Stand Together or Die Alone: Step Five, Part 3

Step 5 – Admitted to the world, to another person, and to ourselves the exact nature of our disease

Back when I started going to writers conferences, I would always attend the first-time published sessions and listen to the experiences of those lucky few that got published. Here I was in the darkest cesspool of obscurity, scribbling in the dark, but these writers, these people, they had made it!
Writers Conference

Ha. Not sure we ever really make it. Will Stephenie Meyer write another novel, or have the haters hated her right into a cesspool I can only dream about? That of the despised, successful writer.

But back to the First Published panels at writers conferences. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to see these other writers succeed. Usually, I’m a very envious person, but hearing their journeys, for some odd reason, I didn’t focus on that. I focused not on the differences, but on the similarities. They struggled. They fought. And they made it. To getting published. As my friend Linda Rohrbough says, the game changes at every stage. And they were honest.

Listening to that honesty, I knew I wasn’t alone. And I could keep struggling and fighting.

Part of Step 5 is baring our souls and letting another person see how completely wacky we are. But there’s another part. The person who listens gets to share. And the stories we tell each other during the Step 5 process are priceless. I’m scared, you’re scared, we’re Nickelback+When+We+Stand+Together+2011both scared. Doesn’t mean we stop. No, once you have two people sharing their fear, the fear is lessened. I think that’s where the idea came from of when two people meet, there is God in that meeting.

Together we can do things we can’t do alone.


One of the best things that’s ever happened to me at a writers conference came when I ran into a guy who had just come from a terrible pitch session. He blew it. The fail was epic! White-faced, he was wandering the halls and we started talking.

He explained how horrible it had been. And right then, I could look him in the eye and say, “Yeah, I know. Here’s what happened to me.” I talked to him just like how Linda Rohrbough talked to me after my meeting with an agent went terribly, terribly wrong.

That’s the power that community has. That’s the amazing synergy that can happen if I reach out and engage with other people. But I’m a dark-souled sort. I need to remember that I need to share my victories as well as my defeats. That yes, my inventory is of the darker bits of who I am, but there are many sides to life and to me. I need to remember to celebrate when it’s time to celebrate. I had a rough time with that one.

One last thing. I’m choosy about who I let into the little circle of my life. Some people won’t understand, or they’ll try and preach.

hair on fireDon’t tell me what to do. Not even if I’m on fire. The minute you say, “Oh, you should put out the fire that’s burning on your head!” I will let that fire burn me to cinders.
But if you say, “Yeah, this one time, my head was on fire, and it hurt. Jesus, it hurt.”
I’ll listen closely to what you are saying. Because you’re not talking about me. You’re not preaching. You’re sharing about what happened to you.

And then, when you say, “Yeah, my head was on fire, and I got a bucket of water, and oh, it felt so good to douse the flames.” Then, I’ll go looking for a bucket. I can learn from your experience, not your preaching.

I love stories. Tell me a story, and I’ll learn.

So find a close group of people you trust, share what’s going on, and above all, keep working. Keep writing. Keep creating.

Because no one will read the book you don’t write.

One last thing on Step 5 next week.

I Get January Black and Taylor Swift-y with Author Wendy S. Russo

Okay, this is the thing, Wendy S. Russo is a fellow Crescent Moon Press writer, but she burst onto the scene in a torrent of activity. We’re talking Wizard of Oz tornado. Suddenly I was seeing Wendy Russo’s name everywhere. It’s kind of like what happened with the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Suddenly, at the kitchen table, I was making mashed potato sculptures of Wendy Russo. Weird.

Wendy_S_RUSSO_300Wendy got her start writing in the sixth grade. That story involved a talisman with crystals that had to be found and assembled before bad things happened, and dialog that read like classroom roll call. Since then, she’s majored in journalism (for one semester), published poetry, taken a course on short novels, and watched most everything ever filmed by Quentin Tarantino. A Wyoming native transplanted in Baton Rouge, Wendy works for Louisiana State University as an IT analyst. She’s a wife, a mom, a Tiger, a Who Dat, and she falls asleep on her couch at 8:30 on weeknights.

