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Dialogue is a Killer

      Dialogue is a killer.

     Stress the vernacular and local dialect too much, and you can leave a reader struggling to understand what the hell they just said.

     Make it too formal, and the reader will know they’re reading as they think, What? No one talks like that.

     Dialogue is a fine line, and while you can step over it here and there, you simply cannot walk all over it. There has to be a way to put your point across, and to keep your characters intact.

     I’m a New Englander. I know how we sound (hell, I know how I sound, and it’s a train-wreck). Some others out there in the whole wide world might know as well. We have our own curious statements, such as, “Down east,” and “ayuh.” We’re quite fond of sayings such as, “Passing strange,” and “you can’t get there from here,” or, “best to go back the way you come.” I can see Leominster, and know that it’s pronounced, “Lemon-stir.” And while it’s annoying to hear Harvard pronounced as “Hahvahd,” I know what someone means when they say it.

     Not everyone does.

     In fact, when you get down to the southern edge of Connecticut, you’ll hear more of a New York accent than you will a Boston. Out in the middle of the country, people talk slower than is polite (for a New Englander). Southerners and those from the West Coast are so relaxed, that when I first met some guys from those parts of the country, I thought they were all high they were so relaxed.

     The point of this long, and rambling little diatribe is this: we all know what we’re supposed to sound like, but more importantly, we all think we know what the rest of the country is supposed to sound like as well.

     If I say my character is from New Hampshire, and he or she speaks, a reader is going to imagine the nasally, clipped words of a New Englander who can’t seem to slow down enough for their own funeral. New Englanders, on the other hand, are going to imagine someone speaking exactly the way they should.

     If you have a character from Boston, you don’t need to write a line such as, “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd.”

     “Park the car in Harvard yard,” will work just fine. Everyone knows what folks from Boston like. Writing the dialogue in dialect or phonetically will break that suspension of disbelief that is so crucial to entertainment, and with the reader’s attention distracted, it will difficult to bring them back in.

     So, fight that urge to make the character believable by writing in dialect. Sure, you can drop a ‘g’ here or there. Adjust an apostrophe if you like. Just don’t mangle the English language. It gets abused enough as it is.

Keep writing!

     Nicholas

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November 21, 1900

     Anyone from New England can tell you time runs differently during the winter. Some days are far too long, and some nights stretch on interminably. And while the days can be difficult, the nights are often murderous.

     November 21, 1900, Georgia Phelps survived a night abnormally long.

     Georgia lived alone in a small forester’s hut at the back end of the Coffin Farm. At the age of 30, she was considered an old maid, and she was pleased with the label. Marriage had never seemed particularly pleasing to her since she believed it would prevent her from enjoying her solitude in the woods.

     On the evening of November 21, Georgia noticed an absence of game from the nearby forest. None of the normal birdsong or animal cries could be heard, and the stillness was disquieting.

As she drank her after-dinner coffee, Georgia saw movement in the tree-line. It was a tall, slim manlike shape. She caught a glimpse of dark gray skin and orange eyes and curved swords.

     Georgia was a practical woman, and not one to doubt what she saw. She went to her gun cabinet, retrieved her lever-action rifle and its ammunition, and took up a position at the window in the front room.

     For 14 hours, she kept up a continuous fire, and when Duncan Blood and several members of the Coffin clan arrived at sunrise, they found 172 corpses. All of which were burned over the following three days.

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Why Horror?

     Regardless of what genre you write in – historical fiction, romance, literary fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, horror – you inevitably have someone ask you, ‘Why?’

     I get that a lot. Especially with horror.

    ‘Why horror? The world’s bad enough as it is.’

     And that’s why I write horror, because of the way the world is. When you turn on the news, which has connected us to the farthest reaches of the globe, you learn of the misery of others. This isn’t new, of course, we all know that there is suffering in the world. Television and the internet have merely joined forces to put an extremely human face on the plight of others.

     Horror lets you escape that by showing you something horrific that is identifiable, and controllable.

     Is the story too terrible to read? Put the book down. You know it’s fiction.

     That’s why I write horror. Especially supernatural horror. There is an element of control to the process of dealing with horror as a writer. I take the world as I see it (which is not pleasant) and I deal with it in my own way.

     I have a short story about racism, assault, and vengeance, three subjects which are difficult to handle when experienced in the real world. In my story, these are still difficult, but there is a supernatural element that enables one of the offended parties to exact revenge.

     Writing horror is a catharsis for me. Reading it can be as well. The popularity of horror as a genre waxes and wanes, as does anything, but Stephen King points out how we can measure the level of fear and stress in our society by the horror we produce.

