08/1/17

Erotica in art and my writing

The news came just before a big vacation, a once-in-a-lifetime trip. After three years of planning and saving, suddenly all I could think about was the proclamation so casually dropped in my lap:

“If your book has more than four sex scenes, it’s erotica.”

And just like that all the times I’ve tried explain that my books have sex scenes but are actually mysteries with supernatural elements became a lie. All those jokes I’ve told about writing “vampire smut” became my truth. I write…Erotica.

While I spend a lot of time writing sex scenes, making sure that the action is sizzling but also true to the relationship on the page, I never put myself in the category. I write about women, and they have sex. So yes, my characters have sex, which is described in about the same detail as their meals and their clothes. All of those things are important to them, I couldn’t write out all of the sex to focus only on being a police detective and still give you a realistic picture of Mallory’s life.

Instead, you’ll get (roughly) four sex scenes per book, always when it’s natural and called for as part of the plot. In Under A Blood Moon, I counted them out to be sure the pacing made sense. In Fire in Her Blood, I ended up cutting nearly 60k words and two sex scenes. In the next book, Blood, Dirt, and Lies, I “shut the bedroom door” to make sure there were only four at my editor’s request.

Turning a detailed scene into a single line (something like “they melted together, in a dance of passion and love”) doesn’t bother me. Writing out sex all together would. I write my books to escape from the mundane-workday-world, I don’t want to escape to someplace that doesn’t have any passion.

But the label haunted me as I went through great places in Europe. I visited the palace where Mark (from Under a Blood Moon) grew up, a wine cellar that will show up as a future vampire’s bedroom, and a baroque estate that’s a perfect residence for Jakob for the 1600s. In the back of my head I wondered: does all this matter if it’s just erotica?

And then I went to the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich and saw this:

An ancient Egyptian statue depicts a couple having sex.

Ancient Egyptian Erotica on display. In a museum. Where you go to learn about culture. Shocking.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks sex is part of a normal, healthy life. And while my work may now be classified as “erotica” the stories haven’t changed. I’m still writing thrillers with romance and spooky parts. I’m still showing normal relationships with ups and downs, jealous moments and tender parts. I hope that’s something the world will still read, because I wouldn’t want to write any other way.

 

07/1/17
A stack of my published novels and several medals from races I've finished

Running and Writing

A stack of my published novels and several medals from races I've finished

Published books and Finisher’s Medals, you can’t get either one without perseverance and hard work.

Sometimes the similarities between my two favorite things frighten me. There’s my writing, which I love dearly and could never live without, and there’s running, which has become so entrenched in who I am I wouldn’t know who I was without it. Actually, I could flip those two descriptions around and not be lying. In honor of that, the ways writing is like running (or maybe running is like writing?).

Time off hurts, and you don’t know why
I’ve taken time off from both my writing and my running. Those periods were filled with a quiet discomfort; a pang of longing struck me when I saw someone running or walked by a bookstore knowing my books weren’t inside. I wasn’t ready to run, I didn’t want to write, but I wanted the feeling of having run, the satisfaction I felt when I had written. If I was consciously choosing not to run or write, why did it bother me so much? I still don’t know.

Breaks sneak up on you
Even when you’re feeling restless and unhappy for no good reason, it’s easy to miss that you’ve taken a break from writing or running. Running logs and writing journals, no matter how devoutly kept, don’t open themselves up on the counter. There is no blinking light proclaiming how long it’s been since your last run or writing session. It isn’t until you sit and think about it that you realize the general malaise comes from not doing the thing you love.

Junk miles and Junk words
Runners will tell you either there are no junk miles – every step improves you as a runner –or that you should never run junk miles – if you’re hurting or your equipment is wrong, don’t run. Writers feel the same way about junk words – either you need to warm up by writing whatever comes to mind (you can always delete it later) or you’re better off not forcing yourself to write when the words aren’t coming. Runners will tell you how they forced themselves out the door and ran better than all their dreams. Writers will remind you Diana Gabaldon began the bestselling Outlander series as a way to warm up for her “real” writing.

