Tag Archives: writers

The Importance of Reading as a Writer

I’ve become quite the book collector over the past year. That has something to do with the fact that my idea of the perfect date night is to swing by the bookstore after dinner. Attending the Teen Book Festival in Austin and several author panels also contributed. I’ve become obsessed with meeting authors, and hearing about their journeys.

booksIt wasn’t long ago that I was reading such amazing stories that I felt like writing one myself. In fact, this happened at a very young age for me. In elementary school I gifted short stories as presents, and throughout middle and high school I became an avid poet. After college I began to write novels and read everything I could. Here’s why: It’s important to read.

That seems like a “duh” concept but so many writers become consumed by their projects and forget to feed themselves inspiration. They forget to research their genre and compare their book to books on the shelves of Barnes and Noble. Knowing your genre, even subgenre, is essential when you pitch to an agent. They need to know how to market your novel, which means you need to know how to market your novel.

There’s a part of the query letter where every writer is supposed to offer some comparable titles to their book. These comps are not identical to your novel; often, they only have a few elements in common. But the idea is to tell the agent what type of audience would enjoy your book. And to know that, you have to be well-read.

Regardless of it being your duty as a writer to read all the things, it’s fun! Expose yourself to new worlds, new characters and new plot twists. Many writers are afraid to read something too similar to their own work, or feel intimidated by the great books already out there. But those great books, most likely, are what inspired you in the first place.

So read on my friends! Comment below with the titles on your February book list!

– Dani Nicole

How to Reach Level FANGIRL PRO

scarfI had a Harry Potter themed Christmas. Yeah, you read that right. My mancrush categorized his gifts to me due to the obscene amount that I fangirl over Harry Potter. Such treasures of love have inspired this instructional post on how to appropriately fangirl.

  • Read the book. Don’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. Otherwise you’re not a genuine fangirl, and societies of fangirls everywhere will cast you aside, leaving you to knit your Gryffindor scarf in solitude.
  • Write a review of the book. Log on to Goodreads and gush about how much you like this character and how much of a douche bag the villain is, and how you will never know how ___ could make a choice between those two dreamy guys.
  • Start discussions on Goodreads, conversations in elevators, and downright debates, always defending the honor of your beloved characters. Always prove that what you’re fangirling over far surpasses what everyone else is fangirling over.
  • Find your people. Casually drop your favorite book title in conversation and gauge the reaction on a scale of 1 to 10. If the reaction is 1, “What the hell is that?” then don’t befriend that person. If you get a 5 “I saw the trailer for the movie,” then you might have an ally. But it takes a true 10, “Girl where have you been all my life?” to tightly knit your new friendship.
  • Make your favorite fictional world your actual world. Fill your life with mementos of your favorite places, worlds and characters. Perhaps if you get that Harry Potter wand remote control, you’ll start to feel like you’re actually at Hogwarts. Or if you put enough Cheshire Cats on your walls, you’ll feel like you’ve fallen into Wonderland.
  • Fill your closet with obscure shirts that only true fangirls would understand.
  • Get everyone who wants to remain in your life addicted to the books you’re addicted to.

After those seven easy steps, you will officially level up to FANGIRL PRO. It’s not a journey for everyone, but for those who are called to book geekery, it’s an important task.

How do you fangirl? Or boy?

-Dani Nicole

Flash Fiction Friday

Happy Halloween!

Theme: Creepy, Scary, Eerie

The Mystic’s Price

By Paige Duke

I hope to God nobody sees me here, I keep thinking while The Mystic takes her sweet time. She’s been in that back room for ages, all to get me the little magic pill. I mean really, how hard can it be? Unless she’s like, back there making it from scratch. But that would be some weird, creepy voodoo, right? Joan didn’t say anything about that—“Just go and see The Mystic, you know that tiny shop on the strip. I thought it was all just nonsense before, but I swear that happy pill she made me is working like a charm! I’m down twenty pounds and I just won my Mary Kay Cadillac!”

Ok, this is stupid, I’m leaving. I’ve got my hand on the doorknob when three of my students walk by outside. I twirl out of sight, praying they weren’t looking.

Light splinters on the far wall, there’s a cabinet of weird little glass figurines I didn’t notice when I came in. I duck beneath the windows, and move to get a better look. They’re all human, incredibly detailed, like someone froze time and shrunk ordinary people. Some of them are beautiful and serene, but some look just positively tortured. This one woman is crouched and burying her face in her hands, I want to put my arm around her and tell her I know what she’s feeling, promise her that things can get better. I’d tell her I know what it feels like to try anything to be happy again.

I hear The Mystic shuffling in the back room, so I return to my chair. What is wrong with me? Having imaginary psych sessions in my head. A second later, The Mystic to comes through the beaded curtain. She’s looking right into me with her mascara-caked eyes, she knows something.

“Okay, Julie, darling,” she hands me a tiny green velvet bag, “take this first thing in the morning on an empty stomach with orange juice—has to be fresh squeezed, do not skimp on that detail, it makes all the difference.”

Inside the bag I spy a perfectly rounded shiny pill, more like a marble, and a slip of folded paper. “Um, ok. Thanks, fresh orange juice, I’ll make sure. What do I owe you?”

She settles a hand on her generous hip, “Joan didn’t tell you?”

“No . . .”

“I see. Well, dearie, you won’t like it—you pay me in blood.”

Uhm, okay this is sounding more like the creepy voodoo shit. “In blood? Did you say in blood?”

“Mhm, just a tiny drop, no more than a pinprick, right here.” She holds out her copy of my receipt, indicating a blank white box.
Now I’m seriously thinking of backing out, but I hate the way she’s looking at me, like the deal’s already done . . . and I really really want this, I think of that glass woman.

It’s just a pinprick, I can do that, right? “Okay then, let’s get it over with.”

