River Town Holiday #buzznuggets!

Following are some of my favorite moments from the 6 stories that make up the book in which I have some short fiction, River Town. It’s getting some nice word of mouth and social media energy. Any part readers of Esse Diem would like to play in that energy is more than welcome!

Oh. and there’s this. River Town makes a nice holiday gift . . . You can buy it here. And if money is tight, you can follow the authors on Twitter. That’s like gold to us some days, too!

Hayden Lowe may or may not have killed a man out west. No one seems to know why he’s back in River Town, though his friend, Lillian Conley, is keeping a private journal full of clues. Will Captain JD Dawson lose his beloved sternwheeler, the Miss Jayne Marie, in a winner-takes-all bet? Julia Hubbard has a secret project, Andrew Wilson is plotting on the dusty streets of River Town, and what about that strange Dame Roxalana? There is more to Roxie than anyone is willing to say. The men in the coal mines around River Town seem to be developing a mysterious condition that no one can explain, yet everyone is whispering about it. Before all is said and done, each of these characters will intersect in unexpected ways. The resolutions are as suspenseful as they are satisfying. River Town is a collection of short stories set in 1890s West Virginia. The combined work of six different authors, the tales range from adventure to romance, from intrigue to fantasy. Each story stands alone, yet together they take readers to a time along the Kanawha River just after the Civil War when families were still struggling to recover and before the railroad came through the mountains. The river was the center of everything.

Every storyteller has his own style, her own approach, and a unique way of operating a character. To see the same characters driven by different people was like seeing the same person from other perspectives. The characters’ personalities were fuller and better developed. I got to know them better than I could have if they were all written by one author. I was hooked.

— editor/Author Eric Douglas

Rufus had a lot to say, but he’d only say it if he trusted you. That was the way of River Town in general.

— Author Eric Douglas

From “Hayden’s Return” by Katharine Armstrong Herndon (@kaherndon)

Hide in the woods?
For a minute he wondered if the Captain could get him off the boat without being seen. But then he remembered Jack had seen him, and the old woman, and probably someone else he hadn’t even recognized.
It was too late for hiding.

 

From “They Hold Down the Dead” by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher (@ElizGaucher)

The two adventurers walked in silence for a few minutes. Then Hayden said, “You’re brave. I thought you were. I really came up here to find out if you want to see something I found, but it’s not for cowards. Do you want to see it?”
Lillian realized that, no, she really did not want to see something like that, but it was too late now.
“I’m not a coward, she said. “What is it?”

 

From “Racing Miss Jayne Marie” by Eric Douglas (@BooksbyEric)

Glancing up from his log book, JD saw Winthrop, the owner of the Miss Jayne Marie, standing on the dock with his personal secretary, Phiillips . . . “Phillips” was all JD ever heard Winthrop call the man. JD had never heard Phillips speak.

 

From “Being True in River Town” by Jane Siers Wright (@JaneSiersWright)

Dawson nodded. He was in Julia’s debt and it was clear to him she was about to call in the favor.
“I have another such student who needs to reach Parkersburg in order to catch the B&O train to Harper’s Ferry.”
“Why Parkersburg and the B&O? She could go south to Beckley over land to catch a train from there.”
“A southern route would not be the most convenient for this passenger, Captain.”

 

From “Hearing the Past” by Shawna Christos (@ywrite) of James River Writers, “Hearing the Past”

His hands shook as he hunted for the latch. Andrew tried to remember if it had made any sound when he entered ahead of his captor.
He couldn’t remember but it didn’t matter. He had realized there would be no turning back. None for the man his father had hired, and none for Andrew on his present course.

 

From “Wail” by Geoffrey Cameron Fuller (@GeoCamFuller)

At his oak desk in Mr. Winthrop’s house — for the last time, in all likelihood — Francis Treet Phllips swings the ledger closed and runs his palm across the aged leather. A full accounting. The pieces are all arrayed in their places, each and every one. To Mr. Winthrop, the game begins tonight, after the race, but Phillips knows it is already finished.)

 

Enjoy these snippets? Read more here: https://essediemblog.com/2013/08/14/river-town-buzznuggets/

River Town #buzznuggets

Concept cover for River Town

Concept cover for River Town

In the brave new world of self-publishing (and even of traditional publishing), writers carry more of the water than ever when it comes to promoting and supporting a book.

If one is shy, or fearful of seeming self-absorbed, this can be a daunting task; fortunately, I am not much of either these days.

Following are some of my favorite moments from the 6 stories that make up the new book in which I have some short fiction, River Town. It’s getting some nice word of mouth and social media energy. Any part readers of Esse Diem would like to play in that energy is more than welcome!

Hayden Lowe may or may not have killed a man out west. No one seems to know why he’s back in River Town, though his friend, Lillian Conley, is keeping a private journal full of clues. Will Captain JD Dawson lose his beloved sternwheeler, the Miss Jayne Marie, in a winner-takes-all bet? Julia Hubbard has a secret project, Andrew Wilson is plotting on the dusty streets of River Town, and what about that strange Dame Roxalana? There is more to Roxie than anyone is willing to say. The men in the coal mines around River Town seem to be developing a mysterious condition that no one can explain, yet everyone is whispering about it. Before all is said and done, each of these characters will intersect in unexpected ways. The resolutions are as suspenseful as they are satisfying. River Town is a collection of short stories set in 1890s West Virginia. The combined work of six different authors, the tales range from adventure to romance, from intrigue to fantasy. Each story stands alone, yet together they take readers to a time along the Kanawha River just after the Civil War when families were still struggling to recover and before the railroad came through the mountains. The river was the center of everything.

From Hayden’s Return by Katharine Armstrong Herndon

“All I hear is splashing,” he said, indicating the paddlewheel.

The Captain stopped at the rail and looked down into the churning darkness below them. “Son,” he said finally, “I know every sound this river makes, and that last splash wasn’t one of my favorites. Now suppose you tell me what sort of trouble you brought onto my boat.”

From They Hold Down the Dead by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher

Hayden never returned to the Conley property, and though Lillian wondered if she would ever see him again she was comfortable with his disappearance. The strange event in the woods had frightened her into trying to forget about the heart stone entirely, and as Hayden was the only witness it was easy to pretend it had never happened.

From Racing Miss Jayne Marie by Eric Douglas

“Mr. Hamrick, I’ll take all the power you can give me now,” JD ordered into the brass tube while keeping a firm hand on the boat’s wheel. “And now for my last trick,” he said under his breath. 

From Being True in River Town by Jane Siers Wright

“It’s just hard — hard and scary — but I hear it. I hear my real life callin’ me . . . ”

From Hearing the Past  by Shawna Christos

Andrew moved restlessly in his chair as he bit his lip to remind his mouth to speak carefully. He knew things were changing, even here in this backwoods. Things were changing, but apparently being able to choose your own path wasn’t one of them.

From Wail by Geoffrey Cameron Fuller

He parts the lace to look across the river and down over River Town. Soon it will be filled with commerce, tugs loaded with coal, gravel, the last of the salt, all of it owned by Phillips and his people, being transported on his ships, and when they get the rail lines extended, a brand new game will be underway, and with the assistance of the Great Dark, that game will be even more lucrative.

(Thanks to Jeff James, Bob Coffield, and as I recall Mark Wolfe for “#buzznuggets.”)

River Town | Creating Collaborative Storytelling

I am very pleased to contribute a character and story to the forthcoming anthology, River Town. River Town is a collection of stories edited by West Virginia author and film maker Eric Douglas; Eric is interviewed below. River Town will be available in August on Amazon.com via Eric’s Visibility Press.

My story, “They Hold Down the Dead,” centers on a 16 year old girl named Lillian Conley who lives on the hill above the river with her wealthy family and finds herself drawn into a dangerous mystery tied to Indian legend. Other contributing writers are Katharine Herndon and Shawna Christos, both of Richmond, Virginia; Jane Siers Wright of Charleston, West Virginia; and Geoffrey Fuller of Morgantown, West Virginia. I am honored to write with them.

Concept cover for River Town

Concept cover for River Town

You have an interesting project in the works right now with several other writers. What is River Town all about, and how did it develop?

When I was an adolescent, I read the Thieves World series, edited by Robert Lynn Aspirin. It was a great series where a group of writers created characters for a location and then they shared them with each other. They all wrote about that same location using those same characters and it was the most amazing dynamic. You got to see the same characters from different writers’ perspectives.

I moved home to West Virginia after being away for nearly 14 years, and I thought it would be a great chance to put something like that into play here. I had never written fiction about West Virginia and wanted to try it out.

Five writers and I have each thrown characters into the pot and we are writing about River Town. It is essentially Charleston, circa 1890. We have the dynamics of the “frontier nature” of the area and the marked differences between the coal barons, miners, and townspeople. I’ve really enjoyed reading the stories my fellow writers have put together. It has been so much fun to watch as they used each other’s characters.

Sometimes writers get a bit proprietary about their characters. Characters  are like our children in our minds! When another writer has my character doing something, I think to myself, “He wouldn’t do that!”  Then I step back and say, “Perception is reality.” Another person in the town might see his actions differently.” As writers, we have these characters in our heads, and we see them doing things and reacting to events, but our readers might not see those same characters the way we do.

I am really pleased with the stories we have in this first set. After we publish River Town as an anthology of the short stories, I hope we will do several more. We can add other writers as new characters come to town. It could be a whole series!

(A version of this interview first appeared on a blog by Heather Isaacs.)

 

Man as a Mystery to God – Thoughts on “A River Runs through It”

In honor of my writing friend, Michael Powelson.

In his novella “A River Runs through It,” Norman Maclean develops an unusual father-son relationship to examine the flawed nature of man in relationship to a theological philosophy of divine acceptance and unconditional love.

By developing his character Paul as a kind of prophet still trapped in sin, he suggest that man is both capable of identifying the path to redemption and simultaneously incapable of escaping death. By creating Paul’s life as an allegory to man’s relationship with God, he allows the reader to accept and understand seemingly unacceptable and incomprehensible levels of familial love for a difficult son.

Mclean uses the language of fly fishing to translate a Presbyterian family’s Biblical interpretation of this truth; his finest translation comes when the narrator’s younger brother Paul speaks words that reflect words from Genesis:

He thought back on what happened like a reporter. He started to answer, shook his head when he found he was wrong, and then started out again. “All there is to thinking,” he said, “is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

The Genesis connection is not immediately clear, but the narrator’s father’s affection for and belief in his son Paul is. The narrator’s father is a Presbyterian minister, and Paul is a trouble maker. Paul drinks too much and places too many bets and is often in trouble. Maclean uses the father-son connection to truth via fly fishing to examine the father’s enduring affection for Paul.

Toward the end of the story, after Paul’s demise has been suggested as inevitable but has not yet happened, the narrator asks his father about something he is reading. His father is reading the Bible and says:

“In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that’s right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water.”

The narrator tells his father that he (the father) is a preacher first and a fisherman second, and claims that Paul would say words are formed out of water. His father replies:

 “No, you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing.”

In the final few pages of the story after this exchange, the reader learns that Paul has been beaten to death, presumably as a result of the gambling debts he owes and is unable to pay. There is never a firm explanation of his death. The father is heartbroken, and continues to ask questions seeking more information about how and why Paul died, but little can comfort him. The narrator suggests that the terms of Paul’s death are less significant than the terms of his life.

“I’ve said I’ve told you all I know. If you push me far enough, all I know is that he was a fine fisherman.”

“You know more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.”

“Yes,” I said, “he was beautiful. He should have been – you taught him.”

This exchange is explained as the last thing the two men ever say to each other about Paul’s death and suggests a larger redemption/forgiveness dynamic beyond the characters and into the limits of even divine love to understand and redeem human nature. That man may be a mystery to God is an atypical idea, but Maclean executes it brilliantly with his father/son/fishing allegory.

My Story Deconstruction: Or, How Can I Blame the Lilac Bush?

I just spent about a week posting my very own West Virginia ghost tale. You can read the genesis of the story and start with part one on this post if you like. I did this for several reasons:

  • For fun.
  • To get the story out of my own head.
  • Because I think certain elements of the story make a decent contribution to West Virginia folklore/ghost tales beyond the “old” stories.
  • Because it is a great chance to blog about the joys and pitfalls of writing a story.

Let’s start with the obvious: jealous husbands, fatal attractions, good cops/bad cops, and stereotyped church people don’t exactly scream originality, they scream CLICHE! And this is something I saw right away in this story and yet couldn’t help myself from sticking with it. I first thought I might draw this out into a much longer piece of writing that would allow greater exploration and nuance that helps clichés “be OK” in a story, but I decided to cut it down to 3,000 words as a personal challenge in brevity and getting right to the point. One example is that all of the law enforcement people in the original conception of this story had names and personalities. A friend advised me that these characters appear too late in the story to warrant detailed identities, and I agree. The consequence is, though, that they become stereotypes in a shorter story.

(I just realized I kept the sheriff’s name in there. That should come out I suppose.)

Speaking of the sheriff, let’s talk about three of this story’s worst offenses:

  • Head-hopping;
  • Yanking the reader out of the story; and,
  • Refusing to “kill your darlings.”

