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!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Post: Researching a Shared World Alternate History

Today we have an interesting guest post from an old writing buddy of mine from my Tucson days. I first met David Lee Summers at Tuscon, a great local f/sf/h con. I was immediately struck by his boundless enthusiasm and dedication to the fan community. He's such a nice guy I even forgave him when he rejected one of my short stories for his magazine!

He's come out with several books over the years and is here to talk about his latest.

Last year, Robert E. Vardeman asked me to write a novella in a steampunk shared world he created called Empires of Steam and Rust.  As a steampunk author who has read and admired Bob's work since before my career began, I leapt at the opportunity.

The concept of the world is that it's an alternate 1915.  Queen Victoria is still on the throne and getting younger.  The Russian Revolution failed and the Czar is still on the throne.  The Meiji Restoration never happened and there are still Samurai in Japan.  Teddy Roosevelt is still president of the United States and has ambitions of creating an American Empire.  In the meantime, holes are opening up in the fabric of reality.  Strange substances leak out of these holes, such as gasses that defy description.  In some cases, the holes serve as portals to another alternate world.  My first challenge was to decide what story to tell in this alternate world.

A few days later, I happened upon a T-shirt my wife brought me from Palomas, Mexico with a photo of Pancho Villa dressed jauntily in a pith helmet and cravat, very similar to the public domain photo shown here.  This was virtually a steampunk vision of Pancho Villa.  I realized I could tell the story of Pancho Villa in this world.

This project essentially required three stages of research.  The first stage of research involved getting to know the Pancho Villa of history.  I watched some documentaries, looked up some history on the web and at my local library.  Villa clearly was a larger-than-life figure.  He was a man who loved beautiful women and liked to overwhelm his opponents with the speed of cavalry charges.  I did my best to understand the motivations of the men who surrounded Pancho Villa such as Álvaro Obregón, Rodolfo Fierro, and John J. Pershing.

The second stage of research involved getting to know the alternate world Bob Vardeman had developed.  Bob, with input from several of the Empires of Steam and Rust authors, including Steve Sullivan assembled a "bible" explaining what was going on in different parts of the world.  The bible mentioned two things of interest to my story.  The United States had invaded Mexico and no one had yet invented airplanes.  Only airships had been developed.  I knew that Pancho Villa would seize any opportunity he could to create a "cavalry of the air" to go after invading American airships.  Of course, I also read Bob Vardmeman's novella Gateway to Rust and Ruin and Stephen D. Sullivan's novella Heart of Steam and Rust, both set in this alternate world to understand the world better.

Finally, I decided to set a large portion of the conflict on the U.S./Mexican border at the towns of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Mexico, a place Pancho Villa was known to have been.  One of the landmarks of Douglas is the Hotel Gadsden.  It was a classic old hotel used by ranchers in the area at the time of Pancho Villa.  I was fortunate enough to be invited down for a book signing in Douglas at the hotel, which allowed me to do the third stage of research, which was a visit to the location of the story.
Inside the lobby of the Hotel Gadsden is a beautiful marble staircase.  There are two chips in the marble halfway up the first flight.  In the photo, you see my daughters posing with the chips in question.  A sign in the lobby claims the chips were made when Pancho Villa rode his horse up the staircase.  Later research has since cast some doubt on whether this really happened, particularly since the Hotel Gadsden suffered a bad fire after Pancho Villa died.  The hotel owners claim the staircase survived the fire.  Whatever the truth, it was too good a story not to use in my novella, especially since I had a scene that would allow Pancho Villa to ride up the staircase, guns blazing!

For me, part of the fun of writing alternate history is to gain new insights into the people and places of history by imagining them in circumstances that weren't the same as the ones we're familiar with.  Even though the events are different than those of history, it still means getting to know the characters involved well enough that you can imagine how they would react in new circumstances.

