Category Archives: Writing

My Reading List for 2019

My Reading List for 2019

The next decade looms. But for now, it’s time for reflection. It’s been an exciting year full of amazing experiences. Plus, I did a ton of reading! So, as I do every year, I’ve compiled a list of the books I’ve read over the last three hundred and sixty-five days, and I’m here to share them with you all.

Overall, I’m thrilled with my reading for the year. It contained several firsts for me. I read a plethora of great books—my most in a single year. (Forty-seven!) I Did-Not-Finish’d my first book ever. (It’ll remain nameless.) I quit listening to the news/sports during my commute and have now switched over to audiobooks one hundred percent of the time. (Those are labeled with the 🎧 emoji.) I beta-read three upcoming novels—my most in a single year. And, on top of all of that, I managed to read a bunch of great short stories and got to spend more time reading graphic novels as well. So yeah—it’s been a great year of reading.

This list correlates with my Goodreads 2019 Reading Challenge but always includes a few extra since Goodreads doesn’t let me count beta reading and I don’t list comics or short stories over there. Remember, this is all strictly reading for pleasure—I typically forgo listing any research/history books. Since this list is always enormous, l skip reviews except for my top three in each category. However, I’d invite you to follow me on Goodreads, where I do occasionally leave other reviews.

As before, all links will go to Amazon through my affiliate account by default. If one of these books sounds interesting to you, I’d encourage you to skip Amazon and instead visit your local independent bookstore and purchase through them. It’s essential for your local economy to buy local whenever you’re able, and always good to build a relationship with your local indie bookshop.

Okay, to the list!

📚 Novels

  1. Tomorrow’s Shepherd (The Verdant Revival #2)
    by Michael Ripplinger
  2. Beta Reading (Fantasy)
  3. Promise of Blood (Powder Mage #1) …again 🎧
    by Brian McClellan
  4. Mapping the Interior
    by Stephen Graham Jones
  5. Authority: A Novel (The Southern Reach #2)  🎧
    by Jeff VanderMeer
  6. The Traitor Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade #1)
    by Seth Dickinson
  7. ‘Salem’s Lot  🎧
    by Stephen King
  8. When You Reach Me
    by Rebecca Stead
  9. The Scorpio Races
    by Maggie Stiefvater
  10. Nine Princes in Amber (The Chronicles of Amber #1) 🎧
    by Roger Zelazny
  11. The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Chronicles Series #1)
    by Bernard Cornwell
  12. The Haunting of Tram Car 015
    by P. Djèlí Clark
  13. Beta Reading (Sci-Fi)
  14. The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville 🎧
    by Shelby Foote
  15. Butcher Bird …again.
    by Richard Kadrey
  16. House of Furies
    by Madeleine Roux
  17. A. Grimsbro, Warlord of Mars (Futhermucking Classics #2)
    by Matt Youngmark
  18. I Am Providence
    by Nick Mamatas
  19. The Compleat Crow
    by Brian Lumley
  20. Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga #1)
    by J. Zachary Pike
  21. Beta Reading (Fantasy)
  22. Four Roads Cross (The Craft Sequence #5)
    by Max Gladstone
  23. The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn #1) …again 🎧
    by Peter F. Hamilton
  24. The Grand Dark
    by Richard Kadrey
  25. The Forever War
    by Joe Haldeman
  26. Vermilion
    by Molly Tanzer
  27. The Terror 🎧
    by Dan Simmons
  28. The City of Brass: A Novel (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)
    by S. A. Chakraborty
  29. The Black God’s Drums
    by P. Djèlí Clark
  30. The Warehouse
    by Rob Hart
  31. It: A Novel 🎧
    by Stephen King
  32. City of Blades (Divine Cities #2)
    by Robert Jackson Bennett
  33. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
    by Kij Johnson
  34. Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1) …again 🎧
    by George R. R. Martin
  35. Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)
    by Seanan McGuire
  36. Carry On (Simon Snow #1)
    by Rainbow Rowell
  37. Interview with the Vampire (The Vampire Chronicles #1) 🎧
    by Anne Rice
  38. Agents of Dreamland
    by Caitlin R. Kiernan
  39. Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3)
    by James S.A. Corey
  40. Imago (Xenogenesis #3)
    by Octavia E. Butler
  41. Punktown (Punktown)
    by Jeffrey Thomas
  42. A Lush and Seething Hell
    by John Hornor Jacobs
  43. Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon #1) …again 🎧
    by China Miéville
  44. Uncanny Collateral (Valkyrie Collections #1)
    by Brian McClellan
  45. United States of Japan
    by Peter Tieryas
  46. A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire #2) …again 🎧
    by George R. R. Martin
  47. Grass (Arbai #1)
    by Sheri S. Tepper

