Friday, December 19, 2014

Behold DEAD HARVEST!

In late 2012, while giving my then-Writing Room a dusting in readiness for our annual writers' group Christmas party, the idea for a new story hit in one of those very cool Eureka! moments.  I saw, quite clearly, a dusty room...only the dust, of which dead human skin is a major component, wasn't entirely lifeless.  Flesh had formed on the walls.  Something within that old house was growing in patches, trying to join together, to be resurrected.  "Uncle Sharlevoix's Epidermis" was born. A few weeks later, I landed for a second visit to When Words Count Writing Retreat Center in Vermont, where I taught a day-long workshop on living a literary life and, as blizzards socked us in for the new year, I completed the first draft of the story. During that wonderful time at the retreat center (where another short story and a novella were completed and much gourmet food was enjoyed), I received the phone call that confirmed our offer on the house we sought to purchase had been accepted -- a joyous but also distracting blessing.  When I returned home, the longhand draft went into a packing carton, and there it stayed until after we landed at our new/old New Englander in New Hampshire's North Country, Xanadu. Flash forward to this past August when, on a Friday night following a long day of writing on Xanadu's sun porch, I received notification that Mark Parker of Scarlet Galleon Publications had happily accepted the story for Dead Harvest.  The collection contains stories by some of the biggest names in horror -- fifty tales in all, with the book weighing in at a hefty/gargantuan 690 pages!

Many of my fellow contributors in the Dead Harvest Table of Contents shared the back-stories behind their stories.

E. G. Smith on "Autumn Lamb":  "The story was inspired by living in rural, Southwestern Idaho, where the friendly residents are easily outnumbered by both livestock and guns.  Millard is the stubborn first-cousin of many of the old farmers I've met around here.  He was originally going to be modeled closely on a good old boy neighbor who calls me up now and then to offer free bales of straw and tell semi-lewd jokes, but that quirk didn't fit the tone of the story and was left on the cutting room floor. I've raised goats (not sheep) and know what it's like to deal with a fox in the middle of a wintery night. Unlike gun-happy Millard, I adopted a gigantic Pyrenees-Bernard mix livestock guard dog, Hoss, who scares the predators away without any bloodshed, red or yellow."

Brian Kirk on "Seeds of Change":  "While I don't buy into the idea that the world is run by some secret Illuminati-like cult, I often wonder about the direction our society is heading in, how it's being guided, and by whom.  It seems like major decisions are being made that impact the masses without any concern over whether or not citizens agree with them, or attempt to get a consensus vote.  Placing nuclear reactors on fault lines is such an example.  As is genetically modifying our food.  We don't know the long-term effects of ingesting genetically-altered food, but Vice magazine recently published an article suggesting that GMO corn was causing farmers to become suicidal.  That worries me, and helped inspire my tragic story."

Jordan Phelps on "Beyond the Trees":  "This story began with a sharp contrast that just wouldn’t leave my head until I put it on paper. I saw a bustling festival in a large field -- there were bright lights, cheap rides, and wonderful smells. But most of all, there was joy. In the back corner of the festival, there was a stereotypical haunted house in which things jumped out at you, but nothing scary ever really happened. Behind all of this, there was the forest: a giant wall of shadows and claw-like branches that watched and waited behind the scenes. It began with this image, and with a young girl named Jane who had to see. From there, it explored the unknown: the differences between adults and children in dealing with it, the deep, primal fear it can bring forth without an ounce of shock value, and the horror of having no one to turn to when it chooses to present itself."

C. M. Saunders on "Harberry Close":  "Until quite recently, I lived in East London and worked in the south-west. That meant a near two-hour journey through one of the busiest cities in the world, during rush hour, twice a day. That journey used to drive me mad, with all the pushing, shoving, and elevated stress levels. It wasn't an easy route, either. A typical commute consisted of a fifteen-minute walk, two subway trains, an overground train, and a bus. If the weather was bad, or if there was some kind of strike or other disruption, it could easily add half an hour or more to my journey, which meant I would arrive at work late, then have to stay late to make the time back. I'm sure you get the picture. Anyway, the mid-way point in the journey was Waterloo station. I actually quite like Waterloo. It's one of London's nicer transport hubs. As I waited on the platform for my train every morning, I often found myself wondering what would happen if I somehow got on the wrong train. And where that wrong train may take me. Maybe somewhere like Harberry Close?"

