A good yarn


OK, what’s with the photo of the German WW1 M16 helmet?

Pretty easy, it has a lot to do with what I’d like to talk about today.

No, not random war relics.

Yeah. Today’s piece is about a very strange thing I’ve had, and how advice from a friend and mentor helped me overcome an obstacle.

The problem has been with reading. Whoa, an author who has trouble picking up a book?

Yes. You see, I’ve been meaning to review “Shadows of Annihilation,” the new book by S.M. Stirling, on this site for a couple of weeks. Actually, longer than that; his book came out about when the Siege started. One would think that the better part of two months in solitude would have made me burn through books. The opposite has been true.

I have been able to maintain my writing, I am busy with a collaboration right now. It’s going pretty good.

But what’s with the helmet?

Well, that has to do with the very strange weirdness in regard to my reading, and why I should be very interested in reading Mr. Stirling’s work. I’d like to illustrate exactly how messed up this reading block has been.

First, long time readers know that I’m a very big fan of S.M. Stirling. When he releases something new, I don’t mess around. I read it. I devour it. Almost always, I enjoy it. So it’s super freaky that I didn’t immediately take care of his latest.

Second, I take my obligations to this site and my readers seriously. I know that you all have been lurking out there, looking for new stuff. Like me, you are probably hemmed up in your home; I have a duty to entertain you. It’s important not only to read Mr. Stirling’s book, but to review it for this website as well.

Finally, a fictional series set in the Great War is rare; this is an interest of mine and even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Stirling I’d still read his “Black Chamber” series for the World War I alternate history theme. After all, I’ve written one of those myself (hopefully for expansion into a trilogy), and I hope to release it this fall.

So it is with a glad heart, readers, that I can now report to you that I started “Shadows of Annihilation,” and so far it’s pretty damn good. What got me to sit down and read, as opposed to sitting and staring (BTW, I can’t watch TV either)?

A conversation with a friend in Australia. He suggested that I need to start treating reading as an obligation of the author’s trade; this was novel to me. Reading as work. It has always been for pleasure, or as an escape. But I found that if I treated it like writing, as a job, that I was able to do so.

And you know what? After the first fifteen minutes I started to enjoy myself; the book so far is pretty good. The Great War deserves more attention than it’s gotten, it has shaped our modern world. Kudos on Mr. Stirling for writing about it.

So tonight, I broke the dam.

Soon, a review.


airport 04:15

The above photo was taken a few days ago when I absolutely had to venture out to recover a close relative from a small, but usually bustling, airport. It was an experience that bordered on the surreal; we had to drive four hours (one way) to recover her because no other airports closer by had any flights coming in!

It was dead, dead, dead. On the trip there we were able to drive through a fairly large city at “rush hour,” construction zones included, with no delay whatsoever. It seemed at many times that our passenger car was the only one on Route 70, one of the US’s major east-west highways. All I could do was shake my head. There were plenty of semis (lorries), but vehicles such as mine were few and far between.

I see a lot on the news (when I bother to look) about protests, etc., but the majority of the people I know and live around are taking the lockdown seriously. Also, Route 70 and the airport really told the tale. It’s hard to describe how empty it all was; we waited at the airport for a while and we had <zero> trouble getting a prime parking spot. When my relative got off the plane, we asked her how many people she had shared the flight with.

The answer was five.

Five. How in the world can the airlines stay afloat like this? The travel agencies (like the one that refuses to pay me back for my very poorly timed Australia trip)? Anyone, really, but the grocery stores?

This new and unpleasant world borders on the creepy. And I know it is potentially fatal and economically ruinous.

So I choose to avoid the news and do stuff that’s physically active and fun. Here’s a photo of a personal favorite of mine. Lilacs.


This is a surprisingly good photo from my cheap Samsung, it shows the first buds on the old lilac bush in the yard.

How old is the bush? I don’t know. Let me tell you about me and lilacs.

First, the bush in our yard actually came from my Great-Grandparent’s farm, the Magyars. My mom took it when they died and planted it in our yard. The bush keeps getting bigger, it has nearly died via loose goats on several occasions.

I love my lilac bush. Every year its fragrance tells of the coming spring, of new life bursting forth from the seemingly dead late winter earth. Its smell is one of my indelible touchstones of home, the lilacs of far Ohio when I was marooned overseas. Tour after tour the lilac stood, it welcomed me when I retired, it witnessed the birth of our children.

And who knows what else. As I said, it came from the Magyar’s old place. I barely knew those people, but I remember them as kind. People of the earth.

Strangely enough, both of them, Imogene and Joszef, lived through the Spanish Flu of 1918. So if they were still around, this would be old hat.

The thought comforts me, oddly enough, and I feel connected to them through that old lilac.

The one the goats tried to kill, but they failed.

So in this year of the plague, at least I can still walk outside and smell the bloom of the lilacs.

The smell of home.

The Siege Part IV: Apocalypse Workout


The above image was from today’s morning activities, preparing my yard and gardens for the coming growing season. Yes, that is my shadow. Guess I should have paid more attention in my high school photography class.

You have to forgive the shaggy appearance of stuff, that’s what I did this morning, brought a winter’s worth of hibernation back under control.

That’s what I want to talk about today, how to keep your body moving and exercising in times of stress. This helps your mental outlook and keeps you back away from the ledge.

Lord knows we all have stressors right now. There are acute problems, dwelling on them doesn’t do any good. So I’ve chosen to get outside and do physical labor. It’s amazing how much you can work up a sweat by simply tilling up a garden; a side benefit is the vegetables you’ll eat later on.

And this year we need the vegetables in the garden.

Check out this article, front and center in Yahoo news this morning, the 4th of April, 2020.


What drooling idiot, I wonder, leaked this information to the press? Headlines like this create a self-fulfilling prophecy; ie news of a shortage spurs people into buying all they can before it’s gone. Look, we have enough problems as-is without this kind of thing. As I stated in my earlier piece “Victory Gardens” our logistic chain is going to be severely tested by this disease.

In short, planting a garden is not only good for the system as a whole and your stomach, it is a necessary physical outlet.

Let me tell you, if you’ve never done it, breaking sod and conditioning the soil on a new garden is an excellent whole-body workout. There is a reason most of our ancestors were rail-thin and tough as roots. Subsistence agriculture, because that’s what we’re talking about, is hard. Physically demanding, even when done on a very small scale.

But that’s OK. We need both the exercise and the food. If you have any land at all, now is the time to put in a garden. Seriously, for the reasons I have listed above.


OK, why have I posted this picture of my truck loaded down with hay?

Exercise. You gotta take it where you can find it, and getting feed for livestock is currently authorized under the emergency regulations. Lemme tell you, great exercise.

Here are some of the exercises inherent in gardening or small-scale farming.

  1. Weeding. Squats, hand strengthening.
  2. Hoeing. Workout for the shoulders.
  3. Tilling. Upper body and thighs, excellent.
  4. Mowing. Walking, upper body.
  5. Haying. Each bale 40-60lbs/20-30kg. Think about it.
  6. Feeding and watering. Lifting. Back and shoulders.
  7. Raking. Shoulders and back.
  8. Sowing. Squats.

And I’m sure there’s stuff I’m forgetting.

So if you are down in the dumps like me, force yourself to get out there and work. There is also a mental aspect to it, and as we still have the internet there are loads of helpful resources with gardening.

But I live in a flat, you say. Well, do you have any house plants? You can actually grow potatoes and tomatoes in an apartment, seriously, and peppers… the list goes on. Google it, there are a million resources. There are also those who say that plants help your mood; there could be some truth to this.

Exercise and mental engagement now equals a better operating position later.

Set yourself up for success.





The Siege Part III: The Productive Hours


Alright, maybe I should get an iPhone if I want truly awesome pictures, but I think you get the general idea; a pretty farm that I pass during my morning walk.

Mens sana in corpore sano.” That’s Latin for “a sound mind in a sound body.” Something I figured out a while ago, and that the military has known since Roman times, is that a key ingredient to staying sane is to get some exercise by any means necessary.

This is especially true right now with The Great Global Lockdown.

I am not going to talk about the lockdown. Everybody knows about it.

I will only say that I’m fortunate to be authorized to walk outdoors, and I can do it without violating the law or endangering myself or others. The village I live in is deserted.

But I digress.

