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Archive for October, 2007

cat-full-moon1.jpgHalloween is not only a colourful night of fun, frights, sweets and costumes. It is a full-blown industry, with more than $14 billion spent each year on costumes, decorations, party supplies, candy and other paraphernalia.

How did it all get started?

The origins of Halloween are quite dark, and go all the way back to 2,000 years ago, to the Celtic Celebration of the Dead, or Samhain (Sah-ween), in what is now Ireland, the UK, and Northern France. The Celtic Festival took place each year on the eve of November first, which marked the end of summer and harvest season, and the beginning of their New Year and winter, a time associated with cold and death. Samhain festivities lasted for a couple of days, until about November 2nd.

The Celts believed that on October 31st, the last day of summer and New Year’s Eve, the boundaries between the living and the dead became blurred and thin, and spirits, both good and evil, roamed about on the streets and countryside and did as they wished. The Celts were especially frightened by the prospect of these evil souls harming the crops.

On this night, Celtic priests called Druids dressed in animal masks and skins and performed sacrifices to placate the gods and “ward off” spirits. Bonfires represented the sun, the power to fight dark forces. The Druids lit huge bonfires and burned animals, crops, and sometimes even humans. In fact, the word “bonfire” comes from “bonefire,” literally! (It’s interesting to note that the practice of burning humans continued as late as the 1600s).

Besides the Druids, people also performed their little “rituals.” To ward off spirits, they carved turnips and lit them with embers. To “fool” them, they wore animal masks or scary disguises. To placate them, they left fruits and nuts at their doorstep as a gift or offering, thus preventing future bad crops. This is the origin of “Trick or Treat.”

Around the 7th Century the Celebration of the Dead spread to Europe, but it became known as “All Hollows Eve,” or “Night of the Dead.” In parts of Britain and Ireland it also became known as “Mischief Night.”

Around the 800s the Christians moved to the Celtic lands and tried to eradicate all pagan beliefs and celebrations. In an attempt to placate the Celts, Pope Boniface IV designated November first as All Saints Day as an attempt to replace the pagan “All Hollows Eve.” Thus he “transformed” the Celebration of the Dead into a Christian holy day.

It is believed that later the Irish brought the tradition of carving turnips to America. However, they soon found out that there weren’t as many turnips there, and that pumpkins were a lot bigger and better to carve scary faces on.

Eventually “All Hollows Eve” came to be known as Halloween.

The traditional Halloween symbols we know today, like witches, black cats, ghosts, pumpkins and candles appeared in the US around the 1800s. Entrepreneur minds no doubt realized the marketing potential. The whole concept of Halloween gradually became commercialized.

Today, in spite of its dark origins and although some religious people consider it an “evil” festival, Halloween is mostly regarded as a spooky yet harmless, fun, family celebration.

©2005, 2007. Mayra Calvani / All Rights Reserved. This column may not be copied nor printed in any form without permission from the author.

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Mortal Touch
By Inanna Arthen
By Light Unseen Media
www.bylightunseenmedia.com
ISBN: 978 0 9793028 0 0
Copyright 2007
Trade Paperback, $16.95, 368 pages
General Fiction, Paranormal/Vampire
Book I in The Vampires of New England Series

Vampires must be the ultimate die-heard creatures of all supernatural fiction genres. No matter how many vampires novels are published, more keep coming, and even though we hear that publishers are tired of them, the books keep getting published. Could it be that readers can’t have enough of these bloodthirsty fiends—either as vicious monsters or beautiful, sophisticated beings trapped in the darkness of their natures? Whether it’s kids, young adults or adults, people seem to love them.

I dislike gory novels where vampires are portrayed as demons from hell, as well as romance novels where they’re overly sugar coated. The type of vampire fiction I enjoy would fall more under ‘general fiction’, as in the type of Anne Rice’s works, where the creatures are pictured as real-life beings with a certain degree of education and sophistication, but still be the trapped, tortured souls who fall somewhere between good and evil. This type of fiction, though having elements of horror, doesn’t fall under the horror category. A closer description would be general fiction with elements of the paranormal or magic realism.

Having read so many vampire novels as I have, it is seldom that I find one that surprises me or that strays enough from the vampire conventions to appear original, and this is why I was pleasantly surprised to read Mortal Touch, by Inanna Arthen, published by By Light Unseen Media, a new press which solely focuses on serious vampire fiction and nonfiction.

For sure, Mortal Touch doesn’t follow the general vampire rules and conventions—for one thing, Arthen’s vampires don’t even have fangs. But without giving more away about the nature of Arthen’s immortal creatures (I’ll leave the pleasure of finding that out as you read the book), let’s go into some of the plot:

The protagonist, Regan Calloway, is a psychic who runs a little antique shop in a small town in New England. She has worked with the authorities as a psychic consultant before but now lives a pretty lonely, secluded life, mainly because of the trauma of past experiences when she dealt with murders and serial killers. Regan can ‘see’ and ‘feel’ things when she touches objects that have belong to either the victim or killer. Now, a new series of strange assaults is capturing the people’s attention and has the press and the police in turmoil. Dr. Hiram Clauson, an old friend and colleague she used to work with during her past involvements with the police, calls her and asks her to help him interview the victims. At the same time, a mysterious so-called writer named Jonathan Vaughn has moved into the town and Regan’s beautiful yet mentally unstable best friend Veronica seems to be falling for him. Jonathan seems very reclusive and aloof and Veronica asks Regan to meet him in order to learn more about him with her psychic powers.

