And when you get the hiccups, you have to do something about it–hold your breath, drink water up-side-down, swear mildly or fiercely. You can also ignore the hiccups. No matter what, hiccups will come and go.
NaNoWriMo can have hiccups, too. Life gets in the way, the words won’t flow, you reach a murky spot and can’t see through it. That’s okay. It’s not about the hiccups; it’s about what you choose to do when they happen.
I’ve had my fair share of hiccups this month, but I’m plowing through. I’m determined not to get distracted, although sometimes it can’t be helped.
The Hub is not having an easy go at finding work. So, I helped him write a new resume, and yesterday we drove to Spokane, Washington to cruise the industrial areas. I waited in the car as he went into offices asking what their hiring process was and if they were in need of a technician.
I could argue that I was not needed to sit in the car, but I understood that the Hub needed encouragement. When I grow weary of the trail to publication he encourages me to go on, so it was my turn to encourage him. I took notes, gathered data and went along for the ride.
As it turns out, he has two very promising interviews on Monday. The bonus was when I got a call on my cell phone from my neighbor who knows we are struggling. She also knows that I’m a writer and she asked to barter wood for my services.
While I’ve neglected to post coffee, I have plowed through several difficult scenes. My word count for three days is 3,420 but I have two major hurdles figured out. The hiccups are calmed for the moment and forward movement is yielding results. Keep at it, WriMos!
Thought for Days 11, 12 & 13:
“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” ~Ray Bradbury
Excerpt From Rock Creek:
Mists in the trees at morning reminded Mary of ghosts. She stood out on the porch, unable to sleep. The cool morning would soon heat up with the rising sun. Chickens scratched for insects and she thought about collecting eggs, but the dull ache in her back wouldn’t go away. It was worse when she tried to recline in bed and the origin of her waking so early. The red rooster hopped on top of the split wood not yet stacked and crowed. Mary thought about sitting down, but then she wouldn’t want to get up. The rooster crowed again.
“You’re up early, Wife.” Cob came up behind her and set his large hands on her shoulders.
“My back is causing me some discomfort.”
Cobs fingers began rubbing her shoulders and neck. “You feel taught as an overstrung fiddle. Do you want me to fetch Julia?”
“Yes, I do.”
Cob stopped. “Mary, don’t frighten me like this. I’ve had a hard go this month.”
Mary wanted to smack him. He deserved a hard go after putting her through his betrayal with Sarah Shull, but she would never tell him what relief it brought her that Sarah’s baby died. God forgive her, but she hoped it would happen. She hadn’t expected Cob to take it so hard which only meant he did have feelings for the woman. All the more reason to cut that blood tie. “It’s your family you should be fretting about.”
“It is my family that concerns me. It’s you. It’s not like you to want Julia, saying your back hurts and damn it woman, it’s too early for the babe.”
“It’s nothing more than the babe’s position. Most likely it’s another stubborn McCanles male.”
But the babe did not wait, nor change position. Mary woke up howling in less than a week. The pressure was greater than it had ever been and the pain in her leg was burning. On top of that, contractions were coming fast and hard. Cob didn’t have to be summoned from the barn. He stomped up the steps, still pulling on his boots and nearly crashed through the door. Julia awoke to the simultaneous noises of Mary, Cob and a frightened Cling who was crying. Cob ignore her command to get out.
Mary gasped for breath as the contraction eased. She clutched Cob’s hand. “It isn’t time.”
“Julia, for God’s sake, do something.”
“For your sake Brother, and Mary’s, go fetch the midwife and rouse Mother. Tell her we’ll need all the women-folk.”
Cob left and Mary let out another howl as he thundered past the house riding Captain down the pitch black mountain trail to gather Eliza and his kin. She heard the hoof beats drift away as the pain eased up. Not caring about who saw her, Mary got on all fours and tried to ease the back pressure. She lost track of how many more contractions came before Eliza hustled into the room, barking orders. Mary wasn’t sure who was with her, but somehow it made her feel relieved to know that she hadn’t come alone.
Later that day, well after the sun came up and the smells of cooking from the outside summer kitchen wafted into her room, Mary felt her body weakening. Her limbs shook and she couldn’t maintain the various positions Eliza directed her to take. Julia and Mary Catherine helped, along with other women who were not full midwives, but keen and strong enough to help. Celia, Cob’s, mother, was joined by a bevy of friends to cook and keep Cob’s children out of the house. Mary thought she heard the thunder of Cob’s horse running, but soon the sky darkened and lightening crackled. More thunder roared and the storm let loose the rain.
Sarah didn’t make it back to her cabin before getting drenched. She had foraged far, seeking wild blueberries that grew best up high. The thunder reminded her of the times she used to watch Cob race swiftly on Captain’s back and she nearly dropped her basket of berries when she saw him racing up the trail, lit up momentarily by the lightening. How many times did she imagine him riding thus and to finally see him, she didn’t believe her own eyes. She arrived at the cabin just as he was tethering Captain beneath the lean-to. They were both drenched and he had the look of misery about him standing there with balled fists clenched to his sides. Oblivious to the rain he said, “I’ve killed her.”
Sarah grabbed his clenched fist that was the size of a large stone and led him into the cabin. Once inside she set down the blueberries, and he reached for her, bending down to kiss her fiercely as if whatever demons drove him to ride in this storm could be excised by a kiss. Trying to not give in as easily as she had before those nights, cloaked in darkness and secrecy, alone if the backroom of Phillip Shull’s store, Sarah tried to remain neutral. Mocking tones of “sinner” reminded her that even now after her daughter’s death she was not welcome to walk among her own family or community. After her daughter’s death, James rarely visited and food from the McCanles women ceased. Why had she believed it was for her? Of course they cared to take care of Martha Allice. With her dark brown eyes she was one of them. Sarah meant nothing. Cob said “he killed her?” Was he mourning their daughter as she was every quiet, lonely morning that she woke up to see an empty cradle in an empty cabin? She kissed him back, opening her mouth to his probing tongue. He tasted like corn liquor and his touch was as hot as direct sun on rocks. She absorbed it all.
Mary cried out in pain, her throat hoarse and dry. Julia pressed a wet cloth to her mouth but she tried to push it away. The baby had stalled and she was certain it would kill her now. Her waters had broke hours ago and the whisperings only served to warn her that the women weren’t expecting her to pull through either. Stubborn, Mary thought. Let’s see who is stubborn. She summoned every strength of her body and roared like a demented beast, pushing with all her effort. The baby, breeched and stalled, was born blue. Eliza shook her head and Mary glowered at the midwife as she laid the still baby on Mary’s bare chest. Mary stroked the wee thing and everyone was surprised to see a little foot kick.
“She’s a Greene and McCanles. What did you all expect?”
Julia laughed loudest as usual and women began to help clean up Mary and the little girl. Cob’s mother beamed with pride in the doorway of the bedroom.
“Celia Elizabeth McCanles.” Mary knew it was unwise to name a baby so quickly, but since this child was already thought to be dead, what did it matter. With the name she honored her mother-in-law, her midwife and her husband.
“Where is Cob,” she asked.
WriMos, hang on to that swagger.
