Fantasy, mystery, thrillers, horror, historical. . .I write it all, and review it too!

Jun 30, 2011

Guest Post: Color Me Geeky

Today we have a guest post from A.J. Maguire, a fellow Double Dragon author.

Color me geeky, but I loved the video game Arcanum. In fact, when I was world-building for Witch-Born, I did a little tip of the hat to the game when I named the world “Magnellum”. It was originally going to be called Magnella, but in a purely capricious mood I changed it to add the “-um” at the end. If you’ve ever seen the game, you know the general feel, where magic and steam-generated technology are at odds. While I loved this concept, what I loved more was the steampunk involved and the fun details that came from it.

When I first set out to write Witch-Born, I became frustrated because I didn’t want to make a replica of the world of Dyngannon, which was the setting of my first novel, Sedition.  A very patient friend of mine, who always listens when I start ranting about writing frustrations--even though he's never written a novel and never will--challenged me to make Witch-Born a steampunk world. I’d never tried that before, so I took the challenge.  

Because I was writing Witch-Born for the National Novel Writing Month in 2008, I took all of October to outline the book and play with world-building and research. For those unfamiliar with steampunk, a very basic explanation is that you take modern technology and swap it with steam power. Jared, the friend who issued the steampunk challenged, laid out specific items that I had to put in. Firstly, there needed to be a train. Locomotives are the essence of steam-powered technology, and thus I had to have one in my book.

Chugga-chugga-Easy, I even put a depot in the first chapter.

Then he said there had to be a lot of brass and copper. (Yes, he really was that vague.) And at this point I sort of gave up on his directives and started researching steampunk myself. The first place I went (and the first place I always go when I’m researching something) was How Stuff It’s an eclectic compendium of information to just about everything imaginable. They even have podcasts. Personally, I’m looking forward to listening to the “How Shrunken Heads Work” podcast.

How Stuff Works threw me several specific directions. At first, “steampunk” was used to define any author of speculative fiction who based their world on an alternate 19th Century Earth. More specifically, an Earth where technology is defined more by iron and copper and metals, rather than the plastic contraptions we have in stock today. Nowadays, steampunk is a style and an art form. A good example is Wild, Wild West. You see the steam-powered, iron spider crawling through the desert, or the steam-aided wheelchair. But if you want to get really specific, read The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. By the time you’re done reading that, you’ll have a feel for what steampunk means.

By the time November hit, I had a boat load of information and research that I absolutely could not get through.  Because you have to write 50 thousand words in the thirty days of November in order to win National Novel Writing Month, I had all of this information in a file on my computer that I accessed only when I got really stuck.

Can they have a steam-powered generator? (Dive into the file and look.)

I absolutely must have a dirigible, can I have a dirigible? (Rifle through file again.)

Good lord, he’s dressed like a dandy, is that right? (Eyeball several pictures in the file.)

I’m happy to say that I did actually win National Novel Writing Month that year, but the greater portion of my research came about during the editing process. I made the mistake of making the main character a seamstress, which I knew nothing about, and ended up with double the research just to make sure the girl didn’t mismatch colors or use the wrong kind of fabric. Although it was a fictional world, I didn’t want to make some egregious error that would have a real seamstress grouching at me.

That being said, Witch-Born is a fantasy with steampunk flavor. I don’t go into the “how’s” of the way the pieces work and I don’t really elaborate on a lot of them. The reason being, is that the point of view characters who were in the book were primarily the race known as “witch-born” and these magically inclined people can’t fully understand the technology around them. They don’t hate it, in fact they appreciate it, but if you asked them how the gears worked in a clock they couldn’t tell you. There is a sequel currently in the works where I have point of view characters that are not “witch-born”, so I’m getting to play more with the research still sitting in my hard drive.

Jun 29, 2011

Murder at McMurdo now available on the Kindle!

My Antarctic mystery/thriller Murder at McMurdo is now available in the Kindle store!

