Short Story: Of Parks and Plots

This short story is a sequel to “New Tricks” and “Of Cookies and Comprehension“.  Enjoy!

golden retriever

“AND WHAT,” the dog said, “exactly, is the purpose of this…thing you’re doing?”

“Swinging,” the little girl answered.  “It’s fun.”

The dog’s head bobbed back and forth in time with the bright yellow kiddie swing.  “I don’t think that you and I have the same definition of fun.”

“That’s silly,” the girl said.  “What’s not to like?  First you go this way—“ as she swung forward “—and then you go THIS way!”  She let out a giggle, and shifted in her seat.

“Marley!”  the girl’s mother shouted from her bench.  She started to get up, then settled back down.  “You stay still!  You’ll fall out!”

“She’s so protective,” Marley confided to the dog.  “It’s cute.  I let her get by with it because I like her so much.”

“I don’t think we have the same definition of cute, either.  She thinks she’s cute when she calls me the wrong name.”  The dog shook his head and huffed in embarrassment.

“What’s wrong with ‘Goldie’? Your fur is gold.”

“That’s because I’m a golden retriever,” the dog said, annoyed.  “I didn’t pick it.  And my name is Buster, not Goldie.  I didn’t pick that either,” he added as an afterthought.  “But I like it.”

“So why don’t you just tell her?” Marley said.

Buster gave it a nanosecond of thought.  “Marley, I know you’re only two, but you’re old enough to understand that grownups think dogs can’t talk.  Every time your mother hears me, she ends up on the floor with a bump on her head.  YOU tell her.”

“I tried.  A bunch of times!  She doesn’t understand me.  It’s like daycare.”  She dropped her legs straight, making the swing slow down, and gave Buster an intense look.  “Every day she picks me up from daycare, and she asks me what I learned, and I tell her.  But when I say “Cack… cackl… uh… cack’lus—“

“Calculus?” the dog supplied.

“Right!  Cack’lus.”  She nodded.  “If I tell her that, she just laughs like a moron.  Like she doesn’t take me seriously at all!”  She grew thoughtful.  “But if I sing the Farmer in the Dell, she understands that!  Maybe,” she added, “I should sing to her about cack’lus.”

“That would be fun to watch.”

She frowned at him, her nose wrinkling.  “Yeah, we have different ideas about fun.  Anyway, if she can’t understand something as simple as cack’lus, how will I ever tell her about your name?  That’s IMPORTANT stuff, you know.”

The dog dipped his head in a doggy bow.  “Your logic is unassailable, my friend.”

Abruptly, Marley grabbed the chains of the swing in both hands, making it glide more or less to a halt.  “Well, look at that.  SHE’S nose deep in a book.  Guess I’ll get myself down.”  Expertly, she undid the safety belt and worked her feet out of the holes in the plastic swing, then stood up.

Buster looked up in consternation.  “Ah, Marley, I don’t think you should—“

“—CATCH!”  She leaped from the swing, sending it bucking, and landed on the dog, sending them both sprawling in a heap.  Several other children in the vicinity looked around in alarm.

“Now THAT,” she said, picking herself up and dusting herself off, “was FUN!”  Buster bared his teeth in irritation, and let out a sigh.

Marley checked to see that her mother hadn’t noticed, then made her way to the sandbox on the other side of the swingset.  Buster followed, but sat down primly at the edge of the sandbox.  She paused and looked back at him.  “Aren’t you coming in?”

“I’ll pass,” he said.  “I’m not big on sand.  It gets down in my fur and won’t come out.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, “more for me.”  Sitting down, she grabbed a handful of sand.

“More for…what?”  Marley studied the sand for a moment, then abruptly licked it.  “Oh.”

“Blech,” she said, spitting it out.  “This is a bad vintage.  I liked the 2015 better.  I’ll have to have a word with the maintenance guys.  Except THEY probably won’t understand me either.”

“I saw a cat using that as a litter box a while ago,” Buster observed.  “I suppose it’s a little late now, but I thought you should know anyway.”

“Well, that explains it!  Silly cat.”  She stood up again.  “But I’m still hungry.  Hey…mom has some treats in her purse!  Maybe we can get those.”  She scratched her chin thoughtfully, looking for all the world like a pint-sized supervillain.  “Now, how to get them…”

“You know, you COULD just ask her for them.  I’m sure she’d give them to you.”

She arched an eyebrow at him.  “Don’t be silly!  OF course we need a plan.  Work with me here!”

“You’re the boss.”  He gave her a doggy shrug.

“We need…” She glanced around.  “We need…a distraction!  That’s it!”  She patted Buster on the head.  “How do you feel about biting someone?”

“What?!”

“Not too hard!  Just, you know, enough to make them cry.  It would be perfect!”

“Marley, if I did that, they would send me back to the pound.  Is that what you want?”  He drew himself up.  “And besides, I am a lover, not a biter.”

“Fine,” she grumbled.  “Well, maybe…okay, I got it!  Go over to my mom, and get the edge of her shirt, and start pulling on it.  She’ll wonder what you want, and then she’ll get up and follow you, and I’ll snatch the treats.  Then you let go, and run around the back way, and meet me over by that tree—“ she pointed “—and we’ll see what we have.  Does that sound good?”

He pondered for a moment.  “Just one question.”

“What?”

“What’s in it for me?”

She put her hands on her hips and gave him an impatient look.  “She keeps dog treats too.”

“Sold!”  Buster jumped up and trotted off to the bench.  Marley watched as he grabbed the tail of her mother’s shirt and started tugging.  He was very good—he made sure not to rip the material, and he never growled.  She tried to push him away, and when that didn’t work, at last she stood up.  She gave Marley a look—frowned, glanced at the empty swing, then back at the toddler—and then gave in and followed the dog in the other direction.

Marley leapt to her feet and scampered over to the bench, where her mother’s purse sat open.  She pawed through the top and pulled out two plastic pouches—one of gummy fruit snacks, one of bacon dog treats.  “Jackpot!”  Clutching the pouches, she ran back past the sandbox to the shade of the big oak tree, and sat down, hiding the pouches between her legs.

“Dumb dog!” Marley’s mom made her way back to the bench, brushing dust from her clothes, as Buster came running back to Marley.  “Honestly, that dog is so weird sometimes.  I don’t know what he’s thinking.”  She gave Marley a glance, then sat down and picked up her book.

“Mission accomplished!” Marley said as Buster lay down on the grass beside her.  With two-year-old skill, she tore the packets open and tossed a bacon strip to the dog, then turned her attention to the fruit snacks.  “Kinda makes up for those cookies we never got.  Don’t you think so?”

The dog swallowed the treat.  “Something about ‘ill-gotten gains’ comes to mind,” he said, and looked longingly at the bag.  “But right now, I’m okay with that.”

“Yeah,” she said between bites.  “They do taste pretty good.  But you know, this was a lot of work.  Maybe next time we should just ask.”

The dog gave her a look, then shook his head and snorted.  “I have a funny feeling I’ve heard something like that before.”

“See?! I knew you’d understand!”

