The Wooden Heads

From a series of newsgroup posts dated July 14, 2008:

My mother’s parents were British. They wound up on this side of the Atlantic by accident when a series of flukes stranded my grandfather in Halifax, and they wound up in the U.S. when Halifax Harbor blew up and the closest place Grandpa could find work in his field (he was, at that point, a naval architect) was Baltimore. They did not come to America seeking a new life. They had no objection to anything in Britain. They only got here more or less by mistake, and would happily have gone back if circumstances had made it practical.

My mother therefore had a rather Anglophilic upbringing. Part of this — well, when she was a little girl in Chester, my grandmother loved a British children’s magazine called Chatterbox. Chatterbox was a monthly, and ran serialized stories, as well as a lot of other stuff, and always concluded every serial in the December issue. They would then take the original printing plates for all twelve issues and print a collected Chatterbox Annual, which was simply the twelve issues put together in hardcover. The Annuals made great Christmas presents for British kids.1925 Chatterbox Annual

And when they had finished printing the British annuals, the publisher shipped the printing plates to Boston, where an American publisher printed a U.S. edition of the Chatterbox Annual. I think it appeared one year after the British edition, rather than simultaneously.

When my grandmother discovered that the American edition existed, it became inflexibly ordained that my mother would receive the Chatterbox Annual every Christmas, starting at age two and continuing as long as they could be found.

Mother liked Chatterbox a lot, despite it being thoroughly British and a bit stodgy, and saved all those Annuals, and when she had her own kids we all got to read them. I liked them a lot. In particular, I liked some of the serials from the early 1920s — “Bushranger’s Gold,” “The Dim Red Dawn,” “Dragons At Home,” etc.

I sometimes wonder whether more people read these stories than is generally known. To me, Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear looks a lot like “The Dim Red Dawn” with added sex and a lot more verbiage. Some of the ads for the movie “Night At the Museum” look like scenes from the last part of “Dragons At Home.”

“Bushranger’s Gold” (to name the example I best remember; there were others) starts out as a boarding-school story before sending the protagonist brothers off to adventure in the Australian Outback, so the school scenes in Harry Potter felt very familiar to me.

Nothing, however, looks like “The Wooden Heads,” my favorite Chatterbox story of all.

People sometimes ask me what the major influences on my writing are, and I usually cite several stories, but the fact is, the single work with the greatest influence was “The Wooden Heads.” It warped me for life.

The author’s name was C.L. Hales; as far as I’ve been able to determine, he only ever published two works under that name, “The Wooden Heads” circa 1924, and more than a decade later something I’ve never seen called, if I remember correctly, “Bats in the Belfry.” (Note, 2017: I have since acquired and read a copy of Bats in the Belfry; it was severely disappointing, as it’s a badly-dated attempt at socio-political humor.) There was apparently a book edition of The Wooden Heads, but I’ve never seen a copy and it appears to be quite rare. (I’d love a copy.)

So what’s it about?

The story opens with the Sidhill family awakening one morning in their home in London and discovering that the world is strangely quiet. Their own household — mother, father, five kids [well, six, it turns out — I forgot preschooler Beatrice], housekeeper, dog — is completely intact, but everyone else in London has vanished.

They try to go on with normal life on the assumption that everything will right itself in time, but that gradually becomes less and less possible. What’s more, they find they’re being watched by mysterious creatures they dub “the wooden heads,” who are apparently responsible for the disappearances, and who are now trying to pick off the Sidhills, as well.Mr. Sidhill vs. the Wooden Heads

For the most part the story focuses on the two oldest Sidhill children, Rolfe and Chad, though their two sisters and their father get some attention. (The mother and baby are left utterly undeveloped, unfortunately, and the housekeeper’s few appearances are mostly comic relief; I think Tim, the dog, gets more attention.)

The Sidhills respond with English pluck, first figuring out how to defend themselves, and then going on the offensive, eventually defeating the Wooden Heads and bringing the rest of London back from limbo — but the story doesn’t end there; it follows through the aftermath, as the Sidhills try to convince the world what actually happened.

I loved that. I had never seen any other story where defeating the big menace wasn’t the end of the adventure. (I didn’t read “The Lord of the Rings” until a few years later.)

