Saturday, November 29, 2008

Searching Along the Road of Faith

I plead a turkey day-induced coma as to why my column managed to be 23 hours late! - JKM

My religious background contains a hodgepodge of theology. My mother grew up Roman Catholic with a Lutheran father. My father grew up Sikh in a Hindu country. I grew up Quaker, which is the religion both of my parents had found/converted to before I was born. I still believe in the faith and practice of the Religious Society of Friends and identify myself as such to this day.

In fifth grade, I went to an Episcopal school where all the classes attended services every morning. I loved the hymns; "Morning has Broken" was a favorite. For college, I attended a Jesuit university and went to mass weekly (a choice, not a requirement). I came thisclose to getting a minor in theology, but decided on writing instead. After college, I attended the Metropolitan Community Church and the Episcopal Church equally in the Florida Keys. My mother now lives at a Jewish nursing home, where she visits with the rabbi and is learning about the Torah. I go to Shabbat dinner when I visit her.

So where does my interest and belief in religion intersect with my interest in paranormal writing and the paranormal? In some ways, the story I've been working on, Walking in the Dark, has always been about faith -- believing in something even when there's no empirical evidence. The first versions even had a pastor as a main character and love interest, until the story decided it didn't need him.

I have read the Bible, the Book of Common Prayers, the Dalai Lama and books by various Christian and Buddhist mystics and saints, though I wouldn't characterize myself as a particularly religious person. One thing I've found in my readings is how much of the mystical appears in religious writings. Psychics, soothsayers and mediums can be found in the Old Testament, as can demons and angels.

I can't say that my research in the paranormal or theology has made me a true believer. I can say that my religion has led me to be unafraid of asking questions and of searching for where the answers take me -- both in life and in fiction.

I come to religion, the possibilities of the paranormal and writing with an open mind, ready to go wherever the road takes me.

In ghostly spirits,
J.K. Mahal

Photo of Haverford Monthly meeting courtesy of Martin Kelley.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Religion as a Character Trait

Apologies for the delayed post. Thanksgiving day got away from me!

When I came up with the idea for UNCOVERING AMETHYST, I knew my main character was shaped by her upbringing. In fact, her strengths and her flaws can all be traced to being raised by witches.

Her motivation, her fears, even her family's tragedies are tied into the beliefs and customs of their theology, which is Celtic pagan. She, however, isn't sure what she believes.

Not only does weaving religion into a story allow for interesting plot points, but it provides conflict and offers insight into the characters.

Do they agree on their beliefs? If not, what conflicts arise because of that?

My protagonist, Stacy Justice, vehemently protests that she is a witch, yet she subconsciously gravitates toward that path because it's what she's been taught. This internal struggle lends the character another dimension, and because spirituality is something we all wrestle with from time to time, it's very relatable to the reader.

Outwardly, this tug-of-war also causes conflict between the characters. Stacy's grandmother, Birdie, wants her granddaughter to accept her path and her gifts, yet Stacy refuses. This prompts Birdie to make a series of choices that force Stacy into situations she wouldn't necessarily choose.

And a plot is born.

Religion can also be used as a setting or backdrop, as in THE DaVINCI CODE. The entire story is wrapped around a specific theory regarding Jesus and the conspiracy to cover it up. Powerful stuff.

My stories each revolve around a specific holiday. Samhain, for UNCOVERING AMETHYST, Imbolc, for OPAL FIRE, and Beltane for BLOODSTONE.

Whatever your studies and beliefs, theology can play an important role in your writing. Use all that you have.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Ghost

As you may have guessed already, religiously my family is a little weird. Every year for lent my mother gives up organized religion. My father has been ordained by the internet. My sister is both a minister and a high priestess. And for the life of me, I can't reconcile myself with the idea that god is a dude. As far as I'm concerned, the dual aspect of the devine, both male and female, should be worshiped together. Neither should be given prefrence.

Now, this idea puts me in the outs with both the christian masses and the wiccans. To one there higer power is a male, above all others. To the other the female is the only devine. But I just can't see that. They are both devine and should be treated as such.

Now, let me set a couple of tings strait... I still call it christmas, I hide eggs for my daughter at easter, I talk to the dead on Samhain, and each new year I have every one in the house write down thier wishes and burn them as a way to ask the gods for their assistance. I think that Jesus was a kind of cool guy; but just that... a guy.

I kind of mush everything together. And it works for me.

The full moons are (usually) spent in ritual as are most of the sabbats. (I say "usually" and "most" because I have a tendancy to space things off till the last moment) I havn't set foot in a church in, lets see, 4 years? And only then because my brother in law was getting married. I don't go to church because I don't like the male god shoved in my face. I don't go to coven meetings for the same reason, just the female side of it.

As far as I'm concerened, religion is a personal thing. And personally I'm very happy with what I believe.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Religion and Paranormal Writing, Is there a happy medium?

Religion and paranormal writing,
Is there a happy medium? (No pun intended)

Religion is a dangerous topic as is the paranormal. I’ll start by saying I hope y’all will indulge me as I climb on my soapbox here. Almost anything I say will make at least one other person angry. Those who believe in a higher power, whichever they choose, fight for their faith with an unwavering loyalty you must applaud whether you agree with their choice or not.

