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Not Necessarily Friday

A couple of Fridays ago I participated in Fantasy’s “Blog for a Beer” again — and I found out today that I won…again! (I’m a little worried that no one will want me to blog there anymore if I keep on being a brat and winning.)

If you haven’t checked out Fantasy’s website, you should! They have Fabulous Free Fiction almost every day of the week. If the link doesn’t work, copy and paste: http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy

Here’s my entry — 99% of it is true. I’ll let you guess which 99.

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I’ve spent this week cat sitting at my friend Sherri’s cabin in the hills of Tennessee. She called last night to check up on me, starting with the Inquisition.

“Hey, girl. You doing okay? How’s the cat? Did they put in the new gate? What does it look like?”

“Kitchka’s fine; I think we’ve reached a mutual understanding. I cleaned house today so you wouldn’t come home to a mess. And the gate’s…well, it’s a gate,” I yawned. “It’s not like it’s covered in fairy dust or anything.”

Sherri yawned in reply. “Stop that! I still have a ton of work left to do tonight!”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m ridiculously tired. I know now why you don’t like staying out here by yourself.”

“Creepy, isn’t it? I think it has ghosts.”

“It’s not creepy,” I said, “just loud. It’s been crazy windy here the past few nights. I was up at 3am on Tuesday taking the wind chimes on the porch down because they were driving me mad. And you know how the tin roof creaks like footsteps when it’s sunny? Well, in a wind storm, it sounds like bodies being dragged across the ceiling.”

Sherri laughed. “You familiar with that particular noise?”

“I grew up with evil siblings, same as you,” I said. “You know what else I discovered? My bedroom door is right next to the air return vent. So when the heat goes on and off, my door slams, even if it’s already closed.” Suddenly, my overtired body yearned to expel the list of complaints on its behalf. “The humidifier is right outside my door too. And then there’s wild kingdom on top of all that. If it’s not the mournful cows, it’s the stubborn woodpecker. Or the coyotes. Or the bobcat-in-heat convention. So much for the serene pastoral setting. I’d take a sleeping pill if I didn’t have to get up for work in the morning.”

“Oh, sweetie. Go have some cocoa. Take a shower. The storms have passed, and tomorrow’s Friday. I’ll be home, and you can catch up on all the sleep you need.”

We said our goodbyes. Yawning again, I decided to take some of her advice. A hot shower, at least, sounded relaxing. Leaning into the spray, I closed my eyes and prayed for just one decent night. One more day of eye-twitching semi-consciousness and I’d probably start hallucinating. I let myself indulge for far too long, and then stepped out into the misty room.

The dripping message on the fog-covered mirror read: WE LIKE YOU. SLEEP WELL.

I sighed.
I just cleaned that mirror.
But if it meant eight hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep, I didn’t mind cleaning it again.
In the morning.

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This is My Brain on Magic

There is an article out in the most recent Psychology Today (yes, I do sometimes broaden my horizons past Stephan Pastis’s new Crass Menagerie collection) about magical thinking. It essentially says that people who find patterns in things, usually with nothing but a spiritual or supernatural basis, are healthier, happier people who actually *do* have more control of their universe. It talks about superstitions, the machinations of coincidence, and the beliefs that everything happens for a reason. And not just convincing yourself that things happen for a reason, but KNOWING that they do. True belief.

There is a difference.

Happily, having grown up Greek, I feel like I’m ahead of the curve. Whether the superstitions are true or not, it’s better to hedge your bets and not put garbage out into the universe. Karma’s a bitch. Cheaters, thieves, and liars — they’ll get what’s coming to them and then some. Don’t go out of your way to add to the numbers, and the universe (magical entity that it is) will usually, eventually, do pretty right by you.

There is a reason for everything. That’s just how we live.

There’s a reason I let myself lie in bed this morning and listen to the rain on the tin roof. There’s a reason I spent the day with the windows and the doors open. There’s a reason I’m sitting here in this quiet cabin in the woods with a cat on my legs writing this essay instead of working on my novel or strapping on the iPod armband and succumbing to the siren’s cry of the elliptical machine downstairs.

For whatever reason, the universe wants me to share a story right now. And so I will.

One of the most surreal events of my entire life happened this Tuesday (yes, even trumping my interview with said Pearls Before Swine creator, which will go live next month). I was at work and I was tired, as I have been lately with everything I’m trying to do all at once. (It happens; I just try not to push it.) Lunchtime arrived faster than I expected it to. I took my leftover spaghetti to the microwave and decided to take a break — a proper honest to god break that did not involve looking at a computer monitor in any way, shape, or form.

A rare thing, to be sure.

There was a project I had been wanting to do that I had stuck on the backburner: making a collage for the wall in my office. I haven’t really redecorated since the new carpet made us pull up stakes, but I’ve been setting aside family pictures and book covers and other fun things to stick together when I got the chance. I had even collected a few magazines from the Periodicals castoffs. I figured lunch hour was as good a time as any to play around a bit.

