It was nearly twenty years ago that I sat down and started what would become my first completed novel. A middle-grade anthropomorphic adventure set in a land that only vaguely resembles Florida, A Roar in the Pinelands is a 100K-word love letter to the forests and fauna of my home state. It's got danger, it's got high stakes, it's got pitched battle scenes between alligators, bobcats, bears, and raccoons. I shopped the book around way back before email submissions were a thing (if you think responses from agents and publishers takes a long time now, think what it was like to pitch a manuscript by snail mail). Though I ended up self-publishing, the manuscript interested an editor at Levine Books enough that I got a detailed letter and edits on the manuscript back from them--which was a really cool "validation" for a guy just getting started.
A lot of writers are a little embarrassed by their first novel drafts. Writing is, after all, a craft, and first attempts at a new craft will rarely look as good as future (better) attempts. But having looked this over recently, and with the benefit of more than a decade of practice, I don't think it's all that bad. There are some amateurish mistakes, some things I'd do differently, but the story holds up. And it's fun! If you liked the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, you'll probably like Pinelands.
So ... in the spirit of Thanksgiving (and in the hopes that some folks might find this entertaining), I've decided to make the book available, for free. Here's a taste of what's coming. If you like it, I hope you'll let me know and check out some of my other speculative fiction.
Flight of the Osprey
High above the night wetlands, buried within a lightning cloud, a lone osprey beat his soaked wings in a flurry. His taloned feet scrambled beneath him, clutching only a swirling vapor of suspended rain. Muffled by the din of the thunderstorm, the young bird grunted in rhythm with each downward flap:
"Oomph. Umph. Umph—Har-umph. Har-uuumph!"
Wind and rain. Thunder and lightning. Mile after mile, the white and black-spotted bird had been whipped to and fro by howling gales and blinded by the deluge of rain. His wings were a blur of motion. But it was all he could do just to stay aloft and hold himself steady.
"Umph. Umph. Humph!"
He let out a long, frustrated groan. His shoulder blades burned from strain, a headache racked his skull, and he was certain to have caught a terrible cold by now. Worst of all, he feared, his feathers must have looked like a frightful mess.
"Humph. Blast it all. Har-ermph! Har-umph! Har—Cripes! Whoa!"
A sudden blast of cold air knocked the gangly bird around sideways. Frantically, he fought his way back into a level flight, his heart now racing in his chest. Once steadied, he blew a sigh of relief.
"Easy there, Screech," the osprey said to himself. "Hold it together. One more crosswind like that and you'll have a lot more to worry about than crinkled feathers!"
Screech stretched his wings to their tips and watched as the storm enveloped him. A shiver ran beneath his feathers.
"Lousy storm. I should've walked," he muttered miserably. "Would've been in Rootburrows hours ago. 'Course, once I get there, they'll probably just have me fly out again. 'Go get the doctor, Screech.' I get the doctor. 'Turn back around, Screech,' he says. Not even a 'what's new?' or 'how's the fishing been?' or a 'thank you very much.' 'Fly here.' 'Fly there.' 'Go fetch so-and-so.' Hmph. I ought to tell them all to deliver their own stupid messages from now on."
But as soon as he said this, he felt a guilty flush in his face.
"Then again… little Isabelle needs a doctor, and I've got to make sure they all stay put until he can get to her. I just wish he would've given me a little more to go on."
Screech went over the harried events and snatches of conversation he had caught over the past few days, but, as was often the case, grasped little meaning from the messages he was asked to deliver.
"Geesh, but he didn't seem the least bit surprised when I told him Isabelle was ill. Didn't even blink."
Screech let out another long sigh, spraying water from his beak, and shook his head.
"Got enough to worry about making it to Rootburrows in one piece. Back to it!"
His jaw set in determination, Screech Osprey, the Swamp's messenger bird, tucked his head into his body and braced himself for a long, hard flight.
It was a rather close bedroom, even by rabbit standards. Low ceiling. Smooth, dirt floor a few paces wide. Four windowless walls held together by a sprawl of tree roots. Hardly any furniture worth mentioning except for a bench against the wall closest to the doorway, and next to it a little, rickety stool. On top of the stool was a bowl filled with mostly uneaten vegetables. Near the center of the room a bed of gray moss fitted into a frame of oak branches. Starlight seeping in through the ceiling provided the room's only illumination, casting a pale glow upon two marsh rabbits who sat crouched over the bed.
Night after night, Anna and Javier-Ortiz DeConejo found themselves here in their daughter's bedroom standing vigil. The little rabbit, no bigger than a toadstool, lay on her back in the middle of the bed. Her ears hung limply on either side of her head. Her chest heaved in loud, rasping breaths. Matted white fur covered most of the girl's body, but gaping patches had fallen out, leaving her skin exposed around the joints and tail. Her stomach was so bloated that it kept her paws hoisted painfully in the air. The toys Javier had made for her, a ball of palm leaf strands and a smiling possum carved from a piece of driftwood, lay on the floor, untouched and forgotten.
The baby tossed about in a violent fit.
"There she goes again," said Anna, her voice trembling.
Javier remained silent.
"She's dying. I know it. I just know it…"
Anna reached down and tenderly stroked her paw against Isabelle's forehead. It was hot to the touch. A pained expression passed over the infant's face. Her eyelids fluttered, but she did not waken.
"What are we going to do?" asked Anna.
Javier rubbed his temples and replied softly:
"Anna, we must be patient. And wait for the doctor."
"For how long?" she hissed. "Eight days, she's been like this. Eight days of fever.She hasn't held down a scrap of food. Javi, this can't go on much longer."
"I've tried everything: orange peels on her chest, mud baths, wrapping her legs in palm leaves. Even your mother's awful kudzu tea. Nothing works. We've done everything we're supposed to. So, why isn't she getting better?"
Anna clutched her husband's paw and fought back the tears that were brimming in her eyes. The sound of raindrops falling against the ceiling gradually filled the room. Javier drew his wife into a hug, at which Anna finally broke down and cried.
"I'm sorry. I'm just so scared." She sobbed against his shoulder.
"Come now, mi amore. Don't cry."
"I couldn't take it if we lost Isabelle. I just… couldn't."
"We are not going to lose her," Javier whispered into her ear. "Isabelle has a strong spirit. She just has to keep fighting a little longer until the doctor can get here."
"If he ever gets here."
"Anna, he has never missed a house call."
"Well, he picked a great time to start! How long ago was it you sent for him? A week? The least he could have done is given us a message by now, a word… something…"
A stream of teardrops from the corners of her eyes flowed all the way down to the tips of her whiskers where they fell silently to the floor. She covered her face with her paws and cried in muted sobs, careful not to make too much noise for fear of waking Isabelle. When she looked up, Javier was standing before her, his paws resting on either of her shoulders.
"I just hate not knowing," she said.
Javier's ears gave a thoughtful twitch. He petted Anna on the cheek and wiped her eyes.
"I don't much like it either. Tell you what: I'll run up to Lookout Rock and check our messages."
"Javi, no. With the weather outside—you'll get sick."
"It's only a little shower, and the rock's not all that far away. Who knows? Maybe the doctor's sent us a formula for a cure. Or maybe he's let us know when we can expect him."
The twinge of hope that sprang across Anna's face was impossible to conceal. Javier smiled.
"I won't be long."
He started for the doorway when he felt his wife grasp his paw from behind. She embraced him tightly, and then gave him a kiss.
"Be careful, Javi. And hurry back."