I was raised in the deep South, Alabama mostly, and grew up with the Church of God teachings my mother believes. I come from Irish, Scottish and Cherokee blood with a little English thrown in. My great grandfather read the cards, and my great grandmother had visions, yet both were very devout in their belief in Christ. I’m Christian, by choice rather than raisin’. I am not ashamed of my faith, nor do I try and force it on others. I have friends who are Wiccan, Christian, Jewish and so on. That being said, you might ask where this fits in with a the path of a paranormal writer. Good question.

Everything I have ever written has had a main character with some sort of magical ability. Witches, werewolves, vampires and what have you are integral parts of my imagination. I’ve tried forcing them out, but was never truly happy with what I created. Yet, my church frowns on magic, and therefore I can’t share this part of me with my church family. Write for Harlequin? That’s acceptable. We all need romance. Write erotic romance? Frowned on, but ignored. It is still a love story, right? Write magic and you are automatically condemned to the devil, but we aren’t supposed to judge others are we? Seems like I’m balanced on the tip of a double-edged sword.

My characters casts spells, but that act may have saved someone they loved. Is she wrong to call on magic? Would I be wrong? Maybe, I do not know, but if my children or husband were in danger, sick or in need, I’d do everything within my power to help them. One action is damned the other rewarded, but aren’t they essentially the same?

My childhood was rough. There was always someone yelling or fighting and the only place I felt safe was inside the books I treasured. The enchantment of them helped me escape the reality of my life. They shaped what I am today. I have always wanted to be able to give that sanctuary to others. We need the unknown, the supernatural, the magic to balance the everyday things.

Where do all these puzzle pieces fit? How do you find a happy medium between your faith and your work? I try to incorporate my beliefs and morals into my characters, and I try to teach them a lesson along the way. My current work in progress has twisted and turned into a story of a vampire fighting against his own kind because of his love for a witch. Both Kail and Kayleigh have magic at their disposal and aren’t shy about using it. Still, a price always has to be paid. I hope to share more of the storyline with you soon and maybe the first page.

There are Christians that believe in gifts of the spirit and that everyone has an innate ability given them by God. It’s up to you to learn what they are and use them wisely. I’ve found my calling, though there are those who would judge me because of I what I do. God made me. Life shaped me and I will share what I have learned with those who wish to listen. Magic exists, in the beauty of the trees, the twinkling of water and all the wonderful things around us. The paranormal is how we define that which has no explanation but simply is. I’ll climb down from my preaching post now, and I hope I haven’t bored any one to tears, or sent you running for your pitchforks and torches.

Thanksgiving is just around to corner. However, you celebrate don’t forget to be thankful of all the wonderful things in your life. Tell those closest to you how much you love them. No matter how bad things are, you are still so blessed. I’m thankful for all of you and the time you take to read my thoughts each week. Have a wonderful holiday everyone. That goes for you too, Nichole, Barb, Heather and JK.

Beth (Anxiously awaiting Turkey-day and the Auburn/Alabama game. WAR EAGLE!)

Monday, November 24, 2008

So much for polite society

I'm sure you've all heard that there are two things which shouldn't be discussed in polite society: religion and politics.  Well, this is not the place for polite society.

When we decided to cover religion this week, I didn't know what I'd say.  Like many other things in my life, my religious views are, well, eclectic.  I call myself a Christian.  But also a Witch.  I believe there is one God.  But also one Goddess.  And they both go by many different names.  

I'm an ordained Minister.  I'm also ordained as a High Priestess.

I believe Jesus was God's son.  Just not the ONLY child sent to Earth.  

I believe that we can cure with plants, control the elements, and say spells to ask things to happen.  (Pardon me, but what's the difference between a "spell" and a "prayer" anyway?)   

Above all, I believe that we are here on Earth to learn some lessons, teach some lessons, and not cause more damage -- to the planet or each other.

So how does all that affect my writing?  If nothing else, it affects my main character, Cerri.  Cerri (who was named after Ceridwen, the Celtic Goddess) is half-Irish.  Her mother brought many of the traditions of "the old country" with her.  Cerri's mom thinks nothing of leaving treats for the fairies or worshiping the ancient Goddesses.  Cerri, though, struggles to find a place in the old world and the new...  a compromise between tradition and "norma

Much like I do.

I celebrate Christmas, but also Yule.  I enjoy the fun of Halloween, and appreciate that the veil between this world and the spirit world is thinnest on Samhain.  I make it to church with some degree of regularity and celebrate the sabbats eight times a year.  

I'm comfortable enough in my beliefs to not have to shout them from rooftops.  I've been known to wear a cross and a pentacle -- sometimes at t
he same time!  I have LOTS of triquetta jewelry and wear it often.  I'm really drawn to the Celtic version of religion.  They did a good job of "melding" new beliefs with the old ones.  Don't think so?  How different is the Goddess Brigid from St. Brigit?  See what I mean?

Dad always said something like "Don't knock another guy's religion. He might be right and you won't know it until you're dead." Maybe the best way to describe my religious beliefs is to say I'm not really.  I think of myself as more spiritual, then religious.  

And we all know that spirits are everywhere....


Friday, November 21, 2008

Authors Who Chilled and Thrilled Me

For me, being asked to name a favorite paranormal author is like a mother being asked to name which child she loves best. I love so many for different reasons. What I can name are the authors who have influenced me, chilled me, made me cry and made me laugh.