But to go back to the strange assaults, Regan agrees to help. The victims show very little recollection of the attack, as if their minds were wiped out, plus, they seem to be missing a lot of blood and sport ugly-looking scars on their necks. Later, when she finally meets Jonathan and ‘touches’ him, she’s startled by the realization that he’s connected to the strange crimes which have been haunting the surrounding area. Is he the attacker? What is his nature? Later on, the situation gets more complicated as Regan and Jonathan begins to be attracted to each other and Veronica gets paranoid and suicidal as her obsession with Jonathan gets out of control. This creates a sort of destructive triangle between them.

This is an unusual vampire novel in that the characters are not romantized in any way and are portrayed in a realistic manner. Unlike most heroines from your regular vampire novels, Regan is neither particularly young nor beautiful. The same can be said for Jonathan. One thing that put me off, and this is a matter of personal taste, is that Rowan swears a lot, and for some reason I couldn’t associate that to her demure, psychic, antique shop persona. Jonathan is appealing and interesting and his charisma comes through the pages in spite of him being your everyday, nice guy who happens to be a vampire. The setting does offer a lot of atmosphere and Arthen is successful in creating the perfect ambiance for the mysterious New England town, with its picturesque antique shops and long dark roads surrounded by woods.

Though the story is interesting and intriguing, at times I found it a bit slow with some superfluous dialogue of things which are already known to the reader but are being reiterated; something that the tiny print seems to amplify. Taking aside these negative minor points, this is a work that is well written and that at times gets quite suspenseful and horrific. There is a scene where Veronica is trapped in a dungeon-like cellar that made my skin crawl. Also, Veronica’s unstable manic behavior is drawn especially well.

Mortal Touch is definitely a novel vampire fiction aficionados will want to add to their collection. This is not a novel to be gobbled overnight, though, but one to savor slowly and patiently, so if you like your fiction with a lot of details and a lot of meat in it, this is the book for you. I certainly will keep my eye on this author and this press, and hope to review more of their titles in the future.

Reviewed by Mayra Calvani

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Interview with Kelly Gascoine, The Witch House
Interview by Mayra Calvani

I understand The Witch House is the only historic home with direct ties to the witch trials of 1692. Could you elaborate? In fact, the Witch House is not just the only historic home, it is the only structure in Salem with direct ties to the witchcraft trials of 1692. The Witch House derives its connection with the witchcraft trials from the 17th century residents of the house, the Corwin family. Jonathan Corwin purchases the house in 1675 and was living here with his family in 1692. Jonathan Corwin was a magistrate in Salem and was one of nine judges presiding over the witch trials.
Other buildings in Salem involved with the trials did not survive into the 21st century, leaving behind the Witch House to carry the legacy of 1692. Plaques scattered around downtown Salem mark their original locations.
While the Witch House is the only site in Salem, there are several sites in nearby Danvers with connections to the trials. In 1692, the present day town of Danvers was Salem Village where the witch hysteria actually started.

We hear ‘witch’ all the time, but what is the actual origin and definition of the word?
Definitions of “witch” have changed over time. Puritans in the 17th century defined a witch as a man or a woman who had made a pact with the devil to do his evil deeds. They signed his black book, did his bidding, and in exchange received supernatural powers. This is the only concept of a “witch” that applies to the Witch House since we focus on Puritan life.

The mass hysteria seems to have started with a mysterious witch who cast a spell in Salem, as well as with two young girls. Who was this witch? What happened to these girls?

Actually, the myth that a coven of witches existed in 1692 or that spells were cast has been disproved by historians who have examined this area of history ( specifically Rosenthal and Norton). According to their research, there is no contemporary evidence that anyone, including Tituba, was practising magic and/or witchcraft prior to the hysteria. The mysterious witch may have been a later invention.

There were two girls, however, who were afflicted with hysteria fits, Abigail William and Elizabeth (Betty) Parris. Family members and doctors could find no physical reason for their affliction and assumed a more diabolical origin for their illness. Under pressure from adults to admit who was tormenting them and causing their fits and convulsions, the girls named Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne as witches. Soon, other young girls started to have similar fits, and this group became the core circle of accusers during the witchcraft trials.
Elizabeth Parris was removed from the Parris household early in 1692 and sent away to a relative to get better. She played no further role in the witchcraft trials. Abigail Williams was one member of the circle who accused people of witchcraft and was present at the trials. Betty Parris married, had five children, and died in 1760. Abigail Williams’ story after 1692 is lost to history. No mention is made of her past the trials. Some have speculated that she died, unmarried.
It is important to note that the actions of these two girls, Betty and Abigail, did not cause the witchcraft trials. They were part of a larger picture, the pieces of which were all necessary for the events of 1692 to take place.

Many innocent women were persecuted and killed during the witch hunt. Please give us a little historical background to understand the ‘mind’ of the people at that time and how the mass hysteria escalated to such a level?
Historians have spend their professional careers trying to decipher the mindset of the Massachusetts Bay colonists and understand how events could have escalated so much. One of then enduring mysteries of the trials, and something that many have struggled to understand, is how people could have allowed such events to occur. I would suggest several publications that can give a much more comprehensive answer than I could, specifically Boyer and Nissenbaum’s book Salem Possessed. It is important to understand that there really is no one short, easy answer to this question, just many different theories.

