NEW HOME FOR THE BLOG

My re-mastered blog is now to be found on my new website, “Swords & Specters: The Novels of Mike Sirota.” Enjoy!

If you are currently a WordPress.com Follower, you will still be able to view my new blog posts in the Reader, but if you would like to receive an email notification (and make sure you don’t miss a single post), you can visit the new website and simply Subscribe to the blog. You’ll only receive an email when a new blog post has been published.

if you are currently an Email Follower, you will still receive an email notification when a new blog post comes out, as you always have.

 

Old Sci-Fi Film Still Shines

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day posterIn a recent post about movie quotes I used the most familiar one from the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Though I hadn’t seen the movie in a long time, I still remembered the alien catch-phrase from it: “Klaatu barada nikto.” So I decided the time had come to revisit an old friend, and after watching it I realized that its message still resonated today, over six decades later.

                                                                “WE COME IN PEACE”

The military welcomes Klaatu...

  The military welcomes Klaatu…

Paranoia ruled in 1951, what with WWII only a few years in the rearview mirror, the Korean War underway, and the Cold War causing folks to look for Commies in their closets. Into this world, a flying saucer lands in Washington, DC. As stunned citizens—and armed soldiers—look on, the saucer opens up and out steps a hooded humanoid named Klaatu (the fine British actor, Michael Rennie), followed by a huge metallic robot he calls Gort. He professes peace, but when he presents a device meant as a gift for the President, a nervous soldier shoots him. Gort proceeds to zap all the weapons, which sends the masses scurrying but does not injure anyone. With the military’s apologies, Klaatu is taken to Walter Reed Hospital for treatment as Gort stays motionless by the spaceship.

When an emissary from the President visits Klaatu the next day, we see that the alien

No restricted airspace back then.

No restricted airspace back then.

has already healed himself with some miraculous salve—child’s play where he comes from. His request is that the President summon the heads of state from every country for an important message that will affect everyone on Earth. Given all the political hate and mistrust, this is impossible, Klaatu is told. He also realizes that they’ve made him a prisoner.

ORDINARY PEOPLE

In an effort to better understand earthlings, Klaatu escapes and, calling himself “Mr. Carpenter,” takes a room at a boarding house. There, both on television and radio and in the newspapers, he experiences the media sensationalizing the fact that the “monster” from the spaceship is at large and more than likely to suck out everyone’s brains or zap them with death rays. What? The media blowing a story out of proportion over sixty years ago? Right; that has never changed—think Y2K or Ebola, among a million others.

Klaatu befriends a widow named Helen Benson (Patricia Neal, an Academy Award winner) and her young son, Bobby. When Helen leaves to spend a day with her asshole boyfriend, Tom, Bobby shows “Mr. Carpenter” the town. In the film’s most poignant scene, Bobby takes Klaatu to visit his soldier dad’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The alien is stunned to see the numerous headstones and learn that just about all those buried there had died in wars.

SCIENCE TRUMPS POLITICS

After a visit to the flying saucer and a stop at the Lincoln Memorial, where Klaatu is impressed by the words of our sixteenth president, he asks Bobby who he thinks the world’s greatest living person might be. The boy’s answer: Professor Barnhardt, a renowned scientist. He takes Klaatu to Barnhardt’s house. The professor is out, but Klaatu sees an incomplete mathematical equation on a blackboard, adds the answer—piece of cake for him—and leaves his address with the housekeeper.

The boarding house residents are curious about "Mr. Carpenter."

The boarding house residents are curious about “Mr. Carpenter.”

That evening, Barnhardt sends a car for Klaatu. They meet, and the alien reveals himself and explains his mission. His is one of numerous peaceful planets that fear our world, having created atomic power, will eventually develop space travel and bring its warlike ways into the galaxy. If the Earth doesn’t get its act together, it risks being eliminated. Barnhardt understands, and he promises to summon all of the world’s greatest minds to receive the message and take it back to their respective countries. He also suggests that Klaatu arrange a worldwide demonstration of power that will scare the crap out of everyone without harming a soul.

PHONE HOME

Late the next night, Bobby sees “Mr. Carpenter” leave the boarding house. Curious, he follows him. Klaatu returns to the spaceship and uses a flashlight to signal Gort, who knocks the guards on duty unconscious. He then enters the craft, and Bobby, scared shitless, runs home. Once inside, this ET phones home to arrange the demonstration with his people.

Bobby waits up for his mother, who had been out on a date with Tom, and frantically tells his tale. Helen thinks her son is delusional, but Tom, searching Klaatu’s room, finds some evidence that might support the story. They decide to sleep on it.

Klaatu makes the decision to confide in Helen, and just before noon the following day he seeks her out where she works. They get into an elevator, and as he spills the beans, the power goes off—not only in the elevator but everywhere in the world. This is the demonstration he’d arranged. Only essential power—planes in the air, hospitals, etc.—remain on, showing what the aliens are capable of.

