What I’m Reading

The Ash House by Angharad Walker

I always have a ton of library books. There are the picture books stacked on the coffee table. There are the books for whatever I’m working on. And then there’s what I’m reading for fun.

My fun reading is a little dark lately. At the moment I’m reading a middle grade novel called The Ash House by Angharad Walker. When eleven year-old Sol arrives at the Ash House, he wants a cure. He’s been in pain for years and none of the doctors can help him. The Ash House is supposed to be where he goes to heal.

I’m about half way through the book and I don’t want to give anything away. But it is oh so creepy. And something is definitely wrong. It is middle grade horror so super atmospheric but not super gory. Just the way I like it.

The audio book I’m listening to is The Lost Village by Camilla Sten. I’m all of 30 minutes into a 9 hour file so I don’t have a feel for this one yet. The publisher’s description says that almost everyone from a village disappears in 1959. The only people that remain are a woman who was stoned and a newborn. In the story, a group returns to make a documentary in the present.

They are just arriving on site when I had to stop listening.

The description says that this is thriller vs horror. It is also a translated title. I’m seeing more and more of those lately.

Honestly, I’m not sure why I’m so into dark books lately. The one I’m working on is a bit dark but not thriller or horror dark. It is SF dark.

Maybe this is why I also have an ongoing stack of picture books. What are you currently reading?


3 Tips for Spooky Settings

Some settings are naturally spooky
but you can set your spooky story anywhere.
Photo by Jack Gittoes on Pexels.com

I’ve been thinking a lot about spooky, creepy and eerie settings this week. In part, my preoccupation comes from reading an article that claimed only certain settings can be used to write spooky stories. You know – cemeteries, abandoned mansions and the like.

Stop. Just stop. That’s absolute nonsense. The spookiest, scariest book I read in 2020 was The Only Good Indian by Stephen Graham Jones. Was it set in a cemetery? Nope. Did the main character live in an abandoned mansion? Not even close. He lived in a modern ranch-style home with track lighting. This leads us to step #1.

Don’t rely on cardboard settings

A scary story can take place anywhere. I’m not going to tell you how Jones pulls it off but he isn’t the only one to use a modern setting. The house in You Should Have Left with Kevin Bacon is unforgivingly modern. Unforgivingly? That’s more a reflection on my taste than anything else. But the movie does not rely entirely on shadows and dust, dank and damp. You can set a scary story anywhere. After all it is a spooky story because . . .

Spooky things happen

What do I mean by spooky things? It depends on your story. It could be objects or even people disappearing when your POV character’s back is turned. Or they find a warning scrawled on a scrap of paper or the wall. Oh, be creative. Leave a spooky message on a banana. There are noises in the walls, flickering lights, and doors that open and close.

Careful word choice

When setting a spooky tone, an awful lot can be in the word choice. Is the light bright and cheerful? Or stark and harsh? Images in photographs can be good-humored or shadowed. It isn’t so much what objects you describe as how you describe them. A carnival glass pitcher can be oily or iridescent depending on the tone that you want to set.

Some settings will be easier to use in a scary story but I’d seriously consider erring on the side of originality. Sock monkey shop? Fairy floss stand? You decide.


3 Trends in Horror

First things first, you don’t need to love blood and gore to be into horror.  Sure, some authors paint their stories with buckets of blood.  But others create a sense of dread – the creep and slither that convinces you something dreadful is coming.  The latter are the ones I love.

Yes, some young readers are into horror but what horror means for a 13 year-old is going to be different than what horror means for a 30 year-old.  Not sure what I mean by horror for young readers?  Check out Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, The Night Gardner by Jonathan Auxier, The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd Jones, and Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake.

Horror topics include hauntings, witches, aliens, viruses, space exploration, and more.  Experts say that horror appeals to us, including young readers, because it prompts strong emotion.  Here are some of the trends in adult horror recently written up in Library Journal. 

Once Again a Genre

When I was growing up, we read horror authors, but about a year ago I was doing research on horror and was surprised to discover that it was no longer a section in the bookstore.  In fact, if you asked editors and agents about it, many said that it wasn’t a genre but a tone.

That is all changing.  The article in LJ reported that B&N plans to recreate the horror sections in many of its stores.  And this isn’t a fluke.  Tor is launching a new horror imprint, Nightfire, which is giving away two free audiobooks collections.

Own Voices

Given the renewal of this genre, it isn’t surprising to find editors and agents looking for #OwnVoices novels.  One such book just came out – Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians (Saga).  Here is the publisher’s description:

“Four American Indian men from the Blackfeet Nation, who were childhood friends, find themselves in a desperate struggle for their lives, against an entity that wants to exact revenge upon them for what they did during an elk hunt ten years earlier by killing them, their families, and friends.”

