Monsters & Magic – How I Found Inspiration in Real Life

Photo by Cassi Josh on Unsplash

Like most writers, I started as a voracious reader, losing myself as a child in the beauty and magic of fictional worlds. I saw myself as a dreamer and a poet, but not once did I ever consider becoming an author. 

My career aspirations ranged from wanting to be a radio DJ, an attorney, a therapist, and the proprietor a Christmas tree farm (I still kinda want to do this one). But somewhere along the path to adulthood, I stopped asking myself what I wanted to be and began focusing on what I wanted to have. A distinction I didn’t grasp at the time.

By my early thirties, I was a wife and mother with a successful career and a beautiful home. I was happy. I had all the things I’d ever hoped for, but there was no sense of fulfillment. The parenting thing has it’s own special kind of joy, and I was blessed with the the perfect partner – as if the universe itself cut him out of my hopes and dreams and set him into my orbit. But there was still something missing, something left unfulfilled inside me. Like, was this all there is? Was I being too greedy for wanting more? Probably.

Maybe I was bored, or perhaps I was an ungrateful monster.

I threw myself into new hobbies; camping, kayaking, refinishing furniture, and interior design. I took wine appreciation, soap making, painting, and floral design classes. I volunteered endless hours with the organizations that my children were involved in and still couldn’t find my complete self in any of it.

Fiction, became my escape once again. 

I re-kindled my obsession with reading – mostly bodice-ripping romances, but hey I was reading again. For myself. I feel like I should note here that I’d been reading all along, but not for myself. Bedtime stories were a BIG deal when my kids were little. Do you know how long it takes to read ALL the Harry Potter and LORT books out loud to an eight year old? A long effing time. And who knew there was romance in Star Wars books? Not me. Color me surprised that I found one of my favorite literary romances of all time between Qui-Gon Jinn and Thal in the Jedi Apprentice Series. But I digress…

I was reading for myself once again. I’d just finished reading the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer and was experiencing that post-fantasy let down. The feeling that comes after you finish a good book or the final season of a TV show when you’re forced back into the real world where magic and monsters don’t exist. And it got me thinking, what if they did?

Over the weeks that followed, I mulled over the things that I’d seen and experienced in real life and realized that my life was, in fact, full of magic. 

The universe had brought my husband and I together, after all – my soul’s mate, if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do. For me, the love and connection that we share are truly magical and so rare in this world.

My kids are everything to me, but it was HARD right from the start. The first time I got pregnant, I was thrilled, and I was so confident about it all. I read all the books, thought I knew all the things. But bringing another human into the world wasn’t the magical experience I’d been expecting or promised. 

I was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia two and a half months before my due date. My life and the life of my little stow-away were in danger. Getting the baby out was the only cure. He was only two pounds. We were told he might not be able to breathe on his own and that we should prepare ourselves because premature white males didn’t have stellar statistics. There’s even an awful name for it – Wimpy White Boy Syndrome. Our world came to a screeching halt.

Thankfully he was a feisty, stubborn little shit right from the start. While those first few months were scary as hell, we were incredibly fortunate. Not only did he survive his rough landing in this world, he thrived – thanks to the magic of modern medicine and an army of health care wizards. Thank you to anyone who works in a NICU or children’s intensive care unit. You ALL deserve gleaming, golden halos.

My husband and son in the NICU. Photo by J. Ember Hintz.

There were plenty of monsters in my life as well. I struggled with internal insecurities and anger management. Parenting was hard, much harder than I ever imagined. I had no idea what the hell I was doing and worried every day that I was screwing it all up. Anyone who’s gone head to toe with an irate three year old kicking and scramming on the floor of the small appliance section of Kohls understands what Nietzsche meant by “when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back.”

I suffered from postpartum depression after my second child’s birth and was, yet again, saved by modern medicine – this time in the form of a magical little pill and wise mage of a therapist that helped quiet the monstrous thoughts inside my head.

My husband and I trudged our way through the pressures of adult responsibilities and raising a family. We fought tooth and nail to overcome the toll that toxic people and toxic work environments had on our marriage and our ability to be good partners and parents. Family therapy saved our relationship and helped us eradicate some of our inner demons and became yet another magical milestone for us.

In the middle of the blissful post-toddler years when kids finally start to resemble rational humans, our lives came to a screeching halt once again. This time at the hands of a real-life, flesh, and blood monster in human form. Even today, more than a decade later, it’s still a painful story to tell. 

My husband and I had the honor of being mentored in college by one of our professors, Dr. Debra S. Kelly. In those nebulous years, she became more than a mentor to me. She was a paradigm shift, the person that unlocked my brain and opened my mind and became the catalyst for the person I am today. The John Keating to my Todd Anderson. She also made a mean glass of sweet tea.