Write boldly. Connect to your characters, connect to your story. Be bold. Write with a swagger as if your tapping fingers have become Rock Hudson or Marilyn Monroe.
And don’t let anyone deflate your bold reams, your bold plans, your bold story.
Maybe it’s my own sensitivities right now, but I’ve noticed incoming darts aimed at emerging writers in the form of discouraging words. I get it–it’s a hard path to take. But don’t kick me because you feel better about your own writing career by showing me you have a superior boot. It’s too easy to discourage others.
Let’s learn from the Brits. They have sense of humor (you need to be getting your daily dose of NaNo Num-Nums over at TanGental). And they have writers who say that yes, it’s a hard road, but here’s how you walk it. Thank you Anne Goodwin for sharing this post on making a living from writing books. It has practical tactics that apply across the pond.
So back to swaggering. Be bold in writing this month. There’s a million things to dissuade you from doing this, a million posts that sneer at emerging authors. You have a purpose behind your writing. You have a reason why you set out on this path. Maybe you even have a plan. Stick to the path boldly, step by step.
Today’s cup of coffee is infused with cheer. You got this, WriMo! Write on no matter what anyone says about you doing it! Write on boldly!
Word Count: 1757
Thought for Day Nine:
“In order to achieve anything you must be brave enough to fail.”
~ Kirk Douglas
Excerpt From Rock Creek: (We’ve jumped back in time to 1857.)
Shivering, Sarah reached out for her mama. A soft snuffling sound brought her to her senses and she realized that she was the mama now and her baby needed her. “Hush, hush, little Martha Allice.” It was so cold in here. Outside the small foggy window, she could see it was snowing again. And the fire went out. Again.
“Mama’s going to get that fire.” Sarah sneezed and her entire head felt as swollen as a pig’s bladder. She wrapped an extra blanket around the babe like bunting and bent down at the hearth to stack kindling and wood. Snow fluttered down the rock chimney. Opening her firebox, she blew on the coals to set the kindling to a flame. She heard voices outside.
“Miss Shull? It’s James McCanles. May I come in?”
James? What was he doing here? She was still in yesterday’s dress, plain gray linen since her father forbade her to take anything colorful or fine when he banished her to this cabin at the top of a meander fed by a small spring.
Grabbing the thin gray quilt of linsey-woolsey, Sarah wrapped it around her head and body like a huge shawl. “I’m not prepared for visitors.” The baby coughed. It sounded worse than it did yesterday.
“Miss Shull, I have medicine and food, from the McCanles women.”
From the McCanles women? What would they send to her if not poisoned ash-cakes or killing bitters? The baby coughed again and the embers died out. “Oh, no. Why won’t that fire light?” Stepping to the door she cautiously opened it.
“May I come in?” James looked like an older, gaunter version of Cob with white hair and dark eyes.
“Um, yes, please, come in.”
“My God, it’s as cold as Washington’s marble tomb in here.” He looked at the fireplace and her failed attempt smoldering. The baby coughed, again.
Sarah walked over to the crate that served as a cradle and picked up Martha Alice, rocking her and patting her back. “There, there.”
Quietly, James coaxed a fire and soon the cabin with its thin walls were warm against the winter chills. He unpacked a dish of stewed apples, linen wrapped buttermilk biscuits, molasses and a root stew with chunks of ham. Sarah nearly drooled across the top of Martha’s head. James set the stew pot in the hearth coals. “You need a few item, I see.”
Sarah didn’t see much at all—a hearth, a crate and a straw pallet on the floor. She roasted critters on a spit across the heart and she had a sack of dried beans and a sack of turnips that she roasted in the fire. James left her with an herbal ointment he said to rub on the babe’s feet and chest. He gave her a tonic for her health and a big chunk of lye soap made with so much lavender that it looked purple and smelled like spicy summer.
James returned every day for a week to check on Sarah and her baby. Each time he came he brought more food from the McCanles women and wood and tools. The first item he built was a table, followed by chairs and a cupboard that he mounted near the hearth. She needed it for the items sent by the women—cooking spoons, a set of old flatware and several tin plates. They sent tins filled with dried sassafras tea, cooking herbs which smelled like dried spring ramps and a bottle of molasses. Soon she had linen towels and an oil lamp. At the end of two weeks James and his son Leroy packed in pieces of an item that James toiled all afternoon to build. Leroy bounced Martha on his knee. He looked more like his mother, Celia, but had the dark brown McCanles eyes. So did Martha. When James was finished, Martha had a beautiful hickory cradle that silently rocked.
Sarah recovered from her sickness quickly—James reminded her to continue to drink her tonic—but Martha Allice was slow to give up her cough. Sarah continued to rub ointment on her feet and chest. Now the babe had several linen gowns and warm quilts for her cradle. The last item James furnished was a stick bed for Sarah and fresh ticking for her mattress. He gave her folded linen sheets and the most beautiful blue diamond quilt of linsey-woolsey. It was a masterpiece and Sarah recognized it as something a Greene woman would make. Maybe one of Cob’s sisters who had married a Greene crafted this at a loom.
Despite the lingering winter chill, Sarah had a home that she had only dreamed possible. It wasn’t very big, but it didn’t need to be. It was filled with comfortable furnishing, warm quilts and food. Soon spring would come and Sarah could forage—ramps and mushrooms, blueberries and persimmons. Then she could give back to those who so kindly provided. She couldn’t wait to teach Martha about the hills and hollows, to show her where the lilies bloomed and the creeks to pooled invitingly in the summer sun. She might even go swimming Cherokee style, like that time with Cob.
No, she had to curb her thoughts about him. He had a wife and a wonderful family, at least his father was wonderful. It was good for Martha to have a grandfather. It pained her that her own parents stayed away. She knew her mother would want to visit, but Philip would never allow it. Only her brother Simon ever risked sneaking up the back trail to see her. If they knew that James visited frequently, no one said anything. Finally, Sarah felt she could survive this.
Look for anchors.
Yesterday’s break fed my diva and the keys are tapping out words beneath my fingers once again. While taking my break, I watched a movie last night, The Inside Man. I didn’t write yesterday, but I still thought about my story and I took a hint from the movie: anchors can tie together seemingly unrelated scenes.
The Inside Man is brilliant on many levels: it’s a Spike Lee movie; it stars Denzel Washington and Clive Owen; it has memorable characters and plot twists; and it has original music composed by A. R. Rahman. It also employs the use of chewing gum as an anchor.
Not what you would expect of a sophisticated and gritty movie about cops, robbers and the seedy underbelly of the Fortune 500. Here’s how it works–the timeline for the movie is not chronological although most of it occurs in real-time. However, you have to decide which real-time story is indeed the one unfolding.
Chewing gum connects the two timelines and is one of the twist revelations.
When you are drafting, you may be unconsciously thinking of anchors. Maybe your anchor means something symbolic, or maybe your anchor simply relates to a certain character. Let your anchors emerge out of your subconscious as you write and assess meaning or strategy to them later during the revision.
NaNoWriMo is for writing. Let your subconscious be your guide.
Word Count: 2,105
Thought for Day Seven:
“Writing is a lot like making soup. My subconscious cooks the idea, but I have to sit down at the computer to pour it out.” ~Robin Wells
Excerpt from Rock Creek:
Wilstach ordered for them, soup and ham sandwiches. He nattered on about people he knew in New York and about his times as a business manager and press agent. He collected similes, he said.
