Joe Parrino, Writer

Musings on Life, Writing, and the Free Territory of Ascham

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This Small World and This Red Business

This blog post might get a little depressing so I will start off upfront with a fun fact: Freyja survived the Christian conversion period. I can’t stop thinking about this factoid from one of our primary Norse mythology sources, Snorri Sturluson. I hope more of the pagan deities from humanity’s past survived as well.

Back to the depression, my world has grown very small over these past four months. As an intel analyst, as a historian and a researcher, one of my many interests has always been the topic of disease. I often felt like Cassandra constantly bringing up the topic to my corporate overlords who, it turns out, did not give a shit. When reports of Covid started circulating out of China, I warned my employer. As the disease grew closer and closer to home, I could see the path it would take under our utterly and maliciously incompetent administration in the U.S. Then, I was laid off. My world shrank. The economy tumbled. I am now reliant on the Trump Administration and unemployment as our income. We are staring down the barrel of losing our house. My dad, now the sole income earner in our family, desperately wants to retire, but even he has been reduced to half salary.

I know I shouldn’t complain, that I shouldn’t focus on negativity.

But holy fucking fuck. How can I not?

My world is crumbling. After being let go from a job I was starting to trust had stabilized, I fell back on the one skill I know I possess that no one else does. I am a published goddamned neurodiverse author, for all that seems to matter during this heartrending query process. I went from taking a year to write a book that I desperately wanted to publish, that was then canceled, to finishing a novel in 10 days.

I obsessively research agents, I look through their #mswl, their manuscript wishlists, their previous deals, every public statement they’ve put out. I have queried over 70 agents and received 64 rejections. As near as I can tell, those rejections have been form ones. I am rapidly running out of hope that this process will end in success. With the evidence I have, how can I believe differently?

I know my book is weird. I know it is fantasy, which doesn’t seem to be in vogue right now. My book is different. Michelle keeps reminding me how strange, but also how wonderful it is.

This was the only route I could see to safety, to financial movement again. The one skill I have that no one else does, at least not quite in the same way, and not about the same story, finally shackled and put to my purpose. The skills I have honed from my graduate degree in international relations, from five years as a corporate intelligence analyst, assessing and predicting, all point to further disaster on the horizon. Finally, I am putting those skills to my own purposes, thus far to no avail.

Pumpkin the Badger isn’t a typical protagonist. Her family isn’t a typical family. Ascham as a setting isn’t something I have personally seen before in fantasy, but what do I know? Yes, there are dragons, and dwarves, and gnomes, but there are also dinosaurs, and Bigfoot, ghosts and crossroads devils, muskets, and magic. I drew deep from all the stories I’ve ever loved, the places where my memories are brightest, the people who have stood beside me through thick and thin. This book is my attempt to come to terms with my ADHD diagnosis, with this pernicious condition that explains so much that has gone wrong with my life.

My world is rapidly shrinking, my hope with it. I know that others have and are enduring far worse, but that doesn’t minimize the pain and despair I feel.

We are rapidly approaching yet more economic cliffs. Fiction, particularly escapism, is the only route out of this I can see. All I want is for this novel to be published, to get my foot in the door, to allow me the breathing space to write more.

I’m running a marathon with limited support and so far there are no water stations in sight.

On top of this, my parent’s dog, my beloved sister, is dying. She stood with me and helped me process my OCD diagnosis as I suffered a mental breakdown in my junior year of college.

This has been one of the roughest periods in my life, something for which I was well unprepared. I am really struggling to find hope in the here and now, to follow the advice that says to put my head down, shut up, and write something else.

My world continues to shrink. I miss my expanded horizons of possibility.

As always, loyal and true reader, I thank you for your kind time and attention. I wish I had better news, but that seems pretty hard to come by these days.