Patrick Lacey on "Mrs. Alto's Garden":  "A few years back, I moved out of my childhood home of twenty-five years. As I left the backyard for the last time, I thought about how many animals had been buried there. There were countless goldfish, several cats, a hamster, and even a few lizards. Seemingly from nowhere, the location of most great ideas, I thought of oddly shaped flowers and vegetables growing from the spots where my pets now rested. It was a troubling thought, one that stuck with me for a long time. I knew I wanted to use it for a story one day but I couldn’t think of any characters or plots. Eventually, the idea blossomed (pun most definitely intended) and what resulted was 'Mrs. Alto’s Garden.' Happy Harvesting!"

Andrew Bell on "Extreme Times, Extreme Measures":  "My story isn't about scarecrows, cornfields, or farmers with funny accents.  Autumn for me is the ending of an era, the death of a character to make room for a better, stronger more confident person.  Someone who isn't going to be the butt of all jokes any longer.  I used to know kids at school who would do almost anything to fit in, to be accepted no matter what; even push some poor, unsuspecting fellow pupil into the incoming traffic on a busy road -- I knew such kids.  We all did.  And sadly, I think this overwhelming desire drifts on into adulthood.  So I thought: how far would someone be willing to go to prove themselves?  I come from a small town on the northeast coast of England called Hartlepool.  It is a town heavily reliant upon industry; steelworks, factories, power plants...a very bleak place which never seems to shake off the dark cloud hanging over it.  And although the story is not set here, it is based upon it.  It is a story based upon coldness, paranoia, and confrontation.  Finality."

Jeremy Peterson on "The Truth":  "In 2011, a friend of mine asked me to submit a story for a horror anthology based on the civil war. I’m no history buff, but it sounded like fun so I decided to give it a shot. In my mind’s eye, I saw a cowardly soldier abandoning his unit during a battle and hiding in a cornfield. A decent start perhaps, but where was the horror? At a loss, I asked my fourteen-year-old son what kind of terror you might find in a cornfield. How about the devil, he said. Of course my son would suggest the devil, I thought, we did name him Damian after all! So I gave him a big hug and gently shoved him out of the room, ‘cause daddy had a story to write. That is how my story, ‘The Truth’, came to be. That first publishing house accepted the story but they folded before the anthology went to press. So I tucked it away, wondering what I would ever do with a civil war story. Then one morning I spotted a call for Scarlet Galleon Publications’ Dead Harvest and the rest is history. It’s no, ‘The Devil and Tom Walker’, or ‘The Man in the Black Suit’, but I enjoyed writing it and I hope you all enjoy reading it."

Aaron Gudmunson on "The Guest":  "At some point in grade school, I recall reading a story in which the Queen of England unexpectedly visits a peasant's cottage on the outskirts of a poor village (I can't recall the title of the story, but if anyone knows what I'm talking about I'd love to reread it!). I always wondered how that would translate in America and thus the idea behind ‘The Guest’ formed. The story has been percolating in my brain for years and I finally wrote it one autumn weekend before the last presidential election. Some readers have asked me if there is any hidden political message within the story and I always answer that there is if you want there to be. Really, though, it's simply a speculative story about the anonymity of modern America -- how literally anyone can be mistaken for someone else these days…even the most powerful man in the world."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Writers' Group Christmas Party 2014

(Early on the morning of the party, before guests arrived)
Saturday, December 13 was the date chosen to hold our annual Christmas party, our second since we bought Xanadu in New Hampshire's arctic North Country. We were lucky last year -- by December 7, the date of 2013's get together, there was only a thin crust of snow on the ground.  This past Tuesday, a whopper of a Nor'easter walloped us with a foot of wet, heavy snow.  It was enough of an event that we cancelled the regular writers' group meeting, a decision that nagged at me all night until 9:30, when I glanced out one of my bedroom windows to see the snowplow pushing a pile as big as the surrounding mountains had gotten stuck on our road.  It had been gray, gloomy, and cold outside since, but nothing was going to stop us from gathering for the party.  Not even the fallback cushion of a snow date or roads plowed poorly (or our driveway shoveled even worse).

The day before, I'd made a homemade beef stew for the gathering that slow-cooked for most of Friday afternoon.  At 6 a.m. on Saturday, I moseyed downstairs and got to work on a croissant bread pudding with raisins and pecans.  By the time the first of many guests (twenty in all) arrived, my big glass drinks decanter was filled with refreshing fruit punch made with seltzer and sliced lemons, coffee was brewed, and the house positively sparkled.

