Author Interview – S.G. Redling

This time we head to Huntington, West Virginia to talk to the genre hopping S.G. Redling.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m Sheila Redling, writing as S.G. Redling. I live in my hometown, Huntington WV. I write all kinds of stuff but I make my living writing thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, and urban fantasy.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

I’m making my first foray into self-publishing this spring. Wow, that is a LOT  of work. I’m putting out the next two books in urban fantasy Nahan series. Book One was Ourselves; Book Two is The Reaches; Book Three is Empire. Book Four is just a twinkle in my eye.


What made you decide to self publish your latest books? What one thing about it surprised you in terms of being more work that you expected?

I’ve been sitting on Books 2 and 3 of the Nahan series for some time. It’s a strange series (like most of the stuff I write.) The relationship with the original publisher didn’t quite go the way I liked so we parted ways after Book 1. I decided that I missed the characters and I might as well put them out into the world. As for the difficulty, honestly, I was surprised at how easy it is to get a book online. I was expecting to be exasperated at every turn but I found a great cover designer and formatter. KDP and Create Space made the launch incredibly easy. Now SELLING the books may be a different matter.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

Genre definition has been a big problem for me. I like weird, not-entirely reality-based thrillers. That’s what I like to read, that’s what I like to write. However, most of my thrillers are traditional and reality based. As for why I chose what I chose, I wish I knew. The stories choose me.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Man, I wish I could. I have completed over a dozen full-length manuscripts, seven of them sold to publishers, three are in the pipe for release on my own time, and the rest will probably never see the light of day. Every single time I start a book, I feel like I’m starting at the very beginning of my career and skill set. Every book is different; every story has new and aggravating challenges. It often feels like I don’t even know how to type.

The consistent parts of my process are showing up, making notes, daydreaming a lot during long walks, and easing myself into a writing schedule. I base my schedule on word count – daily, weekly, monthly. At the beginning of a book, I’ll keep the count low – 500 words a day X 5 days a week. Usually that’s enough to get a story to catch on fire. From there, I average 2500 words a day, seven days a week. I write quickly and forward, with only the slightest edits as I go. Once the manuscript is done, I read through, make changes, and then share it with some trusted readers. I enjoy rewrites; I feel they are the do-overs we don’t get anywhere else in our lives.

Are there stories that have chosen you that have been more difficult to write than others? What made them difficult?

(Sobs into hands) Uh, yeah. I have a thriller I’ve been working on for months that is going to be the death of me. I love puzzlers and twisty stories and unfortunately am writing one that is outwitting me at every turn. While it’s terrifying and frustrating and often demoralizing, I think it’s important to always write at the very edge of your ability level. You should always be writing a book that you’re not sure you can handle. It makes you a better writer.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

That’s a tough question. I do really love my characters, with all their triggers and questionable hygiene. At the risk of sounding precious, they have broken my  heart more than once. The one I’m fondest of as a human being is Loul Pell, the comic book nerd from the planet Didet in Damocles. Of all the characters who have walked in my head, he had the largest heart and the greatest faith in humanity. He is the only character I’ve ever written that I miss the way one misses a dear friend.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

You should probably ask my sister, Monica, this question. As a nurse, she is my go-to for all questions about medical issues. (How long can you hide a body in a wall before it smells? How quickly does an adult male bleed out?” How much pressure would it take to nail a foot to the floor?)

But my favorite research adventure was the discovery of a highly flammable epoxy. My friend (and fellow WV writer) Lynne Squires recommended the epoxy when I knocked my side mirror off. When I looked at the box, the directions were basically just “Squirt and stick.” The rest of the packaging was covered in tiny print with the pages of warnings of flammability. I had to know just how flammable. So I sat in my driveway with a steel bowl, a box of matches, paper and cardboard, a bucket of dirt, a bucket of water, and a fire extinguisher. Long story short – the epoxy was insanely flammable and proceeded to play an important role in the finale of my latest thriller, At Risk. My neighbor deserves a medal for all the foolishness she puts up with sharing a fence with me.

JD – This is definitely the “winner” so far of this question!

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Writing is too much work to do for anyone but yourself. Be careful to the point of paranoia about whom you let in your head. Trust your gut. Write what you love and remember that even when you hate it, you love writing. If you don’t love it, don’t do it.

Redling 1a

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I guess there’s only one way to find out. *watches for check in the mail*

Until then, I suppose it would greatly improve my technological landscape which is currently like an outtake from the original Mad Max.

Who am I kidding? It would all go to wine and cat food.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I recently asked the Facebook Hive Mind for recommendations for alien invasion stories and was not disappointed. One of the happiest takeaways for me was the discovery of Wil McIntosh, whose books Defenders and Faller were two big highlights of my reading list.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

Right now I’m focused on this new territory of self-publishing the next two Nahan books. I’m writing the next Dani Britton book and there has to be at least one more after that because I owe Eric Douglas a crossover with his Mike Scott character. I’ve got the first of a new mystery series waiting in the wings and most of a completely insane thriller finished. As it stands now, my immediate future holds gallons of coffee and wine, barrels of chocolate, miles to walk, and enough typing to break my shoulders. It’s a good plan.

Have you found it difficult to find an audience that will follow you from genre to genre?

Did my agent ask you to ask me that?

It has been challenging. One of my biggest setbacks is that I don’t effectively brand myself. At least not in an easily commercialized way. I think I have a type – mind-bending, usually violent, with complex female leads – but unfortunately there’s no section in the bookstore with that title. All I can hope is that readers will keep taking a chance on me, that I’ve earned their trust in delivering a quality story.

Keep up with S.G. at her Amazon author page and click here to find out more about The Reaches.


My Ten Albums

There’s been a thing going around Facebook for the past few weeks where, for ten days, people posted cover from a different album that made an impact on them and they’re still listening to. The whole point was to not explain the choices – but there’s too much blog fodder here to pass up. So here are my ten, in the order they went up – which is to say, pretty much randomly as pulled from my brain. I should point out these aren’t necessarily favorites or “best” albums by these artists, although they’re all pretty great (your mileage may vary, of course).

