Book Curses

image2If you love reading as much as I do, you might be like me—reluctant to let anyone borrow a book that you’ve bought. It’s always a risk because you can never be absolutely sure that the borrower—even a close friend—will take proper care of it. Many years ago when I was in fourth grade, I let a classmate borrow my favorite hardback book of scary stories. Naively, I thought everyone respected books as much I did. After weeks of repeatedly asking for it back, I escalated to a threat to have my mother call her mother. The next day my book was returned. The cover was torn off, some pages had been ripped out, and the remaining pages had been scribbled on. It had suffered a horrible, demeaning death at the hands of a book murderer! A difficult lesson to learn at such a tender young age, that day I discovered I shouldn’t trust just anyone with my most valuable possessions.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeyTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure. A Persian warrior’s curiosity is ignited when he leads an invasion into Dodrazeb, a strange isolated kingdom that possesses incredible technology. Ancient Dodrazeb’s puzzling choice to hide from the world draws the warrior deeper into layers of mysteries as its princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What are the Dodrazebbians so desperate to keep hidden? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.

book-thiefYears later I loaned a book to a friend of mine. I had known her for a long time, we had socialized at each other’s homes, I thought she was a fine, upstanding person. A few weeks passed and I asked if she had finished the book. She cheerfully gushed that it had been a great read and then she told me she had donated it to charity along with a few dozen other books she had read. I was dumbstruck. In my assessment of her worthiness to borrow my book, it never occurred to me to question her understanding of the word “borrow.” How did she come to the conclusion that I had given her my book to do with as she pleased after she read it? Let’s just say that, due to a plethora of reasons that include her insensitivity to property rights, she is now an ex-friend.

doctor-strange-benedict-cumberbatch-benedict-wongWhen I saw Marvel Comic’s Dr. Strange movie last year, I was ready to enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. It was a great movie, filled with mysticism, excellent imagery, and just the right amount of humor. But the part I liked best was the library. The ancient tomes were so valuable and their contents so dangerous they were kept chained to the shelves so no one could steal them. This makes a great plot point in a movie, but the fact is, chaining books to shelves was a fairly common practice in medieval libraries.

imageBefore Gutenberg started a printing revolution, books were laboriously hand-copied by scribes, back-breaking, tedious work that made every bound text precious and expensive. Chaining books to shelves and keeping them locked up helped deter thievery. But long before books were made of sheets of parchment or paper either hand copied or mass produced, there was a technique used to add a layer of special protection to the readable work: book curses.

clay_tabletPop culture has made us all familiar with curses written on mummy’s tombs and bewitched books of spells. Did you know that the oldest known library routinely inscribed its books with elaborate curses to prevent theft? Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627 BCE, assembled his library at Ninevah. He had scribes include various curses on the tablets invoking the wrath of ancient deities for anyone who would steal or damage them:

I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.

bookplatecWhoever removes [the tablet], writes his name in the place of my name, may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land.

Ashurbanipal made allowances for those who wanted to borrow, not steal. He who fears Anu, Enlil, and Ea will return it to the owner’s house the same day, and He who fears Anu and Antu will take care of it and respect it.

As books evolved from clay tablets to something a little more portable, the tradition continued. In medieval times monks and scribes often appended their own colorful curses to the works they produced. Like Ashurbanipal, they called upon a wrathful God to strike down the book thief and frequently recommended excommunication from the church.

PrintThis book is one, And God’s curse is another; They that take the one, God give them the other.

To steal this book, if you should try, It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high. And ravens then will gather ’bout To find your eyes and pull them out.

From a Bible in 1172: If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.

PrintFrom a 13th Century Vatican document: The finished book before you lies; This humble scribe don’t criticize. Whoever takes away this book, May he never on Christ look. Whoever to steal this volume durst, May he be killed as one accursed. Whoever to steal this volume tries, Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!

Some medieval book curses got right to the point, like this one from 1461: Hanging will do for him who steals you.

PrintThese days, a lot of serious bibliophiles like bookplates. Fancy or plain, exotic or traditional, they offer a personalized way to identify the book’s owner that goes beyond merely writing a name inside the cover. If you want to remind a borrower how serious you are about books, you might even want to incorporate a whimsical book curse in your bookplate. It’s too late to recover the  book my ex-friend gave away, but now when I loan one out, I make a point of showing the borrower I’m serious about getting it back.

