Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Merry Christmas to All!


As always, I was on the road this weekend. Marianne and I took a quick jaunt up to New England for a carol sing at the family chapel of friends. We've been hearing about this neighborhood event for (my god, can it be?) decades and always resolved to attend some day. This year, Marianne decided that we must.

So we did.

Oh my, but it was heartwarming. Partly it was because the organizers knew that children would get restive after an hour and kept it from dragging. Partly it was because it was a tradition that went back at least a lifetime. Partly it was because the carols were sung only for two verses and so stopped before their composers ran out of inspiration and started stringing words together at random.

Mostly, it was because it was a neighborhood thing. People who knew each other from childhood made sure the organ was working, decorated the chapel, checked beforehand that everything was in place, put the songbooks out.

Then we sang.

I'll admit that my contribution was... what's the word? Corvine. Ever since I was the only child to be thrown out of the Second Grade Choir at St. Stephen's in Schenectady for vocal inadequacy, I've been painfully aware of what an offensive singing voice I have. And yet, in combination with a multitude of voices, we (including, mirabile dictu, me) sounded angelic.

It was a genuinely spiritual experience.

Marianne and I fit right in as the strangers at the feast. Afterward, though, a woman whose name I did not get told me that at the beginning of the event, the chapel was mostly full of strangers to her. But that after an hour's caroling, she knew that they were all neighbors.

Even the two strangers who had come up from Philadelphia for the event.

Merry Christmas to all! Happy Hanukah! Pagan Solstice! And all other wintry religious festivals to those who cherish them! I hope your new year is even happier than the one I hope for myself.


Friday, December 21, 2018

The Evolution of American Rye Whiskey - Part 1


While the name of the King of Cocktails is immortalized in the very title of the American Martini Laboratory, our investigations are not limited to one drink. Today begins an occasional series that will trace the history of Rye Whiskey in America, from its humble origins to the present day. Herewith, Part 1:

If we are to explore the history of Rye Whiskey in America (and that is certainly my intention), we must begin at the beginning. And that beginning is, amazingly enough, Rum.

The American Colonies, before the War of Independence were not peopled by teetotalers. Far from it! Life was hard, pleasures were relatively few and greatly appreciated, and the water was dangerous to drink. So, from the earliest colonists on, American society was awash in beer, hard cider, applejack, and distilled spirits. Some even sank so low as to drink wine -- though American wine was dreadful and imported wine so expensive that only Thomas Jefferson could afford it regularly.

In the Colonial era, the tipple of choice was rum.  Not the smooth and delicious drink we now know but a cruder version distilled from the by-products of the molasses industry. Still, it was the best of a bad lot and prodigious amounts of it were made and sold.

There were two problems with rum.

The first was that it was a major component of the "triangular trade." The Americas sold sugar and rum to England, which sent cloth and manufactured good to Africa, which sent slaves to the Americas. So it was a part of our great nation's Original Sin. Not that this bothered many American at the time. Which is also a part of our collective national guilt.

The second problem is that rum at that time was pretty rough stuff. Which is why so many Colonial drink recipes involved massive amounts of fruit and sugar.

One of the best of these drinks was invented at a gentlemen's fishing club on the banks of the Schuylkill River, not far from the world headquarters of the American Martini Institute. It is named  Fish House Punch, after the august institution in which it was first concocted

Most recipes involve bottles of each ingredient and sacks of sugar, because they were meant to be served in enormous punch bowls to large groups of hard-drinking men and women who had no idea how soon they would become our Founding Fathers and Mothers. With perseverance, however, you can find more manageable recipes. Here's one:

Fish House Punch 
1 shot rum
1 shot cognac
3/4 shot peach brandy
1 1/2 shots simple syrup.
juice from 1 lemon 
directions: Mix, Chill, and serve with a spiced cherry. Serves two.

And the results? as you might guess, this is an intensely sweet drink. Also very, very fruity. But anyone mixing this cocktail is going to know that going in. At the taste test, Fish House Punch won over even the skeptics. It is flavorful, bright, and festive. A terrific party drink and far superior to the dreadful things that are usually served in punch bowls.

