Kobo 30% off Sale including Alice’s Adventures in Underland

Kobo is holding a 30% off sale on selected titles, including Alice’s Adventures in Underland:  The Queen of Stilled Hearts, through January 23.  The sales code is 30JAN–enter it at checkout.

Alice's Adventures in Underland Book 1

Alice’s Adventures in Underland Book 1

 

 

Interview with Rob Chansky, Author of Hundred Ghost Soup

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Welcome to author Rob Chansky, who recently published Hundred Ghost Soup.  I received a copy from his publisher in exchange for a fair review; you can find the review here.  I liked it so much that I decided to beg for an interview.  You can also read previous interviews with Megan Rutter and Philip Adams.

1.  When I first saw Hundred Ghost Soup  come out, the first thing I thought was, “Okay, is this book going to be a superficial treatment of China?  Is it going to feel thin and fake?  Should I be scared?”  Fortunately it was immediately obvious that this wasn’t the case.  My question is this:  the world of Hundred Ghost Soup is rich enough to point almost toward obsession.  What drove you to build it?  

I think there are three reasons, and they all boil down to luck, both good and bad.

Foremost (of the good fortune) is my daughter Sophia, who we adopted from China in 2005. The adoption process was a bit like entering (the movie) Spirited Away for real. Then came the part where you’re living with a being new to both the world and this country. A tiny girl, feeling so lost, who smelled like coal smoke for weeks. At that point I was happily writing a book about a mechanical elephant made by an ancient alien Mughal and I didn’t want to be bothered by this young man with the big square glasses who sprang fully formed into my creative life. But as our daughter grew, the urge also grew to tell a story just to her (and whoever else might want to read it). Eventually the desire to do this overtopped the current project, and at some point I couldn’t resist it anymore. Stepping back from a book was a bad writing-career decision, yet one I don’t regret. So I began the Meiren saga—at its end. Not Hundred Ghost Soup, but the last book in this series, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Sadly that story (the last day of Meiren’s career) got bogged down and I decided I needed to answer the question of Meiren’s origin, so I thought I’d start with how he got his name. Just a short story, something to settle those nagging questions so I can get back to it. And that short story became Hundred Ghost Soup. Stepping back from that other book should have been a bad writing-career decision, too, and I don’t regret it either.

So you can see that planning and foresight really aren’t my copilots here. I expect to do better in the future.

My third bit of fortune (a mix of good and bad) was a complete lack of confidence in writing about China. The Chinese say no illness, short life; one illness, long life. Knowing the lack I started reading. When I had a shelf of books read I felt competent to portray someone who lives there. I was writing the book the whole time, though, and had to revise it as I learned. Do I know enough about China now to live there? Not a chance; I only picked up a few things. China is far more complicated than I can imagine. I’ve explored a couple of alleys and talked to some wise people; I don’t live there.

Along the way the wise ones were: Lin Yutang, whose sharp and happy writing voice (particularly in The Importance of Living) was the inspiration for Meiren’s; Barry Hughart whose Bridge of Birds and sequels inspired my writing; and Earnest Bramah’s Kai Lung character.

Now my daughter’s just old enough for me to pester her to read it. “It’s weird,” she’s said. I guess that’s all I’ll get for a while. But she’s got a long life ahead of her. One day I’ll be gone and she’ll have that to read.

2.  I’m struggling for a way to phrase this.  On the one hand, the story feels very ancient with a modern, somewhat surreal skin slapped over it (I kept getting startled when people sent emails, for example).  And yet on the other hand, it seems very postmodern in its sense of uncertainty, more like something Kafka would have written or a Chinese version of A Series of Unfortunate Events.  There are so many quick twists and turns that it seems impossible to read this book without an eye to modern thrillers, too.  Your approach works–but why was this the approach that you took?

So there are three Chinas: the Old China, traditional with Confucian values and Taoist superstitions; the New China, Byzantine in its entrenched communist bureaucracy; and what’s called the New New China, a strange capitalist (except in name) wild west with the trappings of money, greed and lust for power that call to mind the USA’s rail baron age. Many Chinese live in one or two of these Chinas, and Meiren has to navigate the tension among all three. The environment for telling a good story is richer than any other I’ve touched.

Maybe for the next interview, if there is one, I’ll try to pretend I planned it all. The fact is I let the thing grow and took opportunities as they came. I didn’t direct or plan the book. Perhaps I was just portraying the busy conflict going on in myself (my traditional spirit, bureaucratic heart, and modern mind) and I lucked out that it happened to correspond well enough with actual China that the story clicked together there.

And the way it all wrapped up rather neatly at the end? How the hell did that happen? Until I wrote the scene, I had no idea how Meiren got his name. I’m still not sure how I deserve to have finished a book so tidily, considering my appalling lack of foresight and planning. But it worked, and I’m going to pray a lot more and then do it again.

Maybe the upshot answer to your question is simply: my mind’s a mess but it arrived at some complex equilibrium and from that came a book. Uh. Next?

3.  Normally I hate first person present tense writing.  You pulled it off.  Why use it, and how do you make it work?

Early inspiration for this work came from Stross’ Laundry novels, also written in first-person present. There Stross uses a neat trick to get around the limitation of first-person present: he presents it as a journal, and points out that some of it’s been filled in later to complete the story. That worked for me but not everyone.

