McBride At Rest

McBride At Rest

Monday, February 5, 2018

Vikings & Rangers & A Writer Named Nelson

Is there somebody who you have read about, or even personally met, who makes you mutter to yourself, “I want to be him or her.” Not just because that person may be rich and beautiful/handsome. Maybe he/she is attractive, but more important, he is smart, plus creative, maybe athletic, and is engaged in a career built on his gifts, and must be having a great time every day. Granted, nobody is all that. But every now and then, someone checks a lot more of those boxes than I do, and I sort of yearn to be him or her. The back half of this blog is about a writer who seems to fill that bill for me.

In my life I’ve been a compulsive serial consumer of a progression of pop fiction authors. In junior high school, young adult novelist Jim Kjelgaard was my man. He wrote young adult books like Big Red about an Irish setter and other doggie and outdoor tales.

Then in high school it was Ian Fleming’s James Bond spy books, and John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. And of course, Robert Heinlein’s treasure trove of science fiction drew me like a moth to a light bulb.

As an adult, I have overdosed on questionable fictional heroes like Nero Wolf--the obese private eye of the 1930’s in NYC, Horatio Hornblower--the British navy officer of the Napoleonic Wars, Richard Sharpe--the green-coated British rifleman, George Smiley—the modern day English spy, and a bunch of  others.

My newest go-to historical fiction writer is American, not British. His name is James L. Nelson. He lives in Maine with his wife and four kids, and writes a delightful series of novels about Viking raiders in Ireland in the dark ages—the 800’s.

I’m a fan of the series for the normal reasons like pacing and likable characters. Beyond that, I admire Nelson’s Viking saga for an odd reason: The Vikings raided Ireland, murdering, raping, and plundering pretty much just because they could. At least our Native American Indians were doing the same thing to slow the inexorable advance of the white settlers. Whereas with the Vikings, the unprovoked terrible violence was just their way of doing things. The Irish certainly were not threatening to displace the Vikings from their homelands on the other side of the North Sea.

I’ve learned through writing my own novels that it is a big challenge to create and maintain a sympathetic character when he is leading a tiny army of soldiers to wreak havoc in another land. I struggled to keep my most recent novel’s main character a likable and honorable guy, given the context of the real Texas Rangers’ raid into Mexico that was the foundation of my plot.

Nelson builds sympathy for his primary Viking character by making him a father and in his way a compassionate man. He also sidesteps many of the violent particulars of the Vikings’ raids, making the books suitable Young Adult literature. Nelson even manages to make Thorgrim’s pet beserker warrior, Starri, a likable wacko who time and again leaps mindlessly into battle wacking Irishmen with his two axes.

Speaking of axes, here is Mr. Nelson on a replica Viking ship. Notice that he's wearing what is almost a cowboy hat! Maybe he is a closet Texan.

I also admire Mr. Nelson because, according to his website, as a school kid he built a wooden boat and a wooden canoe and both floated. As a young man he crewed for some years on big sailing ships, including the HMS Rose, the centerpiece real sailing ship used as the primary set for Master and Commander, Russell Crowe’s best film. Nelson even wrote his first novel while working as ship’s crewman.

I very much like that James L Nelson learned through personal experience that which he went on to write about. Not that he ran around in chain mail terrorizing the good folks in Maine, but he has climbed the rigging, quite literally, sailing old military ships, and he nicely embeds that background into his stories without overly dwelling on the mechanics of sailing. I tried to do that in my Captain McBee Honor trilogy in regards to Civil War infantrymen, relying on what I learned about being a musket toting citizen-soldier during my twenty years as a reenactor. And like Mr. Nelson, I’ve tried not to overly dwell on the details.
Another plus is that Mr. Nelson self-publishes some of his novels, as I do, and he appears to make a full-time living writing and doing historical programs related to his writing, which I do not. But I would love to be that good.

Find James L Nelson’s books on Amazon and try one of them. They are good stuff.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Pictograph and Long Knife

The photo here is of our son Todd back in the 1980’s somewhere in Arizona, or maybe Utah, on a family summer road trip.  He’s looking at a rock wall decorated with really old Indian pictographs whose meaning is lost to time.
Somewhere I have another road trip photo of a rock wall near Big Bend National Park where in 1902, 116 years ago, a couple of young cowboys scratched their names and date into the stone.

So, the question is: When does graffiti, vandalism in our world, cease being graffiti and morph into being a historical artifact? Is 100 years enough? I dunno.
The link to my writing is that I’ve created a fictitious Indian pictograph on the wall of a cave somewhere in the hill country of Texas.  The crude drawing is to document the Comanche’s fore-knowledge of a mythical giant flying lizard which has been soaring over the Texas prairie, spitting poisonous blood at buffalo, horses, and humans for a long, long time. The mythical giant beast drawn in fading charcoal on the cave wall would be Leine, the mutated horny toad with grafted batwings, one of the main characters in A Different Dragon Entirely.

Yes, it is silly. Yes, I’m have a ball writing it. Yes, conjoining the popular genre of fantasy dragon literature and historical cowboy and Indian fiction of the 19th century Texas frontier may be a bridge too far. We’ll see.

One of the violent conflicts in my Texas dragon book will be another visit to the 1840 Battle of Plum Creek, the large-scale battle between white Texan settlers and the Comanche nation. I confess I’m drawn to the battle because it happened within sight of my house, at least when our house was on the very edge of our little town of Lockhart. Now I just see more houses between my living room window and the horizon. But thirty years ago I could see the pastures where 600 Comanches tried to fend off over a 100 pissed-off Texas militiamen. The Texans did not have a giant horny toad air force flying cover back in August of 1840, but on my pages in August of 2018, Leine and Mally will be overhead somehow supporting the defenders of white civilization.

I started my Civil War novel, Tangled Honor, with the same fight. This time the running battle along Plum Creek will be the setting for the climactic action of the new book, after Leine is well-established as a character, not to introduce her as a character like I did with John McBee at Plum Creek in Tangled Honor.

That leads to another image, this one of me holding a knife-sword while standing in the midst of a wonderful private collection of Civil War and Texas frontier artifacts owned by a rich fellow in Dallas.
The short sword—or danged long knife—is engraved as having been carried by one of the white Texans at the Battle of Plum Creek. I’ve forgotten the name on the blade, but it checks against the known participants in the battle.

I trust you all had a good first month of 2018, nasty weather here and there notwithstanding.  I could channel the spooky Snow family characters in Game of Thrones—with its delightfully sinister dragons--and drolly warn you that  ‘Winter is coming,” but around here it’s more likely, ‘Our one day of winter is over, get ready for some heat.’ Even in February.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Joy of Friendship, Flying Lizards, & Pop

“Nil ego contulerim iucundo sanus amico.”

While I am of sound mind, I shall prefer nothing to the joy of friendship. -- Horace, Satires I.v.44

I think that quote from Horace will appear in the front of my new novel. I’m amused that the Latin version is only six words, while the English translation takes fifteen words. We have a wordy danged language, don’t we?

“The Joy of Friendship”: Some 18,000 words into the manuscript of my new novel, the tale has turned into a story of discovery and friendship between two females living in 1840 on the Texas frontier. Never mind that one is a 15-year-old teenager whose mother died giving birth to her, and whose dad spoils her—as much as a teenage girl might be spoiled in a pioneer home with more daily chores than minutes in the day. Never mind that the other friend is a 135-year-old mutated giant flying female horny toad who can only converse through telepathy, projected in Latin, and whose primary activity is finding enough ‘cibum’—that’s Latin for meat.

Also never mind that I’m an old grey-beard man, half a century and a whole gender beyond the two characters, be she pioneer-human or horny toad-dragon. Never mind, I didn’t raise daughters. But I did grow up with a smart-ass saucy sister and I married a sassy gal with an occasional sailor’s vocabulary, so I think I’m muddling along pretty well with the two character’s growing friendship.

I posted a couple of real life horny toad images in a December blog post, and I stare at those photos for inspiration on keeping the giant horny toad likable and credible. Dragons in the stories I’ve read tend to male, and either evil, greedy, and witty, as personified in Tolkein’s Smaug; or male and not evil, but still greedy and witty as personified in Naomi Novik’s Temerarie.

