Who was H. H. Holmes?

HH-HolmesWho was H. H. Holmes? Many things. A physician. A brother. A master manipulator. Chicago’s first serial killer. The source of my unending curiosity for the past few years.

H. H. Holmes was born in Gilmanton, New Jersey, in 1861. Made infamous through Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City, Holmes has now been the feature of several documentaries and bus tours in Chicago that will take you by his killing grounds–including the former location of his Murder Castle.

Sound ominous? It should. The more I learn about him, the more intrigued/baffled I become. (So much so that I wrote a novel, published some short stories, and started this website and blog!)

Jeff Mudgett, Holmes’ great-great grandson and author of Bloodstains, was the driving force behind the History Channel’s American Ripper docuseries. One goal of the show was to determine if Holmes could have been London’s Jack the Ripper (there is documentation that he was in London at the time of the murders), and another was to determine if Holmes was actually the body in his grave. His really weird double-grave, encased in concrete. No, I’m not making this up.

In the end, the History Channel’s experts determined that the body in Holmes grave was a “conclusive link” to the real Holmes.

Jeff Mudgett disagrees, and I can’t say I blame him.

On a recent Facebook post, he outlines his reasons–based upon admissions of court-appointed anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania:

  1. The physical injuries that should occur upon hanging, like a broken hyoid bone, were not there.
  2. The DNA did not match.
  3. The skeleton size itself did not fit the descriptions of Holmes.

Holmes was a mastermind when it came to life insurance scams, stealing bodies, killing people, forging dental records, etc. Let’s not forget he was a doctor who was intimately aware of the human body, as he often stole bodies and killed people to make articulated skeletons that he could then sell to universities. Is it such a leap to think he could have managed to fake his death?

If you too are morbidly interested in this man, check out the rest of my website and short stories. And  sign up for my email list. I have the H. H. Holmes Handbook coming out soon, and my subscribers will not only get a first look but get it for free!

 

 

H. H. Holmes Hits the Headlines

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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! 

NaNoWriMo approaches…

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It’s October, and you know what that means! Pumpkin spice everything–and NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month.

Never heard of it? Read Kristen Kieffer’s excellent distillation on her blog, well-storied. In a nutshell, it’s a bazillion people trying to write 50,000 words in one month. That’s 1,667 words a day. A DAY. Crazy? Perhaps. But NaNoWriMo has forums and pep talks and regional groups that all help create a beautiful (and maybe a little crazy) writing community to help you along.

I wrote a bit about my last NaNoWriMo experience here, and I’m so looking forward to beginning again in a few weeks–especially because I’m starting a group for my students. Creative writing is not something that Common Core values, so I squeeze that in wherever and whenever I can! I will be writing feverishly alongside them as well.

Many NaNo writers spend their Octobers preparing (i.e. Preptober) for the challenge. Given my experience, I would strongly encourage you to do the same–and Rachael Stephen, author of State of Flux and creator of the plot embryo, has a ton of practical resources for free on her website. (She is also a bullet journaler–check out her video of her NaNoWriMo one. Talk about a work of art!) She also offers a free (FREE) seven-day course on plotting–all on one page. For those of us who tend to eschew outlines and too much preparation, it is a perfect solution to meet in the middle.

Are you up for the challenge? Let me know if you are! I’d love to keep in touch with other NaNo-ers!

Sign up HERE to get my blog posts delivered to your mailbox. You can always read them here, but email subscribers will receive extras along the way! Sign up today and receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me.

 

Back on the Wagon

As most teachers will tell you, August tends to be our version of the new year. Everything starts fresh again: new students, new notebooks, new pens that I don’t need…The summer tends to be a recharging time for me, and while I really thought I’d knock out all of my edits for The Devil Inside Me, I did not. Not even close. But with the beginning of the “new” year, I have reset the clock and calendar, and the edits are calling. It’s interesting how, when you let your work sit for awhile, it often comes calling for you. In my case, it’s getting back into a regular schedule of things, which means regularly scheduled writing time. I’m changing up my schedule though: When actively writing, I try to write as close to daily as possible. However, I’ve discovered that this revision process requires more of my time in one sitting–so rather than block an hour out daily, I’m finding ways to chunk my time a few days a week, such as moving weekly chores onto one night so I have three straight hours to work the next. Knowing that I have a block of time, well, I can’t even tell you how much I looked forward to my dates with my manuscript this week!