Advertisements

A Brand New Man: Classic Doctor Who Rewatch, Season Four

We’re back, and with a brand-new Doctor! Not to mention some new companions.  But first, a bit of long-overdue explanation:  As I make these rewatch posts, I often mention comparisons between the classic series and the revived series (or as I sometimes call it, NuWho).  To keep things clear, I’m using the same terminology favored by the show itself; that is, classic series seasons are termed “seasons”, while NuWho seasons are termed “Series One, Series Two”, etc.  Now, down to business!

Brand new doctor

A Brand-New Doctor!

We begin with the third serial of Season Four, having just said goodbye to the first Doctor. (For the first two serials, see my last post.)  He wakes up a new man—literally—in The Power of the Daleks, much to the consternation of Ben and Polly.  The version I watched was a total reconstruction, as none of its six episodes remain intact.  That’s a common—and annoying—theme for this and the next two seasons, but it’s at its worst here in Season Four; not a single complete serial is available.  It was interesting to see the Doctor’s own reaction to his regeneration; after all, it’s his first time.  He seemed to have a little trouble adjusting, something that happens often with him—you’d think he’d get better with experience, but no.  I’m not sure if regeneration is just hard, or if he’s just terrible at it.  As I watch these serials, I usually keep the wiki open, just to keep track of notable items; here, it notes that “his head is filled with the sound of drumming.”  Just a throwaway line, not necessarily even noted in the episode, but so interesting given the Master’s sound of drums in NuWho.

Daleks Assembly Line

No, I don’t suppose you would like some tea, after all.

If you’ve been following, you’ll note that I often see parallels between Classic Who and NuWho episodes. This one strongly reminds me of Victory of the Daleks, as you have Daleks ostensibly serving humans and trying to accrue advantages so that they will be in a position to attack, with humans buying into it against the Doctor’s urging to destroy the Daleks.  (Later they even serve drinks; all I could think was “WOULD-YOU-LIKE-SOME-TEA?”) You also have the Doctor in both instances trying to provoke the Daleks or otherwise make them lose control.  I can’t blame the writers for trying to break new ground with the Daleks; this is the first Dalek story not written or co-written by creator Terry Nation.  It will still be some time before they really move on, though; for example, they still require static electricity (stored instead of external, but still), indicating that these are early Daleks, from prior to Season Two’s The Chase.

Not a screwdriver

Not a screwdriver.

I’ve often heard comparisons between the Second Doctor and the Eleventh (Matt Smith has been noted to have drawn inspiration from Troughton’s performance). We’re already getting that in little ways; most notably, the now-famous bowties (they were already cool!).  Unfortunately, some things prominent in NuWho just aren’t there yet—in episode five, the Doctor tries to reproduce a sonic signal (by rubbing his finger on a glass) to unlock a door.  Sure would be useful if he had some kind of sonic device…nah, that’s just crazy talk.

Jamie M

Welcome aboard, Jamie

The Highlanders gives us Scottish clansman Jamie McCrimmon, the longest-running male companion in the show’s history.  He gets off to a rough start, but I can’t blame him; it’s a lot to take in for anyone, and he was under strain before the serial ever started.  He grows on me in later serials, though; Frazer Hines was a talented actor, at least in this role.  This is the final historical until 1982’s Fifth Doctor serial, Black Orchid; it’s also the final historical in Classic Who to use real events, namely, the Battle of Culloden.  It’s a sound story, but not very remarkable; but to be fair, I’ve often been bored with the historicals.  We can definitely begin to see the Doctor being a more active participant here, as opposed to the First Doctor, and more cunning as well; in particular, there’s the scene where he disguises himself as an old woman to rescue Kirsty MacLaren and Polly.  His famous abhorrence of weapons is mentioned here, as well, in one of the earliest (if not the earliest) times it is actually noted aloud.

the underwater menace

Okay, it was a weird serial.

Jamie’s first complete serial as a companion arrives with The Underwater Menace.  It’s set in Atlantis (one of three appearances in Classic Who, along with Season 8’s The Daemons and Season 9’s The Time Monster, though all three contradict each other) but with a twist:  it’s Atlantis’s rediscovery, set in the 1980s.  I started to like Ben in this episode, after a considerable period of just tolerating him; he seems much more pragmatic and useful than Steven, whom he replaced, and who never seemed to find a niche.  He and Jamie are a good team, but they are unfortunately and unfairly very condescending to Polly.  We get to see the Doctor be a bit more humane here; he wants to rescue the mad scientist Zaroff, even though he can’t.  By contrast, the First Doctor might well have left him to die.  There’s a theory (available on Reddit, see link at the end) that the Doctor didn’t adopt that name until Ian gave it to him in An Unearthly Child, but that the Doctor drew inspiration from it and wants to live up to it.  If that is the case, we can see it developing here.  One last note:  Though the Doctor never calls himself Doctor Who, he does skirt close to it sometimes, and that happens again here; he signs his note to Zaroff as “Doctor W.”.

cybermen-moonbase-doctor-who

Cybermen just wanna dance!

I watched the animated partial reconstruction for The Moonbase, for which two episodes are intact.  It wasn’t bad; it’s a weird mix of animation-appropriate comedy mixed with the level of seriousness that would have been evident in the original, and as a result, sometimes it’s hard to get an idea of which elements are faithful to the original.  This serial is hardly the first, but is perhaps my favorite example of the “base defense” plot that has since become so popular; it reminds me of NuWho’s 42, despite the slower pace.  The serial is a bit primitive in its view of what the moon is like, but not by much; that’s appropriate, given that it was made a year or two before the moon landing.  It’s also the first of many stories that involve the moon—by coincidence I had watched The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon the night before watching this serial, so the contrast was interesting.  The plague on the moonbase staff is reminiscent of the black oil infection from The X-Files.  The story is set in 2070, and that’s not entirely unbelievable, as it appears now that we may have the ability to put a base on the moon by that time.  The Cybermen have progressed from their last appearance; they can now transmit electricity to stun or kill, and they also take a page from the Daleks’ book (The Dalek Invasion of Earth) in controlling human workers.  The Doctor theorizes that the human workers are being controlled by some kind of sonic signal…sure would be useful if he had some kind of sonic device.  Nah, that’s just crazy talk.

The Macra Terror

Aww, how cute!

I had been looking forward to The Macra Terror ever since I saw its far-removed sequel, Gridlock.  It has a new title sequence, thus beginning the long tradition of title sequences that include the Doctor’s face.  Many Doctor Who stories are dystopias, but this one is a prime example; there’s the element of a society that seems idyllic on the surface, but underneath it’s a form of tyranny and slavery.  I would compare it to The Long Game/Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways in Series One, set on Satellite 5.  I don’t recall if it was mentioned in Gridlock, but these intelligent Macra appear to be considerably smaller than the brutish Macra of that episode.  It’s clear here, as well, that being a companion is a dangerous life; in addition to the obvious physical dangers, here we see Ben get thoroughly brainwashed, which could easily have been permanent.

