Unsafe Words comes out today!

My new collection of short stories is out today!

From the back cover:

In Unsafe Words, the first full-length collection of her edgy, award-winning short stories, Loren Rhoads punctures the boundaries between horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction in a maelstrom of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Ghosts, succubi, naiads, vampires, the Wild Hunt, and the worst predator in the woods stalk these pages, alongside human monsters who follow their cravings past sanity or sense.

Featuring an introduction by Lisa Morton and cover art by Lynne Hansen, these never-before-collected stories come from the magazines Cemetery Dance, Space & Time, City Slab, and Instant City, the Wily Writers podcast, and from the books Sins of the Sirens, Demon Lovers, The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two, Tales for the Camp Fire, and more. One story, “With You By My Side It Should Be Fine,” is original to the collection.

Available in paperback from Amazon, Indie Bound, and Barnes & Noble and for the kindle. Other ebook formats coming soon. The most up-to-date information will be up at https://lorenrhoads.com/writing/unsafe-words/

Purchase links so far:

Amazon: https://amzn.to/2FjmmuA

Amazon Kindle: https://amzn.to/3h8WAqd

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/unsafe-words-loren-rhoads/1137605973?ean=9781735187600

Indie Bound: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781735187600

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Hello from the Apocalypse

It was dark this morning when I woke up on the sofa. My husband came in around 8, while I was reading the news. I said, “It’s so dark this morning.”

He said, “Have you seen the color of the sky?”

 

It was hard to get a photo of the true color of the air. My phone kept trying to up the white balance and brighten things up.

There’s construction going on in the building next door to us. The men were getting a late start today. Normally, they begin at 7, but today they were just bringing the equipment in at 8. I don’t know if there’s electricity next door yet, but it was much too dark to work without it. The foreman was on the sidewalk, taking a video of the sky.

By 8:30, rush hour traffic was picking up. The cars all had their headlights on. The streetlights, which have an electric eye, hadn’t gone off.

The closest fire to San Francisco is about 60 miles away, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There are fires to the north in Mendocino and near Point Reyes. There’s fire near Sacramento, the state capitol. There’s a fire that’s burning in Sonoma and Napa counties. The worst fire now is in the Sierra National Forest. Yosemite is threatened. The Mariposa Redwood Grove is threatened.

At 9:30, it was so dark in the house that I had to force myself to eat breakfast. It just didn’t seem time yet.

My kid closed her curtains because she didn’t want to see the weird color of the sky.

Earlier in the week, when I was out in our atrium to water the plants, flakes of ash were captured in the spider webs. The ash was kind of pretty, if you didn’t think of it as centuries-old trees or people’s homes.

I read on Facebook that a friend’s 7-year-old asked if the sky was ever going to be normal again.

At 10, it seemed to be getting darker outside. Friends from Pacifica to the south to Eureka way in the north shared their photos of the strangely Martian sky.

Despite the eerie color, the air quality has been better today than it had been for weeks. The cold marine layer of fog that crawled in over us in the night was holding the warmer wildfire smoke at bay.

I’m not sure what happened at 11 o’clock, but it kept growing darker and darker. It felt as if the sun had simply forgotten to rise today.

The fog had lifted a little, so that I could see surrounding hills. After the heatwave last weekend, it’s apparently not going to warm up to 60 degrees today.

Friends joked about the skies that the dinosaurs saw. Several discussed nuclear winter.

I figured out how to turn on the air filter I bought last week. I googled how to seal up the windows and doors.

And apparently, since I am unable to stop obsessing about this today, I signed up to join a Shut Up and Write group online. I managed to focus for about an hour before I had to give up writing anything other than this blog post.

At 1:30, the weather was changing. Things had lightened somewhat and the sky had paled to orange sherbet. I could see the fog swirling overhead. I don’t want it to leave us, though. I’m afraid of what will happen, if it does.

I think of the 40,000 people who have been evacuated from the paths of the fires. I think of Lise, who lost her home, and all the people who don’t know if they have a home to return to. I think of Kenny, who just moved into his beautiful home earlier this year, who was on the roof yesterday with a garden hose, who had to sleep in shifts with his husband to watch the fire coming closer. I think of Ken, who was relieved to see that the school where he taught was still standing.