Consecration

In the course of writing Fimbulwinter, I’ve been diving deep into academic works on Norse and Celtic mythology, history, and archaeology. I came across a way that the Norse would consecrate their enemies to Odin that has been stuck in my head ever since. It is, no doubt, a method known to my astute and educated readers who have an interest in the subject.

At the start of a battle, as the lines of shields squared up and faced each other across a field or a pass, or jockeyed for prime position, one single warrior would grasp a spear sacred to the Ecstatic One, the god of trickery, intoxication, magic, inspiration, battle, and overall chief of the Norse pantheon. Shouting, “Odin owns you all!” the warrior would cast the spear over the enemy formation, thus dedicating all those enemies about to die to Old One-Eye. I can’t help but wonder what would’ve gone through Saxon, French, Arab, or Irish minds as this spear sailed overhead, and the battle-shout in a foreign tongue drove fear deep into their hearts. Was there a pennant or flag fluttering from the spear? Blood or strips of fur? Would this ritual have seemed familiar or totally alien?

This has been one of the great benefits of writing about subjects I want to know more about. Through this, I’ve learned how much more complicated the Norse myths are, their antiquity, and how little we truly know.

Through this, Odin has emerged as one of the most complex and nuanced gods I think I’ve read about in my comparative mythological research. There are so many facets to his being, good and bad, but he is always himself. Conniving, cunning, and full of a desperate need for remembrance, I cannot help but admire this figure once beloved by my ancestors. He gives the gift of inspiration to poets and kings, but also binds and takes, bestowing battle-madness. I find it utterly fascinating that Odin did not begin his godhood as chief of the Norse pantheon. Rather he seems to have supplanted Tyr in the far-distant past. Odin seems not to be a stern and judging figure, watching from on high, or dallying with mortals solely to anger his wife. He comes across to me as a character with agency, with a story arc, with a drive and needs and desires of his own. He plans and plots, sacrifices, and teaches, befuddles, and beguiles.

As I slog my way through the query trenches, as the artillery of form rejections thunders all around me, a spear flies overhead, wrapped in strips of bear and wolf fur. Words chanted in an ancient tongue cut through the thunderous roar across the battlefield. Inspiration and madness walk hand in hand in their wake.

Two ravens take wing.

Companion Pictures

I rarely post many pictures to social media yet I take loads. Usually, they stay for me, to garner a smile at a needed moment, or to light up Michelle’s face at the latest capers of our companions.

In honor of Pumpkin the Badger, a lost companion slowly rediscovering herself and her family, I thought I’d switch up my blog content with a bunch of pictures of dogs and cats in case anyone needs some cheering up.

Pitches

It occurred to me, in the spirit of continuing professionalism, growth, and actual self-promotion on my own gods-damned website, that I should post some more things on books I’ve finished or am working on.

The pitch for This Red Business has seen the most iterating and is hopefully the most polished:

GIDEON THE NINTH meets OVER THE GARDEN WALL in Sasquatch country. On the night before she is hanged, Pumpkin the Badger, an animal cursed with sentience, receives a letter from her old cult leader, revealing his ties to evil dragons and threatening the territory she loves. Pumpkin jumps into action, breaks free from prison by selling her soul to a sinister fairy, and returns home to reunite her family of retired adventurers. Through grit, research, and violence, the Chickenshit family punches through the cult ranks in a desperate bid to stop a Second Dragon War.

This new one is more feral and wild, perhaps fitting for this book in an apocalyptic, bleak, but beautiful era. I’ve been a bit more on edge lately, a little hungry for change, so I’m trying something different with this one. I am going to attempt a Young Adult Historical Fantasy novel tentatively titled Fimbulwinter. I don’t have any comparative titles yet, as I’m relearning the genre, beyond movies and TV shows. Here’s that pitch:

THE SECRET OF KELLS meets AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA in 10th-century Viking Age Ireland in the style of Gene Wolfe’s LATRO IN THE MIST. A shield-maiden searching for her mother, a half-starved, haunted berserker, and the goddess of storms reborn as a bard, journey across the island after a volcanic eruption triggers Ragnarok. Freed by the apocalypse, an ancient force of imbalance stirs. As the gods fail, and the old powers slip from memory, three mortals must resurrect the devoured sun or lose their world.

