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How many literary families can you think of? The Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, the Bucket family in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and even the corrupt Corleone family in The Godfather were characters who added vitality and realism to their authors’ fictional worlds. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, your family is a helpful resource. Whether your own family is traditional, avant-garde, or just plain dysfunctional, they are always there to provide ideas for your writing.  

Carol Sperling wore three proverbial hats at the Saturday, July 8 meeting of the Southwest Manuscripters writers' club. She is our club President, but she also served as our three-minute reader as well as our guest speaker. For her three-minute piece, Carol told us about recent travails and incidents in her life and her family’s life. For her guest speaker presentation, Carol shared family stories from the days of the Wild West up to the 21st century. She enhanced her presentation with slides, vintage photos, and artifacts that made us feel like we were stepping back in time.

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On Saturday, November 12, 2016, author Mel Gilden regaled the Southwest Manuscripters with tales from his writing career. Mel is the author of more than forty novels. Among his most recent books are The Jabberwock Came Whiffling, Dangerous Hardboiled Magicians, and The Accidental Time Cadet (each available from Wildside Press). Mel has also written a fantasy mystery trilogy (Surfing Samurai Robots, Hawaiian UFO Aliens, and Tubular Android Superheroes) featuring a hard-boiled alien detective.

Mel began his presentation by recalling the first time he attended a meeting of the Blustering Gales from the South-West (the Sherlock Holmes club that our President, Carol Sperling, helms as our “Diaboli”). Mel was invited to a Gales meeting by Mike Hodel (his co-host of the science fiction radio show Hour 25). The guest speaker at that meeting was Frankie Thomas, the actor who starred in the television show Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. Hodel had promised to buy Mel’s dinner that night, should he not enjoy the Gales meeting. Fortunately, Mel loved every minute of it.

Mel was inspired by Carol’s story of driving in the fog to tell his own “fog story.” One night, after a meeting of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, Mel volunteered to drive a young lady home from the LASFS clubhouse. When they reached the 20th Century Fox studios, Mel realized that (because of the fog) he had driven in the opposite direction from the lady’s home and became thoroughly lost. He was eventually able to take her home safely. Mel commented on Manuscripter Robert Reed’s story (which had won an award in our short fiction contest before Mel’s presentation) about an eagle who volunteers to protect defenseless chickens from other eagles. The story reminded Mel of the classic Walt Disney short film Lambert the Sheepish Lion, about a lion who is raised by sheep and saves his flock from wolves. “It must be a very old story,” Mel said.

I asked Mel the same question I asked him back in 1988, when I was enrolled in a Literature of Science Fiction class at El Camino College, taught by author and English Professor Sheila Finch: “How has Daniel M. Pinkwater influenced your writing?” Mel discovered Pinkwater’s work when he was working for the Los Angeles Times. An Hour 25 listener sent Mel a copy of Pinkwater’s humorous young adult adventure novel The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Mel loved his books and even had the chance to interview Pinkwater on the radio. Mel’s young adult novel The Return of Captain Conquer is (in part) inspired by Pinkwater’s work. Mel learned that “writing funny is really hard.” Mel suggests that beginning writers retype passages from their favorite author to get a sense of how the author uses words and punctuation. Mel tried this technique with one of his favorite books: Lonesome Dove by western author Larry McMurtry.

Mel had a wonderful childhood, and worried that this would not engender enough inspiration for good stories. Mel asked science fiction author Harlan Ellison what he should do, and Ellison told Mel to “write what you know.” As a result, Mel wrote the horror story “The Bridge is Out. You’ll Have to Spend the Night,” which is based on Mel’s relationship with his little brother. Mel followed up this story with a story inspired by The Twilight Zone that he sent to a potential publisher. Then he waited for a reply. “There is a lot of waiting involved if you are a freelance author,” Mel says. Finally, Mel received a letter announcing the magazine he sent the story to had gone out of business. Mel’s reaction was “oh my gosh, I murdered a magazine!” Mel’s first professional sale was the short story “What About Us Grils?” (which he wrote at the Clarion Science Fiction Writers workshop in Pennsylvania). The story is about an alien species with four genders. Mel has had interesting encounters with his fellow science fiction writers. One day, Mel visited the Santa Monica Public Library and saw a man wearing shorts and sitting on a wall. The man was legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury. Ellison and Kate Wilhelm were two of Mel’s instructors at the Clarion workshop. Ellison is “not the easiest guy to get along with,” but Mel has a good relationship with him: “There are a lot of things you can get away with if he likes you and trusts you.” Mel once visited the home of Bob Burns, a collector of science fiction film memorabilia. Burns invited Mel to sit in the time machine prop from the film The Time Machine (based on H. G. Wells’ novel). A photo of Mel in the time machine appears on his website (www.melgilden.com) and on the dust jacket for Mel’s novel The Pumpkins of Time.

Mystery writer Lawrence Block said “Not just any clown can write a novel. It takes the right kind of clown.” Mel believes there is some truth in those words. At a party sponsored by the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, Mel met a fellow writer who complained about starting several novels, but not finishing them. “I didn’t want to be that guy,” Mel says. “The next time I started writing a novel, I finished it.” After visiting the Jack London room in the Oakland Public Library and finding a glass case filled with hundreds of rejection letters sent to London by potential publishers, Mel realized that the professional writer must accept rejection. After writing several additional novels, Mel began to search for a literary agent. How does a writer get the attention of an agent? “Wave twenty-dollar bills at them,” Mel says. After writing The Return of Captain Conquer and selling it to publisher Houghton Mifflin, Mel’s longtime agent agreed to take him on as a client.

Mel uses his childhood memories to inspire his stories. Mel comes from a Jewish background, and sold a story based on Jewish folklore to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His novel Harry Newberry and the Raiders of the Red Drink is based on the fruity red drink that his mother served his family at dinner. When the drink was nearly depleted, his mother would replenish the pitcher with more red drink. Mel’s novel is based on the idea that the mysterious red drink has the power to grant super powers. Mel could always trust his mother to render an honest opinion about his writing: “She would let me know what she liked or didn’t like about my work.” Thank you to Mel Gilden for letting the Southwest Manuscripters come along on your writing journey through time and space. Live Long and Prosper!  

