Category: historical fiction

Two memorable photos

We took a lot of photos on our trip this summer. That’s the curse of digital photography: you can just keeping snapping away, deleting the duds later. Much later…

I won’t be posting many pictures of our trip, but there are bound to be a few, marking the high points of our thirty memorable days in Greece-Turkey-Czech Republic.

Me 'n Troy VI

Here I am, touching the stones of Homeric-era Troy. Can’t put into words how powerful it felt visiting a place I’d read about since childhood. Glorious!

Me and Franz

I also got the opportunity to make a pilgrimage, of sorts, to the grave of one of my literary heroes, Franz Kafka. Sherron snapped this one, then discreetly wandered off, letting me have a few private words with my old Master. No touristas about, no unwelcome intrusions. Special, special moment…

My first professional submission

True story:

When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of  “professional” actors would stage and perform it.

I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.

I wish I’d kept a copy.

And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.

Good God…”

The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—

He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.

Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.

Well.

My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.

My first submission and my first rejection.

But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.

Proof!

pencil box

In the stretch run…

Murderous.

The intensity, the focus on detail.  Grinding away, page after page, trying to maintain a consistent tone and voice.  Staying honest to the traditions and tropes of the western genre without resorting to formula. Making characters from another era speak to readers across a chasm of time, inspiring their concern and empathy.  One of the problems is that my protagonist, Frank Seaver, is such a taciturn man, not prone to confessional type statements or emotional outbursts.  A tough guy who reacts out of instinct; normally passive, but deadly when provoked.

All my research on the Old West, the resources I’ve assembled over the past ten months, has stood me in good stead.  I’m able to more fully inhabit my fictional world, get some sense of what it would be like, should I step off a passenger car in Livingston, Montana in 1884 or happen to be riding horseback through a copse of lodgepole pine trees in Yellowstone Park, part of a group hunting a legendary beast…

Only a small portion of that research will be in evidence when The Last Hunt is published in March, 2012. To weigh a narrative down with reams of detail kills suspense, slows pacing to a crawl…and I’ve always been a minimalist when it comes to description. No, the research was for me—to help pry this spoiled and pampered brat out of 21st Century and force me to take on the persona of one of the last of the great gunfighters, a man rendered obsolete by modernity, on the run and seeking one more chance at a new life.

I’ve read as many books and articles as I could get my hands on, wrote and spoke to historians and curators, visited museums and viewed private collections, made a special trip down to Yellowstone this past summer with my father-in-law—all part of imagineering a credible, authentic depiction of that time/place and the people who might have lived there.

Now I’m getting down to the nitty gritty.  This past few weeks of revisions have added twenty-seven (27) pages to the manuscript, providing a much more nuanced and layered backdrop for the settings and players. Very happy with how matters are progressing.  I’m planning on being done this run-through by Christmas Eve.  Relax with my family over the holidays, read a few books (that Blake Bailey biography of John Cheever is particularly enticing).  Then back to it, delivering my final draft by the end of February.

Pop back for further updates as the publication date for The Last Hunt approaches.

And get ready for a fun, fast, exciting read.

“Eyes in the Sky” (A Sneak Preview)

Here’s an excerpt of my science fiction novelette, “Eyes in the Sky”.

What can I tell you?  This one’s a stunner.  I love it to pieces.  A marriage of two great loves, history and sky fy.

10,000 words and guaranteed to be one of the best SF tales you read this year.  How do I know that?  Well, if you’re like me, you read damn few SF stories so, honestly, I don’t think the competition is all that fierce.

Here’s the pitch:

“Eyes in the Sky” features an intriguing “What if…” scenario, a captivating vision of a possible past:

What if the atom bomb hadn’t worked and the Space Age was a bust?

What if Cold War adversaries employed less traditional tactics in their efforts to keep tabs on their intractable enemies?

What if history’s dark, turbulent course had veered off in a different direction?

“Eyes in the Sky” is accompanied by original cover art by John Enright.  John is a talented artist I found through the “Epilogue” site but the link I’ve provided will take you directly to his gallery.

The excerpt (about fifteen pages), will give you an excellent preview of the novelette and if you’d like to read more, it will shortly be posted, in its entirety, on Amazon (along with an Afterword I’ve written on the story’s origins and influences).  I’ll add a link as soon as it’s available.  Or, if you’re willing to wait awhile, “Eyes in the Sky” will be included in my upcoming short story collection, Exceptions & Deceptions (due out December, 2012).

I’m hoping the folks at Amazon will allow me to list the novelette at 99 cents—a bargain price for a terrific read.  Cheaper than a lot of dumb, useless apps.

Meanwhile, click on the link below for the excerpt.

Hope you enjoy this sample from “Eyes in the Sky”.

