Some (stupid?) things that keep writers awake at night

You’ve just finished chapter twenty-something. You’re feeling good about yourself. The story is coming along; the players are performing well, and there’s a better-than-even chance you’ll beat your deadline, assuming you have one.

If you’re self-publishing you might be wondering why you don’t have one. What’s your plan? When will it be done? Why didn’t you give yourself a deadline when you started?

If you’re writing a book as part of a contract with a publisher, you most certainly will have a deadline. Is it reasonable? If not, why did you agree with it? Did you fight for better terms? Should you have gotten an agent,or if you have one, should you look for a better one?

It’s far more likely, however, that what’s keeping you up at night has something to do with your work in progress. The questions that keep rolling around in your head feature things you normally wouldn’t think about. For instance, let’s say you’ve told the bulk of your tale using a first-person character (“I thought this…” or “I did that.” etc.) named Albert.

So, good ol’ Albert opens the story as a decent chap, one most readers will react to sympathetically. That’s almost always a good thing. But as the tale unfolds, you slowly realize that in order to make certain subplots work, Albert needs to move toward the dark side, and a different character needs to become the protagonist, and now you need to let poor ol’ Al take a dirt nap.

But wait! If most of the story is told in first-person, doesn’t that imply to the reader that the storyteller will survive until the last page?

Maybe, maybe not. Storyteller survival to the end of the book is most likely the norm, but quite a few authors have figured out how to get around the tricky business of having a dead character continue in the role of narrator, at least, if not working as a ghost. Union rules don’t apply here.

The alternative is to go back through all those twenty-something chapters and recast your first-person character in third-person (“He thought this…” or “He did that.” etc.).

Novelists tend to think of bizarre things from time to time. A writer friend had a character break out a box of day-old doughnuts in his story. That set me to thinking of ways to kill off a bad guy using something similar. That brought to mind the concept widely known as “Chekov’s Gun.” Simply stated, it means you can’t shoot a player in scene two unless you’ve introduced the gun in scene one.

Suddenly, a fractured version of that idea began churning my few remaining brain cells around something I thought of as “Chekov’s Doughnut.” It was good for a couple hours of nonsleep, at least.

This, I realize, represents a miserly few of the often stupid things that occupy writers’ minds while they’re trying to sleep. So, if you run into a writer who looks like he or she hasn’t enjoyed a good forty or fifty, undisturbed winks lately, be kind. If not, you might find yourself in their next epic.

Just sayin’…

–Josh

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What was I thinking? Seriously? Part 1

Why would anyone choose the writing life? Damn good question! And I’m still not sure I’ll be able to answer it logically. But, the idea made me want to delve into the backgrounds of my books–the ones I’ve written all by my ownsome. Why did I write what I wrote? What was going on at the time? What did I really have in mind? This series will attempt to answer those questions. Fair warning: it’s going to take a lot more than one measly post.

So, to begin….

Fresh on the heels of my fourth collaboration with Canadian writer, Barbara Galler-Smith, I felt it was well past the time for me to write my first solo novel. When working with Barb, we adhered to a protocol that required us to outline everything before we wrote anything. And it worked, for a while. For a long while, actually, until one or the other of us got bitten by the inspiration bug and introduced a new character, conundrum, or crisis.

Then it was back to the drawing board to examine the outline to see just how far off track the new issue would throw us, assuming we both liked the new idea. As I recall, that wasn’t always the case. Anyway, by the time we got everything worked out, written–and in the case of one entire volume–re-written, we were done. By my estimate, it took seventeen (yep, 17) years from the time we started until the third book in our trilogy was finally published. Most of that time was NOT spent looking for a publisher, though we talked to several. (The titles in that series are: Druids, Captives, and Warriors, all published by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.)

Weary of such a massive undertaking, we took a shot at collaborating on something much, much smaller, a romantic comedy set in Wales. That one took less than a year. Under Saint Owain’s Rock came out in the fall of 2011. We both liked the book, but I believe we were both tired of working together. When we started, we had different strengths, different outlooks, and different tastes. As writers, we both grew. We both learned a lot (and that’s a monstrous understatement). It was time for a change.

So, while still wrapping up the details in my last collaboration with Barb, I wrote my very first solo novel, Ressurection Blues. I managed to put the whole thing together in about nine weeks–start to finish. The two books came out one month apart.

Is one story better than the other? I don’t believe so. I think they’re both fun reads, and if one can believe the reviews, readers like them both. That said, the two stories couldn’t be much different. Aside from one being set in the British Isles and the other in rural Alabama, they both feature very small towns. In Owain’s Rock, the townsfolk are looking for public exposure and tourism; in Blues, the townsfolk revel in anonymity. The last thing they want is to be discovered by anyone!

Blues gave me the opportunity to experiment with new character types. More importantly, I no longer had to compromise–on anything. That sped things up immensely. I dug around in my own history; I thought about the things I most admired by other writers, notably Robert Heinlein. I got to tell a story that presented a wide range of possibilities, all based on libertarian principles. More than anything else, I found joy in exercising my imagination. In short, I was having a blast.

Did I make mistakes? Sure. Plenty of them. But far fewer than if I hadn’t spent so many years working with Barb and other members of our first writing group, The Imps (short for Writers Impatiently Waiting to be Published).