I think of all the firefighters standing between the flames and the rest of us, under skies that never lighten, breathing air that never clears.

I don’t pray. Normally I would light a candle, but today the world doesn’t need any more fire or smoke.  Today, though, my thoughts send up a plea:  Let the smoke change the weather. I pray it rains.

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Kill By Numbers book birthday!

Earlier this week was the 5th birthday of the middle book in my space opera trilogy. All 3 books came out in the second half of 2015: The Dangerous Type in July, Kill By Numbers in September, and No More Heroes in November. My publisher called it the Netflix Effect, like when you discover a new TV show and binge-watch ’til you’re done.

Unfortunately, they didn’t do even minimal advertising around the fact that all three books would be out within months of each other. There’s no ad in the back of any of the books. There’s not even a list of books in the series anywhere inside the trilogy. No one realized binge-reading was a possibility.

It’s frustrating now, but I’m still happy with how Kill By Numbers turned out.  It’s a different animal from the first book.  Where The Dangerous Type was a Hong Kong-style revenge story dressed up in space opera, Kill By Numbers is a Philip K. Dick mindwarp, complete with conspiracy, evil corporations, and reality as a fluid the main character is swimming in.

Horror Addicts wrote one of my favorite reviews of the book. Here’s a taste: “It’s tough to be a human in space. Other races look down on humans because they think of them as violent sociopaths. With the human empire disbanded, they are spread out across the galaxy trying to make a living. This brings us to former assassin Raena  who is trying to get a new start on board the alien space ship, the Veracity. Raena has a complicated past, she was a prisoner as the Templars were wiped out by a genetic plague and the situation has created some bad psychological effects.”

Geek Dad also had nice things to say: “I do like a good science fiction tale that revolves around questionable characters. That’s probably why I’m so crazy about Loren Rhoads ‘In the Wake of the Templars’ trilogy of books. There’s not an upstanding citizen to be found, but there are plenty of shades of gray. Raena and her crew are quickly becoming some of my favorite scoundrels, and I cannot wait to see where this story goes!”

The Book Faerie liked the Veracity’s crew: “The airship Raena’s on has all kinds of aliens making up the crew.  I enjoyed reading about how they looked, how they talked and what their positions were for work.  There’s a lizard, octopus, and a cat-like creature among the crew.  There’s even a human captain.  Raena knows these people and likes them but she’s a weapon.”

I dedicated the book to Brian Thomas, my co-writer on the succubus/angel books. Brian was driving the only time I’ve hidden from the cops. I told the story here, if you’re curious: https://lorenrhoads.com/2016/03/23/why-i-dedicated-kill-by-numbers-to-brian/

If you’d like to read an excerpt: https://lorenrhoads.com/writing/the-dangerous-type/excerpt-from-kill-by-numbers/

I have all three books of the trilogy sitting in my garage right now. I would be so glad to set you up with some fast-paced space opera entertainment — and I’d be thrilled to autograph them for you, if you’d like. You can buy each book individually, or pick up a special set of all three. (Unfortunately, they won’t be slipcased like this sexy image on the right. Haven’t figured out how to make a box set yet.)

Anyway, please check out my bookstore here: https://lorenrhoads.com/shop/  There are all kinds of goodies there, including some books that are out of print elsewhere.

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Fire Season 2020

Northern California is on fire right now. One of the fires is 10 times the size of Manhattan, with a burned area equal to the size of Rhode Island. At least 771,000 acres have burned so far.

This satellite image from yesterday shows the heat of the fires surrounding the Bay Area as seen from space:

Screen Shot 2020-08-20 at 9.09.36 AM

I wrote this essay last year, but it’s on my mind again now:

One summer thirty years ago, while I was living in Michigan, I found my friend Jeff glued to the 24-hour news channel. His parents’ house, atop a hill in Los Altos Hills, California, had been on TV. I’d spent spring break with him there one year. It was a lovely house, full of art his parents had collected on their trips around the world: a gracious, welcoming place, with views all around it.

The house stood near an open space preserve, where Jeff had once seen a bobcat. Deer often wandered his parents’ neighborhood. Red-tailed hawks circled overhead.