Mark Collins came to McMurdo Antarctic Research Station to study ice cores, cut down on drinking, and patch up his marriage to his wife Rachel. He’s failed on all counts. His equipment arrives broken, and he’s having an affair with Svetlana, a coworker who drinks as much as he does. When Mark and Svetlana witness a murder and the wrong man gets blamed, they must either solve the crime themselves, or reveal their affair to the entire camp in order to prove the suspect’s innocence. The only clue is an Alcoholics Anonymous token. Mark must infiltrate the station’s AA group, where he faces not only danger, but hard truths about himself.

It just went up today and somebody's already bought it. Whoever you are, you are my new best friend!

Genre Author blog breaks 1,000 hits in its second active month!

As I mentioned in my post How to Write a Successful Blog? I was hoping to break 1,000 hits this month. Yesterday I did! At the moment of this writing I have 1,030 hits. Thanks to all of you regular readers and thanks for your comments too. I love interacting with all of you.

Tune in tomorrow for an interesting steampunk-themed guest post from fellow Double Dragon author A.J. Maguire.

Jun 28, 2011

Does blogging help an author make sales?

Anyone looking for easy answers won't get them here. Just like my post How to write a successful blog? I'm ending the title with a question mark. In response to that last post someone asked me if the energy spent on blogging actually resulted in more book sales. Here's my response.

Short answer: I have no idea.

Second short answer: It can't hurt (except to waste time better spent writing)

Long answer:
It's hard to make a correlation between a blog and sales. I've had many people in the comments section SAY they bought my book, but who knows? Since I don't have a buy button on my blog (my publishers don't offer that option) there's no way to make a certain correlation.

That said, blogging is the easiest way to get my personality out into the wider world. People learn about me and my books. Of course, being an unknown writer means that me and my books aren't enough to drive people to my site, so I include a regular feature on a popular topic (the Middle Ages) that attracts my core readership (fantasy and paranormal fans). By emphasizing content over promotion I'm hoping to build up a loyal readership who will reward me by buying my books.

Being part of the blogging community helps in other ways. I got to do a virtual blog tour and some fellow bloggers have reviewed my book. My second book just came out and I've already had offers of blog hosting.
So what about hard figures? I don't have any royalty statements yet because my books only came out recently. We'll just have to see and yes, I will share them publicly. There's too much obfuscation and hollow boasting in the ebook community. You'll only get straight figures from me.

Jun 27, 2011

Medieval Mondays: A shoe hidden away keeps the witches at bay

A witch bottle wasn't the only way people in the British Isles protected their homes from evildoers. Traditional folklore gave the nervous homeowner plenty of ways to secure their home, family, and livestock.

The most common method was to conceal one or more shoes in the chimney or other hidey-hole. The origin of this peculiar custom is unclear. One theory says it started with John Schorn of Buckinghamshire, an unofficial "folk" saint from England who in the 14th century caught the Devil in a boot. There was a common belief that witches and spirits came in through the chimney and couldn't turn around, so if you caught them in a shoe you'd keep them out of the house.

More than a thousand shoes have been discovered hidden in old homes in the UK. About 40 percent are from children (considered likely targets for evil spells) and they're rarely found in pairs.

An even weirder remedy was to wall up a cat. (A moment of silence for all those cats). Many cats have been found sealed up in walls or roofs in places where they clearly didn't get to on their own. They've become naturally mummified and are commonly called "dried cats". Since cats were considered semi-magical creatures, perhaps it was thought a dead cat could hunt in the spirit world, or go toe-to-toe with the witch's familiar.

The local cunning man or woman could provide protection without killing Furball or stealing your kid's shoe. A written charm with a mixture of astrological symbols, an abracadabra triangle, and barely literate Latin could do the trick, as could magical marks such as a "daisy wheel" that's commonly found on roof beams, plaster, and furniture in early modern England. This was a good luck symbol.

Another method was hiding a horse skull. At the Portway pub at Staunton-on-Wye there was discovered more than forty horse skulls screwed beneath the floor! Some people claimed it was to help the fiddler sound better, but some sort of magical ritual seems the more likely explanation.

