What We Do For Love

We’ve had extra time on our hands, thanks to the covid-19 situation, so we decided to do something different, for our youngest grandchild, Adam. We wanted to develop a story with him as the star. We’d conjured up goofy tales for our son and daughter when they were growing up, and they seemed to get a kick out of it. But this time we wanted to make it more formal, a story in book form, loaded with photos.

I’ve been designing book covers for some time, and I decided to use those skills to feature little Adam alongside his favorite hero, Kai, a character from Lego’s Ninjago series of animation and toys. These critters are built from little plastic blocks and an endless array of multi-colored connecting bits and doo-daddery.

We enlisted our daughter’s help, and she supplied us with photos of Adam in various poses: running, jumping, punching, etc. We feasted on these–digitally–to make up the images for the book. The cover is shown here, but please don’t tell Adam. He doesn’t know anything about it, yet. (Oh, and Adam’s the one on the left!)

Now, before anyone gets the wrong impression, please know that Adam is really a sweet little guy, this photo notwithstanding!

Anyway, the project required that we make up a story to go along with 20 pages of illustrations. We used Shutterfly for the text and enlarged most of the doctored images as full-page backgrounds. That made it easy to overlay the text.

I won’t say the whole process is easy. Creating the cover image required us to find just the right photo and digitally remove our young hero for transplant into an illustration we borrowed from the internet. The original is shown here.

We used Paint.NET for the digital dissections and overlays. It’s a fabulous tool for editing photos and designing layered graphics. It’s available for free, but donating for its continued support and expansion is heartily endorsed. I use the software a lot and make annual contributions.

For the book itself, we used Shutterfly.com since we were already familiar with it and have put together books about various vacation trips and events our other grandkids have been involved in.

We’ll only print two copies of Adam’s book–one for him and one for us–we doubt the good folks at Lego Inc. will sue us. That’s our hope, anyway. We certainly won’t be trying to sell any images we snagged from the internet as our own.

Here’s a parting shot of our young stalwart with the background removed, all ready to go into the saga. We’re not sure how his prom date will react in another ten years or so, but if we’re still around, we’ll let you know!

Stay well!

Posted in short fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Progress? (Encore)

I’m having trouble writing an exercise for one of my classes. The students need an example of really dreadful writing. It needs to be so bad that it borders on the horrific. We’re not talking scary here; we’re talking poorly written.

And I just can’t bring myself to do it!

I need to provide weasel words–those nasty little meaningless collections of letters that swarm around everyday speech like flies on roadkill: really, very, almost, rather, quite, simply, kind of, vast, etc. I also need to plug in a bunch of adverbs, adjectives, and clichés (nearly, utterly, seemingly, partly, large, small, heavy, etc. I’ll spare you the sample clichés).

But I’m struggling. After thirty years of avoiding these things, it’s damned difficult to intentionally use them! I’m struck by the ironic possibility that my students, for whom making these words suspect, will feel as uncomfortable writing properly as I am writing improperly!

It’s much easier to explain that by referring to a new character as a “burly cop,” a “pretty girl,” or a “handsome guy,” they’ve given their readers precious little to go on, meaning: imagine. Instead, give ’em a cop whose belt buckle hasn’t seen daylight in twenty years, an ingénue with curves like a double-scoop cone, and a guy whose face belongs on the cover of GQ. That might be enough to fire a reader’s imagination into supplying the details in their mind’s eye that’ll bring these tropes to life.

But no. Telling them isn’t enough. If it were, I wouldn’t have to keep telling them!

The time-honored maxim about showing rather than telling applies to teaching, too. Damn it. Hence my need for examples. In situ, as it were.

But where do I begin?

I tried taking an old short story and rewriting it so that it has lots and lots of bad stuff in it. My fingers and my keyboard backed away from each other on their own volition. Honest! I. Couldn’t. Do. It.

At least, not by touch-typing. (‘Twas an ancient skill once taught in public schools. It’s now called “keyboarding.” An aside: I’m told that the width of modern railroad tracks is based on the width of the chariot wheels used by Celts in the 1st century BC. Bizarre? Maybe. But is it any more bizarre than the keyboards we force our kids to use? They’re the same as the ones on typewriters from the 19th century–a design dictated by the need to separate commonly used letters so the pesky metal arms attached to the keys wouldn’t get tangled up and smear ink on the paper. You  remember paper, right?)

Fortunately, I’ve had a double Manhattan. This has had the precise calming effect needed to convert my otherwise brilliant prose into pure whale dreck–the stuff left over after the planet’s largest mammal has been rendered into its tiniest marketable bits. In Japan, most likely. Bon appétit. <cough>

So, fear not, students! Just for you, I’ve taken on the unenviable task of converting my prose from a thing of beauty to… something less. Significantly less, I hope.

Oy. What we do for the sake of progress.

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Not again! This time I’m 28,857 words in…. (Encore)

I have this great urge to start killing off characters. It’s probably not even their fault. Although, come to think of it, the way some of them have been acting lately, it’s like they’re asking for it.smite key One player, in particular, has taken an unexpected turn toward the dark side. Normally, I get a pleasant rush when someone dependable does something unpredictable. I suspect my readers enjoy it, too. Normally, this is the province of bad guys figuring out new ways to be nasty. But it’s way weird when a good guy–or at least someone who isn’t always a bad guy–does something despicable.

