Category: Uncategorized (Page 1 of 282)

A Visit to Monet

In December of last year, I went to the Denver Art Museum exhibit of Oscar-Claude Monet, an Impressionist painter who died in 1926.

I’ve been trying to attend the bigger exhibitions at the Denver Art Museum over the last few years. I’ve seen Van Gogh, Dior, Rembrandt, Degas, more. It is, first and foremost, an overwhelming experience: first you have to get there. I find driving in city center to be intimidating at the best of times. I normally take the light rail from the Mineral Station to Union Station, and then take the 16th Street pedestrian bus to the Civic Center Station, and walk to the art museum from there.

But it was cold, and damp, and I had bronchitis. I was too stubborn to stay home, but I was not too stubborn to drive. After a few near-misses and wrong turns, I parked, walked over to the Leven Deli Company, had lunch, and walked over to the art museum. I showed my ticket (with these big exhibitions, you have to reserve a time slot ahead of time, or risk missing your chance to see the exhibit) and wandered around for a few minutes until it was time to begin.

I entered the exhibit with about fifty dear strangers, all of whom wanted to see the same thing at the same time, while holding an audio track player up to their ears. What we so intently studied was art by a Monet who competent but not yet identifiable as himself. We saw art by Eugene Boudin, Monet’s mentor, who was also part of the Impressionistic movement and was one of the first French painters to pain en plein air, or outside, in the weather, under the light.

On the one hand, Boudin’s paintings are enjoyable: fresh, vivid, full of technique that allowed the artist to pain very quickly, yet still feel realistic. His work was full of color, and mood, and light.

But soon the path of the exhibit led us away from Boudin.

We studied Monet’s landscape paintings. At first, they contained human figures. One of my favorite paintings of the exhibit was The Beach at Trouville (1870), which showed the boardwalk, houses and churches to the right, tinted golden by southern noon sunlight, and beach-goers in full dress: suits, parasols, dresses with tiers of ruffles. The clouds, the sea are natural colors, the sand is everywhere, boards are warped—and the flags in the background, amusingly, have been caught by the wind at different strengths, so that the ones in the rear of the picture sag, while the ones nearest the painter flutter.

Then the artist begins to reduce the importance of the figures, and finally to skip them altogether, in favor of architecture and nature. He began painting the same scenes repeatedly—he had been doing so previously, but now he began painting series of the same scenes, in different seasons and weather, deliberately, to be shown together. He painted the shimmering colors of light and shadow, and their effect upon plants; he painted the same shimmering colors onto the water; he painted those colors onto the London fogs; he painted the same shimmering colors onto the snow. By the time I left the exhibit, it was difficult for me to see a flat hue, even on a white wall. To see the paintings was to be initiated into a different way of seeing color itself: and that was overwhelming, too.

Finally, he began to focus in upon his garden in Giverny. He planted roses, he designed paths and views, he dug ponds. His most famous paintings, of water lilies, were designed by him personally, from the roots up.

Monet’s art had always been the art of the close-up versus the far-away. To see the paintings in real life is to see how generously open he was about his technique. It seemed as though he had no embarrassment about the impressions he made turning into uninterpretable lines, smears, and dabs upon closer inspection. Some artists seem to fear being “found out,” with their technique being so exact that one is never quite sure whether one is looking at a photograph or a reflection. The Impressionists, of course, flaunted realism as a convention, but Monet seems to have cared even less than usual about exposing the artificiality of his work.

In fact, one of the things that most impressed me was that no two paintings used the same techniques. Dawn might require not just a particular set of colors, but a particular pattern of dry, soft daubs. A stormy noon of intermittent light might require heavy jabs at the canvas, paint laid thick and sharp.  Two paintings of the same scene might almost make you think they had been done by two friends sitting side by side, but certainly not the same painter. It’s only from a distance that the style seems remotely consistent.

And then we come to the room with the lilies.

There’s a short film showing Monet at one of his lily canvases. It’s an enormous canvas, and he’s standing very close to it, turning back and forth between canvas and pond. I’m not sure which particular lily painting he was creating—I forgot to write it down—but it seems almost like a work of magic. He never steps back from the canvas to see what it is that he has painted at a distance. It’s almost as if he isn’t worried about its overall appearance anymore.

By the time I looked at the lily canvases, I was tired and my feet hurt. I was tired of listening to narrators giving me this or that invaluable information about the canvases. I disliked being surrounded by constant throngs of not-terribly-polite people. I was thirsty. My back hurt. I needed to pee.

I had been in the exhibit for three hours by that point.

What caught me then about the lilies wasn’t their colors, or their shapes, or the techniques that had been used. It was the sense that none of it was quite real, and was not—and had never been—an impression of anything that had actually existed.

The colors and shapes had become concepts. Existence was reflection; solidity was transience; boundaries were fuzzy and didn’t quite line up with the edges of things. Some of the edges of the paintings had been left exposed, revealing the canvas, and sometimes had been painted so the canvas showed through in edges throughout.

The colors were beautiful, yes, but they were not real.

I had pushed myself to the point where I felt like I was looking at an artist’s subconscious experience of the idea of reality itself, as though he had painted so attentively, and for so long, that he had begun to glimpse the Matrix, as it were, underlying what he saw, and knew no other way to communicate that.

Also, he was developing cataracts.

I wandered through the souvenir shop, almost bought a small magnet of The Beach at Trouville, didn’t, got a cup of coffee, sat, drank it, felt better.

Most of the attendees had gone by then. The rooms weren’t empty, but I had outlasted most of the visitors. I went through the other exhibitions—Treasures of British Art, Shantell Martin, and The Light Show—which I particularly liked. Pieces showed or used different types of light: shadow puppets, interior design, reflective surfaces, mythological embodiments of light (and darkness), and mirrors, including a mirrored tunnel that was supposed to depict the journey to the afterlife, if I recall correctly. I had to wear shoe covers, which made the glass underfoot feel liquid as I walked.

It was cold, icy, and wet when I left. I took a picture, my brain still overwhelmed by subtleties of light and color.

And went home.

 

 

 

 

Writing Craft: Lessons In Fiction for the Working Writer

(Patreon Page)

I’ve been talking about it for a while in various formats: writing a book on the craft of writing. The idea both excites me and makes me anxious enough to feel sick to my stomach. (Me? Write a book on writing?!?)

