Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Guest Kathleen Rollins on Story Roots

I'm delighted to host a fellow writer of prehistory fiction today, Kathleen Rollins. Please join her journey back in time and across continents. She shares my idea that our ancestors were not dumb savages, but real people. It's so fun to find authors with similar views!

What Lies at the Root of Your Stories
After retiring from teaching composition and literature and doing freelance business and technical writing, I wanted to write my own stories.  Specifically, I wanted to build a big adventure series around the idea that early explorers in the Americas came from many different places at different times.  I’ve always found it hard to believe the Beringia/Land Bridge Theory, which holds that the first people in the Americas arrived here by walking across the Land Bridge from Siberia to Alaska 13,000 years ago and from there populated the rest of the Americas (diagram).  Instead, the explorers in my stories come from West Africa, the South Pacific Islands, and northern Spain.  This is not to say that some people didn’t cross into the Americas through Beringia – just not all of them.

In the Misfits and Heroes stories, I wanted the explorers finding the New World to be both heroic and flawed, capable of the whole range of human emotion and possessed of a relatively sophisticated language.  Absolutely no grunting and pointing dimwits allowed.  It’s simply not credible that people would build housing, make rope, tie knots, handle boats on rivers and open sea, and amass a huge inventory of edible and medicinal plants the way they did at the Monte Verde, Chile settlement, dated to 14,800 years ago, if they had no language.

West from Africa: A Controversial theory 
  The travelers in the first book in the series, Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, cross the Atlantic from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico.  Though archaeologists are reluctant to admit travel across the Atlantic would have been possible 14,000 years ago, open water travel had been undertaken by the original inhabitants of Australia at least 50,000 years earlier. 

Wind and water currents would carry West African travelers across the Atlantic right to the Americas.  A young woman named Katie Spotz rowed from West Africa to South America in 70 days – solo – in 2010. 

With the help of primitive sails, the travel time for ancient seafarers could be cut in half.  A lot shorter than walking from Siberia, in any case.

Another find bolsters the West Africa thesis: Pedra Furada, a cluster of archaeological sites in northeastern Brazil, which has returned human habitation dates ranging from 32.000 to 48,000 years ago, twenty thousand years before the ice-free corridor is supposed to have allowed humans to travel from Siberia to Alaska and from there to the rest of the Americas. (Pedra Furada rock art, photo) 

The closest land mass to northeastern Brazil is Africa, not Asia.  Academic resentment and entrenched thinking stands in the way of accepting this route.  But it drives the plot in my first book.

More controversy

The group in the second book, Past the Last Island, comes across the South Pacific (marked by the
dark line on the map) starting in what is now eastern Indonesia, which would have a cross-roads of cultures from Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands). Those banished from their island homes as well as those too restless to stay put would have to set out into the unknown, forced by necessity to learn what they could about new islands, boats, ropes, tools, ocean currents, kelp, shore birds, navigation by stars, whatever anyone could teach them or they could figure out on their own.  Experimentation wouldn’t be a luxury; it would be a necessity, especially as the Ice Age faded and sea levels rose, drowning old coastal villages and the history they held.  A clever misfit might well prove to be a hero when the old ways failed.

Where the travelers in the first book are forced to learn about the sea once they’re drawn out into open water and can’t get back to shore, the expert seafarers in the second book purposely choose to see what lies beyond the edge of the world.  Not as surprising as it might seem at first.  These people were the greatest open water navigators in the world, capable of sailing from island to island, even at night and out of sight of land, charting positions by the stars and reading them by lining up marks on their boats, reading changing currents by lying flat on the floor of their boat.  They sailed from Polynesia to the Hawaiian Islands and Easter Island, both thousands of miles away from the nearest land.  Obviously, they were drawn to attempt the supposedly impossible journey. 

In the third book, A Meeting of Clans, members of the two very different groups meet for the first time and change the world.

In all the books in the series, the people share similar animist beliefs.  They feel all elements of the universe are possessed of a spirit and these spirits together power the world and influence every action within it, including human lives.  Spirits, when active, can take a variety of forms, including human. Signs and omens are terribly important.

While all areas of the natural world possess a spirit, that spirit energy is particularly concentrated in certain places, such as specific mountains, very old trees, deep forest glens, caves, rivers, waterfalls, even particular stones.

The measure of a person would be not just physical stature or possessions but rather his or her connections with the spirit power that flows throughout the universe.  (This basic animist belief is also “The Force” in Star Wars.)

