Andersonville On Tour

andersonvilleReviews for my new Random House-Hydra novel Andersonville are coming from Lit Reactor, Publishers Weekly, and Examiner as well as Goodreads and so far they’re pretty positive across the board.

Gef Fox interviewed me about the book at his blog and the always friendly folks at Fantasy Book Review lent me some space there to talk about the development of the novel, so please check those out.

Andersonville is doing the rounds of a slew of blogs across the ether, so please take a look at these fine sites. They’ll be featuring reviews at the appointed times or thereabouts.


Monday, August 17th: Stephanie’s Book Reviews….100 Pages a Day

Tuesday, August 18th: Fourth Street Review

Tuesday, August 18th: Bibliotica

Wednesday, August 19th: The Reader’s Hollow

Wednesday, August 19th: Tynga’s Reviews

Thursday, August 20th: A Book Geek

Monday, August 24th: Bewitched Bookworms

Tuesday, August 25th: Kissin’ Blue Karen

Wednesday, August 26th: Kari J. Wolfe

Thursday, August 27th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Friday, August 28th: Vic’s Media Room

Monday, August 31st: It’s a Mad Mad World

Tuesday, September 1st: SJ2B House of Books

Wednesday, September 2nd: Historical Fiction Obsession

Thursday, September 3rd: Kimberly’s Bookshelf

Friday, September 4th: Jenn’s Bookshelves

Monday, September 7th: From the TBR Pile

Bread And Circuses For The SPOLA (Senate and The People of L.A.)

P1020920 (Medium)So tonight I took my daughter to see Spartacus And The Roman Legion, a live gladiatorial pageant put on at the LA Equestrian Center’s Equidome by a French historical reenactment group called Heroes Of Antiquity and a company called Histor’Event (and assisted by some American re-enactment clubs).

Saw the offer via an email from Groupon and jumped at the chance to see guys in Roman cuirasses and half armor duking it out on the sand. I’m a sucker for sword and sandal stuff, from Ben Hur to HBO’s Rome. My daughter wanted to see the cavalry horses.

P1020923 (Medium)Though Groupon advertised chariots and sixty combatants, I counted about thirty, representing Thracians (though they looked a bit more Celtish/Gaulish to me) and Roman legionnaires. No chariots either, just two horses. This might’ve been a miscommunication between the performers and Groupon however, as the two people taking tickets at the door had no idea what I was talking about when I sheepishly told them I hadn’t thought to print out my confirmation email since Groupon had said I could just show up with photo ID.

Whatever, though.

This is not to knock the show. It was still a one of a kind experience. Here in America we have Civil War, Medieval Times, SA Cowboy, and World War II re-enactments (even a few Revolutionary Era) by the dozen. How often do you get to see Roman soldiers and gladiators clash?

P1020925 (Medium)I’m a huge fan of history as any of my readers know, and I’ve been mulling around a story centering on gladiators and ancient Rome for about a year and a half now, so as I said, I leapt at the chance to see re-enactors in action. There’s something about watching the stuff actually being used that you don’t get from watching movies or reading histories. The clatter and clank of the armor, the swords on the shields, way people move and react. The gear was pretty authentic as you can see by the photos.

The first half of the show was a sort of pageant or play loosely retelling the history of the actual Spartacus (one of my favorite historical personages), from his capture and enslavement in Thrace, through his insurrection, and at last to his final battle. After the death of Spartacus and his followers at the hands of Crassus’ legion, a guy dressed as Charon came out and ushered the slain to the Underworld. Spartacus refused to go, and so was cursed to return two hundred years later during the reign of Commodus as a gladiator once more. The segue to the second half was admittedly a bit goofy, but it was in the tradition of Roman entertainment and I was willing to go with it.

P1020928 (Medium)Now at this point let me say that the sun had gone down (this being an hour and a half program), and the temperature in the Griffith Park foothills had definitely dropped to the high thirties. The Equidome is covered, but open air, so it was C-O-L-D in them thar hills. And these guys were dressed in period, meaning little more than loincloths for the gladiators.

Now when the guy playing Spartacus was killed and condemned to sleep for two hundred years, he was laid out in the sand and covered with a sheet (and I mean of pillowcase consistency) while everybody else left the field. What followed was a fifteen minute (more like twenty) intermission while people got up to use the bathroom and grab tacos and soda.

In the meantime, Spartacus remained on the field.

My buddy took my daughter to the concession stand and I sat there watching this guy laying in the center of the damp sand, in a loincloth, under a thin sheet.

Now the writer/romantic/what-have-you is gonna come out and say that my thoughts sort of went to the historical Spartacus, how little was actually known about this guy who had broken free of slavery and used the skills taught to him by his masters to cause all of Rome to quake. After Spartacus and his fellow gladiators escaped their school at Capua, he turned his men into an army and raided Roman country homes, freeing slaves wherever he found them, arming them, and thus swelling his own ranks, until the Senate itself was convening specifically to discuss how to deal with him, fearing he would set his sights on Rome itself. It’s really an inspirational story (and actually did inspire the abolitionist John Brown to attempt a similar feat in the 1850’s against the African chattel slavery institution), and a testament to the kind of strength an individual can summon, such that his name lives on centuries after even the grandchildren of anyone who actually ever knew him have turned to dust.