The blackout ends half an hour later, but by this time there is major panic. Helen tells Klaatu to go back to the boarding house and wait there until it is time to address the top minds that Prof. Barnhardt has summoned to Washington. She then seeks out Tom to tell him to keep his mouth shut, but the asshole, seeing the glory in being the one to nail the alien, calls the military. Helen tells Tom to fuck off—in a 1951 way, of course.                                                     

RESSURECTION

Let’s call a spoiler alert on the rest of this. Helen races to the boarding house to get Klaatu and take him to Barnhardt’s house, where he can hide out until the meeting later that day. The military takes up pursuit of the taxi they’re in, and Klaatu tells

Gort tries to bring Klaatu back to life.

Gort tries to bring Klaatu back to life.

Helen that if anything happens to him, she must go to the robot and say, “Klaatu barada nikto,” otherwise it will destroy the Earth.

Sure enough, the soldiers kill Klaatu. Helen heads for the spaceship, where she sees Gort awaken and zap two guards. She recites the well-known line as it comes for her next, saving her from disintegration. Instead, it carries her into the ship then trundles off to retrieve Klaatu’s body from where the military is holding it. Before Helen’s stunned eyes Gort reanimates the corpse. Klaatu tells her that the resurrection is temporary; even his advanced people cannot cheat death.

Klaatu issues a warning to Earth before hitting the road.

Klaatu issues a warning to Earth before hitting the road.

Outside, Barnhardt and the great minds have gathered for the meeting, not knowing that Klaatu had been killed. Helen and Klaatu soon emerge from the saucer, and the alien makes an impassioned speech for the countries of Earth to not bring their violent tendencies to the stars when they inevitably perfect space travel. His world and others have given the power of enforcement to a race of robots like the indestructible Gort. They’ll be watching you, he says. Engage in peaceful exploration, no problem. Otherwise, say goodbye to planet Earth.

With a smile and a wave at Helen, Klaatu gets back into the spaceship. How long he’ll remain alive is open to speculation—but no matter. The craft fades into the blackness of space, leaving a lot of chastened people behind. End of story.

A powerful message, to be sure. Let’s hope that future generations won’t have to learn it the hard way.

STONE WOMAN

My new historical novel, Stone Woman, is now available in both eBook and paperback on Amazon. Anna Lee Waldo, author of the mega-bestseller, Sacajawea, says, “Stone Woman is an enthralling novel with fast-moving action, romance, and historical detail. Winema is the wilderness—its strength, its savagery, and its untamed power. She is as beautiful and tender as her name translates: Woman of the Brave Heart.”

Let It Go

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No, this post is not about a song from Frozen. (Great song, though.) I imagine you all know the old saying that begins, “If you love something, let it go.” Well, that’s exactly what I have just done with a historical novel, titled Stone Woman that—for me—has been a labor of love for thirty-plus years. Let me explain.

ONE PROJECT LED TO ANOTHER

During the early 1980s I decided to write my first horror novel—working title, The StoneWoman_eBook_110414Modoc Well. The story takes place in northern California, near the Oregon border, and involves a demon suggested by the mythology of the Modocs, a semi-nomadic indigenous People who for centuries roamed that area of the two states. (Bantam ultimately published the novel in 1991 as The Well, and I republished it a couple of years ago under its original title.) Since the first few chapters would take place during the 1850s, I did my due diligence as a professional writer and undertook a great deal of research on the Modocs, a tribe about which I knew little.

What I discovered blew me away and, quite honestly, transcended all fiction.

The whole time I worked on the horror novel, I could not get the real story of the Modocs out of my head. I even wrote a “statement” chapter in The Modoc Well in which my main character takes his family to the Lava Beds National Monument, site of the Modoc War with the U.S. Government. There, he gives them a brief overview of what happened to the People. (Have a look at my post: “The Modocs: Reality and Myth,” for that story.)

                                                                          THE SHORT VERSION

Winema, "Woman of the Brave Heart"

Winema, “Woman of the Brave Heart”

The Modoc War took place over a period of six months spanning 1872-73. Stone Woman (subtitled Winema and the Modocs) covers the two decades preceding the war through about four months of its aftermath. What happened to the Modocs was, quite frankly, a microcosm of just about all other indigenous People on our continent. See if this sounds familiar.

White man shows up, professes peace, wishes only to share the land. White man decides he wants most of the land, confines indigenous People to smaller, less fertile areas called reservations. Indigenous People rebel, fight bravely for the right to exist as they have always done. Indigenous People are defeated, many killed, their way of life taken from them forever. Replace the words “indigenous People” with the name of just about any North American tribe, and the story is the same—as it was for the People known as Modocs.

But these People did not go easily. And therein lies their amazing story. A small tribe to begin with, the Modoc fighting force consisted of just over fifty braves, assisted by their squaws. Led by their courageous, enigmatic chief, Captain Jack, the Modocs held upwards of a thousand soldiers, civilian militia, and other Indians at bay for most of those six months from their impenetrable Stronghold in the foreboding Lava Beds. Nor did they lose a single brave during the first four months, while their attackers suffered many casualties. Tribal dissension and a lack of food, water, and ammunition finally did them in.

                                                         A WAR STORY…A LOVE STORY

Captain Jack

       Captain Jack

I thought that my interest in doing this story might wane after I finished the horror novel. On the contrary, it would simply not let go. I wanted to do another horror novel, but by the early eighties the market for horror had already peaked and was now in decline. Besides, I could not stop thinking about the Modocs, and while I knew that it would be a massive undertaking, I began more intensive research in advance of beginning the project.

