Greetings! Welcome to the Chateau!


Within its corridors you will find insight into the books I have written, the books I am writing and the books I am thinking about writing.

It is also a place where I can offer insights into my favorite authors and - in the case of my game Conqueror: Fields of Victory - I can explain my rules and offer new variants.

Scroll down or check the sidebar for my latest posts.

Standalone books:

Battle Officer Wolf

Scorpion's Pass

The Man of Destiny Series:

A Man of Destiny

Rise of the Alliance

Fall of the Commonwealth

The Imperial Rebellion

Wargaming:

Conqueror: Fields of Victory


Joss Whedon and writing what you know

I was always a voracious reader and as I got older, I began imagine myself as an author.  The problem that confronted me was trying to figure out what to write.  I was good with short fiction and research papers, but beyond that I was at a loss.

I don't remember when I first heard the phrase "write what you know," but applying it helped me to move forward.  I've also taken an interest in the biographies of authors I admire to see how their experiences shaped their writing.

A big influence in this sense is Stephen King's "On Writing."  I was told that the first half of the book - which is largely autobiographical - isn't as useful as the second.  I found the opposite.  The second half is great if you want to learn how to write like Stephen King, which I absolutely do not.  Instead, I found a lot of insight in how he came to focus on the horror genre.  He had a rough and unhappy upbringing and so he wrote what he knew.

The same is true of other authors, of course.  Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" contains such vivid descriptions of the Italian Front because he was there.  This also works in the realm of fantasy.  JRR Tolkien's wartime service unquestionably shaped his vision of evil and his descriptions of Mordor and the Dead Marshes - just as much as his linguistic and historical knowledge created his iconic visions of elves, dwarves, men and hobbits.

There's another area of knowledge for authors, though, and that's relationship experiences, which is what I want to talk about here. 

Back when "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was on TV, I couldn't help but notice that none of the relationships in the series went well.  It didn't matter what the context, they all went south.

Okay, it was a show about angsty teenagers, but the spin-off went the same way.  So did "Firefly," both on the show and in the subsequent movie.

Now I get the value of having drama and working long-term relationships can be awfully dull, but there is some use in having a stable romantic relationship as a baseline which can operate in contrast to the other tormented ones.  Whedon never did this, and I always wondered why.

Subsequently we learned that his relationship with his wife was rather difficult.  Not only that, but apparently he had a casting couch and used it frequently.  Setting aside his blatant hypocrisy in claiming to be a feminist while exploiting his talent sexual gain and degrading his long-suffering wife, I think this is the key to understanding why the relationships in his work ended up the way they did.

Put simply, he didn't know what a good relationship looked like and apparently couldn't imagine one, either.  When he did have one (in "Firefly") he killed off one of the characters.  Even happiness became unhappy.

"Man of Destiny" has a number of romances, some of which end well, and some don't.  In that respect, I think I did a better job than Whedon (and certainly my personal life is better).

Of course, Joss Whedon exceeded my entire sales with a single night's audience of any of his shows, so who am I to boast, right?

In my own defense, Whedon did have the advantage of being third-generation Hollywood.  I'm pretty sure I'd have an easier time getting discovered if my father and grandfather were well-known authors.

Getting back to the point, I find it fascinating that someone who was otherwise imaginative and well-rounded had this blind spot. 


Confessions of a Memorial Day speechwriter

In a past life, I was one of those paid staffers that cranked out news releases for elected politicians.  I also dabbled in speech writing.

Memorial Day was therefore a big thing for me, a holiday weekend I dreaded at least as much as I looked forward to it.

My speeches themselves were pretty successful.  At least the people who gave them liked them and said the audience seemed to as well.  I tried to keep things brief and fell back on the usual formula:  mention General John A. Logan's original order creating the holiday, maybe quote a poem about loss, and add some personal items for the person giving the speech.

A lot of writing is pretty mechanical in that sense, which I why I feel journalism should be treated as a skilled trade.  In any event, making a job out of anything takes away some of the awe and mystery.

Since those days, I try to contemplate the holidays more, and I admit that knowing people killed in the present war is part of that. 

The other thing I learned from that time is that people who "get" Memorial Day don't really need any persuasion while those who don't, probably aren't going to be converted by a speech (or a blog post).

Still, I couldn't let this weekend pass without pointing out that it's about more than good weather and time away from work.

 


Han Solo and the problem of backstory stories

Having blown off Episode VIII, I'm sure no one is surprised that I'm taking a pass on the Han Solo movie.

