The Devil Inside Me–snippet #3

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Photo by Nate on Pexels.com

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.”

The Murderous Mystery Tour…

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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!

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.

What Makes a Serial Killer?

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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!

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.

Just Submit the Story Already!

pexels-photo-862115.jpegOn 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!

Please enjoy “Downright Devilish” as it appears on Fourth and Sycamore’s online literary journal.

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!

An Excerpt from The Devil Inside Me

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Photo credit: Scott Smith

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.

Bootcamp for Writers!

A few people inquired about the bootcamp I mentioned in a previous post, so here are a few details!

Once I decided to treat this writing endeavor seriously, I knew I would have to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Way outside of my comfort zone. I would have to do the unthinkable: share my writing. Gasp! The horror! I would have to seek advice from professionals. I would have to give myself permission to try, to fail, to succeed.

When I was first brave enough to share my writing, I chose with intention: our librarian, who is a former English teacher. My first comment was “be gentle.” Then I turned around and said, “Scratch that. Be brutal.” She was both–and I’m grateful.

Back when the idea for The Devil Inside Me arrived in my head, I genuinely thought I had a good premise that people would enjoy to read and publishers would see as potentially profitable–but, I wanted some type of acknowledgement of that. One day while perusing the blogs on Writer’s Digest, I stumbled across this gem: Agent One-on-One Bootcamp–Your First Ten Pages. Yes, it cost money. No, Writer’s Digest is not paying me for this commentary. Yes, it was worth every penny. (Please note they do not have an active version of this bootcamp at the moment, but I included a link for the description.)

Here’s how it was shaped: You watch a couple of webinars. You edit your first ten pages of your manuscript according to those general-but-detailed how-to-write-a-novel videos. You submit those ten pages to a participating agent. The agent provides you with detailed revision notes. You revise and resubmit. The agent provides you with a last commentary on your revisions.

Why is this valuable? First, I was able to get the confirmation that, yes, I had a sale-able concept. Yes, I have some writing skill–and perhaps more importantly, I was able to revise according to the agent’s suggestions. No one was knocking down my door asking me to send them more, but it did give me the confidence I needed to make sure that I wasn’t on some crazy train to deluded-land.

Furthermore, the agents available were reputable and well-known. Writer’s Digest made it clear who they were in advance, so I was able to research the agency and the agents themselves. I was also able to select which agent I wanted to submit to–who happens to represent (and write) in the mystery genre. 

Clicking send was simultaneously nightmarish and euphoric. Receiving her revision notes was simultaneously defeating and anti-climactic. I must have read the email fourteen times and went through something that felt like the stages of grief in a matter of hours. (Apparently I am not alone: Check out Janelle Drumwright’s Carve post on the very topic.)

You know, denial: She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m the next William Shakespeare. Anger: But that point-of-view is an absolute must-have! See denial. Bargaining: Well, maybe if I had… Depression: She’s right. She knows what she’s talking about. I will never be a writer. Acceptance: Hey, she had some positive comments–maybe I should just try revising according to what she wants.

I got over myself. I made the revisions (though I especially despised the point-of-view change) and murdered my darlings. And what do you know? Praise and a comment of “you have a good chance of selling this once you’ve polished” was worth my warp-speed grieving process.

What did I learn?

INVEST A LITTLE

I balked a little at spending the money. I’ve read that you need to invest in yourself and your endeavors, no matter what they are, if you want to move forward and improve. This was well worth the money to give me the boost of confidence that I wasn’t completely out of left field.

I have since invested in paid memberships for several groups that will provide me with networking and conferencing opportunities: The Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Chicago Writers Association, Indiana Writers’ Consortium, and Writers Guild of Indiana. I’ve also invested serious time in prepping this website and blog in the hopes that it will help me spread the word of my endeavors and help others who are on the same path. 

LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS

I also balked a little at the agent’s suggestions. Couldn’t she see my vision? Once I got to the stage where I believed there was no harm in trying, I did just that–and as I made those revisions, I could see what she meant. Furthermore, after the bootcamp, I read my manuscript (still a WIP) from start to finish and was able to revise more problem areas.

DO YOUR RESEARCH–ON EVERYTHING

One of the most important take-aways from this experience was to make yourself as knowledgeable as possible. The internet is a magnificent beast–use it. From creating a website to what to include on blog posts to how to utilize social media to finding an agent to novel length to how to self-publish without getting taken…it’s all out there. I had read reviews on other bootcamps where the agents weren’t known, or they weren’t responsive, or their advice was canned. I dug around until I felt confident that the agents at this particular bootcamp would be what I needed. The more information you can arm yourself with, the better. Just don’t research so much you stop writing!

Writers, what types of classes, bootcamps, or conferences have you attended? What value did they provide you?

Readers, every time we edit and revise, we are doing it with you in mind. What are the most important features of a story for you? Is it the characters? The plot? The writing style? Why?

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!