But what approach to take? I did not want to write another history—there were a number of them in print, published by small presses with little distribution or sales. Besides, I was—and always will be—a novelist, so fictionalizing the story was a no-brainer. An easy decision, to be sure, considering that some remarkable “characters” involved in the history had been revealed during my research. I just needed to bring them to life.

Stone Woman is presented primarily through two POVs. Winema is a Modoc woman—a young girl, actually, when the story begins. Frank Riddle is a Kentuckian who comes to California as a teen during the Gold Rush. How this unlikely pair overcomes the taboos of their respective cultures to fall in love is a story worthy of a romance novel. But told within the context of the storm brewing around them for close to two decades—the conflict between whites and Modocs, and the deterioration of an uneasy peace—the story of Winema and Frank becomes even more compelling. Their roles during all those years in helping maintain the peace, and subsequently their efforts as interpreters and negotiators during the war, make them unforgettable “characters.”

BUT WHY SO LONG?

Good question. To begin with, I held a full-time job and had three young daughters, limiting my time. Second, back then I wrote my books on an old electric typewriter, a slow process. And third, my initial draft of what was then called Dreams of Stone numbered 240,000 words. That is not a misprint. Needless to say, just writing it took a few years.

Winema and Frank Riddle, with son Jeff and other Modoc warriors.

Winema and Frank Riddle, with son Jeff and other Modoc warriors.

Then came some family issues (you know what kind; Tammy Wynette sang about it and spelled it out), which stopped me from writing for a couple of years. Then came a short-lived run of success, in which I published a couple horror novels with Bantam and three science fiction/satire novels with Berkley (though I continued to tweak the Modoc novel). Then came my self-imposed seventeen-year hiatus from writing (still tweaking, but minimally). Finally, the last four years, during which I published three new novels and did some major serious tweaking on what I now called Stone Woman. I “tweaked out” 90,000 words, the length of an average novel, getting it down to a manageable (for a historical) 150,000 words.

And now, at last, it’s time to LET IT GO.

Despite the overview I gave you here, this is an incredibly multi-layered story that oftentimes lends credence to the saying, Truth is stranger than fiction. I added a few characters, and inserted dialogue that may or may not have been spoken. Otherwise, Stone Woman offers a real look into the culture of a little-known People and tells of their courageous efforts to defend the life they had always known. I hope that you enjoy it. The eBook is now available on Amazon Kindle; the paperback will follow.

Write Well, Not Fast

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Okay, this week I’m going to be a curmudgeon—something that I do quite well, actually. There are organizations, conferences, workshops—whatever—that stress sitting down with your laptops on fire and writing novels just as fast as you can. Write 5,000 words over a weekend. Or better still, write 50,000 words in thirty days. As a professional novelist and writing coach of nearly four decades, I disagree with this method of helping writers, or wannabe writers, to explore their creativity. Let me explain.

For starters, the reason I’m bringing this up right now is that November has been books 2designated National Novel Writing Month by a nonprofit organization of the same name—though better known as NaNoWriMo. They urge participants to write a “50,000-word novel” during the thirty days of the month, with a specific deadline of “11:59 p.m. on November 30th.” (Forget the fact that 50,000 words do not constitute a novel.)

WHO NEEDS A STINKING DEADLINE?

Consider this: Can you put a deadline on creativity? Can you put a word count goal on imagination? I don’t think so. Deadlines for novelists should be reserved for those few successful ones whose publishers want their next bestsellers written just as quickly as possible. For the rest of us, WHAT we write is far more important than HOW FAST we write it.

Being on social media I’m linked with many writers—published, self-published, unpublished, or otherwise. Quite a few proudly list their word count for the day, which does not impress me at all. You wrote 2,500 words today—so what? Was the scene any good? I would rather see a solid scene of 500 words that took some time and thought than a scene five times as long that will require extensive editing and revising down the road. To simplify, I reiterate the title of this post: write well, not fast.

A NUMBERS GAME

My opinion on this, to tell the truth, has evolved over time. I used to keep track of my daily word count—even before I had a computer that did it for me. That had to do partly with needing to know if I was staying within a publisher’s parameters of 70,000 words or whatever. But I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t important to me back then.

If numbers impress you, then how about this? I wrote a 70,000-word sword & sorcery novel, The Twentieth Son of Ornon, in twenty days. Over a period of about ten years I wrote seventeen or eighteen novels, most of which were published.

So what did that mean? It meant that I wrote fast; it didn’t mean that I wrote well.

Ornon Front OnlySure, I wrote the first draft of The Twentieth Son of Ornon in twenty days, but subsequent drafts to polish the work took almost two months more. Then, the publisher had me rewrite the opening; another couple of weeks. And decades later, when I reissued the book as The Sons of Ornon, I thought the original writing was crap and did a serious makeover on the book. Ditto most of the books in that ten-year span.

