Thursday, April 23, 2015

Custer’s Revenge

My father, Jack Erwin Vaughn, was a very interesting, albeit complex man. While he passed many years ago, I wanted to archive a few of his best stories (as I recall them) so his great grandchildren and others might get to know him better. This is one of those stories.
Last Sunday, my miss-matched set of friends from choir sat around a small table at Shari’s. We always meet here after church; mostly because we could usually get in and out before we died of starvation, and the food was tolerable. As usual, conversations twisted this way and that; someone’s latest operation; who was dating the widowed soprano; if our food would ever come. At this point, someone thought it would be fun to pull a prank on our director and all eyes turned to me. Based on their experience with my elaborate April Fool’s Day stunts, they knew I must have a PhD in silliness.

“It comes naturally,” I said. “My dad was by far the most dangerous kind of practical joker. He was infinitely patient.” And so I began the story of Custer’s Revenge.

Leavenworth house

After our tour in Thailand, we moved into a two-story brick duplex at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas dating back to the 1860’s. Someone, perhaps my dad, started a rumor that said George Armstrong Custer was quartered in this very house. Our next-door neighbors, Neil and his wife Dottie, became great friends. My parents would often have them over for dinner or evening drinks. The men would regale us with fanciful stories about their exploits, but dad invariably steered the conversation to tales of Custer’s lavish parties and his love for Leavenworth, organ music and especially Bach.

“Some say, he wanted to be buried here,” my dad said as they gathered in the living room after dinner. My brother and I pretended to be getting ready for bed, but stayed within earshot.

“Oh really,” Dottie said.

Knowing my dad, I now doubt any of this is true, but at the time, we were both enthralled by the stories.

“The Andersons, you know the couple that lived here before us? They thought they heard noises late at night,” my dad said.


“Some footsteps in the attic, but mostly music.” My dad was barely making eye contact, loading his pipe with tobacco.

Neil gave my dad a skeptical glare. “The Beatles?”

“Sure. The Beatles,” my dad laughed and got up to refill glasses.

“What kind of music?” Dottie asked.

“They didn’t say. I can write to them if it matters.”

“Oh, no. Don’t bother.”

The conversation drifted to other subjects and sleep pulled us upstairs to bed.

That night, every creak, every branch clicking on the window sounded like bony fingers pulling at the sashes, but when I heard something clump, my curiosity got the better of me. Tiptoeing down the narrow, twisting stairway leading to the basement, I saw a flickering light, and yes, I heard muted shuffling as if someone was dragging boxes or a body over the floor. Once I worked up the courage, I peeked around the corner expecting to see General Custer, sword and all glaring back at me, but no one was there. My feet were cold, so I switched off the light and climbed back up to bed. Later that night, distant organ music and bloody scenes of Custer fighting at the Little Big Horn filled my dreams.

In the morning, I asked if anyone had heard music or noises from the basement. My little brother scoffed (as usual) and mom convinced me it was nothing. The next night, well past midnight, I heard the same—at least the music. Though very faint, I eventually recognized Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, one of dad’s and my favorite organ pieces. This went on for about a week until one morning, as we were finishing breakfast, Dottie appeared at the back door, her hair still in curlers. She looked as if she had not slept a wink. “Fran, did you hear it?”

“What was that Dottie?” Mom ushered her in, settling her into a chair with a cup of coffee.

“Music. Handel I think.”

“Bach. It was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor,” I said, returning to the comic strip.

“You heard it too?” Dottie said, pulling down the paper.

“Sure. I hear it every night.”

“Go get dressed,” mom said in her “get lost” voice.

I took another bite and hung around in the hallway, just out of sight.

“Jack’s been…” Mom whispered.

“Been what?” Dottie asked.

“Pulling a prank. He’s been playing organ music through a speaker he stuffed into a hole in the wall between the houses.”


I had to cover my mouth to stifle the laugh.

“I’m afraid so. I’m so sorry.”

Dad had struck again.

We didn’t hear any music after that, but early Sunday morning, persistent knocking got all of us out of bed, including my dad who liked to sleep in on Sundays. From the top of the stairs, I watched my dad open the door to a stern Military Police Sergeant.

“Col. Vaughn?”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Honest Jack?” the Sergeant said, reading from a large piece of cardboard.