The Faceless Ones

Goodbye, Ben and Polly

The Faceless Ones felt out of place to me—it was a very Third Doctor episode, in my opinion.  Totally speculation, but I like to think it may have inspired some of his stories.  This story of alien identity theft (how progressive!) is very physical compared to most, and very modern (or contemporary, I should say).  Ben and Polly leave us here, choosing to go home on the same day they left with the Doctor, but that doesn’t slow the story down.  It’s just a fun story, with no big new concepts introduced (even where they would be useful!).  Notably, at one point the Doctor and Jamie get held up due to lack of passports…sure would be a good time for some paper that makes people see what they want to see.  Nah, that’s just crazy talk.

Evil of the Daleks

An Emperor Arises

A second Dalek serial in the same season? Sign me up!  Better enjoy it though; The Evil of the Daleks is the last major appearance of the Daleks for the next five years.  They appear to have finally escaped their dependence on static electricity…no, wait, I was wrong; it’s the static electricity research that drew them to Earth in the first place.  Oh well.  Truly there’s nothing new under the sun:  After the wild recent popularity of the “hybrid” storyline in Series 9, and the red herring of the Dalek hybrids, it’s interesting to see that the Daleks were trying to hybridize themselves (with humans in this case) as far back as Season 4.  It’s also interesting that they choose Jamie for their experiment because, as they say, his travels with the Doctor make him the most intrinsically human…um, human…in the universe.  Forgetting for a moment that that makes no sense at all, it’s also contradicted in NuWho, where travel in the TARDIS changes humans to one degree or another.  At any rate, they’ll continue experimenting with hybrids for years—note the Cult of Skaro, and the Dalekised humans in The Time of the Doctor.  Maybe it’s a product of their adoption of a Dalek Emperor, who first appears here, and will continue to recur.  Interestingly as well, the Daleks can successfully threaten to destroy the TARDIS here, despite being from well before the Time War, which the Tenth Doctor credits for their skill at fighting TARDISes.  Usually the TARDIS is well-nigh impregnable, or so we’ve seen thus far.  But I think we can handwave this by saying that the Doctor at this point isn’t “in tune” with the TARDIS enough to use all its functions—he’s still learning—and that may include its defenses.

Victoria Waterfield

Welcome Aboard, Victoria!

We close out the season with the introduction of new companion Victoria Waterfield. What?  A female companion with a canon last name?  That doesn’t happen often!  Victoria doesn’t get much screen time, so it remains to be seen how much potential she has.  We’ll look forward to it in Season Five.  I’ll see you there!

Interested in the theory I mentioned regarding the Doctor’s title?  Check it out here!

(Nearly) all episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.  Due to the BBC’s early policy of junking tapes, some episodes exist only as reconstructions.

The Power of the Daleks

The Highlanders

The Underwater Menace (YouTube; does not include episode three, which appears to be unavailable online.)

The Moonbase

The Macra Terror

The Faceless Ones

The Evil of the Daleks

Short Story: Of Cookies and Comprehension

I’ve written a number of stories for specific people before, including my children and some friends.  It’s not often, though, that someone has asked to be the target inspiration for one of my stories; and so, when presented with a request recently, I had to give it a shot.  The child in this story is based on a friend’s child, who just so happens to love cookies, and coincidentally happens to believe she knows everything (don’t they all?).  She was a prime model for the main character here; and yet that wasn’t the full puzzle.  After some thought, I decided that one of my favorite short story creations–Buster, the talking dog from my earlier story, “New Tricks“–had another story to tell.  This story, “Of Cookies and Comprehension”, is the result, and I hope you’ll have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

retrievers

She broke her concentration long enough to go to the front door.  She may have only been one year old, but she could multitask.

The door wasn’t quite latched, so she worked her fingers around the edge and hauled it open.  The screen door was firmly closed, but the glass was up, and she looked through the bare screen at the golden retriever sitting on the stoop.  It was he that had made the scratching that attracted her.  “Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” the dog said.  “I was walking by, and I smelled bacon…would you care to part with any?  I’m quite hungry…”

“No,” she said.  The oddity of a talking dog didn’t register with her; she was, after all, only one.

“Oh, well then, I suppose I’ll be on my way.  Good day—“

“You can’t have any,” she said, “because we ate it all already.  My mom only made enough for the two of us.”  She paused.  “It was very good.”

“Splendid,” the dog said, “It’s a crime when bacon is no good.  Say, I suppose—“

“But you can have a cookie,” she interrupted.

“Cookies are my next favorite food,” the dog said, smooth as butter, “after bacon of course.”

“You have to help me get the cookies, though,” the girl said.  “My mom is in the shower.”

“Certainly!  Ah, now, if you could just let me in…see, I haven’t any thumbs…”

“No,” the girl said.  “Mom says I’m not supposed to let strangers in the house.”

“Oh, really?” the dog said.  “My name is Buster.  What’s yours?”

“Marley,” she said.

“See?  There.  We’re not strangers anymore!”  That seemed like very sound logic to Marley, and so she obliged the dog by reaching up and flipping the tiny lock switch behind the door handle, and then opened the door.  Buster gave her a nod and a toothy, tongue-filled, doggy grin, and then nosed the door open far enough to slip inside.  He was small for a retriever, but tall enough to lick the little girl’s nose, which he did, and very appreciatively.  She frowned and wrinkled it, then smiled and toddled past the dog, toward the kitchen.

“This way,” Marley said, and the dog padded after her.  “The cookies are on the top shelf.”

“Doesn’t it bother you,” Buster said, “that you’re holding a conversation with a dog?”

“No.  Why?”  She tugged on a kitchen chair, inching it across the floor.

“Oh, no reason.”  Buster nosed the chair from behind, moving it a little faster, and together they edged it toward the cabinets. “Just that my last master thought it was odd.  He got rather worked up about it, actually.”

“But did he listen to you?”  Marley paused and looked at Buster before turning back to the chair.

“Ohh, that he did,” Buster said.  “It didn’t go so well.”

“My mom listens to me, kind of.”  Marley climbed up on the seat of the chair, then looked back.  “But I think she needs her ears checked.  She doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying.”

“You don’t say,” Buster said.

“Right?  It’s like she only hears babbling.  It’s so annoying.  I have so many cool things to say!  After all, I know everything.  But she doesn’t get it at all.”  She looked down at him.  “One night, I even woke her up to give her my insights into string theory—she keeps the ink pens, you know, so I needed her to write them down—and she just kept shaking her head and saying “no pattycake, no pattycake.”  Sometimes I think her mind may be going soft.”

“So what did you do?”

“What COULD I do?  I played pattycake with her until she fell asleep again.  She seemed to like it.”

“Of course,” the dog said, and put his paws up on the seat to steady it.

“Thanks,” Marley said, and turned back to the cabinet.

“Don’t mention it,” he said.  “So, what is your mother’s name?  I’ll have to introduce myself, I suppose.”

“Mom,” she said.

“Oh…well…yes, but…well, does she have another name?”

She stopped reaching for the door, and gave him a look.  “Mama?”

“Oh, but she should have another…”

“You’re not making any sense,” she said, “why would she need another name?”

“Of course,” the dog said, “just how old did you say you are?”

