A Merger on Father’s Day (Encore)

Here it is, Father’s Day again, so here’s a tale which is, at least, marginally about a father and son. I hope my own kids don’t think I treated them like this. My pride in them has no bounds. 

Aaron ran through the house in search of his father. “Dad!” he cried, “Dad, guess what? I worked a deal!”

Solomon Mays turned away from the Kennedy/Nixon debate on the Philco. “Really? What kind of deal?”

Aaron puffed up his eight-year-old chest. “I got Billy Johnson and Jake Warner to stop fighting—them and their gangs, too!” His wheezing always got worse when he was excited, but just then he was too proud to care.

Solomon nodded. “And how did you manage this miracle?”

“I said I’d give ’em each a dollar.”

Solomon frowned. “You can’t buy peace, Aaron, and remember, the deal-maker never pays. Is that understood?”

“Yes, but–”

“There’s nothing to add, Son. Trust me—I know. That’s why so many people come to me to work out the toughest deals.”

“But Dad–”

“One other thing, Aaron. A good deal-maker never gives details to anyone who isn’t part of the bargain.”

“Yes, sir,” Aaron said, his shoulders slumping. He wanted desperately to explain how he collected a dollar from the parents of each of the smaller boys in both gangs as a reward for stopping the fighting, but now he never could.

“Did I tell you about my latest deal?” Solomon asked. “I brokered the merger of two unions: Federated Sock Knitters and United Hosiery Workers. I worked a deal everyone else just walked away from. I guess they got cold feet!” Solomon laughed, but Aaron thought it made sense.

~*~

Murph studied the memo for the hundredth time, and still couldn’t believe it. Someone had complained about him and used the magic words: sexual harassment—something you made jokes about. Nobody took it seriously, until now.

Probably that prissy blonde in Overdue Accounts, he thought. She’s just the type. He dropped the memo in his top drawer and locked it. It was nearly four, still sixty minutes away from freedom.

If only the damn phones would stop ringing.

They didn’t. He hated phone calls more than any other aspect of his job, but as a Supervisor the tougher calls were routed to him. He would rather have chewed glass.

“Line two, Mr. Scanlon,” Sara Broadnax said. “The guy’s pretty upset.”

Murph watched as she bent to water a potted plant on a low shelf in her cubicle. She oughta change her name to Sara ‘Broadass.’ He picked up the phone. “Scanlon here.”

“I’ve just wasted two hours trying to make sense of your lousy installation manual. Listen, I–”

“Hold on a second.” Murph turned to his PC. “How do you spell your name?”

The caller gave his name and address, but Murphy couldn’t find him in the system. “Did you fill out the warranty card?”

“Yes, but….”

“We don’t have a record of it.”

“Because I haven’t mailed it yet!”

Murph relaxed. “We can’t help you until we have the warranty card.”

“But I just bought the damn thing today.”

“So? Send in the card, wait a couple weeks, and give us another call.”

“No, wait–”

“G’bye.” He hung up. What a jerk.

Bev Pierce, a summer intern, walked past his desk. Murphy sucked his teeth, oblivious to everything save the sway of her hips. Oh, my! I wonder what she’d–

“Scanlon!” The Department Manager’s voice made him cringe. He’s probably sore about that stupid complaint. I’ll bet it was that secretary with the big–

The Manager stood scowling in the doorway to his lair, some twenty feet from Murphy’s desk. “Where are the productivity charts? I shoulda had ’em hours ago!”

“No problem.” Murphy poked around in his desk pretending to look for the hand-lettered charts, knowing they weren’t complete. He’d been too busy sweet-talking a file clerk into going out for a drink. She’d turned him down. It’s probably just as well, they’d card her for sure.

“Scanlon!”

“On my way.” He snatched the charts from a corner of his desk, grabbed his coffee mug—its contents long since cold—and paused a few beats until a mail clerk went by. Scanlon blundered into him, spilling coffee on the charts.

“Damn!”

“Oh, geez! I’m sorry,” the victim said.

“Nice going, you idiot! They’re ruined.” Scanlon stepped to the Manager’s door and curled his thumb at the clerk. “I’ll have to re-do them, thanks to him.”

The clerk drifted away in silent mortification.

“Well, hurry,” said the manager. “This merger business is going to keep us busy as hell. And forget about taking your vacation; nobody gets any time off before Christmas.”

Oh, Marge’ll love that. Maybe she can take the kids and go somewhere. I could use a little peace and quiet.

Bev Pierce caught his eye a second time as she returned from her errand. Murphy smiled. Oh, yeah.

~*~

Long ago, when Mavis Jones was young, a kindly preacher treated her and a handful of other migrant workers to lunch and a movie. Mavis, a deaf mute, couldn’t follow the story, but it didn’t matter, for in the film she glimpsed a lifestyle unlike anything she ever imagined possible—a woman who worked in an office.

From then on, Mavis often thought of such a life. She imagined herself wearing fine, clean clothes and sitting in a comfortable chair. She dreamed of knowing the mysteries of the printed word and using a telephone.

Of course, that was the movies; no one really lived like that. Still, the memory sustained her as she worked in the fields. Even if she could have told people of her crazy ideas, she wouldn’t have. It wouldn’t be right. Folks respected her as a healer, one whose knowledge came from a long line of people skilled in the ways of nature. If she started talking about clean clothes and telephones, people might lose faith, one of the strongest medicines she had.

Though she never again saw the preacher who took her to the movie, Mavis always felt she owed it to the churches to attend. A ride to Sunday Services was the only thing she expected in return for any healing she attempted, and any church would do.

Mavis didn’t expect much from life and thereby avoided a great deal of personal misery. She knew there were always good times to balance out the bad. So when the sickness came upon her, she accepted it as calmly as she accepted everything else.

~*~

“Of course I want you to work for me, Aaron,” Solomon said. “But I won’t start you at the top; it wouldn’t be fair to the others. In fact, you should really start somewhere else, learn the basics, and then come back here.”

“But now that I’ve got my degree, I thought everything was set. All my life I’ve wanted to work with you. It’s the most important thing in the world to me.”

Solomon shook his head. “No, Son, the most important thing in the world is always The Deal. Never forget that.”

Rather than work somewhere else, Aaron went back to school. His asthma kept him out of Viet Nam but didn’t stop him from earning his MBA. He went to work for D. Webster and Associates, where he became the youngest partner in Webster history. He couldn’t wait to share the news.

“Hello, Dad?” Aaron pressed the phone to his ear. “You won’t believe it–they’ve made me a partner!”

“Congratulations. But, aren’t you a little young for that?”

“I guess my work on the Kressworth merger made the difference. Imagine, twenty-six stores in a single chain!”

“Yes,” Solomon said, “I did read something about that, but I’ve been pretty busy myself lately. I just wrapped up a deal with the three largest department stores in the country—forty locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

“Gee, Dad, that’s great.”

“Keep at it, Aaron; one day you’ll be ready for the really big deals.”