The not fun parts make the fun parts better
Most writers don’t enjoy editing. Promoting a book, writing a synopsis, and even querying an agent don’t come up on their list of fun things. But they all make your writing better. The same way lifting weights and doing yoga isn’t running, but they improve your running. So while I’d rather be creating a whole new story, I put in my time editing and handling the business side things. Just like while I’d rather be running, I take the time to stretch, practice my yoga, and lift to ensure my muscles are ready for my next run.

When you’ve had a great session, you’re the only one who knows
Let’s face it, no one likes the runner who struts about the office bragging about their morning run. I’ve gone years without mentioning my races or runs because of the jabs I heard directed at other runners when they left the room. Writing comes in even lower on the acceptable office chatter list. I’ve never been able to talk about crafting a sex scene or how a werewolf really would kill someone without catching some discreet eye rolling. I loved the cover for Fire in Her Blood so much I dashed down the hall to share it with a coworker, who (bless her!) indulged my enthusiasm even though she didn’t share even a drop of it.

The controversy around statistics
Get a group of runners together and the talk will turn to miles per hour, or the miles they run each week, just as surely as authors will talk about their word count – how hard it was to make or how they flew past it. But both groups struggle with how you should talk about these things. Writers debate if it’s fair to post a daily word count – doesn’t that make slower writers feel bad? Runners chant “run your own race”, even while they casually drop their own results.

So yes, my two loves, the two ways I define myself, have more than a few things in common. I’m not sure what that says about me, but since I’ve run today (a little more than 5k) and I’ve gotten my writing in (1200+ words), I’m not going to worry too much.

 

 

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06/15/17

Time to Take First Things First

In my last blog, I talked about time-tithing. I was gripped with a fever to give back to the writing community and impressed with the way giving back helped me as a person and a writer. I followed through with what I posted, and volunteered as a last-minute judge for the annual writing contest.

It’s important for me to judge books the way I would want my own to be judged. I’ll never forget the seasoned, privileged romance novelist who, upon hearing a summary of Under a Blood Moon, immediately said “you could never pay me enough to read that sort of trash”. Now serial killer werewolves aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t make them trash.  While I might not like your topic or the way your heroine thinks, that doesn’t make a book trash. I spent about half a day on each book, looking at the mechanics of the story and not how my own values applied to the characters.

I also volunteered my time to a local quilt guild, and inspired a great story idea. My work judging novels helped my writing and motivated me to join RWA (Romance Writers of America). So time-tithing was a success! But that great story idea demanded my immediate attention, with the words running like quicksilver through my fingers, teaching me another important lesson:

You need time to do the things that matter most.

The story idea came to me at 3am on a Saturday morning. I gave up about six hours of sleep planning and plotting. I started my writing time an hour earlier and kept going an hour longer than usual. I shorted myself on sleep, whittled my morning beauty routine down to a quick five minutes, and barely made it to my day job on time. I spent all of my time writing and editing. I didn’t cook meals (sorry, Tiger!), clean house, or go out with friends. A story grabbed me and I held on tight.

In a week I wrote nearly 7,500 words.

I have a clean plot. I have a character reference sheet. I know how the story will go and how I can promote it. And I hope to all the Gods above the words keep coming. Because there’s really nothing better than writing. While the idea would never have come without the volunteer work, the words wouldn’t have come if I didn’t shut everything out.

I’m very lucky to have a partner who will support me and a day job that isn’t jeopardized when I go on a writing spree. But I also need to make good choices and set clear boundaries. It’s easy to lose time on meaningless things: TV shows, facebook, internet “research”. There a million metaphors about managing your time. YouTube videos show people putting large rocks into glass jars, then smaller rocks, then pebbles, then sand, until finally the jar must be full. But no! There’s room for water. Search a little longer and you’ll find the advice that a woman should have four things in her life – her work, her family, her health, and one other thing. (Not two! You can’t ever have two jobs or two hobbies, nope not enough time.)

I don’t agree with all the advice that’s out there, but this last week has made it clear: I need to do what matters most first. For me that’s writing. My commitment to my writing – whether it’s this blog, a guest blog, a short story, or a novel – comes first. Any other commitments need to wait. If they can’t wait, I don’t have time for them in my life.

05/15/17

Patron of the Arts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I pay for my entertainment.

