Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Winter of 2012-13. We still lived in our old apartment (and were awaiting a closing date on this house). For a few frigid weeks, my little sister, who worked the third shift, found herself without a car and in need of a lift to her job. And so, during that time, we drove her to the outer limits of our then-town, to a factory located at the distant top of a winding drive. At that hour, nobody was on the road. Still, the traffic light standing guard at the base of the hill seemed to taunt us, staying red no matter what side we approached from. While waiting for it to change, my imagination translated the red light into a giant, unblinking Cyclops eye. The kernel of a short story idea germinated on one of those late nights. It was cemented on another when, after turning up the drive, we very nearly collided with the biggest buck I've ever seen, who casually tromped across the road after Bruce slammed on the brakes. The buck regarded us with contempt, I swear, before continuing on his way into the dense pine woods. A snow storm thickened around us. The traffic light watched. The story idea was fully formed by the time we returned home, mercifully in one piece.

The following day, I began to pen "1-2-3 Red Light", a story about a notorious traffic light in a remote part of town with a tragic history -- and a thirst for blood. The story's longhand draft dashed itself off fairly quickly, only to soon go into a cardboard box with the rest of my files for our big move north to Xanadu. When I read the guidelines for Blurring the Line, a forthcoming anthology by the fine folks at Cohesion Press, I pulled the longhand draft from my file cabinet for editing on the computer. Blurring the Line would feature a unique take on the horror genre by offering up stories that straddled the boundaries of the fantastic, making the reader question fiction from fact. The whole 'ghost in the machine' approach seemed to make "1-2-3 Red Light" a decent fit for the call. It was. Soon after submitting, Editor Marty Young wrote back to say he dug the story. Today, it appears in the new release alongside a stellar list of authors, many of whom shared the back stories behind their stories in Blurring the Line.

Alan Baxter on "How Father Bryant Saw the Light": "For a long time I've been wanting to write a story that was in some way paying homage to that great horror novel, The Exorcist. But I also wanted to interrupt, to subvert, the strong Judeo-Christian framework of that book, and so much other western horror. I love the cosmic horror of people like Ligotti and Lovecraft, and the non-western horror from Asia and elsewhere, so I tried to meld all those styles a little. 'How Father Bryant Saw The Light' is the product of that desire. Hopefully I at least partly achieved what I set out to do."

Annie Neugebauer on "Honey": "In the nonfiction book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach mentions human mummy confection, a purportedly true practice in ancient Arabia. Elderly people sacrificed themselves by consuming only honey until death so their bodies could be turned into a medicinal concoction.The claim was bizarre enough to catch my fancy, and off I ran. I ended up with a short, strange, epistolary story in a voice reminiscent of Poe and one of the more outrageous concepts I’ve ever played with. So in short: just another Thursday. I took it to my critique group without giving it another thought. Their response was not what I expected. People made noises during silent reading, and when the timer went off there was an outburst. Loud, excited voices. Arguments, jokes, ideas, praise. It was crazy. Honestly, I was embarrassed by their extreme responses. I decided I would only ever publish this story if it got accepted by a bomb-proof market (i.e., You haven’t jumped ship validation). Well, Cohesion picked it up for Blurring the Line. I’m so excited to be a part of this bomb-proof anthology, even if that does mean my crazy-ass story is out. I hope you’ll read it."

Lia Swope Mitchell on "Empty Cars": "My dad and his wife spend a good bit of time in New York, and they’ve told me about this thing that apparently everyone learns if they ride the subway a lot: if it’s rush hour and every car on the train is packed except for one… don’t get on the empty car. There’s a reason it’s empty. And the reason is probably someone who’s having one of the worse days of their life. ‘We can pray for him,’ one woman said about an especially pungent man who was peeling the skin off his feet, ‘but we don’t have to smell him.’ That phrase -- don’t get on the empty car -- got me thinking about how people often try to close off and isolate things that disturb us. Maybe because they smell bad, but also because they’re sad and difficult and we don’t know what, if anything, we can do about them. So the story ‘Empty Cars’ is about someone who’s trying to close off one particular thing, something difficult and sad that she wants very much to ignore, and the result is that it ends up invading her daily life in all these comically grotesque ways."

Lisa Morton on "Woolen Shirts and Gum Boots": "My story for Blurring the Line, ‘Woolen Shirts and Gum Boots’, was taken from a nineteenth-century newspaper article found in a creepy scrapbook my bookstore once acquired. The scrapbook, entitled ‘Sweet Death,’ was a collection of nineteenth-century articles about strange happenings and horrible deaths. Although many of the stories in the book seemed to be more ideally suited to serving as the basis of a horror story -- for example, I almost considered doing one based on a piece about a new preacher who inexplicably went mad during his first sermon before a large crowd -- this story of two teenage girls dressed as men trying to flee abusive families really captured my imagination. I thought about how different things were then, about how the girls must have been both very courageous and maybe a little crazy to think they could do this. I ended up using as many details from the original article in my story as I could, and I hope I’ve captured some of what those two girls likely endured."

