Tag Archives: fiction

Writing Using Given Elements


Saturday night I discovered I had a writing assignment to do in preparation for my Critique Group the next day. It’s been posted for a while but because I was still doing NaNo and working on Real Life stuff I had completely missed seeing the exerise. So, while I was out I began thinking of different scenarios I could use to write about but what I kept returning to was Christmas lights and Gremlins. I love Christmas lights. All those mutli-colored fireflies lighting up and pushing away the dark makes me happy. It’s like seeing bits of hope in the middle of the night. It’s nice when you have a community where most of the houses are decorated but my favorites are the single homes out in the middle of nowhere where there’s nothing but you and the dark. I have very fond memories of driving to my grandparent’s house at night and seeing those pop out of nowhere like lit breadcrumbs showing us the way. And as for the Gremlins, well, I kept going back to the Phoebe Cates’ scene where she’s talking about why Christmas sucks for her.

Here was the exercise details:

  • Instructions: Take the information provided below and write the first 500 – 1000 words of a new chapter or novel/short story opening. Genre is up to you. Point of view is up to you. But each of the elements listed below must be included.
  • Objective: To hook the reader and to set the atmosphere without losing reader interest.
  • Basic set-up: Your main character drives up to a small house that is off the beaten track. From the outside, the house looks like most others in the area. A single light burns in the front window. Your main character gets out of the car and crosses to the front door. It opens under the MC’s hand. The MC calls out. No one answers. MC steps inside and finds . . . .

As I was brainstorming Saturday night out loud with my husband, I knew I wasn’t really wanting to writea traditional Christmas story. Like Gremlins, I wanted my main character to have a reason to like or not like Christmas. I went to bed Saturday night and woke up the next morning with my idea in place. After getting some caffeine in my system I started writing, and the next thing I know I’ve spent an hour and a half writing without thinking about it and I had to rush to finish it because I still needed a shower and I didn’t want to be late for Group. And Group ended up being so much fun because of the exercise. Three of us apparently had the same idea in a way; we wrote a murder/mystery opening, though mine was the only one with a Christmas theme. So, below find my unedited contribution to yesterday’s writing assignment.

I have another one to write for the next meeting and I’m thrilled, I tell you. Thrilled!

xo Jesi

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

In the sleepy little town of Oak Hollow in the deepest part of the backwoods of Mississippi, you can count on three things happening throughout the year. The first is the annual Holy Roller Baptist Tent Revival and Come to Jesus Meeting, and yes, it is actually called that. All the little old ladies fry up chicken and potatoes and bake casseroles and desserts. There’s even the occasional squirrel prank pulled thanks to that old Ray Stevens song. It actually works half the time, though I’m sure the teenage boys pulling the prank aren’t trying to bring anybody to Jesus.

The second thing you can count on is Mayor Goodwin’s daughter being crowned Miss Oak Hollow for the New Year Parade, Fourth of July parade, Christmas Parade, and, hell, pretty much every town ceremony requiring a queen of events. She’s been Queen of Everything for the last five years, including head cheerleader, only because she’s the Mayor’s daughter. And she’s not even all that pretty.

The third thing, and in my opinion the most exciting, is the Christmas Eve murders. Every year for forever, one person in the town dies on Christmas Eve. Where most people supposedly go to bed dreaming of sugar plums and all that magical crapola, here in Oak Hollow we all go to bed wondering who’s going to be wrapped up in tinsel with a big, bloody bow stuffed down their mouth. It’s been going on for so long now you’d think the police would have caught someone by now, but nope, this here is Oak Hollow. We’ve got one of the laziest sheriffs in the country, and he’s fanatically superstitious.

By the way, I’m Mags, and in the Oak Hollow people context I’m the girl with the big mouth always asking for trouble, according to Sheriff Boggs at least. Most of the kids in this town try to get as far away as they can once they turn eighteen, but not me. I want to catch the murderer who killed my Uncle Johnny on Christmas Eve three years ago.

Now, imagine the scene. I’m eighteen and have a license and a beat-up old junker of a car. I bought it for $500 from Old Miss Johnson, the crazy chicken lady, after her license was taken away from her because she drove her car into the middle of the entrance of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Not that that matters right now but I’m damn proud of that car. Took me all summer working at the Piggly Wiggly as a cashier to earn the money to buy the thing and I get to crow about it all I want, thank you very much.