“What is it Sergeant?”

“Sir, with all due respect, you know it’s against regulations to run a business out of your quarters.”

“Again, Sergeant. What’s the issue here?” My dad’s voice was getting louder as if it made him easier to understand. It didn’t.

“Sir, you’ll have to take down those signs.”

“Sergeant, Miller is it? I still don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Dad was now in his “take names and fire back mode.”

“Sir, can you come with me?”


“Now, sir.”

In bare feet, my dad reluctantly followed the Sergeant into the front yard who pointed down the block before marching around to the back of the house with my dad close behind. I scurried around to watch from my brother’s back bedroom. Someone, probably our neighbor Neil, had taken his revenge by placing signs on the handful of cars parked behind the house: my dad’s VW Variant, my mom’s Ford, my 1930 Model A Ford, and my brother’s 1942 Plymouth. Each car had been priced and tagged with pitches such as “Classic”, “Great Deal!” and “Runs Like New.” We later discovered that someone had also posted signs all up and down the block with arrows leading to our alley such as, “Big Sale at Honest Jack’s.” Why wouldn’t the MPs think my dad was running a used car lot behind the house?

My dad was eventually able to talk the MPs out of filing a report, but I shudder to think what he did to retaliate. I do know that my dad never got even. He always got ahead.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Timkers—A New Beginning

About eighteen months ago, I had a wild, exciting dream. No it was not (entirely) one of those dreams, but it was thrilling none-the-less. When I awoke, I decided to take an entirely new direction in my writing. While I love the characters and stories in The Seldith Chronicles, I wanted to create stories that are more “adult,” where I could more freely describe passion—platonic, intimate and brutal that adults experience. I wanted to bring my readers to the exotic and interesting places I’ve visited all over the world, starting with Seattle. I also wanted to tell the story of strong female characters and the men that shape, suppress and support them. To that end, I wrote The Timkers.

clip_image002Ruth is one of those characters. She walks into the story wearing muddy coveralls, with dirty, matted red hair, worn-out shoes, and intensely green eyes—eyes that drew men to her. I had to get to know more about her, get her cleaned up and awaken her strength and the determination to bring herself and her family back to life in the mire of the Great Depression in 1930.

A number of time travel stories have also influenced me, and I imagined scenes where someone from our time visits the distant past. I wondered if  modern-day talents would be of any use. Sam is smart, tech-savvy and street-tough, but with a soiled history. He lost two years in the for-profit Texas judicial system, only to be re-entangled on the tough streets of modern-day Seattle. When The Timkers starts, Sam’s on the run again after a deadly encounter with a street thug. Stowing away on a bus heading out of town, he soon finds himself in 1930. Sam’s convinced things could not get more complicated—right up to the point where he meets Ruth in a Pioneer Square bordello.

In the first month since its publication, The Timkers has earned ten five-star reviews. But don’t take their word for it. Take a look at the preview and see if you aren’t drawn in. Yes, The Timkers is a series, like the romance and mystery novels you love. And yes, another is on the way.

The Timkers is written under the author name of WR Vaughn to help my readers find my New Adult titles.



Monday, June 2, 2014

IMHO: In Regard to The Climate

In regard to the climate, we should spend another couple of decades debating and discussing and pointing fingers. We should figure out what each specific President did or didn’t do and send them to bed without supper. We should discredit the scientists and astrophysicists, biologists, anthropologists and computer scientists who predicted what’s happening because it’s all just a silly unproven theory.

As I see it, this scenario is more like “On the Beach” than “Leaves of Grass”.

Believe it or not, the earth is in real trouble. Some countries get it and are harnessing wind and solar as fast as they can. They support mass transit and their cars get better mileage—they have to because they charge the real cost of gas. At the same time, other countries like the US are still talking about the problem—even denying there’s anything wrong as the water splashes at our ankles on Wall Street. At the same time, other (very) serious polluters upwind from the US are facilitated by American businesses. They’re planning to ship these global polluters our coal and fracked oil because it’s too dirty to burn here. Don’t they get it? The smoke ends up here, in our lungs—in our kid’s lungs.

