Tag Archives: Coal Belly

Ghosts of April

Ghosts of April

It’s strange to me that in a few days April 2018 will have come and gone and we’ll be moving towards summer here in Seattle. Time—as ever—ticks forward. I realize that for the last few months, April in particular, things have been rather quiet around here. Damn near ghostly, in fact; so I wanted to take a moment to update everyone on what’s been happening.

I’m still hard at work on rewrites and edits for Coal Belly. That seems to be my usual state of being lately. Edits tend to be difficult for me, namely because my eyes see what my brain wanted and not what should be there. Thank goodness for copy editors. That said, it’s coming along at quite a clip, and I’ll be reaching out to my beta readers this summer. Then, once I get their feedback, I go back through it all over again.

The fourth Bell Forging Cycle novel has been in the works for some time now. While there hasn’t been any prose written, I do have a rough outline, and think I know where I want it to go. Now, whether Wal behaves is another matter. So often we writers create characters and then the characters do something wildly different than what we planned. It’ll be interesting going back to it after having written two very different books in the interim.

So that’s been my spring. It’s odd writing posts like these, because while a lot has been happening, it doesn’t always come across that way when you lay everything out. Once that progress slider is full it seems like everything should be done, but in truth, the first draft is only the beginning.

Okay, back to work.

2017 in Ten Awesome Photos

2017 in Ten Awesome Photos

It’s become a tradition around here to reflect on the past year by sharing ten photos that summarize the last twelve months. The rules are simple: ten photos, no more, no less.

I love doing this.

Selecting my ten forces me to consider my year in a different light, it slows down time. Perception and reality are often wildly different. If you asked me how 2017 was going a few months ago, my mind would have drifted towards the negative. There’s the endless outcry on social media, the seemingly exhaustless supply of terrible news/decisions/people coming from DC, and the reemergence of Nazis and Nazi-sympathizing dickheads. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.

However, when I go back through my year, I see a lot more good than bad. I see momentum. I see friendships, adventure, and change. I see passion. When so much time and energy is devoted to focusing on the negative, one often forgets the positive things that occur. It doesn’t negate the bad. There’s still trouble and tragedy in the world and society must remain vigilant. But this sort of ritual can help one recenter. Try it yourself.

So, with that said, let’s take a look at my 2017 distilled down to ten awesome photos.


At the beginning of the year, Kari-Lise and I took a trip up to Vancouver, British Columbia to celebrate her birthday. We both took a lot of photos, but this picture of Kari-Lise in the Vancouver Art Gallery is the most important to me. In 2018 Kari-Lise and I will celebrate 15 years of marriage, and I cannot think of a better partner in this crazy life than her. She’s there to pick me up when I stumble and raise me higher when I succeed. I wouldn’t be the man or writer I am today without her. I can’t fathom a better way to begin a year than standing by her side and celebrating her birthday. 2017 might have been tough, but with her, I was able to endure.


I marched in the Women’s March. I felt it was important to walk beside the fantastic women in my life. This was their march, not mine. I’m not flamboyant or loud, I don’t chant or shout, but I wanted to stand in support and be present.


In February, eBooks of Old Broken Road went on sale for 99¢, and it was offered to BookBub subscribers. It took off like gangbusters. It was a whirlwind couple of days. I sold thousands of books, and for a brief stint, I ranked among the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors on Amazon, just a titch above two of my idols, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King. It was great to see so many new readers step into the world of the Territories. (Someone tell ’em to go leave reviews.)


Kari-Lise had another fantastic show! Wake opened April 1st at Thinkspace Gallery, in Los Angeles. Us and several friends, made the trip down to celebrate. (Thanks, Redd, Siolo, and Vinnie.) The show was a success, the turnout was great. I’m really proud of Kari-Lise, and the work she created for this series. Check out the full show over on Thinkspace’s website.


I returned once again to Norwescon. This year my hometown convention celebrated its 40th anniversary, and I was honored to be a panelist. As always, I had an absolute blast. Saw some friends, had some great conversations, learned a lot. I’m hoping to go again in 2018. More more info, check out the full Norwescon 40 Debriefing.


I participated in the March For Science on a rainy Earth Day with Kari-Lise and my little sister. Like the Women’s March, I felt it was essential to me to stand and be present.


Between travel, shows, and work, we didn’t get into the mountains as much as we wanted. But when we did, it was phenomenal. This photo was taken at Otter Falls this summer, it’s one of my favorite spots in the Cascade Mountains.