~*~

“You don’t understand,” Murphy said to the lawyer. “I didn’t do anything I wasn’t encouraged to do.” Concentration proved difficult as the attorney happened to be a tall redhead with a spectacular figure, obvious despite her conservative business suit.

“Mr. Scanlon, the–”

“Call me ‘Murph,’ please.”

“According to the formal complaint, you not only made lewd remarks and unwelcome advances, you actually touched these women. With six plaintiffs, I can’t believe we’re even considering letting this go to trial.”

“Y’know, your eyes are unbelievably green. Has anyone ever told you–”

“They’re contacts, Mr. Scanlon, and you can discuss any other observations you’d care to make with my fiancé’.”

“I’m just trying to be friendly.”

“Like with the women in this complaint?”

“That’s not fair! I can tell the difference between ‘No, period’ and ‘No, not yet.'”

“Not according to this.” She waved the complaint before tossing it on the table in disgust. “My first loyalty is to our employer; they’ve retained me to defend you and them. To do it, we’ll need a character reference or two. Is there anyone who’ll vouch for you—a minister perhaps, someone in a service club, your mother?

Murphy shook his head. “The woman who runs the doughnut shop likes me, I think. ‘Course, I don’t know her all that well….”

The attorney drummed her fingers on the conference table. “Anyone else?”

“I’m thinking.”

“Save your energy, Mr. Scanlon. Use it to say good-bye to your assets, assuming we’re lucky enough to work out a settlement.” She gathered his file and slipped it into her briefcase as she stood up.

Murphy stood up as well, but slowly. Then he straightened and smiled. “You doing anything for dinner?”

~*~

“What’s the matter, Mavis? You haven’t picked much. You ain’t even close to quota,” the foreman said. “Besides, you don’t look so good.”

Mavis smiled and nodded, like she always did, though the pain in her belly almost caused her to double over. But if they knew she was sick, they might not let her work, and she couldn’t allow that—it wouldn’t do for folks to see a healer getting sick. As soon as the foreman looked away, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the last of the green-gray leaves which had sustained her in the fields. She chewed them slowly, waiting for the numbness to begin.

“We gotta finish here today,” the foreman said. “There’s a bunch of rich Yankees comin’ to inspect the place and we gotta look modern. That means y’all have to stay outta sight.” He looked at Mavis. “You understand? You better get movin’ now, as slow as you are.”

~*~

“Hello, Dad?” Aaron addressed the speakerphone built into his desk, just one of the perks he received as the CEO of D. Webster and Associates. “It’s great to hear your voice. Do you like the retirement home? Need anything?”

“No, I’m fine,” Solomon said. “They take good care of me here. Any chance you might get away for a visit?”

“I doubt it. In fact, I only have a few minutes right now. You wouldn’t believe what I’m working on, Dad, it’s the biggest, and toughest, deal of my career. In fact–”

“A tough one, huh? I remember my last one. The Middle East Peace Treaty was the hardest deal I ever worked on.”

Aaron smiled. “I’ll call you when I can.”

~*~

Murph needed time to think on his way back to the office and took the long route, along the beaches on the coast.

The company agreed to keep him on the payroll though his days as a Supervisor were over, and what he owed from the settlement meant he could forget about early retirement, unless he won the lottery. But then, he’d just been served with divorce papers, so even that might not be enough.

What I could use is a little something to take my mind off my troubles.

As if in answer to a prayer, he saw a woman in the distance struggling to change a flat tire by the side of the road. He didn’t need to make out much detail, the contrast between her tan and her white bikini was enough.

He never saw the 18-wheeler he turned in front of. Few attended the closed-casket service.

~*~

Mavis was embarrassed by the fuss everyone made over her. They brought more food than she could ever eat, tried to comfort her, and kept her company, though most of the time she just slept. She couldn’t tell them where to find the green-gray leaves she needed for her pain.

The foreman’s daughter brought a puppy to cheer her. It snuggled in the crook of her bony arm, as if it and the Bible at her side were bookends. Mavis relaxed, forever.

Though they buried her in a pauper’s grave, the service was conducted by three different ministers and the cemetery was crowded with mourners.

~*~

“Aaron? Are you all right? You’ve been out of touch so long I was getting worried.”

Aaron smiled into the phone. “I’m fine, Dad, really, but very tired.” And I won’t be wheezing anymore.

“A tough merger, huh? But you pulled it off?”

“Just barely,” Aaron said, knowing it was a deal no one would ever top. “I wish I could tell you about it, but–”

“No, Son, I understand.”

“I knew you would. Anyway, you’ll know all about it eventually, everybody will. Let’s just say the negotiations were out of this world—way out.”

“I’m very proud of you.”

Aaron smiled.

“By the way,” Solomon said, “did I ever tell you about my worst disaster?”

~*~

Murphy awoke propped in a wooden chair with a cane seat that pinched him every time he moved. Still, it beat not moving because it was the most uncomfortable thing he’d ever sat in. He tried to stand, but an unseen force pressed him down. Nor was the chair the only thing he couldn’t get away from. The surface of his desk was obscured by a legion of red phones—all ringing. It was eight A.M. on a Monday, as he instinctively knew it would be for all time.

Memories came back slowly; his orientation to this place had been quick and confusing. It was conducted by a man in a white robe and a woman who appeared to be wearing nothing but red paint. The man looked uneasy and apologized, explaining the disarray as a by-product of what he called the “ultimate merger.” The woman didn’t say much. She spent most of her time laughing, though there was no humor in it.

Murphy looked across the corridor at a woman lounging in a leather-upholstered swivel chair. She smiled happily as she spoke into a white telephone, dashed off a note, and appeared the very picture of blissful efficiency.

He stared at the nameplate on her desk. Mavis? What in hell kind of a name is that?

~End~

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So, you wanna be a wordsmith? (Encore)

…then you’d best use words the way they’re meant to be used. I know I’ve misused words in the past. Like way too many writers, I get the past tense of lie and lay, laid and lain confused and have to look them up several times a year. (The web pages I use greet me with, “Oh good grief, you again?”)

I’ve compiled a list of some of the words my students have managed to misuse. While the great majority don’t stray into the land of acyrologia, they do stumble a bit more than more experienced writers do. This is most likely because the folks who’ve been doing this for a good while are well aware that they’ll make the same kinds of mistakes, so they make sure they’ve got a bunch of sharp-eyed readers to help them ferret out the offenders.

Here are some of the words I’ve seen most often used incorrectly. Do you think you might have accidentally used one? Or more?

Let’s start with bemused. Many people think it’s synonymous with amused. It ain’t. Bemused means confused. Trust me; I’ve been bemused, and there’s nothing remotely humorous about it.

When I see words being misused, I feel compelled to make corrections. Compelled, you see, means one is forced to do something; it’s not just that one is unwilling to do it. He or she has no choice.

