Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Yellow Roses rollin' down the river

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
14,685 / 90,000

By the way, going back and reading your own published work is NOT recommended. You will see all the places the publisher took out perfectly good commas and that place where you used the same descriptive phrase twice in the same paragraph, and there's nothing whatsoever to be done about it.

Research Today:

• When shooting a major structure fire at night, you would still use a flash if you had firefighters in the foreground. Otherwise, they would not be clearly visible. The real key is the camera - some cameras can autofocus at night with varying light sources and some can't. It's a crapshoot.
• Diptheria was a very gross disease, and definitely still around in the early 20th century.
• A disturbing side trip that ended with the Wikipedia entry on the penis of the Mad Monk Rasputin, and I wish I could scrub THAT from my brain.

Monthly Day Off

Once a month, I work on a weekend. We all gotta do it, on a circulating schedule decreed by our masters at the newspaper. On a week that you work a Saturday or Sunday, you get a weekday off to compensate.

So once a month, I get a single day off work, with no kid. He's at school, and the paper just has to manage without me. It's my mental health day, or so I always think of it. Of course, it's crammed full of Stuff To Do, so it's not exactly restful. Sometimes I think of it as my Other Life Day, in which I get a brief look at what my life would be like as a full-time freelance writer instead of a full-time reporter/full-time mom/half-time writer/full-time juggler. Juggling in a house of cards, that's my favorite analogy.

It goes roughly like today:

7 a.m. Alarm goes off. Smack it into submission.
7:20 a.m. Haul ass out of bed and kick child into motion.
7:30 a.m. Shower.
8 a.m. Yell at child for not being ready.
8:25 a.m. Take child to bus stop. (So far, same as a normal day.)
8:30 a.m. Child gets on bus.

8:35 a.m. Relax with cup of tea and laptop, to read email and blogs in calm and peace.

9:30 a.m. Turn on Book Playlist and work on the book.

11 a.m. Prepare chicken for crock pot. Realize don't have all the ingredients. Consider and reject mad dash to grocery store. Too hot. Make due with what one has.

11:30 a.m. Check email and blogs again.

noon - Venture out into world with good intentions of running errands. Drop by office for potluck party - hey, free food, and it's a worthwhile celebration.

1:15 p.m. Drive past three grocery stores muttering that I really don't need most of the stuff on the list yet.

1:30 p.m. See the new bookstore in town is finally OPEN. Drop in to smell books. Run quick check in mystery/thriller, horror and romance. Realize they are NOT carrying your books. Yet.

2 p.m. Return home, not having gone to the grocery store. Laptop stares accusingly. Kitchen smells vaguely of chicken. Lie down for "brief rest" because it was frakking hot out there.

4:30 p.m. Awaken from "brief rest" and realize you really must have needed that nap and therefore should not be feeling guilty about it.

4:45 p.m. Check email and blogs. Nothing much has changed. Go to make corn muffins for dinner and realize you really DID need milk.

5 p.m. Start writing silly blog entry about your exciting day as a full-time writer.


Now my prediction as to the rest of the day:

6 p.m. Retrieve child from afterschool program. Wait through excited tales of the day before telling him I have a surprise for him.

6:15 p.m. Pull up to new bookstore. Listen to boy squee. Take him inside and resign self to purchase of at least one book.

6:45 p.m. Mull that all we REALLY NEED is milk, toilet paper and beer. Consider that I could buy that at the convenience store for only twice what the grocery store would charge. Reconsider that grocery store is almost literally next to the bookstore. Tune in for result of internal debate.

7 p.m. Return home. Make corn muffins while chicken theoretically finishes cooking. Do dishes.

7:30 p.m. Serve dinner. At the table. On plates. With glasses full of milk. Wait for child's jaw to drop.

8 p.m. Order child to shower. Then back to shower to shampoo this time. Then back to bathroom to brush his fangs.

8:15 p.m. Book time. Almost finished with CHARLOTTE'S WEB. Prepared for the sniffles.