Setting aside the fact that Harrison Ford will forever be Han Solo, the real issue is that backstory is never as interesting as moving the plot forward.  Movies like this can only amount to a long digression before things get interesting.  You know the character survives, you know how everything ends, so why bother to learn details that have exactly nothing to do with later events?

Sometimes characters are meant to have mysterious backgrounds.  When you then go back and nail it down...well, there goes the mystery!

The proper way to this is in a book, and of course it's already been done.  Books can go into greater depth with a character and have the added advantage of allowing the reader to imagine the actor in every scene. 

Disney's effort to squeeze every dime from the franchise is slowly destroying it.  I refuse to participate in this wanton vandalism.

 


Movie Review: Air National Guardsman revisits Top Gun

Recently I got a hankering to watch Top Gun again.  Maybe it's part of the overall 80s nostalgia, but I thought it would be interesting to revisit the film after skipping it for decades.

I admit that I was expecting it to be both cheesy and awful, a schlocky collection of action-film tropes married with bad bad acting and improbably aerial displays.

I'm sure a large part of my antipathy towards the film stems from my great dislike of Tom Cruise and his participation in Scientology.  In an age where everything we do is supposed to be dictated by a political/ethical matrix of boycotts and moral exhibitionism, it's easy to fall into the trap of ruling whole classes of artistic endeavors as out-of-bounds.

Because I am reactionary by nature (that is, if you tell me I can't do something, I'll want to do it even more just to defy you), I decided to break the embargo and watch the film.  I was also curious how my decade-and-a-half of military service would influence my opinion of the film.

So I watched it.

And you know what?  I really liked it.  It's a solid film.  Some of the special effects are a bit dated, but the aerial sequences are more amazing than I remembered - partly because I now know more about how hard it would be to choreograph and film them.

As to the characters, they aren't the deepest people in the world, but it's a movie that takes place over a matter of weeks.  We really don't need flashbacks and a ton of expository scenes.  Too many modern films make that mistake, which is why I can't stand them.

In fact, I found the film did an excellent job of sketching out the characters and telling the audience all you need to know about them.  As a kid, I totally missed the whole "academy graduate" angle, which is very much a think in the military.  Iceman has a ring and flourishes it.  Maverick doesn't, and is acutely conscious of the fact.  The writers do us a courtesy of bringing it up later in dialog to help explain why Iceman is such a world-class jerk.

And yes, naval aviators are that arrogant.  I haven't known many, but they are a cut above Air Force fighter pilots when it comes to ego, and that's saying something. 

That may sound like a criticism, but it isn't.  The fact is one cannot function in that world without an almost super-human level of self-confidence.  The movie actually shows that without it, one can't do the job.

There are some sour notes, most notably Meg Ryan's hair.  Worst look ever.  However, the soundtrack is brilliant and far better than anything on the radio today.  The film is also unabashed in its support of the military, which is a refreshing change.

Basically, it is a movie that knows what it wants to do and does it very well.  That's increasingly rare these days. 

Even the super-hero movies bog themselves down in PC nonsense or lame character drama.  The other day I re-watched Darkest Hour on dvd and while Gary Oldman's performance remains brilliant (as the Academy recognized), the PC trope of having Churchill have to consult with the common people on the Underground to find his courage was even more jarring on the second viewing.

In fact, if we were to compare the two films on being true to the goal of staying within their genre and telling a good story, Top Gun unquestionably takes the trophy.

It is a strange thing for my military service to make me appreciate a Hollywood film more than I did as a civilian, but Top Gun managed to do it. 

 

 

 


Next up: Conqueror: Fields of Victory version 2.0

I've been rather quiet here of late and for that I apologize.  I started the year with grand ambitions of a new trilogy but I've gotten sidetracked in a much-needed revision of my fantasy/historical miniatures rules, Conqueror:  Fields of Victory.

This project has languished for years.  In fact, getting Conqueror into a publishable state took a decade.  In that context, the revision isn't that far behind schedule.

This isn't so much a new edition as it is a revision.  Naturally I'm fixing typos and cleaning up the language where it needs it, but that's not enough to justify the extra effort.

The changes fall into four areas:

Spells and Magic items -  These got a full review and as a result there are a lot of new spells and magic items.  The Magic School of Death got the biggest change and is now as scary as it should have been from the beginning.  Magic items also got a major workover, particularly in weapons.  The end result is more potent, meaningful options for your troops.

Special Rules:  Some big changes here, largely a result of feedback from players.  The list is still short but is comprehensive.  New additions include "horde" troops that gain an extra morale bonus for outranking as well as "rebellious" troops that get sidetracked into infighting during the battle.

