That’s my picture up there. I’m not totally sure why I look so angry. I may be thinking about how much I hated the Crypt Keeper as a child.
I grew up faithfully watching reruns of The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. Unfortunately, I missed the boat in terms of writing for either of those programs. I do consider both to have been wildly influential when I think back to my earliest thoughts about becoming an author and I’m grateful my parents let me watch those shows as a kid (although there were probably some nights early in my childhood my mother wished she hadn’t let me watch those shows). If you’re familiar with either program, then you know what genres are my focus. I thoroughly enjoy science fiction, suspense, the twist ending, and some horror or supernatural elements as well. Honestly, when I was a kid the Crypt Keeper scared the hell out of me. As an adult, I’ve really learned to embrace the puns.
Historical fiction is a favorite of mine as well, and the root of that is shared with my profession. I am an educator by trade, and I teach American History. I consider some of the best writing I’ve ever done to be within the realm of historical fiction and I really enjoy saturating my mind in the research end of those projects.
I would make the argument that storytelling is in my blood. Even my sister mulled, very briefly (about 45 minutes), launching a career as a screenwriter! My last name is one of those Irish (and, apparently, formally Manx) ones with a wonderfully researched history -“the story-teller’s descendant”. On of the first day of school each year, I do share that “my name is Mr. Scully, and that rhymes with Kelly”, just so I do not hear the myriad of mispronunciations on the first day.
Several years ago, I started a blog similar to this one to highlight my middle years as a teacher. If that aspect of my life is of any interest to you at all, you can still find that blog online. During my summers, I really have time to pursue my writing projects and this blog will highlight some of that work. My first attempts to sit down and write extensively occurred when I was 15, but only a few years ago did I make setting time aside to write a priority. I’ve also benefited wildly over the years from many willing readers among my family and friends. The direction and feedback from those individuals has been invaluable.
Outside the world of the written word, I am an educator, basketball coach, lecturer, and (very, very occasionally) a landscaper. I have only ever known Western Pennsylvania as my home.
Although I love a good novel, I am absolutely unable to resist the power of the short story. The latter is really what I hope to be remembered for one day.
The fictional Alaska Railroaders, comprised only of MLB free agents, have selected four outfielders.
Previous posts (here and here) have outlined the idea behind the Alaska Railroaders – a fictional Major League Baseball team consisting of free agents (as of the start of the 2016 season). The team will carry four outfielders. Keep in mind that Garrett Jones and Ryan Doumit can also play in right field, which gives the roster some flexibility.
Starting in left field for the Railroaders would be Grady Sizemore. Sizemore has struggled with a litany of injuries during his career, but in 2015 he served as a capable reserve outfielder for Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, hitting .257/.318/.429 between the clubs with six home runs. Due to the possibilities of creating platoons in the outfield, Sizemore would not be called upon to play more than 100 games and would see most of those starts come against right-handed pitching (against which he has a career slash of .281/.366/.492). If Sizemore can stay healthy in this reduced role, he could slash .260/.313/.393 with 9 home runs. If aggressive enough, he could also make a case for ten steals.
David DeJesus would be the primary center fielder. DeJesus is getting long in the tooth, but his last several seasons are all statistically similar (with an OPS generally in the low .700s). However, I suspect that the Railroaders would see his numbers dip from that mark. Seeing the field about as often as Sizemore, DeJesus is capable of .247/.303/.362, while hitting seven home runs and stealing a handful of bases.
Right field would belong to Alex Rios, who could move to left periodically to give Jones or Doumit a start in right field. Since 2013, Rios has not had an especially strong season. However, he does hit left-handed pitching well and is serviceable enough against right-handed pitchers to be used most games. Rios doesn’t walk much and his power numbers have been down the last few seasons. However, playing as a regular for the Railroaders would probably do him some good – if he stays healthy. Pencil him in for a .265/.305/.403 slash with ten home runs and at least ten steals.
The wildcard in the outfield is Ah-seop Son. Son, just as Jae-gyun Hwang , was posted at the end of 2015 and did not receive a bid. Technically, Hwang and Son, both coming from the same KBO team, could not simultaneously make the jump to the Major Leagues during the same year (both play for the Lotte Giants and, although both can be posted, the Lotte Giants can only accept a bid for one or the other within the same posting period). We will make an exception and say that, for whatever reason, the KBO changed the rule and have allowed both Hwang and Son to play for the Alaska Railroaders. Son hit .317/.406/.472 with the Lotte Giants in 2015, adding 13 home runs. At the very least, Son (who is currently hitting .304/.397/.433 with seven home runs for the Lotte Giants) is a left-handed bat off the bench. He should also help spell Sizemore and DeJesus, whereas Jones and Doumit could help Rios fill right field. Son is a legitimate threat on the bases and has a lifetime .321 batting average in the KBO. Son also walks a great deal and has flashed some power as well – he hit 18 home runs in 2014. By the end of the Alaska Railroaders’ hypothetical first season, Son may very well have more at bats than DeJesus or Sizemore, if only because Son is several years younger than either (offering greater endurance and durability). Logging 358 at bats, Son hits .279/.376/.397 with five home runs and fifteen steals. Son may very well have taken over in left field by June.
Batting Order vs Left-handed Pitcher: Sizmore, DeJesus, Rios, Hwang, Morse*, Uggla, Cabrera, Quintero, [Pitcher].
*Jones would see some starts at first against left-handed pitchers.
Batting Order vs. Right-handed Pitcher: Sizmore, DeJesus, Hwang, Jones, Rios, Doumit^, Uggla, Cabrera, [Pitcher].
^Quintero would invariably have to play against right-handed pitching as well. On those occasions, he would bat eighth in the order, with Uggla and Cabrera sliding up one spot each.