Patricia J. Esposito on "Distorted and Holy Desire": "It was my idea to go see the local band. A winter night of soft snowfall. He stood outside the venue, under the spray of streetlight. Black curls warmed his face, snow flakes drawing down his eyes. A small smile lifted. No one could imagine what was in store. A man, a body. Voice and guitar. I thought about slipping on the icy walkway. Instead, we slipped inside, unprepared. “That was him,” I whispered to my husband, and there he was skirting through the crowd, removing his scarf, winding in with his unwinding. None of us, propped on barstools and benches, could really be prepared for the splendor that was to come. But he began to strum, he began to reach; the room evaporated, and our bodies became the fallout of his nuclear emotion. Shattered and yet transcending. I wondered then if death could be this good. And I wrote the story of my fallout."-- On seeing Adrian Perez of Beautiful Collision at Kiss the Sky, Batavia, IL

Rena Mason on "Nita Kula": "I’d always wanted to do a version of a zombie story that had a scientific, fact-based, historical origin, and I’d always loved the premise behind The Serpent and the Rainbow and knew that if the opportunity arose I’d use something similar for what would probably be the closest thing I’d ever write to an actual zombie story. Being an R.N, I often found myself working side by side with traveling nurses from abroad. It takes a strong personality type to come from another country and be able to provide a vast range of care in a foreign land. Growing up somewhat sheltered, I envied this kind of adventurous personality, so I decided to use a traveler I’d met from New Zealand who had a very take-charge, shut up-and-just-get-the-job-done, no-bullshit attitude as my main character. She also probably pissed me off at some point, so in my story I made her vulnerable by using cultural differences in a densely populated, diverse city that’s an external visual paradise in order to push her over the edge into discovering the horrific possibilities that might lie within."

James Dorr on "The Good Work": "Let’s do it then,” Wendy said.  She led Coz and me out of the alley, around to the front door, where we started singing -- Coz just pretending, because of his froggy voice.  We started out with “God rest ye merry,” and then did some “Greensleeves,” and Wendy was real good like she’d practiced singing, or else had a real knack.   
(from “The Good Work”)
But how accurate is the Dickensian image of jolly underage carolers spreading Christmas joy from house to house in Victorian London?  I have read that in actuality it could be more like a shake down operation; the picturesque urchins would deliberately sing out of key, continuing until they were given bribes to go away.  Except that some children may have had a bigger, more serious game in mind -- one in which they must sing well enough to be asked inside."

Steven Lloyd Wilson on "Misktatonic Schrödinger": "I've had stirring down in the depths of my mind this idea of a Lovecraftian story set at the South Pole during a whiteout ever since, well, I read several of Lovecraft's novels on a trip to Alaska. I know, Lovecraft himself has several such stories, there's The Thing, and a dozen others. So, real original, but I had this feeling about it. And then there was that XKCD strip ( pointing out that sightings of UFOs and other such phenomena have plummeted since the ubiquity of cell phone cameras. But what if shining the light into the darkness doesn't show that nothing was ever there, but simply that the room is empty when you're looking."

Peter Hagelslag on "Fearful Asymmetries": "‘Fearful Asymmetries’ basically began—I wrote this two years ago—from a typical ‘what if’ premise, but then threefold: What if current trends of random killing sprees and terrorist attacks not only continue, but increase, and we decide to tackle this by extremely increased surveillance? What if we decide to guard the guardians through electronic and biometric means? What if that very system then gets hacked(*)? I personally do not believe we should use an army of genetically engineered, bio-modified, highly paranoid cyborg cops on every spot where we can expect danger (which actually means all public spaces). ‘Fearful Asymmetries’ tries to show why that’s probably a very bad idea. However, I am dismayed at how certain parts of this made-up story hold up. It seems things are indeed moving in that direction, which scares the shit out of me. To wit, a recent article in the Verge (Who controls the cop cam?): . This story is indeed meant as a dystopia that should not come to pass, not as an accurate prediction of the future. So I do certainly hope it is wrong in its extrapolations. (*) = spoiler alert..."

Friday, November 13, 2015

Halloween 2015 Retreat to the Coppertoppe Inn

(me, looking loopy after a luxurious one-hour soak in my suite's
gargantuan whirlpool tub)
From Friday, October 30 through the First of November, ten members of my Berlin Writers' Group and its extended family retreated to what must be one of our fair state's best-kept secrets, the Coppertoppe Inn and Retreat Center. I discovered Coppertoppe last March after several in BWG mentioned doing another autumn retreat -- perhaps to one of our local high-end hotels here in New Hampshire's North Country. It turned out that the hotel of choice had closed down, leading me on a web search in between the penning of fresh pages to find other possible venues. And, as was often said and emoted during our weekend stay, we made the correct choice in our commitment to this wonderful literary destination. Hosts Sheila and Bill took great care of us -- me, almost from the moment I landed at the gorgeous B & B located on a rise overlooking Newfound Lake.

The retreat actually started for me several days before heading south from my front door to Coppertoppe. In the spring, I invited my dear friend Tina to join BWG for the retreat. Tina and I were thick as thieves in high school, a difficult but supremely formative era in my life. During that time, as I embraced my individuality, creativity, identity, and, yes, weirdness, Tina was the best friend I could have asked for. At the onset of sophomore year, I confessed to her that I wanted to be a writer. We instantly bonded -- I didn't know until then that she wrote poetry. For the entire year and the next one that followed, we were inseparable, often times riding the bus back to her house where we worked on our creative writing endeavors instead of homework, watched episodes of our beloved Star Blazers, which ran at 3:00 in the afternoon, and Force Five, another Japanese anime import about giant robots defending the Earth, that followed. Flash forward thirty-five years, and the star of Star Blazers, the fabulous Amy Howard Wilson ("Nova") has blurbed my book about giant robots, Tales From the Robot Graveyard, and my great friend traveled far north to stay at our home, where we would write and laugh and travel through time before departing for the retreat together.

