Thursday, April 28, 2016

COMING SOON: The Romance of Certain Old Bones

Hello internet! It is with pride and trepidation that I announce the imminent arrival of my new Trace & Boz novella, "The Romance of Certain Old Bones," which will make its official debut at Planet Comicon, Kansas City, May 20-22, 2016.

I will have paperback first-editions for sale, with cover art by Chelsea Mann. Ebook edition will launch shortly after the convention.

In the meantime, here's the first two chapters to whet your whistle! This should tide y'all over until the second Trace novel comes out next spring.

The Romance of Certain Old Bones

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?
declare, if thou hast understanding. – Job 38:4.
Dakota Territory, June 1875
The Aberdeen brothers were the last to leave Yankton. They had traded their wagon for picks and cradles and a mule, their oxen for a couple of mustang ponies, and they rode off into the setting sun at a pace that suggested they were eager to find their fortune… or hoping to avoid pursuit.
Jacob Tracy supposed it was a bit of both. The Aberdeens had invited him along, promising an equal share of any gold they found. There was a very real possibility of striking it rich—General Custer’s expedition had confirmed the presence of gold in the Black Hills the year before—but Jacob thought it more likely the boys would get rousted out by federal troops, if they were lucky. Scalped, if they weren’t.
Still, he wasn’t the brothers’ keeper. The other five families in their small wagon party had already resupplied and struck out to find their fates in the territories. Jacob pocketed the last of his fee from the Aberdeens and headed for the livery where he’d left his horse, and where the last of the drovers, John Bosley, was waiting for his pay.
Bosley was a hard, rangy colored man, a few years older than Jacob and no less weathered. Jacob didn’t know him well—he’d hired him in St. Louis on the word of a mutual friend—but three months on the trail had proved him a worthy companion. He was good with horses, frugal with supplies, and didn’t pry into the business of others. He had once let slip that he’d served in the Tenth Cavalry, but that was about the only personal fact Jacob knew about him. And that was fine; Jacob didn’t much talk about his own past either.
Bosley was talking with the livery owner, an older Negro with a bad limp, when Jacob walked into the stable. They were leaning on a rail, relaxed and sociable, but the livery owner straightened and sobered at the approach of a white man. Bosley drew himself up, too, but he met Jacob’s eyes on a level. Given that Jacob was six foot two, that was saying something.
”Hey Boss,” Bosley said easily, and then to the livery owner, ”This is him. Mister Tracy. The big red quarter horse is his.”
There was something in this introduction that conveyed, He’s all right, for a cracker, and the liveryman’s face relaxed subtly. He shook the hand Jacob offered. ”Redman Davis, at your service.”
”Pleasure,” Jacob said, and handed over a couple of gold eagles. ”That’s for our two horses and tack. He tell you about that shoe?”
The livery owner nodded. ”I’ll see to it, sir. Have it right for you in the morning.”
”No rush,” Jacob said. ”We’ll probably be here a couple days. Where’s a good place for dinner?”
”You’ll want the Republican Hotel, sir. Best steak dinner around here.”
”What about you?” Jacob said to Bosley.
”There’s a saloon down the street that’ll suit me,” Bosley said, which Jacob took to mean the saloon was run by a Negro proprietor, or at least would serve black customers.
They had been eating together every night for weeks, of course—all the drovers and bullwhackers hunkered down around the same fire, spooning out hunks of cornbread from the same skillet, even sharing canteens, sometimes. There was no time for social distinctions on the trail, and Jacob made sure the men he hired knew it. But in town, particularly a frontier town, walking into the wrong establishment could get a nigger killed, if some good white citizen decided to get ornery about it.
But there was no law against a white man going into one of their places. And Bosley was too self-possessed to raise an eyebrow when Jacob said, ”Mind if I join you?”
The steak dinner might not’ve been the best in town, but it was pretty damn good. And the clientele at Simpson’s saloon was mostly white but with a few black faces sprinkled in. There were few Negroes in the Territories, and plenty of Territory to go around, so they were mostly left alone. Not like the Indians, say, or the Chinese.