Another thing I loved was the changes in mood; “The Wooden Heads” is genuinely creepy in some scenes, funny in others, touching in others. The heroes are brave and clever but never superhuman; when I was eight I wanted to grow up to be Chad Sidhill. (Rolfe was a bit too cocky for me; Chad was the clever one.)

The thing is, no one outside my immediate family seemed to have ever heard of the story.

All my life, I’ve found that frustrating. I wanted to talk about the story with other readers! I wanted to share this treasure.

So many years ago, I began trying to track down its history, to find out whether there was some way to make it more widely known.

Before the net, getting information was almost impossible unless I wanted to devote far more time and money than it was worth. I made inquiries with used-book dealers. When I was in England in 1993 I did try to find out more, and couldn’t uncover much. I even tried to track down Hale’s heirs, completely without success. As the web has developed, I’ve periodically researched Hales and “The Wooden Heads,” with very little result.

Recently, though, I discovered that someone has transferred all the U.S. Copyright Office renewal records to electronic form — the Copyright Office itself never did this because they were never given the budget for it, but academic researchers tackled the job, and earlier this year the data finally came online.

I downloaded the entire database in late June, but at 380 megabytes of XML, I didn’t have the capacity to actually use it on Chloe.

Today, though, I’ve discovered that there are university webservers that can run a 380-meg database just fine, and they’re available to the public, so I’ve searched on “Chatterbox” and “Hales” and “Wooden Heads,” and have concluded that the copyright was never renewed.

“The Wooden Heads” is in the public domain in the U.S.

(Best evidence is that it’s still got about five years left in Britain, though.)

So — it’s public domain. I can do whatever I want with it. I have a copy of that Chatterbox Annual.

And the question, the reason I’m posting this, is: What should I do with it?

Why I Love My Wife Part 1,326

From a newsgroup post dated June 15, 2008, which I’m taking slightly out of sequence:

So I was mulling over possibly drastically rewriting a key scene in Sorcerer’s Justice, and I ran it past Julie, the only other person in the world who’s read the first draft of Sorcerer’s Justice, explaining the changes I was considering, and why.

She thought about it for a moment, then said, “It would cut down on the blood and gore.”

I agreed that it would.

That can’t be good,” she said.

Note: “Sorcerer’s Justice” was eventually published as A Young Man Without Magic.

Story Titles I Like But Will Probably Never Use

From a newsgroup post dated May 24, 2007:

“The Scott Girl’s Thighbone”

“Our Lady of Vengeance”

“In the President’s Harem”

5/18/17: I don’t think I ever had stories to go with them. I’ve always been prone to coming up with titles without stories — in fact, I have several long lists. Many of them are taken from song lyrics; Counting Crows and Jefferson Starship provided a lot of those. The theory is that eventually I’ll either come up with a story to match, or I’ll be able to attach one of the titles to an existing unfinished story. In at least two instances (“Teaching Machines” and “Richie”) I actually started with a title, came up with a story to fit it, and then wound up with a different title on the published version.

These three aren’t from song lyrics or puns or twists on other titles or stock phrases, they just imply interesting things.

Those Who Can

From a newsgroup post dated April 10, 2007:

Down in another newsgroup a couple of people posted pitches for their unpublished novels. I wasn’t impressed — in fact, I thought both were pretty lame, though the novels might not be.

I should have just let it go, but I didn’t — I rewrote ’em both.

I pretended this was an educational effort, but I’m pretty sure I was just showing off.

The thing is, though, that the reason I bothered to do it was that it was so easy. I mean, both pitches contained, as originally written, all the elements needed to make a good pitch — plot, setting, character — but they didn’t make it sound interesting.

One of them spent too long explaining how a disaster happened, when the novel is about the after-effects of the disaster. Who cares why it happened? The cool stuff is what the survivors have to do afterward!

The other had long unpronounceable names all over it, when what matters is the romantic triangle of a mad lord, his loyal henchman, and the courtesan secretly plotting the lord’s overthrow.

They could both be great stories — but alas, I’ll bet they aren’t. It’s a shame.

And it demonstrates a couple of things:

That it’s not the idea that matters, it’s the execution.*

Why I stopped trying to teach writing — it’s too frustrating, seeing all this potential that’s never going to be properly used. That romantic triangle could be a classic, done right, but the odds that it’s done right are mighty slim.