(Tina on the famous Coppertoppe glider)
The ride south through Franconia Notch to the town of Hebron was smooth and delightful, the fun enhanced by the addition of mystery writer and fellow group moderator Irene Gallant, whom we collected en route. As soon as we landed to a house filled with writers, most already composing new work, I was inspired by the view and venue. I learned that I would be staying in the Garnet Suite, which boasts a bed that would impress Louis the XIV, complete with a gargantuan bathroom covered in about an acre of serpentine marble tile and boasting one of those showers that makes a person recently turned fifty feel like pampered royalty. I carried up my few bags (I've learned to pack smartly and travel lightly after so many literary adventures) and then headed downstairs to the B & B's vast library to begin writing. It turned out that I hadn't packed as smartly but definitely lighter than I'd thought, when my computer shut itself down in power-saving mode, and I realized I hadn't brought the power cord with me.

No worries, however. Bill, a tech wizard, produced the perfect temporary loan, one of several Coppertoppe keeps on hand for those just-in-case emergencies. Soon, I was up and running, surrounded by books and other respected writers, and I quickly belted out the last 2,500 words of a first draft of "Vampire", a Halloween story moved to the front of a very long line of works in progress thanks to a writing prompt given out by the fabulous Judi Calhoun. The following morning, freshly showered (and feeling a lot younger than my years), I sat at the incredible writing desk in the Garnet Suite and began working on a fantasy short story that has lingered in my idea catalog for twenty-two years. After a struggle to find the groove, I decided to take a nap in my enormous bed. I passed out, unaware of how depleted my creative batteries have been, and slept like a baby.

(Me reading on Halloween Night)
After waking, I decided to indulge in a long, lazy soak in the suite's whirlpool tub. When I emerged, feeling like my body had transformed to the weight of granite, I flopped back in bed under the fan and, an hour later, had all the energy in the world. I powered through the struggle with the fantasy story, wrote almost to the end (some 5,000 words in all), and joined my fellow creatives downstairs in the library for our planned Halloween night reading. Irene had given us a prompt of her own for that night's event -- a Halloween-themed story, told in under 1,000 words. I shared "6 x 3", which weighed in at roughly 800. We went around the room, and I got to hear some amazing drafts, including a completed short story by my dear friend Tina, which inspired applause.  Another brilliant writer, Laura Bear (who traveled from New York State to join us), wrote a fantastic story on the spot, one set at the retreat involving the members of the group facing mortal jeopardy. The readings concluded with bags of candy and an abundance of inspiration.

Fittingly, November 1 dawned overcast and moody, with fog obscuring the lake, a preview of the gray time that starts in this month and dominates our part of the world until March. I packed my bags after another of those luxurious, long showers, ate a spectacular breakfast, and headed down to the library, for the very first of National Novel Writing Month's write-ins. I penned an additional chapter of my novel, bringing my total word count to just shy of the 9,000-k mark. By 1:00, the car was packed, the last of us departed, and the retreat came to its official conclusion. A fantastic and productive time, we're already planning our next visit to Coppertoppe!

Thursday, October 29, 2015


In June of 2014, I gave myself a much-needed permission slip to free write, the act of putting pen to paper to be transported wherever stylus and imagination chose to lead me. It turned out being more fun than I'd expected, and highly productive -- some ten stories, short and long, written over the course of almost two weeks. Among the completed story drafts was one titled "Third World", in which a young girl in a dystopian future society labors in a factory job to survive. I was deeply affected by the character's travails, and the bleak world into which she'd been born. There wasn't a whole lot of the usual prep work that goes into the creation of my writing, no story premise or outline jotted down on a note card, no dreaming up the starting or ending scenes. I simply sat on my sun porch with iced coffee and trusted the muse to get me from Points A to Z. And it was more fun than should be humanly possible.

Like the majority of the stories written during that marvelous spell -- a western, a SF tale, several horror efforts -- I later edited the draft of "Third World" for submission to publishers and sent it out the door. This particular tale went to the fine folks at Raven International Publishing, who were reading for a dystopian-themed anthology, A Bleak New World, where it was soon accepted. This week, the anthology debuts, offering dark glimpses into possible futures best avoided apart from visits to within the covers of this wonderful reading experience. Bleak is the brainchild of RIP head honcho Clark Chamberlain. As any familiar with Clark's fiction writing work, daily podcasts, or his stellar The Book Editor Show, Bleak's subject matter is a fair departure for the publisher's normally upbeat vibe. So why did he go the dystopian route for RIP's first multi-author anthology?

"I choose to be upbeat and positive. I have slogged through a lot of life, death of children, divorce, crises of faith, and then there was Iraq," says Clark, a former and still part-time soldier. "What I did there and what I was willing to do there really made me look at myself in a negative light. When I got home I was drifting, had thoughts about killing myself or at least going back to the war. Some of my persona is a mask to hide that darkness, or at least keep it down. I want peace so badly in this life because I've seen the darkness. I feel that we need to confront those emotions and feelings and really look hard at ourselves. Through story we have that opportunity. And on the business side, my then partner and I thought the sci-fi community would be a good place to dive in."

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was the inspiration behind Bleak.

"I read that and thought this isn't much of a dystopia," Clark adds. "Being satisfied with your lot in life, that sounds pretty great. I'd much rather live there than 1984. So I wanted to see what others could come up with and I was pleasantly surprised."

Several of my fellow authors in A Bleak New World's Table of Contents shared the back-stories behind their stories.

Andrew J. Lucas on "Day Worker": "In recent years I’ve moved from frontline employee positions in call centers to management and supervisory positions.  This has given me a unique, well sort of unique, perspective on my workplace.  Being asked to mold the behaviour of employees or hire employees with a specific skillset has let me see how potentially interchangable any of us are.  In point of fact we are all just a set of skills, behaviours and responses to various stimuli.  Heck, my day job runs itself via a set of processes and protocols.  One of my peers made the offhand comment that you can’t teach good customer service skills but what If you could simply download them?  What would the world look like if you didn’t need to spend five years in university to become a doctor?  What would an employment agency look like in this ‘utopia’ where everyone was as skilled as everyone else when they wanted to be?  What if it all went wrong?"

