Tag: woods


Oh Christmas Tree?

 A photo of FLOTUS’s White House Christmas decorations—a phalanx of up-lit, bare-branched white trees lining a black-tiled corridor illuminated only by a few pendant lamps and the lights on an equally dark Christmas tree at the corridor’s far end—generated lots of reaction on social media. Responses pretty much evenly split between “love it” and “hate it” (although I know of one person who said, “at least it’s different”). Many assumed that politics informed the reactions because, hey, everything is about politics these days. Right? Wrong, in my case. I voted “hate it” not because of political affiliation but because of—scary trees. I don’t think hip or trendy when I look at the photo of stark branches emitting an icy vibe. I think, “When are the flying monkeys going to attack?” “Where’s the Snow Queen hiding?” Jack Frost? The Abominable Snowman? Snow White’s wicked stepmother? The cast of an M. Night Shyamalan movie? Notice a theme? Forests, the woods, places filled with scary trees are places where evil lurks and bad things happen. They are not locations of holiday merriment. “Little Red Riding Hood”. The Princess Bride. “Hansel and Gretel”. The Blair Witch Project. The Cabin in the Woods. Deliverance. Do any of those stories stir the holiday spirit? Every time I pass a woods, I think of the news reports and true crime shows and episodes of “Law and Order” where a body was found in the woods by a hiker, hunter, dog walker, or Boy Scout. Don’t go in the woods. Add chilling darkness to the scary trees—as in the White House photo—and I cringe. When people talk about winter wonderlands I think “wonder” in the sense of “I wonder what I’m doing out here and I wonder where the nearest fireplace is”. I don’t do cold and dark. I can handle them each individually—cold or dark. Combined? No thanks. I moved from Alaska clear down to Texas to get away from a cold darkness that seemed to last forever. The dark is the worst. When it’s just cold, I can bundle up in stylish sweaters and fashionable coats, throw on a rakish scarf for some flair, and head outside to enjoy the bright winter sun. I’m a creature of light. I keep a light on the porch and a sting of fairy lights in my bedroom illuminated all night, to heck with the electric bill.  I’d make the world’s worst vampire. While some people bemoan it as a sign of light pollution, I think the sight of cities lit up as you fly over them on the red-eye is beautiful. Neon signs flashing over city streets are magnificent. I never fail to stop and marvel. My town illuminated all of its (not scary) trees around the train station and Market Square with thousands of miniature lights for the holidays. I love it. A forest of light is a forest where nothing lurks. I’m sure a folklorist or psychologist would explain how the forest represents our primal fear of the unknown and the danger that awaits those who dare venture away from the safety and security of the tribe/family/familiar. I’m not going to tell you any of that. I’m going to say there’s a reason, a reason that has nothing to do with holiday cheer, so many authors and filmmakers set their horror stories and cautionary tales in the woods—the colder and darker, the better. What’s the scariest place you can think of to set a story? What do you think of when you see woods in the winter?

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The Heebie Jeebies

  ‘Tis the season for ghoulies  and ghosties and long-legged beasties. In the spirit of Halloween, I asked my fellow Missdemeanors to talk about the spookiest place they’ve ever been. Me, the spookiest place I’ve ever been was the Market Square Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Thomas Jefferson rented a room in the tavern while he studied law with George Wythe. The building’s been restored since then and it operates as a hotel. Rumor has it, Jefferson’s ghost haunts the halls. I didn’t see the late President when I stayed there several years ago but I did have an odd experience. There’s a small front room with chairs and tables and bookcases; a place to gather for conversation with your fellow travelers or to relax with a book. My second night at the tavern, I decided to explore. I headed for the front room but stopped in the hallway just outside, overwhelmed by the sensation that something was in there. No other hotel guests were around and I couldn’t see or hear anyone. I just knew something was in there and that I didn’t want to meet whatever it was. I prefer my spirits in a glass and ghosts on the page, not up close. I hesitated in the hall, telling myself I was being silly, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. In fact, it grew stronger. I turned around and rushed back to my room, glancing behind me to make sure nothing followed me. I locked my door and stayed in for the rest of the night. I went back in the morning but the weird sensation was gone. The front room was just a room. Alison: Oh, good question, Alexia! The first time I remember having actual chills was in a torture chamber in the bowels of some castle in Luxembourg. I was probably about twelve. I’d been to other torture chambers before and hadn’t been particularly moved. What made this chamber different was that someone had painted pictures of both the victim and the torturer along side each device. The torturers all had twinkles in their eyes. I don’t know if they were actually smiling, but it was clear to me they were enjoying themselves. The idea that someone could torture another human being and enjoy it haunted me then and still does today.  Cate: I avoid spooky places because I believe in all that stuff. The scariest place that I’ve ever been was in a park near Amish country, Pennsylvania. My friend and I got lost in the woods. After hiking for five hours and getting more and more lost, we ended up on the highway in bathing suits, at twilight, encircled by a biker gang that didn’t realize we were both twelve years old. We made it back though, thanks to some sheepishly provided directions after we tearfully explained to said biker gang that we were lost kids that just wanted their moms.  My parents had thought we were still at the park watering hole while they packed up with the younger siblings. They didn’t realize that we’d tried to come back six hours earlier. Ahhh… the old days of parenting pre cell phones. My kids have GPS-enabled watches that make calls and can be tracked by my phone. I’m KITT to their Michael. #knightrider. #helicoptermom #technologyrocks  Tracee: Like Cate, I avoid scary places so I don’t have a long list to cull through to find the scariest one. (I absolutely avoid any Haunted House or similarly ‘fake’ scary place!) The scariest experience by far in my life wasn’t about the place per se but what happened. I (still to this day) swear I saw the devil in my childhood bedroom. I was college age at the time and despite my mature viewpoint (ha!) it took me a long time to recover, if that is what you could call it. I won’t bore everyone with the details but it was genuinely terrorizing and I remember each detail with absolute clarity these many decades later. In terms of a scary place… nothing has come close although I have visited quite a few dungeons. There was one in Germany (can’t remember where) that was particularly frightening. They must have had an excellent display of torture equipment! VERY realistic. Robin: I’d say the spookiest place I’ve been was multiple places visited during a “Sinister London” tour I took, led by a drama student. He took us driving and walking through neighborhoods and locations of some seriously creepy historical relevance. One of the spookiest spots was a cell beneath a pub used as a “pauper’s prison.” Between the actor’s dramatic telling of what happened in there, the chill of the night air from a grate in the ceiling that opened to the sidewalk, and an unexplained moaning sound in an empty corner of the cell that the tour leader insisted had nothing to do with him or the tour, our group of 9 quickly diminished as 4 people bailed, too scared to go on. By the time the tour completed it was down to me, my partner and the tour leader. Susan: Generally I try to avoid spooky places, unless I’m on a ghost tour with my fellow Miss Demeanor. But I remember some years ago wandering around the Antietam Battlefield and walking through a creek among the cornfields, if I’m remembering right, and I could almost feel the presence of all the soldiers who’d died there that day. It was a very heavy feeling. Paula: Like Susan, I avoid spooky places, having once been carried screaming out of a haunted house when I was small, and again in my 40s. I kid you not. I was raised in a military family and we moved all the time. There were several times when I walked into a house for the first time   and felt as if I’d lived there before. Or could feel the presence of other spirits. Mostly they were friendly, and didn’t bother me. It was like a sort of déjà vu homecoming. The only place that’s really ever haunted me is Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. We visited that sacred space when I was 10 years old, and I never forgot it. Thinking about it now I still get goosebumps. And say a prayer. Michele: The spookiest place I have ever been is alone in a ten by ten room with no windows in a maximum security reception and diagnostic center, otherwise known as a prison for very bad boys, interviewing a man accused of killing his wife with a shotgun while his toddler watched. I had been appointed by the court to investigate, represent, and make recommendations regarding the best interests of this child. Because I had been a pediatric nurse, I often was appointed in cases regarding children, but this one stands out in my memory, not because of the tragic circumstances. Unfortunately, there are too many cases where children are the secondary victims of their parents’ crimes and misconduct. And I had been around plenty of men and women who had “gone wrong.” But this man made my skin crawl as he laughed at the ridiculous thought he would ever kill his wife, especially when his kid would have full view. I could smell evil and knew he had done just that, and had enjoyed it. Think Clarice interviewing Hannibal Lector. I would rather sleep deep in a dark remote forest alone than be in a room with that man again, even with armed guards two feet away. What’s the spookiest place you’ve ever been? 

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Black moments

Guest post by Sherry Harris Black Moments

Two weeks ago my daughter and I went to a movie right after I’d spent a weekend with writer friends talking about plotting. Instead of just watching the action, I sat there thinking: there’s the call to action, there’s the black moment, there’s the renewed call, there’s the climactic moment, and there’s the return to what will be the character’s new normal. I still enjoyed the movie, but jeez, I wish I hadn’t analyzed it at the same time.

In this particular movie the protagonist has his black moment in the woods, in the mud, during a rain storm. He wallowed for a bit, before he realized he had to go forward, to accept the call, to become the hero of his journey. It made me think about black moments in mystery writing.

There’s a difference between black moments and giving your protagonist trouble. Trouble is: your protagonist is being chased through the dark, she comes to a river, she finds a raft, she shoves off, a terrible storm comes up, she loses the pole she has for steering, she hears a speed boat pursing her and a waterfall ahead. That’s a lot of trouble.

Where does the black moment fit in to all of this? It could be at the crucial moment where she hears the speed boat behind and the rapids ahead. She lies on the raft thinking it’s all over. The storm hammers her. She will either die at the hands of her pursuers or by going over the waterfall. There is no future, the past no longer matters.

The black moment, therefore, is the darkest point before the proverbial dawn.

And the dawn will come—in a mystery at least (unless you’re talking noir). But your character doesn’t know it, not until the renewed call to action occurs.

Picture the protagonist lying there, thinking of the people who depend on her. She can’t give up so she dives into the water, fights the current, and swims to shore—her call to action renewed! Her pursuers think she’s gone over the falls, so she’s free (for the time being) to solve the mystery.

There are lots of opinions about where this black moment should occur in a manuscript. Some people think it should be at the midpoint of the book, some at the end of the second act, and some right before or during the climactic scene. Whoa! What’s a writer to do? People who are strict plotters will probably disagree with me, but I think it depends on your book. It might be slightly different depending on your story and what your protagonist is up against.

Black moments don’t need to stand out with a big neon flashing sign over your character saying: Attention, this is the black moment. Really, you don’t want your readers to stop and think, aha, the black moment. You want it to be part of your protagonist’s emotional journey. In my fourth book, A Good Day To Buy, Sarah’s black moment is when she realizes she’s about to be caught in a lie and will have to face betraying two people she loves. In the third book, All Murders Final, it’s when Sarah wants to walk away from her investigation and leave it to the professionals.

So far, there’s been no wallowing in mud for Sarah, her black moments have been more subtle. But, hey, who knows. Maybe I’ll give it a try some day.

Writers: Do you think about black moments as you write? Readers: Do you spot black moments in books?

Sherry Harris, a former director of marketing for a financial planning company, decided writing fiction couldn’t be that different than writing ads. She couldn’t have been more wrong. But eventually because of a series of fortunate events and a great many people helping her along the way, Kensington published Tagged For Death the first in the Agatha Award nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. Sherry is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters In Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters In Crime, where she serves as President.

Sherry honed her bartering skills as she moved around the country while her husband served in the Air Force. She uses her love of garage sales, her life as a military spouse, and her time living in Massachusetts as inspiration for the series. She blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.


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