History Lesson



Believe it or not, that mess on the left actually represents progress. There hasn’t been a lot of that, at least in the library. I can see about a third of the bare floor now. I also know that, judging the remaining books with the remaining shelf space, the numbers just don’t work, and I can’t add more shelves…well, maybe one.

That’s for later. Part of the point of at least attempting to get organized is that I have a book to finish, a book set in a specific historical period and at a very important historical crisis point. In short, my references—and one specifically—were packed up, and I needed them. Not to get into many details, but there was a particular point in the story where Imperial and clan politics interacted in a very specific way, and in order to understand how that all fit into the narrative, I needed a specific book. That is, I thought I did. Until I was able to unpack said book.

Funny thing about that—what one person considers important, another just skims past. In other words, the book I was depending on was no help at all. I shouldn’t have been too surprised. What I was looking for was a fairly obscure series of events that happened over nine hundred years ago. Unless you happen to have a large university reference library at your disposal, you’re probably not going to find what you’re looking for. I don’t happen to have that. Nor do I have the shelf space to stock every reference I might possibly need, even if they did exist in translation, and usually the ebook edition in any language simply doesn’t exist.

What I do have is Google. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but online it took me maybe twenty minutes, tops, to track down what I was looking for, thanks to a Japanese site pulling from primary sources, with English translation provided. The internet does make some things more difficult with its constant distractions. But it also makes a lot of things possible. The information I needed simply wouldn’t have been available to me without it. Fortunately, I am not without it, so no problem.

Also no excuses. Funny how that works.

Whispering Pines


One thing I’m going to miss up here. Have you ever heard the expression, “Whispering Pines”? It’s a real thing. The wind makes a distinctive sound when it blows through a forest of Southern Longleaf Pines. Listen long enough and you’d swear they were talking. There are evergreens here, too. Maybe one day I’ll find a grove and try them out, but I don’t think it’s going to be the same.

Still adjusting to life in central New York. In some ways it’s a lot different. In others, not so much. For instance, “redneck” is apparently a lifestyle choice. Now, in a sense I’ve always known that. Wherever I’ve been in the country, I’ve run into them. Remember, I’m from Mississippi, where the dichotomy was much simpler—you either were, or you weren’t. And birth, education, economic level, etc. had almost nothing to do with it. Like the alleged Progressive/Conservative split, it had a lot more to do with how your brain was wired than any well-reasoned philosophical position. However, I had always thought that the particular manner in which it expressed itself in the South was, pardon the expression, our own saltire to bear. So imagine my surprise the first time I saw the Confederate Battle Flag proudly displayed on a local pickup truck.

I have to admit, my gut reaction was WTF???

I figured it must have been another transplant from my general area, shrugged, and went on my way. Then I saw it again. And again. One? Okay, sure. Two? Maybe. Three? Hmmm. I’m seeing a pattern here. Granted, there were not nearly as many around as I was used to, but it was throwing me for a loop that I saw any at all. After all, this is New York. I mean, aside from New England, could you get more Yankee? What could the Battle Flag possibly mean to the people here?

Where I come from, people have given lots of reasons for flying the flag. Other than the real one, I mean, but “Heritage” is the favorite these days. So? From that standpoint it really is my heritage. I own that. I respect the people who fought and died for a cause they believed in. The Cause itself? Not so much. Bigotry and fear convinced a bunch of poor whites to ignore their own best interests to protect the livelihood of a bunch of rich slave owners who, to be charitable, didn’t give a tinker’s damn about them. Looking at the current political situation, you start to see that not a lot has changed. So that whole “Heritage, not Racism” thing? Yeah. Gonna have to call bullshit on that.

Unless by “Heritage” you mean “Got Fooled Again.”

Time to Own It


I think I’ve known this for a long time, and I just didn’t want to admit it. After having it pointed out to me yet one more time, there’s no longer any denying it—when it comes to writing, my subconscious is a lot smarter than I am.

Not that there weren’t enough incidents before now. One example, in a story called “Four Horsemen, at Their Leisure,” (Tor.com April 2010) I was proceeding with a single notion—what happens to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after the Apocalypse? Death, War, Famine, Pestilence…aren’t they out of a job? Just one of those odd musings that often turn into a story. Only, of course, that was just the idea, and an idea isn’t a story. What was the story? No (pardon the pun) idea. Then Death finds a living pine tree, in a place where absolutely nothing should be living. That was the story. Everything important, everything in the story that mattered, it all came from Death finding that one living thing. And I had absolutely no clue when I wrote the scene why Death should find a pine tree. There are a ton of other examples, but I won’t bore you with them. They all pretty much proceed from the same premise–The subconscious knew. I didn’t.