I began the Bureau world back when first-person present was a bit of a fad. I don’t normally follow fads, because I knew even back then what happens to them. (Hundred Ghost Soup was finished just as rumors flew that editors were refusing first-person present stories point blank.)

I’d love to say that I did it because Meiren is the most human character I’ve ever written and I wanted him to experience life like we all do, and first-person present is the most like all our moment-to-moment experience.

The fact is, I’ve regretted this decision many times, specifically whenever I wanted to do foreshadowing. I love foreshadowing. I feel like my whole life is foreshadowing. I’m in the grocery store and I reach for the peanut butter and the foreshadowing voice says he did not know that overnight his body chemistry had reorganized its allergies and he held his death in his hands. I’d be in the dentist’s chair and get little did he realize she was no cheerful dental hygenist; this was the serial murderess the papers had already dubbed ‘the perky killer.’ The phrase this tastes suspiciously like human flesh occurs whenever I eat beef stroganoff. So yeah, I like foreshadowing. And I can’t do it here. At least not directly.

But I get over my regret, because there’s so much immediacy that first-person present gives you even as it takes away your ability to easily show what happened when your main character isn’t around. As for showing what’s going on when he isn’t around, something’s always come to me, and making up an excuse for why he finds it out has driven the plot handily, so that has always worked out for me. So far.

Those all sound again like pre-planned reasons. But the fact is I felt my way along as I worked on his voice, telling stories and having him talk to me, and he talked in first-person present. He didn’t seem comfortable in any other narrative type.

4.  Please answer this as best you can without spoilers.  The main character is an orphan.  He has an older brother who is minutes older than he is, and yet is an arrogant bastard.  It’s almost like Elder Brother is yet another level of bureaucracy that the main character has to face.  I have to ask:  What is Elder Brother’s problem?

Ha! That’s a fun observation.

When Elder Brother first started out he was a simple foil for Meiren: yang to his yin, the guy who won’t let Meiren stay in his box out of trouble. Meiren can blame Yang for whatever goes wrong in his life. Now that I’ve had years to think on him, I know that this is a two-way street. Meiren had the chance to call Elder Brother on his crap and never did. He had the chance to teach him what Meiren seemed to come out of the womb knowing. Elder Brother might have listened. As a team they might have been far more than they were separately. Instead, Meiren found it too easy to look down his nose at his brother. When Meiren will realize this, he will be heartbroken.

And while Meiren is going through all this agony, Elder Brother is just having fun and enjoying what he can take from life.

Elder Brother is one of those immovable objects that we all have to deal with. It was once a cliché that he’d never change. Then the cliché became that his type of character would reveal sudden, hidden depth and leave you on that note. I’m wondering what the current cliché is.

But mostly this is about Meiren. He’s Tolkien’s hobbit. He’s a Charlie Brown and a Don Quixote and Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin. He can do no martial arts, he commands no one beneath him, he can do no magic of his own. Even his name shows you the lack of regard the world has for him. He has only his wit and a certain worldly earnestness to get him out of bad situations. He is all of us: keeping the world working every day in little and big ways that no one notices.

This series springs from a set of feelings I’ve grown up with. That there is hidden power in quietness. That there’s a foundation beneath the world that we can sense and interact with, and it interacts with us. I can’t tell you its nature. I get the idea it’s different for everyone. It may exist only in our minds. Even if so, it works better to deal with it as if its origin is outside.

And this: few of us get superpowers. Almost none of us command armies or magic. And yet we have to deal with a large and complex and powerful world, and try to get what we want, and failing that, what we need. And yet each of us has something unique we bring to the table.

Meiren’s story is there to help out with that.

5.  What’s the plan for sequels?  Are there any, if so when, and what kind of stories will they tell?

My upcoming book is The Manchegan Candidate, a Don Quixote in space SF. I’ve just done the first draft and expect to get that out next year. After this I will continue the Bureau series. Hundred Ghost Soup was Meiren’s origin story; next come his career and life:

In Thousand Dream Thief, Meiren now works for Uncle and the shadowy Bureau for Eternal Prosperity. He hopes to take the university entrance exam at last. But someone is stealing the dreams of the politburo. Chasing the Dream Thief through the dreams of the world reveals a hidden war and a pending revolution, and Meiren must assemble a dream army, and lead it, to deal with the threat. But first he’s got to choose a side.

In Tea of the Ten Thousand Things, Meiren embarks on what seems a routine mission to get a magic tea leaf, and incidentally find a home for an orphan girl. But demons of all stripes are after him, and the girl is more than she seems.

6.  Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

The sequels will have Meiren negotiating the problems of adulthood as he also wrestles with demons, ghosts and more human sorts of corruption. He won’t triumph. But there are more ways to victory than that.

Mr. Chansky was born in the US, attended college at UC Santa Cruz and Edinburgh University, and now makes his home beneath the shadow of Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs, CO. As his day job he works at modeling and simulation for the Naval War College. He can often be found writing in one of many fine cafes in the Springs.
He and his wife adopted their daughter from China, and from that emotional center comes this work.

Interview with Philip Adams, author of Momentary Stasis

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Welcome to fellow author Philip Adams, author of Momentary Stasis and other works.  The previous interview with Megan Rutter went so well that I decided to do another one–and once again got an interesting perspective on a book that I liked.  (Full disclosure, I helped edit this–and I still found out things I hadn’t known.)

1.  Momentary Stasis is a military SF novel.  What’s your relationship with the military–and does Rimes’s attitude reflect your own?

