Read my latest short story, “Anomalies,” in the inaugural issue of Black Works, an online journal by Underwood Press. “Anomalies” is the most recent installment of my series re-imagining H. H. Holmes’ childhood. If you like it, check out the others!
It used to surprise me that serial killers existed in the 1800s. H. H. Holmes, for example, shocked me with his continual insurance fraud. Apparently, it was all the rage. One of his contemporaries in Chicago, Belle Gunness, also discovered the lucrative business of insurance fraud, and used it repeatedly–on her husbands and even her own children. Read on, and you, too, will start thinking that Holmes and Gunness would have made a perfect pair.
In the 1800s, Norwegian immigrant Belle found her way to the Windy City. In 1893 (the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago), she and her husband, Mads Sorenson, opened a candy store. It would seem as though Belle and Mads had a run of bad luck, with a business and their home burning down and two children dying. It was luck, alright, devised by Belle to cash in on insurance policies. Yes, conventional wisdom says she administered strychnine to her own children.
Later on, Mads died. Surely the fact that he died on the day two insurance policies overlapped was mere coincidence. Surely.
Now a woman of some means, Belle took her remaining children to the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. There, she bought a 42 acre farm. Part of it burned down. I don’t need to tell you it was insured…
By 1902, she found a new beau, Peter Gunness. Gunness, who had two children already, sent one to live with relatives after the other mysteriously died in Belle’s care. It wasn’t long before Peter, too, was dead. There was some concern that Peter showed signs of strychnine poisoning, but the doctor ruled it heart failure.
Belle’s life was like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: her greed overtook her ambition. Rather than being content with the cash she already had, she continued on her murder-for-money spree. Now, however, she unknowingly borrowed from H. H. Holmes’ playbook: set up potential lovers. Belle’s version was to get men to “buy” shares of her farm. Once she had the money, the men disappeared. Rumor has it she burned them, buried them, and fed them to her pigs. Handy, those hog farms.
Belle’s fast-track train came to an end in 1908. A relative of one of her “investors” was suspicious and told Belle he was going to come check things out. Soon, the entire farm burned down. In it, Belle’s remaining three children perished, as did Belle.
Or so it seemed.
The missing man’s relative insisted they do a complete search. Eleven bodies were discovered on the farm property. The adult female body discovered in the fire? It likely wasn’t Belle.
Her farmhand, Ray Lamphere, was a prime suspect for arson and murder–that is, until he confessed that she faked her death. The woman’s body in the fire did not match up to Belle’s size.
Twenty years later, in 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson in California was tried for poisoning a man. In her possessions were photographs of children–children who looked very similar to Belle’s.
We know very little about Belle’s childhood. She grew up in a very poor town in Norway, but as to what trauma may have caused her willingness to kill, we’re left to our own devices to make suppositions. Or, perhaps worse, there was no trauma. Perhaps she, like Holmes, was likely born that way.
Imagine my surprise when I saw a link pop up in my Facebook feed with this headline: River North hotel invites guests to spend a killer night in H.H. Holmes pop-up suite.
Yep. You read that correctly.
If you’ve followed by blog for any length of time, you know that my novel is based on the murders of H.H. Holmes. He’s received some cult-level popularity via Erik Larsen’s book, The Devil in the White City, the recent History channel American Ripper docuseries, and even American Horror Story. And now, for a limited time, the Acme Hotel Company in River North is converting a hotel suite into a Holmes-lover’s dream. Or is that nightmare?
Decor included in your
scare stay: old newspaper clippings, surgical tools, and Holmes’ mug staring at you. All. Night. Long.
Acme Hotel, this Holmes fanatic thinks you’ve landed on a spectacular idea.
Attached in the same Tribune article? A link to an interactive “walking tour” of the 1893 World’s Fair. Incredibly cool, and not just for a writer’s research either!
When I asked a few weeks back what YOU would like to see on this blog, some kind souls requested more from my work-in-progress, The Devil Inside Me. Allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite suspects, Elyse Baxter. Enjoy!
“And your name?” Davis, lost in thought, had barely looked up when the next person walked up to him.
