Friday, June 2, 2017

5 Creative Ways to Find Writing Inspiration

Sometimes the creative brain just goes blank at the worst possible moment (like when you're knee deep into act 2 and suddenly forget the protagonist's name). It's just a part of being a writer. Either you have too many ideas (at the worst possible time) or you have so little your brain feels like a wasteland. 

Que internet swooping in to save you.

Whenever I've got a massive block in the middle of a project (or after the fact), I've got a list of five gotos for inspiration and help.

Pick Your Genre (Or, Define it)

Everything hinges on genre.

Are you writing in a popular genre? Maybe drill down into your niche (going through Amazon's sub-genres is really helpful here). 

Whether you're writing coming-of-age fantasy, or historical romance, there will always be tropes that hinge on genre expectations. While this might sound a bit daunting, working inside the box (or, at least starting there) can give you a stepping stone. Say you're writing coming-of-age fantasy fiction with a romance subplot. Readers may expect to follow the childhood life of a protagonist. From that expectation you could create a family tree for the protagonist and find inspiration in their quirky family life.

If your genre is epic fantasy, expect some politics. Do some world-building and you'll almost always find something intriguing about the world you've come up with. 

Maybe you're genre is cyberpunk. If so, readers expect evil corporations or high-tech/low-life. Take current culture and turn it on its head. How can Facebook harm us socially but help with technology? How could the robot revolution turn work culture on its head?

Perhaps fairy tale retellings are more your thing (a sub-genre of fantasy). Readers may expect clean romance, but will always expect a happily ever after ending and a popular fairy tale with a twist. Take Mulan and throw her into a steampunk environment. Take Cinderella and make her a queen, how does that change things?

Genre conventions can give you something to start with and branch out from. Don't be afraid to add a twist to what readers expect!

(TV Tropes is pretty useful for finding genre expectations.)

Research Your Genre

In a shellnut: read reviews of your genre's top grossing books.

Check out Amazon's top 100 list for your chosen genre and pick out three covers that really stand out to you. 

Read the blurbs. What stands out? What do you like? Dislike? Recognize a pattern between the three?

Check out the five-star reviews. What do reviewers rave about? Demand more of? Then, move on to the one and three-star reviews (three-stars tend to be the most thorough of the critical reviews...I have no idea why). What do they absolutely hate? Is there a pattern between the five, three, and one stars? Is it starting to get a bit hypocritical (five stars loved something that one stars hated)? Remember the pattern.

This exercise is probably the strangest of them all. But after you've looked through the reviews and blurbs you may start to get some ideas on how you can turn genre conventions on their heads. 

Read Bestsellers

This one really speaks for itself.

Joanna Penn talks about "refilling the creative well" once you've finished a project (or are aspiring to begin one). What this basically means is that if you set out to start writing something, first you must read (or check out TV series in your genre). 

This one can be insanely easy, or incredibly hard. You might not have time to read (let alone write) and that's okay! Or, maybe you just hate reading (surprisingly, a lot of writers do). Personally, I use a thing called the Pomodoro Technique to get two hours of reading in a day. 

In a shellnut, all you have to do is set a timer for 25 minutes and read. Once the timer dings, set a timer for 5 minutes and do something else (perferably not phone, TV, or computer related). Do this three more times, and after the third trial set a timer for 15 minutes and relax. 

You can up the time or lower it based on how well you're able to concentrate, but that alone will give you about two hours of awesome reading time.

Look through Pinterest (or your favorite art site)

Trekking through Pinterest or Deviantart for specific images (for a specified amount of time) are great ways to find inspiration.

Here's what I got just by searching Cyberpunk Landscapes and Cyberpunk Cityscapes:
Via Pinterest
Via Pinterest
Images can be pretty inspiring. They can help you see scenes, settings, and even characters in your minds eye. 

Looking for a character idea? Just search something outlandish! Maybe begin with "Character Concept" or just search a title like king or mage.

When coming up with ideas for Winterskin, I searched for a lot of Nordic images (Skyrim was a major inspiration for the setting). Beautiful, twisted, creatures were the main inspiration for the monsters populating Winterskin and Blade and Soul. 

If All Else Fails...

From plot generators to species generators (even star systems and biome generators), you'll find them all on Google. These things are nifty and fun to play around with. It might give your brain a break and maybe you'll even get an idea or two out of one! 

There are hundreds of ways to generate ideas, but these five are my favorite ones! What's your favorite? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Let's Talk About Death

A scarlet tongue lolls from the mouth of a decapitated head like a fat caterpillar.

Bloated bodies hang from the gnarled limbs of twisted trees, swinging like shrine bells.

And, at this, your main character shrugs and continues on her way. Why?

It's almost as if we've forgotten the psychological effects of seeing death firsthand. So, let's talk about that.

No Skin Off My Back

We see death every day. Sometimes it pops up on our social media feeds--an entire video of someone murdering someone else. Other times, we see pictures. We see doctored videos and we watch as life escapes from the milky eyes of a corpse, unblinking. Have we dissociated? Crawled so far from the psychological consequences of seeing so much death that we simply don't care anymore? Or, have we drowned our feelings toward death in the pool of our psyches?

The right answer? All of the above. I call it No Skin Off My Back Syndrome because, if the person we see die isn't a friend or a relative--are we really affected by their death? No, and yes.

Truth is, it shows in our writing.

Murder and Mindlessness

What are the psychological effects of seeing a fresh corpse up close? Of witnessing a murder? What would happen to your protagonist? 