Jeff had seen his parents’ house on TV because a wildfire was racing across the open grassland. Only one road led into his parents’ neighborhood — and it was blocked by firetrucks that could not drive into the narrow hiking paths of the nature preserve.

Jeff’s dad had left for work early that day. Jeff’s mom was trapped at home, watching the smoke boiling up over her house. She planned to jump into the pool if the fire came. While she waited, she was spraying the citrus trees and rosebushes with a garden hose, trying to wet everything down so it wouldn’t catch a spark. Luckily, in the end, the fire was extinguished before it reached the houses.

That was my first experience with fire season in California. I didn’t even live in California yet.

*

One morning in 1991, while we were in Paris to celebrate my birthday, my husband picked up an International Herald Tribune. A paragraph-long report said that wildfire raged through Oakland, California, the city across the bay from our new home in San Francisco.

We scoured the city to find a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. The photos showed smoke towering miles high over the Oakland Hills. The hillside houses looked like matchboxes in comparison.

When we returned from our trip, friends who lived in Oakland told us about the fire. One friend in the Rockridge neighborhood had evacuated. Mike lived not far from Mountain View Cemetery, which lay between his home and the fire. He hoped the graveyard would provide a firebreak. For days he lived on a friend’s sofa, calling his own home phone over and over. As long as the answering machine picked up, he knew his house remained standing.

*

In October 2017, I woke in the night and smelled smoke. There was only a tickle in the air, but something, somewhere, was burning. I looked out all the windows, but didn’t see an orange glow in the sky. Wind rampaged around the house. I slept fitfully on the sofa for the rest of the night.

In the morning, the news reported a fire far away in Lake County. It expanded as it spread into Napa County. Another fire started in neighboring Sonoma County. The fires were more than 70 miles away. I didn’t know smoke could travel that far.

In her home in Santa Rosa, California, my friend Kim packed the most important things in her life and prepared to evacuate. She spent days sheltering in a local high school gym. The power had gone off at her home, so she didn’t even have the reassurance of calling the answering machine.

At first, no one could really believe that a city could burn down. Unlike Los Altos Hills, there was no massive grassy park nearby. Unlike the Oakland Hills, Kim didn’t live in an overgrown neighborhood with winding roads too narrow for firetrucks. She lived in a suburban neighborhood, in a grid of streets.

In the end, Kim’s home escaped the fire. Neighborhoods surrounding hers weren’t so lucky. She drove through the devastation to find her house still standing. Although she’d closed the windows before she fled, everything inside her home was covered with fine grit — the ashes of trees and homes and wildlife and 22 people. More than 5600 structures were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire.

*

In November 2018, a failing power line in Butte County, California sparked the Camp Fire. Driven by 60- to 70-mile-an-hour winds, the fire spread so fast — devouring 10 miles of forest in 10 minutes — that people were trapped in their cars as they tried to escape. Some people panicked and abandoned their vehicles to try to outrun the flames on foot.

The fire burned for 17 days. The smoke it generated was visible from space. That smoke flowed through the Altamont Pass, 150 miles away, into the San Francisco Bay Area. Because of a weather pattern called an inversion, the smoke, trapped by the hills surrounding the bay, settled to ground level.

For a week, San Francisco had the worst air quality in the world: worse than Beijing or Mexico City. Worse even than in the fire country itself. The air became visible. It glowed a malevolent yellow as sunlight reflected from nearly invisible particles in the air.

Many places gave away painter’s masks to prevent people from breathing in the ashes and grit in the air. Then we were told that painter’s masks didn’t actually screen out the smallest particles, which could lodge in your lungs and could not be removed. People were warned to stay in their houses. Theaters closed. Schools closed. Businesses closed.

The empty streets of the city looked like the apocalypse had come — and we were 200 miles away from where the fire was burning.

In the end, 85 people were killed by the Camp Fire. The entire town of Paradise, California was scoured from the map. Twenty thousand people were left homeless.

*

Fire season started early this year. Last weekend we had several days of lightning and thunder. Almost 11,000 lightning strikes hit the ground, sparking hundreds of fire. 560 fires are burning in California now and 119,000 people have been evacuated. Five people are known to be dead, with others missing.