He looked more closely once the silky voice hit his ears and saw a young woman with long, dark chestnut hair and fair skin, devoid of make-up, sitting down across from him. In Davis’ mind, she didn’t need the make-up. She didn’t need much of anything.
“And Ms. Baxter, what is it you do at the museum?”
“I’m a preparator. I’m the preparator for the Holmes’ exhibit.” Davis raised his head again when Ms. Baxter emphasized her “the.”
“What does that entail?”
“I handle and prepare all manner of artifacts for our exhibits. I coordinate with others to ensure proper and timely installation of our exhibits. And I was the lead preparator and project manager for this exhibit.”
“So you’re responsible for this display?”
“This exhibit,” she corrected. “Yes.”
“Uh huh.” Davis made a few scratches on his notepad. The preparator smoothed her knee-length skirt and uncrossed, then re-crossed, her legs.
“How long have you been working here?”
“I’ve been with the museum for three years now. Prior to that I worked at the Boston Museum of Science.”
“Are you from Boston?”
“Not too far from it.”
Davis looked up from his notes, waiting for her to explain. She didn’t.
Again, Davis paused, scratching at his two day scruff, allowing for further detail. She said nothing.
“Can you be more specific?”
Elyse Baxter sighed. “Philadelphia.”
“So you’re responsible for this display–how so? Start to finish?”
“While it is unusual, yes–I was responsible for the design and implementation for this–exhibit–from start to finish. I presented my concept drawing to Mr. Panetti two years ago, before the television hype and the movie deal. He sat on it for a year until he realized there was more than just a cult following.”
“There’s a movie deal?”
“Yes. Leonardo DiCaprio will be playing H. H. Holmes?” she asked with the same incredulity of Chapman.
Davis continued scratching down notes.
“So then what? He agreed?”
“Yes. I had two other designers who worked with me to build the concept model, and–” She waved her hand with a flourish. “This is the result.”
“And when did you last see the disp–exhibit?”
“About thirty minutes ago, when the docent explained what was going on.”
“Where were you prior to that?”
“I was working in our creative space–it’s on the lower level, where my office is.”
“And prior to that, when was the last time you saw the exhibit?”
“This morning, at 6am. I was giving everything one more look.”
“One more look?”
“Today was the opening day for this exhibit. Surely you heard it advertised, Detective. It’s on the side of eight CTA buses. This is a central piece to our museum, to Chicago.”
He nodded. She continued.
“It’s also our first PG-13 rated exhibit. That generated even more of an interest from the public.”
“So you were giving everything a once-over before it opened up?”
“Yes. I was responsible for its execution, so I had to ensure everything was perfect.”
Interesting choice of words, thought Davis.
“I don’t mean to be cold and unfeeling, Detective, but do you have any idea how long this…scene…will keep my exhibit closed? So many people were looking forward to it.”
The Murderous Mystery Tour is coming to take you away… (My apologies to Paul and John. I couldn’t help myself.)
If you’re simultaneously creeped out and fascinated by the likes of H.H. Holmes, take a trip to Chicago for two well-done tours of the good, er, bad doctor’s stomping grounds.
Weird Chicago’s bus tour takes you “on a journey back in time to not only the places where Holmes sought out and dispatched his victims, but also to take a look at the remnants of the spectacular fair” of 1893. I went on this tour in the summer of 2017, and it was phenomenal–and one of the reasons I began writing The Devil Inside Me. The tour guide was super animated and knowledgeable about all things Holmes. At the time I’m writing this, tickets are $35. Weird Chicago has other tours as well, including the Roaring 20s Speakeasy Tour (21 and up only!) and the Blood, Guns, and Valentine’s Tour.
Adam Selzer, author of H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil, runs a walking tour in the Windy City. Selzer’s tour differs from Weird Chicago’s in that he focuses on the not-so-known locations that Holmes would have visited. I took this tour in the fall of 2017, and it too was phenomenal. Selzer is not theatrical as the other tour’s guide was; rather, he provides the details of Holmes’ life that often get lost in the legend–and he distinguishes fact from the fiction that history tends to create. Tickets are currently $20 (for his other tours as well). Selzer runs the Mysterious Chicago podcast and website, and he was a consulting producer on the History channel’s series about Holmes, American Ripper.
If you’re in the Windy City, you don’t want to miss these tours. Let me know what your experiences are!