For more on these and other amazing practices, check out the Apotropaios website and the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project. An excellent book is Ralph Merrifield's The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic.

Jun 22, 2011

How to write a successful blog?

The title of this post ends with a question mark because I'm not actually sure how to write a successful blog. I only know what I've done and how it's worked out pretty well for me. Any suggestions on how to do things better would be highly appreciated.

I started this blog on February 16. Here are the stats for my number of posts and monthly hits since then.

February: 5 posts, 86 hits
March: 2 posts, 44 hits
April: 4 posts, 388 hits
May: 17 posts, 978 hits
June (up to noon on the 22nd and including this post): 8 posts, 784 hits

As you can see, life and the day job got in the way and I didn't get serious with this blog until May, when my virtual book tour started. The one thing that started immediately, however, were my Medieval Mondays posts, although they didn't get a regular weekly schedule until May. These get the most hits by far, more than my book announcements, guest posts that aren't part of Medieval Mondays, or any other stuff I've put up.

This gives an important lesson: while I want this blog to promote my books, people come here for Medieval Mondays. Content is king, as they say. Perhaps if people like my posts on the Middle Ages, they'll start buying my books! Medieval Mondays seems to be working for other people too. Two of my most popular posts are Jamie Gibbs' article on Vampirism in Ancient Egypt and Sean McLachlan's post on the accuracy of medieval handgonnes. Several top posts, both mine and theirs, have garnered more than 200 hits. My guest post on leather armour over at Mid-List Writer got more than 350. That's a more established blog, though.

Besides the book tour, I haven't done much to promote this blog. I only got a twitter feed on April 29, but several people have been kind enough to retweet me and link to me on their blogs.

So. . .on my second month of serious blogging it looks like I might break 1,000 hits. That seems like a pretty quick growth, almost entirely on the basis of having a once-a-week regular feature on a popular topic. Would anybody else out there in the blogosphere care to bare all and give the world their data? I'm curious to see how I measure up.

Jun 21, 2011

Murder at McMurdo is out!!!

My second novel (actually a novella) has been released by LL-Publications! Called Murder at McMurdo, this mystery/thriller is very different from my first novel, a fantasy titled Roots Run Deep published by Double Dragon.

Here's the back cover blurb:

Mark Collins came to McMurdo Antarctic Research Station to study ice cores, cut down on drinking, and patch up his marriage to his wife Rachel.

He’s failed on all counts. His equipment arrives broken, and he’s having an affair with Svetlana, a coworker who drinks as much as he does. When Mark and Svetlana witness a murder and the wrong man gets blamed, they must either solve the crime themselves, or reveal their affair to the entire camp in order to prove the suspect’s innocence. The only clue is an Alcoholics Anonymous token. Mark must infiltrate the station’s AA group, where he faces not only danger, but some hard truths about himself.

So instead of a goblin going on an epic quest to liberate her people, we have a very flawed man fighting sexual addiction and alcoholism while trying to solve a murder. Kip Itxaron had her flaws, but Mark Collins makes her look downright normal!

I've always liked flawed characters. They're so much more interesting to write (and read) about than cardboard heroes. Currently Murder at McMurdo is available direct from LL-Publications. Soon it will be available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and several other online vendors.

Jun 20, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Greek and Roman curse tablets

It's time once again for Medieval Mondays, and like with the popular Vampirism in Ancient Egypt and Witch Bottle posts, we've wandered away from the Middle Ages. Ah well. perhaps I should call these posts Archaeological Mondays, but then I'd lose the alliteration. Today's post is by author Christina St. Clair and is about ancient curse tablets.

Tabulae defixiones are curse tablets. They were widely used in Ancient Greece and Rome. In Greek they were called katadesmoi and in Latin defixiones. From the time of Clement of Alexandria in 200 C.E. scholars thought gods needed to be addressed in ways more powerful than mere human language. Thus, invocations, secret names, and secret languages were etched into the tablet.

