Dark Tide

I hadn’t been sure that I would keep writing young adult novels after I revised, rewrote and published the first three (Sorceress, Sleeping Angel, and Sara) I didn’t know if it was a direction I wanted to keep going in. I knew I wanted to do stand-alones–always have wanted to do stand-alones–and I also like writing about teenagers and young adults.

If you remember, a few entries back I talked about a horror novel I started writing in the 1980’s called The Enchantress that only got about three or four chapters into before abandoning (because I didn’t know where to go next with it; and the first chapter I specifically remember rereading at some point in the decades since and shuddering in horror at how badly it was written), but one of the places in the book really stuck in my head–an old family owned hotel called Mermaid Inn, which sat on the shores of Tuscadega Bay (which was my stand-in for Choctawhatchee Bay–my grandparents retired to a house on that bay and I’ve always wanted to write about that area). After shelving The Enchantress (which I do think about from time to time, and wonder if I should revisit the idea) I kept thinking, you should write a book and call it Mermaid Inn.

I made a folder for it, wrote a few sketchy notes, and it sat in my files for a very long time.

If you will remember, I had originally planned to write an entire series of interconnected young adult novels, a la the Fear Street series by R. L. Stine, and one of the varied locations they would be spread out over would be Tuscadega, Florida, in the panhandle on a fictional bay. That was part of the note I scribbled for the folder–set this in the panhandle of Florida, and connect it to the fictional Alabama county you’re going to write about somehow.

I decided to write Mermaid Inn sometime after Hurricane Katrina, when I discovered yet again my own ignorance of geography. I’d just never really given it much thought, to be honest; I knew Mobile was on a bay, I knew when you drove on I-10 through Mobile you have to take a tunnel below the Mobile River. I just had always assumed there was nothing south of Mobile in Alabama–I mean, it’s ON water–and figured that those lower prongs of Alabama that reach down along the sides of the bay were uninhabitable wetlands. I discovered this to not be the case when visiting friends for the first time who lived in Alabama south of Mobile. They told me to take an exit off I-10 and drive south, which I didn’t think was possible.

It is.

I don’t remember precisely when or how or why I decided to write Mermaid Inn and set in a small town on the prongs, south of Mobile; I just know now that at some point I decided to do this–and my friend Carolyn Haines might have been involved; I know she told me some stories about closeted society men in Mobile and their hijinks and I thought, I could use this for the book and I think that may have been the impetus? And then I created my character, Ricky Hackworth, from Corinth, Alabama–po’ white trash who needs a swimming scholarship to attend the University of Alabama. (Sidebar: alert readers will recognize that Beau’s last name in Bury Me in Shadows–and at one point in the story he mentions he’s only the second Hackworth to go to college; “besides my cousin who got a swimming scholarship.”)

The engine of my pickup truck made a weird coughing noise just as I came around a curve in the highway on the Alabama Gulf Coast and I saw Mermaid Inn for the first time.

My heart sank.

That’s not good, I thought, gritting my teeth. I looked down at the control panel. None of the dummy lights had come on. I still had about a half tank of gas. I switched off the air conditioning and the stereo. I turned into the long sloping parking lot of the Inn, pulling into the first parking spot. I listened to the engine. Nothing odd. It was now running smooth like it had the entire drive down. I shut the car off and kept listening. There was nothing but the tick of the engine as it started cooling.

Maybe I just imagined it.

Hope springs eternal.

The last thing I needed was to spend money on getting the stupid old truck fixed. Maybe it just needed a tune-up. I couldn’t remember the last time it had one.

Dad gave me the truck when I turned sixteen. It had been his work truck since before i was born–it was two years older than I was. He’d finally broken down and bought himself a new one. This old one was dependable and had almost two hundred thousand miles on it. Dad had taken good care of it. He’d babied it, gotten an oil change every three thousand miles without fail, and I could count on one hand the number of times it had been in the shop to be repaired.

It still had the original transmission.

It might not have been the nicest or prettiest car in my high school parking lot, but it got me where I needed to go and got good gas mileage. Since I was saving every cent I could for college, that was a lot more important than horsepower and cosmetics and a loud stereo that rattled your back teeth. The swimming scholarship I’d accepted from the University of Alabama wasn’t going to remotely cover anything close to the lowest estimate of what my expenses might be, but it was the best offer I’d gotten.

And I was grateful to have it. If they hadn’t offered, I wouldn’t be going at all.

Swimming was my ticket out of Corinth, Alabama.

That opening scene!

Sorceress

I have always loved the word sorceress.

I also love the word “enchantress.” Go figure. Must be something about the sibilant s.

I moved from Kansas to Fresno, California in February of 1981. It was cold and there was snow on the ground when I boarded an Amtrak train at 2 in the morning with my mother. I fell asleep before the train left the station in Emporia; when I woke up it was gray outside and we were in western Kansas. The trip seemed endless, and our train was delayed because of weather crossing the Rocky Mountains; that part was terrifying, honestly. There were times when there was only enough room on the mountain ledges we rode over for the train tracks, and the wind was powerful enough to rock the train. I’ve always been afraid of heights, so obviously this was completely terrifying for me. I had brought books with me to read on the train, but I’d finished them all by the time we reached Barstow, California–missing our connecting train by half an hour–and thus were stuck there for twelve hours until the evening train to Fresno.

You haven’t lived until you’ve spent twelve hours in a train station in Barstow, California.

(Although reading everything in the magazine rack in that train station completely fueled my soap opera obsession–but that’s a story for another time.)

After I finished writing the first draft that became Sara I put the manuscript aside and started working on another one, which I called Sorceress.

Why was the move on Amtrak to California pertinent to the story of Sorceress and how it came to be? Because it’s one of the few books–in fact, the only book–I’ve written under my own name that is set in California (all the Todd Gregory ‘fratboy’ books are set in California).

It was a beautiful day to die.

The sun was shining and she could hear the birds singing in the trees outside.  Through the window on the other side of the room she could see a gorgeous blue sky with wisps of white cloud drifting aimlessly. The house was silent around her, and she closed her eyes again, biting her lower lip.

Her throat was sore and she was thirsty.

There was a glass pitcher of water sitting on the nightstand just out of her reach. Drops of condensation glistened in the sunlight as they ran down the sides, pooling on the wood. She licked her lips and dry-swallowed again.

