A Writer’s Notebook: a scene from a story

So, I’m working on a new short story. I’ve already finished the first draft and am working on the first read-through, so this isn’t technically a “rough” exercise in the raw here. But I won’t know if this is how the final version will look until I set the whole thing aside for a while and get some distance.

Anyway, in the meantime, here’s an early scene.

The first girl he fell in love with was Natalie, glossy brown hair and dark blue eyes, a Michael Jackson patch sewn on her backpack. Pink lipstick that she wiped off in the girl’s room before getting on the bus for home. They were in fourth grade. She sat behind him in homeroom — he kept turning around in his seat to look at her, kept getting his name written up on the chalkboard. She would roll her dark blue eyes at him but he was determined.

Once, he bought her a tin ring set in plastic garnets from the fifty-cent prize machines at the Safeway. When he gave it to her on the way from music class back to homeroom, she sighed, pushed his hand away. “I don’t want that,” she said. But he offered it again, and he told her that he loved her. “Don’t,” she said. “Please, stop it.” But he did love her, honest, for real. He didn’t like her like her, the way some other boys would. He loved her. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about,” she said. “You’re creeping me out.” That afternoon, when he got his name on the board for turning around in his seat again, he said, out loud in the classroom, that he would prove it to her. Then he stood from his seat, the teacher shouting at him now, and walked to the chalkboard. Underneath his own name, he drew a large chalk heart and got to the t in Natalie name before the teacher took the chalk away and marched him out of the room. He was in detention for a week and the principal switched him to a different homeroom.

Today is the third day since he found the woman in the forest. He can’t imagine now what he would say if he called the police. How to explain the delay. But he cannot just leave her there. On the way home from work, he stops at the Safeway for beer and a frozen pizza, and as he enters the store he pauses at the floral section. He selects a thin bouquet of lilacs and carries them with him through the store, tucking them into the crook of his arm while he collects his beer and pizza. “Aw,” the cashier says. “Must be date night.” He just smiles at her and swipes his debit card. By the automatic glass doors, he spots the gumball machines. Jawbreakers, eyeballs, fruit candies. The single prize machine is full of fake tattoos. He pushes in two quarters anyway, hopes for a heart tattoo. When he cracks open the little plastic bubble, he finds a long band of paper with a tribal coil of barbed wire.

He drops his beer and pizza off at his apartment then drives straight to the park. In the twilight, it still takes him almost two hours to find her again. He lays the lilacs beside her head. He kneels and looks at her. Small birds are whirring in the trees; flies reel over the ferns where she lies. A prop plane buzzes overhead. In the last of the light, he licks his wrist, over and over, all the way around, then he pastes the fake tattoo into the spit on his arm. He squeezes his wrist in his fist and he closes his eyes.

When he opens his eyes, the sky is darker but his vision has adjusted. He can see her looking at him. He whispers, “I wish I knew your name.”

There isn’t much of an exercise here except me following an idea. My wife and I — big murder mystery fans — sometimes joke that the deep, lush ravines in the verdant forests here in Oregon would make great places to hide a body. And then a few weeks ago, after we had spent the day in Washington Park, I turned on the news and heard that, lo and behold, just such a thing had happened: someone had found a body in the very park we’d just visited.

It creeped me out a little, I have to admit. And it got me wondering, what would I do if I found a body? How would I react?

I still don’t know the answer to that, beyond calling the police. But that immediate answer — to call the cops — made me wonder what sort of person wouldn’t call the cops. Why would someone find a body and not report it?

And then I had this idea: what if the person who found the body fell in love.

It’s a morbid thought, I know, but before you get the wrong idea, know that I’m referring to a tale about Charlemagne, related by Italo Calvino in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In the tale, Charlemagne become subject to a spell in which he falls in love with anyone to possess an enchanted ring. At first, this ring is worn by his wife, so no one suspects an enchantment, but when she dies and he continues to love her corpse, an archbishop discovers the cause. He removes the ring and Charlemagne falls in love with the archbishop, who throws the ring into a lake to be rid of it. The plan backfires; Charlemagne lives out his remaining days sitting by the lake, gazing adoringly at the water.