“Red as coal. Red as a cherry. Red as any rose.”
Memories swirled like blue mountain fog caught against a ridge. Memories of dreams long lost. Memories of Cob bending toward her alone in the semi-dark of her father’s store, his breath so close she could smell a whiff of whiskey along with the pinetar soap he used. His large hands firm on her waist. My love is like a red, red rose.
“Oh, yes. Robert Burns.” Wilstach smiled and took a hearty bite of sandwich that had arrived.
Sarah missed its arrival as well as her own and didn’t realize she had said the words out loud. It was dangerous dredging up old memories. She responded by eating just as heartily, though she failed to keep up.
“More coffee, Mrs. De Vald?” After the waitress cleared their plates, Wilstach opened up his notebook and uncapped his pen.
Sarah shook her head. She’d have to mind her answers and not blurt out anything unnecessary.
“Your maiden name is Sarah Shull?”
“I can understand the spelling of Shell was a mistake or phonetic. All right, Mrs. De Vald. These question will help me solve the McCanles mystery once and for all.”
Sarah gripped the tablecloth now that her napkin was gone. Remember, she told herself, Mrs. Swanson is dead. No one knows.
“Was money owed by Wellman the cause of the tragedy?”
Sarah could hear Cob raging in the back of her mind. His money. He needed his money. It was the Pike’s Peak Express that owed him money. Wolfe and Hagenstien did, too. Cob lost his means for making money on his toll bridge and his road ranches but the parties who bought them never paid up. Until later. Not when Cob needed it. Horace Wellman was the station manager. He didn’t actually owe any money. “No.”
Wilstach nodded, scribbling with his pen. Then he paused. “In your opinion, and from what you were told at the time, did Wild Bill kill McCanles in self-defense?”
Wild Bill. Had he really gone wild? Was it the war? She’d seen the horrors of war etched on the faces of old men and embittered in the eyes of old women, horrors passed down to children and grandchildren as if it were a family birthmark. She’d heard that Hickok signed up for the Union Army as a scout. He knew trails and was the quiet sort who could pass through unnoticed. She couldn’t picture him wild. Dangerous, yes, but always in control. Not wild in temper like Cob. Still, she couldn’t imagine anyone calling Cob wild, either. Self defense? Cob never killed anyone. But neither had Hickok. “Certainly. Yes.”
“What makes you think this is true?”
Wilstach stared so intently at her she wondered if he knew she was lying. So she followed it with the truth. “Because on the morning of the tragedy I heard McCanles say that he was going to clean up on the people at the Station.” He meant to evict them. He never would have killed anybody.
“You say McCanles stole horses?”
Did she? Wilstach asked her about horses in his letters, but she never replied. She had to pay attention. No slip ups. Mind each line of numbers in the ledger. Be accurate, if not truthful in accounting.
“Yes, he stole horses.” Cob would be speechless to hear her say such a thing. She felt guilty. Cob had stole her heart, stole Mary’s but never horses. He was a righteous rogue. She closed her eyes momentarily. Wilstach continued to write, oblivious to her guilt.
“Were those horses for the use of the Confederate cavalry?”
For the war? Sarah had no idea how Cob would get the horses all the way to the Confederate cavalry. The morning Pony Express rider had already passed through. There were maybe four, five horses in the corral. He must certainly know she was lying. “Yes.”
Wilstach smiled with satisfaction and bent his head to write some more. “And they sent you away on the stage the next day. Just not to the Black Hills.”
It wasn’t a question so Sarah didn’t answer. He continued to write.
Day seven and I’ve become a whining diva.
Snickers Bar is on to something with their commercial that we are not ourselves when we’re hungry. And I’m definitely at that stage of my writing career that I’m feeling the hunger pains. I have a wonderful client, but sometimes funds don’t come through. Not their fault, but I have nothing else to rely upon.
Why? Because I have this dream that I can be a writer and make a living. Most days I believe in the dream and I work the strategy. I look at this time of writing and revising novels as the same time a person would commit to earning a degree or investing sweat-equity in a start-up business. These are the lean years.
If I get too hungry, I can go eat a Snickers Bar and find another client or two. Writing skills are valuable, and sometimes we need to remind each other of this. Writers don’t just write novels.
And, our novels are valuable, too. The more marketable a book, the more profitable it will be. Yet it is a fine line we walk between the desire to produce art, to communicate and the desire to earn money, to eat.
As a friend reminded me today, money can be a source of embarrassment–either because we have it, or we don’t. We should not let that stand in our way in telling our stories, honing our craft and sharing our words. We need to balance earning with output without letting ourselves get too hungry.
So what was my Snickers Bar for adjusting back to myself again? The Hub had the solution–he said I needed to get off the computer and out of the house. He was right. Since returning from my trip to Rock Creek last month, NE I’ve done nothing but pore over my research and write. I wasn’t even sure the last time I had actually put on jeans.
While it was “double day” form NaNoWriMo, I used it to improve my outlook, to pause and realize that I have choices. It may be lean times, but I am doing what I want to be doing and there’s more value in that than in the buck and a half it costs to buy a Snickers.
Diva adjustment in progress. Word count today: 0.
Thought for Day Seven:
“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”
~Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now
Wise words from Ms. Angelou. Our cares may not withdraw from us, but we can take time to withdraw from them. With a clearer head we can return to our writing. NaNoWriMo is not an all or nothing process. It is but a tool and a part of a long journey we have committed to among many pilgrims who all have different dreams and reasons for being on the road.
Your draft is an ugly baby.
Face it–writing is messy and that first attempt to communicate the dazzling story in your head is not the same as what ends up on the page. Just like not all babies are born looking like a Disney Princess, your first draft is not going to read like Louis L’Amour or Stephen King. Forget being named the next Shakespeare at the end of November.
Ugly babies and first drafts grow up, and like the duckling that became a swan, your first-draft will become a second, third, fourth, fifth or whatever it takes to reach beauty. Think of edits as growing pains. It’s worth the effort in the end. But first you have to have a baby. You need that first draft.
So the point is, don’t fret over your ugly baby. Don’t drag people to the crib and ask them to tell you how gorgeous it is. Expect a dismayed look or two. After all, it doesn’t make you love your baby less. It’s your baby. Give it tender loving care to grow and mature. Today, write and ignore any negative feedback. Don’t ever let that stop you. This is just a phase.
Thought for Day Six:
“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
~Lawrence Block, June 1981
Except don’t tear it up just because it’s an ugly baby. Give it time to grow. Go and write some more. This month is about the writing, not winning a beauty contest.
Day Six: 1,897 words
Excerpt From Rock Creek:
Wild Bill Hickok-McCanles Affair of Rock Creek, NE 1861
“…our honest opinion is that the real facts never will be known.”
~ F.J. Elliot to George Hansen Nov. 26, 1938
“Mrs. De Vald! I know you are in there!”
