Writing Tool: Apps to Keep You Going

mom writing

Hello to all the spooky readers out there who are also spooky writers! Today I want to talk directly to you! Since Covid hit, I’ve been hearing two different strands of the same conversation:

Extroverts: I just need to get out of this house/apartment/yurt and see some PEOPLE.

Introverts: I’d be fine if I wasn’t trapped in my house/apartment/yurt with all these PEOPLE.

Either way, the consensus is that all of this is taking a toll on our writing. I’m in the introvert camp. And because I live in a smallish and very busy house, I usually begin my writing routine by…well…leaving. I do my best work in coffee shops, and sometimes even at the bar of a favorite restaurant. I can work in noisy public places, because nothing going on around me is:

  1. My problem
  2. Going to lead to a bigger problem later (i.e. kids putting liquid dish soap in the dishwasher)

At home, I have to find ways to create a bubble around myself so I can focus. And like most of us, since March I’m basically always at home. So today, I’d like to share a few of the apps and tools that have helped me keep writing.

Ambient Noise Apps:

One of my favorite tricks is to drown out the noises I find distracting. I can’t always do this with music, though. I sing along instead of writing, or I get picky about individual tracks and start skipping around. One app I use instead is Coffitivity, which offers me several different coffee shop background tracks. It lets me add music from another app as if it’s the overhead music in the shop (which helps me leave it alone) and offers the option to choose which sound is dominant, the music or the background noise. I also *loved* the Ambience app, but it’s discontinued (woe)! So far the best replacement I’ve found is Noise– Mix HD. Most ambient sound apps are designed to help you sleep, which is not what I’m looking for! This one has everything from a dog park to a pool at a hotel. You do have to buy individual sounds beyond the basics or purchase the app upgrade, but it’s totally worth it.

Productivity Apps:

My favorite is Focus Keeper, hands down. For those who aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro method, you work in short bursts (like twenty-five minutes) with five minute breaks in between. After a certain number of bursts you get a longer break. The ticking of the timer keeps me focused (although I confess, because I’m a spooky writer I sometimes catch myself looking around for the Bent-Necked Lady from Hill House), and the bell that signals a break is followed by ocean sounds. You can set your own sprint lengths, pause the countdown if you need to, and use it in tandem with music or the ambient noise apps above. Mac/Google Play

Genuinely Wicked Apps

If you’re a Mac user and your primary distraction is web surfing, there’s also a desktop app called Self Control that is not messing around. It will lock you out of absolutely everything until your writing burst is done.

Lastly, there’s my perennial favorite, Write or Die. Don’t Google it. I don’t know what’s going on with Version 3, but it’s a mess. V.2 works fine, though! There’s a web client, or you can purchase the desktop version. You tell it how vicious you want it to be, from getting rickrolled if you pause too long to watching your words erase themselves one by one until you start typing again. Very motivational!

Hopefully some of these apps will make you feel like you’re getting out of the house (or at least help you filter out what’s going on IN your house) so you can write. I’m also definitely here for whining and commiseration, so come find me on twitter (@Saille)! Happy writing!

–Sarah Cannon 

Writing Tool: The Pandemic Attic Notebook

Anyone else having a little trouble concentrating these days?

Ugh.

In all honesty, I was having a bit of trouble concentrating on writing even before this global pandemic began. After turning in the draft of my next MG novel (a creepy book-within-a-book about sisters and stories and a haunted library, tentatively titled LONG LOST and coming out sometime in 2021—woohoo!), I found myself wavering between four other gestating projects, with a new baby and a just-turned-five-year-old occupying most of my attention, and then…

…Well, you know.

Suddenly, with no preschool or family help, most of my writing time was gone. But not writing at all was making me feel immeasurably worse, like it always does.

So I started something new. (I suppose I officially started it just over a year ago, during a between-books patch, and dropped it when my schedule got crazy again. But we don’t need to talk about that.) It’s called the Attic Notebook. I first heard about it from Laini Taylor, but many writer friends have pointed out similar exercises, like the “morning pages” in The Artist’s Way.

Here are the basics:

– Write in a designated notebook for 10 – 15 minutes each day, using simple prompts to get started, never stopping to revise or look back.

– Write in any form or style: poetry, essays, short or long fiction, whatever comes.

– Once you’ve filled the notebook, hide it away for at least six weeks.

– When you take it out again, imagine that you found the notebook at the bottom of an old trunk in someone else’s attic. Not only will you see the writing with fresh eyes, but it should feel a little like buried treasure.

lamp Attic Notebook

Each morning, before anyone else in my house gets up, I’ve been creeping downstairs to scribble in my Attic Notebook. I try not to think about why I’m writing, about what each  piece is for, about if it will ever turn into anything publishable or finish-able or worthwhile at all. I just pick a prompt and write. I’ve filled one notebook already, and I’m putting off the reading part for as long as I can stand it. Maybe I’ll run out of patience soon and sit down and dive in. But it’s been a great reminder that process matters more than product. And it’s helping me step outside of my anxieties for a little while each day, and that’s been sanity-saving.

