2016 Short Story Award
The Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC (BWG), founded in 2006, is a community of mutually-supportive, fiction and nonfiction authors based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The members are as different from each other as their stories, spanning a range of genres including: children’s, fantasy, humor, inspiration, literary, memoir, mystery, paranormal, romance, science fiction, women’s fiction, and young adult.
Congratulations to our
2016 Short Story Award Winner
ELEANOR INGBRETSON, PIKE, NEW HAMPSHIRE
“STICK TO THE BYPATHINGS”
This is true. I did win. I’m still in a bit of shock, but good shock.
My story is pure fiction; a fantasy about a little boy who may or may not have abilities far superior to the abilities of others around him. It all depends on your outlook.
Shakespeare, Job, and Voltaire, among others, were convinced that there is so much more, here, in this world, that transcends what we mere mortals can perceive, believe or imagine.
We have to look beyond what we can see, aim to have a wilder imagination and a broader faith. We need to access that so-much-ness, and sink into it with our writing teeth (should I mention that J. Ff. already has a lot of that on his plate?).
I do want to thank the members of my writing group, some of whom blog here with me: Mike, John, Linda, Mike, Karen and Heidi. They are, as Lewis Carroll might say, a much of a muchness. And who could ask for anything more from one’s critique partners? Without them I’m sure the sum total of my writing would still be my ubiquitous shopping lists. And if I never succeed again, they will still be a much of a muchness.
The Bethlehem Writers Group’s anthology, ONCE UPON A TIME: SWEET, FUNNY, AND STRANGE TALES FOR ALL AGES, will be coming out the end of October. Yes, I’m anxious to see it, but I’ll never mention this again, in this blog, lest my head begin to swell.
On the advice of Umberto Eco (in Reflections on The Name of the Rose), I’ve just decided to give more weight in my novel to its setting. Thinking it over, I realized that one way to do this is to include a new, non-human character: the plucky little newspaper that serves my fictional town of Oxbow, New Hampshire. I dredged from my files the clippings I’ve accumulated from our real local paper, the illustrious Valley News of Lebanon, NH, mainstay of the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River. The News is living proof that rural life provides all the opportunity you need to spread yourself out in life, to let anything happen. Up here, it eventually will.
Exhibit A, from the Valley News “Local Briefs” section:
NAKED PEDESTRIAN STROLLS THROUGH BURLINGTON [VERMONT]
A naked pedestrian strolling through Burlington this week has caused quite a stir.
The man was first spotted Tuesday walking through the city’s Church Street Marketplace completely nude, with exception of sneakers and a bandana on his head.
Bystanders say they were amazed to see him walk around the busy shopping and dining district.
Burlington Police Lt. Paul Glynn said that while the man’s nakedness is “inappropriate,” it’s not necessarily illegal as long as he left home naked and isn’t disrobing the public [sic] or harassing people.
The man turned down a request by WCAX-TV for an interview.
I love the first sentence. It could only have been written by an experienced small-town reporter. You can’t imagine it appearing in the New York Times. I like to picture the interviews of the bystanders: “How did you feel when you saw the man?” “Well, amazed, I guess. I was just amazed.” Reporter writes down, “Witness amazed.”
The typo is nice, too. And the sun protection of the bandana directs one’s thoughts to all the possibilities of sunburn.
Best of all are the scrupulous liberties of the People’s Republic of Vermont. (We Granite-staters don’t always see eye-to-eye with the Vermonters just across the river.) Vermont law says that you may not take your clothes off in public. But that’s all the law says. So…. What would constitute harassment in this case? Touching is out, obviously, but what about, “Look at this”? If you only said it once? Only once to each person? Panhandling in a non-harassing manner is allowed. If you didn’t even ask for cash, just for one moment of human attention before you moved on, who could object to that? He didn’t want to appear on TV, so it’s clear he isn’t an exhibitionist. Not in Vermont, anyway.
Local TV covered the story, too, if you’re feeling voyeur-ish.
Last February 5, “Local Briefs” reported a near-tragedy. Here are the essentials. (Unhappily, the Valley News website doesn’t include the paper’s archives, so I can’t send you to the original articles.)
Fire officials say a heat lamp used for chickens caused a fire that gutted a small barn. All of the chickens escaped unharmed.
These would not be generic chickens. Here in the Upper Valley, we like to buy our eggs from our neighbors, and we know the chickens almost as well as we do the neighbors’ dogs. Miss Bossy, for instance, is a Rhode Island Red who lives out in Orfordville. I heard about her from
the lady at the feed store, who is her owner (though Miss B. might not agree about that.) Miss Bossy is the smallest of her tiny flock, which she rules with an iron claw. Her fellow Rhode Island Red is named Thelma. The two Buff Orpingtons don’t have names – I guess compared to Miss Bossy and Thelma, they’re such wimps they’re hardly there at all. You can see why, when fire threatens a barn up here, the Valley News knows what’s important. All the chickens got out.
The paper does a good job of selecting and condensing national and world news stories for its “World and Nation” page (two pages, max.) We get several serious items a day from the top news bureaus plus a small feature summing up lesser stories in a few sentences. Sometimes, on a slow news day, the editor favors us with oddities that just struck his fancy. E.g.:
Meerkat Expert Cleared of Assault in Zoo Love Triangle
London, AP. A former meerkat expert at London Zoo was cleared Tuesday of assaulting a monkey handler in a love spat over a llama-keeper….
Or, if your favorite sin is anger rather than lust:
West Palm Beach, FL. Joshua James, 24, is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon …after throwing an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window.
The point to notice about these stories is their datelines. London, West Palm Beach, what can you expect? If they weren’t already crazy, they’d live here. The news(wo)man’s inverse-square law states, “The farther from home, the weirder.” James got off with nothing worse than probation.
Local papers set the tone, but all our media report scrupulously on what matters to, or reliably annoys, people like us. War and pestilence were raging around the globe, as always, when the public radio station gave us this bulletin:
A tractor-trailer full of cheese caught fire on the interstate. The driver escaped, and was able to detach the truck from the trailer, but the trailer and its contents were destroyed.
Use all the senses, the writing mavens tell us. Think how grounded, how riveted, your reader would be if you could convey to her the sight and smell of 17 tons of smashed and smoking cheese! Consider the plight of the cars immediately following. The report didn’t say, but if it was Velveeta, it would qualify for HazMat treatment. And if, like me, you write mysteries, who set that fire?
I have to confess–I did it. I murdered someone. It was a first time for me but probably not the last. I’ve been advised to say no more.
My sister-in-law (also an aspiring writer yet definitely not someone you associate with murder) here visiting from Florida by way of Pennsylvania was a most eager accomplice. While snapping green beans and sipping wine, we planned the murder. Over dinner, she would interrupt the flow of conversation with “what if…”. Certainly not appropriate conversation for a dinner party but totally acceptable among family members.
You’ve no doubt figured out that I am writing a murder mystery and the person I killed is a fictional character in the novel, whose identity I am not at liberty to reveal.
The outline for this murder mystery is supposed to be my submission for this week’s writing group. I’ve been working on it what feels like every free minute I have (which haven’t been many lately). The outline has been inching and crawling toward the murder; at times I have felt as though I am writing away from the murder instead of toward it.
Thus the decision to jump right to the outline of the murder and skip the remainder of the forty-nine unwritten pages leading up to it. (Murders should happen by page fifty, I am told.) I am certain John, our fearless leader, has instructed me or someone else in the group (we all start to blend together after nearly seven years) to do just that. I am beginning to see the logic in it. Now that I have the murder, or at least the first version of the murder, committed to paper, I can return to the beginning and force the actions of the characters to keep the reader guessing who the murderer is. Reminds me of solving quadratic equations. Creatively.
How do I even dare to refer to myself as a writer when I am still figuring out what genre is calling my name? Six years ago I started in my writing group assuming that I’d write contemporary fiction, or chick lit as the worst case scenario, and when I got really good I’d advance to literary fiction. I needed a writing project so I took the easiest route and continued where I had started over twenty years earlier with my novel, “Anne” (genre to be determined). I was able to produce about 140 pages of a draft so rough you could rip the skin off your fingers just turning the pages.
After reading and critiquing the murder mysteries/cozies created by fellow group members, I decided to write murder mysteries, of which I have accumulated a number of first drafts, partial drafts, and rough outlines. I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t just fallen under the influence of those members who love to write murder mysteries/cozies and are pretty darn good at it. They get excited over how much of a drug it will take to kill a character and whether his weight and how much he just ate should be manipulated to make it work within the allotted time frame.
Am I that same writer? It’s not looking that way.
What my characters are thinking about is more to my liking. My approach in real life (there is such a thing and it’s always getting in the way of my writing time) is to analyze why people around me do what they do. Or don’t do. Psychological thrillers, maybe?
This week at the first writing group meeting I attended in weeks I floated the idea of writing historical fiction. It’s the genre I currently gravitate to for reading pleasure, particularly World War II and the Revolutionary War novels. (I did mention in an earlier post that I was Betsy Ross in a previous life, right?) I already have a setting for my first attempt at this genre!
Historical fiction requires research and getting the details correct while you’re making up some of the characters, dialogue, and events. Epiphany: that’s control. And I like being in control. Duh. That’s what writing fiction is all about: creating and manipulating characters and action any way your heart desires. And any fiction genre lets you do that. Except with historical fiction you take control of events that have actually taken place. That’s power.
Meanwhile, I’ve committed to submitting an outline of the murder mystery I’ve started recently, “Patsy’s Posse”. Why? To prove I can complete an outline. To give a murder mystery one more try before I move on. (To what?) Also, I’m attending the New England Crime Bake 2016 in November so I might as well hang in there with murder mysteries until then. I signed up for the Agent & Editor roundtable and I need to produce a decent first page of a manuscript. Let’s hope I can get that far in three months.
It’s hard enough to claw back time from the demands of life and fiction writing to write a blog post. Why, then, double the time with a search through Google images to illustrate my points? Because that’s where so much of the fun lies. Visual puns, quirky interpretations or just the weirdities that pop up on the web can add a zing that keeps the casual reader going. So today, in fraternal and sororal solidarity, I offer up one of my best sources of free images.
The British Library’s Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts blog reproduces illuminations from the manuscripts in their collection. When I contacted them, they said I might reproduce the images in my blog as long as I credited the Library and gave their citation to the manuscript. Hence this monkey-centaur, with which I illustrated the concept of an evil deed.
What could be worse than sawing a book in half? Who but a monster would do it?
The blog itself is a welcome break from the slog through my inbox. Every few days one of the BL’s experts discourses on a gorgeously illustrated manuscript, on several manuscripts on a single theme, on a type of illustration (the marginalia are the
most fun) or on whatever else strikes their fancy. The Library is digitizing its collections as fast as ever it can, and newly digitized manuscripts are frequent subjects of the blog. An international cadre of enthusiasts seem to spend their time crawling through the collection online, and sometimes they find delights that the staff haven’t had time to appreciate. This hapless duck was tweeted out by one Erik Kwakkel of Leiden, who got credit in the BL’s caption. He must have been researching his genealogy.
Medieval monks laboring in the scriptorium frequently found their minds directed to the world, the flesh and the devil. Sometimes these showed up in decorous and improving forms. Sometimes not.
Here we have the punishment of gluttony from a manuscript of Dante’s Inferno. In classical mythology Cerberus was a three-headed dog who guarded the gates of Hades; here he is a three-headed devil who eats those who eat too much. Be warned.
Progress has made prudes of us. Here we have a nun wagging a monitory finger at a grotesque who is clearly attacking her. According to the BL manuscripts blog, later owners of such manuscripts often defaced scandalous images in the margins as disrespectful to the pious subject matter.
And here is the editorial comment of some envious monastic on the lovers in the main image:
Readers of the blog get to play with the toys, too. Contests are held for the best caption for various images. The one just above was submitted in a contest to find images illustrating the names of London subway stops. That one was for “Arsenal.”
If you’d like some sympathy in your writing woes, check out The Burden of Writing: Scribes in Medieval Manuscripts.
Every April 1, a spoof post appears. In one, the digital whizzes at the British Library had introduced flying saucers into the illuminations. Another announced the discovery of an ancient cookbook with recipes for unicorn.
I know you get too much email already, but I really recommend following this blog. You’ll find images you can use, and you’ll enjoy yourself, too.
In Memoriam: The Pike Library Association
Small town libraries are closing. Even after cutting hours because of lack of funds some still can’t find a way to stay open. A few people complain, but the fact is that so many more people couldn’t care less if one of the pillars of society fails.
But it’s not the fault of the libraries. They aren’t the failures. Society is failing. Demographics are changing and interests are devolving.
Not to get into it too deeply, but if you are aware that your small local library has closed, you’re probably not the problem. The problem is that, seemingly, the majority of the population doesn’t read anymore
My own little, tiny, library in Pike, New Hampshire (a little, tiny town), that I’d been proud to be on the board of for more than twenty years, has just closed its doors. It did get by on the donation the town made to it, and to the three other libraries in Haverhill, NH, but just barely. It kept up-to-date books that its dwindling number of patrons liked to read, it had the best collection of children’s classics in town, and it was friendly. But it was doomed.
One hundred years ago Pike was a bustling, small town. Its whetstone factory was the largest in the world, producing sharpening stones for all sorts of purposes. The sharpening stone that my father, an engraver, used way back when, was probably a Pike sharpening stone.
Newspaper articles from the turn of the (previous) century said that the whetstone company employed over 100 people in downtown Pike, and more outside of town. Another article described Pike as:
“a little village of more than 500 inhabitants. There is a fine department store, whetstone mill, sawmill, box factory, wheelwright and blacksmith shop, grist mill, hotel, livery stable, a good hall and schoolhouse. The village has long distance telephone, telegraph, and six (!!!) mails a day.”
Pike had everything a small town should have, and then, just to put the icing on the cake, it got a library.
Over the years, things happened to this former bustling village. Artificial abrasives were invented which changed the course of the whetstone factory. Less customers meant unemployment for its workers, which led to an exodus of the former employees and their families. Schools closed. The auxilary mills folded or moved away. Obviously there was no need for a livery stable or blacksmith any more, and those workers and their families moved on.
Yesterday, literally, all that was left of the town proper were the library, the post office, and the ruins of the whetstone factory. Today it’s just the post office, the ruins and an empty building.
The Pike library starved to death. Or maybe, like Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s, The Metamorphosis, it died of a broken heart. Take your pick, both are equally miserable endings.
Kafka’s, The Metamorphosis, can be found at most libraries.
(my thanks to Robert Fillion and his publication ‘Early Pike and Whetstone Works,’ 1994, Woodsville, NH, for the excerpts of newspaper articles, circa 1900.)
As I reported in my previous post, while visiting my mother in the hospital we watched the HGTV channel. On mute. Closed caption. For days on end. That’s when I realized that hardly anyone says “going to” anymore. Nope. It’s morphed into gonna. “You’re gonna love it.” “I’m gonna do my best to get you to stay.”
Reading “gonna…gonna…gonna” on the television screen grated on my nerves, especially as it was predominantly said by the hosts of the program and not the regular Jane and Joe Schmoe’s (like me) who were having their homes redecorated (unlike me). Possibly the hosts should be required to take diction lessons.
This is an example of “pronunciation spelling,” defined in the dictionary app on my phone as: a spelling intended to match a certain pronunciation more closely than the traditional spelling does, as gonna for going to, kinda for kind of (meaning “rather”), git for get, or lite for light. (Do not confuse this with “spelling pronunciation,” in which, according to Wikipedia, a word is pronounced “according to its spelling, at odds with standard or traditional pronunciation.”)
And then there is “eye dialect,” the definition taken again from my phone app: the literary use of misspellings that are intended to convey a speaker’s lack of education or use of humorously dialectal pronunciations but that are actually no more than respellings of standard pronunciations, as wimmin for “women,” wuz for “was,” and peepul for people.
As a writer, when writing dialogue I’ve faced the dilemma of writing it as the character would say it (New England Yankee, for example) or as they should say it. As a reader, I find it annoying to read a constant stream of dialect. (I won’t bore you with the definition of dialect.) I am satisfied if it is used sparingly as a reminder that the character is Southern, for instance, or if it is used consistently when the character is introduced and then switched to normal speech. In that instance, I will remember that the character has a specific speech pattern.
This is not to say that my speech is perfect. Far from it. When I travel abroad this summer I wonder if my own use of “gonna” and “kinda” and the absence of a “g” on the end of my gerunds and present participles will cause confusion on the part of the Europeans who have been educated in proper English–and probably use it.
My fellow oldsters talk a lot these days about how scary Google is. Sometimes the scary thing is called “The Cloud” or just “They”. What’s worrying my buddies is the idea that somebody out there, Mr. Google for choice, is amassing information on them from their computers, secret stuff, that will be used to sell them things, and soon after that, to mess directly with their minds. These conversations usually end with firm resolutions, if not oaths, that they never have and never will purchase anything except on the most rational principles of usefulness.
I got a little antsy about Mr. Google myself, before my grandson put an ad blocker on my computer. I’d been looking online for a dress to wear to a family graduation. Didn’t find one. But for weeks afterward, every dress I’d clicked on kept popping up on every site I went to.
Featured! Sale! Today Only! It wasn’t that I minded having Them know that I’d considered that dress. I minded having Them think I’d buy anything if they waved it under my nose enough times.
The ad blocker solved that problem. Lately, though, I’ve been taking note of what my digital friends try to make me buy on their own sites. I thought Mr. Amazon liked me, because I buy so many books from him. So many, in fact, that I never even glanced at his recommendations – I didn’t have space on my shelves for what I was buying anyway. Then one day I just happened to look down….
Do I sound to you like a person for whom the ideal book would be Horton Hears A Who?
That was Mr. Amazon’s #1 pick for me. Besides, I’ve already read it. Many times. Out loud. To myself.
All right, all right, that doesn’t make my case, does it? Then consider the #2 choice: the Bible. Could be a compliment, could be an insult. I opted for the second interpretation when I noticed that the #5 recommendation was also the Bible.
I do buy cozy mysteries. I like Miss Marple a lot, anything by Ngaio Marsh even better and Dorothy L. Sayers best. Amazon entered my purchases into its complex algorithms, turned the crank and out popped John Grisham’s A Time to Kill.
That was the only mystery suggested, except for The Likeness by Tana French, which I had already bought from Amazon.
After that came The Scarlet Letter. So I was right about why they put in the Bible.
YouTube must be using the same algorithms. Long ago, I worked for investment management firms as an economist, and I still keep up on the subject. Mr. Google knows that I have a bookmark to a site that gives stock market quotations. He must have told Mr. YouTube. I’ve been known to buy books on the subject online, too. Mr. Amazon is in the loop. So what is my first recommended video on YouTube?
At this point, I began to form algorithms of my own. Take two or three books on the economy, add two or three or four dozen on fantasy worlds, elves and so forth, divide by The Companion to The Name of the Rose, and you get irrefutable proof that the Illuminati were behind one side of the Brexit vote and the Freemasons behind the other. I didn’t watch the video just because I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. But it does worry me. Not that YouTube has my number, but that there’s somebody out there who made that video.
In fact, I have occasionally searched for clips on YouTube, so Mr. YouTube was able to take his own notes. For instance, I’m working on a book that has pet ferrets in it. I clicked on videos of ferret owners showing off their weasly little companions. I admit that I even clicked on one that had “cute” in the title. Naturally, YouTube now always recommends ferret videos. In the last lot, they saw fit to include:
You can see the connection to ferrets, can’t you?
“Cute” earned me a flood of links to animals claiming that distinction. It also got me:
I didn’t watch that one, either.
So you tell me: have the Illuminati of the Internet got my number yet? I figure I’ll be long dead before the Exalted Grand Masters can sell me so much as a peanut.
Readers: what are the computer geniuses flogging to you these days?
IT’S FOOT STUBBING TIME!
I’ve discovered the biggest boon to writers ever. A broken toe!
What’s the most difficult thing that writer’s face? It’s their own procrastination, I’m sure. Listen to ourselves: “Oh, I should sit down and write, oh, yes, I’ll sit right down and write after I scrub the bathroom, I’ll sit down and write after I make this call, I’ll sit down and write when the timer goes off, when the sun goes down, when the moon comes up.”
When hell freezes over could be more likely if procrastination has taken hold. I’ve spent whole days away from writing, doing anything else I could think of.
But, what if ones toe becomes broken (not on purpose, mind you, but because of an accident or even stupidity), and one is forced to sit down? (It doesn’t necessarily have to be through stupidity, I’m only writing from my own experience.) One does have to sit down a lot when something like that happens.
Of course there are many things you can do sitting down, you don’t have to write. You can read. Ah, but if you read. What happens then? When I’m reading a book that I genuinely enjoy, one that speaks to my genre, and has characters I can identify with, I drift away into an inward looking mode. The creative juices flow and the muses are tap, tap, tapping. I’m visiting my story, my plot and my characters in my mind. The book falls by the way/chairside, and I head over to my laptop. Now, of necessity, I must grab something nearby, hoist myself up and hobble off to my laptop, but the result is the same. Once seated I can get into the nitty-gritty of the problem that had banished me to procrastinationhood.
There was a sticky area in my cozy under revision (before I ran my flip-flopped bare toe into the wheel of the grocery cart), one that had driven me into a an outwardly delightful, but inwardly frustrating procrastination of several days duration. But because of the broken phalange I’ve been sitting more and reading more. I’ve been led into daydreams and back into a groove. I’ve beaten the inertia.
But, aren’t there less painful ways to achieve that desire to sit down and write?
Look on the bright side, oh ye of broken toe, six to eight weeks is a lot of revision and reading time.
My mother has been in the ICU for eleven days now following heart surgery. I’ve visited her every day; sitting in a hospital room watching a muted television stuck on the HGTV channel has not inspired me to write fiction. Reading–I have done a fair amount of that. Of squiggly lines and numbers, not words, a constant stream of changing numbers that I struggle to interpret.
The writing I’ve produced has been non-fiction, texts updating my family on my mother’s condition and progress, answering questions, explaining things that I don’t understand in a reassuring way that won’t set off any alarms. I try to wring the emotion out of my electronic updates using simple words and, often, emoji. (A picture is worth a thousand words, and I love my emoji.)
I don’t report when my mother moans, talks in her sleep, or the look on her face when she is awake and uncomfortable, tired, depressed, discouraged. A moan from my mother is more revealing than when she verbalizes that she is uncomfortable. A moan is just one sound yet I know immediately that there’s a problem. I don’t include that in my family updates, other than to report the extent of her pain, but as a fiction writer the opposite is true. I must convey pain through “showing not telling”.
I would like to work on that in my fiction writing: increase showing and decrease telling. Instead of saying “I’m tired of the drive to the hospital,” I could say “I feel like putting my head down on the steering wheel and going to sleep.” (If my daughters read that, I imagine I will generate a flurry of texts among them concerned about my well-being.) My intent is to convey weariness not tiredness. As a writer, my job is to insure that my writing is interpreted correctly—whether by my daughters or my readers.
I aim for clarity and brevity in my writing. Yet fiction writing is improved through the use of metaphors, similes, analogies, and emotion. In the above example, I would use “weary” in my family text, if at all, but in my fiction writing I would incorporate the steering wheel.
Writers glean writing material from every experience, whether through an overheard conversation between two nurses in the ICU or observing a frustrated woman help her elderly mother navigate the security line at an airport. Most of us can’t resist recording these tidbits so we can refer to them when needed. Some writers carry tiny notebooks. I prefer to record them in my phone. It’s always with me and less conspicuous. Who knows? I could be typing a text response to my daughters: “No, I am not suicidal.”