I’ve probably heard the alleged word “conversate” more often than I’ve seen it in a manuscript. No matter, it’s still a prime offender. Trust me on this: conversate doesn’t mean having a conversation. In fact, it doesn’t mean a damned thing. Please don’t use it; it’s not a word.

Next up are two words with nearly identical spellings but totally different meanings. Get these wrong and your more erudite readers will abandon you–and your writing! Discreet means unobtrusive, unlikely to give offense. It can also mean capable of keeping secrets. The troublesome non-synonym, discrete, means separate or distinct. You see, there’s no need to treat this discreetly, the two words have utterly discrete meanings. Got it?

Enormity is a word that seems to give many folks trouble. It means extreme evil, not great size. The enormity is my appetite, not my waistline. [sigh]

Then there’s the subtle difference between grisly and grizzly. If you’re talking about something horrendous or horrific, use grisly. Unless, of course, you’re referring to Ursus arctos or one of its honey-loving kin.

Another oft-mangled word is nauseous. It refers to something that causes nausea; it doesn’t mean to feel sick.

For some reason, the word peruse is often confused. If you peruse something, it means you’ve examined it carefully. Don’t mistake it for skimming over something.

And how ’bout prodigal? The proper meaning is wasteful. The Bible tells us of someone who wandered off and squandered his inheritance. The prodigal part refers to throwing away his wealth, not his road map.

And then there’s redundant, as in the oft-maligned “Department of Redundancy Department.” What it doesn’t mean is being repetitious. What it does mean is using words that just aren’t needed; they’re superfluous. There’s a difference!

If you intend to refute something, be ready to completely disprove it, otherwise you’ll just be offering a rebuttal. A charge successfully refuted in court could mean freedom for the accused, a rebuttal only means one person disagrees with another. The defendant may still end up in the slammer.

Let’s also set the record straight on restive. It means fidgety or difficult to control. It definitely does not mean restful. My dog is often restive when he should be restful.

Finally, we get to the word travesty, which simply refers to a mockery or parody of something. Please don’t confuse it with tragedy, unless the act is so biting that it causes the mocked party to collapse and die.

Happy wordsmithing!

–Josh

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A guest blog… (Encore)

Shasta

My human calls me a “chewer,” like it’s a bad thing. Sheesh. If only he knew my family history, but of course he doesn’t ’cause we adopted each other at the local pound. Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful. I have a wonderful life, but I also have a proud heritage. I come from a long, long line of chewers.

I may go through a sock or two, or an occasional sweatshirt, and I once consumed a pin cushion–with pins–but I’m nothin’ compared to my uncle Tank. I’m told he ate a ’73 Chevy Impala. But I’m sure that’s an exaggeration. It was prob’ly just a Volkswagen.

So, yeah. I chew stuff. It comes naturally, and it takes many forms. And when I started working on this little itch I had on my back leg, it shouldn’t have become a big deal.

Usually an itch goes away after a little tooth work. This one didn’t. It required some serious mastication. My human fussed at me about it, and every time he saw me workin’ on it, he yelled at me to stop.dog eats homework

Silly human. I just went into another room and chowed down. In no time I had created a spot the size of my paw that oozed pink and raw. Oh, what a proud moment–it wouldn’t take long to gnaw my whole leg off! (And they said Tank was a legend. Ha!)

Just when it got good, my human intervened. He put stinky stuff on the spot, and I don’t mean the good stinky stuff. Then he wrapped it with cloth strips. Cloth! Like he forgot about the socks and sweatshirts.

Well, those cloth strips became appetizers. I couldn’t get enough of the main course: my leg.

That’s when the real challenge began. He took me to the vet, and she knocked me out. Makes me shiver just thinkin’ about it. The vet has the stinkiest stuff of all, and her cloth strips are much tougher. To top it off, they wrapped my head in an enormous sheet of gray plastic.

When I woke up, I saw the world from inside a megaphone. I couldn’t see my body. Worse still, I couldn’t reach my leg.

It was war!

Shasta coneSadly, it took me a week to devise a strategy: if chewing got me here, it might get me out, too. Except, the edges of the plastic cone remained out of range, but not for doorways, furniture and the water dish. Oh, no. I turned into a front end loader.

At the end of Week Two I realized I could bend an edge of the cone against a wall and by working diligently, I could get my teeth on it.

And chew!

By the end of Week Three, I had worked my way completely around the outside edge. Now I looked at the world from inside a colander!

Then my human covered my painstakingly arranged bite-marks with duct tape. How was I supposed to compete with Home Depot? But I did. I kept chewing.

And chewing.

Through layers of new tape and old. By the end of Week Four, I was nearly free!

Which is when my human removed the remains of my plastic prison and told me to leave my leg alone.

But, my leg was fine. Good as new!paw-print-wclaws-l

I swear, I’ll never understand people.

My name is Shasta, and I approve this message.

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You Think Halloween Is Scary? Ha! (Encore)

I’ll tell you what’s really scary. I’ll share a secret that’s seen little exposure over countless millennia, and for good reason: it’s frightening in the extreme. You probably think you know what I’m talking about, but you don’t. You can’t know unless you’re a member of… the club–the fellowship of fiction writers. The people who think up the strange and unusual, the calculated and cunning, who dwell in a particular intellectual realm where conjuring something bizarre and making it seem somehow normal is perfectly acceptable. Ah yes, now you understand; I’m talking about what goes on inside a fiction writer’s brain. <cue scary music>

Now, before you go into pooh-pooh mode, consider what follows. My bride and I took a trip to northern Arizona a while back (fall, 2019). While there we made many of the usual tourist stops and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. (It must be true; I have photos of us smiling.) Having known the woman who has willingly shared my name for a half-century, I also know it is unwise to share with her the more “creative” thoughts which often blitz through my noggin like rabid, Walmart bargain hunters on Black Friday. <shudder>

So, we’re looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon, centerpiece of a 1,900 square mile national park. And while most folks are oohing and ahhing over the undeniably magnificent terrain, I’m thinking of ways to send some of my more deserving characters over the edge. How do I lure them closer to their doom? How do I obscure the designs of my killers? How do I provide for their escape? Could they ride the same bus my wife and I rode in on? Why not? And why couldn’t they dispatch any number of other people while they’re at it?

I’m certainly not oblivious to the needs of the victims. Far from it. I’m wondering what goes through their minds during the one-mile drop to the bottom of the canyon. Can they ride the air currents? Perhaps glide a bit and thereby make it to a non-lethal landing in the Colorado River? What injuries will they sustain, assuming they survive the splash? Who fishes them out? Or do they float downstream only to go over another edge, a waterfall, and meet their end on the jagged rocks below?

Fun stuff! We also toured the red rock bluffs and canyons in and around Sedona. They’re beautiful, wild, rugged, and largely untraveled. Consider that last bit for a moment: largely untraveled. To me, that says there could be almost anything lurking in the deepest backwater. So, what if someone went hiking back there? Maybe they get lost. Maybe they finally find a stream and go skinny dipping. Wouldn’t that be the perfect time to discover there are some seriously strange creatures living there? Like for example–oh, I dunno–a giant lizard of some kind? I can see it now. And you can, too!