I’ll break my answer into three pieces.

First, I would stress that Momentary Stasis has the chassis and transmission of a military SF novel, but there’s more to the Rimes trilogy than a big slog through a military campaign. I’ve followed the expected tropes and structures of the sub-genre, but I also have influences from cyberpunk, thrillers, horror, and there’s a lot in common with the transhumanist sub-genre, which I discovered after wrapping the series.

Second, I had a twenty-year career in the military, most of that in IT.

Third, yes, I think there are elements of me in Jack Rimes. On the positive side, some of Rimes’s innocence and decency comes from my own naïveté and hopefulness. I signed up for service at 17, and I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into. I just knew I wanted to get out of a dead-end life. My objectives were to get a degree and marketable skill. I lucked into the opportunity for the latter. For Rimes and so many people in the modern military, there’s only one option: learning to be a warrior. Rimes has the motivation to be great at that, combined with a curiosity and resourcefulness, which provides the rationale for the story. On the negative side, I think some of my outsider tendencies are at least hinted at with Rimes. He questions authority a bit, he thinks outside the box, and he just won’t let something go when he knows it’s wrong.

2.  Most dystopias tend to focus on one element of society that has gone amuck, then extrapolate how other elements of society and technology would be affected.  Do you feel like that’s how you put the dystopian aspects of your story together? What sent you off in that direction?

I guess you could pull back to a spy satellite view and say that human nature at its worst caused societal collapse in the setting, otherwise, it’s a messy stew of causes.

The original story idea I had in the 1990s had at the core of the setting hostile corporations run amuck. When I started refining that story into the final version, I had to challenge that. A corporation is only as powerful as a society allows it to be, so I had to drill down into how things became so broken.

We had mega-mergers galore back in the 1990s, and we dropped the ball on enforcing sanctions against the most abusive corporation in history when Microsoft’s penalties were turned into a wrist slap. But how does that allow for private armies and direct influence over basic government functions? That’s a huge jump, and it had to be addressed, even though we can see the beginnings of this today with Blackwater and K Street in the US.

We had two crushing recessions in a six year span to study like tea leaves, and it would be easy to argue there was corporate influence over some of the wars we’ve had lately. But all of that can be attributed to individual greed, hubris, ideology, and incompetence in positions of power. Corporations could be argued as enablers rather than the drivers.

So, I had to drill down a bit to explain what created this world. In the timeline for the setting, there are specific individuals and actions behind the mega-merger rush and dissolution of policies that would otherwise prevent those mergers. All of that ends up eventually creating the big metacorporations (corporations consisting of corporations).

I didn’t go bold and wild on my speculation. I took existing trends and projected those out. We already have a significant body of evidence about what happens when you let an economy run wild. In Momentary Stasis, I offhandedly mention the depressions that have led to a world where that has more or less reached economic equilibrium. Those depressions come from greed and continued agglomeration of wealth and the resulting power to a smaller and smaller group of individuals. There’s a theme throughout of intelligent life being self-destructive. I consider this behavior one of the manifestations of that. We’ve seen before what happens when the gap between the wealthy and poor grows too wide—guillotines and purges and all sorts of other terrible things. Will a society that can be distracted and placated by reality TV and smartphones have the will to rise up and stop something that’s clearly destroying them? With the setting in the Rimes trilogy, my answer is no, they won’t.

As for the technology impact, I mention this in the books without diving into detail. When there’s such a disparity in wealth, and there just aren’t that many people acting as consumers, the impact is pretty obvious. Corporations cater to government, the wealthy, and other businesses. Your motivation to innovate plunges. So the innovation is there for the customers I mentioned before, and Joe and Jane Average see incremental ticks in technology and a never-ending quest for efficiency. Wal-Mart in Space!

3.  Are there any incidents in the book pulled more or less out of your experience? 

I was a REMF, so only in the broadest sense possible do my experiences come into play. Corrupt people in positions of trust, gross incompetence or arrogance that threaten the mission and the good people relying on support, crazy bouts of nationalism and loyalty, and a heckuva lot of petty vindictiveness: Those were the things I experienced that informed the story, and they helped kick that silly naïveté out of me.

4.  Okay, I don’t want to give any spoilers for the rest of the series, but would you talk for a few moments from a writerly perspective on the difference between plots of the individual books versus those of the larger series?  I thought that the fact that the series blossomed into a bigger scope so smoothly in the second book was one of the big highlights for me, and I want to talk about how you decided to do that, what techniques you used–feel free to go full nerd here.

I need to insert a little background for this to make sense. As I mentioned, the Rimes story comes from something I worked up in the 1990s. I launched a comic book company that started out with a superhero universe just as the market imploded. I turned to non-superhero stories after that. One of those was this massive, sprawling dark sci-fi series originally called The Doll House. It was multi-POV, with Rimes being one of several protagonists. Other characters included a police detective investigating murders among the UN staff (including a diplomat), a young journalist investigating corporate shenanigans, a scientist doing deep space research (Jennifer Credence from Awakening to Judgment), an assassin cleaning up messes left by several metacorporate executives, and a young executive fighting her way up the ranks at the biggest metacorporation. And all of those stories were designed to slowly connect over the years.

