Working with Editors

by N. M. Cedeño

Nothing makes a writer feel more like a know-nothing novice than a marked-up manuscript from an editor. Whenever I get a document back from an editor, I take a deep breath before reading the comments because I know seeing the number of errors I made will knock the breath out of me.

Here’s how writing and editing short stories usually works for me:

Image by John Conde from Pixabay

1. Write story draft.

2. Review draft and add all the stuff left out of the first draft.

3. Let story sit a while in order to see it with fresh eyes.

4. Review the story and fix all the glaring errors and plot problems.

5. Review the story again, and again, and again, and again. Cut extraneous and wordy bits. Send the story to a beta reader or critique partner for comments.

6. Read the story aloud or have MS Word read it to me to catch errors and awkward wording.

7. Submit the story to markets.

8. Receive rejections while writing other stories. Submit the story over and over again until it’s accepted for publication somewhere.

9. Receive the edited version back from the editor and try not to be overwhelmed by all the stupid errors missed in the dozens of reviews completed before submitting the story. Hope the editor is wrong about some of the comments and redline markings. Carefully read the editor’s comments.

10. Acknowledge that the editor is right and fix the errors. Return the manuscript to the editor.

Image by Anne Karakash from Pixabay

I’ve worked with editors I’ve hired as well as editors from magazines and anthologies. With one exception, every professional editor with whom I’ve worked has improved my writing. I’m grateful to all of them, especially the one that said “your climax needs more conflict” and still accepted the story for publication.

Overdoing description is a fault of mine so each of the great editors recommended deleting wordy areas. Each made comments in the margins asking questions that I had to decide the best way to answer. They made suggestions on fixes, but left the rewriting to me.

The one bad editor I encountered was one I was considering hiring to help me edit a book. I sent that editor a sample chapter. When she returned it, every single line of the manuscript had been changed. I was stunned by the amount of red on the page. She had changed a character’s behavior and responses to another character, in effect rewriting the character. She changed the entire tone and voice of the story, making it her story instead of mine. Her version of editing stood out in stark contrast to the great editors that I had previously used. The bad editor didn’t make comments and leave the fixing to me. She came up with her own fixes and inserted them.

Consequently, that one editor taught me how to tell a good editor from a bad editor. Good editors tell writers what needs fixing and why. They may make suggestions on what might work to fix a problem, but they don’t do the rewriting themselves. Good editors leave the rewriting up to the writer. Great editors edit. They don’t rewrite.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Creating Multiple Identities: the Research Rabbit Hole

by N.M. Cedeño

Setting a story in the past requires the author to do research to make sure the details of the story are correct. For me, researching topics means risking falling down the research rabbit hole and discovering way more information than I need. This week’s research topic: how a character could create fake identities during the 1960s and 1970s.

My current work-in-progress, a short story, involves a character with a penchant for using fake identities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I wanted to know how hard it would be for my character to have multiple bank accounts and jobs under different identities during that time period. This necessitated research into social security numbers (SSNs) and how they were issued in the past.

Creating a fake identity prior to 1974 took very little effort because laws regarding obtaining SSNs and starting bank accounts were lax. For instance, for my character to open bank accounts under different names was fairly easy. Social security numbers were not required for starting financial accounts at banks or other institutions until 1983. However, even if the banks had required SSNs, my character could have easily provided multiple SSNs for multiple fake identities.

Before April 1974, anyone could request a social security number by completing an application without providing evidence of their age, identity, or citizenship status. Electronic tracking of social security numbers, using a punch card computer system didn’t start until 1979. This ease in obtaining SSNs led to all kinds of irregularities and problems in the system that lasted for decades. As late as 2007, the Social Security Administration identified 4.7 million people who had more than one SSN. Most of those people had requested numbers before 1974 when the requirements for providing evidence of identity and age went into effect.

Why did so many people have more than one social security number? Was identity fraud rampant?  

