Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Caged Grave

A chill went up and down my spine when I first saw the picture on the internet: a lonely graveyard with worn and tilted tombstones – and one grave with an iron cage built around it. A lovely, decorative cage – but a cage nonetheless!

A little digging, with the help of my search-savvy husband, was sufficient to identify the graveyard as the Old Mt. Zion Cemetery outside Catawissa, Pennsylvania, known more locally as The Hooded Grave Cemetery. And since the place is less than an hour away from my family’s favorite ski vacation spot in Blakeslee, PA, I decided to make a pilgrimage to see it for myself – dragging the family along for the ride.

It wasn’t that difficult to locate – again, thanks to my husband – but we received a shock when we pulled the car up beside the abandoned graveyard and realized there were actually two caged graves! Somehow, that was even creepier than one!

One daughter refused to get out of the car. The other got out, but wouldn’t approach the cages. That left me and my husband to investigate further. He took a few pictures for me and then high-tailed it back to the car. “Too cold outside,” he said. Well, it was darn cold, but the wind was not the only thing that chilled us. (You can see more pictures of the caged graves on my Facebook profile.)

The graves belong to two women named Asenath Thomas and Sarah Ann Boone, nee Thomas. They were clearly related in some way, since Sarah was a Thomas by birth and Asenath a Thomas by marriage. Both young women died in 1852, within days of one another.

Why erect iron cages around their graves? According to the internet, local legend suggests that the girls’ family believed they had been bitten by vampires – or werewolves – and were afraid they would rise from their graves. Further research suggests that the cages may have been erected to keep out grave robbers. But why were only these two graves protected?

There’s a good story here, and I hope to do some further research on it. What caused these two young women to die within days of one another? What made their families take such drastic action to protect their graves? And from what?

Were the cages erected to keep people out – or to keep Asenath and Sarah Ann in?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


I am pleased to announce the release of Visions Volume 2, the second in a series of pulp fiction anthologies published by Strider Nolan Media in cooperation with Visionary Comics. Ron Fortier, of Pulp Fiction Reviews and Airship27 Productions, calls Visions “the real deal, an honest-to-God modern pulp magazine!”

This volume contains my short story Greydeere, in which a wily thief matches wits with a ruthless, upper-class ruler. Mike Katz has contributed Forlorn Hope, the story of a policeman caught between a bizarre supernatural creature and an enigmatic team of monster hunters. (I’ve had a sneak peek at this one and can highly recommend it!) I am also looking forward to Bernd Struben’s story of post-apocalyptic Earth, and Barry Yelton’s meld of the supernatural and the Civil War. Other contributing authors include A. David Lewis, Nathan Meyer, Bryan Baugh, and C. Edward Sellner.

Not only is Visions packed with short stories, novellas, and serialized novels in a variety of genres, it’s beautifully illustrated. In fact, I ordered a print of the Necromancer illustration from the first volume. It now hangs in my house and frightens small children. Rumor has it that the production crew from the television show 30 Rock also ordered a print and may use it on the set sometime this season. Anxiously waiting for that episode …

Visions is my first experience with a pulp fiction magazine. I’m honored to be a contributing author, and anxious to get my hands on a copy of this new edition to read! Visions can be purchased at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Witches and Rappings

Last night I had the honor of attending the mid-winter concert of SATORI, a professional chamber music ensemble based in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, to hear the premiere performance of Witches and Rappings, composed by Dr. Paul Salerni, Professor of Music at Lehigh University. Dr. Salerni is my husband’s cousin (as well as being an excellent cook, a talented composer, and delightful company), and the first movement of his new piece describes a typical séance with the Fox sisters. It was inspired by my book We Hear the Dead (which he read in its earlier incarnation as High Spirits).