I’ll save my thoughts about the high deserts, mountains, and lava fields near Flagstaff for another time. The same goes for the gigantic meteor crater near Winslow, the volcanic mountains which burst from the ground and spewed molten earth across the land, and the ghostly remains of the cliff dwellers’ homes. They all triggered ideas about potential stories or sequels to tales already done.

Welcome to my worlds.

–Josh

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The Curse of Backstory (Encore)

Of all the story-writing sins committed by beginning writers, by far the worst consists of dumping a trailer-load of backstory on the unsuspecting reader. Fortunately, this error becomes clear almost immediately, at least to the reader. As an editor, this practice not only makes me cringe, it makes me wonder if the writer has ever actually opened a novel and read it. And by novel, I mean one written by someone with an actual story to tell, who can differentiate between the stuff that interests readers, and the stuff that puts ’em to sleep.

Believe me, it’s easy to tell the difference — just read a bad novel, and God knows there are plenty of them to choose from. Fortunately the worst aren’t in print. As much as I bad mouth the Big Five, the one positive thing I can say about the efforts of the “traditional” agent/editor/publisher/marketing cabal, is that they give a thumbs down to the truly bad along with the potentially good.

I firmly believe most novels submitted to agents, editors and publishers aren’t worthy of being put into print. Most need a significant amount of work just to become readable, and most agents and editors aren’t willing to put in that kind of time. I don’t blame them; it’s work. I know, because many of those writers come to me for help. I get to see what they’ve done, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why their manuscripts received a “Thanks, but no thanks,” assuming they got any feedback at all. That’s a different rant which I’ll discuss at a later date.

Along comes Amazon, and the old modus operandi is dumped on its head; Amazon made self-publishing not only economically feasible, but relatively easy. Print-on-demand utterly clinched the deal. Suddenly, anyone who could copy and paste their text into a computer-generated template could format an honest-to-God paperback book. The e-book versions were even easier. And as quick as a red neck can learn to say, “Watch this; somebody hold my beer!” crappy books flooded the market.

Please understand, I’m NOT saying all self-published books are crap. Far from it. I’ve published quite a number of them myself, and they’ve been well received. And, I’ve helped dozens of other people to produce books of their own. But they all have a degree of polish that’s often lacking in self-published work. In short, they’ve been edited.

And one of the first things I encourage (nag, berate, argue, comment, filibuster) is the elimination of backstory. If it’s truly worthwhile, it can be sprinkled in as needed. But a wholesale dumping of background material is almost never appropriate. I say “almost” not because I know of a case where it worked, but because I’m sure there’s probably one out there somewhere. I just haven’t seen it yet.

If you’re just starting your writing career, you can save yourself an astonishing amount of grief, to say nothing of time and energy, simply by eliminating every particle of backstory that isn’t absolutely necessary. Trust me when I say no one cares about Uncle Doober’s bowel issues, or whether or not Gramma Grundy ever used self-rising flour. What we do want to know is how Uncle Doober got elected Mayor and/or how Gramma Grundy eventually poisoned him. That’s where the story is!

That’s what someone, someday, might make into a movie.

–Josh

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Who Else Would You Ask, If You Could? (Encore)

Note: Since my bride and I were on vacation this past week, I didn’t get as much writing time in as I usually do. So, I’m reposting a tale written a while back. I hope you find it amusing.

This week’s offering is another short story, though it wasn’t inspired by anything European. This one is as All-American as it gets. Feel free to let me know what you think of it in the comments section below. Thanks!  (Copyright © 2019 Josh Langston)

The text floated in the center of the room; three readers—two of them dead—scanned each line as it appeared.

The count was two and two. Mason stepped back from the box, adjusted his grip on the bat and wished like hell he could spit. He eyed the bulky figure squatting behind the plate and longed to park a defiant wad near the big bastard’s foot, or maybe even on it, but only a moron would spit in a space helmet.

“That’s good. That’s really good, kid. I know just how he feels,” Cobb said.

Tim wasn’t entirely comfortable with using profanity, but the writing assignment had stressed the need for realism. He let the text scroll on.

Mason squared himself and turned his head to the mound. Despite his polarized faceplate, he squinted at the reflected sunlight glinting from several of the metal fittings on the pitcher’s suit. For the hundredth time he cursed the sweat trickling from his forehead.

“And I know that feeling,” offered Armstrong. “Pure torture.”

One spot in particular, where the foam padding failed to form a seal against his left temple, allowed pooled sweat to drip down his cheek. The resulting itch would have driven him nuts if there hadn’t been so many other things to choose from, like the pitcher. Like all of them: short and heavy with arms a gorilla would envy, except, he noted idly, gorillas were extinct.

Cobb groaned, “Yer gettin’ off the subject.”

“Oh, take it easy.” Neil Armstrong eyed the old ballplayer from Tim’s bed where the lanky astronaut was comfortably sprawled. “He’s got to put something in there to set the stage. Can’t have just baseball stuff if–”

“All I know is baseball. I know it better’n anything. If the kid’s gonna write a baseball story, he oughta stick to the basics and not get sidetracked.” Ty Cobb’s long legs dangled from the front of his straight back chair. It stood a foot or so from the wall and leaned sharply back.

Tim could see the trash can through which Cobb leaned. The ghost-like images of the two men both charmed and chilled him.

“Listen, guys,” Tim said, “I need your help if I’m gonna finish this thing. If all you’re gonna do is argue, then I guess I’ll have to get somebody else.” Even as he said it, Tim knew it wasn’t true. Calling up an Expert on the experimental system was tricky, but not impossible. Finding another baseball player or another astronaut/aeronautical engineer was another matter entirely. There were simply too many professions to be synthesized to allow more than one Expert per field, at least during the developmental stage.

Besides, he had no idea if these particular Experts had been programmed to respond to threats. He doubted it.

The baseball player appeared too intensely interested in the cuticle of his left index finger to comment. Finally, he broke the silence. “What’s this about ‘gorillas’? I thought this was a baseball story.”

“It is,” Tim said.

“On the moon, right?”

“Right.”

“Will you please let him work,” snapped Armstrong. “Our job is to answer questions.”

Tim restarted the scroll.

“Gimme somethin’,” muttered Mason. He dug his cleated boots into the surface.

The wind-up seemed slow compared to the delivery. The last few pitches had all been the same–screamers, high and tight. Except that “screamer” implies sound and without an atmosphere, there wasn’t any. More like meteorites, thought Mason. The next pitch was coming.

“Jesus!” Mason gasped after yanking his head back to avoid the missile. He heard a low tone in his earphone. Full count.

“Low tone?” Cobb asked.

“Yeah. Means the umpire called it a ball,” Armstrong said.

“He didn’t say nuthin’?”

“It isn’t that smart. It just monitors the position of the ball relative to the plate.”

“It?”

