The REAL Holly and the Danger Noodle

The REAL Holly and the Danger Noodle

I look forward to May! Every Sunday in May, my friend Marian Allen turns me into a character—yes, even more of a character than I really am!—and my alter ego’s story unfolds on the planet Llannonn, where she—er, we—are Assistant Head Librarian in a Public Living Library.

This year, May 1 happens to also be a Sunday, and Marian reminded me that 2022 is a bonus year—five whole Sundays! I’m excited.

See Holly and the Danger Noodle #StoryADayMay! My reward, perhaps, for being calm enough to breathe, snap this photo, and post about it last week. I wrote:

Stay alert while walking in the park! (Especially national, state, or local preserves.) I almost stepped on this copperhead yesterday.
I’m quite proud of myself. While I’m not afraid of non-venomous snakes, I can’t identify them quickly in the wild and my first impulse is to shriek, “Kill it, kill it, kill it!” while running like my tail feathers are on fire.
I was pretty sure those markings spelled “danger noodle.” But I just stepped back a step, grabbed my phone, snapped a pic, told myself to BREATHE, warned walkers coming up behind me, and the snake turned back to the woods.
No authors or wildlife were harmed in the making of this photo…

 

Now you see the real Holly and the real “danger noodle” that inspired the wonderful story by Marian Allen – a much better one than might have been written, had I not noticed the copperhead and stepped on it, or had I panicked while taking it’s picture and faceplanted on the poor thing. I’d say it was all worth it, to have the experience immortalized on two planets!

I Sense Dead People

I Sense Dead People

My parents dragged me along for a Sunday drive. I was 15. They weren’t exactly “house hunting” – more like “real estate window shopping.” The drives never interested me, and my lack of acute interest in the scenery always seemed to disappoint my mom. “Look! A fox!”

“What?”

“Oh, you missed it.”

Whatever. I would put my head down on the bench seat of the station wagon and promptly doze off again. The sameness of ordinary roads, houses, and neighborhoods never interested me. I remember, years ago, traveling Puerto Rico by taxi – me, seasick and sleepy; mom, grabbing me by the scruff of the neck, saying, “Look! Look! We may never be here again!” True enough, I have never been to Puerto Rico again. I remember the Fortress and the Governor’s Mansion all lit up at night for Christmas. I remember the view of the ocean. But on car trips, I have never been accused of being “observant.” So when my mom and dad roused me, that day in God-only-knows-where-Florida, asking, “What do you think of this place?” I assumed they meant as a vaguely potential place to live.

Half-asleep, only one thought came into my head – one clear-as-a-bell, fairly panicky thought, which I blurted out loudly: “No! We can’t live here! All the people who live here are DEAD!” My dad looked surprised. Dumbfounded. My mom laughed. She laughed.

She didn’t explain, just asked me to look out the window and tell her my thoughts as we drove through town. My thoughts? The shady, tree-lined neighborhood was nice enough, but my initial impression never wavered. We weren’t exactly unwelcome, but we couldn’t live here. We couldn’t. It was crowded with dead people. As we reached Main Street, the sensation changed: “It feels like we’ve crossed into a place where time stands still. It’s like nothing ever changes.” And I noticed something very odd: almost every business in town had a sign like “Spiritual Advisor” out front. Homes, too. I wasn’t sure what it meant. We found the one my parents were looking for – they had an address – and we went inside. My mother went back to speak with someone – one of those “Spiritual Advisors” – and was gone close to an hour while my dad and I waited. He told me that I could get a reading after she came out, if I wanted to. We were in Cassadaga, Florida. And once I understood what that was, my initial impression made sense. Suddenly, it wasn’t so alarming. I understood why my mom laughed, and why my dad looked surprised. She’d never seen such things as odd, spooky, weird, occult, or nonsense. And neither did I, because I knew the stories.

When she was nine, she and her parents moved to Arecibo, Puerto Rico. She’d kept saying she couldn’t wait to get there and see “the little red shoe on the roof.” No one paid much attention, until they arrived in Puerto Rico, got to the house they were going to live in, and went around to the back. There, on the roof, was a child’s red shoe.

When I was a toddler, my mom’s parents were traveling overseas – now, this was before wifi and cell phones and inexpensive long distance calls – and my great-grandmother, my mom’s grandmother, had to be hospitalized. There was nothing my parents couldn’t handle, so they debated whether to spoil the trip by contacting my grandparents. Before they could call, my grandfather sent a telegram: “What’s wrong?” That’s it. Just “What’s wrong?”

