditations on New York City.

If, like me, you like these things, then be safe in the knowledge that Moira and Verhalen and New York are still there, waiting for the next adventure.

While we're on the topic, there is something else in Vacant Graves I need to address: the technology. I had a decision to make, early on, about how far out of "realistic" science I was going to go with this. The fact is, I love mecholimbs and ornithopters, so 21st century physics are going to have to take a backseat. That's not to say I'm going to ignore reality entirely, though. You'll notice that my steam engines need to get their boiler going (instead of magically turning on, like an internal combustion engine) and that the weight and byproducts of steam technology prevents it from being used in submersibles and ornithopters. For them, I have to go with steam-cranked "kinetic energy banks," or as you might call them, 'springs.'

Yes, I'm aware of the irony. I refuse to put a steam engine into a physics-defying vehicle because I want it to be real. I can't help it. There's a logic to how ornithopters would work, and steam engines don't fit. I guess I have to plead 'poetic license.'

And add that ornithopters just plain kick ass, so we should give them a break.

Anyway, for all this discussion of ornithopters, they don't show up in Vacant Graves. I guess I mention them now because I know they exist in Donovan's world and they don't exist in ours, so there is a certain guilt there, the guilt of a man who loves science and tries to be scientific whenever he can. They aren't the only technology that defies our science, either. Without giving too much away, Vacant Graves is driven by an impossible technology. It is going to set the stage, in fact, for many impossible technologies that will appear throughout Donovan's adventures.

I hope that doesn't bother anyone. The fact is, I couldn't just leave Donovan investigating financial conspiracies and dragging little girls out of brothels. As much as I gussy it up as 'alternate history,' the Magnocracy is really steampunk and steampunk is about the impossible.

You've been warned and, I hope, whetted.

So read on you crazy diamonds.

Monday, January 21, 2013

to the Moon, Alice!

Alright, as you've probably noticed, I don't link a lot of stuff here. I like my blog tidy if I can manage it. That, and I'm a writer, so I feel obligated to create my own material instead of pawning off other folk's stuff.

I am going to make an exception.

If I were teaching right now (in a classroom...since I guess we're all teachers in a way), I would make my students watch this.

I love it not just because it targets conspiracy theorists, the bane of every historian. I love it because it is an example of how our perceptions can be manipulated. Even people who know we went to moon probably never thought about the fact that in 1969, going to the moon was actually easier than faking it.

Just a reminder...

Vacant Graves will be out February 18th. It is available for preorder already on several e-readers.

Of Pirate Pasts and Starry Futures

One of my favorite toys growing up was a Playmobil pirate ship. That ship was so well built that one time when a repairman came to the house, it so captured his imagination that he got down on his hands and knees on the floor next to me to better examine it. My father often speculates that that ship may have sparked my later interest in history, which in turn led me to an MA, several years of teaching, and above all, a desire to write fiction inspired by history.

One thing's for sure: I played the hell out of it. A young child is a devastating force, harder on a ship than rounding the Horn. My hands were like a tiny Scylla and Charybdis, eventually knocking away the beautiful canvas sails and losing a goodly number of parts.

With the sails gone, my older brother suggested that the ship might be powered by some kind of water-jet action, pulling water in the front and shooting it out the back. We were an imaginative bunch even then.

The water-propulsion idea appealed to my little mind because then the ship could go where it wanted, not worrying about how the wind was blowing. This, I think, encapsulates the difference between how a child thinks and how an adult thinks.

A child wants to get somewhere fast and in a world of automobiles and instant gratification (or, since this was the '80s, near-instant gratification), they see life as a Point A to Point B kind of deal. Anything else is a detour and a distraction.

Life isn't so simple, though. We often have to tack in life, to go one direction when our goal is in another, hoping that when we drop anchor we'll be where we want to be.

