Do You Believe in Ghosts?

So far, 2013 for me has been all about the release of my first Quinn Matthews Haunting Mystery, Dark Music. Since I originally conceived of this story decades ago, and reworked it several times before finally turning it into a "cold case" mystery with an amateur sleuth, I am delighted that it's finally in print.
I always intended the story to be a departure from the usual Amityville Horror-type approach. Though I hope it's scary and suspenseful, I've tried to make it a fairly realistic depiction of a haunting, and Quinn's experiences very close to those reported by people who claim to live in real haunted houses. I researched those reports in books, online and in video interviews. One thing I noticed was that people who stay in a haunted house -- usually because they can't immediately leave, for one reason or another -- tend to get used to the phenomena and sometimes even crack jokes about the ghosts. I included that kind of graveyard (literally) humor in my book. People who live with ghosts can't go around terrified 24/7. They relax and even acclimate for a while...until something new and shocking frightens them all over again. Sometimes the situation calms down to a level they can live with, and other times things escalate to the point where they can't take it anymore and have to move out.
I've never seen a ghost or even had a sensation of a haunting in any of the places I've lived, but I've certainly heard many credible stories along that line from other people and I'm very open-minded on the subject. How about you? Have you ever seen an apparition or experienced other phenomena that made you believe in ghosts? Or has anyone in your family? If so, please share!

Giving Thanks After the Storm

I think Thanksgiving 2012 was a special one for many of us in the Eastern U.S. This year, I was thankful just to have electricity–light, heat, refrigeration, “land-line” phone service, television and Internet access! And I got off a lot easier than many people. The office where I work happened to be in an area that never lost power, so on weekdays I could go there to get warm, recharge my cell phone and find out what was going on in the world (along with doing some actual work).

I confess, I am a very poor sport about being too cold. Having an older house with minimal second-floor insulation, I slept the first three nights in a turtleneck, sweats, socks and a full-length down coat (hood up), UNDER a blanket and a synthetic-down comforter. Even then, my face was freezing! At about that point, half of my town got power back…but not my half. A work colleague who lives nearby offered to let me spend nights in the guest room of her condo, and I gratefully accepted. By Day 5, my end of town also got power and I was able to move home.

Those first three days seemed so endless, though, that I can only imagine the suffering of other people who were without power for weeks–and of the few who still may be “out.”

A Wiccan friend of mine told people during the outage, “I still have my Power–I just don’t have electricity.” That’s an excellent attitude, and it probably helps that she lives very “low on the grid,” anyhow, without gadgets the rest of us take for granted. But I do think the outages made a lot of us feel “powerless” in a way that extended beyond a lack of electricity. Human beings have had central heating, telephone service, electric lighting and gas-powered automobiles for a very short span of history. (We won’t even get into the World Wide Web, personal computers and smart phones!) Lighting my gas stovetop with a match and trying to cook dinner with a flashlight tucked under my arm, I could only marvel at how much effort people of the past must have gone through each day just to survive in the dead of winter and other inhospitable situations. It’s no wonder that only the very privileged had the spare time or energy to create works of art or to study science, philosophy, etc. Most folks were just trying to grow their crops, cook their meals, weave and sew their own clothing and stay warm! I think we lose sight of that today, when even the poor purchase these goods and services from outside sources–and feel helpless when the supply is suddenly cut off.

So I’m thankful not only to have my modern-day comforts back again, but to have come away with a new appreciation of what our ancestors endured and overcame without all of these conveniences. What insights did you gain from your experiences during the hurricane Sandy power outages?

Attack of the 'Shoulds'!

Do you suffer from occasional—or constant—attacks of “the shoulds”?

You know what I mean. From the time I get up in the morning (“I really should do some kind of exercise...I should empty the cats’ litter pan now...I should floss and not just brush...”) to the time I lie down at night (“I should have washed those dishes instead of leaving them in the sink...I shouldn’t have stayed up so late watching TV...Damn, I really should have emptied that litter pan!”) I’m plagued by guilt over a million rules I carry around in my head. And that’s not even counting work hours! (“I should get this article done before I get busy with other stuff...But I really should call this contact now before he goes out to lunch...Or should I do that job my boss asked me for 20 minutes ago??”)