“I didn’t,” she said, and turned back to the cabinet.  She had the door open in a flash.  “Bazinga!  Cookies, incoming!”  The package sat on the top shelf, one corner stretching tantalizingly over the edge.  “Just…gotta…reach…”

“MARLEY!”  The girl flinched, and so did the dog, who somehow managed to look guilty even while panting. The package of cookies tipped and fell to the countertop, then bounced to the floor.  Buster gave them a longing look, but didn’t move.  The woman in the doorway glared at both of them.  “Just WHAT do you think you’re doing?!”

“We’re busted,” Buster whispered.

“I know!” Marley whispered back.  “What do we do?”

“Don’t look at me,” he whispered, “I’m a dog.”

“I guess I’ll have to talk her out of getting us in trouble,” Marley whispered.  “I’ll give her my most logical and reasoned arguments.  She’ll never be able to resist my rhetorical skills.  Watch!”  She looked up at her mother, who was standing over her now, hands on hips, waiting.

“Well,” the woman said, “what do you have to say for yourself?”

Marley glanced back at Buster one last time for courage.  She turned back to her mother, and gathered her wits about her.  Then she raised a hand, and stretched out a finger, and opened her mouth; and in her best and most authoritative voice, she said…

“Cookie, mama?”

The woman laughed, and bent down to hug the girl.  “You know, if you weren’t so darned cute…”  Then she straightened up, and looked down at the dog, and frowned.  “But where did the dog come from?  And how did he get in?”

Buster dipped his head in a doggy shrug.  “What can I say?  I borrowed your daughter’s thumbs.  She’s very helpful, by the way.”

Marley watched as her mother’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she slipped to the floor in a dead faint.  “See?” she said.  “I TOLD you she doesn’t understand me!”

Short Story: Storytime Is Hell

Lately I seem to be lacking in topical posts.  That’s bad for me; but it’s good for you, readers, as you get more stories this way.  (I hope that’s a good thing, at any rate!)

The story that follows, “Storytime Is Hell”, is another prompt-inspired story, prompted by the good folks over at Reddit’s Writing Prompts community.  The prompt reads “You are reading the grittiest, manliest, most testosterone-filled bedtime story to your daughter. She’s adding in bits.”  I also feel like I should give an acknowledgement to Matthew Reilly’s “Jack West Jr.” trilogy of novels here; the names “Wolf” and “Huntsman”, while fitting perfectly in this story (for reasons that will be obvious) are also the callsigns of his characters, Jack West Jr. and his father and rival, Jack West Sr.  The books are some of my favorites, so credit is definitely due.

And now, an audience participation moment:  Rename this story!  I hate titling stories.  If a title doesn’t present itself during the writing, I find it very hard to come up with one that satisfies me.  So, I’m taking suggestions to rename this one!  If you have an idea that you think is perfect, post it in the comments.  For the winner, I’ll rename the story.  (Not much of a prize, but hey, it works, right?)  Thanks!

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

source unknown

source unknown

“Read this one!” Casey squealed, and pressed the book into my hands. It wasn’t thin, and I tried to switch it for another one, but she pushed my hands back with all her five-year-old strength. “No, Daddy! I said THIS one!” Well, alright. I opened it and leafed through; at least the stories in it were short. I flipped to a random one and sat back on the bed; looking cute as ever, Casey sat back against her pillow, pulled the blanket up over her knees, and folded her hands on them in prim anticipation. Her eyes glowed as she waited for the story to begin.

“Alright,” I said. “Once upon a time, there was a minor Central American country. In this country lay a small jungle, and in that jungle lay a tiny, reinforced compound. In that compound lived an old matriarch, and her granddaughter, Red.”

I paused. “Wait, just what kind of book is this, anyway, Casey?” I flipped it over and read the title. “Roundhouse Kick The Wicked Witch: Manly Fairy Tales For Manly Men. Well, that explains it!” I looked up. “Casey, where did you get this book?”

“Kindergarten!”

“Uh…”

“READ!” she shouted.

“Alright, alright, if you insist.” I flipped it back over. “But you might not like it!”

She giggled. I rolled my eyes, and started again. “Now, unknown to Grandma and Red, their simple life was about to change. For on that very day, their little compound, and their minor country, was about to be invaded by another country’s general. They called him…The Wolf.”

“How big was his army?”

Now the Wolf—I, uh, excuse me?” I looked up. She was still sitting with her fingers laced on her knees, but her eyes were wide, waiting for an answer.

“I said, how big was the Wolf’s army?”

“I, uh…well, it doesn’t really…Casey, it’s a bedtime story, I don’t think—“

“Well, that’s no good. For a minor Central American country, I think you need at least fifty thousand ground troops, plus twenty air support units. And sufficient naval forces to secure the shoreline.” She frowned. “What?”

I opened my mouth a few times before any words would come out. “Did you just—“

She sighed. “Come on, Daddy, I want to hear the rest!”

Yeah, sure. Never mind all that. I resumed. “Now the Wolf came rolling into the country on a wave of blood and bullets…oh my…and no one could stop him. He rolled up to the gate of the little compound, and got out his loudspeaker, and announced to everyone, ‘GRANDMA AND RED! LET ME IN!’ And the compound’s guards shouted ‘NOT BY THE HAIR ON OUR CHINNY CHIN CHINS!’…Hey, I think there’s some plagiarism going on here, not to mention some story confusion…”

“Da-DDY!”

Alright! So the Wolf huffed, and he puffed, and he…oh, come on…and he fired a rocket-propelled grenade into the gates, and the guards scattered everywhere!”

“Hmpf.”

I arched an eyebrow at her. “Hmpf?”

“Shoulda reinforced the gate.”

“Where did you even learn that word?”

“Just saying. Then it would have taken more than an RPG.” She gave me a triumphant look.

“Right…” I cleared my throat. “So the Wolf and his men took charge of the compound, and Grandma and Red found themselves locked in the cellar. But, unknown to the Wolf, the CIA had many connections in this minor country, and they knew they would need to protect their interests. By nightfall, they had their best operative on a plane, and by midnight he was parachuting into the jungle. His codename: The Huntsman.”

“One man?” Casey shouted. “THAT’s the best they can do? One man? How about a slash-and-burn team to clear the area, followed by a four-man squad of Navy SEALS—“

I cut her off with a look. “Are you going to let me read this?” She subsided, but her eyes were still flashing. “Thank you. So the Huntsman parachuted in under cover of darkness, and landed in the jungle. Quickly he made his way to the perimeter, and one by one he subdued the guards, using his knife and his hand-to-hand combat skills. He hid the bodies as he created them, and made his way to the fence. Once there, he used his knife to scrape a dugout beneath the fence, and crawled under.”

“Uh, motion detectors? Ever heard of those? Or vibration sensors on the fence?”

“Casey—“

“Well, it’s like they’re not even TRYING!” she exploded, then subsided, with her arms crossed.