 

(Voila: My Pand-Attic Notebooks! If you want to keep one with me during this era, I suppose you could call it a “Shelter-in-the-Attic Notebook,” or a “Quarantine Notebook,” especially if you want to get literal and let yourself read it after exactly 40 days…)

Here are some of the prompts I’ve come up with. Feel free to use them, to add your own, to find others–whatever works for you. And if you want to share any of your process, you can tag me on FB or Instagram (jacqueline.west.writes). It’s nice to remember that we aren’t really alone these days — even while we’re scribbling in the dark all by ourselves.

Prompts:
– Come in from the cold
– Capture the flag
– Paw print
– Lost button
– Shadow caster
– Last rites
– Switched at birth
– Freak show
– Winding road
– To be honest
– Since when
– Hour of beasts
– Hide and seek
– Choked with vines
– Paralyzed
– Survival of the fairest
– Beware
– Monarch
– Pomegranate seeds
– Poison field
– Pan pipes
– Courage
– Locked drawer
– Morning glory
– Sea of storms

 

 

SPOOKY FOOD SENSATIONS

Cookies

FRIGHTFUL FOOD THAT’S AWFULLY GOOD

When writing a story—whether it’s spooky or not—an author needs to include the five senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste). I love to do a presentation with students to help them incorporate these senses into their stories and better bring their scenes to life.

One of my favorite senses to highlight is TASTE. While it’s not always as easy as some of the others to readily include, the sense of taste can immediately transport a reader into a story.

Fudgy chocolate. Buttered popcorn. Salty peanuts. Spicy salsa. Even monster cookies.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. I’m sure at least one of these examples caused your mouth to water a bit. For certain, you could quickly identify the difference between the sweet chocolate and the hot, tangy salsa.

Food creates the opportunity to include the senses of SIGHT, SMELL, and TOUCH as well. That bag of fluffy, glistening, buttered popcorn in your hands is warm and a bit lumpy. The fragrant steam rising to your nose is totally tempting. When you include food in your story, you have a great opportunity to pull a reader in with numerous sensations.

Okay, enough writing tips for today. Now for the important part—some actual spooky food treats! No—not any of the over-the-top gross food I had such a fun time inventing for my monster stories. The recipes below may look a little ghastly, but they will be amazing taste delights.

Bat

BITE-SIZE BATS

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½ Cup of creamy or crunchy peanut butter

2 Tablespoons honey

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

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Stir these ingredients together. You may need to microwave the mixture for 10-15 seconds to blend smoothly.

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½ Cup of old fashioned oats

½ Cup of crispy rice cereal

2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder

2 Tablespoons of mini chocolate chips

Add these four ingredients and stir lightly until combined.

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Broken blue corn tortilla chips (for bat wings)

Tube of white icing gel and extra mini chocolate chips (for eyes; or candy eyes)

When forming the mixture into balls, carefully add a wing on each side. For the eyes, I squeezed out two drops of icing and put a chocolate chip on top. Or you could use this same method and place a candy eye on the icing drops.

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This recipe makes about 10-12 bats. They won’t hang around long though. They are too yummy!

WITCH FINGERS

Witch

Carrot sticks (I used a small bag of baby carrots.)

Blanched almonds

Cream cheese

Guacamole dip  (I used a prepared dip, but you could make your own as well.)

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Top each carrot with a dollop of cream cheese. Attach almond (aka: fingernail). Stick in a bowl of guacamole dip.

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Almost like magic—witch fingers to snack on.

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I hope you scare up some of these goodies soon!

 

Toying With Spooky Stories: A Writing Prompt

Let’s just be honest: toys are creepy.

Our stuffed animals stare at us with their button eyes while we sleep, and we can’t be completely sure they stay where we put them. Dolls? Equally freaky, if not more so. Puppets? Stop. (There is a reason the villains in my first book were evil puppets.)

Canva - Fluffy Stuffed Animals
They like to watch you while you sleep.

So it seemed only fair that when the kids in Twist, my book that comes out this month, had a bunch of monsters to defeat, they’d use toys to do it. It’s about time toys pulled their weight.It was a lot of fun, actually. Toys lend themselves well to weaponization. What parent hasn’t stepped on a Lego during a midnight bathroom trip and been convinced they were going to lose their foot? And there’s no alarm system as freaky as a Speak and Spell that accuses you suddenly out of the darkness. We all understand why Kevin McCallister used paint cans as booby traps in Home Alone…they’re heavy. But toys…toys are diabolical. They bring a level of psychological warfare to the table that’s hard to beat.

