Tag Archives: Coal Belly

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.


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Six Hundred

Six Hundred

This blog is a story in itself. It’s the documentation of a journey. Growing up, I remember my grandmother talking about becoming a novelist. She often spoke of the stories she wanted to share, the memoirs of her life, but she never finished her book. I believe the world is a little less without her words. From the beginning, the intent of I Make Stories was to chronicle my process of becoming a novelist—the good and the bad. As I have shared my experiences, I often wonder: what would have happened if my grandmother had read this blog as a fellow writer? Would she have been dissuaded or encouraged?

On that note, it’s time for a bit of reflection, and hopefully a bit of encouragement. It’s become a tradition around here that every two hundred posts I pause and take a moment and look back at what has happened in the time between. In 2014 I wrote my two-hundredth post, in 2015 I hit number four hundred, and here I am in 2017 looking at number six hundred. It’s been a long trail.

Things haven’t always been easy, but generally, nothing worth doing is easy. Days of discouragement are as common as the days of victory. Even as I write this post, I’ve been struggling through some serious self-doubt. I’ve come to expect it now, it’s a part of creation. Random events interrupt and derail process and progress. Writing takes time and effort, and it can often be a lonely endeavor. It requires a commitment to yourself and often that is more difficult than we realize.


“Milestones are meant to be passed.”


But even with the trials of creative work, things haven’t slowed during the last two hundred posts. Each obstacle has been surmounted and I’ve found successes along the way. I’ve sold a lot more books, many thousands now in total. I’ve hit the Amazon best-seller page multiple times. My presence at conventions has also expanded, and I’ve met some incredible people and new friends along the way.

On the story front, I launched Red Litten World which fans have enjoyed. I’ve finished the first draft of a standalone non-traditional fantasy (the title which I am keeping secret), and I’m nearly done with the first draft of Coal Belly my enormous steampunky riverboat adventure. Then it’s on to book four of the Bell Forging Cycle.

I’d like to think the content on this blog has gotten better as well. I’ve begun to share some of my discoveries in my research and delve into more details in the world of the Territories. There’s also this little thing which fans of the Bell Forging Cycle have yet to unravel. Plus, I have some other exciting plans for the future.

I couldn’t have done this alone. Although she never knew me as a writer, there is something of my grandmother in everything I write and for that I thank her. She might not have told her stories, but she empowered me to tell mine. And of course, there is you; my readers. I couldn’t be here, looking back from post six hundred, without you. Thanks for the passion. Thank you for buying my books. Thanks for reading them, and leaving reviews. Thank you for telling your friends and helping to spread the word. Thank you for the emails and the encouragement. There’s a lot of books out there to read, and I’m so grateful you picked mine.

As before, I won’t dwell here long. Stick with your work fellow creators. Milestones are meant to be passed. Number eight hundred lies somewhere in the distance and who knows what we’ll see in the spaces between.

2016 in Ten Awesome Photos

2016 in Ten Awesome Photos

For the past few years, I’ve assembled a post looking back via photos and reflecting on my experiences over the course of a year. The rule is to do it in ten photos, no more, no less, no excuses. (Check out 2015 in Ten Awesome Photos or 2014 in Ten Awesome Photos if you’re so inclined.) It’s a good way to reestablish what actually happened compared to my own perception. It also slows time down. A lot happens in a year.

After you do something long enough, it becomes a tradition. 2016 has been a tough year for me both creatively, and personally. But for every failure, there has been a success. Moments of dispair have been countered by moments of peace. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize those. Going back through these photos always grounds me and forces me to reflect.

So, with all that said, let’s take a look at my 2016.


2016_10photos_01The start of 2016 was cold and foggy. I took this picture on a long walk near my house early in the year. The themes of this image inadvertently became my themes for this year. If you read The State of the Cycle last December you know that in 2016 I was breaking from The Bell Forging Cycle for a bit and was planning to focus on some new projects. Solitude, contemplation, and a refocusing on my work and my writing were central for me throughout the year.


