A Conversation with Jay Barnson (Cirsova Author Series)

Monday , 24, April 2017 11 Comments

Another excellent conversation, this time with Jay Barnson. You can find Jay’s stories The Priests of Shalaz, in Cirsova #4 and The Queen of Shadows in #5, plus his other published work on his Amazon page.  Jay created RPG called Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon( FrayedKnights.com) and Void War. Other games can be found on out his gameography.

Follow Jay on Twitter @RampantCoyote and explore his blog, Tales of the Rampant Coyote. I was going to ask him questions concerning game development but most of them are answered in this interesting series of posts titled A Game Dev’s Story. Also, check out his posts on programming. Explore therein and experience much goodness.  Jay’s blog is hosted on the Rampantgames website.  I haven’t played Jay’s games before but look forward to reviewing a couple on a future Wargame Wednesday post. 

I’ll admit when I started reading The Queen of Shadows I was wasn’t sure if I would like it but was quickly hooked by the fast paced storyline. Additionally, I decided not to purchase Terra Mechanica: A Steampunk Anthology  for his DOTS, DASHES, AND DECEIT  short story (even though it sells for only $2.99) but once we started our conversation I quickly changed my mind. I enjoy how in this story the telegraph system and Morse code is on the cusp of becoming of an internet/TCP IP equivalent (albeit without dynamic routing). As Jay points out in the conversation below, not much has really changed. We send signals made up of binary code (dots and dashes versus ones and zeroes) down a line.

Here’s another interesting link I found on the Rampant Coyote blog which concerns basic software code built to run a dungeon crawl over a teletype printer. 

This conversation is a cracker but that’s what you can expect for any conversation with the Cirsova crew. We discuss Morse code, the game development industry, Jay’s time in Bangladesh, his work in virtual reality simulation and where to find scans of old pulp magazines online.                                                                                                    

Scott Cole:     Going by your author page on Amazon your first publish work was in 2014 with the Terra Mechanica Anthology. How long were you writing before first getting published? 

Jay Barnson:     I caught the bug an embarrassingly long time ago, in fourth grade, with creative writing projects. I wrote ten-page short stories while my classmates struggled to write three paragraphs. I found myself disqualified for one contest later in the year once I learned that there was a maximum length. My totally awesome novel (a portal SF/fantasy story that probably resembled A Princess of Mars, even though I’d never heard of that book back then) was not even halfway done and was already well over twice the maximum page count. D’oh! Lesson learned: Always double-check the submission guidelines!

I kept it up through school and college, but then I got a job in the video game industry, and that pretty much dominated my creative energies for many years. I have a stack of stillborn novels from that era, rarely exceeding three chapters. After I escaped the games biz (at least temporarily), I wrote several nonfiction articles which were published on various sites and even a textbook. That doesn’t include years of regular blog-posts.

As an indie game developer, I had a lot of fun generating stories and dialog for my games, but there came a point where I realized my writing chops just weren’t up to snuff. My writing might be better than your average video game fare, but I really wanted to improve my fiction-writing. Short stories seemed like a great way to really get some practice, competing in the marketplace and contests to really force me to improve. I started doing that in earnest several months before getting published in Terra Mechanica.

I thought that would be the end of it. You know, with the whole validation thing. “Why, yes, I can write. I’m a published writer now, given the stamp of approval by an experienced editor. Back to video games.” Silly me. I had forgotten how addictive it is. So now I have two part-time vocations: game development and writing. I kind of miss sleeping. But at least I’m never bored.



SC:     Please offer the readers a teaser about Dots, Dashes, and Deceit. I love the premise: “A telegraph operator finds herself displaced by advancing technology but discovers a genius inventor and a young savant with secrets too dangerous to ignore.


