Off the Musical Deep End

My music room

I mentioned yesterday I thought it was time that I expanded my somewhat haphazard music room into an actual music studio, which made a few people ask why, in fact, now was the time for this rather than some other point in the past or future. The easy answer to this is “because I feel like it,” which is accurate — I do feel like it — but is sort of non-responsive. So here is a slightly longer answer about why I’m going a bit off the deep end on the music stuff right now.

1. Because I can afford it right now. Last year was a pretty good year for me financially and this year to date has been as well, so I have a little extra cash to throw at expanding this hobby without worrying too much about how splurging is going to impact our bottom line. Excepting The Beast — which really was an impulsive fluke that I absolutely do not regret but still probably shouldn’t have done — most of the things I’m getting right now, both in terms of hardware and software, are things I’ve been wanting to get but have talked myself out of previously because of cost issues. But right now cost is not an issue! So they’re getting purchased.

More or less. I talked myself out of getting a Mac laptop for the music room, because I have a fully specc-ed out Dell XPS 13 from a couple that I currently don’t use that often (I use my desktop for writing and pictures, and one of the Chromebooks when I need a laptop), which will work equally well as the music room computer and Digital Audio Workshop carrier. I’m still… well, cheap is not the word, quite evidently, but at the very least (and again, The Beast excepted) I want to be able to make a reasonable use case for every thing I buy. I want what I buy to have value. I can’t make a value argument for a Mac when I have the neglected, perfectly capable Dell just sitting there, waiting to be used at no additional cost to me. So no Mac for Scalzi.

2. Because I’m already competent in my other big hobby. Most of you know I love to do photography, and I’m pretty good at it — so good at it, in fact, that it will be difficult for me to improve substantially without either a huge invest of time or money or both. Time, in the sense of going places specifically to take photos there, and money, in the sense of buying new cameras and lenses to give me more photographic tools to play with. In the latter case, that means a lot of money — the next step up in terms of camera bodies and lenses means five figure layouts for either — and in the former case, that time is more than I want to spend. I like where I am with my photography; I’m not going to stop doing it, but it’s also not a huge challenge to get the photos I want either.

In music, I am what I’d call “low competent” — You give me a guitar, I can get something out of it, but I’m not going to be your first, fourth or fifteenth choice to be on the instrument. Likewise most other instruments, other than drums, which I am in fact reasonably competent. Which is fine! It’s a hobby I do for myself, not for others. But I’m at a point where I want to be able to do more with music than I can do now. There’s more headroom for me to become more competent with music. Right now that interests me. Both for itself and for another reason:

3. I want to do more songwriting. Co-writing that Christmas song with Matthew Ryan last December was cathartic and gratifying for a number of reasons, and another benefit of it was it was a proof of concept that I could, in fact, write songs. I want to develop that facility further. I’m under no expectation that I, a 52-year-old writer of science fiction novels, will suddenly challenge either BTS or Bob Dylan, or most of anyone in between, with any songs I write. But that’s not the point for me. I already have a job; this will be a hobby. I want to get to a point where I can write good songs, by my estimation of what a good song is; I’m not going to worry about much else about it.

What the goal for me (for now) is to eventually have an album’s worth of actual songs that I feel pretty good about, and then maybe put that album out there. I already have the Bandcamp page, after all. The album that’s currently there was stitched together with samples, and was fun to do; I’d like to do one where I make the music myself, and put in words. Which will, uh, take some time to get up to speed. Which is the other thing:

4. I’m 52, gotta get a move on. Which is to say, getting to a level of competence with composing/songwriting will probably take a bit of time, and while I feel good and don’t have any reason to believe I won’t be around for decades to come, I also probably shouldn’t, you know, dawdle. So, no time like the present.


5. While not exactly cheap, music isn’t as expensive/time-intensive as some other middle-aged dude hobbies. Dude, what if I suddenly decided to collect cars? Or model trains? Or firearms? That shit adds up, people. They’re also, like, lifestyles. I don’t want to go to car meet-ups or gun shows or any of that. With this hobby, all I have to do is go to my basement. So easy!

So those are all the reasons I’m going in on all this music stuff right now.

Or, you know: Because I feel like it. Either works.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Nancy Jane Moore

Author Nancy Jane Moore takes us into her past in her Big Idea, to explain how a favorite (if not outdated) book of hers inspired her new novel, For the Good of the Realm.


For the Good of the Realm is The Three Musketeers with swordswomen and witches. While it doesn’t follow the plot of the Dumas classic closely, it takes place in a world in which politics, intrigue, and the potential of war with neighboring countries underlie everything that happens. Witches using prohibited magic increase the stakes of the intrigue and the risk for the women of the Queen’s Guard out to protect their Realm.

The Three Musketeers is one of the great successes in writing and publishing. First published in 1844, the book does not appear to have ever gone out of print. New translations are still being done. Not only are there at least 25 live action movies (starting at the very beginning of movie-making), there are multiple animated versions, video games, and stage productions, and many authors have been inspired to play in Dumas’s world.

I read it for the first time as a teenager and also loved the 1973 movie version, with a very young and pretty Michael York as d’Artagnan. Of course, I identified strongly with d’Artagnan, despite being a woman. It was a habit I picked up reading great adventure stories when I was young, because the women were rarely the ones having the adventures. 

About twenty years ago, during a fit of reading 19th century literature, I re-read The Three Musketeers and went on to read Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later. Being older and (maybe) wiser, I found it harder to identify with d’Artagnan or to ignore the way women were treated in the story. By then I’d spent enough time in martial arts to have some skill with a sword and an understanding of how women can fight, so I began to play with the idea of swordswomen in a world with the monarchy and politics of Dumas’s. 

That led to the short story “A Mere Scutcheon,” in which Anna d’Gart of the Queen’s Guard retrieves a necklace for Her Majesty and must deal with a witch to do so. When Nick Gevers bought it for my collection Conscientious Inconsistencies at PS Publishing, he said he thought it would make a good novel. It took another ten years, but For the Good of the Realm is now a book. 

The original Big Idea, of course, was to have swordswomen protecting the Queen and swordsmen the King. Early in the book, Guardswomen Anna and her friend Asamir become frenemies with two members of the King’s Guard. The intrigues of the Realm, compounded by the use of magic despite the ban on it, put the royals and indeed the whole country at risk. With Anna in the lead, the four must take action to protect the Realm without letting Their Majesties know about the threats from magic. 

Here’s the thing about writing stories, even adventure stories: they turn out to be about much more than the place where they start. Yes, this is an adventure story in which women get to have the adventures, but it is also a story about a world in which what people do with their lives is not dictated by their gender. Further, the people of the Realm, which sits at a crossroads of many other countries, originally came from many other parts of the world to build a culture that includes a wide variety of skin colors and general appearance.

While the Realm is far from a utopia – it is a monarchy only recently reunited after more than a century of division, with a powerful Hierophante ruling the church, nobles who abuse their privileges, and pockets of serious poverty – misogyny and racism do not trouble it. The first born children of rulers and nobles inherit their rank, so class divides still exist, but anyone with sufficient skill can become a soldier. What started as a simple story of women having adventures became a story in which women have power and agency that, while it is constricted by politics, nature, and magic, is not governed by societal rules about their proper place. 

A fantasy, perhaps, to think a world might exist that doesn’t police gender or limit opportunity by skin color and ethnicity, but the purpose of speculative fiction of all kinds is to ask “what if?” A story can be a light-hearted adventure and still bring up important ideas. And that’s a very Big Idea indeed.

For the Good of the Realm: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website or blog. Follow her on Twitter.

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