2016_10photos_02New year, new projects; I dove right in. For those who have followed this blog from the beginning, you’ll recognize the title Coal Belly. It was the first manuscript I tried to shop (and ultimately failed at selling) but the world and the characters never left me. This year I began it anew, refreshed and stripped down and I’m really excited where it’s going.


2016_10photos_03In the spring I returned to Norwescon for my second year. As before, It was a blast. This year I was busy. I spent my time running my table, sat on a few panels, and even managed to do a reading from Red Litten World. You can read a full breakdown in my Norwescon 39 Debriefing post. I will be returning in 2017, I can’t miss the 40th Anniversary.


2016_10photos_04Throughout the year, Kari-Lise and I would occasionally spend a few hours exploring antique stores and junk shops. These forays into the past inspired me to start collecting historical objects from American fraternal organizations and secret societies. It hits a sweet spot for me a blend of Americana, fading history, folk art and the fact some of the objects are just bizarre. I’m sure I’ll gather together a post soon.


My friend Steve Toutonghi launched his debut novel Join! He spent some time with me at Norwescon sharing his book, and I was able to go to a reading and signing of his at a local bookstore. It’s been great to watch him meet readers and share his work with the world. If you haven’t read his novel Join, you need to rectify that now. Check out my review on Goodreads and use the links on his site to pick it up for yourself. (It makes a great Christmas gift.)


2016_10photos_06I was lucky enough to meet Magnus Nilsson, the head chef at the remote two Michelin star restaurant Fäviken in Sweden. It’s no secret Kari-Lise, and I love to cook and were those people who consider ourselves foodies. I really respect Nilsson’s approach to cooking, his focus on simplicity, local ingredients, and the return to basics. He was super gracious. Now we need to plan a trip to actually visit Fäviken.


2016_10photos_07Lilac City Comicon was a smashing success and a bit of a whirlwind. It’s a fun romp full of wonderful people and cosplayers. The community in Spokane is really warm and welcoming. It was great hanging out with my fellow creators, meeting new people, and talking with readers. I’m planning a return this year. Make sure to read the Lilac City Comicon debriefing. I’m happy that it’ll be two days this year.


2016_10photos_08This summer Kari-Lise and I took two weeks to explore the National Parks of California. When I returned, I put together a little trip report detailing the journey. It was a fantastic excursion, full of hiking, marmots, and incredible vista and views. Traveling in the US, and especially in our National Parks, always reminds me that we live in a pretty great place.


2016_10photos_09As with every year, mountains were a reoccurring theme. I find them invigorating creatively and forever humbling. They’re a good place to reset and realize how small and petty my problems tend to be. With the help of some friends, Kari-Lise and I found our favorite trail on Mount Rainier. We liked it so much we returned to it again a month later with some family.


2016_10photos_10My Seattle Sounders won the MLS Cup! It was an incredible comeback season that began abysmally but ended with a run that took them to the playoff and eventually allowed them to win it all on penalty kicks! Also, my favorite player did this. Sounders ’til I die. I can’t wait for the 2017 season.


So, there was my 2016. Narrowing it down to ten photos was difficult, it’s always difficult. There are always things I left out: sporting events, craft fairs, new books, art openings, other hikes, time spent in the mountains, time spent in the desert, time spent on the coast (we went to nine National Parks this year). I took pictures of my food, my research work, my dogs, my rabbits, and so much more. Most of these images came from my Instagram account, if you’re not following me, please do! It’s usually a running record of my weekly activities and pictures of my adorable dogs.

Join me! Why not look back through your own year and narrow it down to ten awesome photos? Post those on your blog and leave me a link here in the comments. I’d love to see what happened in your year as well.

Project Tracker Shifts

Project Tracker Shifts

For those who pay attention to such things, you may have noticed that there have been some shifts in my project tracker. (See sidebar.) I have a couple of thoughts I wanted to share.

