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Archive for July, 2009

I can’t help myself sometimes.  Even when I think I’m in the middle of writing a “normal” story, the weird has a way of creeping in.  Most of the time, however, I invite it.

The challenge is to hit upon the right degree of creepy, the right disturbing element without going over the edge into cliché.  Modern readers are jaded.  You can’t creep them out with the sorts of horrors that worked for Poe.

Working on The Hornbeam Door, I knew all along that some of the action would take place in a small Kansas town an hour or so away from my invented/hybrid New Boston, Kansas.  I had assumed, however, that I’d just make up a town.  This town would be the site of a series of unnatural events that would disrupt everybody’s received notions about death and the afterlife.

I toyed with a number of ideas for why this particular town was the locus for this, as well as some possible early signs that all was not right in this town.  Certainly there are places long associated with the supernatural.  Rooms, houses, palaces, and even meadows deemed haunted or cursed, or otherwise imbued with the presence of some malevolent force.  I planned to create this myth from whole cloth.

Codell Methodist Church May 21, 1918

Codell Methodist Church May 21, 1918

Sometimes, the creepy just falls into your lap.  So it was with Codell, Kansas.

On May 20, 1916, a tornado struck  Codell, Kansas.

On May 20, 1917, a tornado struck Codell, Kansas.

On May 20, 1918, a tornado struck Codell, Kansas, killing ten people and destroying nearly every building in town.

For people who believe in the supernatural, it invites all manner of speculation.  A place marked for destruction?  An intended death that didn’t quite pan out the first two times?

I believe I’ve found my creepy little cursed town.

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He was watching me all along, the whole time I walked down the center aisle looking at the historical displays. It didn’t seem fair. He had all that time to prepare himself and I just got that one moment, when he stepped out from behind the covered wagon.

Under a big sheepskin jacket, he wore jeans, a black t-shirt and hiking boots. He had brown hair that stuck up all over in different directions.  Caveman hair, like the comb hadn’t been invented yet. I waited for him to say something or do something, but he didn’t. I took another step toward him and said, “I’m Oona. I was told to come here.”

He fainted. Folded up and went face down on the marble floor and whacked his head.

He was already trying to get up when I got to him. Once he made it to his hands and knees, I grabbed the collar of his jacket and pulled until he was standing, sort of leaning on me. I looked around for somewhere to take him, but the only places to sit down were in the museum displays. At the back wall was an emergency exit and bathroom signs, so I turned him that way.

Ladies Room

Ladies Room

I figured I wanted to be on my own territory, so I picked the women’s bathroom. It was big and drafty, with black and white tiles on the floor. There were four wood toilet stalls on one side and four sinks on the other. At the back, under a glass block window was a wicker couch. I steered him over there and practically dropped him on it. I thought he was going to puke the way he was sucking air in and choking it out, but he didn’t. Finally, he looked up at me and said, “You’re real? You’re real?”

“Yes,” I said and nodded really hard. I knew how it was to feel that way. He grabbed me then, around the waist, and held on. His head was in my stomach and one of his hands was on my butt and he stank. Homeless-haven’t-bathed-in-a-long-time stank. I don’t know if it was supposed to be a hug, but it freaked me out.

Maybe it wasn’t very nice, but I shoved him away, right as he started crying. I knew how that felt, too. I wanted to say, “It’s okay,” but it probably wasn’t.

I got him some toilet paper out of a stall and after a few minutes, he stopped crying and blew his nose.

He said, “I’m Lee. What’s your name?”

“Oona.” He squinted at me, so I spelled it.

“Louder. You have to talk a lot louder. I blew out my eardrums.”

I said it louder, so loud I worried the old lady would think I was in the bathroom talking to myself.

“Oona? They sent you? You hear it, too?” He had stopped crying, but he was back to breathing hard.

“Yes. I hear it. That’s how I knew to come here.”

I have–.”

