The Writing Life

From a newsgroup post dated February 10, 2009:

So I’m cleaning my office, trying to get it fit to allow prospective homebuyers in it, and this includes sorting through papers and filing or tossing most of them, so that’s what I’ve been doing this afternoon, and I’ve just now been going through a stash of story ideas — print-outs of Usenet and SFF Net posts, scribbled notes of one sort or another, sketchy maps, correspondence with editors about planned projects, etc.

And one of the scribbled notes is a story idea I had completely, totally forgotten, which has the potential to be an absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking story. How could I not have remembered that one?

Note, June 8, 2017: I haven’t forgotten it again, but I still haven’t written it, either.

Opening Pandora’s Box

A newsgroup post from October 15, 2008, complaining about Pandora Internet Radio. This was, in fact, why I stopped using it:

Okay, I’ve started several stations now, and they all seem to keep drifting in the same direction. I know what I want, and Pandora generally seems to start off with it, then gradually go off course. No matter what I choose as my starting point, the music keeps getting slower.

I mean, I picked “Ooh La La” by Goldfrapp to try to get fast techno, and instead, while I’m getting more Goldfrapp, it’s all her slower songs. (“Crystalline Green” is playing right now.) I got “#1 Crush” by Garbage, which is a cool song, but what do I have to do to not get stuff that’s so slow?

I hate to thumbs-down songs I actually like, but I may start doing exactly that.

Useless Details

From a newsgroup post dated July 20, 2008:

My family has been naming cars since my Dad got a second-hand gray 1936 Ford during World War II and named it Boadicea. The following are the cars my parents and I have owned:

Boadicea: gray 1936 Ford sedan
The Olds: forest green 1948 Oldsmobile
The Wagon: light green 1954 Chevy wagon with fake wood sides
Bianca: white 1964 Chevy Greenbrier passenger van, with red stripe
Melanie: tan 1969 VW bus
Daphne: green and white 1972 VW bus
Cinnamon: red 1980 Chevy Citation

Julie & me:
Solid Jackson: gray-and-white 1957 DeSoto Firesweep hardtop
Harry Carry the Dirty Dog: white 1971 Toyota Corolla with several large patches of brown body putty
Gretchen: Miami blue 1978 VW Rabbit
Lambert: gold 1976 Dodge D-100 pick-up with huge white camper top
Magellan the Voyager (Maggie): maroon 1984 Plymouth Voyager minivan
Polychrome (Polly): silver 1986 Chevy Spectrum
Winnie: gray 1991 Plymouth Voyager minivan
Sally: arrest-me red 1993 Buick Skylark Gran Sport
Ariel: silver 1998 Isuzu Oasis minivan (built by Honda)
Brandi: “apple-red” 2008 Hyundai Elantra

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, 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.


From a newsgroup post dated January 14, 2014 that was inexplicably pinned out of order, hence the six-years-plus jump. Will be dropping back next time:

So I’ve never had a checklist (I guess the usual term these days is “bucket list”), but I find myself looking back at various cool things I’ve done that I didn’t really expect to ever do.

(At least, I think they’re cool.)

Here are a few:
Flew a small plane.
Climbed the Great Wall.
Had a drink with Mickey Spillane
Dined with Leonard Nimoy at his home.
Scripted a comic book story with Alex Ross art.
Chatted with Roger Zelazny.
Shook hands with Isaac Asimov.
Went skiing. (Didn’t like it.)
Walked through the Circus Maximus.
Watched a storm blow in while standing atop the Eiffel Tower.
Dickered with a silk merchant in Shanghai’s Old Town.
Shot skeet off the tail of a cruise ship.
Drove a ’57 DeSoto up the Jersey Turnpike at 115 MPH.
Pegged the speedometer on a ’69 VW bus.
Handled a Byzantine manuscript that used crushed rubies for its red ink.
Had my stories reprinted in textbooks ranging from fifth grade to college level.
Climbed the dome of St. Peter’s.
Visited the crypts of St. Paul’s.
Rode a maglev train.
Sailed through a big Atlantic storm.
Got drunk with a girl in the Latin Quarter in Paris, and wound up married to her.
Crewed on the America’s Cup yacht Canada II in a race. Admittedly, a meaningless three-boat race staged as a tourist attraction, but still. I was starboard backstay grinder.)

Life of A Salesman

From a newsgroup post dated October 17, 2007:

Elsewhere there’s a discussion of a very annoyingly condescending salesclerk someone dealt with recently; I remarked there that such salespeople are fools, because you sell more stuff with flattery than condescension.

Which reminded me of an incident, lo these many years ago, which I didn’t post there because it wasn’t relevant, so I’m posting it here. Not that it’s relevant here, either, but it’s my newsgroup, so I can post it anyway.

I was in the audio department somewhere, I think at Circuit City, considering whether to replace all or part of the stereo system I bought back in 1973. I was chatting with a salesman, who was doing a pretty good job of ingratiating himself without being pushy or condescending, and I had explained that I maybe wanted to upgrade my twenty-year-old system.

He asked what I had.

“A Sansui 661 receiver,” I said.

He nodded. “A decent unit in its day,” he said, “but you can do better. What have you got for speakers?”

“MicroAcoustic FRM-1s,” I said.

“Well, you aren’t going to replace those,” he said. “There isn’t anything better.”

Whereupon he managed to flatter me immensely, and impress me with his knowledge, at the same time he lost the sale. He was the first salesman I’d met since 1975 who’d ever heard of the MicroAcoustic FRM-1, and if he said that no one had improved on it, I believed him, so I didn’t buy new speakers.

I did spend a pleasant half-hour chatting about audio equipment with him, though.


From a newsgroup post dated August 18, 2007:

I am sometimes amazed by what words various spellcheckers don’t recognize.

The built-in spellchecker in Eudora, for example, doesn’t recognize “internet” or “website” or pretty much any other words describing the technology it works with. It does recognize lots of names, such as Rome, Venice, and Lawrence, but not Evans.

And I have just noticed that the dictionary in WordPerfect 10 doesn’t recognize “whores.”

That doesn’t seem like a very obscure word to me.

The electronic version of Boggle I sometimes play allows you to add words to its dictionary easily, so it now recognizes a lot more than when I got it, but I still sometimes hit peculiar lapses. And then there are the obscenities — straight out of the box it didn’t acknowledge “fuck” or “shit,” which isn’t surprising for a game aimed at kids and which I’m sure was deliberate, but it did recognize “shite” and “cunt.”

How odd.

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.