  • I’ve gotten great feedback for my fantasy project (I’m still keeping the name quiet), but I wanted to let it rest a bit before I roll up my sleeves and start to rework it. It’s a regular part of my process that allows me to return not only refreshed but with a critical eye. So for now, it’s been moved to the infamous back burner.
  • Coal Belly has moved up to the top slot. It’s been my major focus lately. It’s also becoming huge, currently sitting at 92k words. When I initially listed it, I targeted 100k words since that’s the goal for all The Bell Forging Cycle novels. However, as I’ve written it, I’ve started to realize that it’s going to be much bigger, so I have readjusted my target to 200k words. Which means it’s about halfway (the actual final number is fluid, the book will be done when it’s done.)

Whenever I make changes like this, I tend to see questions from readers. So I figured a small post like this would help explain some of my decisions. Progress continues to chug along, and I’ll soon have new stuff for you all to read.

In the meantime, eBooks of The Stars Were Right are on sale for 99¢! If you’re looking for something Lovecraftian for yourself or as a holiday gift, check out the 2016 Lovecraftian Gift Guide. Loads of fun stuff.

Okay, time to get back to writing.

The State of the Cycle

The State of the Cycle

If you’re reading this on the blog, you’ll notice that snow has started falling. That means it’s December, the last month of the year. As is the tradition around here, this month tends to be a reflection on the past year. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share the novels I’ve read, I’ll wrap up the Friday Link Packs (more on that later), and we’ll pass from 2015 to 2016 and move into the heart of winter here in the Pacific Northwest.

A few weeks back, after I was dealing with some serious creative malaise, my wife suggested me to read the book Art and Fear. It’s an excellent little book, and if you’re a creator, especially one struggling with your work, I urge you to read it. I wrote a post about it here. It’s poignant and encouraging, and it lifted my spirits. Some of the things it said gave me pause and those moments of reflections have lead to some decisions. So, I present to you The State of the Cycle, a look at the future of The Bell Forging Cycle, where things stand, where we’re going, and what other projects I’m working on.


1.) Where Do Things Stand?

Red Litten World is out, which means the series is currently a trilogy. After some hiccups in the initial print run and some other issues, I am pleased with where things are at currently. (Not that both didn’t come with obnoxious amounts of stress.) Some great reviews rolling in on both Amazon and Goodreads and it seems everyone is enjoying being back in Lovat, which makes me pretty dang happy.

To date, I have sold several thousand copies from the series and continue to see people starting their journey with Waldo Emerson Bell and his crew. A lot of that is thanks to you, my readers. Your reviews help. You blog posts help. Your fan art helps. Your general encouragement helps. All of it goes a long way towards getting others interest in the series. Thank you so much, and please keep it up. I can shout this from the mountaintop all I want, but it’s readers who influence other readers.

I have a few people email me about this, and I know a few people thought this series would be wrapped up in a trilogy, but that was never the plan. The Bell Forging Cycle was always intended to be a hexology. There are at least three more books to write in Waldo’s tale, and things are going to get turbulent before we finish.

I should also mention; there are now a lot of interesting little tidbits scattered around the internet these days. Stuff that reveals more and offers glimpses into other aspects of the world of the Territories. If you’re so inclined, poke around, share what you find, secrets await for those willing to search.


2.) When Is the Next Bell Forging Cycle Novel Coming?

That is the question I get asked the most. (Usually, after someone finished the latest book.) The honest answer is: I am not sure, but probably not in 2016.

I realize that’s not the most precise of answers, and please don’t think I am going to Geroge R. R. Martin you, you’re not going to have to wait eleven years between novels. I want to do this right, and I am adjusting my production to allow that. I am going to take time and refine my process. I’m also hunkering down on two other projects before I dive into book four. There is the possibility of a Bell Forging Cycle novella next year, but I’d much rather release it properly than rush it to the market and have it be something unsatisfying.


3.) Okay, What Are These Other Projects?

I’m mentioned both of them before, and I am still hard at work on each. In the past, I started talking about books way before they were ready. I’m trying hard not to do that again, so pardon the vagueness.

