What Scares You?

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Since we’re so close to Halloween, I thought I’d explore my one venture into writing horror. The plotting workout of going outside my genre was educational, as it made me study the art of scaring people.

I’m at home writing paranormal phenomena. My mystery series features a psychic protagonist and there are ghosts and spirits in two of the books, Shaman’s Blues and Soul Loss. However, their roles are more mystical than frightening, and while the ghost in my prequel short story The Outlaw Women delivers some disturbing news, he’s actually quite benevolent. Mystery involves suspense and tension, and sometimes fear for the main character’s safety, but not the kind of fear that that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

In Stephen King’s analysis of horror, Danse Macabre, he has a chapter on monstrosity in which he examines the fine line between the strange and the monstrous. It’s the walk on that line that I find chilling. When the transition into monstrosity is too extreme, the impact is lost. To me, the scariest part of a horror story isn’t the gore. The blood and guts or weird slime or whatever is supposed to deliver peak terror is usually so over-the-top or icky that I’m not scared anymore. It’s the build-up that creeps me out, the sense that something is wrong at a deep, perhaps supernatural level, making it hard to fight or prevent.

Though I read horror stories occasionally, I never planned to write one. I ended up doing it on kind of a dare. In a discussion with several other authors, I brought up the fact that when author earnings are sorted by genre, the most money was in romance. None of us wrote romance. A horror writer said he’d have to try. I asked, “Horror-romance?” Next thing I knew, we were working on an anthology of horror-romance short stories based on the seven deadly sins. I picked sloth, since it was a challenge. How could I make laziness frightening? And romantic, in a scary way?

The Apache concept of bear sickness, a condition of unnatural lethargy, struck me as good starting place. Loss of control at the mental level, the feeling that something is invading and taking you over against your will, would have to be terrifying. I explored other Apache myths about bears and came up with a horror story without gore, an appropriate choice for the author of series of mysteries without murders. I was working on Ghost Sickness at the time, which is set, in part, on the Mescalero Apache reservation, so I used that locale—the same powwow, and even a couple of the minor characters from Ghost Sickness— in my horror story. When it turned out to be too long for the anthology, I set it aside for a while. Last year I released Bearing as a stand-alone for Halloween. Most people have liked it and found it creepy or chilling. However, the only review on Barnes and Noble says “Not at all scary.” The same things don’t frighten all of us. What gives you a good scare?

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 A tale of paranormal horror based on Native American myths.

Mikayla, young Apache woman attending a powwow with her family, becomes entranced by an outsider, a Cree man who shows up without his Apache girlfriend. As her fascination consumes her, Mikayla changes in ways both pleasurable and frightening, powerless to overcome his dark magic until it may be too late.

*****

The Calling, the first book in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery series, is on sale for 99 cents through Oct. 28th on all e-book retail sites.

Hidden Tracks

Amber in tree final I have files with titles such as “Accidental Shooting Settlements” and “Art Authentication” as well as “Pricing Art” and “Parrot Questions.” I finally deleted the one on 1989 Aerostar vans. The struggling old van made it through Shaman’s Blues and Snake Face and retired, with no one commenting on how I’d handled its various mechanical problems. That’s how it should be. I want to hide my tracks. Readers usually shouldn’t be paying attention to my research, but since this is a blog about writing, I’m going to go backstage and show the process.

Readers notice all the scholarly articles in The Calling. This book may look as though I worked harder on research compared to the rest, but in fact it was the easiest. I didn’t venture outside my areas of expertise, and I set it in places I knew well.When I lived in Norfolk, I’d visited a number of alternative healers there and several psychics in Virginia Beach—out of pure curiosity, with no idea they would end up as background for a book.  An important character in this story is a professor in health sciences and so am I. To find the material on alternative medicine and research in the field, all I had to do was relocate the right articles. I knew where they’d been published and I remembered the content.

More often, I don’t realize how much I’ll need to know about a subject until I’m into the first draft of a book. I immediately start keeping research lists, things to look up or ask experts about, and I dig into these questions as I go along.

When the character of Jamie showed up in Shaman’s Blues, I read books about current Australian Aboriginal culture in order to understand his roots. I studied Aussie slang and was blessed with an Australian critique partner who could tell if I got it right. And then there’s his van. It’s close to being a character in the next book, Snake Face. I took notes during Car Talk. I looked up timing belts and timing chains, I looked up the last year that these vans were made with carburetors, and I looked at pictures of their engine parts. A musician who had toured with a band read the manuscript to make sure I portrayed life on the road correctly. And I consulted a couple of lawyers about a major plot point. I double-checked some details of the medical treatments and outcomes for a particular injury. And I searched out the name of a Greek drinking dance. This is, I think, typical in the creation of a book, more typical than the ease with which I could pull together the seemingly obscure scholarship in The Calling.

