Interview with Fir Tree

santa_final_smToday I am presenting an interview of one of my own characters. The Fir Tree first made an appearance several years ago in the short story “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree,” and has been hanging around the corners of my mind ever since, angling for a sequel. Though that remains so far unwritten, I thought I would appease the Tree by inviting it to come to the blog for a seasonal interview. Leave a comment before midnight Dec. 18 EST and you’ll be in the running for a “Saint Nick” giveaway book.

(For reasons that will become apparent, this interview was conducted by a third party.)

SAT: How did you meet your writer?

FT: I was planted by a lovely man named Jack, and lived in their backyard for years and years. But time passes more swiftly for humans than it does for trees; Jack and his wife grew too old to take care of the house and yard. Eventually they sold it to Aunt Nancy and her husband. Aunt Nancy loved to garden and made sure I had plenty of yummy compost and trimmed me every year. But nowadays she stays inside more, writing, she says. Someone needs to tell her to get out and take care of me and the other plants in the yard!

SAT: Did you ever think that your life would end up being put in a story?

FT: No, I didn’t. But after I told Aunt Nancy about my little adventure with Saint Nick, she decided to write it down.

SAT: What are your favorite scenes in the “Saint Nick” story?

FT: It really is MY book. Aunt Nancy just wrote down what I told her and added a beginning and end. I suppose her parts are all right, but the really good stuff is all mine. I think I did an especially good job with the snow scene at the end, when I was worried that the ax murderer would return.

SAT: Did you have any difficulty collaborating with your author, er, scribe?

FT: To give Aunt Nancy credit, no, I didn’t. She was fascinated by the whole thing. But now all she wants to do is stay inside and write. If I’d known that’s what my story would lead to, maybe I would have kept it to myself.

SAT: Have you ever appeared in your writer’s dreams?

FT: I wish. If I did, she’d get off that stupid computer and pay attention to those of us who live in her backyard!

SAT: Do you have any hobbies?

FT: I really enjoy bird watching, and I’m in the perfect spot. There’s a hawk couple who live in the neighborhood, and it’s especially exciting when they drop by. Keeps those loud-mouthed squirrels in line, heh-heh.

SAT: Have you ever wished that you were a human instead of a tree?

FT: Of course not. Humans can be pretty strange, if you don’t mind my saying so. I think it’s much more satisfying being a tree. The other trees and plants in the yard are all friends, and so are the birds and rabbits. The squirrels, now—that’s another matter. They’re the rough element in the yard, if you know what I mean.

SAT: Are you happy with your story?

FT: Oh yes! Fir trees mean Christmas and “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” is a wonderful Christmas story. But Aunt Nancy can’t take credit for that–most of the story is MINE. My words. My adventure.

SAT: If you could rewrite anything in your book, what would it be?

FT: Aunt Nancy’s beginning. What she calls a “punk haircut” is all her fault for not trimming me soon enough in the summer, and I don’t see why she had to mention it at all. It gives readers the wrong impression.

SAT: Do you like the way the book ended?

FT: I suppose the bit Aunt Nancy wrote at the end was all right, but personally I think it should have ended with my words. Other than that, I have no complaints. What she said was true.

SAT: I hear that you’re interested in a sequel. Any ideas?

FT: Plenty! If she’s going to be inside writing anyway, she might as well write about me.

SAT: Do you prefer paper books or electronic?

FT: A touchy question. Unless the paper is recycled, it comes from TREES. The very thought makes me queasy. Though Aunt Nancy says electronic readers may end up in landfills and that’s bad, too. If it were up to me, the book would be electronic ONLY.ADAMS St Nick No Title copy

SAT: What do you think of the book cover and illustrations?

FT: I have to admit Aunt Nancy had the right idea: she thought the cover should be all about me. And she found a great designer and a great illustrator. I just love my portraits!

SAT: Do you have any secrets that your author doesn’t know about?

FT: <giggle> I’m not telling.

Thank you, Fir Tree! Leave a comment before midnight Dec. 18 for a chance to win your own copy of “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree.”

Short Story Winner!

My short story “The Black Cat” won this year’s Halloween short story contest sponsored by the online magazine Kings River Life, where it was published last Saturday. If you’re curious, you can read it here.

black cat (krl)

photo by Margaret Mendel for Kings River Life

I wrote the short story last fall, my first “creation” since leaving the day job, but the idea had been kicking around in my head for a while. Shortly after I decided to experiment with self-publishing a Christmas short story, “Saint Nick and the Fir Tree,” which appeared in December 2011, I got the idea of writing other holiday-themed stories featuring Saint Nick. I’ve always loved Halloween (I grew up watching Dark Shadows and reading Edgar Allan Poe) and I love cats, so writing a Halloween story that featured a black cat was an appealing notion.

I decided to frame the story by setting the first part on the Saturday night before the Feast of Saint Francis, which many churches celebrate with a Blessing of the Animals. The feast day proper of the much-beloved saint is Oct. 4, and the Blessing of the Animals usually takes place either on that day or the following Sunday. The last part of the story takes place on Halloween.