So, in case you missed either of these GREAT stories, NOW is the time to correct the oversights. Starting tomorrow, January 16, 2023, and running through midnight on January 20, 2023, you can download free copies of both books from Amazon. Here are the links:

Ressurection BluesClick here.

Under Saint Owain’s RockClick here.

With any luck, I’ll be back next time to chat about my second novel, Treason, Treason!

Meanwhile, look for discounted pricing on all my paperbacks in the next few weeks.

Happy New Year!

–Josh

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What the hell were they thinking?

We’ve all been there. We’re wandering through a bookstore–could be gigantic, could be a small, local operation–the shelves are loaded to the max on either side, and we stumble across a book that looks interesting. We buy it, take it home, read half of it, and never look at it again, except to throw it out or give it to a charity so some other poor slob can be suckered in and then disappointed. Some charity.

Or maybe we’re wandering virtually, through the endless digital bookshelves at Amazon. We may or may not have an author in mind. We might not even care what genre a writer works in so long as the story, the cover, or the blurb on the back catches our eye. We’re looking for something; we’re just not sure what.

And then we see it. And one question pops instantly into our heads: What the hell were they thinking?

It’s a book, right? Probably. But I doubt I’d read it. Then again, there’s something about it… Maybe it’s the possibility I won’t be able to get the image out of my head. Whoever produced this must have had a story in mind.

I dunno. Maybe not.

Bad book covers are nothing new. I presume that’s because bad taste is nothing new. I don’t have enough knowledge of genetics to know if bad taste is an inherited trait or not. My guess is that it’s driven more by environment.

The idea, however, drove me to look for some really bad covers that came out in the past. To my surprise, there were quite a few. I’ve taken the liberty of selecting three for your edification.

To wit:

There’s bound to be some historical, regional, and/or social background information that might explain these covers to readers attuned to current marketing. Still, I can’t help but grin when I see them. It makes me think I couldn’t possibly do worse.

That’s something, isn’t it?

–Josh

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Blast from the past: new year; new classes; old book

I wrote this post originally in 2014, just as the new year had begun, and at the time I felt like I was coughing on the exhaust fumes from the bus leaving me behind. Gotta catch up! Gotta catch– Gotta– Guh.

54-heres-johnnyI no longer have classes at ELM, a noble institution unable to survive the pandemic. However, I’m still set to teach my fellow seniors at Kennesaw State University via OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Just need to brush off the syllabi from the last session, update as needed, and get ready for some fresh new minds to corrupt. Heh, heh. Here I come, kiddies!

On the writing front, I struggled with a new book.  A third of the story would be contemporary; the rest would take place 12,000 years earlier, but not far away geographically. ‘Course, things have changed a bit in the interim. The temperature around here a dozen millennia back was five to ten degrees cooler and much drier (if there had been a Savannah back then, it would’ve been–are you ready?–pleasant in August). The landscape featured a good deal of open grassland punctuated by oak and pine forests, which all sounds pretty familiar. If you’ve ever driven through south and central Georgia, you know what I mean.

But the biggest difference was the population. It consisted of relatively few people, mostly scattered bands of 20 to 50, which moved from place to place in search of food. I’m guessing they looked for other things too, like entertainment and companionship–things we wouldn’t ordinarily associate with the idea of daily life among the Paleoindian set–and that was the essence of the new book. The 12,000-year-old Whisper came out in October of 2015. Here’s the link. If you haven’t read it yet, quit waiting! It’s one helluva story.

Glyptodont-04-web

Mom feeds toddler to glyptodont, unaware that
A) they were herbivorous, and B) this one’s plastic.

The non-human cast consists of some interesting, but now extinct, critters like the Glyptodont, an armadillo built on the scale of a Volkswagon Beetle. But it didn’t forage alone; there were a variety of other formidable veggie noshers like giant ground sloths, camels, horses, and my personal faves, the mammoths.

Can you imagine what it must have been like back then, having so many magnificent creatures in one place, without fences or moats, or signs reminding us not to feed them? After getting by on squirrels or fish and a tuber or two, it’s understandable that our paleo-ancestors may have hungered for a few thousand slothburgers every now and then. That said, I’m not a member of the “Damned People Killed ’em All” school when it comes to explaining what happened to those big life forms. Africa, after all, still boasts some pretty large and amazing creatures, despite their having to share the continent with a human population that’s been expanding for a long, long time.

One of the things I find most interesting about the topic of paleo-anything is how the experts often hang on to ideas that have been passed down for generations, even if the logic behind them has been discredited. History is studded with examples: Gallileo, Copernicus, Darwin, and Flibnitz to name a few. (Flibnitz? Okay, he was a complete nob, an utter douche canoe, and nobody believed him. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong. Right?)

In 1967, palynologist and geochronologist Paul Martin decreed that “…man, and man alone, was responsible” for the extinctions. Lots of people agreed. Lots of people ignored him. Lots more hung on to other explanations, like climate change, disease, and natural disasters, including the 2006 theory that comet strikes wiped the megafauna out.

I had neither the time nor the patience to debate the issue. I had a book to finish, and some parts of it, though I didn’t know which at the time, would address the topic. It also addressed a more localized question: in lieu of archeological evidence, how likely is it that some of those cave painting of mammothsuper-sized critters lived around here (suburban Atlanta, Georgia) 12,000 years ago? Did our ancestors rub elbows with giant tapirs, dire wolves, and short-faced bears? How about some of those gigantic tuskers with the Rastafarian-style dreads?