“We’re almost done, if you’ll let me go on.” She nodded glumly. “Alright. Now where was I…oh yeah. The Huntsman made his way to the main house, intending to rescue the hostages before confronting the Wolf. He had no way to know that the hostages were rescuing themselves.” I turned the page. “Grandma knew about the years Red had spent in the local juvenile detention center, but she didn’t know about the recruiter for the CIA that had met her there. She didn’t know about Red’s secret training, or her mission to further America’s interests in the country; and of course she didn’t know about the hidden knife that Red was using right now to cut herself free of her bonds. So, when Red sprang to her feet, she only had time to duck as Red threw the knife over Grandma’s shoulder and took out the one guard on the door. Right between the eyes.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Casey muttered, “he won’t have the keys anyway.”

“Well, I know that, but how did you…?”

“I’m getting sleepy,” she said with a yawn, “can we hurry?”

“Right. So Red cut Grandma free, then began to pick the lock whle Grandma pressed her ear to the door. But the next sound she heard made them stop—for they knew it was the sound of bodies hitting the floor upstairs. The Huntsman had come!” I looked at her; she tapped her fingers on her arm, impatiently waiting. “When the Huntsman popped the lock with a bit of C4, Red burst out and nearly put her knife in him. Only his quick training and martial reflexes saved him, as he caught her arm and disarmed her, and flipped her onto the floor!”

“BOOOO-ring!” Casey announced. “No CIA-trained sleeper operative would have charged through the door without looking!”

I ignored that. “’Well done,’ a voice said behind them. It was the Wolf! He had come down from the second floor during the fight, and now he stood at the foot of the stairs, watching the three of them. ‘I didn’t expect you to escape, but here you are. Grandma, the woman who used to be in charge here. Red, the little girl with the big secret. And you…the Huntsman. My old enemy.’”

“’So you remember,’ the Huntsman said. ‘I thought you would forget.’”

“’I could never forget the man…who murdered my father!’ he shouted. ‘And now, that debt will be repaid! Die, Huntsman!’ And he drew his gun and fired!”

“Oh come on!” She was waving her arms in five-year-old fury. “Body armor, people! He’s wearing body armor!”

“Well, as it turns out,” I said, “you are wrong. Listen. ‘Suddenly, out of nowhere, Grandma leaped in front of the bullet! And as she lay dying a bloody and dramatic death, Red and the Huntsman leaned over her and heard her final words. ‘Huntsman,’ she wheezed, ‘I want you to take my granddaughter far away from here, to someplace safe, where she can have a life.’”

“’I will,’ the Huntsman promised.”

“’And marry her,’ the old woman gasped.”

“’Grandma, I’m eleven!’ Red exclaimed.”

“’Don’t disobey your grandmother, now,’ she said, and then she died. Red and the Huntsman looked at each other.”

“’We’ll talk about this later,’ he said. She nodded. Then he stood up. ‘Wolf,’ he declared, ‘I’ve come to end your suffering once and for all.’”

“’Are you going to give me back my father?’”

“’No,’ the Huntsman said, ‘but I will send you to join him!’”

“What followed was a battle too epic for words. It raged over the compound for a night and a day; and in the end, the Huntsman was victorious. He stood over his fallen foe, watching as the final moments came. ‘You can’t think this is over, Huntsman,’ the Wolf growled. ‘I may die, but someone will avenge me! You’ll never be safe again!”

“The Huntsman pointed his gun at the Wolf. ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you how this ends.’ He tightened his finger on the trigger. ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ The gunshot was the last sound the Wolf heard.” I lowered the book. “The End.”

“WHAT?” Casey exploded. “That’s IT?? What about the resulting power vacuum and the reestablishment of government? What about the inevitable puppet state? What about the rest of the military? What about the Huntsman and Red? I need to know–!”

“Goodnight, Casey,” I said, and turned off the light and left the room.

I took the book with me. Strange as it was, I didn’t want to leave it with her. In my own bedroom, I took a last look at the cover, and then tossed the book on the nightstand. “That’s what you get,” I said to myself as I turned out the light, “when a military school opens up a preschool.”

Short Story: It Pays

My first short story to be posted in a while, “It Pays” was written in about an hour.  I don’t often try to spell out the influences on a particular story, but I think it doesn’t hurt an author to give some thought to the things that shaped his writing, both in general and in regard to specific pieces.  At the very least, it makes us aware of our sources–and more important from a legal standpoint, whether we’re unintentionally plagiarizing something.  This story, and in particular the character of the Redactor, drew some inspiration from Neal Stephenson’s portrayal of Hiro Protagonist in the early chapters of his excellent novel, “Snow Crash”, which I referred to in a recent post.  As well, the setting–and I don’t want to give it away here–was drawn from numerous movies, most notably Liam Neeson’s recent “A Walk Among The Tombstones”.  I should also note that this is a writing prompt story; the prompt appears early in the story as the Redactor’s line, “I’m not proud of what I do, but it pays. It pays.”  Read and enjoy, and tell me what you think!

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!

 

There was a red dot painted on the concrete floor. It was the only color in an otherwise flat-grey room. Try as he might, the man in the chair couldn’t stop staring at it; his eyes darted back to it over and over, flicking away just long enough to track the movements of the other man in the room. It didn’t help that only his eyes were free to move, strapped into the chair as he was.

He was past the point of yelling. Though he remained ungagged, he knew not to scream. The first time he had raised his voice, a high-voltage current had coursed through him. It was not lethal, but the pain had been tremendous. After the second scream, the other man, the one in the long brown coat, had stopped in front of him, hunkered down, and touched a small stem that was just barely in view beside the head of the man in the chair. “Microphone,” he said. “The electricity is voice-activated. You can talk, but if you get loud, well…bzzzz!” Then he stood and kept walking, circling the chair, checking the devices that were warming up.

“Why am I here?” the man, whose name was Michael Flynn, said. He couldn’t keep the tremor out of his voice when he said it. Still, it was a better question than how did I get here, which had only earned him a snort and an eye roll from the man in the coat. This time, the man stopped and regarded him.

“Come on, now,” he said. “You’ve seen the movies before, right? If you’re here, it’s because someone wants you here.” Seeing the look on Michael’s face, he raised both hands. “Oh, not me,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.” He paused, then added, “I’m not proud of what I do, but it pays. It pays.”

“And what do you do?” Stalling for time now, trying to get a glimpse of the machines that were humming just out of sight behind him. He had seen the movies. His fingers twitched against his will, and he couldn’t help noticing that the duct tape binding his wrists to the chair ended above the fingers. Would they be the first site of the torture? Were they going to be cut off, joint by joint? Wounds cauterized with a hot iron? He shuddered.

The man grinned. “You’ll find out.” He started to walk again, then paused. “They call me the Redactor. Or at least, I call myself that. It sounds cool, you know.”

Michael thought it sounded ridiculous, but now didn’t seem to be a good time to say so. “Kind of like a superhero name, right?”

“Sure.” The Redactor continued around the chair, made another adjustment to the machines. “Superhero. I like that. Not so sure you’re gonna like my superpowers though.” There was a click, followed by another, and then a long, raspy susurrus. Michael thought it was the sound of something, a cable or a rope, being unwound.