Eileen Maksym on "Incarnation": "I majored in philosophy in college, and followed it up with a master's degree in theology.  One of the things that intrigued me in my studies was the mind-body problem. How much of what makes us ‘us’ is physical? How much of it is metaphysical, be it called a soul or a more hand-wavy consciousness? I would often confront friends (and acquaintances...and people at parties...) with this question: if you were to switch brains with a friend, which person is you and which is your friend? Or are two new people created in the melding of minds and bodies? My short story ‘Incarnation’ is a meditation on that question.  What happens when a mind is put into a new body, and that body's urges are diametric to the principles of that mind?  And in the end, it raises the inevitable question: how is that any different from the war between the mental and physical that goes on within so many (perhaps all) of us?"

Nemma Wollenfang on "GOD is in the Rain": "We all look forward to that bleak dystopian possibility and we all picture it in different ways. Some imagine it as a cataclysmic natural event, some lean towards a fatal clash of opposing military powers. Mostly violence and panic reign supreme and the remnants of humanity are lawless and brutal nomads. In ‘GOD is in the Rain’ I wanted to depict a future where the decline of humanity was not a sudden and violent occurrence but one that was slow and creeping and almost gentle, however ultimately destructive. One where the survivors could not afford brutality. The basic bones of the story had been rattling about in my head for a while, though I didn’t think of giving them flesh until being unintentionally prompted to by a reader of my online story. This individual has always been very encouraging and supportive of my writing… and just happened to have an almost identical username to my working title. It was fate, or perhaps divine providence. Simply seeing their name led me to sit down and type it out. So this one’s for you, reader. Thanks for the inspiration."

(Raven International Publisher Clark Chamberlain)
Sealey Andrews on "Touch Piece": "The idea for my story first took shape while watching an episode of Storage Wars where they discovered an antique medicine doll in a storage unit. I'd never heard of them before and was instantly intrigued. (If you don't know what they are, you can find out more here.) ‘Touch Piece’ is my envisioning of the aftermath faced by a world that's been devastated by rape culture. I wanted to play with the concept of technology progressing toward touch applications, while sexuality moved in the opposite direction -- hands off. I drew on tropes from classics like The Handmaid's Tale and A Clockwork Orange.  Blade Runner was my inspiration for the noir mood and atmosphere."

Josh Schwartzkopf on "Elysia": "Irony has a peculiar interest in our society.  It’s akin to standing in an elevator, waiting for the door to close when someone cries out, ‘Hold the door!’ instead you let it shut, snickering your way to the next floor -- and then the elevator breaks down.  There’s a morbid fascination with ironic situations.  I feel that was the basis of this story.  It’s ironic that these poor colonists have traveled millions of miles to reach a new home planet with a misspelled name only to find themselves living in the same squalor that they left behind on Old Earth.   Even more ironic they are being targeted by an invisible enemy who is killing them off one by one and they are powerless to stop it.  And the final irony, they are religious fanatics who despise technology and abhor artificial intelligence, so, of course, the only thing that can save them is that which they cannot abide.   I’m thrilled that this story has been included in A Bleak New World and through this experience (and Clark’s vote of confidence), I was inspired to flesh this story out into a full novel which I’m currently shopping around among various literary agents." 

Chris Galford on "Clinging": "Tragedy is a staple of the apocalyptic. Not just tragic situations, but tragic characters forced into them. It makes sense for a world that is as unforgiving and unrelentingly dangerous as these visions of the future -- but what is more terrifying, more profoundly heartbreaking, than a character hiding from themselves? I have always danced with threats external and internal alike in my works, but it is the internal which most fascinates me -- the duel we all dance on a daily basis of us against our own minds. In my writing I have the tendency to take this to extremes, exploiting the fragility of the human psyche under fantastical situations. What better chance to explore the fight against the beast known as grief than when one also has killer robots nipping at their heels?"

Friday, October 23, 2015

From the Bookshelf: ONE MAN'S CASTLE by J. Michael Major

There’s a moment early on in J. Michael Major’s brilliant crime novel, One Man's Castle, where it grows increasingly more difficult to breathe. The reader begins to believe he’s there, underneath that house, not simply observing the confrontation between tragic homeowner Walter Buczyno and unwanted return visitor Harris, the young punk who first broke into the Buczyno house when Walter’s wife Dottie lay dying in an upstairs bedroom. Down there, aware of the icy cold filtering in through the smashed basement window Harris used to access the house, and then standing outside with Riehle and Capparelli, the detectives assigned to the case when pipes frozen by Harris’s home invasion lead police to uncover human remains in the Buczyno crawlspace, thus forcing Walter to flee. The brutal Chicago winter is like another main character in Major’s fantastic page-turner, in which equal time is split between Buczyno’s flight and the detectives’ pursuit of a man they at first label a serial killer. A fantastic read, I couldn't put Mike's novel down -- it's the perfect novel for these increasingly short, dark days. It's a great read for any time of the year, in fact.

I first had the privilege of getting to know Mike after we both appeared in Splatterlands, an anthology of unapologetic, gore-soaked horror published by the fine folks at Grey Matter Press. Since, he's become a valued colleague and friend. It was my pleasure to sit down and talk with Major, who took home the 2014 Lovey Award for his novel (handed out at the annual Love is Murder conference), and which was just released in paperback from Worldwide Suspense, a division of Harlequin.