“Eyes in the Sky” excerpt

The Writer, On His Own

My wife and sons have temporarily departed for more northerly climes, visiting family members who live right next to a lake near Thompson, Manitoba.  Idyllic spot, natural and picturesque.

Why didn’t I tag along (you ask, impudently)?

Because my mind isn’t ready for a vacation right now.  Matter of fact, for some reason summer is the time of year when my Muse really puts the pedal to the metal.  A good number of my novels and best short stories were drafted during the months of June-August.  Maybe a hormonal thing, who knows?  So, while everyone else is outside, barbequing or going to the lake, renting a cottage, enjoying yourselves, you’ll find me in my sweltering 10′ X 12′ home office, my door open, the fan on high to make the environment livable as I toil away on some literary project.

This year is no exception.  My western novel, The Last Hunt, devours much of my time.  I’m supposed to be taking a break from it at the moment but I can’t help poking my nose in, doing more research, scribbling notes, conceiving questions for some of the historians who have generously offered to lend a hand with the scenes set in Yellowstone Park. They’ll provide me with historical background, period detail and invaluable advice and input (and God bless ’em). I’ll be visiting that region of Montana later this summer, doing some on the spot scouting and location hunting.  It will be my first trip of any significance in a long time (I blush to say how long).  This borderline agoraphobic workaholic is trembling at the notion of being away from my desk for any length of time but I am utterly convinced of the necessity of this trip.  It will better establish the mood and setting of The Last Hunt and add some of the authenticity I think the present draft is lacking.

But I must confess I have another reason for remaining home.  It isn’t often I get the house to myself for days at a stretch and on those rare occasions that I do…well, I like to take full advantage of it.  I play loud music, from the time I get up to the wee hours of the morning.  I keep the windows shut, the drapes drawn and for one or two days I let myself go.  Stalk about in my bathrobe, unshaven, neglecting the laundry, neglecting to eat properly, neglecting to answer the phone or interact with the outside world.

It’s glorious and terrifying and, ultimately, beneficial.

I sit in my office, staring at my slippers while The Vandelles, A Place to Bury Strangers, The Replacements, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, etc. thunder from overhead speakers, loud enough to force me further back in my chair.  Lately, I like my music hard and dirty, a la the Vandelles’ “Lovely Weather” (crank it up!).

Meanwhile, I’m doing a good deal of scribbling—journaling and spontaneous or “automatic” writing like the Surrealists used to champion.  These writings represent Rorschach Tests and they give a pretty good idea of what’s on my mind, the preoccupations and fears dogging me.  Plenty of speculations on the spiritual front—I keep that up, I’m liable to end up with a gazillion page Exegesis, similar to Philip K. Dick.  And will likely be considered just as loony, should anyone happen to stumble across these errant, inexpert ramblings on God, the nature of reality and my own pitiful existence.

These writing exercises often trigger intervals of hellish introspection, long hours spent reviewing past sins and ruminating over the sorry state of my literary career, even after a quarter century of putting words on paper.  The mental boo birds come out and I subject myself to a great deal of vitriol before the nattering voices either subside, wear themselves out or are chastened by a very Bugs Bunny-like snarl originating from the depths of my id:

Aaaaaaaa, shaddap!”

I have trouble sleeping when my family’s away, find the nights hard to endure. I kill time by staying up and watching a double or triple header of movies.  Guy flicks and guilty pleasures; science fiction and thrillers given precedence.  This time around I’ve set aside flicks like “Michael Clayton”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Searchers”, “Shadow of the Vampire”,  “The Bad Lieutenant”.  Nothing too crazy, re: anything by Ken Russell or (shudder) “Eraserhead”.

And for reading material, Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival and Graham Hancock’s Supernatural.  Far-fetched stuff?  Pseudo-science?  To me, what these lads propose is nowhere near as crazy as some of the notions held by billions of people of all faiths around the world.  I am intrigued by what triggered that “monolith moment”, when our kind first opened their eyes to the possibility and mystery of the world and took a crucial evolutionary step, moving further away from their humble origins and toward a spectacular destiny.  This transformation coincided with the earliest cave art and the enactment of burial rituals, a species awakening to the existence of other realms and principalities.

