Archive for the ‘Friday Feature’ category

Friday Feature ~ “Open Country: an allegory”

February 17, 2023

“Open Country” is one of my stories that I can directly attribute to having a little bit of forest on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks. It appeared in Volume II, Issue I of About Place Journal, in May of 2013. This was their “Trees” themed issue. It was my 17th published short story, and I felt I was really on my way.

Clearing cedars is something I do a lot of at my little cabin. The problem with them is that with their oily needles, they can burn hot and transfer a ground fire into the tree tops, which is something I don’t want around my cabin. So whenever I take myself into the forest, I also take a pair of loppers to liberate any small cedars I find from their earthly toil. It’s an endless task, and if I clear one area this year, it will have new cedars growing in it next year. But everyone needs a hobby, right?

I call it an allegory, and I don’t think it’s too hard to see what the cedars in the story can represent to an insightful reader. In just three years, current events showed that the main character’s aversions were commonplace and running rampant throughout the population.

About Place Journal is a publication of The Black Earth Institute, which is an effort by artists and scholars to create a more ethical world.

Friday Feature ~ The Lonely Road

October 7, 2022

“The Lonely Road” was the first story from my One-Match Fire universe that I got published. It appeared in Issue 8 of the online journal Penduline Press in March of 2013. (Even though it is a fantasy, I have sort of considered “The Infinite Regression of Jerry C” to be the first published story from the OMF universe, but the character in it that I resurrected for one of the chapters in the novel had to be renamed, so the connection is tenuous.)

I think “The Lonely Road” was the third story I had written with the OMF characters. At the time I didn’t see that I was working on a novel. Rather, I was simply revisiting characters and settings I knew well and found I had an interest in writing about.

But I must have known something. For this story I had visited some open houses in the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City so I could get the setting right. Waldo is a colorful neighborhood full of starter homes, modest but respectable. It’s where my character grew up. In the novel One-Match Fire, I make a couple of references to Sunnyside Park, which is a real place in Waldo. The description of the house in the latter third of the story is from my research.

I based the description of the loading dock work in the story on my son’s experience working in a warehouse for one of the major shipping firms. It sounded fascinating, but it’s not something I would want to do. For my character, it was a way to pay his bills, but he was never proud of it as his livelihood.

In the story, the character is certain of his insufficiency as a worker, a son, a husband, and most of all as a father. Yet in each of these cases, he is subtly contradicted by those whose opinions count.

Friday Feature ~ “Time Heals All”

July 1, 2022

“Time Heals All” was a story I had been shopping around for some time before it found a home at Temporal Element Anthology in April of 2013. According to the story’s record at Duotrope, I had submitted it 11 times before it was accepted. I don’t consider that a huge number, and I think its rejections had more to do with me sending it to unsuitable markets than any deficiency in the story itself. In any case, the print anthology Temporal Element snapped it up and then interviewed me a little later. The editor also paid me 15 cents for my story. He sent me a Buffalo nickel and a Liberty dime, which I thought was a pretty cool way to pay someone when you have a limited budget.

This story was strongly influenced by a story I’d read by Isaac Asimov, which had a similar shaggy dog-ish ending to what I used. Basically two workers in a science fictional universe (nurses in my story) go about their business and seem to move the plot forward, but it is only in the last sentence that the reader — and the one character who hadn’t read the brief on their job — learns what the real story is.

You can read the story here.

Friday Feature ~ “The Infinite Regression of Jerry C”

September 10, 2021

As with several of my stories, “The Infinite Regression of Jerry C” was born of an actual experience in my life, though not quite with the magical realism I depict in the story.

When my son was in Cub Scouts, we were taking our boys to some away camp, and when all of the boys and dads had found rides, Jerry C and his son were to ride in my car. Much like the Jerry C in my story, he was an engineer, and engineers are always bad guys in my stories. I knew his son, and he was a likable kid, but I had not met his father before. We had a two-hour ride to get to know each other.

It felt like a ten-hour ride.

Among the pronouncements and solutions Jerry C had for all of the woes of the world (that his reasonable and empirical engineer’s mind had come to) was the advice for me that when driving on the highway, I should allow one car length ahead of me for every ten miles per hour I was going. Thus if I was going 60 miles per hour, I should keep at least six car lengths between me and the car ahead of me.

You try doing that.

To be polite, and because I was carrying his boy in my car, I slowed until I had approximately the right distance ahead of me. He helpfully pointed out that if I counted the seconds between when the car ahead passed a given point and when I passed that point, I would know I had the right distance if my count reached six.

This was tedious because he was always watching, and he didn’t hesitate to tell me when I had crept forward too much. Of course as I was doing this, all of the other fathers had likely reached our destination. And, since I had built such a big gap in the traffic, other cars would pass me and then slip into that gap, causing me to slow further until I had recovered the distance. And then it would happen again.

And this was what I based my story on. We managed to reach out destination that day, but the Jerry C in my story met a different fate.

This story was published in the October 2016 issue of Danse Macabre, which you can read if you go to that link above. This publication had run one of my other stories too: “Moron Saturday.”

