At around this time last year, I’d made up my mind to write twelve short stories for each month of 2020. The idea was that each story would have something to do with its respective month – inspired by a holiday, typical activities, the weather, etc.
I enjoyed the project so much that I’m doing it again in 2021. This year, I think I’d like to challenge myself to write twelve stories around a central theme. But I don’t know what that theme should be! So, I thought I’d reach out to you, wonderful readers, for your ideas and suggestions.
And to see if any of you would like to join me in my Short Story Challenge 2021. 😊 It’ll be fun!
So, what do you think my central theme should be?
If you haven’t read them and you’d like to catch up, here’s a list of the twelve stories from 2020. Some of them I really like, some of them could have been better, but either way, it’s kind of cool seeing all of them listed here. I enjoyed writing each of them. I’ve put asterisks by my favorites.
I’ve been plugging away at my December short story this week. I think I like what I’ve got and where I’m going. My original goal was to post it today, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. So, I’ll try to post on Friday. It’s a Christmas story (I think), so it would make sense to post it on Christmas Day (I think).
If not by Christmas Day, then it will be next week.
By the end of December, there will be a new short story on this blog.
I don’t struggle with deadlines, I think, so much as I struggle with ideas. I’ve got lots and often I’ll start a few different stories at once and see which one finishes first. I’ve started two different stories for December, and I like them both. I’ve put in a similar amount of time on them at this point, but I think I know which one I’ll focus on in the coming hours/days.
I don’t know yet quite where it’s going, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it gets there.
I think that’s my favorite part of writing, at the end of the day. I love the journey. I love starting with almost nothing – a character, or a sentence, or a setting, or a few lines a dialogue – and building a whole world in the course of just a few pages.
There’s nothing quite so tantalizing and terrifying as a blank page.
So, onward, and we’ll see where I get to. Or rather, where the story takes me. Somewhere good, I hope, and a bit Christmas-y.
Someone told me once that they wouldn’t be brave enough to write, and that I must be very brave to try. I’ve been thinking about that this week, as 2020 comes to an end and I set goals and dream dreams for next year.
I’m not a very brave person. Truly. I’m afraid of heights, snakes, flying, germs (ESPECIALLY NOW), crowds, ladybugs (Don’t ask. I don’t know either.), and the dark. Yes, the dark. And yes, I am in my thirties.
When I decided I wanted to write – really write, and make a career of writing – it wasn’t out of courage. It was out of desperation. I felt like there was nothing else in the universe I could do, and do as well, as write, and that if I didn’t get my words out there, part of me would just…shrivel up and die. And I felt like I was perilously close to that happening, and I couldn’t let it. I couldn’t lose myself.
I know. It sounds very dramatic. I’m a Leo. And an only child. And a retired theatre kid.
But the sad truth is, writing scares me, too. I figure anything worth doing should probably scare you a little, and sharing my thoughts and my fears and my hopes and my demons with the world is pretty frightening.
The thing that scares me the most, though, more than anything else, is that once I write and put my words out there, they don’t belong to me anymore. They belong to anyone who reads them. And once I’ve sent my poems and stories and essays out into the great, wide world, I hope they’ll find the people who need them, who want them, who will love them. But I know the world is not a safe, kind place for stories.
I write anyway. I think that’s the thing about life. You’ll always be afraid, and you’ll live anyway. Boats are safest in the harbor.
But that’s not where they’re made to be. So of course, I’m afraid to put my writing out there. But I do it anyway, because stories are meant to be read. And words are their own kind of magic. And I’d rather use the magic and be afraid than live a life without any magic at all.
Veteran’s Day always makes me think of my grandfather, my favorite veteran.
He died in 2015. He didn’t talk much about his service, at least not to me. What little I do know, I’ve learned from my mother, and I’m always trying to piece it together in stories, because those are all I have left of him now. I wonder how many grandchildren could say the same thing.
Here’s something I wrote not long after he died. I thought I might include it in a larger work (that still isn’t done, and might never be).
