September 15, 2016

Water Monsters and Twisted Childhood Memories: an interview with Kelli Owen, author of "Floaters"

Detective Carly Greene was only eleven when she learned Lake Superior was a brutal beast, capable of bringing up long forgotten memories of pain and death, by occasionally releasing the bodies of those trapped beneath her waves. 

As an adult, Carly still despises the bodies occasionally coughed up, and the high water eroding the edge of the graveyard this year gave "floaters" a new meaning. But she could never have prepared for what else broke free to swim with those long dead. 

Part myth. Part monster. Older than time. 

Carly, along with the medical examiner and a local reporter, must find and destroy a forgotten legend in the waters at the edge of Lake Superior. Before it decides it's time to feed. And breed ...


Gef: What was the spark behind Floaters?

Kelli: It’s almost “where do your stories comes from” but not quite, which is usually very difficult to explain because it’s like asking a crazy person what’s wrong—but this time, I can actually answer that. The “spark” for Floaters came directly from a twisted childhood memory of the local graveyard floating away in the high waters of a spring thaw. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that, but when you’re a kid, you imagine this crazy visual. I wrote that visual, and asked the question, what else was buried in there. And then I broke the riverbank free and let it all float out into the general public and cause havoc.

Gef: What was it about this book, if anything, that you approached differently from your previous titles?

Kelli: For starters, it’s closer to horror than some of my other works. Not quite the redshirt bloodbath of Live Specimens, but definitely more than White Picket Prisons or Six Days, which are often called and generally considered thrillers with horrific elements, rather than horror. This is a monster, with tentacles, there’s no sugar coating that—it’s horror. Also, because it was based on a real graveyard with a twist on some real history, I had google maps printed and bodies plotted and my table looked a bit like a strategic war room.

Other than that, I knew from the very beginning that I never hated the monster. I loved it. I loved what it was, what it stood for, the pain and suffering it had gone through, and the general agony of its history and current situation. This monster was my nod to Frankenstein, and *spoiler alert* I didn’t want it to die but knew it had to, or I’d get yelled at for open endings and setting up sequels, neither of which this story needed.

Gef: What was the allure to Lake Superior as your setting?

Kelli: I grew up on Lake Superior. I’m intimately familiar with her temperament, cold weather, bad attitude, and ability to change moods like a hormonally raging teenager. And yes, she does occasionally cough up her dead. Dotted along her shores are remnants of Indian settlements, mostly relocated by will or force to large reservations and other communal gatherings, but I know they’re there. In my wanderings, I’ve stumbled across the old foundations and forgotten grave markers. My bloodline includes Ojibwe Chippewa from the Bad River Tribe thick enough that I’ve had relatives on the council, and been to a powwow or three. Between the lake, the Indians, and the topography, there’s a rich history in that area just waiting to be tapped and given some monster to come crawling up from the depths.

Gef: I can't say there's been any "floating" mishaps with the graveyards in my neck of the woods. Well, there is the legend of Charles Coghlan's coffin getting washed out to sea by a hurricane that hit Galveston, which floated all the way up from the Gulf of Mexico to his home of Prince Edward Island. So the story goes. Any odd local legends that compare in your stomping grounds?

Kelli: No legend, there really were bones poking out of the ground at that mass grave on the hillside. They were still disrespectfully left exposed last time I was there doing research with my mom and taking pictures for the book, long before it even had a title. I’ve heard they’re planning on transporting them back to Wisconsin Point and I hope that actually happens.

Other crazy things? Well, I grew up being told horrible campfire tales my mother later pulled me aside to explain were real and based on Ed Gein, so there’s that. The lake has sunk a damn lot of ships, boats, and small craft other than the famed Edmund Fitzgerald and there was always the panic of something touching your foot in the water being not a fish. And then we had the Fairlawn Mansion (which is supposedly haunted), and the abandoned orphanage (haunted) I spent way too much time at as a teen that has now been torn down, and many tales of “bad things” in graveyards. Creepy area, deeply supernatural people, lovely fodder for a young overactive imagination.

Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you on a story like this? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

Kelli: Each project requires a different kind of research. If it’s completely fictional, fantastical, then you can just make up whatever you want. But if it’s specific, or touches on reality, then it’s a different story. Then it needs to read like reality. It may be location, it may be a people, tribe, or nationality you’re unfamiliar with, or it may be historical information to twist into a legend of your creation. Trick-wise, I try to do the research I think I’ll need before I even start, but there are times when you’re happily typing along and all of sudden you need a three hour lesson on Blah. Off to the internet you go, careful of rabbit holes and unnecessary side visits to social media, and you get through your on the spot research. It’s quicker than the days of stopping everything, packing up, going to the library, digging through the aisles and tomes, and then going back home—but there was something romantic about the library that the internet lacks.

With this one I did a bit of google image mapping for the area so I could logically plot out the creature’s feeding grounds and radius of travel, as well as have a visual for the line between the mass grave and Wisconsin Point, and know Granny’s house and trek to the cavern. There was a lot of research into the truth of that mass grave, rather than relying on my childhood memories. And there was a ton of fun research into Indian mythologies, because I had a monster I needed to be able to slip into that mythology logically and smoothly. Floaters, overall, probably had more research into different things than most. In comparison, my next project will have no research, as it can be located anywhere and relies on the people rather than the environment.

Gef: What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Kelli: Kill your babies. Meaning, if you’re writing and you find you really love a turn of phrase, or a sentence strikes you as poetic and beautiful, you should immediately rewrite it because if you feel that way you’re not being objective and there’s something wrong with it. No. There’s more to it than that, but I wasn’t told that and it wasn’t explained to me properly, and there was no google way back when.

Horribly, I listened to that incorrectly and followed it for years, but it’s wrong when explained as just that. I think when it comes to the overly pretty turns of phrase, sentences, etc., if anything you should notice them and question what about it is so pretty, and why isn’t the rest of the work as attractive. What makes it stand out. It’s not an automatic death sentence, but rather a call to examine it. If it’s purple upon closer inspection, kill it, but if it’s not, then appreciate it came from somewhere inside and keep going. I have a couple I like. Not many, but a couple.

The phrase is talking about killing off prose that will improve your story. Not killing of a sentence here or there that you are fond of, but rather, overall improvements and admitting and willingly axing those things that drag the storyline, slow an arc, or otherwise do not further the story on a whole—even when you really like the sidebar, random character, offshoot, or whatever it is that requires a literary guillotine. Take it out. And for those new writers who don’t fully understand this phrase, please research it and get a full idea of what it means before you start randomly rewriting sentences just because they’re pretty.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Kelli: I’m actually technically influenced by what works for me, what scares me, because I wanted the ability to do that to others. So I would actually try and figure out why one thing scared me but another didn’t, and sometimes from the same author. But if I looked at what did work for me over the years, at what things I was drawn to, or authors I continued to return to, well then it becomes the broader definition.

And in that case, my influences go way back to kindergarten and Mary Shelley, then they bounce around my dad’s bookshelf full of HP Lovecraft and Dean R Koontz (note there’s still an R in there when I think of that time). Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickenson were discovered on my own and requested for Christmas and birthdays. I’m fairly certain I had the complete set of Nancy Drew at one point. A countless number of school bookclub purchases, including one I remembered only the cover for and spent twenty years tracking it down. And then there were the horror paperbacks of the 80s, my teen years and a time when my tender sensibilities didn’t always appreciate my horrific imagination, especially after sundown.

I remember some very specific books to this day, which can only mean they had an impact on me and influenced something: The Amulet (omg the laundry scene!), Baal, Howling 2 (which is completely not what the second movie was, so if you didn’t read the books, go do that), The Keep, Nathanial, Pet Sematary, Mirror, Phantoms, and probably more if I thought about it. Oh and the novelization of Halloween—that messed me up for a bit and led to a whole month at the library learning everything I could about the Celts.

When I started making friends with my mentors and becoming colleague to my influences, the lines began to blur, and my adult influences are mostly found on my friends list at this point.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Kelli: Cooking? Projects? Well… I am currently working on Forgotten, a wonderful little tale about a young woman found with no memory and an empty car seat, but I have to finish it to know how much I can say after that without spoiling it. That will be the next thing out, and should be released in time for Christmas. After that, in no particular order because they’re all currently battling for alone time with the muse, are: The Man in the Moon (my coming of age tale), Magic Man (yeah supernatural ghouls), and a sequel to Wilted Lilies with the current working title Passages. We’ll see who wins…

My shenanigans are everywhere! is a good place to start. From there you can reference any and all of my books and where to find them, as well as get to my Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, find info about the podcast Buttercup of Doom, and for those paying attention, now there’s Wattpad as well.

Thanks for having me!

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