In junior high school, between the school-mandated chills of Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare, I discovered a library filled with the works of Victoria Holt. The India Fan and The Curse of the Kings brought high Gothic romance and suspense, complete with curses, into my reading repertoire. She chilled and thrilled many hours of my life with her atmospheric writings.

Anne Rice came next. By high school, The Vampire Lestat was the rage among my friends. I fell for the rock star vampire with mixed morals. Rice's voice was persuasive, hypnotic and far too charming. All other first person vampire narrators (and vampire hunter narrators) owe her. I doubt Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake could exist in a world without Lestat.

Then there's the incomparable Stephen King. My favorite of his works is The Dead Zone. Sure Carrie or The Shining are better known. But The Dead Zone marries great story with unforgettable writing. It's creepy while still being believable and morally complex.

In college, I discovered Nora Roberts. Her Donovan Legacy series, tracing three witches who find love when least expected, married my favorite elements of romance with magic. Her descriptions in these short form Silhoutte books show what can be done with specific detail at the right moment. Each book has scenes that remained on my mind long after I finished reading.

I have other favorites. Lafcadio Hearn seems to haunt me. His Japanese ghost stories keep popping up everywhere. Last year, a friend introduced me to The Dresden Files. I became an instant addict. I love Laurell K. Hamilton's early Anita Blake novels and Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan books. I pre-ordered the last Harry Potter book, wended my way through the paths of Narnia and even read all of the Tolkien Ring series. Just yesterday, I finished Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. A good read.

Which reminds me, I should stop at the library and get my new card....

In ghostly spirits,

J.K. Mahal

Photo courtesy of Your Guide.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Many Faces of Paranormal

Paranormal means different things to different readers. The term casts a wide net over psychics, werewolves, dragons, vampires, demons, fairies, ghosts, and more.

Because of that, I’m going to break from the pack on this week’s theme and list my favorite stories/books that contain paranormal elements.

These are in no particular order:

THE HARROWING, Alexandra Sokoloff
Baird College’s Mendenhall echoes with the footsteps of students heading home for Thanksgiving break, and Robin Stone, who won’t be going home, swears she can feel the creepy, hundred-year-old residence hall breathe a sigh of relief for its long-awaited solitude. As a massive storm approaches, four other lonely students reveal themselves to Robin: Patrick, a handsome jock; Lisa, a manipulative tease; Cain, a brooding musician; and Martin, a scholarly eccentric. Each has forsaken a long weekend at home for their own secret reasons. The five unlikely companions establish a tentative rapport, but they soon become aware of another presence disturbing the building’s ominous silence. Are they the victims of an elaborate prank, or is the energy evidence of something genuine—something intent on using them for its own terrifying ends? Together, they’ll face three long days and dark nights before the world returns to find out what’s become of five students nobody wants and no one will miss…

THE PRICE, Alexandra Sokoloff:
Boston District Attorney Will Sullivan dreams of becoming the next governor of Massachusetts. With his beautiful wife, Joanna, and adorable daughter, Sydney, Will seems destined for greatness…until Sydney becomes seriously ill. Now both parents resolve to doanything to save their daughter’s life.But in the twilight world of the Briarwood Medical Center, nothing is as it seems. Patients on the brink of death are not only surviving but thriving, while others wither away…and the recoveries all revolve around the ministerings of a mysterious counselor, who takes an unsettling interest in Joanna. When Sydney’s health miraculously improves, Will suspects that Joanna made a terrible bargain to save their child. Now Will must face a powerful, unknown evil before he loses…everything.

HELL’S BELLE’S, Jackie Kessler:
Once upon a time, Jezebel was a powerful succubus, capable of seducing men and sucking out their souls. But that was before Hell put a bounty on her head. Now her only chance to escape a fate far worse than death is to live as a mortal, losing herself in a sea of unfamiliar humanity, in a place where sinners walk hand-in-hand with saints - a place like Belle's strip club in New York City. Working as an exotic dancer is a piece of cake for a former demon who once specialized in sex.

To trick Titania into handing over an Indian boy she is raising, Oberon orders Puck to find a plant that causes love at first sight, and through Oberon's meddling and Puck's trickery, the characters fall into and out of love with the wrong people.

The story of a teenage girl who, after being brutally raped and murdered, watches from heaven as her family and friends go on with their lives, while she herself comes to terms with her own death.

Interweaving past and present, Promise Not To Tell is a story of friendship, secrets, murder, and redemption. At its center is Kate Cypher, a reserved 41-year-old school nurse who returns to the small town of New Canaan, VT, to care for her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. The night she arrives, a young girl is murdered. Slowly Kate is drawn into the investigation—and deep into the childhood she’s tried to escape—for the killing eerily echoes the death of another young girl: her childhood friend, Del. Poor, misunderstood, Del suffered the taunts of classmates who shunned her and called her “Potato Girl.” But in Del, 10-year-old Kate found a kindred spirit, until a painful falling out shattered their relationship shortly before Del’s death.

An unnamed narrator who insists on his sanity after murdering an old man with a "vulture eye". The murder is carefully calculated, and the murderer hides the body by cutting it into pieces and hiding it under the floorboards. Ultimately the narrator's guilt manifests itself in the hallucination that the man's heart is still beating under the floorboards.

