Writing From An Alternate Reality

Every writer gets asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” at least a thousand times. The short answer for me is, “I don’t really know.” Another answer could be, “Everywhere.” In my upcoming Psychological Horror novel, Dark Hollow Road, a partial answer is from a simple road sign we passed while traveling through Eastern Pennsylvania several years ago. It was the catalyst, but from there even I am forced to ask myself, “Where did this come from?”

However, the answer that intrigues me most would be, “An alternate reality.”

It’s said that belief can be a powerful thing. In Mathew 17:20 of the Bible, Jesus says: ‘He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’ The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale contains the same kinds of messages. “Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture… Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.” One of his most popular quotes is, “Change your thoughts and you change the world.” Today, Notes From The Universe are sent out daily from Mike Dooley author of Infinite Possibilities. “If you know what you want, if you’ve made up your mind, if you can see it, feel it and move towards it in some way every single day… it has to happen.” His most popular quote seems to be, “Thoughts become things. Choose the good ones.”

All this leads me to the next question. “Which way is the creation process actually flowing?” My characters and the worlds they live in become very real in my mind during the process of storytelling. I can see them and their surroundings. I can hear their voices. I’ve often said they are the ones who pester me into writing. They won’t be quiet until I write down what they are telling or showing me. Are they already in existence waiting to get their stories out or am I creating their stories and in some metaphysical way, bringing them into a type of reality by the act of believing in them and their worlds?

If you’ve talked to any number of authors, they will likely all tell you at one time or another the characters took over. They did things and said things that the author never dreamed of. Stephen King tells the story of a very minor character, a waitress, who, over the course of the novel, became a major player. It was completely unplanned. Apparently she had a lot more to say than he’d initially thought. Who is actually telling the story here?

Last week I found an article at Myths of the Mirror called Why Books Are Living Things. It raises some intriguing ideas and I strongly encourage you to read it. In it the author states, “I believe, on an energetic level, that books are more than paper and ink or digital symbols. On some level, our creations are new entities with the ability to enter into relationship with others on a personal and emotional level, just as we do.” She also raises the questions, “What if, when we create worlds and characters, we create something that exists? How do we know that the myths we fashion in our heads don’t coalesce into something real and measurable? Simply because we lack the brain capacity and technology to perceive and quantify, doesn’t mean something can’t be.”

To this I add and ask, “How do we know we aren’t tapping into an already existing plane of reality, an alternate universe full of people with stories to tell? And for whatever reasons, they have chosen us to tell their tales.” I honestly don’t feel like I am the creator. I feel like a parapsychologist roaming the halls of some great haunted mansion, listening for the voices of those who came before me, asking them, “Who are you? What is your name? Why are you here?” And the answers come in the form of my stories. Is it their belief in me as a storyteller or my belief in them as actual entities that gets the job done?

Maybe it’s a combination of both. Maybe it’s not any of it. Maybe I’m completely nuts. Perhaps Edgar Allen Poe had it right when he asked, “Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?” Chances are no one will ever know what the real answers are. Either way, it’s certainly an interesting path to explore.

 

That Boy Needs To Build Some Character!

Not so long ago a friend asked how I go about creating characters. Her son is an aspiring writer and she’s noticed he puts a little bit of himself into at least one character in everything he writes. It’s not always a main character, but he’s in there. I told her I do the same thing.

In a sense, my stories are my children and as such, the characters are natural extensions of myself.  Why wouldn’t I put part of who I am into everything? With some characters it’s very obvious. For others, it may not be detectable to anyone but me. There are, of course, the characters that do not resemble me in the slightest but may be based on family and friends or no one at all. None of them are exactly like the real people. A look is borrowed from one, an attitude from another, a fear, a past, or a quirk may come from yet a third.  I don’t go into a book knowing everything there is to know about my characters any more than you would know everything there is to know about someone you meet on the street. Who they are unfolds page by page, moment by moment. But how, exactly, is a character, especially a totally fictional one, created? To be honest, I don’t have a real cut and dry answer for that, but I can give you an idea of the process that I go through.

