Random Thoughts – The Value of Things

The costume worn in the first Indiana Jones movie. New the garments cost a few hundred dollars, with their history people pay $25 just to look at them, drop them off at a charity shop and you might be able to write $10 off your taxes. What's their value though?

The costume worn in the first Indiana Jones movie. New the garments cost a few hundred dollars, with their history people pay $25 just to look at them, drop them off at a charity shop and you might be able to write $10 off your taxes. What’s their value though?

Editing is hard work that leaves you slightly scattered making it difficult to come up with a blog post that stays on topic. Thus, here are the very random thoughts about worth, value, museums, and mermaids swirling in my head.

I recently attended the National Geographic Museum’s Indiana Jones and the Adventures of Archaeology. Blending movie magic with actual artifacts the exhibit left me with struggling with the idea of value and how it is defined. What makes something important?

The exhibit started with the costume worn by Harrison Ford and then showed the famous Ark of the Covenant, before moving on to ancient necklaces, a series of stone carvings, and the first map. It was hard to tell the movie props from the actual artifacts. I started by wondering what was real, and then immediately wondered why it mattered. Does the experience an item provides make it valuable?

While the exhibit was meant to showcase actual archaeologists and explain their work, most attendees clustered around the props, costumes, and movie memorabilia. Are those items not as much of a representation of our culture as the real things kept under glass? Popularity certainly didn’t seem to be related to the archaeological value of the item on display. Winding my way around the exhibit I found ample room by the ancient pot shards and antique photos of actual digs but barely enough space to breathe next to the crystal alien skull props. Does popularity define value?

One exhibit box showed an ancient shell necklace and a modern diamond engagement ring, explaining that the two are roughly equivalent. Both are items that were/are considered precious by their culture but are actually easily obtainable. Diamonds are a common stone; their scarcity is a marketing device. Shell necklaces impressed ancient people without the means to travel to the ocean, but today they’re tourist trinkets. Yet somehow, both diamonds and shells were used to signify relationships. Does the value of a thing reflect the value of what it represents?

One of my editors told me to work on world building, to tell more about how the mermaids live, how their world works, if people know about them, and so on. But while the main character is a mermaid, she doesn’t want to be. She deliberately shuns mermaid culture, choosing to learn about biology, history, and life on dry land instead. For her the value of any mermaid item would be less than the value of any human item. Regardless of representation or popularity, individual beliefs about an item change its value…but only for the individual. I don’t like diamonds, but that doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Museum goers would rather read about special effects than the rosette stone, but the stone is still extremely important. So maybe usefulness determines value?

When I moved I gave up a lot of useful things. Decorative cupcake stands I loved but rarely used, more plates and dishes than most families needed, and a vintage sled un-ridden in years, all went to another home. While I still thought they were valuable, they didn’t have a place in my life anymore. The last year or two have been a season of shedding for me. I want more experiences and more time with the people I love, but I’m not keen on having more things. At the same time I want to be sure I’m keeping what matters. I wish I had an easy way to judge the value of a thing.

What I read in 2015

In 2014 I challenged myself to take photos of every book I read. Most of them included the rabbit editor looking slightly grumpy, which is adorable but not useful for analysis. Last year, I started a Goodreads account. It made tracking my 2015 reading much easier.

I started but didn’t finish 19 novels.
Most of those DNFs (did not finish) stories included a plot development I couldn’t read past. For one romance novel set in the 1960s it was a hero who shamed the heroine for being alone a room with a man she didn’t know. There was a chance the man raped her, and as far as the hero was concerned that would be her fault. While the story spoke to me, I couldn’t forgive him being such a jerk. (I’m pretty sure the heroine did.) The big surprise among the DNFs was A Clash of Kings (the second novel in the Game of Thrones series). I love dragons, fantasy, and epic stories, but I don’t enjoy reading violence against women. I wish someone would write a more woman-friendly version.

