10/10/17

Keep Moving Forward

I write my blog posts months in advance, setting the posts to go live automatically. I don’t always know what I’m going to talk about, except for certain posts I always do – my year in reading review in January, my emotional breakdown every December (I’m just gonna own that), and Pagan New Year’s goals for the next year. Instead, blogging in advance is a way of trying to predict the future. Publishing is a slow moving industry so I can guess at what will happen and usually get it right.

Today’s blog is the opposite of that.

I planned it out last June. At the time I was excited about a new project. A shiny new story idea woke me at 3am in early June. At the same time, I submitted the same topic to a very popular blog written by a woman I admired.  The story idea took off, like wild fire. I wrote 60K words in about four weeks. My submission to the blog made it past 342 other applications to the final round of 10 possible candidates. I sketched out the next two book ideas in the series. My submission was selected for the blog!

With all of that positive energy I found myself moving forward with plans, and making changes to things that were already in place. If that crazy 3am idea took hold, if I was blogging on that topic, then I needed to change my brand. I put logo plans on hold. I networked with new people. I wrote a much different version of this blog post, and scheduled it for October 1. It announced all my triumphs and showed off my shiny new position. I dreamed.

Right around when my first blog post for the new venture when live, I started to wake up. Blog posts are tricky things. There was backlash about this one (nope, not linking to it), and a need for last minute edits that should have happened sooner. I received some tough messages on social media. I spent a fairly miserable night. Friends told me I’d pretty much ruined my life, and my name was mud on the internet. Others sent comfort. I told myself “you’re nobody until somebody on the internet hates you.”

Life is like that. You adjust expectations and you keep moving forward.

Except forward didn’t happen.

My emails didn’t get replies. Other blog submissions languished unanswered in cyberspace. At 60k words that book idea dried up like the desert in August. My October 1st blog, written when I had stars in my eyes back in June, was horribly inaccurate. I pulled it from the schedule while I pondered what to say. I’d hinted about my success on twitter, too excited not to say something. Now that success was gone.

As Mental Health Awareness day started to pop up in my life, I realized sharing the story of a professional failure wasn’t such a bad idea. I tried something new. It was outside my comfort zone but filled me with joy for a few weeks. Then the project ground to halt. I’d failed, yes, but in a graceful way. I met my obligations. I treated everyone involved with respect. And, hey, I’ve got an almost finished 60k word manuscript out of it. That’s nothing to be sorry about.

Failure is inevitable. Writers need to eat rejection for breakfast and start over again at lunch.

I’ve spent some time moping. I’m not going to deny that. But now it’s time to move forward again. And if this path doesn’t work, I’ll find another one. It’s not how fast I go that matters, but that I keep moving on. There are too many stories to tell to waste time on the things that fail.

09/15/17

Happily Ever After

An online reading group I frequent recently blew up over a book that ended with a (dreaded) cliffhanger. As much as authors seems to love them, readers I talk to hate the idea of not knowing how the story ends. I admit, ambiguity makes me nervous. My own real life is filled with it right now. Politics shifting my day job in slippery ways, questions about family members, hurricanes, and the possibility of a move means I’ve got a lot of cliffhangers going on.

It’s exhausting, and there’s nothing better for me than to escape into a book. I’m reading recommendations from friends, but only after pestering them to death about the ending. I hate reading books that don’t have a happy ending. I don’t need every page to be sweetness and light, and I certainly don’t want a story with some tension and hurt, but in the end, everything needs to be all right.

If I was reading to learn something or reading about a historic period, I could understand a downer ending. That’s real life. But I read for pleasure. When I’m not editing or on a writing jag, I finish three novels a week. If I wasn’t careful, I could pack a lot of depressing stories into my head, which is exactly what I don’t want.

I promise my books will always feature an upbeat ending. People won’t be perfectly healed millionaires without a care in the world, but they will be hopeful, happy, and ready to take on what’s next. Before you chastise me for being unrealistic, I’d like to point out that my world contains vampires, witches, and ghosts. If you can handle that much fantasy, the idea of a happy ending shouldn’t be impossible.

Of course, a happy ending doesn’t mean there were never any problems along the way. I’m in the midst of copy edits for the next Mallory book and I can assure you all of the characters face challenges. Relationships have ups and downs; a couple even break up entirely. There are bad days at work, and fights at home. But in the end things are all right, or maybe they’re going to be all right despite everything.

