Oooh! (BOOM!) Ahhh! The History of Fireworks



It’s common knowledge that fireworks originated in China, but like many marvelous inventions, it was an accidental discovery. History tells us that alchemists attempting to develop an elixir for immortality tried a recipe of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). What they got was gunpowder and soon firecrackers were in huge demand as their loud bangs were used to scare away evil spirits.

Fireworks7Just as in modern times, military engineers saw a practical use for the substance’s explosive properties. Stuffing gunpowder into bamboo tubes was just the first step. The first documented use of gunpowder in a weapon of war is a catapult in the year 1046. Imagine the numerous trials and failures that eventually led to enough success that someone proudly recorded it for posterity!

What you learned in elementary school about Marco Polo bringing fireworks to Europe from his travels in 1295 is true. But Europeans had already experienced gunpowder weaponry during the Crusades. China tried to keep the technology within its own borders, but the formula for gunpowder had been carried to the Middle East by caravans traversing the Silk Road.

Fireworks4By the 15th century, Italians had refined methods for mixing chemicals and shaping aerial shells to produce specific shapes and colors of pyrotechnics. Ambitious displays lighting up the night sky were incorporated into religious and public celebrations all across Europe. For instance, the marriage of England’s Henry VII and Elizabeth Plantagenet in 1486 saw an elaborate presentation of pyrotechnic prowess.

The rise of fireworks as entertainment coincided with the end of medieval warfare. The same science that sent colorful explosions into the air created advances in ballistic weaponry; metal armor could be punctured by projectiles and fortified walls could be demolished from a distance.

Logo-stackedIn my novel, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, an ancient ritual that incorporates fireworks causes chaos for the hero. A third-century Persian warrior who had never experienced pyrotechnics, he’s interested in using the technology to gain an advantage in war. Get your copy on!

Fireworks8Varieties of Fireworks

Stars: The small bits of explosive that scatter across the sky when fireworks explode
Peony: An explosion of stars in a radial pattern
Dahlia: Like a Peony, but with fewer and larger stars
Chrysanthemum: Like a Peony that leaves a trail of glowing particles as it falls
Crossette: A Chrysanthemum with stars that explode as smaller pieces, creating branches across the sky
Willow: Like a Crossette, but the glowing limbs must stay in the sky for 10 seconds or more
Palm: Like a Willow, but with slower-moving, slower-burning stars, resembling the limbs of a palm tree
Spider: Like the Chrysanthemum, but with longer-burning, droopy tails (like a spider’s leg)
Fish: Explodes into particles that wriggle like fish across the sky.
Rings: From a spherical shell, explosions that spread like Saturn’s rings
Time rain: Big, slow-burning stars that leave trails of sizzling, sparkling stars
Multi-break/Bouquet shells: A big shell containing smaller shells scattered by the first burst


The Origin Key Launch Event


Russell Newquist and Susan McPhail

My first novel was published and we threw a party! Here’s a gigantic THANK YOU to Terranova’s Italian Restaurant, family, friends, and everyone who came out and helped make it a fun event!

On Friday, August 12 we were at Terranova’s Italian Restaurant in Huntsville enjoying fantastic food, signing books, and giving away prizes. Russell Newquist of Silver Empire Publishing was there with me, getting to know some local sci-fi/fantasy fans.


Cecilia Della Pella was excited to be one of the first in line to buy a copy of The Origin Key. Later in the evening she won one of the drawings and received a lovely writer’s journal. Other winners went home with copies of the book, an gift card, or a journal.

The winner of the grand prize—a copy of The Origin Key, a copy of Between the Wall and the Fire, a writer’s journal, an gift card, and a signed poster of The Origin Key cover art was Terranova’s own Stephen Johnson!

DinersDiners2 Diners3

If you weren’t able to join us at Terranova’s, don’t worry! You can get The Origin Key in either paperback or e-book format on Want a signed copy? Look for me at the Southern Author’s Expo at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library downtown branch on September 10. Start your holiday shopping early and get a personalized copy of my sword-and-science fantasy adventure novel for all the readers on your gift list.