I stick out my finger, there’s a quick sting, I swipe my blood, and I’m ready to get out. But The Mystic stops me with a hand at my elbow,

“Your blood signifies a binding contract. Do not break the terms.” She holds on for a silent moment, her eyes blazing, then lets go and nods to the bag in my hand, “It’s all in there.”

***

“Fifty percent of profits my ass!” I whisper to myself for the third time today. The Mystic’s terms didn’t mean anything to me when I was just swallowing some gypsy pill, but now that my new CEO husband’s bonus is rolling in and I’ve won my school a national scholarship, I’ve got a bill from The Mystic. And I do not want to pay up. There must be some kind of loophole. I mean, all she did was sell me the pill, she’s not responsible for my success.

Except when I went to see her about it, the shop was boarded up and I can’t exactly ask Joan . . . I miss Joan. I wish I knew where she went. It still feels wrong, the way she just up and left. But no one seems to know anything or care. I keep hoping she bought a private island and just went off the grid or something, all that money. Except that now I need her here to help me with the damn terms of this blood oath.

Ugh. No. No. I’m not paying that woman a penny. That’s all there is to it. Plus, how do I even know that pill worked? True, I’m happier than ever. But she had nothing to do with finding the love of my life or growing my career. I’m the one who did all the work. Yep, nothing to worry about, I decide as I crumple up The Mystic’s terms and chuck them in the trash.

***

We’re moving again, I can always tell when it’s about to happen. Things get loud and frenzied. My vision is limited, a glass figurine can’t move its head, you know. But I can see movement, I can still hear the noise. I can’t believe what a fool I was, thinking I could buy myself a new life. I didn’t know happiness was a thing inside a person. That seems obvious now. I’ve learned loads since defying those terms. Acceptance is another one—to see and accept what is. Like that blood oath, God, that oath was binding, yes sir. Amazing how many people try to get around it, they’re my companions now, The Mystic’s little trinkets. Immortalized in colored glass. That’s one thing I try to be grateful for. That I’m not alone. And Joan, dear Joan. She’s here with me. I can see her just from the corner of my eye, standing as tall and graceful as ever. And happy, she looks happy.

Nightmare Queen

by Dani Nicole

The memory still permeated her mind, and Rae shook, curling herself into a ball and pulling the sheets over her head. Just a dream. Just a dream.

But even the words her therapist told her to repeat to herself did not alleviate her terror. For it was at night when all the dreams came to her. When she shouldered the nightmares of the world and took them all in herself, so that others could sleep peacefully.

And she was left alone to put herself back together.

A great chill rolled down her spine as she remembered the suited man from her dream. The man with the auburn eyes. He’d wanted something from her, but Rae couldn’t remember it. She only remembered the man’s eyes and the surety of her terror.

She willed it all away, squeezing her eyes shut, but a memory resurfaced of her very first nightmare when she was just two years old. She sorted through hazy details, her mind reaching to grab for something she should remember. And then she did remember. Her first nightmare had been of a man with eyes the color of dried blood.

She swallowed. Surely she was overreacting. It couldn’t possibly be the same dream. With so many nightmares in the world, she never had to repeat one. That was her only solace. But this one… it had seemed so familiar.

She pulled the blankets from her body and stepped out of bed. When she stood she shook her shoulders and exhaled. She could do this. She was the Nightmare Queen, after all, and it was only a curse if she let the nightmares win.

She stepped toward her bedroom door, which she kept shut so as not to wake her parents with screaming. Turning the doorknob, her heart raced, but she didn’t know why. She was only going to the kitchen to pour a glass of milk, as she did when the dreams were too much. When she needed comfort and didn’t want to wake anyone.

She placed one foot across her bedroom threshold, and the hardwood floor creaked. As she trekked down the long hallway to the kitchen, a thought distracted her.

She should check on her parents.

She was sure of it, but again, she did not know why. She tiptoed to their room, not trusting the creaky floor to be quiet enough. And when she reached their bedroom door, she cracked it slightly.

Her parents’ bed was empty and perfectly made.

What the hell? She kicked the door open and turned on the lights. They flickered on slowly, revealing a certainly deserted room.

Rae walked to the bed and ran her fingers over the smooth comforter. Where are they? Why did they leave? She pressed her nose to her mother’s pillow and could still smell the perfume she sprayed after her bath.

They had been there last night. They had slept in that bed. And now? Now they were gone. Rae couldn’t help the tears streaming down her cheeks. The dream had been too real, too familiar. She couldn’t distance herself from it. She needed her parents. She needed her mother to stroke her hair and her father to hum her a song.

She turned back to the hallway, wanting to get her phone from her bedroom and call the police. But when she turned into the hallway, she froze.

For there at the end of the rows of doors, at the end of the creeky floor, stood a suited man with auburn eyes.

 

How to stop using clichés in fiction

Charlie Peverett, Cliché box, Flickr

Charlie Peverett, Cliché box, Flickr

Cut clichés. That’s an early lesson we writers learn, and for good reason. Clichéd phrases cheapen our writing. They may be helpful in everyday speech, so instantly recognizable that they’re like the traffic signs of language. But it’s precisely because they’re so glaring that they are toxic to the written word: they are trite, overused, unoriginal. If watching out for clichés is on your revision checklist, it’s easy enough to spot them:

  • Better late than never
  • A clean slate
  • Down and out
  • Icing on the cake
  • Keep an eye on
  • Live and learn
  • On the tip of my tongue
  • Too good to be true

Just to name a few. (If they’re not on your revision checklist, now might be a good time to add that. There’s no time like the present.) I don’t want to give the impression that you should never, under any circumstances, include a cliché in your writing. They do have a place when used intentionally. If you’re trying to achieve a certain tone or voice in a piece, cliché’s can help you do that. Used in character dialogue, clichés can give readers a strong sense of personality or setting. But reading a story riddled with unintentional clichés can quickly start to feel cheap and unsatisfying.

