Countdown to NaNo

So it’s Halloween today and I’m flailing around trying to get through a research paper proposals and two other assignments before I finally, finally, get to start on this year’s NaNoWriMo.

Oh god, guys, I’m scared and strangely excited. I have a hard time explaining why I want to join National Noveling Month so badly, other than just to say that I could start a project and see it through. There’s something about a solid deadline that helps me get through projects I wouldn’t normally attempt. And, so far, I’ve enjoyed spending time fleshing out characters and settings instead of just starting the writing blindly (and stumbling inevitably due to a total lack of preparation).

I’ll  be here during the month with stories of panic, tears and (hopefully) some outtakes from my progress.

Remember, kids, have fun. Even if it's awful.

Remember, kids, have fun. Even if it’s awful.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a tip or two gleaned from my last minute preparations:

Keep your ideas, don’t edit your outline too much. Don’t run out of tea or chocolate after the shops close.

And also: Start Small. 

The writing advice I’ve encountered most often around the web when it comes to creating a story is to ramp up  the conflict. High stakes make a story, right?

Well, yes, until you come on the NaNoWriMo forums and realize half the people there have interpreted that to mean that, at the very least, the world should be on the brink of destruction in your fictional universe, either as a result of the zombie apocalypse or due to a 4,000 year old vampire criminal mastermind’s evil plans.

That’s not tension, but – in my opinion anyway – a bit of bore. Because you haven’t given me a reason to care for your characters (and ‘they’re immortal with a dark and troubled past and that’s awesome’ is not a reason.)

Everyone out there with a non-vampire/werewolf novel, you guys are winners to me already! Let’s write ourselves some really awesome (or at least hilariously crappy) books.

Take Me Out

The low sun’s crowding us out of the cafe, blazing through the glass walls on three sides. The lamps come on with their artificial yellow light to remind us all we’re still in the library – ‘silent, academic, serious’ – except it’s not silent at all, but crowded with students chatting on the brown sofas. These sofas are worn, like old beasts of burden, their leather hides badly stitched together around sagging bodies, and faintly ridiculous in the modern grey interior. I like to sit at the raised bar at the serving counter, where the same ladies in black aprons serve coffee every day, with a view of the tables at the window. A pair of builders wearing identical fleece sweaters is sitting next to me. They look lost, while the Mandarin spoken at the next table cheerfully drowns out their occasional one-line grunts.

A woman dressed in a red cardigan is leaning across the one of the round tables to better make out what her companion is saying. She stands out among the grey slacks and subdued hipster knits, her  blonde hair flying out to all sides as if she has been running her ringed fingers through it all day long. She is tapping a fire-red pen against her painted nails, as if she matched the colour with her outfit on purpose. I can’t tell if that is a good sign for the young man she is sitting with. He is bent over the table, trying to involve the woman in what he is saying, waving his right hand as he speaks. His stub nose turns up cutely at the tip, spoiling the impression of his crisp white shirt and tie. Two notebooks and an empty coffee cup are stacked in the space between them like a small castle. She is careful to rest her arms on her half, but the look she gives him across the open pages is alive with interest. She passes a hand over her chin, settles it back on the table, and cups her face again as like she’s trying to hide the slight sag of skin around her jaw line. The conversation falls still for a moment. Under the bright cafe lamps I see the glint of a gold ring around his finger, polished as if new.

A large photograph of the Queen hangs on the wall over my shoulder, not far from a framed advert for the original ham & cheese panini. The university’s red emblem is lost in the top left corner,  the cheese dripping through the frame and around a printed banner promising us it’s Back by Popular Demand. I study the Queen, who is looking somewhat bemused with her hands crossed in front of her white dress, as if she is guarding the tall gilded door in the background. Her name is signed in green ballpoint on the picture’s white border, the E curling up in salute to her photographed self. I wonder what she would think of us now, as I get up to slide past the woman in red.

