Lake Thirteen

Ah, Lake Thirteen.

Lake Thirteen is one of my personal favorites of all my books.

Are authors not supposed to have favorites of their own books, like parents aren’t supposed to have favorites amongst their children (untrue in my experience, for the record; I’ve certainly observed enough to note which children are favored by their “impartial” parents)? Oh, well, too bad so sad. Every book I’ve written means something to me in some way, and sometimes I do remember others more fondly.

I love Lake Thirteen primarily because I love what it reminds me of–and it was also one of the easiest books I’ve ever written. It literally just flowed out of me, almost from the very beginning (although the opening of the book was very different in my original version than what saw print; I got some excellent advice from my editor about where the proper place to start the book was, and she was 100% correct in her assessment, thereby earning my eternal gratitude and respect) and so, simply for the ease of writing it would be a fond memory…but I was inspired to write this book by a trip I took, which just goes to show how sometimes books can organically create themselves in your mind. The trip was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had, and it was also a time when I got waaaaaaay out of my comfort zone…which just goes to show sometimes it pays to get outside your comfort zone.

How I eventually wound up writing for Bold Strokes Books is a story for another time, but suffice it to say that one of the things I found most interesting, once I’d moved there, was how the business tried to foster a sense of camaraderie between the staff as well as amongst the authors. It was the kind of mentality you don’t usually find in publishing–one that focused on we’re all in this together so let’s be supportive of each other, which I found to be highly refreshing for a change. They also hosted group events all over the country to which we were all invited and welcomed to attend; being reticent and shy and one who never does well when he is in an environment where he doesn’t know anyone, I always said no to these things. But eventually I felt guilty about always saying no, and said yes to a week-long retreat in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, nearly two hours’ drive north of Albany, at the Garnet Hill Lodge.

I committed, agreed to go, and bought my plane ticket…and then started having the second thoughts and doubts that are trademarks of my life. I don’t know anyone very well…I’m going to be the only male there…

But once I got to the airport, I relaxed. Ali Vali was on both of my flights, and once we reached Albany, we retrieved our rental cars and headed north in a convoy. As I made my turn onto the road that would lead me to the camp and up the side of the mountain, I noted that the road was THIRTEENTH LAKE ROAD. Well, I thought to myself, that would make a great book title, Lake Thirteen.

“Are you listening to me, Scotty?

My mom’s voice was so loud, I almost dropped my cell phone. I looked up. She was smiling at me in the space between the two front seats of the rental Subaru Forester, but her eyes meant business.

“Seriously,” she went on, her smile never wavering, “if you’re going to spend the whole week staring at your phone or fiddling with it, I’ll just take it away from you now.” She held out her right hand, palm up. “I’m not joking.”

I looked at the screen of my phone and sighed before slipping it into my shorts pocket. I smiled back at her. “There, happy?”

“It’s only a week,” she said before turning back around. “You’ll live, trust me.”

Easy for you to say, I thought, turning to look out the window. It was still raining. It was raining when our flight from Chicago landed in Albany and hadn’t let up for even a minute as we headed north. I pressed my forehead against the rain-spattered glass as the GPS gave my dad another direction and he headed up an off-ramp.

“It’s only about another half hour,” my dad said as he came to a stop at the top of the ramp, turning on his left-turn signal. He looked at me in the rearview mirror. “You’re not still nervous, are you?”

I bit my lower lip and didn’t respond.

“I think you’re worrying for nothing,” Mom said. “Nancy and Jerry and Lynda and David raised their kids right, just like we did with you.”

Easy for you to say, I thought, looking out the back window at the two other rental cars following us. You’re not gay, and you didn’t just come out to them all in an e-mail.

We’d been taking these joint family vacations my entire life—I couldn’t remember a summer when our three families hadn’t taken one of these trips together. When we were kids, we’d shared a cousin-like camaraderie and looked forward to seeing each other every summer. But now that we were teens, we were like five strangers with a shared past. The last few years, it seemed to take a few days before everyone stopped sulking about having to come and decided to make the best of the situation. By the end of the week, the old bonds would be strongly and firmly in place again, and there would be sad good-byes at the airport. For about a week or so after, there would be a lot of texting and e-mailing. Once we settled back into our real lives and routines again, the contact became rarer.  Within a month it died down again to an occasional comment on Facebook.

