In 1996, I had been working full time in the computer game industry for six years. I’d been a game tester for Strategic Simulations Inc. (Joel Billings’ company before he founded Matrix Games with Keith Brors and Gary Grigsby) between college terms in the summer back in 88 and 89, and then Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye hired me in 1990 at Dynamix to be the company’s aviation historian on Red Baron. I worked on the subsequent Aces series and worked as the designer on Red Baron II until I left the firm in February 1996 to begin a writing career. My original plan was to get my Master’s Thesis, Until Tomorrow, Goodnight Sweetheart, the Life of Colonel Gerald Richard Johnson, turned into a book.
An agent I had queried suggested I write something about the Korean War. With the 50th anniversary of the Forgotten War approaching, I thought it was a great idea. Plus, I wanted him to sign me! So, I began work on Crimson Sky. I ended up signing with another agent, and she (Elisabet McHugh), sold the book to Brassey’s in early 1997.
My friends Bob and Laura Archer gave me one of those multicolored Bic clickie pens as a gift one night when we were celebrating the sale of Crimson Sky, and that was the pen I used to sign the contracts on my first five books. Don’t know what happened to it, but when I lost it, I was so bummed.
In the summer of 97, I returned to Dynamix as a consultant, and for two years I worked on flight sims and researched Crimson Sky. The first thing that struck me about the Korean Air War was that few of the pilots and crews I met had ever been interviewed. Fewer had told their families about what they had experienced. I tried from the outset to put a human face on the air war, and the book features the men I interviewed. I’m a lot more interested in people than machines, and when I look back on this first effort, that’s something that stands out to me.
When I finally delivered the manuscript, I’d been a thorn in Brassey’s behind. With all the work at Dynamix piling up, I’d been able to write only sporadically. Finally, I buckled down in early 1998 and wrote the bulk of Crimson Sky in the basement of the Independence city museum. I wrote mainly at night, heading down there after dinner and getting done well after midnight.
In the dark, the Heritage Museum is a seriously creepy place. It is a former Baptist Church built in the 1880’s that had a basement straight out of Silence of the Lambs. One entire room was filled with nothing but mannequin pieces. Heads, arms, torsos were scattered and stacked among period clothing.
My office was a tiny room in the basement with two barred windows. At night, I swear I heard people walking around upstairs on the main floor long after the doors had been locked and the alarm set. Once, I heard a woman scream, “Nooooooo.” The place was so bizarre, I once shot video of it at midnight, walking around in the basement through narrow doors and down twisting, dark hallways–and ended up freaking out those who viewed it later.
Okay, it freaked me out too. But, I needed a place to write that didn’t have the distractions of home, and the museum basement fit that bill. It was especially appealing because it was free. Of course, there was a cost: I was afraid to even make runs to the bathroom, lest the dismembered mannequins get me.
Later, I found out that everyone who worked in the building had ghost stories to tell, and the museum board asked prospective employees how they felt about working in a haunted building. Go figure. A few years after I finished Crimson Sky, the local paper did a piece on the Independence Ghost Walk, which is a fall staple in my little Oregon town. Tales of hauntings abound in the old buildings here, and my story of the museum basement was offered up for public consumption. I earned a brief bit of local fame as the crazy writer who thought he worked with poltergeists. Awesome way to start a respectable career.
Crimson Sky hit the shelves in the fall of 1999. When it did, I drove my family to Powell’s Books in Portland to see it there alongside other writers and historians whose work I had long since come to admire. That was a special moment, staring at Crimson Sky on the shelf there. It has since become something of a ritual my family does whenever we are up at Powell’s and a new book of mine has been released.