What ‘symptoms’ would have made a person a suspect of being a witch?
People were suspected of witchcraft for many reasons during the hysteria of 1692. There really was no set list of ‘symptoms’ that labelled a person a witch.
Some of the accused were the children of suspected witches, and they carried the taint of their parent’s reputation. When accusations began in 1692, the community remembered and accused the children of suspected witches of being witches themselves. People on the outskirts of acceptable society were also accused of witchcraft. Sarah Osborne had overstepped the bounds of acceptable society when she took her servant for her second husband.
Others were suspected of witchcraft or malefic acts by the rest of the community. For example, one woman had an argument with a neighbor about the neighbor’s pigs that had gotten into her garden. A few months later, the neighbor died. Three years after that, this woman was suspected of witchcraft and of killing that man through her witchcraft.
Other accused witches were involved in land disputes or other disagreements with members of the Salem community. Some historians believe that the witchcraft accusations grew out of long standing disputes within and between Salem Village and Salem Town. These include land disputes, political difficulties, and clan divisions. During the Salem witchcraft trials, many prominent and upstanding citizens were accused of witchcraft as well. This may reflect discontent over social and economic differences.

How would the authorities ‘prove’ the guilt of the suspects? What are ‘witch’s pins’?
The Court established to try suspected witches looked for a variety of evidence to prove that a suspected witch was actually guilty of witchcraft. One method was to look for a witches’ mark. This was believed to be an unusual marking on a suspected witches’ body that she used to feed her familiar, or spirit creature, with. Another form of accepted evidence were accounts of maleficence by the accused whereby the accused was said to by responsible for injuries done to persons or property. Spectral evidence, perhaps the most infamous form of accepted evidence, was when an accuser stated that the accused witch was sending her spirit out to torment community members. Spectral evidence was controversial, and not universally accepted, and other forms of evidence were needed to convict a suspected witch.
Many people did confess to witchcraft.
I have never heard of witch’s pins.

Were men also accused of witchcraft?
Yes, men were also accused of witchcraft in 1692. 5 of the 19 people executed for witchcraft were men, and many more were accused of witchcraft.

Are the transcripts of the actual trials open to the public?
Documents from 1692 are housed in the Philips Library, part of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. The library is open to the public. Transcripts from the trials themselves have not survived until today. All we have left are transcripts from preliminary examinations, personal accounts of the trials, diaries, and letters from 1692. Documents are also available online at the University of Virginia’s website: http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/.

Of course, Salem is now known as the ‘witch city.’ Do you have many visitors every year? Are there any special Halloween events?
20,000 people a year visit the Witch House for our house tours and other public programs. We do have special Halloween events. Haunted City: Tales at the Witch House is an annual October celebration of the macabre in Salem’s history. Haunted City continues a nineteen year tradition of storytelling, featuring costumed actors, startling new storeis, and authentic settigns. The successor to the Peabody-Essex Museum’s discontinued Eerie Event, this unique six-night program makes use of the 300-year-old Witch House to provide a historic and eerie backdrop for three original tales. Each year costumed actors perform in the kitchen, bedroom, and parlor of this 17th century mansion, once the home of Witchcraft Trials judge Jonathan Corwin.
This Halloween season, during the weekend days we will host children’s activities that take place on the front lawn.

What does The Witch House offers its visitors?
The Witch House offers a unique experience to visitors. We are the only site in Salem with a direct connection to the witch trials of 1692. As the home of one of the judges of the witchcraft trials, we combine information about colonial daily life, architecture, and Judge Jonathan Corwin’s role in the trials to create an authentic and historically accurate tour. Throughout the year, we also offer fun, educational programs for local and visiting children, lectures aimed at adults, reenactment groups, and Haunted City in October.

Is The Witch House open to horror authors for book signings? If yes, what is the best way to get in contact with you, and how much time in advance of the event?
No.

Do you think what happened in the past still has an influence on the people of Salem? In what way? Are people there particularly superstitious?
The events of 1692 have had a lasting impact on the Salem community. The town was still coping with the trials well into the eighteenth century. In 1957 the state of Massachusetts formally apologised for the events of 1692. In 1992, on the 300th anniversary of the trials, a memorial was dedicated in Salem. Today, a thriving tourist industry rests on the events of 1692.
People in Salem are not particularly superstitious, no more than any other average American. However, there is a sizeable Wiccan community in Salem.

How do you think the incident with those two young girls would have been handled now?
Belief in witches and witchcraft has changed significantly since 1692. Since those trials, Europe has undergone the Enlightenment. Today, many look for rational explanations of events. Today, people might look for a scientific explanation for strange or unknown events and not consider witchcraft.

Thank you, Kelly!

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Judgement Fire
By Marilyn Meredith
Mundania Press
ISBN: 1-59426-484-8
Copyright 2007
Trade Paperback, 140 pages, $10.00

Judgement Fire is a sharp little mystery that will keep readers guessing until the end for the culprits.

In the small town of Bear Creek, a mountain community in the southern Sierra, a battered woman is murdered. Is the killer her abusive husband? Or maybe her own son, who publicly claimed he hated her?
Or perhaps her nosy and suspicious-looking neighbor, who supposedly used to be the woman’s high-school ‘enemy’? Or was the whole thing a mistake, and it was her husband the meant target?

As Tempe Crabtree, a young and level-headed police officer with a long black tress down her back, sets out to hunt the killer, she is simultaneously drawn back to her own origins and Native American heritage and uses her roots as a way to help her memory and find the killer.

The prose is crystal clear and the author doesn’t waste time with unnecessary internal dialogues or descriptions. No word is wasted; there’s no clutter, no melodrama. The pace moves quickly and the ‘spiritual’ segments don’t slow down the story. On the contrary, I found that they make the protagonist quite unique. This is a short, enjoyable novel and one that I gobbled up overnight. This is the latest Tempe Crabtree mystery from award-winning author Marilyn Meredith.

–Mayra Calvani

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What was your inspiration for your first novel, Ghost Road Blues? What’s it about?