Head-hopping is a writer’s term for shifting point of view (POV). One example is this line I became attached to, “For a moment, the cop lost his bravado and had to shake off the feeling of ice and mud in his chest.”  The vast majority of this story is told from the Webb Thomas POV. If he isn’t thinking, saying, or seeing it himself, it really technically shouldn’t be expressed. This goes to the “kill your darlings” requirement (read more here), that if you want to turn out the best product you can’t fall in love with your own one liners and paragraphs unto themselves. If they aren’t working, they have to go. Not get moved around. GO.

Finally, what do we as writers do that works against keeping our reader in the world we want them to know, the world of our making and our characters? A classic tendency is to pull back ourselves and start explaining things from the 10,000-foot level. One example (of many) from my story:

“A female detective crossed the yard to approach the young detective.  They were longtime friends . . .”

Ideally, as a writer I would not TELL you they are longtime friends. I would craft their interaction and dialogue, body-language, etc. to SHOW you that they are longtime friends. In a short story, I could cop-out and say I had to tell you because I didn’t have enough words to show you. Sometimes this may be true, but in that case is it relevant? Here is a great case in point about how you can “know” plenty without the writer telling you much at all. From “A Ball of Fire” in The Telltale Lilac Bush:

No one noticed when the old peddler rode toward the residence of his bachelor friend. This was his third month in Glenville, and the neighbors were used to seeing him go one day and return a week later. This evening he was tired, nervous, and wanted a shave, so he asked his friend to shave him. The bachelor agreed, . . . .

There is a fair amount of “telling” here in some respects, but there is also an obvious back story that sets the reader’s nerves on alert and suggests many underlying dynamics. Aside: This is one of my favorite ghost tales in TTTLB. It is in a section of the book called “Murdered Peddlers.”

The Sixth Sense

And this leads me to a final word about telling ghost stories, a cautionary word if you will. I am not sure that before or since The Sixth Sense has anyone really cooked up a completely unexpected ghost story. In folktales like those in the TTTLB, the craft is more storytelling than writing. That tradition had a significant influence on how I chose to relay my story. When I think of sharing ghost stories, I think of sitting around a fire in the dark. I think of ramping up suspense vs. mystery. And frankly, I think of TELLING. We don’t say, “Let’s SHOW ghost stories!” after all.

We tell them.

Thanks for letting me tell you my story!

Image credit: Google search for original TTLB illustrations and Touchstone Pictures for The Sixth Sense. A huge shout out to Ruth Ann Musick and the University Press of Kentucky for TTLB. This was without a doubt the most-checked-out book in the 1970s at Overbrook Elementary School. There was a waiting list. I hope there still is.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (the conclusion)

The young officer squinted with painful eyes into the unrelenting sunlight.  His partner hospitalized in critical condition, he felt strangely alone on the Thomas property, even though other officers and a team of forensic specialists were with him.

A drug addict had been arrested a mile from Ella’s shed. The dead woman’s blood was on his clothes, but given the episode’s violent nature he seemed oddly whole; no scratches, bites, or injuries were documented.

A female detective crossed the yard to approach the young detective.  They were longtime friends, and her speech was slow and careful when she spoke about the Sera Thomas case.  “So she never said goodbye to anyone in North Carolina?”

“That’s what all the interviews indicate,” sighed her colleague.  “Most say they just accepted it because it was so soon after everyone found out about her affair.  They thought she was ashamed, skipped town to save face.  The church people bought the shame thing, hook line and sinker.”

“I guess I can see that,” she said.  “But the boy….that seems hard to explain.”

“In hindsight, sure,” said the young officer.  “At the time, the community thought it made sense.  Even his parents believed he killed himself.”

“What do you think?”

“I think he was forced off the bridge, I don’t think he jumped.  We may never know, though.  Sera is a different story, if we can just find her.”  He looked into the sun, even though it hurt.

The woman forced herself to ask the obvious but forbidding question.  “Do you have any idea where she is?  Any gut instinct?  I mean,” she drew a deep breath, “There is a lot of territory in question.  Thomas was good.  Everyone believed him about everything.  God.  Was she ever even in Mason County?”

His gaze fell on the Thomas flower garden.  Heavy rose blooms weighed down even the strongest stems as if they were marble spheres.  A honey bee lifted itself from a flower, its legs coated in nearly invisible pollen.   Carrying its fertile payload to another farm, the bee lifted itself out of sight.

“Yeah, she was.  She is.  Life never disappears.”

Pulling his long-neglected sunglasses from his breast pocket, he gestured to another officer holding a shovel to go ahead and stepped into his car, careful to knock the soil off his soles.

An Esse Diem Halloween Story (6)

(This is part 6 of a 7 part ghost story.)

I see Sera.  Her face is so pale and pinched.  Is it worry or fear?  I can’t read her. 

Webb exhaled an enormous breath of relief at the sight of his wife, but then immediately spun around to the gaze of two strangers in his house. Webb glanced away from Sera’s face to see the uninvited men standing in his kitchen, each wearing a handgun holstered at the hip and strapped over the chest.

“Who are you?  What the hell is going on here?  Why are you here?  You need to go.   You need to go right now to my neighbor’s house, to Ella Williams’ place.”

“Mr. Thomas, we already have a car headed over there.  Someone called in a disturbance.” The younger of the two cops was gentle but direct as he said, “What you need to do is sit down.”

Webb suddenly felt exhausted, and he welcomed the chance to sit.  He was still completely confused, but he was too tired to do anything but go along with the request.  He sat down at the kitchen table where he saw Sera and reached for her hand.  “It’s OK, baby,” he told her. The officers exchanged glances.  Then the younger one continued.

“Mr. Thomas, we’re here at the request of Ella Williams.  She’s made several calls to the Sheriff about your frequent trespassing, but she doesn’t want to press charges.  She just wants you to stay off her property uninvited.  Do you understand?” The first officer’s voice remained even but stern.  The older of the two men took it to another level.

“She says she told you to stop coming over in the morning and then she found you digging in her yard at night.  What is wrong with you?”

Webb rubbed his palms against his damp forehead.

Ella never told me to stop coming over. 

Image: Courtney White

The digging at night felt familiar. He used to do that at their old place in North Carolina when he couldn’t sleep, get up and do soil amendments or plant tender perennials by moonlight.  He knew it was a little eccentric, but it helped him get back to sleep.  No mosquitoes, no hot sun, just him and the earth.  Nitrogen and calcium plus lots of organic matter and compost had built one of the prettiest gardens in Forsyth County.

I wish I could have just picked it up and put it down in West Virginia when I moved.

“Thomas, do you hear me talking to you?” The older cop was getting agitated.

“Yes,” said Webb.  He looked into the other man’s eyes and held them.  For a moment, the cop lost his bravado and had to shake off the feeling of ice and mud in his chest.

“I’ll be right back,” said the younger man, “I have to take a call from Don.”  Don was the Mason County Sheriff and officers used his first name in front of people they interviewed to keep anxiety low.  The sheriff knew where they were and what they were doing, that it was pretty small potatoes, and it was unusual to get a call during an outing like this.  The officer stepped quickly into the dining room, and spoke in a low tone into his mobile phone.

Back in the kitchen, Webb held the older man’s gaze.  “You know, you don’t have to speak to me like that,” he said.  “Shut up,” retorted the cop.  “I could care less.  You’re an idiot who bothers women who are too nice to tell you to get lost.”

Webb felt his heart rate was increasing but there was no outer sign.  Webb’s perspiration had disappeared, too.

The young officer returned to the kitchen.   His right hand was free and hovered near a now unsnapped holster.  He looked at his partner who instantly released his own gun with a movement so fluid and rehearsed it was like slipping off a watch worn for decades.  They never spoke, but the two men were in complete communication.

“Mr. Thomas, we need to know why you moved here.”  The young man’s face was a stony veneer, but his throat muscles were convulsing violently.  He had never tried harder to exude control. He’d never had to try like this before.

“For my wife’s health,” Webb said slowly.

“Where is your wife?” asked the older man.

Webb’s eyes sped to every corner of the room.  “She was just here.  You saw her.”

The young cop’s voice was controlled when he said, “No one has seen Sera Thomas for over a year.”

I see her.  I see her every day.

“She’s a private person,” Webb said.  “We don’t socialize much.  We broke ties when we moved.”

“Mr. Thomas, you need to come with us.  Nothing fancy, let’s just do this easy.  Some people back in North Carolina say Sera disappeared.  Her family is very worried.  We just need to ask you some questions.”

Life never disappears.  Idiots.  Don’t they know?

Webb dropped his shoulders and rose quiet and defeated to his feet.  Davis reached for his handcuffs.  He never saw the weapon behind the door.

Like a snake strike, Webb seized a newly sharpened shovel as he passed the open door.  He spun towards the older and slower cop, the shovel’s long wooden handle held at the far end with both hands.   The man staggered back but not before the shovel blade sliced his chest.  His partner’s bullet entered the back of Webb’s skull and exited his eye socket.

In the microcosm of time before the steel left his brain, Webb saw his wife.  She was in the garden, her arms outstretched, reaching for him as he fell into the loamy soil.

What was left of his face crushed against the hard stone floor.