Monthly Archives: August 2016

210. Close to the Ground

During 1987 and 1988, we spent 130 days in Europe, traveling by train, backpacking, and living in a dome tent. The tent cost twenty-nine dollars at K-mart. It kept the rain out until it rained; then it kept some of the rain out. All the summer of 1987 the fiberglass tent poles kept eroding at the ends, and the tent got progressively lower to the ground. Finally we started patching it with branches harvested from bushes at the campgrounds. When we got home, we took the ragged remnants back and they gave us a replacement. That one got us through 1988.

It was a vacation, and a cultural and historic tour, but I also had the rough outline of a novel in my head, and I was looking for places to let it happen. I visited the American consulate in Marseilles because I intended to have my protagonist make connections there. At the American embassy in Paris I mentioned that I was planning to write a novel about an American in Europe on the run from gangsters. The information clerk sighed wearily and said, “We wish you wouldn’t.”

We left looking like Americans. We came back looking like very fit Americans. Walking every day and eating very little will do that to you.

During those two summers we went all the way to the northernmost point in the Orkneys and as far north as the Arctic Circle in Norway. Looking out from the train from Myrdal to Flam, I saw a grassy cliff and knew that it would become the scene of the climax of the novel. We went northeast to Finland, southeast to Budapest and Greece, south as far as Pompeii, west as far as Portugal, and ten thousand places in between. We did not go to Berlin, because that was still East Germany and Eurail didn’t go there. Germany was a fairly tense place, those summers.

We took the train everywhere. Without Eurail passes, none of this would have been possible. We also walked, probably more than a thousand miles, around towns, on Alpine trails, and daily to and from the campgrounds which were always far out on the edge of the cities we visited. Those campground trips took us through back alley parts of cities normal tourists never see – seldom scenic, but always interesting. We only ate in restaurants where the exchange rate made them cheap; in Switzerland, we at a lot of bread and apples.

Being poor, or something like poor, can be an advantage to a writer. It’s hard to imagine Steinbeck writing Cannery Row or The Grapes of Wrath while living in a penthouse. Poverty, or something like, can seem exotic to those who have a little money.

Of course, most people want to read about the rich. After all, the James Bond novels wouldn’t work if he wore ragged clothes and drove a ten year old car.

I find life close to the ground interesting, and all those experiences allowed me to build a story in which my protagonist, Ian Gunn, has reason to live like I did, at least for a part of the book, and draw on those experiences for the rest of it. It is called Raven’s Run and it begins in Serial tomorrow.

At one point, he and his girlfriend meet a street musician, and Ian thinks:

On the ladder of affluence, we were near the bottom. Eric was one critical step lower. We knew that we could not eat in a restaurant; Eric did not know where his next meal was coming from.

Ian Gunn is about thirty, as we were, and on the verge of moving into better circumstances, but not quite there yet. He finds himself traveling on the cheap, like a teenager, but his age makes him a misfit in that crowd. I could tell you more, but check out Serial tomorrow and read it for yourself. 


Contents of the First Year of Serial

On August 31, 2015 – one year ago today – I began this website in two parts, A Writing Life and Serial. Confusingly, the name of the overall site and one of the two blogs was the same. I wouldn’t make that mistake again, but there were many things I didn’t know about running a website when I started.

This half of the site, Serial, is technically a separate blog, but it isn’t treated like a blog. It was a way to let me publish short stories, articles, novels, and novel excerpts in serial form. I always intended to remove the results, as each was completed, to a separate section called Backfile. Blogs place entries last to first; that works for a serial, but for a completed piece it would mean reading from end to beginning.  In Backfile you can read from beginning to end.

Here is a summary of the first year of Serial.

Blondel of Arden     Blondel is a peaceful, small statured bard of small magics, but he is also more than he seems. Blondel of Arden and Prince of Exile are my only non-Menhir fantasies. Look for it in Backfile.

Koan     Short and snarky. Look for it in Backfile.

Into the Storm     A day’s recreation with strong undertones. Look for it in Backfile.

To Go Not Gently     Ram David Singh, formerly of Ozarka, NorAm, now of India, the last, great scientific country on a post-apocalyptic Earth, is trying for immortality. Lots of luck. Novella, originally published in Galaxy, a modified excerpt from the novel A Fond Farewell to Dying. Look for it in Backfile.

The Best of Lies     Selenchuk came to slay a dragon and stayed to live a quiet life. Now another would-be dragon slayer is about to mess that up. Set in the World of the Menhir. Look for it in Backfile.

How To Build a Culture     Non-fiction.  The is the text of a talk given at Westercon 34, held in Sacramento, CA  in 1981. Look for it in Backfile.