You’ve Got The Look

First impressions are often based on physical appearance. Even without speaking to a person or knowing anything about them, you can see them. You can see the way they dress and move. There’s always body language to consider. You can hear their voice. You can smell the scents that waft around them, for good or bad. You may, if you get close enough, even be able to taste that individual. It’s no different when creating a fictional character. Sometimes looks mean absolutely nothing holding true that old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when writing you need to consider how a person comes across in these ways and the impression you want to give to your readers.

What’s Your Story?

Creating characters involves creating stories within your story. For my novel “No Rest For The Wicked”, I use the tagline, “Every ghost has a story. Not all of them want it told.” This may be true for ghosts, but when it comes to creating your characters, you better know their history if you want to give them any depth at all.  Why do they act like they do? Why does he walk with a limp? Why is that fifty-year-old man still afraid of the dark? What happened to this person before you came along to make them say and do the things they are saying and doing now? You can find Character Sheets online to help you sort all this out. These will ask you questions about your character that you may never have considered. I’ve only filled out a few of these that, in the end, I never referred back to once I got into the story. Some people swear by them and their use really can’t hurt. I tend to work a lot more organically.  Don’t think of your characters as just characters. Think of them as people. Listen to them. They’ll tell you everything you need to know… eventually.

Becoming An Environmentalist

The setting of the story plays a huge part in what sorts of people are going to populate your world. And those people will play a role in who your specific characters are.  Past, Present, or Future? Rural or Urban? Poverty, wealth, or somewhere in between? A loving home or one full of violence and pain?  Are they messy or a neat freak? What is your characters relationship to the other members of the family, their neighbors, and where do they fit in to the community as a whole? Are they native to the area or a newcomer? Does your character even like where he or she lives? If not, maybe that’s part of their problem and their motivation. Use those things to find out more and propel your plot forward. I do a fair amount of research on the settings in my books. I want my readers to BE THERE! I want them to see where all this is going on as vividly as I can.

Lastly, Show Don’t Tell

I’m told there are no rules when writing, but I firmly believe that “Show, Don’t Tell” is a rule and it’s something EVERY writer of fiction needs to understand and do. Years ago my daughter had to write something for English class and she came to me for help. Her story started out something like, “Ethan Havoc walked down the road. It was raining. He had headphones on listening to his favorite band. He sang every word of the song out loud not caring who heard him.” This is an example of TELLING the reader what’s happening. It doesn’t show me much. I asked her a few questions about Ethan, his appearance, posture, how he’s walking (body language).  Then I asked about the rain (environment). Is it raining hard or just misting?  Does he have an umbrella? Next, we moved on to what kind of music Ethan is listening to. It could be anything from Anthrax to Beethoven. We can’t tell from what is given and knowing a character’s choice of ‘favorite band’ is going help us understand him better (backstory). After our talk, she came up with this, “Aiden Havoc scuffed his feet as he walked home. Water dripped off the ends of his hair and soaked the back of his hoodie. School had just let out for the day and his headphones blared loud shreds of The Misfits in his ears. He sang every word of the song out loud not caring who heard him or saw him shake his greasy black hair to the music.”  Ah, ha! We know Ethan and his surroundings a WHOLE lot better now, don’t we?

So, there you have it, my take on character creation. There’s a lot more to it than this, but that’s something that I can’t explain in words without sounding certifiably insane. As the story moves along, the characters reveal more through their thoughts and actions based on whatever it is they are facing in their environment. It’s not always something I consciously decide. It just happens. And that’s when the real magic of writing takes place. I hope this has answered some questions for readers and if you’re a writer, I hope it helps you become a better one!

Write On!

Write What You Love: The Joys of Genre Hopping

Back in November of 2015, I blogged about The Horror of Women . It dealt with the difficulties women have getting published in the Horror Genre. Though I still struggle with the reality of that whole situation, I’d much rather write horror than what I was initially published in, erotica.

For centuries women have been viewed by the publishing world as inferior writers. For that reason they have used more masculine or gender neutral nom-de-plumes . What many people may not know is that some of their favorite female authors have also written in multiple genres.