So in January, Wendy’s book, January Black, launched and smacked the world with its pages. Smack. I asked if she would do one of my funky fresh interviews and she agreed. But first, a little more about January Black.

JanuaryBlackCoverSixteen-year-old genius Matty Ducayn has never fit in on The Hill, an ordered place seriously lacking a sense of humor. After his school’s headmaster expels him for a small act of mischief, Matty’s future looks grim until King Hadrian comes to his rescue with a challenge: answer a question for a master’s diploma.
More than a second chance, this means freedom. Masters can choose where they work, a rarity among Regents, and the question is simple.
What was January Black?
It’s a ship. Everyone knows that. Hadrian rejects that answer, though, and Matty becomes compelled by curiosity and pride to solve the puzzle. When his search for an answer turns up long-buried state secrets, Matty’s journey becomes a collision course with a deadly royal decree. He’s been set up to fail, which forces him to choose. Run for his life with the challenge lost…or call the king’s bluff.


So, without further ado, LET’S DO THIS THING!

AARON: Okay, Wendy, you are ubiquitous. I see you online, on the CMP loop, everywhere. What is your secret? Do you have little gremlin-type creatures handling your social media?

Wendy: I wish. I feel like my life has been shot out of a confetti bomb. But, I have been Apple’d up…iPhone, iPad…. WordPress lets me schedule posts in advance. Apparently being the CMP Triberr chief means I can’t be kicked out of that tribe, so my posts are still being Tweeted by the few people Triberr liked enough to allow to say. To everyone else, I apologize. I promise I’ll sort that out soon. I’m off topic. I hope to be more ubiquitous in 2013. Maybe even obnoxious. Maybe I’ll even open up my calendar app and schedule reminders.

AARON: I was immediately digging on the cover of January Black. Where were you when you first saw your cover and what was your initial reaction?

Wendy: I was on Long Island, at my sister-in-law’s friend’s house. The woman is a hair stylist and she works out of her home. Anyhow, I was waiting for my turn when the email from Steph came in. Coincidentally, the stylist’s name is also Steph. I’ll admit that it took about a few seconds to grow on me. When you wait months and months to see something, you think about what it *might* look like, and the cover is a different direction than I thought the artist might go. Then I started seeing stars and realized I was holding my breath. I fell in love with the color and the little bird on the gate, and…yeah, I’m so glad I left it in Taria’s hands. It’s beautiful.

AARON: Oh, I just thought of a cool question. No, really. It might be the only one, so here goes. Your title is interesting, January Black. How does that support the overall theme of your book? Or if it doesn’t, skip this question. Or just talk about the theme of your book. Or bunnies. We can talk about bunnies. Everyone likes bunnies.

Monty-Python-rabbit_400Wendy: I’m particularly fond of bunnies with large teeth that inspire such fear in English knights that they will lob holy hand grenades in their general direction. Just kidding. January Black is the puzzle that Matty Ducayn must solve. Talking about it inevitably results in spoilers.

AARON: So January Black came out of what you call your own personal junkyard, The Lords of Papiyon. What do you mean by personal junkyard? And how do you come up with such cool titles? I have title envy.

Wendy: Thank you. I love titles. Okay…[cracks knuckles]…First of all, yes. Papiyon is spelled wrong. That’s intentional. I wrote a two-volume epic fantasy in 1999 called Circle of the Butterfly. Afterward, I decided that there were huge theme and structural issues with it, so I started writing a new story for the characters of that book built around a more deliberate skeleton, with more purpose. At the same time, I watched the movie “Papillon” with a roommate. Papillon is French for butterfly. I liked the sound of the word and named my epic rewrite “The Lords of Papiyon,” because it featured four characters with claim to the title. As for how it came to be my personal junk yard, ask me about egg whites.