It got started in a couple of different ways. My grandmother (who died in 1978 at 101) told me as a boy about the myths and legends –or as she called them ‘beliefs’ of the supernatural. I grew up knowing a fair bit about the folklore of supernatural and occult beliefs, and while writing several nonfiction books on the subject I got the idea for a novel in which the characters encounter the supernatural as it appears in folklore, which is substantially different from the way it is most often portrayed in popular fiction and film.
Ghost Road Blues deals with a small Pennsylvania town whose industry & tourism is built on its long-standing haunted history. They have Hayrides and a huge Halloween Festival…but they discover that the town is far more haunted than they think, and that turns out not to be a good thing for the residents or tourists.
It’s the first book of a trilogy, informally known as the Pine Deep Trilogy. The series continues with Dead Man’s Song and will conclude with Bad Moon Rising in June of 2008.

For most writers, having their first book published by a big NY publisher is a dream come true. How did this come about? Did you initially find an agent?

Ghost Road Blues is my first novel, but not my first book. I’ve been a nonfiction author for thirty years. I’ve written over a thousand magazine articles, plays, short stories…the works. I served as my own agent for selling the nonfiction books –and this is not something I recommend. My first books were textbooks I wrote for a number of college courses at Temple University (Judo, Self-Defense for Women, Introduction to Asian Martial Arts, etc.). Then I did some martial arts books for a small press. When I decided to try my hand at fiction –which was totally new territory for me—I decided to look for an agent.
I made a wish-list of the agents who worked with the authors I most admired, particularly those writing in the same genre where I wanted Ghost Road Blues placed. I wrote a heck of a query letter and approached the top agents I could find. When I got go-aheads to submit my book, I gave each some time to read the material and then I invited them out to lunch, one at a time. I like face-to-face book pitching, and over lunch we talked about my book, other books I wanted to write, and about the book world.
From those encounters I was able to choose from a couple of agents who offered to represent me. I believe I made the best choice for me. My agent, Sara Crowe of the Harvey Klinger Agency (formerly of Trident Media Group) has sold eleven books for me since April 2005. Six novels and five nonfics. She sold Ghost Road Blues to the second editor who read it and Pinnacle Books has done a marvelous job with the series.

Ghost Road Blues just garnered the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel of the Year. How does this make you feel as a writer?

On top of the world. It’s a somewhat surreal experience to try something totally new –book length fiction—and then have it become a celebrated book. I would have been happy just to see it in print; but the Stoker win was terrific. It’s supercharged me, too.

Tell us a bit about your other books. What was your inspiration for these books? Which themes obsess you?

Since I come from a background of magazine feature writing I have the writers’ knack of becoming obsessed with a topic –for a while. Aside from the martial arts books I’ve written, I’ve also written articles about dating, mixology, jazz, blues, film, gastropod farming (no, that’s not a typo), business, parenting, writing, technology, folklore and dozens of other topics. When I’m in research mode I want to know everything I can about a subject, and then I find that one element –the hook—that will give me something unique that I can pitch.
For books, I feel that I’ve kind of ‘been there, done that’ with martial arts. I’ve been an active jujutsu practitioner for 46 years now and I’ve written extensively about it. In 2002 I ‘moved on’ from that topic and became more fully enmeshed in folklore, which has always been a passion of mine. I suppose it’s the closest thing to an abiding ‘obsession’ with me. There’s so much to say on the subject, even within my area of specialty, which is the folklore of the occult and paranormal.
My first book on that subject was The Vampire Slayers’ Field Guide to the Undead, which is the only book I ever did under a pen name (that of Shane MacDougall). It started me in that direction, and after I landed my agent I gave her a proposal for a new book on vampire folklore, Vampire Universe, which she very quickly sold to Citadel Press. Before I’d finished writing that book the deal got tweaked and expanded so that I was now under contract to write three more books in the same, ah…’vein’. The second in that series, The Cryptopedia (co-authored with David F. Kramer) just debuted on September 1. That one is an occult/paranormal dictionary covering thirteen different subject areas (from divination to UFOs). The final two in that series are tentatively titled They Bite! (which discussed supernatural predators) and Vampire Hunters and Other Enemies of Evil, scheduled for release in 2009 and 2010 respectively.
In 2008 I’m diverting from folklore for a pop culture monster book: Zombie CSU: The Forensic Science of the Living Dead, also for Citadel, in which I ask real-world experts in forensics, law enforcement, medicine, and science how they might react and respond to zombies (of the Night of the Living Dead variety). All lots of fun.

What are your writing habits? Do you work on an outline before starting the actual novel?

I’m a very disciplined writer, but I allow for a lot of flexibility. I write an outline first and character profiles. Then I sit down and draft out a very rough ‘preliminary synopsis’ of what the finished book might be like. I like complicated storylines and deep-reaching character development, and that has to be planned to some degree. However I have never finished a project that bears much resemblance to the original outline. Books are organic and they’ll change in the telling. The outline allows me to remember the underlying logic of the story, but I often let the characters drive the car.
Also, as you develop a scene there is an internal logic that often necessitates story changes you did not initially predict. This is cause and effect as applied to writing, and that allows the story to take on a pattern closer to reality.
I write every day, and I did that long before writing became my 9-5 job. I’m a believer in that saying: “If you write every day you get better every day.”
I roll out of bed around 7:30 and by 8-ish I’m at my desk. I set goals for myself –usually 4000 words per day. If I write more, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean I can write less tomorrow. On weekends I scale it back to about 1000 words.

Which element of fiction writing comes more naturally for you—plot, characterization, description, and dialogue? Which one gives you the hardest time?