By chance and by choice, some people embraced the spirit connection more than others.  Someone who chose to develop this connection became the shaman, someone who enjoyed the ability to cross between the three worlds (Underworld of the dead, Center World of the living, and Otherworld of the spirits) at the cost of never fully belonging to any of them.  He or she remained the person apart, revered, feared, sometimes resented.  In my stories, shamans have magical powers but they’re also isolated and thus less than fully human.

In rock art images, the shaman is often shown accompanied by animal guides, especially snakes.  Sometimes the shaman seems to be flying, sometimes morphing into something more than human: a human with bird claws and wings, a combination of human and mountain lion, human and stag, or others.

(Photo left: shaman, Panther Cave, Lower Pecos, Texas; middle photo: entranced shaman figures with serpents, rock art panel, Utah; right photo: winged shaman flying out of a hole, Texas)

Magical realism vs. Realism
While the concept of the shaman morphing into some other form in order to connect with the spirits may seems fantastic to us, it probably seemed normal to many ancient people. For them, the magical spirit world wasn’t unreal.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez said his fictional world, which many refer to as “magical realism” was simply the world his grandmother spoke of, in which magic was an intrinsic part of the universe, a world that included spirits as surely as it included people and insects, rivers and clouds.

I find this view easy to understand.  Ancient people saw their ancestors in the mountains and their future in the stars.  We see only rocks and points of light. They saw the natural world as their mother and father; we see it as our property to destroy as we wish.  Perhaps we have the smaller, poorer view.   

Kaye George asked if my views resulted from my travels.  Yes, definitely.  When I was in Bolivia, I joined a celebration that involved a lot of coca and home brew.  Everyone poured the first drink on the ground.  “For Pacha Mama” one man said, “For Mother Earth.”  It took me a moment to realize, “Yes, of course. She’s giving us this party.” 

In a little town in Guatemala, I visited a local cave called La Ventana (The Window).  Ancient Maya saw caves as entrances to the underworld.  Modern Maya leave piles of fresh flowers and rows of candles in La Ventana, some now bearing the images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The cave is still a portal – a window into the home of the spirits and the dead.   

Thank you, Kaye George, for inviting me to talk about my stories! 

Here’s the info on the books:

The Misfits and Heroes books are available on line at and Barnes and Noble.

Awards include 5-star reviews from Foreword Clarion Reviews and Readers’ Favorite (all three). Kirkus Best of 2011 (the first book), BRAG medallion (the second), Indie Reader 5-star reviews (first and third), Pinnacle Book Award winner (third).

While the books are designed to be a series, you can read and follow any one of them without reading the others.  The books have their own website at and their own blog at though I have to say the blog has morphed into a general discussion of all things ancient and their echoes in the present rather than just a discussion of the books.  I hope you’ll check it out!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

WPA with Kait Carson and me

Kait is one of the many writers who I met at the Writer's Police Academy in Greensboro NC this year that I've never seen face to face before. There were quite a few others, too. This, I think, is the most exciting part of a conference.

WPA, my first this year, was everything people had said about it: informative, non-stop, exhausting, and wonderful. I'll let Kait go first because she has pictures. I know some people took mine, but I didn't have my camera with me! This is getting to be my theme song and I know I have to change it. Here's Kait!

Hi Kait Carson here. This was my first WPA. I knew as soon as I saw the official program and schedule that it would not be my last.  There is too much to do. Even though the organizers tried to schedule everything at least twice, every time segment presented multiple options I didn't want to miss.  It was like trying to decide between dark rich chocolate fondant and dark, rich chocolate mousse. As we say in my native state, fugetaboutit. 

WPA is like being dipped in writer's yeast, covered with warm water, and left in a dark place to bubble. It's in the classes, and it's in the company. I've never been surrounded by so many writers. It felt like I found my tribe and I only hoped that no one would vote me off the island.

Our first day opened with a mass casualty simulation. The bloody scenario was playing out in full view of the road. I can only imagine what commuters thought seeing a destroyed car, scattered, bleeding victims, and two hundred fifty of my closest friends jockeying for position to get a better look. I grabbed a spot front, center, and as it turned out, next to the incomparable CJ Lyons. The woman was an ER physician. As the action started, CJ generously shared her insider knowledge with those around her. It doesn't get any better. Right then, I knew I was coming back.