 I was an only child, so it always seemed like I looked forward to the reunion more than the other four.

This year was different, though. This year, I’d dreaded coming, hadn’t wanted to leave our nice suburb of Chicago and spend a week with four almost-strangers my own age.

All I knew about their lives was gleaned from Facebook, which was hardly the best source for personal information.

One would never know from looking at my Facebook page, for example, that I was gay.

That first night at the Lodge, we all went down to North River, the nearest town, for a wonderful meal…and then came the big thrill of the evening: ghost hunting in a very old cemetery–one of the turn off roads was named CEMETERY ROAD, so we felt pretty confident there was a cemetery, and we were right. Maybe it was just us and we’d hyped ourselves up too much, but the cemetery was really spooky–there was also a low fog close to the ground that helped the atmosphere–and I felt myself drawn to a particular tombstone: ALBERT LINCOLN, who’d died at sixteen. “How sad, he was only sixteen. I wonder how he died?” I said out loud–and while I have never believed in the paranormal completely (too many questions that will never be answered) the strangest thing happened as soon as I finished speaking. I felt this overwhelming sense of sadness and melancholy, almost like my entire subconscious let out a sigh of incredible sadness. All the hair on my arms stood up, I got a cold chill–it was a muggy night–and I made sure to show this to some of my fellow ghost hunters to witness.

It was so weird, and I felt pretty confident that night I would have nightmares.

I couldn’t stop thinking about poor Albert, dead at sixteen (if he had died a decade later, I would have assumed is was the Spanish flu epidemic, but his tombstone read 1908 not 1918)…after we were finished and went back to the lodge, we watched Rosemary’s Baby on the DVD player in the lounge…and then I had to walk back to my cabin, a short walk down the road through the woods by myself. It was pitch black, and of course I could hear all kinds of weird noises coming from the woods as I walked, absolutely terrified, until I finally saw the light on the door where my room was. I happily escaped inside, and went around closing all the blinds and curtains because it was ink-black outside and if I ever looked over and saw someone or something in the window, I would have dropped dead on the spot.

I opened my laptop and wrote It seemed like a good idea at the time, and then started writing, doing an entire chapter about five teenagers staying at a rustic lodge in the Adirondacks who go ghost-hunting in a cemetery on the mountain only to stir up ghostly forces from a long-ago tragedy.

And I knew I was going to write that book someday, and it was going to be called Lake Thirteen.

I’ve always loved ghost stories; they are my favorites (if pressed to name a favorite novel, it would probably be The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson); I’ve always been drawn to stories about past tragedies and souls being tethered by the violent emotions felt before dying–and the quest for the truth to be known so that they can finally rest in peace. This was the driving force behind Lake Thirteen, with my main character Scotty’s (how many books have I written where I named the main character Scotty? I really need to stop doing that) visit to the cemetery leading him to a connection with a tombstone similar to the one I felt. The rest of the week, as we explored the area and the woods, I took tons of pictures everywhere to use to help with setting and place. It really was a marvelous week–I think all I did all week long was laugh and laugh and laugh more–and I was sorry to see it end.

And eventually, I did write the book. I did open it with It seemed like a good idea at the time with the teens all sitting around in the lodge bored–three families take a trip together every year, Scotty has recently come out and he doesn’t know what his friends from the other family will say or how they will react. My editor wrote back and said, This isn’t where you should start the story. Remember how the directions we were all given were bad and everyone was getting lost on the mountain trying to find the lodge? Open with them on their way, and that way you can get all the backstory in.

It was an easy fix, and it made the book a gazillion times better. It remains a personal favorite of my own stuff, and I even named the characters after some of my ghost-hunting buddies.

A few years later, at another similar event in Palm Springs, we went to visit the not-quite ghost town of Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea–I still haven’t written that book yet.

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