Army Lists:  A glaring weakness of the original was that I didn't give you any ready-made options for armies.  This has now been corrected.  Players can still make up their own custom units, but I've provided pre-generated stats for a variety of iconic units like orcs, elves, dwarves, undead, and of course various flavors of human.

Point Values:  The "how-to" section has also been extensively rewritten based on player feedback over the years.  The process for making your own units is now easier and more consistent.

Oh, and the cover art is going to be much better.

I've promised myself that I can't do any fiction writing until this gets done, so I'm hoping to have this wrapped up very soon. 

Until then, Happy Easter!


Oldman Triumphant: A Darkest Hour movie review

In contrast with my anti-review of the new Star Wars movie, I was actually looking forward to see the new Churchill move, "Darkest Hour.

First, let's address the obvious:  Gary Oldman is magnificent.  He utterly inhabits the role of Winston Churchill, so much so that you have to keep reminding yourself that it isn't in fact Churchill on the screen.  The mannerisms, expressions, even the pitch of his voice is utterly convincing.  I think entertainment award shows are crap, but he clearly deserves to run the table for this performance.

Alas, the movie itself isn't as good as it could be.

I know I'm a hard sell for historical flicks - I'm too much of a stickler for facts.  To its credit, Darkest Hour does a good job bringing up tidbits of Churchill's life, reminding viewers that he was a deeply flawed politician, compromised by a lifetime of maneuvering and emotional outbursts.

Humans want to see their heroes as perfect role models, but often the great people of history are anything but.  Winston Churchill is a great example of this, from his heavy drinking to extravagant spending and of course his legendary skill as an insult artist he had a lot of vices. 

And then there was the fact that he switched parties twice, and was a bitter and vocal critic of his party leadership for a decade before coming to power.   I hate to bring contemporary politics into a movie review, but people who think Donald Trump is some sort of outrageous exception need to read a little history. 

Indeed, the film does a great job showing just how hated Churchill was by Britain's establishment and particularly his party leadership.  Again, this is not unusual.  Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both cordially loathed by their party elites.   In Thatcher's case, she was driven from power by an internal coup. 

Without a parliamentary system, the GOP establishment waited until Reagan's second term was up to put the very conventional George H.W. Bush in charge and he also repudiated his predecessor's policies and was thumped by the voters as a result.

All of that duplicity is great and a welcome reminder that politics ain't beanbag and even noble acts can have sordid origins.

I have to problems with the film, one minor and one significant.

The minor problem is the bizarre overhead-view they use at times to capture events as they unfold.  It's odd and disruptive, as well as absurd.  I thought the depiction of a low-level bombing right at night over Calais was particularly daft.  Didn't happen, couldn't have happened - not with those aircraft, not at that stage of the war.  Later on, night tactical raids were possible with flare and pathfinders, but it's as out of place as jets whizzing over Buckingham Palace.

The bigger issue is with the decision to use the conventional Hollywood plot device of our hero speaking to the Common People to find his courage.  Put bluntly, it didn't happen.  I know this is supposed to make Churchill look vulnerable (and therefore complex) but it's garbage.  He had moments of weakness, but on the whole he was a born brawler and relished clashing with his foes.

Other than that, it was a very good movie and quite enjoyable.  Oldman's performance is first-rate and he's set a new standard for actors wanting to portray Churchill.


Movie Anti-Review: The Last Jedi

I've put up a few movie reviews here, but this is my first "anti-review."

I define an anti-review as an explanation for why I'm not going to bother seeing the movie at all.

I've expressed my misgivings about the series before, but up0n further reflection, the deciding reason I'm not going to see The Last Jedi is that I simply don't care about anyone in it.

These characters are utterly uninteresting.  They have no depth and no screen presence.  In fact, they are so bland, I can't even remember the names.  I think of them as Mary Sue, Failed Stormtrooper and Fighter Pilot.

If the "big reveal" was that one of them died, I'd be completely indifferent because there's no "there" there with any of them.

The original cast was lightly sketched, but they had personality and drew upon fun archetypes.  These guys, not so much. 

Ironically, Rogue One has much more interesting characters, but being Hollywood they killed them all off because That's Dramatic and also Tragic. 

It was also - given the plot as presented - stupid.  In heroic space fantasy there are myriad ways to kill people off (don't I know it!) - the trick is to make it meaningful.  The deaths in Rogue One felt contrived, not dramatic or heroic.  Maybe if their tactics hadn't been so stupid...but I digress.

The funny thing about this latest installment is that even Mark Hamill can't stomach it.  There are lots of youtubes showing him damning the thing with faint praise.