Leine, the name of my horny-toad dragon, is coming along as not male, for sure, but still with a greedy streak in regards to cibum, and an evolving wit. She starts slow on her pithiness—not to be confused with slow-witted—because for 130 years she’s been without anyone who can communicate with her in Latin, her only language. You know about Latin, it’s the dead language of the Romans and giant flying horny-toads.

A Different Dragon Entirely is unfolding scene by scene into something I didn’t quite expect, but which I’m immensely enjoying writing. I confess that I didn’t set out to write a chick-lit sort of story about a weird saucer-shaped lonesome dragon and a smart-ass head-strong teenage girl. I suspect that storyline has been well covered in other fantasy dragon tales. Nonetheless, that’s what is tumbling out of my head onto the computer screen, and I like it. I’m betting that seasoned readers of dragon literature will quickly lose an expected reluctance to accept a winged horny toad in the wilderness of 1840 Texas Hill Country as a bonafide fantasy dragon. We’ll see.

A friend posted an image of a real-life flying lizard from Australia. Here’s another photo of the breed. If it were a Texas horny toad, nature would have stolen my thunder, but as interesting as this little gal is, she is still lizard-size, not croc-size, or like my flying Leine—house size.

Finally, I’ve been away from my blog keyboard for a few weeks, what with the holidays, and this year, helping out my 97-year-old father who has been hospitalized with pneumonia in both lungs. Pop is a tough old coot who beat the odds and the pneumonia and is home now. Even if he is now wearing an oxygen tube full-time, he is at home and not in the damned hospital full of sick people and constant irritations. Here’s a photo I took of him a couple of days ago reading the first chapter in my Texas Ranger novel, A Different Country Entirely.

Pop is not my prime reader, the mythical perfect reader for whom I write, but like any son, his approval still means a lot to me, even if I’m old enough to have my own grown sons and grandchildren. Pop finished the opening chapter, which I worried might not be to his taste. It is a graphic and violent scene of an Indian depredation on the Guadalupe River, the same river by which we vacationed for several summers in the 1960’s when I was a teenager. We swam, fished, and canoed in the crystal clear water, loving it. In my book, things don't go so well for the vacationers.

Anyway, after finishing the chapter, Pop marked his place and closed the book. He looked up, and nodded his approval to me. That was a nod I’ll take to the bank any day. He then commented that he was glad we didn’t have to worry about Apaches when we swam in the river back on those vacation trips. Then he closed his eyes and took another nap.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A 2017 Texas Backwoods Christmas Carol

The location of the ramp-build was typical of the many mobile home lots that dot the landscape along our county roads. Rural poverty is not pretty. The dwellings usually show their age and cheap construction. Yards tend to be cluttered with cast-off appliances, old vehicles and broken toys. Septic systems are often questionable, at best. This time, thankfully, the two yard-dogs were friendly.

All the members of our ramp building crew live in and around the same small Texas town. A gruff old retired guy has led our team for the past decade. He’s 84 now and slowing down a little. Maybe. Most of us are also retirees, having finished careers in air traffic control, public education, law, agriculture and other typical jobs. The younger team members include the owner of an auto paint-and-body shop, a financial investment guy, the owner of an insurance agency, and a wine retailer. Completing yesterday’s work crew were six high school students, a group that included two young ladies.

Most of the team members are churched: Mormon, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian and this time--Muslim. Yesterday, most workers were either members of the local Kiwanis Club, which sponsors the building team, or the high school Key Club. A few were friends or children of the Kiwanians, and the two high school girls were foreign exchange students, one from Egypt, one from Uzbekistan.  Ethnically, the team reflected the diversity of the town, mostly white and Hispanic.

The lean middle-aged man who greeted us at the construction site was missing several teeth. The ramp was for his older brother who lives with him and his wife. Our host said he did whatever work he could get, pointing to a rusting backhoe tractor among the tall weeds. I suspect that work is sometimes elusive and all three of them survive on the brother’s disability check.

Setting aside any qualms about the family, our task for the morning was a project well-practiced by the core members of the ramp-building team, but new to more than half of us. Consequently, there was some hesitation and fumbling for the first hour. But the tentativeness faded away as pairs and trios of crew members took on little bits of the project, old hands demonstrating with tools, new volunteers watching, listening, carrying boards, holding boards, all working together to teach, to learn, and most importantly—to do. Get ‘er done.