Some of it’s true.
At a fork in an old country road, surrounded by rocky fields and green mountains and flanked on both sides by cracked pavement, sits an old white farmhouse. Its shutters and clapboard are going grey, its chimney is crumbling, and any reminder that it used to be part of a functioning farm is long gone, replaced by overgrown patches of wild onions and cattails. There’s no sign now that it ever housed a family. This is the house where my grandfather grew up, nestled outside of a small Appalachian town.
The land is called Hell’s Half Acre, and my grandfather knew, when he was a boy, that he’d have to work it. Walking home from school, a satchel of books swinging in his hand, he wondered every day if it would be the last he’d make the trek. And one day it was. He left school in seventh grade, a servant to the farm. It was that, he told my mother, or be sold to another family, one with the resources to afford another mouth to feed. Instead, he used his hands to work. Evenings on the farm, and days underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, he’d stare at the fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to choose any direction at all.
“When I grow up,” he said to himself, eating dinner at a quiet table full of tired, hungry people, between gulps of buttermilk and bites of toasted biscuit, “when I grow up…” He didn’t dare dream of that time. Dreaming felt hopeless, not an escape but a trap, a long, dark tunnel with no light at the end.
Then, when he turned sixteen, there came a war.
“I’m going to sign up,” he said to his brother, and he did. He lied about his age, though not by much, and found himself on a train west, to basic training somewhere in the Dakotas. And then a ship east, to Africa. And then a ship north, to Italy. And it was there, sleeping in empty towns and eating blood-spackled bread, that he met a girl. Sort of.
Back home, my grandmother was reading books by flashlight every night, hiding under her covers from a father who thought women shouldn’t read and a step-mother who wore her dead mother’s clothes. Sometimes, in the quiet, heavy darkness, my grandmother would talk to her sister, who died when they were both very young, because she had no one else to talk to.
“Lucy,” she’d say, “when I grow up…” And she’d pause. “When I grow up…” And she couldn’t finish the thought. When she grew up, she would be some man’s wife, some child’s mother, and finally some graveyard’s newest coffin.
And then one day, she sent a picture and a letter to a soldier from the county, off fighting in a war that involved the whole world. And it changed everything.
Here it is, folks – the final post in this limited series. For the others, go here, here, and here.
I’ve really enjoyed sharing these incomplete snippets! It’s intimidating to post things that are unfinished and largely unedited, but it’s also sort of freeing. It’s a good reminder that, when it comes to writing, something is better than nothing. You can’t build sandcastles without sand. Just getting something down on the page is the most important thing.
This particular piece is more a pre-writing exercise than anything, creating a character and a history to build on, inspired by a trip I took (I think I was on it while I was writing this) to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. I imagined this story as a psychological mystery/thriller, with a ghostly component. I liked the idea of exploring regret and isolation, of looking at how running away isn’t a solution, and how old hurts and bad thoughts, unchecked and pushed away, can be debilitatingly toxic.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! I’ll try to think of some others I can put together in the future. In the meantime, thank you for reading! (And check back on Wednesday for a complete short story for October. It’s going to be a good one!)
Laura Fuller had always envied her cousin’s hair. Lyla Henry had deep auburn hair that glowed copper in the sunlight, and bright green eyes with fiery gold flecks. Laura’s own hair was dull blonde, almost gray, and her eyes were brown. Just brown. Lyla’s alabaster skin shimmered like a pearl. Laura’s was tawny, always tan, even in winter.
One night, when Lyla and her parents had come for a visit, Laura had teased knots into Lyla’s hair as she slept. The next morning, Lyla had sniffled, resigned, as she watched the tangled mess fall to the floor, lobbed off with kitchen scissors. One summer, as they lay on a blanket under a blistering hot sun, Laura watched as Lyla’s milky white skin turned deep purple. She’d replaced Lyla’s sunscreen with coconut-scented lotion. Laura broke Lyla’s glasses, put baby oil in her shampoo, sprinkled pepper in her soda. Any petty, unkind thing. When Lyla cried, Laura smiled.