It makes me worry. What have I done? Where is this going? Who mucked about with my coffee?

giant typewriterWriting is a lonely business. I can see you yawn, and I agree that the statement likely qualifies for Cliche’ of the Millennium. But it’s the truth, damn it, despite what the photo might suggest. (Besides, that ain’t me. And I have no idea who the hottie is, even though by now she’s likely approaching her 100th birthday.)

When one of your characters escapes from their carefully crafted box and does something bizarre, the writer is the only one around who can react. Some of us spill our coffee. Others lean back and giggle. I know a writer who will look around the room, like a dog disgusted by his own flatulence, to see if he can find the culprit who actually committed the deed. There are other responses, too, I suppose. Weirdness, cubed.

Writer's blockWriters are not only lonely, but we’re also most likely schizophrenic, too, at least to a certain extent. We have conversations. With our characters! We know they aren’t real; we know they aren’t *there.* But we cuss them, and praise them, and talk about ’em like they’re offspring. Which, of course, they are.

That’s how imagination works, I suppose. I never really believed it came in a bottle, or a pill, or a syringe. Thank heaven. (It comes in a coffee mug, of course.)

Anyway, thanks for allowing me this little excursion into the surreal. I needed it. My characters did, too. They were getting nervous ’cause my right index finger lingered above the smite key too long.

54-heres-johnnyHeh, heh.

Gotta keep the little buggers on their toes.

 

–Josh

Posted in novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Perspective

I’m taking the easy way out this week. Instead of attempting to draft something new and, hopefully, useful, I thought I’d share something I received in my email from a great friend, Don Wolf. I’ve taken the liberty of adding a graphic or two, but the original reads pretty much as follows:

It’s hard to discern between what’s a real threat and what is just simple panic and hysteria. For a small amount of perspective at this moment, imagine you were born in 1900.

On your 14th birthday, World War I starts, and ends on your 18th birthday. 22 million people perish in that war.

Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until your 20th birthday. 50 million people die from it in those two years. Yes, 50 million.

On your 29th birthday, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%, the World GDP drops 27%. That runs until you are 33. The country nearly collapses along with the world economy.

When you turn 39, World War II starts. You aren’t even over the hill yet. And don’t try to catch your breath. On your 41st birthday, the United States is fully pulled into WWII. Between your 39th and 45th birthday, 75 million people perish in the war.

At 50, the Korean War starts. 5 million perish. At 55 the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. 4 million people perish in that conflict.

On your 62nd birthday, you have the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tipping point in the Cold War. Life on our planet, as we know it, should have ended. Great leaders prevented that from happening.

When you turn 75, the Vietnam War finally ends. Think of everyone on the planet born in 1900. How do you survive all of that?

When you were a kid in 1985, you didn’t think your 85-year-old grandparent understood how hard school was, or how mean that kid in your class was. Yet they survived through everything listed above.

Perspective is an amazing art. Refined as time goes on, and enlightening like you wouldn’t believe. Let’s try and keep things in perspective.

Words to live by, I think.

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing | Tagged , , , , , | 23 Comments

An Odd Little Southern Tale

If you’re as tired as I am of the never-ending chatter about the coronavirus problem, this tale may provide a diversion. It’s a bit longer than most of the short stories I’ve presented here, but it’s an old fave, even though it’s never been published before. Please let me know what you think!

Olin loaded the remains of the small, brown bear in the back of his aging pick up.  Reflections from the blue lights on the Sheriff’s car gave the woods a look even more eerie than usual.

The Sheriff leaned against the back of Olin’s truck, careful to avoid both dirt from the vehicle and blood from the carcass. “We don’t need bears around here anyhow. This is farm country; bears belong up in the mountains.”

“I know,” Olin said. “And that’s where I would’ve taken this one when it healed and got a little bigger. Another few months maybe… Damn dogs!” He looked at the disemboweled animal, its glossy coat smeared with blood, then he stared harder. “Aw, geez.”

Olin opened his pocketknife and probed briefly beneath the ravaged hide before producing a flattened lump of lead. “Shotgun slug, I’d guess. Since when do wild dogs need help?” He threw the slug to the ground. “Damn it, why do people do this? My animals don’t pose any threats; they don’t hurt anyone.”

“The folks I talk to disagree,” the Sheriff said. He pulled a brown envelope from his back pocket. “I’ve got a complaint here from one of your neighbors and a couple more from people down the road. They don’t like the idea of you havin’ a private zoo. They’re afraid their livestock will catch some disease, or maybe one of your wild animals will get loose.”

“It’s not a zoo,” Olin said. “It’s a shelter, a temporary preserve–”

“Doesn’t matter what you call it. Remember that big cat you had–damn leopard or something? Imagine what would’ve happened if that thing had gotten in someone’s hen house.”

“It was an ocelot,” said Olin. “And it would’ve remained in its cage until I found a zoo or someplace where it could be released. It was a problem, sure, but it was my problem, just like this bear. What kind of person would kill a defenseless animal and then leave it for the dogs? That’s scary as hell.”

