My short story “Thomas Lynne” is now (freely!) available online through Fantasy Scroll Magazine! Small towns, magical cars, fairies, and a memorable Halloween await!
My friend’s six year old daughter, Isabella, loves telling stories. Sometimes they’re a breathless sentence or two. Sometimes she rambles on all morning. This is her latest:
“I want to tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a princess who lost her favorite shoe in a spooky forest. And there were wishes. They weren’t people wishes, with eyes and hands and feet and skin. They were star wishes. And then, I got her shoe back. The end.”
They weren’t people wishes, with eyes and hands and feet and skin. They were…
I’ve been repeating this to myself over and over again for the past few days. It’s beautiful. What does it mean? Where did a six year old come up with this? What sort of wishes were they? What happened next?
It reminded me of a Phillip Pullman quote: “Fairy tales are too easy for children, and too hard for adults.” Sometimes, I would love to be able to tell stories like a child.
I always hate writing prompts that ask me to write about my childhood, and to stick to the truth. Frankly, there’s not a lot in my sheltered, middle class, suburban childhood that makes for an interesting story. In my last writing class, we were once given a prompt to write down everything we remembered from kindergarten. It may have made for a good memory exercise, but it also made for some pretty boring writing.
So, for this prompt, I give you free reign to rip off your childhood and use it to create something else. To bend the facts. To embellish. To downright lie, if you feel like it.
For the piece I’ll share, I was inspired to write about my summers on the little fishing island where my family went for vacation every year. I was completely fearless in the ocean, to the point that the fear I feel now standing safely on shore and staring at the waves always surprises me. As I wrote, the story shifted, to become the beginnings of a story about a girl who is partly me, and partly someone else completely.
When I was a child, the ocean was my mother. I swam every day in her waves, from May until September, not caring if the shock of the cold water left goose bumps on my arms or my teeth chattering. I’d swim out past the breakers, where the water was over my head, diving deep enough to touch the bottom, staying under with my eyes open in the murky darkness until my lungs were burning. When I came ashore, my eyes would be teary from the salt water, my arms and legs wobbly, my chest tight, and yet I’d still want to turn around on the sand and run back to her.
At night, I fell asleep to her music, feeling the tug of the moon as I turned around and around in my bed, her tides shifting through my body, loud enough to drown out the sound of the TV downstairs, where dad sat watching late night shows until 1 am.
On bad days when they don’t pull anything in, I’ve heard my dad’s friends mutter that the ocean is against them, not knowing that to fight her, to try to force anything out of her, is to make her your enemy. That the key is surrender. Is loss. I know all about loss.
Some of the mainlanders, the tourists, they fear her – the waves that once held them up and now shove them under, the current that a minute ago pulled them to shore and now drags them away, the sand that supported them and now shifts under their feet. They forget that, by the same rule, that which now knocks them down will soon bear them up again.
“The ocean is the great changemaker of the world,” dad told me the day he first taught me to swim, “and those who understand her, who trust her, will be loved.” He was right. And that’s why, when I turned 13 and started to fear change, to realize I couldn’t trust even myself, I started to fear the ocean too.
Starting a new story is always the scariest part of the process. Kate DiCamillo compares it to stepping through the gate at the airport – the first big step in a journey. This week I finally began a story I’ve been thinking about for quite some time now. I’d taken a while to start it because I wasn’t sure how to frame it, where to begin. And so I began with, well, a beginning. Here’s what I have so far.
“Go home, James,” the doctor told me. Camille snored slightly in her hospital bed, her hair plastered in dark strings across her face and neck. I reached over to brush the strands out of her mouth, the starched sheets crackling as I moved. The baby -Emily- had already been whisked away to the nursery in her clear carriage bed, where the nurses said she was out-screaming all the others. Our daughter. Emily.
The doctor reached out and placed one huge, chapped hand on my shoulder, a hand that had been inside my wife’s vagina, that had cradled Emily’s head, smeared with blood and amniotic fluid. It was clean now, and smelled like latex, like condoms and high school.
“Go home and rest. Camille and Emily are fine, now.”
But I couldn’t rest. Back home, I laid on the mattress and stared at the ceiling. The sheets were stripped off and bunched on the floor, wet from when Camille’s water broke. The silence smothered me like the doctor’s huge hand. I paced from the bedroom to the kitchen to the morning-bright living room. Heat baked the asphalt outside. The neighbor’s son rode by on his bicycle, a red baseball cap turned backwards on his head.