“The umpire’s a machine,” Tim said.

“Reckon I’ve heard ’em called worse.”

“Good call,” Mason said. He watched the catcher return the ball to the mound in a single fluid motion. The creature didn’t even shift position for the throw.

Time for an adjustment, thought Mason, I’ll just ease back from the plate a little. If the next pitch came in like all the others, he’d go for it. Probably have to come around pretty hard, but maybe he could send it down the first base line.

“Okay,” he muttered, “bring it on.”

“What inning is it again?” Armstrong asked.

“Bottom of the ninth,” Cobb said.

“Two outs?”

“One.”

The pitcher’s head swiveled on motionless shoulders, taking in the position of the runner at first, a kid named Johnson. The head swiveled back.

Mason swallowed. He watched the now-familiar, easy rocking motion that heralded the next launch. The pitcher came to a full stop, his glove hiding the ball in front of him. He held the pose briefly before stepping back, his throwing arm scribing the lower part of an arc.

Suddenly, the pitcher became immobile, like a robot that had just lost power. It stood motionless for a moment, then straightened up, arms falling to either side.

“Balk!” Cobb yelled. “It’s a balk.” He looked at Tim and rocked his phantom chair forward until it stood upright. “The runner advances. It’s automatic.”

“That’s not what I had in mind,” Tim said.

“Doesn’t matter. It’s a balk.”

Armstrong’s see-through figure sat forward, too. “Cobb, you’ve gotta be the most hard-headed, ill-mannered–”

Cobb crossed his arms. “Rules is rules. All I–”

Tim stabbed two fingers at the control console. Instantly, the two historical figures froze, then dissolved, along with their argument.

Tim tried to rub the headache from his temples; it didn’t work. With the program canceled, there was no need to continue the power feed to the neural net. He flipped one more switch on the console. The text was safely stored in his own computer which he also powered down. It was late. He should have returned the machine to his mother’s office hours ago, but since no one else was home he’d used the extra time to his advantage.

The machine was small but extremely heavy. He said a silent thank you to his mother for having the foresight to mount the experimental unit on casters. He rolled it out of his room then down the hall and into her office.

Once back in his own room, he slipped out of his shoes and collapsed into bed.The alarm clock buzzed a few inches from Tim’s ear.

“Five,” he groaned, and the clock went silent for precisely 300 seconds. When it started up the second time, it was louder than before. Tim decided whoever came up with that concept should be put to death. Immediately.

“Okay,” he mumbled, but not loud enough to satisfy the clock. The mechanical bee continued to buzz.

“Okay!” This time the command was met with silence.

After a quick shower, Tim fixed himself a bite to eat and rolled the workstation back into his bedroom.

Though his mother usually spent her waking hours at the university, she would occasionally come home unannounced. She often brought an administrator or two. Therefore, Tim had no intention of leaving the machine out of position. Not that Dr. Thomas would be angry, she generally allowed him considerable latitude when it came to his studies. The problem was the school officials. The university had lavished hard-won grant money on the neural net. The bean counters wouldn’t be happy to learn that a professor’s son was using it to do his homework.

“Time to wake up the Experts.” He reached for the controls.

Until the advent of the neural net, the term “Expert program” had only one meaning. In the traditional sense, it was a program which “learned” and then acted on the new knowledge. Most often employed in manufacturing and monitoring situations, the programs adjusted to varied input and chose appropriately from sets of responses provided by humans.

Tim powered up the net and linked it with the University system. Security was nonexistent since no one could gain access unless they were equipped with one of the heavy, super-cooled devices at Tim’s feet. His mother was the unit’s principal designer, and only a dozen prototypes had been built.

A single cable allowed command strings to be fed from Tim’s computer to the net. He kicked off the retrieval sequence for Tyrus Raymond (“Ty”) Cobb.

In moments the ghostly, three-dimensional image of the feisty ballplayer from the previous century was projected near the wall beside Tim’s desk. The image was based on photos taken of Cobb late in his career. Though dressed in his Detroit Tigers uniform, he carried a straight back chair instead of bat, ball, or glove. Tim wondered what the programmers who did the simulacrum had in mind.

Cobb promptly sat in his chair and rocked backward until it rested on phantom back legs against the wall. He looked in Tim’s direction and nodded a silent greeting.

“Mornin’,” Tim said.

The ballplayer began his never-ending inspection of the cuticle on his left index finger. Tim hoped the programmers had supplied his other Expert with a few more mannerisms or at least made him more sociable. He keyed in the retrieval sequence for Neil Alden Armstrong.

The second apparition came into focus as quickly as the first and walked directly to Tim’s bed and sat down. Of course, the image had no mass and could not really interact with its surroundings, but that hadn’t stopped the programmers from devising a method of scanning the projection “surface” and calling up routines to allow the image to appear to interact. Armstrong stretched out, his head floating slightly off the pillow.

“Welcome back,” Tim said. “Ready?”

“Roger,” Armstrong said.

Cobb nodded.

Tim pressed a few keys, and the text of his story materialized in the center of the room.

After a matter of seconds, the pitcher restarted his wind-up.

“I still say it’s a balk,” Cobb said.

“Give it a rest, will you?” Armstrong turned to Tim. “Go on kid, you’re doing fine.”

Mason had no idea what the pitcher was up to but guessed it had something to do with the way he addressed the plate. He stepped forward.

The pitcher’s mound seemed miles away due to the field’s exaggerated dimensions. Mason knew he’d have a hard time spotting the ball, especially if it arrived on an absolutely flat trajectory, but he was as ready as he’d ever be.

“I don’t get it,” Cobb said.

Tim looked at the grizzled ballplayer. “Get what?”

“Nobody can throw an absolutely flat pitch. I know, and I’ve seen some of the best. Fastballs, sliders, curves, hell, it don’t matter. The ball’s gonna move. Maybe down, maybe away, maybe inside. But not flat.”

“Oh, really?” Armstrong asked. “Have you ever thrown a rock on the moon?”

“‘Course not. Have you?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh.”

“The kid’s right,” Armstrong said. “The ball would move faster, but you can forget about curves and sliders.”

“Why?”

“No air. There’s nothing for the surface of the ball to react against. Knuckleball? Forget it. It’d float out there like it was hung on a string.”

“Change-up?”

“Might work, but it’d get to the plate in slow motion, just like a knuckler.”

“A hitter’s dream.” Cobb sighed.

“Maybe.”

Tim advanced the text.

Mason saw the wind-up, but not the ball, since the grey-white blur was nearly camouflaged by the pitcher’s suit. He tensed, held his swing for a fraction of a second and then whipped the bat around for all he was worth. He made contact over the outside of the plate, his swing carrying him full-circle.

The coach’s voice in his headset screamed at him to run. The bat drifted slowly away as he began the marathon charge toward first base some 165 meters away. He had no idea where the ball was. A homer maybe? He couldn’t tell; the leveled edge of the crater which served as the outfield fence was beyond the horizon.

