A fascinating journey of discovery

I had a really fascinating experience last year that has turned into something of a journey of discovery. It’s still ongoing, and I’m sure it will affect my writing in years to come.

It started with family history. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been interested in family history for some time. My sister is a professional genealogist who specializes in Czech records (she keeps a blog here), and I got started by helping her.

In the United States, the census records are only useful to about 1850. Before that, you have to get into land records, probates and wills, and local courthouse type stuff to really go anywhere. But in the Czech lands, the Catholic Church has kept meticulous parish records going back to the 15th and 16th centuries. They’re handwritten in old German and totally unindexed, but the books are all digitized and available online.

As I worked on this research with my sister, I started to wonder: how far back can we push these lines? What are the limits?

The Czech lands were part of the Holy Roman Empire, under the Austrian Habsbugs. In the 15th century, the Hussite Wars shook things up quite a bit, and that’s about as far back as the Catholic parish records go. But the noble genealogies were very well kept, and go back quite a bit further. If one of your lines connects to the nobility (which is very possible, given how many bastard children were running around), you can push back really far.

But past the 8th century, things start to get sketchy. Most of the nobility in Europe are descended from the barbarian tribes who invaded the Roman Empire: the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, etc. Same thing with the Slavs and the Byzantine Empire, though the Byzantines held out much better than the Western Roman Empire (it was the Turks, not the barbarians, who eventually did them in).

The trouble is that when these barbarians took over, they tried to establish their legitimacy by fabricating genealogies. Plenty of royal European lines go back all the way to Adam and Eve, but how reliable is that really? As rulers of Christian lands, of course they would try to connect themselves to famous characters from the Bible.

The Dark Ages might not be as dark as we think they are, but in terms of records and record-keeping, they certainly are. The largest and most civilized empire in the world had just collapsed, with barbarians running amok in the countryside and the Persians threatening the last vestiges of the empire in the east. Very few historians have documented this era, and it was a huge dark spot in my own understanding of the world.

So I set out to study it. I scoured Wikipedia, subscribed to the Western Civ podcast, and listened to the entire History of Rome by Mike Duncan (excellent podcast, by the way). The Roman Empire had dominated Europe right up to the early middle ages, and I wanted to learn why it had fallen.

That led to a journey of discovery all in itself. Roman history is a fascinating subject in its own right, and the four or five centuries from the Punic Wars through the reign of Marcus Aurelius are very well documented. Rome faced a lot of challenges, and even a few existential threats, but for more than a thousand years they dominated the known world.

So why did they fall?

The more I studied about the Romans, the heavier this question weighed on me. I learned about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, the crisis of the third century, and Constantine the Great—a period of Roman history that was much less familiar to me. And then things started to click.

My Czech ancestors were serfs. They emmigrated to Texas shortly after the last vestiges of serfdom were abolished in 1848. Under serfdom, they were little better than slaves. The land they lived and worked on was owned by the Hukvaldy Estate, and they were bound to it by feudal law.

When Diocletian became Augustus, the Roman Empire was reeling from half a dozen existential crises, including an economic collapse. The money was so worthless, most of the empire had resorted to a barter economy. Diocletian established a system of exchange where people could pay their taxes with trade goods rather than money. However, the only way for that system to work was 1) for everyone to take the profession of their parents, and 2) for no one to move without Imperial permission. Otherwise, you might have too many pig farmers in one province and not enough blacksmiths in another.

In other words, the system of feudal serfdom that my ancestors labored under had its roots in the reforms of Diocletian. But it went much deeper than just one man. Diocletian reforms were necessary because the Roman economy had collapsed, and the economy had collapsed because for more than a hundred years, the Empire had been in massive debt, and had serviced its debts by devaluing its currency.

Sound familiar?

The Roman Empire fell because of deficit spending, government debt, and currency devaluation over the course of several generations. In 1913, the United States established the Federal Reserve, beginning our own process of currency devaluation. Our national debt has doubled every eight years since 2000, when the stock market peaked as measured in gold. Right now, our debt-to-GDP is 104%. One hundred four percent.