My novella of Pancho Villa in an alternate 1915 is Revolution of Air and Rust.  I'd love to hear what you think of this alternate Pancho Villa and his comrades.  The novella is available at Amazon and Smashwords.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Military History Photo Friday: Hemingway at the front

Hello from Gorizia, where I'm a guest speaker at the èStoria annual history festival. Today Gorizia is on the Italian-Slovenian border, but during World War One it was on the border between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

Just east of Gorizia flows the Isonzo River, and to the east of the river rise steep mountains. Go a little north of here and there are mountains on both sides of the river. Both armies wanted to advance, but that meant crossing an exposed valley to storm entrenched positions on usually steep terrain. Mostly it was the Italians trying to push east, again and again. There wasn't just one Battle of Isonzo, there were twelve.

Most were utter failures leading to heavy loss of life. Only during the sixth Battle of Isonzo did the Italians actually make any significant gains, and then they lost it all and more in battle #12, also known as the Battle of Caporetto. It was this battle that Ernest Hemingway immortalized in A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway was an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. Here he is, young and unknown.

This painting by R.A. Höger (1873-1930) shows some of the fierce fighting between the Austro-Hungarians and the Italians on a front that is rarely discussed in the English speaking world. Tomorrow I'm touring the battlefield. Stay tuned for a full article!

Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Heading to Italy and Slovenia

Tomorrow I'm off to Gorizia, an Italian town on the border with Slovenia. I'm going to be a guest speaker at the town's annual history fair, sponsored by the publisher Editrice Goriziana, who have come out with the Italian editions of a couple of my history books.

The theme this year is Bandits, and of course I'm on the Jesse James panel! My talk is called "Jesse James, Inc." I'll be talking about how Missouri's most famous outlaw was used to sell books, movies, tourist attractions, and generally make money. The process started even while Jesse was still running around robbing banks!

I'll have four days to meet other historians and enjoy views like this one, and then I'm off to Slovenia for a week to write a travel series for Gadling. I'll have regular access to email and I've scheduled some posts, but I may be a bit slow in replying to comments and emails.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. My photos coming soon!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Book Review: Legendary Beasts of Britain

Legendary Beasts of BritainLegendary Beasts of Britain by Julia Cresswell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Shire Books are short, heavily illustrated introductions to a variety of British subjects. Considering how many they've published, including one on spoons, I'm surprised they haven't done one on legendary creatures. Well, good things come to those who wait. This is a fascinating look at the origins and development of unicorns, dragons, wyverns, griffins, and more.

Despite its small size, the author manages to pack in a lot of information. By the time you finish this you'll know the difference between your mermaids and your selkies, your unicorns and your yales. You'll also learn several old legends and tall tales from times past.

Creswell digs up some interesting images beyond the usual ones we often see. For example, there are several photos of misericords, those little benches they put in churches to lean against while you're standing. They were often carved with mythical beasties and make for an interesting study in unusual church art.

Since this is an examination of traditional beasts, newer appearances such as aliens and globsters don't make the cut, but you'll still find Alien Big Cats (which go back further than I thought) and everyone's beloved lake monster, Nessie.

I recommend this for anyone looking for a primer on the folklore of Great Britain. It makes for good fodder for writers too!

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My fantasy novella gets its first review, and it's five stars!

My fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence has been out barely a week and it's already garnered its first review.

Kathleen Keenan gave it five stars and said:

"The Quintessence of Absence" features a seriously flawed protagonist--Lothar, a wizard who is addicted to nepenthe (a bit like opium). Lothar is reluctantly drawn into a mission to rescue his former employer's daughter, who has mysteriously disappeared. Lothar's addiction threatens to waylay him, but no more than an assorted cast of wizards, evil nobles, and other nepenthe addicts.

"The action is nonstop, and the author skillfully draws the reader into an alternate history that might have been our own if magic were real. The only real flaw in this lively fantasy is that it is too short. I was disappointed when I reached the end, which is my criterion for an excellent read."

That just made my day!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: Unidentified Confederate soldier from the 11th Virginia

I love these old portraits. Most of the ones I've featured here have names. This one, however, has been lost to history. From the uniform we can tell this fellow was in the 11th Virginia, but that's all we know.