JB:     This story came about from research I did on the development of telegraphy. I had this stupid idea for a steampunk-style Internet, but the more I learned about the real-world telegraph system, the more I realized what we had back then was actually much cooler than what I’d come up with. Did you know we had fax machines in the 1860s?  Or transatlantic telegraph communications in the 1850s (at least briefly)? And that all the crap we think is new to the Internet age… identity theft, wire fraud, people more comfortable texting (or keying / writing) than face-to-face communication, etc. … was happening in the 1800s over the telegraph cables? I just needed to fiddle around with the technology a tiny bit for the story.

I also loved the idea of having the “town fool” actually be an autistic savant who is able to figure out the codes embedded in a series of telegraph message. He’s non-verbal, so everyone in town thinks he’s got this nervous habit of tapping his hands all the time, but he’s really trying to communicate in Morse Code the whole time.

Of course, as a steampunk story, I’ve got Morse Code – controlled robots and an airship, and an alternate history where the East India Company had not been nationalized after the Indian Rebellion, plus a couple other minor gadgets. Steampunk is awesome.

As a side-note… what thrilled me about writing steampunk is the same thing that I enjoy about the pulp aesthetic. When science fiction feels hidebound in some areas, steampunk feels like a great escape to enjoy science-fiction-like stories with no expectations that the science has to be “right.” Or even close. Have fun with long-discredited theories while you are at it!


SC:     Besides telegraphy did you go full on Peter Grant and study other aspects of life in the 1800’s along with more modern technology such as airships?

JB:     Not so much as the telegraphy… I really overdid the research on that one for a short story. I hope to be able to use it in future stories. One of the best resources of all for me was a novel written in 1879 by Ella Cheever Thayer called “Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes.” Thayer was a telegraph operator herself, so the novel was full of period information about the life of a telegraph operator. It’s sort of a romantic comedy, 1870s style. When the protagonist finally meets the man she had enjoyed something of an online romance with (much to the irritation of some other operators on the telegraph line), they find they are hopeless talking to each other face-to-face. They are a lot more comfortable “texting” each other in Morse code, even setting up a line between their apartments.

And all this research came down to… gah… a few lines in the story? But hey, I knew my background!

Actually, one of the amusing parts came up with my editor who was concerned about the punctuation in my telegraph messages. As it is represented in old movies, sentences always ended with the word “STOP.” That didn’t come about until I believe World War I, based on how they used punctuation to note the start and end of an order. After the war, there were a whole lot of telegraph operators trained in the military, and that just became the standard from then out, I guess. But prior to World War I, yes, there was punctuation. You paid as much for a punctuation mark as for a full word, though. Anyway, her response was, “Well, okay, you know that and now I know that, but will readers assume you are doing it wrong?”

In the end, I compromised by getting rid of all the punctuation.


SC:    Was the punctuation mark a single period vice the word STOP spelled out in dots and dashes? .

JB:     Yep, as I understand it the order had to start and end with a period. That was how they knew they had a complete order. In a case where the literal word “stop” was intended, they’d use “halt” or “cease” instead.      



SC:     How about a teaser concerning the independent East India Company? Another interesting premise.  

I wasn’t going to buy the anthology but will have to now.


JB:     Again, that ended up being more research and world-building than was really justified by a short story. But hey, this is fascinating stuff!

The story behind the story is a bit more interesting. I wrote much of this story when I was on business in Bangladesh. There were violent protests going on at the time, so I found myself in lockdown in the hotel a couple of days. That was a perfect opportunity to write! Since I was in Bangladesh, I was naturally curious about the history, and it had been controlled by the East India Company for many years. I needed an antagonist from the other side of the world, and chose them.

They’d been nationalized and then dissolved by the time my story takes place, but hey, my alternate history world, my rules. The big international incident leading to their dissolution was the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The company maintained its own armies at that time with local soldiers. The rumors that went around to help incite the rebellion had to do with the grease used in the tallow to seal the paper cartridges for the Enfield rifle violating religious and caste taboos.

So … in my story I have an East India Company that is very interested in mechanical soldiers that cannot be incited into rebellion, have any sort of religious issues, and will obey orders explicitly. Even if they can’t, say, tell the difference between friend or foe.

But again, we’re talking about a short story that clocks in around 8500 words, so I think all that resulted in about one or two sentences.



