Monday, October 22, 2018

The Ghost of Methane Past

When I was a kid, we were told never to go near the railroad tracks in the town of Waverly, Virginia because there was a ghost who would run after you. He was a black man, so they said, who had tripped on the tracks and got his head cut off by an oncoming train. Now he walked along the tracks with a lantern, looking for his head.

Was this true? I have no idea. These stories are supposed to discourage children from going near the railroad tracks and it worked for me.  I was too terrified to check out the ghost, though numerous high school boys claimed to have gone out there late at night and looked for the unfortunate man. Some swore to have spotted the him with his lantern.

My daddy said, "It's methane gas, baby."

So I said, "What is methane gas, Daddy?"

His explanation involved decaying leaves and tree limbs, stagnant water and bacteria.  It glows, he said. I wasn't sure I understood how that phenomenon could appear to be a headless black man with a lantern.

So let's move forward to a night when I was in high school myself, and up to mischief with my friends in Homeville. We had avoided a broken leg in the local abandoned houses on previous outings. We were in the country, so we couldn't really go look for the black man without a head, as he was situated in Waverly.

But, I reasoned to my friends, if it was methane gas, caused by the miasma of swamp water and decay, there was plenty of that (if not more) right here in hour little village. We also had an abandoned railroad bed, which, on the whole is much safer than a track that is still in use where we might ourselves become headless ghosts. We parked near a dark stretch of pine forest, loaded up on mosquito repellant and took a weedy path back to the raised railroad bed. We had flashlights. It was very dark, and the call of crickets was loud and persistent.

I remember that I loved the idea of an old railroad bed. The past had always seemed so close to me during my childhood in Homeville. I was aware, since I lived in an old house, that many lives went before mine. I felt these people from the past, like they wanted to talk to me, or come through the veil that separated us and explain what had gone one.

That sense was strong near this old track -- it was a place where a whole business had come and gone. A train that took passengers and goods right by this very spot and then, one day, it was cut off, went out of business and disappeared. There must be ghosts looming here whether they had connected with any methane gas or not...

...And, sure enough, after about five minutes of breathing and listening to noises in the forest, a boy shouted, "There. I see it."

"Where?" The rest of us were looking back and forth, trying to see the "it."

"Down there," he said as he tried to turn us in the direction of the crescent moon over a particularly thick patch of pine. I squinted. My best girlfriend screamed. Everybody started running back to the car. I stayed, only for a few brave seconds, but I did see a light in the trees, a glow down low to the ground, bluish green in color. Not a lantern, not a man, black or white, but a distinct glow -- and then I screamed and joined my friends hurrying through the weeds to the two lane blacktop and home, where I rehearsed my story for school in the fall.

So...was it methane gas...a ghost...another group of kids looking for the headless man of Homeville? I will never really know. Maybe it wasn't even there at all, and I imagined it.

That's why, for me, things are still mysterious in New Mexico....(even if they happened years ago in Homeville).

Monday, July 2, 2018

How Many Readers is Enough? Independent Publishing from the Bottom of a Well




I published my first work, In Dulce, Disturbed, a short story, in 2010. It was a lark. I was mad because, years ago, I successfully published a couple of mystery short stories in Alfred Hitchcock and another magazine without too much bother. Today, the competition for a spot in a magazine monumental.

I looked at a few online magazines, but then I decided to publish the story myself with amazon. It was easy enough in those days. I used a couple of beta readers and no editor and I actually went with the default cover. (Remember that thing….kind of blue, I think, like a library book from the 19th century.) It was so ugly. Looking back, it was insane to expect success with a formula like that. But I wanted an audience and wanted to write. So I did it.

And I sold five stories the first month – and it wasn’t to friends of mine, but to readers out there who were curious about this self publishing thing – I guess. Or perhaps I landed a few folks interested in the Jicarilla Apache Reservation where Dulce is located or in the UFO facility that is falsely said to be located there. I don’t know who they were, but I was hooked. Back then, five readers was enough.