And that’s just our sovereign debt. Our household debt is north of $12 trillion, or another 73% of our GDP. The largest portion of that is student loans, which cannot be resolved through bankruptcy.

Seven out of ten Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.

Half of Americans would have to beg, borrow, or steal if slapped with an unexpected $400 expense.

Twenty percent of American households do not have a single person that is working.

Fully one-third of America is in debt collections, meaning that they have an unpaid debt more than 180 days past due.

Is it any wonder that the middle class is shrinking? We’re following the same path that Rome followed, except where they merely walked, we’re running headlong. With our modern communications, the pace of life is so fast that I suspect we’re completing the cycle in a fraction of the time.

And then you realize that what passes for money these days isn’t “money” at all, but government paper backed by government debt. What happens when we default? What happens when the credit markets freeze up and contagion spreads across the global economy? What happens when you wake up one morning, only to find that all the ATMs are down, the banks are all closed, and everyone’s accounts are all frozen?

So what started as an interest in family history took me down a rabbit hole where I learned all about how Rome fell, and how we’re following in the footsteps of Rome. It led to a keen interest in monetary policy and our global monetary system. It also gave me a new hobby: coin hunting.

The Romans devalued their currency by melting down the old gold and silver coins, and minting new ones mixed with copper. Over time, the melt value of the coins went down, and that’s exactly what’s happening to our US currency now.

Before 1965, dimes and quarters were made from 90% silver. After, they were made from copper with a thin nickel coating. Nickels have always been made from a 75/25 copper-nickel alloy, however, and pennies were all 95% copper until 1982. Right now, the melt value of a US penny is actually 1.8¢. At the height of the “jobless recovery” it was closer to 4¢.

Now, it’s illegal to melt down pennies because they are currently legal tender. However, as the currency continues to inflate, the penny will become even more worthless, eventually reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to make anymore. Right now, the material cost alone of each zinc penny is 70% of the face value. Canada has already discontinued minting pennies, and we aren’t far behind.

I started dabbling in copper hoarding. But as I went through lots of pennies, I started coming across some really old ones. Which got me to wondering if maybe the numismatic value of some of these coins eventually might be more than their melt value. After all, when everyone’s melted down their copper pennies, a complete collection of Lincoln cents is going to be something special.

So I started building a collection of Lincoln cents. Then I got into state quarters, first as a cool Christmas gift for one of my nephews, then for myself. Then I got into Jefferson nickels, and started finding silver.

Right now, I have a complete set of Lincoln Memorial cents. They’re all from circulation, and some of them are pretty beat up, but there are a few really nice ones in there too. My wheat cents collection is much less complete, but the coolest piece is a 1909 VDB in very fine condition, with all the wheat berries still showing. That’s a $10-$15 penny that I found in a normal coin roll.

It’s a fun hobby, and it comes around full circle to what got me started down this rabbit hole in the first place. Each one of these coins is a small piece of history. That 1909 VDB is more than a hundred years old. I’ve got coins that my parents and grandparents would have used, and a penny for every year of my father’s and mother’s lives. With a bit of luck and a lot of patience, I’ll be able to find a penny for every year of my grandparents’ lives as well.

So yeah, it’s been a fascinating journey of discovery, and it’s still ongoing too. I just got started with Roosevelt dimes, and I’m catching up on Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast, which is just as interesting as his History of Rome. Turns out that the French Revolution also happened because of deficit spending and a runaway government debt. Surprise, surprise.

Life is a giant rabbit hole when you’re curious about everything!

Arrrgh Smashwords!

So I go to upload “From the Ice Incarnate” to Smashwords as a free give away, and this is what I see. Arrgh!  Why do I have to wait??  Why can’t my book be up nowww…?

Okay, seriously, it’s not that big of a deal.  I’ll just have to wait until tomorrow to start spamming everyone sharing it.  And unlike last week, I’m going to be more open about the fact that I’m giving this story away for free.

I decided last week to put up “Decision LZ1527” and “Memoirs of a Snowflake” for free on Smashwords, mostly to see if I could get Amazon to price match.  So far it hasn’t worked, but it has given me some very interesting insight into the minds of ebook buyers.