“The fact is,” the Redactor said, “you know some things.” He stepped back to the front, and squatted down, looking Michael in the eyes. “According to my employer, dangerous things. Things you’d be better off not knowing in the first place. And it’s my job,” he added, raising a finger for emphasis, “to get it out of you.”

“And how do you plan to do that?” Michael was sweating now, fear seeping into his eyes in liquid form.

He stood up and spread his arms. “Oh, I have my ways. A man has to take pride in his work, even if it’s not the kind of work you’d be proud of. You understand what I mean?” He glanced down at Michael. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter. It’d just be nice if, you know, somebody understood for once!” The machines—one of them anyway—let out a beep, and his face brightened. “There we are! Time to get started.” He hurried behind the chair again.

I’m gonna die, Michael thought. This man is crazy. Out loud, he called out—not loud enough for the electricity—“Hey! Can we talk about this? Wh-whatever they’re paying you, I’ll beat it! Just let me go!”

“I thought you might say that,” the Redactor said. There was another sound of cables unwinding. “They always do. But, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I can’t do that. It’s bad for business! If I start breaking contracts, even for more money, it’ll take about half a day before I’m unemployable. And then it’s back to delivering pizzas.” He leaned over Michael’s shoulder. “And I hate delivering pizzas. It’s the smell. It gets into your clothes, your car—I could go the rest of my life without the smell of pepperoni and cheese, and it would be fine with me.”

He grabbed a handful of Michael’s hair and yanked, and Michael felt something cold and sticky against his scalp. He yelped involuntarily, but thankfully the current stayed off. Was this psycho pulling his hair out? And…and was that blood? “Sorry about this,” the Redactor murmured, and Michael felt another stab of quick pain and cold on the other side of his head. “These electrodes are going to pull some hair out when they come off later. But short of shaving your head, that’s the best I can do.”

The comment was so illogical, so out of place, that it took him a moment to follow it. “Wh…what?” He frowned, not understanding. “What kind of torture is this?” The words slipped out before he had a chance to rethink them.

Silence. The Redactor, still out of sight behind the chair, made not a move. Fearing the worst, Michael closed his eyes…

…and opened them a moment later as the Redactor stood in front of him. The man wore a look that was both incredulous and—weirdly—hurt. “Torture?” he said. “Is that what you think this is?”

Feeling surreal, Michael, glanced around, pointing with his eyes at the grey room, the dim lighting, and the chair with its bindings. “Well…you…kinda have the whole torture dungeon aesthetic going on here.”

The Redactor barked a laugh. “Aesthetic! I like that. You’re taped to a chair, and you still have the mind to use a word like that. That’s great!” He shook his head. “You really don’t understand all this?”

“I’m kind of at a loss here, yeah.” Especially with the turn the conversation was taking.

The man looked hurt again. “And here I thought my profession was finally getting some respect. Or at least some acknowledgement. Torture. How could you think that?”

“You said you had to get my knowledge out of me!”

“Right!” Seeing Michael’s blank look, he frowned; and then it dawned on him. “Oh. OH!” He laughed. “I said get it out of you. And that’s what I meant. Don’t you know what it means to redact something?” He put a hand to his forehead, as though it was painfully obvious. “I don’t care what you know. I’m not going to torture you to find out. My job is to make sure that nobody will know. Not even you! I take the memories away. My employer gives me a cue to look for, and I pull all the memories associated with it. The cables, the machines, the dot on the floor…you really don’t know how this works?”

Michael, whose jaw was hanging open, could only raise an eyebrow.

“Well, that’s just…wow. I thought everyone knew. Guess I need to do some of my own PR work. Hey, listen, I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. You seem like a nice guy, and I have to say, you made me laugh. Not many people can do that! A job like this, it’s stressful at the best of times. Keep an eye on that dot, will you? Helps to have something to focus on. No, I’m really sorry about all that. I hate that this stressed you out so much, you know? Wish I could make it up to you somehow. Wait, wait, I got it! I can make it up to you! Of course. I’m not even thinking straight. Yeah, I’ll fix this for you.”

Michael felt a glimmer of hope. “You’re gonna let me go?”

“Nah. I’m just gonna take your memories of this, too. Still gotta get paid, remember?” There was the sound of a switch being thrown, and everything went dark.

Past and Future Tense

In my spare time, I made the decision to try my hand at single fatherhood. Everyone needs a hobby in the evenings, right? The experiment has gone well; thus far no one in my household has killed anyone else, and most days my kids wear clothing that matches (by which I mean that each child’s clothing matches, not that they match each other. I believe that their collective humiliation would collapse the galaxy in on itself if they matched each other). The only casualties in this family-sized POW camp were last year’s goldfish, who sadly did not make it. We suck at raising pets.

In the wake of the divorce that established this situation, however, I found that I had some baggage to deal with. I dealt with it by letting the physical baggage pile up. When it reached the point that navigating the house required a map, a compass, and climbing gear, I had to take action! That is what has occupied the last several days.

I thought I would start small and simple, by sorting out the kiddie clothes and eliminating the outgrown items (and the damages—my kids can destroy a pair of jeans with the skill of an artisan). It took approximately 45 seconds to discover that the word “small” has fled the premises. The final count stands at nineteen (19!!!) garbage bags of clothes, fifteen of which are going away—Goodwill or garbage, I don’t care, it’s leaving. I found items dating back to 2009, which is approximately eternity in kiddie years.

If I may set the jokes aside for a moment: That’s where things got hard. In 2009 my little girl was three years old, and my son was still in diapers. In 2009, my ex-wife was still my wife, and we were raising these children together. In 2009, things were falling apart—but there were still good moments. In 2009 we lost our home and moved in with family, three hundred miles away. That year, and the ones since, held some of the worst memories of my life, but also some of the best.

Finding those old clothes—the pajamas Emma wore when I first started reading bedtime stories to her, the first Hawaiian shirt my son wore at the beach, and so on—was like a long, sometimes aching look into the past. Those years seem frozen to me now, a time when I didn’t know how things were going to turn out, when they could have gone any direction, and we were both exhilarated at the opportunity and terrified at the possibilities. I wouldn’t give up the memories, even while I wish it could have been better.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with writing?

Everything. The short answer is, it has everything to do with writing. It’s a question of motivation versus operation. You see, I’m motivated by that past. The memories of times with my wife and children, of the way things were, of the hopefulness that we had (and still do)—those things fuel my writing. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have done what I do now. Oh, I possessed the technical skills even then; if you want confirmation, go to the Fanfiction section of this site and take a look at some of my older (albeit incomplete) work. The difference is, I hadn’t lived enough to have something to say. My motivation comes from the life I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced.

That’s the motivation; what about the operation? I may write from the past, but I write for the future. I write with an eye toward having my stories outlive me. I’m not so proud as to think that my writing is grand or epic, or even worthy of memory; but I write in an attempt to become those things. My children understand that, in simplistic form; they understand that I write stories, and that they can’t read them now, but that some part of it is based on them, and it will be theirs when they are older. I write for their future as much as my own.

