One of my friends described "Sleeping with Ghosts" as a kind of reverse Dracula story -- where a man goes to the untamed lands beyond so-called civilization and, instead of finding a monster there, discovers that he is the monster within them. I think there's more than a grain of truth to that reading, even though the more conventional monsters take center stage.

When I was building the world for "Sleeping with Ghosts," I was combing the Balkans and the Carpathians for creepy creatures and means to destroy them, from ill-born children who devour their families to the cold efficiency of iron spikes. There are superstitions in Greece and Bulgaria and Macedonia about how to keep children from devouring their families, or to recognize a human intelligence in a wolf's eyes, or how to know a witch in time to keep her from spiriting you away to Hell. The folklore of these lands is one in which anyone, even and especially your loved ones, might be a monster.

While it's fun to take a mythology and replicate it, to build a culture where vampires or witches are real and follow a particular set of rules, it's also important to engage with the questions that a mythology asks of the people who believe in it. The theme of paranoia and ubiquitous monstrosity is what I set out to explore in "Sleeping with Ghosts," and I'd like to spend more time with it as I start writing a novel (novella?) set directly after it. "How far will we go to detect monsters before they can do harm, or to prevent monsters from coming into the world?" these projects ask. "Will we become monsters ourselves?" From the Callicantzaros page on Monstropedia:

To prevent an infant of two mortal parents born during the proscribed Yule Tide season from becoming a callicantzaros, the infant was sometimes held feet down over a fire by one of the parents until the toenails were singed.

Some people, apparently, were willing to go quite far indeed.
I'll be the first to admit, I'm a pretty terse writer. My short stories always run very short, and the review I get most often is, "I liked the premise, but I really needed more details." If I know the characters are in a room on an ice planet and one has a gun and the other doesn't, then sometimes, that's all I really need to know.

At the other extreme, there's E.L. James, who will tell you exactly what her characters had for breakfast and what the vintage on the wine is and what her hero's cologne smells like. She spent around three paragraphs once just describing her heroine showering. (Here's a great recap of the 50SoG trilogy, if you're interested -- but fair warning, you will lose hours of your life to reading this and you will not get them back.) Her predecessor, Stephenie Meyer, has a similar tendency toward detail. At first I scoffed, but then my younger sister explained to me that when Twilight first came out, it was engrossing to her in part because she could empathize with the details of it. "Bella was doing the same science experiments I was doing, so I understood where she was coming from," she told me. A fascinating thought: that teenage girls were clamoring for these books not because they'd fallen for sparkly Edward Cullen, but because they, too, had studied mitosis. The detailed depiction of learning science, more than the gorgeous vampire, felt real and important and aroused their empathy.

How much detail is enough detail is a matter of personal taste, of course, but since James and Meyer are now bazillionaires and I'm living below the poverty line, I figure they've got something to teach me. So I'd like to kick off a weekly or semi-weekly discussion feature on this blog by asking, "What details help you to engage with a book? What details help you to empathize with the characters?"