The Alaska Railroaders, a fictional baseball team of 2016 free agents, has selected nine infielders.
In a previous post I explained some background of the Alaska Railroaders – a fictional Major League Baseball club with a roster consisting of free agents at the start of the 2016 season. I also shared that the team’s first signing would be Garrett Jones (who is currently playing in Japan) and that he would be the primary first baseman.
The starting second baseman would be Dan Uggla. Uggla’s last truly productive season was 2012, but “the last frontier” would give Uggla one last chance to start. The second base market was thin by the time the regular season started, but Uggla could prove himself worthy by supplying power to the lineup. Uggla had a difficult 2015, finishing with a slash of .183/.298/.300, but the 235 career home runs and name recognition (if this team existed, that would be important) offer some appeal. However, Uggla would probably have sit a few games here or there to break up cold streaks, meaning that someone else would also see considerable time at second base for the Railroaders. With some pressure taken off of him, Uggla may be able to move north of the “Mendoza Line” (on a team of all free agents, there isn’t necessarily someone waiting in the wings to take your job). Uggla also knows how to take a walk, but the real hope here is that he will be able to run into a few. I see Uggla definitely playing more than half of the games (if he can stay healthy) for the Railroaders, unless his numbers were truly unbearable. Put him down for 13 home runs home runs along with a .202/.298/.360 slash across 381 at bats. The resulting OPS is not good (.658) but survivable if Uggla delivers some pop.
Everth Cabrera would be the starting shortstop. Cabrera’s career slash of .246/.315/.328 makes clear that he is a light hitter, but his defense is solid. Playing the majority of the time, Cabrera could reasonably repeat his 2014 campaign (.232/.272/.300, 3 home runs, 18 steals). The ability to steal a few bases comes as a welcome addition to this roster. The Railroaders could count on Cabrera for .234/.307/.324, with three home runs and maybe upwards of 15 steals.
The position of third base allows this entire speculation to get creative: Jae-gyun Hwang was posted in December by the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization for bidding and did not receive a bid. For the purposes of this project, the Alaska Railroaders did submit a bid and were able to agree to terms with Hwang. Last season, Hwang posted a .290/.350/.521 in the hitter-friendly KBO, while racking up 26 home runs, 97 RBI, and 11 stolen bases. Generally, the recent wave of Korean players has demonstrated that most can prove capable in Major League Baseball. Jung Ho Kang, Dae-Ho Lee, and Hyun Soo Kim have all played well thus far in their MLB careers. Slugger Byung Ho Park has struggled, but will certainly get another chance this season with the Minnesota Twins. Hwang was especially good in Korea during 2014 and 2015 (and presently for the 2016 season is hitting .327/.375/.569 with 17 home runs) and should be at least serviceable for the Railroaders. Hwang, 27-years-old to start the season, will man the hot corner full-time. Strikeouts will be a concern for Hwang, and he will not walk much. That said, the Railroaders will need to march him onto the field each day (and the team would hope that he holds up over a longer MLB season). Hwang could be counted on for .277/.309/.410 while belting 14 home runs, stealing a dozen bases, and providing a spark for the Railroaders offense.
The market is very thin at catcher (as per the eligibility limitations for this team). The Railroaders will start the season with Humberto Quintero serving as the primary catcher, with Ryan Doumit as a backup option. Doumit could also help in right field and at first base if there is a need. Neither of these players could be expected to stay healthy the entire season, especially considering the demands of the position (and the age of each). I am hard-pressed to count on Quintero to start more than 65 games behind home plate. Doumit may be able to contribute 60 games as the backstop, but that leaves 37 games remaining. Of course, most teams use multiple catchers throughout the season as injuries dictate. Quintero and Doumit would simply start the season by sharing the position. Quintero fares somewhat better against left-handed pitching, while Doumit fares better against the more common right-landed hurlers. However, Quintero plays the position better. Quintero should be able to muster .230/.258/.315 across 248 at bats, while hitting three home runs. Doumit is a bit more dangerous at the plate than his counterpart. Doumit will also see extra at bats through his occasional appearance in right field or first base, as well as his ability to pinch hit. Regardless of how the Railroaders use him, Doumit logs just over 250 at bats, hits .261/.339/.412, and slugs eight home runs.
Rounding out the infield would be the reserves: Michael Morse, Kevin Frandsen, and Joaquin Arias. Arias and Frandsen are utility players. Either can spell Uggla, Cabrera, or Hwang as needed. Frandsen would most likely see considerable time at second if Uggla should really struggle. Frandsen could receive around 200 at bats, hitting .256/.300/.360 with four home runs. Morse would serve as the right-handed half of the platoon at first base with Jones. If Morse were to play really well (anything close to how he played in 2010-2012 or 2014), he could force Jones to move to right field more often so that the Railroaders could have both of their bats in the lineup. Arguably, Morse could see upwards of 200 at bats, especially if he sees time as a pinch hitter and designated hitter during interleague play, and hit .265/.342/.404 with five home runs.
How would a baseball team of all free agents look?
I have loved baseball for a long time. When I was a young kid though, I was a somewhat fair weather fan. My favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, had a good run in the early 90s, but otherwise I tended to favor football and basketball over baseball. That changed dramatically in December of 1998, when the Pirates signed Ed Sprague to play third base.
Sprague had long been my favorite player, having spent most of his career at that point with my second favorite team – the Toronto Blue Jays. Sprague had a great season for the Pirates, earning a place on the National League All-Star team, and hitting .267/.352/.465 with 22 home runs. His OPS of .817 was the second highest of his career (for seasons in which he played full-time). While Sprague was with the Pirates, I couldn’t miss a game. I even had a chance to see him hit a home run in person. The Pirates had a fairly decent team in 1999 (finishing 78-83) and, if not for injuries, may have broken up that streak of consecutive losing seasons from 1993 to 2012. I had equally enjoyed the Pirates’ 2003 team.
