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 Hauntist.com. 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...
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.
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 MissingPersons, 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.
In spite of all my years of reading books about ghosts, writing them, interviewing people with stories to tell, collecting tales from people who stop by my desk at author signings, I have never once in my life participated in a seance. Not even at a pajama party.
Some of the stories I've collected have been from people who have attended at least one seance. Like the story I heard where a group of girls were listening as one talked about a dead firefighter and then the candle in the middle of the table, the only light in the dark room, extinguished itself and fell over. The room was filled with darkness and fear and screaming girls, and I don't blame them.
(Note: several of the ghost stories I've been told are about dead firefighters: I wonder why that is?)
In all my years of reading books and collecting stories about scary urban (or not) legends, I've never tried any of them. I'm not close enough to any of the railroad crossings where you can park your car across the tracks in the dead of night and have it pushed out of harm's way. If the car has been sprinkled with baby powder or flour, you can see the hand prints of the ghostly children who have saved both your life and your car, the reason being that these unfortunate children were killed in a school bus that stalled out while crossing the same train tracks. I think I've read of two different railroad crossings that boast this particular phenomenon but I don't live near either of them.
I have never tried going into a dark bathroom and saying "Bloody Mary" or the alternative "I believe in Bloody Mary" three times while looking into the mirror to have her appear and scratch out my eyes. I do know someone who tried it and stopped immediately after saying it twice - after she noticed an image showing up in the mirror as she looked into it. (And it was too dark to see her own reflection.)
I have never tried -and this is probably the one thing I want to do- looking for the ghost lights in Marfa, Texas or Chapel Hill, Tennessee or Brown Mountain, North Carolina or the Upper Peninsula, Michigan. But I would. I have a friend who went up to see the lights in Michigan. She told me it was colder than all get-out and that she saw them at around one o'clock in the morning so she was both tired and freezing. But she also said that it was well worth it, because in that part of the UP, as they call it, you are in the middle of nowhere. Just you and a road and the dark and these unexplained lights. And the lights move. They gave her chills that were unrelated to the air temperature. And in the Upper Peninsula, like everywhere else this happens, no one can quite explain the lights. Swamp gas doesn't cut it in a place like Michigan in winter, and distant headlights from cars or even trains don't make sense; the lights have been reported since before cars were invented or the railroads were in place. Some of these locations are nowhere near railroad tracks anyway.
Yes, I would go do that.
But a seance? No way. They are too much like the Ouija board to me: you never know you who might be connecting with.
And Bloody Mary? Ditto. I already worry about seeing someone else in a mirror with me. I don't need anything nasty popping up and then scratching out my eyes. I'm waaaayyyyy too chicken to try that.
But the lights - now, those I would try going to see, in any of the above places if I happen to be there at some point. They sound fascinating. The pictures I've seen have been a little unnerving-but in a good way, somehow- and seeing the lights would be an experience I could add to my memory card catalog.
Continuing on the theme of taking a ghost tour every time I go somewhere new, something I wrote about last week, I thought I would talk about my latest adventure. And that would be in Branson, Missouri.
I have probably been a bit spoiled by my recent experiences. In the past two years, Jim and I have visited four cities down south: Williamsburg, VA; Savannah, GA; Charleston, SC; and Gatlinburg, TN. We took a ghost tour in every one of them, and the thing was, we had to decide which ghost tour to take, not necessarily an easy thing to do based on Internet descriptions and some reviews. But we managed.
Cut to Branson, Missouri. We were there last week for a family vacation, and of course we needed to take a ghost tour. We figured, Missouri, that's the South, right? Why, yes it is. But multiple ghost tours? Needing to make a selection from a list of many? Not so much.
The first morning we were there, we went to the reception desk at our lodgings and asked the nice woman behind the counter for information on a Branson ghost tour. She sort of looked at us and blinked, maybe wondering if we were dangerous as well as crazy. But then she said that she didn't know of one, but we should talk to the gentleman at the other desk, since he knew more about events and excursions in the town. So we walked over to his desk, asked him the same question, and pretty much got the same reaction. He mentioned Eureka Springs, an old town over in Arkansas that is both gorgeous and boasts a very haunted hotel. We had already been to Eureka Springs many years ago, and even visited that hotel, although we hadn't taken the official ghost tour. It might not have existed yet at that time. Nevertheless, this was a short vacation we were on and we didn't have a full day -and night- to travel across state lines looking for spectres.
So he obligingly Googled ghost hunts in Branson for us and came up with one result. We took the phone number and thanked him with appreciation, but as we walked away from the desk, even Jim thought that was odd. "One?" he said to me. "Just one?"
Yup. To its credit, the founder of the tour and his wife have been doing supernatural investigations for years and were even featured once on the paranormal series A Haunting. (I used to watch those until it got to the point where I realized I had seen every episode. Maybe they're making new ones; I haven't looked into that yet.) Our tour guide began the evening by playing a little bit of the show so that we could see the expertise of the tour company owners. During the course of the evening, he also mentioned that his boss gets called out for supernatural problems on a regular basis. So yes, Branson is indeed haunted.
