Monday, May 30, 2016

Museums - Where History (and the Dead?) Comes to Life

Field Museum of Natural History.jpg

About a year ago, Jim and I decided to become members of The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The Field Museum was always my favorite museum while I was growing up in the city because it had dinosaurs. And lots of other long-dead things. The Museum of Science and Industry, The Shedd Aquarium, The Adler Planetarium, The Art Institute of Chicago - all of these are famous museums and rightfully so. Their collections are truly amazing, and the displays are informative and fun. Any day you go, you are quite likely to run into at least one field trip from a local, and sometimes, not so local school. And there are the smaller venues like The Chicago Historical Society,
The National Museum of Health and Medicine, The Spertus Museum of Jewish Studies, and The Museum of Contemporary Art.

But I'm a sucker for the Field Museum. It's the six-year old paleontologist in me coming back to the fore. Stephen Spielburg showed me my dream in the original Jurassic Park when the kids get to meet a brachiosaurus face to face. I had a thing about the herbivores even though I was well-versed in the carnivores as well. It was great when the Field Museum put Tyrannosaurus Sue on display, but I always look for my herbivores.

Dinosaurs, collections of stuffed animals (as in taxonomy, not as in Beany Babies), and display case upon display case of everything from native clothing of indigenous people from all over the globe to the actual Man Eaters of Tsavo (The Ghost and the Darkness, anyone?) and the Man Eater of Mfuwe ( lion that actually entered people's homes to attack and eat them). And in the lower level of the building are the collections from Ancient Egypt, up to and including mummies.

When the kids were little, we spent a lot of time among those mummies because two of the four of them were fascinated by Egypt. And it was then that I got to share with them the legend of Harwa, the Screaming Mummy. There is a story that one night, as a museum security guard toured the Field Museum premises, he heard the sound of screaming coming from the lower level. He rushed down to investigate and found no one living there among the display cases. He did, however, discover that the mummy named Harwa was lying facedown inside the huge glass case that housed him, his sarcophagus, and a few other items from Egypt. The case is sealed off from the environment to protect the artifacts inside, and no one could figure what had pitched the mummy completely out of his coffin.

And was it also at the Field Museum that the two sitting mummies from South America, displayed in an enclosed glass case made up to look like the cave where they had been discovered, were found - still enclosed in their glass case- on the floor beside their display pedestal? I know I got that story around the same time I learned the one about Harwa. Museum staff said that they had used a forklift to put that glass case on top of the pedestal, it was so large and weighed so much. But something had moved it the floor beside that same pedestal, with nothing inside or outside of the case disturbed. And not a forklift in sight. Not to mention that this was also discovered at night by a security guard making the rounds.

When I was a child and got to the museum on field trips, or on a family outing, I was always aware of an undercurrent among the display cases, not only in the Egypt exhibit, but even the halls that showcase indigenous peoples of the Americas, Asia, and Europe. This might have something to do with the fact that the lighting is always kept low, to prevent light damage to the artifacts. And it might have to do with something else. There is a sense of watchfulness in those halls and galleries, a feeling of something watching and waiting, inspecting all the visitors who wander among the displays, looking, reading, learning.

The feeling doesn't weird me out completely, not like an antique store where the energy feels unfocused and intense and demanding, but it is definitely there. I still love to stroll through the museum and I am glad of our official membership. But I always, always, always come away with the feeling of having visited, not just seen and looked. And it always adds to the experience. I write about ghosts - what could be better?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Perceiving Ghosts - And How They Look

In my third Bridgeton Park Cemetery book Drawing Vengeance (no spoiler ahead), there is a scene where Michael Penfield is looking out the bookstore window and sees a handful of dead people out on the street. I based this scene on the experience of someone I know who sees dead people, as M. Night Shyamalan so famously put it. I will not include the names of any of the folks I will write about here out of respect for their privacy, but what I put down in this blog will be details of sightings as they were told to me. That aside, the first gentleman I write about who can see the dead told me about various places he has run into them: a party, a storefront window, a home a block or so away from his home, even in his own house (this one followed him there: YIKES!) We did a book signing together and I believe he mentioned being able to see "a dead someone" across the parking lot adjacent to the book store where we were situated. 