Sprague signing with the Pirates had demonstrated to me that free agency could help a team (whereas in the early 90s the Pirates had been hurt frequently by free agency). Each season after Sprague’s tenure with the Buccos, I started closely watching the Pirates’ moves in free agency. Of course, as with many other fans, as a teenager I began to wonder how I might perform as a general manager – especially during free agency.
That curiosity started a tradition of mine. Each season, I tried to find a list of the players unsigned to a Major League Baseball team on opening day and construct a team from those players. My goal was to make the team as competitive as possible and use players with some MLB experience (with a few exceptions, as the KBO is going to lend me a hand this time). I also got into the habit of imagining this team as an expansion team without the benefit of an expansion draft. Obviously, there is a need to suspend reality to make this work and to just enjoy the entertainment value of imaging how this team would look. Before I go on, let me say Mark McGwire hates this idea.
Several years ago, I would post the rosters I created onto Facebook. I eventually got out of the habit of posting my “free agent team” online. However, yesterday I had nothing better to think about while landscaping for most of the day. I sat down last evening and starting doing some research. After a few hours, I pieced together a roster along with some statistical projections. I have always enjoyed the numbers associated with baseball. I decided that this blog would work well enough as an outlet for the finished product.
I’m calling the team the Alaska Railroaders. The team would play in Anchorage, which has a longrailroading history. I am fully aware that Anchorage, with a metropolitan area of less than 500,000 people, could not support a MLB team. However, when I was a kid I was obsessed with Alaska, so that part of this entire scenario was nonnegotiable. The Railroaders would play at the fictional ConocoPhillips Field, which would be built in Bootleggers Cove. Visible through an opening in the grandstand behind center field would be the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet and downtown. A locomotive’s whistle would announce the hitting of a home run by the Railroaders. I imagine the team playing in the National League West division (for the purposes of constructing a roster, I am electing to have the team placed in the NL) and wearing white and gold uniforms with blue and black trim. This would allow the team to generally share the livery of the Alaska Railroad. I also assembled my roster as if the team would start play with the current 2016 season. Before I go on, I should share that I have three short stories involving baseball: The Shepherds and Game 7, Any Pitch is its Hit, and Devil on the Diamond. Each of these stories intertwine baseball and the supernatural. I have also used the “Alaska Railroaders” as a fictional independent league team in a few of my works.
Three subsequent posts will break the Alaska Railroaders’ roster into pieces: infielders, outfielders, and pitchers. I’m not claiming this team would win the pennant. That said, I would hope to field a team that could best the 2003 Detroit Tigers in a series.
I will share the Alaska Railroaders first signing in this post, as he is a player that will see time in the infield and outfield. The Railroaders’ first official player would be Garrett Jones. Jones was most recently with the New York Yankees in 2015, but is probably best remembered for his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2009 to 2013.
Jones is not technically a free agent, as he signed a contract with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball in December of 2015. However, for the sake of constructing this roster, we will deem Jones available since he would have most likely preferred to sign with a Major League Baseball club. Jones would serve as the Railroaders’ primary first baseman, although he would likely sit occasionally against left-handed pitching. Against right-handed pitching, Jones has a career slash of .265/.330/.473. Although Jones struggled in 2015 while seeing limited at bats with the New York Yankees, the 34-year-old (at the start of the season) could easily see over 600 plate appearances with the larger role of a first base platoon and the occasional start in right field. Jones also brings some home run power to the roster. He averaged over 19 home runs per season between 2009 and 2014. As far as a projection is concerned, I see Jones embracing this opportunity to the tune of .256/.324/.442 with 22 home runs and an OPS of .766 in 543 at bats. For the record, Jones is presently hitting .247/.331/.463 with 13 home runs across 231 at bats in Japan (as of July 21).
If you read one historical fiction novella about the Byzantine Empire this year, read mine!
Writing The Last in June and July of 2014 was an exciting time for me. I started writing at the beginning of summer and the first draft was finished within 24 days. Two years and four drafts later, I have a historical fiction novella that I am genuinely proud to claim as my own work. The Last benefited greatly from several volunteer readers over the last two years. The feedback I received from those individuals spurred the various revisions that created the present novella. Insight from Father Bob Lubic was of considerable help. His suggestions and wisdom were of special worth to me and I greatly appreciate the time he invested with The Last.
The first draft of The Last was also the final piece of my writing that my grandmother read before she passed in July of 2014. She had always been the greatest advocate of my writing and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to share this one with her.
I have seriously kicked the tires on making The Last the final novella in a trilogy of historical fiction pieces (each with a slight supernatural edge) concerning the Byzantine Empire. I had even seriously considered using the Battle of Yarmouk and the Byzantine Iconoclasm as potential foundations for the two other (“previous”) installments (the Battle of Manzikert and the Fourth Crusade are two other options).
Researching for this project also opened the door for my love affair with Byzantine history. I am simply unable to read enough about the topic and I don’t intend to bring this romance to an end anytime soon. If you are looking for just a taste of Byzantine history, I suggest you start here.
The fall of Constantinople was one of those amazing turning points in history and I do believe I’ve captured the essence of that event’s significance in The Last. Below, I have shared quotes that really helped me capture the characterizations of George Sphrantzes, an imperial courtier, and Emperor Constantine XI Dragas Palaiologos. These quotes communicate a great deal about the foreboding that existed in Constantinople just before the Ottoman siege in 1453.