But the time has come. I’m not the best writer ever, but I am in the right spot to write a book on writing, at least for writers who have read all the beginning-writing books and are having issues moving further forward. This isn’t a book for grand masters of the craft. It’s just a book for people who are entering the messy middle of writing, and who feel as lost and helpless I did, when I first entered that realm. I’ve written over 50 novel-length works of fiction now, both under my own name and for my ghostwriting clients. I have a solid place from which to begin this project now, and if I put it off any longer, things will just feel weird.

So: Writing Craft has begun.

Because it’s me, I’m first putting the book up as a set of blog posts. Lots of people have commented to me in person that my writing blogs are interesting and helpful, so I know the format works. I also appreciate comments when I can get them.

However, I’ve learned over the last year that instead of trying to please every reader, I need to focus on the readers who support me. Readers who support my fiction can buy books–but writers who support my craft posts can’t (yet). I debated whether or not to post the blogs on this website concurrently with Patreon, but eventually settled on drawing a boundary between publishing promotional posts for free, versus publishing other types of content. I’m doing a bunch of work that won’t sell my fiction books; I should get paid for it somehow.

I’ve restructured everything (see The Plan, below), am rewriting and re-researching posts, am putting my big-girl professional panties on, and am moving writing-related posts over to Patreon. Later, the same material will come out in ebook and print, but that may take some time.

I will still be posting on my blog, but the posts here will be reader-focused posts rather than writer-focused ones (promotional posts, in other words).  I may put up teaser craft posts here on the blog to help gather up new patrons; I haven’t decided yet.

New posts will go up on Patreon at least every other week, possibly more often if I think of something that isn’t on The Plan that I have to get written down before I forget.

Without further ado…

The Plan:

Individual books:

  • Cover
  • Copyright
  • Table of contents
  • Intro to series
  • Intro to book
  • BOOK (by numbered section): Vocab as necessary, What I’m gonna tell you, The main point of the section, broken down into steps as necessary, Summary, including action items, What’s next
  • Fundamental assumptions section, short rehash of Vol 1.
  • Analysis examples for current volume, as necessary.
  • Worksheets/study projects/sanity checks, as necessary.
  • Resource list
  • About the author
  • Also by
  • About the publisher
  • Newsletter signup
  • Thanks

List of books:

Volume 1: Are You Ready to Publish and Other Burning Questions

1.  Are you ready to publish? A relatively sane self-assessment.

2. How to read like a professional writer (studying).

3. An in-depth discussion of fundamental assumptions, like what to write, reader focus, expectations, imposter syndrome, meta-skills, emotional breakdowns

Volume 2: Writing for an Audience, and Not Just Jotting Down the Movie In Your Head

1. The Principles of Writing Fiction Code: Immersion, Information, and Structure

2. Elements of Immersion

3. Elements of Information

4. Elements of Structure

Volume 3: Dragging the Reader Into Your Story

1. Writing from the Five Senses (and More)

2. How to Write Setting (Basics)

3. How to Write “The Rules”

4. When to Write Immersion Details

5. How to Write an Opening Hook

Volume 4: Keeping the Reader Trapped In Your Story

1. The Character in Your Head vs. the Character on the Page

2. The Elements of a Point of View Character: Background, Opinion, and Presentation

3. Inside Voices vs. Outside Voices

4. Dialogue Tricks

5. Camera Tricks

*Note: I will research a “Writing the Other”-style checklist for the appendix on this one.

Volume 5: Telling Them What You’re Going to Tell Them, Telling Them, Then Telling Them What You Just Told Them

1. One Simple Trick to Boost Your Writing: Tell Them Sooner

2. Basic Scene Structure

3. When to Tell Them What You Want Them to Know (tagging)

4. Clues: When to Tell Them What You Don’t Want Them to Know

Volume 6: Pacing: It’s All in the Timing

1. What is Pacing?

2. Story- and Chapter-Level Pacing

3. Paragraph Pacing

4. Sentence Pacing

5. Word Choice and Other Patterns

Volume 7: Keeping the Reader Up All Night

1. What Makes the Reader Turn the Page?

2. Endings of Chapters: Cliffhangers

3. Endings of Books: Riding Off Into the Sunset

4. How to End a Book When You’re Writing a Series

Volume 8: Getting Away With What You Want to Write, Part 1: The Big Picture

1. Plot vs. Structure.

2. Basic Plot Structure and the Obligatory Joseph Campbell Rant

3. Big-Picture Structure Questions: POV Characters, Story Lengths, Genre

Volume 9: Getting Away With What You Want to Write, Part 2: Down in the Weeds

1. Basic Conflict Structure: The Beat

2. Basic Scene Structure: Putting Openings, Beats, and Closings All Together

Volume 10: Steady As You Go: A Rough Guide to Editing

1. The Trap of Constant Revision, and Possible Paths Ahead

2. The Story You Expected to Write, vs. the Story You Actually Wrote

3. What Actually Went Wrong, and How (and When) to Fix It

4. Are You Ready to Edit Other People’s Work?

5. Rules of Thumb: Critique Groups and Other Feedback, When to Start Over, and Other Reasons to Despair

Volume 11: Writing Like a Magician: Hidden Elements of Fiction

1. Subtext: The Text That May Not Be Written

2. Clues, Red Herrings, Foreshadowing, Hints, and Misdirection

3. Subplots and Other Hidden Structures

4. The Biggest Secret of All: Theme

Volume 12: Getting Away with What You Want to Write, Part 3: Special Topics in Pacing

1. Writing Fast-Paced Scenes

2. Writing Slow-Paced Scenes

3. Writing Suspense

4. Writing Action

5. Writing Comedy

Volume 13: Writing Synopses and Other Sales Materials for Fun & Profit

1. The Fundamentals of Selling Books

2. What Are You Selling? Translating the “Unique Selling Proposition” Question

3. Who Is Your Audience?

4. Guidelines for Synopses

5. Guidelines for Query Letters

6. Guidelines for Book Description and Cover Copy

7. Guidelines for Ad Text

Volume 14: So-and-So Is Selling…Why Not Me?

