Category Archives: Writing

West bound, hammer down

The screw that delayed my departure from Virginia by 14 hours
Total miles: 551
Distance from Virginia house: 551
Miles to go: approximately 1879

There is a relief you feel when you finally start heading where you are supposed to go, one that pushes all fears and concerns aside as the miles slip by. I haven’t felt that relief in a long, long time, and as it came over me today I welcomed it wholeheartedly.

For ten years (insert Grosse Pointe Blank reference here) I have lived in Virginia, having come here to help a particular church ministry and finding employment with two different companies. I learned to shoot (and hit the target) here, grew my family here, and published my first two books here, but the time has come to go back home to Arizona. My son needs his family close, so we packed up the house into five boxes and a trailer and off we went.

Or at least, that’s what we planned to do, before the car decided to crap out with both battery and tire (the screw above screwed me for 14 hours, but kept me on a sane schedule; I just didn’t realize it at the time). But those were easy fixes, despite it being 5PM on a Sunday.

(On a sidenote, there is nothing quite like moving to inspire one to declutter life and get rid of the crap contained therein.)

So we’re in Nashville, waiting to start off tomorrow for Dallas to visit my wife’s family. Then a dash to Walter White’s house to pick up some research notes (kidding, that’s not the direction the story is going), then into Arizona.

My boss, God bless him, realized as a programmer I really can work anywhere, and decided to keep me around. So that need is filled, and the hours I will be keeping will allow me a lot more time to pour into the story of Scott Philipson and the world that is beginning to fall down around him. Which stories?

  • Scott’s story of the 20 years between the end of The Hand of Justice and the scenes at the beginnings of that volume’s chapters. This will become The Dragonslayers vol. 3: Descent Into Darkness.
  • Detective Royce’s story and the end of the story in Charlottesville, Virginia. This will be a Justice Delayed: A Dragonslayers Novella
  • A storyline in Arizona set during the DS3 timeline about a border militia, title to be decided.

I’m going to publish something this year, most likely Justice Delayed. But we’ll see: The Muse is nobody’s bitch, unless you make her yours.

And soon, I will have the time to make her mine.

Announcing The Dragonslayers, Volume 2: The Hand of Justice

The Dragonslayers vol. 2: The Hand of Justice
Fear. Friendship. Fortitude. What will find Scott?

Scott Philipson fought the law, and the law fought back. Now he’s on the run – but with the police closing in, will those he left behind be able to find a cure for Colonel Reynolds before time runs out? Or will fear and government win out over freedom and individuals?

I’m pleased to announce that my new novel, The Dragonslayers, Volume 2: The Hand of Justice, is now available for sale in Kindle, Nook, and paperback editions. This volume continues right where The Dragonslayers, Volume 1 left off, with the police hot on the trail of Scott Philipson, following the death of Officer William Cavanaugh under mysterious circumstances. With Scott on the run, only his girlfriend Carley Hill and Doctor Olivia Romano can help Colonel Steven Reynolds deal with his pancreatic cancer. Can they heal him and discover a new frontier in medicine? Or will other, more nefarious forces prevail?

Free excerpt:

Call for editors: The Dragonslayers vol. 2

Gah, I know, I know. The last post (from the end of March) said DS2 was coming this spring. What can I say? I’m a programmer by training, you can trust our estimates about as far as you can throw us.
Well with your bad knee, Ed, you shouldn't throw anybody
Anyway, there was crap to cut, scenes to add, scenes to edit. There was trouble scheduling time to write, family health issues, family death issues, laziness, distraction, procrastination …
I don't give a shit.
Okay, okay, enough with the excuses. I blame Resistance, to use Steven Pressfield’s term. I knew that if I didn’t get this one out this year I would hate myself as a writer. Although some writers – I’m thinking of the Balph Eubank’s of today – would say writer’s block and non-production are good for my character, I prefer to think of what is good for the story and my readers, and that means that production must be accomplished. Therefore, I set a schedule and called my cover designer and sat down and banged it out.
Captain Picard clapping
And by “banged it out” I mean I’m down to my last dozen scenes, all short things that can be done before the editors get to those parts of the book.

