The Writing Wombat

An American Marsupial in Fiction Land

Month: November, 2014

One Day of Gratitude

I’m taking a step back from both my novel and my usual observational brilliance to think a little about Thanksgiving. It’s the Holiday that used to fall halfway between Halloween and Christmas but is now just a one-day break from Christmas season. I don’t do the stupid “30 Days of Thankful” crap that some do on Facebook or Twitter or MySpace or whatever the hip youngsters are doing these days. Hey, my spellcheck accepts Facebook, but not MySpace. Take that, random student-who-argued-with-me-about-which-one-had-more-long-term-viability!

So, without trying to be too shmoopy, here are some things that I am thankful for.

I’ll start with a non-emotional one. I’m thankful for NaNoWriMo, and I’m also thankful that it’s almost over. I won’t win. I’m currently just past 20,000 words. My new goal is to hit 30,000 by Sunday. So I’m thankful that there is something that encourages me to sit down and write 30,000 words in a month. I’m also thankful that, a week from today, 30,000 words in a month won’t seem like a failure. More on that next week, when I’m planning a NaNoWriMo postmortem.

Now the more serious stuff. I’m thankful for my daughter. Kids annoy me, but I knew it would be different when I had my own. I have two nieces, who are both in their late teens now, and I thought they were adorable as babies and toddlers. But my appreciation of my nieces was nothing compared to the last six months. I am fascinated by little things, like how intently she concentrates to pass a toy from one hand to the other.  I’m sure it helps that she’s very well adjusted. She isn’t colicky or teething (yet) and pretty much only cries when there’s something legitimately wrong, like she’s hungry. I’d like to take responsibility for that, but I know better. Her current noise du jour is raspberries (aka fart noises) with her mouth. Constantly. And it’s constantly entertaining.

I also have always been annoyed by parents talking or posting about their child doing something that every other child in existence has done as if it’s some novelty. Look, my baby learned how to roll over, he’s halfway to Mensa! Or I taught my child to hold her own bottle! Next I’m going to teach the cat to crap in a box! So I’ve tried to be pretty low-key on describing things she does that are unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. But indulge me for a Thanksgiving blog entry. Often, when she locks eyes and smiles, she then starts a silent laugh, complete with the bunched up shoulders. Then she looks away, but then turns back. She’s basically giggling and flirting. That’s what I’m usually looking forward to as I drive home from work. She’s now maintaining eye contact while smiling more often, but I still get the little coquet from time to time.

I’m also thankful for health. Not mine, but my wife’s and child’s. I mean, I assume it would suck if I lost my health, but it hasn’t really been an issue lately. My wife, on the other hand, has been through the wringer.  At this point, she’s been out of the hospital for almost two months, and let’s hope it continues. She currently has a stint in one of her ducts, so they’ll need to remove that in December, but it is an allegedly outpatient procedure. Having her upright, and able to work, and able to hold the baby, is definitely something to be thankful for, and something that I might never have even realized the importance of in previous Novembers.

My daughter has also been the picture of health, one urinary tract infection aside. I was recently watching videos of deaf babies getting cochlear implants. It was phenomenal seeing their eyes widen as they heard for the first time. One parent said it was the first time he had smiled (although he was seven weeks old, which is around the time most smile for the first time anyway – see two paragraphs above). Seeing the frustration that the babies and the parents were going through made me realize how fortunate I am that everything works on my baby. Trying to figure out what your baby wants or needs is  frustrating and all-encompassing under the best of conditions. If she could not respond to a sound or a sight, I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would be.

Speaking of videos, I have not watched the video that went viral a week ago showing a man singing “Blackbird” to his dying baby after he had just lost his wife. People were posting it with tags like “inspiring” and “heart-warming.” Really? Heart-wrenching, maybe, but not heart-warming. Look, I understand that the man exhibits a level of perseverance that I could never approach. If I lost either my wife or my baby, much less both, I’d be in a fetal position in the corner. I would not be testing whether I remember the lyrics to a Beatles song (“Everybody’s got something to hide except for me and my… crap, orangutan?”). But seriously, people, there is nothing on this Earth that makes me want to witness a man going through something that horrible. In fact, I would have rather never known that even happened. So I’m not thankful for all you bastards that posted it. But now that I know it happened, I guess that’s one more thing to be thankful for. And another reason to go hug my wife and daughter.

I’ll end by giving you all something to be thankful for – a short post from the writing wombat.

Now go spend some time being thankful. And gluttonous.

Before and After

Still behind on word count. Still cheating. Although not really, this was the plan all along. The blog plan, not the behind on my 50,000 word plan.

Last week I posted the flash fiction that my current work-in-progress is based on.

Now I will post what that scene looks like in its current form. Bear in mind this has not been edited or even looked at. SO chances are there are misspelled words and I’m sure I repeated myself a number of times. Right now it’s over 4,000 words, and I doubt it’ll be more than 3,00 when it’s cleaned up.

Maybe in six months, I’ll post it again after it’s been cleaned up, for a before-and-after-and-then-really-after look. But I can’t stomach the 1,000 words I’d lose if I edited it right now.

So “enjoy” this look behind the curtain.

Chapter 4: Festival

“Do you really think they were going to steal from me?” Eli asked as they walked back toward the city center.

“I know not,” Zachary responded.

“I did not think about unscrupulous people,” he continued, trying to both fill the silence and avoid his own embarassment.

