Saturday, May 31, 2014

Writing Structure Upside Down

Normally, I try to address supernatural things in this blog: ghosts, cryptids/cryptozoology, ghosts, unexplained events, ghosts, and ghosts. But as I work on book 3 of the Bridgeton Park Cemetery series, I started thinking about opening lines for books. This is a common topic among writers and is featured (or should be) in writing classes because a story opening, which may be one line or an entire paragraph, is what is used to grab your reader by the throat so that they keep on reading. It is also to grab editors and agents by the throat for those working authors who submit their manuscripts traditionally. 

Naturally, I started thinking about my own story openings. Here they are, along with the title of the work they open:

Mary Beth is dead. There won't be any more dreams. (Dead of Summer)

The madness started in September, and to tell you truth, I hope it hasn't ended yet.  (Saving Jake)

"Okay, then," I said. "First question. Can a ghost follow you home?"  (Hunting Spirits)

The four-year old girl looked up and saw Uncle Tee stepping through the front door and coming toward her, her mother a little behind him - AND - No one knew exactly who started the Thursday night ghost stories, or when.  (Haunted)

Michael Penfield awoke to a presence in his room.  (Dead Voices)

The first two openings, for Dead of Summer and Saving Jake, were enough to get my foot in the door with an editor. Teresa Basile, who edited Saving Jake, is an unusually generous editor in that if she likes an opening line, she'll read the entire first page of a manuscript. I hear most editors will read the first paragraph. If the opening line doesn't cut it, well, so long, Charlie. Getting published can be brutal!

But I digress. Opening lines set the tone of the book and sometimes can encapsulate a large part, if not all, of the story. Next time you read a book, go back and reread the opening and see what you think of it, now that you know where the writer went. I'm partial to Stephen King when it comes to this: "Once upon a time, a monster came to Castle Rock" or "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick" or even "Here is what happened." 

When I teach writing classes, I always spend some time having students come up with opening lines, and then we share them. Invariably, we always hear at least three or four of them where we wish we knew the rest of the story. It's a good exercise but a cruel one, if you want to know what happens next. In situations like that, even the author can't usually answer that.

On the other hand, endings are a completely different animal. I'm beginning to think that a line that is good for starting a story might be good for ending it, as well. When you take an opening and end the book with it, you leave the reader wanting more. Sometimes you might be writing a series, but maybe not. There are good and satisfactory endings like "They lived happily ever after" or Dumas" "...the count just told us that all human wisdom was contained in these two words: Wait and hope" from the Count of Monte Cristo, or Gaiman's "But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open"  from The Graveyard Book. Great endings, all of them, that put a final cap on the story and leave the reader with a contented sigh.

Still, there is a part of me that enjoys endings that read like openings. I tried that with Haunted and for my trouble was told in no uncertain terms that my ending was really the start of the next book. I never saw it that way, but hey, if intelligent readers did, then who am I to argue? I'll write another book. Just to clarify things for myself, though, I put an ending on Dead Voices that made it stunningly obvious that there was another book on the way. I want my readers to come back!

But indulge me for just a second and go back up to the list of my openings. Reread them and pretend they are each the last lines of a novel. It's probably just me, but I think all of them would make really stellar endings. Really. It would invite the reader to keep going with the story in his or her own mind. I'm a writer. I like the idea of my characters taking on a life in someone else's thoughts. And I can't help thinking that ending with a beginning is a hell of a way to do exactly that.

Friday, May 23, 2014

I'm Not That Kind of Girl

Probably one of the more frightening aspects of being haunted is the idea of something sitting or getting into bed with you.

This has never happened to me and I hope it never does, but I do know people who have experienced the unsettling feeling of being joined in bed by someone or something that cannot be seen, but can certainly be felt.

One of my friends had this happen while beta reading Haunted for me. She said that she only had time to read it at night, before she went to sleep. I didn't tell her I would be too chicken to read a ghost story in bed before falling asleep, particularly if I lived alone like she does. However, this doesn't seem to be the sort of thing that bothers her, so like the good friend that she is, she would hunker down in bed with my manuscript and read away. She told me, some time after she finished reading it, that one of the nights she turned off the light, rolled over to go to sleep, and felt something jump onto her mattress. Luckily for her, it was just her cat. The dead one, that is. She doesn't have any cats at the moment, but this little guy, who had been gone for a few years, chose that night for a return visit. She said she felt it leap onto the covers the way it always did, patrol up and down the length of her bed in his familiar way, and then settle down against her. At first she found it comforting. Then she remembered that he wasn't alive any longer. And then she just gave it a mental shrug and went off to sleep.

