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Message in a Bottle

Message in a Bottle
©2013 Kolyn Marshall

The Allen Telescope Array is where dreams come true, at least that was what Sarah told herself every day she went to work. Forty-two interlinking satellite towers all focused on one task. To find life on another planet.

Where is this forty-two LNSD (Large Number of Small Dish) array located, you ask? At SETI, of course. The leader in the search for extra-terrestrial life. Working here had been a dream of Sarah’s ever since she was a small girl, sitting on her father’s lap, watching old science fiction shows.

There was hope in those old episode. Hope of a better future, that man-kind would redirect all of their anger and aggression outward in a unified common goal. To find life elsewhere.

It was a noble concept but one which lived only in science fiction, not science reality. Very few people believed in life on other worlds and even fewer yet cared. Yet, the lure of possibility never lost it’s power over Sarah. As long as there were stars overhead and people looking up there was always a possibility.

Walking into the command center, Sarah paused just inside the glass door and looked around. For six years she has been coming to work at the SETI instillation and every day of those six years she has done the same thing each time she enters the room. She pauses for about ten seconds and just looks around at all the monitors, computer displays, work stations, and row after row of servers lining the far wall.

“Well, good morning, Mrs. Johnson.”

Sarah turned towards the sound of the welcome and smiled. “Good morning, Ravi.”

Walking past her with an arm load of data sheets and weekly reports was Ravi Deshpande, the great Desphande. He had come to the states from India when he was just ten years old. His father migrated here with the hopes of finding work in the aerospace industry but, instead, only found a job market full of laid off Boeing and Lockheed Martin employees. The early 90’s was not kind to the aerospace community.

Ravi, on the other hand, was a savant, a child genius no one was expecting. Suddenly thrust into a society which encouraged free choices and the pursuit of dreams, Ravi found himself confronted with new and endless possibilities. Tradition dictated he follow in his father’s footsteps. Although capable of being an engineer, Ravi had seen his father spend too many nights at home staring at reams of paper filled with equations and structural drawings. His father was a great man but his heart was never in engineering. Life took twice as much work with very little enjoyment.

That was not the life Ravi wanted to live. For Ravi, his future was elsewhere, as in other worlds kind of elsewhere, and he was eager to get there. Graduating from high school at the ripe old age of fourteen, Ravi entered the local community college not only as the youngest freshman but the youngest person to enter the astrophysics department. Three years later he was graduating college and moving on to his masters. By the time Sara was graduating with her undergraduate degree Ravi was moving on to a second masters degree and his third published paper.

Sarah’s career path wasn’t quite as straight forward or absolute as Ravi’s. Five years of undergraduate studies learning all the greats in literature and studying classical music gave Sarah the single most important lesson of all. She didn’t want to do anything with the past.

What she did learn from reading classics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey was something about the human spirit. The internal drive to explore the unknown and to face the unexpected. Little did she realize then that her greatest adventure would come from her love of Beethoven.

Graduation came and went for Sarah and with it came the greatest unknown of them all – life outside of school. There was nothing out there she wanted to do. For the next five years Sarah bounced from job to job until one day she saw an ad in the local paper looking for a data logger at the ATA. Apparently the search for extra-terrestrials still required someone to punch a keyboard.

With butterflies in her stomach she called the number listed on the ad and talked to someone who sounded like they were barely old enough to drive, let alone run a research group. The conversation was just as out of place as the voice seemed, going from casual chit-chat to random questions about 10-key experience and blogging. What books had she read? Did she know who Carl Sagan was? What kind of movies did she enjoy watching? What would she do if she found a penny laying on the ground?

By the time the conversation was over she had a job. Just like that. No interview, no meet-and-greet. Nothing but show up on Monday and get started.

She really didn’t know what to expect that first day. Excitement kept her awake for most of the night before. Was she really going to work at the ATA? She was almost afraid to ask for fear it would turn out to be some cruel joke.

Morning came none-to-soon and Sarah had to focus on driving to keep from speeding. When she got to the ATA it was barely seven-thirty but that didn’t seem to matter. Light filtered out through the all glass front doors and a steady stream of people filtered inward. Sarah got out of the car and fell in line, boldly going towards a future she knew nothing about.

Out of all of the possible people who could have greeted her, one thing was certain, she wasn’t expecting was to be greeted by a twenty-five year old. Apparently the look of shock on her face was more than she could hide as she read the greeter’s name badge: Director Ravi Deshpande.

Ravi laughed and led Sarah into the “PIT” as he called it. Sarah would later learn the designation came from someone saying their job was Preparing Interstellar Transmissions. Server racks lined the walls with cables, CAT-6 lines, and power cords snaked from the racks to a series of counters serving as desks. Computers, monitors, and half-filed coffee cups littered the counter while a dozen scientists and technicians shifted their gaze from one screen to another as fingers punching keys.

It was pure chaos. Sarah’s place in all of this? To take the data the techs were tagging and pull key metrics from them so they can more easily and readily compare all the data at one time.

Her expectation was the job would last six to eight months, just long enough for her to get comfortable, then she would be asked to move on. It was the pattern her life had been in for so long she just assumed it would continue. That was six years ago. During that time she discovered something about herself. She was a data guru.

More importantly, Sarah found a place she fit in. People here got her quirky humor and her endless movie references. She loved that David had as many Star Wars Lego characters positioned around his work area as he could fit and that Amy never did let go of her gothic roots. Black leather boots, black eye shadow, and black t-shirts all highlighted by interlocking tattoos hidden (sort-of) underneath.

Roger, though, was the one that made her laugh. He was a sixty-four year old trapped in 1969. Long platinum blond hair, hippy round glasses, and a scruffy beard. Each day he wore a different t-shirt highlighting a different band, shorts, and sandals. Not once did a t-shirt repeat.

Everybody was different and yet they were the closest group of people imaginable. It wasn’t uncommon for them to spend all day together then go spend the evening hanging out at a bar.

Unfortunately, Sarah rarely got a chance to hang out at the bar. Her work schedule at the institute was shifted four hours from the others. She would get to the station around noon and leave anywhere between 8 and 10 at night. Except for Bob the janitor and Ricky the security guard she was the only one in the building past six o’clock.

It was odd at first, but it didn’t take Sarah long to get adjusted. In fact, it was the only way to do what she needed to do. For the first part of her day she would begin crunching numbers. Then, once everyone left, she would go from station to station and verify any irregular data points. Sometimes things were transcribed wrong. Sometimes there was duplicate entries. Most of the time though, Sarah found herself simply listening and learning. Why did David tag that sequence and not this one? What made it special? How did he know?

The next six years taught Sarah a lot about space and the unique sound it makes. In a few years she was able hear the sequence of a dwarf star or the thrum of a pulsar before the computer even identified the anomaly.

When asked how she was able to hear those things she simply said they had a unique song. A musical voice all their own.

If it had been anyone else walking through the Pit that fateful Thursday afternoon the sound would have gone unnoticed, but it wasn’t anyone, it was Sarah. Arms loaded with data binders and a cup of coffee in one hand, Sara made her way through the chaos, dancing around chairs as she squeezed through towards her spot at the end of the row.

She didn’t make it.

Standing, frozen in the middle of the room, Sarah dropped her coffee cup, the ceramic mug shattering into a hundred pieces as it struck the hard concrete floor. Years ago someone had put a set of Bose speakers on top of the server racks to broadcast the sound of space for all to hear. For the most part the noise was ignored, taken for granted as simply white noise without the aid of computers to interpret the sounds. It simply blended in with the hum of the server fans and idle chit chat of the room.