And well it should be. It was founded before the Civil War and withstood that conflict, but not without loss. After the War, the town was besieged with crime and violence, and the posse organized to restore order soon expanded into a mob that began to commit the very crimes they had once promised to stop. The gang was called the Bald Knobbers and before they were through, numbered as many as 1000 members. Although their violent acts drew national attention, they weren't disbanded until 1899 after their founder was assassinated. (The man who did the killing was tried and found not guilty by reason of self-defense.)
With that kind of history, there should have been a mob of ghosts hanging around on every street corner. Maybe there were but I never saw them because I didn't bring Cassie and Michael along with me. We took pictures and listened to stories. We saw enlargements of some of the pictures taken on that tour that were sent in by participants, and a few of them were seriously disturbing. One showed a woman sitting on the steps to a church, and the picture included a very large shadowy figure standing just to her left. A picture taken of a wall just adjacent to the church (that had been demolished earlier on the day that we took the tour) showed the silhouette of a young boy, purportedly the murdered son of a woman who was also murdered by the same serial killer. (The killer was caught in Texas, tried there for a similar murder, and executed. They say he confessed to about twenty murders all across the country. His story dates back to the later years of the twentieth century, so fairly recent history, compared to other parts of the town.)
The cemetery close to the heart of the city is a one-acre plot that was established by a very successful businessman back in the late 1800's. It is no longer an active cemetery (I use that term to mean a cemetery where people can still buy plots at this time; in the other sense of the word, it is quite active) and now is almost inaccessible thanks to some teenage vandals who went in one night and vandalized the graves of some of Branson's wealthier past citizens, including the man who founded the city himself. But you can take pictures through the wrought iron fence. I didn't; there was too strong a feeling around the area and I didn't want to have anything like that on my phone. (This is a trait I share with one of my Bridgeton Park Cemetery characters, by the way.) Our tour guide also mentioned that the cemetery had flooded early in the 1900's and tombstones and grave markers were washed away or destroyed. He showed us a large area of ground within that fenced-in acre that is filled with unmarked graves, although historians are working to restore identities to the dead who rest there.
As far as tours go, Branson's ghost tour wasn't as polished as some we have been on. Our tour guide was admittedly new - he had only been on the job for two months, but what he lacked in experience, he made up for in enthusiasm and honest belief. (He did mention that he was a skeptic until he met his boss. Then things changed.) But as far as an eeriness factor goes, Branson was probably the creepiest one we've ever done.
There is something unsettled in that land, something uneasy and dark. Maybe it's the history. Maybe it's the nature of the spirits that tend to hang around that particular town. I'm not sure what it was, but I came away with the very strong sense that quite a number of Branson's dead do not rest in peace.
Every time I go someplace new, I try to take a ghost tour. Luckily, Jim is always willing to do that with me. He likes the history he learns that provides the background to most of the hauntings. And while he's savoring history and I've savoring the ghost part, I'm also taking notes. Looking back over some of them is both evocative and eyebrow-raising. Sometimes I remember exactly what I meant, and other times, well, I don't know.
For instance, I have notes about forensic students using dowsing rods at a body farm at the University of Tennessee. After finding sites of buried bodies, apparently the students willing to use dowsing rods to answer simple yes and no questions were 95% accurate in determining the body's gender, whether the head lay in the direction of North, South, East, or West, and whether the body was that of a child or an adult. The reason the tour guide (this was for haunted Gatlinburg) brought this up is that there is currently a trend in using dowsing rods to communicate with the dead.
Something I saw done live on a ghost tour in Galena, Illinois. (More on that a little later).
But back to Gatlinburg: the guide told us stories about one of the big hotels down the street from us. He did mention something that stuck in my head: "Not everyone knows about these events because not all incidents make the papers." I will find a way to use that in one of my books one day.
As for the dowsing rods in Galena, well, the tour guide for that particular trip also had an EMF (electromagnetic field) indicator and a ghost box (a contraption that picks up radio waves and is meant to give ghosts a way to communicate by picking out random words over the airwaves and spitting them out.) I know a ghost hunter who got a pretty solid "Get Out" on one of those things. They make me nervous.
On the tour in Williamsburg, our guide told us the story of a woman named Lady Skipworth who killed herself in the house of George Wythe. (George Wythe was the first Virginian to sign the Declaration of Independence, by the way). Supposedly there is the ghost of a woman spotted in the third-floor bedroom. Our guide then added that he has seen the ghost of a woman on the porch of the Wythe house, and that she backs up and disappears through the door.