(South meets North -- writers from Nashua Writers' Group and Berlin Writers'
Group hanging before the Yankee Swap and story readings)
Friends from the Nashua Writers' Group, my amazing support system in the southern part of the state, and Berlin Writers' Group, which I helped create way up here, began to arrive. Presents went under the tree for our annual Yankee Swap, and an incredible buffet spread appeared on the table in our kitchen.  Among the food we enjoyed were: homemade turkey pot pie, homemade mac and cheese, roasted red pepper dip and pita crackers, bread and butter, a chopped green salad, and the aforementioned beef stew. Completing a dessert menu unlike anything I've seen was: homemade blueberry pie, homemade apple pie, homemade sweet potato/pumpkin/squash pie, homemade pistachio cake, luscious parfait cups (made with pudding, angel food cake, whipped cream, and sprinkles), angel food cake with orange frosting, amazing brownies--two types, including salted caramel...to die for!, and homemade chocolate/pretzel candies.

At the September party, guests were invited to select a prompt, which was the starting point for the readings.  I got "You're digging in the garden when you find..." (other prompts were: "Death pays a visit", "Moving Day", "The Color Blue", "The Color Green", "A Murder Mystery", and "A Winter Storm").  I was beyond inspired to write one of the oldest stories lingering in my card catalog of ideas, "Legerdemain in the Valley of Flowers", which involves ancient ruins on an alien planet, a dose of M/M romance, and the notion of bringing life back to a dead world.

(Christmas Party Score)
After noshing, we held the Yankee Swap.  I got #6 in the order, middle of the road.  Somehow, I managed to hold onto a gorgeous new copy of Jorge Luis Borges' On Writing (there was, as always, a wealth of presents, all geared toward writing, writers, and inspiration).  Friends also brought gifts for me and the family that were unexpected and quite lovely -- gourmet fudge, new pens for the first of my 2015 adventures, a gorgeous, handcrafted art hanging among them. The readings commenced after the swap, and they ran almost until six that night, when the party officially ended.

It was, as expected, a fun and uplifting time.  I can't wait until the next of our writers' group parties at Xanadu.  May 17, 2015 -- to celebrate, among other things, my fiftieth birthday on Spaceship Earth.

Monday, November 24, 2014

From the Bookshelf: Losers and Their Friends by Erin Thorne

I first had the joy of meeting Erin Thorne through her submission to an anthology I was asked to edit, Canopic Jars: Tales of Mummies and Mummification.  Her tale, "Jarred Expectations", was one of the first stories accepted.  So when the fine folks at Great Old Ones Publishing approached me to write a forward for Thorne's new collection, Losers and Their Friends, I didn't hesitate despite a work schedule that was and is growing denser by the day. Thorne's book, its meat drawn mostly from a pool of excellent tales that went out into the publishing universe and somehow came back rejected, is difficult to put down once picked up.  Perhaps part of my fondness for the release involves the inclusion of "Jarred Expectations" as one of the collection's reprints; the story is as fresh the second time around as it was the first when it set a very high bar as to the kinds of material that would be accepted in our book of modern day mummy tales.

Stories of alien invasion, holiday horror, an unexpected and antihero superhero novella, and, yes, that marvelous read of canopic jars that contain forbidden secrets are all part of Thorne's vision, each tale presented beautifully with original artwork.  The author was kind enough to share her insight on Losers and Their Friends, as well as news of what's to follow.

I loved Losers and Their Friends—there’s a little of something for everyone, and yet it’s all in Erin Thorne’s unique voice.  What are some of the highlights on the Losers journey that you, yourself are most proud of?
I think getting the chance to work with so many talented artists was one of my favorite elements of the process. They ran the gamut from amateur to professional, and they all did an excellent job. Most of the pictures in the book were commissioned pieces, so I was able to see what someone else’s vision of my story or character would look like. One in particular really grabbed me; it’s the illustration for “South Ridge Superhero,” done by Erik Wilson. He depicted the exact appearance of the man on whom the story was based, after having been given only a rough, one-paragraph description. It was almost uncanny, and highly moving.

Was there a method in choosing the variety of stories for this collection?
Many of them were prior submissions, some of which were rejected and subsequently revamped. One that was accepted had started as flash fiction for a holiday episode of the podcast, “The Wicked Library,” and I expanded upon the story after it had aired. Others were simply tales that I was inspired to write, with plots and characters that wouldn't leave me alone until I’d gotten them out on paper.