The results aren’t scientific, of course, but so far it’s confirmed what I’ve heard elsewhere: that there’s a HUGE difference between people willing to pay more than $1 for an ebook, and people who will grab anything because it’s free.  So far, 62 people have downloaded “Decision LZ1527,” 33 people have downloaded “Memoirs of a Snowflake,” but only 2 people this week downloaded the free sample of Genesis Earth–and no one has bought a copy.

Of course, this is only after one week.  Perhaps the people who downloaded the free stories are just taking a long time to read them.  Perhaps they just can’t afford to buy many ebooks right now, but because they read and enjoyed my stories, they’ll check it out when they have more time/money.  Maybe some of them will run across my ebooks years later and remember “oh hey, that’s the guy with that crazy sci fi dating story” and check me out then.  Or maybe they’re all cheapskates who only read stuff they can get for free.  I don’t know.

But I don’t think it’s the last one.  A friend from my apartment complex walked up to me today and told me he’d read and enjoyed my story.  It was pretty cool.  That’s what I’m really after at this point: exposure and readers.  So I think it’s a good idea to give at least some stuff away for free, even if it doesn’t push people to buy your other books in the short term.

Speaking of which, I’ve tried out something else new: raising the price of Genesis Earth from $2.99 to $3.85.  Why in the heck would I do that?  Mostly because of value perception; I want people to know that I have confidence that my book is worth at least #3.85, that I believe they’ll feel it was worth what they paid for.  The kind of books I want to write are the kind that people will want to read twice, and I want to see if changing the price to reflect that will build the kind of readership that is looking for that sort of thing.

I might be totally wrong, of course, but hey it’s worth a shot.  I’ve sold two copies so far this month, so at least it hasn’t totally killed sales.  I’ll probably keep it at that price for at least a couple of weeks, just to see what happens.

But I can tell you one thing I don’t think I’ll ever do: price a novel higher than $5.  I’ve always thought that $6.99 and $7.99 for a paperback is a little steep, even if the book completely changes my life.  That’s not something you can put a dollar value on, and even if you could, why would you want to charge that much?  If your book was so deep and meaningful, wouldn’t you want to give it away for free?

So yeah, I’m trying to suck my readers dry, only to find a business model that works.  And if you think $3.85 is too steep, please let me know.  I’d like to give my books away for free, but at the same time, I want to eat without spending my life as a wage slave.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already, check out my free stories!

…WHUT

So this morning when I was getting ready for church, I realized that I couldn’t find my Kindle.  Anywhere.  Remembering that I’d left it at a Quark event in my apartment’s lobby, I started frantically calling people and knocking doors.  Unfortunately, no one had seen it.

A few hours later, after combing every place I could have possibly left it at least four or five times, I have to admit it’s completely lost.  I have a very good idea when and where I lost it, so the only remaining possibility is that someone picked it up.  The aggravating thing is waiting to see whether they return it, or whether they decide to run off with it.  ARRRRGH!

The amazing thing is how attached I’ve become to that device in the last month since I first got it.  I’m not a particularly voracious reader, but right up until I lost it I was carrying that thing around everywhere.  It’s so amazingly convenient–instead of lugging books around, I can read almost anything I want on a device that fits in my back pocket.  And the interconnectivity is really cool, too, although if I end up having to replace it, I’ll probably go with the more expensive 3g version, since hunting for wireless is a major pain.

But yeah…it’s lost, and I can’t currently afford to replace it.  I’m saving up for Worldcon 2011, so finances are tight; I’ll probably have to work this temp job through most of August just to be able to go.

However, all is not lost.  Yesterday, Genesis Earth got a stunning review on a book blogger / fellow indie writer’s blog.  My favorite part:

This is space opera of the highest caliber.  There are grand, sweeping ideas, the discovery of a new world, first contact with an alien species, an examination of the nature of humanity, the nature of the human mind.  Yet it’s always a personal story.  No matter how epic the backdrop, you are always reading about engaging, fully-realized characters.