One interesting detail that you don't often get with these studio portraits is the knapsack and bedroll. Perhaps he was about to go on a big march? You can also see a knife and what looks like a pistol holster stuck into his belt, so he was ready for action once he got where he was going.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Guest blogging about Spanish castles over at Black Gate

I've done another guest post for the blog of Black Gate fantasy magazine. It's the first in a series about Spanish castles; this one is about the Alcázar in Segovia.

Not only is it a fascinating castle, but it has an excellent collection of medieval artillery that helped me when I was writing my book Medieval Handgonnes: the first Black Powder Infantry Weapons.

For more on that subject, you might also want to look at a guest post I did over at Genre Author on the accuracy of Medieval handgonnes.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

One of my books has been translated into Swedish!

After hearing earlier this year that two of my military history books for Osprey Publishing are being translated into Italian, it turns out that I'm also getting readers in Sweden. My book American Civil War Guerrilla Tactics has been translated into Swedish and bound with two other Osprey titles into one of a multivolume series on the Civil War. You can see my byline at the bottom of this volume.

Here's the whole series. It's published by Svenskt Militärhistoriskt Bibliotek (the Swedish Library of Military History) and is, oddly enough, my first hardcover edition.
A big thanks to Stefan Aguirre, one of my new Swedish readers, for these photos!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Missouri locust plague of 1875

As I've mentioned before on this blog, Missouri had a tough time during Reconstruction, with outlawry and sectarian bitterness dividing an already divided people. Nature didn't cooperate either. In the spring of 1875, just a decade after the Civil War, there was a great plague of locusts.

Huge swarms passed overhead for days on end, descending on the fields and stripping them clean. It was said the Missouri River, which was flooding at the time and causing extra damage, ran black with dead bugs. Locals clearing the courthouse lawn in Independence filled 15 barrels with locusts. Each barrel weighed 200 poiunds!

Needless to say, some holy rollers insisted the Apocalypse had come. Others managed to keep their sense of humor, such as this illustrator for a contemporary newspaper. I lifted this public domain image from the great blog Yesteryear Once More, which has a long post on the history of locust plagues in America.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

My latest fantasy novella is out now!

I'm proud to announce that my latest fantasy novella, The Quintessence of Absence, is out now on Amazon, Smashwords, and will soon be at other outlets as well. This 25,000 word story originally appeared in Black Gate magazine. A blurb is below:

Can a drug-addicted sorcerer sober up long enough to save a kidnapped girl and his own Duchy?

In an alternate 18th century Germany where magic is real and paganism never died, Lothar is in the bonds of nepenthe, a powerful drug that gives him ecstatic visions. It has also taken his job, his friends, and his self-respect. Now his old employer has rehired Lothar to find the man's daughter, who is in the grip of her own addiction to nepenthe.

As Lothar digs deeper into the girl's disappearance, he uncovers a plot that threatens the entire Duchy of Anhalt, and finds the only way to stop it is to face his own weakness.

The cover is by fellow indie writer Jack Badelaire, author of the awesome Commando series. He saw my struggles with designing a cover and sent me this one to me out of the blue. Now that's the indie spirit!  You can read his take on the indie life in an interview here.

I'd love to have some help getting the word out. Please tweet, share, and blog about this release. But if you're considering buying it, please jump the cut.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Military History Photo Friday: Bicycle Soldiers

Here's a part of the Blitzkrieg you generally don't see. These World War Two German soldiers are part of a bicycle regiment. While most histories emphasize the quick motorized movements of the so-called "lightning war", the German army made extensive use of horses and bicycles.
Bicycle soldiers have been around almost as long as there have been usable bicycles. Since bikes are cheap, portable, and don't need to be fed, they provided a viable alternative to horses. They were first used in warfare in South Africa in 1895. This photo shows British bicycle troops in the Boer War in 1902. They also saw common use in World War One.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Speculating on Confederate land

As I mentioned in my post about the Baldknobbers vigilante group in the Ozarks, when Confederate veterans returned home, many found their land had been confiscated for failure to pay taxes during the war and was now occupied by Union men.

