Author Log, Winter 2020; Feudal

Pruning in the vineyard is one of the most idyllic times in my vigneron lifestyle. It is as close to my escapist hermit island as I can get and still have a healthy family life.

In the brief hours between a day’s farm work and a night’s sleep, though, Wendy & I often escape into pastimes. Table-top gaming with our daughter, online gaming with friends, or binging on some television or film series. This winter, it has been the Downton Abbey boxed set we gave each other for Christmas. I’d seen several over the years, but hardly all, and never in any sequence.

Aside from the writing and dramatic characters of modern production, this show embodies a socio-economic lifestyle that began centuries ago and still has deep roots in English customs. My father-in-law is as American as they come, and he can’t tolerate the class divisions of such shows. Yet, for the life of me, I am still unable to understand the difference between aristocracy by land and aristocracy by a business. Both giant corporations I worked for, Lance crackers and Gilbarco gas pumps, had a culture split as clearly distinct as any upstairs/downstairs, even down to titles, rituals, and mutual class respectfulness.

 

My roots for this thinking must go back to my medieval studies. As my adventure writing for Dungeons & Dragons games grew, I consumed vast amounts of medieval knowledge to try to model my game world after. The feudal socio-economic lifestyle I came to admire and regret was an homage to chieftains in a Germanic style (chieftainess as well, I see no modern differences).

Arthurian loyalty grew in the early ages of the first millennium into a feudal society. Land for service. Protection for promises. When you have fairy-tale figures like the Granthams of Downton, it works beautifully and conveys an elegance. When children inherit the position, the learned hubris and earned respect all too often don’t seem to come along with the DNA. Growing up privileged in the country-club estate and then spending most of my adult life as the country-club dishwasher, I have experienced so many of the sides of this equation.

My lifestyle became so ingrained to the feudal imagery that my Isuzu Amigo had a vanity license plate of “FEUDAL.” I routinely dressed as Robin Hood (with the bow) to go hiking on the three-thousand-acre estate of my youth and later joined the SCA, or Society of Creative Anachronism.

 

 

 

 

 

I trained hard for combat in the Kingdom of Atlantia under Marshall Genseric Tremayne. I apprenticed as an armorsmith over one of the happiest summers of my life under Baron Eldridge of Burlington. I met and honored, and was shown a peasant’s respect by, Atlantian kings and queens Olaf, Aislinn, Anton, and Luned. My daughter would call all this “cosplay” nowadays. For me, it was a lifestyle that, when done to perfection, actually was idyllic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, I left the SCA because of my inappropriate relationship with a married girlfriend. SCA Royalty quietly informed me it forever barred me from any knighthood in the organization. And I stupidly chose temporary sexual gratification over a lifelong pursuit. If you remember from my earlier blogs, this was the woman who went to a few SCA events with me and called them nerds and weirdos behind their backs, whom “I was better than.”
No, I am indeed quite the lesser.

A decade later, in 2002, amidst the marvelous medieval armor exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, my wife Wendy & I unexpectedly bumped into Baron Eldridge. It was every bit as fairy-tale courteous as Mister Bates and Lord Grantham running into each other would have been. One of those bright-spot chance meetings that seem larger than life. In the Met, no less. With an old master to explain things. What were the odds?

So thirty years later, I live a fairy-tale lifestyle in the vineyard, watch fairy-tale stories with my fairy bride, reminisce fairy-tale memories, and dream up fairy-tale books.

To genre-bend and paraphrase the Talosian, “I have my illusions, and you have your reality. May you find your way as pleasant.”

Author’s Log, Summer 2019; Lessons learned as a new author (for a KDS guest blog)

At a very early age, music began to affect me quite profoundly. I adored music, loved it actually, to the point I consumed it. AM radio was my most significant source of music in the 1960s, but my older brothers got record players, and then the living room got a big quadraphonic stereo system, seemingly as important as the television in the late ’60s. My parents and brothers taste in music exposed me to everything from musical show tunes to Simon & Garfunkle to Classical to the Beetles. My older brother Robert played in folk and bluegrass bands as well as school musicals. I remember bearded mandolin players frequently playing in the living room crowded around tape players, and long hours wandering theater backstages during his rehearsals for shows like Auntie Mame. Classical music, however, intrigued me the most.

