One of the things I love about the Halloween season is the way cemeteries open up to the public. While the Victorian cemeteries were parks for playing in, and other cultures gather as a group in cemeteries, most Americans only visit cemeteries when someone dies. That’s a mistake. There’s a huge amount of history and some great stories to be found. As a bonus, cemeteries tend to be a green space even in very urban areas.

That’s definitely the case in Atlanta, where the “in town” neighborhoods with their small parks are nothing compared to the 48 acres of pleasure gardens and trees that comprise Oakland Cemetery. The space is a certified wildlife habitat, with special bird friendly and butterfly friendly designations. On top of that it’s rather people-friendly with benches, level walking spaces, and very well kept gardens.

Not to mention some interesting headstones.

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Rosemary bushes and pomegranate trees heavy with fruit were planted by cemetery volunteers who recreated the Victorian look from the cemetery’s first years. While there are always tours, Halloween season brings a special batch. Careful planning netted me tickets to the sold out Capturing the Spirit tours, but some beautiful weather last weekend meant I took the tour of the day. It happened to be right up my alley: “Murder, Mysteries and Mayhem”.

Some stories were not so mysterious but definitely sad, like the playhouse fire that killed several young performers acting as angels. Their paper wings caused the conflagration, so they remained angels forever.

An angels surrounded by rosemary

An angel surrounded by rosemary

Others lived up to the title, like the grave of a maiden aunt who dreamed she would drown the night before taking a boat tour. She claimed to have written a will in her sleep, but insisted on going out on the boat. There was indeed an accident, and her family buried her dress, the only remains ever found, in Oakland. The promotion seems a little suspect, and finding another dress makes me wonder – the garments of the 1890s weren’t exactly easy to get out of. It’s easy to imagine the aunt running away with a lover under the cover of an elaborate plot.

A less elaborate but equally mysterious burial was an unnamed man found after a tornado hit the cemetery in 2008. While his body was found in an above ground vault filled with members of the Holland family, he wasn’t a Holland. No records existed of him ever being buried, and his clothes were modern. More telling of hasty burial, his shoes were facing west. In Christian cemeteries, bodies are almost always buried facing east so they can rise up on Judgment Day.  The cemetery sexton is still hoping someone will claim the poor fellow.

He was found in the upper right most shelf, in case that helps you remember his name.

He was found in the upper right most shelf, in case that helps you remember his name.

The tour ended with a few short ghost stories. There’s a shadowy visage who haunts the bell tower. Maybe he’s waiting for the bell ring again? In days gone past, cemeteries rang the bell to chase away the sins of the dead. Twelve rings for men, eight for women, and only six for children, who were presumed least sinful of all. Down another path over three thousand unnamed soldiers from the Civil War supposedly rise up to a ghostly roll call each Confederate Memorial day.

I’ll be back to Oakland for another tour or two at least. The 5k “Run like Hell” sounds like fun too. If you get a chance, take a walk through your local cemetery this fall. I’m sure the folks there would love a visit.

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Labor Day weekend means DragonCon for me, at least most years. Other folks expect to bar-be-que or drink some beers. Me? I’m hoping to ride the dragon, literally:

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I’m riding a half-size model of Toothless from How to Tame Your Dragon, displayed to raise money for the Make a Wish Foundation. Toothless is wearing their band around his leg.

There’s more to the con than costumes, but any Con report would be remiss not to include them. This year some of my favorites included costume designers who envisioned another world. One designer imagined a regency period where British Colonialism didn’t exist and allowed Caribbean and African influences to flourish. Another pair created a gender swapped Avengers set in the Civil War era:

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Civil War Iron Woman and Captain America

There are also costumes with very large props, such as the life-size Luck dragon with the Empress from Never Ending Story.img_1170

But the real beauty of DragonCon for me is the way science becomes fun, and learning difficult new ideas turns into a party game.

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In this panel, three distinguished scientist (geologist, astronomer, and marine biologist) told stories. The audience had to guess which of the three were lying. After six rounds we determine the marine biologist should never play poker and marine mammals do terrible things. Dolphins get high chewing puffer fish; Killer Whales kill sharks and eat their liver for fun; and those adorable cuttlefish are cannibals.

Later in the same room I’d learn about opti-genetics, the emerging science of turning on and off parts of the brain (neurons/nerves) by flashing different types of light. Take a look at what this science can do. Making a mouse run in circles seems a little cruel, but as someone who suffers from seizures I’m very interested in what other things we might be able to control this way.