CHRISTINE, Stephen King:
The story revolves around teenage nerd Arnie Cunningham and his 1958 red and white Plymouth Fury, dubbed "Christine" by the previous owner. The car takes Arnie from nerddom to stardom, but Arnie’s friends are certain the car is possesed.

WITCH WAY TO MURDER, Shirley Damsgaard:
Thirty something Ophelia Jensen wants to live a quiet life as a small town librarian. She’s created a comfortable existence with her kooky, colorful grandmother Abby, and if it were up to her, they could live out their days—along with Ophelia’s dog Lady and cat Queenie—in peace and quiet. But, to Ophelia’s dismay, she and Abby aren’t a typical grandmother/granddaughter duo. She possesses psychic powers, and Abby is a kindly witch. And while Ophelia would do anything to dismiss her gift—harboring terrible guilt after her best friend was killed and she was unable to stop it—threatening events keep popping up, forcing her to tap into her powers of intuition. To make matters worse, a strange—yet devastatingly attractive—man is hanging around Ophelia’s library, and no matter how many times she tells him she’s sworn off men forever, he persists. Soon this handsome newcomer reveals he’s following a lead on a local drug ring, and then a dead body shows up right in Abby’s backyard. And much as Ophelia would like to put away her spells forever, she and Abby must use their special powers to keep themselves, and others, out of harm’s way.

Abby Cooper is a P.I., psychic intuitive. But her insight failed her when she didn't foresee the death of one of her clients-or that the lead investigator for the case is the gorgeous blind date she just met. Now, with the police suspicious of her abilities and a killer on the loose, Abby's future looks more uncertain than ever.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that went wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally endured that fate: As children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their darkened house and their love concoctions and their crowd of black cats. All Gillian and Sally wanted to do was escape. One would do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they shared brought them back to each other, and to the magic they couldn’t escape. A delicious novel about witches and real love, family life and everyday spells. A literary incantation.

There was something about the house that called out to Declan Fitzgerald. The dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of New Orleans, rumored to be haunted, and long taken over by spiders and dust, would require countless hours of labor to restore to its former splendor. Perhaps that was part of the appeal. Having finally purchased Manet Hall after dreaming about it for years, Declan left his Boston law practice, traded in his briefcase for a tool belt, in hopes of rediscovering the deep soul satisfaction of real hard work. But as he begins the renovation, spending long days in total isolation within the crumbling house, Declan wonders whether the talk of ghosts is more than just local legend. He has had visions, seen strange things from a century past. More so, he feels inexplicable, unpredictable sensations of terror and nearly unbearable grief.
For a time, a beautiful neighbor named Angelina Simone provides an alluring distraction from the disquieting events--and as Declan focuses on rebuilding Manet Hall, the passion between them grows stronger as well. This dusky, earthy woman has an odd connection to the mansion too, however. Before Declan and Angelina can hope for a future together, they must uncover a secret from the past as deep and dark as the bayou.

WAKE, Lisa McMann:
For seventeen-year-old Janie, getting sucked into other people's dreams is getting old. Especially the falling dreams, the naked-but-nobody-notices dreams, and the sex-crazed dreams. Janie's seen enough fantasy booty to last her a lifetime. She can't tell anybody about what she does -- they'd never believe her, or worse, they'd think she's a freak. So Janie lives on the fringe, cursed with an ability she doesn't want and can't control. Then she falls into a gruesome nightmare, one that chills her to the bone. For the first time, Janie is more than a witness to someone else's twisted psyche. She is a participant....

CLAIRE VOYANT, Saralee Rosenburg:
Of course the future is a mystery. But the past? This is nuts!
Talk about ruin-your-day flights. I'm headed to Florida, when the elderly man seated next to me collapses on my tray table. I swear, if I'd known this was his final boarding call, I would have offered him my pretzels or my New York Times. But no, I was too busy feeling bloated, anxious, depressed, unloved, a failure, and did I mention bloated? You'd be bummed too if you were almost thirty, living back home in Plainview, Long Island, with your at-war parents and loser siblings. If your acting career was such a bust your last film was an X-ray. If your boyfriend and your agent dumped you the same week, but great news! -- They're in love with each other. Could things possibly get any worse? Do you even need to ask? That man on the flight? We were related. And my life story? Nothing like I thought. Oh, and then this fall in the shower? Opened up my psychic senses. Bottom line? I knew nothing about my real past, but suddenly my future was coming in loud and clear!

Happy Reading,

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

For my favorite 'para-authors' I have to go with the old standbys of Steven King, Charlaine Harris, and Jim Butcher.

King was a poineer, and while I don't think his new stuff comes anywhere close to where he was (especially the Bachman books), classic King still gives me chills. "Carrie" is probably the best representation of his work I think. You can tell from the first time reading it that the characters are well thought out, the super-natural abilibies of the main character are well researched, and the dialoge seems effortless. Classic King will always rock my world.

The world that Harris has created is a beautiful one. Each character is interesting, and beautiful, and flawed, and... perfect. Now, admitedly, I like the Lilly Bard books better than the Sookie Stackhouse ones (and if were going into total honesty, I have to admit, I'm kind of digging on the changes that the TV show has made), but the Stackhouse world is amazing. The sheer number of supernatural creatures that she's not only represented, but created 'quirks' for. I think I most love Claudette and Claude.

Butcher I have to say I love just because of Bob. I love Bob. The TV show ruined the books for me. I think I like that Butcher shows through his books, that just because someone is paranormal, dosn't mean that their life is easier. Dresdin has just as much crap as the rest of us and then some. Most people just have to worry about making the mortgage payment. He also has to worry about a demon attacking him while he walks across the street.

Oh, and I have to say I like Nichole Bennett too. **ahem** "Every word she writes is art. I love it. It's better than Cats, I'd read it again and again." Ok, just kidding. But honestly, from what I've read of "Ghost Mountian" it's amazing. I can't wait till she finishes it!


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Favorite Paranormal Authors?

This week’s topic totally threw me for a loop. I’ve thought about it for most of the weekend. You’re probably wondering how it could be so hard for a paranormal writer to talk about her favorite authors. “A favorite?” I said to myself. How do you decide? The paranormal genre crosses over into so many others that sometimes its hard to distinguish what really defines a paranormal author. At least it is for me.

As a kid, I loved the ‘Narnia’ series by C.S. Lewis, but was surprised to learn, via our librarian, he’d also written Bible companions. The creator of the mighty Aslan? Really?

Sherrilyn Kenyon is a definite favorite. Her dark hunters, while otherworldly, are still very human with all our flaws. They are obviously paranormal, but then so are Nora Roberts Sisters, Circle, Key, and Sign of Seven trilogies even though I’d classify her in the romance and suspense categories. All of which I loved by they way and have read so many times I have actually worn out the books and had to replace them. Duct tape can only work so many wonders.

Christine Feehan is another great author that comes to mind as well as Laurell K. Hamilton. See what I mean? It’s like trying to choose between ice cream and pizza.

My oldest daughter loves to read, yes, even more than playing video games. I’m finding new favorites through her choice in books. We both love Dead is the New Black and Dead is a State of Mind, which will be released in January by Marlene Perez. I have yet to read Twilight but maybe Stephanie Meyers will be added to my list of favorites.

Just like its characters and twisting plots, the paranormal genre pops up where you least expect it, barely there like a ghost. Every book is a portal to an unknown world. Escape and enjoy the ride.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Nichole's Favorite Paranormal Authors. (Well, some of them, anyway!)

Growing up, I almost always had a book in my hand.  Or next to my bed.  Or in my backpack.  Always at least one within easy reach.

I remember the first paranormal book I read.  My mom recommended it.  It was The Haunting of Suzanna Blackwell by Richard Setlow.  It was mostly a love story, which has never really appealed to me — I like mysteries and historicals better — but I loved the idea of the ghost falling in love with Suzanna.  I loved the idea that a ghost could interact with a living person.

This wasn't the first "ghost story" I'd read.  I think I had some Scholastic anthology type books.  I know I'd read the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.  Yes, all seven of them.  But those were more fantasy then paranormal.  I mean, how could a big closet transport anyone to another land?  Even if there was an evil witch and a talking lion involved.

And don't forget Poe.  He could tell a spooky story!  The Tell-Tale Heart is still one of my favorites to read at Halloween.  (Ok, it's one of my favorites to read just about anytime.)

Then there were the Witch Mountain movies.  I watched them all.  Many times.  I wanted to be Tia.  I wanted to have those really cool powers.   I'm pretty sure my parents still have the entire collection of those movies on ancient VHS tapes somewhere.

I eventually graduated to Stephen King and Dean Koontz.    I read a whole bunch of those.  And let's not forget J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series!  What a wonderful world of magic she created!

Now there are more paranormal-type books then I could ever fit in my library.  That doesn't stop me from trying.  My TBR (To-Be-Read) pile seems to grow with every trip to the bookstore and every refresh of Amazon's "Recommended for you."  That being said, I do have a few favorites.

Here's my list, in no particular order: (No, this isn't an all-inclusive list, and  I do read a lot of non-paranormal stuff, too!  I'm just trying to limit it to paranormal authors.)
  • Susan Wittig Albert: I really like the "China Bayles" series.  China runs an herb shop and manages to get into some trouble that way.
  • Madelyn Alt: Her "Bewitching" series features a woman who is trying to find her place amidst the magic she's seeing.  Maggie is an empath (something I'm not), so I find her descriptions of other people's feelings fascinating.
  • Kelly Armstrong: I really like her "Women of the Otherworld" series.  Gotta love witches and sorcerers and werewolves banning together to fight evil, don't ya?
  • Jim Butcher: The "Dresden Files" are great.  The idea that Harry can combine the two worlds — that of magic and of "reality" — helped me create a major character in my work.
  • Shirley Damsgaard: She writes the "Ophelia and Abby" mysteries.  I have to thank Heather for introducing me to her.  My main character, Cerri, is a lot like Ophelia and I enjoy how Ms. Damsgaard has tackled some of the problems I've started to encounter with my characters.
  • Honora Finkelstein and Susan Smiley: These ladies write the "Ariel Quigley Mystery" series.  And they're just great ladies!  Ariel uses Tarot cards — a lot!  
  • Charlaine Harris: I especially enjoy the Harper Collins series, although the Sookie series is pretty good... so is the Lilly Bard one... and the Aurora Teagarden one.... Dang it, I like her writing!  Both Harper Collins and Sookie are paranormal, where the Lilly Bard and Aurora Teagarden one are more traditional.
  • Stephenie Meyer: Ok, I'll admit it.  I finally read Twilight.  I haven't read the rest of the series because the books are being passed around between my daughters.  But I plan to.  With this first book, Ms. Meyer has created a vampire world within our own that is completely plausible.
As you can imagine, I still have at least one book near me at all times.  I read like a crazy woman.  I'm always on the lookout for new authors, new stories, new books.  I'm convinced our local bookstore has hired at least one employee strictly based on my purchases alone.

Who do you like?  Who should be added to my TBR list?  I'd love to hear from you.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Life is a Banquet of Research....

I love research. Asking questions and looking for answers thrills me. I'm always filing things away in my brain and my filing cabinet. I can't tell you exactly why I own a book on how to exterminate insects, but I know someday that sucker will come in handy!

I even research things I think I know. For instance, my book Walking in the Dark takes place in Key West, a town I lived and worked in for three years as a journalist. Now, you'd think someone who beat the streets for stories wouldn't need to find out more about the place she's using as a modern setting. After all, I already know the legend of St. Mary Star of the Sea, what Goombay is and where you can get a good drink away from the crowds of Duval Street. I know Hemingway was as likely to visit Capt. Tony's as he was to go to Sloppy Joe's on Duval. I've flirted with Tony, a local character who passed away two weeks ago.

But memories fade and having a good street map and even, gasp, a tourist guidebook is invaluable for poking at the unsteady memory.

I use life as research, but I also research what's in my life. No matter how good my memory is for things like the feel of peanut shells underfoot at the Chart Room Bar at the Pier House, I know I'll forget whether Frances Street runs past the cemetery or not (it does).

This doesn't mean I'm held hostage by facts however. It is called imagination for a reason. Sometimes in fiction, when the facts don't fit, I massage them. Not so much that they become unbelievable, but enough so that they exist in that suspension of disbelief mode we enter when we read fiction.

The paranormal part of my book is researched as well. Of course, then the rules or lack thereof are broken and reformed into rules that work better for my character. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it also keeps readers from saying "wait a second, they can't do that."

Details count.

In ghostly spirits,

J.K. Mahal

Photo by LinksmanJD.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Authenticity Matters

Writers read. Ask any one of us.

Newspapers, books, travelogues, blogs, magazines, periodicals, even cereal boxes are part of the daily diet of a good writer. Why? Because research never ends.

Weather you’re just starting out and you need to know the basic structure of a novel, or you’ve been at this gig for a while now and you decided the next book is going to include a taxidermist, every serious writer researches continuously.

That’s one of my favorite aspects of writing, because I love to learn and that’s part of the process. For accuracy and reader credibility, we look up even the tiniest detail if there’s any doubt.

Or you ask someone who knows.

Because research is more than just reading. In my first book, I have a minor character who is an auto mechanic. My husband is a huge car buff and knows everything about muscle cars (or any other four-wheel vehicle, for that matter). So I went to him to decide what make and model this character, who doesn’t have an enormous income, should drive. He came up with the perfect solution and is my go-to guy for any car related question.

This may seem like a minor detail. Just put the guy behind the wheel, right? Who cares what he drives?

Readers care. They care because they drive. Some might care because they’re car aficionados. They won’t be fooled by a mechanic driving an SUV. Wouldn’t make sense. But I wanted more than the obvious answer. I wanted the only answer. Remember My Cousin Vinnie? The climax of that movie depended solely on the make/model/year of a vehicle- and the woman who was the expert in that area.

That’s research.

It involves interviews, travel, and hands-on experience. You may be hesitant to “bother” people, or maybe you’re just shy. Get over it. There’s nothing people love more than talking about themselves and if they think there’s a slim chance their name might be mentioned in a book, they’ll be singing like a cell phone.

Need to learn about the restaurant industry? Take a job as a waitress. Police procedure? Ask an officer for a ride-along. Medical question? Visit a hospital for a list of doctors in that field. As long as you are polite and are willing to work around their schedule, most people are happy to lend a few minutes of their time. Always be gracious, really listen to the person, don’t interrupt, jot down questions as they come, and always send a note of thanks.

Then, of course, there is the internet. What did we ever do without it? I’ve researched arson accelerants, the effects of poisons, drug interactions, and song lyrics online. Even if I think I know something, like the spelling of a certain god’s name or the pagan rites practiced on Samhain, I force myself to double-check.

Because even in the paranormal world, authenticity matters.

Now go read something.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More on research

I research my characters in a kind of weird way. I take the lazy way out and just write people I already know. In my story, my main character is obviously me. The love interest I'm going to write as my husband, the bad guy will most likely be a combo of a few different people I know (No Nichole, not you... yet). This is actually kind of freeing, in that I don't have to come up with a whole new person from scratch, someone with her own views and ideas. All I have to think about is what I would do in a situation, and the writing is half way done. Like I said, it's the lazy way out.

Sorry that this is so short this week, but I'm fluish, and trying desperately to not yark up my socks. Most of this was written between trips to the porcelain altar.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The When, Why and Where of Research

Every book starts as a tiny thought in the author's mind inspired by any number of things. It could be a song, another book, something a co-worker said or did. It might be one thing start to finish or evolve into something entirely different. After that initial beginning comes the research. Some writers research a topic for years and then decide to write about it, or they may be like me and seek out knowledge on the fly.