In 6th grade, I tried to learn to play music. I wanted to play the flute, but it was too “feminine” an instrument for a boy. They gave me a saxophone instead, probably because the school band needed another saxophone player more than a flute player. To my honest shame and puzzling confusion, though, I had no real musical talent. As a very late bloomer, guitar necks and saxophones were too big for my small hands and body. I could play notes, understood chords, but making music did not come as freely, or so easily, as listening to music. The talent eluded me. I left Band in Jr High, despite boot-camp threats from the Principle that I would have to stay and learn anyways. Ah, no.

My classical music and show tune album collection were joined by Walter/Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach. Wow. That began an electronic vibe and connection that is still one of the core musical values of my soul to this day. Alan Parson’s record Tales of Mystery & Imagination was a gift from one of my brothers to the other, and grass mowing money earned me my copy to wear out. I Robot followed, as did every other album they made ever after. Vangelis’ Pulsar came next, and then Larry Fast’s Synergy. I still own the vinyl of all of them, as well as the mp3s now.

I grew almost a foot after High School (I said I was a late bloomer!), to the point that teachers did not recognize me a year later. I took up the guitar again, which fit my hands much better now, and employment let me buy Stratocasters, amps and then a Tom Scholz “Rockman” so I did not explode my neighbor’s patience. I padded the closet of my apartment into a sound studio, and reel-to-reels and twinkling equalizers drove my nights and weekends.

My music still sucked. My failing talent was not a question of devotion to practice; I played daily for years and took lessons from pros. Every copy song I tried would never surpass “almost” to my listeners. Every original song I tried to write sounded the same. For a decade.

Long periods with an acoustic trying pure classical guitar did a little better, but I could never break through some magical, professional-sounding barrier. I added a big Aspen bass, which I enjoyed but lacked the natural rhythm to pull off. Then in an attempt to find a deeper connection with my electronic love I got a synthesizer and discovered I was even worse at keyboards.

I sold off and gave away all the equipment at the end of the 1980s, from reel-to-reels to spare strings, and gave up on playing music. My only reminder of that whole long experience is a bamboo flute my brother gave me eons ago, which I play in the vineyard when I’m feeling sentimental, and the vines ask for a song.

By this point, you probably believe you misread something and have rechecked the blog title at least twice. Neither of us is mistaken.

You see, parallel to my musical journey was my writer’s journey. Reread the above paragraphs. Every time you see the word “music” replace it with the word “writing.” Then; song with story, guitars & basses with fantasy and sci-fi, reel-to-reel with word processors, and keep all the same stupid teenage angst, long hours of practice and effort over the decades.

After giving up playing music, my purer enjoyment of listening returned. My depression began to subside. By focusing on my writing, while listening to music, my art improved, and I broke that mysterious elusive “bubble” where the people who were reading my stuff began to compliment me. I wasn’t just “almost” anymore; it was the beginning of talent. It sounded good to them and me. Online cooperative fiction was like being in writer’s bands, and my growing ability encountered encouragement, correction, envy, and praise from peers and then older pros. I got a lot of excellent guidance and had to process a lot of tricks, advice and style choices.

Ten years of such daily writing practice honed necessary skills to the point I could write for the public and folks enjoyed it. This was my “copy band” phase as a writer. Then came another decade of intense focus, finding my own voice for stories instead of fan-fic based on other author’s fine works. Long hours in the quiet, peaceful vineyard fueled my imagination like endless epiphanies.

To crescendo this musical journey metaphor blog about my writing; I’m self-published now. I’m “out there” with my art, and it is advertised to those who seek its various topics. Will I ever be on the radio? Doubtful, but like a lottery ticket, at least there is some tiny chance over the solid “no” that accompanies not trying. Will I ever attract the attention of a publisher? If my writing is good enough, yes. Will I ever be known as a local author and entertain friends and family? I’m already living that glorious dream. My books on wine history are for sale in the tasting room and are the subject of questions, inquiries, and discussion with strangers every day. My new books flow onto the screen every morning with the sunrise before I take to the vines.

