Moving On

Since my last blog entry, two years ago, much has happened in my life. In November of 2015, I retired from my full-time job editing the Homescape section, and doing other writing, in the Special Sections Department of the Record daily newspaper. Around the same time, two other momentous and amazingly coincidental things happened. Amber Quill Press, the e-publisher that had been putting out my novels for the past 13 years, closed its virtual doors. I would have been devastated about this, but just before I heard that announcement, I was offered a contract for a three-book mystery series by a major “traditional” publisher!

All my life, I’ve dreamed of being able to work full-time at writing fiction, but I always needed to have a day job and had to shoehorn my “own” writing into my evenings and other spare moments. Now it felt as if the universe was giving me the nod and all these opportunities had aligned to make my dream a reality. My new series involves a change of style and subject matter, but that’s also something I felt ready for at this point in my life.

Not having to stay in northern New Jersey for work reasons, I’ll be moving farther south this summer. Just a few counties away, but it might as well be across the country, for the amount of work involved! My present home dates to 1922 and I’ve lived here for 18 years. The lawn mowing, weed-pulling, snow shoveling and other outdoor chores helped keep me in shape, and the indoor repairs and upgrades taught me a lot about home maintenance. But now they’re harder for me than they use to be and I want to spend my time on other things. Where I’m going, the outdoor upkeep will be taken care of, I’ll have almost as much space and privacy, and there will be common places to stroll, swim and socialize. I’ll also be nearer to cultural venues in New Brunswick and Princeton, which is exciting–I’ve missed live theater, museums and other urban offerings. At the same time, I still should be able to carry on my more suburban interests such as horseback riding.

But the packing–! You accumulate a lot of stuff over 18 years, and not only am I a book junkie but the paper files in my home office are enough for a small business. (I also did paid and unpaid nonfiction writing and public relations over the years.) I’m discovering a lot of material that I can discard or just keep electronically, and yet there are still things I want to hang onto for sentimental reasons. Those souvenirs represent almost two decades of overcoming some tough challenges! It’s been a “moving” experience, in more ways than one, poring over half-forgotten memorabilia of events that brought me to where I am today.

Has anyone else out there moved and/or downsized recently? Did you also feel “your life flashing before your eyes” as you tried to weed out decades of accumulated stuff? What did you find most interesting about the experience?

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Halloween5&10.jpg

In recent years, I’ve met several otherwise fun-loving adults who profess to hate Halloween. I suppose a person can have good reasons for feeling this way. One woman actually was mugged in the past by someone wearing a Halloween mask; others worry about threats to children who go trick-or-treating, or are put off by images of ugliness and gore that have gotten too realistic for comfort.

I can empathize with their viewpoints, but Halloween remains my favorite holiday. In fact, the Halloweens of my youth probably helped nudge me down the slippery slope to writing paranormal fiction.

Some of my happiest and most vivid childhood memories involved visiting our small-town 5&10 in Cranford, N.J., in October. The store always devoted a huge section in front to Halloween costumes, accessories and gag gifts. I looked forward for months to this unveiling–the first day after school when I’d walk through the door and find many samples of garish, day-glo and glittery costumes hanging from the store’s tin ceiling, topped by their grinning masks.

If you didn’t like any of those, you’d find plenty more choices boxed and stacked on the counters below. And of course, there were always a few rubber, full-head monster masks that were extra scary and extra expensive. Just looking for something to complete your homemade costume? You had your pick of eye masks — from glamorous to sinister — along with greasy makeup in lurid hues, gaudy jewelry, fake teeth, plastic weapons and other props.

Of course, you still can find all of those things and more at Halloween and party stores, and I still make it a point to drop by Party City during the spooky season, if only to gawk. But because I’m older and more jaded now, it’s hard to recapture the thrill of poking around that old 5&10, its dim lighting and musty smell more like the atmosphere of an antique shop today.