I’ve worked with hundreds of writers over the years, and I have never told any of them that they write too slowly. I have only cared about the final product. Writers have come to me with their first novels that they’ve worked on for five years, six years, even longer. Others could pump out a 90,000-word first draft in six months or less. Some were quite proud of the latter—until I found enough wrong with their story to require another six months to a year of revisions before they got it right.

GETTING STARTED

These well-meaning organizations that emphasize word count and deadlines profess that they want to jump-start writers. To me, the risk is great that the opposite will happen. A person has been thinking about writing a book for years but hasn’t been able to start. Give them a deadline, and a word count minimum, and there could come a time—early in the program—when their frustration kicks in and they walk away from it, possibly forever. This seems self-defeating.

I’ve taught basic novel-writing classes at various educational institutions in Southern BooksCalifornia, which were often attended by those still thinking about writing. They have great ideas, or life experiences, whatever. So why haven’t they begun? Because they have jobs, and a family, and life is hectic, and 75,000-80,000 words seem so daunting, and (fill in the excuse du jour.)

What I tell them is this: THINK SMALL. Write one page a day. A double-spaced manuscript page is approximately 250 words, the same number of words you see here in red. If you do this every day, in about ten months you’ll have completed the first draft of a 75,000-word novel. Ten months—isn’t that doable?

For just about all of them, the answer was yes. And while some stuck to that exact formula, others found that a page a day just didn’t cut it when they were into a scene, and the 250 words grew to 350, then 500, and more. Some of my most successful writers began this way and now have multiple books published.

YOUR THOUGHTS, PLEASE

As my Parrothead guru once sang, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. Seriously, I’m for anything that will get a person with a potential great story started writing. I just don’t feel that deadlines and word counts are the way to go.

I welcome your comments on this, pro and con. If you have a great deal to say, I might use it as part or all of a future post. Happy writing!

“…The Screaming Of The Lambs”

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Fun time again with some memorable movie lines that span quite a few decades. Enjoy!

"Dinner, anyone?"

“Dinner, anyone?”

“You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs.” Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) has many notable lines in the 1991 Academy Award winner, The Silence of the Lambs.

“Major Strasser has been shot… round up the usual suspects.” Captain Renault (Claude Rains) issues this casual order in the 1942 classic, Casablanca.

"We come in peace...or not."

“We come in peace…or not.”

“Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!” Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) commands a pre-programmed robot from outer space to stand down and not destroy the Earth in the 1951 science fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. (This movie is sixty-three years old? Gawd!)

“Hate makes you impotent, love makes you crazy, somewhere in the middle you can survive.” Larry (Billy Crystal) offers some sage advice in the 1987 comedy, Throw Momma from the Train.

“I came across time for you, Sarah. I love you. I always have.” Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) during one of the (few) tender moments in 1984’s The Terminator. (Wait, Mike, you’re not quoting an Arnold line?!)

“Can you think of a plan that doesn’t involve your ten-year-old sister joining the army?” Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) to his son in the 2005 remake of War of the Worlds. (I don’t care how old the 1953 version is; the sound of those death rays still creeps me out!)

invasion poster“They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, You’re next…!” A rather disturbed Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) tries to warn the world of imminent invasion in one of my all-time favorite flicks from 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (See my post, “They’re Here Already!”)

“A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Just about every line from Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in the 1960 Hitchcock classic, Psycho, is quotable. (See my post, Psycho Memories.)

“Whoa. Wait a minute, Doc. Are you trying to tell me that my mother has got the hots for me?” Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) to Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in 1985’s Back to the Future.

“It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to night posterlife and committing acts of murder. A widespread investigation of funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead have been returning to life and seeking human victims. It’s hard for us here to be reporting this to you, but it does seem to be a fact.” A TV newscaster renders this chilling report in the 1968 groundbreaking horror film, Night of the Living Dead.

Lines such as these are what make watching movies so much fun. You’re always welcome to share some of yours.

Guest Post: Circle Of Reign

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Hello, my name is Writer Mike, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book. (Sorry Jacob, I couldn’t resist.)

I must say, Jacob Cooper’s epic fantasy novel, Circle of Reign, IS quite circle of reignamazing, and I’m glad he found his way to me for some polishing. Michele Scott (A.K. Alexander), one of my most successful writers, initially worked with Jacob before referring him to me, and I’m pleased that she did. His novel, published this past summer, has already met with much critical success. Here is Jacob’s own account of his path to publication.

 BUILDING ON A DREAM

Circle of Reign is my first novel, Book 1 of The Dying Lands Chronicle. I don’t think I knew what I was in for when I started writing it. On my way home from work in September 2009, a scene popped into my head based on a dream I had years before. A young girl, running for her life through a forest, being pursued by an assassin for something she innocently stumbled upon. The assassin could track her by the fear she was emitting…emotional scent. As the scene played out before me, I could feel the danger, the adrenalin, and it moved me. When I got home, the opening of Circle of Reign just flowed out in about twenty minutes.

Around this time, I had just finished the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson andCOR Iskele was really in awe. I don’t think a book series had inspired me so much before Mistborn. Michael Kramer did an amazing job on the narration and instantly became my favorite fantasy narrator. With that still fresh in my mind, Circle of Reign was easily imaginable to me in a fantasy setting.