I read 78 novels, with a total of 23,316 pages.
The bulk of those (39 of 78) were historic mysteries thanks to the 19 Phryne Fisher novels I devoured last winter.  I promised myself I’d seek out more weird west novels but only managed to find two: The Six-Gun Tarot and The Shotgun Arcana both by R.S. Belcher. I can’t wait to read the third novel in this series set in a cursed desert town. The stunning cast includes a Chinese demi-god, Christian angels, a Native American shape shifter, an assassin/witch trained by the pirate-queen, and a gay man wielding a sword from Mormon legend. It sounds crazy, but it really works. I wanted to know more about each and every character.

I’m mildly embarrassed about the amount of YA books I read – one a month this year. I already gushed about my two favorites – Scarlett Undercover and Serafina and the Black Cloak. Both are great, but it’s Scarlett,  the teenage Muslim detective, I’m most looking forward to following. I loved learning about Scarlett’s culture and enjoyed a fresh take on the noir genre.

 

Looking forward
Last year I read roughly one and a half books a week. In 2016, I’d like to push that to 2 books per week. That’s a challenging goal considering I’m writing and editing books of my own, but reading is a fundamental part of the writing process. When I don’t read I get repetitive, using the same concepts (or even the same words) over and over again. Reading stops me from getting stale.

With that in mind I want to try some new genres this year.  Some of my favorite books from the last few years have been set in another culture or place.  In 2016 I’m making a point of adding diversity to my reading list – at least one book each month by a minority author or with a minority main character. I have some great lesbian fiction in mind but I’m still on the hunt for books where the main character has a disability. About 20% of the population has a disability of some sort but I don’t see them on my bookshelf. I want to.

When I find them, or any gem of a book, I promise to come back here and blog about it. One of the best parts of reading is talking about your latest favorite. If you’ve got one I should check out let me know, I’m always happy to hear about a good book.

Running Wisdom

I decided to mark the turn of the century with an epic New Year’s Resolution. At midnight in 1999, I proclaimed I would run a marathon in the next year. I didn’t know how far a marathon was.

It’s 26.2 miles.

I still haven’t made it.

Running deceives a lot of people this time of year so if you made a running resolution, here’s most of the wisdom I’ve learned in 16 years and countless miles since then.

A runner is real when she takes her first step.
You can run on a treadmill, a track, a street, the beach, or in the woods. Don’t be ashamed of running or put it off until you reach some mythical size or shape. You don’t have to go fast or far, there’s no magic distance or speed that makes you a ‘runner’.

Plans help.
Back in January of 2000, I started running without a plan or any direction. I wish I had used the Couch to 5K app. The program begins with a manageable walk/run program. Running portions start out around a minute, and a pleasant female voice tells you when to walk. It’s a great way to get started and in 8 weeks you’ll be ready to earn your first shiny medal.

Medals are important.
Not because they look good on your wall, but because achieving a goal is a great feeling. My first goal was the 2001 Walt Disney World Marathon. I didn’t train well, so I didn’t do well. I managed to finish a Half Marathon. That shiny medal makes me feel accomplished whenever I look at it. Pick a race and train for it, doesn’t matter if it’s a cheap road race or a fancy destination race, running toward something keeps you on track. I’ve become a fan of virtual races, where you run on your own and submit proof of your race (a snapshot of the treadmill’s display is enough) to get your medal mailed to you.

Find your motivation.
I love stories – on tv, radio, podcast, or book. I’ve turned that into my running motivation. I have TV shows I only watch on the treadmill that pull me back to the gym. My latest addiction is the Zombies, Run! App.  In each 20 to 40 minute story I’m Runner 5, charged with running for supplies or to ensure the safety of Abel township – the only piece of humanity left after the zombie apocalypse. The running goes at my own pace and the story comes between my favorite playlist.

There will be setbacks and triumphs
I’ve had plantar fasciitis in both feet, a hip flexor sprain, and runner’s knee. My runner partner for 2001 Marathon was injury free until she fell and broke her arm heading to the starting line. Running can make you feel like an elephant, huge and plodding. But it can also make you feel like a tiger: powerful, graceful, and strong. Your runs won’t always be hard, some days they’ll be effortless. A few miles can give you a mythical ‘runner’s high’ where the endorphins in your body make you feel better than ever, then the next day a few steps will bring you to tears. If you’ve decided to start running stick with it on the bad days, push yourself through the tough times, because the best miles are the ones you haven’t run yet.

