Friday, September 30, 2016

projects in the closet: midnight blue velvet

Those of you who've known me a long time may remember when, lo these many years ago, me and a friend cosplayed Darla and Drusilla in their 1880 garb. (From the Buffy/Angel crossover flashback where Dru and Spike meet.) 

That dress was the beginning of my long infatuation with the Natural Form Era (1878-1882) of fashion, and the original reason Curse of Jacob Tracy is set in 1880. Sad but true. Anyway, I outgrew this dress over the past decade-plus, and it being my first Victorian sewing project there were certain construction elements in the bodice I no longer approved of (we won't even talk about the polyester underskirt). Also, it was green.

So last winter I decided to make it over. I trashed the underskirt, took the bodice and overskirt completely apart. They are both cotton velveteen, originally white, which I had dyed green. I soaked them in dye remover to get them back to beige, then overdyed the fabric indigo. It was an interesting exercise because it was only the second time I'd used fiber reactive dyes, but the overall result was very good--it just was a bit lighter and truer blue than I'd hoped for. I was undecided about what to do next, so I threw the disassembled, indigo pieces in a drawer and let them sit for a year.

With the weather cooling off I started thinking about this project again. A couple weeks ago I was home sick and browsing through I came across this lovely crossweave silk taffeta and I knew that was what I wanted to piece out my velveteen with. 

I bought two yards to see if it would match. It doesn't. 

The discrepancy is stronger than I could capture with my camera; the taffeta is a couple clicks toward the purple. But it's much more the color I want, so I ordered a fresh batch of dye from Dharma Trading Co. and I'm going to tint the velveteen yet again. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 23, 2016

so about that Indian blood-brother ritual

Today I saw this article pop up in my Facebook feed, reiterating the old chestnut about how American Indians practiced blood-binding, or the exchange of blood between unrelated men (in popular fiction it's usually an American native and a white guy) to make them sworn allies in battle. And while it is not usually my style to argue with people on the internet, I feel this is one of those beliefs that needs to die, along with the idea that vaccines cause autism and the notion that candy corn is food.

Now, caveat: earlier in the year there was a rumor going around that I was claiming to be an expert on "Native American culture" because I had read "five books" on the subject, which is horse shit; in the first place I have read a great many more than five books, and in the second place I am neither an idiot nor an asshole, so I certainly wouldn't claim to be an expert on anything based on a little book-learning.

However, two years ago I did do a fair amount of research on Apsaalooke (Crow) culture in the late 19th century, because I was writing The Romance of Certain Old Bones. Trace and Boz were headed to Montana as hired muscle for an archeological dig, and it stood to reason they would hire a Crow guide, because much of eastern Montana in 1875 was reserved for the Apsaalooke tribes. Ergo I wanted to get a broad idea of how 15-year-old Stanley Many Tongues might respond to the strange goings-on that tend to dog Trace's footsteps.

One of the questions I needed to answer (to my satisfaction at least) was whether the Plains tribes actually did that blood-brothers thing. I wanted Trace and Boz to do it, because reasons, and I had heard differing reports on the factuality of it. I wasn't having Trace and Boz to do it because it was an "Indian thing"—neither of those characters is NA anyway—but Stanley was going to be present and I wanted to know how he would interpret such an act.

If you do just a little bit of reading into the history and anthropology of magic you quickly notice there are a lot of rituals, across many cultures, that treat blood as a sacred fluid. Early peoples recognized blood's importance to life and thus ascribed mystical powers to it; that's why there are taboos against drinking it or playing with it. That's why so many magic rituals—particularly dark or evil magics—utilize it. 

Blood is life, lack-brain.

By the end of the 19th century microscopes had gotten strong enough that scientists were beginning to be able to discern the parts of blood—red and white cells, platelets—and see how they responded to injury or disease. Mendel's work on heredity was being published in the late 1860's, and Darwin's ideas about evolution had seized the public imagination. Whole new justifications for racism cropped up using twisted interpretations of these theories, which led directly or indirectly to the "one drop" laws of segregation—legal definitions of who was white and who wasn't, who could marry whom, or sell or buy or inherit.

The point is, people understood from antiquity that blood was powerful stuff, and the notion of being related "by blood" was also powerful. The idea of taking a friend's blood into your own body and thus making them a part of you seems to be very widespread. I have seen reports, and I believe there was even a court case in which a couple was accused of miscegenation, where the husband (white) claimed he had injected some of his (black) wife's blood into his own arm, thereby making himself black according to the one-drop rule.