With so many willing hands, the ramp quickly grew longer and longer, in a race with the gathering dark clouds. In the end, the last wood screws were driven into the last rails during a sprinkle of rain. But it was done: 36 feet of smooth inclined pathway, from the yard-high porch to the gravel driveway. The ramp is four feet wide, ample for a wheelchair. Guardrails extend high for hands and low to keep wheels from falling off the thick plywood floor.

After three hours of non-stop effort, we invited the gentleman-in-need to roll out of the door of his home onto the porch, his wheelchair pushed by his younger brother. We couldn’t help but look at the legs of the man in the wheelchair. Both legs ended at the knee, the stubs of a double amputee.

His gap-toothed brother guided the chair down the ramp, thanking us. The two siblings both were rough old cobs. The younger one was likely embarrassed that someone else had come in and done the ramp he’d started with scrap lumber and good intentions, but didn’t have the money to complete.

From our perspective, I’ll call the whole morning a nice bit of Christmas gift giving. We each gave some time, just a morning, and none of us had to pull a wad of dollar bills from our pockets.

When I watch my grandkids open Christmas gifts next week, I’ll laugh joyfully and embrace the warmth and love of my family. Thankfully, the little ones don’t usually have to cope with the loss of mobility, having once gained it. Crawling gives way to toddling, then walking and running. The grandpa in me knows that without a doubt, watching wee ones learn to walk is simply one of the great wonders of the world.

Now, regardless of age, imagine a surgeon sawing off those legs at the knee, sawing away that hard-earned freedom of movement. A hundred and seventy years ago, writer English Charles Dickens knew what I’m talking about when he created little Tiny Tim on his crutches in his classic tale, “A Christmas Carol.”

Yesterday, the guy we met on the porch was real, not fictitious, and we didn’t bring him a fat goose for Christmas dinner. His problems aren’t going away. Still, that team of guys and girls, 16 to 84 years old, Christian and Muslim, did something worthwhile for him yesterday.

So, I may well also feel something nibbling at the back of my mind on Christmas morning. It’ll be the memory of that gap-toothed redneck and his legless brother, both proud middle-aged men, both trying to keep their composure, while one helped the other on his first trip down the new ramp. I’m sure their mouths were firmly set, determined to be stoic and manly. Even so, I bet they felt a sparkle behind their eyes, the recognition that the mobility we take for granted, the mobility recently cut away from one brother, was now possible again. Not the same as legs, to be sure, but far better than imprisonment at home for lack of a way down the porch steps.

Those two guys projected a thankfulness that will run much deeper than I expect will my grandkids’ innocent Christmas joy for the gifts we’ll shower on them.

Selfishly, I'll bet a dollar that every one of us felt exceptionally good as we drove away from that hidden home, a place we’ll likely never see again. We'll not forget giving the gift of a Saturday morning's labor and companionship, building yesterday's ramp.

McCoy’s Lumber Company provided the materials and the Texas Ramp Foundation website was the conduit for the referral to us.

Merry Christmas to all of you. Grace and Peace.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Texas Dragon for Christmas

Ever since I met Tolkien’s Smaug in The Hobbit in the 1960’s, I’ve enjoyed books in which sentient dragons are characters. There was Ann McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series. More recently, while George R Martin’s Game of Thrones dragons don’t speak, they are impressive. I’m also a fan of Brit Naomi Novik’s dragons in her Temerarie series set during early 1800’s. I wish I’d thought of adding dragon air forces to the Napoleonic wars. And not to forget John Ringo’s military dragons in his The Council Wars series. All to say, after writing four Civil War novels and one Texas Ranger adventure, I’ve decided to write a novel with a dragon character.

But I don’t want to copy the dragons of others.  Surely, I could think of some way to make a McBride dragon stand out. So I’ve asked myself, “What’s the blueprint for a Texas-centric dragon? How can I create a dragon that is uniquely Texan?” I thought back to my childhood before Tolkien and remembered the little flat lizards we called horny toads.