The Sheriff squinted. “You’re the one folks around here are scared of. You’re the one with all the dangerous animals.”

“Are you saying my animals don’t deserve protection?”

The Sheriff waved the envelope. “The folks what made these complaints deserve protection, too. If you don’t build more cages and bigger, stronger fences to keep your wild animals from gettin’ loose, I’ll be back with my deputies to see there’s nothin’ left alive to harm anybody.” He slapped the envelope in Olin’s hand. “You got thirty days.”

~*~

Olin glanced at the referral. Though it would only take ten minutes to reach the address, he wasn’t convinced he’d make it. The needle of his gas gauge lived on empty. Everyone in the business knew he was so far in debt he’d take any job he could get, and the really odd calls were routinely routed to him.

When people got tired of their exotic pets–usually when the animals grew past the cuddly stage–the owners often became desperate to find someone who’d take them. Too many firms agreed only if they knew of a zoo ready to accept the animal. Short of that, they preferred to dispose of the creatures in the cheapest, most permanent way they could.  Olin remained in a perpetual state of outrage over it.

He looked again at the referral: Daphne Stewart, Macon. He wondered what kind of creature she had. A pot-bellied pig? An alligator? A mountain lion? He’d seen them all, and more.

Driving down the highway, he thought back to his days at Auburn University, where he’d studied to be a veterinarian. If only the scholarship money had lasted… He shared his father’s love of animals as well as his inability to manage cash. The animal removal business, and the preserve, had fared no better under him than it had before his father died.

Daphne Stewart, Daphne Stewart… He tried to visualize a woman he’d never met. Old South and old money. She could have anything or anybody she wanted. He shook his head as he turned onto the road leading to the Stewart estate.

He found it without difficulty. An iron gate barred the drive which wound away in the distance, the house invisible from the road. Olin pressed a call button on the gate.

Moments later he heard a woman’s voice. “Who is it?”

“Olin Ashbank,” he said. “Animal removal and pest control.”

“Come on up,” said the voice.

With a sharp click, the gate swung open. Olin returned to his truck and rumbled up the drive. When he reached the house, a woman stood in the driveway waiting for him. Short and heavyset, with a jaw to match, the middle-aged woman extended her hand. “I’m Daphne Stewart,” she said, looking him over. “You’re younger than I imagined, but you come highly recommended. What took you so long?”

“I ran into a little problem just–”

“Hah!  You think you’ve got problems. C’mon.” She reached for his arm and dragged him around to the far side of the huge, brick house. She pointed at the ground. “There.  See?”  She rested her hands on her ample hips.

Olin looked down. “Uhm. what, exactly, am I looking for?”

“Footprints, of course.” She walked to a spot a dozen feet away. “Here’s another.” She pointed to the west. “They lead off into the woods. My property stretches back that way for about a half-mile.”

Olin examined the soil but saw nothing obvious. “Maybe I’m not looking in the right spot.  What kind of footprint is it?”

“Dragon,” Daphne said. “Damn thing came out of the woods last night and tried to get me.”

Olin stifled a laugh, though she sounded serious. He wondered when her medication had run out. “Do you see it often?”

“No. It’s been years since I saw it last, but it doesn’t scare me–I promise you that. There’ve been Stewarts on this land since before Sherman came through, and by God, I won’t be the first one to leave!”

“Right,” said Olin. “Why don’t you go inside while I have a look around.” He got down on hands and knees to inspect the spots she’d pointed to. The grass was too thin to hold an impression. He rested his palm gently on the dark, red soil and moved it carefully, feeling for a print. The area was flat.

He walked to the back of the property and noticed how thick the old pines were. A few appeared to have been uprooted by recent storms, but their neighbors propped them up.  Wouldn’t be much of a dragon if it could weave through there, he thought.

Daphne called to him from her back porch. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Yes ma’am, thanks! I’ll be right there.” He wondered if she wore a tinfoil helmet at night to ward off the booga-booga rays of the alien invaders from the seventh planet.

When he reached the porch, she handed him a tall glass of iced tea. He took a long pull and smiled. “That’s excellent.”

She nodded. “Well, do you think you can catch it? If you’re not up to it, tell me now. I don’t have much time to find someone else. I need it done tonight.”

Olin kept his expression even. “I think I can handle it.”

“How? Trap it?”

He suppressed a grin. “I don’t have anything with me that’d be big enough. I’ll have to build something. It’s hard to figure trap size when you only have a footprint to go by. Custom work costs a lot more.”

“No problem. I want it contained, but not harmed, for any reason. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. I’d like an estimate before you begin.”

He beamed at the prospect. “No problem.”

~*~

Working with odd parts salvaged from a variety of projects, Olin threw together a trap large enough for a rhino, though hardly strong enough to hold a determined rodent. The important thing, he decided, was to make it look like it might work. Conventional wisdom suggested that one should humor the deranged, and Daphne Stewart’s delusions qualified her as someone who needed a great deal of humoring. He felt a little guilty taking her money, but figured she had plenty. Besides, he had some endangered animals of his own which would greatly benefit.

