Monday, September 26, 2016

Ghosts in a Cemetery

The idea of a haunted cemetery is a cliche.

Cemeteries, by mere concept, are scary places for people who fear running into someone who is dead but somehow still popping up for a visit. (I am excluding zombies and vampires from this, by the way. I don't generally use the term "un-dead" when talking or writing about ghosts, simply because zombies and vampires are still walking around in their own dead bodies, and that's something quite different from the manifestation of a dead person's spirit.) If you are someone who believes that a person--or at least some aspect of a person--survives physical death, then a cemetery could indeed be a scary place. Especially if it's old, or has a lot of mausoleums, or - biggest cliche of all- has tombstones that are tilting or fallen over.

I also associate cemeteries with scary things and I have used them in my own work. Bridgeton Park Cemetery, which is based on a real cemetery or two close to where I live, has been popping up in my work since I wrote Dead of Summer years and years ago. My short story, Hunting Spirits (soon to be made available again!) begins in a cemetery. When I told my webmaster that I wanted my website and matching business cards to be "eerie", he immediately went with a cemetery-based theme.

When I was a little kid, there was a cemetery some miles north of my house that we would pass when we were bringing my non-driving uncle back to his residence after dinner with my family. I was (and still am) a sucker for a car ride, so I usually went along. And when we passed that cemetery, I would squeeze my eyes shut and not look until we were safely past it. I found out years later that the cemetery was actually the site of one of Chicago's most historical hauntings, but I didn't know that when I was a kid. I just thought the place was creepy.

Yet, as I have spent more time researching-, talking and writing about-, meeting people who see-, and collecting-, experiences about ghosts, the more I think that no ghost in his or her right mind would bother haunting a cemetery. The places keep regular hours and close at 5 pm, or 7 pm, or at dark, and a lot of them have locking gates. Why would a ghost hang around someplace where no one was ever going to see him? What would be the point? Better to turn up in someone's mirror at home, or in someone's basement, or even someone's car, don't you think? At least there would be some sort of reaction to that type of a visit.

Fall is approaching and if I turn my head to look out the window, I see the tree branches bending and swaying with a fairly brisk breeze, scattering already-browned leaves all over the grass and turning their branches into the bony, skeletal arms I will see until spring returns long months from now. I've read many times over that fall is when the "veil between two worlds" is the thinnest, when those denizens of the afterlife can more easily cross between their domain and ours. Halloween is a celebration of that. And I'm seeing ads already for holiday decor: witches, black cats, tombstones, and ghosts. These are the days, the times, when my stories make the most sense to me; the days and long nights filled with more than just darkness and autumn moons.  

And although I know that the ghost tour I'm going on at the end of October will more than likely include a cemetery, I think the scariest stuff I'll run into will not include any cemeteries. Meeting a ghost in one's own bedroom is a lot scarier, don't you think?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Looking for Cassie

My good friend and amazing writer, Terri Reid, once told me that when she writes a Mary O' Reilly story, she keeps two pictures close-by, each of which represents how she sees her characters Mary O' Reilly and Bradley Alden in her own mind.

I used to think I was nuts for clipping out a picture of an Avon model (I kid you not) that struck me as Michael Penfield as soon as I saw him. Truly. I was going through an Avon catalog and ran into this amazingly nice-looking young man who took my breath away because my brain started screaming "It's Michael Penfield!!!!!!" I tore the picture out of the catalog and stored it away in one of my writing folders, to be taken out and looked at for inspiration, or to show someone else what Michael looks like in my mind. Since that time, I have collected three or four more copies of the same picture and I am thrilled by that. The more Michael, the better!

And thank you Terri Reid for showing me that I'm not the only one who does this!

HOWEVER, I have no such model for Cassie Valentine. All I know about her is that she is on the shorter side, has long dark hair with a bit of a wave to it, has brown eyes, and she might look a bit like a gypsy. And I don't know anyone, nor have I ever seen anyone, who looks like that. EVER. 

And it's not like I'm not looking. I'm always looking. I constantly assess assorted actors and models, including the ones who are not known by name but have been photographed in ads for anything from mascara to tampons. Seriously. Cassie is still out there in the ether, coming to me in fits and starts but never all at once, like her amazingly gorgeous boyfriend. (Incidentally, the model for Michael doesn't have a scar but that's no problem whatsoever. Trust me.)

I know what Nick looks like. I know exactly what Steve looks like. I have a pretty good idea for Eloise. But Cassie, my main protagonist, remains in silhouette form, which is pretty weird. She's probably the main character in the  Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series and somehow remains, well, faceless.