Fact one: Your protagonist will change. For better, or for worse. 

Your protagonist could be an experienced marksman with hundreds of kills under his belt. She might be a headhunter who revels in death. He might be a soldier coming back from Iraq. No matter their prior experience with death, seeing it will change them. Again and again and again and again.

Let's say your protagonist hit someone with their truck. Crushed someone's skull with their lifted pickup. It's their first time witnessing death, what would they do? She might dissociate. Literally watch death happen like she's at home watching Netflix. She might feel guilty immediately after, but at the time, she's seeing it almost as if it's not even happening to her. She goes back home and talks about it incessantly. To the point of where no one will listen to her. Someone might even tell her to shut up and get over it. It happened. What can you do?

Or, maybe she explodes emotionally. Maybe she slams on the breaks and tumbles out of the truck, sobbing and vomiting over the splatter of blood across her windshield. Unable to accept the fact that she could not control when that pedestrian would simply stroll out into a busy intersection, she blames herself. She has nightmares. Drinks to cope. She might never drive that pickup again. Might pale at the sight of anything red. Panic attacks whenever she sees someone crossing the street might cause her to seize up and relive the incident over and over again.

Fact two: Your protagonist must cope.

Or, she could just bottle it up. Wait for it to explode in the future. We all cope differently. But the fact still stands that we must cope. Not stare death in the face blankly and continue on with our daily lives as if nothing ever happened. Carelessly talking about the incident like it's something that just happens sometimes, shrugging it off like it's nothing.

Incidents in Commercial Fiction

Careless death is something I see a lot in commercial fiction. Specifically fantasy fiction. An army might charge through a township, leaving a pile of bodies in its wake, and the townspeople just respond to the incident like it's a minor annoyance. A protagonist might be a vampire hunter that kicks all sorts of supernatural ass but never reacts, doesn't bat an eye when a gallon of royal purple blood stains her boots. 

In some instances, death is treated like it is so commonplace that it is just mildly irritating. Like a traffic jam, or a stubbed toe. Even if the protagonist is doing the murdering, she does it so dispassionately you might begin to wonder if these characters are even human (or just lacking empathy altogether). 

Showing a protagonist's dislike of death--or even fear of it--doesn't require a long ruminating paragraph about the characters emotions and feelings after the deed is done. Something as a simple as a reaction--a grimace, a wave of nausea, fists clenched so tight that her fingernails break the skin--is really all you'd need to show that your protagonist does, in fact, have a soul. But neglecting to show your protagonist's reactions to beating someone senseless or murdering a demon can alienate your audience. Or bring them out of the story as they ask themselves why the protagonist mentions murder with such a careless abandon. Maybe it's just our culture?

Who knows? But I will tell you one thing: careless death is a trope I'd like to see die sometime in the near future. And it is not something I'd mourn.

What about you? What are your opinions on death in fiction? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Best Writing Tip Ever: Use Music. Seriously.

Sometimes silence can be deafening. It can bring out your doubts, fears, and worries. Silence might even make you step away from your keyboard and give up for the day. Silence can silence you.

Here are some ways music can help you avoid that.

Music and Brainstorming

We've all been there, staring at the blank page wondering--what's going to happen next? Or, maybe even--where in the hell do I even start?! You've got an outline, you've got a beatsheet, but just thinking about fleshing that out into an entire novel makes you freeze up like a deer glaring into an oncoming truck's headlights. 

That's where music comes in. Swoops in like a superhero. When I'm frozen in place, I turn to soundtracks from movies or video games. They've always got a throughline beat, which makes it extremely easy to just loop a track and get lost in the music as you backtrack and visualize the scene you're trying to write. 

Music and Focus

Have you ever entered a writing flow state? While writing to the beat of Erik Satire's Gymnopedie during a transition scene, it's easy to get lost and simply flow with the story. Now, while achieving flow is also possible with complete silence, I've found that it's easier to kick out my inner critic if I've got a piece of particular piece of music playing.

Flowing with the story may also require that you understand your story's structure before you move along and let your characters be. Story structure comes naturally to us--as long as we're ignoring our inner critic as we write. What's the best way to ignore a frustrating know-it-all buzzing in your ear like a mosquito? Music.

Music and Inspiration

Writer's block and writer's burnout are all too common when you write every single day. It can be unavoidable, especially when new ideas just aren't coming as fast as they used to. Or, if they're coming so fast you feel as if you simply cannot finish the current project you're working on because you've got this burst of inspiration nagging at you telling you to start another. With both problems, listening to music can help you in two ways: 1. in brainstorming for your next novel idea, and 2. in brainstorming for your current project. 

If you've got the urge to throw your current project in the recycle bin, try closing it. Try sitting back in your chair and visualizing the ending you're working toward. Pull up Youtube and search out epic soundtracks (Two Steps from Hell make some pretty inspirational tracks) that you wouldn't mind blasting in your headphones for ten or so minutes. With the music, write down everything you love about your current project (or, what you used to love, anyway). Get excited about finishing--about writing your next scene, about pulling through to your next plot point. 

And if you're absolutely determined to just scrap your novel and start fresh, try brainstorming about that awesome new idea. Chances are, you'll find that it's not as shiny and special as you thought it was while plowing through the doldrums of your current project. If it is, take the time to journal about it. Find some fresh new music and let that be the soundtrack to your brainstorming session. This is something I recommend all writers do especially if you're like me and you get loads of new ideas every writing session that you can't just drop into your current project. Brainstorming new ideas is a great mental workout that will often pull you out of the doldrums and set you with the inspiration to write.

