Archive for the ‘Writing Fiction’ Category

Cultural Trends

Fiction writers explore and define cultural trends in specific times and places. A novel such as The Great Gatsby defined jazz age society in and around New York City. William Faulkner famously explored post-reconstruction life in Mississippi. Both are classics of American literature.  The novelist rivets a big round glowing eyeball on characteristic attitudes that contribute to the over-all current of events on a larger historical scale. The fictional characters inhabit a particular moment in history and a definite cultural milieu. As such the characters’ statements, opinions, and actions help to also characterize a region or country.

I have been reflecting upon what I consider the preponderant cultural trends in the United States today. What first comes to mind is the ascendancy of informality in many aspects of culture. Increasingly over the last fifty years or so, casualness in dress has taken over. Hats, gloves, heels, and suits are no longer the standard attire for church attendance. Travelers board airplanes in sweatshirts and jeans. In many offices, men are no longer required to wear ties to work. Speech has taken a colloquial tone, the folksy replacing the elegant style. Titles are discarded for the preferred usage of first names. What results is a blurring of the lines between work and play, between what is dignified and undignified in a way that tends to make distinctions between tastelessness and grace difficult. Americans have come to love the casual, the common, the predictable, the unnuanced, and the pedestrian.

Our thinking has become bland and conformative also. In the love of the casual, the masses have accepted the opinions and tastes foisted upon them by the television, movie, and music industries. Casual thinking results that skims the surface and that is easy to wear–wash and wear just like our casual clothes; no ironing required. In fact, we don’t need to iron out our thinking or differences in opinion. Stream of consciousness–let it flow writing–is encouraged in high school, replacing rigorous rhetorical formal essay-writing. Students cut and paste their way through assigned term papers–the easy way, the casual way. In the political arena formal debate has evaporated, replaced by name-calling, insults, lies, and logical fallacies. It is easier and more casual than critical thinking.

We like fast food and informal dining on paper plates with plastic forks and spoons. Throwing together easy meals in a microwave oven is a popular preference. Why even sit down to a dinner around the table when the family can eat standing up and then run to the kid’s soccer game in a jiffy?  Who has time to linger and discuss the daily news or Salman Rusdie’s latest novel? We prefer to brag about how many touchdowns junior scored on the football field than to mention another child’s accomplishment on the debate team. It is easier to talk about sports because everyone else loves sports. It makes for casual conversation.

I realize I am making massive generalizations, but that is what finding trends is all about. Informality, undeniably, is a trend in American society, transferring to multiple facets of our customs and beliefs.

We see this trend most graphically in the 2016 presidential election that catapulted a casual, undignified personality into the Oval Office–a product of pop culture, the impresario of a reality television show. Ironically, the clown likes to cover his naked informality by usually wearing a business suit and tie. He is the culmination, the embodiment, of cultural trends long present in American society. Like the Loch Ness monster he emerges from the lake. Unlike the Loch Ness monster, he remains above for everyone to constantly view. Everything tawdry, debased, tasteless, and undignified has bubbled up from the depths of the national psyche.

It is not a pretty sight.

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Storytelling Is Merry Playing

This past year I have been turning my hand to writing short stories on the lower end of the spectrum usually ranging to 3,000 words or less. Storytelling is merry playing. A writer is a merry player, so it is appropriate that I offer a story of that name to illustrate the metaphor. Music generated my tale in the first place. I was listening to a tape entitled “Earth Quest” of synthesized music that evoked merriment and a feeling of tripping through an old oak forest. The music furnishes the mood, tone, tempo, and rhythm to which a writer adds the images. Those images in turn give rise to scenes peopled with a cast of characters and a story line. Play as opposed to work is supposed to be fun. Not surprisingly, then, the verb used to describe the act of making music with an instrument is play. In theater arts the noun form refers to the dramatic production and the written script. Likewise, the actors are called players. Some writers describe the act of writing as enjoyable, and others describe it as merely hard work requiring concentration, dedication, and hours of solitude when it would be easier to abandon the task and go watch television. Either way, writing involves a willingness to play with language. Inherent in the activity is a delight in craft, in design, and in the incessant arrangement and rearrangement of scenes and characters into a pleasing order of sound and sense. If not always a merry pastime in its execution, the completion of the story results in merriment. Sometimes the journey from start to finish takes a dark path, but more often than not when I attempt to write a short story, I lapse into a humorous vein. I may begin with a serious theme, but I drift into the wry, the absurd, or the comical without realizing it. Eventually, I discover how my story has shifted to the whimsical, and I am happy at the outcome. I have made merry along the forest path.

Merry Players

The band of strolling players approached the thatch roofs of the village in the lake country, an obscure dell in the northwest corner of England. The emerald-green hedgerows glittered with the fallen rain. The dwarf at the head of the procession merrily skipped along the muddy lane, squeezing a jig from his small accordion. The troupe would perform a farcical skit for the townsfolk in the village square.

After a flash of lightning and another roll of thunder, the rain, which had dwindled to a stray drop or two ceased entirely. The sun peeped over the wet haystack. A carter met them at the outskirts of the village and hailed them with a hearty welcome.

He said, “I be going to market in Ramsbottom today and won’t return until late tomorrow. I’m sorry to miss your antics, but I’m sure the lads at the pub will tell me about the merriment.”

“May the wind blow gently at your back, sir,” said the leader of the band, a red, jolly-faced stub of a man, who looked rather like a diminutive Friar Tuck of Robin Hood’s band, striding beside the brightly painted covered wagon, the sides adorned in flowery motifs of brilliant blue, red, green, and yellow. The dwarf, his large head bobbling atop his stunted body, sauntered past the carter. The force of the dwarf’s personality had awarded him the position of leadership in this traveling band of players—a small circus act of sorts composed of tumblers, musicians, and dancers, and even a puppet show. Ethelrod was his name, no other given appellation; he demanded to be addressed only by his patronymic. Ethelrod’s third decade had commenced a month ago. Dwarves rarely lived beyond age thirty, but with the plague and fever neither did normal-sized men survive to a greater age. He would have married if he had encountered a suitable female dwarf anywhere in the north of England; but he had not, so he and the fat, boisterous soprano of the party formed an incongruous couple. He managed to find a way beneath her ample skirts and she treated him like a cuddly puppy that amused her without end. In Kate’s estimation, Ethelrod was a fine figure of a man although he was barely five feet tall. His head was nobly configured, a long, protuberant jaw, but magnificent brown eyes and high cheek bones and brow that was square and commanding, a head topped with lustrous black hair. She suspected he had a bit of the Welsh in him, because not only did he have the darkly handsome looks of the Celt, he also had the sonorous, bass singing voice of that swarthy race. Only the slight, yet noticeable hump making his left shoulder lopsided marred his generally handsome appearance. Kate was almost as round as she was tall. Her triple chin jostled like jelly when she rolled with laughter at almost anything, for life was a bowl of Yorkshire pudding for her and every day was Christmas Eve. The troupe had devised a few slapstick masques to regale the crowd, domestic spats between shrewish wife and badgered husband, Kate in the role of the nag and Ethelrod playing the hapless husband. He didn’t mind being at the short end of the stick, for his caricatures drew barrels of laughter and filled his felt hat with coins that he passed after every performance like a church basket throughout the audience.

When the band entered the village from the eastern gate tooting horn and beating drum, they discovered a crowd already assembled in the greensward. Ethelrod halted his troupe and restrained the horse-drawn wagon with a tug on the poor sway-backed white mare’s bridle.

“What, ho, be there?” he asked a chap in a torn tunic beside the lane.

“The sheriff be getting the square ready for a witch,” the peasant answered and picked a flea from his sleeve. A few straw shafts stuck out from his matted hair. Ethelrod supposed rightly that the lad had slept in the stable yard that night.

“I came to town last night so as to be here early to see the show.” Seeing Ethelrod’s curiosity, he volunteered this information. “You’ll not have an audience this day for your mummery, I daresay,” he added.

“Um . . . not likely . . .” Ethelrod mused. “Yes, it do seem my stage is taken.”

Kate popped her mop of thick, curly, carrot-colored hair from between the curtains at the back of the cart. “Did I hear someone say witch?  Witch they call only some pitiful wench, scrofulous men take a disliking for. That be the day they hang a witch in Digglebury Town.”

“It’ll not be a hanging. It’s a burning. She’s already been dipped in the brook and she floated.”

“Good god, she floated because she didn’t want to drown, you ass,” Kate bellowed.

“You’ll pardon me. I’m going to shimmy up the blacksmith’s roof to get a better view.”

Kate beckoned Ethelrod to the rear of the wagon. “I’ll not countenance such a scene. The rabble has always been for a freak show or two. Nothing so like drawing and quartering or lopping some chap’s head off to summon a crowd of stupid gawkers. For the love of Mary, we’ve played to such a crowd for our benefit. They love a fight, a bear-baiting, or a simple crofter’s housewife gouging her husband’s eye out for having a roll in the haystack with the milkmaid. But I’ll not have a witch-burning. No, sirrah. It’s superstition and deviltry.”

“You can’t do anything about it when god-besotted aldermen and black-robbed clerics decide a maid is bewitched.”

“They’re all addled with their own lust, I swear,” Kate pronounced vehemently.

“You can’t save the lass, so you may as well watch the spectacle and thank the Lord God you don’t burn in her shoes.”

“Humph . . .” Kate breathed and popped back into the protective cover of the gaily painted wagon.

Ethelrod unharnessed the white mare and led her to the stable yard for a fresh bag of oats and temporary pasturage in the stable yard. The rest of the troupe wandered off to investigate the uproar in the town, eager not to miss any excitement or spectacle the burning of the purported witch offered. After he saw the old mare content behind the fence, switching her tail at horseflies, he headed toward the village square. As he approached the troupe’s cart, Kate beckoned him from the back of the wagon.

“I’m not standing idle while they murder an innocent woman. Witchery . . . I’ll be damned if it is. It’s the blathering of both papists and Puritans and I’ll have none of it, and if you be more than half a man, which by heaven, I know you to be; you’ll go along with my scheme. Hear me awhile.” She climbed down from the cart. Leaning down to Ethelrod, who reached but to her shoulder, she whispered into his ear.

“Aye, woman, I vow someday, you’ll be the death of me.” He laughed despite himself. “You’ve spunk my girl, more than enough for a man that I wonder if you should not have been a man.” He laughed again. He slapped his hand against his thigh. “I’m the very size to do it.” Kate kissed him on both cheeks, and then ducked back into the wagon while Ethelrod directed his steps toward the bustle in the square. He elbowed his way through the crowd, intent upon gaining a closer view of the center stake around which bundles of brambles and dry branches had been spread. As yet, the convicted woman had not appeared nor had the civic and religious officials gathered on the raised dais or viewing platform. He eavesdropped on the murmurings of the crowd. A holiday spirit permeated the milling villagers, glad to take up a day of merriment in their usual dawn-to-dusk labors. Ethelrod was about to head to the tavern for a tankard of ale, when a trumpet blasted and the town crier announced the entry of the mayor and an entourage of clerics at his heels. The dignitaries took their positions upon the platform. Then the accused witch in a skimpy, umber-colored shift, her hands tied behind her back, escorted by a bailiff was led to the stake. One boney shoulder was exposed, and her golden hair spread like a misshapen heap of straw all askew, stretching at every angle from her head and down the middle of her back—a gigantic halo gone awry as if it were a devil’s plot to undo the highest-ranking seraph of heaven, he thought. Ethelrod could see that with a goodly scrubbing of her face, she was a comely maid.

The bailiff bound the slim young woman to the stake. When the chief cleric saw the task completed and the poor woman securely tied, her head lifted in defiance, her eyes steeled for what she soon must endure; he arose.

“Do you repent lest you suffer the pangs of eternal damnation in the fires of hell?”

“I repent of nothing, for I have done no wrong. Of this, you know full well. You are the one to be damned by the Lord of Heaven and of Earth. I do here condemn thee.”

“Do you not fear for your soul? Confess I say, repent, and you will be welcomed into the bosom of Our Savior.”

“Save your own damned soul,” she shouted.

“Then you seek the purification of the fire?”

“Have done with it. Do the foul deed now. I am confessed of nothing.”

With that the cleric gave the nod for the fire to be lit. The bailiff, holding a flambeau, walked toward a brazier of hot coals. At that moment, heads in the crowd turned in response to the clop of horse’s hooves and the shrill whoops of a woman. Rapidly advancing upon the square was a red-haired woman, stark naked, astraddle like a man an aged white horse. She was plump, her full breasts brushing the neck of the horse, her buttocks like pink panniers spanning its rump, and fleshy thighs grasping the sides of her mount as her heels spurred the animal onward. Agog at the spectacle of the nude, bareback rider, all eyes followed her as she circled the village square, shrieking in joyous abandon, unashamed of her exposed condition, but seemingly glorying in her display. The horse, too, appeared to have summoned new reserves of energy in the attention she was also receiving even though the best that the mare could do was a rolling trot. What dignity or shock remained to the mayor and the clerics on the dais evaporated as they watched in fascination the lewd performance. Dazed, they did not know if the devil had ensorcelled them, or the witch at the stake had conjured a profane vision before their eyes.

Ethelrod slipped through the circle of gawkers, a dagger held between his teeth, swiftly slithering to the stake and cut the girl free from the stake, hissing at her, “Run quickly. To the forest beyond the south gate.  Watch for the painted player’s cart there. Go.”

She ran, bare-footed, like a fleet doe while the crowd, stunned, still followed the circuit of the naked fat lady on the old mare. Then, the first licentious man whistled; another hooted; the shoemaker’s apprentice threw her a copper pence and cried, “That’s what I like—meat on a woman’s bones.” Some laughter erupted, but some good wives boxed their husbands’ ears. Catcalls and shouts of “For shame” mixed in the hullabaloo that arose in the throng, all attention continuing to be riveted on the naked lady.

Finally, the mayor stirred herself from his stupor and ordered. “Arrest her.”

The chief cleric shook off his shock and shouted, “Indecent exposure. Jail her.”

The dwarf jumped upon the platform. “Halt, My wife is touched in the head. She has spells worsened by the witch’s stare. Leave it to me. I’ll take her home and apply a poultice that brings her back to her senses.”

The authorities hesitated. “This is a matter for the courts,”

“Please, Your Grace. It is but a slight inflammation of the cerebrum. I can handle it. Allow me,” Ethelrod bowed low and scraped the boards with his floppy, felt hat.

At first the mayor looked skeptically and was about to utter a word when a hubbub arose in the crowd. “She’s gone! She’s gone!” Everyone’s attention turned to the stake, and certainly, the witch had disappeared.

“Search the town,” the major roared. In the confusion Ethelrod and Kate escaped beyond the square and quickly retreated to the covered wagon where the rest of the troupe awaited. Kate disappeared into the wagon to dress quickly. The men harnessed the white mare to the wagon, climbed aboard, and wheeled the wagon around, exiting the village by the south gate. The players formed a train, lagging several yards behind the departing wagon.

Not far outside the gate, the disheveled woman emerged from behind the gnarled trunk of an oak tree and raced toward the colorful player’s cart. Ethelrod extended a hand raising her up beside him on the driver’s seat. “No time to talk now. We make haste to the old forest road,” and he lightly snapped the whip on the nag’s swayed back. Gamely, she quickened her step a bit, energized by the oat bag fastened to her nose and sensitivity she had developed from a long relationship with the driver. She summoned a brisk trot for a mile, then lagged somewhat as the caravan swerved into the forest gloom. Ethelrod let the mare amble at a gentle pace. She was familiar with the way to the hidden dell deep in the recesses of the forest where they would make their camp. Toward dusk, the troupe angled into a narrow break in the dense foliage and stopped in an area circled by protective oaks. Minutes later, the train of players trickled into the dell. After the campfire was lit and the kettle of stew was warming above the flames, the troupe settled around the pit to hear the rescued woman’s story.

Ethelrod began, “With what witchery did they charge you?”

“Yes, tell us do,” Kate echoed, an amiable smile on her round face.

“Gladly, I’ll tell you who rescued me. I am an orphan, raised by the midwife who died and taught me her simples and medicaments. She trained me in the ways of the healer and showed me every curative plant and herb, mushroom and flower in the forest. When the chandler’s wife gave birth to a boy with a club foot, they blamed me. Then, the reeve’s daughter was born with a split lip and he pointed the figure at me again.”

“Nothing but a run of bad luck,” Kate exclaimed indignantly.

“Not to them. Bad births are a sign of sorcery—the devil’s work—to them. One addled love-struck maid, who couldn’t get the attentions of the mayor’s son, accused me of lasciviously dancing with him at the maypole.”

“Mere jealousy,” Kate bellowed. “That be the devil all the time.”

“Shut up, Madame, and listen her out,” Ethelrod gently reprimanded his effusive mate.

“If truth be told, the lad did have an eye for me,” the young woman laughed, brightening at the memory, her beauty heightening despite the disarray of her hair and garments.

“Aye, did you return the favor?” Kate asked playfully.

“Well, no . . . I am not disposed to marry. My vocation is nun-like as was the beldame, Mistress Marion, who took me when my parents died of the plague. My father was a traveling tinker. My mother passed first and afterwards he left me on the midwife’s doorstep before he expired also.”

“A sad tale,” Ethelrod said.

“You be safe now with us,” Kate said. “With a bit of sprucing up, you’ll be a player. Can you sing and dance, lass?”

“To be sure I can do a jig or Morris dance as well as the next one as soon as administer a healing draft or apply a poultice to a wound,” she answered cheerily.

“Will you join our band, then, of merry players?” Ethelrod chimed in.

“If you’ll have me.”

“We will,” the troupe cried in unison.

“Draw a keg of ale,” Ethelrod shouted. “Let’s celebrate our new player.”

“A fine witch’s brew as ever I drank,” Kate chortled, her jowls jostling. “Fill our chests with jests until every cow jumps over the moon.”

They celebrated into the night and the forest rang with their laughter and song as every woodland creature grew silent, scurrying into their dark burrows. The old forest was dark but comforting, only the merry players providing a spot of light within the gloom.

The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

I was very interested in Matthew Carr’s first novel published this year, because I relied heavily on his non-fiction book Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain,  in the research for my 2015 book of narrative poetry Al-AndalusWith the wealth of material and personalities in the period of time from 1492 to the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1611, I wondered what Carr would choose as the focus of his fictional rendering. When I delved into study of this period, the rich potential for a historical novel staggered my imagination. Initially, I contemplated a novel and was particularly drawn to Granada for the setting and the War of the Alpujarras as the chief event for my story. I wanted to blend a mix of fictional and historical characters to portray how Christians and Muslims interacted in sixteenth century Spain. The more I researched, the more the task of focusing on one region, one event, or restricted time frame overwhelmed me. The purging of Muslim Spain spanned over a century after the conquest of Granada, presenting a mind-boggling mine of material. Finally, I decided that I was best able to execute a series of dramatic monologues in a thematic poetry book.

Matthew Carr selected Aragon, one of the last regions to be purged of its Morisco population and set his suspense tale in 1584. He executes well what is a detective story in which a judge is sent to Cardona to investigate the murder of a priest against the backdrop of the complex relations among the landed aristocracy, the Inquisition officials, the old Christians, and the Moriscos or new Christians, who may or may not be secretly practicing Muslims. Judge Mendoza discovers more than one devil in the region that straddles the Pyrenees border with France. Murder and intrigue abound; the writing is crisp and vivid; the characters historically credible. Matthew Carr has done an excellent job with the raw materials. There is still much more grist for a historical novelist’s mill in this time period. The prospect of fictionalizing this material continues to daunt me. I doubt I will ever take up the challenge, as I think my particular talent was used in Al-Andalus. I recommend the book to historical fiction aficionados.

Evolution of a Novel

I like to think of novel-writing as a long day’s journey into night. Sometimes the driver knows where he is going because he has carefully mapped every leg of the journey. Others proceed with the headlights on bright, letting the road unfold as they travel. Travelers are like that. Some have to have every hotel on the way booked in advance and every site they are going to stop at scheduled on an itinerary. Other travelers, perhaps with a knapsack on their back, just go, stopping at whatever place attracts their attention. Some like to travel in groups; others like to explore on their own. Novelists explore alone. The product of that solitary exploration is the novel.

The process in writing my current novel is different from the others I have attempted in the past. Usually, I have written long character sketches and plot summaries with a good idea of where the final destination lay. I write long speculative paragraphs, weighing alternative directions and analyzing theme and motivation for each chapter or section of the story. Because I do not have a clear denouement in mind or fixed end point in this particular novel, to my surprise, I am discovering that this method of operation does have its advantages as much as the carefully choreographed, fully planned novel. It’s rather like what a reader picking up the book and reading it for the first time may experience. The reader keeps reading because he does not know what will happen to the main character, but his curiosity is stirred sufficiently to continue turning the pages until the end. Similarly, I don’t know how, when, or where my main character will end up; yet I keep writing to find out what will happen to her, what impact she will finally have on the other characters, and how will she have grown. These are all questions that determine eventually what I want the reader to take away from following my character’s life.

Similar to my other attempts at novel-writing, I do have a main theme, purpose, or idea in mind at the core of all the choices I make about character, action, and setting. Theme is the guiding light of the writing process. The method of simultaneously learning, discovering, and experiencing moment to moment as my character does, is very liberating–maybe because it is such a dynamic process. Ultimately, it generates greater vitality in the creative process. I have a greater sense of writing as an adventure. I am a traveling writer inhabiting my fictional world. I am a fellow-traveler with the character; I am subject to the same thrill, expectancy, or trepidation about what she may encounter around the next bend. What lurks in the shadows? What comes into view when she makes the left turn or the right turn? I am making decisions at the same time the character does.

Writers develop a process that suits them. Some write slowly and meticulously, honing each sentence and paragraph until it is pitch-perfect before proceeding.  They write a few pages per day, and review the previous day’s writing before writing new material the next day. Doing it well the first time, they claim, makes their first draft essentially their only draft or nearly so, or at least reduces the need for major revision later. Others compulsively revise, discard, and rewrite, constantly adjusting and tuning, uncertain when the job is really done, doing multiple drafts.  Fledgling writers get conflicting advice in writing workshops. There is no lack of creative writing teachers who ascribe to one method or another and who offer lists of do’s and don’ts.  I have one of each variety: Don’t believe one successful writer’s way is your path to success. Do write your fool head off until you find a process that makes you happy and happy with the writing you have produced. I believe in the end we write for our own happiness. A byproduct of that process is being made happier when even one person finds the reading of your book a worthwhile, enjoyable experience.

Helpful Critique

As I prepare to turn my hand again to writing short stories, I am reminded of the first creative writing course I took. At the time I was in my third year of college. The course was specifically directed at writing the short story. For my first assignment, I dug into my memory, drawing from my experience (limited though it was as a twenty-year old college student) and faithfully followed the dictum: Write about what you know. I have since discarded that rule (I think wisely) in favor of the imagination.

From the well of memory I extracted my experience as a three-year old child of sitting before the small white casket of my baby brother who had died a few days after birth. This was the nexus of my story. The intent was to portray that the little girl had no sorrow, no real tears, only anger at the adult world that did not want to open the coffin so that she could see the baby she had been promised. Of course, it wasn’t a good story. Not much went on except in the head of the little girl. No dramatic tension was created and dialogue probably was scarce. So what help did my professor offer me after he read my story and handled it like “a dry turd,” as Holden Caulfield described his teacher doing in The Catcher in the Rye?

The professor suggested that I read a James Joyce story, supposedly to learn how Joyce handled something similar. I can’t recall the name of the story. “Araby” sticks in my mind, but I’m not sure. In any case, I didn’t read the story. I was rather nonplussed, mainly because the professor did not diagnose my problem and gave me no indication how the Joyce story was supposed to doctor my problems.

Why is suggesting that an aspiring writer read a particular author’s work, unhelpful critique? Because the critic has not tried to deal with the story on its own terms. Does he have any idea in the first place what the writer is trying to do in the story? If he is unsure, has he asked the writer about his intent? A writer wants to write his own story, not someone else’s or the story that the reader would like to write himself. Once a critic grasps what the writer wants to do, he can offer advice on ways to better produce those effects. Then he’s not proposing another story  be written, but helping the writer to write the story that he intended to write, but which may have missed the mark.

I am not gainsaying the fact that wide reading helps the would-be writer. When it comes to improving a specific piece of writing, remedy for its deficiencies comes from understanding authorial intent. If the author does not know what the hell he was trying to do, then it’s time to throw that attempt at writing into the circular file and begin from scratch. The thinking that goes on in the head probably is more important and more time-consuming than actually writing the story.

Today I would diagnose my problem as not thinking out my story well enough in my head before I started to write.

 

 

 

A Short Short Story Winner

Previously, I questioned whether I could produce a story that develops a viable arc from complication, to conflict, to climax, and to resolution within 1300 words. I included some of my efforts in this experiment in The Cat Who Would Be a Woman, which I published last year. Since then I have written another story within these perimeters for a small literary magazine that featured a contest, particularly attractive because there was no entry fee. Other than the limitation on length, the entry had to relate somehow to the theme of frost.

I thought what the heck. There’s nothing to lose by trying my hand at a made-to-order story.  I enjoyed the exercise and sent my entry off with a fond adieu.

Surprisingly, the summer issue of the magazine arrived.  Featured in it was my piece, one of the winners in the frost contest.  I’ll take advantage of its brevity and make it available on my blog–a quick read with cooling thoughts on perhaps a hot August day:

Out in the Cold

A touch of frost settled on my left cheek bone as I escaped the house. Had the nippy December air created this chilly filament on my sallow skin? I smelled snow but no snow had fallen yet this season. I prayed the snow would stay away long enough for me to flee the noise of holiday merrymakers.

I had not expected to be out in the cold alone this of all nights. I had set out with every expectation that this would be an unparalleled evening, the inauguration of a career and the advent of a marriage. Within the span of a few minutes, joy to the world collapsed and the warmth of the Yule log in the Appleton’s great room fireplace had smoldered into frigidity. Grabbing my coat and averting my tear-stained face from the guests baffled by my hasty departure, I hurried toward the door.

“The party’s just getting started, Liz,” the hostess called after me.

“Sorry. I feel sick,” and pushed past her.

I inhaled deeply on the front sidewalk. Eliot had just broken off our engagement. The sequence of events culminating with his bombshell announcement fast-forwarded in my brain. I recalled him guiding me into the den presumably for a quiet tête-à-tête away from party chatter. He had gently pushed me onto the loveseat, and then positioned himself beside me. His somber expression had frightened me, but nothing could have prepared me for his next words.

“I don’t want to get married—not now.”

“But why. . . we’ve both finished our degrees. You’ve applied for that position at the law firm and I have the fellowship for doctoral studies at Columbia. We’re going to start a family.”

“Liz, I need space.”

“Space? You have all the space you need. I’m not a ball and chain around your neck.”

“No, it’s not that. You’re great. You’re wonderful, but—”

“But, what?”

“I want to play the field.”

“What the hell does that mean? I’m not enough woman for you?”

He lowered his head like a boy caught with his hand in a candy jar.

“You’re the only real girlfriend I’ve ever had. I want to date other women.”

“You said you wanted to marry and to start a family before you’re thirty.”

“I realize that I’m not ready for fatherhood yet.”

That’s the point at which my spirit sank and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth like it was fixed there with epoxy. I dropped into a pit of profound dolor. I felt like I would pass out from lack of oxygen. I was powerless to deliver my own surprise announcement, which I had carefully rehearsed. Later in the afterglow of the party I would tell him that I was pregnant, expecting our first child and expecting that, of course, he would suggest that we move up the wedding date.

Even if I hadn’t been speechless, I realized I couldn’t grovel or plead; I couldn’t play for sympathy or use that age-old card of pregnancy to trap him into a marriage he did not want. Reality smacked me, smothering me, and I ran from the horror of confrontation, leaving him as dumbstruck on the loveseat as he had left me a minute earlier.

I moved robotically toward my parked VW bug and got in. I turned the key in the ignition and was about to drive away when I emerged sufficiently from my stupor to realize that a thin layer of frost covered the windshield. I didn’t feel like stepping outside to scrape, so I waited for the heat to defrost the window, watching the line of hot air rising from the dashboard slowly melt the frost. The process mesmerized me, easing my heartache, leaving a dull mist in my brain. As I stared, emotion was emptying from my system.

When the window cleared, I shifted into drive.  On the way to my apartment building, the car drove as if on automatic pilot. By the time I pulled into my parking space at the rear of my apartment, my mind had started to clear. Options began to formulate in my brain. The dullness was now a full-blown headache, but it did not prevent my attempt to analyze coherently my situation for the first time after the shock.

I could see one course clearly. Marriage to Eliot was off the table. I was on my own. That left two courses: either terminate the pregnancy or carry the child to term. Carrying the child to term left me two courses: either raise the child alone or give it up for adoption. Thank God, my university education had given me some vestige of power to grapple with dilemmas. I stepped out of the car. The cold nipped my cheeks and nose again, but I welcomed it. I’d have to coat my heart with ice if I were to look starkly at my predicament and make a choice devoid of emotion.

Before going into my apartment, I stood in the open air, leaning against the hood of the car and inviting the cold. If I were chilled to the bone, I wouldn’t care. I was glad I wore no hat or gloves. I invited the cold to freeze my ear lobes and fingertips. I’d get deathly sick and lose the baby in the process. Then this horrible wish abashed me and I banished it from further consideration, thinking of my own childhood. My mother had raised me alone. My father was killed in the Vietnam War before I was born. It was no fun not having a father in the household. My mother did the best that she could, especially in my teenage years. We fought our own war during that time, eventually declaring an uneasy peace until she died of breast cancer five years ago. No, raising a child alone was not an option, especially if the child turned out to be a boy. Far worse for him growing up without a father than it had been for me. Of that I was certain.

That left one option—the rational one.  Astounding, how rapidly I had deduced my course of action. Could I attribute it to the crystalline air of the winter night? I still ached, but I felt resolve now and an interior strength. I turned toward the apartment building.

As soon as I entered the foyer, the warmth hit that sturdy resolve. I heard a male voice greeting me. My neighbor Joe Quigley was emerging from the elevator door. Unexpectedly, I broke down and burst into tears. Joe rushed toward me and held me in his bear-like arms. Joe was built like a boxer, short and stout, a rugged face and Neanderthal look; but he was good-natured and helpful whenever I needed anything fixed in my apartment.

I blubbered the news of my broken engagement. He wiped my eyes, comforting me.

“Come up to my apartment and I’ll make you a cup of hot chocolate.”

I let him lead me to his apartment where I found it easy to sit and cry my eyes out on his sofa, relating every detail of my quandary.

“A child needs a mother and a father. I will not raise this child alone,” I concluded firmly, blowing my nose one last time and thinking that I had my cry at Joe’s expense. “Thanks for listening,” I meekly said.

“No problem. What if I marry you, Liz?”

I looked at him agog for a moment, initially feeling the absurdity of his suggestion. I refocused my eyes. My vision cleared even more. The throbbing of my head faded. He was smiling at me, waiting for a response.

I saw him as he was—ugly as sin, but a man capable of being one of the best fathers in America.

New Short Story Collection

I compiled thirty-one stories that I have written over a span of thirty-one years into a story collection available in paperback and e-book editions. I chose the story The Cat Who Would Be a Woman as the title piece because of its whimsical nature.  As the lead story, it puts a new spin on the age-old fictional device of anthropomorphism.  Don Rogers, graphic designer, created the cover. We discussed whether it would be perceived as too risqué, but a survey of both men and women who read the story thought the sensuality of the cover image was tasteful while suggestive of  the playful cat Gretchen whose fairy cat godmother Nabila appears to grant her wish.

Just as some cat tails are long and some are short, the tales in this collection offer something for every reader.  Their diverse subjects often employ eccentric characters and fantastical situations with surprise twists at the end. Some tales are a few pages that can be read in a few minutes while waiting for an appointment. The longest tale “Cosa Distinta” takes a woman on a romantic adventure between Chicago and Buenos Aires. The stories are quirky and unusual, the settings ranging from contemporary America to Chernobyl. Modern love relationships are explored in a humorous tone. A fractured fairy tale “Jack on the Beam,” which I originally composed for my son when he was ten years old, adds to the eclectic mix.  On serious notes, the death of a child in “Of Those Who Sleep” and the ravages of old age in “When the Curtain Comes Down” are explored.

This collection presents a kaleidoscope of delightful tales, mostly short, on a variety of themes with a goodly mixture of humor, horror, realism and fantasy. For a quick romp through a collection of stories that are unlike any others you may have read, I invite you to read my The Cat Who Would Be a Woman and Other Strange Tails,” the long and the short of my venture into the realm of short-story writing.

Other story titles in the collection are: Horse Wife Hattie, Some Peace and Quiet, Spirits from Down under, Beauty Secrets, Stella’s Farm, An Alien Game of Jacks, The Devil Went Down, Dostoyevsky in Chicago, Fortune Smiles, Celia, The Red Shed, What Horrified Mother, Year of the Drought, Cousins, Lazy KZ Bar, First Leson, Merlin, Suddenly Sane, Oh For Fudge Ripple, Road Work, A Visit to Mrs. Gulik, Rivalry, The Wolf at Our Door, Out of Character, The Tie That binds, Cycling of Maureen.