As a kid there wasn’t a lot of extra money for things like books. Most of the people I knew were in the same boat, except for one girl with a rich grandmother. Walking around the newly opened Barnes and Noble (which meant the world had finally joined our small town) she filled a basket with books and paid for them with a grandmother supplied credit card. Not just any books, but hard-covers from the new releases table, the kind of books that cost a quarter of my family’s weekly grocery budget. I knew I would be rich when I could buy all the books I wanted without even considering the prices.

I’m privileged to have made that dream come true. Decades later, thanks to a great job in the big city, I developed a weekly book habit. My Friday night indulgences included a cup of hot cocoa from the in-store coffee shop and three or four books of my own. I didn’t flinch at my monthly book budget, even when it climbed to the $200 mark.

But a curious thing happened as eBooks started to become my preferred reading choice. I began to question the value of a book. If I wasn’t paying for paper and ink, what was a reasonable amount to pay? The magic conversion from a thing of worth (a book on a shelf) to a worthless thing (a used paperback) seems even more unfathomable when we’re talking about a downloaded electronic file. At the same time, I value the joy I get from reading a book. And if I’m not sure what I should pay for an electronic book file I don’t really own, how do I judge a streamed podcast I listen to but never download?

Finding a good story-based podcast is hard. I don’t want to listen to people chat or a conversation that wanders around. I want a tale, a fable, a narrative that will hold my attention and spark my imagination. Myths and Legends Podcast is exactly that, a podcast that tells a different myth or related a different legend each episode. After the main story, the ‘creature of the week’ introduces a new supernatural critter, ghost, or monster.  I stumbled on the podcast when I was too sick to hold a book or focus my eyes to read. I’ve been a huge fan ever since. I love listening to the well researched, well put together podcasts.

I could listen for free but I don’t. The host (Jason) can’t produce the stories for free. There are research costs and equipment costs, not to mention the time he spends. I edit audio as part of my day job – it’s time consuming to get it right. I like Jason’s work. I love the stories. They inspire and entertain me. I want to support them, so I joined the podcast as a member.

As a writer, I understand that sometimes we need to give away content to get folks to take a chance on us. They don’t know if our stories are worth their money. I agree with that idea. I’m much more likely to try a new author if the first book is free, or if the free trial of the book hooks me. But I don’t want to get to a place where I’m not willing to support the artists who make the content I love. I wouldn’t steal from a bookstore or sneak into a concert without a ticket, which means I’m not comfortable listening to every episode of a podcast without contributing. Now if only someone would give me a way to pay my favorite authors on AO3.

03/1/17

Timelines and the Next Mallory Story

Fire in Her Blood released on February 15. While I’m spending a lot of time obsessively clicking on Amazon to see if it gets any reviews, I’m also at work on the next book. I’m afraid written myself into a bit of pickle.

Fire in Her Blood was meant to have a subplot with Indigo, my favorite werejaguar. Werejaguars came into my life through stories my father gathered in his travels in Central America (Mesoamerica). The powerful, protective jaguar-spirit wove itself into Indigo’s appearance in Under a Blood Moon. When Indigo saves the day and provides a bit of light hearted fun, I’m recreating the balance of scary, blood thirsty animal, and lovable, caring cat god. I wanted to explore more about Indigo, working the stories I knew into his (only hinted at) complicated, dark history.

The jaguar cards from Dad’s tarot card set.

Which is how I ended up with way too many words in Fire in Her Blood. Ultimately, I decided to focus on the serial arsonist and revealing more about how vampire culture worked. When I edited Indigo out I knew his story had to go into another book. But at that point, the draft of the book that should have the third in the Death Witch series was already finished. And edited. Twice.

Which left me written into a corner.

The would-be-book-three starts during a rare February snow storm in Baton Rouge. Fire in Her Blood ends on Halloween. Unless this new Indigo-focused book ended up a Christmas story there wasn’t any room in the timeline for it.

I mean, I could have moved would-be-book-three to the next year, and put Indigo’s story in the center of the second year? But then I would need to add more books to explain what Mallory did with her year. And then there’s Amadeus…

When the spotlight wasn’t on Indigo, Amadeus really shined. His cocksure attitude and the way he enjoyed shocking everyone by proudly being a vampire sex worker created some of my favorite scenes. The dynamic between Mallory and Amadeus was fun, but the tension between him and Jakob was priceless. Would-be-book-three gave Amadeus a new role, forcing both of those relationships to grow.

