On 4th of July I celebrated freedom by visiting the world’s first penitentiary, Easter State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia, PA. Unlike modern prisons, Eastern State was designed to make a man penitent. Prisoners were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. They weren’t allowed to talk and could only read the Bible or do manual labor, such as shoe repair, to pass the time.

The heavy doors drown out any sound, in hopes of enforcing total and complete silence.

The heavy doors drown out any sound, in hopes of enforcing total and complete silence.

It was an odd mix of torture and luxury – ESP had central heat and running water before the White House did. Every cell had a sky light. At the same time, if you were caught trying to talk you’d be gagged with a horrible metal apparatus. Established in 1829 and left to ruin in 1971 ESP makes for some fabulous photographs.

The door out of a cell block

The door out of a cell block

In October it houses one of the scariest haunted house attractions in the US. I deliberately planned my trip for a time when that wouldn’t be in place. I’m not sure I can support the idea of a place of real horror being turned into an attraction. I like a good scare as much as the next girl, but it seems disrespectful to ignore the decades of very real suffering in search of a good time.

A barber’s chair that should’ve been in the barber’s shop. I suspect it was left in a random cell after Halloween.

A barber’s chair that should’ve been in the barber’s shop. I suspect it was left in a random cell after Halloween.


The ruins each that mix of good and bad. A red cross marked the door to the hospital,  a place that was famous for offering new and innovative treatment.

The door way to the prison hospital.

The door way to the prison hospital.

Psychologists worked hard to get inmates to a healthier place. At the same time, physicians worked to cure cancer and treat heart attacks, no aliment was left unaddressed. The prison even employed its own dentist.  But it’s hard to imagine that everyone worked to for the betterment of all.

Death row, part of the newer section of the prison.

Death row, part of the newer section of the prison.

There are a lot of ways to torture a man. By the 70s ESP had stopped strapping them into chairs or gagging them. Instead they built the new wings of the prison to be endless, curving rows of cells.



I’ve never really thought about prisons, how they were or how they should be. ESP forces the question, but I’m afraid I don’t have an answer.

gearsHe adjusted the gravity suit, playing with the knobs that kept out temperature and forces of physics while he waited for his turn to come. She was there again, working, the way he always saw her. Thick black braces covered each wrist, synthetic material coating steel, all wrapped tight with velcro. He wondered how her wrists would look without it. Would they be thin and delicate or permanently lined, thick with work?

“Morning, shifty.” She smiled at him, eyes lighting up in her moon shaped face. She was pretty, not exactly beautiful, but each time he climbed down off the great machine he though she was the best looking girl he’d ever seen. Her hair wasn’t just shaved off or pulled back, but set into elaborate braids all around her scalp, dips and swirls of them that sometimes drew pictures and sometimes spelled words. Today it was a star, probably for Founder’s day. He’d ask her to the picnic when he got down, if he got down.

“Morning, climber.” She watched his smile for a while. Normally all she had to watch was monitors and cursors, lines upon lines of code telling her the great machine needed a shift or would need one soon. Then she’d start the program to determine how much, what kind, where. Math. She did math and ran math programs all day. She thought big thoughts, and talked about concepts even bigger than that: planetary alliances, orbital patterns, the need to keep the universes spinning in just the right direction, how a small shift could cause a big reaction. This guy – she gave him a glance up and down – with his meaty arms and squat stature, he didn’t know big thoughts. Just climb the machine, fix the problem, climb down. Maybe because if he thought too much he’d think about the number of climbers who fell each year, or the numbers that caught in the gears each day. “Ready to get started?”

“Sure.” He knew lots of climbers that didn’t have an arm or a hand, a few that were in tongue-operated wheel chairs, lots of lucky ones that were just plain dead.  “Do you understand how it works?”

The question was a break in protocol, but his shifter, she didn’t blink. “Aliens left it for us, so not really, but I think the gears you work on move because of heat down in the planets core.”

“You’d think the aliens would make it perfect then, self-lubricating, never get stuck.”

A lot of shifters thought so, but she only laughed. “It’s the 9th gate again. Stuck open. I’ll try to hold the shift, but once you pop it in place things will move pretty quickly.”