So, want an easy job, since I’m better at grammar and spelling than the average American high school graduate? Want a free copy of the book? Be Ross to me.
Click the “Contact” link at the top of the site and let me know you’re interested.

EDIT 2015-11-11: Speaking of Balph Eubank …

Sneak Preview: The Dragonslayers vol. 2: The Hand of Justice, Chapter 1

Coming this Spring in Kindle, Nook, and paperback formats.

Chapter 1 The Road Ahead

Scott felt the rifle dig into his hand as he settled into his shooting position, 316 yards from the state highway. I’m way too old for this shit, he thought to himself. He looked to his right towards Manuel, who looked back at him with a mix of fear and apprehension, and Scott couldn’t tell which emotion dominated. Did I really look that scared twenty years ago when I killed Cavanaugh? he thought to himself. Yeah, he probably did.

He cast a look towards Eric on his left, who wore a look of determination that seemed fitting for a man of sixty three who was going to war for the second time in his life. It looked like the faces he remembered on television from when he was seven. He hadn’t understood then why those buildings had fallen down or why there were so many people who were scared and so many who were angry. Eric looked like those people he remembered in the lines for the military recruiters, who knew they were signing up for war. He gave Scott a thumbs-up and went back to looking through his rifle scope.

What does my face look like right now? he thought as he looked at the road through his Trijicon. His fortieth birthday had been yesterday, and the militia had thrown a small get-together for him. The Trijicon was his present, an exorbitant gift these days, but he had to admit he needed one. Scopes don’t help you shoot better, they help you see better, and Scott had need of seeing better after four decades. None of them had spilled the beans on where it had come from, but Scott suspected there was a federalized local police officer who had been torn a new asshole in the past week. He had appreciated the gesture, and it made him feel comfortable and loved by the men and woman he commanded in the field this day.

He remembered back to when his path to freedom fighter began, two decades and hundreds of lost opportunities ago. He remembered the losses he had suffered, both those he deserved and those he didn’t. He remembered his parents and how they had looked in their caskets – paid for by the federal government to cover their complicity in the deaths of Adam and Anne Philipson. He remembered the week he had suffered in a Colorado jail, waiting for the government to decide what to do with him after the mall shooting. He remembered the years he’d spent watching his freedoms be eaten away, one by one, until he realized they were, for all practical purposes, as irretrievably lost as his parents.

And with each remembrance his face became a bit harder, his expression a bit colder. Father, he prayed, in your hands I leave my safety this day. You commanded us to rescue the weak and needy and deliver them from the hands of their oppressors, who will shortly travel the road before me. Let my aim be true, and let me not endanger my troops unnecessarily. The lead vehicle of the expected convoy turned the bend in the road and he clicked the radio button on his vest once. Let confusion reign amongst my enemies. The radio clicked twice in his ear; team two had the convoy in sight and was ready. Let fear drive them before us, and let them turn on each other as they did in the days of Gideon. The radio clicked three times; everyone on his side was prepared to kill. And above all, Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’ve started. His aim settled ahead of a man foolishly exposed in the turret of the last vehicle of the convoy. The M1A bucked in his shoulder, and the bullet that struck home a third of a second later ended the third life Scott Philipson had taken in his forty years on Earth.

Twenty years earlier

In any other situation, a blonde nurse in handcuffs on the couch would be a rather sexy affair, but the medical examiner standing over a dead body in the hallway put a rather harsh damper on things. Not that Ronald Royce was into handcuffs outside his profession as a sheriff’s deputy, but he had to admit she was rather attractive. But tonight he had bigger problems to worry about, namely the location of Scott Philipson and why there was a body in the hallway of his house – and why it was this body in particular.

William Cavanaugh had been found dead by the nurse, Carley Hill, when she had arrived home after shopping at the Victoria’s Secret in the Charlottesville shopping mall. She had been expecting her roommate and lover, Scott Philipson, but found the corpse and called 911. Cavanaugh had been dispatched with one shot from a .40 Smith & Wesson semiautomatic to the back of the head at close range, dying instantly. His wallet had been removed from his back pocket, but it was unclear if any cash had been taken. All the cards and his Charlottesville Police Department badge seemed to be in place, and the wallet had been found next to the body. Philipson had shot him and fled the scene when he realized who the dead man was, or so Royce surmised.

