In The Bleak Midwinter: A Special Agent Constance Mandalay Novel (#1) by M. R. Sellars
By Diane Holmes
Supernatural thrillers bring the best of thriller fiction and the best of the horror and paranormal worlds together into one spine-tingling read. In his latest book, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, the small town of Hulis, Missouri has a killer Christmas Spirit…
FOR THE PEOPLE OF HULIS, MISSOURI, THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS ARE HELL…
On December 22nd, 1975, something unthinkable happened in the small, northern Midwest town of Hulis, Missouri—something so heinous that it turned the holidays into a waking nightmare.
Now, 35 years later, it’s happening all over again, and for those involved, Christmas will never be the same…. It’s up to FBI Special Agent Constance Mandalay, a recurring character from the Rowan Grant Investigation books, to save their lives.
“M.R. Sellars has crafted a superbly creepy supernatural thriller that sucks you in from the very first line and doesn’t let you go until long after you close the covers. IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER reads like old-school M. Night Shyamalan with a dash of a John Connolly police procedural. Good stuff!” — J. T. Ellison, author of the best selling Taylor Jackson Novels
“…It’s [IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER] difficult to put down and will make a satisfying, spooky read on a cold night this coming holiday season.” — The Horror Fiction Review
“I’m always pleased to have a book exceed my expectations; this one exploded them.” — Freeman’s Reviews
I recently had an opportunity to interview M. R. Sellers for TheBigThrill:
This book is the first spinoff of your Rowan Gant Investigations series, about the unofficial Witch (a man!) for the Greater Saint Louis MajorCase Squad. Bring us up to speed. Who is Rowan, and how does Constance Mandalay fit into the landscape?
Rowan began way back in the mid-nineties – the 1990’s not the 1890’s – when I tossed out all of my old rejection slips, shredded all but one of the truly horrendous manuscripts I had written, and started over. HARM NONE was the result, and it became the first in a series of thriller novels featuring a witch as the protagonist – instead of the antagonist – for a change. All of the Rowan Gant Investigations (RGI) books – currently there are 10, with another on the way – have spent their share of time on the Amazon Horror/Occult Top 100 list.
Put simply, Rowan Gant is a bit of a train wreck – not really by his own choice. He was perfectly content to live his somewhat pedestrian life as a computer consultant. He was fortunate enough to be married to the love of said life, and was cruising along without any cares – but the universe at large had different ideas for him.
As you mentioned, the oddity about Rowan is his spirituality, that being eclectic Wicca. (An earth centered religion) and that includes the study of Witchcraft and magic. In short, he’s a modern day “Witch.” (Males are Witches, too – not “Warlocks” – but that’s a whole different topic, so I shouldn’t start down that road or we’ll get way off track…)
At any rate, that was the fatal flaw in his otherwise mundane existence, because his best friend – a homicide detective attached to the Major Case Squad – came to him for help deciphering some occult symbols found at a crime scene; after that, all bets were off.
Once Rowan became deeply involved in the investigation, he involuntarily “opened a door” between the realm of the living and the realm of the deceased. It was something that even he hadn’t expected to encounter; and it turned out to be a portal that he cannot seem to close, no matter how hard he tries.
Unfortunately, because of this he can now hear the pleas of the dead – in particular, murder victims seeking closure, or even vengeance. In many circumstances he is faced with reliving their pain – emotionally and even physically various forms of manifestation. He constantly struggles with this curse, accepting it at times as his destiny, and denying it at others, especially when it adversely affects those around him. However, he always gives in to it at the end because to quote John McClane (From DIE HARD 4) – “That’s what makes him that guy.”
FBI Special Agent Constance Mandalay is a supporting character in the Rowan Gant books.
She made her first appearance in HARM NONE (#1 in the series), starting out in all honesty as the proverbial wrench in the works for the investigation, as she came into the mix with a chip on her shoulder and the by-the-book attitude of a shiny new federal badge versus seasoned, veteran local cops. However, she had so much potential as a character that she has continued to develop and has played an ever increasing role in every book in the series.