But clichéd phrases aren’t the only kinds of cliché that can sneak into our writing. What about stereotypes, overused tropes, and outworn genre conventions? Have you read a book’s back cover and promptly reshelved it, thinking, “Oh, I’ve read that before”? It’s this type of cliché that I want to focus on because it’s so easy to find them slipping into our stories. I wrote a short story not long ago, revised it a few times, and still found myself frustrated by how blasé it felt. So, trying to get a fresh perspective, I submitted it to my writing group for critique. They pointed out that one of my main characters was a pretty blatant stereotype, and they were right! He was right there under my nose It was obvious, but I couldn’t see it.

So, when we do find these in our writing, what can we do about them? One technique I’ve found incredibly helpful is to employ nuance. Stereotypes, like clichéd phrases, exist for a reason—because they’re almost accurate, they reflect a type of person or experience in the real world. But the inaccuracy of a stereotype lies in its rejection of nuance. So, yes there are ditzy cheerleaders and dumb jocks and nerdy gamers and soccer moms and workaholics . . . but what if you don’t have to chuck them out completely? What if they’re variations on a theme? Maybe your ditzy cheerleader was raised by a single dad and can change her own oil and fix a flat tire without calling her boyfriend. Maybe your nerdy gamer comes from a long line of famous chefs, so he can make a flawless six course French meal. Can you see the possibilities? Add an extra trait, another dimension, and you can see new avenues opening up or old ones rewriting themselves. To get to that place, though, of thinking differently about your characters and storylines, teasing out the possibilities is often the next step. One way is to ask yourself questions to get the ideas flowing. See if any of the following questions help you think a little more deeply about stereotypical characters or overused plot lines:

  • What else?
    • What else is possible for this character?
    • What else is in their past that makes them unique?
    • What else might they like or believe or long for that would make them more complex or that might explain their behavior?
  • What am I overlooking?
    • What is at this character’s deepest psyche that I’m not seeing?
    • What is he or she most afraid of?
    • What is this character’s greatest wish/highest ambition?
  • What’s unexpected?
    • What could happen to this character that would shake him to his core?
    • What thing, if she lost it, would completely transform this character’s life?
    • How can this character’s problem be heightened even more/what would push it to the next level?

If you’ve done this revision work already and had no success, then maybe it’s just time to start over. Sometimes that’s the best thing, but it’s worth the creative exercise to try fiddling with it first.

This is the hard work of writing and revising, right? It’s easy to be attached to our characters and storylines as they are and just ignore that nagging feeling when they’re too easy or too obvious or whatever it is that’s making them cliché. But that doesn’t serve our efforts to be strong writers or to thrill and enlighten our readers. There’s a phrase in yoga that I think is useful to the writing craft too: “Play your edge.” In any given yoga pose, that means you come to the absolute edge of what you can do in that moment, and then you hold the pose, grow in that space, rise to a new level of strength and flexibility.

 

How can you play to your edge in your work-in-progress or in a self-identified weakness in your craft? What other techniques have you used to work through clichéd prose or story problems?

-Paige Duke

Flash Fiction Friday

920 by scheinbar, deviantART

Originals

by Paige Duke

The tall man in the fedora walked brusquely through the library’s lobby, unaware that every eye turned to follow his progress. He had become accustomed to being watched because, well, shifters weren’t usually hired to impersonate normal people. But it wasn’t that. He was still thinking about what he’d seen. About the knife in Mr. Calvert’s desk drawer and how he just wanted to be holding his box of originals in hand as soon as possible. He hadn’t meant to go snooping, it was a rule he upheld at all times. No snooping into clients’ private business. That was the quickest way to get into trouble in this line of work. He’d only meant to find some paper to take down a note from Mr. Calvert’s secretary, and there it was. The thing was lying in the desk drawer, covered in blood, sealed in a sandwich baggie. It was a miracle he’d managed to get the secretary’s note down at all after that little shock.

So he’d made some excuse and got out of there fast. That was the second biggest rule: Don’t run out on the job. But he thought this might be an exception. Dean wasn’t squeamish. He had been willing to look the other way, that was practically part of the job description. You didn’t hire a shifter unless you were into something on the side, it was always shady. But Calvert’s desk was like a crime scene now or something. He’d called to tell Mr. Calvert he was terminating the job early. Had redialed so many times he’d lost count. Why won’t he pick up?

Dean was sweating, he realized as he stood in line at the front desk. He prayed the two people in front of him would be quick. Usually he didn’t mind shifting. It was fun—being someone else for a few days, driving nice cars, flirting with beautiful women, stuff like that. But this was crossing the line. He was not gonna let the likes of Mr. Neil Calvert III get him caught up in something illegal.

The thought made him go cold. No, he had done that to himself already. He was underage. He was only trying to stash some money away for college, but the courts wouldn’t care about that. He was shifting illegally.

Oh my god.

If I get caught, I am in the shit.

Hurry up!! He pleaded under his breath. Miraculously, it worked. The person at the front of the line stepped away from the counter. Only one guy left, then Dean would just get his originals and go.

Most of his colleagues kept their originals, as they called it in the business—clothes, keys, wallet, ID, the usual effects along with their DNA pills—at banks or other high-security companies that dealt exclusively with shifters. But, as Dean was trying to keep his operation under the radar, he’d had to go with something less institutionalized. The local library rented out lockers for community members and guaranteed they were vigilant about security. It seemed suddenly ridiculous, irresponsible, he felt so exposed—keeping his originals in the library!

Dean forced himself to calm down, to be reasonable. John Malcolm has the only spare key. It’s alright, you’ll be back in your own skin in no time. Yeah, he was being ridiculous. He would hand John his key, the man would go back to the lockers, return with his box as usual, he’d make a quick trip to the bathroom to shift back, and he’d be out of there. Home free.

