Saturday, November 26, 2011

Listening For Ghosts

Last weekend I visited a haunted house. I don't mean the commercial kind that springs up in your town before Halloween. This was Selma Mansion, an 18th century house with a long history of unexplained phenomena. In fact, the building's been studied by 3 different paranormal investigative groups.

Last Saturday, to raise funds for restoring and maintaining the old landmark, the Norristown Preservation Society ran historical tours of the place, followed by presentations by the Pennsylvania Underground Paranormal Society (P.U.P.S.).

Now, I admit, I do believe in ghosts, the same way I believe in God and the afterlife and black holes and other things I haven't seen. But I also believe in scientific method and the kind of good deductive reasoning you find in a great murder mystery, so I'm likely one of the biggest skeptics of what constitutes "evidence" of ghosts.

I tend to ignore photos of "orbs" (what looks like bubbles of light). In my experience as an amateur photographer, orbs are always cause by odd light angles and reflective surfaces in just the wrong spot. I was glad to hear P.U.P.S. say they didn't bother with orbs.

They did play some recordings that sounded like wood cracking. Yeah, in the silence of an abandoned house in the middle of the night, a loud crack of wood can be pretty unsettling. Yesterday morning at about 4 am, I heard a loud crack out in my hallway. Not a ghost, but the wood of one of the balusters on my stair railing, contracting as it cooled. My stair treads and some of the floating panels on my doors do the same thing. In an old house, especially after several layers of paint make it hard for wood to naturally expand and contract, cracking sounds are every day events. So I wish paranormal investigators would ignore them, too.

They showed some infrared videos. Except for one film, I either couldn't see the extra shadows or lights they claimed were there, or I thought they could be attributable to optical illusions. One did show a light that seemed to go on by itself. That was cool.

What did fascinate me were the digital audio recordings. I have pretty good hearing and, trained as a musician, I think I can separate individual sounds out of cacophony fairly well. On some of the recordings, I wasn't convinced that the "ghost voices" P.U.P.S. said were present really were. However, on a lot of their recordings, I distinctly heard faint words, some even seeming to answer direct questions. Assuming there was no hoax involved (and I hope there wasn't, because the investigators all seem to be genuinely nice people), this was impressive. The house also contained old servants' bells and buzzers, all disconnected, but I could hear an occasional tingle or buzz on the recordings as well.

Whether or not these recordings prove the existence of ghosts at Selma (or elsewhere where similar voices have been recorded), I have to say I was completely intrigued by the visit. And of course, it's fodder for my writing.

Paranormal investigation of Selma Mansion will be featured in the coming weeks on the Ghost Detectives TV show.

Happy Haunting,

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Quest for Saints and Scoundrels

Pat Montella, the protagonist in my Possessed Mystery Series, mentions her gene pool quite a bit. Coming from a huge Italian family, researching her family tree was a survival tactic. I know because I resort to the same tactic when trying to keep straight my 32 first cousins and their families, and at least double that number of second cousins.

The knowledge also comes in handy as a functional database of hereditary health problems. It's an affirmation, too. Looking over my kin and our ancestors, I find good storytellers, musicians, science geeks, and kind, caring people.

Ancestral surprises are a recurring theme in of my Possessed novels. Pat found new branches on her family tree in both By Blood Possessed and Fear Itself. Other series characters like Miss Maggie and the Lees, were enlightened about their ancestors in Hang My Head and Cry and Poison to Purge Melancholy.

That's the intriguing thing about genealogy. Surprises are fairly common because so few of us know much about our families before our grand- or great-grandparents. For a writer, this can also be a great story fodder.

A month ago, I was amazed to learn that my family likely has heredity dwarfism in our DNA. Simply put, it's a pituitary growth deficiency, and sometimes it only affects parts of the body. I always knew we were short--my dad and his brother Charlie, at 5'4", were the tallest of their siblings. Their mother was 4'8". But this may explain why every dentist I've visited in the last 25 years has told me I have tiny teeth. One cousin said she could picture us coming from a race of court jesters. I'm not sure. If our progenitors told jokes as badly as our family does now, they would have been beheaded before they could procreate. Still, I can believe I come from a race of hammy actors who could sing, tell a yarn and do acrobatics.