Do I have talent? Your clapping will let me know if that’s true.
Do you have the talent? I can only encourage you to get over your stage fright and try and then applaud your efforts.
The metronome of your art life is already ticking for you…

Author’s Log, Winter 2019; Marinade pt. 2

So marinade can make a huge difference to food and makes a big difference to wine, but it is also a unique ingredient to better writing.
You can throw salt & pepper and a touch of garlic on a steak and pan-fry it up in minutes. It’ll be good. But not every steak is prime sirloin, and not every story we write is prime either. Some are deeper, with complex plots that take thought to follow. Stew meat, port roast, prime rib, they take preparation to make the difference between tasty and chewy.

Over time, letting a novel of mine “marinate” for 3-6 months dramatically improves the story. It used to drive me crazy. Is the artist’s rush of excitement to get a new story out to the public merely pan-frying a steak to satisfy basic hunger? Are we looking for the cheer of a captive crowd to feed our egos? Is it the musical thrill of playing a song with written words? Writing is not playing music, and the immediacy of writing’s lost applause is ultimately forgotten by the gentle wash of time’s perspective. Good music is responded to; good writing is considered. Both can still be quite emotional.

When I finish a novel or a re-write of a novel, the first thing I do is put on hold and start another one. First, it clears the mind of all the excess baggage that seems to come from the incredible focus it demands to finish a book. Coming back weeks or months later gives a healthy perspective. The flaws glare like a desert sun. The cracks have appeared, the sauce reduced, and the emotions nuanced. Quick fixes, lost in the sprint to the finish line, become obvious flat tires.

There is not one story, novel, or blog of mine for that matter, that doesn’t benefit from a change in time and perspective. I have to let a novel marinade to (hopefully) get you to close your eyes and give s savory “Ummmm..,” at the critical moments in the story. I may want applause, who knows, but I’ll trade a few seconds of clapping for someone asking when the next dinner party will be.

Author’s Log: Fall 2018 Rebooting

Starting over is cathartic for artists. Gut wrenching, painful, but from that can come artistic growth. So in the late 1990’s, I started over in so many ways.

During this rebuilding time, I met my soulmate and wife. I don’t know why she fell in love with me, but whatever the original reason, we were obviously meant for each other. Slowly we built a life together, and I learned what love really was from her.

I still had no players for D&D, Star Trek, or tabletop gaming. As she studied for her MCSE I began playing Dark Sun, an online RPG, but it was an empty, dying video-game world. Then on a second chance, despite the box graphic, we both began playing the online game Everquest. Kaladim and Kelethin, the dwarf and elf towns in the game became our second home, and we spent at least two thousand hours playing together over the next couple of years. Tejj the Klingon engineer became Tejj the Dwarf wagon drover, now adventuring with Turakin the Elf druid, and my writing spirit came back. We made friends online who became friends in the real world, and we visited each other in New York.

After Everquest came the online game Dark Age of Camelot, where new yet old Tejj & Turakin defended Midgard relics night after night after night, and where Ali bin Sophos ibn Al Andalus found his way from Gibraltar to Camelot England, and my fantasy writing in the online forums continued and grew.

After a couple of years of Dark Age of Camelot came the online game Star Wars Galaxies, and Tejj the wookie doctor of Nashal was born. Gelk Industries was built from cross server trades, with a dozen houses and hundreds of resource generators, and millions of credits in selling “Talus Water”, exotic crafting stations and feeding the bulk materials needs for level grinding the game required to become Force enabled. Star Wars writing took me to new places, and Dr. Tejj along with his mate wookie scout Turakin and her two killer dogs rode our falumpasets over ever every square bit of Talus, Naboo, Tatooine and other alien worlds.  It is still the most fun in any online game we ever played and enjoyed.

Star Wars Galaxies was perfect for us but so unstructured that it annoyed too many people and it eventually failed; the only game to ever leave us instead of vice-versa.

The online game World of Warcraft came along about the same time as our daughter. My wife got into beta. I joined her when it went live. Dwarves and Elves became Taurins and Orcs, and then became Gnome wizards. The in-game roleplay was frequent, but my fantasy writing was not. Warcraft didn’t lend itself well to my fantasies.

I enjoyed the star ship aspect of Eve Online, and enjoyed building a merchant’s empire, but again, fantasy adventures alone loses some of its charm. Nobody seemed to be role-playing in Eve in the 2Ks. The somewhat visceral PvP nature of Eve was also a bit more stressful than I wanted for a passtime.