What's your process of creating stories?
That can vary, depending upon the impetus for writing the story. If it’s one that was based on dream or a spontaneous idea, I scribble a hurried paragraph or two containing the basic premise while the memory is still fresh, and work it into an outline later. When I’m crafting a story in response to a submission call, one which usually has a specific theme in mind, I brainstorm a little more. I pull from the mundane, often from actual incidents and people, then stretch and embellish the whole thing until it’s a different (and entirely fictional) account. I also do this if I have a story I want to tell that’s based on real life, if there’s an image or a feeling I want to remember.

I happen to believe you’re one of the publishing landscape’s most exciting new writers.  When not writing, what’s Erin Thorne’s world like?
Thank you! I have two children who keep life both busy and fun, and I also work with my significant other at his gallery/studio, Cornerstone Creations, where we hand-pour concrete statuary. I paint several pieces, too; it’s relaxing, and another way to enjoy being creative. We vend at various fairs and events together, at which I sell and sign my books. I love working out as well, although I’m not enough of a fitness nut to give up sweets or fast food.

What are you presently working on, and what’s next for you in terms of releases?
I’m working on a few stories and projects at the moment, some larger than others, and I’ve recently sent two more out as submissions. As far as upcoming releases, I’m excited to be working on a re-issue of my third book, Behind the Wheel, right now. It was picked up by Great Old Ones Publishing, and will feature a custom painting for each tale by the artist Bob Chipman, aka Greywolf Moonsong. Two of his works, “Solace and Sorrow” and “The Lighthouse at the Edge of Forever,” are in Losers and Their Friends, and the new illustrations are amazing. There will also be an introduction, in which I’ll describe what lies behind each of the stories, and a foreword by a special surprise contributor. All in all, it promises to be a beautiful collection when finished!

Friday, November 7, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 Part One

Five years ago, on a warm November Sunday that now seems part of another life, I put my pen to a fresh pad of paper, fifty blank sheets, and jotted the first sentence of my novel Lawrence, an homage I'd always wanted to write to one of my favorite movies of all time, Otto Preminger's brilliant film noir Laura.  I didn't know what I was in for exactly, other than that a publisher had mentioned interest in the book even before word one was written, and that I'd hitched myself to the runaway horse that is National Novel Writing Month. Every First of November dating back to 1999, untold flocks of writers delve into their creativity, hopeful that by the Thirtieth, they will have completed 50,000 words.  It's the kind of pressure and a commitment that may seem insurmountable. Not all make it to the finish line.  Far fewer than those that do go on to sell their novels (there's a great debate about quality among all that quantity, and plenty of chatter about lit agents cringing soon after the end of November rolls around). Regardless of the yay-sayers and nay-sayers, I gave it a whirl, And the whirlwind of that month was unforgettable.

(November 1, 2014 -- deep in Chapter One)
Over the course of thirty days, I belted out the entire first draft of Lawrence, along with a novella, a short screenplay, and two short stories. It's possible that November 2009 may be the most productive single month of my literary life.  I completed my novel not only on time but early, and throughout could not wait to return to the world of a New York socialite targeted for murder, the hardened cop who works to save him, and the delicious mystery that flowed from my psyche through my pen and onto the pages, which flew off the pad at a record speed.

With three friends of my way-cool local writers' group (and several from my extended circle), I decided to give NaNoWriMo another go in 2014, helped along by a literary agent who approached me about doing a M/M-themed fantasy novel (a sort of 'Gay of Thrones', if you will).  At first, I was hesitant; I'd already decided over the summer to work on a project called Different.  Given the deadline imposed by the agent, I did do something different after all -- over a day spent jotting down notes, I crafted a solid and engaging (I hope!) story called Kingdoms Be Damned. I committed to the novel with the agent, more so with the characters and the exciting, danger-fraught world they inhabit.  As the first of the month approached, I worked to clear the desk and then, this past Saturday (a morning far less balmy and sunny than its predecessor in 2009 -- in fact, we woke to the first trace of winter's snow!), I uncapped my pen, opened a fresh pad of paper, and dove in.

(NaNo Swag Bags -- break open in case of emergency!)
November 2009 was marked by lots of icy Diet Pepsi, sipped at numerous venues, like the town library where we used to live and the cozy comfort of the A & E Roastery, where the very first write-in kick-off to that year's literary road race was held.  Public write-ins, in which friends and strangers gather at destinations announced via social media, are a NaNo standard, and normally great motivation to put in one's words.  No such events exist up here in the North Country, so to honor the fun, I decided to create several for our circle of talented friends.  The first started in my living room on November 1, complete with gourmet hot chocolate (courtesy of the Barefoot Contessa), 'emergency' Swag Bags filled with notebooks, pens, Buffy bookmarks, and chocolate, pastry, and, of course, cold Diet Pepsi. I drank a lot of it way-back-then when, that month, we also all suffered from the ravages of the swine version of the flu.  No H1N1 this year, I hope.