As a writer, I especially appreciate wind as a motive power. It creates an inherent challenge for the characters to overcome. Challenges are crucial to fiction. I realized this after I started reading Patrick O'Brian's work. The wind or 'weather gauge' is a topic of much discussion, a potent force in the novels. The novels become exciting precisely because the heroes can't just aim their ship, hit a button, and arrive where they want to go.

This same principle is what makes the Dread Empire's Fall series by Walter Jon Williams so awesome. Dread Empire's Fall has a lot in common with Patrick O'Brian's work, even though it's science fiction.

Walter Jon Williams decided not to introduce any technology that wasn't backed by scientific theories of today. This meant no warp drives, no hyper space, and above all, no 'grav plating' that magically creates gravity without disrupting the ship's course.

What Williams did instead was use basic physics to explain his starships. Instead of grav plating, the characters rely on the ship's acceleration to provide gravity, This meant the ships were designed so that the nose or front of the ship was at the characters' heads and the engines were below their feet. It also meant that any time the ship made a hard course change or acceleration, the characters had to run to belt in or be thrown around like clothes in a dryer. On a wider scale, ships without warp engines have to  follow narrow courses that utilize the slingshot effect of planetary and solar orbits. This created an inherent limitation to the battlefield, just as the weather gauge effected ships.

Rather than shying away from physics, Williams used them to make a riveting story.

I often credit Williams and O'Brian with growing me as both a writer and a person. Wind and gravity aren't impediments, they are challenges that can be overcome and utilized. This attitude goes far beyond writing. I strive, whenever I encounter something frustrating, to tell myself:

This, too, is a challenge.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. And when it doesn't, well...that's a challenge, too, isn't it?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Hotel Food

       The bread was hard and the filling was some
kind of potted meat with a bit of mustard.
       Phoebe’s face fell when she saw them. “What’s this?”
       I tore the sandwich apart with relish. “Food,” I said
between bites.
       “Are you sure? What kind of meat is this?”
       "Jesus, I don’t know. The kind that comes in a can.”
       “This came out of a can? We preserve fruits and such
at home, but not meat. Are you sure it’s safe?”
       “It’s all I ate when I was in the army.”
       “General Sherman said ‘war is hell.’ I didn’t know
that’s what he meant.”
       “You get used to it.”
       “But…what sort of animal is it?”
       I shrugged. “The tasty kind. It probably had hooves.
Who knows? Just eat it.”
       “It looks old.”
       “It is. But the canning process preserved it.” I
laughed. “You would never have made it in the city,
you silly minx. Everything comes in a can, not just
       I sipped my coffee and watched with amusement as
the country girl’s hunger finally won out. She choked
the sandwich down like she was eating a raw lamprey.

[Excerpt from VACANT GRAVES, coming this February]

Monday, January 7, 2013

Feverish Ramble

Still under the weather, which is to say 'sick,' since technically I'm under the weather whenever I'm not under the roof.

Was that funny? I can't tell right now. I seem have lost my humor-sensors along with the olfactory.

Oh well. I was reading the other day about the Laws of Thermodynamics (insert the requisite warning about Wikipedia here--as you can tell, I use it anyway). Apparently, they were developed by civil engineering and physics professors to make steam engines more efficient in the 19th century.

Any first year physics student can tell you how important the Laws of Thermodynamics are. They are so important, in fact, that they would have correctly predicted that the universe is expanding, if only we had grasped their full import sooner.

I'm left wondering if we would have stumbled on these theories without steam technology or if steam technology was a vital link in the chain of events leading to our modern world.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


I should've updated yesterday but I couldn't because I got a visit from Captain Tripps.

The good news is that it looks like I may survive. The strange news is that I had a fuzzy nurse watching over me all day. I've seen it before, but it always shocks me to see that inside that 9 lbs of feral princess beats a maternal heart. Normally, she's the scratch-and-hiss type, not the warm fuzzy type. Illness does strange things to people. And pets, too, apparently.

And Happy New Year. Color me superstitious, but the manner in which I greet it, combined with the ominous number, makes me very worried.