“Please.” She’d intended to shout, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper. Tears of frustration filled her eyes.

This can’t be happening to me, she thought as the tears began to run down her cheeks. She felt the wetness against her lips, flicking her tongue out to catch the moisture.

It might not be much, but it was something.

She tugged at the handcuffs again, and moaned as the raw skin around her wrists rubbed against the metal, dull arrows of pain shooting up her arms.

That isn’t going to work. You’ve got to think of something else. There has to be something.

As if on cue, the phone on the other side of the room began ringing.

If only I could reach the phone!

If only I weren’t handcuffed to this stupid bed,” she said aloud.

If only, if only, if only.

A grandfather clock began tolling somewhere in the house.

Five o’clock. Maybe four more hours until the sun goes down.

She was safe until the sun went down.

She heard footsteps coming down the hall towards the closed door.

“I’m thirsty!” she shouted. “Please! I’m so thirsty!”

The footsteps stopped. She was about to shout again when heard the footsteps start again—only now they were moving away from her door.

She closed her eyes.

Not a bad opening, huh?

I started writing the novel Sorceress sometime in 1992 or 1993; I’m not sure which. Sorceress was the easiest of the early manuscripts for me to write, and this was because I knew the story, from start to finish, before I started writing it–which is incredibly rare for me; I even knew the middle, which I always have the most trouble with. I originally wrote Sorceress in the late 1980’s as a novella that originally clocked in at around seventeen thousand words. But even as I wrote that incredibly long short story (at the time all I knew about novellas was that Stephen King sometimes wrote really long stories, like “The Mist”) and had always put it aside, because I knew there was more story there and it needed to be longer–novel length, in fact. So when I finished the first draft of Sara and was ready to move on to something else, I decided to finally expand Sorceress out into a novel.

Fresno wasn’t a pretty city, by any means. It had a desert climate (the entire San Joaquin Valley has a desert climate) that was very dry and climbed to well over 100 degrees in the heart of the summer (sometimes even getting up to over 110) and was all brown, mostly; brown, palm and orange trees, and concrete in the unforgiving sun. My parents bought a house in a subdivision in a city that bordered Fresno yet somehow wasn’t considered a suburb. It had a pool, two orange trees, and several eucalyptus trees. These seemed exotic and cool and fun–until you realized how much fruit one tree, let alone two, could produce, and there was no way to keep up with them, either; inevitably, the back yard was always dank with the sickly-sweet smell of rotting oranges. The eucalyptus trees with their slim, silvery leaves were also a pain in the ass; those leaves would get into the pool, and unless fished out, became water-logged and sank to the bottom, where they would stain and/or discolor the bottom of the pool. It seemed like those little leaves were always fluttering through the air and unerringly landing in the water.

Never again will I live a place where I am responsible for a swimming pool.

But the true beauty of Fresno was its location. It was within a few hours’ drive of many wonderful places: Yosemite, Sierra, and Kings Canyon parks, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. LA was the furthest away–four hours down the Grapevine; and the final descent through the mountains into the plains on the other side was one of the steepest highways I’ve ever driven down–but in college I also made friends with students who came from some of those mountain communities–Sonora, Oakhurst, Coarsegold, Tuolumne–and wound up visiting them at times. I spent most of my time visiting the mounts in either Sonora or Tuolumne. I’d never spent much time in the mountains before or since, and the thing that always stuck in my head was how close the stars in the night sky seemed up there, almost like you could reach up and grab one. I decided to create my own version of these small mountain towns and call it Woodbridge. When I started writing Sorceress as a novel, I set it in the countryside in the mountains outside of “Woodbridge.” By this time, I had already discovered y/a horror, obviously, and so “Woodbridge” was going to be the anchor of all my stories–they were all going to be connected, and in some ways the center of that fictional universe I was building was going to be Woodbridge (Sleeping Angel is also set in Woodbridge). I also put a college there; a campus of the University of California (UC-Woodbridge) which also gave me college students to play with as well as the high school kids. Laura, my main character, was originally from the same area of Kansas where Sara was set; I even mentioned her in passing in Sara, as a friend who’d moved away to California and who had been betrayed after she left by her best friend and her boyfriend…which also figured into the plot of Sorceress.

Sorceress was also the first book I wrote where I followed the Gothic tropes: a young woman all alone in the world after the death of her parents is summoned by an elderly aunt she didn’t know existed to California. The elderly aunt has a huge Victorian mansion in the mountains, a man-servant/housekeeper/butler, and once there Laura begins to suspect that not only are things not the way they seem, but that her own life might be in danger. There’s also a hint of the paranormal here as well…and some of the kids Laura meets in Woodbridge also figured into some of my other books for young adults as well.

When I had the opportunity to write something on spec for Simon and Schuster teen in the summer of 2005, Sorceress was the one I chose to revise and rewrite for them. I felt it was the most complete and needed the least amount of work, plus I loved the entire Gothic mood of the story. Then of course Katrina came along and knocked that right out of my head; I kept trying to revise it but focus was incredibly difficult, and finally I gave up. This is the story I mentioned in conversation with a friend, who was later given a job as an acquisitions editor, and this is the story she wanted me to pitch to her. I did, but they didn’t pick it up, but when she went out on her own later and started her own small press specifically for juvenile and y/a fiction, she wanted Sorceress, so I dragged it back out and went to work on it again. It was released in 2010, I believe; it’s hard to remember dates these days for me. Anyway, this is the book where I told Bold Strokes I was publishing a y/a with a friend’s small press, which got the response “you know, we do y/a too” that led to me giving them both Sara and Sleeping Angel, and led to all the others.

I also wrote another Woodbridge story–a very long novella–that I intend to either revise as a novella or expand out into a novel. This story directly references events in Sorceress and Sleeping Angel, as well as characters…so while it might be entirely too late to release another book in that linked universe I originally intended to create, a good story is a good story. I just am not sure about the ending of that one, which is one of the reasons it remains in the drawer.

Maybe someday.

For What It’s Worth

Amnesia.

I think the first time I ever encountered amnesia as a plot point was in, of all places, Trixie Belden Mystery Number Sixteen, The Mystery of the Missing Heiress. Janey, a young woman who’d been in a car accident and been found wandering aimlessly along Glen Road near the Belden farm, had amnesia–and who she was turned out to be the key to the mystery bedeviling Trixie and the other Bob-Whites.