I had followed MEO, Middle Earth Online, for many years, waiting impatiently. MEO eventually changed into Lord of the Rings Online, and I joined a group of online writers who formed a guild waiting for the game to come out. They were called the “Gathering of Laurelin”, and twelve years later I am still with the “Leaves of Laurelin”, though thru many iterations, leader and server changes.

Thus the most serious writing I had ever done to date began, and has continued for over a decade. Incredibly gifted writers, and wonderfully engaging writing. I am humbled these people even included me.

A problem with Tolkien fan-fic writers is that none of us are Tolkien, but some of us think they are. Even finding general agreement on le hannon is beyond the ability of anyone but the dead author himself, and this kind of debate can lead to pointless arguments. It is very difficult to please such a learned, imaginative group that holds such strong emotional connections to their interpretations of the original story.  We are almost denominationally religious in our enthusiasm, and subject to excessive drama over trickiness and sensitivities.

I have been a vigneron and winemaker for almost 20 years now, and have poured wine to over a quarter million tasters in that time. I have learned a great deal about wine, and a great deal about tasters, and a tremendous amount about unnecessary pretentiousness. This industry is far too often fools selling wine to fools, and it desperately needs to strike a tone closer to music appreciation than unapologetic snobbery.

Along with learning about wine, I learned about wine history, and slowly the idea began to develop that my creative writing could move into historical fiction about wine. I’ll leave potential futuristic wine fiction till another day.

Thus a past of writing, decades of wine industry exposure, research and time have lead to the Wine’s Anvil series.

Author’s Log, Summer 2018: Online

Sure as a loaf of fresh bread grows smaller, the morning of youth passed into the lunchtime of life. I got an unusual girlfriend, a separated divorcé who had been dating a friend, and suddenly the new D&D players stopped coming by. One by one the other players got married and started families themselves or moved too far away to play, until I found myself writing alone.  Fantasy adventures by yourself seemed to lack a certain charm. The new girlfriend was above playing such nonsense, and, turns out, was not really a divorcé. In fact, she wasn’t even separated. But she certainly fed my young man’s other fantasies.

I joined the SCA for a time. It was enjoyable, and one summer I even served as an armoring apprentice to an SCA blacksmith names Tom Justice (Baron Eldred). The SCA is good for imagination, costuming and getting bruises, but it did nothing for my creative writing. Whatever physical fighting skills I possessed were pure fantasy.

In the early 1990s, I discovered a gathering place called Compuserve, and there was a forum called the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Players forum. It was filled with interesting people! They wrote in turn based adventure stories in online threads, some free-form in a gaming system called GURPS. I was home.

On that Compuserve forum, I fell in with some of the most gifted writers I had ever known in a group called STS, or Star Trek Ships. Oh, to be certain, it was pure fan-fic. A European named Tardis ran things skillfully, and a wonderful Captain Zkena Blood hired me on and that gave birth to Tejj Gelk, the Klingon engineer, and service aboard the Albatross, her Orion Free Trader.

I had a 3D modeling program called Truespace, and spent hundreds of hours building the Albatross ship in 3D, inside and out. My modeling eventually including other ships, DS-9, Intrepid class, Runabouts, you name it. I’d make short animations that took days to render on my 486s, and made beautiful jpgs of ship life and alien scenery from the forum stories.

After months of participating, an Intrepid Class ship full of players lost their game master, and I crazily volunteered to take over, with absolutely zero notes on what the other game master’s plot was heading for, only what had already been written and posted. The Captain was a Doctor in Chicago, the First Officer lived in California and the Ship’s Doctor lived in New York. It was incredible fun writing adventures for them, and with them. Super folks, who still inspire me two decades later.

I began to record Star Trek tv shows, especially DS-9s and Star Trek Voyagers for Tardis and send them to him. He never responded back.

I was somehow appointed to the STS Technology Council, where we’d offer opinions of some of the many game thread’s various technical questions. Some folks figured anyone who could knock off an Okudagram as I could must be an engineer at heart. No, far from it, but I did my best with a library of books and fan material. Finally, I became the voice and traffic cop of DS-9 in game.

During this time the married girlfriend turned into the bipolar lady I shouldn’t have ever dated. She was back to her dying husband. I was dumb, it was stupid. But there it is, and I can’t take it back now. There was always a lot of passion, but not what I know now as love, and she HATED my attachment to D&D, SCA, and online STS friends.