And everything else:

5k = 3.1 miles, 10k = 6.2, a half marathon is 13.1, a full marathon is 26.2. Vaseline is great for spots that rub. A little caffeine before you run can be a nice boost (I like Coca-cola, some people like coffee). Dress for the outdoor temperature minus 20 degrees. You should be cold when you start out. Drink lots of water. Don’t run on a full stomach. Run safe – tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back. When you pass someone say “Oh your left”, just like Captain America does.

Rewrite Your Story

A combination of holiday doldrums, editing stress, and my first cable subscription in years led me to re-new my acquaintance with stories I hadn’t watched in a few years. In between editing and unpacking boxes I plopped down on the couch to revisit old favorites, shows I once stopped everything to watch.

But a funny thing happened while I was away: the stories changed. Characters I loved started behaving in unbelievably strange ways. I expected things to get back to normal after an hour or two, but slowly I realized this was normal now. Strong female characters became emotionally crippled shells; decisive heroes became hesitant. Two shows embraced the same bizarre story-line where a villain raped the hero only to become pregnant and avoid all punishment.

I can imagine how it happened – in some boring conference room writers surrounded a table, fiddling with pens and rapidly cooling coffee. One of them looks up with excitement to exclaim ‘I’ve got it!’ and the world of characters and circumstance I found so watchable becomes a mess, the story so far away from what it had been that I don’t want to take part any more.

How far back would I have to go to fix the problem? How many paragraphs of dialog, how many scenes? I could change something subtle  or maybe it needed a drastic push like cutting out a character completely or moving them all to someplace new. Picking a new path isn’t easy. Every decision I don’t like, every plot point that makes me cringe, is someone else’s favorite. From where I sit choices are regrets but to another person they’re a triumph, a story I should love.

It’s hard to know which perspective is right because often the out of control past writer  is yourself. Great choices sour in the light of reality, things spiral out of control. You find yourself someplace you never expected to be or suddenly dealing with circumstances you never thought could happen.  Don’t waste time lamenting how it should have gone. Move forward, try something new, don’t spend energy on the future that wasn’t. Work to make the story better and make a new ending for yourself.

Sometimes stories go the wrong way. It’s up to us to rewrite them. The story doesn’t have to be about your biggest mistake, it can be about your biggest victory – the way you turned a mistake into the best decision in your life.

 

Apologies

When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

That’s the best piece of advice I got in college. It came from my favorite professor, a man who happily called himself a wizened old gnome. He did research in Chernobyl half the year and spent the rest of the time relaxing. To a tiny cult-like group of followers he was everything, to the other students he was a weird prof to be avoided.

This post is a day late, and my Dec 20th post may also be late. I’ve made some decisions lately – large, personal life decisions – that I’m not sure about. Sometimes it takes years to see you made a mistake or months to congratulate yourself for having avoided disaster. In writing I deal with heavy topics, life and death situations, dangerous choices, and loaded guns. In real life the distinctions between a great decision and one that leaves you filled with regret are much more subtle. I’m trying to see that subtle difference, and it’s taking a lot of my time.

In the middle of all that, my editing goes on and, as usual, takes more effort than creating a wildly rough first draft of a story. I always miss writing when I’m editing, but I also see the way it makes my work better. So while I don’t always know where I’m going, I can see progress as I move down the road. For that I am grateful.

I am deeply sorry to for the delays in blogging, reading,  and writing new drafts. I promise to get back on schedule soon.

My friends don’t live here.

I struggled to write this blog post, starting from scratch three times before I came up with an idea worth sharing. In the middle of those attempts a friend-I’ve-never-met dropped me a link about her Prime Minister to distract and inspire me. I didn’t understand all the humor/humour but I realized that moment, that interaction, was what I was struggling to capture.

