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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Flash in the pan

Recently I've done a bit of writing of flash fiction -- pieces of under 800 words (sometimes a lot shorter) that still tell, or at least imply, a complete story.  It's an interesting exercise to see if you can convey a whole setting and plot in such a constrained length, but the challenge is a lot of fun.  I'll leave you to decide if I succeeded -- below are five pieces of flash fiction I wrote, along with the prompt (or instructions) that initiated them.


#1.  Prompt:  We are not alone; length limit = 200 words

Skee (short for Pesky, a nickname she’d been given by her brother when she was three) sat on the front lawn, looking up at the stars. She’d only recently been allowed to do this by her parents, but now, with her mom and dad splitting up, her dad moving to Tucson, she doubted they’d have noticed her absence in any case.

I’m all alone, she thought, without any particular feeling of anger or sadness over it. It simply was. Alone. Everyone else has their stuff to do, and I could fall off the world and no one would notice.

The cool, humid night air brushed her face, and she lay back, and stuck her feet in the air. The stars glittered between her toes. She thought: If I fell upward, I’d fall forever. And it would just be me and the stars, falling together, nothing to stop us.

Together with the stars; so not alone. A mosquito whined by her ear, and she slapped it away, and thought: I may be alone here, but I’ll always have the stars. Nothing can change that.

And she got up, and walked back toward her house, smiling for the first time in weeks.

#2.  Prompt: a death scene; length limit = 800 words

“So, there’s nothing that can be done?”

“No, Paul. An hour. Maybe less. Whenever they decide.”

“And you’re sure that Catherine got over the border?”

“Yes. Safely away.”

“Thank god.”

The guard nodded. “I can’t talk longer. They’ll suspect. I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry.”

“You did all you could.”

The door closed, and Paul heard the snick of a lock turning.

He closed his eyes. Catherine was away, along with the two rebel fighters that had been assigned to her. It only remained to him to face what was left. Only an hour more; maybe less.

It was less. A dirty-faced guard was the one who came for him; he grabbed Paul’s arm, as if he couldn’t have walked unassisted, and dragged him from the cell and into the courtyard.

He knew what he’d see, but it still was a shock. He thought: this is it. Mortality. I knew I’d die someday, but today is it. You never think of it that way, that some day will be your day to die, as certain as the Earth spinning around the sun. And now, here it is, like an old enemy you thought you’d never see again.
In this case, in the form of a wooden block, and a hooded man with an axe.

I will not faint, he thought, willing his knees not to buckle. I will be steadfast. Catherine would want me… Catherine would want… He swallowed, forcing the tears back, listening to a disembodied voice say, “For the crime of high treason, for aiding and abetting the rebels against the realm, Paul de Lyons is hereby sentenced to death. Does the condemned have any last words?”

He shook his head, trying to look defiant. Two guards came to him, pulled his shirt roughly over his head, forced him to the block. He felt hands on his bare shoulders pressing him downward until his cheek touched the rough, splintered surface.

And he thought: I am just one man, facing death, as countless others have before me. This death is neither more, nor less, than what any other has endured. I will not fear.

And to his astonishment, he found that his fear had evaporated. He thought: not an old enemy; an old friend! And he smiled, as the moment stretched out, and like the breaking of a string, fell forward into eternity.

#3.  Prompt: True love's first kiss; length limit = 500 words

Cam reached up, and felt his cheek. All he could think was: that didn’t hurt as much as I thought it was going to. He’d watched the boy’s fist moving toward his face with a kind of disbelief, a thought of: I’m about to get punched. This is really gonna hurt. And then it was over, and he was sitting on his ass on the ground, and the boy was stalking off, chuckling under his breath and massaging his knuckles.

Cam got up, brushed the dirt and grass clippings off his shorts, and stood there, thinking with dazed astonishment: Jesus. I just got punched in the face. And that was when he noticed that Annie was still standing there, watching him. That she hadn’t run away as soon as the bully’s back was turned was weird enough; but then, she dashed the tears from her cheek with the back of one hand, and came up to Cam. He felt her lips against his, the warmth of the kiss sending a rush down to the tips of his toes. Then she stepped back, and said, “Thanks. You were awesome.” Her white teeth flashed out at him, and she started to walk away, but then turned, and held out a hand. “Aren’t you coming with me?”

#4.  Prompt:  must include the words capitulate, flame, tool, torrent, web, kiss, passive, river, receptive, frigid, action, surge; length limit = 800 words

Eric lay with his bare belly pressed against the warm rock, letting his hand dangle downward into the frigid rush of water tumbling by. In the two weeks he’d been up here in the High Cascades, the sun had colored his back and arms a golden brown, and there were white sun-streaks bleached into his hair; an unusual run of luck in a place where the weather could turn to chill drizzle even in August.

He thought: Water is the earth’s blood, and the rivers its arteries and veins. They connect in a web across the whole planet. Action and reaction; if the floods surge in Vietnam, it affects the creeks in Oregon.

Carrie was gone, off into the Peace Corps. She was probably in Hanoi or Ho Chih Minh City right now, being trained before heading off to the village where she’d spend the next two years. A flame of resentment rose in Eric, and he forced it down. There’d been nothing he could have done; he’d had to capitulate, let her go. Their relationship had begun in passion, in camping trips where they made love under the stars and swam naked in little lakes, the waters receptive and clear. It ended with a passive acceptance, without even a kiss goodbye, and now Eric lay, looking into the foaming torrent, trying to create an understanding of what had happened and without the tool to craft it.

His hand caressed the surface of the water, as it had once caressed her skin, and he found himself crying, the tears dropping into the river and being carried away, down to the ocean. He thought: to Vietnam. When she steps into a stream there, my tears will be part of it. Our connection hasn’t broken, only become invisible, inaudible. He could grieve the fact that it wasn’t the same, but nothing on earth could break the bond, as long as rivers coursed and blood flowed, and tears fell.

#5.  Prompt: playing with time; length limit = 500 words

“So, how did you know to pull me back to the present just before the spear hit me?” Darren asked.

“We didn’t,” Fischer said. “We let the computer handle that.”

“And the computer always gets you out just in time?”

“Absolutely. Lightning-fast processor. Cutting-edge technology.”

“Well, there was Petrillo,” Maggie said.

“Oh, yeah,” Fischer said. “I’d forgotten about Petrillo.”

“Petrillo?” Darren said. “Who is Petrillo? What happened to Petrillo?”

“Well…” Fischer said, seeming a little reluctant to discuss the topic. “Petrillo was a guy who worked on our staff. He was a bit of a thrill-seeker.”

“Morbid type, if you ask me,” Maggie interjected, her round face radiating disapproval.

“He wanted to take a vacation back to the 18th century, and experience the French Revolution first-hand.” Fischer paused. “He got his wish, I guess.”

“He died?” Darren said. “I thought you said your computer always kept track of where you were, and could pull you back to the present if there was any danger!”

“Oh, he came back to the present,” Maggie said. “Just in two separate chunks, as it were.”

“Took forever to get the stain out of the carpet,” Fischer said.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Adam's Fall - an excerpt

What would you do if you found a mute, terrified teenage boy, dressed in rags, shivering in a graveyard?

He has no way to communicate with you; you have no way to know if anything you say is understood.  Would you take him in, feed him, clothe him, call the authorities, or just walk by and pretend that it is someone else's problem?

Adam's Fall is a novel about the rarest kind of love; love that gives, risks everything, and expects nothing in return.  Ultimately, it is about how love can change everything -- even the course of history.

Adam's Fall is available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Excerpted below is the first part of chapter one.


