A Halloween Ghost Story

I love New Orleans. When I was in grad school, my husband and I decided to start a political consulting firm. We signed a candidate in Mobile, and went down over a weekend to meet him. We quickly realized he wasn't the candidate for us -- he kept suggesting ways to get around the FEC filing laws, talked about how he was going to split apart his political donations for home improvements -- you get the idea. So we cut the trip short and drove over to New Orleans. Hubby made a reservation at the Maison Dupuy, an utterly charming and highly romantic hotel in the Quarter, and I fell in love. With the city, the people, the vibe, and a little bit deeper with hubby. It's one of those shining memories, a day and night of pure bliss.

We went into a million clubs, danced and drank too much, wandered through the Quarter all night . . . it was a wonderful twenty-four hours. The only things we didn't get to do was go to a club known as the Dungeon. Hubby had been there on another trip and wanted to show it to me, but we just ran out of time.

Fast forward a few years. Hubby and I were now married, and decided a three day excursion down to New Orleans might be a fun way to blow off some steam. I had a good sense of the town now, and I wanted to do a ghost tour. I loved our vampiric guide -- with his pearly smooth skin, his long fingernails, velvet frock coat, he embodied the New Orleans I'd read about in Anne Rice novels. He told us a lot of great, gruesome tales, but I didn't "feel" anything.

Now, let me back up and admit that I've always been a bit attracted to the paranormal. I've had some bizarre, unexplainable situations. Lest you think I'm a bit off, I have this weird six sense about bad things. Especially when I was younger, I would tell my mom something bad was going to happen, and it always did. Supposedly, most of the women in my family have this heightened radar, so it wasn't a huge deal. The big one was when I woke up and told my mom something horrible was going to happen to President Reagan that day. He was shot six hours later. Ever since, I've done my best to tamp down those "hunches." I feel better that way. I'd rather not know.

Okay, so my bonafides are in place. I'm a little sensitive to weirdness. And I loved reading Anne Rice. I'd always been entranced by her New Orleans, and wanted to see it through her eyes. The ghost and vampire tour went a long way toward satisfying that need, but I still felt . . . I don't know . . .  unfulfilled.

After the tour, the group split off. I was tempted to follow our guide and see what he did next, but he disappeared (probably had a gig to play, or blood to drink, or something.) Hubby really wanted to make sure I got to see the Dungeon this trip, but the doors don't open until midnight. We decided to kill some time at Pat O'Brien's. We had a great dinner, and I sampled the infamous hurricane. Just one. Hubby had two. We weren't drunk. We weren't even buzzed. Just having a good time in Crescent City.

It was now about a quarter to one, and time to head down to the Tombs. Our waiter had been a ball all night. We were tickled because he looked exactly, and I mean exactly, like Louis Farrakhan. In between giggles, we asked him the shortest path to the Dungeon. He gave us directions, we paid our check and left the restaurant.

If you've ever been to New Orleans, you know that it's just like New York. It never sleeps. There's always (or at least there were before Katrina) crowds about in the Quarter. We walked up Bourbon Street to Toulouse, turned left and started down until we hit the entrance for the Dungeon.

There's a wide plank wooden door, with antique hinges, the whole nine yards. Hubby reached for the handle of the door, and it was locked. We pulled on it a few times and were completely puzzled. It was 1 AM. The place was supposed to be open.

That's when we realized there was no one around. No one. On Toulouse Street, just a block off Bourbon, at 1 in the morning -- it was completely empty and silent. We looked at each other and started to feel a little strange. We're standing there, discussing what to do, whispering to each other because we're really creeped out. The hair on the back of my neck suddenly rose. We turned to our right, and the waiter from Pat O'Brien's was standing there. No footsteps, no clatter of shoes on the cobblestones, nothing. He literally appeared.

We looked at him, and said a shaky hello. All of my warning signals were screaming at me. But I couldn't move. I was frozen to the spot. He shook his head gravely and looked me right in the eye.

"They will eat you alive," he said. "Get back up onto Bourbon Street."

And then he disappeared.

There was no sound, no moment, not even a whisper of a breeze. Silence, and emptiness. He was just gone.

We practically ran up to Bourbon Street. We didn't look back. We went straight to the hotel and to our room. We locked the door, and stashed a chair under the antique knob for good measure.