1. First, Write Good Books (WIBBOW and Writing for Money–or Not)

2. Speed vs. Productivity (Research)

3. Production & Publishing: The Basics

4. Promotions & Marketing: The Very Basics (Genre)

5. Running a Business: The Very Very Basics, Plus, Not a Lawyer

 

Asshole Theory, Part I

Note: If you’ve seen this before, well, I decided to write this up again; I can’t remember if I posted it here earlier or not, or just posted it on my newsletter. Anyway, I added/changed a few points, based on observations. 

As I look back over the lessons I learned in the previous year, the main one that strikes me is establishing my asshole theory.

Here’s my theory:

About one in four people are assholes.

I got this from walking along a high-traffic, easy-to-access bike and foot trail in Colorado, a place where there are no bars on the cell phone and no one to help you but your fellow travelers. One particularly bad day, I started waving at people. At everyone.

About a quarter of those people who weren’t listening to music or talking to someone else didn’t acknowledge the greeting. They made eye contact. They just didn’t react, or reacted negatively, with contempt.

Colorado, I might note, is a friendly place, where greeting other people is the norm. And I wasn’t doing this in Denver, but in a remote location where it was in the best interests of people to wave: I might be the person who had to get help in case of an accident, after all.

I acknowledge that some people might have waved who were, at heart, assholes, and some people might not have waved who weren’t. But, after several times of doing this, I felt pretty secure in the general proportions. Men, women, people of my race, people not of my race, little kids, old people: it all seemed to run to about one in four people going, “Even though it’s in my best long-term interests to extend some kind of minor acknowledgment of other people’s existence, I won’t.”

(Men will tend not to smile if they were with female partners or if I was with a male partner; I stopped counting those responses. I also didn’t count it if a big group passed by, and only one person greeted me, in case the social dynamic was such that one person was the public “face” that day. Also, people with fishing rods are almost universally not assholes, which is pretty cool.)

What was so game-changing about this theory was that I only just really started to set, and maintain, boundaries this year. Which means that previously, no matter how much I complained or whined or dragged my feet about it, I would, given enough time and pressure, would do what other people wanted to do.

And it was wrecking my life.

The details are still too hot and painful to me to recount in much detail, but to sum up: a lot of people who were my family and friends took advantage of me in ways that made me miserable, broke, and lonely.

Me being able to say “This person is an asshole, that is, a person who thinks mainly or only in terms of selfish, short-term gains, or is controlled by an asshole and is therefore also not reliable” was a relief.

People wanted things. They lied about what they wanted and why they wanted it. They guilt-tripped me, gaslit me, emotionally and verbally abused me, and blame-shifted it all on me.

I was able to go, “It was never about me. This person is an asshole.”

It was a relief.

Side note: I’ve been reading books about sociopathy and narcissism, and it seems pretty standard for the authors to say things like, “about one in twenty people are sociopaths” or “about one in twenty people are narcissists.”  If they’re not exaggerating, that means about one in ten people is a diagnosable narcissist or sociopath. But it’s hard to tell; sociopaths and narcissists tend not to believe that the problem lies with them, and even when they do, admitting a diagnosis like that can get you fired or ostracized.

Time passed and I blocked a lot of people on Facebook. I started to ask myself how I could learn to live with assholes. How to cope. Obviously, with such a big percentage of the population being assholes (at least, by my perceptions), some sort of strategy is necessary: you can’t live your life without having contact with at least some assholes.

I didn’t have a clue what to do at first, but I did start noticing some patterns:

First, the person would go completely overboard building up a bank account of goodwill. Normal people tend to try to do nice things for other people when it doesn’t interfere with their lives. Assholes try to smother you with how impressive the amount of benefits you will receive if you’re their side.

Second, the person would try to manipulate me. Because I didn’t have good boundaries, this would generally work, even though I would pretend to independence—while chewing my fingers until they bled.

Third, the person would become upset because they didn’t feel as rewarded by whatever they got out of me as I felt from what I got out of them—but it didn’t take much to make me feel rewarded, where they had a much higher bar to feeling rewarded, and it didn’t last very long.

Fourth, the person would try punishing me, since establishing that bank account hadn’t worked.

Fifth (usually after several cycles of varying tactics), the person would lash out at me to make me leave without having to actually tell me to leave.

The “story” would then shift so that I had been gaslighting, abusing, and manipulating the asshole all along.  Poor thing!

When I started reading books about narcissism, what I was seeing became not a surprising discovery but old hat, with corresponding terms like “love bombing” and “discard phase.”

In a way, it was reassuring to find out that I wasn’t discovering anything new. But it did make me wonder: why?

It’s not like assholes do a bunch of research before they start acting the way they do. What is it that makes assholes, who, at heart, are really only united by not waving back at strangers on a public trail, behave so similarly, both in the short term and over time?

My theory was incomplete…

I’ll write more of this later, but the article was getting long. If you liked this, try signing up for my newsletter, here. If you’re a writer, please check out my ongoing craft posts here, on Patreon.

 

Best Books of 2019

For some people, 2019 was a difficult year to get anything read. For others, such as myself, 2019 was a great year for reading. My year, as a reader, was made great by two things:

  • I survived some difficult periods by retreating into books.
  • I planned ahead to make sure I had interesting, well-chosen books to read when I was too upset or depressed or whatever to do anything but read.

Which is not to say that my plans always worked.

The big plan that didn’t work out as anticipated was to read more diverse work, both in the sense of reading authors who weren’t like me, and in the sense of reading more deeply in other genres than horror and mystery.

It was harder than I thought. Like, ridiculously so.

I realize this essay is going to alienate some people—that me, writing down whether or not I met my own reading goals on my own time without preaching about how other people should do the same—is going to alienate some people. Some people will be strongly tempted to contact me to tell me that none of this should matter, or that I’m overthinking things.

Let me state clearly here that it’s important to me, and that if you need to complain about people who think, you may be reading the wrong author.

In 2018, my goals were to get through several best-of lists in horror and crime fiction. It resulted in reading a lot of books that I hated, particularly in the horror genre, where aggressive, offense-intended sexism and racism are often the order of the day, mostly written by Dead White Guys from America and Great Britain. I feel that reading my way through those best-of lists was truly worthwhile (for example, reading 120 Days of Sodom in 2018 made me realize that most people who set out to be offensive are pikers in comparison), but I needed a palate cleanser this year.