Sarah ignored the rapping and the yelling. She sat down in the old rocker her brother had let her take from the Robbins Hotel. The seat needed re-thatching and despite her stiff knuckles she managed enough weaves to seat herself comfortably. A handy skill to know, not that she ever used it much, but one that James McCanles taught her long ago so that she could thatch seats for him. It was their fair exchange so that Sarah hadn’t felt like a charity case when he or one of the other McCanleses brought her food to this tiny cabin in the woods. Shunned.
“Mrs. De Vald. I am he who has corresponded so diligently with you. Just a few questions is all I ask.”
In ignoring the man from New York City, she let her mind drift. Rock Creek gurgling in summer, insects buzzing like fairies alive in the tall grass. The pounding hooves of an approaching express rider, the exchange of the mochilla, the entrance of a swift moving stage or the choking dust of lumbering wagon trains. So different from the quiet pines and endless mountains of her youth.
“Mrs. De Vald. I know you were there.”
Sarah stiffened. Certainly this man couldn’t read her mind. Her hands gripped the scarred arm rests. Walnut oil would polish them up, but she had none. She looked around the small room. A broom was needed. In her mind she remembered living here, just her and baby Martha Allice. She made up stories every night. She had no rocking chair then. She used to pace, not understanding why her baby girl fussed so much. Colicky the doctor said. This room was much cleaner back then, back when she had kindling and quilts. Now there was hardly a sapling to be found in the area with the massive lumbering that made her hometown unrecognizable. That it was a town was an amazement. When she lived here it was her father’s mill and store. Neighbors had houses within walking distance, but the forest made it seem more private. Now she could see all the way down the stump-littered hill to the town they called Shulls Mill. Her father’s mill washed away in a flood in 1861 and was never rebuilt. It was 1925 and the families of her brothers now ran the Robbins Hotel in the shadow of the cotton mill and the bald slopes. It looked like a wasteland. It was never a place she wanted to return. She closed her eyes and could feel the warm Nebraska sun on her cheeks. This room was so cold.
No shouts, just continuous rapping as if a woodpecker was attacking the door. It was thin, not like the thick doors Cob once hewn for the ranches he built out west.
“Please, Mrs. De Vald. I have a deadline with my publisher…please?”
Sarah opened the door a crack. The man looked startled, but quickly recovered his dignity. His sloping forehead was topped with a mound of gray-streaked brown hair and was cropped closely behind each ear. Sarah supposed it was a city-man’s style. It did look dignified but she couldn’t imagine Cob wearing his hair like that. Or maybe. It was the kind of thing he’d do, trying to look important. “Be about your business quickly.”
“You are Sarah Shull De Vald?”
“Yes. I am her.”
“How old are you, Mrs. De Vald?”
I woke up this morning, talking to myself.
It’s an affliction of drafting daily: I hear voices. It’s perfectly okay. I know whose voices they are; they belong to my characters. Weirdly, we talk about how the story is going as if I’m the stage director and they are the actors. I listen. Soon they’re taking places to act out the crucial scene. We step back and discuss it.
I’ve migrated from the sleepy warm bed to my office, conveniently outside my bedroom. I pace in my pajamas. The scene “we” are working on is the final climax. It’s the whole reason we’re here. I’m not ready to write this scene, but today I rehearse it and ask questions. It’s important that every other scene leads to the clarity of this one moment. So we chat, my characters and me.
Thought for Day Five:
“Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.”
~Leigh Brackett, WD
Are you listening to the people you are plotting about? If they were to tell you the story of your novel, what would they say? Imagine having a cup of coffee with your characters. Talk out loud to them. Listen to what they say in return. Knowing them as intimately as waking up in bed with them will do more to fuel your plot than anything. Plot is people.
Do you talk to your characters?
Day Five: 1,811 words
Excerpt from Rock Creek
Then there were other wagon trains that espoused those who already knew hardship. Many of the women wore sorrow on their faces having to leave behind mothers, sisters, precious carved furnishings too heavy for even the massive Conestogas. One woman last week lamented that she had no fine china to receive the soup. Nancy Jane told her not to fret; that the beans weren’t worthy of fine china. Another woman asked if she was going to pass out those fine looking molasses cookies piled up behind her. Nancy Jane turned to look at the chips and told her those weren’t for supper. The woman offered to give her a copper for one, maybe two. The man behind the woman declared in a loud voice, “Madam, those are chips of dried buffalo dung and I don’t think those lumbering creatures eat molasses.”
Despite the delicate nose wrinkles many eastern wives gave the chips, Nancy Jane knew that once they passed the 100th meridian there would be no wood for warmth or cooking. Those women would come to appreciate the plentiful chips although they were not fit for eating. Nancy Jane tossed another chip on the fire and resumed serving beans until all had passed through. If the beans were not completely eaten, she’d used them to soak the next batch. The road ranch owner was particular about not wasting anything. At least he paid her once a week and she was saving up money for when the season ended.
Tending to children on the trail wasn’t easy and sickness was common. Nancy Jane had her own child on the way, but she wasn’t traveling, just serving beans or stew to those who were. She carefully watched for runny noses or feverish eyes. Often the cholera started with the very young or the very old. Sometimes it just started and took hearty and hale lives. One freighter advised Nancy Jane to boil her water even if there were no squirming worms in it. She didn’t want to get sick, mostly on account of Pa. It would do him in to lose another family member and who would watch out for him? He was working in the long barn with John Hughes, fixing wheel spokes or carving carry-all boxes. Irish John, as folks in Jones Territory called him so as not to confuse him with Welsh John Hughes, was a blacksmith’s apprentice. He could fix simple parts and made decent looking hooks for camp fire cooking.
Irish John watched Nancy Jane in a way that made her feel cornered. One day when she had gone into the barn to tell her Pa she was going to ride Hunk into the Blue River woods to shoot something better than what they had in the salt pork barrel, he pulled her aside and put his work blackened hand on her bump of a belly. “I know what you’ve done to get this, girl,” he said in a low, fierce tone, his brown eyes looking like a child who found a hard candy in the dirt.
“I know, too and this baby’s Pa is Russian cavalry and he knows what to do with a bayonet.”
It wasn’t an out and out lie, but somehow rumors picked up after that incident, claiming Nancy Jane was married to a Cossack. She was pretty sure she had heard Eustace say a few things that sounded like he didn’t like Cossacks, whoever they might be, but if it put fear in men like Irish Hughes, then she’d not correct the tale.
How to use dashes properly. Not.
This is not that sort of NaNoWriMo post, and not the sort you need to read right now. While style is important to clarity and dashes are something you use–or don’t use–it doesn’t need sorting out today. Save the dash-or-not-to-dash proclamations for next month. Before you can write clearly, first you must write.
And that is why we do the NaNoWriMo dash.
Thought for Day Four:
“Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.” ~Anne Lamott
Imagine your scene. Step into it as if a moment has frozen in time. What is your character holding in her hand? What is on the table and why? Pay attention to your principles not just to the the plot. Let them speak. They may have things to say to you. It may be your story talking to you. Be an active listener. Don’t just try to tell the story everything you know. Let it speak, too.
How important is your punctuation to you as you draft? I’ll confess that I go back and tidy up any obvious flaws like an omitted word or missed quotation mark.