But another woman I know told me about the time she felt her husband snuggle up to her in bed and settle his arm across her, over the blankets. She said something to him and when he didn't answer, she opened her eyes and realized that she was alone. Her husband had gotten up in the middle of the night and gone to the washroom. He was surprised to come back to their room and find her sitting up in bed with the lights on, wide-eyed and alarmed. Fortunately, he is the sort of man who took her word for it and spent a while reassuring her. He also, in his own way, managed to get rid of the unwanted guest, which made her feel much better.

Because this is the sort of thing I find really disturbing (bothering me in my own bed? Really?) I am going to find a way to use it in one of my books. How can I not? Except for the dead people who turn up over your shoulder when you look in the mirror, I can't think of anything that would bother me quite as much as having some strange -and dead- person climbing into bed with me. 

Good thing I only write about this stuff. Good thing I'm pretty sure it's unlikely to happen to me. Good thing. Wonder what Jim would say if I tell him I want to sleep with the lights on tonight?

Friday, May 16, 2014

The House Ate My Poster

While I was at the Paranormal Expo the other week, I met a very nice young man who told me about a web site that can do an actual report if someone died in a residence. It's called and I think it was meant for realtors so that they could research properties for their clients. (Some people get really upset when they find out a previous owner died in the house they just bought.) But now you can go on site, register, and for a very nominal fee, find out if someone died in your domicile.

So of course I thought of the house I grew up in. There were a lot of weird things with that place. And some of them were pretty scary. We had the sounds of furniture moving in other rooms. There were voices: children talking and singing, mostly, but at least once we had a baby crying. There were presences spotted on different occasions, one of a little old lady standing by the living room fireplace, one of a white figure at the bottom of the stairs. Our cats saw things and reacted to them routinely. And then there was the summer of my poltergeist, which is an entirely separate story. So yes, there were some scary things in that house.

There were also downright weird things. A squeaky bottom step in the staircase that led up to the attic -when my sister-in-law went to fix it, she found a compartment inside it. Empty, but given the surroundings, it led to some interesting speculation. And there was the garage. When I was in college, a good friend of mine, majoring in architecture at the time, pointed out to me that not only did we have a bricked-up room on the second floor of the garage, but that the bricking continued down to the first floor. He surmised the staircase had been bricked up as well. We were both 19 years old and I was in the middle of my poltergeist summer, but enough of that. 

Another friend from school offered to bore through the brick at some discreet location and see what was behind it. I nixed that idea without ever giving it a great deal of thought. First, just the idea of trying to explain to my parents why my friend was going at a wall in the garage with a drill and a slew of other tools was something I didn't want to dwell on for long. Secondly, I had to live there. If we were disturbing someone's grave, or poking at a being that wanted to be left alone, my friends could pack up their tools and leave, but I couldn't. So we never did it.

I can hear the groans of disappointment and the "What's-wrong-with-you?" type of comments starting already! But if you had been in my shoes at that exact moment, you might have had the same reaction. I already knew my house was problematic, and I already knew that at least one of the presences in the house was NOT friendly. I didn't want to take the chance. Especially since I already had a poltergeist (not the time or place to discuss that.)

The one other thing about that house, that I later learned was a classic indicator of a haunting, was its habit of taking things away and then making them reappear days or weeks later in a very obvious place. And this would be after we had already turned all the rooms upside down and inside out looking for them. Record album covers, a birthday poster, a shower cap, really random things would disappear and then turn up again.

Except for my poster. And a fringed suede vest that was classic late '60's fashion and that I have never seen the likes of again. I bought it mail order out of the ad pages of my sister's Seventeen Magazine. I still mourn the loss of both of them, and have never quite forgiven my old house for not returning them. Really, what use would a disembodied spirit have for a suede vest and a poster of Pistol Pete Maravich signed by a bunch of my friends and even some of my teachers? 

So if you're wondering about having my old house researched through the above-mentioned web site, yes, I did register and ante up for a search. So far, they haven't found anything, but part of their service is to keep searching for 30 days, so we'll see if anything turns up. Although as my niece suggested, maybe they didn't find anything because the body is bricked up in the garage. Or as my daughter suggested, maybe they didn't find anything because the house was just born bad, like the Hugh Crain house in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Maybe they're both right and that's why there is a body in the garage. 

At any event, I'm still at the beginning of the 30 days' search, so if the researchers discover something, I will certainly let all of you know.

 But the poltergeist is still separate...

Friday, May 9, 2014

What Has 1000 Heads, 2000 Legs, and Sees Ghosts?

Okay, maybe the title is an exaggeration. Or maybe it's below the mark. I have no idea how many people attended last week's 2014 Paranormal and Psychic Expo in Moline, Illinois, but I suspect the number could reach the high hundreds, at least. And while maybe not everyone who attended sees ghosts, I'll bet an awful lot of them do.