I don’t want to wait to explore those relationships.

Which leads me back to Indigo’s story. It will now be book three. The would-be-book-three will need to be re-written a bit. The snow storm can’t be moved, so Indigo’s story is going to fit into a tight timeline from mid-November until early January. Amadeus is going to be forced into a supporting role somehow (he’s a difficult character to rein in). In his place are a collection of new characters and mythological creatures.

Aside from Anubis (Egyptian god of the afterlife) and a very scary wraith, Laumės (woodland spirits from Lithuanian mythology) make an appearance in the SIU squad room. They traditionally have a bad relationship with men so Mallory’s usual partner, Danny, can’t work the case. That gives me a chance to add a very tough female cop to the SIU, Kaniesha King. She’s used to working with the Muslim communities of Detroit, wears her hair natural, and takes no shit. You can see reference photos for her and most of the characters on the Pinterest board for this book: https://www.pinterest.com/GravesRachel/death-witch-book-3/

You’ll also find the Ursuline nun (a vampire from the 1600s), Charlotte (the girl the Laumės discover), and the biker bar from Fire in Her Blood (it’s quickly becoming my favorite place to leave a body). I’m having a lot of fun writing and adding reference photos as I go. I know the path to publication is long, but if I’m lucky you’ll be able to read this one by the end of the year.

That is assuming, of course, that I can come up with a title.

12/15/16

December, again? Really? Must we? Fine.

I was struggling to come up with a blog post this evening, so I checked back on what I posted last December. December 2015 found me apologizing for a late blog post with precious few words, and summing up what was going on in my personal life. December 2014 produced a review of what I was reading and a sentimental post about what was going on in my personal life. December 2013 had only one post and it was about my personal life.

It seems December steals my words and leaves me with nothing creative to say every year. I’d love to tell you “Not this year!” and reveal some great truth about writing, but I’m afraid I’m fresh out. Well, unless you count a few hard learned lessons:

  • Being published does not magically solve all of your life problems.
  • It’s hard to separate yourself from your writing when you get a bad review.
  • It’s hard to decide what the right choice is when you’re writing.

I suspect those are not shocking truths to anyone. Just like I suspect those who know me well can understand why this time of year hits me hard.

(This is the part where I tell you about my personal life – because hey, by now it’s a tradition.)

My father fell into a diabetic coma on Thanksgiving. I will never know what ended his life, rolls? Stuffing? One more slice of pie? Maybe if he hadn’t fallen asleep in front of the TV after his meal. Maybe if someone had thought to check on him sooner. A thousand maybes and unanswered questions and then his ashes were delivered to my house on Christmas Eve.

I’m afraid December has never recovered.

But I’m lucky to have my blog to look back on. It tells me that by January (just a few weeks away) I’ll feel more like myself again. And, of course, February is time to start planning for Halloween (only 7 months!). Then you’re into the good weather months, April and May. The summer is Con season, crowned by DragonCon on Labor Day, which starts of the best time of year – Halloween time! From Labor Day until November 1st, it’s pretty much all skeletons and smiles around here.

I can accept bad reviews, because I know that not everyone will like my books. They still hurt, but they’re part of writing. And I can accept December, it still hurts, but sad times are a part of life.

Sadness and December, like fear, will pass:

    I must not fear.

    Fear is the mind-killer.

    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

    I will face my fear.

    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

– from Dune by Frank Herbert (One of my Dad’s favorite quotes)

 

So, see you next December to talk about my personal life. Maybe we’ll chat about how I don’t have kids. Or how I can’t decide if it’s more offensive to write characters from other races/genders/cultures (which is basically saying I think I know what they experience) than to only write white cisgendered heterosexual characters (which isn’t diverse, erases other people, and gets boring).

11/1/16

Skagway’s Sex-Workers and Specters

I recently found myself in the very tiny town of Skagway, Alaska. While there are only about a thousand full time residents, the summer months bring nearly a million tourists (the local paper estimated 900,000 in 2014). To support the tourists a temporary work force comes in each season.

Any quilters or knitters want to run away to Alaska for the summer?

Any quilters or knitters want to run away to Alaska for the summer?

