Monday, October 28, 2013

Zombie Mythos & The Culture of Fear

The Rockville 8 is proud to host guest blogger, Nikki Hopeman, a talented new voice in mystery and horror writing. Nikki's debut novel, Habeas Corpse, will be released November 2, 2013, by Blood Bound Books, and her masterful short story "Black Bird" appears in Mistresses of the Macabre, out now by Dark Moon Books and available on Today Nikki talks to us about Zombie Mythos and The Culture of Fear.

Ahhhh … October. Beautiful reds, golds, and yellows adorn my neighborhood and I get to look forward to all the local munchkins stopping by for a trick or a treat. The crisp scent of falling leaves hangs in the air… and the foul odor of decaying flesh hangs about my computer.

Photo Credit: 123RF
I’m a mystery and horror writer. I’ve written stories about such things as wrongfully accused witches, garage sales gone wrong, vengeful birds, and nerdy zombies. Theo Walker, the protagonist in my upcoming novel, Habeas Corpse, is an awkward zombie who works for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police as a forensic technician.

Zombies are, by far, my favorite horror trope and they are wildly popular right now. Why are they so interesting and how did the zombie mythos come about? There is no one singular origin for the zombie in popular culture, like we can trace the vampire’s appearance to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Although there is mention of the dead rising to eat the living in the Sumerian tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh, today’s pop culture zombie is mostly a construct of Haitian religious beliefs and our own Western ideas of terror.

Historically, zombies have existed in many cultures with names like revenant, draugr, and jiangshi. No matter the name, a zombie is a person who has returned from the dead and kills to satiate its own hunger. According to certain branches of Vodou, or voodoo, a sorcerer can revive a dead person. These "living dead" are then used as slaves, sometimes for nefarious means, and forever under control of the sorcerer. The idea of an eternity of slavery to an evil sorcerer seems unpleasant, indeed terrifying, to most people.

Those of us who love zombies work to make them scarier, new, and fresh, more interesting than Romero’s shamblers or even the faster predators we’re familiar with from The Walking Dead. How does a writer put a spin on a time-honored trope without losing the essence of what he or she is writing?

For horror writers, the first thing to look at is what makes the monster scary. Most monsters kill, so either their method of dealing death must be highly unusual or we have to look at something else. We are repulsed by the idea of aimless wandering, of forced slavery, and being imprisoned in our bodies. Our fascination and loathing of the modern zombie takes root in those fears of mindless subservience. Add to these fears the threat of a contagious, cannibalistic eating machine, and the horrific modern zombie is born.

How does a writer capitalize on a known fear? Tweak an element of what makes a monster terrifying or personalize it in some way to make it relevant to the reader. In Habeas Corpse, my zombies are part of society, but they live just on this side of exclusion. My zombies desire flesh, but an intense desire not to be outcast keeps their cannibalistic yearnings in check… at a price. In order to be a part of their community, my risers must deny what they are.

The next time something scares you (except for the little gremlins and goblins at your Halloween door) think about what it is that creates the fear… and take it one step further.

Happy haunting!

Nikki Hopeman loves the kind of horror that leaves her quaking in the back of the closet, the kind that won't let her close her eyes. Life before writing includes a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, a few years as a veterinary technician, floral arranger, blueberry picker, babysitter, and VW Beetle mechanic. She holds an MFA in writing popular fiction from Seton Hill University. When she’s not writing, she can be found in the tattoo chair or on her Harley Davidson. Nikki shares her home in Pittsburgh with her husband, two sons, two crazy corgis, and an angry hamster. She can be reached at or on Twitter @nikkihopeman. Her short story, "Black Bird," appears in Dark Moon Books’ Mistresses of the Macabre. Habeas Corpse, Nikki’s debut novel, will be available from Blood Bound Books on November 2.





Sunday, October 20, 2013

Get Inspired, Stay Inspired: 5 Ways Already with You

If you’re working hard on this thing called publishing, you’ve probably been at it for a long time. And you know you’ll probably be at it for a long time yet to come. So, how do you stay inspired for the long haul? How do you keep creating characters, keep describing scenes, and most importantly, keep the words coming? I’ll tell you the trick that gave my writing a boost. It's a trick that was with me all along. Chances are it's with you, too. The trick is I got in touch with my five senses. And getting in touch got me inspired.