When Sherlock Holmes fans think about Walt Disney animated films based on the Holmes canon, they naturally think of The Great Mouse Detective, the 1986 film based on Eve Titus’s novel Basil of Baker Street. According to a Los Angeles Times article, several Disney employees were dismayed when the company decided to change the title of this film from Basil of Baker Street to The Great Mouse Detective, based on the fear that audience members would not associate the names Basil or Baker Street with detective fiction or Sherlock Holmes. The article lists a number of alternative titles for Disney films invented by employees as a way of lampooning their bosses’ decision. One example is the 1977 animated film The Rescuers. The title listed in the article is Two Mice Save a Girl. Fortunately, The Rescuers did not suffer the kind of title change that The Great Mouse Detective suffered.

The Rescuers, which is also based on a series of children’s’ books, was one of two 1977 films that captured my interest. The other film, Star Wars, is also about the rescue of a damsel in distress. Basil was also the first in a series of novels: Titus wrote five other books featuring Basil. The Rescuers is based on a series of books written by a British author, Margery Sharp, between 1959 and 1978. The first novel, The Rescuers, is (not unlike Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories) intended for an adult audience. In Sharp’s case, her book became much more popular with children. A list of Sharp’s books featuring the mice Miss Bianca and Bernard reads almost like a list of Sherlock Holmes pastiches: The Rescuers, Miss Bianca, The Turret, Miss Bianca in the Salt Mines, Miss Bianca in the Orient, Miss Bianca in the Antarctic, Miss Bianca and the Bridesmaid, Bernard the Brave, and Bernard into Battle. Like Basil and his Watsonian companion, Dawson, Miss Bianca and Bernard are mice with a mission. In the books, they are agents of the Prisoner’s Aid Society. In the movie (and its sequel, The Rescuers Down Under), they are agents of the Rescue Aid Society.

           Six Degrees of Separation refers to a theory espoused in the 1920s by Frigyes Karinthy, claiming that everyone and everything in the world is six or fewer steps away. Seventy years later, a parlor game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon was invented. The game is based on the belief that anyone in the Hollywood film industry can be linked through their film roles to the actor Kevin Bacon within six steps. In the spirit of Six Degrees of Separation and Six Degress of Kevin Bacon, I offer these thoughts on the similarities between two of my loves: The Rescuers and Sherlock Holmes.   

           The Rescuers begins with a little girl named Penny writing a note, putting it in a bottle, and dropping it off the balcony of a riverboat. Notice that in the Victorian Era, lurid novels were often called Penny Dreadfuls. Also, the abandoned riverboat on which Penny is held captive represents the steam-powered technology that characterized the Victorian Era. The bottle takes a long journey and winds up on a beach, where it is found by mice. The mice take it to the headquarters of a secret society called the Rescue Aid Society. Remember that Basil and Dawson live in the nooks and crannies of human society. In fact, the two mice are based at 221B Baker Street, the famous address of Sherlock Holmes. In a similar vein, the Rescue Aid Society meets in an old suitcase in the basement of the United Nations building in New York City. Although the first film takes place in 1897 and the second film is possibly set in the 1970s, it can be postulated that both films take place in the same fictional world. The mice of the Rescue Aid Society could even have been inspired by the exploits of Basil and Dawson.

           In Sharp’s original novel, Miss Bianca is a British aristocrat. In fact, she lives apart from the other mice in a porcelain pagoda, and wears an expensive silver chain around her neck. In the film, Bianca is the Hungarian delegate to the RAS, which makes sense, because Eva Gabor voices the character. Still, the filmic Bianca sports a pillbox hat, which reminds us of Jaqueline Onassis and suggests this is a high-born mouse. In both the novels and the film, Bernard is a humble everymouse. In Disney’s version, he is not even a field agent; he’s a janitor. His job is to keep the RAS meeting hall (the suitcase) clean and tidy. Bianca investigates the note in the bottle and discerns that it was written by a little girl. The Chairmouse (who has a haughty, Nigel Bruce-like, British accent) asks Bianca to choose a co-agent. Every red-blooded, male RAS agent has fallen for Bianca, just as I did when I first saw the movie. Therefore, everyone raises their hand. Bianca shocks the crowd by choosing Bernard to be her co-agent.

           If we substitute Bianca for Holmes and Bernard for Watson, we can see the Sherlockian connection to The Rescuers even more clearly. Sharp describes Bernard as a “humble pantry mouse.” Like Watson, Bernard is competent, but no match for Bianca and her superior skills of observation and detection. In addition, Bernard is triskaidekaphobic; that is, he is afraid of the number 13. Bernard encounters the dreaded number three times in the movie: first, the ladder he uses to retrieve Penny’s note from the bottle has 13 steps (or 13 teeth, because the ladder is actually a comb). Second, when climbing the ramp to board Orville the Albatross, Bernard notices the ramp has 13 steps. Third, at the end of the movie, after Penny has been rescued, Bernard and Bianca are required to embark on a second mission. The only trouble is the mission starts on the 13th of the month. What does Bianca think of Bernard’s superstition? She dismisses it, but cares enough for her co-agent to help him work through his phobia. When they climb the boarding ramp, she suggests that Bernard jump the 13th step. This reminds me of Holmes’s skepticism toward the occult. While Watson is not necessarily phobic, he is more gullible than Holmes in the face of so-called supernatural phenomenon, such as the Hound of the Baskervilles. Remember Holmes’ famous comment about supernatural solutions to mysteries: “No ghost need apply.”

After the two mice analyze Penny’s note, they set off to solve the mystery and save the girl. Their first stop is the orphanage that Penny was kidnapped from, where they interview Penny’s best friend, a cat named Rufus. Their next stop is Madame Medusa’s Pawn Shop Boutique, an establishment run by the kidnapper and her accomplice, Mr. Snoops. The name Snoops is interesting because this is what detectives do: they snoop.

Bernard and Bianca overhear Medusa’s telephone conversation with Snoops. After trying and failing to hitch a ride on Medusa’s car, the mice decide to travel by air. They book a flight with Albatross Airlines, and their pilot, Orville the Albatross, becomes their captain and conveyance to Devil’s Bayou, where Penny is being held captive aboard the riverboat. Orville’s name is, of course, a reference to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s famous flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Like the riverboat, Orville’s name is an homage to Victorian (and post-Victorian) technology and innovation.

Of all the ways they could get to Devil’s Bayou (which I assume is in the Florida Everglades), the two mice choose an Albatross. Could this be another nod to the British Isles, the place that birthed Sherlock Holmes? “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the longest poem written by British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem, published in 1798, is about a crew whose ship is stuck in an ice jam. An albatross appears and leads them out of the ice jam. The title character later shoots the albatross with a crossbow, and the other sailors punish him by forcing him to wear the bird around his neck. In The Rescuers, Medusa shoots fireworks at Orville, and is punished when her kidnapping plan is foiled.