Speaking of pricey long-distance calls, my mom and I used to “think up” my grandmother. She could better afford the charges. One could argue that the odds of her calling were high to begin with, but invariably, five minutes of focused “thinking her up” would result in a call.

There were more stories to come, and if asked, I’d say “telepathy” was no more than weak, but particularly tuned, waves similar to radio or TV. No “spookier” than satellite communications. You can train someone to suppress the ability more easily than you can train them to use it. You can suppress “the gift” yourself, if it’s alarming. But I don’t think it’s “supernatural” or “occult” or “spooky woo woo.” Frankly, I do not trust anyone who treats it like it is.

Anyway, when my mom returned, the man, who’s name I cannot now recall, called me back. He refused to give me a reading, but spoke to me for about 10-15 minutes. He told me that he wasn’t refusing due to anything bad he saw in my present or future; he simply could not, ethically, give me a reading. He would not go into more detail than that, but he did talk about my mother, telling me that if ever I needed guidance, I should turn to her. Later, my mom said he’d told her that she was “more psychic than he was” and that he’d seemed uncomfortable giving her a reading. I don’t doubt it.

Years later, I revisited Cassadaga. I wish I still had all the detailed notes of what the medium I talked to said, but I was careful not to give my name or a credit card before the reading. I did not make an appointment in advance. I’d parked down the street and it would have taken some serious sleuthing (someone with access to the DMV) to identify me. Facial recognition was not yet a thing – certainly not in Cassadaga in the early 2000s. I don’t remember the name of the man, now, but his first words to me were, “You’re a writer.” It wasn’t a question. Okay, I’d give him that – I nodded. “Why haven’t you written the book?” Um. Well. That was…different. True, too.  I didn’t know why. And I had been asked this before, and had written out – but not published – the answer. (Read “Putting the Cart Before the Horse.“) I smiled. “Write it,” he urged. “Maybe you should write about health.” Meh. Years later, I blogged about having breast cancer. But I prefer to write fiction and poetry. I have since published three children’s books: Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; and A New Leaf for Lyle, as well as a collection of short stories. I’ve also blogged, and contributed short stories and poetry to anthologies. I retired, two years ago, after a long career as a technical writer. You may even have one of my user’s guides on your shelf, somewhere, and will never know it.

No one ever said you had to do exactly as your psychic suggests.

We moved on. I’d hoped, perhaps, to hear something about – or from? – my mom, who died in 2002. I did not. But I got an earful about my grandmother! She was, according to him, “rearranging all the chairs in Heaven, entertaining, holding court, and telling everyone where to sit.” I laughed and laughed. Good Lord, that sounded so like her. She’d probably tell God, himself, where to sit. And thoroughly charmed, He’d go along with her. I heard about my supposed past life, wherein I’d been killed, he said, for speaking out on something – it was righteous and had to be said, but I’d died for it. I have no sense of this one, personally, but when I left to ask another psychic, there, about the one my mom had consulted years before, she informed me that the Spiritualist community’s rules, back in the 1970s, had prohibited them from discussing anything related to past lives, and that maybe he had sensed that and had nothing he could say to me without violating the rules. So there we have it – me exercising “free speech” throughout the centuries and suffering the consequences. (See also: Disagreement Stirs Negative Energy In Spiritualist Enclave)

She told me where to find the house; the man she thought we’d seen had died, but the house had passed on to a relative. I walked down to the address she gave me. The house looked abandoned, though she’d told me it was lived in. I won’t describe it in detail, but it was the only place I ever sensed malevolence in all of Cassadaga. I left quickly.

About 5 years later, I took my daughter on a haunted walking tour of New Orleans, when she was just a little older than I’d been on my first trip to Cassadaga. We did not see, or sense, any ghosts. Capturing “orbs” on cell phone cameras was very trendy, then, and we caught some dust motes and insects flitting in the street lights. Near midnight, we walked across Jackson Square, just the two of us, heading back to our hotel. There was one lone psychic sitting at a table in the square. We stopped to get a reading. I struggled not to laugh – I did smile at the woman – as she warned my daughter to beware her lead foot. She saw the possibility of an accident – not likely fatal – in the future. But it could be avoided through driving the speed limit. She told her to keep up with her well-woman visits, to watch her health. (I was tempted to give the woman a fist-bump under the table. It was all such lovely, common sense advice.) She asked if I’d like a reading.

“Sure, but I don’t believe in spooky woo-woo. I don’t doubt that some psychic ability exists, but I’m not interested in showmanship.”

She laughed. “Really hard to be all spooky woo-woo when your dad teaches you how to do this over cornflakes in the morning.”

I was skeptical, but she said nothing exceptional that would raise an eyebrow. She did ask where my husband and son were. They had not come up in conversation earlier, not with me nor with my daughter. Lucky guess? Possibly. Maybe she’d seen all four of us together, earlier in the day. I didn’t remember her, and I would have thought it hard for her to be so observant if we’d passed by with the crowd, earlier in the day. Like I said, no one’s ever accused me of being that observant. So while I learned nothing from her of any particular interest, and was glad she “advised” my teenaged daughter with what was simply good advice, I also sensed nothing of the charlatan in her. She only asked for donations and didn’t charge ridiculous fees. And I have run into those, in the past. As I said to someone, earlier, when you run into a psychic scammer, just RUN.

And never give your name.

Dynamic Dialogue

Dynamic Dialogue

The Gift of Gab

Dialogue is an important tool that every writer should strive to master. Good dialogue does the following:

  • It yanks the reader into the story, rather than keeping him at arm’s length, as a casual observer.
  • It gives valuable insight into each character – his socioeconomic and educational background, his mannerisms, his thought processes, his reactions to others, his attitude.
  • It provides clues about the time period and setting.
  • It helps keep you from getting bogged down in lengthy narration, provided you don’t let your speaker get bogged down in lengthy narration.

Good dialogue is dialogue that is essential to the story or to the readers’ understanding of the character. It always serves a purpose – either it moves the story forward towards its conclusion, or it illustrates an important facet of the speaker’s character. Good dialogue is not idle chit-chat.

Writing Believable Dialogue

Believable or natural dialogue is not the same as “real speech.” Listen to a group of people talking in a restaurant (yes, of course- eavesdrop!). Record them or attempt to faithfully jot down what’s said. Real, everyday speech is not very interesting to the casual observer, for the most part. It won’t be interesting to your readers, either. How many real conversations have you heard that are devoid of annoying little lack-of-forethought time fillers, like “well,” “you know,” “uh,” “um,” “like,” and so on? A well-placed “uh” or “um” can render dialogue more believable but use them very sparingly to avoid turning your dialogue into asleep aid.

Good dialogue should sound natural. One of the best ways to gauge this is to read it aloud, or ask a friend to read it aloud to you. Subvocalize, if you’re very shy. If your tripping over the words, or getting your tongue wrapped around your eyeteeth and can’t see what you’re saying, then it’s not natural.

Try to make dialogue match character. Consider the character’s socioeconomic status and background. A guttersnipe speaks differently than a college professor. Consider “My Fair Lady.” It would be easy to distinguish Henry Higgins from Eliza Doolittle, even if the same person read their lines. As Eliza learns, she is more careful and precise in her speech, even, than Higgins – because she is conscious of and cares about the perceptions of others. To her, it is not a game. He can afford to be casual in his speech, even though it is not truly in his nature to be; she cannot.

Use dropped terminal consonants (doin’, goin’, seein’, wanna, gimme, etc.), contractions (don’t, wouldn’t, didn’t, etc.), profanity and slang if the character would naturally use them. Pretend your mother and your Fifth Grade English teacher will never read your work. You can’t be a real writer and live in fear that someone will be shocked to learn that you know “those words.” Consider using profanity when it’s out of character to give dialogue “shock value.” For example, if the preacher’s wife runs across a dead body in her geranium bed, she’s not likely to say, “Oh, dear, it’s a corpse.” She might actually scream and yell a bad word. It’ll get the reader’s attention if you suddenly have a well-established character act out of character. That said, remember that profanity is the last resort of little minds, and use it sparingly – for deliberate effect.

Show – don’t tell! Make sure your characters understand this rule. Using dialogue to relate past events may tempt you to tell the story in between quotation marks. Don’t let one character simply narrate the whole story. Dialogue should give us insight into each character’s unique traits – it’s your opportunity, regardless of the point of view from which you’ve chosen to write, to give the reader a glimpse of the character’s thoughts and emotions. Use dialogue to show how characters respond to situations and react to one another.

A Few Quick Tips

  • Consider the character’s socioeconomic and educational background.
  • Give the character a distinctive “pet phrase” or set of commonly-used expressions (e.g., “Valley Girl” speech). Be careful not to exaggerate speech mannerisms to the point of annoying the reader; a little seasoning in the pot works better than dumping in a whole jar of spice.
  • Show, don’t tell! Avoid academic or wordy statements, unless they reflect a character trait.
  • Use contractions, dropped letters (goin’, doin’, etc.) slang, profanity, accents, etc. with deliberate intent.
  • Recognize when characters are likely to relate past events in present tense.

AVOID:

  • Unnecessary repetition of a phrase or idea.
  • Small talk that doesn’t illustrate character OR move the story forward.
  • Having one character address another by name (they know to whom they are talking; it should be clear enough to your reader in context and by other means)
  • Wordy, academic, stiff, stilted phrases rolling off your characters’ tongues, unless it’s a character trait.

Notes on Formatting Dialogue

  • Dialogue starts and ends with quotation marks: ” and “
  • If one speaker’s lines extend beyond one paragraph, each paragraph of dialogue opens with opening quotation marks (“); the last paragraph ends with closing quotation marks (“).
  • Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks: “And so,” explained Liz, “that’s why I killed him.”
  • When one speaker is quoting another, the quotation is enclosed in single quotation marks: ‘ and ‘ For example: “I told him Liz said ‘Eat more oatmeal.'”

Challenge Yourself!

Try writing a story using nothing but dialogue between two or more characters. Don’t include any dialogue tags (“he said,” “she cried,” etc.). See if you can convey all the elements of a good story, including distinct and interesting characters, through dialogue alone.

Sara’s Lair

Sara’s Lair

Sara stretched, arching backwards until she heard vertebrae pop, but careful not to tip her desk chair backwards far enough to fall on the stone floor. She stood, touched her toes and did several side-bends. She studied her laptop screen, contemplating her next move. She was no Chess Master, but playing Chess with her friend Andrej helped her to clear her mind and practice her strategic thinking. It relaxed her.

 

Sara paced the small room she jokingly called her “lair.” She had inherited the odd cave dwelling from her parents, Sonya and Jacob Heller, a couple of eccentric teachers who’d “gone off the grid” some twenty years ago. They had bought a small island – a tiny, unpopulated part of the Canaries and technically ruled by Spain – and built a home carved into the side of an extinct volcano. Secluded, secret, and cold, this is where Sonya and Jacob had raised and homeschooled Sara and her brothers. All power was provided by wind and solar arrays installed by Jacob. He taught Sara, Todd, and Josh basic concepts – physics, structural and electrical engineering, agriculture, and computer science. They bought a boat, having discovered that their shipbuilding skills were lacking and not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to their presence on the island by bringing in experts to teach them. That’s how they got supplies they couldn’t grow or build from the island’s native resources.

One of their textbooks was The Anarchist’s Cookbook, by William Powell. Sara never had any interest in explosives; she was a klutz, convinced she’d blow her own hands and face off. But other sections of the book intrigued her. Her mother, Sonya, had caught her trying to bake and powder banana peels in a lame attempt to slip her brother Todd a low-effort hallucinogen, revenge for his trying to convince her a moldy peanut would get her high and make her see God. It hadn’t. But for six weeks, Todd and Josh had tormented her by humming “Found a Peanut, Found a Peanut…” every time she walked into a room, which triggered a bout of dry heaves at the memory.

The boys, naturally, liked making things that go “boom!” and they helped their dad build several rooms onto their mountain cave dwelling. Sara thought, once, that her family must be the envy of bats everywhere. She called Josh “Batman.”

“You think I’m Robin?” asked Todd. He was older than Josh, and wanted to be Batman.

“No. I’m Robin,” said Sara. You’re–” Sara’s mouth twisted with the intensity of thought and impish amusement.

“Say ‘Alfred’ and you’re dead,” warned Todd.

“I was going to say The Joker,” said Sara, dodging a wrench lobbed by her big brother. Josh snickered. Todd, as The Joker. The kid had no sense of humor, which only made it twice as funny. And maybe twice as dangerous.

Josh and Todd had gone off-island to college, where they got caught trying to steal enriched uranium to build a small nuclear reactor in a storage closet. Josh had cut a deal with the government that sent Todd, Sonya, and Jacob to jail for a very long time. As it turned out, Sonya and Jacob had other intentions for that uranium, and had tried to use Josh’s science project as a cover. He had warned Sara just in time for her to move into their “safe house.” The safe house was not a secret – it was a decoy. It was the ordinary little ramshackle house near the windswept beach, far below the cliff house, that they’d designed and built to be raided, should that day come.

And right on cue, it came. Sara was tending her little garden of tomatoes and feeding her chickens, collecting eggs. She had even dressed the part, wearing a colorful skirt and matching kerchief, a loose peasant blouse, and hemp sandals. She feigned convincing ignorance. A small twitch at the corner of her mouth, as Agent Hawkins inspected her ankles and searched her eyes for “tells,” might have belied “innocence.”