Also, it packs a punch. Our Colonial forebears certainly knew how to party!

So for one bright, warm moment, everything (if you could ignore the slavery part, that is) everything was good.

But then -- spoiler alert! -- came the American Revolution and everything changed, changed utterly. Including what kind of alcohol Americans drank.

More on this will be published here later.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again. Off, in fact, to have Yuletide-related adventures. Be good while I'm away, all right? I know you can.

There's a first time for everything.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

My Icelandic Writing Advice


Not long ago, I was in Reykjavik for Icecon, the second science fiction convention ever held in Iceland. I thought it was a terrific small convention. There'll be third Icecon in 2020 and if you have the opportunity to go, you really should.

Since I was there, the con committee asked me to participate in a brief writers' workshop. My part of it was more a lecture than anything else, really. But I tried to squeeze everything I knew into one hour.

One of the student writers, Debbie Lai, took notes and they've been posted at Friday Ten Min Club.

Notes are just notes, of course. Simplifications. But to see if you might benefit from them, try the following sample test. Most published writers will ace it.

What question should you ask before choosing a protagonist?

Why should your protagonist NOT be a nice guy?

What is the minimum number of characters a story should have?

How much of your research should you include in your story?

If you can't be good, be... what?

We all know what a story is. In one word, what is a story about?

Hamlet is notoriously badly plotted. Why. then, do we love it so?

Pencils down. All done?  Good. If you aced it, you already know. If not, you may proceed to check out the notes here.

Above: That's what I look like in Iceland. It's he northern light, I think.


Friday, December 14, 2018

The Parable of the Creche


Once a year, I post this story here. I think it says something valuable and true about human beings. So of course it speaks to the holiday season.

Happy holidays, everybody! I hope with all my heart that they bring you contentment and joy. Though, you being human...

The Parable of the Creche

When first I came to Roxborough, more than a third of a century ago, the creche was already a tradition of long standing.  Every year it appeared in Gorgas Park during the Christmas season. It wasn't all that big -- maybe seven feet high at its tip -- and it wasn't very fancy. The figures of Joseph and Mary, the Christ child, and the animals were a couple of feet high, and there were sheets of Plexiglas over the front of the wooden construction to keep people from walking off with them. But there was a painted backdrop of the hills of Bethlehem at night, the floor was strewn was real straw, and it was genuinely loved.

It was a common sight to see people standing before the creche, especially in the evening, admiring it.  Sometimes parents brought their small children to see it for the first time and that was genuinely touching.  It provided a welcome touch of seasonality and community to the park.

Alas, Gorgas Park was publicly owned, and it was only a matter of time before somebody complained that the creche violated the principle of the separation of church and state.  When the complaint finally came, the creche was taken out of the park and put into storage.

People were upset of course. Nobody liked seeing a beloved tradition disappear.  There was a certain amount of grumbling and disgruntlement.

So the kindly people of Leverington Presbyterian Church, located just across the street from the park, stepped in. They adopted the creche and put it up on the yard in front of their church, where it could be seen and enjoyed by all. 

But did this make us happy?  It did not. The creche was simply  not the same, located in front of a church.  It seemed lessened, in some strange way, made into a prop for the Presbyterians. You didn’t see people standing before it anymore.

I was in a local tappie shortly after the adoption and heard one of the barflies holding forth on this very subject:

"The god-damned Christians," he said, "have hijacked Christmas."


Monday, December 10, 2018

Bones of the Earth! Cheap! Soon!


And speaking of ruthless self-promotional news...

Bones of the Earth, my wildly entertaining novel of dinosaurs-and-time-travel will be featured in Early Bird Books, Open Roads Media's daily deals newsletter on the 19th of this month. On that day, the ebook will be downpriced to $1.99.

So if you like e-books, like SF, like dinosaurs, and don't already have a copy... well, this deal is for you.

You can subscribe to Early Bird Books here, so you'll get the direct link to the deal on the day it happens. If such is your choice.

Which is the whole thing in a nutshell. You couldn't ask for a kinder, gentler hard sell than that.