Judy Bloom, known best for her “Fudge” series took a walk on the trampy side with her novel, “Wifey”. Anne Rice took a side trip from her witches and vampires to explore kink with the “Sleeping Beauty” trilogy.  Joyce Carol Oats wrote gothic horror, murder and crime fiction, romances, historic fiction, fantasy, realism and surrealistic novels. All these woman are successful writers who dared step outside of their comfort zones and explore beyond the old adage of “write what you know”. I’m more inclined to write what I enjoy writing and I’ve had several different loves.

As a young adult I dreamed of writing Children’s fiction and even took college level classes in Children’s Literature and Illustration to pursue that goal. Somewhere along the lines for reasons that are unclear to me, my first novel turned out to be in the Fantasy genre. Beyond what was require of me in high school and the reading of The Hobbit, fantasy’s not my thing. On an awkward dare from a friend, I began writing erotica. I never saw that one coming (pun intended). Five published novels later, I’d had enough.

Having always loved murder-mysteries, horror, and anything to do with the paranormal, that was my next genre pick. This, I feel, is where I truly belong. Witches, ghosts, and bogeymen, oh my! In 2013 I saw my first paranormal murder-mystery published and was on cloud nine until, about six months later, my publisher announced they were going out of business. Now what? I already had another novel done and in the editing process for these people. Heartbroken, but knowing this was where I wanted my writing to go, I carried on and finished the second book and began the whole query, query, query, submit, submit, submit, rejected, rejected, rejected process all over again.

Had I messed up? Should I go back into the closet and return to the erotica where I was still seeing decent sales and a monthly royalty deposit in my account? Don’t get me wrong, the erotica was fun to write and I learned a great deal about some aspects of the publishing business, but my heart and writer’s soul wasn’t into it. No. I just couldn’t do it. I’ve never felt so creative and productive and pleased with my writing since making the genre hop. With fans of the first murder-mystery contacting me at least once a month over when I’d have another book out, I realized it was time to change tactics … again. The traditional publishing Gods were not with me. I was letting everyone down. I had to do something drastic and decided to self-publish.

Because of that, I had the pleasure of being invited to five author events in 2016. I’m hoping to do at least that many for 2017. It’s rather difficult to peddle your erotic-wares in public knowing your mother’s pastor is likely to walk by and say hello or you’re going to see old friends and teachers and try to explain how you know about “those sorts of things”.  It’s called research, people. As I’ve said before, I like vampire and murder-mysteries, too, but that doesn’t mean I believe I’m a vampire or that I’m going to go out and murder someone. Sex may sell, but not in a small town family-friendly community center or a privately owned bookstore. It’s a lot easier when it’s a murder-mystery or something about haunted houses or Shadow People or urban legends.

With three paranormal novels now out and another on the way later in 2017, I may not be raking in the dough as much as I one day hope to, but I’m having a lot more fun and I’m getting much needed exposure. I’m mingling, setting up displays, doing book talks and signing and, though I write under my maiden name, I’m not really hiding behind a pen-name anymore. I’m being myself and sharing my love of the macabre.

I’d still love to put out a Children’s book, too. Maybe I will one of these days.

If you’re considering writing something different than what you’d normally do, do it! Don’t limit your imagination to a single genre. You have a slew of successful female (and male) writers who have already dared to be different. Georgette Heyer, who is better known for her romance novels, has also dabbled in detective fiction. Children’s book author Sonya Hartnett wrote a rather sexually graphic novel that created a bit of a stir. You’re in good company no matter where you decide to let your writing take you, just don’t be afraid to explore.

Taking that step could very well lead you exactly where you want to go. Start walking!

My Slightly Fictional Childhood

Life certainly throws some strange punches.

For the past thirty years I was fairly sure I’d grown up in the 1970-80s real-life version of Mayberry, USA. It was a quiet, idyllic, free-range childhood. Summers were spent walking the creek beds catching crayfish and stuffing them into a Pringle’s can only to free them further upstream. It was the thrill of swimming in Snapping Turtle Infested waters, camping in backyards, and riding our bikes down the steepest, most twisted road in town. It was racing to the R\R tracks with a shiny penny in hand when we heard that train a’coming, followed by the frantic hunt to find whose got squished the flattest. It was all the town kids gathering together after dark, unsupervised, setting our own rules and boundaries for a game of Hide-n-Seek or *Commander Tag.