Why the heck not?

And that’s where book ideas come from.

Anyway, in case you missed it (shame on you), I’ve thoughtfully provided a photo of the cover below. Please don’t wait to get your copy until after the inevitable price increase. Thank you, inflation.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Wisper cover update

–Josh

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A Kirkus Review!

This will be a fairly short post, and I realize it’s coming out a wee bit later than usual. However, I’m pretty stoked about it, and I wanted to share it with everyone in case they missed it. Here’s a review of my latest book from Kirkus, one of the most well-respected organizations doing reviews of independently published material.

Below is a screenshot from the Kirkus page about Hyde and Zeke, available from Amazon (and possibly other outlets down the road).

At just a hair under 80,000 words, Hyde and Zeke is a story that should appeal to a very wide audience. It touches on a variety of genres, most notably science fiction and suspense, but adds a dash of horror and a healthy dose of humor as well.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have a fabulous holiday season!

–Josh

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The Worst Christmas Ever

Darby Flynn grimaced as he packed the last of his collection of chubby, stuffed gnomes into a box for the return home. A new departmental edict banned all such decorations. Instead, each worker was given a replica of the eagle which appeared on the dollar bill and the presidential seal. It clutched arrows in one set of claws and an olive branch in the other. The birds stood on black, plastic pedestals and came in silver, copper, or gold depending on the rank of the worker to which it was given.

“I can’t believe he’s done this,” Darby Jones complained to his equally dismayed co-worker, Agnes McGee. “I’ve put my little collection up in my cubicle every year since I started working here. Nobody ever complained.”

“That was all before the new boss arrived,” Agnes said.

Darby glanced around before responding, “He should change his name to Grinch.”

“Or Scrooge,” replied Agnes, a woman who’d occupied the cubicle next to his for several years.

“I’ll say this for his appointment.” Darby checked again to make sure no one else could hear him. “They picked the right guy for the job. I don’t know of anyone who hates the holidays more than Simon St. John.”

“A saint, he ain’t.” Agnes pursed her lips. “Have you seen the list of charges he drew up? The so-called crimes he intends to prosecute?”

“Crimes? Seriously?”

Agnes ticked them off on her fingers one-by-one, “Breaking and entering, illegal trespass, flying an unlicensed aircraft through restricted airspace, and that’s not all.”

Darby clenched his jaws. “I was only aware of the first one, but I didn’t really believe it.”

“Oh, it’s real all right, but that wasn’t enough for St. John. He’s also working on labor law infractions; he’s got a team pouring over OSHA rules and regs, and he’s appointed someone to draft a major complaint about discrimination.”

“You’re kidding,” Darby said. “Discrimination?”

“According to St. John, the old guy only hires elves, nobody over three feet tall, give or take.”

“But—”

“And then there are charges of animal cruelty. Something to do with reindeer working extended hours in all kinds of weather. He’s even got somebody working on that.”

“We have to do something,” Darby said. “This is crazy. If he’s allowed to continue, he’ll destroy the holidays!”

Agnes exhaled. “Maybe, maybe not, but he’d for sure destroy the commercial side of things. People will still have the freedom of religion. They just won’t have… You know… The whole North Pole thing.”

“C’mon, Agnes, think about it—no more kids carrying their wish lists to the mall for a visit with old Saint Nick. Instead, it’ll be ‘Celebrate the season with Santa in Cell Block C.’”

“But we’ll still have the religious side,” she insisted, though her voice betrayed a lack of conviction. “And we’ll still be able to exchange presents.”

 Darby shook his head. “I’m not sure about that. Just the other day I heard our ‘dear leader’ complaining about the vast inequity of gift-giving. He thinks there ought to be some federal guidelines about who gets what, and how much anyone should spend.”

“Bureaucrats already have a dreadful reputation, but Simon St. John will add a whole new layer of—” Agnes abruptly went silent.

Darby took the hint and tried to appear casual as he turned his head to see what had caused Agnes to go silent. A pair of men in plain black suits and dark glasses had entered the room. They walked purposefully between the rows of cubicles, peering intently over the low walls as if looking for intruders. Occasionally, one or the other would adjust the bald eagle decorations adorning each of the work spaces.

“What’re they doing?” Agnes asked, but Darby remained silent.

When the two men reached them, they stopped and examined the security badges Agnes and Darby wore. One of them made a gesture to the other, who looked into the box on Darby’s desk.

“Thought so,” he said. “Pick that up and come with us. Now.”

“I packed ‘em up as soon as I heard about the new—”

“Shut up, and do as you’re told,” the man said, his voice cold and flat.

“You can’t talk to him like that,” Agnes said as she put her hand on Darby’s arm.

“Looks like you’ll be coming along, too,” the other man said.

“What? Why? What have we done?”

“It’s an obvious case of conspiracy. You’ve virtually indicted yourselves by discussing plans to disrupt the Seasonal Reality Statutes.”

“That’s absurd!” Darby exclaimed. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”

“That’s not how Commissioner St. John will see it,” the first man said. “Hope you weren’t planning anything special in the next few weeks. You’ll be confined to units in the Attitude Assimilation dorms.”

“I have to call my husband,” Agnes said.

Darby chimed in, “And I need to call my wife!”