Day Four: 1,738 words
Excerpt from Rock Creek
Just as everyone was slowing down, except for Cling who was dipping his fingers into the smears of gravy left on his plate, a loud rap came at the door. Cob stood so quickly, his chair scooted sharply. Mary dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin and sat straight as Cob answered the door. It was her father, Joseph, and two of her seven brothers.
“Evening Joe, Hiram, DJ. Come in, we’re just finishing supper.”
Mary stood up. “Hello Father, would you like some…” She looked at the table, realizing nothing remained. Three wee boys. What was she to do when they were older?
“Daughter, I don’t see a crumb left for a field mouse.” Joseph stood rigid and Mary resisted the urge to hug him.
“So I see. I do have more applesauce.”
“We’re fine. DJ’s Cathy made a meal.”
“My wife is going to have to teach you to cook larger quantities, Sister.”
Mary frowned at DJ. “She only has two more than me. I’m sure I’ll adjust.”
Cob was buttoning up his coat. “I’ll saddle up my horse and then we’ll ride out.” Mary knew the men were headed over to Sugar Cove to meet in regards to some French merchant who had come into the area selling folks job lots. It was nothing more than mass quantities of cheap items but he was refusing cash or barter, welcoming credit. Turns out he was having folks sign over property to gain this credit. Mary also suspected that the men would use this gathering to debate the state of the union and its territories.
DJ picked up the newspaper and mumbled something about the traitor governor. Before Mary could send him a warning glare to mark his words in front of young ears, Monroe asked, “What’s in the paper Uncle DJ?”
“Well, says here that coal can’t be used for steam locomotives.”
Mary nodded her approval.
“Like for the railroad? I’ve not yet seen a train.”
Joseph said, “They’re running a line to Johnson’s Tank over the mountain in Tennessee. You’ll be able to take a steam engine all the way to a steamboat.”
Hiram shook his head. “Give me fine Kentucky horseflesh any day.”
DJ scowled. “You mean fine Tennessee horseflesh, Brother.”
“Boys,” Mary warned. The Green men had grown even more incorrigible since their mother died in 1850. Her father was the worst, yet he seemed quiet tonight. It meant he had something to say.
Joseph cleared his throat. “Monroe. You take them young fellars to the back porch and wash up their faces and hands.
Monroe looked to his mother. Mary nodded. Once the boys went to the back of the house Mary asked, “What is it, Father?”
“Reckon you should know he’s taken up with that Shull slattern again.”
Mary felt the flush rise from her neck to her face.
“Want us to see that he has an accident, Sister?” Hiram looked eager to start.
“How dare you. I will hunt you down if my husband so much as scrapes his knee.”
“Now, Mary, Hiram is just telling you, the family supports you.”
“The family? Amos and Isaac are already talking about leaving for Tennessee because they can’t stand the divisions in this family.” Mary knew it was unfair to bring up her twin brothers’ plans but in truth, she feared that if the sensible Greens started leaving she’d be left with the rabid ones.
“Don’t you care he’s dragging our family through the hog muck?” DJ scowled at her as if Mary was the one he accused.
“Not that it is any of your business, but I know that my husband takes food and firewood to Sarah’s cabin. He sinned, he confessed and now he is repenting. Both his father and I agreed that he needs to care for the welfare of the woman and child shunned by their sin.”
Joseph scoffed, but before his words followed, Cob’s boots clunked up the front porch steps. He walked into the house and Mary knew he sensed the tension. “Best be going,” he said. He merely nodded to her as he followed her father and brothers out the door.
From behind the window curtain, Mary watched the men meld into the early evening shadows. She saw Cob pull a punch on each brother, DJ tumbling to the dirt. She sighed, relieved that they wouldn’t get the jump on Cob, yet frustrated that Cob wouldn’t punch the real instigator. Joseph worked his family into fighting every chance he got. Her mother would have never let him be that way, but then again, his misery was due to her being gone to the grave. She wished all her brothers would be more sensible like Amos and Isaac, but it wasn’t sense they fought for. It was money and power. In these parts, folks had too little of either.
It was hours past dark before Mary heard Cob ride in. She could tell he was alone. The kitchen was clean beyond normal tasks. She could tell Cob noticed when he walked into the house.
“Shall I polish my boots before I dare set them on this pristine floor?”
“No, I was just passing time after getting the boys to bed.”
“There’s a couple of gifts lingering nearby that would enjoy passing the time with my wife so fair of face and clean of dust.”
Mary understood that he meant the rocking chair he had made her for Christmas and the porcelain teapot from Julia. It was her mother’s teapot from the Alexander family. Selina Alexander McCanles herself had offered the gift to Julia to share with Mary. It was a symbol of unity from the McCanles women. Yet, Mary hadn’t dared to use it yet. “I suppose I could rock if my husband were to join me.”
Cob carried a kitchen chair to set it next to Mary in her rocker. Because the chair was made for her diminutive size and the kitchen chairs were big enough to hold McCanles men, she felt like a doll sitting next to Cob. She was glad she didn’t have tea. She had more important things to discuss.
“Cob, I have a Christmas gift for you.”
“It’s rather late with spring coming on.”
“After you swore your fidelity to me and agreed to take care of the sufferings of, well, of others…I let you back into my bed.”
Cob was grinning like a rogue. “Is this bedroom talk, fair Lady?”
Mary gave him her best Green scowl. “This is what happens after the bedroom. I’m with child.”
Mini-cup of coffee for WriMos: Day 4
If you study for your writing–research or similar genre–set those books aside. Let what you’ve read for study work its way into your writing naturally. But do read. Read for fun. Recall what it is that you love in a good book. Engage with a good story, a good laugh or a good classic.
On Tuesdays, I compile the responses from last week’s Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge. So these 99-word stories about ruts are my mini-offereings to WriMos to take a break and read.
For a feel-good break, I suggest Nano num-nums with fellow WriMo and Rough Writer, Geoff Le Pard. He’s published his first book which was a NaNoWriMo project, and is working on the sequel this month. How’s that for inspiration!
What do you read when you are doing NaNoWriMo?
Ed and Edna by Larry LaForge
Ed pays the bills. Edna cooks. They’ve never discussed it, but it’s been that way for 43 years.
Except one time.
Edna wanted to hide the huge bill from Watkin’s Department Store. She intercepted the mail, plucked the bill, and went online to pay it. Edna managed to transmit $2,414.00 electronically to cover the $241.40 bill.
Ed decided to broil himself a chicken. He set the oven to 500 degrees, plopped it in, closed the oven door, and left. The smoke alarm woke him up.
They quickly returned to their rut — or groove.
Ed pays the bills. Edna cooks.
The 100-word version of this story is posted at larrylaforge100words on Flash Fiction Magazine.
George by Anne Goodwin
Irene slid the prospectus across the table. “Anything you fancy?”
George eyed the whitewashed villas bathed in sunshine. “You’ll leave Eric for me?”
“It’s what we planned. Once you were retired and my kids had left home.”
“Nobody mentioned moving to Spain,” said George.
“Why not? The heat would do wonders for your arthritis,” said Irene.
“And everything’s so cheap there. How much would you get for this place?”
“I can’t sell The Willows. I’ve lived here all my life.”
Irene sighed. “You’re not still expecting your sister to come back, are you? It must be over fifty years.”