I’m fascinated by this idea of people falling in love with inanimate objects. And we don’t need magic to explain it — people fall in love with things or places or memories all the time. So now I have this man, who is lonely and a bit pathetic and unlucky with women, and he finds the body of a woman, and suddenly, he has a companion.

So this is the idea I’m playing with in the story. This, and the consequences of her eventual decomposition: this is not a relationship that will last forever….

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6 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: a scene from a story

    1. Ha! Yeah, all my love interests in stories are redheads. That’s not just a personal preference, it’s an archetype (thank you, Charlie Brown), but I really ought to be fair to the other girls. 😉

  1. Great opening and the switch to present time works rather well. Thumbs up.
    Are you doing any reading and deconstruction of mystery stories you like? Doing that often allows us some insight in how to structure our own pieces. Taking them from writing exercise into writing action. I’m all for writing action. For me, exercises are too easily set aside. Too easily discounted and not demanded of: ‘Finish me, dammit.” “Nah – you’re just an exercise.”

    My one offer of critique is that fourth grades are 8 or 9 years-old at most. And I’m wondering if those aged-speakers (girl & boy) would be so concise in the level dialog you’ve given them? Plus, are 4th graders divided into homerooms? I thought that started at 7th grade and up.

    Like Julie said, I’m interested in seeing where this goes. Or rather, if it goes places.
    How long are you stories? I keep most of mine to 3,000 words, often knocking sometimes up to 1,500+ words off them by their final drafts. Short sties are about choice. Where novels area more often about change. So no matter what my intent and length at the first draft, by the end- where they’re publishable, I’ve got some form of choice being decided on and the piece is pared down into the 3K range for word count. If I want to expand from there- there’s always the novels to write from the short story.

    1. Thanks! Another excellent comment! I always enjoy the conversations on craft that you start with your insights and your questions! Seriously — it’s awesome. 🙂

      I’m often surprised by how concise and adult 8- and 9-year-olds can be, actually. I tutor one right now, and she astounds me. Also, this scene from fourth grade is sort of based on a true story. It might not be how the girl spoke when I was 8 or 9, but it’s how I remember her speaking, which isn’t really a valid defense of the dialogue unless I also point out that it’s how this narrator — who is currently an adult — remembers her speaking. Which isn’t to say it’s right, but it’s why I’m leaving it alone for now.

      For the time being, the story is finished. I’m having my wife look at it, and then I’ll send it to a few close writing pals of mine. At the moment, it’s around 5,200 words, but this story is a slippery one, and I can’t really tell yet if that’s the right length, or if it needs to be flash fiction or needs to expand to a full-blown novella. It feels around the right length right now, but even then, I’m looking to do what you do and whack a healthy chunk off of it — maybe 500 or 1,000 words, to start with. But it’s in that limbo stage right now where I can’t really judge it objectively, so I’m waiting to get some feedback.

      As for how long my stories usually are: I’m kind of all over the place. For a long time I was hitting a solid average of 2,500 – 3,000 words, but not long ago I was fixated on longer stories of 8,000 – 10,000 words even while I was knocking out a bunch of flash of 500 – 1000 words. The last two stories I finished were 1,800 and 3,000, so aside from flash, I might be settling back down to a shorter range, but then this story is up in the 5k area, so who knows. I mostly play by ear and let the story dictate the length.

      I love your distinction between stories and novels as being about choice versus change! I’m curious, then: what is the novella?

      1. Novellas – hummm. A Choice put into action but not where the Change is fully depicted?
        Yeah. That sounds right.

        I’m running a Deadly Serious Writer’s mini-workshop over on my blog for the rest of the summer.
        Come and ask a few questions – I’ll be turning them into blog posts.
        I’d think you have some good questions to add.

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