I know my list of “shoulds” has gotten longer over the past couple of decades, and I suspect other Baby Boomers have noticed the same phenomenon. For some, dealing with children, grandchildren and aging parents has added more responsibilities, all equally important. I don’t happen to have those issues, but ironically having a lifelong dream come true a few years back greatly expanded my list. In 2003, I got my first novel published, and five more have followed. But now, in addition to wanting to actually write more books, I feel obliged to promote and promote and promote the ones I’ve already got out (while still working around a full-time job). I should take advantage of this chance to do a guest blog or an online interview or go to that conference or give this talk or get on that panel...etc., etc. If I don’t, I feel as if I’m shortchanging a key area of my life—my “true” calling.

One of the reasons I’m writing this blog, in fact, is because it’s been so long since I made an entry that I kept nagging myself, “You should do another blog...” (Don’t get me started, though, on tweeting. With so little spare time, I have to draw the line somewhere!)

There are two other big reasons why I think many of us have developed overactive consciences lately—the environment and the recession. I’m struggling more financially than I was 15 years ago, so I feel guilty any time I spend on something that’s nonessential and, God forbid, just for “fun.” I often used to buy a magazine off the stands just because a headline or photo caught my eye, but now I subscribe to very few (at a discount) that mostly relate to my job. I go to a movie once every few months, and only when it’s something I really want to see. Even so, I hear a constant chorus in my head of “I should save more, I shouldn’t put anything else on a credit card, I should fix things instead of replacing them...make it do, wear it out...”

Not all of this is bad, of course, because frugality does go hand-in-hand with the other big paradigm of the twenty-first century, conservation. And I do take that seriously--I just started recycling my cardboard toilet-paper rolls! I save my fruit and vegetable peelings to compost, turn off the tap while brushing my teeth. But it all adds to that chorus of "shoulds," doesn't it? When I'm exhausted, in a hurry or just having a bad day, and that chick in my head starts nagging, "You should put that in recycling, you should shred those documents before you throw them out, you shouldn't use that drain cleaner because it pollutes..." I want to slap her silly. (She sounds like that electronic b*tch at the supermarket self-checkout who scolds you every few seconds, "The bagging area is full...Please bag some items...")

How about you? Do you find that trying to live up to all of these modern responsibilities drives you crazy at times? Some psychologists believe the very word "should" is bad for our mental health. Should we abolish it?

Please comment below--you know you should...

Guest Interview on Website Blog

This month, I’m kicking off a new category on my blog site of “Guest Interviews” with other authors who write in the general category of paranormal mystery or suspense. I hope my readers will be interested in checking out books by these other writers, and vice versa. I have several authors in mind whom I’ve met personally and plan to invite to participate over the next few months.

My first guest is E. J. Copperman, a.k.a. Jeff Cohen. He is a fellow N.J. resident and we have shared a few lively panels over the years at mystery conferences. The same deadpan humor that earns him laughs in person also runs through his comic mysteries–and, I think you’ll agree, through his interview here, as well. Just click on www.efwatkins.com/blog and enjoy!

“The Ugly Duckling” Revisited

I belong to a critique group that meets weekly (I tend to go about twice a month). Several years back, three other members began collaborating on a book called “The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived,” which eventually got published by Harper in 2006 (check Amazon–it’s still available).

Dan, Allan and Jeremy wrote the various installments and by turns read them in our critique group. I actually ended up contributing the section on “Dracula” because I became so vociferous on the subject that they basically told me, “Okay, smarta**, then you write it.” But generally their essays on fictional and legendary characters who have become household names, including some surprising background information, are very entertaining and informative.

One interpretation with which I still disagree, though, is of “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen. That’s because the essay interprets this story as being about beauty, and concludes this is a destructive value to pass on to kids. I think many people who only read the story as children might also remember it that way. (Witness the terrible reality makeover show that aired on TV a couple of years back, “The Swan”!)

The story is well summarized in the “101 Most Influential…” book’s essay. In the nest of a farmyard duck, one unusually large egg hatches into an unusually large “duckling,” which is also fuzzy grayish-brown where the other ducklings are downy yellow. This male baby is rejected and even abused by the mother duck and the other ducklings, until he runs away. He survives many hardships and adventures in the wild, and finds shelter for a while in a woman’s cottage until she realizes he can’t lay eggs. (Well, duh.)

At one point, he admires a flock of swans flying overhead, but doesn’t dare to approach them because he’s sure such beautiful birds will just attack him. Months later, at the end of his rope, he does approach the swans and begs them to kill him…but when he looks in the still water, he sees he also is a swan. All the others greet him with respect and tell him he is the most beautiful of them all.

Why is this fairy tale not about looks? Because if he had approached them as an “ugly” young cygnet, they still would have accepted him as one of their own!