Queen_Elizabeth_II

kind-of-creepy portrait courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


This week’s writing exercise over at the daily post – absolutely swamped with work over here so writing this from the library. I live here now…

“Iconic” – Penelope’s gift

Ithaka, Greece (2008)

Ithaka, Greece (2008)

As she weaves the faces of the gods into the  fabric of the funeral shroud, she listens for the rush of the tide and the wind in the top of the olive trees. Most days the bay is silent but for the laughter of  the fishermen and the slapping of their nets on the pebbles, but sometimes the snap of sails on a bigger ship make her sit up and drop the spool from her hands. She has imagined her husband returning many times, leaping onto the beach, his hair laced with salt and grey, perhaps, but he has not come.

The old king Laertes sits outside in the shade of a tree, resting his trembling fingers on the head of an equally aged dog. The younger men tolerate his presence because his milky eyes, covered in a gelatine layer of film, don’t see much of what goes on in his hall, and they all agree he isn’t long for the world. There is nothing she can do for her father-in- law; yet his coming death is the pretext for delaying her second marriage, for all the hours she spends alone, up in the small room facing eastwards, weaving a shroud she does not intend to finish.

Some days, she wakes up feeling a slight disturbance, as if something is off about the island, and its reality is slowly becoming undone around the smallest nicks and flaws in its fabric – like someone is pulling the thread of their story on to a different course. Objects move around and disappear, only to turn up on the beach or in her clothes chest. A gnarled old tree that was felled by a winter storm in the first year of her marriage reappears in a different spot on the hillside, but when she points it out to her maids they shake their heads and say things are the same, the way they have always been.

At night she listens to the roar of the men drinking in her hallway, probably laughing about her skirts and her son they love to wind up, sending him scurrying furiously up the stairs. When she is sure they are truly drunk, she steals out of the bedroom and down the hall. The shroud sits ominously on its frame, a shadow against the stars outside. She lights a torch and the flame dances across the weave, illuminating the maze of King Minos and the glowering face of the beast inside.

The eyes of the minotaur shine yellow in the halfdark, the pupil a dark slit, more like a snake’s cold stare than a bull’s. When the textile flutters under her touch it looks like its nostrils widen and fall with the force of its breathing, sniffing out its prey.  She slips her fingers under the thread, coaxing out the ocean blue and dun strands until the monster unravels and drops away harmlessly, leaving Theseus alone with a jagged string into the labyrinth. Heroes walk along the centre of her shroud, Hercules waving his club and loved by everyone, even the gods.

Nearer to the bottom Laertes himself is sitting on a throne, cross-legged and mellow. Odysseus stands beside his father. His face is turned away, towards the sea, obscured by his thick mane of curls. If she closes her eyes, she catches glimpses of what he was like – a mocking half-smile, or the corners of his dark eyes crinkling with laughter – but the face never comes into focus, remaining hazy, so unlike the man. For the first time, she wonders how he will be remembered, if he should be dead at sea.

Penelope strokes the weave and then pulls the thread loose, watching her husband fall in a tangle among the icons at her feet. When the sun comes up over the mountain, the maids will come and spin the colours of the heroes back onto the spools, to be reassembled during the days. Silently, she slides back through the hall on her bare feet, vowing that his name – Odysseus- will be remembered as the name of a  hero, even if her own must pale and unravel over the years like one of her tapestries.

????????????

Taken as we were sailing somewhere between the Ionian islands, Greece – possibly on the way to Lefkas

Written for the Weekly writing challenge. This week’s theme was ‘iconic’. I chose Greece  because particularly the Homeric epics are an icon of story-telling to me. They make me wonder about all the moments that aren’t described in the Iliad and the Odyssee – and of course, for the stunning landscapes  🙂

Friday Fictioneers – White Nights

Another contribution to Friday Fictioneers – the goal is to write a story of a 100 words or less to a picture prompt. Thanks for reading! 

*

copyright to Lora Mitchell

copyright to Lora Mitchell

‘It’ was always waiting for her on the windowsill when Claire came home to the apartment at night. The monstrous plant had been a parting gift from her ex, Jack, after she’d taken on a new job in a city 500 miles from their home.

The large trumpet-shaped bulbs at the end of its stalks were starting to open, revealing the softest white petals; the colour of a wedding dress. Tears came to Claire’s eyes.  She leaned in to smell the flower, inhaling deeply. A scent like a decaying animal wafted up from its yellow heart and filled the room.


words: 100
Read more submissions here!