Friday Feature ~ “The Respite Room”

August 13, 2021

“The Respite Room” was born out of my experience of volunteering in such a place at the Children’s Hospital here in Kansas City. My wife and I worked there every other Saturday for four hours for ten years. Mostly it was a place for the families to get away from their bedside vigils. We had a TV room, a full kitchen, a quiet room, a washer and dryer, two showers, and seven bedrooms. My job was to check people in, explain what we had to offer, and then step back and leave them alone unless they asked for something. I read books. I wrote letters. I baked cupcakes. (I ate cupcakes.)

We saw all kinds of people in all emotional states. Basically we saw people at the worst moments of their lives because they all had a sick child in the hospital. Some just sat and stared out the window. Some were grateful to take a shower and wash the clothes they’d been wearing for days. Some took naps. Some fixed elaborate meals. Some found the amount of respite they needed happened to coincide with the length of a televised basketball game.

I wasn’t there to judge, only to serve. But I was struck by the attitude I saw in other volunteers who sometimes held less-than-charitable attitudes toward our guests. I suppose some of that was the kind of emotional distance you have to maintain to do that kind of work. At the other extreme were those who treated the work as a kind of science, with precise thoughts and timing and tolerance. They were brisk and efficient and aloof, and when things didn’t go according to plan, I could sense them shaking on the inside.

That was part of what I tried to achieve in my story. Just as all kinds of people were our guests, so were all kinds of people our volunteers. And sometimes that leads to incompatibility. At the end of my story the protagonist decides he’s not a good fit at the respite room and makes the decision to leave.

I had written the story based on my experience and then started shopping it around. There was no fun and games in it, no snarky narrator; I considered it an attempt at literary fiction. (See a more detailed anatomy of the story here.) According to my records, I had submitted it seven times before I sent it to Little Patuxent Review (and one more time after that). The lit mag had a theme of “social justice” and I thought my story might align with that. Apparently it did, though the acceptance email they sent was ambiguous and I had to write back to the guest editor to get clarification. A few months later the magazine interviewed me for its Concerning Craft column, and you can read that here. (That may be my actual face or it may be stock photo I stole from the internet. I can tell that that is not my cabin.) The story itself was online for a time, but that link is now broken.

Friday Feature ~ “Velvet Elvis”

July 2, 2021

“Velvet Elvis” was a watershed story for me. In some ways I feel like this was the story that signaled I had finally become a writer. This must be so because I’ve written posts about this particular story four times on this humble blog. This one gives the genesis story, and it was fun for me to go back to read how it had evolved in my head. Here is where I announce its original acceptance; I had forgotten that the acceptance email had been shunted to my spam bucket. (It still amazes me that I read some writing advice once that said you should never use a semicolon!) This post is a brief announcement that the story won an award. And this post was a self-congratulatory one, which just shows you how happy this story made me at the time. (Since self doubt seems to be written into every writer’s resume, I think I’m entitled to this little bit of satisfaction.)

I think what was most important for me with this story was that I had discovered my preferred writing style. It’s something that first appeared in “Moron Saturday” and continues to this day in Obelus and Latest Big Project. What I had achieved, and sustained, was a snarky, comic voice in the narrator. It is playful and fun. It feels engaging and congenial, yet it allows me to hide some commentary and judgment within it. It also feels the most natural to me when I sit down to write. It’s easy for me to call up and put to work. (I don’t know why I try to write any other way.)

If you go to those links about the other posts, you’ll see that this story had a busy life. I’m glad it’s still online, though the editor told me it will eventually drop off since the journal is no longer being published.

A completely unexpected outcome of this story was that I made two new writing friends because of it. The editor, Nathaniel Tower, was very forthcoming and supportive in his comments about the story, and I’ve maintained an email correspondence with him to this day. And out of the blue, one of the other writers published in that edition, Wesley Scott McMasters, friended me on Facebook, perhaps because he liked my story, and we now have a postcard correspondence going. The postcards are supposed to be of museums we visit, but the pandemic quashed that a bit. I’m hoping we can revive it, though I’m still a little hesitant about getting out in public.

So I like revisiting this story. It re-energizes me when the unavoidable frustrations of trying to be a creative person in a crass world come. Plus I think it’s a pretty good tale worth telling.

Friday Feature ~ “Not Close”

June 18, 2021

This story of mine is quite different from just about everything else I write. First of all, it’s short: only 930 words. Plus is deadly serious. And it’s structured oddly. I have alternating snippets going on inside my protagonist’s mind and then with her interacting with her boss. She’s trying to ask for some days off during a busy time but doesn’t want to give the reason why. The story ends with the words “not close.”

I’m not really sure where this story idea came from. It’s an anomaly in my works. I don’t remember setting out to tell this story or making notes about it. I guess it will always be a little puzzling to me.

But it was published in The Adroit Journal in the fall of 2011. This was in the early days of The Adroit Journal, and it was online only then. And now that issue isn’t even archived. It’s gone altogether. Shame.