Believe me, I look for my characters incessantly. While I was writing my one and only sword-and-sorcery fantasy (and everyone should be grateful I only tried to write one) I ran into one of my characters at a bar. Well, I didn't run into him. I caught a glimpse of him across the bar while he was taking a break from playing darts and ordering a beer. And like seeing Michael in an Avon catalogue, it made me catch my breath for just a moment. It's a little mind-boggling to see someone you've only pictured in your own head walking around in reality. Jarring, mind-boggling, but at the same time, very nice.

So here's the thing: if any of you have an idea what Cassie actually looks like and can suggest the name of a famous person, or somehow send me a pic to the email at my website, let me know. I'd be curious to see how all of you picture her! (So is Michael...)

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Hooker Lives

Some days ago, I was cleaning out part of my old office and ran across a manuscript for a short story I wrote back in 2009 or maybe 2010. At the time, I was on the board and planning committee for the Love is Murder Mystery Writers/Readers Conference. Also at that time, the Love is Murder event was regularly joined by a group out of Chicago called Twilight Tales.

I had never heard of them before I started doing the conference. By then, it had been over twenty years since I had moved out of the city and they started up long after I left. But I started getting to know the group and I'm very glad I did. Back then, the Twilight Tales group met upstairs in a bar on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, not far from DePaul University. They invited authors to come in and read from their works, sell books, and do signings. They encouraged anyone who came to write and share their work. And they had open mic nights, where audience members could get up and read a story or part of one, whatever they might be working on. The group was called Twilight Tales because the subjects of the stories tended to be based in horror. They could be funny stories, or grotesque, or flat-out disturbing, but every effort was applauded and the setting was friendly and encouraging.

One year, someone in the group asked me how long it took me to write a short story. "How short?" I asked. About two thousand words, I was told. My answer, at that time, was a few hours. And then to my delight, they invited me to participate in one of their theme nights. On a theme night, every writer wrote a story based on the same topic, and then got up and read it. They needed six writers and I was the sixth one they asked. The theme I was handed? None other than The Hooker Lives.

Apparently someone got tired of the hooker in all the movies getting killed off, whether or not she had an inner heart of gold. So they decided that for that one evening, no matter what happened, the hooker was going to live.

The stories that came in were amazing. Hooker vs evil spirit, hooker vs. monster, hooker vs. violent and possessive ex-lover. I decided to do Hooker vs. Serial Killer and had a right good time writing and sharing it. All around, the entire evening was just a lot of fun, a chance to showcase and enjoy each other's creativity.

I guess my point in this blog piece is to tell anyone out there who is thinking about writing but doesn't know where to start, to pick a theme of some kind and then play with it until a story comes through. The Hooker Lives was a lot of fun, but hey, you can come up with any idea that sparks a variety of different ways to tell a story. How about What If That Character In A Horror Story Took Something Other Than a Flashlight? Or how about I Just Got A Voicemail From A Dead Friend, or Murder Mystery On The Holiday Of Your Choice as possibilities?

I'm a sucker for that kind of project because it's so much fun to see where people go when they take a basic idea and run. It's why I jumped at the chance when Donnie Light invited me to write a story for the anthology Lyrical Darkness. He said, "Take a song and write the dark story behind it." The shared stories were so much fun to read.

Anyhow, that's just what's on my writing mind at the moment. Hey, does anyone out there need a writer for a themed anthology?

(Thanks to Tina Jens, Eric Cherry, and Martel Sardina who let me play with them, and in memory of Andrea Dubnick, who was one of the originals.)

Monday, August 29, 2016

Say It Ain't So

So I am recording and watching the last season of SyFy's original paranormal reality show, Ghost Hunters, and loving and mourning every second of it. I was a little late coming to the show (maybe by about two years or so) but I became an avid and regular fan inside of one viewing. I watched every Ghost Hunter and Ghost Hunter International show that I could find. I bought the books written by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. I even dragged Jim along to see Jason Hawes and Steve Gonsalves do a presentation down in Joliet, Illinois. I am a fan-girl of the first order.

So I am a bit sad that the show is coming to an end. As far as I'm concerned, Ghost Hunters was an original and set the bar (and the requirements) for every paranormal investigation reality show that followed in its wake. And there were a lot: A Haunting; Paranormal State; Ghost Adventurers; Ghost Mine; Ghost Asylum; Deep South Paranormal; Haunted Alaska - what am  I missing? Any show that includes investigation seems to owe at least a partial debt to Ghost Hunters. They were the ones who introduced all of us to things like EMF detectors, Rem-Pods, laser grids, infrared cameras, and stationary video cameras set up to catch every nuance of a possible haunting.

And Ghost Hunters, at least to me, proved how seriously people took their trade by being invited to investigate not only personal homes, but historical sites like Gettysburg and the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, among a whole slew of others. The fact that a such locations would invite The Atlantic Paranormal Society in to investigate possible hauntings says quite a lot about the group.