So here it is Christmas morning and we’re all ignoring the fact that we know someone’s been killed. We’ll know by lunchtime who the unlucky victim was, because that’s how small towns work, even on Christmas. Mom’s in the middle of making her usual big Christmas lunch and she tells me to go pick up Uncle Johnny, her bachelor brother, who lives on the outskirts of town. Why me? Because I’m eighteen with a license and a car, remember?

Ever notice how Southerners have a way of making it sound like you’d be doing them a favor when in reality they just got you to do something they don’t want to do? “Maggie, be a dear and run to the store for some milk please.” “Mags, honey, I can’t leave the house right now and I need you to go drop this casserole off at the church for me, thank you.” And my mom is the queen of guilt trips. So when she “asked” me to go get Uncle Johnny, I went. I tug on my galoshes because it’s been raining for the last three days and there’s mud everywhere, and I grab my jacket, keys jangling in the pocket where I left them knowing I’d be sent on some mission today. I’m like Mom’s messenger/errand runner since I got the car. Next, out the door, into the car and pray to the car gods that the engine will start in the cold air. Yes! The engine turns over though not without its usual groaning that it has to wake up so early in the winter. Now for the trek out to Uncle Johnny’s.

It’s still a little dark, thanks to the cloud cover, and most people have left their Christmas lights on. I love seeing the multi-colored lights shining on the houses. It reminds me that hope is hard to kill, despite the fact that we all know someone’s dead. My little car trudges along the street with Christmas music playing fitfully from the radio. I only get one station and since the tape cassette player is broken, Christmas music it is. Besides, I don’t own any tape cassettes. Actually, the Christmas music doesn’t bother me and I’m merrily singing away with Jose Feliciano when I reach Uncle Johnny’s driveway. My tires leave that satisfying crunch sound as I turn onto the gravel and pull up to the house.

The first thing I notice is that Uncle Johnny’s Christmas lights are off. All of them. He owns about four acres and every Christmas he puts on a big Christmas light display for the town. Everyone brings their kids out to see it because he’s always doing something different every year, and he leaves them on all day every day. Today would be the only exception I’ve ever known. Maybe he just forgot or overslept, my mind rationalizes. I don’t even think it could be anything else. Still, I hesitate just a moment before walking up to the door.

I see the traditional Christmas candelabra in the front window, its electric candlelight sending a warm yellow glow out into the gloom. Seeing that on must mean Uncle Johnny is still in bed sleeping. So, I run up the porch steps and knock on the front door calling out as I do, “Uncle Johnny! It’s Mags. Mom sent me to come pick you up for lunch!” But my words trail off as the door creaks open under the force of my hand. Shit! This would be where the unsuspecting heroine of the horror movie finds herself in trouble. I don’t want to go in. I don’t want to go in.

I have to go in.

I push the door open and warily stick my head through the entrance. It’s much too quiet. Not even Uncle Johnny’s infamous snoring. Damn, damn, damn. I don’t have a cell phone because I bought a car instead, so I’ll have to go inside the house to use the landline phone. I take a deep breath. Okay, Mags. You can do this, I tell myself. I walk through the door trying not to let my eyes fall on anything specific. The phone is in the kitchen which is only accessible through the living room. Crap. I turn to my left and begin walking that way. So far, so good. Nothing out of the ordinary. The Christmas tree is up and the lights are on. Everything seems normal. Except it isn’t. Christmas music blaring and the smell of pancakes cooking should be assaulting my senses but they’re not. This does not bode well. I have a feeling I know what Uncle Johnny received for Christmas.

“Get to the phone, Mags. Just get to the phone. You can call mom and then dad can drive over and check things out himself.” I repeat this over and over as I walk through the living room to the kitchen. I get through the kitchen doorway and there’s Uncle Johnny sitting in his normal spot at the kitchen table, a surprised look frozen on his face. He’s been draped in tinsel and there’s a big red bow-the kind you put on cars-tied around his chest. There’s no blood anywhere, though. He’s simply frozen solid holding a piece of paper with a message on it. I don’t want to look but curiosity compels me forward to read the missive. It’s only three words long.