What are your thoughts on listening to music while writing? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, May 5, 2017

One Weird Trick for Boosting Your Writing Productivity

What's the difference between 10,000 word days and 500 word days? Or, maybe you're having a bit of writer's block and can't seem to stop surfing the net for a cure? We've all been there, trust me. What's the cure-all for slow writing days and days where you feel like you can't write anything at all?


There, I said it. Time.

When we feel as if a project is too big for us we freeze up. Maybe there's a pretty awesome fight scene you've outlined thoroughly, but when you're about to place pen to paper you worry--am I really fit to write this? I am ready?--and eventually, that worry turns to inaction. Not only have you not written the fight scene, but you've turned away from your word processor to google--fight scenes, fight scenes, fight scenes--and no article is turning up the information that you need. Trying to get past a block like this? It's easy.

Set a timer.

That's it. Set a writing timer for 30 minutes--maybe even just 10 minutes--and in that time, see what you can get done. Break the scary scene or the big bad project down into little blocks of 10-15 minute writing sprints. Then, tell yourself--I can do anything for ten minutes--because, the truth is, that you can. When we break seemingly impossible things down into bite sized chunks they don't seem so big and bad anymore. Like running a marathon or getting through one of George R.R. Martin's tome-sized novels, break it down into chunks if it seems too big, too dastardly, and begin again from there.

Novel writing is kind of like long distance running (to me, at least). Running that three miler, you're always going to feel like stopping. Your lungs will burn, your thighs will ache--but every moment, every second of that jog, you decide to keep going. That decision isn't something you just make at the beginning of the run and hold onto, it's a decision you continue to make every single time your sneakers hit the pavement--I'm going to keep going. I can do this. Just like in running, while writing you must consciously make the decision to keep going. Break it down if you have to, just keep writing. Because no one else can write your story like you. And it's a damn good feeling knowing you've done what most aspiring writers don't ever do--finish. You've finished the race.

Set a timer. 30 minutes on, 5 minutes off; and keep going. 

If you need some tools to add to your toolbox, I've got you covered. If you have an iPhone, I personally use the Focus Timer application. But, the truth is, you don't even have to download anything--iPhones have a timer right on the clock app!

As for Android users I recommend Ovo (it's got a beautiful interface).

This week I wrote my first beat sheet line for line, scene for scene. Normally I'm an organic writer, so why change now? Well, for me the difference between 500 word days and 10,000 word days is knowing what I'm going to write next before I write it. So, I've gone to the outlining side of things in the hopes of keeping up with a personal challenge of a book a month (NaNoWriMo every month! Can you believe that?). 

Have any suggestions for timers? Or maybe I've missed something? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, April 28, 2017

3 Thought Provoking Questions For Crafting Unforgettable Antagonists

Your antagonist can breathe a little extra life into your story, or flatten it. Wholly. Just like we know our heroes as well as we know ourselves, we should get to know our antagonist as if they are the hero. Because it's no secret that every antagonist believes they're the hero of their own story.

1. Why do I love this character?

If you've ever read James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure (which I recommend you do!) you may have come across this question. Getting to know your antagonist--finding qualities that you not only adore but respect--can help you understand your antagonist more and see him as more than a villain with a villainous top hat. Your antagonist is a living, breathing, person that doesn't only exist to create barriers for the hero. He has massive stakes in your story that may have bigger consequences than your protagonists! 

2. What draws the line for this character?

Would you antagonist refuse to pursue the hero if he had to destroy a pet cemetery in the process? Perhaps your antagonist hates modern weapons with a passion and only uses spears (think No Country for Old Men). Maybe this character is extremely spiritual and only does battle using words and manipulation. Maybe he is well liked in his community, so he only uses goons to do his dirty work? There are millions of possibilities here. Finding out what your antagonist wouldn't do under any circumstances humanizes and empathizes him. It makes him seem that much more real and all the more dangerous.

3. Is there a way out (for your antagonist)?

Is there a way for your antagonist to avoid any dealings at all with the hero? Is there a way for him to avoid being the antagonist? Just like how your protagonist must be locked in this situation, the antagonist must be locked in too. Maybe he is forced to stand as a bulwark against the hero because of blackmail. Perhaps his daughter is in the hands of a higher power, a greater evil. Or, maybe he's just plain old obsessive. Whatever your reasoning, make sure your antagonist has one. Your antagonist shouldn't be able to just pack up and leave town--there should be stakes. Clear reasons as to why he's vehemently against your protagonist winning.

Those are the most important questions that help me unravel my antagonists! Have I missed anything? What questions do you use to flesh out your antagonists? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, April 21, 2017

3 Awesome Lessons I Learned While Worldbuilding This Week

Worldbuilding in a shellnut.
It's no secret that writers must write, and when one novel is finished you've got to move on to the next one to keep your mojo going.

Recently, I finished a duology of Japanese historicals and realized that I really--really--wanted to get back into fantasy writing and indie-authorship. So, the first thing I did was open up SFWA's 100+ question worldbuilding leviathan and get to work. But as the week progressed, I realized--well, I'm not writing at all! At least, not on a fiction project. Am I truly writing if I'm just world and character building? When is the right time to set down this sheet of questions and profiles and just get to writing the damned book?

Here's what I found out.