You can read her other two character flashes at Annectdotal. Anne Goodwin is working on her Not Quite NaNo project.
No Way Out Part Five – Breathe by Sherri Matthews
Bill buried his head in his hands as the doctor uttered just five words: “Joey’s operation was a success.”
By early dawn and back home, Bill retrieved his phone from the bin where he had dumped it the day before. So many missed calls from a lifetime ago…
He saw it then: the repossession letter on the kitchen table. Bill’s upper lip curled as he grabbed the letter and his lighter. Outside in his back garden, sparks flew up into the dawn-lit sky as he watched the letter burn. Now he breathed.
“Not yet you bastards, not yet.”
Gall, Gratitude, and Guilt by Ruchira Khanna
Each night she promises herself not to go back to that kind of life, but morning strikes, and the gratitude of being rescued when she was in the dungeon always springs up when she wants to revolt thus faithfully follows the 9am to 9pm orders without any debate.
She drags herself to the routine while relying on her destiny.
Knocks twice on her door, prior to entering, and finds her body pale with no expressions.
Screeches for help!
Moans when her master is declared dead, and guilty when she hears about acquiring 25% of her wealth.
The Form by Sarah Brentyn
Oliver knew precisely when it started.
The nurse had asked him to fill out a form. That was eighteen days ago. Oliver had forgotten to write his street number on the “address” line.
Now there was a sheet with Oliver’s name on it, written in blue ink, tucked in a file cabinet somewhere in that building. And on that paper was a blank spot where there should be blue numbers in Oliver’s handwriting.
He had walked to the office twelve times with his blue pen. They wouldn’t let him behind the check-in window to write “1397” in the space.
Cornered by Charli Mills
And still the flow of wagons continued. By day, Sarah took coins from teamsters for crossing Cob’s toll bridge and at night she tallied the income. Cob was amassing a fortune in dimes and silver half-dollars. He’d stop by when he wasn’t building. Last week it was a hay barn for the stage coach company that agreed to make Rock Creek their stop, and this week is was a cabin for the schoolteacher he hired. It all pounded against Sarah–the busy days, the lonely nights. She felt as cornered as the iron-clad wheels that rolled down rutted tracks.
Bee Happy by Love Happy Notes
Joseph’s thoughts flurried with worry until a voice quieted them.
‘Isn’t it wonderful to discover something new; a sunset, flower, a way of thinking? Wonders abound! What have you noticed today?’
Joseph searched for the voice. He questioned the sky, sea, fauna and flora.
Speech came from inside a flower.
‘Empty your mind, my friend. You create the brain clutter of worry, regret, and guilt. You needn’t feed them. Set them free. Open your heart. You exist to be happy.’
Mind liberated, unlearning complete, eager to explore the world, Joseph’s new life brought joy to everyone he met.
Out of the Rut by Sarah Unsicker
A deer run approaches the hiking trail. The sign reads “Do Not Stray Off the Path.” Always the rule-follower, Hannah turns onto the natural highway.
The ground is soft, grass bends beneath her feet. She has entered a dim world that smells of earth and evergreen trees. Mushrooms and wildflowers speak peace as dense trees mute hikers’ conversations. Her body settles against a rotting log that gives to her weight. Her lungs expand as she breathes in the forest. The long chore list forgotten, she takes in the pleasure of nature that is carefully cultivated out of modern life.
Blocked In by Pete
Mills stared at the cinderblock wall. He knew each crack and crevice, hell, he’d even counted the pores until the shadows dragged him to sleep. A shake of the head, then back to his notebook. His account needed to be told.
His pen scratched the surface, then stopped. A wail of agony. Mills rose, his old joints aching and popping. That’s the thing about concrete, it just took, never gave.
He never got used to it, the walls or the wails. And still four hundred and thirty one more days until it was over.
If there was anything left.
Walking the Dog by Geoff Le Pard
She had seen Rupert. He said Peter was her real father which meant he had an affair before the one with Angela, Rupert’s mother. Oddly it didn’t shock Mary; any more than that the woman she called ‘mother’ had accepted Mary as her own.
Mary imagined her mother’s reaction: calm, practical, no emotion; nothing to upset her ordered existence. Mary was different. She kicked the tyre tracks. She would find her real mother.
Rut by Irene Waters
Pamela walked to the clothes line. The rut in the path caused the bag hanging off her waist to bang her hip with each lopsided step.
“You’ve got to stop doing it.”
“No. I don’t want to.”
“It’s not healthy.”
“No habit is healthy if you can’t stop doing it. I’m surprised the authorities let you do it in the first place.”
“Legal precedent. They had no choice. Bess Throckmorten did it. Twenty years she carried Sir Walter’s head. Carried it ’til the day she died.”
“That wasn’t the only rut Bess had. She was jailed for the other.”
NaNoWriMo Day 4 Update:
Goodbye Sarah Shull of my flash fiction. You have led me to your story and no longer will I toy with who you are in 99 words. Never did I suspect that the biggest project I would take on as a writer would evolve from 99-word explorations. Tomorrow I’ll post the next Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge and explain how consistent craft practice led to a break-thru moment as a writer.
Hello Sarah Shull of NaNoWriMo 2014. Today’s Word Count: 2,030
Excerpt (and yes, it’s based on the “cornered” flash fiction):
The scrape of brake on iron-clad wheels and shouts of “Whoa!” signaled the arrival of yet the third wagon train. Dust clogged the air outside the toll cabin with a throat-choking fog. Sarah kept the curtain snugly pinned to reduce the permeating dust that still seeped into the dark room. It was cool inside despite the heat of day. Before stepping outside, she smoothed back her dark hair, checked the hairpins in her bun and put on a sun bonnet of deep blue calico with emerald green hexagons outlined in white.
A man shouted from outside, “In the cabin, ho!”
First she would need to dampen a small patch of hankie, the material neatly matched her bonnet, so as to have it to breathe through if the dust was too thick or to wipe her face to keep it clean.
Another shout of “Ho,” came from outside.
Sarah shook her hips as she stood to settle her skirt and petticoats. She took a sip of water from the tin cup next to the water bucket and felt ready to go dicker with the wagon master. Before opening the door, someone from outside pounded heavily. She frowned at the ungentlemanly haste of the knocking. While she didn’t share Cob’s view entirely regarding the Yankees, they were an impatient lot.
Bright sunlight cut through the dust to illuminate a man on horseback as Sarah opened the heavy cabin door. “Excuse me, Sir. Kindly back your horse off my steps.”
The man wore a duster and had a kerchief of red tied around his neck. It must have served as a mask because his mustache and chin seemed cleaner than the white dirt that paled around his eyes and coated his cheeks like pastry flour. A large round hat shadowed his dusty face but didn’t hide the surprise at seeing Sarah. By now she was used to the looks wagon masters gave her. If any looked too hard or too long they often met a second surprise—Cob’s fists.
Reining his horse back, the dusty animal tucked his nose and stepped back off of the river rock flagstones Cob had paved at the entrance to the toll cabin. He took off his hat. “Sorry about that, Ma’am. Wasn’t expecting a woman.”
Sarah stood on the flagstones and glanced up the line of wagons. This would be a good day for collecting coin. “How many wagons in your party, Sir?”