November 1870

The Reverend Henry Caldwell Skelton, Vicar of Lisby, held his lantern up, pulled his woolen greatcoat tighter, and shivered. The wind, which he was convinced had originated in the arctic wasteland and had an actual malign, intelligent will, scorned his efforts, finding any tiny gap to slip the knife in, till the good clergyman’s long thin bones were chilled right through.

This is Mrs. Thornley’s fault, Mr. Skelton thought, indulging himself in an uncharacteristic lapse from charity. This is the third time she’s sent for me because she was convinced her husband was dying, and each time it’s turned out to be dyspepsia. The old man will probably outlive me, at this rate, because I’m going to die of a fever from being out in this weather.

As if the elements had heard his thoughts, Mr. Skelton felt the sudden sting of a thin drizzle strike his face. He winced, and gave a rueful glance up at the dark night sky.

Keep me safe, Lord, even if you can’t keep me warm, he thought, trying to shift his mind into a more pious and compassionate track. And at least there’ll be a fire and a nice warming glass of brandy at the end of the road.
That seemed a cheering thought, and Mr. Skelton quickened his pace, his boots now landing with an occasional splash as his feet found the unseen puddles that were beginning to form on the road to the vicarage.

The little circle of light from Mr. Skelton’s lantern seemed powerless to do more than to keep him from falling into the ditch; it illuminated nothing more than the bit of road immediately in front of him. He knew this stretch of road well (Thanks to Mrs. Thornley, he thought, and then banished further recriminations against her from his mind as yet another sin against proper charity), and he pictured the fields, copses, thickets, and occasional farmhouses he was passing on the way home. In the day it would have seemed friendly and familiar, even though this was November in the British Midlands, and the fog and drizzle were chilly and incessant. But nighttime erases your knowledge of a place. Everything dissolves into a blank, uniform mystery. It is no wonder, thought Mr. Skelton, that the men of old were afraid of the dark, and thought that was when spirits walked.

The road turned a little to the left, and Mr. Skelton lifted his lantern higher; he was further along than he’d thought. He must be passing through Elton Wood, and soon there would be the little cemetery where the dear departed souls of Lisby had been buried for centuries. Then a little rise, over a hilltop, and (had it been daytime) he’d see the spire of the church in the distance, and just beyond that, home.

He had just come out from under the eaves of the trees of Elton Wood when the rain stopped. No matter; he was damp through already, it was too late. As if to make up for it, the wind picked up, and he saw flickers of starlight as the clouds were torn asunder, and once, a glimpse of the crescent moon. Very close, now; he must be nearing the cemetery. He smiled a little, even though his teeth were chattering.

And that’s when he heard the noise.

It was a thin, low moaning, like an animal in pain. Mr. Skelton was not a superstitious man; he held a Doctorate in Divinity from Oxford, and prided himself on having risen above the simple peasant beliefs of his origins (his family hailed from the wilds of north Yorkshire, something he didn’t tend to mention to his parishioners, most of whom were of staid Midlands stock and tended to think of Yorkshire as a frozen wasteland inhabited by savages). But there – at that time, alone, in a cemetery, at night – it is doubtful that anyone would have been steady enough of mind not to have their skin prickle, and their heart pound.

It came again. A breathy, despairing moan, from somewhere off to his left.

Animal? thought Mr. Skelton. It must be an animal. And he was immediately ashamed of himself, as he realized that his conviction that it was an animal was because if it were, he would be under no obligation to investigate. Whereas, if it were a human… well, his duty was clear. The Lord Jesus himself had praised the Good Samaritan, who stopped to care for the man who had been injured by highwaymen.

Mr. Skelton stopped walking.

“Hello?” he said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice.

No response but the wind.

“Is there someone there?” he said.

Then, there was another quiet moan, again coming from somewhere to the left of the road. It wasn’t loud, but it sounded like the noise made by someone or something in the last extremities of terror or pain. And then, the moan was followed by a cough – a cough that was clearly human.

Mr. Skelton gave the matter no further thought, but turned and walked off the road and into the cemetery. Afterwards, he reflected that that single act was the bravest thing he had ever done.

There were half-seen glimpses of marble headstones, carved urns, statues of praying angels made spectral in the wavering lantern light. The Lord is my shepherd, he thought, and even his thoughts sounded tremulous. I shall not want… He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters… He restoreth my soul…

“Where are you?” he said, keeping his voice steady with an effort. “Do you need help?”

Another moan answered him. Close; perhaps twenty feet to his right. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, but he turned in that direction and walked resolutely forward.

There was a sudden noise of someone scrambling, followed by another moan and the sound of rapid breathing, this time so close that Mr. Skelton jumped back inadvertently. “Lord protect me,” he said in a whisper, and held up his lantern. “If you need help,” he said, in a louder voice, “I’ll try to help you, but you must let me know where you are.”

There was a quiet noise of movement, and Mr. Skelton took a slow step in that direction, and then the lantern light illuminated a face.

It was the face of a boy of about sixteen years. His face seemed all eyes – Mr. Skelton had never seen anyone who looked so terrified. His dark, overlong hair clung to his scalp in curling, wet ribbons. His skin was so white as to seem transparent in the yellow glow. Ragged clothing, torn and filthy, hung from his body. He was barefoot.

Mr. Skelton gave a great, deep breath, and felt relief wash through his body. All of the demons and ghosts, and the more prosaic fears of robbers and murderers, vanished in a flood of compassion. He knelt down on the wet grass, and set his lantern down on a gravestone.

“Child, how can you be out here in this weather?” he said, and immediately realized that it was a ridiculous question; if he was out here, it was because he had nowhere else to go.

“What is your name?” Mr. Skelton asked, but the boy just stared at him.

“Where is your home?”

The huge, dark eyes continued to stare. There was no sound but the boy’s breathing, and the chattering of his teeth.

“We must get you somewhere warm,” Mr. Skelton said. “You’ll catch your death out here. If you haven’t already.” He stood up suddenly, and the boy recoiled, a thin whine coming from his lips. He scuttled backwards, like a crab, his thin hands feeling blindly behind him, finally stopping only when he bumped into the headstone of a grave.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Mr. Skelton said, gently. “You needn’t be afraid.” He held out one hand to the boy.

The boy looked at Mr. Skelton’s hand, as if unsure of what it was. Then he looked up at his face, his staring eyes locked on Mr. Skelton’s. Mr. Skelton had the eerie feeling that his thoughts were being read, but he pushed it out of his mind; the boy was simply frightened, and cold, and exhausted; perhaps also feeble-minded. The job now was to get him somewhere warm, feed him, let him sleep.

And some of the terror did leave the boy’s expression. His face relaxed a little, and tears welled up in his eyes.

“Come on, then,” Mr. Skelton said, still with his hand out.

And the boy reached out, and put his ice-cold hand into Mr. Skelton’s marginally warmer one, and stood up.

Mr. Skelton picked up the lantern and began to walk back toward the road, giving a gentle pull on the boy’s hand. The cold hand tightened on Mr. Skelton’s in a viselike grip – Mr. Skelton half turned, amazed at his strength, and once again feeling the folk tales of his youth bubble up to the surface (I’ll look back, and he’ll have turned into a demon) but the boy’s white face and wide, tragic eyes simply looked at him with a desperate expression.

He just doesn’t want to let me go, he thought. I wonder how long it’s been since anyone has been kind to him?

“We’ll get you somewhere nice and warm, and get you some food,” Mr. Skelton said. “Mrs. Dawlish will have a pot of soup on, and will have tended the fire. Won’t that be lovely?”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Signal to Noise - an excerpt from a work-in-progress

What if you were a reputable scientist, a skeptic about all things paranormal, and you suddenly had evidence of something that was beyond the boundaries of science as we know it?  Would you believe it?