When I started turning that into the Rimes trilogy, I had to figure out how to boil things down to their essence. I did what I would imagine is fairly typical and worked backwards, taking the ending and building to the beginning. Going in, I had the final situation, the two wars that were necessary for that final situation to come about, and the events that were necessary to make those wars happen. I needed a continuous build from the start toward that crescendo, so I had to make sure the seeds were sown throughout the first two books. How does the Colonel Rimes at the close of Awakening to Judgment grow from the Sergeant Rimes we meet at the start of Momentary Stasis? Anything that wasn’t critical to that story, to that specific trajectory, was dropped out. And then more was trimmed out during editing, which made for a more focused and faster-paced opening.

One thing I was happy with was the way I was able to give each book a distinctive flavor. Momentary Stasis owes a bit to techno-thrillers, Transition of Order has some nods to horror, and Awakening to Judgment mixes mystery and spy thriller elements in with the more conventional military SF. That helped keep things fresh for me, and many readers have said it helped make the series more engaging.

Once all the planning was done, I had to figure out how to make what was really a story with cyberpunk aesthetics fit into this military SF framework. My experience with military SF at the time was limited to Gordon R. Dickson’s Childe Cycle (Dorsai), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, John Steakley’s Armor, several of David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers short works, Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando Star Wars books, “Aliens,” “Starship Troopers” (the movie), and a few aborted attempts at Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers novel as a teen; I would include in there the “Space: Above and Beyond” TV show and some military non-fiction as big influences. Thanks to encouragement during editing, I expanded that list out to more Hammer’s Slammers, Traviss’s Gears of War books, actually finishing Starship Troopers, and reading some newer military SF works from the trad pub and indie world.

None of that directly helped with the Rimes trilogy because of the difference between what I was trying to accomplish and what those accomplished, but the experience helped me grow as a writer.

5.  I think you mentioned that this series was your “Philip K. Dick”-influenced series.  (Feel free to correct me.)  If so, what made you decide to write a PKD military SF dystopian thriller?

I’ve read more PKD than any other SF writer, and that’s by a healthy margin, so I think it’s inevitable his work influenced me. I would boil his works down to three major themes:

  • the everyman protagonist’s struggles against things gone terribly awry
  • reality isn’t so certain as you think (not always associated with drugs)
  • what makes us human?

When you start talking about transhumanism, you nail that third theme. In the Rimes trilogy, there are several things that challenge the definition of human, starting with the genies. If you construct a human from tailored DNA—sometimes alien DNA—is that person truly human? Rimes wrestles with that. Then there are proxies. Rimes is obviously put off by these, and we see some of the reasons in the second and third books. To a lesser extent, there’s genetic modification (gene tweaks) and chemical enhancements. Even the ever-present “stim,” the chemical tool used to fight off sleep, pain, and injury takes a toll on a person’s humanity.

The nature of reality is addressed at different levels throughout the series. Rimes’s work with the Intelligence Bureau in Momentary Stasis dramatically changes his understanding of the world. The revelations grow in scale as the series progresses.

Given Rimes’s exceptional training, some would argue he can’t be an everyman protagonist. Considering the level of growth he undergoes throughout the series, I would argue he is the classic everyman. His bewilderment about his own ignorance and his despair over the sorry state of things are both fairly typical of that type of character. Knowing how to kill someone in a dozen different ways doesn’t make someone a superhuman protagonist, especially in a world where such a person is a commodity. Knowledge is what makes someone exceptional in an information society, and it’s probably the most heavily guarded valuable in the universe.

And last but not least…  6.  Is there any note you’d like to leave your readers on?  (The additional promo question.)

Although I trimmed out a lot of the universe’s non-essential elements for the Rimes trilogy, I didn’t throw it all away. The ERF series continues where the Rimes trilogy leaves off. The Lancers series picks up around the same time, but it explores the universe through a very different set of eyes. There’s also a prequel trilogy I need to get rolling on, and that develops a good bit of the history. And one day, I hope to get to the Go series (Matthias “Go” Goonetilleke is a private detective who shows up in Awakening to Judgment).

And I have a pretty cool urban fantasy series (The Chain) starting next year also.

Phil Adams was born and raised in Tampa, Florida. His twenty-year Air Force career took him from coast to coast, with stints at Homestead AFB, FL, George AFB, CA, Scott AFB, IL, and the Yongsan installation in Seoul, South Korea. He retired and moved to the greater Denver, Colorado metropolitan area.

Phil writes speculative fiction, mostly science fiction and fantasy. His favorite writers over the years have been Robert E. Howard, Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, and Michael Crichton.

Kobo Promotion – 40% off – on How Smoke Delivered a Christmas Present

Orphans, mysteries, and Victoriana – oh my!

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The Kobo 40% off promotion has started, with a number of titles on sale.  Use code 40DEC to get the sale price.  The link to How Smoke Delivered a Christmas Present is here.

This novella is the second in the series – however, I’ve written both of them so you can read them in any order.  You’re cool.

If you’re not a Kobo reader but you’re interested, you can also pick up the book here:

Kindle | Nook | Kobo | iBooks | Goodreads (reviews)

or in the Very Merry Christmas Bundle at those same sites or here.

You can also pick up a free copy of the first book in the series, How Smoke Got Out of the Chimneys, here until December 31st.

London, England. 1840.

The Chimney Sweep Act has just been passed by Parliament, forbidding the use of underaged orphans as chimney sweeps’ assistants—four- and five-year-olds are being sent down into chimneys with wire brushes to scrape out the creosote. The government means well, but has instead put hundreds or even thousands of little kids with no real protectors out of work. Right before Christmas.