Twenty-two of Jones books have come into print since 2000.


As often happens when a genre is renewed for a new crop of readers, old tropes and formula are dusted off.  Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (Del Rey, Jun.) is, not surprisingly, gothic.  In this novel, the heroine’s dreams are invaded by none other than a house even as she tries to puzzle out the threat to her cousin from her new inlaws.

Horror films, specifically teen slasher movies, inspired two new books Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield (HarperTeen) and Stephen Graham Jones’s Night of the Mannequins (Tor.com).

Yes, Stephen Graham-Jones.  Again.  Obviously, if this is a genre you are interested in you should check out his work.




Fantasy and Horror: The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

Seventeen year-old Ryn has three things in life – her family, the graveyard her family cares for, and the forest she explored with her father.  The other villagers avoid the dark of the forest, venturing when they must into the outskirts but never going far.

As a child, Ryn learned that the scariest forest things were the bone houses, dead who walk once the sun goes down. Her father, the grave digger who taught her the trade, showed her how to break them down with his ax.  She is carrying this weapon when, in the forest, she finds Ellis, a young map maker who is determined to make a name for himself even if it means journeying through the forest and toward the land of the fye.

Ryn saves him from a bone house and together they make their way to the village.  But the bone houses are traveling beyond the forest and make their way into the village itself.  Ryn and Ellis struggle to find out why the change and how they can stop the bone houses.

If you are interested in writing horror or fantasy, this is a book you need to read.  It works as fantasy because the story depends on fye magic and a kettle that can bring the dead to life.  When it is cracked, it no longer works as intended.  In this story the walking dead aren’t the result of a science experiment gone bad or a virus.  It is magic.

But the story also works as horror.  It is very atmospheric with walking skeletons coming out at night, lurking in the shadows of the forest, and the all pervading sense of dread that something horrible is going to happen when shadows grow long and the sun goes down.

The combination creates a multilayered story and strengthens its appeal.  Like a parfait, a cake, or a wafer cookie, the best stories have layers.  This is an excellent example of how to do it right.


Recent Reading

It always surprises me when people act surprised by what I read.  Yes, I am a children’s author.  Yes, I read adult books.  And I don’t mean found-in-a-brown-wrapper adult books.  Just books that are not shelved in the children’s section or the Teen Room at my local library.

My most recent two reads were Violet by Scott Thomas and The Institute by Stephen King.

Violet is what I consider old school horror.  It is very atmospheric and staying in an old house by a lake will have much less appeal after you read it.

Read this book to learn how to select setting details and how to describe these details to set a mood.  This one is also a great study in how to feed the reader information bit by bit.

The Institute is, at least in my mind, less horror and more psychological thriller.  Sure, there are paranormal elements but this is King at his cynical best.  People being horrible to people.  Not that everyone is horrible but those that are excell at it.  Redeeming qualities?  Not so much but he does show how they justify it in their own minds.

Pick this book up to learn how to deal with a massive cast of characters and merging story lines.  This is also a great one to study if you want to learn how to avoid making assumptions with your characters.  Let’s just say that you’ll never look at the town eccentric quite the same way again after reading this book.

You definitely need to read the types of books that you are writing but you should read at least some horror.  The best horror writers use detail to keep the reader on edge.  They feed out information bit by bit.  They add twists and turns and surprises.

Gather round and learn.



Read, Read, Read with Recommendations from Stephen King

The stand
My favorite Stephen King novel.

If you are a writer, you need to be a reader.  Really, it is that simple. It is one of the best ways to learn how to write well.  You can study pacing, characterization, dialogue and more by reading.

By reading what you write, you know what is being published now.  You know what has been published.  And, again, you learn the techniques of your genre.

But you should also read things you don’t write.  Mysteries can teach you how to create suspicion surrounding a specific character.  Science fiction can help you learn how to incorporate science into your writing without your story becoming a physics lesson.  Fantasy is a lesson in world building.  Horror?  It is all about using suspense and setting the right tone.

Frankly, I’m always a little suspicious of writers who aren’t also readers. Or who read and then pan everyone else as if they write simply to show everyone else how it should be done.

When I find a recommended reading list from a top-notch author, I take notice.  So when I saw this post, “Stephen King Recommends,” on Off the Shelf, I clicked through and then started requesting books from the library.

I’m not big on gore but I love a book that can keep me on the edge of my seat.  Creepy, atmospheric horror makes me want to write fiction. And King is so enthusiastic about the books he recommends.  The best. A revelation. Brilliant.

Which books did I request?  Quiet Dell by Jane Anne Phillips. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Darktown by Thomas Mullen. Y: The Last Man by Brian Vaughan.  I’ll be reading some of them in print and listening to some as audiobooks.  I’m hoping I didn’t pick anything super creepy as an audiobook. That was a big mistake with Odd Thomas especially since I was home alone and I’m a night owl.