I wrote a few more stories. In those early days, I could list a story on amazon for free and get over a thousand downloads without buying any promotional spots at all. It was so much fun. I also listed the stories for free in a promotional newsletter and got multiple thousands of downloads. That was a short lived marketing window, but I miss it today when I have to pay $20-40 dollars for a spot and often don’t get anything close to a hundred downloads. Of course, I don’t promote the books for free anymore.

I wrote five short stories in all, hired a cover creator, and then a better cover creator. From this time on I rarely sold less than 20 stories a month. Readers gave me their honest opinion, and several insisted that it was time for me to write a novel – so I did. That’s when I hired my first editor and proofreader. Plus, that first book was favorably reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly/Booklife (no fee back then, I was selected from a pool of applicants). This review led to my first contact involving film rights. While this didn’t pan out, I was so amazed to get that kind of attention. Those small recognitions and the readers are what kept me writing. Readers – and the editors I hired – helped me see the strengths and weaknesses in my writing. This was invaluable to me, and I don’t think I would have made the progress the readers and editors taught me to make if I had not been able to publish independently.

On the journey I began to pick up more reviews andreceived my first one star review. I pushed passed it – everyone wasn’t going to like my writing, I knew, but it was great that some people were enjoying my work. I began to get grammar trolls (as I call them) who moan every typo. This helped me too, though. For my second novel, In Albuquerque, Abandoned, I hired a two proofreaders.

This was the novel that gained the most success of anything I’ve published so far. A few months after it’s release, the book sold 700 copies in one month. The other books and short stories in the series sold well, too. This success led to continued sales in the hundreds for months. I took the profits and tried all sorts of marketing combinations that included Facebook ads, trailers, Amazon ads, Freebooksy, Books Butterfly (loads of downloads, not many sales), google ad words and other promotional ideas. I made more than I spent, but I didn’t get the kind of audience I really wanted. As for Bookbub, they never gave me a shot, though many of my fellow writers were actually making real money with Bookbub. No matter how many reader reviews or good professional reviews or great covers I had, I was never up to snuff for those guys. Now they seem to do a lot of ads for the traditionally published crowd, so I’ve quit trying until I write more books and get a bigger audience. Bookbub will take me yet, I say.
But will writing more and improving my craft really help? In other words, if I build it, they will come? I honestly don’t know. But I look up to successful independently and traditionally published writers – I still want to be one of them. And the way to do that is to keep writing.

But what about marketing? The first book in my new Cotton Lee Penn series of southern novels has been very well received. I paid for professional reviews and even Kirkus gave me a thumbs up. This book, Gone on Sunday, was my best success with amazon ads and made money there for a few months, then fell off. The reviews are good. I get emails (and someone even stopped me on the street) asking when the next book in the series is coming up. That’s fun.

Still, I have five short stories and three books on my author page, and I have fallen back to my early sales record: 20-30 books a month.

Thus, I feel like I am marketing up from the bottom of a well. I have a blog, a Facebook page, a mailing list, a website – I’ve tried stacked marketing, going exclusive with amazon, going wide. I have two audible books. I now have an editor, and two proofreaders plus several beta readers and a great cover artist. And yet here I am – right back where I started. What next?

I’m nearly done with the first book in a new series about a family that runs a missing persons agency called The Finders. And I am also nearly done with the second novel in the Cotton Lee Penn series. I tried for an agent and got some reads but no offers with the first Cotton Lee Penn book. My plan is to try for an agent again. The Finders book, Silencing Sistine, fits squarely into the mystery genre, and that makes it easier to sell to a publisher.

And speaking of publishers – who knows whether traditional publishing is that much better than independently publishing? I might sell more than 30 books a month, but that might not mean much. I need to get over the hump, out of the dark, to the tipping point….and maybe I will…or not. But I will tell you I love the writing, and I love the readers and editors. I keep learning about writing, and, for me, that’s addictive. If I don’t make a little more money, I’ll have to quit because independent publishing is expensive, but it’s a blast, it really is.

And that’s why for now, it’s still mysterious in New Mexico.




Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Ghost of Plaza de la Catedral, Cuba

Part of my next novel, the first in the Tres Perdidos Detective Agency series, takes place in Cuba, where a missing girl escaped as a teenager and was never heard from again.  Plaza de la Catedral, Cuba, was the setting of a ghost story I heard while visiting Cuba a few years back. This stone streets of the Plaza are the setting of many gatherings and religious festivals.

