Short, dark and than some

My short story “Taming the Tiger” will be published in the collection, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, later this spring by Untreed Reads. I wrote the story more than a year ago, so it was a little jarring to look back through it as it’s being prepared for publication and realize how dark it is. There is a sinister love triangle, a twisted power struggle, and a Talented Mr. Ripley-style murder. This isn’t the first time I’ve written dark short fiction. In fact, when I started thinking about it, all of my short stories, both published and unpublished, explore disquieting themes and paint bleak pictures of humans and their motivations.

All of this got me wondering: just what kind of monster am I?!

It’s probably common for people to assume that writers match their writing. Ernest Hemingway, whose books center on dashing, macho men battling their inner demons, was a dashing, macho man, battling inner demons. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Gatsby-like party boy. When asked where his dark inspirations stemmed from, Stephen King had this answer: “People think I must be a strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It’s in a jar on my desk.” (For the record, King isn’t quite the sicko his books would make him appear, but he was a raging alcoholic for decades, and even now he’s known for being quirky and elusive).

In my case, though, the darkness of my imaginary worlds doesn’t match up with my personality. I’m generally jolly and usually upbeat. I like wiener dog races and the color yellow and pictures of newborn babies wearing giant hair bows. My childhood had the usual share of minor traumas, but I grew up surrounded by loving family members. So why, when I sit down at a computer, does blood and fire pour out of my fingertips?

My fellow mystery writer and good friend, Tracee DeHahn, and I were talking about this phenomenon recently. She, too, is a uniformly upbeat person who comes from a stable background. We’re both relatively new to the world of mystery writing and have been wowed by the kindness and affability of the mystery authors we meet. Seriously, Malice Domestic, the annual gathering of writers who spend their days mentally murdering people, is filled with folks who are, on the whole, kinder than your average church bake sale committee (though, it has to be said, much, much raunchier).

My theory is that for many writers, the page is a safe place to process negative emotions. For me at least, fiction is like an external hard drive to store my darkness. Even cheerful people like me have heaps and heaps of bad thoughts that need to find expression.

Maybe I particularly like to visit those dark places in short fiction because it seems to allow me just enough time to explore those themes without absorbing them. Short fiction is a long weekend in the Land of Id — the raw, exposed, and sometimes downright yucky swamp in my emotional landscape. Visiting Id-Land allows me to appreciate life back at my emotional dwelling place: Giant Baby Bow Town.

 

Virtual Tour of a Virtual Book

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This month, I’m going on an actual trip with my actual family of squishy little humans, the first proper vacation we’ve had in several years. I will bring a real book made of paper, and read it with my eyeballs while sipping a tropical cocktail and raking sand with my newly-pedicured toes.

I’m also going on a trip next month, but not really. There will be people there, but not really. And there will be books, but not really.

Allow me to explain.

Next month’s trip is a virtual audiobook blog tour kindly organized by Jess the Magnificent at Audiobookworm. The way it works is, Jess sends virtual copies of my audiobooks to reviewers and bloggers who agree to post reviews, interviews, excerpts, and other content on their blogs on certain dates. As the author, I make the rounds on social media and online, commenting and interacting with each blogger on the assigned day. No actual anything changes hands at any point. None of us ever meet in person. The reviewers never hold a copy of my book in their hands. We are living in the future, people.

For both kinds of trips, prep is key. On the blog tour, all the content has to be requested, created, and shared on a strict timetable for the tour to run smoothly. So while I’m frantically trying to make sure that we’ve packed swim diapers, sunscreen, and a bunch of those little pouches of pureed fruit that are like baby crack for the actual trip, I’m also trying to prepare Top Ten lists, photos, and publicity blurbs for the blog tour. Even with Jess as my virtual travel agent, creating a two-week digital trip is almost as exhausting as planning a family holiday that will please both my toddler and my teenager. (Both kids like sleep and melted cheese, so I’m building our itinerary around those things).

I’m SUPER excited about both trips, and I hope you will come along. On the virtual one, that is. You are totally not invited to the beach.

Mostly what I’m producing is vomit

I began the month of October all gung-ho to work on Murder on the Mile High Bridge, book four in the Mount Moriah series. I had a plot, a victim, a murderer, and a couple nifty twists all ready to be spun into literary gold. Or, if not precious metal, at least a halfway decent piece of commercial fiction.

Then, the barfing started. I’ve written before about my tendency to upchuck before taking the stage to speak in public and how I’ve used medication as a crutch to overcome my fear. This was a different kind of barfing. Pregnant barfing. The kind of all-day “morning” sickness that only the parasitic invasion of a fetus can produce. That’s right. A small(er) Quigley is being manufactured in my womb.

