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I Lay Me Down

I forgot the deadline, so missed a chance to enter the Writers’ Police Academy Golden Donut Short Story Contest this year. Entrants were supposed to use the image below as a focal point for their story, and the winner will receive free registration at a 2016 WPA event.

image courtesy of the Writers' Police Academy
image courtesy of the Writers’ Police Academy

Here’s my would-be entry, exactly 200 words (title included), but sans any critical feedback, so maybe it’s a good thing I mistook the date:

I Lay Me Down

Two by two.

I almost expect to hear Dad holler at me for handing him the wrong lumber: “Two-by-four! We’re buildin’ a house, not a table.”

He was murdered last year. Suspect’s alibi was hinky, but witnesses were sketchy and the jury couldn’t agree.

Two by two is how graves are laid out in the Bellingham family plot. The newer portion is marked by clusters of four stones each, as if pairs of family members pushed their beds together, headboard to headboard, for an eternal sleepover. In the older acreage, graves are tombs capped with stone carvings, as if the Bellingham ancestors aspired to interment at Westminster Abbey.

A new grave has been dug among the elders, and its coffin-length cap lies waiting outside the rope barrier. I toss the shovel onto the grass then hop out of the shallow hole awaiting the concrete casement that will hold the remains of Miss Clarise, aged 103. I beat dirt from my clothes and breathe an apology for the indignity of placing below her an unwelcome gravefellow.

I return the shovel to the shed, and study a knoll above the cemetery.

A good place for a picnic table.

c2015, EEaster

It’s been a long while since I wrote flash fiction, and this piece may not win any contests, but it’s a good exercise in loosening up a long-unused creative muscle.

 

Confession

Most people who know me also know I am a writer.

They’d have to be oblivious not to know. It’s an almost constant ingredient in my conversation. (Yes, I am that boring.) I love writing. It’s “the hardest work I’ll ever love”, and I dare say this love of words and stories is a calling.

It has given me work and has enabled me to help and encourage other writers, whether they be students writing only to finish assignments or aspiring writers seeking to be published. It has frustrated me, too, and the arduous process has taught me to let go of perfectionism and to persevere.

Perfectionism is rooted in fear and pride, and it prevents progress. It is one reason I chose a pseudonym: If people didn’t like my writing, I could hide behind another name.

However, there were other equal or greater reasons for choosing a pen name many years ago:
1) minor stalking from a few creepy guys when I was younger and better looking (alas, alack, time has taken its toll);
2) identity theft (a close family member was impinged upon by someone with a criminal history who married into the family, and then my information became linked to that person);
3) my real name doesn’t fit well with the types of stories I tell (“Elizabeth Easter” sounds like a romance writer, and while there are sometimes love stories in my work, I mostly write fantasy and science fiction); and
4) a desire to keep my editing work separate from my writing, and some writers — offended by the editing of their manuscripts — have called into question my abilities. I didn’t praise them as they wished, I made suggestions they viewed as insults, or perhaps I told them large portions would have to be rewritten. Therefore, rather than examine their own work, they attacked mine.

It is this behavior, among others, that led me to resigning from a publishing house and to shuttering the freelance editing business. Online creepers and offended authors weighed my spirit, and outweighed the many times writers had been encouraged and grateful for my help. I needed to step back and gain a clearer perspective.

An aside: If we live our lives offended, and if we make decisions out of that offense or we expect other people to tiptoe around us lest they offend, we are shackling not only ourselves but everyone else.

I have been edited by too-lenient teachers and by snarky, overbearing fellow writers. Good editing is a delicate balance: telling the absolute truth while still being kind and encouraging. As an editor, I strive for that balance, but have not always succeeded. As a writer, I also struggle to receive less-than-kind feedback and apply it objectively.

Another struggle: Should I reveal my true identity?

Another reason for choosing a pseudonym — and a masculine one, at that — was to practice writing male characters. Despite the push of political correctness, science confirms that men and women think differently. No secret there. However, after much experience editing romance novels, I became weary of the heroes mirroring the heroines: men who spoke, emoted, and behaved like women.

Also, a male reader’s feedback on an early, rough, uncompleted draft of my novel revealed that my male characters spoke and thought too much like the female characters. The feedback was not delivered with any thought to my feelings, but it was honest, and I respected that.