OriginKeyCover_lo-resThe Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure like no other. Prince Rasteem, a third-century Persian warrior, discovers an obscure culture that uses something more powerful and dangerous than magic: twenty-first century technology.


The Origin Key Book Launch

Writing is creative fun, but launching a published book can be a blast! Mark your calendar for Friday, August 12.


The traditional way to commemorate publication of a new book is to have a launch party. Help me celebrate this achievement and support a wonderful local family restaurant at the same time on Friday, August 12. We’ll be at Terranova’s Italian Restaurant in Huntsville from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. enjoying fantastic cuisine, giving away some great prizes, and autographing books.


Prize drawings begin at 6:30. We’ll be giving away autographed copies of Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, copies of the anthology Between the Wall and Fire, gift cards, and some beautiful writer’s journals. The Grand Prize package, to be given away at 8:00, consists of The Origin Key, Between the Wall and the Fire, an gift card, a writer’s journal, AND an autographed poster of The Origin Key cover art.


The Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a sword-and-science fantasy/sci-fi adventure like no other. In the third century, a Persian warrior discovers an obscure culture using something more powerful and dangerous than magic: advanced technology.

We’ve also cooked up some fun ideas for Terranova’s menu! For this one night only, get in the spirit of ancient Persia and the mysterious kingdom of Dodrazeb with these cleverly named drinks and appetizers.

  • The Viper’s Kiss—Dirty Vodka Martini garnished with Olives
  • Wandering Librarian—Vodka, Cointreau, Cranberry Juice, and a splash of Lime
  • Garden of Persian Delights Terranova’s Sangria made fresh in-house with Red Wine
  • Scheming Princess—Terranova’s Frozen Italian Margarita mixed with Sangria
  • Drunken Scholar—Terranova’s Long Island Tea
  • Kamran’s Calamari—Tender, thinly cut calamari marinated overnight and lightly fried. Served with a spicy lemon butter sauce.
  • Conqueror’s Platter—Fried zucchini, mozzarella, stuffed mushrooms, and stuffed shrimp.
  • Rasteem’s Favorite—Breaded mozzarella triangles served with Terranonva’s house marinara sauce.
  • Laneffri’s Choice—Mushrooms stuffed with spinach, ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, and Italian spices.
  • Dodrazeb Dip—Creamy spinach and artichoke dip with melted mozzarella served with rosemary croutons.

Don’t have your copy of Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key yet? Don’t worry! We’ll have plenty of copies for sale at the launch party.


The Origin Key Book Trailer

My first novel, for sale on, has a trailer!

The Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure like no other. Prince Rasteem, a third-century Persian warrior, discovers an obscure culture that appears to take twenty-first century technology for granted.



When you publish a book you have to promote it, get the word out, let the world know about it. One way to do this is to blog about it constantly, but that can get boring for both me and my readers. A better way is to create (or let a talented friend create) a book trailer. I can hear you thinking, “What the heck is a book trailer?” Just like a movie trailer, but for a book, it’s a short video that gives you an idea of what the story is about. And here it is!

Celebrate this milestone with me and support a wonderful local family restaurant at the same time on Friday, August 12. We’ll be at Terranova’s Italian Restaurant in Huntsville from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. enjoying fantastic cuisine and giving away some great prizes.


Apparently when you publish a book, people get all inquisitive about your reading habits, likes and dislikes, and even want to know what inspired the story. My publisher and friend Russell Newquist recently interviewed me for his own blog. You can read all three parts of An Interview with S.D. McPhail here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3. If you have any more questions, just ask in the comments section.

Holy Crap! I’m an Author

Making the transition from reader to writer to published author is a unique journey.

My novel The Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. In it, a Persian warrior-prince discovers an obscure culture that seems to be using twenty-first century technology. Look for it on July 30! Available as both e-book and paperback.

OriginKeyCover_lo-resIf you’re like me, you’ve always loved to read. I mean love to read, as in reading the cereal box during breakfast when nothing else is handy. If you’ve ever had an idea for a story that wouldn’t go away, that only blossoms into something more complex as time goes on, you may be like me. There’s that one idea buzzing in the back of your head that pushes itself to the forefront at the oddest times and soon you have characters coming to life in your mind. They are fully realized, well-rounded people with thoughts and feelings and lives of their own inside a fictional existence. Then you feel compelled to share this amazing story and these amazing people with others. That’s when you’ve crossed the line from a love of reading to a love of writing.

Writing can be incredibly fun, but it isn’t easy. It takes time to nurture whatever natural talent may exist and develop the skills to write well. It can sometimes be a long, lonely road with the only encouragement coming from the fictional people populating your story. As with anything else, the more you practice, the better you get. Then after the story is written, there’s a lot more work—and many drafts—to make it fit for publication. That steep learning curve is why it takes most new writers quite a long time to actually publish works that others want to read.

I am now a published author. In three days my first novel will be on sale to the public, a feat that makes me both elated and nervous. Elated because this is an enormous accomplishment that took years. Nervous because it is unrealistic to expect the world at large to love this story as much as I do. I am fully aware that my sword-and-science fantasy adventure won’t appeal to everyone, but I still hope for good reviews and a positive sales response.

Either way, though, I’m going to write more adventures like this one featuring the characters I have come to know so well. I’m an author and that’s what I do now.
DodrazebLOGOIn the third century, the Persian Empire was a world power whose influence stretched from China to Europe. The king and his sons maintained peace with a powerful army—until the day a horde of screaming vandals attacked the king.

KEYFLATEDGEPursuing a criminal known as the Viper, Prince Rasteem becomes suspicious when the Persian army easily conquers Dodrazeb. Princess Laneffri is desperate to expel the Persian invaders from her kingdom and she will stop at nothing to protect its secrets—especially the Origin Key. Is Dodrazeb hiding the Viper or something even more dangerous? When Rasteem learns what the Origin Key can do, he must find a way to make the princess an ally to save both their kingdoms from annihilation.

“A smart, thrilling mix of history and fantasy. S.D. McPhail is definitely an author to watch.”
Brian Niemeier, Campbell-nominated author of Souldancer

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a stunning debut novel. McPhail’s creation is packed with tension and excitement, from the political machinations of the empire to the almost Atlantean history of Dodrazeb and mythical Anutupi. The imagery is enchanting, but the adventure is mesmerizing.”
 Ashley Chappell-Peeples, author of  Of War and Taters and the Dreams of Chaos series

Thank You, Sir Alistair Pilkington

What would life be like without glass? A lot of modern technology—like computers, cameras, and smart phones—depend on it. Decorative or utilitarian, it’s all around us, often right in front of us, and we are accustomed to looking straight through it.


Roman Cup made of  free-blown glass.

Humans have been using glass since prehistoric times. Obsidian, a type of volcanic glass formed by rapid cooling of viscous lava, has extremely sharp edges, making it ideal for arrowheads, knife blades, and other cutting implements. Before the discovery of a recipe for manmade glass, ancient humans used obsidian to make weapons, tools, and ornaments.


Greek container for scented oil made by core-forming.

Basic glass production has not changed much since ancient times. A mixture of silica, soda ash, and lime is heated to extreme temperatures, shaped into almost any form, and then allowed to cool. There is evidence of glassmaking as early as 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia. Beads, likely an accidental byproduct of metalworking, are the earliest known manmade glass objects. A surge in glassmaking technology during the late Bronze Age in Egypt and Western Asia produced decorative vessels of patterned and colored glass. The archaeological record indicates that the method for making glass from raw materials was a closely guarded secret in powerful nations. Outside of the wealthy empires, glass workers had to acquire bars of pre-formed glass to produce wares.

An early glassmaking technique was core forming. Glassmakers wound lengths of hot glass around a core of ceramic-like material to shape the body of the vessel, then added handles and a rim. When the vessel cooled, the core would be removed. Pouring hot glass into a mold is called casting. After the cast glass cooled, grinding and cutting techniques were used to refine and decorate the piece.


Greek wine-drinking bowl.