AARON: You described how working on one of your projects was like whipping egg whites. What did you mean by that?

Wendy: When you whip egg whites for meringue, there is a point where you get just what you want. A fluffy cloud with stiff peaks. And if you don’t stop, the proteins in that beautiful substance seizes up and you get a mass of yuck floating in water. When you are a plotter, you can do the same thing with your writing. You can work it until, as a whole, you’ve just got a mess. And that’s what happened with Papiyon.

I’ve got 60-plus-thousand words of beautiful scenes, characters, and world-building, and it became apparent that it’s all groundwork for something massive. Like Neal Stephenson’s System of the World massive. It would require years of research in politics, physics, history, organized crime families, waste management systems…all things that interest me but that I am not committed to studying just to untangle the mess I’ve created.

So, back to the junk yard…I walk through it every once in a while. I pick out details…bits of dialog, a tradition I was laying in. January Black actually came out of one of Papiyon’s scenes…a boy standing in an overgrown garden.

AARON: So you’re living in the south, but you grew up in small town Wyoming. As a writer, what are the benefits of growing up in such a place? And what are the benefits of now living in Louisiana?

Wendy: Wide open spaces provide an unstructured opportunity for creativity. Worland, like many towns across the US, doesn’t have a lot of things for kids to do.


We had to make our own fun. Some of that fun was trouble, but most was constructive. I spent a lot of time in libraries and public parks. You don’t notice at the time, but when you’re older and living somewhere else, you remember the way the air smelled back home. You remember the way the clouds appeared on the horizon, and the feeling of the breeze on that first warm day in spring. In the north, you know snow is coming by the smell in the air. These are world-building things.

Living in the south, I have warmer weather year around, which is a huge plus for me. I have the Atchafalaya basin nearby, and New Orleans, and awesome food. I’m exposed to a much more diverse population of people, different accents and different backgrounds. The skies are different day and night from home and the weather patterns are different. My family also takes roadtrips. There’s a wealth of details for fiction world-building all around us if you can take it all in and remember.

AARON: So when we talked, I asked if you were a morning writer or evening writer. You said you write when you find the time. So how do you get into the mood? Any writer rituals?  Candles?  Incense? Chocolate busts that look like Dean Winchester from Supernatural?

Don’t talk about my chocolate Dean! If Rebecca Hamilton hears about it, she’ll come and fight me for it. Seriously though, I don’t have any writing rituals—or a chocolate Dean—which strikes me as odd. The rituals, I mean. Not Dean. I may have to create a few. Again, I mean rituals.

AARON: You said when you were working on January Black, you were listening to a lot of Dream Theater and Taylor Swift. I love Taylor Swift! Which characters are Dream Theater-y, and which characters are more Taylor Swift-y?

Wendy: The plot was inspired by Dream Theater’s “Rite of Passage.” It’s a song about Freemasonry on their Black Clouds and Silver Linings album. So, I guess that’s Matty’s song. His girlfriend, Iris, is Taylor Swifty…all the way down to the curly blond hair and awkward cuteness.

AARON: If you could bring one of your characters to life, which character would it be and why? And would he/she enjoy reality?

Wendy: King Hadrian. He’s so much fun. And he would enjoy reality immensely.

AARON: Thanks so much for agreeing to chat!

Wendy: Thank you for having me on your blog. This was fun.

AARON: Here is where you scatter your links like breadcrumbs…

Find out more about Wendy and buy her book!


January Black
Barnes and Noble


I Get Blue and Gray With Historical Fiction Writer Quinn Kayser-Cochran Part 2

quinn k 9863dd3Ready for more Civil War?  Of course you are!  Everyone loves the Civil War!  It was so Civil.  And so warry.

Okay, now for part II of the interview.  Charge!!!!!!!!!!

AARON: In the West, which side would you have wanted to fight on? Don’t worry, if you say Confederates we won’t say you’re racist. We’ll just think it.