Caroline, a.k.a. the infamous Smoke, has been trying to rescue them all.

Three of the orphans are staying at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Croft, well-off mill-owners from Yorkshire. The first night, all seemed to be fine—but the next time Caroline checks on them, they have left the sign for trouble in their window. All three of them are missing, and their belongings are still nailed up in the crate they were delivered in.

Caroline breaks into the house, fearing the worst…

 

New fiction on Amazon – “Something Borrowed, Something Blue”

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“Something borrowed, something blue. Something terrible will happen to you.”

It’s a bad neighborhood in Detroit, the kind of place where abandoned houses get stripped, then taken over by squatters, then burned. But it’s about to get worse.

Across the street is a white van with those words spray-painted on the side in blue. It pulled up in the middle of the night without a sound. The windows are solid black glass. And it’s watching you…

(For ages teen and up.  Horror.  Some language, gore, no nudity.)

And here’s the opening of the story…

“Something borrowed, something blue. Something terrible will happen to you.”

Someone had gotten the rhyme all wrong, but I didn’t feel like correcting it. Instead I slurped my coffee and pretended that goosebumps hadn’t risen all along my arms. The side of the white van parked across the street had been painted with bright blue spray paint on the side facing my house. The paint had been sprayed slowly and carefully, which meant that there were blue drips all along the bottoms of the letters. It was like looking at blue blood splatter.

I didn’t like it.

I hadn’t built my home into a fortress because it made me happy. I wasn’t some kind of pathological doom-prepper. It was just that the bad parts of Detroit had crept up on me. So I did what I had to do: bars over the windows, an alarm system, security doors, and a couple of other surprises, like a loaded shotgun just inside the front and back doors.

I was on the neighborhood watch, I helped clear out squatters from abandoned homes, I worked my rotation at the soup kitchen. I might have set a fire or two so the city would pull a couple of places down.

I lived on a couple of blocks that were an island of sanity behind the lines.

And now this.

The driver-side and front windows were tinted pure black. Not legal in Michigan, I knew that much. And as for a side mirror, forget about it. There was nothing but a couple of trailing wires where it had been—and a nasty scrape down the side of the driver’s door.

I couldn’t tell whether there was a shape in the driver’s seat or not. Might have been. Might have just been the silhouette of the driver’s seat. Some of those seats have head rests that reach up over your head, even.

It didn’t feel like kids.

It felt like, I don’t know. A serial killer or something. It felt like any second now, one or both of the side doors were going to slide on open and a clown with sharp teeth was going to step out.

The coffee was no good. It landed like a mouthful of grounds in my stomach. I could feel bowling balls rolling around down there,grinding it up.

I spat off my front porch and went back into the house. The newspaper was lying at the bottom of four cement steps in the bright sunlight.

It could wait.

***

I’m supposed to be retired now. I used to be an electrical engineer, worked at an auto plant in Detroit. I took an early retirement and considered myself lucky. Now I don’t. I replace about six or eight windows a year. Sometimes I see shadows moving across the back yard at night. Inside the fence.

The scary part is that I’ve got a rifle that leans against the bedroom window in the back of the house. More than once during a hot summer night I’ve left the window open and turned out the lights,then sat by the window, waiting.

I’ve picked up the rifle a couple of times. I’ve aimed it once.

At a shadow.

Through the scope the shadow turned into the figure of a boy dressed in black. Black clothes, black ski mask. He looked like a goddamned ninja. He leapt over the fence, landed without a sound just past my rosebushes, and floated across the grass of the backyard.

He seemed to spring up over that other fence like a deer. He jumped forward, put a hand on the top of the boards, and was over just like that. Again, without a sound.

I put the rifle down. I was shaking.

My wife, Alice, died last year. I was through the worst of the grief, or at least I thought so. But the house was lonely. I thought about getting a dog, but it’d be up all night barking at noises, and who could blame it?

Living in Highland Park was no life for a dog.

It was no life for me.

I thought about getting out. Moving. Be closer to one of my two kids or something. But I always got the feeling—especially this last year after their mom had passed of breast cancer—that I wasn’t…I can’t put my finger on it. I wasn’t right for the job of Grandpa. I kept saying things they didn’t like. And then when I kept my mouth shut, they didn’t like that either. I couldn’t win.

So I stayed at the house and wrote my stories: zombies and post-apocalyptic desolation. I had the source material at hand, so why not? I had always had too much of an imagination, that’s what they said when I was in school. Doesn’t pay attention. Spends too much time daydreaming. Gets good grades but doesn’t apply himself.

I can’t say that I was a famous writer or anything. I sure wasn’t “literary.” I was just an old fart typing up the adventures that I’d had, or that I wished I’d had, back in my younger years. Wars, explosions, sneak attacks, betrayals, falling in love, falling out of love, getting stabbed in the back by your best friend,epidemics, rogue computer intelligences, spies, mutations, vampires,zombies…good times.

I would put my stuff up for sale on a couple of online bookstore, then take Alice out to a good dinner every month on the proceeds. I counted myself a happy man.

Until Alice passed, and things started to close in on me.

She wasn’t one of those women who light up a room. She wasn’t generous, or helpful, or even a good cook. But when she was gone it was like all the space went out of the house. She held up the walls. Kept me from falling down.