“Ho Ho Ho.”


Hand Delivered Story Ideas


Wow, what a blinding great story we had this week with a simultaneous triad of crises on a single day! At the same time that trading on the New York Stock Exchange came to a screeching halt Wednesday, the jet fleet of a major airline was grounded by a computer glitch and the website of a major national newspaper was disabled. Although not the first time, it certainly is a rare occasion for an event of such economic significance to occur, especially at the largest stock exchange in the world. But, it is even more notable when, at the same time, the system-wide operations at United Airlines was halted and the Wall Street Journal’s website was taken offline.

The official reasons provided for the temporary shut-downs were stated as technical issues and had nothing to do with hackers or terrorism. Okay, I suppose I believe that – well, more or less. I suppose I have to, since I don’t have much of a choice. After all, in the scheme of things, who really cares whether I believe it or not?

But, without knowing for sure –without positive proof in my hand – my mind quickly began racing with conspiracy plot lines. What a great opportunity this is for a mystery story or a novel of international intrigue and economic upheaval. And for credibility, I could even base the central premise on Wednesday’s real-life event. Isn’t it great when story ideas are hand delivered; when “truth is stranger than fiction?”!

If I wasn’t already working on another story and I had the time, I would have been spending the past day or two developing that plot. What first came to mind involved a group of hackers, starting with the Chinese or ISIS terrorists. However, it could also have been a rising Mexican drug cartel or a European billionaire investor causing upheaval in the NYSE toward global economic and political domination.

But, that’s all too easy. I think I would rather dig deeper and make the reason more subtle and shrewd. I think I would want to sit down for a few days and really think it through so I could add a few twists and turns beyond the obvious for a more original read before revealing the twisted truth. Of course, the reason would still have to be earth-shattering to justify all the cunning work of shutting down a major stock exchange, airline and newspaper. But, it would also have to be something realistic that people can generally relate to and not some wild, out-of-this-world storyline.

I would want to start it offshore, in an exotic location. For me, that would likely be Europe, since I have some familiarity with the continent. I would look for secondary news events that have the potential to lead to such a dramatic climax, but don’t usually make the international headlines. It would be something that people could look back on and say, “Yes, I never thought of that, but should have seen it as a possibility.”

So, while I stash this idea in my files for possible use in the future, where would you want to take this story?


Writing History, Right



I’m a history nut. Historical non-fiction and historical fiction is what I enjoy reading most. When I read that stuff I expect the writer to know what he or she is talking about. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, is it?

I’m also an aviation enthusiast. My wife would replace the word, “enthusiast,” with the word, “fanatic.” I prefer the former. So being a fana…um, enthusiast, it’s another area where I expect an author to do their homework. Information is too easily accessible, today, to accept lazy writing. There is no excuse for having your characters going out to the airport and boarding a Boeing 707 when your story takes place in 1949. There were no 707’s in 1949. A quick Google search would have told you that.

Recently, I read a crime thriller. Something I don’t normally read. The bad guy works for the U.S. Government. The Government, as in many recent books and movies, were all bad guys. He enters the story flying an F-14 Tomcat. Now, okay, it’s a novel so I’ll forgive the fact that the Navy gave a civilian an F-14. My problem is when he lands. The writer says that he “engaged the reverse thrusters.” Reverse thrusters? On an F14? It’s a jet fighter not an airliner. Sorry, no reverse thrust on an F14. Am I being too much of a geek to expect that to be correct? I don’t think so. But he got away with it because 99.9% of the population doesn’t know an F14 from a Piper Cub. But okay, I’m just enough of a geek that it bugged me.

Now, like most writers, I tend to write what I like to read. My novel, ‘Jenny,’ is an historical piece that takes place in 1928 Texas. Obviously things were different then. It’s up to the writer to know, or at least find out, just how different. We’ve already established the fact that it’s no longer hard to do. I actually find the research enjoyable. I have a Model T Ford that plays a prominent part in the story and I did a lot of reading and Google searches on Model T’s. I like finding out things like the fact that the car’s gas tank was under the front seat. I love passing information like that on to the reader. I even watched a video by a guy who owns one. He showed how to start it. I got a kick out of that and worked it into the story.