He fumbled in his jacket pocket and pulled out something I recognized. Oh, how I recognized it. A pile of note cards, two inches thick, bound with a rubber band. The top note card, like all of them I was sure, had a drawing of a tree and a leaf on it. I didn’t even have to read what was written on the back. It was a white ash tree. Death by fire falling from the sky. I had a card just like it, only his tree was hand drawn and perfect.

“You drew that?” He nodded. “That’s beautiful.” I was careful to say it loud enough, but he didn’t seem to care.

“Which door, which one were you called through?”

“Hornbeam,” I said. I only whispered it, but I knew he understood. He’d known what I was going to say. “Look, I’m supposed to be in school right now.”

“What?”

“I skipped school to come here. I can’t stay long.”

He laughed. The big, deaf crybaby laughed at me. “You skipped school? You’re worried you’ll get caught skipping school?”

“Why is that so funny?” Honestly, he was starting to make me mad. I wished I could walk away. I wished that was one of the things I could do, but I knew the voice wouldn’t leave me alone.

Lee ran his palms over his face, rubbed at his eyes, and then went to one of the sinks and washed his face and hands. When he finished he looked around at the bathroom.

“Is this the girls bathroom?”

I shrugged.

“You wanna know what’s so funny?” he said. “I ran away from home two weeks ago and hitchhiked here.”

“Where did you hitchhike from?” Really, I was wondering if it had been two weeks since he took a bath, but that was too rude.

“San Jose.”

“Is that in Texas?”

“California.”

I sat down on the couch, because that scared me a lot. I’d been scared to skip school and the voice had managed to drag him halfway across the country.

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Another excerpt from a work in progress, The Hornbeam Door.  School hasn’t gotten any better for Oona.  She’s still an outcast and she’s still hearing the voice.  Only now it’s giving her directions: a set of coordinates located in Codell, a little town about an hour away.  In class, she struggles to ignore the voice, but it keeps repeating the coordinate numbers.

***

It snowed over night, but not enough to close school, so I went through my day trying to pretend to be normal. Since nobody spoke to me, it wasn’t that hard, except for the urge I had to yell, “Shut up!” I was fighting that during Language Arts, where I was supposed to be writing an essay about “some issue that’s important to you.” Really, that was the assignment. In the AP English class, they were probably already doing the literature essay. I tried to start my assignment, but the heat was on too high, so the classroom was hot, and behind me, Justin Troost smelled like pot and peppermint. Good and bad.

Fifteen minutes in, I still hadn’t started my “essay.” I was writing the numbers over and over.

I got caught.

“Are you having trouble getting started, Oona?” said Mr. Hildenbrand. I’d never seen him until the day I got moved to his class. I didn’t dislike him, but I didn’t want to make friends either. He was a symbol of everything that was screwed up in my life. I wasn’t supposed to be in his class. I was supposed to be in Mrs. deMaars’ AP English class with Katelyn.

“I don’t know what to write about,” I mumbled and moved my arm to cover up the numbers.

“How about the rule against freshmen leaving campus for lunch?”

“I don’t care. I’m not a freshman.” It was a Justin Troost answer and after a month in that class I was starting to understand why Justin was the way he was.

“What about the presidential election?”

“I can’t vote.”

“How about the issue of evolution vs. creationism?”

“That’s a false controversy.” Not a Justin Troost answer. Mr. Hildenbrand frowned at me. I wanted him to leave me alone, so I picked a topic: “I’ll write about how they should legalize marijuana.”

“Yeah!” Justin said.

Mr. Hildenbrand raised his eyebrows. “I expected something more…”

I think he was going to say “something more original from you,” but he didn’t, because he looked down at my notebook and went a little pale. While I was talking to him, my hand kept writing the numbers until it filled the space on the page and spilled onto the desk.

He blinked a couple times and said, “If that’s what you want to write about.” After looking at the numbers for another minute, he turned and walked back to the front of the room.