SC:     What brought you to Bangladesh and what were the protests about?


JB:    We make crane simulators, used for training operators all over the world. The training facilities are naturally pretty close to ports. I’m a software engineer, but I’m frequently called out to help with the installation and to train instructors.

The people I met and worked with in Bangladesh were really great folks–the kind that would literally give you the shirts off their own backs in a heartbeat. However, the installation happened to take place near the end of one political party’s power in the country, and the protests were over the transition, plus some real (justified) anger over the recent Rana Plaza building disaster.  

I understand that when a faction declared a “strike” in one city, it meant that literally no cars except emergency vehicles were allowed on the road. Violators would be attacked with bricks and Molotov cocktails. There were other demonstrations as well, and foreign visitors were advised to stay in lockdown. The city was pretty much shut down during that time, which made very little sense to me. Who was being hurt the most? Anyway, they’d get the word around about when these protests were going to take place, and how long they would last, so we generally had several hours to a day’s notice. I think everyone from the top down wanted to make sure that we were kept safe and protected.

The folks we worked with did their best to take care of us. I think like most other places, the people themselves just want to live their lives and run their businesses. They really wanted us to like their city, and were embarrassed that we had come in such a time of turmoil. It seemed that for them, while it was unusual, it wasn’t unheard of, and they just learned to adapt. I guess it was like really bad weather, from their perspective. I don’t pretend to understand all the issues going on at the time. The experience wasn’t a happy one for me, but I really liked the people I got to work with out there. And hey, it makes for an interesting story to tell people!


SC:     Tell me about The Van Tassel Legacy in Mechanized Masterpieces 2.  Is that something to do with The Legend of Sleep Hollow?

JB:    The Mechanized Masterpieces anthologies were steampunked retellings / sequels / offshoots of classic literature. The second volume was all American literature. “The Van Tassel Legacy” is a steampunk sequel to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, taking place almost fifty years after the original story. As far as I know, this is the only derived work that actually assumes no supernatural being at work. The original story strongly suggests that it was Brom Bones in costume who ran off his romantic rival, Ichabod Crane. It suggests Crane went off to become a lawyer and later a judge, perhaps changing his name. I took that and ran with it.

Instead, the story involves German alchemical battle-armor, hibernation chambers, nefarious cousins, and Brom and Katrina as an elderly couple with a whole lot of secrets. I had a lot of fun with it, and again probably did too much research into Washington Irving and the area. And now I’m forever tainted: For me, Brom will always be the flawed hero of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.


SC:     I’m halfway done with The Queen of Shadows (Cirsova #5). What influenced this story and want drew you to this Eldritch project of Misha’s?

JB:    Lovecraft. Burroughs. Howard. Mix them together in a world complete with dinosaurs? HOLY CRAP HOW CAN YOU NOT WANT TO DO THIS!?!?!? I jumped at the chance.

I wanted to do something with Lovecraftian ghouls. In Lovecraft’s stories, being a ghoul was more of a hereditary condition. I considered the possibility that they got their start as a group of humans that ate the flesh of one of the Great Ones in an effort to absorb its powers.  I chatted a little bit with Misha about possibilities, and he suggested that Deodanth was secretly ruled by a “shadow government” — why not the ghouls?

Everything evolved from this premise.The idea of thrusting a hero cut from the Burroughs or Howard cloth down into an underworld full of things that Man Was Not Meant to Know was incredibly fun.

I also wanted to play a little bit with the city of Deodanth. My vision of it was influenced by Howard’s Conan stories… a veneer of civilization papering over an often rotten or at least barbaric core. Jorgan is a child of Deodanth, and knows what’s up… but he’s spent years in exile in the wilderness and is able to come back with fresh eyes and little to lose.



SC:    Do you plan to submit anything for Misha’s 21st Century Adventure project?

JB:    If I get the chance! I don’t have anything written up yet, but I love the direction he’s going with it.