After Bernard and Bianca take to the air, their romance begins to emerge against the backdrop of Carol Connors’s song “Tomorrow is Another Day.” Let’s not forget that “Tomorrow is another day” is the catch phrase of another Victorian-era character: Scarlett O’Hara. Another Connors song from The Rescuers, “Someone’s Waiting for You,” was nominated for an Academy Award in 1977. The name Carol Connors also reminds us that the Diaboli of the Blustering Gales from the South-West is named Carol Sperling. Coincidence? I think not. 

My Sherlock Holmes allegory needs a Professor James Moriarty, and I believe Madame Medusa is a perfect fit. Like Moriarty, she maintains her criminal activities while holding down a legitimate – or at least legal – profession in her nation’s urban hub. Moriarty is a college professor in London, and Medusa is a pawn shop owner in New York. Medusa is also a possible sociopath: she functions in legitimate society, but her greed causes her to kidnap a little girl. Why does Medusa need Penny? It turns out that Devil’s Bayou is the location of a priceless diamond called the Devil’s Eye. Unfortunately, the Devil’s Eye is located in a cave called the Black Hole, the entrance to which is too small to admit an adult. So, Medusa sends Penny into the Hole to find the diamond. Medusa gets Penny to enter the Hole by threatening to permanently separate her from her beloved Teddy Bear, whose name happens to be Teddy. Remember that Teddy Roosevelt was President of the United States from 1901 to 1909, and that Holmes meets Roosevelt in at least one pastiche.

The name Devil’s Bayou reminds me of the restaurant at Disneyland called Blue Bayou, but it also sets the stage for Medusa’s evil. So does the name the Devil’s Eye. In fact, the names of the bayou and the diamond remind us of the Holmes story “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.” The name the Black Hole also reminds me of the bad 1979 Star Wars rip-off, titled The Black Hole. Now that Disney owns the rights to Star Wars, they no longer have to rip it off with stinkers such as this. They can now make official Star Wars stinkers.

When Bernard and Bianca arrive at Devil’s Bayou, they enlist the help of several so-called swamp critters, including a dragonfly named Evinrude. Evinrude serves as a kind of living outboard motor. Not coincidentally, Evinrude is the name of a company that produces outboard motors. This is the only instance I can recall of a character who is named after a product, and not the other way around. At one point, Evinrude is almost eaten by bats on his way to deliver a message from the mice to their swamp critter allies. Let’s not forget that in The Great Mouse Detective, the toymaker Hiram is adducted by a peg-legged bat who works for Ratigan (the film’s stand-in for Moriarty). The other swamp critters include a rodent couple, Luke and Ellie Mae, who are like distant Southern cousins to Bernard and Bianca. Luke has a taste for moonshine, which prompted one viewer to complain to the Los Angeles Times that watching The Rescuers may cause her young girl to take a shine (no pun intended) to alcohol. Another swamp critter is a turtle named Gramps. Gramps wears a gray kepi (a regimental cap worn by Confederate soldiers). Could Gramps be a Civil War veteran, and perhaps someone who remembers the era of Sherlock Holmes and Basil of Baker Street? Remember that Great Britain was sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and this fact inspired the Sherlockian pastiche Enter the Lion, written by Mike Hodel and Sean Wright.

For those of you who have not seen The Rescuers, I will not give away the ending here. Rest assured the film has a happy ending, and nobody’s mother is killed by a hunter. I will leave you one more piece of data to digest. In one scene, after Bernard and Bianca have suffered a defeat at the hands of the broom- and shotgun-toting Medusa, Bianca says: “If I were a ten-foot mouse, I would show her a thing or two.” Bianca’s fantasy may remind us of the giant rodents in Stephen King’s short story “Graveyard Shift,” but it should also remind us of Sherlock Holmes’s lost case: “The Giant Rat of Sumatra.” Once you see The Rescuers, you may find more comparisons with the Holmes canon. This essay is only the beginning. After all, tomorrow is another day.

             It was the twelfth of February, in the year 2016, when three intrepid adventurers stepped over the threshold of a magical citadel in the land of Los Angeles. This citadel is very close to a way station where visitors from other lands arrive in Los Angeles via flying carriages. The citadel is known as the Hilton Los Angeles Airport. The adventurers I speak of are myself (Dean of Lizardo), my wife (Aileen of Baldric) and my best friend (Tony of Lee). Each of us is skilled in the art of chronicling our adventures for the benefit of future generations. Tony and I had taken this journey many times before. As for my wife, this was Aileen’s first such foray.

           We were at the Hilton to enjoy the company of others in playing and discussing adventure games: that is, role-playing games, war games, card games, computer games, and board games. When I was but a young lad, I told a Chess player that I preferred war games to Chess. He retorted with the assertion that “Chess was one of the first war games.” This is true, but games such as GURPS, Car Wars, and Squad Leader transport the player to other places and times. Players get to step into the role of a larger-than-life persona (a paranormal researcher in Call of Cthulhu, a military unit in The Russian Campaign, or even a globe-spanning cabal in Illuminati). If you are unfamiliar with these games, go ahead and conjure the magical entity called Google; I will wait. What you will find reminds me of the great scribe Walt Whitman’s response when he was accused of contradicting himself: “I am large. I contain multitudes.” These games plumb depths of the imagination only skimmed by Chess. They transport players to specific and lovingly-defined worlds, and those worlds truly contain multitudes: multiple opportunities to change history with heat-of-the-moment, heart-in-the-throat decisions, and multiple opportunities to shape the destinies of “fictional” heroes; when a player makes a decision in a war game or a role-playing game, his or her character (or army, or cabal) often gets famous or gets dead. The games’ stakes mirror the real-life stakes we all risk when we don our armor each morning. The word “stake” reminds me of a joke about the high stakes of vampire hunting, but I digress.    

The Orccon event was organized by a fine and upstanding guild that is well-known to any gamer who travels the byways of the Kingdom of California. The guild is known as Strategicon, and a representative of the guild, Lady Mei Dean Francis, graciously invited us to the February event, which is called Orccon. Lady Mei invited us because of our skills as scribes, and I am indebted to Aileen and Tony for helping me commit these words to parchment. The tardiness of this scroll is solely my fault (too much time in the alehouses and not enough time with quill and ink).