     Look at the monster films of the 50s and 60s. We have radioactive beasts assaulting America and Japan. One of those countries dropped the bomb, and one of them had the bomb dropped on them. Is it any wonder that both the US and Japan would fear the A-Bomb? That they would fear the effects of it?

     So, when someone asks you why you write horror, tell them why. And if you like, tell them you write horror because it’s less frightening than reading the news.

Keep writing!

     Nicholas

 

 

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A Lesson from Ghostwriting

     Years ago, I was in a bar in Groton, Connecticut, shooting pool with a friend of mine. I told him I finally got an acceptance letter for a story, and he asked me what I would do if they wanted me to edit some of the material. Would I say ‘No,’ and keep true to the art of the piece?

     My answer was, ‘What do you want cut?’

     This was said partially in jest, but three years ago I began working with a small publishing house as a ghostwriter, and that answer is what I say on an almost daily basis.

     When you’re a ghostwriter, you check your ego at the door. Sure, you can bring along your emotional baggage because that’s what helps you as a writer. But your personal hang-ups, what you will and will not write/edit, those you leave behind. If you can’t do that, then you should find another writing job.

     When I began my ghostwriting work, it was with complete freedom. But as the books were published, readers came back with what they liked and didn’t like, and the publisher requested the necessary adjustments. For instance, I can’t put curses or swears in. No vulgarity it all. This was the first challenge for me.

     It wasn’t a challenge in a writing sense, but an ego sense. I know how certain people speak, and how liberally they use the ‘F’ bomb. But that wasn’t what the readers wanted, and the publisher is creating a marketable product for the broadest audience possible.

     So, what do you do when presented with a new rule that requires you to remove vulgarity?

     If you want to keep your job, you remove the vulgarity.

     Removing it wasn’t difficult, and the benefits have been tremendous.

     Since I can no longer rely upon certain words to represent a character’s frustration, I have to think of other ways to convey that sense and emotion. This has allowed me to grow as a writer and to increase my skillset.

     Stay tuned, everyone, I’ll have more on writing soon.

Keep writing!

     Nicholas

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On Writing

     Writing is often an extremely personal act, a way of exposing some part of yourself to the world. Most often, your readers don’t know what part of a story is yours, but you do. This is why so many writers fear the act of submitting a piece for review.

     What is difficult to learn – and accept – is the fact that a rejection of your writing is not a rejection of you.

     Contrary to popular belief among writers, editors are not sitting at their desks, rubbing their hands together and considering the many wonderful (and truly terrible) ways in which they might tear apart your work.

     Editors are professionals. They deal with you, the writer, in the same manner they want to be dealt with. Professionally.

     They look at your piece to see if you’ve followed the formatting guidelines set out by their publication. They look at spelling, storyline, style, all of it. And if it doesn’t fit, it is not a personal attack.

     J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to scores of publishers. Charles Bukowski had reams of rejected poetry. Robert Frost first became well-known in Europe. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was panned at the time of its printing.

     The point is, taking rejection personally, is like taking an act of nature personally. There’s no reason to. Sure, it’s disappointing – and often a blow to our ego – but you keep writing. You keep submitting.

     Writing, like anything else, requires practice. The more you work at it, the better you get.

     Keep writing, everyone!

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Salvaging Copper

     The house stood abandoned and half burnt at the fore of the apple orchard.  The apple trees were in shambles, few were pruned.  Many had broken limbs hanging down amongst the others and littering the once neat aisles between the trees.

     Mark stood in the shadow of a tall pine, the sun setting slowly.  He shifted the weight of his pack and watched the occasional car race by on Route 122.  He stomped his feet and clenched and released his fists.

     The last rays vanished in the tree line, and the orchard settled into darkness.  A solitary pickup raced past, chasing its own headlights along the curve of the road.  Mark watched the red rear lights slip around a corner.  The evening sounds of the country made themselves known as he stepped away from the pine.

     He moved quickly across the road, fully aware of the sound of his boots on the asphalt, then the whispered crush as he reached the long uncut grass.  He walked steadily to the backside of the house where the cellar door stood open.

     Mark squatted down, sliding his pack off of his back and onto the ground.  From the front pocket, he took his headlamp and slid it down onto his forehead.  The light fit snugly, and Mark flipped the lamp’s small switch to the left.  A soft red beam burst forth.  He zipped the front pocket closed and looked at the open cellar door and the newly illuminated stairs.

     Mark picked up his pack and headed into the cellar.