Flipping through, the first image that caught my eye was a knife-holder shaped like a red plastic man. With all the knives in place, it looked like a bloody voodoo doll for your kitchen counter. I loved it. (I need to own one.) I cut around it and set it to the side. In this array of bizarre offerings there was also a doormat that said “USE ME.” Hah! I took that too.

Do you remember A Beautiful Mind? That movie has always scared me a little bit, because I always see patterns in things. I’m sure part of it was how I was raised, being a young girl with a big imagination escaping boredom. I’m sure part of it was my excessive love for math and logic, and the way things fit together in such harmony. It’s something that to this day my mother still comments on – this ability to “see” even the most mundane things a little differently than anyone else. A Beautiful Mind scared the hell out of me because I could see myself doing that someday, getting to a point where I’m circling lines from newspaper articles and cutting out pieces of advertisements and proving undoubtedly that the universe has been communicating to us subconsciously all along.

That Tuesday it was apparently communicating to me: when I next came up for air it was over two hours and four magazines later. I had even spent part of that time in the cafeteria, collecting more magazines and ripping pages out frantically as I waited for a meeting that never started because I was a day early.

I wandered back to my desk in a haze. Words kept jumping off the page and out of the middle of sentences, insisting to be heard. Pictures told me stories.
And not just any story.
MY story.

Kitti and I had a long conversation about how it was possible for a person to be depressed and happy at the same time. Inevitably, really horrible and tragic things happen to people. The death of a loved one. The betrayal of a friend. An unexpected loss of innocence. It’s impossible to think that a person can just move on past these events — we don’t slam the door on them and never look back, instead we incorporate them into our lives. These things are never forgotten; they become who we are. They become the building blocks for the amazing people we’re evolving to be.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to dwell on those terrible things. We still have to live our lives and be the best people we can be. We have to concentrate on making the world a better place. So we take those things and cram them into a mental shoebox and shove them under the bed. They’re still there and they’re still horrible, but day by day the dust of insignificance gathers, and eventually so many other things are shoved around it that by the time Spring Cleaning comes around, there’s nothing left in the box worth worrying about.

Late last year, something really horrible and tragic happened to me. I can’t explain it here — or, more to the point, I won’t. The actual events don’t really matter. What matters is that I was hurt — am hurt — and I am healing, and it is a slow and gruelling process. I ‘m not naive enough to tell people “I’ve put it all behind me” because it meant too much, then and now, but I am far too strong to let it (or anything or anyone else) control my life.

So right before Christmas I crammed all that poison into a shoebox and shoved it under the bed in my mind. It was still hot to the touch and its screams kept me up some nights, but every day there was a little more dust, and every day I smiled into the sunshine of a world that was a little bit brighter.

Tuesday…Tuesday I was possessed. I was channelling the evil spirit that festered in that shoebox, and it needed to vent. It spoke to me and it told me a story beyond words. And somehow, magically, I was given the means and knew exactly how to tell that story.

But I was AT WORK. I forced myself to put the scissors back in the drawer. I scooped up all the scraps of paper, careful to lose not the tiniest piece, and I put them in a bag with the rest of the magazines, ready to go home.

And I wondered how on earth I was going to survive the next ninety minutes.

I truly believe that when an artist becomes compelled, they should be given a blank check to take leave from their dayjob immediately. Anyone who has ever felt this knows what it’s like to be so possessed, knows that fire that burns inside your soul, consuming every other thought. It may not be contagious, but it’s a true sickness if I ever saw one.

I forced myself back to the tedium of work.
The minutes ticked by like years.
And then the lights went out.

Now, I don’t mean blinked or flickered, I mean that someone hit a transformer somewhere in LaVergne and we had a complete blackout. Everyone became distraught and jumped up from their desks. Those without proper battery back-ups on their computers lost their work immediately. (Happily, I am not one of those people.) There was commotion and speculation. After fifteen minutes, even most of the emergency lighting had failed. People started to abandon ship, but no supervisor had given the go ahead. Officially, they expected us to just sit and wait it out in the darkness.

Or, rather, the almost-darkness.

Guess who’s the only one in the room smart enough to have a desk lamp plugged in to the third outlet on her battery supply?

I reached in the bag, pulled out the magazines and folder, and went back to my mad tearing. Whatever conversations there were around me, I tuned out. Whenever someone asked what I had done to be so special as to have light, I didn’t waste the energy for my usual smart-ass reply. I ripped and cut and ripped and cut. The lights came back on right at 4:00, just in time for me to pack up and leave.

Do I believe in divine intervention? Hell yes I do. There was a reason those lights went out. And you bet your bippy I took advantage of the situation.

Despite the extreme fatigue, I went directly home, grabbed an old movie poster and flipped it over, took out two bottles of glue, a glue stick, and a Jane Austen movie, and I went to work.

Everything knew exactly where it wanted to go, I just did what the universe told me.
What my heart was telling me.
What my broken soul was screaming.

I forced myself to go to bed before I passed out, and I finished the collage the next day. I knew when I was done, just as I had known how to begin. There was nothing more that needed to be added, and I was spent. I sat there, cross-legged on the floor, and just stared at it, at this humongous thing that is probably the closest approximation to splitting my mind open and looking inside it. It’s beautiful and it’s sad and it’s real. It is the truth and the lies. It’s my perception of what happened — what’s still happening. It is pain and innocence. It is who I was, and who I became. There’s even a nod to Murphy in there.

