Please welcome author Ralph E. Vaughn to my blog. His latest book, Dogs of S.T.E.A.M. (Paws & Claws Book 5), was released at the beginning of the year.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
In a way, there’s not really much to tell. I was born in the village of Laurium, near Copper Bay, out near the tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I left there at an early age, flying out on my mother’s lap in an old Ford Tri-Motor plane, the kind Admiral Byrd used to explore the South Pole. My parents and I ended up in National City, California. I had a typical mid-century education, brought up in typical mid-century social conventions, and attended the Southern Baptist Church around the corner. It was in third grade that I had an inkling of what I wanted to do. In class, we were shown a set of evocative photographs, told to pick one and write a short story about it. Mine showed a pure white bird with blood-red eyes perched in front of what could only be a haunted house. The resulting story was “The White Raven.” Yes, I knew that Ravens were black, but that was rather the point of the story; that, and the haunted house. Rather than send me to the school psychologist, as was the wont then, Mrs Decker (best teacher I ever had) entered it in a district contest, and it won first prize. My teacher and I were elated, my parents and brother not so much—my first experience with the idea that reviews from strangers are more important, and more fair, than reviews from friends and family.
I began seriously writing in the late Sixties, by which time we had moved from National City to the nearby town of Chula Vista. From then till 2010, I wrote at least one short story every week or two. Of the huge number produced (do the math) about three hundred were published in various venues, and I collected about a tenth of them in Beneath Strange Stars in 2015. After college (Criminology), I got married, joined the Army, became a photojournalist, and got out of the Army, all the while continuing to write. We had kids, worked at jobs for which we had little love, contributed to society in various ways, and retired…and all the while I kept pounding away at my typewriter, then electric typewriter, then word processor, then clunky computer, then laptop.
As I said at the beginning, there’s not really much to tell about me, but most of what is important about me is in my stories.
What or who inspired you to start writing?
As mentioned, Mrs Decker, my third grade teacher at Highland Elementary, started me writing, helped me with concepts like plotting, characterization and dialogue. She was not the first who tried to impress the importance of good spelling, punctuation and grammar, but she was the first one who actually gave me a reason. She said, “Ralph, if people can’t understand what you’re writing or just give up trying to read what you’ve written, you’re wasting your time and theirs.” That may be the best writing advice I ever received.
Later, in high school, two more teachers helped me, one in seeing stories around me, the other in finding a direction to writing. Mr Phil Ligon, my journalism teacher, told me there was a story in everything, that all I had to do was see it. If you find a key-ring on the ground, he said, a good writer will see there is a story in that key-ring; a great writer will see a compelling story in every single key on that ring. My homeroom teacher, Mr Robert Vigil, saw me writing one day and asked to read it. He read my story, handed it back, and asked me, “Have you ever heard of H.P. Lovecraft?” I hadn’t, and in that simple question he turned the course of my writing into another channel. To this day, Lovecraft continues to be my greatest influence.
Have you started your next project? If so, can you share a little bit about your next book?
I have always loved the English mystery, the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Creasy, Ruth Rendell, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr and others, both well known and lesser known. I’ve always wanted to write one that would do credit to all the British writers who have entertained, mystified and inspired me.
My next novel is Murder in the Goblins’ Playground, a mystery set in the fictional county of Hammershire, a venue I visited in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Woods, the Watcher & the Warding,” included in my second collection, Sherlock Holmes: Cthulhu Mythos Adventures. It is an odd county, resistant to change, distrusting of outsiders, a place of many myths and legends, where the past sometimes intrudes upon the present and where old things sometimes refuse to die. The series characters are DCI Arthur Ravyn and DS Leo Stark.
The first novel is more than halfway toward completion, the cover is prepared, and I have plotted out at least seven more stories in the series. I will rotate them with my other series, the main two being Paws & Claws and Folkestone & Hand Interplanetary Steampunk Adventures. As it is with many people, DCI Ravyn’s strengths are also his flaws, and he’ll have to work through both, as well as various outside distractions, to arrive at solutions.
What is the best thing about being a writer? The worst?
I suppose one of the best things about being writer is having the ability to create worlds which make sense. Even when I write about terrible calamities and eruptions of chaos the events are taking place for a reason. The characters may not understand that everything happing is for a purpose, but I do, and I know that things are going to work out for the best. Contrast that with our real world. Things that seem chaotic are chaotic, truths are elusive and deaths are meaningless.
In the worlds I create for my characters, there is always an underlying order to the cosmos, truths can be discovered with intelligence and perseverance, and to die in a cause that is noble and just is never a waste. And one more thing—redemption is always possible, even for the worst of my characters; it may come with a high price, but redemption from one’s past is never unattainable.
What’s the worst thing about writing? The solitude. Author Christopher Fowler (creator of one of my favorite detective series) put it best when he wrote, “No matter how many fans you have, no matter how supportive your friends and family may be, it all boils down to this—you, alone in a room with a typewriter.” Some writers can’t take the awful solitude of writing, such as Philip K. Dick who had a nervous breakdown and wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, but others do well with it. I don’t thrive on solitude, but I do endure it.