Nic's Cherry Tree
A season or so ago, when the cherry tree in front of my house was bursting with blooms, I almost missed it. Living in our world of look-but-don’t-touch meant I wasn’t always connected to what was going on around me. So I decided to get in touch with my five senses. I started with touch. Every time I passed that tree, I took a moment to run my fingers over its buds. I was surprised how that simple act freshened my outlook—and made the words come quicker the next time I was at the keyboard, trying to describe the texture beneath my heroine’s fingertips.
You can get in on the act. If you typically drink your coffee with cream, take a few sips without. Really get into the bite of those brewed beans. Let yourself get the giggles when you hear the neighbor kids playing on their swing set. Don’t just stop to smell the roses. Smell the falling leaves this season as well. What will taking a few moments to connect with your senses do for your quality of life? What will it do for the quality of your writing?
I didn't expect what it did for me. So give it a try. Getting in touch with your five senses just might refresh you in the short term—and keep your writing fresh for the long haul.
How do you get inspired? How do you stay inspired? The Rockville 8 would love to know.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

This is another installment in the series about Body Language.  This week, the focus is the mouth.  The mouth is an expressive indicator of mood and thoughts.  It is fundamental to reading body language.  Many know chewing the lip can be an indication that the individual is experiencing uncertainty, anxiety, or worry.  I find that chewing your lip is an action I see a lot in books since it is an obvious sign of distress. 

Placing your hand over your mouth can be polite if yawning or coughing.   But it can also be a “cover” to hide your emotional reaction.  The hand might hide a smile, smirk, or disapproval—an expression that the person might otherwise be unable to stop but still not want anyone to see.            

Smiling is one of the most complex issues to read.  There are fake smiles and genuine ones.  But how do you tell the difference? 

The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease describes the first recorded scientific studies into smiling performed by nineteenth century French scientist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne.  He used electrodiagnostics and electrical stimulation to differentiate a real smile from one that is not.  He discovered that the smile is controlled by two sets of muscles—the zygomatic major muscles and the orbicularis oculi.  The zygomatic major pull the mouth back to show the teeth and enlarge the cheeks.  The orbicularis oculi narrow the eyes and cause what’s commonly referred to as “crow’s feet.”

Zygomatic major muscles, which run down the side of the face and are attached at the corners of the mouth, are consciously controlled.  Therefore, they are the muscles used to produce false smiles that attempt to create the appearance of being friendly or subordinate.  Conversely, the orbicularis oculi, next to the eyes, are independent and reveal a real smile.   One sign of a sincere smile are wrinkle lines beside the eyes.   This is the reason that a smile might be described in a book as “not reaching the eyes” since an insincere smile doesn’t engage the orbicularis oculi muscles. 

The next time someone smiles at you, look at what part of the face is engaged to discover true intent.   And if they cover their mouth while doing it, beware.  It may not be the friendly conversation it appears to be on the surface.   


Monday, October 7, 2013

Conflict: The Building Block of Compelling Fiction

Photo Credit: 123RF 
On Saturday, author of The Taker Trilogy, Alma Katsu, spoke to Washington Romance Writers about one of the building blocks of any story--conflict. Katsu, who earned a Masters’ degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University, equipped writers in attendance with tools to analyze and fix their own fiction when it falls flat--whether they’re writing literary fiction or genre fiction.

While we’re all programmed to avoid conflict, however, it's the tension created by conflict that is the driving force that creates a page-turner for your readers. Katsu argued that conflict is not the straight, steep uphill climb writers have been taught, but a jagged up-and-down ascent that moves upward until the climax and dénouement.

Conflict is every barrier that keeps a protagonist (or character) from obtaining their goal and can be either internal or external. We should use conflict to develop plot as well as reveal character and it applies to all characters, but it’s not the same as story or plot. Conflict is multi-layered. It drives your story forward and it adds dimension to your characters.

Katsu identified four types of conflict that are in every good story: central conflict; underlying, or chronic conflict; internal conflict; and transient conflict. If you’re finding your scene flat, you should analyze each scene, identifying the conflict. One or more of these four types of conflict should be in every scene. You need to ask yourself, "Do events resolve too easily?" If the answer is yes, then ask a second question: "What’s the worst thing that could happen here." Then make it happen.

Each step of progress your character makes should be met with opposition and setbacks in some form. By charting out your character’s goals and progress through the story, you can also see if you’ve inserted enough opposition to create the conflict and tension you need to keep your readers interested and reading.

The workshop provided excellent information and tools for any writer to improve their craft. Katsu is hoping to present a variation of this workshop at RWA Nationals in San Antonio next July. I’d recommend that you catch her talk wherever you can. For a list of her upcoming events, see below.

She’s a great teacher with a different angle on conflict that gives any writer concrete, actionable steps to adding conflict to every single scene of their books. You don’t want to miss her practical wisdom because conflict is the bedrock of your fiction writing!

Find Alma on her website at:



Blog Question: So what's your experience with conflict in your fiction? Is it hard or easy for you to see and build in? And who have you found does it really well?