A Map of the Free Territory of Ascham

Michelle reminded me that this map I sketched out for my plotting purposes when writing the book would probably sit pretty well on the ole blogosphere.

Behold in all its rough, ridiculous glory, the Free Territory of Ascham.

https://www.worldanvil.com/w/allyoa-captainofchickens/map/87a9127c-9fdb-40f8-8bbe-ae9fadd40801

I thought it might also be amusing to add in my initial sketch. Also on display: my atrocious handwriting.

Mission Statement

I’d like to spend some time talking about what is now called This Red Business after a Walt Whitman poem I quite admire. Usually, I use this space to talk about the things that bother me, the places I’ve succeeded, the everyday life I’ve led. Sometimes I talk about writing.

Rarely do I talk about what I’ve actually been working on. Most of these are things I’ve kept private, from Michelle, from my beta readers, or my confidants. Some featured within the first bleary attempts at pitching my novel. Most have gone unspoken, but should probably be mentioned.

The old writing adage is to write what I know, so just before my writing frenzy I took this to heart. I wrote the stories I wanted to read, something that started as a fantasy novel that would be pure entertainment, to scrub clean the ashes of my failures, that went from Scotland and a cautious approach to my unspoken ambition to write a fantasy novel series about the American Civil War. I’ve been fascinated, utterly consumed and obsessed with that conflict since I was a child. I grew up in suburban Maryland, surrounded by the detritus of the war. My great aunt’s house has divots in the backyard where I used to play which were originally dug by Union pickets. Every month, my dad took me to a battlefield, to learn, to breathe, and to study. In 8th grade, on a summer vacation to Gettysburg, long after we moved to the Pacific Northwest, I spoke so in depth with a National Parks guide that he handed his business card to me and told me I had a job there when I was older. I lost that card. I’ve been offered spots in reenactor companies, but always refrained. As I grew older, I learned nuance, saw past the myth and glimpsed the men beneath. Everywhere, I saw pro-confederate propaganda, the Lost Cause infects wide layers of American life, pernicious as the devil. So I thought instead of being cautious, why not be bold. Why not go straight for the throat here. If all I can see is the Lost Cause, then someone needed to give voice to the Union. I devoured Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, began to understand he’d seen the same danger in his later years. Fuck, it still feels crazy and ambitious for me to type these words, but let’s keep going.

Alongside these American mythologies, I added my obsession with folklore, with other histories, both foreign and close to home. I scoured my brain for worldbuilding I’d never quite bothered to do, knowing that only 10% was the recommended maximum visibility. To ease my imagination, already consumed with fever dreams of elves and dwarves, dragons, and gnomes, and the watchful Neighbors. I set my story here, at home. In a secondary world inspired by the Frontier Pacific Northwest in the decade before the Civil War. To gain inspiration, all I need do is get off my ass and go for a hike, listen for the dwarves laboring beneath our mountain ranges. Under the dripping boughs of the old-growth rainforest, I could hear the hoots and whistles of the Neighbors.

From this inspiration, I surrounded myself with talismans, crafted towers of books by authors I admired, by books that I read in childhood when all seemed dark, books with words that still drive me to this day. I started not just to write words, but to see the scenes in my head, to watch the action unfold, and to eavesdrop on Pumpkin and the rest of the Chickenshits speaking. The characters I had created were taking the reins, and I was going along for the ride

To add new twists on old classics, I poured in my fascination with Ice Age megafauna, paleontology, classical history, archaeology, Celtic mythology, bread baking, cooking, and my family history. Orcs were no longer broken and enslaved elves, but neanderthals. Survivors who swore the Oath of Survival which required total isolation. Dwarves and gnomes were descendants who fled underground or across to wandering The Other Side. I messed with structure and form, played with expectations and language. All these things live in This Red Business. Nana Cobbles, a hag and my cross between Merriweather Lewis, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Mary Berry, named for a contestant on the Great British Bake-Off’s nan, turns a kaiju-sized Quetzalcoatlus-like white dragon’s bones to bronze and then commands them to bake. This happens in the first third of the book.

