Results of a Writing Retreat in Cairo

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Obligatory pyramid shot

Hello, Black Gaters! I’m back after a month’s silence, and my silence on here usually means I’m drunk I’ve gone off somewhere. This time I spent three weeks in Cairo on my second writing retreat of the year.

During my previous Cairo retreat back in February, I started The Case of the Purloined Pyramid, the first in my neo-pulp detective series The Masked Man of Cairo. It’s set in Cairo in 1919, with the hero trying to solve a murder while the city is convulsed with its first major independence demonstrations. That book recently won the Kindle Scout program and is being published by Kindle Press on January 9. This time around I worked on the next in the series, The Case of the Shifting Sarcophagus.

So what does a wandering writer do when he goes to Cairo to write a novel? Try desperately hard not to let his research take too much time away from his writing!

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Simulations Publications Inc: The TSR Incursion

Monday, December 4th, 2017 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Around the end of 1981, brothers Kevin and Brian Blume wrested control of TSR away from founder Gary Gygax. The company would change dramatically under their leadership, until Gygax returned from his west coast exile in 1984 and (briefly) reclaimed his company. One ‘Blume Incident’ from 1982 is a pretty good example of the way they did things.

In 1958, Avalon Hill was formed, creating the modern wargaming industry, out of which role playing games grew. In 1969, James Dunnigan created Simulations Publications, Inc. — to be known as SPI — with Redmond Simenson as co-founder. He started the company to save an existing wargaming fanzine, Chris Wagner’s Strategy & Tactics, which was in a precarious financial state. Simenson was the graphic designer for the magazine and a huge part of its success. For the princely sum of $1 (yes, you read that right), SPI took on Strategy and Tactics and made it the industry’s leading newsletter, starting with the September, 1969 issue.

Strategy & Tactics would include a new wargame in every single issue from then through the current one, which is remarkable. With the popularity of the magazine, SPI also became Avalon Hill’s major competitor in the wargaming market and enjoyed great success in the seventies. Things were good. Then, as for JFK, came Dallas. Okay, not quite.

Dunnigan’s Dallas: The Television Roleplaying Game, was a licensed product, intended to cash in on the massively successful show. My first thought is to wonder how many Dallas fans wanted to play an RPG — apparently not many. It was a disaster. Simonsen commented that they produced “80,000 copies and that was 79,999 too many.”

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Off on Another Writing Retreat in Cairo

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


The title of this post is a not-so-clever way to say I’m taking the month of December off from blogging. Back in February, I spent a few weeks in Egypt writing my neo-pulp detective novel The Case of the Purloined Pyramid, which recently won the Kindle Scout contest. It’s coming out soon and I’m using part of my advance to head on back to Cairo to write the next one, The Case of the Shifting Sarcophagus.

I’ll be seeing friends, hopefully making new ones, helping a colleague with his fascinating book proposal, and visiting some sights. Mostly I’ll be wandering around the old medieval neighborhood, where one of my heroes has his antiquities shop. Nothing like walking the actual streets to get the old brain pan bubbling!

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Spanish Castle Magic, Part Four

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


One of the best things about living in Spain is being able to visit the many castles that dot the landscape. Actually it’s the food and wine and relatively low cost of living, but the castles are nice too. Not far from Madrid is the Castillo de Manzanares El Real. It was built in 1475 by the I Duque del Infantado, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, and is billed as one of the “jewels of Spain.”

The castle replaced a smaller and less elegant castle in town, and was constructed as both a fortification and a residence. The choice of construction was a bit outmoded, as artillery was already making fortifications such as this one ineffective. Fortunately for the duke, it was never attacked and in fact the family only lived there until 1530.

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Piracy: It’s the Creative Ecosystem that Matters

Friday, November 10th, 2017 | Posted by M Harold Page


Jack Campbell: “…a few hundred more of less sales can mean the difference between a new contract and being cut loose.”


“Oh, you streamed it, did you? Well #### you, sir. #### you.”

“Who has the new album?” asks the lead singer of Finntroll, a rather wonderful Viking Metal band (*).

One of the fans yells out something incomprehensible.

“Oh, you streamed it, did you?” responds the singer. “Well #### you, sir. #### you.”

Which seems fitting, because when you pirate an artist’s work, it feels like you’re saying a big, “#### you!” to the artist.