But Sarah was different. The signal found her and Sarah heard it and froze.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. Deet…deet… dohhhhhh. Deet…deet…. dohhhhhh.

“Sarah? You okay?”

Sarah just stared at the speaker as Amy spoke, her black eye shadow making her iceberg blue eyes that more intense.

“Don’t you hear it?” Sarah whispered. She was afraid to speak louder for fear of scaring it away.

“Hear what?” Roger asked standing next to Sarah. His round glasses had slid down his nose making him look over the circular tops as he stared at the speakers.

Before Sarah could respond every computer, server, and printer in the Pit shut off.

“What the hell?….” someone yelled.

“Where are the back up power supplies?”

“How can this be?”

Questions flew around the room but before any of them could be answered everything came back on.

“That shouldn’t happen,” David said as he watched his monitor flicker back to life.

“Servers don’t turn on by themselves,” Amy said almost afraid to touch the keyboard in front of her.


Sarah felt the soft, gentle touch on her shoulder before she registered the sound of someone speaking. Slowly the blackness which had stolen her vision faded and the interior of the Pit returned as she turned to find herself staring into Ravi’s deep brown eyes. His young, gentle face alone seemed to ease the tension in the room.

“Yes?” Sarah said not sure what was going on. She had never experienced anything like this before. What’s more, it seemed as if everyone in the room was looking at her. What did she just do?

“What did you hear?” Ravi asked as he took stack of papers out of her arms.

“I’m not sure,” Sarah said. It was….something. Almost musical in nature. Something not static.”

“Not static,” Ravi repeated.

Sarah hung her head. “I’m not making any sense, am I?”

“No, you are. It’s as good an answer as any,” Ravi replied. “You apparently heard something….big.”

Ravi looked around the room at the rebooting servers. Lights blinked as hard drives spun and CPUs came to life.

“David, I want you to pull the last five minutes of signal. Roger, see what the computers captured. I want to know if there was anything triggered before we lost power. Senior staff in the conference room in five minutes. We need to figure out what just happened.”

Everyone sprang into action. Requests called out, responses echoed. Keys clicked as people scrambled to enter passwords and get back into the system, praying what they needed was still there, uncorrupted by the power outage. Someone even managed to pick up the pieces of Sarah’s coffee cup.

Five minutes later Sarah walked into the conference room and took a seat between Roger and Amy while David queued up the audio.

“First things first,” Ravi said taking a seat in the middle of the long side of the table as David clicked the play button.

Overhead static played. Four minutes of random static filled the air. Then Sarah felt the hairs on her arms begin to stand. The energy was tangible.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. Deet…deet… dohhhhhh. Deet…deet…. dohhhhhh.

The sequence was there, filling Sarah’s ears.

“There!” Sarah said right before the recording ended.

“There….what?” asked Ravi.

Sarah looked around the room at the assembled team. Once more they were all looking at her. David paused the recording and isolated a block of audio.

“Didn’t you hear it?” Sarah asked as she looked from face to face.

“No,” Roger said. “What did you hear?”

Sarah opened her mouth and closed it without answering. She really didn’t know what she had heard. In fact, what she heard this last time wasn’t even the same as what she heard the first time.It was different somehow.

“I don’t know,” Sarah finally said. “It sounded like music. Beethoven, I think.”

“Beethoven,” Amy repeated. “Maybe we picked up one of the local radio stations before the power surge killed everything.”

“Yeah…speaking of which, what was that?” David asked as he shifted through the stack of papers sitting in front of him. “Everything went down…even the power back ups. What’s even odder is everything came back on on it’s own. Almost as if everything went through a reboot cycle.”

Ravi sat there and listened.

“Was anything damaged?” Ravi asked looking around the room. “Any of the servers or computers?”

All heads shook slowly. No was the collective response. Nothing damaged. Nothing out of the norm except for the fact that everything shut down.

“Any thing which may keep us from continuing? Any possible risk to the ATA?”

Another collective “no” from the group.

“Sarah, anything else you wish to add?” Ravi asked.

Sarah shook her head no. What was there to add? She had no clue what was going on, how could she ‘add’ anything?

“Okay then,” Ravi said standing slowly. “Let’s get back to work. Take a few minutes to check everything over and keep an eye out for anything….unusual.”

Everyone stood, gathered their things, and left. Sarah returned to her station and tried to focus on what she needed to accomplish, but couldn’t. There was something…wrong. Something different now. Slowly, she looked around the room. Everything seemed to be ok, yet she couldn’t help shake the sensation.

The only way she was going to get over what she was feeling was to dive into work. For the next several hours all Sarah did was focus on the numbers and data given to her by her colleagues. Eventually, as the day wound down, the room began to thin out until it was just her and Ravi.

“Interesting day, eh?” the young director said as he looked around the room.

“That’s one way to put it,” Sarah replied. Concern and confusion still lingered on her face. “What do you think happened?”

Ravi Deshpande drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I don’t know. I’ve studied outer-space my whole life and I have never seen, read, or experienced anything like what we did today. It could be anything from a new pulsar to a blip from a black hole. Whatever it was I know one thing.”

“What’s that?” Sarah asked eagerly.

“It’ll be something I won’t soon forget.” Ravi smiled at Sarah and picked up the stack of reports he had been carrying. “Don’t stay too late.”

“I won’t,” Sarah said with a smile. “I have just a few more segments to get recorded then I’ll go.”

Ravi nodded and Sarah watched as he disappeared through the door just as Bob came out of one of the offices pushing a rolling cart filled with cleaning supplies. Sarah smiled and waved as he moved to the next office. Eventually he would make it down to the Pit and they would spend a few minutes engaged in their daily routine. Bob would rattle off the latest not-safe-for-work adult joke he had heard that day and Sarah would try not to laugh and fail. For being almost seventy, Bob had the persona of a teenager.

Smiling to herself, Sarah returned her attention to her monitor and was about to enter the next string of data when it started again.


The rhythmic pulse began to filter through the overhead speakers, except this time there was no power failure, no system crash, no nothing except the soft beat from the speakers.

Sarah stopped what she was doing, closed her eyes, and listened. The sequence repeated three times, each time drawing fainter. By the end it was barely heard. In fact it barely sounded like music anymore. Through the chaos of the surrounding static Sarah thought she heard something else. A single word.


Then it was gone.

Quickly Sarah scanned through the master log and copied the last thirty seconds of audio into a mobile sound bite file and saved. Cautiously she opened the file and listened, hoping the system recorded what she had heard.

It had.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. Hello?

The easy part was done. What she needed to do next was to isolate the frequency and determine if it was Earth based or not. As she listened to the sound bite again she began to wonder if it wasn’t some random bounce from someone’s HAM radio or simply atmospheric interference jumbling one of the local AM radio stations. Heck, it could even be some distortion coming in from the ISS. It wasn’t uncommon for them to get segments of conversations from the International Space Station.

Sarah rubbed her eyes and sighed. Whatever it was it can wait until tomorrow. A dull ache had started to form behind her left eye. The all too familiar sign of a migraine making its presence known.

“A hot bath and bed is what you need,” Sarah said to the empty room and shut off her monitor and left.