Witches and Rappings is a two-movement quartet for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello. The first movement portrays a grieving couple visiting the Fox sisters and initially being comforted by young medium Kate Fox and her mother. The entrance of Maggie Fox, portrayed by a bright and uplifting flute, heralds a change in the mood of the piece, and soon strange rapping sounds join the musicians as the spirit of the departed relative arrives to answer the queries of the mourners and comfort their grief. The surprise of the audience at the sudden onset of raps during the performance was obvious. “At first I thought one of the musicians had dropped her bow,” one audience member said after the concert. “But when it continued, I realized that it was part of the piece.” Another person confessed, “I looked everywhere for the source of the noise. For awhile I was convinced that Paul (the composer) was doing it from the audience.” In fact, the musicians were creating the raps themselves – although I am not going to give away their trick by revealing how they did it!

The second movement of the piece was inspired by John Updike’s novel, The Witches of Eastwick, in which three divorced women form a mischievous coven to play pranks on people they dislike. The arrival of a mysterious, seductive stranger, represented here by the violin, leads the women into more dark and dangerous magic. The musical piece reaches a climax when the witches’ nemesis is afflicted by a terrible spell: whenever she tries to speak, pins, needles, and feathers spew forth from her mouth. The musical portrayal of this condition is quite humorous, but the movement ends on a more somber note as the affliction eventually leads to the victim’s death.

When Paul first told me that he was writing a musical piece inspired by my book, I was so awestruck that I didn’t know what to say. I was also startled, daunted, and humbled even to be mentioned in the same sentence as John Updike. Last night, however, I was grateful to be present at this performance and not very surprised that Maggie and Kate Fox had returned from the grave to make their tale known through another artistic medium. Some stories just need to be told.

Congratulations to SATORI on a successful concert and to Paul Salerni for the premiere of his original new work!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Adapting a Novel for a Screenplay

How many times have you heard someone complain: "The movie isn’t like the book!" I’m pretty sure I have complained about that myself. Never again. Now my sympathies are entirely with the screenwriter!

It’s hard to turn a book into a movie. Heck, it was hard to turn the real life saga of the Fox sisters into a novel in the first place. In order to reduce the novel to a 120 minute movie, I’ve had to further compress timelines, drop and/or merge characters, and re-arrange events. In addition, I’ve been writing drafts of the screenplay while completing revisions on the We Hear the Dead manuscript, which involves keeping various versions of the story separate in my mind. I don’t know how many times I’ve grabbed my head and cried, “Wait! What am I supposed to do with this scene? Somebody wants it cut – Was it the producer or the editor?!”

Learning to write a screenplay was a new experience in itself. The entire story has to be told through dialogue and a sparse description of the action. There’s no way to convey the characters’ thoughts except with a voice-over narrative, which feels like cheating. Showing the passage of time becomes tricky. Do you like the old flipping calendar cliché? How about the seasons changing in fast motion before your eyes? Me neither, so I’ve tried to find a way to avoid them. A novel can encompass several subplots and layered themes, but in writing the screenplay I needed to narrow my focus a bit. Is this primarily a story of three sisters and the beginning of a social movement, or is it a romance between two lovers from different social stations?

Plus, I just wasn’t sure how to begin. Creating the first scene in the movie became an almost impassable obstacle. I finally just started with the second scene and went back to write the first scene later. And then I re-wrote it. And re-wrote it again.

My first attempt was not very noteworthy. My dialogue was okay, but I’d cut the stage action too short, figuring that a director would make all those decisions. On reflection (and advice from my collaborator), I realized I’d created a script that was too dull to read. Yes, the descriptions had to be brief, but they also had to be engaging to a person reading the screenplay. The script will be read before it is ever acted, and if I cannot convey my ideas to a person reading the script … the movie will never be made. When I realized that writing a screenplay is still a matter of writing well, everything fell into place.

Tonight I spent two hours on the phone talking to the producer about the latest version, which I call Draft 5.2. I now have notes for a new beginning (!) and a laundry list of other revisions—which I embrace happily (see the post below).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Role of an Editor

I wonder if authors appreciate their editors enough. Writing is a very personal thing, and, especially in fiction, the characters and events created on the page can be vividly real to the author. I imagine that the initial reaction of most writers, when asked to change their work, is: You want me to dismantle my baby??