When I research a wip, I always start by reading other books of the same type I plan on writing. I want to know what sells, how they read, and then decide if I want to be the one to go completely out of the box. I'm almost always waving from outside that box.

That's the fiction side of things for the facts, I hit the library and the internet loops. It is amazingly easy to find doctors, agents, psychics and the like willing to help a writer be accurate in their chosen field.

Once I have my "world" created, I fill it with the characters that drive my story. They can come from any number of places, but usually are either dreamt while I'm sleeping or are instantly born when my computer screen is open. It's my job to make them breathe.


(Happy Veteran's Day!)

Monday, November 10, 2008

When to suspend truth and when to make it real

I do a lot of research.  I have books that cover just about everything from missing persons to autopsies, from dream interpretation to Lakota Sioux traditions.  My father is a retired police officer and is usually willing to answer the "procedural" questions I have.  And, face it, the internet is a wealth of research information.  

Even mysteries need an 
element of truth.  As readers, we are willing to suspend reality only so far.  Don't believe me?  Watch an episode of Law & Order.  Then go to your local courthouse.  Trust me.  We are willing to suspend reality for a good story.

The things that make me frustrated are when someone tells me my carefully researched item won't work.  In Ghost Mountain, the killer uses a wide-mouth soda bottle as a silencer.  One critiquer doesn't like that.  One former cop assures me it will work.  Where does that leave me?  Do I suspend reality for the reader, or rest assured that my scenario will work?  (Honestly, I haven't totally decided, but I'm leaning toward the cop's opinion!)

How do I research the "un-research-able?"  Sometimes I don't.  

Who's going to tell me that my Lakota Spirit Guide wouldn't look that way?  Or smell that way?  Or even speak that way?  (For the record, I have an English-to-Lakota Dictionary on my desk and my Lakota guide mixes some of his traditional words into his speech.)  Who's going to tell me the Celtic Goddess who shows up in Ghost Mountain shouldn't act that way?  

Sometimes I let the tarot cards answer the question.  Or I get the opinion of someone I trust, often a psychic I know or someone who enjoys the paranormal aspect of what I write.  But ask a group of 10 psychics how information comes through, and I guarantee you'll get 10 different answers!

Heck, find a book on vampires.  Bram Stoker didn't think they could survive in the sun. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series seems to say they can.   Or werewolves.  Kelly Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series has a new and interesting take on them.  Who's to say she's wrong?

I let my creativity out with the paranormal aspects and keep the other parts of the story as realistic as possible.  As writers, we do the best we can.  Then we remember that we're only human.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Dreaming of NaNoWriMo.

I love National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as those who participate like to call it. I love the idea of committing to crazy, freethinking writing, where all that matters is that you spew forth letters on the page. As a methodical plotter, it goes against all my instincts to write this way, yet I find it exhilarating.

Last year, NaNoWriMo changed my novel around. Letting myself go with the flow led to major discoveries about what was and wasn't working. It helped me move past a major stumbling block and go on to new and better pages.

I've been hoping that this year will be the same. But so far, I have been unable to put pen to paper. Blame the recent move, which leaves me with an office and house in boxes. Blame the weeks of illness and of unexpected work that put me two weeks behind my unpacking schedule. Blame the upcoming week and a half trip to Florida, my last visit to my mom in the nursing home before I am forced not to fly because of my third trimester. Or just blame my lack of will.

But for the moment, I find myself dreaming of NaNoWriMo. My commitment to it will start on November 20th and go through the holidays, instead of finishing with the end of November. Though I won't be on the same schedule as everyone else, I'm hoping the spirit of NaNoWriMo will carry me through until the words "the end" appear.

In ghostly spirits,

J.K. Mahal

Thursday, November 6, 2008

NaNo and Goal Setting

This is the first time I've joined NaNo and I am embarrassed to say I'm just starting. But with the election over and my article submitted that was due this week, I'm back on track. My goal is to finish my WIP, OPAL FIRE, book two in the gemstone series by month's end.

I vowed to pen 50k words this month. Will I make it? Who knows, but I set a goal and I'm sure going to try.

Procrastination is a problem with many writers. I myself prefer to check email 50 times, do the dishes, feed the cat, plan dinner, hunt for dust bunnies and any number of other mundane tasks before hitting the keyboard. Something about staring at the blank screen scares the crap out of me. But once I begin, I'm in the zone.

That's where goal setting comes in.

Writers need goals to stay on track, especially if they ever want to sell anything. The editor doesn't care that you had the flu the week your revisions were due. The readers don't care that your kids got sick. They expect the work to be done and on time.

For my first book, I set a goal of 1000 words a day. For some that may be too much, for others, too little. Hemingway wrote 500 words a day and still had time for big game hunting and world travel. It can be done.

How? By organizing your priorities. Put dinner in the crockpot, teach your fifth grader to do the laundry, train your husband to help with homework, but set your goals for the day, week, month, and even the year.

Start with a calendar. Take the first blank space and write down a realistic goal for the year (or more if you're feeling ambitious).

For example: I will have written a book by this time next year.

Then break it down: I will write one page per day.
That's 365 days, 365 pages, or 1 book.
Simple, right?
Anyone can squeeze in a page per day.