“That won’t be necessary. We’ll advise your emergency contacts about your status.”

~*~

“So, Jonesy, what’d yer old man think of the new UIVR?”

Darby Jones, Jr. lowered his head. “Dad said it sucks, and whoever invented Ultimate Immersive Virtual Reality should be shot, or worse.”

“I’m guessing he didn’t have a fun trip.” Darby Junior’s friend, Louie, chuckled. “Which scenario did you give him?”

“The St. John thing. I mean, it made sense to me, ‘cause Dad’s always complaining about the commercialization of Christmas.”

“Oh, man. That’s a tough one to start with. I hope you gave him the code word so he could break out of the storyline.”

“Actually, no. In all the Christmas morning excitement I sorta forgot.”

“Oh, geez. What’d he do?”

“Other than ground me until Spring Break?”

“Seriously? Until Spring Break? That’s like months from now!”

“He said it was only because grounding me for life wasn’t an option. And he said it right after he smashed my UIVR headset with a sledgehammer.”

~End~

I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season and a healthy, happy New Year.

–Josh

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Taco Logic (Encore)

Here’s a fable from my short story collection Who Put Scoundrels In Charge? (Available here.) I’d love for this to become required reading for anyone studying economics and/or political science. What do you think?

“Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.” ~Fulton J. Sheen

No one could make a taco like Antonio, though many tried. His shells were so thin and light and crisp that only he could load one without crushing it. His lettuce was always green and fresh, his tomatoes always firm and ripe. Some say that the angels made his cheese and most agreed that if heaven had a taste, one could find it at Antonio’s humble stand.

Every day, long before Noon, Antonio would push his cart to the side of the plaza near the bell tower and prepare his ingredients. The people who worked near the plaza loved the aroma of his corn tortillas as they baked. Hours later, when the other vendors arrived, Antonio gave each of them a cheery greeting.

“Ola,” he said to Enrique, the sausage vendor.

“Buenos dias!” he cried to Olivero, the maker of pies.

“Como esta?” he inquired of big Rosita, who could eat a burrito for every one she sold, and often did.

Enrique only scowled, and Olivero turned away. Rosita would nod, but rarely spoke, for she and the others had made a pact. They knew that good luck accounted for Antonio’s perpetual cheeriness. He must have had many advantages as a child since everything he touched turned out so well. It clearly wasn’t fair, and so they decided to teach him a lesson. They agreed to ignore him as long as he refused to change his attitude. They had each other; it would be enough.

But after several weeks nothing changed–Antonio remained the same. So did the lunch lines, which stretched farther from his cart than any others. He didn’t have all the customers, of course. Some people simply couldn’t take the time to stand in Antonio’s line, and those from out of town didn’t know any better. A few simply didn’t like tacos, even if they did taste like heaven.

Since the pact failed to change anything, the others formed a guild. Enrique and Olivero named it The Brotherhood of Plaza Vendors. Olivero even designed a noble banner with words in somber black and a drawing of a man baking meat pies. Enrique liked the banner because he thought the pies looked like sausages. Rosita argued against the word “Brotherhood,” but finally settled for “Fellowship,” though it didn’t sound exactly right. She agreed to the drawing since the man in it wore an apron and could just as easily have been a woman, albeit a big one. Besides, she thought the pies looked like burritos.

They called to order the first meeting of the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors in Rosita’s home one morning about two weeks before the annual Harvest Festival. Working very hard, the three decided on all the important rules, including the one about membership. Anyone who attended the charter meeting automatically qualified as a charter member; anyone who joined later must pay a fee. That would show Antonio, who was too busy worrying about himself to attend the meeting.

The members of the Fellowship pushed their carts close together on the side of the plaza away from the bell tower. They erected their impressive banner and explained to anyone who would listen how they had organized for the betterment of the entire plaza. Oddly enough, the lines remained longer in front of Antonio’s cart.

“Perhaps he is closer to the fountain,” said Enrique, “and the people do not have to go so far to get a drink.”

“That may be,” said Rosita, “but notice also that his cart is in the shade of the bell tower. The people stay cooler there, and that is why they buy from him.”

Olivero disagreed. “The real reason is much more simple.” He waved his hands in the air. “The breezes always come from the west. They blow right across the plaza to the bell tower. The insects and the bad smells are thus blown away. I’m certain that’s his secret.”

“It just isn’t fair.” Rosita fanned herself. It had never seemed so hot before. “Antonio should not have all that shade to himself.”

Enrique nodded. “Nor should he be so close to the fountain. His customers should be as far from the water as ours are.”

“And may I remind you,” added Olivero, “no one owns the wind.”

“I agree,” said the big woman. “It’s time we did something.”

“Absolutely,” said Enrique rubbing his chin. “But what can we do?”

“We must come to the plaza before he does,” suggested Olivero, “and be the first to open for business by the bell tower.”

“Excellent idea!” said Rosita. “One of you can hold the space for all of us.”

“One of us?” Enrique and Olivero looked at each other. “What about you?”

“My burritos are made with a secret recipe, known only to my family. If I come to the plaza early, someone is sure to steal it.”

“You too have a secret recipe?” exclaimed Olivero. “It is the same with me. If anyone learned my special technique, I would be ruined. Enrique, my friend, for the good of the Fellowship, you must come to the plaza early.”