From Wikipedia:  “Although its coloration generally serves as camouflage against predation, when threatened by a predator, a horned lizard puffs up and appears very fat, which causes its body scales to protrude, making it difficult to swallow. The Texas horned lizard, also has the ability to squirt an aimed stream of blood from the corners of the eyes and sometimes from its mouth for a distance up to 5 ft. This not only confuses would-be predators, but also the blood is mixed with a chemical that is foul-tasting to canine predators such as wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs. This novel behavior is observed to be very effective in defense."

Whoa, hoss. What’s this? A Texas horny toad can squirt blood from its eyes to ward off hungry coyotes? Really? And puff up. And blend in to its surroundings?

So, what if a Texas horny toad grew to house-size and could fly by virtue of bat-type wings. What if it shot its eye blood stream a hundred yards instead of five feet? What if the blood stream was laced with a deadly acidic chemical instead of a smelly chemical? Let other writers’ dragons breathe fire. That’s old school, outdated. Instead, mine will stream really nasty acid-blood from its eyes. What would that horny toad be?

Answer: A Texas Dragon, A Different Dragon Entirely.  I’m calling it historical fantasy dragon lit—Texas style.  

I’m starting with just one horny toad dragon, a female named Leine—which is Gaelic for torch bearer. I’ll feed in more details later, but for now, I’ll say that Leine doesn’t talk. Rather, she projects her thoughts in Latin to a teenager named Mally Gunn—daughter of Jesse Gunn, a main character of my last book, and his beloved wife Caroline, she who was kidnapped by the Apaches in the opening pages of A Different Country Entirely.

I’m having a great time with this one because the writing makes me feel young and rebellious. When one of your main characters is a giant flying horny toad, the strict rules of historical fiction don’t much matter. I keep thinking of MLK’s great words, “Free at last, free at last. Hallelujah, I’m free at last.” At least for one book.

I still have one or two more Texas Confederate tales to write. I’ve not written anything about how back in real life Texas soldiers stopped two Yankee invasions of our home state, once at Sabine Pass and once in Louisiana at a place called Mansfield. But for now, it’s all about a Texas dragon named Leine.

Merry Christmas to all y’all from Little Lockhart, Texas.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thanksgiving & 'Nature Red in Tooth and claw'

This little reflection on American history came from a reenacting friend, Terre Hood Beiderman. She does 1860’s civilian reenacting, often as an adjunct to our Civil War military events. Terre is a favorite of mine because she writes well, is quick and laughs at things, and even more because she made a soup-stew of unknown ingredients that saved my hungry buns ten years ago. That stew came unexpectedly on the third day of a four-day campaign reenactment in the ‘Howling Wilderness’ of the Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana. Here she is at the civilian camp back then feeding a friendly Reb nicknamed ‘Ox,’ while she hides under a period sunbonnet that definitely is not just for show.

The other image is me as a damned tired Yankee private after four nights of sort-of-sleeping on the ground, and four days of marching, doing sham fighting over twenty miles of trails in the Howling Wilderness. My little Honda Civic and the Payday candy bar I’d stashed therein never looked so good or tasted so sweet.

So with that introduction, here is Terre’s Thanksgiving Reflection:
“The feral cats who live in these woods hiss and howl if I look at them, and dodge away. Good. That's part of their job, to not be too friendly. They keep the squirrels under control in the pecan orchard and shoo the birds out of the muscadines and scuppernongs. Occasionally I put some food out if they look too lean, but I do not want them dependent.

This morning, I separated out from this great bird, the liver and lights, heart and neck. I put them on to simmer in a little pot until it all fell to pieces with the poke of a fork, and poured it over some of the dry food. I let the whole thing cool before carrying it out to where I always put out water for the feral cats.

I can see their tails lashing and curling over the unique bounty. Their matriarch stands aside, disdainful of the handout. I saw her with a bunny early this morning, and watched the whole pack knocking squirrels out of trees in yesterday's rain. They do not need this feast, because they work and provide for themselves quite well. The half-grown ones climb higher in the trees than the adults can, knocking squirrels to ground into waiting jaws, then coming down for their share.

Nature red in tooth and claw.