“They always do.” Maybe this time he’d be too slow, spring out of the way a second too late. His suit would stop him from hitting the ground too hard. It would seal the pressure down around the wound. Lots of guys made a living one handed. Losing the arm would be worse, but not impossible. He just needed to fall right. He latched the suit on to the heavy wire line that ran up the side of the great machine, a wedge of metal seven stories high and stuck into the earth’s crust. The machine hung at the bottom of the world, upside down when you looked at the globe, but streaking into the sky above him. Now he hung with it. “Well if we want to see winter I’d better get going. See-ya, Shifty.”

“Hey wait.” She looked at him and he half turned back, one leg already moving against gravity as he went up the side of the machine. “The Founder’s Day parade. You up for it?”

“Sure. It’ll give me something to look forward to.” She watched his grin while he climbed. It faded away after thirty feet and she gave her attention back to the monitors. After all, someone had to make sure the Earth moved.

Today is Father’s Day. This afternoon I will dig a grave for my father. When I have made the hole sufficiently wide and deep, I will pour in his ashes. A willow tree will go over them. Willows have always been my favorite symbol of death. They remind me of cool lakes with sweet breezes and a soft place to rest. If there’s anything I wish for my father it’s a soft a place to rest.

It’s hard to find words to describe my father. I don’t know if I would call him brave. I’ve always thought bravery was courage in the face of fear, and I don’t know if my father was ever afraid. He swam with giant mantra rays and sailed around the world. Once he was held against his will in a foreign hospital. Knowing his ship would leave port soon, Dad climbed out the fourth floor window before hailing a cab back to the dock. Maybe he was afraid then, but I doubt it.

I only half believed my father’s stories about gangsters and working the Brooklyn waterfront. Like him, they seemed too big to be real. It wasn’t until my sixth grade teacher told the same stories that I changed my mind. Against all the odds that teacher was a long lost friend of my uncle’s. He’d been there for the shady goons with guns and mysterious shipments.

It’s no surprise to me that I write Noir. Moral gangsters, beautiful women, and high stakes cons made up my bedtime stories. But Dad loved science and science fiction too. I knew Asimov’s laws of robotics before I knew the Our Father. I’ll never forget the night we spent on the phone separated by miles but drawn together by our mutual love of monster movies. We watched Mega Python vs. Gatoroid in rapt silence, talking about how great it was during commercials. Godzilla, Cloverfield, Night of the Lepus, the list went on and on. Dad was always up for another movie.

My brother could not come to our father’s death bed. My mother came in and out, doing more than most divorced wives would, probably for my sake. The burden of his death fell squarely on my shoulders. No one will ever know what happened on Thanksgiving. Did he eat too many carbs on our national holiday of gluttony or did he take his pills a second time by mistake in the midst of celebration? The result was the same, a deep sleep that became a coma that turned into brain damage. It took a week with no brain activity for the doctors to agree he’d moved on, and another week for his strong body, always a work horse despite its flaws, to stop living.

By then I was filled with rage at so many things, I couldn’t appreciate the task of cleaning out his home. Sentimentally gone, I brought garbage bags and intended to stuff them full. Instead, in one closet, on the highest shelf I found a box sealed tightly with packaging tape. It wasn’t much to look at, a label proclaimed it held 500 pages of copy paper, beneath it, in Dad’s very tight handwriting a second label read ‘Rachel’s first book’. I’d told him at least a dozen times that it’s a manuscript until it’s published, but Dad didn’t believe it. It was a book to him, and the first printing of a book is special.

So was Dad.

My current manuscript is set in 1973. Writing in an historic setting is new to me, and it’s been quite a challenge. In an effort to get things ‘right’ I’ve interviewed people who were the same age as my main character and spent time in the library reading the magazines and news reports of the era. I’m listening to the hit songs, and checking out the fashions online. Still, there are things that worry me.

Normally I write about paranormal worlds, so far no vampires or fairies have been upset by me appropriating their culture. I don’t want to take the same license with the Civil Rights Movement, women’s liberation, or the gay power movement. I’m going to write about those things through the eyes of a white girl, which is something I know, but I want her friends, black, gay, or whatever they are, to be a realistic, fully faceted portrayal.