Later, Pumpkin defeats her antagonist by using a lawyerly artifact to provide nuance to the statement turning her mother, inspired by Ulysses S. Grant and Merida from Brave, into a god. Before the end, Confederate velociraptors are raised into undeath by a reluctant dwarven lich to fight against their former comrades, I kill my first major character, pastries are baked, and Pumpkin, an actual North American badger, sells her soul to a fairy.

I took inspiration from the writings of Terry Pratchett, Victoria Schwab, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Chuck Wendig, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Dan Abnett, Tamsyn Muir, Ursula K. Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, and so many others. I watched shows like Over the Garden Wall, Critical Role, and Gravity Falls for lessons on combining danger with absurdity and more importantly, heart. I wrote a book about gnomes, family, dinosaurs, and Bigfoot. I wrote a book that mirrors history, where multiculturalism is the key to defeating evil, as it was and is in real life. I wrote a book about a place called Ascham that now lives in my heart, that has perhaps, always lived there.

I want so badly to share it with the world.

The Great Work

In the misted haze and chill of October here in Washington, I began a project. For the first time in five years, the words returned to me. Characters demanded my attention, my will, and my effort. From this was born Pumpkin the Badger, poor Whissen Foss, and the rest of the Chickenshits.

From this humble beginning on the Pacific Coast, more words joined. Stories and pieces began to fit together. Plots and names. Places and people. At this time, this work, this novel, was set in Edinburgh.

In November and December, Michelle and I (oh yeah, I got married in 2018) journeyed to the Emerald Isle. Winter storms roared across the Wild Atlantic Way, but beside a turf fire, beneath a thatched roof, more came. From 1,000 words, came 10,000 more. Pumpkin the Badger made her deal and sought freedom with the help of Aunt Mary-Go-Lightly. In this way, the words trickled in, the plot meandering along with Pumpkin en route to an uncertain future and her childhood home.

Work intervened, demanded my focus, my skills, and my wits. The trickle slowed. The creekbed ran dry, rolled stones thirsty with dust. At the end of March, as the pandemic consumed the world, I was laid off by the Pinkertons. Devastated, I cast about for meaning, for purpose, and for the future. All seemed bleak.

Pumpkin told me to shut the fuck up, put my big boy pants on, and get cracking. Instead of being the guy who reminded his friends that he was working on a novel, I decided to be the guy who finished the damn thing. Starting the day after I was cast out into the world, thrown onto the whims of an uncaring administration, and for each day thereafter unto the end of a tenday, I wrote 3,000 words per day. I finished my novel at a pace that a not-so-younger me believed utterly impossible.

This fantasy novel, tentatively titled eponymously to give my weird website’s name true meaning, was flung into the aether, seeking publication and a home. The Great Work waits, slumbering with promise. The culmination of my varied interests, it is, what I hope to be, a unique take on the fantasy genre. Elves and dwarves and orcs feature therein, but twisted and made my own. No Pseudo-European setting here, no pastiche of Scotland, I decided to write what I know, what I’ve spent a lifetime learning and observing. I can never be Scottish, or British, or a European. I am American, for good and ill and so is my book. Under the watching eyes of the Neighbors and with the full throat of my voice, my ridiculous sense of humor, Captain of Chickens will live.

Pumpkin the Badger waits to take her place on the stage of published characters. Her family saga will march with her in time with the nation she loves. The people of the Free Territory of Ascham pray for hope.

As do I.

A constellation of future stories awaits.