My first pass, in early 2019, was to come up with a list of a hundred books that I wanted to read. I divided them into the following quarters:

  • White Men Writing in English
  • White Women Writing in English
  • People of Color Writing in English
  • Books in Translation

And I decided to keep an eye on several best-of lists as well.  Lots of them: a reader-generated list of gothic fiction, NPR’s best-of horror list, the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks lists, and a list of early crime fiction selected by HRF Keating. Oh, and I was going to magically find time to read a lot of nonfiction somehow. And graphic novels. And new releases.

Sure.

By June I had read fewer than a third of the books I had on my list, almost no nonfiction, almost no graphic novels, and no books written within, I don’t know, the last decade. I had read a hundred books (one of my superpowers is speed reading). Just not the ones I planned to read.

I tried again, wiping off the list the books I’d read and the books I’d started but couldn’t finish.  Despite my plan, I mostly fell back to my Dead White Guys again, even when I was mostly skimming and hate-reading books to finish them.

(Side note: I decided I can’t read Tananarive Due’s books. She’s excellent, but her stories are about women who are ongoing victims of abusive narcissistic assholes and these women don’t recognize that’s what’s happening, and I finally decided I didn’t need to feel like screaming “Get out you fool” and twitching with PTSD for entire novels at a time. If that’s your sort of thing, I highly recommend them. But they can’t be on my list anymore.)

By November, it was clear that the same pattern was going to emerge: not a lot of nonfiction, graphic novels, or recent work, and a disproportionate amount of Dead White Guys.  This is not to say that the books by the Dead White Guys were objectively—or even subjectively—worse than books by other types of people, just that, after a while, they get me in a rut.

For example, let’s take “Some asshole causes harm to the people around him, mostly written from the perspective of the asshole” as a plot.  It’s a pretty common plot. (One famous example of this is The Shining.)

I read books featuring this plot:

  • White Men/English: 30
  • White Women/English: 9
  • People of Color/English: 9
  • Books in Translation: 9

The assholes didn’t have a specific gender. I didn’t count books where this was a subplot, just the main plot.  It’s not that those books were necessarily good or bad, or that they rewarded or punished the asshole in question; it’s just that I got tired of playing “yes, yes, plot twist, the narrator is the main problem here, I got it.”

There are other ruts. This one in particular got on my nerves.

(Side note: At least one of those white men was a trans man, which made me slap my forehead and realize another area where I was falling down.)

This year, I read:

  • White Men/English: 110
  • White Women/English: 56
  • People of Color/English: 31
  • Books in Translation: 40

Which is lots better than I did in 2018. (There may be errors in counting here, but I’m not dedicated enough to debate them.)

The logic inherent in my categories is that, in the U.S., about two-thirds of us are white and non-Hispanic, and about a third of us aren’t, with about half and half men and women (and half of two-thirds is one third).  I also just like to read books in translation, so I threw that in as another category, to turn my thirds into quarters: the math was easier.

I didn’t track LGBTQIA+ people, Jewish people, handicapped people, or a bunch of other things that I now kinda regret. The main thing I started with in 2018 was going, “I read mostly Dead White Dudes, and I’m getting tired of it.” Then, of course, once I started tracking numbers even after I decided to do something other than read mostly Dead White Dudes, there I was, still reading mostly white dudes, dead or otherwise, and reading too many “written from the perspective of an asshole” books.

So.

November.

I gave myself a budget to-be-read (TBR) pile of 30 books. A book a day is rather ambitious even for me, but I knew there would be a certain number of books that I started and didn’t want to finish or didn’t feel like reading that month after all, and I wanted some wiggle room.

I went through the house, my Kindle, my phone, and the books on my nightstand, and added those to my November list. Then I added the books I thought would come in at the library before December. Then I went, “This is already a disproportionate number of White Dudes.” Because it was.

So I filled out the rest of that list with other types of people.

November went okay.

  • I read more nonfiction than I had been reading, although most of it was writer-related business books rather than the ones I had planned.
  • Graphic novels: on track.
  • Best-of lists: making less progress, but still some on each list.
  • Proportions: 10 White Guys, 8 White Women, 4 People of Color, 3 Books in Translation. Still not great, but better.

December went even better.

  • Nonfiction I fell down on, but did get some read. The books that I have on tap for nonfiction tend to be either in print, or ebooks that I bought. However, what I read first is books that are due back to the library, and books in ebook format (I can read on a Kindle after my spouse is asleep without keeping him up, but the lamp and page-turning sounds of paper bother him).
  • Graphic novels: on track.
  • Best-of lists: on track.
  • Proportions: 6 White Guys, 5 White Women, 6 People of Color, 2 Books in Translation and 8 volumes of a graphic novel in translation.

In conclusion:

Writing these numbers out feels surreal.

I’ve been trying to stop reading mostly Dead White Guys for a year now, and have made improvements but haven’t reached my goals yet, because apparently changing my reading habits is harder than it looks. A white woman, determined to change her reading habits and having the access to the books needed to do so, was unable to successfully do so in the course of a year.

Although she did make strides.

In case you missed a newsletter, here were my best books of 2019:

Proportions: 5 White Men, 1 White Woman, 4 People of Color, 2 Books in Translation (with two fudges on the numbers; 4/1/3/2 if you leave out the fudges).

Disproportionately, the books that I liked (compared to the total number of books I read) were written by people of color. And three of them I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t assigned myself the task of reading more people of color; they weren’t on best-of lists (Mongrels is on the NPR best-of horror list).

In the sense that my tastes have been broadened and my life enriched? This year was obviously a success. In the sense that I still read too many books with the same plot, ehhhh…better than 2018, at any rate.

And finally…

My favorite book of the year? A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar. It was magnificent, and I wish it were being picked up for an HBO series or something. It brutally mocks Hitler, serves as an analysis of why pulp fiction was both good and horrible with a lovely homage, is packed with super-dry humor, and has one of the world’s perfect endings.  Mwah!

Like this post? It, and more like it, can be found in the Wonderland Press Newsletter!