While my Christmas story featuring Saint Nick cast him as the original saint—aka, Santa Claus, in “The Black Cat” Nick appears merely as a “regular” human, a kind man but shrewd, his personality toned down somewhat from the occasionally crotchety Saint Nick of my Fir Tree story. (“Saint Nick and the Fir Tree” takes place the day after Christmas, when Nick is in search of a much-needed vacation, so his crotchetiness is quite understandable!) The black cat herself has another inspiration, but to discover that, you’ll have to read the story.

Roman Gothic: The Secrets of the Sibyl

roman forum w moon (by RomaOslo)This is the time of year when my reading takes a supernatural turn. The approach of Halloween initiates the mood, and chill autumn evenings invite the pleasures of sitting snug and cozy while vicariously experiencing creepy thrills. During this season, I often find myself turning to old favorites like Edgar Allan Poe or modern masters of the supernatural like Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series.

It’s true for me as a writer, too. I’ve just written a short story called “The Black Cat” that’s a bit of a riff on the tale by Poe. Another short story I composed this time of year, “The Secrets of the Sibyl,” is a conscious effort to import motifs from Gothic literature into the historical setting of my Roman novels, a sort of “Roman Gothic,” if you will.

“The Secrets of the Sibyl” takes place in the 4th-century world of the Late Roman Empire and is set in the ancient town of Cumae. For 4th-century Romans, Cumae had great historical significance. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, their great national epic, Cumae is where the wandering Aeneas, fugitive from the defeated city of Troy, first set foot on Italian soil. Cumae, an ancient Greek city renowned as home to the Sibyline oracle, is already known to Virgil’s hero, and his first thought is to seek counsel from the prophetess:SOTS_sm

“But Aeneas, that righteous man,
The dread Sibyl’s secret sanctuary sought:
A cavern, enormous,
Hewn from the native rock.

A hundred pathways lead there,
A hundred mouths give utt’rance,
Proclaiming with a hundred voices,
The Sibyl’s hidden knowledge.”

–Book 6 of the  Aeneid
(my translation)

For the 4th-century Romans of my story, Virgil was not only the author who had given voice to the legendary beginnings of their nation, but a literary genius whose influence on them and subsequent Italian generations was comparable to that of Shakespeare in the English-speaking world. Once I’d mastered enough Latin to read the Aeneid in Virgil’s original language, I was equally smitten.

With the quote above as inspiration, I eventually conceived a story that would give my young series heroine an ancient, crumbling villa to explore, a villa located in Cumae. Since the town is on the Bay of Naples, where wealthy Romans typically owned summer homes, it wasn’t too difficult to create the scenario. Add an old servant in possession of a horrible secret, a visit to the site of the Sibyl herself, a nighttime prowl through the decrepit villa—and voila, Roman Gothic. I had great fun composing it.

Does October bring out the Gothic in you? What sorts of things do you most enjoy reading and writing this time of year?

A Daphne Finalist

The phone call came a few months ago at work. “Your book is a Daphne Finalist!”

“It is?” My voice shot up two octaves into an ecstatic squeal. After the call, I worried that I’d given the Daphne coordinator a massive earache.

Author Daphne du Maurier

Author Daphne du Maurier

The next two days were a flurry of polishing the first 25 pages for the final round, then I headed over to my website and drafted a new home page, waiting to release it until the names of the finalists were officially up on the contest website.

The Daphne du Maurier contest is run by the Kiss of Death chapter of the Romance Writers of America, a chapter that focuses specifically on romantic suspense. (Check out the website’s cute video introduction!) Every year, unpublished writers are invited to submit the first few pages of their novels in various categories of romance as well as a “mainstream” category of suspense that isn’t required to have romantic elements. My main writers’ groups, Sisters in Crime and its online “Guppy” chapter, always post details of the contest, usually open for entries from mid-February to mid-March of each year.

kiss of death 3I’ve been entering mainstream category of the Daphne contest for the last seven or eight years now, and I’ve always appreciated the generous feedback. Comments from the judges have given me much needed encouragement (writers have such frail egos!) while at the same time providing valuable direction for ways to improve my work. It’s been encouraging to see my scores gradually go up over the years, proof that all that hard work of rewriting and attending to craft is beginning to pay off. A few years ago, my scores came very close, and though they were not close enough to make the finals, it was still a real boost to get overwhelmingly positive reviews from each of the four judges. Prior to that, one or two always seemed to love my entry, but the rest—didn’t. So that alone was a thrill.

And now, I’m thrilled even more! I am so grateful to all the wonderful volunteers who take the time to judge and coordinate this marvelous learning opportunity for writers, year after year. I know that for me personally the Daphne contest has been a major factor in developing my work. Words of praise from judges who loved my voice and my work sustained me during periods of doubt, and words from those same judges, pointing out ways to improve along with their praise, have been some of my best guides, lampposts along the way.

Curious about my book? It’s an urban fantasy suspense set in Paris. Link here for the teaser on my home page.

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