Surprising the writers with the unexpected is expected at WPA. On Saturday as we were waiting for the buses, a sound like a shot rang out. Heads swiveled scanning the scene ready to drop and roll, after we got our detail. Turned out, some poor soul tripped over a 'caution wet floor' sign sending it to the floor with a bang. Immediately the lobby buzzed with the sound of writer's voices discussing what ifs. There may be thirty million stories in the Naked City, that morning there were at least thirty in the Marriott Lobby.  Lesson learned - use everything.

WPA is all about writers getting it right. Everyone gets involved. Waiting for a crime scene and evidence class to start one of the writers spoke up. In an accent as thick as Tupelo honey, she gave an impromptu primer on the proper use of 'y'all' and 'all y'all.' Rapid discussion ensued on the proper way to pronounce various words in the four regional accents of North Carolina. The learning never stopped. I’m definitely signing up again next year.

Kaye here, but I want to share a couple more of Kait's pictures. 
This is the door blasting demo--really loud!

Kaye George's WPA sessions 2014

My ride along

I did this Thursday night, as soon as I arrived. I was under the misconception that we would do just an hour. We were, however, scheduled for 6 pm to midnight. I missed the introduction to the academy and my first session with the Felony Murder team, but am so glad I did this. I’ve done these in Austin and Wichita Falls, TX, but this was my first in another state.

The cop I was with, the young Office Kilmer, has worked for Greensboro for 2 years doing the night shift. He was about to switch to days, although nights are his favorite. His consideration was that his daughter and wife needed him to have hours more similar to theirs. The ride was mostly uneventful. He said that in his whole experience at Greensboro, that was the first night he didn’t get a single 911 call! We answered a couple of minor traffic situations and one major. The details are all confidential, of course, but that last traffic accident kept me out until about 1 am. The morning bus ride at 7 am came early!

I’ll detail a few of the sessions I attended below.

Deep Undercover with William Queen

This ATF undercover agent got inside the notorious Mongols motorcycle gang and stayed with them for 26 months. After 24 months he was ready to go, but took 2 more to make sure he had enough to make the subsequent convictions stick to get prosecution for 54 of the men for murder, drugs, and gun running.

He readily admitted that the personal cost to him was enormous and he would never have done it if he had known.

A TV special was aired in September of 2000, narrated by John Miller, of his life as Billy St. John. The Mongol motto is “respect few, fear none” and Billy confirmed that they lived like that.

They had been in a 17 year war with the Hell’s Angels when he joined. He had to fill out a detailed application and succumb to a background check. These deep undercover operations don’t occur much, he said, but he did undercover work for 17 years. Previous to his work with the Mongols, he’d been with the Hell’s Angels. There was a little fear that he would be recognized, but he had changed his appearance drastically and never was. Facial hair is a great disguise. (That last comment is mine.)

Ninety percent of the Mongols are Hispanic. They have an organized national hierarchy with chapters, which have presidents, vice presidents, sergeants at arms, secretaries, and treasurers. He was his chapter’s treasurer, where he could keep track of all the dealings.

One of his books, UNDER AND ALONE, is about this harrowing experience. He’s not afraid any Mongols will read it. That got a chuckle out of all of us. He did not, however, allow any pictures and doesn’t want any info about him online. He knows that, if a Mongol met up with him today, they would try to kill him.

Felony Murder Investigation

It’s hard to put down just what I learned doing these sessions. An arson and robbery of a jewelry store was staged in a building used for Emergency Responders training. An actual fire was set the day before we got there. The stench was incredible and we all issued masks to enter the building and look for clues. We were told that the owner of the store had been sleeping in the back room and had died in the fire. We were given some suspects (actors) to question and were given lists of evidence found, plus the ME’s report (eventually). These sessions took place throughout the conference.

This is probably the most useful information. A mistake our group made was in questioning the suspects. We learned to mostly listen when doing either an interrogation or a questioning. We also learned the fine points of when to read the Miranda warnings and when not to. If a suspect has been apprehended and is being taken in, no warnings are necessary, as long as the police officer doesn’t ask any questions. Anything the suspect says at this point is admissible and is called a “spontaneous utterance.”

Some good questions to ask a suspect (after his rights have been read—and signed):
You know why we’re here?
You’re a smart guy (or gal). You know what’s going on here, don’t you?
What’s going on with you?

These usually get the person talking and you can slip in a cogent question later. Andy says there’s no course in how to do questioning. He learned by watching the masters he’s worked with.