He loaded the trap on his truck in sections and tossed in a box of assorted hardware to hold the pieces together. Daphne had insisted that he get something in place that night, and gave him an advance to cover initial expenses.

Olin returned to the estate to assemble the trap. Daphne helped him locate the route the dragon would most likely use, then stood nearby watching him work.

“It looks awful flimsy,” she said.

He nodded as he bolted sections of extruded aluminum together. “I know, but these modern materials are incredibly strong.” Shielding the work from her view with his body, Olin bent one of the bars sideways so that he could drill a new bolt hole. “The only thing I’m not sure of is the proper bait.”

Daphne responded quickly. “You aren’t puttin’ me in there!”

“Gosh, no!” Olin laughed. “I just don’t know what dragons eat. Got any ideas?”

Her response was low and ominous. “It eats anything it sees  as a threat. You’ve got to make it think I’m in there. You’re welcome to some of my work clothes. I’ve even got an old dress form to put them on. It wants me; you won’t need any other bait.” She paused. “You’ve worked with large animals before?”

“Plenty. Bears, wolves, hogs, even a couple big cats. But they don’t bother me as much as wild dogs do.”

She blinked. “Really?  Why?”

“Half the time you can’t tell if they’re wild or if they live with people but run with a pack at night. They’re smart, too; they can work together, like wolves.” He bolted the last section of the cage in place then stepped back to look at it. “I think this’ll do.”

Daphne’s expression was one of dubious concern. “I hope you’re right. That thing doesn’t look nearly big enough.”

“It’ll do fine, I’m sure.” He started packing his tools.

“I’ve fixed you a room for the night,” Daphne said.

Olin stopped, turned, and stared at her.

“Once you’ve captured it, I want you to be here to make sure it stays manageable.”

“Well, sure,” Olin said. “I just figured I’d drive over in the morning.”

“Nonsense. I insist.” She pointed to a window overlooking the trap. “That’s your room, right there. Next to mine.”

~*~

The four-poster bed reminded Olin of the house and its owner: old, and stout. He wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Sherman had slept there, then decided the old General wasn’t tough enough to get past Daphne.

He lay balanced in the warm furrow between snooze button and pillow when he heard a yell from outside. “We got it!”

Olin dragged himself from the bed and stumbled to the window. The sun hadn’t made it over the trees yet; the side yard remained in shadow. Olin couldn’t see anything clearly.

He yanked the window open and yelled, “I’ll be right down,” then tried to dress and walk at the same time, neither quite successfully. When he reached the side of the building, he spotted Daphne behind a tree. He looked past her at the cage and felt his blood pool in his boots.

The cage contained the biggest lizard he’d ever seen. It nearly filled the enclosure, forcing the walls to bow outward. Except for a blood-red mouth and tongue, it appeared entirely white–a monstrous, four-legged snake, covered in huge, bumpy scales like a layer of snowballs. A pair of leathery, white wings were folded close to the heavy, serpentine body.  Asleep, the monster didn’t appear terribly fierce.

Olin made a conscious effort to close his mouth. “It is a dragon!”

Daphne’s eyebrow dipped. “What’d you expect?”

“I, uh….”

“Are you sure that cage will hold?”

Olin looked at her without really seeing her. “Beats me.” He shook his head. “Every zoo on Earth is going to want that thing! Oh, my God–I’ve got to make some phone calls!”

He turned toward the house, but Daphne put a firm hand on his shoulder. “Hold on a minute. Who’re you going to call?”

“Are you kidding? Zoo Atlanta! No–San Diego. Or St. Louis. Hell, I don’t know! Who cares?”

“I do,” Daphne said. “I don’t think you should move it.”

“But, I thought you wanted to get rid of it.”

“Only temporarily.”

The beast shifted in the cage, and two bolts popped loose. “If I don’t do something quick, we won’t have to worry about it.” Olin pulled away and started toward the house. After a few steps, he stopped, turned, and watched Daphne jog into the woods. “Go figure,” he muttered.

The dragon shifted again and the soft aluminum shifted with it. Olin swallowed hard to get his heart back down his throat as the dragon stretched and shoved its head between the bars.

Olin tripped as he backpedaled. From the ground, looking over the toes of his boots, he watched as two huge, blood-red eyes blinked open and stared at him. The beast exhaled like a steam engine and lurched to its feet. The cage came apart as if the pieces were spring-loaded.

The dragon shook the wall of the cage from its neck and stretched again. Olin scrambled backward but only succeeded in getting the creature’s attention. As it ambled toward him, Olin got to his feet and raced for the house.

He rounded the corner of the porch and ducked inside, slamming the door behind him.  His knees shook so badly he could barely stand. When the trembling subsided, he sketched a rough design for a new cage, then phoned an order for supplies. He wanted carbon steel this time; aluminum was about as effective as paper-mâché.

Suddenly, it dawned on him that Daphne was still outside. Fearing the worst, he ran to one window after another, trying to spot the monster, praying that he would have time to warn Daphne before it caught up with her. With neither of them in sight, Olin resigned himself to going out in search of the woman.

After making sure the dragon wasn’t hanging around the driveway, Olin raced to his truck and climbed in. With luck, he’d be able to find a logging road or some other access to the woods. He didn’t relish the thought of sharing the area with a dragon. Still, he had to find Daphne. It wasn’t her fault he hadn’t believed her; he could have built a real cage.

He revved the engine and pulled the truck off the driveway onto the lawn. Concentrating on the wreckage of the first cage, he almost missed seeing Daphne when she ran into the basement. Even so, he only caught a glimpse of her, then shoved the truck into reverse and returned it to the driveway.

He re-entered the house through the front door and met a panting, sweaty Daphne standing in the hall at the top of the basement stairs. “Are you all right?” he asked. “The cage, it….”

Daphne eyed him balefully. “I thought it looked flimsy.”

Olin felt himself blush. “The next one will be better, I swear.”

Daphne moved slowly to a chair and slumped down into it. “I heard it coming through the woods as I was headed back. I got– I was able to hide before it smelled me. I don’t think it has very good eyesight. It’s getting old.”

“What are you talking about?”

She dragged sweat-plastered hair from her forehead. “I know it well. It comes back every– every once in a while.”

“And you’ve never reported it to anyone? That’s crazy.”

“Oh? And what would people call me if I tried to tell them there was a dragon living in my back yard?”

Olin scratched his head. “But if you had photos or something, they’d have to believe you.”

“Then what? They’d probably try to kill it.”

“I doubt that,” Olin said. “It’s priceless.”

Daphne snorted. “More than you can imagine.” She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. “I’m getting too old for this,” she said, then laughed. “The dragon shows up for a few days every thirty years or so. I don’t know why, exactly, but it does. It comes out at night, roams around, and then disappears during the day. It’s been showing up in our woods for generations, like a tradition. I don’t want it harmed; I only want it restrained temporarily.”

“But–”

“That’s the deal. Accept it, or leave.”

Olin agreed.

~*~

The driver who brought Olin’s supplies insisted on payment before he would unload.  Daphne took care of it, and the materials were deposited on top of the remains of the first cage.

Daphne remained inside while Olin worked. This time he welded all the joints and used tubular COR-TEN steel. He concentrated on simplicity and brute strength. The trap was essentially the same as he’d built for bears and other large animals, only much bigger. The long summer day made it possible for him to finish just as it was turning dark.

Daphne helped him camouflage the enclosure; they baited it with more of her work clothes.

“Why do you suppose it comes after you?” Olin asked.

Daphne didn’t answer. Instead, she examined the locking mechanism. “How does this work?”

“You said you wanted it released, but I didn’t think you’d want to get too close to do it.  That gizmo works like a garage door opener; you can open the cage from inside the house.”

“Clever,” she said. “I like that.”

~*~

Daphne woke Olin the next morning by knocking on his door. When he answered, she presented him with a huge smile and breakfast on a tray. “Congratulations–you caught her again! And this time it looks like the cage will hold.”

“Her? How do you know it’s female?”

Daphne smiled. “Trust me; a woman can tell.”

Olin shrugged. It was hard to think with all the sausage, eggs, grits, and biscuits piled on the tray. The odor of so much southern cooking mellowed his usually more suspicious nature.

“I’ll be tied up again most of the day,” said Daphne. “But I’d like you to stay around here and keep an eye on our guest.” She slipped the cage opener in her pocket. “See you tonight.”

~*~

The dragon made a brief attempt to break free but gave up and went to sleep when the cage held. Olin spent the day watching the creature. He made sketches of it, concentrating on the head, legs, and wings. The more he studied it, the more fascinated he became. The day seemed to pass in a matter of moments. When Daphne called him, he was reluctant to leave.

“You want some dinner?” she asked. “I’ve been eating all day, so I’m not hungry, but I fixed something for you.” She held up a platter of fried chicken.

Olin laughed. “Were you expecting the Third Army?”

“I wanted to be sure there was enough.”

As Olin ate, he remembered the animals at home and told her about them. “I’ve got to feed ’em,” he said.

Daphne cleared the dishes. “No problem. Just come back when you’re done. I feel a lot safer with you in the house.”

The round trip took less than an hour. Olin parked his truck and walked around to the side of the house for a last look at the dragon. It was awake but immobile. The cage seemed cruelly small. He began to envision what it would take to build a comfortable habitat for the dragon, then realized he’d never have enough money to afford its construction. He walked back to the house, dejected.

Daphne met him at the door. “I was about to turn in,” she said. “Make sure the doors are locked before you go to bed.”

Olin nodded and Daphne waddled down the hall to her room. He sat at the kitchen table reviewing the sketches he’d done during the day. His mind wandered back to thoughts of a bigger cage. He might not be able to afford it, but Daphne could. He guessed she probably had more money than she could count.

He walked down the hallway and noticed the door to her room standing slightly open.  Peeking through, he saw Daphne standing near the window in a heavy bathrobe.

He cleared his throat and she turned, the cage door opener in her hand. Suddenly worried, Olin rushed to the window and looked out at the empty cage. “What’d you do that for?”

Daphne put the control on a nightstand and sat on her bed. Her shoulders slumped. “I can explain.”

Olin stared at her, speechless.

“It has to be free at night,” she said. “That’s when it lays its eggs. C’mon, follow me.”