🏆 Favorite Novel of 2019

A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor JacobsA Lush and Seething Hell
by John Hornor Jacobs

The Sea Dreams It Is The Sky was one of my favorite books last year, and when paired with its counterpart, My Heart Struck Sorrow, the two quickly merged to become my favorite book of the year. Connected via theme (and set in the same world), both novellas tell intense stories within stories unsettling accounts of humanity and history, obsession and turmoil. This is the new weird at its most exquisite. As unsettling throughout as it is enthralling. Phenomenal.

🏅 Favorite Novel Runners-up of 2019

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham JonesMapping the Interior
by Stephen Graham Jones

Jones is a modern master of horror and always approaches the genre in unique ways; Mapping the Interior is no exception. Told from 12-year old Junior’s perspective, the story is one part family-struggle and one part ghost-story all woven with a heartfelt earnestness that’s easy to believe and hard to shake. It’s a book about childhood, family, heritage, legacy, and the cost and ramifications of all four. The ending devastated me.

The Terror by Dan SimmonsThe Terror
by Dan Simmons

At first glance, this would appear to be a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage. But there is more to this than historical account—much of this book delves into the psyche of survival while interspersing elements of the thriller and horror genres to weave an extraordinary and sometimes supernatural tale—Darkly disturbing, severely bleak, and utterly unforgettable.

🎈 Honorable Mentions of 2019

As I did last year, I wanted to highlight a few other books. These honorable mentions are books that resonated with me long after I had finished them, and they deserve a callout. In no particular order…

  • The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey
    A diesel-punk reflection on the ramifications of war. Kadrey’s best work.
  • Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey
    The 3rd entry in the incredible Expanse series.
  • Tomorrow’s Shepherd by Michael Ripplinger
    Giant machines and power armor continue the battle for Verge.
  • Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas
    New weird sci-fi anthology about the citizens living in a city on the frontier.
  • It: A Novel by Stephen King
    Um, it’s It. And It is so very, very good. Except for that one weird scene.
  • The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville by Shelby Foote
    Detailed history of military campaigns during the first third of the American Civil War.

📜 Short Stories

  1. Ours
    by Randy Ribay
  2. The Farm
    by Charlie Jane Anders
  3. A Catalog of Storms
    by Fran Wilde
  4. Bull Riding
    by Richard Kadrey
  5. 13 Ways of Destroying a Painting 🎧
    by Amber Sparks
  6. Hell is a Parade
    by Nathan Crowder
  7. Artificials Should Be Allowed to Worship
    by Steven James
  8. The Three Stigmata of Peter Thiel
    by Brendan C. Byrne
  9. Space Angel (Denim Superheroes)
    by Lee French
  10. Beta Reading (Horror)
  11. A Study in Emerald …again
    by Neil Gaiman
  12. Beneath Their Hooves
    by Katharine Duckett

🏆 Favorite Short Stories of 2019

The Farm by Charlie Jane AndersThe Farm
by Charlie Jane Anders

A short yet striking tale of a terrifying future that cuts too close to home. A reporter named Roy struggles to maintain his journalistic integrity while trying to keep advertisers happy. Anders is a great writer, and her tight prose works wonders here. The best short stories can alter how one views the world and as I watched the news cycle play out throughout the year, The Farm was never far from my mind.

🏅 Favorite Short Story Runners-up

Hell is a Parade by Nathan CrowderHell is a Parade
by Nathan Crowder

A violent little story of a parade that quickly shifts into a scene of horror as one young woman allows obsession to send her down a dark path. The descriptions are wonderful, the emotions hot and raw, and the parade personified as a living beast whose glamor corrupts as much as it enthralls. A wickedly subversive warning on the dangers and ramifications inherent within vengeance.

Artificial Should Be Allowed to Worship by Steven JamesArtificial Should Be Allowed to Worship
by Steven James

My favorite short stories dress modern struggles in fictional costume—Star Trek excelled at this—and this piece continues that tradition. Written as an op-ed, the piece pleads with the reader to understand and empathize with artificial individuals seeking a place to worship. The set dressing might be different, the plight fictional, but one can’t miss the echoes from the modern efforts towards equality.

