Jean McKinney

Strange Stories for Strange Times

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The Making of “Black Dog”

My short story “Black Dog” is out  today – nothing like starting the New Year right with a bit of black magic from our friends the Merchant clan. You can read it here, or download your very own copy from Issuu.

“Black Dog” has its roots in a story my mother told me when I was a child. She grew up in southern West Virginia, a hill woman to the core, and i grew up on tale after tale of Appalachian witching, ghosts and wicked souls. The story had to do with a mysterious black dog that appeared after someone died. It showed up at the house during the wake, then at the graveside, and then it went away – and no one ever knew whose dog it was or where it came from.

That story wove its way into other kinds of tales, too, of witches and their familiars, and the eerie stories of strange people in old houses. Joss Merchant and his clan of witches and black magic traffickers came later, when I created the world of Sorrows Hill, with its connections to mid 19th century Appalachia, the world of Faerie and the present day.

Magic runs through the members of the Merchant clan, however hard they try to avoid it. And they do try. This story introduces the granddaughter of the great witch Joss. We’ll see more of her later on.

Through my design site Luna Blue Studios I created the cover art and package for this story, and published it on Issuu. Of the various magazine-style publishing sites I’m most partial to Issuu, even with its drawbacks (which I’ll talk about in another post). Issuu’s publications have a worldwide reach and are very easy to create – a good combination for making visually rich work available to a wider audience.

What did you think of Black Dog? If you like it, please share! And sign up here as a fan to get updates on new stories and other updates from the worlds of Sorrows hill and the Moon Road.

Black Dog: A Sorrows Hill Story

In Defense of the Passive

The passive voice has gotten a bad rap.  This slightly complicated construction is the bogeyman, the standard bearer of bad writing, the ugly troll blighting good active sentences and scaring readers away.

My spelling and grammar checker tells me so every time I construct a sentence that could even remotely be considered passive – and writing guides solemnly warn that it should be avoided at all costs. (Gulp! I just committed a passive in public!)

The notion of “passive -bad,” “active-good” has even been extended to include a variety of constructions that aren’t really passive at all. I found this out in a recent brief from a client that warned that people with only high school diplomas are confused by passives. The brief referred to a peculiar page that lumped true passives in with a lot of other grammatical constructions such as subordinate clauses and sentences with gerund subjects like, “Adding a few spoonfuls of matcha tea makes your smoothie healthier.”

So let’s take a look at what the passive really is, and why it has very legitimate uses.

The “passive voice’ in English is a handy dandy little structure that lets you focus on the receiver of an action, rather than the agent performing the action.  When I was a college writing instructor we’d illustrate this with the written version of stick figures in simple sentences like:

Adrian read the book. (That’s active,with a subject, an active verb and an object -Sentence Structure 101.) vs The book was read by Adrian. (a true passive, with the object now the subject, a passive verb construction of BE + participle and the agent expressed by, well,  “by”.)

Now obviously you wouldn’t want to clutter up your writing with clunky bits like this.  The passive does add more words and it isn’t really necessary much of the time.  But fear of the passive also goes hand in hand with another fear: of the existential and linking verb BE. More about that one another time.

But to return to Adrian and his reading habit, if the book is really what you’re talking about, and if you want to add more information about Adrian, a passive construction could work quite nicely in ways that an active sentence might not.

The book on carnivorous elves was read by Adrian, who dressed in a bloodstained green tunic for the occasion.

The passive also comes in quite handy when you don’t know, or don’t care, who’s performing the action. Or if you want to keep that a tightly guarded secret.  That’s why one of the most famous examples of a passive construction is a quote from disgraced President Richard M Nixon, he of Watergate fame: “Mistakes were made.”

But the passive simply shifts  a different sentence element into the spotlight.  “The monument was erected in 1969” works just fine. We don’t need to establish who erected it, unless that’s highly germane.  If so you’re then faced with a choice between active and passive in how to express that.   Your choice will partly depend on the surrounding sentence framework, though.

The passive voice, like the active voice, and all the other voices and modes and tenses, is just one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox, to be chosen deliberately for its contribution to the overall tone and message of a piece of writing.  It’s not to be avoided at all costs as the mark of an unskilled writer – or as a nasty bug that could frighten readers.