“Now just hold on here,” Cobb drawled. “I’d kinda like to know when the fence got shoved into another state.”

Armstrong’s eyes and nostrils flared in unison. “It’s because they’re playing on the moon, you idi–”

“Uhm, I can explain,” Tim said. A fight might be interesting, assuming the programmers had coded some hand-to-hand combat routines. He made a mental note to check that out later. “I had to stretch the size of the field because any decent hit would almost put the ball in orbit.”

“He’s right again,” Armstrong said.

“So, how far is it to the center field fence?”

“I’m picturing the crater’s edge at about 700 meters from home plate,” Tim said.

Cobb looked dubious. “What’s that in real terms?”

“Real?”

“He means feet and inches,” said the astronaut.

“Feet’ll do.”

Armstrong looked at Cobb with an absolutely straight face. “Guess you’d call it a ‘ballpark’ figure.”

Tim ignored him. “If a field on Earth is around 400 feet, it’d be around 2,400 on the moon, assuming one-sixth gravity. I didn’t figure in any differences for atmosphere.”

2,400?” Cobb whistled. “Tough park.”

Mason lumbered toward first with a modified skip-step. He glanced to his left to check on the runner moving to second. He still had no idea where the ball was.

“Hustle, Mason!” The coach’s voice in his headphone was insistent. Precious little distance remained between Mason and first base when the coach yelled again, “Go for two!”

Mason rounded the bag and clumped toward second; his teammate headed for third as the ball sailed in on a shallow arc. The shortstop took it chest-high, whirled, and fired it toward third.

Mason watched in horror as the runner took a last, exaggerated step toward the base while twisting to look over his shoulder at the same time. The ball streaked in and careened off his faceplate; the third baseman followed it into left field. The runner crumpled.

From second, Mason screamed, “Time!” and raced toward the downed man who grabbed at his facemask.

“Smart,” Cobb said. “Can’t leave base without callin’ time first.”

“What an incurable romantic,” Armstrong said.

Mason reached Johnson, dropped to his knees and looked up at the players from the other team for assistance. They offered none. The third baseman strolled over and touched them both with the ball.

Mason glared at him.

Air boiled out of a crack in the thoroughly fogged faceplate of Johnson’s helmet. Mason could only imagine the terror on the player’s face.

“Stand by.” The voice of the trainer rang calmly in Mason’s ear, though the calm was not intended for him. “We’re on our way.”

Mason looked over his shoulder and saw several figures headed in his direction. They carried an inflated medevac tube and auxiliary life-support gear. Mason pressed gloved hands on the damaged faceplate hoping to cut off any more escaping air. The effort seemed futile.

Cobb grunted. “Believe I’d be gorilla huntin’ on my next slide.”

“Bad idea,” Armstrong said.

“Why? Ya gotta look out for your own; can’t just let ’em beat the crap out of ya’.”

“I meant sliding would be a bad idea. Might tear the suit.”

“I don’t think so,” Tim said. “The fabric used in suits nowadays is pretty tough.”

“Too bad he can’t file those cleats—make ’em a little more interesting.” Cobb glanced back at the text.

The emergency team pushed Mason out of the way and quickly zippered the injured player inside the medevac tube. Once sealed, the interior was pressurized and flooded with oxygen. The injured man was hastily carried off the field.

Mason got to his feet.

“Back to second.” The coach’s voice was tense, “Game’s not over yet.”

“Who’s runnin’ for Johnson at third?”

“Nobody. Johnson’s out.”

“They’re gonna count that tag?”

“Sure. Cameras had him from two different angles. He never touched the base.”

“Wonderful. Will he be okay?” Mason didn’t know him well; the player had just joined the team.

“Dunno, probably. Just concentrate on the game. We only need one run.”

Mason passed the shortstop on his way back to second. Like the others, it crouched motionless between pitches. Mason wondered if it was even alive.

The last of the text scrolled out of sight.

“That’s it so far,” Tim said. “I wanted to finish it this afternoon and then have you two look at it.”

“Fine with me,” Armstrong said.

Cobb nodded. “It ain’t like we’re going somewhere.”

“It’s just…” Tim’s voice trailed off.

“What?” asked the astronaut.

“I’m not sure which way to go with the ending.”

“Can’t help you there,” Cobb said. “Rules is rules.”

Tim shrugged. “I know. It’s gotta be my own work.”

He reached down to the console and flipped a switch. The images of the Experts faded away. Cobb’s response neither surprised nor disappointed him. The assignment was typical of a mid-term for courses leading to a Holistic Liberal Arts degree.

Everything about the program was interdisciplinary. Tim was expected to meld diverse ideas in unusual settings. The baseball story was his attempt to do just that.

Tim completed the story by mid-afternoon. Unless the Experts found major problems with it, he figured he’d have something suitable to turn in by the following morning’s deadline. The phone hummed just as he prepared to summon Cobb and Armstrong. He thumbed a switch on the edge of his desk, and his mother’s image appeared on his monitor.

“Hi,” he said. “Another long weekend?”

“Yes.” She sighed. “More problems with the net. Some of the Experts have been acting a little less than professional.”

“Oh? Anything serious?”

“Probably not. Anyway, I remembered you wanted to give the system a try and thought I’d warn you not to take anything an Expert says too seriously.”

“Now there’s an interesting piece of advice.” Tim laughed. “I know they aren’t real.”

Dr. Thomas smiled at him from the screen. “Wish I could be home sooner, but–”

“I know, ‘duty calls.'”

“It also pays the bills. Love you. Don’t wait up.” Her image faded.

Tim smiled and shook his head. He tapped in the codes for the ballplayer and the astronaut. In moments the three were reviewing Tim’s text.

Mason eased off the bag toward third. He wasn’t about to be fooled by the power in the catcher’s throwing arm, so he kept close enough to get back if the need arose. He watched as the first two pitches blistered past the batter: strikes. Both appeared high and inside. Damn strange strike zone, thought Mason, but if arguing with an umpire was futile, arguing with a mechanical one was downright stupid.

The third pitch started like the previous two, a missile headed unerringly for the plate. For some reason, the catcher flinched. The ball glanced off his glove and angled away with only slightly less speed than it had on impact. Instantly, the catcher was up and in pursuit.

Just as quickly, the coach’s voice rang out. “Run, Mason, run!” he screamed. Mason ran.

Taking giant, loping strides, Mason prayed he’d be able to stop without overshooting the target or having his headgear shattered by an angry throw.

The third baseman was crouched, arms extended toward home, blocking his path. Mason had too much momentum to stop standing up. He’d have to slide.

“Hot damn,” Cobb said. “Hope he gets those cleats up!”

Armstrong frowned. “Is it true you played with Attila the Hun?”

“Not that I recall. There was a big Swedish kid played for us one year. I forget his name, but he had a hell of an arm.”

“Never mind.”

“Couldn’t hit shit in a sock–”

“I said never mind!”