He was nine, his father had told us last week, the same age I’d been on my first visit to a hospital, those few days I couldn’t push out of my mind. The smell of ammonia burning my nose, the wide, blinking white hallways, the hum of machines and whispered conversations. Last night, I’d gripped Camille’s hand harder than she’d gripped mine.
“Contractions,” the nurse had said. “She’s just fine, Mr. O’Connor. They’ll be coming along faster soon now- Mr. O’Connor? Are you okay, Mr. O’Connor?”
Outside, the neighbor’s boy rode by again, one hand gripping the handlebars and one hand stretched out into open air, his blue eyes half-closed against the sunlight, oblivious.
This is a writing prompt my class was given in Jill McCorkle’s writing workshop. Jill is a master of description, and was always telling us not to overlook narration in a story. For this writing prompt, describe a setting that you have an emotional connection to in some way. It doesn’t have to turn into a story, but might become a good opening for one. Mine, which is a description of my boyfriend’s mother’s house, turned into a poem. As always, if you follow the prompt and want to share, add a link in the comments so I can read yours!
Being alone, just the two of us, in his mom’s house is unsettling. It’s one of those with a brass plaque by the front door, set into a huge sagging porch draped with clematis vines that have probably been there since the house was built: 1902. Inside, it echoes. His mom’s stuff is everywhere, junk mail piled on the table in the foyer, clothes thrown over the backs of chairs in the living room, boxes of health food on the counter.
In the kitchen, I remember the first time he took me here, letting himself in the front door with his key, tip-toeing through the enormous dark rooms, muffled giggles, the taste of the wine from the refrigerator, sitting on the counter to kiss him.
His bedroom is papered in blue and yellow stars. There are too many memories here to feel comfortable, the fresh memories of his childhood layered on top of decades and decades more. Descending the wide wooden stairway, sock feet slippery on the hardwood, I imagine that I am his older sister in her rustling prom dress, dark hair piled on top of her head, or the lady of the house, whalebone corset jabbing my spine, calling for the maid to open the front door.
What I cannot imagine is him in this house. The toddler who was forever looking at the stars would fall down those stairs. Those silent rooms would swallow him up. There is nowhere to hide in a house like this, nowhere the sharp echoing voices of two people for whom the house was not big enough to make things work could not find you. For the toddler in the portrait on the landing, there are only the ghosts, filling the corners, whispering stories of a different time, another world.
My fourth writing prompt is to try writing a first-person narrative of a character completely different from yourself. I think it was Flannery O’Conner who said that your characters don’t have to be anything like you, as long as you know something about the kind of person you’re making them. Writing as a character that’s completely different from you or anyone you would normally write about is a good challenge for any writer. And after all, aren’t the things we really care about or fear – love, family, death – pretty universal?
For my response to the prompt, I’ll share part of one of the short stories I’m working on. The main character of this story is an 18 year old Hispanic male (three things I’m not, and I very rarely write male protagonists) who decides, to his family’s shock, that he wants to postpone college and hitch-hike from his Texas suburb to the neighborhood in Panama where his parents grew up. I decided to call the story “Raices,” the Spanish word for “roots,” because I see his journey as an attempt to discover his lost roots in Panama and the fading traditional ways of life in Central and South America. Yet Carlos, my protagonist, has roots in America too, and his journey into his family’s past may just be a way for him to discover his future.
My family lived in Texas, in Laredo, right on the border of Mexico and the Rio Grande, and we were the only Panameños in the neighborhood. The gang activity that Laredo was known for never quite reached our barrio, but my younger brother and sister still knew that if you played in the street, you stayed in front of the house, where you could be seen. Papa always talked about moving to a better neighborhood, a better city, or even a better state, if only the gringos at the factory would give him a promotion. I knew the real reason that this talk about moving was only just talk, though. Our todo familia, or all of it that had migrated from Panama, lived here.
There were six of us in our little pink ranch-style house, me, mama y papa, my little brother Miguel, my little sister Angela, and Abuelita Torres. My uncle Hernando and his wife and three boys lived next door, and Tía Consuelo and her daughter Benita lived further down the street. Tío Hernando’s sons were all about my age and muy fuertes, always in trouble. When they were young, they used to give Abuelita fits, coming over to play and breaking things or sneaking beers and pulling pranks.