Olin trailed behind as Daphne walked through the house, then  downstairs to the basement. She stopped in a makeshift kitchen and untwisted the wire tie from a plastic trash bag. She held it open. The smell of sulfur was overpowering; Olin pulled away quickly. “What is it?”

“Eggshell. The dragon lays one egg each night. I collect it, cook it, and eat it. It takes nearly all day.”

“But, why?”

“‘Cause they’re so damn big!”

“No, I meant, why do you eat them at all?”

She exhaled wearily. “In every clutch of eggs the dragon lays, one has the power to restore youth. But I can’t tell which of the eggs is the one, so I have to eat them all. I’m not looking any younger, so I know I haven’t found it yet.”

Olin stared at her, tempted to shrug off her explanation as lunacy, just as he had when she tried to point out the dragon tracks in the yard. “If you can eat one of these eggs and live forever, why do you have to keep doing it?”

“Eating the one restores youth–it turns back the clock, but it doesn’t stop it.  I age normally. The dragon returns to the nest every thirty years or so. If I miss it, then I have to wait another thirty years and get older all the while. I can’t risk waiting that long.”

“Why tell me any of this? Why not just steal the eggs like you have before?”

“Modern living–I’m in terrible shape. I can’t run very far, or very fast. The dragon is getting older too, but she can still beat me. I’m afraid she’ll catch me. I need your help.”  She paused. “I’ll share it with you.”

Olin shrugged. “I’m only twenty-five; I’m exactly as old as I want to be.”

Daphne began to weep. “You’ve got to help me, please. I’ll pay you, any amount.”

“Cash?”

“Yes.”

“A million dollars?”

Daphne’s eyes grew large. “I couldn’t raise that much if I sold everything I own. I could manage a half million maybe, would that be enough? I’ll give you a down payment, tomorrow, as much as I can get from the bank.”

Olin entertained visions of high fences around his preserve and proper habitats for his animals. He smiled. “That’ll do.”

“Good. But I’m worried about something else. Even though the dragon isn’t terribly bright, it’s probably caught on to the trap by now. I doubt it’ll fall for it again.”

Olin nodded. “Maybe we need to change the bait.” He looked at the trash bag. “And I know just the thing.”

~*~

The next morning, Olin was up first. He took a deep breath, stepped to the window, and looked out. When he saw the dragon back in the cage he exhaled. He pounded the wall between his room and Daphne’s. “Guess who’s back?” he yelled.

She met him in the hall. “Wonderful! Give me a minute to change and we’ll go get the egg.”

“We?”

“Of course. I’m tired of doing this all by myself.”

They left through the basement and went straight to the woods. The trail wound between ancient pines and led to a secluded spot of high ground. “Here we are,” she said.

Olin saw nothing but the earth mound. “Here we are, what?”

“Can’t you see the nest? It’s right in front of you.”

Olin shook his head.

Daphne frowned momentarily, then brightened. “It’s probably ’cause you’ve never eaten any of the eggs. It must do something for your vision. Did I tell you I can see auras?”

Olin shook his head again, baffled.

“I can tell a lot about a person’s character by their aura,” she said. “They can be quite revealing. It’s why I was willing to let a complete stranger like you spend the night in my home. Your aura is blue–I knew you could be trusted.”

“I still can’t see the nest,” Olin said.

“Never mind. Just give me a boost.” Daphne approached the high ground and put her palms flat on the top, chest high. She raised one leg and waited until Olin stepped closer.  “Ready?”

“Sure.” Olin struggled to mask his skepticism. Daphne bounced experimentally on one leg, then cried, “Go!”

Olin grabbed a double handful of Daphne’s ample posterior and heaved her over the top. She sprawled on her stomach but sat up laughing. “You just saved me half an hour!  Wait there.”

Olin watched as she took a few steps toward the center of the mound and disappeared. “Are you okay?”

“Sure,” she yelled back. “I’ll just be a minute.”

When she reappeared, walking toward him, she held a large, powder-blue egg close to her chest. She put it on the ground and slid over the edge. Olin caught her, and they headed back.

“This is the part I hate,” Daphne said. “We’ll be fine if the dragon’s sleeping. If not, she won’t be happy to see us.”

They discovered the dragon was wide awake as they crossed the lawn to the basement. With a roar that vibrated Olin’s sternum, the creature tried to stand.

Enraged, the dragon continued to bellow and struggle against the cage. When that didn’t work, it stabbed its huge snout between the bars and pushed.

Olin and Daphne were close to the house when it roared its anger once again. Olin turned in time to see the beast force its awesome head between the bars. A second cry of rage and frustration was cut off abruptly as the abused steel snapped back into position, pinching the dragon’s neck.

“Quick!”  Daphne opened the basement door. “The sooner we’re out of sight, the sooner it’ll calm down.”

“I don’t know,” Olin said. “I think she’s stuck.”

“She’ll be okay; she’s tough.” Daphne set the egg on the counter and filled a large pot with water. She struggled to put the pot on the stove, then fired the gas burner beneath it.

Olin felt queasy. “You’re going to boil it?”

She nodded. “It makes them easier to shell. Besides, it’s the only way I can stand to eat them.”

“I’m worried about the dragon,” he said. “It’s hung up in the bars.”