For anyone giving a grown-up Halloween party, I’m the ideal guest. You won’t have to beg me to wear a costume—I’ll dress up at the drop of a witch’s hat and make a total fool of myself. I have cloaks and other regalia hanging in the closet of my guest bedroom and small props in a trunk in the basement. I’ve gotten more restrained over the years, though, paring these down to just a few things that can be adapted for various characters.

If other people can give their reasons for hating Halloween, I can easily list my chief reasons for loving it:

1. Make-believe. Children get to play fairly often, but when else do adults get to shed their workaday identities and take on alter egos? Become a villain, a vamp, a monster or a superhero? I write fiction precisely because make-believe is a big deal to me. I discovered long ago that my acting chops are pretty lame and that I have better luck stepping into another character when I’m writing. But Halloween lets me toy with the idea in person, too.

2. Costumes. I’m fascinated with clothes and the impact they can have on identity. I can sew a bit, and I’ve often thought if I couldn’t be any type of writer I might have become a costume designer. (During my theater phase, in and right after college, I was more useful in the wardrobe department than onstage.) So once I conceive of a character, I adore figuring out the right clothing, accessories, makeup, etc. And I also love seeing how other people put together their costumes.

3. The Fear Factor. I was the only child of two highly sensitive folks, and they tried so hard to protect me from anything scary that I found it all the more fascinating. When I went to see the stage show of Peter Pan, at age 5, I was riveted by Captain Hook! I loved the old amusement park “dark rides,” where day-glo monsters would leap at me out of the nowhere to recordings of maniacal laughter. So I started toddling down that dark road at an early age, and Halloween fit right in. I never felt in actual danger going from house to house in our very safe neighborhood. But the illusion of danger–being one of a group of weirdly dressed creatures roaming the night to demand candy from strangers–delighted me. I also think that, like writing and reading scary stuff, it helped to empower me. Later on, I somehow felt better able to cope with real danger, even after my parents weren’t around to over-protect me any longer.

Because I write paranormal mystery and suspense, I’m often asked whether I believe in ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, and whether I’ve ever had an experience along that line. I haven’t had any clearly paranormal experiences, but I’m open-minded on the subject. Maybe, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. But it’s more like the line from the Fleetwood Mac song, “Hypnotized”: “Now you know it’s a meaningless question to ask if these stories are right/’Cause what matters most is the feeling you get when you’re hypnotized.”

In my books, I’m not out to convince anyone of the existence of any particular phenomena. I just want my readers to feel some of the awe I did as a child, when I looked up into the rafters of that old 5&10 and saw all of those scary, wonderful characters leering back down at me.

Now I want to hear your feelings about Halloween! Are you pro, con or somewhere in the middle?

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An Interview with Author Gary Starta

I first spoke with Gary Starta many years ago at a meeting of the Garden State Horror Writers (now known as the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers). He already seemed to have a strong sense of the direction he wanted his fiction to take, and since 2006 he has published nine novels–several in both paperback and ebook form. Most combine science fiction and paranormal elements with a mystery or suspense plot. That may sounds like a neat hat trick, but Gary pulls it off smoothly. In fact, he says he wouldn’t have it any other way! He recently abandoned cold, snowy New Jersey for the mellower climes of Florida, but was kind enough to bring me up to date on his many literary projects:

Q. Your books mix science fiction, paranormal and mystery. Crossing genres is more accepted these days, but did you find it a hard sell when you were starting out?
A. I always find it challenging. I am a mixed-genre writer; I like to call it fiction on the fringe of genre. It’s just what I do. Maybe they’ll finally come up with a better name than cross-genre author. I feel and have always felt a good book comes from many places and like real life has many components.
Q. Of all of these genres, do you feel you lean more toward any one?
A. Science fiction, of course! Isaac Asimov started me off and influenced my first novel. I am a robot lover.
Q. Some readers might assume that science fiction and paranormal aren’t compatible, because the first supposedly is based on real science. How do you harmonize them in your books?
A. I think the lines are blurring and things are congealing all the time. “Paranormal” could be science when more theories are proven. We seem to exist outside our bodies and there are studies to show this. So, is this paranormal or now a science? Do we access information from across the universe? I see these issues as being both science and paranormal to that extent.
Q. You use a real historical character, Aleister Crowley, as the villain in your book Extreme Liquidation. Why did you choose him, and what kind of research did you do on the real person?
A. I chose him as the ultimate occult villain. I did a bit of internet research and made up the rest of his character through deduction. Of all the people in the world, he seemed most likely to try and reincarnate and rewrite the rules.
Q. In Demon Inhibitions, the characters cross into an alternate universe, and one reviewer compared this approach to the TV series Fringe. Did that show influence you at all?
A. Yes, it did. But I had started this series and probably had written Demon Inhibitions before the show. So, writing-wise, I was on the same page. By the way, I love what some people might call pseudo-science. Most detractors simply don’t want their explanations disturbed.
Q. What other books, TV shows and movies do you feel having inspired you in your writing?
A. Star Trek, for certain! Mr. Spock is the best sci-fi character of all time.
Q. Whom do you think of as your target audience–sci-fi, paranormal or mystery fans? Do you find that your books attract one group in particular?
A. I have no idea on that one. I have had people read me who never read the genres. I try to do it differently. I would love for someone to read one of my books and feel they had been there before. I write as a reader.
Q. Do you attend conferences and/or do library panels and talks to promote your work?
A. I have not recently. But I have relocated, so maybe I will.
Q. You seem to have garnered many reviews for your work–most of them raves–a feat that isn’t easy these days. What kind of marketing and promotion do you do?
A. It’s all me! Lol. And I really have no idea what the “game plan” is, other than to make people aware of my books in groups.
Q. What’s next?
A. I am putting out my first zombie book soon, Dead Market. My trilogy Camden Investigations has launched. I think I named my character “Camden” because of the N.J. town! This combines ghost hunters and ufologists who never seem to collaborate. I thought it was high time they did. How can you investigate the paranormal from one approach? The team comes across a light weapon capable of changing DNA. And yes, this was a science theory which is now proven.

Gary Starta is a former journalist who studied English and Journalism at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Find all of Gary’s works at his Kindle page http://www.amazon.com/Gary-Starta/e/B0043L6YK2/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1
His website is http://www.garystarta.net.
His sci fi fan page is http://www.facebook.com/GaryStartaSciFiFanPage
Follow and guest post on his blog at http://www.networkedblogs.com/blog/gary_startas_writers_blog_a_forum_for_novelists/

 

 

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That’s What Editors Are For! (In Case You Were Wondering)

It’s happened to the best of us. We can polish a piece of writing for weeks and still overlook an outrageous gaffe staring us right in the face.

If you’re lucky, you’ll catch it before anyone else sees it. if you’re somewhat fortunate, the only other person who sees it will be a friend who discreetly calls it to your attention. If it’s just not your day, the mistake gets mailed off to an editor and jinxes your chance for a sale. And if the gods really frown upon you, nobody catches it at all before it gets published!

Worst comes to worst, at least you can hope it’s funny.

One of my earliest howlers occurred in the first novel I ever attempted, during my college days. Writing about a theater student, I opened a scene with the line, “Ginny had not been back to the school cafeteria since The Night of the Iguana…” A friend who read this commented, “At least she finally identified the ‘mystery meat’!”

By the time I finished a draft of my second published novel, Ride a Dancing Horse, I had begun working with a critique group–lucky thing. I read the group a scene in which the hero silently admired the heroine’s outfit. I intended him to be referring only to her sense of style when he thought, “That wasn’t an easy top to pull off.” Only after they began giggling did I notice the double-entendre.

I often rewrite my old stories, and with the rapid social changes today that can be perilous. Around 2004, I was reworking Black Flowers, a book I’d first drafted about 10 years earlier. I had a wealthy, sophisticated woman, at an art gallery reception, hunt for a wall phone to call home and check on her kids. Someone in my critique group gently suggested, “Wouldn’t someone like that carry a cell phone?” Duh!

