Friday, May 4, 2012

When the story gets out of hand.

What do you do if you're writing a story,and it gets out of hand?

It's a bizarre thing. I've been investing pretty heavily putting together the new book, The Fixin' Place. I've been in a nice, tidy place with it. The little story engine was chugging along nicely.Then, last night, I'll be danged if I didn't get gobsmacked in the middle of a thought. I'm not at a place to do any sort of "reveal," because the idea is still pretty raw. Still, I can't help but be excited. I've never really experienced writer's block, but there have been times when I thought what I was writing simply wasn't very compelling - it was loose and disjointed and didn't propel the story along at all.

Now I'm really intrigued at this delicious twist, which has opened the tale up to possiblities I hadn't seen. It makes it darker, scary dark, Darth Vader dark. Still, TFP is a fun story at its heart. At least, it was ...

I thought I'd share an excerpt from an event earlier in the book. Here are my protagonist Thomas and three of his buddies - Button, Danny, and Chuck. They have a camping spot on the shores of a local creek they've claimed as uniquely theirs. It's a Friday night, and they've built a fire, and are just talking in the way that only a bunch of 13-year-old boys can:

            So much of life in those days was of no consequence. What at the time we thought were crises were never that much of a big deal. Of the four of us, I'd had the most life experience, as it were … I'd lost a parent, and while these three guys and others had been by my side, and showed awkward sympathy in their own way, I knew that inside each one of them was saying "thank the Lord it didn't happen to me." We very seldom talked about Daddy's death. What was there to say that hadn't already been said?

            And we were starting to really talk about girls. Danny had a girlfriend, which fascinated the rest of us. Pam wasn't especially cute to me; her eyes were too large for her face, and her ears tended to poke through her long brown hair. Still, she was still a girl, and Danny's girlfriend. It wasn't like the rest of us had to fend off the women. Button had designs on Sarah, and of course there was no chance of that working out in any fashion. Sometimes, when he was over at the house, Sarah would maliciously flirt with him, just to watch him get flustered. "Don't lead him on," I'd tell her, and she'd tell me he was too stupid to know that she was simply messing with him. Maybe he was stupid. Girls can make guys stupid, and it's easier than they think.

            After changing out of our wet shorts into dry clothes, we unpacked our humble little supper. Sardines and potted meat and saltine crackers were the main entrees - potted meat looked like cat food, and I imagine tasted about the same, but we ate it anyway. The pimento cheese sandwiches were a hit. Chuck, who never contributed food, shared a couple of bags of M&M's, which vanished in no time. So did the Golden Flake chips. I hid the Oreos for later that night.

            As soon as the sun began to set we gathered firewood and Button, our Boy Scout, began obsessing over arranging the kindling in just the right pattern in the fire pit. I'd enjoyed Scouting myself, but our scoutmaster died a year earlier and the troop just wasn't the same. So I'd quit. Button had brought a mayonnaise jar full of gasoline to get the fire started - "Boy Scout miracle water" he called it - and a few judicious drops on the dry wood did the trick. How we survived our campouts is a mystery to me.

            There is nothing silent about the forest at night. In the background was the gentle rush of flowing water. More in the foreground were all the bug noises - cicadas, grasshoppers, katydids, and the whine of mosquitos. Then, as a bonus, we'd hear that eerie call of a barred owl … no matter how many times I'd heard it, it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

            "Who cooks for you?" said Danny, mimicking the sound of the owl. "Who cooks for you-all?"

            We huddled a bit closer to the fire, grinning at each other. We'd never admit that we were scared, but truthfully, we never camped out without being scared. I'd look at the woods on the opposite bank of the creek, and every shadow, every movement was something unearthly bent on killing us.

            Button was the raconteur of our group. "Indians used to camp here," he said. "I've never found any arrowheads, but my brother has a coffee can full of arrowheads he's collected from the creek banks." 

            Button then launched into a monologue about the Creek Indians who once lived in the St. Helena area, talking about their history and folklore. We were intrigued. Button was by far the smartest one of our group, and his mind trapped the most trivial of details. So he talked about Creek myths, about how they taught the world was created by a crawfish flipping mud out of a river bottom, and how an eagle flew over and the wind from its wings dried the mud into dry land. I thought it was all really fascinating.

            It was when Button started talking about the wendigo that all three of us perked up. "Whenever an Indian lost his mind and went crazy, his people would say that he had ‘seen the wendigo.'"

            "What's a wendigo?" asked Danny, walking blindly into Button's trap.

            "Well," Button said, leaning in close to the fire as though drawing us into a conspiracy, "the wendigo is an evil forest spirit, a manitou. It looks like a starving man, with gray skin pulled really tight over its bones. What lips it has are all ragged and bloody, and the wendigo smells like rotted meat."

            We loved this.