The next three days came and went and so did the dull ache in her head. By the end of the third day nothing was found to have caused the mysterious shutdown. No odd power surges, no signs of equipment malfunction, nothing. Even the logs on the power back up units showed no indications of having shut off. It was as if everyone imagined the same thing.

Sarah even isolated the segment where she heard the “hello”. To her it was clear, even on the replay, but no one else seemed to be able to hear it. Ravi called it ‘matrixing’, her mind was taking sounds and interpreting them as something familiar. It’s the same thing ghost hunters do when they ‘capture’ voices on tape. Your mind finds the closest word or words that make the same intonations. Suddenly a blurt of static sounds like ‘hello’.

It was an answer but not one that felt right, at least not to Sarah. There was something more to it than matrixing. The voice she heard was that of a young woman, maybe in her teens. A HAM radio interception sounded more plausible than anything, but she let it go.

The days came and went. By the end of the week Sarah had settled back into her routine and had almost forgotten about the strange signal when out of the static playing through the speakers it came again.


Sarah froze and looked around the room. No one else seemed to hear it. Did she really hear it? She waited a second to see if it repeated. Nothing. Slowly her fingers began to strike the keys once more.

Deet….deet…dohhhhhh. “Hello?”

A cold sweat broke out across Sarah’s forehead and her stomach tightened into knots. What the hell was going on? Before she could think, Sarah had shifted screens and hit record on the audio capture program.

“You okay, Sarah?” David asked.

Sarah looked around her monitor and smiled weakly at David.

“Yeah, I think so,” Sarah said hesitantly. “You didn’t, by some chance, hear something just now….did you?”

Dave looked at Sarah and then to the speakers on top of the server racks and back to Sarah. “Just the rhythmic sound of outer-space. Why? What do you hear?”

Sarah thought for a split second of telling David what she heard. Would he understand? What would she say, that she heard something no one else heard? How would she explain that? What would that mean?

“Nothing,” Sarah said and slid back behind her monitor. On her screen scrolled the audio wave signal she was recording. Peaks and valleys danced as the indicator scrolled past. After ninety seconds the wave leveled off and returned to just static.

Apparently the computer heard something, why didn’t anyone else?

The next four hours took forever. Sarah did everything she could not to think about the recording sitting on her computer but nothing worked. All she could do was wait for everyone to leave before she could listen.

When she was finally alone at the end of the day, Sarah hovered the mouse over the sound bite and clicked.

“Hello?” spoke the young woman through the static of space. Her voice quivered slightly as she spoke. “I’m not sure if this will work but I have to try.”

Sarah sat wide-eyed as the sound bit scrolled past.

“Where to begin. I suppose with the basics. My name is Danzi-vahn Ella and my father is….rather was…. Danzi-vahn Ezi. He created this…the means by which I am able to send this message. I don’t know how it works. He tried to tell me once but I was too young to understand. My father said whenever I speak my words are sent out in all directions in space, searching for those special souls who can hear. That, my father said, was the greatest thing about his device. The signal can only be heard by those able to listen. I don’t know what that means.”

There were a series of odd sounds, like things being shuffled and the microphone being covered or moved. Then silence.

Sarah listened to the recording a dozen more times until her head started to spin. Convinced she wasn’t hallucinating or imagining the message, she saved the file in a folder marked Ella and shut off her monitor and went home.

The next day she casually played the sound bite for Roger and Amy, asking each if they heard anything out of the ordinary. To her it sounded like a pulsar but they both said they didn’t hear anything out of the norm.

For the next several weeks the messages kept coming at the same time of the day and lasting anywhere between one to three minutes. By the end of the third week Sarah had a fairly good understanding of what her new pen pal was trying to convey.

Danzi-vahn Ella was from a planet she called ZenToh, the fifth planet from their sun. Seventy five years ago their sun began to change. What should have taken millions of years happened almost over night. Their sun started the process of becoming a red giant. Radiation spikes killed millions the first week, mainly the old and extremely young. Life on their planet was doomed.

The changing light from their sun from yellow to red began to take its toll on the ZenToh people. Unprotected, the sun began to affect those who survived. Aggressions rose, as did murder and suicide.

The government did all they could to keep order but it wasn’t enough. Within months riots and crime soared to the point of being on the verge of complete social and economic collapse. Law and order had all but broken down. All, that is, except for a few small groups comprised of scientists, engineers, and physicians. These small groups had banned together to create what Ella’s father called ZenToh’s final message.

For the next decade the group worked in secrete building their world’s one and only life raft. A deep space vessel designed to take twenty men and fifty women even though the ship itself was able to hold almost ten thousand individuals.

When asked why so big for so few Ella’s father explained that the vessel was designed to be a generational ship, taking tens, if not hundreds, of generations to reach their new home. The population would continue to grow, needed to grow, over those years if their people were to have any hope of surviving.

On the eve before launch the government discovered her father’s secret. Large groups of armed police stormed their home in search of proof, any tangible information concerning the vessel’s location. Ella managed to hide from the invading men but her father was not so lucky. Ella watched as her father died protecting their world’s only hope for a future.

Reluctantly Ella boarded the ship as one of the fifty woman. At barely twelve years old Ella was one of the youngest on board. Within hours of her father’s death Future One lifted off.

Four months after leaving ZenToh a virus broke out on the ship. A deadly mutation spurred on by the increasing solar radiation from their sun. Within days half of the passengers and crew were infected. By the end of the week those not strong enough to fight the infection were dead with the others beginning to show signs of illness. Only Ella and a few of the younger members of the colony still had no signs of being sick.

The message stopped.

Days passed without any indication of a transmission. No indication if the last sons and daughters of ZenToh had survived. No way of knowing where they were heading.

Sarah sat at her station and cried. She had no reason to but she did.

Ravi walked out of his office and turned off the light and shut the door. He was about to wave good night to Sarah when he saw her bent over with her head cuddled in her arms on the counter.

“Sarah?” Ravi asked as he walked up to her and sat down next to her. “What is wrong?”

Feeling awkward, Sarah smiled and wiped a tear. “Sorry,” she said. “I just got a message from a friend….who isn’t doing well.”

Ravi raised a quizzical eyebrow and nodded in understanding.

“Sorry to intrude.”

“Ravi?” Sarah said as Ravi stood to walk away. “May I ask you something?”


“How long would it take a message to travel 60 light years?”

Ravi looked at Sarah and sat back down. “Interesting. If the message originated in space, and assuming a strong enough signal, it would travel about 1 light year distance per year. So, in sixty years it would traveled 60 light years.”

“What about those that sent the message?”

“That one is a bit tougher. With current technology it would take us about twenty-one thousand years to travel one light year. If we were to perfect an ion based propulsion system it is theoretical to travel much faster. Maybe even half the speed of light safely.”

Ravi paused and looked at Sarah and smiled. “Your friend accidentally hitch a ride on a rocket somewhere?”

Sarah smiled back. “No. Thinking about her got me thinking about what we are doing here. What are we listening for? Wouldn’t any message we receive be from someone who lived a long time ago? There would be no way to send a reply.”

“Maybe,” Ravi said. “Even though they may be gone doesn’t mean they didn’t have anything important to say. Think of it as if you were reading a journal kept by your great great grandfather. You get to learn about the life he lived as a child. The first job he ever had. Maybe what he felt like the first time he kissed his soon-to-be bride. So much could be learned if we are willing to simply listen.”