For me, creativity has always come when inspired by someone else’s work. Music, poetry, business, writing…whenever I hear of or see something fantastic, I have a drive to create something in that field. It’s an outlet for me and my way of admiring great work. I don’t think I intended Circle of Reign to become the first book in a trilogy, but over the years I kept adding scenes, and the story eventually unfolded.

Once I decided to fully jump in and write a book, I had no idea how hard it would really be. Perhaps that’s because I was building a new world, new cultures, new religions, new slang, new history. All of that is crucial to epic fantasy and must be believable. Further, you have to be consistent with all that world building. It is not an easy thing! On top of that, I’m a college dropout and have never taken a writing class, though I’ve always enjoyed creative writing. Add a few kids into the mix with a fulltime job, and there were definitely some barriers to overcome. Nonetheless, I was excited about the story and believed in it enough to lose sleep writing it. Lots of sleep.

“A DOSE OF HUMILITY”

When I first started working with Mike Sirota, I actually thought I was pretty close to being done. I sent him the manuscript, and a couple weeks later got a thirty-page evaluation. I knew there would be constructive feedback, but I wasn’t prepared for the shredding that occurred. The good news is that Mike did get engrossed in the characters and story, but it took him two-thirds of the book to get there! Talk about getting a dose of humility.

Well, I should have been prepared for that feedback. As I look back on that original manuscript, I just kind of cringe now at thinking it was close. But, Mike was COR artencouraging and helped me craft the story to a much higher level. He believed in it, not something he says lightly. Sometimes he’d challenge me on something and I would be resistant. He’d say, “Okay, that’s fine. You’re the god of your own book. Let’s move on.” But after a few days of stewing on his advice that I had rejected (rare as it was), I found myself grumbling and admitting that he had been right. The best part about being challenged and giving yourself time to think about it is that new storylines, scenes, and characters can come out of that. I know that happened for me.

Something that’s cliché for the fantasy genre in general is a magic system. Circle of Reign is no exception. But, I was terrified of having the word “magic” in the book, so I came up with “influence” instead, which certainly made me think differently about powers and abilities. Much of the magic in the book is subtle and doesn’t appear to be supernatural to those in the world, much like we don’t call the ability to hold a piece of plastic up to our ear and speak with someone across the world magic; but when you really stop and think about cell phones, two hundred years ago it would have been magic to those people. Four hundred years ago you would have been burned at the stake for that ability. So, the influence of the world of Våleira is more science based in large part, but not all. There is definitely still that supernatural flare here and there.

ALTAR OF INFLUENCE

I think anyone who likes the works of Anthony Ryan, Patrick Rothfuss, Robert Jordan, altar of influenceand Brandon Sanderson might enjoy Circle of Reign. The sales have been strong for a self-published, first-time author, and the reviews have been generally positive. That’s been gratifying and encouraging. Late in October, Altar of Influence: The Orsarian War is scheduled to be released. This is actually a “prelude” to The Dying Lands Chronicle. The Red Grove, a short story set during the timeline of Circle of Reign, should be released around the same time. Michael Kramer also did the narration for these audiobooks and his performance is fantastic, as always. Song of Night, Book 2 in the series, is scheduled for release summer 2015.

 Circle of Reign is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, as well as Audible.com. Jacob’s website is http://circleofreign.com/ You can follow him on twitter, @authorjacobcoop and Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/JacobCooperCOR

Short And Sweet II

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Just got back from a short—but real sweet—trip to Idyllwild, a town over a mile high in Southern California’s imposing San Jacinto Mountains. Not that I ever need an excuse to go there, but in this case we made the trip to celebrate a significant birthday for my bride. Jacqueline loves the town just as much as I do. We stayed in an isolated

Our hideaway in the woods.

        Our hideaway in the woods.

cabin amid the pines and cedars, where the only noise was the chittering of bushy-tailed squirrels and the tap tap of countless woodpeckers.

Idyllwild is a magnet for creative folks, as evidenced by a number of art galleries along the main drag and outside of town. There are plenty of unique shops (the Funky Bazaar blew my mind), and you won’t go hungry while you’re checking them all out, what with the array of restaurants there. (The Red Kettle has been in Idyllwild since the dawn of time, and their breakfasts are to die for.)

Tahquitz Rock is an Idyllwild landmark.

Tahquitz Rock is an Idyllwild landmark.

And how about us writers? Well, if you can’t get inspired in Idyllwild, you may have difficulty finding your mojo just about anywhere else. I’m currently working on a book with one of my long-time writers that mostly takes place in the fictional town of Cedar Valley, a thinly disguised Idyllwild. And a long, long time ago I used the town as the model for Oak Glen in an unpublished sword & planet novel.

Anyway, I didn’t want to get into a travelogue here. If you’re anywhere in Southern California (or even if you’re not) and haven’t been to Idyllwild, find some time to take the short trip. It’s a two-hour (or less) drive from most places in this part of the state.