Character development and dialogue are easiest, though all of it takes work. Complex plot is the hardest because you have to both entertain the reader and keep him guessing. You can’t make the puzzle too hard for them to grasp but at the same time you have to be aware that readers are smart, savvy and experienced, which means that they’ll be thinking two or three steps ahead. Balancing plot development and its twists and turns requires a lot of thought, and most of that occurs when you’re not at the keyboard. For some bizarre reason I get my best plot twist ideas while I’m in the shower. Who knows, maybe by shampooing my hair I’m stimulating brain cells; and it’s a much happier result than when I sing in the shower –which I do badly and at great volume.

What goes on inside the mind of the horror writer?

It’s not cobwebs, bats and spiders. Writers, particularly horror and thriller writers, spend a lot of time in their own heads. We poke into old closets and dusty attics, places where we’ve stored our fears and the memories of hurt and trauma. Horror writers generally start out by taking what scares them and writing about it so that they can watch it from a distance, gain some perspective over it, and then resolve it. It’s great therapy; but more importantly it allows others (readers) who have had similar experiences, to see that these are things that happen to a lot of people. We write about loss, heartbreak, abuse, neglect…and we build horrific elements around them to make the tales less overtly individual (to ourselves) and therefore more widely accessible. It’s a fascinating process.
We also listen to the voices in our heads. For most people this a red flag and medication & restraints might be involved. But for writers –and not just horror writers—our characters are, to some degree, alive in our heads. We allow them to talk to one another. Very often the best scenes and dialogue come from the characters inside the writers head being given license to talk and act. Then we go write it down. I believe it was Bradbury who said that writing is 99% thinking about things, and then the rest is typing.

Why do you think so many people enjoy horror fiction while at the same time loathing death and violence in real life?

Because horror fiction provides us with safe chills. We love the adrenaline rush on a rollercoaster, especially when it feels like it’s about to go off the rails, but we really, really need to believe that it won’t. Horror fiction is a rush. It satisfies the need to experience the whole range of human emotions. That’s why horror often has romance, humor, and other emotional qualities in it.
And for many it’s a way to reinforce the belief that monsters can be overthrown. In real life there are real monsters: abusive parents, violent criminals, rapists, hostile governments, terrorists…and for most people this is all way beyond their control. They feel disempowered by these threats. In horror fiction we can feel the same intensity of fear but in the end (usually) the good guys win and the monster dies. Never underestimate the power of closure, even if it’s escapist closure.

Are you still expected to do a lot of marketing and promotion on your own, or does your publicist/publisher take care of all the planning?

Unless you’re king of the bestseller list, if you’re an author you’re expected to do a lot of promotional work yourself. Until just recently (when I hired a publicity manager) I had to set up my own signings, create my own swag (those cool giveaway items authors sometimes have), and so on. My publisher, like many in the business, will do a little but not a lot. It’s an economic thing; plus they know that writers who want their books to succeed will hustle a lot of this themselves. It’s not fair, but there it is.
The trick is get into the mindset where you enjoy the process. And I do; though I did hire the publicist because of time constraints. I have to write 2 ½ books per year, so my time is getting limited.
After Bad Moon Rising comes out next year I’ll be writing fiction for another publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and they’ve offered to provide me with a publicist. That’ll be just dandy.

Would you like to share with our readers some of your current or future projects?

Aside from the books I already mentioned, I have a short story coming out in the anthology History is Dead, edited by Kim Paffenroth. It’s an antho of zombie stories set prior to the 20th century. My story, “Pegleg and Paddy Save the World” is a comedy about two moonshiners who run afoul of gangsters and zombies in the days leading up to the Chicago Fire. I’m collaborating with playwright Keith Strunk on a movie script based on the story.
I’m also shifting gears a little bit in fiction and am writing a bio-terrorism thriller, Patient Zero, for St. Martins Press. It’s the first of a series of novels about a police detective, Joe Ledger, who gets recruited by a secret military organization to help stop a group of terrorists who are planning to launch a weaponized disease that turns people into zombies. It’s not a horror novel, however, and I even have a decent medical explanation for how the zombies function. This book is tentatively scheduled for release in early 2009.
And I’m working on developing a couple of horror-related projects with collaborators, including a script for a graphic novel.
I’m also launching an online horror ezine, Cryptopedia Magazine (www.cryptopediamagazine.com). That’s going to be great, with lots of top writers and artists involved.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your works?

My main author website is www.jonathanmaberry.com; but I’m also co-founder of a writers education center, The Writers Corner USA (www.writerscornerusa.com), and we’re just about to launch a number of online classes for writers. On MySpace I can be found at www.myspace.com/jonathan_maberry and www.myspace.com/cryptopedia.
I haven’t really started much of a blog, though I dearly want to. It’s a time thing. I’ll get one rolling when I’m sure I’ll have the time to provide interesting things for my blog readers to share.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who are trying to break into the horror genre?

First off, one sad reality about the business is that ‘horror’ per se is not a thriving genre. Top writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, Dan Simmons, Anne Rice…they never labeled themselves as horror writers. Most often their works are published as ‘fiction’, ‘thrillers’ or ‘suspense’.
To break into the business of writing horror I suggest pitching your book as a ‘supernatural thriller’. You still need to approach agents and publishers who work with horror, but the labeling matters, especially in the book pitch process.
Also, writers should learn as much as they can about the business of writing. Craft will take you only so far; but after you’re done typing –like it or not—your book becomes a commodity. Everything from that point on is business. Those authors who understand this thrive; those who don’t…don’t. There is a conceit within the creative community that writers make lousy businessmen; and that’s total crap. Writers are best at research –so go and research what it takes to make a good book and a good deal.
And, when pitching a book, make sure your pitch letter doesn’t get bogged down by trying to tell every last blessed plot point. That’s the wrong time to make those points. Be brief, be interesting, and always include information about why this book will satisfy the needs of readers who love this genre. To you it may be about the book, to the readers it may be about the book; but to agents, editors, booksellers, etc. it’s about how much money that book will make. When a writer learns the business he gets to participate more actively in the discussion phases, which means he’s more likely to make the kind of money that will give him the time to write and write and write.