“On the same night of May 28th  I had a dream: it seemed to me that I was back in the City; as I made a motion to prostrate myself and kiss the Emperor’s feet, he stopped me, raised me, and kissed my eyes. Then I woke up and told those sleeping by me: ‘I just had this dream. Remember the date.’ ”
Roman (Byzantine) Imperial Ambassador
“But how can I do this and leave the clergy, the churches of God, the empire and all of the people?
What will the world think of me, I pray, tell me?
No, my lords, no: I will die here with you. ”
– Constantine XI Dragas Palaiologos,
in Christ true Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans
The quote from Constantine XI is really at the heart of The Last. The sense of responsibility and determination in that man must have been absolutely astounding.
Including the prologue, a list of characters, and a handful of illustrations, The Last runs 13,473 words over 45 pages.
Yes, that’s a play on the title of the popular Anne Rice novel, but who said Brad Pitt isn’t playing the role of my grandfather in the film adaption?
A couple months ago I was working in the yard at my grandfather’s house (where he has lived the last few years), when I remembered that I had a few questions for him. I was in the middle of researching and developing a science fiction writing project called The Day the Sun Died and I knew he could provide the kind of details I wouldn’t so easily find in a book or online. The Day the Sun Died concerns three primary characters struggling to survive several weeks after the sun has mysteriously vanished, sending the planets of our solar system careening through the darkness of space.
The Day the Sun Died was inspired by this video, which does an excellent job outlining the changes the Earth might experience if our sun disappeared (or if the Earth was ever ripped out of the solar system and cast into space). Of course, there would be a period of chaos and turmoil, but life would not immediately come to an end. Depending upon their actions, some humans would undoubtedly find ways to survive for weeks or months (possibly longer in a few cases) as the planet slowly became colder and colder.
The setting for the majority of the story was essentially my grandfather’s old farmhouse. When I was a child, he and my grandmother lived there and, in many ways, that’s where I grew up – I could say the same for my sister and a couple of my cousins as well. The farmhouse was truly old, constructed around 1878, and the surrounding property that my grandparents maintained functioned as a miniature farm.
Perched on a hilltop, the farmhouse commanded an impressive view in all directions and could be seen for quite a distance standing among several tall maples. There was always a grace and grandeur about the house, especially when I was young. The rooms were large and the ceilings very high. There were narrow passages, old fixtures, fireplaces, and secret doors. The house was remarkably consistent. Years passed and the place never really changed. All the furniture and appliances remained in the same place. The rooms were always used for the same purposes. My grandparents’ routines seemed to be the exact same each day (I can still distinctly remember my grandmother listening to WCVI or WMBS in the kitchen each morning). Although some felt the house was slowly falling apart (especially as my grandparents aged), I think that part of me always suspected my grandparents’ house would last forever.
My grandparents had lived in this house far longer than I had been alive, so I could only draw upon what I remembered as a child and young adult. I needed to know more than my memory alone could provide. That’s when I got the idea to interview my grandfather.
I needed my grandfather to describe to me some of his experiences living in that old farmhouse (especially in winter) because the three principal characters in The Day the Sun Died begin the story eking out an existence at a similar house in the countryside. These characters are faced with a question: do we continue to live here and slowly succumb to the conditions or do we take a chance and attempt to reach a destination where our lives could be prolonged?
I started with very straightforward questions. My grandfather explained his daily routine to me, especially about how the house’s coal furnace had to be maintained. He explained how the chimneys and fireplaces in the house had originally been designed (as some of this had changed before I was born). He recalled the specifics of the system that moved hot water from the furnace to iron radiators throughout the house. Much of the information he shared with me encouraged me to ask questions I had not thought of before. He went on to outline the process by which he had butchered animals in his younger years and, basically, the finer details of operating a small farm. I took notes as he spoke and was very satisfied with all that he had to share.
After forty-five minutes, our conversation had ended. I decided to explain to my grandfather why I had asked so many questions about his old house and, specifically, the heating system used inside. I even shared some of my ideas for The Day the Sun Died with him. He seemed somewhat perplexed by this, as I suspect that he thought I needed this information for a research paper or newspaper article. I thanked him for all the information he had provided and that was that. I didn’t really think that he and I would ever discuss those details again and I assumed he may well have forgotten the entire conversation by the next day.
Earlier this week I was at his house again working in the yard. He was sitting on the porch and sharing this and that about some local happenings and recalling who had visited him recently and what news those visitors had told him. There are moments when my grandfather seems to have walked right out of a John Wayne film – and his porch becomes the front steps of the town saloon or lawman’s office – and this was one of those times. The way he banters is whimsical and, if you really listen, creates a certain nostalgia for some bygone era that you can’t quite place. He really isn’t the science fiction sort, but he could have played a mean Friar Tuck. I knew that, while he may have vaguely recalled our conversation about coal furnaces and the worst winters he could remember, he probably hadn’t thought again about why I had asked all those questions.
After about an hour or so, I had finished the intended task and was preparing to leave. That’s when my grandfather really surprised me. He asked plainly, “How is that book coming?”
Described as “a Disneyland for readers” and available online for less than one dollar, this title is well worth a read or two.
About twenty years ago, I found a book at my grandparents’ house that I must have read cover to cover multiple times by now. The book I found two decades ago was Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, originally published in 1976 by Reader’s Digest (the copy I later received from my grandmother was printed in 1980). The very first page of the text states that the book contains “an astonishing variety of subject matter, treatment, and tone”. This is certainly accurate, as Strange Stories, Amazing Facts methodically covers an unbelievable range of topics. The book blends together science and the supernatural in a way that is “bizarre, unusual, odd, astonishing, and often incredible”.