THE DEMONOLOGIST

Because most of the time I’m working on one of my own books, or with other writers demonologiston their manuscripts (though less of that these days), I find little time to read for fun and/or illumination. But during the Idyllwild getaway, upon threats of painful injury from Jacqueline, I brought no work with me. Instead, I read a fascinating—and frightening—non-fiction book by Gerald Brittle titled, The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren. If you’ve seen the movie, The Conjuring, or its current prequel, Annabelle, or if you’re familiar with the story of the Amityville house, you probably know about the remarkable Warrens. I intend to write a great deal about them in the not-too-distant future. (And my next read for fun/illumination? Lee Fullbright, your opus is now on top of the stack.)

                               GUEST POST

circle of reignCircle of Reign, an epic fantasy novel by Jacob Cooper, is the first book in The Dying Lands Chronicle. In next week’s guest post Jacob—one of my writers—will talk about the ups and downs along his journey to being published.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

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My dad, Murray Sirota, passed away at age fifty-nine in 1969, when I was just a mere slip of a lad—more or less. We knew it would happen; a couple of months earlier he’d been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, the end result of a lifetime of cigarette smoking, and given six months to live. But the circumstances surrounding the night of his death is the story here—a story that could easily be written off as implausible fiction. I shall explain.

L-r: Murray Sirota, me, Alan Sirota (also deceased), circa 1967

L-r: Murray Sirota, me, Alan Sirota (also deceased), c. 1967

Less than two weeks before he died, my dad had my mother call me to say that he wanted to see me. They lived in Brooklyn; I lived in Ohio. (He did the same with my brother Alan shortly after; terminally ill people know when it is time to put closure on their lives.) I caught the first plane out of Toledo’s airport.

By this time Dad was bedridden and the cancer had taken his vocal cords. On the last day I saw him alive we spent some hours watching his beloved New York Mets (mine too, at the time) beat up on some new team called the San Diego Padres. (The Padres have been my passion for over four decades now.) The Lovable Losers of the 1960s had become the Amazin’ Mets that year, and some pundits even thought that they had a chance at catching the powerful Chicago Cubs. On that note, I said goodbye to my dad for all time.

Well, the pundits were right. On September 10th the Mets had surged to within a half-game of the Cubs and were scheduled to play the Expos in a doubleheader that evening. My mom helped Dad into the living room to watch the games on their larger TV. The Mets won the opener in extra innings and the Cubs lost, putting the Amazins’ into first place. My dad got so excited that he had a massive heart attack and diedamazin' mets. This passionate Mets fan never got to see them win the second game that night. Nor did he get to see them win the World Series a month later. But, I’m sure he knew.

Long after the grieving had passed (does it ever?), I thought: What a way to go! Talk about a true baseball fan. I’d probably choose that same route—maybe right after the Padres win their first World Series? And as an author—well, of course I had to write about it.

My 1991 satirical science fiction novel, Bicycling Through Space and Time—and two sequels—follows the exploits of novelist/ne’er-do-well Jack Miller, a thinly disguised me. In chapter eight, Jack talks about his roots. Here is the paragraph, verbatim.

I was born in White Plains, New York, the only child of Rose and Henry Miller. No, not that Henry Miller, who wrote more books in his life than my father ever read in his. Dad was an unimaginative bean counter for a firm in Manhattan’s garment district, faithfully commuting into the city for three Bicyclingdecades. He died of a massive heart attack when he was fifty-six, and I was eighteen, three months after learning that his two-pack-a-day habit of over forty years had rotted his lungs and left him with incurable cancer. I have to say, for such an uncreative life, he went out in storybook fashion. He died in Yankee Stadium during the fifth inning of a game in which his beloved Yankees were whipping the pants off the hated Red Sox. Pictures of my uncle Jerry doing CPR in the aisle behind third base made the eleven o’clock news, not to mention the early editions of the Post and Daily News.

I’ve said before that writing can be unbelievably cathartic. Of all the books I’ve written, this trilogy allowed me one release after another.

Guest Post: The Hammer Of Witches

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There is a disturbing true story behind the events depicted in The Hammer of Witches, a newly published historical novel by Basque scholar and good friend, Begoña Echeverria, one of my long-time writers. After a brief synopsis, I’ll have Begoña tell that story.

In 1610, a small Basque town is convulsed by accusations of witchcraft. hammer of witchesBased on historical events, The Hammer of Witches tells the incredible story of Maria, a girl determined to honor her mother’s memory by learning to read and improve her lot in life; the priest Salvador Zabaleta, who has sworn to protect Maria but whose own identity is beset by struggles; and the mysterious and sophisticated Sabine Elizalde. As Maria is drawn into their lives and into a series of macabre events, she learns about the depths of her own courage. Drawing a nuanced, detailed, rich portrait of early modern Basque society to tell a gripping story of love, betrayal, and sacrifice in a world turned upside down, The Hammer of Witches delves into the dark places of the human spirit and shows that even in the face of tremendous evil, justice can prevail.

BURNED AT THE STAKE

In 1610 the Spanish Inquisition prosecuted Basque “witches” for their diabolical crimes: offering children to Satan, partaking in masses and sexual escapades with the devil, feasting on human children, and concocting powders to destroy enemies or their crops. Eleven of those accused refused to confess and were burned at the stake, alive or in effigy. Most were women; few, if any, even spoke the language of their accusers. They spoke Basque, unrelated to Spanish or any other language.

Auto de Fe procession.