PROJECT ONE:

This is a standalone non-traditional fantasy and I playing my cards close for now. I might reveal the name, continuing to referring to it as my “standalone non-traditional fantasy” is getting tiresome. The manuscript is complete. I am revising it; it ended up being a much bigger project than I expected. Needless to say, I am excited about it’s prospects, and if you like weird fantasy novels you’ll, probably really enjoy this.

I’d love to see this released in 2016, but I am considering taking this manuscript and pursuing traditional publishing, and that could slow things down. We’ll see how that goes.

PROJECT TWO:

It’s called Coal Belly, a manuscript I have written, rewritten, tried to shop, and then eventually scrapped in favor of working on The Stars Were Right. It’s not uncommon for me. I’ve done it before. (I have many finished and half-finished manuscripts behind me) But, unlike the other dead manuscripts, this one haunted me. I love its characters; I love its strange world and its odd magic. I want to tell its story.

All that said, the former manuscript was old, and in the last five years I have matured a lot in my writing. So, recently, I decided the best way to tell this story was to strip it down to its bones and rewrite it.

If you like swashbuckling action, riverboats, political intrigue, civil war, and magic, then this will be a story for you. As of right now, there are no plans for a release date.


4.) Wait, Backup a Sec, What’s This Novella?

Ah, good question. It’s told from Wensem’s perspective and takes place during the events of Red Litten World. I won’t say more on here since I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t read book three. The events in RLW were the perfect catalyst for this story. It’s in the tracker on the right, and I’m enjoying expanding the world of the Bell Forging Cycle in a new direction. If you’re a fan, I think you’ll enjoy this.


5.) So, 2016 Plans?

Right now: writings and cons and writings and cons and over and over and over. I’m still sorting out my travel schedule, but I will be attending NorWesCon in the spring, and I’m also hoping to expand into Portland a few times as well as head over to the Spokane area. I had some great experiences in both locations last year. As always I will be making announcements here as that happens.

As I mentioned above, if time allows I would love to release my new standalone non-traditional fantasy novel, but I’m focused on taking my time with it. So it’ll be finished when it is finished. So far, that’s my 2016 plans.


So, there is the State of the Cycle, 2015. It’s likely that next year is going to be an exciting year for me, and I hope you’ll continue to follow along. As always I will keep updating I Make Stories and my project tracker as I move forward. I have quite a few more Wild Territories to write, and some other exciting stuff is coming as well.

If you want detailed info ahead of time, make sure to sign up for my newsletter. Subscribers get news on releases before anyone else. I don’t send many, maybe four or five a year. Sign up today →

Shut up and write!

Mark Twain Writing
I’m an over planner. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I like to plan—and there is nothing wrong with that—but sometimes I take it to an extreme. When I wrote my first manuscript, Coal Belly, I learned a valuable lesson about my tendency to over plan.

It started with a map. After I had finished it apparently I needed to draw out the deck plans for the riverboat central to the plot. When that was finished I had to draw a new highly detailed map the capital city where a section of the story took place. That obviously wasn’t detailed enough so I needed to divide it up and name all the neighborhoods. Then I needed to draw out the various symbols of the various factions within that capitol city. Next I needed to… no…no, no, no, no, no.

No.

I didn’t need to do half that. Eventually I realized I was spending so much time creating busy work for myself that I was getting nothing done. I was working on collateral and not on the actual story itself. That’s a problem. Research is fine when it’s crucial but there comes a time when it begins to get in the way. Learning to recognize when I was doing something necessary and when I was just spinning my wheels was essential for me to get things done. I had to quit working on all the tangential stuff and focus on the work itself. The actual work. I needed to just shut up and write.

I have to remind myself about this daily. I need to separate the busy work from the real work. There’s always a blog post to write, a character to outline, an article to read, a comment to compose, a map to draw, a playlist to assemble, a twitter conversation to follow, etc. The list is endless and it can get in the way and keep you from finishing. (Rule #2) It’s different for each of us but somewhere inside we all know if what we are doing is needed to finishing our project or if it’s just a distraction.

Whenever you catch yourself doing something that isn’t what you want to be working on, do a double check. Decide if it’s really worth your time or if you should just sit down, shut up, and write.