It certainly qualifies as an adventure story, and keeps you wondering what will happen next.  Yet it’s also much more.  Genesis Earth will broaden your mind even as it delights your inner ten-year-old.  It has a kick-ass premise, executed with enviable skill, full of thought-provoking ideas couched in a thoroughly-entertaining story that’s just plain fun to read.

I kid you not, I stood up and did a little dance when I read that.  Someday, I’ll probably have a wife who will secretly videotape a moment like that and embarrass me by posting it to youtube or something…hehe.  Anyhow, the whole review is awesome, so check it out!

In other news, I finally got around to publishing Genesis Earth on the Nook: you can find it here.  And I don’t know whether I mentioned this or not, but I’ve also published it to smashwords, so if you live outside the US/UK and want to avoid the nasty $2+ surcharge that Amazon tags onto its international sales, you can find it there.

As far as the epublishing goals I set at the beginning of the week, I’ve accomplished all of them except the blog tour index and the 3+ guest posts…better get on top of that.  This week, here is what I want to accomplish:

  • Publish the short stories to smashwords for $0 and get Amazon to price match (since giving them out for free will *hopefully* drive readers to my novels).
  • Figure out how how the Kindle book forums work.
  • Query artists/illustrators for Bringing Stella Home cover art.
  • Send out Genesis Earth to another 5 review sites.
  • Write another 3 guest posts for the Genesis Earth blog tour.
  • Put up the index for the blog tour.

Oh, and one more thing…FIND MY &$%! KINDLE!!!

<< sigh >>

A year later

So a year ago, I came back to Utah after a terrible internship experience, with no idea where I was going to live, how I was going to support myself, or what I was going to do with my life.  I was leaving the cloistered halls of academia and venturing for the first time out into the “real world.”

Now, a year later, I can honestly say that even though there have been ups and downs, overall it’s been a great experience.  I’ve learned a ton, both about myself and this “real world” business, and I’ve changed in some surprising ways.

How, you may ask?  Well, let’s see…

1) I never want to be salaried.

This was probably the most surprising thing I learned.  Even if my writing career never takes off, I would rather work for myself and own the value I create than work for someone else and have them own me. Even if it means not knowing where my next paycheck is coming from, I’d rather have the control, the independence, and the satisfaction of working for myself doing what I love.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve unwittingly become a nation of wage slaves.  So many people work at jobs they hate, only to have the illusion of financial security.  Well, that’s not me, and it’s never going to be me.  I’d rather work for myself and love it than spend the rest of my life counting down the days to my next vacation, or the years to my retirement.  I’m a smart, resourceful guy; I’m sure I can figure things out.

Which brings me to the next point…

2) The idea of being an entrepreneur excites me.

Writing is not just an art, it’s a business, and the more I research the business aspect of it–or indeed, business in general–the more excited I’ve become.  Leaving academia has helped me get in touch with my entrepreneurial side, and surprisingly it’s a lot stronger than I’d thought it would be.

As a writer, I see myself as a self-employed small business owner who creates intellectual properties and licenses the rights to publishers, film makers, game designers, etc.  With ebooks, now I can sell my work directly to readers, and you have no idea how excited that makes me.  It’s not just because of all the hype surrounding Amanda Hocking or Joe Konrath–it goes much deeper into who I am.  All things being equal, I’d rather be an indie author because I see myself as an entrepreneur.

Those are probably the two biggest things I’ve learned.  I can probably summarize the others with a simple list:

  • It’s not possible to work two careers and focus all your effort on only one.  If you really want to be a writer, get a job, but focus on the writing.
  • Temp and part time jobs are much better for balancing creative pursuits, even though they offer less security (which may be an illusion anyway).
  • It takes a long time to naturally grow a blog readership, but once you hit a certain point, it grows very fast.  I assume it’s the same with books and stories.
  • Social media, when used correctly, can work magic.
  • Cheap/free headphones can sometimes work remarkably well.
  • Budgeting is not hard.  Neither are taxes (if you’re poor).
  • Never turn down a job because you think you might get a different one.
  • A creative career won’t give you security, but you can still make it work.