Since the book signing took place in the neighborhood where Steve's bookstore is, and where Cassie and Michael and Nick and Eloise frequent the Ice Cream Shack for burgers and sundaes, I guess it only seemed natural to let Michael start seeing dead people on these same streets. Like the gentleman who did the book signing with me. 

I know another person, also a man, who told me that he sometimes sees dead people around the hospital close to his house. He's seen them sitting on the bus stop bench, or wandering through the parking lot, or just walking around the front of the building. He did give me an interesting tidbit about his sightings: he told me that when he sees them it's a very quick glimpse. Even just a flash of a glimpse. But it's enough for him to see the entire person and register gender, clothing, even facial expressions. I thought that was interesting because between these two guys that see spirits, the actual perception is different: one sees them for a length of time, the other only gets a quick shot of the ghost. But both are able to give me explicit details about what they've seen.

I know a woman who not only sees them but can hear what they are saying, if they actually speak. She has described being passed by a dead woman who was mumbling to herself the whole time. You might say, but that could have been any crazy person out on the street. Yes, it could. Unfortunately, the woman I know was standing in her own house when this mumbling ghost went past her. Where she was coming from, where she was going, and why she was in the house is anybody's guess. Glad I missed out on that!

When I first started writing the Bridgeton Park Cemetery series, I was worried about depicting how my psychic characters perceived ghosts, but as I've gotten farther into the field, I'm beginning to realize that those who can see spirits don't necessarily all see them in the same way. The dead might appear with or without sound; they might show themselves for an extended period of time or just for a split second. I've been told that they can also project the way they choose to be seen: the gentleman in the first paragraph told me about a house that is haunted by a little girl, but he knows that the little girl is the spirit of a woman who was in her '90's when she died. In the Mary O'Reilly series, my friend Terri Reid has her ghosts appear the way they did at the time of their passing, which makes sense. In the show The Dead Files, psychic Amy Allen will sometimes mention that the spirit "is showing itself" to her in a particular way even though she knows that is not how they may have appeared when their lives ended.

What this all tells me is that I have quite a bit of freedom when it comes to writing the ghostly characters presented in my books. They can appear older or younger. They can be scary with dripping wounds and faces filled with terror, or show up as any average man or woman who just happens to be dead. And I'm so glad for that sense of freedom - because I think that Cassie and Michael are going to run into all sorts of things as the series progresses.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Ghost By Any Other Name

When I was senior in high school, a new girl transferred into our class. She was new to the area, new to the school, and ended up sitting next to me in homeroom. We introduced ourselves and, unsurprisingly since it was me, we wound up conversing about the supernatural. She told me that the Romanian language has fourteen different words for "vampire." She was ahead of her time: although she smelled overwhelmingly like Patchouli and wore flowery, gypsy-looking clothes until her school uniform came in, she had a thing about fanged beings already. Well, then again, vampires never really go away, do they? Figuratively, literally-unless staked or left in the sun, and even in terms of literary fashion. Vampires are always with us. What Bram Stoker has wrought, huh?

At any event, I never forgot the idea that a language could have fourteen different words for the same concept. Rather like finding out that the Eskimo people have so many words for snow. (This has been considered a myth, recently, one based on the research and book written by anthropologist Frank Boas. However, a study done by an anthropologist at the Smithsonian says that there may be as many as 53 words for snow in the native tongue of the Canadian Inuit. At least, according to an article in the Washington Post that popped up when I googled "Eskimo Words for Snow.")

So one time, lacking nothing better to do, (okay, looking for a blog idea) I looked up the word "ghost" in my Roget's Thesaurus. My version of the reference book gave me a list of twelve different words, including two I had never heard of before. I was familiar with spirit, shade, apparition, wraith, phantom, etc. But who ever heard of eidolon or manes? If you know either or both of these two words, I bow to your much superior vocabulary. I had to go to the dictionary, however, after finding these in the thesaurus.