1. Set a deadline.

Seriously. Set a deadline. Over the hundreds of questions I've answered about this world's culture and mythical creatures and climate and...well, you know the rest...I began to realize I might never finish. Thousands of things go into creating a world (even if it's just a world within Earth). You've got to put thought into topographical features, mountain ranges, species of plant and animal life that live in your world. If you don't set a deadline and own up to it you might never get the novel down and finished. So, instead of worldbuilding generally, I decided to...

2. Major in the details.

Let me tell you how much that helped me. Paying close attention to things that would actually interweave with my plot (i.e., what fabric are clothes made out of? What mythical creatures live here? Where is their major source of water?) not only helped me plot more thoroughly, but it helped me think in big picture terms. The world I've built is a jungle island that is itself a living creature. Because of the abundance of water, I put a lot of time and thought into the creatures that could live in and around it. Could some creatures actually be made of water? Could there be a water dragon or two? Is it nonpotable? Can magic change that? 

And finally...

3. When you're ready, you're ready.

Don't second guess yourself. If your deadline has come and you've answered enough worldbuilding questions to make you question how well you know your real world, you're ready to emerge your audience in it. It's easy to get lost in "worldbuilder's haze" and simply keep stacking on more and more details about your world. What use is a freshly built fantasy world if there's no story there? Isn't that what the world was built for? For your awesome characters and their story? Remember, while the world you've built is a character it is also a stage. A stage for your characters to stand and fight and live and die on--all for your audience's entertainment. So, don't lose sight of the goal.

As for me, I've finished world building for the week and can't wait to start on my next series of novels. Here's the first graphic for my new novella "Wild Hope", made in celebration of finally getting out of the character and worldbuilding phase.

Winterskin's sequel, Blade and Soul, is also getting its blog tour this June. Pretty excited about that. You can get Winterskin here before Blade and Soul comes out. 

What do you do to get out of "worldbuilder's haze"? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, March 3, 2017

A Short Story: Death Cures a Fool

If I stand downstream, I can see their corpses. A waterlogged kitten floats down like a listless bag of flour. Next, comes a toad, its back legs missing. Finally, I see beetles. Huge throngs of black bug carcasses come rolling down the river and I watch them pass by with a sigh and shake of my head. If you have ever known a demon, you’d know that they often come in the form of children. And a foolish little girl squats on a hill some ways away. Her hands are wrapped around the neck of some poor, defenseless, animal and she’s smiling. Smiling before she dunks it into the water head first. Her eyes alight on bubbles, froth, and foam before there’s a sudden, gentle, silence that wafts up in the form of one monstrous bubble. Then she lets go and the river takes the corpse, wiping away her handiwork. Hiding her true nature from our parents and the world. But no matter what she does, she cannot hide it from me.
I wish you would go away, Hana.” She says as I crest the hill, invading her little hiding spot. “You always watch me. And it’s not like I can’t feel your look of disgust.”
A blue creature wreathes and contorts in the heart of her cupped hands. It is crying, coal black beak opened, as it tries to slap her hands away with its wings.
If you think what I do is wrong, why not tell someone? I’m sure Mama would believe you, but…” at her horrid joke, she cocks her head. “…how would you ever get the words out?”
I-I-I—” I swallow my tongue. I stammer. “I’ll t-t-t-t-tell her!”
Oh?” the little girl cocks her head to the opposite side. “What’s that, Hana? Why not just spit it out?” and the creature squawks as her hands strangle it. She squeezes and there’s a sprinkled crack that makes the poor creature cry more, cry more. Its wings hang uselessly now, as useless as my tongue, and it makes a dying protest as it feels the weight of its pain.
I point at the bird. I point at her. I fling my finger at the ground.
What? Can’t you speak? Oh? The pretty birdie? Oh, tweet, tweet, tweet.” She sings. Crawling closer to the river, she is but a few steps away before she stretches out her arms. “You want me to drop it, hm? Drop it where, now? Go on, tell me, big sister.”
T-t-t—the ground!” Stop it! I want to yell. Stop this, now! But when tempers rise, my throat and tongue are as useless as a bird without wings. My throat closes, my tongue becomes cotton in my mouth. Words twist and devolve in my throat and it is painful, painful to make a sentence. Painful to be heard like this—with broken words and halved sentences. Heat rushes to my cheeks and the moment I open my mouth, there’s just a gurgling sound. I am bereft. Inept.
And she drops the damned bird.
Oh, don’t worry.” She says. “It can fly.”
But it cannot swim.
When it splashes, I am frozen. When bubbles riot on the surface, my stomach goes lopsided and my mouth waters. When my sister giggles, her voice like a million shards of glass breaking, I want to cry. Heat pounds behind my eyes and I cannot think.
Then, the bubbles stop. Then, my sister leans over the edge of the bloated silver river, and she chuckles. “Well, aren’t you a fighter?” for the little blue bird has surfaced. It peeps and squalls and I believe it is calling out to me as it thrashes its head and tries to get away from her. Tries to use the river’s current to find a safe place from this horrid four-foot monster.
But nothing stops a demon. Nothing stops my sister.
Come closer you little shit.” She hisses and hurls her hands out. Grasping like a broken fishing pole, she splashes through the water with her hands but takes care not to fall in, not to get too close to the water’s edge. The bird scoots along and I pray the river’s current will take it and save it. But as she wanders closer, my heart sinks.
D-d-don’t,” I swallow, “don’t go t-t-to far!”
Shut up.” She snaps, reaching forward. Still reaching. Stretching out across the surface of the river as far as she can go. “I’ve almost got it.” And she snarls as she stretches and the creature scoots forward—just out of reach. Just out of her grasp.
But, “Come here!”
Ume!” I screech.
When an ocean recedes, backing away from land, sand is left in its wake. It sparkles and glistens, winks in the summer sun like stars thrown across the night sky. We are like so many specks of sand scattered across a beach, my sister and I. And as my sister plunged head first into the river—her chubby hands still reaching for the bird—I began to wonder, would one be missed? One gritty piece of black staining the sand with its color? Would this little speck be missed?
It was a moment of clarity that passed as quickly as I could blink.
Hana!” Ume screamed. “Hana—help!” for she could not swim.
I’d like to think that terror froze me, forced me to stay stuck in place with my hand to my throat and the other on my belly. I’d like to say that, yes, if I had been in my right mind—if that moment of clarity had been more than a mere moment, but a stretch of thoughts and actions and words—then I would have sprinted to the edge of the river and pulled her back to the shallow end. But, as the river current forced her away, I watched her hands peak through the surface with the bird still grasped between them. A dying song fought its way over the cry of my sister and the constant thrashing of the lake. A faded lullaby told me to watch and wait. Told me to let this speck of sand dribble and die in the water as the river pushed and pulled my sister away.