8:30 p.m. Boy goes to bed.

8:45 p.m. Pour beer and check email and blogs again.

9 p.m. Get back to work on the book.

11 p.m. Wrap up for the day. Put away leftovers. Collapse in bed.

Not so bad, right? Except, um, much of the day is taken up with silly stuff having nothing whatsoever to do with the book, right? And then there's that To Do List of Doooom that got totally ignored. And the fact that I might go totally insane from the lack of adult conversation by the fourth day.

And how much I'd miss the news. Just that brief time I was in the office, and I was checking the wire. Sue me.

But it might beat juggling in a house of cards. Oops, time to arrange child care for Saturday.

Yellow Roses report

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
8,043 / 90,000

Seems like I'm rolling, right? Heh. This is the EASY part. I haven't gotten to the WHOLE NEW FREAKIN' CHAPTER yet.

Tonight's Research:

RVs: Medium-sized RV show in St. Louis next month. Planning to attend so I can poke around a big residential-size RV without being expected to buy one.
Asphalt: consulted old stories on REAL asphalt plant that caught fire twice in one year. I don't know if I'll stick with this technology. Can they sue me? Any other kind of factory that's prone to ginormous fires?
Don't want to choose a denomination for Rev. Quinn's church, but I may have to. "Trinity" just isn't enough. Should I insult the Lutherans or the Presbyterians?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Yellow Roses, final draft

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter
4,182 / 90,000

At least, that's the theory.

This is the easy part. I've reimagined the beginning so many times that the rewrite is mostly language. The only flaw I've already run into is the fact that Cat Suarez lives in an RV and I've never been inside one. It's time to rectify that. How to get a tour of an RV without misleading the salesman into thinking I'm buying one? That's harder.

I am determined to work steadily on this book, at least 2,000 words a night, until it is done. Finis. THE END. If there's something my career woes have taught me, it's that I don't write enough. The length of time between releases is unacceptable.

More work, and faster. Not to mention I'm dying for YELLOW ROSES to make it into print. I can only hope the readers love it as much as I do. You can't get much more painfully angst-ridden than this book. (Well, except POLARIS, but that's another story. Heh.)

Today's Research Included:
• Catalina is a salad dressing.
• Adolph Hitler was writing Mein Kampf in 1926.
• Diptheria was common in the 1860s.
• The Kaiser was long out of power by 1925.

Now to come up with a factory that goes boom while doing a minimum of research. Hmmm.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Random Ghost Fact: The Mississippi Queens

In 1872, the massive Iron Mountain sternwheeler left New Orleans with an entire flotilla of barges and 55 crew and passengers. It was last seen turning a bend in the river. The barges were found floating on the water by the steamer Iroquois Chief, following not far behind. The tow rope had been cut, not broken.

But the boat was far too large to simply sink. The water was too shallow to hide the Iron Mountain's massive bulk. But no wreckage has ever been found.

In 1873, the Mississippi Queen riverboat left Memphis on April 17. That's the last anyone heard from it. The steamboat and all its passengers were never seen or heard from again.

Pirates? Possible - there were many river pirates working the water then. But how do you make an entire steamboat disappear in a matter of hours? This is not the Bermuda Triangle we're talking about, with unknown depths to hide its secrets. This is the Mississippi River, artery of the country, but there are lakes deeper than this waterway.

Many say the voices cry out on the river at night. A woman's voice, pleading in French - the language of many of those traveling the river.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Eternal Roses

I intentionally freaked myself out tonight.

My son had a HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2 party at the YMCA tonight. Five uninterrupted child-free hours, which any parent (particularly a single parent) will tell you is worth its weight in gold-pressed latinum. While I was tempted to a) be social or b) spoil myself, I knew the only way I was ever going to move forward with the YELLOW ROSES project was to take advantage of this time. The next step required a marathon session.