What is it about the crime drama/mystery genre that inspires you as a writer and reader?
The fact that it allows me a venue where I can explore issues that anger/irritate/frighten me in the context of a story. My ideas often come from a combination of something I have read or seen combined with a completely different event that I’ve watched on the news, and I think: If I twisted both of these ideas a certain way and combined them, what would be the result? The crime/mystery genre, like the horror genre, allows the writer to explore the various gray areas that define good versus evil in our complex and confusing modern world. And I try I present them in a way that readers can relate to. 

Please open the door and invite us into your writing space -- what would we see?
There are a couple of places in our house where I enjoy writing. One is at the desktop computer in the corner of our family room. I am surrounded by books written by my favorite authors, photos of my family, and a shelf of reference books when I need to consult something. There is a window above the shelf where I keep my Lovey award, though I usually keep the shades closed. In this space, the surrounding darkness helps me focus on the intense action and horrific scenes. My other favorite space is at the dining room table, where I often open the window to enjoy the view of our backyard and smell the scents of everyday living, like freshly mown grass or something cooking on the grill. Here is where I usually write the lighter, down-to-earth scenes in the story.

One Man’s Castle is an intense page-turner -- muscular writing, engaging story and characters. Share the back-story behind the creation of your novel with us.
Well, first, thank you very much for saying that it is an intense page-turner! I sincerely appreciate it. The novel started out as a combination of two short stories, “One Man’s Castle” and “The Grieving Puppeteer.” I had been writing short stories for many years. My writing friends kept pushing me to write a novel, and I kept fighting it, saying I didn’t have the time needed to write one. But after the short story of the same name was done, the characters of the detectives didn’t shut up in my head, so I knew there was something more there that my mind wanted to explore. The first thing I did was read and analyze how other authors expanded their stories without simply turning them into longer, padded versions. (One example was how Lawrence Block converted “By the Dawn’s Early Light” into When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.) In the OMC short story, Walter got off the plane and the detectives immediately apprehended him. So the first thing I needed to do was not have him get on the plane coming home. OK. Then where would he go? What would he do? The short story version also had the detectives already working together. How about if I showed them meeting for the first time? What are their back stories? What might their conflicts and motivations be? Then I took Walter’s story of pent-up, long-term rage and contrasted it with the initial shock of the puppeteer’s loss and his downward spiral into insanity, and wove them together. I wrote down all the ideas, then put them in order in an outline with chapters that only had a one or two sentence description. This gave me the general idea of what needed to happen and where, but allowed me the flexibility to discover other things during the writing of each chapter. (One example was when Walter stops along the Mississippi River to take a leak and sees something that is very important for later. I was very depressed at the time I was writing this chapter, and I realized that at this point in the story, Walter might consider suicide. So I used my own depression to enhance what he was feeling. I hadn’t planned on that at all, and it made the scene more vivid.) Like this, I treated each chapter as a short story, making it more bite-sized and less intimidating, checking each one off as I went along, until I put them all together and finally completed the novel.

(the hardcover release of ONE MAN'S CASTLE)
What’s the J. Michael Major creative process?
Sadly, “haphazard” is probably the best description. As I said earlier, the initial ideas come from a combination of two separate events that need to “percolate” in my head for a while. My day job is time consuming, and while I am able to jot down ideas or phrasings here and there, most of my actual writing is limited to Wednesdays and Sundays. I also can’t just sit down and crank out a few pages. Like a Method actor, I need to become the character -- what does he see, feel, smell -- before I can begin writing. So this takes time. Then there is the fact that I write out of order. I long ago learned that I don’t write linearly. I wasted a lot of time trying to write the way everyone wanted me to. I finally realized that if Chapter Four is next on the list, but Chapter Seven is playing in my head, then I had better work on Chapter Seven. All the kinks could be worked out later during revisions. That’s what word processing is for. Never think “Oh, I’ll remember how I wanted to write that when I get to it,” because you won’t. Staying in the moment keeps things fresh and detailed. Honestly, I wish I could say that I was more disciplined. But hopefully by reading this, those readers who have hectic lives and want to write a novel, but are overwhelmed by the process, will think: “Well, heck, if that unorganized guy can do it, so can I!”

What are you presently working on?
I am writing my second novel that uses the same detectives from One Man’s Castle, as well as a couple of short stories. Thanks for asking, and for this great opportunity. I had a blast!

Thursday, October 15, 2015


(A thing of beauty, in the hand of editor C.M. Muller)
A long time ago, I moved out of my first apartment and into my second, a sad, tiny hovel (some 350 square feet) in the back of a towering former mill baron's home that had been chopped up into fifteen units. The place was filthy and impossible to keep clean, boasted a scoping view of the city of Haverhill, Massachusetts from its back deck, and was, for fourteen months, home to me, my three cats, and my muse. I don't have a ton of great memories of that apartment; a few. But soon after buying our house thirty-one months ago, my imagination returned to that place on Park Street, given a kind of permission slip to go back delivered via a Halloween prompt handed out at our writers' group's weekly meeting. I mined some of the more bizarre memories and instances of my time there: the giant centipede with the black hide and blue circles dotting its multitude of legs that I killed early one morning, convinced I must be dreaming; the creepy basement where washer, dryer were located, and an enormous soaring staircase dismembered from inside the house led to nowhere; and the sad, constant wails of the stray cats that populated that part of the city. A longhand draft of "Strays" soon dashed itself off in the present, in the big New Englander I now call home, but the experience left me shaken, which I suppose is a great sign for any piece of writing, and which seemed to help my small tale concerning the strange goings-on at an apartment house in an unforgiving corner of the city -- on its first foray out the door to editor & publisher C.M. Muller, who was reading for an anthology of literary, weird fiction, the story sold (and brought with it one of the most humbling, uplifting acceptance letters of my writing career). This month, Nightscript 1 made its anticipated debut, and it's as beautiful to behold as beautifully strange on the inside. Many of my fellow Nightscript 1 authors shared the back-stories behind their wonderful stories.