“About that. Since when has Rock Creek crossing required a toll?” She could see that he was angry, but kept his words soft. He didn’t sound Yankee or Carolinian. So many people had passed through here since she and Cob took over the way station by the first of April, that she was still hearing the variances of place upon speaking.
“Mr. David McCanles, owner of this way station, built a toll bridge in April this year of our Lord, 1859.”
“What kind of cod-head would go and do that?” He snapped his hat against his thigh, dust rising from it and spooking his horse.
Sarah could hear Cob down the knoll among the campers who had purchased space on the broad flat for the coming evening. As loud as his voice was booming, he must be expounding his views to some soul who shared a different idea. She’d have to handle this wagon master on her own. It was not unlike dealing with customers at her father’s store once Mr. Shull had cut off their credit. She was practiced in disgruntled men. It was the disgruntled women who put up the greater fuss. “50 cents per wagon, Sir.”
Why not? This isn’t your hair we’re talking about. It’s your imagination. If you dye your hair purple, you might regret it tomorrow. But if your character spews purple prose, so what? You can fix that. If you give him purple hair, maybe you’ll discover the meaning of it in a day or two. If not, change it to a somber mouse-brown. Or glistening silver. Or flaming red. Take risks with your imagination. NaNoWriMo is about writing. Rewriting follows so take risks now.
Thought for Day Two:
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ~Ernest Hemingway
If you are going to bleed, show some blood on the paper. Risks aren’t just about getting hurt, they also help us solve problems and imagine possibilities beyond what is accepted or understood. Don’t be afraid to write. Don’t be afraid that it’s implausible or sloppy. Take a risk and write what needs to come out of your veins.
Be the entrepreneur of your imagination.
Not to be a hypocrite, I’m going to tell you what I’m risking. I’m risking my story by taking on three POVs. Why? Because I think this is a story that needs to be told from three different perspectives. What am I risking? That readers won’t feel engaged, that the plots will tangle, that no elixir will be offered in the end. Today, I’m going for it! I can always pull back when I revise, I can always rewrite with one point of view or two. Today, I take the risk and offer my third character perspective.
Excerpt from Rock Creek WIP. NaNoWriMo Day Three: 1,809 words (here’s a few):
Hunk nickered as they drew closer to the small cabin and barn that Pa built not far from the Old Military Road. It was called Jones Territory, but it was a part of greater Nebraska. Nancy Jane didn’t understand why Kansas Territory was always bleeding, but no one bled here among the ravines and hills. Pa said Nebraska was more peaceful and that folks weren’t uppity. There were always wagon trains kicking up dust when the season for settling began. Mormons pushed cartwheels headed for some promised desert. Nancy Jane wondered why God would lead people to the barren salt-flats. Jones Territory with its sand cranes, summer bluebells, red ferns and endless grass seemed more promising. Desert sounded too close to the brimstone one pastor yelled about when he passed through. Fire and brimstone, he shouted. Something that befell those not right proper. Pa called him a moral fussbudget. William just shook his head and laughed.
Pa was sitting at the bench of the cabin, his head in his hands, wispy long strands of faded red teased over his thick fingers. What looked like a letter was wrinkled in one hand and held to his head as if it were a rag pressing a wound. Nancy Jane slid off of Hunk. “I got us supper, Pa.”
Joseph Holmes looked up at his daughter with red-rimmed eyes. His wisps of hair looked like disturbed pond reeds. He held out the letter to Nancy Jane. “Look here.”
Nancy Jane looked at the looping lines like inked embroidery and couldn’t make any sense of it. She had no schooling and even though Mrs. Bacon tried to teach Nancy Jane how to spell her own name, the letter was cryptic beyond her. “Pa, I can’t read this.”
“The freighter out of St. Jo pulled off the road to bring it to us. He said it contained the announcement of William’s death.”
Nancy Jane dropped the quail. “William? Our William?”
“Our William. Killed by ruffians. Don’t know about them other boys.”
Nancy Jane looked at the paper with its scrawling ink. It made no sense to her no matter how hard she squinted and tried to find meaning. “Maybe the freighter was wrong, Pa.”
“He walked up to me with his hat in hand and if you know old Bart, you’d know he rarely takes off that hat to show his shiny head that looks nothing like that greasy beard of his. It’s got to be the gospel. Death comes too quickly to this family. I swear I heard…”
“Don’t you say it, Pa! I won’t have you talking about any prairie winds sounding like banshees. We’ll wait for better news or wait for someone to come along and read us this letter.”
Joseph nodded and Nancy Jane clenched her fists. She picked up the quail, tossed them to the bench and went about unsaddling Hunk. After she fed him and the milk cow, she furiously plucked the feathers of the quail. She cursed, realizing she hadn’t started the wood-fire. Inside the cabin was cold and her toes longed for something warmer than the sod floor. She cursed again realizing she wasn’t going to get any new boots.
Day two and first-day jitters remain.
The first year I did NaNoWriMo I had a manuscript in process and had completed a story-board. What I needed to do was write the gaps and missing scenes. Last year I wrote an entirely new project from a short story that was part of a bigger idea. This year, I discovered a novel among the flash fiction I had been writing to better understand an incident in history that was found in my family tree.
And I’m nervous. I had difficulty yesterday with getting ink on the blank page. So I wrote about the barn cat that’s been pestering my porch lately. Sometimes, we go with “what we know.” I know the cat. So I wondered, what would Sarah think of the cat? I even did a search online about “pioneer cats” and giggled over photos of kitties in Laura Ingalls braids. Yet, it confirmed that pioneers did bring cats on the Oregon Trail.
Did you feel jittery getting started?
Thought for Day Two:
“Most people wont realize that writing is a craft. You have to take your apprenticeship in it like anything else.” ~Katherine Anne Porter
Free-drafting is where I learn. I can read books about style, books about plotting and text books for writing courses. I can read what masters write. I can ask questions, deconstruct and add to my writer’s tool-bag. But unless I write, I don’t learn how to craft with this knowledge or these tools. NaNoWriMo therefore is an apprenticeship. It is where I first lean about my novel.
Today I was jittery to explore Mary. If you’ve read any of my Rock Creek flash fiction stories, then you’ll recognize Mary as the wife of Cob McCanles. What unfolded for me today was family. The character of Julia is based on my 4th-great grandmother. When she appeared on the page I felt like I was getting her endorsement.
Excerpt from Rock Creek WIP. NaNoWriMo Day Two: 2,002 words (here’s a few):
Laughter came from inside the kitchen. It wasn’t like Mary to be so lackadaisical, but the festivities were removed from her as if this gathering were a church ladies play and she no longer wanted the role of angel. Cooking angel, that is. Peeling apples, pounding corn, melting butter, frying pork. The rhythm continued without her. The play, featuring her sister-in-laws, the McCanles-now-Green-girls, went on. She could mark Julia’s loud laugh above all others. Tiny as an elf with huge brown eyes and thick hair like her brother Cob’s, Julia was one to always be outside when she could, fishing the streams and tending her garden that grew twice the size of any other kitchen garden in these parts. She had to be part elf. Her girls laughed as heartily as she did. So did Mary’s brother Amos. Though Julia had nothing spectacular about her looks, nothing striking, she was a handsome woman. Her skin was always sun-kissed something she tried to tell Julia to prevent. She’d regret it as she aged. Yet, Amos never strayed, not even in gaze. He even laughed as much as Julia. Ridiculous. What could be so funny all the time? Maybe they both drank corn liquor when no one was watching.