(Second Write-in at the Berlin Public Library, courtesy
of Dan Szcezesny)
Our second official group write-in took place on Tuesday, the Third at our town library.  It's a beautiful building with the perfect tables for writing adventures set in far away lands, an amazing fireplace, and books that rise up, up, all the way to the distant ceiling and require those huge rolling ladders to access.  Good pals, the dynamic Judi Calhoun and Dan Szcezesny, who just got courted to write for The Huffington Post, joined me among the stacks for several productive hours. We wrote and boosted our word count despite the presence of a loquacious Marine recruiter at the table beside the one where we were camped with our novels. It was another unforgettable, fun time as we forged forward in our respective new adventures.  Later, we enjoyed a big dinner at home and a wonderful writers' group meeting.

A week into NaNoWriMo 2014, and this Wrimo (as we're lovingly called) has maintained a very healthy 2,500 daily word count -- to reach the 50K goal, one is expected to write 1,667.  I'm only 500 shy of reaching 17,500, and the exciting conclusion to Chapter 7.  At this rate, as before, I'll finish my first draft of Kingdoms a full ten days before the end of November.  Flus, colds, and the many horrors from the fantasy land within my novel willing, of course!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Octoberfest 2014

(the view of neighbor's pumpkin patch from my living room window)
All summer long, while belting out fresh pages and finishing writing projects on my sun porch, our neighbor's pumpkin patch grew and put forth fruit, teasing my psyche with thoughts of Halloween while the trees still held onto their leaves.  One big, fat pumpkin swelled just outside my living room window, its lizard-green hide waiting for the weather to change, and the cold to turn it orange.

There's something bittersweet about this time  of year, especially here so far north in our new home town when the first chill manifests in August.  Summers in New Hampshire's North Country are too brief. I've always loved Halloween, dating back to my boyhood lived in the little house in the big woods, when my mother would broadcast the soundtrack from Dark Shadows down our remote country road to spook trick or treaters.  I love the particular golden bent of the light when it shifts, the colored leaves and their fragrance.  I even love the early twilight.  Right around the first of September, my pen gravitates toward the dark, and tales of ghosts, ghouls, and monsters are born.  This year was no different -- about a dozen first drafts, as of this writing.

(River Fire, 2013)
I love the house my small family purchased in 2013, and as the cold presses down from the mountains and the afternoons shorten, my instinct to nest and spend my days lost in writing deepens.  Every year at this time, the locals come out en masse for River Fire, in which the many rocky boom islands along the Androscoggin River are set ablaze. Hundreds of jack-o'-lanterns carved by kids and kids-at-heart are put on display on the walking bridge over the river.  This year, like our first here, we hosted a big buffet dinner for our writers' group pals and then set off to walk the bridge and watch the flames, where we met other group members, who then joined us back home for dessert.  All who attended had a blast, and I gathered more material for future use in stories short and long.

Throughout the month, I gave numerous interviews regarding "Comes the Rain", my short story appearance in the anthology Wrapped in Black -- to Michael G. Williams and Killion Slade, who both did fabulous jobs.  I also enjoyed an audio interview by the fine folks at Great Old Ones Publishing to coincide with the release of my next book, Tales From the Robot Graveyard, which creeps closer to reality.  Illness almost prevented me from attending the autumn writing retreat hosted by friends from my Southern New Hampshire group but thankfully didn't, and directly upon my return, we had our pipes and basement insulated against the gathering cold -- another of our upgrades to this wonderful old house.

In two days, I plan to dive headlong into the madness of National Novel Writing Month, in which I and zillions of others across the globe set forth to pen 50,000 words in thirty short days.  I tackled NaNoWriMo once before, and successfully wrote (and sold!) my novel in just three short weeks.  I hope to have similar success with my new fantasy novel idea, which jumped into my lap and has made me as excited as its predecessor.  More so, perhaps.

(Ozzie, snuggled down in the master bedroom)
November 1, the official start to NaNoWriMo, is expected to be cold, perhaps even snowy according to the local whether-men.  As stated, winters here are brutal and ominous.  Days take on a grayness that we countered last winter by keeping our happy home bright and warm.  I intend to do the same this year  -- helped along by playing a little game in which I plan to write numerous projects to conclusion that are set in summer months and hotter climates.  In fact, these last few weeks of 2014 are setting the stage for what I hope will be a very productive and happy 2015, what I've jokingly referred to as the 'Year of Writing Dangerously'.  In 2015, the mortgage will be paid off, I'll officially say goodbye to my 40s and hello to my 50s (where have the decades gone?), and I'll take a serious stab at finishing so many of the as-yet unwritten stories that have yet to find their THE ENDs throughout these many, many seasons.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Get WRAPPED IN BLACK!

