About Donna Royston

I was in a play once, in fourth grade. It was a tiny, nonspeaking role, in which I played a student in a classroom. All I had to do was sit in a chair among other students, open a book and read on the command of the teacher, and about 30 seconds later, again on the teacher’s command, close the book, get up, and exit. We supplied our own props, so I used the library book I was then reading. I think it was Misty of Chincoteague. Midway through my performance, I became aware of laughter from the audience, and I looked up from my book. The other students had finished the scene and exited—I saw them grinning at me from the wings—and the teacher was ad-libbing some wisecrack about paying attention in class. I jumped up and made my exit. What’s so wonderful about stories? A two-word answer: other worlds.

All in a Day’s Work

Here’s an entertaining article about Margaret Hamilton (who played the Wicked Witch of the West), post-Wizard of Oz:

Margaret HamiltonMargaret_Hamilton_Judy_Garland_1939

When I was a kid, the yearly airing of The Wizard of Oz was a big deal for me. At Halloween I always dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West. And with a minimum of coaxing, I would act out the witch’s dramatic death by water. “I’m melting! Melting!”

On Actor’s Studio, Johnny Depp told how when he was little, he loved to act out the DTs scene from Lost Weekend for his mom’s friends. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how funny that must have been.

Strange, I didn’t grow up to be an actor….

Apocalyptic Musing by Adam-Troy Castro

What would people do if they had advance notice of the world ending? “The End of the World Measured in Values of N,” an SF story by Adam-Troy Castro in the July issue of Lightspeed, answers that question. It’s perhaps more of an artfully told essay than fiction.

But no matter how you see it, the story leads to a biting conclusion about mankind’s inability to look ahead and work cooperatively to protect our own civilization. I’m keeping this story in mind for my personal awards nomination list. (Have to keep it ahead of the deadlines, or else the mind goes blank!)

See what you think. You can find it here: End of the World

West Wing Doghouse


JOHNSON: Senator Enzi.

ENZI. Thank you. Luke, congratulations on your nomination. Thank you for coming by to meet with us. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask about your qualifications. You have no previous governmental or policy experience, is that correct? Do you really think that you are qualified to head the new U. S. Dept. of Loyalty?

LUKE: Excuse me, Senator, but I am four years old. It’s not like I’m a puppy still wet behind the ears. I have years of experience in being loyal, even to humans who locked me in a crate and made me stay there all day with my own waste. Have you been loyal under such conditions?

ENZI: Not yet… There is considerable speculation as to how the Department of Loyalty will operate. What do you see as your role in serving as Secretary of Loyalty? Do you plan to suggest that citizens of the United States take a loyalty test?

LUKE: Oh, no. My job will be simply to be loyal.

ENZI: To the president? Or to the United States?

LUKE: To Donald. He told me we should be on a first-name basis. Truthfully, I’m not sure we’re a good match, but I’ll be loyal anyway.

JOHNSON: Senator, your time is up. Senator Heitkamp.

HEITKAMP: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Luke, my question to you is: why is a U. S. Department of Loyalty necessary? Can’t you provide the president with your loyalty without needing to be Secretary of Loyalty?

LUKE: I need a staff to feed me, walk me, and pick up my poop. Donald should do that, but he says he won’t. These are important staffing requirements that, when met, will enable me to put my full attention on supporting Donald.

HEITKAMP: Do you owe any favors to the Russians?

LUKE: There was a borzoi, once, but we just exchanged a few pleasantries. A mutual butt-sniff. She was much too tall for me, unfortunately. No commitments, either way.

TESTER: Mr. Chairman, may I ask a question.

HEITKAMP: I don’t mind if he takes part of my time.

JOHNSON: Very well, go ahead.

TESTER: I’m not positive, but I don’t think there has ever been a nonhuman Secretary as a member of the Cabinet before.

LUKE: The lawyers researched it. Not in the United States, but there is a historical precedent in ancient Rome. It was a horse, not a dog, but still. Not human.

TESTER: So your job will be solely to be loyal.

LUKE: Yes. Donald says it’s the single qualification for all his positions, not just mine.

JOHNSON (aside to Tester): How’s that going? The Dept. of Labor is so empty you can hear an echo.

TESTER: Your mic.

JOHNSON: Oops… So, Luke, just to be clear, if President Trump tweets a complaint about your performance, you will still be loyal?

LUKE: Yes. I am unconditionally loyal.

JOHNSON: If he insults you?

LUKE: Still loyal.

JOHNSON: If he shouts and screams?