Also, you will notice, Andersen made this a male bird, as if to illustrate that this was not just a young girl who “grows into” her looks. In fact, Andersen considered it autobiographical. As a child, he was not only considered homely but was ridiculed for the talent he did have–a beautiful singing voice–and his strong interest in theater. He was miserable until he became an adult, met other people who shared these interests, and of course became a celebrated writer. He also found out he had royal blood, which may have been the real tipping point that inspired him to write “The Ugly Duckling.”

It’s true that we don’t see the “duckling” struggling and working to improve himself before he’s accepted–he just grows into his swanhood. But I think the key factor is that he found others like himself. He was harassed because he didn’t fit in with the expectations of the community into which he was born, but in the right milieu he achieved his full potential.

The “duckling’s” dilemma could apply to anyone who faces discrimination because of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or just “different” interests and talents. I think this fable, far from being a negative influence, has plenty to teach young people today, especially with all the controversy over tolerance vs. harassment. It’s just up to the adults who present the story to give it the right interpretation–the one its author intended!

What do you think?

What Does it Mean to Be “Creative”?

What does it mean to be “creative”? Is there such a thing as a “creative personality”?

I’ve wondered about this for many years, probably because I’ve always been a bit strange and over time I’ve realized there are other people out there who are a bit strange in the same way. (Some of you may be even be reading this blog.) They are determined to write, paint, act, dance, draw, play music, etc., whether or not they ever have any success at it. True, some may eventually get so discouraged that they give up their creative callings, but then they often become miserable human beings.

Most other folks don’t really understand where these “creative” types are coming from, and I’ve rarely read a good psychological profile on the subject. You’ll see articles offering tips on “how to be more creative,” or profiles of artistic geniuses, but seldom any analysis of what makes the average creatively-motivated person tick, for better or worse.

The closest thing I’ve ever found was in the book WHO ARE YOU, REALLY? by Gary Null (yes, the natural-health crusader) who suggests there are seven types of personalities, and one is “Creative Assertive.”

Excerpt from his profile: “A true Creative Assertive HAS to paint, make films, dance, do stand-up comedy, write, sculpt or whatever. The need is nonnegotiable, really, and sometimes it gets in the way of ‘normal’ functioning.”

(It sure does.)

He also talks about the energy cycles of the creative person, the highs and low that comes with feeling you’re onto the best idea in the world, then afterward looking at your interpretation of it and thinking it’s pure, unadulterated crap. In most “creative types,” that’s not biopolar–it’s all part of the process, swinging back and forth between the spontaneous and critical sides of our brains.

Another wonderful quote along this line comes from George Bernard Shaw: “A true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art.”

You’ll notice, Shaw doesn’t claim that this artist’s work is necessarily brilliant, just that he can’t not do it! That’s the tough part. If you’re more practical than Shaw’s artist, you may make a living at something else and take excellent care of your family, but there will always be a second or third shift in your day as you try to fit in the work you need to do for your soul.

Finally, I’ve wondered if there’s an ethical flaw in this kind of single-mindedness. Creativity often means spending much time alone, mining your private fantasies for usable material. Are such people inherently selfish? Or is the work they’re doing a form of “giving back to society” in itself? (And does that depend on whether anyone’s buying it?)

I’d really love to hear from some other folks about this — those who may identify with this description as well as family and friends who care about and put up with them. Please comment!

How Do You Like Your Vampires--Hardboiled or Over Easy?

As a lifelong fan of vampire stories, and author of two vamp novels (DANCE WITH THE DRAGON and ONE BLOOD), I’m intrigued by the way pop culture keeps revisiting the legends every decade or so, always with a new twist. Lately, the trend has been towards romantic bloodsuckers, whether G- or X-rated.

This is really nothing new. The first well-known literary vampire, Lord Ruthven of John Polidori’s THE VAMPYRE, was more obviously a seducer of women than a drinker of blood. Dracula, in the original novel, was not depicted by Bram Stoker as a romantic figure, but he evolved into one through the Hamilton Deane stage play and later books and movies. TV’s Barnabas Collins and Anne Rice’s Lestat and Louis all had romantic and/or sexual appeal for their victims.

Side-by-side with these rather sympathetic characters, we also see a tradition of the vampire as a demon, the personification of evil. This is clearly how Stoker viewed Dracula and Stephen King his Kurt Barlow in ‘SALEM’S LOT. (For some reason, male authors don’t seem as fond of sauve, mysterious guys who sneak into women’s bedrooms by night and hypnotize them into betraying their human husbands or boyfriends… Wonder why?) The ’80s and ’90s often saw armies of vampires violently battling humans and each other in horror novels and the movies.

