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A short story that gives the earlier days of my western character, Henry Dowland, is now available on Frontier Tales. That’s an on-line magazine of western short fiction, though this story lets us see Dowland right after the end of the Civil War, going south to find his family.

If you like my tale, vote for it as the best of December. You won’t get a calendar, but you’ll help get my work into the next anthology.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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It’s time for another excerpt from The Willing Spirit. If you’re getting tired of teasers, you can read the whole thing soon.

“Why’re we stopping, Mister?”
Dowland sat on a bed of pine needles with his back against a tree, while Joe paced in front of him. In the starlight from the gaps in the trees, he was just a dark shape passing before darker shapes.
“We’ve been moving for the whole day and some of the night. My eyes are tired, and so are my feet.”
“But they’re still after us. I know it—they’re still after us.”
“Sit down, Joe.”
The boy collapsed to the ground, and his feet scraped the soil as he settled.
“I think that we’ve lost them, but we won’t know it if you keep making noise.”
“So what’a you reckon we do now?”
“Sleep.”
Joe jumped up and paced again.
“Good land, Mister. Are you crazy?”
“Not that I know of, but I will be if you can’t calm yourself.”
Heavy feet crunched the twigs and dry needles on the forest floor until the boy thudded into a tree. He commenced to pounding the bark with his fists.
Dowland picked himself up and walked over to grab Joe’s arms and hold them at his sides.
“Stop it! You’ll make yourself bloody.”
“I don’t care.”
“I do.” Dowland put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and guided him back to the small clearing. “Lie down and sleep.”
Joe stretched out on the ground, and Dowland sat once more to keep watch. In an open patch between the trees, the square of the Big Dipper filled the sky. No one had guided Dowland through the Slough of Despond, as much as he had needed a helper, and he didn’t know what he could offer the boy. Joe was still, though his wet breathing told that he was struggling to hold back tears.
But the calm didn’t last. Joe sat up. “It ain’t no good, Mister. I can’t sleep.”
“I know. I couldn’t, either, after my first time.”
“Does it ever go away?”
“Not really.”
Faces floated through Dowland’s memory. He waved his hand in front of him, a futile gesture for dark ghosts in a dark forest.
“You will learn to live with it.”
“How?” The boy wasn’t even trying to hide his tears.
“Some men stop caring.”
Joe was silent for a moment.
“I don’t reckon I wanna be like that.”
“Good for you.” Was it good, though? Was it better to have a soul in pain than to be a man with no soul at all?
“What about you, Mister? What do you do?”
There was the question. Dowland couldn’t have given an answer to it before—it would have made no sense—but after this battle, Joe had crossed over into his world.
“I remember every time. It hurts like hell most days, but it reminds me to watch what I do. If I’m honorable in that, the ghosts have no claim against me.”
“That’s thin.”
“Yes, it is, but we have to take what we’re given. You killed one man to save another. That has to be good enough.”
The sounds of pine needles being crushed in fists stabbed through the darkness. “Did I save him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can we go find out?”
Dowland stood and walked over to the boy to offer him a hand up. “We may as well. I can’t sleep anyway.”

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Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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My western novel, The Willing Spirit, comes out on the 8th of December from Pen-L Publishing.

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But you can read a few teasers here to see what you’ll be buying (and you are buying it–of course, you are). Here’s the first:

The sun had risen twice since the nighttime shootout and was setting again. Dowland’s body bore the weariness of continual shock and labor. He sank into a bed of needles beneath an elder pine, surrounded by a cover of trees, sure that the lot of them would stand aside and show him to a waiting world at his enemies’ command.
There had been men on horseback both days, always in the distance on the top of a hill or the far end of a valley, too far to shoot and too far to identify as belonging to the Willises. Was it hours between each one or only seconds? Weary bones and empty stomach made time swirl and blend together, and fear exaggerated every sighting.
They all may have been railroad workers, ranchers, and prospectors, but his nerves told him that he was watched, that the encirclement was tightening. For every one he’d seen, a hundred more must have been hiding behind rocks and trees and boulders. They were coming for him. Every step, whether at a full run or a furtive creeping from cover to cover, shoved him like a fox toward the hunters’ waiting guns.
But surely that was foolishness. The rugged land stretched too wide for even this gang to cover every mile. Besides, a man had to rest sometime, even if the whole world were after him.
And he had to eat. Dowland dug through his pack, but nothing more than one good meal was left. He had only a guess as to where he was, but the nearest settlements were at best many days of hard walking away. Taking a shot at game would announce his presence to anyone within miles. Hunger, though, no matter how quiet it was, offered no satisfaction.
He stood and pressed forward toward an open space filled with light from the west. A broad field of grass with a stream flowing through its middle presented itself. Somewhere, a creature must be grazing in the calm of the evening.
The thought of fresh meat gnawed at his stomach. One shot, then a little time to clean the kill and a small fire to cook it wasn’t too much to ask.
He scanned the land about him. Nothing moved. Dowland knelt beside a boulder and drew Alpha. He rested his elbows on the rock and steadied his right hand with his left. He turned from side to side, the muzzle following his gaze. His joints scratched across the rough surface, but his stomach mattered more at the moment than did his sleeves.
Brown ears rose above a tuft of grass.
An orange ball of fire erupted and was consumed in white smoke. A rabbit sprang forward, only to tumble and collapse in the grass.
He’d fired without a thought. When his mind caught up with what had happened, he gazed at the rabbit’s body, sixty yards out, but it lay still, dead by the flowing water where it had been drinking a moment before.
His stomach growled, and he stood to get his meal. A stone under his left foot shifted, though, and he stumbled and swung his right foot around to save himself.
There on a far hill, two miles at least, a sparkle of light caught his eye. The rays of the setting sun reflected back to him for a second, then the glint vanished.
Damn it! Someone was watching him. He shoved Alpha back into his belt and ran toward the stream. That rabbit still called to him, and he leapt over the water to the muddy ground beyond and hurried toward the kill. He snatched up the body and tore it open, eating what pieces he could as he ran on toward the cover of the forest on the other side.