            Auto de Fe procession.

A warden of the women’s prison told the Inquisitor that he had overheard its star witness encouraging her aunt to make a false confession, for the only way out of the Secret Prison was to tell the Inquisitors what they wanted to hear. Both aunt and niece were pardoned at the “Auto de Fe” (Act of Faith) ceremony, in which their fellow accuseds were burned. The suspicious circumstances surrounding their confessions were not reported until years later.

They might not have been reported at all were it not for Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frías. Though too late to save those burned, he was skeptical about the existence of witchcraft from the start. Just four months before the Auto de Fe, his was the only vote against the death penalty for the eight Basques who continued to deny the charges of witchcraft against them. He recommended they be questioned again under torture instead, this being the only proof the Inquisition would accept of a witch’s innocence. Only two of the deniers were given that chance, a priest and monk, who maintained their innocence despite the torture. Their punishment consisted of exile to monasteries outside Navarre and banishment for life from their home diocese. Their own mothers were not so fortunate: both were burned at the stake alongside two other women and two men in front of 30,000 people.

CREATING A SPECTACLE

People came from all over Spain to witness the spectacle; the Inquisition had advertised the event for days beforehand. King Philip III himself had inquired about the date of the Auto de Fe, but ultimately had been unable to attend.

Had he done so, the king might have become as convinced as other spectators as to the reality of the witch-sect, for eighteen Basques confessed to being witches that day. Their confessions were read aloud in the town square, one by one. Each “witch” wore the sambenito (the penitential garment) displaying the St. Andrew’s cross, so that those who could not read or hear the sentences—and the witches themselves, who

A sambenito with St. Andrew's cross.

A sambenito with St. Andrew’s cross.

would not have understood the language of the proceedings—would know they had been welcomed back into the Church. (Or would be, once they paid the usual penance: confiscation of their property and a term of prison or banishment). The reading of the sentences took hours. Reports, pamphlets and even a ballad—unfortunately, long lost—detailed the evil-doings to which the witches had confessed.

These made their way back to the Valley of Baztan, where the accusations of witchcraft flamed anew. Vigilantism ran rampant. Children again accused adults of witchcraft and neighbors turned on one another to root the witches out. Some were subjected to the ladder torture: placed between the rungs of a long ladder and forced to drag it behind them, the trailing end would be lifted up and slammed down, hurling the accused on their faces. Others were tied to a bench, head to toe. The rope would be twisted tighter and tighter with a stick, making breathing difficult and causing excruciating pain. A pregnant woman died this way. Many more lost their lives to other methods of torture, often sanctioned by local authorities.

“CONFESS!”

Alarmed, the Inquisition sent Alonso de Salazar Frías to see what could be done. He was armed with an “Edict of Grace,” translated into Basque, granting clemency to those who confessed to witchcraft within a specified time period. Going to great lengths to protect the identities of those who came forward, Salazar was horrified to learn of what the Inquisition had done to secure confessions. A sixteen-year-old boy had been tied naked to a bed and beaten until he confessed—by his own uncle, an agent of the Inquisition. Other children had been boiled in cauldrons until they

An accused "witch" is grilled by the Inquisition.

An accused “witch” is grilled by the Inquisition.

confessed. Two sisters told Salazar their father had held a dagger to their throats until they admitted to being witches and named others. An Inquisition official had told the father to do this; if the girls made such a “voluntary” confession, they would not be punished. Still others had been bribed.

Inquisitor de Salazar Frías came to the only logical conclusion: “There were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked and written about.” And so he put into place an “Edict of Silence,” enjoining people to consult only with Inquisition agents or their parish priest if they “were troubled by their conscience” about witchcraft, so that their suspicions would not become public. In 1617, he reported on the state of affairs among the 1,800 witches supposedly in the area, the 4,000 others suspected of being witches, as well as their dependents and local authorities, all were “in such a state of peace and understanding… that it seems utterly incredible. No one…could have imagined that with the imposition of silence on the witch question it would have been possible to combat the craze to such an extent that today it is as if the problem had never existed.”

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 The daughter of Basque immigrants to California, Begoña Echeverria is a native Basque speaker with a PhD in sociology. A tenured professor at UC Riverside, she has conducted research in the Basque regions of Spain and

Begoña Echeverria

                 Begoña Echeverria

France since her undergraduate career at Stanford University over twenty-five years ago. A playwright and singer, Begoña has written, recorded and performed songs in Basque—featuring “dangerous” women like witches—in the U.S. and abroad with her trio, NOKA: www.chinoka.com She has been interviewed by Vatican Radio and National Public Radio, as well as Basque Country radio stations and publications about her expertise.

The Hammer of Witches is available at Amazon or the Center for Basque Studies, basquebooks.myshopify.com/products/ If you’re in the Pasadena/Los Angeles area, you’ll find it at Vroman’s bookstore.

Guilty Pleasures: Godzilla (1998)

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I watched Godzilla (2014) last week. Perhaps I’ll write about it another time. Quick assessment: not bad, kind of dark—literally and figuratively. A lot of exposition long before you ever see either Godzilla or a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). But it did well, and a sequel is already in the works.