The man in front of him moved, and the scene played out just as Dean had seen it in his mind, as he had done it hundreds of times before.

But in the quiet of the bathroom stall, as Dean was finally calming down, lifting the lid to his box of originals, he began to shake.

The box was empty.

The Dark Witch’s Dagger

by Dani Nicole

17 was the worst one.

50 was better.

When I got to 100 I stopped feeling the pain. But it came back at 200.

920… 920 lashes. 920 piercing cries. 920 fingers breaking and forging again. 920 times my body will be taken apart by the Dark Witch, and 920 times it will be put back together again.

She hovers over me, her face delicate and pale. I wonder how it would bleed. Would her blood be the same violet hue as mine? Or would it be something wretched and ugly as her heart?

She cursed me to this, and oh… the things I would do to her… as she –

901.

That one stung. It was a lash. She likes those. The sound of the whip on my bare skin, the crack of flesh, the oozing blood. She delights in it. She chuckles, giggles, with a hint of mania bubbling beneath the surface.

905.

My curiosity peaks as we get closer to the final number, but 906 feels like I’m dying. She breaks four of my left fingers. They shrivel, turn gray. Then I breathe life into them and they heal, the bones poking the tender flesh, the nails piercing beneath cuticles.

Do this, let her do this, and you will get yours on 920.

As she cuts my arm with a blade, number 914, I wonder if the words I hear chanted in my mind are just false hope. What if this prison of torture is my permanent home? What if I’m not even alive?

917 is more lashes.

918 is a broken shin.

919 is the sound of my mother’s voice when the Dark Witch murdered her. Her screams fill the cavern. The chains which bind my wrists and ankles quiver. Or maybe it is me. Shaking with the fury of 919 strikes, cuts, broken bones. 919 moments of pain.

She circles me once, looks into my eyes. “Let me try something special. Something to change things up. I’ve lost count by now, but it seems as though I’ve been doing the same thing… over and over… and yes, how I’d love to see a new look of pain on that pretty face.”

She takes her dagger from the stool, places it near my heart. “For someone so indestructible as you, I wonder if a blade to the heart would finally bring you down. You see… you see at first,” she laughs “at first it was just a game! The look of pain on your face was just too much fun. And the way you reacted to your mother’s screams… oh yes, you gave me quite the show. But now…” she yawns, “now I grow tired.” She grips the knife, presses it against my skin. “Now it’s time to end this.”

She smiles, her teeth perfect and white, then drives the knife into my heart.

Pain rips through my body, cuts me in half. I fight to sew my sides together, to keep my soul rooted in my being as it begs to drift elsewhere. When she removes the dagger, the hilt starts to glow violet – the color of my blood.

A voice fills the room, this time not my mother’s. The same voice that’s chanted in my mind all this time. And in the moment of the Dark Witch’s greed, the one she captures will be freed. The victim’s blood will pay the price, the Dark Witch shall end her gruesome fight.

The purple swirls up the hilt, onto the Dark Witch’s hands. It stains her skin and sears into it, causing smoke and the smell of burning flesh to permeate the air. It spots her skin in hundreds of places, until she falls to the ground writhing.

The knife she holds turns on her, and drives itself into her heart.

As the sizzling stops, the smoke fades, the chains around my hands break. I walk over to her, tapping her body with my shoe, but she falls limp, the dagger still stuck in her heart.

Number 920.

 

Flash Fiction Friday

br, deviantART by DelilahWoolf

br, deviantART by DelilahWoolf

Counting

by Paige Duke

Ten cherry red fingernails.
Two bruised knees.
Twelve succulents in a crate.

My finger halts its counting, resting above the prickly bunch . . . succulent. That’s a word used somewhere else, isn’t it? A succulent roast, maybe. The two ideas stand together in my mind, totally incongruous. So absurd—the roast and tiny cactus sprouting stick-figure arms and clasping hands in my mind—that I can’t stop giggling.
I bury my face in my elbows until it passes, I don’t want anyone to find me and spoil the whole thing, my five minutes of privacy, this glorious and rare distraction.

Four pristine white walls (painted last week).
Six tall windows.
Eight zigzag boot prints (Mom’s rain boots) across the slat wood floor.
Mom . . . in my mind I see her out in the rain yesterday, drenched, but still insisting on the boots. She can’t have kept an inch dry, the way it was coming down. I count to cope; Mom plants. Despite the fact that everything she puts in the ground dies shortly thereafter. It’s something of a joke—has to be, I suppose, otherwise it’s just too sad. Too ironic.

Three orphaned shoes no one ever bothers to toss out.
Two towering stacks of books, Dad’s overflow.
I squeeze back tears—for the first time today, that has to be a record. It’s just that overflow . . . it’s so opposite of everything DAD right now. I count; Mom plants; Dad stares. Sits and stares, where he used to sit and read. Where can a mind go for so many hours? Nowhere good. To blame or darkness or self-loathing, surely. Wherever it is, it’s not here.

Two identical frog umbrellas for two identical boys.
The twins, a godsend of noise and busyness, the forgivable interruption to our collective grief. They force us to be normal again in a million everyday ways. And break our hearts in the same breath because they can’t understand, will never know who they’ve lost.

I search the room—this mudroom, the time capsule of our house—for anything else. But I’ve counted everything already, everything but one.

One growth chart, its six penciled names glaring, conspicuous for the truth that we are now only five without Michael.
Michael. Our light, our miracle. The boy who was supposed to die but who lived seven years, seven years of borrowed time.

But death forgives no debts.

Flash Fiction Friday

Charles Bukowski, theimpossiblecool.tumblr.com

Charles Bukowski, theimpossiblecool.tumblr.com

“Find what you love and let it kill you.”