The name “Orccon” is indeed apropos, because it contains the suffix “con,” and what we experienced was indeed a game convention (as explained on the cover of the “program” tomes we were issued upon arrival). As for the prefix “orc,” our party was fortunate, because we lingered at the Hilton from the twelfth day of February to the fifteenth, and caught nary a whiff of an orc. If you are yourself an orc, please do not take offense: I believe I can detect an orc from their smell, but I suspect orcs would say the same thing about me. Anyway, we did not spot any orcs, but we did encounter other travelers: many of these journeymen (and women) call themselves gamers, and are at the Hilton to play games. Others, who gather in the jeweled halls called the Dealers’ Room and Flea Market, devise new and enticing engines of gaming, and sell their wares for fair prices; that is, one does not need to burden a donkey’s back with gold before venturing therein to purchase games. 

My companions and I have other skills that I will tell you of now: I and my lovely bride are members of the Educators’ Guild (although Aileen teaches younglings, which I believe requires more skill, patience and constitution than teaching one’s fellow adults). As for my trusty shield-man Tony, he is a member of the Game Designers’ Guild. As such, Tony is particularly well-met when skulking through the august halls of a Strategicon event. As a case in point, I give you this: having passed through the gates of the Hilton citadel merely a cock’s crow earlier, my stalwart companion was hailed from across the room with a hearty “Ho! Art thou truly Tony of Lee? I hath not cast my eyes upon your visage in a dragon’s age!” Embracing him, Tony’s friend Marcello exclaimed to his companions, “Dost thou know who this is? I say truly, he is the co-designer of the WWE Know Your Role professional wrestling role-playing game!” Tony blushingly admitted his fame. My friend later told me the adventurer who recognized him is a member of the Game Distributors’ Guild. Tony agreed to meet Marcello that evening to cross flagons in the Hilton’s ground-floor alehouse. Afterwards, Aileen and I joined Tony in a short trek outside the Hilton and across the Road of Century to sup on food from the faraway realm of Thailand.

           If you think my wife immune to such recognitions from fellow Orccon travelers, you would be mistaken. The very next day, our party reassembled to explore the Dealers’ Room. Our eyes met the glittering goodies at the Dapper Devil booth. This company makes game accessories such as laser-engraved plastic and metal markers and tokens. The proprietors of this company are Lord and Lady Godbey. Lady Rebecca Godbey recognized Aileen because both are educators in the fair Realm of El Segundo (also in the Kingdom of California). Tony and I were enthralled by the Godbeys’ products. Being an avid fan of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, I was drawn to the fear markers. For those readers who don’t know, a character in Call of Cthulhu must protect against losing one’s sanity when encountering the monstrosities forged in H.P. Lovecraft’s mind. Perhaps another way to explain it is this: how would you or your character be affected by attending a show performed by the bard called Justin Bieber? ‘Tis the same thing. 

           Our adventures in the Dealers’ Room did not end there. The learned scribe and artist David Jones taught me how to play Capere, which looks like Checkers but allows players to eliminate each other’s men-of-war in more devious ways. Paul Ali, the designer of Capere, was also on hand to teach us how to play his game. The stalwart magicians from Gate Keeper Games demonstrated how to play The King’s Armory, a game with adventures to be had and castle keeps to be looted. Knowing my proclivity for all things shambling and gibbering, Tony traded some of his gold to buy me a copy of Cards of Cthulhu, a game created by Dan Verssen and published by Dan Verssen Games. Thank you, my trusted man-at-arms!  

           As the weekend concluded, we met and talked with artist Eric Kelly. Eric is one of those wonderful heroes one looks forward to meeting at a Strategicon event: one who shares their talent and intelligence with others. Eric makes one-of-a-kind treasures such as wall hangings, drink coasters, and medallions from Peeler colored plastic beads. Eric’s company is called Quad Nine Art. Please sample his creations using the magic of the Internet. You will be enthralled.

I had journeyed to this fair event called Orccon back in the lauded age of heroes many call the 1980s (this previous adventure having been chronicled under the title “The Games People Play)”, and Lady Francis asked me how the 2016 event compared to the earlier foray. The main difference I noticed was the proliferation of new, up-and-coming game designers and companies. Thanks to the world-spanning enchantments of the Internet (and one particular wizarding guild known as Kickstarter), these designers are able to raise enough gold pieces to bring new and exciting game ideas to the hordes of gamers who are ready to play them. The ancient guilds of sorcery, with oft-whispered names like TSR, Avalon Hill, and Games Workshop appear to have stepped aside to allow the young practitioners to use their staffs and wands. Methinks this is a positive development: back in the village of Inglewood where I was raised, my parents told me the story of the giant boulder that rolled downhill. Such a boulder “gathers no moss,” they would say, meaning as long as the rock keeps moving, shrubbery would not stick to it. I believe the magic of gaming lurks in the truism that gamers keep rolling toward their destinies: they use tried and true methods, aye; but they also squeeze new wine into the oilskins of their hobby. I say “Huzzah! This is a good thing!”


John Haslett, a self-described “modern-day expeditioner,” astonished the Southwest Manuscripters at the Peninsula Center Library in Rancho Palos Verdes, California on Friday, November 16, 2007 with tales from his extraordinary life. Despite his modesty, Haslett can more accurately be described as a real-life Indiana Jones. Like Harrison Ford’s fictional alter ego, Haslett has spent much of his life uncovering secrets about ancient cultures. In his 2006 memoir, Voyage of the Manteno, Haslett describes two perilous sea voyages he has taken aboard small, dangerous, homemade balsa rafts.

    Why would a man risk life and limb to embark upon such voyages? In 1995, and again in 1998, Haslett set out on these excursions into the murky unknown to help prove the theory that the Manteno people of ancient Ecuador were, in fact, a successful seafaring culture. In 1995, Haslett journeyed to the remote Ecuadorian town of Salango, where descendants of the first Manteno mariners still lived, to build his first balsa raft. Inspired by fellow expeditioner Thor Heyerdahl, whose own voyage is chronicled in the book Kon-Tiki, Haslett successfully built his own 30,000 pound raft, the Illa-Tiki. Even with the help of the locals, Haslett found the construction of such a craft a difficult experience. Actually launching and sailing the Illa-Tiki would prove to be even more daunting for Haslett. At least one villager asked Haslett the question, “Can you swim? What will you do when that thing sinks?” Undaunted, Haslett and his small crew launched their homemade vessel. It took Haslett and his indigenous volunteers five hours to push the raft into the water, and Haslett ended up spending 38 days at sea, en route to Hawaii.

    10,000 indigenous people came to the town of Salango to witness Haslett embark upon the same voyage that their ancient ancestors made. Annie Biggs, a cinematographer, had agreed to document Haslett’s voyage and turn it into a documentary. The two became friends, and Haslett ended up marrying her before the launch of his first voyage. Mrs. Haslett’s documentary became a two-hour television special, which aired on the Outdoor Life Network.