Now actors don't always know much about film-making, but I've noticed a recurring theme of his is that big duel between Darth Emo and Super Jedi Girl was totally botched.  He notes that when he read the script and he got to the part where the old lightsaber starts twitching in the snow he assumed this was where Luke entered and saved the day.

He's absolutely correct.  That would have been the perfect parallel to the scene in Empire where Luke first learns to use the force to retrieve his lightsaber.  Luke would then have used his superior skill to defeat (for the moment) Darth Emo and this would also parallel (in an inverse way) the master/apprentice situation in the first trilogy.

Instead, Jedi Super Girl completely implausibly saved the day by herself and Luke was reduced to a cameo that took less actual screen time than the journey montage that preceded it.

That's the kind of poor plot choices that I can't handle at this point in my life.  If I went to the theater, I'd either walk out, want to walk out, or curse constantly under my breath.

I'll probably watch it eventually when it's free on dish or something, and I'll make it into a drinking game or something fun.

But actually seeing the film in a theater would be a chore, so I'm going to skip it.

 


A new year brings new writing projects

Happy New Year! 

Looking back on 2017, I'm profoundly grateful to all of you who not only bought my books but enjoyed them (and particularly grateful to those who left positive comments/reviews).

After I finished the Man of Destiny series, I wasn't sure which direction to go.  I have a few projects waiting on the back burner but none of them really appealed to me at this point.

So I've decided to look a little further back in the timeline of the Man of Destiny setting and write about the oft-referenced Deimos War.

It's not a prequel so much as a prelude as the characters will be different.  At most a few of the principles in the later book will be seen in their youth, but it will mostly involve their parents and grandparents - assuming these were even involved.

To put it another way, I don't intend this to be a back story on the later characters but instead a different tale in the same setting, though it will of course reflect on later events, just as the US Civil War foreshadowed World War I (and the two events are roughly as distant as the ones described in the Deimos War).

I'm also working on a revision for Conqueror, but given that the first edition took 10 years to complete, who knows when I will finish that.

Anyhow, Happy New Year and keep reading!


This new Star Wars movie does not interest me at all

The reviews for the new Star Wars movie are starting to come in and they're overwhelmingly positive.

And yet, I find myself feeling that I'm going to see "The Last Jedi" because I ought to, not because I want to.

Such is the burden of the Twenty-First Century Star Wars Fan.

Yes, I'm a big Star Wars fan.  Or at least I was.  I still own a movie-grade set of stormtrooper armor.  It sits in a storage bin in the basement.  I last put it on for Halloween when my youngest was in 5th Grade.  The class seemed to appreciate it.

I think about selling it, but I put a lot of effort into the thing, so I take the easy path and do nothing.

Which is exactly how I feel about the new movies.  I want to take the easy path and do nothing.

I must be honest.  I hated "The Force Awakens."  I really did.  It took me a while to put aside sentimentality and the fun of seeing Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher again, but I really really didn't like that movie.

It wasn't because I was a Star Wars fan, either.  It was because I am an author.

Once you've started writing or creating a story, you become more attuned to elements of plot, character and the importance of keeping things consistent.  There is no longer any consistency in Star Wars.  It's basically a cross between Star Trek and the Avengers.

I freely admit I was annoyed that the heroine - Super Jedi Girl - could do everything better than any other character.  She was a better pilot than Han, a better mechanic than Chewbacca and - upon picking up a lightsaber for the first time ever - dusted the villain.

And so now she's going to get trained.  But why?  She's already the Bestest, Most Awesome Hero Ever.  She's a 50th level fighter/magic-user/thief/cleric in a 3rd level dungeon.  Who can possibly stand against her?

Well, I guess that's what we're going to find out.  This is the Second Movie in the trilogy, so the Good Guys get screwed. 

I suppose I should be more optimistic, but the last five movies were a disappointment, so I don't think it's unreasonable to suspect the sixth will be as well.

And in case anyone wonders - no, I'm not expecting lighting to strike again, I'd just like a movie that is good on its own merits.  I find the fact that we have to add the qualifier "Star Wars movie" a true indictment on the finished product.  We're clearly grading on a (very forgiving) curve because when you get down to it, these are actually pretty awful films that would have gone nowhere without having "Star Wars" in the title.


Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope everyone is looking forward to a fun day spend with friends and family.

I'm thankful for a great many things, but this year I'm particularly humbled by the positive response my books have gotten.  I'm not exactly a best-selling author, but it's still nice to get positive feedback from a project that took years to come to fruition. 

Somebody liked my books and that's all the validation one could ask for.

Happy Thanksgiving!