The Devil Inside Me–snippet #3

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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.

    “Elyse Baxter.”

    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.

    “Where?”

    “Pennsylvania.”

    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.”

Real Life Interferes

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It’s that time again: back-to-school. As a teacher, this middle part of August is a blur of putting a classroom back together, managing all of the new training modules the school/district/state dictates, and making deals with the copy machine that if it will just not jam for the next hundred copies, you’ll be finished. For the day.

Yes, I know. I get ten weeks off in the summer to do whatever I please. I’m (fortunately and gratefully) past the salary range where I no longer have to work a summer job or two to make ends meet. And trust me, I appreciate the time to recharge, relax, and tackle big projects. This year, one big project was gallbladder removal. Ugh.

But every August–and at other points throughout the year–real life rears its head and presents some challenges that simply prevent me from getting everything done that needs to be: sometimes it’s cleaning the house, sometimes it’s yard work, and sometimes, like now, it’s editing The Devil Inside Me.

What I’ve learned over the last two years of writing is that it’s ok. It’s ok if occasionally the project goes on the backburner. I used to feel horribly guilty if I wasn’t “touching” the novel in one way or another, but these breaks can also help reinvigorate the creative brain. So when life gets in the way, let’s cut ourselves some slack. What matters most is getting back at it!

Sign up for my mailing list HERE to receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me. I’d love to hear your comments!

I signed up for a writing conference…part deux

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I blogged about the Indiana Writing Workshop conference and how excited/nervous I was to attend, but the weather in Illinois and Indiana created enough ice to prevent me from going. However, the folks who put together these workshops do them all over the states–so I signed up for the June version in Chicago. (Bonus: I can take the train. Second bonus: There had better not be an ice storm in June.) It will be coming up soon–June 23–and I believe spots are still available! It’s held at the grand old Congress Plaza hotel (which is in my book, The Devil Inside Me), overlooking Buckingham Fountain and Lake Michigan. The price is very reasonable, so if you’re nearby, come join us!

I’ve repeated the text of my original post below to encourage us all to take these risks for our writing. Just like you’ll never know if someone will publish your work until you submit it (repeatedly), you’ll never know what you can learn and what connections you can make until you attend a conference/workshop.


When I participated in Writer’s Digest’s First Ten Pages Boot Camp, one of the features was a lengthy, very open Q&A with our critiquing agent. One question posed in my group was this: What, aside from a polished manuscript and a stand-out query letter, can writers do to get published?

Paula Munier of Talcott Notch Literary Services suggested writing conferences. Why wouldn’t you want to meet like-minded people, network with agents and editors, attend mini-classes on everything from finding an agent to reworking point-of-view?

I began researching (while the introvert inside of me shrieked, “Strangers! Small talk!”) and discovered the Indiana Writing Workshop–not terribly far from me, with a reasonable cost and a featured agent on my dream-agent list.

In the one day conference, there are opportunities to pitch multiple agents. You can also have Chuck Sambuchino critique your query letter. (I will share the results, no matter how embarrassing.) Classes cover publishing options, finding an agent, a first chapter critique-fest, revising, and marketing.

All of these pieces fit my needs perfectly, so I signed up last month. And now that it’s getting closer, I’m starting to question what the heck I was thinking!

Lucky for me, just like with Lauren Sapala’s serendipitous post last week that fanned the writing flame inside me, a little bit of kismet came my way when I saw this older post from The Muse Crew. (Thank you to D. A. Henneman for sharing the blog link!) Four of the blog’s contributors attended the same conference and reported back for their readers. Here is a sampling of their advice:

“Pitch to an agent in your genre. Research your genre to find out what is currently being sought after, then consider how your story matches. Think of it like a job interview – find out what they want, then share what you have to offer and how you can meet their needs.”

“You have less than 15 minutes to shine, so put your best foot forward.”

“Consider what other popular authors in your genre have a similar writing style to your own. Often agents will ask you about your favorite author or if your writing is similar to any well-known author. Agents also like to know if you have published anything else, if you are working on anything else and whether your story is more plot driven or character driven. Be prepared to answer these questions.”

