Category Archives: Writing

A Riverboat's Demise

A Riverboat’s Demise

The lifespan of most riverboats was short. The swirling waters and strong currents in a river presented many dangers. Snags and other obstructions beneath the surface could easily punch a hole in a hull, sinking a boat. Weather could also play a factor. Fierce storms wreaked havoc and winter ice would routinely destroy steamboats.

Steamboat Accidents on the Western Rivers 1811-1851, taken from Steamboats on the Western Rivers, sourced from Cist’s Weekly Advertiser (Cincinnati), July 16, 1852

The natural world wasn’t the only danger. Packets were rarely inspected and with little governmental oversight, many became death traps. All were made of timber and powered by fire-heated boilers, deadly blazes and boiler explosions were common, and the loss of life and property could be catastrophic. Mark Twain’s younger brother Henry Clemens was killed in a boiler explosion on the steamer Pennsylvania in 1858, an event Twain details in Life on the Mississippi.


“A steamer came along, finally, and carried the unfortunates to Memphis, and there the most lavish assistance was at once forthcoming. By this time Henry was insensible. The physicians examined his injuries and saw that they were fatal, and naturally turned their main attention to patients who could be saved.”

—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 20, A Catastrophe


My current project, Coal Belly, is a sprawling weird-west fantasy adventure set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. Riverboats are necessary and ubiquitous, and with their use comes the hazards of operation. A world of riverboats means a world of riverboat wrecks and having a working knowledge of their dangers went a long way toward adding a level of authenticity to my manuscript.

Those packets which survived weather, explosion, and accident rarely operated long. Most boats were worked hard and maintained poorly, and that it took its toll on their lifespan. While a well-maintained riverboat can last decades, most of the boats that operated in the late-1800s lasted between two to five years.

In the 1800s photographic equipment wasn't standard. In place of photographs, many riverboat disasters were depicted by drawings of etchings. Left to Right: Str. Robert E. Lee, 1882, Str. Benjamin Franklin, 1836, Str. Sultana, 1865.
Left to Right: Fire takes the Str. Robert E. Lee killing 21 in 1882, a boiler explosion on the Str. Benjamin Franklin, 1836, The Sultana disaster claimed 1192 lives (perhaps up to 1800) outside Memphis, Tennessee in 1865, it remains one of the worst maritime disasters in United States history.

In the 1800s photographic equipment wasn’t as commonplace as it is today, and most of it wasn’t quick enough to capture riverboat disasters as they happened. In place of photographs, many tragedies were depicted by drawings or etchings. You can see a few above. Photographers, however, did manage to capture images of wrecked boats after they had been damaged, sunk, or destroyed. I’ve assembled a gallery below, you can click on any image to view it larger.


The pictures above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure where they all come (usually the Library of Congress.) But, they’re all old enough to be in the public domain. In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping. I’m happy to answer any questions folks have about any of these images or riverboats in general. (Sometimes it gives me a good excuse to research something.) You can send me an email or leave a comment below. I love comments.

A Riverboat’s Demise is the latest in my series of posts sharing my research for Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts with the links below.


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An Evening With the Maker of Patterns

An Evening With the Maker of Patterns

Freeman Dyson is an academic titan, and it’s hard to fully grasp his impact in the sciences. His work in theoretical physics and mathematics have impacted both fields through much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. He’s influenced science and science fiction alike. (We’ve all read accounts of his theorized Dyson Sphere—it’s common in science fiction and has even shown up recently in the news.) He’s a man whose contemporaries included names like Hans BetheRichard Feynman, and Robert Oppenheimer. So when my friend Steve Leroux and I heard Town Hall Seattle was bringing him here to promote his new autobiography Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters and have a conversation with Neal Stephenson, we jumped at the chance to see him. Yesterday, I shared that we were attending, and some of my readers requested a recap. This is that recap.

Freeman Dyson and Neal Stephenson at Town Hall Seattle
Freeman Dyson and Neal Stephenson at Town Hall Seattle

Dyson is now ninety-four, and while still very sharp, the conversation felt a bit disjointed. Stephenson came very well prepared and managed to guide the discussion to some interesting bits. But it took a while for Dyson to engage and much of the dialogue was dry. That said, I particularly enjoyed Dyson’s stories about his experiences with British Bomber Command during World War II and how it shaped some of his thoughts in regards to theoretical models and practices.

Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters by Freeman Dyson
Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters by Freeman Dyson

My biggest takeaway was Dyson explaining how incredible ideas don’t just come while you’re lying on a beach. They’re a product of hard work. You do the work first, and that will eventually spark the idea. I’ve found myself thinking along these lines as well. Spending more time in silence with my own thoughts and less time drowning my brain with music, podcasts, or audiobooks.

Occasionally Stephenson would read from Dyson’s autobiography—a paragraph from a letter, a bit from a note—that sort of thing. I found Dyson’s writing striking, and I’ll probably get around to picking up his autobiography in the future. While I’m no disciple of his, I do appreciate how his mind works. He’s a fascinating character who has lived an incredible life, and he’s worth getting to know. I was glad to spend an hour listening to him.

You can see a video of the conversation on YouTube.

