Thursday, February 28, 2019

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

In my all-time favorite M. Night Shyamalan movie, Signs, there is a scene where the Reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) asks his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) if he believes in signs. Merrill proceeds to tell his brother about the time he nearly kissed a girl at a party but got distracted by something at the last second and didn't kiss her after all, and thereby missed having her vomit in his mouth. So yes, he does believe in signs.

Pareidolia - A tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. -Merriam Webster Dictionary

The above definition describes how people can look at a cloud and see a camel, or look at a shadow in a corner and see a ghost. My definition of pareidolia is how skeptics disprove anything that looks even vaguely supernatural. I may "connect the dots" as they say, and come up with a ghosts. Skeptics connect the dots and come up with pareidolia.

But there are those of us who do believe in signs. The most common stories are of people who have just lost a loved one and believe things show up as "messages" to prove that their missing loved one is all right. I read about a woman who started finding dimes all over her apartment, her car, her office, in very random places. Her beloved grandmother collected dimes. I read about a woman who lost both her husband and son in a car accident, and started finding feathers on her front doorstep, or dropping into her path when she took a walk, and she knew it was from them. The meaning of the feathers escapes me now, but I know they were significant to that family.

I think signs can be a form of communication. Some years ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a writers' retreat in New Mexico. I was going through a very rough time that year, and while I appreciated the beauty and splendor of the Jemez Mountains and the Santa Fe National Forest, my heart was aching and I felt alone and out of place. I was sitting on the edge of a bluff overlooking a sharp, rocky descent and off in the distance, I could see the mountains. The forest was all around me, but my perch was in a clearing. The nearest trees were yards away from me. All of us participating in this retreat were having our first "alone time" to get used to our surroundings and also to get our heads out of our everyday lives and into the experience we were about to have. 

As I sat there, trying to figure out if I had made a mistake in journeying to the wilds of the high desert and the mountains, feeling uncomfortable with everything around me (see my earlier post about nature spirits and their abundant presence with trees all around), I asked the question, should I be here? Almost immediately, two pieces of pine branch fell into my open hands. I was sitting cross-legged on the ground with my hands open in my lap, and these branch tips fell into my palms as if they had been aimed. There was no wind. There were no trees very close to me. These things just...arrived. And I thought, I guess I am supposed to be here. 

Coincidence? Maybe? Pareidolia? I'm sure someone would happily use that to explain why I was seeing an answering message in a random dropping of branch parts. But what pareidolia does not take into consideration is the inner feeling when something like that happens. Okay, I guess we can all look for signs and find them, since we're looking for that to happen. But I wasn't looking for anything when I asked. The question was rhetorical to myself and I was expecting my own usual answer: haven't a clue.

That was just one little moment in my life but it has stayed with me very vividly. The spirit energy in that area is amazingly strong, as it seems to be anywhere that was once land occupied by a Native American nation. Georgia O' Keefe's Ghost Ranch is very close by, and she was drawn by the energy of the place.

I don't look for signs consciously. I don't even usually think about them. But I do believe we get little nudges from time to time, so I do believe in them.

Do you?

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Thoughts from a (Grateful) Writer of Ghost Stories

I am sitting at my keyboard waiting for inspiration for this blog piece. If I turn my head to look out the window, I see the bare branches of the black walnut tree, as well as the branches of the young oak, still hanging onto its brown leaves until spring arrives. The sun is shining, which in itself is a rare occasion this month, worthy of celebration. Hmm. Celebration. Cake sounds good. But I’m wandering again.

I have an America CD playing. Yes, I am too old-school for streaming music. Maybe I will stream it in the near future, if someone shows me how to do it, lol. In the meantime, my CD collection gets a good workout.

So this morning, my office is filled with light, music, pictures of people I love, and me? I am busy thinking about ghosts. Are they currently flitting through my house? Pretty sure they are –still getting assorted bumps, knocks, and footsteps. I am busy looking up ghostly things on the Internet. Found a great article I can’t wait to share. It will be Monday’s FB Page topic. And I am also busy dreaming up what kinds of specters and wraiths Cassie and Michael will run into, this time around.