A couple of my fellow New Jersey writers shared with me tales of their own literary faux pas. Jo-An Reccoppa, author of New Math is Murder, once submitted a newspaper review of an Italian restaurant in which she praised “a delicious, zesty marina sauce.” She meant marinara, of course, but her spell-check didn’t know the difference. We assume it was served over seafood.

John Picinich, while a youthful copy editor for Reuters, sent out a horror short story about an Egyptian god with the title “Sorbek’s Present.” After it was accepted by a magazine, he learned that the correct spelling of the god’s name was “Sobek,” and quickly emailed the editor to make the correction. (Fortunately, he only incurred the wrath of Sorbek, who’s a lot mellower than Sobek.)

Finally, think how embarrassed you’d be if you had penned this sign, seen in the vestibule of an old-fashioned Catholic church: “Candles with be lighted by St. Joseph on request.” (For a really big donation, he’ll personally call the numbers at your next Bingo game.)

Can you match these bloopers? If so, please share in “Comments”!

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A Fond Farewell to Barbara Mertz

Barbara Mertz

I was very sorry to hear about the passing of mystery author Babara Mertz this week, at age 85. She sounded like a most adventurous and intriguing woman! She wrote nonfiction books on archeology (the career to which she originally aspired) and mystery novels chiefly under two pseudonyms, Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. Her 35+ “Elizabeth Peters” books include several series featuring strong archeologist heroines, and probably are the best-known. I first discovered her under the “Barbara Michaels” persona, though, which she used for 29 eerie suspense novels, most with paranormal elements. She had been writing these for decades before I first came across one–it may have been Witch (1973). I started to seek them out because, although I’d been reading mysteries for a while, I didn’t hold out much hope of publishing a paranormal mystery. It seems to me that mystery fans always wanted the story to have a “rational” explanation, and if it involved a ghost or a psychic that phenomena was usually debunked at the end. Yet here was “Michaels” successfully writing paranormal mysteries–and they were great!

Early on, in the 1970s, I think the Michaels books were considered contemporary “gothics” because they usually included a romantic subplot, but I think they fall more solidly into the mystery/suspense category. The romance definitely takes a backseat to solving the murder or dealing with the paranormal threat, and while sometimes the heroine faces the typical gothic dilemma of having two attractive men interested in her, but not being sure she can trust either one, neither turns out to be the ideal knight in shining armor and she always “rescues” herself. Mertz/Michaels has been very much on my mind the last year or two, because discovering her books probably gave me the courage to forge ahead with my latest, Dark Music — I never really could make it work as a hard-core horror novel, but I think works well as a contemporary paranormal mystery.

I met Barbara briefly almost a decade ago at the Malice Domestic Mystery Conference in Maryland, and she signed one of her Michaels books for me. She pleasantly volunteered that she had stopped writing that line “because I ran out of ideas.” I guess after 29 Michaels books, she was entitled! When I returned to Malice this spring, she was scheduled to appear again and I had hoped to give her a copy of Dark Music, but at the last minute she was hospitalized and couldn’t make it. Perhaps that was the start of a decline from which she never recovered? At any rate, I regret I didn’t get that chance to connect with her one more time–I’m sure it was just a big a disappointment to her many fans who had jammed the ballroom to hear her speak–and she will be sorely missed. For more information, check out her website, http://www.mpmbooks.com/bio.html (“MPM” stands for “Mertz/Peters/Michaels.” For a special glimpse into her imaginative, witty personality, be sure to click on the link for her 85th birthday party!

Do you have any memories of Barbara’s books and/or of meeting her in person? If so, please share!