Two years ago we went back to New Orleans. Another three day trip. Had a great time, ran around, went to a couple of "private" clubs, got a drink spilled on my shirt and scored a free t-shirt that said "No Beads Necessary." After a long night roaming the streets, we decided to try the Dungeon one more time.

The door was unlocked this time. We crossed through the dingy front, across the moat, into the bar. We walked through, staring at the skulls, debating whether to get something to drink. There are a lot of mirrors on the walls, it's very dark and freaky -- just the kind of place people who like to be scared would hang out. But I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being watched. The hair on my neck, the shiver down my spine, everything in me screamed Get Out Of Here Now. I told hubby we needed to leave. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. And as I left, I heard the odd strains of deep laughter, ringing in  my ears alone.

I'm going back to New Orleans again. I'll stay in the Quarter. But I won't be going back to the Dungeon. Something, someone, evil resides there.

Wine of the Week -- Vampire Merlot   It's quite good.

In the Presence of Genius

A couple of weeks ago, darling hubby took me to see the symphony. It was a wonderful program—Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D major, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, a world premier by Roberto Sierra—but the absolute highlight was Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra. The cellist, a young woman named Elisa Weilerstein, strode on the stage in a purple gown, her flowing brunette locks hanging free around her shoulders. She was stunningly beautiful. She shook the first chair’s hand, nodded her thanks to the audience, arranged herself in front of the Maestro, and dove into the piece. It took no time at all to see we were in the presence of genius.

Weilerstein didn’t play the cello. She became the cello. Her body language, facial expression, the set of her shoulders, all bespoke the story. She plucked the strings with a raw energy, her bow flowing, cutting, ripening the notes, and I literally had to force my mouth closed. The maestro was inspired by her performance, and become more animated himself. The orchestra as a whole came to life, each member hanging on Weilerstein’s every note. 

And we, the audience, were told a story by a genius.

Elisa Weilerstein spoke to me through her music, and in so doing, she garnered a fan for life.

I’ve always likened the symphonic medium to books. There’s a delineated three to four act structure, and the music follows the classic unfolding storylines: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Dénouement. The music build and retreats, ebbs and flows, allowing small bits of foreshadowing for the massive climax, the lingering notes closing the piece in a final dénouement. (Rachmaninoff’s Concerto no. 3 lends itself especially well to the crime fiction storyline.) I am particularly drawn to these compositions; it’s always so lovely to see this structure in action.

What is genius though?

Wikipedia defines it thusly:

A genius (plural genii or geniuses) is a person, a body of work, or a singular achievement of surpassing excellence. More than just originality, creativity, or intelligence, genius is associated with achievement of insight which has transformational power. A work of genius fundamentally alters the expectations of its audience. Genius may be generalized, or be particular to a discrete field such as sports, statesmanship, science or art.

Although difficult to quantify, genius refers to a level of aptitude, capability or achievement which exceeds even that of most other exceptional contemporaries in the same field. The normal distribution suggests that the term might be applied to phenomena ranked in the top .1%, i.e. three standard deviations or greater, among peers. In psychology, the inventor of the first IQ tests, Alfred Binet, applied the term, to the top .1% of those tested. This usage of the term is closely related to the general concept of intelligence. The term may be also applied to someone who is considered gifted in many subjects or in one subject.

 

“A work of genius fundamentally alters the expectations of its audience.”

 

In those terms, we’re all genius, to a point. Everything we do affect those around us. We are our own individual purveyors of chaos theory. Every movement, every breath, every blink ultimately alters the course of reality. The Butterfly Effect, as it’s more commonly known. Again from Wikipedia:

The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in a certain location. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different. While the butterfly does not "cause" the tornado in the sense of providing the energy for the tornado, it does "cause" it in the sense that the flap of its wings is an essential part of the initial conditions resulting in a tornado, and without that flap that particular tornado would not have existed.

We writers and readers are daily participants in chaos theory. Writers put words on the page. A year later, a reader holds the finished novel in their hands and reads those words. Their lives can be inextricably altered by the concepts in our work. Our lives have been changed, because we’ve made a psychic connection with the reader. We’ve told a story, and the reader has absorbed the tale.

But there is a step past all of the psychic entertaining we do, a moment in time when even more magic happens. That moment is the book tour, where we meet the readers whose lives we’ve altered.

