Lack of curiosity is the best medicine

A neighbor’s dog keeps barking in the middle of the night, always at the same hour and for the same amount of time. Your character decides to investigate what has the dog agitated in such precise, repeated pattern.

Lack of curiosity is the best medicine

By Richard Zowie

Did you ever see that movie Amityville Horror? Each morning, George Lutz would wake up at 3:15 a.m. It had something to do with the house he and his new wife and her kids lived in. George is now dead, but the debate continues as to whether or not the house really was haunted or simply made up over a few bottles of wine.

I have a similar problem, although my house isn’t haunted. A few nights per month, around 2:30 a.m., a dog in my neighborhood starts barking. It’s the dog across the street in a brick, two-story house. An accountant and his high school principal wife, and their four kids. I’ve had only a handful of conversations with them. Polite, but I can tell they guard their privacy. Once, because my wife wanted to make a house-warming dessert for them, they declined to tell me their favorite type of dessert. I have no idea where they’re from. My kids don’t socialize with their kids, because their kids often seem involved in various clubs when not completing school projects.

“Maybe they’re in the witness protection program,” my wife said, chortling. She always loves to joke around, whereas I’m more serious by nature. As a structural engineer, there’s no time for jokes because if you miss something when drawing up plans, a building can collapse. Lawsuits can ensue.

And now, the dog is barking again. It would be a waste of time for me to put on my blue cloth bathrobe, put on my blue slippers, grab a flashlight and walk across the street. But, that’s intrusive and their backyard brown wooden fence is about seven feet tall. I’m 5’10”, so I can’t see over it.

I’m not in a good mood, since I can’t get back to sleep when the stupid mutt barks, so I called the police and asked them to investigate.

Somehow, I slept.

My cell phone rang an hour later. “Mr. Stoltz, I’m Officer Wendell and I’m at your front door. May we talk?”

A few moments later, I opened the door and let him inside and closed the door. Noting there were no flashing lights from multiple police cars outside, I assumed nothing was wrong.

“Mr. Stoltz, this doesn’t leave this house, ok?”

“Yes, officer,” I said.

“Your neighbor apologizes for waking you up. He does not believe in using banks, so sometimes at nighttime, he will dig up a spot in his back hard where he keeps a safe that has an unspecified amount of money into it.”

“Ok, and why does he not like banks?” I asked, certain Officer Wendell would politely tell me it wasn’t my business.

The officer, wearing a shiny silver badge and black uniform that probably made him look invisible when he went outside, smiled and looked off to the side. His eyes were almost black, and his military-style black hair cut didn’t conceal that he was halfway to being bald. He looked like the type who, after shaving, would have five o’clock shadow three hours later.

“Let’s just say they had to relocate here from somewhere else,” Wendell said. “They don’t use banks out of fear they’ll be found out, even though they have different names. If you see them again, stick to small talk. Do not ask them any questions about themselves.”

“Noted, officer. Would you like me to make you some coffee before you leave?”

“No, thank you, sir. I appreciate the offer, but I have two other calls to respond to. Have a nice day, and please call me if you have any further questions.”

He produced a white business card and gave it to me, shook my hand, and left.

Post comments here or email them to: richardzowie@gmail.com

Advertisements

Supernatural, Suomi Style

Freelance journalist received a strange job offer: cover a supernatural convention. The journalist thinks the gig a joke. But is it? And who are the convention’s guests of honor?

Supernatural, Suomi Style

By Richard Zowie

I live in San Antonio, and that’s a good thing. Plenty of time to think as I drove to El Paso, which is an eight-hour drive. I’m a full-time freelance writer, and one of my clients is the San Antonio Express-News. I write mostly features for my editor, Mona De Los Santos, who told me they wanted me to cover a supernatural convention in El Paso. It was for this weekend. I would go, observe, ask questions, take a few pictures, write a 2,000-word article and it would be the lead feature in the Weekender on Friday or for the Life section on Sunday.

As I drove past San Antonio’s outer circular road, Loop 1604, on Interstate 10 West and started my trek into the Texas Hill Country, I remembered the protocol. Since I wasn’t an employee, my travel expenses would have to be written off and claimed on taxes. Gasoline. Drinks. Snacks. Food. Motel room. The cost of attending the convention, which was $500.

As I saw a green sign that said Boerne was 20 miles away and Comfort was 40 miles, I remembered Mona’s request.

“I think it’s a fascinating convention, but management didn’t want someone local covering it when the El Paso Times could easily assign a reporter that we could piggyback off of,” she said. But, the Times told us they were only planning on doing a few photos and no story. That’s why I decided to ask you. What is your religious background, Bill?”

“I’m a Christian, but I’m not sold on supernatural,” I said. “I don’t believe in ghosts. I used to rent an apartment that was a boarding house where an unsolved murder took place, but I never experienced anything unusual.”

“No supernatural experiences?”

“Zero.”

“Can you go with an open mind?” she asked.

“If you’re paying me, yes.”

 

I’d left San Antonio at 6 a.m. that morning, which was wonderful. By the time I-10 became clogged for the morning commute, I was gone. With the stops I made in Junction, Fort Stockton, Van Horn, I arrived nearly at 6 p.m. in the desert town of El Paso. I’d been there only a few times in my life, once as I drove to Phoenix on business and once as I took a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles to visit my Uncle Jerry.

After checking in at the Double Tree Hotel about two blocks away, I went to the El Paso Convention and Performing Art Center, where the supernatural convention was taking place. I expected to see a few science-minded protestors outside, yelling about facts matter over faith. The only people outside were tourists looking for the Southwest University Park, El Paso Museum of History or the University of Texas at El Paso. One complete stranger asked me if El Paso was in Texas or New Mexico. I told him he was still in the Lone Star State.

One beautiful woman wearing a sundress asked me how El Paso got its nickname “Chucotown.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish and have no idea. You should ask someone at the Museum of History,” I replied as I entered.

I expected people adorned in black clothing and silver jewelry, along with priests or priestesses wearing shiny black or indigo robes. Instead, everyone wore suits or dressed in slacks or dress shirts. One woman wore a business suit with a short skirt. From her legs, I imagined she ran a lot and probably looked hard to turn away from when she sat and crossed her legs.

I checked in, introduced myself as Bill McGinnis and got my badge and packet. As I got them, I noticed a brunette with pale eyes helping herself at a spread of various pastries, meats, fruits and assorted dressings. Soon, she was coughing.

As she coughed, I looked up and saw panic in her eyes. I jogged toward her. “Can I help you, ma’am?”

She looked at me, tried to breathe. “PLEASE! HELP ME!” she said in English but in a foreign accent I could not place. “I…can’t…breathe! I’m choking! Help!”

As I dropped my packet and was about 10 feet away, I noticed how everybody stared blankly at her, as though they didn’t know what to do.

What is wrong with you assholes? I wondered as I got to her from behind and embraced her. “I’m going to do a Heimlich Maneuver. Try not to panic. You won’t die.”

“Ok, I won’t.” As she briefly turned around, I could see her pale eyes were a mix of gray and green. She had a soapy smell, as if she had just showered a few hours ago. Her accent…I still couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t Russian or German. She looked like she was from a cold-weather country, with her pale features.

On the third thrust, the dark-brown, partially-chewed piece roast beef flew out of her mouth toward the crowd. A few screams as some scampered out of the way. Several people had their cell phones out and were recording the incident, which really pissed me off. What is with Americans and their need to record everything?

She took several deep breaths as her color returned. She turned, smiled at me and gave me a hug. “Thank you so much,” she said. “You saved my life. I am Ailukka Korhonen.”

I told her my name. “That’s a pretty accent you have. Where are you from?”

“Finland.”

I was amazed at how well she spoke English when a man came out of a bathroom and headed to us. He wore blue jeans and wore a blue polo shirt with a white flag with a left-of-center blue cross on it. Underneath the flag was the word “SUOMI.” I had no idea what that meant.

He had blond hair and blue eyes and went up to her and hugged her and said something to her I could not understand. She pointed to me.

“Are you the man who just saved my wife’s life?” he asked me. He spoke with far less of an accent, as if he’d been speaking English for a long time.

I nodded, thinking of how strange things seemed to be — and the convention hadn’t even started yet.

He offered his hand. I shook it and found his grip to be firm. “My name is Hannu Korhonen.”

I noticed a few people still recording.

“What is wrong with you people? Why did you just stand there?” I demanded, upset but trying not to lose my cool. “Couldn’t you see she was choking and asking for help?”

One man, who had just turned off his phone, shook his head. “We heard her, all right, but none of us could understand her. She was speaking in a foreign language.”

“No, she wasn’t,” I said. “She’s from Finland, but I could understand her English just fine.”

Everybody became silent.

“You say my wife asked for your help in English?” Hannu asked me.

“Yes, sir. She has a strong accent, but I could understand her.”

Hannu said something in Finnish to Ailukka. She shook her head.

“My wife says there must be a mistake. She doesn’t speak English, but she said you were speaking Finnish to her.”

“Hannu, I don’t see how that could be possible. I don’t speak Finnish, not even to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’”

The man who had just shut off his recording came up to us and played the recording. It showed Ailukka choking and me coming up to her to do the Heimlich.

Then the dialogue.

“Voinko auttaa sinua?” My voice, without a doubt.

“OLE KILTTI! AUTA MINUA! En … voi … hengitä! Olen tukehtumassa! Auta!”

“Aion tehdä Heimlich-säätimen. Yritä olla paniikkia. Et kuole.” My voice yet again, this time saying things I didn’t understand.

“Ok, en.”

“Kiitos paljon. Pelastit henkeni. Olen Ailukka Korhonen.”

“Olen Bill McGinnis. Se on melkoinen aksentti. Mistä olet kotoisin?”

“Suomi.”

She’d said Finland to me, I’m absolutely sure, but now, she was saying Suomi.

“Hannu, what does ‘Suomi’ mean?” I asked.

“That’s how we say ‘Finland’ in the Finnish language.”

For five minutes, I had no idea what to say. Finally, I took down as many names and phone numbers as I could as I pulled out my phone, turned on the recorder and asked questions to as many eyewitnesses, including the Finnish couple. The convention hadn’t even started yet, but I already had my story.

Post comments here or send them to richardzowie@gmail.com

New Year’s resolutions

me writing

Since I will be turning 45 in February, I have decided to keep my New Year’s resolution simple this year.

Publish one short story.

I plan to start looking at the Writer’s Market 2018 to see if there are any potential markets for short Christian fiction or for a few unpublished, Twilight Zone-style stories I’ve completed.

Perhaps “completed” is too optimistic a word. Any writer will tell you no story is ever perfectly written. I’m sure Stephen King sometimes looks at his early stories and wishes he could change this or that about them. He once wrote about the pleasant surprise he got when his short story, Sometimes They Come Back (which I’ve read, it’s in his Night Shift collection of short stories), was published. He was paid $500 for a story he admitted that he didn’t think would sell anywhere.

Perhaps I should try to get an agent.

Among my short stories that are either completed or need a little more tinkering:

Garth, Texas: A fugitive and scam artist’s car breaks down in rural West Texas during a heat wave. He walks to a town to get help–and wishes he’d kept on walking.

No Experience Necessary: A former Army soldier with a dwindling bank account accepts a job that pays well and says “no experience necessary.” You know what they say: “If it’s too good to be true…”

Dear Billy: Sincerely, Billy: If you love to write science fiction or Twilight Zone or Outer Limits-inspired tales, you’re bound to try your hand at time travel. In this, set in 1983, a teenaged boy visits a library and is told there’s a letter for him. It’s written by a man who claims to be him, and it’s dated 1859. The boy learns one decision done differently can change everything.

David’s Decision: What went on during the mental tug of war that led to King David deciding to sleep with the wife of one of his most loyal soldiers?

What If…?: I’ve always wondered what would’ve happened had Adam and Eve not sinned and had resisted the serpent.

Writer’s circle

A few weeks ago, I met with fellow writers from Fredericksburg Writer’s Conference. We read from our works. Some read poetry, others novel excerpts and others short stories.

I read from an unpublished short story, titled, “What Nearly Was.” The group liked it overall, although a few tweaks may still be needed. I’d rather not yet say what exactly it is about, but I will say this: if there’s a home for it, it’s in Christian fiction. The controversial nature it focuses on probably makes it untouchable in the secular fiction market.

 

Talking to experts

In the next few months I plan to talk to a friend about a pivotal part of my novel Randy and Rhonda. It has to do with selling books. I’ll leave it at that.

I’m also hoping to talk to another subject matter expert. Sorry, but I’d rather not give any details.

I read once that Alex Haley spent about 12 years researching Roots before writing it. So, along those lines, you have to research. Yes, fiction is fiction, but if there’s not a healthy sense of realism, a great psychological thriller (one of my favorite genres) becomes comical and campy.

Richard Zowie loves to write fiction. Post comments here or e-mail them to richardzowie@gmail.com.

Back in the saddle, so to speak

It’s been far too long since the last time I blogged. My apologies. For the past few months I’ve been too worn out physically and mentally to blog.

Bad excuse?

Yep.

Despite what has gone in my life (work, work, trying to get cleaned up around the house, dealing with issues in my personal life), writing is something that still needs to be done. Writers write. Sometimes writing is done to earn a living (what I do 30 hours a week) and sometimes writing is done for fun, but it needs to be done to stay in shape and stay focused.

Tonight, when I get home from work, I think I will even have to do some fiction writing to get back in the swing of things.

And, yes, when I’m done, I’ll blog about it.

Post comments here or e-mail Richard at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Writing when you’re tired

This past week I did very little writing in the realm I really like: fiction, blogging, journaling, essays. It wasn’t due to the usual procrastination culprit but rather, no energy. Three days in a row I had far too much to do between my two jobs (the newspaper and the gas station) and did not have the energy. In that trio of days I averaged four, maybe five hours of sleep.

What is Richard like after three days in a row of five hours of sleep?

By Tuesday night, when I usually get home from work at 11:30 p.m., I briefly considered calling my wife earlier and asking her to get a ride to Frankenmuth to drive me home. Despite drinking a lot of 7-11 Double Gulps (I prefer to mix Coke with either Cherry Coke or Diet Coke–don’t ask), I felt very tired. It was almost like Army basic training again, where I almost fell asleep during my graduation ceremony.

So, for the next two days, I slept close to 10 hours each day to try to catch up. I also felt a little under the weather and was worried, due to some discomfort when I breathed, I briefly worried I was coming down again with a viral infection in my lungs like I did in 1999, during another fun period of my life where I was consistently getting little sleep. Viral lung infections feel as if when you take a deep breath, someone is stabbing you in the chest.

And regarding sleep, that brings up the point of this blog posting: how do you write when you’re tired? 

For me, creative energy gets stifled when I have not been sleeping, or when I’m worn down and feel like doing little more than chatting with friends on Facebook.

The solution? Nope, not cocaine. I’ve never used cocaine but based on accounts I’ve read from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and from one person I know, the white stuff creates far more problem than it solves. I suppose it is to not allow yourself to get tired. Budget your time. Get sufficient sleep. If that doesn’t work, consume caffeine or make lifestyle choices that will give you more energy. An encouraging spouse or a writing accountability partner probably doesn’t hurt, either.

Suggestions, anyone?

Richard Zowie is a writer–or at least he tries to be. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Working on my Writer’s Digest ‘My Story’ assignment

It’s about being at your home, finding a cell phone in the cushions of your couch, not recognizing the phone and–guess what?–it rings. 

I have finished a first draft of one version, but I’m not sure if I’ll submit that one. It’s somewhat interesting, but it doesn’t really grab me.

The biggest challenge, of course, is writing something compelling and wonderful and doing so in 750 word. This often requires a writer to part with great writing during the final editing phase.

This contest tends to perplex me at times. One month the assignment was about something tragic happening at a local water hole. The winning story seemed very flat. Maybe I’m just trying too hard.

Richard Zowie loves writing fiction and someday would love to do it full-time. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

A quick compliment goes a long way

My fiction writing career–which I suppose I can technically call a “career” since I do have one published short story to my credit–is something I’d really love to get off the ground. At present, I have several stories in the marketing stage. These are finished stories I’m now trying to sell. A few others are in the editing stage while others are in production, pre-production and even pre-pre-production.

Recently, I contemplated posting a few titles and what the stories were about. After deliberation, I chose not to since at times I tend to be paranoid of having ideas stolen. Like all writers, I probably have a personal bias: some stories of mine are really good, and I don’t want to give away too much for fear of being ripped off.

I sent the list, though, to a trusted friend recently who acts and makes movies in his spare time. I was curious to see what he’d think.

He told me: “I am not blowing smoke your way when I say that I am literally fascinated with every one of these story ideas, my friend.”

It’s the kind of encouragement, you might say, that really motivates a writer to get back to their keyboard and keep working towards that glorious publication day.

Richard Zowie tries to stay busy in his writing life and believes it’s far better to be busy than unemployed. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Thoughts on the ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ chapter ‘The Joy of Writing’

Please keep in mind that this is not a critique of Mr. Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing. This blog posting is simply what I’ve gathered from the book and how I think I can apply it to my own fiction writing career. It’s also my motivation to finish this book and to move onto others.

I’ve often wondered how to best describe Bradbury as a writer to those unfamiliar with his work (my two favorite Bradbury books are The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451). Perhaps Stephen King said it best: with Mr. Bradbury, everything’s green and wondrous and seen through a lens of nostalgia.

“The Joy of Writing” chapter

Mr. Bradbury believes it’s imperative to write with zest and gusto. Writing should be pleasurable, so have fun with it. This type of mentality helps a person put out 2,000 or so words a day. If you find it a burden, then you may have a problem. The same rings true for other professions. To be a successful chef, Gordon Ramsay has said you must a passion for cooking. Actors have told me that getting in front of a camera or on stage requires a love for performing; if your motivation is fame or fortune, forget it.

What should a person write about? Things that you love or hate. One example Mr. Bradbury references is seeing a photo in Harper’s Bazaar that used Puerto Ricans in the background as “props”. Upset by this, Mr. Bradbury wrote a short story where a Puerto Rican man taunts such a photographer by always appearing in his photographs and making some type of gesture that ruins the picture. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King recounts working at a mill and hearing a crazy story about how giant rats lived in the cellar of a decrepit building. Wheels spun and soon King wrote the creepy short story Graveyard Shift.

Sometimes we write about our fears. One short story I’m working on focuses on one of my worst fears: having an automobile breakdown in the summer heat in the middle of nowhere. The main character is on the run from the police but has his car break down in one of the more rural areas of the country: West Texas.

Sometimes, Mr. Bradbury feels writing a story can be as simple as finding a character who wants or doesn’t want something with all their heart. Give them orders, let them go and follow them and write what you see happening. Darn the outlines and character profiles, full speed ahead!

Writing also requires a person to read voraciously and diversely. Books, magazines, anything you can get your hands on. Myself, I suspect much can be learned even by reading bad prose. You learn how not to write and what doesn’t work. For me, what comes to mind is one particular sci-fi novel written by a scientist who simply wasn’t a good writer. Another involves a curious delve into trasy western paperbacks where the methaphors are so bad they’re comical. Obviously, this is best kept at a minimum while energies should be focused on good writing and what does work.

Finally in this chapter, Mr. Bradbury reminds us that life is indeed very short. Write. A writer writes now. Procrastination is the death of writing. This is indeed something I can relate to: my twenties flew by and now, at 37, I’m beginning to wonder what happened to my thirties. If only we lived on a planet like Pluto, where the days are six days long instead of a measly 24 hours.

Up next, the chapter “Run Fast, Stand Still”.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer. He’s worked as a journalist and columnist and also blogs and writes fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.