Click here to download my printable bookplates. Some of the designs are featured above.


Ancient Libraries


Clay tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal

Not long after ancient people discovered writing, they also discovered the need to store all those handy written records. Whatever form the writing took—clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment books—if it was thought to be important, they were collected and kept for future reference. Libraries exist to collect, organize, store, and sometimes share knowledge. Through the ages, there have been many reasons to establish libraries: the quest for knowledge, the control of information, the pleasure of reading, or the desire to do public good are just a few. While some libraries flourished in ancient times, others were accidentally destroyed or became the victims of libricide—the deliberate burning of books.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeyTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. Older and more mysterious than ancient Egypt, the strange kingdom of Dodrazeb ignites a Persian warrior’s curiosity when he leads an army to conquer it. Mesmerized by Dodrazeb’s puzzles, the warrior is determined to peel back its layers of secrets as a desperate princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What have they been hiding for thousands of years? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.


Clay tablet describing an asteroid impact in 3123 BCE

The oldest known libraries consisted of clay tablets in cuneiform script discovered in temple rooms in Sumer, some dating back to 2600 BCE. These archives, which mainly consisted of the records of commercial transactions or inventories, mark the end of prehistory and the start of history. Over 30,000 clay tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal have been discovered at Nineveh providing modern scholars with an amazing wealth of Mesopotamian literary, religious, and administrative work dating from the seventh century BCE. Among the findings were astronomic/astrological texts, as well as standard lists used by scribes and scholars such as word lists, bilingual vocabularies, lists of signs and synonyms, and lists of medical diagnoses.

library-alexandriaOne of the most famous of all ancient libraries is the one constructed in Alexandria, Egypt. Legend says that Alexander the Great was inspired to build a library to contain all the works of the nations he conquered and have them translated into Greek. Alexander didn’t live to see it built, but his successor Ptolemy I began building it about 306 BCE. A prototype of the modern research university, this library was established to focus on research and become an academy for scholars. It attracted scholars by offering free room, board, servants, and salaries. This changed when Alexandria came under the rule of Roman emperors who restricted intellectual freedom.

alexandria_libraryWith rooms for acquisitions and cataloguing, the library held between 400,000 and 700,000 scrolls including works from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India, and many other nations. The library acquired high quality items including the best, most authoritative original works. Any works not written in Greek were translated. The library took its mission to obtain a copy of every book ever written very seriously, and employed some rather unethical tactics to make it happen. Acquisitions of materials were made three ways: stealing and confiscation, borrowing and copying (with the library keeping the original and returning a copy), and purchasing. Even though some items were purchased from booksellers, the library often forced the sale of books in exchange for food rather than currency.

A casualty of wars, riots, and social upheavals over several centuries, the magnificent library at Alexandria suffered the same fate as many other libraries throughout history. Its destruction has become a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge. What a tragedy!


Authors Expo and a Geek Gab Podcast

sae_11Saturday, September 10 was a busy day for me. Representing Silver Empire Publishing, my friend Russell Newquist and I participated in the Huntsville Madison County Library’s Southern Authors Expo. It was a full day of meeting and chatting with readers and other local authors. There was something for everyone, with all genres and ages represented. We connected with some old friends and made lots of new ones.

sae_14 sae_7  sae_5 sae_12

After the Expo, I rushed home to settle in at my laptop and don earbuds so I could take part in a podcast discussion with the guys at Geek Gab. It was my first podcast, a new experience for me, and one that I enjoyed very much.

geekgablogoDaddy Warpig (aka Jasyn Jones), Brian Niemeier, and John McGlynn are scintillating and erudite hosts who like to get together weekly and talk books, movies, TV, comics, music, RPG’s, tabletop gaming, video games, sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, horror… As they say, anything geekish goes. Thanks, guys, for making me feel welcome in your warm circle of geekiness!
The YouTube link:
The iTunes link:!/id1125835440

Extra thanks to Brian, as he very graciously took the time to read my book Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, and even provided a blurb that is boldly printed on its back cover. He said, “A smart, thrilling mix of history and fantasy. S.D. McPhail is definitely an author to watch.” I am humbled to receive such high praise from a Campbell award-nominated and Dragon award-winning author. Find his novels Nethereal and Souldancer (Volumes 1 and 2 of the Soul Cycle series) on

swordtodMy novel, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key, is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third-century. While on a quest to avenge a horrific attack on his father the king, a Persian warrior discovers a strange kingdom isolated from the rest of the world. He thinks the villain is hiding there, but a sly princess is determined to sabotage the Persians to protect her kingdom’s ancient secrets. What is she so desperate to keep hidden?  Get your copy on!

Catfish Literary Festival in Athens, AL June 4, 2016

HEY Y’ALL! I’m going to be on the Sci-Fi/Fantasy panel at the Catfish Literary Festival in Athens on June 4th. This is my very first opportunity to make connections with readers and talk about my first novel The Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key. I’m sure there will be others on hand who will have more interesting things to say, but it should be a great discussion about all aspects of writing, reading, and enjoying Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I’m also looking forward to seeing some fellow writers from Huntsville at this event. One of those is author and all-round lovely human being Ashley Chappell. who made me blush when she described my bookThe Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a stunning debut novel from an author to watch. 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 ChappellAshley writes primarily YA Fantasy with a sharp slice of humor, but also Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy when the voices just won’t leave her alone. For more about her and her books including the Dreams of Chaos series, go to

Come and see me, Ashley, and a bunch of other local writers on Saturday, June 4th!

June 4th is the Second Annual Catfish Literary Festival at the Athens Limestone County Public Library, 603 South Jefferson Street, Athens, AL. Enjoy a day celebrating local authors and the art of story-craft. For more information, call 256-232-1233.

CatfishFest2Local authors and publishers will converge at the Athens-Limestone Public Library on Saturday, June 4th, for the 2nd Annual Catfish Literary Festival–a time to celebrate books, culture, history, and the power of the printed word. It will be an opportunity for readers to connect with authors, and for aspiring writers to speak with publishing professionals. The event begins at 10:00 am and will feature the unveiling of the winning logo from the design contest.

Over 25 authors and publishers from North Alabama will be in attendance. Planned panel discussions include how to get published, writing for children and teens, writing non-fiction, and more. Authors will have copies of their books for sale and they will be available for questions. There is no entrance fee for the public.


The Writing Secrets of a Best-Selling Author Revealed

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a special event. This one was in my hometown, my own backyard you might say. It was fairly low-key and inexpensive, a fundraiser for our local library. The event was Community Conversations: Homer Hickam. Yes, that Homer Hickam, NASA engineer and author of Rocket Boys, a memoir that became the movie October Sky.

carryingalberthomeI was incredibly excited when I heard about it. I’ve known for decades that Homer Hickam lives in the same small city I do. I know somebody who has known him and his wife since forever. I met him years ago and I’ve spoken to him at book signings. I could bump into him at the grocery store in the produce department. Why was I so excited about this event? Because I’ve recently started writing with the idea that I want to publish a novel. He is living, breathing proof that an ordinary, yet talented, person—someone I actually know—can become a best-selling author. So I was thinking, maybe I really can do this too.

Advertisements went something like this: “What do Homer Hickam, Buddy Ebsen, and an alligator have in common? Find out when Huntsville’s own Homer Hickam leads the conversation as he recounts themes in his latest book, Carrying Albert Home. Filled with Southern charm, a bit of conflict, and lots of humor, discussion about this book is sure to be interesting!”

It was interesting. The book is fantastic. Carrying Albert Home is a hilarious recounting of (mostly) true events involving an adventurous odyssey undertaken by his parents in the 1930s to return an alligator named Albert to Florida.

I enjoyed hearing Homer’s anecdotes about growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia. He talked about loving to read before he realized he wanted to write. He told us how his mother had “suspended his first amendment rights” when he wrote a story for his elementary school newspaper that depicted her in a less than flattering manner.

Homer mentioned several of his books and how he came to write them, but my favorite by far is Rocket Boys. He talked about writing for various publications and becoming a regular contributor to the Smithsonian Air & Space magazine. He explained how Rocket Boys was inspired by a last-minute, desperate request for a 1,500-word “filler” story. Response to that little story was overwhelming, so he knew he had tapped into something special. I confess, I adore the movie October Sky, and I loved hearing Homer talk about how the movie simply didn’t do justice to every aspect of the book. Never mind how some things had to be changed or compressed or expanded—the movie made his mother look like a wimp! Wow. I never got that impression from the movie, which means Mrs. Elsie Hickam must have been quite a formidable lady.

Naturally, I was on pins and needles anticipating the Q&A after Homer spoke. There I was, a writer hoping to one day be a published author, ready to soak up all the wisdom and advice that a master of the craft was willing to impart. I scribbled away with my pen on my tiny notepad, ready to record the Gospel according to Homer.

