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!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Going on a writer's retreat in Tangier

I'm heading out, folks! I will be spending ten days in Tangier working on my next novel, which not surprisingly is set in Tangier. While I'm there I'll be focusing exclusively on fiction and will not be getting online and will only be answering calls from family. I'll be completely out of circulation from June 21-July 2.

To avoid distractions I won't be bringing a computer, camera, or music. I'll have some reading, of course, and a couple of notebooks to write in longhand. All I'll be doing is writing and getting into all those random weird situations that fuel my writing. While I'm still working on the sequel to A Fine Likeness I feel I need a break before finishing the final 20,000 words on that one.

The genre of this new project is a departure for me. It's contemporary fiction (or "literary fiction" if you want to get snooty). No Chaos demons, gun battles, or sword fights in this one! A new genre and ascetic surroundings will make for an exiting experiment.

See you at the other end of the rabbit hole!

Photo by Almudena Alonso-Herrero of yours truly at the Tomb of Ibn Battuta, the greatest traveler of all time.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reading an old Jesse James dime novel

While preparing my talk for the book launch of the Italian edition of my Jesse James book I read through a bunch of Jesse James material. The theme of my talk was the outlaw's transformation into a legend.

One of the books I read was the oldest Jesse James book in my collection: Jesse James' Mid-Winter Lark, or The Plundering of the Iron Mountain Train, by William Ward. This dime novel dates from 1909, when Frank James and several gang members were still alive.

Dime novels were cheaply produced magazines or paperback books that were the popular literature of their day. There were countless titles from their beginning in the 1860s to their demise in favor of pulp magazines in the 1920s.

This one, number 27 of a series about Jesse, portrays the outlaw as a strange hybrid. He's neither the noble Robin Hood some dime novels made him out to be nor the evil crook from the newspapers. He's both at the same time.

James is hiding out in the Kentucky hills when he hears a beautiful girl has been arrested for selling moonshine. Of course Jesse doesn't like government men harassing the rural poor, so he sets off to save her, leaving a trail of dead government agents wherever he goes. While he's doing this Robin Hood impersonation he's also taking vengeance out on any of the hill folk who don't stand by her side. When one man who volunteered to fight the police shows a bit of fear, Jesse shoots his ear off! Then Jesse discovers one of the hill folk had reported on the girl, and Jesse takes gruesome vengeance.

It's an odd book and I wonder what audiences 104 years ago thought of it. Perhaps they just wanted a thrill and didn't think about it much at all. Dime novels weren't exactly high literature. It does make an interesting curio, though, and an unusual landmark in the reputation of America's most famous outlaw.

If you want to get a copy, there's one for sale on Ebay.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Reader News for July 17, 2013

Welcome to another Reader News! Two big announcements this time around.

David Lee Summers, who recently did a guest post here on Researching Alternate History, is an astronomer and writer/publisher. Now he's brought his two careers together by publishing a science fiction anthology of stories set on planets discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope.

A Kepler's Dozen: Thirteen Stories About Distant Worlds That Really Exist is out in paperback and ebook on Amazon, Smashwords, B&N, and direct from Summers' publisher Hadrosaur Press. This is probably the first such anthology. As astronomers find more and more exoplanets, as planets outside our solar system are called, I suspect it won't be the last.

Lexa Cain has just signed a book contract. Her book SOUL CUTTER is about a teen who outs fake psychics on YouTube and overcomes her skepticism when she confronts a legendary Soul Cutter in Egypt. It's going to be published by MuseItUp Publishing in December 2013.

Congratulations David and Lexa!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

My book on Tombstone is out now!

I've just received the author's copies for my latest book, Tombstone - Wyatt Earp, the O.K. Corral, and the Vendetta Ride 1881-82. This is published by Osprey Publishing and as usual they did a bang up job on the layout and artwork.

This book looks at the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as well as the lead up to the confrontation between the Earp brothers and the Cowboys and the vendetta that lasted for some months afterwards.

As the back cover blurb states:

The Gunfight at the OK Corral on 26 October 1881 is one of the most enduring stories of the Old West. It led to a series of violent incidents that culminated in the Vendetta Ride, in which Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and several other gunslingers went after their rivals the Cowboys.
Like most tales of the Wild West, the facts are buried under layers of myth, and the line between good guys and bad guys is blurry. Wyatt Earp, leader of the so-called “good guys”, was charged with stealing horses in the Indian Territory in 1870 and jumped bail. Becoming a buffalo hunter and gambler, he got into several scrapes and earned a reputation as a gunfighter.
Several times he helped lawmen arrest outlaws, but usually his assistance came more because of a personal grudge against the criminal than any real respect for law and order. He even got fired from a police job in Wichita for beating up a political rival.