If any of you have read any of these books, I’d be interested in your take on them.


Speculative Fiction: What’s In a Name

jupiterRecently I was with some of my writing buddies and we were discussing, no surprise here, books.  Specifically, we were mulling over what to call Cinder by Marissa Meyer.  Since it focuses on technology and feels a bit grungy, I tend to want to call it futuristic steam punk because science fiction just doesn’t feel precise enough.  Of course, then we found ourselves discussing books that are futuristic and involve both magic and tech.

I thought of this today when I came across a column on speculative fiction.  Speculative fiction is fiction that . . . you’re gonna love this . . . speculates.  Otherwise, speculative fiction is all fiction that isn’t realistic.  That includes:

Science fiction:  Futuristic fiction based on science.  See Cinder and the other Lunar Chronicles books.

Fantasy:  Based on magic.  Wing and Claw by Linda Sue Park.

Science Fantasy:  Is it science or is it magic?  Has elements of both but you may be deep into the story before you know which is which.  Think The Golden Compass as well as McCaffrey’s Pern books.  Also Sharon Shinn’s Archangel series.

Horror:  Things that go bump in the night.  Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood.

Alternative History:  Things that didn’t quite happen.  May include magic as well as changes in the historic timeline.  See Ysabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda Series.

Magical Realism: Life as we know it with a magical twist.  My favorites are by written for adults by Sarah Addison Allen.  For young adults see The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman.

Read a few of these books and you’ll catch yourself wondering if I’ve put them in the correct category.  Shouldn’t it be there?  Or maybe it fits better here?  And that, my friends, is why the term speculative fiction comes in handy.  You might be done with a book before you decide where it goes and you may change your mind five or six times while reading it.

When that happens, it probably isn’t as important to nail down what to call it as it is to recommend it to another lucky reader.


Horror: More Than Blood, Guts and Goo

HorrorRecently, a friend of mine wrote a horror short story.  Did I want to read it?

My son is on a serious zombie kick.  In the name of mother and son bonding, I have suffered through an entire season of the Walking Dead.  Never mind that I love Zombieland.  Horror freaks me out.  I may agree to watch it with you but someone will have to hold my hand and it will not be a pain free experience.  Did I want to read her story at home by myself on a perfectly sunny day?  Wait?  Isn’t that when the walkers come?

I hemmed and hawed my way into an embarrassing pause.

“Really, it isn’t Stephen King horror.  It’s more like what I used to write.”

This friend doesn’t particularly enjoy tormenting so I recovered enough to agree and soon found myself immersed in a non-gross horror story.  It was amazing.  Afterwards, we discussed the difference between old-style atmospheric horror and new-style gooey, pustulent horror.

In the old type of horror it is all about atmosphere.  How can you set your story up so that the reader is more than a little uncomfortable and expecting something that goes bump, glop or yuck in the night?  They expect it, but the details you provide aren’t necessarily graphic.  This is the gross and disgusting viewed through slightly parted fingers. Think Poe.  His stories are wharped and weird and offputting, but they aren’t particularly repulsive.

You build the horror by choosing creepy details ranging from the fall of light to the creak of a floor board or the closing of the door.  You include details that can be described in a creepy way.  Lace might be web-like, wind groans, and a cellar smells like the freshly turned earth of the grave.  Okay, that’s most likely heavy handed but I hope you get the point.  You can write horror without the ick.

Who is your favorite writer of bump in the night, creepy horror?


New Imprint: Simon & Schuster to Launch Science Fiction, Fantasy Imprint

Justin Chandra

Although they haven’t named the imprint yet, Simon & Schuster announced plan to launch and new sf/f & horror imprint.  The imprint is under Jon Anderson, Executive vp & publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. He has appointed Justin Chanda, v-p and publisher of S&S Books for Young Readers, Atheneum, and Margaret K. McElderry, as the publisher of the new imprint.  Joe Monti was hired as executive editor. Most recently, Monti is an agent at Barry Goldblatt Literary. Navah Wolfe was named as editor for the imprint.

The plan is to publish sf/f and horror for all ages.  “A lot of content comes our way that we find compelling, but which won’t work in teen sections [of bookstores],” Anderson said. “We don’t want to use that as an excuse to not publish books for a growing market.”  Thus, the new imprint. The books will be sold by both the adult and children’s sales forces.

Anderson expects to publish 12 to 15 hardcovers/year, launching in Spring 2015.  In addition to print formats, the imprint will publish digitally, including e-only and serial publishing.

Keep your eyes on Simon and Schuster for more news.