When asked, “What does a good writing day feel like?” Homer replied, “Liking what you wrote the next day, or even better, the next week.” He elaborated that getting lost in the words and letting the story carry you where it needs to go feels wonderful. I agree with him wholeheartedly.

In response to other questions, Homer explained that his typical schedule is to write four to five hours in the morning when he has a deadline and handle rewrites in the afternoons. He’s less structured when not on a deadline, but still always has a work in progress. When asked about rewrites and the honing/polishing process, Homer was honestly unspecific. After 18 published books, he indicated that it’s different for each one. He did share, though, that it is vital to hook the reader immediately. Like many writers, he works longer and harder on first chapters more than any other. Then he commented that there comes a point when you have to stop. Rewrites can go on forever, if you let them. He confessed that there are portions of Rocket Boys he’d like to rewrite, even today.

Homer said he always wrote to be published because he wanted to be read. He learned to hone his craft and developed his simple, straightforward style from writing magazine articles. As he put it, being an engineer isn’t so different from being a writer. They both need to be creative, original thinkers who communicate well whether telling a well-crafted story or designing and developing technology.

I wouldn’t know about being an engineer, but it is essential to know how to use the tools of your trade, whether you are building a spacecraft or writing about one. Nobody woke up one day and said “I’m going to build a mile-long bridge that will last for generations” and do it successfully without spending the time learning what it takes to do it. The good news is that you are never too old to learn how to write well, if that’s what you want to do.

No, Homer Hickam didn’t wake up one day and stop being an engineer so he could focus every ounce of his time and effort on writing Rocket Boys. He wrote it while he was working full time as a NASA engineer, a challenging and time-consuming career. He “just got it done.” He’s a full-time writer now, his second career.

What did I learn from listening to Homer Hickam?

  • Write as much as you can, every spare minute you have. You won’t get better if you don’t keep at it.
  • Write about something that’s meaningful to you.
  • Polish those first chapters, first paragraphs, first sentences until they sparkle like glittering stars in the night sky.
  • Don’t quit your day job until you have a book on the bestseller list. And maybe not even then.
  • Never forget that while writing is a creative endeavor, getting published is a business.
  • Memoirs are best written by writers who have actually done things other people find fascinating.
  • Book tours are grueling, exhausting, and necessary.

Wait a minute. I knew all of that before I ever attended his speaking engagement. There are no secrets, no special shortcuts, no substitutes for talent. There’s just hard work and perseverance.

My admiration for Homer Hickam has increased exponentially.

How about your own writing career? What lessons are you learning, or have learned, on your journey to publication? Has a successful author made an impression on how you approach the craft? Leave a comment below.

5 Reasons Why Bob Shea is Awesome:

1. His books never fail to make me laugh.
2. His illustrations not only captivate young minds, they relate to them.
3. His prose makes for fantastic read-alouds
4. Toddlers and preschoolers can act out and memorize the stories
5. His new book is about the library!
I really could go on. I was completely enamored with Mr. Shea after I read New Socks. I have read it multiple times in my storytime program at the library. (I make sure to wear my new socks every time!) Then, I ordered Dinosaur vs. Bedtime. After reading, I had a room full of roaring children. You might think that sounds like a nightmare, but as a “noisy librarian,” I think it was brilliant. I enjoyed reading Dinosaur vs. the Potty (oh no! A three-juice box lunch!) and as a mom experiencing the travails of potty training, I totally love it. I scored an autographed copy of I’m a Shark, which prompted me to jump up and down and snatch it up like I was in a Black Friday showdown. Forget that it was midday and no one was even on the book aisle with me. I still hurried to purchase. So I realize I have another author crush. I don’t care. Bob Shea’s books will appeal to grown-up types as much as it does to kids, and to me that’s a very special thing. Even my husband enjoyed his gift of Oh, Daddy! with our daughter on Father’s Day. If you haven’t tried his books, please do! I promise…you’ll enjoy every word!
In his newest addition, the lovable toothy red dinosaur is back, and he’s visiting a favorite place: the library! (yay!) Instead of going it alone, as he did with bedtime and the potty, dinosaur brings along a few friends. All is fine and dandy with this roaring group of pals, but how will roaring fit in at the library? Will Storytime win against this rambunctious little guy? Read and find out!