Among many other topics, this book (which is divided into five parts) manages to include commentary on:
The Solar System
The immune system
The legend of Atlantis
The creation of life
The Great Wall of China
The Canadian Pacific Railway
The discovery of the Americas
The exploration of Antarctica
The Oak Island Money Pit
The mystery surrounding Anastasia Romanov
Jack the Ripper
The Lost Dutchman’s Mine
The Mary Celeste
The Flying Dutchman
The Faces of Bélmez
The Borley Rectory
The Loch Ness Monster
Of course, considering that Strange Stories, Amazing Facts is forty years old, the articles concerning science often come across very dated. Otherwise, the book’s relevant examinations of a seemingly endless number of interesting topics have stood the test of time.
My grandmother had encouraged me to keep this book a long time ago. She passed just over two years ago, and there is no picking up this book without thinking about the value she placed on reading and imagination. She was a wondrously imaginative woman. I had the opportunity to speak at her funeral service, and I included this book as part of the reflection I shared with those in attendance. Strange Stories, Amazing Facts might as well have been the title of my grandmother’s biography. She just lived that kind of life.
I do still reference this book and did so as recently as April. In a previous post, I mentioned this volume as one I wanted to include on this blog. I recently shared a passage from this book with a colleague, who was just as impressed with the subject matter as anyone else I know who has picked up this title.
Although Strange Stories, Amazing Facts seems somewhat rare (although inexpensive) in 2016, I found and bought another copy at a fundraiser held by the Dunbar Community Library in Dunbar, Pennsylvania. I simply could not pass up the opportunity to own a spare copy.
Without a doubt, this book has given me years and years of imagination fuel. And I think that’s exactly what my grandmother intended.
Has anyone else read Strange Stories, Amazing Facts? If so, what did you think?
“The Last” reveals the reflections of Emperor Constantine XI during the final surge of Ottoman soldiers against the walls of Constantinople on May 29th, 1453.
I started to take serious my desire to become a writer in December of 2011. I had certainly tried my hand at significant writing before that – as early as 2001. However, life offered me plenty of distractions in the decade between those years, preventing the accomplishment of any noteworthy work. Even once I knew that writing was my passion, time remained in very limited supply. Between my career as an educator, coaching girls’ and boys’ basketball, and the handful of other jobs that I worked during the holidays and summer, I found that I struggled to consistently allow time for writing.
Between 2011 and 2014, I did complete a handful of short stories and novellas. Despite the feeling of accomplishment, I struggled to find time to return to those works for the purposes of editing and improvement. Quite honestly, there just wasn’t enough time in the day to write regularly during those years. My dreams waited.
That changed on June 9th, 2014. On that day, I began work on what I consider my best piece of writing to date. Less than a month later, I had completed the first draft of The Last. Writing this particular novella, a historical fiction piece, was a true labor of love. I thoroughly enjoyed telling the story of the Emperor Constantine XI and his valiant defense of the vestiges of the Roman Empire in the 15th century. My research for The Last spurred a great appreciation for Byzantine History. A quick glance at my bookcase will suggest that my fondness for this topic has only increased in the time since I first started writing on a warm June day over two years ago.
The Last is set on May 29, 1453 – the final day of the Roman Empire. This alone may come as a surprise to those recalling that the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century. The Last concerns the eastern region of the empire around Constantinople, which survived the fall of Rome and the western provinces by nearly a millennia. Those living in this surviving portion of the Roman Empire considered themselves Roman and the inheritors of all that Rome had represented and accomplished. These Medieval Romans must defend their identify and culture from the invading Ottomans or be lost to history.
Some books just do wonders for the imagination. What if you don’t read these two?
Few books have done more wonders for my imagination than What If?by Randall Munroe or The Collected What If?, which includes the texts of What If? (not Monroe’s aforementioned book) and What If? 2. The Collected What If? is a compilation of essays authored by several different historians from a variety of backgrounds.
Munroe’s What If? addresses hypothetical situations concerning various fields of science, whereas The Collected What If? focuses on content that is historical in nature. I would strongly suggest either to even a casual reader. Both of these books are easy to pick up, read for a few minutes, and sit back down, while still invigorating the mind and offering some refreshing perspectives. The content of each, generally speaking, is outside the realm of the standard nonfiction text and is often humorous.
To say that I have enjoyed reading each of these books is a serious understatement. I have selected my five favorite “chapters” (and I use that term loosely) from each book. These selections are those which stayed with me the longest after reading, often making me seriously ponder some aspects of both my life and writing.
Randall Munroe’s What If? is divided by question. Munroe has selected several hypothetical science questions, many of which are very unique (and certainly not easy to answer), and does his best to offer a calculated and rational solution for each.
5. “Facebook of the Dead”
4. “The Last Human Light”
3. “Hockey Puck”
2. “Rising Steadily”
1. “Interplanetary Cessna”
I laughed while reading “Interplanetary Cessna” and shared that particular passage first and foremost with anyone noticing Munroe’s What If? in my home (and the cover does tend to catch the eye of visitors). As a whole, Munroe’s What If? does a wonderful job at offering some very literal outcomes to several “science fiction” scenarios.
The Collected What If?, edited by Robert Cowley, is divided by essay. The essays cover a very wide variety of hypothetical historical situations. For example, the textbook used for the American History course I teach for Uniontown Area School District, asks the students to identify possible changes in the culture and geography of North America if the French had managed to fight the British to a draw in the French and Indian War. Such a topic would be appropriate for this particular book, as that type of scenario (perhaps the French emerge victorious at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759) is imagined and investigated within each individual essay.