Eight Writing Tips from Eight Different Writers

Eight Writing Tips from Eight Different Writers

Over the last week, I saw a couple of authors share tips for writing and for whatever reason, they each chose eight as their number. I know there are others who go with more or less, some of which I’ve even highlighted on this blog (Elmore LeonardDave FarlandHeinlein.) I wondered if this was a thing, so I did a little Googling. I found quite a few sets so I figured it’d be fun to gather them up and share them here.

A note before we begin: take everything with a grain of salt. Glean what you can; ignore what doesn’t resonate. What works for one author doesn’t always work for someone else. There is no right path to writing. Be willing to try anything, and figure out your process along the way. It’s easy to get frustrated, but learn to enjoy the discovery, uncovering how you work is part of the fun. So, that said, let’s jump in!


Jeff VanderMeer8 Writing Tips from Jeff VanderMeer

I really appreciate the candid nature of this advice. Unlike others, VanderMeer comes at writing from a very practical standpoint. It’s refreshing.

My Favorite: “Good habits create the conditions for your imagination to thrive.”


Kurt VonnegutKurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules for Writing

If there were a “big eight,” it’d probably be these eight. (I’d theorize that it was Vonnegut who set the precedent.) He doesn’t hold back, and his “rules” clearly serve as guidelines for his razor-sharp prose.

My Favorite: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”


Flannery O'ConnorFlannery O’Connor’s 8 Writing Tips

This set wasn’t assembled by O’Connor but rather gleaned from her work. However, it’s a fascinating insight into the way she worked and why her stories still resonate.

My Favorite: “I suppose I am not very severe criticizing other people’s manuscripts for several reasons, but first being that I don’t concern myself overly with meaning. This may be odd as I certainly believe a story has to have meaning, but the meaning in a story can’t be paraphrased and if it’s there it’s there, almost more as a physical than an intellectual fact.”


John GrishamJohn Grisham’s 8 Do’s & Don’ts

There is a bit of an my-way-or-the-highway style to these “Do’s and Don’ts,” but there are some good approaches within them as well. And one cannot argue with Grisham’s results, but as always do what works for you—write to serve the story.

My Favorite: “Don’t — Keep A Thesaurus Within Reaching Distance”


Neil GaimanNeil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing

Gaiman’s rules are as varied and profound as his own work. But they also come from a place of kindness and empathy. Very much worth a read.

My Favorite: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”


J.K. RowlingJ.K. Rowling’s 8 Rules of Writing

This collection was gleaned from Rowling’s various quotes, and she offers some good advice for those struggling through the difficulties of creation.

My Favorite: “I always advise children who ask me for tips on being a writer to read as much as they possibly can. Jane Austen gave a young friend the same advice, so I’m in good company there.”

But wait… even after you read those rules, I should stress that Rowling didn’t assemble these herself. Like O’Connor above, someone else gathered them from various quotes of hers. However, unlike O’Connor, Rowling was able to hit up Twitter and explain her approach.

While the post is absolutely a collection of things she said, they aren’t hard and fast “rules”—think of them as tips or approaches. As I mentioned above, there are no rules specific to everyone and Rowling would agree. You can read more of her thoughts on writing (pulled from Twitter), right over here.


Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders’ 8 Unstoppable Rules For Writing Killer Short Stories

Personally, I’ve never been interested in writing short stories. But they are a staple of science fiction and fantasy. These eight little rules are a wonderful approach and would be effective for any fiction long or short.

My Favorite: “Fuck your characters up. A little.”


C.S. Lewis8 Writing Tips from C. S. Lewis

Lewis’s tips are very similar to most modern writing advice. Just replace the “radio” with “internet” and magazines with the “internet.” Basically, replace the internet with books, people! Get rid of the internet!

My Favorite: “Read good books and avoid most magazines.”


So that’s it! Perhaps yo—

Wait, though… if the J. K. Rowling’s “rules” weren’t really hers, right?  I mean she said them, sure, but they weren’t her rules per say. (The same argument could be made for O’Conner and Lewis, but they’re not around to tell us any different.) That means I owe you someone else! So, here’s eight different rules from eight different authors—they also happened to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Nobel Winners8 Writing Tips from Authors Who Won the Nobel Prize for Literature

As you’d expect, there’s a ton of good advice on this list. One thing I’ve noticed as you read more and more of these is that the tips and rules seem to the echo the others—almost as if each set is constructed of similar material but reflected by an inner mirror within each writer.

My Favorite: Alice Munroe’s “Work stories out in your head when you can’t write.”


So, there are eight writing tips from eight different writers writing tips from sixteen different writers! A lot of good stuff, and plenty of interesting strategies. Hopefully, you find something that works for you. I listed my favorites, but I am sure you have your own as well. What stood out to you? Anything you disagree with? Do you have your own list of eight? Leave a comment and let me know!

💀✍ 💀


Dead Drop: Missives from the desk of K. M. AlexanderWant to stay in touch with me? Sign up for Dead Drop, my rare and elusive newsletter. Subscribers get news, previews, and notices on my books before anyone else delivered directly to their inbox. I work hard to make sure it’s not spammy and full of interesting and relevant information.  SIGN UP TODAY →