“Then go; check on it, if you’re so concerned.”

Olin went upstairs first and looked at the creature from his bedroom window. It wasn’t moving.

He went outside and cautiously approached the cage. The animal still didn’t move. He crept as close as he dared and touched it with a stick he’d found on the ground. No movement. He put his palm near the monster’s nose to feel for its breath. There was none.

Steeling his nerve, Olin stepped close enough to pry open one of its eyelids. A film had already begun to form; the flesh had already begun to cool.

He ran back into the basement. Daphne stood beside the stove ready to immerse the huge egg.

“It’s dead,” Olin said, feeling impossibly weary.

“You’re mistaken!”

“I wish I was. It stuck its head between the bars and choked to death.”

“Are you sure it’s not just sleeping?”

“I might not have finished Vet school,” Olin said, “but I know a dead animal when I see it.”

Daphne lowered the egg to the counter. “Then, if this isn’t the one, I’m doomed.”

Olin stepped closer. “Wait! Why couldn’t we hatch it? We’d have another dragon.”

“Maybe,” Daphne said. “If it hatches. If it survives. If it’s female. On the other hand, if it’s the one, it’ll work now.”

“But for how long?”

“I knew it had to end someday.” She reached for the egg.

“But what if it’s not the one? Then you’ve destroyed our last chance.”

Our last chance?”

“Yours, ours, anybody’s!”

“The hell with it.” Daphne swept up the egg and slipped it into the boiling water.

“No!” Olin scrambled toward the pot and thrust both hands in. Gritting his teeth, he forced his hands deeper into the water, but the pain was unbearable. With a sharp curse, he pulled away from the pot and stumbled to the sink. Daphne already had the cold water running.

With tears of pain and frustration rolling down his face, Olin stared at her. “Are you insane?”

Daphne frowned. “Maybe.” She reached into a cabinet and rummaged around briefly before producing a tube of antiseptic cream which she put on the counter. “You’re going to need this.”

Olin nodded, still overcome by the destruction of the egg. He couldn’t shake the feeling of utter wretchedness. He had often felt a sense of loss when reading about species driven to extinction, but this was the first time he’d ever participated in it. The dragon had only wanted to protect its young. He’d not only stopped her, he’d built the contraption which killed her. The realization left him weak. He struggled to find something he could salvage from it. “The body! We should contact a museum or a university–someone should study it, at least.”

“Leave it,” she said. “I’ll dispose of it somehow. I don’t need a bunch of people crawling all over the place. The world isn’t ready for dragons–even dead ones.”

“You are crazy,” he said. He considered her words as he smeared ointment on his scalded arms, and a new thought came to him–he’d been groping in the wrong place. He fought to keep the excitement from his voice. “But I know what you mean about not wanting strangers on your land; I’m real familiar with that.”

Daphne peered into the boiling water as Olin walked to the door. “I’m going to get some of my gear,” he said.

“Take anything you need.”  She looked up at him. “You know, I’m kind of glad this is nearly over. Even if this isn’t the one, I feel free. My life won’t center around that damn dragon anymore.”

Olin waved and walked back toward the cage. As he approached the huge white carcass, he pulled out his pocketknife and tried to recall everything he knew about the reproductive systems of reptiles.

~*~

Olin faced the Sheriff; it had been six months since the time limit ran out.

“The thing about exotic animals that people tend to forget,” Olin said, “is that most wild animals have very specific habitats. You can remove them for a time, but eventually, they have to be returned.”

“Or destroyed,” the Sheriff said. He looked at the 10-foot high, reinforced, chain link fence Olin had installed. “You had any more problems with wild dogs or other trespassers?”

“Not since I put up the fence,” Olin said. Daphne’s generous fee had covered the cost. Olin never told her about the three eggs he’d removed from the dragon, two of which hatched.

He watched the Sheriff get in his car and drive away. When he was out of sight, Olin walked to the center of his property, where a large, flat earth mound was shielded by close-growing pines.

The little white dragons in the nest looked up at him in anticipation. Olin wondered how old they might be before they could mate, then fed them another bite of the last wild dog that tried to attack the preserve. The dragons were developing quite a taste for canine.

~End~

 

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Where Should A Story Start? (Encore)

poo-pumperA story starts at the beginning, right? <cue uproarious laughter> Well, yeah, it should. The problem is, most neophyte novelists think they have to supply a dump truck load of information about their character and his or her situation before they actually get to the “good stuff.” That great, ugly pile of effervescent background info is referred to as backstory. Please understand–and I won’t sugarcoat this–no one gives a crap about it. Not now, anyway.

Later? Maybe. If delivered in small doses. A better definition of “beginning” is probably in order. For most novels, and I’m referring to genre novels, not “minimalist” or so-called “literary” fiction**, a story begins at the point where things are no longer the same. It’s when something has changed, and from that moment on, the status quo no longer applies.

[**Please note: I don’t have anything against minimalist and/or literary fiction; I just don’t write it, much less read it. Nor, for that matter, do I understand why anyone else reads it. That probably just defines my own pedestrian desires for entertaining material featuring characters I can care about. Hand me 300 pages of teen angst, navel contemplation, or the deeper meaning of fashion footwear, and I’ll leave empty-handed.]

