Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Roads Not Taken

Robert Frost was a genius. I know that's a given, but when I read his work, I'm always blown away. His poem "The Road Not Taken" is short, amazing, and has an accuracy that makes my heart hurt. I wish I'd thought of that, the writer in me says.

The poem discusses the narrator's quandary at coming to the joining of two paths and trying to decide which way to take. As the great man himself states in the last verse:

"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Killer. I really wish I had thought of that.

Since we all know he's not talking only about choosing one path over another in the strictly physical sense, I'm tempted to chime in here (with apologies to Mr. Frost) and say that maybe writers do what we do so that we can cheat and take all sorts of paths.

I will never be a psychic medium. For that, I am eternally grateful! Still, what would it be like? What would it be like to learn the actual and hidden stories of those who have passed on long before I was even born? What would it be like to be able to see the shades and remnants of those souls who are long gone but are not yet at rest? And what would it be like to be able to help someone trapped in that situation? Cassie Valentine and Michael Penfield let me try that on for size.

What's it like to pick up an object and be able to discern who has owned it, and what their lives were like? How does it feel to lock into someone else's memories, even if that person was someone I never knew? And what's it like to quietly share some of that ability but never speak of it? Philip Corts and Jake Holdridge have given me those experiences.

My characters expand my world-view and insights, even if I have never experienced any of their adventures in my own life. They give me a story, somehow, and since I get to tell it, I get to make it my own and see what they see, even feel what they are feeling 

Would that I could do that with all sorts of genres. I believe writers are given a certain range. Some people, like Michael Crichton, have a range that goes all over the world and all over any number of subjects. After all, he wrote about dinosaurs, apes, Vikings, time travel, robotic cowboys, infectious disease, and corporate espionage. And I know that doesn't include everything he explored. The man was a rainbow of subjects. Unfortunately for me, I know I don't have Mr. Crichton's no-holds-barred range.

I mean, I wish I had it in me to travel even more paths than the ones I am lucky enough to explore. I wish I were the kind of writer who could create a James Bond-type thriller. How cool would it be, to be able to walk the path of a trained and lethal good guy who can dispense with the bad guys and save the world? I wish I could walk the dark and mean streets as a detective who figures out how to catch a human predator and bring him or her to justice. Or deal with that predator myself. And while I am not a huge fan of sword and sorcery, I am a huge fan of swords and would LOVE to be able to tell a tale with those in the mix. Sigh. I've always wanted to be able to choreograph and write a really, really good sword fight. Maybe someday.

In the meantime, I do not mean to sound ungrateful. I am very thankful to walk the haunted paths that I do, and even more grateful that there are readers out there who like to take that walk with me. No writer can really ask for more than that. Well, we could but then maybe what we're wishing for just isn't included in the paths we take. 

And that does make all the difference.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Ghost Conventions - They're a Thing

For the past several years, my ghost-hunting/writer friend Sylvia Shults has been doing a presentation or two at the Psychic and Paranormal Expo out in either western Illinois or Iowa, and she has graciously invited me to tag along to share her vendor table and sell books. The Expo feels like coming home! There are aisles and aisles of vendors for Tarot card readings, mediums, crystals, art, jewelry, natural health and beauty products, angel readings, Reiki treatments, and all sorts of things that would drive the average skeptic screaming from the room but are a lot of fun for the rest of us. The best thing is eavesdropping on people talking about dead relatives visiting, auras, bad energy in their houses, and other topics that pull my focus as soon as I hear certain words. Like “ghost” or “medium.” People who stop at our table frequently will share a ghost story or strange experience with us, and that’s just awesome.

However, much as I love this Expo, I have realized there are conventions and conferences devoted strictly to the supernatural, and boy, would I love to go to one of those. (Bucket list, anyone?)