No. Most of those people weren’t trying to commit any crime. After SSNs were introduced in 1936, not everyone understood how they worked. Some people thought they needed a new number every time they started a new job. If workers lost the card with their number on it, they simply applied for a new number. Other people applied for a social security number when the cards were first introduced. Then, when they started working a new job, they filled out paperwork provided by their employer to get another one as employers tried to make sure their employees had SSNs.

It wasn’t even unusual for more than one person to use the same SSN.

For example, in 1938, a wallet manufacturer in New York sold wallets in stores with a sample social security card inside to show the buyer how the card would fit in the wallet. That sample social security card had a number on it which many buyers of the wallet then adopted as their own. By 1943, at least 5,755 were using the sample SSN that came with the wallet. As late as 1977, twelve people were still using that same number.

Prior to the late 1980s, most people didn’t have to get a social security number until they got a job and had to pay taxes. A pilot program to get children SSNs at birth started in 1987. Before 1986, most kids didn’t need SSNs since they could be listed as dependents on tax forms without one. From the time the SSN was introduced in 1936 until the late 1980s, most people only applied for social security numbers when they reached a point in life where they needed one. Therefore, it was common for adults to apply for cards.

All of this means that the character in my story could easily have created multiple fake identities before 1974 by filling out applications for multiple SSNs. He could hold jobs under different SSNs and keep many unconnected bank accounts. But now, all of this research will be filed away, because I can’t use it in my story. I only needed to know that my character could indeed obtain documentation for multiple fake identities without getting caught immediately.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Note: All pictures by Pixabay.

Submitting Short Stories: Part 2

By N. M. Cedeño

Previously, I wrote a post covering some of the basic rules for submitting short stories to anthologies, magazines, and contests. That information can be found here: Submitting Short Stories to Anthologies, Magazines, and Contests. Below are a few more tips for submitting your stories.

1. Persistence

The very last step in submitting stories is to continue submitting until you succeed. Persistence may be to the main key to success in the entire submission process.

by Pixabay

For example, one of my short stories was recently accepted for publication by Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The story will appear in the magazine’s Cozies issue early in 2022. As near as I can tell in my records, I wrote the first draft of this story sometime in 2011. It sat in a file on my computer for several years, forgotten, until I sorted through my old stories, reread it, tweaked the ending, and finally submitted it to a market in 2018. It was rejected, so I revised it again, and resubmitted it five more times, but it was rejected each time. I submitted it next to a market that looked open on their website, but they advised me they were closed and asked that I resubmit later. I waited and resubmitted, but never received a response, which, for some markets, is the equivalent of a rejection.

Eventually, I came across the BCMM call for cozies, which seemed like a good fit for the story. So, once again, I reviewed the story, changed a few words here and there, and submitted it. By my count, BCMM was my ninth submission of the story to a market.

And so, “It Came Upon a Midnight Ice Storm” has finally found a home and will be published in 2022. If I’d given up after the first or even the fifth rejection, the story wouldn’t be under contract to be published right now.

2. Response Times

Pixabay

How long does it take to hear back from a publishing market rejecting or accepting a story? Response times for short story markets differ dramatically. In the world of science fiction short stories, I discovered one market where I submitted the story after 5 pm and received a rejection by email at around 1 am the next morning. Receiving a rejection in eight hours or less is apparently not unusual for that market. At the other end of the spectrum is Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine which, based on the data on Submission Grinder, is currently taking approximately 350 days, almost a full year, to respond to submissions.

Some markets post on their guidelines page how long they expect to take to respond to your submission. Others do not give any information. Currently, I have a story submitted to an anthology call for submissions that did not provide any estimate for when they will respond with either acceptances or rejections. They’ve had the story for about three months. All I can do is wait patiently to for the editor to eventually respond. I won’t be surprised if I have to wait six months. Waiting months for a response to a submission is much more common than waiting only hours in the world of mystery short story submissions. However, I have seen mystery anthology editors reject stories within a matter of days.

3. Finding calls for submissions and open markets

Be on the lookout for calls for submissions and market opening dates. The Submission Grinder has a tab on their home screen labeled “Recently Added Markets.” New calls for submissions and updates on markets are posted there regularly. You can also find calls for submissions by joining groups that inform their members of new calls. The Short Mystery Fiction Society, for example, informs members of calls for submissions via an online group chat and a website market page.

To find markets that open and close on set dates throughout the year, use the search feature on Submission Grinder and uncheck the box eliminating temporarily closed markets. Then, when you search for markets, all the temporarily closed markets will appear in your search. Some of these magazines and e-zines only open for submissions for a week or two at a time in various months of the year. Unless you know when those dates are, you will miss your chance to submit to these markets.

Good luck with your submissions!

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Blending Sub-genres

By N. M. Cedeño

Do you write in more than one genre? Do you blend genres or sub-genres? I do. Some sub-genres seem to lend themselves easily to blending.

While I write mostly in the mystery genre, sometimes I veer into science fiction. A recent Writer’s Digest article entitled 114 Fiction Sub-Genre Descriptions for Writers allowed me to examine exactly how many sub-genres my stories fall into.

created by Wordclouds

My first published story could be classified as a private detective mystery, as a science fiction mystery, as hard science fiction, and as social science fiction, which I’ve also seen called sociological science fiction. Whatever you call it, the story, entitled A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy, features a private detective living in a future society in which all privacy rights have been eliminated because “only people with something to hide need privacy.” The detective, Pete Lincoln, is still adjusting to the ways society changed while he was recovering from a gunshot-wound-induced coma, making him something of a fish out of water. While I considered the story to be a mystery, it was originally published in Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, a magazine that focuses on hard science fiction.

In terms of blending genres, the classic mystery private eye trope of the outsider detective with his own internal compass working in a world where everyone else abides by a different set of rules blends well with sociological science fiction. The trope serves to ground the reader, putting them in comfortable, familiar territory even if the society around the detective is unfamiliar, otherworldly, or dystopian. So when my broke detective is sitting at his desk and a lady arrives in his office with a problem, the reader knows what to expect, even if the story is set in a future world with no privacy rights.

Bad Vibes Removal Services Series logo by N. M. Cedeno

My Bad Vibes Removal Services series, which currently includes 14 short stories and two novels, also falls into a couple of sub-genres. The stories all feature ghosts and some sort of problem that has to be solved, usually a crime, making them paranormal mysteries. However, the detective in my stories, Montgomery, and his employees, Lea, Kamika, and Patrick, use pseudo-scientific inventions to help them solve their cases. That puts the stories into the private detective mystery and science fantasy sub-genres as well. The Bad Vibes series felt like a natural blend of sub-genres to me. Like strawberries and chocolate, science fantasy pairs well with paranormal mystery.

My novel entitled All in Her Head is an amateur sleuth mystery, a romantic mystery, and also falls into the woman in jeopardy sub-genre. The story features a socially-isolated new college graduate who witnesses an attempted murder and then faces ongoing attacks as the perpetrator tries to remove her as a witness. She joins forces with and falls for the victim’s brother while trying to unmask the villain. Romance and mystery are a natural blend, with the heightened emotions created by the crime adding to the romantic tension.

In the novel For the Children’s Sake, I blended an amateur detective mystery and classic whodunit with what might be labeled a medical mystery or mystery science fiction since the medical condition featured in the plot doesn’t exist. In the novel, a priest who advocated on behalf of children with a rare and deadly-to-other-people genetic condition is murdered and his twin brother works to solve the crime. The medical mystery sub-genres which typically features a medical threat, blends easily with mystery science fiction since the writer can invent medical threats that don’t exist yet, making the story science fiction.

Looking at my unpublished stories, I’ve written cozy mysteries, police procedurals, historical mysteries, and spy thrillers, too. I like to challenge myself to try new things. I look forward to trying my hand at writing in some of the other sub-genres on the Writer’s Digest list.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

What’s in a Character Name?

Authors, how do you name your characters?

Name Cloud by Wordcloud

The average person only has to come up with names when they are naming their children. As anyone who has enjoyed the privilege of naming children knows, this task can be fraught with difficulties. Everyone has different criteria for what they consider important: family connections, name meaning, how well it fits with other family names, how well it sounds when yelled, how common or uncommon the first name is, how many other people have the exact same first and last name combination. Some names come easily months before they are needed and others aren’t finalized until someone threatens not to let a parent leave the hospital until a form is filled out.

Naming a character can be like naming a child. While my characters don’t have a flesh and blood life to ruin if I name them poorly, I do have readers’ responses to worry about. Will the name fit the character in a way that enhances the story? Will readers hate it? Will an unknown person somewhere in the world sue if the character has their name?

Some authors have a gift for inventive naming. J. K. Rowling, for instance, takes the prize for the most-creative names, as far as I’m concerned, with Ian Fleming as a close second. For a great review of some fabulous character names, see this blog post by John Floyd, who provides lists of character names placed in categories such as light-hearted, strong, mysterious, and evil.

Lacking a flair for naming, I resort to a baby name book and Google.

In my first book, a suspense novel called All in Her Head, the main character is named Martha because of the biblical story of Martha and her sister Mary. In that story, Martha is the worrier who doesn’t sit down and relax, the one trying to get everything done for her guests. My character in the book suffers from crippling anxiety. She’s the queen of worriers facing anxiety-inducing life changes: she recently relocated to a new city to start a new job and hasn’t made any friends yet. On top of that, I made her a witness to attempted murder. The poor girl has a lot to handle, but, in spite of her mental health issues, she fights to keep her focus in the face of murderous assaults, explosions, attacks, and car accidents.

In my second novel, a medical mystery entitled For the Children’s Sake, the victim and the main protagonist are twin brothers name Ingall and Ignatius. I chose the names by their meanings. The character of Ingall is a murdered, saintly Catholic priest, while his twin Ignatius is a red-headed Chemist with a temper, who fights to solve his brother’s murder. Ignatius means fiery, ardent, which fit the character. The name Ingall I chose for alliteration with Ignatius and because it was a variant spelling of Angell, meaning angel or messenger of God, which felt appropriate for a saintly clergyman.

Sometimes, I can’t come up with a first and last name combination that I like so I delay by only calling the character by one name. In my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mystery series, the main character is a history graduate student who sees ghosts and likes to try out clothing and hairdo’s from ancient civilizations. Her first name, Lea, came to me easily. However, she didn’t have a last name through multiple short stories until I finally tagged her with Saroyan.

Lea’s detective/ inventor boss was named only as Mr. Montgomery in several short stories and through the novels. I finally gave him a first name in a bonus short story at the end of the second novel, Degrees of Deceit. Since Montgomery is described as six feet tall, pushing 300 pounds, and is a force to be reckoned with who seeks justice for others, I named him Orestes. Orestes means “mountain man,” which fit my mountain of a character, and the original Greek Orestes sought justice for his father’s murder. This delaying in naming a character may be the equivalent of not officially naming your kid until he’s four years old, but at least I got there in the end.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Year-End Assessments for Writers

by N. M. Cedeño

Writers, if you don’t already assess your writing habits at the end of the year, you should consider doing it. Many companies require employees to complete year-end assessments to help them set work goals for the coming year. You are your own employer. Do you assess your work and set goals as a writer? Do you take stock of your current work habits and output at the end of the year in order to decide how you want to proceed with your work?

image from Pixabay

Take a few minutes to evaluate yourself.

While it’s true that employee year-end assessments can be pointless hassles, the goal of the assessments is valid. People have to know where they stand before they can set goals for where they want to be. This kind of self-knowledge is likely more important to writers than to employees in large businesses. Most employees have no control over their workload and typically can make only minor changes to processes and procedures. Writers, on the other hand, control their own schedule and output, so self-assessment should have more value to writers than to the average company employee.

What should you take into consideration as you assess your work?

image from Pixabay

Authors may use multiple measures of productivity: words written in a year, manuscripts completed, number of times manuscripts were submitted somewhere, or pieces published. Knowing these benchmarks for the current year can help authors set goals for the next year.

Do you want to increase your word-count output? Then, tally your output for this year and set a reasonable goal for the next year, something that will be a challenge, but not an impossibility. Are you writing constantly, but not submitting things for publication or, if self-publishing, only publishing rarely? Review your submissions or look at your publication schedule and challenge yourself to do more.

Why take stock and set goals when everything changes as you go?

Image from Pixabay

Even when the world turns upside down and a new reality inflicts itself upon everyone, having goals can keep writers on track. Goals allow them to see the way forward and adapt when the world obscures the view. The plan might need adapting along the way, but that’s true of most things in life.

If you have no set plans, you’ll have nothing to turn to as a guide when the world or life-in-general throws you a curveball. Set goals to help you focus.

Last January, before the pandemic set in, I set a goal to write more short stories, aiming for at least one per month. I set another goal to submit my short stories to markets at least once a month. In spite of the pandemic, I mostly accomplished those goals. The upheaval and turmoil threw me off-course for March, but because I had goals in place, I got back on track in April. I ended up with 10.5 short stories (December’s isn’t quite done yet) and one novella-length manuscript. My Excel spreadsheet of submissions shows I exceeded my submission goal with 20 short stories submitted to markets this past year.

I had hoped to start a new novel this year, but that goal fell by the wayside. In spite of that and the distraction of the pandemic, I still managed to produce about 71,000 words of new fiction and almost 6000 words in blog posts. With that knowledge, I can set my output goals for the coming year.

The first week of January, I plan to set my goals for 2021. Because I know where I stand, I can see ways to stretch and improve. How about you? Will you do year-end assessments and set goals for the coming year?

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Why Read Short Stories?

By N. M. Cedeño

If you don’t read short fiction, 2020 is the year to start. Busy, stressed, out of time, out of energy? Then short stories are for you. Here’s why:

Created with WordClouds.com

1. Finding the time to read isn’t a problem:

Even people with limited free time can find a few minutes to read a short story. While immersing readers in tightly woven plots, short fiction provides complete story arcs that can be consumed in minutes rather than the hours needed to read the average novel. Short stories may be read in small spurts rather than in long hauls, perfect for a lunch break or mental health break.

2. Short stories are the literary version of instant gratification:

Short stories are the chocolate cake of reading. photo from Pixabay.

Short fiction packs a powerful and entertaining punch into very few pages. By crafting concise prose to engage and captivate readers before quickly releasing them, short fiction authors grant even the busiest readers the sense of fulfillment that comes from finishing a work of fiction. Readers might feel bad that they never opened that massive tome on the nightstand, but a short story, quickly started and finished, gives readers a sense of accomplishment.

3. Find new authors within a favorite genre:

What if a reader wants to find a new author within a favorite genre? Maybe the book store and library only allow pick-up because of the pandemic, so no one can browse. Readers can browse by reading a short story collection. In one anthology, readers can try a dozen or more new authors and get a feel for how an author writes. Many novelists write short stories featuring their series characters for anthologies, collections, and magazines. These short stories give readers a chance to sample an author and meet characters before diving into a series.

from Pixabay

4. Try new genres or subgenres:

Readers can look to short fiction when they want to try something completely new. Anthologies, short story magazines, and e-zines contain samples of a wide variety of genres and subgenres of fiction. With magazines and e-zines filling a variety of niches, readers can get a taste of multiple genres for a low price. Some of these magazines provide sample stories on their websites or via newsletters for free. “Best of” anthologies collect award-winning stories in a variety of subgenres into one book. Reading a ‘best of’ anthology can introduce mystery readers to the year’s best science fiction, or science fiction readers to the year’s best horror. (See list below)

5. Build or rebuild a habit of reading:

Life gets busy, or even completely crazy, like this year. For some people, that causes reading to fall by the wayside. After falling out of the habit of daily reading, getting back into reading by diving into a novel might seem daunting. Short stories can provide a simpler, less time-demanding reintroduction to reading for those looking to establish the habit.

6. Perfect for emotionally or physically exhausted readers:

This year, 2020, has been hard on everyone emotionally and physically. If you’ve been trying to work, educate kids from home, care for the sick, and survive trying times without collapsing, starting a novel might seem an impossible task. For people low on energy, too exhausted to put forth the brain power a full-length novel might require, short stories are a better choice. Quick but meaningful bites of fiction like short stories can be a breath of fresh air for the exhausted mind.

Now you know why you should give short stories a try. Where do you find them?

Here is a nowhere-near-comprehensive list of mystery and science fiction short story magazines. Some provide sample stories on their websites or via newsletters. Check them out.

Don’t want magazines? How about books?

Try these anthology series. Your local library may have copies.

  • Best American Mystery Stories
  • Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
  • Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy
  • Best American Short Stories
  • The Best American Noir of the Century
  • The Best Science Fiction of the Year
  • The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy

Enjoy some short stories! They are perfect for 2020.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

How to Get Your Brain Unstuck: Overcoming Writer’s Block Caused by Minor Stress

By N. M. Cedeño

Most people find it hard to concentrate on work when their stress levels rise. Meeting work goals becomes a challenge, and even routine tasks become hard-fought slogs because of stress. For many writers, the more stress we have in our day-to-day lives, the harder it is to put words on the page. Conversely, we feel less stressed when we have accomplished writing something. So while stress can prevent writing, writing can relieve stress, if we can get past the obstructions that are making it difficult for us to focus on writing.

from Pixabay

Stressors can pile on top of each other like bricks in a wall, forming a barrier that prevents focusing on other important matters.

Pandemic and natural disaster news = a load of bricks.

Kids attending school virtually from home = a load of bricks.

Election year politics = a load of bricks.

The insurance hassle of a minor car accident = a load of bricks.

Someone’s oral surgery to remove an impacted tooth = a load of bricks.

Zoom meeting after zoom meeting = a load of bricks.

Appliances and plumbing demanding immediate attention in an escalating pattern that explodes to include the dishwasher, clothes washer, water heater, refrigerator, water softener, several emergency water shut-off valves, and every faucet, shower head, and toilet in the house = a load of bricks.[i]

 All of those bricks can build a solid mental barricade. Demolishing that wall and getting back to writing takes effort. We need to take the time to de-stress by doing activities we enjoy. Lots of people are working from home right now, so taking a day off looks different than it has in the past. We have to consciously avoid sitting down to work that is ever-present and, instead, choose to do other activities.

image from Pixabay

First, we have to identify relaxing activities. Things I’ve found to alleviate stress include walking a few miles, scrubbing things, yardwork, reading mysteries, drinking tea, baking, eating chocolate, and, sometimes, binge-watching a television series in the evening.

This week, I set aside a morning to transplant my aloe vera plants from their overcrowded pots into more spacious ones. Ignoring those plants for five years allowed them to multiply like rabbits behind my back. Two bags of potting soil and 70 or so plants later, the plants looked much better, and I felt less stressed.

About half my aloe vera plants.
Photo by N. M. Cedeño

I have several walking routes measured to cover two to three miles near my house. One of them, perhaps fortuitously, or maybe not, depending on your point of view, passes right by a local coffee and donut shop.

Walking and yardwork are healthy ways to relieve stress, and they counterbalance unhealthier, but enjoyable activities like baking sweets and consuming chocolate. This past week, I baked homemade Nestle triple chocolate cookies and chocolate chip banana bread, and interspersed the baking with walking eight miles, edging and trimming the property, and transplanting all those plants.

Reading and watching television can refocus the brain on story plots, pushing stressors aside. Last weekend, I read Rhys Bowen’s latest in her Royal Spyness Series, The Last Mrs. Summers. This week, I’m working my way through a mystery short story collection. A few months ago, I watched the entire Star Trek: Enterprise series, watching one or two episodes every evening for a few weeks. This month, I watched a Canadian police drama.

When life’s minor stresses start to pile up and begin to interfere with writing deadlines, we must set aside time to de-stress with activities we enjoy. Generally speaking, a little exercise and a dose of relaxation can get the creative juices flowing and allow the words to start tumbling onto the page again. And, if all of the usual methods fail, it might be time for a vacation.[ii]


[i] Yes, this happened. While annoying, this is still minor stress compared to the loss of life, jobs, and property many people are facing right now.

ii] Note: This advice is for minor stress. If you are living with the floods, fires, storms, or disease that have defined 2020, as opposed to on the fringes of it all, these techniques may help mitigate stress, but won’t relieve it. For those with major stress, you have my sympathy.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Agatha Christie Wrote Paranormal Stories?

Do you enjoy books that make a chill dance down your spine by invoking the otherworldly or the supernatural?

As a teen, I read all of my mother’s Agatha Christie novels, which fixed Christie’s place in my mind as a writer of traditional mysteries. I somehow dismissed the short stories written by Christie that fall firmly into the paranormal category until I picked up a copy of The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural. This collection of Agatha Christie’s short stories was put together and republished in 2019 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. I’ll try to review the paranormal stories presented in the collection without too many spoilers.

The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural contains 20 stories of crime, murder, and suspense. Some of the stories feature clearly paranormal elements: otherworldly beings, premonitions of danger or death, possession or other transference of souls, and the ability to call upon supernatural forces. Other stories in the collection involve criminals using technology, complex cons, or gaslighting techniques to create the illusion of the supernatural, or malefactors taking advantage of an atmosphere of superstition to suggest a paranormal cause for a crime they committed. These latter stories hardly count as paranormal since the supernatural element is faked by the criminal. One or two of the stories fall into both camps, with the crime being committed from a mundane motive, but with the suggestion that perhaps the criminal wouldn’t have acted except for the influence of evil in the atmosphere weighing upon them.

Ghost from pixabay

Of the stories that contain clearly supernatural components, premonition is the most common element employed by Christie. The stories The Last Séance, In a Glass Darkly, S.O.S., The Gipsy, Philomel Cottage, and The Red Signal use premonition, either via dreams or via a sixth sense that something is wrong, to build suspense. The characters recognize that they are in danger, but don’t know the source and aren’t sure if they should believe the bells of warning ringing in their brains. Some heed the warnings as best they can, but still fall into dangerous situations. Other characters dismiss the warnings until circumstances force them to pay attention. From story to story, the results of heeding or ignoring the warnings vary as the characters dance to Agatha Christie’s tune.

A couple of the stories feature ghosts or supernatural beings. The title story, The Last Séance, features a medium channeling the soul of a dead child for a grieving mother. The second story with a ghost, The Lamp, involves a family moving into a long vacant house. The house has stood unoccupied for years because the ghost of a child is haunting it. While The Lamp is a pure “ghost story,” The Call of the Wings and The Dressmakers Doll both deal with nonhuman, otherworldly beings. The Call of the Wings describes a man’s interactions with a pan-like creature and angels. The Dressmakers Doll revolves around a doll with a mind of its own.

from Pixabay

Reincarnation and the suggestion of lost supernatural knowledge from ancient civilizations appear in Christie’s stories as well. However, little can be written about these stories or the ones featuring possession or transference of souls without spoiling them. Christie’s use of these story elements can be easily traced to the author’s own travels in Egypt and interest in archaeology and to the Egyptian archaeological discoveries of the early 1900s which aroused public interest in ancient belief systems and mystical powers.

The collection The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural is a mixed bag of suspense stories, mystery stories with a crime that needs to be solved, and stories that feature no crime at all. Christie’s two main detectives, Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, appear in a few of the stories. Poirot takes the stage in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, The Dream, and The Flock of Geryon. Miss Marple reasons her way quietly to answers in The Idol House of Astarte and The Blue Geranium. While the crime provides the mystery in some of the stories, in a few of the purely paranormal stories, the only mystery lies in the paranormal or supernatural event itself.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Alice Littlefield Residence Hall: Inspiration for a Ghost Story

“Alice’s ghost is rumored to haunt the dorm, but don’t worry, she’s a benevolent ghost. She likes to watch over students. Here is her picture,” said the tour guide escorting the new freshmen residents around the Alice Littlefield Residence Hall on the day I moved into the dorm at the University of Texas at Austin back in my college days.

A drawing of Alice Littlefield by her niece, Sarah Harral Duggan, that hangs in Littlefield Residence Hall.

Littlefield Hall was built in 1927 and is the oldest residence hall, or dormitory, on campus. George Littlefield, a former university regent, cattleman, banker, and Confederate soldier[1], donated the money for the building’s construction, specifying that it should be named for his wife Alice and that it should house only women students, to give them a homelike environment while attending the university. Alice and George’s children didn’t survive early childhood, a common tragedy of the late 1800s, so they used their wealth to educate their 17 nieces and 12 nephews, paying for all 29 to attend the University of Texas. The Littlefields housed a revolving door of student relatives in their Victorian mansion on the edge of the campus. Perhaps this is why Alice is rumored to still be watching over students.

In my two years of residence in Littlefield Hall, I never saw any ghosts, but I could see how the age and character of the historic building could inspire ghost stories. At that time, the building still featured an ancient Otis elevator that required the user to manually close, first, a gate and, then, a door before it would operate. Residents were only allowed to use that elevator if injured or if they were moving something heavy to an upper floor. The dorm rooms themselves had original doors, with giant old-style keyholes and transom windows painted shut above the door. Utility pipes added in decades after the building was completed ran along the walls in the rooms. Windowsills were crusted deep with layer upon layer of ancient paint. Air conditioning units had been added to the rooms under the windows, which we were forbidden to open, but many girls opened anyway. The building had atmosphere and charm, and was very old: the perfect place to imagine ghosts.

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Exterior of Littlefield Residence Hall, photo by N. M. Cedeno

In fact, some of my fellow residents insisted that they had experienced something paranormal in the dorm. One girl described seeing her books move off her desk and fall to the floor. Another swore to me that she had seen a ghostly girl, wearing only panties and bra, standing in front of the mirror inside one of the two walk-in closets in her third-floor dorm room. When I visited the dorm recently, one of the residents told me that she had selected the building because it was the closest she could get to living in a Hogwarts dorm[2].

2019-DegreesofDeceit-eBook (1)Therefore, when I decided to set one of my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mysteries at the University of Texas, I didn’t have to look very far to find inspiration. My former residence’s history and reputation for ghosts inspired me to use a fictional version of Littlefield Hall as the setting for my paranormal mystery novel, Degrees of Deceit. And, of course, my fictional dorm, called Dellonmarsh Dorm, is occupied by a benevolent female ghost, looking out for the residents as they are harassed by a malevolent prankster intent on disrupting the academic semester.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Footnotes:

[1] George Littlefield is a controversial figure. He was a generous philanthropist and supporter of women’s education, and a former slave-owning, proud Southerner with the attendant prejudices of that position. His heroes were Confederate generals, and he paid for their statues to be placed on the UT campus. Those statues were removed from campus several years ago. 

[2] The fictional Harry Potter school also known for its stately antiques and ghosts.