But there was no reason for Cavanaugh to be there in the first place. Cavanaugh had been the arresting officer in Philipson’s drug arrest in December and the trial had concluded today – a verdict of not guilty being returned by the jury. The defense had called Cavanaugh’s honesty as a cop into question, a strategy that hadn’t surprised Royce, given his own previous experience with the deceased. But the evidence seemed pretty cut and dried to him. Regardless, Cavanaugh had last been seen leaving the courthouse square at about the same time as Philipson and the two had not exchanged any words or anything more than glances from a distance, according to police and press eyewitnesses. So why and how had Cavanaugh ended up in Philipson’s home?

“Just spoke with the manager at the Victoria’s Secret,” Deputy Schottke said to Royce. “The nurse’s alibi seems to check out. Her receipt matches the time the manager remembers seeing a blonde in medical scrubs in the store, and I’ve sent a C-ville cruiser over to pick up the surveillance video, just to be sure.”

“Good. Any ideas why Cavanaugh would be here though?”

“Nah, I’m more concerned with the fact that there’s a cop killer on the loose,” Schottke said. “Don’t get many of those in this part of the state,” Schottke said.

“Never heard of a cop killer who kills in his own house, though,” Royce said and walked over to the couch. “Hands,” he said to Carley, who offered hers up with a scowl. “You’re alibi checks out, at least so far,” he said as he unlocked the handcuffs.

“Yeah, I know,” she said. “Now hand me my purse, I need to call my lawyer.” Royce did, but only after looking through it.

“What? I have a duty to look for the gun,” he said in answer to the glare. She yanked the purse from his hands and grabbed her phone from it. She called the lawyer who had represented Scott in the drug trial, Martin Shanston, and told him the news. He walked in the door thirty minutes later.

“Any word from Scott?” he asked without preamble of Carley.

She shook her head. “No answer on his cell phone, goes straight to voice mail.”

“Same for me. You’d think he would pick up for me, at least.”

“Unless-” Carley began, but Shanston cut her off with the wave of a hand.

“Later,” he said. “Needs to be confidential.”

“I do not believe, for a moment, that a police officer with Cavanaugh’s record would willingly go to the house of a suspect and let his guard down to the point where he could be shot in the back of the head,” said James Brodine, Chief of the Charlottesville Police Department. “There is no reason for him to be there at all, let alone for him to give opportunity to a man with motive and means to kill him,” he railed.

“Sir, there are no signs of forced entry, and no signs of a struggle,” Royce had argued. “Either Cavanaugh was let into the house or he broke in, and I can’t imagine why Philipson would let him into the house. Sir.” He added after the briefest pause.

“Then you need to expand the range of your imagination, Deputy Royce,” the Chief said with a glare.

Forty six hours later that same glare faced him as he offered the casket flag to the Chief. Ronald Royce had been chosen by bureaucratic protocol to present the flag to the Chief, since Cavanaugh had been unmarried and had no other family to receive it. Royce was glad the script called for him to step back, salute, and retreat to his assigned position to stand at attention.

Chief Brodine was a dour old man, close to retirement but didn’t look like it. The only betrayal of his age was his wrinkled eyes and gray hair, which contrasted with his tight physique and quick mind. He had spent his entire professional career in Charlottesville, except for a six-year enlistment in the Air Force where he had served in the Security Force. His Defender badge hung on the wall over his chair, and when standing at attention before him it was exactly at eye level.

The rifles barked, the bugle called, the priest closed, and the crowd of mostly police and politicians was dismissed. Royce found himself milling about, making polite conversation, and wondering if it was too early in the day to get a beer and ponder what he’d discovered so far. His gaze drifted to a blonde woman standing at the edge of the crowd, watching him intently. She wore a black, knee-length leather skirt and a purple sweater to keep away the early Spring chill, and he realized she’d been there since the ceremony ended. He thought about introducing himself but was interrupted.

“Deputy Royce, nice to see you here,” he said.

“Hello Officer …” Royce asked, shaking the offered hand.