When Laura learned that Lyla’s parents had died, and that Lyla would be coming to live at her own house, she spent the whole night outside wrapped in a blanket, lying with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing, staring up at an unfriendly moon in an angry sky threatening rain.
Laura believed that we must be born with the ability to hate, because she had hated Lyla, who was chatty and funny and kind, for as long as she could remember. Next to Lyla, she felt dirty and clumsy. At sixteen, Laura could muster only mild sympathy, and a bit of ruthless satisfaction, knowing that Lyla had nothing, no parents and no home and no love. And for that, she felt awful all over again. Why had Lyla been born gentle and beautiful, while she had been born bitter and spiteful?
Lyla settled in quickly, but she cried into her pillow at night when she thought no one would hear. She shared Laura’s room, and the day she moved in, she made Laura a throw pillow with lace and sequins to put on her bed. She’d sewn a picture of the two of them into the stuffing, and made herself one to match. Lyla helped Laura’s mother with the dishes after dinner, and swept every other day. Laura seethed, and spent hours reading books and lying in bed. Lyla exceled in school, made a large group of friends, and went to the movies every Friday. She put a picture of her parents on her bedside table, and kissed it each night before going to sleep. Laura hid the picture under some blankets in her closet. While Lyla searched, Laura stepped outside to watch the birds in the garden.
About a year later, Lyla didn’t come home for dinner after studying with friends at the library, Laura felt relieved to have one night alone. When the police found Lyla’s hat and gloves in a ditch the very next day, Laura worried, and cried for Lyla for the first time in her life. When her mother hosted a funeral service, with a casket filled with Lyla’s favorite books and photos, and the pillow she’d sewn to match Laura’s, Laura spent the night again wrapped in a blanket in the garden, with her back on the ground and her feet propped into the tire swing.
Laura and Lyla were connected, had always been connected, born two days apart to two twin sisters. When Laura had fallen and scraped her knee, Lyla’s had scabbed over. If Lyla should happen to trip on the stairs, Laura would stumble. And when Laura felt angry and hateful toward Lyla, Lyla would stare into Laura’s eyes with a deep ache in her own.
On the night Lyla disappeared, Laura dreamed of wind and weeds. She dreamed of dirt and dark. In the wind she heard howls, and in the weeds she smelled blood. When she did wake, twisted in a heap of blankets on her bed, she heard only the sound of crickets and clocks, the quiet, calm noises of an old house, and she knew that her dream was real. Laura felt empty and incomplete, as if a part of her was missing, gone, murdered. Whoever had taken Lyla had taken a part of Laura too.
The police never arrested anyone, and they never found Lyla. Laura spent the next two years, until she turned eighteen, haunted by bad memories. If she found a copper hair strewn across her pillow, if she found a picture of Lyla and her parents in a desk drawer, if she felt someone behind her walking in the woods, or gentle hands on her back as she brooded in the tire swing, Laura feared that Lyla was there, or had been there. Laura became so apprehensive and nervous that any drop of hatred in her body dried up, became hard and heavy, sitting in her chest like a stone, growing mossy, dark black with mold. Some days she could smell damp on her breath, the earthy mushroom scent of that jagged rock in her core, odious and acrid.
On the day she turned eighteen, Laura purged her room of all signs of Lyla. Any picture, any stuffed animal, any book or belt or piece of jewelry. She stuffed the pillow Lyla had crafted into the bottom drawer of her dresser. She put fresh yellow roses on Lyla’s empty grave, and promised that she would never worry about a breath on her cheek in the night or a presence behind her as she walked. She went to college, and spent the next four years practicing forgetting her cousin. But she felt the stone in her gut dig deeper, carve out a larger cavity, and sink into her, heavy and unbreakable. She wondered again why she had been born only to hate and hurt.