Charles Bukowski, Los Angeles, 1982

Note: We tried something new for this edition of Flash Fiction Friday, we asked someone else to pick our prompt. Thanks to Jeremy Duke for the inspiration for our stories this week! We want to make this a regular thing, so if you’d like to pick our prompt for a future Flash Fiction Friday, leave a comment. We’ll feature you on the post and link back to your blog or website! Now, on to the stories.

Loud Man

by Paige Duke

Loud Man stood in line, silently waiting his turn. This was the only moment all week he was silent. They called him Loud Man for a reason. At the bars. They called him this at the bars, for where else would anyone call him anything? He was the kind of man a bar was made for, the kind of man the Elephant was made for, which was why he was waiting in line. Waiting silently for his turn, restless hands in pockets to keep the rest of him still. Silent so that he could think how best to speak to the Elephant. You’d think coming every week to the Elephant would accustom a man to how to speak to it, but then you’d be the wrong kind of person.

The Elephant. Loud Man had laughed loudest when he’d first heard of the ridiculous notion, of standing in line to speak to an elephant—a rusted, faded, cutout discarded by some passing circus maybe. But that was before he’d tried it. Before he’d stood silent long enough to gather the words together that rattled around inside him. Constantly. Louder than a rumbling train. Meticulously, silently gathered the words, lovingly calmed them like some shaking rabbit, tentatively offered the right ones like a prayer. Before he’d seen the Elephant’s kind eye watching him as he spoke his carefully, silently crafted thoughts.
The line shortened one transgressor at a time, bent beneath the woes or hopes or fears they’d been collecting all week; no one knew what another said to the Elephant. That was the point, wasn’t it? Loud Man was nearly there, his words lined up in a neat row, his now-silent tongue occupied with their repetition. Whispered, a fledgling in the mouth of this man with the busy jaw. And there now, he felt the calming that grew with every shuffled step.

His turn came at last. He stepped forward, realizing suddenly why he came. He brought the Elephant his words, as he brought the bartender his coin. Payment all the same, but the difference is in their eyes, he thought. The Elephant’s eyes were kind. Oh, and the mouth of rusted tin, it said nothing back to Loud Man.

He leaned in and whispered his confession to the Elephant’s wide, welcoming ear.

A Concise List of Things That Don’t Kill Me

by Dani Nicole

There’s a rule, you know, that if you find something you love it will kill you. Because that’s the only way to be in love. To die a little, in some way.

Sounds poetic right?

Bullshit. I hate rules. I love ice cream, but it doesn’t kill me. At least not immediately. I love my dog Chauncy but he hasn’t tried to attack me in my sleep like a Nylabone.

I’m not exactly counting the seconds until he plots his revenge for being locked in a kennel. In fact, I’m so fired up against this rule, I made a list.

1)   The stars. What kind of motives do the stars have to kill a seventeen-year-old dude? I mean I let them exist, I ogle at them when they come out, say poetic shit to impress my girlfriend. I draw maps of constellations and sometimes make up my own. One time I found a penis in the sky. Seriously, a penis. I dubbed it the Great Penisarium. I’m a genius, really. But I’ve been looking at the stars and planets and cool space shit since I was like three. And at three you don’t really get to pick what you love.

It just kind of picks you.

I stare at the sky everyday waiting for it to kill me, but it doesn’t and it probably thinks I’m an idiot kid who suspects the Great Penisarium is somehow phallically lethal.

2)   Naked women. As much as my health teacher wants me to think touching a bare breast will lead me to my imminent death, I’m not buying it. I’ve touched Rose’s breasts before, and if that’s dying, I’d do it a million times over. They are like natural pillows. No, like travel pillows. Always there to lean your head against when you’ve had a hard day or your pet snake died or you had to flush your cigarettes in front of the principal. Whatever. Boobs are worth dying for.

3)    Freaking Harpists. I’m not sissy enough to actually play the harp, but I swear to the God that might be up there it’s an instrument of the angels. Just do me a favor, have a girl play the harp for you and try not to look at the way her fingers pluck the chords and wonder what it would feel like if they traveled elsewhere.

Listen to those notes and try not to fall into a trance where you think the world is made of pizza and you can only play football as a profession. Rose plays the harp, but mostly she just plays me. I’m like putty in her hands, as malleable as harp strings. I have this fantasy of walking up to her while she’s playing and leaning her back in her little stool and… I digress. Harps are the shit.

So take that messed up, screwed up society in which we’re all brainwashed to think that love is like Liam Neeson, that it will find you and that it will kill you, because I’m here to tell you I love many things. I love stars, breasts, harpists. Hell, I might even love Rose. What can I say? I’m complex. Maybe even the exception to the love rule. I guess you could say in some way, invincible.

 

 

How a Victorian Engineer Inspired My Protagonist

I should have known by his name that this man would be the larger-than-life figure I needed as inspiration for my protagonist. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You’re destined for greatness with a name like that. And I needed some real-world greatness to help me lay a foundation for my protagonist. In my previous post, “Research: An Antidote for Writers Block,” I wrote about using research to solve some of the structural problems in the world of my fantasy novel. I scoured the Internet for notable figures from the Victorian Era and stumbled onto Brunel. I had found my man: an influential engineer whose name, work, and character lived far beyond the reach of his natural lifetime. Not only did he create some of the most innovative and memorable structures of the Victorian Industrial Age, but he stood out among his contemporaries as a person of tireless vision and ambition, even from a young age.

Twenty-one years old. I was still in college . . . changing my major, how about you? What were you doing at twenty-one? This man, I.K. Brunel, was already working as resident engineer on the construction of the Thames Tunnel. Can you imagine?

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

Thames Tunnel, Lithograph by Taulman after Bonisch (public domain)

He was working alongside his father, Marc Brunel, a prominent engineer of the time, who had invented a tunneling shield that made building the underwater tunnel possible. It was the first of its kind and, at its opening in 1843, it was named the Eighth Wonder of the World. But the road to success wasn’t always glorious—the tunnel flooded during the third year of construction, and six of the crew were killed; Brunel barely survived when his assistant pulled his unconscious body from the water. It wouldn’t be the last time Brunel found himself in a tough spot.

From there, he worked on the Bristol Clifton Suspension Bridge. Like the Thames Tunnel, it was a record breaker—the longest bridge in the world at the time it was built. Brunel, then twenty-three years old, submitted one design after another and found himself battling the design put up by Thomas Telford, a well-known engineer in his seventies and the chair of the Clifton committee. But in the end Brunel won the commission. As if that David-and-Goliath-scale victory weren’t enough, he gained more notoriety with his next stunt. During construction, someone had the brilliant idea to string up a 1,000-foot iron bar that would carry a basket back and forth to bring supplies across the chasm. And guess who volunteered to test it? Yep, Brunel—he climbed into the basket and set off across the gorge, and it was going well . . . until the rope snagged. So he climbed out and freed it so he could get across. He was stranded, what else could he do, right? Needless to say, people took notice.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

Clifton Suspension Bridge, illustration (public domain)

So you can imagine by now what kind of man we’re talking about. Now think bigger, much bigger. As in Titanic. Before the infamous steamship was a twinkle in Thomas Andrews’ eye, I.K. Brunel was dreaming of The Great Western. He was convinced he could carry a passenger across the Atlantic by steam power—not so remarkable to a twenty-first century mind, but at the time it had never been done and . . . Brunel had never before designed a ship. Though he was opposed, ridiculed, and badly burned during construction, he saw the ship completed and arriving in New York from London in 1838. Oh and, by the way, it was the longest ship in the world.

SS Great Western (public domain)

SS Great Western (public domain)

The rest of Brunel’s life followed a similar trajectory of one innovative project after another. And it was this more than anything that drew me to him as a character of history: he was a man with astounding imagination, who broke through the boundaries of the known world, and the challenges of his own life, to pioneer a way into the future as we know it. I relied on details from Brunel’s life—engineering competitions, the setup of a drafting office, techniques of shipbuilding—to help construct my protagonist’s life and work, though the challenges he faces are of a more fantastical nature. Still, he has the heartbeat of men like Brunel: ambitious, visionary, groundbreaking. After all, it’s what makes us love them and root for them no matter where we find them.

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern, his later and most famous ship (public domain)

How about you? Where did the ideas for your characters or other narrative elements come from? Did you look into history to find inspiration or another place entirely?

 

– Paige Duke

Flash Fiction Friday

magical lamp, deviantART by MaithaNeyadi

magical lamp, deviantART by MaithaNeyadi

The Perfect Gift

by Paige Duke

Under cover of darkness, a girl ran to the dumpster behind the beat-up Shell station. She looked around to be sure she was alone, but she needn’t have worried. There was no one out yet at 3 a.m., and the gas station clerk was snoozing. No one watching to see her bruises, the tear in her hoodie, or the curious thing she pulled from her bag to toss in with the other garbage. And after she was free of the thing, still no one to see her sprinting away, away, away.


 

Today was the day, Ted could feel it. Today he would find the perfect Christmas gift for Alison. As he walked down toward the strip of boutiques on Main Street, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his puff coat against the November chill, he saw how it would be. Christmas morning, she’d wake beside him, after a night at his place of course—she’d be staying over by then, definitely—and pester him about her present, the twelfth one, the perfect one. He had the other eleven picked out and wrapped already, sitting in a cheery pile beneath his Charlie Brown Christmas tree they’d put up together after Thanksgiving. So Christmas morning, wearing her vintage kimono robe (Day Four’s present), Alison would lean into him and beg him for her perfect gift with that way she pouted at him.

Ooh, he shivered just thinking about it. That’s where the vision stopped, though, because of course he didn’t have the perfect present yet. But he would. Today was the day; he could feel it. Something about his hair. It was the first good hair day he’d had in more than a month. The static electricity just messed with it at this time of the winter. He’d brush it, not brush it, wash it, not wash it; nothing he tried made a difference—not even his Brooklyn pomade—it would stick straight up like he’d rubbed a balloon over it. But not today. Today when he’d put the brush to it, it lay down perfectly and stayed that way.

So, his unshakable optimism led him through one store after another. He first tried the boutiques, because he’d heard Alison and her girlfriends talking about them over their long lunches. He hated how those things just dragged on, but there was usually a pretty intense make-out session at her place after, so he just powered through. But what the girls failed to mention was how damn expensive everything was in those shops. He couldn’t afford more than a comb or a nail file after all the other eleven presents. No, that was not perfect present material.

Ted tried the antique shops next, his spirits still holding. Alison loved antiques. Nothing in her apartment was from Target, except maybe a basket or something. She had a thing about baskets—organizing in general. He’d tried to start picking up his own place more, hoping that might encourage her to come over more. To stay over.

But the antique places were a bust too. They weren’t as expensive, but everything was just . . . old. Right, but not the right kind of old. Like cracked plates and dusty magazines and shit. No. That wasn’t right for the perfect present. So Ted kept walking and looking in windows, feeling his hopes draining with every step. Then it was sleeting and he felt his hair frizzing and he was about to call it quits. He must have misread the perfect-hair-day sign.

He was headed back to the car when he saw it—the old Shell station. He couldn’t believe the place was still open, it looked in such bad shape. Back in his freegan days, Ted and his buddies from the Meetup.com group would dumpster dive there for the overflow from the vegan place next door. They’d come across some good stuff there sometimes, Huck had even found an old Lomo camera once that was in perfect condition. People didn’t know what they had, just chunked that stuff. Plus, he’d met Alison at the Shell. He’d stood in line behind her, overheard her trying to buy a pack of American Spirits, but she’d left her card at home. He saw again how he’d stepped up beside her and said to the clerk, “I’ll take two packs,” as he laid a bill on the counter. She’d smiled up at him, blonde, pretty, and those full lips.