And then there was Savannah, Georgia. Savannah was the first and probably only place where people discuss ghosts the same way they discuss the weather. Jim and I sat down to a wonderful Southern lunch at a restaurant in Savannah and when we mentioned we were taking the ghost tour that evening, he was prompt with a "You should get a lot out of that. You know that hotel in the next block? That place is haunted. I saw a woman on the staircase, there." And then he asked us if we needed hot sauce, ketchup, or anything else. No one in Savannah even bats an eyelid when you say you are looking for ghosts. They're more likely to direct you to the nearest haunted spot they know. Which could very easily be where you're standing and having the conversation. Savannah is a giant burial ground, from the Native Americans who were there first, to the sad mass graves of the plantation slaves, and then the dead from the wars that happened in the area, both Revolutionary and Civil.
The ghost tour through Charleston was interesting because the last story involved the inn where we had our rooms. Fortunately, we weren't on the right floor to run into the ghost. On the other hand, it was a little unsettling to find out that our temporary domicile was included on an actual ghost tour. I would have expected that in Savannah. But then Charleston is not that far away from Georgia.
This summer, we will be taking another family trip, this time to Missouri. And of course we will take a ghost tour. Just can't wait to see what kind of stories we get on that one.
I read my reviews. Maybe I shouldn't - I know authors who don't- but I do. I read all of them. When I'm feeling particularly cowardly, I have Jim read the new ones first. He'll either tell me it's a good one and have me read it right away, or he'll say, "You might want to read this one later," at which point I'll know I got a negative one. Some negative reviews can be helpful if the reviewer bothers to explain what he or she didn't like about my work. Some of them are what I call "drive-by" wherein the reviewer makes a statement like "This was bad" with no other explanation. At any event, I am lucky to have mostly positive reviews, and the really good ones light up my day.
A recent review, however, brought up a point that I had heard once before and I figured since I can't have a face-to-face with that reviewer, I would address the topic here.
The book in question is Haunted, book one of the Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series. What this reviewer wrote, and what one other person once said to me, is that he or she had a difficult time accepting that all the characters in my book believe in the paranormal. I guess that's a valid concern, although Haunted does feature Cassie's mother trying desperately not to accept the paranormal. (But perhaps that means she does believe in it after all?)
There are a few reasons that basically all the characters in Haunted believe in the supernatural.
For one thing, the people I spend the most time with day-to-day all believe in the supernatural. In my life, I have met folks who don't and have told me as much, but we didn't get into any long, drawn-out discussions about whether or not the supernatural exists. They have their views, I have mine, and that was the end of it. But those people are not in the majority in my life. Everyone I interact with on a daily basis believes in ghosts, or at least entertains the possibility. So it was not a stretch for me to come up with a whole group of characters who also believe. Besides, the story opens in a store where the owner and his staff not only believe in the paranormal, but enjoy stories about ghosts on a weekly basis. With one resident skeptic.
Secondly, since the whole series is about ghosts and ghost stories, it would be difficult to have a many non-believers hanging around Cassie, Michael, and their friends. Basically, my characters exist to deal with the paranormal: those who don't believe in it wouldn't hang round any of the group for very long because it would drive them nuts. Or so I figure. That is why (SPOILER ALERT FOR BOOKS 2 AND 3) Mark's skepticism has to come to the fore early on in the series.
Last but very definitely not least, is the aspect of plot and pacing. Having the nonbeliever bring up issues during the course of the action is a commonly used trope in stories that deal with the supernatural or the fantastic, and it is a trope that drives me absolutely insane. I feel like the Resident Skeptic and his or her issues, used as a way to set the pace of a story, actually slow down the action. Unless a writer is going for a Scooby-Doo ending, wherein the paranormal doesn't exist, having the Resident Skeptic along to scoff, disagree, or throw a wrench in the works, derails the plot. As a reader, if I'm reading a book about ghosts, as a believer the last thing I want to run into is the one person who "doesn't believe in all this stuff." I almost feel like the only role that character has in the story, sadly enough, is to play the part of an obstacle to the protagonist as a way for the writer to achieve pacing. That is just my (unlearned) opinion, of course, but the Resident Skeptic is not likely to show up in any of my work as a plot device very soon.
And my hero, Stephen King, doesn't do much with Resident Skeptics, either. People in his worlds don't tend to deny what's happening or demand scientific proof: they're too busy dealing with the paranormal mess that's being thrown at them. And that's the point of the ride.
So while I have read this review with respect and feel that the reviewer has raised a valid point, this is my three-point answer. I think there are actually quite a few people out there who believe in the supernatural or are at least open to it, but who may not come right out and say it. There must be. Nothing else could explain the sales of someone like Stephen King, or my good friend and fairy godmother Terri Reid, or even my own scaled-down undertakings. Readers want to be swept along with the "what if?" premise of the book and not spend a lot of time and energy on a "that's not possible because it doesn't exist" facet of the story.
It that makes me a poorer writer, I apologize. But I can't apologize for writing the kind of story that I prefer, the kinds of story that I would seek out as a reader, the kind of story wherein the characters don't even question what is happening; they just know they must deal with it. I DO believe in all of this paranormal stuff and so do the people in my life. As for my work, the occasional skeptic may come and go throughout the course of my series, but I doubt any of them will be taking up long-term residence in my writing world.