Watch this site for more teasers and announcements.

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In a post on the Oghma Creative Media blog about genre, I told you why I like science fiction and related types of stories. I went on at length, but the short answer is that I love the world of Faerie, the world that the author gets to build. In that way, speculative storytelling is a lot like the myths that shape our culture.

But what about westerns?

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Gene Roddenberry did say that Star Trek was a wagon train to the stars, so there’s a connection, but this genre is typically defined as stories set west of the Mississippi River between the end of the Civil War and the death of Queen Victoria (points if you know that last reference). Yes, Lewis and Clark fan fiction could be a western, as could a tale about the doings to the left of the Allegheny Mountains in 1782, but the general idea is easy to understand.

So what is it that I like about westerns?

1. Research

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As I’ve said before, research is an essential part of good writing. That’s especially true if you’re going to dive into a genre that is known and defined. Yes, John Wayne schlepped a Colt Single Action Army revolver and a Winchester 1892 rifle in movies set well before those tools were available, but today, we’re less forgiving. Writers of westerns need to know the period. And that’s the thing: I love that time and place. Learning about it is fun, and I can immerse myself for hours in digging through books and websites. Of course, that can be a way to avoid writing, but we all have our weaknesses.

2. Ethos

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Remember in Lawrence of Arabia when the reporter asks our hero what attracts him to the desert? Lawrence answers, “It’s clean.” That may seem like a strange reply, given all the sweat and blood that he spills in that story, but what he meant was that the choices in a harsh environment are simple and stark. You fight with every ounce of your being to win against the odds and perhaps die anyway, or you die for sure. You survive by being worthy to meet that land and by joining in common cause with other good people. Sometimes, particularly if Clint Eastwood is the star, the morality tale becomes ambiguous, but the principle remains. A western is about good vs. evil, played out in a world that rewards the skillful.

3. Epic

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Westerns are the American genre. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner gave a speech titled, The Significance of the Frontier in American History. His thesis was that our nation is defined by the concept of a frontier, a boundless horizon over which we can always journey. The fact that our frontiers are now closed, at least until we get serious again about pushing into the final frontier, only sharpens our desire for stories about staking our claim in the freedom of the wilderness. The fact that westerns also deal with that stake being driven through the heart of those who were in that wilderness before us is a good corrective to our unrestrained impulses. More than stories about our founding, more than the woes of slavery and the Civil War, more than the fight against fascism and communism, the western is a tale of who we are.

That’s my answer to why I like westerns. I even write them, if I may promote myself. If I didn’t love this kind of story, I wouldn’t read them, watch them, or write them. For the genre to survive, I need more of you to join me. Hit the trail, pilgrim, and I’ll see you out there.

Crossposted at Oghma Creative Media.

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My advice to new writers is to write short stories. This teaches building a scene with concentrated conflict and concise action leading to a point. Novels are like undeveloped land in the South–temptations for schemers to sprawl. Of course, said tyros should also be reading such stories, but if I have to tell you that reading is a good idea, you’re probably not meant to be a writer.

Still, we do have to be clear on the purpose of the exercise:

1. You will be writing for practice. You will be writing for enjoyment. You will be writing to keep yourself writing while you’re learning the craft.

2. You will also be writing to put your name and voice out in public. Short story markets are few and far between, and even fewer last more than a handful of issues. If you write westerns, by the way, one that’s shown its intention to remain is Frontiertales.com. Check the authors page for some of my writing, by the way. Understand that when you write short stories, the public purpose is to connect your name to something that people enjoy reading. You’re building a fan base. (All your reader are belong to us–you want this.)