Fiction – “All we like Sheep”

The dogs can take London, the old master thinks. The cold creeps in from gaps in the floor boards and settles in his bones.  His fingers are stiff around his pen and he hates the sound of the rain, its ticking constantly jarring his concentration. His music is failing to come to life on the page, the ink preferring to sit bloated on the bars – an old man’s notes.

He heaves himself up from behind the desk and waddles like a bad-tempered pelican across the wooden floor, tugging at the heavy damask curtains to let in the grey light of dawn. He likes to work when everyone else is sleeping, in the depth of night when he is alone with the music in his head.For a moment, he thinks he is imaging the dark figure in the street two floors below, standing solitary in the rain sodden square. His grey coat blends into the pavement and his long brown hair is plastered against his neck. Neither man moves.

The stranger looks up, straight into the window where he is standing. The old man sees a flash of blue from his eyes, sunken into his pale face.

Friedrich. Gott im Himmel. His heart beats heavily in the barrel of his rounded chest. He cannot understand what the young man is doing so far from Hamburg.  He sneers to himself- Friedrich, the most wretched of all the students he has taken on over the years to serve as scribes in exchange for lessons in composition. The boy had been particularly untalented, capable enough of recreating simple pieces of music by ear but unable to come to any understanding with the pen. Friedrich could hardly spell his own name. How he has made it across the channel and into London is a mystery, but he doesn’t dare ask himself why his old student has come. The old man has a sudden vision of some hellish fiend, ready to exact revenge on a poor teacher while dry flames lick around their ankles.

The door knocker resounds against the front door with a terrific brass thud. Downstairs he hears a door opening and closing, the footsteps of the serving girl on the carpet. He bursts onto the landing, shouts for her not to open the door, but he is too late – he sees Friedrich, taller than he remembers, framed by the open door. The old master is heaving from the burst of effort involved in sprinting across his own study, his stomach shaking. He looks short and ill-kempt without the wig he usually wears in public.

‘Hello, master,’ Friedrich says, smiling pleasantly. ‘I apologise for turning up without an invitation, but I figured I could rely on an old friend for an introduction in the city. May I come in?’

He practically has one foot over the threshold already. He has not been in London long. He wears his curls at shoulder length, tied back with a yellow piece of ribbon; an impossible hairstyle for those who live in the lice-infested capital year round. No hat.

The master clears his throat awkwardly. ‘I did not know you were in town,’ he says. His native German feels heavy on his tongue. A pause between them. ‘I also didn’t think you would care to see me again, Friedrich.’

‘Because of that squabble we had? It was nothing,’ Friedrich says, waving a gloved hand. The gesture is hindered by a large rectangular package under his arm. The master has no recollection of Friedrich past the point where he’d called him a talentless sod, shortly after depositing all of the boy’s belongings, including his compositions, in the pond outside the old house.

A sense of foreboding is rising in the back of his mouth. He turns his mind to the leather-bound bible he keeps beside his bed, and murmurs a prayer under his breath.

Friedrich meaningfully sets his package on the dining table and unwraps stacks of densely filled pages. ‘Is that more of your work?’  he asks with some trepidation. He knows Friedrich is dedicated to the art, but the boy is also recklessly stubborn and quick to anger. He has heard strange stories about his former pupil from friends in Germany – breaking and entering, parties and debauchery. Alcoholic fumes always on his breath. One evening he had apparently been found in a neighbour’s chicken pen, empty bottle in one hand and the headless body of a hen in the other, blood smeared all over his overcoat.

The old man’s eyes move over the lines, the scratched-in notes and words at the bottom. His mind unravels around the ink; he can hear the melody behind the writing, the harsh strings and the heavy-footed bass.

Only now has he taken notice of the lines of verse, hastily added underneath the music bars as if just an afterthought – in English. The foreignness of the language lends a strange quality to the lyrics, thick, but somehow suited to music. He is reminded of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, figures faceless and cloaked in black. Friedrich, dancing Dionysus.

He looks up from the page at Friedrich, who is leaning over the table, his thumbs drumming against the surface. He frowns. ‘Who wrote the words to this?’ He does not say that they are brilliant.