Enrique clapped his hands to his face. “Alas, I cannot. Indeed, I cannot even tell you why.”

“But we are friends. Surely you can trust me,” said Olivero.

Rosita pursed her lips. “I never knew you were such a man of mystery, Enrique.”

“All right,” he said, “but I’m counting on your confidence. This is something known only to my family these many years.” He looked around to ensure no one else could hear. “You see, my sausages must be made by the light of the moon. I must work nearly all night just to be ready for the next day’s trade. I cannot work all night and get up early, too.”

The Fellowship struggled with their dilemma all afternoon before they found a solution. That very day they called upon the Mayor.

“Senior Mayor,” said Rosita, “you must help us. Antonio has the water, the wind, and the shade all to himself. The people are so uncomfortable they will not trade with us.”

Enrique added, “If we earn no money, we cannot pay taxes. If we cannot pay taxes, you cannot maintain the town. If you cannot maintain the town, the people will throw you out and find a new Mayor.”

Olivero summed it up. “Clearly, Senior Mayor, it is in everyone’s best interest for you to make Antonio move his cart to the other side of the plaza.”

What the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors said sounded logical, and though the Mayor would have liked more time to think it over, he knew that elections would be held right after the Harvest Festival. Choosing between Antonio’s one vote and the Fellowship’s three required no great intellectual effort. “I will talk to him in the morning,” he promised, but he didn’t look forward to it.

The next day, Antonio arrived at the plaza as usual and wheeled his cart over to the bell tower where he found the Mayor waiting for him. “Good morning, Senior Mayor! How are you today?”

“Fine, thank you,” the Mayor said, “but I’m here on official business.” He explained that a complaint had been lodged against Antonio by a prestigious and highly influential organization. “They insist that you move to the other side of the plaza,” explained the Mayor who then spelled out all the Fellowship’s objections. “I tried to reason with them, but they threatened to call a higher authority.”

“I see,” said Antonio. “Did you point out to them that there is no shade at lunchtime since the sun is straight overhead?”

“Indeed I did,” said the Mayor, wondering why the thought had not occurred to him.

“Then of course you must have also mentioned that the plaza is round so all vendors are the same distance from the fountain?”

“Of course! It goes without saying.” Which was true, for the Mayor had never said it.

“Then I know you explained about the wind.”

“Probably,” said the Mayor, “after all, we spoke at some length. Uh, which aspect of the wind did you have in mind?”

“Simply that in order for the wind to reach the bell tower here, it must pass through the plaza over there. I’ve been meaning to say something to you about the smells and the insects from that side.”

The Mayor bobbed his head in agreement. “I wish you had said something to me before. Now, it is too late. Will you move peacefully, Antonio?”

“Certainly,” said the taco vendor. Without another word, he wheeled his cart across the plaza and parked beneath the banner left behind by the Fellowship. He noticed that one of the two poles supporting the banner was stuck in a sizable hill of garbage also left behind by the Fellowship. A dark green frog, as big as his fist, sat behind the pole snaring an occasional fly with its long, sticky tongue.

He sits there like a king, Antonio thought, staring at the mound of rotted pie fillings, discarded sausages and rancid burritos which served as the frog’s throne. Disgusting. Antonio shook his head and sighed. He almost envied the frog. “How easy your life is,” he said.

The frog eased around the pole where it could see him better and replied, “Easy? How would you like to spend your life sitting on a garbage pile eating flies?”

This so startled Antonio that he nearly forgot to breathe, a blessing considering the awful stench from the garbage. “You spoke!”

The frog rolled its eyes. “Can’t get anything past you.”

“This is a trick!” Antonio spun around quickly to see if someone was throwing his voice like one of the visiting performers at the Harvest Festival, but he stood alone. Scratching his head, he asked, “Are you enchanted? Are you really a prince or a king or something?”

“How did you know?” exclaimed the frog. “I thought my disguise so clever that no one would ever recognize me. What gave me away, the webbed feet? The big eyes? The long tongue? No–I’ve got it! The green skin! That’s it! Of course–all kings and princes have green skin! How stupid of me.” The frog drummed his tiny fingers impatiently.

Antonio felt a flush of embarrassment. “What I meant was, you see…” He paused to gather his wits. “I’ve heard stories about princes and evil magicians. I thought maybe you were someone important who had been turned into a toad.”

“I’m a frog,” said the frog, extending a limb. “See? Smooth skin. Toads are all warty and dry.”

“Aren’t you afraid I’ll capture you and sell you to the circus? Surely there’s a fortune to be made from a talking frog.”

“Worried? Nah. I wouldn’t cooperate. And if I didn’t talk, no one would buy me. Listen, I’ve thought about it. A circus job would be too much work. After all, I’m only a frog. I’m just tired of eating flies.”

“So what do you want from me?”

“Tacos, of course! Everyone knows yours are the best.”

“Frogs don’t eat tacos,” said Antonio.

“They don’t usually talk, either,” said the frog.

“Good point. But it doesn’t matter. I can’t work here. The smell is terrible, and the Mayor says I cannot use the other side of the plaza. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The frog appeared to give deep consideration to Antonio’s problems. “Hm,” he said at length, “maybe we can help each other.”

“How? Magic?”

“Will you stop with the magic already?” The frog did nothing to hide the exasperation in its voice. “I’ve got a deal for you. It can’t hurt to listen.”