And the history itself has to be right, too, of course. Not just the little details. If it’s 1928 you have to be careful that you don’t have your characters talking about something that happened in 1932. Make sure you don’t have them heading out to see ‘Gone With The Wind.’ That wasn’t until 1939. You have to do the research. I’m sure this scares a lot of people away from doing period pieces. It’s time consuming, that’s for sure. But, again, I like it.

But a writer can also have fun with history. Embellishment often works when doing historical novels. Putting your own slant to an historical event. In a great novel about the old west called, ‘Little Big Man,’ Thomas Berger decided to make George Armstrong Custer slightly insane. There’s no way to know if he was, or not, so he could do that sort of thing. He shoots down a bunch of other western myths, too. Terrific book. But even there, his history was on the mark. He just made use of a little artistic license, that’s all. (Which reminds me, mine is up for renewal, soon).

However, I don’t think you should mess with the facts as much as Noah’s biographer did (see cartoon). Then you’re leaving the historical fiction genre and moving into fantasy. If I pick up a book about ancient Rome and it starts with Nero pulling up in a limousine, I can be pretty sure that the writer didn’t do his research. Or that this is gonna be a really good story!




Warning! This Post Contains Opinions

More and more recently the term “trigger warning” has been coming up in conversations I have, articles I read, and the news. Most of these are centered on colleges petitoning for “trigger warnings” to be put on books that might potentially contain disturbing themes or ideas or situations.

Seriously? When did we decide to stop thinking for ourselves? When did we, as a culture, begin to become emotional infants? Does this mean we are going to have to put a trigger warning on Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn? And what about Moby Dick? Are we now becoming so politically correct that classic stories have to come with warnings?

The student government at the University of California in Santa Barbara seems to think so. Last year they petitioned to have trigger warnings put on books to warn of possible distressing material. A short list of books they cited as needing trigger warnings included:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare

“A draft trigger warning policy from Oberlin, quoted in Inside Higher Education, used Achebe’s acclaimed text as an example of a work which might require a warning, saying the novel was “a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.” ~ Cited from www.theguardian.com. Read the full article here.

I’m sorry. The last time I looked I didn’t need anyone to hold my hand or pat my back saying ‘there there, it’s okay, it’s just a story.’ I have never needed to go talk to a therapist because Stephen King scared the crap out of me. Ok, so maybe Stephen King’s books need warnings. But, really, we all know he’s going to scare us silly so isn’t that the only warning we need?

For writers, what does this mean? Am I going to have to begin being sensitive to what I can write about because it might disturb someone? I can tell you right now that I am never going to be the kind of writer who does that. I write what is in me to write. If you can’t handle that, then don’t read my stories or poems. Put as many trigger warnings as you want to on my work but it’s not going to stop me from writing about the hard stuff, the ugly stuff, the stuff that makes you upset. I won’t apologize for it either. We are adults. We don’t need trigger warnings on books. Stand up, act like a mature adult, and use the grey matter in your head that you were born with. Because as far as I’m concerned, putting warnings on books is today’s version of book burning and book banning.

When I saw that Neil Gaiman had put together another short story collection and titled it Trigger Warning, I knew I had to read it. The one thing I love about Mr. Gaiman’s short story collections are his introductions. They are worth reading. The one in Trigger Warning is no different. I love what he has to say about ‘trigger warnings’. In short, he says “we are mature, we decide what we read or do not read.”

He goes on to explain that “what we read as adults should be read with no warnings or alerts beyond enter at your own risk.” I understand that there are people who have problems and issues and that certain things can bring on certain anxieties. But when did we have to start putting warnings on books? To me it has always been common sense. There is a title and a picture on covers of books and usually a summary on the back or on the inside flap of a book cover. That summary should be enough to tell you “hey, this contains material that might bother you.” If you choose to read the book, it is your personal responsibility for dealing with the ideas, themes, emotions that the story may reveal to you. Do we seriously have to begin putting warnings on books?