Bethany W. Pope on "The Death of Yatagarasu": "I was walking my husband to work one morning last autumn when I saw a raggedy crow hop behind the fender of a car. I just saw him for a minute, a glimpse of draggled, blackish-gray and pink patches of skin, and then he was gone. We walked on, and I left my husband at the gates of his office. On the way home, alone this time, I saw the crow again. He was trying to cross the street and enter a large green park on the other side. He was too old and sick to fly, and his eyes had gone a vague and milky white, like antique marbles. He was so blind that he kept striking the tires of the cars that were parked by the curb. Crows can live to be about thirty, in captivity; this one looked older than the earth. I approached him, bent down, and lifted his light, hot body into my arms. His skin felt feverish, as though his heart were a kiln and the door was open, and he stank of rot and broken leaves. I carried him across the street like an infant, pressed against my breasts, thinking about all the crows I've met before, in life and myth. I thought of Yatagarasu, the three-legged Crow, who eats the searing fruit of the sun and brings the world to darkness. I thought about the death of flesh, and the death of gods. Everything ever made has an ending. In the park, there was a bare-limbed hawthorn in a patch of faded green. I laid the crow to rest beneath it, and I stayed with him while he shuddered, and died. Then, I went home and wrote my story."

Ralph Robert Moore on "Learn Not to Smile": "There’s a lot I could say about ‘Learning Not to Smile’, but let me limit myself to this:  Father Panik was a real person.  He founded Father Panik Village in Bridgeport, Connecticut in the late Thirties to provide affordable housing.  In the late Sixties, while working at a bank in Bridgeport (the “armpit of New England” according to Paul Newman), I was assigned the task of distributing food stamps at Father Panik, because no one else at the bank wanted to do it.  Once a month, I received a police escort to the distribution center, where I’d be locked inside a cage (for my own protection, because of the high murder rate), the front door of the distribution center would be unlocked by the police, the long lines would stream in, and I’d have to determine whether each request for food stamps was valid or not (there was a lot of fraud in the system.)   I met quite a few fascinating people during that time, bars between us.  And truly loved my job.  Father Panik Village was eventually demolished by the City of Bridgeport in 1993.  Too many murders."

Marc E. Fitch on "The Trees Are Tall Here": "The inspiration really came from two places: first, we had recently built a house and moved in. I would stand outside, particularly at night, and look up at the trees swaying in the wind and that is when the opening line of The Trees are Tall Here, came to me because the trees were really tall. This part of the neighborhood had been untouched over the years of slow development and so the trees surrounding our new home are tall and, under the right circumstances, menacing and deep. Secondly, I was greatly inspired by Algernon Blackwoods long story, The Man Whom the Trees Loved. Im a big fan of Blackwood. He was really reaching in his stories to understand what lies beyond the veil of reality. I was trying to capture some of that magic in The Trees are Tall Here. When CM sent me his acceptance letter I was quite happy to see that he, as well, could see the story for what it was meant to be."

David Surface on "The Sound That the World Makes": "‘The Sound That the World Makes’ was inspired by two memories from growing up in Kentucky. First, there was a Trappist monastery several miles from my hometown. I drove past it many times during night-rides in the country and always wondered what went on behind its walls. Some friends visited it on Christmas Eve and observed the monks’ midnight vigil ceremony, and their description of it stayed with me. The other memory is a film we had to watch during Drivers Education class in high school. It was basically a collection of car crashes with horrific injuries and fatalities, and was meant to be shown to adults with multiple DUI offenses to ‘scare them straight.’ Even if you closed your eyes, you could still hear the screams of the injured and dying. I’ve managed to reduce the power of that memory over the years, but it seemed like the kind of thing that could take over your whole life if you let it. Those two very different memories both found their way into this story, the way different elements come together in dreams.  (The monastery’s still there. The film, I hope, is dust by now.)"

Christopher Burke on "Fisher and Lure": "The story started from an image of a rocky beach with a dirty old boot on it as a visual prompt.  With that, I had a first sentence, to which I gave an alliterative sound that would help evoke a lonely beach/ocean setting and a rhythm that felt akin to walking.  Soon, a strange kid disrupts the reverie.  One theme that fascinates me is the existence of some degree of deception in language itself and in the way we narrate our lives to convince ourselves of our importance.  Similar to the boot in the story, the images and symbols to which we attach importance can never really be said to convey a whole truth, even within fictions dealing in gray areas.  Alienation and discomfort -- critical components of weird fiction -- are most present in real life when we realize that some fundamental assumption about our world has been turned on its head.  That is the sensation I wanted to be at the heart of ‘Fisher and Lure,’ in addition to having fun with an unpredictable character.  I truly did not know where he/they would go from one paragraph to the next until we got to the end."

Daniel Mills on "Below the Falls": "The story first took shape following a visit to the Emily Dickinson House in the spring of 2010. I am a great admirer of Dickinson’s work and was entirely enraptured by the elegance of the house itself and by the beauty of the grounds. All the same I could not but wonder how differently Dickinson’s life might have turned out had she been born in to a different social class, a less enlightened family, or even to a different time, one with little appreciation for poetry or beauty. These thoughts prompted me to write an early draft of the story in which a Dickinson-like narrator is forced into marriage against her will and subsequently confined to an institution. Years passed and I continued to revise the story until the narrator’s voice came to sound less like Dickinson’s and more like my own. This was unintentional but hardly surprising. Five years later, Dickinson’s voice has vanished from the tale completely. In its place we have the voice of a damaged outsider, victimized by circumstance, who strains after beauty in words where other avenues are denied her. The same is true, I suspect, of many horror writers -- including me."