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An Interview with Author Molly MacRae

Molly MacRae also took part in the “Me and My Dead Shadow” panel at Malice Domestic 2013. She gives the cozy mystery genre her own paranormal twist with her Haunted Yarn Shop mysteries, Last Wool and Testament and Dyeing Wishes. As you might guess from the titles, these stories have a humorous bent, as well. Molly told me how she came to branch out into paranormal plots:

Q. What’s the basic premise behind your two Haunted Yarn Shop mysteries?
A. Kath Rutledge, a textile preservation specialist, inherits her grandmother’s fiber and fabric shop in Blue Plum, Tennessee, and also ends up with a depressed ghost on her hands. This is hard on Kath because she doesn’t – or hasn’t – believed in ghosts and she’s the only who sees or hears the ghost.

Q. You’ve injected a bit of paranormal into a classic cozy mystery series. What inspired you to add a ghost to the mix? What do you think attracts you to this combination?
A. I was offered a contract with Penguin and the editor asked if I could do something light paranormal, maybe with a ghost in it. Of course I said yes; who wouldn’t? It turns out a ghost is a fun, versatile character. She’s a good, if sometimes frustrating foil for Kath and she adds a layer of questions, perhaps unanswerable, to any discussion of death.

Q. Have you had any psychic experiences of your own, and if not, did you do research to make this aspect of your fiction believable?
A. I’ve had experiences I can’t explain. Second sight type things that probably happen to everyone. When I was a kid I was sure I saw ghosts a couple of times. Those ghosts are easy enough to explain away as a child’s imagination, but I had another experience thirteen years ago (an appropriate number, don’t you think?) when I heard ghosts – in the back seat of my car. But they weren’t just in my car. I was on my way to the airport to catch a plane to New York. The ghosts came with me to the airport, on the plane, and then rode into Manhattan with me in a taxi. They had a great time and laughed and talked the whole way – to the point that I actually asked them to please keep it down in case they attracted attention. Imagination? Maybe. But they were my mom and dad and I was on my way to New York for my uncle’s memorial service and they were so excited to be meeting up with him again. When we got to Manhattan they knew where they were and where to find Uncle Vin and they took off. It was a weird, but happy experience that I can’t explain.

Q. It used to be that mystery readers disliked “real” paranormal situations in their stories because they wanted everything to have a logical explanation. How do you keep a paranormal story believable enough to satisfy the typical mystery fan?
A. By making the rest of the world – the small town of Blue Plum, Tennessee – as real as possible. I hope that works, anyway. The books have a fairly light touch of the paranormal about them, which might help, too. Plus, small town mysteries can only be so “real” in any sense – normal or paranormal. Anyone reading them regularly pretty much has to be good at suspending disbelief for a few hundred pages.

Q. Until recently, a mystery story with paranormal elements was at least eerie and sometimes terrifying. You take a lighter approach. Do you find your readers enjoy the mixture of humor and the supernatural?
A. So far.

Q. What extra dimension do you think the paranormal can bring to a mystery? Can you add a ghost – who supposedly can know things the living sleuth can’t – without giving away too much too soon?
A. This particular ghost isn’t such a big help. She has a slippery grasp of time and her memory is spotty. Plus she spent years watching television day and night and has a hard time separating reality from shows like Gunsmoke, Dragnet, and Oprah. The other problem is that if she does know something that no one else does, and she tells Kath, then how can Kath use that information? It’s the old problem of the tree falling in the woods. If a clue falls in a room and only a ghost hears or sees it, does the clue exist?

Q. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer, and when did you start writing fiction?
A. The first time my brother Andy read One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish to me. I loved it and I’ve loved everything about stories and books – what they do and what they stand for – ever since. I played around with stories at school and in letters to my grownup sisters. I wrote my first series of mystery short stories for a French class in high school. But I didn’t get serious about trying to get anything published until the late eighties.

Q. How did you connect with your publisher?
A. My agent made the contact.

Q. What do you know now about being a professional novelist that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
A. That there’s a sort of postpartum depression after finishing a manuscript and sending it off to the publisher. That there’s danger of too much navel-gazing after a book comes out. Keep your head and keep moving forward.