“They are family, but they are bad boys, Carlos,” Abuelita used to say to me. “You stay a good boy, you stay in school.” I was the quiet one, the one who did his homework and tried to speak English even at home. That’s why it was such a surprise when I graduated from high school and announced that I wanted to hitchhike to Panama.
“Carlos has cajones the size of beach balls,” teased my cousins. “He is a real bad vaquero, in his big shiny belt buckle and his fancy boots. He is going to ride his horse by day and the putas by night, all the way to Panama.” Uncle Hernando had promised them boots when they graduated from high school too, but so far none of them had been able to manage it.
“What do you need to go to Panama for?” Abuelita Torres had cried, cradling my face in her wrinkled brown hands, forcing me to bend down so that I could look into her dark eyes. “You are a smart boy, Carlos, muy iteligente! You have such good English, much better than this old woman. You should be going to college!”
I don’t want to go to college, Abuelita. Not now. Not yet.
“But why Panama, Carlos? Why this hitchhiking? This is dangerous! What are you looking for?”
I didn’t know.
“You have roots here,” Abuelita had scowled at me. “Raíces. You were born here, in America. Your family is here. You have nothing in Panama. Nada.”
This was true. I couldn’t explain it, why I wanted to go so bad. I only knew that I had to do something for me, and me alone, something that hadn’t first been thought through and approved by every padre, abuelo, tío, and primo. Something that hadn’t been gossiped over and planned out by our entire barrio from the time I was running around in diapers.
I had read this book, an American book, called Into the Wild. This hombre in Into the Wild was kind of like me. He had no real reason to go; he just wanted to go. He wanted to know what it was like, to live each day on his wits alone, to wear holes through the soles of his fancy cowboy boots. He wanted to see the wild places we had come from – the rain forests and the dirt roads and the pack mules and the colorful mercados.
“It’s not even like that anymore,” my cousins had scoffed when I’d tried to explain it. “Everybody works for the gringos, for the canal.”
To my surprise, it was Benita, with her black lipstick and her earrings and her business cutting hair for the barrio, who took up for me. “Carlos dresses like an American cowboy, like John Wayne,” Benita had said, smoke trickling out of the side of her dark lips and from the end of the cigarette she held between two fingers. “Even worse, Carlos dresses like a Mexican.” After that, Abuelita had decided I could go.
(….)At home, a map of América Central was taped to the wall in the bedroom I shared with Miguel. Panama looked light years away, a little fish between Costa Rica and South America that would fit into the Texas coastline, if you lined Colon up with Houston. My goal was David, where Abuelita and Abuelo Torres, and Mama and Papa had all been born. I’d grown up hearing their stories about the city – about their old barrio of brightly-colored concrete houses, about the neighbor’s lime tree that Papa had been scolded for stealing from, and Abuelita’s tall cactus that Papa had once fallen onto, when he was learning to ride his tricycle in the courtyard. About the enormous stone church of San José, where Mama y Papa, and Abuelo and Abuelito Torres before them, had been married, and where a wooden pew, “three from the back en el lado izquierdo,” Abuelito always said proudly, had our name engraved on the bronze plate on the side.
Mama’s sisters Rosa and Ana still lived in the barrio where they’d all grown up, Ana and her husband and children, Rosa, and their mother all in houses sharing the same courtyard. Mama had written the address down for me in her spidery handwriting after I told her about my plans, and I kept the sheet of paper in the envelope in my sock drawer where my money had been. By now, I had the address memorized: 112 Avenida 8a Este, David, Chiriquí, Panama.
To get there, I’d have to walk through five countries – cross the border using one of Laredo’s international bridges, walk the entire length of Mexico, through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, before making it to my destination: Panama.
One of my favorite stories has always been Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden.” Although it’s been years and years since I’ve seen the movie, I reread my copy of the book almost every year. I love the beautiful descriptions of the gardens and Misselthwaite Manor, and stubborn little Mary and spoiled Collin and especially Dickon, with his wide smile and his animal friends. Yet beneath the roses and the sunshine and Jump the fox, there’s a much darker narrative thread moving, one of death and fear and broken relationships, and a house with “one hundred rooms, all locked up.” And, of course, the Magic, of which Collin becomes Grand Master.