3. But there’s something you need to know before you start. You won’t get paid for short stories. Paying markets are just about dead. There was a time when new writers could get a foothold and make a living by writing science fiction or westerns or even literary stories. No more. No matter what The New Yorker claims, new writers don’t have a chance. Apparently, not even good ones. You don’t write short stories to make money. You write them for the first two reasons.

4. Alas, there’s a fourth lesson. Sometimes, a magazine will dangle the promise of actual money, only to pull a fast one. And thus I must tell my own tale.

In 2008, I submitted a short story to something called Astonishing Adventures Magazine. (I’d give you a link, but I can’t, and you’ll see why soon.) Said outfit claimed to be looking for pulp stories–translation, lots of plot, plenty of action, and none of the high-brow or raised-eyebrow stuff that gets published in the, um, New Yorker. Well, thought I, this is something I can provide. I had written a perfectly atrocious science fiction novel in the mid 90s–yes, sometimes, I have to learn through experience. But some of the chapters were good, so I pulled them out and polished them into a worthy short piece and submitted it. The editor said he liked what I wrote. Big smile. The editor said he wanted to publish it. Happy dance. Life is good, right?

Hold on there, hoss. A short while later, he wrote back to say that the magazine was folding due to lack of funds This happens a lot in the business, as you’ll come to find out if you submit stories. So the years go by, and in the fullness of time, I turned the story into a short e-book for sale on Amazon. Why not? It’s a good story. (You should buy it, he whispers)

Then one day, I was wandering about the aforementioned on-line book seller’s site when to my surprise, I came across this, my story, for sale, in Astonishing Adventures Magazine: Issue 4.

¿Como que huh?

There’s my story being sold without anyone having told me about it. After stomping about my home and scaring my cat, I talked to a few friends who told me to keep calm and carry on. This is life.

Indeed it is, regardless of how unfair it may seem. The lesson here that I have had to learn, the lesson that I’m now trying to teach you, Dear Reader, is that having my name attached to a good story in a place where people can see it is a good thing. Clicking on my name in the list of authors takes you to my own page. Truth be told, I’d rather you buy the story from me directly, but I’d also rather you read it, no matter how you do it.

Yup, keep calm, carry on, and some day, publishers will look at your novel. Until then, write.

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If you spend much time studying the writing process, you’ve heard the advice to write what you know. As with other bits of pseudowisdom, this sounds good until we analyze it. For example, I write science fiction and westerns. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I don’t know from living on the Moon or wandering the Old West–not in the sense of personal experience, at least. So what’s a writer such as I supposed to do?

First off, a better piece of easy advice might be to write what you research. A while ago, I wrote a short story, The Driving Flame, which has my western character, Henry Dowland, battling a gang of toughs along the line of the first transcontinental railroad. All I knew about said project was what any schoolchild (who pays attention–a rare breed) knows. That wasn’t nearly enough to sustain a story about a specific period. To prepare for the writing, I read a weighty tome (redundant, much?) on the subject, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. Some might say that reading an 816 page book for a twenty-some-odd page story is excessive, but I enjoy history, and I want to get the details right. If I’m going to say that something existed in Cheyenne in 1867, I damn well want to know that I stand on solid ground in saying it.

This goes against another bit of pseudowisdom that a person ought just to write. That’s fine for writers who enjoy going back and making huge changes ex post facto, but I’m not that kind of writer. I write slowly, and only when I know what I’m talking about. Is that writing what I know? It’s writing what I’ve researched. Again, I didn’t live in the period, so I can’t claim to “know,” if by knowing we mean something that I’ve experienced.

The beauty of writing in this present age is that information is available. If you want to know what the top of Mount Everest or the inside of an Old West mine, pictures are on the Web. As a substitute for personal experience, this works well for an author, though it removes the excuse of needing a vacation to be able to write. (Really, honey, I do need to spend three months in Nepal for this stunning piece of literature that I’m working on…)

But as I’ve said, this is not the form of knowing that our Founts of Wisdom (TM) proclaim. Uh huh. So? The real question here is what writing is about. Travelogues are about a place and time. Good for them. But literature is about human beings. (Even if they’re rabbits or Klingons.) When we write stories worth reading, we’re exploring what it means to be human.

That takes a bit of explaining. Good stories are about characters, not events. The plot is a vehicle that shows us how characters act and react, based on their natures. Bad stories are just a series of events. (And no, Dan Brown, you don’t get a link.) That being the case, authors who care about the craft are writing something of what they know.

There’s more to be said, though. (You knew that was coming, no? [Just as you knew there’d be a parenthetical statement?]) Various writers have said words to the effect of “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” What that means is that writing is the process of discovery. What we know expands when we write. We see the world in a new way. We explore a new means of dealing with life. We plumb new depths of the human condition.

As an example of this, I now see that “write what you know” in fact does have some good advice in it. How would I have known about that if I hadn’t written it?

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