5. “The Dark Ages Made Lighter: The Consequences of Two Defeats” by Barry S. Strauss
4. “Day Day Fails: Atomic Alternatives in Europe” by Stephen E. Ambrose
3. “Unlikely Victory: Thirteen Ways the Americans Could Have Lost the Revolution” by Thomas Fleming
2. “Furor Teutonicus: The Teutoburg Forest, A.D. 9” by Lewis H. Lapham
1. “Pontius Pilate Spares Jesus: Christianity without the Crucifixion” by Carlos M.N. Eire
For anyone mulling a serious historical fiction writing project, The Collected What If? is the ideal place to start. This book offers the type of reading that will genuinely get the wheels ustairs turning.
There are a handful of other books that have really served as an inspiration to me, and I hope to post about those (including one very important title) in the near future. What other books serve as good fodder for the science fiction writer? Are there other titles that might really help an author seeking to write some realistic historical fiction?
Extraterrestrial life, if found, is expected to be strange and astounding. But what if the feeling we experience following this amazing discovery isn’t excitement, wonder, or even fear – but one of déjà vu?
When I was a kid, one of the more thoroughly enjoyable films that my cousin, sister, and I frequently watched was Planet of Dinosaurs. This movie has something of a cult following today and the title really says all that you need to know. Of course, you don’t need to recreate dinosaurs in a laboratory if there’s a planet teeming with these beasts close enough for us to take a spaceship (packed with really snappy space outfits) and arrive in a relatively short period of time.
Set well into the future, the crew of a disabled spaceship crash-lands on a distant planet remarkably similar to Earth. Much to the dismay of the survivors, this planet, determined to be younger than Earth, is inhabited by dinosaurs (or, at least, creatures that really, really resemble dinosaurs). Some of the dinosaurs are less than hospitable to the newcomers and, ultimately, the human characters are forced to get really creative to dispatch the local Tyrannosaurus (this Tyrannosaurus was made out of clay). I really shouldn’t make joke of that – this film won the 1980 Saturn Award for “Best Film Produced under $1,000,000”. Special recognition was given to the films stop motion effects, which heavily involved the use of clay models.
This seemed to be almost ideal for me. As a child, I loved dinosaurs (I still do) and would have loved to travel the galaxy to see the sights (I still would) – especially if there were dinosaurs out there (please let there be)!
Of course, I spent the next two decades of my life hearing that extraterrestrial life would almost definitely not consist of dinosaurs. Or giant bugs. Or little green men. Or even little grey men. A countless number of researchers and scientists have offered a similar reality: we can’t possibly begin to imagine the shapes and forms extraterrestrial life might assume. There have also been plenty of suggestions from the scientific community that extraterrestrial life may be unrecognizable as life to mankind.
Then Planet of Dinosaurs came roaring back. A recent study suggested that Earth may have been seeded with life by a meteorite billions of years ago. This meteorite would have brought the chemical building blocks for all life that has ever existed (sans perhaps just a few bacteria) on Earth. Where there was one meteorite, there may be been two, or a dozen, or a hundred. Planets across the Milky Way could have been seeded with the same amino acids and sugars. If the mixture occurred elsewhere in just the right way, however unlikely, there could be dinosaur-like creatures roaming around on a planet in a nearby star system.
Although the dinosaur part really appeals to me in a nostalgic way, that’s not what is worthwhile to me about this study. When I first read this (and later, similar, research), my initial thought was “if there is life nearby, maybe it’s a little more similar to us than expected.”
This goes a step farther. Earth, having life genuinely created here or seeded from the cosmos, could have, in turn, spread the proper organic necessities to some very close neighbors. There is a term for this possibility: lithopanspermia. Rocks harboring microscopic life from the Earth could have been ejected by meteor strikes into space eons ago. These rocks may have subsequently struck other bodies in our solar system. Lithopanspermia, of course, remains unproven as a means of spreading life from one planetary body to another. There is no firm evidence that microorganisms could survive a journey through space.
However, a study from Pennsylvania State University has demonstrated that, over the last three billion years or so, somewhere between one and ten rocks ejected from the Earth has struck Europa. Europa, one of Juptier’s moons, is the favorite darling of those believing extraterrestrial life may be found somewhere in our solar system.
Imagine now a rock (or rocks) from Earth, carrying early indigenous (and very simple) life forms, smashing through the ice on Europa and plunging downward in the massive ocean dominating that moon. A popular theory holds that life originated on Earth near deep-sea vents that seeped valuable mineral content and heat into the ocean. Such vents are also believed to exist on Europa. Our Earth microbes survive their hypothetical space journey and settle to the bottom of Europa, introducing life to this new world and continuing their evolution – perhaps with a subtle twist or two.
This serves as a critical plot point in Dying Up There. Set several decades in the future, the protagonist, Mark Helling, is a crew member of the first human expedition to Europa. The search for extraterrestrial life has ended, but this meeting isn’t a discovery as much as it’s a reunion. What Helling and his companions encounter might seem strange, but there’s a discomforting familiarity present. After all, the human characters and this newfound entity are made of the same stuff – each have origins in the same primordial soup found on Earth eons ago. Both grew apart over the eons, but they go way back – for better or worse.
How will extraterrestrial life look if such is found? I am still caught up in the idea of “alien dinosaurs“. Are those out there somewhere or what?
Does the chaos or hidden corners of the universe frighten you? If not, maybe it should.
Cosmophobia is a fear of the universe. This phobia includes an excessive unease with the sheer enormity of space, the relative insignificance of oneself when compared to the vastness of the night sky, and the inherit dangers, both known and unknown, therein. Whether or not humanity should have a fear of the cosmos is one of the main ideas within my current writing project, Dying Up There. The protagonist of this piece has a few Earth-bound fears, but will he learn to dread what the cosmos is hiding most of all?
Among the many fears of humanity, one may very well assume that cosmophobia is considerably down the list. Phobias are extreme or excessive fears, and fear is, by definition, “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or is some kind of threat”. Many “common phobias” are quite widespread throughout the human population and, arguably, for good reason.