Mebbe Bill Hicks is right and a certain humble fungus, naturally occurring, is responsible.  I guess we’d need a time machine to find out for sure.  Intriguing thought, though…

I suppose when all is said and done, my time alone is therapeutic, cathartic.  I miss out on a chance to hang out with good folks, do some boating and fishing in some of the most gorgeous scenery this country has to offer.  But the soul-searching, self-Inquisition and psychic ass-kicking blows off steam, relieves the accumulated pressures that accompany the creative life.  In my solitude, I can confront my demons and it’s a no-holds-barred, no quarter given bloodbath.  It’s not pleasant but it is necessary.  All part of the ongoing struggle to define myself as an artist, to better delineate the precepts and ideals I live by, requiring me to identify aspects within me that are working against those higher purposes and undermining my essential faith in the worthiness of my endeavors.  Demons, indeed, with hideous countenances, avid, savage expressions and appetites.  They are the worst parts of me and during the next few days I shall brawl, joust and treat with them, in the end probably settling for another draw, a few more months of relative peace on the emotional/spiritual front.

You say that’s not much of a bargain but, then, clearly your demons aren’t nearly as unreasonable, their intentions not as deliberately malign.

For that, count yourself lucky.

You are very fortunate indeed.

Photos by Sherron Burns

“The Last Hunt”–Coming Soon!

Well, gang, I can’t keep it secret any more.  My next book is coming along nicely and I’m anticipating a late October release.  Right around my birthday.  I’m working hard to make that happen.

But here’s the thing:  The Last Hunt is a western.

You heard me.  I’m talking about hard-bitten gunslingers, tall, wide vistas, ornery horses, evil black hats, the whole bit.

Oh, sure, you say, but it’ll be like some kinda weird Cormac McCarthy hybrid, right?  A whacked out, modernistic take on the Wild West, standing the entire genre on its head.

Nope, nope and…nope.

Y’see, I happen to love westerns. I don’t look down on the genre, relegate it to second-class status. I grew up watching Clint Eastwood and John Wayne movies.  I enjoy reading the novels of Elmer Kelton and Richard S. Wheeler.  They’re superb writers, regardless of categories and classifications.

I’m saddened by the cinematic decline of the western—the last truly great cowboy flick I saw was “The Long Riders”, made back in 1980. “The Unforgiven” (1992) was a decent movie but far too earnest and over-long. “The Long Riders” was the shit.

And since then there’ve been remakes and abominations like “Young Guns”—westerns by people who’ve never been near a horse in their lives and whose knowledge of the Old West is, put kindly, superficial. Hollywood has tried to update westerns, reinvent them with big name stars and budgets that would make even Michael Cimino swoon…but they’ve lost the spirit.  Sam Peckinpah and John Ford had a real grasp of those who pioneered the land west of the Mississippi, their contrary natures, the sort of valor and resolution Alan LeMay refers to in a quote that precedes his classic novel, The Searchers:

“These people had the kind of courage that may be the finest gift of man:  the courage of those who simply keep on, and on, doing the next thing, far beyond all reasonable endurance, seldom thinking of themselves as martyred, and never thinking of themselves as brave.”

In the course of writing The Last Hunt, by pure chance I happened across a reproduction of a William R. Leigh painting called “The Warning Shadow”. It was another one of those too-amazing-to-be-a-coincidence moments (and I should know, I’d had a few of them).  The image was perfect for my book—but I had a dickens of a time tracking down who owned the rights.  Finally, I was put in touch with the Rockwell Museum of Western Art (in Corning, New York) and Bobby Rockwell helped me secure permission to use the painting.  Mr. Leigh’s artworks are highly prized, very collectible and I’m honored to have “The Warning Shadow” on my cover.

The cover accompanying this post is, I hasten to say, a mere mockup…but it gives you a fair idea of what to expect.  Once our designer, Chris Kent, has a crack at it, the cover will look even better.

As for plot details, er, I think I’ll keep that to myself for now.  When it gets closer to publication date I’ll be more forthcoming.  Hoping the novel will be popular with fans of the western genre as well as people who just love a fast, entertaining read.  Like my last two novels, I think The Last Hunt has a lot of cross-over appeal, the potential to draw a wide variety of readers.

I’ve spent the past three weeks going through the second draft and I like what I’m seeing.  It’s a short novel, around 50,000 words, and it moves along at an exciting clip.  Good, solid protagonist and memorable supporting players.  By the time this book is released in the late fall, it’s gonna hum.

So stay tuned, check in every once in awhile for updates and further developments.  Maybe even an excerpt or two, just to whet your appetite.

Yeah, I know, a western.  But, trust me, it’s a helluva tale…

Permission to Read

manuscriptI’m a writer. But the printed word isn’t merely my vocation, my bread and butter; it has been, from an early age, a constant companion, confidante… and refuge. It gives my life purpose and direction, helps define me and makes me who I am.

I’ve always been a reader. For diversion and escape, yes, certainly, but I also possess an insatiable desire to know, learn everything I can about other people and places, give in to possibility, open myself up to astonishment. As a child I discovered that the ability to suspend disbelief for prolonged periods of time was a valuable coping mechanism, a life skill they didn’t teach in school.

