A life of integrity is the most fundamental source of personal worth. -Stephen Covey
While sorting through old notes for a novel-in-progress, I encountered a tattered-edged piece of construction paper covered in hasty script, portions scribbled out or marked through. It is a writing warm-up assigned in a former writing group. I don’t recall the specific list of words or themes we were required to incorporate; however, given a few word and phrases that I would not normally use together i.e. unicorn and Don Corleone, I can guess.
We’d create eclectic lists of items, names, story elements, etc., and then we’d write furiously for, say, fifteen minutes. Our goal was to create a scene or a complete story within those limits.
I rarely met the goal, although tantalizing ideas might arise from the unexpected mix of elements.
The one written on construction paper is almost a complete flash fiction, and the ending line is an unconscious reflection of my own childhood (and grownup) feelings of being value-less and a failure.
“Little Johnny!” Mrs. Callahan called from the apartment window and pointed toward the playground. “Yer kid’s stuck again!”
Johnny was no longer the neighborhood wimp, but he was still saddled with a nickname no self-respecting fortysomething would answer to, unless he was gangster for Don Corleone.
Sighing, he veered from the sidewalk and jogged toward the weathered playground equipment. The colors had faded on the plastic slides, and the paint was chipping off the swingsets.
“Lily!” he called. “Lily, it’s Daddy!”
A muffled sniffle betrayed his daughter’s hiding place. He crossed the spongy woodchips and rapped his knuckles gently against the plastic tunnel that linked two halves of the play fort.
“Are you hurt?”
“I’ll get out by myself!”
Lily, unfortunate child, was as plump as he had been at her age. Why she insisted on playing in this tunnel, he did not know. It was as if she refused to acknowledge the impossible physics. Her girth would never sausage its way to the other side, but she seemed determined to make the tunnel conform to her dimensions.
His heart ached for her. If only her beloved fairy tales were true — “Oh, look! A unicorn has come to grant a wish to a pure-hearted little girl!” — except that his wish for her wouldn’t be the ability to traverse the tunnel but to see her own worth.
I’ll be posting some short stories to Kindle in the coming days and weeks, and they’ll be around .99 or so, and will cover a variety of genres.
The first is “Awake”, a romance in brief — in house robe and slippers, to be more precise — told from the perspective of Cale, a photographer who’s not sure he has what it takes, and Penn, a writer and long-time friend who talks in her sleep. It’s a quiet little tale, but it’s inspired by real people, a real dog, and a dream.
Click on the image below to order the story. Enjoy!
Below is a piece of flash fiction written during tonight’s writers meeting. What a blast!
Each person contributed a portion of the premise: An eccentric millionaire lives in the basement of an apartment building, makes duct tape wallets for a hobby, always wears sunglasses (even indoors and at night), looks like an old grandmother, and makes rock-hard cookies.
We had about twenty minutes or so to create our masterpieces. The resulting stories were all over the place, from outright comedies to dark histories.
Mine falls more toward the comedic side. I forgot the duct tape wallets, but included an homage to Tim Hawkins. Enjoy!
What Big Teeth You Have
I settle the sunglasses on my face and shuffle up the basement steps, rock music growing louder as I near the door leading to the lobby. In my pockets are the cookies I made earlier–hard enough to break a tooth. Or a young punk’s skull.
I unlatch the door and step into the hallway, the muted lights still blinding even through the dark lenses, and I blink, orienting myself. Music–if it can be called that–booms along the corridor and echoes in the lobby.
This is a nice place. Grandaddy built it as a luxury hotel, Uncle turned it into penthouses, and I inherited it after a family– Well, let’s just call it a domestic dispute.
Or a blood feud, if the absolute truth must be told.
Teenagers, the spoiled progeny of wealthy parents, pass around bottles of brandy and single-malt, drape themselves over furniture created by Fifth Avenue clothing designers, or dance to the jungle beats reverberating from the sound system stacked discreetly behind a potted acacia tree in one corner.
I put a hand into the pocket of my housedress and pull out a handful of cookies. “Pardon me,” but my voice is drowned by a howling note that pierces my skull even as it calls to my ancient blood. My ears twitch under the white hair holding them close to my head, and a bristle of hair stands upright along my spine.
