#NaNoWriMo2022: Day 4 with an Undercover Cop and a #Mystery. #Magic #ShortStories

Day 4 of National Novel Writing Month! We’re still with Private Miks Tavus on his sting operation to take down a dragon-egg smuggler. I didn’t get as far as I wanted with this one, but we are ramping up the tension, which is good.

Day 4, Story 2: Never Say Your Name

What’s the hag with the turban want?

Well, “hag” was as strong word—Tavus could see that now that the dusty lamp over his table lit her features. Sure, she had a few rivers of shadow on her face, a wart or two, but nothing out of the ordinary for an older woman…especially an older troll. Between the turban and all the sparkly garb, no one’s gonna look at her for more than a second.

IF she was the troll. Not enough evidence. Need more evidence.

With a sneer and a hitch-up of the pants, Farmboy straddled on back to his stool at the bar, but there was no more hee-hawing to be had from that pair. Fine.

“May I join you?”

Tavus motioned to the battered chair while Waitress came over with his stew. “And some fresh coffee for my guest here,” he ordered with a smirk. “Though frankly, Ma’m, I can’t imagine you want to socialize with the likes of me.”

No one else did. The loner’s posture had gone stiff. The pair of legit Trade Couriers were hissing something back and forth—hopefully not a hex. Not an uncommon thing—Couriers are damn competitive for clients. But a hex could cause Tavus’ badge to light up in deflection, and there goes this operation, right down the crapper.

The wind twirled in the snow outside leaving frozen curls upon the diner’s window, its whistle long and lonely. The Waitress tisked, wiped the counter. “Way past that wind’s bedtime. You two ought to send it home to its momma.”

If farmers love to talk about anything, it’s the weather.

“I was ready to give that wind a spanking last week. Fella blew my hay bales all over…” Off those two went, competing for the worst dealings with wind, judged by Waitress.

Tavus dared to sigh, just a little, and faced The Turban. “So what can I do for you, Ma’m?” He took care to let the broth dribble down his chin while he ate.

Turban looked back on her rock-still servant. Whatever she saw, Tavus guessed she didn’t like it. The lump of a servant hadn’t moved much in the two hours they’d been here. Sick, maybe? Turban’s jaw shifted, and her eyes flat. “Serving, or seeking?”

Typical opener for hiring a Trade Courier—good, I’m actually selling this. Tavus sucked the spoon thoughtfully before letting it clang loudly in his bowl. “Bit of both. Hoped to help a partner of mine tonight with his job, but this storm, think it held him up.”

Turban’s finger traced the swirls of ice on the window. “Seems we’re all held up tonight. Pity.”

“There is the Inn, you know,” Waitress lobbed the words over. “Pearl’s Price, just down the block. The night watchman would let you in.”

“I thank you, Waitress, but I am sure the storm will be parting soon.” She pulled out a thin pipe from the folds of her coat. “Is that why you didn’t approach my table? Your colleagues certainly weren’t shy when they first arrived, but I prefer not to employ occupied Couriers. You’re a greedy lot as it is.”

Contact, this could be my contact. “Right you are, Ma’m. We burn through money pretty fast.”

A wince—right at “burn.” She has to be the troll I’m looking for. But where are the dragon eggs? Hidden in her robes, by the servant? Dammit, I should have cased her better when she came in. No bags or cases. She’s gotta keep them someplace warm. And if she could fit a pipe that long in her clothes, she could probably stash an egg or two.

The wind howls angrily at the cold, cold night. Snow drifts start to reach up the diner window. It was going to be damn hard to maneuver out there without magic now. Even the Gaptooths were eyeing the snow anxiously. The walls of the diner pressed in, close, mingling everyone’s stink of the day. Tavus was certain he could hear the loner’s heartbeat from across the room.

“Traveling by moonlight—is that a problem?”

“Not at all.”

“Even on western roads?”

“Even then.”

“Then let us shake, Alexander, and mark your service.”

Alexander? Tavus raised an eyebrow. “Courier will do, Ma’m.”

“Nonsense. I loathe vague references.” She rose and held out her gnarled hand streaked with tobacco and ash. “You are an individual who deserves identity, even a false one. When the job is over, you are released from the name.” No human could smile the way she did then.

Something is very, very wrong. Miks better be careful, or he’s apt to lose more than his cover…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#NaNoWriMo2022: Day 3 with an Undercover Cop and a #Mystery. #Magic #ShortStories

Day 3 of National Novel Writing Month! I do so love a good police procedural, and wanted to try one of my own. Let’s see what life is like for a Private on a sting for the local law enforcement known as the Green Trenches.

Day 3, Story 2: Never Say Your Name

Half past eleven, and the troll still hadn’t showed. Private Miks Tavus rubbed his left temple and glared at the snow clinging to the diner’s window. If those plaid Gaptooth hicks at the counter hee-haw about the spotty cornstalk and diary girl one more time, I will blow my cover just to shut them up, he thought.