Would you even recognize it when it was in your hands?

Tyler Vaughan, the main character in my work-in-progress, Signal to Noise, is faced with a dilemma -- take seriously a situation that is putting the citizens of Crooked Creek, Oregon in mortal danger, or ignore the evidence he's got in order to protect his reputation as a scientist.  But when the girl he's fallen for disappears, the choice becomes obvious.

Below is the beginning of chapter one of Signal to Noise, which I am currently hard at work on, and hope to have completed by the end of the summer.


“Dear Professor Vaughan:

“I can’t TELL YOU how excited I am to finally write to you. I have studied your work EXTENSIVELY and I finally felt like I was ready to take the plunge and contact you. I admire all you’ve done to bring the field of cryptozoology into its own as a SCIENCE, which is where it SHOULD BE, not relegated to the BASEMENT which is where many unbelievers want to put it. I’m sure that you are aware of the many who criticize you and your efforts, but you should continue to FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT.

“Toward that end, I would like to offer you my assistance. I feel that with my expertise in psychic contact, and your knowledge of zoology and animal behavior, we could team up to track down Bigfoot ONCE AND FOR ALL. I am prepared to come to Oregon as soon as I receive your HOPEFULLY positive reply…”

Tyler Vaughan sighed heavily, dropped the letter into the recycle bin, and opened up the next letter in the stack.

“Dear Tyler,

“I hope you don’t mind my calling you by your first name, but I feel like I know you already. I saw your interview on Good Morning, America, and just watching you talking about working in the field, and imagining you out there in the wilderness, sleeping alone in a tent, got me so hot. You are the most gorgeous man I have ever seen, and I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about what I’d like to do to you. What I’d start with is that I’d unbutton your shirt…”

Tyler rubbed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was only nine in the morning, and he could already feel a headache coming on. It always happened whenever he started going through correspondence, which he had had to do at least three times a week since the ill-advised interview on Good Morning, America four months ago. He’d thought that the volume of correspondence would decrease, but it hadn’t – not since a clip of his interview had found its way onto YouTube and had gotten more than 100,000 hits. He got an average of a hundred letters a day, and three times that many emails. It was either go through them one at a time, or else simply trash them all unopened and risk discarding something important – a bill, a letter from his mother, or, god forbid, an opportunity for grant money. He sighed again, and opened the next letter in the stack. There was no salutation; it just jumped right in.

“You call yourself a scientist. Well your not. Your just a fraud and a phonie. I heard what you said on the Good Morning show about how their could be bigfoots and that kind of thing, and how we evolved from monkies and these bigfoots could be like our cousins and stuff. Well my opinion is if we evolved from monkies why are their still monkies? Can’t answer that, can you, Mr. Smart Scientist? And how did the bigfoots and all survive the Flood? I never saw that Noah went and got any bigfoots, their isn’t any mention of them in the Bible and that’s my science. I’m sending a copy of this letter to my congressman because I know you scientists get you’re money from TAX PAYERS LIKE ME and I’m sick of it…”

Tyler added this one to the growing pile of letters in the recycle bin.

At the time, it had seemed like a good idea. Even Joe had said so, and Joe DiStefano, the director of the Cascadia Zoological Research Station, was one of the most cautious men Tyler knew. It seemed foolproof – a quick interview on a nationwide television program, an opportunity to get some publicity for his work, which was monitoring mammal populations in logged areas in the Cascades. A chance to highlight the effects of the logging industry on nature, to talk about Minimum Dynamic Areas and Migration Corridors and Keystone Species and How Logging Roads Generate The Edge Effect. A chance to be a combination of Mark Trail and Steve Irwin, with a touch of Jane Goodall thrown in for good measure.

And the whole thing had gone south the moment Robin Roberts asked him, a smile in her voice, if he’d ever seen Bigfoot while on his long, lonely campouts in the Oregon wilderness.

“Not yet,” Tyler had said.

“You expect to, then?” Robin responded, one stylishly plucked eyebrow rising.

“I don’t know,” Tyler said. “As a scientist, I can’t definitively say that they don’t exist. The Cascades represent thousands of square miles of heavily forested land. We can’t rule out the possibility that a large, intelligent, presumably wary primate, some evolutionary distant relative of humanity, could be there somewhere, and we might still have no hard evidence. We discover new species every year, after all.”

In retrospect, Tyler thought, he should have seen what was happening, and diverted the conversation back onto Minimum Dynamic Areas and the rest of it. At the time, though, being in the spotlight was a little like the couple of times in college that he’d tried drugs. It was disorienting, dazzling, and made him feel like he was in complete control while simultaneously causing him to feel like he was holding the steering wheel of an out-of-control car.

Robin laughed, and said, “That’s true, of course. You never know what scientists like yourself are going to come up with next. Well, I’m hoping that if your research ever turns up proof of Bigfoot’s existence, you’ll come back on Good Morning, America and tell us about it. But I’ve seen some of the photographs and video footage people have taken, and I don’t think I’d want to camp out there by myself…”

And that was all it took. In under thirty seconds, Tyler had gone from up-and-coming zoologist, out risking life and limb to preserve our wildlife, to a wacko crank who believed in Bigfoot and god alone knew what else.

Of course, it was a forlorn hope that news of his interview wouldn’t get to the peer-reviewed world of grant providers. The “grant denied” letters always came with a good reason; the high degree of competition for funds, problems with his proposed budget, the difficulty of supporting a study that had no clearly defined outcome. It all sounded reasonable, but Tyler knew, and his boss Joe knew, that the interview had played its insidious role. For now, Joe was keeping him on at the research station, but Tyler felt that it was only be a matter of time before Joe would realize what a liability Tyler’s name had become, and then it would be off to try to find another job. And with that interview hanging around his neck like a millstone, what lab in the world would hire him?

And as the funds dried up, the letters and emails started to pour in. Within a week after the interview clip had hit YouTube, he already had them mentally sorted into categories. These were:

1) Offers of assistance. Never financial, of course, but usually very earnest.

2) Anecdotal reports of evidence for some combination of: Bigfoot, modern dinosaurs, ghosts, vampires, werewolves. These included the letters, not common but usually very long, from people who believed that they were vampires or werewolves. Many of these people had apparently discovered that they were vampires or werewolves after reading Twilight and were eager to come to Oregon to be part of Team Tyler.

3) Proposals of marriage and/or sex, the latter usually very explicitly described. Tyler had been excruciatingly single ever since last year, when his last girlfriend had dumped him for “a man who actually has a career and a salary.” It also helped that her new lover had a BMW and a posh apartment in downtown Portland. Tyler, by comparison, lived in a run-down trailer in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, drove a Honda Civic that went through a quart of oil every two weeks, and his only permanent companion was a chronically flatulent dog named Ahab that humped everything that would stand still long enough. In his more realistic moments, he understood why Kelly had left him. In his less realistic moments the proposals of sex sounded good, but eventually even those seemed as ridiculous as the missives from people who knew they were vampires because their skin sparkled when they stood in the sun.