That’s what the men were doing. Except the twins. They were still trying to get that huge pine into the barn without any help from the other Greens. No doubt they were cozied up to a crock of spirits and no doubt her husband was in the middle of the men, crowing about his recent re-election as Watauga County Sheriff. What would he think if she told him that her own father didn’t even vote for him. Cob’s ideas about the Whigs supporting a Constitutional Union was not as popular as he thought. Towering over his neighbors like a burly beast, they were afraid to induce his ire. Mary clenched her shawl tighter around her shoulders. He wasn’t as handsome as he once was, either. Mr. Sheriff. Mr. Wife Cheater. Oh, Sarah Shull was young, her hair dark and eyes blue, but her hair wasn’t as black as Mary’s. And she wasn’t that much younger. Although she acted like it, all dreamy with her head in the clouds as if Mr. Sheriff was going to be some knight errant. He fooled her. Let her suffer with a babe to care for and no family to help.
“It’s deliciously cold out here.” Julia walked up behind Mary and wrapped a large patched quilt around her head and shoulders.
Mary frowned. The quilt would disarray her hair hooded over her like that. “That’s one of Mama’s last quilts she ever made. It shouldn’t be outside.”
“It’s a pretty one. Your Mama could hold a straight stitch.”
“I’d better check on the Baby.”
“That boy is two now and he’s happily playing with his Grandma Rachel.”
“Were the boys messy with their hoe-cakes? Sure as day comes tomorrow they make a mess with their food.”
“Oh, will you stop fussing and let me warm you up. Want some hot cider?” Julia stood beside Mary and smiled.
Mary shook her head. “Do elves not feel the cold?”
Julia busted out a laugh that seemed larger than she was. “Daddy always said I was a changeling. Must have hot blood where I come from.”
Mary shook her head and stopped shivering. “Why doesn’t someone help them?”
“Oh, Amos and Isaac probably ran off all offers of help. Those two think they can do everything themselves.”
“Sorry I’m not helping in the kitchen.”
“If you were needed in the kitchen I wouldn’t have drug your Mama’s precious quilt out here. Figured if she were still alive she’d wrap you in her arms and let you cry a spell.”
“I won’t cry. He won’t make me cry.” Mary chewed on the inside of her cheek to chase away any threat of tears.
“My brother acts before he thinks. He got himself caught up in dangerous flirtations. I’m not trying to excuse him, mind you, after all I kicked him full in the shin when he confessed to Daddy what he did. But he loves you, Mary. He loves those boys.”
“I feel like I just want to run off into the woods and wail. I can’t cry. Won’t cry.”
“No use being tough as square nails meant to hammer on a mule’s shoe. Let’s set up some crying time for you, but tonight, come join us in festivities.”
Mary looked back toward the kitchen. It was time she pulled her share of work. She nodded, but Julia grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her toward the barn. Hard packed snow crunched beneath their boots.
“Have some quilt, Julia.” Mary opened her arm and Julia snuggled into the space with her one arm wrapping around Mary’s waist and the other holding the quilt to her shoulder. Together they walked up to the twins who had the tree half-way into the barn. Hoots and laughter echoed inside.
“Need help, Boys?” Julia smiled and Amos doffed his hat in reply.
“Why it’s my wee Lady of the Mountains come to save the day.”
“Amos, unless your Lady sprouted muscles thicker than a blacksmith’s, not much she can help with.” Isaac looked nearly identical to his brother except his hair was longer and his brother had a full beard. Something the wives joked about insisting they do since different hats were too easy to swap. And the boys were jesters enough to try and swap wives. They couldn’t fool their children though and they already had eight between them.
“Is that my fair wife, I hear? My love is like the melody, that’s sweetly played in tune.” Cob brushed past the tree and stroked a few violin strings with his bow.
Mary bit back the reply she wanted to give him. Did he sweep that girl off her feet with sweet quotes of Robert Burns? “A glib tongue. I think I hear my husband.”
Julia pinched Mary beneath the quilt. “Why it is the humble and endearing McCanles sheriff.”
“Is that a hint, Sister?”
“It’s a hint, Brother. Take it.”
“Better to take your hints than your well-aimed kicks.”
Amos nodded as if he knew of his wife’s aim. He said, “Let these fair ladies pass and help us with this tree.”
“Mary, my Dear Wife, will you please take my fiddle and bow?” He handed them to Mary and she tucked them within the quilt. She and Julia walked past the tree into the barn.
Behind her Cob said, “I will love thee still, my dear, while the sands of life shall run.”
Amos replied, “Be careful she don’t bury your head in those sands and choke the life out of you.” The men all laughed.
Mary kept walking straight ahead, but smiling. The barn floor was cleared for food and dancing. James McCanles was notching together a few more benches. Every year he put together makeshift tables and benches for the annual Green Christmas celebration, but what he called makeshift was nicer furniture than most folks owned. Getting up from his knees, he smoothed back a few stray strands of his full head of silver hair. As tall as his two sons, six feet in his wool stockings, he was much leaner than Cob and still spry for a grandfather.
“Mary, what are you doing out here?” His eyes shifted to a dark corner of the barn.
She wanted to tell him she came to spy on her cheating husband, but Julia whirled them back around to face the entry where Cob was muscling in the grand pine with the twins.
“The damsel pine has made her entrance,” said Julia.
A few other Green brothers went over to help nail a stand to the stump. The tree would go in the corner and all would decorate as food and fiddling commenced. By the time the children were all bedded down, the adults would clog and dance, some all night. Mary was suspicious about what James was worried she might see in the corner. In years past the Shulls would join the festivities, but none would dare show up. Not after one of their women committed the greatest sin. Old Philip Shull refused to grind James’s corn since May. James sued him in court and still the old man refused to grind it. After another suit and Cob paying a visit as Sheriff, Philip ground the McCanles corn.
Cob walked up to Mary and hugged both her and Julia. She could smell a faint essence of liquor, but he seemed steady. She knew he wouldn’t drink while fiddling and she hoped he fiddled all night, although his father would, too.
“Da, can you take my fiddle and set it aside?”
Mary handed bow and fiddle to James. Cob still hugged both women. Amos came over to Julia and tried to hug all three of them. “My arm’s not long enough to include the bear on your side, Sister.”
James called from the corner where the tree was going up. “David Colbert? Do you want me to fetch anything for you?”
“Da, bring that piece I made.” He smiled at Mary and if she didn’t know better she’d think he was nervous.
James emerged from behind the tree carrying a rocking chair. He set it down in front of Mary and Julia. The chair was hickory, shaved and polished to a golden gleam. The seat was a tightly woven pattern of wicker that must of taken James hours to craft. His finest work were always marvels.
Julia elbowed Mary. “It’s yours,” she said.
Mary shed the quilt and sat down in the chair. It rocked without a creak. She smiled up at James who was now standing next to his son with his arm on his shoulders. “Mine?”
James nodded with a look of pride. “My son made that for you.”