In the latest series TWILIGHT, TRUE BLOOD and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, vamps are much more integrated into society and indulge in frequent and passionate relationships with humans. Each of these sagas also has its villains, which are more or less nasty depending on the target audience…and sometimes still considered very sexy.

More than the Edward-vs.-Jacob or Bill-vs.-Eric controversies, I’d like to hear whether you prefer your vampires sensuous or scary. Do you feel the new sweetened interpretations take all the shivers out of the legend? Do you prefer your bloodsuckers more humanized and sympathetic?

Or do you like characters and stories that blend both elements?


My latest novel, ONE BLOOD, is officially released tonight. The electronic version is on sale now at www.amberquill.com/OneBlood.html. The paperback should be out mid-month.

The timing is great, not only because of vampires=Halloween, but because a climactic scene in the book takes place during and after a Halloween party on the Princeton University campus. Let's just say, one of the partygoers doesn't make it to dawn...

This is the first book I've done in a long time that qualifies as a romance as well as a paranormal thriller--but it's a dark romance. It was tough getting these characters together, and I'm eager to see how it will be received by readers and reviewers. At least my critique group and my editor thought I pulled it off!

Deadly Ink 2010

Just wanted to recap this year’s Deadly Ink Conference, which took place at the Sheraton Parsippany in NJ. As usual, it offered a lively mix of entertaining presentations, helpful information for both writers and readers, and general networking and bonding among all concerned.
          Friday night’s Deadly Dessert Party introduced Guest of Honor Gillian Roberts, author of the award-winning Amanda Pepper mystery series, and Toastmaster (mistress?) Cheryl Solimini, author of the novel ACROSS THE RIVER from Deadly Ink Press.
I started Saturday off by attending the panel, “What Makes It a Mystery?” M. E. Kemp acted as moderator, as E. J. Rand, Ilene Schneider, Gillian Roberts and Hallie Ephron dissected the variations among mysteries, from cozies to thrillers. Ephron recommended that aspiring writers should learn “what’s cliché in your subgenre.” Rand and Roberts, who both write sleuth characters who meet and marry within their series, discussed mixing mystery and romance. Ephron noted, “In many mysteries, there’s the story of the detective and the story of how he or she solves the crime. In the story of the detective, romance can play a part.”
           I stuck with Hallie Ephron for her workshop on “Writing Suspense.” She defined suspense as “the potential for something bad to happen—that moment before something bad happens, or doesn’t happen.” She advised building tension by “slowing down” the writing, and distinguished between the “false payoff,” where something innocuous happens, versus the “true payoff,” where something dramatic occurs. She read a taut scene by Dick Francis that built suspense through pure description, with no clue as to the protagonist’s physical or emotional reactions.
          Next, novelist and retired forensic psychologist Rick Helms gave a workshop on “Inductive and Deductive Profiling.” He said much of what we see demonstrated in movies and TV is inductive profiling that generalizes about a group of people to catch one individual. In reality, he said, this is a flawed approach. It’s more effective to use deductive profiling based on evidence from the crime scene and the behavior of that individual criminal. He gave examples of many well-known serial killers who did not fit the typical FBI profile.     
          During lunch, Deborah Buchanan announced the novels nominated for the 2010 David G. Sasher Sr. Award. The authors who were present, Mary Jane Clark and Hallie Ephron, talked a bit about their nominated books. Then Cheryl Solimini interviewed Gillian Roberts, who related how she “graduated” from teaching high school English to writing fiction full-time. Christine Abbott also announced that there had been a “murder” at the conference, of a famous mystery author named Stephanie King. She pointed out certain key players and suspects (including yours truly) and encouraged the other attendees to question us closely during the con.