I’m moving. Again. I swore the last move would be my last. I expected to settle down in my small, historic town and surround myself with friends. But my friends don’t live here. They live in Canada, the Northeast, the Northwest, Florida, and overseas. I’ve developed a collection of like minded, brilliant people who inhabit the globe. There are people I’ve known for years that I’ve never seen in person in New Zealand and Iceland, France and California. I could find someone to go to lunch with in great snowy plains of the Dakotas, the Midwest, or even Seattle but I struggle to do that in my own town.

I grew up with the idea that you make friends through volunteering or your job, but that never quite worked out. The people I volunteered with weren’t interested in getting together after the task was done. The civic groups I served didn’t check on me after my car accident or hospitalization. I couldn’t talk about the things they liked: football, church, or hunting. They didn’t understand the things I liked: running, fantasy novels, and comic book movies.

The people online did. The phone calls and emails, posts on Facebook and message boards provide me a constant sense of support and friendship. A new paradigm is emerging and the people around me don’t quite understand how it works. My relationships with people I’ve never met are more fulfilling than the ones with people I see every day. Dinner with someone I’ve only chatted with online turns into an evening with no pauses in the conversation, no struggling for topics, but the ten minutes before a meeting stretch on as I scramble for something to say. Thank all the gods for the weird weather we’ve been having.

So I’m moving to a city that’s served by three major airports with lots of chances to travel. Being in a small town, trying on that dream of buying a house and settling down was important, but it didn’t fit. I’m terrible at home maintenance, and a menace in the garden. I’ve killed countless seeds and plants learning that all those things I once dreamed about don’t really work for me. I’d rather be back in the city taking belly dance lessons than in a garden struggling to grow a tomato.

I’m ready to go back to the good and the bad, the crime, traffic, and high prices. I expect I’ll complain about them soon enough, but for now they seem like a small price to pay for the opportunity to go to Drag brunch or spend my Sunday at a museum. I’m going back to DC, purging all the things I acquired to fill my suburban home. You’ll find me at the Smithsonian Folk life festival, the Scottish games, the Romance Writers of America meetings, and every dance class I can fit in. And sometimes, you won’t find me at all, because I’ll be flying to meet those friends I haven’t ever seen. I know we’ll have a great time together.

November Reads – Dragon books!

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire, Book 1) by Naomi Novik (Author)

Some people bird-watch, others collect stuffed penguins, or love cats beyond all reason. I adore dragons. While I’m picky about it – I need four limbs and wings – my obsession is fairly boundless. When I renovated my bathroom, I commissioned an artist to etch a dragon on the shower door.  I regularly get myself hennaed with different dragon images, because I can’t choose a single dragon for a tattoo. So this month’s reads are… dragon books!

Naomi Novak’s Temeraire series
Alt-history or maybe just really good fantasy, these stories focus on Temeraire, a dragon in the service of the British Empire during the Napoleonic wars. Taken as a spoil of war, Temeraire is paired with British naval commander, Will Laurence,  instead of the usual dragonrider. Thanks to Will’s influence the books feel like Patrick O’Brian’s “Jack Aubrey novels or maybe the Sharpe books. With a fun dragon twist, of course. Temeraire is wonderfully innocent. He doesn’t understand how slavery works and won’t accept the way dragons are treated. I admit that I skimmed the battle scenes, there’s only so much ship-vs-ship and dragon-vs-dragon action I can take, but Temeraire skewing social mores never got old.

The series continues for eight books. I’ve read the first three and haven’t had a complaint yet. Thankfully only the first one made me cry (Levitas’ story is heartbreaking).

Wildfire: A Paranormal Mystery with Cowboys & Dragons by Mina Khan

I’ve talked about Mina Khan’s Wildfire before and I’m likely to talk about it again. Not only is the dragon a girl, Lynn is also mixed race and a cool ‘real’ person. Her relationships with her hero, her best friend, and her family are all complicated and messy. She’s battling depression, and Khan’s writing shows the ups and downs of that disease in wonderfully non-clinical, non-stereotypical way. Also there are cowboys. Cowboys and dragons. It’s like sea salt and chocolate – I never knew they were meant to be together, but now I can’t imagine them apart.