In addition to all the super scientific equipment, the investigators themselves were great about injecting humor and a light-hearted element into the shows they taped, saving each episode from becoming overly serious or full of self-importance. There were wise-cracks and in-jokes for long-time viewers, and even some silliness, although maybe that was just the staff getting slap-happy from staying up all those night and wandering around in the dark with infrared vision. Whatever it was, it worked.

I guess that Mr. Hawes has suggested that there is still more out there for them to do. He is quoted as saying something about "huge things to come," so I hope that's true.

In the meantime, I'll watch the last episodes and catch repeats if they have them so that I can remember the group of people who let me tag along on their investigations in the best way possible: in the comfort and safety of my own home -with all the lights on.

Thanks, gang.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Paranormal Explosion

Years ago, think the late '90's, I had a job that allowed me access to the Internet and also afforded me chunks of downtime. Since I was still relatively new to quick Internet access (we had dial-up at home: remember all those weird sounds it would make when it was connecting?) I would sometimes get online and search for ghost stories. There was one site in particular that I really liked and I spent my free time reading ghost stories related by people from all over the country.

Since that time and the invention of search engines, looking for ghost stories brings up an amazing result. Just like when I was at that job, sometimes I will search for "ghost stories" or "paranormal" or specific things like "Sasquatch" or "mermaids." And I am always blown away by the lists and pages that pop up on any of those topics.

Before I sat down to write this, I looked up "ghost stories." Holy Halloween, Batman! There were pages and pages of sites offering true ghost stories, videos, ghost hunts, pictures, and all manner of things paranormal. Note: I already know that looking up "supernatural" leads straight to my beloved TV series so I don't use that as a topic when I'm searching.

Anyone having access to the Destination America network, and who actually watches it (and why wouldn't you? They just picked up The Haunted Collector's old shows!) will have seen an advertisement for yet another website: Destination America's very own The I spent a little time trying to find it and learned that you have to type in "Destination America" as well as the website name. But I found it. Lots of videos and excerpts from shows like A Haunting. I plan to check it out from time to time to see if they ever pick up anything not related to television.

In the meantime, I have a folder of bookmarked paranormal articles and sites that have caught my attention and that I might want to visit again. This is related to the file of actual newspaper clippings and magazine articles that I have about ghosts, hauntings, and unexplained phenomena. I keep the file on a shelf close to a slew of books about true ghost stories. And every Halloween I peruse the newspapers and the Internet to see what comes up. It's nice to have a holiday related to all of this - it's like an early Christmas for paranormal aficionados!

So I continue to add to my collection of article and books and online sites.

But I don't want any more dead people hanging around my office, so I will never again bookmark any site having to do with memento mori. Pictures of people who are dead and then posed in a studio are just a little too disturbing for me. But you don't have to take my word for it. Go ahead and search "memento mori" and see what pops up. Or pops into your house...

Monday, August 15, 2016

Dream a Little Dream

The Amazon jungle is humid, heavy with moisture. Trees grow close enough to filter or even block sunlight. Moisture drips from leaves and vines. Creatures rustle through the brushy undergrowth, and close inspection will reveal myriad insects living their busy lives along tree trunks, branches, fronds, roots, underfoot, and overhead. Strange calls and sounds, different from those heard in a city or even a farm, vibrate all around, some from a distance, some from mere inches away. The jungle is alive and brimming with both the strange and the familiar. And it is an easy place to die.

It is thus also a desirable place to set up a lab focused on classified work, away from prying eyes, unanswerable questions, and the majority of investigative journalists. Some things are better not hidden in plain sight.

Dr. Marie Gomer and Dr. Lisette Esterly had grown accustomed to the razor wire-topped fences around the compound, the armed Marine escort when they walked just seven hundred yards from their living quarters to the drab concrete building that was the lab itself, the feeling of dense isolation and being at the ends of the earth. The entire place was routinely sprayed for insects, but that didn't seem to make much of a difference. Everyday they battled their way through swarms of small and irritating buzzing things, overnight webs, and the ever-present moisture in the air that left Dr. Gomer's hair in strings, and turned Dr. Esterly's to frizz. They were even used to that.

But things were finally falling into place. Even Sgt. Hanes, the huge, no-nonsense Marine who was their escort, was finally beginning to relax enough to smile at Dr. Esterly's daily cheerful "good morning."

The lab at the end of their short walk was air-conditioned and clean and quiet, and if it hadn't been neither woman believed she would have tolerated their situation for very long. But the research itself, categorized as micro- biophysiology, was fascinating, and in a matter of weeks they had both settled into a comfortable routine with each other and with their lab assistants.  Time flew and even though Dr. Gomer felt that she would like to leave as soon as her six-month rotation was up, she found herself wondering if she might re-up for the next session.

