Welcome to Junzt County, Texas, Population: Weird

Lovecraft has Arkham…

King has Castle Rock…

Campbell has his unique take on the Severn Valley…

Invariably, those who write horror seem to want their own creation they can revisit time and time again. I am no different. This August, my creation, Junzt County, comes out and takes a walk in “Totmann’s Curve,” a 35,000 word novella included as part of Sockhops & Séances, an anthology of horror set in the 1950s, from 18th Wall.

Texas Hill Country

If you ask me, the part of Texas best suited for rich, atmospheric horror is neither the broken deserts and vast plains of the lonely west nor the impenetrable pine forests and swamps of the “boy, you got a pretty mouth” east. Rather, it is the rolling hills, shadowy valleys, and dark-fairytale woodlands of the Hill Country. Stretching about 100 miles west from Austin and San Antonio, many groups, most notably Germans and Eastern Europeans, settled there … each bring their own traditions, folklore, and whispered fears about what haunts the dark. The place feels old, older than anywhere in Texas has any business feeling.

Spme of the Hill Country’s German settlers cut loose and clown for the camera.

So, that’s where I brought Juntz County to life, lovingly populating it with it everything needed for my macabre purposes. Brockenberg, the legend-shrouded vast granite dome rising over county’s center.  Goethe College, an ivy-covered institution established by scholars fleeing an academic schism at the University of Gottingen (and bringing the more, um, unusual parts of its library with them).  Koenigsburg State Hospital, mysteriously burned in the 1980s and many of its patients never accounted for. Thale, a tiny village deep in the hills, perpetually surrounded by ill-rumor and tragedy. And, of course, burger joints, honky-tonks, auto shops, local radio station KJZT, and all the other infrastructure of “normal” everyday life.

Here’s the kicker, originally I created Junzt County not for narrative fiction but table-top roleplaying. It came to life for a Call of Cthulhu campaign I ran the better part of a decade ago, pitting a party of college students all enrolled in the same local folklore class against a mysterious amulet, the supernal forces tied to it, and the (obligatory) cultists trying to recover it. It was a great campaign (thanks, especially, to some great players) and, even at the time, I grasped the location’s potential as a setting for fiction.

Western Swing, Hill Country Style

Before there was “Totmann’s Curve,” there was “So Lonesome I Could Die.” My first published Junzt Country story, in the anthology Descansos, was a musically-themed Texas Gothic ghost story set during the Great Depression. While “Totmann’s Curve” is an entirely self-contained, stand-alone narrative, anyone who has read “So Lonesome I Could Die” will discover several Easter Eggs revealing what has become of some of the earlier story’s characters … and hinting at the resolution to one of its biggest mysteries.

Koenigsburg hot-rodders park on the town square before going for a burger and a malt (actually, Kerrville, Texas)

What of “Totmann’s Curve,” then? It’s a faced-paced 1950s tale of ghosts, teenage hot-rodding, and evil sorcerers serving dark entities. After the tragic deaths of two teens during an illegal road race, increased police attention forces the local hot-rodders to move their activities farther into rural parts of the county. At first, the new race route seems perfect. But the roads have a history of their own … and fender-benders caused by a pretty blonde ghost wearing a white wedding dress are only the beginning of the racers’ troubles. Something in the deep hills is very unhappy about the kids being there.

Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” belonging to Hot-Rodder Jack “Jockey” Groce, Junzt County Historical Society Museum

Can good-natured all-American hot-rodder Sam Granger, his gearhead friend Joe Tegeler, egg-headed cousin Eleanor, the ghostly dreamboat Helene, and the rest of their gang figure out what’s going on in time to save the Saturday races … and their own skins? That is the question.

Are there other Junzt County tales? Yes. A half-dozen, scattered across a variety of time periods, are in various stages on completion. But three others, one set in the ‘40s, another in the ‘80s, and a third in the present are already finalized and resting in my computer, awaiting only a sympathetic publisher.

Sockhops and Seances, from 18th Wall, is available here.