4) Hate mail. These usually had the worst spelling and grammar, but they still got under his skin. He couldn’t help the feeling that despite the catastrophic damage he’d done to his own standing as a scientist, he’d done worse damage to the reputation of science itself. Given the percentage of Americans who believed the Earth was 6,000 years old, the last thing scientists needed was Tyler Vaughan making the whole lot of them look like nimrods, spouting off about Bigfoot on national television.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Kári the Lucky (an excerpt)

Kári Solmundarson was a Hebridean Norseman who left the Hebrides as a teenager, and went to Iceland.   Iceland of the 10th century was a violent place, the home of blood feuds, rivalries, and challenges to the death, and Kári was a man of his times -- swayed by passion, loyal to his comrades, ruthless to his enemies.  When he arrives in Iceland, he is caught up in the decades-long feud involving his friends, the three sons of Njal Thorgeirsson.

When after a devastating battle, Kári is left the only survivor of the Thorgeirsson clan, he vows revenge on the men who killed his friends, a revenge that spans five countries and twenty years. Ultimately, he finds himself questioning the purpose of it all -- whether pain and suffering are a reasonable tradeoff for honor and saving face.

Kári the Lucky is based on a true story, originally recounted in the Icelandic tale "Njal's Saga." It is a story of intrigue, love, passion, loyalty, and violence, and most importantly, a story of how one man came to question the meaning of good and evil.

Kári the Lucky is available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.

In the following passage, Kári's friends, the three Njálsson brothers (Skarp-Hedin, Helgi, and Grím) have been captured by the Jarl of Orkney, who suspects them of hiding an Icelander he is pursuing.  The fugitive, Thrain Sigfússon, is a ne'er-do-well -- but because of a blood feud, the Njálsson brothers had sworn to their father to protect him, and now they are torn between an oath and their own lives, as the Jarl has sentenced the three brothers to death if they don't reveal what they know of Thrain's whereabouts.


All through that day, I watched and waited, unable to keep my mind off the Njálssons, still tied up in the Assembly Field, and the fugitive Thrain Sigfússon. My duties that day – helping with loading barrels of salted dried meat and fish into a storehouse for the winter – seemed to pass at a snail’s pace, and my eyes kept straying; first out toward the Njálssons’ ship, at anchor in the harbor, and then up toward the Assembly Field. I wondered if tomorrow there would be only three blood-soaked patches where now my friends were sitting.

The night fell, and I returned to my sleeping quarters, but I could not sleep. I tossed this way and that, and finally rose and dressed. A quiet, amused voice – my comrade Kol – said, “Enjoy her well, Kári, and then maybe when you return you won’t keep me awake with your rolling about.” I suddenly realized that he thought I was going to meet a woman.  I managed a forced laugh, and then left, hoping that Kol would not find it strange that I was going to meet a woman while wearing my sword.

All was dark, and the settlement was quiet. I knew that few guards were posted unless there was reason, but I did not wish to be marked by even those few. I walked up past the main cluster of buildings; no sound issued from Jarl Sigurd’s house, for which I was very glad. From there I walked out onto the Assembly Field.

In the light of the sliver moon, all that was visible were vague shapes. I could see the huddled form of the Njálssons, where they sat waiting for execution; and a guard, standing near them, leaning on a spear.

The guard heard my footsteps; even in the dark, I saw him move, catching up his spear and pointing it toward me. “Who is it?” he said, his voice challenging.

“Kári Solmundarson,” I said, trying to make my voice sound authoritative. “The Jarl himself told me to relieve you, as you will be wanted first thing in the morning. You may return to your sleeping quarters for the night.” It did not sound very plausible, but I was not practiced in deceit and could think of nothing better.

The guard sounded wary. “For what purpose does the Jarl want me?”

“I do not know. Ask the Jarl that tomorrow.”

There was a pause. “The Jarl told me that I was to guard the prisoners through the whole night,” he persisted.

I shrugged, although I doubt he saw that in the dark. “Very well. Shall I go now and tell the Jarl then that you are refusing to follow his orders?”

There was another pause, during which the man shifted uneasily from one foot to another. “I will go,” he said, but still did not sound certain. Nevertheless, he walked past me, down the hill toward the settlement.

“Sleep well,” I said to his retreating form. “I envy you your night’s sleep, as I will get none.”

As soon as his footsteps had retreated back toward the settlement, I heard Helgi’s voice saying, “Kári? Is that you?”

“Yes,” I said, and went over to them and cut their bonds with my sword. They stood, rubbing their numb hands and stretching their eased limbs.

“Have they captured Thrain?” whispered Skarp-Hedin.

“Not that I’ve heard,” I answered.

“No thanks to you, Helgi,” Skarp-Hedin said irritably. “With that remark of yours about the water casks, I’m surprised that Thrain isn’t tied up here next to us right now.”

We left the field quietly, skirting the edge of the settlement, and made our way down to the harbor shore. It was a peaceful night, and the waves lapped the shore sleepily. I saw with relief that the skiff was still there, pulled up onto the gravel; we dragged it into the water and cast off toward the waiting ship.

The slap of the oars sounded rhythmically in my ears as we approached the ship. I found myself wondering what I should do. By identifying myself to the guard, I had made myself complicit in the Njálssons’ escape; surely the Jarl would kill me when my part in the deceit was discovered. I had no real desire to go with the brothers to Iceland, but the thought crossed my mind that I did not have many other options.

Helgi and Grím pulled in their oars, and there was a harsh scraping sound as the edge of the skiff rubbed against the side of the ship. Skarp-Hedin reached out and grabbed the gunwale, and we prepared to board.

There was a voice from the ship. “Who is it?”

Without thinking, Helgi looked up and said, “Thrain?” Instantly Skarp-Hedin tackled Helgi and pulled him down into the skiff. It was fortunate that he did so; at the same moment, a dark figure leapt down from the ship into the skiff, and I heard the whistle of a sword pass where Helgi’s head had been only seconds before. I pulled out my own sword as a second man jumped into the skiff.

Brief though it was, that was the most terrifying battle of my life; in a rocking, unsteady boat, in nearly total darkness, and with three of my closest friends beside me. When I struck out I literally could not be sure of who I was striking at. In the end, we killed both of them, but I am not completely certain of who killed them or how. Within minutes, however, both of our attackers had been slain and tossed overboard.

I faulted myself for not realizing that the Jarl would post guards on the Njálssons’ ship, to prevent just such an escape. There was no time for blame, however, and the four of us climbed aboard the ship, pulling the skiff up behind us. Skarp-Hedin had been grazed on the leg by a sword thrust, but it was shallow and he seemed to take no notice of it. The rest of us were all unharmed.

“You know, Kári, that you can’t stay here in Orkney now,” said Skarp-Hedin.

“I suppose not,” I said.

“You will be welcome at our father’s house,” Helgi added. “Come to Iceland with us; or if not, we will bring you wherever you wish. We owe you our lives.”

“You haven’t gotten away with them yet,” I said wryly.

“Where is Thrain?” Skarp-Hedin asked.

“We stowed him in a cask in the hold,” said Helgi, and pulled up the wooden cover over the ship’s hold. He reached down and rolled one of the casks back and forth. “This is the one, but it’s empty.”

“One of Jarl Sigurd’s men told me that they’d opened every cask on the ship, and found nothing,” I said.

Suddenly, there was a rustling sound from underneath the floor planks. I drew my sword again, wondering if there was a third guard in hiding; but in a moment, there was a bump, and Thrain Sigfússon’s head popped out through the trapdoor. We all gaped for a moment, speechless.

“How did you escape the Jarl’s men?” demanded Helgi. “They were right on top of you.”

“I think we should discuss that once we are at sea,” said Grím, and that seemed good sense. We drew up the anchor, and set to the oars with a will; even Thrain did his part. Within less than an hour we were around the headland and out of sight from the settlement.

“Now, Thrain Sigfússon,” said Skarp-Hedin, pulling on the oars with an easy motion of his thickly muscled arms, “How did you escape from the Jarl’s men?”