Lynn rushes to the aid her best friend after Jen’s home is almost lost in a fire. Soon she finds herself embroiled in a mystery. A cute cowboy (Jack) and more worldly real estate developer (Henry) compete for her affections. One of them is more than he seems, and either of them could be behind the increasingly dangerous fires. Lynn struggles to control her emotions, not to mention her dragon hormones, while trying to stop the crimes. The pacing, plot, and small town setting make this book a can’t-put-it-down dragon-shifter story. I’m still waiting hopefully for the next story about these characters.

Treasured Claim: A Mythos Legacy Novel by Jami Gold

Another great dragon-shifter is Elaina Drake, the heroine from Jami Gold’s Treasured Claim. I was lucky enough to read this story back when it was in beta form years ago. It was great fun then, and has only gotten better. Elaina’s story is a romance and her hero, Alex, turns the billionaire playboy stereotype on its head. Alex insists on doing the right thing. He defines himself as the opposite of his amoral, mostly horrible father. Elaina also has daddy issues, except in her case her father might actually kill her.

Gold does a lot of fun non-traditional dragon things. For example, Elaina doesn’t just like treasure, she needs it to survive. Elaina is the physically stronger partner in the relationship, but (this novel gets pretty close to erotica) is sexually submissive. The combination of unexpected twists and multi-faceted characters makes this one of my favorite paranormal romance dragon-shifter stories.

 

Rachel’s NaNoWriMo Anti-rules

Many people will tell you how to win at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). They’ll quote best practices and articles, talking about support networks and plotting. All of that is very good advice. But I’m here to tell you that even if you don’t follow any of it, you can still ‘win’ at NaNoWriMo. And by winning I mean end up with a book contract.

The end of 2013 was a hard time for me. My father died, my mother had serious health issues, I was hospitalized, and my heater broke in the middle of a snowstorm. The NaNoWriMo deadline had long since passed, but I realized if I didn’t challenge myself to get writing my creativity would drown under all the stress. I needed a challenge, even though the next NaNoWriMo was months away.

Anti-Rule #1: NaNoWriMo happens when you make it.

If November is a bad time for you, start your novel today or any day. If you like the discussion boards and support of a writing team NaNoWriMo Camp starts in June and August. It brings the same support and fun as NaNoWriMo  in November with none of the holiday obligations pressing down on you. A lot of the teachers in my life prefer NaNoWriMo Camp in June when school is out for the summer. I planned to start my personal NaNoWriMo challenge on 2/1/2014, but got excited and started writing on January 27.

Anti-Rule #2: You can start with something you’ve already worked on

After my life stabilized and  the heat came back on,  I realized I hadn’t written, really written, in months. Starting a new story felt too overwhelming so I grabbed a six-thousand word opening inspired by this image:

Photo from EPBOT.com one of the coolest blogs I know.

The story of a teenage mermaid fighting with her mother while tracking down a serial killer took off in my imagination. I saw the piece not just as a YA mystery, but as a platform for talking about feminine power. I repeatedly watched the mermaid scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides:

The mermaids there were exactly what I wanted – desirable, otherworldly, and deadly. Young women are often admonished against expressing their sexuality and told “good girls don’t do that sort of thing”. I wanted a character who struggled with her own powerful sexuality, who wanted to fit in but was constantly swayed by strong emotions the world didn’t expect her to have.

Her name is Danika. Her friends called her Danny, and for my private NaNoWriMo I thought about her every day. I challenged myself to two thousand words a day for each of February’s twenty-eight days.

Anti-rule #3 Finish your novel when it’s done.

I kept writing through March and into the first weeks of April. (Danny first appeared on the blog in April.) It turned out that I wanted to write more than the NaNoWriMo  prescribed 50K words. I wrote about Key West disguised as Danny’s beach-side town Playa Linda. My Aunt’s house on Stock Island became Danny’s house. My favorite high school books became her favorites. I filled that manuscript with a thousand sunny details of life in a tropical town while the cold winter months passed away.

Anti-rule #4 Edit whenever you want!

