Author of: Twilight Healer Steel Rose Life Raft: Earth City of Brotherly Death Close Liaisons Infinite Sight When Blood Reigns Infinite Sight Publisher / Editor of Night to Dawn Books & Magazine

Ode to Tom Johnson

Author of the man in the black fedora
Author of The Man in the Black Fedora

I met up with Tom and Ginger in the early 2000s via letters, telephone calls, and email. At the time, I was adding to my Mylar balloon collection and short story writing. Tom and Ginger published Weird Tales, Detective Mystery Stories, Alien Worlds, and other magazines through their enterprise Fading Shadows. They published many of my stories, and in time became mentors.

I started out writing horror; but after discussing with Ginger and Tom, I gravitated toward science fiction. Tom and Ginger recommended me to publishers, and later, after I assumed ownership of Night to Dawn, recommended Night to Dawn magazine to aspiring authors and readers.

Tom and Ginger talked me through the printing and layout process during the first few issues. They mentored other authors, as well. They’ve been married 58 years and have the patience of ten saints and a sense of humor. You need patience and good humor in the army, and Tom spent 20 years as a law enforcement officer. He had an infectious laugh, and when I first talked to him on the phone, he impressed me as carefree. It wasn’t until later that I learned about Agent Orange and the scorched earth policy it used on Tom.

When the book publisher folded, several folks came to me, asking if I would print their books under the Night to Dawn imprint. Tom came on board, and we co-authored three books, with Ginger doing the edits. We stopped after that because Tom loved his pulps the way I do my balloons, and I was getting deeper into the cross-genre science fiction and horror. Tom was the Stephen King of pulp fiction. He loved his reading and has wrote 80 books.

Around the beginning of August, Tom approached me with The Man in the Black Fedora, and he was hoping to bring it to a book signing. I found the story a page-turner, so I decided to publish the book. I then learned just how sick he’d been—Tom had contracted several serious illnesses, all complications of Agent Orange. I got the sense that he didn’t expect to survive much longer. So I hurried through the editing and printing processes so that he could be here to see his last book in print. It was the least I could do for someone who mentored me. On September 26, 2019, The Man in the Black Fedora went into print.   

Thankfully, Tom got to see his book in print and the five-star reviews that followed. He never made it to the book signing because, by that date, he was too weak to go out. On November 5, Tom Johnson passed away peacefully.

The book will continue to be available for the length of the contract. I am sure that right now, he’s watching over Ginger from Heaven and enjoying his books.

Have Mummy Will Travel

grist for Barbara Custer's tales

Have Mummy Will Travel

While my Mylar balloons guarded my house, I spent the weekend at Mohegan Sun Casino in CT. When I left, I anticipated shopping and light gambling with the slot machines. Ah, but my mummy buddy had a different type of gambling in mind. Dat’s wight, wabbits, I’m talking about the mummy from Atlantic City.

In June, I explored Virginia Beach, including the House of Mirrors, and I saw the mummy’s image etched on the glass. But given the excitement of the two book releases and many balloon chases, I’d plumb forgotten about it. The mummy didn’t. There’s burial ground about three miles from the casino, and the dead don’t rest easy.

Mohegan Sun, built by the Mohegan tribe, has much beauty. At the Casino of the Sky, you can look up and swear that you were in an open building with blue sky overhead. The architects planned it that well. A long hallway leads to the shops, restaurants, and the Casino of the Earth, where a waterfall was built. Near the waterfall, a mountain lion poses on a vast rocky post. If you go to my Facebook page, you’ll see all the pictures of the waterfall, lion, and hallway that depicts Indian drawings and tools. In the corridor, at the last panel, stood a canoe. At its base lay something covered by a red blanket. I’ve posted a photo, and if you look closely, you can make out fingers poking from underneath the blanket. A fellow traveler explained that the red blanket thing was a papoose, a type of bag for carrying children.

Now I did some research and learned that the Egyptians aren’t the only people known for mummification. What’s more, most papooses have an opening for the child’s face. Not this one. It was definitely worthy of a photograph. All the same, I got to thinking about the AC mummy and found an alternate route to the shops and Casino of the Earth.

Between the Virginia House of Mirrors and the hallway sighting, the gambling has begun. I had written “Reunion with the Unspeakable,” a short story about mummies on a previous blog. According to my Mylar balloons, I’ll need to write a book with a mummy character down the road.