LUKE: Shouting makes me nervous.

JOHNSON: But still loyal?

LUKE: Yes… but I must emphasize that I do not like shouting. And I have teeth.


Journal of the Travels of Christian Forrer III (1822), part 2

DeWitt Clinton by Peale

Portrait of DeWitt Clinton, Father of the Erie Canal. Painting by Peale, c. 1823.

This section contains one of my favorite stories from Christian’s journal, in which he meets the famous governor of New York, DeWitt Clinton. The governor must have been a wonderfully good-natured man, to be so polite to a bumptious young traveler who was wasting his time.

But first, while the steamboat is being repaired, the passengers take a night-time stroll in former governor Lewis’s gardens.

After the workmen commenced a great many went ashore and amused themselves by walking through the Governors Gardens and orchards, & his situation is an excellent one, having a Butifule elevation with an excellent house on it surrounded with well improved gardens & a full view of the river.

[Christian neglects to mention here that they get back on the steamboat when it is repaired and resume their journey up the Hudson.]

We passed several vary handsome country seats but the banks are generally vary Rough & bould. West Point … we passed in the night, of course I could not have a fair view of it. I could discouver it was a vary noted point & considerable … We … at this place & several others, Katskill, & Hudson, a vary butiful village on the right hand side of the river as you come up, & Athens on the left.

We arrived at Albany about 3 o’clock in the morning of the 20 May 1822 This is a vary fine morning but from the northern weather caused it to be somewhat cold. With the small quantity of head clothing caused me to [feel] somewhat unwell but not dangerous. I tuck my lodging with a young man by the name of Scot who I got a slight acquaintance with on our passage from Trenton to New York at McWelmores Tavern.

I scoured Albany in the morning before Breakfast. There is a vary good State House at this but scarsely suitable to the dignity of the state, but perhaps they keep there money for better purposes and internal improvements. I should undertake to give an account of the banks, population, etc of the different places but I have a pamphlet … graphical & statistical manual of the State of New York which gives a much more detailed account than I can. I shall therefore [omit?] that part and only mention several magnificent Buildings & […] places situated in the several places through which I pass. The State House is a vary good Building supported in front by marble pillars carved after the Dorick order. The Academy is a vary fine Building after the same order out of freestone. The Reformed Dutch Church is one of the Best Building of kind I ever seen after the Dorick Order out of freestone. The markets of this place are vary indifferent Buildings scattered every direction through the city.

On my passage from Philadelphia to Albany I became acquainted with Fuller, who stated he was acquainted with Cousin Samuel Forrer the 3d, of course I glad to see him.

Vessels of 80 to 100 tuns burden can come to Albany. I here gave orders to the [illegible] as well as at New York to send letters directed to me to Cincinnati, Ohio, this morning, and entered the stage office for Utica. We shall proceed about 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

After taking a general view of the City of Albany, and still having time left for to look about and as I contemplated to visit Governor Clinton when I arrived to Albany for the purpose of obtaining some necessary information as to the situation, prices & natural advantages of land situated in the western part of N.Y.

There were two young men on in company with me in Albany who I got somewhat acquainted on our passage from New York. One a Young Lawyer by the name of Scot, a Young Man of a vary liberal disposition, rather rough in his manners, apparently reather fond of strong drink but leaving out those falts he was a fine fellow, vary much a Virginian. The other was Mr. Eaton from Boston, a vary lively little Yanky. I mentioned my Desire to see the governor in the presence of those young men. Eaton said he had just seen him as he passed the street & was vary desirous as well as Scot that I should pay the governor a visit. I to the gentlemen if they would me, would certainly go. They appeared to be [on stand?] for some time but at last concluded not to go.

Scot said he would not go for one $1000. Eaton backed out likewise. However I was determined to pay the governor a visit. Accordingly I set out for his house, knocked on the door, a servant opened. I inquired if the Governor was in. Yes, she replyed, walk in. She accordingly conducted me to the governors room. He received me with a great deal of politeness. After making some apology for my intrusion I then proceded to state the cause of my visit. But by the by the moust of my visit was to see what sort of looking fellow he was. He answered me vary politely, asked me a considerable number of questions, ordered his servant to bring some wine, & invited vary politely to drink, which I accordingly did. He then asked me if I kept a journal. I answered in the affirmative. He then shewed me several penns maid of Brays Mannufacturers by the Shaking Quakers & offered me one as a present which I did not like to take as I did not go there for a present. However as he insisted that I should take it & gave him my best thanks,* he told he would take into consideration the situation of the country & would rite to me on the subject. He accordingly wanted my name and place of residence for that purpose which accordingly gave & tuck my leave of him.