New Release from Blaze Ward Presents: I Like My Science…MAD

 

I Like My Science…MAD
(Blaze Ward Presents Book 2)

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

Come with us on a twisted journey of science gone wrong and gods rising to threaten us all. Of private detectives on the moon and dieselpunk ladies saving the day. Academics making dark pacts and taking vengeance into their own hands. Mad.

Includes my story, “The Legends of Castle Frankenstein.”

What is the true story of Castle Frankenstein, the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s famous novel? Was there ever a mad scientist? A monster? A pursuit across the Arctic ice? Because there is a Castle Frankenstein, and you can go there and walk around the ruined stones, poke around in the forest, and eat lunch.

The legends that get told by the people who work at Castle Frankenstein are strange, but the layers leading downward into the truth are stranger.

And stranger…

An alchemist with no soul. A mysterious object falling from the sky. Terrified peasants with pitchforks and torches. An eerie whistling that echoes through the forest. A fallen tower. The elixir of life.

How much is real? How much is just legend?

And just how much of it are the locals covering up?

Let me tell you a story about Castle Frankenstein.

Not the novel written by Mary Shelley but the castle, which actually exists.  Once, years ago, I went to Europe on a Wanderjahr, a year where I toured all over Europe, sketching architecture and seeing parts of the world that weren’t Iowa.  I fell in love that year, had my heart broken, and saw some things that blew my mind.

And, while I was there, visited the actual Frankenstein Castle.

Let me just say, straight off, that the legends you hear about the place are fake.

In case you haven’t heard the fake legend, let me get you caught up on it so I can tell you the real one.  Frankenstein’s Castle is nothing but ruins now, but it was built in the thirteenth century in order to keep an eye on the bandits in the area.  The Baron “von und zu Frankenstein,” was actually a guy named Conrad Reiz; the family eventually died out in the early sixteen hundreds.  The castle was sold to another noble family, the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt, who, having better things to do than take care of the place, started to let it fall into ruin.

The landgraves aren’t the mad scientists in this scenario.

But there was one.

Johann Conrad Dippel was born at the castle in 1673 and was later hired on as a professional alchemist.  Back then there really were such things as professional alchemists.  He created a formula that was supposed to be the Elixir of Life: a nasty, sludgy black liquid that was supposed to extend the life of the user to one hundred and thirty-five years.

In the fake legend, Dippel blew up one of the castle towers while making the elixir of life, then offered to trade the (now ruined) castle in exchange for the recipe.  The landgraves refused. Dippel went elsewhere with his discovery, eventually using his elixir of life to help create a synthetic version of Prussian blue pigment—which was a huge deal at the time, considering that you used to have to make blue pigments by grinding up lapis lazuli stones, literal jewels.  So trading a castle for the recipe to a cheaply manufactured pigment might not have been a bad idea at the time.

However, Dippel was no misunderstood hero.  He was a complete asshole.  He would dig up corpses and perform anatomical experiments on them.  Aha, you’re saying.  Just like in the novel.  Right, but it gets weirder.  One of the things he tried to do was switch souls between bodies using funnels.

Not living bodies, mind you.  Just dead ones.

Dippel was so off-putting that the benchmark of religious oddity at the time, Emanuel Swedenborg, called him “a most vile devil…who attempted wicked things.”  This from a guy who believed that he could freely travel between heaven and hell and speak to angels, demons, and the dead.  He also claimed that Dippel tried to sway people away from Christianity and “take away all their intelligence of truth and good, and leaving them in a kind of delirium.”

Finally, Dippel decided it was time to put his money where his mouth was and drink his elixir of life, after which he promptly died.

Afterwards, this elixir, known as Dippel’s Oil or bone oil, was used as an insect and animal repellant and was even used in World War II as a chemical warfare agent.  Dump some oil in a desert well, and the water would be undrinkably foul, but not actually fatal (Dippel’s death to the contrary).  Which meant that using it wasn’t a violation of the Geneva conventions.

How much of the above is true, I can’t say, other than that Dippel didn’t blow up a tower, because there weren’t any.  They were added during the nineteenth century, long after his death.

There are other cool legends about the castle that have nothing to do with the “Frankenstein” story.  For example, there’s a fountain of youth that only married women could use, and then only one day a year and only if they performed a feat of bravery.  The original St. George versus the dragon story possibly happened in the area.  And Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied might have been murdered nearby, of which the fat ladies of Wagner’s operas doth sing.  A section of the forest, the Odenwald, has magnetic rocks that screw with compasses.  The area is so famously weird that the Ghost Hunter International crew even filmed an early episode at the castle.  Every castle has its ghost, often headless, and sometimes they’re nuns.  The devil has a dozen landmarks named after him.  Witches are everywhere.  Some of them are like, “Black cats?  Pffft.  Hold my beer and watch me turn into a pig.”

Mary Shelley was known to have come within ten miles of the castle two years before she wrote her book, but never saw the castle itself.  But the coincidences between the legend and her novel seem too much to ignore completely.

As in, the book’s called Frankenstein.

Duh.

But, as I said, that’s not the real legend, just the fake one.

Want to read more? Click here.

New Release from the Uncollected Anthology: Crossroads Hotel

Uncollected Anthology: Crossroads Hotel

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

Negotiate a convention of funeral directors and order a grilled cheese sandwich. Discover how walking upstairs can change your life or a watch can end it. Park your car out of the rain and unpack your suitcase. Just don’t piss off the kitchen staff. 8 stories where fate controls the front desk!

Includes my story, “Memento Temporis.”

It’s thirty years to the day that Jim lost the love of his life, Laina Jarvy, back in 1929. Now a colleague’s wife has a gift for him: a watch that will take him back in time to save Laina, and instructions on how to use it.

Jim’s willing to pay whatever price is necessary to save her–but the offer that he’s given in the past, at the mysterious Crossroads Hotel, smells more than a little like yesterday’s fish.

Is he about to save Laina?

Or get stiffed?

I drove carefully on my way to the hotel. The last thing I wanted to do get in a car accident.

In my pocket was a yellowed piece of paper. The thing had to be decades old. It had some instructions on it, and an address to a place called “The Crossroads Hotel.” I had hired a car, a 1927 Moon Sedan manufactured in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a brand-new car, but I had some trouble adjusting to the old-timey controls.

