Category Archives: Writing

Your Fav is Problematic—That's Okay

Your Fave is Problematic—That’s Okay

My favorite character from A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic, is Jaime Lannister, the heir to the Lannister family, Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and an all-around terrible person. No, really. There are forum threads dedicated to his awfulness, and I don’t disagree with anything they say. He is awful; that’s not up for debate. But I don’t care; I still like him. There is something about his wit, his tenacity, his strange sense of honor, and his odd drive to do right by his family that draws me in as a reader. He’s my favorite.

In his Banquet Speech, William Faulkner observes good writing as “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I adore that line. As a character, Jamie embodies that for me. There is so much to loathe but a lot to like. It makes him complicated, and it makes him human. However, in some circles, my statement draws ire. How can I enjoy reading about someone so terrible? After all, he is someone who symbolizes the opposite of many values I hold dear. To those people, it doesn’t make sense; it feels two-faced and hypocritical.


“...the human heart in conflict with itself...”


These voices are nothing new. I remember hearing them as a kid from conservatives, and I’ve heard them as an adult from progressives. Recently they’ve become particularly pronounced on social media, shouting down and hunting those who dare explore life through the lens of problematic fiction. Over the last few years, I’ve seen several authors attacked—on social media, within articles, in reviews, and on blogs. Fans have gone after them for the problematic circumstances, events, and behavior of characters within their novels. It’s not surprising; it’s an extension of the same attitude we have seen play out in the social sphere. In addition to holding real-life humans accountable, fandom is now trying to hold fiction accountable.

In 2016, the internet was in a frenzy over one of the questioners from the second presidential debate, Ken Bone, a power plant operator from Illinois. Overnight, he became an internet sensation. He saw endorsement deals, a “Bone Zone” T-shirt line, appearances on ESPN, and was satirized during a Saturday Night Live cold open. But like all people, Ken Bone was human, and soon his heroism was tarnished. Afterwards, Katie Rogers of The New York Times wrote an excellent article exploring his rise and fall from fame titled “We May Be Leaving the Ken Bone Zone.” The article discussed the depth in which people investigated, and eventually exposed all of Ken Bone’s history-both positive and negative. Within the article, there was a line that struck me regarding the fragility of the internet. One I found myself mulling over and over. That line? “The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”


“The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance.”


Within some fandoms and genres[1], there is this strange narrative forming that our heroes, and largely our fiction, need to be morally and ethically pure. It leads to the belief that fiction shouldn’t have flawed characters, or focus on stories with plotlines that wrestle with difficult themes. And heaven forbid those characters don’t get their comeuppance, and those themes don’t get resolved satisfactorily. That sort of nuance doesn’t play in the fandom echo chamber.

This leads back to Rogers’ statement: She’s not wrong. The echo chamber doesn’t do nuance. The internet, in particular, abhors it. Nuance is challenging. Nuance requires you to read the whole article, not just the headline. Nuance wants you to put aside your initial emotions and reflect. It forces you to observe the entire character, rather than their action at a particular moment. It loves to do nothing more than draw lines in the sand and force others to step over and pick a side. You are this, and I am that. You’re bad; I’m good.

In early January, Fonda Lee, the author of Jade City (Go read it; it’s good.), had a great little thread on Twitter separating fiction into “the world as it is” or “the world as you wish it to be.” We can call these the mirror and the beacon. The beacon, as Lee says, shows us the world as it could be. It’s aspirational, the shining city on a hill[2]. While the mirror forces us to wrestle with the ugliness of reality and its contradictions, it also takes Faulkner’s approach to fiction—it forces the heart to go to war.

If you’ve sat in on any of my panels, you might have heard me mention that one of the reasons I love genre fiction is that it allows us a place to explore difficult—and often challenging—ideas. Books can be closed and put away. However, that doesn’t mean the themes and ideas held within the pages won’t be disturbing. It also doesn’t mean characters won’t say vile things or perform despicable acts. Often both will happen, and sometimes the results might not align with the reader’s worldview. Here be dragons, after all.

I think grappling, as both a reader and a writer, with challenging ideas, plots, and characters are necessary for a vibrant fictive landscape[3]. It’s also faithful to humanity; human history is rich in dichotomy. Nothing with people is ever black and white. People let you down as often as they impress you. That’s what makes them people. That’s what makes love, love. Love goes beyond the faults. It forgives in spite of transgressions.


