“Million Eyes” short stories to be published in Dark Tales and Storgy

I’m super-pleased to announce that TWO of the Million Eyes Short Stories are slated for publication!

The first is Who is Rudolph Fentz? This is based on a time travel urban legend that I’ve written about before. It was previously published in print in Issue 68 of Scribble Magazine, winning 3rd prize in its quarterly competition. Now Storgy Magazine has accepted the story for publication and will publish it online on Wednesday 23rd August.

Since the Scribble issue is out of print, that means everyone who owns a computer or a phone will now be able to read it. (And if you want a taster in advance of August 23rd, here’s a sneak peek.)

The second is a story called Eryl Mai’s Dream. Inspired by real events, this follows a little girl called Eryl Mai who has a disturbing dream about her school, and a mysterious supply teacher who’s investigating whether there’s more to the dream than Eryl Mai realises.

Eryl Mai’s Dream was submitted to Dark Tales‘ monthly competition and got shortlisted, which means it will be published in a future issue. I’m not sure when yet, but I will announce it here as soon as I know.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

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Did the ‘Candy Lady’ abduct and murder children in Texas?

In the early 1900s, in a small rural county in Texas, a missing child was finally found — in a ditch, eyes gouged out with a fork, pockets stuffed with sweets. An unsolved mystery at the time, locals today believe the perpetrator was none other than the mysterious ‘Candy Lady’…

Over the course of a ten-year period near the turn of the 20th century, a number of children went missing. The story spread that the Candy Lady was responsible, luring children to her home with sweets and murdering them.

It was revealed that several children in the area were waking up to find sweets on their window sills. Fearing that their parents might try and stop whoever—or whatever—was leaving the candy, they initially told no one.

After a child had been receiving candy for a while, notes would start appearing, tucked into the sweet wrappers. These notes enticed the children to come and play, and were signed “The Candy Lady”.

As children started going missing, those who’d received and eaten sweets from the Candy Lady finally confessed it to their parents.

Then a farmer found a sweet wrapper at the edge of one of his fields. Opening the wrapper he found a child’s teeth, black, rotten and bloody. The police investigated and that’s when they found the missing boy with the candy-filled pockets and gouged-out eyes.

To this day locals say that if a child goes missing, it’s because the Candy Lady got them. They say she lures them away with sweets and punishes them by pulling out their teeth and stabbing them with forks.

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Karen Silkwood: How to silence a whistleblower and get away with it

Remember Erin Brockovich? She’s the file clerk who famously uncovered evidence that a huge Californian gas and electric company was poisoning people. Karen Silkwood’s story is similar, but the big difference is that Erin Brockovich’s story had a happy ending and Karen Silkwood’s… didn’t.

Karen Silkwood was hired to work for the powerful Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site plant in Crescent, Oklahoma in 1972, where she made plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. There she met her boyfriend, co-worker Drew Stephens, who expressed concerns about working conditions at the plant, putting health and safety on Silkwood’s radar.

Just 3 months into her employment, she joined the local Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union and took part in a strike at Kerr-McGee calling for better wages and safer working conditions. After the strike ended, she was elected to the union’s bargaining committee — the first woman at Kerr-McGee to achieve such a position — and was charged with investigating health and safety issues.

In 1974, Silkwood found numerous violations of health and safety regulations, including faulty fuel rods, exposure of workers to contamination, improper storage of samples, falsified inspection records, and more than 40 pounds of missing plutonium.

That’s when strange things started happening.

Was somebody poisoning Karen Silkwood?

On November 5th 1974, Silkwood performed a routine self-check and discovered that her body contained nearly 400 times the legal limit of plutonium. She was decontaminated at the plant and sent home with a testing kit. The following morning, she again tested positive for plutonium and was given a more intensive decontamination. But on November 7th, dangerous levels of plutonium were found in her lungs, and following an inspection, plutonium traces were found all over her home.

Questions arose over how she’d been contaminated. She believed Kerr-McGee was poisoning her because of her whistle-blowing efforts, while Kerr-McGee accused her of poisoning herself to add fuel to her accusations. What’s disturbing is that the soluble plutonium in her body came from an area of the plant she hadn’t been in for 4 months…

The meeting that didn’t happen

Silkwood decided it was time to go public with her evidence and contacted David Burnham, a journalist at the New York Times. On November 13th 1974, witnesses said Silkwood left a union meeting at the Hub Cafe in Crescent with a binder and a packet of documents and headed for Oklahoma City for her meeting with Burnham.

She didn’t make it.

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Avril Lavigne is dead

Yup, that’s right. In fact, Avril Lavigne’s been dead for years. A lookalike called Melissa Vandella has been impersonating the Canadian ‘Pop Punk Queen’ since 2002…

2002 was the year Avril Lavigne blew up the teen music scene. Her debut album Let Go was certified 6 x platinum in the US while hitting the number 1 spot in Canada, the UK, Australia, Argentina and a bunch of other places. She was winning awards left, right and centre. Meanwhile teens the world over were warbling the words to catchy smash hit singles Complicated and Sk8er Boi.

Ah, but that was the problem. According to a popular conspiracy theory that recently saw a wild resurgence online, Lavigne decided before 2002 was done that she just couldn’t handle the attention, the pressure, or the fame. And so her record label, Arista, hired lookalike and ‘best friend’ Melissa Vandella to pretend to be her in public.

Things went from bad to worse for Ms Lavigne. In 2003, she killed herself while at the very height of her fame. The money-hungry bosses at Arista Records weren’t about to let all that profit go down the crapper, so they decided to cover up her death and continue recording and releasing songs using Melissa.

Now where have I heard this before? Ah yes, a similar thing is said to have happened to Paul McCartney. Some people believe that he was killed in a car crash in 1966 and secretly replaced with a lookalike to maintain the Beatles’ continued success. They cite hidden clues in song lyrics and album covers, cryptic statements made by Heather Mills, and even the assassination of John Lennon as evidence for the conspiracy. (It’s a legend that forms the basis of my short story Paul, one of the Million Eyes Short Stories.)

There’s also the Hillary Clinton conspiracy from last year, in which it was alleged that she’d been replaced by a body double after collapsing and dying at a 9/11 Memorial ceremony.

But let’s get back to poor Avril and take a look at the evidence for her untimely demise…

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How I deal with writer’s block + “Million Eyes” updates

Wikipedia calls writer’s block a “condition” and an “affliction” and the Wiki gods are absolutely right. Writer’s block is an illness that only writers suffer from. To recover from an illness, you either need to ride it out or combat it with various treatments and remedies. It’s a perfectly curable illness, but some writers are more successful at beating it (Stephen King) than others (George R. R. Martin).

This month I wanted to write an article about how I cope with writer’s block, something that affects me a lot more now that I’m a full-time professional copywriter as well as an author. Next month I’ll be writing a sequel article about some of the best/weirdest/funniest writer’s block cures that are available to poorly wordsmiths.

But before all that, let me share with you a handful of Million Eyes updates…

Million Eyes is complete! Currently being proofread…

The final edit of Million Eyes is complete and being proofread in its entirety by two of the writers at Rushmoor Writers, and by my bookworm girlfriend. One has already come back to me with a ton of positive comments and a handful of minor changes to have a think about. Another has very helpfully pointed out a few minor historical inaccuracies (with all the research I’ve had to do for this novel, it’s very difficult to catch them all, so I’m very grateful to her for spotting them).

One of my proofers has also pointed out that because further changes will be required, I shouldn’t be calling this the final edit. However, the reason I’m calling it that — and still calling it that — is because I am at a point where I am happy with the plot, the characters, and the style. I have asked my proofreaders for error-spotting, sense-checking, and overall impressions, but I’m not planning to make any fundamental changes to the characters or plot at this point. That’s what the final edit was for. Taking all the feedback I’ve received over the last 2-3 years and producing a new draft.

At the end of the day, an author can edit the same novel forever. When I started the final edit at South House Retreat in February, owner Tracy Willoughby made a very good point: at some point you have to stop. Otherwise you’ll just never finish, and no one will ever publish it. She’s right.

So this is me stopping. Once my proofers have finished, I’m expecting to have a slew of corrections to make and minor changes to think about. And yes, if there’s a whopping time travel-related continuity error or logistical problem that I’ve missed and has a major overarching effect on the plot or character arcs, it’s something I will need to work on. I’m just hoping I’ve caught most of those!

In short, Million Eyes is nearly there. Nearly ready to be pumped out to literary agents, with fingers, toes and tongues tightly crossed that one of them recognises Million Eyes as a book people want to read.

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The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz — visual trick, ancient magic, or aliens?