I finished a manuscript. Coal Belly is a story I wrote a long time ago and attempted to shop. After multiple rejections, I eventually put it aside. But that wasn’t the end. The characters and setting haunted me always tickling at the back of my mind while I worked on the Bell Forging Cycle. I returned to it in 2016, starting from scratch and completely reworking much of the book. It took me almost a year and a half, but I’m immensely proud of the result. I’m in the middle of editing it now. I can’t wait to share it with the world.


I went to Scotland, and it quickly became one of my most favorite places on the planet. (Right up there with Iceland and Norway.) We traveled with some friends for half the time, saw castles, hiked mountains, drank scotches, fell into bogs. It was one of the best trips I’ve taken in my life, and I can’t wait to eventually go back. Read the Scotland Trip Report.


Change occurred. This summer Kari-Lise got into gardening which meant on some level I also got into gardening. We fell in love with the direction our little backyard oasis was taking. But, during a late-autumn windstorm, the enormous fir that had been one of the centerpieces toppled taking out a beautiful maple tree and a large bush with it. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and only the landscaping damaged, but the fall changing our backyard forever. It was tough to swallow. But life is change, and one must adapt. Holding onto the past can be just as dangerous as ignoring the future. So, a few weeks ago I took up a chainsaw and started my (unexpected) winter project.


In Conclusion

As is always the case, it was hard to narrow this down to just ten photos. So much more happened and it was all impactful in various ways. I mean think of the things I’m leaving off! I went to Lilac City Comicon with my pal Josh, I went to Orycon, there were backyard barbecues, mounds of research, multiple art shows, we explored the Pacific Northwest, I read piles of books, and we’re raising insects. But, narrowing the selection to ten is apart of the ritual.

2017 was a tough year, I’m not sorry to see it go. But I’m glad to have lived it. Here’s to 2018.


Want to revisit photos of past years? Click on any of the links below and check out my Ten Awesome Photos from that specific year. It’s interesting to watch subtle changes year over year.

201420152016


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 →

Top Five Posts of 2017

My Top Five Posts of 2017

As many of you know, I’ve been doubling down on my blog versus sharing and spending time on social media. This blog and my newsletter, Dead Drop, are the best locations to discover what I am working on and find major announcements. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Since the year is wrapping up, I thought it’d be great to revisit the most popular posts I’ve shared in 2017. I’m actually really excited about this list. A lot of work went into the posts in this top five, work I was proud to share. It’s nice to see people found them enjoyable. (I’m considering my experiment a success.) So let’s take a look at the best of the best! We’ll start at number five and work our way to number one.


Making Magnificent Mountains5. Making Magnificent Mountains

It’s no secret that I love making maps, and I am a minor participant within several communities across the internet dedicated to the mapmaking process. So I’m not surprised that when I offered a set of 19th-century hachure-style topographical brush for download that people were interested. I plan on more offerings like this one in the future.


Riverboats at War4. Riverboats at War

This year I started sharing research for my manuscript, Coal Belly, in particular, research surrounding American steamboats. In these posts, I offer bits of knowledge and include a whole mess of photos gleaned from the historical record. (Usually the Library of Congress) War, and the history of war, always captures people’s attention, and this post about the brown water navy used in the American Civil War sparked excitement.


How Passenger Airships Work3. How Passenger Airships Work

Airships have always been something of an interest for me. But I never quite understood how they worked as passenger transport. I thought everyone crammed into the small gondola that hung below. So for my own education, I looked into it. What I discovered was something that many others found fascinating making this one of my most visited posts for the year.


Hunting the Yellow Sign2. Hunting the Yellow Sign

Robert Chambers’ collection of short stories, The King in Yellow, features some of my favorite cosmic horror tales. For years, I’ve seen a wide variety of artist renditions of the titular king’s yellow sign, but none of them quite hit the mark. I too wanted to know more. What was this mysterious symbol? How it was described in the work? Why was it rendered in various ways? I wanted to see if I could get to the bottom of this mystery. And a great many of you were just as engaged. Did we solve the secret of the yellow sign? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out.


And the number one post of the year is…


The 2017 Lovecraft-Inspired Holiday Gift Guide1. The 2017 Lovecraft-Inspired Holiday Gift Guide

My Lovecraftian Holiday gift guide is always incredibly popular, so it is no surprise that this post ended up being my number one post for the year. (Despite being the youngest on this list.) It’s full of fantastic gift ideas for yourself or the cosmic-horror fans in your life. I make sure to try and find items for every budget. If you have an idea for next years list, why not shoot me an email and let me know.


So those are the top five posts of the year! I want to extend a huge THANK YOU to those who read, subscribe, and share the stuff I post here on I Make Stories. You make it all worthwhile. Thanks for making 2017 one of the best years for this blog, and stick around, there’s a lot more to come in 2018.

❄️ 💀 ❄️


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 →

Research: Riverboat's at 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 →

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.