After seeing Johnson’s faceplate damaged, Mason had no intention of trying a head-first slide. He shifted his weight and leaped, legs outstretched.

He didn’t see the catcher release the ball, but he saw the blur as it headed for the base. Mason hit the surface and slid behind the defender.

He rolled to his left and flung out an arm to anchor himself to the bag as he went by. During one of those insane, adrenalin-induced moments of lucidity that seem to slow time to a crawl, Mason wondered what would happen if he pulled the bag loose and kept on sliding. Would he be safe as long as he hung on?

“Never thought of that,” muttered Cobb.

Armstrong squinted at him. “Amazing.”

“What would happen?” asked the ballplayer.

Tim grinned. “I’ve no idea. Besides, you’re the Expert.”

Cobb suddenly rediscovered the cuticle on his left index finger.

Third base held. Mason waited until the defender threw the ball back to the mound before he got up.

Despite tremendous advances in technology, space suits still weren’t as supple as sweatsuits. He got to his feet, but Mason was still winded.

“Good job,” said the coach.

“Thanks.” Mason eyed the brute roaming toward him then glanced back at the batter. The count was displayed in colored lights above the umpire: one green, two red.

While everyone concentrated on the scene between the mound and the tableau at home plate, no one saw the third baseman step down on Mason’s foot, pinning him to the bag. He was too startled to cry out, which was all the time it took for the defender to step away from him, the picture of innocence.

“That’s low,” Armstrong said. “Could he get away with something like that?”

Cobb grimaced. “Only once, if I was in the game.”

Mason was capable of only one thought: PUNCTURE! “Coach! Oh gawd. Coach–” he called, staring down at his boot, expecting to see a mixture of blood and air boiling out into the vacuum. Which is when the batter laid a perfect bunt down the third base line.

“Wake up, Mason!” screamed the coach.

“But my–” he started, then realized there was no damage. “I–“

“Run!”

As he left the base, Mason elbowed the third baseman in the gut. There didn’t seem to be any reaction, but he hoped it might at least slow the creature down. Mason surged toward home with the defender close behind.

The pitcher scrambled toward the ball which shot down the base path. Mason leaped to avoid him. The coach’s voice in his earphone urged him on.

All knees and elbows in his mad dash for home, Mason thought briefly of how Johnson had been cut down only minutes before. He shook it off and ran harder.

He was dimly aware of the ball sailing past his shoulder and saw it smack into the catcher’s mitt. He narrowed his focus to a single objective. He was going to the plate whether the catcher stood in his way or not. If that meant taking parts of the big monkey with him, then so be it.

The catcher had the ball and faced Mason flat-footed. The distance between them evaporated. Running hard, Mason put his head down.

The catcher braced himself for the impact.

The collision occurred in silence.

~The End~

The last of the text rolled off the screen.

“Bravo,” Armstrong said. “A bit Zen for my tastes, but well done.”

Tim grinned.

“That’s it?” Cobb asked. “You’re gonna leave it like that?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Well, because ya’ just can’t! It– It ain’t finished.”

Tim smiled, reached down to the console and touched the control studs. Cobb and Armstrong evaporated.

Standing beside his desk, Tim stretched and yawned. He almost looked forward to his next midterm and even had a few ideas. Indeed, he couldn’t help but wonder how Peyton Manning and Jacques Cousteau would get along.

~End~

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Writer Warm Ups (Encore)

Dollarphotoclub_89277699 smMost of us are creatures of habit. Writers, especially, fall into that category. We’re probably not as bad as big-league baseball players who have more rituals than a pasture full of priests, but we, too, can be pretty odd when it comes to warm-ups. Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and more recently, Stephen Pressfield (War of Art*), all recited Homer’s “Invocation of the Muse” before plunging into their work.

(This intrigued me enough to look for a copy Homer hairof the esteemed poet’s immortal words. Alas, they were written in ancient Greek, a language clearly beyond my humble skills. So I went looking for a translation. Just one. I found… many. This link should take you to a list of seven, one of which may get you fired up, and if so, more power to ya! However, the variations left me wondering if they all really started with the same text. [shrug])

All that aside, it’s probably a good idea to observe a bit of ritual before launching into a writing session. It could be a simple thing like pouring a cup of coffee and reviewing the previous work session’s output, and that’s about the extent of mine. Or it might call for tidying up one’s workspace before digging in, but clearly, I’m guessing at this as I’ve never straightened up a work area in my life. (Ask my bride, but also check out the photo of Mark Twain’s workspace.) No one will think ill of you if you do something minimal. We’re writers, after all, not automatons. We don’t need a ceremony, an extensive set of exercises, and/or ritual ablutions before we get busy. Right?

Ballplayers, on the other hand, have been known to go to serious extremes before, during, and after they get down to business. Buttoning and unbuttoning batting gloves, not changing “lucky” socks (or [shudder] underwear), taking a precise number of practice swings, spitting on, at, over, or around home plate — all are common practices. There are worse things I suppose. Animal sacrifice comes immediately to mind.

Most of us aren’t athletic enough to qualify for the pros, so we can settle for more modest efforts and perform our rituals in the privacy of our own workspace. For some, just having some sort of workspace to claim would be a big improvement. If you don’t have your very own spot, consider finding one as a goal for the coming year. You won’t regret it.

game face

Now here’s a game face!

For those rare types who don’t have any writing rituals, pray tell, what’s wrong with you? Isn’t it high time you got your game face on? Writing is serious business, so if you want to get started on the right track, do something serious! Challenge the Muse to back off and let you wing it on your own. To paraphrase a line from “Blazing Saddles,” you don’t need no stinkin’ muse!

Just get busy.

Until next time,

–Josh

*The full title is The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.

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Historical tidbits revisited (Encore)

Q: What, exactly, is a historical tidbit, and if not used as a plot point, what good is it?

A: It’s merely a history writer’s gold.

If you click on the illustration above, you’ll see a larger version. Wikipedia says this is the “Musei Wormiani Historia,” the frontispiece from the Museum Wormianum depicting Ole Worm‘s cabinet of curiosities. In other words, it’s an entire collection of historical tidbits, or at least the physical kind.

If you’re writing a story set in a specific historical period, tossing in a reference or two about something common back then but obscure now does at least two things: it provides an interesting glimpse into the day-to-day business of living in that period, and it suggests to the reader that the writer knows whereof he or she speaks.

Consider a story set in the early 20th century, just over a hundred years ago. Even though motor cars had been around for a good 20 years, paved roads were still largely a novelty.  In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Ramsey, an adventuresome gal from New Jersey, climbed into her brand new, 30 horsepower Maxwell and headed due West. She became the first woman to drive completely across the country. She covered over 3,600 miles, and yet barely 150 of them were paved.

As late as the 1930s, streets in Manhattan were being paved with bricks. Imagine how such travel conditions might impact your story. Imagine traveling without a map or directions, let alone a GPS!

Here’s another thought, especially if you’ve got something of a political thriller in mind, and you’d like to use that same period. Imagine you’re standing outside the White House, smack in the middle of Washington, DC, when all of a sudden the lawn mowers appear. They’re pictured below.