Am I obsessed, or what?

When I was a kid, walking my mile to the library (not in bare feet, and not uphill both ways) for my pile of books, my mind was always filled with the hope of finding books about the supernatural. Ghosts were the best, but I settled for monsters, discovered cryptozoology (happy day!), and became a big fan of mysteries because sometimes, just sometimes, they contained a smidgen of the supernatural. Or at least a hint of it. As I grew older, I began to realize that if I wanted more ghost stories, I’d have to write the dang things myself. Decades and decades later, here I am. Still looking for the haunted.

The best –and funniest- thing is that publishing works about ghosts, about haunted places, about specters, and apparitions, and those pesky things that make all manner of racket in the house when you know you’re home alone, has brought me into contact with a variety of people who share the same interest. So now I have a community of folks who send me links and articles, pictures and personal stories, all having to do with the weirder aspects of life experience, and I LOVE IT. It’s like the kid walking that mile to the library suddenly found a group of people walking beside her, all willing to talk about the same stuff. I can’t begin to explain how very, very splendid this all is, and how much I enjoy it. And am grateful for it. I was willing to talk about ghosts back when I was younger, but always with a bit of caution, and always ready to let people think I was joking, if I saw they weren’t believers like I was. And I was okay with that; they didn’t live in my house!

Now, though, as an adult, it’s funny to find how many people are open to the idea that there is more to this reality than meets the eye: how many people are open to the idea that there is an area of grey where the boundaries of everyday life blur and something beyond normal experience waits for us to discover it. I don’t think of myself as being unrealistic. I just think that my reality has expanded.

So for all of you who read my daily FB posts, who plow through my blog, actually read my books and stories, and bother to send me your thoughts, your tales, and your encouragement, Thank You. If it weren’t for you all, I’d still be sitting here writing books for myself, and while that can be fun, it’s lonely and a little lifeless. After all, I don’t believe a story can really breathe and come to life if others don’t read and acknowledge its presence in the world. Thank you for taking the Pinocchios or the Velveteen Rabbits that my stories are, and making them real.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Ghost Conference, Anyone?

Some years ago, and for quite a while, I was lucky enough to be involved in the organizing and running of a mystery readers/writers conference called Love is Murder. The conference happened every February in the Chicago area, and included panels and workshops all having to do with the creating of mysteries and thrillers, although we weren’t genre exclusive and also invited sci-fi, fantasy, supernatural, YA, and even non-fiction writers to come and participate. There were agents and editors so writers could pitch their manuscripts (quite a few book contracts came out of LIM). There were experts in related fields like forensics, polygraph tests, weapons both modern and historical, and the FBI. And through it all, I got to meet and greet so many authors including such big names as David Morrell, Anne Perry, Barry Eisler, J.K. Konrath, Charlotte Haines, William Kent Kruger, Walter Mosley, Steve Berry, and Lee Child. And that was just some of them (all of whom, by the way, are very lovely people). I’ll always be grateful for that opportunity.

So I was thinking, if I could design a ghost/paranormal conference, how would it look? Like the writing conferences, we’d need speakers. So there would be whatever big names in the field that we could get. Ghost hunters (actual Ghost Hunters if we could pull it off), paranormal investigators, researchers, anyone and everyone dealing with documentation, verification, and problem solving in the world of the supernatural.

We’d need panel discussions. I could see topics starting with the basic haunted house and ranging all the way through monster sightings and cryptids, demonology, tools of the trade, history and cross-cultural information on the paranormal, Spiritualism as a religion, haunted items, and supernatural legends, for starters.

We could even have experts on hand to talk to people having paranormal problems.

Of course we’d have to have some demonstrations. A room for people to learn about the Oculus, the ghost box, EMF detectors, infrared cameras, Mel meters, and the best recorders possible for capturing EVP’s.

And vendors? How can you have a conference without the people who sell tee-shirts and souvenirs? And in this case, probably also candles, sage, salt, iron, holy water (is it okay to sell that?). reference books, fiction books, guide books, maps of haunted and supernatural sites, related movies and documentaries, and probably all of the equipment being demonstrated as listed above.