In many cases, these root fears transcend age, race, and creed. Those phobias common within the general public include (but are certainly not limited to): acrophobia, a fear of heights; astraphobia, a fear of lightning; and pyrophobia, a fear of fire. However, these fears may be justified. Falling from excessive heights, lightning strikes, and uncontrolled fires are all deadly and our ancestors undoubtedly encountered these dangers more often than the average person does today. Thus, a foundation of fearfulness of these examples was laid long ago.
Acrophobia (fear of heights)
The dangers presented by a rocky seaside cliff or by a climb into a tall tree are obvious. Yet, we still frequently hear or read about individuals accidentally (or, unfortunately, purposefully) falling from a great height to their death – rather said person was exercising good judgment or not is often disregarded. Our modern society offers many man-made high places from which to fall. Consider an individual working on the roof of a two story home when a sudden wind develops or perhaps an unaware hiker attempting to cross a rural railroad trestle finds a locomotive rushing in his direction – the height involved makes these circumstances dangerous.
Our parents and guardians warn us at a very young age of the dangers associated with getting a little too far off the ground. How many people do not suffer at least one significant fall as a child? Probably very few. This is perhaps one of the first childhood fears we must readily encounter and address. Many of us carry around the scares or other bodily irregularities that result from such a fall. These experiences may have formed painful memories that we are not eager to repeat.
A desire to want to be on the ground is natural. And one can see a fear of heights perhaps subsequently leading to a fear of boarding an especially impressive roller coaster or of flying in an aircraft from one city to another. The historical human experience has always been a grounded one and our attempts to get off the Earth’s surface for extended periods of time have occasionally garnered very tragic results.
Astraphobia (fear of lightning)
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an average of 49 people has been struck and killed by lightning in the United States each year for the last three decades. Consider that the United States is one of the world’s most developed nations, where ample shelter from extreme weather is usually available. Imagine how those numbers may look for a third world nation where a large percentage of the workforce is employed outside, where weather warning systems are primitive or do not exist at all, and where ample shelter is perhaps not readily available. For every ten individuals struck by lightning, typically one will die and the other nine are generally subject to serious, and often long-term, injuries.
Aside from these statistics, lightning can be concerning or frightening in other ways. Lightning often acts as a harbinger of severe weather, including strong winds, heavy rains, and flash floods. For some, the accompanying thunder can send shivers down the spine. Early humans, given the limitations to their understanding of this atmospheric phenomenon, would have been incredibly weary of lightning.
Pyrophobia (fear of fire)
If you subscribe to the widespread, but by no means universal, belief that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, consider that the fossil record strongly suggests that fire as we know such today did not exist on this planet until 470 million years ago. Wildfires, the great destroyers and regenerators of the wilderness (for mankind, these events are often just destroyers), were limited on Earth for another 50 million years after the first strange appearance of that now familiar flame. Fire on Earth may actually have remained somewhat of an anomaly on the planet until just six or seven million years ago. Roughly two million years ago early humans probably started using fire to cook their food and by 100,000 years ago (and perhaps as many as 1,000,000 years) fire was controlled, as much as could be expected, and used as a tool, heat source, and weapon by human beings. We can freely imagine that there was a steep learning curve involved.
Our ancestors first experiences with fire must have been terrifying, in all possible meanings of that term. Fire proved wildly significant for early man and our ability to use and control fire remains critical to all societies today. The dangers are obvious. We burn. Our belongings and homes burn. We can die from smoke inhalation if we are inside a burning building without ever seeing fire. Fire remains a dangerous, but useful, wonder.That said, there are plenty of reasons to still fear the flame.
These fears have been ingrained in the human mind since our initial appearance or arising on this planet. You might even say that these fears came programmed into our brains, regardless of our evolution or creation. Our phobias concerning these aspects of our existence may be extreme in some individuals today, but those fears have always been part of the package that is the human brain.
As early man could not have understood what was seen above the Earth in the night sky, we can understand why a fear such as cosmophobia was not included in this starter set. Of course, early man may have observed shooting stars and even encountered meteorite strikes, but these events would have been so sporadic that a legacy of danger was never connected. A few even believe that ancient man encountered extraterrestrial visitors at some early point in our collective history. Whether or not these ancient visitors from space came to spread grace or malice is moot, even the most ardent supporters of this argument must concede that these visits were infrequent or limited in scope and, apparently, stopped at some point. Thus, a fear of the cosmos above us did not need to develop. Consider too that much more of the cosmos was visible in our early history – millions upon millions of luminous dots shining down on a prehistoric Earth. The night sky was not bathed in artificial light as today and was certainly a sight to behold. In time, primitive cultures developed and the observable galaxy inspired archaic astrology and theology, but a genuine fear of the cosmos did not take root among early man.
There is research to suggest that some phobias are the product of a learned behavior, however. Our ancestors undoubtedly learned quite early that some representatives from the animal kingdom were more lethal than others. Sure, to fear a giant, hulking bear defending her young is obvious enough, but that’s because the bear is so outwardly large and ferocious. What about our smaller wild neighbors?
Consider snakes for a moment. Outwardly most snakes appear small and are afraid of humans. Snakes may even appear slow and, depending on the time of day, may appear very slow. We often stumble upon snakes, encountering these slithering creatures at times we do not expect. However, we know some snakes are very dangerous. Snakes will bite humans to defend themselves, often injecting lethal venom. This must have been traumatizing to our ancestors – that such a small and often hidden animal, perhaps one even secretly sharing our own primitive home with us, could also be deadly with just a single bite. So, when we encounter someone with ophidiophobia – a fear of snakes – today, we might imagine that there is good reason for that fear. Snakes are still potentially dangerous today and, while an excessive fear of snakes may be restrictive to some people, we can at least understand where the basis of this fear may be hardwired somewhere in the back of our minds.