So the frog talked and Antonio listened, and when the frog finished, the two made a bargain. Antonio squared his shoulders in preparation for the tasks ahead. He started by taking his cart home. For the first time since anyone could remember, the taco vendor did not open for business.

Later that day, across the plaza, the other vendors worked feverishly to keep up with demand. Long lines formed in front of all three carts. They reached the end of the day exhausted, but happy. When the Mayor came by to check on them, they heaped their praise upon him.

“You have done the entire village a great service, Senior Mayor,” said Rosita.

Enrique favored him with a weary smile. “We are in your debt.”

“Would you care for a pie?” asked Olivero.

“I think not,” said the Mayor, wrinkling his nose. “I just wanted to see how things were going. It’s only a week until the elec– I mean, until the Festival.”

“We can’t wait,” exclaimed Rosita. “This will be the best Festival in years!”

In the days which followed, Antonio left his cart at home and spent his time cleaning up the garbage, just as the frog suggested. Meanwhile, the members of the Fellowship enjoyed greater profits than they’d ever seen–right until the end of the week when Antonio reopened for business.

Garbage no longer occupied the western side of the plaza. In its place, Antonio had installed a long, wooden table. He even planted flowers. In the space of a single day, all his customers returned, plus a few new ones. Everyone smiled. Including the frog, who sat in the shade of Antonio’s cart, munching on a taco.

The following day, as the aroma of corn tortillas and fragrant spices filtered through the air, the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors met in an emergency session. “The Harvest Festival begins in two days,” lamented Olivero. “There will be twice as many people in town.”

“Then we should have twice as many customers,” said Rosita.

“Not if we have to battle Antonio across the plaza,” said Enrique. “There is something sinister about what he’s doing.”

“Like what?” Clearly intrigued, Olivero and Rosita leaned closer.

“Does anyone really know what kind of spices he puts in his tacos?”

“I think it’s a secret,” said Olivero.

Precisely! And why is it a secret?” Enrique squinted at the others, his voice dropping low. “What is it that makes his recipe so special? For all we know, he could be mixing vile narcotics in with those spices of his. I fear he has already addicted the poor people of this village, and that is why they rush to buy from him.”

“I never thought of that!” said an astonished Rosita. “Of course! You’re right. But what can we do about it?”

“I have an idea or two,” said Enrique. “But first we must hold elections.”

The actual voting was concluded quickly since there were only three voters, but getting to that point proved problematic. Considerable wrangling had to be completed before they settled on which of them would run for the various leadership positions. Once they agreed in principle to exchanging titles at the annual elections, the rest became easy.

After the election, and in the spirit of good citizenship, the three newly elected officers of the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors visited the village physician to voice their public health concerns.

“Though we surely represent our membership,” said Chairman Enrique, “our first concern is for our fellow citizens.”

Vice Chairman Olivero wrung his hands. “Have you heard? This Antonio character encourages people to eat their meals on top of a garbage dump!”

“How can that possibly be healthy?” Secretary-Treasurer Rosita wanted to know.

The village doctor agreed the situation sounded serious, else the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors would not have sent their entire Executive Committee to complain. Using the authority given to him by the Mayor in cases of emergency, he dispatched his assistant to post a public notice that henceforth, no food could be sold in the plaza until the village physician was satisfied with its safety. Pleased with the good doctor’s wise decision, the Fellowship gleefully provided samples of sausage, meat pies and burritos for inspection. All three vendors received certificates attesting to the purity of their wares.

When Antonio returned to the plaza the next morning, he found one of the notices tacked to his wooden table. As he read it, the physician’s assistant arrived to collect a sample.

“But I’ve only just arrived,” said Antonio. “Perhaps you could return later, when my tacos are ready.”

“Impossible,” said the official, “we were told this would be the best time to examine your food. Indeed, we received a warning that you might try to trick us with delays.”

Antonio struggled to hide his chagrin. “I’ll be happy to deliver a taco for inspection. Just tell me where to take it.”

“It must go to the physician, but it must go now. We will be too busy later in the day, and the Festival begins tomorrow. So bring it next week.”

“But by then the Festival will be over.”

“I don’t make the rules. But your clever tricks won’t work on me. It looks like you won’t be selling anything for a while.” He waved as he walked away. “Adios, senior. Have a nice day.”

Antonio felt like weeping. He sat at his wooden table with his head in his hands, wondering how he could make it through the winter without any profit from the Harvest Festival.

Just then, the frog woke up. “Why aren’t you busy? I’m getting hungry.”

Antonio explained his situation to the frog whose advice had seemed so good after the last calamity. “So you see,” he concluded, “there’s nothing I can do.”

“Nonsense,” said the frog. “There’s just nothing you can do here. Now, load your table on the cart, and dig up those flowers. There’s little time, and you have much work to do.”

Once again the workers in the plaza missed out on Antonio’s tacos. Once again they had little choice but to patronize the Fellowship. But on the first morning of the Festival, the workers were greeted with cheerful music even though the celebration would not officially begin until after siesta. Two musicians went round and round the plaza playing their guitars and singing. After every few songs, they made an announcement: “Antonio, vendor of tacos, invites you to join him for a Festival lunch! Free food! Just a short walk outside of town near the crossroads. Beverages available for a small fee.”