The afternoon seemed dark when they left the lab, carefully locking the door behind them. Their assistants had long since departed, and Dr. Esterly looked for Sgt. Hanes who was not waiting for them in his usual spot. She was about to call out his name when Dr. Gomer put a silencing hand on her arm and pointed. 

Several yards away, they saw the sergeant's cap lying upside down on the grass. That was not something that would happen if Sgt. Hanes had anything to say about it. As they looked further, they realized there were footprints in the intermittent patches of soft ground that was not covered over with the various greens of native foliage. They both crept up to the helmet, realizing something was wrong, not sure what to make of the soldier's desertion. Duty was his middle name: being absent from his post spoke volumes, none of it good.

When they reached the helmet, they were astonished to see one of his boots several yards ahead. In unspoken agreement, they began to follow what became a trail of discarded items: the cap; the boot; a glove; his sunglasses; and then most disturbing of all, first his knife and then his rifle. They looked at each other. The jungle noises seemed muffled to them, and a feeling of foreboding grew with the clouds that were threatening to swallow the sun.

Several more yards and they both stopped. Sitting on a camp stool, leaning against the wall of an outbuilding, were what looked like the rest of Sgt. Hanes's uniform. The camouflage pants and shirt, even the  socks and one boot looked as if they were left in place while the Sgt. somehow walked out of them. The shirt was buttoned. The belt was buckled. And then they realized what was holding the uniform in place.

Inside the clothing, as well as protruding up where his head should have been, the scientists saw Sgt. Hanes's skin. The skull-less face above the shirt collar looked like a collapsed flesh-colored balloon with holes where the eyes, nose, and mouth should have been. Boneless hands lay flaccid beneath the sleeves, still attached to the skin of his arms. His feet were equally deflated, the socks lying loosely around the flattened flesh.

The sergeant appeared to have melted. Dr. Esterly said it first, but Dr. Gomer frowned. No, she disagreed with her colleague. It's more like he molted...

This is the kind of dream I have when I'm not actively writing.  I have always wondered if other writers do this, too.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Missing: One Muse

There are times a writer has to search, dig, and tunnel for words. And don't kid yourself: sometimes using TNT comes to mind as well. Some people call it "writer's block." Since I have heard that phrase applied to everything from "I don't know what to write about" to "I don't know how to tell this story" by way of "I don't really know what I'm doing here," I prefer to use the much more scientific term of stuck.

After I finish a piece of fiction, I always land squarely in the land of stuck. I guess that means I need to re-charge, but it also puts me in awe of writers like Stephen King (well, I'm usually in awe of him anyway) or John Grisham, who start a new project immediately after finishing the last. My brain can't even wrap itself around that idea. Whenever I come close to finishing something and I think, hey, this would probably be a good time to begin blocking out the next book, my brain responds consistently with the same question: "You want me to what?" And there it is.

Since I released BPC 3, Drawing Vengeance, I have also released two novellas. One was Missing Persons, the sequel to Saving Jake. The other was A Scattering of Bones, a Kindle World story for Terri Reid's Mary O' Reilly Kindle World. I finished that story early in June. Today is the last single-digit day in August, and my brain is still asking me the same question. You want me to what?

I write about my muse from time to time, usually in complaint mode and I suppose I ought to stop that. Maybe she'd come back to me sooner if I didn't complain about her so much. On the other hand, when she's here, she is frequently giving -no, make that throwing- ideas at me that have nothing to do with the next book. They are ideas that will find their way into books at least one more down the road, sometimes farther. In other words, not super-helpful to me at this particular time. Yet, that has never stopped her. So I sit here, trying to find the entry point to BPC 4, and she is playing with ideas for BPC 5. It is something that is both comforting and annoying. That is, when she's here at all. She hasn't been around for some time and I am tired of trying to find her. 

On the other hand, I have not been faithful to the one thing that I know a lot of my hero writers do when they are writing a book. They read. Having just renewed my library card, I know that I should take a drive and pick out my usual six novels and get started. I have heard of writers who don't read while they are actively writing, fearing the influence of other's styles. But I have found that I tend to, well, dry up if I don't have input from any number of different writers. As Mr. King once said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write." That may sound weird, but I consider words to be an actual flowing substance, and if I'm not submersed in them, then my own tend to wither away and disappear. 

So my next step in taking another stab at book 4 will be to ignore it entirely, and spend some serious time reading instead. Reading someone else's work, especially when it's magical, makes me want to touch that same magic again. And then my muse returns as if by invitation, and work begins . And hopefully, when she does come back this time, the work will be done very quickly.

That way I can find myself once more smack dab in the land of stuck.