That brings us to the master of all fears and the creator of a very common phobia in humans, both historically speaking and now. Achluophobia is an abnormal fear of the dark. Since time immemorial, the darkness has terrified mankind. Imagine eons ago – the darkness of the savanna on a cloudy night. A small fire is lit and the flame throws shadows in various directions into high grasses. The backs of you and your two children are pressed into an ancient tree. Just beyond the light of the fire, where the flickers of orange and yellow give way to an unfathomable black, you hear a faint giggle – almost a laugh. Then you hear this disturbing sound again, this time from another direction. These sounds are emanating from a pack of hyenas that linger just beyond the light. These nocturnal hunters can see you just fine, and, by the time you heard the first giggle, had already started to arrange themselves for an attack. Of course, you don’t know this yet. Your mind first has to race blindly down a list of explanations for the strange noises. The black darkness around you has stripped your panicked mind of mankind’s strongest sense – our vision. There is no way to know exactly what and where the danger may be and a plan of escape is equally difficult to formulate, as early man had only rudimentary means to efficiently and safely take the light along.
Thousands of years later, we take the light wherever we go throughout the night. We have lights on our cars. We have handheld lights powered by batteries. We have lights on our phones. We have invented ways to safely and easily light our houses. Still, the darkness lurks just beyond street lights in city alleys and in our yard just beyond our decorative porch lanterns.
Imagine now that there is a power outage in your town. You still intend to leave the house and attend a Christmas party perhaps twenty or thirty minutes away. The ugly sweater you had selected for the occasion is neatly folded on your dryer in the basement. Armed with a flashlight, you sally forth and down the steps into the darkness. You wiggle past a few boxes of Christmas decorations and some old lawn furniture that a careless spouse left out. You kick a box over in the darkness. As you pick up the sweater, the battery in your flashlight dies. Now engulfed in the blackness of your very own home, a giggle – a laugh really – comes from just beyond the unused boxes of Christmas décor. How sure are you that those same hyenas haven’t tracked you down across the millennia when that fire, or flashlight, has finally gone out?
The darkness we know on Earth scares us because the black of night affords cover to our other fears. We are unable to discern the unknown that lingers just beyond the light and our imaginations pack all of our fears into that spot at once. In many ways, being afraid of the dark was both prescribed to early man and learned as time passed. Historic nighttime dangers have been eliminated or tamed. For example, most of us may exit our homes at night and head for the local tavern without fearing an attack from a pack of wolves. However, new threats in the darkness have emerged. As we approach that tavern, we may become panicked if several shouts and a gunshot ring out from a dark alley. Being afraid of the dark is natural for this reason, and perhaps even celebrated in our culture. We have even learned to enjoy the entertainment value of the sensations associated with this fear. Of course, despite our best efforts, the darkness of Earth has never fully been eliminated or tamed. Our lights have only done so much. Perhaps some of us dread the darkness more than others – for some this fear has become a true phobia – only because the dark can mask our other phobias.
For instance, when reading about the scenario of the flashlight dying in the basement, if you imagined the dark recesses of those boxes and lawn chairs concealing a murderous clown snickering at you, then you may have coulrophobia – a fear of clowns. Coulrophobia is one of the new phobias that has developed fairly recently in our society. This list of new phobias is incredibly extensive. Obviously, early humans scratching out a life in prehistory had no concept of coulrophobia. Those early humans could not have known ecclesiophobia, a fear of churches; globophobia, a fear of balloons; or siderodromophobia, a fear of the railroad either. These particulars were not yet known – did not exist – millennia ago. Unless you subscribe to the ancient astronaut version of human history, then early man could not have had mechanophia – the fear of machines. Surely, one of the most modern (and, arguably, man-made) phobias must be hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia – the fear of the number 666. These fears did not exist long ago because such fears simply could not – the subject of those fears were unknown to even the most imaginative of our early ancestors.
This brings us back to cosmophobia. Cosmophobia is the new achluophobia. The vast darkness of the cosmos hides all our newfound worries and concerns about our survival and existence. Our most powerful lenses can only see so far into the cosmos and have always presented us with more questions – more unknowns – than answers. Our probes and machines can only tell us so much before their intricate pieces and gears disappear in the immeasurable space that has always encircled Earth. We have largely mastered our world, and in doing so we’ve suffered some missteps and learned what to fear along the way. Much of what was unknown in the darkness of our world historically speaking is now an afterthought. So, what is the cosmos hiding from us in all that darkness? We look up and wonder.
Considerable knowledge has been gained about our solar system, our intimate corner of the cosmos, just in the last four centuries. Are there any massive asteroids heading our way? What about deadly radiation that seems to seep out of everything in space? When will the sun betray and destroy us? Where the hell are those little green men we were so sure existed? And, should something happen to the only rock we’ve ever known, is there another place in space we can go? We want to know. Our wait for this knowledge will not be a long one.
Soon, we’ll be dragging our fires – our lights – and our couple millennia worth of fears up there to find out. This journey will not be for the cosmophobes among us. In fact, maybe the cosmophobes, no matter how irrational, will proudly announce one day that they were correct and justified in their fear of the universe and all the secrets shrouded above us at night. There’s no doubt that on these early journeys in the cosmos, we will be right back against that tree with a small fire dying in front of us. We will imagine all of our fears waiting for us on the other side. Dying Up There illuminates one possibility waiting in that dark space just beyond the light of man.
So, is there a good reason to be afraid of space? Will cosmophobia ever unseat some of mankind’s more common fears?