+ By Andrea Stuart + Photos by Gregg Patrick Boersma
Vapors gather into driblets along young Janice Coleman’s brow line, then give way to gravity. Down her cheeks and vibrating along her Sennheiser earphones, they liberate themselves, landing on a sheet of paper. Her pen stutters over the paper’s surly fleece, now moist. She lifts the pen to find a dry spot and continues etching her way through a fictional war where various species of insects fight over their human host. This metaphor for the Cold War—realized in the sweaty walk-up attic of Coleman’s childhood Colonial home—propelled her to become a Montgomery County writing finalist in middle school.
Coleman’s story, The Klutes, came about the way any story does—it grew in her bones like marrow. She spent a good portion of her childhood and adolescence behind the pen, writing and drawing. She was also found behind a sewing machine and a set of drums. Her love for animals and the environment inspired a bachelor’s degree in marine biology. When 1992’s volatile economy contributed to a shortage of jobs, Coleman began working at a furniture distributor and went back to school for an associate’s degree in interior design. She started Magnolia Spec, LLC, a design and specification company, and has been indulging her creative spirit ever since.
Coleman’s inner writer sat patiently as she worked through design concepts for clients, took up the bass guitar, taught karate and kickboxing, and pacified her curiosity about the paranormal. Each October, she and her family go on ghost tours. “My husband jokes that October is Halloween month,” Coleman says with a chuckle. Then, about four years ago, one interest bled into the next. “We went on a ghost tour in Ellicott City. I was staring up at one window and wanted to see something [happening]. I asked myself why I wasn’t writing about this.”
For the next several years, she responded by writing her first novel, Night Walker, a story about a ghost tour guide. She wrote between work commitments, raising her daughter, teaching, and spending time with her family, and in the wee hours of the night. Coleman is curious about that which cannot be explained, and writing about her queries offers her satiation. “There is too much anecdotal evidence for me to discount anything. Maybe creativity balances me out because I don’t have all the answers,” she admits.
If curiosity is the mother of Night Walker, then music is the father. During the writing process, Coleman spent much of her time with headphones blaring, bathing her ears in gritty lyrics, layered guitar riffs, and electronic-infused rock tunes. A reader can almost hear Yes, Jethro Tull, Rush, The Damned, Screaming Trees, Triumvirat, Elbow, and Sex Pistols in the scenes, and it’s not surprising that the characters adopted her preferences. The book’s main character, Tom Hall, has a penchant for progressive rock while the deuteragonist, Anna Pearson, prefers punk (like Coleman, she’s also a vegan).
Creativity runs in Coleman’s family. One brother is an animation professor at an art school and the other is a magician. Her husband is an editor, and her daughter plays bass in a local band, Water on Mars. Writing Night Walker was even a bit of a family affair. Coleman’s husband edited her book and her daughter provided feedback.
Night Walker began with Coleman’s love for British culture. She scoured tour books, watched British TV shows, and pored over the internet. “But I knew I needed to visit London. We did two ghost tours while there. We also went to where [the characters] live to get a feeling for the area because feeling is everything!” After her visit and subsequent edits, the book emitted a truer sense of place.
After completing Night Walker, Coleman sent query letters and chapters to agents and publishing houses and ultimately ended up self-publishing. An agent in London had told her that he receives 10,000 queries a year and only represents two or three of them. He explained that a query must grab him on the first page to be considered. It’s a highly subjective process, and even published authors don’t necessarily get republished. This led Coleman to forge a path that would put her books into readers’ hands.
Self-publishing isn’t for the faint of heart and presents its challenges, but Coleman continues connecting with readers through social media, Amazon.com, book signings, book fairs, and festivals. She scored a coveted spot at the Sea Witch Festival in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, after frequently reaching out to the festival’s host, Browse About Books.
While continuing to promote Night Walker, Coleman has slowly begun drafting its sequel in her traditional fashion, allowing the story to unfold as she goes. “A part of me wants to dig back into the characters because I miss them. They are real to me,” she says. “But something is holding me back.” A part of her is still jamming to her first novel’s soundtrack. The characters tug at her, and the storyline is singing for her pen, but she’s riding out the chorus to Night Walker a little while longer, waiting for the muses to inspire a new refrain.
Like music, sometimes a story needs to be told, and sometimes it feels better when it’s in our bones. █
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