Feist’s Corollary: There is no idea so brilliant or original that a sufficiently untalented writer can’t fuck it up.**


* My great-great grandfather was born on an estate in Maine named Execution. It’s kind of a family mystery why anyone would name a house that, but it almost certainly has something to do with the concept that it’s the execution that matters.

The house is now a hole in the ground in the middle of a forest; the only part of the estate that hasn’t gone back to wilderness is the family burial plot, which is maintained by veterans’ groups because there’s a Revolutionary War hero buried there. They consistently put the Memorial Day flag and flowers on the wrong grave, though — there were lots of Goodwins with the same few names. So much for execution.

** This corollary to Watt-Evans’ Law is the only time I have ever seen Ray Feist use the word “fuck.” I think I cleaned it up for the version on my webpage, but this is the original.

The Decline and Fall of Science Fiction

Newsgroup post, August 23, 2006:

A while back I agreed to be an award judge again. This is a stupid thing I keep doing — I don’t really think awards are a good thing, I can’t really afford the time, but somehow it’s so flattering to be asked that I keep agreeing.

In this case, I’m one of a panel of judges reading five nominees and choosing one as the winner. They’re all supposed to be science fiction.

So I read them. Well, some of them; I admit to not finishing all five, which I excuse by saying that if I don’t want to finish a book, it hardly deserves to win an award, does it?

Of the five, only two were actually fun to read.

The others were a slog, all of them over-long, with long, slow stretches and not much in the way of excitement. One’s more or less a near-future thriller that alas, isn’t thrilling. The other two are solidly SF, with all the stefnal accoutrements, but just didn’t appeal to me at all.

Of the two I enjoyed, one’s only SF by courtesy; it takes a standard dark fantasy trope and treats it as a scientifically-explainable secret history, rather than as supernatural.

Of the two I enjoyed, one is slickly written, nicely crafted, but didn’t really engage me emotionally very much. The other’s prose is charming, but a bit clunky at times, and some of the science and setting stuff is pretty absurd.

Both have fairly weak story structure, with oddly flat and predictable endings.

None of the five have vivid characters or genuinely exciting action or wonderful, mind-bending ideas.

If this is the best the genre has to show these days, no wonder SF sales are down and fantasy is eating its lunch.

Addendum, May 2, 2017: I don’t know whether this would describe the state of SF now, but it did seem to in 2006. I have no idea what’s happening in SF right now; I’m years behind on my reading.

When Stories Explode

Not a reprint! An all-new blog post about current stuff!

So a few years back I came up with an idea for a story called “The Dance Lesson.” When I say “an idea,” I do not mean a complete story; I mean an idea, something that could be an element in a story. In this case, I had two characters and a social situation and an ending scene — not a climax, but the closing scene of the story, part of the denouement, a bit that would reveal something about the viewpoint character and leave the reader with a good feeling.

I had very little idea how to get there, but I figured it wouldn’t be hard, just a matter of constructing a simple plot where Character A would solve Character B’s problem. I wrote an opening scene that introduced the characters and set up Character B’s problem, the one A would need to solve.

But I didn’t actually know how he’d solve it, or why he’d want to, and I didn’t have a market in mind for a story like this, so I stopped there.

Then later I came up with an idea to make their initial interaction much more interesting, so I added that, which completed the opening scene, but I still didn’t know what came next, so again I set it aside. Before I set it aside, though, I changed the title to “The Dance Teacher” or “The Dancing Teacher” because the “lesson” part no longer fit.

Then last year I got an anthology invitation, with a June 1, 2017 deadline. It was for a follow-up anthology to one I’d been invited to ages ago, where I’d started a story called “Fearless,” but then got too busy to finish it before the deadline for that earlier volume. So I hauled out “Fearless” (which took awhile, because I’d forgotten the title) and looked it over and discovered I’d forgotten half the plot, and it might not really be all that great a fit with the anthology guidelines anyway, which was annoying.

But then it occurred me that “The Dancing Teacher” might suit the anthology instead, so I went and looked at it, and decided that to fit the guidelines it needed a particular sort of conflict (which I am having second thoughts about even as I type this), so I worked out a plot that could make this happen. I wrote more of the story.

And I realized it was going off the rails. I had Character A doing something boneheaded that could not, by any reasonable means, result in the happy ending I wanted.

So I threw out most of it, back to almost where I’d stopped over a year ago.