All those people only staying for a few hours, plus nearly a thousand people coming for a few months, in a town that’s only a handful of blocks seems like the perfect recipe for mystery. Within a few hours of touching its gray weathered shores, I knew I wanted to set a novel there. Thick ropy clouds loomed above me while halfway-to-hurricane-force winds tried to knock me over. It was perfect. Thankfully, the town is also filled with ghosts, I learned about them on a “Ghosts and Goodtime Girls” Tour put on by the Red Onion Saloon.

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The Red Onion Saloon built in 1897 when Skagway a lawless town described by police as “little better than a hell on earth”.

Skagway boomed during the Gold Rush in 1896. At the time there were two ways to get it rich: you could mine for gold or work the miners. The town offered all of the illegal indulgences someone could want. Drinking establishments, dance halls, and brothels made up most of the businesses. Skagway never developed a condescending attitude to its sex workers. Most women worked for about two weeks, using an assumed name to allow them to return to their normal lives untainted. It wasn’t unheard of for a brother or a husband to set his wife up in a ‘crib’ and allow her to work in safety.

That’s a pretty surprising idea but my tour guide, a lovely lady named Rosy Peaks, insisted that in the bleak frontier town people were too busy surviving to worry about morals. The town did have a few shocked folks who attempted to curve the sinful ways, but efforts were often meant with sly derision. Sex workers would often advertise themselves by sitting near the windows of their rooms only partially dressed. To stop the practice morality laws decreed all windows had to have curtains. Lace and sheer curtains became all the rage almost immediately.

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My tour guide stands in front of a stored historic “crib” where women would have posed in the large window.

But even an open permissive atmosphere can’t stop ghosts. My tour guide was more than happy to take me to the corridor where phantom footsteps ran away from police more than a hundred years after the brothel was closed down. Local wisdom says the runner is a prostitute named Lydia, who never left her workplace. A block away another girl, who died from tuberculosis, can still be heard coughing through the night. Not all of the town ghosts are former sex-workers though. Mary, who haunts the Golden North Hotel, died of a broken heart when her gold miner fiancée never returned to her. She’s still looking for him today, usually by checking the beds of the hotel guests.

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Coughing still rings through the halls of this building which was been everything from a social house to an orphanage.

I’m sorry that I only got to visit Skagway for a day. After speaking with everyone at the Visitor’s Bureau, the local town historian, and my tour guide, it became obvious that the locals didn’t think there was anything remarkable about their town. I’d love the chance to explore its history more closely, and discover more fantastic stories waiting to be told.

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As a quilter I couldn’t resist a photo of this crazy quilt made up of the girls’ fancy dresses over a hundred years ago. It’s currently on display in the upstairs Brothel Museum at the Red Onion Saloon.

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10/15/16

October’s editing and events

It’s Halloween Season! That’s the busiest time of the year for me, with a thousand great things to do every weekend and plenty of amazing Halloween shows to watch during the week. On top of that, I’m in copy edits for Fire in Her Blood, the sequel to Under a Blood Moon. Thus, today’s blog is more a photo heavy review of the cool stuff I’ve been doing.

Sunday in the Park at Oakland Cemetery

I’ve talked about the amazing green space/public garden that is Oakland Cemetery before, but I might have failed to mention that they also hold large scale community events. This morning was a 5k race entitled “Run Like Hell”. A couple of weeks back the event was “Sunday in the Park”, which included a picnic, costume contests, tours of the cemetery, a classic car show, along with vendors and community booths.  Here’s a few of my favorite shots:

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One of the many wonderful classic Cadillac cars on display among the tombs.

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Civil War reenactors dancing among the unmarked graves while surrounded by picnic-ers.

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Two local costumers who remind me of the covers from my favorite Steampunk series – Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate.

Atlanta Greek Festival

I’m editing Fire in Her Blood, but I’m drafting The Siren’s Stalker, the sequel to the Mermaid and the Murders.  While I sort of know what happens in the story, I’m still getting to know the characters. Ashley, the queen bee from Mermaid and the Murders is the focus. There’s a lot about her that Danny, the mermaid, never knew. One important thing, Ashley was raised in a conservative Greek-American family. To flesh out the details of her culture, I enjoyed an afternoon touring a Greek Orthodox Cathedral and eating amazing Greek food. Some of the best parts of my day:

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A Greek YiaYia (Grandmother) teaches the crowd how to roll dolmas (stuffed grape leaves)

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Candles lit for prayer intentions

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A mosaic showing the moment on Easter when Jesus either broke down the gates of hell, crushing the devil (according to the tour guide) or went to Hades to free all of the souls trapped there (according to the deacon).