I had nosed around with the kids about moving into a “retirement community.” I wasn’t old enough for a nursing home, but I was too old for a new house. I had mowed lawns and put up storm windows and repaired roofs and roto-rootered enough plumbing for about a dozen lifetimes.

The kids had liked the idea of me moving out of the old place, as long as I wasn’t going to live with them. “Somewhere safer,” they said. “Somewhere that you’ll have someone to talk to.”

Somewhere that I wouldn’t be surrounded by guns and talking to myself all damn day. That, too.

Some nights, the wind howls through the suburbs and rattles the windows, especially in winter. Back when Alice was alive, it felt like there was nothing that could get to me. I might feel a little cold air leaking in around the cracks, so to speak, but that was it. I just burrowed down into the covers and rolled up against her backside while she snored, steady as a buzz saw.

Some people might be cut out to be hermits but I ain’t one of them. I could feel the wind blowing through the glass these days.

When someone smashes the glass in your soul, it’s harder to replace.

Interview with Megan Rutter, author of Dangerous Grounds

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Welcome to fellow author Megan Rutter, who has just released the romantic suspense novel Dangerous Grounds (which I’ve read and liked and recommend).  She kindly agreed to answer some questions for me.

1.  First, you have to tell me about you and Minnesota.  What’s your relationship with the state?

My relationship with Minnesota is COMPLICATED, but loving.

I moved here sight unseen from Colorado in 1998.

My husband, who at the time was just a friend that I met online, offered me an internship on his sustainable agriculture research and development farm the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college.  I figured I’d take the summer doing something completely different to decide if I really wanted to stay in my field of study (forensic anthropology and ancient history) or move to an easier major.

I’d spent my first years of college and my last 2 years of high school studying under Dr. Michael Charney who was a professor emeritus of forensic anthropology. He passed away and I was devastated.

I took the summer internship, fell in love with my husband and his farm, and he urged me to continue my studies.

I spent a long time traveling out of the state, chasing my education, but I kept coming back.

Every time I left Minnesota I found myself missing it. I loved theseasons, even the winter, and the people. I missed the peace of the farm.

So when I decided to pack away my traveling shoes, this is where I planted myself. I haven’t left the state for more than a vacation in the last 5 years and I LOVE it!

2.  Did you come from a large family like the one in the book?

I did not come from a large family.  I have one older brother and older
sister.

My mom comes from a large family (9 kids), and my dad comes from a largish family (4 kids).

However I do have some cousins that are part of large families and I find their dynamics fascinating.

Even funnier yet, is that I don’t have a large family myself. I only have 1 child and have no plans to have more no matter how much she begs me. ;-) However around here, in southeast Minnesota, large farm families are common. Most people have 3-5 kids, and the Amish have tons! The largest Amish family in the area has 24 kids.  Wow!

When I created my family, the Olaffsen’s, I though it would be hilarious if they had a pack of girls. The jokes would be endless.

3.  What’s your background in forensics?  It sounds like you followed a twisted road to get to your expertise as a writer.

First you must understand that I have always wanted to write.  I have written even when it seemed like I would never be a writer.

But I’m also intelligent and a realist and I know how hard it is to become an author. Also I started my journey to publishing over a decade ago, when independently publisher authors were not valued in the way they should have been, and e books were still a new thing. So it was a long, hard road with a few 50 car pile-ups on it.

So while I was that kid always writing in my journal during recess and study hall, I wasn’t the kid causing a scene by emoting all over the place with a crowd of sighing followers who announced that they were going to be a WRITER. I was in a corner either studying or writing.  Kinda boring actually. ;-)

So as a realist I went to college and studied. I studied a LOT!

I have 3 major degrees and a boat load of minors.

When I was in high school, I was placed on advanced track, which is where I was taking mostly college courses by my junior/senior years. I met Dr. Charney in his skull lab (officially the Human Identification Laboratory) in the basement of one of the buildings my mom cleaned while she was working her way through college.  It was literally a 40 x 40 foot room filled with shelves that were filled to capacity with boxes of human skeletal remains. I was fascinated. And Dr. Charney thought I was the most interesting kid he had ever met. He agreed to teach me.

He died and I didn’t know what to do. As far as I knew he was the only one who studied skeletons the way I wanted to study them.

So I enrolled at Luther College, which had decent physical anthropology and ancient history departments. My ancient history advisor wrote me a recommendation letter to Dr. Snow at the university of Oklahoma. I studied for a semester with Dr. Clyde Snow and then moved from undergraduate to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, CSU Chico, Northwestern and the College of St. Mary’s at Oxford, working on my specialization of identifying and reconstructing ancient remains.

Remember this was before forensic anthropology was a major field of study in more than a few universities. Most people thought we were insane to study it.  So a lot of us had to move around piecing our education together by finding the professors who were experts in the field and studying with them for a semester or two before being sent to the next.

I primarily worked out of the biological science school at the U in Minnesota, but I took every fellowship I could get. It was a LOT of traveling. Especially during grad school after I was certified as a lab assistant, I went where my advisor sent me.

Yes this included New York right after 9-11, and some pretty nasty mass grave sites in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

I did get a few internships working on ancient bodies, but I sat down one day and did the math. For every bog body, mummy or ancient skeleton I had the horn of studying I reconstructed 25-30 murder victims. It was depressing.