I thought I was doing a pretty good job until this weekend, when I was invited to a Jerusalem Market. Having never heard of such a thing, I went more out of curiosity than anything else. A sign at the front made it clear that while the event took place during Passover in the time period of Jesus’ life, it would not be historically accurate. I’ve been to a few Renfests, so that didn’t bother me.

The Wailing Wall did.


The Western Wall is one of the most sacred locations for the Jewish Culture. At the Jerusalem Market, it was a wall where children were encouraged to write prayers in chalk. I assume this was a nod to the practice of slipping slips of paper with prayers written on them into the cracks of the real Western Wall. I assumed because no one explained the wall, why it was there, or what made it important. I’m struggling to come up with an equivalent for the Western Wall, something sacred and yet public, a part of everyday life. If I could find something as important to my culture as the Wall is to many religions, I think I could decide if this model was offensive.

The Market was clearly not meant to be offensive. Most of the booths talked about some aspect of Jewish culture during Jesus’ life. Roman centurions wandered the grounds. One man was dressed as a Rabbi. A booth held samples of the herbs used at the time, explaining what each one was used for. Another let children experiment making clay pots. There was a puppet show about Jesus, and a chance to listen to an actor dressed as Jesus teach lessons under the trees.

At the matzo baking station I began to doubt that the intention was what mattered. I’ve heard stories of Passover from Jewish friends. I know just a little bit about the deep cleaning a house goes through and how not even a crumb of leavened bread can be left behind. I didn’t learn anything like that while I mixed my flour and water. The only discussion of why Jews don’t eat leavened bread during Passover was “they were running away from Pharaoh, so they didn’t have time for the bread to rise.” When the matzo was finished we were offered a mixture of apples and walnuts to spread on it. “It’s supposed to look like the mortar in the wall,” the volunteer told me. She didn’t remember what it was called, but encouraged me to try it anyway.

As a member of the majority, I can’t decide what offends the minority. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t get a say in what is and isn’t okay to be a children’s activity. Still, to me, taking a part of another culture and turning it into a learning activity for kids might not be bad. Taking a part of another culture, not bothering to learn what it is or the meaning behind it, and making it a fun activity for kids crosses the line to me. Then again, when I posted about it on Facebook a Jewish friend wasn’t offended, saying that at least learning was going on.

So if everyone isn’t offended by the same thing, and I can’t decide what is and isn’t offensive, how do I know what’s okay to write? My plan going forward is to tell the story, making the characters as real as possible. I’m going to stay away from stereotypes and base my characters on the people I interview, not the common idea of what someone of that race, gender, or minority should be. I’m also hoping to find some beta readers from the cultures I’m writing about, people who can tell me if I’ve missed something important.

I don’t know if that’ll be enough, but hopefully it’s a good start.

Not long after I got married my two best friends joined my husband and I for a drink at DragonCon. Some how the conversation twisted its way to ‘types’ and I admitted I was glad I didn’t have one.  At which point my loving friends began to list off names and attributes: Dana, with his tall lanky body and freckles, Dean, who could barely find a pair of pants small enough and wore his blond hair down to his waist. Two boyfriends didn’t make a type, I insisted. They added more names and finally turned to my husband – tall, thin, and very fair skinned.

There was no way to argue with that.

Years later the same friends teased me that I have a ‘type’ when it comes to time periods as well. It seems that while I’ve recommend many books, the only ones I buy for them are from the Victorian Era, usually the late 1870s. Again, I tried to fight it, but the more I thought about it the more I realized, I really do like that era. I like the manners, the civilization, the respect for science as a powerful force for social change. Contrast that against the deplorable class system that was in place, the way people starved in the streets and were treated like dogs. Add a hint of the paranormal and I’m in heaven, because something about the foggy streets of London just calls out for ghosts and ghoulies. It’s why steampunk makes me so happy.

And so, as a rather self-serving blog post (aren’t they all?)  here’s my list of ‘must reads’ from my favorite time period:

  • Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret  by Lyndsay Faye
  • Murder in Murray Hill and all of the Gaslight mysteries by Victoria Thompson
  • The Parasol Protectorate Series & The Finishing School series by Gail Carriger
  • The Native Star (Veneficas Americana #1) by M.K. Hobson

And on TV  or in the movies:

  • Ripper Street
  • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • Pennydreadful (hopefully)

But what I really want is a novelization of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, something with a sea captain building a lovely mansion that turns into a pretty cage for his young wife. I imagine lots of murder and intrigue, thwarted loves, and at least 999 not-always happy haunts. If I can’t find it, I’m going to have to write it.

(I’ve often imagined that I could write a complex novel about relationships, prejudice, and sexism set in the deep South like Harper Lee or Fannie Flagg. Sadly, I tend not to make very far with stories that don’t have lots of dead bodies or supernatural fun. This opening is one of my favorites from the pile of never-was.)

I’ll never forget the day Miss Josephine arrived. She wore white linen to direct the movers as they worked around unloading the van. White linen and we were miles away from Labor Day. One of the neighborhood ladies ran over right away to tell her her mistake but she just laughed. She knew. She knew all our rules and she plain didn’t care. That was when we knew we were in for a summer no one would ever forget.

“Well call me Josie, everyone does!” she said with a laugh, but every child on the street knew better. Adults were Mr. and Mrs. After they insisted; they were Mr. and Mrs. with their first name. Rules like that made our world spin in the right direction but Miss Josephine had come to knock it off kilter. Later, much later, when I was older and jaded, I loved her for that but at the time I was just as scared and confused as everybody else.

She’d bought Mr. Walter’s bookshop downtown, bought it lock stock and barrel according to my grandfather. All she had to do was turn the key and it could be like Mr. Walter was there himself, nothing would have to change. But she didn’t. She covered the windows with thick brown paper and closed up shop for a week. We all wondered about what went on behind that brown paper. The drug store sold our comic books, ordering just a handful of copies so we all had to rush there or be left out. They sold candies too, nail polish that peeled off in long strips and makeup that my sister seemed to think I’d want some day. I didn’t know what I wanted. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to that brown paper wrapped Christmas present of a store, because it could have what I wanted, what I’d been searching for all along without knowing quite what it was.

I was fifteen that fall, with long legs that were finally growing out of their bony knees. Fifteen and at odds with the world, my body was pulling me one way and my mind was pushing me another. My mother had declared that fifteen meant no more playing with the boys, whether it was baseball, fishing, or shooting it didn’t matter. She’d shipped me off to stay with my Aunts for the summer and I guess the boys in the neighborhood found someone else to cover second base. When I got back they invited me along a few times, maybe for the sake of the games we’d played the year before, but my mother was true to her word. Fifteen was time to be a lady. Ladies didn’t play second base.

There were lots of new rules for me that year, rules that didn’t make a bit of sense. My months with my elderly Aunts had been time without time, there were clocks and calendars but no sense of moving forward. They knit sweaters for me even though it was Georgia in July, hotter than any hell ever described – sweaters in patterns better suited to a seven year old. I was a child there, like I’d been a child at home before I left, but walking back into my front door that September I was suddenly something else, some woman-girl trapped between two worlds.

I missed second base the most, missed the easy camaraderie of my teammates after a game. I wasn’t ready to join the Eastern Star with the other girls, I didn’t want to giggle and lick ice cream like a fool all summer, worried about my nails or whatever Seventeen magazine told me to worry about. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I was a lot like that store, wrapped up and waiting to show the world what I would be.


Miss. Josephine found me outside her shop. I should have been in school or maybe I should have been home with my mother. I should have been lots of places but I was there, throwing a baseball up in the air and catching it, wearing a pair of blues jeans rolled up against the heat and a shirt my brother had outgrown a summer ago. Mother had bought me a slew of dresses for the school year but I didn’t care for them. I dug Tommy’s shirts out of the goodwill box by the door and changed after she’d stopped looking.

Miss. Josephine snatched the baseball out of the air on a good up-throw. Snatched it with a pitcher’s gripe and looked at the ball not me.

“You can’t have played with this one for more than a week,” she said, examining the stitches. “Lord knows it still feels like summer, why not round up a game?”

My jaw dropped open and I just looked at her. The answers were myriad: because my mother wouldn’t approve, because the boys I’d played with had moved on, because honestly at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of September everyone else was following the rules. She didn’t pay any mind to my silence.

“Well if you aren’t looking to play, maybe you want to work. I’ve got boxes that need to be unloaded, follow me.”

“But-” I was talking to thin air. She’d gone on ahead, opening the door to the shop without looking back, not noticing if I was following.