*The pen with which he writes this account and his subsequent entries does seem to be much better quality, making a finer and more legible line. It was a good gift…and made this transcriber’s job easier, too.

Journal of the Travels of Christian Forrer III (1822), part 1

The United_States, a steamboat on the Hudson, 1821

The United States, a steamboat on the Hudson River, 1821. Drawing by Samuel Ward Stanton, 1895 (Wikimedia)

When I was a kid, I always stayed a week or two at my grandparents’ farm in the summer. My grandmother, as faithfully as she went to church every Sunday, faithfully went to a sale or two every Saturday. By “sale,” which is what she called it, I mean an estate auction. At one, she picked up an old journal, the pages brown, and immediately handed it to me as a gift, saying that I enjoyed such things.

I opened it and began to read. The handwriting was difficult, but I figured out most of the words. And I did enjoy it.

So, it’s been decades now and I really want to share the text with others who will find it interesting. Unfortunately, the front cover separated from the rest of the book and a page or two may be lost, or maybe it just took young Christian a while to start using the journal after he bought it. His spelling is erratic (and sometimes I’ve just corrected it because otherwise autocorrect turns a nonstandard spelling into something absurd). Occasionally it is simply impossible to be read his handwriting — I apologize for the gaps. And he almost NEVER uses a period or comma.

Without any more introduction, let’s begin, and board the steamship for Albany:

A journal of the travels of Christian Forrer the 3rd

Commenced on the 15 April 1822

Bought of a Book Seller in Philadelphia

This penn was maid a present to Christian Forrer the 3rd by De Wit Clinton, Governor of New York.

May the 18 1822 about 4 o’clock in the afternoon I set out in the steam boat up the H. river for Albany the capital of New York, a distance therefrom 160 (?) miles. Lots of passage [passengers, presumably]. This $6 boarding found you in the bargain. We proceeded on without much molestation having about 180 passengers on board. Some of the principle men of the state were on board, Judge Yates the [executive?] governor of the state of New York and two other supreme judges belonging to the state of New York, Judge Spencer and Judge Prat, besides a great many lawyers. Leaving the City of New York was a [illegible] to me. The boat was crowded with citizens from Philadelphia taking leave of their friends. As for myself, I had no friends to leave nor nobody to regret my going. This together with the lively appearance of the people, the threatening appearance of the [?] and [?] the vast forrest of shipping laying in harbor with a grand landscape view of the country [?] around all this combined with the novelty of a boat moved with fire and steam maid appear [?] grand indeed.

We moved at the rate of about 11 miles an hour quite smoothly until about 3 o’clock in the morning when we grounded and were impelled to stay until morning, when by trying to force her off by steam busted one of the conducting pipes. This accident put us out of hopes of reaching Albany. The captain sent an express off to Albany to get the boat Firefly, but having stopped near the exgovernor Lewis’s plantation, the captain got one of the governor’s blacksmiths to examine the pipe which he declared to be easily mended. He was immediately employed and in the coarse of about 6 hours the boat was ready to proceed.

[to be continued]

Feel the Force, Luke


Luke, thinking Deep Thoughts.

I haven’t officially welcomed the newcomer to the household–Luke! He was adopted from a rescue group late last year. Let’s see what he has to say.

Donna: Any thoughts on the state of the arts? One of your predecessors, Toby, was something of a Rolling Stones fan. He particularly liked the song “Bitch” (although he was disappointed by the deceptive title) and the organ solo in “I’ve Got the Blues.”

Luke: I don’t pay much attention to music. But I do appreciate the fiber arts.

Donna: Oh, yes, the blanket. What do you find aesthetically pleasing about it?

Luke: When you first brought it home, rolled up, it was like a giant toy! It was huge! It was a real challenge to carry it around, but you know I am up for anything as long as it is play. No toy gets the better of me.

Donna: But its merits as a work of art…?

Luke: Well, when you unrolled it, I realized it was a blanket, but it still retained that play-with-me quality, which I love. It’s soft and cushy, yet strong, so I can pull it from one end of the couch to the other, over and over, without tearing it, even when I use paws and teeth. Best. Blanket. Ever.

Donna: What do you think of the neighborhood?

Luke: Great! …except for one thing….

Donna: What is that?

Luke: The storm drains. My previous humans didn’t take me exploring so I never realized how many of these truly frightening hazards are scattered about.

Donna: They’re not frightening.

Luke: I notice that humans seem to be unaware of the subtle, horrible smell that emanates from these hellish openings in the pavement.

Donna: No, I’ve never noticed a smell, but dogs do have more sensitive noses. The storm drains smell like poop, you mean?

Luke: Slightly, but I don’t mind that. No — they smell like … damp … and dark … and cats. I think cats use them as secret passages. That is very worrisome.

Donna: Any thoughts on politics? Advice for President Trump?

Luke: I hear that he doesn’t have a dog.

Donna: That’s correct.

Luke: I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, he doesn’t look like a good ball-thrower, and wouldn’t be any fun. However, a dog could teach him something about loyalty.

Donna: President Trump is very firm about wanting loyalty.

Luke: Yes, but here’s where he goes wrong: loyalty is something that you give, not that you take. There was a perfect example in All the President’s Men

Donna: I didn’t realize you were watching that. I thought you were asleep.

Luke: I am never asleep while something is going on, even if I look like I am. Near the end, when the two reporters screw up and the paper is being attacked, the editor of the newspaper decides, “We’re going to stick by the boys.” That’s loyalty.

Donna: We’re almost out of time. Any final words?

Luke: Play every day. That’s my advice. Speaking of which, would you throw the squeaky lamb for me now?

Progress Report!

I am doing the Clarion West Write-a-thon again this year, so far with greater success than last year. I’ll talk more about “success” in another post. For now, I’ll just say I’m going for less emphasis on writing thousands of words and more on writing every day at consistent times.

If I get at least 5 sponsors (for any small amount), I’ll start posting installments of the novel that I’m working on. As of last week, I had one sponsor, so there is still an opportunity to have an effect!

A description of the Write-a-thon is here:


And my profile and goals are here:


And now I must write….

Fantastic Defenders

momotaro enlists allies

Momotaro enlists allies: a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant. [Project Gutenberg]

I have recently served as co-editor of a short story anthology, Fantastic Defenders, with my fellow writer, David Keener. The official release was during Balticon. I had fun writing the introduction, and here it is, to give you an idea of what the book’s aim is:

One place to begin, in talking about fantastic defenders, is the Japanese folk tale “Momotaro”: a childless old woman finds a beautiful peach floating down a stream and she takes it home to her husband; the peach suddenly splits open and a miraculous baby boy is inside. When the boy grows to fifteen years old, he hears of the people of northeast Japan being terrorized by demons who arrive by sea to pillage, kidnap, and murder. Momotaro determines that he will be their defender and fight the demons.

Or, if you prefer, look at Beowulf: the young man hears of a land being tormented by the man-eating monster Grendel and he sails from his home in Geatland to offer himself as defender to King Hrothgar.

As for the “fantastic” part, while it points to the story having fantastical elements, the defender often does not have any magical powers—but still may have to oppose supernatural creatures. Momotaro may be a gift from heaven to a deserving couple, but no special powers are given to him. Beowulf relies on his courage and his great physical strength.

In these two exemplar stories, we can discern the nature of the defender, who:

• is compassionate and feels intensely the distress of others;
• may defend an individual, but frequently is defending an entire people; and
• possesses an extraordinary firmness of will and clarity of purpose, and does not waver or give up.

Every defender will not perfectly fulfill all of these traits, but this is our starting point.

The struggle against despair is a frequent theme in stories of fantastic defenders. Sometimes it is an inward struggle, a personal dark night of the soul. Or despair permeates an entire community; a people have lost the ability to live their lives free from oppression and violence. The defender is the enemy of despair.

To point to another well-known defender, Gandalf does have magical powers—he is a wizard and also possesses one of the rings of power. Yet his actions with the greatest impact, for all his ability to bring down bolts of lightning on foes, are in discernment and hope. He counsels and persuades Theoden to resist and fight rather than surrender to hopelessness; he rallies scattered forces to return and fight; dread flees from his presence because his courage and steadfast commitment heartens people.

And here’s another: Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence—in spite of his cherubic demeanor, tendency to giggle, and dithering over ordering a flaming rum punch or mulled wine “heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves”—proves to be a determined, indeed, a steely and almost cruel defender against despair. He allows George Bailey to see an alternate future in which he never existed: a brother dead in childhood; his mother old, embittered, poor; his uncle in an insane asylum; and most painfully, his never-wife Mary alone, childless, not recognizing him. This is tough love at the highest setting.

It’s rather fun to put Clarence in the company of Gandalf, Beowulf, and Momotaro. But something even more unusual is under the surface of It’s a Wonderful Life. In the process of saving George, Clarence doesn’t just keep him from jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. He enables a revelation: it turns out that George is the defender of the town of Bedford Falls, and has been ever since he took over the family building and loan after the death of his father.

As the alternate-reality scenario later makes explicit, the fate of Bedford Falls depends on the outcome of the struggle between the predator, Mr. Potter, and the defender, George Bailey. George makes a blunt assessment of what’s at stake very early in the story, when he hears the town banker call for the Bailey Building and Loan to be shut down: “My father…did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter… People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle… This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter.”

And yet, somehow, George remains largely unconscious of his calling as a defender. Momotaro knows what he’s set out to do. So do Gandalf and Beowulf. George, however, doesn’t see the latent, ghostly potentiality of Pottersville, awaiting the moment when the will of its would-be maker is free and unopposed, ever ready to manifest itself and grow into merciless and degrading reality. George runs his business, makes loans, celebrates the new houses of his friends, and all the while his life is a disappointment to him. Distracted by his regret for the adventurous life he never achieved, he misses the big picture of his purpose in family and community.

That awareness comes as part of the climax on Christmas Eve, when George faces despair and sees what it means to not be there, to not take action. How interesting it is for the audience to see the hero’s purpose—which is usually presented early to drive the story—arrive so late, and yet be so satisfying!

We have stretched the definition of a fantastic defender and ventured outside the confines of genre by including George Bailey. He does not face a supernatural foe. But look again at Beowulf’s enemy, Grendel. Why does he hunt and murder the Danes? Because the sound of music and joy coming from the beautiful hall Heorot arouses his anger and hatred, directed against the people inside. In terms of character psychology, Grendel’s estrangement from mankind seems strangely similar to Mr. Potter’s.

So, step into the circle, George Bailey. Shake hands with Beowulf, but do be mindful of his powerful grip.

One last thought. Why do we love stories of fantastic defenders? Here is a possible answer, first provided by G. K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already,” he wrote. “The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

This idea was paraphrased more succinctly by Neil Gaiman as “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Chesterton and Gaiman are speaking of stories about fantastic defenders, the ones who see rapacious and violent enemies and refuse to flee, will not lay low. They run toward the terrors. We admire them and take heart from their courage. And it is with pleasure that we offer the stories of Fantastic Defenders. We hope that the stories do justice to the spirit of real defenders everywhere.


Balticon: The Social Side of Writing

soot sprite

My very own soot sprite, purchased at Balticon.

Just got back from Balticon on Monday, and I was thinking about the wonderfully various array of activities and people, and what a great experience it is for a writer to get out and mingle.

And that led me to think that there’s a missing part to the standard exhortation “To be a writer, you must write.”

It makes more sense to say, “You must write and you must be read.” Writing is communication, and communication doesn’t happen until the message has been received by someone, who then responds. It’s a conversation.

“Write and be read” is only half of a conversation, the sending-forth part. “Read and listen” is the other part, where you receive, think about, and react to others’ ideas. If you speak or write without listening or reading, you’re only communicating with yourself. The writer and what is written both need to interact with other writers and other texts.

There is a social side of writing, which is why we gather. Balticon and the other cons aren’t the only ways that a writer can socialize. There are writing groups, too. They focus on the writing. But cons bring together the greater community — writers, editors, artists, agents, readers, fans — all of whose voices make up a larger conversation.

[Oddly, “social media” is weak in this respect, usually being declamation rather than conversation.]

I think that there is a connection between a writer who is social and a writer who is read. First of all, at cons you meet people who become curious about your writing, and you may also find sources of new ideas. But on another level, when you meet and listen to other writers, you and your writing are out there in the world, impacting and colliding with all those other writers and their ideas, getting stronger and gaining confidence.

Join the conversation.


Soot sprites leaving. Meeting new people is not for them.

Let the Coast Guard Handle This


Davy Jones’ locker: much pleasanter to say than “drowned”

I don’t do reviews of short fiction anymore, for a number of reasons. For one, see Neil Clarke’s column from last year, i.e., lack of impact.

However, just for fun, why not give a little nod toward recent stories, such as last week’s “A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea” by Ada Hoffmann at Strange Horizons?

When your lover drowns, please don’t cast a spell;
They’re finicky and monkey-paw-ish, and, well,
He’s dead, you know—so have a long talk with mom
And update your profile at Match.com.