Eidolon (I-do-len, accent on second syllable) means a phantom or apparition, according to my American Heritage Dictionary. It has its roots in the Greek word for form or shape.

Manes ((May-nez or Ma-nayz) is basically the revered spirit of someone who has died, possibly even deified as a minor god. This is from the Romans, and trust the Romans to make it more complicated: this is a plural noun used with a singular verb. Okay.  (I'd probably use the first pronunciation for fear that any listener might think I was referencing the sandwich condiment, if I used the second one.)

I think it's interesting that there could be fourteen different words for vampire in the Romanian language, but that we have twelve different words for ghost in English. There may be more; my dictionary is a college student edition as opposed to the huge two-volume tome that requires a magnifying glass. Still, twelve words is pretty impressive.

And while my dictionary gives me two definitions (of nine) that refer to a ghost being the spirit of a dead person, my own personal definitions remain 1. (noun) Something I would rather not see in the mirror and 2. (noun) Something I never want to see by my bed.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Superpower of Words

Back when I was pregnant with my second daughter, I took a part-time job as a clerk at a local library. This meant that my duties consisted of checking books out (remember those old-fashioned machines that stamped a return-date card with a satisfying "ka-chunk"?  I miss those!) as well as shelving books and other materials that had been returned. Sending me out to the shelves with a full cart of books was a dangerous proposition; I could get lost in those shelves while purportedly emptying the book cart. But management kept me on the job anyway.

And it was at this library that I discovered my three hero writers: two British writers by the names of K.M. Peyton and Robert Westall, and one American writer named Richard Peck. They all wrote books that were Middle Grade to Young Adult, and my introduction to each of them involved a story of the supernatural. At the time, Mr. Westall and Mr. Peck pretty much wrote nothing but supernatural tales, and while K.M. Peyton did not, she has an outstanding ghost story titled A Pattern of Roses. If you have a chance, check it out. It's a fantastic read. All three of them gave me the direction I needed with my writing, because I had not yet realized that YA Supernatural was where I wanted to be. I learned this about myself when I realized I wanted to be like them.

While I wrote fan-girl letters to Ms. Peyton and got two hand-written letters in reply (safely tucked into my binder of letters from real authors), Mr. Peck gave me one of the best moments of my entire writing life.

Writers work in isolation. Unless you are the sort of writer who likes a writing group (that's not me), we pretty much labor alone. What feedback we get is from our beta readers ("here are the things you need to fix"), our friends and family (usually pretty positive), and reviews on sites like Amazon, where the comments can range from very nice and heartening to incredibly mean and soul-wrenching. I have had reviews that have kept me up at nights, or have caused a three-day paralysis where I don't go anywhere near my work and sometimes shed a tear or five. We are real people behind those books and trust me, no matter how often it happens, bad reviews wound.

But we also get really great stuff from readers - people who tell me they are waiting for the next book, or that they're having a really good time with my characters, and that's like a balm for a wounded soul. As Mark Twain put it, "I can live for two months on a good compliment."

 So back to Mr. Peck. I was lucky enough to attend a weekend conference courtesy of The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) because I am a member of the organization. The conference was a writing and critiquing event and not only was Mr. Peck our keynote speaker, he was actually going to hear us read an excerpt of whatever we were working on at the time. I read the invitation and realized even though I was terrified of reading my work in front of my hero, I would have regrets for the rest of my life if I didn't take this chance. I took it.

And so Mr. Peck got up in front of the classroom we were using for this event, and gave a talk about writing and the journey of publishing. Then it was our turn to read our own work, one at a time. I was sitting way in the back as is my custom, and I listened in awe as my colleagues each read several pages of their work. They were all so good at what they did. I was thinking I wasn't even at the same starting line as these people, but I had committed to this and there was no choice. 

When it came to my turn, I took some pages from my yet unfinished book, Haunted, and read aloud to the room and to Mr. Peck the scene where Cassie meets Daniel for the first time. I was both chilled and sweating bullets while I read, but not enough that I wasn't aware that my hero had gotten up from the teacher's desk at the front of the room, walked around to the back, and perched himself on an unoccupied desk across from mine. I kept reading, so nervous that the papers I held were trembling. And then I finished.