“I stayed in the cask until I heard the Jarl’s men leave the first time,” said Thrain. “After they left, I assumed that they would not be returning, and I was cramped in the small space; so I got out, and climbed into the end of the hold in the bow. It was narrow, but you had a bundle of wool blankets down there; and there was a piece of loose wood on the floor, so I pulled the blankets around me, and propped up the wood on the other side so it looked as if the hold ended there. When they came back the second time, I was tucked away safe and snug, and they didn’t have any idea of where I was. But then they left two men behind, and until I heard your voices, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was wondering if I might starve down there in the hold.”

“Starvation might have been preferable to what the Jarl would have done to you,” said Helgi.

“Do you think the Jarl will pursue us?” asked Thrain.

“We will have to wait and see,” I said. “It wouldn’t surprise me. Jarl Sigurd is not a man to trifle with.”

We pulled in the oars, and brought up the sail. The wind caught it, and it billowed out before us. Off to Iceland, with all of us; who could have predicted it? I had once more had a sudden change of fortune, from one day to the next. But yet again, the gods had held their hands over me and I had come through without a drop of blood lost.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Giving attention to the bad guys

One of the problems I find with a lot of writing is that I find the bad guys unbelievable.

Take, for example, the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings.  I know I'm stepping on hallowed ground by even suggesting a criticism of Tolkien, but have you ever asked yourself why the Orcs were so pissed off at everyone?  Now, I'm not talking about Saruman's Orcs, who were promised rewards; but just your run-of-the-mill, cave-dwelling, dull-witted nose-picker sort of Orc who lived in the Misty Mountains and who presumably didn't give a rat's ass who won the Battle of Helm's Deep.  They somehow still hated the Elves and all the rest, just 'cuz.

Well, I'm not buying it.

If you want a story that has some depth to it, which presumably all writers do, you've got to give your antagonist as much depth as your protagonist.  To me, the best stories are the ones where you end up feeling some sympathy for the antagonist.  You still don't want him/her to win, but you think at the end, "I almost felt sorry, there, when (s)he was ripped apart and eaten by rabid weasels." 

Take Darth Vader, for example.  How much less powerful would that story have been had you not felt a little sad that he had taken the path he did, when he died in Luke's arms?

A writer I know, who shall remain nameless, suffers from the worst case of One-Dimensional Villain Syndrome I've ever seen.  Every story she's ever written has an arrogant, patriarchal, middle-aged white male as the villain.  Furthermore, these APMAWMs are always guilty of victimizing and demeaning women, but the women always end up Showing Them A Thing Or Two, leaving the APMAWM in question to retreat in disarray.  It's as predictable as clockwork.  The result, unfortunately, is that besides the stories appearing completely formulaic, it leaves us wondering about what the APMAWMs do in their spare time, when they're not looking around for women to degrade.  Nothing, is my guess, because these dudes seem to have no other characteristics than (1) the required anatomical equipment and ethnic group identification, (2) arrogance, and (3) patriarchiality.  They have no other motivation, no other character traits, and (most importantly) no sympathetic characteristics at all.

Note that I am not objecting to this on the grounds of my meeting one, or possibly two, of the above-mentioned characteristics of APMAWMs.  I respond with equal eyerolling when I read a story from the 30s or 40s which features the femme fatale stereotype.  I want to find out what these women do, when they're not lounging on the tops of barroom pianos smoking cigarettes in long holders, looking for naive young men to lure into fornication.  What do they like to eat for dinner?  How do they pay the rent?  Do they get together with friends to drink coffee and discuss how the fornication went that week?  Do they subscribe to Femme Fatale Weekly?

Saying that a character is evil "just because this character is evil" isn't enough.  What motivates him/her?  Power?  Revenge?  Lust?  Greed?  And why has this become a driving motivation?  Just as no one is evil "just because," no one becomes evil "just because."  Your antagonist(s) need a backstory, a reason for their actions.

And they can't be thoroughly evil.  Sauron aside, no one is 100% evil.  Even the worst of the worst have some positive traits, and those can be used to set off the bad things they do, to heighten the tragedy of their characters and actions.  Maybe your bad guy hates his neighbors, but loves his dog.  Maybe she is greedy as King Midas but never forgets to send her mother a gift on her birthday.  Maybe he's a thoroughgoing APMAWM but has given everything to the family business, so he can pass it along to his children.  And so on.

Life is full of contradictions, and good writing reflects life.  Don't forget that this applies to the bad guys as well as the good guys.  Make your antagonists as richly three-dimensional as your protagonists, and your stories will gain immensely in depth, interest, and believability.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gems of dialogue

It's hard to describe why some particular lines of dialogue are memorable, any more than you could say "wow, those three notes in that symphony are brilliant!"  The dialogue itself only shows its excellence in the context that the author has set.  Nevertheless, there are passages of dialogue in books and stories that to me still stand out as absolute genius.

It's probably futile to try to explain why these particular passages leaped off the page for me, but I thought it might be a fun exercise to present here a few lines of dialogue that for me exemplify sheer, unadulterated brilliance in writing.  Each one of these sent a little shiver up my spine, and I thought:  this is perfect.  See how many you recognize, and if you recognize them, whether you agree.  Feel free to add some of your favorites.  If nothing else, we'll all have a list of books to put on our summer reading list.

"Mother was always shoving me out into the world," Meg said.  "She'd want me to do this.  You know she would.  Tell her..." she started, choked, then held up her head and said, "No.  Never mind.  I'll tell her myself."  -- Madeleine l'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

"I am tired," he said.  "I did a lot today.  That is, I did something.  The only thing I have ever done.  I pressed a button.  It took the entire will power, the accumulated strength of my entire existence, to press one damned 'Off' button."  -- Ursula LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven

"We will have peace, " said Théoden at last thickly and with an effort.  Several of the Riders cried out gladly.  Théoden held up his hand.  "Yes, we will have peace," he said, now in a clear voice, "we will have peace, when you and all of your works have perished -- and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us.  You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men's hearts.  You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor.  Cruel and cold!  Even if your war on me was just -- as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired -- even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there?  And they hewed Háma's body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead.  When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc.  So much for the House of Eorl.  A lesser son of great sires am I, but I do not need to lick your fingers.  Turn elsewhither.  But I fear your voice has lost its charm."  -- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

"You suggested that Hazel should tell them of our adventures, Blackberry, but it didn't go down well, did it?  Who wants to hear about brave deeds when he's ashamed of his own, and who likes an open, honest tale from someone he's deceiving?  Do you want me to go on?  I tell you, every single thing that's happened fits like a bee in a foxglove.  And kill them, you say, and help ourselves to the great burrow?  We shall help ourselves to a roof of bones, hung with shining wires.  Help ourselves to misery and death."  -- Richard Adams, Watership Down

"You were awaiting the sound of the seventh trumpet, were you not?  Now, listen to what the voice says: Seal what the seven thunders have said and do not write it, take and devour it, it will make bitter your belly but to your lips it will be sweet as honey.  You see?  Now I seal that which was not to be said, and will take it with me to the grave."  -- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

"I believe that I am mad," said Vertue presently.  "The world cannot be as it seems to me.  If there is something to go to, it is a bribe, and I cannot go to it; if I can go, then there is nothing to go to."

"Vertue," said John, "give in.  For once, yield to desire.  Have done with your choosing.  Want something."