One of the tour guides for our trip says that there are many haunted stories from the Plaza, and one involves a young woman standing atop the roof of one of the buildings in the plaza. People see the woman at dusk, as the sun sets and the light is gray. She wears a purple rebozo over a long white dress. Tourists report hearing a high pitched singing, some say it is "Ave Maria" and then the figure begins to descend into the plaza. One man reported that the woman touched down on the brick surface of the plaza and began to walk towards him. He took off running.

No one knows who the figure is or why she is singing. For certain, our guide said. The plaza is haunted. I was there at dusk, and I saw a beautiful good Friday procession -- but no ghosts in purple rebozos. So I can't say whether it is true or not. Only that things appear to be mysterious in Cuba as well as Mysterious in New Mexico!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Fishing Ghost of Pine Island




On a recent visit to Pine Island, Florida, I heard the story of the disappearing fisherman. Since we were planning our first kayaking voyage, I was a little nervous to hear about the man who went out with his wife to catch a few Sheep's Head fish for dinner, and never returned...

In all started in September of 2017, just before Hurricane Irma made a pass at the island. All the weather forecasts threatened a direct hit on the island. A man named Earl and his wife Ivey had made plans two weeks in advance for a kayaking adventure. Ivey wanted to cancel, but Earl insisted that no hurricane would stop him from catching a fish.

Apparently Ivey continued to hound her husband the night before at Woody's Bar and Grill and then even later at the Ragged Ass Saloon. Earl insisted the hurricane was two days away, but by then Ivey was pretty drunk and kept repeating the same phrase over and over.

"You'll never return, Earl. You'll never return."

Her husband left the Ragged Ass without her, and it's rumored that Ivey went went home with one of the other patrons.

Anyhow, by the next day at noon, when the two showed up for the kayak rental, they seemed to be getting long fine. The hurricane was still off a day or so, and they both laughed at Ivey's fear. The guide gave the couple a map and pointed out a few good fishing spots. Earl loaded the gear and both rolled into their kayaks and paddled off...but, you guessed it, only Ivey came back. Ivey said he simply disappeared. Maybe he was lost. Search and Rescue looked for Earl for two weeks straight, but he was never seen again.

The turned south and missed the island for the most part. But by December, fisherman, taking off in their kayaks were getting a weird message from the wind that whistles through the mangroves. Two men and one woman, swore they heard a woman whispering...

"You'll never return, Earl. You'll never return."

Did Ivey help Earl disappear?

Nobody knows, but one thing's for sure: It's mysterious in New Mexico (and, apparently, in Pine Island, too).

Friday, December 1, 2017

Ghosts in the Santa Fe Cathedral








In Santa Fe, Salacious by Tower Lowe tells about a murder that haunts the Santa Fe Cathedral until the true story unfolds. The main event in the novel takes place in the small adobe chapel at the Basilica, dedicated to Our Lady La Conquistadora and brought from Spain in 1625. That's centuries of prayers and offerings for peace. 

There are said to be ghosts in the adjoining cemetery, and I can attest that there are angels in the chapel.


One afternoon I dropped by to pray the rosary for my daughter. As I sat there, quietly touching the beads and remembering the prayers, an old woman entered the chapel. She was quite small and wore a black lace mantilla over her head. this struck me as odd, as few people actually wear the mantilla walking around in these days. When I finished my rosary, she touched my arm gently.

"I want to tell you something," she said. "In my life, there have been many difficulties and people whose actions you can't understand. But don't worry. It all works out in the end."

I smiled politely. "Thank you." I didn't want to be rude, but the elderly lady looked concerned, as though she feared I had not understood her.

"No, she said. Listen. You don't need to worry so much. It all works out in the end."

The she stood, pulled the mantilla close to her face and exited the chapel.

Was she real? An angel? Perhaps it doesn't matter. My father was a lapsed Catholic, and I was not raised in the church. But I do pray often in the chapel, and I learned the rosary while teaching at a Catholic school. 

For me, she was an angel. What about you? Any church ghost stories you want to tell?