💥 Graphic Novels

  1. Monstress Vol. 1
    by Marjorie Liu (Author), Sana Takeda (Artist)
  2. Saga Vol. 7
    by Brian K. Vaughan (Author), Fiona Staples (Artist)
  3. Paper Girls: Book One
    by Brian K. Vaughan (Author), Cliff Chiang (Cover Art, Artist), Matthew Wilson (Artist)
  4. The Promised Neverland, Vol. 1
    by Kaiu Shirai (Author), Posuka Demizu (Illustrator)
  5. Die, Vol 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
    by Kieron Gillen (Author), Stephanie Hans (Artist)
  6. Blackbird Vol. 1
    by Sam Humphries (Author), Jen Bartel (Artist)
  7. Through the Woods
    by Emily Carroll (Author & Artist)
  8. Gideon Falls Vol. 1: The Black Barn
    by Jeff Lemire  (Author), Andrea Sorrentino (Artist), Dave Stewart (Artist)
  9. Gideon Falls Vol. 2: Original Sin
    by Jeff Lemire  (Author), Andrea Sorrentino (Artist), Dave Stewart (Artist)
  10. Uzumaki
    by Junji Ito (Author & Artist)
  11. Trees Vol 2.
    by Warren Ellis (Author), Jason Howard (Artist)
  12. Gideon Falls Vol. 3: Stations of the Cross
    by Jeff Lemire (Author), Andrea Sorrentino (Artist), Dave Stewart (Artist)
  13. Death or Glory Vol. 1: She’s Got You
    by Rick Remender (Author), Bengal (Artist)
  14. Skyward Vol. 1: My Low-G Life
    by Joe Henderson (Author), Lee Garbett (Artist), Antonio Fabela (Artist)

🏆 Favorite Graphic Novel of 2017:

Uzumaki by Junji ItoUzumaki
by Junji Ito

Kurôzu-cho is a coastal town haunted by uzumaki—spiral patterns that infest everything, distorting the village and its inhabitants. Everything starts simple enough, but as the chapters breeze past the effects of the uzumaki becomes more and more profound. With engaging characters and an incredible premise, this is quite easily one of the great horror comics ever written.

🏅 Favorite Graphic Novel Runners-up of 2017:

Gideon Falls by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino, Dave StewartGideon Falls
by Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino, Dave Stewart

This nearly took the top spot from me, and for a good reason; it’s an amazingly told tale. A young man becomes obsessed with a conspiracy theory found in a city’s trash, and elsewhere a priest becomes entwined in the rural legend of The Black Barn—a strange building that appears at random throughout history, leaving death in its wake. And then things get really weird…

Through the Woods by Emily CarrollThrough the Woods
by Emily Carroll

This creepy anthology horror collection was one of my favorites. It’s not “scary” in the traditional sense we Westerners expect; instead, there’s a folklorish creepiness to the tales therein. More Poe than Barker. Plus, the visuals that accompanied those spooky accounts only enhanced each tale. I read it cover to cover on a foggy October morning, and it remains a memorable and unforgettable read.

So, there is my list! A lot of reading in a variety of places I didn’t make time for last year. It was good to get back into comics and to start reading short stories. I’m considering adding a poetry section next year as well, but we’ll see. If anything suffered from this, it was my television and game systems, they’ve been lonely, but I’ve felt a lot more fulfilled with the fiction I’ve devoured. Fiction is the perfect way to step into the shoes of someone else and discover new points of view. So thanks, 2019—it’s been a fantastic year in reading. Here’s to more in 2020!

Are you looking for a good book? Want to see my reading lists from previous years? Check any of the links below and see what I was reading in the bygone halcyon days of old.

 2013 • 2014 • 2015 • 2016 • 2017 • 2018 •

Next year, why not join me? Goodreads does a reading challenge every year, and I am an active participant. First, follow me on Goodreads (leave me a review while you’re there), and once the New Year arrives, participate in the Goodreads Reading Challenge for 2020.

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 →

Gardners, Architects, and... Excavators?

Gardeners, Architects, and… Excavators?

Last night, Kari-Lise attended a conversation with Erin Morgenstern focused around the launch of her new novel, The Starless Sea. I didn’t go—had too much on my plate—but after chatting with her about it, I wish I had made the time. (Isn’t that always the case?)

Based on Kari-Lise’s recounting, during the conversation, Morgenstern hit on something that I strongly feel more writers need to hear. We’ve heard of the term “Gardeners,” authors who plant their stories as seeds and follow those seeds as they grow, and we’ve heard of the term “Architect,” writers who extensively plan their work and follow a tight outline. Both get mentioned all the time. However, Morgenstern doesn’t see herself as either and chooses instead to call herself an “Excavator.”