Do you outline your books or just start writing?
The answer to both is, “Yes.” It really depends upon what I am writing. Back when I wrote short stories exclusively, I could start with anything and write a story. All I needed was a snippet of dialogue, an event, a series character in a new place, a question, a key, a combination of colors, a sound—anything. When I wrote the stories in Sherlock Holmes: The Coils of Time and Other Stories, I started with a list of titles that sounded interesting to me and wrote stories around them, creating characters and situations as I went along.
For the steampunk novels and the new series of English police procedurals, I wrote extensive outlines (which become very marked up as I go along), created character biographies, developed histories and chronologies, and drew maps. For the Paws & Claws books, I have a title, a list of characters, and a general ending I want to achieve. The plot develops as I write, and for that I get a lot of help from the characters, though sometimes they set me off in an unplanned direction. For example, in K-9 Blues, the canine detectives were in the park, with Levi (alpha of the Three Dog Detective Agency) examining a scent trace of a character who would come to be known as The Master. All Levi had to do was tell everyone the scent was not that of a dog. I had an entire plot in mind which would lead to a surprise revealing of The Master’s identity and nature. All Levi had to do was say, “It is definitely not the scent of a dog,” and the story could continue to the conclusion I had in mind. I tried to force my will upon him, but to no avail. Despite my best efforts, he said, “It’s not the scent of a known dog, but is very doglike…very primitive…almost ancient…something we may not have seen for a very long time.” Threw me off entirely, but, I have to admit, letting Levi have his way did result in a better story.
Please tell us about your current release.
The current book is Dogs of S.T.E.A.M., fifth in the Paws & Claws series. Unlike the other books, which were based on real events, this one is entirely fictional. While investigating a mysterious sound heard in the night by dogs and cats in the Chula Vista area, Levi, Sunny and Yoda (the three dogs of the Three Dog Detective Agency) are thrown back in time, along with two feline associates, to an alternate version of the Victorian Era, where the British Empire is very steampunkish and where Companions (as the dogs call us) work hand in paw with dogs. The Three Dog Detective Agency and the eponymous Dogs of S.T.E.A.M. join forces to save the British Empire and countless timelines, including our own, from Lord Cerberus, “a dog like no other on Earth,” and his deadly herald, the cat Lilith.
In every Paws & Claws book, I include reader-nominated pets (“Animals of Character”), and this one is no different, and thus we have a tree-climbing squirrel-hunting Wire-haired Dachshund named June, two apartment-bound Shih Tzus named Kelsey and Sammy, and a Gordon Setter named Artemus Gordon. Working them into the plot was fun, and since all the Paws & Claws books are photo illustrated, the owners get to both read about and see their best friends. Since the story takes place partly in the Nineteenth Century, the process of creating photos was a little more involved, but I was pleased with the results and I think readers will be also.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
Because I’ve set many stories, including my Sherlock Holmes tales, in the late Nineteenth Century, I had something of a headstart. Even though part of the story takes place in an alternate timeline, where it would be easy to hide sloppy research under the guise of “Well, that’s not the way it happened here,” I felt it necessary to ground the story in our own Nineteenth Century, then insert the differences that would set it apart. So, streets and places still had to be accurate, even if I did make them a bit different. In our present timeline, it was a matter of making sure all the locations were accurate, though fictionalized. As a plot forms, I determine places for photo shoots, visit actual locations and do my best to absorb the atmosphere.
In addition to all that, I also had to research Cerberus’ mythology, from its origins in India to its culmination with the Greeks and Romans, and find a place in history where a different decision could split the timeline to logically form a steampunk world in which dogs would have an important place. Bringing all those disparate elements together in a logical and seamless plot is as rewarding as it is difficult.
Did you base any of your characters on real dogs and cats?
Levi, Sunny and Yoda, the operatives of the Three Dog Detective Agency, are all my dogs, and their photos are at the back of every book. Their backgrounds in the books mirror their real lives—Levi was rescued from a life of abuse, Yoda was saved by Army K-9 dogs when they raided a crack house, and Sunny once lived on a farm. Little Kitty and Kim are my cats. The characters of the dogs and cats as portrayed in the books are true to life. Smokey and Groucho, the two outdoor cats who accompany the dogs to Victorian London, are also based on cats I know, both in temperate and likeness, though I have to admit I’m not sure if Smokey is really a ship’s cat who traveled the world before finding a home with us.
As I mentioned earlier, I invite readers to nominate their own pets or pets they know, as Animals of Character. If they provide a good photo and have an interesting character, I do my best to fit them into the plot. If I cannot do so logically and seamlessly, I hold them for a Paws & Claws book where they can be used. Not everyone can be used, but I do my best.
Which of your characters is your favorite? Do you dislike any of them?