Writing (and Editing) What You Know

I have two specialties in life: respiratory therapy and balloons, so my stories contain many references to them. Having married a history buff, I learned about the Depression and World War II. After growing up in an Italian family, I can make anginettipizzelles, stuffed olives, and other goodies. I’ve been to the Italian Market. So when Michael De Stefano sent me Waiting for Grandfather, I thought editing would be straightforward. Waiting for Grandfather is a tragic comedy featuring an Italian family preparing a surprise birthday party for their patriarch.

Ah, but most of the major characters think, dream, and play baseball. They can recite baseball scores from years ago by heart. Yours truly doesn’t know squat about baseball. The best thing to do is to consult someone who specializes in the subject. Instead, I went and consulted every article on Google to see how scores are written. I happen to be literal. If you try to teach me new equipment and mention a part called a balloon, I’d start thinking about my Mylar balloons, and that would end the lesson. So the baseball terminology made no sense either, and that’s not something Professor Google can explain.

My poverty in understanding resulted in some interesting edits on the baseball scenes. Thankfully, Michael had a sense of humor, and he rejected the baseball edits, easy enough to do with Word’s tracking feature. Going forward, if an author sends me a tale featuring a sports-loving character, Michael offered to help with what I didn’t know.

You’ve got to have a sense of humor to narrate the interactions between the Corelli family members. The father, who is a frustrated plumber, uses plumbing analogies when he describes ballplayers. The grand-uncles get into one scrape after another, and their oldest brother, Grandfather, has to bail them out. The story spans from the 30s through the modern day.   

I owe a lot of thanks to the folks at Small Publisher’s Talk, a group on Facebook, for their guidance in designing a cover. I had a rough time with the lettering for the cover until author John Green from the group came to my rescue. With that in mind, I’m delighted to present Waiting for Grandfather, now available on Amazon.

family comedy by Michael De Stefano

PWC2019 Days Two and Three.

Barbara Custer loves Mylar balloonsand horror fiction.

When I got on the train on Saturday, the conductor said hello. I smiled and shouted, “Choo choo!” The other passengers burst out laughing; then someone noted that new lines were being painted on the parking lots. I piped up with, “Yes, and they’re also painting Mylar balloons on these lines so that people can see to park between them.” If Mike were here, he’d smile and say, “That’s my Balloon Lady,” but you see, anticipating the second day of PWC2019 had put me in a jolly mood.

The jolliness prevailed because I started the day in Jonathan Maberry’s master class on action scenes. I once believed that martial arts would enable anyone to defend themselves. However, I learned differently in that class. Martial arts have too many rules, said Jonathan, and they don’t teach the physics involved in a fight. Your character can use common items for self-defense weapons, but there’s a way to turn to apply torque to make that weapon more effective. 

Saturday night, Jonathan was the keynote speaker, and he told everyone how he started out with teaching martial arts and writing nonfiction books. He then moved onto fiction, starting with Ghost Road Blues; he described how different writers have influenced him and his writing. In that speech and his Writer’s Business Plan class, he emphasized the importance of professionalism: don’t slam other writers, don’t put people on a pedestal, approach politics with caution on social media, and avoid negativity. As my mom used to say, if you don’t have anything kind to say about a person or organization, don’t say anything at all (at least on social media).  

Sunday morning, I got up, tired, but I greeted everyone with a smile and “Top of the balloon to you,” for I anticipated more good things. And I got them in Brian McKinley’s class. He provided a lot of great material on horror, specifically log lines, elevator pitches, and book blurbs. One formula given: protagonist must do something brave to achieve a goal, with high stakes. There should be a time limit given, for example, a ticking bomb. For a one-sentence plotline, the formula is: in a setting, a protagonist has a (problem) caused by (antagonist) and faces (conflict) as they try to achieve a goal.

I also got plenty of good material from Shirley Hailstock’s class. The most important takeaway: the protagonist must do all the work. I can’t have God working miracles or the cavalry rescuing her. She also gives a tool for managing the ending, something I have difficulty writing. Have the story come full circle. So I’m thinking that if my book starts with a monster wreaking terror, perhaps the book could end with the protag slaying the beast or watching it die.

I owe the Liars Club and the PWC board a 50- balloon thank you for the hard work that went into this writing conference. This had to be one of the best I’ve attended, and I hope to go to many more.

PWC 2019: Day One

featuring zombies, vampires, demons, and human monsters

Day One of #PWC2019 was everything I thought it would be and much more. I took classes with Shirley Hailstock, Jonathan Maberry, and Brian McKinley. I’d like to share some highlights from the conference.

