Monday, January 25, 2016

Saving Jake: The Story Behind the Story

Perhaps other readers like to know the story behind the story. I am the sort of person who loves hearing writers talk about how they got the original idea for their books, or how they got to the final version of the books they release. I can't claim to have the following of the average NY Times best-seller, but for those who have read my work and felt compelled to get in touch with me about it, these musings are for you.

Saving Jake took fourteen (count 'em, 14) years to write. I kid you not. The book is very loosely autobiographical and parts of it were so difficult to set down on paper that I kept putting them off. I even wrote an entirely different novel in the middle of that whole struggle. But I kept coming back to Jake and to Corts because there was a story there that I needed to tell.

Originally, the two main characters were male and female. That's right: to Philip's dismay, he started life as a girl named Amy. Jake was originally named Mark. And the working title of the book was Portrait of An Artist Off the Wall. Mark was an extremely depressed artist, Amy was his best buddy, and believe it or not, the book ended with his suicide. Not exactly uplifting, eh? I worked on it with various plans of attack before deciding that the whole thing was untenable. Of course, I was still attracted to the story of this very depressed artist. Fortunately for me, shortly after that Jake himself came and "rang my doorbell," as I always say. And he arrived in his army-green trench coat and red high tops, with long hair that looked like it had been badly trimmed at one point, and a smirk on his face that belied all the pain in his brown eyes.

Getting Philip on board was worse than pulling teeth. He gave me his name very grudgingly. I think if he could have made me write the whole book referring to him as "Character A" he would have been fine with that. But I did eventually get his name. Then he refused to reveal anything else about himself except that he was Jake's best friend. Again, we reached a compromise by letting him tell the story in his own words. No third-person tale-spinning for Philip Corts.

I already had a story ending in mind. I need to have an ending or I don't have a book. But arriving there was like the toil of two and a half marathons without any training. It was hard work, grueling work sometimes, and the end result wasn't always pretty. Fortunately, Jake is extremely patient and knew he wanted this story told, and eventually Philip opened up. Sometimes the scenes he shared overwhelmed me and at least one of them almost caused a car accident when it popped into my head, visually, while I was driving to work. I'm glad that only happened once. Most of the time, both the guys were a little lower-key than that, and I'm grateful.

The idea of merging my depressed artist and his reticent best friend with a shipwreck on Lake Michigan came to me while waiting for a classroom door to open (I was working as a sign language interpreter at College of DuPage at the time). I have a fascination with shipwrecks on the Great Lakes and was reading obsessively on the subject while working with Jake and Corts.

The places and venues in Door County -all of which are real, although one or two of them have morphed since the time of writing- were a given. Door County has always been my favorite escape, so I shared that with Jake and the whole thing took off from there. Especially since Door County is the haven of more artists than you can shake a stick at. Door County, like Jake, is wild and natural and creative. We both love it up there. Corts probably does too, although he'll never admit it.

At any event, I couldn't let Jake kill himself the way Mark did, but he needed an escape and he and Philip gave me a climax to their story that was far better than I could ever have imagined on my own. Hard to write, but very worth it.

I have been asked by readers if I have Corts's particular ability, and the answer is definitely not. Nor would I want it, something that he reminds me of from time to time. But here's the thing: I do know people -a few of them- with some weird and startling abilities, so gifting Philip with his particular talent was not much of a stretch to me.

Saving Jake was the first book I wrote completely from the heart and so I was delighted when my editor and publisher at New Leaf first called me and said, "I love your book and I want to publish it." I made her say it twice, just to hear it. And I'm grateful that there have been readers who enjoy the company of Jake and Corts as much as I do. If you want to read more about that world, please go find Missing Persons, either directly on Smashwords or through the link to Smashwords on my website ( And I hope you enjoy that story, too.

By the way, for those of you who are fans of the Bridgeton Park Cemetery series, I will eventually write a post on how Haunted came about and what it first looked like (nothing like what you've read, I'll tell you that right now.)

If you have questions about my topics, my characters, or anything like that, please feel free to email me through the website or catch me on FaceBook. I'd be happy to answer!!!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hunting in the Dark of Night - Not Me!

Watching paranormal reality shows is one of my life's pleasures, even though Jim likes to say they really have nothing to do with reality.. (He's not that big a skeptic, he just likes to hassle me.) This is not news to anyone who reads this blog, even if just occasionally. So while I was musing over past episodes of Ghost Hunters, The Haunted Collector, and The Dead Files, I began to wonder: why do they do all their investigating in the dark?

Turns out I am not the only one who asked that question. I googled it, in fact, and was surprised at the number of hits that turned up. Skeptics as well as believers both agree that investigating in the dark adds to the "creepiness" factor of paranormal TV shows. No argument there. However, their thoughts take different paths immediately after that. The skeptics say that the darkness makes it easier to fake everything that turns up on camera. The believers have a whole list of reasons why they hunt -and film- in the dark, i.e., at night. 