However, I have found that a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudging by a good editor can revive a listless piece of writing. I recently sent the first few pages of a new short story intended for the Visions pulp fiction anthology to my editor at Strider Nolan for feedback. Frankly, I knew I was struggling, and I needed a push in the right direction. Mike sent me back a whole page full of ideas. My first thought was: No, that’s not where I wanted to take my story. My second thought was: Yeah, I was planning to take it to a much more ordinary and boring place! Subsequently, I scrapped my first draft and began to re-envision the story from a completely different angle.

I learned to trust Mike’s judgment when we worked together on my story, Necromancer, eighteen months ago. He told me that the ending needed work and suggested two alternate ways to conclude the story. I knew he was right about the original ending, but at first I resisted both his suggestions. With some encouragement from my husband, I decided to go ahead and re-write Necromancer using suggestion B, after totally rejecting suggestion A. I was very pleased by the results and emailed Mike the new draft only to have him send it right back. “That’s good,” he said. “Now, revise it again so that readers think you’re going for ending A and surprise them at the last minute with ending B.” My jaw dropped. It was brilliant. I would never have thought of that on my own.

So now I listen, and I’m ready to dismantle my creations and put them back together as needed, willingly making multiple Frankenstein drafts. When my Sourcebooks editor gently suggested changes to the We Hear the Dead manuscript this summer, I think I surprised her by my willingness to delete and re-write. And when my producer (it’s so cool to say that!) told me to trash the first 30 pages of the WHTD screenplay and re-write the beginning, I didn’t freak out. I got excited.

Revisions … bring them on.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Spirited Hoax -- Part 2

With little more than a clever prank, two adolescent girls hornswoggled scores of adults into believing they had a special power to communicate with the dead. It is tempting to think of these people as ridiculously gullible, but in fact, they lived in an age where the impossible was rapidly becoming not only possible, but commonplace.

Michael Faraday was, at this time, experimenting with electromagnetism. Fossilized bones of giant monsters—later called “dinosaurs”—were discovered in New Jersey. The steamboat had been invented; the Erie Canal had been excavated. And then there was the telegraph! Messages spelled out in one place flew through the air and magically tapped themselves into existence somewhere else. Was it beyond the realm of possibility that, in a world where such things could happen, men could find a way to communicate with the dead? Inventor Nikola Tesla didn’t think it so strange. Before the end of the century, he began work on a radio transmitter he hoped would be able to receive broadcasts from Heaven—or at least from outer space.

Nevertheless, scientific gullibility aside, it is doubtful that the Fox girls’ notoriety would have lasted if it had not been for the intervention of their oldest sister, Mrs. Leah Fish. This woman shrewdly recognized the money-making potential in the scam and relocated the family to Rochester, New York. There, she set up a profitable business conducting “spirit circles” at a dollar a head. Furthermore, she took additional steps to ensure her success by calling upon her acquaintance with radical Quaker and social reformer Amy Post, who then introduced her to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An arrangement of mutual promotion quickly developed. The reform leaders endorsed the spiritualists, and the Fox sisters made certain that the spirits devoted some of their messages to political causes. The ghost of Benjamin Franklin promised “great changes,” and pro-slavery Senator John Calhoun stopped by the spirit table shortly after his death to announce that he had been converted to the abolitionist cause in the afterlife!

Although there were critics who condemned the Fox sisters as frauds, and many who believed they were witches, several churches accepted spiritual communication as a religious experience. One Protestant minister stated that “God’s telegraph” had completely overshadowed the more mundane version invented by Samuel Morse. Leah Fish’s connection to abolitionists, suffragettes, and religious leaders became a social stepping stone for the sisters, who consorted with people high above their station. Hobnobbing with the rich and famous eventually brought them into the social circle of Elisha Kent Kane, a Philadelphia war hero and Arctic explorer. Kane immediately saw through the pretense and, developing a romantic interest in Maggie, sought to remove her from the influence of her sister.

