Heavenly Action

I’ve always been—undoubtedly in part because I love history so much—an enormous fan of books where secrets from the past (even the far distant past) play an enormous part in the present lives of the characters in the story, and that solving those mysteries, learning the truth about the past, is necessary in the present for conflict resolution. As a history buff, the lack of a lengthy history as a nation is something I’ve always thought unfortunate; without ancient buildings and the way that history isn’t sort of always there in our faces the way it is in Italy or other older nations, it’s difficult for many Americans to either grasp, be interested in, or give a shit about our history—we have as a nation the attention span of a goldfish (thanks, Ted Lasso, for that reference).

To make a side by side historical comparison, for example, the Habsburg dynasty dominated central Europe for almost six hundred years, whereas the first European to actually arrive and establish a colony were under the aegis and flag of the Habsburg king of Spain—and that was in the early sixteenth century.

Secrets of the past casting a shadow over the lives of the living is often a theme in Gothics, my favorite style of novel/writing (noir is a close second). Rebecca is of course the master class in secrets of the past; the first Mrs. deWinter might not actually be haunting the halls of Manderley literally, but her ghost is definitely there. Victoria Holt’s romantic suspense novels inevitably were set in some enormous old mansion or castle, with potential ghosts a-plenty everywhere you turn. Phyllis A. Whitney’s one novel set in Britain—Hunter’s Green—also has a classic old British mansion with a potential ghost in it. Maybe it was the childhood interest in kids’ series, with the reliance on secret passages, hidden rooms, and proving that ghosts were frauds; every episode of Scooby Doo Where Are You? had the gang proving something supernatural was quite human in origin.

One of my favorite Nancy Drew books when I was a kid was The Ghost of Blackwood Hall; I don’t really remember much of the story now, other than a fraudulent haunting was involved and a woman—Mrs. Putney—was being swindled by a medium? (Reading the synopses on a Nancy Drew website, apparently part of the story involves Nancy and the gang coming to New Orleans, which I absolutely do not remember; my only Nancy Drew-New Orleans memory is The Haunted Showboat—involving yet another haunting. Interesting.) When I was writing the original short story (“Ruins”) I needed a name for the old burned-out plantation house; I decided to pay homage to Nancy Drew by naming it Blackwood Hall, and naming Jake’s maternal ancestor’s family Blackwood (his grandmother was a Blackwood, married a Donelson; Jake has his father’s last name, which is Chapman). I did think about changing this from time to time during the drafting of Bury Me in Shadows, but finally decided to leave it as it was. It might make Nancy Drew readers smile and wonder, and those who didn’t read Nancy Drew, obviously won’t catch it.

Hey, at least I didn’t call it Hill House.

But writing about ghosts inevitably makes one wonder about the afterlife and how it all works; if there is such a thing as ghosts, ergo it means that we all have souls and spirits that can remain behind or move on after we die. So what does writing about ghosts—or writing a ghost story—mean for the writer as far as their beliefs are concerned?

Religion primarily came into existence because ignorant humans needed an explanation for the world around them, combined with a terror about dying. It is impossible for a human mind to comprehend nothingness (whenever I try, I can’t get past “there has to be something in order for there to be nothing, you cannot have nothing unless you have something” and that just bounces around in my head until it starts to hurt); likewise, whenever I try to imagine even the Big Bang Theory, I can’t get past “but there had to be something to explode” and yeah, my head starts to hurt. Even as a kid in church, studying the Old Testament and Genesis, I could never get past “but where did God come from?” I don’t begrudge anyone anything that gives them comfort—unless it starts to impede on me. I’ve studied religions and myths on my own since I was a kid; the commonalities between them all speak to a common experience and need in humanity, regardless of where in the world those humans evolved; a fear of the unknown, and an attempt to explain those fears away by coming up with a mythology that explains how everything exists, why things happen, and what happens when you die. (I am hardly an expert, but theology is an amateur interest of mine, along with Biblical history, the history of the development of Christianity, and end-times beliefs.)

Ghosts, and spirits, have been used since humanity drew art on cave walls with charcoal to explain mysterious happenings that couldn’t be otherwise explained. I am not as interested in malevolent spirits—ghosts that do harm—as I am in those who, for whatever reason, are trapped on this plane and need to be freed. This was a common theme in Barbara Michaels’ ghost stories (see: Ammie Come Home, House of Many Shadows, Witch, Be Buried in the Rain, The Crying Child) in which the present-day characters must solve the mystery from the past; why is the ghost haunting this house and what happened to them that caused them to remain behind? I used this theme—spirits trapped by violent deaths in this plane whose truth must be uncovered in so they can be put to rest—in Lake Thirteen and returned to it with Bury Me in Shadows. I did, of course, worry that I was simply writing the same book over again; repeating myself is one of my biggest fears (how many car accidents has Scotty been in?), but the two books, I think, are different enough that it’s not the same story.

At least I can convince myself of that, at any rate.

There’s a few more ghost stories I want to write, actually; (it also just occurred to me that there was a ghost in Jackson Square Jazz, the second Scotty book) any number of which come from those legends my grandmother used to tell me as a child. I have this great idea for one I’ve been wanting to write set here in New Orleans for a very long time called “The Weeping Nun;” I have the entire ghost’s story written in my head, I just don’t have a modern story to wrap around it (same issue I have with my New Orleans ghost story book, Voices in an Empty Room) and of course there’s “The Scent of Lilacs in the Rain,” a short story about another Corinth County ghost I started writing and got to about five thousand words before the ghost even made an appearance. That great length is why I shelved the story—and now, of course, I realize I can do it as a novella, which is amazing news and life-changing, really. “Whim of the Wind,” the very first Corinth County story I ever wrote, is also kind of a ghost story, and maybe someday I’ll find the key to making it publishable (although I think I already did figure it out, thanks to the brilliance of an Art Taylor short story).

I’ve always believed part of the reason I was drawn so strongly to New Orleans is because the past is still very much a part of the present here—though not so much as we New Orleanians would like to believe, as several Facebook groups I belong to about the history of New Orleans often show how often and rapidly the cityscape has changed over the years—and you can sometimes even feel here, at times, under the right conditions (fog and/or mist are usually involved) like you’ve gone back in time, through a rip in the time/space continuum; which is something I’d actually like to write someday here—but that’s just an amorphous idea skittering through my brain.

And of course, I have an idea for a paranormal series set in a fictional parish here in Louisiana. I think about it every now and again, but am really not sure how I want to do it. I know doing a paranormal Louisiana town series will get me accused of ripping off Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, but that’s fine. I don’t think I would be doing vampire kings or queens or any of the directions Ms. Harris went with her series. (Monsters of Louisiana and Monsters of New Orleans—paranormal/crime short story collections—may also still happen; one never knows, really.)

As hard as it was sometimes to write, I think Bury Me in Shadows turned out better than I could have hoped. I think it captured the mood and atmosphere I was going for; I think I made my narrator just unreliable enough to keep the reader unsure of what’s going on in the story; and I think I managed to tell a Civil War ghost story (it’s more than just that, but that’s how I’ve always thought of it and that’s a very hard, apparently, habit for me to break.

I hope people do read and like it. We shall see how it goes, shall we not?

Turn

Saturday morning and I’m up much earlier than I usually am; I woke up around seven–the last time; it was a restless night–and finally decided to just go ahead and get up. We have to take Scooter to the vet at eleven for follow-up blood work (monitoring his diabetes) but other than that, the day is pretty free for me. I am thinking about going to the gym later to do arms (I skipped them last night because…well, because there were too many people there in the small space that is the gym and I don’t like having to force my way into spaces because so many gym-goers seem to feel like they are the only people there or they own the gym or something; I despise many things, but I have an especial hatred for inconsiderate assholes at the gym; always has been a pet peeve of mine) and was actually thinking it might be a good idea to go to alternating workouts; arms on one workout, shoulders/chest/back/legs on the other, with a goal to eventually give legs its own day in June). My muscles feel tired this morning, which means I worked them hard yesterday. That is a good thing. I also don’t want to waste today–which has a tendency to happen far too often on these weekends. The apartment needs some work done on it (it’s horrifying how much I’ve allowed the housework to slide since the first of the year) and perhaps getting up early this morning and using this time to actually do stuff rather than be a slug will help.

We shall see how this day progresses, at any rate.

One would never guess, looking around my apartment this morning, that I prefer to be organized, that’s for certain.

I’ve kind of decided to reread Summer of ’42 by Herman Raucher next. I think I need a break from reading crime fiction–a palate cleanser, if you will–and I’ve been thinking a lot about this book and the film made from it lately; I don’t know why, or I don’t remember the reason it came up in my brain recently (hell, it may have been two years ago for all I can remember; I have absolutely no concept of time anymore). I read the book when I was eleven or twelve; I’m not sure when, but I know it was when we lived in the suburbs, and I’m also not really sure why I was so interested in it. I know I didn’t see the movie until it aired on television, and years later I rented the video to see the unedited version, but it always stuck in my head–so much so that I wrote a short story somewhat predicated on the same premise; nostalgic looking back at the coming of age of the main character. The story was called “The Island”, and rereading that story about ten years ago–I was fond of it, and it was very popular in the creative writing class I wrote it for–I realized, in horror, that it was very clearly a product of its time and could never be published without an extensive rewrite. There was a young woman in that creative writing class, and she hated the story, which of course deeply bothered me; particularly because her criticism was based on nothing–she had nothing concrete other than “it just made me squirm a bit,” was all she could say, and of course everyone else in the class just kind of rolled their eyes and dismissed her. On the reread, I realized precisely why it made her squirm, even though she couldn’t–or was afraid to–put it into words: the main character was thirteen and is seduced by a woman in her early twenties, so I kind of unintentionally wrote a grooming/pedophile story but wrote it as a nostalgic, coming of age romantic story. Ick ick ick. In retrospect, her reaction was the right one to have, frankly. I tried to rewrite it and make the characters closer in age–making the main character seventeen and the young woman twenty–but it still had an ick factor to it. I thought about changing it to a gay story, but that made it even ickier.

This set me to thinking about how our viewpoints on this sort of thing have changed over the course of my life, and whether Summer of ’42, which inspired the story in the first place, would still read the same way all these years later. NOW I REMEMBER! (There’s still some juice in the old brain yet!) I started thinking about my story again when I made the list of all the unpublished short stories I have in my files, and I remembered, not only this story but another one I wrote for that class that was never published anywhere, “Whim of the Wind”–and I was thinking about that story a lot over the last year because that one was also set in Corinth County, Alabama–the place I was writing about in Bury Me in Shadows, and the two stories (“The Island” and “Whim of the Wind”) are forever linked in my head because I wrote them for the same writing class and turned both in together (we could turn in as many stories as we wanted, but had to turn it at least once twice in the semester…I turned in two the first time, and six the second time; the first example of how prolific I can be when I set my mind to it and do the work). But I digress. Back in the day, when I was growing up and even up to my thirties and forties, the age gap thing–and the sexuality of teenagers–wasn’t as big a deal as it is today, if that makes sense. Even now, when there’s a scandal about a teenaged boy having sex with an adult woman–usually a teacher in her early twenties–a lot of men don’t see the problem and say lucky kid or wish I’d had a teacher like that when I was in high school and things like that; as though there’s something natural and “manly” and normal about a teenaged boy having sex with an adult (incidentally, if the teacher is male these same responses are most definitely not used; adult male teachers who have sex with girl students aren’t treated or looked at the same way, nor are male teachers having sex with male students; adult men are inevitably seen as predators–the very same type of double standard the classic Tracy/Hepburn film Adam’s Rib addressed in 1949).

It’s rather interesting now, as sixty looms on the horizon, to look back and see how the world has changed since I was a kid.

We got caught up on Cruel Summer last night, then tried watching The Serpent on Netflix–I’d read Thomas Thompson’s book about the murderous couple, Serpentine, years ago–but it didn’t really hold our interest, so we decided to skip it and move on to something else.

Okay, I’ve put off getting the day started for long enough now. Talk to you tomorrow, Constant Reader.

Dream On

Maybe there is something to this say it out loud and name it thing. Yesterday I managed 1600 words–wasn’t expecting that–and it was a lot easier than the 1400 from Sunday. I think printing the chapter out and rereading it, and thinking about it, before I went back to work on it made it a lot easier, frankly; I have this bad habit of just going into the file and starting from the beginning and revising as I go–and sometimes I don’t remember how the chapter ends. Sometimes I will add a paragraph that I think belongs in the chapter…only to come across the same paragraph, slightly differently written, a little while later…which also can be filed under wasting time and not an effective use of time and yeah that’s a step you should cut out.

But one thing about being a writer is that you never stop learning, I guess. And, sometimes if things aren’t going as well as you’d like, it’s not a step backwards to stop for a minute, decide you have to go back in time to try to remember things you used to do, tricks that used to work well for you in the past that somehow you’ve completely forgotten about now.

You know, like keeping a journal. Reading my pages out loud to hear how the words sound together, if there’s a steady rhythm of some kind  or catch where it stumbles a bit here and there, to smooth it out to the right pace and rhythm for the reader, for the words to and syllables to flow correctly so the reader isn’t taken out of the moment by a badly selected word or phrase. I love writing, but the whole process is still a mystery to me, all these years and columns and articles and reviews and essays and blog entries and short stories and novellas and novels later, it somehow still is a mystery to me, and every time I sit down to write a new manuscript, no matter what it is or what it’s about or who it’s for, I seem to have to solve the mystery of how to do this, how to get it done, and how to satisfy myself that I’ve done my best–or even try to figure out how to do my best.