She’s relatively young in relation to the other characters, extremely intelligent, self-assured, and a very strong archetype. She packs a healthy case of skepticism and isn’t afraid to flash it for everyone to see, but having worked closely with Rowan she is also willing to accept that there are just some things out there that defy logical explanation – Rowan’s ability being one of them.
As she has grown throughout the arc, a strong friendship formed between Rowan and his wife Felicity, and her. Constance finds herself working with Rowan and the Major Case Squad on a fairly regular basis, not only as an investigator and a liaison of sorts, but as Rowan’s de facto “handler” whenever a case falls into federal jurisdiction and the FBI enlists him as a consultant.
How do you describe your books? Dark Thriller? Horror Suspense? Evil Forces Meets Police Investigation?
I will often describe them as stacks of paper covered with words, bound together with some really good glue and with some cool artwork on the outside. Other times I just call them a paycheck. Still other times I call them the bane of my existence – mostly because they awaken me in the middle of the night demanding to be written down before I forget them.
But my guess is that you are looking for a serious answer, so… How about, “all of the above”?
Over the past decade my work has been described by others as Suspense, Thriller, Dark Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Pagan Fiction, Visionary Fiction, and on more than one occasion I have even found myself shelved in Sci-Fi. I think it’s the whole witch thing that throws them. Of course, my favorite mis-categorization was finding my entire series (at that point in time) shelved in Romance.
The truth is, the exact description of the content of my books is something that seems to have defied explanation for quite some time – primarily because the powers that be don’t have an official pigeonhole code for it (yet), and it doesn’t perfectly fit the codes that they do have on hand.
In the past, when backed into the corner I would settle on calling them Mixed Genre Thrillers. That just seemed to be the easiest answer. However, as of late, I have been growing fond of Paranormal Thriller and/or Supernatural Thriller. In my way of thinking those cover the spectrum.
In reality, my writing does contain elements of horror, suspense, thrillers, and mysteries all rolled into one. Of course, it also isn’t terribly unusual for most any book to cross genre boundaries and mix it up a bit.
Best explanation for mine – they read like a police procedural with a ticking clock and a supernatural twist, and that sort of brings us right back around to that whole Paranormal Thriller tag.
Every author is driven by an idea or scene that forces them to write the book! Tell us about the idea (and themes) behind your novel. What’s the fascination for you? The personal connection?
IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER started as a pun looking for a place to happen, even though it didn’t end up that way. Seriously… I’m not kidding.
However, I suppose I should back up a bit and give you a better explanation.
Like most writers, I blog. However, what sets my blogging apart from the pack is that for the most part I don’t write about “writing,” and on the rare occasion that I do it is generally a tongue-in-cheek observation or a bit of fun (example: A satirical re-imagining for writers of the song “Wear Sunscreen” entitled “Use Flash Drives…”)
Basically, my blog is an escape from the serious side of the word slinging business. In short, I write satire for the purpose of amusement – even if I am the only person it amuses. I think the affliction stems from a deep-seated desire to be just like Dave Barry, but that’s just me being an amateur shrink. The pros would probably say it has something to do with potty training gone horribly wrong, but hey, doesn’t everything?
So, to make a long story even longer, I came up with the germ of an idea to write a satirical holiday blog series for the Christmas season – sort of horror/thriller/pun-filled comedy – about an ax murderer named Merrie Axemas. I jotted down some notes, giggled to myself, and then promptly lost the aforementioned notes. At that particular juncture Christmas was still several months away, so I completely forgot about the whole thing.
Fast forward and jump tracks… One of the things that is foremost in my mind when it comes to my writing career is that I owe said career to my readers. Without them I would just be flinging words against the page because I need to make room inside my brain for other stuff. To be completely truthful, that really is one of the primary reasons I do it anyway, but it’s nice when other folks enjoy my work and it generates a paycheck, too. Therefore, after 10 novels and some assorted shorts, I thought to myself, “Hey, why not write a quick novelette and give it away as a Christmas gift to readers as a thank you?” My answer to myself was more or less, “Well sure, sounds like a good idea.”