Quinn: The Coloradans, no question. Come on, Aaron: no real Coloradan shoulders arms so that Texans can overrun our state—we have real-estate agents for that.

AARON: What would have been the worst part of fighting in the Civil War? The drab uniforms? The bad coffee? Dysentery?

Quinn: Probably everyone agrees that dysentery is worse than chicory coffee (I’d say that everyone agrees, but people are strange …), and chicory coffee (made from ground, roasted endive roots, chicory coffee was more-readily available than the real thing—especially to Southern troops later in the war, as the Union’s naval blockade curtailed imports of every kind) is—in my opinion—worse than a drab uniform. And besides, early in the war some regiments wore hilariously theatrical uniforms (the 11th New York Infantry Zouaves spring to mind—their uniforms were patterned on those worn by French colonial troops in Algeria: gray MC Hammer-pants with red and blue trim, leather leggings, red fezzes, etc.).


Seriously, though? As in any war, many men struggled with the emotional toll of killing other humans. Even those who believed in the correctness of their cause, or those whose church leaders had exempted them from normal strictures against killing, struggled to process the things they’d done (speaking of which, Lord, you wouldn’t believe the contortions some religious leaders went through to justify the wholesale murder taking place within their parishes). Of course, back then there was no such term as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—rather, men unhinged by the war were said to have a “soldier’s heart.” This legacy of violence, coupled with residual bitterness between barely-reconciled veterans, accounts for much of what made the West wild in the decades after the war. Men who’d killed dozens or even hundreds at Antietam, Shiloh, or Franklin, were less likely to show restraint during barroom brawls in Dodge City, Bodie, or Bannack. John Potts Slough, for example (the temperamental commander of Union forces at Glorieta Pass and a major supporting character in my novel)—who received a patronage appointment after the war as postmaster of Santa Fe—was shot dead during an argument with a political rival in the lobby of the La Fonda Hotel.

Other miseries? Lice. Smallpox. Loneliness—missing family and friends. Boredom, too. Boredom intercut with horrifying violence, as the Civil War marked a turning point in the scope and scale of warfare: 18th Century tactics were pitted against modern weapons (e.g., frontal charges with bayonets against entrenched enemies with rifled muskets and artillery), and the weapons won. The killing was almost without precedent. Indeed, European observers were so impressed by Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg, VA, that early in World War I, military thinkers revisited their doctrines and decided that trench warfare was the way to go (trenching by South Africa’s Boers also fired the British military’s imagination). And of course, back then, soldiers marched everywhere: a) Sibley’s poorly-supplied Texans marched 800 miles from San Antonio to Santa Fe (farther than Napoleon’s epic march on Moscow)—and back, with their supplies in even worse condition; and b) the First Colorado Regiment marched 300 miles from Denver City to Fort Union in 13 days—they averaged a marathon a day, despite being struck twice by blizzards. Push comes to shove, probably everything about fighting in the Civil War was miserable.

AARON: What was the best book you read in preparation of your novel, best hike, best coffee shop you wrote in? Best one thing?

the-battle-of-glorieta-union-victory-in-the-westQuinn: Best Book: the best non-fiction book I read while researching was Don E. Alberts’s The Battle of Glorieta, Union Victory in the West. It is well written and well annotated, and while several books on the subject indulge in apocrypha, Mr. Alberts sticks to facts. Best fiction was re-reading Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and while it’s about World War I instead of the Civil War, it reminded me how grim humor functions in wartime.

Best Hike: The Indian Creek Trail in New Mexico’s San Mateo Mountains. New Mexico Highway 107 strikes south from the town of Magdalena and more or less follows the route of the Texans’ retreat from the debacle at Peralta. Indian Creek is more or less where I imagined my fictional Confederates taking a wrong turn and dooming their escape. I hiked there in April once, and even that early in springtime, already it was awfully hot, dry, and windy, which pretty much set the tone for Glorieta’s ending.