“Peter Metoskowicz, CPD,” he replied. He was short but carried himself well, and a scar on his chin gave him the air of a man who had some experience with roughness. “I understand you’re heading Albemarle’s investigation into the death of Officer Cavanaugh,” he said.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Any luck?”

Royce hesitated, not wanting to reveal that he had essentially nothing at the moment. “Some. Less than I’d like, but it isn’t like the murderer’s going to just walk into police headquarters.”

“No, I suppose not. Well, it was nice to meet you, and if you need any help with the investigation, please, let me know.” He took a business card from his pocket and passed it over, then walked away quickly and quietly.

Royce almost called out to him in surprise, but checked himself. He felt a small data chip taped to the back and wondered what Officer Metoskowicz might know that would force him to resort to clandestine tactics such as this. He was still wondering when another man came up to him, this one dressed in a suit and tie.

“Deputy Royce? I’m Agent Edgar Ward, DEA. I’m told you’re in charge of the investigation of Officer Cavanaugh’s murder.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Royce repeated.

“How’s it going?” the agent asked, and Royce gave the brief rundown. “Well, it seems we’re after the same man. Have you heard about the Executive Order the President issued last week?” Royce had. The President had issued an order directing all federal law enforcement agencies to ‘take all measures necessary to pursue the maximum penalty under the law’ for any crime involving the death of a police officer. It was part of a political push to shore up his law-and-order base before the election next year. The President wanted to appear tough on crime and tough on drugs, and the executive order had come along with others that dealt with marijuana prosecutions in states that had legalized it and offenses involving guns. Inside the course of a single week, the nation’s federal bureaucracy had been turned against the rising tide of states who felt marijuana prohibition was a bad policy to follow.

“The DEA is pursuing federal charges against Mister Philipson. I’m your federal liaison on the case, and the Sheriff of Albemarle said I could have your full cooperation on the matter. I’d like a complete review of the available evidence on my desk by Tuesday.” He offered his business card, which Royce was obligated to accept.

“I’ll be in touch, Agent Ward,” he said.

“Good to hear,” Ward said, shaking Royce’s hand with a tight-lipped smile. Curiouser and curiouser, Royce thought to himself. Royce looked up and saw that the crowd had dwindled but the blonde was still there. He looked around, noticing no one else seemed interested in her, not even the reporters that were making small talk with law enforcement. He walked over to her.

“Normally I don’t try to pick up women at funerals,” he said, trying to be light hearted, “but you seem too interested.” She smirked and glanced away, the mirth less effective than Royce had hoped.

“You’re Deputy Royce, right?” she asked. “I saw you on TV a few days ago.”

“Yes, that’s me. What’s your name?”

“Friends call me Paige,” she said, fidgeting. “Too bad about Cavanaugh,” she said.

“Yeah, worse for the killer though,” Royce said. “You know how cops are when they lose one of their own.”

“Look, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead,” she began.

“But …” Royce said, annoyed at the developing trend, “that’s exactly what you’re going to do?”

She huffed. “Look, not every cop is a good guy, and I happen to know that this one wasn’t.”

“Oh? And how do you know that?” Royce said.

“I have a friend who is, shall we say, paid to be friendly? Cavanaugh stole from her when they met one time.”

“Well, in terms of vague accusations, that’s pretty impressive,” Royce said, then hesitated. “And it may or may not fit with what I may or may not have been told about him from sources that may or may not be reliable. What are you getting at?” Royce asked.

She scowled, annoyed at Royce’s disbelief. “I know I don’t have anything but the accusation – it was a cash deal, like always, so there’s no receipt – just don’t believe everything you hear about him in your investigation.”

“When you say your friend is paid to be-”

“Come on, Deputy, you’re a smart man,” Paige said, cutting him off.  “And I’m a loyal friend. Let’s just leave it at that, alright?”

“Alright,” Royce said, not wanting to drive her away. “Anything else you wanted to say?”

“It was nice meeting you,” she said flatly, turning on her heel and walking away. Royce thought about calling to her, but decided against it. Best not to draw attention to her, especially when what she was saying fit with what he’d discovered about Cavanaugh.