If you watch prime-time TV and see that most dramas aren’t straying too far from the pulp formula with modern-world stories, so maybe I don’t view this as being quite as experimental as he suggests. Still, I am intrigued by the idea of going full-blown, unapologetic pulp in the here & now as a setting.


SC:    How did you come across Cirsova?

JB:     Short(er) version: Shortly after finishing one of the Barsoom books on audiobook and really getting into Leigh Brackett’s stories, I was wishing that there was still a market for those kinds of stories. On a whim, I started looking for markets that specifically mentioned “pulp.” And there was Cirsova – just barely open for submissions! I think I started working on “The Priests of Shalaz” that night.

Longer version: After yet another rejection that caused me to question whether I had any talent or business writing in the first place, I decided to try going full-on pulp. I dug up the old Lester Dent Master Plot Formula, read some modern commentary on it, re-read some old pulp era favorites and compared them to his framework, and really tried to study it. My theory was that these guys had to learn what makes a successful story that people will buy in a hardcore, high-speed era of literary Darwinism that probably isn’t too different from the modern era. While tastes and trends change, what makes a good story hasn’t.

Once I embraced the pulp, not only did my success rate jump, but I was having a lot more fun writing. I wasn’t submitting to any pulp-specific market–I didn’t know of any that were actively taking submissions. I was writing modern stories, but with sort of a pulp methodology and aesthetic. I was wondering if certain story subgenres from the pulp era could find a home today. And thus my search that led me to Cirsova.



SC:    When did you first hear of Castalia House?

JB:     I was a Hugo voter in 2015, and that was my first time reading anything published by Castalia House. In particular, John C. Wright’s story, “The Plural of Helen of Troy” was just a mind-bending twist on the whole time traveler / time lord concept that was a lot of fun. I need to read the rest of his anthology.



SC:    What authors have influenced your writing?

JB:      That could be a pretty long list. As far as the ones I’ve actually thought, “Man, how can I learn to write like that?” and tried (and failed) to emulate, from earlier years I’d list  Robert E. Howard (of course), Robert A. Heinlein, William Gibson, Stephen King, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Jim Butcher. More recently, I’ve become a fan of Richard Matheson, Leigh Brackett, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yeah, better late than never. I was familiar with their works in film and TV, but I’d never gone back to read their original stories until recently, and they are awesome.



SC:     When reading up on your work before this interview I came across a description of you as someone that “escaped the game development industry”.   Have you moved on or just taking a break? Any insights on the perils of a career in game development?

JB:     It’s changed a lot over the years. If you talk to most people working for big game studios, they’ll tell you the same thing: They love making games, but they hate the games industry.  It tends to chew up young developers and spit them out, with relatively poor pay, long hours, and often crappy management. In many mid-sized independent studios, the reward for a job well-done might be getting laid off with a promise to consider re-hiring you when the next project is ready.

People love working on games, and the industry tends to grab them when they are young and naive, and willing to put up with poor conditions, missed paychecks, etc. There are tons of young kids who love video games and think nothing (at first) of making sacrifices to work in the video games business, and so anyone at a major studio can be considered disposable. I think this aspect might have gotten worse lately, because AAA games have gotten so huge now that anyone’s role on a project is really tiny. You don’t get to make your own games, you don’t get much of a feeling of ownership on a big project, you feel like a cog in a wheel, and the working conditions are often pretty miserable. Add to this the fact that the AAA game industry is extremely hit driven and volatile, and you’ve got a pretty rough industry to work in.

I was at one studio where one of the teams had been on 60-hour minimum weeks for I think it was over six months. No overtime, just base salary (and for software engineers, this was already well below industry standard). At one point, another team was concerned that their project was going to get canceled and that they were going to get laid off. When a management team from company headquarters showed up, rumors flew. Local management brought the team together that afternoon and told them all that everything was cool, their deadline for the next milestone had been extended two months to really get it polished up. The next morning, they grabbed team members individually as they walked in the building to give them their pink slip.