In my pocket beside the yellowed piece of paper was a pocket watch. It looked like a Lalique piece, and about as delicate as a perfume bottle. The front was studded with moonstones and enameled with a design of bats and witches. The bats and the witches sort of faded into each other, so it took some investigation to tell where one started and the other ended. On top of the winding-stem, for the chain-loop, was a snake eating its own tail.

Inside, the watch face was more unusual than I care to explain. The watch had nothing to do with telling the time, and everything to do with telling time what to do.

I had come from 1959, all the way back to 1929. Thirty years.

Science hadn’t brought me here. Aliens hadn’t crash-landed in the Nevada desert, bringing time-traveling technology down to mankind. A nuclear explosion hadn’t knocked me for a time loop.

Instead, I had borrowed a pocket watch from a woman in 1959. Nancy Mattson was the wife of a junior colleague at Concordia University, in Portland. She had a wide brow and a cleft chin. You could just as easily imagine her in a suit and tie as a cocktail dress. She had that kind of mannish face. She was a good hostess—kept the vodka in the freezer box and was never afraid of putting out the sardines or Tabasco sauce.

I don’t know how she knew to give me the watch, but she did.

It was that time of year again, July 16th. I wasn’t teaching summer classes and I didn’t have anything to get me out of bed in the mornings other than running out of cigarettes on my nightstand. It was the anniversary of her death—the woman who should have been my wife. I had lost Laina in Portland thirty years ago, to the day. Now instead of being a young writer with promise, I was a middle-aged professor with leather patches on his elbows to cover up the fabric getting worn through.

I had been invited to a faculty dinner-and-drinks party at Mike Mattson’s house, and I had accepted on the grounds that being bored to death by faculty summer gossip would be less fatal than being home alone that night.

About eight o’clock, Nancy pulled me aside by the drinks table. “Jim, you look like death warmed over. Whatever is the matter? You didn’t get fired, did you?”

“It’s that date again,” I said, swaying a little. I hadn’t gone easy on the ice-cold vodka. Or the sardines. I must have been a real jewel. “Thirty years now. Christ, I shouldn’t have come tonight.”

“That date?” she asked. “What date?”

And, there and then, I was drunk enough to tell her what had happened…

Click here to read more!

New Release: Crime du Jour!

Crime du Jour: 31 Tales of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

Kindle | Goodreads

A crime a day keeps the injustice away.

31 very short tales of crime and criminals, from Aggravated Assault to White-Collar Crime, for those days when you need to escape from law and order…

…and through the loopholes to the dark side of justice.

These are the same stories as in the October 2019 series below, but now with an introduction, more editing, and a convenient ebook format.  The ebook is currently exclusively on Kindle as I do some sales testing, but probably won’t stay. Please contact me if you need a non-Kindle verion and are willing to leave me a review on Goodreads or Library Thing 🙂

The major change is to the Homicide story, which is now renamed “The Little Old Ladies’ Club” and has the ending reworked, because I hated it. C’est la guerre.

Crime du Jour, Day 21: Open Container

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!

 

Crime du Jour #21: Open Container

BEST MAN

 

So about two years ago, my cousin Joe Griggs here and I had been drinking, first at a strip-mall bar in Saginaw, then out in the parking lot, then walking along the highway, which maybe wasn’t that great an idea, but eventually we caught a break in the traffic and crossed to the other side of the road, then the other side of the railroad tracks, two-three sets of them, then over into this kind of open lot with a bunch of scrub trees in it. It’s behind the steel fabricator place and animal services, so you got your rusty smell and your smell of dogs, and the sound of barking and the highway.

It was a clear night, hot and warm, you could hear the insects singing, a train rolling out along one or another of the tracks, a party off in the distance with music playing tinny and faint off someone’s phone.

Well, Joe and I, we got to arguing about his ex-girlfriend and whether he should get back together with her, and we got in a fight, then kind where you’re half-wrestling and half-trying to punch each other. He hit me real hard and I passed out. Actually, he might not have hit me that hard, but I passed out anyway.  We were that kind of drunk.

When I woke up, it was morning, but only just.

I wasn’t sure what had happened, so I looked around. Right in front of my feet was my cousin Joe’s body, right next to an empty bottle of Jim Beam, which I was sure had been full when I blacked out.  Joe’s face looked pale and dead-looking.  I touched him, and he was colder than anybody had any right to be. No joke, he felt like a wax dummy.

I yelled and shook him. He flopped around like a bag of pinto beans.

I decided he was dead.  D-E-A-D dead.

So I did what any hungover white boy in Texas would have done.  I dragged Joe’s dead body over to the railroad tracks.  I wasn’t sure whether I had killed Joe or he had just drunk himself to death, but I didn’t much feel like taking the blame for it.

The train was coming, close enough to feel the track vibrate and hear the thrumming sound of all the wheels rolling on the rails.  I had to get out of the area, but I didn’t dare go back to my pickup truck.  My story was going to be that Joe and I had fought, and I’d abandoned him out in the open lot and walked home without him.  Whatever had happened to him after that, well, not my fault.

I was about halfway to the opposite end of the open lot when I remembered that I’d left that bottle of Jim Bean behind, and turned around to get it.  I didn’t know whose fingerprints were on it.

As I turned, someone ran across the highway to the place where I’d left Joe on the tracks. A woman, maybe five feet tall in four-inch stilettos, and built like a feather boa.  She screamed and tried to pull Joe off the tracks—the wrong way, that was.  All she woulda had to do was push him sideways off the tracks, and he would have rolled off the track bed and to safety.  But no, she had to try to drag him across the tracks, which meant she’d have to try to drag him over two sets of tracks, because right there, they ran side by side, and it wasn’t clear which tracks the train was on yet.

“Help me!” she screamed, then waved her arms.

I swore under my breath.  She’d seen me.

I ran toward her, grabbing the bottle of Jim Bean off the ground as I ran.  The train was on its way now, you could see it off in the distance as it came around the bend.  I made it to the tracks, dropped the bottle, and grabbed Joe’s body to start pulling him off the tracks and toward the open lot.

