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Women in Horror Month: Kathryn Ptacek Guest Blog

Kathryn is a hidden secret in genre fiction, with 19 novels published under various pseudonyms (Les Simons, Kathryn Atwood, Anne Mayfield, Kathryn Ptacek). She’s also written many short stories and edited some popular anthologies. Her work includes science fiction, horror, fantasy, suspense, and romance. She’s been a champion of women writers since 1989, when she edited the first Women of Darkness anthology.

 "E" for Experiment
Kathryn Ptacek

     As it happens, I'm conducting an experiment ... It's ALIVE!!! ... Well, no, not THAT type of experiment. The kind I'm pondering right now is a writing one: ekphrasis. Which is what? I hear some of you ask. Ekphrasis is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art." Often, it's when a poem is influenced by a piece of art (for example: John Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn").
     I lived without this knowledge for many years, until I read Lisa Lipovetsky's guest poetry column in Issue 179 (June 2015) of the Horror Writers Assn. Newsletter. As it happens, I'm the editor, so I get to read all the articles and columns ahead of everyone else (bonus!)(And what? You aren't a member of HWA? Check it out: The organization is doing incredible things these days, thanks to our go-getting officers and members. It's not your grandfather's HWA, that's for sure!). Anyway, Lisa explained about ekphrasis, giving lots of good details.
     How utterly fantastic, I thought. I'm not a poet, although I have always loved poetry, and this past year I sold a poem to the Second HWA Poetry Showcase (my first and only poem, as well as my first and only poetry sale so far). But I do write short stories, and I'm a firm believer that what applies to one form of writing can work with just about every other category.
     Not long afterward I attended the monthly meeting of my local garden club, and I mentioned ekphrasis to a fellow member. I'm not even sure how this subject popped up, but I probably said, "Hey, I just found out about this really cool thing." My friend, who is an artist, had never heard of the term, either, and thought the concept was intriguing.
     That's when we had the great idea that we would try our hand at ekphrasis. She is going to paint a scene from one of my short stories, and I'm going to write a story based on one of her paintings.
     It's interesting beyond this experiment because Kathy—yes, two Kathys—isn't a horror reader. She's read and enjoyed my short story collection, Looking Backward in Darkness from Bongo Press, and I loved that a non-horror fan bought the book and wanted to know more (she asked me questions about how I came to write some of the stories, etc.). I like her watercolors, which is one of my favorite media. I wanted to be an artist when I was a kid, but then along came writing ...
     Alas, deadlines and illnesses and various unexpected life things interrupted our plans for the remainder of the year. However, I'm heading over to her house tomorrow, because I think it's time we start discussing our project. She has my collection, so it'll be easy for her to pick a story. I need to look through her paintings to see which one strikes my fancy. Kathy had said that she doesn't see how I'll be able to come up with a horror idea from her watercolors—the subjects of her paintings are horses, flowers, landscapes, dogs, children's toys, seashore objects ... Here's the thing, though: I don't know about other writers of dark tales, but I tend to see horror in everyday stuff. There is always something that can be twisted, something that is weird ... something that is not quite right. And you think about it, as a writer, and then go from there.
     And now through the magic of my time-travel machine—and the fact that I didn't submit this essay the same day I wrote it—I've visited with my artist friend. I checked out her paintings until I found one that really "spoke" to me, and she E-mailed the photo of the watercolor to me so I can study it before I start writing. I asked her if she knew which story she would paint, and she mentioned one she was drawn to—it's not the story I thought she'd choose, I have to confess, so that was a pleasant surprise. I can hardly wait to see her painting! Of course, I now need to get going on this new story ...
     I don't know how long this will take us, but I hope we'll have a finished story and painting inside of a month or two. If you want to keep tabs on our progress, feel free to E-mail me at, and I'll be happy to give you an update. I'm pretty sure I'll be getting an editorial out of the entire process for an upcoming issue of the HWA Newsletter. Inspiration is everywhere, right?
     And because inspiration is everywhere, I suggest that you try ekphrasis. Or pen a poem. Or write a story. Or research an article. Work on something that's outside of your comfort zone–I wasn't at all sure when I wrote my poem if it really was one, because although I'd read poetry all my life, I didn't really know how to construct something this spare. A tad anxious, I sent my raw lines to a poet friend, who told me it was, indeed, a poem. I was thrilled–my first poem ever! Something so utterly new for me, something so unexpected ... and I really enjoyed working on it, uncovering one polished word after another.
     I don't plan on stopping there. I'll try some more poetry and maybe a new form: a play? a script? a graphic novel? Who knows? My advice to you is: don't write just one thing ... Try other kinds of writing; dabble in unfamiliar genres; experiment with something you've never done before—something fresh. Maybe you won't like the new genre or form, but it's really not the end of the world if you don't care for what you've written or if you can't get the hang of it. What's important is that you will have stretched your writing muscles and had some fun along the way—and it might well inspire you to some other new and amazing work.


A long time ago, Kathryn Ptacek edited two landmark anthologies: Women of Darkness and Women of Darkness II. She was then accused of being sexist because she wanted to showcase the women writers she knew who weren't getting the attention they deserved. This made her exceedingly grumpy. When she isn't being grumpy, Kathy writes novels, short stories, essays, reviews, and articles, and even penned a small supermarket booklet on herbs and spices from the Bible. Her latest story, "City Girl," appears this month in the Fright Mare: Women Write Horror anthology. Her horror novels have recently been reissued as E-books by Crossroad Press and Necon E-books, and she would be very happy if you would order a copy or two so she can buy more kibble and catnip toys for her author-requisite kitties. She lives in a 132-year-old Victorian house in Northwest New Jersey where she likes to putter in her overgrown garden and enjoys taking photos of cats and plants and things in parking lots.


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