    Cooking on board the raft involved “cutting a hole, putting in stones, and lighting them,” just the way the ancient Manteno people accomplished it. To steer, Haslett and his crewmates used cinder boards (called “guaras” in Spanish), which they pushed down between the balsa logs that made up the hull of their vessel. This is one example of Haslett’s obsession with sailing his vessels exactly the way the ancient Manteno people did, with the same materials and technology that these ancient mariners utilized.

    The Illa-Tiki ended its short life on the Azuero Peninsula in Panama, fated never to reach Hawaii. After the mutinous behavior of a crewmate and an attack by wood-eating Teredo navalis (shipworms), Haslett accepted the fact that his expedition would never reach its destination. However, after uncovering the existence of Manteno “axe money” coins in Acapulco, Haslett developed his theory that the Manteno people had established a seagoing trade route to the ancient site of the Mexican city. There was only one way to prove his theory. Haslett built and launched his second balsa raft, the Manteno, in 1998.

   To call the voyage of the Manteno ill-fated would be an understatement. Besides the continued plague of shipworms, the crew found themselves marooned in the “wettest place on earth” near the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. Haslett and his five crewmates (which now included fellow expeditioner Dr. Cameron MacPherson-Smith) found themselves stuck in “Camp Hardcore,” completely isolated from the rest of the world. With the help of the locals, whose ancestry goes back to African slaves who managed to escape the Spaniards, Haslett and his crew rebuilt the Manteno over a period of two months.

    The Manteno II was built and launched in 1999. This time, the raft was caught in the maelstrom known as the Gyre, which brings to mind William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming”:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer… Things fall apart, the center cannot hold…”

Haslett’s third voyage did indeed fall apart in the Gyre, and he was forced to do what every self-respecting expeditioner hates to do: call in a rescue. Nevertheless, Haslett felt that the lives of his crew were in jeopardy, so he called in a rescue on the raft’s primitive radio. The Manteno II’s crew was rescued by the Costa Rican Coast Guard, just minutes before their flimsy vessel was lost to the Gyre and the violent sea.

    Haslett returned to the arms of his beloved Annie, and filed a report on his latest voyage with the Royal Geographic Society. Haslett plans to stare down death’s gullet again, by building and sailing another balsa raft. Haslett expects this 6,000 pound monster to take him to Polynesia, finally proving the theory that the Manteno people traded with the ancient Polynesians. This time, Haslett will act upon his theory that the Manteno people mined tar from the forest, and coated their rafts with it to keep them safe from water and Shipworms. Heyerdahl had coated the Kon-Tiki with tar, but covered up this information, thinking that this technique was beyond the reach of the ancient Ecuadorians whose voyages he attempted to duplicate. According to Haslett, Heyerdahl’s mistake was to underestimate the ancients. The Manteno did indeed coat their rafts with tar, and by duplicating this technique, Haslett expects his next voyage to be a success.

    The process of writing and publishing Voyage of the Manteno was an ordeal in and of itself for Haslett. He wrote a proposal, and St. Martin’s Press gave him a modest advance of $15,000 to write the book. After five years, Haslett had produced a 500-page manuscript. After reading it, Haslett realized he would have to start from scratch. After fourteen more months, Haslett presented a second draft to his editor, Marc Resnik. Resnik came back with eighteen major corrections. After much more work, Haslet produced a 430-page manuscript that he could live with. He feels that the published book could still use another edit, but all in all, Haslett is pleased with his work. Fortunately for us, Haslett has produced a detailed but highly-readable account of his adventures.

    The Southwest Manuscripters thank John Haslett for sharing his remarkable life with us. To keep up with John’s expeditions from the dry safety of your own home, please go to www.balsaraft.com.  