Genesis – Selling England By the Pound (1973)


 I can’t say that this is the first Gabriel-era Genesis album I heard (my brother, Todd, had most, if not all, of them), but it is the one I first fell in love with. It was, to use an analogy I’ll come back to later, my gateway drug for progressive rock. Swelling mellotrons, soaring guitars, lyrics that were completely beyond comprehension to a grade schooler living in 1980s West Virginia – how could I resist?

Yes – Yessongs (1973)


Growing up when I did my music delivery vehicle of choice was (and still is) the CD, but I was just old enough to catch the end of the (first) age of vinyl. I actually bought a few LPs, this being the one that stood out. Not only because it’s 3 albums full of Yes in its prime, but because of that amazing Roger Dean gatefold sleeve. Appreciating album art is one of the great lost joys of the modern streaming generation.

Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)


This definitely falls into the “not my favorite” category (although I like it just fine), but this album makes the list because it was the first “new” album by a favorite band I ever bought. On cassette, no less. Sitting down to digest any album that’s new to you is fun, but digging into a completely new one by a favorite artist is a real treat, particularly back in the pre-Internet days when you might have little idea of what it actually sounded like!

IQ – Tales From the Lush Attic (1983)

 Lush Attic

 It’s no shock to say that progressive rock is a niche genre, at least since the heydays of the mid 1970s. That means that finding albums for me has rarely been as simple as heading down to the record store and hunting for something interest. Mail order catalogs and web retailers are a must. This album makes the list because it was in the first order I ever made from a mail order catalog (along with Camel’s Mirage and Gentle Giant’s Octopus) – not even over the Internet! There are better IQ albums, but it’s a landmark for my exploration of prog. And the cover’s cool.

echolyn – as the world (1995)


Mail order aside, sometimes you stumble across something that seems interesting and you take a chance. When I found as the world in the bin at the mighty Discount Den in Morgantown back in my college days I knew, vaguely, that they were a prog band. And I saw that this album released on a major label and had a big suite in the middle of it, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Took it home and was hooked on this band from the first track (which is all vocal harmonies and strings). Sometimes you get lucky, so it’s worth playing the game now and then.

Marillion – Afraid of Sunlight (1995)


You’re rarely lucky enough to discover a favorite band when their brand new. Usually, you come in somewhere in the middle of things, where a band’s heady back catalog can make the prospect of new music from them both tantalizing and a little worrying. Will the new stuff measure up to the old? Afraid of Sunlight was my first “new” Marillion album and, at the time, I didn’t care for much of it. It’s since gone on to be one of my favorite Marillion albums (favorites period, really), but the experience of being uneasy with it to begin with it something I’ve repeated many times over the years.

Radiohead – Kid A (2000)


I didn’t know I needed Kid A until I saw Radiohead perform “Idioteque” on Saturday Night Live. I’d come late to OK Computer and knew their new album wasn’t supposed to be anything like it, so I wasn’t all that interested. That performance changed my mind, in more ways than one. Not only did it cause me to buy the album, it caused me to open up an entirely different area of music to check out. Kid A was, for lack of a better word, my gateway drug to electronic music. I wouldn’t make the conscious choice to explore Kraftwerk or OMD or The Orb for another couple years, but this planted the seeds.

Spock’s Beard – The Light (1995)


These days we take for granted the ability to sample music on the internet and buy with a press of a button. It was not always so. The Light was my first experience with internet commerce and it was a little rocky. I took an hour or so to download a few 30-second clips from songs (it was the guitar break in “Go the Way You Go” that sold me), then had to actually mail a check to California. It came back – twice – requiring a phone call from guitarist Alan Morse. When he found out I was at WVU he sang me a chorus of “Country Roads.” We got things straightened out and I became a Beard fan for life.

Sanguine Hum – Diving Bell (2010)


One of the great things about going to prog festivals is that I get exposed to lots of new bands. I’ve bought a lot of albums over the years because of that, but this one is special. Going into Sanguine Hum’s 2012 performance at ROSFest I knew nothing about them. I went in as cold as could be, completely ignorant. I didn’t just like what I heard – I was completely blown away. Ironically, I wound up getting this, the band’s only album at the time, from Amazon because the vendors had sold out and the band’s stash didn’t make it from the UK (I wound up snagging a couple EPs from the band’s prior incarnation, the wonderfully monikered Antique Seeking Nuns). Fresh, exciting, powerful new music is out there, even in the 2010s.

Premiata Forneria Marconi – Storia di un Minuto (1972)


Progressive rock is an outgrowth of a particular time in the UK, but it spread across the globe and resulted in some really rich regional scenes. Italy, in particular, was an early hotbed (Genesis and Van der Graff Generator both hit it big there first). This was the first album I got that was really “foreign,” without any English to be found, either in the lyrics or the liner notes (two times over – it’s a Japanese pressing!) and it convinced me that wasn’t going to be a stumbling block to discovering some wonderful music.

Why You Should Be Reading Saga

I didn’t grow up reading comic books. I can’t say why. They weren’t verboten in our house and their residence in the same ghetto as science fiction and fantasy, but for some reason I never really dove in. Maybe it was because I perceived comics as being about super heroes and they never interested me much. It wasn’t until I got to college and my roommate corrupted me with some Batman did I get a chance to read them.

Even then, I didn’t really get into comics or graphic novels (I prefer waiting for a bunch of issues to get collected – makes for a more satisfying reading experience) until I got exposed to a pair of the traditional gateway drugs for the genre – in other words, stuff so good that even people who don’t read comics read them. One was Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a deconstruction of the entire superhero genre; the other, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which follows the exploits of Morpheus, the god of dreams, and his extended family.

While both of those are great ways for readers not familiar with comics to dip their toes into the graphic waters, they’re both “classics” by this point, held in such reverence that people might risk approaching them like you would Homer or Hemingway – things you should read because they’re important and exemplars of the form, but maybe not just for the enjoyment of it.

Thus, allow me to suggest another gateway, one that’s fresh, ongoing, and just released its 50th issue – Saga.

Created by Bryan K. Vaughn (words) and Fiona Staples (images), it’s a sprawling science fantasy saga with a heavy helping of just plain weirdness. Vaughn and Staples take full advantage of their chosen format to give the story a scope and a visual sense that would be impossible to pull off in another format. In the same way that 2001 epitomizes what a motion picture can be (an completely immersive audio-visual experience), Saga is the apex of what comics can be.

As amazing as Staples’s art is, Saga wouldn’t be worth reading without a compelling story and characters we care about. The basic setup is simple – a world, Landfall, has been at war with its moon, Wreath, for years. In the middle of the war, Alana (from Landfall) and Marko (from Wreath) fall in love and produce a kid, Hazel (who is the narrator), who really shouldn’t have been able to happen. They try and survive in a world where damned near everyone wants to hunt them down, from soldiers to bounty hunters with sentient lie-detecting cats.


Along the way, as they blast from world to world in a spaceship that is also a tree (did I mention this is science Fantasy? Definitely a capital “F”), collecting other outcasts to form a very bizarre, very fractured, but very sweet extended family (as this article points out, Saga is almost impossibly diverse in its characters). Vaughn has said that’s what Saga is really about:

I now have two kids. I first starting thinking about this while waiting for our first kid. And I always used writing as an outlet to talk about my fears, concerns, and passions. I really wanted to talk about creating new life. And I found talking to my friends who are strangers to the fatherhood experience—I would watch them start yawning or looking at their watch–difficult. If you’re outside of that world you don’t really give a shit. When you’re living in it, it’s really exciting. So I wanted to find a way to make people who don’t have kids or who never intend to have kids feel what it’s like to be a parent.

That’s where Saga was born.

Not having kids I can’t say whether having them makes Saga more meaningful, but it does emphasize the foundation of the story. All the amazing art and “holy shit” concepts don’t add up to much if the characters aren’t ones we care about in the first place. That’s true of good fiction in general, but particularly good speculative fiction. At bottom, it’s a story about love, fear, and survival. The tree ships and arachnid bounty hunters are just gravy.


What I’m trying say is that Saga isn’t something I recommend to comic newbies because it’s a classic (although it’s on its way to becoming that) or because it’s something, to channel one of my high school English teachers, “that well read people know.” It’s because it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop. I mean, really, what else do you need?


At Long Last, the Entire Saga of The Water Road In One Handy Package

Very happy to announce that how, instead of buying three separate books to digest the entire story of Antrey, Strefer, and The Water Road, you can now get them in one convenient package. Presenting The Complete Water Road Trilogy box set:

2017-525 3d render on transparent Website.png

This is the series readers have called “magnificent,” “excellent,” “exciting,” and “engrossing.”

This version is only available in eBook format. And for April, it’s on sale for just 99 cents! Get one in your preferred format at the links below.

Barnes & Noble

Weekly Read: Children of Time

One of the great things about speculative fiction is that you get to write about characters who aren’t human. One of the hard things, as a result, can be making readers care about characters who, at least on the surface, aren’t anything like them. To be able to pull that off is something special.

Children of Time starts off with human characters who seem all to relatable. A ship is in orbit around a planet that’s been freshly terraformed. A scientist is making ready to start a bold experiment – seeding the planet with a group of monkeys, followed by a spiffy nanovirus that will help jumpstart and guide their evolution. To “uplift” them, in the David Brin sense of the word.

Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. The experiment is disrupted before it’s really begun by a quasi-Luddite faction that things humanity going to the stars was a mistake. The monkeys burn up over the planet. The nanovirus . . . well, what becomes of the nanovirus is what Children of Time is all about.

You see, just because the monkeys didn’t make it to the planet doesn’t mean other life didn’t. Instead of finding its intended host, the nanovirus finds a species of spiders into which it can insert itself. It does and, for half the ensuing chapters in Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky puts us in the brains of various spiders as their society develops over thousands of years. That society itself is a supreme feat of imagination on Tchaikovsky ‘s part, but what really matters is that you come to care for these non-human beings, creatures that are more likely to conjure nightmares than sympathy.

That’s certainly true for the crew of Gilgamesh, the humans who make up the other half of the chapters. After the experiment at the beginning of the book goes awry humanity itself follows suit. Eventually, the only humans left alive are the crew of Gilgamesh and its “cargo” – hundreds of thousands of people in suspended animation.

It’s no spoiler to say that the humans and spiders have a coming together (two of them, sort of) and while the ultimate confrontation is wonderfully done, the paths they take getting there are equally fascinating. While the spiders slowly develop a technologically advanced society (the things they do with webs), humanity on board Gilgamesh is slowly falling apart. As seen through the eyes of a “classicist,” who gets woken up every so often to observe another crisis, it’s like the entire universe is falling apart at the seams. By the time the end comes the desperation among the humans is palpable.

Along the way, Tchaikovsky uses his characters to explore lots of big issues in a classic sci-fi way – religion, politics, and the like. More than anything, however, it shows how two intelligent groups can nearly destroy each other based mostly on the fact that they don’t have accurate information about the other group. The ending keeps this from being completely depressing, but it is kind of bleak. The day is saved by something the real world doesn’t have, after all.

There’s a lot to unpack in Children of Time. It doesn’t shy away from the fairly bleak state of the human condition, while suggesting that it’s not something specific to humans. And it does offer some hope, for while the source of the ending isn’t real, the effects could be. Either way, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while (and I don’t see any way to adapt it to film). I was completely blown away. Highest recommendation, of course.


Lessons Learned from Swimming Blindly Through the Aural Seas

When I write I have some idea of where I’m going. As you can see from my experiment with trying to go free form, I need some structure when I write. Nonetheless, when I write I’m acting with intention and purpose – I see where I want to go and try to get there.

When I make music, it’s almost completely the opposite. Essentially, music comes about in one of two ways. First, I get a flash of inspiration when a riff or rhythm or something pops into my head (and, hopefully, onto the computer). Second, I take whatever winds up on “tape” and fiddle around with it, adding things, taking things away, and generally just figuring out what works. I very rarely come to a song idea with a clear conception of what the end product should be.

In other words, when I write, it’s like setting out to sea in a boat, with charts, a destination, and a plan on how to get there. When I make music, it’s more like diving in head first and seeing where the tide sees fit to deposit me. Swimming blindly, if you will.

That’s not to say that the drifting, searching musical creation doesn’t require making choices. Sometimes, those choices are relevant when it comes to thinking about writing, too.

I’ve been thinking about this lately after finishing a new song with the deviously serious title of “Dummy Tickle” (it’s embedded below). I have no idea where that title came from, because this song, all not-quite-four minutes of it, began five years ago.

Which brings me to lesson number one I’ve learned from making music – creativity takes time.

The DAW I use has a metadata field that lets you put just about anything you want in it. I always put (1) when I started the song; (2) when I finished “writing” it; and (3) when I got it in final form (mixed down, etc.). It’s a very rare thing when a song goes from idea to completion in a week or a month. Usually it takes a while, but not five years.

What was I doing with “Dummy Tickle” for five years? I’d like to say I tried out dozens of different things to try and bring the basic idea (that lazy, bouncy bass line and equally laid back melody) to bigger, better life. Nothing really clicked, nothing seemed right. I let it go for a while, but every time I went back and listened to unfinished tracks I thought “there’s something there” and marked it down as something to finish.

Finally, a few weeks ago, something clicked. I don’t know precisely what or why then – maybe a session of playing with the puppies trigger up some kind of endorphin rush or something. How couldn’t they?

Anyway, the damn burst and I started making progress. It just took some time to get there. Patience really is a virtue, especially when it comes to creative things.

Still, it wasn’t a matter of just banging out a few more notes and being done with things. I was in need of ideas for a transition, a middle section, and started playing around with a couple of chord progressions.

Then I hit on the second lesson I’ve learned from “Dummy Tickle” – sometimes, simpler is better.

I have a sign tacked to the wall in my studio:

Monphonist Pic

I put it up when I realized that a lot of the early electronic music I like – from ethereal Tangerine Dream to the synth-pop of The Human League and OMD – was done by people with access only to monophonic synthesizers (that is, ones that can make only one sound at a time). That is, they can only make one note at a time. By contrast, without even getting into the virtual synths in my arsenal, I can bring to bear 150 voices! At once! I only have 10 fingers, after all.

My point is I tend to think in chords, even thought single notes are often what’s called for. After struggling to find the right sequence for this song, I backed off and gave it a fresh look. And I looked at my sign. The heart of this song was that simple bass line, the simple melody. Don’t mess that up by building it up unnecessarily. Take the simple route. Thus, that middle section was composed entirely of monophonic lines weaving together – as was the rest of the song.

None of this is Earth shattering. Still, as creators sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the vision of more – more words, more notes, more colors – until you disappear up your own backside in search of your next complexity fix. Sometimes you have to step back and think about what works for the song, book, or whatever it is you’re making. Some of them are just simple little things that don’t have airs on being anything more.

“Dummy Tickle” is like that. A little goof of a tune, a good mood wrought by bouncy synths. Enjoy!

Author Interview – Paul Keenan

This time we dive into the worlds of poetry, fiction, and . . . technical writing?

 Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

 My name is Paul Keenan, and I write a lot of things. I’ve written somewhere north of 300 poems, a dozen or so short stories, a novel, a stage play…. Lately, I’ve been doing some technical writing for a couple of financial technology web journals, Lending Times and Blockchain Times.

 Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

I wrote a novel last year. I’d made four previous attempts, but this was the first that I actually finished. Coincidentally, it’s also the first I wrote since getting sober in July of 2013. It’s called The Situation with Phillip, and it’s a work of fiction loosely inspired by the thought that the soul weighs 21 grams. Jeffrey is a serial killer who has come to the conclusion that it isn’t the soul that weighs 21 grams, but that the stress and hardship of life, which account for the loss of weight the body experiences upon death. To prove this, he is kidnapping people from five offsetting sets of character types (faithful/doubtful…), stressing them for a calendar month, and then killing them to see how much weight has been lost. There are indications that he isn’t completely at ease with the loss of life, but he feels he’s doing God’s work and accepts the loss for the good he thinks it will do in the future.

Phillip is also a man who thinks he is doing God’s work in his life, and it is his faith in God that he tries to maintain focus on during his month as Jeffrey’s prisoner. Having found that he really has little chance of escape—Jeffrey’s elaborate containment set-up includes remote control handcuffs and shock collar—Phillip is in constant communication with God, in prayer that, when the time comes, God will provide him with the words he needs to lead Jeffrey to see the error of his ways.(There’s a synopsis of the novel, plus a good number of posts about the progress of the drafting process on my blog at

In light of all the poetry you’ve written over the years, what is it that kept bringing you back to trying to write novels?

I chose novels because that’s what I grew up reading, and I read authors who had made a lot of money doing it. Sadly, most of my writing life has been financially driven. Now that I’m beginning to make a little money writing, I see how incorrectly I’ve gone about the process. Live and learn, I guess.

I come back to novels because I want to sell a novel. I queried The Situation with Phillip to an agent last year. I got a great rejection, 112 words. In it, the agent suggested some things that would make me more marketable as a novelist. I began following his advice; the social media and publications are part of that. I plan to get in touch with him again in September, which will mark a year from the first Q.

 In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

 Across the breadth of my writing life, I’ve written more poetry and verse than anything else. I’ve done so for a number of reasons. I think the iambic foot merges well with the human rhythm. Plus, I’ve always seemed so busy, a the shortness of poetry has always appealed to me. I edit as I go, but when I’m done, I’m pretty much done. It’s a very Bukowski way of writing. What’s more, I think my life is good subject matter, and poetry always fits that well.

Given the broad sweep of your writing, how much does one area of it impact others? Does your poetry influence your technical writing (or vice versa!)?

I don’t know how much my technical work has affected my creative work, but poetic lines influence everything I write. There’s a focus in poetry that is helpful in framing any type of writing. You focus on the line, the cadence, the rhythm. Poetry also helps a writer practice omitting needless words.

Author Pic

 Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

No matter what the genre, I learned in school to just get it on the page and then go back and fix it. I know that contradicts what I just said about writing verse, but with verse it’s still pretty much the same; I just don’t do much of the going back and fixing it. Still, while I put more thought into the actual crafting of work while I’m writing poetry—you really have to—I still pretty much adhere to the school of thought that says to just get it on the page. Then you can see what you’ve got and what needs to be done with it.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

I’ve had a few, but right now my favorite is Phillip from The Situation with Phillip. Like all of my other favorite characters before him, I like Phillip because he’s a philosopher, and most of his philosophy comes from lessons learned the hard way. Being an problem drinker in recovery, and being a problem drinker in need of recovery before that, I’ve created a strong personal philosophy that helps others at times. That’s the part of me that gets channeled into these characters like Phillip, and it’s what endears them to me.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

As a matter of fact, it’s the stuff I’m working on right now with my technical writing job, fintech, financial technology. A large part of my present focus is on cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Bitcoin. Ethereum. It’s so far out of what was previously my wheelhouse, but I’ve taken to it and become really interested in it. It’s something that I would have gotten to soon enough, just because I think its massive scale is going to make us all interested in it down the line, but I never would have ever thought I’d be writing about it.

 What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Don’t swing for the fences. I grew up reading novels by best-selling novelists, so I thought the only way to make it was as a best-selling novelist. The hard truth of that was the drinking life doesn’t much lend itself to the strength of thought and discipline required to write novels. I have four good, lengthy novel starts, and, while I imagine they’ll all be finished in time, I spent of years chasing the pipe dreams within them when I should have been focusing on more practical projects. Also, you have to write every day, even if it’s only for a half an hour or so. There’s a quote by Lawrence Kasdan, the filmmaker, that I like. He said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” It took me a while to get it, but I focus on that, and I haven’t missed a day in about a year, nor barring tragedy or illness or something like that, I can’t imagine any way that I will.

 If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I don’t know how much it would change my actual writing, other than I’d be able to write for myself and not for someone else, like the group of magazines I write for. It would change my writing that I wouldn’t have to work at a non-writing job to make money, and it would give me more time to devote to my blog and going back and finishing the novels and other long-form projects that I’ve started but never finished. Still, I’m interested in what I write about in my blog (music, the hilarity and oddness of life at times, music, and my Christian faith are all regular topics), and I’m interested in the fintech and blockchain stuff, so I wouldn’t much change what I write, I’d just have more time to devote to it.

 What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

Lately all of my time reading time has been spent on financial theory analysis, and I don’t tend to read a lot of new novelists. I re-read books I’ve liked in the past. I like structuralism and authors who have fun with their craft. Within the past year, I’ve re-read Tom Robbins’s Still Life with Woodpecker and Italo Calvino’s …if on a Winter’s night a traveler…, which are two of my favorites. The last book by a new author I read was The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, and, while I didn’t agree with it, as a man of faith I found it interesting enough. Still, I wouldn’t recommend it for a doubtful person; too much food for thought, I think.

Since you mentioned recovery a few times, do you find it difficult to write about characters who are going through similar issues, or is it cathartic to work it through with them?

It’s totally cathartic to write about recovery and characters at all stages of addiction and recovery. The basis of sobriety is a good program, and, for me at least, a good program is based on a good philosophy. Most times, writing about abuse and recovery just gives me good reminders of what I already know and think; occasionally, however, I realize something new or I realize I believe something I didn’t know I believed. It all helps to strengthen the philosophy and the program. Beyond that, it’s great advice for us to write what we know. Being not only a former problem drinker, I’m also a bartender, which means that booze and bars are great fodder for me.

 What do you think you’re next project will be?

Well, now that I’m working a full-time job and my writing is a rather large part-time job, I’m not sure. If I had that million dollars (which happens to be a nice round number that I like, by the way), and prior to securing the tech writing job, my plan was to go back and finish the four novels and the screenplay that I’ve started but not completed. I’d also like to see if there are any agents out there who’d like to see what progress I could make on a couple of music related books I’d like to see written. One is the search for faith in a higher power in the lyrics of Chris Cornell, the late singer who fronted both Soundgarden and Audioslave. Also, I’d like to do a comprehensive study of the impression that the five members of The Traveling Wilburys made on the music world—that one might have to be a series.

I don’t worry too much about it though. Ideas have never been a problem for me, and now that I’ve gotten sober and have the discipline, I figure God will put me where He wants me to be when He wants me to be there. It’s like this fintech deal; I had no idea that was in store for me. Still, it has only been four months, I’m the lead feature analysis writer for a new online magazine, Blockchain Times, and the field has become something that will shape me and my writing, as well as the lives of my sons—ten and six—going forward. You try to think about what you’re going to do next, and then something like that happens, and you realize once again that we’re not as much in charge as we think we are. No matter what comes next, I’m going to be where God puts me, and I’m going to do what He wills me to do. Knowing that, I don’t have to worry too much about it.

Learn more about Paul at his blog.

In Praise of Not Finishing Books

As a writer, the idea of people starting to read a book but not finishing it intuitively honks me off. After all, the author went through the trouble to create an entire package that, at least on some level, appealed to you – give them a chance to redeem whatever fault you’ve found in the end! But if I’m honest, as a reader, I’d push back against that – hard.

I wouldn’t be alone. A few years ago eBook platform Kobo (on which all my books are available, by the way), released some data that compared their best seller list with the list of books that readers most often finished. Not surprisingly, some of the best sellers were also some of the least finished. I love the cynical take on this from The Guardian, with respect to Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch (2014’s Pulitzer Prize winner: 37th best selling, only finished by 44% of readers):

Most-unfinished book of the year isn’t a title anyone would hope to win. But her core fans probably read the book to the end, as did a whole raft of new readers, which propelled her up the bestseller charts. And those readers who didn’t finish it still paid for it, so Donna Tartt can mop up those tears with crisp tenners, which will surely ease the pain.