Zachary did not respond this time.

“I guess these are things that a city dweller would need to take into account. The good folk I know are much more trustworthy.”

This finally forced Zachary to turn and look squarely into Eli’s eyes.

“Is that what you believe? Do you really think you can flood the market, destroy the value of a commodity, upend the very structure of society, and everybody’s just going to look the other way? Pat you on your back and ask no questions?”

“I,” Eli started, then stopped, blinking, trying to put his thoughts in order.

“I’m sorry,” Zachary relented. “I did not mean to offend you, just look out for you. You need to realize that any change to the way things are, however little, worries them. Something as simple as some smuggled cotton makes waves. All the way to London.”

“Smuggled?” Eli grasped on to the first word he could discern I didn’t smuggle. I mean. I didn’t. It’s my cotton.”

“Not smuggled?” Zachary seemed surprised for the first time since Eli first encountered him outside the tavern. He looked around to see if any city dwellers were listening in. None were paying attention, but a couple seemed to be a little too obvious about not paying attention. They had slowed to a stroll when he and Eli had stopped to talk. To be on the safe side, he nodded his head in the direction of a cross street. Eli got the hint and followed him there. The couple did not follow.

“What, are you running your own cottage industry?” he asked Eli when they were safely out of earshot from the main street. “Browbeat all of the simple bumpkins to work through the night by peatlight? Or,” his eyes sparkled, “is your girlfriend the ringleader? That lass could coerce all the wee lads to do her bidding I suppose. Maybe that’s your role?”

“No,” Eli said, flushing. “She’s not my… No, she knows none of this.

“I tinkered together a device,” Eli continued, recovering from the embarrassment and attempting to take control of the conversation after Zachary’s offensive insinuation. “Horsehair bristles snag the cotton, stretch it out past iron prongs that catch the seeds. It takes no time at all.”

“A cotton gin?” Zachary asked. “Where did you find plans for that? I thought those had all been destroyed. Nobody’s seen one of those in centuries.”

“I saw nothing,” Eli protested. “I was tinkering with a wheat crusher, trying to make a smaller one for personal use. I couldn’t crush, but I could separate.”

“Invented it?” Zachary said, mostly to himself. “Could that be? A modern Eli Whitney?”

“It’s pronounced Elly.”

The two looked at each other, confused.

“People who see my name think I’m an Eli,” he continued, “but it’s pronounced Elly.”

“Let me show you something,” Zachary said, returning to the present.

He looked out toward the main street again, felt comfortable that nobody was paying attention to them. The couple from before had moved out of sight.

He reached down to the side of his leather trousers, and Eli noticed for the first time that the stitching was different from usual. Instead of standard stitching, his seams were clasped together. Two separate sets of leggings, a front and a back, more of a covering than legitimate clothing. Eli’s suspicions were confirmed when Zachary unclasped the leather, opening the chaps and revealing another fabric underneath.

The new fabric was unlike anything he had seen before. What he assumed to be cotton had been woven, or maybe even stitched, into a tight diagonal pattern. The deep indigo color found on the outer edges faded first to a lighter blue and then almost white by the middle of the thigh, where the fabric itself seemed to be worn thin as well. Running through the blue stitching were white divots, which Eli couldn’t tell if these were weaved in the opposite direction from the blue or if they were actually showing through from the underside.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Eli whispered. “How are the fibers so strong? So tightly woven?”

“Was hoping you’d be able to tell me,” Zachary said, “what with your knowledge of the webster trade.”

“If I knew what to do with the cotton, I wouldn’t be selling it,” Eli responded and Zachary nodded understanding. “But from a tinker’s perspective, I’m fascinated. It seems like there are two threads of blue for every one thread of white, going in opposite direction. That must account for the strength, but also the maneuverability.”

“Maybe I should give you this set to study,” Zachary responded, mostly in jest. “Truthfully, nobody in England has been able to emulate it.”

“Where is it from?”

“From Nimmes, in France. It has no name, so we just say ‘tis de Nimmes.”

“De’Nims,” Eli worked the word through his mouth.

“Do you know what that means, de Nim? From Nimmes?”

Eli did not answer.

“Means ‘tis illegal,” Zachary continued. “Contraband.”

Eli looked back to the street, finally seeming to understand the implications.

“Then why are you?” he asked. “Why do you have it?”

“You’ve already answered the last question. Good quality, durable, comfortable. Nothing in Charles’s kingdom comes close. But, as you can see, I keep them hidden. Something you should think about doing.”

“But cotton’s not illegal.”

“No, ‘tisn’t. But you are going against the system. The less you are noticed, the better. Best case scenario, some weaver’s guild comes to your manor and burns it down. If you think your lord will come to your defense, you’re crazy. He’d more likely be behind the mob. Nothing keeps the nobles awake at night more than the fear of peasants saving time on their work.”

Eli stayed silent, trying to absorb the man’s advice in pieces.

“Come,” Zachary fastened the chaps back over his pants and led Eli back toward the main street. “Don’t want to raise any notice by talking too long on the side street.”

Eli followed along, dragging like an anchor. So much information was going through his mind. One second he was wondering how the de’Nim could be produced, the next was focused on the danger he never knew he was courting.

“What’s the worst case?” He finally asked.

“Hmm?” Zachary looked back from his lead position.

“You said the best case scenario was they’d burn my hut. What’s worse than that?”

He turned fully around, glanced around for suspicious listeners one again. His eyes bore into Eli’s, and everything else on the street disappeared from notice.

“I said best case was a guild. Beyond that are nobles, and the higher the noble, the worse off you’d be. Worst case? Who else? Mister Stuart himself.”

“The king?”

“Aye.” He turned back around, letting it sink in.

Many silent steps later, they reached the festival grounds/ With sundown approaching, the square was much more crowded than before. People from all levels of East Anglia society milled about with no clear direction nor in any hurry to get there. Eli looked around at the many distinct faces, each showing the same anticipation. One of the draws of this or any other holiday was the lessening of the strict class lines. This was a boon to all classes. While the peasants enjoyed a day of freedom and ease, the nobles were able to loosen their guard. The ease the upper class enjoyed on this day was far different from that of the workers.

During Yule, travel difficulties meant staying close to home, so switched roles and gift giving became the focus. But at midsummer, anonymity reigned supreme. The person next to you might be a vagrant just out of jail or an exotic Scot. The cheeky flirtation, stolen kiss, or even the drunken fondle was equally likely to be with an experienced wench or a virginal princess. In Eli’s experience, the noble girls, while far less knowledgeable, were much more voracious with their affection. At least up to a point. But when the frolic and revelry turned into outright fornication, they disappeared. Their virtue (and dowry) safely absconded behind the ivied castle walls to wake up safe when the societal boundaries were reestablished.

Thoughts of fornication, not surprisingly, were all it took to take his mind off of the information it had been attempting to process. That was the unacknowledged rule, the unspoken tradition, of festivals and holidays. After the musicians put down their lutes and the peatlamps were lit, debauchery descended. And this festival, bringing together people from all the surrounding counties, meant the variety and the frequency of the action took on a life of its own. Sometimes he spent the entire night playing couple in the arms of one specific lass, and other years he stayed mobile, bouncing from group to group. Last year, he coupled with a rosy-cheeked blacksmith’s daughter from the north, information he was not able to glean until their third act underneath the rising of the second-longest sun of the year.

This line of thinking also led him back to Rebecca. He wondered when she might be coming to the festival and what she was doing in the meantime. Had she finished grooming the horses and was Carter still keeping her occupied? It was at this point, Eli began to wonder how much of the day had been chance? Had they purposefully separated him from his traveling companion? At first he was thankful for the random invitation Carter had given Rebecca, thinking himself fortuitous. Just as fortuitous as the ride into town he had received. Had Carter, and therefore Zachary, known where Eli was heading? Did they know he might run into trouble with unscrupulous merchants?

He looked at the back of the man before him. The head was constantly moving, eyes scanning all of the faces, noticing all of the actions. There did not seem to be much that went past his notice, and he made no accidental moves. If he was in the same place as Eli, it was not by happenstance.

“Were you there to spy on me or to protect me?”

Zachary turned back. His astute, penetrating black eyes searched Eli’s face. Measuring. Critiquing Eli’s readiness, deducing the way to answer his question.

“Let me buy you your first midsummer ale,” he responded after the uncomfortable pause.

Eli nodded and followed him toward the stage. He was happy for an early offer of ale, even if it meant the answer, and even the question he had asked, would not be as simple as originally posited.

Still, early ale was early ale. The brewers offered their strongest, most flavorful brews early, when the prices were highest. The aldermen and others in charge of ensuring the success of the festival made them lower the price as the evening wore on. Although they were being compensated for the difference, the brewers still watered down the cheaper ale, stretching the life of their keg, before switching to the overspill from their own pubs. As the price continued to fall throughout the night, so did the quality and consistency. The free swill that circulated after midnight had the consistency of a springtime puddle and seemed to turn into a pungent summer puddle far too soon after consumption.

Eli took the offered ale, toasted to the buyer, and sipped the first delicious malted flavor of barley cut with some woody rosemary and juniper. The two men looked at each other, then at the growing crowd of twilight, then down at their ale in an awkward cycle. No words were spoken. One ale turned into two, and was morphing into a third, before the subject was broached.

“I was neither spying nor protecting,” Zachary answered in a soft voice that was unnecessary with chaos of the festival start going on around them. “Although I suppose I ended up doing both.”

Eli bowed his head closer in an attempt to hear better, but no more words were forthcoming. He pulled back to look at the mouth, but it did not move. He could not determine the age of his companion. The scraggly black hair and lithe body screamed youth, while the focused eyes burned with the wisdom of the ages. The mouth fit both sides, set in a stern jaw with lines of stress and worry.

Regardless of age, the mouth was not moving. The jaw unclenched once, twice, as if preparing to unhinge for a slew of words. But each time, the studious brain overruled the action, as the man looked for the proper way to advance to the crucial points.

The eyes narrowed as he decided on the proper course of dialogue. But just as he took in a deep breath to forge forward, trumpets blared from the stage. The town crier stood to proclaim as the crowd hushed into silence.

“Hear ye, good English subjects!” the crier began. “Our holy sovereign, King Charles, hath decreed that all manorial and feudal duties be suspended for the midsummer holiday. The local Earls have graciously provided peat to be burned through the night for warmth and light. Duke Howard of Norfolk and Duke Richard of Suffolk have allowed their knights to roam amongst us keeping us safe.”

A round of polite applause emerged from the crowd at the mention of the knights. There was no reason to applaud peat or the far off dukes who few had ever seen. Or the king who might as well be mythical in backwaters such as this. But the knights walked amongst them, some wearing the traditional plate armor, others in dressed-down chainmail, so they received a warm thanks. Many raised their arms in acknowledgement of the praise.

“And let us not forget,” the crier continued, “Sheriff Bartholomew and the rest of the Arthursham alderman, who are providing the free food and drink of the festival.”

A few townspeople applauded at the mention of their sovereigns, but most of the peasants did not join in. It was considered in poor taste to applaud for the rulers of other lands, even if city politics did not follow the pattern seen elsewhere. Even at these few times when social structure was put on hold, provincialism reigned. The announcements had previously mentioned each earl by name, but the applause breaks and resulting animosity ruined the spirit of the festival, to say nothing of the time it took to get past the announcements.

“Verily,” the announcement continued. “As a prince from a faraway land once said, let us feast, frivol, and party like ‘tis nineteen hundred ninety-and-nine.

This brought cheers from townsperson and peasant, alike.

Eli gasped and spilled his beer as a strong hand clapped him on his shoulder, then grabbed hold. His ale fell to the ground as he was spun about to face his assailant. The grasper, however, turned out only to be a burly man who had already consumed too much ale. At the rate he was going, this man would not make it past the musicians. He might not even make it to the food.

“Happy midsummer!” the drunkard said and lurched forward to embrace Eli’s pole-like frame.

By the time Eli extricated himself from the behemoth’s grasp and gathered his composure, he found that Zachary had disappeared. Looking around, he saw no trace of the serious, gaunt man. Not sure where to go or what to do next, he decided to focus on what he was here for, returning to the brewer’s table to replace the ale that had poured out over the cracked earth.

Looking around at all the faces, he was surprised at how alone he now felt. For years, he would call anyone crazy for feeling alone in this crowd. The inclusion amongst the masses was always the draw of coming here. Meeting new friends, carousing and cajoling with perfect strangers had always filled him with a sense of belongingness he never felt the other days of the year.

Yet now he found himself looking for a familiar face. Zachary or Rebecca would make him feel more comfortable. Even Carter would give him a sense of belongingness, like he fit. Those three had already made him ask questions the motives and actions of not only himself, but the others around him. Zachary, especially, had made him question how he had gone about his entire life.

“One ale, please,” he ordered, and passed the full piece of peat to the cashier in exchange. He hoped the next one would have dropped to a half-peat and silently cursed the man who had wasted his last free one.

As he lowered his head to sip the froth from the top, his eyes scanned across the crowd on the outskirts of the festival grounds, flittering across an unkempt mat of dark black hair. After bouncing two or more steps beyond, his brain caught up and forced the eyes to backtrack. They met the piercing eyes of Zachary, who had been staring, waiting to lock on with Eli. Once their eyes met, Zachary rolled his eyes to the left, indicating the stone-front façade of a building neighboring the square, before disappearing again.

Eli headed in that direction.

“Easier for me to keep an eye out from this direction,” Zachary said when Eli got there.

“What are you looking for?” Eli asked, but was unsurprised when the only response was silence and more furtive glances.

“How much of your history do you know?” Zachary finally asked after many more sips of ale.

Eli gave a puzzled look in response, not sure where this conversation was going.

“Sorry,” Zachary continued, “I get ahead of myself sometimes. I assume you know the colloquial version of history. But how much do you pay attention? Do you notice when real life doesn’t fit the fable that they tell?”

The continued silence from Eli provided some answer to the questions.

“For instance, do you remember when Bartholomew was not sheriff here?”

“Certainly,” Eli responded quickly, happy to finally have a question he could answer. “Just two years ago, there was a different sheriff. Henry, I believe?”

“And, coming from Suffolk, I assume you remember the Duke before Richard?”

“His father, Thomas. I was ten years old when that happened. We were given the entire week off.”

“So who was king before Charles?”

The conversation stopped as Eli racked his brain. He could not recall who the last king was. Certainly it had not happened in his life. He thought back to stories his father had told him, or conversations he had had with the elderly. Or the learned. Or anyone. But other than the mythical Arthur, he could not think of any other king than Charles ever being mentioned, much less on the throne.

Zachary stared, unwavering, into Eli’s face, watching as he went through the internal struggle, looking for signs of progress or emergence from them.

“I know not,” Eli said as he worked through the question. “But I am only in my twentieth year. I am certain an older fellow might recall.”

“No. He would not.”

Eli looked up in confusion.

“Ask Carter, the next time you see him,” Zachary continued. “There was no king before Charles. At least not that anyone has heard of. Ask anyone.”

Eli’s continued struggle with the questions and the lack of information they highlighted was interrupted by a commotion behind him. The noise from the crowd nearest them changed from the cacophony of multiple casual conversations to a unified clamor.

Eli turned to see the amorphous throng of people bulge outward before bursting apart like the Red Sea, with two armed men emerging through the membrane of scattering peasants.

“Just don’t ask too loudly,” Eli heard Zachary’s voice from behind.

“There he is,” one of the armed men shouted, pulling his sword and running straight toward Eli.

He froze, certain that the merchants had turned him in. He tried to run through the options in the seven paces it would take them to get to him. He could run, but with him against the storefront and with the men he assumed to be knights almost at full speed, the only direction he could hope to elude them was into the crowd, which was the direction they were coming from.

Another option was to drop his coinpurse and feign ignorance and innocence. If the knights did not look down, there would be no evidence against him. Except logic told him that there was no cotton left, nor had he accepted the copper. All he had was more peat than the average peasant, and if it became his word against the merchant’s, neither a full pouch nor a missing pouch would affect the outcome.

So he went back to the first option, tensing his legs and aiming in the opposite direction the knights were running. As soon as they slowed to talk or apprehend him, he would pounce in the opposite direction and try to get lost in the masses.

Except the running men did not slow down as the approached. With the tiniest glance in his direction, they ran past at full speed. Eli turned to watch after them and, for the first time, realized that Zachary was not there. He was standing alone, back against the stone building, staring in the same direction as the crowd.

As one knight ran around the corner in pursuit of what, Eli did not know, the laggard of the two turned around, looking at Eli and the crowd. He walked back in that direction with purpose, and Eli belatedly realized he should have blended with the other peasants as soon as the men had passed.

“You,” the man pointed at him. As he came close, Eli noticed that he was not a knight. The clothes he wore looked at first glance like chainmail, but was in fact a non-metallic mesh that Eli did not recognize. It appeared to have the consistency of leather, but was a slick black that was almost reflective. While he wore no noble sigil over the ribcage like most knights, there was a small badge over his upper left chest showing the flag of England, a red cross of St. George on a field of yellow, but all superscribed with a blue-and-white checkerboard border.

“Were you just talking to that Cromwellite?” the man asked.

“Who?” Eli asked. “What?”

He assumed the man was referencing Zachary, but was confused on a number of levels. While his normal inquisitive demeanor caused the initial slow reaction, he decided to drag it out, remembering the various admonitions given by Zachary, including the final warning before he disappeared at the sight of the knights.

Not knights. Guards? Police?

“I did not see anybody,” he continued, sounding as lost and unobservant as possible. “I was looking at the crowd when you came through.”

“Worthless,” the man said. “Let me see your papers.”

Eli opened his pouch, trying to shield his questioner from seeing the contents. Slowly, he admonished himself, drag this out and think.

“Lost him,” the faster of the two guards returned, almost out of breath. “It took us too long to get through the peasants. Gave him a head start.”

He looked at Eli just as he produced the thick paper identification card every peasant was required to carry at all times.

“What about you?” the new arrival turned his attention o Eli and snatched the outstretched card. “I saw you chatting with him. You in league with the Puritans? Is he recruiting you for the revolution? Huh?” He looked down at the card, “Eli from the manor of Obediah?”

Eli almost replied with the instinctual “it’s pronounced Elly,” as he was used to doing any time someone saw his name in print, but decided against it. Correcting their pronunciation, or doing anything to stick out, to appear different that the dumb peasant yokel they would assume him to be, seemed a bad idea at this point.

“I, um, was looking at you coming out of..” he tried to repeat.

“This guy’s an idiot,” his first interrogator broke in, grabbing the ID from his companion and returning it to Eli. “He doesn’t know a thing.”

“Is that so?” the second one countered, trying to salvage some dignity after losing his prey. “And what were you doing so far from the crowd? So far from the festival?”

“I,” Eli glanced at the crowd that was now focusing too much of their attention his way. What stuck out, in almost every hand, was ale. He would use the urination excuse. He was looking for the latrine. To add credence to the statement he was about to make, he reached down to pick up his almost empty cup, when his eye caught upon something on the ground. His brain screamed at him to stand back up, but he could not.

For the second time in this confrontation, slow reactions saved him.

“Look, this idiot’s too drunk to stand up.” The first guard said. “Let’s look for escape routes from that alley.”

“Fine,” the second man acquiesced, turning one more shrewd eye upon Eli, who was swaying while standing upright, thankful for the excuse the guard had given him.

“But don’t do anything stupid, Eli of Obediah’s manor. We are watching you now.”

The two guards turned and left. Eli continued the charade of a drunk, swaying back and forth, even leaning against the stone wall for support, until the rest of the crowd lost interest in him and turned back to their usual pursuits.

Then he looked back down at the ground. The telltale indigo blue fabric, undercut with cotton white, a shade he had never seen before today. He reached down and brushed dirt off of cloth, and picked up the tightly woven fabric square of fabric with frayed ends.

Denim. Left behind by Zachary. A signal.

Basis of the Book

Behind on my word count. Shocker! So I’m cheating a little on this Monday post. The idea for the novel I’m currently writing came from a flash fiction I wrote six months ago. It’s something I’m dubbing “peat-punk,” where feudal society has continued until the year 1999.  In fact, King Charles I is still king after 375 years. How he is still alive, and how the world became frozen after the English Civil War, form the basis for the book. And, in fact, are still being determined by the author as we speak…

Next week, if I stay behind, I might just print an excerpt from the novel in progress – the updated version of this scene.

So without further ado, I present to you the original 1,000-word flash fiction, jestingly called “Charles in Charge,” after which I will briefly describe a few of the things that I’ve changed in the novel-length version:

—————————————————————————————————————

“By order of his majesty, King Charles Stuart,” the town crier yelled. “To honor the approaching millennium, an extended Yule commenceth today! For one week, all manorial obligations are suspended! Your gracious Earl hath also decreed that peat shall burn in the Town Square every night until the arrival of Anno Domini Two Thousand!”

Elly cheered with the others in the village square, thoughts focused on the coming week.  He would not step near his baron, his plow, or even his hovel for a week.  Mead and a cheeky lass were all he needed.

“Verily,” the crier continued, rolling up the scroll he was reading, “Feast, frivol, nay… Party like ‘tis Nineteen Hundred Ninety-and-Nine!”

If only he could tinker with his new seed drill while off the manor. Sharpness wasn’t a problem. The iron was too weak. Heat was needed, he was sure, to make iron into steel.

“What burn hotter than peat?” he asked himself.

“Nice shirt,” came a whisper in his ear, barely audible amongst the crowd. “Be that cotton?”

Elly turned toward the voice, saw a short, surly man standing there.  The man had black matted hair that drooped almost to his eyes, dark eyes that bore into Elly.

“Aye, ‘tis,” responded Elly.

“Cotton be expensive,” the man responded, scratching at his own woolen clothing to emphasize the point. “And time consuming.”

“I devised a contraption,” started Elly.

“A machine?” the man responded.

“Know not that word, good man. It removes cotton seeds. I can trade excess food or peat for raw cotton, make the clothes me’self.”

“Cotton gin?” The man asked, and received a blank stare back. “Ye are a regular Eli Whitney.”

“It’s pronounced Elly,” he responded, getting the same confused stare back from the man.

“Ha’n’t seen ye ‘round.” The man changed the subject.

“Bartholemew’s my baron. ‘Tisn’t often I can make it all the way to the village.”

“Aye, Bartholomew’s almost to another Earldom. Tell me, who was your baron before Bartholomew?”

“His father, Obediah, naturally,” responded Elly, not sure what this stranger with the intense dark eyes was getting at.

“And do you remember when Jonathan became Earl?”

“’Aye. I was eight years old. ‘Twas the last time we’ve had a week off of the manor.”

“And the king?”

“Charles,” answered Elly. “Has always been Charles. At least as far as I can remember.”

He scratched his head, thinking back.

“I’m only in my twentieth year,” he continued. “My father must have had another king, though I do not remember a name.”

“I be twice yer age,” the odd man continued, eyes and head darting in multiple directions while he spoke. “Charles has always been king. Talk to anyone and-“

“Stop! Cromwellite!” Elly turned to see two knights, wearing chainmail emblazoned with the red Cross of St. George superimposed on a field of yellow below the blue-and-white checkerboard pattern of the House of Stuart, barging through a group of peasants.  Pointing in his direction, they began to run. The sound of swords scraping from scabbards scattered the crowd.

“Don’t mention your machine if ye want to avoid the Taser,” the stranger said, turning to run.

“And wood burns hotter than peat. There still be wood in England.”

Before running, he snuck something into Elly’s hand, a clear bag with a piece of paper clearly visible inside. But the bag was not made of any substance he had ever seen, feeling both filmy and slick simultaneously.  The clearness was also unquantifiable, neither opaque nor creamy, but unnaturally see-through. The top was fastened together with inter-locking ridges.

“What’s in the plastic?” a knight asked, sword pointing at Elly’s chest. The other knight raced after the man who had disappeared into the crowd.

“Plastic, sir?” Elly was turning the odd new word over in his mouth when the knight ripped the clear bag from his hand.

“A cotton shirt and a plastic bag,” the knight addressed Elly. “What have you to say?”

“I,” Elly began, then remembered the stranger’s admonition. “I traded some extra peat for the cotton, sir.”

“What does this say?” The knight held up the bag, allowing Elly to see the writing on the paper inside.

“I know not, sir. I’ve not learned my letters. King and Charles re the only two words I recognize.”

“Yes,” the knight responded, sounding both suspicious and annoyed, “I know it says ‘Who was King before Charles?’ And then it has a meeting time. I need to know what this is at the bottom.”

Elly looked more closely. Underneath the wording were some shapes and symbols. Two circles, one with lines inside, the other with a jagged edge, separated by two triangles facing opposite directions, bordered on either side by a thick line. The entire design was entwined in two leafy vines.

“Maybe a noble crest, sir?” Elly offered.

“This serf’s illiterate,” the second knight said as he returned. “No comprehension in his eyes.”

The first knight grumbled, sheathing his sword and placing the pamphlet in his large coin purse. He then struck Elly in the gut with a gauntleted fist.

“Watch yourself, peasant,” the knight said after Elly crumpled onto the ground.  “We find you anywhere near any Cromwellites again, we might not assume you are such an idiot. You wouldn’t want us investigating where you got this alleged extra peat from.”

“Come,” the second knight said. “Let us find someone who can interpret these symbols.

As the knights departed, Elly slowly got up on his knees and dusted himself off.  The crowd appeared to be returning to normal, yet everyone avoided coming to close or even looking at him.

So much the better, he thought.  He had to get out of the village square.  His plans for the Millennium Holiday had just changed.

His tinker’s mind already knew the significance of the symbols.

They made a map.

——————————————————————————–

The major change in the novel is the “modern item” changed from a Zip-Lock bag to denim jeans, because I’m not sure I want to go too modern. But jeans aren’t too far ahead of Medieval technology. When I first conceived the story, the rest of the world had moved on, and steel destroyers would be blockading the island. Now I think the whole world is in a state of arrested development. After all, no Glorious Revolution, no Industrial Revolution, no American Revolution… so no Zip-Lock.

I’ve also changed the main character’s name, or at least how I write it. It is still Eli (a la Whitney), but pronounced Elly (close to Oliver Cromwell). But I am now writing it Eli except when it’s in dialogue. Not sure if this is the proper way, but it’s what I’m doing.

There’s also a girl. More than one, in fact. Rebecca, the bucolic ingenue from his manor, who he’s always dreamed of marrying, and Nessa, the smart, quasi-Marxist in the resistance movement, who sweeps him of his feet as soon as he’s making headway with Rebecca.

Not a Writer

I want to be a writer. A paid writer, preferably, but I’d settle for just being a writer. What makes a writer? I’ve visited blogs about writing, read some books, and subscribed to Writer’s Digest. They all give pointers on character development, plot motivation, editing, publishing, you name it. But there is one thread that runs through all writing advice.

Writers write. I think Chuck Wendig might through a “motherfucker” at the end. Succinct, pithy, perhaps a bit simplistic. But writers write.

That’s why I’m not a writer yet. But to continue the Jules Winnfield Pulp Fiction quotes, “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard.”

Seriously, how hard is it to write? All you have to do is sit down at a keyboard and tap, tap, tap, right? And yet… and yet…

There are a whole bunch of books running around in my head. The one that’s been there the longest is a political drama about a dark horse running for president. It’s been in there since the government class in my senior year of high school. It would have some great plot twists, a seriously flawed antihero, and might even set up a sequel where his brother becomes Governor of California. That is, if I had ever written it. But as of the writing of this blog, (let me do some math, carry the one), about 8,500 days have passed since the idea came to me. The number of words I’ve written is (okay, logarithm to the base of e, translated into base-7, carry that damned one again) zero. Zero words have been put on paper. Oh, there are pages and pages of notes, timelines, character sketches, and outlines. Well, there were all of those things, but I don’t know that I’d be able to find them if I wanted to start up again. I’m guessing they’re in storage with some cassette tapes. But in terms of actual words in the actual novel, I’ve got notihing. Haven’t even created a file named “President Book,” nor typed “Chapter One” on the center of any top line. The good news is that I don’t have to worry about that blinking cursor screaming at me, like I’ve read on many of those blogs about how to get past writer’s block.

But writers write, right? I’m already doing this blog in Microsoft Word, so all it would take is a nifty Ctrl-N and start tap-tap-tapping. But I’m not a writer. I’m a thinker. From time to time, I’m a researcher. Maybe I’m a loose plotter, but what I really am, at this point, is a guy who can think up a scene here or there.

So why don’t I write them down? Oh, I can come up with a litany of reasons, but the top two are usually confidence and time.

My lack of confidence doesn’t mean I’m afraid of being a bad writer. My use of the English language is sound. Do I still need to consult Strunk & White from time to time? Sure, but that’s hardly a count against me.

But proper verb conjugation does not the next Jack Reacher make. All those ideas I’ve had? Most of them are scenes. I know how I might start a book, but then what would happen in the next scene? Or I know the ending, but how am I going to get there? So the internal critic says there’s no use writing the scenes I’ve thought of if I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Then there’s the whole time thing. Who has time to write? I mean, sure, I’ve got fifteen minutes right now, but how much would I really write in those fifteen minutes? So I might as well play some Candy Crush instead, because that’s a MUCH better use of my time. Just until I lose these five lives, and then, oh wait, I have five more lives in the dream world? Okay, then I just need to see if I’ve opened the new world of Pet Rescue Saga yet…

Of course, now that I have a five-month old at home, I scoff at the silly boy who thought he didn’t have time. I’m sure he couldn’t foresee a time when the laptop isn’t cracked open until after the baby’s gone to sleep, leaving a whopping hour to pay bills, do chores, and maybe shove some food down the gullet  before passing out on the couch five minutes into a DVR’d episode of NCIS.

But that inner dialogue that keeps me from writing. Let’s call her the inner nag, instead. She is the ubiquitous crabgrass that I find whenever I’m looking for the elusive Kentucky bluegrass called a muse. Why bother writing a scene, she says, if you don’t know what happens next? Why bother writing for fifteen minutes if it’s not enough time to finish the whole thing?

The logical part of me knows these are stupid points.  The next scene isn’t forming in my mind yet because the current scene is taking up too much cranial real estate. And I can’t read a book in one sitting, why would I expect to write it all at once? But if I spent the next fifteen minutes writing a hundred words now, then maybe I can write another hundred the next time I am waiting for my Candy Crush lives to reset. Then, when I’m halfway through this scene and start thinking about what happens next, maybe I’ll make more time to start writing that next scene.

Stephen King writes two thousand words a day. Given his publishing schedule, I assume that’s enough to finish a 500-page book a month, right? He tells beginning writers that they might want to just start with one thousand. He also says the first one million words are practice, something akin to Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours. So maybe if I had written all of those scenes I had thought about, I’d be getting close to being an experienced writer. Maybe I would have even figured out how to string a few of those scenes together by now.

Last year I discovered National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a novel in thirty days. Okay, only 50,000 words, which really isn’t a full-sized novel, but is still a sizeable chunk of one. It’s been going on every November since 2000, but this was the first I had heard of it. When all of your writing energy is potential instead of kinetic, you don’t spend much time in actual writer circles. Now that I’ve been spent a year doing some writerly type things, I don’t know how I had missed it.

But eleven months ago, an Amazon Kindle post about it on Facebook was my introduction. Intrigued, I checked out the website, and before I knew it, I had an author profile and a novel I was “working on.” I didn’t really think I’d follow through on it. First of all, it was already November 9 or 10 when  Amazon posted it. Better late than never, Kindle, sheesh! Plus I had a wedding to go to that weekend. No time, but what’s it going to hurt to say I’m working on a novel.

I already had about five thousand words of a novel written down, so that might compensate for missing the first third of the month. And if that statement seems to contradict everything I’ve said so far, bear in mind words had been written over a span of thirteen years. The book was a fictionalized account of my trip to Mardi Gras in the year 2000, so it had almost been in my mind as long as my political book. Hell, had I known about the first November NaNoWriMo , ten months after the Mardi Gras trip, I probably would’ve written the exact same book I attempted in 2013.

The night before that wedding, I dusted off the old Word doc and started typing what happened next. Only a couple hundred words. I didn’t write any the day of the wedding, but the next day I did. Then the next. Suddenly, I could find the time. And those plot holes? Some of them started fixing themselves. Some of the scenes that I had been thinking about for ten years ended up going a different way than I had always assumed. Who knew that actually forcing myself to put it on paper would finally flesh it out? Then halfway through this scene I had always thought about, I would think, “Oh, I need to throw this in here because the next scene will do this.” All those things I had heard were true. Scenes I assumed could not have more than five hundred words of content actually had three thousand words of detail, exposition, and dialogue. I thought about the characters and the plot when I was in the shower.

I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo last year. After being spotted the initial five thousand words, I only added another 20,000 or so. Only. But if any statement should serve as an endorsement for the program, it’s me, a guy who spent thirteen years writing five thousand words (and really, twenty years writing zero words of my political thriller) finished the month and said “Dangit, I only made it to 27,000 words.”

The important thing, I realized, was that I was writing. “I’m a writer now,” I thought. And this would continue. Man, now that I knew what it took, the world was my oyster. I would finish that book by the time Christmas arrived and I had ideas for other books that I’d start up in January.

As of this moment, that book is at 38,000 words. I’ve only added eleven thousand words.

Why did I write 20,000 words in one month and only 10,000 words in the following year? I could blame it on reaching a lag in the book, damned old writer’s block stopping me from knowing what happens next. But a lot had to do with how successful NaNoWriMo is as makeshift muse. I missed the pep talks from accomplished authors. The word-count widget that satisfied my desire for meaningless accomplishments (“A badge for 5,000 words? Done!”) was gone .  During November, every time you update your word count, it tells you when you will finish your book based on your current pace, as well as the pace you have to write at to finish on time. The giddiness I felt when my finish date moved from January to December (“I’m going to finish this year!) was matched only by the dismay I felt when it disappeared on December 1. (“But I’m not done yet!”)

But the thing I missed most was the group camaraderie. We do write-ins at real-live locations, but even more helpful was an online chat-room. Chatting with people might seem to be a bad distraction for someone trying to type 1,667 words a day. But they are all in the same boat. The conversation ebbs and flows as inspiration strikes. There are word wars, where we all write for ten minutes, then report back with how many words we wrote. Then we write a little more leisurely until the next one.

When December arrived, all of those things were gone. I stopped off at Starbucks and Panera a few times that month to write, but could only manage another five hundred words a time. In November, I could get close to that number in one successful word war. Plus that old-fashioned lack of confidence came back. You skip a day of writing, you might get back on that horse, but another day or two of no writing and you start doubting you’re a writer.  Because remember, writers write.

But I also need to remind myself that the eleven thousand words I’ve added to the book since December are probably ten thousand more words more than I had written at any time prior to last November. And that doesn’t count the short stories, flash fiction, and blog entries that might or might not count toward Stephen King’s million word starting trot. I’ve also found more of those resources that had eluded me before. Writing blogs and websites, competitions, exciting new authors. I joined Storium, a very cool website that is part role-playing, part write-your-own-adventure, where you create a character and jointly tell a story with other characters. Shoot, a year ago I had no idea who Chuck Wendig was. Now I check his website daily, have written five of his flash fiction prompts, and have bought three of his books.

This blog has been part of my attempt to “keep on writing.” This post will mark the 7th Monday in a row that I’ve submitted a blog entry. I cheated and wrote most of it on Halloween.  It’s an artificial deadline, just like NaNoWriMo. If I miss a week, no hostages will be killed and I won’t miss a paycheck. But, as last December proved, if I miss one post, it will be much easier to miss the next week as well.

But now, NaNoWriMo is back, and I have to ramp up from writing two to three thousand words a week to doing that every couple days. I hope the flash fictions I’ve been writing haven’t destroyed my ability to write things longer than one scene. I guess I’ll find out with my first word war.

I will try to continue posting every Monday through November. The posts might change from my normal musings to book excerpts or check-ins. Or why there’s no way in hell I will make it to 50,000 words. Regardless, they should be shorter. Maybe I’ll just write a sentence or two.

Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t even describe a bowel movement in less than a thousand words.

And if I’m successful this year, maybe I’ll try it again next year. Maybe I’ll, gasp, try to write during the other eleven months of the year. Maybe next year, I’ll finally get around to that political thriller. Or maybe I should wait until 2016, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its residence in my head. I’ll feel like an empty nester. I wonder if I’ll solve world hunger or invent a warp drive with all of the newly vacated room in my brain.

More likely, the space will be filled with new ideas, new plots, new characters. Then al I’ll have to do…

…is write.