Another excerpt from The Devil Inside Me! Meet Detective Davis Dunleavy, our protagonist, as he encounters the first crime scene. I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!
Detective Davis Dunleavy slammed his car door shut and promptly pulled his coat collar up around his neck. Crime tape stretched across the revolving entry doors, where the Museum of Science and Industry placed a sign apologizing for the temporary closure. He flashed his badge at the rookie positioned at the door.
The cavernous lobby was eerily quiet. He saw a few patrons, witnesses detained by the museum’s security guard, sitting just outside of the gift shop, and a dozen or so museum employees hanging around the ticketing registers. A giant steam locomotive looked as if it were coming directly at him. He headed for the escalator.
“Supposed to be your day off, Davis?” The voice came from behind him. He turned to smile at Adele Murphy.
“How’d you know?”
“Wrinkled shirt.” She winked and jabbed him in the arm. “Just like college.”
He jabbed her back, careful to avoid her massive camera bag.
“I’m just a stand-in. Armstrong and Bucalo from Organized Crime are knee-deep investigating that bid-rigging business. The FBI has set up shop on the 7th floor. And, since my stalwart partner is out in Montana for bereavement leave, Bowers sent me.”
“That’s too bad about Jon’s mother,” Adele said. “Wait–you’re back-up for Organized Crime now?”
“I guess I am today. Any clue what this is about?”
“They didn’t tell you?” she said, incredulous.
Davis shook his head as he stepped off the escalator. They flashed their badges to another rookie and were waved to a corner of the first floor.
A marvelous yet grotesque sight greeted them. This museum didn’t play: from three-story tornadoes to a full-size German u-boat, it was a place of learning and discovery for both children and adults, and it was enormous–one of the biggest in the world. The DNA and the Devil in the White City display alone was 3700 square feet in an octagonal space. Intended to be a supplement to the genetics exhibit (famous for its chicken hatchery), ten foot tall DNA helices stood on either side of the exhibit’s entrance, but the first thing visitors saw was H.H. Holmes’ now-familiar face gazing out from the wall furthest from the entrance–a full two-stories tall, eyes leering with the effect of watching a patron no matter where they stood. Along the bright white walls were explanations and hands-on activities relating to the collecting and extracting of DNA, and what genetic markers were and how they helped identify bodies and clear suspects. An infographic proclaimed, “Your genome is an instruction manual for how you grow throughout life. You get half your DNA from your father, and half from your mother. Did H.H. Holmes pass on a serial killing genome?” A replica of Holmes’ concrete-encased double-grave was at the center of it all.
Most of the police concentrated their attention along one of the side walls, titled “Identifying Murder Victims…and Their Murderers.” Davis nudged Adele and pointed.
“Fitting,” he said.
As they moved forward, a large, antique-looking steamer trunk at the foot of the display came into view, and in it was a body. At first glance, considering the macabre nature of the rest of the exhibit, it almost looked like it belonged–except it was freshly dead.
“Hey, Chapman.” Davis nodded in the direction of the officers standing guard. “Avery. You guys have been promoted from front door duty, I see?”
Avery grinned. “Yep. Only took six months.”
“How’s life, Dunleavy?” Chapman asked.
“Better than this poor soul’s.” Davis craned his neck at the crime scene as he pulled on latex gloves. Another infographic explained that DNA could have been collected from one of Holmes’ trunks to help identify both the victim and the killer if only the technology had been available–or if they still had one of the trunks because of trace DNA.
“Yeah, crazy, isn’t it? Never thought we’d get a call for a murder up here. Figured it’d be someone trying to steal something.”
“No kidding. What have you found so far? Fill me in.”
“Whatcha see is whatcha get,” Chapman said. “No one seems to know how this girl got here. And in the trunk no less.”
“M.E. on the way?” Davis asked.
“Any guesses on the time of death?”
“Not ’til the M.E. gets here, but we know there was no body in the trunk as of 6am this morning,” Avery pointed out.
“Oh?” Davis replied, walking around the trunk. “How do you know that?”
Avery tossed his head across the room.