For Soul Loss I reread some books on neo-shamanism to refresh my memory of a strange workshop I once attended as part of a conference, and I researched Tarot cards and Cochiti Pueblo beliefs about the dead. I also had to find out what was involved in setting up a festival. For Ghost Sickness I had to study up on parrots, since several play roles in the story, and also looked into rodeo injuries, and many matters related to art. Even though I’d set the story in familiar places, I revisited the Mescalero Apache reservation and took a careful, observant walk through Truth or Consequences to make doubly sure that certain events could happen as I wrote them. I could go on and on. It’s amazing what I discover that don’t know—or what I’ve forgotten that I thought I knew. But that list with the heading “Look Up” eventually gets crossed off and ideally readers have no idea I had to work so hard on that van. All they need to care about is the character driving it.

A Letter from the Antagonist

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For one weekend this past fall, my personal antagonist was Amber in tree finaltechnology. I’ll spare you the whole story. The short version is this: I couldn’t access my work in progress due to various computer issues and I was having severe withdrawal symptoms from not writing all day. It’s as bad as not exercising—I feel strange and incomplete if I go without either for a full day. I had to write by hand.

Fortunately, there’s one thing I always do by hand for each book, and I was at exactly the right point in the work in progress to do it. Before the final version of the plot is set, but after I can see where it’s going, I write the story in the first person from the antagonist’s point of view. No scenes, no dialog, just that character’s voice telling what happened and why. This exercise gives me insight into the complexity of the oppositional characters’ feelings about their actions. It also helps me keep track of events offstage, so I can weave in all the loose ends. Since I never include scenes from the antagonist’s point of view in a book, this process doesn’t have to be polished. All it needs to do is flow.

My mysteries aren’t about murder, so my antagonist characters aren’t villains or killers, though the opposition character in Snake Face comes close. Sometimes they commit crimes; sometimes they manipulate people without being criminal. I noticed, after reading Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt’s concise, humorously titled but serious work of philosophy, On Bullshit, that I tend to cast bullshitters in the antagonist’s role—Charlie in The Calling and Jill in Soul Loss. Maybe, after years in academia, I’ve come to think bullshit is a crime.

During my weekend without a computer, I invited a puzzling and deeply secretive character to tell his story as if he were sitting down and confiding in me. Or I might say, since I ended up with his hand-written narrative, he wrote me a letter. From that document I discovered which clues would need to come next in gradually revealing his story, and what would need to be saved for the end. He told me things I didn’t know about the people who helped him, and surprised me with a revelation of his deepest motive. I’ve recently wrapped up the book, Ghost Sickness, which is coming out in August, and I’m looking forward to doing this exercise with the new work in progress, even without enforced separation from my computer.ghost sickness ebook

*****

 Yesterday, inspired by a power outage, I posted on my other blog about an additional writing-by-hand creative process, the story mandala. https://amberfoxxmysteries.com/2016/07/20/monsoon-moon-and-mandala

Dosha, Character and Setting

Amber in tree finalIt feels strange to say that I create characters. They show up, complete with names and complex personal histories, and it’s my job to get to know them and understand how they tick. One of the tools I use for this is the concept of the three doshas—patterns of body type, personality and preferences—from Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India. I had some introductory education in Ayurveda in both of my yoga teacher trainings, with the Temple of Kriya Yoga and with Integrative Yoga Therapy.

The three doshasvata, pitta and kapha—are associated with combinations of the five elements. Vata is space and air. Pitta is fire and water. Kapha is earth and water. In each person, these manifest in both healthy and unhealthy ways. An individual might be a pure type or a blend of types. Sometimes intuitively and sometimes intentionally, I use the doshas in analyzing my characters and how they interact with each other and the world around them.

An idea that intrigued me in one of my classes on Ayurveda was that not only people but places and seasons have doshas. There is nothing more vata than spring in New Mexico, with the desert wind blowing, and it reaches its hottest and driest in June. I used that season in Soul Loss, which takes place from March through June, primarily in Santa Fe, a vata setting. Even its river is inclined to be dry and is irregular in its flow. Vata is changeable, creative, humorous, erratic, and sometimes spacey. No wonder Santa Fe is home to so many creative people, and also spiritual healers and psychics. That’s who the primary characters in Soul Loss are, and even the crime takes place at the spirit-world level.

I think people feel most at home in a place that complements their dosha. Athletic, competitive, and focused, my protagonist Mae Martin is a pitta type, mind and body. Even her red hair is a classic pitta trait. She loves Truth or Consequences and its hot springs, and thrives on the energy of New Mexico’s July-August “monsoon” season. In the first book in the series, The Calling, she’s living in Tylerton North Carolina, which has a wet and heavy climate, and it doesn’t suit her. It’s too kapha in every way, culture and land and weather. When she first gets to Santa Fe in Shaman’s Blues, the altitude makes her feel spacey, and this bothers her, while vata-kapha Jamie Ellerbee is truly at home there.