"I cannot," said Vertue.  "I must choose because I choose because I choose; and it goes on forever, and in the whole world I cannot find a single reason for rising from this stone."  -- C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress

"As for my gravestone?  I would like to borrow that great barber-pole from out front of the town shoppe, and have it run at midnight if you happened to drop by my mound to say hello.  And there the old barber-pole would be, lit, its bright ribbons twining up out of mystery, turning, and twining away up into further mysteries, forever.  And if you come to visit, leave an apple for the ghosts."  -- Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes

"Yes," she said coldly.  "Better that they die here and now, if that's what has to happen, than that they go with you and live.  They -- we -- did some lousy things.  But the price is much too high." -- Stephen King, Needful Things

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Canaries (an excerpt)

Murray Delafosse thought he had a long, comfortable retirement to look forward to. He and his wife had purchased their retirement home, in a nice suburb of Lafayette, Louisiana, with a well-built house and a tidy yard, in May, and moved in a month later.

On July 1, Murray’s wife announced that she wanted a divorce.

Murray had lived in a predictable world, and he liked it that way. Now, he was facing a future that he had never anticipated, where his carefully laid-out plans were in ruins. Depressed and aimless, he looked around him, and saw no particular reason to do anything but hang around the house and watch television.

Matilda Durieaux, however, has other plans for Murray. With Matilda on Murray’s case, there is no chance of his staying mired in inertia. And she isn’t going to let a little thing like the fact that she’s been dead for sixty years stop her from fixing Murray’s life, whether he wants her to or not.

Canaries is available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes&Noble.

 In the following excerpt from chapter one, Murray is pondering the mysterious noises he heard in his house the previous night, and the fact that a box of books was dumped out on the living room floor -- when no one was in the house but him.

When it was light out, Murray got up, put on a pot of coffee, showered and dressed. His mind kept turning over the previous night’s events, but without coming to any real resolution. He felt like he did when, a few years ago, his nephew had handed him a Rubik’s Cube. He could see what it was, could understand how the thing moved, but whatever pattern it followed made no sense to him whatsoever. His nephew could solve it in a minute flat; watching the boy’s hands moving, this way and that, he felt that he could just as well be watching a magician. There had to be some sense to it, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it was.

He spent the morning picking up the spilled books, arranging them on the built-in shelves in the living room, and prying open other boxes of books and arranging those. There were several boxes marked “Louise’s Books,” and those he pushed off into a corner. The rest of the day was much like the previous one; night came, the heat-up of that night’s dinner, the television shows, the rituals of going to bed, and finally lights out.

That night the disturbance came at a little after 1 AM. He woke out of a fairly sound sleep to the thought that there must be a lightning storm occurring, something fairly common during summer in Louisiana. There were repeated, irregular flashes of bright, white light. But as he came to full wakefulness, he realized that first, there was no thunder; and second, and more alarmingly, that the flashes were coming from inside the house.

He got out of bed. His heart was pounding; was it a fire? An electrical short? It was coming from the living room or dining room, he could see that. As he neared the end of the hall, he could tell what it was; someone was flipping the switches of the living room and dining room light fixtures, quickly and in no apparent pattern. He could even hear the clicking of the switches.

He stepped into the living room, and it stopped, and everything went dark.

With a trembling hand, he reached out and switched on the living room lights. He half expected them not to come on, but they did, and the living room lit up brightly.

There was no one there.

This time, it took him several hours to get back to sleep.

The following night, Murray decided to break his routine.

He readied himself for night time as usual, but instead of climbing into bed, he turned out the lights, and tiptoed back down the hall in his pajamas. He walked into the living room, and sat down on the floor in the corner next to and a little behind his recliner. From there, he could see into the dining room, living room, and kitchen. If anything happened that night, he’d be right there.

He dozed uncomfortably, his head lolling forward; every once in a while he’d rouse a little, shift his position slightly, and then doze a little more. The time passed this way, all quiet, Murray sitting on the floor nodding and rousing, until a little after midnight.

It was probably only his proximity, and the fact that he was hardly asleep, that alerted him when it happened; the noise this night was quiet, almost stealthy. A low, grating noise, like something being dragged across a surface.

He was awake instantly, but made no sudden move, tried to remain part of the shadows in the corner where he sat. He looked into the living room; nothing. Likewise, the dining room was empty and dark.

Then he looked into the kitchen.

Standing just inside the kitchen, next to the counter, was a woman. She was glowing faintly with a pale bluish light, but her form was shimmery and insubstantial; he could see the handle of the refrigerator through the folds of her old-fashioned, floor-length dress. Her features were plain, her jaw angular, her nose a little too long to fit her small, birdlike face, and she wore her hair (of uncertain color because it, too, seemed just on the verge of transparency) in a rather unflattering and untidy bun.

A ghost? he thought, frowning. How can this house be haunted? It was built only twenty years ago.

The transparent woman was moving his yellow ceramic sugar bowl along the counter, pushing it in a sort of experimental way, frowning a little, and then pushing it again. Finally, she picked it up, and held it in front of her face, as if considering what to do with it.

Murray was suddenly galvanized. All of the irritation and frustration of the previous week bubbled to the surface. He had moved his residence; his wife of thirty-eight years had left him; and now, now, there was some ghostly woman in his house, disarraying his things and disturbing his night’s sleep.

“Hey!” he said, in a loud voice, still sitting on the floor. “What the hell are you doing in my house?”

The woman gave a little yelp, and dropped the sugar bowl. It struck the floor, cracked in half, and sugar scattered about the kitchen. The transparent woman turned to face Murray, put one hand on her chest, and then reached out with the other and steadied herself against the counter.

“Holy Mother of God,” she said, in a weak voice. “You nearly scared the life out of me.”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Ensign Moron effect

For me, the absolute worst reaction a reader of one of my novels could have is to roll his/her eyes.

Fiction is all about creating a world, and by that I am not just referring to science fiction and alien planets.  A good writer designs a little universe in which the characters live, and the goal is that the reader will for a while inhabit that universe (and if it really works, the reader continues to revisit that universe mentally even after the book is finished).  This means that inside the world of the story, everything needs to be self-consistent.  The plot needs to be coherent, any backstory needs to align properly, and -- most importantly -- the characters should act in a way that makes sense, given who they are.  (Now, of course, there are times that a character might act illogically -- but his/her illogic should still be consistent with the character's personality.  I.e., there should be an underlying logic to the illogic.)

Nothing is so jarring to me as a reader as reading along and suddenly saying, "C'mon, he wouldn't do that."  I find that this tendency is especially pronounced in horror and science fiction, largely because the action in those genres often comes from people getting themselves into life-threatening binds.  But even though in a horror story, you have to somehow get the main characters into the haunted house (or graveyard or castle of vampires or monster-inhabited cavern), you've got to do it in such a way that it doesn't elicit eye rolls.  How many horror movies have you seen in which a couple gets lost in the woods at night, and they hear something, and one of them says, "It could be a monster.  Let's search for it.  We should split up."  And inevitably, the monster picks off one or both of them while they're alone.

Gimme a break.  If my wife and I were camping in the woods, and we heard a monster, the last thing I'd want us to do is split up.  Given that I'm a great big wuss, I'd probably be clinging so tightly to her that we'd have to be surgically separated after the monster was vanquished.  No way would I calmly say, "Let's split up."

I find that even my all-time favorite TV series, The X Files, was guilty of this.  How many times did Mulder and Scully split up to search the warehouse for the monster?  All the while using only flashlights?  Several times I shouted at the TV, "Turn on the lights, for chrissake!"  But they never did.

And of course, science fiction is equally bad in this regard, but usually for a different reason -- in much of science fiction, the backstory is so complicated that it's necessary that someone on the spaceship has to act like a complete moron in order for the reader (or watcher) to know what's going on.  It leads to scenes like the following:

CAPTAIN:  Shields up, Lieutenant!  We are entering space controlled by the malevolent Bugwumps of Garbonzo-11.