When we finally split up, and it was like the movie Fatal Attraction in reverse, and I learned first hand the dangers of being in love with someone bipolar. I went bankrupt when my bank accounts were cleaned out,  I lost my apartment, my aquarium fish all died mysteriously, and my computer with its backup hard drives was trashed.

Hundreds of hours of 3D modeling. Hundreds of pictures, and scores of animations way too big for floppies. Most of my writings. All were suddenly gone, and the ex-girlfriend knew everything I did online in STS. It was also on her computer. She had briefly followed me into the SCA years before, hating all the medieval nerds and making fun of them behind their backs, but putting on a deceiving show in front of them, and I knew as angry as she was at the break-up she’d not stop until I left STS or she had disrupted things there to the point of embarrassment. So I asked STS for prayers and walked away.

On my final visit to the old apartment office, they gave me a box they had stuck in their MIA box pile for the past months. It was a box from Tardis in Europe and was filled with blank VCR tapes. He had responded, after all.

I still often wonder if I’d have been stronger and trusted my STS friends more had I known he sent that box.

Author’s Log, Spring 2018: Islands

Early in High School I picked up a paperback novel by the author Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was the Tarzan series, and that took me to 40 exotic places I had never been, and stirred my imagination about Africa.

My family developed emotional problems, and I escaped even further into author Jules Verne, and he took me places I’d never even dreamed of or imagined. His book Mysterious Island was to have a profound effect on me.

I only discovered I had a knack for writing late in High School. One of the other English teachers called me the best student writer he had never taught. Authors like Johann Wyss, Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad and James Michener fed my island dreams. Mysterious Island and the Robinsons had me wanting to pioneer a life instead of a consuming existence, and it being the only island paradise I could reach without a passport, I decided I would run away to Hawaii. Oh, I had USGS maps of Kauai and Maui and survival books and a footlocker of equipment and seeds ready to go.  In my Junior year I wrote a term paper on Hawaii. My term paper was so good my teacher accused me of plagiarism and gave me a 70, and that was only because she couldn’t prove it. Of course she couldn’t prove it; I had written the damn thing myself.

For my senior year term paper I decided take a different route, and wrote about the old model railroad train set I had built in my bedroom. From the elaborate backstory of how the fictional railroad came about, to the actual planning, building and construction, and then even how to run the trains on it in a quasi-realistic fashion. There could be no possibility of plagiarism. Got a 100.

After that I lost my family, in one way or another, and became very angry at them, life, and mostly myself.

Don’t get angry at yourself. It’s just not helpful, and forgiving others either begins or ends with forgiving yourself.

So my broken folks took me to a Fox that was a medicine man, and he tried to help me stop being mad at myself, stop being a jerk to my friends and stop trying to end my own life. He had obvious success with the later, and debateable success with the first two.

One of the things he suggested was for me to write down my feelings in a diary. Now, as self absorbed as I was, or still am, I can’t see why that didn’t work like a charm, but it didn’t.

But then a yule miracle occured, and from a dusty store shelf I got a Dungeons & Dragons original box set on an odd random chance. This was the late 1970s, and things were a bit different back then. Low and behold, I found I could write fantasy. My friends kept coming back, asking for more adventures. We were half a dozen boys and girls playing D&D every odd weekend.

The fantasy writing for the games was carthadic. It gave me something I was recognizably good at, and something to look forward to tomorrow for, which helped keep me from checking out of life prematurely. Every once in a while we’d roleplay Gamma World or Star Trek RPG instead, but mostly it was D&D.

Life after school is about as different as life inside and outside a house during a storm. We began meeting for a couple of days about once a full moon to play our ongoing D&D campaign. My cabin was filled with drawings, plants, tents, odd lights, hundreds of linear feet of Japanese timber bamboo and colorful fantasy maps that stretched all the way up the two story walls.

One young lady who visited said “I was obsessive.” She was being kind.

I would take a fortnight between games to write a mini-book about the upcoming adventure, then send it to the other players to read up the week before.  I even had to start turning new people away from joining our popular game. This went on for nearly a decade, and while every other aspect of my adult life seemed a losing struggle, roleplay fantasy certainly did not.

When desperate and swept along, one clings to the passing rocks life offers.