Little did I realize…
Of course, when it came down to giving it away for free the easiest and most cost-effective way to accomplish that was going to be either a web page or an e-book. I ran the idea past my editor, looking for advice, and before I knew it my publisher was on board with the whole concept because it seemed to be a great marketing tool as well.
…And so, I started writing. The holiday ax murderer idea rolled back around in my head, and in just under two weeks I had a short novella on my hands, titled – MERRIE AXEMAS: A KILLER HOLIDAY TALE. On top of that, it featured Special Agent Constance Mandalay, out on her own as the protagonist with no “Rowan Gant Safety Net” for the paranormal. This piece of fiction, however, was far from satire – it was dark, twisted, and a bit gut-wrenching – no big surprise given the way my mind works.
Long story short, I turned it in, it was fast-tracked, then released in e-format in time for Christmas 2010. Feedback from my readership was to say the least, fantastic – their only complaint was that they wanted more of the story, and most especially, more of Constance. Since the e-novella was open ended, and had plenty of room to fill in details about the back story as well, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER was born – as was a whole new series built around SA Mandalay.
Now, about that gut-wrenching part… The crime that ignites the entire story is a child abduction and molestation, which is alluded to in the e-novella. With IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, the back story is a big part of it and had to be fleshed out in order to set the tone and drive the investigation.
While I certainly did NOT write graphic details of the abuse as it happened, I did approach it from the POV of the young victim. This led me to do a substantial amount of textual research on abuse, as well as time spent interviewing a member of the Children’s Advocacy Centers who trains child abuse investigators. A primary method for that training involves actors portraying abused children for mock interviews.
Given that I research and write about some pretty heinous crimes – see the RGI novels for the gory details – you would think I’d be jaded to violence and the like, but truth is, not so much. Child abuse and molestation are the epitome of evil in my mind; therefore, writing about those subjects was actually several steps further outside my comfort zone than anything else I had penned, which in itself isn’t a bad thing at all. It allowed me to expand and grow as a writer, and the research gave me an even healthier respect for the emotional drain faced by those who investigate these crimes, not to mention even more sympathy for the victims and despise for the predators.
In the end, when my source with the Children’s Advocacy Centers read the initial draft, she confided in me that it had disturbed her – in the sense that she felt as if she was actually listening to the reasoning and emotional scarring of a real ten-year-old victim. While that told me that I had definitely accomplished what I set out to do – portray a believable and real character – it also disturbed me a bit as well, in that I had successfully accomplished my goal.
I know that might not make sense on the surface, but I found myself mourning for this character’s loss of innocence, and I had to remind myself that she was, in fact, a character on the page and not real, so in a very palpable sense that became a truly personal connection for me – even though it was all fabrication based on research and I had no basis in my life for the experience.
Now for the less involved part of the answer: The other theme that drives virtually all of my writing is the paranormal. The occult has always held a fascination for me. I suspect it mostly has to do with the fact that the supernatural, paranormal, and “occult “ represent an element of the unknown, and that is something that frightens – and, in effect, thrills – me.
Tell us about the journey in writing this story. Smooth sailing or more like a twisted prison escape?
Both, I think. It was a painful, cathartic, intense combination thereof.
I’m a “seat of the pants” writer. I have a general idea, maybe a few notes, a lot of research, and a keyboard. I never outline any more than a chapter or two ahead, and I only found myself doing that when I wrote the Miranda Trilogy due to the complex interconnections between the three books.
I don’t really know where a story is going to take me until I get there; and in all honesty I like it that way, because I get to be surprised, too. Whenever I write I hammer out the first 20K at a pretty good clip – usually a week or less. Then I start second-guessing myself.
This book was no different.
Fortunately, I’ve learned that I can second guess all I want, but that isn’t going to make the words flow, so after a week or so of not getting a coherent word onto the page, kicking myself, scrawling notes, and not shaving, I relax, let the characters take over, and I pretty much become a glorified stenographer. I realize that sounds crazy – trust me, I’m pretty sure my wife thought about having me committed the first time I told her my characters “talk to me.”