I call those years frozen, but they taught me how to deal with cold times in the future. I just came off of such a time, when my ability to write at all seemed frozen to me. The ideas were there, but they wouldn’t surrender to the page. And, ironically—or perhaps poetically—it was my children who marked the end of that winter. The first thing I was able to put down on paper was the beginning of a new story, one that’s written for them to read now, while they’re young, written with them in mind. It may not go anywhere—my list of unfinished projects is much longer than my list of finished works—but it was a start, and a change, and so I’ll take it. And who knows? Maybe the past will become the future, and turn out well after all.

Ending Strong!

“That’s it?  That’s all?”  Words I never want to hear myself say…but it happens.

After seeing it recommended many, many times, I recently picked up Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash.  Let me get the suspense out of the way right now and recommend the book; if you’re into that genre at all, it’s a classic.  Despite being published in 1992, Mr. Stephenson foresaw some amazing things:  the ubiquity of the internet (the “Metaverse”, in his terminology); the rise of smartphones; augmented reality; and even Google Earth, though of course by a different name.  The book is also a scathing criticism of the ambition found in capitalism and the shortsightedness of government.

The story was fine by me.  The thing that I found troublesome, though—the thing that broke the immersion for me—was the ending, or rather, the lack of one.  Oh, don’t get me wrong; Mr. Stephenson finished all of his plot threads…but then he chopped them off as sharply as if he had borrowed the hero’s trademark katana.  (Side note:  “A katana in a cyberpunk story?” you may say.  To which I say, when your hero’s name is Hiro Protagonist—no joke—you’re already well beyond the boundaries of convention, so do what you like!)  There’s no wrapping up, no scene where the characters get together and hash out what’s taken place.  There’s no denouement, no decline after the action is complete.  The story simply cuts itself off.  The final scene doesn’t even include the protagonist; it centers around the secondary protagonist, the female business partner of the protagonist.  I liked her character, but I wasn’t expecting that ending.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this happen in an otherwise good book.  Dean Koontz’s The Door to December comes to mind, for one.  Even classic literature is not immune; Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, concludes with a sudden switch in the attitudes and circumstances of the main characters, and then simply stops.  It’s as though the pilot of a plane reaches the destination, but can’t figure out how to land the bird.

It’s unfortunate when it happens, because it always seems to be  a book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.  The weak ending, though…it breaks the immersion, there at the end where I want it to be most satisfying.  I realize this is my preference only, but I want the denouement, the falling action, the wrap-up.  I don’t want it to last too long—I want to land the bird—but I do want it to be there.  I want to know that my characters will live, if not happily ever after, at least their version of it.

I followed that pattern in my novel, The Last Shot.  I included a short epilogue, in which the protagonists awaken in the hospital after a very violent night.  I won’t spoil the ending, but I can say that I wanted to make it clear that the right people survived, and the right people didn’t, and that there would be a future for these characters in whom I had just invested a hundred thousand words.  When the story ended, it was well and truly ended.  (And a five-year-old had pizza.  Can’t forget the pizza!)

So, what do you think?  Let’s hear your opinions.  How do you like your endings?  Short and to the point—maybe a little too much to the point—or explanatory and deliberate?  And have you had any experiences with endings that let you down?  Let me know what you think!

Happy Reading!  (And to Neal Stephenson, should you ever see this post:  I have nothing but respect for you, and your book was a learning experience for me.  Regardless of my comments about the ending, great book!)

Winter Stories

As I write these words, I’m sitting in Starbucks (because not only do I use clichés, I sometimes am a cliché), watching the snow fall outside.  It’s a good night for it…I love the sight of the snow drifting down through the light of the streetlamps and the neon of the restaurants and the movie theater that surround this little plaza.  Snow comes early here, and a blanket of cold and white is not unusual at Thanksgiving.  It’s magical, at least until the roads turn to ice and the drifts pile up.

I’ve always loved winter as an idea.  As I get older, I find that I’m not so fond of it when it’s up close and personal; but I still love the concept.  There’s something mysterious about it, something that changes the mindset, that carries us to a different world.  The location may be the same, but the place…ah, now the place is worlds apart.  It’s a hushed, quiet, determined world.  We become different people there, as well—huddled close, more aware of ourselves and each other, more thoughtful.  Winter isn’t just a season, it’s an experience, and it changes us.

I believe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to winter fiction.  It resonates with me, maybe because I grew up in the mountains, where winter is very much alive.  Stories set in the winter seem to be few and far between.  I think that’s because, unlike other seasons, the winter is a force to be dealt with.  It changes your story as much as any character, so much so that it can even become a character.  Yet, for me, those stories, rare though they are, have always made an impression.

I remember, at about the age of ten, reading for the first time Susan Cooper’s book, The Dark Is Rising.  To this day, I consider it one of my favorite books, despite being written for children.  It has other literary merits—it’s a complex story, with good and evil characters who are both defined in their roles and morally ambiguous, a feat which many adult novels can’t accomplish.  It stuck with me for many reasons, but not least was the setting, in the English winter.  I will never forget Will Stanton’s journey from Midwinter Day through the twelve days of Christmas, collecting the Six Signs of the Light, and doing battle with the Black Rider and the forces of the Dark.

The coldest season grew as I grew, passing through other works.  Better known for its film adaptation, Stephen King’s famous horror novel, The Shining, scared me nearly to death as a teenager.  It showed the dark side of winter, and what the cold and the silence and the isolation can do—with a little supernatural help, of course—to the human mind.  Then there is Cormac McCarthy’s bleak and controversial The Road; although its winter was artificial, created by nuclear fallout, it stands as one of the starkest and most wrenching views of the cold that I have ever encountered.  (And of course there’s that scene with the baby—if you’ve read it, you know the one, and if you haven’t, prepare to be scarred.)

I set my own first novel, The Last Shot, in the winter.  I had some personal reasons for doing so; the story draws heavily on some of my own experiences, and some of those can only be placed in the winter.  But that wasn’t my only motivation.  I wanted to put my characters in a grim and desperate situation; and to add some emphasis to that point, I used the weather.  When the story begins, in mid-December, the main character and his family are blissfully unaware of the trouble ahead; and the weather is chilly, but clear.  As the story progresses, and the situation gets worse, the weather also gets colder, and the snow falls. It’s subtle—you wouldn’t notice the connection without pointing it out—but it adds weight to the increasingly tense and dangerous situation of the protagonists.

Or maybe I just like the cold.  Who knows?

Either way, I wanted this novel set in winter.  I think it works for this story.  And I hope that, one day, it will resonate with others as those novels of the past resonated with me.  That’s my goal, and the aim toward which I’m working.  Perhaps it will even resonate with you, reader.

So, what do you think?  Do you like the cold?  Does your heart beat a little quicker when you see snowflakes falling?  And if so, what books and stories—even movies—come to mind when you think of winter?

Happy reading!

The Dreaded Question

question mark block

I’m about to show you my weakness.

Please try not to exploit it, if you can help yourself.  You see, it’s kind of a big deal.  I like doing what I do, and I really want to keep doing it.  But this one weakness has the power to stop me—and any writer—in my tracks.  And it’s deceptively simple, too; you’ll find it hard to resist, once you know what it is.  Go easy on me!