Symphony Christmas     This is as excerpt from the novel Symphony in a Minor Key.  I still intend to publish the novel, so this will eventually be removed from Serial and not placed in Backfile.

Over the Christmas season I printed five favorite poems, written by others. They will eventually be removed from Serial and not placed in Backfile.

The Prince of Exile     Nothing is what it seems, in service of the Prince. Prince of Exile and Blondel of Arden are my only non-Menhir fantasies. Not yet moved to Backfile.

Voices in the Walls     This is as excerpt from an uncompleted novel, heavily annotated for the benefit of new or would-be writers. It will eventually be removed from Serial and placed in Backfile.

Jandrax     The entirety of my 1978 first novel, annotated for the benefit of would-be writers. It will eventually be removed from Serial and placed in Backfile.

Starting tomorrow, Raven’s Run, another unpublished novel.

209. Travel

When I was a child, my family took only one vacation. We drove a hundred miles south to see the reconstructed fort at Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. We left at seven in the morning, right after milking, and got back by five in the afternoon.

That’s how it is on a dairy farm. I left Oklahoma for Michigan when I went to college, but that wasn’t a vacation. That was an escape. By the time I got married, I was ready to do some traveling.

Travel was cheap in the U.S. in the seventies. Gas was seventeen cents a gallon and the old car usually ran. We slept in a pup tent and cooked on a camp stove. We crisscrossed the western two-thirds of America and visited nearly every National Park. Eventually however, as I continued doing more writing than selling, the car got old and times got lean. Then I started teaching and a few years later, with a mostly healed up bank account, we toured the Atlantic states. That trip gave me the start on a new novel (see 55. Voices in the Wall and Serial for February and March of 2016).

By 1987 we had saved enough money to tour Europe. Perhaps tour is not the right word. In those days you could get cheap air fares if you paid months in advance. Eurail passes cost quite a bit, but they took care of all your travel costs once you were in Europe. That left just food and lodging.

We were following the advice of Rick Steves but planned to outdo him on cheapness. We bought a tent and a pair of rucksacks. A set of clothing on our backs and another pair of jeans and shirt in the backpack, and we were ready to go.

We were 30 years old that year and planning to travel like teenagers – minus the hitchhiking. We had very little money, but we had lots of time. Seventy days, in fact. Being a school teacher is a real pain sometimes, but it gives you summers off.

As we waited for our flight out of San Francisco that spring, the gate attendant announced that they were overbooked, and offered a pass for future flights to anyone who would volunteer to wait for a later departure. We volunteered, and then watched our flight leave without us. It was logical; the pass was worth almost as much as we had paid months earlier, and it would only mean a short delay. Still, after waiting a lifetime to see Europe, it hurt to see our plane go on without us.

It felt good when it returned twenty minutes later. They had had engine trouble, but the problem was quickly resolved. Meanwhile, we found out that the flight had not actually been overbooked. It was a computer error. We took off about forty minutes later, on the same plane, with passes in our pockets to cover a future plane flight. All the way to Europe in 1987, we planned for our second trip in 1988. more tomorrow

Re-introduction to Serial

This is the post from August 29, 2015, which was the
last working day of August that year, and the first post
in Serial. I’ve basically done what I said I would do.

Starting September first, this space will be home to serial fiction. It will be posted five days a week. (About half way through the year, that became four times a week, matching A Writing Life.)

Serial fiction has a long history. Going back at least to Dickens, it has been used to serve the needs of the publisher. How long each serial installment was, how many installments there were, and how long a time fell between each installment was calculated to fill issues of periodicals and bring readers back. For science fiction novelists, serialization has always been a way build an audience before a book is published, and earn a few extra dollars at the same time.

So what’s in it for you?

Free reads, for one thing.

When I first began to consider website serial publication of the works which will be presented here, I had a particular kind of reader in mind. I envisioned a train or bus commuter, or a bored backseater in a car pool, surrounded by distractions. (Not a driver. If you’re driving right now, turn off your damned smart phone!) I thought that kind of a reader would appreciate a short presentation, half a satisfying read and half a tease for tomorrow’s installment.

When I began to sort each story into episodes, it became apparent that each has a natural rhythm which has to be honored. Some stories have larger blocks of text between natural breaks, and this rhythm varies within each story as well. One size episode does not fit all, but there will still be five (later, four) episodes each week, of somewhat varying length.

Each story will carry a “5 of 12” style notation indicating which episode out of how many, so you can keep track of where you are. (This eventually became tedious, so I shifted to a simpler numbering system.) As in a blog, you can back up to previous posts to pick up any episodes you might have missed.