Jacob pushed the rest of Bosley’s pay across the table in a leather purse. ”Count it if you want,” he said, but Bosley just nodded once and made the purse vanish. ”And if you got a notion to make more, I’m thinkin I might scout for another job around here. Odds are we can pick up another party headed for Montana or Oregon.”
”Maybe worth it,” Bosley allowed. ”You been to Oregon?”
”Not yet. But I been through the Pass a few times. Ran cattle for a rancher out in Wyoming, til a few years ago. And I’d be glad to have you along, if it works out. Fifty-fifty.”
Bosley gave him a long measuring look, weighing the proposal and the white man who made it. That was one thing Jacob liked about him—that boldness, that pragmatism that bordered on fatalism. ”Get out to the coast by October… then what? Stay the winter there?”
”Ride down to Sacramento, get on the train to cross the Rockies. Be back in St. Louis by Christmas, dependin on the weather.”
Bosley sucked his teeth. ”Or there’s security.”
”For the railroad?”
”For the prospectors.” He nodded across the room. ”Or whatever those dudes are here for.”
Jacob followed his gaze. The dudes in question stood by the bar, dressed in practical dusters and slouch hats, but a little too neat and self-conscious to pass for seasoned locals. Jacob’s eye instinctively picked out the man in charge, fair-haired and poker-assed, with a neat Van Dyke beard.
Priest? Jacob thought first. No—scholar, though. He knew fanaticism when he saw it. The fellow’s tight-wound intensity was enough to intimidate the younger, taller man to whom he was speaking. The youngster was even more of a greenhorn, with the stooped shoulders and rabbity eyes of a chronic worrier.
”Heard ’em talkin out in the lobby,” Bosley said. ”Seems they were out here last year, found some strike they’re eager to work, but they’re worried bout some other dudes beatin ’em to it, or stealin their find. The little banty-rooster there’s tryin to hire some local guns to guard their passage.”
”Passage to where?”
Bosley took a swallow of his beer. ”Badlands. Hell Creek.”
“Off the Yellowstone?”
Bosley nodded once.
“That’s right through Sioux territory.”
Bosley nodded again.
”That don’t scare you?”
”Nothin scares me no more,” Bosley said, in a tone that suggested he’d already seen the worst.
And because Jacob felt the same, he got up and went over to the bar.
”—utterly unacceptable, Mr. Ryan,” the older man was saying, while the young beanpole squirmed. ”I warned you these yokels would take advantage of us. You should have haggled him down.”
”I tried, professor, but he wouldn’t budge.” Ryan spoke with the whine of the perpetually put-upon. ”Supplies are at a premium because of the prospecting rush and the traders are gouging everyone. We should have outfitted in Omaha, like I told you.”
”Coffee,” Jacob said to the bartender. ”Sugar.”
”—taken us three times as long to get here,” the professor snapped, ”as I made clear to you in Omaha. I shall have to deal with this Willoughby myself, since you seem incapable of completing the simple task I set to you.”
”You’re welcome to try,” Ryan muttered, ”but this late in the season there’s not gonna be much available.”
”Excuses,” the older man said. There was no particular vitriol in his manner, just a sour triumph, as if he’d anticipated this outcome. ”It’s always excuses with you, Ryan. More and more I doubt your sincerity in following this course of study—”
”He’s right, though,” Jacob interrupted, and the professor looked around, distracted from his recreational flaying, speechless for the moment. ”Excuse my overhearin, but you gentlemen are gonna get hustled by the locals, unless you find a middleman who speaks their language. And I’d stay away from that Willoughby character, unless you want horses lame in all four feet and wind-broke besides. Davis is the man you want, over on third street. He’s a smaller operation but he takes better care of his stock.”
”And no doubt you get a tip from the referral,” the professor said.
”Not a cent. But I know horseflesh, and Davis is the only man I felt right about leavin my mount with. Thanks,” Jacob said to the bartender as his coffee arrived. He took a sip and asked, ”You boys from Boston?”
”I am a professor of natural sciences at Yale,” that fellow said, pokering up further. He was no older than Jacob, mid-thirties at most, but determined to project authority. ”Dare I hope you have heard of it?”
”I’ve heard of it,” Jacob said. ”Though I was educated near St. Louis myself, and the Benedictines weren’t too concerned with the natural sciences.” That got the professor’s attention, as Jacob had guessed it might, so he added, ”Vires idoneos requires, certior fio.” —I hear you need a few worthy men.
Ryan frowned, but the professor’s smile was dry and appreciative. ”And might you be such a ‘worthy man,’ sir?”
”I like to think so,” Jacob said.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