Now, now, you mustn’t hurt them, but the cookies are already airborne, hitting their marks with greater accuracy than one might expect from a shaky little old woman like me.
The kids flinch and curse and look around. Blood trickles down one pup’s head, filling the air with its sharp metallic tang.
Below is a re-blog of a post over on Adventures in Fiction, a blog by Keanan Brand. He discusses feedback he recently received for a story in progress, and decides what he wants more: applause or participation?
Wake from death and return to life.
Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki.
There are even bugs who eat knotweed.
(To each his own.)
I’ve been developing a short fantasy set in Japan, in an era and a culture about which I know little. That means delving into reading about all manner of topics: honorifics, architecture, food, names, proverbs. I’m tempted to fill the story with Japanese terminology, but I don’t know what’s true to the period and what’s modern. And tossing in every word I learn would overwhelm the plot, and distract or annoy the reader, so I’m backing off, using the literary equivalent of a pinch of salt. A taste, not a stomachful.
An interesting dish — but who wants to eat it?
As with everything I write, I wonder, “Who’d want to read this? Am I writing only for myself? Am I okay with that?”
My reading at the most recent writers meeting was an attempt to answer those questions. I brought my first two thousand words of the Japanese fantasy and invited the other members to tear into it. The story needs to be solid, because it will be competing against other and far better writers, and I want to do my best so there are no regrets if I lose. No excuses.
The group followed along as I read but made few notes on their copies of the pages, which was unexpected. My own copy was littered with notes before the meeting ended. The responses were favorable, the speculations thick and fast, the suggestions and critiques constructive.
It was the most — what’s the word? —refreshingcritique session since, well, never.
In a prior group, my speculative stories were met with negativity, so I stopped sharing, stopped asking for feedback. The writer went into hibernation, and only the editor showed up for meetings.
At first, I believed the bad press: “Your stories are too difficult to understand” or “You’re not connecting with your audience.” While that may have been partly true, I came to realize that the audience — certain members of it — were never going to connect. Their understanding of and approach to reading left little room for deviations from their personal expectations: A story must look like this and not that.
With realization came renewed confidence. Nah, the audience didn’t change, but it stopped mattering. I could predict which of my stories they’d like — the more conventional ones — and which would make their eyes glaze and their mouths purse.
A new state and two writers groups later, I’ve landed with a mixed flock of hatchlings, most still in the nest, some just now recognizing their wings, some learning to fly. They’re fearless, though, sharing their earnest romances and troubled life stories, their awkward urban fantasies and sophisticated twisted fairy tales. They tell each other what they like and what they don’t understand, what’s not working and what piques their imagination.
The group works. I can’t explain it, but it works.
Maybe because the nasty black-hat villain Ego hasn’t arrived.
So I shared. They responded. It was good.
People have read my stories in publications, but it doesn’t necessarily occur to readers to contact authors and tell how the story affected them, how it stayed in their minds for days or roamed their dreams at night. How it made them cry, scream, laugh, think.
The response from my fellow writers the other night was like applause at a live play, accompanied by an honest but non-mean-spirited review.
I don’t need flattery or compliments or pats on the head.
As nice as it is, I don’t need applause.
What I crave? Capturing readers’ imaginations to such a degree that they fill in the details I didn’t describe. They journey alongside the characters, and talk to them, emote with them, live through them. The story matters so much to the readers they lose sleep to finish it. They argue with friends over why a character did this or said that. They can’t wait for the next story.
The following story is from Joyce Booze’s blog, Out of Church Tales. In this short glimpse of life in 1930s Oklahoma, travel back in time to when life was very different–
by Joyce Wells Booze
Time and Place: Late 1930s, Nuyaka, OK
From my birth in 1933 until I had completed second grade, my family lived much of the time in or around Nuyaka, OK, a small oil-boom community in Okmulgee County. Exceptions were one year in CA (1934-35), about 20 months in Arkansas (late fall of 1936 to summer of 1938) and 8 months in Truskett, (also known as Hog Shooter) OK (1941). Each time we returned “home” to Nukaya.