“The tall brunette over there. Says she was the last one in here–at least before the body arrived. That guy–” Avery nodded in the opposite direction. “He checked in on things at 8am and 8:45am, but only to make sure the lights were on. He couldn’t say if there was a body there or not.”
Davis raised an eyebrow. Avery spread his hands wide.
“I know. Said he was checking the lights.”
“Do they have security tapes?”
“Working on it.”
“Thanks, Ave.” A bright flash lit up the already very white display as Adele began to photograph the scene. Chapman shielded his eyes.
“Man. Whoever created this show really went for the White City theme,” Chapman said.
“Like Burnham did,” Avery replied.
“Burnham?” Davis asked.
“He had all of the Exposition buildings whitewashed so they looked like they were glowing.” Chapman stepped aside to make room for Adele. “Plus they used streetlights on the Midway.”
“Exposition?” Davis asked again.
“The Columbian Exposition of 1893? The World’s Fair?” Surprise was in Avery’s tone.
“Ah. The World’s Fair,” Davis replied.
“You didn’t know that?” Chapman asked, eyes wide with doubt.
“Sounds vaguely familiar. Don’t know much about this–” Davis waved his hand around the exhibit.
“You live under a rock, Dunleavy? You almost can’t miss this stuff these days,” Chapman said. “I mean, no offense, but it’s everywhere.”
“No offense taken.”
“This sounds like one for you. Like the Petoskey case,” Avery said. “Who the hell would do this?”
“Not for me, boys. The Chief called up Organized Crime, but they’re busy with the Feds.”
“Organized Crime? Geez.” Chapman screwed up his face and hesitated. “Say, Ave, this doesn’t seem like Organized Crime to me. You?”
Avery was shaking his head. He turned to Davis. “I know we’re rookies and all, Dunleavy, but when’s the last time you saw any type of gangster put a body all nice and neat like in a trunk–and then put it in a museum for everyone to see?”
“Can’t say as I have, Avery.” He snapped off his gloves.
On April 4th, Fourth and Sycamore published my short story, “Downright Devilish,” which is the first in a series of shorts to re-imagine the childhood of Dr. H. H. Holmes, Chicago’s (allegedly) first serial killer. Holmes, whose real name was Herman Webster Mudgett, grew up in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in the 1800s. (You can read more about him on this blog post.)
When I began learning about Holmes, what fascinated me the most was the eternal question of what makes a serial killer? Is it nature or nurture? Was his overbearing father enough to turn him into a quiet killer, or was he simply born without compassion and conscience? I found plenty of ideas in my research notes and the death records for Gilmanton which led to this short story series. After you read “Downright Devilish,” read “Diabolical” here!
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On Twitter, I began participating in the #52stories52weeks challenge, which is just as it sounds: write a short story/flash fiction piece every week for a year. Now, let’s be honest– I stopped working on short stories to focus on finishing my WIP, The Devil Inside Me, but that challenge helped me in so many ways. In addition to connecting with fellow writers, I also explored my WIP’s characters through these short pieces. Each one had a background story to tell, from the protagonist to the murder victims to the H.H. Holmes tour guide.
The legend of H.H. Holmes, as you may know, is what prompted me to begin The Devil Inside Me. One of my short stories, “Downright Devilish,” is part of a series that re-imagines the childhood of Holmes, based partly on historical fact. I was hesitant to submit it anywhere because, well, I’m not a published author. But everyone has to start somewhere in order to become that published author, right? So I submitted. And submitted. And submitted. And got rejection. And rejection. And rejection. And…a yes!
Writers, if you have a short story lying around, or some poetry tucked away in a notebook, submit it. That one “yes” will be worth the stack of rejections, I promise.
PS–If you want to read more of The Devil Inside Me, sign up HERE today!
In honor of the blog being around for two months, an April publication date for a short story, and finally beginning the last third of The Devil Inside Me, here’s an excerpt, introducing Ephraim Trueworthy Webster, our antagonist (though he doesn’t see himself that way). I’d love to hear your feedback via comments, and if you’d like to read more, sign up for my emailing list here!
He was a tall man who looked even taller, cloaked as he was in a long, black duster. He dug in his heels as he took the last two steps to the top of the hill. It was a relaxing view, overlooking the long-abandoned Jilst Saw Mill, headstones dotting the land. The trees along the Suncook River had lost their leaves, allowing the water to come into view. His eyes honed onto a centuries-old carved headstone. He stood in the cold, the mist suspended mid-air. He gazed longingly at the grave, cementing, in his own dark mind, his own dark lineage.
This was it. His life. His liberation. His legacy.
From his stance on the hill, Ephraim Trueworthy Webster surveyed his surroundings. The Gilmanton cemetery was a repository for generations of his family, some of whom likely died at the hands of a blood relative. He could feel that blood running through his veins. He could feel his blood running through his veins. His legacy. And Ephraim Trueworthy Webster was going to revive that legacy for all to see.
The subterranean lobby of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry was crowded on the free admission day in spite of the typical November weather: It was cold, it was damp, and a grey, overcast sky refused to belie the time of day. No, the weather was not the reason for the crowd. The Chicagoans had come out en masse for the opening day of the museum’s newest and edgiest exhibit: DNA and the Devil of the White City. Thanks to a recent docuseries, Dr. H.H. Holmes once again reigned supreme as Chicago’s favorite, and allegedly first, serial killer. Part science and part history–it was, after all, about the technology of DNA collection and examination–the exhibit was also part gruesomeness. The museum’s leadership had finally admitted that murder was fascinating to the public, and it was going to capitalize on this local media sensation by finally creating its first PG-13 exhibit, special ticketing and parent-permission required. Holmes’ mustachioed and unsmiling face stared down at patrons from one of the enormous posters (G-rated, of course) nearly the height of the lobby, with the words “Are you a descendant of this fiendish mastermind?” emblazoned upon it.
As the lobby clock ticked down the four minutes until the doors would open to the museum proper, a solitary man stood outside, pulled his duster closer around him, and leaned against one of the massive Ionic columns that had been architect Daniel Burnham’s legacy for Chicago during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. This, too, tightened the Museum’s connection to Holmes’ time: It was one of only two buildings from the Exposition that remained in the city, a building contemporary to the years Holmes made Chicago his hunting ground. The front facade with its enormous limestone steps was no longer used as a formal entrance, but the man remained. His coat collar stood turned up. A cigarette faltered between his fingertips. When the 9am clang of St. Thomas the Apostle’s bells rang out, he did not try to enter the museum. When he finally heard the screams, he still did not move, save to stamp out his cigarette.
The wind was so severe he could see miniature white caps forming on Lake Michigan from his eleventh-floor room at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Ephraim loved the Congress Plaza. Its views of Grant Park and the Buckingham Fountain only amplified the architectural detail inside and out, and, when restorations were done to the 1893 landmark, they were truly that: restorations. The Congress Plaza might change out its lobby chairs and bar stools now and then, but even when they did, the velvety ambiance evoked was still that of the early 1900s. Turning pages in an old leather-bound album at the tiger oak desk, his reverie was broken by the harsh sound of a nasally reporter on the television.
“The man who charmed his way into the lives of women he’d murder and money-lenders he’d cheat couldn’t charm his way out of death in 1896. And now that we know the monstrous H.H. Holmes is indeed lying in his grave–surrounded by cement, but lying in his grave–and without even a remnant of his Murder Castle left to be turned into a ghastly tourist attraction, Chicago’s first serial killer is likely to fall back into the quiet infamy from which he came.”
He rolled his eyes upward toward the crown molding, shaking his head. It wasn’t right. There was no “infamy” about H.H. Holmes: he was a mastermind of a murderer. Was it politically correct to say so? No. But that didn’t mean that credit wasn’t due. Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler–they were all ruthless despots, but no one could say that they weren’t brilliant and cunning strategists. The same went for Holmes. Why was it so hard for these television reporters to laud him for that? He continued listening, head shaking slightly in disagreement, but his mind was shifting. He was catching only pieces of sentences, then pieces of words, as his mind drifted toward a recent memory, and he could no longer register anything: the reporter’s mouth moved from words and sounds to shapes and silence. He no longer saw the reporter. His mind was firmly elsewhere–on a hill, in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.
Love mysteries? Crime novels? Whodunnits? Read on. If you like history as a basis for fiction, even better. AND if you like the psychology behind why people kill, especially serial killers, The Devil Inside Me is right up your alley. I’ve dedicated my posts thus far to my writing journey and advice for writers, but this one is for the readers!