Amnesia is actually not nearly as common as film and television (especially soaps, where it is one of the handiest tropes at hand, along with evil twins and so on) would make it appear to be, and it’s not as simple as the visual media make it appear. I had to do research on amnesia for Sleeping Angel, and it was very interesting to see how many different types there are, and what causes them–there’s physical trauma to the brain, and then there’s psychological, where something has happened to the person with amnesia that is so traumatic to their very identity that their mind erases it. So, bearing that in mind, I was curious to see how Sandra SG Wong handled the subject in her recent In the Dark We Forget.

I awake with a shiver. Full on, from toes to the tingling roots in my scalp.

Sharp corners dig into my shoulders, down the length of my spine, underneath one set of ribs. My feet twitch. I feel the backs of my shoes slip on something wet

Shoes. Why am I wearing shoes while I sleep?

I push up on my elbows, can’t hold myself up, fall back with a thump onto those sharp corners again. I blink up at a murky sky. My head aches, like I’ve taken a chill. I hear a soft rustling of leaves, a lone chirping bird. My ears are cold. A slight breeze blows grit into my cheek. My eyes widen. Why am I outside?

That sounds like a frigging nightmare, doesn’t it? Imagine waking up somewhere and not only not knowing where you are, but who you are and how you got there. Wong’s main character remembers nothing about herself–her name, where she lives, anything–and is soon found by a charitable passer-by who picks her up and takes her to a local police station, where the mystery around this woman slowly begins to unfold.

The challenge for a writer telling this kind of story is that the reader doesn’t find out anything about the character until the character does herself–which is incredibly hard to do; does the loss of memory affect the person’s personality, their character, who they are themselves? Do they behave differently? What do you do when you start finding out unpleasant things about yourself that you have to face, things you may not want to believe are true?

Wong handles it all with the accomplished skill of a master. We start caring about the character, curious to find out who she is and how this all happened, and Wong keeps the reader on the edge of their seat the entire time. As the truths begin to slowly play out–who she is, what she was involved in, what was going on in her life that somehow wound up with her unconscious in the woods–Wong deftly starts showing us flashes of who the character is, and wisely never gets into the psychological vs physical questions about the amnesia itself. Her main character is also unreliable–not just because of the amnesia, but as we find out ever more about her, and the kind of person she is, we also begin to have to wonder if she’s telling the truth about anything…everything…or something in between.

Beautifully written and dripping with suspense, I greatly enjoyed my first experience with the fiction of Sandra SG Wong, and suspect you will as well, Constant Reader. Get a copy, read it, and thank me later.

Too Far from Texas

I used to think you could never be too far from Texas, in all honesty, despite my deep appreciation and affection not only for Houston (I lived there for a time) but for all my marvelous friends in Texas. Murder by the Book, the only mainstream mystery bookstore that would allow me to have events in their store when I first published, always holds a deep place of affection within my heart and soul; I love that store, and of course, I also love me some Whataburger.

Whataburger alone makes Texas worth visiting, to be honest.

The Chanse MacLeod series was originally going to be set in Houston. I created him, and actually started writing about him, while i lived in Texas from 1989-1991. I remember distinctly that he had an office and a pager, as well as a secretary and an off-hours answering service…clearly, I didn’t understand how private investigators actually worked and was basing everything off movies, books, and television programs. But I do recall the name of the first book was going to be The Body in the Bayou–and Chanse was also straight in his original iteration–and it wasn’t until later (after my birthday visit here in 1994) that I decided to move it to New Orleans, and of course by the time I started rewriting the New Orleans version, I’d discovered gay mysteries and so of course, I changed his sexuality (I’ve never once regretted that either, I might add). I also put The Body in the Bayou aside and started writing a whole new murder mystery for him (Murder in the Rue Dauphine) that eventually became my first published book. Chanse remained from Texas–a small town in east Texas called Cottonwood Wells–and I even wrote a short story where Chanse goes back home to that small town. (I’d always wanted to write a book where he goes back home and has to deal with memories and so forth; I just never got around to it and his original publisher always made the sign of the cross at me whenever I suggested, “hey, should I set the next one in Chanse’s home town, where he has to go to clear up a crime someone from his past is accused of?”) Cottonwood Wells also popped up in earlier drafts of #shedeservedit, as where main character Alex’ family was originally from; that eventually got edited out over the final drafts.

Sunday morning and I slept late, and even after waking, stayed in the bed for a while longer. It felt very comfortable and my body was very relaxed, which was lovely, and I didn’t really want to get out of the bed, to be honest. I made swedish meatballs last night for dinner and left the mess for this morning (I am now cursing lazy Greg last night who made that decision–part of the reason I made this decision was I realized while cooking that the dishwasher had a clean load in it that needed to be put away, and it was a pain in the ass to do while cooking and trying to time everything) and I didn’t really want to come downstairs and face the mess. I did get some cleaning and organizing done yesterday–I did the kitchen floors at long last–and I also worked on the living room some. I wrote about fifteen hundred words yesterday to flex my writing muscles a little bit–I’ll probably go back over them again today as I write more–and I also have to get the proofs for Streetcar significantly finished today. I also want to work on the new Scotty a little bit as well. We’ll see how much I can get done this morning/afternoon before Paul gets up–although he is going to go into the office today; there was a lot of thunderstorms yesterday and street flooding, so he and the IT guy rescheduled for today (can’t say as I blame him, we were in and out of flash flood alerts all day yesterday; the joys of the tropics in the summer) which will free up this afternoon for proofing.

My self-care appointment (okay, it was a back wax; someday I will write an essay about my issues with body hair) went well and after that, I swung by and picked up the mail. On my way back home I stopped at the Fresh Market (I rarely shop there; I always forget it’s there) to get a few things, and while it is more expensive than other places, I like shopping there. The fruit and vegetables always seem much fresher, and rather than buying prepackaged ground sirloin, I instead got it from the butcher counter, remembering suddenly that it’s fresher that way–and those meatballs turned out superlatively. I think in the future I might shop there a little more regularly. They don’t carry everything I would need, of course–that would make life too easy–but for meats and fruit and vegetables…well, it really cannot be beaten. I spent some more time with In the Dark We Forget–which I am also going to do this morning for a bit, it’s really good and I want to find out what happened to Cleo and her parents–for the rest of this morning, and then I need to vacuum the living room at some point (I swept up the floor in there last night as well, and tried to get it to look cleaner and better organized in there as well; it’s amazing what a difference the clean floor makes). So, a busy busy day for one Gregalicious. But that’s fine, I kind of like having things to do…it’s just when I have so much to do the thought of it is soul-crushing and defeating that I don’t like it.