Speculation in land skyrocketed in Missouri and many border and Southern states after the war as monied Northerners hurried in to grab cheap plots. One of the was Daniel Fogle, who in a letter from 1867 observed that he couldn't even get off the train without being offered land for sale, "There are a great many that are thronging the railroad stations, exceedingly anxious to sell lands."

The best deals were to be had from county governments, who had seized rebel farms when the taxes weren't paid. Fogle reported, "These lands sell for near nothing--but it is considered very hazardous to buy and occupy them as they mostly belong to men who went into the Southern army and dare not return, and there is a large band of them sworn together, and unknown to authorities, who will and do kill every man who attempts to occupy their former homes."

The enduring bitterness of displaced and disenfranchised Southerners led to many outlaw groups (often made up of former bushwhackers) and well as larger organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. The legacy of the war continued long after the last battle was over.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Help me pick my next ebook cover!

Next week I'll be releasing a dark fantasy novella titled The Quintessence of Absence, a reprint that originally appeared in Black Gate magazine. Set in an alternative 18th century Germany, it deals with a struggle between good magic and the darkest regions of the occult.

I decided to try designing my own cover for a change and used the free template software at Copysafe. Here are some I've come up with. Which do you like?
Cover #1
The templates are a bit rigid. For example, I can't center this byline. But hey, it's free!

Cover #2

Cover #3
Cover #4
So which one do you prefer, numbers 1, 2, 3, or 4? (Oh, and those white boundaries are a product of blogger. They won't be on the actual covers)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hitting that word count!

As I mentioned in the beginning of the year in a post about my writing goals, I plan on writing 200,000 words of fiction in 2013. While that sounds like a lot, it's actually only 550 words a day. Quite doable. I even put a counter at the very bottom of this blog to keep myself motivated.

Now that we're a third of the way through the year, how am I doing? Well, as you can see I'm only a little over a quarter of the way to my goal. A nonfiction project took up a great deal of my time, and then I took a week off while I was traveling in Estonia. So yes, I'm behind, but with almost 52,000 words written I still feel pretty good.

I'm also speeding up. When you commit to writing fiction every day, your daily word count increases, and the words flow better. In July I'm spending two weeks on a writing retreat in Tangier to work on a novel set there. I'll only be writing: no email, no music, and I won't answer phone calls except from family. If I'm not caught up by then, that break in Morocco will certainly get me caught up!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Wild West Photo Friday: A Mexican Caballero in San Antonio

Now that the A to Z Challenge is over, I can get back to my regular Photo Friday series, whether it's Civil War, Wild West, or Military History. This week it's the Wild West, with this fine Mexican horseman photographed in San Antonio, Texas, in the 1870s.

Before there were cowboys, there were vaqueros. The Spanish made it to the Southwest first and set up extensive ranches. The process continued after Mexican independence from Spain. When white settlers started streaming in, they learned the trade from the Mexicans. Sadly, most Western films and books forget the vaqueros, just like they forget the black cowboys.

Photo courtesy New York Public Library.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Two Popular Military History Guest Posts over at Black Gate

As you know, I often do guest posts, especially for the Black Gate and Osprey Publishing blogs.

Black gate just came out with its top 50 most popular posts for March, and two of my posts were in the top ten, #3 and #10 to be precise! They were about a pair of fascinating dioramas I discovered in the American Legation museum in Tangier. Built by master modeller Edward Suren of London, these battle scenes are incredibly detailed. They include the Battle of the Three Kings (1578) and the Battle of Tondibi (1591). I've included lots of pictures and background about both battles.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Done with the A to Z Blogfest

This April I participated in the A to Z Challenge, in which more than a thousand bloggers wrote posts related to every letter in the alphabet. I kept to my usual themes of the Civil War, Wild West, and adventure travel, with a bit of high strangeness thrown in for kicks.

I did every letter except X. My excuse? I went on this caving expedition and I couldn't think of anything anyway.

Of course, the point of the blogfest isn't really to do all the letters, it's to meet other bloggers and have fun. Mission accomplished. Check out my blogger profile if you want to see some of the blogs I like to read. While many are related to the subjects I write about, some are completely different, and that's fun too.