I needed practice. I chose a masculine pen name, started a blog, wrote a short story and a science fiction serial, and joined social media. Although I am a heterosexual woman, I found it comfortable, easy, and freeing to write as a man. As him, I could say things that Elizabeth couldn’t, and I was heard. The people with whom I engaged in conversation online where mostly men, and we could express ourselves without the clutter of delicate emotions. There was respect and honesty that wasn’t commonly present in conversations with fellow female writers. And, until I revealed the truth to a select few, people seemed to accept without question that “Keanan Brand” was a man.

The advertising, spam, and inappropriate invitations have accentuated that notion. There are spam-bots and actual women who have sent indecent proposals. Oy vey.

Yet another reason for choosing a pseudonym: to test my storytelling abilities without the impediment of my soft-sounding real name. The results have been mixed. Female readers have not liked the battle scenes, the violence, and the lack of erotic scenes, while the guys have wanted even more action and less poetry. However, some men have responded well to the emotional elements — not only the love stories, but also the scene where one character contemplates suicide, and there are strong friendships and family bonds — and some women have said they liked the action and thought the story was suspenseful. They did not seem influenced by the author name, but male readers seemed more inclined to my story when it came appended with a masculine pen name.

The truth will out.

There have been times when Elizabeth crept to the forefront of Keanan’s posts, and a couple times Elizabeth signed Keanan’s e-mail.

Writers whom I respect and like, and what started as a casual crossing of paths online have, in many cases, turned into friendships. Those friends deserve the truth — though I will understand if they do not remain friends after having been deceived by my online persona.

Regardless of the consequences, the time has come to confess the truth. Keanan Brand is really a woman, and Elizabeth Easter wrote this book:

new cover^for Smashwords

Penworthy News, In Brief

When the blog falls quiet, it’s not abandoned. Think of it as the companionable lulls that occur in conversations between friends: they’re a sign of trust, respect, the comfort of one another’s presence.

For us at Penworthy, the conversation is by no means at an end. The silence simply means we’re creating.

Here are a few notes to catch you up on our doings:

1) Black Gate magazine posted an excellent review of Dragon’s Rook:

Black Gate sidebar_bg_mag_sigilLike all genres of fiction, fantasy has a growing list of clichés and played-out tropes: the orphaned farm boy who’s actually the chosen one, the quest for a magical artifact to save the world, the generic medieval European setting, the Tolkien-lite denizenry of humans and elves versus orcs, goblins, and trolls…. On one hand, it’s surprising to see these tropes crop up new cover^for Smashwordsover and over again. Authors are supposed to be imaginative. Is it really that hard to come up with original ideas? On the other hand, it makes a good bit of sense to see certain recurring tropes. Fantasy is, after all, rooted in mythology, and one can make a strong case that fantasy taps into symbols and archetypes coded into the human psyche, whether we’re talking about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey or the simple Jungian archetype of the shadow representing the basest of human instincts.

In practice, of course, the truth lays somewhere in the middle. Mediocre writers reuse certain tropes and make them cliché because they do nothing new with them. Expert writers create new tropes or take old ones and make them new in the context of unique characters and original words.

Read the entire review here.

SuSAn2) Suzan Troutt has been helping a fellow writer, Fred Rothganger, promote his science fiction novel, SuSAn, which we think is fitting, given the name. (wink and a smile)

Susan stands on the threshold of Singularity, a nexus where all the forces of history converge. What world waits on the other side? 

She has no “laws of robotics” built into her program, only the restless desire to be loved. She does everything to please her mother, a manipulative and driven scientist. As she grows from a trusting child into a rebellious young woman she faces a terrible choice: risk her very soul in more experiments, or stay stuck as an unfinished creation. 

She searches for a man who can embrace her as both machine and human being. Her final step in development is the most difficult of all: learning to love him back. The affair between humans and technology will determine the shape of our future.

Read more at Suzan’s blog, at the book’s Facebook page, or at Fred’s blog.

Gothic Tones logo

3) Suzan’s online jewelry store, Gothic Tones, is gaining more and more attention, which is making us quite happy. After all, we like to see one another succeed.