Again, a lot has changed over the years, and my experiences are out-of-date, and not every studio or publisher is the same.  Some of the worst offenders, like the one I just mentioned, are long gone.

I believe the rise of indie game development has been a big part of that change. In a way, indie is going back to how things started in the industry, with small teams making their own games. It’s very liberating, and a lot of fun. The problem is that just like indie books, it’s very crowded and difficult to make a living at it.



SC:     For the gamer that would like to support good companies that treat their employees right do you know of any companies that have a good reputation?

JB:     Your best bet is to go indie, but then you aren’t going to get the incredible $50-million AAA games. But there are a lot of really cool, quality indie games out there that are made by tiny teams of people often contributing their own time and money to the project. That’s a lot closer to how the industry started, and I like supporting those guys. I have a lot of friends running small studios as well, and I would like to assume they treat their employees well. But again, those aren’t the games you’ll find pushed by big marketing campaigns. You have to search for them.



SC:    When you have time, what are your favorite games to play?

JB:     Role-playing games and strategy games. Turn-based strategy games are my kryptonite. I’m really bad about taking “just one more turn” and having a game last all night long. I’m also a big fan of combat flight sims (and space combat “sims”).

Right now I’m still trying to finish Divinity: Original Sin (since the sequel is now in early release) and Pillars of Eternity. I have been distracted by The Witcher III, though.

Din’s Curse (with the Demon War expansion) is an old favorite I keep going back to. If you want to play a game in the style of Diablo where the dungeon’s inhabitants seem to be fighting back and will pursue their own plots based on your actions (or lack thereof), that game (or any of the ones from Soldak Entertainment) is the one to check out. There are times in that one where I’ve had to donate my “spare” equipment to the townspeople to help get them equipped for an invasion–sometimes because I’ve just not been able to stop an uprising down in the underworld and it’s led to some boss enemy emerging and trying to destroy the town.



SC:  You mentioned that you are working with virtual reality technology. Please tell us a little about it.

JB:    I’ve been waiting for the VR revolution since college. I actually got to play with some of the tech back in the 90s, but it wasn’t anywhere near ready for prime time. Now the tech is here and getting into the consumer price range. If you haven’t tried it out, try some higher-quality VR stuff first, like the Oculus Rift or the Vive… or, if you have the chance, one of the VOID centers that are opening up in a few locations (headquartered here in Utah!).

It’s mind-blowing. You might think of it as a really big 360-degree computer screen, but it’s more than that. It really does screw with your sense of reality. People talk about being “in” VR instead of being “on” VR or “using” VR… and that’s really the sense that you get. Even though you know what you are seeing is an illusion, parts of your brain are still sending you signals responding to it all as if it’s real. If you are standing by a ledge, you have to fight your lizard-brain to step over it. Even when you are experienced with VR, after you’ve been in it for several minutes, when you take off the headset, it feels a little bit like you are waking up from a dream. Your brain has to make that context switch.

My day job for several years has been creating simulators–primarily for cranes and other load-lifting equipment. Our simulators are all over the world (including Bangladesh, after that visit I talked about). Some of them are huge, with giant domes and projected screens. We go all the way down to (relatively) small desktop systems.

Recently, we’ve added virtual reality as one of our platforms. This has been a lot of fun to work with. It’s not the best solution for all types of training, but it works incredibly well for some. It allows the operator a full view of everything around them, including the ability to move their head to look around an obstruction.

But like I said, VR screws with your sense of reality. Conflicts between what you are seeing and signals from your other senses–like your inner ear–can cause unpleasant side effects. Some people get “VR sickness” more easily than others. Unfortunately, I’m one of those people. So when I screw something up, encounter a bug, or an experiment goes wrong, I get sick pretty easily.

So sometimes my day job involves me making myself sick. At least I’m not bored.



SC:     Let’s say I’m in high school and think your work with VR simulators sounds like the career for me.  What should I be studying and learning?


JB:     If your goal is to become a programmer, take math and if they offer it, computer classes. All those joke memes on the Internet about never using algebra or trig in everyday life? I use it every day.