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Over the years, authors who wanted to promote their books directly to the public had one main option; you had to physically travel across the country conducting book signings and readings in various bookstores and praying that people would show up. This meant spending money on flights, hotels, transportation and meals. This traditional type of book tour is expensive and very few publishing companies are willing to pay for them. But now, authors have a new method of ‘touring the world’―the virtual book tour.

Virtual book tours (also known as virtual author tours, guest blogging, blog tours, or VBTs are a simple concept. The author “tours” various blogs and sites that pertain to a theme in the book or to writing in general. This way, you can potentially reach thousands of avid readers each tour day from the privacy of your office or home. The goal of marketing your book is to expose it to as many people as possible in an exciting, cost-effective and entertaining way. Guest blogging can achieve that goal. Most blogs are archived, so your post becomes permanent and often viral, spreading from site to site. That is leverage. You are in essence leveraging your internet presence and duplicating yourself with every VBT stop. Your blog tour is working for you even while you sleep. Try doing that at a bookstore signing!

Virtual author tours really took off in the past year or two. They began with a handful of authors posting to other blogs in order to promote their works online. They announced those dates just as they would a bona fide book signing. This kind of author tour is now becoming all the rage. Some bookstores are no longer allowing authors to do book signings. Limited space and time constraints are the common reasons. Plus, it just isn’t time efficient and monetarily feasible for most authors to do the physical cross-country bookstore tour. Well, unless you are one of the super authors that get paid the big bucks, like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. And since I am neither, I decided to hold my first blog tour this past August―for the entire month―to promote my latest novel Whale Song.

Virtual book tour services and book marketing experts are popping up all over the internet. Authors can now outsource the organization of a VBT. I suggest that you thoroughly check out these companies and ask yourself if the price is worth it. Some services cost thousands of dollars, while some cost less but only post your content to duplicate sites―ones they have set up themselves. The latter is not an advantage to you. You need to have wide coverage and exposure to various sites and audiences. Go where your readers are. Planning a VBT is time-consuming, but not that difficult. You may find it more worthwhile to take the time to plan your own blog tour, since you’ll have more control over who hosts you this way. Or you may decide that hiring someone to coordinate the tour is best. Do what’s right for you. I chose to do my own because I wanted to have flexibility in what each site posted and I enjoyed the contact with my hosts.