Downstream, her corpse snagged on a low hanging willow branch. Wide eyes told me that she fought the water, fought the current and the surge. But it was too much for her little body to handle. Floating there, her slimy body smacking the shallow edge of the water, the whites of her eyes gazed back at me; listless and eternal.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Short Story: Birdsong

They called him Nest because he carried a little bird on his back.
Moo-ma?” chirped the little bird, chubby little legs wiggling as she grew tired of her bamboo carrier. “Where Moo-ma?”
And he’d cringe as he lied to her: “Sick, little Momo. She’s gone to buy medicine.” Then continue his slow going trek through the thigh deep water of the burgundy rice paddy. Shoulders slumping, water bugs sucking at his ankles, flies buzzing at his face, the combined weight of the little bird attached to his back and the sorrow of lying to the chirpy little girl was never too much to bear. For, you see, my brother is invincible.
It’s amazing you don’t just keel over and die.” Called a man from the edge of the paddy, with more skin than bone waggling about on his two-toned face. “I’ve got a message from the capital for you, Nest. You’d think,” he mused as he passed my brother a wood lacquer box, “the gods would eventually tire of death.”
Misfortune,” my brother said, grasping the box in both hands, “They tire of misfortune. Never death.”
And the man with the two-toned face spat into the muck.
A bitter cold swept in that night. Too cold for autumn, just right for winter. Though no snow fell, the winds howled like a woman giving birth and shook our little forest shack. My brother knelt on the threadbare tatami matting separating us from the dirt floor beneath and opened the little lacquer box. I remember it being the most expensive thing we had ever owned. It winked in the dying light of a blackened incense stick as he opened it, the little chirpy girl making shadow puppets dance in the dying light of the stick as he gasped. She did not care for pretty things as grown-ups do. But she did care for touch. She did care for love.
Moo-ma?” she whispered as the box wheezed open, “From her?”
He lifted a crinkled roll of parchment from the box’s satiny insides. The little girl spied a moth-eaten satchel that could have easily fit into the palms of both her hands.
It’s from…” he had to lie again, if only to make the little chirpy girl hope, “…Moo-ma.” He finally said, hazy eyes scanning the parchment, rolling down hastily scribbled letters. “She wants us to meet her…somewhere.”
The little girl could not understand. “Home?”
He shook his head.
Then where? The chirpy girl wondered. Where could they go and where would Moo-ma be?
My brother took the satchel and spilled it. Silver coins flooded forth, washing upon the bottom of the box like a wash of silvery waves. Tears pricked the little girl’s eyes.
What is it?” he snapped, her sniffling striking a cord within his head. “What are you unhappy about?”
Moo-ma had told them to stay—to never leave. How will she find her way back home? For the little girl knew an inkling of the truth, though feared giving words to it. Truthfully, she could not give words to it—not knowing the correct word to describe what she could only call a “death-lie”. She decided to remain silent, though her bottom lip quivered and tears fell. She hated her older brother’s attitude. I still hate it. Even to this day.
You don’t understand, and that’s okay.” He told her, though it seemed he mainly spoke to hear himself. “Moo-ma wants us to leave here—as we should have months ago. Don’t you want to go? Aren’t you tired of the bugs and the cold?”
The little bird shook her head. “Home.” She said, pointing her finger at the threadbare tatami. “Home!”
Home is here.” He said, pointing to his chest where his heart would be if he had one. “Where ever your soul is—that’s where home is.”
Of course, my brother would not know. For, though he attempted to share his idea with me, even as a child I could tell when he was lying. His face was expressionless and stoic. Cold as a Noh mask. He had as much feeling in his chest as a frozen mantis feels in its mandibles. Nothing.
Though, of course, I do not believe he thought that.
The child shook her head, “Moo-ma.” Was all she needed to say while pointing her finger at the dirt.
She would have wanted us to leave.”
Wanted? A slip of the tongue means nothing to a child. But, nevertheless, his eyes widened and he immediately regretted the word—wanted.
Look,” he said, closing the lacquer box with a snap. “We will see her in the capital—Moo-ma. You will see, little Momo. We must listen to her words and go.”
But, even as a child, I knew his words to be false. “Stay!” I snapped. “Stay, stay—stay!”
We need to stay?” he repeated coldly, narrowing his eyes. “You want to stay?”
The little girl challenged him and he did not like it. His upper lip rose, his face became pinched. He quickly became a wolf in the child’s eyes and she puffed out her chest. Child or not, she had feelings too. She had hopes and dreams and thoughts—and she wanted to stay. No matter what some letter said—she wanted to stay.
But she wasn’t the one toiling from dawn till dusk in the swampy rice paddies circling their home. She did not have a permanent hump in her back from carrying a little bird all day. Her fingers were not stripped of skin, cuts dipping dangerously close to red and white bone. She did not deal with the splintering back pain that kept him up all night, nightmares affixing themselves to the walls as sleep passed him by night after night. Only to come back during the day.
She was just a little chirpy girl. A bird. Something as trivial as a blade of grass; as the wings of a fly. If my brother decided to cut his losses and leave her on some mountain to die of cold, bitter, exposure; then he would be free. He could do as he liked.
But he made a promise to our mother, and he was not one to go back on his word.
So, when the morning came and the night’s bitter cold wove its way upon the brightening horizon, he listened to the crying and sniffling and words of hate the little chirpy girl threw at him. He let her kick and squirm in her little bamboo carrier, her tiny feet prodding his back like thousands of dull little knives. Her words hurt most of all, curses spewing from the rosebud lips of a toddler: “I hate you!” she told him. “Moo-ma will be back!” she said, repeating herself. Spitting the words over and over.
She won’t.” He said matter-of-factly, as her curses grew worse and her tears died off. “You know, she was tired of us. So, she left.” He shrugged. “Walked off into the mist.”
Not this time.” He swore, looking over his shoulder at her sheepishly as he trudged through rolling yellow hills. “It’s just you and me now, Momo. It always has been.”
Balling her little hands into even tinier fists, the little chirpy girl on his back bit her lower lip in silence.
The toughest lessons we learn are always selfish truths. Things that only relate to ourselves.
They are hard to accept.
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Friday, February 17, 2017

