Friday, April 22, 2011

A Writer's Life - What? You Don't Own an Ejection Seat?

I often get questions about what it is like to be a writer.  I think there are a lot of illusions that we live somewhat glamorous lives.  True, I’ve been on national TV and radio programs promoting my books.  I’ve met some incredible people both doing research and promotion.  But the truth of the matter is different.  Writing is a very solitary second career for me…solitary but quite rewarding. 
I  often get a question, “how do you find time to write?”  The truth of the matter is I make time.  I try not to take is that I am somehow short-changing my daytime career.  I work at Ernst & Young LLP as an Associate Director and, quite frankly, I put in some long hours and travel from time-to-time.  I keep a pretty good separation between my day job and my night job. 
As a writer I am a bit of recluse.  It’s not that I’m anti-social.  Okay, maybe a little.  Alright, I am anti-social.  During my day job I am “on” all of the time.  I have to be very engaged during the daytime hours.  At night and the weekends though, I tend to huddle with my PC and actually get writing and research done. 
Someone told me writing  required discipline and I guess that is the best word to describe it.  I dedicate time almost every night to do some writing.  My wife works on Saturdays so often I am home alone – giving me the perfect heads-down time writing.  Saturdays are the best, especially if the weather is bad since it purges the guilt for not working in the yard.  Having kids that are grown up means that the only person that suffers is my poor wife during the week when I sneak off to my office/bunker for writing. 
Finding the time is one thing – having the right environment to do it is another.   Some guys have a man-cave – I have a well equipped bunker.  An assortment of  antique firearms – a LAW M-72 (Light Anti-Tank) rocket launcher – just in case, and a sword are necessary to set the mood.  I have a neat 1:6 scale helicopter hanging behind my desk, complete with an armed contingent of GI Joe’s ready for action.  With a network of four personal computers, printers, scanners, bookshelves and a B-52 ejection seat, it is a neat place to play RPG’s, miniatures and get some writing done.  What, you don’t have an ejection seat office-chair?  You have to have one of these.  It’s great for gaming and when I’m writing military history.  Nothing beats the face of a kid when they sit in it and pull the handle, locking their legs into place. 
The Ultimate Writer's Chair
I have a nice TV and DVD collection.  I don’t watch TV much, but I have it on as background noise.  I pop in one of my “writing movies” (yes, I will publish the list) and I’m ready to get cracking.  Music doesn’t cut it…I need plot unfolding and a kick-ass soundtrack for inspiration.   
Research work is not just reading but it is organizing.  I personally work best with hard copy material – where I can tag it with a Post-It note or notation.  The downside of this style is that paper takes up a lot of space.  I use my wargaming table often to organize my research.  Heaven help anybody that tries to make sense out of my approach on a given book.  The system only has to work for me.
Glamorous?  Naa  Exciting?  Not really.  Profitable?  Shrug…  Fun?  Oh yes. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Flying Battleships? Leviathans gives Steampunk the game the genre deserves