Silence settled between the two as Sarah thought about what Ravi said. Deep down a small spark of hope began to build for Danzi-vahn Ella and her friends. Somehow she knew she would make it through. Somehow she knew there would be more messages from her. She just had to listen.

“Thank you Ravi,” Sarah said.

“I’m not sure what I said, but you’re welcome. Have a great night, Sarah.”

“Good night, Ravi.”

Sarah watched as the front door to the institute closed and Bob emerged from one of the offices pushing his cart.

With a smile on her face, Sarah opened the folder titled Ella and clicked on the first recording in the list. With a pen in hand she began to write what she heard.

The first line said it all.


The Final Measure

The Final Measure
©2013 Kolyn Marshall

Silence. Peaceful silence. It’s that moment of calm and complete serenity we instantly feel jilted out of when the radio alarm kicks on.

“…for the third winner this year. Jackson Rose was one of two with this week’s winning lottery numb…”

Jackie rolled over and slapped the top of the clock, terminating the happy little news report. With a heavy sigh, Jackie wished she would have a bit of a winning streak. Just a little. Just enough.

“Please God, just send me something…some good fortune. Please?” Jackie prayed as she opened one eye just enough to see the numbers displayed across the clock face.



With all the will she could muster, Jackie opened her other eye and stared blankly out the window to the grey sky beyond. Outside the wind howled as it moved around the building, buffering the ever present city sounds. Busses, car horns, and a blur of life in general all mixed together in a cacophony of noise.

Gathering strength, Jackie rolled over and sat up on the edge of her bed. Blinking a few times helped push the rest of the sleep from her eyes. Doing so allowed her to see the flashing light on her phone. Email. Jackie picked up the phone and scrolled through the list of new messages. Over due car payment. Over due student loan payment. Past due on utilities. A new approval notice for some new credit card. Triple bonus points included.

Jackie deleted them all and headed to the shower.

Warm spray shot out from the shower head as Jackie stepped in. For the first five minutes Jackie did nothing but stand there. Her hair fell down across her face and shoulders as the water ran over her.

Standing there in the comfort and warmth of the shower, looking down watching the many rivulets race towards the drain, Jackie began to hum. It was a totally subconscious act. The notes came from deep within, from behind barriers and locks secured ages past. It was a solemn sound. Simple and pure.

The more she hummed the purer the sound became. At some point tears began to flow down Jackie’s face and mix with the retreating water. Tears filled with emotion too powerful to comprehend let alone acknowledge. It was as if her soul was crying.

Jackie stood there until the water began to run cold. Reaching up she turned off the water and rubbed her eyes. Weary from the efforts of crying and stressed beyond what she thought were her limits, for the first time in years Jackie actually felt…okay. She laughed to herself and wondered if her grandmother was right about the power of a good cry.

Stepping out of the shower, Jackie dried off and then stood in the middle of her closet naked and looked at the two narrow rows of clothes. Most of her options were limited to two categories. Jeans and t-shirts, something she was strictly prohibited to wear to work and a three pant suits which made her look like she should be working for an oil exec instead of an ad agency.

Pushed to the side, stuck between a suit jacket and the wall, was the day’s winner. A short length, bright yellow, sun dress. Each time Jackie wore the dress she felt wonderful. The dress was barely long enough to cover her bum, which made her feel slightly sexy in a daring sort of way.

It was the right choice for a day to beat all days. Today Jackie took her life back. Today she began to make a difference.

The problem was no one told the weather.

Overhead the sky was filled with a flash of lightening followed quickly by a loud clap of thunder.

“Not today,” Jackie said to the gathering clouds. “Not today. Nothing’s going to stop me from having my day.”

With that declaration, Jackie grabbed her backpack and headed out the door.


For the first part of her walk the weather obeyed but that didn’t last long. As the sky grew darker the winds grew more forceful. Jackie found herself wishing she had grabbed her coat let alone the umbrella. Sometimes you can push fate too far.

By the time the first drop hit her face Jackie was already heading toward a canopy. Two steps slower and she would have been taking a second shower. With a flash of lightening the sky opened and emptied every ounce of moisture it could find.

“Crap!!” Jackie barked. “Just ten more minutes and I’d be at work. Now I’m going to be late.” She closed her eyes and tried to push the negative thoughts out of her mind.

“I’m not going to let this get me down. Nope. Not going to let my thoughts turn grey. Instead I’m going to make the most of where I am.”

Turning Jackie found herself looking at Main Street’s newest shop, Past and Future Presents™. The door looked like it came straight from an old English castle, which, after looking at the antiques in the window, Jackie thought probably did.

In the window were old books, two antique shaving kits, and a set of quill pens complete with matching ink wells. Sitting in the corner was a hand written sign which read “Bring the Magic of the Past Home™”.

Catchy, Jackie thought, as she opened the door and walked into a world long since forgotten. Inside the air was heavy with the smell of old books and candles. Every inch of floor space was filled, making walking difficult at best. Old dressers, tables, lamp stands, a Knight’s armor, swords, and bookcases filled with books littered the room. All highlighted by flickering candle light.

Jackie gently picked up a leather bound notebook and thumbed through the blank pages.

“They say capturing one’s thoughts helps keep devil at bay.”

Startled, Jackie nearly dropped the notebook on the floor. Looking towards the sound of the voice, Jackie found herself looking at a well dressed older lady. Her gray hair was long and flowing down past her shoulders. A pair of half-moon reading glasses lay suspended on her chest suspended by a pearl chain.

“Hi,” Jackie said as she put the notebook back.

The old lady walked gracefully around the various items and came to stand next to Jackie. Raising the reading glasses up to her eyes, the Caretaker looked at Jackie and smiled.

“A creative spirit, I see,” the Caretaker said as she gently returned the glasses to their resting place.

Jackie smiled nervously as a clap of thunder rattled the glass window.

“Let me see,” the Caretaker said as she glided over to a bookcase and picked up a wooden cup filled with old paint brushes. “Painter?”

Jackie watched as the old lady held up a brush and looked through the bristles at her. She could see the old lady’s blue eyes through the worn horse hair bristles.

“No, not a painter,” the Caretaker said returning the brush and cup to the bookcase. “Maybe a writer.”

The Caretaker picked up an old worn fountain pen and moved it around until Jackie appeared through pen’s eyelet. Jackie smiled nervously. She suddenly wished she had continued walking.

“No…not a writer, but closer. Yes, closer.” The Caretaker returned the pen and then turned slowly around, looking from item to item in the tightly packed room.

“Thank you for your time, but…” The old lady raised a finger and Jackie instantly closed her mouth.

“No…not a writer…composer.”

The old Caretaker smiled brightly and nearly floated across the room to a stack of old papers sitting on a small side table.

“These are what you have been looking for.” The old Caretaker handed Jackie three sheets of old, worn, blank sheet music. Jackie took the sheets and looked at the empty staffs, the rows of parallel lines seemed to call out to her.

“Mmmm….” Jackie said and as she did a note appeared on the paper. Shaking, Jackie let the pages fall to the floor.

“These are Beethoven’s own,” the Caretaker bent down and gently, almost reverently, as if she knew what Jackie had seen and picked up the sheets of music. “By the end of his life, Beethoven had gone deaf but music was still in him. Unable to hear the music he composed greatly frustrated the composer. Beethoven began to obsess over losing the ability to know if what he heard in his mind translated to the world around him. It was this obsession which, shall we say, imprinted itself on to these sheets of paper.”