We started watching The Anarchists on HBO MAX last night, and it’s….something, all right. It’s also interesting how these people chose to define “anarchy” as something other than what most people generally accept it as meaning; but they were using the actual definition of anarchy rather than the societal definition. I always laugh at people who think that laws and rules and regulations are things that restrict freedom and are unnecessary in a society; it’s really just another branch of libertarianism or Ayn Rand’s insane “objectivism”–those laws and rules and regulations exist because they were necessary, because human beings tend to always operate by putting their own needs first. Regulations exist because food manufacturers regularly sold bad, or dangerous, food to the general public because there were no regulations and no one keeping them honest; robber barons created monopolies to exploit the public and make themselves rich (Bezos, Musk, etc are simply the modern day version of the robber barons) at the expense of the needy; hence we needed government intervention to prevent abuses. I’ve never understood the mentality of “oh, if we do away with regulations and laws and rules we’ll all live together in peaceful harmony” because there’s always at least ONE asshole in every group.

ALWAYS.

And on that note, I am going to make another cup of coffee, put the clean dishes away, and go read for a bit. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and we’ll talk again tomorrow, if not later. (I’ve been going down the Stevie Nicks discography for my titles, and some of them–along with some of them from other song lists I was using before–wind up having the same titles as some of my books, and I’ve decided–see yesterday’s post about Sleeping Angel–that when I have a blog list song title that matches the title of one of my books, I am going to post about the book. Right now, I have Timothy in my stored draft blogs folder, and I think there’s another called “Watching Scotty Grow” in which I am trying to write the history of the series, which could be helpful as I am writing Book Nine at the moment, and since I am doing Stevie’s discography, that means Sara will also be coming up at some point.)

Sleeping Angel

I originally started writing Sleeping Angel in 1994.

That seems like such a long time ago, too. I hadn’t met Paul yet, was still working for that wretched airline at the airport, was broke broke broke and often ran out of money long before payday, and any kind of decent life for me seemed impossible. It was the next year I decided to snap out of the constant feeling sorry for myself, and instead of waiting for the world to come knocking on my door to make my dreams come true, that the only person who could make my dreams a reality was me, and that I needed to make the changes necessary to my life if I were going to become a writer for real–like stop dreaming about it and writing now and then, and start taking it seriously and writing all the fucking time, and trying to make it happen–which meant sending things out to try to get them published.

It’s weird how you forget things about books you’ve written until something out of left field reminds you of something. Julie Hennrikus, during our Sisters in Crime podcast interview, asked me about writing young adult fiction, and how I came to do that. The story is very simple, really; after discovering Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine and other young adult authors who wrote young adult novels that were either crime or horror or a cross of the two, I decided to take the book I was writing at the time–Sara–and write it as a young adult novel instead of as one for adults. It really didn’t take a lot, to be honest–I removed the framing device that firmly set the book back in the 1970’s–and turned it into a modern day story about teenagers (which it always was). After I finished Sara, I wrote another called Sorceress–and when I finished it, I began writing Sleeping Angel. I still didn’t have a strong grasp of how writing actually worked (which is kind of embarrassing when I remember how naive and stupid I actually was back then, but what did I know. seriously? Very little.) and so I never rewrote anything; I just printed them (I had bought a very inexpensive word processor that I loved, and wrote on) out and saved the originals. I was about half-way through Sleeping Angel when I discovered there was such a thing as queer crime novels…so I abandoned writing young adult fiction and started thinking more in terms of writing a gay private eye series…which eventually became the Chanse MacLeod series and Murder in the Rue Dauphine.

Flash forward another decade or so, and in the spring of 2005 I attended BEA and the Lambda Awards in New York. I lost twice that year (Best Gay Mystery for Jackson Square Jazz and Best Scifi/Fantasy/Horror for Shadows of the Night) and then on Saturday night I attended a cocktail party for the Publishing Triangle. (It was at this party that I met both Tab Hunter and Joyce Dewitt.) I also met a very nice man who was familiar with my work, and asked me if I had ever considered writing young adult fiction with gay characters and themes? I laughed and replied that I had two completed first drafts and a partial for another in a drawer back home; he then gave me a business card and told me he would love to take a look at them with an eye to publishing. I lost the card years ago, probably in the Katrina aftermath, but he was an editor for Simon and Schuster Teen, which was very exciting. I told him I would revise one and send it to him as soon as I finished Mardi Gras Mambo, which was at that point over a year overdue (I didn’t mention that part). This was exciting for me, as one can imagine; another opportunity gained by simply being in the right place at the right time, which has been the story of my career pretty much every step of its way. Once I finished Mardi Gras Mambo that August, I started revising Sara.

And then came Hurricane Katrina, and everything went insane for a few years, and I abandoned the attempt to rewrite Sara. There was just too much going on, I was displaced and finding it hard to get back into writing, and I just wasn’t in the right place emotionally to revise or rewrite a book. I’ve always regretted that last opportunity.

Flash forward another year or so and I casually mentioned to a friend this missed opportunity. What I didn’t know when I mentioned it (bemoaned it, really; I still regret this lost chance) was that she had been working for another publisher as an acquiring editor for young adult/children’s work. “Would you rewrite one of these for me? I’d love to pitch this to the company.” So….rather than Sara, I went with a rewrite of Sorceress, which had a teenaged girl lead character and I didn’t see any place to add queer content (I’d been adding that to the revision of Sara ) and sent it to her. Alas, before she had the opportunity to pitch it the line she acquired for was closed down and that was the end of that….until a few years later when she decided to start her own small press for juvenile/young adult fiction, and wanted Sorceress. I sent it to her, we signed a contract…and then I realized I needed to let Bold Strokes Books know I was doing this. I emailed them, and they replied, “You know we do young adult?”

Well.