            "And they are cannibals," Button continued, his eyes glinting in the firelight. "They are always hungry. And an Indian could turn into a wendigo if he ever ate another person."

            What we didn't know at the time was that wendigos were not part of Creek culture at all. Wendigos were a common myth among northern and Canadian tribes, in places where it was much colder and starvation was a constant threat. Button, who was of the mind that the truth should never get in the way of a good story, had us right where he wanted us.

            "I wonder how much truth there is to those old stories," he said.

            "It might have been truth to the Creeks," I said, "but there aren't any Creeks around here now."

            "Still," said Button, "those old stories had to start somewhere."

            Danny wasn't finding this too funny. "C'mon, y'all. Knock it off." He looked uneasily from side to side.

            Danny's increasing unease wasn't wasted on Button. "I know this sounds crazy," he said, "but my brother was camping out down the creek from here last year and he found a big ol' kettle over a fire pit on the banks. And there were cat bones in it."

            "What to cat bones have to do with wendigos?" asked Chuck. He was getting a little creeped out himself.

            "Well, if someone would eat cats, they'd eat anything," said Button.

            "There's a big difference in eating cats and eating people," I said. "And it's not exactly like the woods are crawling with Creek Indians who've been messing around with a wendigo."

            "That's not entirely true," said Button, smiling slyly. "What about the Littlefoots?"

            We all knew the Littlefoots. This was a family of Creek Indians who had lived in St. Helena for as long as anyone could remember. They weren't full-blooded; there had been plenty of generations of intermarriage, and the end result was that the kids - a couple of them were classmates of ours, and the girl, Marie, was in the homecoming court last year - were just like the rest of us. But the grandmother, known only to St. Helena as "Sister," was still very much the full-blooded Creek. She was seldom seen in public, but when she was, it looked like she'd stepped out of a painting.

            "So what you're saying," said Chuck, "is that the Littlefoots come down here to the creek every so often and cook up some cats. And they'd cook white folks if they could get ahold of any."

            "No, I'm not saying that, idiot," said Button in mock anger. "I'm just saying we still have Creek Indians around, and that Sister might believe in all those old myths because there's some truth in them." Button was laying a whopper on us. There was something, though, about being in those woods, away from civilization (if only by a mile or so), that tended to add weight to his wild tale.

            "Wendigos in the woods right now. Riiiiiight," said Chuck. "And crazed Indians. Good Lord, Button. We aren't stupid."

            "Never said you were," said Button. "I just think that there are a lot of things we think are just made-up stories that might just be kinda true."

            "This is all stupid," said Danny, trying to sound brave. His eyes were like saucers - he was anything but brave. "Ain't nuthin' gonna get us."

            "Danny," said Button, with a sigh, "you are so right. Nothing is gonna get us. I'm just telling a story, and I'm just telling you what my brother found. That's all."

            Even though I knew Button was trying to scare us, I didn't want him to know that he was succeeding. "Tell you what," I said. "Tomorrow, when it's good daylight, you take us to that place on the creek where Johnny found that iron pot. Maybe this time we won't find a cat. Maybe a thigh bone or something."

            "I don't know exactly where it was," said Button.

            "That's because you're making all this stuff up," said Chuck, trying to dredge up a little courage.

            "No, I'm not," said Button, "and you know it."

            I thought I needed to intervene. "Button, geez, it doesn't matter if you're making all this up or not. It's a cool story, and I don't care if it's true. And I don't want to find a pot, with cat bones or anything else in it. Danny, don't get all weirded out. Button is just messing with you. Aren't you, Button?"

            Button smiled a little. "We're just talkin'."

            Everyone got quiet for a little while. Chuck got up and threw a couple of bigger logs on the fire. Sparks and embers flew. I hoped they didn't land in the Spanish moss and set the woods on fire.

"What was that?" hissed Button.

            I was sound asleep. It had taken a while. After clearing my sleeping space of sticks and leaves, I'd scooped out some sand to make an indentation in the ground for my hips to wallow down into. I lay there awake for the longest time, hearing the night insects, and shivering at the sound of owls hooting and answering each other.

            "What was what?"

            "Listen. That."

            I didn't hear "that." The other guys were snoring away, effectively drowning out any other noise.

            I tried not to breathe, straining my ears. I couldn't hear anything at first.

            Then I did. Somewhere in the woods, out away from the creek and back down the trail toward my house, I heard a definite animal sound.

            Uff. Uff. Uff.

            Button scooted toward me like a little child. "What is that?"

            "Shhhh," I said. Then -

            Uff. Uff. Uff. It was a deep, guttural noise, much closer.

            "Thomas …"

            "Shut up." I was trying to figure out what to do. I didn't have any sort of weapon, and I was pretty much pinned into my sleeping bag.

            There was a rustling in the underbrush, and I had to fight an urge to close my eyes. I heard Button suck air between his teeth.
(to  be continued)