What’s it about?
A purported descendant of Dr. H. H. Holmes resurrects his family legacy. Gruesome discoveries litter Chicago, and the murderer has no desire to hide these deeds like his (or her?) serial-killing ancestor. Instead, the modus operandi is all about bringing back the fame and glory of Holmes to the Windy City–and to the family name.
Detective Davis Dunleavy has his own family legacy: his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all bled blue for the Chicago Police Department. Dunleavy is called in to make sense of the crime scene peculiarities, but unlikely suspects and scant evidence mean he doesn’t make the Holmes connection fast enough for the murderer’s timetable. When the killing spree collides with his past, Dunleavy must determine what his own legacy will be.
Frequently touted as “Chicago’s First Serial Killer,” if you don’t know who Dr. H. H. Holmes is, just Google. Essentially the good doctor was a scam artist and murderer who lured women to their deaths in his murder castle–yes, murder castle–with his charming personality. (Check out Holly Carden’s super cool rendition of the murder castle.)
Last year, my book club chose to read Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City. I wasn’t thrilled with the choice. It’s non-fiction. I’d rather read, well, just about anything than non-fiction. But I began, and holy heck. Erik Larsen’s work does not read like a dry textbook–it reads like fiction and alternates between the intersecting histories of Holmes and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition–also known as the World’s Fair–in Chicago. I had to kept reading the preface to ensure that it was indeed not fictional.
Reading Devil in the White City gave me dozens of ideas for writing about Holmes. Then the book club arranged a trip to Chicago for–yep, you guessed it–The Devil in the White City tour. Led by a charismatic tour guide who knew his stuff, the bus tour stopped at assorted locations that had some sort of connection to Holmes.
My interest piqued further.
THEN, the History channel’s American Ripper show arrived. Jeff Mudgett, H. H. Holmes’ great-great-grandson was the driving force behind the show, wanting to know if his murdering gramps might also be Jack the Ripper. (Mudgett has also written his own non-fiction, Bloodstains, about his family’s past.) I watched, then re-watched and took notes. At this point, my husband was questioning my sanity–and maybe his safety. I still wasn’t sure what my novel would look like, but I knew I had to write something about the man–not to glorify him or his actions, but to explore the whys behind it. (Disclaimer: Jeff Mudgett is not my inspiration for this murderous descendant of Holmes. He seems like a perfectly nice guy.)
My quest turned to reading whatever I could on this charmer. Adam Selzer, a Chicago native with a penchant for truth-telling, wrote H. H. Holmes: The True Story of the Devil in the White City. He was also a recognized expert on the American Ripper show, and he shares his vast knowledge and research on his website and in his Chicago walking tour about Holmes–totally different from the other, just as interesting and informative.
Somewhere in between American Ripper and going back to Chicago for Selzer’s tour (on a very brisk November day…brrrrr…), my plot bunny officially made its nest in my brain:
Our antagonist’s family made it their tradition to hide their salacious past. I mean, who wants to be known as the grandkid of a serial killer? But within the family, it was also tradition to pass on the stories of their ancestors: stories of power and might forged by being the first settlers of a small town in New Hampshire in the 1600s.
He has decided to eschew his name and live life as he feels his family should have been all along, by showcasing their talents to bring them power. His version of that? Murder, just like Holmes. Repeatedly, until everyone notices.
Detective Davis Dunleavy gets saddled with first one murder, then another. With crime scenes as clean as a bottle of Clorox, and no apparent connections among any of the murder victims, he is at a loss for leads. The only connection he can find: they’re all taking place in locations that have something to do with the World’s Fair, and they’re all taking place in a manner consistent with Holmes’ modus operandi. The problem? Everyone around him thinks he’s crazy for even thinking so.
Dunleavy struggles to get a break in the case until the killer decides to lend him a hand–just figuratively speaking–but with it comes a threat that could end Dunleavy’s flawless career. He must tread carefully to uncover the killer–because this killer has no problem continuing his spree for as long as it takes.
Whatcha think? Sounds good? Needs a different twist? Want to read a snippet from chapter one? Sign up for my emailing list here!