Several years ago, I woke gasping for breaths that refused to come easily from a dream in which I, my late mother Diane, and my kid sister Lauren were cloistered inside my Grandmother Rachel's farmhouse on Foster's Pond, a magical, mysterious destination from my childhood that no longer exists in the real world.  In the dream, my grandmother was upstairs, trapped in a state between life and afterlife.  Outside, ominous storm clouds swirled directly over the house, and from those clouds a malevolent force descended, seeking to do my family harm.  We waited, eyes wide, as shadows passed by windows.  There was something dark and evil lurking just beyond the farmhouse's walls, and only my grandmother could stop it.

It was a vivid dream, complete with color and emotion, especially for my grandmother who once wrote for Highlights for Children and who has taught me some of the best lessons of my life as both a human being (my grandmother doesn't medicate, treats people with respect, wakes every morning with a smile) and a writer (she kept her ideas in a note card catalog that now sits in a place of honor in my Writing Room, didn't trust the human brain to remember everything, especially when the writer had multiple stories in progress). I wrote the story based upon the dream -- "Comes the Rain" -- and filed its longhand draft away, until I read the call for Sekhmet Press's latest call for manuscripts, Wrapped in Black: Thirteen Tales of Witches and the Occult.  I pulled the draft out, edited it, and fired "Comes the Rain" off quickly (the deadline was fast approaching), and then on a memorable Tuesday night following my weekly writers' group meeting, I came home to a wonderful acceptance by editor Jennifer L. Greene. For a multitude of reasons, there's a special place in my heart for the story -- and also the anthology in which it is set to appear.

Many of my talented fellow authors shared the back-stories behind their Wrapped in Black stories.

Shenoa Carroll-Bradd on "She Makes My Skin Crawl": "My story started as an idle thought about the many forms domestic abuse can take, and how most people think they know what signs and behaviors to watch out for. That sparked some brainstorming on how a magic-user might take advantage of the general populaces' disbelief in the supernatural. Threatening to kill someone if they leave would certainly earn you a restraining order and police attention, but what if you could physically punish your partner in ways that left no mark, and would never be believed if reported? Luckily, I already had 'She Makes My Skin Crawl' on file in my folder of random titles, and the accidental pun fit too well to be ignored.  As much as I enjoyed writing this story, I know many people who have fallen into toxic relationships, and happily escaped one myself. There were a couple points where I had to step away from the keyboard, but I'm ultimately glad I powered through, and I hope readers enjoy my tale."

Eric Nash on "Pigeon":  "Social media: isn’t it great? Especially how it force-feeds our desire for attention. I’ve wanted to explore this idea for a year but hadn’t had the opportunity. Then Sekhmet Press sent out a call for witchcraft stories. Of course the words didn’t come immediately and for many an evening I sat in front of an idle cursor that flashed the hours away.  It wasn’t until a pigeon landed on the digital page and flapped its wings in a post-flight fidget that the creative cauldron started to brew. I should mention that it was simply a memory of a pigeon that had been inside my head since my school days and not a real one that would peck and splat all over my laptop. Nevertheless, the sweep of air its feathers produced disturbed Maddie, a frustrated and embittered young woman and the un-harnessed impetus of my story."

Allison M. Dickson on "Number One Angel":  "Lasso and Cappuccino. Those were the two words picked for a casual writing challenge between two friends. We were to write a short story that somehow incorporated those words, and then share the results. Each of us wrote vastly different stories, ranging from pulpy mystery to dark suspense. After going for broke, this is more or less what I came up with. I wrote it in about a half hour, fueled by little more than my desire to use 'lasso' as a verb, and after some fleshing out I had something slightly resembling what you see here. I eventually expanded it more over time, and have plans to include the events of this story, as well as my short stories 'Devil Riders' and 'The Last Wedding in the Midnight Chapel' in an overarching opus of sorts that has the tentative title Saints & Sinners. I look forward to meeting up with Phelan again, and I hope you do as well."