Without realizing it, I ended this book with a party, just like Fire in Her Blood ended with a party. My YA book, The Mermaid and the Murders, also ended with a party. While the party came a few chapters from the end of Under a Blood Moon…yep, it’s a pattern. I’m not sure if I’ll worry about correcting it though – the good times in life should be celebrated. Small celebrations for hitting some goal, big celebrations for big events, and quiet celebrations that no one else knows about remind us that good things happen. They help us mark the good times and give us joyful memories to sweeten the hard times.

Because there are hard times – ugly times when we can’t face another day and we don’t know what’s going to come next. And you’ll find those in my books, but not, I promise, at the end.

09/1/17

What we say, what we don’t say

When I edit, I have to block out the world around me, ignoring the news, fun events, and generally forcing myself to focus on word choice, grammar, and mechanics. This year, that editing cave saved me from becoming embroiled in a couple of controversial situations. Now that I’ve mailed my copy edits to my editor, I’m reading over scores of emails (literally several hundred of them) and trying to figure out how to respond.

First there’s DragonCon, an event I’ve loved attending over the last thirteen years. The largest fan-run convention in the southeast, folks affectionately call D*C “nerd mardi gras.” This year some 84,000 people came to geek out. Unfortunately, there were a myriad of small-scale assaults, like the guy going around ripping off costumes glued onto delicate body parts, and one serious incident were two chairs were thrown from a tenth-floor balcony into the crowd below, causing two women to go to the emergency room with head wounds.

I enjoyed parts of DragonCon: the Georgia Philharmonic Symphony playing sci-fi and fantasy themes, the random moments of joy when I discovered new music by seeing bands play live in the halls, the atmosphere, the shopping. But I don’t feel safe anymore. A woman in front of me was grabbed by a stranger intent on pulling off her clothes despite her protests. There was no security and nothing to be done about it. That’s not a party I want to support.

But should I say something? Should I wipe my blog free of references to DragonCon from years past when things were reasonable? I’m not naïve enough to believe there was never a problem at any of the previous Cons I attended, but the silence from DragonCon staff seems deafening. Do I say my relationship with them ends as of this year, or do I volunteer and work from the inside to make things better?

Meanwhile the Romance Writers’ of America, a group I recently rejoined, struggled with questions of racism and privilege. The published authors network (PAN) forum included a note from a longtime volunteer who felt outreach efforts were misplaced. It stated that rather than recruiting and working to include marginalized groups, RWA should only focus on writing. Almost immediately, authors big and small stepped in to say that’s not okay.

RWA has a history of being a group for heterosexual, cisgender white women, but that’s changing. Most of the authors who spoke want it to keep changing. Some of them felt passionately enough to copy quotes and comments from the private forum group onto social media, much in the way I’m posting this to my blog. That’s where the problems started. Until the information was shared outside of the group, the conversation focused on the problem. Once it became a public issue, people wanted to talk about privacy and witch-hunts. It was no longer about discrimination or diversity, but about victims and rule breakers.

The two situations are very different, but coming late to the debates thanks to editing, there’s a common question of what do I say? And where do I say it? Does it make a difference if I speak out on the internet or in person? Is saying something on my blog enough or do I need to plaster the same message on all my social media outlets?

One of my favorite philosophers is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s the one who said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I wish I had a better idea of what being silent means for me, in this moment. I won’t deny this year has been hard – disasters, human rights issues, and violence have dominated the news. I see protesters speaking out, spreading hope, and people working hard to find solutions. For me I think the solution is not to name people or harp on controversy. There are plenty of people doing that. Instead I’m going to write the stories I want to see in the world, and hope their visions turn into reality.

08/15/17

True Author Confessions

I’d like to confess something an agent made me swear never to tell to anyone. Here goes:

I have finished thirteen manuscripts.

They’re manuscripts, not books or novels, because they aren’t published yet. I obviously love writing more than I enjoy any of the other steps it takes to make a manuscript into a novel.

That veteran agent with a great reputation told me having finished so many stories without selling them made me sound a little bit desperate. Sort of like a girl who’s been engaged nine times but never married. People would hear about my accomplishment and not see it as an accomplishment at all. Instead, they’d wonder if maybe I had problem, or even if I was a problem.

