Monday, September 26, 2016

Ghosts in a Cemetery

The idea of a haunted cemetery is a cliche.

Cemeteries, by mere concept, are scary places for people who fear running into someone who is dead but somehow still popping up for a visit. (I am excluding zombies and vampires from this, by the way. I don't generally use the term "un-dead" when talking or writing about ghosts, simply because zombies and vampires are still walking around in their own dead bodies, and that's something quite different from the manifestation of a dead person's spirit.) If you are someone who believes that a person--or at least some aspect of a person--survives physical death, then a cemetery could indeed be a scary place. Especially if it's old, or has a lot of mausoleums, or - biggest cliche of all- has tombstones that are tilting or fallen over.

I also associate cemeteries with scary things and I have used them in my own work. Bridgeton Park Cemetery, which is based on a real cemetery or two close to where I live, has been popping up in my work since I wrote Dead of Summer years and years ago. My short story, Hunting Spirits (soon to be made available again!) begins in a cemetery. When I told my webmaster that I wanted my website and matching business cards to be "eerie", he immediately went with a cemetery-based theme.

When I was a little kid, there was a cemetery some miles north of my house that we would pass when we were bringing my non-driving uncle back to his residence after dinner with my family. I was (and still am) a sucker for a car ride, so I usually went along. And when we passed that cemetery, I would squeeze my eyes shut and not look until we were safely past it. I found out years later that the cemetery was actually the site of one of Chicago's most historical hauntings, but I didn't know that when I was a kid. I just thought the place was creepy.

Yet, as I have spent more time researching-, talking and writing about-, meeting people who see-, and collecting-, experiences about ghosts, the more I think that no ghost in his or her right mind would bother haunting a cemetery. The places keep regular hours and close at 5 pm, or 7 pm, or at dark, and a lot of them have locking gates. Why would a ghost hang around someplace where no one was ever going to see him? What would be the point? Better to turn up in someone's mirror at home, or in someone's basement, or even someone's car, don't you think? At least there would be some sort of reaction to that type of a visit.

Fall is approaching and if I turn my head to look out the window, I see the tree branches bending and swaying with a fairly brisk breeze, scattering already-browned leaves all over the grass and turning their branches into the bony, skeletal arms I will see until spring returns long months from now. I've read many times over that fall is when the "veil between two worlds" is the thinnest, when those denizens of the afterlife can more easily cross between their domain and ours. Halloween is a celebration of that. And I'm seeing ads already for holiday decor: witches, black cats, tombstones, and ghosts. These are the days, the times, when my stories make the most sense to me; the days and long nights filled with more than just darkness and autumn moons.  

And although I know that the ghost tour I'm going on at the end of October will more than likely include a cemetery, I think the scariest stuff I'll run into will not include any cemeteries. Meeting a ghost in one's own bedroom is a lot scarier, don't you think?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Looking for Cassie

My good friend and amazing writer, Terri Reid, once told me that when she writes a Mary O' Reilly story, she keeps two pictures close-by, each of which represents how she sees her characters Mary O' Reilly and Bradley Alden in her own mind.

I used to think I was nuts for clipping out a picture of an Avon model (I kid you not) that struck me as Michael Penfield as soon as I saw him. Truly. I was going through an Avon catalog and ran into this amazingly nice-looking young man who took my breath away because my brain started screaming "It's Michael Penfield!!!!!!" I tore the picture out of the catalog and stored it away in one of my writing folders, to be taken out and looked at for inspiration, or to show someone else what Michael looks like in my mind. Since that time, I have collected three or four more copies of the same picture and I am thrilled by that. The more Michael, the better!

And thank you Terri Reid for showing me that I'm not the only one who does this!

HOWEVER, I have no such model for Cassie Valentine. All I know about her is that she is on the shorter side, has long dark hair with a bit of a wave to it, has brown eyes, and she might look a bit like a gypsy. And I don't know anyone, nor have I ever seen anyone, who looks like that. EVER. 