          In the afternoon, I took part in the “Crossing Genres” panel with Sheila York and Elena Santangelo, moderated by Roberta Rogow. The predominant mix seemed to be mystery/paranormal (Santangelo and I) and mystery/history (York, Rogow and Santangelo). We all seemed to feel that crossing genres came naturally to us and enhanced our stories, although at times it did seem to baffle prospective publishers.
          Meanwhile, author and detective Joe Paglino conducted a two-part workshop called “Whodunit: 101 Mistakes Mystery Writers Make,” including slides of real crime scenes. Another program highlighted “Sleuths We Love, in Print and on Screen.”
          Following this, Irene Fleming screened some intriguing vintage mystery films in the Morris Room, while Sisters in Crime/Central Jersey hosted a getting-to-know-you tea in the Troy Hills Room.
          At the Saturday night awards dinner, Gillian Roberts delivered a speech she’d prepared five years ago, when she had to cancel her appearance at Deadly Ink due to illness. She talked about feeling her way into mystery writing in the early 1960s, when the genre still received little respect. (She admitted, “I was one of the few women of my generation who never read Nancy Drew.”) 
          Sunday morning, I moderated the panel “Writing as the Opposite Sex” — a hoot, because the five other panelists were all male! Steve Rigolosi complained that male characters written by women are rarely same the type that men admire. I said I also felt that way about many female characters written by male authors. It soon became a (mostly humorous) battle of the sexes!
          At lunch, “detective” Ilene Schneider interviewed several of the suspects in the conference murder, including me. I expressed such open hostility towards the deceased, and evasiveness about my whereabouts at the time of the murder, that I guess everyone figured I must be innocent.
          Because my Sunday afternoon panel on “Authors Who Live in NJ But Set Stories in Other Locales” drew no interest whatsoever, I and my fellow panelists swelled the audience for the competing panel, “Creating Characters: Qualities of Heroes and Villains.” Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em…! Among the highlights, Gillian Roberts admitted she had fictionally “killed off” a real person she knew and disliked, and added, “It was a wonderful experience — he truly deserved it.” Rick Helms quoted John D. MacDonald in saying, “There are no 100-percent heroes,” and added that the same should be true of villains.
          Finally, both post- and pre-published writers who had the stamina to stay a bit longer joined in a roundtable. We discussed our publication experiences, favorite underrated authors, flakiest suggestions we’ve gotten from editors and most outrageous rejection stories.
         Oh yes, and a vote determined that Jeff Markowitz -– or at least, his alter ego – had killed Stephanie King.
          It was a fun weekend, which needed only a few more participants among mystery readers. If you enjoy mysteries, put Deadly Ink 2011 on your calendar and please spread the word among your friends!





ONE BLOOD Comes Out in September!

Sorry for not posting in a long time, but I've been polishing my sixth novel, ONE BLOOD. I sent it to my publisher, and got word this week that it has been accepted for publication this September. (Ah, the joy of a small publishing house and POD--no waiting a year or more to see the book in print!)

Each books that comes out feels like a different type of "success" for me, and this one is no exception. ONE BLOOD is a much-updated version of the very first novel I wrote after I graduated from college...and that was a lo-o-o-ong time ago, believe me! Over the years it's also gone by the name NO SUCH THING and BLOOD OF MY BLOOD. As you can probably tell, it's a vampire novel--sort of vampire/romantic suspense. It's also a prequel to the first novel I had published with Amber Quill Press, DANCE WITH THE DRAGON.

Here's the saga: I first came up with two characters as near-opposites, destined to have major, life-and-death conflicts from the beginning. What could bring them together? For one thing, a common need to be accepted for themselves, without hiding their true natures. For another, a common enemy.

As with many of my books, the setting also plays a big role. My cousin Phil McCabe, a year older and in some ways like a brother to me, attended Princeton University. When I visited the campus, I was knocked out by its Gothic character. This was at the end of my college years, when I was already starting to write paranormal fiction, and Princeton seemed like an irresistible setting. Also a good one for a couple of brilliant, well-traveled and sophisticated characters!

As I said, I wrote a couple of versions of this novel, each time sending it to agents and publishers. But back then, nobody was writing contemporary vampire romances, and even I started to feel it lacked something. So I tabled it and used the same hero and heroine in DANCE WITH THE DRAGON. This was a straight-ahead thriller, but their relationship still intrigued readers. I had one reviewer and a couple of readers tell me they wished the knew more about the two main characters, and one said, "It almost seems like there should be an earlier book."

My initial reaction? "Been there, done that, no way!" Ah, but then I noticed the vast number of contemporary vamp romances proliferating. Mine fell into that general category, but was also different in many key ways. So I decided to give it another shot.

I thought reworking the old novel would be a breeze. I never realized how hard it would be to get these two characters together, in a way that synced up with DD, and in a way readers would believe! Since writing DD, I'd learned a lot more about them, and they were both very strong personalities. This time around they had MAJOR issues, and I had to play "couples counselor" in a big way!

But it's done now, and I think I've succeeded. And I'm so happy it's coming out before October, because this story is tailor-made for Halloween. It even has a pivotal scene at a campus Halloween party and a bloody demise on Halloween night!

Watch this space for future developments...