What that means is, like an archaeologist, she exhumes the story from a mass of writing. She allows herself to fully explore a narrative and then whittle it down in edits. She finds the story by writing and writing and writing. For example, she mentioned that for her bestselling debut, The Night Circus, she wrote pages and pages describing specific locations in the setting, then forced herself in edits to pare things down to a single page. In her most recent book, The Starless Sea, Morgenstern talked about a character who barely gets mentioned in the final manuscript, but one she had written an entire journal for—it let her know the character to their fullest measure. But, in the end, it didn’t serve the story, so she cut it.

She’s mentioned this before but recently explained her approach in an interview with Rachel Barenbaum for Dead Darlings. (I’d encourage you to read the full article.)

“Sometimes it feels more like excavating than building because it’s all there, I just need to figure out how to translate the space into words. I had this sprawling underground library-esque space in my head and it took me a long time to figure out how to wind a narrative through it. I end up writing a lot more than I’ll ever use just to flesh out the world.”

This really resonated with me—what a refreshing approach to creation! So often, we’re reminded to be efficient. We are told throwing away work is a waste of time. Industry-wide we see everyone declare that your next book is what’s more important. It’s the Facebook mantra of “most fast and break things” but applied to storytelling. The Excavator ignores that dogma and serves only the story. It works against the tenets of hustle culture and allows one to fully realize a place, a person, or an event, and it gives permission to take time and to cut what is unnecessary. We say write for yourself, and this is taking that maxim to its furthest reaches. Working as an Excavator—while slower—allows an author to explore a story to its limits, and in the end (based on the quality of Morgenstern’s work), I can see how it makes for a better book.

Maybe we need more than two schools of approach? Perhaps it’s time to add the Excavators into the conversation as another equally valid strategy in writing.

FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: John Atherton, 1975

Ursula K. Le Guin's Writing Schedule is Very Relatable

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ideal Writing Schedule Was Very Relatable

“My life is very ordinary, common place, middle class, quiet and hard-working. I enjoy it immensely. I do not find it appropriate to talk about it very much.”

The schedule of famous writers and creators has always been a fascination of mine, and I know I’m not alone. Despite what social media tells you, there’s no right or wrong way to create. What works for one person won’t always work for someone else. Glean what you can. Reject what doesn’t work. Part of creating is learning what works for you. Be kind and humble enough to let others follow their own path.

All that said, I find Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing process relatable, delightful, and somewhat enviable—well, except for that 5:30 AM wake-up. (Who does that?) While Le Guin’s ideal schedule is nothing compared to the alleged Hunter S. Thompson routine, you never know what happens after 8:00 PM, for all we know “middle-aged Portland housewives” go hard.

5:30 a.m. - wake up and lie there and think. 6:15 a.m. - get up and eat breakfast (lots). 7:15 a.m. - get to work writing, writing, writing. Noon - lunch. 1-3 p.m. - reading, music. 3-5 p.m. - correspondence, maybe house cleaning. 5-8 p.m. - make dinner and eat it. After 8 p.m. - I tend to be very stupid and we won't talk about this. I go to bed at 10:00 p.m. If I'm at the beach there would be one ore two long walks on the beach in that day. This is a perfect day for me.

It’s easy to see the appeal. I too am a fan of thinking in bed, breakfast foods, reading, and taking time to be stupid. (The graphic above omits her 10 PM bedtime, for some reason. So it’s only two hours of stupidity despite what we all hoped.)

Le Guin’s schedule originally appeared in a 1988 interview with Slawek Wojtowicz (you can read the full transcript and see a scanned image of her response at the link—it includes some wonderful handwritten notes as well) and more recently in Ursula K. Le Guin: The Last Interview. Want more? I’d encourage you to check out Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a phenomenal documentary from Arwen Curry.

Eight Hundred

Eight Hundred

You never think it’ll happen to you and then it does. Since I started writing, I told myself I had thick skin. I believed myself armored with tenacity. But, armor eventually fails. Creative chinks don’t care about our intentions. They reveal themselves in a hundred different ways and often too late.

A book can flop. The most well-meaning comment can eviscerate. Sales numbers can collapse. Positive momentum can falter and then vanish entirely. The list is endless. Any of those can wear you down. They can make you want to give up. They can destroy you.