“I highly recommend doing this! It forces you to practice describing your work in a concise way, it gives you an idea if your story ideas are interesting to those who market them…”

While I’m still a little nervous, The Muse Crew’s advice reminded me why I’m doing this. If I want people to read this story, then I have to–gulp–let people read this story.

What kind of experiences have you had at writing conferences? I’d love to hear about them–the good, the bad, and the horrific!

 

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The Murderous Mystery Tour…

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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!

How Many Rejections Can You Take?

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Comparison is the thief of joy. I’m positive Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t talking about writers when he said that, but for those of us still in the aspiring-to-be-published category, it most definitely rings true.

When you’re the person still wondering if you can ever complete your first draft, or considering stabbing your eyes out during your first round of edits, or questioning if it’s your query letter or manuscript that is the cause of multiple rejections, seeing others’ success stories can make you doubt yourself. Why haven’t you gotten that far? Why aren’t you published? Scratch that–why is it taking so long to finish the first draft?

These doubts can quickly shift to negative thoughts. You know, the I’m-not-really-a-writer thoughts. The I’m-not-good-enough thoughts. The why-is-it-so-easy-for-everyone-else thoughts. It’s like a disease that spreads in your brain, doubt. But fear not! There is an antidote.

At the end of April, Caitlin LaRue started a #authorstats Twitter thread asking published authors to share their stats: how long it took to get an agent or deal, how many rounds of revisions, how many manuscripts, etc. The responses were eye-opening and ranged from a year to a lifetime. In other words, there is no timeline. The path is sometimes circuitous. No two journeys are the same. And for the love of all that is holy in Writing Land, don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Don’t let all that comparing take your joy.

What if you need a boost? Something to give you some confidence?

Submit something–just don’t forget that your timeline is your own.

When I first sat down and seriously decided I was going to write The Devil Inside Me, I learned as much as I could about the industry. One recommendation suggested writing and submitting short stories (or articles for you non-fiction writers) to build your publishing resume. My initial response was why? I didn’t want to be a short story writer; I wanted to be a novelist. And then, as I mentioned in “Just Submit the Story Already,” @HollyWrites13 and @AvrinKelly tweeted about #52weeks52stories, and I relented–mostly because I thought it would be fun to write a few exploring the backgrounds of my novel’s characters. I had no real plan to submit them–I wanted them to be exploratory and add some back story.

So I wrote a few, and, to my surprise, I genuinely loved one of them. “What have you got to lose?” became my mantra, and I submitted it. Repeatedly. And the rejections came, and they did indeed sting, but I remembered Stephen King. As a kid, long before he was published (in anything, not just his novels), he put all of his rejection letters on a nail in the wall. In his book On Writing, he said, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” If repeated rejections were good enough for Stephen King, they’re good enough for me.

So, my #authorstats? In April, my short story “Downright Devilish” was published in Fourth & Sycamore’s online literary journal. I wrote it in a couple of days but revised it over a couple of weeks. I submitted it to nine different places via Submittable and received four rejections and four non-responses (typically equated with rejections in the publishing world).

I was so excited that someone liked it that I submitted another. My short story “Fiendish” will be published in a traditional print anthology (I can announce where later in May!). I wrote it in a couple of days and revised over a couple of weeks. I submitted that short story to twenty-three different places and contests via Submittable. This garnered ten rejections and four non-response/rejections. (The remainder are still in-process.)

I am far from what I would consider a published author. For me, that will be a published full-length novel with some respectable sales. And I haven’t won a Glimmer Train contest nor am I published in Strand. (Yet.) BUT, my writerly friends, I can not tell you how indescribable it is to see a YES! We love your work! email.

And now I get it. Those emails, those glorious people who read your work and say hey, I like what you’ve done here–they don’t just add to your publishing bio. They bolster your esteem. They’re a reminder that it’s not a race, that it’s ok to be on your own path. And that, writers, makes you want to write more. The more you write, the better you’ll get. 

Excerpt #2 from The Devil Inside Me

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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.

“Murder.”

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.

“Yep.”

“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.