It’s…it’s…a question.  THE question.  The Dreaded Question.  This question is the one that every writer must face eventually—the dragon we must slay—the end boss of this video game.  It’s…wait a second while I work up my courage here…okay.  I can do this.  The question is:

“Where do you get your ideas?”

I feel so vulnerable now!  Asking the question is like breaking through the armor.  It’s like exposing the soft tissue inside, letting the world see—and maybe attack—the real me.  It’s kind of awkward, is what I’m saying.

kpbs.org

Like this, but with words instead of swords

There’s no defense against the question.  It can be anticipated, but not denied.  Oh, some of us try to deflect it, with a mumbled “I don’t really know”, but we know the truth—you really want to know, and you won’t let it rest until you do!

I understand, my friends, I really do.  To someone who is a reader and not a writer—and believe me, I mean no insult; readers are the ones with the power here, because without you, why would I bother writing?—to a reader, the writing process must seem a little like magic.  A perfectly mundane person, living a perfectly mundane life, and coming up with stories that are anything but perfectly mundane (or so we hope!)—of course it seems like magic!  So why would the question intimidate us?

The answer is that every magician is afraid of being the Wizard of Oz.  Deep down, we all believe that we’re really the little humbug behind the curtain, not the sorcerer we want to be.  All magic is ultimately sleight-of-hand; all the tricks are just that—tricks.  And we feel embarrassed by that.

It embarrasses me to admit that my ideas don’t come from some mystical source.  I don’t go into the desert and meditate for a month, seeking visions, and then come back with three hundred pages in my head.  I don’t seek the fountain of youth ideas, and I don’t go on pilgrimages.  My ideas come from much simpler sources:  You.  The people around me.  The world we live in.

photo from austindetails.me

Believe it or not, I wrote the phrase “fountain of ideas” BEFORE finding this weirdly appropriate picture. Also, Brenda Ueland, whoever you are…I’m gonna have to disagree with you on this one.

My current novel, The Last Shot, was inspired by several things.  I drew on my own work history—jail and prison and mental health and, yes, even writing—to create the main character.  I pulled the secondary protagonists from people that are close to me, and their situations.  I pulled my villains from a friend’s terrible experience with a stalker (with her permission, of course).  I found a place in it for some of my experiences in dealing with my ex-wife’s mental illness.  My children—fulfilling a promise I made them—make a cameo.  I pulled scenes from things that went on around me while I was writing it; from places I have visited; from conversations with friends and family.  I drew inspiration from books I’ve read and movies and television shows that I’ve watched.  Headlines in the news influenced my portrayal of events.  In short, I drew from every conceivable source.

Spelling it out that way, you may be tempted to say, “but what’s so bad about that?”  And you’re both right and wrong.  Those are perfectly honorable sources.  They are also very mundane, and that’s where the embarrassment comes in.  You see, we want it to be magical just as much as you do.  We want to be able to say there is a sacred, mystical source for our stories.  We love the mystique, the aura.  The truth is much less glamorous than that.  We don’t want to admit that a lot of it is chance—the encounters we have, the things we see and hear—and that the rest is just simply living life and seeing what shakes out of it.  But that is the truth.

So, next time you talk to a writer, go easy.  Ask the question if you must—I would—but when you get the inevitable wince, the nervous chuckle, the loosening of the collar, don’t flinch.  And don’t, above all, be offended at the answer!  We’re human too.    We want you to know what it’s like, but we also want you to understand when the answer isn’t what you expect.  After all, the guy behind the curtain may be a humbug…but he wants to be the wizard.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

[Guest Post] – A Tasty Surprise

Thanks to Cyndera for the following guest post/short story, “A Tasty Surprise”.  A little drama that’s close to home for me…and I’ll get him next time!  (Just keep reading, and pay me no mind here–it’ll all make sense in a minute, I promise.)  ~Timewalkerauthor

All stories posted in this capacity may also be found under the “Stories” heading in the menu. Thanks for reading!
***

I came home from work around nine in the evening, plumb tuckered. It was a hard day, as usual, but you gotta do what you gotta do to make a livin’, right? In these parts, it ain’t easy. You gotta be careful wherever you go. “West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful” my rump! I could do without the “Wild”, believe me. “Wild” around here equals snakes and other fellows you don’t want to run into. I had a few close ones in my time … scared the heck out of me.

Well, let me tell you, the last few days were even less fun than usual. It had been raining like crazy, and I could virtually feel webbings grow in-between my toes. Might even have been better at this point than feet, really: the puddles around my house and work kept getting bigger and bigger. Noah had the right idea back then, let me tell you … an arc would have been very convenient at times.

When I got home, I shook the water off my feet and went to see if there was any food. I had just recently moved to a new place, and so far I was pleased: Lots of bites laying around here and there. I really couldn’t complain. So I looked around, as usual, when suddenly one of these huge animals crossed my path that you see roaming everywhere, behaving as if they owned every place you go to. There were three that had chosen my place as their dwelling: this particular one, the biggest and tallest of them, showed up every now and then, sometimes with and sometimes without the other ones —smaller, young ones, maybe. The big one, he can be loud at times (at least I am guessing it’s a he … my knowledge about these critters is quite limited), but the the smaller ones can really give you a headache. They stomp, and scream, and sometimes they get into what looks like fights. Usually, the big one separates them, and growls at them, and then there’s peace for a few minutes.

I am usually good about avoiding dangerous creatures, but earlier today I wasn’t in my best form. I was hungry, hadn’t eaten all day because of some work that needed to get done down at the community center, just by the river, and so I did not pay much attention. Imagine my surprise when suddenly a HUGE foot stood in front of me. I swerved to the right and narrowly avoided being crushed. These things really needed to be restraint somehow.

Look, I have no idea if these things are intelligent or not, but I gave a friendly not and made my way past the giant. I think he said something, but it was all gibberish to me, so I didn’t pay much attention. I found some crumbs in the kitchen and returned back to my place.

While eating, I heard more footsteps, and from the sound of it, it was the younglings. Oh, great, here went my peaceful evening. Somebody should tell these creatures that some of us are working hard every day and deserve some quiet-time. To my surprise though, the giant didn’t yell. He communicated with them in a quiet tone. Well, good for them. I really hate to complain about neighbors. Only calls for trouble, you know?

Later that evening, I left my place again only to find a strange contraption in one of the corners of the room. I looked at it; I had never seen anything like it before. It didn’t really matter though, because in the middle of it was a glorious piece of cheese topped with peanut butter. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten cheese and peanut butter! I got closer and noticed that the ground of the little contraption was a little sticky. I tested it carefully: One foot, then another, then the third and fourth. Granted, it was a bit hard to walk, but I could reach the cheese with only two more steps. Holding it carefully in my mouth, I made my way back off the sticky stuff, went home again and had a great midnight dinner.

Makes you wonder though … no way those creatures had put it there on purpose, but hey, who cares, right? Food is food. I just hope there’s more tomorrow!