‘I did.’ His old student looks nervous. His face is so close he can see his freckles under the pearly skin. ‘I know it’s not much, sir, but it is hard when you don’t have the means to hire someone to do the work. I don’t have any connections in London. That’s why I came to you first.’ For patronage, money.

‘I need more time,’ he says. ‘I can look over these for you today. Come back tomorrow morning, and we’ll talk.’

*

He watches Friedrich disappear over the square from his window, humming a tune. That’s the last song he’ll ever sing, the master thinks. He turns to the pages he has scattered over his desk, painstakingly neat, and feels a flash of emotion that is not exactly guilt. Friedrich’s music hasn’t improved since he fired him, but the words take off in the master’s mind, creating the true music by themselves.

The notes come to him on dancing feet, fluidly as if they were moving through the air of his study. He draws up the strings first, melancholy in the beginning but triumphant for the chorus, where he joins Friedrich’s choir to an elegant brass section. The music fits the lyric seamlessly.

The jolly entrance of the harpsichord is interrupted by a loud croaking noise. The master sits up in his chair, irritated. It seems to be coming from the ceiling, like wood stretched almost to its breaking point. He dismisses the noise with a determined shrug. It is an old house, after all.

A wailing, like a viola man-handled by a brute’s paws.  For a moment he thinks someone has broken into his own collection of instruments but the sound is far-off, like wind in the pipes; outside, the sky has blackened.  It is typical English weather, hardly worthy of his attention. He jots down several bars, the notes dashed aggressively. The ink shines darkly in the light of the candles he has lit. The stairs groan as the maid walks up from the kitchen, in vain trying not to disturb the old master.

Several hours pass. Friedrich’s words lie under the new composition in his own handwriting, looping around themselves repeatedly. One of the shutters is ripped loose by the wind and bangs violently against the walls of the house. He gets up, tries to secure it from the inside but the effort is no use.

He opens up his harpsichord, trying to distract himself from the drumming of the shutter against the wall outside. It is a beautiful instrument, inlaid with ivory and swept gold. He plays the notes solitarily, imagining how it would sound against the backdrop of a full orchestra.  His hands shake on the keys. He tells himself it’s the cold. Sweat forms between his bushy eyebrows as the house continues to moan under the strain of the wind.

A rapid succession of knocks against the door like gun fire, ringing up from the hallway. The harpsichord falls still under his shivering fingers. It is not dawn yet.

There is no sound from downstairs. The maid must be sleeping. The knocks again, coming faster and stopping abruptly. He takes a candle and makes his way to the window slowly. He sees Friedrich’s dark figure again, hunched in his coat. Even in the darkness he can see he is soaked through and trembling. Friedrich lifts his head to cry out to him. He has to open the window to hear, the wind an icy moan around his ears.

‘Is that my music you were playing? It sounds different,’ Friedrich says, trying to smile but his mouth is stiff with cold. God knows how long he has been outside, listening. His eyes look feverish, a slow burn.

The old man says nothing. In the distance he hears the braying of hounds, a long cry in the night. It reminds him of the solitary wolves that would sometimes stalk too closely to town limits in the German winter. Behind him the pages to his new opera lie spread over the desk and the surfaces of the harpsichord, the ink drying slowly. Tomorrow he will commission a neat copy to be made and sent out to his patrons, and drop the original words into the fire place. In the gloom he can imagine pairs of eyes from the forest.

Friedrich calls up again. ‘Please, sir, let me in.’

The master clutches his bible closely to his chest, knowing he is being silly. He drops the curtains, snuffs out the candles. There are no wolves in London, of course. Darkness falls around him and the room is silent.

He doesn’t hear of Friedrich again.

The maid finds a dead rooster in the loft, on the day the opera opens for the first time. A yellow ribbon is tied around its snapped neck.

Weekly writing challenge – High Road

I’ve never uploaded fiction to the blog before but I thought it might be nice to do something a bit different just for the fun of it. I tried my hand at WordPress’ weekly writing challenge today: this week’s objective was to write something based on the photograph below. See the full post here

couple-embrace

*

I’ll never be able to explain what a fool I’ve been, waiting for Rafael on the corner of another cobbled street, the stones cold under the backs of my legs. I lean against my backpack, the canvas dirty with the dust from a hundred European streets. It’s all I own for the moment, the rest of my stuff still half a world away in my bedroom at my parents’ house in Bristol, England. A bundle of worn-out summer dresses, the colours dull from being worn so intensely in the last three months, wrapped tenderly around several objects that don’t belong to me: a set of lenses to an expensive camera, a silk top from a high-end fashion label, a handful of beads, a man’s wallet from leather so soft it makes you want to cry for the calf whose hide it was.