A Short Story: Lady of the House

Let us pretend the house is silent. Ignore the little squeaks beneath the floorboards. Please excuse the little mouse in the basement, for it loves to scream and cry. Please ignore the pounding sounds rising up from the tatami matting in the foyer. I promise you, it is nothing. And even if it is something and you’re forced to stop and stare, please remember—if you decide to return to my home—that these noises will not last forever. The little mouse in the basement, squeaking and squalling and calling for help that will not come; she will be gone when my husband disappears. So, in a year or so. Please, return next year.
Your hostess is Haruka Tomomi, but please feel free to call me “Tomo”. Please note that this is in exchange for my rudeness, you see. For, you will have to excuse me for a few moments while I leave the table and scurry down into the basement. No, you cannot follow. Please enjoy your stay here, my friend. I must disappear downstairs and do as my husband has ordered me. For, if the mouse dies or somehow injures herself then I will be injured as well. Why, no—not physically, you understand. So, please rid yourself of that shocked look. Maybe I’ll have a kimono taken away and burned. Maybe I’ll be sent away to the countryside, but he never harms me physically. Now, if you’ll excuse me please…
The little mouse downstairs loves to chew and bite—why, sometimes I wish my husband would simply stop bringing them around! There’s no telling where he gets them. Not from a shop or a respectable merchant, you understand, for you cannot simply buy a mouse as a pet. In fact—who would want one? Certainly not I! But if you’ll avert your eyes, my friend, my husband’s little mouse has injured herself and must be bathed. No, I cannot do it down there—I refuse to do it down there in that stink and musk. Why, mice simply shit all over the floor, did you know this? Many animals simply find a corner or some hole—but not this one! This one smears feces everywhere! My husband is not home—am I not the lady of the house while he is away? I will do it upstairs, but you will avert your eyes! Understand?
Thank you. Thank you, my dear friend. Cover your nose as well, we will have to pass through the kitchen—
Please—please let me see!”
Why, this mouse is talkative, is she not? “Shush, little mouse. You’ll be going back to your home soon.”
Let me see where I am—if you have a heart, woman, let me go!”
How easily mice believe we are manipulated. Please, excuse my little mouse. My husband has only recently brought her and she has a long year ahead of her before she is turned back to the wild again. “This way, little mouse. I am taking you to the bath.”
Why are you doing this to me?”
Why, I want to take care of you. We both know my husband won’t!”
Let me see!”
I am afraid that that would be impossible.” Can you believe it! The creature believes that I am daft! “The more you see…well, the easier it would be for you to escape.”
I’d go nowhere—please—”
Ignore her cries, they are only customary. I do what I must to make sure my dear husband is happy, now if you’ll excuse us my dear mouse desperately needs a bath…
How did my husband come across such a creature? Well, I suppose my rudeness must be rubbing off, hm? Truthfully, I haven’t a clue. In the past, he’d simply pick them off the streets near that pleasure quarter. Do you know it? Yoshiwara? There are all types of little mice there who gladly followed him home and happily lived in the basement in exchange for food and clean water. But this one—oh, she is spoiled! I have no idea where my husband found this one—what with the fire and half of Edo being rebuilt thanks to it. Yoshiwara no longer exists, yet he still finds little mice to keep and feed and f—oh, please excuse my tone. Why, my heart is beating so fast. “Come along, little mouse. If only you’d take better care of yourself.” Why, I’ve never met a creature without some sort of will. This one seems to be bent on taking her own life! And, of course, if this happened then my husband would simply turn to me and that would not be satisfactory! We have an agreement, you understand. He brings in mice and I keep my freedom as long as I take good care of them while he is away. It’s better than what most women get, believe me! We aren’t even considered people in many circles—yes! Astonishing!
I must take the little mouse back now, close your eyes, my friend.
I’m just going to escort her past and—oh!
You little bitch!”
Let me go!”
She spat on me! The little bitch spat on me!
If you kick a dog hard enough, it’ll cry and back down. I know, my husband keeps two of them and neither of them respects me. But they respect the heel of my foot. Mice are no different, though I do not have to use my feet. The heel of my hand works just as well, rammed into the place where her jaw meets her cheek. Hear how she squeals and falls to the floor in a fluster?
Will you do that again?”
What have I done to you?”
And if the dog bites back, sometimes you must use two heels. I tell you, some dogs are very strong. They have tough hides which allows them to feel no pain. Or, perhaps they feel it and are able to ignore it if they’re stuck in a blind rage. But no matter the dog, if I pick up a utensil—say a wooden pole or a knife—and slam it against the beast’s ribs, it will always back down. In some instances, it will even whimper and roll over to show me its pink belly. A mouse must be treated softly, yet sternly. But, in my ten years of caring for my husband’s mice, I’ve learned that even mice can take a good beating.
A fire iron works just as well. A hit here, to the forehead. A jab to the ribs there.
Will you do that again?”
Now, if an animal refuses to respond to you—
No, ma’am! Please—”
oftentimes, the threat of pain is a useful method to get a response.
Now, get up.”
Yes, ma’am.”
See how well she responds now? It is often quick and loud, getting an animal to respond and respect you. But, now that it is done you must close your eyes once more and allow the little mouse space as she moves back to the basement. Go on, close them! Why, I would not use the fire iron on you, my friend! Don’t give me that shocked and—well, do I detect a hint of malice? Please understand that I am simply doing my husband’s bidding! If this little mouse weren’t here taking the brunt of things for me, then I would be in her place! And it is not a place I envy, let me tell you! Are your eyes closed? Good!
Little mouse!”
Yes ma’am!”
Go home.” Which means “back to the basement”, you understand.
Please—please—I don’t want to go back down there—please!”
Listen, little mouse.” And I sigh now because I hate it when these things cry. “This will only go on for a year, understand? One year from now, my husband will leave and he will free you. You can go home then, okay?”
But—I cannot see, Miss. I’m blind—”