Every time I close the book, I wonder whatever became of the three friends at its center. Did Mary grow up to marry her cousin Collin? Did they become Lord and Lady of Misselthwaite Manor? Was Collin’s miraculous recovery real, or would he be a cripple for the rest of his life? And what about Dickon – dear, sweet Dickon, who was several steps under the others in the class structure, and would have been just the age for conscription during World War I – What happened to him, and his relationship with Mary?
After finishing “Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells,” a collection of “gaslamp fantasy” edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, I was finally inspired to sit down and begin writing my own version of the story of Mary, Collin, and Dickon, all grown up. I’d like to include the first scene here. For those of you who know the story, is my continuation of it realistic and satisfying? And for those of you who don’t, how much of the back story can you guess from this one scene?
In the spring of 1918, Dickon came home from the Western Front. Mary froze at the upstairs parlor window, one hand on her chest, when she saw him coming up the long drive, his shoulders slumped under his bright thatch of red hair. She flew down the wide stairway and out of the front door without waiting for the maid to open it, her lacy skirts caught up in her fists and her newly-bobbed blonde hair standing out in a halo around her face in the early April sunlight. She threw her arms around his shoulders, causing him to drop the patched carpet bag he was carrying, as Collin stepped out of the front door and started down the drive towards them, leaning heavily on his mahogany cane.
“Collin! He’s come home,” Mary called up the drive. “He’s really come home!”
Dickon had first stopped by the cottage in the village where he had grown up, to see his mother Mrs. Sowerby, and Martha and her Tom and all the young ones. But the line that kept him tethered to Misselthwaite Manor had grown more and more taunt the closer he’d come to home, until he’d been unable to resist its pull. His reunion with its Lord and Lady had seemed, just an hour ago, like a bright, unimaginable dream, but the head gardener’s cottage, which had been his since old Ben had died seven years back, and the hedges of roses and cool groves of fruit trees he had tended, had been firm and secure in his mind.
Collin’s cane made a decisive “tock” on the cobblestones as he stopped beside Mary and Dickon. Collin trembled in the unseasonal heat as he took in the new stoop to Dickon’s shoulders, the sharp edges of his cheekbones under his map of freckles, the emptiness inside his deep blue eyes. Dickon stumbled out of Mary’s embrace, and Mary stepped back from him, twisting her skirts in her long white hands.
“Lord Craven,” Dickon ducked his head like an under-servant, his blank gaze unchanged. “Lady Craven,” Dickon nodded to Mary.
“Oh, Dickon!” Mary gave a strange little laugh, almost like a sob. “Don’t be silly. Have I changed so much in four years? You’ll call me Mary as you always have!”
“Dickon,” Collin reached out to shake his calloused hand, deciding against a brotherly pat on the back. Collin noticed with cool relief the entire absence of any unnatural affection he’d once held for this rustic man-child, back when they were three children in their hidden bit of garden, opening to the first flutters of secrets they’d had no business exploring, with the roses hedging them in, and old Ben on his ladder, peeking over the wall. Back when the Magic had come when he’d called. Easy as breathing. Easy as laying down his cane to walk. The madness that had overtaken them all, those few years, and the grueling hours of research and practice that were Collin’s life now, had so little in common that calling them by the same name seemed an untruth.
“I suppose you’ve been to see Martha, and Tom, and your mother – she’s well?” Mary was saying. “And our children! You’ll want to meet the children, surely!”
At a third story window, the indistinct faces of two small children stared down at the meeting on the drive. Dickon thought he caught a glimpse of light red hair, haloed, as Mary’s was, in a sudden ray of sunlight, before the nursemaid appeared to usher the two curious faces away.
Collin frowned. “Really, dear, I don’t think that’s necessary just yet. I’m sure Dickon would much rather rest a while after his travels.” He turned to Dickon. “Your post as head gardener has been reserved for you, of course. Mary would have allowed nothing else.” He gave a tight-lipped smile. Mary’s face was as white as her dress in the sunlight. “But we hired an older man from the village to carry on while you were gone. I’ll allow him to stay on a few days more, while you settle into your duties again.”
Collin fished in his pockets for the key ring he carried, pulling it out to remove one small rusted skeleton key, which he handed to Dickon. Dickon squinted at it, as if unsure what it was for.