Life does not come with trigger warnings. The only way we know where our comfort zones are is by stepping out of them, by encountering situations that force us to think outside our normal parameters. The best and safest way to do this is by reading books that “might” distress us. Books that force us to deal with ugly emotions and feelings, that make us uncomfortable, help us to deal with those situations in the safety of our own homes. No one ever has to know that we had to go change our underwear because of Stephen King. And if we need therapy because of it, then that’s our little secret. You also learn that if you don’t like having the crap scared out of you then don’t read Stephen King again. No warning needed.

“There. Consider yourself warned. There are so many little triggers out there, being squeezed in the darkness…Now all we have to worry about is all the other books, and, of course, life, which is huge and complicated and will not warn you before it hurts you.” ~Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning.

Breaking On Through to the Other Side

"Garden of Eden," by Michelle Olsem

“Garden of Eden,” by Michelle Olsem


Confession time! I come from the world of journalism. For those writing creatively all your lives, you may (or may not) know that both worlds are more or less opposites.

Journalism is all about following a formula of getting the lead at the top of an article and then covering the details to the end, starting with the most critical and working down in priority.

When I studied journalism, late last century, the rules were strict and we got marked down in class for errors, such as spelling, punctuation and grammar – basics you would assume professional reporters and news editors should know and strictly practice. And back then, at least, we did. These days, based on the newspapers and websites I read, not so much, even with spell check.

At first, it was a challenge to adapt to the world of creative writing using journalistic standards. The most difficult part has been proofreading, because I can drive myself into the looney bin double checking my spelling, punctuation and grammar, along with making sure my you-know-whats are dotted and my other you-know-whats are crossed. During that stringent process, of course, the creative juices are not flowing and the focus is not on the plot or story line.

Another big difference is that journalism and news reporting needs to be factual – ha, go figure. For some reason, making things up is frowned upon, as they expect you to research what really happened and talk to witnesses. It’s all about facts, and quoting sources with such phrases as “according to” or “the police sergeant said.” And, if one little fact is wrong or a word or two in a quote is inaccurate, you’ve got to go back and correct it, even if it requires a phone call back to the source.

Compared to news reporting, creative writing is like stepping out of a jail cell into a boundless Garden of Eden with flowing rivers and playful animals frolicking over lush rolling hills (music please). Even so, I tried fighting the change at first by sticking to my high and mighty standards. That, obviously, did not work. So eventually, it has come down to a gradual process of personal evolution, as I aim for what seems like a mythical sweet spot between the cookie-cutter parameters of journalism and the free-flowing world of creativity.


Fiction, Science Fiction and Non-Fiction



I want to get into a bit more detail on my take, at least, of the fine work AJ Prince posted last week with her interviews with us here at Twisted Writers and on CJ Stuart’s intriguing follow up. I want to talk about how I usually apply personal experience to story writing.

When I first felt the urge to write, years and years ago, I wanted to write non-fiction. That, however, did not work out so well, as I felt the urge to exaggerate events and characters.   Obviously, that was not consistent with the definition of “non-fiction.” I suppose – bottom line – the truth bored me. So, I just went with the flow and ended up in the world of fiction.

Inspired by the likes of Star Wars, Star Trek and The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy of the late ‘70s and through the ‘80s, I first tried and quickly failed at, science fiction. Frankly, there was too much involved in imagining and creating details of worlds I had never been too. To me, shooting around other worlds and the possibility of life on other planets, while certainly possible and, to some extent, probable, is literally unimaginable, if that makes sense. After all, such life could be the size of microscopic bacteria or of a towering green-eyed monster.

Rather, my writing comes from, but not necessarily about, true-life moments and is what speaks to me the most me the most by creating plots and developing characters from combinations of events and people right here on planet earth.

As CJ Stuart wrote, “we all have voices in our head that speak to us and, not only are we okay with that, we are happy about it.”

For instance, there is a story of mine coming up that I have written about a gambler named Spencer in a story triggered by real people and events. In fact, parts of his story were actually written in a casino while waiting for a friend to finish gambling away their previous winnings at blackjack. So anyway, one day his life changed when he came across one of those systems for winning at blackjack.

Along the way, these characters, while created as fantasies, may face real-life challenges and discover inner strengths and potentials borne out of necessity and realize the need to survive that they would never have otherwise imagined.

Then there is the story I will discuss next week of how I met an American hero, who, in another fictional encounter, as a diplomat serving overseas, overcame astonishing challenges by drawing on abilities she otherwise may not have thought she could possess.