That got me wondering why my favorite Godzilla flick—the 1998 version starring Matthew Broderick—never spawned a sequel. And for that matter, why did I even consider it a Guilty Pleasure? Wow, did my research prove an eye-opener!

godzilla posterOne of my parameters for a Guilty Pleasure film is its box office. Godzilla (1998) grossed $380 million worldwide, nearly three times its budget. No problem there; studios usually jump at the chance to do a sequel for such a moneymaker. But the reviews were uniformly horrible, and worse, the legions of Godzilla groupies hated the film and would not even accept it as part of the Godzilla monster-verse. Japanese actors and filmmakers associated with the Toho franchise walked out of screenings. (The monster didn’t even look like Godzilla, they complained. True; it sort of resembled the creatures from the Alien films.) Theater owners joined fans in insisting that TriStar Pictures not make any sequels. They listened, and by 2003 their options for possible sequels had expired. A cartoon series on TV did continue the storyline for a short time, but that was it.

Good grief, bad reviews? (One reviewer wrote, “The script isn’t just dumbed down, it’s lobotomized.”) Fan loathing? Razzie nominations? (Even some “wins”?) Definitely, Godzilla (1998) is one of my Guilty Pleasures, because—quite frankly—I love the film. I also felt a bit vindicated to learn that it has become something of a minor cult classic. Not that it would matter. I like what I like, and as I’ve always said, I’m easily entertained.

SIZE DOES MATTER

With that as its tagline, here is a quick synopsis (spoiler alert in place). Nuclear testing in French Polynesia irradiates a lizard’s nest, specifically one egg. Many years later a Japanese fishing vessel is attacked by a giant creature. The only survivor, an old man, is questioned by a mysterious Frenchman in Tahiti; the only word he can say is, “Gojira.” (Apparently the Japanese version of Godzilla.)

Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (Broderick) is a government scientist studying radiation’s effect ongodzilla 1 earthworms near Chernobyl. He is suddenly whisked off to Panama for his opinion on giant radioactive footprints, as well as the wreck of the fishing boat, which has huge claw marks all over it. He also meets the Frenchman, a guy named Philippe (Jean Reno), who first says that he’s an insurance investigator. Nick identifies skin samples as those of a mutant reptile spawned by nuclear testing. He also sees a tape of the sole survivor talking about Gojira.

But where is the monster going? That’s what the military wants to know. Godzilla finally shows up in New York City (where else?) and takes in the town, destroying a chunk of Manhattan. Nick suggests they lure it in with tons of fish, which they do—to no avail. But he manages to get a blood sample and determines that the creature, which can reproduce asexually, is pregnant and will likely be looking for a nest. Officials think he’s full of crap.

Nick’s old flame, Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), is a wannabe journalist looking for a story. After making nice with Nick, she steals his tape of the old man on the ship, and Godzilla’s origins become public, despite attempts at a cover-up. For this, Nick is fired and told to pack up. They still don’t believe him about the nest, which could produce numerous little Godzillas.

But Philippe, the Frenchman, believes him. Philippe is head of a secretive French unit bent on keeping his country’s role in the original nuclear tests under wraps. Nick joins this bunch as they seek Godzilla and its nest through old subway tunnels.

"I'll take Manhattan..."

        “I’ll take Manhattan…”

As Audrey sulks about screwing up Nick’s life, her cameraman, “Animal” Palotti (a hilarious Hank Azaria) talks her into going underground to find the nest and prove that Nick was right. Their path closely follows that of Nick and the French guys.

The military lures Godzilla out again, and this time they force it into the Hudson River, where well-armed submarines apparently take it out. As they celebrate, Nick and the others discover the nest—in Madison Square Garden. There are hundreds of eggs, and guess what—they begin to hatch and chase everyone through the Garden. Audrey and Animal join up with Nick and Philippe—the other Frenchmen all become lizard chow—and, after a harrowing escape, they make their way to a broadcast booth. There, Audrey gives the story of her life as she warns the city that Nick was right, that they have a lot more to worry about. Animal takes a shot of the countless little (nine-foot) monsters. The military needs to nuke the Garden, like now.

Again making their way through the mini-Godzillas, the quartet escapes just in time.

Nick and Audrey have not had a fun day.

Nick and Audrey have not had a fun day.

The bombs apparently destroy everything, but do they have time to congratulate themselves? Nope, because Godzilla didn’t die in the Hudson, it only got knocked out, and now it’s back, and so bummed about its offspring all dead. Nick and the others commandeer an abandoned cab and tear ass outta Dodge with the pissed-off reptile at their bumper. The chase culminates atop the Brooklyn Bridge, where Godzilla is put down once and for all. Philippe, after destroying all of Animal’s film footage, fades away into the night, like a good secret agent. Nick and Audrey walk off, looking like lovebirds once again.

Back at the ruins of Madison Square Garden, one egg has survived the bombing. (Well, what did you think?) The mini-Godzilla hatches, roars at the camera—and the end credits roll.

Maybe the critics didn’t appreciate the humor in this version of Godzilla. There’s plenty of it, though not during the most intense scenes. Whatever; I don’t care. I’ll continue to watch Godzilla (1998) at least once a year until the Mother Ship arrives.

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