By the time the other vendors arrived, the word had already spread. Not only was Antonio back, but he was giving his food away! Since the Fellowship had no customers at all during lunch, they held yet another meeting.

“He has truly gone too far this time,” said Olivero.

“How can we compete when he gives his food away?” demanded Enrique.

Rosita was puzzled. “How can he afford to give his food away? Surely he must pay for his ingredients, just as we do.”

“Not if they’re stolen,” said Olivero.

“Or worse,” suggested Enrique.

“Worse?”

“Perhaps. What kind of man would violate tradition and begin the Festival with music before the good padres have blessed the harvest? What greater sins would he commit?”

“Antonio? In league with the devil?” Rosita was shocked.

Olivero slapped his leg. “Of course! Why didn’t we see it before? We must inform the church. It’s our sacred duty.”

“And we must do it now,” said Enrique. “There’s no time to waste.”

By the time the priest and the other vendors arrived, the luncheon party was over, and all the celebrants were gone. Antonio, who had worked all night, rested in the shade of a tree and appeared to be talking to himself. The ecclesiastical crew kept their distance, in order to observe the obviously deranged taco vendor who kept looking down at the roots of the tree as he spoke.

Rosita crossed herself. “Do you see, Padre? He has found El Diablo’s door!” Enrique and Olivero shuddered.

The priest looked around at the setting Antonio had created. Nestled among the trees just beyond the village limits, the taco vendor had erected a second table to go with the first. Gaily colored paper streamers hung from the trees and pockets of flowers brightened the grounds. A huge container of lemonade sat in the shade beside the taco cart, which was still fragrant from lunch.

“It doesn’t look so bad,” said the priest, for indeed the little clearing was most appealing.

“Do you see a cross?” asked Enrique. “Or any sign of the holy nature of the Festival?”

“No,” admitted the priest, not entirely sure the Festival was intended as a holy occasion. “We must not be hasty. I would speak with Antonio before I decide if he has done anything wrong.”

The four advanced on the recumbent restaurateur who was too weary to rise.

“Who are you talking to?” asked the priest.

“My friend, the frog,” said Antonio, waving a hand toward the amphibian.

Olivero kept the priest between himself and the taco vendor. “And does the frog respond?”

“Of course.” Antonio yawned. “This whole thing was his idea.” His voice trailed off briefly before flaring into life for a few more syllables. “I’m indebted to him.”

In a whisper, Enrique addressed the priest. “Padre, must I remind you that frogs are kin to serpents? And did you not teach us yourself that the devil is often disguised as such?”

The priest nodded, and the three vendors stared hard at him as Antonio drifted off to sleep. “He is doomed,” said Rosita.

“There’s no hope for him,” said Olivero.

The frog, guessing how the conversation would turn out, sneaked away before the zealots came after him. His disappearance provided the final proof Enrique needed. “You see? Even the devil has deserted him!”

The taco vendor slept as the four walked away, shaking their heads. They returned to the village and spread word of Antonio’s fate. After that, no one dared go near him, not even the musicians he had hired the day before.

“I’m ruined,” said Antonio to the frog.

“Only if you stay here.”

“Where else can I go?”

“Anywhere!” said the frog. “You make the finest tacos in the world. You will be welcome anywhere you go. If I were you, I would have gone to the city long ago.”

So Antonio moved to the city. Soon the people there began to say if one wanted a taste of heaven, Antonio could supply it. His fame and his business grew. He married into a respected family and fathered enough children to run an entire chain of taco stands.

In the village he left behind, the members of the Fellowship rejoiced throughout the Festival. Without the competition from Antonio, they sold everything they could make. But it wasn’t long before sales faltered once again, and they called a meeting to discuss the crisis.

Rosita pulled Olivero aside. “Everyone knows the aroma of my burritos is very subtle, but my customers can’t smell it because of Enrique’s pies. We should consider asking him to move to the other side of the plaza.”

Olivero turned to Enrique. “People need us, and they need the good, healthy meat we sell. But they think they must also buy Rosita’s burritos. It’s obvious they stay away because of the expense. The people will be happier if Rosita moves across the plaza.”

Enrique found a moment to converse with Rosita. “A balanced meal means meat and vegetables. With your burritos and my sausages, people really don’t need Olivero’s pies. He should move his cart as a public service.”

They concluded the meeting by disbanding the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors and replacing it with three new organizations, each one-third the size of the original: the Congress of Meat Pie Makers, the Brotherhood of Sausage Stuffers, and the League of Burrito Bakers. They often held their meetings in the middle of the day since customers remained scarce.

The frog, meanwhile, made a killing selling brown paper lunch bags to the people who no longer purchased their lunches in the plaza and opted instead to bring food from home. In the end, the frog and the labor leaders were the only ones who didn’t miss the humble taco vendor.

~End~

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Why a Christmas book? (Encore)

Let’s say you’re familiar with the Grinch; you’ve seen Frosty at least a dozen times; you know the names of all nine reindeer, and you’re pretty sure that when it comes to the parts of Christmas kids love most, you’re totally on top of things. Right?

Uh… nope. Sorry.

Now, before you light the torches, round up the neighbors, and hand out the pitchforks, you need to get the latest on what’s afoot at the North Pole. More importantly, you need to know these revelations will, most likely, not damage all the centuries-old tropes about jolly old Saint Nick.