The man had come from Baltimore, and there had been trouble there before there was trouble in Charlottesville. A few discreet calls had turned up a highly polished badge – a police record not tainted by anything so much as a bad word, officially, but lots of rumor and innuendo, hearsay and secondhand stories. Cavanaugh had joined the Baltimore force and been assigned as partner with an old beat cop named Nathan Drake, who had the misfortune to be shot during the pursuit of a suspect. He’d lived initially, but died a few days later of a pulmonary embolism. The suspect, Shawan Thames, had died of a gunshot from an unknown assailant, coincidentally on the same night. Royce couldn’t help but notice the coincidence and wondered at it, but knew there was no way he could tie the two together. The gun recovered at the scene of the crime had belonged to Thames at one point but was clean of fingerprints. The murderer had never been captured.

Shortly after the deaths of Drake and Thames, Cavanaugh had moved to Charlottesville, where Royce met him about five years later. He was with the Charlottesville Police Department at the time and hadn’t liked Cavanaugh from the start. They had gotten into a row over how a suspect was being treated and it had boiled over into Cavanaugh punching Royce. There was a reprimand and an apology and Royce had taken it like a man, but there was no official punishment. Things had cooled between them over time, but Royce had always looked at Cavanaugh with suspicion.

His phone rang in his pocket. He didn’t recognize the number but answered it anyway.

“Deputy Royce,” he answered.

“Deputy Royce, my name is Deputy Andrew Wethernock, of Bath County Sheriff. I was told you were the one to contact about the Cavanaugh murder. Is that correct?”

“Yes, I’m the lead investigator on that case,” Royce said.

“We’ve picked up a suspect that you’re looking for, Scott Michael Philipson. He was driving a 2003 Honda Accord west on state route 39 this morning when he encountered a safety check. We were going to cite him for just the headphone rule, but the check of his license turned up your BOLO. We’ve got him in custody, how would you like him delivered?”


The NaNoWriMo 2014 Status Post, one week in

So: way back in 2009, I had this idea kicking around in my head that I could write a story about a continent that boils up in the middle of the ocean and does two things: throws out every rule of geology, provide a haven for people who love freedom to escape totalitarian governments, and show what governments would do in such a situation.
Neither I nor the Spanish Inquisition can count
Anyway, around November third of that year I found out about NaNoWriMo and figured “shoot, that’s easy, I can do that! I’ll call it The Continent!”
pride goes before the fall, with the same result as amatuers launching rockets.
Yeah, sure. Three days later I’d recorded 500 words and decided to quit before I made a fool of myself. I shelved the project and somewhere along the line came up with the idea for Dragonslayers.
Yay me! Go buy the book
That one worked out, as did the projects in 2011, 2012 (The Continent, completed this time), and 2013. Last year was the first draft of Dragonslayers 2: The Hand of Justice, which has been in revision ever since. I’m hoping to complete it by March, and would like to launch it during the week of the Virginia Festival of the Book. By the way, if you want to take part in the early bird beta reader program, you have to be part on the mailing list. Anyway, this year’s NaNoWriMo project is Dragonslayers 3 (Insert subtitle here). Let’s just say this year’s project is off to a better start than 2009.
"Put the spurs to her, Chuck!"
5014 words the first day, and 5020 the second. So yeah, it’s going well. Ten times the performance of the first time I tried it counts as a win in my book. This is the first time I’ve been significantly ahead since I started the program, and the first time I’ve been projected to finish early before I reach the halfway point. Right now, I’m headed for a finish on or about November 20th. After that, I’ll go back to work on DS2 and finish that up in time for editing and cover design by the end of the year – hopefully.

So if you’re feeling like you can’t do it, trust me, you can. I know, I’ve been there, and I’ve gotten past it. They key is to make Jack Bauer your muse and just write. Save the editing for later, there will be time.
Come on, you know he gets results. Just do it.