IMHO, the day of fossil fuels has been over for some time, but is nuclear power a viable alternative? Excuse me? Have we learned nothing from Fukushima, Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island? What about the mess we have yet to clean up at Hanford? And what about the used fuel from the safest plants? Yes, there are other alternatives, but give up meat? Seriously? We need to take real steps toward real long-term, sustainable solutions. Will we have to give up electricity? Why? There are many other ways to generate electricity. And yes, it’s obscene that states are passing laws to make adoption of solar or wind or alternative energy sources more expensive or even illegal.

The time to discuss whether there is a problem or not has long since past. The ship has hit the iceberg. Deciding what’s going to be served in the Windjammer dining room for dinner is a waste of time.

As a country, we should be ashamed of ourselves. We have permitted all three branches of government at the local state and federal level to be taken over by forces whose profits depend on the status quo. These corporations (and individuals) will no-doubt continue to deny, delay and block solutions as long as the financial markets focus on next quarter’s profits, not realizing that the very existence of their corporations is in jeopardy in the long-term. Frankly, they don’t care. As long as their fourth home in the mountains in Montana is above the high-water mark, they’re happy.

Our children’s tears and anger will be directed at us for generations to come. They will curse the day we were born for doing nothing, for despoiling their only world, for leaving them with a dead sea and an uninhabitable planet. The loss of life, property and security of our nation and our very existence depended on what men and women did twenty and fifty and a hundred years ago—but more importantly what we do now to correct their mistakes and our own.


Friday, May 30, 2014

Amazon and Reality

Amazon is in the news lately for their dealings with the Hachette Book Group—a very large mainstream publisher. Folks, as I see it, the core of this problem is the bizarre publishing business. Consider that when a minor miracle happens and an author gets a mainstream publisher to carry a new book, the author usually get an advance (usually, but not always), but little after that unless the books goes viral. The publisher edits the book, produces the cover, prints up copies and does some (less that most would like) marketing—but generally only to bookstores. The publishers don’t really sell anything to individuals—not directly. The books are marketed, sold and shipped to distributors who warehouse the books, and supply bookstores who order them and ship them out again. The bookstores shelve the books, keep them dusted and wait. If they sell, they (might) order more but when they don’t, they arrange to ‘return’ the remaining books to the distributor for a refund. What usually happens is that the unsold books are donated to a rural landfill or pulped. In this system, each layer takes a cut. The publisher, the distributor, the bookstore chain, the shipping companies, the landfill operator and the bookstore itself. This means a good author typically gets less than 15% in royalties.

Seldith Chronicles Composite Covers (small) V20

In the Amazon model, the author writes a book, formats it for Kindle and submits it to Amazon for publication—no money changes hands. Amazon does not edit the books unless the author pays for that service. Amazon posts virtually all submissions on their website (for free) and if it sells, they send the author up to 70% of the sale. The author pays for download fees out of their cut.

If the author wants to sell printed books so they can give a copy to their mom, they can go to a vanity press and order N thousand copies and keep them in their garage until their spouse runs into them with the car. In this case, they have to market and sell the books to retail outlets themselves and act as the shipper and distributor and take back books if they (when they) don’t sell as fast as the bookstores would like. I’ve done this, but I ordered 100 or so at a time from a local on-demand printer. This was in 1992. I also did not let bookstores take the books on consignment nor would I take books back if they didn’t sell. Only one bookstore in five would work with me. In the end, I was selling 50 or so a week out of the house—just before Microsoft Press picked it up. I wish there was an Amazon in those days.

With the Amazon/CreateSpace model, authors can take their Kindle-formatted book, run it through an online program to generate a for-print version in a few minutes. They can take the time to create their own cover or use the Amazon cover wizard. All of this can be done for free. Of course, if you want Amazon to provide the ISBN, you can—for free. If you want Amazon to provide “expanded” distribution that will cost you—$35.

As far as independent bookstores go, these small businesses are being hurt by Amazon in that they have to compete with books sold at very low margins (perhaps because there are fewer middle-men) and while readers can’t touch Amazon books before they buy them, they can get them in a couple of days by mail. These indie stores are also hurt by Kindle or eBook sales except when the author has gone to the trouble of creating alternative formats using companies like Smashwords to produce and distribute the electronic copies—versions that the indies can sell directly. But the indie bookstores are also woven into the establishment problem. It’s often just as hard for us independent authors to get on their shelves as it is for us to be picked up (assimilated) by the mainstream publishers. Some bookstores won’t even talk to us without a successful book in hand—just like the big publishers. Some won’t do book signings unless we can do it in conjunction with other authors. Sure, this makes sense for them, but it’s just another hurdle for low-budget authors. Frankly, I don’t expect these businesses to be around for long.