     Cobwebs greeted him, clinging to his face and chest and hands.  He glanced around at the debris, old tools and scraps of wood, forgotten furniture and mildewed boxes as well as a few bits of clothing and scattered toys.  A long dead raccoon lay in a box, and Mark moved deeper into the cellar’s depths, turning a corner and passing an old coal bin.

     Beyond the bin he found the furnace and the electrical box, which was tucked beneath a set of stairs leading to the first floor.  Mark stopped at the furnace and squatted down with his pack once more.  He opened the main pocket and removed a pair of tightly rolled duffel bags.  Sliding the rubber bands off of each, he unrolled the bags and opened them.

     Next he took out a Dremel tool and cutting blades, those being followed by a pair of gloves and a set of goggles.

     Leaving the pack on the floor he fit the Dremel with a cutting edge before putting on the safety gear.  He thumbed the power switch, and the Dremel squealed into life.  Turning his attention to the copper pipes leaving the furnace’s hot water tank, Mark began to cut.

     He moved methodically, cutting even sections of piping and laying them first in one duffel bag then the other.  He worked slowly away from the furnace but brought each piece back to be put away.

     Fitting a last piece into the second bag he zipped it up.

     The floor above him creaked.

     Mark’s head snapped up as dust drifted down through the red light from the sub-floor.

     Mark stood still, watching the dust trail come down across the ceiling.  He kept his breathing slow and even.  The footsteps faded away, and Mark remained still.  He counted to one thousand before he risked straightening up.

     Nothing happened.

     Mark looked to the electrical box under the stairs and glanced up at the ceiling again.

     Cautiously he took a single step towards the box, conscious of the sound of old dirt beneath his boots.  He counted to one thousand once more, and, hearing nothing still, finished the short journey to the box.

     The main power line had been pulled out, leaving the circuit breakers dead and the copper wiring leading out in thick braids free of current.

     Mark adjusted his goggles.

     A doorknob above him twisted, the sound loud and painful in his ears.  Hinges squealed and Mark’s lamp light flickered out, leaving him in darkness.

     Someone took a cautious step onto the first stair.

     The wood squealed.

     A second step followed, and dust fell upon Mark’s head.

     Control of his heart and breath raced away from him.

     A third step sounded and something landed on Mark’s cheek that danced away along his skin.

     “Henry?” a woman whispered.

     Mark’s head started to pound.

     “Henry, do you need help with the wash?”

     The hairs on Mark’s arms and neck stood painfully up.  He swallowed dryly, clenching his hands. A fourth step assaulted his ear.

     “Henry,” the woman whispered, “are you hiding under the stairs again?”

     Goosebumps raced along his flesh and Mark fought to keep himself still.

     “Come out now, Henry,” the woman said, and three rapid steps followed.  “You know that your father doesn’t like you playing down here.”

     Another two quick steps on the stairs.

     “Come along, Henry,” the woman whispered, “your father has an awful drunk on again.

     “Who are you?” the woman demanded.  “You’re not Henry!”

     Mark screamed as something cold touched his face.

     He ran blindly for the stairs.  Panting he found them. Mark thundered up into the darkness of the first floor.  The cellar door bounced off him as he spun into a room.  A crack rang out and the floor shifted beneath him.  Mark found himself falling backward.

     He landed on his back, felt the bones break, his ribs splay and his lungs empty of air as the sharp smell of old coal filled his nose.  He coughed, and the sharp tang of blood hit the back of his tongue.

     Mark took short, sharp breaths and found that he couldn’t move.

     Cautious footsteps approached him in the pure darkness of the cellar.

     “Best be careful,” a young boy’s voice whispered in Mark’s ear.  “Pa’s got a drunk on.”

     Somewhere in the house a door slammed.

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The Baker, 1979

     Joel put his truck into park and turned the engine off. He stifled a yawn, stretched in the confines of the cab and admired the horizon as dawn broke across it. Unbuckling the seat-belt, Joel opened the door and stepped out into the chill morning air, breathing in the deep scent of Fall. The pops and pings of the Chevy’s engine as it cooled interrupted the natural beauty of the morning’s stillness.

     Smiling, Joel took the keys to the back of the truck and tucked them into a small niche he had fashioned for that sole purpose. From the pickup’s bed, he took out his hiking pack and pulled it on, adjusting the straps and clipping them into place before tugging on his knit cap and leather gloves. Flexing his fingers to loosen the stiff leather, Joel walked over to his toolbox and withdrew a pair of heavy-duty wire-cutters.

     Humming to himself, Joel strolled to the chain-link fence that ran the length of Old Man Duncan’s woods, surrounding and protecting the hundreds of acres of old growth forest Duncan Blood owned.

     And no one, Joel thought as he stepped up to the fence, should be allowed to keep that much of the environment locked away for themselves.  It should be illegal.

     Sighing, Joel ignored the ‘Warning’ and ‘No Trespassing’ signs secured to the woven wire barrier. Joel cut the fencing along one of the posts, starting at the bottom and working his way up. In a few minutes, he had a three-foot length separated and rolled back, keeping it open with a branch before putting the cutters back in the truck. With a spring in his step, Joel walked back to the fence, slipped through without his backpack catching, and soon stood up. He paused for a moment to admire his handiwork; then he rolled the barrier back into place.

     Taking a deep breath in through his nose and letting it out through his mouth, Joel glanced at the trees and saw a small game trail between a pair of elms. Nodding to himself, he headed out along the trail. His long, easy stride moved him quickly along the trail, which widened the deeper he moved into the forest. The undergrowth fell away, the forest dim, barely touched by the sun’s ascent. Boulders soon appeared on either side of the trail, and birdsong filled the air.  Acorns sporadically rained down, thrown by squirrels in the massive oaks that crept up among the elms and pines.

     Soon Joel passed through a small clearing, the branches of the trees around it forming a thick canopy above. And while the spot was pleasant, he wanted to be further into the woods before he established camp.

     Continuing on, Joel enjoyed the solitude of the wilderness, the deep silence of the old growth around him. At almost an hour into the hike, he came to a stop, confused by what he saw.

     A stand of young birch trees had been crushed flat, as though some piece of heavy machinery had come in, left no other mark, and destroyed the trees. The ground around it was churned, but not by tracks or tires. Joel looked at it for several minutes, confused. He had hiked all over the country, he had even finished the Appalachian Trail, and he had never seen such destruction.

     The sight left him uneasy, a sense that what he looked upon wasn’t right.

     With a shudder, he shook off the feeling of dread and resumed his hike.

    In less than an hour, he came upon a stream and turned his head, nauseous at the sight before him.

     There had been a beaver dam and a lodge.

   Both had been shattered, their remnants scattered around. The beavers were dead, mangled and mashed into bloody lumps of protruding bones and pressed flesh. Joel had a quick, vicious mental image of someone shoving the animals into an apple-press.

     Disgusted at the violence, he shook his head.

     Does the Old Man know what happened here? he wondered. Hell, did he do it?

     Leaving the grotesque scene behind him, Joel followed the stream. Another hour passed without any more horrors, and then a second hour as well before he arrived at the perfect campsite.

     Joel came upon it suddenly, the forest falling away from the stream, the water whispering around a trio of boulders that were half as tall as the trees. The earth around the near side of the stream was beaten down, and the remains of a tremendous bonfire occupied the center of the battered earth. Amongst the ashes, Joel noticed, were charred and broken bits of deer bones.

     There was a sense of age to the charcoal and bones, an appearance of benign neglect and a feeling as though it hadn’t been used in months.

      Safe enough for a single night, Joel thought.

     He shucked his pack and gloves, rubbing his shoulders to free them of the ache long hikes always left him with. The sun was almost directly above him, a sure sign that noon was creeping up on him. Leaving his gear near the ashes, Joel wandered around the stream and boulders. He picked up deadfall and branches, carrying several loads to his gear where he formed the wood into a rough pyramid. When he finished, he stripped the bark off some of the smaller pieces and laid them in as tinder. With the wood prepared for later, Joel turned his attention to his pack, retrieving his one-man tent.

     Joel put the tent up, sat down beside it and dragged his pack closer. From one pocket he took out his food, a second supplied his water bottle, and from a third, he withdrew his copy of Kiss Me, Deadly, by Mickey Spillane. Joel ate and read slowly, eventually taking off his cap and sweatshirt, balling them together to serve as a pillow as the day continued to warm up.

     By the time the sun neared the western horizon a definite chill had settled into the air.  Putting the book down, and the sweatshirt and cap back on, Joel set a match to the tinder, coaxing the fire into life. Once the flames moved steadily around the dead wood Joel gave a snort of disgust, and he pushed the deer bones to the edges of the pit, shaking his head at the deep gouge marks in the bone.

      Savages, he thought.  Who knows what the hell the Old Man does out here.

     Joel smiled as the fire threw off a pleasant heat that slipped around him as evening arrived.  Humming, Joel took out his dinner, a prepackaged vegetarian meal, and added wood to the fire, building it up. It wasn’t nearly as large as the remains of the bonfire that he had found, but it was bigger than most he built.

     But Joel wasn’t worried about being seen. He was deep in the forest, far from the old man’s house on the property’s northern border.

     By the time the sun set Joel had finished both his meal and the book. He rolled a cigarette, lit it off a branch from the fire, and lay back. Joel listened to the night birds and watched the stars populate the night sky. He grew tired from the heat of the fire, his eyelids drooping as he flicked the butt of the cigarette into the flames.

     This, he thought with a sigh, closing his eyes, has definitely been one of the better hikes.

     The earth trembled beneath him, and Joel’s eyes snapped open.

      Again, the world shook, trees swaying in the darkness.

    An earthquake? he thought, sitting up. He glanced nervously at the giant trees and stones bathed in flickering light.

      Another tremble and something in the forest fell.

     Panic rose within him, and Joel forced it down, trying to focus as himself to think as the earth shook again.

      That’s no earthquake, he thought. That’s got a rhythm.

      He scrambled to his feet. What the hell is that?

      And his answer stepped out of the forest by the stream, coming to a stop.

     A giant stood opposite Joel, a man easily a dozen feet tall and standing naked in the firelight.  He carried a massive wooden cudgel and coarse, dark hair covered his wiry body. Black hair hung in dreadlocks to his chest, and a braided beard reached nearly to his waist. His face was broad, the features thick and he broke into a smile when he saw Joel, his nostrils flaring.

     The creature took a step forward, a tremor rippling through the ground.

     Joel took a nervous step back, glancing from left to right.

     The giant chuckled.

     “There is nowhere to run, little one,” the creature said, his voice deep. “This is Jack’s parcel of Blood’s Forest, and none know it better than Jack.”

     Jack advanced another step, and Joel retreated one as well. Jack swung his cudgel casually.  “Which way shall you run, hmm, little one?” he asked. “Back the way you came? Or shall you run right, to the Goblins’ Keep?”

     Joel licked his lips nervously, his heart beating faster.

     “Is it left then, little one, behind the Stones of Coffin’s Stand to Blood’s dark orchard?”  Jack raised an eyebrow. “Or perhaps you shall run by me, into the forest’s dark heart where things worse than old Jack await the sweet taste of man?”

     “What are you?” Joel blurted out.

     “What am I?” Jack chuckled. “I’m Jack, a humble baker.”

     “A baker?” Joel asked, his blood pounding in his ears.

    “Yes, yes.  A baker,” Jack said with a grin. “You’ve not heard the rhyme then, little one?”

      Joel shook his head, confused.

     Jack laughed, broad yellow teeth catching the glow of the firelight. “I’m sure that you have, and you’ve just forgotten.”

     In a singsong voice Jack called out softly, “Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”

     Joel stiffened, the full horror of the situation rushing through him.

     “See there, little one,” Jack said, winking. “Now you remember. Old Jack’s a baker.”

     Joel bolted.

     He ran towards the giant, leaping the stream and cutting hard to the right.

     The cudgel caught him in the stomach and Joel folded over it, his breath rushed out of him as ribs cracked. He felt himself fly backward and in a moment he splashed into the stream. Joel struggled to stand, but Jack was there, plucking him out of the water. Pain ripped through him as Jack carried him to the fire. The giant dropped his cudgel to the ground, and he casually peeled Joel’s clothes off.

     Agony wracked Joel’s body, but he couldn’t move. His terror kept him immobilized, a helpless child in the giant’s hard hands.

     Jack made a neat pile of Joel’s sopping wet clothes, then he stood and held Joel at arm’s length, examining him. Joel hung limply in Jack’s grasp, unable to bring himself to do anything.

     Jack nodded and set Joel down, turning his attention to the fire. Pain spiked in Joel’s ribs and jarred him out of shock.

     When Jack turned away to throw more wood on the fire, Joel scrambled to his feet and ran.

     He sprinted past the giant, aiming towards the game trail he followed in earlier. In spite of the searing agony in his ribs, Joel rushed towards the tree-line.

     Something heavy struck him in the back of the knee, sending him rolling onto the hard forest floor. He struggled to get up, but Jack was there. The giant picked him up easily, shaking his head as he brushed Joel off with a huge, calloused hand.

     “Don’t run, little one,” Jack said, carrying Joel gently. “You will only die tired.”

     And Joel wept as he heard the crackle and snap of the fire and felt the warmth of it upon his bare skin.

 

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