Charles Wilkinson on "In His Grandmother's Coat": "I live on the Welsh Marches, an area of Great Britain that also inspired Arthur Machen, a writer of supernatural and weird fiction. My home is in Wales, but I can walk over the bridge to England  in two minutes. Borders and liminal places are frequent motifs in my fiction.  The mink coat in the title of my story is perhaps a memory of the one my mother owned. She wore it in the 1950s, but by the sixties it was seriously out of fashion for all the right reasons. It remained in her cupboard, soft to the touch, but neglected and somehow sinister. 

John Claude Smith on "The Cooing": "The story came to me while in Rome, Italy, during my summer stay there a year or two ago.  My girlfriend, who lives there, and I were on vacation -- yeah, I know, isn’t being in Rome vacation enough? -- and at some point in our explorations, I heard a cooing sound coming from an abandoned building.  That’s all it sometimes takes.  I started writing the tale and realized I wanted to take a more subtle approach, something I look to explore more often.  I felt, after I got it going, it had a vibe that related to English horror tales, perhaps.  But…the tale takes place in the southwest of the USA.  Yes, that is correct: I was in Italy, writing a somewhat English horror tale set in the USA.  Also of note, there was one paragraph CM Muller suggested we delete as, well, even if I was attempting something more quiet, yet weird -- the final images --  I had…overdone it (as I am wont to do) in the deleted paragraph.  After I read it with CM’s suggestion, I knew the tale was now as it was meant to be."

Jason A. Wyckoff on "On Balance": "‘On Balance’ is my first story written on commission. Yeah, okay—it was commissioned by my mom. As I suspect is the case with other writers, I am not the only storyteller in my family. So when my mother rediscovered the novelty gift which bears her name, she asked various relatives to use it as the inspiration for a piece of short fiction. It made the rounds and eventually came to me, where it sat on a shelf for…I don’t know…four years? In the interregnum I began writing, er, ‘professionally’, and decided I should pass it on to the next victim, reasoning, ‘I love you, mum, but I don’t have time to write anything I can’t at least try to sell.’ Naturally, having made the decision, the inspiration for a story came to me. What if I couldn’t get rid of it? What if it kept coming back? Moreover:  What if it wasn’t a personal totem or a cursed object but instead its recurring appearance resisted interpretation -- even though it must mean something? What if you received an envelope with the return address ‘YOUR FATE’ and you couldn’t open the bloody thing? What might that do to a person?"

Patricia Lillie on "The Cuckoo Girls": "A monster who comes at you, teeth bared in a full-on assault is terrifying, but you know they're coming for you. You have something to fight. What about the monsters you don’t see? The ones who blend in? Monsters who change the course of your life without you even knowing? Those are the monsters that scare me. (Also, overheard -- and misheard -- conversations among strangers in public places are great story starters.)."

Kristi DeMeester on "Everything That's Underneath": "‘Everything That’s Underneath’ started with the idea of the door and the doppelgänger but quickly become something else altogether. While I was writing it, I was having my own health problems. For a few weeks, I’d had tingling and numbness in my left arm and hand that radiated up into my shoulder, neck, face, and tongue. Something that I thought was a strained muscle. It wasn’t until a few months after I sold this story, that my own diagnosis came in. Looking back, this story is strangely prophetic. As if my mind had an understanding that I shared the same disorder as Benjamin before any doctor made the official call. Looking back now, it feels almost as if I wrote the entire story while in the throes of some fever dream, and the story sits heavy in my bones, but every word is mine."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Summer Lovin' -- Had Me A Blast

(Arrival to Anthocon 4, with the luminous Roxanne Dent and the
equally brilliant Judi Ann Calhoun)
On a balmy August night in 1980, I exited the rear doors of the long-gone Salem Tri-Cinema and my life was forever changed. I'd just taken in the movie Xanadu with my circle of high school friends and was so inspired by the flick's theme -- that our dreams are worth pursuing if we have the backbone to try -- that my life was forever changed. An enormous full moon lit the sky. The air was sweet and intoxicating. As we negotiated the rear of the cinema and ambled toward the parking lot, I had that Eureka! moment: I loved to write, and I was going to be a writer, both end of story and the beginning. Thirty-five years later (twenty-five of them as a published writer), and especially now that I've gotten so unthinkably older, I've come to appreciate the summer months both for the warmth and also for keeping me young at heart. Soon, it will be winter, and I'll be negotiating around the house like something out of Toulouse Lautrec.

This summer actually kicked off early with a spell of gorgeous sunny weather at the start of April that ran for a full week. During that time, I finished a first draft of my M/M high fantasy novel, Kingdoms Be Damned, seated outside on the sun porch. As winter waned, one night while cooking dinner I challenged myself to come up with my own genre. What I created was "Sweat Punk" -- a futuristic storyline in which humans had willingly sold off soul for technology and longed to reclaim what they'd renounced. In late April, I put pen to page and began work on a novella, Sweat Punk: A Love Story. I was instantly sucked into the world I'd created and specifically the love between my two leads. For months while working on the story in the background, I found myself walking about in a daze, eager to return to them and their seemingly-impossible situation. I wrapped the first draft in early July. Like Kingdoms, I soon plan to begin computer edits on the project for submission.

In May, I hit the Big 5-0. One of my fondest goals for my fiftieth year on Spaceship Earth was to write my Space:1999 novel Metamorphosis. I put pen to page on my birthday and, like Sweat Punk: A Love Story, wrote it in the background, throughout the summer. The experience was so uplifting, so ridiculously fun, as I drew the courageous men and women of Moonbase Alpha into the biggest space battle in the history of the universe. I began reading the novel at writers' group meetings and, on those nights, was a kid again.