I say I was fairly sure I’d grown up like this, but after attending Saturday’s ‘Blueberry & Books Festival’ in my hometown and visiting one of the haunts I frequented back in the day, I’m starting to wonder what was actually real and what is imagined.

The setting for my first murder-mystery, “Secrets of the Scarecrow Moon”, is the fictional version of my hometown, Berkshire, NY. Nell Miller, the town librarian and a main character, lives in a small, two-story apartment  attached to the library. She also runs the town’s history museum that is upstairs from the library. Unlike most kids, I spent a large portion of my Friday nights at the library hanging out with Mrs. Leonard the librarian. I was there a lot! I went up to the museum a fair amount of times, too. The library was a safe haven. Ah, I remember it all so clearly.

Or not.

When writing “…Scarecrow Moon” I closed my eyes and brought to mind every nook and cranny I could remember of the library. The little apartment that always fascinated me, the front entry,  the small section of Children’s books front and center as you walked in, the larger section to the left where I did all my browsing, and the research area with its wall of card catalog shelving all sprang to life in my mind’s eye.

Apparently, my mind’s eyes need glasses.

One day as I was driving by on my way to my mom and dad’s, I looked fondly towards the library and realized, “Hey, there’s only one level to the little side apartment section.” How, odd. No matter. It’s fiction, but I could have sworn there was an upstairs to that.

BerkshireFreeLibrary

The real life Berkshire Free Library.

Yesterday, after a thirty year absence, I was able to visit the library once again while the crowd was at a lull and one of the library workers offered to sit at my author table to keep an eye on my things. I walked in, the thrill, the nostalgia, the sheer wonder of… where the hell am I? Is this even the same place?  Yes, yes, there’s the familiar front door and the desk it right where Mrs. Leonard always had hers. And over here to the left are the larger stacks. Okay, well, those shelves are metal now instead of the wonderful, dark wood ones I recall, but that’s progress. In front of me is, not the Children’s Book section at all. The Children’s section had been expanded back into another room I never even knew existed. The research area with the big table and card catalogue was now full of more shelves and books and… No, say it ain’t so! The little apartment is gone! GONE! I wandered in slowly, and slightly horrified, at what should have been Nell Miller’s living quarters. It was about a quarter of the size I thought I remembered and so, yeah, where are the stairs that go up to her bedroom and bathroom? That’s right. No upstairs. This is reality. *sigh*

But, the museum, surely, SURELY that’s the same, right? Wrong.

The stairs were in the same spot. That was a good sign. I headed up, smiling, my hope renewed. I swear to God the place has shrunk. What’s up with that phenomenon? They say it’s because you were so much smaller\younger, but I’m the same height I was back then. It’s not like I was five years old the last time I was there. Anyway…

That big room where the Scarecrow stands guard at the top of the stairs in the book? Nope, not there. How about those two big rooms laid out side by side, one at the front and one at the back and all those display cases and the door that connects them on the far end so you can walk through and loop around? Nope, sorry, kids. That ain’t so. Well, damn, my brain has been lying to me. And if it lied to me about this place, what else do I have wrong? What other parts of my Berkshire-berry USA childhood are fictional?

DSCF2858

One of the museum rooms upstairs in the library.

Did we really walk the creek and put crayfish into Pringle’s cans? Did we really swim with Snapping Turtles? Those trips to the pond in the middle of a farmer’s field to go ice-skating, those really happened right? What about the time our toboggan of five went barreling over the cliff and into the freezing water of the creek below? I know thirty town kids plus played Tag and Hide-n-Seek on those long, hot summer nights, but could I produce any witnesses to this? What about the rotten apple fights we had in Slate’s back yard!?