Andy Russell, the policeman in charge of this, stressed many times that our job was to follow the evidence and not to make speculations on who might or might not be guilty. Evidence, he said, is for the investigation; motive is only for the DA.

Me in jail by team member Mike Riegel

Katherine Ramsland

I’ve read her books and taken online classes from her, but this is the first time I’d met her in person. Her lecture was not for anyone with a weak stomach. She went into (with pictures) some of the aberrant behavior she has studied. Her list of exotic crimes: necrophilia, sadism, dismemberment, cannibalism, bizarre rituals, strange motives, and clowns.

She said she gleans information from the news and from historical sources. In the case of the BTK Killer, she has been corresponding with him for 2 years to write a book about his twisted mind. Ms. Ramsland loves her work! She giggles when she’s talking about some of the more ridiculous behavior she’s encountered. She also laughed when she told about playing chess with the BTK Killer. He told her she couldn’t cheat. Her answer was, “You’re a serial killer and you’re telling me not to cheat?” She hired a Grand Master for her moves.

Lisa Gardner

She gave a lecture at the end of day one that everyone attended.

Ms. Gardner informs her writing in three major ways: books (secondary sources), doctors and cops (primary sources), and hands on experience such as WPA and fire arms training. She even told of doing research at the Body Farm.

Her formula for getting information from police workers is to ask questions about what is their funniest, scariest, and favorite cases. Also, what was the biggest surprise on the job, the best and worst part of the job, what do books and TV shows get wrong, and how would they commit the perfect crime.

She gave a Hemingway quote that I liked: Learn the iceberg to write the tip.

Alafair Burke

She gave a lecture at the end of the second day on Lessons From a Prosecutor. We learned that 90 percent of trial cases are settled, or resolved with a plea. She stressed that DAs and cops are not friends. They have separate duties and cultures. The judges are yet another separate kinds of beings.

She talked about the 4th Amendment, search warrants and seizures. The amendment gives protection against unreasonable search and seizure, but leaves lot of leeway. 90 percent of searches are warrantless. That is, if asked, most people permit the search without the warrant. I may not have followed this correctly, but I think she said that if a person exposes information to a third party and the government gets that information, it’s not technically a search.

She also went into many “exceptions” that allow seizure of material without a warrant.

Ms. Burke touched upon the amendments she’s most concerned with in her work. Those are the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 14th. No, I haven’t looked them all up yet.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Guest Kathy Aarons: Maryland is for Mysteries!

I welcome Kathy Aarons to my travels today, taking in the charming state of Maryland, where her brand new series is set. Thanks for posting today, Kathy!

Death is Like a Box of Chocolates is set in a fictional town of West Riverdale, Maryland. I liked the idea of envisioning an entire small town that would best fit my story. It would be quaint in the best possible way, with tree-lined streets, stores with cutesy names, concerned (and nosy) neighbors, and of course, murder.

My first idea for West Riverdale’s Main Street, where the shop Chocolates and Chapters is set, was similar to those in western Pennsylvania small towns where I grew up. It took a trip to Maryland to realize that Main Streets in towns that had their origins in colonial times looked different – with more narrow streets and sidewalks, buildings that weren’t perfect and sometimes leaned on each other, and gorgeous old churches that anchored the town.

I toured the seaside towns on eastern Maryland with beautiful views of the water and boats, but once I saw the towns in western Maryland, I knew that’s where West Riverdale had to be. Close enough to Antietam to have a historical flair, but far enough away that the town had to hold special events to lure tourists their way.

I was lucky enough to have two Maryland sources – my sister and my fellow RWA-San Diego member, Kristen Koster. Both answered all of my questions, even the weird and the vague. (Does anything important happen in Maryland during May? Yes! The Preakness!)

For me, visits were helpful, but real Marylanders were the best!


Kathy Aarons is the author of Death is Like a Box of Chocolates, the first in the CHOCOLATE COVERED MYSTERY series by Berkley Prime Crime. It is available at your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes and Noble on September 2nd.

Research for the series was such a hardship: sampling chocolate, making chocolate, sampling more chocolate, and hanging out in bookstores.

After growing up in rural Pennsylvania and attending Carnegie Mellon University, Kathy built a career in public relations in New York City. She now lives in San Diego with her husband and two daughters where she wakes up far too early, and is currently obsessed with the Broadway Idiot documentary, finding the perfect cup of coffee, and Dallmann’s Sea Salt Caramels.

You can follow Kathy on Facebook or Twitter or visit her at: