Some days the best part of writing is the research:
The next Mallory book is going to take place in and around New Orleans. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the French Quarter soaking the essence of the city…and sipping hot chocolate while eating beignets from Cafe Du Monde. Walking around New Orleans I can’t help but wonder about the person I might have been if I had followed through on my carefully detailed plans to run away to the city the day after high school graduation. Would I have written the same books?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Labor Day weekend means DragonCon for me, at least most years. Other folks expect to bar-be-que or drink some beers. Me? I’m hoping to ride the dragon, literally:
There’s more to the con than costumes, but any Con report would be remiss not to include them. This year some of my favorites included costume designers who envisioned another world. One designer imagined a regency period where British Colonialism didn’t exist and allowed Caribbean and African influences to flourish. Another pair created a gender swapped Avengers set in the Civil War era:
There are also costumes with very large props, such as the life-size Luck dragon with the Empress from Never Ending Story.
But the real beauty of DragonCon for me is the way science becomes fun, and learning difficult new ideas turns into a party game.
In this panel, three distinguished scientist (geologist, astronomer, and marine biologist) told stories. The audience had to guess which of the three were lying. After six rounds we determine the marine biologist should never play poker and marine mammals do terrible things. Dolphins get high chewing puffer fish; Killer Whales kill sharks and eat their liver for fun; and those adorable cuttlefish are cannibals.
Later in the same room I’d learn about opti-genetics, the emerging science of turning on and off parts of the brain (neurons/nerves) by flashing different types of light. Take a look at what this science can do. Making a mouse run in circles seems a little cruel, but as someone who suffers from seizures I’m very interested in what other things we might be able to control this way.
Across the hall in the Space track room, I learned about the secret town of Oakridge, TN and the young girls who perfected the process to refine uranium there. Hired because they didn’t ask questions, separated from their families, and working under horrible conditions, they made history. The panel discussed the book The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Listening made me itch to start writing a historic fiction novel set in the same town.
I adore the Georgia Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra’s presentations on Saturday night. No place else in the world features that many talented musicians playing the familiar songs I love. This year’s set included three Batman themes, the theme song from Firefly (with a live banjo!), songs from Star Wars and Star Trek, and a vocal performance of the Misty Mountains Cold from The Hobbit. I and over 3000 of my new best friends knew the performance was worth the hour and a half wait.
That wait was indicative of the biggest problem I had at Con this year: crowds. With 77,000 geeks and at least a few thousand locals thrown into the mix on Saturday, the crowds were enormous. Suddenly even simple tasks like drinking water or walking ten feet ahead became a challenge. The dealer’s room, normally a vault of geeky treasures, became an enforced march where you couldn’t stray from the crush of people until it was shut down due to over crowding.
Which at least partially explains why this was the first DragonCon that I didn’t bring home a new corset. I absolutely fell in love with KMK designs. Their corsets were unique, innovative, well made, and surprisingly affordable. My last corset was a generically sized, came wrapped in plastic kind of corset, while KMK is a custom sized with a mock up to ensure perfection. If I’m going to invest in a custom-made couture corset I want to savor every second of its construction, something that isn’t possible in a giant crowd. So while I want one, oh yes I want one, it will have to wait. Thankfully, there were enough great times at Con that I’m not too disappointed about that.
I’m not sure when I got hooked on the Night Vale Community radio hour, the fictional radio broadcast that serves as entry into the world of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast. I’m sure I’ve only been listening for a few years. I caught on late, and Welcome to Night Vale didn’t start broadcasting until 2012. Somehow it seems like it’s been around much longer, like I’ve been listening forever.
Things like that happen a lot in Night Vale.
It’s like any other town, except that there’s a dog park that might be a portal to another dimension, and the secret police have outlawed learning. Or maybe learning is allowed again but wheat isn’t. In either case, the library is a dangerous place and the government keeps track of all middle school secrets. Oh, and there’s a five headed dragon running for mayor. So like any other small town, but not in most of the ways you think.
Narrated by Cecil, a wonderful radio host whose thoughts turn out to be deeper than you’d think, each week’s story is an encapsulated plot broken up by “the weather” – a single song by little known independent groups. It’s an example of the slow pay off of a story so strange it takes a minute for you to realize it. I can never tell how much of an episode is real and how much is story. I’m not alone.
Earlier this year I had the good fortune to see the live show entitled “Ghost stories”. Before the doors opened, fans showed off costumes and argued plot lines. (Is the whole show set in the afterlife?) With all its oddness, Night Vale celebrates scientists, like Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend, and the group was happy to scientifically pick things apart. When the story started though, all that ended. Enraptured silence fell over the audience.