Still, with this particular novel, even though I wrote it in the same fashion I have written all the others, as I mentioned earlier, in an emotional sense the subject matter was outside my comfort zone. Being a father myself, the crime I was using to drive the story – even from an obtuse point of view – was enough to give me nightmares. More than once I had to remind myself that this was just a story.
Of course, that’s what is supposed to happen – good fiction should evoke, provoke, and otherwise incite an emotional response.
How can we see the influences of your life in this story? What aspect or character is most like you?
Oddly enough – or perhaps not odd at all – my life is all over this story. Not the bad parts, mind you, but the setting itself.
I grew up in a small town in Kentucky. While we moved to Saint Louis when I was very young, I spent my summers back in Fulton and Water Valley working on the family farm, and we always “went home” for the holidays, of course.
Since I elected to set MERRIE AXEMAS – and ultimately, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER – in a small town, I drew on my experiences and memories of growing up part-time in Fulton. When the fictional backdrop of Hulis, Missouri started coming together, I realized quickly that my descriptions of the streets, businesses, and various characters within the population were based on some fairly nostalgic memories of my own. It’s all part of the “write what you know,” concept, I suppose. My real life experiences always encroach on my fiction, so they were bound to color what I was writing this time as well, especially when the overall scene hit close to home, so to speak.
On the “aspect,” I’d probably have to say Constance’s “need to know and understand” drive that makes her an investigator. I am the sort who will chase an answer right to ground, and I think that’s a part of myself I sought to instill in her character.
As to a specific “character,” I would have to say Sheriff Carmichael is the closest to being like me, or vice versa. I tend to be curmudgeonly – just ask my wife, she can tell you stories. I’ve yet to stand on the porch and scream, “Hey you kids, get off my lawn,” but I’m sure it’s coming at some point.
Of course, like any fictional character, both Constance and Sheriff Carmichael have qualities that I would really like to possess, but don’t. A bit of wishful writing, I suppose.
Research lover or hater? What were the aspects that required the most research and how did you bring research to life?
Ouch… You said that “R” word. And here I was just starting to like you… Truth is, both. I actually come from a journalism background – that being my college major many, many years ago back when journalism was journalism and not pop culture entertainment reporting and talking heads “ripping and reading.” But I digress…
I LOVE to research. L-O-V-E, love it.
I think it’s part of the whole desire to learn something new, or figure out how something works, or simply understand and take the mystery out of the unknown. When I was writing what became the “Miranda Trilogy” arc of the Rowan Gant series I traveled to New Orleans and spent hours in the Public Library Archives burning out my retinas on old microfiche machines. Good times… Seriously. I was in my element. They pretty much had to pry me out of the library that day because one discovery led to another, and another, and… You get the idea.
Conversely, I hate research (but in the lower case sense of the word, of course, and I promise I won’t spell it out this time). However, the hate is a love-to-hate sort of thing that comes from what I said above. When I’m researching something, I know I am supposed to be writing, but I will just keep going on and on with the research because something new and different is waiting to be discovered just around the corner. Therefore, I end up feeling guilty.
What winds up happening is that I will research a topic until I literally force myself to stop, and then I will only end up using 10% of the notebook (or notebooks) full of information I have gleaned for the actual story.
And believe me, I’m a fanatical note taker… And a fanatical note packrat.
As to the aspects that required the most research, that would be the child abuse / molestation backstory. I had no real frame of reference for it other than what I see and hear on the evening news; therefore I had to learn about the psychology on both sides of the fence – predator and victim.
In addition to that, I had to do research in order to get the history correct. Since the original incident occurred in 1975, I had to know how things were handled back then. For instance, Amber Alerts didn’t exist, background checks for temporary jobs were either cursory or even non-existent. Since that was 35 years ago, even though I lived through that era, I had to do some serious memory refreshing.
Bringing the research to life is another story, and I think I can best explain it by quoting someone else and putting my own spin on it.