Shortly after each story concludes, it will be permanently archived on the Backfile page. If you prefer to read a story all at once, just wait. That is, if you can avert your eyes from the daily presentation.

I dare you to try.

Tomorrow, I will list the contents of the first year of Serial.

208. The Cost of Research

I grew up on science fiction, but that wasn’t all I read. I read about the westward movement, pioneer days, cowboys, and Indians (as opposed to cowboys and Indians). When I discovered adult books, I read a lot of Costain. He was about all we had in the closet sized abandoned library in our elementary school.

I found a set of cheaply bound classics in a stationary store in a nearby town. They were two-ups, with Moby Dick and Two Years Before the Mast in one volume. I loved them both, along with Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, and a half dozen others. I eventually learned that my Moby Dick was an abridged version. When I tried to tackle the original as an adult, I figured out why they abridged it. Damn, that book is long; maybe I’ll finish it next year, when I’m not so busy.

Everything I read, outside of The Scarlet Letter, was an adventure of some sort. Navel gazing literature never crossed my path until I was an adult. I still like my fiction to be doing something, even while the protagonist reflects on life and its meaning. After all, we mix up action and reflection in real life.

That was the way I approached my writing from the beginning. Plenty of action; plenty of things to consider along the way and, hopefully to consider again after closing the book for the last time.

By the time I was ready to write, I could have written in any of a number of genres. I chose science fiction and fantasy for two reasons. First, they are my favorites. I had been reading both for decades and I knew their possibilities and the readers’ expectations. They weren’t all I wanted to write, but they were a place to start.

The other reason was money. Re$earch co$ts dollar$ – and time, which is a form of money. I could create whole worlds out of my imagination, but if I wanted to write about the area west of Philadelphia in 1789, or West Virginia in 1865, or the Mississippi River in 1845 – to name the settings of three novels on my to-write list – it would have taken years of library research and trips to those places. I couldn’t afford that, so half of the things I was ready to write were out of reach.

I was a pleasure to write what I could afford to write, but still frustrating not to be able to crawl out of that box.

Eventually I started teaching, made a few bucks, and had the chance to travel. That opened things up. I‘ll tell you a bit about that over the next two posts, then acquaint you with one of the novels that came out of those travels. more tomorrow

Jandrax 92


Standard Year 904 and of the colony,
Year 36

When Jean reached the hilltop, Snowmelt had already come and gone. He leaned heavily on his staff and looked first at the rough stone marker, then upward and outward across the endless melt to the lake. After a time, tears came and he let the precious moisture fall upon the earth that covered his father’s body. Farewell, Jandrax. No man on this planet has made a mark so uniquely his own.

Snowmelt approached then, shyly, much as Isaac must have approached the altar. Jean smiled down at him, and reached out his hand. Snowmelt touched him fleetingly then withdrew. He scuffed the damp earth with his moccasin. He was slim, brown and powerful. The perfect savage. “Son,” Jean said, “I am leaving for a while.”

Snowmelt flashed a resentful look. “I know. Back to the island. Everyone is talking about it.”

Jean frowned his distaste. “The tribe is making me a prophet, and I never wanted that.”

“You claimed to speak to God. Prophet or liar; you left yourself no third alternative.”

“I suppose not. Well, I was warned.”

“Why are you going? Why must you leave me?”

Jean squinted at the distance and turned his face away to hide the depth of his feelings. “That I cannot answer. Rather, I will not. I will not burden you with it all, though you know part.”

Now his son turned away, for to acknowledge that his father was a cripple, to acknowledge that no woman chose to bed with him, was to acknowledge shame on them both. Yet the knowledge would not go away. “Was there never a woman of the tribe who looked favorably upon you?”

“Yes, Son; once. Briefly.”

“The winged girl was very beautiful?”


“But she too will have aged.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

“And if you go to the island, there will be no way to reenact what happened before. You said yourself that the presence rejected you.”

“I can only try.”

Snowmelt turned blindly toward Jean, unaccustomed tears streaking his face. “If you loved me, you would stay.” Jean reached out to him and, for once, Snowmelt allowed himself to be embraced.

“My son! If I did not love you, I would not have stayed these twelve, long, hungry years.”

Snowmelt pushed away and turned his back. For a time, Jean let the silence lie between them, then he said, “Will you come to the lakeshore to see me off?”

He shrugged without turning. “I suppose.

“See that you do!” Without looking back, Snowmelt began to descend the hill. Jean let him go. Soon only his shaggy head showed occasionally above the siskal.

(page break)

Excerpt from the DUBOIS HIEROS.
Manuscript discovered on the planet
Jandrax, galactic coordinates 11C 927C84.