This little lady grabbed him and started pulling him back the other way. Between the two of us, we had him half-sitting up.

She was strong.  I don’t know how a lady so tiny got so strong.

“Let go!” I shouted.

“Help me!” she shouted back.

We both kept pulling in opposite directions.

The train came closer, the brakes on it screaming. It was on our set of tracks, all right, headed straight for all three of us.

That’s when Joe’s head rolled back on his shoulders and he started screaming, “I don’t wanna go toward the liiiiight!”

He jerked his arms away from both of us and covered his face with his hands.

Still sitting there, right on the tracks.

The woman yelled, “I’ll save you!” and tried to grab him under the arms and drag him backward along the tracks.  Even with the train trying to stop, she wasn’t going to be able to drag him backward fast enough to do either of them any good.

So I grabbed her and dragged her off the tracks, toward the open lot.  And she—don’t ask me how—kept hold of Joe and dragged him off the tracks.

As we dragged Joe away from the oncoming train, he saw the bottle of Jim Beam and grabbed it, cradling it to his chest like a puppy.

The engine went by, brakes still screaming. We had made it.

After a while, the train came to a stop, and we all heard this weird humming sound.

“What’s that?” the lady asked.

We all looked.

It was a drone floating above our heads and off to the side, a camera right in front.

Filming the whole thing.

Which is why we’re Internet-famous now, how Joe and I got busted for open container, and the hundred-percent truth of how Joe and Meredith met.

THE END

 

Geeky gothics and other strange & wonderful fiction: sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter here. Includes two tales of Doctor Rudolpho, a teenaged fortune-teller who has the Sight.  If you enjoyed today’s story, please consider signing up!

You can find 2018’s story-a-day project, Tales of the Normal, here, and 2017’s story-a-day project, October Nights, here.

 

Crime du Jour, Day 20: Murder, Second-Degree

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!

 

Crime du Jour #20: Murder, Second-Degree

CRIME DU JOUR

Second-degree murder is an ugly, boring crime. In theory it’s supposed to be a “crime of passion,” when you kill someone in the heat of the moment, or you kill someone you only intended to injure, or you kill someone while you’re committing another crime.  In practice, it’s a crime for stupid people.

Lemme give you some examples.

One guy kills a priest in Marlborough who was hearing his confession, not in a confession booth like in the movies, but in the priest’s office, face to face, over a cup of coffee.  The guy was abused as a kid, and it slips out.  Suddenly the guy is like, “You weren’t supposed to ask about that.” They tussle, the priest gets shot, second-degree murder.

A contractor in Arnold drives over a homeless man in an alleyway near his apartment. Hits the guy, runs over him, then reverses his pickup truck and backs over him again.  He was high and hadn’t meant to do it, second-degree murder.

This guy in Fairview Heights is molesting little kids. One of the moms finds out.  She recruits her brother to help deal with this bastard, then hires the guy to help put together some bunk beds for her even younger twin daughters. They tussle, she accidentally shoots her brother, then the guy. She has a good lawyer. Instead of first-degree murder and manslaughter, the charge about her brother is dismissed and the one about the alleged molester is downgraded—you guessed it—to second-degree murder.

A chorus of domestic disturbance rings out over the St. Louis metropolitan area, as regular as church bells. Second-degree murder.

Two guys stuck in a traffic jam on I-70 on a Friday at 4 p.m., one guy gets out and shoots the other, second-degree murder.

Two guys walk out of a bar just off Vandeventer Avenue, they get in a fight, one of them knocks the other out, the first guy drags the second guy’s unconscious body into a park, the second guy hits his head on a rock and dies, second-degree murder.

Robbery in an old man’s home in Fairview Heights, the robber ties up a 79-year-old man and leaves him there after ransacking the house. The man has diabetes and no family and can’t get to his insulin, second-degree murder.

Three teenaged boys in Ferguson steal some unsecured guns off a second-amendment neighbor, all trigger and no discipline, then break into the house of neighbors who happen to be black. They wear ski masks, one of the guns goes off accidentally, everyone’s in the news, second-degree murder.

A woman’s driving a car in Hi-Pointe. The car is moving. One guy is in the seat beside her, the other is in the seat behind her. A gun goes off—twice. The car swerves and hits a tree. Video from a store across the street shows three people in the car: the dead woman in the driver’s seat, a guy in the front seat, another guy in back. The woman was shot in the back of the head twice. Both of the guys have previous convictions for drug felonies. The guy in the back seat says he got out of the car and went home before the shooting occurred and he wouldn’t have shot her while the car was moving anyway, second-degree murder.

Are you bored yet? Rolling your eyes? Trying to talk to the people on the other side of the story and tell them it wasn’t worth it? I do.

I work for the local daily paper.  You wouldn’t recognize my byline. I started out delivering papers at four a.m. off my bicycle and worked my way up to reporter.  Not one of the top reporters, but a reliable hack with a sympathetic face who works the courts a lot.  The cops recognize me.  I’ve stepped down more than a few situations.  “Oh, it’s her,” they’ll say, and the situation will de-escalate. Apparently my writeups are sarcastic.

But here it is: I started noticing, when I was doing follow-up interviews with the survivors after sentencing, that there would be a snow globe sitting around somewhere.  Small, cheap-looking, white plastic in a glass dome with a white plastic base.  I didn’t think about it until I saw the fifth or sixth one.  Now I see them everywhere.

When I first realized it, I broke off in the middle of the interview.  I said, “What’s that?”

The widow handed the globe over to me.  Her husband had been killed behind a gay bar off 7th Boulevard. She’d known what her husband was like, but she loved him too much to stop him that night, he’d been shot after making out with the wrong closeted gay man, second-degree murder.

“Charles’s snow globe,” she said, like I should have known already. She handed it to me.

Behind the swirling white glitter was a 3D-printed miniature in white plastic. One man standing, the other kneeling, the first man holding a gun to the second man’s head. A little metal plate at the bottom said Charles Garmer, Jan 7 1982 to May 13 2018, Crime du Jour.

“Where’d you get it?” I asked.

“It came in the mail.” She tilted her head. “Didn’t you know? Every day someone gets one of these.”