How many times did I use passive constructions in this post?  Did you notice them at all while reading?


Preacher Said

preachersaidgraphicPreacher said

That humpbacked beast called sin waits just at the edge of sight.

If you turn your back he’s on you

Just like that green slime thing we saw that time on the midnight movie.

Preacher said

You got to pray and pray and pray some more.

Pray for the armor and the sword!  Pray for the strength to prevail!


Well I think I saw that old beast out back in Mama’s garden just last evening.

Under the shadows by the willow tree come twilight

I squeezed my eyes up sideways and I saw him, dressed up just like Sunday in Preacher’s tail coat.

Even had a Bible flapping in the wind.

Wrapping arms around Mama

Till Pappy come round the bend in the old post road.

The Sun Returns!


When Lucy’s Ready

Lucy1When Lucy’s ready

… she’s ready.

None of this slow stepping sweets and roses

Cat dance of attraction:

Forward two back one

While music winds through a still room

And candle flames tremble on wine glasses.


Lucy wants it all:

Hot breath and steamrollers

On the floor where the carpet’s bleached pink

From scrubbing up stains.

Buttons leaping

Whine of ripped silk

Lips burning lips like arrows in the fire

Straight to the heart of it

And windows wide to let the neon in.

When Lucy’s ready

. . . she’s ready for love.

Two Magicians is Out in New Myths

“Two Magicians,” my flash fiction story from the Sorrows Hill series, is now out in the December issue of the online fantasy/horror mag New Myths.  This little story introduces readers to Daniel MacKenzie, the sorcerer born of a Highlands lady and a kelpie from the deep waters of the loch. I’ll be developing Daniel’s story more in these pages in the coming months.

It’s a story born of many influences, musical and legendary as most of my fantasy tales are.  For anyone interested in learning more about the core inspiration, listen to Jethro Tull’s lovely song, “Kelpie.”

Read Two Magicians on New Myths here.  If you like it, let me know.

Freelance Isn’t Free: It’s a Real Job

FreelanceIt was a wonderful relationship, and it lasted for years. I gave him what he needed nearly every day of the week, and in return, he gave me what I asked for. But then, things turned ugly.

Today is Freelance Isn’t Free day, sponsored by the Freelancer’s Union, a wonderful organization dedicated to the well being of freelance workers everywhere. I’m a proud member of the Union. Freelancers and independent contractors now make up a full third of the US workforce, and nearly 8 out of 10 of us struggle with nonpayment.

To support the #FreelanceIsn’tFree movement and encourage better treatment for freelancers everywhere, the Freelancer’s Union has asked its members to share their stories of nonpayment or poor treatment from clients over getting paid fairly.

And so though I’m notoriously reluctant to blog in the traditional way, I offer up my own experience. It’s a peculiar tale of foot dragging, personal insults and Jekyll-Hyde behavior involving my longtime client, a real estate investor and well known podcaster who runs a sprawling media empire that includes several websites, study courses and investors’ clubs.

I wrote content for five of this client’s websites as well as a newsmagazine venture. We discussed creating a series of ebooks based on his podcasts and courses.  I created publicity materials.

For most of that time, he and I rarely spoke. Issues relating to the writing and posting of content were handled by another “go-to” member of his organization who loved what I did, and I kept getting more and more work, with praise for the pieces I was churning out on international finance, rental real estate and investing with the wisdom of Solomon.

But – getting paid was often a bit of a struggle. Once, my check was so late that I stopped work until my invoice was paid. It was, and I went back to work. But then, in the late spring of 2015, things changed.

Payments began to lag again, regularly. I’d inquire. My client would question every invoice, saying he didn’t understand what he was being charged for.   He’d say he hadn’t gotten my invoice, or that he hadn’t seen it in his inbox.   He cut back my workload, saying his budget couldn’t cover the number of sites I was writing for. He asked me to take on a new project – to write some promotional pieces to get bookings on podcast shows in his industry. So I did.

But in mid summer I made an error. With a stray click of the mouse I sent him and his promoter the wrong file, a piece of raw unedited text. As soon as I realized the goof, I sent the correct one out with a sincere apology for the mistake.

I’d I invoiced for the previous month just a week or so before that, and gotten an email confirmation that my check had been sent out.   But on the day it was scheduled to arrive (he refused to pay me electronically), I got a call from him. His message on my voicemail announced that he had stopped payment on my check so I shouldn’t try to cash it. He said that because the quality of my work was so poor, he’d have to pay someone to go back and check my pieces – and he’d issue me a new check docking that amount.

When I called him back, it wasn’t pretty. He accused me of doing sloppy, error ridden work from the beginning and said he didn’t know how many thousands it would take to go back and read every one of the hundreds of posts and other pieces I’d written for his sites.

I checked with my bank. They checked with his. The check hadn’t actually been stopped. My bank negotiated it. I deposited it into my account.

In the meantime, I invoiced for the remaining balance and told him I wouldn’t be writing anything else until this was settled. He sent back an email saying that now he’d have to hire somebody to correct three years’ worth of errors.   I responded politely asking for examples of all these errors. None came.

He did, however, email me that he couldn’t discuss the matter with me by phone because I was clearly so drunk I slurred my words and my writing indicated I was on drugs. I emailed back reminding him of balance due. I said I needed the money to cover my Dom Perignon and Glenlivet tab.   He said I owed HIM thousands and he should be trying to collect from ME.

It was time to go.   I sent a short email: You’re fired.

This client still owes me money. It’s too small an amount for collection agencies and small claims court, so I’ve kissed it goodbye. Since then, I’ve struggled. But I am getting paid. Regularly.

On hearing this story, an acquaintance recently asked if I was ready t get a “real job.”

But here’s what she, and my deadbeat client, and the many people who don’t respect freelancers, don’t realize. We HAVE a job. We work for ourselves, by ourselves, and for little respect and thanks – and often for humiliatingly little money. Because the job isn’t just a job.

We are entrepreneurs, pioneers, creators, innovators. No matter what, we step up and get results: to feed families, pay bills, cover mortgages and doctor bills and car repairs. We work as hard if not harder than those in the “real jobs.” And it’s time the world knows it.

Support #FreelanceIsn’tFree. If you use contractors and freelancers, pay them promptly. And challenge anyone who dares to say that freelancing is not a ‘real job.”

The Visual Side of Storytelling

Though a picture may not be worth a thousand words, it’s true that the marriage of words and images does produce some powerful and memorable stories. As a photographer and digital jill of all trades, I’m fascinated by the way the two combine to transport us into places we never knew existed. My secret dream is to be a graphic novelist – or to create a “Moon Road” webcomic!.

But while I’m working on that, I’ve been creating the Moon Road universe in images using my street photographs, vintage images and a variety of digital tricks to capture the sense of urban grit and heartbreakingly beautiful magic that dwells at the heart of all the stories, poems and flash fictions from the places the Moon Road touches.


You can buy these and other art photography creations here on the Buy Jean’s Art page, all fulfilled by Redbubble. Or contact me for a downloadable file of the image of your choice.

I’ll be talking about the art and how it was created here and at Luna Blue Studios, my art and design site.

Any tips for a wannabe graphic novelist?

At Mama Silva’s: Fantasy Free Read

Here’s a little flash fiction/prose poem that introduces Mama Silva, Soledad City’s most fearsome witch and staunchest protector.



At the tail end of the night
Concrete gets too gritty on your back
And fog blinds the alleys south of Spring Street.
So you creak to your feet
Wrap your greasy blanket round your shoulders
And you slump off to Mama Silva’s.

Catty corner from the mission
Next to the barred up liquor store
She’s open all the time.
Crackheads and knife fights and
Sirens in the the night —
Mama Silva just goes on.

Light from her window full of flowers
Washes down the puddles on the street.
Blue beads clatter at her doorways
And you shiver when you walk on through
Because you’ve been this way before.

Anyhow you shrug off that blanket
Just like a snake shedding skin and you
Step into her forest:
Herbs and incense and heads on the wall
Hanging ferns and the black Virgin
On her table full of candles and the little silver bowl.

You slide into warmth and coffee
And her voice like honey on a not morning.
Scents of cinnamon and juniper
Rustle of wings and whispers in her corners
Sing you off to sleep again. So
When Mama Silva takes her price
You never feel the pain.


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