1. In the morning of the world, the hero strove with the winds and cast down the mountains. The wind walker and the cloud dancer moved into the open air and there was rain, and from the rain, grasses, and from the grasses, cattle, and from the cattle, men.

2. The hero lay upon Sinai at the world’s edge and dreamed himself a dream.

3. First from the dream came the walker of winds, and he cleaved her to wife.

4. And from out of her loins came all manner of things, both good and evil . . .



One last comment —- Is this reality? Fantasy? Hallucination? The true hand of God?

You decide.

207. I Have a Dream

I’ve told my personal story regarding justice for black citizens several times, and I fleshed it out over a month and a half in February and March of this year. Here is a brief reprise for those who weren’t following yet.

I was born and raised in a small Oklahoma town with no blacks in sight. My father was a Baptist deacon and lay minister, and a dominating man. I never disagreed with him – out loud. He did not hate blacks – really, he didn’t. He expected to see many of them in heaven. He did think they had their place, ordained by God, and they would be happy if they only kept to it. He considered Martin Luther King an agitator and an evil man.

I agreed with his views of God and man when I was very young, but by my teen years I was beginning to question both. Silently question, that is. There was no discussion in our house, only my father’s statements ex cathedra and our silent nods. My final conversion away from his thinking on race came when black marchers were washed down the street by fire hoses in Selma and elsewhere.

This Sunday is the anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. When it happened, it passed me by. At the time, I was wrestling with my father’s views on God. My change of view on race was a couple of years in my future.

In our house, it was just another speech by that self-serving agitator King.

When I was doing research for posts earlier this year, I became aware of Philip Randolph, who orchestrated the March on Washington. Shamefully, I had never heard of him. At that time I said that I would find out more about him, and I did. His story is worth telling, but it isn’t mine to tell. I had planned a post detailing the March, but that isn’t my story, either. I’ve decided to leave both to those who fought the battles while I was still coming to realize that there was a war.

The story of the March on Washington isn’t mine to tell, but it changed my life, as it changed all of our lives, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Jandrax 91

Anton. A question, out of curiosity. Did the primer actually fail?”

Dumbly Anton shook his head.

“I have been advised by better men than either of us that I own your life. That I can kill you and feel no qualms of conscience.” Jean smiled. “I think you would not even resist me much. But I will not kill you.

“You wanted the antler; you have it. I need it no longer. But I will take my son.

“You, I will let live. Your life would be more punishment than death in any case. Your crippling of me only made me stronger and the prize that you took from me was a thing of no worth – have you enjoyed Chloe?”

Anton trembled at the taunt, but did not advance. “I will take my child now.”

Why Anton did it, Jean never knew. Perhaps he saw his life laid out before him, a half-man who let his own son be stolen. It was the first and last manly act of his life. He leaped forward, his blade raised. Jean slapped it away and thrust his own knife deep between his ribs.

Anton’s knees hit the dirt floor with a quiet shock and his eyes were wide. Death came rushing in on him and he turned toward the bed, his hand reaching out for Chloe. He died there, stretched toward that for which he had strived so hard, from which he had received so little. He was stretched thus when she woke to the light of morning and her screams alerted the colony to come see this latest wonder, the returned antler, the bloody floor, the empty crib.


Maybe this is where Jandrax should have ended. Certainly, if it were a simple adventure story on a science fiction world, this is all that needed to be said.

I didn’t feel that way. Even though I was a young writer, I had ambitions to tackle larger problems than “Who won?” and “Who lost?” The nomad and the oasis. Man and God – who was the created and who was the creator? Simple materialism vs. wrestling with whatever it is, that is larger than a man.

What really constitutes manhood? How do you balance personal independence against the need for human companionship, particularly when you can’t find a society that thinks and feels as you do?

In any case, I didn’t stop when things were settled, but went on one more step to stir them all up again. final word Monday

206. Coxey’s Army

“Congress takes two years to vote on anything. Twenty-millions of people are hungry and cannot wait two years to eat.”        Joseph Coxey

This weekend marks the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. It wasn’t the first march.

When I was a kid, my father would occasionally say something like, “That kid eats enough to feed Cox’s army!” We’d all laugh. It was just a saying. I was an adult before I realized where the phrase came from, or that “Cox” was actually Joseph Coxey.

Long before our present financial difficulties, even long before the Great Depression, the American economy has had a history of booms and busts. The origins of the Panic of 1893 are complex, but the result was clear. Unemployment rose dramatically – to 25% in Pennsylvania and 43% in Michigan.

There were few resources for the unemployed and hunger spread. Everybody had a theory as to the cause of the problem. Everybody had a different solution. Does this sound familiar?