Character Interview: Col. Steven Reynolds, USMC

  • What do you carry in your pockets?
    Well day to day I’m in my blue dress uniform a lot, so I don’t try to put anything in those pockets besides a pair of keys and a thin wallet. When I’m in the field there’s always some piece of equipment or a rifle magazine or something, usually a map.
  • Do you ever have concerns that when you’re defending America, you’re defending good and bad people and ideas you may not agree with?
    Honestly, no. My oath binds me against all enemies foreign and domestic, and if I end up defending say, a pedophile, it’s only from external threats. He’d still have to deal with the law, and I won’t defend him against that. That’s what lawyers are for. No, my oath does not come with caveats,
  • What is your strongest quality?
    I’m tenacious. There’s a part of recruit training where you run into this circular arena and pummel a fellow recruit with a padded stick. When I joined the Corps, I made it to this particular training but I was really tired from the previous evolution, and I got into the arena second. The other guy was waiting for me, and believe me, he laid into me good and hard. I ended up on the ground but I kept blocking his blows, and eventually made it back to my feet and pushed him up against the wall and ended up bloodying his face pretty hard. I got a good chewing out for that, since we weren’t supposed to knock each others headgear off, but like I said, I’m tenacious. It just sort of happened, and I was in the moment and just kept going at him.
  • Of all the places you’ve been in the Marines, where would you like to revisit?
    Well that depends, am I visiting for a deployment or a vacation? I always liked the views over the ocean when I was deployed aboard the amphibious carriers, so I think a sailboat trip would be nice. There are also some places in California and Colorado I’d like to visit, and my wife and I would like to take a trip to Europe some day, maybe.
  • What are your most important values?
    Duty, honor, country. I know it sounds canned and stereotypical, but its true. Some people would put family in there, and I get that, I love my family more than anything and anyone but God. But I have a duty to God and family and the Constitution, so if I always keep duty foremost in my mind, I’ll take care of all three while preserving my honor and defending my country. It comes down to a balancing act.
  • What has your cancer diagnosis revealed to you about yourself?
    Um, well, it’s been just a week, so … ah. Well, like I said, I’m tenacious. I know I’m going to beat this, despite the odds against me. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Other Things: why I hate deer

Bambi and her mom and dad are loved by the granola-munching, Prius driving crowd. Me, not so much. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a bunch of overgrown rats too stupid to run from things that harm them, like cars. One of them deliberately rammed my car one time after I slowed down to let him cross the road.

Then there is their eating habits. They seem to love the things that grow in my yard, particularly things humans also like to eat. Like tomatoes and lettuce. They’ll jump in and start munching away, eating anything that they feel might be tasty. “Daffodils? Nah, man, no thanks,” they might say. They also won’t touch weeds if there’s lettuce around, the little jerks.

You’d think this would build a little animosity in my heart towards these gentle creatures, and you’d be perfectly correct. Compound it with the fact that whenever any of my three dogs see them in the yard they start going nuts, barking madly in an attempt to both scare them off and let us know that they need to be hunted for food. The latter is not as easy as you might think in a backyard of known distance. From back door to treeline is only about 25 yards, and I’m well-zeroed at that range with my M1A. But four things conspire against me and my valiant efforts to reduce the population of deer for the greater good.

First, there’s Louisa County. While almost every other county in Virginia allows for cartridge firearms, all hunting in Louisa must be done with a muzzleloader if the caliber is greater than .22. So in other words, unless you’re hunting squirrels or rabbits, you have to use a frontstuffer. This would let me take but one deer a year from my backyard, for if a deer saw his pal get shot you’d think he would not come back for the salt lick, no matter how tasty.

Second, there’s the neighbors. They’re just a bit too close for comfort when it comes to letting lead fly, and the neighborhood association down the street likes to complain when they hear gunshots, even if the firing is far from their little enclave of self-righteous tyranny that is the modern Home Owners Association.

Then there’s the deer themselves. Someone nails a calendar to the tree every year when hunting season starts, because I don’t think I’ve seen a buck in my yard in the month of November. There’s the occasional doe, but never on doe hunting days. It’s like they know exactly when I would prefer to kill them from my backyard and they deliberately avoid it.

Finally, there’s my own skill in the field. I’m quite good at shooting, but I’m also remarkable for my tracking skills. At least, remarkable in the lack thereof. I can track animals, in broad daylight, if they’ve walked by after a recent rain with a bad case of the runs, but aside from that? Not so good.

So I must content myself with the fact that a deer herd will likely not approach my garden if it is close to the house and protected by a four foot suggestion of a fence. And perhaps think about getting a suppressor for the M1A and unilaterally extending the hunting season into October – Walter Mitty style, of course.