But, let’s face it, we’re well into the 21st Century, and there haven’t been any revelations about how all the Santa stuff we’ve come to know and love really works nowadays.

That’s one of the thoughts that danced in my head a while back when pondering what to write about in my third novel of 2020 (thank you, Covid-19, may you soon shrivel and waste away to nothing more than a dark memory).

It didn’t take long for me to realize that some of the questions I had about the traditional Santa tales had been with me since childhood. Okay, so maybe I was a wee bit precocious and/or my imagination might possibly have been tweaked by my incredibly inventive father. In any event, I had questions way back then, and they popped right back into my head a few months ago.

Questions like:

— Even if some rare strain of reindeer with the ability to fly actually existed, how come only Santa Claus was able to round them up? And why reindeer, when the world is chock full of amazing canines capable of pulling a sled?

— Using “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (ie., “T’was the night before Christmas…”) to establish a timeline, almost 200 years have passed. The population of the Earth has increased to nearly 8 times its size since 1800. How has Santa managed to take care of such an increased load?

— I don’t ever recall receiving something from Santa which appeared to have been made by hand, and I suspect those who did were in a distinct minority. So, how had Santa managed to industrialize the operation? What happened to all those poor elves?

— How did someone so old and so busy ever manage to work his way into the countless millions of homes without chimneys?

There had to be answers to these and many other questions, and therein lay the heart of the story. It was nestled somewhere between a child with a mysterious illness, a shopping mall Santa Claus trying to redefine himself, and the profoundly difficult challenges of delivering gifts to hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, of deserving children.

All I had to do was write it.

Fortunately, I had the assistance of all the pets, and their owners, who live on our street. The result of our combined efforts is a family-friendly Christmas story that supplies all the answers. It’s called A Season Gone to the Dogs.

Consider it my gift to everyone I know and anyone who’d like to find out what’s really happened to Santa’s mission and his secret hideaway after all these years. So, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to you all!

Beginning on Monday, Dec. 5, and continuing through Friday, Dec. 9, you can download the ebook version–for FREE–from Amazon.com. Just click HERE if you’d like to save some time.

For those of you who take advantage of this offer, I would appreciate it very much if you would post your thoughts about the story in an Amazon review. Let’s share this tale far and wide!

Finally, if you know someone with vision problems who might enjoy a family-friendly Christmas tale, please let them know a large text version is available in paperback. The same link will work for all editions of the book.

Best wishes to everyone, just a little early!

–Josh

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Why teach? (Encore)

There are a great many reasons why I teach, but I suspect the most important one is that it makes me feel good. I don’t know if that qualifies as weird or not, and frankly, I don’t care.

I don’t teach in the inner city; I’m not some middle-class, suburban saint with a penchant for helping the underprivileged or the disadvantaged. I teach grown-ups. Seniors, mostly, folks who’ve lived a lot, who’ve seen a lot, and who have an abundance of stories to share. Most of them, however, need some help to get those stories told–and told right. The amount of help they need varies a great deal. Some are on the verge of doing primo work. Others need more, and I expect those with whom I work to pitch in and help, too.

Unlike those instructors who labor in the traditional fields of public and private education, my students have chosen to spend their time in my classes. They’re there because they want to be there. That makes all the difference in the world. They show up because they want to improve their skills. There aren’t any grades. No gold stars. No report cards. Instead, there is camaraderie, and that’s an astonishingly powerful potion.

Imagine telling your story, or parts of it, while a cadre of interested listeners tune in closely to what you have to say. Their responses, typically positive and affirmative, have an almost narcotic effect. My role, pointing out areas needing a tweak or a pruning, doesn’t diminish the goodwill engendered by the class. If anything, it leads to questions and dialog–all of which add to the value of the experience for everyone. Me, included!

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t know anyone who does. But I’ve been fortunate to learn from a fair number of truly gifted wordsmiths, some famous, some still waiting to be discovered. And I’m pleased to pass along what they’ve shared. Best of all, the lessons come not from theory and certainly not from the supposed wisdom of some greybeard in academia. God spare us more of that! The lessons are based on real-world trial and error–what works, what sells.

We don’t diagram sentences or pretend to know what went on in the heads of the “literary greats.” I couldn’t care less what Proust or Faulkner or Steinbeck were thinking when they drafted their work. What matters, to me, is whether or not they told compelling tales. That’s it. And those are the kinds of stories I want my students to write.

So, the answer to the initial question is pretty simple, really. I teach because I can make a difference, and that’s a reward in and of itself.

–Josh

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It’s Thanksgiving. I think we all deserve a break.

So, I’Alabama Crimson Tide v Auburn Tigersm going to let my self-imposed deadline slide this time and concentrate on really important things like family, and turkey, and football. I may even consume an adult beverage or two.

Or three. Whatever.

My Auburn Tigers will be taking on the red elephants in Tuscaloosa. I have high hopes for the Tigers, mainly because I always have high hopes for them. I’m a fan. I’m just not a betting fan.

AubieSo, that’s it for this time. Go have fun. Be with your family or friends. If you don’t have any of either, then go find someone else in the same fix and buy him or her a sandwich — turkey would be good — and a cup of coffee. Who knows? It could be the start of a long and pleasant relationship. And if not, maybe you can get a story out of it.

Besides, what have you got to lose?Happy Thanksgiving

Until next time,

–Josh

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