Aaron Gudmunson on "Pig Roast":  "While shopping at an old-school food market in another town, I rounded the corner and discovered a wall of mustard. Literally half an aisle had been devoted to the spicy golden condiment. Until that day, I had no idea so many varieties existed and realized at once I had the ingredients for a story. During my perusal of the vast selection, the tale took shape: I saw a boorish man who loved mustard-slathered meat more than anything—including his family—and asked myself what would happen if he was invited to dinner by a gourmet chef whose specialty happened to be homemade mustard…and witchcraft? When I finished, I had a story with a bit of acerbic bite. Not unlike, say, a nice Dijon."

Gordon White on "Hair Shirt Drag":  "Stories come to me like knots.  At a glance, I can see the general shape and guess at the size, texture, consistency—even a potential beginning and/or an end.  But to untangle that into an actual narrative requires pulling at one loop or whorl to see what comes next and what comes off.  Here, I started with the idea that hair, especially pelts and scalps, is a common (magical) fetish.  In knot-form, I thought this story involved a sect of rural witches using a totemic Bigfoot costume for their magical rituals, cloaked under an assimilationist guise of Christianity (Biblical references to sasquatch are…debatable).  Worrying those filaments, I pulled out the first sentence and the general setting, but Bigfoot and overt religion were dead ends.  So I cut them, and instead started unraveling the main character.  After pages and pages of non-canonical first-person musings and ranting, I finally heard the narrator’s cadence and digressive storytelling.  However, I couldn’t completely untangle that wounded outsider’s obsession with words vs. meaning.  Until, that is, I found a place where hair and fetishes and costumes and wounded outsiders thrive.  So, in RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season Six…"

Rose Blackthorn on "Beautiful, Broken Things":  "The initial idea for this story was not a particular character, or even a simple plot. It was a place. I saw a street at night, lit by arc sodium lamps and neon. The pavement was dirty, the sidewalks crowded with people. But this wasn’t a fun, bright scene. There was darkness everywhere, people trying to hide their pain, people lost with no idea of how to find their way. Across the street, an expanse of curtained window with oddities displayed. No garish advertising here, no way really to even tell what the shop inside sold. Just a hand-painted sign above the mirrored-glass door—a large black crow holding a human eyeball in one clawed foot. From that strange street-view, and an atmosphere of frenetically hidden despair, came ‘Beautiful, Broken Things’. Even in this spare and unforgiving future world there is magic to be found, although it might be dark."

James Glass on "The Rising Son":  "When kicking around the idea for ‘Rising Son’, one thing was certain: motivation. I already knew how the story ended up, but I never quite knew why it ended up there in the first place. Much like Cal, I have known heartache and jealousy—I think everyone knows those emotions and everyone has acted in a desperate way at least once as a result of those feelings. In ‘Rising Son’, I took it a step further and then leaped into one hell of a chasm. By taking that leap, I stared into Cal’s eyes and understood the last facets of his personality, which had not been present in later stories wherein he is featured. Here he was, this desperate and jealous man who sought absolute power not to subjugate the masses, but to win the heart of a hooker, and possibly impress his father in the process. He was suddenly so human and flawed that I felt for him for the first time, realizing his efforts were focused and with the intent to impress me."

Michael G. Williams on "Stories I Tell to Girls":  "I wrote this story to make a trilogy out of my entry in this anthology and my pieces in Wrapped in Red and Wrapped in White. I also really wanted to visit again with the character of Auntie Ann, who first appeared in a couple of scenes of my novel Tooth & Nail. She is based on a real aunt with whom I spent time as a child. Aunt Mary told amazing stories of growing up in the remotest parts of the Appalachian Mountains and of the pervasive belief in and practice of magic she saw in her childhood. She told me about real witches and about the time the Devil got under the church her father built, describing a setting in which magic was right there for the taking, and I sopped all that stuff up over a small number of long visits. I was raised in the Appalachians, too, just a little ways down the mountain and with a bunch more now around. Some of what Aunt Mary told me about magic was news, but I’ll say this: not all of it."

Mike Lester on "Not This Time":  "I have no memory of how this story came to be. I was sitting in a coffee shop, alone at a table. All around me people were buzzing on their phones and laptops. I had a yellow legal pad and a pen. Soon my hand was moving across the paper and approximately one hour later I had thirteen furiously scribbled pages. This is all I know, all I can remember. I don’t try to dig any deeper. The muses would not be happy."

Patrick C. Greene on "Unto the Earth":  "In the U.S, most of the magical traditions have borne the burden of misinformation, and outright slander, since the settlers. But while Native American and European disciplines are beginning to gain some grudging tolerance, Voodoo remains mysterious and largely taboo. I wanted to explore this fascinating system of belief from the viewpoint of the average American who is still immersed in the concept that it's a quaint, even comical superstition that no self-respecting educated person could take seriously. It's this arrogant assumption that so often causes our suffering, isn't it?"