Writing Tip: Walking the grounds

There is an excitement at Manassas, a cramped-ness at the Little Round Top, and a simplicity at Appomattox that cannot be experienced without being there in person. I’ve been to all three, and the experiences have taught me something about writing: you have to go to your setting to understand it, and you can’t describe it without understanding it. Knowledge leads to understanding, which leads to descriptions that live in the reader’s mind, not just on the page.

The Manassas battlefield is small enough that you can walk the trail for one of the battles (there were two at the site) in a day. It is a bit of a hike, and you need to be in good shape and know where you’re going, but it can be done. The first place you start at is actually the end of the battle, where the visitor center is located. Looking out across the expanse of the hills on which the first battle was fought you get an idea of the scale of things in that day, and how large the battle was. But at the same time it prepares you to realize just how small the engagement was, relative to what was to come. A quick trip down to and across Bull Run Creek where the Union crossed and you find yourself emerging on the other side of the battle, behind Union artillery emplacements. Captain Imboden’s Confederate guns are barely visible from here, but you tend to forget them as you wrap your head around the scale and start to realize that what was once strictly the realm of artillery is now considered a standard sniper qualification range. It’s a long way from Matthews Hill to Henry Hill, but not that long.

At Gettysburg the close quarters of the Little Round Top belie the scale of the battlefield and the impossibility of touring the entire place in one day on foot. The lines of battle for both sides stretched literally for miles and were separated (at times) by miles, yet were still easily visible to each other. The scale of the engagement in Pennsylvania is enormous, but what is most interesting is that the Union victory was possibly sealed on a hill the size of a tennis court. This is a remarkable conclusion to draw for such a large battle and such a small space – it could be a tennis court in another setting – but nevertheless, many historians (but not all) have reached that conclusion. Roughly one hundred men were crammed shoulder to shoulder into a space normally occupied only by squirrels and strewn with boulders, but it would become the setting for a battlefield maneuver still studied at West Point and other institutions that teach the art of leading men into the jaws of death.

Appomattox is the simplest of the three sites, consisting of little more than a small preserved village from before the electrical age with an attached parking lot and National Park entrance gate. There are two main buildings and several smaller ones, all connected by dirt pathways that serve as reminders of simpler times as well as foot-roads. It is walked in an hour with more time standing still and pondering the events and men that came here in April 1865 than spent actually walking. The room in the McClean house where the surrender took place is small as well; if Grant brought half his staff there would have been little room for Lee and his adjutant as is commonly depicted. But it was sufficient to hold the sentiments of the men involved and the words they left behind for us, as well as the rebirth of the nation and the good and bad that came with it.

Of course, walking the grounds does little to help if your story is set on the moon or some other country or some other planet, but that’s what historical records and your imagination is for.

Writing Tip: Writer groups

There is nothing I’ve come to appreciate more since I started writing fiction than a writer group.

In measured doses.

Writing groups can be wonderful for encouraging each other to reach your goals and edit your work. They can also be massive sources of distraction and frustration, because just as you may have to tell your family that you need space to write, you may need to tell your writing buddies that too. Writers can be social too, despite their solitary, introverted tendencies – particularly when the plot line isn’t coming to you. I’ve attended write-ins for NaNoWriMo where they only way to get some writers to shut up was to constantly have a word war going on.

But when they are motivated, either by a goal they set or a carrot you dangle in front of them, they can be very well suited to helping you achieve your goals. And of course, the motivation works both ways. Each writer sharpens the other’s writing, especially when you let go of your little baby and admit that it needs some help.

There is an inherent trepidation when you do this, much like what a parent experiences when they first give their child into the hands of a babysitter. Then again, a parent can bring legal action against a babysitter who harms a child, but a writer has no such recourse when a fellow writer suggests it would be best if the eight-page exposition on the virtues of [fill in the blank] get cut.

This is where I would post a picture of Ayn Rand if I wanted to make a point about her writing, but I don’t, and I think you get the point anyway.

So find a writing group and leverage them to strengthen your writing. Just don’t be a taker without being a giver. Value for value, and all that.