Ted found himself walking toward the dumpster. He felt stupid, sure. Dumpster diving for the perfect gift? But this was the day and he’d tried every place else, after all. He looked around to be sure no one was watching him, slipped inside the rickety fence, and peered in at the trash heap. There were boxes turning soft with the sleet, mounds of takeout wrappers, food scraps. He stretched on tiptoe to see if he could catch sight of anything else. And he did see something. A glint of metallic light, glistening with a sheen of wetness. As he strained to see further, he saw its curved shape. It looked promising. He reached in and hooked a finger around the thing, it had a kind of loop.

Ted pulled it out, feeling by its weight that it was right. The thing lying in his hand made his chest grow warm. It looked like an antique! Like a gravy boat, only fancier and with a spout on it. Its copper-colored lid had scrollwork-type decorations and foreign script on the sides. He tried to pry the top off, but it was stuck. Even when he brushed the sleet off with his flannel shirt, he couldn’t make it budge. But that didn’t matter. He felt it. He grinned and turned to go home, clutching the thing in the crook of his arm, oblivious to the unnatural heat of it against his puff coat.

It was perfect. Alison was going to love it.

Genie Not Included

by Dani Nicole

Ten years and the lamp hasn’t moved. I watch it, polish it, and leave it just like I’m supposed to. Just like the king told me to.

I still look at the entrance to the cave like some gorgeous, beautiful, breathtaking woman is going to walk through it. I would ask her on a date, but she would probably say no considering I don’t really shower anymore. The lake water in the cave is all I can use. But after I asked her on a date and she said no, I might ask her if she could watch the damn lamp and give me a break. Maybe she would feel sorry for me and say yes.

This is what my mind resorts to in the dark hours of the dark cave of the dark life of being the dark lamp watcher.

All the king’s orders are because of some stupid myth that one day, maybe, just possibly, there is a slight chance that the lamp will shiver and a big ass-genie will come popping out of it.

Holy hell, I would love to see that. I kind of wish he’d wait until the hot girl shows up and surprise the crap out of both of us, just before we were about to kiss. Then when he asked me what my three wishes were, the first one would be just another damn minute so I could finish the job. It’d be pretty awesome to show off my wooing of the ladies in front of an all-powerful genie.

But I have a feeling genies aren’t the type to cater to your every need. After all, they only give you three wishes. They’re not going to sit around until you make up your mind. So I’d have to have all three wishes ready. But I’ve only thought of one wish so far.

Ah, to hell with it. It’s not real anyways. And I’m just some stupid kid sitting on the floor of a cave covered in mold. I’m not sure if I smell like mold, or if I’ve been here so long the mold smells like me.

What I need to focus on is dinner. A rat skitters across my feet and I stab it with my blade. I used to flinch at the sight of blood, at the sound of bones crushing. Now it’s an everyday feat, and a necessity to staying alive in a cave full of rodents and fish.

I reach in my sack for the box of matches. When I pick it up I know I’m in trouble. It’s entirely too light. I slide the box open. Yep. Empty. Fantastic. Now I’ll just have to wait for the king’s lackeys to deliver more supplies in the morning.

Maybe Archibald will come. I like that guy. He always sticks around to chat. Kind of gets that whole isolation thing and how it makes you batshit crazy and whatnot.

I inhale, holding the rat carcass in my hands, letting the blood run to the ground. I really don’t like rat sushi. But I really don’t have a choice. I inhale, bring the rat to my lips, and swallow bile. I hold my breath and bite down.

Disgusting.

Revolting.

I never–

What was that?

I suspend the rat carcass in mid air. It hangs in limbo as I stare at the small golden lamp, sitting beneath the light on its stone sanctuary. Nothing about the lamp looks different. It hasn’t moved. Pivoted. Broken. That means that my ass is still covered, and also that I’m seeing things.

Great just more proof that I’m batshit cra–

There it is again.

I throw the rat on the ground. Stand up. Walk to the lamp. After ten years I’ve never touched it. I’ve never dared to break the king’s rules. But suddenly I am filled with an overwhelming urge to pick up the lamp. I want to hold it. I want to trace the intricate scrolling with my fingertips.

I stop inches from it, squatting so I’m at eye level.

“Hello,” I say to it, because when you’ve been in a cave for ten years, sometimes you talk to inanimate objects.

The lamp sits there mockingly, glimmering under the light.

“To hell with this,” I say.

But just as I turn to walk away, the ancient lamp starts to shake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flash Fiction Friday

Lost and Found

by Paige Duke

“Pass through town and keep walking ‘til you feel you’ve gone too far; there you’ll find Harrow House,” I repeated the old hag’s words to comfort myself. I had already felt, more than once, that I’d gone too far, but the house was nowhere in sight. Only endless, empty fields. Now I just felt foolish. For believing some hogwash about a destiny. For chancing the precious few coins I had left to a gypsy’s word. For running from the sorrow that will forever cling to me. As my doubts swelled, the daylight disappeared, all too quickly.

Hopeless, I thought.

Hannah, I heard in the next heartbeat. My name coming to me across the long grasses, spoken by no human tongue. I shivered and could make my feet move no further.

Winking at me out of the dusk was a ramshackle house, where before there was nothing. What sort of trick was this? I spun around but found no one to answer me. No sound but the breeze and the whisper of my name again, no soul in sight but the Man in the Moon.

Hannah.

I felt a sharp prick against my wrist, an insect’s sting. But I looked down to see only the old trinket the gypsy had pressed into my hand at her glassy-eyed divination. A charm she’d hung on a chain, but the thing was too small to fasten round my neck, so I wore it as a double-wrapped bracelet. It didn’t look like much, little more than a chipped or halved coin. But from the moment I wore it, the thing seemed to hum there against my skin. Its strange energy coursed through me, pulsing at the emptiness, the raw ache at the center of me, that place where the child had left me but its soul still lived.

I looked between the charm and the house—its siding grayed with dirt, the roof as threadbare as an old dishrag, the doors hanging from their hinges.

Where else could I go? Even if the old woman had cheated me with her talk of fate, it was shelter for one night.

Hannah.

Suddenly weary, I surrendered. My tired feet slogged through the tall grass as if it were mud, but the gypsy’s trinket thrummed louder with every step. I felt the burst of new life, fresh purpose, though all around me was the stench of mold and decay. The porch creaked, and I tried not to imagine what creatures might be lurking in the darkness of that house.

As I passed through the door, a ray of moonlight sneaking through a patch in the roof illumined the house. All around me was dust and ash glittering in the silvery light, a curious sort of beauty. My hollow womb grieved at the sight, another emptied and abandoned room, and still the charm’s magic pulled me forward.

A weak cry startled me. Now it was my heart thrumming in my ears as I turned to find the source. Just beyond the moon’s spotlight I saw a wriggling mass of blankets I’d mistaken for a trash heap. I approached, my limbs alive with fear. Before me lay a tiny babe, tucked inside a blanket. It couldn’t have been there long, so healthy and perfect it looked. The poor thing was hungry, though, it suckled its fist and squirmed.

I called out, I searched the whole place, but of course the thing’s mother was nowhere to be found. I came back to the wailing child and longed to take it in my arms. As I lifted the tiny thing, the blankets fell back and around its neck hung the thinnest chain of gold with half a coin, whose mate still pulsed at my wrist.

The Case of Beatrice Burns

by Dani Nicole

Beatrice Burns disappeared near Wicker Place at dusk. She was victim twenty-six.

The old house got its name because of its burn marks. One match, and the whole place would ignite like wicker.

No one remembers how the house got its burns. There are no news stories covering an accident. No wildfires. No discarded cigarette butts.

Most people of Blanket, Texas choose to forget, but I’ve made it my focus in life to not ignore the abnormal, for it will always catch up with you.

I set my newspaper on the table and grab my banana, peeling it slowly as I read the bolded headline.

NEW REPORTED DISAPPEARANCE NEAR WICKER PLACE

The victim was only twelve, and new to town. She was walking her dog Toto near the perimeter of 766 Destiny Lane and never came back. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

“Another depressing headline?” Jennie says. My wife comes into the kitchen, her hair a bird’s nest on top of her head. The camisole she wears is thin enough to see through.

“You know, just another victim to the house.”

“You’re not still on that are you?” She yawns, stretching her arms above her head. I pull her close to me.

“It’s the only answer. Every time someone disappears in this town they are last seen near the perimeter.”

“It’s a house, Ray. It doesn’t just eat people.” She laughs, but it’s never funny to me. “Are you going to have a real breakfast, or just a banana?”

I kiss her on the cheek. “Have to run. Be home at 6.”

She smiles and smacks my butt on the way out of the house, but all I can think of is victim twenty-six.

#

“Victim, Beatrice, female, twelve, last seen near Wicker Place,” Sergeant Waters says. He slaps a folder onto his desk. “This is the twenty-sixth disappearance in five years.”

Since the burn marks appeared on Wicker Place.

“I want to put an end to this. We need to find the common thread.” His eyes hesitate on mine. “And something I can use in court, not a superstition.”

He moves to a chalkboard and starts writing details. We hypothesize about the connection, but my mind travels to past cases. It took three for me to put it together, to start associating the house with the disappearances. Once I did, I visited the house after each victim. But I never found anything.

“… Dakota? Are you listening?” Sergeant Waters says, staring at me.

“Yes.”

“Good.” He tosses me the folder. “I’m putting you on this one. You can start by interviewing her family.”

The others exit the room as I weigh the folder in my hands.

The afternoon consists of a visit to the Beatrice’s house, where her mother is hysterical and difficult to talk to. Her father is calmer, and is able to verify that his daughter was out walking Toto and never came back.

“Someone took our sweet girl,” said Beatrice’s mother. “Who would do that?”

“We don’t know that yet,” I say, scribbling notes in the folder. “Let’s just start with what we know.”

Beatrice’s father assures me that she had no enemies, no suicidal thoughts, and had never talked about being bullied or followed.

“It was completely unexpected,” he said.

That’s what they always say.

I pack my briefcase and drive to Destiny Lane. I step out of the car and walk in the street, only able to glance at the house from afar. Its white walls are splattered with ash. Its roof caves in. Weeds poke up all over the dead yard.

This place is a gravesite.

The metal door is hanging off the mailbox, secured by only one screw. It looks as though it hasn’t been filled with mail in a long time – perhaps five years. I scan the rest of the scene, not finding anything that grabs my attention.

I turn to walk back to my car, and stop.

“Hello,” says a little boy with blond hair, standing near my door.

“Are you lost? Where are your parents? It’s not safe out here.” I squat down so that I am at his eye level.

“My camera is broken,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes.

“Maybe I can fix it. Where is it?”

He walks through the weeded grass to a small camera resting on a child’s sized tripod. “It’s right here. It won’t take pictures.

I push a few buttons. It doesn’t even turn on. “I don’t know if I can fix this.”

He starts to cry, but the camera flickers on. “Yay! Yay! Now I have to take a picture. You stand over there.” He points at a space in the grass.

I take a few steps back and smile.

“One, two, three–”

He clicks the button, there’s a flash, and I am moving.

I land on hardwood, the smell of ash filling my nostrils. There are walls on every side of me, burn marks splattered across them.

On the wall there are twenty-seven pictures.

Mine is the last.