Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Good Scare for a Great Cause

Earlier this month, SerialSleuths, Volume 1: Haunted hit the Kindle shelves. The brainchild of Jen Blood, author of the Erin Solomon mysteries, this short story collection features five indie writers and their series detectives, myself included:

“Death of a Sad Face” by SusanRusso Anderson

Nineteenth-century Sicilian midwife Serafina Florio defies the local inspector by setting out to prove a connection between a missing orphan haunted by a hideous specter and the murder of an affluent family’s butler.

“Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” by DVBerkom

In northern Arizona’s Navajo country, on-the-run heroine Kate Jones lands in trouble once again when she stumbles into the world of mysterious sorcerers called Skinwalkers.

“The Stone House” by Jen Blood

Reporter Daniel Diggins finds himself stranded overnight with nineteen-year-old protégé Erin Solomon while investigating a two hundred-year-old mass murder in a haunted mansion in Maine.

“The Ghosts’ High Noon” by JoanneSydney Lessner

Enterprising actress Isobel Spice faces down a theater ghost to learn the truth behind an actor’s mysterious death during a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s gothic operetta Ruddigore.

“Ode to Willie Joe” by Wayne Zurl

When multiple UFO sightings are reported around town, it’s up to wry and ever-reasonable Tennessee police chief Sam Jenkins to get to the bottom of the mystery.


Instead of battling a calculator to split the royalties five ways, Jen suggested we donate the proceeds from the $1.99 e-book to charity. We enthusiastically agreed and selected Doctors Without Borders as our beneficiary. On the eve of publication, I sat down (virtually) with my colleagues to discuss the genesis of our collaboration and its charitable bent.

What gave you the idea for the anthology?

Jen: I started thinking about all these authors out there with characters I love, and how much fun it would be to see those characters in a shorter form that might reach beyond the pure mystery/thriller structure. Once I started thinking about the possibilities—ghost stories, romance, holiday themes—I realized it could be something truly fun to play around with. I didn’t see anyone else doing anything like it, so I decided to make it happen myself.  

How did you solicit stories for Haunted?

Jen: I hand-picked the contributors for this one based on books I’d read by the authors and interviews I’d done with them on my website, BloodWrites. I’ve been so impressed with their professionalism, and this is a wonderful way to showcase their work in a new venue. To me, these short stories exemplify not only the tremendous writing talent of everyone involved, but also the fabulous characters who carry their respective series.

What did you find challenging, different, fun or tedious about working in a short form?

Wayne: The challenge for me came with the paranormal “haunted” theme. I’ve written fifteen Sam Jenkins mystery novelettes, so presenting a short police story is nothing new. But I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how I could take a problem generally referred to the police and give it an “otherworldly” tint. I’m not much of a sci-fi or horror guy, so I asked my wife for help. She gave me the basic idea for that potentially unexplained, spooky ingredient.

Susan: I try to limit the mystery to one murder, but also have my characters grow. Serafina’s got to grow along her trajectory, which is pretty easy because (don’t tell her I said this) she’s got issues, but the other characters need to grow, too. I had a plot in mind, a first and a last scene pretty well thought out, and the characters just worked mighty hard and wrote the in-between stuff for me: it was their growth that created the plot.

Joanne: I had to decide which of my secondary characters to include. Isobel is an office temp as well as an actress, but there’s no reason for James, her temp agent and my other POV character, to accompany her on a theater gig. Since she’s doing an operetta, it made the most sense for her tenor friend Sunil to go, so that’s who packed his suitcase.

DV: I love writing a series character (I must, since I'm deep into a second series J). Getting to know their foibles and strengths, knowing their personalities so well, their stories practically write themselves.

Jen: The hardest part was figuring out at which point in the series the story should take place to make it interesting for both the readers who know Erin’s story and those just being introduced to the characters. Initially, I wrote the short as having taken place after the second novel in the series, but realized that was just completely the wrong way to bring people into Erin’s life. The most fun part by far was exploring different facets of the characters’ relationship and playing with a new writing form. 

How did you get the idea for your story?

DV: A few years back while on a lone cross-country trip, I stopped on the side of the road in Monument Valley intending to sleep in my car so I could wake up before sunrise and shoot some photos (I was an itinerant photographer back then). I had an intense experience that night, involving what I learned later was a Skinwalker, and have never forgotten how frightening and deliciously intriguing the whole thing was.

Wayne: When you work as a cop for twenty years in an overcrowded and always busy area, you encounter plenty of weird people and strange incidents. I knew a real character like Willie Joe Ballantyne. And getting complaints that sounded like an episode of the Twilight Zone happened all the time. In this case, I coupled three real incidents together and added an element native to the Smoky Mountains—and voilà.