AramadilloCon: Music, Your Novel’s Sountrack

Thank you for attending the Music: Your Novel’s Soundtack session at ArmadilloCon 41. I appreciate our moderator Sandord Allen and fellow panelists Holly Lyn Walrath, Michael Wolff, and Cassandra Rose Clarke. Below are some key thoughts I may or may not have shared during this session on music in fiction. But, first, a bit of shameless self-promotion of my most heavily music-themed work:

Gabriel’s Trumpet (scheduled for release later this month): an expansion of the award-winning short story,  this Jazz Age supernatural mystery that spans the country from the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans and the deep bayous to Harlem at the height of its renaissance. Gabriel’s Trumpet is steeped in the era’s music / music scene, including historical musicans and industry figures.

“So Lonesome I Could Die” (part of the anthology Descansos):  Texas Gothic meets the classic ghost story in this tale of music, love, betrayal, and more music set among the country and western swing scenes of the Depression-era Hill Country.


Chupacabra vs. Rougaraou (scheduled for release in 2020) A struggling punk rocker and a down on his luck bull rider may be all that stands between humanity and ultimate extinction, as a showdown between two cryptids in a small Louisiana town proves to be so much more.

And, for any gamers out there, a large proportion of my writing for rolepaying games is conntect with music in some way, feel free to check it out here.

Long before I turned my attention to fiction, I worked as a music journalist and music historian, specialized in blues, county, and punk. I am best known for my original research into seminal blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, my chronicling of the Louisiana Hayride, in-depth biographical pieces, and festival coverage.



Why Music in Writing?

Music is a universal human experience.  Anthrolopolgists know of no human culture that that does not have some form of musical expression and it has been part of our species for a very long time. The earliest known instruments are simple birdbone flutes found in Germany and dated to around 40,000 years ago. More complex instruments (silver pipes found in a grave in Ur) date at least far back as 2,500 BCE, with the earliest written musical notation arising about the same time (also in Mesopotamia). This universality  helps readers connect with characters, backgrounds, and situations radically different than their own, or even completely fictionally. 

Bone flute, Germany. c. 40,000 years ago

So Retro!

Music can be especially effective for writers of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Many books emphasize the sights of the past to  the exclusion of other senses (excluding the now obligatory passage about how bad the past smelled). Music is a great way to insert the sounds of the past. Referencing Verdi, the Doors, or medieval troubadours immediately provides expositive shorthand regarding location and setting. It helps build mood and atmosphere. Because sound is so visceral and people often have very personal reactions to music, it puts readers right there in the story.

A Quick Glossary

Diegetic Music: (also known as source music) music that actually occurs in in a book (or film): the cassette tape played the protagonists as they leave on the Great American Road Trip, the War Hymn sung by the Battle Maidens of Koth, the Nursery Rhyme repeated over and over by the creepy hitchhiker, etc.  For the purpose of the work of art in question, diagetic music is “real” it can be heard to and reacted to by chracters.

Incidentdal Music: Music intended to enhance a viewer’s experience of a movie (rarely, for obvious reasons, in a book). It exists only for the viewer and is not real from the perspective of the work’s characters.

Furniture Music (a term coined by French avant-garde composer Erik Satie) diagetic music occuring in the background (the string quartet at a Ventian masked ball, the endless loop of “Girl from Ipanema” inside a stuck elevator, etc.). Furnitue Music could be said to be part of the scene, not part of the story and, as such,  kind of straddles the line between diagetic and incidental music.


Video Killed the Radio Star

When in the late 19th century or beyond, don’t forget the possibilites created by recording, playback, and broadcast technologies. Consider the following sentences:

  • After cranking the Victrola, she delicately set a phonograph record on the platter.
  • Jamming a cassette in the car’s 8-track player, she slammed her foot on the accelerator
  • Flipping through her phone, she wanting to share the album she’d downloaded just hours ago.

Each sentence suggests an entire scene, a defined character, and an unmistakable time period. Indeed, it’s not hard to go from there to plot and motivation.

STEAL THIS PLOT TWIST:  Speaking of recording technology, if you’re looking for an unusual way to challenge protagonists, stick critical information on some obscure pre-phonograph  recording technology (cylinder, wire recorders, etc.). Now, send them scrambling to find a way to play it!