For that reason alone, can I suggest that you click through to and sign the petition to ask Google to do something about ebook piracy. If Google can hide results for legal reasons (*), then it can also start hiding the pirate sites.

Of course, my plea opens a can of worms.

Whenever ebook piracy comes up, people leap in to provide (self) justifications ranging from pseudo economic or political victim-blaming through to rhetorical sleight of hand. The same arguments could be used to justify, for example, blatant commercial cultural apparition, big players pirating indy jewelry designs, and the hacking and passing around of the very private pictures of celebs. It’s a pointless debate because really there’s an underlying unspoken, “‘#### you”. (Feel free to discuss this in the comments, but count me out.)

Usually, the pro-piracy advocate then appends, “Besides, anyway, it doesn’t do any harm.” That’s what I want to talk about here, because in all the kerfuffle about ethics, people tend to lose track of the effect on the creative ecosystem.

A post by Joanna Penn spells two arguments:  Serious readers prefer to buy books rather than download stolen copies, and some authors use piracy as a marketing strategy. I’ve also heard on good authority that most pirated books aren’t actually lost sales because they are never read – there’s a culture of… odd people hoarding and sharing.

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Another View: The Difficult Experiment of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens

Monday, October 2nd, 2017 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

A-Gathering-of-Ravens-smallerI really wanted to like this book. With pleasure I listened to Oden speak on The Literary Wonder and Adventure Show. He talked at length about Tolkien (my own spiritual and literary master), and it seemed that Oden’s and my dials were approximately set. Oden’s book, like Tolkien’s most popular works, deals with “that northern thing” (though I just today learned that Tolkien objected, in part, to this characterization from W.H. Auden).

But Oden’s book is so grimdark that, while reading, I couldn’t find my feet. The work ostensibly is about an orc Hel-bent on revenge — and here is my first objection: the attitudes and actions of this orc, our “protagonist,” are indistinguishable from those of the larger majority of characters in the book. Grimnir, our orc, seems capable only of speaking and thinking in profanities. He murders even when there absolutely is no reason to. The only thing (in this book) we can’t accuse Grimnir of is the sin of rape. That assault remains to be committed by many of the other “human” characters you will find therein: your average male, in this portrayal, seems hardwired to enter rape mode the moment he lays eyes upon any “unprotected” female. Now, remember, Grimnir is supposed to be the “orc,” yet he doesn’t behave much differently from the novel’s many other human characters. Moreover, even when it doesn’t cost a character anything necessarily, few characters are liable to show any shred of kindness for one another. Oden’s narrator summarizes this world’s milieu thusly: “She [the character Etain] knew the score … and she knew sooner or later there would be a reckoning. Men did nothing — undertook no good deed, performed no kindness — without first attaching a price to it.” Oden’s characters, I suppose, are consummate Dark Age businesspersons.

“But that’s the Way It Was,” a number on Goodreads might say, defending Oden’s work from the very few negative reviews I can find there (here and here are two well-said assessments). What these apologists are claiming is that the worldview of the so-called Dark Ages is exactly this: murder whenever you can get away with it, rape whenever you like (for those who like it, I guess, who are all young pre-modern men). I don’t entirely agree with this representation. In the worst possible reading, this might represent the author’s views of the natural state of humankind freed from the fetters or checks thankfully supplied by modernity. In the best possible reading, this representation assumes that, at least in the area of moral development, humans who happened to live a mere millennia ago might be considered pre-human in these respects. Granted, the spread of more nation-building and socializing beliefs and philosophies such as Christianity might have a civilizing influence on a pre-modern worldview, might even be of some aid in the sense of an evolving moral consciousness. But this book barely acknowledges even this. It ostensibly presents two competing worldviews, that of northern paganism and that of Christianity, but, in this book, in practice adherents to either faith might as well be indistinguishable. They merely serve one team in a two-sided competition that is drawn as equal in every respect. Again, apologists should be quick to point to aspects of history that reveal a number of Christians as hypocritical and intolerant throughout their persecutions. Granted, but are you going to deny that there remain some fundamental differences and worldviews between the two perspectives, and therefore requisite actions and behaviors on behalf of the religion’s adherents? To this point Oden seems to relent, to some measure, in the second and much-preferred half of the book, in the figures of King Brian and his freed thrall Ragnar. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

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Modular: Starfinder Under the Hood – Character Creation

Monday, September 25th, 2017 | Posted by Andrew Zimmerman Jones

256 Starfinder CoreWhen playing Dungeons & Dragons or other fantasy RPGs, have you ever wanted to play a space wizard? A gnome with a jet pack? Or a fighter with a flaming laser sword and a force field?