My favorite has to be Levi, my best friend, but I like all of them. I try to imbue them with the qualities that we ourselves should possess, all the while never forgetting that they are dogs and cats. What I don’t want to ever do, and this is something I see others do at times, is write about these animals as if they were people in dog or cat suits. They are who they are, and I always try to stay true to their natures. They have a religion of sorts and a moral compass, but it is not always the same as ours. They also have foibles which can sometimes be annoying—Little Kitty’s dismissiveness, Yoda’s snarkiness, Sunny’s tendency to see the good in everyone, Levi’s propensity towards pontificating, Kim’s fussiness. I even like my villains, and I try to come up with good ones, villain’s that will test my characters to the breaking point, and beyond. In many ways, your story and your characters are only as good as the villain is bad.
What was the most difficult scene or moment to write in this story?
The most difficult part of the story was also its blackest moment. It involves a fight between Smokey, a black and silver tom cat associated with the Three Dog Detective Agency, and Lilith, a deadly cat who acts as herald and enforcer for Lord Cerberus. In the books, Smokey has a very Central European attitude, almost a Russian sense of fatalism. In this book, we have the clearest view of Smokey’s character and the sense of family he has developed towards these dogs and cats. He puts himself in harm’s way for the sake of all of us. I won’t reveal much about the epic battle between Smokey and Lilith or its aftermath, but I was weepy all through the writing of it, and readers have told me that it affected them more than any other scene in the book.
Since this book is part of a series, what is the next book? Any details you can share?
At the conclusion of each Paws & Claws book I inform readers what the next book will be, just as filmgoers used to see end-titles like, “James Bond will return in…” Book 6 will be Dog Noir, which will be both a celebration of the American private eye novel and a return to Levi’s troubled past. As you might expect from the title, there will be foggy nights, dark shadows and mysterious strangers with enigmatic motives. It is a book where many questions about Levi, which have been hinted at over the course of five books, will be answered.
Finally, something just for fun—do you have an all-time favorite book?
In a universe of books, it’s hard to pick out just one. Most books, you read once and you’re done with them forever, no matter how well written, no matter how engrossing at the time. There are however, a few books that I return to time and again, books I would not be adverse to finding in a washed-ashore chest were I stranded on Captain Nemo’s Mysterious Island. First, there’s Moby-Dick, a novel I re-read every two or three years. Then there’s the Bible, font of most of the world’s literature and literary archetypes, and anything by Shakespeare, except the Histories, which I can’t stand. For Joseph Conrad, I’d take Nostromo and Lord Jim. The Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would find a home with me, as well Lovecraft’s stories (and his Collected Letters) and Chandler’s chronicles of Marlowe, a detective with many traits shared by Levi. Number one above them all, however, is a massive book I own titled Victorian Poetry, which I am in the mood to read at any time.
In a Victorian London much like the one we know, but not quite, canine agents of the Her Majesty’s Government attempt to vanquish a villain named Lord Cerberus, a dog like no other on Earth. Following clues leads them to the London Gasworks where they enter a pitched battle with Lord Cerberus’ forces, during which Lord Cerberus activates a machine that fractures time. Meanwhile, in our own world, Levi and the operatives of the Three Dog Detective Agency investigate a strange noise and mysterious apparitions, which lead them to an abandoned church where the fleeing Lord Cerberus has established a new lair. Worlds collide when the dogs and their two feline associates are catapulted back to an alternate 1887, a steampunk world where dogs work closely with Companions (as the dogs call us). They join the Dogs of S.T.E.A.M. in an epic battle against Lord Cerberus, not only to save their British Empire but all the worlds that will ever be, including ours.
About the Author
Ralph E. Vaughan is the author of several Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, notably “The Adventure of the Ancient Gods,” the first-ever crossover between the literary worlds of Holmes and Lovecraft. Other books include “The Dreaming Detective,” “Sherlock Holmes and the Coils of Time,” and “The Terror Out of Time.” He is the creator of the popular Paws & Claws YA adventure series, beginning with “Paws & Claws: A Three Dog Mystery,” in which the amazing canines of the Three Dog Detective Agency protect the weak and innocent inhabitants of their Chula Vista neighborhood, thwart the evil plans of the nefarious Feral Gang, and occasionally save the world. The series continues with “A Flight of Raptors,” “K-9 Blues,” the controversial “The Death & Life of American Dog,” and the time-twisting “Dogs of S.T.E.A.M.” Among his science fiction books are “Shadows Against the Empire” and “Amidst Dark Satanic Mills,” interplanetary steampunk adventures set in the late 19th Century.
A writer since the late 1960s, he has published more than 300 short stories in a variety of magazines and journals, some of which are included in “Beneath Strange Stars,” a collection of tales from more than forty years of writing. An expert on fantasy writer HP Lovecraft, he also wrote many articles for fannish and scholarly journals, and authored the authoritative “HP Lovecraft in the Comics,” a survey and analysis of how Lovecraft’s stories were interpreted in graphic print formats through the 20th Century. He is a long-time resident of Chula Vista, California, graduating from Castle Park High School and Southwestern College, leaving his hometown only long enough to serve as an Army photojournalist for two enlistments. He is married and has two children, a daughter who is a game designer, playwright and director, and a son who is a conductor for the BNSF railway system.
You can purchase his book, Dogs of S.T.E.A.M. on Amazon.