Rolling in the Aisles with Will Morton

           “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Anyone who has written comedy knows the accuracy of this quotation from actor Edmund Gwenn. Making your reader laugh is not an easy task. On Monday, January 18, 2016, writer, playwright, college professor, and stand-up comedian Will Morton spoke to the Southwest Manuscripters about the theory and practice of humorous writing. Will (who alluded to the fact he looks like a young version of country singer Kenny Rogers) was accompanied by his lovely wife, Yvonne. His talk was an eclectic exploration of the benefits of laughter and the techniques writers have used to make people laugh from the genesis of written literature to the twenty-first century.
           The slideshow Will used to illustrate his points began with illustrations of people laughing and the phrase “Fun Ahead.” This was an accurate foreshadowing of Monday evening’s event: Will engaged us in a serious discussion of the causes and effects of humor, but did so in a fun and funny way. He began by quizzing us on the ways we laugh: do we giggle, chuckle, or guffaw? Will showed an uncanny ability to tell (for example) which of us were “gigglers” just by looking at us. Will went on to explain the benefits of laughter: it relaxes the body, decreases our level of stress hormones, increases the number of immune cells in our body, eases anxiety and fear, and adds joy and zest to life.
           Will encouraged us to write a funny story, novel, play, screenplay, or joke, but at the same time cautioned us that “What works on the stage does not necessarily work on the page.” In other words, a joke or funny statement that causes a live audience to laugh may not cause a reader to laugh. Humorous writing must be tailored to the medium we use to convey it to our audience.
           Will explained the three basic theories of laughter. These are relief, superiority, and incongruity. The relief theory is based on the idea that laughter is a mechanism by which psychological tension is reduced. By beginning with a setup and leading up to a funny punch line, comedians like Steve Martin build up tension in the audience and then relieve it. The superiority theory is based on a person laughing at the misfortunes of another to feel superior. Slapstick is one way to apply the superiority theory. The incongruity theory is based on the difference between what we suspect and what actually happens. The resulting surprise causes the audience to laugh.
           Will gave us a great example of surprise in the form of the malapropism. This is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound. The malapropism is named for the character Mrs. Malaprop from The Rivals, a play by Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Here is a quotation from Mrs. Malaprop: “Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!” Huh? The malapropism is also known as the Dogberryism (named for the character Officer Dogberry from William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado about Nothing). One of Officer Dogberry’s famous lines is this: “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.” A cousin to the malapropism is the spoonerism, when corresponding consonants or vowels are switched between two words in a phrase. The Reverend William Archibald Spooner, Warden of New College, Oxford, was known for uttering phrases such as: “The Lord is a shoving leopard.”
           Will also explained other ways to use the surprise theory of humor: American professor of cognitive science Douglas Hofstadter used the terms kniferism and forkerism to refer to changing the syllables of two words, as in: “All the world was thrilled by the marriage of the Duck and Doochess of Windsor.” The pun (also called the paronomasia) is the suggestion of two or more meanings by exploiting multiple meanings or words or similar-sounding words. The use of puns is a long-standing tradition among science fiction fans and members of the Blustering Gales from the South-West Sherlock Holmes club. Will explained that “a pun differs from a malapropism because a pun involves expressions with multiple correct interpretations.” Will gave some wonderful (or perhaps punderful) examples, including this one: “Police were called to a daycare, where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.” Oh, and this one: “How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it.” Ouch.
           How does an author incorporate humor into his or her writing? Will discussed several methods, including dialogue, narration, plot, and character. Humorous dialogue can contain malapropisms, spoonerisms, puns, antanaclasis (the repetition of a word or phrase, but with a different meaning), banter, repartee, and hyperbole. Hyperbole is exaggerated description that has become a staple of classic American novels such as The Virginian by Owen Wister. Will gave us a great example of hyperbole from the American folktale “Babe the Blue Ox”: “Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”
         Will suggested the use of metaphors and similes when writing humorous narration. A metaphor is a comparison between two nouns. A simile is a comparison that uses the words “like” or “as.” The late comedian George Burns gave us this funny but true metaphor: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” Will gave us some great examples of simile, including: “Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.” Here is another one: “He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.” The hard-boiled detective author Raymond Chandler was a great source of metaphors and similes. Will gave us one from Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep: “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.”
           Will suggested some useful methods for creating humorous plots, including farce, irony, reframing, and comedy of manners. Farce comes from the French word, meaning “stuff” or “stuffing.” Will explained that the term refers to “the comic interludes of medieval French religious plays serving as light-hearted stuffing in between more serious drama.” Some examples of ironic (and therefore potentially funny) situations include a marriage counselor who files for divorce, an anti-technology website, and a pilot with a fear of heights. Reframing (or incongruous juxtaposition refers to “placing unlikely characters with unlikely motivations in unlikely circumstances.” Will explained that the English comedy of manners refers to comedy that “satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes, often represented by stereotypical stock characters.” In other words, “to make the real artificial and the artificial real.” As Will pointed out, the comedy of manners (as utilized by such greats as Oscar Wilde) is simply another application of the comedic theory of incongruity.
           Will gave us some wonderful examples of humorous characters, but began his discussion by referring to British actor Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean). In the documentary Funny Business, Atkinson pointed out that “an object or a person can become funny in three ways: by behaving in an unusual way, being in an unusual place, or being the wrong size.” Will gave us some examples of stock characters from The Characters by Theophrastus, including the insincere man, the flatterer, the boor, the fault-finder, the arrogant man, and the braggart (as exemplified by the character of Falstaff from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part One).
           There are certain kinds of humor Will does not use, and does not recommend. He does not suggest using vulgar or obscene humor or mean-spirited humor. He does not care for parody of literary tropes. Will gave an example in the form of Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by science fiction author John Scalzi. In the novel, Scalzi pokes fun at the idea that Starfleet crew members wearing red-shirted uniforms were often the first to die on the television series Star Trek. Will also advises against trying to prove how smart you are by writing comedy. He also suggests trying humorous banter in real life before committing it to the page and expecting your readers to laugh.
Will ended his presentation with a call to action: “Now it’s up to you… Write something funny! It could be a story, novel, play, screenplay, or joke.” Thank you to Will Morton for tickling our collective funny bones. You are a very punny sest geeker. I mean you are a very funny guest speaker!

Orccon: The Games People Play

The night of Friday, March 16th, 1990 was a busy one for the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers. On that night, hundreds of people suddenly overran the Hilton. The line at the reservation desk stretched rapidly to the door. The parking lot quickly filled to capacity, along with every empty parking space within a two-block radius. People invaded the hotel from all corners of the United States, and from as far away as Great Britain and Australia. They came carrying briefcases and boxes, suitcases and satchels. They varied in age from twelve to seventy. Most of them did not leave the hotel again until Monday morning. They came for one purpose.

They came to play games.

Presidents' Day weekend, 1990, marked the thirteenth annual Orccon strategy game convention. Orccon is one of several such gatherings that are organized every year. The convention's name is derived from the Orcs, a race of mythical creatures invented by British novelist J. R. R. Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings trilogy of books. The convention's organizers named it after the Orcs because they figure prominently in a popular game based loosely on Tolkien's works, called Dungeons and Dragons.

The first thing you notice when you walk in the door at Orccon is the registration table, located near the hotel's lobby. This is where you pay your admission fee, and pick up your name tag and your copy of the all-important convention program. The program includes a list of the convention's activities, a floor plan of the hotel, and advice such as "please do not overfill the hotel's elevators, because they do break down!"

For a twenty-dollar fee, a convention attendee may "preregister" for Orccon. This includes admission to each of the four-day convention's activities. More importantly, you are guaranteed the opportunity to play in four of the more than five hundred game tournaments that take place during the weekend. Although the prizes that are offered to the victors usually do not amount to much more than a cloth ribbon and one's name in print, the "garners" (as they prefer to be called) take these tournaments very seriously. Competition at Orccon is as stiff as a high-stakes Poker game. Unlike poker, however, no money changes hands during these tournaments. One gets the impression that the level of seriousness among the garners at Orccon could not be higher, even if money were involved.

"Everyone is basically here to have fun," says convention coordinator Alan Emrich, "but the desire to win is very strong."

The first day at Orccon was filled with activity, as game merchants set up their wares and the garners themselves searched the hotel to find out where their tournaments were being held. This was when the various local gamers' clubs began to recruit members, as they usually do, by posting advertisements on the bulletin boards that have been set up near the registration table. The level of excitement was high, as the gamers prepared to almost entirely neglect sleeping and eating for three days of straight gaming.

None of the organizers of Orccon seemed to be able to give a precise estimate of how many different types of games are played at the convention, but the closest figure that could be arrived at was at least a hundred. The games played at Orccon fell into three broad categories: board games, strategic simulation games, and role-playing games.

Board games are the games that most of us grew up playing, such as Monopoly, Risk!, Clue, Backgammon, and, of course, Chess. The Monopoly tournament was a particularly interesting spectacle: the creme de la creme of Monopoly players from across the United states assembled in one room, where they passed "Go," collected $200, and traded properties until well past midnight. When the tournament was over, all but four players had been eliminated. These four were instructed to return the following day for the final round, from which only one would emerge victorious.