Out of college and living at home, Laura began again to feel the breath on her cheek as she slept. She dreamed only bad dreams, and spent her days groggy and silent. When she found an old picture of Lyla lying on her dresser, she knew Lyla lived in that house still, and was watching.
Laura moved, when she was twenty-two, across the country, to a sparsely populated island on the eastern shore of Virginia. She lived with an acquaintance of her mother, who was elderly and needed help with housekeeping and grocery shopping. She settled into her small bedroom, into her routine of housework and errands, and thought very seldom of Lyla, or of the stone still nestled inside her. She wrote editorial columns and feature articles for a local paper. She learned to bake soufflé and to play piano. She read at night on the porch, and listened to the distant clamor of gently crashing waves.
She made friends with the locals and spent quiet evenings at the table playing cards and eating cookies. Sometimes, in between sleep and wake, she dreamed of Lyla humming, or sometimes, whispering.
*For the first two posts in this limited series, go here and here.*
I’ve been working on some version of the story this scene comes from since 2016. It’s a story about a house, a family, a legacy, and what it means to come home again. I don’t know why I’ve never finished it. I suspect it’s a bit too close to my heart. I’ve loved and hated writing it, and it’s given me more trouble than it will perhaps ever be worth. We’ll see.
Enjoy this bit, though, and be sure to check back next week for the last October Stories post! (And thank you for reading!)
The dark tree limbs meandered like streams against a bright midnight sky, black, gnarly rivulets creaking with the howling wind. Tall grasses, waiting to be baled into winding bundles of hay, swayed back and forth. The craggy fields sat silent, waiting for the promise of Christmas snow. How many years since Tess had seen a winter in this hollow?
Eight Christmases away, eight in the bustle and traffic and lights of the city, attending party after party and trying to build some reputation in the world. Wrapped tightly in a sturdy handmade quilt, Tess certainly didn’t envy the partygoers now.
As she sat, alone except for Charlie, in front of the glimmering embers of the fireplace, she thought of all of those wasted holidays. How many red velvet cakes had she missed? How many cups of Christmas custard? How lonely, now, the last Taylor woman, waiting along with the empty fields and valleys for that first flake of mountain snow.
From somewhere in the belly of the house, Tess heard a step, a sigh, the creak of a door upstairs. Perhaps not so alone, she thought, and scratched Charlie’s wrinkled head.
“Charlie,” she whispered, watching his ears perk up and his eyes remain closed. Did he feel it too? This was home, and you’re supposed to be home at Christmas. Even the house, standing tall and dark and steady against the winter wind, seemed content to have a Taylor home.
*If you didn’t catch the start of this limited series, check out this post: October Stories #1. If you did and you’re back for more, welcome back, and thank you!*
A few years ago, I had a weird dream. This happens frequently, but my dreams usually aren’t vivid enough to warrant writing them down. This dream was different, and it inspired me to start the story I’m sharing today. I think about this one from time to time, but I’ve never come back to it. Maybe one day.
Anyway, enjoy! And come back next week. 😉
To anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just that – a door. And not a very interesting one. It was regularly tall, wooden, with panels in the standard places, and a simple brass doorknob. No light peeked out from underneath it, and the usual person looking at it would think, quite reasonably, that it opened to a narrow set of stairs leading up to a dusty old attic filled with boxes and crates brimming with the collected junk of a thousand yesterdays.
Sara Smith, however, and despite her entirely common name, was not a usual person. And her parents knew it.
All parents think their children are special. “Jack rides his tricycle faster than any other boy on the block,” a parent might say. “Yes, well, Jane is already writing in cursive and her fingers can barely fit around the pen,” another might reply.
Sara’s parents, sitting in the parlor with other families sharing lunch or tea, would change the subject. “The weather’s been lovely this summer,” they might suggest. Or sometimes, “I hear the spring festival this year is supposed to draw twice the normal crowd.” The conversation would then move on toward topics unrelated to children and their small but noteworthy accomplishments, at least for the next several minutes, and Bill and Anna Smith would look at each other and breathe two syncopated but inconspicuous sighs of relief.