These options are all available to you in the new Starfinder RPG (Paizo, Amazon). Paizo has built the new science fantasy game to explore the distant future of their Pathfinder universe. Though I’ve been excited about it for over a year, since it was first announced, I’ve only just gotten the opportunity to play a full game of it.

So now that the game is more than an abstraction … now that I’ve actually rolled the dice and taken some damage … does it still hold up like I was hoping? Honestly: Even better.

But rather than just singing the praises of the game (which I’ve and others have already done here and here and elsewhere), I’m going to dive a bit deeper into how the game is similar – and different – from the Pathfinder game that we know and love.

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Robert E. Howard Wrote a Police Procedural? With Conan?? Crom!!!

Monday, September 18th, 2017 | Posted by Bob Byrne

BG_GodBowlComicCoverReportedly, Ernest Hemingway bet Howard Hawks that the director couldn’t make a good movie out of his worst book. Hawks took the bet and we ended up with Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (it’s not Bogie’s best, but I vote Hawks the winner of the bet). Suppose I told you I could show you that one of what’s commonly considered among the worst Conan stories isn’t really that bad – and that it’s a pre-genre police procedural? Ready to take on the challenge?

In 2015, Black Gate‘s Discovering Robert E. Howard series showcased the breadth and diversity of REH’s writings. Boxing stories, westerns, science fiction, Solomon Kane, El Borak: Howard was an immensely talented author who wrote in a variety of genres. My first entry in the series was about Steve Harrison, Howard’s take on the hardboiled private eye with a weird menace twist. As you can read in that essay, Howard didn’t care for the genre and he abandoned it almost as quickly as he entered it. Today, I’m going to look at his lone police procedural. Yep – Robert E. Howard wrote a police procedural before the term was even in use. And it features Conan!

The general consensus is that Howard hit the mark with his fourth Conan story, “The Tower of the Elephant,” published in March of 1933. His first was “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which appeared in Weird Tales in December of 1932 and was a rewrite of an unpublished Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule.” Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, rejected the second, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter,” which to me, reads more like a chapter in a longer work than a self-contained story.

“The God in the Bowl” was probably written in early 1932 and was Howard’s third Conan story. Wright rejected this one as well and it did not see print in any form until an edited version by L. Sprague de Camp was published in 1952’s Space Science Fiction, Volume 1, Number 2 (the story has nothing to do with either space or science fiction…). De Camp did less chopping on this one than most of his Conan edits, but fans could finally read Howard’s original text in Donald Grant’s The Tower of the Elephant in 1975.

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Edgar Allan Poe Wrote Fake News

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan



We’re living in the age of fake news. The Internet abounds with sites reporting child abuse rings hidden under pizzerias, skeletons of giants excavated in Israel, and cures for AIDS being suppressed by Big Pharma.

Just recently I got taken in for a minute by the reported death of Desmond Tutu shared by a Facebook friend. That story was on a plausible-looking African newspaper site. Only after I looked around the site did I realize it was the only story on it and the newspaper didn’t exist. Roll eyes. Run virus scanner.

But fake news isn’t new. In previous generations even the mainstream press regularly used it to boost sales, running outlandish stories to sell papers. Perhaps the most famous is the story in an 1890 issue of the Tombstone Epitaph about cowboys shooting down a pterodactyl, which led to the theory that it was the legendary Thunderbird and the creation of several faked photos. Other writers have created various fake stories to boost sales for their own newspapers.

One of these writers was no less a literary figure than Edgar Allan Poe.

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Visiting Minster Lovell Hall in Oxfordshire, England

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017 | Posted by Sean McLachlan


Minster Lovell Hall with St. Kenelm’s Church to the left

As usual in the summer, my family and I are in Oxford, where I ensconce myself in the Bodleian Library and research my books. It’s been a rainy summer, in stark contrast to last month’s frying heat of Lanzarote, and so we haven’t been able to get out and about much. Good for my wordcount, bad for my travel addiction.

So when the clouds finally broke last weekend we rushed out onto an easy six-mile country ramble along the River Windrush to visit Minster Lovell Hall, a 15th century manor house set in the lovely English countryside.

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