I read anything I could lay my hands on. Remember the Companion Library series? Two classic kids’ books printed back to back: Heidi and Black Beauty. Hans Brinker and Tom Sawyer. We had the entire set and once I finished them, I scanned the rest of our modest collection, plucking out anything that looked halfway promising. I can recall spending many a rainy afternoon with the likes of Zane Grey, John Buchan and Daphne DuMaurier.

bradburyRemained a bookworm through my teens, acquainting myself with the work of Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick. They were the guys who inspired me to scratch out my first short stories. Crass imitations of far better authors; calling those early efforts “juvenilia” is being excessively kind.

But I caught the writing bug and what followed was a long apprenticeship that continues to this day. My first sales came in my early 20’s, to CBC Radio and a now-defunct literary magazine called Rubicon. Writing was no longer a hobby, it was an obsession. “The pain I can’t live without,” as my colleague Robert Penn Warren puts it.

Even after twenty-five years the process of creation, committing words to paper, is still a source of profound mystery to me…perhaps even magic. At the end of the day, when I look at what I’ve written, I get goosebumps. I have no firm recollection of composing those pages. In truth, I’m no closer to understanding how and why I write than I was when I first started out, all those years ago.

But here’s the strange thing: while I continue to revere fine writing and apply myself, day by day, year after year, to the service of literature, the amount of reading I do has declined precipitously in the last couple of years.

Now, as I’m sure you’ll understand, that’s a hard admission for a man in my line of work to make.

rivalsIn partial defense, I add that I do read a fair amount for research purposes, books and magazine articles, not to mention the endless hours spent on-line, Googling like crazy. I like to read non-fiction to get my mind warmed up in the morning. Something historical, twenty or thirty pages over breakfast before heading upstairs to my office and commencing work.

But reading for pleasure, picking up a book for the sake of killing a few hours, immersed in a fictional universe? For a considerable length of time that notion hasn’t held much appeal. I’ve found other activities, diversions to occupy me.

It’s no coincidence: since 2007, I have enjoyed a period of remarkable productivity in terms of my writing–two novels completed, a couple of radio plays, short stories, essays. That productivity comes at a steep price, i.e. many long hours sequestered away in that little room at the top of the stairs.

When I finally lurch out of my office in the late afternoon or early evening I’m bleary-eyed, soft-headed with fatigue, barely sentient. Words. I’ve spent the last eight or ten hours staring at words, wrestling with and endlessly rearranging words, so many bloody words

welshAnd so settling into our big arm chair with the latest Ian McEwan or Irvine Welsh doesn’t interest me. Sorry, lads. At that point I want to hang out with my family, catch up on their lives. As well as being an author guy, I’m also a husband and father. Those responsibilities are important to me.

Then, as it gets on into the evening, I’ll chill out with a glass or two of scotch, pop in a “South Park” DVD or an old “Black Adder” episode. Later, in bed, I might get through another ten pages of that non-fic book before my eyes refuse to stay open a moment longer and I reach over and turn out the light…

How did a lifelong reader descend to this, treating books like a luxury, an indulgence, rather than a necessity? Holding off starting a new novel by a favorite author because I don’t want to “waste” an afternoon reading it.

Shame on me.

And I feel worse when I check out on-line forums and see how much the real bibliophiles are reading. The sheer amount of books these people claim to go through is ridiculous, unbelievable, impossible. They have to be lying. When do they have time to, oh, y’know, work, sleep, interact with their families?

Their devotion to books is inspiring—to the extent that I had decided to amend my ways. I’ve got shelves and shelves of wonder-filled books and I’m giving myself permission, here and now, to spend every free moment I can rediscovering my all-consuming passion for reading. No movie or other media can move me like a good book can. Nothing else gives me that sensawunda.

whisperAnd I’m going to do my best to ignore that niggling, insistent voice bemoaning the valuable time reading takes away from my own writing. Pay no attention…or, better yet, counter with the argument that it was through reading that I learned everything I know (what little that amounts to) about writing. Reading a well-crafted book is a form of professional development, damnit! How can I grow and improve as an author unless I acquaint myself, firsthand, with the work of gifted colleagues who are breaking new ground in character, structure and narrative? Closely studying their sentences, the way they frame their thoughts.

As a child, I recognized the power and majesty contained in words. Reading untethered my imagination and charged my creative energies. I dearly wanted to do what my literary heroes did, tell a tall tale that would hold readers in its thrall. Make them forget who they were, all their problems, the fears bedevilling them. That was the initial impetus.

I aspired to be the next L. Frank Baum or Arthur Conan Doyle. Creator of something that would live forever.

A story for the ages…and the ageless child inside us all.

child


Copyright, 2009  Cliff Burns  (All Rights Reserved)