Suzan offers new, vintage, and offbeat items for customers looking for sophisticated, unique, or quirky jewelry. She also offers original artwork, a survival bracelet (for guys or girls), and customers can make requests.

 

Author Interview: Keanan Brand

Donovan M. Neal, a blogger and the author of the Biblical fantasy series The Third Heaven, recently interviewed one of our authors, Keanan Brand, about his journey toward publication, the challenges in writing and in life, and how his faith informs his writing.

Below are a couple excerpts:

new cover^for SmashwordsWhat advice would you give new novelists?

“Patience, grasshopper.”

I lifted that line from the old Kung Fu television show, but it’s a solid Biblical and literary concept, too. Patience isn’t staying still, necessarily. It’s persevering, it’s trying again, until the goal is achieved.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The adage about having to write a million words before being able to call oneself a writer? I don’t know how many words I’ve written in my lifetime, but I produced at least the equivalent of three copies of Dragon’s Rook before finally settling on a completed version that worked…

I am pleased with the end result, and early readers have said that portions of it stay with them, coming to mind long after they closed the book, and some have said it is far different from what they expected of a swords-and-dragons yarn. One reader (who had never read fantasy) said she couldn’t put it down. I hope that you, too, enjoy this tale.

RiseofFallenStars

This is only a fraction of the interview — read it here in its entirety. (Read more about Keanan here and here.)

We thank Donovan M. Neal for his generosity.

Coming soon: A review of The Rise of Fallen Stars, the first book in Neal’s The Third Heaven series.

Bad Haiku on a Winter’s Day

The world is swathed in snow, but — for once — the wind is still.

I try writing exercises to spark creativity, but what I produce instead is bad haiku.

Trees wear white garments
woven on a snowy loom.
Silence. A hawk cries.

Carapace gleaming,
an exiled beetle bumbles
in a warm corner.

And then there’s this truly tortured haiku:

Mere glass yet staunch guard,
the window staves cold, wards heat,
lets light, stands sentry.

Nope. No more poetry. It’s fiction for me today.

And the world sighs in relief. 😉

Editing Services Are Now On Hiatus

We apologize for any inconvenience, but we are no longer accepting new clients for our editing services.

There are many reasons for this, including new directions in the main editor’s life and schedule. The decision also comes as a result of a recent phishing scam perpetrated on one of our colleagues, as well as online-stalking behavior from a potential client in which an editor’s privacy was breached.

Meantime, the Penworthy Press collective continues to write, produce art and jewelry, and take photographs.

Thank you for your patience and for your continued reading. We look forward to sharing good news with you soon!

Penworthy Press Presents: Dragon’s Rook by Keanan Brand

The Penworthy Press collective—sounds like a cult, doesn’t it? But we’re just writers, honest!—announces the first book published under our logo:

Dragon’s Rook, book one of The Lost Sword duology by Keanan Brand.

This epic fantasy tells the story of two kingdoms at war. The kings are brothers-in-law—Morfran’s late wife was Damanthus’ sister—but the conflict has nothing to do with family and everything to do with the Territories, a long strip of forest and hills ruled by neither kingdom. The people there govern themselves, but have no standing army.

When Morfran’s soldiers invade, a young shepherd name Gaerbith journeys to the Dissonay capital and begs help of Damanthus to keep the Skardians at bay.

Disson engages Skarda in war, and pushes the invaders out of the Territories and back into the western Plains of Skarda, near the Highlands, a hallowed and feared place where the dead are said to dwell.

When Dragon’s Rook begins, the war is at an impasse. Both sides have lost heavily, and ground has been neither gained nor given in a long while. Gaerbith is now a seasoned soldier and captain of the Fourth Lachmil. His skill in battle has gained him a reputation as possessing magic, but anything special he attributes to the fact that his mother was a Keeper, one of a group of immortals charged with keeping the Great Archive, a storied trove of learning and art that many think is just a myth.

His mother, Uártha, entrusted him with a secret that can only be unlocked when he takes the oath of a Keeper: the hiding place of Azrin, the lost sword of Kel High King, who in ages past slew a Dragon and freed the people.

Yet, even if Gaerbith takes the oath and learns the secret, he can do nothing without Kel High King’s nearest descendant, the only one to whom the sword will answer.