horse thieves

Boz's and Remy's cattle were clustered together at the near end, their mounts tethered to the tie-rail and the others standing patiently behind.

On the other side of the rail were three dirty, hard-bitten white men, clearly fresh off the trail, and a forth inside the corral, bent over beside Remy's mule and the bundle of wolf-pelts roped across its back.

"Hey!" Remy said immediately. "You wanna git 'way from dat mule, vaquero?"

The man in the midst of the horses stood up, his hand still on the flank of Boz's pinto mare. "These your horses?" he said.

"That one's mine," Boz said. He walked up to the pinto and gave her bridle a light twitch, so she side-stepped away from the man. "All these six with the circle-M brand."

The lead hard-ass looked him up and down. He was a more substantial specimen than the rich boy. Not quite as tall as Boz—few men were—but equally hardened. He was handsome for a cracker, square-jawed and straight-nosed with all his front teeth. His eyes were as sharp and motionless as a snake’s. "Well, I hope you’ll pardon my presumption, friend,” he said, baring those pretty teeth in an expression that was not a smile. “I happen to know that circle-M brand belongs to Sean Miller, up on Sweetwater Creek."

"That's right," Boz said.

”Say Willy.” The snake’s gaze flicked toward the liveryman. ”You know this brand belongs to Sean Miller, right?”

”I know all the bonafide brands round here, Nedry,” the liveryman said. ”You know that.”

”Well I don’t guess you heard, but Miller was killed about three weeks back. Butchered and scalped by red Indians. His whole crew and his wife too.”

”I heard,” the liveryman said. ”But I heard it was some crew of bandits, made out to look like it was Indians.”

Nedry’s snake eyes slid toward Boz, not taking credit for the deed, but allowing the possibility to hang there. Boz guessed he was supposed to know that Nedry was not a man to be messed with. Boz’s fingers twitched with the impulse to swipe that smug look from his face. Just grab his jaw and tear it off, leave the smug tongue drying in the breeze.

Nedry’s eyes noted the suppressed rage with interest. ”Not implying anything untoward, friend. Fact is, young Randy there is Miller’s only living nephew and heir to his estate.” He pointed with his chin. Beyond the three weathered hard-cases was a lad of about fifteen, redheaded and sullen, holding the lead-rope of a half dozen horses—including the big palomino stud that had its ears up and was nickering hello. ”So you understand why I’d be concerned about his inheritance.”

Boz would have laughed if he hadn’t been biting down so hard on the urge to do violence. Even if he hadn’t pegged Nedry for a bully and a chiseler, he knew for a fact that Miller’d had no children or nephews.

Out of pure contrariness, he doubled up his tongue and whistled Come Here. The palomino started forward obediently. The other horses—mostly mares, and a couple of two-year-old colts—followed, almost dragging the carrot-top kid into the dirt. Remy guffawed and the other hardcases muttered annoyance as they backed out of the way.