That list includes: Less people around, therefore less interference both in general and in terms of energy; less electricity being used, therefore less interference in terms of electromagnetic fields; lots of ghost hunters have day jobs and hunting is a hobby, so there's really no choice with that; businesses being investigated can't close their doors to the public so investigations must take place after business hours; ghost hunters who have the high-tech instruments read a spectrum of light anyway, and some things are better seen on infrared; some say that since people are NOT nocturnal, their senses are on higher alert at night and in the dark, so they become more sensitive to even mild disturbances that might be ignored during the day.  I think that about covers it.

My friend Sylvia Shults is a ghost hunter/paranormal investigator, with a specialty in the Peoria State Mental Hospital. (She has written a book about it called Fractured Spirits and was even on Ghost Hunters!) All of her investigations have been at night (she has three jobs; this is a hobby.) She has also invited me along but since this is a volunteer as opposed to a high-paying endeavor (read: "I don't know if you could pay me enough to go there") I don't think I'll be going with her any time soon. She is currently working with a group that investigates all manner of hauntings, but I'd have to interview her and get back to you for more details on that.

The point is, her group also investigates almost exclusively at night. For them, the reasons seem to be the day job thing, and also the heightened sensitivity thing. I will take her word for it.

If hauntings exist, people say, then shouldn't they also be happening during the day? And the short answer is, of course they should. I know lots of stuff happened at my old house during the day, although even those spirits liked night hours. I could -and did- time the most disturbed hours in that house and they were between 10:30 pm and 1:30 am, with many and varied cameo appearances at other times. But I could count on things happening between the above-stated hours. Count on it. Despite the spirit behavior in my house, hauntings are not relegated to overnight hours. They can and do happen at any hour of the day, and people who look into these things will agree with that.

Still, the best hours for investigating the spirit world, even if just for how it looks on camera, seem to be at night. Night is the time of sleep, at one time referred to as "little death," and night is the world claimed by all the scary things, from ghosts, vampires, and werewolves to evil people doing evil things without the sun to reveal them. Night is the time I do not work on my books. Just because.

Some ghost-story writer, huh? I don't write at night. I don't read scary stories at night. And I don't watch my reality TV shows at night, either. The dark may put people on high alert and lead to heightened sensitivity, but in my case, it also leads to a heightened imagination. So I let the paranormal investigators have their day jobs and go hunting at night. I have my day job -and then I turn to the safety of mundane things and try to get a good night's sleep...

PS. Here's a pic of my favorite hunters:

Monday, January 11, 2016

Neighborhood Haunts

 When I was a kid and easily as ghost-obsessed as I am now, I used to walk home from school everyday and look over the houses and buildings in my neighborhood, trying to find one that looked like a haunted house. I was always disappointed, and - personifying in true childlike fashion the definition of insanity - I never stopped looking, even though the houses, the apartment buildings, and the storefronts never changed. I take that back. One of the houses down the block from me burned down and that looked pretty ghastly, a ruin of charred brick and wood and not much else. But it never looked ghostly. And it didn't last long anyway. Someone came in and razed the sad remains of the foundation and built a new ultra-modern house where the old one used to be. That shook up the neighborhood appearance a bit, but it still didn't look haunted.

I was so dense as a child that it never occurred to me to stop looking at appearances. I LIVED in a haunted house, for petesake, and it didn't look like one. My parents and my aunt and uncle turned themselves upside down to upgrade our house -a bit of a fixer upper- and by the time they were done, the bricks were all nicely tuck-pointed, the trim around the windows was all newly painted, and the yard was edged in flower gardens that my mother slaved over for hours. My dad grew rosebushes, but they were in the back and not visible from the street. For all appearances, our house was trim and well-kept and actually quite inviting. Except that it was fricking haunted.

As an adult, I sometimes look out my office window, gazing westward down our street, and wonder if any of the houses I see have a particular problem going on behind those immaculate front doors and so-much-cleaner-than-our windows. Houses are self-contained and closed off to the world at large: for all I know there could be a poltergeist intrusion happening right across the street and I would never know. Ideas like that are like catnip to a ghost-story writer.

Now that I no longer look at appearances, and don't go trying to find stereotypical haunted houses, I find myself wondering what could be behind a lot of the closed doors I see. Years ago, my daughter was in school with a girl who lived in a haunted house right on the main street (literally, Main Street) of our little town. The ghost was that of a little boy who had died there and his spirit was playful and mischievous. I don't know if the kids were afraid of him, but none of them doubted that he was around. That house was a big old mansion, beautiful and well-kept and, I think, included on the historical homes tour in our village. And it was haunted.