I wrote back and mentioned I had two others collecting dust, and so I contracted both Sara and Sleeping Angel with them. I decided to do Sleeping Angel first–which is odd, as I didn’t even have a completed first draft; I don’t remember why I decided to do this, frankly–and so I started writing and revising.

The really funny thing–just looking at the cover for the book–is that the character name “Eric Matthews” was one I came up with when I was in college; I had an idea for a book set in my fraternity, and came up with three names for characters that were pledge brothers and friends: Eric Matthews, Chris Moore, and Blair Blanchard. I used Eric and Chris for Sleeping Angel (completely forgetting that I had already used those names in Every Frat Boy Wants It a few years earlier), so yes, even though the fraternity books I used were by “Todd Gregory”, I accidentally re-used the character names.

Whoops.

The original intent with my young adult fiction was to connect it all together, the way R. L. Stine did with Fear Street, and sort of how all of Stephen King’s work is as well. The three books I started with–Sara, Sorceress, and Sleeping Angel–were connected, and were the springboard from which the others would come–or were supposed to come, from. Sara was set in rural Kansas. The main character of Sorceress moved from rural Kansas to a small town in the mountains in California, Woodbridge, which was also where Sleeping Angel was set. The main character of Sara moved to Kansas from the Chicago suburb where the main character of Lake Thirteen was from, and so on. (Likewise, the main character from Dark Tide was also from the same county in Alabama where Bury Me in Shadows took place, and #shedeservedit was set in the town that was the county seat for that rural Kansas area where Sara was set.) I’d consciously forgotten that, but fortunately my subconscious still holds on to things the forefront of my brain doesn’t.

When I originally envisioned Sleeping Angel back in 1993 (or 1994, I don’t remember which), the concept I wanted to explore was something, a concept, that Dean Koontz had used in his book Hideaway–that someone was in a car accident and died, only to be resuscitated by the EMT’s. But when he came back to life, he brought back something with him from the other side that gave him a psychic connection with a serial killer. It was an interesting idea–I wasn’t using the serial killer thing–but I loved the entire concept of someone being brought back with something extra (which, now that I think about it, is also the entire conceit Stephen King built The Dead Zone around). I decided to keep the car accident to open the book in the new version, but the opening I originally wrote had to be tossed. I also came up with an entirely new concept for the book: what if you were in a bad car accident, but there was a dead body in the car who was NOT killed in the accident but had been shot and was already dead when the car crashed? And if the main character has amnesia….who killed the kid in the back seat?

And away we went.

He was driving too fast, and knew he should ease his foot off the gas pedal, bringing the car down to a safer, more manageable speed.

But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“Hang in there, buddy,” he muttered grimly under his breath, taking his eyes off the road for just a moment to glance in the rearview mirror into the backseat. What he saw wasn’t encouraging. Sean’s eyes were closed, and he couldn’t tell if Sean was still breathing.

The blood–there was so much of it, and it was everywhere.

He swallowed and took a deep breath, trying to hold down the panic. He had to stay calm. He couldn’t let the fear take over, he just couldn’t. He had to hold himself together. He had to get to town, to get Sean to the hospital before it was too late–if it wasn’t already too late.

Not a bad beginning, right? Pulls you right into the story.

I don’t remember what–if anything–I was expecting when Sleeping Angel was finally released (it actually wound up coming out before Sorceress, ironically); it had not even been six years since the right-wing homophobes had come for me for daring to accept an invitation to speak to high school students in a Gay-Straight Alliance. And now I’d actually dared to write a book about teenagers, for teenagers. The horror! But the book come out and there wasn’t even the slightest whisper of controversy about the “gay pornographer” writing a y/a book. It got really good reviews for the most part, people really seemed to enjoy it, and it eventually won a gold medal for Outstanding Young Adult Mystery/Horror from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, which I’d never heard of but was kind of a big deal, or so I’m told. The gold medal was nice, too–very pretty (but it’s not the rock from the Shirley Jackson Awards–the smooth polished stone I got for being a finalist may be my favorite thing I ever received as recognition for my writing).

I’m still pretty proud of Sleeping Angel.

Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again

I didn’t start reading young adult fiction until I was an actual adult.

I didn’t read it when I was an actual young adult,, which I’ve tried to remedy in the years since I discovered that there is young adult fiction that is not “ABC Afterschool Special” style drama–these abounded to an extreme when I was a teen; everything was a cautionary tale. You want to have sex? Here, read Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones or My Darling My Hamburger. Drugs? You should read Go Ask Alice. And on and on it went…the 1970s were a very weird time to go through puberty and your teens, especially if you were beginning to realize your sexuality was all wrong and you needed to hide almost everything true and honest about yourself from everyone you know. There were actually good books for teens being written and published during that time, of course; I just never found them (some have been recommended to me by friends who are the same age and read them at the time; Trying Hard Not to Hear You by Sandra Scoppetone could have made a significant difference in my life had I read it back then).

But in the early 1990’s, I started reading horror/mystery novels by teens by Christopher Pike, which led me to R. L. Stine’s Fear Street books and my favorite mystery writer for teens–the forgotten and vastly under-appreciated Jay Bennett. Those books got me to start writing my own y/a horror/mystery/suspense novels for teens–which eventually became my novels Sara, Sleeping Angel, and Sorceress–and I continue to write them from time to time; my last two releases were actually young adult fiction (or marketed as such). I try to keep my hand in the field by reading horror/mystery/suspense novels for young adults that are more current; it’s hard to keep up with everything I want to read as it is, but I was really happy one of the books I took with me on my trip was Alan Orloff’s Agatha Award winning (and Anthony Award finalist) I Play One on TV.

He watched as a teen in a dark hoodie emerged from a storage closet and crept into the high school locker room. In the dum light, the shadowy figure advanced, slowly, methodically. In his left hand, a knife blade glinted.

The man’s insides constricted as he observed. He could almost smell the stale sweat left behind by the athletes after football practice, soon to be replaced by the stench of fear and the coppery odor of fresh blood.

The feelings he experienced now–rage, fear, excitement–mirrored those he had felt then, five years ago. When he had been the teen in the hoodie in that locker room. When he had been wielding the knife.

When he had been stalking his unsuspecting victim.