I mention this because while I love inventing creatures both friendly and foul, my favorite trick is presenting the commonplace, slightly askew. Familiar objects can send chills down your reader’s spine in the right context. That’s why the little wind-up primate with his clashing cymbals is so horrifying in Stephen King’s short story, “The Monkey.” It’s why a trail of Reese’s Pieces can lead to almost-unbearable levels of tension. And it’s why the juxtaposition of a Dungeons and Dragons miniature with a real-life danger doesn’t minimize the threat for the viewer, but gives them a focal point that makes them even more nervous.

Canva - Brown Haired Female Doll
She’s sad because you won’t share…your soul.

Familiar objects like toys are wonderful elements in a scary story, specifically because they’re so benign…until they aren’t. Once you’ve noticed how not-quite-right they are, you can’t unsee it. I know, this is a terrible thing I’m doing to you right now, but I am, after all, a spooky author. It’s literally my job. Of course, turnabout is fair play. So…

The next time you pick up your pencil (or ask your students to pick up theirs) why not pose the challenge of making a beloved childhood toy scary? If that doesn’t float your boat, if you really truly won’t be happy unless you can create a monstrous threat, see if your characters can solve that larger-than-life problem with household objects so basic, they’d normally overlook them completely. Especially if they’re toys! I guarantee good, spooky fun…besides, you’re already halfway there! Admit it: the Elf on a Shelf freaks you out.

Doesn’t he?

Canva - Grayscale Photo of Giraffe and Monkey Plastic Toy on Floor
Start here: the monkey is waving at…
 

 

BE A SPOOKY REBEL

One of my favorite things about art, whether it be painting, music, writing, or even cooking, is learning the rules…and then breaking them!

Mind you, this only applies to creative endeavors – breaking the rules in real life doesn’t have quite the same effect, but thankfully it’s a lot more fun to be rebellious in your projects…especially when writing spooky stories!

So what are the “rules” of spooky stories? They vary, but here are some common elements that you’ll find in any scary story:

SETTING: This is one of the most important elements of any scary book, show, or film. The setting creates the perfect atmosphere to frighten your characters…and your readers. Classic settings are gothic mansions, abandoned hospitals, haunted graveyards, ancient crypts, and foggy swamps and forests, to name a few. Needless to say, these places are often dark and shadowy – perfect for hiding ghouls and other foul surprises. By choosing the perfect setting, a lot of the work is done for you, and you can focus on other spooky things like…

CHARACTER: Part of what makes a scary story so terrifying is that you care about the characters and what happens to them. As you watch them enter a dark basement alone, or lose their phone, or trip on a root while trying to run away, you feel invested in their journey to beat the odds and survive. For this reason, the protagonists of a good horror story are often sympathetic characters. Often they are good, kind people. They’re innocent, and perhaps a little naïve…the exact opposite of whatever they’re facing. The stakes are always high with these characters—there’s a lot to lose if they don’t succeed, whether it be a loved one, or even the fate of the world itself.

Writing good characters also includes writing good villains, and there’s nothing as satisfying as creating the ultimate spooky antagonist. The possibilities are endless: ancient beings like vampires or monsters and ghosts, mad scientists, creepy animated dolls, clowns, and evil dentists…you get the idea!

PLOT: The final piece to the spooky puzzle is the plot. If you watch and read a lot of horror, you’ll notice certain tropes that show up time and time again. For example, when characters split up to investigate something, you just know something bad is going to happen. If there is a phone or a getaway vehicle…it most likely won’t work. And when the bad guy is defeated at the end and everyone think they’re safe…that’s rarely the case! Even though we know what to expect when watching or reading spooky stories, it’s still scary because you never know when the next thing will jump out at you, or what it will be. Also, a good spooky story excels at building suspense, setting the scene and the possibility of something bad happening. Sometimes the long descent into an ancient tomb is just as scary as whatever might be lurking inside.

So now that we know the basic rules of spooky stories, how can we break them?

SETTING: Challenge yourself to make a setting that normally isn’t scary into something that is. How about a video game arcade where all the games start flickering and malfunctioning at the same time? Or a dog park where all the dogs stop and stare at something their owners can’t see? Or a grocery store where you pull a jug of milk from the shelf….only to see something lurking behind it. By taking your spooky story into unexpected places, this gives you the opportunity to create new rules about what is scary.

CHARACTER: Just like with setting, try new and unexpected ways of creating characters. Maybe your hero isn’t as innocent as they seem. Maybe they USED to be the monster in someone else’s scary story and now they’re the ones being chased down. Maybe your protagonist is afraid of something that no one else is…pickles, for instance! If you write a story about evil killer pickles you’ll be able to make your reader see through your protagonist’s eyes and think twice about their favorite snack.

You can also have fun experimenting with new ways to create villains. One of the spookiest villains in Harry Potter is Dolores Umbridge. She looks like a benign old woman, dressed in pink, with decorative kitten plates on her wall, but she’s one of the most chilling and sadistic characters in the entire series. Even Stephen King, the master of horror, praised her character as “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.”