I've read that amateur genealogists come in two flavors: those searching their family tree for famous or heroic kin, and those looking for scoundrels and black sheep. I'm not sure which I am. I think I'm simply in it for the stories.

If you've explored your family tree, what was your motive?

Elena (short and proud of it)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My New Favorite Toy

If you like reading stories about crime, deception, betrayal, murder and the human nature associated with such things (and what mystery fan doesn't?), you'll find an impressive, searchable source for these tales at

That's right, Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court. Their archives, from 1674 through 1913, have been digitalized. On the righthand side of their home page, just drop a keyword into the search box and see what comes up.

My first search was on the word "witch." The first result, pictured above, was the proceedings for the trial of 60 year-old Jane Kent, accused of practicing witchcraft and the "Diabolick Arts" in 1682 after one man's pigs, wife and 5 year-old daughter fell ill and the little girl died. A woman who supposedly searched the prisoner swore that she had a "Teat on her back" and unusual holes behind her ears.

And that was just a random search.

You can use the Advanced Search function to find trials by, say, offence or punishment. I searched on death by burning and discovered that it was the go-to sentence in the 17th century for coin clipping (that is, shaving or clipping silver from around the edges of coins. Isaac Newton was the dude who came up with the idea of putting ridges around the rims of coins as a way to detect clipping).

I found this website from an article in Science News dealing with one of the site's creators, Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertsfordshire. One of his analyses showed how guilty pleas soared from less than 3% to nearly one third around the year 1825. At the same time, the length of a third of the trials dropped from about 5000 words to less than 100. The concept of "plea bargaining" had been born.

If you're writing historical crime fiction that takes place in England or the Americas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this site is an amazing primary source.

Oh, and if you're wondering, the Jury found Jane Kent not guilty. Still, I can't help but wonder if that growth on her back eventually killed her.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Buy a Book, Feed the Poor

Learning history isn't much good if you don't apply the knowledge to today's problems. That's the whole point of my Possessed Series. Each novel has two mysteries, one historical, one present day, and hopefully a bit of insight about what we've learned, or haven't, between the two eras.

I set FEAR ITSELF in my hometown simply because my best historical resources were here, namely people who were alive in 1933 and willing to talk my ears off about it. I couldn't include every story, but I think I got a handle on what life was like in a poor Italian neighborhood in Norristown, PA during the Great Depression.

This week I found myself wondering if I'd done justice to the modern day setting. While running some errands, I drove along a street I haven't been down in a while. At one intersection, I saw a long line of people. I remembered there was a food bank in that building. Never had I seen a line that long at that food bank. This was the early afternoon, so that also meant those folks didn't have day jobs. It reminded me of the bread lines I'd seen in 1930s photos while doing research for FEAR ITSELF.

Also this week, I heard that an "Occupy Norristown" protest is scheduled for Saturday. My first reaction was to wonder what there was to protest against in Norristown. We don't have a financial district. In fact, for a small city of 30,000 residents, we have pitiful few bank branches left in town. We had more in 1933. That goes for Main St. businesses too. Back then you had your choice of 5 movie theaters, 2 five-and-ten stores, 2 department stores, at least 4 large food markets, as well as two shopping districts of stores with every kind of goods and service imaginable. After FDR took office and the economy picked up, we had a slew of local factories and mills who started hiring again. Today most of the large businesses have closed. The rest moved out of town, most nowhere near public transportation. We do have some small independent stores on Main St., but our downtown is a ghost of its former self.

I'm pretty certain the richest 1% of America can't be found my hometown.

From researching my town's newspaper archive, I know that, as bad as things were in 1933 here, everyone tried to pitch in to help anyone poorer and hungrier. These days at least two of our Congressmen are talking about slapping the poor with higher taxes.

I've decided, to do my small part, I'm going to give10% of my FEAR ITSELF royalties (including ebooks) the local charities in Norristown that seem to be doing the most good for our poorest residents--like that food bank with the long line. This town helped my ancestors weather hard times in the Great Depression, so I'm giving back. If you want to help
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