Broadcasting technologies, especially radio, also deserve special mention as a great vehicle for exposition. Between ads, DJ chatter, and news breaks, authors can convey a wide range of information to readers.  It can establish era or setting (a news story about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens), provide local color (don’t forget the annual Strawberry Days festival this weekend, come on down and see the crowning of the Strawberry Queen), or advane the plot (a hook-handed killer has just escaped from the nearby institute for the criminally cliché).

Players Only Love You When They’re Playing

As long as we’re talking about music, lets talk about musicians … and their advantages as supporting characters, foils, or even protagonists.

Jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith , one of many musicians performing in Gabriel’s Trumpet.

Archetypal musicians are colorful, larger than life, flout social conventions, and have interesting backstories. In other words, they are precisely the kind of characters that most authors like to write.

While, historically, often considered somewhat disreputable, musicians come into contact with people from all classes and walks and life. That makes them a great vehicle for providing information that protagonists might otherwise have difficulty accessing. That musicians often travel widely offers similar benefits.

Musicians are often portrayed with unusual (and frequently shady) backgrounds.  It is easier to believe that a down on his luck punk rocker knows how to hotwire a car than an CPA. Or more likely that the grizzled old Meistersinger knows the high passes out of Hapsburg lands than a simple peasant.

In sort, because of the enduring and portable archetypes we associate with them, the romantic and liminal musician can be played as something of a wildcard.

Great Fiction About Music / Using Music

Dragonsinger by Ann McCaffrey: In Pern, musicians are the true king makers, the power of their music letting them say others’  thoughts and emotions. The young Menolly,  an apprentice harper, must overcome gender bias in addition to the standard trials and tribulation before blossoming into a formidable talent.

Dr. Faustus by Thomas Mann: Faust meets Robert Johnson, in this retelling of the classic legend, the titular character is a musician/composer bargaing his soul for musical brilliance.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornsby: Sure, we’ve all seen the movie. But do yourself a favor and check out the book.

Idoru by William Gibson: The definitinity novel about AI celebrity musicians.

“Incommunicado” by Katherine MacLean: Good luck finding a copy of this decades- ahead-of-its-time story of AI musicians and musical mind control, featured inthe June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

Kamikaze L’amour by Richard Kadrey: In the near future, a burned-out rock icon fakes his own death and journeys to southern California, which has all become rain forest for some reason, where he falls in love while rediscovering himself as well as a passion for music for music’s sake.

Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux: Seminal novel of both horror and music ficition about masked weirdo stalking a talented starlet.

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason: Middle-aged piano tuner recruited to travel  to (what was then) Burma, make his way through the jungle, and tune the piano of an eccentric Royal Army doctor. Through his musical talents, he ends up getting dragged into intrigue and skullduggery, with a bit of a “music as a universal language” theme at the end.

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive by Steve Earle (yes, THAT Steve Earle): Southern Noir meets Magical Realism in this mystery where the ghost of Hank Williams is major chracter.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: a post-apocolypic novel about a traveling symphony trying to keep music alive in a shatterd world.

Tolkien, obviously (though I am old enough to be traumatized by the music in the 1970s Rankin-Bass cartoons)

The Vinyl Detective Series, by Andrew Cartmel: Fanatical British vinyl collectors kill each other over rare records.

ArmadilloCon: Writing for Computer, Roleplaying, & Board Games

Thank you for attending the Writing for Computer, Roleplaying, and Board Game session at ArmadilloCon 41. I appreciate our moderator Aaron de Orive and fellow panelist D Chang.  Below are some key thoughts I may or may not have shared during this session on writing for tabletop / pen & paper roleplaying games (we’ll just go with TTRPG for the rest of this post) as well as some useful links. I also invite you to check out my roleplaying writing credits here.

1) The State of the TTRPG Industry in 2019

Image result for d20The TTRPG industry looks a lot like the world of fiction publishing in 2019,  in many ways dominated by a few companies (Wizards, Paizo, White Wolf, Chaosim, Games Workshop) with formidable resources. Beyond that sphere are a wide range of mid and small size, often niche, publishers as well as self-publishers. While that is very good for the range and diversity of projects coming available, resources as scant. The extent to which TTRPG products are now crowdfunded gives an idea of exactly how much money is floating through most of the industry (not much). Margins are generally low and publishers are resistant to backing a project that can’t prove its market.