Dragon’s Rook is the name of a cave in Kel Tor near the village of Shea, where a blacksmith lives. He possesses a dagger decorated with the same metal from which Azrin was forged, and he remembers nothing before the day the previous blacksmith found him as a child and took him in as an apprentice.

Kieran Smith and Captain Gaerbith set out on unexpected journeys—the blacksmith to learn who he really is, the soldier to do his duty to a king—and along the way they face great foes, make new allies, gain love or lose it, and must decide whether or not to do the most frightening thing of all: trust their lives to the leading of the Voice.

Dragon’s Rook is currently available as an e-book (visit Keanan’s website or his blog to select which version you prefer), and will be coming soon in paperback.

The cover art and design are by another member of the Penworthy Press collective: artist and writer, Suzan Troutt. She can be found at Gothic Tones blog, at her online jewelry shop, or at Jade’s Journal.

Advance readers have commented favorably on the cadence and detail of the writing, and on the characters, especially the female protagonists. Some readers have selected the story’s quieter moments—not the battles, not the wonders, but the human interactions—as some of their favorites.

Although there are fantasy tropes and archetypes in Dragon’s Rook, there are few mythical creatures—aside from Dragons, there are bloodthirsty giant crows called Nar’ath, invented for this story, but expect no dwarves, elves, ogres, trolls, and the like. The author freely admits to the classical influences of Tolkien, Lewis, folklore, mythology, and the Bible, and built the world of Disson and Skarda on a mix of American and European geography, but weaves a story all his own.

We at Penworthy Press are proud to present this novel to the world. May it and its successors bring joy to their readers for many years to come.

Nobel, Patrick Modiano, and Me

Never heard of Patrick Modiano?

It might help if you lived in France.

I didn’t know there was any past kerfuffle over the Nobel committee’s tendency to be Euro-centric in its selections for the literary prize, but I don’t mind getting to know about excellent writers outside my own country.

(K)eep in mind that while foreign translations from most literary writers can be hard to come by, there really isn’t reason to complain about Nobel winners being inaccessible. After all, the vast majority of winners since the prize’s debut in 1901 had written in English.

What’s more, awarding the honor to little-known writers — at least, from an English-reader’s perspective — can help introduce authors to a wider audience. Shortly after Jelinek won the prize in 2004, the American distributor of her book The Piano Teacher ran out of copies because demand was so unusually high. That was famously one of the goals of the Swedish Academy’s previous Permanent Secretary, Horace Engdahl, who once responded to criticism saying, “The purpose of the prize is to make them famous, not to tap them when they are famous.”

That prospect has already excited fans of Modiano’s in France. Anne Ghisoli, the director of the Parisian bookstore Librairie Gallimard, told the Times she had long been a Modiano fan, “but this prize will help raise the global profile of one of our consummate writers.”

[Gibson, Megan. “Why You Haven’t Heard of Patrick Modiano, Winner of the Nobel in LiteratureTime, 9 October 2014.]

A portion of his speech is highlighted in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness:

Time has speeded up since then and moves forward in fits and starts–explaining the difference between the towering literary edifices of the past, with their cathedral-like architectures, and the disjointed and fragmented works of today. From this point of view, my own generation is a transitional one, and I would be curious to know how the next generations, born with the Internet, mobile phones, e-mails and tweets, will express through literature this world in which everyone is permanently ‘connected’ and where ‘social networks’ are eating into that part of intimacy and secrecy that was still our own domain until quite recently–the secrecy that gave depth to individuals and could become a major theme in a novel. But I will remain optimistic about the future of literature and I am convinced that the writers of the future will safeguard the succession just as every generation has done since Homer.

I can identify with that need to put up a shield against the noise and the constant connection that eats at the soul.

Although I won a few prizes for speech-giving while in school, I dislike standing before crowds because my hands and voice shake and my thoughts scatter. Modiano, too, expresses his discomfort:

Calling to mind the way school lessons distinguish between the written and the oral, a novelist has more talent for written than oral assignments. He is accustomed to keeping quiet, and if he wants to imbibe an atmosphere, he must blend in with the crowd. He listens to conversations without appearing to, and if he steps in it is always in order to ask some discreet questions so as to improve his understanding of the women and men around him. His speech is hesitant because he is used to crossing out his words. It is true that after several redrafts, his style may be crystal clear. But when he takes the floor, he no longer has any means at his disposal to correct his stumbling speech.