But I’m putting it out there, because there’s strength in doing what people tell you not to do. Also because I am, maybe wrongly, maybe stupidly, proud of having finished thirteen manuscripts in eleven years of writing.

That’s right, I started writing more than a decade ago. The first draft of a manuscript called only “Mallory” began on a notepad in a hotel room in July 2006. The story underwent a lot of revisions, shifting from third person point of view to first. Important parts of the world were dropped, like a law requiring all witches to register with the state, and great new parts added, like more diverse monsters from different cultures. I’ll never forget the moment I finished the story – it was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2007.  I started the second Mallory story the same day, titling the file “Mallory Book 2” (creative titles are clearly not my strength). It eventually became Under a Blood Moon. The first story, which consumed my world from July 2006 to February 2007, has never even been submitted for publication.

Meanwhile, my fourth book will be published later this year. Blood, Dirt, and Lies is the third book in the Death Witch series, and in a way I’m only now getting to the good parts. I have a good start on the next book, and plot notes on books going into the future of the series. There’s even a good forty thousand words in a trio of manuscripts featuring the next generation of characters. (I can’t tell you who, because spoilers, but I love reading those stories.)

As long as I’m confessing, I should tell you my failing as an author is follow through. I don’t like editing, querying, submitting, or revising. I’d rather move on to the next story. Writing is the reward; the other steps are the hard work.

That becomes a problem, especially when I realize I’ve been writing for eleven years, but don’t have as many published books as folks who follow through. I look at people who are good at the editing, querying, pitching, submitting, and revising, only to turn emerald with envy. Authors who stick with one story until it’s published mystify me. How do they do it? Why can’t I?

I worry I don’t have enough to show for my work as an author. I worry after eleven years of working ten to twenty hours a week on my writing I should be making more money, publishing more books, and winning more prizes. I worry I’ll never have a book tour, an autograph signing, or a chance encounter with a fan. I worry I’m spending my energy in all the wrong places.

(Seems I worry a lot.)

But I don’t worry when I’m writing. Which is why, I confess, I’m going to go start (yet another) manuscript.

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.

03/15/17

Irish myths, legends, and more

It’s almost St. Patrick’s day and as an Irish Girl I’m obligated to talk about Irish things. Thankfully, I love a lot of Irish things like my grandmother and my mother, strong Irish tea, and crusty soda bread. Some of those Irish things even influence my writing, here’s a list of the big ones:

Darby O’Gill and the Little People
When this movie came out in 1959 it was meant to be wholesome family entertainment. It’s terrifying. I saw it as a child one stormy day and have lived in fear of fairies every since. Darby is a good man who’s a bit of a slacker. He and his daughter are about to be kicked out of their home because of his habit of drinking instead of working. Thankfully his replacement, a very dapper, singing Sean Connery, adds some levity. Darby ends up extorting three wishes from the fairy king. They go rather badly; like death’s carriage in the sky and a banshee that still appears in my nightmares. While it has a happy ending, it’s spooky enough to be a scary movie for eight-year olds and people like me.

The Secret of Roan Inish
This Irish/American independent film tells the story of Fiona, a little girl who is sent to live with her grandparents. While there she discovers her family tree may include a selkie – an Irish seal shapeshifter.  Fiona has a baby brother, Jamie, who has been lost at sea. She comes to believe her selkie ancestor is keeping him. Convinced  the selkie will only return Jamie when their family lives on the island where the seals live, Fiona sets out to make that happen. This movie is filled with magic and I rewatch it every year. It’s responsible for at least three of the characters in the Death Witch series.

Tropical Brainstorm by Kirsty MacColl
NPR’s Celtic music show, Thistle and Shamrock, is a weekly listen in my life. Unfortunately, there are weeks when I have to switch it off, Irish music can get a bit depressing. That’s why I love Kirsty MacColl’s final album so much – the hit singer took inspiration from a trip to Cuba and blended the upbeat Latin rhythm into her Celtic songs. Yes there are some sad songs (AutumnGirlSoup), but the story telling (like ‘England 2 Colombia 0’, a catchy song about adultery and lies) is perfect. This album is perfect for dancing around the kitchen on gray gloomy days.