“It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.”


Lately, when someone asks me what my manuscript Coal Belly is about, I often have a simple answer: “It’s about good people doing bad things for good reasons, and bad people doing good things for bad reasons.” I want that complexity in my work. I want people to like a character, yet struggle with their decisions. I want to explore the gray. It’s why fiction like The Lord of the Rings[4] or The Chronicles of Narnia never drew me in the same way as other fantasy novels. The villains were too villainous, the heroes too heroic. The points made were too explicit and too heavy-handed.

That works for some readers. They’re both fine examples of the beacon, and some people want that in their escapism. However, to me, it comes across as patronizing and quixotic.

Mikey Numan, in his review of the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke, described its cast of characters thusly: “No villains; only viewpoints.” This means that within the movie, “evil” or the concept of “bad” becomes a byproduct of the characters’ behavior; even the good, well-intentioned characters say and do problematic things[5]. In reality, villains don’t see themselves as villains, and heroes aren’t always heroic. I am more intrigued by stories willing to take this stance, stories that ask difficult questions and force me—the reader—to decide rather than go out of its way to hammer home a particular point.


“No villains; only viewpoints.”


Some people aren’t keen on being uncomfortable. What is an engaging plot point for one person might be disturbing for another. That’s okay. Fiction is like food; not everyone’s tastes are the same. However, that doesn’t mean that we should restrict one set of narratives in favor of the other. Nor does it mean that challenging fiction is inherently bad. The existence of characters and circumstances that are problematic aren’t excusing harmful behavior. Neither are they praising or glorifying the legitimate evils of the past. They’re merely an observation. Good fiction interweaves those challenges into its prose. Sharing points of view, circumstances, and experiences[6] through fiction gives us a place to build both empathy and sympathy. It can help to expose us to other walks of life, and it lets us explore the viewpoints of others—viewpoints that we might not have access to in our everyday lives.

For many readers and some fandoms, it seems that, unless the writer features a Jim Halpert, who slowly turns and stares at the camera as punctuation for what is absurd or offensive, we’re unable to parse it for ourselves. It was funny in The Office, but I loathe it in my fiction. I’m not into passive consumption. I don’t want or need my hand to be held as I read a book. I want the challenge. I want nuance. I want to struggle with my emotions about characters. I want to be offended and shocked. I want to be pushed and made uncomfortable. I want a place where the world’s imperfections are mirrored and explored. I want problematic fiction, with problematic circumstances, filled with problematic characters, experiencing problematic viewpoints. I want to get out of my small echo chamber and explore the vastness of humanity—warts and all. Within the mirror, reconciling those things isn’t easy and isn’t supposed to be. This is why we have fiction. This is why we tell stories. This is what fandoms and the echo chambers need. This is why Jamie Lannisters exist. So, let our hearts be in conflict.


Let our hearts be in conflict.


1 Most notably, Young adult and New adult but it’s bled into Sci-fi and Fantasy. Also, soapbox moment here… New adult features protagonists ‘between the ages of 18-30.’ Look, I’m 36 right now, so this is an old-man-shaking-his-fist-at-clouds thing, but at 30 you ain’t a new adult.

2 Thanks, Gipper.

3 Also for emotional maturity, but more on that later.

4 There are a few exceptions here, most notably: Boromir, he is an incredibly complex personality, and arguably the best character in the series. Yeah, I went there.

5 It’s a great review and a pretty solid film. I say this as a guy who is not a fan of Miyazaki movies.

6 And discussing them. Please, discuss away! Dialog is vital and important. You could argue that discussion is why complex fiction exists. It wants to be talked about.


[Note:] I originally published this article with the title “Your Fav is Problematic—That’s Okay.” While either is technically correct, I have since changed the “Fav” to “Fave” to closer align with the Problematic Fave meme.


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 →

A Riverboat's Pilothouse

A Riverboat’s Pilothouse

If the boilers are the heart, the engines the muscles, then the pilothouse is the brain of the riverboat. This small room perched high above the deck controls the steamboat. It is here where the pilot holds court, directing the engines, calling for leads, watching the waters, and guiding the big boat safely along its course.