When I next take a trip to California, there’s somewhere I HAVE to go. It’s a place in the redwood forests of Santa Cruz that has been baffling and astonishing tourists for decades. A place where the laws of gravity and physics don’t apply…

Behold, the Mystery Spot. It was first discovered in 1939 by George Prather. When climbing a steep hill on the site, his compass started jittering and he felt dizzy, light-headed and top-heavy, as if something was trying to force him off the hill.

Realising he was onto something, Prather purchased the site and decided to build a house on it, which opened to the public in 1940 and was named a historical landmark in 2014.

What’s so weird about Prather’s enigmatic little cabin in the woods? Well, in it, balls roll uphill. Chairs cling to walls without support. Water flows in the wrong direction. People can hang off walls, lean backwards off stairs, or lean forwards so far they can’t see their toes — all without falling over. Even the trees around the house defy gravity, growing at bizarre angles.

The cabin is referred to a “gravity house” on a “gravity hill” or “magnetic hill” (of which there are a number of others). The website for the Mystery Spot calls it a “gravitational anomaly” with “puzzling variations of gravity, perspective and height”.

Insane. Insane, but very real. Question is, what’s causing it?

Just a visual trick?

For centuries gravity hills have bewildered scientists and their half-baked theories left considerable room for doubt and mystery. However, scientists now seem to agree that the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz (and others throughout the world) are optical illusions. Gravity and physics do not behave differently at the Mystery Spot. We just think they do. It’s all to do with the way our brains orient themselves, and the way they use horizontal and vertical cues to establish up and down. When we can’t see the earth’s horizon, we take those cues from our immediate context.

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TV Review: Designated Survivor — Season 1

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a TV series so gripping that I just couldn’t turn it off. The sort of series that, when you start catching up, you panic that you’re going to run out of episodes, and you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to do with your life after you do. (Wait, is it just me? Do I need to get out more?)

Enter Season 1 of Designated Survivor, the new conspiracy thriller from ABC. It’s not perfect. The writing’s a little up and down. Some of it is a bit silly/overblown/disjointed. Nobody swears (a failing of all American network television). But its chief strength is clear: it’s bloody riveting.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL OF SEASON 1.

It begins with a massive explosion at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. that kills the president, the vice-president and virtually all of the government, apart from the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland). He’s the ‘designated survivor’ (a real thing in the States — means you’re the last resort if the rest of the government is killed).

Kirkman is suddenly sworn in as president and he and his family are moved into the White House, two things they never thought would happen since Kirkman was only twelfth in the presidential line of succession.

The show then focuses on two main storylines: the Capitol bombing and those behind it, and Kirkman and his family and advisers adjusting to life in America’s highest office. What we have here is half a conspiracy thriller, half a political drama.

For the vast majority of the season, the two genres marry together well. At the forefront of the conspiracy thriller storyline is FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who is investigating the Capitol bombing. In a show that has definite parallels with 24 (political conspiracies, terrorists, high-stakes action, Kiefer Sutherland), Hannah Wells is the Jack Bauer of Designated Survivor. She tends to dominate the action and suspense elements of the show and the epic cliffhangers that leave you hankering to watch the next one. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland plays a very different, action-less role as Kirkman. (However, the similarities with 24 mean that he sometimes strays awkwardly into Jack Bauer mode, a much more gung-ho character than the more reflective, more reasonable Kirkman.)

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Secret snake discovered in Elizabeth I painting – what was she hiding?

In 2010, scientists investigating a 400-year-old portrait of Queen Elizabeth I made a very curious discovery — a hidden snake in the queen’s hand…

The mysterious painting was created in the late 1580s or early 1590s by an unknown artist. In it, Elizabeth I is depicted in a magnificent, jewel-laden gown with a faint smile and a small posy of flowers in her hand, a conventional symbol of virginity and virtue. The painting’s deterioration over time has caused an image beneath the posy to resurface, that of a dark-coloured snake coiled around the queen’s fingers.

Scientists believe that the artist originally painted Elizabeth holding a snake, then painted over it shortly afterwards with the posy. Since nobody knows who the artist was or what the circumstances surrounding the painting were, we can’t be sure what their motivations were for drawing the snake, or for removing it.

What we do know is that snakes and serpents were highly ambiguous in their symbolism. Sometimes they were used as a symbol of wisdom, prudence and good judgment, all good traits for a queen. However, in Christian iconography, their symbolism was a lot darker. Christians associated snakes with evil, original sin and Satan himself, and Elizabeth I was a devout Protestant.

What does this say about how the artist viewed Elizabeth? If they intended to paint her with a symbol of the Devil in her hand, did they see her as evil? As a sinner? As hiding something?

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