This is my sixth book for Osprey and my fourteenth overall. I'm currently talking with the editors about more projects. Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

An unplanned ride through enemy lines

As I've mentioned before, by 1863 the fight in Missouri was mostly one between Union soldiers and militia and Confederate bushwhackers. Prominent among these irregular rebel fighters was Major Tom Livingston. He was quite successful for a time and gathered a lot of attention from Union forces.

On May 13, 1863, one Union detachment caught up with him at the Centre Creek lead mines. Livingston had about a hundred well-armed men and were probably in the area to get lead with which to make bullets. Union troops surprised him and attacked.

The official Union report states, "It was a desperate bushwhacking fight; both sides were hand-to-hand in the brush for awhile. Captain Henslee's horse became very much frightened, and charged immediately through the rebel crew; it is supposed fifty guns were fired alone at him in this passage; escaped unhurt. He fired as he went through; killed 1; charged back again in order to save himself and killed another."

If you're going into battle, make sure you can control your horse!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Military History Photo Friday: Medieval Handgonnes in Slovenia

When I started researching my book Medieval Handgonnes: The First Black Powder Infantry Weapons, I discovered the Balkans were early adopters of the earliest handheld firearm technology. Many of the photos for the book, for example, come from Croatia.

Just north of Croatia is Slovenia, the subject of my current travel series for Gadling. While in the National History Museum in the capital Ljubljana I came across two examples of early firearms.

This top one of from the early 15th century. It's of the earliest of the three main types I outlined in my book. It's only a little more than a foot long with a touch hole at one end. The hook at the bottom was for hooking over a wall or shield in order to steady it. The handgonne may have been fixed to a wooden shaft but I couldn't see any evidence for that.
This is from the late 15th century and as you can see it's a much more advanced model. Well, hopefully you can see. It's really hard to take good photos through glass! Anyway, it's about three feet long and has the familiar hook. It also has a pair of gunsights and a pan for the gunpowder that was originally fitted with a swiveling top in order to secure the loose powder.
Here's a closeup of the back end, showing the pan, maker's mark, and rear sight.

As you can see, there's no trigger on either of these pieces. Triggers of the matchlock type only came into use slowly near the end of the 15th century.

You might also want to check out a guest post I did about the accuracy of medieval handgonnes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Indie Life: Let's Stop Review Inflation

Anyone who has been to university is familiar with the phenomenon of grade inflation: students are given better grades than they deserve in order to make the department or university look good. There's a similar process going on in indie publishing that I call review inflation.

It's simple: an indie writer gets her friends to give the book five-star reviews, lavishing praise on the book. Sometimes it's quite obvious. I've seen books that have only been published for a day that somehow have half a dozen reviews, all of them five stars. The idea is that this will help sales.

In the end, this hurts the author and indie writers in general. When real readers buy the book, they're often disappointed and take out their sense of betrayal with especially bad reviews. Readers are also getting more sophisticated. I've seen more than one review on Amazon or B&N which complains there are too many fake reviews for a book.

It's also just plain dishonest, and trying to pull one over on your readership is not going to help your career in the long term. I have never asked my friends for reviews. For my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness, only one reviewer is someone I know. ACLopez is a friend of mine. I didn't ask her to write a review, but she did anyway and gave it five stars. I'd think she really enjoyed the book and was probably tickled that much of the action took place in her county, but would she have given it five stars if she didn't know me? Probably not.

The only other unsolicited review from a friend was for The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner and other Dark Tales. On Amazon UK, Critch gave me only three stars and said, "He needs to improve if his fiction is to equal his non-fiction, but there are glimpses of potential in this collection."

Well, no review inflation with that guy!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book Review: O Pioneers!

O Pioneers! O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here's how the West was really won, through hard work, perseverance, and helping your neighbors. Cather's prose vividly describes the hard landscape of pioneer Nebraska and the harder people who tamed it.

This short novel is of interest because Cather actually lived in that time and place and I suspect many of the characters are taken from life. Here's one of those "classics" that's actually worth reading. At times it can feel a bit dated, and parts are a wee bit overwritten, but this won't be much of a hindrance to readers accustomed to books from this era.

One warning: if you buy the Dover Thrift Edition of this book don't read the back cover blurb. It gives away the ending!

View all my reviews

Castles in Spain and Slovenia

I was traveling in Italy and Slovenia for the past ten days and didn't get a chance to announce that another guest post of mine is up at the Black Gate blog. It's the second in my series on Spanish castles. This time I'm talking about the castle at Chinch├│n near Madrid.