Boz met the palomino at the rail. The stud snuffled over his hands, switching his ears and baring his teeth at the unfamiliar new smell. Boz clucked to him and made his usual sweet-talk sounds until the horse stood calm, then ducked under the rail and ran his hands down the left foreleg, where he’d noticed a limp. Sure enough there was a half healed wolf bite above the elbow.

"I worked for Miller,” Boz said, as he stood to face Nedry. ”I trained these horses, and plenty more besides. In fact me and my partner was in Evanston the day Miller was killed, doin business on his account. So maybe I oughtta ask how you come by these cayuses."

Nedry ran his tongue behind his bottom lip, considering. The toughs by the rail shifted and muttered amongst themselves, and the livery owner cleared his throat nervously. “Look, Nedry, I don't want any trouble here. You boys got an issue of ownership you take it to the sheriff."

”I guess you got the papers in order,” Nedry said to Boz.

”I got ’em,” Boz said, though he was no more eager to go before the law than Nedry. Without a clear heir Miller’s stock and property would be bound up in legal nonsense for months, as every lawyer and cattle-baron in the territory tried to carve out his slice. And even if Cheyenne’s sheriff wasn’t in the pocket of some big ranching outfit, he might reasonably question why Boz had lit out from Miller's ranch in the middle of the season, a few days before the massacre, taking a selection of the best horses with him. The werewolves had killed perhaps a hundred of Miller’s best breeding stock, but the rest had scattered, and every horse-thief in four counties must’ve picked up the leavings by now.

Any other day Boz would have minded his own business. But these were Miller's horses. They were in a sense Boz's horses, given that he'd trained and tended them all summer.

"I don't think we need to get the law involved," he said. “I’ll buy this stud off you now—give you a hundred fifty for him. That’s more than you’ll get on the market, with him limpin.”

Nedry eyed him again. Boz read a straight line of speculation in that look, from the chance to hand off a horse of dubious ownership while making a clean profit; to the likelihood that this Negro was carrying an impressive stack of cash if he already had six horses and could throw down for another; to the winner-take-all conclusion that they could kill him, take the money and his horses while eliminating a witness.

"I might consider," Nedry said. "If Randy agrees of course."

"Of course," Boz said. Neither of them glanced at the redheaded kid.

“Why’n’t we talk about it over dinner,” Nedry suggested, and Boz felt himself grin, with such cynical savagery the other man blinked. Not the flash of fear he’d seen from the swell, but it definitely adjusted Nedry’s pickets. “Tell you what, friend—you meet me at the Red Poppy tonight. If you got the cash, we’ll sign the papers then.”

“Suits me,” Boz said, ignoring Remy’s throat-clearing. If they meant to kill him he was game for the attempt. Those were his goddamn horses and he’d been boiling to fight someone for the better part of a month. ”Eight o’clock good for you? Do y’all dress for dinner or is it informal round here?”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Trace & Boz get optioned for TV

It gives me enormous personal satisfaction to announce that The Curse of Jacob Tracy has been optioned for television.
Holly Messinger's debut THE CURSE OF JACOB TRACY, a gothic Western about a Civil War veteran who sees ghosts, his levelheaded trail partner, and the mysterious English bluestocking pulling their strings, to ITV with Deborah Spera (CRIMINAL MINDS) and Maria Grasso of One Two Punch Productions attached to produce, by Brendan Deneen at Macmillan Entertainment on behalf of Amy Boggs at Donald Maass Literary Agency

ITV is the production company that gave us, among other things, Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge.

Now, this doesn't mean that the TV show is entering production. The producers are essentially leasing the rights to develop a script and try to get a network interested. Could be nothing will come of it. But this is nevertheless an exciting step, and I'm grateful to Amy and Brendan for their hard work on my behalf.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

getting around in 19th century St. Louis

A reader asked,

"I'm a St Louisan myself, so I know that Hyde Park is a good long distance from Carondelet. These days, it would take two hours to walk it, and I bet it would have been at least double that in those days. Did your characters ride, take the horse drawn omnibus or streetcar, or what?"