Because Sara Smith was not a usual child.
Her birth was normal enough, if a bit early. She’d been a normally happy baby. She’d even liked prunes, though when her mother thought of that now, she wondered if it might have been the first sign that something was not quite usual. As Sara had grown, she’d hit her milestones right on schedule. She learned to babble and then to talk, to crawl and then to toddle and then to walk and then to run, to sound words and then to read them, and she’d even broken her arm trying to climb a tree when she was five. She liked unicorns, princesses, coloring books, and, much to her mother’s dismay, the color pink.
One night, when Sara was six and three months, and playing in the nursery her parents had set up in the bright, airy attic of their quaint, cozy house, her mother had come up to check on her. In between giggles, she’d heard Sara talking.
“My mommy says it’s good to be helpful and to share.”
“I don’t know how, but I’ll try.”
“You’re welcome. I like your necklace. It’s shiny.”
“Sara,” her mother called, “who are you talking to?”
“The nice old lady,” Sara replied. “She wants me to help her.”
“With what?” Anna Smith was proud that her daughter was playing at helping.
“She says she’s not alive anymore and her son is sad and I should let him know that she’s okay and that the combination to the safe is seven seven three nine. That’s a really big number, isn’t it, Mommy?”
“Yes,” Anna replied, “it is.” She didn’t know what else to say.
Looking back, Bill and Anna Smith always thought of that moment as the one that changed everything, because it was the moment they knew that Sara, their happy, normal, freckled, giggly daughter, could see ghosts.
Sara Smith was not a usual child. And to anyone else, the door at the end of the hallway was just a door. But to Sara Smith, it was the entrance to her very special workshop.
I love a good ghost story. When people ask me if my house is haunted, I’m always just a little disappointed to say, “No, I don’t think so. Probably. Most of the time.”
Since it’s October, I’ve been thinking a lot about ghost stories. I actually think a lot about ghost stories a lot of the time. October just gives me a convenient excuse to let my weirdo flag fly. I think a lot of people think about ghost stories, because ghost stories are, at their hearts, human stories. Whether they’re psychological, tragic, uplifting, or frightening, ghost stories are fundamentally human. Most of us are curious about what will happen to us when we die, and ghost stories give us a tangible, palatable way to explore that curiosity.
I write a lot of ghost stories. Or, I should say, I start a lot of ghost stories. I seldom finish them. But I thought it would be kind of fun to share some of these abandoned pieces with you, for the month of October. Expect a post each week this month (four total), starting today, with what I thought might be the prologue to a ghostly murder mystery, inspired by my own longstanding (and admittedly strange) hobby of reading palms. A prologue is, so far, all it’s become. But I hope you enjoy it, fragment though it may be, and come back in the next few weeks for more.
*And a disclaimer – many of these are old, some of them are unedited, all of them are incomplete. Writing is messy work. But it sure is fun. And if you particularly like one of these, feel free to leave a comment! Maybe you’ll inspire me to get back to work on it. So with that in mind, into the ghostly ether we go!*
In my dream, I’m trying my best to ignore the sounds of someone crying in the room outside the kitchen. My mother is at the stove, worrying over the kettle, and I’m putting two tea bags into a chipped mug I got out of the sink. I take the mug over, and she pours the water and walks away, and then I’m alone and waiting to be allowed in my own living room again. Customers don’t like children, I’ve been told, and I can’t read yet anyway.
I know this is a dream because I know what happens next, but I never see it. Before the preacher slings the hot tea in my mother’s face for what she’s told him, before he slams the door and says we’re both damned to Hell, before my mother comes back into the kitchen to wipe her red, burned cheeks with a dirty dish towel, and before she tells me that a fortuneteller’s life is no life for anyone, I will wake up.