Q. What is one thing your heroine would do that you wouldn’t?
A. Punch someone in the nose.

Q. What authors do you admire?
A. Oh my gosh, how do I begin to narrow that down? Really, there are too many. But if I look straight ahead at my bookcase and pick out six of the authors sitting there, it’ll be a start (and by no means an end.) Charlotte Macleod, Dorothy Cannell, Dick Francis, Richard Peck, Reginald Hill, Agatha Christie.

Q. Where will you be appearing to promote your new book?
A. Killer Nashville in August, Buffalo Mountain Writers’ Workshop in September, and Magna Cum Murder in October.

The Boston Globe says Molly MacRae writes “murder with a dose of drollery.” She is the author of the award-winning Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries for NAL/Penguin, and her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine since 1990. After twenty years in northeast Tennessee, Molly now lives with her family in Champaign, Ill. Her website is www.mollymacrae.com

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An Interview with Author Clea Simon

In my continuing efforts to showcase other authors who incorporate the paranormal into their mysteries, today I am hosting Clea Simon. I met Clea at the 2013 Malice Domestic Conference, where we shared a panel called “Me and My Dead Shadow–Sleuthing with the Dead.” Clea has written three cozy mystery series, one featuring an animal psychic and another elements inspired by Gothic fiction. I asked her a bit about how she makes all of these factors work together so successfully:

Q. You have several mystery series going, and most of them seem to blend animal characters with some type of paranormal element. What do you think attracts you to this combination?
A. I’m not sure, exactly, except that, you know, we do write about what we know. I have a cat, have had one cat or another for the last three decades, so my characters always seem to cohabit with cats. And as for the supernatural elements? Well, I started out as a journalist, writing very straight fact-based stuff. Then I wrote serious nonfiction and now… I guess I’m having a little more fun.

Q. Have you had any psychic experiences of your own, and if not, did you do research to make this aspect of your fiction believable?
A. I did have a strange encounter. Not long after I had to put my beloved grey cat, Cyrus, to sleep, I was walking down a familiar street and I saw a cat who looked exactly like Cyrus: long grey fur, a huge ruff, and a slightly Siamese-style face. He was staring at me, and I paused to look at him, but then I had to move on. I had never seen that cat before and never saw him again. I felt strongly that I had been visited.

Q. It used to be that mystery readers disliked “real” paranormal situations in their stories because they wanted everything to have a logical explanation. How do you keep a paranormal story believable enough to satisfy the typical mystery fan?
A. It’s a question of obeying your own rules. You have to be consistent: ghosts can do what ghosts can do, but no more. In my case, they can appear and hint at things. They cannot affect physical change.

Q. One of your heroines is a student of Gothic novels, and they influence how she interprets the modern-day mystery. The Gothic had a long run of popularity up until the 1970s, when it kind of disappeared into the romance genre. Who is your favorite Gothic writer, and do you think this genre lives on today, maybe in different forms?
A. I confess to being a Horace Walpole (“Castle of Otranto”) fan, but these books – the orginal 18th-century ones – are not easy reading. That said, Gothic fiction does live on in several forms besides the romance. Most directly in today’s paranormal books! Especially paranormal mysteries and fantasy – not only because of the otherworldly elements but because these books are largely read by (and written by) women and, perhaps because of this, are discredited as literature.

Q. How do you feel the heroines of your various series stand apart from each other? Do you feel they express different aspects of yourself?
A. Dulcie is very bookish and not very worldly, while Pru is very tough. They are certainly both aspects of myself – but I’m neither as well educated as Dulcie nor as tough as Pru.

Q. Why do you think cozy-mystery writers, and readers, have such a fascination with cats? Are feline traits (such as curiosity) somehow suited to the genre?
A. Cats are the perfect companions for writers and readers! They’re such great thoughtful creatures.