The point here, of course, is to use these details to your advantage. If your character must walk across the White House lawn, there’s a better than even chance that he’ll arrive at the portico with something unpleasant on his shoes. Wouldn’t that make for an interesting scene?

Step back less than a generation, and sideways a bit to reach New York City, and you no longer have to worry about sheep droppings. Instead, you’ll have to navigate streets populated with about 170,000 horses pulling wagons, trolleys, and a wide range of other wheeled vehicles.  Assuming these animals were reasonably well cared for, each one would produce several pounds of manure and a quart of urine each day. Where do you suppose it all went? According to published reports, the city had no sanitation department in the 1800s.

And when one of those poor creatures died, the carcass was left where it fell until it rotted down enough to make its removal more manageable.

Knowing such details is one thing, using them is another. It’s not a writer’s job to hammer historical facts into the reader’s head. Just because you dug up these tidbits doesn’t mean your readers must review them, too. Tidbits work best when they become part of the setting. What might be natural to someone living in New York at the turn of the 19th/20th century may have been shocking to someone from the future. But you don’t have to write science fiction to take advantage of such gems. Someone living a few hours away from New York might have a similar reaction.

Knowing your historical setting, and immersing yourself in it, gives you the opportunity to bring it to life. It’s normal, everyday stuff to your characters, but to your readers, it may well be the most interesting thing they encounter all day.

–Josh

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Okay, so where does this fit in? (Encore)

Imagine you’re going to write some historical fiction. It could be a short story; it could be a novel, or it could be something in between. You’ve got a great idea: wrap the story around a compelling but little-known smidgen of history. Your intent is to rescue that tidbit from obscurity and use it as a fulcrum on which to lever your vision of events to dizzying heights.

The whole enterprise is so tempting, you all but drool in your eagerness to begin. Except for one tiny detail: you don’t have a clue what that historical tidbit might be.

Ahem. Allow me to suggest a few possibilities gleaned from an entirely cursory stint of online browsing.

1) Back in the day — during the Industrial Revolution, but before the invention of the alarm clock — a squad of peculiar markspersons was employed to shoot peas at the windows of factory workers to wake them up in time to report for work. And work like that was hard to pass up, even if you left a finger down at the factory.

I can imagine several scenarios where an interruption in this service might lead to catastrophe or at least some sort of conflict. And let’s not forget, conflict is at the heart of every good story.

2)  In the middle ages, people believed that sperm coming from the left testicle produced girls. Men who wanted only sons had it removed. Keep in mind, that during this time the folks doing the surgery were more commonly employed as barbers.

I can only begin to imagine how many truly awful outcomes such misguided notions could generate, but a story told from almost any viewpoint could be quite interesting.

3) The Law Of Unintended Consequences: While Pope Gregory IX was in power in the 1200s, he declared that cats were linked to devil worship and had countless numbers of them killed. It’s thought by many that the disappearance of those cats caused an explosion in the rat population which in turn aided in the spread of the bubonic plague or Black Death which ultimately killed hundreds of millions of people in the 1300s.

I’m thinking of an “I told ya so” sort of character.

4)  At the beginning of the American Civil War, the commander of the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee, did not own any slaves. The victor of the conflict, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, did. Furthermore, the constitution of the Confederate States of America banned the trade of slaves while the Union constitution did not. Oh, and just so you know, the first slaves in America were the Irish.

If you can’t find a story in there somewhere, you’re just not trying hard enough!

5)  Red rover, red rover: In WWII the Russians trained dogs with bombs strapped to their backs to run under tanks. At the appropriate time, with German tanks advancing, the dogs were released. Alas, they were only trained to run under Russian tanks and ignored the invader’s armor entirely. Instead, they did as they were taught, running under Russian tanks and blowing them up instead.

For someone who loves dogs, like me, there’s a delicious comeuppance in that. There may not be enough story stuff here for a novel, but it’d sure make for an explosive short story.

6) Though credited with many cultural advances and military victories, Peter the Great had a seriously “less than great” side. Many scholars believe he had his wife’s lover, Willem Mons, beheaded. He then had the head preserved in alcohol and put on display where his wife would always see it. (The head now resides in the Kunstkamera, Russia’s first museum.)

I’m not sure whose point of view I’d employ in the retelling of this, but it could be interesting.

History, it’s way too weird to be made up!

–Josh

Posted in Historical writing, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Psychology of the Page (Encore)

If you’re a reader, you’ve probably looked at a million pages. If your reading material of choice tends to be hard-copy novels (paperbacks or hardbacks) as opposed to digital books, you have no say in how the page looks. What you see is what you get. Writers, on the other hand, do have some options. We can seriously influence the way our books look, and I’m not just talking about independent publishers. Even if you publish traditionally, you might want to give some thought to just how the pages of your book, look.

If you favor lengthy, involved paragraphs, rich with exposition, description and other collections of detail, there’s a good chance your pages will generally consist of solid chunks of unrelieved text. The Bible (sans illustrations) and just about anything by Ayn Rand are good examples. Note the two page mock-ups which follow.

The one on the left has very little white space. In fact, almost every line is maxed out. The page on the right is much more relaxed. The paragraphs are shorter. There’s probably some dialog, which would account for the extremely short entries. Now, without knowing the actual content of either page, which one do you find more inviting? Which is more intimidating? Perhaps more to the point, which of these pages will take longer to read? Should that matter? Probably not. But does it matter? I think so. I believe this one issue, call it “text density,” could very well contribute to a reader’s perceptions of the story.

It works in a couple ways. In the most obvious instance, readers are moving faster through the book since there’s less text on every page. Seems simple enough. Those pages are being flipped in a hurry; the reader races through the story, and before he or she knows it, they’ve reached the end. Writers always love to hear they’ve created a page-turner. If a writer chooses to write with a little white space in mind, they can actually create one.

Then too, consider the over-all length of a book. The average novel runs between 80-100 thousand words. Let’s say yours is smack in the middle: 90K. How many pages will that require? Font size is critical; a book set in 14-point type will take 40% more pages than one set in 10-point, assuming the style is the same. Text density can also have an effect. White space can add a significant number of pages, perhaps as much as 10 or 20% more.

Imagine you’re standing in one of those little airport shops perusing the available paperbacks. You’ve got a five-hour flight ahead of you, and you want something to help you kill time. You find two books that appeal to you. One of them is 250 pages of small, dense type; the other is 350 pages of bigger type with lots of white space. The bigger book costs two bucks more. Which one will you buy?

I’m guessing the majority of readers will spend the extra money. I certainly would.

Of course, all of this is based on a much more important premise: that you’ve written a book which is absolutely worth reading–no matter what font you used, or how much white space you employed. None of that will save a lousy story, unsatisfying characters, or a hackneyed plot. A bad book will remain a bad book no matter how lovingly it’s laid out.

–Josh

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