It happened to me around late-2016/early-2017. The catalyst is unimportant but the outcome isn’t. My armor failed. I felt defeated, and my confidence was shattered. I didn’t know what to do. I felt creatively adrift. That pernicious devil known as imposter syndrome arrived, and he brought his bag of “What Ifs” with him. What if I’m not good enough? What if this story is crap? What if I’m not cut out for this? What if? What if? What if?

“What if I’m not good enough? What if this story is crap? What if I’m not cut out for this?”

I withdrew creatively. I told very few. I kept up appearances, but inside it hurt. Thinking back, it still hurts. But, I kept writing, I drained those emotions out on the keyboard. Time passed. I finished one manuscript, then another—my biggest project to date—there were failed projects in between, unfinished starts, and discarded ideas. There always is. But I kept going. The writing didn’t stop. The writer is tempered by adversity, and I worked through it doubting myself the whole way. Eventually, I returned to the Bell Forging Cycle.

Writing is an interesting endeavor. There are a thousand ways to do it, a thousand voices offering (or selling advice), and numerous experts waxing poetic on a soapbox. It’s no wonder we all get the author equivalent of stage fright. What if someone’s way is better? What if we’re not efficient enough? What if our style changes? What if we’re not striving for the same goals as everyone else? We judge ourselves based on the perceived success of others. It’s no wonder even the masters talk about being stricken with impostorism. In a world of “experts,” it’s become a cyclical feedback loop.

So why all this? Why bare my soul now? This is my eight-hundredth post on I Make Stories. Every two hundred posts, I take a moment and evaluate where I am at creatively. It’s become a tradition. (Previously: 600. 400. 200.) Who knows how many thousands of words I’ve shared here? This silly little site has become a bit of refuge over the past few years—a place to vent, explore, and share—it’s my outlet.

It’s funny how in moments of struggle you forget your successes. I have three books behind me with a slew of fantastic reviews. I have readers who email me with excited questions or words of encouragement. (Or just wondering when the next book is coming.) I have colleagues who trust my opinion on their work. I have a community of creatives around me. When I started this blog eight years ago, I had no idea where it’d go. I had no clue what would happen. I wasn’t classically trained. I had a limited college education. I was a twenty-something kid with big ideas—that’s it.

But, here I am eight years later and staring at the completed third draft of Gleam Upon the Waves, Book IV of my Bell Forging Cycle. For those patiently waiting: we’re getting close.

Interestingly, I am at this point on this project when the 800th post has arrived. Here I reflect. In manuscript land, I’ve reached the moment where it’s time to contact my beta readers. The point where I solicit the first round of feedback on the roughest of stories. Just thinking about it makes me nervous. I can feel those old emotions welling up. Those old doubts that held me in check and slowed me down. I’m worried. I’m scared. I’m nervous. The wound may have scarred over but it still stings. I can hear our ugly adversary cackling “you’re a fraud” in my creative ear. But, I know he’s a liar. I know theirs no truth in that. Perhaps if I had quit, he’d be right. But I didn’t stop. I kept writing. I stuck around. I’ve gotten better. I kept telling the stories I needed to tell. Saying the things I need to say. Sometimes that’s all we can do. Sometimes it’s all we should do.

Right now, Gleam’s a manuscript. Soon it’ll be a book. A book you’ll be able to read. And here we are, eight hundred posts behind us and more stories in the future. Milestones are meant to be passed. Stopping isn’t in the cards. It wasn’t before it most certainly isn’t now.

Post one thousand is somewhere in the future. And who knows where we’ll be then?

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 →

Grant Morrison

Ghost Stories, Non-sequiturs, Inexplicable Mysteries, Dead Ends and Absurdities

“Otherwise, I know I’m often wasting my breath and electronic ink saying this, but the “real-world” is a pretty weird place where lots of inexplicable things happen all the time, and I like to catch the flavor of that too. It just seems more modern and authentic to me as a storyteller. The “real world” doesn’t come with the neat three-act structures and resolutions we love to impose on it, and if repeated doses of movie and TV-storytelling have convinced anyone that it does, it‘s time to get out and about a bit. The real world is filled with ghost stories, non-sequiturs, inexplicable mysteries, dead ends and absurdities, and I think it’s cool to season our comfortable fictions with at least a little taste of what actual reality is like.”

Grant Morrison

A Riverboat's Paddlewheel

A Riverboat’s Paddlewheel

Oceangoing ships would opt for screw propulsion earlier than their riverboat counterparts. While constant contact with the water was beneficial in rough ocean conditions, it posed a detriment in early river travel. The wear and tear on screws were harsher in clogged and snag-prone conditions. Major damage could incapacitate a packet boat, and it was much easier for a riverboat’s carpenter to make repairs to a vessel’s above-water paddlewheel rather than a submerged screw prop.