There’s a huge one in Sault Ste. Marie every year, and it costs megabucks and sells out in a flash. It’s already sold out for 2019 (it’s happening August 22-24) but I can understand why. In addition to presentations on things like paranormal investigation, psychic abilities, demonology, and UFOlogy, they have big-name guests. And I do mean big names: The Dead Files’ own Amy Allen; Ghost Hunters Grant Wilson, Steve Gonsalves, and Dave Tango; ex-Ghost Hunters turned Kindred Spirits Amy Bruni and Adam Berry; my favorite collector John Zaffis and his “tech guy” Brian Cano; even psychic Chip Coffey. And that’s just page one of their listings. Would I love to go to that? In a heartbeat.

There’s also something called The Horror Expo-Ireland and that sounds pretty amazing itself. Going to Ireland would be a dream. Going to Ireland and also attending The Horror Expo might sound like a nightmare, but it’s even dreamier for me. They last held it on Halloween, 2018, and I can’t find a listing for 2019 anywhere. But I did sign up for their updates, so we’ll see if I hear anything and I’ll be sure to share, in case any of you are wandering across the pond at an opportune time.

The closest I’ve ever gotten to a straight-up ghost convention was about six years ago. Sylvia was again doing a presentation and also helping out with a paranormal investigation down in Okawville, Illinois. Yes, that’s a real place. Everyone who signed up for her talk and for the investigation got to stay on-site of the event, which was taking place in the Original Springs Mineral Spa & Hotel. The hotel dates back to the nineteenth century and is haunted, so everyone joining in the fun got to stay overnight, eat one of the hotel’s famous fried-chicken dinners, and would then be equipped with investigative devices like EMF detectors. I’m sure someone had a spirit box or Ovilus as well.

Jim and I spent the night BEFORE the event (we were actually on our way to Springfield by way of Breese to take a look at the famous Cholera Cross), but we got to see Sylvia speak. Sorry to say we missed the chicken dinner!

It was fun watching everyone growing more and more excited as the time of the investigation drew closer. This was an enthusiastic bunch, primed for anything paranormal and gleeful with anticipation. I almost envied that. Almost: still not ready to go on a ghost hunt myself!

If that was just a small taste of the excitement generated at a ghost convention, I really want to go. I’ve done Comic Con and seen what those passionate about Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Game of Thrones can come up with in their native stomping grounds. They were a lot of fun, too. But I sure would love the opportunity to compare and contrast those super-fans with the followers of the paranormal.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Nonfiction Book I Almost Wrote

Way back in the nineties, I was getting ready to write a nonfiction book. At the time, none of my novels were going anywhere, and someone had told me it was easier to get a nonfiction work published than to find a publishing house for fiction. I don’t know if that’s true, and I’m sure nonfiction workers will probably be happy to enlighten me, but that was the wisdom I had heard and I so wanted a work in print that I figured I’d take a shot at nonfiction.

I just needed to do some research. I started at the library, and in the days before widespread Internet use, I contacted a reference librarian who was happy to put together some information for me. My topic? How many writers vs. how many artists (fine arts) could she find who had chosen suicide? I know this sounds like a pretty grim topic, but I was curious. And she, being a very skilled and experienced reference librarian, didn’t even sound surprised when I told her what I was looking for. She didn’t disappoint, either. She came back with the two lists. The artist list had two names on it, one of whom was Van Gogh. The other was an architect and I’m sorry to say that the name was not familiar to me.

The writers’ list, however? Over thirty. She came up with the ones we all know about: Hemingway and Plath, for instance. And then she gave me names of writers I never knew had met death by their own hand, like Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan the Barbarian.) I was expecting the list of writers to be longer, but I wasn’t expecting the number of names that I got.

Most writers I know are given to bouts of self-doubt and low spells. It’s not easy to work alone all the time, and rejections don’t make the road any smoother. That said, I decided to go to step two of my research.

Now, step two depended on questionnaires I was sending out to every writer I knew, published or not, and the thrust of my questions had to do with self-esteem (generally low) and depression. My working title for my book was I Know Why Writers Kill Themselves, and I was going to do an anecdotal study on the working minds of those who like to tell stories. Was everyone as susceptible to those low spells as I am?  For me, there is something really depressing about self-doubt and writers’ block that positively delves into my soul and makes facing the computer, the typewriter, or even a notebook and a pen, the equivalent of marching up Mt. Everest in shorts and flip-flops. Was I the only one?