Across the hall in the Space track room, I learned about the secret town of Oakridge, TN and the young girls who perfected the process to refine uranium there. Hired because they didn’t ask questions, separated from their families, and working under horrible conditions, they made history. The panel discussed the book The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Listening made me itch to start writing a historic fiction novel set in the same town.

I adore the Georgia Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra’s presentations on Saturday night. No place else in the world features that many talented musicians playing the familiar songs I love. This year’s set included three Batman themes, the theme song from Firefly (with a live banjo!), songs from Star Wars and Star Trek, and a vocal performance of the Misty Mountains Cold from The Hobbit. I and over 3000 of my new best friends knew the performance was worth the hour and a half wait.

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That wait was indicative of the biggest problem I had at Con this year: crowds. With 77,000 geeks and at least a few thousand locals thrown into the mix on Saturday, the crowds were enormous. Suddenly even simple tasks like drinking water or walking ten feet ahead became a challenge. The dealer’s room, normally a vault of geeky treasures, became an enforced march where you couldn’t stray from the crush of people until it was shut down due to over crowding.

Which at least partially explains why this was the first DragonCon that I didn’t bring home a new corset. I absolutely fell in love with KMK designs. Their corsets were unique, innovative, well made, and surprisingly affordable. My last corset was a generically sized, came wrapped in plastic kind of corset, while KMK is a custom sized with a mock up to ensure perfection. If I’m going to invest in a custom-made couture corset I want to savor every second of its construction, something that isn’t possible in a giant crowd. So while I want one, oh yes I want one, it will have to wait. Thankfully, there were enough great times at Con that I’m not too disappointed about that.

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Hello there!

I strive to keep my blog updated on the 1st and the 15th. Normally you’d be reading a post about wild adventures, cool scary things, or news about my books. Unfortunately for blog consistency, I’m currently off having some wild adventures. I’m researching frontier brothels in Alaska, studying the scenery in Canada, stomping through cemeteries, and attending DragonCon.

Now I could have posted a DragonCon survival guide, but I’ve already done that. Besides, I’d rather delay my blog post a little, and give you a hot-off-the-press DragonCon report in a few days. So I’ll see you in a few days!

“I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter. “ Agent Peggy Carter

That geeky quote served as my mantra for most of June and July when sales for The Mermaid and the Murders were less than wonderful. I knew my second book was a good story. I trusted my editor, publisher, beta readers, and copy editors. One of them, somewhere along the line, would’ve told me if the book was an epic failure. I paid for advertisements. I ran a Goodreads giveaway. Still, silence echoed back at me, as if I released the book into a void.

On August 1st, The Mermaid and the Murders was posted on NetGalley. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, NetGalley is an online service for librarians and book reviewers that allows them to download stories free of charge. I didn’t expect much, and to be honest I haven’t looked at my sales numbers to see if they’ve gone up.  I have  gotten a handful of really great reviews, which is wonderful, but the feeling of awe and wonder at where those reviews have come from blows me away.

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Chen Argote, called my mermaid amazing, said her town was “scary yet fascinating” and that she “loved my trip there in this reading adventure.” I’ve never met Chen. She lives in Manila, Philippines, a place I’ve only read about in books. But she gave me hours of her life as she read my book. When it was over, she was glad to have given me that time.

That’s incredible to me, in the classic sense of the word. Almost impossible to believe that someone so far away loved a story I put together to drive away their winter gloom.

In Sudbury, Canada, a place I had to look up on the map (and now need to visit) , Chelsie picked up my book and “didnt want to put this book down”. She saw herself in my mermaid, saying “I could relate to her struggles”.  She called my story “entertaining with a wonderful love interest and some great intrigue.”

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My first Twitter connection with a reader. Squee!

She connected with my characters even though we have very different lives. Did she love everything? Nope.

 

Sprinkled in my positive reviews have been tiny flecks of criticism; valid, important criticism that I’ll use to make the next book better. I haven’t had a terrible review yet. They’re all four or five stars. I’m grateful, but not arrogant. A terrible review will come. When it does, I hope I remember the wonder and joy I’m feeling right now, because even if someone hates my book, they still read my words. They slipped into my world, explored my ideas, and (hopefully) came away from it with something to think about. I might know my worth, but I never felt my connection with a reader, until now. I’m humbled, awed, in love, grateful, and praying it never goes away.