Jackie stood there dumbfounded at what she was hearing, let along what she had seen. The Caretaker smiled and continued.

“Beethoven’s love of music and his need to share his gift was so great and so strong it had to find a way out. And find a way it did. The Ninth Symphony was one of the compositions which came from Beethoven’s new…gift.”

The Caretaker smoothed out a bent corner of one sheet and handed the three pages back to Jackie.

“These are all that remain of Beethoven’s pages.”

Jackie took the sheets and stared at them. The note she had sung before had begun to fade from the sheet. “What…where….”

“Ah,” said the Caretaker as she began her way back behind the long wooden counter. “Music, you see, is alive. To make music requires giving something of yourself…let’s say you have to put a little of your soul into it.”

The Caretaker rang up the sale and Jackie reached into her pack and pulled out the necessary cash. Possibilities raced through her head. She could make anything she wanted! Any song, any melody, anything she dreamed.

“Enjoy,” the Caretaker said smiling, “but be careful. The more you give, the more the music will want to take.”

“Okay,” Jackie said half dismissively as she walked out the door and back into the rain.


Jackie stood outside the shop and looked down at the three sheets of paper. Did what she think happen actually happen? Excited to try her new ‘gift’, Jackie folded two of the three sheets and placed them in her backpack. Satisfied they were safe and secure, she began to hum the tune she had sung in the shower.

Instantly notes appeared on the page. A “C” whole note appeared. Jackie giggled. Her joy overflowed! No more bills was the thought that ran through her mind. No more scrambling from part time job to part time job. No more worries. No more anything!

Even as she dreamed of a better tomorrow, the note that appeared so easily on the page began to fade.

“No!” Jackie called out to the now blank page. “What the hell?”

Rain beat down on the overhead canopy and poured over the sides in long waterfalls. Without thinking, Jackie stepped out from under the shelter of the canopy and into the rain. Water soaked her hair then her sun dress. In seconds her appearance matched her mood.

Walking, she began to hum. It was a deep, sorrowful sound, one equal to the despair she felt. Her hope had faded and with it a future worth fighting for.

Like before, notes appeared on the page. Quarter notes, half notes, and even measure bars. Keys began to form above the measures while tempo and style markings appeared below. This time, however, Jackie could feel them being pulled from deep inside her.

Jackie paused and waited. The notes remained. They didn’t fade or disappear.

Seeing the notes appear made her want to hum more. Each note seemed to strike directly to her soul. Note after note moved from her to the page and with each note a sense of elsewhere settled around her.

A car horn blared followed by the sounds of air brakes. Jackie looked up from the half full page of notes and found herself staring face-to-face with a city bus. The grill mere inches from her. Above her, looking down, was the fear soaked ashen face of the bus driver.

Jackie just stood there, their eyes locked, not certain of what was going on. After a heart beat the bus driver opened the side door and stepped out of the bus.

“Lady, are you alright?” The rotund bus drive asked.

Jackie just stared at him blankly, her thoughts still tethered to the song.

“Lady?” It was an innocent gesture, one driven by sympathy and concern. Without thinking, the bus driver reached out and softly touched Jackie’s shoulder.

The song playing, cycling through Jackie’s mind exploded into brilliant harmonies. Complicated rhythms began, pushing the tempo, driving the intensity. Deep inside, Jackie felt a warmth begin to build, an energy she could feel. The bus driver took a half step back, his breath suddenly catching in his chest. There was something in Jackie’s eyes that scared him. Something not quite human.

“Where am I?” Jackie finally asked. Her voice barely sounded recognizable.

“Crossing thirty-second street,” the bus driver said, looking down at his fingers. A numb tingling sensation had begun to take over his hand. “Look, lady, you need to get out of the way. I’m backing up traffic.”

As if to confirm the driver’s statement horns began to sound somewhere behind the bus. Without thinking, Jackie nodded and moved past the driver and stepped onto the sidewalk. With barely a second glance, the driver stepped back onto the bus, closed the door, and drove off.

Sometime during her walk the rain had stopped. Looking up, Jackie watched the low hanging clouds push across the sky. Her wet hair fell heavily across her shoulders, a tangled mess made worse by the wind.

“Rain,” Jackie said out loud to no one in particular. “No more rain.”

It was then she felt it, the ancient parchment paper she held in her hand was bone dry.

Slowly rational thought returned. She was walking to work, found the antique shop and the paper, then…now…here. Looking up once more Jackie read the street signs. Thirty-second street, just like the bus driver said. Six blocks from where her work was and thirteen blocks from the antique shop.

Thirteen blocks.

Over an hour’s walk.

She had no memory of walking that far or that long.

“What the hell is going on?”


The waitress filled the cup to the top and walked off. Jackie watched from what felt like a million miles away as the cream poured from the small cup into the coffee. She sat there, watching as the black consumed the white.

Sitting next to the cup was the parchment with row after row of notes, measure bars, and tempo markings all in neat script. But it was the notes that held Jackie’s attention. What she saw on the page she knew were the same notes that kept running through her mind…over and over and over.

What was happening to her? What happened to her when the bus driver touched her? Did she really feel what she thought she felt? Why did the bus driver look at her that way?

Too many questions. What’s worse is Jackie was more afraid of the answers than she was the questions. Slowly, cautiously, Jackie reached out and touched the parchment. Nothing happened. She touched it again for a bit longer and still nothing happened. With a deep breath and a long sigh, Jackie pulled the parchment closer.

Her eyes instantly went to the beginning. What was written there made sense. She understood the latin terms at the bottom, the shapes and styles of the notes, even the intended instruments needed to make the right sound. How did she know this? She wasn’t a music major or even very musically inclined, yet she knew.

She found herself looking at the first note and hearing a mid-ranged Dmajor clearly in her head. Then a C then an Aminor.

From nowhere an image of a spring meadow appeared in Jackie’s mind. A sweet spring day with a blue sky and light wind. Birds danced from tree to tree as slow ripples moved across the lake. Tall mountains bracketed the backdrop in a majestic framework of nature.

Far in the distance, from out of the beauty, came the sound of the song. Rich, flowing, natural. Jackie could feel herself humming the tune but she was nowhere in control. Reality as she knew it ceased to exist. All that remained was the music.

Then, as quickly as it came, it ended. The lake, the trees, the birds all began to fade. Jackie tried to keep them from going but she couldn’t. Blackness replaced the beauty before her and ringing filled her ears.

“Sandy? Lady what happened?”

Jackie blinked a few times and the small cafe table she was sitting at returned. At first all Jackie could focus on was the unnerving sense of depression she had. Was it all gone? Would she ever get back there?

“Lady, what the hell happened?”

Jackie turned towards the sound of the voice and found herself staring at the cook. His white apron smeared with various colors, red, yellow, black. The small boat shaped hat sat slightly askew on top of his head. He was face-to-face with Jackie, kneeling down.

“Sandy?” The cook was looking down at the floor. Jackie leaned over, more from an instinctive response than any thing driven by conscious thought, and looked down. Later she would have a hard time remembering when she began screaming. All she would know for sure is what she saw.

Laying on the cafe floor was her waitress. The color had all drained from her body leaving her skin a dull gray. Her eyes were rolled up, white, lifeless.


Jackie didn’t hesitate. She grabbed the parchment from the table and ran. Somehow she knew where she was going. Reality slowly returned with each impact her feet made on the concrete.