Screen Shot 2020-08-21 at 5.39.53 PM

Before the Camp Fire, I never worried about reading an Air Quality map. Things don’t look too awful along the coast right now, but red indicates unhealthy, purple is very unhealthy, and maroon is straight-up hazardous. The people — and firefighters — who are dealing with the worst air quality are also dealing with heat above 100 degrees.

The pandemic complicates everything, of course. People are afraid to go to shelters, where they might be exposed to the corona virus. People who are already out of work and living on fumes are now faced with staying in hotels — if they can find one that’s open — and trying to feed themselves when restaurants aren’t serving inside and it’s not safe to breathe the air outside.

Firefighters are stretched thin, trying to keep their distance from each other to stay healthy, breathing toxic air that makes them more susceptible to Covid. Despite that, firefighters are coming from around the country — even from Canada — to help. In another year, the president might declare a state of emergency and try to help those who desperately need it…

Last night the fog came in off the ocean, which raises the humidity and can help to slow the fires. We are months away from our rainy season. I don’t know how this is going to end. I don’t know how it can end. I just know that California will not be the same when it’s over.

 

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How to Write When You Don’t Feel Up to It

IMG_1513Sometimes, especially lately, it’s hard to do the creative work you want to do. I’ve used a bunch of tricks to get around the blocks. I offer them here, in hopes they’ll inspire you.

If you have tricks of your own, please add them in the comments below.

  1. Make a list. Whether it’s topics you want to explore or scenes that need to be written, it’s easier to begin writing when you have a prompt.
  2. Set a timer. There’s something about the tiniest amount of time pressure that tricks your brain into thinking it’s on a deadline. Start with a block of 15 minutes. You might find yourself pounding out the words to beat the bell. If the words are really flowing, you can always add a second 15-minute sprint.
  3. Make a date with a friend. Whether you sit down together in a cafe (someday!) or meet online for a video chat, it really helps to know that someone else is working alongside you.
  4. Put your headphones on. Many writers make a playlist that they only listen to when they work on a particular story or book. Listening to the same music every time you write can train your brain to provide inspiration on command.
  5. Write somewhere else. If you normally write at a desk, try moving to the sofa or the kitchen table or sitting in bed. The simple act of shifting to new surroundings can shake loose the words.
  6. Try a different writing tool. Do you usually write on a laptop? Try writing by hand in a notebook or attach a keyboard to your phone. Some writers swear by word processing keyboards like AlphaSmart or FreeWrite, which only allow you to see a small amount of the text you’re working on.
  7. Write first thing in the morning. It’s tempting to start the day by checking email or scrolling social media, but what would you come up with if you listened to your own thoughts first thing in the morning?
  8. Write last thing at night. Take a notebook to bed and draft one more scene before you go to sleep. Do the words feel different as you’re settling in for the night?  Maybe your subconscious will solve a writing problem for you in your dreams.
  9. Experiment with dictation. The simple act of telling yourself your story can inspire you.
  10. Step away from writing. Sometimes the best ideas come when you can’t write them down. Go for a walk, wash the dishes, or take a shower. Let your mind play without the pressure of a blank page staring at you. As soon as you finish your break, sit down to record the thoughts that occurred in the interim.
  11. Set an alarm. Promise yourself that you will sit down to write as soon as the alarm goes off. Giving yourself the anticipation of writing time can be inspirational.
  12. Remind yourself why you write. Do you have a story you’re burning to tell? Do you have a lesson you want to teach? Are you curious how your story will turn out? Clarifying why you want to do this can show you the path how to do it.
  13. Ask “And then what happens?” Sometimes the next scene isn’t clear. You can get wound up trying to figure out what needs to happen. Instead of insisting on what the story needs, narrow your focus until you only need to come up with the next step. Then write that next step…and the next one after that.
  14. Perfect is the enemy of done. Don’t waste time choosing the right word. Put down the almost-right word, enclose it in parentheses, and keep going. You can always fix it later. This works for names, descriptions, and anything you might need to research. Aim for momentum over poetry in your first draft.
  15. Chart your progress. Whether you put a check on the calendar, color in a box on a habit-tracking chart, or simply make note of your word count, record the days you write. If you only write 500 words a day for 100 days, you’ll have a 50,000-word book before long. It’s addictive to see your progress.

What tricks have worked for you?

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