Q. What extra dimension do you think the paranormal can bring to a mystery?
A. It’s another tool in the arsenal, another way for our imaginations to play.

Q. When did you first know you wanted to be a writer, and when did you start writing fiction?
A. I read early and wrote stories from as young as I can remember. For me, it was more a question of how I could live as a writer than how to be a writer. Hence, the detour through journalism.

Q. What was the first book you wrote? Is it among the ones you’ve published?
A. The first complete book I wrote was the nonfiction “Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadows of Mentally Ill Siblings” which was published by Doubleday. But I had started novels before.

Q. How did you connect with your publisher?
A. That book came out of a magazine story I wrote for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and I used it to get an agent. He sold it as a proposal.

Q. Where will you be appearing to promote your new book?
A. I’ll be doing various events and hope to attend Bouchercon in Albany, N.Y. There’s more on my site at www.cleasimon.com.

Q. What do you know now about being a professional novelist that you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
A. That the world doesn’t change when your book comes out. You’ve got to work to sell it – and write another. And another, and another. But that you can do it, and it’s great fun.

Thanks you, Clea, for a great interview! Clea Simon’s books may be previewed on her home site, http://www.cleasimon.com Follow her on Facebook or Twitter, @Clea_Simon.

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Do You Believe in Ghosts?

So far, 2013 for me has been all about the release of my first Quinn Matthews Haunting Mystery, Dark Music. Since I originally conceived of this story decades ago, and reworked it several times before finally turning it into a “cold case” mystery with an amateur sleuth, I am delighted that it’s finally in print.
I always intended the story to be a departure from the usual Amityville Horror-type approach. Though I hope it’s scary and suspenseful, I’ve tried to make it a fairly realistic depiction of a haunting, and Quinn’s experiences very close to those reported by people who claim to live in real haunted houses. I researched those reports in books, online and in video interviews. One thing I noticed was that people who stay in a haunted house — usually because they can’t immediately leave, for one reason or another — tend to get used to the phenomena and sometimes even crack jokes about the ghosts. I included that kind of graveyard (literally) humor in my book. People who live with ghosts can’t go around terrified 24/7. They relax and even acclimate for a while…until something new and shocking frightens them all over again. Sometimes the situation calms down to a level they can live with, and other times things escalate to the point where they can’t take it anymore and have to move out.
I’ve never seen a ghost or even had a sensation of a haunting in any of the places I’ve lived, but I’ve certainly heard many credible stories along that line from other people and I’m very open-minded on the subject. How about you? Have you ever seen an apparition or experienced other phenomena that made you believe in ghosts? Or has anyone in your family? If so, please share!

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Giving Thanks After the Storm

I think Thanksgiving 2012 was a special one for many of us in the Eastern U.S. This year, I was thankful just to have electricity–light, heat, refrigeration, “land-line” phone service, television and Internet access! And I got off a lot easier than many people. The office where I work happened to be in an area that never lost power, so on weekdays I could go there to get warm, recharge my cell phone and find out what was going on in the world (along with doing some actual work).

I confess, I am a very poor sport about being too cold. Having an older house with minimal second-floor insulation, I slept the first three nights in a turtleneck, sweats, socks and a full-length down coat (hood up), UNDER a blanket and a synthetic-down comforter. Even then, my face was freezing! At about that point, half of my town got power back…but not my half. A work colleague who lives nearby offered to let me spend nights in the guest room of her condo, and I gratefully accepted. By Day 5, my end of town also got power and I was able to move home.

Those first three days seemed so endless, though, that I can only imagine the suffering of other people who were without power for weeks–and of the few who still may be “out.”