It won’t last forever.” I say with a blinding white smile, “Only a year.”
Please do not think me bitter and evil, but it brings me satisfaction to lie right to her pretty face. Disgusting creatures, these mice. 
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Friday, February 10, 2017

A Short Story: Boneland

While walking the dirt roads of our homeland, it is not unusual to see desolate fields of rotting men. Bodies upon bodies drifting in a sea of orange and brown and yellow. This is a natural sight. Why, you may not even bat an eye if you squash the unattached limb of a pole bearer. You may look into the glassy eyes of a corpseman and say—well, aren’t those fantastic eyes? You may see the bloated corpses of a family strung from a tree and think—well even the corpses are better dressed than I! You may see a stream or a river flowing through a smoking battlefield and think—well my canteen is empty, I might as well drink…
I say, if you see a stream floundering through these rocky paths strewn with blood and rot—do not drink from it! The water may be clear or it may be brown, but I tell you—if you drink of a stream that cuts through a battlefield, you will drink the souls of dead men. Now, you may say—why should that matter? They’ve had their rites, have they not? These corpses are simply bodies and I am thirsty! Would you rather I die of thirst, dear disambiguated voice?
Of course—no! But please understand, I am already dead. Should you really listen to the voices swimming around in your head? Why, I may be one of the corpses strewn around like misplaced banners. In fact, I will tell you that—yes! In fact, I am! So, why listen to me, dear traveler? Am I simply a ghost trying to trick you out of your drink, or am I simply trying to help my fellow man before I drift off into the great beyond? I tell you this: these men and women have had no rites. Their souls are restless and sour, much like my own. If you drink of the streams floundering through this smoke town, you will wake a monster. A monster born of the strength and ire and sour faces of those mercilessly cut down on the battlefield.
Gachi, gachi.
Can you hear it, old man?
Gachi, gachi.
Is the sun setting already? My, shouldn’t you find an inn or a temple? You’ll need something to defend you from this.
Gachi, gachi.
Why—don’t lay down in the brush of the forest! The smoke comes from its center—right where my comrades and I died! They smell blood. Putrid old flesh that dangles from the bone. Ah, the color has drained from your wrinkled face. Are you afraid? Oh, you shake your head? This monster is only a myth, you say? Then—what is that noise? That awful, awful, rattling sound? What is that noise—oh I believe the ground is shaking!
Gachi, gachi.
Leaves tumble from the trees as rain! And all you can think of is crawling into an abandoned tree trunk and praying to the goddess of the sun? Ha—let me tell you something, old man. Gods only help those who help themselves. So, perhaps it is simply your time? What mortal in their right mind goes wandering around the forest at night? What old man in his right mind wanders near a battlefield and plans to drink the water? Yes—crawl into your tree trunk and shiver! Here it comes—here we come!
Gachi, gachi!
If you peek out through your hole there, at the bottom of the tree, you will see us. A skeletal giant with a head the size of the sun! We are thousands. Thousands of souls who have been lost, scattered to the winds like so many crumbling petals. Called to fight and die for our provinces, we’ve died. We’ve waited and no one has come for us. Is it you who will send our souls on? Is it you who will free us from this skeletal monster and allow us to whisper our final goodbyes on the wind? We are hungry. Angry. We will rip you in two if you allow us! And, of course, you will allow us because we are Gashadukuro! Have a taste of our strength—rip the forest up from its roots, men!
A woman commanding me? Says a bone.
I’m not sure where I am—am I an arm, or a leg? The femur spits.
I want to be the head! This voice murmurs from a black eye socket.
Which of you is talking to the old man? The skeleton giant’s jaw goes—gachi, gachi!
Do you laugh because we argue? Because we cannot agree with each other? I tell you, there is nothing funny about this. The afterlife cares not for your alliances in life. Enemies have become elbows. Friends have become teeth. Our body, that of the gashadukuro, is made up of all and everyone who fell in this battle. A tiny war that you have never heard of nor care about. Do you laugh because we are unsure of ourselves? Do you laugh because this gigantic skeleton body simply teeters and totters and turns on itself like a dog does against its tail? Why—we could be as uncoordinated as a child that slips through the womb with a cone head! Still, we can pick you up and rip you in two as the gashadukuro does! Shouldn’t you run, old man? Run in fear of our gigantic black eyes and towering skeleton body? Should you not run—