But wait, you’re saying. Kate Middleton totally made all-day vomiting and nausea seem glamorous. What better way to ensure that you can squeeze right back into your size zero designer frocks moments after giving birth? Well, friends, there is no glamour in spewing partially-digested Saltines out of your mouth and nose in the bushes outside the grocery store. If you’ve ever experienced seasickness or altitude sickness, you’ll have an inkling of what severe morning sickness feels like. It’s that, only times several months.

I’m now a few weeks into my second trimester and my energy and ability to complete the full digestive process are gradually returning. But this is literally the first time I’ve put cursor to screen in any creative way since this whole ordeal/joyous event began. Apologies to anyone waiting for the next installment of Lindsay Harding’s story. Real-life drama has been the order of the day. I’m hoping to complete the manuscript before Baby Q arrives, because I remember the newborn stage also not being a particularly fruitful time in my professional life. Wish me luck.

I know there are many women who have powered through cancer, MS, and other extremely challenging health conditions while simultaneously keeping up with demanding jobs and/or care commitments. Good for them. I, by contrast, am mortal. I can only do one thing at a time–build a human being from scratch or write a lighthearted cozy mystery. One or the other. Not both.  I recently came across a Virginia Woolf quote that’s an old favorite of mine, which lets me know that I am in good company. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Amen, Virginia.

Roll on, second trimester, and let the dining (and writing) recommence.

Oh! Quick shameless plug. The Mount Moriah box set is on sale for only $.99 on Amazon for the new day or so: http://amzn.to/2gGiHKg. Recommend it to a friend who could use a pick-me-up this holiday season.

Two thumbs up for cozy mysteries

To a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, the Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert was the fount of all wisdom. His weekly Siskel and Ebert: At the Movies PBS show, with its famous Thumbs Up-Thumbs Down scoring system, was in regular rotation on lazy Saturday mornings, when my sister and I would flop in front of the TV with bowls of cereal. Because it was the 80s, our mother let us add spoonsful of white sugar to our Cheerios and eat them along with big glasses of milk sweetened with Hershey’s syrup. Apparently, in the 80s, everyone had magical pancreases.

But back to Ebert. This bespectacled, almost cartoonishly jowly Midwesterner somehow embodied the personality traits of a sharp-witted pundit, a polymath genius, and a four-year-old at a birthday party. His arguments with his co-host were literate, civilized precursors to the hair-clawing, manicure-ruining brawls that populate today’s reality TV. Their arguments were every bit as viscous and sometimes even personal, but their disagreements also expanded minds and showed that it was possible for even well-intentioned experts to disagree.

I recently rediscovered that Saturday morning slice of my childhood when I saw Life Itself, a documentary that chronicles Ebert’s diagnosis with jaw cancer, and the aftermath of the disfiguring surgery that spared his life but destroyed both his face and his ability to speak. The documentary is wonderful, even for those who lack the childhood attachment I have. The film is chock-full of touching, profound, hilarious revelations, but it was one quote, as Ebert discussed his scathing review of Blue Velvet, that has stuck with me for weeks:

“Drama holds a mirror up to life, but needn’t reproduce it.”

For Ebert, Blue Velvet’s sadomasochistic depiction of Isabella Rossalini’s character, and by extension the actress herself, crossed a line between art/drama and exploitation. This brought me back to the struggles I had in choosing a comfortable genre in which to write. After my first agent unsuccessfully shopped the Mount Moriah cozy mystery series, she advised that I switch gears and write Romantic Suspense, which she assured me would sell more easily. That genre, also known as “woman in peril” usually features dangerous, even psychopathic, criminals and gritty scenes of life-threatening action. Following my agent’s advice, I started a novel about a female psychiatrist who treated patients suffering from severe phobias using 3D virtual reality immersion. Similar to the villain in the movie Se7en, my baddie was killing my heroine’s patients one-by-one by reproducing the circumstances of their virtual immersions in real life. Terrified of spiders? Well, you’d find yourself trapped in a room full of tarantulas. And so on. Pretty good plot, eh?

Here’s the thing, though. When I worked on that book, I felt gross. It was hard to edit, because I didn’t like going back reading what I’d written. Yes, those horrible things—mental illness, murder, torture, cruelty, happen. But I didn’t want to be the one to give voice to those things. So, I chucked that idea, dropped the agent, and published the Mount Moriah books myself with Nicole Loughan’s Little Spot imprint. There are murders in my books, and baddies. And things like domestic abuse and prejudice are not glossed over. But I try not to hold my reader’s gaze on them for too long, and I never want to inflict unnecessary suffering on my characters. Mostly, my books try to radiate positive energy. Sometimes, when I read a passage I haven’t read in a long time, it will still make me chuckle. That’s the vibe I’m most comfortable putting out in the world.

I’ll leave it to others to meticulously reproduce mass starvation, individual privation, war atrocities, and child abuse. Turns out when I hold up a mirror to life, I want to hold a fun house mirror.