There was a terrific TV show back in the late nineties titled, Millennium, about an ex-FBI agent turned freelance criminal profiler who worked for an organization loosely patterned on The Academy Group. In the pilot episode a police detective asks the main character, Frank Black, how he does what he does. His response: “I become capability. I become the horror. What we know we can become only in our heart of darkness. It’s my gift. It’s my curse.”
That is what I do when I write. I look into my heart of darkness. I put myself into the headspace of the characters and endeavor to become them for a while. Again, I know it sounds a bit to the crazy side, but it allows me to create the experience in my head. After that, the “taking dictation from the characters” part of the equation just sort of falls into place.
This exercise is also why I can be a somewhat unpleasant person to be around when I am working on a manuscript. Not criminally unpleasant, mind you. Just brooding and a bit uncommunicative, because I am living in this other world that I’ve created inside my head, and I set up shop there until I put the -30- on the last page. (I’m one of those oddballs who still puts the -30- at the end – old habits die hard, and it has become a personal writing ritual for me.)
The dark places I build in the back corner of my skull are also why I tend to be pretty silly (puns, satire, etcetera) on Facebook, Twitter, and in my blog – interviews… I do that to keep myself grounded in reality, because as a general rule I’m much more the class clown type in everyday life.
Fortunately, as writing goes, I guess I’m a harmless sociopath who is still in touch with his conscience – I think most writers probably are. We almost have to be.
Either way, when it comes to the getting into the mindset of a particular story I stick to some basic rules.
- I’m just visiting.
- I don’t drink the water (or the Kool-Aid.)
- I always make sure I know the way “home.”
Thriller and mystery writers love to celebrate their genre and also bring unique stories, worlds, and characters to life. Tell us more about those fresh elements that compelled you to spend months or years writing this story.
I really think that what compels me most is the need to express the bizarre thoughts that go knocking around in my head. I see things differently most of the time.
For example, some years back there was a commercial on TV for a cell phone company. It was a series of slow-motion, noir-esque vignettes, one of which was someone running across a street and the camera panning downward to stop and focus on a solitary, high-heeled pump that had been lost or in some way discarded into the gutter. What this had to do with cell phone service I have no idea, but when I brought it up to my wife, and others, I discovered that what they took away from the image was that the woman had probably been having such a good time partying she lost her shoe and just kept on partying without a care in the world.
I, on the other hand, saw a crime scene. I wanted to know where the woman had gone, what horrific events had transpired that led to her losing the shoe, and what other trace evidence might be in the vicinity.
- Was there a struggle?
- Was she still alive?
- Had she been kidnapped and murdered?
- Was she being tortured somewhere by a sadistic sociopath?
- Or was it a hit and run?
- Was she wandering the streets in a party dress with one shoe and amnesia?
- Was she in a coma in the hospital?
I needed to know the story, and in my mind it couldn’t possibly be good. Maybe I just harbor a little too much pessimism for my own good…
With IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER specifically, I was driven by the idea of exploring a different character in greater depth.
While all of the characters in the RGI series have developed over the existing arc, and will continue to do so, letting Constance step forward from the background and assume the spotlight allowed me to learn more about what really makes her tick. Also, since I was now writing a female character as my primary, I shifted POV. The Rowan Gant novels are all first person. IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER is third-person, which was a departure from my normal style, and that afforded me a much different approach to exploring the characters and their relationships to the story.
And what about your main character (or villain) makes that character so special to you?
Easy – Constance is a girl with a gun.
Of course, that’s just the superficial reason, as she really is much more complex than that; and there are a host of reasons that she’s special to me, chief among them being her loyalty to her friends and colleagues, her curiosity, and her flexibility in thinking.
I have to admit, though, that I am 100% guilty of suffering from “Joss Whedon Syndrome” (Buffy, Firefly, etcetera.) I have an extreme fondness for strong, take-charge female archetypes who don’t put up with BS, which is why I write most of my female characters as such, unless there’s a truly compelling reason for them to be otherwise. Of course, I also have a perfect template from which to draw the needed inspiration – my wife is a force majeure and possesses all of those qualities in spades.