So, looking back, would I change anything?  Not really.  I kind of wish I’d applied earlier to teach English in Korea, but if I had, I’d have started in February, and I wouldn’t have been in a good position to take advantage of the ongoing ebook revolution.  In fact, I might not have even noticed it until I got back to the states.

My plans for now are to focus on my writing over the summer, leave in August to teach English abroad (probably in Korea, though I’m toying around with other places), spend a year or two traveling and earning money to live off of until the writing takes off.

And marriage and family…who knows?  That’s an adventure that still lies beyond my ability to foresee.  One thing is for sure, though; I’d better avoid getting trapped in any comfort zones if I want to make progress on that front.  In terms of work and career, the past year has definitely not been a comfort zone, but it’s also helped me to see what I want to do with my life–more than college, even.

The future is uncertain, but that’s what makes it so awesome.  Even if my writing career never gives me a “secure” source of income, I’m more confident now than ever that I can make it work.  Until then, I’ll be writing.

Thanksgiving report from Texas

So for Thanksgiving this year, I drove down with my sister and brother in law to have Thanksgiving in Houston with my other sister’s family.  It’s Friday night, and I’m about to hit the sack to get prepped for the long 24+ hour drive back to Utah, but let me say, this vacation has been great!

It’s so good to spend time with family, especially when you live across the country and can’t see each other very often.  My niece has grown so much in the past year, and she is so freaking cute it’s unbelievable.  Earlier tonight, we were watching slide shows on my sister’s projector and playing around with my niece: “Where’s Aunt Dot?  Where’s Oopah?  Where’s Uncle Joe?” Heh, Uncle Joe.  I will do my best to live up to the awesomeness of that title.

Thanksgiving dinner was AMAZING.  Holy freaking crap, my sisters can cook.  They put together a traditional dinner from scratch, and everything was perfect.  I’m so glad they’re sending a bunch of leftovers with us on the drive tomorrow, because I would much rather subsist on that than random junk food from gas stations.

Besides family, though, one of the coolest parts of the vacation was visiting the Houston Space Center and seeing mission control and one of the original Saturn V rockets.  That’s right–see that room in the picture?  I was there.

Which immediately begged the question: Why am I not in space right now?  Seriously, I would do just about anything to go up in space.  Thinking about the Pilgrims made me think about colonizing other planets, and how the difficulties may be similar and yet different.  It also made me think about my latest novel, Into the Nebulous Deep, which (I’m hoping) is a colonization story set in space, and how I can use some of the stuff from the Pilgrims in my own work.

Speaking of which, the writing has been going very slow recently.  A lot of it has to do with interruptions from the vacation (which frankly are more important), but it also has to do with my growing frustrations with the current project.  I’m about 15k in the rough draft of ITND, and…it just doesn’t seem as good as my other work.  Of course, it’s just a mental thing–none of my rough drafts has ever been any good–but man, it’s tough to get through.

To complicate things, I’m going to have to find a job for the Christmas season, at least to tide me over.  I’m really hoping to get that wilderness job, but the training starts January 13th, and I don’t have the funds to spend all my time writing, like I have this past month.

I’ll know for sure the first week of December whether I’ve been invited to the training–and if I am, it’s going to throw a real kink in my writing routine.  Each job shift lasts a full week, during which time I’ll be completely unplugged, living in the wilderness.  I might get some time to work on poetry or short stories, but no novels.

The upside is that I get six days off completely free to do whatever I want, but I’m worried that it’ll be difficult, at least at first, to regain sufficient momentum in that short time.  I’m sure I can get used to it eventually, but for the first few months, it will probably be tough.

For that reason, I want to get as far in ITND as I can before January 13th, perhaps even finish it (HAHAHAHA!!!  As if that’s going to happen).  So the fact that I haven’t progressed from this one scene for like a week is really killing me.  Throw in a temporary job for the Christmas season, and I’ll probably go crazy.

That’s what my writing angst says, anyways.  In other words, everything is fine and life is great.  Now I’m going to get some sleep before driving across the freaking country all day tomorrow and Sunday.  Night!