How to organize a virtual book tour:
• Start planning at least 1 month before you want to begin, and never before your book is available for sale. I suggest you allow 1 month when planning a 2 week tour and 6 weeks for a 1 month tour. It takes time to get the hosts lined up and on board and you don’t want to shortchange yourself.
• Read everything you can find on virtual book tours. There are numerous articles online and many books that give great advice. Check out Steve Weber’s Plug Your Book! for VBT advice and more, and John Kremer’s 1001 Ways to Market You Books for numerous marketing tips.
• Determine the length of your book tour―1 week, 2 weeks, 1 month.
• How many hosts will you need? 1 a day is best. If you have a radio interview, you could have it scheduled on a day when you have a text post appearing on another blog.
• Make a list of keywords and phrases that relate to your book.
• Search for these terms on Google and look for any sites that show up on the first page. Sites on the first Google page are the ones that your potential audience will find more easily. Make a note of these sites or save them in your Favorites under a folder marked ‘VBT contacts’.
• Search Technorati as well, although personally I found this method more time-consuming and confusing. Look for sites that have a high Authority and high number of Fans. Keep in mind that Authority means that people have voted for this blog, but that it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best site for you.
• Use Alexa to get traffic results. Some sites or blogs may not rank well on Google or Technorati but may still be a viable host for your VBT.
• Look at the amount of reader participation. Do people leave comments? Is the topic of the site ‘perfect’ for your book? Often lesser known sites and ones without a Google PageRank are little goldmines. You may find that the host will go out of his or her way to advertise you and your VBT. Don’t ignore sites by friends or fellow authors either. One day these sites could score an 8 or 9 on Google.
• Install and use Google PageRank. This is a simple tool that allows you to view the Google Rank of sites and blogs, which is Google’s interpretation of how important the site is based on the authority of inbound links that lead to the site. Go through your list and check their Google PageRank. List them in order of importance and contact the highest ranking ones first. In the beginning, contact about 25% more hosts than you actually need. Not all will say yes.
• Write an email that you’ll send individually to each potential host. Let them know what you’re doing and what you can supply. I always like to point out the benefits to hosts―more traffic, new visitors, fresh and interesting content, prizes, and a link on my website. What’s in it for them? That’s what they want to know. Make sure you ‘hook’ your host, just like you would with a query letter to a publisher.
• Internet radio and promotional sites that charge small fees also make wonderful hosts. ArtistFirst Radio Network and Passionate Internet Voices Radio are online radio networks that interview authors in exchange for a donation or small fee. For an a la carte or membership fee, Author Island is another excellent site for authors holding a virtual book tour. You can post a book trailer and excerpt, plus advertise your contests and tour.
• Confirm hosts’ dates, topics and ask them to post the night before. This way you are not waiting all morning for them to post your content. Let them know you’ll send them the information 3-5 days before their date. If you send it too early they may lose, misfile or delete it. What will you submit? Each blog or site will usually feature one or a combination of the following: a book cover, a summary or synopsis, an interview, book review, an article that fits the site’s theme, a short story, an excerpt, a contest, an audio-cast or a book trailer video.
• Advertise your VBT via online and media press releases. It is a great investment, since it’s no good doing a virtual book tour if no one knows about it. One leading press release distribution service that I use almost exclusively is 24-7PressRelease.com, where you can pay from $10.00 to $299.00, depending on your distribution requirements. However, I can attest to the fact that a $45.00 release is the minimum you’ll want and its effectiveness is worth it. Other online services include PRWeb and WebWire, and don’t forget to send releases to the free services too, like ClickPress.com and FreePress.com. Press releases can be extremely beneficial if written correctly and distributed extensively to the right audience, and this means submitting them to your local media (newspapers, TV, radio) as well.
• Publicize your virtual book tour and other events on BookTour.com, a free site that connects authors to readers by listing author events and making it easy for readers to set up reminders and track their favorite authors.
• Promote your VBT on all your websites and blogs on an events page. Put up a schedule with your hosts’ home page URL. I found it more exciting to post a weekly schedule the day before the week began. It prevented people from going to host sites too early and kept them coming back to my website to see where I’d be going next. I promoted the ‘mystery’, which worked to my advantage since I’m a suspense author. This also gave me 1 extra blog post each week, and therefore new content.
The day before each virtual stop:
• Send out a reminder to your host and ask them to post that night. Make sure they have book cover jpgs, your photo and anything else they might need.
The morning of each stop:
• Confirm that your host has posted your content. Check the site. Copy the full URL that leads directly to your post. The home page will change and you want your links to always lead to the exact page that the host has created just for your content.
• Change the home page URL on your schedule to the exact page link. This is how you really leverage yourself. Now when someone stumbles across your schedule and clicks on the link, they’ll be directed to your post, not your host’s ever-changing home page.
• Write an introduction about the day’s stop and post it everywhere. Copy the first paragraph or two of the interview or article and use that for your intro. Post intros to all websites and blogs that you have access to. Don’t forget to post to your Amazon blog, MySpace blog and MySpace bulletin. The latter goes out to all your MySpace friends. Make sure you have some!
Follow-up:
• Check your host site frequently throughout the day for comments and answer any questions directly on your host site. Do this every other day afterward for about a week. Offer to write a possible follow-up article, depending on what you posted originally.
• Assess the success of your virtual book tour. Set up TitleZ and/or Charteous to monitor your book’s Amazon sales rank throughout the VBT. You should see some lower ranks (lower is better!) during your blog tour, particularly if you have a contest or incentive that inspires more sales of your book. Be creative and have fun!
Authors are now starting to comprehend the full potential that blog tours have to offer and how they benefit everyone involved. You could sign books at a bookstore for three hours plus driving time and reach a few hundred people yet sell only to a few dozen, or you could organize a VBT and promote to millions of people worldwide. Virtual book tours take time, patience and research, but as I have discovered, they are definitely worthwhile. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. So why not start today? You have the entire world at your fingertips!

~*~

If you found this article helpful, please consider picking up a copy of Cheryl’s newest novel Whale Song through Amazon.

©2007 Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Cheryl Kaye Tardif is the author of The River, Divine Intervention and the Amazon bestseller Whale Song. Among her peers, she is known for her perseverance and tireless dedication in book promotion. In August 2007, she was the first Kunati Books author to hold a virtual book tour with 35 stops. In September 2007, Cheryl will be speaking about book marketing strategies at the 8th Annual “Express Yourself…”™ Authors’ Conference in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Over the years, she has appeared on television and radio, and in newspapers and magazines across Canada and the US.

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1. Please tell us about your book review site, Armchair Interviews. How and when did it get started?

My business partner and best friend, Connie Anderson and I reviewed books and interviewed authors on television. We had both retired, but mourned the loss of the richness that format brought to our lives. Connie attended a conference in Los Angles where she birthed the idea of reviewing books and interviewing authors and posting them on the internet. I picked her up from the airport, she shared the idea with me and I assumed she wanted me to make this journey with her (actually, I said she wasn’t going to do it without me).

January 2008 will be Armchair Interviews third anniversary. Wow! I hadn’t realized that! And in 2006 and 2007 we were named by Writers Digest as one of the Best 101 Websites for Writers.

2. What makes Armchair Interviews stand out among so many other online review sites?

Our knowledge of books and our excitement and passion for the idea of Armchair Interviews was the beginning of creating a great site. We placed ourselves in the able hands of Paul Larson of Creative Arc in Minneapolis and he patiently worked with Connie and me to design an attractive, user friendly site. We then began to add other things like audio and written interviews, contests, a reader’s page, an author’s page, etc. for our visitors.

But it’s the reviewers. They’re passionate about the written word. They’re good writers, responsible people and oh so much fun. They work hard. They work with us, not for us and that’s the difference I think. They are Armchair Interviews. And we’ve gained new friends from around the United States and the world through Armchair Interviews. They simply are the best. Check out our site and then other sites and you’ll see what I mean.

3. What is the most challenging aspect of running a review site?

Time. It’s primarily two people (Connie and I) running Armchair Interviews with some help from Paul Larsen (our go-to guy for web help) and Jeff Foster who does some marketing for us. Connie has a business (that pays the bills) and must give that time. I am a writer, I travel a great deal with my husband, we live in MN and AZ (which is a time and logistic challenge) and we have numerous children and grandchildren I want to spend time with. Connie and I always want to do more and wonder where we’ll get the time.