So the binder, the notebook, two reference books I haven't finished and my index cards took over a corner table at Sacred Grounds, my favorite coffeeshop. How funny is it that as I walked up to the counter, the barista said, "Cheese quesadilla, no salsa, extra sour cream, right?" I'm getting predictable in my old age.

Stoked on unlimited caffeine, I finished THE GHOST HUNTER'S HANDBOOK and set to the real task: outlining. Each scene in the first draft got an index card with summary. Then I laid them out on the table, as seen here.

(I think I might have gone a bit overboard. Still, it worked.)

To my surprise, I didn't really need to shuffle the plot too much. As I began adding the new scenes, I found they leavened the passage of time between the flashbacks and provided much-needed balance to the angst without the massive restructuring I thought would be needed. I know the final story will bear little resemblence to the outline, but I was pleasantly surprised at how easy the problems were to fix. (I will regret saying that, won't I?)

It was also my first read-through since I finished the first draft in February. I'd forgotten how much of it was my head back then, the things I was wrestling with inside. But what I wrote was more honest, more intense than anything I've written before. Writers bleed onto the page, and I was bleeding plenty. Maybe I'll feel differently when I see the finalfinal of ABADDON, maybe it's even more intense, but I wrote that so frakking long ago I barely remember what happens. Fire? What fire?

At any rate, I spent five straight hours immersed in ghost stories and my ghost-infested Illinois river town. Then I wrapped up my stuff and fled, just as the wonderful music Sacred Grounds usually plays was invaded by Michael Jackson. Shudder.

But on the way to pick up my son, I detoured on instinct to the old cemetery on the edge of town. I was shooting* in that cemetery a few years ago when I saw a military grave on the edge of the property, right where the trees came almost up to the road. Nothing unusual about it, except it was off by itself, with nothing else around it. The only grave on that side of the road. And it was an old grave, decades older than the graves nearest it. When that soldier was buried in the mid-twenties, the nearest graves were halfway up the hill. His grave inspired YELLOW ROSES.

So I drove through the cemetery at night. I hadn't been alone in a cemetery at night in at least a decade. I kind of felt I needed to, maybe just to get a sense of it, maybe stop by his grave and pay my respects.

Maybe it's because my imagination was running to the creepy tonight, or maybe it's just because that cemetery is a frakking creepy place, but I scared the hell out of myself. It's a dark cemetery, no lights visible from the street thanks to that enormous hill. They're old graves, monuments to the dead, none of those modern pressed-granite flatstones that take all the mystery out of the mausoleum.

It was like a scene from a horror movie, my headlights reflecting only the stones, utter blackness beyond them. Anything could be out there. Anything at all. And it felt as though something was.

I suddenly imagined my car running out of gas, stalling at the bottom of the hill. That was a real possibility the last time I was there, since I was driving my old Deathmobile - wait, that's not funny anymore - but my Toyota was perfectly capable of handling it, right?

The grave wasn't there.

Okay, I'll eat that when I come back in the daytime and find that he's right where he's supposed to be, but I swear as I drove along the bottom of the hill, his grave wasn't there. I wasn't stopping - by now I had thoroughly freaked myself out and nothing would have gotten me out of my car. No such thing as ghosts, mind you. But my car was nice and safe. There have been changes - they're cutting down more trees, making more space, and there are other graves on the far side of the road now. But I swear his grave was under that big tree, and it wasn't there. Did they move him? Why would they move him? I must have just missed it.

There was a large branch across the road past the place where his grave should have been. I drove right over it. Only after did I think, "What if I'd gotten stuck on the branch? What if I had to turn around?"

I followed the road back up, and I imagined that the road was changing, doubling back on itself, not letting me out. All in my head, mind you, but it needs to be here because it's going to be in the book.

This is what it means to be a horror writer. We come up with the stuff that scares the bejesus out of us and write it down quickly, before it fades like an ordinary nightmare would, so we can scare the hell out of you, too. It's not that we horror writers are any more twisted or freaky than your ordinary human (okay, not much). We just write down the nightmares before they fade.

