Under the Parking Lot

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I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to make it annoyingly clear that I hate winter. I know I’ve made promises to people that I’ll try to get along with winter…and I have. I’ve actually gotten out of bed a few times. Like right now. I put on clothes and buried myself in a winter parka. I went into the the parking lot, into the frigid January daylight which, as soon as I stepped outdoors, turned to overcast skies, and a sub-zero wind that would lay a membrane of frost around Hell whipped out of the frozen air.

“Hey, Biff,” said the fox. “Like my new coat?”

Damn fox was wearing a mink coat.

“You do understand that you might be related to that coat, don’t you?”

“Are you giving the fox a hard time again, Biff?”

I looked behind me. Floating in the air in lotus position and wearing a 10 gallon hat full of steaming hot water from which pipes extended to form a circular heating system around him was J. Richard Jacobs, aka J. He wore a housecoat with a ninja turtle motif.

“J,” I said. “So, that really was you the other day, sitting on my kitchen counter.”

“Yes, Biff, it was. I read your blog and realized that the fox wasn’t making your life miserable enough. It takes an editor make life truly painful for a writer…even one like you, who just barely meets the qualifications for being literate and can’t follow simple formatting standards.”

“Biff,” said the fox, “J and I talked about your plans and your purpose for being. We decided that your search for peace was…well, you know…kind of futile. I mean, look around. Nobody wants peace anymore. There’s no money in it. There’re no movies in it. And besides, people like hating each other.”

“We don’t necessarily like our conclusions,” said J, “but, yes, the fox is right…we put more effort into hating than we do into loving.”

“Hating is more profitable,” said the fox. “And it makes for better best sellers.”

“People have more fun hating than loving,” said J. “Haven’t you ever watched reality TV? It’s what we’ve become.”

“It’s all a big TV show with bad script writers,” said the fox.

“So we’ve decided that you need to focus your less than ample talents on something else,” said J.

I felt like I was between a brick wall and a thousand foot precipice with flying demons trying to bite my ass off. “OK,” I said. “I’m game. What should I focus on?”

The fox and J went silent. They looked at each other. They looked around. They looked at me. They looked back at each other. They looked up. They looked down. They looked all around. J started to speak…but looked up instead. The fox scratched his head…and looked at J.

J suddenly smiled and beamed and the pipes surrounding him tooted.

I swear…they tooted.

“I have an idea,” he said. The fox snapped to attention. I dropped my forehead into my right palm. This was going to be bad. I mean…he tooted.

“Biff,” he said, “it’s time for you to come to grips with winter.

***

There followed two hours of silence as J’s words tumbled around inside my head trying to fall into some kind of coherent meaning. J and the fox stared at me during this time. Just…stared.

***

There followed another two hours during which I chased J and the fox around the parking lot, needing desperately to beat both of them to death with my camera.

***

Just as I was about to bring my camera down onto the head of the mink-coated fox, a lid in the parking lot flipped down and I fell into the paving.

How did I never notice this before? I thought.

I tumbled through a tunnel under the parking lot, thinking, This is probably how Alice must have felt.

It seemed like I tumbled for several minutes that turned into several hours and turned into days and into months…and entire lifetimes flashed by my right and my left and right through my head and body as I tumbled into the openings of void after void and I thought: How did I not know this about the parking lot?

Eventually, I landed, camera in hand, on the walking bridge. So I took a couple of pictures before the other two figured out where I was and set out to torment me.

And I still hate winter.

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Coming to Grips with Winter (and a horrifying ending)

I hate winter. I hate snow. I hate the cold, the dark, the icy roads, the shoveling and scraping but, most of all I hate the absence of color and aroma. This is why I love taking pictures in winter.

Yes, there’s the beauty of snow-capped and ice-framed trees…the sublime quiet of their form and texture. Like this…

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But you can only take so many thousands of pictures like this before you say, “I want a living leaf. My imaginary kingdom for a living leaf.

And some color would be nice

So, beloved Canon 5D2 in hand, I ventured out into the cold Canadian winterscape in search of color (after kissing the camera of course) (and the Sigma 24-70 lens) (after having my lips stuck to my wonderful Kia Soul just a few days ago, I patted my Soul affectionately and said, “Good girl.”) (and then left my Soul behind).

I walked for miles. And miles. And miles with a song sitting vaguely at the edge of my mind, but ever elusive. I traversed vast snow-shrouded fields, trekked to the summits of cloud-touching snow banks and giggled as I made now-angels to mark my path so that I could find my way back.

All this within the borders of Freddie Beach, a small city perched precariously at the edge of the Earth.

Just as I was about to scream, “Oh shit!” to the gods and those who haunt the forests with snowmobiles and snowshoes…and thermos full of tasty hot chocolate (which, at the time, was sitting safely on my kitchen counter wondering wtf)…I spotted the color. It was muted and almost shy, like something recently birthed from the frozen ground.

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I quickly cleaned my lens and set my camera to ISO 200 (it was overcast), f/11 (to bring out a world of detail), 1/240 (because I was shaking from the cold) and 70mm (because there was no way I was going to struggle across that wasteland of white up to the subject).

I think, at one time, this might have been an ice house…a structure used to keep winter within its walls year ’round to preserve food. Or it might have been someone’s pot garden…a structure used to keep summer within its walls year ’round.

I took three pictures, using different compositions. I rejected the two with dragons flying out of the door. They seemed so out of place, and I would have been accused of gratuitous Photoshopping.

It wasn’t until I processed the image that I saw it.

A dust spot…rearing its ugly head at the top left of the image. Just as I was about to eliminate it with the Spot Remover, I thought, That’s not a dust spot. That’s a dragon flying into the void of another Canadian winter. So I left it in…for those who still believe in dragons. See it?

Back to the moment, though, I suddenly had an urge to crawl under my bed with a thermos of hot chocolate and wait for spring to arrive.

When I arrived home…the hot chocolate was gone and I had a feeling of something ominous present. And I heard a voice, “Serves you right, Biff.”

I looked at the counter behind me. Sitting on it with a terrible smile was…the fox! And beside him, smiling just as evilly was…the soul-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails Anthologies…J Richard Jacobs.

He ground his teeth together and said, slowly, coldly, blood-suckingly, “Hello, Biff.”

(To be continued)

 

Caught The Blogger

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Certainly one of the more interesting people in Freddie Beach is Charles LeBlanc…The Blogger. I’ve seen him camped out in a tent on the grounds of the Legislature to protest the use of Ritalin in schools. He had it right on that one. I’ve seen him walking the streets of Freddie Beach looking for things to blog and taking pictures of anyone who interests him. He’s a sort of Faces of Freddie Beach kinda guy.

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I was talking with him today outside my writing studio, Read’s (unlike Studio4Ward, the rent’s the price of a coffee), when this beautiful woman came outside for a smoke. Charles immediately said, “My life will never be complete until I take her picture.” Or something like that. He made polite small talk for 2.00001 seconds and off he went.

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I immediately went into Read’s, got my Canon G12 and finally, after all these years, captured The Blogger capturing another Face of Freddie Beach.

And this is what it looked like in the other direction. Nice to see a table and chairs set up outside.

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Active Story Research: Making It Real by Doing It Real

I was sitting in a coffee shop one night working furiously on a short story for one of the Twisted Tails anthologies (The editor, J, had mentioned that, if I didn’t have the story to him pronto, bad things would start happening to me.) when I felt someone nudge my shoulder. I quickly grabbed my Saint Christopher’s cross to ward off evil editors before turning to see who it was. It wasn’t J.

It was a pimply faced middle aged wide eyed short paunchy balding man wearing the ugliest sweater I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil your appetite by describing the sweater. He asked if I were Biff Mitchell. I said no, but he just ignored me and waved two crumpled sheets of paper in my face.

“I need you to tell me what’s wrong with this.” He sounded pissed off and disappointed at the same time. I thought for a moment on whether or not I should take the paper out of his hand and shove it up his nose, but I don’t do things like that anymore, so I took the sheets and looked at them.

“There’s something wrong, but I don’t know what it is.” His eyes looked like they were almost ready to burst into tears. “Ashley, my sister, read it and laughed.” I think he called her a fucking bitch, but I’m not going to use that kind of language here. I told him to calm down and I started reading. He moved to the empty chair on the other side of the table as though he was going to sit, but I told not to sit down, that it would ruin my focus. I read the first page.

Surprisingly, the writing wasn’t bad. In fact, it was good enough that I continued reading into the second page. And that’s when I almost started to laugh.

He described the cockpit of a Formula 1 racing car going full out as smooth as a bar of soap sliding across ice. Now, I’m not going to get into a critique of the imagery, but I will take issue with the description itself. I’ve never driven a Formula 1 racer myself, but I once saw a video clip of the inside of one going full out…and it was anything but smooth. In fact, it was bumpy as hell and it seemed to me to be a miracle that any car could hold together under that kind of stress. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve had my Accent up to 100 miles an hour and it was plenty shaky.

His sister obviously saw the same video clip. In his case, a simple search through YouTube might have given him a little more insight, but, obviously, he just used his imagination and figured that a car built for those speeds would probably drive smoothly at those speeds. His research obviously sucked.

Good research is one of the key ingredients in a well-written novel. Lack of it shows, not just in terms of inaccuracies, but in terms of convincing descriptions of settings, procedures, operations, cultures and everyday rituals…just to name a few aspects of convincing fictional world-building.

Sometimes, it’s not enough to scour the web for information, or even to read books. Sometimes you have to get up off your ass and do things. I know this because I’ve done it.

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In my first novel, Heavy Load (a laundromance) I got up off my ass and plopped it down in a laundromat pretty much every evening and a few weekend days for about a month. I took a notebook with me and recorded every sensation I could imagine as I sat on hard plastic chairs, leaned against washers and dryers and strolled around the laundromat examining everything in minute detail. I noticed lint balls in corners, gum under the folding tables, pint bottles of vodka and rum in the trash cans. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of buttons clicking in the dryers, water gushing into the washers. I felt the rumble of machines and noted the smell of detergents and clothes. I watched a woman reach orgasm with her thighs pressed against a washer. I noticed there wasn’t a lot of conversation, even between couples and friends on a night out to restore their wardrobes to wearable condition.

I studied the people in the laundromat, the students, single mothers with kids attached, elderly couples, middle aged career men and women and a strange array of people who, like me, seemed to be there for more than just the suds and duds. Some people actually go to the laundromat to meet people, chill out or just read. There were three people who frequented the place to read books. Never saw any of them show up with laundry. Just books.

I drew maps at the laundromat, recording the movements and paths of my characters as they moved through the fictional laundromat in my novel. I drew on the regulars for minor characters and incidents in the novel. For that month I steeped myself so deeply in that laundromat that I dreamed about it. At work, I could close my eyes and read the signs on the walls and hear the tick tick tick of small buttons in the dryers. I could smell the bleach.

I didn’t use all the material from that month, but it’s like gold mining: you collect a few billion pounds muck and harvest an ounce of gold. If you’re lucky. In the end, I had all the material I needed to make the laundromat in my novel real and I had enough character studies to populate my laundromat with real people.

Active research can take you in new directions, add substance to your writing and give you new ideas.

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For instance, my last novel, The Reality Wars, was set 2000 years in the future and the central action took place in what I initially envisioned as a futuristic triathlon. So, after six weeks of training, and one month after my 58th birthday, I participated in an Olympic level triathlon: 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike ride, 10 kilometer run. I survived, but just barely. Best of all, I finished, but just barely.

There was a particular character I wanted but couldn’t quite see in my mind. I had a vague picture of someone sleek, muscular and blue, with a sleek blue helmet. Or maybe someone dressed in black. But I knew it was someone bad. Evil. Nasty. Someone out to not just beat the protagonist, but out to do her harm. As I trained for the triathlon, I started to get a more complete image of this evil someone. Suddenly, one day when I was being chased around Killarney Lake by the biggest horse fly in the world (did my best running time ever that day), the evil one came to me. She was a woman and she had red eyes. She was running right beside me as I ran from that damned horse fly.

Other things came to me as well. Things like events that might constitute a triathlon 2000 years in the future. In fact, I pretty much scrapped the idea of a triathlon and opted for a series of deadly games played in the real world and in cyberspace.

None of this would have come to me if I hadn’t put myself into the situation I started writing about. I probably would have kept with the idea of a standard swim/bike/run triathlon and not even thought of the much more interesting series of games that were to be called The Reality Wars. And I would never have had one of the novel’s most compelling characters, the beautiful but evil Loac.

Oh…BTW…below is a picture of me finishing the triathlon…alive. Sort of. Proof positive that anyone can be a lunatic.

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I wrote a novella called Ladies of the Fountain that was published in Twisted Tails VII: Irreverence.

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In the story, three sculpted women holding up a fountain in a park area come to life and spread havoc through a small city after a very lonely man wishes for them to come to life and be his women. The fountain actually exists in Freddie Beach, where the story is set.

One Saturday morning, I walked to the fountain, looked around, made notes and took pictures. Then, I walked down the street, making notes and taking pictures of all the spots where things were going to happen in the novella.

When I started the actual writing, I had my notes (which included descriptions of smells, sounds and impressions) and a few dozen photographs to draw on as I wrote. In effect, I had almost lived the story before writing it.

And now things get a little weird.

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I plotted a series of murders in coffee shops throughout the downtown core of Freddie Beach. These were for a novella called Boston Jonson in Murder by Coffee.

There were three coffee shops and one coffee house. (There’s a difference. Just ask Molly.) I sat in the exact locations where the victims were found and then in the locations where the witnesses were seated. While I was sitting in the victims’ seats, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize what it would be like to have just been murdered. I tried to visualize what it must have been like for each of the victims in those few seconds before they died, knowing that they were just about to die. I tried to get into their heads in those few seconds after they died, you know, those seconds where the recently deceased’s soul hovers over their former body and wonders, “WTF?”

I put myself in their heads that morning when they were getting ready for work, not knowing that this would be the last time they would ever get ready for work, that this would be their last day on earth. And, of course, I made notes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t use any of this material. All that weirdness for nothing. Well, not completely nothing; everything you do to get into any part of a story you’re about to write puts you just that much closer to the story and to making everything in it real.

Now, the locations where the witnesses sat were much more productive. None of them actually witnessed the murders taking place (or, at least, they weren’t aware of the murders happening) but they saw the victims in their last moments. Some of them saw the victims at other times and were able to give the sleuth, Boston Jonson, information for his investigation. I imagined seeing the victims and how I felt about them. I put myself in their shoes as they were being questioned. I answered the questions, either truthfully or not truthfully. I became the witnesses and, as I did, I came up with ideas about how the murders were committed and who might have been behind them (something I didn’t have a clue about until I was well into the story). And, of course, I made notes.

I know this seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to write a novel. I mean, it’s not exactly the ideal of sitting in a coffee shop with your laptop and spewing out sentence after sentence of brilliant prose, all of it culminating in a novel that will knock the socks off the entire literary world and have movie producers pounding at your door. But, it just might lead you into a few brilliant sentences that’ll knock your own socks off.