Shirley discusses the types of plots, protagonists, and villains and recommends avoiding superhuman qualities unless I’m prepared to put them in situations that challenge these qualities. She reminded that most villains should have at least one streak of kindness and a favorite pet. In my current WIP, I have my protagonist being rescued. In the rewrite, my protagonist will still be rescued, but she will have almost finished her escape before the cavalry arrives. I’m thinking now that villain should love birds the way I do balloons. 🎈🎈

Brian discussed trends and advises that zombies have gotten old and recommended biological means as a way to craft good horror fiction. Thankfully, my previous job as a respiratory therapist helps this cause. He also recommended Dean Koontz’s rules on good fiction. To summarize, Koontz suggests multi-dimensional characters, anticipation to create suspense, avoiding something other than their own survival.

Jonathan discussed the business end of writing, query letters, and the technique of pitching a book. If I query someone, I will skip the cuteness and be professional. Save the Mylar balloon stories for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for balloons are my brand or uniform. Maybe allow a week to type that query letter because it needs to be strong. As for verbal pitching, I know now that I’ve been going about it wrong. Jonathan recommends noting five things that the book is about and five things that the book is not about. For example, Steel Rose has zombies, Mylar balloons, and fighting scenes between humans and hostile aliens, but that’s not really what the book is about, so I might not mention them. It’s about Alexis struggling with health problems and learning that she’s stronger than she thinks she is. She’s finding out that the world isn’t what it used to be. It’s about a Kryszka doctor trying to fit into a human environment. It’s about two people learning to love again.

For pitching, he recommends having feeling in your voice. That is something I struggle with. Perhaps I’d best practice with my Mylar balloons. In the meantime, I will prepare a follow-up blog with my thoughts on day two and three.

The Website Changes Begin!

Mylar balloons for Barbara Custer, horror author

“Oh, Barbara!” purred a voice coming from a Mylar balloon tree. “Barbara!”

I looked up from the submission I was reading. “Yes?”

“You’re contracting several books and making promotion plans,” my Mylar balloon said. “Isn’t it high time you cleaned up your website?”

Aw, geez, why did they have to bring that up? “I will, eventually.”

“How about now?” the balloons asked. “How are you going to sell new books with the same, tired images?” Then they smiled as if offering a reprieve. “You don’t need a new theme. The one you’ve got gives you plenty of options to make your website look spiffy.”

I started with the header. I like to use rotating headers, and coming up with three headers I could live with took two afternoons. I thought I might need to redo them after I decided on a background, but this hasn’t been the case. Thankfully.

I started looking at backgrounds when my balloons piped up with. “How about getting rid of those advertisements? They’re an eyesore.”

These were WordPress ads – I agreed to run the ads with the understanding that if anything sold, I’d get a percentage. Trouble was, most of the items had nothing to do with my business. The folks at WordPress (I have a self-hosted site, but it works in tandem with my WordPress account) were glad to help, and the ads are gone.

I started looking over new themes again, and was about to download when the balloons got my attention. “Don’t you dare monkey with your theme,” they warned me. “If you do, you’ll make a lot more work and spend money that you don’t have. You’ve got a perfectly good theme that will enable you to change the font and the background. While you’re at it, look at your menus, too.”

My first attempt at changing the font didn’t go, so I installed a Google font plugin. For the menu, I merely had Night to Dawn Magazine & Books, LLC. If people clicked on it, they would get a dropdown menu of all the authors and their books. I rearranged the menus so that the authors have their own link in plan view and a dropdown for their books. One author had no link, but it’s fixed now. I got to wonder how people managed to find stuff on my website. What’s more, it would be helpful for each author and book to have a description to tempt viewers. So … I have more work to do in this area. Not sure if I like the white letters in gray … I’m saving that one for after I see how the new background works.

My takeaways? It pays to review your website every so often to make sure the links, images, and other items work. The balloons had it right about not changing themes. Each new theme presents a learning curve, along with all the work I needed to do on the menu. Later on, when certain issues have settled, I can look at getting a premium theme. Before changing themes, I would ask, what will the new theme give that you don’t have now? And I would back up the website before making the changeover, and consider putting into maintenance mode. And if you don’t know CSS skills, thankfully, WordPress has plugins that can help; but before using them, make sure they’re compatible with your version of WordPress. Do you use WordPress software? How do you approach website management? I’d love to hear about your experiences. 😊

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