Strategic simulation games are also called "war games," but the name is generally not used because it brings with it a violent connotation. As one player puts it, "We don't want people to confuse us with the guys who wear camouflage clothing and run around in the woods shooting paint pellets as each other." A strategic simulation game usually involves two players. The players assume the roles of the opposing sides in one of history's famous battles. The games are played on a surface roughly the size of a large chess board, printed with the actual terrain features of the historical battlefield. Each player is assigned a set of cardboard pieces, each of which represents an actual military unit that participated in the battle. A single game can last for several hours, until one player finally manages to outmaneuver her opponent and win.

Strategic simulation games have a certain perverse appeal. They allow a player to play the role of Napoleon at Waterloo, Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, or perhaps even Adolf Hitler at Stalingrad, and test his skills against other players. Some games are designed to favor the side that actually won the battle, making them more historically accurate, while others give both players an equal opportunity to win. One player compared the experience of playing these games to "adult toy soldiers."

Role-playing games are at the same time the most popular and the least understood games played at Orccon. They are usually not played on a game board. A typical role-playing game --if such a thing exists --involves four to six players, one of whom is designated the "game master." Each player portrays a different character, like actors following a script. The game master serves the dual purpose of screenwriter and director, creating and controlling the setting in which the characters find themselves. Depending on a particular game's setting, the players might portray gumshoe detectives in 1930's San Francisco, settlers in the Wild West, or Cold War spies engaged in international intrigue. There are no actual "winners" or "losers" in a role-playing game. A player's success is judged by how well her character dealt with the imaginary situation that the game master presented.

Dungeons and Dragons is by far the most widely-known role playing game. It is also the most controversial. The basic setting of Dungeons and Dragons is medieval Europe, with two major differences: mythical creatures such as fairies and unicorns actually exist, and ritualistic practices such as alchemy and witchcraft produce tangible results. Here lies the controversy: some fundamentalist Christian groups insist that Dungeons and Dragons is a threat to the mental health and emotional well-being of American youth. These critics point to the detailed references to witchcraft and black magic contained in the Dungeons and Dragons rule booklets, and claim that young people who play the game will be encouraged to practice such rituals. Advocates of the game point out that such practices were integral elements of medieval life, and the game should therefore address them. They also argue that all role-playing games are designed primarily for an adult audience, and that it is a parent's responsibility to restrict his child's undesirable behavior.

Mike Stackpole came to the Orccon convention as a representative of Flying Buffalo Incorporated, an Arizona firm the produces games such as Tunnels and Trolls (a role-playing game akin to Dungeons and Dragons). He vehemently disagrees with those who suggest that Dungeons and Dragons and other such games represent a threat to American youth: "Being calm about such a thing is not easy --the accusations made against role-playing games are often loaded with inaccuracies and emotional statements designed to distort the truth. In the six years that I've played role-playing games -- and I've played in London, Ottawa, and all over the United States -- I have yet to see a Black Mass even hinted at in a game."

Actual game-playing is merely one part of the Orccon convention experience. Out-of-print and hard-to-find games were bought and sold in the exhibitors' area, informally known as the "dealer's room." Several panel discussions, with names like "Gaming Industry News, Trends, and Gossip" and "Teaching History Using Board Games," were conducted throughout the weekend. High school teacher Gerald Decker conducted this latter seminar. Decker insists that board games and strategic simulation games can be valuable educational tools, if they are used properly. "It is one thing to tell elementary students about the battle of Gettysburg, but if they are allowed to play it out in a game, the subject will hold more interest for them."

On the morning of Monday, March 19th, 1990, the garners who invaded the Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers on Friday night began to go home, one by one. An airline pilot, languishing in the Hilton's lobby between flights, displayed a puzzled expression after hearing a winner gloat in the next room: "Look, your infantry is almost destroyed, and your cavalry will never be able to make it over those hills in time. Are you ready to surrender?"

The hotel's busboys swarmed from room to room, cleaning up the weekend's accumulation of debris. The tournament winners went home confident, and the losers went home hopeful about next time. The weekend's games belonged to the past.

Until next time, of course.

Backyard Treasures

The arrival of my fiancée from San Jose represents a new beginning.

Anhthao and I came here in the cab of a rented Budget truck, with the necessities of her life riding behind us. Once we arrived at our house in Inglewood, our neighbor helped us back our truck into the driveway. I took this as a sign that our suburban community accepts our union and is ready to help us embark upon this new leg of the journey we call our Love Adventure.

Anhthao has captured an array of birds — small ones such as finches and sparrows – with her camera since her arrival. Our backyard is full of them in the mornings. They hop among the grass, dandelions and weeds to search for worms.

During the past few weeks, they have found themselves moving in a labyrinth of tables, chairs, computer monitors, audiotapes, videotapes, DVDs, briefcases, musical instruments and toys. Some of this debris belongs to Anhthao (having moved here with her and not quite making the transition from truck to house), but most of it is mine: it has been temporarily moved outside so we can clean and paint our two guest rooms and garage.

Collecting things is a big part of my life. My collections began before I was born.

I inherited my mother’s collection of storybook dolls manufactured by the craftswoman and entrepreneur Madame Alexander when Mom died in 1994. I also inherited her collection of music boxes, bells and Christmas memorabilia. Since then, I have collected other meaningful things, including Star Wars toys, memorabilia from Walt Disney Studios’ 1977 animated film The Rescuers, autographed books, leather-bound books from Easton Press, original art, Van Gogh posters, and memorabilia related to the rock band Fleetwood Mac (including photos, fanzines, programs, books, magazines, and a tambourine).

This is not to say that other items once belonging to my parents don’t populate our backyard: Mom and Dad were (I have been told) keen fashion innovators.

One hot interior decoration trend they spearheaded in the 1960s was Chinese Modern. Mom treasured her Chinese Modern television, stereo, magazine rack and diorama. Each piece of furniture was designed to look like an ebony-lacquered, polished Chinese treasure box.

When I say “television” and “stereo,” you must cast your mind back to the time when these were heavy, bulky items.

Anhthao, a 95-pound woman, managed to wrestle the television, which is no longer in working order and weighs more than she does, into the backyard. I will carry it to its final resting place in our garage.

This material languishes for a short time in the backyard as the sorting process begins.

These treasures have shared storage space in our house for years with items of less importance. Since we began our renovation process, Anhthao and I have found receipts, IRS documents, pay stubs, notebooks, sketches, and several other types of written material. Some of this is stacked in boxes, others haphazardly filed in plastic bags.