Still, it’s a bit disheartening to know that so many people couldn’t even finish what you’ve written.

Alas, I occasionally find myself in that category as a reader. Even though I see every book I read (or listen to) as a learning experience when it comes to writing, sometimes I still can’t stick it out to the end (witness my “unfinished” shelf at Goodreads, to which I just had to add Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass, alas). Thus I’m on board with this piece over at Electric Literature that, without shame, promotes non finishing books:

There are many factors that go into whether or when a reader finishes a book. I imagine many people’s reading habits are, like mine, scattered. I have at least a dozen in-progress books on my nightstand — and several more on my phone and e-reader. Readers stop reading a book they enjoy when they put it down and forget to come back. Readers finish books they hate when they are assigned it for book clubs or else they want to hate-read and laugh about with their friends. (Certainly a large percentage of Fifty Shades readers fall into that second category.) Just as a half-read book isn’t necessarily a failure, a completed book is not necessarily a success.

This makes a lot of sense. I said before, in other contexts, that reaction to art is inherently personal. What rocks one person to the core of the their soul will make another yawn. That’s neither right nor wrong, it’s just the way things work. So there’s really no reason to expect everybody to love a book so much that everyone who starts it finishes it. As the saying (attributed to James Joyce) goes:


Ultimately, the job of keeping a reader engaged with a book is the author’s. It’s a responsibility we should take seriously. But we shouldn’t forget that readers come to our works in all kinds of ways and for all sorts of reasons. No book is going to connect with all of them, just like some books you’ve read didn’t connect with you. We have to accept that sometimes saying “this isn’t for me” and moving on is best for everybody involved.

Remember the lesson of the WOPR:


It applies to books, too.

Homeland Is Through the 49-State Looking Glass, People!

For its first couple of seasons, Homeland was among the best TV on the planet. Tense and twisty as any good thriller, it had the overlay of asking interesting questions about what drives people (in this case the lily-white costar) to terrorism? Things have slipped considerably since then, but it’s still an entertaining, and occasionally thrilling, show.

The further it’s gone, however, the further Homeland has moved into its own alternate universe. That’s only natural – any fiction is building its own world, after all. But after six plus seasons, Homeland’s America doesn’t look quite like ours does, and not just because President Trump was too wild a plot twist for a show like that.

In its current season, Homeland is charting the fall out of a presidential election that ended with an attempted assassination. One of the newer characters, O’Keefe, is an Alex Jones style radio/internet personality who starts the season on the run from the new president’s henchpersons. He hides out with numerous sympathizers and broadcasts screeds of resistance.

Which brings us to West Virginia.

In the second episode of this season O’Keefe makes his way to a farm in a rural area that becomes his final safe house. When the family who lives there (and some of their neighbors) welcome him, it’s with a story about a site nearby where the first battle of the Civil War was fought. It’s made clear that the site is Philippi, which places the action in West Virginia.

At the risk of sounding like Grandpa Simpson, I am not making this up. See this write up of the fourth episode:

With the FBI surrounding his West Virginia hideout, O’Keefe and his loyal listeners settle in for a long siege with power generators, jugs of water — and lots and lots of guns.

Or this article from a Virginia newspaper about the actual location where those scenes were shot:

Landon Graham said he was approached in September 2017 about using his rural property to serve as the location for the hideout, which in the show is supposed to be somewhere in West Virginia.

‘They wanted something that looked like West Virginia because that is where the scene was supposed to be. But getting to West Virginia is a nightmare so it’s better to be near Richmond,’ he said.

And still, in this week’s episode, which takes place in the aftermath of a deadly raid on at the safe house, O’Keefe is taken into custody and taken to . . . Richmond, Virginia. This shift of location is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, assuming O’Keefe is being charged with a federal crime (which he surely is), he’d need to be taken to a court in the district in which he was arrested – that being the Northern District of West Virginia (I chuckled imagining my colleagues dealing with the guy). Clarksburg is surely closer to the fictional Lucasville than Richmond, which is in the wrong district, anyway.

Second, there’s later a memorial service organized for those who died in the shootout, which is also organized in Richmond. Again, why have such an event several hours away from where the event occurred? It would be like having a memorial for the Parkland shooting students in Georgia. It took place in a church, not a huge stadium or something. Let me assure you, there’s no shortage of churches in north central West Virginia.

So what’s up? Is this just sloppy storytelling on the part of Homeland? Did they suddenly forget that West Virginia is, in fact, its own state and has been for 155 years? Surely the writers of a critically praised, major network TV series wouldn’t so cavalierly wipe an entire state off the map by sheer negligence.

No, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Instead, I’ll choose to believe that in the land of Homeland, West Virginia never actually existed. All those references earlier this season were really to “west Virginia.” Yeah, yeah, that’s it! It has to be. What other explanation is there? They’re playing with the very fabric of existence, people! Millhouse was right!



Author Interview – Gerald Swick

We’re back with Gerald Swick, who wants to take you on a trip through West Virginia history.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m the love child of Joseph Heller and Carol Burnett. No, wait—I’m a native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, now living in Nashville. I’m an incorrigible punster, a master of one-liners, and a serious researcher who was half of the research team that solved the 70-year mystery of why the eldest child of Abraham Lincoln was not buried with the rest of the family. Most of all, I’m a writer drawing inspiration and techniques from such disparate sources as academic journals, novels of all types, comic books, songwriting, screenwriting and poetry, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had experienced, successful writers in most of those fields share their knowledge with me.

I fell in love with the printed word at a very early age when my mother and my older siblings would read to me, so I started teaching myself to identify words as they read when I was three or four years old. I don’t remember Dad reading to me, but there was an auctioneer named Paul Bastin who could always unload a box of books by saying, “Swick, you’ll bid a quarter, won’t you?” Dad would grin and nod, and we’d be bringing another box of books home. The writing grew out of all that, plus the stories of family history Mom and Dad told.

How did you get involved with research into Abraham Lincoln’s family?