She showed me the St. Louis survivors’ forum she frequented. One of the top topics was just that: Crime du Jour.  Every day, some anonymous artist selected a second-degree murder case and made a miniature snow globe for it on a 3D printer, then sent it to one of the survivors.

“That’s…” I said, not knowing how to describe it.

The widow shrugged. “We like them. It’s nice knowing someone is paying attention.” She skipped a beat, then added, “Besides you, of course.”

“Of course,” I said, and wrapped things up.

Twenty years of summing up second-degree murder cases, and it was someone else who had found the perfect description for that dull and relentless horror, the horror of human stupidity.

Crime du jour.

THE END

 

Geeky gothics and other strange & wonderful fiction: sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter here. Includes two tales of Doctor Rudolpho, a teenaged fortune-teller who has the Sight.  If you enjoyed today’s story, please consider signing up!

You can find 2018’s story-a-day project, Tales of the Normal, here, and 2017’s story-a-day project, October Nights, here.

Crime du Jour, Day 19: Money Laundering

Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality

One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!

 

Crime du Jour #19: Money Laundering

NIMMERFROH

It all started when my latest serial-killer novel was pirated.  I’d only sent out a couple dozen copies of the novel to beta readers, so it wasn’t that hard to track down the guilty party.  Beta readers are people who read an early version of a story and give the author feedback. It’s an informal position, but one of trust. I set my computer guru, Bob, on the job. Bob is a nice guy, pretty ethical, but he owes me big-time.

The suspects were quickly narrowed down to two friends of mine who lived on the other side of the country, but not with each other. (I live in Colorado, up in the mountains.) I immediately leaned toward one of them as the guilty party.

I should explain why I was upset about having my book pirated.  To a reader, it’s no big deal to pirate a Liz Hicks book, or even thousands of Liz Hicks books.  I, myself, have pirated a few books. If I can’t legally buy a copy of a book, I have no scruples about getting one however I can.  The usual problem that authors bring up is that they don’t make money off pirated books. And I have to admit that the idea of all the money that isn’t mine gets my goat sometimes.

But what really pisses me of is that I don’t make rankings off pirated books.  Nobody gets on a USA Today bestseller list based on pirated versions. And Amazon, for example, bases how often my books get shown to readers on how often my books get sold or reviewed.  And book pirates don’t even leave stinking reviews.

The woman I suspected of being the book pirate, let’s call her Jenna, was going to be at a convention in St. Petersburg, Florida, a few weeks after I found out about the pirating.  I looked up the email she had sent after she had read the novel, called Nimmerfroh, about a female serial killer working with the German Resistance during World War II.  Jenna had loved the book, but suggested a few changes. I’d used most of her suggestions.  She’s also a professional writer, and a good one.  She writes thrillers about a female IT specialist who tracks down abducted women.  She’s a computer guru herself, although these days she’s a bit behind on the field, being successful enough as a writer that she quit her IT job.

Aha, I hear you thinking. No wonder she’s the one you suspected.

Let me add that the other suspect was an old college professor of mine, a complete idiot about clicking on any and every email or message that anyone ever sent him, the kind of person constantly posting on Facebook, “Ignore any messages you got from me yesterday.  I’ve been hacked!”

He might have been an inadvertent “leak,” but I didn’t think so. The version of the book that had been pirated had the fixes that Jenna had suggested in it already—worded slightly differently than I would have done it.

A pretty solid clue, in my opinion.

I kept my mouth shut until the Florida convention.  I had intended to take Jenna to lunch as a “thank you” for being a beta-reader, then confront her about the book pirating, but she beat me to it. That is, she offered to take me out to lunch.

We went to an upscale restaurant. She ordered the vegan fettuccine with mushroom Bolognese.  I ordered steak, organic New York strip with togarishi-lime butter, and a double-shot of the most expensive Scotch on the list.  If they had had lobster on the menu, I would have ordered it.

She didn’t blink an eye.

“So,” she said. “You found out about the piracy.”

“Yes,” I said.

“I knew you would.”

“And?”

And, she said, she had a proposition for me.

A certain firm in Indonesia needed to launder some money.  They owned literal laundries all over East Java. Many of the legitimate customers paid in cash.  The way the money got laundered was, the laundry owners would set up fake accounts to bring in suits to be dry-cleaned.  They would charge the accounts for the suits, but—surprise!—no suits were ever cleaned. It’s a simple setup. I’ve heard of it done with housecleaning, restaurants, even house sitters.

Here was where things got more involved.  The firm in Indonesia also wanted a way to introduce computer viruses onto people’s smartphones.  Jenna had a more technical term for it, but that’s what it boiled down to, a computer virus.

Why not, Jenna said with twinkling eyes, target book pirates?

I would “leak” my beta-reader book version to the book pirates. They would introduce this virus thingy onto the pirated book file.  The book pirates would steal the book.  Then bad things would happen to the book pirates.

Instant karma.

“But what do I get out of it?” I asked.

“Isn’t revenge enough?” she asked.

“No,” I said, and she laughed.

“The women who work at the laundry all have Amazon accounts,” Jenna said.  “They buy your book.  Or read it on Kindle Unlimited, if the book is in that program. They’ll even do reviews.”

“In Indonesian?” I asked, thinking, I’m pretty sure most of them don’t speak English.

“All sorts of languages. There’s a network that goes through Russia and all over China, a lot of different places. A lot of the reviews are in English. And, honestly, I’ve made a lot of new fans that way.”

I sat back in my seat.

“And you sent my book out without asking me because…?” I said.

“Never mind that now,” she said. “It’s too late to put the feline back in the Kate Spade clutch. In or out?”

I thought about backlist. I thought about karma.  I thought about getting caught.

But it was breaking into the Russian and Chinese markets that decided me.

Getting reviews.

“In,” I said.

And then I finished my steak.

THE END

This story features the main character (Liz Hicks) from my forthcoming Diane R. Thompson novel, A Dark and Cozy Night.  

 

Geeky gothics and other strange & wonderful fiction: sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter here. Includes two tales of Doctor Rudolpho, a teenaged fortune-teller who has the Sight.  If you enjoyed today’s story, please consider signing up!

You can find 2018’s story-a-day project, Tales of the Normal, here, and 2017’s story-a-day project, October Nights, here.

 

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