The tablet, often made of thin lead, because that was cheap, easy to shape, and long-lasting, was then nailed with an iron nail into a wall or floor or somewhere near the intended victim. The iron nail wasn't merely to fasten the plate, but to increase suffering.

Some defixiones contained blank spaces. Archaeologists believe these particular ones were made by professionals and sold to clients who could then fill in the name of their intended recipient.
The defixione at the beginning of my novel, Emily's Shadow, is a mysterious spell. The unknown words bakakab aka! tababak! are intended to be voces mysticae, unrecognizable harsh language meant to gain power over the intended victim: Merlin.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jun 13, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Born-Again Christian killed by pagan stone circle?

 Sometimes truth is weirder than fiction.

Avebury has always been one of my favorites of the thousand or so stone circles of the British Isles. Fellow author and former archaeologist Sean McLachlan of Mid-List Writer fame has published a detailed article on Avebury so I won't repeat the information here. Basically it's the biggest stone circle from the Neolithic Period. Actually it's a whole complex of stone circles, giant standing stones, and associated monuments.

The locals in the Middle Ages didn't like it. Around the 14th century they got religion, more religion than the usually religious medieval peasants. These early Born-Agains decided to destroy the stones and knocked down several of them. One, however, ended up falling on one of the vandals! He wasn't discovered until the stone was excavated in 1938. The stone was put back in place and the bones were sent off to be studied.

What's interesting about the skeleton was that it had a pair of scissors and a medical-style metal probe. This led the archaeologists to identify him as a barber-surgeon. In the days before NHS, barbers often doubled as surgeons, doing simple operations like lancing boils and setting broken limbs. Researchers have suggested he was involved in the vandalism because barber-surgeons were considered somewhat magical, like blacksmiths, and that his presence would have helped protect the vandals. Fat lot of good it did!

Interestingly, the skeleton has been reexamined and there's no evidence he was crushed to death. Perhaps he got pinned under the stone as it was lowered down in the pit and his friends couldn't get him out. Another possibility is that he was deliberately buried under the stone because the villagers didn't want him on hallowed ground for some reason. Pinning a body is a common way to keep the dead from returning. Perhaps he was considered a bit too magical?

This is what I love about archaeology. All the possibilities. . .

Thanks to Jim Champion for the photo. The barber-surgeon was found under the stone on the left.

Jun 12, 2011

Short Story Competition: Down in the Dungeon

I need your help. I've written a collection of short stories inspired by old-school roleplaying games. Down in the Dungeon offers four short stories and a novelette of swords and sorcery adventure, and I want YOU to finish one of them!

The story is below. As you can see, the adventurers are in a wee spot of trouble. Can you get them out? The story can be any length (within reason) but must have the feel of a fantasy dungeoncrawl. Send it in the body of the email to me ajwalkerauthor (at) The winner will get $10 via Paypal and be included in the collection to be published by Writers Exchange E-Publishing!

Entries Close 15 August 2011.

by A.J. Walker

We never saw it coming. The dwarf walked a little ahead of the group, keeping a sharp eye out for any irregularities in the floor or walls. With every step he prodded the floor, using a ten-foot long wooden pole. He also waved the pole up and down to catch any tripwires. Brodor was careful, all right. He'd saved us from half a dozen traps on the first level of the dungeon alone.

But now we explored the second level, and the traps, it seems, had gotten a bit more clever. More clever than Brodor, at least. I saw it all happen. I'm Eirik, expert archer and swordsman, the main fighter for our group. I was covering Brodor with my longbow.

The trap gave no warning. One moment we were proceeding carefully down the hall, and the next Brodor just disappeared. The floor opened up and he dropped into a pit. His pole hadn't helped at all; the trapdoor had been set to give way to the weight of a man. Brodor may only be three and a half feet tall, but put him in plate mail, give him an axe, a shield, and a heavy backpack and he's heavier than the average human. Good thing, too, otherwise it would have been me instead of him setting off that trap.