Pilothouses came in all shapes and sizes, some were fanciful, onion-domed, and decorated with wooden designs known as gingerbread. Others were simple and austere, with little to no decorations and flat-roofed. Early pilothouses were open to the elements, while later pilothouses were glassed in to protect the pilot from the weather.

The expansive pilothouse of an unknown towboat
The expansive pilothouse of an unknown towboat

The enormous spoked pilotwheel was the focal point of the room. It rose arcing from the floor and connected to a tiller rope giving the pilot command of the steamboat’s rudders. Wheels varied in size, but most were quite large. The Steamer Sprague had an enormous wheel that measured over thirteen feet.

Speaking tube onboard the Str. W.P. Snyder Jr.
Speaking tube onboard the Str. W.P. Snyder Jr.

Communication between the pilothouse and the engine room varied from boat to boat. Before the inventions of the engine-order telegraph, pilots communicated by signaling the engineers via bells-and-gongs systems. Bells ropes were pulled and down below bells rang signaling the engineers to stop, start, and reverse engines. Many boats also had a series of hollow (usually one way) speaking tubes which allowed the pilot to get a little more creative in their communication. (See Mark Twain’s copious notes in Life on the Mississippi describing the flowery cursing that was common among pilots and crew.)

Most pilothouses had stoves to keep the pilot warm, and a lazy bench as seating for visitors and guests. Large bells on the roof of the boat signaled the leadsman. Whistles, often controlled by treadles on the floor, allowed the pilot to blow the steam whistle.

Mark Twain, served as Horace Ezra Bixby’s cub pilot on the steamer Paul Jones, a 172′ sidewheeler out of Pittsburgh. He described her pilothouse as “cheap, dingy, battered rattle-trap, cramped for room” but after the Jones, he and his mentor spent some time on a much larger and finer vessel1 and the pilothouse there was entirely different:

“…here was a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin yarns and ‘look at the river;’ bright, fanciful ‘cuspadores’ instead of a broad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new oil-cloth on the floor; a hospitable big stove for winter; a wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned, black ‘texas-tender,’ to bring up tarts and ices and coffee during mid-watch, day and night.”

—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

My new novel Coal Belly is a weird-west steampunky fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a rough-and-tumble place where riverboats are omnipresent and necessary for everyday life. One of the main characters in the novel is a riverboat pilot, and learning the ins and outs of the pilothouse, how a pilot moved, and how they behaved in their domain was key to making my pilot an authentic character. I’m still hard at work on editing the manuscript (which I finished earlier this year), but I believe people will enjoy reading about her adventures among the Thousand Streams.

Below are some images of pilots and pilothouses which I have collected during my research. You’ll see rooms of all types, from the simple to the more fanciful and you’ll meet some of the people that worked there as well.



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 Pilothouse 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.


1 It’s possible this was the pilothouse to the Crescent City, he and Bixby worked onboard from April to July of 1857, shortly after serving onboard the Paul Jones. It regularly ran between New Orleans to St. Louis.


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 →

Building Better Mountains

Making Magnificent Mountains

Coal Belly, my current project, is a sprawling steampunk-ish adventure novel that spans the mountains, cliffs, and ridges in a world of interlocking rivers. To keep track of characters and locations, I began maintaining a map. The story takes places in a technological era similar to the post-reconstruction United States, around the 1890s. Because of that, I wanted my map to capture the styles of maps from that period. The sort of thing a cowboy would have in their saddlebag. Which meant I spent some time on Old Maps Online.

While researching, I noticed there was a shift in the late 1800s in how cartographers drew mountains. Earlier in the century, most mountains were rendered as illustrations. Cartographers would draw little adorable ranges as a representative of the mountains. It’s a common enough style, and one I’m sure you’ll recognize. You can see this style in this map from 1832.

Map of the Western State (Detail), Daniel Adams, 1832
Western States (Detail), Daniel Adams, 1832

This is a standard approach and one appropriated by most fantasy cartographers today. It’s a style I’ve used in past maps. It works well and definitely lends a touch of antiquity to a piece. But, Coal Belly is more modern than that. When I started looking at mountains in maps made later in the century, I noticed there was a shift. Cartographers moved away from the illustrated ranges and towards an early topographical style. You can see the shift in the maps below.

United States (Detail), David Burr, 1875
United States (Detail), David Burr, 1875
Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (Detail), A. J. Johnson, 1886
Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (Detail), A. J. Johnson, 1886
Kentucky, Tennessee (Detail), Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1886
Kentucky, Tennessee (Detail), Samuel Augustus Mitchell, 1886

It’s a fascinating change and one I really liked. Since most of my own fantastical cartography work is done in Adobe Illustrator, I began experimenting with creating brushes. Each of the maps above was drawn by hand so recreating a similar feel took a lot of experimentation. Different brush styles and widths. Eventually, I settled on pattern brushes based off a series of random strokes. I feel like I got really close. You can see my handiwork below.

Sample of my 19th Century Mountains brushes in use.
Sample of my 19th Century Mountains brushes in use.

I made twenty brushes, with a variety of line styles and densities. They tend to work best as separate strokes and then tightly grouped together. And because they’re vector based they can be adjusted for any size project. There’s a lot of ways to adjust the overlaps for corners and such. They’re quite versatile and can be blended and combined in numerous ways.

Quick sample using the brushes — with more time I'd focus on typography and color to give the map an antique look
Another quick sample made in Illustrator and Photoshop using the brushes

I ended up scrapping these mountains for the Coal Belly map, as they interfered with the map’s legibility, especially on eReaders. But, I think they would be the perfect fit for the right project. Which is why I’m giving them away for free. Just click the download button below and you can use these mountains brushes in your own project.

Download 19th Century Mountain Brushes

No Illustrator? Download the Photoshop Brush Set1

These brushes are designed for Adobe Illustrator and are licensed under a Creative Commons 4.0 International License. So they’re FREE to use for personal or commercial work, and I’m not looking for any attribution. That said, I would love to see how others end up using these brushes. So please reach out and let me know! I’m not looking for any payment, but if you want to support me consider buying one of my books.

[Update 11/27/2017] Thanks to some friendly help from cartographer and designer Martin von Wyss over at the Cartographer’s Guild I was informed this process is called hachuring. Hachure maps are still in use today, in fact. While my brushes don’t follow the rules necessary for informative real-world hachure maps, they still imitate hachuring enough to work for fantasy cartography.


1 It needs to be mentioned that the Photoshop brushes are significantly limited compared to the Illustrator version. These brushes were designed to work along paths so the mountains will look hand-drawn. While you can use the brushes in Photoshop there will be limitations. They’ll look more stamped and less custom.


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 →

Marilyn Stasio

The Gatekeeper


“I will never read a normal novel. I just can’t. I won’t. I mean, I keep saying ‘where’s the body? Kill someone. Let’s get out of here. Let’s move this along.’”

Marilyn Stasio


While the Bell Forging Cycle novels aren’t specifically Crime/Mystery, they do have elements that would be familiar to readers of those genres. (Murder!) Hence my interest. I found Stasio’s thoughts on character-driven fiction vs. puzzle/plot-driven stories were interesting ones. Especially on how she feels it relates to a book’s length. I don’t this shift is specific to novels within Mystery. Her same complaint could be leveled on some of the current trends happening within speculative fiction.

It’s a quick listen. I found this to be a fascinating glimpse into the working of a prolific reviewer. Big thanks to Kari-Lise for encouraging me to check out this episode of Criminal. I really enjoyed it and think you will as well.


Find out more Marilyn Stasio’s thoughts on crime fiction in her column:
www.nytimes.com/column/crime

Criminal is a production of Radiotopia from PRX. Subscribe and learn more at:
www.thisiscriminal.com

Riverboats Go to War

Riverboats at War

Those who have spent any time in an American History class is aware of the famous Battle of Hampton Roads. It’s the infamous naval conflict between the Merrimack (captured and renamed the CSS Virginia) and the USS Monitor, two of the world’s first ironclads gunboats, which duked it out to a draw in the waters of Chesapeake Bay.

"The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads", a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston
“The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads,” a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston

While these two vessels have become legendary, they weren’t alone; many more gunboats were fighting on the rivers during the American Civil War. Technology had begun to modernize, and the gunboats of the Union Navy and Confederate fleets were no different. The war revealed a point of transition in the evolution of sail to steam as watercraft shifted from the traditional frigate-style sailing vessel towards the warships we see today. Turrets were introduced, armor became commonplace, and propulsion was beginning to change from paddle-wheels to the screws. The era of wooden ships of the line died in 1862 as the ironclads rose to prominence.

Officers on board the USS Hunchback
Officers on board the USS Hunchback

My current project, Coal Belly, is a weird west fantasy set on a planet crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. It’s a rough-and-tumble world where riverboats are omnipresent and necessary for everyday life and used in war. In the book, the empires of Artada, Othwell, and Cyr patrol their territory with a variety of gunboats, and I wanted a spark of authenticity. With that in mind, I felt it necessary for to research the naval fleets of 19th Century, with the Mississippi and its tributaries playing such a vital part in the American Civil War, it was the perfect place to start.

The Union dominated naval warfare from the outset. Where the Confederate forces saw some early advances with the capture of the Merrimack and its retrofitting, it didn’t take long for the Union to catch up and overwhelm the Rebels. Gunboats came in many varieties and could be broken down into four main categories: Rams, Timberclads, Tinclads, and of course the emerging Ironclads. There was a fifth category as well, used primarily by the Confederates, which is commonly called the Cottonclads. Let’s look into each of them.


Rams

These were the creation of Colonel Charles Ellet Jr., a Navy man who was convinced that the ancient ram technology could be adapted to modern usage. Under his guidance, he built out the United States Ram Fleet. The rams tended to be sidewheelers and were usually faster than their civilian counterparts, and unlike other navy boats they carried few guns; instead, they used reinforced timber bows to smash into opposing boats.

Timberclads

Only four timberclads were used during the war, the USS Tyler, USS Conestoga, USS Lexington, and the USS Avenger. While these were modeled after standard sidewheel riverboats, these vessel’s crew were protected from small-arms fire by 5-inch thick oaken bulkheads. To me, they’ve always looked like a floating windowless factory.

Tinclads

The most common gunboat of the Union Navy’s river fleet were the tinclads. These were usually sternwheelers with metal sheeting tacked to the side to protect the crews. Keep in mind that this thin sheeting wasn’t useful while under fire by heavy artillery. It was chosen to protect against small arms. Where civilian packets tend to feature open decks and promenades, most tinclads have a boxed-in look. Each of these boats was assigned a number which was painted on their pilothouse.

Ironclads

The first iron vessels were designed to be ocean-going and operated mostly along the coast. The French Glorie was the first, but more followed her. On the rivers and during the American Civil War, Ironclads came in many varieties—two were most common. The first was the turreted Monitors named after the famous warship the USS Monitor designed by John Ericsson.


John Ericsson

“The sea shall ride over her and she shall live in it like a duck.”

John Ericsson, Inventor of the USS Monitor


The second type was the casemate-style gunboats with sloping sides, not unlike the USS Merrimack. These were more commonly found on the rivers. At the beginning of the war, the Union converted civilian packets, but later they developed the City-class ironclad; these 13-cannon gunboats ruled the river. After their introduction, they were present at every major conflict along the Mississippi. Interestingly, many of these City-class ironclads were centerwheelers with their paddle wheels located at the aft-end of the center keel and protected by bulkheads and armor plating.

Internal arrangement of the USS Cairo
Internal arrangement of the USS Cairo, a Union casemate-style ironclad

Cottonclads

A creation of the Confederate fleets, the cottonclads looked much like their counterpart riverboats. However, as an added form of protection, their hollow bulkheads were filled with packed cotton. Cotton bales were also set up around guns and pilothouses as additional forms of protection.


You could write entire books on gunboat strategy in the American Civil War which isn’t the goal of these posts. However, if you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend starting with Sam Smith’s article, The River War. But for this post, let’s take a gander at some images I’ve gathered as a part of my research over the last few years. These will provide visual examples of the five categories of naval gunboats and give a glimpse of the life of a brown water riverman; check them out below.

Controlling the Mississippi River and its tributaries was a vital part of the war effort. I can see why so much innovation happened in such a short amount of time. Technology provided an advantage, and in the narrow confines of a river, that advantage is beneficial for a brown water navy. With the tale crossing empires, expect to read about plenty of gunboats within the pages of Coal Belly.

The pictures above have been collected over the last five years, so I am unsure from where they all come (usually the Library of Congress.) But, they’re all old enough to be in the public domain. As before, 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.

This is the latest in my series of posts sharing my findings from my research for Coal Belly. You can check out the other riverboat-related posts in the links below.


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 →