Ah, yes. The need to constantly edit and revise. That explains my current profession.

Gustave Flaubert, a 19th-century French writer whose work ethic and precision with words one might well admire and imitate, even if his personal activities were best left behind the curtain, once wrote, “The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”

And, I might add, it is in the act of writing that you realize not only do you have something to say, it is worth saying.

I also belong to a generation in which children were seen and not heard except on certain rare occasions and only after asking permission. But no one ever listened and people would often talk across them. That explains the difficulty that some of us have when speaking – sometimes hesitant, sometimes too fast as if we expect to be interrupted at any moment. This is perhaps why the desire to write came over me, like so many others, at the end of childhood. You hope that the adults will read what you write. That way, they will have to listen to you without interrupting and they will jolly well know what it is you have on your chest.

Listening — truly listening — is a great gift.

We may not understand all we hear, we may not agree with all we hear, but if we listen, we will learn, we will build bridges, we will encourage.

I was a child whose early, stumbling, terrible writings were listened to with patience and encouraged by adults. It was my peers who made me mute. They mocked, they misunderstood, they shrugged. Without the listening ears of a few grownups I respected and loved, I might not be a writer today.

Akin to truly listening is truly reading. There are few things more encouraging to a writer than knowing his words are being read. And not just read. Loved.

The announcement of this award seemed unreal to me and I was eager to know why you chose me. On that day I do not think I had ever been more acutely aware of how blind a novelist is when it comes to his own books, and how much more the readers know about what he has written than he does. A novelist can never be his own reader, except when he is ridding his manuscript of syntax errors, repetitions or the occasional superfluous paragraph. He only has a partial and confused impression of his books, like a painter creating a fresco on the ceiling, lying flat on a scaffold and working on the details, too close up, with no vision of the work as a whole…

So yes, the reader knows more about a book than the author himself. Something happens between a novel and its reader which is similar to the process of developing photographs, the way they did it before the digital age. The photograph, as it was printed in the darkroom, became visible bit by bit. As you read your way through a novel, the same chemical process takes place. But for such harmony to exist between the author and his reader, it is important never to overextend the reader – in the sense that we talk about singers overextending their voice – but to coax him imperceptibly, leaving enough space for the book to permeate him little by little, by means of an art resembling acupuncture, in which the needle merely has to be inserted in exactly the right spot to release the flow in the nervous system.

A certain short story comes to mind, one in which I purposely included certain themes but in which readers found other connections, better connections, than I intended. That was, I think, the first time I realized that a writer and a reader encounter different stories, though the words are the same.

The rest of Modiano’s excellent speech is dense with historical and literary references, and is literature itself. I highly recommend it to every writer, and to every reader who wonders where writers find their stories.

It and other speeches can be read at the Nobel website. Photos of the author can be viewed at The Telegraph, and an introduction to/review of some of his works may be read at The Guardian.

Home

Last month, due in part to the American holiday of Thanksgiving, I visited my old hometown, stayed with one parent but met often with the other, and attended a few services at Mom’s (once “our”) church, and was struck by the truth behind the old saying, “You can’t go home again.”

Although I was glad to be there and see people I knew, I didn’t call nearby friends or arrange to see them, nor did I drive by my old house or former workplace. The old life didn’t cross my mind, at least not long enough to dwell on or even matter. Nothing tugged at me.

Except, very soon after my arrival, a desire to return home.

Not to my old house, but to where I live now.

There was nothing wrong. There was no family argument or problem, no falling-out with friends; I just didn’t feel at home. Not anymore.

It is a strange state of being and state of mind that one is home yet not home, as if one has dropped into a surreal story and must find the way out of an Alice in Wonderland maze and back to reality.

I am a far different person than I was when I lived in that town, went to that church, spoke with my parents every week. The beliefs I once held as truth have shifted, perhaps even fallen away, so that only core truths remain. Life has a way of shaking the pan, dividing gravel from gold, helping one to clearly see the difference.

Those still surrounded by gravel may think the gold-seekers are off the mark, mislead, gone astray, so they try to warn them and hem them in again in safe places, in the grey cocoon of what’s humanly possible, of what’s comfortable and can be controlled, but they miss what the gold-seekers see — that glint of something more.