It's either going to be the biggest waste of time since SANCTUARY, or it's going to be the best thing I've ever written. Too bad it's going to take the rest of the year, but if it's good enough to catch on at a real horror press... it'll be worth it.

And yeah, I'm going to go back and find his grave. I'm sure it's there. I just need to look for it in the daylight.

* Shooting with a camera, smartasses. I like to take pictures of old cemeteries. What are you looking at?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Big Times in Writers' Lives

I tell you, sometimes it really pays to read the blogs before sleep comes.

This past weekend, the marvelous force of nature known as Sara M. Harvey was finishing a panel at Pi-Con when her fella hopped up to the dais, fell to one knee and popped the question before the world. Naturally, the squees have been echoing among those of us who know Sara, a terrific friend and wonderful writer whom my son has dubbed The Glitter Lady because of her habit of wearing sparkly makeup.

And as I clicked off of the pictures of Sara's beautiful engagement ring, I dropped by Brian Keene's blog for a quick read before sleep.

Well well well. Though I'm quite sure he doesn't read me, congratulations, Brian. Seems the Zombie King himself is going to be a father at the age of 40. Let's all start taking bets on how many stuffed Cthulus and "Horrified B-Movie Victims" will grace the baby shower.

(This is a roundabout way of saying you'd better catch Brian at his signing this Saturday, because he's canceling the rest of the year just like any other nervous expectant father. He's human after all, who'd a thunk it. :))

Things are always changing, and that's usually a good thing. For writers, change is scarier than any monster we can dream up, because any change could mean the stories stop coming, and that's the thing we all fear. The Muse doesn't always sing, and sometimes her mumbles aren't enough. Believe me, I know.

But as Stephen King wrote in his autobiography, you put the desk in the corner of the room for a reason. Life isn't a support system for art; it's the other way around. Food for thought, in between the happydances and toasts in honor of Sara's engagement and Brian's impending Little Stranger. Zod bless.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I-Con Report

Back from I-Con, my first experience with the Springfield, Ill. con and I can report the natives are friendly. While I must honestly say I didn't sell all that well, the people made the trip definitely worth my while.

Many thanks to John Beachem, E.E. Knight, Shane Moore, Glen Cook and Charles Embrey Jr., authors and gentlemen whose presence made the slow sales somewhat more bearable. Muchas gracias to guest coordinator Shane Beningfield, who ran his feet off taking care of us, and extra thanks to Shane Moore, who recruited the authors and coordinated between us and I-Con and Borders.

And a thousand thanks to my wonderful assistant, Katie. As regular con flunky, she is willing to strap herself into a corset and hawk my books with cleavage and savvy. She brought her son, which gave my boy someone to play with, and their presence made the trip seem less like work and more like a mini-vacation.

I do wish that we'd sold more books at the signing, as the number of books ordered outpaced the number sold by about 30 times. I felt bad for the bookstore, which really did a good job without much room to maneuver. They promoted us and upsold us to the walk-ins, but we were victims of triple-digit temperatures and the first weekend of the Illinois State Fair.

Or, perhaps, preconceptions. At one point, Shane approached a random passer-by with a card and said he was a fantasy author, and the passer-by skittered away as though he'd said, "Hi, I'm Shane Moore and I have a virulent contagious disease." What is with people? Poor Shane. He's braver than I - I still can't just walk around a mall handing out cards. I just can't. I really am an introvert who got over it.

So, anyone want a NOCTURNE? Please call the Borders on Wabash Drive in Springfield and they'll send you one before they ship the rest back. The number is 217-787-9076.

And while you're at it, consider the following fantasy novels in your end-of-summer reading: THE LOST KEEP OF KAYWALL by Charles Embrey Jr., STORMS OF VENGEANCE by John Beachem and A PRISONER'S WELCOME by Shane Moore. Give these gentlemen your business, folks.