In summary, the industry is wide open for new innovative ideas. But, if writing for TTRPGs is your “get rich quick” scheme (or even your “get rich slow” scheme) you probably want to rethink that.

2) TTRPG Trends   

What is Old is New Again:  The biggest trend in TTRPG matches one at the movies. Many of the most successful and early anticipated releases in recent years have been new installments or reboots of familiar properties (Vampire: The Masquerade, Lord of the Five Rings, Pathfinder 2nd Ed., ongoing new properties for D&D 5th Ed.).

Which is not to say that no one is putting out new properties. Some recent release that have received buzz include the high-concept fantasy Overlight, the space-opera Tachyon Squadron, and the dark Sword & Sorcery Forbidden Lands.

Image result for runequest murphy's laws

From Murphy’s Rules, c. Steve Jackson Games

Keep it Simple, Sorcerer:  In terms of new properties, we see a continuation of the decade-or-so old trend toward greater simpler game mechanics emphasizing quick set ups, flexibility, and speed of play. This can be seen in the popularity of games that use engines like FATE, Savage Worlds, and the Gumshoe System. (Of course, in TTRPG, anytime you talk about a “trend,” at least one counterexample will immediate present itself. This year saw a re-release of Runequest, a game once (in)famous for its complexity.

Along with the trend toward simplicity, comes a greater fondness for open or collaborative storytelling, in which all participants and not just the GM have some ability to shape the broader world beyond direct PC action.

Every Game is now Cyberpunk 2020:  Finally, the continuing popularity of play by post, the increasing popularity of live streaming, and the rapidly expanding number of apps on online resources is slowing blurring the lines between TTRPG and computer RPG.

3) Six Tips for Breaking into TTRPG Writing

Where my first RPG writiing appeared…

Play TTRPGs:  And then, when you’re sick of them, play more TTRPGS. Just like the best writers are voracious readers, the best TTRPG writers are compulsive gamers. Also, when I say “play TTRPRGs” I really mean “DM/GM TTRPGs.” Only by being in the driver’s seat to really get the 360-degree experience of what goes into a published product and develop an intuitive feel for what works and what doesn’t.

Begin by Freelancing:  Publishers/designers are much more likely to take a chance on you if you have a portfolio you can show the,


Be cautious about entrusting your content to open source market places.

Practice the Craft of Writing:  It’s not enough to have great ideas, you must be able to communicate them in writing clearly and succinctly. It’s not at all sexy to think about it this way, but TTRPG writing is essentially technical writing.

Network, Network, Network:  In the interest of full disclosure, I’m terrible at this one. But, compared with fiction publication, I’ve found the TTRPG to be informal and heavily driven by “who you know.” So, how do you get to know the right people. First, hit the chatrooms and social media. Make intelligent comments and astute observations. Second, become a presence at local cons and beyond (think GenCon, PaxEast, etc.). Not only is this great way to meet people, it helps you stay abreast of industry trends. Third, look for volunteering opportunities. The industry has an endless hunger for playtesters, rules reviewers, game reviewers, etc. those are excellent opportunities to make connections and favorable impressions!

Take Your Ego Out of It: Remember, the proximate goal for TTRPG publishers is producing a coherent, compelling, marketable product. Their ultimate goal is making a profit. If you can’t suborn your artistic vision to the publisher’s needs, you’re not going to get very far.

5) Streaming/Live Play Games

The emergence of gaming is a spectator sport is something, I admit, I don’t fully understand. But, clearly, I’m in the minority there … and building a following there certainly could help one’s career in TTRPG writing … so this post would be remiss without addressing the issue. Plus, I’ve finally drunk the Kool-Aid, next month I’ll be playing the Hygiene Officer in live-streamed Paranoia campaign.

To be clear, I’m not speaking from first-hand experience here, but from reading and conversations with others, here is what I can offer on successful streaming/live-play.

Production Quality: An engrossing game is essential to be successful … but it will not in itself ensure success. You need to think of this as full on video-production and treat it accordingly, giving full consideration to camera placement, quality of audio, sound effects, even gimmicks like dry ice or puppets.