Friday Feature ~ “Pandora’s Tackle Box”

May 21, 2021

My story “Pandora’s Tackle Box” first appeared in A Golden Place in their Spring 2011 issue. Sadly, that online publication is now defunct, so I can’t link you to it. A couple of years later I saw a call for stories dealing with the Greek god Hephaestus, and since my story had a character in it named Old Festus who was modeled on the blacksmith to the gods, I thought I would submit and see if it would be accepted, and it was. The publisher is Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which publishes regular bound collections of stories and poetry devoted to characters in mythology.

My version of the Pandora myth is set in modern times and involves a young man, Ep, who wants to enter a fishing tournament but doesn’t have the fee. At the same time, Old Festus sees the return of his beautiful (but dim) daughter, Dora, from her years of upbringing by two maiden aunts. Eager to unload Dora, Old Festus sees Ep as a likely solution and begins plying him with lures and money to rent boats (that Ep keeps instead). The courtship progresses until the night before the tournament, when Old Festus bestows Dora with her own tackle box filled with lures and devices that will surely catch Ep the bass he needs to win the tournament. What happens in the boat on the day of the contest leaves poor Ep with nearly no hope.

This was a fun story to write. I intended it to be comical, and I think I hit that target (though some of it seems a little forced and obvious as I look back ten years). It was to be the first of many retellings of ancient myths I thought I could write, and actually I realized it was the second, for my earlier story “Moron Saturday” was also a retold myth. I had written a sketch for a story about Ep’s brother (the brothers being Epimetheus and Prometheus), but my enthusiasm waned. Still, I do see a lot of old stories like this being retold, some by quite accomplished writers, so maybe I’ll try my hand at it again someday.

Friday Feature ~ “Diaspora”

May 7, 2021

This speculative fiction story is perhaps the one I had the most fun writing. “Diaspora” is a conversation between a bright pupil and a wise elder in a future civilization of humans no longer on earth. I had the core idea for a long time, but I never looked at it as a possible story. But when I did, it seemed to flow from my fingers.

I was in an other-worldly location when I wrote it, which probably helped with the work. My wife and I were staying in a bed and breakfast in a hundred-year-old hacienda near Cimarron, New Mexico for a week, and I wrote the entire story in that time. We were there to visit our middle son, who was doing his pediatric rotation for medical school at the Scout Camp Philmont just down the road. Not a bad gig for medical school studies. As I recall, most of his work involved sunburns and twisted ankles.

Anyway, imagine having this view every morning with your breakfast:

That’s called the Tooth of Time and it was just behind the hacienda. I understand Scouts can hike to the top of it, to the very edge. I don’t think my son had to treat any patients who might have fallen from that height.

If you go to the link you will see that “Diaspora” appeared in the online magazine Crossed Genres in 2010. I had submitted to its “characters of color” theme and the story was accepted. Sadly, Crossed Genres is no longer being published, but I’m glad the old issues are still online.

Friday Feature ~ “Unfinished Business”

April 30, 2021

They say that every writer has to write the story he has about a friend’s death, and every writer has a friend who died. The point is to get it out of your system so you can get busy with your real writing. I guess that applied to me, but I managed to get my story about this, “Unfinished Business,” finally written and published.

The writing of this story dates back to my St. Louis life, so more than 30 years, and the origin of this story is in my early teen years, which is a terrible count of years. It is based on the actual death of my best friend at the time. The story tracks pretty closely with our friendship. We were really not much alike. He was sporty; I was a reader. I had a huge family; he had just his mother. We went to different schools. But we lived two houses away from each other, and we were the same age. We did stuff together and hung out, and I guess that was enuf. Sometime shortly after I entered high school I learned that he had “spots on his lungs,” which my mother told me was cancer. As in my story, he had already lost his arm to cancer, and it had moved into his lungs. I was wholly unequipped emotionally to accept or understand what was happening at the time, and I recall several adults taking an interest in me because I seemed so unaffected by it. I guess they never saw my episodes of rage. (My mother’s friend in far-off Connecticut even wrote me a letter trying to help me understand what I was going through.)

And that is the foundation of this story. The character is grappling with his unresolved emotions; he is haunted by the ghost of his friend. They say that ghosts linger because they have unfinished business in the life they cannot quite leave. That felt like a perfect metaphor for how my character (and I) saw things. He struggles to make sense of what he didn’t and still doesn’t understand about himself, and he tries to fabricate a happy ending, which he knows won’t happen.

To this day I still feel the loss of my friend. Or rather, I feel the hole that seems to be inside me about him. I actually think about him often, even after nearly half a century. I have visited his grave several times over the years. It took me more than 20 years to get this story finished. It went through various very different drafts and had a number of titles. But I think once I settled on the character being haunted by the matter, I knew how to resolve the story.

It was published in the Green issue of Midwest Literary Magazine in 2010. I have no records on how I came to submit to this magazine though I suspect that it had to do with the Midwestern setting. I had only submitted it to two other publications at the time. Now Midwest Literary Magazine is defunct and the bound copy with my story in it is the only thing I have left.