Jen: The story is based on a mass murder that happened in Maine in 1806, so a lot of the details are true: a father went after his family one night and murdered seven of his eight children and his wife, then killed himself with a straight razor. I know—gruesome. From there I looked at ways to make the story resonate more with Erin, who is still coming to terms with an alleged cult suicide. I altered the details of the true crime a bit and changed the setting to include Freeport Maine’s Stone House, a gorgeous estate where the University of Southern Maine holds its workshops and readings for their Creative Writing MFA. I love that place, so it was great fun imagining being back there in this very creepy situation.

Joanne: I was already planning to use the famous ghost scene in Ruddigore as a springboard for the fourth book in my series, but I couldn’t resist trotting it out when Jen asked. I’m not sure whether I’ll let it stand or spin out the idea into a novel—with a different ending, of course.

Susan: I had my characters in mind, especially Teo who is new to the series. He is haunted for many different reasons and needs to work out his pain. I happened to be thinking about Mahler, and how a circus sound runs through much of his music—I love the image of life as a circus.

Have you ever had a ghostly/paranormal experience?

Joanne: The experience Isobel has seeing a person sitting on the edge of the stage actually happened to me. I was singing a solo in a Sondheim revue Off Broadway at the Harold Clurman Theater, and there was a man watching me. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him head on, but I was really annoyed when I came offstage. There was no one there, of course, but later the theater manager asked, without my having mentioned it, “Was he wearing a brown plaid shirt?” When I said yes, he told me it was the ghost of a director who’d worked there a lot, who had been sighted by other actors before me. I just hope he liked my singing!

Jen: My family has a long history of close encounters, particularly at my grandparents’ old house. Rocking chairs would spontaneously start rocking in the night, household items would mysteriously migrate from one place to another, and occasionally you’d even see a shadowy figure holding a candle roaming the halls. Lots of creepiness.

Susan: I believe those who have gone before us walk the earth, and most of the time we’re just too stupid to see them. But there have been desolate moments in my life where they’ve reached out and revealed themselves, and it has been a phenomenally healing moment. One of my favorite places is New York’s Lower East Side. The streets and the tenements are totally haunted. I love to think of the people who lived there, the overcrowding, their general feeling of dislocation, but also their guts, all of them still giving to us with their striving and their energy and their wisdom.

DV: The aforementioned experience in Monument Valley. Totally freaky.

Wayne: I’ve met quite a few people who I thought might have come from outer space, but, no, not in the traditional sense.

What are your thoughts about donating the proceeds to charity?

Susan: To make a story and, in a sense, to give it to people so that it goes to work for them—it’s far more personal than just sending money.

DV: I've always been as much of a philanthropist as my pocketbook would allow. This is a fantastic way to draw attention to and support a valuable resource, with the added benefit of introducing new readers to my work and the work of the other authors. I think the idea is brilliant and may be a trend in indie publishing—thanks to Jen.

Wayne: I’m happy to let my ego reap the figurative proceeds by seeing another Sam Jenkins mystery in print and sending the cash to a good charity. After I had a few novelettes under my belt and before my first novel was published, I donated one quarter’s royalty check to The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund when they were building a monument in Washington DC to police officers and federal agents killed in the line of duty. I’ve got a few pension checks coming in each month; I can afford to give something to someone who needs a little help.

Joanne: I perform with an amazing theater group, the Blue Hill Troupe, which has an 89-year history of donating its net proceeds to New York City charities. We produce a musical and a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta every year, so for me, making art to make a difference is a happily familiar experience.

Jen: I love the fact that all of these authors have come together to donate to a good cause, and Doctors Without Borders is such an amazing organization that I’m thrilled to do whatever I can to chip in.

How has it been collaborating with other writers in your genre?

Jen: The collaboration aspect of this was such a lot of fun. Writing is generally such a solitary practice that it was nice to connect with these authors in a new way and make the process more of a group effort for a change.

Joanne: Everybody has been very generous and open, and really, there’s no better vote of confidence than being welcomed into a project by your peers.

DV: I enjoyed the process immensely and am looking forward to submitting work to be considered for the next anthology. It was great fun, and everyone's input helped make the project better.

Susan: It’s really wonderful, and working on a single theme is close to writing a story together. I think the amazing grace of social networking is the ability to meet my colleagues from all over the world. This project takes networking into new territory.

Wayne: I’m in the company of four beautiful women, what’s not to like? And they all write extremely well. So I’m looking forward to reading their contributions to this anthology. But since this is an e-book, I’d better get out there and buy a Kindle.

What's next for Serial Sleuths?

Jen: I’m already accepting submissions for the next volume, a collection of romantic shorts for the Valentine’s Day season due out in February. Right now I’m working to determine which non-profit will benefit from sales. 100% of net proceeds from every volume of Serial Sleuths will be donated to a different organization. Those interested in submitting a story can find guidelines at The deadline is December 15, 2012.