Barista Envy

Last night was the monthly meeting of my south side writers group.  We meet at The Strange Brew, my favorite local coffee shop.  Because Al and I are small business owners, I try to support our local mom and pop shops as much as I can.  Truthfully, though, I just love hanging out at Strange Brew.  The walls are painted warm organic colors and art from local artists is featured there.  The owners are fun, friendly, creative people and the coffee is way better than the burnt flavors at that other well-known chain coffee shop.

We had a really great critique’ session.  Throughout the evening, the group discussed the mental state of prisoners held in concentration camps, zombie existentialism while dealing with revenge, if it’s worth changing the reality of the world to make your story work, and whether villains have to be bad guys or just guys with issues.  I didn’t actually submit anything this time but the group walked me though a brainstorming session about my antagonist in The Barn and it really got me thinking.  I plan to get to work on it this week.  But that wasn’t even the highlight of my night.

Toni, who owns the coffee shop along with her husband Daniel, brought my iced tea to the table before our meeting got started and she had a story to tell.  It’s her story http://joanofdarkknits.blogspot.com/2010/04/meeting-neil-gaiman.html, but the gist of it is she had tickets to see her favorite author speak and ended up not only a V.I.P. with back-stage passes, but also went to dinner with him…swoon.  I wasn’t familiar with the author so I came home and looked him up.  Neil Gaimon is the author of Mirror Mask among many other best sellers (I haven’t read it but I loved the movie)… double swoon!  Now, as I said, I’m not familiar with his work so I went to his website to check him out, and there on the most recent entry in his journal is a picture of Toni as her alter ego, Joan of Dark of the Naptown Roller Girls, dressed in all her roller derby gear. http://journal.neilgaiman.com/  His headline reads:   Vonnegut and Rollergirls.  Holy crap, I say.  I wonder if Toni feels like I would if I saw myself featured in Stephen King’s journal?  “Bargersville chicken farmer – King’s biggest fan.”  Ok, Kurt Vonnegut and Roller Derby are much more exciting than my chickens and Toni is way cooler than me but you get the idea.  This was an event of a lifetime.

Now this was all so very cool for Toni, but what made my day was that she took the time to share it with me.  I don’t think we became BFF’s on the spot or anything but it’s nice to know that the lady with the pink hair who smiles when she brings me my coffee sees me and knows I would appreciate her story.  That’s what it’s all about, making connections with people.  Never forget that. 

Now, I’ve got to make a trip to the book store.  I think some Neil Gaimon will be included in my summer reading.  I’ll have to ask Toni where to start.

Pardon me while I stab you in the back, please.

 Characters live in my head and from time to time, I let them out to play on paper.  All the characters in my head are happy, fun-loving people.  I would be friends with my characters.  This presents a problem in my writing because I don’t like creating antagonists.  I don’t like the guy who causes conflict or creates a problem for my happy people.  I don’t want to go there which often makes my stories go nowhere. 

Looking back at some of my work, the bad guy is the least developed character if he is even there at all.  Many times, the source of conflict in my works is a vague idea of potential turmoil but not really tangible.  I am just too nice.

Take Mr. Orville in my barn story.  The story is suspenseful but Mr. Orville…not so much.  He is the shadow of a bad guy.  He’s a little grumpy but who wouldn’t be when his neighbor is snooping around on his property.  So I am issuing myself a challenge…

Come up with a DECENT bad guy!

Back to the Barn

     Bent over in the warm sun, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel as the little black truck passes by.  I straighten my back and offer a neighborly wave.  He’s gone.  Mr. Orville is headed to town so it’s now or never.  I drop my trowel and handful of weeds into the dirt and turn slowly to confront the barn.  The boards are worn and faded, weathered by eons of sun and rain and frost.  A ghost of the red beauty it once was.  Cracks in the gray slats show slices of sky near the hay loft door.  I take a step into the pasture.  The tall brown grass crunches underneath my boots.  Orville cut the grass in the pasture the middle of last summer, but he was sick last fall and winter hit before he got in the final mowing.  As I move closer, the shiny tin roof looms overhead.  It’s strange.  Orville keeps the roof of the barn in immaculate condition, but the walls seem to be rotting away.  “What is he keeping in there?”

                I approach the corner of the barn furthest from the view from Orville’s house.  He’s gone but maybe his wife is on watch today.  The earth around the barn’s foundation is mounded up.  I have to climb to put my face against the wall.  The boards are rough with age.  I lean in pressing my hands against the wall to steady myself on the earth mound and peer through a crack in the board.  I squint and close one eye trying to see into the darkness. 

                A long band of light streams in from a crack high up in the rafters.  It holds a million specks of floating dust.  Empty beams crisscross the space and light hits the barn wall about 9 feet from the floor and reveals nothing.  I pull my face away from the wall and lean in for balance.  I stand on my toes, moving down the side of the barn in search of a better view.  The foundation is higher near the back and now I’m searching for a crack where the side boards meet mortar and stone.  My hand grazes an intricate spider web and I almost fall.  The spinner is in residence and her eight legged body sits inches from my face.  Startled, I jump down into the field behind the barn.  My heart pounds as I wipe my tainted hand against my jeans.  I hate spiders. 

                I can see the back corner of Mr. Orville’s house where I stand in the field.  It’s early spring and nothing has been planted yet.  “How long has he been gone?” I wonder, examining the back wall of the barn.  The foundation here is very high to keep out field run off during spring rains.  There is no way to see in from this side.  I have two choices, I can give up and go back to my garden or try to find a way to see in from the side of the barn facing Orville’s house.  I turn to look across the field.  I imagine Orville’s elderly wife in a flour sack apron standing at the kitchen window with binoculars.  I shake my head, “Get serious.  There’s no one watching.” 

                This side of the barn contains large double doors for bringing in tractors and wagons.  They are latched with a heavy metal slide and sealed with a padlock the size of my fist.  The word, Master, is engraved on it.  I approach the place where the two doors meet and am amazed by the way in which the doors of this rickety old building hang so square.  There’s not a gap anywhere, except at the bottom to allow the doors to swing free.  I look over my shoulder at Orville’s house.  It looks quiet and lonely. I lower myself to my knees and then to my chest as if I’m going to do a push-up.   Crawling forward, I turn my head and place one ear to the ground.  The sun has warmed the grass and it feels almost hot on my cheek. Under the door, light fans out across the floor of the barn.  I see a pile of shapes covered by a dusty canvas tarp and the rubber ring of what must be a tire.  I almost jump to my feet when I feel pressure against my back and twist to see my marmalade cat kneading my jacket.  “Go home,” I say through clenched teeth as I swat  him away.  Returning my attention to the contents of the barn, I scoot forward at an angle to try to allow in more light.  I turn my head to the other side to get another perspective and notice a shadow on the grass.  I push up to my hands and knees to investigate and hear a deep voice say, “Hello, neighbor.”  My heart starts to pound because I know that voice.  Mr. Orville is back from town. 

                “Uh, hi there,” I mumble.  “I was just, uh, I was looking, um…boy, its nice weather today isn’t it?” 

                “Are you looking for something?” 

                “I, uh, no, well, I was um… just curious,” I stutter with a shrug. 

                “Curious?”  He asks and I can’t see his expression because the sun is behind his head and his baseball cap is shading his eyes. 

                I take a deep breath trying to calm my heart and try to explain. 

                “You see, Mr. Orville, we’ve lived here quite a while and I love looking at your old barn here.  But, I’ve never seen you go in or come out and I wonder why you keep the roof so nice when the walls look like they’re about to fall down.  I just wondered if there was something inside or if it’s just an old empty barn.” 

                “Humph,” he says and then pulls a key chain out of his pocket and approaches the door. 

                My heart starts pounding again.  He’s opening the door.  He’s going to show me what’s inside but then maybe he’ll have to kill me.  I look around at his house and think, “Please let his wife be watching now.” 

                Mr. Orville swings a door open with a creak and props it open with a cinder block from inside.  He steps into the gloom and turns back for me. 

                “Are you coming?” 

                I step forward without a word.  The barn is not empty.  There is a houseful of furniture covered with tarp and clear Rubbermaid containers holding enough items to stock the entire house wares department at Macy’s.  In the center of the barn is an orange Volkswagen beetle.  It’s old but it’s in perfect condition.  

                “So you just store stuff out here?” I ask. 

                “It’s not just stuff.  It belongs to my daughter.” 

                Hearing a catch in his throat, I wait in silence. 

                “She’s a singer you know?  She’s always loved music, even studied it in college.  She’s been on tour singing with this choir for about 12 years now.  She’s been all over the world. She sold her place because she wasn’t home long enough to put down roots.   She really loves the traveling… We miss her though and I just keep the roof in shape to keep this stuff dry.  We hope she’ll decide to come home to settle one day.  Anyway, that’s the story.  Nothing out here to get all worked up about.  You really should mind your own business.” 

                “I’m sorry,” I say while staring at my toes.  “Thanks for showing me the inside of your barn.  It really is a cool barn… I hope you get to see your daughter soon.” 

                Mr. Orville places the cinder block back inside the barn, closes the giant door and locks the padlock.  I start back across the pasture to my garden.  He looks up and waves as he takes off across the field with the sun beating down on his baseball hat and I wave back.  I’m satisfied.  The mystery is explained.  The barn is just a capsule holding memories of a daughter who moved out and moved on.  I feel a little sad for Mr. Orville, but that’s what kids do.  No great secret, no twisted plot just the stuff his daughter left behind. 

                A few weeks later, my family returns from a little trip.  The kids are off school for a week so we drove down to Gatlinburg for a little hiking.  After a long ride home in the pouring rain, we pull up the driveway exhausted. 

                “What the heck is that?” asks my oldest son from the backseat. 

                Looking up, we see what Mr. Orville has done.  Along the back of our property line, where our land meets with Mr. Orville’s is a fence.  Rough hewn wood posts dot the pasture every 7 feet.  Wire mesh runs from post to post topped with a spiral of barbed-wire.  Mr. Orville has made his point.  “What else is in that barn?”  I think to myself. ” 

Bargersville, Indiana

     As if  he can hear my thoughts, my husband replies, “Stay away from that fence.”

Where am I?

Bargersville, Indiana

Have you ever read a scene in a story and been transported to the location you’re reading about?  Not actually transported but so involved in the story you could almost close your eyes and picture yourself  there.   Fred refers to the opening scene of George Orwell’s 1984 in which the reader finds himself in what Fred describes as, “a dystopia where military time is kept, where propaganda reigns, and where springtime feels more like midwinter.”  For me, an exceptional example of setting up atmosphere is in the opening scene of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  She describes the trees with, “brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason.”  We see in her African jungle, “A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen.”  This girl can set a scene!

Rich description involves the senses, all of them.  To really transport the reader, the writer has to put himself there first.  Today Fred challenges us to set up some atmosphere for our characters so I’m going back to my neighbor’s barn.  Since I’ve never been inside I get to imagine what it might be like.  Here goes:

                Bent over in the hot sun, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel as the little black truck passes by.  I straighten my back and offer a neighborly wave.  He’s gone.  Mr. Orville is headed to town so it’s now or never. 

 I drop my trowel and handful of weeds onto the dirt and turn slowly to confront the barn.  The boards are worn and faded, weathered by eons of sun and rain and frost.  A ghost of the red beauty it once was, cracks in the gray slats show slices of sky near the hay loft door.  I take a step into the pasture.  The tall brown grass crackles underneath my boots.  Orville cuts the grass in the pasture a few times every summer, but he was sick last fall and winter hit before he got in the final mowing.  As I move closer, the shiny tin roof looms overhead.  It’s strange.  Orville keeps the roof of the barn in immaculate condition, but the walls seem to be rotting away.  “What is he keeping in there?”

                I approach the corner of the barn furthest from the view from Orville’s house.  He’s gone but maybe his wife is on watch today.  The earth around the barn’s foundation is mounded up.  I have to climb to put my face against the wall.  The boards are rough with age.  Leaning in pressing my hands against the wall to steady myself on the raised earth, I peer through a crack in the board.  I squint and close one eye trying to see into the darkness.

***********************************************************

Well, that’s a start.  Duty calls and my writing time is up for today.  I think I’ll come back to this later to see where it goes.  It’s true that scheduling time to write every day and sticking to it is inspiring.  Now, it’s stopping to go to work that is hard.

Asking the old, “What if?”

Bargersville, Indiana

I have found that I’m pretty good at writing down my personal experiences in a way that tells the tale without boring the life out of my reader.  In other words, I can tell a good story.   There are a lot of good story tellers out there but not all of them are writers.  Today, Fred suggests looking at every day life experiences in a new way.  In this excercise we are to treat our experiences as part of our research and then take them beyond the ordinary by asking, “What if?”

I have a neighbor who is a nice old guy and his property overlaps the back of our property to form an “L” shape.  He has this huge dilapidated gray barn that sits behind our property line and he is very persnickety about anyone getting near it.  Now, his story is that he’s afraid someone will get hurt out there and that seems reasonable.  But, what if…?

What if Mr. Orville has been socking away cash all these years?  What if out in the dark dusty corners of that barn lay piles of mason jars stuffed with silver dollars.  Or, what if he’s making moonshine and that rickety old place houses a giant galvanized still?  Better yet, a time machine or a wrecked alien space craft… the possibilities are endless.

Fred says the trick here is to imagine those endless possibilities but then choose the one that takes you in a new direction or that takes an old story and gives it new life.  I think I’ll start by finding my binoculars.  I wonder what Mr. Orville is doing right now?