I had the idea that I wasn't. Probably the very best example I have EVER seen of writers’ doubt and block was in the movie “Adaptation”, about screenwriter and source adapter Charlie Kaufman. If you haven’t seen it yet and you write, you need to take a look at it. In fact, while Jim was watching the scene where Mr. Kaufman was referring to himself as “fat, bald, repulsive Charlie Kaufman,” he leaned over to me and whispered, “You’re not like that, are you?” and I just said, “You have no idea.”

At any event, most of the responses I got back on my questionnaires referred to deep depression, therapy, medication, and for lack of a better word, the abyss. I only got two questionnaires back where the respondents told me they never felt this kind of depression. Interestingly enough, both of them wrote nonfiction, and both of them began writing as adults. The rest of us hopeless mopes had all started writing stories in childhood. Significant? The nonfiction vs. fiction, and beginning to write as a child vs. as an adult? I don’t know. But it’s interesting.

The face of writing and publishing has changed since I first started working on that project. For one thing, self-publishing is a route available to everyone, so if we choose not to do the rounds of rejections first from agents and then from editors, we can still get a book online and into print. That helps. (Although there’s always those bad reviews…)

But don’t kid yourself. I’ll bet you almost every fiction writer out there, whether self- or traditionally-published, has those same demons, just hiding themselves under different taglines like “You’re not good enough” and “You have no talent” and “If you were a better writer, you’d sell more,” and the king of all demons – “You should just quit.”

Happily, most writers can ignore this stuff and continue to produce their stories. Me, too. But there are times…

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Checklist

Believe it or not, one of my notebooks holds a list of things I consider to be “scary.” I have a list so that I can refer to it while I’m writing my books. Included in this list are things like: seeing the shadow of feet on the other side of a closed door, even if you know you’re the only one in the house; or the face, meaning someone looking at you, whether through a window where it’s impossible (like the second floor) or from the mirror; or someone reaching out through a device like a phone call or a voicemail message from someone dead; or waking up to a specter beside or at the foot of the bed.

Of course, there are a ton more possible scary things: the passenger in the backseat of your car that you just glimpse in the rearview mirror. The footsteps upstairs when you’re alone. The crash in the other room, whether or not you find something on the floor –disturbing- or finding nothing disturbed at all – equally disturbing- when you go to check.

And then there’s touching, and I’m not even talking about something inappropriate. The soft caress across your forehead, the gentle tug on your hair or your clothes. In at least one instance I used an actual slap to the face.

Believe it or not, it’s not necessarily easy to come up with this stuff. Watching paranormal reality shows helps a lot! But sometimes I’ll be looking for just that one kind of disturbing instance, just that one particular thing that will point to supernatural activity, and I struggle to come up with anything. Which is one reason to keep a list. The other is so that I can read it over from time to time and maybe it will help drop a box off a shelf in my head, trigger a story that would be fun to tell.

Sometimes I’ll luck out and the characters will come up with their own hauntings. When I first started writing Cassie, I had no idea she would be able to do what she can do with a picture. I didn’t realize that Michael’s ability would be triggered by Cassie’s presence. As I wrote more and began to realize what these two were actually about, it was amazing for me. I’m still learning about their abilities, just like they are. In my own way, I can’t wait to see what else they can show me, what more they can do. (I don’t think Michael’s too happy about this, but hey, Michael’s not always too happy anyway, so there it is. Sorry, buddy!)

I am currently writing book seven of the Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series and a quick peek at my notebook brought up “imaginary friend” (always a goodie), “the attached entity a person picked up in childhood that never went away”, “coffin plates”, and the word “closet.” Pretty random, but still enough to trigger certain ideas.

What about you? Is there a particular kind of haunt that would bother you the most?