From the ages of 5 to 8, I became very familiar with Nuyaka’s residents. On most days, I walked the paths (no sidewalks) to one of the stores, to church or school, and on other errands, such as going to the local grist mill for cornmeal. I also walked past the modest home of Hardy Jones. I don’t remember his ever speaking to me nor I to him, but I do remember how curious the local residents were about Mr. Jones.
He didn’t work, although he seemed to be in good health and not too old – perhaps in his 50s. No one knew his source of income, but he had enough money for his needs and even a few luxuries…this in a time when hard-working people were struggling to make enough to buy food. Hardy lived alone, and so far as I know had no relatives or family visitors. In nice weather, he usually sat on his porch reading the newspaper and smoking a pipe.
That newspaper was the source of much village speculation. Mr. Jones had the Kansas City STAR mailed to him! No one else I knew bought or read a newspaper. Money was too scarce to spend on unnecessary items! To get the STAR by mail must have cost at least a dollar a month (I’m still trying to find out the exact cost.)
Some local residents wondered aloud if he had robbed a bank and read the STAR to see if the police were on his trail. Remember, these were Bonnie-and-Clyde days, and bank robberies were a much discussed topic. Others thought perhaps he owned land where oil was found and didn’t want to share his fortune with anyone. (A similar incident had happened to a local family.) Another suspicion was that he had left a wife and children somewhere and was hiding from them.
My dad occasionally talked to Mr. Jones. I remember one time Dad telling my mom that Mr. Jones thought another war was brewing in Europe. This was troubling news to my parents who still remembered WW 1 (1914-1918) which had been called “the war to end all wars.” Most Americans did not want to think of another war.
One story that I remember about Hardy Jones caused much mirth in the village. One Halloween night several young men on horseback (wanna-be cowboys) were out celebrating and playing jokes on unsuspecting residents. Since Nuyaka had no sewer system, each house had an outside toilet. The pranksters rode down an alley that ran behind several of these outhouses. Being “cowboys,” they roped the outhouses as they rode and dragged them over. The story is that Hardy Jones was in his outhouse when it was roped and was tumbled about, yelling fiercely. I probably wouldn’t believe this story but one of my cousins was in the group of riders and vouched for its truth.
Our family left Nuyaka in the summer of 1942, and I never knew how the mystery of Hardy Jones turned out. Was he a bank robber? An oil-boom rich man? A run-away husband? Whatever he was, speculations about him were a source of much entertainment in a small community where daily life was hard and any kind of excitement was welcome, even if it was fabricated.
Written for a contest several years ago, this story was also partly the result of a dare among fellow writers: who could write the best romance? According the strangers and friends alike, my name sounds like that of a romance writer.
Unfortunately, I write more in the fantasy / adventure vein, and romance among characters is difficult for me to write well. This time, however, was one of those rare instances when the story wrote itself.
Enjoy! And if you don’t, well, an honest critique is always welcome. It’s how I learn and improve.
By Honor Bound
She does not kneel. She does not bow her head. She does not utter frightened allegiance. She does not beg. She could be one of the Northwomen, strong, proud.
Bearskin cloak broadening his shoulders, the chieftain strides forward.
She does not flinch.
He strikes her with the back of his hand.
Her head snaps sideways. She almost stumbles but she stands, chin up, eyes defiant. Touching the red trickle running from her mouth, she licks the blood from her fingertip.
Watching from a short distance, Soren feels a surge of lust.
He smiles at his father’s frustration. The chieftain towers over her, his fists clasping and unclasping as if clutching for stolen power; in silence, she robs Asgard of control.
Long waves of honey-brown hair hang down her back and over her shoulders, falling past her hips. Despite the bruise blackening her cheek and jaw, her skin glows golden. She is accustomed to the sun. Through the tight-fitting sleeves of her silken kirtle, her arms show the sculpting of one to whom physical labor is not unknown. She is not the usual prize.
At her feet lays the pierced, bloody body of her betrothed, a fine-clad stripling with more heart than skill. Soren feels little pity for him. Better to die in glory, sword in hand, than to die slowly in the shadow of a woman stronger than he.
The chieftain growls an order, and men bind her hands behind her. “Put her on a horse!”
“On whose horse, Asgard?” one warrior asks. “We lost no men this day.”
A wicked eyebrow cocked, the chieftain grins. “Choose.”
Fighting, immediate and brutal, breaks out around her. She will belong to the man with whom she rides, as his slave or his wife.
“Soren? Have you no desire for her?” Asgard asks. “A woman in need of breaking?”
Soren considers her calm face and uncowed posture. “Not broken. Won.”
Asgard grunts. “Then win her. And bring the blood.”
Soren dismounts his sturdy north-bred horse and strides through the fray. Fools! To fight but leave the prize unguarded.
He hoists her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, and takes her to the only building still standing in the ruined village—a hut clinging to the hillside like a goat clinging to a mountain.
The fighting fades. A hush follows. He knows the men watch.
Kicking shut the door, he stands her on her feet, cuts her bonds then crosses his arms, studying her in the dim light sifting through cracks in the hovel walls.
Hands at her sides, she again defies the expected, not rubbing her wrists where the rope chafed them, and breathes in quiet evenness beneath the fitted silk of the kirtle. Gray-green eyes, the color of the sea under a stormy sky, gaze at him with unnerving steadiness. A plain leather belt girds her hips, the tongue of it falling between her thighs, a suggestive circumstance that stirs him once more.
Won. Not forced.
“I am Soren.” He is irritated at the unsettled feeling in his stomach. “Asgard, my father, gives you to me.”
“My betrothed is dead”—her voice as detached from emotion as the sun from the earth— “I belong to no one, nor do I give myself to any man.”
“Pride will not save you.” Soren uncrosses his arms and steps forward. Her posture makes her appear taller than she is; the top of her head does not even meet his chin.
He fumbles to find his argument. “Those men will take what you will not give, and your pride will diminish with each taking until the woman you are now will not know the woman you will become.”
Her smile, small though it is, curves full lips into rosy sarcasm. “The barbarian speaks with gilded tongue. If more of your kind wielded such skill with words, your wives would come more willingly to bed.”
He speaks more mockery than truth. “We take them fierce, and breed strong sons.”
“Who yields the strength?” Sea eyes glitter with battle. “The forceful fathers, or the long-suffering mothers? The wind howls against the mountain, but gentle rain carves the stones.”
He reaches for her. She spits in his face.
Dragging a finger through the warm spittle running into his beard, he places it into his mouth with deliberate mockery.
Her lip curls.
“Highness,” he wipes his face with a battle-stained sleeve, “there is only one way out of this hut. Only one way my honor remains unchallenged. Only one way your pride remains untouched.”
Fear crosses her face for the first time since the body of her beloved was tossed at her feet. As if to calm her fluttering heart, she raises a hand to the low neck of her kirtle—and draws a knife.
He flings up his forearm, hears the blade drag across the leather vambrace then twists the knife from her grasp. Hand to her throat, he pushes her back against the center post of the hut.
Her nostrils flare, her eyes narrow. Her pulse is warm beneath his palm.
“Clever, highness, but now what will you use? Teeth? Claws? Kicks? Those have never prevented me before.”
The shadow of sorrow behind the contempt in her eyes, and the slenderness of her throat beneath his broad hand, checks his anger. He nods toward a stool in the center of the floor and releases her.
Back as straight as a ship’s mast, she sits, smoothing the kirtle over her knees, turning the tongue of the girdle so that it drapes at her side.
Tapping the knife against his leg, he leans against the crude stone chimney. “The coastal kings are known for their prim ways. Oh, they have their secret lovers, but they have their public queens. And great price is placed on the purity of those queens.”
He pauses, searching her face for understanding. There is only hatred.
“You are pure, else no marriage contract would have been sealed between your father and that of your beloved.”
“Beck is not—was not—my beloved.” Her hands clench on her lap. “He was more brother than lover. He was kind. Brave.” Grief does not overcome her. Lifting her chin, she looks up at him, devoid of tears. “No matter what you do to me, Beck will be avenged.”
The man who wins her will never truly be the conqueror. Yet desire flames in him. He must have her.
“My father requires proof your defenses are breached, highness. Either you give yourself willingly, and I present the blood to Asgard, or I take you by force, and still present the blood to Asgard.”
She seems not to hear, her eyes thoughtful where once they were angry. “How is it you speak so well? You could almost be a noble in my father’s court.”