But money is another important aspect. It takes money to create a good site and money to maintain and improve a site like ours. Authors often don’t like paying for ads, interviews, etc. The problem is, if the site isn’t paying for itself, it goes away. They don’t understand the number of people we reach and what it costs to maintain a site like ours. Some authors are appalled that sites like ours would charge to promote their titles. Hey, think New York Times, People, USA Today… We may be small, but like them, we have to have revenue to survive. I can never understand why they don’t blink an eye at the idea of a magazine, television or newspaper ad, but believe that the internet should be free. Note: We don’t charge to review a title.

4. How many books do you review a month?

I believe our largest month was 239 books. We average about 200 a month.

5. How many staff reviewers do you have?

We currently have 87 (not including Connie and I). It’s always fluid. People are with us for a time and then circumstances change in their lives and they leave. Several have left and then returned. Other people then apply and come on board to fill the need. We have about 12 reviewers that have been with us since we first took applications.

6. Are you currently recruiting more reviewers? If so, what are your guidelines?

We’re always looking for more reviewers. It seems that when people leave, other people step up and apply. We like to stay around 85-90 reviewers. It’s a manageable number for me. There has been one period of time in the last three years that we put new reviewers on hold. If someone is interested in reviewing contact Andrea@armchairinterviews.com and I will send our Reviewer FAQ. All they have to do is follow the directions and we can get them started.

7. How should an author contact you about a review request? Do you review e-books as well?

An author should go to www.armchairinterviews.com and click on our FAQ for review submissions and follow the directions. You’d be amazed how many people don’t think the rules apply to them. Often though, they read? the directions and send me an email and a link to their web site so I can gather the necessary information myself. That will not get an author a review. Time is short; we have about 400 submissions a month and can’t fill them all. It’s easier to go with the people who follow the directions. So read the FAQ and follow the directions! How to get that review or interview is another Q & A interview and one every author should hear if they want review coverage. But that’s for another time.

E-books: Alas, no. We don’t review them. The primary reason is that we all read so much and it’s painful to sit at a computer and read, sometimes for hours. My personal thoughts are: I’d love to help out the author and just have them send me an e-book (faster, cheaper) but I really can’t tolerate the sitting and I want to hold the book in my hand. I doubt that this ‘old’ woman will ever change in that respect.

8. Do you think there’s a lot of ‘facile praise’ among many online review sites? What is your policy when it comes to negative reviews?

Criticism is okay. And we criticize books. But we will never, ever trash a book or an author. We want to celebrate authors and their work. If a book (and unfortunately it’s almost always self-published) is so awful (poorly written, edited, etc.) we won’t review it at all and inform the author of the issues. But we’d like authors to remember: A review is one person’s opinion.

9. There was a lot of controversy this year between print publication reviewers and online bloggers. What defines a ‘legitimate’ reviewer?

I’m not sure I can give you a definitive answer. It’s like art; I may not know what good art is, but I’ll tell you when I see some. Peruse the sites. What do they look like? How many titles have they reviewed? Do they offer anything besides reviews (nice for building traffic and authors want traffic)? If you contact them do they respond in a timely manner and are they professional in their responses? Ask them how long they’ve been in business and what their stats are. Note: Armchair Interviews is on track to have 2 million views this year.

But the bottom line is: Print publication continues to reduce their coverage of books. Internet is the coming wave and is even now, becoming the place to go for learning about new books. If I had a small promotion budget, I know I’d get more bang for my buck with Armchair Interviews than with a magazine or newspaper. Why? Because other than USA Today, most newspapers are local or regional. And I could never afford USA Today. Magazines? Well most are out of the price range also. Television and Radio are usually local (budget restraints). That leaves the internet and it is huge!

10. With so many major newspapers getting rid of their book review sections, how do you see the future of online review sites?

Hmmmm. I think I ended up answering this question when I answered the previous question. But simply put: It is the place to be seen and it will only become bigger.

11. What promotional opportunities does your site offer authors?

We offer ads, audio author interviews and written Q&A interviews. They are really reasonable in cost, given our audience. We can provide an author with tailored packages to fit their needs and pocketbook. Connie and I are very conscious to remember that most authors do not have a huge promotional budgets. Contact us for promotional information. We have authors, publishing houses and publicists that regularly work with us to promote their authors.

Oh, and sometimes, for fun and to help, we’ll do a give away for an author we feel strongly about. That’s a freebie in conjunction with the author or publishing house.

12. I understand you’re also a writer. Would you like to tell out readers about your work?

I’ve written several books that are ‘under the bed’ and will stay there. I also wrote a humorous mystery and it is currently under consideration at three small houses. I love the mystery genre, but really adore Young Adult. Another friend, author Kathleen Baldwin (she writes romantic comedies for a large house) and I are putting the finishing touches on a Young Adult fantasy (the first in a series). Our advance readers, which include a Broadway actor, children’s librarians, and other published authors, have given it two thumbs up. And while I love my mystery and heroine Penelope Santucci, I am passionate about Glitter and Gillyflowers: Memoirs of a Teenage Faerie Godmother. I see this book doing very well.

13. Is there anything else you would like to say about you or Armchair Interviews?

We’d invite you to check us out. We’ve got almost 3000 reviews, numerous audio author interviews (they change all the time), contests and a lot of scrumptious information. And the newest thing is: We have a member’s only site. For a very small amount of money monthly, we have a place where members can go for ‘stuff’ that’s not on the regular site

Thank you, Andrea!

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