My mind reels. What I thought was reality, maybe wasn’t! If it wasn’t, then where was I and who was I actually with all those times? Aliens? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s all a Barnesville conspiracy. Maybe what I wrote about isn’t fiction at all. Maybe that’s the reality, not this here and now place that’s messing with my old, forgetful brain. Could innocent Mrs. Leonard have put something in my cup of Kool-Aid during Summer Movies in the library basement? I mean, after all, Nell Miller’s grandmother was good friends with the librarian from Nell’s childhood, and Nell’s grandmother was some sort of witch, so it only stands to reason … .

I guess my fiction is a lot more fictional than I thought it was!
Life … strange punches.

*Commander Tag. I probably have the name of this game wrong, too! This was played on the baseball field located in the center of town. The Commander was chosen and would stand on the pitcher’s mound. Everyone else gathered around. He or She would then cover their eyes and count  just as one would do in Hide-N-Seek and also like H-n-S, the rest of us would scatter in all directions. Hiding, however was optional. The Commander was not permitted to step beyond the baselines, instead, the players would slowly start to inch their way in an effort to reach the pitcher’s mound without being tagged. If you did so, you were Free and would head over to the bleachers to wait out the rest of the game. If you were tagged by The Commander, you became one of the Soldiers and you joined his forces to tag other players as they came in. The longer a Player waited to make his move, the harder it was to reach the pitcher’s mound. Good times!

The Horror of Women

I was ten or eleven the first time I read “Dracula”. Before that I was reading things like Nancy Drew. I may have delved into Stephen King at that young age, too. I’d certainly read “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson before I reached my teen years. The point is, mysteries and thrillers have been on my bookshelf and in my blood from a very early age. Up until quite recently I’ve never paid much attention to who did the writing. As long as the story was good and scared me, I was all for it. Didn’t matter if it was written by a man or a woman.

Quite recently Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name by Catherine Nichols came to my attention. As I read it, my dander became more and more riled. As I am a woman struggling to make her mark in the publishing world, you can probably figure out why. It took me two years to find a suitable publisher for my erotica titles, but when I gave that all up to follow my real love of writing horror, things have not gone so well. You’d think having five novels already out there would give you a little bit of credit regardless of genre. Apparently not.

Since 2011 I’ve completed three paranormal thriller manuscripts and am working on a forth. One was published in 2012. Unfortunately the publisher went out of business shortly after my book was released and I have been forced to start my quest over from square one. It’s been anything but fun. It’s been anger and frustration. It’s been hopelessness. It’s been tearful. What makes it worse is that I have been told by people who have read my books that I write a whole lot better than some of the other well-known authors they’ve read. Yeah, I know my writing is far from perfect. I make mistakes, especially in blog form.  It’s all free form-first draft style here, kids, but, I sure as hell write better than I did when that first erotica was unleashed on the world. On top of that, I’ve read some pretty lame horror myself over the past five years or so. I am normally very humble about my work, but sometimes you just know you’re just as good as this other person who sells by the millions, if not better, and yet what do you have to show for it? Anger. Frustration. Hopelessness. Tears.

The article by Catherine Nichols got the gears going. I began to question even further how to make my way in this industry that seems to favor the man, or who they perceive to be a man. And then I thought about my chosen genres, horror, murder-mysteries, thrillers and the paranormal. I began to consider some of my favorites in that genre. It dawned on me that the majority of them are men. Heck, even the Nancy Drew books were written by a man under the guise of a female name.

There are a variety of lists out there about the top ten or top twenty horror writers of all time. Men dominate that list. Why? I’ve seen it argued that maybe men just have a better sense of blood, violence, and gore. Maybe. I don’t need those things to make something horrific. I can watch the news if I want to see that sort of thing.

Truthfully, I don’t care for slasher books and films at all. I want nuance. I want depth. I want to see normal, everyday life turned inside out. I want the slow, psychological build up that keeps me awake at night not because I’m afraid a stranger is going to come into my bedroom and attack me with a butcher’s knife, but because I am wondering if that sweet, gentle man beside me in bed is somehow going to go nutso for no apparent reason. Or I’m going to wake up and discover one of my children is missing. That’s scary!! Woo me gently into that darkness with a trusting hand and a tender voice until I have no choice but to go deeper. Don’t shove me in at knife point. It all appears so normal, but it’s not.