Rafael says most tourists’ attention is lost to the screens of their smart phones. They spend all their time trying to snap memories of a holiday as it drifts by, pictures pinned against the Mediterranean green as it washes the sand all over their shoes. It makes it easy to slide up next to them, pretending to admire the vista while dipping your fingers into the pockets of their cargo shorts. The hand tricks settle into your nature after a while, committed to muscle memory perhaps. He says it’s just being watchful. You’ve got to wait for a good opportunity.

I got too confident once, about six weeks in, and tried to take a man’s wallet from his pocket as he read a placard under a statue. To my horror, the German’s fingers shot out from his side, clasping my wrist like a vice; he was at least six foot tall, with the strength of a Viking. I was sure he was going to break my fingers, until he caught sight of my face- the confusion my pale, soft features created was enough for Rafael to slide in and direct a well-aimed kick at his shins. The giant howled, and we ran past marble squares for minutes in silence, before collapsing next to a fountain. Rafael laughed, ivory teeth dancing.

It’s time to go home. Sitting on the pavement about 500 miles from Florence with not one ticket stub paid for honestly, I can feel the slight autumnal chill that enters the air a little earlier every day now. In Italy red and white and yellow houses were a bright backdrop to everything we did, but here the houses are grey and painted with scrawled graffiti signatures like scars on the faces of old women. This is where he’s brought me to. I don’t feel guilty for what I’ve done, but it’s like something is slipping from my fingers. There’s no ownership at the bottom, no books or chairs, just bunk beds in hostels stripped bare.

Rafael picked me off the streets of Florence where I was supposed to be studying Italian at the local university, because that’s what we do on a gap year. I fell in love with the boy for the way he spoke. I can still hear him whisper my name, the music of his lilting accent accompanied by the jangle of a set of car keys he held out to me – drive, darling, drive.

People aren’t suspicious when I stop them to ask for directions. Rafael is dark-faced, his eyes a perfect black that shifts to brown in the sunlight. I thought he might be a Traveller, when I first saw him darting on his long legs past the portrait artists and living statues that set up store on the piazzas daily. I never did find out where he came from originally, but he speaks English almost perfectly. Where there are gaps I supply some of the Italian or French I picked up at school until his face brightens and he smiles at me, nodding. My mother once said the best way to learn a language is to take a foreign boyfriend; but I doubt this is what she meant.

I see Jeanne just up the hill, leaning casually in an empty doorway with her camera around her neck. She catches my eye but we don’t acknowledge each other’s presence-  she is pretending an interest in the silver trams that shudder up the steep hillside every ten minutes or so, and I’m careful not to give the game away. She hasn’t been doing this as long as I have; we picked her up along the Croatian shore. Pretty girl, long lashes. She taps a finger to her nose: I turn and see Rafael coming, slipping up two stairs at a time.

“You are leaving.” He is frowning earnestly at the backpack next to me, hands in the pockets of a pair of chinos I haven’t seen before. It isn’t a question so I don’t answer. He holds out one of his hands to me; bright pink scar across the knuckle of the thumb that stands out painfully against his tanned skin. I take it and he pulls me up to his face. There is something very serious about his dark eyes; I would have thought he was used to saying his goodbyes. Now, I think with my back towards Jeanne. Take the picture now.  It would be my one physical reminder that this boy existed, somewhere in a sunny place.

He must have seen the camera, a flash of sunlight reflected in its lens. He turns from the hips like a dancer, pulling my body closer to him and away from the camera, until my mouth is pressed against his collar. I can taste the fabric of his t-shirt on my lips, and smell red dust and sweat and something sweet like the juice from an orange. We hear the click of the shutter behind us, just as his face burrows into the hollow of my shoulder.

I know, and he does, that we will have captured nothing but the back of his head.