Fifteen minutes later, out of breath, Jackie found herself standing in front of the small antique shop, Past and Future Presents™. With what little strength she had left she pushed open the door and walked in.

“Hello!” Jackie called out as her eyes adjusted. “HELLO!!”

“Yes?” Said the old Caretaker as she emerged from the darkness behind the counter.

“I want to return this,” Jackie said as she fumbled through her small pack and retrieved the three pieces of parchment.

The old Caretaker looked at the pieces of paper and smiled.

“I can’t, dear,” she said with what appeared to be genuine pity.

“What do you mean?” Jackie said.

“I can’t. It’s not done.”

“What’s not done?” Jackie returned.

“The song,” the Caretaker said reverently. “They are connected to you and will be yours until the song is completed.”

Jackie looked at the sheets of music. Almost all three sheets were filled. The last sheet lacked one measure from being completed.

“How do I do that? How can I make this be over?”

“Music is an expression of life,” the Caretake said with a smile. “Ludwig van Beethoven understood this better than anyone. It’s why his music speaks to so many of us today. He was able to capture the essence of life in musical form.”

“Life?” Jackie repeated.

“Life,” the Caretaker confirmed.

The Caretaker came around the counter and reached to take Jackie’s hand. Understanding what had happened with the bus driver and the waitress, Jackie flenched, pulling her hand away, but the Caretaker was quicker.

“Don’t,” Jackie said in a whisper. Fear and despair suddenly filled her soul.

“Fear not, child,” the Caretaker said. “I have nothing to give to the song.”

Jackie looked up from the Caretaker’s hand and stared into her coal black eyes. “How do i make this stop?”

“Life, child. The song needs a life. It cares not if it is yours or someone else’s.”

Jackie could feel her hand growing cold and pulled free of the old lady’s embrace. With tears streaming down her face, Jackie ran from the store.

She had no idea where she was going. All she cared about was getting as far from the old lady as she could. Jackie ran until her legs could no longer carry her. Breathing hard, Jackie slowed to a walk and turned down an empty alley.

Sitting down on a crate next to a dumpster Jackie took out the three sheets of music and held them in her hand. Anger began to form inside her. Anger at being trapped and helpless. She was tired of being helpless. It seemed as if someone else had always been in control of her life. The bank, the utility company, her lame ass boss. Someone else was always making her do something.

Holding the three pieces of parchment together, Jackie tried to tear them up, rip them into tiny pieces, but nothing happened. The parchment held.

“Fine,” Jackie spat and wadded up a sheet and threw it down the alley. Sitting there, Jackie watched as the parchment unfurled and flew back to her, landing gently in her lap.

Frustrated, Jackie dug into her pack and found a lighter.

“Let’s see how well you hold up against fire, bitch,” Jackie said with a cackle and struck the wheel on the lighter. The small yellow flame danced in the cool air as Jackie moved a corner of the paper into the flame. Instantly the flame grew larger and crawled up the side of the paper. Jackie watched as the edges of the parchment glowed red, then orange, and finally black. Hope filled Jackie’s soul as she watched.

But that hope was quickly crushed as the parchment failed to disappear. Jackie let go of the little paddle on the lighter and the flame died out leaving the parchment as it was, unharmed and complete.

Defeat has a very distinct feeling. It’s a nearly unbearable weight pressing down on your shoulders. The pressure causes your breathing to slow and your shoulders to hunch over. Your soul becomes the only thing holding you together.

Jackie looked at the parchment and the one last measure and knew she had one of two options. She could find some unsuspecting person and steal their life force to finish the measure or she could give what little remained of herself.

She wondered if this is what drove Beethoven. There was a chance, she knew, that she could survive. Beethoven did. How many songs did he give before he died? It was only one measure. Only four little notes. Did she have that much strength left?

If she did she could use the music to get out of her debt, to become finally free. To live a life she was proud of. Slowly, hope began to fill Jackie’s soul. The weight on her shoulders didn’t feel nearly as heavy.

Just four little notes.

Jackie could hear the song beginning to play in her mind and she knew what notes she wanted. They were her notes, her life, her future. For the first time ever, Jackie was in control.

Closing her eyes Jackie began to hum.


©2013 Kolyn Marshall

The sound of crunching rocks and pebbles echoed off the brick wall as Jack walked. Less than an hour ago he was sitting in on his couch playing X-Box with Steven. A typical Saturday afternoon for a couple of high school students. Life was pretty simple when you had no where to go and nothing to do.

Then the phone rang.

It was Jack’s mom. His brother Jimmy had been in an accident and had been taken to City Central Memorial Hospital. Jack hated that hospital. Just thinking of going there made his skin crawl.

Funny how life could change in so little time. In less than an hour he was transported from his comfy couch to walking down an alley wondering what was going on with his brother. Fate was a funny thing.

“Did your mom say what happened?” Steven asked.

Jack just shook his head. “Not really. Something about a pallet truck. She was pretty upset though. I could tell it wasn’t good.”

“I’m surprised Mr. Lawson let her off work.”

Jack looked at Steven and nodded. He doubted Mr. Lawson did. Knowing his mom she didn’t give him a chance to argue. She just left. It was always that way. Something would happen with Jimmy and Mom would drop everything. Was this the fifth or sixth job she lost now because of his older brother? He was just glad he had the job at Shop-n-Save down the block. It made it easier when he could buy his own stuff with his own cash. The last thing he wanted was a lecture about how money was tight.

“We still going to see Iron Man 6 next weekend?” Steven asked as he kicked a pebble down the alley.

“Maybe. I don’t work Sunday so we should be able to go. Not sure if I want to though. They haven’t been the same without Robert Downy, JR.”

Jack watched as an alley cat jumped from a crate and darted after something. The cat jumped, skidded, then lunged only to come up empty handed. Lucky mouse.

It happened quick. The glint was gone nearly as fast as it appeared but it was enough to catch Jack’s attention. Pausing, Jack looked down to confirm what he already knew.

Laying there on the black asphalt was a copper penny. A fairly new penny by how it looked.

“Find a penny pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck. Find a penny leave it lay, bad luck will find you that day,” Jack said as he bent down to grab the penny.


Jack froze and looked up at Steven who was standing in front of him looking down, his eyes wide.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Jack asked as he stood.

“Is it heads or tails?” Steven asked.

“Is what what?”

“Is the penny heads up or tails up?” Steven asked as concern began to creep into his voice.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?” Jack asked as he started to bend back down for the penny. He had a feeling he could use a bit of extra luck right about now.

“Everything,” Steven said as he grabbed Jack’s arm and pulled him back up before he could retrieve the penny.

Jack didn’t have the energy to argue. Looking down at the penny he said, “Tails.”

“Crap!” Steven replied.

“Why crap?” Jack asked?

“Heads is good luck, tails is bad.”

Jack just looked at his friend. He didn’t even try to hide the blank are-you-serious look on his face. The only alternative was to give him a raft of shit but he didn’t have the energy for that either.

“You’re seriously freaked over this, aren’t you?” Jack said.

“Yes…,” Steven replied in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Fine, I’ll leave the penny. Let’s get going,” Jack said as he stepped away. After four steps he realized Steven wasn’t following. Turning he saw Steven simply staring down at the penny.

“What is wrong with you?” Jack asked.

“You can’t just leave it now.”

“What do you mean. It’s tails. You said that’s bad.”

“Yes,” Steven said, “but you found it…therefore leaving it is bad.”