These are the types of stories I like to write about that build off fictional characters facing credible combinations of intriguing and extraordinary scenarios. In these, I try to illustrate how anyone of us may react and deal with these situations.


R.B. from Snow City

Snow City 1

How great it is to be posting on this blog, writing with such a terrific caliber of other Twisted bloggers, as we have seen this first week.  So, for my first posting on this first day of spring, I want to start off by mentioning a fellow I met on a computer convention trip in San Francisco back in the late 80s.  He was one of those western-type, bigger-than-life icons, complete with two cigars sticking out of his jacket pocket that I kept hoping he wouldn’t light up.

Rupert Baker was his name and, despite the physical parallels and mannerisms to John Wayne, plus several extra pounds, he seemed rather embarrassed, by his first name. So, after a few minutes, he insisted I call him R.B. Well, I suppose everyone gets self-conscious about something.

Anyway, R.B. was from a small town in the Colorado Rockies, which is all he ever talked about. He was like a one-man public relations squad for the town, which surprisingly had little more than a thousand people. It didn’t matter what we discussed, because whatever it was, R.B. always found a way to slip in something about Snow City.

We talked a little while standing in the lobby about the view of the hills across the San Francisco Bay and the span of the Golden Gate as R.B. would compare them to the “towering mountains” around Snow City and the span of the “Milky Way across the sky of the Snow City nights.” It was as if he was trained to substitute every noun with “Snow City.” Yes, it got a bit tedious, but his stories, assuming half of them were even true, were stimulating. Sure, at first we began discussing computers, the topic of the convention, but the conversation, by his lead and like the salesman he was, quickly evolved into a discussion on real estate investing.

“One hot night during the ’75 summer, just after the war in Nam,” R.B. began, as we first sat down at a little food court just off the convention center lobby, “I met this woman at an empty restaurant property I own. My last tenant had gone bust at the end of that winter.

“Of course, it wasn’t his fault he went out of business,” R.B. explained with an all-knowing, authoritative tone. “It was a killer snowfall in the Rockies that winter in which no one went out to eat.”

It wasn’t obvious, but I remember R.B. seemed to smile a bit at that moment, as though it had been a turning point or at least a minor personal victory for him.

“This woman, named Annie,” he continued, “was taking some sort of long way home to New York from a nursing tour near Da Nang. In any case, when she couldn’t find a place to eat in Snow City, she offered to rent the property from me and didn’t want to wait until the morning to sign the contract.”

At that moment, he paused before adding, “I may have told her I had another buyer.”

“Did you?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he unabashedly confessed.”

I can still picture that moment as R.B. grinned. “I didn’t like her at first and could have easily over charged her,” he added “but I had to respect her service in Nam.”

I suppose I should not have been surprised how candid this big, overpowering fellow was, especially when he began to laugh and then told me that he “ended up charging a small premium anyway.”

“So how long did she and her business last,” I asked, keeping in mind that his story, even at the time, was more than 20 years old.

“So far, so good,” R.B. replied, as he then reached for one of the cigars.

Although he was not the mayor of Snow City, a possibility, of which, that had certainly crossed my mind, he did admit to being on the city council and had no trouble bragging how he owned half of the downtown district – about a dozen buildings, or so. Despite being mostly about business, R.B. did have terrific stories about the characters – sorry, I mean “the residents” – of the town.

Although it sounded like most of the people were low-key in this small, remote town, it seemed from his stories as though there were more than its fair share of strong-spirited individuals, let’s call them, including R.B. himself, of course, that had somehow been funneled into the valley around this place through some quirk of natural selection.

It’s funny how I’ve run into quite a few of these “motivated individuals,” during my travels. I was still in my 20s at the time when I met him, so R.B. was one of the first of these “individuals” I would run into. But, before long I realized I was starting to pick up stories, not just about folks like R.B., but about other people they knew, such as friends, foes and others whom they had known or done business with.

As I write each week, I’d like to get into some of those stories that I recall about people and places throughout the years, along the way and, yes, maybe even some more about Snow City, which I was fortunate enough to visit just a couple of years later.


In this fictional encounter, the author engages with a character from his upcoming tales about Snow City.