 

 

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Night vale cosplay

A member of the Night Vale City Council

I’m not sure when I got hooked on the Night Vale Community radio hour, the fictional radio broadcast that serves as entry into the world of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. I’m sure I’ve only been listening for a few years. I caught on late, and Welcome to Night Vale didn’t start broadcasting until 2012. Somehow it seems like it’s been around much longer, like I’ve been listening forever.

Things like that happen a lot in Night Vale.

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One of the best Carlos the scientist costumes of the night. His clipboard was filled with actual science!

It’s like any other town, except that there’s a dog park that might be a portal to another dimension, and the secret police have outlawed learning. Or maybe learning is allowed again but wheat isn’t. In either case, the library is a dangerous place and the government keeps track of all middle school secrets. Oh, and there’s a five headed dragon running for mayor. So like any other small town, but not in most of the ways you think.

Narrated by Cecil, a wonderful radio host whose thoughts turn out to be deeper than you’d think, each week’s story is an encapsulated plot broken up by “the weather” – a single song by little known independent groups. It’s an example of the slow pay off of a story so strange it takes a minute for you to realize it. I can never tell how much of an episode is real and how much is story. I’m not alone.

Earlier this year I had the good fortune to see the live show entitled “Ghost stories”. Before the doors opened, fans showed off costumes and argued plot lines. (Is the whole show set in the afterlife?) With all its oddness, Night Vale celebrates scientists, like Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, and the group was happy to scientifically pick things apart. When the story started though, all that ended. Enraptured silence fell over the audience.

There are many different types of ghost stories in the world. Welcome to Night Vale’s ghost stories were about the ghosts of who we could have been if we’d done the right thing. Ghosts of people who weren’t addicted, who parented well, and who made good choices paraded across the stage in the final minutes. Those last stories hit somber notes, leaving the audience moved and maybe saddened. Normally I avoid moments like that, life has enough trouble on its own, but after all the joy I’ve found in the off-kilter town of Night Vale, the bittersweet didn’t bother me.

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I started this blog in November of 2010, eager to share a thousand things with the world. I blogged without a schedule, telling myself I’d get a great post out each week. Some weeks were more of a struggle then others but I made my goal. My plan included at least one short story each month. Inspiration didn’t always come when I needed it but I wrote some stories I dearly love on this blog.

Then in 2012 my writing life took a hard sideways turn I hadn’t expected. Somehow my blog became the only writing I did for a year. I succeeded at blogging but failed at actually writing and editing, not to mention the business side of authorhood. In 2013, I decided it was time to focus on those things more. When I did (predictably) the blog suffered. My posts followed a haphazard schedule, coming in between giant writing jags that produced two competed manuscripts. One of those was the Mermaid and the Murders, which is now published, so while I regret that blog neglect, I don’t regret it too much.

Still I came out of 2013 well aware that I needed structure, something to keep me on track with the blog.  I switched to blogging on the 1st and the 15th of each month. The hard deadline kept my blog going but I found that short story ideas melted away from me like a ghost in moonlight. My blog turned more toward writing and my experiences, places I went and things I did. It’s a change I’m comfortable with.

About a year ago now, I added monthly book reviews on the 20th of the month. Like my early blogging days that started out easily enough. I read about eight books a month, sometimes more, so I picked the best ones and dashed off a few excited sentences about the story.

But my reading habits have changed. I’m reading more samples and fewer complete novels. It takes a lot to wow me enough that I want to recommend a book to the world. So, from here on out, my reviews won’t come on any set schedule. When I’m wow’ed by a book I promise to share it, but the regular review posting on the 20th is over as of last month.

If I’m brutally honest, part of this blog reflection is because I’m in edits on the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. The working title is “Fire in Her Blood” and I’m enjoying polishing it for publication. I really love writing, crafting a story, researching a setting, and editing it until the manuscript shines. But while I’m happy to give up writing reviews on my blog for the chance to do more of that, at the same time I’m not willing to give up on my blog. It’s brought me too much joy to walk away.

Friday night was a sacred time in my childhood: movie time. Every Friday afternoon, usually around 4:30, my folks would pick a film. We tended to rush to the theater with barely a minute to spare. A lucky kid would be sent to the lobby for a large soda and a larger popcorn. We could never afford separate drinks and snacks for everyone, and besides, whispering “pass the popcorn” down the row was half the fun. Sometimes my brother and I would split a candy bar, usually the extra-large Kit Kat.  As the lights went dim I lost myself in the story.