How could you NOT want to play this game now?
For the last two years or so I have been working with the gang (and virtually the extended gang) at Catalyst Game Labs on their new game Leviathans which should be coming out sometime soon.  I know everyone is wondering about the game in some degree of detail, but I am under an NDA so I can’t go into it at the level you want.  Suffice it to say, however, I think that this is going to be THE big game this summer.  Everything here has been cleared by the powers that be…
Steampunk has emerged strong in the last three years but the gaming industry has been struggling to wrap its hands around the genre.  A number of role playing games are out there covering the concept of Jules Verne-ish technology in the late Victorian era – but many have not seemed to capture the true feeling of Steampunk.   Goth has been replaced by Steampunk but for some reason the gaming industry has struggled with the genre for years. 
Personally, I have had my foot in the Steampunk door for a long time.  Back when GDW released Space 1889 I wrote one adventure that got published for the game (More Tales from the Ether).  That game, and the boardgame Ironclads and Etherflyers, tried to capture the spirit of Steampunk but it just didn’t seem to hold.  The games were okay – not great – and a good universe alone can’t carry a game system for more than a few years.  Ironclads and Etherflyers had some potential as a game but it was relying more on the concept than the game mechanics.  In the game industry, game mechanics and production quality are king. 
My involvement with Leviathans has been minimal but very enjoyable.  As someone that has written history books (naval and aviation) around the period of the Great War, I was deeply honored when Randall Bills reached out to me to lend a hand.  It has been a long time since I was involved with game design and fleshing out a new universe.  I manage to bore the designers with references to weapons and events in our timeline.  I’m always copying material out of Jane’s Book of Fighting Ships, 1918.  Yes, I am THAT level of geek that I own that book in my library. 
Leviathans does a great job of straddling that line between historical accuracy and fun play.  Yes, I have played Jutland, Fear God and Dread Nought, Seekrieg,  and other games.  The problem with some of them is the classic struggle between realism and playability.  Basically the more realistic the game is, the more the game drags in terms of game play.  Leviathans starts with a good sound historical base but has as game system that allows you to play a fast moving game. 
To cut to the chase; “So, how does the game play?”  Having playtested the game early with my son Alex, I can say this – this game rocks!  First off, it has new mechanics which makes the concept of flying battleships come alive (so to speak).  I won’t go into details but suffice it to say that this game as a distinct play that will make it stand out.  Each fleet/government has their own “feel” to them.  These mechanics are sound.  Trust me, nothing makes you bring the ship hard about faster than a salvo of French torpedoes.
The second major cool thing is the universe.  “How would things change if, prior to the Great War, all sides had flying armored ships?”  Answer – some things change dramatically – some less so.  The universe is very robust and offers a lot of opportunities for not just game play but for pure entertainment.  There is no dominant super-power.   Having worked on the French and the Italian background material I can tell you that the histories and fleet information are, well, neat.  I’m quite proud of the fact that I made the French “cool” to play.  Having written a lot about the French Air Service and the Foreign Legion, this seemed to be the best approach.  This game universe is going to be something that people are going to be talking about once the game is out. 
Third cool thing – the technical accuracy (so to speak).  There was many evenings spent pulling up naval artillery charts and tables to ensure that the weapons and armor used worked and made sense.  Sure we had to bend some rules, but even the most serious wargamer is going to find Leviathans to be incredible.  How often does a science fiction game actually bring in the regular hard-core wargaming crowd?  It’s been a long time coming guys…
Fourth cool thing…miniatures!  Yes, very cool flying battleships, cruisers and destroyers.  Light pre-painting for those who don’t want to paint minis but want to play.  Lightly done for those out there who live to paint up their vessels. 
Am I excited?  Damn right I am!  Steampunk is finally going to be getting the game that it deserves.  Leviathans is going to redefine Steampunk and up the ante in the gaming industry.  I am looking forward to GenCon this year just to watch the crowd’s reaction to the final product.  ‘Til then…”Bring her to port Mister Rivenburg…steady as she goes.” 
Want to know more?  Go to and you can take in a bunch of free fiction  and see some of the production photographs and stuff. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Research vs. Writing - I Win Either Way!

I’ll be honest, I enjoy researching a non-fiction book as much as writing it.  I know that must sound a little strange, after all, I am an author.  Research can be a lot of fun. 

For example, I’m doing some research right now on three different books.  I haven’t started writing them yet, I am in the process of getting materials to determine if there is a good book in there, somewhere in the pile of facts.

Some research is easier than others.  I’m filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with the State of Michigan on a murder for a new true crime book idea.  This is pretty straight forward and  the results, if they are like the others I have done, are incredible.  Hundreds of pages of typed police reports from the investigation.  I love reading police reports.  One, most are typed.  Two, they offer an incredible amount of details. 

One of my other projects requires a FOIA with the Federal Government to get some material declassified from the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I filed the request in June of 2009 and they are still processing it.  Okay, this is sort of fun in that the material I want has been classified since 1962 and you never know just what will get cleared suddenly.  What I have requested is pretty specific and it will take a while longer to get processed.  When done I’ll go down and get to see it at the National Archives.  That will be like Christmas for a geek like me, getting some of this material out in the light of day for the first time in decades. 

I have one other research project going on Bert Hall.  Bert flew with the Lafayette Escadrille and this project has been going for three years.  This is not a single request, but a seemingly never-ending quest for new material on this elusive WWI aviator.  I have been lucky, thanks to folks in the WWI aviation community and some persistent digging with various museums and other sources.  I have to admit this is a pet-project and I’m not rushing through it.  Every month or so another batch of material surfaces, sometimes in the form of letters or photographs, sometimes in the form of articles or diary entries.  I’m just happy to be breaking new ground on a story that most people would have given up on a long time ago. 

Getting the materials is one thing, organizing and making sense of it is another thing altogether.  I find it relaxing to curl up with a thick report and try to get in the head of the people that wrote it.  I learn a lot doing this kind of research.  Sure, some of it is worthless information, but it is neat stuff to study.  A part of human growth is constant learning and I have a second career as a writer that allows that. 

I’m curious about other writers out there – do you get a thrill from the research too?