The Interactive Experience: Unlike a traditional video production, the level and nature audience interaction is another aspect needing consideration. Some groups find it both convenient and effective to appoint a single individual to take point on this. While the DM feels like the intuitive choice for this, I’ve heard reports that assigning a player or even recruiting a “host” for these duties is very effective.

Allowing chat members to directly impact the game, by choosing a character to receive an automatic critical success/failure, vote on an encounter monster, or even name an NPC or tavern is an effective way to engage and involve viewers. Obviously, any form of audience impact is something that needs to be agreed upon by DM and all players beforehand. Some groups monetize audience interaction by putting some or all of these features behind a paywall.

Give Murphy Murphy His Cut:  Finally, manage your expectations. First, things will go wrong. React with patience and good humor, maybe even try to bring the audience in on the “joke.” While there are stories of instant streaming success … for most mere mortals audience growth is a slow process.

6) Jon, what are your favorite RPG systems?

GURPS (of course), D&D 3.5E, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Paranoia, 2300 AD, MegaTraveler, and Earth Dawn. Thank you for asking.

7) Useful Links

Five Tips for Breaking into the RPG Industry

So You Want to Write RPGs: Tips for Becoming a Freelancer (an older article, but the most of the information is still good)

Five Tools that Will Help You Create a Gaming Broacast (another older article, some of the technical info is outdated but the general advice and prodcution checklist remains solid)

Five Tips for Steaming a Game on Twitch

An Online RPG Writer Workshop (This is not an official endorsement … but I have heard positive feedback).

ConFessions of a 45 Year-Old SFF Imposter

Image result for omni southpark austin

The Omni Southpark Austin, which is to ArmadilloCon what lairs are to dragons.

Hi! I’m Jon.  I’m 45 years old. I’ll be 46 next month. In spite of that, sometimes (and by “sometimes,” I mean “usually”) I don’t feel like a grown-up. This weekend I am appearing at ArmadilloCon 41 as a regional guest.  This is my first apperance at a Con as a presenter rather than an attendee, which has all those “not really a grown-up” feelings welling up to the surface with an anticipation and anxiety better suited to a teenager than a white-goateed weirdo.

There’s no denying it, I’ve got a full-blown case of imposter syndrome.

A sample of my RPG writing

That being said, I am terribly excited. I am participating in two panels (both on Saturday), Writing for Computer, Roleplaying, and Board Games (I wrote for RPGs before turning my attention to fiction) and Music: Your Novel’s Sound Track (I worked as a music journalist and music historian before starting with RPGs), so intellectually, I know I’m on solid footing there.


I am also giving a reading (Friday night) and doing a book signing (Sunday at noon). Picking out the selections for my reading was very exciting. One of the my biggest decisions was including a selection from my soon to be published novel Caledfwlch (second installment of the award winning Bel Nemeton series, blending 6th century Arthurian historical fantasy with 21st century progressive pulp). This will be the first time any content from Caledfwlch has seen the light of day (excepting my publisher and me, of course). My other selections come from Gabriel’s Trumpet, “So Lonesome I Could Die,” and the P&E Reader’s Choice winning “A Scandal in Hollywood.”

Blue Oyster Cult 1977 publicity photo.jpg

No, Blue Öyster Cult, not THAT Godzilla.

But my eye is really on the other programming, here are some of the sessions I’m enthusiastic about this year:

  • The Future of Money: Beyond Solars and Credits
  • Godzilla in 2019
  • Writing Realistic Horsemanship (God knows I need that one)
  • Screenwriting 101 (no specific plans, but it seems like a good thing to have in the toolbox)
  • Sword fighting Demonstrations (also needed)
  • Whither Horror
  • How to Build a Religion (for purposes of writing, I presume)
  • Editing Anthologies (could have used this one 12 months ago)
  • Science Fiction Mysteries
  • Reading by lots of my favorite authors
  • and, of course, the yummy goodness that is the Con hospitality suite…

And, if you’re at ArmadilloCon, please feel free to come by and say hello. Again, here’s my schedule of events if you’re looking for me at other times, check my twitter @blackonblues, I’m usually pretty good at broadcasting my movements.