This is one of those things I like to think about, and one of the unexpectedly frustrating bits of research I had to do for the book—calculating travel times. How far was it between these places I was writing about, and how did people get there? Figuring this out actually affected the story-timeline in parts of CURSE.

I was able to find a good map of St. Louis published in 1879, but sadly for me it had no scale on it to indicate distance. Then I hit upon the bright idea of using Google Maps.

According to the Almighty Google, it's about 10 miles from Hyde Park to Carondelet Park in modern-day St. Louis. Those two points, by the way, were roughly the far northern and far southern points of the incorporated city in 1880. That's right, the whole of St. Louis was only about 10 miles top to bottom, and about 350,000 people, according to census records.

According to Google, in 2016 it would take a person about three hours to walk that distance. I'm not sure why my reader assumed it would take LONGER "in the old days" (on the assumption that everything moved more slowly back then?), but I figure a little over two hours for a tall, fit man like Trace to walk that distance, assuming he was carrying nothing, and figuring there were fewer obstacles—traffic, stoplights, construction detours, etc.— in 1880. (It takes me about 30 minutes to walk 2 miles to my favorite coffee shop, over flat ground, carrying a backpack, and I walk fast for a girl, but not near as fast as, say, a 6'2" army ranger or firefighter who runs every day.)

St. Louis about 1880 (source needed)

If Trace was in a hurry, he'd take his horse. In fact at the beginning of the second story, "Printer's Devil," he and Boz are riding their horses south to Carondelet to work for the day. Later, I mention several times about Trace riding Blackjack to Miss Fairweather's house, because it would be a good deal further north than the working-class neighborhoods and businesses where he'd spend most of his time, and he's usually in a hurry to visit her. I figure a horse and a modern bicycle could be calculated at the same average speed—between 10 and 25 miles per hour at a non-racing speed, depending on traffic and terrain. Google maps says it would take about an hour for a bicyclist to get from Hyde Park to Carondelet, so figure an hour, max, for Trace to ride to Miss Fairweather's house from anywhere in the city.

There were horse-drawn street cars, but much like modern bus lines, they probably were slower than horseback, because of meandering routes and frequent stops. Also, they cost money to ride, and a man whose livelihood depended on a working horse would want to get him out for daily exercise, to keep them both fit.

So there you go—a taste of what historical writers think about.

Here's the Google Maps link, if you want to play with the numbers yourself.

Friday, January 22, 2016

top 5 ways to die in a mine shaft

I'm finally doing some much-needed research into mining towns and mining techniques of the 19th century for to finish the end of my Boz and Lily story. I knew mining was dangerous but Holy Hera. Here are some of the leading contenders, in no particular order:
  1. Heat exhaustion. At depths greater than 1000 feet the air temperature could be 120ยบ or more. 
  2. Falls. Sometimes when men were brought up into the cooler air they would faint and fall out of elevators/down shafts. Their bodies were often shredded by banging into timbers and cables on the way down, such that grappling hooks were kept near the sump-pit at the bottom, to fish flesh and bone out of the hot water.
  3. And by the way you didn't want to fall in that sump pit, even from a short drop, because it was a good deal hotter than a hot tub. One guy at the Comstock fell in to his waist and all the skin sloughed off his legs. He died.
  4. Cave-ins were a constant danger. Although the walls and shafts were shored up with timbers, mineral-rich earth is notoriously unstable and tends to shift. And if your foreman is an asshole he may have cut corners on the shoring-up. 
  5. Then there's the ever-present threat of fire, when all you have for lighting is open flame. Amid the flammable coal and gasses underground. And if your fire abruptly goes out you're looking at asphyxiation from a buildup of non-flammable, non-breathable gasses.
Fun, huh?