ENSIGN MORON:  But who are the Bugwumps, Captain?

CAPTAIN:  The Bugwumps are an evil race of giant robotic cockroach entities who can control the space-time continuum with their thoughts.

ENSIGN MORON:  Why are they at war with us, Captain?

CAPTAIN:  Well, Ensign, ten years ago, some members of our Federation settled on a planet in a disputed region of space.  And the Bugwumps destroyed it.  So, now...

And so forth.  Remember Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation?  Wesley Crusher was basically Ensign Moron.  And because of that, we had not only a character who was asking stupid questions, but a captain who had to tolerate his presence on the bridge, instead of saying, "Get off my bridge, you odious little twerp, I've got a job to do," which is what I'd have done, if I were Captain Picard.

The same principles are true, of course, in any genre.  It's no coincidence that when someone does something surprising, people say, "Well, that was out of character."  Characters in fiction have to obey a certain logic -- even if that logic is, for a time, known only to the author.  It's perfectly okay if a character does something seemingly crazy -- as long as, at the end, the reader says, "Oh, okay!  Now I see why he did that!"  Misdirection is permitted, as is playing your hands close to your chest.  But if, at the end, your reader doesn't see the pieces of the puzzle fitting together neatly, something has gone seriously wrong with your characters' motivations, personalities, and interactions.  And in my opinion, there is no worse error that an author can make.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Naughty bits

This morning I was thinking about sex scenes.

Not in that way, so don't get your knickers in a twist.  I was wondering about their use in writing, how much is too much, how explicit is too explicit, and so on.  Note that I'm excluding, for the purposes of this discussion, outright erotica -- writing that is intended to arouse.  But what about ordinary, mainstream prose?

My general attitude is that there's no reason to avoid any mention of sex, out of some sort of left-over mid-Victorian sense of delicacy.  Being part of what adults do, it's no more off-limits to write about than anything else that adults do.  However, like any other kind of scene we could write about -- be it violence, farce, tragedy, anguish, comedy, or philosophy -- it can be overdone, or done poorly.  Given that it's something that most people think about pretty frequently, and have (ahem) strong feelings about, if you do include sex in your writing, you want to get it right.  I don't know about you, but there's nothing more cringe-inducing than a badly-written love scene.  I don't think it's an accident that there is no contest for the year's worst fight scenes, but there is one for the year's worst sex scenes (to read about last year's winner, go here). 

To me, a well-placed (and well-written) love scene works to dial up the tension in a plot.  It can act as a point of happy relief when two characters you've been hoping would hook up finally do, or an "oh, no!" moment when two characters whose actions are leading them to disaster, and who should avoid each other like the plague, make it worse.  And in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with its being, if not exactly explicit, at least thoroughly described.  Like anything we write about, the point is to make the reader feel like (s)he is there, and is on some level experiencing what is happening to the characters.  I see no reason why this kind of scene should be any different.

You do have to be cautious about descriptions, here, however.  Most of the winners of the worst sex scenes contest won because of, shall we say, bad analogies, usually involving sounds, movements, or body parts.  Keep it real.  Keep it simple.  Avoid purple prose.  All of which are rules that could apply to just about any type of writing, but are especially important here.  If your intent is to heighten the tension, dramatic and otherwise, it's a little counterproductive to cause your reader to roll his/her eyes, or worse, dissolve into guffaws.

Also, consider whether it's actually important to what's happening in the story.  Like anything in writing, love scenes should be used judiciously.  A pair of characters who seem to do nothing but to go for rolls in the hay eventually leave the reader thinking, "Don't you ever vacuum the carpet, or mow the lawn, or cook dinner?  Or go to work?"  Anything that causes that reaction is to be avoided -- the last thing you want is your reader suddenly getting yanked out of the story, and thinking, "Real people don't act this way."  At that point, the world of the story has collapsed, perhaps for good.

I've only written two stories with sex scenes.  One of them, in Kári the Lucky, was supposed to be tender, to make you feel sorry for the two main characters, a husband and wife who loved each other dearly and who you knew were headed for tragedy.  The other, in The Conduit, is supposed to scare the living hell out of you, because the main character is making love to a guy who looks exactly like her husband -- but isn't.  I spent a long time writing and rewriting these scenes, because I thought each one was an important juncture in the story, and also because I don't want to win the Worst Sex Scenes Contest of 2011.

However you handle writing about The Deed, it should be done with thought -- and like anything in good writing, considering how it adds to plot and character development.  Throwing in a sex scene just to titillate is an insult to the reader.  But handled with a deft touch, it can heighten the dramatic tension in a particularly visceral fashion.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Conduit (an excerpt)

Ryan Linahan lived an ordinary life as a high school biology teacher, until Great-Uncle George Parker died. While helping his family to go through all of Great-Uncle George's belongings, Ryan discovered a box full of old letters that revealed that the Parker family had some serious skeletons in the closet -- skeletons that were about to come back to life.

Upon finding a genealogical link between the Parkers and the Meadows and Fry families, who had left behind a legacy of dark reputation and ill will in the small, rural Pennsylvania village where they lived, Ryan becomes obsessed with finding out what it was his ancestors were actually guilty of. And his obsession leads him to become ensnared in events that, though they happened in the 19th century, are far from over, and in the end may reawaken evil that was thought to be dead and buried for over a century.

The Conduit has gotten five-star reviews at Amazon and Barnes&Noble, from which it is available as an e-book.

In the following passage, Ryan has become frightened of his own obsession with the cigar box full of letters, and has decided to burn them.


It was after five by the time he arrived home. Diane’s shift at the hospital was over at 4:30 but she often had paperwork to catch up on, and sometimes didn’t make it home until 5:30 or 6. Ryan felt desperate to have the letters destroyed by the time she returned. The thought of her walking in and catching him in the act seemed somehow dreadful, for no reason he could really put his finger on. He wanted it to be a fait accompli by the time she arrived, something he could tell her about but that she couldn’t affect, whatever she thought about his actions.

He walked into the living room, dropped his thermos and papers on the couch, and went over to the wood stove. There was adequate firewood but little in the way of kindling, so he went down to the study and grabbed some old newspapers from his desk to use in getting the blaze going.

Ryan knelt in front of the wood stove, and began to arrange split logs carefully across the bottom. He stuffed newspaper and some bits of bark and other debris from under the wood cradle underneath. He reached for the matches, and found that his hands were shaking so badly that he broke the tip from the first match before it would light. The second one lit easily, and he touched it to the newspaper, and within seconds the whole crumpled mass was ablaze.

The big logs were slower to catch, but he fed the fire with bits and slivers of wood until the larger ones were flaming. Then, with a grim expression, he turned to the coffee table, and retrieved the box of letters.

He opened it, half expecting to see the blood-red lettering from his dream the previous night, but there was nothing but the faded ink that he’d seen the first time he’d opened the box. He picked up the first letter, and slipped it into the fire. It blackened and curled up almost immediately, leaving nothing behind but twisted sheets of ash.

He added the second, and then the third. The temptation to stop and read them was powerful, but he resisted, and continued to add them one at a time, staring the whole time into the devouring flames.

He was nearly done when the door opened. He jumped, and half turned, and Diane was walking in the front door, carrying her satchel and looking tired.

She walked over to where he was kneeling, gave him a quick kiss, and said, “Hi, sweetie. How was work?”

Ryan looked down at the remaining letters – there couldn’t have been more than five of them – and said, “Um, fine. How was your day?”