Think about ways you can make the ordinary…extraordinary. Think of the least scary thing you can, and find a way to subvert it into something terrifying! Our own authors in the Spooky Middle Grade group are great at this. Take Jonathan Rosen’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING CUDDLE BUNNIES or Kat Shepherd’s BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES series.

PLOT: This one is the hardest to break the rules with, because so much of spooky writing depends on the balance of suspense and surprise. I would suggest that if you break the rules in spooky writing, choose only two of the three categories to do it with. For example, if you want to experiment with setting and character, keep the plot structure more traditional. But if you want to break the plot and character rules, keep the setting more traditional, or else your story might not resemble something spooky at all.

The key thing is to experiment and have fun. Even if you break every rule in the spooky book, you can be secure knowing you won’t end up in spooky jail….

…or will you? MWA HA HA HA!

Spooky Writing Tips for Kids

This week, I asked three spooky middle grade authors to share their favorite writing tips for kids. Hopefully these quick tips will help add that extra dash of creepy to your next terrifying tale.

S.A. LARSEN

Use all five senses when writing your scenes. But don’t stress about it. Just close your eyes and imagine what your character smells, feels or comes in contact with through touch. Reach your character’s arms out to let an imaginary breeze sweep along their skin. Have your character take a deep breath and almost taste the dying moss clinging to the trees. Playing with the senses from a creepy point-of-view is so fun in spooky stories!

SAMANTHA CLARK

Keep up the intrigue by dripping details into a scene, each one getting scarier than the last. And don’t forget to use all the senses. Maybe first they hear a howl in the distance. Then smell something dark and musty. Then feel drool drip down their neck…

CYNTHIA REEG

To help me get in the spooky mood for writing my monster stories, I brainstorm creepy vocabulary words before I start writing. Divide a paper into categories for the 5 senses–Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch. See how many words you can think of for each sense. Even if you don’t use each of these words in your story, it will help set the tone for your writing. Scary on!

Thanks Spookies!!! I hope these tips help you add a little bite to your spooky story repertoire.

 

Spooky Author Pets

Here at spookymiddlegrade.com, our pets play a big role in our writing. I asked a few #SpookyMG authors to share stories about how their pets impact their writing.

Kim Ventrella & Hera

Yes, I had to put my dog first 😛 because she’s just too darn cute and she’s been a huge influence on my writing!!! True story, I wrote Skeleton Tree while sitting in a dog bed, while Hera sat on the couch behind me looking over my shoulder. She was basically my first editor, and she gave up her bed so I could have a comfy seat.

She also inspired me to write a story with a dog best friend, i.e. Bone Hollow, and that book is actually dedicated to her 🙂 She’s totally different from Ollie, though, Gabe’s best friend in Bone Hollow. Ollie has a wiggly, carefree spirit, but Hera is a total ball of nerves. She has a major phobia of people and other dogs. Example: when I first brought her home, I had to carry her outside, and if she saw someone walk past the window of their condo (inside) from 200 yards away, she would race back to our house shaking. It would take her 20-30 tries before she could get up the courage to pee. Now, she’s way braver and more comfortable in her environment, but she’s definitely a one-person dog.

Kim Ventrella is the author of Skeleton Tree (2017) and Bone Hollow (2019), both with Scholastic Press. She’s also a contributor to the New Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology coming in 2020 from Harper Collins.

Tania del Rio & Boba & Max

I have two dogs named Boba and Max. Max is a Chihuahua mix about 10 years old, and Boba is a 9 month old corgi puppy.

Max is usually content to lay at my side while I write and it’s nice to have her act as my little personal space heater on cold or rainy days. She’s got really soft ears that I like to pet whenever I’m stuck on a scene and need a moment to think. She’s the “pawfect” writing buddy!

Boba, on the other hand, has a lot of energy and gets jealous of my computer. If I’m not paying attention to him, he lets me know it by crawling onto my lap and getting in the way! He also likes to bark in my face- rude! It can be a bit challenging to get anything done with him around, so I try to take him on a long walk or visit the dog park so that he’ll sleep for a few hours while I work.

Even with the distractions, it’s nice to have pets to keep me company while I write and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Tania del Rio is the author of Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye and Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods.

Jonathan Rosen & Parker

parker relaxing.jpg

My dog, Parker, is a three-year-old rescue, who we find to be the sweetest dog ever. He’ll usually curl up on the couch next to me when I’m writing. I’ll run ideas by him, and he points out whether or not there are any plot holes. He’s good like that. But mostly, he helps me because whenever I want a break, or am stuck on something, I turn around, pet him, and he basically lets me know that I’m doing okay.

Jonathan Rosen is the author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies and From Sunset till Sunrise.

Patrick Moody & Wicket, Nym & Zelda

I decided to do a critter photo shoot. As you can see, Wicket the hedgehog is a little shy. He’s often rolled up into a little defensive ball of spikes. And even after two years, our cats still don’t know what to make of him. Nym, our black cat, is a serious cuddle bug (and deceptively hefty). She’s usually stalked around the house by our youngest, Zelda, whose quite the handful. I have a theory she’s part squirrel! She loves her big sister, as you can see by the kiss! These three keep me company when I work from home, never far from my keyboard.

Patrick Moody is the author of The Gravedigger’s Son.

S.A. Larsen & Sadie, Molly, Chloe & friends

This is Sadie, my newest writing pup (on the right)! With her being so active I’ve had to move to the kitchen area to keep an eye on her while I write. Makes for an interesting word count . . . and sometimes not much! 😁

The photo collage is of our fur babies that have been with us a while. Molly the cat is my true writing feline, though. She insists on sitting in my lap while I write when I’m in my office. And Chloe is the jokester of the group. I have a video of her literally dancing on my desk and laptop while I was listening to music and writing. Super cute! 🐾

S.A. Larsen is the author of Motley Education and Marked Beauty.

Jan Eldredge & Mr. Bingley

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This is Mr. Bingley. We’re in constant competition over who gets to claim the desk chair or the top of the desk. Mr. Bingley usually wins. He has also laid claim to my spooky fairytale wallpaper, and he loves to rub against it. This would not be a problem, except it’s a flocked wallpaper, and his yellow fur clings to it like magnets to steel. As a result, a small portion of my daily writing time has to be spent vacuuming my wall.

Jan Eldredge is the author of Evangeline of the Bayou.

Janet Fox & Kailash

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This is Kailash. He’s about 5 years old now, and super friendly and like all Labs he still has a lot of puppy in him. In fact, getting him to sit still for this photo took a bit of wrangling.

He’s too big to get up on my desk (thank heavens) but he’ll occasionally try to crawl into my lap as I’m working. Mostly he is a walking companion, and I walk to get ideas so he’s a great help there.

We’ve never not had a dog for more than a couple of months. And at times a guinea pig or two, a rat or two, and a horse. We’d have a cat but our son is very allergic. But we love Kai. He’s got a big heart and loves everyone.

Janet Fox is the author of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle.

Cynthia Reeg & Holly

SkeletonDog Holly

Sadly my dog Holly recently journeyed to dog heaven. She was a constant companion, always ready with ideas and the ability to find perfect napping spots in my office. I can still hear her barks of encouragement, and I know there will be a very special dog in my next spooky story.

Cynthia Reeg is the author of From the Grave (Monster or Die) and Into the Shadowlands.

Angie Smibert & Stella, Maggie, Brick & Hubble

Pet Pics (1)

Here’s a graphic of my editorial “staff” – Hubble, Maggie, Brick, and Stella.  All of them are rescues. I have a two-year-old Lab mix named Hubble (yes, as in the telescope. I am also a space nerd.). He’s a foster fail, btw. I fostered him for the SPCA two summers ago, fully intending to keep him. Maggie (tortie) and Brick (gray) are about 8 1/2, and I got them together when they were just 8 weeks old–also from the SPCA. I picked Maggie out, and then Brick grabbed me from the next cage. They bicker just like the Tennessee William’s characters they’re named for. Stella is the most recent addition. About a year old, give or take, she was living under the porch of the empty house next door. I, of course, was feeding her on my porch–and when the weather turned really, really cold, she got very friendly, and dammit, I took her in. She is a petite sweetie who’s quite happy she adopted me.

More often than not, my guys distract me from writing since I work at home. My previous dog, Bridget, did inspire the dog in Memento Nora! As an animal lover, I tend to give my characters pets. Uncle Ash–in the Ghosts of Ordinary Objects series–has three dogs, all named after beaches in the Carolinas, who follow him everywhere. Plus the third book of the series will feature a ghost dog.

Angie Smibert is the author of Bone’s Gift, Lingering Echoes and other books for young readers.

Happy Book Birthday: The Phantom Hour by Kat Shepherd

I am super excited to welcome our very own Kat Shepherd to the blog!!! Her new book, THE PHANTOM HOUR, releases today!! I recently had a chance to chat with Kat about her new book, a brand new mystery series and much more.

Q: You have a passion for animals, traveling and the outdoors, among many other interests. How have those passions found their way into your writing?
 
A: Like any author, I pull a lot from my own life to put into the stories I write. Lots of my characters are based on former students of mine or other people I know, but there’s always a little bit of me in there, too. In the newest Babysitting Nightmares book, THE PHANTOM HOUR, Clio shares my passions for travel and history and glimpses into the past. And in Book 2 we’ll meet Ethan, who has a really strong connection with animals. I train and foster dogs, so I really wanted to put a character in the series that reflects my own bond with animals.
 
Because I write suspense, I rarely put pets in my scary books, and there’s a really good reason for this. Anytime I see a pet in a scary movie or book, it immediately distracts me, because I get so worried that something is going to happen to it. (I blame Stephen King for this. Animals rarely fared well in his books!) So I intentionally avoid putting pets in, because I don’t want my readers worrying about them like I always did. But in PHANTOM HOUR I couldn’t resist bringing back my favorite dog, Wesley. He passed away in 2013, and I miss him every single day, so it was wonderful to get to write about him and see him come alive on the page. It was a little like getting to spend time with him again.
 
Q: Tell me more about microphilanthropy. Does it ever crop up in your books? How can readers get involved?
 
A: It’s important to me that my protagonists be kind and show compassion and generosity. Not because I’m trying to teach some big lesson to kids or anything, but because I have to spend a lot of time with my characters, and I don’t really like to be around people that aren’t kind or compassionate. Generosity and compassion are driving forces in my life; they absolutely give my life direction and purpose. That’s not to say that I am this supremely generous and compassionate person, but those are the qualities I am continuously striving toward. Failing to get there a lot, but always trying.
 
One of the biggest challenges of my life was that I have always wanted to be this great philanthropist, but I don’t really have any money. So in trying to figure out how to give meaningfully when the size of your wallet doesn’t match the size of your heart, I started pursuing a concept I call microphilanthropy. It’s based on the idea that you don’t need a lot of money to make positive, measurable change in your community. You just need people.
 
Basically, it’s crowdfunding, but rooted in the community. I find local organizations that need small, concrete projects funded: a science club at the library, blankets for the zoo’s chimpanzees, emergency rental assistance to keep a family from becoming homeless. Each project costs anywhere from $100 to $1200. Then I throw a party and invite the organizations to come a pitch their projects to my party guests. Then everyone at the party puts whatever money they can spare into jars we set up for each project. At the end of the night we count up and distribute the money, and the organizations go on to fund their projects. The average donation about $10 or $20 per person, but when you pool that money together, it makes these incredible things happen.It creates a really strong connection between people and their communities, and it feels really powerful to see that you made something amazing happen. The best part is seeing the excitement on my guests’ faces when they realize that they are the reason the library has a science club now, or a family didn’t lose their home. It wasn’t some rich person who did that. It was us.
 
I actually just wrote up a little how-to guide for folks who want to throw their own microphilanthropy party. They can email me at my website katshepherd.com, and I’m happy to send it over or help them strategize.
 
Q: What should readers expect from Book 2?
 
A: While Book 1 of Babysitting Nightmares took the girls into the Nightmare Realm, Book 2, THE PHANTOM HOUR, feels a little more grounded in this world. Clio gets a job babysitting for the Lee family, a new family who has moved into an abandoned old mansion at the edge of town. The Lees are lovely, and Clio is thrilled to get the chance to explore the old mansion… until she starts to realize it may be haunted. Luckily Clio has help from her friends and Aunt Kawanna, and she also gets some unexpected help from her new friend, Ethan, who has a few secrets of his own. Readers should expect a spooky ride of suspense, thrills and chills as Clio works to unlock the mansion’s mysteries before it’s too late.
 
Q: Are any of the thrills and chills from BABYSITTING NIGHTMARES based on real-life experiences?
 
A: Several generations of women in my family have had regular contact with ghosts. Ethan’s Great-Grandma Moina is based on family stories, but I made her backstory a lot more exciting than my own family’s. For my own great-grandmother ghosts very matter-of-fact and not at all mysterious; they were just around all the time. It was much more fun to make Moina a glamorous, professional medium who performed big, showy seances! To figure out how to do that I did a lot of research on the Spiritualist movement and the history of psychic mediums in the US. I even went to a seance in an old Victorian mansion! What I learned was that there were lots and lots of seances back then, but not a whole lot of ghosts. The magician Harry Houdini helped prove that most of the so-called mediums were faking it and using tricks and illusions to fool people into thinking that they were seeing and talking to ghosts. I’m not sure if I was disappointed or relieved to learn that!
 
Like the house in PHANTOM HOUR, my own house was vacant before we moved into it. We are only the third owners, and the last person who lived there was a woman who had lived there for 40 years. After she died her daughter held onto the house for another decade because she couldn’t bear to give up something her mother had loved so much. So we felt a little worried when we moved in that might find her ghost hanging around.
 
A few months after we moved in I went to bed early and my husband was still awake. For some reason he always keeps his dress shoes on after work, and it can be annoyingly loud when he walks around the house. I was awakened by his footsteps in the middle of the night, and I was super irritated that he hadn’t taken off his shoes. But then I rolled over and my husband was asleep next to me! I woke him up, and we both heard a man’s footsteps walking through the house. Our burglar alarm had been set and our dogs were sleeping peacefully, so we knew it couldn’t be an actual person. For some reason nothing about it felt scary at all, and we just went back to sleep. Our house was built by a judge, and we wonder if it was his otherworldly footsteps we heard. So we did end up having a ghostly encounter, just not with the ghost that we expected!
 
Q: What advice do you have for young fans who may be interested in writing their own stories?
 
A: I think one of the best things writers can do is to read a lot. Reading helps give you an instinct for story and language; you learn by seeing how other people do it. I also think it helps to read critically, with the eye of a writer. Read for enjoyment, but then take a minute to think about why you loved the story and what made it so good. Then think about those moments that weren’t so good. Did the story drag? Were there parts you got bored, or the action moved too fast? Reading like a writer is a big part of how I developed my own storytelling style and voice.
 
The other big part of writing your own stories is to WRITE THEM! Put them in a notebook, get a cool journal, or learn to type and store them electronically. If you’re excited to write but feel stuck for ideas, sometimes fanfic is a really fun place to start. Think of your favorite book and write a sequel, or choose a character from a book you love and put them on a new adventure. Create a mashup of your two favorite series. What would happen if the characters met? Spooky stories are also a great way to get started, because it automatically puts your writer’s imagination into overdrive! I teach a spooky story writing workshop, and I’m always happy to email aspiring writers the ideas and exercises I use to get started.
 
Once you get your stories down on paper, make sure you share them! Writers need readers. Ask your friends and families to read your work and share any moments where they got confused or needed more description, as well as those parts that made them laugh or jump out of their seats. Take that feedback and use it to make your story really sing. Writing a first draft is important, but revising is where the magic really happens. Most writers I know absolutely love to revise, because it lets us forget all the nitty-gritty and just focus on making the story the best that it can be.
 
north starQ: What can readers expect next from Kat Shepherd? I hear you may have a new mystery series coming later this year?
 

A: I have a new mystery series The Gemini Mysteries, that debuts on March 5 with THE NORTH STAR. I have been a huge mystery fan for as long as I can remember; so much so, in fact, that I have a mystery-themed tattoo sleeve that continues to evolve as I add more favorites to it. One of the things I loved most about mysteries is the interactive experience of reading one. You’re constantly taking in information, evaluating, predicting, and then re-evaluating based on a changing landscape of clues. So exciting as a reader, and such a great tool as a teacher! This series is especially fun because there is a picture at the end of every chapter with a clue hidden in it, and the reader gets to work alongside the detectives to find the clues that lead to the next step in the mystery.

 
It’s been fun for me, because Babysitting Nightmares and Gemini Mysteries are so different, but there is a lot of crossover between mystery and horror. I like to write fast-paced adventures with a little bit of humor and lots of suspense, and I think both series allow me to do that. I hope my readers will have as much fun reading them as I have writing them!

DEFEATING YOUR FEAR OF WRITING

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“Fear is a steal trap,” Gran advises Evangeline, the heroine of my debut middle grade novel. EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU is the story of twelve-year-old Evangeline Clement, a haunt huntress apprentice studying the ways of folk magic and honing her monster-hunting skills. As soon as her animal familiar makes itself known, the only thing left to do is prove to the council she has heart. Then she will finally be declared a true haunt huntress. Of course, things do not go as planned for Evangeline. And when she and her grandmother are called to New Orleans to resolve an unusual case, she must summon her courage to defeat a powerful evil that’s been after her family for generations.

Gran goes on to warn Evangeline, “Fear keeps you from moving forward. It binds up your courage as well as your smarts.” These wise words of Gran’s hold true for nearly any situation we encounter, whether it be hunting monsters or writing essays.

As the leader of a local writers group for the past dozen years, and having been a member of numerous critique groups, I’ve learned that one thing we creatives all have in common is fear. And we have a lot of them, like: showing our writing to family and friends, getting our work critiqued by other writers, not knowing how to begin our stories, not knowing how to end our stories, or not being able to come up with any new ideas. But one of the most common fears I’ve seen is that of simply getting started, rallying the courage to just jump in and begin the writing of that novel, memoir, or short story. I call it “freezing on the high-dive”. Taking that initial leap can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be.

After discussing this topic with numerous fellow writers over numerous coffees and teas, I’ve come to suspect this particular fear stems from the mistaken belief that we have to get our words right the first time, that somehow a perfect stream of brilliance must flow straight from our head and onto the blank sheet of paper. This unrealistic expectation can lead to a lot of frustration and writing resistance. Fortunately, there are a few easy techniques writers of any age and any writing level can incorporate to defeat their fear of writing and get their words moving forward. These simple tips can be applied to everything from the writing of novels and essays, to the writing of thank you notes.

The first step is to think of the writing process as one that uses two distinct parts of your brain: the creative side and the editorial side. Going into a project while trying to use them simultaneously is when many of us run into trouble. The two parts do not play, or work, well together.