The incident that clarified this issue for me was something a little more recent—my hero has to travel from eastern Japan back to Heian-kyo (Kyoto) on a matter of some urgency. Only he isn’t going directly to Kyoto. First he’s going to travel a good distance out of his way further south to visit the Grand Shrine at Ise. Now, the Grand Shrine has been an extremely important spiritual site in Japan for hundreds of years before my hero’s time. It was not unusual for people then to be making pilgrimages there. Only my hero is not exactly religious, to put it mildly. He feels no compulsion to make a visit to the shrine to ask the gods’ favor for his coming trials. While he does believe in gods (he’s met a few) he’s not so sure about the idea of their favor. And yet he’s going to Ise. Why?

At the moment, I haven’t the vaguest idea, but that’s all right. To the extent that I have faith, that’s where it’s placed–I know my subconscious knows, and in due course, so will I.

And it’s gonna be good.

David G. Hartwell

7b0d3f0e5b-fc2e-4ffe-b6f1-a01ee1f81da57dimg400  I, along with pretty much everyone who works in science fiction and fantasy, got the word yesterday that David Hartwell was in very serious condition and not expected to survive, and unfortunately so it proved. It’s not my place to give details, partly because I’ve only heard specifics second and third-hand, but mostly because that is for those closest to him to do or not as they see fit. I’m here for a different reason.

I only met David Hartwell once, at World Fantasy Convention 2003 and doubt we exchanged more than 20-30 words total then, but the reason I’m writing today is to say a long overdue (and in Mr. Hartwell’s case, sadly too late) thank you to both him and his wife and editing partner, Kathryn Cramer. The reason I spoke to David Hartwell that one time was because he was making sure he received a copy of my first collection, The Ogre’s Wife. I was on my way to give a reading at the time and had one copy with me. Not being a complete idiot, I gave that one to him. I should have thanked him then, since he and his wife and editing partner Kathryn Cramer had shown an interest in my early stories, taking two to reprint in their first two yearly editions of their Year’s Best Fantasy. In another incident where I wasn’t present, a (reliable) friend reported that, on a panel about newer and emerging writers, my name had come up as Ms. Cramer reportedly said something to the effect that, “If you haven’t read him yet, you should.” Such kindnesses were a huge boost to me at the time. Maybe writers shouldn’t need validation other than the work itself, but as human beings we savor it as much as anyone, and getting those two reprints at that point in my writing career was a big deal for me. So I should have said “thank you” to David Hartwell when I had the chance.  It never occurred to me at the time that life and circumstances would dictate that I never spoke to him again.

So I’ll say it now, and especially to his widow Kathryn Cramer who is still with us and I hope will be for a long time: Thank you.




I’m learning about snow. In Mississippi, snow was a fleeting acquaintance at most. In all my childhood I can only remember two really significant snows, that is, accumulations great enough to scrape together a half-way decent snowman. One weird winter we had the local equivalent of a blizzard. Nine inches. Us kids had a ball, though I don’t remember the grownups being too keen on it.

So far this January it has snowed more here in NY than it did in the last five years in Mississippi. Yet snow is different here. In MS the snow was damper and tended to stick to itself. Easy to make snowballs and snowmen on the rare occasions when there was enough of it. Here in central NY there’s plenty, only it’s mostly what I think is referred to as “powder.” Very light and fluffy. Doesn’t stick together worth a darn, or at all, really. Good for shoveling. Good, apparently, for skiing, since there are several ski resorts in the area that were really bummed at the mild December. Not enough snow then. Mother Nature’s making up for it now. I am learning how to shovel snow. I can’t say it’s a skill I had ever aspired to, but it’s part of the deal. Fortunately, the snow is light and fluffy. It’s not that hard to move.

Another odd thing: when small animals make tracks, the snow is compressed in the middle and pushed up on the outside. When it partially melts, the pushed up area melts last, leaving these almost perfectly round “snownuts” along the animal’s path. They look like a trail of frosted doughnuts, just left there on the ground. Doubt they would taste as good, though.

The Emperor in Shadow proceeds. I have a long way to go, but I still think I can finish in time. I’m still in the section which I refer to usually as the “churning” section. Plot elements are being created, characters introduced, and the writing itself shows how they all fit together. Eventually. For the moment, it churns. Soon the pace will pick up when, well, I won’t say when I figure it all out, because that’s not quite how it works. Ray Bradbury is alleged to have said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” That makes sense to me, but as for the actual day to day writing part, I say rather that the story triggers some sort of self-organization principle which is one of the keynotes of life in general. Life wants to happen, and so does story. For a book to live, it has to do something similar. At those times I feel more like a photojournalist than a writer, just trying to record the life as it happens. In this case, it just happens to be a novel.

If it’s not alive, well, there’s nothing to record. Just words. Like empty holes in the snow where maybe a living thing should have been.