Each picture is worth a thousand words, and this is my novel.

And having gotten it all out, my soul feels…purged. Cleansed. Well, as clean as a soul can be until the universe tracks through it with its dusty footprints and sullies it up again.

That same dust is settling on the shoebox, now quiet in its shadows.

One of the last pieces I glued onto the poster was a strip with the words “say goodbye.” Powerful things, those words. Now I say them to myself when the monster comes back to haunt me. And they help, because I believe they do.

That is my magic.

The piece is called “Scream Come True” and no, I won’t be posting it on the internet. But someday, maybe when enough of this art speaks through me, I’ll have a show like Sami and Janet do, and I’ll offer to sell the piece for eleven million dollars. By then there will be new horrors, new adventures in the world, new dragons for me to face and demons to slay.

And one day, there will be nothing left in that shoebox.
Like magic.
Because I believe.

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Genre Chick Interview: Shannon K. Butcher

Shannon Butcher’s contemporary romance novel No Regrets
debuted last winter. Its follow-up, the sexy thriller No Control
, has just released, and it is already a favorite in the Secret Inner Circle of Ingram’s genre book club. Join me as I talk to Shannon about the Delta Force, chasing tornadoes, and life with her husband, author Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files).

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Alethea Kontis: In No Regrets, your heroine is a genius cryptologist and your hero is a Delta Force operative–do you have a background in military or math or ancient history?

Shannon Butcher: No, I don’t have any personal background in the military or ancient history, but I took plenty of advanced math while getting my engineering degree.  In fact, I was only one class away from a minor in math, but I just wasn’t willing to stick around for another semester to get it.

AK: Were there any new challenges (or talents) you discovered while writing your second book?

SB: My second book was all about panic.  I’d sold it, but unlike the first one, it wasn’t written, so when I realized I had to write a second novel of publishable quality, I panicked.  I wasn’t sure I could do it.  The panic made me buckle down and write like crazy.  I finished the thing in 23 days and proved to myself I could do it.  The confidence I gained has been invaluable to me.

AK: You’ve gone from tornado chasing to engineering. What led you to contemporary romance? Have you always been a writer?

SB: I’ve always enjoyed writing, but it was never something I did outside of high school English assignments.  If it hadn’t been for my husband, Jim, I never would have even considered writing as a career.  He would be talking about how there was something wrong in one of his stories, but he didn’t know what.  I wanted to help, but had no clue how, so I told him that if he taught me what to look for, I’d help him find that illusive “wrong” he was looking for.  After a few years of having him teach me writing craft, I decided I wanted to see if I could write my own books, so in 2003 I did.  My early books sucked pretty hard, but No Regrets was the ninth book I finished and it was the first one I thought was good enough to try to sell.

AK: Tell us a little bit about your tornado-chasing days. (How cool is that!) Does anything scare you?

SB: I chased tornados as part of an undergraduate research project, and it was a fabulous experience.  I got to go up into military aircraft as well as chasing them on the ground in the instrument-laden cars we referred to as “geekmobiles.”  I experienced plenty of motion sickness, but never once felt afraid.  The scientists we were with knew their stuff and were careful of where they allowed us to go.  I always felt safe, so fear was never an issue.  It’s a lot more frightening waiting to see whether or not readers are going to like my stories than it ever was chasing a tornado.

AK: What would be your ideal writing environment? Where do you normally write?

SB: Right now I write in the living room in my comfy chair, but we’re building a house and I’m actually going to have an office!  With doors!  Of course, the comfy chair will have to go in there.  Mostly, I just need quiet to write, but I can do it anywhere, which is good considering how much we travel.

AK: What sort of research do you do for your books?

SB: I research only as much as I feel is necessary to make the story realistic and believable since I’d rather write than research.  I check facts and tend to use a lot of writers’ references like the Writer’s Digest Howdunit Series.  Luckily, I’ve lived in several states (I’ve actually moved across state lines eight times), so I don’t have to do too much research on the places I set stories since I’ve lived in most of them.

AK: What are the pros and cons of having a husband who is also a writer? I imagine your dinner conversations cover some interesting topics…

SB: Other than the fact that one of us always has a deadline looming, there aren’t a lot of cons to being married to an author.  We both have flexible schedules and really understand the demands of each other’s job.  Plus, there’s the added benefit of having a live-in critique partner.  We tend to talk about people that don’t exist and events that never happened more than the average couple, but it works for us.

AK: What were your favorite books as a child?

SB: I used to read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, like [J.R.R.] Tolkien, [David] Eddings, and [Roger] Zelazny.  I didn’t read my first romance until 1998, but since then, I’ve been totally hooked.

AK: What’s next for you?

SB: Writing romantic suspense is great fun, and I plan to continue to write those for as long as people are willing to read them.  In addition, I love paranormal romance, so I hope to have the opportunity to publish some of those soon.

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