Which would be a pity, because Tavus had worked pretty damn hard on it. Picked up a clawed leather coat and bloodstained pants from the morgue. Used his day off to forge a new ID at the Records Office (probably shouldn’t have done that, but if he makes this collar, it won’t matter). Even gave himself a black eye and bloody lip to complete the look of a Trade Courier down on his luck. Just another loner on the roads, hunkering down in this random farming town until the snow blows over…

…when in reality he’s on his first undercover assignment for the Pips Row Green Trenches.

“And then the girrrl told the wife, ‘those ain’t his moles, lady, them’s—”

“Ack, Farmboy, you’re gonna make me gag,” the waitress groaned as she smacked one of the farmers with her notepad. Her curves looked none too comfortable in the drab grey dress most hospitality folks where in these parts, but she glided easily enough among the smoke and dimly lit tables. Only a few others sat in the diner besides Tavus and the Gaptooths: a couple legit Trade Couriers with their sacks tucked under the table, some old sequined hag with a turban and her servant, and another loner.

That one…something off about him. He sat in the far corner with his back to the wall. He never took his bushy scarf or hat off, even to slurp his broth. Squat and wide, like many trolls, and he could be keeping his hat on to hide the giveaway plants that grow atop troll heads instead of hair.

But why hide it? Pips Row sees its share of trolls and elves and goblins and were-folk like any other town. Maybe less, because of the Gaptooth hicks, but still.

Trolls aren’t for trapping themselves, either. If they can get at the dirt, they will escape you no matter what power your badge wields. And that was the last thing Private Miks Tavus wanted. If he was to catch the Dragon-Egg Smuggler, he needed his suspect to reveal the route before another piece of the downtown caught fire.

If he only knew what his suspect looked like.

“Waiting for someone?”

Miks Tavus’ eyes shifted from the window to the waitress. Not a young thing, but still looked good in those heeled boots of hers. One strand of her green hair peeked out from her white snood.

“You been sitting here a solid two hours drinking Merl knows how much coffee. How about a little beef stew? Farmboy over there brought the meat in fresh this morning.”

Dammit, I’m obvious. “Sure.” Tavus leaned back, scratched his chest. “Snow’ll freeze me up fast enough once I’m back on the road…” Double-dammit, don’t look at her chest for a nametag. “…Waitress.”

Names. People protected them in Pips Row like they were gold. For some reason, the moment any kid around here got their apprenticeship, you stopped using their names and went by profession instead. Old Corporal down at Headquarters once said it had to do with a sorceress gathering names up, doing some sort of Tampering with them years back.

Just one more thing Miks Tavus had to learn for himself after being assigned to this weird intersection of the country.

Waitress gave him the once-over and saw the blood on his pants. Good. “Not easy out there.”

“Nope.”

“Where ya headed?”

“West.”

The hee-hawing stopped. Both Gaptooth Farmboys peered over at Tavus from the counter. “Them’s the wilds, Courier. Geese territory.”

Just stare at your coffee, Miks. Don’t give’em the fightin’ eye. “Yup.”

Tavus could hear the groan of the bench as one Farmboy straddled over. The smell of manure and magic churned Tavus’ stomach, but he remained still, even when Farmboy leaned over to growl in his ear: “You rile up another Gaggle, I swear to Merl I’ll get my hounds and—”

“Good Farmer, if you please.”

What’s the hag with the turban want?

What DOES she want? Will we find the troll or the smuggler?

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#NaNoWriMo2022: Day 2 with the Goose King. #Magic #ShortStories

Day 2 of National Novel Writing Month! Let’s see what happens with Scraps and the dreaded Goose King.

Day 2, Story 1: The Boy Who Conquered Goose Island

Scraps’ little fists shook as he glared at me. “No. It’s not the same. I’m gonna get that stupid Gaggle!” And off he stomped, right through a ball game and into the school. He spoke not a word the rest of the day as he tore apart his number crunchers and dust bunny hunters and pea soup freezers. In fact, the only creation he did not destroy was one decoy duck walker, the only one that quacked. He kept staring at its insides, comparing pieces, tossing pieces, adding new things. He grabbed string, rulers, scissors, pencils, and lots of metal bits from all over the classroom, dumped them on his table, and proceeded to push the entire table out the classroom door. “Where are the holiday flags?” He hollered at the lot of us all staring through the windows.

What can I say? We wanted to know what he was doing, so I sent some students to the storage cupboard for all the flags while I sent another group to sing the Ballad of Pip Whistletooth to the Headmaster in preparation for the Founder’s Festival next month. By the time we came out with our arms full of flags, Scraps was tying roads and hammering pegs and who knows what else in bizarre angles all over the school yard.