There have been many roundups of the most recent Bouchercon these past two weeks. I came away with a sense of pure awe. The numbers were staggering – of authors and of fans. There was a moment on Saturday night, at Lee Child’s annual Reacher’s Creatures party, that I realized the collective conscience of the crime fiction world was present and accounted for in a single, stiflingly close room. I was among the geniuses of our genre, of writing, of our finest creativity. Not everyone was there, of course, but if you had a single copy of every novel published by every author in that room, the numbers would wobble the shelves of a mid-sized town library. I made that comment to Mr. Child, who opined that if you added in all the books we’ve read, the numbers would be astronomical.

I know I'm touched each and every day by the genius that permeates out community.

But being a writing genius isn’t enough. Our livelihoods depend on readers. In these changing times, with digital books making a play for large shares of the market, with major wholesalers discounting their titles to openly take a loss, we need readers, fan, more than anytime before.

Mediums change. That’s the nature of our society. Our cultural conscience, though, will remain strong and vibrant, regardless of whether we’re reading electronically, listening, or holding a hardcopy book. Because our collective genius is captured in those words.

I read a fabulous article recently by Nashville-based author Ann Patchett on touring. I know tours aren't nearly as prevalent as they were, but the article is about more than the physical state of touring, it’s ultimately about the metaphysical connection authors have with readers. Jane Friedman, who developed the modern book tour with Julia Child’s second cooking novel, says to Ann Patchett:

“What hasn’t changed is the connection between the author and the reader. If anything, it’s even stronger. The people who come out to your signings are real…fans.”

And there’s the trick. The folks who come to the conferences, to the readings and signings, are the drivers of the industry. Yes, there are many, many readers who never set foot near an author or conference. But that one fan who puts their hand on your shoulder, who says you’ve touched their heart with your books, can sustain an author for a very long time.

The next time you’re touched by genius, stop for a moment. Appreciate it. Appreciate the phrase that caught your eye, the musical notes that create a melody, the lyrics that speak to your soul, that perfectly shaped fallen leaf. Recognize you’re in the presence of genius, and allow that to spark your own creativity.

Today’s question is self-evident: When was the last time you were touched by genius?

Wine of the Week: Compliments of my parents, who loved the whimsical label - 2007 Michael David Petite Petit

 

My Six Word Memoir

I was featured today at Jen's Book Blog. Jen Forbus is a reader with a creative slant - she's been gathering six-word memoirs from all the crime fiction writers. Here's what she had to say about me:

J.T. Ellison not only calls Nashville, Tennessee home these days, she also sets her Taylor Jackson series there. The tough homicide detective came to life in J.T.'s first novel ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS in 2007 and in February she will release, THE COLD ROOM, book number four in this best-selling, critically acclaimed series. J.T. says she was in the midst of reading John Sandford's Prey series when she decided she wanted to give crime fiction a whirl, and she had definitely taken the thriller genre to a new level.

Before deciding to move into a career in crime fiction, J.T. was a presidential appointee and worked in The White House and the Department of Commerce. Then she moved on to the private sector working as a financial analyst and marketing director for several defense and aerospace contractors. But Nashville seemed to be the turning point. It was after moving to Nashville that she started researching forensics and crime then moved on to researching and working with several law enforcement agencies including the FBI and the Metro Nashville Police Department. And the rest, as they say, is history.

J.T. writes short stories, in addition to her novels. She is one of the Friday bloggers at Murderati and main blogger at her own Tao of JT. And she active in various writing organizations, including International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

With this complex, diverse background is it no wonder her books are constructed with intricate and complex plots? Nashville Scene's 2008 Best Mystery/Thriller Writer puts it altogether with:

Dreamed a plot, wrote it down.

And the crime fiction community is ever so glad that she did!

 

My six word memoir was difficult - not because I couldn't come up with one, but because I couldn't narrow it down to one. So after much thought, I went with my very first thought. Later this week, I'll share some of the other ones.

The full article can be found here: http://bit.ly/4aObyl

Be prepared to stick around for a while and read all the six word memoirs Jen has pulled together, it's an absolutely fascinating exercise.

Empty

 

There are times when nothing comes.

No words. No ideas. Nothing.

This is one of those times.

After four years of blogging, I’ve simply run out of things to say.