Actually, my research has primarily been into Lincoln’s in-laws, the Todds. A friend and I were thinking of writing an article about why the position known as The Hornet’s Nest at the Battle of Shiloh collapsed suddenly after holding out for hours.

A different friend went with me to walk the ground at Shiloh National Battlefield Park. She happened to be reading a biography of Mary Lincoln and asked if I was aware Mary had a half-brother who was killed fighting for the Confederacy at Shiloh. I got to looking into that and realized the Todds weren’t a family, they were a soap opera, and I started researching them seriously. I’ve never written the book about them, but it is a project I want to finish. Finding the letter about why the Lincolns’ eldest son isn’t buried with the rest of the family was a coincidence of Todd research.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

The first two books in my West Virginia Histories series were published by Grave Distractions Publications in late 2017. This series collects most of the 800-plus articles I wrote over 16 years that appeared as a weekly column of West Virginia history in the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram. The columns were very popular and received an Associated Press excellence in journalism award for Lifestyles writing. They were also a factor in the state Humanities Council awarding me a literary fellowship in nonfiction writing.

Over the years a number of readers recommended I put them into a book. When I finally sat down to do that I realized, with over 800 articles to draw from, I needed to do a series of books.

I spent part of 2016 and most of 2017 organizing the columns into themes such as West Virginia women, the Civil War, sports, ethnic history, politics, crime and so on, then divvying them up into eight books based on those themes. Each book in the series will contain 100 articles, including some never-before-published ones written specifically for this series.

Volume 1, Unique People, Unusual Events and the Occasional Ghost, is an introduction to and sampler of the series. Volume 2, Days of Slavery * Civil War and Aftermath * Statehood and Beyond provides readers with background on Western Virginia’s separation from Virginia, incidents of the Civil War within its borders, and the political struggle to be admitted to the Union as a state of its own. There’s also information on the state’s 50th and 100th anniversary celebrations.

Putting the former columns into book format allowed me to include addendums in cases where I found additional information after the columns were published, and this format also gave me a way to index names and places to help genealogists and other researchers find what they are looking for.

Vol. 1 cover

How many books will be in the West Virginia Histories series? Will you be adding new articles to it as you go along?

The publisher and I are planning for eight books, each covering multiple themes, but the series may expand if we feel a given book tries to cover too many themes. That doesn’t apply to Volume 1, of course, because it is an introduction to and sampler of the series, so it contains four or more samples from each of the themes.

I am researching and writing some new material for each theme, e.g., Social Change, Labor, Education, etc., so that each book will contain several never-before-published stories among its 100 articles.

How I originally came to write these columns?

I had been doing other freelance work for the Exponent Telegram and its weekly publications, the Marion Xtra and Taylor Xtra. I conceived the idea for the column and asked the managing editor if he would be interested in publishing it; his eyes lit up like a man who’d just drawn his fourth ace.

I knew people who are interested in history would read the columns, but I wanted to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally read history because they regard it as boring. I wanted to share with those readers how much fun history can be. I regard historical research as a never-ending Easter egg hunt; you never know what you’re going to find when you look behind the next bush. So I wrote in the storytelling style a fiction writer might use, while still sticking to the known facts, and I frequently incorporated editorializing, humor, puns and other wordplay, and occasionally a dose of snark.

For example, I wrote a column on West Virginia’s concerns over pollution throughout the 20th century. Not exactly the stuff for a ripping good yarn, so I enlivened it with comments like, “Mess with the fish, Bubba, and we send in the Marines,” after explaining that in 1913 the U.S. War Department had control over what was dumped in the Ohio River. Later in that same article I cited the 1970 “Kanawha Valley Air Pollution Study” and added parenthetically, “Soon to be a major motion picture starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones.”

In my research I primarily look for stories my readers likely wouldn’t know about, mostly drawn from old newspapers and supplemented by additional research to put the story in context: the feud between William Jennings Bryant and a WVU professor over evolution, for example, or the tornado that destroyed a church during Easter services in Wellsburg; the attempt Kanawha County’s Jews made to have the county chosen as the site of America’s first rabbinical college; the heroic tale of Jim Brown, a black man in Welch who risked his life trying to save two little white girls from an oncoming train, and the story of Minnie Martin, a young woman who saved a passenger train from derailing in Wetzel County. There’s the personal account of the infamous serial killer known as H.H. Holmes concerning what he claimed was his first murder, a man in Morgantown, and the story of a fraud ring comprised of Lincoln County housewives who scammed a soap company—and no, they didn’t get away clean.

The stories are drawn from all parts of the state and cover people and events from the 18th century through the 1960s, the decade in which West Virginia marked its statehood centennial.

In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

As noted, mostly I write nonfiction, history in particular. My first book was a coffee-table book, Historic Photos of West Virginia, from Turner Publishing in Nashville. I’d been one of Turner’s editors but had moved on to being web editor for the magazines of the Weider History Group when Turner called and asked me to author the West Virginia project. I’ve written for America’s Civil War, American History, Blue Ridge Country, Lincoln Lore, Wonderful West Virginia and other magazines, as well as the new West Virginia Encyclopedia published by the state Humanities Council in 2006and ABC-CLIO’s Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social and Military History. With a life-long love of both history and writing, it’s not surprising this is how things turned out, even though I started out wanting to write fiction.

I have had some short fiction published in literary journals and a fantasy anthology. I worked in the game field for years and authored or co-authored short fiction for roleplaying games, like “A Day in the Life of Dennis-O-VCH” and “The New, Improved Fear and Ignorance” for the Paranoia game. If you go to my website,, you’ll see how checkered my writing past is. Presently, in addition to future volumes in the West Virginia Histories series, I am working on a novel of alternative history, but I generally don’t like to talk about works in progress. Somehow, talking about what I’m working on takes away some of the impetus to get it down on paper.

Vol 2 cover

Do you have any training or background in historical research or are you self-taught? What made you dive in to that field in the first place?

Primarily self-taught. I’ve buried myself in researching the Todds at archives and libraries from South Carolina to San Francisco, and that experience taught me a very great deal about doing historical research. It also made me skeptical of anything I can’t effectively cross-reference. I’m amazed at how much has been written about the Todds in secondary sources that turns out to be untrue when compared to original source material and cross-referenced.