“Will these do?” I asked as his classmates held up the rolls.

Scraps grinned. “They’re perfect!” His inner magic was practically glowing out of his fingers and curls as he flew about his contraption, tying and measuring and hammering. Then he ran out behind the kitchens and returned with a cart of crates and broken engine parts. Only when he asked for the school’s old Volumizer did I fully comprehend the boy’s goal.

You see it yourself, down there on Goose Island.

By midday the Headmaster had heard enough of Pip Whistletooth and the Hags of Shadowkeep, and out he waddled to see what we’d been up to. The man was so shocked, he dropped his peach juice.

There, towering at least ten feet into the air, was a Scrap Goose. Rods and sticks and broken breams, string and nails and old tin plates created a rough skeletal frame covered with every holiday flag for the school and Pips Row Square. Upon the feet and along the beak of old boxes were lines of metal chips sharp enough for…well, they looked sharp enough for anything. Behind the half-shaped head of Veg crates was a little seat, and on that little seat sat Scraps. He waved, then disappeared behind the head. A hum and a whir, and the lower jaw of the beak dropped. There was the Volumizer.

“HOOOOOONK!”

More whirs and conks and little clouds of steam, and the legs, tall as me but as reedy as Scraps, shuddered and and shifted.

“I WILL GET YOU, GOOSE KING!”

How Scraps drove that monstrosity, I’ll never know. His inner magic is all I can reason—all the Headmaster could reason, too. No artisan had ever constructed such a machine in such a time in such a way, never in all of Pips Row history (and trust me when I saw I know a bit of history, having met old Pip myself). All we could do was follow that concoction of garbage, knots and holiday cheer along with all the other kids who whooped and shouted with glee. When we reached this spot—yes, this very spot!—a Gaggle flew out in formation, ready to rob us for all we’re worth.

“HOOOOOONK!” Scraps gave the highest, shriekiest honk to ever honk, sending the Gaggle into balled mess of feathers into that tree. That is how it got knocked up. Nothing to do with the goblins on ash boroughs, at least this time.

On Scraps marched to the bottom of the hill, right up to the river bank.

We dared to follow. We dared to see the Goose King.

Here, I must show you. See here, the marks of their battle on the shoreline! Oh, that Goose King was a nasty creature. He was four foot tall with wings that could even encompass the headmaster, and there’s no doubt in my mind that beak of us could pull off a child’s face. His eyes were red through and through, and his feathers bore streaks green and black. He darted his head which way and that and launched from the island, hissing like an angry troll. But Scraps aimed the Volumizer at him and honked his shrill honk, sending the Goose King hurtling to the shore. The school children cowered behind the Headmaster and myself as we gathered acorns for the duel.

But Scraps was ready. “You took my sugar bread!” he cried. “You’re mean!” And he extended the mock-goose’s wings. Holidays blocked out the sun and cast such a frightening shadow over the Goose King I thought a dragon was sizing us up.

The Goose King hissed to his guards, but the lot of them remained huddled on the island shore with all those poor captured goslings.

“You’re so mean the other geese don’t like you!” Scraps stomped the monstrosity closer to the Goose King. “Go away or else!”

But the Goose King was crafty—oh, he was crafty! He stopped hissing and started slowly backing towards the shore. The children cheered, and Scraps lifted his hands in victory.

“Wait, Scraps!” I yelled. But too late—the Goose King feinted and dove right for Scraps’ giant goose legs! The broken garbage broke again, and the legs buckled.

But the outstretched wings of holiday banners caught the wind, and Scraps’ goose was lifted up. He was flying offshore—and towards Goose Island!

The Goose King laughed as only a goose can laugh, and launched himself yet again towards Scraps to collapse the monstrosity’s body.

But the wind was on Scraps’ side that day, and tickled the flags of the giant belly to make Scraps on that goose neck tip down and forward—and the giant beak of metal teeth caught the Goose King in the process, sending both crashing into Goose Island’s shore. Leaves, pebbles, feathers, bones—all was everywhere and anywhere. But no little boy.

“Scraps!” the children called out while the Headmaster and I used the acorns in a Working to build a bridge between the shores. The guards kept their distance as I ran across the bridge, its roots wavering over the river with little promise for holding me as I called Scraps’ name. He was not answering, and I just…oh, those moments were the worst in my life. “Scraps!”

At last, I got on shore, where a few goslings peeped at me to follow them. Past a few shrubs stood a giant, hollow tree, and there Scraps stood, back to me, shoulders drooped. All the sugar-bread in there was molding and splattered with dung. No surprise to an adult, but to a child…

“They wrecked Papa’s good shopping sack and pooped on my sugar-bread.” Little tears splashed onto the leaves about his feet.

One of the goslings at my feet ran into the hovel, plucked a clean bread off, and brought it to Scraps’ feet.