I did get a few amusing cases like the Moose-icide as my daughter calls it, and the call out to the subdivision built on an old hog farm.  It’s really hard to convince people that bones are truly animal when they’re certain they have stumbled onto a serial killer’s lair. Trust me. Not kidding here. Even the antlers on the moose wasn’t enough for some people. My mind is still boggling about that one. Yes it will appear in a book some day.

I had a daughter and realized that I would be spending my life putting dead children back together, because without my PhD I wouldn’t get into the research institutes that really work on ancient remains. Once again hubby came to the rescue. I felt that I had spent so much time and money learning my field I should stay in it. He knew I wasn’t completely happy even though I was still fascinated. He knew I still wrote stories in my spare time as a way to stay sane.

One night he sat down with my computer and read them.

The next morning he bought me my first ticket to a writer’s conference and a plane ticket. A month later he drove me to the airport and literally kicked me out of the car and drove off. I had no choice but to get on the plane.

It took one writer’s conference, but I was hooked. I would be an author one day.

Now I’m a very well educated author, who really knows how to hide a body and make forensics interesting in my books. And yes… Many of the strange stories in my books are real. Like the cat and the stoned cow. Because face it, reality is often stranger than fiction. ;-)

4. Dangerous Ground is a very sex-positive book.  Did you deliberately include those elements, or did it happen naturally in your writing? (Note:  I had to rewrite this question like five times to get rid of inadvertent innuendos.)

(Ok I had to write this answer a few times also. You put my mind in the
gutter! Mwahaha!)

I love the term “sex positive”. It makes me very happy.

I’m pretty sure those elements happened naturally.

I’m a sex positive person, raised by an ex-hippy with an older sister.

Trust me we talked the “sex talk” thoroughly growing up.  Actually I think I know more about my sister’s plumbing than her husband does.  ;-)

I also talk openly about sex with my daughter who is going through puberty right now. Which according to her is the most awful thing to ever have to face.  I feel it’s better to be proactive and give her the correct information that to have her develop fears and insecurities because people are filling her head with “sex is taboo and only enjoyable for guys” nonsense.

I feel strongly that female sexuality is a natural thing, and we should embrace our needs and desires.  There should be no shame in it. Sex makes us happy! Sex between consensual adults is an amazing, fun, happy, and beautiful thing. It should be celebrated as one of the best parts of being human.

So when I wrote about sisters, of course they’re going to talk about sex. And I wanted to write about it in a way that would make my readers feel positive about their own sexual needs. Because face it, I write romance and sex is part of love. Also I spent most of my adult life facing the worst humanity can do to each other.  I literally had to stare into the abyss of human cruelty.

Trust me, you don’t want to see those things.

I saw things that made me question if people are capable of kindness. So if I can spread a little positivity about our natural wants and desires, then I will. Because people are good and loving. Sex is a part of that.

Have sex. Enjoy it! Just remember consent is key.

5.  What are the next projects coming up for you?

I’m currently working on 2 novels.

I hope to have the second draft of Plain Murder done by the end of the month and to my editor and beta readers.

Plain Murder is Marilyn’s story.  It’s the sequel to Dangerous Ground. Yes the sister who doesn’t have a filter between mouth and brain. The   strong farmer, who doubts her abilities, but really understands people. Marilyn is faced with the murder of a friend. She must realize that she holds the key to finding justice.

Plus she gets to tell a stuffy Marine for an old blue blooded family how to remove the stick up his butt before she does it just to beat him over the head with it. Yeah, Marilyn is vocal about falling in love with the wrong guy.  ;-)

I’m also working on a dark romantic suspense from a new series, set in the near future. It’s still in rough draft form, but trust me you might not recognize the world you thought you knew. ;-)

and last but not least…

6.  Is there any note you’d like to leave readers on (hint: this is the additional promo question):

Please look for my book on Amazon or through my publisher, Solstice Publishing. It’s the result of a long, meandering and sometimes dark path to becoming an author.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you have questions, you can find me most days
on social media.  I try to be approachable.

M.R. Rutter was born in the mountains of Colorado to an ex-hippy and former Marine. She spent much of her childhood on her grandparents ranch near Leadville CO.

She studied forensic anthropology and ancient history in college and started her professional life as an assistant to her advisors while working on her coursework and thesis. After years of teaching other professors’ classes and putting murdered children back together rather than working on her focus, ancient remains, Megan left the field to pursue a career as a writer.

She now lives and works on a sustainable agriculture research farm in Minnesota with her husband, daughter and a menagerie of animals where she is a full time farmer, research assistant, mother and writer.

Happily for M. R. she can still fill her novels with mummies, skeletons and corpses.

New fiction live – “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” contemporary horror on Wattpad

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This one is currently available only on Wattpad; I entered it in the #TNTHorrorContest.  The next phase of the contest happens on December 2, with the top 100 stories posted to the contest webpage.  There appear to be a TON of entries.  It’s currently free to read; if nothing else happens with it, I’ll put together an ebook.  You can read it here.

On a side note, I heard a definition of creepiness that I love:

Creepy is when you can’t tell whether something is a threat or not.

I’m paraphrasing a bit; the quote came from here, a YouTube channel called “Lessons from the Screenplay.”  It’s a video talking about The Shining.

(horror – graphic violence – creepy)

"Something borrowed, something blue.  Something terrible will happen to you."
  
  It's a bad neighborhood in Detroit, the kind of place where abandoned houses get stripped, then taken over by squatters, then burned.  But it's about to get worse.
  
