Tuesday, 23 July 2019

A Letter from Anne McCaffrey

I find it difficult to talk about fan mail. As a writer/game-designer, I am in one of the few professions that actually tends to receive it. This makes me extremely privileged. Many people go through their days without receiving any praise at all, even though it is often deserved, whereas I often get praise out-of-the-blue from people I have never met. These little confidence-boosters can really make a difference when I’m having a hard day, when the writing is not going well, or when I’ve seen a bad review somewhere. All of that said, there is also a time-commitment aspect to fan mail that can be, at times, a burden. I feel arrogant when I say this, but, when you are self-employed, work-time is a precious commodity, and it must be very carefully guarded. If I don’t produce, I don’t eat. And yet, despite that precious time, I try to respond to all of the fan mail that I receive. Partly, there is a practical business reason for doing so, but mainly it goes back to childhood…

When I was about thirteen years old, I read Dragonflight by Anne McCaffery. I’m pretty sure my mother gave it to me, and it was, probably, the first ‘grown-up’ fantasy book I read cover-to-cover, on my own. After that first book, I was so completely hooked on the world that I read every book in the series. I even got the accompanying The Dragon Lover's Guide to Pern. In fact, I was so completely hooked on Pern that I wrote my own dragon riders story. I scrawled it out in pencil on loose-leaf paper, some dozen pages, front and back. When I finished, I wondered what to do with it. What did anyone do with fan fiction in the pre-internet days?

With my mother’s help, I sent the story to Anne McCaffrey’s publisher, along with a letter expressing my love of her books. There were no easy photocopies in those days, so we sent the original and only copy of the story. As a thirteen-year-old, I soon forgot about it, and moved onto other thing, such as making my own Pern money out of bits of wood, and painting dragon miniatures using oil-based paints.
            
At the time, Anne McCaffrey was living in Ireland, and I wonder how much of my letter actually went from the New York publisher all of the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Some of it must have, for some months later, I got a reply. It was a small, hand-written letter…

Think about this for a moment. In 1986/7 when I received this letter, Anne McCaffrey was sixty-years-old and at the height of her popularity. She’d won the Hugo and Nebula – the two biggest prizes in the genre. She had one of the first fantasy books ever to make it onto the New York Times Best Seller List (a much bigger deal then than it is today), and while it would still be a couple of decades before she was rightly named as one of the Grand Masters of Science-Fiction and Fantasy, the ground-work had already been laid. This grand dame wrote me a letter.
           
That letter is now very sadly lost. For years I kept it tucked into the dust jacket of The Dragon Lover's Guide to Pern, but sometime during all of the moves and shuffles, it disappeared. I still remember one fragment though; she wrote to me ‘…I also used to tell myself stories in bed at night…’. 

I would give a lot to have that letter back, or to read it again, but in truth, it’s not important. What is important is the effect that letter had on me then and there. My favourite writer of the time, one of the biggest writers in the genre, had acknowledged me. Looking back, I recognize this as one moment, one crucial link, in a delicate chain that led to me becoming a writer. I will never know why Anne McCaffrey chose to write to me, but perhaps now, some thirty years later (and sadly eight years after her passing), I can hazard a guess.

The creative ego is a terribly fragile thing. Just a few words or bad experiences can crush it into nothingness. Conversely, it can take a lifetime of positive experiences for it to develop to its full potential. For those lucky few that receive that nurture and encouragement, creative expression can be one of the central, defining joys of their life. My mother knew this, that’s why she helped me send my story. I suspect that Anne McCaffrey also knew this well, and having reached this creative fullfilment, she found joy in helping others strive to the same goal. She knew that she was sending more than a letter. She was sending a little piece of magical armour that could help guard me in the years to come if I pushed on with my writing and faced the inevitable waves of rejection.

I am no Anne McCaffrey, and the world of wargaming, where I do most of my writing, is just a tiny speck compared to the world of science-fiction and fantasy literature, but I do receive a significant amount of fan mail. There is a practical, business reason for me to respond to all of these. These fans are directly, or indirectly, paying my salary. But the real reason I try to respond to all of them, is because I want to pass on the little gift that Anne McCaffrey gave to me. Most people that write to me have no desire to be writers, or even game-designers, but it doesn’t matter. I am in a privileged position where I can also provide a little bit of magical armour to protect against the inevitable negativity that accompanies life, and maybe, just maybe, help someone along their own path to fullfilment, in whatever capacity they chose.

 ----

Afterward
I am now almost positive that Anne McCaffrey didn’t read my story as almost all publishers and agents advise authors against it to avoid any possible claims of idea theft. I don’t read unsolicited fan material either, though it really has more to do with time than fear. I don’t have enough time each day to complete the work I want to do, so I really don’t have time to read other peoples work.

I no longer remember anything about the story I sent to Anne McCaffrey, except that the main character's name was P'nal, shorted in dragon-rider style from his full name of Panethenol, which is perhaps a better name for an industrial grade cleaning solvent.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Swordmaster



Sometimes, I’m just in the mood to paint something swash-buckley. Thankfully, when the mood struck, I had this figure ready to go. It’s the swordmaster from Ghost Archipelago: Gods of Fire. It was sculpted by Bobby Jackson, based on artwork in the book.

Much like the artwork, the figure is slight, and probably one of the smaller figures I’ve worked on in while. Combine that with a lot of detail, must notably the fancy sleeves, and it was quite a challenge. As always, the answer was to just take it colour by colour and not to rush it. I didn’t use any fancy techniques, just a bit of layering, inking, and dry-brushing, along with a very small brush (10/0) for a lot of it.

