By Skye Alexander
Writers, especially beginners, are often advised to “write what you know.” Everyone has a story to tell––maybe two or ten––and for many people, writing a book isn’t quite so daunting if you can draw on the huge body of knowledge and experience you already possess. Although that’s good advice, I find it much more interesting to write about what I don’t know. In the process of researching my books, I dig up a wealth of unexpected booty that fills my stories with riches I never imagined.
I write traditional, historical mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein, set in the mid-1920s. I confess, I never liked history when I studied it in school because most of it centered on rulers, wars, and politics rather than the lives of ordinary people. But once I started researching this colorful period for my Lizzie Crane mystery series I got hooked. I realized how much I didn’t know, and I was determined to rectify that deficit.
For example, while doing research for my second novel What the Walls Know, I discovered that the first automatic gate was invented by an Egyptian guy named Heron about 2,000 years ago. He also invented a coin-operated dispenser for holy water. How cool is that? I also learned that some of the world’s great pipe organs have more than 30,000 pipes and seven keyboards, and this incredibly intricate instrument dates back to ancient Greece. Because the book features a cast of mediums and other occultists, I also delved into the Spiritualist movement at the early part of the 20th century––séances, Ouija boards, tarot cards, etc.–which turned out to be fascinating.
For my third, recently released book The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors set in 1925 in Salem, Massachusetts, I had to bone up on the clipper ship trade between New England and the Orient. In the process, I found out that these beautiful sailing vessels not only brought precious tea, spices, teak, ivory, and silk to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, but also opium (which was legal at the time). The Chinese goddess Quan Yin, sometimes considered the Buddha’s feminine counterpart, is said to have protected seafarers and ferried shipwrecked sailors to shore––hence the title for my book. Many of the ship owners whose clippers made it home safely didn’t want to pay taxes on the valuable goods they’d risked bringing from halfway around the world, so they slipped them past the revenuers via a series of smuggling tunnels built beneath the city of Salem by the country’s first National Guard unit.
Because my series is set in the Roaring Twenties and my protagonist, Lizzie Crane, is a jazz singer from New York City, I had to familiarize myself with the jazz musicians of the period. Before I began writing this series, I wasn’t a big fan of jazz but that’s changed as a result of hearing the greats such as George and Ira Gershwin, Bix Beiderbecke, and Louis Armstrong play. YouTube is a valuable resource for this. If you’ve never listened to “Davenport Blues” or “Rhapsody in Blue” I urge you to do so. For my fifth book in the series, When the Blues Come Calling (not yet published), I learned about the rapidly developing music recording industry, how records were made in 1926, and even a portable record player called a Mikiphone that could spin a 10-inch disc yet folded up small enough to fit into a good-sized purse.
For me, every day is an exploration into worlds unknown. During my journey, I’ve learned about jigsaw puzzles, merry-go-rounds, rose windows, ladies’ undergarments, Jell-O, New York’s subways, voodoo veves, and so much more. I never know what tidbits of trivia or historic fact I’ll stumble upon and how they’ll influence the direction of my stories. It’s so much more fun that simply recapping what I already know.
Skye Alexander is the author of more than forty fiction and nonfiction books. Her stories have been published in anthologies internationally and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. In 2003, she cofounded Level Best Books with fellow authors Kate Flora and Susan Oleksiw. The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors is the third in her Lizzie Crane mystery series. Skye is also an astrologer and tarot reader, and has trained as a medium. She’s best known for her many metaphysical books including Magickal Astrology and The Modern Witchcraft Book of Tarot.
by Mark Levenson
If you want to know if your house is infested with demons, place fine ashes around your bed and in the morning the demons’ footprints will appear like chickens’ footprints, in the ash. If you want to see the demons, take the afterbirth of a firstborn female black cat, born to a firstborn female black cat, burn it in the fire, grind it and place it in your eyes, and you will see them.
That advice might sound like something out of the Brothers Grimm but it’s actually from the Talmud, the ancient, encyclopedic compendium of Jewish knowledge. The sages of nearly two thousand years ago clearly accepted demons—and more—as real enough to be the subject not just of lore, but of law. For example, putting out a light on the Sabbath was forbidden—but exceptions were allowed for one who was fearful of heathens, robbers, or an evil spirit. The distance one could walk on the Sabbath was also proscribed, with a limited extension allowed for one who was forced beyond the standard limit by factors including evil spirits. And one was forbidden to enter ruins because they were often inhabited by demons.
Discovering all this during my continual study of Jewish texts was a revelation. I’d long loved fantasy – I’m old enough to have grown up not on Harry Potter but on The Lord of the Rings – and I’d also long identified with my Jewish faith. But the idea that these two, fantasy and Judaism, might mix seemed to me as unlikely as mixing chocolate and peanut butter (which is why I’m not today a multimillion-dollar candymaker). Of course, they do mix. Publishers have recently given us The Golem of Hollywood by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern, for example.
Armed with this insight, I continued to read Jewish folktales (Howard Schwartz is the master reteller of these tales, if you’re interested) but in a new way: as rich ground upon which I might build a modest contribution of my own. That’s how my novel of Jewish fantasy, The Hidden Saint, came to be, inspired by bits of Torah and Talmud, rabbinic legends, folktales, and more.
I knew I wanted my novel to be something other than a typical fantasy clothed in a veneer of Jewish characters and settings. That would have been mere costume Jewry. So I first had to answer another question: what makes Jewish fantasy Jewish? That took me back to those ancient Sages.
What makes their acceptance of evil spirits, ghosts and demons so remarkable was that theirs was not a pagan world with competing supernatural forces, but a monotheistic world. They had to find a way to make a world governed by an ethical, benevolent God consistent with a world of demons and evil spirits. So did I. It’s a puzzle quite similar to the question of why evil exists. A traditional Jewish answer is that the presence of evil is necessary for man to choose good—and that free choice is central to the tradition. Demons and evil spirits also can be looked upon as a mechanism for evil, much as are disease, hurricanes, and wild animals.
But the Sages didn’t just tolerate these supernatural creatures. They used them to validate principles that are linchpins of Judaism (and, in many cases, have become universal values). For example, the Sages say that one is not permitted to allow the ritual fringes of his shirt to drag along the ground in a cemetery, so as to avoid insulting the dead, who can no longer honor God by performing the commandment to wear them. That in turn leads to a discussion as to whether the dead are indeed aware of the living.
To prove that they are, the Talmud relates a series of ghost stories. But these aren’t horror tales. The most elaborate of the set validates the important Jewish values of justice, care for orphans, and honor to parents. A trustee of orphans’ money has died and the money can’t be found, leading to accusations that the dead man stole it. His son goes to the cemetery to ask his father’s spirit what happened. The father assures him that he didn’t steal the money; he buried it for safekeeping and tells his son where to find it. The son also learns that his childhood friend, also deceased, has been denied entrance to heaven because of sins committed in this world. When the proud father tells his son how highly the son is regarded by heaven, the boy replies that on the strength of that regard, heaven must allow his friend to enter. And that’s what happens. It’s a ghost story, but a very Jewish one.
It also inspired one of the set pieces of The Hidden Saint, a scene in a cemetery about spirits with very earth-bound grief to overcome.
Mark Levenson is the author of The Hidden Saint (Level Best Books, 2022). His Jewish-themed fantasy writing has won honors from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the American Jewish University, as well as a Union Internationale de la Marionnette-USA Citation of Excellence, an award founded by Jim Henson.
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