In my classes, I present the seven parts of a good story. The first three of those should appear in the story opening: a person, in a place, with a problem. It’s nice to have a personality trait, too, as it can lend credibility to the character’s problem without requiring a great deal of added detail. These three essentials are often listed as character, setting, and conflict. It’s the same stuff, I simply prefer the alliterative version. (“Person” in this case is a major character, but not necessarily a human one, especially if you’re writing science fiction, horror, fantasy, or some other genre that features other life forms. One of my students wrote a wonderful story about a sentient log cabin that got its jollies by tormenting the folks who rented it for vacations. Great stuff!)

The problem (or conflict) may or may not be the primary driving force for that character, and it certainly doesn’t have to be the main problem to be resolved by the tale’s end. What matters is that the player has something he or she must deal with immediately. It could be a life and death issue, or it could be something much less dire. Consider: Melody Mayhem finally gets a job interview with Fabulous Fashions and discovers her shoes don’t match. Or maybe Curious Cal discovers the hard way why his Dad told him never to play with the power cables in his laboratory. Or, as Hunky Henry prepares for his championship wrestling match, he discovers someone has stolen his lucky jockstrap. Whatever.

The goal of the opening is to establish some sort of rapport between reader and character. If a writer can make a reader feel some measure of sympathy for a character’s plight, then half the battle has been won–the reader will almost certainly continue reading.

On the other hand, if the writer descends into details about what led up to the opening issue–Melody Mayhem’s obsession with design, her years of schooling, her parent’s desire to wear nothing but sweatsuits or polyester, for example–the reader will almost certainly quit reading. Game over.

I can already hear the plaintive whine, “But it’s all really, really important stuff!” I’m sure it is, and if you’re patient and persistent, you’ll find a way to work it in, painlessly, I hope.

17667979_ml-detailsBackstory should be doled out like bad-tasting medicine. You’re only doing it because it’s “good” for the reader. And I’m absolutely certain it has nothing to do with your desire to expose them to every last possible nuance which might have some bearing on your character’s attitude or actions. Right? Puh-leeze.

Your best bet is to manufacture sneaky ways to get the information into the story. Flashbacks can be effective, provided they don’t consist of: She remembered how it used to be, back in ’02, when she entered junior high and noticed for the first time that the other girls weren’t wearing sneakers from Crud-Mart. In fact, none of them dressed like her at all. Followed by umpteen pages of fashion faux pas and adolescent regret.

If you can resist the temptation to bore your readers to distraction, be happy with the first two sentences of that example. A few more careful hints will serve to let readers know what driving force propels Miz Mayhem toward her destiny.

You can toss little memory gems into conversation; you can leave mementos of past incidents scattered around; you can incorporate scars–physical or otherwise. Use your imagination. That’s what real novelists do!

Write on!

–Josh

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A Tale of Two Covers

In the beginning, there was a complaint. It went something along the lines of, “Y’know, I’ve never been able to find a novel about a garden club.” Seven months later, I finished writing one. Then came the hard part.

What would the cover for a book called Garden Clubbed look like?

The story features not one garden club, but two, and they’re in competition. One’s rural, the other’s a bit more cosmopolitan. They tangle over a ridiculous gardening contest, and their surprising plan to resolve the issue plays out against a backdrop of romance, con artistry, and double-dealing.  It takes place in the deep, deep South, a locale normally absent of big-city problems, yet one which still manages to get embroiled with a drug cartel and the National Guard.

All of which, of course, is delivered with a healthy dose of humor.

So, what goes on the cover? What’s the main selling point of this novel? Who’s the primary audience? What should the cover “say”?

I had no idea.

My first two efforts didn’t please anyone. Even my bride rolled her eyes when she saw them, and she’s normally eager to be in my corner. I finally settled on two elements: flowers and humor. I also realized that I have two very different markets. The first consists of garden club folk. The demographic suggests most people in this category are older and female. The second market is pretty much everyone else who might enjoy an entertaining tale.

When at long last I put together a cover scheme that worked reasonably well for the general market, the most common refrain I heard was that it likely wouldn’t do well with the garden club set. That cover is on the left. Good for one market, terrible for the other.

Back to the drawing board.

More humor. Less drama. Don’t portray anything that might be construed as negative about gardeners or garden club members.

Oy.

Eventually, I recalled some of the covers used on Karl Hiaasen’s books. I’ve often been told that our writing styles are similar. We both write about the South, and we both love to portray slightly oddball characters in whacky situations. So, what do his covers look like?

For many of his titles, the covers are fairly plain. Some of the illustrations are either cartoons or appear cartoonish, yet the stories are anything but. So I tried my hand at a similar kind of cover–simple and slightly cartoonish. After a few false starts, I had something I hoped might work. Here ’tis, on the right.

The problem remains, however. Neither cover is likely to work for both markets. The answer, I’ve decided, is to come up with two completely different marketing plans. One will feature the first cover, while efforts to reach the garden club set will feature the second one. (I’ll have to remove the Special Edition line on Cover One, but that’s an easy fix.)

Am I crazy? Probably.

Feel free to let me know what you think.

–Josh

 

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