I’ll startle out of sleep and my hazy mind will muster whatever sense it has in the middle of the night to remember that my life is different, that I have built a better future, and that my mother has been dead for three years. I will remind myself that I haven’t read a single palm since the accident, and that it wasn’t my fault.
This I will tell myself over and over, “not my fault one, not my fault two,” counting my own reassurances the way that other people count sheep, until I fall back into an uncertain sleep and dream, again, of subtle lines in rough hands and the dangerous secrets they whisper to the few who can hear them. I will see my mother’s face, her wide green eyes sad and certain, resigned to the fate that I’ve read for her, my first and last paying customer. The lines will tell you everything, she reminds me, even if you’re not ready to listen. I’ll wake again and remind myself that I’m not listening. Not anymore. Not ever again.
This life might be no life for anyone, but I don’t know if it will ever let me go.
I read this book recently, which gives brief descriptions of the routines of famous writers, artists, and other creatives.
I’d recommend it, if you’re looking for a fun, quick read. And it did get me thinking.
When I decided to pursue writing as more than just a hobby, I thought I’d develop a routine and habits, in the same way I’d developed them working in an office – a 9:00 a.m. coffee, a quick walking break mid-day, a late afternoon rush of productivity. But that never happened. I do write a fair amount, most weeks, but never on any kind of schedule, and never as part of a regular practice. And when people ask what my routine is, I never really know what to say.
“Well, while still in last night’s pajamas, I sit in the recliner in my living room and I drink coffee until I’m jittery, and then I type frantically on my laptop until something happens. And then I keep at it until it’s done, which is sort of indeterminate and looks different every day, but I really can’t focus on anything else until I hit some kind of stopping point and please don’t ask me to. And then it’s usually time to eat something or at least drink water because I’ve forgotten to do that all day.”
Like, is that a routine? That doesn’t seem like a routine. But it works for me, at least most of the time.
Though I hate to be asked, I confess I do find it fascinating how different people approach the act of creating. I feel like it’s deeply personal to each creator, and that’s probably why it’s often hard to explain. Or, for some, why it’s easy.
As of last year, I’d never entered any of my creative writing into any contest, ever. Not even in college, when I sat on the editorial board of a literary magazine and could have easily, albeit not entirely fairly, included one of my pieces in the publication. (I wouldn’t have done that. I promise.) I’ve always been timid about my own work.
I realize that I have major impostor syndrome. I’ve never published anything, and I’m terrified to submit my writing to agents and publishers. I’m always far more impressed with what I read from others than with what I write myself. I feel, often, like my creative work is clunky, dull, trite, and uninspired. Not always, but often. It can be discouraging, maddening, and sometimes, debilitating.
To be clear, I’m not looking for sympathy. I think this is a battle many creative people fight every day. Some days, I win. Some days, I…stare at a blank screen and procrastinate and (not infrequently) cry, and I definitely don’t win. But on the good days, when everything comes together, I feel like I’ve made magic, and that keeps me working – through the fear, through the doubt, through the impostor syndrome. And I see that you can’t be an impostor in your own life.
The Short Form Contest requires a submission of 250 characters or less. That’s characters, not words. It can be a poem on its own, or an excerpt from a larger piece. When I discovered the contest last year, I felt…I don’t know, compelled to enter. 250 characters? I wouldn’t feel that bad being rejected over 250 characters. Very few people can do something amazing with 250 characters, right? And so, I entered the contest, knowing my poem wouldn’t be selected, and I felt good. It felt amazing just to put something out there.
So, I entered again this year, with a poem inspired by one of my mom’s favorite books, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. (I’m helping my mom start her own business, and she was on my mind.)
I like my poem less than last year’s, but I put it out there, because why not? And I feel good. Maybe I’ll enter some other contests this year, or even submit work to some publications or agents. Maybe this is the year. We’ll see, and until then, I’ll keep writing. I hope, if you’re struggling, you keep writing (or creating whatever you create), too.
Oh, and if you want to read the poem I submitted this year, here it is. Enjoy!