“It’s the key to your cottage,” Collin explained. “We kept it locked up for you, the way you left it. No one’s been in all these four years.” He cleared his throat and drew his shoulders up with an effort, and smiled. “Go on now, and get settled in. Get some rest.”
“I am,” Dickon said, still staring in wonder at the small key, “Very tired.”
There are so, so many favorite stories that I’d love to write sequels to! Last summer when I worked on an Alice in Wonderland art project, I got the chance to extend Alice’s story to create a Wonderland newspaper. You can see more of the project on my other blog, here. I’ll share the front page story of my Wonderland newspaper. If you extend one of your favorite stories and want to share, post a link in the comments so I can read it!
There’s a new queen in Wonderland.
After her notoriously unfair trail of the Jack of Hearts, the Red Queen was dispossessed, and her tyrannical reign of terror came to an end. The wise, far – traveling Alice was called back to Wonderland to take her place as the new queen. This quite upset the Playing Card Families, who had seen themselves as the rightful nobility and ruling candidates. Alice, however, merely poo-pooed their objections, saying famously “Let them drink tea!” and signaling the Mad Hatter to fill up their tea cups.
Once crowned, Alice immediately set about implementing reform. In Alice’s Wonderland, everyone eats tea cake every day, free stories are told in the palace, during which anyone can ask as many questions as they like, and governesses and icky older brothers are outlawed. Most importantly for the people of Wonderland, there have been no more beheadings, although there has begun a new fashion of growing “nine miles high” in honor of their new monarch’s heroic actions at that fateful trail of the Jack.
“He would have hated his own funeral. It was one of those solemn, teary, small town affairs, and held in the Spring Hope Baptist Church, the one his mom used to go to and that he hadn’t stepped foot in since sixth grade. The sanctuary was paneled in dark wood broken by stained glass windows showing a very Caucasian Jesus shepherding some fluffy sheep, grimy with age. White lilies, pumped as full of formaldehyde as the body in the casket, glowed in the corners, making the air sweet enough to choke on. The organ was ironically horror-movie perfect for a funeral, groaning and screeching through hymns that he wouldn’t have known the words to. “
My short story “Astronaut” was just published in North Carolina State University’s Windhover! I’m so excited to see it in print, especially with such a great layout and design! This story, with a character that could have been me and a tiny town that could have been the one I grew up in, is especially close to my heart. Thanks to Lisa and everyone else at Windhover for making it look so fantastic!
This prompt is always a lot of fun, especially if you make your place and holiday as random as possible. Plunk your finger down on a map, eeny-meeny-miny-mo the books on your bookshelves, or ask a friend to give you a holiday to write about. Your place could be anywhere, real or made up, and your holiday doesn’t have to be one everyone is familiar with either! If you try the prompt and you want to share, leave a link in the comments – I’d love to read yours!
For mine, I asked my boyfriend to give me a place and holiday to write about. My assignment was “NeoParis at Winter Solstice”. What I’ve got isn’t really a story yet, but I love the setting!
NeoParis at Winter Solstice would crunch between your teeth like sugar crystals, sending shivers up your spine. Everything would be white and silver and pastels, with bright golden globes of light, and pinpricks like stars. Spaceships would zoom by overhead, lights winking on and off like fireflies. Carousals would spin to trance music, and the Eiffel tower would rise like a golden fortress.
At Winter Solstice, everyone would come out to play – girls in black sequined flapper dresses and furs, boys in sleek white space suits with dapper shoes and tall hair with a lean to it, off-worlders in thick, patterned silk robes. They would dance in streets like a gigantic snow globe, sparkling snowflakes catching in their eyelashes and crunching under their dainty high heels. They would sip glasses of fizzy champagne and sample cakes shaped like all the worlds in all the galaxies. At midnight, hundreds of fireworks would explode in the sky, raining silver confetti down on the party-goers. Inhabitants of all the worlds of every universe would laugh and clap and embrace.
Afterwards, they would go home to their modern apartments, where they would sip cocoa in front of their colored electric fireplaces and dream of inter-stellar travel. Models would ask one another if they had eaten too much of Venus or Mars. Artists would wonder if they could ever capture the night with their paint programs. Designers would gossip about what the off-worlders had been wearing. The next morning, the snow would be pristine again, the spaceships would hang in an empty blue sky, and the world would be reborn.