Spartacus at rest

Spartacus at rest

I don’t know if the guy portraying Spartacus has as high an opinion of his alter-ego, but I got the feeling he did, because he lay there in exactly the same posture (in thirty degree weather in a loincloth, I remind you), unmoving, for the entire intermission.

That took dedication.

You will never catch me playing the asshole American card and denigrating the guts of a Frenchman ever again, that I swear.

P1020951 (Medium)The second half of the show was much more enjoyable. The announcer claimed the outcomes of the subsequent combats were not predetermined, and I can believe it, since Spartacus, outfitted in my favorite gladiator gear, that of the trident and net (or retiarius) wound up losing to a Thracian gladiator. Audience participation was encouraged. Before hand we were given tissues, and after each combat were instructed in the traditional ‘live or die’ signals (waving the tissue called for the loser to be spared, whereas a sort of knife hand gesture meant death) to influence the decision of Emperor Commodus (seated in a canopied area of the arena).

P1020960 (Medium)I have read that the horse duel (said to be between two young men from disapproving, wealthy families) with spears was choreographed, but when the weapons and shields were ditched it became a sort of galloping bare knuckle brawl, with each man trying to wrestle the other from the saddle, and looked pretty dang dangerous for horse and rider alike. If it was staged, it was very well done.P1020972 (Medium)

After the show, the participants were good enough to stick around and take pictures with all and sundry, so I and my buddy snapped a few, including one of my daughter and Charon and a lady legionnaire that just impressed the hell out of her (and let her hold her gladius, which to Nolie, was a delight).

P1020973 (Medium)All in all, it was a fun spectacle. The first half is just a bit disorganized, but for me, it was worth it to see these professionals in action. These weren’t pudgy goat-bearded history buffs imitating Rebel yells and burning through Pyrite (and don’t get me wrong, I like watching those guys too), but real athletes, diving from horseback (and riding hands free), flipping over each other, rolling under sword swings, smashing shields together, and appearing to have a heck of a good time.

Nolie rubbing elbows with Charon

Nolie rubbing elbows with Charon

I read a bit on the troupe that put the show together (here), and apparently they have a large scale to do annually in Nimes, France, where they also maintain a modern day gladiator school. I believe this was their first American outing (and understandably smaller in scope). Attendance Saturday night was admittedly pretty sparse, so if you’re in the LA area, I urge you to attend the Sunday performance.

Give these guys a reason to come back to the USA, cause next time it’ll be a bigger show and it’s better than sitting home on your butt watching TV.

P1020966 (Medium)

I blame Ryan for the blurriness of this photo...or perhaps my magnificence caused the camera to shake.

I blame Ryan for the blurriness of this photo…or perhaps my magnificence caused the camera to shake.

Here’s the Youtube channel of the company behind the show, where you can see videos of the action.

Check ’em out, LA!

-Hasta Pronto.

Writing The West: A Reference Guide

Charles M. Russell’s In Without Knocking

I often write stories set in the Old American West which is why the adage ‘write what you know’ doesn’t really fly with me to a point. If everybody simply wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have Middle Earth or the Hyborian Age or the Galaxy Far Far Away. Of course, the real interpretation of that saying is to find what you know and relate that to what you’re writing about. Tolkien was a veteran of the Great War, and the battles and reflections of the soldiers in Middle Earth reflect that to an extent. Robert E. Howard was an iconoclast living in a disapproving little town, and Conan’s ‘barbaric’ reactions to a decadent society are his author’s own. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

But when you’re talking about writing in a real place and time, you’ve got to do your research. I’ve said it a thousand times before. Slapping a cowboy hat on a zombie doesn’t make a weird western, and putting boots on your protagonist doesn’t make him a cowboy.

In the course of my writing, I’ve amassed a reference library of course. Writing to me is a learning experience, both in terms of craft and in terms of the settings I choose. I like to write about the past, and about other cultures, and to challenge myself by writing about things I don’t know too much about. Graham Masterton is an Englishman, but he writes stories set in the US.  If he does his job, you never question his birthplace.

For those interested in writing or just reading about the American West (and I mean the Old West of gunfighters and free roaming Indians), I have a core of books I always find myself going back to.

The New Encyclopedia of The American West, Edited by Howard Lamar – This is the jumping point for any story I write set in the West. In preparing the Merkabah Rider series, I read the Jews In The West entry, and in turn sought out the books cited there. This is an astounding (and thick) reference work with entries on most every state, territory, event and individual you can think of, dating from the early Lewis and Clark days through the waning of Tom Mix’s movies up to the recent present.  It opens with a handy timeline dating from 1785-1998.

 The Look Of The Old West, by Foster-Harris – I recently picked up this gem of a book to familiarize myself with western cavalry uniforms and accoutrements. Besides being written in an extremely present and familiar folksy style, its loaded with invaluable illustrations on every minute aspect of frontier life, from firearms to women’s wear and modes of transportation. It’s quickly become one of my favorite books.

The Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, by Bill O’Neal – This book is an alphabetical listing of the more notorious western gunmen with cross references of men they’ve faced as well as lesser known personas like William Blake and Heck Thomas. If they were in the west and they ever fired a gun at another person, they’re likely to be in here. There are some great lists in the beginning too, including a timeline specific to gunfighters and a ranking of the most well known gunmen in terms of kills, lifespans, causes of death, and occupations.

Forts Of The Old West, by Robert W. Frazer – A breakdown of military outposts of the frontier period arranged by state, with brief entries on the histories and uses of each.

 A Treasury Of American Folklore, by B.A. Botkin – This is a great potpourri of American frontier culture, including humorous stories and songs from the period.

Dictionary Of The American West, by Winfred Blevins – Another of my favorite books. An alphabetical listing of some wonderfully colorful terms from the American Western lexicon, including a great list of synonyms for the more popular pastimes (dying, getting drunk, getting buried, etc).

Cowboy Slang, by Edgar ‘Frosty’ Potter – I love hearing those western metaphoric sayings like ‘There ain’t enough room in here to cuss a cat without getting a mouthful of hair.’ I always wished somebody would collect them into a book. While I was at Yuma Territorial Prison over the summer doing research I came across this book in their gift shop, and it’s the closest thing I’ve found to what I want. The entries are a little G-rated at times for my liking, but it’s still a pretty good book.

Daughters Of Joy, Sisters Of Misery, by Ann M. Butler – Before you go writing a peachy complexioned Miss Kitty swinging her legs on the piano, her heart of gold fairly brimming from her eyes, you owe it to yourself to read this book, the best I’ve found on the stark realities of frontier prostitutes.

In Their Own Words: Warriors And Pioneers, by TJ Stiles – A great book of first hand accounts from various individuals involved in the period. Includes excerpts from Geronimo, Custer, John Wesley Hardin, and Buffalo Bill Cody among others.

Conversations With Bushwhackers & Muleskinners, by Fred Lockley – Much like the book above, but more unpolished, and thus, a little more valuable. Whereas In Their Own Words includes stuff taken from autobiographies, Conversations is just a collection of anecdotes from plain old folks, most of them relative toOregon. But it’s great just to read the vernacular speech of the time and get a feel for it.

 The Encyclopedia Of North American Indian Tribes, by Bill Yenne – When I write about Native Americans, this is my starting point. A lot of people think of Indians as the Plains variety, all buckskins and feathered bonnets.  If you don’t even know there are some five hundred different tribes of Indians each with their own individual and distinct cultures, this should be yours. The color keyed map at the front showing the general stomping grounds of the various nations both prior to after white encroachment is worth the price alone, but then you get an alphabetical listing of tribes, detailing their languages and some of their customs. Funny enough, I recently noticed the guy in the music video for Europe’s Cherokee is shown holding it.

 Saloons Of The Old West, by Richard Erdoes – Another of my favorites, detailing the evolution of the saloon from colonial times onward. There are some great anecdotes about Oscar Wilde’s forays in LeadvilleColoradoas well as information on hurdy-gurdy gals, dance halls, the prices of the spirits and what they were called.

The Encyclopedia Of Civil War Usage, by Webb Garrison – Like the Dictionary of The American West, but focusing on the War Between The States, invaluable if you’re writing about the time directly after, when the gunfighter first started making his mark.

 Age Of The Gunfighter, by Richard Collins – I cherish this book not for the general text on the more famous gunfighters like Billy The Kid and their theaters, but for the awesome annotated photographs of period firearms taken from the Autry Museum and various private collections.

The People Called Apache/Mystic Warriors Of The Plains, by Thomas E. Mails – If you’re writing about either of these tribes, these books are indispensible. Mails writes indepth about everyday life and customs and includes brilliantly detailed illustrations of even the smallest ornamental items.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown – The greatest, most accessible history of white and Native American conflict ever written.

Black Red And Deadly, by Art T. Burton – A fascinating history of African American and Indian gunfighters on both sides of the law in Oklahoma/Indian Territory.

The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative Of The Negro Cavalry In The West, by William H. Leckie – THE book on the African American cavalrymen.

We live in a visual era, and the way the West comes alive for most people is through film. If you want to get an inspiring look at the West, I’d also recommend these pictures…

The Searchers

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

The Long Riders


The Wild Bunch

Dances With Wolves

Open Range

The Missing

Bad Company

The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Wyatt Earp

Tom Horn

The Culpepper Cattle Company

The Shootist

Of course if you want to be inspired creatively, you can always take a look at the spaghettis, but I’d confine myself to Leone’s Dollars trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, and Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence. They have a look that although not always entirely accurate, is all their own.

I’d also recommend perusing the works of some western artists to get you int. Charles M. Russel, Frederic Remington are the two tops, but James Bama does some great western character studies, and I personally like Charles Schreyvogel.

Frederic Remington

Happy Trails.