Internet was provided by a satellite that Sara had quietly hacked into when she was seventeen. It could be turned on or cut with the flick of a switch, and Sara flicked that switch as soon as she received the message from Josh. Interpol could not believe a young woman had been living alone on the island all her life, but they had no evidence (and spotty phone connections, themselves) to prove otherwise and apparently, no stamina for mountain climbing and caving.

Ten years later, no one had noticed the satellite breach. Maybe they had noticed but hadn’t cared. That seemed unlikely, but Sara never assumed she was that good. Instead, she assumed that multiple government organizations knew and lay in wait for her to make a mistake, to break other rules, to be a thorn worth plucking from their side. Until then, she’d done nothing worse than stealing the neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal, albeit through a homemade satellite dish. She was Batman’s Robin, not the Evil Villain.

Sara earned a decent income designing Internet security curriculum to help teachers who barely knew a Trojan hijack from a Durex condom. The worst thing she’d done was write original essays for lazy-ass, cheating students, for money. She didn’t envy Batman, who languished on the mainland under the watchful eye of Spanish authorities, lest he have his own plans to follow in the family footsteps – but having cast herself in the role of Robin, she felt obligated to notify those several schools—anonymously, of course—that some of the work earning straight A’s might not be the students’ own. It would be easy enough to determine whether the writing was their own, using a short, in-class test. “Just have them write a story. Ten paragraphs is enough, I think. Run it through SLSoftware’s ‘Writing Sherlock’ program, and it will return a probability score telling you whether they wrote their own essay.”

Meanwhile, Sara’s Lair Software (known to the world as SLSoftware) sold the application for a pretty penny. She didn’t lose sleep over training her own algorithms using the unethical students’ own emails as they pleaded with her to swear confidentiality. Sara could honestly promise them that she would never tell anyone their secrets.

She didn’t miss The Joker, much; she missed her parents even less. But some days, Sara missed The Batman. Josh didn’t dare risk exposing her or their “lair.” For now, she would have to make do with “Andrej.” Sara returned to her laptop and typed:

“Check.”


Short story brought to you by Creative Copy Challenge # 655 | Writing Prompts – Creative Copy Challenge (wordpress.com) and the words: Curriculum, Help, Teach, Study, Write, Paragraph, Essay, Short, Story, and Test and Fiction Monday Ninety-first Edition ~ Reflections ~ Vinitha Dileep with the prompt: “Secret.” (There is also a lovely photo prompt on Vinitha’s blog. If I didn’t think “that’s no place to grow old,” it reminds me of my longing to live in an elegant cave dwelling, high above the sea. As my husband and I drove around the Canary Islands, last summer, I would point to the volcanic cliffs, saying, “There, that one – that’s got an incredible view. Let’s make our cave home there.” Well, we’d need an elevator or Amazon drone delivery of food, but that’s the only flaw in my plan.)

In the Blink of an Eye

In the Blink of an Eye

“It can all change in the blink of an eye.” Marianne sighed, waving around the quaint little village square at the new shops. Global brand names, like Kettle & Crock, or La Belle Epoque, carrying Chinese-made goods, had begun to elbow out the colorful little local merchants and their local crafts, giving the landlord more than they’d asked for in rents.

“That’s progress, Marianne. Everything changes, in time.” Alex had an eye on one of the lots overlooking the sea, and grand designs of his own to build a boutique hotel with breathtaking views on all sides. Marianne had her misgivings; the new hotel would block a lovely view of the cliffs from the ancient cottages across the street. Surely the community would not be so welcoming as the overseas landowners and their agents.

“I suppose so,” she answered, trying ineffectually to hide her doubts.

A woman, made of wind-weathered marble and brass, stood in the center of the square, silently willing Marianne to speak, for she could not. Her name, forgotten a thousand years ago, was Rhodos. She knew well how quickly things could change; she had seen nations come and go. As long as she had the sun on her face and the stars to gaze upon at night, she was content to serve as a sort of sundial for the little town. But the buildings men spoke of where they thought she could not hear them would tower over her like Colossus, blotting out the light, robbing her of the stars, making of themselves the only thing her eyes could drink in. She would not have it. She would will herself to crumble and fall away to dust and rust, as only stone and brass could do.

The one thing she could not do, the one thing she longed to do, was to effect change of her own. She had tried that, once; now, her lips were sealed. Her tongue, immobile. Oh, yes! It could all change in the blink of an eye. But Rhodos, Poseidon’s daughter, frozen in marble and brass, was cursed with an inability to blink.


This story is brought to you by Fiction Monday Ninetieth Edition ~ Reflections ~ Vinitha Dileep and the word, “blink.”