But I have not been able to find accounts of any of the Plains Indians (or any other Native American) tribes using the ritual exchange of blood as part of their adoption or fealty rituals. 

Some of the most widely-available books about Crow culture in the late 19th century, by Lowie and Linderman, suggest that the Crow were not averse to spilling their own blood in the name of ritual. Two of the best-documented examples were cutting off fingers as a sign of grief, or bleeding their flesh as a gesture of sacrifice to get visions (done in conjunction with solitude and fasting—one source speculated that blood loss would bring on fainting and hallucinations)

Crows and their neighbors did have myriad rituals for adopting tribesmen into their war clubs and/or religious societies; sometimes this involved handing down of sacred objects, e.g. medicine pouches and their inherent powers, which might include bones of animals or relatives. (I found one anthropologist's report that claimed some especially powerful medicine bags might contain the skulls of ancestors, which were used for divination and advice.) The Crow also learnt and modified rituals from other tribes, particularly the Hidatsa, with whom they were closely related and often intermingled. These rituals seem to have been largely abandoned around the start of the 20th century, when Christianity was widely adopted by or forced on the tribes.

However, for all the modern talk about maintaining traditions, the inconvenient truth is pre-twentieth century Native American religion was highly personal and fluid, so there’s almost no such thing as “authentic” rituals, any more than there is an "authentic" version of the Bible, or "authentic" martial arts forms. (See what I did there? Pissed off everybody in one fell sentence.)

As far as I can tell, the romantic pre-urban myth about Indian blood-brothers comes from a series of books about the American West by popular German novelist Karl May, which were published in the 1870-80s and featured an Apache "chief" named Winnetou. Karl May probably never visited North America and he certainly wasn't acquainted with any Apaches. 

So where did May get the idea?

Turns out I'm not the only one who had that question.

I found a thesis paper by a medieval historian who was looking into this very phenomenon. In every case where a ‘blood brothers’ ritual is mentioned—and there are many in medieval manuscripts—it seems to be used as a sort of backhanded compliment or self-aggrandizement i.e.: "Those savages over there were REAL badasses, but we wiped ‘em out anyway, because ours is the true civilization.”

The author of the paper concluded that NO ONE actually did this ritual except possibly the ancient Scythians, although in that case too, it seems that a Greek poet described the practice some 200 years after the fact, and again, may have made it up to illustrate what fierce, savage warriors the Scythians were.

The point is, the idea seems to have been well-worn even by the nineteenth century, and it seems to be ascribed to the romantic “other” more often than not, in a "Those guys are crazy!" kind of way. 

With that in mind, I tweaked the scene in such a way as to pay homage to the trope while hopefully injecting a nod toward factualism.

And for the record, I think my husband put it best when he said, "Why are tough guys in movies always cutting up their hands? That's the dumbest thing ever. A cut on the hand takes forever to heal because you're always bending your hand and breaking it open and then it gets infected."


Interesting side note #1: I consulted a college anthropology professor who *did* claim to be an expert in NA matters, and while he did take issue with several points in my manuscript, he didn't bat an eye at the blood-brothers ritual, which made me inclined to distrust everything else he said. 

Interesting side note #2: Deb Reece at American Indians in Children's Literature touches on the subject here, though does not offer any counter-examples or resources to refute the claim (though I admit it's pretty difficult to prove that somebody DIDN'T do something—it's the bane of historical research).

Interesting side note #3: I found a piece asserting that Chinese gang members and underworld types (again, fierce warriors of the foreign persuasion)  did this sort of thing in the late 19th century up through the 1940’s. My Chinese Kung fu teacher, who is a Hong Kong native, also insists it is so, but did not provide references.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

self-defense against schmucks who try to make you take your headphones off

This is self-defense 101, kids. Learn how and when to overcome the social expectation to be friendly with everyone. Predators rely on that conditioning.

This also works when you're in the gym working out, or doing homework in a coffee shop: any time when you're obviously engrossed in something yet someone feels you only showed up for their entertainment.

First of all, don't ignore anyone who is obviously trying to get your attention. Don't let it get to that point. If anyone moves within 3-4 feet of you, glance up. Be aware of your surroundings. Don't make eye contact, just note who is nearby, how they are dressed, what they are carrying. Cultivate an expression of alert concentration. Be alert. Be in control of your environment.