For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as all our fathers were: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is no abiding. (1 Chronicles 29:15, ASV)

“And there is no abiding” — not until we’re Home.

Annotated Dracula (part 1)

(Below is a revised re-post from Adventures in Fiction blog by Keanan Brand, January 27 and February 7, 2010.)

‘You are early to-night, my friend.’ The man stammered in reply: —
‘The English Herr was in a hurry,’ to which the stranger replied: —
‘That is why, I suppose, you wished him to go on to Bukovina. You cannot deceive me, my friend; I know too much, and my horses are swift.’ As he spoke he smiled, the lamplight fell on a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory. One of my companions whispered to another the line from Burger’s ‘Lenore’: —
‘Denn die Todten reiten schnell.’ —
(‘For the dead travel fast.’)

I picked up a copy of Bram Stoker’s classic novel after I finished NaNoWriMo 2009 (during which I worked more on what’s probably my darkest effort to date), and re-acquainted myself with one of the foundational vampire tales. Dracula is far removed from the modern re-imaginings of the mythology — and, strange as this may seem, it was refreshing.

Anybody else tired of hearing about Bella and Edward and whoever else they hang with? Anybody else look with a canted eye at Buffy and Angel?

But the suckers — ahem — critters have populated frightening tales for centuries, and I don’t expect them to leave anytime soon.

On occasion, I participate in the CSFF Blog Tour, which has featured modern vampire novels: Shade by John Olson, and Haunt of Jackals by Eric Wilson. (My blog posts about each can be found here: Shade 1, 2, 3 and Jackals 1, 2, 3.) Both books are in series, and are different takes on the mythology. Shade presents more of a “psychic vampire” image without the traditional blood-letting, but Jackals is much more graphic and offers a twist on the ability of vampires to shape-shift.

I read those books, sampled some television series (those mentioned above, also Forever Knight and Moonlight), listened to teenagers — and even adults — rave about the Twilight books and films, and experienced the strange sensation of being lost, of being pressed under the weight of all those versions and the various leaps (or chasms) in logic that made me unable to suspend disbelief for long, if at all.

Dracula coverSo I went back to what many might consider source material: Bram Stoker‘s Dracula. He was not the first to cover this ancient ground (other well-known stories include Polidori‘s The Vampyre, and Le Fanu‘s Carmilla), but he is very likely the most well-known and most-referenced author of vampire fiction. The copy I chose is the Simon & Schuster Enriched Classics edition, with notes and commentary by Joseph Valente, a Professor of English.

[Though I enjoy books in which such additional information helps provide historical, social, political, or religious context, or discusses why something may have been important or overlooked by characters in the book, and so on, I sometimes wonder how much of the commentary is really just the commentator’s twisting of the text to fit an opinion, and how much is straight-forward observation of the material.]

Vampires and sex, an age-old coupling. The reasons are obvious: attacks that happen at night, usually on victims who are of the opposite gender to the vampires doing the attacking, and (in Dracula the novel) after the victims are in bed. And there’s the whole neck-biting schtick—which, as we all know, is more than a flirty little nibble.

There’s a lot of writing out there concerning vampirism and Victorian views of sexuality, and there’s a realm of scholarship that sees Dracula the character as freeing women sexually while Van Helsing, et al, try to suppress them. And, though the women seek help from their friends and send up prayers to God, they are drawn to the immortal count because their subconscious supposedly really, really wants him.

While such arguments might be made, there’s not much in the novel itself to support them. Yeah, vampires may work their mojo, but they’re presented as evil, and not all that sexy. Sensual, maybe, but not freeing. They’re rapists—even the females. After all, rape isn’t about sex or mutual expression or love. It’s about power and control.

Dracula controls Lucy. He controls Mina. Neither woman wants what he’s offering, and the men do what they can to stop him. Sure, they make some bonehead mistakes, like leaving Mina alone while they scout the count’s London digs, but I never get the impression they are trying to suppress either woman. In fact, Mina and Jonathan seem quite happy with their marriage. Until Dracula gets involved, of course.

to be continued

UPDATE: Last year, I read John Whalen’s excellent Western twist on vampires, Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto. You can read my review of his well-received novel here.