The premise of I Play One on TV is very original and clever: the main character is a teenager with ambitions of becoming an actor–he has an agent, goes out on auditions for commercials and local theatre productions, and works with his high school’s summer theater camp–and thus far his biggest break was starring as a teenaged killer in a true crime reenactment series. The killer he is playing, Homer Lee Varney, was a bullied outsider who murdered a jock, and has recently been released from prison due to a legal technicality. Dalton’s two best friends are also aspiring actors, and shortly after his episode of the show airs, someone starts stalking him–and he fears he is being stalked by the actual killer.

But was Homer guilty, or was he railroaded? Dalton has found some discrepancies in the police reports which indicate that the investigation might not have been as thorough or efficient as one might think…so maybe Homer isn’t a killer after all?

Dalton, despite his faults (and it’s to Orloff’s credit as a writer that he doesn’t make Dalton perfect–especially since this is a first person narrative), is easy to connect with, identify with, and root for to succeed–not just as an amateur private eye but as an actor and as a person. He’s a bit selfish and self-absorbed (as creative artists have a tendency to be), and he also has some serious professional jealousy for a schoolmate who often winds up going up for the same parts–but gets them instead of Dalton (which is a stage name). Dalton’s relationships with his parents and with his sister are also realistic and well drawn, and the story/mystery progresses at an excellent pace, and comes to a very satisfying, enjoyable conclusion.

I Play One on TV recently won the Agatha Award for Best Childrens/Young Adult Novel, and also received an Anthony nomination in the same category.

Definitely recommended!

Silver Bells

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style….in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas….

“Silver Bells” is, hands down, one of my favorite Christmas songs.

I’ve always wanted to write a story built around the song; maybe that’s something I can do for next year–but then again, who knows what will happen between now and then as far as my writing and deadlines are concerned? Heavy heaving sigh.

The other night, when I did my ZOOM thing for the release of #shedeservedit, afterwards I had a horrible rush of doubt and fear about the book itself. Who am I, after all, to write about rape culture and sexual assaults and so forth? Was writing the book an attempt to assuage my own guilt for my own complicity in the systemic toxic masculinity of our society, culture and civilization?

Some of the above? None of the above? All of the above?

I started writing the fiction collectively known and referred to as “the Kansas book” when I was actually in high school in Kansas. I created a fictional version of my high school and the county, including the county seat; it went through many iterations and renamings over the years as I worked on aspects of this enormous book, with interconnected characters and stories and so forth. Some of it was pulled out of this enormous “Bible” (for wont of a better word) to become my novel Sara about ten years or so ago; bits and pieces of it have now been pulled out to use for #shedeservedit, which will be out in January and has been what I have mostly referred to as “the Kansas book” for the last six or so years. The first draft of this iteration was written over a month, in July of 2015; I wrote three thousand words per day (or tried to; I did take some time off here and there) and by the end of the month I had nineteen chapters of about five thousand words in total of what needed to be a total of twenty chapters; I’d done ninety-six thousand words in a month but still didn’t know how to end the book (this is always a problem for me, by the way; and I am always afraid I don’t stick the landing). Over the next four or five years, I revised and rewrote the book, trying to see if I could figure out how to stick the landing as well as figure out what the dismount should be. I knew how I wanted to end it, but wasn’t sure if it would work…but also never wrote it, thinking the endless revisions and rewrites and changes might point the way to the proper dismount.

But this version, that begins with the star quarterback going missing after a game one night, might use the characters I dreamed up in the late 1970’s and have adapted and changed and grown over the years, but the plot-line that runs through this book wasn’t born until about 2004, when I decided to take all the things I’d been loosely working on over the decades since high school and pull it all together into a crime novel: the final and complete edition of the Kansas book. And it has gone through many iterations before I started that massive attempt to write an entire first draft of the new story in one month; back in 2004 I saw it as a book that flashed back between the present and 1977, when the quarterback was to have gone missing. I eventually abandoned that attempt–though I have reserved the right to do another such book, flashing back and forth in time, set in this universe somehow; I’ll figure that out later–and moved on to this final version of the missing quarterback theme/story.

Ironically, even from its earliest iteration, the underlying story here was about privilege; the privilege that comes with being a football player in a small city (am never sure where the cut off between town and city is precisely; I know when I lived in Kansas Emporia was considered a large town–population 27k or so–while the town we lived in was considered small–population 952; and Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City were considered cities) with a highly successful high school football team. With athletic success comes privilege; that was even true back in the 1970’s, and was even more true when it came to college teams. Originally, the quarterback’s body was found, naked, on the fifty yard line with evidence he’d had rectal sex the morning after Homecoming. That changed–the location of the body at any rate–and I also realized the Homecoming murder was also a cliché, so I had to move it up further in the season–which also made more sense with the timing of the event that may have possibly triggered the murder in the first place…this was a huge issue with the original draft I wrote in a month; why would it have taken so long for the murder to happen if the potentially triggering event was in the summer?

These are the trials and tribulations that an author must face when writing a crime novel.

Sometimes fate intervenes, as well. When I was writing Sleeping Angel all those years ago, I kept thinking something was missing from the manuscript; there was a hole where I should have been making a point and wasn’t. I was writing this book around the time when there were a rash of queer kids committing suicide in the news–basically being bullied to death–and this was around the same time that Dan Savage started the “it gets better” campaign. Ah, I thought, there’s what’s missing from the story.

It wasn’t like I didn’t know how it felt to be bullied, after all.

I decided to pull the Kansas book back out, and write that first draft, in the wake of two news stories that happened around the same time: Steubenville, Ohio and Marysville, Missouri. As I watched those cases unfold, I knew that was the answer to the Kansas book; my ‘small city with a great football program’ (and whose name went through many changes over the years–Kahola to Greenfield to Carterville to its final name, Liberty Center) obviously had to have a rape culture problem, derived from the culture of toxic masculinity that was created in order to have a successful football program. This decision was reiterated when I read Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer–which I bought and started reading one day when I was trapped in the Newark airport by a flight cancellation for like eight hours or so. (Also: shout out to friend Gwen Florio, a reporter for the Missoula paper whose coverage of the stories there featured heavily in the book)

So, when I sat down to write that draft in a month (oh to have that kind of focus again), that was in the forefront of my mind: the triggering event that may have potentially have led to the murder was the sexual assault of a cheerleader at a party before school started.