I’m lucky that the story didn’t end when the lights came on. My family didn’t just watch movies, we dissected them. My father would pose deep questions, “what would have happened if…” and then challenge us to come up with a better ending or a better story all together. The worse the movie the more we would fight it out, who could come up with the best ending, the right twist on events?

Without the aid of Google and Wikipedia, we were forced to get creative, drawing on what we knew. No ideas were condemned, but a lot were rewritten as the drive home became dinner, which turned into time to do the dishes. Usually by Saturday morning I’d rewritten something that took the studio months to make, positive I’d done better.

Occasionally we wouldn’t agree on the subtle meaning of a foreign film or what the underlying metaphors meant in the Oscar contenders.  A little disagreement is natural when you watch 52 movies a year – more in a good year. I think of those early exercises in writing and rewriting, finding motivation, and fixing flaws as the basis of my writing career. I don’t want to ever write a book that couldn’t be made into a good movie. I start writing them all by picturing scenes, then picking actors to play my characters.

We all loathed February, with its deadly combination of no good movies and no good weather.  We all looked forward to summer, when the darkened movie theater would bring respite from the unending heat. I’m cynical enough know to know that some of my movie excitement was brought on by a surefire combination of soda and candy, caffeine and sugar. But some of it was the story, the escape from the world I lived in, and the jewel-box way another world would expand. Walking out of the theater into the Florida sun was a blinding experience, brightness enveloping your vision until everything looked white, like re-entering the world through a hot cloud.

I miss those moments, those seconds of whiteness before I realized I was still in my small town. That shift from the story I’d seen to my own story felt drastic in a way adulthood has ruined.  I’m lucky that my last move simplified my life and brought me close to a wonderful movie house. I have high hopes for this summer, for Ghostbusters, Star Trek, Suicide Squad, and the Secret Life of Pets. For the first time in decades there’s a movie to see each Friday, and sometimes a second movie to watch on Sunday afternoon. I can’t wait to slip into those stories in the dark room and set aside the hot reality of life for the cool dark world of the movies.

I stayed up until 1 am reading and it wasn’t until the next day that I realized it helped fulfill my goal of reading more books with disabled characters.

Heath, a strong young woman, is confined to a wheel chair after injuring her spinal cord in an ice climbing accident. In the first pages of the novel she bitterly wheels her wheelchair through an accessible camping lot, only to fall out onto a pair of lost girls. The two girls, one twelve and one thirteen, have been lost in the wilderness for almost a month.  They’re nearly naked, horribly traumatized, and unwilling to be parted from Heath.

The book is part of the Anna Pigeon series, so Anna is the main character. Heath gets a lot of page time though, and is able to help the lost girls both because of, and in spite of, her status as a paraplegic. Her character moves from being angry and bitter almost all the time, drinking and smoking, to fighting for others, working hard, and accepting that her new status doesn’t change who she is. The book included a great passage about her wheelchair going from being “other” to being a part of her body.

There was also a very fine mystery going on. The girls turn out to be part of a religious cult/commune that practices polygamy and child marriage. Their parents are firmly against any psychological counseling. They don’t want the police or anyone else involved in their life. Questions arise about demons; did the girls see one? Is it responsible for the dead animals and strange attacks in the night?

Trigger warning: torture of animals and violence towards women (including rape). While the worst abuse takes place off stage, the story doesn’t shy away from portraying uncomfortable scenes. When I got to the end I was surprised by the depth of the villain’s depravity and unsure that all the characters would recover well. So while it kept me turning pages, this book might not be for everyone.

I was fairly sure I had the mystery figured out at least five times, only to change my mind twenty pages later. I stayed up late reading because I had to know how it all came together. I suspected all sorts of things for the characters, which include a handful of park rangers, a youth pastor, and the girls’ families. Most of what I guessed didn’t come to pass. It was nice to see a book that didn’t rely on the usual tropes.

I’m looking forward to reading more of the Anna Pigeon stories, hopefully they’ll all have characters as good as Heath.

 

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I grew up hearing my father’s sailing stories of fierce mermaids who tore ships to pieces and drown sailors for fun. Between Dad’s stories and the mermaids in classic literature, I had pretty much all I needed to start the Monster Beach books with The Mermaid and the Murders. As I grow the series, I need new sea monsters, which meant a Research Road trip to the Georgia Aquarium.