  Across the street is a white van with those words spray-painted on the side in blue.  It pulled up in the middle of the night without a sound.  The windows are solid black glass.  And it's watching you...

New fiction live – “How Smoke Got Out of the Chimneys” – Historical Crime/Caper

A Victorian Orphan makes good.

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How Smoke Got Out of the Chimneys (Smoke #1)

Kindle | Nook | Kobo | iBooks | Goodreads (reviews)

(still some links going up)

London, England. 1840.

Gangs of four- and five-year-old orphans are being used as “apprentice” chimney sweeps–they’re the only ones who can fit down the narrow chimneys, taking brushes and baskets down with them into upper-class Victorian homes to scrape out the creosote. 

It’s good for ‘em, don’tcher know?

Caroline, a.k.a. the infamous Smoke, is one of the older orphans, who help lift and lower the smaller ones, handle the customers, and keep the gang runner, Hasty Wallace, from flying off the handle. But rumor is, it’s time to shuffle the sixteen-year-old orphan off to other business ventures. Ones with mattresses. Lots of mattresses. If it were up to Hasty (and it is), Caroline will disappear into a brothel in Whitechapel…or a ditch. Honestly, he doesn’t care which.

It’s time for Caroline to get out of the chimney business. And maybe it’s time that Hasty Wallace learned a thing or two about orphans…

(For teens and up – crime/caper – some violence)

AND…

The sequel, “How Smoke Delivered a Christmas Present” is in the Very Merry Christmas Bundle, full of Christmas cheer.  I’ll put the next story up on other sites after a bit – right now it’s exclusive to the bundle :)

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How Smoke Delivered a Christmas Present

Exclusive at the Very Merry Christmas Bundle

London, England. 1840.

The Chimney Sweep Act has just been passed by Parliament, forbidding the use of underaged orphans as chimney sweeps’ assistants—four- and five-year-olds are being sent down into chimneys with wire brushes to scrape out the creosote. The government means well, but has instead put hundreds or even thousands of little kids with no real protectors out of work. Right before Christmas.

Caroline, a.k.a. the infamous Smoke, has been trying to rescue them all.

Three of the orphans are staying at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Croft, well-off mill-owners from Yorkshire. The first night, all seemed to be fine—but the next time Caroline checks on them, they have left the sign for trouble in their window. All three of them are missing, and their belongings are still nailed up in the crate they were delivered in.

Caroline breaks into the house, fearing the worst…

(For teens and up – crime/caper – some violence)

Male Writers of Romance

Can men write romances?

OF COURSE THEY CAN, AND THEY DO.

However, a lot of male romance writers feel they have to write under female pen names and/or initials to hide their gender–and that’s just wrong.  Here are some of the male writers (or partners including a male writer) of romance I’ve been able to track down:

 

More resources (a.k.a., I’m still working through these):

https://www.librarything.com/topic/194215

http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/2007/08/male_writers_of_romance/

http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2007/02/male-authors-of-romanceromantic-fiction.html

 

If you know of more, please let me know :)

The Human List

I have a mental checklist for emotional distress.  Because I am THAT kind of nerd.  But also because I often have a hard time staying in contact with my emotions and feelings (like, literally I can make physical pain go away if I’m focused on something).  In order to keep myself from having some kind of breakdown, I had to come up with a relatively simple tool to follow when I’m drained and not feeling human.  This usually brings me back.

The other side of this list is that people looooove to give you advice.  Very personal advice.  Very personal advice that doesn’t take your needs, habits, and abilities into account.  They’re great about shoving that advice helpfully down your throat–at the absolute last point in time when you need it, when you don’t have the brain cells to sort out what’s bullshit for you and what might work, and what is really meant for the day after you’re about to have a meltdown, not in the middle of the meltdown itself.

This is also a list that helps me know what not to do.

So:  here are ten things to try in order and a zeroth thing that you can do if and when it’s available.  Please adapt to your own use, and keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer, medical doctor, or therapist.  If you are having a medical or mental emergency, you might want to run straight to a professional or at least call one.

How to start being human again:

0. Get a hug/reassurance that you’re okay if you can; pets count.

1. Drink something (not alcohol).

2. Eat something.

3. Take any meds you need, including caffeine and other addictions.

4. Get some rest. Sleep, ten deep breaths, meditate, whatever.

5. Do all your personal hygiene tasks: bathe, brush teeth, clean clothes, do hair/makeup, clip/clean nails, etc.

6. Move your body, exercise if possible.

7. Step away from the shit that’s making you crazy; if possible, communicate with those you trust.

8. Get some sunlight, if possible.

9. Do a quick cleanup of your area (from order of most to least disgusting).

10. Do a mental energy recharge, depending on your personality: read, socialize, play music, listen to music, reconnect with your spiritual practice, do something sexy, etc.  IDENTIFY SOME OPTIONS AHEAD OF TIME; if you are in a bad way, nothing will sound good.

It is usually a really bad idea to drink alcohol and skip to #10.  In fact, it’s usually a bad idea to skip to #10 regardless.  #1-9 are to patch the holes in your soul; #10 is for refilling your energy.  Refilling your energy without patching the holes makes you distrust the things that should be making you feel better.

This list won’t fix anything deep or serious; it won’t save a relationship; it won’t make you categorically less lonely; it won’t do the work that actually needs to be done; it won’t replace a doctor or therapist visit; it won’t make you a better person.  It’s just there to give you some mental space to figure out what to do next.

 

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