On a recent morning, we awoke to the sound of thunder. We ran outside to see lightning on the horizon and feel cold rain streaming down upon our heads. Anhthao took action first, and immediately began cutting huge sheets of clear plastic from a gigantic roll. She started covering our backyard treasures with square sheets of plastic, and I followed in her footsteps, doing my best to keep up with her pace. I imagined us as a frontier couple trying to protect our crops from an impending frost.

I asked Anhthao where she found the roll of plastic sheeting. She had found it in our garage — it had been there for years, but was lost among the clutter. The rain forced me to cut the wheat from the chaff — many of the receipts and other documents were reduced to a papery stew, which is a good thing. No creative writing was lost, just the kind of writing that is collectively known as “red tape.”

Other items have found their way into our trash bins. The treasures — those items that have monetary worth, or, better, emotional value — have been cleaned up and brought into the garage or the house.

I have heard the old saying many times: don’t let your possessions take possession of you. I never really understood this saying until recently. We are still in the process of sorting through our backyard museum. This has not been the first storm that Anhthao and I have weathered together, and it won’t be the last.

I did learn one thing from this experience: the greatest treasure is something you cannot protect with sheets of plastic. It is something Anhthao and I share every day … it is love.

"Everything is true."

"Even false things?"

"Even false things are true?"

"How can that be?"

"I don't know man, I didn't do it."

This excerpt from a supposed interview with "Malacylpse the Younger" (aka Gregory Hill), the co-author of this wonderful book, expresses the ideas presented in the Principia Discordia (or How I Found Goddess and What I Did To Her When I Found Her) better than any review could.

What is the Principia and why has a game company published it? In the early seventies, conspiracy buff Kerry Wendell Thornley (who served in the Marine Corps with Lee Harvey Oswald) and Gregory Hill decided to express their thoughts on religion, secret societies, and life in general in book form. The result, penned by the pseudonymous "Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst" and "Malacylpse the Younger," is the Principia. Their book is presented as the "magnum opiate" of Discordianism, a religion and secret society devoted to the worship of Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos.

Now, twenty years later, the folks at Steve Jackson Games have done Discordians everywhere a service by publishing a new edition of the Principia. The Principia is important to boardgamers because, to put it plainly, Steve Jackson Games' Illuminati card game would not exist without it. The Principia inspired Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea to write the ultimate conspiracy novel, the Illuminatus! trilogy.

Illuminatus!, along with the Principia, inspired Jackson to design Illuminati. (Never mind that the Principia also directly inspired such high weirdness as the Church of the SubGenius and their infamous tome, The Book of the SubGenius. You are not cleared for that information anyway, Pink Boy.)

As Jackson points out in his introduction to this edition, the Principia is a notoriously-difficult book to find. Loompanics Unlimited, a low-tech Amazon.com, offers an edition, as does Thornley, through his web site. This Steve Jackson Games edition is by far the nicest-looking and easiest-to-find, and Jackson's introduction and supplemental material are welcome chrome.

Jackson is clearly a lover of this odd little book, and if you are interested in conspiracy, religion, or thought in general, you will find yourself consuming it in one sitting.

The Principia is in the public domain, and Jackson even encourages readers to publish their own edition! You will be hooked upon reading the supposedly-true account of how Discordianism was revealed in a bowling alley by an upright-walking monkey. You may even wish to use the Principia as a prop in a role-playing campaign; I can only imagine the fun should a group of GURPS Illuminati or Call of Cthulhu adventurers stumble upon a Discordian cabal.

I would give this edition an A+ if it weren't for the ever-so-slightly-self-serving Steve Jackson Games product placements that Jackson manages to insert at the beginning and end of the book. It's like putting up Coca-Cola billboards at Woodstock, man... But never mind, Jackson is to be commended for bringing more worshipers into Eris's
fold. Buy this book, read it, and enjoy it. You'll be' seeing the fnords in no time ...

Unearthing the Mysteries of The Secret Letter Society

By Dan Lambert

           What is the process a writer should follow to develop, write, publish, and market a successful, middle-grade children’s novel? On Monday, January 19, author Sharon Scott and her husband, Matthew Scott, took the Southwest Manuscripters writers' club through the steps they followed to bring their young adult fiction project, The Secret Letter Society, to fruition.

           This is the second time Sharon has addressed our club to discuss her writing. On Monday, she focused on the creative side of the project, and allowed Matthew to share the brilliant ways in which he helped the novel to find its audience. Our Treasurer and President-Elect, Carol Sperling, had the opportunity to show why she is a proud mom and mom-in-law (Sharon is Carol’s daughter).

           The Secret Letter Society began as a screenplay for a film. Sharon then rewrote it as a nine-page “series pitch” for an animated or live-action series. A series pitch is a detailed description of a potential series’ characters, settings, and plot. The Cartoon Network expressed an interest in the series, but asked Sharon to change her young adult protagonist from a girl to a boy. The company ended up scrapping its entire young adult lineup (including Sharon’s series), so The Secret Letter Society ended up on the proverbial shelf.

It took ten years for The Secret Letter Society to return. Matthew loved the story and encouraged Sharon to bring it back in the form of a novel. Sharon’s protagonist is now a girl again (13-year-old misfit Jenna Strange). The Secret Letter Society is a tale of high adventure in which Jenna and her friends discover a treasure belonging to the notorious pirate, Blackbeard. Along the way, the young members of the Society discover extraordinary secrets about Blackbeard that have not been recorded in any history book.

           Sharon got the idea for her novel’s title from the real-life phenomena known as “Secret Drawer Societies.” These are groups of individuals who frequent supposedly-haunted houses and other buildings (such as the Wayside Inn), write about the strange occurrences they witness, and clandestinely hide their manuscripts in bureau drawers so other visitors can find them.

           Sharon and Matthew passed out a scene from the story in its initial screenplay form, so the Manuscripters could track the subtle changes that occurred as the story evolved into a novel. The novel’s cast of characters changed quite a bit from screenplay to novel. Jenna is a rebellious prankster. Reyna is Jenna’s prima donna older sister. Nathan is a skateboarder and all-around “action guy.” Milton is Q to Jenna’s James Bond. Peter is a “wanna-be” Pirate. Gabby is a psychic who uses her abilities to help the Society solve mysteries.

           Matthew explained how he helped Sharon to print and market the book. They used the Create Space print-on-demand service (a subsidiary of Amazon.com) to print the book. The book was distributed to Barnes and Noble and other bookstores through Ingram (one of the world’s biggest book distributors).

           Thank you to Sharon and Matthew Scott for revealing the mysteries of The Secret Letter Society to the Southwest Manuscripters. We look forward to the further adventures of Jenna and her friends.


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