What’s the easiest way for Readers to find you? Your book? (Don’t forget your conference appearances!)
Yell “FREE BEER” or “DRINKS ARE ON ME,” and I’m there – especially if we happen to be at a conference or convention. However, if you don’t feel like picking up the tab, which is perfectly understandable, you can find me at the following virtual Hotel Bars:
M. R. LAND – My official webpage. Updates daily with a tongue-in-cheek writing tip, what I am up to for the day, convention listings, blog links, and an occasional opinion piece on writing – or whatever happens to be knocking around in my brain. This site also contains a handy link to my tour schedule, which is updated whenever a new gig is booked. In addition there are “scrapbook” photos from my travels, book updates, my full bio, newsletter, etc.
BRAINPAN LEAKAGE – My blog. Here you will find satire, silliness, stories about my life, my wife, my daughter, and the cats to which we cater.
Me on FACEBOOK – Official Facebook page. Silliness happens here, too.
Me on TWITTER– I tweet, therefore I spam.
CONSTANCE MANDALAY on FACEBOOK – Not only did she get her own series, she ended up with her own fan page as well.
Upcoming appearances for 2011:
November 26th – Sue’s News and More – Saint Louis Galleria (11 A.M. – 2 P.M.)
December 3rd – IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER Release Party and Book Signing at Double D’s Pizzeria (Double D’s makes an appearance in the novel so they are hosting the party)
Besides bookstore appearances, I also speak, “panel,” and even sign books at various mystery and sci-fi conventions around the country, as well as a Pagan/alternative spirituality festival or two.
My book(s) don’t usually come running the way I do when you yell “FREE BEER,” but they are still relatively easy to find – if your local Independent or Chain bookstore doesn’t have them on the shelves, beat them severely about the head and shoulders and tell them to order them for you. If they refuse, stop doing business with them because that’s just poor customer service. If you are more of a cyber shopper, you can find them on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Powells, BAM, and a ton of independent online bookseller sites. They are all available in paperback, as well as Nook, Kindle, Kobo, Sony, and just about any e-reader format.
Give us the scoop on what you’re writing now.
At the moment I am working on a short for a follow-up to a Belfire Press anthology (COURTING MORPHEUS) I was in a couple of years back. The collection of horror stories was based around a small town called New Bedlam that was primarily populated by writers with insomnia. When their imaginings started taking on lives of their own, all hell broke loose. My short in that one featured some of the characters from the Rowan Gant series and was about as bendy and twisty as a cooked rotini noodle. The editor asked me to revisit New Bedlam – and my original short – for the next volume, which means I need to come up with something twistier than rotini.
I’m also on the road to finishing up the second Special Agent Constance Mandalay novel, which will be out in 2012, tentatively titled: IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT.
I’m doing the initial research for a third in the SA Mandalay series.
Beyond that I have #11 in the Rowan Gant Investigations, AND WHEN THE LAMB… on deck to be completed. Followers of the RGI series already know there will be a substantial paradigm shift for Rowan and the crew following the highly interconnected events of the last few novels. If I say any more than that I’ll spoil it for the folks who haven’t delved into Rowan’s world just yet.
And finally, if you could have any Thriller/Mystery author write a story just for you, who would that author be and what would he or she write?
Short answer: John Sandford – A truly stellar cover endorsement for my next Constance Mandalay novel. Long answer: John Sandford – Another novel with the characters from THE NIGHT CREW. In case it isn’t painfully obvious, I’m a John Sandford fan.
M. R. Sellars is a relatively unassuming homebody who, in his own words, considers himself just a “guy with a lot of nightmares and a word processing program.” Although he had several short stories and newspaper articles published during his early adult life, it wasn’t until 2000 that his first full-length novel, HARM NONE, hit bookstore shelves, officially launching his Rowan Gant Investigations paranormal thriller series. He currently resides in the Midwest with his incomparably amazing wife, equally fantastic daughter, and a pair of felines he describes as, “the competition.”
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