Sylvia Shults, fellow supernatural writer and paranormal investigator, invited me to share a table with her at the Expo, thus giving me a chance to sell some of my own books and read a few palms. (I will always give someone who buys one of my books a free palm-reading, so if you ever meet me on the street and you've bought one of mine online, tell me I owe you one and I'll happily oblige.) I have never been to anything like this. Normally I attend author fests and litererary book signings, so this was a first for me. And I kinda hope it won't be my last. It was terrific.

The table to my immediate right was taken by a mother-daughter team who run a company that hand-sews, knits, and crochets stunning clothes. Their ability to take beautiful fabrics and yarns and turn them into wear-ables was amazing. I wound up buying skirts, the mother half of the duo knocked some off the price to get one of my books, and then I read her palm.

Across from me was a woman who had two tables' worth of jewelry. She was just down the row from the incense/herb people, and the energy worker who works on people's scalps. Scattered throughout the gathering were various tarot card readers, palm readers, psychics, and mediums. There were speakers scheduled throughout the event -Sylvia was speaking about the Peoria State Hospital, a mental institution that was opened in 1902 and shut down in 1973, and is haunted. Extremely haunted. Sylvia has been involved in numerous investigations into the defunct facility, and wrote a book about it called Fractured Spirits. It's a great read, by the way, if you want to freak yourself out some night.

Jim came along with me and did nice things like running out to pick up lunch (the event ran from 10 AM until 6 PM), holding down the table when Sylvia and I both needed to be absent at the same time, making change for customers, and generally being a friendly face. He absconded at one point to have his aura photographed and interpreted, but hey, he earned that!

But the highlight of all of this was the ghost stories. Since Sylvia and I are in the business of selling ghost stories, the people who stopped by were quite happy to swap stories with us. I was in pig heaven, listening to tales about orbs, family members who won't go away, and other spirited manifestations. Unfortunately, I didn't get to hear the tales from a woman who grew up in Mississippi and knew a southern tubful of them, but I can catch up with that on Sylvia's podcast.

We ended the evening having dinner with Sylvia and two of her friends, and hearing still more ghost stories. Wow, I couldn't have asked for a better day. The moral of today's story is, if you get a chance to go to one of these things? Take it! I know I will.

Friday, May 2, 2014

They're Really Normal in Person!

A few weeks ago, I dragged Jim off to the Rialto Theater in Joliet, Illinois to listen to a presentation by Jason Hawes and Steve Gonsalves. Anyone who watches reality paranormal shows will recognize the names of two Ghost Hunters, one founder, and one former tech manager/now a lead investigator. And both of them are extremely funny.

The Rialto Theater was the perfect setting for them: they had done an investigation of the venue on their show some years ago and found evidence of paranormal activity. Some of it in the balcony. Which, interestingly enough, is where I bought seats. I assured my husband that we were sitting in a haunted balcony and he nodded and grunted and went off in search of something cold to drink.

Now, I love Ghost Hunters. I have two favorite ghost-seeking shows and Ghost Hunters is one of them. The Haunted Collector is the other, and we were lucky enough to go see John Zaffis at Harper Community College last year. Now it was time to see Jason Hawes and Steve Gonsalves and I looked forward to the event from the time I had purchased the tickets months earlier.

And they didn't disappoint. They introduced themselves (as if anyone in that audience needed an introduction. Well, maybe spouses that had been dragged along...) and did a great presentation that showcased some of their more spine-tingling EVP sessions. These included one from the Rialto Theater of a little boy's voice assuring us that he wasn't Kevin, as the theater staff had taken to calling the little ghost boy who wanders the place. The boy never did tell us his real name, but the soft-spoken and dead reassurance was still enough to bring up goose bumps.

They gave examples of things that can be mistaken for hauntings; banging pipes and other house-settling type noises; wind and drafts; squeaky old floors. And then they gave examples of things that just couldn't be explained; a figure gliding from one side of the camera's range to the other, a shadow showing up in a picture that wasn't visible at the time the picture was taken, a hotel room light turning itself on with a very audible click -this following footsteps entering the room. In other words, they shared a lot of the material I watch endless paranormal TV to see. Hauntings.

They ended the evening with questions from the audience, and then bid us all good night. It was a great show, and well worth the ticket and the longish drive to get there.

And the icing on the cake was running into a couple of friends unexpectedly. Now, I have known these two since we were all in high school; she was one of my best friends and he was one of my first crushes. They have been married to each other for well over 30 years now, and meeting up with them was as much fun as finding out that she is as into this stuff as I am. Future plans include ghost tours that we can enjoy while our husbands commiserate with each other and talk about techie things!

All in all, a great event and a fond memory, not the least of which was discovering that despite a larger than life TV presence, these two guys were like any two guys you might meet on the job or at a neighbor's barbecue. See, not all paranormal believers are that weird. A lot of us are really normal in person!