The I-Con folk could not have been nicer, seeing to all our needs and feeding us dinner and doughnuts. The boys had a terrific time wandering around the room soaking in geekdom and suckering us into buying little D&D figurines. I think nothing will stop them from becoming conboys at this point.

Not that we would.

At one point I was chatting with a gentleman about raising kids in fandom. He had his infant daughter with him, and I said, "Take your pictures and write everything down, because you'll blink and suddenly she'll be eight years old and begging on her knees for you to buy her this really cool D&D figurine." He laughed.

And as if on cue, my son came running up at that very moment. He said with the excitement of a child entering Disneyland, "Mom! It's so cool! They're letting the kids practice with the lightsabers!"*

The gentleman and I met eyes and laughed ourselves silly.

I was hoping beyond hope that we might sell out of everything by noon Sunday, so we could go to the Museum of Funeral Customs or some Lincoln sites before everything closed Sunday afternoon. But commerce comes first. I sold a handful, and by 2 p.m. we gave up the ghost. We took the boys to the Illinois State Museum instead of the Museum of Funeral Customs - Katie and I have a similar taste for the macabre, but the boys enjoyed the mastodon skeletons more than they would have the embalming techniques of the nineteenth century.

My one real complaint? The hotel was probably the worst experience I've had at any chain hotel. We were a very short driving distance from the con hotel (Crowne Plaza), due to the fair eating every hotel room in Springfield. Now I know why the Super 8 was the only hotel with rooms still available that still had interior corridors.

The room smelled strongly of fish. The pillows greatly resembled pancakes. The hallways weren't air-conditioned. I killed bugs in the bathroom and the corner of the bedroom and ended up with multiple bites on my feet and ankles nonetheless. The "continental breakfast" consisted quite literally of cornflakes and stale English muffins. Not even day-old pastries and lackluster fruit to be found. Hell, the roadside motel in Union City, Tenn. even had make-your-own waffles.

And as of 5 p.m. on Saturday, the maids still hadn't found our room. On my way out after changing clothes - one does not wear the Cleavage Dress to a bookstore signing - I saw them in the hallway and reminded them about our room. "We're running behind," she said. I told her she didn't need to make up the beds - we just need new towels. "Can you put them in the hallway for us?" I blinked and said sorry, I'm on my way out and don't have time to go back up to the room, and she nodded and said they'd get to us.

But they never did find our room, and the next morning I sent Katie - who is far more capable of screaming fits than I - to the front desk to get us some towels. Katie is a master at demolishing the opposition with her ire. I usually back down and say, "I'm sorry, my mistake." She's my secret weapon.

P.S. Katie has coined a new word: "smishy." An adjective to be applied only to nasty hotel rooms, in "honor" of the Super 8 ickroom that smelled most strongly of salmon. Very old salmon.

Smishy hotel room aside, I can definitely recommend I-Con, particularly for gamers. Many thanks to them for hosting our traveling circus, and I hope to return next year. But we're staying at the Holiday Inn.

* Alas, it turned out that "kids" meant "fourteen and up." My junior Jedi was crushed.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ghost Hunters on TV

Research into ghost lore of the midwest continues, and it's FUN. I'll get back to providing you with Random Ghost Facts later.

But last night, just for laughs, I watched GHOST HUNTERS on the Sci Fi Channel. And with all due respect, it was awful.

They investigated two sites: a lighthouse and a museum/old house. We watched the team go through each location loaded down with technical equipment that was never really explained. Ooh, a plasma injector with a Heisenberg compensator!

They also didn't find any ghosts. Or evidence of ghosts, other than a slight cold spot in a 100-year-old lighthouse. Hmm, ya think? Okayfine, I wasn't really expecting disembodied spirits, but some discussion of what they were looking for, a dissection of the history of the location... we got about thirty seconds of background in the midst of fifteen minutes of "We're really looking forward to this" nonsense.