Best Place to Write: Apart from my home office, where all the heavy lifting gets done, the two places I most enjoyed working on Glorieta were: a) New Mexico’s highways—I didn’t write while driving, but I did keep a digital recorder handy and narrated the sights as I went; and b) Evengelo’s Lounge, 200 West San Francisco St Santa Fe, NM 87501‎. The owner, Nick Evengelo, is someone everyone should meet—a total character, but decent and kind. I sat at Nick’s bar on a cold, quiet January night, and he kept the drinks coming and inquired occasionally to see how the writing was going. Very well, as I recall, or at least until those drinks kicked in. Very happy memories of that place.

AARON: What is the best story that didn’t make it into your novel, or did all the great stories make it in?

Quinn: A lot was cut, condensed, or simply faded away from the first draft to the final, but I think that everything truly essential survived. I cut a good bit of the Coloradans’ (i.e., the fictional miners who enlisted just before the First Colorado Regiment set off for New Mexico) back-story, and I think they seem a little weird as a result, but I really didn’t want to go over 500 pages or chop the story into halves. Other stories were cool but didn’t directly advance the plot, so these, too, were cut: at one point, historic Central City figures Aunt Clara Brown and Mary York—one black and the other white, but both fugitives from slavery—helped my fictional miners in their flight from crooked justice; and I compressed a section on the Taos Rebellion—which spread far beyond Taos—so that only events affecting one antagonist’s family were retained. Also, I moved a great deal of biographical information about actual persons, including their post-war lives, to my websites, (and/or


AARON: Why do you think the Civil War in the West is such a “hidden” story?

Quinn: I think there are several reasons. The first is scale: relatively minor battles back East involved thousands, even tens of thousands of combatants; at Glorieta, Valverde, and Peralta, there were never—even with both sides combined—more than 3,500 men on those fields, and by far these were the largest battles in the far West (remember, in mid-19th Century America, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa were considered “west”. The Mississippi River was a de facto West Coast—anything farther was Terra Incognita). The westernmost cavalry skirmish (i.e., between actual soldiers and not partisans) of the Civil War, near Picacho Peak west of Tucson, involved about twenty men on each side—small wonder only diehards and history buffs know about it. Cataclysmic events at Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, and Manassas deserve more attention simply because of the numbers involved, and because their outcomes had a far greater impact on the war’s result.

The idea that Confederate victory in New Mexico could have turned the entire war in the South’s favor is a stretch. They simply didn’t have enough men or matériel to execute their plans. Had the Texans conclusively won at Glorieta (they did win, but had gained little, left their enemy largely intact, and had to retreat once they discovered that Union raiders had destroyed their supply train), they would have continued toward Fort Union, likely under harassment from Union troops, and found it stripped of supplies. Even if they’d reached Colorado and seized its mines, there’s no conceivable way they could’ve made it then to Salt Lake City (at that time, there was no road through the Rocky Mountains—they would have had to go out of their way north through Wyoming). And west to Los Angeles—where they planned to rally the secession-minded populace and seize its port—the conditions were at least as difficult. Really, their whole enterprise was doomed from the outset.

Another reason few people know about these battles is that they occurred in isolation. Even today, events in the Midwest and West receive comparatively slight coverage in the national press—if anything, in 1862 this disparity was even greater. Huge battles (20,000+ combatants) in Arkansas and Missouri were hardly noticed in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston, and of course Washington, D.C., Richmond, VA, and Charleston, SC, were front-line cities with problems of their own—people there didn’t have time to notice rather minor events in the far West. Isolation from Eastern population centers also meant less documentation in the press—less of a paper trail for historians and researchers to follow—so the perpetual analysis that accompanies most Civil War events does not occur.