I stepped inside the door and the world went dark. Not pitch black but dusty golden stripped dark. The sunlight was coming in a few holes in the paper here and there, punching through the inside like a ribbon. The shelves that Mr. Walter’s had kept so tidy were in a disarray, half empty here, over stuffed there. In one corner of the giant square room three empty shelves leaned against each other, locked together in a dozen different mazes of plastic coated wire.

“Those shelves.” She pointed to the ones my grandmother liked to browse on weekends. They were tall spindles filled with devotionals, “Serve the Lord in a Woman’s Way” and “Southern Prayers for Southern Souls”, entreated me to turn my troubles over to the Lord. I didn’t tend to listen. I didn’t really have any trouble except for losing my spot on the team and I suspected God had bigger problems to deal with.

“They need to be emptied. Take the boxes over there. Keep track of how many go in each box and pack them tight.” She dispensed the instructions and walked away again.

“Don’t you want to know my name?” I shouted to the empty store.

“I know you,” she said, poking her head in from a back room. “I know every body. They just don’t know me yet. Those shelves, then we’ll take a break, huh, May?”

And there it was, she knew me, she knew my name, and I had a job.

Last fall a group of friends invited me to run a 5k. It’s not too far away, they said, with barely suppressed grins. Just a nice run in the woods, they told me, their words covering barely concealed laughter. I knew to expect something but I never guessed the race would go through the grounds of an abandoned insane asylum.  Even before the whistle blew, I knew I’d be back with my camera for research.


A fairly recent bio-hazard face mask rests on the lawn in front of the aged wooden door.



A sign warns there’s video surveillance of the rusting hand rail and crumbling steps.

doorway crop

The entrance to the laundry facilities, thankfully there wasn’t a load of laundry still waiting.

reflection crop

A broken mirror reflects broken windows



Twelve foot high arching fence, because even the most dangerous patients deserve to see the sun.

Established in 1773 the old brick buildings gave off a sense of contemplative neglect. While the front of property showcases a brand new mental health facility, in the back acres the past lingers with crumbling steps, shattered windows, and broken refuse. Rat traps and a long slithering black snake were the only remaining residents.


A moment after I took this photo of the machinery the black snake sleepily slithered away.

And then there was a building, a place perfect for Night Vale, a curved bubble of white plastic. The only occupied building, hidden in the back, it gave off a quiet hissing noise. You couldn’t see workers, just hear them, voices bleeding through plastic as they talked about chemicals….


Signs told me it’s a pool, but I think I’m going to make it a covert research facility or the site of an alien landing. I’ll definitely add a few ghosts to the place.



dreamerShe used to run free across the fields

laughing in the sun

now the spasms beat a staccato

dream dream dream


She used to be such a pretty girl

but now all she does is

dream dream dream


Billowing clouds of white around her

lace over her eyes laid out fine

above the rough concrete floor

in the honeycombed dreamers’ den

but all she sees is

dreams dreams dream


When once addicts craved elation or release

now just the sweet escape from electronics and concerns

now just the dreams


who knows what dreams, he thinks

looking at her golden hair

what dreams may come that beat the pale work world reality


that’s where he stays, until day is done and he comes to hide and watch her.

One tablet an angel takes,

one table an angel makes

softly dreaming, darkly dreaming


The floor beside her is dirty with neglect

but clear of debris and waste

dreamers don’t disturb their own sleep


He rests there beside her,


slips his hand in hers


and he wonders what her dreams become

when he sleeps he has none­­­­­



Knowing that I needed a short story or bit of witty/insightful/appropriate banter for the blog on the 15th, I began seriously worrying about it on the 9th. Then Daylight Savings Time (DST) happened.

A few notes for people who don’t know me: I’m brain damaged. I don’t talk about it a lot and you wouldn’t know from looking at me, but among the many consequences I sleep badly. (I’m also supposed to be psychic, but the sleep part is eminently more important.) So when an hour of sleep was stolen from me on Sunday, my whole life fell apart. Most nights I wake up around three in the morning, and haunt my own house for an hour or two. I tend to write or edit, and then finally around five I return to bed for the last, desperately important three or so hours of sleep. So in bed from ten until three, then back to sleep from five until seven-thirty, that’s me. Unless it’s DST, in which case three am becomes four am, and there really isn’t much point in going back to bed at six when the alarm goes off at seven-thirty.

So this week, when I knew I needed a story for the blog or something, really anything, by Friday night, I wasn’t sleeping. At. All. I’m rubbish at creative things when I’m sleep deprived. Line editing, making sure continuity errors are repaired, sure I can do those things but coming up with a story from the air? No.
Ideas I began and discarded:

  • A bridge where a car accident killed the parents of a small child becomes a local ghost story and urban legend. A teen is bullied into spending the night there only to discover the long ago dead parents are his own, and they’re rather proud of him.
  • A space comedy inspired by Douglas Adams about aliens who collect things, including people, from planets just before their destroyed. (I actually have 2,349 words on this one, but the story doesn’t seem to make sense if you don’t know the rest of it… which only exists in my head.)
  • A short story told in the third person, worked out perfectly in my head, which came to me just as I finally got to sleep. Unfortunately the only words written down are ‘you are’ followed by several looping swirls.

Desperate, I turned to the idea of a photo safari. I spent some time talking to locals in my town and checking the various abandoned and urban legend websites. There are three or four likely spots within an hour’s drive but my schedule makes a hash of it. The only time to go photo hunting is in between appointments and before a long planned dinner.

And thus, because I don’t want the 15th to go by without fresh content for you, today’s blog post is a picture of my rabbit editor, long may he reign.

sleeping bunny

(Actual short story or interesting/insightful blog passages will return by the 30th of March, if not sooner. I appreciate your patience in this the oh-so-trying first week of DST.)

My last two weekends are a study in contrasts.

Last week, I went shooting with the hope of ironing out some details about how a character would handle a shot gun. With over 120 acres of targets and woods, shooting at a rural range, in an even more rural county introduced me to a new world.  All the men I met were friendly and eager to share their love of guns with me.  Apparently women almost never go shooting and the men love to see more of them. So, single ladies, get thee to a shooting range.

What you’ll find there (if you find a like the range I visited) is a small building in the center of the acreage. This one was a looked like a home with a sales counter installed in the living room. Behind the counter rows upon rows of rental guns and stacks of ammo waited to be chosen. A wood stove waited to one side, unused in the nearly unimaginable 70’ February day.  Across from it a normal home kitchen waited for any shooters that wanted to fix lunch.

I spent the day shooting at and occasionally hitting the clay targets. In an ironic twist, I do better at ‘rabbits’ – sporting clays that are released at ground level. The spinning disks hop and bounce as they roll across the field. As research went it was a bit more painful than I imagined. A twenty gauge shotgun packs a punch, and when you shoot 150 rounds, it feels  like 150 punches to your shoulder. I didn’t move my arm much the next day.

Seven days  later, I worked those same arm muscles in a different way. Twelve hours of quilting classes and hours walking the floor of the largest quilt show on the east coast. I started quilting in a room full of women when I was sixteen, amazed at finding a space that contained only females. Twenty years later not much has changed. A hundred women to each man, if not 200:1, the handful of men made the gender ratio the opposite of the shooting range.

While my time on the range was spent breaking things into tiny pieces, quilting concentrates on taking tiny pieces and making them into something greater. Even in this old tradition new techniques develop, like the wonderful dragon book quilt, with its strip of leather on one side, and the ‘negative space’ quilting.

dragon quilt

Oscar by Cathy Wiggins, Macon NC

detail of Oscar by Cathy Wiggins, Macon NC

detail of Oscar by Cathy Wiggins, Macon NC

dragon quilt close up 2

detail of Oscar by Cathy Wiggins, Macon NC

Outside the weather barely broke freezing and a major snowstorm loomed, inside this quilt transported me to the best time of year – Halloween:

Halloween quilt large

‘Halloween quilt’ by Nancy Doyle Williams

When I went shooting I was a stranger, welcomed, but not part of the group. The quilt show felt like my world, with Dr. Who t-shirts and Harry Potter scarves, a pair of steampunks wandering the show in corsets and piercings. There was even a nod to the burlesque scene:


Josephine: A Tribute to Josephine Baker by Katherine Wilson, District Heights, MD

Hot and cold, male dominated and female centered, creation and destruction, all in all, a fun pair of weekends.