As an indie game developer, though, what I’d encourage you to do is to grab a copy of the Unreal Engine or the Unity Engine, and learn how to use it. Those are free to learn on, and either free or highly affordable even to ship commercial products on. They’ve got VR support built-in, and while there’s a ton to learn, those really smooth the way. Get your hands dirty and just build stuff!

For VR, it starts with just making 3D projects… and both of those engines are designed to handle 3D games (but can handle 2D as well). There are some additional interface and comfort requirements for VR, but the basics are the same.



SC:     Your library at home must be a great mix of science fiction and tech books.  Browsing your library what would be the predominant genres and topics?

JB:     I think you’d have a tough time picking out a predominant genre. You’d find a ton of role-playing game rulebooks, though. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I hate throwing out any of those, even if I haven’t played it in thirty years and it’s been superseded by three later editions. It’s not terribly unusual to find me digging through one of the old rulebooks to see how they approached a problem or explained something.

Beyond that… for nonfiction, you’d find a lot of books on computer programming and game development (most of them outdated… most of what I read is online now), religion, military history, and music. Fiction is a an even bigger chunk of our library that occupies half of the wall space in our basement. It’s almost all speculative fiction, but neither my wife nor I have settled down on a favorite genre.

Thanks to digital distribution, we don’t have to find room for four more bookcases. My Kindle library is growing at a far faster rate than I have time to read it. It probably holds a similar ratio of everything I mentioned.

Unsurprisingly, I haven’t settled on a favorite genre to write, either.



SC:     Your Amazon page mentions you love reading scans of 70 year old pulp magazines. Alex is always putting up killer reviews of old pulp stories but they are frustratingly rare to find. Are there websites you can recommend for those wanting to read the old mags?


JB:   The pulp magazine archive  is my go-to place for scans of the original magazines. I’ve also picked up several from the Pulp Magazine Project, and Pulp Covers  sometimes has links to digital versions of the original books.

I finally have some originals in my collection, but I don’t dare remove them from their protective sleeves for long. I read the scans instead.

Aside from that, I’ve picked up some collections and reprints on Amazon and from Paizo.com.



SC:     Please let us know what you are working on now.

JB:     I have a short story called “Dead Last” appearing in the premier issue of StoryHack, a new pulp-style magazine which will be launching very soon. “Crawlers,” a story of giant arthropods that devour a major suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah recently came out in Electric Spec and is free to read online. I’ve been working on novel-writing again, which has been a bit of a transition after spending several years focused on short-form fiction. I don’t have anything ready to announce on that front yet.



SC:    Jay, thank you for your time and the great stories I got to read in preparations for this interview.

JB:   Thank you, Scott! This has been a lot of fun!

  • anonme says:

    Great interview.

  • Alex says:

    I have not yet had time to write a proper review of it, but Jay’s game Frayed Knights was a ton of fun. Great homage to the Keep on the Borderlands with some fun and quirky writing.

    • anonme says:

      Frayed Knights does not get the attention it deserves.

      I know he’s working on a sequel, but that pesky thing called real life keeps getting in the way. I still want it though.

      • Alex says:

        My only qualms with it are the long load times and the “episode 1” nature of it. The game world is just big enough that after you’re impressed by how much bigger it is than you expected it to be, you’re left asking “That’s it?!” when it ends. The locked adventurers’ rooms hint at future story lines and I’d love to see it expanded on (new hub towns, areas, quests, etc.), though Jay’s said that the next one will be a wholly new system.

  • Sky says:

    That was fascinating. I never thought it, but of course you would want to train people as well as you could to operate those ginormous cranes. So neat.
    Usually I check out immediately whenever I hear the word Steampunk but Jay has done really interesting research on the technology.

  • S.H. Mansouri says:

    Playing Gwent on Witcher 3 literally stole 3 months of my life.

  • Jay Barnson says:

    I’ve bought books based on this blog series, so… it’s what? Mutually assured bankruptcy?

  • Please give us your valuable comment

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *