Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Wild West Photo Friday: Swastikas In The Wild West

Here's a photo of a classic old pulp magazine cover. . .but what's that in the upper right corner? Yep, that's a swastika! It was the symbol of The Hersey Magazines, a publishing house started by famed editor Harold Hersey in 1928. He took as his symbol a blue swastika. The swastika, before the Nazis got a hold of it, was a symbol for illumination and good fortune.

As you might expect, the logo was eventually changed. One of their magazines was called War Stories. Of course, they were talking about World War ONE. By the time World War Two came around the swastika had been ruined as a symbol in the Western world. For more on the history of this symbol, check out my article on The Swastika: Symbol of Peace and Harmony.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book Review: Lolito

LolitoLolito by Ben Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I feel I don't read enough contemporary fiction so I picked up this book, published just a few months ago, by the young author Ben Brooks. What I found was a mixed bag.

As the title suggests, Lolito is about an underaged teen who gets into a relationship with an older woman. Etgar is 15, totally screwed up, suffers panic attacks, and already a binge drinker. When his girlfriend cheats on him he tips over the edge. In his loneliness he starts chatting to strangers on the Internet and ends up in a liaison with a 49 year-old mother and teacher.

Etgar's emotional rollercoaster is vividly drawn but it's hard to sympathize with him because he doesn't seem real. The author's MFA style of overwriting makes Etgar sounds like a literary construction, with phrases like "shops the colour of old fax machines" and "eyes like glasses of red wine." Does a 15 year-old talk like that? Does ANYONE talk like that? Certainly not a teenager who spends most of his time drunk in front of the television.

Also, the narrative gets a bit unbelievable. Etgar's fake ID works without question everywhere, even in posh hotels, and there's an unrealistic scene where he's being questioned by the police and they let him run away without even trying to stop him.

What really frustrated me about this novel is that I feel the author could do much better. Some passages are excellent, the minor characters are well drawn, and the concept has loads of potential, especially with "cougars" being so trendy now. Brooks is an author to watch, but I think he might need a few years for his style to mature.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Pagan Grove and Norman Church in Iffley, England

As regular readers of this blog know, we spend our Easters and summers in Oxford. one of our favorite local places to visit is just a couple of miles south of town. Heading downstream on the Isis (the local name for the Thames), and past a nice riverside pub of the same name, is the little village of Iffley.

Its main claim to fame is a fine Norman church built in the late 11th century that's is almost perfectly preserved. Early on, it changed hands from the local lord to an estate further away, and while the absentee owners paid for its upkeep, they didn't do much to change it, making it one of the most pristine Norman churches in the country.

The front is very Romanesque, and the door is decorated with the zodiac. There's also an atmospheric old cemetery and a 1,500 year-old yew tree. The local priest thinks it was part of a sacred pagan grove and that under the church there's probably an old Saxon church from the 5th or 6th century. Since early church builders liked to build in sacred groves, I'm thinking the Saxons cut down the center tree of the grove, which was probably as old then as this one is now, and built the church on top of it. You see this sort of behavior with mosques, churches, and synagogues in the Middle East depending on who won the latest war.

The surviving tree was probably little more than a sapling then, young when its religion was old, and escaped the notice of the Christians. Perhaps cutting down the central, most sacred tree in the grove was all that needed to be done to destroy it as a place of religious significance. I remember reading in some early Christian accounts where they destroyed sacred groves, and they usually only destroyed the main tree. The sole surviving sacred yew can be seen on the righthand side of both the photos of the church here.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Book Review: Wild Bill Hickok, The Man and His Myth

Wild Bill Hickok: The Man and His MythWild Bill Hickok: The Man and His Myth by Joseph G. Rosa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wild Bill Hickok is one of those Old West icons whose real personality has been shrouded in generations of fiction. The reality, as is often the case, is far more interesting. Hickok was a scout, Indian fighter, Civil War spy, lawman, gunfighter, gambler, actor, and much more.

In this book Joseph Rosa, the leading authority on Wild Bill, tries to separate the man from his myth and nail down just how various untruths and exaggerations about him got started. What really launched his fame was his 1865 shootout with David Tutt, one of the few standup, Western-style gunfights that really happened. The national magazine Harper's sent a hack out to Missouri to interview Hickok, and the result was a blood and thunder tale in the dime novel tradition. The article is reproduced in full in this book.

While Rosa does a good job separating fact from fiction, this book is terribly organized. It jumps around in time and place and never gives a full overview of the man's life, instead looking at a few key incidents. Even these aren't in chronological order. This makes the book confusing and frustrating.

For those looking for a standard biography, I recommend Rosa's earlier book, They Called Him Wild Bill. While written 30 years earlier and not as fully researched, it's much more readable.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 23, 2013

Wild West Photo Friday: Wild Bill Hickok

You don't get much more Wild West than Wild Bill Hickok. A scout, Indian fighter, lawman, gunfighter, gold prospector, and during the Civil War a Union spy, Hickok lived a life of adventure. I'll be talking about his Civil War record next week, but let's just admire this photo today.

Here he is clad in buckskins, as he would have been when scouting for the U.S. Cavalry on the Plains or fighting Indians. He preferred to dress this way, which is probably one of the reasons he became a legend in his own lifetime. The fact that he kept getting in gunfights and winning also helped. After his famous 1865 gunfight in Springfield, Missouri, the first real stand-up, face-to-face gunfight in the Old West, he launched into national fame.

As you can see here, he's carrying his famous pair of ivory-handled Colt .36-caliber Navy pistols in his belt as well as a large knife. Several people who knew him said he carried a pair of .41-caliber Williamson derringers as holdout weapons. These tiny pistols that were nevertheless deadly at short ranges, such as across a poker table.

Monday, August 19, 2013

How Wild West fistfights really went down

Movies and comics have taught us that fistfights in the Wild West were simple punch-ups where the good guy almost always won (unless vastly outnumbered) and that the loser got away with little more than a black eye and some lost status in the local saloon. In the old Western movies, the guys somehow always managed to keep their hats on too.

The reality was a bit nastier. It was considered manly to "mark" your opponent by giving him some sort of permanent scar or injury. Wild Bill Hickok used the popular tactic of stomping on people's faces with his bootheel. The spurs came in handy to add a little extra flair to the "mark."

Another popular tactic was eye gouging. Regular fighters would often grow a thumbnail specially for gouging people's eyes out and would "brine" (sharpen) it to make it more effective. This was especially common among the early riverboat and mountain men and got less common as laws began to take hold in the West.

Of course nobody really wants to see that in a movie!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: An Old Veteran heading to the Reunion

It's my birthday today, and while I'm not as wrinkled as this old coot, I'm working on it. This is a member of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union veterans of the Civil War. He's heading off to a reunion in 1914, almost 50 years after the war had ended. Reunions were hugely popular and in later years veterans of both sides often held them together.

As for me, I'm heading off too. If the weather is good today, I'll be hiking in the English countryside. If the sky gives us some very English rain, I'll go to lunch and a museum with my wife. See you later!

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

When you take away a cavalryman's horse, he ain't happy

In a previous post I talked about the 30th Arkansas Infantry, a Confederate unit. That name is a bit misleading because the regiment actually began life as cavalry.

There were chronic supply problems in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, however, and in June of 1863, Major General Hindman realized he didn't have enough fodder for all the horses under his command. In a letter dated June 19, 1863, he wrote, "The scarcity of supplies now caused great distress. Nearly two months must yet elapse before the new crop would ripen. To lessen the consumption of corn, I found it necessary to dismount four regiments of Texans and three of Arkansians. This produced much dissatisfaction, and there were many desertions in consequence."

One of those units was the 30th Arkansas, and the records show a spike of desertions at this time. Cavalry considered themselves superior to infantry, they fancied themselves knights riding into battle rather than commoners slogging through the mud. To lose one's horse was insulting, and many simply went home rather than be turned into infantry.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Indie Life: Ramping up that wordcount

As I've said before, I've been focusing more on fiction this year with a goal of writing 200,000 words of fiction in 2013, which sounds impossible until you realize it's only 550 words a day. Check out the progress bar at the bottom of this blog to see how I've been doing.

Well, it looks like I may not only meet that goal, but exceed it. Thanks to changes at one of my regular jobs, the travel blog Gadling, I'm now writing only a fraction of what I used to for them. There are fewer posts on Gadling now and no features. Since I was mainly a feature writer, that means I have lots more time on my hands.

So besides looking for work, I'm also writing a lot more fiction. The best marketing for an indie writer is their next book. I intend to get lots more out there. Not only am I getting out the next book in the House Divided series, which will be loosely connected to my published historical novel A Fine Likeness, I'm also working on my Tangier novel, a post-apocalyptic series, and I just finished a short story I'm sending to an anthology once I've had my beta readers look at it. I have plenty more in the works too.

Dean Wesley Smith has a great post on the myths about writing quickly. Lots of great and not-so-great writers are tremendously prolific, often using pen names to keep from saturating the market. While Dean overstates the case about not editing, I do think most writers agonize far too much over every word. Get it written, get it clean, and get it out there. Most people think that More Time=Better Book. I believe that equation should be changed to More Effort=Better Book, with effort being mostly independent of time. Focus and experience are the key elements.

Agree? Disagree? Tell me what you think in the comments section, and stay tuned for more fiction by yours truly!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A humblebrag and some free writing advice

While writing a short story I spelled "prestidigitation" correctly on the first try. That doesn't make me a real writer. What makes me a real writer is that it put me in a good mood all morning!

One of my articles just came out online. Check out the latest issue of Funds for Writers and read my Mediocre Photographer’s Guide to Professional Photography.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: Colonel Robert A. Hart, CSA

This dapper gentleman is Colonel Robert A. Hart.