Or maybe you prefer to keep a targeted word count. Or write at a certain time every day.

My goal is 1000-1500 words/day (longer this month). That averages to a chapter/week with 15-20 pages/chapter. That works for me.

Maybe you write faster than I do. Joe Konrath, author of the Jack Daniels thriller series, writes 4000 words per day. He researches and promotes most of the year and pumps out his books in February.

Now that sounds like a nightmare to me, but it works for him.

However big your dreams are, however unattainable they may seem, they'll only come true if you set goals. Then make every effort to meet them.

And if you fall short one day, you can make it up the next. The point is to try, because the only difference between a published author and an unpublished one is perseverance.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Research and Forcing Myself to Write

***How do you research your topic? How does your research influence your writing and when do you decide to make something up on your own (deviate from the "norm" )?***

I'm not really sure how to go about researching my current story. I work at my local 911 center, so getting information on the police aspects of it aren't hard. I just have to walk across the hall. Easy-peasy. Getting them to understand WHY I'm asking what the police procedure is when dealing with an amnesiac is a little more difficult.

Also working where I work, it's no big deal to call up a local hospital and ask the head nurse a couple of more 'delicate' questions. She thinks I'm neat.

It's the deviation from the norm that's the kicker. My story involves a ware-animal, one that I havn't quited decided on (who says that wolves are the only thing we can turn into?) A lot of this involves the old stand by "making up crap". Especially where the ware-whatever and the vampire are concerened.

Oh, and Coffee. I drink a lot of coffee. Because coffee makes everything better.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Nanowrimo has arrived! How do you keep focused on your Nano?

Good Morning!

Nanowrimo or National Novel Writing Month has arrived. If you're
doing nano, and just about every writer I know is, how do you stay
on track?

I have a 8-5, a husband, three teenagers, a house that's being remodeled, and an overbearing mother-in-law under whose roof I'm forced to live while the house is getting a mega-makeover. Needless to say, the enviroment isn't writer friendly. So, Nichole has her candle and cards. I have a composition notebook, my favorite blue gel pen, a mega sized mocha iced coffee, and a corner spot in Jackie's childhood bedroom in which to work. It helps me to scribble it all out by hand and then type it up.

Still it's day four and I have exactly two typed pages of Bite Me!, which is supposed to be my nano, done. Please don't ask the word count, its pathetic. I have several other wip pushing me to finish rewrites, and boy do those characters get bossy. Anybody have suggestions? Hmm? Anyone?

I think I'll just hold my nose and dive in. Hey, I might not finish, but if I accomplish anything in the psycho world known as my home I will have done something I think is truly amazing! I can live with that and be proud. Wish me luck!


(lost in the post-Halloween psychosis of the kids sugar highs. Next year think popcorn, people! Please!)

Monday, November 3, 2008

The fine line between "kick-starting my writing" and "preparing for the loony bin"

Brace yourself. I'm going to give you information that you may not know about me.


Here goes.

I'm nuts. I'm not all there. My mother would say I'm not playing with a full deck. My father would say I'm a few fries short of a Happy Meal. My husband just rolls his eyes.

So even though I know I've lost it, it doesn't stop me. I still sign up for voluntary torture every November.

For those who may not know, November is National Novel Writing Month. Here's how it works.  

Take 30 days, continue to work your day job and spend some time with your family (at least enough so they don't stage a mutiny).  

Add a major national holiday that requires a LOT of cooking.

Throw in Black Friday and the Holiday shopping sales that represents.    

Just for good measure, let's add at least one member of the family with some type of flu-bug and your choice of either a power outage or a major computer problem.

Now write.

Not just a little, but a lot.

Like 50,000 words!

And I'm crazy enough to sign up EVERY SINGLE YEAR!

So here I am, ready to go again.  A mere 1,667 words a day.


This year, though, I plan to use more of the tools at my disposal. In addition to the dictionary and thesaurus and dozens of specialized writing books that adorn my desk, I plan to use my cards. I've used tarot cards for more years than I care to remember. I've used them for life decisions. I've used them to "kill time." I've used them to impress my friends with my "cool skills." I don't usually use them for writing, though.

Yet I should. Think of the insight the cards could give me about my murder's motive. Or my victim's past. Or my heroine's options. NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality. It's not like I don't have the stories floating around in my head, right? So putting them on paper shouldn't be an issue.

Or at least it shouldn't be.

I also have my candles. To be more accurate, I suppose, it's just one candle. It's a tall, dark blue one that was charged with Reiki energy to facilitate creative writing. It has some essential oils in it as well, but I don't remember which ones.  Sadly, I don't remember where I got it or what the exact name of it is, so I'm not sure what I'll do when it finally burns so far down it won't light anymore.  I'm not sure if it's the scents released into the air, the miniscule amount of heat from the candle, or a purely psychological placebo effect, but for some reason that candle makes me write. I end up on a roll, in the zone, whatever other cliche you want to pick. For me, it works. It's another tool I can use to write. Not just for the crazy month of NaNoWriMo, but anytime.

Oh, and let's not forget caffeine.  Lots of caffeine.  And very often.  It may not do more then keep me awake, but I'll need it if I'm to make the 50,000 word goal.

So here I am gathering my tools and preparing my coffee maker.

On my way to 50,000 words this month.

On my way to book two in my series.

On my way to the straight jacket.