But that’s not a choice I can make. Even when there’s nothing floating around in my brain, no pithy comments, no stellar advice, no embarrassing moments to share, I have to write my blog. It’s a commitment I’ve made to you, the reader, to my blog mates, and ultimately, to myself.

So.

I will force the words onto the page, and hope for the best.

Thankfully, I’m not having this problem with the books. Books are fine. Books are groovy. The ideas are flowing non-stop, and so are the words. I’m at that awkward time of year that I’m writing a new book and editing a forthcoming title, which is always hard. It happens every time I’m just getting my legs under me with a story, boom – I have to all stop and go focus on the one prior. This is good and bad.

For starters, I am writing a series, which means the characters, their foibles and triumphs, all build from book to book. It makes life easy because the world is already built, the characters, for the most part, are the same, and I can simply insert them into a new case. But now that I’m six books in, changes are happening. Characters lives are altered.

One of the tricks I was using is coming back to bite me in the ass – setting each book seasonally instead of annually. As a matter of fact, book five begins within a couple of weeks of book four, and book six starts literally a few days after the end of book five. The fifth book takes place over three days. So that’s a lot of Taylor’s world sandwiched into a very short period of time. How much can a character change in three days?

Well, the obvious answer is as much as I want her to. But I’ve always tried to avoid major changes in her life – she is who she is, and if I’m writing her correctly, her reactions are going to be consistent regardless of circumstance. Consistent, in my mind, is good. But is consistent good for the character, the series, the stories?

I guess I don’t have anything to blog about because I am so involved in the decision making process of these two books that it’s taking all of my mental energy.

And of course, now that I’m forcing myself to type, it seems I have a topic after all.

Remember the old tongue twister: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could if a woodchuck could chuck wood.

That’s kind of where I am with my girl. How much change can she sustain and still stay true to her nature? What kind of change is good, and builds the character? What kind of change is too much to handle? If I want to keep moving her story forward, she’s going to have to change, and change significantly.

Meh. I am starting to understand how shortsighted I was way back when I started writing these books. An iconic character is a noble goal, but no matter what you do, they have to change or the series becomes stagnant.

Let’s use our venerable favorite, Jack Reacher, as an example.

In my mind, Reacher is the ultimate series character. He is iconic in every sense of the word. He is a hero. He is consistent. You know what you’re going to get when you pick up a book by Lee Child.

But Reacher is far from predictable, and therein lies the true majesty of an iconic character. One who can alter subtly instead of “CHANGING” is the goal I had in mind. He even tries to change himself, but always ends up back where he started.

John Connolly’s Charlie Parker is another example I draw from when thinking of excellent series character. Parker does change, appreciably, but that change is a dynamic reaction to his circumstance in the opening book, and the rest of his changing is that subtle altering over the course of the series that Reacher does. Every time Parker tries to change, he ends up ruining things, so it’s easier to stay the same. (I’m simplifying this a wee bit, but remember, I’m struggling for cogent thought today, so bear with me.)

Well. I’ve now given myself a lot to think about.

How about you? How do you feel about series characters, and their evolution over time? Do you like drastic change, or something less appreciable? Any examples you could toss into the mix to help me think this through would be great appreciated!

(I’m at Bouchercon this weekend, so forgive me if I’m a bit lackadaisical. I’ll try to get to everyone over the course of the day.)

Wine of the Week: 2008 Tormaresca Neprica Puglia 

 

A Lovely Shout-Out from the Nashville Scene

(From Nashville Scene's Southern Festival of Books coverage, October 7, 2009)

J.T. ELLISON Ellison's hero, Taylor Jackson, is a hard-boiled, soft-shouldered Nashville homicide detective whose foxy description doesn't match anyone within 300 yards of the Central Precinct. Still, Jackson's adventures always have the ring of truth to them—perhaps that's because Ellison counts actual Metro detectives among her collaborators. In Ellison's latest adventure, The Cold Room, Jackson confronts yet another serial killer. (Who knew Music City was such a hotbed of gruesome crime?) This one, known as "The Conductor," starves his victims in a glass coffin before he has his way with them. What Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter does for Miami, Ellison's Jackson novels do for Music City. One of the book's stars is the city itself, which comes across shiny and exciting even amid scenes of cold-blooded horror. 4 p.m. Friday, Room 12; 3 p.m. Saturday, Room 16 PAUL V. GRIFFITH