But worst of all... it sank endlessly into personal Drahmah between the ghosthunters themselves. One of them snapped at another, and so we're sunk under endless minutes of people being interviewed about "tension within the team," and asking each other if they're okay, and the leader expounding on how escalating tension means someone has to go, and delving into the snappish one's personal life...

Holy Casper on a pogo stick, if I want THE REAL WORLD, I'll frakkin' watch it, okay? I was cooking dinner while this tripe was on, and even then I was so bored I wanted to dive for the zapper and make it go away, make these whiners shut the hell up... come on, people, talk to me about history and ghosts and ectoplasmic energy if you must. Reality TV has invaded my paranormal world, and I must run and hide.

GHOSTHUNTERS will not be on my research list. I will, however, take a look at the Discovery Channel's new series about hauntings, beginning this Friday. And not just because the first house is right around the corner from here.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Random Ghost Fact: The Prison of Alton

The Alton Prison was built in 1833 as one of the worst designs in history. It was a stone building in the middle of a marsh. The cells were so brilliantly designed that a prisoner could effectively block the inward-opening cell door by lowering his bunk. A prisoner once famously held off the guards for days this way, holding a guard hostage inside the cell.

The prison was closed in 1860, but the need for POW space during the Civil War reopened it a year later. Nearly 12,000 Confederate prisoners would pass through its gates, and many of them would die, usually of yellow fever, pneumonia and dysentery. The number of dead prisoners was so high that they were trucked out to an island in the middle of the Mississippi because the local residents wouldn't allow diseased bodies to be buried near town. The island, of course, is said to be haunted, though most believe it to now be underwater.

In lighter days, the bodies would be carted up the bluffs to be buried. Keep in mind that only substandard soldiers would be relegated to prison duty in wartime, and only the most useless would be given something as nonessential as burial duty. It is said these layabouts would often dump the bodies in the woods, unburied, and laze about drinking for the time it would have taken them to bury them. The woods, of course, must therefore be haunted by the souls of the unburied soldiers.

There is a portion of the old Alton Cemetery that contains many of the dead from the prison. It was closed after the war, and the building was demolished. Allegedly the stones from the prison were used in buildings throughout "the most haunted small town in America." Only a piece of the wall remains as a monument, located next to the Madison County Urban League building in downtown Alton.

It, of course, is also supposed to be haunted.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Random Ghost Fact: The Bloody Bucket

This weekend, while hanging out with my new family members, I had the good fortune (?) to pass the juvenile detention facility for our little corner of Illinois.

This small stone building is the focal point of several government-issue outbuildings, in the middle of a nicely-cleared glen along Route 100. There is no front gate, but there are hilarious signs warning us DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS. Darn rascals.

But the miscreant kids of Illinois are, in fact, on one of the more historically significant areas of ghost history. Once upon a time, Grafton (population 650 or so) had 26 saloons frequented by miners, quarrymen and pirates. Yes, real pirates working the rivers, and none of them looked anything like Jack Sparrow.

The River House, which would eventually become a juvenile prison, was the most famous of these saloons. Deals were made, brawls were fought, men were buried (or not) in the woods behind them. Once, supposedly, a trio arrived with a herd of horses to make a deal. They didn't like the deal they were offered. The good men of the River House simply shot them dead and dumped their bodies into the Illinois River, and that's how the deal was done. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

It is said that the River House was so violent the random passer-by could wind up dead just by walking in at the wrong time. Riverboatmen who ran screaming from the saloon - and these were not fainthearted men - were to be avenged by their captain, who disgustedly stalked up to the River House to chastise the owner. He, too, fled with bullets chasing him all the way to his boat, and the bullets kept flying until the boat chugged away from Grafton.

Men were found hanging upstairs on more than one occasion, and of course it is supposed to be haunted. The ghosts of the hapless victims and the ones who stalked them supposedly walk the woods. As for the River House itself, only the juvenile delinquents of southwestern Illinois know for sure.