Debra was a sharp mind, feisty spirit and open heart. A diet coke, cigarettes, and born and bred southern charm force of nature. She dedicated her career to enlightening young minds to many things, most notably, the role of women in crime. She even wrote a book about it. Sexual Violence: Policies, Practices and Challenges in the United States and Canada.

We stayed in touch after college. Her daughter, Emma, who my husband and I frequently babysat during our Longwood days, was the flower girl at our wedding. Debra and I talked once or twice a year about parenting, relationships, careers and our inner demons. She rejoiced in my successes and encouraged me through my defeats. Debra challenged me to be the best version of myself personally and professionally. I loved her.

My world shattered when I walked into a 7-Eleven on a sunny September morning in 2009. I was supposed to grab a Yoo-hoo for the kids while my husband filled up the mom-mobile. We were on our way home after a beautiful fall weekend picking apples in VA wine country. I’ll never forget the front page headline staring at me from the news rack, right next to the damn donut case, Suspect Arrested in Slayings at the Farmville home of Longwood University Professor.

I pulled the Sunday paper off the rack, tears streaming down my face as I read about how my dear friend – the woman who held such a revered place in my heart – and her entire family were bludgeoned to death in their sleep by a boy their daughter met on-line. I didn’t pay for the paper. I walked out of the store with it clutched to my chest.

There were no words.

All I could do was shove the crumpled paper into the hands of my confused and concerned husband as my body wracked with sobs. The three hour trip home was the longest ride of my life. After that ride I didn’t cry again in front of my children. It upset them too much to see me that way. It upset my husband too. He was struggling as well, but watching me fall apart – it was hard for him. I cried in my car. On my way to the store. Too and from work. For months I couldn’t drive anywhere wihtout having to pull over on the side of the road. Sometimes I left at night after the kids were asleep, drove to the library and sat in the dark parking lot while my rib cage ripped open over and over again.

There is only one word now. One single word to explain the inexorable cruelty of the universe for allowing something like this to happen – to my friend, to anyone. EVIL.

Emma Neiderbrock at my wedding. Photo by J.Ember Hintz
Debra S. Kelly Photo by Andrea L. Parrish

Years later, after reading Stephenie Meyer’s tale of bloodthirsty monsters, unconditional love, and difficult childbirth, I was finally able to recognize the magical and monstrous events deeply rooted in my own story.

That’s when my passion for writing about magic and monsters began and I finally knew what I wanted to be.

A storyteller.


For anyone interested in learning about the tragic death of Debra S. Kelly that made national headlines, I recommend starting with this article from the Richmond Times Dispatch. Warning – Graphic Content.

Redefining the Heroine – Highlighting Feminine Strength to Create Strong Female Leads

by J.Ember Hintz

The OA | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

Seriously, if you haven’t watched the OA on Netflix yet, GO BINGE IT RIGHT NOW. 

Don’t worry; you’ll find no spoilers here, so by all means, read on.

I loved everything about this series, especially the unforgettable lead character, Prarie Johnson, played by Brit Marling. Marling, who also created and produced the show – talk about girl power – delivers the elegantly nuanced role to perfection. In her recent New York Times opinion piece, I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead; Marling explains her motivations for creating a very different kind of female hero. The article was a welcome reminder for me, as an author, that we need to rethink and redefine how we develop and portray our female protagonists.  

It’s so rare that we see the feminist perspective of power; the strength of character built on empathy, personal sacrifice, and empowerment, show up in a science fiction series. One of my favorite examples of Sci-fi turning the traditional notion of power on its head can be found in the 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. And Oliva Dunham, the primary protagonist in Fringe is one of my favorite characters of all time – mostly because I wish I had her job. There should be a LinkedIn category for Government Special Agent Paranormal Investigator. Sign me up. I’ll do it for free as long as there’s a benefit package that includes health insurance and dental coverage.  

When we try to pinpoint what it is that makes a hero powerful; we first need to dissect the definition of power itself. The word power infers masculine modalities of strength, social dominance, physical prowess, action, and purpose, typical attributes of most fictional and real-life role models. Converse characteristics, creativity, sensitivity, and intuition, are all too frequently portrayed as weakness and are actively attacked in both fiction and real life. Just look at the way we treat female politicians. If they embrace their femininity or, God forbid, their sexuality, they’re not “electable” or taken seriously. But if they portray uncompromising values and ambition in a smart pantsuit, they’re too “b*tchy” to lead.

These paradigms are so prevalent in our social psyche that it can be challenging to write a strong female character without conjuring one or more modalities of male power. Often we end up with a masculine protagonist inside an female flesh suit. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good female superhero that kicks serious butt – Storm, Black Widow, and Jessica Jones, for example – and these characters indeed sell books and movies. However, they also reinforce the notion that feminine modalities of power are a lesser-than commodity. Our cultural heritage has ingrained these narratives so deeply into our brains that even when we try to write strong female leads, we often get it wrong.

Real feminine strength is often delegated to supporting roles regardless of character gender – the nurturing parent or spouse, the encouraging mentor, the BFF, or quirky sidekick. These helper characters are usually imperative to a hero’s success and are frequently sacrificed along the way. But, if done correctly, they can make compelling secondary protagonists of their own. However, adding token feminine characters or even strong secondary female protagonists isn’t enough. We need more Prarie Johnson’s, Kara Thrace’s, and Oliva Dunhams in science fiction. So, how do we write them?

To find the answer, I asked the internet, naturally, and found numerous how-to articles on this exact question. Their advice? Give your hero flaws, inner strength, a good back-story, individual goals, and a defined story arc – all excellent suggestions. These are also mandatory mechanisms for creating ANY strong character. One article even suggested writing your hero as a man and then, merely changing the pronouns! Sigh. While pronouns are essential to defining how your character identifies themselves, adding she/her cannot invoke the essence of feminine power when used alone. It has to come from the soul.

To create a robust and nuanced protagonist exemplifying female power, we must go back to the feminist perspective of power. We need to give our female-identifying heroes empathy, confidence, and resilience, and they need to lead us somewhere; into battle, into public office, into a parallel universe, on an internal AND external journey of some kind. They also need to empower others, both on and off the page. And if they can do all of this while embracing their sexuality, even better! 

As writers, we have to dig deep, explore, and understand who our characters are and how that correlates to the world in which they reside. If we do the research and thoroughly flush out our characters, we might just end up with the coveted, multi-dimensional feminine power players that will never need to be saved by anyone other than themselves.


My Obsession with Laura Mersini-Houghton & Theoretical Physics

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

by J.Ember Hintz

My fascination with the universe started the summer I turned 16. I worked for my dad who had a side painting gig. I was a crap painter, so I helped with the decks and fences and barns. All the outside, sweat your ass off stuff. I got accustomed to the heat. So much so that sitting inside the AC at night was like being stuck inside a freezer. I liked being outside. So did my dad. We were relaxing on the side porch after a long day spent scraping a century of paint off the side of an old barn. Me with my Orange Crush and dad with his Michelob. As darkness fell, he began pointing out constellations, trying to help me find them in vain. Maybe I was tired, or perhaps I just couldn’t see them the same way that he did. Either way, it seemed like an impossible game of connect-the-dots to me. To this day, I still can’t find anything other than the big and little dippers.

But it wasn’t the lesson in astronomy that stuck with me. It was the feeling of acute infinitesimal-ness that overwhelmed me when my father pointed out that there were more stars in our galaxy alone than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it broke my teenage brain and affected me deeply. He went on to explain that given those big numbers, the likelihood that we are not alone was pretty high in his opinion. My first thought was that I so wanted to be the person that meets and falls in love with a hot kryptonite fearing alien. Yes, that was exactly where my mind went. I had serious Lois Lane envy y’all and that was way before Henry Cavill even got involved. Haha. Fantasies about aliens with chiseled jaw lines and red capes aside, I suddenly wanted to be astronomer or like work for NASA or something.

Unfortunately, my brain wasn’t hard-wired for the complicated math that goes hand and hand with – well any branch of science that involves anything other than basic math. So, I channeled my new fascination with the universe, like every other geeky child of the ’80s, into an obsession with Star Trek. Every day after school, I explored strange new worlds, sought out alien civilizations and went where no one had gone before with Kirk, Spock, and Sulu, satisfying my curiosity for fictional answers to all of those BIG questions.

My life long obsession with science fiction eventually led to an avid interest in the concepts of theoretical physics (still not the math part though) and some very deep internet rabbit holes. That’s when I came across this interview with Laura Mersini-Houghton, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at UNC Chapel Hill. Not only was this brilliant woman asking the same what-if questions that had been stirring my imagination since childhood, she was also answering them, WITH SCIENCE. She was doing the math. She was connecting the dots. Like Einstein and Hawking level dots.

To say that Laura Mersini-Houghton is my hero, would be an understatement. She’s the scientific female role model that I wish I’d had growing up. She is the Einstein of the modern era, breaking through the boundaries of our current understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Her research on the Cosmic Microwave Background, the radiation left over from the Big Bang, and the origins of the Eridanus Super Void fascinated me. She was the first to person to suggest that this energy “Cold Spot” may have been caused by a primordial entanglement between our word and another universe. Welcome to the Multiverse. I’m gaga for IRL scientists who embrace the absurd and push scientific boundaries. Human cloning? Yes please. Cybernetic implants? Sign me up. Mission to colonize Titan? When do we leave?

The line between science and science-fiction has always fascinated me. Mersini-Houghton’s research percolated in the back of my mind for a long time. Eventually, it became the inspiration for my first manuscript where I was finally able to explore a few what-if questions of my own – without having to do any math.

Inspiration is EVERYWHERE. Stay curious my friends.


To learn more about Laura Mersini-Houghton and her cutting edge research, check out this article by Alyssa LaFaro, Endeavors from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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