And then there are the books. My two favorites are Classic Celtic Fairy Tales by John Matthews and Irish Folktales by Henry Glassie (Editor)  Classic Celtic Fairy Tales is beautifully illustrated, with each story followed by a notes section filled with references. Irish folktales contains well documented stories arranged by topic (faith, war, ghosts). Each story is preceded by the first name of the teller and the county they lived in. This anthology with stories from 1825 to the ‘present day’ is perfect when I want to pull a piece of folklore from a specific time or place. These two are the books I go to when I’m looking for a new monster or need inspiration for a character. Movies and TV shows are great, but these more scholarly treatments feel closer to the source. Someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to visit my grandmother’s home town in Ireland. I imagine the stories I hear there will be the ones in these books, with dangerous, beautiful fairies, brave men, cunning women, and a lot of magic.

I plan to capture them all in stories of my own.

 

 

 

01/15/17

Better Used and Destroyed than Unused and Perfect

I don’t talk much about my halcyon days at Flagler College. I cherish them, but keep them close. My best friend from school, Donalyn Frank, died in 2010. The Mermaid and the Murders is actually all about Donalyn, but I keep that close too. When hurricane Matthew ripped through Saint Augustine, I searched out news of the place where I finally fit in, the school where I learned so much, and the hometown I’ll always miss. Pictures of sharks swimming over the sidewalk where I used to walk and my precious college drowning left me filled with a sense of fealty, even as I knew my ties to that idyllic place were slipping. After all, my Flagler College mug is fading.FullSizeRender

About twenty years ago, every Flagler College graduate got a mug with their graduation date written in gold script, beneath our lion mascot. I kept it safe through my many moves, wrapping it in a dishtowel, then putting it in the plastic box – not trusting bubble wrap and cardboard. When it got unwrapped it went on a shelf to be admired, or in one very small apartment, on my writing desk to hold pencils. In nineteen years and nine moves I never drank from it. It was too special.

After a trying day I found myself wishing for a drink. Unfortunately, I wished out loud and an amazing waitress offered to get me one. When I explained that I can’t have alcohol and shouldn’t have caffeine, she summoned the bartender, Patrick, who took my problem as a challenge. He customized not one, but two ‘mock-tails’, cocktails without a drop of alcohol, and sent them to the table. One of them turned out to be bliss in a glass, a nirvana of sweet but not too sweet, garnished with a Luxardo cherry.

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As rare as they are wonderful Luxardo cherries come from one place in the world, a lucky town in Italy. Dark, sweet, and tart without a hint of bitter, there’s no good way to explain the bliss of savoring a Luxardo cherry. The juice is just as impeccable. Before I left the restaurant that night, I’d written Patrick into a novel (he’s on page 68 of Fire in Her Blood), christened the drink a Rachel, and bought my first jar of Luxardo cherries from Amazon. They aren’t cheap – twenty-five dollars gets you about thirty-five cherries – but mixing the sweet cherry syrup-juice they come packed in with club soda is my favorite way to turn a bad day around.

Which brings me back to my Flagler College mug. I reverently wrapped it again for our third move in nine months (2016 had a lot of moves even for me) put it in a box and promptly forgot it existed. I didn’t have as much counter space for knickknacks in the new place. I expected it to stay in the box until the next move. But my cherry cocktail needed exact measurements, a ratio of cherry syrup to club soda that produced the perfect blood red drink sensation, and all my glasses were opaque. The Flagler College mug was unwrapped at Halloween, and ruined by Christmas.

It seems the oh-so-carefully preserved mug was better as a pencil jar than an actual mug. Washing it chipped the gold enamel finish, and after one particularly hot bath of suds, the proud Flagler loin was wiped away by my dishcloth. Gone. The lettering has made it a bit longer, you can still my graduation date but the year is fading. I suspect it will be a nothing but a glass mug in another few months of service.

And I’m glad.

I’ve had more joy using that mug in the last three months than I did carrying it for nineteen years. In all that time it could have been lost or shattered, but instead it remained pristine but spiritless. When I unknowingly began its destruction, I made it part of a ritual to bring comfort on bad days. Happiness has a price, I guess, and I’ll only get to use the magic of my Flagler College memories a little longer. Not using the mug might have preserved it, but I realize now, preservation isn’t the always the best way to honor a thing you love. Sometimes using something up, hugging the stuffing out of the teddy bear, staining the quilt with picnic dirt, and loving something so hard there’s nothing left to love, is the best thing you can do.

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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