I guess, looking back to childhood, that there were one or two places on a street perpendicular to ours that might have qualified as looking haunted. One of them was eventually bought by the parents of a classmate, and if that place had ever been haunted, I would have believed that my classmate's family would have chased away anything that was there. My friend was one of nine kids, and the family was a rowdy Irish one, so any spirits hanging about would either have moved on or learned to adapt. On the other hand, they were Irish, so anything is possible.

There was, however, the dark mansion that was next door to my classmate's house. It was a rectory, but not one connected to a church since the priests that lived there were not parish priests. Teachers, maybe. Or scholars paid and provided for by Mother Church. When I was growing up, the house had a reputation as giving away some of the best Halloween treats EVER: little bags of bakery-type butter cookies. Yowsa! But there came a day that the priests moved away from the building, and years later, I heard a rumor that they had left in such haste that the altar stone in their chapel had been left behind (supposedly a big no-no, I'm told), and that the house itself became quite disturbed, full of shadows and a strong sense of evil. It was deserted for quite some time before anyone new moved in. (I heard another rumor that the new owners were part of the Chicago mob; if that's the case, scary is as scary does, eh?)

But I often wonder about that old rectory because the rumors I heard about it, about the forgotten altar stone and the evil that stole into the shadows of the deserted rooms, came not from someone in my own neighborhood but from a woman I met by chance in a college class, who lived in an entirely different part of Chicago but was active with her church. She had heard all about this place, and while she was relating the stories to me, we realized she was talking about the rectory in my neighborhood. Small paranormal world.

I never did learn any more about the goings-on there. I got married and we eventually moved out of Chicago altogether. But I do remember trick-or-treating there on Halloween and gloating over that bag of cookies. The priest who answered the door was always really kind to all the kids who rang that bell. But I wonder, now, if those priests were just teachers or scholars. What if they lived there specifically, for a reason, to keep something born of shadow safely within that shadow? What if they were there to protect and to guard?

And if that were the case, what on earth would have driven them out?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Solid Ghosts?

I was watching an episode of The Dead Files, one of my favorite shows, and medium Amy Allen made a statement that freaked me out on two different levels. She said that most of the time, ghosts appear to her like normal, solid people, and that when she saw them as "shadow people," that meant something negative and bad.

Okay, that's a two-part sentence, so you can probably see how that would be disturbing in two different ways. Let's take the second , and more obviously bothersome part, first. "Shadow people" mean something negative and bad to her. Oy. I have never seen a ghost and I am glad this is a statement of fact. I have also never seen shadow people, and even gladder of that truth. Shadow people pop up in ghost stories all over the place. If you watch enough paranormal reality TV, shadow people are everywhere. And if all of them mean something not so good, that hits me as, well, problematic. They have been spotted in hotels, hospitals, residences, dormitories, museums - the list is endless and kind of makes me leery about going anywhere at all. (Only because, thank God, I have never seen a shadow person in my own house.) But what if one turns up? That's enough to give me a huge pause.

The first part of her statement, though, is intriguing to me. If she sees most dead people, or spirits, as solid, well, then, how does she know she's seeing someone dead? What's the tip-off? I could imagine some of it would be period dress. Some of it must be context: if she knows she's in a haunted place and that she is the only one there (besides her cameramen) then obviously the person or people she is seeing is/are spirit. But they look solid.

And that brings me to my grandson. When he told me that the former owners of our house were dead, I realized that he MUST have seen them. I think they probably came back to check out the room renovations we were doing to their much-loved former home, and ran smack-dab into my little guy, who can see them. But he knew they were dead, too. Did they tell him? When I asked him how he knew, he kind of glanced away from me and said "I just know."

He knows. Amy Allen knows. Would I know? If I walked past a dead person on the street, would I even be aware of it? If they look like solid people? Do all of us, especially those of us in urban areas, walk past scads of dead people on any given day and not even realize it? If my grandson and I spotted the same dead person at the same time, would he know that person was dead even though I didn't? 

I am fascinated, as is obvious, by the paranormal. I write about it. I read about it. I watch it on TV. I am probably obsessed with it. But despite all of this, there is still so much I don't know and that I wonder about. Maybe one of these days I'll meet a medium and I can ask questions like that. (Actually, I know a few sensitives, but we've never discussed this. I probably should broach the subject somehow, although bringing it up when we've met for lunch seems a bit awkward. "Hey, how's it going? How's the new job? Say, how can you tell that someone you're looking at is dead?")

If you read my work -and I sure hope you do! Shameless plug- you may see me play with this idea in the future. The concept of ghosts that look like living people. Michael Penfield sees them as transparent, for the most part, although he says at one point that dead people get "back-lit something awful" by a movie screen, so maybe not always. It's something to consider, though. I'll put it to him and see what he and Cassie think about it all. It will be interesting to get their take...