Once you’ve accepted the fact that you’ve essentially just carved your brain into two halves, the next step is to hush that editorial side. Reassure it that it will have its turn to make corrections and clean things up later, but for now it’s Creative’s turn to play. Allow your imagination to run wild and free. Let go of rules and logic. There are no right or wrong ideas in this phase of your project. Don’t worry about choosing the perfect word, and don’t worry about things like spelling and punctuation. That’s Editor’s job for later on.

If you’re still having trouble coming up with ideas, here’s another helpful tip: just start writing. Write anything, even if it’s simply the words, “I don’t know what to write.” There’s something almost magical about the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, that gets the creative tap flowing. Taking away all those expectations of perfection will conquer that fear of not being able to think of anything to write.

Now that you’ve got some great ideas and images, and maybe even some really cool lines of dialogue, let your creative side take a rest. This is the time to set your internal editor free. Allow it to get to work picking and choosing what elements to use, what order to put them in, and making sure the grammar, spelling, and punctuation are all up to snuff.

This is the technique I used while writing EVANGELINE OF THE BAYOU, and I’m using it now as I work on the sequel. Keeping the creative half of my mind separated from the editorial half has helped me defeat my fear of just diving into the writing. It’s helped me overcome my worry that my writing is too sloppy, nonsensical, and filled with mistakes. I know that by setting my creative side free to do what it does best, it’ll provide me with fun, fresh, and unexpected ideas. Sometimes it delivers more ideas than I can use, or ideas that are in need of further research and tweaking, but that’s okay, because I know I’ll soon be unleashing my editorial side to make my words all shiny and clean.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Right In the Funny Bone: Why Spooky and Funny Are A Natural Fit

If you haven’t done it yourself, you’ve seen someone else do it. They reach a scary moment in a book, or a jump scare in a movie, or even stumble upon a prankster who jumps out at them from behind something– and instead of screaming, they burst out laughing.

boy in black v neck shirt with looking straight to the camera with a shocking face expression

What is it that makes us laugh when all signs point to “AHHHHHH?” Scientists have a handful of theories:

Some say it’s a sort of peace offering– an instinctive reaction to confrontation. Laughing shows we’re not looking for a fight, so whatever’s coming at us will hopefully back down and go away.

Others suggest that laughing is a way to manage our fear. When we laugh in the face of danger, we’re trying to convince ourselves things are less dire than they seem.

But my favorite explanation (and the one that makes the most sense in connection with scary stories) is that laughing when we’re afraid or crying when we’re happy actually balances us out emotionally.

Speaking as a reader, one of the things I love most about middle grade is the way our main characters are centered in their family and community– I draw deep satisfaction from the inherent wholeness and balance of middle grade worlds. As a writer and lifelong smart aleck, shared humor is one of my favorite things to write; to me, it’s a sign of a close, happy community. I can’t imagine penning a family or town where people don’t joke, tease, and mildly snark.

child in blue and yellow jersey shirt with the two other kids
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

As you read this, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute. It’s conflict, not happiness, that drives a story. Especially a spooky story!” You’re right, of course. But it’s also important to remind the reader what your characters are fighting for. Shared humor reinforces a sense of belonging and reminds us what we like about certain characters. Conversely, humor meant to embarrass or bully someone hardens our hearts against a villain.

Wisecracks are also the perfect opportunity to illuminate individual personalities and relationships between characters in a “show, don’t tell” way. For example, when a group of kids has to cross dangerous territory, a competitive best friend or sibling might say, “Hey, your shoe’s untied!” in order to get a head start. The competition between the characters gives them the courage to face the peril.

On the other hand, a nervous friend who’d rather be at home under the covers is more likely to resort to gallows humor, like, “It’s my night to feed the dog. He’s going to be seriously crabby when I die and his bowl is empty.” How other characters respond to this joke will be revealing. Are they impatient? Reassuring? Or do they toss another joke right back?

If you love writing stories with lots of scares, laughter can also provide some much-needed contrast. I adore a runaway horror story as much as the next spooky author, but like true joy, intense fear is hard to sustain. Worse, fear actually gets exhausting after a while. Raise your hand if you write to exhaust your readers. No? Then consider providing moments of levity to give them a break.

This is all well and lovely and I mean every word, but don’t be fooled– I’m no altruist. There are lots of upbeat reasons to put some banter in your book, but you can also use laughs to trap the unwary. I love to use humor to lull my readers into a false sense of security. Then, when it’s time for the next creepy moment, I’ve got them exactly where I want them! So, if you haven’t tried mixing jump scares with jokes, I highly recommend it. You don’t have to be a serious person to deliver some serious scares!

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About the Author
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Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity, has lived all over the U.S., but right now she calls Indiana home. She has a husband, three kids and a misguided dog. Sarah holds a B.S. in Education. She’s a nerdy knitting gardener who drinks a lot of coffee, and eats a lot of raspberries.

She is probably human.

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