A paddlewheel also allowed riverboats to ride at a shoal draft which permitted navigation among the shallow western tributaries. This helped extend the packet’s reach further inland. While future engineering would deepen and clean rivers, those early benefits allowed paddlewheels to be the dominant propulsion for almost a century.

The sidewheeler Belle of the Bends taking on cargo alongside the sternwheeler Belle of Calhoun
Two Misses in Memphis, 1906—The sidewheeler Belle of the Bends taking on cargo alongside the sternwheeler Belle of Calhoun. (See the full sized image over at Shorpy.)

Packets came in two distinct and common varieties dictated by their paddlewheel placement: the elegant sidewheeler and the labor-ready sternwheeler[1]. Early in their history, it was much easier to balance a pair of wheels at either side of the vessel — at first amid-ship but later moved just one-third forward of the stern. These boats proved superior to the cumbersome keelboats from earlier eras and quickly overtook the river trade. Their enormous paddleboxes or wheelhouses were bold, showy, and elegant. Early on, they proved to have some distinct advantages. Sidewheelers had a more stable foundation. On two-engine boats, one wheel could be reversed which allowed the packet greater maneuverability. As they became more popular, many captains grew to prefer the look, and the paddleboxes provided a foundation for wide traveler promenades.

“The sidewheel river packet is the most beautiful creation of man.”

—Captain Ellias C. Mace[2]

Unlike the sidewheeler, the sternwheeler was not as well-loved. Early sternwheelers were slow, ungainly, and unbalanced. As Hunter says in Steamboats on the Western Rivers: “Compared with the side-wheeler it was a dull, cart-horse sort of boat, useful only for the meaner kinds of work. For speed, pleasing lines, and flashing performance, the sidewheeler stood first from beginning to end; it was the western river steamboat par excellence.”[3]

Detail of the blueprints of the 1912 towboat Captain Stuart.
Detail of the blueprints of the 1912 towboat Captain Stuart. Click here to view the full blueprints.

Par excellence or not, technology and construction methods improved, and the sternwheel’s advantages began to outshine their formerly-favored cousins. The wheel at the aft allowed the hull to serve as a bulwark from logs, ice, and other debris which could jam or damage a wheel. Because of that, those packets didn’t have to stop as readily to avoid accident. As other methods of construction were developed, the sternwheeler’s capacity for hauling cargo was significantly increased. Single aft wheels were lighter and allowed for a wider beam which enabled a more shallow draft. This helped them become masters of the smaller tributaries. By the 1880s it was said that a sternwheeler under the same load as a sidewheel vessel of similar size would draw less than half as much water—an essential aspect of river trade.

My long-standing work in progress, Coal Belly, is a sprawling weird-west fantasy adventure set on a planet which is crisscrossed by interlocking rivers. Along the rivers of Achus, both side and sternwheeled steamboats are ubiquitous. In a world where massive rivers are the dominant source of transportation, trade, and security, I felt it was important for me to understand the advantages and disadvantages of riverboat propulsion. Understanding small details can have vast implications for a story, and while second world fantasy easily allows for historical aberration, it’s always beneficial to ground aspects of worldbuilding in reality.

Below are some photos of riverboat’s wheels, both side and stern, which I’ve gathered during the years of my research for Coal Belly. You can click on any photo to view it larger. I’ve tried to group them together so you can see sidewheels, stern wheels, and some of the odder experimentations.

As will all my riverboat research posts, all the images above were collected over the last six years, so I am unsure where they all come from (usually the Library of Congress or from research at my local libraries.) But, they’re all old enough they should all be in the public domain. If something looks or seems amiss, please let me know and I’ll correct it.

In some cases, I did some minor color correction and cropping to keep it all visually consistent. 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.

More Riverboats

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

Footnotes and Citations

1 The key word here is “common.” There were a few outliers, of course. Ferries were often centerwheelers, with the paddlewheel built along the vessels beam and the boat constructed around it. There was also the batwing steamers—small vessels with two tiny side-wheels near the stern.

2 Mace, Ellis Clarence, 1862-. River Steamboats And Steamboat Men: a History With Articles And Pictures From My Scrap Book. Cynthiana, Ky.: The Hobson book press, 1944.

3 Hunter, Louis C, and Beatrice Jones Hunter. Steamboats On the Western Rivers: an Economic And Technological History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949.

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 →