Friday, January 15, 2016


So Neil Gaiman said something about Clarion and a whole lot of people got uptight about it and I'm like, I dunno, man. I maybe wanted to go to Clarion for like, a nanosecond, circa 2001 when I first heard about it? But I was still young enough to remember how badly I'd wanted to take creative writing in the 10th grade (and later, sophomore year of college) and how disillusioned I was, both times. I've never trusted what teachers wanted me to do (deep seated resentment of authority) and I've never much trusted the opinions of my so-called peers (I've always been ahead of the curve). I kinda have always had this standard in my head of what I wanted to do, and I basically use beta-reader feedback to gauge how close I am to achieving that standard. I never expected any of them to teach me how to write. I am a lousy tai chi student but even I understand writing and martial arts are two things you have to figure out for yourself. Still no one gets anywhere without a teacher and I've had plenty, though what I learnt from them was not necessarily what they were trying to teach me. There are many many paths to Rome, as they say; I knew from the time I was 12 that I was a writer and I devoted an absurd amount of time, energy, and money toward that purpose. You might even say I've made sacrifices: no kids, menial career path, borderline useless undergrad degree. I'd already written my first million words by the time I was 26 or so; when I counted it up I realized, Yes, that year was the first manuscript in which I sort of knew what I was doing and worked from a plan. Even so it took me two more novels to get one I thought was sellable, and it was. If you're starting on this writing journey in your 30's or 40's or after you've gotten a degree in accounting or whatever, then yeah--you're going to need a fast track to learn all the stuff I hacked out through classes and reading and independent study since I was 12. And if you've got that accounting degree then you probably have the money to afford Clarion. More power to you. But don't delude yourself you're getting anything special; you're just getting the Cliff's Notes version of what other writers learn over 28 years and 2 million words. I talked to a class of high-schoolers last month and almost the first thing their teacher asked me was whether I had an MFA. Of course *she* was about to start on her MFA. I've noticed that adults tend not to give themselves permission to pursue learning for the sake of learning; they only put in the time/money/effort if it will pad their resumes somehow. That's the downside of this reward-based society we operate in. Just realize that the workshop or the MFA or whatever won't make you a writer and it won't get you published. You still have to put in the hours and you still have to hit on the lucky magic combination of story/character/style/zeitgeist. That doesn't mean it's time wasted. Clarion is juried--as are most MFA programs--so you probably have some chops even going in. One might argue you'd be better served locking yourself in a hotel room for six weeks and just writing your little brains out instead of wasting time reviewing other peoples' stuff, but I can't say that with a straight face because I've been going to the same writer's group for 15 years and just when I think I'm not getting anything from it, a new member comes along or an old member brings a new story and the sheer challenge of dissection (does it work or not?) gets the creative machinery grinding again. Writers work in a vacuum most of the time and we need that answering ping; if you go to one of these things and meet your ideal critting partner or a couple of friends who become lifelong pen pals (I have one of those left over from Critters whom I met 13 years ago) then you got something out of the experience and I certainly got something from Critters; some early words of encouragement on Trace (Sikeston) and my friend Joy's absolute willingness to tear a story apart and put it back together in a different structure. Like my tai chi teacher says, Just learn one thing. No experience is ever wasted. But no one experience makes up the whole, either.

Monday, January 04, 2016

now this is high praise

I stumbled across a random review of Curse over the weekend. I was amused first by the reviewer comparing me to Tarantino:

This is Tarantino on steroids. The action and gratuitous killings and deaths we have grown to love and hate in a Tarantino film is what our Ms. Messinger provides in print. She provides different scenarios in the novel as Quentin provides chapters in his movies. I hope he picks up this novel cause he is the only one to do it as a movie. 

Can't find fault with that, considering my own love/hate relationship with QT's movies.

But then I looked back at the blogger's previous reviews. His last three reviews were Toni Morrison's God Save the Child, Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, and Umberto Eco's Numero Zero. (I didn't even know Eco was still alive!). And then my book. That's some pretty exalted reading habits. Not a bad endorsement. So thanks, Mr. English teacher.