He fell out of view. Then he fell back into view. He appeared right below the ceiling before falling straight down into the pit again. I blinked, not sure what I'd just seen. Then it happened again. Brodor popped into view a few inches below the ceiling above the pit, a startled look on his face, then plummeted right back down.

We rushed up to the edge of the opening. Interlocutor, our sorcerer/sage, and Zerzan, our hobbit thief, called out to Brodor, urging him to grab the edge of the pit the next time he fell past. He must have heard them because when an instant later he appeared above the pit, he splayed out his arms and legs, desperately trying to reach an edge. One hand caught the lip on the near side, but Brodor was going so fast all we heard was a sickening crack as his wrist hit stone. He didn't even slow down.

On the contrary, he sped up. With each successive fall he gained speed. The fourth time he went past he appeared as just a streak of armor and beard. The only thing we heard, besides the rush of air, was a long "Heeeeeeeeelp!" and something that sounded like a string of Dwarven curses. His appearances and disappearances came so close together that he turned into a single blur, a lightning-fast column of dwarf from ceiling to floor.

Interlocutor peered cautiously over the edge of the pit, careful not to get in the path of the meteoric midget. He scratched his balding pate and muttered to himself.

"It seems to me," he said after a moment's musing, "it seems to me that our friend has become the victim of a very cleverly placed teleport spell. The bottom of this pit is completely featureless. Brodor disappears just an inch from the bottom, only to reappear just an inch below the ceiling. A teleport spell at the bottom of the pit is always on, awaiting unwary adventurers such as ourselves. When someone hits it, they are teleported above the pit, only to fall again and be teleported once more. Thus they fall forever, gaining speed as they go."

"How are we to get him out?" I asked, watching the ever-quickening blur that was our dwarf.

"That," the sage declared, "I haven't quite figured out yet."

"Why don't we catch him with a net?" Zerzan asked. "I have one. Great for catching kobolds. They make a fine pie, you know," the hobbit added, rubbing his belly.

Interlocutor shook his head and turned to the little thief.

"That won't work, I'm afraid. He's going so fast we'd probably cut him into a dozen pieces. No, we have to think of something different. If only I knew a 'slow' spell, or a 'dispel magic'. . ."

He trailed off in thought. Zerzan and I stared at the blur, unsure what to do.

Jun 10, 2011

My mystery novella comes out June 20!

I've recently heard from LL-Publications that my mystery/thriller novella, Murder at McMurdo, will be released June 20! After so many years as a struggling writer, it's nice to have two books coming out in the same year. There's also a fantasy short story collection in the works, but more on that in my next post.

Here's the backcover blurb:

Mark Collins came to McMurdo Antarctic Research Station to study ice cores, cut down on drinking, and patch up his marriage. He’s failed. His equipment arrives broken and he’s having an affair with a coworker who drinks as much as he does. When they witness a murder and the wrong man gets blamed, they must solve the crime for themselves or reveal their affair to prove his innocence. The only clue is an Alcoholics Anonymous token. Mark must infiltrate the station’s AA group, where he faces not only danger, but some hard truths about himself.

You can read an excerpt on the Murder at McMurdo page on this blog.

Jun 8, 2011

Roots Run Deep gets a five-star review on Amazon and Goodreads!

A reader has given my fantasy novel Roots Run Deep a five-star review on Amazon and Goodreads. The review is below:

This is an incredible book. "Roots Run Deep" is not only a wonderful romance it sweeps the reader into a world that is unique yet familiar.

This is a world of many races, the Fae, elves, humans, and Goblinkin. What struck me was how the treatment the Goblinkin mirrored that of native cultures--Native Americans--and the idea of slavery. (The poor Goblinkin lived on reservations and were slaves.) I loved the juxtapose of those on the reservation and the Goblinkin who had escaped to the mountains walk with their heads up and with pride. Wonderful story of freedom, power, and the use of power to destroy or rebuild. It is also a wonderful love story between the human king on the run and the female Goblinkin who saves his life

Thank you so much, L.J. DeLeon! It's always nice for a first-time novelist to hear a kind word from a reader. 