Finally, most history books don’t consider the many Western Indian wars concurrent with the Civil War as part of the Civil War, though surely they were. A partial list includes the Snake War in Idaho, Oregon, and California; the Dakota War, which roiled Minnesota and Iowa; and the proxy war fought between tribes exiled to Indian Territory (today’s State of Oklahoma. How’s that for wretched irony? Tribes expelled from the North and South fought against each other on behalf of their former homelands …). All these conflicts drew men and resources away from Eastern campaigns—who knows what might have resulted had they been deployed there instead? The best non-fiction book I have found that treats the West as a theater of the war is Alvin Josephy’s The Civil War in the American West.

chivingtonEven here in Colorado, the Battle of Glorieta Pass is largely unknown, which is odd, given that we supplied the troops that helped turn back a Confederate invasion of New Mexico Territory. However, in 1864, less than two years after the heroics east of Santa Fe, John Chivington led the First Colorado Regiment against an Indian encampment on Sand Creek in eastern Colorado Territory. Primarily women, children, and the elderly (most fighting-age men were away hunting), these Indians had camped at the U.S. government’s instruction, and flown both U.S. and white flags to signify their peaceful and cooperative intentions. At first, resulting slaughter was hailed as a great victory, but once stories about the camp’s true nature and body parts from desecrated corpses began circulating in Denver, the scandal that erupted resulted in Congressional inquiries, the murder of a witness before he could testify, and disgrace for the perpetrators. Indian tribes previously disposed to be neutral or friendly toward white settlers no longer trusted the U.S. military, and in no small way, this led to the really awful Indian wars that erupted once the Civil War concluded. All of this is rather heavy for fourth graders, which is the level at which most American schoolchildren learn their state’s history. Ergo, here as much as anywhere, hardly anyone knows about what happened at Glorieta.

In my novel, I tried to make John Chivington as complex as I could without excusing his numerous flaws. By all accounts, he was a good family man (aren’t they always?) who hated slavery, and who, prior to Sand Creek, usually sided with right against wrong. He could also be calculating and bombastic—his was the only opinion that mattered. From historic documents and contemporary writings, I couldn’t fully discern his relationship with the First Colorado’s first colonel, John P. Slough. After the war, he defended Slough’s leadership at Glorieta, though this may have been politically motivated revisionism. Certainly, the First Colorado was riddled with feuds, large and small, so it’s not hard to imagine that these two outsized personalities had theirs, too. As well, Glorieta Pass and Sand Creek may be viewed as halves of a whole, at least where Chivington is concerned. At Glorieta, he led a raiding party intent on flanking the Confederates’ main thrust eastward from Santa Fe. Instead, they overshot their goal, stumbled upon the Texans’ lightly guarded supply train, and destroyed it, which forced the Southerners into retreat. At Sand Creek, it’s possible he had the same mindset: knowing that the Indians’ fighting forces were absent and seeing the lightly defended encampment as a supply base for hostiles (nevermind that the tribes in question had foresworn violence), he destroyed the camp, believing that he was forcing a potential threat to withdraw. Who knows? Whatever his thinking, he made himself a pariah even to this day.

AARON: If you had a time machine that could only take you back to the 1860’s, where would you go and why?

Quinn: Any one of several mining camps in Nevada: Treasure City in White Pine County, Austin in Lander County, or Virginia City on the Comstock. Just to see a mining rush of that era at its zenith—can’t really explain why, other than to concede that I’m weird. In Roughing It, Mark Twain tells a story about how Virginia City came to a standstill as the sun set beneath heavy clouds, spotlighting an American flag that flew from the top of Mount Davidson, west of town. There was a buzz on the streets, as people who saw this phenomenon took it as an omen, not knowing that Union forces had just turned back Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North at Gettysburg, PA, or that Vicksburg, MS, had just fallen to U.S. Grant’s Army of the West (again, see what was considered “west?”). However, Twain being Twain, who knows if this was several events conflated for effect, or for that matter if it was entirely fabricated? Either way it’s a good story—but it sure would be fun to see for myself.

Thanks, Aaron, for this opportunity to ramble about things oddly near and dear to my heart.

Thank you, and yeah, I’ll pass on the chicory coffee roasted endive roots?  We shan’t be seeing that in Starbucks any time soon!