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Small Wonders Briefly Available


It's that time of year again! Every December Dragonstairs Press (which, I have to remind people, is not my press but Marianne Porter's, I being but a lowly in-house content provider) issues a Solstice chapbook. Signed, numbered, hand-stitched, and scandalously underpriced. Those which aee not mailed out to Friends of the Press are then made available for purchase.

Newly out from Dragonstairs is Small Wonders, containing three seasonal and very short stories by your humble servant: "Midnight Journey," "A Horse Named Michael," and "The Mousewife's Tale."

Here's how the last story begins:

The Mousewife’s Tale 

Little girls, however winsome, grow up. Long before she left for college, Catherine outgrew her dollhouse and so it was placed in the attic, open side to the wall, against the day when her daughter or granddaughter might require it. 
What a treasure this was for a questing young mouse to discover! 
Wonderingly, the mouse crept inside, peering about with small bright eyes. Her whiskers twitched. There was a living room with rugs and chairs and ottomans and a dining room with a long table and chandelier. The kitchen was fully furnished. A staircase led to more rooms upstairs. 
But dust was everywhere. So, tying on an apron, the mouse grabbed a broom made from a toothpick and thistle-fluff and began to sweep. When that was done, she filled an acorn bucket with soapy water and mopped the kitchen floor. 

The doorbell rang and in trooped…

I personally like these stories. But, then, I'm biased. The perfect gift for the bibliophile on your Solstice list.

There are, as of this posting, exactly one dozen copies available, out of an edition of 120. You can find them at The prices listed are not for the postage. The prices include the postage.


Monday, December 3, 2018

The Mainstream Murray Leinster


There was no more important writer in the period between H. G. Wells and Robert Heinlein than Murray Leinster. Who was actually a Virginian named Will F. Jenkins.

In a career that began in 1913 and ended with his death in 1975, Jenkins published some 1,800 stories in more than 150 periodicals, as well as 74 novels and collections. Only a small part of his output was science fiction -- and that was written over the horrified objections of his agent. (SF didn't pay as well as the slicks, which were his usual markets.) But Jenkins loved science and wrote science fiction for the fun of it, utilizing the Leinster pen name to protect his other fiction.

Making it ironic that today Will F. Jenkins is remembered almost entirely for his science fiction, which included the first alternate history story, the original first contact, and, in "A Logic Named Joe" (Astounding, 1946), a truly prescient description of the Internet.

If you're like me, you've probably wondered what Jenkins' other fiction looked like but never had the time and energy and resources to go digging through old mainstream magazines to find out.

Well, good news! "Ten Unique Stories by Will F. Jenkins from the the Murray Leinster Archives" has just gone up for sale in e-book and paperback formats. (Created and edited, though she takes no credit for it, in an act of filial piety by his daughter Billee Stallings.) And I wrote the introduction!

Here's how the intro begins:

Introduction: Will Jenkins, Writing as Himself  

“I have a new theory about the natural structure of story,” Will Jenkins said. I was in his house, Ardudwy, in Gloucester County, Virginia, along with a fellow student who was also a science fiction fan and an indulgent William and Mary professor who thought we’d get a kick out of meeting a real writer. “I think it goes back to caveman times. A bunch of hunters are sitting around a campfire and one of them says, ‘It was pretty clever of me, the way I killed that cave bear today. Of course, he had me down for a moment and I thought I was going to die. But then I came up with that trick.’” A pause. “‘When I left the camp this morning, I had no idea that…’”
 Jenkins let his hypothetical narrator trail off, and laughed.
 That was nearly half a century ago and I still cherish the memory of that one-time-only encounter with the man who, even then, was known chiefly for his seminal works of science fiction. Which is ironic, because…

If you want to read the rest of my essay, it's visible in its entirety using Amazon's "Look Within" function here.  Or you could simply buy the book.

And I owe everyone an apology . . .

Without meaning to do so, I let my blog lapse. I was busy, I was traveling, and I had rather a large backlog of work to see to. Mea culpa. I'm sorry for that.

But now the blog is back! And I'll have a lot of things to post about over the coming months. So welcome back.

I'll do my best not to wander off in a haze of forgetfulness this time.