Jun 6, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Vampirism in Ancient Egypt

OK, Ancient Egypt isn't exactly medieval, but since I've already gone into the Early Modern period with my witch bottle post, I see no reason not to fall back in time too. It's a blog, not a site report! This guest post comes courtesy of fellow archaeologist and writer Jamie Gibbs.

If you look at almost any culture in the history of the world, you will find that there is some belief, religious or superstitious, that centres on the power and use of blood. Both the Ancient Greeks and the Cherokee tribe believed that menstrual blood flowed back into the womb during pregnancy, which both created and nourished the unborn foetus. It was also thought that the blood of a slain gladiator would cure epilepsy.

Despite the evidence that blood was believed to have been a useful and beneficial liquid, over the years it has become the stuff of taboo and is considered 'unclean'. The consumption of blood is expressly forbidden in the Old Testament: "Be sure you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the flesh".

This taboo has continued throughout history until we get to the iconic image of those corrupt monsters who crave blood - the vampire. Our image of the modern vampire is very heavily based on the vampires of Eastern Europe, but the idea of vampirism extends farther back in history than is normally thought, back as far and Ancient Egypt.

Probably the most famous case of ' vampirism' in Ancient Egypt surrounds Sekhmet, the goddess of healing and pestilence. In a story known as The Destruction of Mankind, the human race plots against the sun god, Ra. In retaliation, Ra sends the goddess Hathor to lay waste to humanity. The instant that the blood touches her lips, Hathor is transformed into the bloodthirsty and aggressive Sekhmet, who slaughters so many that she wades in their blood up to her knees.

There is also evidence that ordinary Egyptians drank blood in order to increase their existence in the afterlife. In about 2000 BC, Egyptian coffins were inscribed with spells designed to help the deceased reach the afterlife and to protect them while they were there. One of these spells clearly expresses the desire for blood in order to 'keep them alive', "You devoured their hearts, so that you might live; you drank their blood, so that you might live"

This spell is similar to descriptions of predatory animals who live in the Egyptian desert, 'who eat hearts and drink blood'. This also links in with the story of Sekhmet who, with her leonine head, takes on the attributes of the predator.

Evidence of these beliefs go back as far as the pyramids themselves. Inscribed in the pyramid of the Pharaoh Unas (c. 2350 BC) are texts that show the king killing, cutting up, cooking and then eating people (it specifically notes that, in accordance with solar mythology, infants are consumed in the morning, adults in the afternoon and the elderly in the evening). Whilst these texts do not specifically mention that he drinks blood, it is implied so in that he is aided by the demon god Shezmu, who is both the butcher of damned souls in the afterlife and also the master of the wine press.

Shezmu is a fascinating character. In addition for being the Head Chef of the dead king, Shezmu is also responsible for certain punishments for those who do not live their lives in accordance with Egyptian morality. His job is to place bodies in his wine press in order to squeeze their blood from them, in which he then forces them to swim. Shezmu has sometimes been depicted with a leonine head, again emphasising the attributes of the predator that link in with the popular story of Sekhmet.

In all these instances, blood represents two things - life and power. The actions of the Egyptian 'vampires' were a form of dominance over others. To consume the blood of another was to increase your own power whilst at the same time robbing them of theirs. Egyptian vampires did not battle with their curse in an attempt to regain their soul. They did not seduce their prey in order to feed. They most certainly did not sparkle. If Ancient Egypt is anything to go by, vampires are meant to be predators, pure and simple.

Jamie Gibbs is a writer and Egyptologist, and has written two papers on the power of blood in Ancient Egypt: 'Wading Through Crimson Waters' and 'The Scarlet Essence'. He is also working on a fantasy novel that combines elements of vampire mythology throughout history. Visit him on his blog, Mithril Wisdom where he talks about fantasy in literature and the media, as well as writing in the genre.