Pouring molten glass into molds was a slow and unreliable method that kept glass a luxury item for the wealthy. This changed in the 1st century BCE when Syrian and Palestinian workers discovered the art of glass blowing, inflating a glob of molten glass into a bubble at the end of a tube. The glassblower could manipulate the pliable glass into virtually any shape while adding artistic flourishes. The new manufacturing technique transformed glass into a cheap and easily produced material, gradually replacing clay and metal vessels.

James Mongrain’s amazing interpretation of mid 18th century Venetian goblets.


Can someone perfect an unbreakable smartphone screen?

Modern technology has improved glassmaking with the introduction of additives which provide color or opacity, improve quality, durability and other properties. One relatively recent innovation is the “float glass” process, first introduced in 1957 in Great Britain by Sir Alistair Pilkington. Before this method was perfected, it was impossible to create flat sheets of smooth glass with uniform thickness. Screens for laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras, and camcorders are made from float glass.


My novel The Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. In it, a Persian warrior-prince discovers an obscure culture that seems to be using twenty-first century technology. Beautiful glass works of art as well as strictly functional windowpanes are some of the many advances taken for granted in Dodrazeb. Look for it on July 30!

The History of Paper

What would we do without paper? There are so many varieties! We use it for cleaning, wrapping, containerizing, sharing information, personal hygiene, photos and art, currency, and so much more. Historically, one of the most widespread uses for paper has been to create books. More than just an easy way to share factual information, books entertain, enlighten, engage the mind, and promote creative thinking. Even if you prefer e-books, the tree-books had to come first. I have nothing against e-books. I love their convenience and generally low price. I also love tree-books and how I don’t have to be concerned with losing battery power while turning the pages contained between their covers.


Books are my favorite use for paper.

Gutenberg’s press may have been the technology that made mass communication possible, causing a world-wide social revolution, but what good would movable type have been without massive quantities of affordable paper? Let’s take a few minutes to celebrate this versatile invention and trace the history of paper making.

As most of us learned in elementary school, the word paper is derived from the word papyrus, a plant material the ancient Egyptians wove into sheets used for writing. Papyrus plants were plentiful in the subtropical region of the Mediterranean, but in other regions calfskins or sheepskins were processed into parchment for the same purpose. The Chinese used bamboo, but those documents were heavy and difficult to transport. Though silk was sometimes used, it was generally too expensive to be practical. In fact, any of the materials commonly used for writing were costly, time-consuming to produce, and not easy to acquire, making written documentation rare.


Early Chinese Paper Making

History records that Cai Lun, an Imperial Chinese Court official, invented paper in 105 CE. Archaeological finds have determined that paper was being made 200 years before then, but Cai Lun can probably rightly take credit for vast improvements in the paper making process. The earliest Chinese method resulted in paper that was thick, coarse, and uneven, made from pounded and disintegrated hemp fibers. Cai Lun’s innovation, made from bark, hemp, rags, fishnet, wheat stalks and other materials, produced paper that was relatively cheap, light, thin, and durable.

European papermaking

European Paper Making

The lucrative Chinese monopoly on paper manufacturing held for hundreds of years, until in 751 the T’ang army was defeated by the Ottoman Turks. They took some captured Chinese soldiers and paper makers to Samarkand where the Arabs learned paper making from them. The Egyptians got the technology from the Arabs during the early 10th century. Around 1100, paper making arrived in Northern Africa and by 1150 it had spread to Spain as a result of the crusades. From there it spread through Europe, and in 1453, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. As the craft of paper making spread throughout the world, it remained a relatively small-scale, artisan activity until paper production became industrialized during the 19th century.


The Diamond Sutra of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the oldest printed book in the world.

Could paper be the key element in cultural advancement? Some historians theorize that Chinese culture was less developed than Egyptian culture in ancient times because bamboo, though abundant, was a clumsier writing material than papyrus. They contend that Chinese culture advanced before and during the Han Dynasty due to the invention of paper, and Europe advanced during the Renaissance due to the introduction of paper and the printing press.

In my sword-and-science fantasy novel Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, the mystical kingdom of Dodrazeb perfected paper making thousands of years ago, but never shared the technology with the rest of the world. That’s just one of the remarkable things a Persian warrior discovers, along with ancient secrets that may threaten the future of all mankind. Look for it July 30 on!