So, yes, I have written a crime novel set in a small town with a rape culture problem. Am I the best person to write such a book? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s why I am so nervous–how are people going to react to this story? From me?

And then I think, oh, it’s not like anyone pays any attention to you or your career anyway.

And now back to the spice mines.

He Darked the Sun

And now it’s Saturday again, and there are but two days left before I depart for Kentucky. Which is fine–I am actually looking forward to the drive and the alone-time in the car to listen to audiobooks; I downloaded Isaac Azimov’s Foundation, because it’s been decades and in the wake of the show I’d like to read (hear?) it again.

I also finished The Lost Symbol, which was kind of silly if you actually paid attention, but it also made me curious–I’d never seen any of the Dan Brown/Tom Hanks/Ron Howard collaborations–I am not a Tom Hanks fan; heresy, I know–and so I decided to go ahead and watch Inferno and The Da Vinci Code. They were actually well done–the plot of Inferno was nonsensical and also driven by the main character, Robert Langdon, having temporary amnesia, of all things (and yes, I am well aware that I used the trope of main character with amnesia in Sleeping Angel about ten or eleven years ago) and I never really quite grasped why he was so necessary–a symbologist, something utterly ridiculous and not a thing that was made up for the books, and he is also apparently an international bestselling writer of nonfiction books about symbols, because that, too, is a thing–but I didn’t mind The Da Vinci Code quite as much as I thought I might. I do remember enjoying the book when it came out; but it’s also one I’ve never revisited. I also read it when it was first released and before it became a thing–it was quite a thing for quite some time, before everyone turned on it. That is also something oddly prevalent in our culture–we embrace something and make it into a Very Big Deal, and then comes the inevitable backlash. But Brown was quite rich by the time the backlash began, and so I am sure it didn’t bother him very much. (It probably would bother me if I were in that situation; the months atop the bestseller lists and the cash pouring in from every direction would be lovely but even the slightest criticism would be certain to trigger the Imposter Syndrome, which is something I wish I could chisel out of my psyche.)

Today I have some errands to run and a lot of writing to do–as always. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about A Streetcar Named Murder lately, and I know how I am going to write the rest of the book now–oh, there will be some curve balls along the way, I am certain; there inevitably always are when I am writing a novel–but I know what the underlying force of the book (the theme, if you will, if this book could be said to have one; although I am thinking now it’s more of a underlying tone than a theme, really) is going to be. I did some more research after I finished work yesterday, and everything–the characters, the story, the subplots and the neighborhood and the sense of community–are beginning to take shape in my mind. I actually think I should be able to get a lot of writing done this weekend, to be honest. I am itching to get back to it, I feel better about writing and everything else that’s going on in and around my life, and I feel good for the first time in a long time.

I can’t speak for anyone else besides myself of course, and I do think I have been laboring with some degree of retrograde depression for some time now; even going back to before the pandemic dropped on the world (I also got caught up on The Morning Show, which is now dealing with the early days of the pandemic). I don’t know how else to describe it, but there’s been this gray fuzziness in my peripheral vision when I think, or wake up in the morning. There were mornings when the alarm would go off and I would lie there in bed, staring at the glowing red numerals on my digital clock and think fuck I just don’t want to deal with anything today and I sure as hell can’t face my email inbox. I’ve been lucky, too, with all of this plague shit–I’ve not lost any friends or family to it, at least that I’m aware of, at any rate–but it certainly didn’t do me any good. I did get some of my best writing done during the pandemic–Bury Me in Shadows is probably one of the best books I’ve ever written, and I also think #shedeservedit is pretty good, too; and I’ve done some really good short stories during the twenty or so months since the massive paradigm shift.

Today I have to get some stuff done. Writing, of course, as always, and some errands. I have a box of books to donate to the library sale, have to get the mail, and make some groceries–the Saturday before Thanksgiving, that’s going to be ever so much fun, yay–but if I get that stuff done today, along with the necessary cleaning around the house, I can focus tomorrow solely on writing and getting a lot done. I am going to try to get up early so I can leave early on Monday morning–Foundation safely downloaded to my phone, and I think I will probably download the next Donna Andrews for the trip home on Friday–because sooner is always better than later with lengthy drives. And now that I am waking up relatively early on the regular every morning, why the hell not take advantage of that? (oh yes, I need to make a packing list for the trip as well, don’t I?)

And so, so much cleaning to do. I’ve really let the floors and the living room go since the hurricane, and that must be rectified–there’s nothing worse than coming home to a house that’s not clean after a trip, which I experienced coming home last weekend–and so I am going to spend some time seriously working on the house. That will also help me get creative with the writing–my thoughts anyway–and I also need to check my to-do list and see what’s left to be done as well as make a new one. I’d also like to spend some time with Leslie Budewitz’ Guilty as Cinnamon, which I am enjoying.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines for the rest of the day. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow.

Let’s Have a Kiki

SATURDAY!!!!!

I’m not quite sure why I always am so excited about Saturdays rolling around; left over from childhood and not having to go to school most likely…which now has adapted into my adult life into I don’t have to work today! Of course, I do have to work today–writing and editing and revising, oh my–but I don’t have to be anywhere, nor do I have to do anything I don’t want to do. I am going to spend some time cleaning today (what else is new, it’s an on-going battle here in the Lost Apartment) and I am going to try to get slightly better organized as well (one can dream) and I am definitely spending some time with Razorblade Tears today. But I am feeling well rested this morning (hurray for better living through chemistry), and honestly think I can get everything I need to get done completed. Hope does spring eternal, does it not?

Last night we watched the final installment of the Fear Street trilogy, 1666, which was quite fun. I couldn’t help but love that a lesbian romance through the centuries was at the heart of the story; I am a sucker for those kinds of stories (I was thinking of Anya Seton’s terrific Green Darkness the entire time the movie was back in colonial times; that book has been an enormous influence on me and my writing, and one I don’t often think about)–where reincarnation and lives play themselves out in different times, with the souls going back to try again to get it right. I also remembered a wonderful old ABC Movie of the Week called Crowhaven Farm, with Hope Lange, that was also rooted in that reincarnation/different times trope–it terrified me as a child and I rewatched it a few years ago when it was up on Youtube–it doesn’t hold up as well as I might have hoped, but it’s still quite interesting…I’ve always loved both ghost stories and reincarnation stories, obviously.

Last night after we finished watching the movie (and now we have to decide what new to watch, as Happy Endings played out to its truly tragic end the other night), I transcribed “Wash Away Sins” into my desktop, making changes for the better as I went. It’s an interesting story, of course, but I also need to go back and read some of my old Alabama 1970’s stories to get a better feel for it, and to, of course, name the characters properly; I can’t remember the names of the characters from this time period in my Alabama tales, and there are getting to be enough of them now that I need to keep better track of them and keep my continuity going so there aren’t mistakes. (I really need to do an overall Scotty Bible, as well as one for Chanse; you never know when I might write another Chanse something, at any rate.)

I also remembered that I have an unpublished novella in my files somewhere; years ago I had written a lengthy sequel to Sorceress, but the small press that published Sorceress went out of business or something (the ebook of Sorceress is still up, but I don’t paid anything for sales, if there are any, and I don’t care enough to do anything about it–which is yet another reason why I always say it’s a wonder I have a career) but Spellcaster is just sitting there in my files, doing nothing….obviously Fear Street triggered my thinking about it because it was part of the linked y/a books I was doing along the lines of Stine’s series; set in Woodbridge, California (also where Sleeping Angel was set) and it wasn’t bad, I don’t think; the ending didn’t work and the characters were all straight kids, but I always thought I could go back and change the main character from a girl to a gay boy–he could be a cheerleader, just as she was–and maybe expand it out another twenty to thirty thousand words and voila–another novel finished.

I guess I’ll add that to my list of “books to get finished this year or next.”

I have to say, I really love my new phone, too. The sound quality when listening to Spotify is so much better than my old one, and the pictures are absolutely gorgeous and sharp and so forth; I may go take a walk around my neighborhood later this morning (and before I shower–no point in showering before going out into the heat and humidity of a July New Orleans Saturday; hey maybe I can get phô today!) and take some more pictures. I need to take full advantage of these last weekends before football season begins again, which is when I inevitably spend my weekends almost entirely in front of the television with games on all day–well, Saturday at any rate; I only watch the Saints on Sundays–and so the window of opportunities for working on the weekends is inevitably closing.

And on that note, I am going to close this and head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader–no matter how you choose to spend it.

History Has Its Eyes On You

Ah, Independence Day.

That’s really what the 4th of July commemorates–the day the Continental Congress ratified, and began signing, the Declaration of Independence, when the thirteen British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard threw off the yoke of the King of England and his Parliament and said, nah, thanks–we’re going out on our own. It was extremely radical–particularly since the British Empire was the greatest power in the world since the end of the Seven Years’ War (to the colonials, the French and Indian War) in 1763; perhaps the largest empire to date in world history.

And yet…no rights for women and there was still slavery for another ninety-odd years, give or take.

Someday I will write an essay about American mythology and how I learned it as absolute truth as a child; American history (or rather, US history) was my gateway drug to world history. I should have gone into History as my major in college; it’s entirely possible that History rather than English (or business; I switched back and forth between the two for a very long time) might have garnered an entirely different result when it came to my academic career. But I also would have had to have picked a time to specialize in, and how on earth could I have ever decided? There were so many interesting periods…although inevitably, I tend to think my metiér would have been sixteenth century Europe.

Someday–probably after I retire–I am going to write A Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Yesterday was rather lovely. I actually slept late, of all things; I cannot remember the last time that happened, and thus got a rather late start to my day. I started cleaning up around the house, and organizing things, but again–a late start kind of threw me off my game a bit, and I didn’t get near enough done that I had wanted to get done. I did read a couple of short stories for the Short Story Project, and I also read some more of Robyn Gigl’s wonderful By Way of Sorrow; that was lovely. I also listened to some Bette Midler albums on Spotify (joking on Facebook that I was doing my part to break down gay stereotypes by doing so); in particular I listened to It’s the Girls and Bette Midler, before moving on to Liza with the Cabaret soundtrack, and the little known sequel to Rocky Horror soundtrack, Shock Treatment, and then moved on to the Pet Shop Boys. I made meatballs in the slow cooker for dinner, and then we watched Fear Street 1994 (which was remarkably fun), then a few episodes of High Seas (which is really fun) and a few episodes of Happy Endings before bed.

R. L. Stine and Christopher Pike, who were hugely successful writers of young adult suspense/mystery/horror in the 1990’s, actually had an influence on me as a writer, surprisingly enough. I read most of their novels when I lived in Tampa back in the day (I actually preferred Pike, to be honest), and I actually wrote three novels–Sara, Sorceress, and Sleeping Angel–for young adults during that time. I had always intended to do the Fear Street thing–where the books were all connected somehow and minor characters in one would become the lead characters in another–and spread them across the country, as opposed to one town, as Stine had done; mine would be scattered between Kansas, California, Chicago, and Alabama (one of those ideas became Dark Tide and another Bury Me in Shadows). Then I discovered, through Paul, gay mysteries and all those ideas went into a drawer, along with those manuscripts, and I started creating Chanse and his world, and what eventually became Murder in the Rue Dauphine.

Fear Street 1994 is a lot of fun, as I said, both a mystery, a slasher film, and horror–the main romantic story is a lesbian love story, which was very cool–and it also slightly involved class differentials between the town of Shadyside (often called Shittyside) and it’s wealthier, preppy neighbor, Sunnyvale. It was a fun homage to Scream as well, and it was clever, witty, and quite a fun ride. I do recommend you watch it, if you like those kinds of movies. Nothing deep, but lots of fun, and now I can’t wait for the next part of the trilogy, which drops this Friday: Fear Street 1978.

I did try writing yesterday, without much luck, logging in less than a thousand words. But rather than despairing, as I am wont to do (Oh no! I knew I was breaking my momentum!), I chose to understand and recognize that the scene I was writing needed to be set up better–which was why it wasn’t working–and it needed more than just the cursory slide over I was giving it. I am going to open the document back up later this morning–probably after getting another load of laundry finished, and emptying the dishwasher–and scroll back a bit to start revising and getting into the story again. There really is such a thing as thinking too much about what you’re writing; that’s when the door to doubt starts to open a crack and Imposter Syndrome starts saying pssst through that open crack in the door.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a happy and safe 4th of July, Constant Reader!