Diane kicked off her shoes. “Fine. But long. Have you started dinner? I’m famished.”

“No,” Ryan said. “I was just finishing… this, and then I was going to start.”

“I’ll get it started,” she said, disappearing into the kitchen. “I think we can just throw some pork chops on the broiler, and we’ve got salad left over from yesterday. Is that okay with you?”

“Yeah. Fine,” Ryan said, toward the open kitchen door. Then he turned back toward the fire, and one by one fed the last few letters into the flames. Then he tossed the box onto the burning logs, and closed the door to the wood stove.

Thank god, he thought. I did it. Thank god. I don’t know if my mom was right about all this, but it certainly feels like a relief that they’re gone.

Ryan and Diane lingered over a glass of wine at the end of dinner. Ryan felt the tension draining from him, and realized that his muscles had been tight the entire day. He looked into the amber depths of his wine glass, and smiled a little.

“You look like a cat that ate three or four canaries,” Diane said, smiling.

Ryan grinned in response. “Not really,” he said. “I just am happy to have a chance to relax. With you. I had a bad dream last night, and it kind of shook me up. Colored my whole day.”

“Want to tell me about it?” Diane said.

“Honestly, not really,” he replied. “Or not right now. Now I’m just happy not to be thinking about it. I’ll tell you another time.”

“Okay,” Diane said. “I’m glad you’re better.”

“Me too.”

She tipped her glass back and forth, watching how the light caught the surface of the wine. “What possessed you to burn all that stuff this afternoon?”

Ryan looked up, his eyes suddenly wary. “Stuff?”

“When I came in. You had that box of papers, and were putting them into the wood stove.”

He didn’t respond at first. “Well,” he finally said, “I told my mom I would. She seemed to feel pretty strongly about it.”

Diane’s expression showed complete incomprehension. “Your mom?” she said.

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “She asked me if I would, and I said yes.”

“Why would your mom care about a bunch of old bills and credit card statements?”

Ryan felt a cold tremor in the base of his stomach. “What?” he said, his voice high and strained.

“How did your mom even know about that box of old Visa statements and bills, and why would she tell you to burn them?” Diane was looking at him narrowly, questioningly.

“I…” he began. “It wasn’t…” And he was getting up, pushing the chair back, its legs squeaking against the tile floor, and he was half running back into the living room. And there, on the coffee table, was the cigar box, the woman in the Spanish headdress still leering up at him seductively, the box still showing a dark crack where the lid didn’t quite seat properly.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A sense of place

A student of mine once said that he was sick of Stephen King's books because he was "tired of reading about people in Maine."  "He needs to find new places to write about," he said.  "All of his stories are either set in Maine or Colorado."

The reason, of course, is simple; King lives in Maine, and has spent a lot of time in Colorado.  He writes about them because those are the places he knows the best.  The same could be said about most writers, honestly.  Most of my stories are set in upstate New York, southern Louisiana, or the Pacific Northwest -- all places I've lived for at least ten years each.

It's an interesting question whether a fiction writer can write convincingly about a place (s)he's never lived, or (even worse) never been.  My general sense is "no."  I tried that once, back in my cocky, I-can-get-away-with-it days, and set part of a story in Ireland -- a country I've still (unfortunately) never visited.  I finished the story, but it never set well with me, and ultimately I destroyed the manuscript (which will no doubt frustrate my future biographer).  It just didn't ring true. 

The whole episode reminds me of the anecdote about Mark Twain, whose penchant for swearing was legendary.  His wife, trying to shock him into reforming his ripe vocabulary, one day went on a five-minute rant, using every obscene word and vulgarity she'd heard her husband use.  After a moment's stunned silence, Twain commented, "My dear, you've got the words, but you just don't have the music."

That's the problem about writing about a place you don't know; you can do your research, and get the words, but you still won't have the music.  That takes spending some time there, it takes an intimacy with the setting.  It takes gaining a sense of place.  The little things are what are important here; the strange little turns of phrase characteristic of the locals, the oddities of behavior that everyone there takes for granted, the features of the landscape that show up on no map.  I think you'd have to live in a little village in upstate New York, for example, to learn that on Sundays in June there are dozens of outdoor chicken barbecues where you can buy lunch, John Deere rider lawn mowers are de rigueur even if you have a small lawn, and only people in "big cities like Ithaca" ever lock their doors.  And very few people outside of southern Louisiana know that "howzyamommandem?" is an expected greeting (and yes, it is one word).

It may be easier to get away with writing about a place you don't know well if you set the story in the past, because the distance in time automatically engenders an unfamiliarity in setting.  I've only written three stories (that have survived) set in places I haven't lived, one in Iceland (Kári the Lucky) and two in England (We All Fall Down and Adam's Fall).  In my own defense, I have visited both places and studied their history fairly extensively, but still, it's no coincidence that all three stories are set in the past -- in the 11th, 14th, and 18th centuries, respectively.  (Whether I "got away with it" or not I'll leave the reader to decide.)

I think that the most successful stories are the ones which envelop the reader in a setting that feels real -- in which you are experiencing first hand the sights and sounds of a place almost as if you were there.  Whether a talented writer could do that by sheer academic research, without visiting a place, I question.  For myself, I'm more comfortable writing what I know.  It feels like I'm home.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

You're a real character...

Fiction writers tend to be people-collectors.  We're always on the lookout for quirks, mannerisms, oddities of speech, and so on, so that we can take these things and assemble them into a fictional character.

Which demands the question of whether the characters in fiction are ever completely fictional.  I know that for my own writing, most of my characters are patchworks of people I know, or at least have seen.  All of them are (I hope and pray) sufficiently different from any one individual that no one will read my work and say, "Hey, wait a minute... that's me!"  Still, it's almost inevitable that we construct our characters from what we've experienced.

The result is that I'm always making mental notes of people.  I don't try to remember the entirety of a person; I have a fairly dreadful memory for faces, actually, and it'd probably be a forlorn hope for me to try to remember what people look like in detail.  But frequently, little details will catch my eye, and go into the mental Rolodex.  The elderly woman with the necklace made of large polished obsidian beads.  The guy who looks like a member of the Young Republicans except for the complex tribal tattoo on his forearm.  The little boy with the cornsilk blond hair and the rather unsettling pale gray eyes.  The old man with the face like a bloodhound, wearing a patch on his jacket that says, "I (heart) Jesus."  The beautiful young woman with jet black curly hair and a gorgeous figure, who has a laugh that sounds like the bleating of a sheep.

Not all of the pieces ever get fit together into characters; some have to sit a while before I find a place to use them.  One of the characters in my work-in-progress, an earnest, kind, intelligent, but rather vague New-Age type, is based in part on a woman I met at a music workshop several years ago.  As I said before, she's morphed sufficiently that I doubt she'd recognize herself, but still, my musician acquaintance is definitely the origin of Rainey (short for "Rainbow") Carrington.

All of this is probably going to make my friends a lot more careful around me.  It reminds me of the t-shirt I saw -- "Be nice to me, or I'll write you into my novel."  I certainly don't mean this to have that effect.  Most of the quirks I've collected and added to characters aren't negative, just endearing.  In fact, the characters in my stories that are the least like anyone I know are the bad guys -- leading to the (correct) impression that most of the people I know are really awfully nice folks.

Still, I hope you won't take it amiss if you notice that your habit of deliberately wearing two earrings from different pairs shows up in one of my stories.  Consider it an hommage to your uniqueness that I (1) actually noticed it, and (2) thought it noteworthy enough to give it to one of my characters.  And you have my solemn promise that if you don't reveal the source, I won't.