That’s what I want to read. That’s what I strive to write. And, modesty aside, I think I’ve done a pretty decent job of it in the books I’ve written. That’s when I start getting angry again. That’s why Catherine’s article hit me so hard. Seeing those lists of great horror writers and so few women on those lists gave me another level of dismay. A writer’s mind is a very delicate thing. We are moody and we are fragile in some ways about what we’ve written. We’re full of doubts. We suffer a lot of rejection and for most of us, not writing isn’t an option. We are compelled at in inexplicable level to write.

As a female writer I now feel I have added two more battles in my war to win in the publishing world. It’s hard enough as it is. I read somewhere that of all the manuscripts submitted, only two percent are published. There’s battle one. Battle two, beating the odds because I’m a woman in what really appears to be a male-dominated business. Battle three, writing horror, a genre that has a far, far more masculine presence in the world than does the feminine. I must truly be insane because I keep on writing it despite all these rows of cannons aimed at me.

But, there is good news. We’re out here, honestly! And some of us are pretty damn good! I found a couple great lists of female horror writers: Top 25 Women Horror Writers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of and Horror and Women Who Write It to get you started.

I have no intentions of giving up on this, nor will I change my name to try and beat the odds. I am who I am. I write what I love to write. I am a woman and I love to write horror. Hopefully, one miraculous day, I’ll beat the odds stacked against me and win these battles.

A Wordless Weekend.

A few months ago a co-worker asked me to look over his manuscript. I foolishly told him I would. I knew he was writing what he said was a novel last fall. Four months later he announced it was done! Whoa, Nelly! That was fast. Turns out this ‘novel’ is really a short story. So, as I’d said I would, I started to look over what he’d done. It’s a good concept and I went through the first two chapters jotting down suggestions and the like and gave those two chapter to him to look over. It was then that he told me that only had he NOT yet even read over what he’d given me and that it was a first draft BUT! that he, personally doesn’t read fiction. Stephen King has a great quote out there that is something like “If you don’t have the time to read you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.”  The admission that my co-worker doesn’t read fiction explained everything about the faults in his manuscript. I would like to finish the task as I told him I would but I’m not sure if it’s worth the time or effort.  It would be like someone deciding they are going to start a band if they have never even listened to the sort of music they want to play.

Another friend of mine had an art show opening this past Friday. We stopped in for a few minutes. I’d seen her work before and knew she was good so there were no surprises there. Unfortunately, the space was a big tight and I started to feel claustrophobic way too soon. Besides, I’m no good at mingling and making small talk about art. Its one of those subjective things. One man’s fine art is another man’s baby spit up on canvas. Still, I wanted to show her my support and made the effort to visit, albeit, briefly. We went off to explore some of the other art shows and music stuff going on after.

I’ve bought the books and artwork and etc of other creative friends to show them my support for their efforts. Even if I didn’t later care for the music or book after I had a listen or read more deeply.

I do have some talented writer friends, one is my cousin. We’ve had a lot of fun exchanging short story ideas and acting as readers and proofreaders for each others stuff. I encourage her every chance I get. Sadly, I don’t see her too much anymore since she moved. I have no idea if she’s bought my book.

I’ve been trying hard to write as often as possible but this weekend I didn’t even care. I planted herbs seeds and did yard work instead. It needed to be done, that is true, but I know I should have written something! I should have at least opened the file and re-read what I’d written earlier in the week for a quick proofread. It feels like my Muse has recently crawled into a deep, dark hole and doesn’t want to emerge all of a sudden. I’m pretty sure the recent life changes have something to do with that. Even when you have very positive life changes, it requires some adjusting.  When I’m stressed, my Muse shuts down just when I need her most to distract me and keep me from worrying about every little thing. It’s also been a very slow week over on my Facebook page. I’m not feeling ‘the Love’ as it were, like I was plus as I near completion of the next novel, the stress of searching for a publisher is weighing very heavily on my mind and soul. I try to be positive about it. I try to believe in myself and what I want to be when I grow up. It’s not always easy but I hope I don’t have too many more of these wordless weekends. It’s not good for me.