Among those who spoke out was businessman Joseph Coxey. He called for government expenditures, not for handouts, but for a massive program of public improvements. He was branded as a crank for his position. Thirty years later it became the New Deal.

In order to push his agenda, Coxey organized a march on Washington. Leaving Massillon, Ohio in March of 1894, he and his followers marched approximately fifteen miles a day along the National Road.

The National Road was the first major highway built in the US by the federal government. It represented the kind of public improvement Coxey was calling for. Ironically, construction on the road had been stopped in 1837 by an earlier financial panic.

The press dubbed the group Coxey’s Army, and spread the word. It would be easy to forget, in our cell-phone world, that instantaneous communication is not new. It began in the mid nineteenth century when the telegraph advanced along with the railroads. The railroads had to have the telegraph to coordinate their trains; the newspapers co-opted it to carry local news throughout the nation.

Newspaper reporters followed along, reporting the progress of the march. Local people gave the marchers places to camp and donated food to sustain them. The local unemployed would join the march for a day or so, although few stayed for the whole journey.

A second march, called Kelly’s Army left San Francisco, also heading toward Washington. A few made it all the way by July. Fry’s Army from Los Angeles used a stolen train for part of their attempt to reach Washington.

About 400 of Coxey’s Army reached the Capitol on May first, but were stopped by police. Coxey and a few others climbed a fence and were arrested for trespassing on the Capitol grounds.

Coxey achieved nothing immediate, but began a long tradition of marching on the seat of government. Wikipedia lists well over a hundred marches, calling for everything from jobs, to peace, to abortion rights, to an end to abortion, to labeling on genetically engineered foods.

The most important of these was the 1963 march where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech.

Jandrax 90

Old Anton was tired of power, tired of the responsibility of leading his fractious following, but he dared not relinquish it. He had taken this scepter by midnight murder and now he could not let it go if he wished to remain alive.  If only sister Angi lived to give him comfort, or her husband, Lucien, dead these several months of the tuberculosis that ate at him so many years. If only . . .


Young Anton stared at the ceiling in indecision. He suspected that his grandfather’s death had been at his father’s hand. It was common gossip, softly spoken. He should get up, go quietly to his father’s apartment knife in hand and end this foolishness about succession. But he would not. He seethed in impotent fury.

He would not because young Anton had not inherited his father’s intelligence or his cunning and he knew it. Whatever he did to end his father’s reign would be countered by some unexpected move. Try an assassination and he would find some unseen safeguard. Even if it were not so, the expectation of it was enough to deter him.

But let this hunt pass and he would be able to take his father’s place. Already he was leading the hunt; that was a victory.

Or was it? Had his father planned it all; did he know that his son would not return from the hunt alive? It had happened before.

Cold sweat stood upon young Anton’s face as he remembered the wild moments, the instant decision, the withholding of fire that had destroyed Jean Dubois two years ago. Jean Dubois, his rival for Chloe – Chloe the slut, whose soft womanhood had gone to fat and whose affection had gone to hatred.

He had made an instant decision then, one of the few he had ever had the nerve to make. And it had been right, but Dubois lived. If only he had had the nerve to finish what he had started. If only . . .

Again he thought of the day he stood face to face with the crippled Dubois and let him take the antler. It seemed such a small thing then, but in his mind it had grown, had unmanned him. If he had stood his ground then, he could stand his ground now. But he had not.

There was a disturbance in the air which he would not have noticed had he not been upwrought. There was a stirring of breeze and an excess of light where there should have been only darkness. Softly in the night, Marcel, his son (Dubois’s son!), whimpered. Dumezil slipped out of the bed, careful not to waken the shrew that lay beside him, and took up his blade.

He drew back the hide curtain that screened their sleeping area. The shutters were gone from his window and wan moonlight stole in. Someone was in the room!

Some assassin sent by his father?

There was – something – near the door. With his left hand Anton struck a light and touched the wick of a candle.

It was the antler, remade into a cane. It was the very one that had torn Dubois, that Dubois had taken, had carried as a visible goad. It stood against the door, taunting.

No, it could not be! It was a forgery, made and placed at his father’s command. It had to be. Something stood behind him. He tried to turn his head, but could not. He swallowed. He leaped sideways, bringing up his blade.

“Anton, you have something of mine. I have come for it. Stand aside and I will let you live.”

Anton’s face was sweaty white in the moonlight. He shook his head, but the ghosts would not go away. “No!”

“Yes, Anton. A question, out of curiosity. Did the primer actually fail?”

Dumbly, Anton shook his head. more tomorrow