He was born in Ireland and immigrated to Arkansas before the war. On August 1, 1862, Hart joined the Confederate army and was commissioned the lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 30th Arkansas Infantry. On November 12, he was promoted to colonel and assumed command of the entire regiment.

The 30th Arkansas saw lots of action in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, taking part in most of the major battles as well as the 1864 invasion of Missouri that serves as a backdrop to my novel A Fine Likeness. On July 4, 1863, the regiment was part of a Confederate attack on the Mississippi river town of Helena. This was an attempt to relieve pressure on the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, which ironically surrendered that very same day. Helena was well fortified and the Confederates were repulsed with heavy losses. Hart was wounded in the leg and taken prisoner. He died of his wounds on August 6, 1863.

The 30th Arkansas suffered 8 killed, 46 wounded, and 39 missing at the Battle of Helena. Lieutenant Colonel J.W. Rogan assumed command and led the regiment until the end of the war. The 30th got into some exciting adventures. More on those in later posts. Also check out Captain Richards Miniature Civil War for some great model soldiers he's made of this regiment!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: Cotswold Privies

Cotswold PriviesCotswold Privies by Mollie Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw this in the Oxford Central Library and being a fan of obscure history I couldn't resist. This little book was written in 1984 when outhouses were still in use in some of the smaller English villages.

Full of fun anecdotes and humor, as well as lots of photos and a fair amount of architectural information, it will tell you far more than you ever needed to know about English toilet habits in the early 20th century. For example, some privies were "two holers" so family members could go together. Isn't that nice? You even get little ditties like this one:

In days of old
When knights were bold
And paper wasn't invented
They used blades of grass
To wipe their arse
And went away contented.

At the end of the book is a list of slang terms for privies, such as The Widdlehouse, The Long Drop, and my favorite--The Thunderbox.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Halfway to my goal of writing 200,000 words of fiction in 2013

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my writing goals for 2013 is to write 200,000 words of fiction. While that sounds like a lot, it's actually only 550 words a day. Quite doable.

Despite it being doable I only just passed the halfway mark last week. Yesterday I counted and found I'd done 101,330 words. Of course we're more than halfway through the year but my pace is picking up. Part of this is, sadly, because I have less work at Gadling. A change in editorial direction means they will be publishing much less travel writing.

So what have I been working on? A book set in the same world as A Fine Likeness, some short stories, some other work I don't want to talk about yet, and of course my Tangier novel. That last one made up for a whopping 26,000 words of my total, written in an intense ten-day retreat.

Back to work, only 98,670 words to go!

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Famous Refugee from the American Civil War

War always creates refugees, and civil wars especially so. As North and South fought it out, large numbers of civilians fled the advancing armies and guerrilla raiders. To find safety, civilians often trailed along with the armies.

One such refugee was Roy Bean, the colorful self-appointed judge I mentioned in a previous post. Before he set up his own law practice in Texas, he had been knocking around the West and getting into gunfights, doing a spell in prison, and nearly getting lynched by angry Mexicans after killing one of their number. Basically all the things a Wild West judge was expected to do before starting a career upholding the law.

The start of the war found Roy and his brother running a store and saloon in New Mexico Territory. He had a cannon out front that he used to repel Apache raiders. The Confederate army invaded New Mexico from Texas in late 1861 but suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in March 1862. They were forced to make a long retreat back to San Antonio.

Roy decided to go with them. Perhaps he feared more Apache raids since there wouldn't be an army around to protect the towns. He took the store's savings (which may or may not have included his brother's share) and joined the retreating column. Once he got to he made a good profit shipping cotton from San Antonio to British ships at Matamoros, Mexico, and returning with goods that the Confederacy needed. The Confederacy was under a blockade and the Mexican border was one of the few places where merchants could trade with the outside world.

As usual, this crazy Wild West character saw a good chance and took it.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Military History Photo Friday: the A7V, Germany's only tank in World War One

This cumbersome beast is the A7V, a German tank from World War One. It looks like something my seven-year-old son would design. "Look Papa, it's got a cannon on the front and machine guns sticking out the windows here and I made it from a cardboard box!"

While the Germans had the most advanced tanks in the world during WWII, this was not the case in WWI. They got into tank building in 1917, well after the UK and France already had large numbers of tanks. By then German industry was starved of raw material and only twenty ever got made.

The A7V had 30mm thick armor at the front and thinner armor on the sides and top. It weighed 33 tons and had a low undercarriage. It was so unwieldy it often lagged so far behind the infantry that it never got into the fighting. It also had the bad habit of getting stuck in trenches and shell holes.

Despite these shortcomings, its cannon and six machine guns made it effective in a fight. The few times these tanks were deployed they often took Allied forces by surprise. The Allies weren't expecting the Germans to have tanks. An even nastier surprise was when the Germans used captured British Mark IVs, like the one shown below with German markings!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Talking about historical horror over at Amlokiblogs

Hey all! I'm over at Amlokiblogs today chatting about my historical horror novel A Fine Likeness and having a conversation in the comments section about horror and history writing.

Drop on by and join the conversation!