And sometimes it feels like I’ve never completely figured it out, but somehow it just happened.

One of the reasons I loathe being asked where my ideas come from isn’t just that it’s not a question where any answer I might give would shed light into how I write or how I choose what I write; it’s just that ideas are quite literally everywhere. I can have a conversation with someone and during the chat, in my head whatever we’re talking about has triggered several thoughts of oh that would make an interesting starting point for a story or that would be interesting subject to look into and read about and perhaps write an essay about or that would be an interesting character to write about. Headlines give me ideas, and stories on the news, and snippets of conversations overheard; there’s absolutely nothing out there in the world that comes into contact with me that also won’t trigger some kind idea for something, some bit of writing or some piece of fiction or a paragraph or something, you know? Sometimes a paragraph which has absolutely nothing to do with anything I am currently writing will pop into my head, and I will dutifully write it down in my journal, where it will sit until I run across it one day and think I should really write something around this paragraph, it’s quite good, and if I am the right frame of mind the characters and the title will come to me and then the story will start to spin out from there. The short stories I have on hand that aren’t finished, are in some stage of construction, whether it’s an unfinished first draft, a first draft or a second or even a third; there’s something still missing from those that I can’t quite put my finger on; some missing piece that, if clicked into place, will finish the story and it will be done, complete, ready for public consumption. There’s a short story, for example, that I wrote as a first draft for a writing class back in the 1980’s; my professor told me to send it out for publication back in the days of carbon paper and typewriters. I sent it to a couple of places over the years, but it never was accepted anywhere, and I know something is missing from the story to make it complete but I simply cannot put my finger on what precisely that is; I’ve had editors look at it and try to solve the puzzle of “Whim of the Wind” (which is a title I absolutely love), but no one’s ever quite been able to tell me what it needs–they also recognize it needs something, but they don’t know what that something is; I always think to myself welcome to the club and put the story back away. But the voice is charming, and the story has some of the most lovely sentences and paragraphs I’ve ever written; the imagery is beautiful, as is the mood and tone, and it’s actually the first story set in my fictional county in Alabama I’ve revisited in other work over the years, notably “Smalltown Boy” and the book I’m currently writing. But every few years I will pull that story out and read it again, wondering what I can do to complete it, to finally finish it, some twenty-five or more years later, and never can quite get the answer I need.

Maybe there is no answer to that question. Who knows?

I also started writing an article that is due relatively soon that I was asked to write; the trick with the article is I have to be careful not to turn it into a polemic. But it’s slowly starting to come together in my head…we’ll see how that turns out. Which means hopefully soon; I think I need to get it turned in by the end of the week.

Yeah, nothing like pressure.

In other exciting news, I’ve had to start wearing a belt. My weight is now fluctuating between 211 and 207; which is fan-fucking-tastic, and now my pants are all too big. Over the last few months I’d noticed that I was constantly having to pull my pants up; now they are so big they will slide all the way down to my knees after taking three or four steps. This, needless to say, is kind of annoying to have to deal with–especially if your hands are full–so this morning I put on a belt and my pants are staying up just fine…I stopped wearing belts years ago, unless I was dressing up; in which case it served as a unnecessary accessory, but you can’t wear dressy pants without a belt. So I own maybe two belts, total; which is a good thing because now they are necessary.

I still don’t like wearing belts, but like the idea that I need one.

I was also very pleased, by the way, with the writing I’ve been doing lately. Yes, I know I had a bout of impostor syndrome on Sunday, but the reread of the chapter and what I wrote for Chapter Seven pleased me immensely. I probably could have written more, but as I said, I want to read Chapter Eight again before rewriting it–I think this is a chapter where I could make it a lot more creepy than it is already written; it’s a drive through the Alabama countryside late at night in the dark, and for someone who is primarily used to living in a city the size of Chicago–imagine how terrifying it would be to drive down country roads in the dark that you aren’t that familiar with. Over all, the book still needs more atmosphere and needs to be more Gothic, and chilling; that is, I imagine, what the next draft will be for.

I also think I know what I  need to do to make “And The Walls Came Down” creepier, and more ready for submission.

I think this week I am going to send out a couple of stories to markets, and see what happens.

After all, the worst thing they can do to me is say no.

And on that note it’s back to the spice mines.

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