 

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10/1/16

DIY or Buy – my thoughts on Fairy Wings

Earlier this week I got an email from Eli that said:

“I googled fairy wings and came across your picture. I love what you did and was wondering if you could share how you made them? I’m asking because some friends of mine are shooting a music video and we wanted to have a fairy in the video. 🙂

Best,

Eli”

Unfortunately, the email address Eli gave me bounced back. After feeling sad that I couldn’t help an aspiring fairy make her wings I realized I have a blog. Now it’s a writing blog, and normally I keep pretty close to the topic, but it’s almost Halloween, so…

fairy wingsFairy Wings!

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Eli probably found a picture of my amazing wings from Enchanted Hearth Designs. More than a decade ago, I bought wings from Deanna at Enchanted Heart on eBay. Now she has a great Etsy shop that produces custom and regular wings. She does amazing work, my wings sparkled brilliantly even after a decade of use. They never tore or ripped despite being worn to the Maryland Fairy Festival and on rides at Disney World. I even wore them to run various Halloween 5ks. (Where I won for best costume, because my wingmaker is just plain amazing).

wings-aloneThe wings are sheer organza surged on the edges with a sleeve that goes over a metal piece which slides between my back and my corset. The metal is a single piece, bent into a square-bottomed u shape. They’re comfortable and travel well in a FedEx triangle box as checked baggage or shipped via ground (they weigh less than 5lbs). A word about cost: wings are not cheap. Enchanted Hearth has wings from $95 to $40. The bigger the wings the higher the price. Mine were around $75.

I also made my DIY Fairy wings using old dry-cleaning hangers and cellophane.

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Simple DIY fairy wings steps:

  1. Pull the flat portion of a drycleaning hanger (cheap wire hanger) until it resembles a hoop, with the hook on one side.
  2. Straighten the hook.
  3. Repeat with 3 other hangers.
  4. Twist the hooks together.
  5. Cover the hooks with duct tape or another soft on the skin tape.
  6. Sandwich the wings between cellophane on a safe working surface (so cellophane, the empty wing frame, then another piece of cellophane).
  7. Use a hair dryer set on very high (or a heat gun if you have one) to melt the cellophane. Be careful not to melt the cellophane, or be ready to artfully melt the cellophane so no one thinks it was an accident.

These wings are worn  by tucking the braid hanger hooks between a sports bra and your skin or by tying a ribbon around the braids to make a harness.

Here are some tutorials with roughly the same steps and pictures:

Simple wing tutorial

Complex wing tutorial

The DIY wings cost less than $15 in materials. They took me about three hours to make three pairs. The first two were epic failures. The photo above is my third set of DIY wings.  If you Google “cellophane fairy wings” you can find some really amazing wings out there. Please remember, you’re not seeing anyone’s first attempt.

Also, bear in mind that cellophane wings aren’t as durable as the cloth wings. I wore these for a day at Disney World. By the end of the day they were destroyed. To contrast, my cloth wings made it through multiple Disney days without a scratch.

A word on wing size: I bought my purple wings in size “oh my yes”. I justified it by saying my wings would have to be twice my height to lift me off the ground. This meant that in large gatherings I had to have a ‘wingman’ walking behind me keeping the tips of my wings from gouging someone’s eyes out. As a smaller than average person (61.75 inches/1.6meters tall) I often forgot to adjust for wing height when it came to doors or openings in the crowd.

I’d recommend starting with wings in a more medium height, one less prone to hurting others or restricting movement. While I love my purple fairy wings with a passion I’ve wished many many times that I got a more neutral color – sparkly white gossamer wings or black veined dragon wings may have been a bit more versatile.

Then again, wings aren’t really about making the sensible choice, are they?

So Eli, and anyone else who decides to become a fairy, I hope that helps. My wings gave me great joy. They became a way to introduce myself and my culture – “I’m the girl who wears 6 ft purple fairy wings on the weekends”). I hope your wings do the same. Good luck!

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09/15/16

Oakland Cemetery mysteries

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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