A Wiccan friend of mine told people during the outage, “I still have my Power–I just don’t have electricity.” That’s an excellent attitude, and it probably helps that she lives very “low on the grid,” anyhow, without gadgets the rest of us take for granted. But I do think the outages made a lot of us feel “powerless” in a way that extended beyond a lack of electricity. Human beings have had central heating, telephone service, electric lighting and gas-powered automobiles for a very short span of history. (We won’t even get into the World Wide Web, personal computers and smart phones!) Lighting my gas stovetop with a match and trying to cook dinner with a flashlight tucked under my arm, I could only marvel at how much effort people of the past must have gone through each day just to survive in the dead of winter and other inhospitable situations. It’s no wonder that only the very privileged had the spare time or energy to create works of art or to study science, philosophy, etc. Most folks were just trying to grow their crops, cook their meals, weave and sew their own clothing and stay warm! I think we lose sight of that today, when even the poor purchase these goods and services from outside sources–and feel helpless when the supply is suddenly cut off.

So I’m thankful not only to have my modern-day comforts back again, but to have come away with a new appreciation of what our ancestors endured and overcame without all of these conveniences. What insights did you gain from your experiences during the hurricane Sandy power outages?

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Attack of the “Shoulds”!

Do you suffer from occasional—or constant—attacks of “the shoulds”?

You know what I mean. From the time I get up in the morning (“I really should do some kind of exercise…I should empty the cats’ litter pan now…I should floss and not just brush…”) to the time I lie down at night (“I should have washed those dishes instead of leaving them in the sink…I shouldn’t have stayed up so late watching TV…Damn, I really should have emptied that litter pan!”) I’m plagued by guilt over a million rules I carry around in my head. And that’s not even counting work hours! (“I should get this article done before I get busy with other stuff…But I really should call this contact now before he goes out to lunch…Or should I do that job my boss asked me for 20 minutes ago??”)

I know my list of “shoulds” has gotten longer over the past couple of decades, and I suspect other Baby Boomers have noticed the same phenomenon. For some, dealing with children, grandchildren and aging parents has added more responsibilities, all equally important. I don’t happen to have those issues, but ironically having a lifelong dream come true a few years back greatly expanded my list. In 2003, I got my first novel published, and five more have followed. But now, in addition to wanting to actually write more books, I feel obliged to promote and promote and promote the ones I’ve already got out (while still working around a full-time job). I should take advantage of this chance to do a guest blog or an online interview or go to that conference or give this talk or get on that panel…etc., etc. If I don’t, I feel as if I’m shortchanging a key area of my life—my “true” calling.

One of the reasons I’m writing this blog, in fact, is because it’s been so long since I made an entry that I kept nagging myself, “You should do another blog…” (Don’t get me started, though, on tweeting. With so little spare time, I have to draw the line somewhere!)

There are two other big reasons why I think many of us have developed overactive consciences lately—the environment and the recession. I’m struggling more financially than I was 15 years ago, so I feel guilty any time I spend on something that’s nonessential and, God forbid, just for “fun.” I often used to buy a magazine off the stands just because a headline or photo caught my eye, but now I subscribe to very few (at a discount) that mostly relate to my job. I go to a movie once every few months, and only when it’s something I really want to see. Even so, I hear a constant chorus in my head of “I should save more, I shouldn’t put anything else on a credit card, I should fix things instead of replacing them…make it do, wear it out…”

Not all of this is bad, of course, because frugality does go hand-in-hand with the other big paradigm of the twenty-first century, conservation. And I do take that seriously–I just started recycling my cardboard toilet-paper rolls! I save my fruit and vegetable peelings to compost, turn off the tap while brushing my teeth. But it all adds to that chorus of “shoulds,” doesn’t it? When I’m exhausted, in a hurry or just having a bad day, and that chick in my head starts nagging, “You should put that in recycling, you should shred those documents before you throw them out, you shouldn’t use that drain cleaner because it pollutes…” I want to slap her silly. (She sounds like that electronic b*tch at the supermarket self-checkout who scolds you every few seconds, “The bagging area is full…Please bag some items…”)

How about you? Do you find that trying to live up to all of these modern responsibilities drives you crazy at times? Some psychologists believe the very word “should” is bad for our mental health. Should we abolish it?

Please comment below–you know you should…

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