As for the origins of my interest in things past, it developed at the same time I was falling in love with the written word. My parents, who had me late enough in their lives that they almost named me R. U. Joking, often talked in the evenings about their childhoods and early lives, providing a window into a world that had already vanished. Also, growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s there were television programs, comic books, games, and movies about historical events. They weren’t necessarily accurate, but they made history fun and inspired me to read more of it. I have a T-shirt I was given that says, “History Buff. I’d find you more interesting if you were dead.”

I wanted to major in history, but a high school guidance counselor talked me out of it. Like one of my favorite nonfiction authors, John C. Waugh, my training is in journalism, not historical research. Both require fact-checking and multiple sources, but the nature of those sources usually aren’t the same. As things turned out, I’m a man with two mistresses: writing and historical research.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

Coming up with viable ideas is one of the most difficult things for me. My magazine and encyclopedia articles were assigned to me by editors. Even most of my published fiction came from assignments in which I was given a worldview to set a story in, but it was up to me to come up with a story and characters that fit within that worldview.

I mull over the assignment, think about the audience it is aimed at and what they might want to read, do preliminary research—even my fiction usually has historical elements to it—and then do some “clustering,” in which I write the basic premise in the center of a page, circle it, and then outside that circle I write any ideas that come to me, no matter how outrageous. A hit songwriter and music publisher, Ralph Murphy, once told me to never quit writing the cluster until I have over a dozen ideas jotted down, because the first ones will be obvious, but by the time I get to the thirteenth or fourteenth idea I’m probably breaking into fresh approaches.

As an example, the editor of America’s Civil War magazine asked me to write about the “First Land Battle of the Civil War” at Philippi. The question I faced was, “Okay, I can relate the events, but what does it all mean?” I concluded that the Confederacy’s epitaph was already written at Philippi: “Too few trying to defend too much with too little, against a people in whom the bonds of Union had become too strong to be severed.” Based on that conclusion, the article was published as “Omen at Philippi.” Anyone interested in reading it can find a link under Nonfiction on my website.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Elizabeth O’Cleary, a teenage Irish girl with Down Syndrome who develops a magical power when magic returns to modern Ireland. I created her for the story “Warriors of Destiny” in the Dragons Over England anthology. This was one of the situations in which I was given a worldview and a deadline, then left to my own devices. The stories in the anthology were based on the Torg roleplaying game from West End Games, in which Earth is invaded from several parallel dimensions simultaneously, each invader setting up a reality based on his or her own dimension. In the British Isles, it was a reality like that of traditional Northern European fantasy stories, while in France the Cyberpapacy had won the Great Schism of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition never ended. I envisioned an initial attempt by the Cyberpapacy to convert all those good Roman Catholics in Ireland to this new papacy. Elizabeth and her recently awakened new friend, a leprechaun named Letitia Blossomwalker, thwart the bad guys but at terrible cost.

The characters formed in my mind after I contracted to write a story for the anthology. I kept resisting the idea of Elizabeth having cognitive disability due to Down Syndrome, but she refused to be written any other way. I never said this in the story, but in my mind she was descended from the Tuatha De Danann, the legendary race with magical powers who some people have said came to Ireland from Atlantis. I imagined that when magic went away, their descendants still had the ability within them but no way to use it; in Elizabeth’s case, that produced the extra chromosome that resulted in Down Syndrome and a blockage in her mind that ultimately she breaks through.

Coming up with character names is another toughie for me. Ironically, shortly after I sent the “Warriors of Destiny” story off to West End, I visited the Presidio cemetery in San Francisco to pay my respects at the grave of a woman I was researching, the Great Western, Sarah Borginnis Bowman, a heroine of the Mexican-American war and later proprietor of some of the finest bordellos in the Southwest. As I was walking away from her grave I noticed a headstone a couple of graves away. The name on it was Elizabeth O’Cleary, the same as my fictional Irish girl, and a chill went up my spine. Odd coincidences like that seem to occur when I write fictional stories about Ireland.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

Well, for “Warriors of Destiny” I had to research Irish history, folklore and fauna, plus the Great Schism of the Catholic Church and Belgian machine pistols. In nonfiction, I’d have to say the five articles I was asked to write about Romania in World War II and one about South Africa’s role in the conflict for ABC-CLIO’s WWII encyclopedia. I knew virtually nothing about either country, so I had to do some serious research and do it quickly, since I also had three other articles assigned for the same publication. A decade later I reused some of the information while writing “Romanian Nightmare at Stalingrad” for Armchair General magazine. That’s why I’m loathe to throw away old research materials.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

Oh, man, that’s like asking what the most import lesson is that I’ve learned in life. I’m going to name two: First, rewriting doesn’t mean just tweaking; it may mean finding the kernel of the story that is worth keeping, discarding everything else and starting over. Second, despite all we are taught about finding our writer’s voice, staying true to our vision, etc., ultimately writing isn’t about the writer: it’s about the reader. In genre fiction that means staying true to the conventions of your genre, because readers expect them, but finding fresh ways to present those conventions. In nonfiction it means not cramming everything you’ve learned about a topic into a single article or book; that’s oh, so tempting, but data dumps stink as badly as garbage dumps.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I wouldn’t have to work at anything else to meet bills. I could just research and write six to ten hours a day. So if any patrons of the arts out there are looking for someone to sponsor, you can contact me through my website!

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I read Susan Orleans’s Rin Tin Tin The Life and the Legend in 2012, and I still find myself thinking about it occasionally. She did incredible research and a great job of telling a story both uplifting and tragic. More recently the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series impressed me because the author created a compelling narrative inspired by old, strange photographs of children.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

Bringing out volume 3 in the West Virginia History series, which will be titled Crime, Politics, and Other Disasters. It will probably be released in late summer or early autumn 2018. And continuing to work on the alternate history novel.

Learn more about Gerald at his website, or check out excerpts from Volume 1 and Volume 2 of his West Virginia History series.