This whole business is feeling the same pressure as the record industry when cassette tapes became popular. Now that anyone (as in really friggen anyone) can create an eBook in a matter of minutes and get it on the Amazon site in less time than it takes to read the Sunday New York Times (well, in about a day), independent bookstores and brick and mortar stores are feeling the pinch. But their business model is bloated as there are too many middle men, shipping companies, building rent collectors and people dusting and selling books by hand to support. Will this trend reverse itself? I don’t think so. Okay, no. Will the independent bookstores have to adapt? Of course, or they will face the same fate as Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail.

But what will us independent authors do? I’ll continue to work with bookstores like McDonalds Book Exchange in Redmond, WA and JJ Books in Bothell that carry my series The Seldith Chronicles and try to lobby other stores in the area that want to take books on consignment. Yes, this is a burden for them as it means author-specific accounts and more overhead for them but they get to deal with an author who will bend over backwards to help promote the books and the stores. I’ll also continue to write and publicize the books whenever and wherever I can. Yes, I’m that guy you met on the bus when you were reading your Kindle and asked if you like fantasy fiction. Sorry, I just had to ask.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Learn Something New Every Day

I ran across Kirsten Lamb’s blog entry where she describes “Six Easy Tips for Self-Editing Your Fiction.” I opened “Quest for The Truth” (the third novel in The Seldith Chronicles) and discovered that I too had slipped into passive voice far too many times. I opened the navigation pane in Word and did a search on ‘was’—not a single chapter was spared. Of course, we all need to use ‘was’, but using it in passive voice such as ‘she was sewing’ instead of the active ‘she sewed’ can distract the reader, but more importantly, the editors and reviewers that look for this sort of thing.

I wasn’t as guilty of many of the other suggestions in her article, but that’s only because my mentors have already pointed them out. I’ll keep learning as I evolve from an award-winning technical writer (where the code has to work) to a budding fiction writer where the words have to work.

During my last editing pass I also discovered I had not always used the right punctuation when writing dialog. For example,

“How is this done,” he said. (is right, but…)
“How this is not done.” He said. (is not)

I wrote a Word macro to ferret these out and correct them en-masse.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas—A Classic Before its Time

Cloud Atlas Poster     Fifty years from now, high-school students (if there are any) will be writing homework assignments on this masterful film. Today, in the year 2012, viewers under 18 aren't permitted to see this R-rated film without their parents. I agree with the rating. It does portray adult themes and it is violent, but still, little is shown that young-people today don't see on the web or while playing Halo 4.

     As a creative fiction writer, I think that I learned several important lessons from the film and the insightful story it tells. First, there are no limits to the way vitally important messages about humanity can be told. I expect that some might have trouble following the story-line, as it was told as if someone was weaving individual strands of people’s lives into an magnificent tapestry that transports the viewer from one era to another between heartbeats. Before long, we recognize the commonality of the threads as we lean back and see the story as a whole. It’s not just the faces of the hauntingly familiar characters that ebb and flow in the plot, like the years and ages that flash by before our eyes, it’s their common humanity or lack there-of. In each era there are those who strive and sacrifice themselves to make the world more habitable for themselves, but more importantly, for others. And there are those who would pray on the helpless, and the hapless and those who are just sitting astride the planet as if they were riding a carnival ride eating popcorn. For them, there are a number of exciting 3D chase scenes.

     I also learned that this story raises the bar on writing, directing and acting. I now have a rather lofty goal to create something at least half this impactful. I hope to fold in more of these life lessons of sacrifice, generosity and courage into my future work.

     Go see it. After you see it, consider taking your older sons and daughters and explain it to them or listen while others try to explain it to each other. I’ll be listening too. We all are in this together. I hope we survive.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Were The Iranians Looking For?

In December 1978, I was working for Ross Perot at Electronic Data Systems. I mean, for Ross Perot himself . Before then, I had been working as a senior developer on Part B healthcare systems. One afternoon afterimage lunch, I found a yellow sticky note stuck to my monitor. My first thoughts: I’m screwed. I took too long for lunch. We knew Ross monitored our card-key comings and goings and I had taken an extra ten minutes. I’m totally screwed. “What’s with this?” I asked Darrell, my manager. He just shrugged and told me to hustle my ass upstairs. I scurried up to Ross’ office on the 7th floor. His secretary/gatekeeper recognized me at once. “Hi Bill, go on in. He’s waiting for you.” Her cute Atlanta accent was wilting. How did she know me? I smiled, and began walking my final mile toward Ross’ office. The door was open.

“Hi Bill, have a seat. How’s the wife? I understand you have a new daughter.” His signature east-Texas twang made me feel a lot less like a condemned man and more like he lived next door. For the next few minutes I filled in the details on my family and how well I liked my job. But he already seemed to know everything. He knew how I had hacked into the EDS mainframes all over the country using a Radio Shack antenna switch to get my programs compiled on idle systems. And he had heard how I had soldered together my own personal computer, written my own BIOS and was programming at home as much as I was at the office. He didn’t know that I thought his operation was inefficient and I had bypassed many of their rules to get more done in less time. I’m screwed.

And then he told me why he had asked to talk to me. Ross had read a story in Popular Electronics that said the 8080 CPU would revolutionize the world. For the next hour we discussed the future of computing. He was a good listener. To make a long story short, that’s when I started to work for Ross himself as his technical advisor. I was moved into an office on the 7th floor and asked to sit in on meetings and consult on any number of technical issues. I eventually began work on an accounting program that would be sold with IBM 5110 “personal” computers to small businesses.

Fallout from the Iran Mission

In December of 1978 several bedraggled men were placed in the vacant desks all around us. Despite the fact they were wearing the EDS uniform (3-piece business suits), they looked like they had just returned from a harrowing battle in Vietnam. At first they didn’t really say much. But over the next few days we learned more and more about how EDS’s grand plans for Iran had fallen through.

They told us how EDS wanted to expand their foreign offices. When they discovered that the Shah of Iran wanted to modernize their systems to ostensibly keep track of their citizens, Ross jumped at the chance. He flew a team to Iran and EDS was awarded the bid. For some reason, the other vendors wanted a lot more time to get the system up but Ross’ people were confident they could get it up in a year. What they didn’t know is that it usually took several years to get anything through customs. The onsite team worked around this by “storing” the shipment in a sealed warehouse within the customs security fence. Less than a year later the system was up. After some time, they were bringing in a million dollars a month. It was widely rumored was the database was being used by SAVAK to track dissidents.

All was going well until the Shah was deposed and the government stopped paying their monthly bill. Eight months later, the situation had deteriorated dramatically. While the State Department was not providing much sensible intelligence, the EDS employees and their families were already very concerned. When someone drove by the EDS building and sprayed the second floor offices with an AK47, they knew they had to get out while they could. After getting the go-ahead from Dallas, the staff backed up the system to tape and formatted the hard drives. The tapes were taken to the American Embassy and put in an embassy pouch to be delivered back to the Dallas headquarters. Unfortunately, an informant working for the company notified Khomeini’s people. Most of the staff escaped Tehran as quickly as possible.

The story of what happened to the EDS employees (Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord) that didn’t get out was fodder for a Ken Follett book “On Wings of Eagles.” After they were thrown in prison, the question they were asked a thousand times was “Where is the data?” Ross was able to engineer an escape for his employees and they returned to the Dallas headquarters. When I heard about it, I volunteered to fly the chopper out of Turkey. Ross thanked me but turned me down. He had recruited my flight-school instructor pilot.

When the mobs attacked the embassy in April of 1980, they turned the building inside out looking for something. Was it the data tapes containing SAVAK files?

Again, an American company was was paid millions (perhaps through naiveté) to make a tyrannical regime more efficient at monitoring its citizens (and victims). While EDS was told this system was to replicate the functionality of the Social Security system in the US, did the EDS people onsite know it was being used by the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police? Were they ignorant, or did they turn a blind eye? Did Ross know? Only those men who survived this really know. Perhaps we should ask them—just to get the story straight.

Of course, all of this unfolded over three decades ago. My memory is not what it once was but this is the story as I remember it. Perhaps it will help those individuals working for companies here and abroad to be more cognizant of whom they are helping with their skills.