Hurricane_Isabel_14_sept_2003_1445ZThe oppressive East Coast weather in Snake Face is vata-kapha, windy yet wet and heavy, and it takes place in winter, a kapha season disrupted by an abnormal vata event, a December hurricane. The windstorm is something out of balance. Jamie gets caught up in both the hurricane and a storm in his inner life. His creativity and humor are healthy vata, and his music—voice and woodwinds—is based on air, vata at its most beautiful. His mood swings, short attention span and anxiety are the other side of vata. His unshakeable loyalty in love and friendship is kapha, but his tendency to depression and weight problems are the kapha shadow. I used the hurricane as background music that builds up along with the troubles that are chasing him.snakeebooknew

Even when I haven’t consciously chosen to use the doshas of character and place and season, when I look back on their interactions, I can see that I did it intuitively. When two characters are in a lot of conflict, it’s often in the way they manifest their dosha. Mae and her mother are both strong pitta types, destined to butt heads, and one of the antagonist characters in the upcoming Ghost Sickness is also a pure pitta type who turns everything into a competition. Mae is attracted to men who manifest healthy kapha , a solidity and stability that she finds appealing, but their earth-water qualities can also make her feel that they are stuck in the mud.

Here’s my simplified short list of the dosha traits and seasons.

Vata: space and air. Thin, asymmetrical, distractible, creative, changeable. Default stress reaction: anxiety. Spring and fall.

Pitta: fire and water. Medium build, strong, competitive and driven, capable of prolonged intellectual focus. Default stress reaction: irritability or anger. Summer.

Kapha: earth and water. Can be big and muscular, womanly and curvy, or overweight. Steady, enduring. Can have calm, peaceful energy or a tendency to lethargy. Default stress reaction: procrastination or depression. Winter.

Do you see the doshas at work in your stories?

Amber Foxx Interviews Amber Foxx

AmberMysteriousOn my other blog, I enjoy doing Amber in tree finalinterviews and coming up with questions for the authors whose books I’ve reviewed. So, when it came time to write this introduction, I knew what I had to do: talk to myself.

Q: How did you decide to become a writer?

A: It never occurred to me not to write. I grew up in a word-loving environment. My parents owned—and often played—audio recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, and they frequently brought my sister and me to live theater as well. As a child, I wrote stories influenced by Nancy Drew and poems inspired by Dr. Seuss, and had a short story published in a teen magazine when I was twelve. I think I got paid twenty-five dollars for it.

Q: Do you write full time or do you have a day job?

A: I have two day jobs. I’m a college professor and a yoga teacher. Those jobs overlap, since I’m in Health and Exercise Science, and I teach yoga as part of my course load as well as off campus.

Q: One of the characters in your first book, The Calling, is a professor from New Mexico who practices yoga. Is Bernadette Pena based on you?

A: No, though I do have some things in common with her. When I was working at a college in the South a few years ago, I taught some courses on alternative medicine and non-Western healing traditions. For many of my students, it was their first opportunity to explore scholarly research on things like shamanism, Ayurveda, herbal medicine, energy healing, and other practices. One of those courses on made its way into The Calling. Its potential to disrupt assumptions about the nature of reality fit perfectly into the plot.

Q: Is your protagonist, Mae Martin, based on you?

A:  Mae is modeled after a good friend I met through my work as a fitness director and yoga teacher in northeastern North Carolina. Aspects of The Calling were inspired by some of her life experiences. I admired her combination of practicality and spirituality, and her intense determination to be herself in a situation where few people supported her.

Q: Did you set out to write genre-blending mysteries? You’ve had favorable reviews in which reviewers seem to have a hard time finding the right genre label for your work.

A: When I decided to write mysteries without murder, I wasn’t thinking about stretching the genre so much as being true to the stories I wanted to tell. I’d tried writing a mystery with a dead body in it but half-way through, I realized I couldn’t keep putting Mae in that situation. It didn’t feel right for the character or for me. There are ways people hurt each other, short of killing, that lead to layers of secrets in families and friendships. Phenomena such as psychic ability fill life with mystery as well. As long as there’s something that the protagonist doesn’t understand and neither does the reader—and solving for that X in the equation is central to the plot—then the story is a mystery.

Q: You mentioned psychic ability as if it were a real thing. Do you think it is?

A: Yes. I could take up pages with my personal experiences, and at every college where I’ve taught, students have confided some remarkable psychic events. And then, I’ve lived in Santa Fe and in Truth or Consequences. In both places, not only are art, music, dancing, and eccentricity part of everyday life, so are psychics and alternative healers.

Q: Is that why you moved the series from the South to the Southwest?

A: That’s one reason. In the new location, Mae “fits in” better because she doesn’t have to try to fit in anymore. It’s hard to feel like a nonconformist in New Mexico. There’s not much to conform to. The other reason is to move the plots in new directions. Living in a place where her gift is more readily accepted, Mae encounters new kinds of mysteries, as people ask her for answers only a seer could find. The setting also lets me bring in some of the stranger aspects of “the woo-woo,” with a questionable health-nut psychic in Shaman’s Blues and everyone from a celebrity modern shaman to an artist who claims she channels angels to a medium who speaks with dead in the upcoming June 15th release, Soul Loss.

Q: Thanks. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Just this:

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