Thursday, October 9, 2014

October 2014 Writing Retreat to Maine

(Writing on the big porch)
It was the writing getaway that almost wasn't.  Four days before I was set to depart for the autumn retreat to my Southern New Hampshire group's venue, a friend's wonderful and welcoming house in the town of Rangeley, Maine, I got socked by a miserable illness.  As Thursday approached, it became clear I wouldn't be able to attend.  I was beyond disappointed.  My good pal Douglas Poirier -- one of those upcoming names in literature to keep watching -- called and said he wouldn't be heading up until Friday, and if I felt better, he'd be driving right past my house.  I don't medicate apart from aspirin and melatonin, but I choked down copious amounts of the over-the-counter pink stuff, and on that bright October Friday morning, I woke feeling infinitely better. I was a day late, but I ultimately made it to the retreat.

Normally, I'm meticulous about these grand events.  I have my bags packed well in advance, have mapped out the projects I want to work on, and leave nothing to chance.  But this time, with my attendance pushed back to the Eleventh Hour, clothes got tossed into my overnight bag at the last second, and I decided I would write whatever called to me once we landed, no preconceived expectations.  After paying the mortgage and shopping locally for Friday night dinner (I was asked to cook the Thursday night welcome meal but was, on Thursday night, in bed feeling lousy), I hopped in Doug's car, and we drove steadily north through the mountain landscape.  The foliage was stunning, and our conversations on the writing life beyond inspiring.

We arrived and, after greeting my fellow scribes, I camped on a rocker and began work on "Hibernation", a novella that has haunted me since the previous winter.  The fresh pages flowed fairly quickly, and I stopped only to make a luscious dip for chips and vegetables.  Then I capped my pen and cooked dinner for the gang -- a massive boneless pork roast, mashed potatoes, salad, and apple sauce.  While dinner simmered, I snuck in a few more pages, sipped raspberry-lime seltzer, brewed a pot of coffee, and luxuriated in that rocker beneath a maple tree dressed in a cloak of bright pumpkin-orange leaves.

(Group photo, minus Doug)
Our hostess, the wonderful Melissa Gates (another of those exciting new voices to be on the lookout for -- Melissa's just had a publisher request her first novel), has graciously opened her home to members of the Southern N. H. group as well as those in our group up here in the Great North Country now three times over the past eighteen months.  We've seen all manner of the wild and unexpected, including a violent microburst (a kind of localized tornado) that knocked all the rockers off the porch and blew a massive barbecue grill across the yard during the first retreat.  This trip had its plot twists, too -- not limited to my medical travails, which appeared to clear up right in time for the bulk of the weekend stay.  But as I settled down for that first night's dinner with my fellow scribes, a sense of happiness embraced me and I caught myself smiling on numerous occasions.  I slept like a corpse in one of the bedrooms upstairs, and got writing again the next morning after a big breakfast.

For lunch, it was suggested we take a walk to the local barbecue restaurant down the road.  My lunch consisted of an amazing apple cider-brined brisket, fries, and a kale/Brussels sprout slaw.  After we stuffed ourselves, we moseyed down to Rangeley Lake.  A moody gray mist hung over the surrounding mountains, and the foliage seemed to glow against the gloom.  We returned to the retreat house, wrote, and I grabbed a quick afternoon nap while the night's dinner slow-cooked: boneless lamb and vegetables.  Now, I'm not the biggest fan of lamb, but it was beyond delicious and added that proper decadent note to our last big meal of the weekend.

(Saturday afternoon on the lake)
Dessert was a giant German chocolate cake from the famous bakery near where we used to live before we bought Xanadu and moved so far north.  A chocolate disk at the center of the cake bore a single word in German: Schriftsteller -- 'Writer'.  The cake was beyond delicious.  We enjoyed our second reading of the weekend (during which, Melissa gave me a manicure; sadly, no photographs exist of that hilarious and decadent moment).  I returned to my room and again slept soundly. Sunday morning broke gray and melancholy, because it meant the weekend had ended. After breakfast at a restaurant in the downtown, we took our big group photo and began to depart for home. Still, as I returned to family and Writing Room (and some nifty snail mail, including a contributor copy containing my story "Calliope") my inner voice reminded me how grateful I was to have made it to Maine.  I can't wait to be back within that house's inspiring geometry again!  Possibly in April, we've been told.