“Hey, Justin, why should they legalize marijuana?” I said.

peppermint breath

peppermint breath

Justin leaned forward, breathing his peppermint candy breath on my neck and told me this whole long random list of reasons. I wrote it down. I’d never done anything like that. It felt like cheating, which was a laugh. The Language Arts class was so lame we didn’t even have to do research. It’s not like I was plagiarizing. I just took what Justin told me and wrote it down in my own words.

When the bell rang, I scribbled my conclusion: “So that’s why, in my opinion, marijuana should be legalized.” Then I got up and handed in my paper. Mr. Hildenbrand shook his head, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything, except making the voice stop. Even if I had to skip class and go to  Codell to make that happen.

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I’m in the midst of selling my house and searching for a different home, so I’m having the requisite existential crisis over what I own.  A lot of dishes and a lot of books.  The dishes are an inherited problem.  Not that I got my obsession with dishes through some quirk of genetics, but that as people in my family have died, I’ve inherited more dishes.  It sometimes feels as though I’m amassing what will eventually become the Stoops-Greenwood-Hanner History of American Tableware Museum.

Add to that my little problem with books.  I can’t blame anyone for that.  I was raised to use the library, and I do, but I also have a bit of a jones for buying books.  As I pack up my belongings to prepare for the move, I’m trying to pare down the sheer volume, but I don’t know that I’m gaining much ground.

Maybe Tom Bendtsen could build my next house out of books

Maybe Tom Bendtsen could build my next house out of books

This would all be a pleasant little philosophical consideration, if I knew where I were going.  I don’t.  The house is sold, but I haven’t yet found the next house.  I thought I had, but it didn’t work out.  End result: all of my belongings go into storage while I continue my search for a home.  Strange but true, buying and selling a house resembles the writing process a great deal.

Sometimes you just know it’s the right house.  You fall in love immediately and nobody can dissuade you from committing to it.  Perhaps you pay too much in your zeal.  Both in money and time.  The same is true of a story.  Even knowing it’s “not commercial,” you develope a desperate infatuation with it.  You cancel social plans and hunker down in your writing corner, oblivious to the pleas of family and friends.

After the house is bought, even if you fell in love with it, there’s work to do.  Sure, it’s your dream home, but every room in the house needs to be painted.  Maybe the floors need to be refinished. Once you’ve done that, it becomes obvious that you need to replace the ceiling fans–those unsightly monsters from the 80s, all rattle-trap faux-antiqued brass with oak laminate blades.  And the bathroom tile isn’t quite right.  And the kitchen needs new countertops.  What about some landscaping?

There you are with the first draft of your book, feeling the same things.  Yes, you still love the characters.  You still love the plot, but there are these scenes that need to be tweaked.  Updated.  Add more conflict.  Clarify motivation.  After that’s done, it becomes obvious you’ll need to rewrite the first two chapters.  Or delete them altogether and start the story sooner.  And the climax?  It definitely needs reworking.

Unless you plan to polish the book for your own pleasure and store it in a box forever, you then contemplate the next scary step: selling it.  That’s like selling a house, too.  Right down to the terminology.  If you’re like me and believe in professionals, you’ll get a real estate agent to sell your house and a literary agent to sell your book. Having recently hired both, let me just tell you, finding a real estate agent was LOT EASIER than finding a literary agent.  Sure, a literary agent technically works for you, but they tend to be very choosy about their clients.  Real estate agents, not so much.

Once you’ve found someone you can trust, you start the hard work of getting your house/book ready for the whole world, and strangers at that, to look at it.  You don’t want to strip it of personality, but you find yourself trying to make it more palatable to more people.  Should that wall be beige?  Is that quirky, ironic picture of praying Jesus going to offend people?  What if they don’t get that it’s ironic?  Does it matter?  Will everyone who reads your sex scenes assume those are your sexual proclivities?  Is it okay to reveal your own ignorant Okie-ness through your character’s ignorant Okie-ness?

And then what?  What about after you sell your house/book?  Oh, right.  The next one.  The next project.  The next story.  The next bathroom renovation.

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