And it's not like I'm not looking. I'm always looking. I constantly assess assorted actors and models, including the ones who are not known by name but have been photographed in ads for anything from mascara to tampons. Seriously. Cassie is still out there in the ether, coming to me in fits and starts but never all at once, like her amazingly gorgeous boyfriend. (Incidentally, the model for Michael doesn't have a scar but that's no problem whatsoever. Trust me.)

I know what Nick looks like. I know exactly what Steve looks like. I have a pretty good idea for Eloise. But Cassie, my main protagonist, remains in silhouette form, which is pretty weird. She's probably the main character in the  Bridgeton Park Cemetery Series and somehow remains, well, faceless.

Believe me, I look for my characters incessantly. While I was writing my one and only sword-and-sorcery fantasy (and everyone should be grateful I only tried to write one) I ran into one of my characters at a bar. Well, I didn't run into him. I caught a glimpse of him across the bar while he was taking a break from playing darts and ordering a beer. And like seeing Michael in an Avon catalogue, it made me catch my breath for just a moment. It's a little mind-boggling to see someone you've only pictured in your own head walking around in reality. Jarring, mind-boggling, but at the same time, very nice.

So here's the thing: if any of you have an idea what Cassie actually looks like and can suggest the name of a famous person, or somehow send me a pic to the email at my website, let me know. I'd be curious to see how all of you picture her! (So is Michael...)

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Hooker Lives

Some days ago, I was cleaning out part of my old office and ran across a manuscript for a short story I wrote back in 2009 or maybe 2010. At the time, I was on the board and planning committee for the Love is Murder Mystery Writers/Readers Conference. Also at that time, the Love is Murder event was regularly joined by a group out of Chicago called Twilight Tales.

I had never heard of them before I started doing the conference. By then, it had been over twenty years since I had moved out of the city and they started up long after I left. But I started getting to know the group and I'm very glad I did. Back then, the Twilight Tales group met upstairs in a bar on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, not far from DePaul University. They invited authors to come in and read from their works, sell books, and do signings. They encouraged anyone who came to write and share their work. And they had open mic nights, where audience members could get up and read a story or part of one, whatever they might be working on. The group was called Twilight Tales because the subjects of the stories tended to be based in horror. They could be funny stories, or grotesque, or flat-out disturbing, but every effort was applauded and the setting was friendly and encouraging.

One year, someone in the group asked me how long it took me to write a short story. "How short?" I asked. About two thousand words, I was told. My answer, at that time, was a few hours. And then to my delight, they invited me to participate in one of their theme nights. On a theme night, every writer wrote a story based on the same topic, and then got up and read it. They needed six writers and I was the sixth one they asked. The theme I was handed? None other than The Hooker Lives.

Apparently someone got tired of the hooker in all the movies getting killed off, whether or not she had an inner heart of gold. So they decided that for that one evening, no matter what happened, the hooker was going to live.

The stories that came in were amazing. Hooker vs evil spirit, hooker vs. monster, hooker vs. violent and possessive ex-lover. I decided to do Hooker vs. Serial Killer and had a right good time writing and sharing it. All around, the entire evening was just a lot of fun, a chance to showcase and enjoy each other's creativity.

I guess my point in this blog piece is to tell anyone out there who is thinking about writing but doesn't know where to start, to pick a theme of some kind and then play with it until a story comes through. The Hooker Lives was a lot of fun, but hey, you can come up with any idea that sparks a variety of different ways to tell a story. How about What If That Character In A Horror Story Took Something Other Than a Flashlight? Or how about I Just Got A Voicemail From A Dead Friend, or Murder Mystery On The Holiday Of Your Choice as possibilities?

I'm a sucker for that kind of project because it's so much fun to see where people go when they take a basic idea and run. It's why I jumped at the chance when Donnie Light invited me to write a story for the anthology Lyrical Darkness. He said, "Take a song and write the dark story behind it." The shared stories were so much fun to read.

Anyhow, that's just what's on my writing mind at the moment. Hey, does anyone out there need a writer for a themed anthology?

(Thanks to Tina Jens, Eric Cherry, and Martel Sardina who let me play with them, and in memory of Andrea Dubnick, who was one of the originals.)