For several years now I’ve had the idea to write a story about the gruff-seeming stoic genuine old guys I’ve had the pleasure of meeting throughout my life. The first of these was my great-grandpa Jack, and the inspiration of my NANOWRIMO project “Another Winter Gone”.
The Challenge i’m finding is that I’ve always seen these people through the eyes of a much younger person and while I hope to get into their heads (And eventually grow up to be one), I find that it’s easier to see these people from the outside.
That does leave me with the tendency to lionize or Mary-Sueify my old-guys, and I am struggling to work on that.
One of the problems is that most of these guys are to the “eff it” stage of life because they’ve already done the things you’d write the story about. That leaves either a Grand Torino-style “unlikely friendship”, or an UP “developers are stealing my house, and unlikely friendship” sort of relationship, really any friendship with these guys seems to hinge on the “unlikely friendship” territory.
I find this ironic in part because as a kid, I often got along better with these men than I did with kids my own age. They were almost always doing something worth doing and were happy to let me assist (provided I didn’t talk too much. I ususally did).
I suppose another way of approaching this sort of story would be in a series of lessons I learned from each of these old codgers, possibly without a narrative thread, possibly with.
Lately, I’ve been working at stretching my skills. Particularly where outlining is concerned. My use of “Fiction Formula Plotting” by Deborah Chester and several other books on the subject is putting me off my comfort zone of bedtime stories, and short stories.
I am doing my best to think of the bedtime story version as the synopsis, or treatment form, and then outlining and fleshing it out from there. For now, re-establishing my writing habit should be good enough.
One of the aspects of writing short fiction I most enjoy is the focus. There is little temptation to clutter the stories with extra storylines, little time to tell things out of order in an attempt to be clever, and it’s easy to figure out who needs the arc and what they want. Perhaps this is something I can bring with me into longer prose.
In any event, over the next few months I hope to take us out into uncharted (by me) waters. I’ll attempt to write anew and hope you enjoy this!
As we walked past the gates, I noted they were simple and unordained. Not at all what I’d been given to expect from Rodin’s famous sculpture. I looked at my host inquisitively and he shrugged.
“We didn’t get Rodin,” he said as a chill breeze whipped past.
“oh that is mean,” I said, as I shivered off the cold.
Old Nick smiled his toothy, charismatic grin, “Right? I spend a lot of time trying not to give people the ‘devil they know’.” We bypassed the line of people stuck shivering outside the velvet ropes next to a red carpet and I noticed some D-list celebrities waiting miserably as a fat man with headphones and a neckbeard seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.”
“What’s his deal?” I asked, pointing to the bouncer.
“He’s on loan from above. We’ve managed to pervert the whole ‘last shall be first’ thing by playing the ‘as above, so below’ card. My favorite part is that when their managers try to get them special treatment, they get pushed farther back in line.”
“So, part of his heaven is making people stand in line waiting to get into hell?”
Satan shook his head at the foolishness of mankind, “yeah, but he’s not totally immune from the knowledge that even with power the ‘cool kids’ can’t stand him.”
“But wait, do they know they’re still outside hell?”
“yeah. We’ve combined the whole ‘anticipation heightens the experience’, with letting their imaginations run wild so we can figure out the most appropriate punishment thing, plus everyone born outside the UK hates waiting in line.”
“So what do you do to British celebrities?” I asked.
“We make them cut line without allowing their apologies to come out. A lifetime of conditioning makes them fight it. Oh and we make them think they’re being disapproved of by other people they’ve never met.”
“You know, last time we spoke you seemed to be frustrated at your reputation, but here you seem to enjoy it.”
“Well, I am the just reward of the sinner, am I not? So how could I also be the great tempter? That would be like a District Attorney working entrapment to get more cases.”
“Oh yeah, and they’ve got a special punishment” he said, but refused to say any more on the subject when I pressed him further.
We walked right past them behind a group of nobodies and made a left to a counter where a small bespectacled demon with reading glasses on a pearl strand. She looked up and her look of utter non-reaction at her boss showing up unexpectedly indicated that if she hadn’t had a hand in designing the concept of the DMV, she had been a dedicated student of their dark art.
“Hello Agnes,” said Old Nick.
She grunted and handed him a clipboard, “Fill out the forms completely, and when you’re issued your don’t let it out of your control for any reason. You will not be issued another.” she said, in the tones of a flight attendant giving a safety demonstration.
“You guys get a lot of visitors here?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “Just another way to add red tape and misery to anyone trying to game the system.”
“I have to hand it to you,” I said, as we walked in “You really know your business. Why was I invited here? Surely you don’t need me to spread word of how things work here, that would only complicate things further.”
“Follow me into my office,” he said, “I’ll explain when we’re away from prying eyes.”
One day, I took a walk with that most useful fellow, God’s Narc himself, The Devil. After our meeting on the road, we chanced to meet each other at a dinner party for a fellow acquaintance and he invited me over to his place.
“Is this a trick?” I asked, “or do you mean as a guest… temporarily.”
“As a guest,” he said, smiling. “You’re free to leave whenever you wish.”
“In that case, yes. I’d love to come visit sometime. How do I arrange it?” I asked.
He gave me contact information and told me how to get there. Some time later, I’m not sure if it was out of boredom, or out of curiosity, or both. I decided to contact him and make my tour of hell.
Next thing I knew, I head the door bell ring and a small woven easter basket was on the door with miniature seats in it.
“Seriously?” I asked the air around me, “We’re traveling by cliché?”
Old Nick’s silken chuckle washed over me warm and gregarious. “No of course not. I just wanted to see how you’d respond to metaphor made literal.”
I turned around to look where there had clearly been no one a second ago to find the devil himself standing to the side of my door just out of sight as I had walked out. I arched an eyebrow.
“We’re going to see a lot of this?” I asked.
“Loads,” he said and pinched bridge of his nose for a moment, “I blame The florentines.”
“Yes, Durante degli Alighieri, known as dante and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known as Michelangelo,” he said, in the same voice as an actor on a police procedural might brief the other officers of a precinct about a dangerous criminal.
“They made my life-”
“A living hell?” I asked, unable to help myself.
Old Nick grimaced, “I can see you’ll do just fine in hell.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. Do puns figure largely in hell, “They do for most people who consider themselves writers or comedians. Why do you think puns are referred to as the ‘lowest’ form of humor?”
“Huh. So what did these guys do to you?” I asked.
“The made things… ….complicated. At least for the first several hundred years.”
“How so?” I asked.
“You’ll see. But for now, Let’s just say that when Christ said all the sinners would essentially burn on God’s trash heap for all of eternity, my life was a lot easier.”
Here’s where we rounded a corner and instead of finding the little bodega owned by my friend Sinan, I found us on a path sloping downward into a forest. As we traveled, I found that the path was a winding circle. Lined with primroses and bricks of something that looked not quite like gold and were carved with something that looked a lot like excuses, ‘I never intended…’, ‘I was only trying to help…’, ‘I just thought if I…” were common starts to a lot of these.
“The road to hell is paved with excuses?” I asked.
“Not quite,” said the Devil as he fought a slight smile.
“Why Gold?” I asked.
“It’s Pyrite, actually. We used to have to constantly repair the roads when we used actual brimstone, You know how easy that stuff is to break? It’s awful. We had full time crews of laborers working with the stuff.”
“Was it part of someone’s punishment?” I asked.
“Mostly fraudulent bank managers and other people who’d been so lazy they hadn’t been content with a white collar profession and cheated people.”
“Sounds like a good punishment,” I said.
“You’d think so,” he sighed a bit tired, “But have you ever done what might be an unpleasant physical chore and felt reinvigorated by it at the end of the day?”
“Sure.” I said, “I’ve always enjoyed chopping wood.”
“Perfect example. These jerks had never done a real day’s work and never cared about the people they’d defrauded, so instead of being beaten down by it, they could look at the end of the day and see what they’d accomplished with their own two hands. We had people begging to be a part of the crew eventually. It was really counter-productive to the whole eternal damnation business.”
“That sounds rough,” I said, full of sympathy.
“that’s not the half of it. The worst part was how bad they were at the work.”
“So the worst part of this whole hell-paving bit wasn’t that it wasn’t punishing for these damned souls, or that it was costly and inefficient, the worst part is that your crews did a bad job?”
“I suspect some of them were trying to pull the wool over our eyes and shirk, but most of them seemed to get in the spirit of the thing and that really irked the overseers.”
“Who were the overseers?”
“Competent union workers who had taken bribes or been envious of management. the whole ‘If I was running this dump, things would run differently’ kind of guys.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “So, the only union labor guys you hire are put in management?” I asked.
Nick smiled back at me, “Perverse, isn’t it? That didn’t really work well either, because as soon as they became managers, they ’switched parties’ so to speak. All of a sudden they were looking for ways to save costs at the expense of the workers and justified it with arguments as flimsy as any they’d rejected during contract negotiations in life.”
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been disappointed a bit by this look at human nature, but I’d couldn’t say I was surprised either.
We walked on and in the distance huge gates and walls loomed in the distance, something like a subterranean walled city as designed in an unhappy marriage of H.R. Geiger and Dr. Seuss, then executed in a style that reminded me of more than one notebook scribbling I’d made when I went through my Black Sabbath phase in 8th grade.
If you liked what you read here, or though “Hey, this would be great with illustrations from a fantastic Ukranian Illustrator!” Check out my first book “Told Tales Vol. 1 – The Djinn’s Heart and Other Stories” by clicking on the picture of the book. (KDP Select members can read it for free!)
My birthday is March 31, so I’m giving away free copies of my book The Djinn’s Heart and Other Stories. That’s it. No biggie. No signups for email lists required (though if you want to, you can sign up here), no special link. Just go to amazon and click on it and get it for free.
If you can’t wait that long, no problem. It’s only $2.99. I just thought it would be a nice thank you for anyone who has been reading my stuff and might want it all in one place. And I *think* you can gift it to people though amazon too, so if you know someone who might like it, you can get it for them as a gift.
So that’s it. No strings, no mailing list, just a free book because it’s my birthday. Hope you enjoy!
Marcus sat down to write. He stretched his hands reflexively and looked at him. It was the conflicts that were the hardest part to write convincingly. Oh, not for the children’s books, he’d been writing them for years and had been successful in his way. He remembered the publishers picking illustrators, some poor, some who could make is stories come to life and sing through the imagination. Those were no problem. It was the conflicts in longer books, the novels and short fiction that always presented him with a problem.
For one thing, Marcus knew that despite his wishes, he would forever be an optimist. In doing so, he had a hard time trusting his characters to be able to think their way out of any problem that would prove too difficult for him. It’s funny that way, he’d think. It shoudn’t matter what kind of problem I put in there, so long as I remember that I can get them out.
After all, someone I write can get stuck in a life and death situation with no time to think, but I have the luxury of time. I can act between the words on the page to find a solution. But this was the problem. In children’s books, the problem had to be direct and solveable, but just hard enough to make the audience think. With fiction directed toward adults, the problems couldn’t be too obvious or people wouldn’t believe the characters.
He remembered somewhere reading that it was the challenges faced or the villains fought that defined a hero. What did he know about that? What the hell could Marcus tell anyone about anything?
He remembered being a boy, but how to write that without seeming like an adult. Marcus had been a logical kid and remembered people calling him an “old soul” or letting him work through problems on the farm usually reserved to older kids. Of course, he was an only child, so he got the favoritism of the youngest and the assumption of responsibility of the eldest all rolled into one. Besides, he’d been writing about childhood for children and Eva died, he didn’t have the taste for it.
His work wasn’t anything to speak of. He’d really only done two jobs off of the farm before getting to his writing. No one was going to read stories about itenerant painters painting stationhouses. Sure, maybe as a short story he could write an anecdote or two, but that wasn’t really the same.
Marcus stood up and felt his joints creak. They didn’t hurt, thank god, but they grumbled a bit when he got moving after he gave them some rest. He walked over to a picture on the fireplace mantle. It was Eva. She wasn’t doing anything romantic or special, just walking by the river. Her hair was tied up behind her and the wind blew some whisps of it.
By the time color film was readily available, her hair had gone gray. Marcus smiled at that. It had been one of her little jokes, the kind that get told often over the years. Not really funny, but comforting and a part of the woman he’d loved.
Staring at his wife wasn’t going to get a story going. Marcus had read a fair few potboilers and romance novels, but he never felt like the audience. Besides, their romance lacked all of the hallmarks of good literature. Their parents approved of their choices, no religious or political quarrels to speak of. The war kept them apart of course, but even so, that hadn’t been too hard. They’d both been too distracted by what they were doing at the time to go looking for other potential partners. Hell, their marriage even looked tranquil compared with some of the sitcoms.
Marcus suspected this was because neither he or Eva had been the sort to make a fuss, when work would see you through. It was only logical too. Networks sought sitcoms based on “the average nuclear family”, a bit more polished and with no cussing of course, but basically that. Life couldn’t get too real otherwise you lose the comedy and nothing could get put out of place becase it had to be as clean as the set that looked like a suburban livingroom by the end of the episode. That meant that the drama had to come from the mundane, from small misunderstandings that any adult could resolve by asking a question or two.
Now by the coffeemaker, marcus put the pot to boil. He didn’t have much time for this nonesense anyway. There was work that needed doing. Eva had been gone for months and there were other things that needed doing. After pouring the coffee, Marcus walked to the fridge, held the door open with his foot and grabbed the cream from the shelf in front of the light. He poured the cream and placed it back in the fridge.
The problem of what to write had been on his mind for awhile and an idea was starting to form. Not an idea for something to write, that would be asking too much. But an idea about why he wasn’t writing now. It wasn’t that there were other things he needed to do, those were excuses- he’d made enough in his time to smell them a mile off. They were seductive in their own way, because these were dressed up in bits of truth, like the fact that he did need to be doing other things. Marcus was getting an inkling that he was having a hard time writing because he didn’t know who his reader should be. For the first time ever, he had no ideal reader in mind.
Before Jack had been born it had been Eva. Her love of stories, and insatiable appetite for books was rivaled by Marcus’s own. After Jack had been born, he had no problem finding things to write books about. He just had to look at the problems his own son was going through and write something that was just distant enough not to feel like a lecture, but similar enough that Jack could apply it.
Who the hell was he going to write for now? Writing for himself seemed unecessary. After all, he could just think the stories in his head. Writing them down presumed an audience and he had none.
Of course, this was just as true as the part about having chores and work to keep himself busy and might just be an excuse that was a bit closer to the heart of the problem. Marcus sat down at the desk in front of his typewriter and looked out on the snow. He was getting close to his deadline. The one Eva imposed on him. The date when he would have to start writing again or for the first time he could remember, break a promise to his love.
Marcus clenched his fists. He’d spent his whole goddamned life trying to make himself the kind of self-sufficient person who could handle any situation and make anything he needed to survive. The kind who could protect his home and the people in his care from any outside threat. That’s probably why in the end, it had been his loved ones own selves he couldn’t protect them from. In the case of Jack it was the hatred of bullies and desire to do the right thing that had done him in. In the case of Eva it had been worse. Her own body turned against itself and fought every means the doctors had at their disposal, even as her desire to live kept her alive longer than they had been told was possible.
Marcus’s eyes itched and his vision blurred. He rubbed his eyes and took a measured breath. This was foolishness. Marcus walked outside and despite having several cords stacked and dried and ready, he went to the woodpile and went to chop wood.
Owning a home came with its own challenges, which the new Mr. and Dr. Austmann took to with gusto. Plumbing problems, squeaky floors- that often needed waxing and polishing as well and peeling plaster all seemed to be no problem for Marcus or Eva. They loved turning their house into a home. Marcus said it gave him something to do during the layoffs in the winter. Mr. Jacobson had no need for crews to paint during the winter, so the men were let go. Some found other employment, but Marcus spent his time working on the house and writing his stories, mostly for Eva. Read more
This is a fun exercise, but I think the original shows awareness of the more obvious advantages (things you can tell by looking at someone- e.g. looks) as opposed to things you’d need to know someone to know about (e.g. – intelligence, wit, skill) that Jolene had over the singer or it show Dolly’s insecurities.
Rather than being a showcase of the literal things that a person “should” be looking for in a mate it shows what Dolly was insecure about and in doing so touches us wherever our own insecurities lie.
That’s part of what makes it real and not just a writing exercise.