There are many different types of ghost stories in the world. Welcome to Night Vale’s ghost stories were about the ghosts of who we could have been if we’d done the right thing. Ghosts of people who weren’t addicted, who parented well, and who made good choices paraded across the stage in the final minutes. Those last stories hit somber notes, leaving the audience moved and maybe saddened. Normally I avoid moments like that, life has enough trouble on its own, but after all the joy I’ve found in the off-kilter town of Night Vale, the bittersweet didn’t bother me.
I love the juxtaposition of historic values and modern settings. One of the reasons I write with vampires is the unique chance they give me to explore cultural shifts and changing social roles. In my book, Under a Blood Moon, I have two vampires, Jakob, born around 1360 and, Mark, born 1574. Jakob, a devout Catholic, values family and faith. Mark is more calloused and cynical. That’s probably enough to start writing but to really flesh out a character you need more. When you dig into the history you learn that most men in Jakob’s time couldn’t read. They knew famine personally and would have lost family members to starvation. Their church offered not only solace but also support and safety. Knowing that about him improves my writing. There’s no way around it, to really understand how historic characters think you need to do research.
While I enjoy the usual kinds of research, like reading academic articles and history books, my favorite kind of research is more hands on. I talk with and interview historic reenactors. Most people are familiar with Civil War reenactors. Many Southern states hold large scale battles and encampments in the summer. But there’s more than just the Civil War out there. In St. Augustine, where I went to college, encampments from the 16th century were common. I spent more than one summer night awkwardly pressed in a crowd of women and children forced into the old fort while cannons fired around me, trying to beat back English forces as if it was still 1586. For years I interacted with people who slept, ate, and dressed in that time period. It’s no surprise that I based Mark on what I learned. His favorite breakfast is the one I saw being eaten in the camps, his political views are shaped by the discussions I had with the reenactors while they ate.
I was recently lucky enough to find an event that focused not on one battle or time period, but brought them all together. Military through the Ages showcased encampments from a Roman Legion (64 A.D.) to the current Virginia Army National Guard. While it was hard to pull myself away from the Fenvald Vikings, the good people of La Belle Compagnie who reenact the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337 to 1453) were my best resource of the day. I learned about cooking, cleaning, women’s roles vs. men’s roles, and how fighting really worked in the time period. Reading about swords is good, holding the sword and talking to someone who uses period techniques to make swords is even better.
The event included a lot of hands on demonstrations, some of them given by people who aren’t just reenacting, but remembering. This lovely woman was a member of British Women’s Land Army during WWII.
The Women’s Land Army took on the jobs left empty by soldiers. They planted and harvested crops, milked cows, and ran the home front. Despite all this, I’d never heard of them. I folded their story into the background of Margaret, Jakob’s love from the 1940s and the grandmother of his adopted son. Not far from the encampment, one of the wonderful women offered to pin my hair up. While Margaret and I don’t have the same hair, I know the way the bobby pins scraped across my scalp will end up in a book somewhere.
To me history is a dying solider on a battlefield telling you his story. Reenactments give us a chance to talk to those soldiers, and ask them about the little things we might not be able to read about so easily. When you’re lucky you get a chance to feel a piece of history (or something pretty close) for yourself.
As I type these words, a cold rain falls down, turning to ice almost the instant it touches something. Icicles cling to the eaves of the roof, the edges of cars, and any living thing that holds still. We’ve slogged through snow since Tuesday, but next Wednesday will be seventy degrees. More snow arrives on Thursday. The ping-pong of Spring weather makes me dream of the summer, when I took clear, dry roads into the middle of nowhere to find things to put in a book someday.
Last August, I sought out Rosewell Plantation. Just one or two steps above a road side attraction, Rosewell mattered once. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find the place. You take a rural highway, pass historic battlefields, go over a bridge, and then wind through farmland long enough to be sure you’re lost. The houses hide behind pines and oaks, bright red pickup trucks show in between the branches. If you’re lucky, you stopped at the 7-11 nine and half miles before for a bottle of water or a clean bathroom. Your only other option is the plantation visitor center or a tree.