If someone moves into your personal space and stands or walks alongside you, notice them. Don't smile. Give them a rake of your eyes that says, "I see you." Go back to what you were doing.

This will usually discourage them better than pretending they aren't there, because you will have already signaled your disinterest.

If it doesn't, if the entitled fuckwhistle waves his hand in front of your face or does something else to demand your attention, look up with an expression of weary disdain, remove one headphone, raise an eyebrow. Don't smile.

Repeat: don't smile (unless of course you actually WANT to talk to this person). Take in their face and height with an expression of alert indifference, as if reading the menu board at McDonald's. Note hair and eye color, and distinguishing features.

Make him speak first. He may genuinely need information like directions or the date and year, if he's a time traveler. But if you're in a crowded place and he chose to interrupt the girl with the headphones on, odds are he's just being an entitled fuckwhistle.

As soon as he tries any conversational gambit, i.e. "Are you a student? What are you reading? What's good on the menu? Your hair is so pretty," your response is as follows:

"I'm not actually here for conversation, thanks."

Repeat if necessary. Be polite but cool. Do not follow his conversational script. Look at him until he goes away.

Put your ear bud back in. Go back to what you were doing. Maintain awareness of your surroundings.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

plus ça change...

Found a post from 2004 when I was still on Critters. This is some of the contradictory feedback I got on one of my first stories, "Galatea."

  • Master Tan's broken English is great, very authentic/is stereotypical and inconsistent 
  • The conflict between Justin and Quinn is great, well done/there is no discernible conflict in the story 
  • The development of Quinn's character is moving and believable/she's a horrible, unsympathetic person 
  • She's a rip-off of Supergirl/Dark Angel/Kill Bill/Le Femme Nikita 
  • It's a strong, character-driven story/nobody's motivations make any sense.

I guess keeping a diary can be useful after all, if only to remind oneself that feedback from the peanut gallery isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Review of CURSE at Tangent Online!

Wow, this has been a week of unexpected treats. First the Daily Deal from (which put Curse at their #1 bestseller slot, temporarily displacing the Game of Thrones and Outlander series), and then the review from Down Under at SQMag, and today Dave Truesdale emailed me with the news that his review at Tangent was going live today:

"What a great stage-setting, atmospheric opening paragraph to The Curse of Jacob Tracy, the debut novel by Holly Messinger. The plush, masculine, Victorian-era appointments describing the library hint at the exotic, of perhaps a once aristocratic European opulence reserved only for the fabulously wealthy. With a sense of foreboding, our interest is piqued. Why does Trace not look into any dark corners, why do big old houses hold nasty surprises for him, who is this enigmatic Miss Fairweather, and why is he in her house in the first place? We're hooked. 
... If you are a connoisseur of supernatural horror, I have a feeling you're going to love this one. I look forward to the further adventures of Jacob Tracy; he's an everyman hero for whom we are happy to cheer."

My author ranking at Amazon had been looking a little depressing lately, so all of this was a great boost get six months after the publication date.

Carry on!

Jacob Tracy review in SQMag

This review of THE CURSE OF JACOB TRACY in the latest SQ Mag is maybe the most lucid and insightful I've seen. 

I was especially intrigued by this bit: 

"The first half or so of the book, it felt as though she had yet to fully engage with Jacob’s voice, but heading toward the climax to the end, the author’s presence totally fades into the characters and setting, letting them tell the story."

That's pretty perceptive, because I was aware myself of the stiltedness of the first 3-4 stories, being strung together as they were from the old short-story format, which has different pacing and demands of character development. The last third of the book, Horseflesh, was the hardest to rewrite and took the most revision, but once I quit fighting it, it settled into itself and flowed. Trace changed a lot between those first 5 stories and the end novel, because my understanding of him and the kind of story I was telling changed a lot.

This bit also made me perk up my ears, so to speak: 

"it felt as though the author started, then shied away from, any romantic elements whatsoever. I realize romance is something some authors don’t want to be associated with, but this girl enjoys a great love story in any genre and at the very least a natural progression of romantic elements, even if it’s not the focus of the plot."

All reader responses to a work of fiction are to some extent a Rorschach test, but none more so than the romantic bits. All you folks who've read CURSE, I'd be curious to know what you thought of the romance in the book, or lack thereof. Did you want more? Less? Do you think Boz was right about Miss Fairweather having the hots for Trace? Comment below.

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

by Holly Messinger (c)2016

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, 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 120º 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.