I looked up and the first thing I saw was him staring down at me, and then he said, "Well, you're very good, aren't you?" holding my gaze and giving me a little smile. 

I almost fell off my chair. He hadn't said that to anyone else although it seemed to me that there were at least fifteen other writers in that room who would have deserved that. I don't even remember what I said in reply. I think I managed to thank him. But I'll tell you what: I never looked at that stack of papers the same way again, and I went on to finish writing that book. And hopefully some of you have read it. 

So when I get those bad reviews, when my sales start to tank, when I get stuck at the keyboard and those ideas just aren't coming, I think back to when Richard Peck said that to me and feel about as awestruck as I did at that time. And my soul smiles a little. His compliment (that I have been living on for eight years, let alone two months) is side-by-side with that of a professor I had for a fiction writing class in college who told me, "You're really pretty good at this. Have you ever considered doing it for a living?" Just three short sentences, twenty-one words, when taken altogether, but enough to prop me up when my writing life feels too hard or too sad or too depressing or too dark.

Some people say words are just words, but I beg to differ. My hero writer and my college professor gave me words that help keep me validated even at my lowest. Words are powerful and lasting and they can be used to destroy or to affirm. Even when not at my keyboard, I try to be careful how I use them.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Ghosts Ships - A Sort of Book Review

Product Details

I have been reading all of the true ghost story collections I mentioned a few posts ago, and find it somewhat ironic, being high and dry in the Midwest, that the book that is frightening me the most is the one about ships. Really.

I read the books about Washington, DC, Florida, and Philadelphia before picking up the one concerning ghosts stories known throughout the Navy. The ships covered in this collection go all the way back to the Revolutionary War and so do some of the spirits. But the ones that are freaking me out the most are from the WWII era. There are stories about quite a few haunted battleships. This would make sense, since any ship seeing battle -and every ship mentioned here did- would have numerous deaths and tragedies included in its history. And some of those histories are pretty long.

There were tales of the usual sorts of haunting: footsteps when no one else was on board; doors opening and closing by themselves, including heavy iron hatch-type doors; faces peeking through port holes; voices coming from empty rooms-everything from screams to arguments to simple statements. One of the ships is haunted by a malevolent presence that announces itself with bone-chilling cold and then a feeling of dread and terror that forces anyone present to leave immediately. There was mention of at least two different tour guides, dressed as sailors from the past, who evidently were not on any current staff list but who certainly knew a great deal about the ships that they guided unsuspecting tourists through; and there were the inevitable reports of touches, tugs, strokes, and pats from unseen hands. 

Almost all of these ships are museums, now, so you can always go and check them out for yourself. The Lexington is at Corpus Christi, Texas, and saw action in the Pacific during WWII. The Yorktown is at Patriot's Point in Charleston, South Carolina, and also fought in the Pacific during WWII. It remained posted to that area long enough to have served during the Vietnam War as well. And then there's The Sullivans, the ship named for the five brothers who served on the light cruiser The Juneau, also during WWII, and also in the Pacific. All five lost their lives after their ship was first shelled and then torpedoed. The Sullivans was commissioned in their honor and sent into action within months of their deaths. It remained on active duty through Korea and the Cold War (including the Cuban Missile Crisis), and is now a museum at Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.

 Navy bases also have their fair share of ghostly visitors but are not necessarily as accessible to the general public. Actually, I think the haunted ships would be enough for me; I don't think I'd be wandering the haunted bases as well, even if they were open for that.

The history is fascinating, the stories of restless spirits and ghosts that range from friendly to flat-out malevolent, and the compelling way the book is written, are enough for me to highly recommend the book that is my source for all of the above information: Eric Mills' The Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy. 

I have a fascination with ghost and haunted ships, so it should come as no surprise that I am devouring this book. Even if you aren't necessarily a fan of the same but do like ghost stories, you might want to give this book a try. I live nowhere near any ocean, but the stories have lingered around me like a sea mist every time I close the covers on another chapter that I've finished. It's a great book for the close of day when the sunlight is fading and the darkness is creeping in.