Besides the bathroom and the small refrigerator with the cool bottles of water, the visitor center holds a one room exhibit of artifacts found at the house. Learn about the rough draft of the declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson wrote here or watch a quick movie about the restoration efforts. The gift shop boasts two display cases filled with out-of-print books, talked up by a volunteer who works hard to sell them. I couldn’t tell if her enthusiasm came from desperation, boredom, or devotion. In any case she walked out to the shell paved parking lot and pointed to the right. The land around the plantation is rented to farmers, corn in the front, soy closer to the main house. She warned me at least twice not to pick any of it, and to stay out of the fields.
The road to the plantation is paved only with dirt. If you let your hand drift outside the window you risk feeling the slap of corn stalks. An uncomfortable drop off exists between the soy bean plants and the road, a two foot rise of crushed shells and white dirt. It’s not like the car would have an accident, but the wire around the beans would surely snap, ruining a paint job, so it’s best to drive straight, trying not to think about what would happen in the one lane space if another visitor was leaving at that time.
In 1725 they called it the grandest home in the nation. In 1916 it burned to the bones.
For a few decades Rosewell was something of a local celebrity. Kids came out to play here, each one leaving their mark on the antique bricks. The names are clearly visible, some have dates scratched into them. I spent a few minutes trying to follow a timeline of my life in them. A brick for the year my brother born showed up quickly, one for the year I was born took a bit more time. They stop soon after the house won its place on the National Historic Register but Joey and TJ haven’t been erased.
Restoration efforts seem shaky. Groups come out to plaster over brick. Modern beams are sunk to support the old structure. But somehow the work doesn’t seem to have gone on lately, certainly not this week or last, probably not in the last month. The volunteer warned us about ticks in the interior of the house. There was a problem with funding for the proper weed-eater, the bugs couldn’t be controlled in the high grasses. I didn’t mind, the wildflowers and high grasses added to the air of companionable neglect. You could tell from walking around Rosewell that a small group of people loved it. They wanted it to be grand again, to remind the world of how important it had been once. There’s something wonderful about local people fighting to keep a local place from being forgotten by the rest of the world.
The wind blows down the city street and strangers huddle together against the dark. In front of them a storyteller spins a tale that’s almost unbelievable. As they walk through the parks and residences, alleyways and historic markers, the stories keep coming. The group leans in eager to hear. Scared or bored, their feet hurting or their hearts pounded, they have in common: ghosts.
I go on a ghost tour whenever I get the chance. On a regular tour, I’m the girl who asks if there have been any ghost stories. I tell myself I’m not obsessed, that ghost stories are some of the best stories around. They feature strong emotions, and deep dark moments. Most ghost tours share a few tropes if not entire stories. There’s almost always a bride, killed on her wedding day, and haunting in her wedding dress. In Philadelphia and Alexandria, VA she burned to death. In Savannah she died of greed, poisoned by embalming fluid in the dress stolen from her sister’s corpse. Typically a child ghost makes an appearance, sometimes bringing friends, usually playing or laughing in a way that should be cute but comes out as creepy.
Ghost tours used to be hard to find. My first Savannah ghost tour was conducted by a private guide. At $60 for the afternoon, she worked out to be cheaper than most, and more friendly. The last time I went back the city offered haunted carriage rides, pirate tours, haunted walking tours, and a ghost tour every night. With so much competition picking the right ghost tour becomes a tough choice. I’d suggest a tour lead by someone with a background in history or literature. Despite their very sensational website, Grim Philly tours were all written by a history professor and are given by history students. They were also the only tour I’ve been on that took us to specialists along the way.
Guides can be serious or eager, occasionally dressed in costume. Lord Chaz leads tours in the French Quarter of New Orleans wearing a vintage mortician’s suit and top hat. His tour didn’t offer any stories I hadn’t heard before, but it was the only one I’ve been on where my tour guide got arrested. Guides take their work very seriously, and may have even published a book of ghost stories (available for purchase at the end of the tour). It’s considered poor form to correct them, even when you know they left out a part of the story. Similarly, if your guide holds up a poorly rendered photograph that ‘proves’ ghosts, don’t heckle.
Ghost tours tend to focus on ghosts, but a few stories may slip in that are only ‘spooky’. In Charleston it was a failed love affair by Edgar Allen Poe. We sat on library steps in the moonlight, hearing about the inspiration for his Annabelle Lee poem – a very real woman he wasn’t allowed to court. Other options include historic buildings, markers of historic events, or criminal proceedings.
Adults don’t get to ask someone ‘tell me a story’. We read books, but that’s only close to the experience of a hearing someone spin a tale. If you’re lucky your family sits around a table telling stories. If you’re not, try a ghost tour. They might not be 100% true, or faithfully accurate, but they’re always a memorable time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)