Would like to talk today about my writing habits while in project mode; how I do stuff to make books and stories happen.

The first thing I do when I get up is walk the dog and drink some coffee. I use this time to think through scenes I plan on writing; it is important to have your outline or something open in your computer, notebook, or whatever. Why? Because if you have a good idea for a scene, you need to jot it down on the spot.

When I fail to do this, the idea is gone. All it takes is a sentence; for example: “Chapter 3 (2). John packs his bags for the trip. He thinks about the war.” That’s it; that’s all I need. I can come back to this later and remember what I meant to write there.

It seems that a lot of the work I do looks like goofing off, and let’s be honest, it is. But then again, it’s not. Confused? Allow me to explain.

Here’s my take on goofing off or taking a nap.

People like stories, it’s how they relax. Goofing off, if you will. The stuff I write is fiction; it’s not meant to be something that people labor at or work hard to understand. How can I get my readers to relax and get into the story if I’m not having fun myself? If I’m not enjoying the process?

I think this answers my own question. If I’m killing myself to write, then I write garbage.

So I slack. I make sure that I go for a walk, preferably at dawn. I walk at a fairly brisk pace, I make sure to get my heart rate up a little and to sweat some. Not like some crazy fast walk, but a pace that allows me to think random thoughts as opposed to concentrating on pushing my body.

Does this make sense? Because my walks feed into my writing; a lot of the time I’m still thinking about the book as I cruise along. Obviously I can’t really jot down notes as I’m walking, but it doesn’t really matter. I deal more with organizational things than creative stuff as I exercise.

When I get home I take care of some chores, and after that is when I sit down, re-check email and write web posts.

In a normal world, my family would be gone for their daily activities, and I could sit down alone in the living room and begin to type.

As it is, my family is here and everyone prefers to use the MacBook that I use to write with. So how do we make that work?

We are settling on a system where we have time slots. For example: Today. I say that I need to do one web post and have a chapter banged out by 1500. Three in the afternoon seems like random time slot, but it’s actually not. It corresponds to the time when my Australian friends and collaborators are waking up; I like to have stuff on their desktop when they drink their tea and get ready for the day.

So, I have two slots for the computer during the day. One is from about 0800-1000, then around 1200-1500.

This is how it’s shaking out during the Siege.

Why is there a two-hour gap in there? Two reasons. One is to allow others access to the MacBook. The other is so that I can take a nap.

A nap? Really?

Yes. Here’s why.

A lot of time I don’t sleep during my nap, I put my mind in neutral and tell myself stories. I’ve been doing this since I was a child. Sometimes it pays off and gives me an answer to a difficult scene or a dilemma in a book; what is important is to never force this type of thing. It’s like trying hard to remember someone’s name. The harder you think, the less the recall. So I don’t try. I put my mind in neutral and accept whatever happens.

So once again, it looks like I’m goofing off. But I’m actually not.

Here is the payoff- consistent 2000-3000 word days under stress and bad circumstances, sustained. Craziest day ever was December 2016 when I wrote Immolation. Ten-thousand words. It was as if I vomited out the story, I couldn’t stop. But that’s only happened to me once, thank God.

People are built to be burst workers. It’s how our hunter-gatherer ancestors operated. Work like hell on one goal, eat the slain animal, lay around with full bellies. Lazily contemplate where the next BBQ is coming from. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Of course, most of you hold jobs, so my technique would have to be considerably modified to adapt to your unique situation.

I guess the big thing for me when writing is to have a goal, a quota, but make it playtime. Serious playtime, if that makes sense.

When deployed and in combat, long before I took up the pen, I used to spend any free time I had sitting in some random spot, preferably alone and chain-smoking. I’d create some pleasant story, and every day I’d add onto it. It took me away from miserable Firebase X.

This habit translated into writing novels during my early retirement.

This. This is how I cope with the Siege.

If you want to write, give the screwing-off technique a try.

To sum it up;

  1. Start the day with some exercise.
  2. Set a realistic goal.
  3. Carve out personal space and time.
  4. Sit down and execute.
  5. Recognize where your time sinks and distractions are; plan around them.
  6. Tell others your goals. This guilts you into completion.
  7. Play and screw around! You need it.

There. This is how I do things.

Now it’s time to write.