In early June, I headed to the fourth Anthocon, a world-class conference held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Anthocon saw the launch of several anthologies containing my short stories, including the stellar Dreamscapes into Darkness, where my tale "One More" is cozied up against a reprint by D. H. Lawrence, and From the Corner of Your Eye: A Cryptids Anthology. Most exciting was the release of my new book, Tales From the Robot Graveyard, which sold out within two hours of my arrival to the dealer's room. I managed to escape from Anthocon with one copy, signed the rest (along with a plethora of other anthologies), and gave two open mic readings. My two writers' groups -- Berlin Writers' Group here in the north and Nashua Writers' Group from the south -- were well represented, and over a dozen of us lunched together at the classic diner attached to the hotel next door, sight of the original con.

Most of my summer days began with iced coffee and blueberry bubble water in my Writing Room, but soon transitioned to the sun porch, my summer de facto home office. There, bookended by cats, I wrote a new horror-themed screenplay on spec, numerous short stories, and, during the first half of July, half of a new novel, which I plan to complete next month during National Novel Writing Month. I found myself besieged by new ideas from every direction -- while taking in the Chris Pratt event movie Jurassic World with friends on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon, three ideas latched onto me, leaving me scrambling for pen and paper (despite having an excellent memory for details, I still don't trust my brain enough to recall everything).  I sold numerous short stories in a multitude of genres to various magazines and anthologies, and enjoyed the long, laid back (but hardly lazy) days.

(screen capture from the feature film Brutal Colors, due to be released soon)
On September the third, we paid off our mortgage on our house, Xanadu -- lovingly named after that movie from my formative youth, a place where dreams come true. As I write this report on my summer adventures, a cold wind is blowing down from the mountains, knocking leaves from trees, a clear promise of winter. My plan for the cold months is to do what I did throughout the warm: live, write, and dream. And among those winter dreams, surely, will be ones concerning a return of the greenery outside, the balmy summer breezes, and the upsurge of passion I always experience when the days grow longer and brighter.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

September 2015 Writers' Group Party at Xanadu

For ten years now, between our first house, our celebrated former apartment, and our new house, Xanadu, we've hosted an annual September party for friends and members of my writers' group. This year's event, in addition to marking a decade of great memories (and, often, some great writing prompts for the reading portion of the fun, which have resulted in numerous story sales), was particularly special: it signaled the end of the mortgage on our sweet old home, which has become quite the literary destination in New Hampshire's North Country. In addition to the usual fun (read: spectacular food and first-rate readings), I planned to do a ceremonial burning of the mortgage papers (photocopies, of course), and to share our once-in-a-lifetime fortune with our friends.

The brilliant writer Grace Paley once quipped that in order to be a writer, "keep a low overhead". I never forgot that spark of genius and have, for twenty-five years, done just that, striving to live a happy life, within my means and the means of a working writer. After a wonderful writing retreat with friends from my Southern New Hampshire writers' group in October of 2012 to the northern part of the state, I found this house.  When the price dropped 10 K overnight, we held a family meeting -- if we loved the house, we'd make an offer, relocate 150 miles from one front door to another, and begin a new life, with a low overhead.  Thirty months after closing, we made the final payment. The house became ours. A house that writing built. Thanks, Grace, for the inspiration and impetus!

Back at the May party, I handed out fortune cookies from our local buffet to all guests -- the reading prompt for September's gathering. Writers were urged to use the fortunes inside to craft their stories, poems, and novel chapters. I cracked open my fortune cookie and, wonder of wonders, the fortune read: "You will be recognized and honored as a community leader". The back, prompting me to learn Chinese, read: kan bing (phonetic) -- "to see a doctor."  In May, I had just begun penning my Space:1999 fan fiction novel, Metamorphosis and figured I'd found the impetus to speed along -- 'leader' translating perfectly into 'commander', aka John Koenig, Commander of Moonbase Alpha, with a liberal dose of Doctor Helena Russell mixed in. I worked on the novel in the background throughout the course of the summer while writing to other deadlines, and read Chapter 11 when my turn in the rotation arose.

Eighteen guests arrived on a gloomy, rainy Sunday, September the 13th (coincidentally, a significant day in the Space:1999 universe -- the date Earth's moon is blasted out of orbit, kicking off the lunar odyssey for the 311 courageous men and women of Moonbase Alpha). It had poured the previous Saturday night. The house sparkled, and my office was immaculate following my end-of-summer cleaning/organizing/filing marathon.  My backup plan for the ceremonial mortgage burning was to hold it on our sun porch. But the sun broke through right when we planned to light the matches, and sunlight rained down. We held the burning on our front lawn, with its million-dollar view of the Androscoggin River and surrounding mountains (a friend videoed the ceremony, which included a reading of Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan by our group's famous poet, Esther M. Lieper-Estabrooks, but the video got corrupted). Despite a stiff breeze, the matches lit, and the mortgage papers went up in smoke.

The readings were, as always, spectacular -- I love the idea of fortune cookies as source material for inspiration and writing prompts! The food, equally stunning. Among the buffet offerings, which stretched around the kitchen as is always the case, were: baby meatballs, chicken and dumplings, homemade potato salad, veggie platters and dip, baked crab dip and crackers, a luscious Jello salad, homemade soup, chips, cole slaw, pumpkin tarts, donuts, cherry pie, soda/coffee/tea, candies, and the luscious cake made for the occasion by Cote's Cakes and Cupcake Bar, one of the best cakes I've ever tasted. We'll definitely be using them again -- our annual Christmas party, theme as yet undetermined, to be held on December the 12th, in the not-too-distant future.