NaNoWriMo focuses on getting the words on the page, so the rules tell you not to edit as you go.  That means leaving something in place that doesn’t work and trying to write around that mistake. For me, it became too confusing to write chapter 10 based on what I wanted chapter 8 to be instead of what it was. I’d rather go back and rename a character than keep a list of things to correct when I’m done. I enjoy re-reading my work on Sunday night, planning out what scenes I’ll write for the week and making little changes. I don’t want to give up that ritual.

Anti-rule #5 Don’t stop when the manuscript is finished

People joke that NaNoWriMo should be followed by National Novel Editing Month, and I agree.  When I finished the Mermaid manuscript I let it rest for a month before doing a first edit. Then it was sent it for a beta read. That caused another round of edits, which were followed by two rounds of paid edits, one with a college student for YA voice and one with the amazing editors at Quail School Media. Finally it felt polished enough to send out to editors.

Bonus Conflicting Anti-rules –  

Don’t leave your manuscript in a box. 

Start something else!

While the editors were reading The Mermaid and the Murders (the current working title) I started another manuscript. More than a year after my personal NaNoWriMo finished, the Mermaid and the Murders was out on submission and I did my best to forget about it.

Months passed and I never managed to put the story out of my mind. So this November, I threw in my hat for the real NaNoWriMo focusing on a a cozy mystery about a group of quilters who dabble in magic spells on the side. As my story reached 10,000 words, I got news that meant I would need to bend those NaNoWriMo rules again.

My mermaid book, that rule-breaking not-really- NaNoWriMo manuscript got a contract. Right in the middle of the real NaNoWriMo I recieved my editorial letter. I’m excited to dive back into the world of mermaids and I’m happy that my (personal, not at the right time) NaNoWriMo was a success. If you’re participating right now, I hope you succeed. If you’re not participating, remember that any month can be NaNoWriMo or, if you don’t write, any month can be the one you accomplish your goal.

 

Pagan New Year’s Resolutions

Happy Pagan New Year! Among Wiccans and Pagans the year ends at Harvest (Samhain) and enters a period of rest and restoration. The dark winter months are for sleeping, getting stronger, and boosting the ties between family and friends.

I’m not completely Pagan. I grew up mixed.  Dad told stories from every Pagan God he knew, while Mom dutifully took us to an Irish Catholic Church each Sunday.  Neither religion stuck very hard, but Halloween-time always feels like a giant end-of-the-year bash. That’s why my blog gets a new look each November – the New Year means a new format, new colors. And, of course, I make a few resolutions:

Edit less, write more
Last year I published my first novel. I never expected there to be so much editing. Rounds and rounds of edits, each perfecting the story just a tiny bit more. Editing is largely a process of subtracting for me, taking away overused words (apparently I’m addicted to ‘just’) and removing stray ideas that don’t really contribute to the plot. I tend to think of editing as the opposite of writing, an act of ‘uncreating’. It makes my work better so I would never want to stop editing all together, but once you start looking for things to get rid of you find more and more of them. Last year was the first year since I began writing in 2006 that I didn’t complete a new manuscript. I edited several. This year I’m looking to balance my editing with creating.

Blog more
My blog schedule evolved from ‘when I think of things’ to ‘worry about it twice a month, get it done whenever’ to the lovely 1st and 15th schedule I put in place in 2014. I don’t always hit the exact date (spoiler alert: I’m writing this on the 2nd), but having a fixed time on the calendar helps me plan for better posts. I toyed with the idea of going to a 1st, 10th, and 20th schedule, but I don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken. Instead, I’m going to add a third blog post around the 20th of the month.

Share what I read
That new monthly blog post will be about books. I read three books a week, but I tend to keep it to myself. Selfishly, I hope sharing what I read will bring me more recommendations and help me find new authors to love. Authors are warned never to give a bad review and be cautious about saying anything about anyone in the industry, so you’ll only hear about the books I like.