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mystery Muse Reports: Ghosts on Pine Island, Florida





Last January, I visited Pine Island and the Randall Research Center with friends. The day was sunny -- perfect paradise weather in Florida. We got out of the car, talking and laughing until we neared the outdoor deck of the Research Center Building. Two of us stopped in our tracks. We felt a force emanating from the building. And believe me, the friend at my side is no ghost buster. He's a scientist who thinks ghosts are like Casper from the old cartoon. But he said.

"Wait a minute. There's something funny here."

I was the one who said, no, let's go in. And the feeling dissipated. We completely forgot until we again exited onto the deck and walked past a small room. It was said to be the former post office. My scientist buddy stopped again.

"We've been here before," he said.

"No," I responded. "But I think we're in the presence of a ghost."

He laughed and followed the rest of our crew out into the exhibit of Calusa Indian life. I lingered back and stood at the entrance to the little room. A sign said it was the former post office. Nothing hit me, so I stepped back and that's when I saw her. she was more than a shadow, less than a person in a red sweater and dark skirt. I heard a whimper and then silence.

That scurried me along, I'll tell you, but ever since I got back, I wondered. Has anyone else seen a ghost there? I've been writing two new books and experimenting with all sorts of publicity, most of it helping only a little, but it's work, so I forgot about my Pine Island ghost. I finished the second book in the Cotton Lee Penn/Max Mayfair series and got 3/4 of the way through the new series featuring the Lost Coin Detective Agency, when I found myself writing a scene on Pine Island and I remembered my ghost...

So I took a look on the Internet, and discovered that Make Shevlin of the Pine Island Eagle reported a similar incident from Dave Holmes. Right there, in that location, Dave heard a woman weeping and the shuffling of slippers!  Could they be the same person, and what is her regret?  There's a story that a young child drowned in a pond near there. Perhaps the weeping woman is the mother. Nobody knows for sure. 


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Bees equal ghosts in a Burning Hearth



This story takes place in Homeville, Virginia where my new book Gone on Sunday takes place. It is a story from my childhood, but recently, when I got together with family, I found out more details about this fiery adventure. Ghosts were often rumored to haunt the house, and now a friend tells me that bees are a sure sign of haunting spirits. After this story, you'll conclude the house in Homeville needs an exorcism!

We lived in an old two story plantation house built in 1830. There were fireplaces on each side of the house, on the first and second floor. Bees (spirits?) made a nest in the unused fireplace on the second floor of my parents room. My mother was deadly allergic to bees, so the hive had to be eliminated. Now, I don't know too much about exterminators in the 1960's except that my grandmother, who lived with us, was dead set against these professionals. Her comments on pesky critters usually addressed by exterminators went as follows.

"In my day, we never paid to get rid of bees or roaches or whatever. We lived with them, or we used borax or lemon oil or we burned them out."

My opinion is, mostly they lived with them. But, in this case, it was resolved that, since the bees were in a fireplace, they could be burned out. My mother was super committed because of her fear of dying from a bee sting (reasonable, but, then so is an exterminator).

So, all I remember is the fire, that it got out of control, and that I thought it was the fire that burned up the original Tower Lowe (Eiffel Tower Lowe, my writer namesake.) I learned, however, that the fire was fueled by my brother's favorite comic books (burned up money, he moans today). Every time he complained, my mother apparently shouted the irrelevance of comics and said, "We'll burn everything we can get out hands on." To which I say:

e-x-t-e-r-m-i-n-a-t-o-r

Not surprisingly, as my mother got more desperate, the fire got more out of control. Both my brothers were  sent outside to make sure the house didn't catch on fire. As I recall, I was being kept out of the bedroom in the hallway, listening to the panic and hearing the roar of the fire.

What happened.? Well, the bees were driven away and the house didn't burn down. Next, the fireplace was blocked and is still blocked to this day.

Everyone involved had the incident burned into their memory, pardon the pun. Maybe a few of the spirits took off, but I'll tell you, the last time I slept in that bedroom, with my two little children, my daughter woke up and said,

"Momma, there are other people here in this room. I can hear them."

And that, folks, is more mysterious than New Mexico.