Scraps shook his head. “Thanks anyway. You can have it.” And he turned to me. “I know, I know. I’ll clean up.”

But the gosling shook its head. Many more goslings were beneath Scraps’ giant goose by now, staring up in admiration. The guards even preened the leaves off its banner feathers.

That is why you see it still, wings outstretched to protect the innocent of Goose Island. I can still see a bit of the Founder’s Day orange under all the mud from the last storm, but those banners, that scrap…it has a whole new life over there. The mottled mess that was the metal beak and Goose King have long since been dismantled by the Gaggle, who would rather steal sugar-bread for themselves, if they can get away with it. But is the Goose King really dead, or did he escape down Chresto’s Tears? Well, that we may never know.

As a reward for Services to Pips Row, Scraps was given a Medal of Creativity and a lifetime supply of sugar-bread. At long last, Pips Row saw what I could see, what the children could see: that every Scrap, no matter how small or inconsequential, had potential beyond imagination.

Tomorrow we’ll see who else resides on the streets of Pips Row. A starkeeper, perhaps? A witch? A troll? Or perhaps something else entirely…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#NaNoWriMo2022: Getting Back into the #WritingLife. #Magic #ShortStories

Well, it’s certainly been a spell, my fellow creatives!

Partly this was due to health–a nasty sinus infection knocked out my voice and energy for much of October. But the other part came from a serious reflection inspired by dear creative kindred Pam Lazos, who asked me if I needed a break from blogging and podcasting. Turns out I did. My new position in the university, while exciting, also means doing more with research and scholarship, and that initial realization sucked the joy out of any writing for a spell.

But while trick-or-treating with my kiddos yesterday, I realized that I cannot let academic life drown out my writing life. I must find a way for both to co-exist.

So here we are with my first try. No more analysis for the time being. And the podcasting will, I think, return in December. For now, the writing here will be fictional, fantastical, and most of all, fun.

Rather than the pressure of a novella or novel, though, I’m going with the short fiction route. I already wrote one story for this peculiar place some time ago, and now it’s time for us to return to this land of homegrown magic, where sorcery is as everyday as the harvest.

We will begin with a boy, as many stories do…

Day 1, Story 1: The Boy Who Conquered Goose Island

If one were to ever bother traveling west of Pips Row—and few of the city-sort ever do—one would see nothing but farms and forests. How very dull to a city-sort’s eye! To the country eye, one may see a bit more in the promising harvests: grains to promise safe relations with the goblins, vegetables to promise stable transport and roads, fruits to promise means of celebration and good weather. Magic grows in every seed and every root, as any down-to-earth soul knows.

But even country folk don’t travel too far west if they can help it, for they’ve not worked out the best magic to promise safe relations with the birds.

Geese, in particular.

You may smile now, thinking all those fingers and brain cells make you somehow smarter than a goose. That is only because you’ve never met a goose from our part of the world.

Here we stand at the western edge of Pips Row. A quiet place, nowadays, now that our resident sorceress has been silenced! This road is named Chresto’s Way, and it leads to the river Chresto’s Tears. You can see it there, beyond the orchard of Fruit Seller and hives of Honey Weaver. It’s the thinnest of silver ribbons from here, but I promise you, the river stretches and shrinks in all sorts of peculiar ways as it flows through this countryside down to the Marplen Sea. Whoever Chresto was, their path ended with that water long before Pips Row was founded, and it is water that shows no kindness.

Which makes it no surprise, then, that the Goose King settled there.

Never heard of the Goose King? What a strange soul you are. Surely you’ve heard of Scraps and Goose Island, at least.

WHAT?

That settles it. Grab yourself an apple—not for eating, but for protection. I’ve a few corn ears and a week-old biscuit, but we best include a sack of cheese sticks and cocoa muffins, just in case.

Mind your feet, this road’s not used enough to warrant paving. It’s mud and dung all the way, I’m afraid. Let’s see, where to begin…

In my days as a tutor for Pips’ Pupilry, I helped many children find the special seeds with which their inner magic bonded. Some had a way with oranges, some with carrots, some with rhubarb, and so on. Once every moon or so, a child’s inner magic would not bond with a seed, but with an ore, and that’s how Pips Row has its own unique collection of artisans.

Once, and only once, did I meet a child who bonded with neither seed nor ore. His name was Mycroft.

But everyone called him Scraps.

The boy did not come from a family of any, well, worth, you see. The father delivered parcels while the mother polished the words of the Council before they were sent off to the Capitol Businesses for evaluation. Being neither farmers nor artisans nor business, their place in the town was of a lowly sort, so Scraps was not treated like other children in Pips’ Pupilry. His clothing was secondhand and stitched, and his toys cast-offs from the Scrap Bins of alleyways.

Yet of all the children I have tutored—and may I note that number is high, indeed—no child was ever as happy as Scraps. His smile could shade the sun whenever he made a new discovery. “Look, Professor Hastlot!” He ran to me almost every day before school with something in his hand. One day I was sure it was the maw of a beaver, but this day it was a broken pitcher mold. “You’ve been near Silver Smith’s again.”

Scraps held the broken mold up to my face. A little fellow of wiry frame and curly brown hair, his long fingers somehow dodged every sharp point on that rubbish. “It’s the perfect piece.” Everything was “the perfect piece” for Scraps.

“Perfect for what?”

“You’ll see!” And at his corner table, away from all the soil pots and miniature forges, Scraps would send the classroom into awes and giggles every day with whirlybird messengers, decoy duck walkers, dust bunny hunters, pea soup freezers, and even whole number crunchers. (A particular favorite on Arithmetic Assessment days.)

It was clear to any child and tutor like myself that Scraps’ inner magic had bonded with, well, scrap. But because it was neither seed nor ore, the Headmaster preparing to expel the boy. Imagine, being expelled merely for shining at being yourself!

That, my friend, is where the Goose King comes in.

We’re a bit closer now to Chresto’s Tears—let’s stop by this knocked tree so you can see it down this sloping hill. Such a dark, mysterious blue! I’m certain something lives in those depths. But it’s the island I want you to see especially. It’s not particularly big—a few school buses long, I’d wager. All trees and wild brush, nothing tenable for a farmer. No clear ground for good trips or mining. But there in the center you can see it, yes? A giant among all that brush with its wings outstretched, its muddy, colorful feathers eternally fluttering in the wind.

The Goose King ruled that island with an iron beak. Guards circled the island constantly. The infamous Gaggle would fly out and return with whole loaves of sugar-bread soley for him to devour. Any stray goose caught by the guards would be forced to give up their goslings to the King. Those who defied the Goose King were left outside the Butcher’s back porch. The Goose King would sit atop the tallest dead tree, as wide and tall as an old sow, and honk the terrible honk of tyranny.

On the day in question, Scraps did not come running up to me in the school yard. His hands were empty, and his eyes were downcast.

“Whatever is the matter?” I cried. “Did the Scrap Truck beat you to the construction site?” Those were Scraps’ very kind of bins, particularly because the Green Trenches tend to arrest adult trespassers for digging through them.

“No.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Yesterday Papa went to buy me the last sugar-bread for a treat because my corner-cleaner-upper helped Mama so much, but the stupid Gaggle mobbed him and took the bread and he had no money for any more!”

A knot formed in my throat. Sugar bread may be another child’s everyday snack, but for Scraps, that would be a special treat, indeed. “Then I will go with you to the baker’s during Play Period to get some,” I said, holding up a coin as a promise.

Scraps’ little fists shook as he glared at me. “No. It’s not the same. I’m gonna get that stupid Gaggle!”

Whew! Okay, time to take care of children. But I can’t wait to return here tomorrow to see what Scraps does next!

Perhaps this year, National Novel Writing Month may be the light you need to find your way back to the Writing Life. If you’re involved this year, I’d love to hear about it! It’s only Day 1, but I’m determined to be here on Day 30 and beyond. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheFamilyChao by Lan Samantha Chang, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

We see the return of the prologue in The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much she packs into that page of text.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

She establishes the setting of the Chinese restaurant that prospers in Wisconsin; however, the townsfolk are “indifferent” to the family’s actual struggles and relationships. Even readers are kept carefully in the dark by Chang, who makes the cooking of parents Leo and Winnie the focus of her prose, full of sensual details that get your mouth watering. Yet little phrases like breadcrumbs do drop between the lines, and we realize that much is happening behind the kitchen doors that the Family Chao does not want us to see.

The first chapter introduces readers to the family Chao’s youngest son James, a pre-med student who seems almost proud of not holding onto his Mandarin or family traditions. Yet meeting an old man at the train station pleading for help in Mandarin sparks something in James…just in time to see the old man die. At the end of five pages, the man has collapsed while boarding the train. James is unable to revive him. This opening with death isn’t melodramatic, nor is it coarse; rather, it’s a compelling choice on Chang’s part to bring the Old World into New World James’ life as he, a college student, is on his way home to his own “Old World.”

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #ThePeacekeeper by B.L. Blanchard, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Peace Keeper by B.L. Blanchard

The opening pages of The Peacekeeper by B.L. Blanchard are a bit of a slow burn, but it does successfully mix character development, worldbuilding, and a major cataclysmic event all at once, and that is a major feat.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The first chapter is preceded by excerpts from two Native American authors whom I mistook for fictional writers in Blanchard’s universe–my apologies for that! This is what I get for reading too many mysteries, apparently. 🙂 That said, I can see how Tommy Orange’s words on the “Urban Indian” help inspire the setting Blanchard creates in this first chapter. The United States and Canada never came to be: these lands are still dominated and governed by different Native American tribes, such as the Ojibwe around the Great Lakes region. Names of places and things are connected to their language, which readers see with the reference of Shikaakwa for Chicago. Chapter 1 also shows seven different cultural calendar dates, and I see that it’s just past five pages that we learn the Aztec and Mayan empires still exist. I can see there will be a richness in the alternative history timeline here, and that fascinates me as a writer and reader alike. Our adult protagonists struggle with their mother’s murder at their father’s hands during their childhood, and the opening pages help us see their current relationship, which definitely inspires empathy and sympathy from readers. I was worried that the family drama would dominate this story–we had enough of that with Anne Tyler’s French Braid–but by the end of five pages, protagonist Chibenashi is showing readers more of his world and preparing us for the coming murder that launches the story’s plot. For those who love alternative histories and/or mysteries, this could very well be a perfect fit for you.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #WhatMovestheDead by T. Kingfisher, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast #HalloweenReads

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

This is hands down one of my favorite finds so far for this podcast.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher may be a reimagining of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, but in five pages it still reads very much as its own unique work. I’m reminded a bit of John Scalzi’s Kaiju Preservation Society as far as the wry narrator goes, and of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy with the unsettling, unnatural forms Nature seems to take. Everything is bleak and grotesque–even the sight of mushrooms growing hints at violent death for humanity. Setting this grim landscape inside a fictional country also makes the story feel like it’s one step off kilter from reality–it could be in our Europe, but surely not, right? This book moves at a quick clip, so if you’d like to take a few days to shift into some spookier tales for the coming Halloween season, I can’t think of a better place to start.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #FrenchBraid by Anne Tyler, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

French Braid by Anne Tyler

I’m not going to type up my little meandering to the question “Why I don’t read literary fiction” here for you, but I will say that the first pages of French Braid by Anne Tyler reinforce the feelings I describe in that meander.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

To be blunt, I like knowing what I am getting into, and genres give me that sense. Literary fiction can go to any old place, and for some folks, they just want to enjoy that journey. Good for them! Nothing wrong with that, especially with a writer like Anne Tyler. Her prose here is easy on the eyes and ears, and the personality of the narrator comes through in these little parenthetical asides that made me smile now and then.

This book, though, is a family drama with events spanning decades. For some folks, that’s all they want in a story. For me, not so much. And while the characters I meet in the first few pages are perfect fits for a family drama, they also, frankly, could fit into any genre fiction’s opener, and that kind of generic impression put me off as a writer.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #HatchetIsland by Paul Doiron, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Hatchet Island by Paul Doiron

The opening pages of Hatchet Island is, sadly, a return to prologues. We meet a nameless character suffering insomnia, one who has simply given up on life in college and in general. After months of isolation, he finally ventures out into the world…only to throw himself from a bridge.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

Now I’m sure some readers will be intrigued by what happened to this nameless character. Why did this character make that choice? Was it the birds and the birdkeeper he worked for that drove him to kill himself? How could living with birds do such a thing?

For me, though, this prologue put a sour taste in my mouth. I’m all for a good murder mystery, but when life is lost in a story, it should mean something. Like Colleen Hoover’s Verity, I felt like killing off a nameless person for the sake of shock value in the first few pages dulls the impact of any future loss of life later in the story. Plus there are so many other ways to show that time on an island has transformed a person for the worse: their habits, their language, their little actions. All these can steadily impact those around them and lead to other, bigger transformations down the road. I know not every writer feels this way, but I will always appreciate a chance to peel back layers to find the rot, rather than simply smashing the fruit underfoot to send that rot flying in bits all over the ground.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

The Hidden Wickedness: A Study of Rural Villainous Deeds in Holmesian Tales

Happy September, my fellow creatives! Fall is not too far away. School is starting for my three Bs while I tackle finals for the summer term. I was blessed to take my kids to see a beloved fellow blogger and friend, Peggy from Where to Next?, as she was traveling through the Midwest this summer. It was so wonderful to chat in person in the midst of Bash’s million questions! Our drive to meet her took us through a lot of rolling hills of bright green farmland, corn and wheat on the cusp of harvesting beneath sapphire skies.

Prologue: Life in Rural Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s countryside has always been near and dear to me, something I feel would be worth exploring in how other creatives like Michael Perry view it…but that’ll be a post for another day. Today, I’d like to return to something I once shared on this blog long long LONG ago about why I write stories set in Wisconsin.

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes resonate deeply with me for two reasons. First, they were dearly loved by my father, who would, on a rare evening when he could delay his church work, read a story aloud to me at bedtime. I still remember the thrill as he described Dr. Roylott’s fate in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” or the sadness in his voice when Watson discovers Holmes’ note by Reichenbach Falls. I devoured these stories, despite my mother’s attempts to interest me in more child-friendly works such as the Little House books. Nothing doing, especially after I read “Copper Beeches,” for that brings me to my second reason: our town, our state, really, fit the description Holmes gave of England’s picturesque countryside.Wisconsin is filled with hidden towns, small growths of community where railroads and highways meet, places that no one finds unless they mean to find it. Rock Springs was a town of 600 when I was a child, a little grain-fill stop for the railroad. We didn’t even have a gas station until I turned 5, and our library, a small portion of the town’s community center, could fit in a utility closet (it probably WAS a utility closet at one point). Farms and wild wood filled the gaps between towns. Unless, of course, you went towards Wisconsin Dells, where the wilderness is trimmed and prepped and ready for its mandatory close-up before the tourist rushes to the proper civilization of water parks and casinos.

We drove through those wild patches often. I never tried to occupy myself with books or toys in the car. There was too much to see, out there in those scattered homesteads, too much to wonder about. What happened inside that dying barn? Why is that gravel drive roped off, and where does it lead? Where are all the people for those rusted cars littering the field?

This is the Wisconsin I live in now. The land dips and rises in unexpected places. The trees may crowd a rural highway so much you can lose yourself driving, only to have the tunnel burst open to sunshine and a white-crested river running beneath a bridge you’d swear had never seen a car before. In Rock Springs, one could stand on the lone highway through town and hear snowflakes land beneath the orange street lights.

As a child, I was always making up stories in my head about the farms we passed. I didn’t think true evil could be committed in them. Only as an adult did I learn better.

This knowledge of Wisconsin’s hidden evils gave me a new appreciation for the Sherlock Holmes tales I loved as a kid–not because Holmes brought truth and justice to light wherever he went, but because he didn’t just stay in London. Holmes himself knew just how dangerous the countryside could be in spite of its picturesque beauty. Let’s peruse a few cases to see just how the rural setting played a role in his cases, shall we?

Case 1: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

A woman seeks Holmes’ counsel as to a job offer with a bizarrely high salary with equally bizarre requirements. The minor suspicion leads to a mystery of deadly deception.

So this is the story with the iconic train ride into the country and the conversation Holmes and Watson have about rural England. Here’s the majority of that exchange:

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

Holmes strikes upon a critical point: isolation. Rural communities, then and now, are not nearly as connected as neighborhoods in the urban setting. Even with the internet and all our technological innovations, one can be very, very cut off in the countryside. I still distinctly remember visiting a friend at her farmstead many years ago, and feeling downright oppressed by the silence of the farmland’s night. Absolute, utter silence. No wind. No bugs. No cars. Nothing. The film Alien may have coined the phrase, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” but I put it to you that in the country, no one can hear it, either. That is partly why the villains of “Copper Beeches” were able to get away with shutting away their daughter and allowing her to literally waste away while they spend her money. Who could possibly hear her in the middle of nowhere?

This isolation can be a powerful tool for a writer, whether one’s creating atmosphere, parring down the “noise” and cast a busy setting requires, or even establishing influences that could drive characters to make certain choices.

Speaking of characters…

Case 2: The Adventure of the Silver Blaze

A famous racehorse goes missing, his trainer found dead out on the moor. The setting is a flat, barren land offering little to anyone without a horse. Few people, fewer hiding places. How could such a creature disappear where everyone knows anyone? The dog could tell you…

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

A rural community is going to be a small community. In the case of “Silver Blaze,” there are two competing horse stables in the north of Dartmoor. When the landscaped is described to us–

Holmes and I walked slowly across the moor. The sun was beginning to sink behind the stable of Mapleton, and the long, sloping plain in front of us was tinged with gold, deepening into rich, ruddy browns where the faded ferns and brambles caught the evening light….

–I was reminded of the southernmost area of Wisconsin, where the ground has leveled out to very flat plains. Ideal for farming, of course, but for hiding? Not so much. So for something as large as a horse to go missing in a bleak landscape seems like an impossible puzzle.

Now any brain would look at those two competing horse stables and presume Silver Blaze has to be SOMEwhere in those stables. Even Holmes considered as much (“The fact is that I could not believe it possible that the most remarkable horse in England could long remain concealed“). It’s doubly concerning that the horse trainer was murdered the same night the horse went missing. In such a bare, quiet place, where everyone knows everyone. How could such two awful things happen?

Just as the beautiful countryside can hide secrets, so can its people. This is partly why, I think, cozy mysteries have such an appeal. In their sparse setting and cast, there must be hidden layers, things no one has learned that must come to the surface. The clue of “the dog did nothing in the nighttime” reflects that someone familiar, someone known in that tiny, tiny community, took Silver Blaze away from his training stable. From that clue we must dig deeper into those who interact with the horse, and that is where we learn the trainer has a secret life complete with 2nd marriage lived away from Dartmoor. That second life spurred the trainer to attempt laming Silver Blaze for money, and in that process, Silver Blaze kicked him in the head and fled, killing him in the process. The competing stable found the horse–who wouldn’t in such a bleak landscape?–and did the, well, the least criminal thing they could have done in that tiny, tiny community: they painted Silver Blaze so he looked like any other horse. Then Silver Blaze wouldn’t be able to compete in the coming race and they could still gallantly “find” the horse after the race and look good to the neighbors as they return it.

So those familiar interactions, those habits so well known to others…those, writers, could be a marvelous tool in revealing the truth to the cast and readers alike.

The rural setting, though, need not always be cozy.

Case 3: The Final Problem

On the run from Professor Moriarty, Holmes and Watson cut about the continent, finally isolating themselves as hikers among the mountains of Geneva. They reach the falls of Reichenbach. Watson is summoned away on a hoax of a medical emergency. When he returns…Holmes is gone.

As I was gathering stories for this study, it occurred to me that Reichenbach is one of the few settings where Doyle/Watson spend an extensive time describing the scene. So often in the stories we get a sentence or two of sensory details, and then we move on. Not so with Reichenbach Falls.

It is, indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour. We stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss.

Doyle chooses not to have Holmes face Moriarity in some iconic spot of London. Doyle avoids any sort of city altogether. Two men of refinement are to face off where Nature is its most powerful, the force and height of the falls capable of slaying any man no matter how clever he may be. No law exists out here but for the laws of Nature, and Nature cares nothing for Man’s logic and cunning. Is it any wonder that when Watson returns, he sees his friend’s note and the footprints by the cliff and presumes Holmes and his nemesis are both dead?

It had darkened since I left, and now I could only see here and there the glistening of moisture upon the black walls, and far away down at the end of the shaft the gleam of the broken water. I shoulted; but only the same half-human cry of the fall was borne back to my ears.

It’s moments like this where I can see the appeal people have in reading/viewing stories where the sole conflict is Man Vs. Nature. You cannot reason with it or bargain with it. You cannot stop it. You can only survive it…if you are lucky.

And sometimes, we are.

Case 4: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Holmes and Watson accompany young Henry Baskerville to Baskerville Hall to claim his inheritance. Mysterious goings-on have already begun in London—would they continue on the Grimpen Mire?

We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline.

Bo and I have watched many, many adaptations of this particular entry in the Holmes canon. It’s no wonder folks love telling this story over and over again–you’ve got a tight cast, a bleak, peculiar place. Strange signals in the night and suspicious residents. Forbidden romance and, of course, murder.

A particularly crafty move on Doyle’s part was to pull Holmes out of the story for a spell–oh, he’s watching from the Moors, yes, but as far as Watson knows, Holmes leaves him to watch over Baskerville while Holmes returns to London to investigate other avenues or some such excuse. Watson writes daily reports to Holmes and, being the romantic that he is, allows himself space to write about the landscape, too:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm…We found a short valley between rugged tors which led to an open, grassy space flecked over with the white cotton grass. In the middle of it rose two great stones, worn and sharpened at the upper end until they looked like the huge corroding fangs of some monstrous beast.

Such rocks remind me of the formations one can see in the western half of the state, where the hills grow tall and the wilderness is not so keen to have farmers for company:

A person could die trying to climb these rocks, but the difference between these Wisconsin rocks and England’s Grimpen Mire is that the Mire doesn’t look threatening. It’s merely a wide expanse with grass and mud like any other field…until one steps in it. Only then does one realize they are in a kind of quicksand they cannot escape. We are told early on of a pony that had wandered onto the Mire and was slowly sucked under, crying out and crying out, and then nothing. This hidden wickedness is not always thought of, however, for the Legend of the Hound is on everyone’s mind, including the killer Stapleton’s. By taking a large dog and starving it on the Mire, he’s created his own living murder weapon. It worked once on the elder Baskerville, but Henry Baskerville is protected by Holmes and Watson. The starved dog is shot, and Stapleton escapes to the Mire.

Somewhere in the heart of the great Grimpen Mire, down in the foul slime of the huge morass which had sucked him in, this cold and cruel-hearted man is forever buried.

In some stories, Justice will come by Nature, not Man.

Epilogue: the Lonely Land

There will always be those souls who revel in the city life: the dense gathering of peoples, places, and secrets will always provide writers with bountiful writing inspiration. But outside the city limits, in the dark, in the stillness, we wander and survive. We live in Countryside, Anywhere. We keep ourselves to ourselves. We keep Nature at bay (most of the time). We keep our wickedness hidden from the lackadaisical eye.

But if you, fellow creatives, pause…imagine…look…perhaps, yes, perhaps you will see us, and find us out.

“But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields…think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

–Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve been listening to Nature a lot lately. Come take an explore with me through its own quiet music…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!