“Osric and his court are dead.”
“I am aware of my loss.”
How can she sit there, so calm and controlled, while everyone she knew or loved lays dead in the ruined streets?
A wild horse, anger gallops through him. He reins it in, slowing and deepening each breath. Whether angry at her stillness or at what was stolen from her, he refuses to surmise. Such thoughts are not for warriors.
“My mother was, like you, the daughter of a coastal king. It is her speech you recognize.“
“Did your father love your mother?”
“He named her wife.” The tendons in his neck tighten. “You seek to turn the point, highness, but—“
“Why did he give you me?”
“Perhaps you remind him of her.”
“Then why not take me himself?”
“He has women enough.”
“Will you strike me as he did?”
Soren shoves the knife into his belt and yanks her up from the stool. “You are mine.” He bends until their faces are a breath apart. “If you shame me today, I will shame you every day hereafter.”
“Gone is the silver speech,” she murmurs. “Without it, bedding will be an empty thing. For us both.”
“If words are what you want, I’ve words aplenty.”
She tugs at his belt. His body responds, hot and urgent. He reaches for her other arm to draw her to him.
Steel taps his chin. She holds the knife to his throat.
Slowly, he releases her and steps backward.
“I care not for your honor or your shame.” She retreats, placing only a wall of air between them, for he stands before the door.
Fury wars with lust. He says through clenched teeth, “You will regret those words, highness, after my father’s men have had you. Many times.” He forces a smile. “Drop the blade. Take pleasure in the inevitable.”
“It is you who will regret.” Her knife does not waver. “If I do this thing, none of the coastal kings will ransom me.”
“No ransom will be asked.”
The knife tips in her slackening fingers.
“Even if Asgard sought treasure through ransom,” he draws his war-sword from its battered leather sheath, “what is your knife to this?”
He burns, wanting her to come willingly to him, but his persuasions are at an end.
“You are a harsh suitor, Soren Asgardson.” She turns the blade toward her breast.
A chill stabs him. No warrior contemplates self-murder, for the soul is then doomed to wander forever, a dark haunt without hope of peace.
He leaps forward, sword thudding to the floor as he reaches both hands for the knife. Its tip scrapes her skin before he wrests it from her. He flings it to the floor. It lands with a clatter, crosswise to the sword.
She stares at him in unspoken combat. Soren gives way first, unable to batter against the despair in the sea-colored eyes.
“This takes too much time.” His words are sharp. “My father’s men expect to hear your cries by now. Or see me return with you across my shoulder, tamed into submission. They already question my honor.”
“If I do what you ask, do you swear to be kind to me from this day onward?”
He stares at her. Kind?
“Will you protect me from all others, and treat me as you might one of your own women? With the dignity accorded their strength?”
He sees again the black bruise left by Asgard’s hand, feels emotion he cannot name.
“Will you call me by name?”
“You swear to all of it?”
Voice hoarse, he replies, “Yes, high—“
Her name on his lips both disturbs and pleases him. Some captives fight, some go limp. The latter he does not want, and the former are often too much trouble. But this one grants him a gift that is already his by right, and gives it so humbly he is undone.
His body clamors for satisfaction; his self craves her esteem. To have the admiration of a strong woman only adds to the honor of a man, for her strength girds his.
Kneeling, he grabs the knife and draws the blade across his upper arm, where his sleeve hides the wound, and lets blood drip onto a dirty blanket crumpled on the broken-down bed.
“This will be Asgard’s proof.” He keeps his gaze on the blanket.
Rowena kneels, taking the knife from him, the touch of her fingers sending lightning bolts along his skin. Slicing off a piece of her kirtle, she binds the cut and pulls down his sleeve to cover the bandage. Only then does he look at her.
Her eyes watching his, she slides the knife back into her bodice.
He can scarce draw breath.
Leaning forward, enveloping him in her honey-colored hair, she takes his face in her hands and kisses him.
The kiss soft, her lips softer, when she withdraws, he is lost.
After a long gaze-locked moment, she takes the bloodstained blanket. “Honor what you swore, Soren Asgardson”—she hands him the war-sword as if she is already a wife preparing her husband for battle—“and your bed will never be cold.”