Stop talking, Gozen! The femur spits.
Yes—we haven’t killed in ages! Don’t steal this from us! Says a bone.
I was the hand last time—why am I a tooth? Curses one crooked tooth.
Bony white fingers rip apart the forest’s canopy of green, and you believe you are safe cowering in your tipped tree trunk. Skeletal fingers creep along the forest bed, dislodging leaves and excrement. For a moment, they are tied up. Fighting with one and other—you can almost hear the voices:
Wait—wait I know you! You ripped me from chest to navel! Says a thumb
Truly? Well, I won’t apologize. I heard your comrades were worse off after your death. The ring finger titters.
Well, old man? What will you do now? They are but inches away, and your life will end in seconds. What will you do now? Run as hundreds of others have? Plea with the head? Offer us something in exchange for—well, what? What do the dead want besides revenge? Why—we do not even need to kill you. Many of us simply want to—for satisfaction, you understand. For, in death, the only thing we feel is satisfaction. It is the only thing we can feel. And satisfaction comes from stealing. Comes from blood and hearing bones crack beneath our own. We will open you like a nut and look inside. Peering into your misshapen belly will bring great delight. But only for a few minutes. And then we will search for more errant forest dwellers like you.
What will you do, old man?
You can only stop the cycle by freeing us.
Gachi, gachi.
We reach and reach. Cower in your tree trunk—we can get inside!
The fingers are stuck! The eye socket moans.
If you’d just crush it… Says the ring finger.
You will not thwart us!
The gashadukuro’s rattling hand rises and rises—only to come down with a thundering force that splits the hollowed log in two. Birds escape from the trees. The ground trembles and shakes as the aftershock of the giant skeleton’s fist raises the hairs on the back of your neck. Cower and wait, old man. We have come for you! Here is your last chance—hold men! How will you free us? Can you free us? Break this foreboding cycle?
I have nothing to offer—”
Then we have no reason to speak!
But you offer something up in those tiny hands of yours. The broken wings of a butterfly, perhaps? Ah, they are lilac in color. Gossamer and breathy. Is it—a hairpin?
Worn by the great Tomoe Gozen.”
Oh, my.
Is that yours? Squeaks a tooth.
Why, it’s very pretty. Murmurs a rib bone.
Sometimes I forget you’re a woman. The skeleton’s jaw goes—gachi, gachi!
Why, this is mine—isn’t it? I will hold it up, old man. Ah, look how it glimmers in the dying sunlight! Why—it is almost as if the creature were truly alive! Look how it glimmers and breathes—flaps its crystalline wings on a breath of sour wind—look!
I’ve come to take your soul back.” You say.
Well, do you expect me to hop inside a hairpin?!
Gachi, gachi—goes the skeleton’s jaw as it laughs.
There is only so much one man can do.” And you clasp your hands before your chest as if you are something noble, “I hoped that that old trinket might bring you peace.”
The skeleton’s jaw drops.
Well, what a kind gesture. Says the femur.
Are we going to kill him? Rattles the jaw.
I think I’ve found out what I am! And the left arm swoops out haphazardly. It grabs the old man before I can even drop the hairpin and holds him before the sun. Gashadukuro rises and rises, standing to its full height well above the flattened forest canopy. You flail and flap out your limbs as if we will drop you. But the left hand holds you tight within its bones as the head cocks and tilts and examines you.
As it stands against the backdrop of darkening sky, the dying sun at its right, a flock of birds crowding the sky like a fog of black tar; Gashadukuro is thinking.
Gachi, gachi—goes another in the distance.
Why, there are so many of us. If we set you down, another will surely catch you. Why not sit with us awhile and tell us what you know? Begin with the story of Tomoe Gozen—
Then, Date Masamune. Says the femur.
Tell us how Oda Nobunaga fairs! The left arm says.
Has the world united, old man? Is Tokugawa Ieyasu still alive? This voice whispers from the base of the spine.
You see, we are of the world—yet no longer part of it. Tell us, have our actions been for naught? Did our deaths bring peace? Come on, old man! We’re waiting!
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