As we celebrate plenty, in a culture that has tipped over into greed and competitive consumption, think also of those who came to this land unprepared, who recorded one winter as The Starving Time, and survived on the humanity of natives, and on hard work.

Like the feral cat outside my window, with the bunny in her jaws, our history is not always pretty. But it's ours. And has something to teach us.”

I asked Terre if I could borrow that short essay for my blog because the feral cats remind me of the early Texas Rangers I wrote about in A Different Country Entirely. Needed and appreciated by grateful civilians, but sometimes you had to ignore the bunny in their jaws.

As for my own after-Thanksgiving post, take a gander at my two grandsons together on our backporch last week. Little Rory is into rolling balls and crawling right now, and his cousin Jackson is all over Thomas the Train these days. But there shall come a time when Grandpa will get them both into Civil War duds with drum sticks in their hands and drums on their hips, beating a marching cadence for me and their dads and Marvin (Rory’s Mama Meredith passing as a male soldier). Hopefully, that'll happen one day while I'm still on the green side of the grass.

Finally, on top of all the other family thanks I had this Thanksgiving, I’m tossing out one more, without an illustration, an omission for which you'll be glad.

I was at a reenactment near Houston the weekend before Thanksgiving, camping, soldiering, and peddling my books. The first cold night I made my old man stumbling trip to the plastic port-a-can at 4:00 am in the darkest dark. Boy, was I surprised and oh-so-grateful that when I pulled the door open to start the ritual of doffing coat, vest and suspenders, and worrying over the chance of my car keys leaving my trouser pocket to fall into you-know-where, a LED light in the ceiling turned on automatically. Unexpected light in time of need is joy, and I was thankful.

This post also marks my blog site passing the 20,000 views mark. Thanks to each of you for that.




Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Holiday Cavalry Battle

Happy Thanksgiving Holiday!

Since 1999, I’ve spent the weekend before Thanksgiving at a Civil War reenactment just north of Houston at a place called Plantation Liendo. It really was a 2,000 acre plantation during the 1800's, The stately big house was built in 1853 and still stands, shaded by giant pecan trees. During the early days of the Civil War, a Confederate training camp was located on the property. Later, a prisoner of war camp for Union soldiers captured along the Texas coast and in Louisiana was close-by. All to say, Plantation Liendo is a great Texas location for a Civil War reenactment.

The photo is from last weekend’s cavalry skirmish that is a standard part of our sham battles. I’m including it here because with a little ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, it reminds me of the historical fight between Captain Callahan’s mounted Texas Rangers and the Mexican army cavalry they encountered and fought on Mexican soil in 1855. That wild melee fought on horseback is part of the climax of my new novel, A Different Country Entirely.

The reenactor on the far right is a friend, Edward Teniente, whose wife took the photo. The image has riders waving short muskets and shotguns and Colt pistols. Too bad there’s not any lances or swords, but you can still get a feel for how chaotic it must have been when several hundred charging horses met and mingled with the riders shooting at close range and hacking at each other.

In contrast to the bellicose action poses Edward and the two Rebs to his left are displaying, note that the very young Reb facing Edward on the pinto horse in the middle is more tentative, not quite ready to mix it up with all those crazy older guys. That rider probably reflects most soldiers' first battle experience.

Since horses are large dangerous beasts which scare me, I took part in the same battle as a Union infantryman. Here is a photo, also from Mrs. Teniente’s camera, of our company firing a front-rank volley towards our brothers in gray.

One last image of our company before the battle. I like this photo, not because of my snow white beard or dandy red fez, but because I’m next to a young man enjoying his first afternoon as a rifleman in the front rank, instead of being a drummer behind the action. Since my two grandsons are too young to play in our sham battles, I thought of Koal as my surrogate grandson for the hour we were elbow-to-elbow comrades in arms. And he did just fine. He is a spunky kid.

To close with a self-serving comment: With Christmas coming on, please consider buying a McBride novel as a gift for someone. And if, perchance, you have already bought and read any of my novels, a rating and short review left on my Amazon page would make a greatly appreciated gift to me.

Now, eat lots of turkey this Thursday, and when you are out shopping on Black Friday, slip a few dollar bills into the Salvation Army Red Kettle when you pass one.