Play with new ideas more
Like the Queen of Wonderland sometimes I believe six impossible things before breakfast. A jumble of characters, scenes, and ideas rattles around my head but I stop them from getting out by worrying about the details. Will the story be interesting enough? What is the heroine going to do with her time? Where’s the bad guy? I’ve long lamented the 20,000 word mark, where good stories seem to die. All those 20,000 word pieces feel like a thing left unfinished, a black mark on my to-do list that can never be crossed off. This year I want to look at those pieces differently. I want to see them as an exploration, one that doesn’t have to result in 90,000 polished, published words. I write in two lengths: 600 word blog posts and 100,000 word novels. (The first draft of the sequel to Under a Blood Moon came in at 150,000 words.) I don’t know when writing became a one-or-the-other thing for me, and I don’t like it. I’m giving myself permission to write shorter, write weirder, write sweeter, etc. etc. etc. Play with the ideas and see where they go, instead of locking them away because they might not work.

I have a lot of great plans for the next year. I’ve started a new contract with Wild Rose Press (more on that when it’s official) and there’s a long list of fun writing projects that need attention. A second not-much-shorter list of life projects needs attention too. As we say goodbye to the bright autumn sunlight and prepare for the long, dark days of winter I’m excited about the things ahead. I hope you are too. From my hearth to yours, best wishes and bright blessings for the New Year.

October Reads

October brings ghost stories to book store shelves in the same heaping drifts as the leaves on the ground. I indulged in a few this month that are worth sharing. Continuing September’s more-romance-than-horror kick, I start with Gull Harbor by Kathryn Knight. The heroine, Claire, is a psychic who can commune with ghosts. After giving up on law school, her father’s chosen path for her life, Claire desperately needs a job. When she takes on clearing a house of a dangerous poltergeist, she doesn’t expect to run into her college boyfriend, Max. Max was the one that convinced her to embrace her gift, and his father’s ghost was the first one she communicated with. Their relationship ended terribly, leaving Claire completely unwilling to take Max’s help or heed his good advice to leave the haunted house alone. The love story took the expected turns while the ghost story stayed fresh and different. Small spoiler – the ghost doesn’t speak English, so Claire’s well-meaning attempts to offer it help are useless. House fires, small injuries, the problems keep mounting until Claire catches the clue. It was refreshing to see a ghost story where the ghost wasn’t the same nationality, ethnicity, and general ‘type’ as the other characters. Because if there are ghosts, why would they all be white, English speakers? I enjoyed this story so much I immediately picked up Silver Lake another ghost story by Kathryn Knight.

In Silver Lake a group of high school friends come together to make one last effort to investigate the disappearance of Brittany, the party girl of the group. Ghostly experiences start almost at once: puddles of lake water appear inside house, doors open and close on their own, and cabinets open themselves without a sound. The four friends made for believable, fun characters, although I admit to some trouble with their timelines. Somehow they all achieved their dreams by age 25. While it’s certainly possible to be a successful teacher, a mother of twins, the owner of a well-established business, or an indispensable corporate manager in 3 years after college the story ‘clicked’ better for me when I thought of them as being 28 or 30 instead. With that adjustment I was able to lose myself in the many twists and turns of the ghost story. I guessed right only half the time, and there were definitely things that blind-sided me completely. The ending impressed me for being unique and realistic.

The last ghost story on my Kindle was The Quilter’s Ghost: An Elm Creek Quilts Story by Jennifer Chiaverini.  I’ve read all of the Elm Creek Quilt books and even made some quilts from the patterns Chiaverini supplies in each book. Most ghost stories follow a formula, introduce the ghostly happenings, find out a little about the ghost, put the hero/heroine in danger, and then end things when they discover the ghost’s origins. This short story covers only the usual two acts, neglecting most of the danger and all of the back story. I wish there had been more. It’s my own fault for not noticing before I bought that the story was only 35 (Kindle) pages.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Crimson Peak, a new movie by director Guillermo del Toro that’s being billed as a horrorifying ghost story.  In the first few minutes of the film a character says “It isn’t a ghost story, but a story with a ghost in it”. That’s how I would describe Crimson Peak – a Gothic romance with all of the usual trappings – big, decrepit house, lavish costumes, innocent, plucky heroine, brooding hero – and it also happens to have a ghost or two in it. If you like historic or Gothic romances don’t be scared off by the director or the spooky reviews.

 

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