The Lighter Side of Writing “Dark”

June 30, 2019

Call me whatever you like; I am who I must be. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

I’ve never been a perfect writer. Far from it. I’ve never had legitimate training in the field. But I knew I loved the craft, and I loved being graded on essays in school. Even after my ninth-grade English teacher pointed out an embarrassing mistake I’d made in my essay about a jellyfish encounter, where I said I’d been stung by a dozen testicles, instead of tentacles, I still didn’t throw in the towel. I would write a book one day. I was sure of that. I just didn’t know when or in what genre. The answers came in 2000, when I decided to write about true local ghost stories, after stumbling upon some old newspaper articles regarding haunted places at my local museum. It was like an epiphany! Who knew that in my early thirties—with a full-time ‘traditional’ job and four children from six months old to fourteen—I would suddenly be reminded of my calling? I left the museum that day, like a hypnosis subject prompted into action by a trigger phrase.

Writing regional non-fiction allowed me to research local history, crimes, and all things strange and unusual. I was in my glory! I had been primed from the time I was a toddler to believe in, and even experience, the unseen. It’s part of who I am. It’s why I prefer to think outside of the box, where possibilities are endless. Oh, I had doubters about that first book, believe me. Some didn’t think anyone would want to read such utter nonsense. This was 2000, after all. Hit shows like Ghost Hunters, Paranormal State, and Supernatural had not yet been created. But for once in my life, I didn’t care what anyone else thought about the idea. I set my mind to it, and nothing could dissuade me; not even the naysayers. Especially not them. Doubters only encouraged me to prove them wrong. I would go so far as to say that the world needs more doubters, so we can fire up all the “provers.”

I was able to demonstrate to my daughters that they could also accomplish anything they desired, no matter who told them otherwise or what stood in their way. I wanted them, while they were still young and impressionable, to see their mom kicking a** and accomplishing something many doubted I could. And I did it with gusto. Yet, while writing seemed like a perfect pastime for an introvert like me, I hadn’t considered that part of the package involved putting myself out there for public consumption, which could, at times, be intimidating, frightening, funny, surreal, and just plain bizarre.

There was the time, for example, when my daughter’s friend was waiting on a table at a restaurant and overheard some girls discussing my Haunted Northern New York series. Then one of the girls in the same grade as my daughter told her friends that I was her real mother and that I had given her up for adoption in 1988. Wait, what? I’m pretty sure I would have remembered having two babies that year!

There are times when you have to bite the bullet and swallow your pride. In 2004 or 2005, I was hired to speak at a large annual convention of sorority sisters in Saratoga Springs. I had done similar events, but on a smaller scale. This one was unique, however, because I was to speak before a room of 300 women in their pajamas, sipping cocktails at midnight. And I was to wear my own PJs at the podium. So there I was, standing in the only light of an otherwise darkened room, rocking my Tweety bird flannels my mother had given me and doing my best ghost-stories-around-the-campfire impression. With all those eyes focused on me expectantly, I read several of my scariest bedtime ghost stories over the microphone, showed some chilling ghost photographs on the screen behind me, answered questions, signed books, and called it a day.

Writing about true crime had its lighter moments, too. Certainly not about the horrible crimes themselves. But some of the awkward moments I got myself into were kind of funny in hindsight. There was the time I had a very large poster created to use at a book signing for Murder & Mayhem in St. Lawrence County. It was 36 x 48 inches and showed the front cover of the book, along with a quote on the back cover in huge letters that said, “You can come in now. I have killed her.” This was something an Ogdensburg man said over a hundred years ago, after murdering his wife and then inviting the constable into the house to arrest him. The poster was mounted on corrugated cardboard and was lying in the back seat of my car, which my husband had to take to work one day. As fate would have it, the one day he needed my car was the day a random road block was set up by State Police to check registrations, tires, etc. My husband pulled up to them, and a trooper came to the car, looked in the back seat, and read the poster out loud, very slowly and seriously:  You…can…come…in…now… I…have…killed…her.  Then he looked back at my husband, who said, “I know this looks bad, but it’s for my wife’s signing!” As only policemen can do, the officer kept a straight face and motioned for him to go on.

Another time I was at a book signing in the Rochester area for my book, Alphabet Killer: The True Story of the Double Initial Murders, and a state police investigator was undercover, lurking behind the ends of aisles within eye-shot of me, pretending to be flipping through books. A combative character had approached and questioned me at a previous book signing in the area, and the investigator thought it would be prudent to keep an eye on the next couple signings in case the guy showed up again. He didn’t, but a lady had some information she thought might be helpful to the unsolved cases, and I inadvertently looked over toward the trooper and started pointing him out to her but stopped short when I saw him shaking his head (I wasn’t supposed to give him away). For the same book, but at a different signing, a number of first responders and investigators involved in the actual investigations from the 1970s showed up and chatted with me. When they noticed a long list of names at the end of the book where I acknowledged people who were involved in the investigations, they gathered around and ran their fingers down the list looking for their names, chuckling as they found them. There it is! There it is!

There’s so much more I could say about writing what I write and about funny things that happen along the way, but I’ll leave any aspiring authors with this thought for now: When you believe in what you are saying, and you feel that you have a message to convey that may be useful to someone, be prepared to step outside of your comfort zone and into the limelight, if only for a moment. The more you face your fear, the less its grip on you. And before you know it, you’re confident enough to speak before an audience of 300 in your Tweety bird pajamas or sign books under the watchful eye of undercover cops hoping to catch a killer!