I’m glad to add this one to the collection as I think she suspect she'll appear in more games that just Ghost Archipelago!

Friday, 19 July 2019

Nick Bury Returns


While I spend most of my days writing for games or about gaming, I still produce the occasionally work of fiction. The latest of these was a little piece featuring my weird gravedigger, Nick Bury, who has proved one of my most-enduring creations.

That new story was bought by Tales from the Magician’s Skull, along with three older stories featuring Nick.

The third issue of the magazine (which is more like a book, really) is currently up on kickstarter

So, if you are looking for a new batch of sword and sorcery stories, plus maybe a couple of weird tales involving a gravedigger, check it out!


My Confederate Uncle’s $40,000 Mistake

A friend back in the USA recently sent me a stack of Civil War magazines, as he knows I am a fan (in fact, it was the biggest topic of study during my University days). I grabbed the first one on the pile last night and read it cover-to-cover. While I enjoyed the whole issue, the best came near the end when there was a passing mention of one of my ancestors!

The article was ‘Swindling Sociopath’ by Bob Gordon, about a man named Alexander ‘Sandy’ Keith. Keith was Scottish born, but came of age in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When the Civil War broke out, Keith set himself up as a key ‘Confederate Sympathizer’ in the port. In reality, the man was a swindler and fraudster with a nasty habit of insuring ships and then plotting their destruction at sea! He would survive the war, but committed suicide in 1875 after one of his plots went awry, and a barrel of dynamite meant to blow up a ship, exploded in the port of Bremerhaven, Germany killing 60 people.

Back in 1864, my great-great-uncle, Norman Walker, (brother of my direct ancestor Maj. John Stewart Walker) who served as the Confederate agent in Bermuda came to Halifax with his family to escape an outbreak of yellow fever. While there, Keith convinced Norman to invest $40,000 in a shipment of barreled pork to smuggle into the Confederacy. Keith took the money, but never bought the pork, and doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to do so. Anyway, he soon slipped into the USA, and went beyond Norman’s reach. 

The article doesn’t give any more details of the story, and perhaps that is where it ended. I’ve certainly never heard the story before, but I do have a copy of the hard-to-obtain diary of Norman Walker’s wife, and it does put the family in Halifax at the time – and it’s not surprising that such a story might not be mentioned! I'd love to know where the author discovered those details.

How great is that though? Picking up a magazine at random and learning a little piece of your own family history?

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Rangifer Shaman


This figure has been sitting on my lead-pile for quite a while, for the simple reason that I was kind of intimidated by it. It’s just such a cool figure, I really wanted to do it justice.

Recently, I took it out, assembled it, and decided that I would take it slow, detail-by-detail. In that way it probably took twice as long, or maybe more, than a standard figure, but I enjoyed it, and I think it shows in the results.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I think I will have to get a few more rangifers and make up a full warband.
 
Interesting factoid – this figure is the only Frostgrave figure that was created specifically because of something I wrote in Spellcaster Magazine. Generally, the magazine is kept separate from the ‘official’ publications, but everyone involved agreed that a Rangifer Shaman was just too neat of a figure not to create.

For those who are interested in creating their own Rangifer Shaman and warband, the full rules for this can be found in Spellcaster: The Frostgrave Magazine #3.


Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Jacob's Room is Full of Books

I’m not sure why I picked up Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill. I didn’t recognize the author, although she is famous as the author of The Woman in Black, and the title meant nothing too me, other than it contained the word ‘books’. And maybe that is it – the cover and the word ‘books’ together attracted my eye. And why wouldn’t it? I was in a bookstore after all.

Regardless, I got it; I read it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Essentially, the author charts a year of her life, focusing on the books she is reading. It is sort of a wandering conversation about writing, publishing, literature, and just the love of books in general – mixed with the passing seasons and the comings and goings of various birds. She talks about books from the inside and from without, mixing in interesting facts about authors and her own writing career.

We don’t agree about everything – she’s no fan of science-fiction or fantasy (which strikes me odd as for a writer of ghost stories), but she loves Robert Louis Stevenson, so we definitely share some passions.

She is opinionated, but doesn’t force her opinions on you.

If you are a book lover, this might be one for you. It is extremely well-written, and really does flow along like you are sitting in the chair next to her, listening to her talk as the year rolls by.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Revisiting the Deadlands


Throughout the year, I am slowly revisiting some of the games that helped create and replenish my love of gaming and that have spurred me on to my own creative journey. Lately, I have been re-reading Deadlands. 

I was in university at UNC, working at a dingy, but wonderful gaming store called Cerebral Hobbies, when Deadlands hit the market. To me, it came crashing in like a tidal wave. Not since my earliest days of gaming had I been so completely blown away by a new book, a new setting, a new ruleset. For me, it was revolutionary.

The original Deadlands had an amazing run. It even sparked a miniature wargame spin-off called The Great Rail Wars. Years later, the whole Deadlands system would be re-imagined, using a lot of the mechanics from Great Rail Wars, into a new generic system called Savage Worlds. This wonderfully simple, fast-paced, role-playing game remains one of my favourites.

I’ve had so much fun revisiting Deadlands that I wanted to paint a few figures to go with it. Thus, the above. This figure is actually from the Dracula’s America range, but fits right into Deadlands as well.

I might just have to bust out a character sheet and stat this guy up!