I think most fiction writers—if not every fiction writer—starts as a reader.
For me, it started when I discovered Nancy Drew around age nine. The books helpfully included a comprehensive list of every published Nancy book in existence and I dutifully checked them off one by one as I read. I also read Bobbsey Twins books, and Cherry Ames, and 50+ books in the Reading Olympics when I was in the 5th grade. Greek mythology was a revelation in 6th grade, age eleven or twelve, followed by The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings, courtesy of my stepfather.
It was while I was in high school that I began reading horror novels. Once I discovered Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat, Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing, and Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, there was no turning back for me.
Over the next several years I buried myself in the escapism of fictional worlds. Including the above, my influences also include Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz, Poppy Z. Brite’s anthologies, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, The Lost Boys and Near Dark movies, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and later, Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, and the dark dreaminess of Miyazaki’s animated films. The monsters and mayhem of these fantasy worlds and tales resonated with me deeply.
I started writing my first novel about a young woman whose mother left when she was young (hello, autobiographical inspiration much?), and who finds that she has some inexplicable magical powers that result in her traveling to a strange world of monsters and magic. I wrote some of the book while taking writing classes at the Gotham Workshop in NYC in the 1990s. I didn’t really know what I was doing but had fun writing dark descriptions and weird scenarios and seeing my classmates’ somewhat horrified reactions to them. That book, The Desiring, never got finished. Maybe I’ll get around to that someday.
When I went for my undergraduate degree at the University of Connecticut, I went with the intent of learning the craft of writing. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a writer. UConn didn’t have a Creative Writing major, so I settled for English, until I was invited to “individualize” my major and wrote up a proposal to do so, including a self-published thesis project. The proposal was given the greenlight, and I stomped on the gas, eager to test drive my skills with classes in poetry, memoir, and fiction writing.
In my junior year, my thesis advisor, best-selling author Wally Lamb, told me he suspected I’d find more success with my creative non-fiction/memoir writing about my turbulent childhood than I would with my genre writing. It was an honest assessment: He wasn’t wrong—at least not then. But I was discouraged; understandably, I think.
Even so, my love for horror deepened as I explored Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, and several Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems, and I began writing horror stories of my own. One involved a roadkill zombie dog and squirrel taunting a boy; in another, a death-obsessed child receives a monstrous birthright on her twelfth birthday; in another unfinished piece, a boy wakes to find he has time-consciousness traveled to become his own father in the 1970s. None of these were particularly good, or well-received, but I kept at it.
In that self-published senior thesis project, I included one story that eventually became the foundation of the first novel I completed: A Mark So Bloody, about a college-aged girl who—after being bitten in a vampiric encounter while studying abroad in London—begins to display vampiric tendencies herself. (That one will be the first in what I believe will be a trilogy, but since only the first book is written, I’m not ready to put it out there. It took me years. Years! Maybe twelve, to complete that novel.)
And then that brings us to my journey with the Madison Roberts books. Madison was created for a horror roleplaying game with a small group of friends in October 2007.
Because I loved the Jason Bourne series and the movie The Long Kiss Goodnight, in both of which the protagonist has amnesia, I wanted to explore that: the idea of someone building their personality from the ground up. I kept wondering how much of any person’s personality is nature vs. nurture? Are we merely the sum of our experiences, or is there more to it?
The storyteller of that horror game, my now-husband, then-boyfriend Sam Garrett, frappéed my favorite genre tropes involving hauntings, supernatural boyfriends and [spoilers redacted!] and off we went, with me playing detective into Madison’s past.
I was totally, utterly addicted to the storyline. Once the original game/story ended, I begged Sam to continue the Madison story just with me, one-on-one storytelling together. Occasionally there were missteps, errors or plot lines that didn’t quite work that we’d ret-con and start over. But the more we told those stories together, the more convinced I became that I wanted to share Madison’s story with others, and started writing myself notes about her adventures.
I began writing the first novel of her solo adventures in 2010, which had been given the working title of Ghosts of the Past. I finished my first draft in the summer of 2013 and I shared it with a few friends, continuing to tweak various scenes and sentences based on their commentary. It would be nearly another year before I felt confident enough to share it with a couple of friends in the publishing industry. Their response? “It’s not quite done.” I was crushed. (I’m sensitive, what can I say? Receiving criticism is not my strong suit. I’m working on that.)
But six months later I was back at the keyboard making more changes, adding and deleting scenes.
The next draft of the book was done-ish the summer of 2014, but I was still struggling with the first chapter. I knew from my teaching fiction writing that E.B. White, who wrote Charlotte’s Web, had drafted at least ten very different openings. So I kept playing with different first sentences, different descriptions and openings. Every so often a friend would ask me about how my writing was going and I might ask them to give it a read. But it still wasn’t quite right.
Then in 2016, Sam and I moved to Central Texas. In spring of 2017 I attended a presentation on Writing Interesting Characters with indie author Anna Castle at a local library. I asked all kinds of questions during the presentation and afterward, spoke with Anna a little bit. Her first comment, “You’re a writer, aren’t you? I could tell by your questions…” filled me with warm fuzzies. We talked about indie publishing some and she asked me about the genre I was writing. I told her something along the lines of paranormal adventure with a bit of romance. Her response? “Oh, just jump!” She described the paranormal audience as “whale readers” who hoover up novels like whales inhaling krill. “Just jump. I really think you’ll like the experience,” she said. I thanked her for her time and giving me something to think about and that was that.
A few months later, after seriously bingeing nine seasons of Forensic Files on Netflix, I wrote the prologue for book one, Tamara Meadows’ murder scene.
In November 2017 I took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and wrote the first draft of Book 2 in the Madison series, working title All You Zombies, in twenty-nine days.
Oh! I said to myself. That’s how you write a book! That’s how you end chapters and sections! This is how it’s done!
Having finished a second book with the same character and found my writer’s groove, so to speak, I returned to revision of book one. And I found a little bit of encouragement and self-esteem when new friends in the Austin area (my amazing beta readers) who told me they enjoyed reading my latest drafts of books 1 & 2 and were eager for more.
In the spring of 2018, I attended a four-class Self-Publishing 101 workshop at a local library, once again taught by indie author Anna Castle. She was straightforward and encouraging and offered enough information for an unpublished novelist like myself to make some decisions about how to proceed: ebook and/or print, Amazon and/or others, how to narrow my publishing goals, and more.
I was, however, still fearful about failure. About what? Negative reviews and reactions and comments that would prove to the mean voice in my head that kept nagging at me, telling me my writing wasn’t good enough, that this escapist genre writing wasn’t worthy of praise, that it was just so-so.
Somehow, through the kindness and support of my amazing friends, and an even more amazing and supportive husband, I managed to overcome my fears enough to hire both a cover illustrator and an editor in 2019. It was at this point that my editor, who’d read multiple drafts of the book, finally admitted that he’d never liked the title Ghosts of the Past, and I came up with A Shade in the Mirror instead. The book’s formal release date was the same date as the one on which Madison awoke on a Manhattan street corner: October 13th.
Book 2 in the series, retitled Into the Dark Market, will be out in April 2020.
If you have gotten this far in this essay, thanks for reading and your support! I feel like there should be some kind of cool wrap-up summary paragraph here at the end, but methinks you have read enough of this nonsense and should get back to reading fun things. Cheers!