While I was in Slovenia I got to see plenty of castles too. The country, which is slightly smaller than New Jersey, has about 700 of them! You can read my article on Gadling about the castles in Slovenia. It's part of a new series called "Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers."

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Confederacy is cut in two!

A hundred and fifty years ago last week, the Confederacy was cut in two. The last bastions on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg and Port Hudson, were both invested by Union forces. It would be another month before they fell, but with the main rebel armies on the river cooped up behind defenses, the Confederacy was essentially divided between those states west of the Mississippi and those east of it.

This would have a profound effect on the war to the west of the river, the so-called Trans-Mississippi Theater. Most of the experienced rebel troops had already been transferred to the East, and those who were left were slowly whittled down by sickness, death in battle, and increasing levels of desertion. Confederate commanders west of the river did their best to find new recruits, but war weariness was already setting in for many in Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas.

One would think that this would be a prime opportunity for Union forces to sweep down and take these weakened states, but northern states west of the river such as Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and the loyalist parts of Missouri had also been drained of men to fight in the east. Most of the Union military strength remaining in these areas was made up of local militias who only fought in their county or state. The few Union campaigns west of the river after this point were generally weak and poorly planned affairs.

That didn't mean the action was over. As we shall see, the war west of the river was only getting worse.

Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: Union mortar boat

This ugly little vessel is a mortar boat. Used primarily by the Union navy, they were armored rafts carrying a heavy mortar. As the siege of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg got underway 150 years ago this week, many of these vessels were towed up the Mississippi River and used to bombard the fortified city.

Mortars are handy in that they provide indirect fire. Instead of shooting directly at a target like regular artillery, they launch their projectiles at an arc, so they can hit targets behind hills and other obstructions.

In my sequel to A Fine Likeness, one of these mortar boats makes an appearance. Captain Allen Addison of the Union navy, and son of the protagonist in the first book, is at the siege of Vicksburg in his gunboat the USS Essex watching a group of mortar boats do their thing, when an incoming rebel shell gives him a nasty surprise. . .

. . .but you'll have to read about that later. I still have about 15,000 words to go before the book is done.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

You never know where your books will end up

A couple of days ago I needed a new book to read. Luckily my hotel in Ljubljana had a book exchange, one of those handy take-a-book-leave-a-book services. I dropped off the novel I'd just finished and rummaged around their selection.

Immediately I came across a name I recognized. Jane Toombs is an experienced midlist writer with almost a hundred books under her belt. I interviewed her for an article on midlist writers and have chatted with her online many times over the years. The book was Designated Daddy, a Silhouette Romance.

Not my kind of thing, so I picked a different book, but it made me realize that you never know where your books will end up. It looked a bit tattered, like it had been on the road for a while and had changed hands more than once. Of course, all the English-language books on that shelf had traveled a long way. It's just that seeing one by an author I know really brought the point home to me that our work is an enduring thing with a life of its own.

Who knows? Maybe I'll come across one of my own books one day.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My book launch in Italy

I'm baaaack!

As I mentioned before, I was in Gorizia, Italy, for the ninth annual ├ĘStoria Festival. This history/book fair is hosted by my Italian publisher, who recently came out with these Italian-language editions of two of my books. For three days, a park in Gorizia was filled with tents. Several book dealers set up shop and the other tents were given over for talks and panels.

The theme this year was Bandits, and I was on a panel about Jesse James. I was the only non-Italian in the room but luckily they provided me with a translator. This guy was amazing. He grew up speaking four languages and went on to learn a dozen more. He gave a simultaneous translation so seamless it almost felt like the other panelists were speaking two languages at the same time.

My fellow panelists were a historian, a journalist, and a philosopher, and so we were an eclectic bunch. I gave a talk on "Jesse James, Inc.", on how the James legend was commodified even in his own lifetime.

The others put him in the context of the greater theme of banditry, and compared him with some of the famous bandits of southern Italy. Italian unification in the 19th century was mostly led by northern Italians, and while the southern Italians went along with it, there was some grumbling over the loss of independence. Some bandits took advantage of this by branding themselves rebels as well as thieves. Hmmm. . .sounds familiar.

I managed to slip away to do some sightseeing as well. Hit the link above about Gorizia to learn about this interesting town on the border with Slovenia. I also went to visit the Isonzo World War One battlefield.

I had a great time and hope to go back some other year. After the festival I headed over to Slovenia for a week. I'll be starting a series on Gadling this week about that.