Then I started forward again — and almost immediately, I realize I’ve set up A in a situation where he must lie to his employer with fairly little justification. Not just a little lie, either, but a serious deception that could have serious negative consequences. Which makes him a little more morally ambiguous than I’d intended.

Why is this story being so damned uncooperative?

And So It Begins

Newsgroup post, March 4, 2006:

With the kids out of the house, the place doesn’t get messed up much. This means Julie actually has these silly fantasies about someday getting everything cleaned up and sorted out.

We had to move a bunch of boxes to install the new water heater, including one that had been partially soaked by the leak that precipitated the departure of the old water heater, and then they had to stay out of the way until the WSSC inspector came to approve the installation. That meant that those boxes were sitting out in the basement den, taunting Julie.

So we’ve actually started going through some of this old stuff, reorganizing it, throwing out the obvious trash, etc.

And we’re stumbling across stuff that has us wondering, “What the heck should we do with this?”

For example, there are four manuscripts here — photocopies, not originals — of novels I was asked to blurb in the 1980s. Specifically, The Magic of Recluce, by Lee Modesitt; Alchemy Unlimited, by Douglas W. Clark; The Duchess of Kneedeep, by Atanielle Annyn Noel; and The Blind Archer, by John Betancourt.

Now, what should I do with these? eBay? Donate them to a SFWA charity auction? Trash? Donate to a museum somewhere?

April 4, 2017: I note that nobody had any useful suggestions, and I still have all these manuscripts ten years later. You people are no help.

Some of the Novels in My “Works in Progress” Folder

This list was originally posted September 24, 2005. I debated whether to put it here or in The Serial Box, but eventually decided on here; the Box is only for new stuff, not these salvaged old posts.

I’m going to annotate this in italics — anything italicized has been added in March 2017. Anything after this sentence that’s not italicized is from 2005.

Sorted a little:

>A Blast from the Past
(Haven’t touched this in years, and the plot’s a little out of date now.)

>A Handful of Gold (spin-off from The Lords of Dus)
>Assassin in Waiting (I’ve worked on this one a little.)
>Manda’s Magic
>Meant for Each Other
>Power of the People (I don’t recognize this at all; no idea what it is.)
>Putting on Heirs (sequel to Split Heirs)
>The Dragon’s Price (This one has gotten a little further.)
>The Third Mage (a trilogy, really) (I’ve changed the setting to a contemporary setting and started it over.)
>Myth America
>The Gates of Faerie
>Yard Sale Mystic (This one got converted to a comic book script, and has been hanging fire for years because the artist has yet to start on it.)

Science fiction:
>Cultural Attache (Retitled first The Partial Observer, then The Research Agent.)
>Dark Bodies
>Escort Duty
>Fast Times
>One Hundred Suns
>Realms of Light (sequel to Nightside City) Written and published.
>Refugee Planet
>The Ghost Takers
>The Terran Zone
>The Three of Us
>Trumpets of the Sky

>Jones and the Preacher

>One-Eyed Jack Written and published.
>Queen Vampire
>Something Wrong
>The Bride
>The Undine

>Rakehell’s Daughter


Hard to classify:
>Pentagram Squadron
>Vika’s Avenger Written and published.

Y’know, I’d really like to write all of these eventually, but I
probably won’t — I come up with new ones faster than I finish the old

I’ve come up with many more, and made progress on a few of the above, but I’ve also flat-out forgotten or abandoned some of these.

What Was I Thinking?

September 23, 2005:

I’ve been trying to sort out some files in my “Works in Progress” folder — classifying them as novels, essays, short fiction, or whatever — and I’m finding stuff where I have no idea at all how I was planning to complete some of these things.

For example, I wrote three stanzas of… um… something; I really don’t know what it was going to be. And they’re stanzas 1, 3, and 4; 2 is missing.

Here’s what I have:

Warlock Tea
by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Margaret’s mother was rushing about
Getting coats and preparing them both to go out
“It won’t take too long,” she said, “so you’ll see,
And when we come back we can have warlock tea.”

[missing verse]

Mister Bear, sitting up high on the shelf,
Muttered uncomfortably to himself,
“I wonder just what that could mean,” muttered he,
“To say that they both can have this warlock tea.”

The rocking horse down by the bureau replied,
“I’ve been everywhere, traveled far, traveled wide.
“A warlock, you know, is a magical man,
“Working much the same spells that the old witches can.”

What on Earth was that going to be about?