Jack was not a superstitious person by nature but he didn’t discount the notion either. Superstitions were generally rooted in some fact. Karma had a way of working it’s self into the mix whether you liked it or not. Regardless of how much Jack did or didn’t believe one thing was certain, he suddenly had a very bad feeling about what was taking place.

“So what do I do?” Jack asked.

“I don’t know,” Steven replied. “I remember hearing that if you find a penny you should then give it away.”

Jack nodded. He had heard that too. “Yeah, but that only increased the level of fortune. In this case…wouldn’t that mean more bad?”

Steven looked back at Jack and nodded. “I guess so.”

The cat Jack had stopped to watch ran across the alley, jumped onto another box, and then darted between Steven’s legs. Both jumped at the sudden movement.

“Stupid cat,” Steven shouted as he tried to regain some composure.

Jack only laughed. It did little to ease the tension he was feeling.

“Any other ideas?” Jack asked.

Steven turned back to the penny and looked. Jack could tell he was running through a dozen different scenarios.

“Well?” Jack asked again.

“Turn it over,” Steven finally said.

“Turn it over,” Jack repeated as Steven nodded.

“Turning it over will change it’s position and bring luck to the next person. You’re basically picking up and then putting it back down….the ‘pick it up’ part is basically fulfilled.”

“Okay,” Jack said. “Go ahead, turn it over.”

Steven looked down at the penny and then stepped back. “I can’t. It has to be you. You found it.”

For the most part Jack enjoyed Steven’s company. His level of OCD, however, for nonessential rules was one thing he did not enjoy. The only way he was going to get Steven moving again was to flip the penny.

Walking up, Jack knelt down and turned the penny over so Abe’s face shown upward.

“There,” Jack said standing. “Satisfied?”

“Maybe,” Steven said as he stared down at the penny. He could hear the crunch of Jack’s shoes fade behind him. Even though he knew it was stupid, he couldn’t help shake the feeling something was wrong.

Steven picked up the penny.

As he did the air was filled with the sound of screeching tires and the smell of burnt rubber.

People are Funny….

People are funny. Some hate crowds while others flock to every music concert in the tri-state area. Some seek to be individuals while others want to emulate their favorite idol-of-the-week. Some are quick tempered and some are so mellow you have to check to see if they can still fog a mirror.

Ever go to the grocery store and notice there are two cashiers but everyone is standing in line for one? Or, go driving and take a turn that has two turn lanes. Odds are the lines won’t be even. In fact, I’d bet dollars-to-donuts that 80% or more will be in one lane or the other.

Why? Why do people behave differently on the collective whole than on the individual?

Understanding why people act the way they do goes a long way in helping to create believable characters and believable situations but the most important thing it does is it helps us figure out how a character will react to a given situation.

If our “hero” is shy and plodding, odds are they shouldn’t be the one that rushes in to save the day. Rather, they would “fall” into that role. Knowing how people react to situations also helps to prevent us from breaking our own rules. It’s tough, sometimes. You start out one way and by the time you finish the story  your character has evolved. That’s a good thing, but did they evolve “right”?

I’m currently working on a story where the hero is a drifter. He starts the story poor, roaming the country in search of himself and his next meal. Yet, the end of the story he is sweeping the heroine off her feet and is this rich fella able to solve all of her problems. Yeah, I did it. It was akin to ending the story by saying “and then he woke up.”

I cheated. It made the ending nice and neat, but it didn’t fit, it wasn’t right. But, yet it did fit to some degree or else I wouldn’t have written it that way. Going back and re-reading it I realize I can add a bit o’ mystery to my hero be dressing up his down-trodden life style. Make his back story a bit more vague.

There are all kinds of people out there. Take a look around and see who they are. Watch how they act, how they walk, talk, and dress. I bet you’ll learn something about them and yourself in the process.

And, the next time you’re out driving, keep an eye out for that short turn lane.

Knowledge is Power….

But…absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Ugh. There is evidently a fine line between knowing enough and knowing too much or thinking you know it all.

When I write I go in one of two ways. I either create the entire world out of my own imagination where I make the rules, the places, the people, etc. What happens in my world stays in my world. Then there is the story where I want to make it a bit more real. Those stories may be set in a real place, or include historical people (ie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). These stories tend to take a bit more time up front. I dive into the books, read what I can to better understand the concept.

One of my favorite authors is Micheal Crichton. He did so many great things, such as The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, and Prey. Each of these novels have a very distinct technical side to them. If he were to write these and get nothing right about viral strains, dinosaur DNA, or nano particles the stories themselves would have fallen apart. That knowledge came from somewhere and I’m sure Micheal spent many a day reading technical journals to find out exactly how things worked before he crafted his story around those facts.

However, I feel there is a fine line between having just enough fact in the story to give it bite and so much fact that it collapses in on itself. I have run into this on one of my own stories. Right now the story is so full of “fact” that I am going to end up scrapping most of what I have written thus far and start over. It’s a story about woman who travels in order to find herself. I personally have not traveled abroad, so I read to learn more about the places I want her to go. Egypt, Rome, Paris, etc. What I found, though, is I ended up trying to put so much detail in the book about where she is that I lost the vibe of what the story was supposed to be. The characters got lost, the plot exploded, and everything fell apart. All I had was a bunch of pages that tried to describe what the little shop on X street looked like.


I guess what I’m getting at is it’s just as important to understand why you need the knowledge and how it is to be used as it is to seek the knowledge in the first place. Too much of a good thing does not always a great thing make.

Show vs Tell…


This is not a new topic. In fact, this is one of the oldest and hardest concepts in writing to over come … in my opinion.

Denyse Cohen has a great article on this topic. Denyse shows us how a simple phrase can be expanded to bring more detail to a scene. For me, the challenge comes in knowing when to expand the action to show things or to simply say what is going on.

Showing the action allows the reader to learn more about the characters and what is going on. It helps to pull them into the action. Compare the following:

Bob shut the door.
Bob pushed the door slowly closed. The latch “clicked” silently into place.

There is also, I think, a point where we show too much. We can try to describe so much that the action actually slows down and gets muddy.

Bob placed his hand on the brass handle and pushed the door. Inch by inch the door swung closed. As the door reached the latch, Bob pushed a bit harder to allow the latch to “click” silently into place. The door was now closed, secured, and locked.

Conversely, try not to simplify too much. Getting to the point too soon can prevent the reader from getting the information they need. They don’t develop that connection with the characters. The reader may not care if they stub their toe, argue with the neighbor, or discovers who the bad guy is. It all depends on what you, Creative One, want us to feel and experience.

There is no real way to “learn” what this balance is. As writers we simply have to read how others accomplish this by reading their stories and books. Then, we need to work on our craft each day. Write, write, write.

The choice is ours as to what we show and tell.

Going Up?…

Note to self…Don’t try to stop a closing elevator door.

Why, you may ask? Well….I’ll tell ya. I am currently in New Hampshire giving a presentation. I’m staying at a hotel I stay at a lot when I’m in the area. It’s a nice Fairfield Inn.

As with all hotels there are usually several groups staying and generally several seminars. That is the case here.

And, my tale begins. I step onto the elevator with another gentlemen, we do the mandatory head nod and we press our respective floors.

The doors start to close. In fact, the door looks shut, when out of the blue the doors reverse their direction and open. In steps a group of men who decided it would be best to stop the closing door in order to get on the car. Generally this would not be an issue. In fact, I’ve done that a few times myself. Stick you hand in, activate the bumper, and the door opens.

Ah….not this case. Apparently this time the door decided to get confused. We all get on. It’s a small car with six men on board. The doors close….almost. The door gets within 2 inches of closing and stops.

Then nothing.

The floors are lit up and the car doesn’t move.

That’s fine, just press the door open button, right? No dice. The doors are lock. The car is stuck. We are not going anywhere.

Why is it when you are suddenly stuck in a confined place that makes you have to suddenly pee?

So…we go through the required button press sequence. Yep…pressing “2” over and over really does not change anything. We finally give in and lift the little emergency phone and ask for help.

The response?

“Okay….the fire department has been called.”

The fire department? Seriously? Ugh. How about the building maintenance dude? Or someone with an over ride key?

Ten minutes later we hear the all too familiar squawk of a rescue radio as the firemen walk into the lobby. They evaluate the situation and ask the manager on duty for the over ride key. What do we hear?….

“We don’t have one.”

That was the end of that. We all started to laugh. Yep, the hotel does not have a key to the elevator. Humor is a great stress reliever. From there the jokes started flying.

“How about the jaws of life?”

“What would John McLane do in a situation like this?”

“Anyone have a Leatherman? How about a hole saw?”

“Where’s the hatch?”

And on, and on. Now, mind you a few of these guys still have to pee. Now, they are laughing to the point of tears. Knowing they are trying to keep their bladders in check only added to the humor of the situation. We are truly a deranged species.

We get an update from the fireman outside the doors. They had to call a repair man to come in….from Boston.

Thirty minutes of jokes, confined space antics, and trying not to think of M.Night’s movie “Devil“, the repair man shows up. He has  a key and 14.7 seconds later the doors open and we all exit.

Yep. life is a funny thing. One moment your an observer and the other you are in the center of the action. I guarantee this event, in one shape or another, will make its way into a story sometime. Experiences are good things. Try not to take them too seriously and store them away in your notebook. They are truly golden.

So, the next time you have to ride an elevator you may want to stop by the restroom before heading up.

Summer Vacation…

It’s summer time and, for a lot of families, that means vacations!!

I hate vacations. I don’t “vacation” well, as my wife would say, and I have to agree. Every time we go somewhere there is this underlying expectation to do something…constantly. You are in a new place, don’t waste it. Go see the sights, visit the theme parks, go, go, go.

For me, the ideal vacation is curled up on the couch with a book.

There are those nuggets, however, that stand out as great times. Several years ago we took the kids to Mount Rushmore. Drove it, which was fun. We got to see a lot of America we would not have if we flew. Then in ’09 my wife and I went to Vegas to see Star Trek the Exhibit. We barely made it, sort of. They closed the site down six months later.

Then a few years ago my wife and I went to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Just us…no kids…. See, I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and when I learned they were finally opening the new theme park at Universal, it was all over. I was going.

Wow, they did that place right. It was amazing! What amazed me more is how much they made you feel like you were in the world of Hogwarts. It’s the same thing that amazes me about the movies, really. They took JK’s work and recreated it almost exactly how I had envisioned it, which is why I think the movies did so well.

Anyhow, we liked Universal so much we took the kids this summer. We also did Disney,but frankly, Disney is over rated. Universal is the theme park to visit. We all had a great time.

Don’t get me wrong. I still missed curling up on the couch and reading. It seems as if I haven’t been able to do that enough lately. Too many other “small” projects going on. Like most things, I need to find time to read. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to take a reading vacation and sit out on the porch and read while the rest of the world passes me by. Now that is a vacation.

Characters vs Plot…

Character development versus plot development. Which one drives the story? Which one is more important to making things move along?

I think that depends.

I have listened to speakers talk about the importance of character development. They have to be “real”. They have to make logical, or believable, choices. Characters need to be presented in a way we can relate to them.

I agree. This is true.

Then, there are those who say Plot is more important. What the characters are doing, have to do, and struggle with needs to be developed before the characters have anything to do. Why are they even there?

This is also true.

Durant Imboden has a great article on this very topic at titled Character vs Plot (catchy, eh?). When I read this article I began thinking about how I went about developing a story concept. It was funny, really, that I hadn’t really thought about that fundamental step before. It was just something I did.

I think, in the end, I do a mixture of things. First I write a summary of the story idea, my road map. This is just a simple brain dump, a stream of conscience. I don’t try to figure it all out right away. When that is done I look it over and begin to fill in the gaps. How do I make the action flow. For me Characters are more about moving the action along than anything. They are the window for the reader to get into the world I want them to experience.

There are stories out there where the whole plot centers around the main character’s ability to overcome some personal limitation. Those, if done right, are very powerful. For me, these are a bit more difficult to write.

In the end, it all comes down to you, oh Creative One. What do you want to do? What do you want to write? What is driving your story? Character or plot? I recommend determining this before you begin, otherwise you may end up with neither character nor plot.


Treasure Map…

The old joke about men not asking for directions has been around for years (okay…decades). The gist is us guys would rather drive around for hours on end trying to hunt and peck our way to our final destination instead of stopping and asking for directions.

I wish I could say this statement is without merit…*sigh*…but I can’t. We all (yes, women too) have the tendency to wanna get there on our own. Asking for help is sometimes akin to giving up.

When it comes to writing, however, don’t dive into a story without first making a map of where the heck it is you want to go. Failure to do this will ultimately result in you (and your poor reader) wondering around for hours on end. Don’t do that to yourself…or one of your honorable fans.

The image I dropped into this issue is one I found on-line (sorry, I have no idea who to credit this one for other than JK herself…) that shows a page from one of JK Rowling’s notebooks (hey…even the bigwigs take notes). This one is from the Harry Potter series, The Order of the Phoenix.

Story maps don’t have to be elaborate or even very detailed. They can be as simple as an half dozen bullet points on a page indicating the basic flow. Or, they can be more detailed and show exactly when and where a character is supposed to do or find something. The detail is up to you, oh Creative One.

I have done my fair share of these over the years and they have ranged from the basic to the overly detailed. I started out like so many and just dove in. Blah….who needs to think this stuff out, right? The story will flow on its own.


Right. Oh, it flowed, but so does a septic system. I ended up with so many contradictions and dead ends that I was completely frustrated and gave up on the story.

Next I moved on to plot outlines. This allowed me to keep stay creative while having the events flow naturally as I created the final “world”. This approach generally ended with me writing a short story that I would later use as a guide for the full story. This is how Back to Justice was written. This seemed to work.

I then took that approach one step farther and started creating character outlines.Where did so-and-so come from? Were they a high school drop out or did they get their masters degree? Are they right handed or left? Do they have many friends? These became bullet points that help me keep character traits straight as I write. What I have learned by doing this is to not stop the creative process as I write. These characters come to life as we write them. Situations will spark certain results. It’s okay to go back to the outline and add to it. Maybe the character is afraid of spiders. Make a note just in case they have to overcome that later.

I’ve refined that approach over the years and now have one of those silly composition books full of notes and plot outlines. I keep this beside my computer as I write. As new things pop up, I write it down. There is page after page of story outlines, concepts, and even simple titles that may spark a thought later.

The important thing, I guess, is don’t be afraid to create a road map before you begin. Doing so will allow you to be creative without having to constantly worry about keeping track of all of the little details. Give it a try. Your readers will thank you.