Love is Murder provided meals. We could maybe provide dinners and let everyone handle breakfast and lunch on their own, with either food vendors on site, or by picking a conference location close to local eateries.

For me, though, the highlight would be the room, or rooms, where there could be round-table discussions and sharing of experiences and personal ghost stories among those who would just like to talk to other like-minded people. I think that is where I would spend the majority of my time. I’m curious enough about ghost-hunting equipment, but don’t feel the need to do investigations myself. I’d attend lectures and panel discussion that were interesting to me and not so likely to freak me out, especially when I got back home. I’d probably buy a tee-shirt, or maybe a candle. But stories are what fascinate me the most and I think I would be content and happy just to sit in a room and listen to others share their stories.

What do you think? If someone threw a ghost conference, would you go?

(By the way, the Midwest’s Biggest Paranormal Convention is held every August in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and it does indeed have all of the above. Well, it has the names and the celebrities and things like that. I should attend and see if they have a room for people to share their ghost stories. I’d be thrilled with that…)

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Excuse Me, Are You Reading YOU?

Stephen King once mentioned that sometimes when he’s out getting a cup of coffee and reading a book while he enjoys some leisure time, people are apt to come up and say “I thought you’d be reading one of your own works.” He said he generally replies, “No, because I know how all they turn out at the end.” Good answer.

I would never do it in public, for fear of being thought self-centered, egotistical, or a braggart (all of which may be true but I don’t feel like having that pointed out to me), but I do reread my own work. Sometimes I reread past Bridgeton Park Cemetery books just to get a feel for the voice I use when writing those stories. That may sound insane: after all, it’s my voice. On the other hand, I try to write with a slightly different “accent” when I write other work. I hope there’s a difference in feel between my BPC books and my Corts-Holdridge books (Saving Jake and Missing Persons). I also hope there’s a different feel between my fiction and my non-fiction. I hope. I don’t know that there is. After all, it’s just me sitting at the keyboard.

Maybe it’s a trick of memory, or maybe it’s a streak of insecurity (which I realize could lead very easily to being self-centered, egotistical, and a braggart), but there are times that I need to reread past work because what I’m producing at the moment doesn’t ring exactly true. I don’t worry that my readers might think I have someone ghost-writing my work. I can’t pay for that, and besides, who’d want to?? But I will go over what is currently in my work-in-progress file and realize that the feel of it is a bit off, like a piano that’s just a little bit out of tune. So then I go back to my previous published work to get back to the original, true melody of my characters and their world, if that makes any sense.

I am in awe of those writers who produce book after book in a series and all of it feels cut from the same cloth. That’s amazing. And also a comfort, like a familiar face in a mob of strangers, or curling up in your own bed after having been away for a period of time. I know when I pick up those books, Reacher, God bless him, will always be Reacher. Likewise for Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers and A.X.L. Pendergast. (Cotton Malone and the whole Sigma crew, as well.) That kind of a consistency is an art-form in itself.

My ultimate goal is to imitate my author-heroes, and keep my characters as consistent to themselves as possible, so that my books can be a comfortable and familiar-enough place my readers will want to return to again and again. Without going back and re-tuning my pitch from time to time, I don’t think that will happen.

I wonder if Lee Child re-reads himself. Or does he have a beta reader, an agent, or editor who will say something like, “That doesn’t sound enough like Reacher”? The idea is almost inconceivable to me: the Reacher books are sooo consistent it’s mind-boggling. So are the others that I read. And I think they are all writing far more complex stories than I am. Wow, how do they do that?

Sustaining that consistency has got to be a little bit of a struggle. Over time, our feelings about things may change. Events and incidents and losses happen throughout our lives and surely that can alter our worldviews, maybe enough to affect what we choose to write about, and how we do it. And yet, every series I have listed above has been going on for years and years. Their authors—and their characters—somehow keep plugging along in their own wonderful ways.

I’m oly working on only book seven of my own series, and my characters are young. They are going to grow and change and encounter major upheavals in the course of their adventures. I hope that somehow, though, regardless of what may come, they’ll still be the people that first started out on this journey. And for that, I guess I’m going to have to keep rereading myself.

But still only in private.