Elisha Kane’s pursuit of Maggie Fox soon caused a crisis of conscience for the young girl. She was being asked to choose between her family and the man she loved. Soon, Elisha Kane and Leah Fish, both charismatic and influential in their own ways, were engaged in a battle for control of Maggie’s future. The Fox-Kane romance and the ethics of spirit rapping is the heart and soul of my novel, We Hear the Dead, but by the time this conflict erupted, spiritualism was already a movement which had taken on a life of its own. What had begun as a prank perpetrated by two mischievous girls had become a political vehicle, a new religion, and a source of entertainment for the popular media into the next century … and beyond.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Spirited Hoax -- Part 1

Uncle Albert, are you with us? Knock twice for yes ...

It's a recurring theme in popular media. Whether Patricia Arquette is solving crimes in the television show Medium, or Haley Joel Osment is whispering, "I see dead people," our fascination with contacting the dead is undeniable. Even someone who has never attended a seance can certainly imagine one: solemn people seated around a table, holding hands in the dark, waiting for the curtains to billow mysteriously and Uncle Albert to tell them where his will is hidden. Although the "seance" is embedded in our popular culture, few people know that the concept originated with two adolescent girls in the mid-19th century -- and that it all began as a high-spirited prank.

I've chosen to revisit the tale of these two teenaged girls in my historical novel, We Hear the Dead, due for release in May 2010. For me, truth really was more strange and compelling than fiction!

Maggie and Kate Fox, aged fourteen and eleven, were the youngest daughters of working class parents who, in 1848, entertained family members with a trick that ultimately founded the spiritualist movement. When life in the rural town of Hydesville, New York became too dull, Maggie and Kate invented a game that convinced their parents -- and then the neighbors -- that their house was haunted. By means of a knocking code, the girls communicated with the ghost of a murdered man supposedly buried in the basement. When the parents of the girls and the neighbors searched the house from top to bottom but could find no earthly explanation for the rapping noises, they commenced digging up the basement. Results were inconclusive -- some hair and bone fragments were discovered -- but this was enough to convince the residents of Hydesville that supernatural events were afoot.

Word of the ghostly occurrences spread, and people from the surrounding towns came to hear the knocking spirit. A newspaper reporter published a pamphlet on the mystery. Like a snowball, the story grew in the telling. Maggie and Kate Fox, who up to that point had lived ordinary and rather dull lives, had suddenly been thrust into the limelight. And neither one of them was in a hurry to see that light fade. (to be continued)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Optimism in a New Decade

All in all, I'd have to say that 2009 was a good year for me.
My short story "Necromancer" was published in the first volume of a new pulp fiction anthology titled Visions: Chronicles of a Visionary Universe. That thrill was quickly followed by an invitation to join the ranks of Sourcebooks authors and help launch a new YA imprint, Sourcebooks Fire, with my historical novel about the Fox sisters and the beginning of the spiritualist movement. And since things often come in threes, I shouldn't have been surprised (but I was) at the subsequent film option deal with One Eye Open Studio for the rights to my novel, now titled We Hear the Dead.

Yes, 2009 was a pretty good year for an average elementary school teacher, wife, and mom who has been writing all her life, but never dreamed (okay, maybe dreamed) of making a second career out of it! But 2010 promises to be even better!

I expect to shortly see the release of Visions Volume 2, which will include my fantasy short story "Greydeere." In May, Sourcebooks Fire will release We Hear the Dead, and sometime this year I expect to complete a screenplay based on the book, which I have been writing in collaboration with the owner of OEO Studio.

We Hear the Dead is based on the real life story of Maggie Fox, a teenage girl who, in 1848, inadvertently founded the spiritualist movement with a clever prank that snowballed out of control. By the time Maggie realized the repercussions of her actions, she was embroiled in nineteenth century politics, well on her way to becoming a teenage celebrity, and trapped in a life of deceit. When she fell in love with a fellow celebrity, Arctic explorer and gentleman adventurer Elisha Kane, Maggie was forced to choose between the love of her life and the family business.
I look forward to introducing Elisha and Maggie, as well as the other charming Fox sisters, to YA readers this spring -- and potentially to movie goers sometime in the future.
Here's to the promise of a new decade!