I have two plot outlines sketched for alligator shifter novels, but neither of them include an albino ‘gator like the one who posed for me. I haven’t found any good alligator shifter lore, so I’d be creating something from scratch. I like the idea of a white alligator being more magical than the rest. They were certainly prettier than most of the gators I’ve seen in the wild.

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Otters are one of my favorite creatures. I doubt they’ll make it into a book, but I couldn’t resist watching them for an hour or two. They’re tool users, and most aquariums challenge them to solve puzzles like how to break into a block of ice to get the shrimp froze inside.

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Another personal favorite that I can’t find a way to fit in is the cuttlefish. These colorshifting Cephalopods look back at you with intelligence. Urban legends swear that you can mimic the movement of their tentacles to interact with them. Besides the great Cthulu, there isn’t a lot of lore surrounding these calm creatures which is odd when you consider that some of them are toxic enough to cause blindness or death when touched. They’d be a good character, but I’d have to think of something better than just “cuttlefish-shifter” to do with them.

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Here’s where inspiration struck, the whale shark.

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This picture doesn’t do the size of the shark justice. At 18 feet long they’re the largest of all fishes. Their graceful glide filled me with awe, immediately reminding me of Dakuwaqa – the shark god of Fiji. Dakuwaqa can shift form between being fully human, half human/half shark, and a very large shark. Unlike the whale sharks I saw Dakuwaqa has massive jaws to devour anyone who harms his reef or his people. While I’d be uncomfortable putting a god in my story, a descendant of the shark god might slip into a romance. Perhaps in a story inspired by this picture:

When I made up the salt golem sea monster (an ocean dwelling salt vampire) for The Mermaid and the Murders, it felt like I had to do a lot of explaining. I worked hard to weave the explanations into dialog and story scenes. I’m hoping my next monster will be a bit more familiar.  I want something easy to relate to but also a little scary. The aquarium gave me some good ideas, now it’s time for some book based research…and maybe a trip to the swamp.

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The Author’s copies of The Mermaid and the Murders have arrived!

A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.

A stack of my new books, finally free of their shipping box.

While the rest of the books won’t be shipping until June 10, I’m delighted to have these editions on my shelf. My mother claimed a copy, and some will be given away on Goodreads.  One will always be on my shelf though, a wonderful reminder of the challenge I set for myself one snowy February.  At the time, I wanted an excuse to daydream about my long-ago home of Key West. I wanted to walk the halls of the palatial home on Porpoise Point, where I’d watched dolphins from the private beach before going back to my job as a glorified baby sitter. I missed the heat, the smell of the ocean, and the strong Cuban coffee. I wanted to capture the fierceness of life on that island, the way women  were as strong and sexy as the men and no one felt the need to fit in.

The book that came out of that wintry month wasn’t the one I expected to write. But this scene, probably my favorite in the whole book, is exactly what I wanted. I hope you all enjoy it (and the rest of the book too).

Even as I thought about finding something meaner, I shadowed the six-foot shark. Stalking it felt natural to me. I stayed behind my prey, waiting for it to be distracted. The shark sensed my presence and took off, swimming fast to deeper water. I chased it, my tail going faster. Soon we were side-by-side, coal black eyes staring at me as the beast turned to bite. I threw my shoulders back and sent my tail forward, wrapping around it like a lover. I squeezed and my scales released blood into the water with a thousand small cuts. The shark thrashed, fighting against what it must’ve known was coming.

I felt my teeth grow in my mouth, sharp fangs coming forward. When the shark came forward to bite me, I moved quickly and bit it first. My teeth sank into gills, the flesh rough like sand, the slits in the skin moving between my teeth. I kept biting, my tail pushing the life out of the beast.

Around us, other sharks gathered, large and small, brought by the smell of blood. I ignored them; focusing on the death I intended to deliver. The creature in front of me had seconds left but I knew it could still hurt me. Fighting off my hunger, I drew back, ducking around the mouth. My arm moved too slowly and I felt the intense pressure of its bite. Pounds of pressure started to come down, enough to crack a lobster’s shell, enough to break my bones. The pain left my vision red and my tail moved in deadly instinct.

A tight squeeze with a sideways motion, one I’d never made before, and half the shark fell away. Even in death, it was reluctant to let go of my arm.

 

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