It’s Been a While

Something has been nagging at me, gnawing away at my soul. I have neglected something. That something is this blog. People, too, have been nagging. I’ve had requests. They were easy to ignore for a while. But people are persistent.

‘Why?’ they cried out. ‘Why hast thou forsaken us?’

Ok, that may be a bit of an exaggeration.

I’d apologize,but I am fairly certain it would fall on deaf ears. I’d also write something clever, but I’ll save that for a coming blog post which I will endeavor to write soon.

In the meantime, I have news. Lots of it. I’ve been a busy Captain of Chickens.

Let’s kick things off. In September this little thing came out. It’s called ‘No Worse Sin’ and it was published by the Black Library. I’m pretty proud of the story and it may be leading to more awesomeness in the future.

I wrote a few more things that, hopefully, I will be allowed to talk about soon. There’s an image to go with one of them that I would dearly like to show, but I shall resist (for now).

So here’s me holding a baked potato instead. Apparently potato day at the state legislature is a thing.

As you can see from the picture, I’ve been working. Holding down a proper job, wearing a proper suit and being a proper, upstanding member of society.

Let that tide you over until I write a real, fancy blog post.

Confessions

I am tired. Bone-weary, I sit and stare at the computer screen. My fingers move sluggishly across the keyboard in a slow dance. Words flow like treacle.

But my brain, it jumps and capers, jibbers and howls. It keeps focusing on other things to write, on other ideas. I corral it into shape but soon it flitters away to focus on something new. I have ideas. So many that flow past like leaves upon a river’s rapids. Some are pulled, sodden and messy, from the water. Others are allowed to float past.

Each is soon put back into the water as interest wanes.

This state of mind is not good. It is not productive. And yet…

And yet it persists.

I know why it is here. I am caught in the midst of a great personal undertaking. But I would rather, in my selfishness and naivety, that it were not so. My mind longs for the heady pleasure of creative writing. Even that is corrupted. Riven by guilt. Riven by doubt. Riven and gnawed through by notions of duty.

I try to save creative writing as the reward for work accomplished but my mind tries to drive me in this direction regardless. Even then, even still, it will not focus on these new ideas. Self-questioning, self-doubt, these worms have dug deep. Each new idea seems cliché or trite. What is the purpose? What is the relevance? Where is the deeper meaning? These questions pierce even the greatest armour.

My mind longs for a time without questions of relevance, of purpose. Why? Why? Why? The same questions over and over again.

I am dogged by this refrain. I come to peace with it, give it answers. For a time it is pacified, but then it comes shuffling back, resurrected by my subconscious.

For the moment the questions are silent, but the restlessness remains.

One hundred words before reward. This is all that remains.

Those one hundred words seem like one hundred miles of waterless wastes to my thirst-addled mind.

Thunder at Seasbury Moor

Hello, friends. It has been a while. I could make excuses for my absence. I could make excuses for my silence. But I am lazy and therefore will not.

I decided to do something a little different with the blog today. A quote danced in my head while I took a short break from the library earlier. I explored that quote and this little piece of flash fiction was born as a means of escape from dusty research.

The story is set in an original universe that has surfaced a time or two on the blog before.

Without further ado, here you are treated to ‘Thunder at Seasbury Moor’.

He was alone. The air was humid, rife with clogging warmth. The gentle drone of ambitious midges flitted through the still air of the tent. Seasbury Moor. The name made the place sound pleasant. It conjured images of a pleasant bit of flat land near to the sea. The reality was anything but. It was a blasted heath, coated in gently waving heather, thick thorny spinegorse. The ground was split by boulders and by defiles. Now it played host to a few thousand soldiery of the Glorious Union.

The maps before him were sodden lank things. He stared at them and swigged from a flask, hoping to derive some meaning, to gain some insight. They were ill-drawn things. They were crafted by some hand nearly a century before, the work of a missionary seeking to spread Reason’s holy light to these benighted places. In short, nothing you’d want to plan a campaign from.

But that is what Lord Captain-General Benedick Shrewe was forced to do. Thunder rumbled in the distance. It had done so at this time for the past twelve nights. It made the regiments nervous, ill-disciplined and superstitious. That was the problem with troops raised from the slums of Shack. They were barely better than the thrice-damned Inlanders they hunted. Shrewe wished the thunder would go away. He wished he would go away. Away from this misty, humid upland region at the back-end of the Union. But the Inlanders had risen and Reason called.

Alas, he was trapped, bound by the duty entrusted to him by the Inviolate Council of the Glorious Union. So Lord Captain-General Benedick Shrewe stared at a map made by a missionary who had never been within a hundred miles of the Inlands.

The thunder rumbled again. Shouting cut underneath the deep rumble. Shrewe ignored it. Damned Shack savages. They jumped at everything.

He stared until the lines became squiggles, until the thunder became a constant rumble.

Something tickled at his consciousness. Something to do with the sounds. Someone kept shouting outside. Someone else screamed, high and wailing. Shrewe had half a mind to go out and berate his men, but there were loftier things to attend to.

A thunder-clap sounded perilously close and now there was the sound of branches breaking, of little twigs snapping over and over.

Sweat trickled down Shrewe’s forehead, reaching into his mustache, dripping onto the map spread before him. The ink, cheap, mass-manufactured stuff ran in blotchy circles. He tugged at his collar and removed his cap, the feather drooping in the air. He puffed out a breath and hoped for the damn storm to break and take away the heat.

Light bloomed in the tent as a little hole peppered its way through the canvas. A zipping sound cut through the air near his ear, followed by another. Something punched Shrewe in the gut, where a speckle of light poked at his stomach. He looked down. He felt hurt, bewildered.

He felt like he had been shot, but that was patently ridiculous. Lord Captain-Generals were not shot inside their tents.

He reassured himself that there was no blood, not that he would have been able to see it against the deep red of his uniform. There was a little hole in his coat though. That would require mending, he felt the thought blunder into his brain. The thought brought pain, deep and lancing.

The tent flap opened and an unfamiliar man stepped in. The man was bald and filthy. He wore no uniform. The man raised a hand in half-hearted greeting. Shrewe noted through the pain that the man had no fingers on his hand, just a solitary crooked thumb.

Shrewe fell backwards, flat on his arse. The other man made no attempt to help him up. He just cocked his head and stared. His eyes were shit-brown. The man stepped towards Shrewe.

The Lord Captain-General tried to scramble backwards but found himself unable to move. The ground felt wet around him, like he sat in a puddle of water. That made no sense though, since it wasn’t raining.

The unfamiliar man spoke, ‘You know who I am?’ His accent was rough, thick with the slums and guttural with the affectations of the Inlands.

Shrewe couldn’t answer. He could barely see and a sudden thirst clutched at his mouth.

The man sighed. ‘They never do seem to know,’ he mused to himself.

Shrewe’s mouth filled with wet iron. ‘Who?’ he might have spluttered if his voice hadn’t been stolen by coughing.

The unfamiliar man flashed an ugly grin, lopsided and filled with missing teeth. ‘Me?’ He said. ‘They call me No Luck Jaq. I’d say I was pleased to meet you, but I would hate to lie.’

The thunder outside ceased but Shrewe couldn’t hear it. He couldn’t hear anything past the laboured thunder of his heartbeat. The unfamiliar man, No Luck Jaq, came forward and put his foot on Shrewe’s gut. He leaned down close to Shrewe’s face and gusted a rotten breath out.

Shrewe coughed little red flecks all over Jaq’s face.

Jaq cursed and walked away, whatever words he’d meant to say abandoned. He left the tent.

Shrewe closed his eyes.

He was alone. The air was humid and muggy and still. He could see a map, inscribed in the bursts of light that danced in the darkness.

His last thoughts were of thunder.

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