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 in the beauty and magic of fictional worlds. As a teen, I wrote for my high school paper. Back then we took our copy to the local newspaper after hours where we did all the typesetting by hand before inking the plates and running each page through the press. It was a painstaking process, but those long hours spent squinting over all those tiny letters are some of my fondest memories. I went through a poetry phase around that time, filling spiral notebooks with angsty poetry about unrequited love. Writing was something I did for school or fun. I never considered it as a career choice. 

My career aspirations ranged from wanting to be a radio DJ, an attorney, a therapist, and the proprietor of 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 the time I hit the BIG 30, I was a wife and mother with a successful career and a beautiful home. I was happy. I had all the things I wanted, but there was no sense of fulfillment. Don’t get me wrong, the parenting thing brought its own special kind of joy, as is being blessed with a supportive partner – one the universe set in my orbit to help make me a better person. 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?

Was I bored, or just an ungrateful monster? Or both?

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, devoting my time and creative energy to the people and organizations that impacted my children’s lives, 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 me. 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 LOTR books out loud to an eight-year-old? A long, effing time.

I had a major book hangover after binging all four Twilight books in three days, forced back into the real world where magic and monsters didn’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 IRL and realized that my life was, in fact, full of magic. 

The universe had already given me that coveted happily ever after with my husband and children. I’m fortunate and privileged and all kinds of grateful to have them in my life. They make me a better person, and that love is the purest form of magic.

My kids are everything to me, but it was HARD right from the start. The first time I got pregnant, my ego soared. I was a goddess, a creator of life. I read all the books and thought I knew all the things. But bringing another human into the world wasn’t the magical experience I’d been expecting or promised. 

Diagnosed with severe preeclampsia two-and-a-half months before my due date, our world came to a screeching halt. My life and the life of my little stow-away were in danger. Getting the baby out was the only cure. We were told he might not 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. Born ten weeks premature, he weighed just two pounds.

Thankfully, he was a 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, but he also 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. Seriously, 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 didn’t know what the hell I was doing and worried every day 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, and was, yet again, saved by modern medicine. This time it came as a magical pill prescribed by my wise mage of a therapist and it helped quiet the monstrous thoughts inside my head. Confronting your own demons is daunting work, and I needed a lot of help.

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 those demons from our lives and became yet another magical milestone for us.

In the middle of the blissful post-toddler years, when the kids began 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. 

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 who unlocked my brain and opened my mind. She was the catalyst for the person I am today. The John Keating to my Todd Anderson. She also made a mean glass of iced tea.

Debra had a sharp mind, feisty spirit, and an open heart. A diet coke, cigarettes, 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 college 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 to grab a Yoo-hoo for the kids while my husband filled up the car with gas. 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 yanked the Sunday paper off the rack, my heart skipping from shock to horror to gut-wrenching desolation as I read about the gruesome quadruple murder of my dear friend and her entire family – Debra, her husband Mark, daughter Emma, and family friend Melanie – 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.

All I could do was shove the smudged pages into the hands of my confused and concerned husband as my chest caved in with sobs. The three-hour trip home was the longest ride of my life. After that drive, I didn’t cry in front of my children again. 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 was hard for him. Instead, I cried alone in my car. On my way to the store. Too and from work. I couldn’t drive anywhere for months afterward without having to pull over on the side of the road to get my shit under control. Sometimes I left at night after the kids were asleep, drove to the local library after hours, and sat in the dark parking lot while my rib cage ripped open again and again, trying to make sense of the inexorable cruelty of it all.

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

They say write what you know and pen your personal truth. I suppose that’s why I write about magic, monsters, and love. It took time to find my way to it, but I finally knew what I wanted to be – a storyteller.


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

For anyone interested in learning more 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 is the 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. And Olivia 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 they offer a benefits package that includes health and dental coverage.  

When we try to pinpoint what 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 weaknesses in both fiction and IRL. 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 bitchy to lead.

These paradigms are so prevalent in our social psyche it’s 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 a 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 powerful female-identifying leads, we often get it wrong.

Real feminine strength often gets 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 frequently get 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 Olivia Dunham’s in science fiction. So, how do we write them?

To find the answer, I asked the internet, naturally, and found loads of 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 robust character. One article even suggested writing your female hero as a man and then change the pronouns! DO NOT DO THIS! Sigh. Anyway, 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 character’s internal sense of being.

To create a robust and nuanced protagonist exemplifying female power, we can take inspiration from the feminist perspective of power and give our female-identifying heroes empathy, confidence, and resilience. But that isn’t enough. They need to use these traits to lead us somewhere; into battle, into public office, out of an abusive relationship, into a parallel universe, on an internal AND external journey. 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 flesh out our characters, we might just end up with the coveted, multi-dimensional feminine power players that will never need saving 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, painting decks, fences, and barns. It was a miserable outdoor sweat your ass off summer job, and I got acclimated to the heat pretty quick. So much so that sitting inside the AC at night was like being stuck inside a freezer. I enjoyed 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 Grape Soda and dad with his amber stout. As darkness fell, he began pointing out constellations, trying to help me find them in vain. Exhausted and near-sighted, I just couldn’t connect-the-dots and see them the way he did. 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 I felt when my father pointed out there were more stars in our galaxy alone than there are grains of sand on Earth. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it broke my teenage brain. He explained 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 who 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, and that was way before Henry Cavill even got involved. HaHa. Fantasies about aliens with chiseled jawlines and red capes aside, I decided I wanted to be an astronomer, work for NASA or go to Space Camp. I did none of the above.

Unfortunately, my brain isn’t hard-wired for the math that goes along with physics. So, I channeled my new fascination with the universe, like every other space-obsessed teen, into an obsession with Star Trek. Every day after school, I explored strange new worlds, sought alien civilizations, and went where no one had gone before with Kirk, Spock, and Sulu, satisfying my curiosity for fictional answers to all the growing questions in my mind. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Are we alone?

My lifelong obsession with science fiction eventually led to an avid interest in the concepts of theoretical physics (minus the math) and some deep dive internet rabbit holes. That’s when I came across an 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, but she was also answering them, WITH SCIENCE. She was doing the math and connecting the dots. Einstein and Hawking level dots.

To say that Laura Mersini-Houghton is my girl power hero would be an understatement. She’s the scientific female role model 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 and the origins of the Eridanus Super Void fascinated me. Mersini-Houghton was the first person to suggest that this anomaly could result from a primordial entanglement between our world and another universe. The line between science and science-fiction has always fascinated me. Human cloning? Yes, please. Cybernetic implants? Sign me up. Mission to colonize Titan? When do we leave?

Mersini-Houghton’s research percolated in the back of my mind for a long time. It even worked its way into my first manuscript. Authors and scientists share the same muse – wonder. And we have the audacity to ask “What if?”.


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

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