7.3 A Glimpse at “A Christmas Story in Jacob’s Landing”

Setting matters to me, as I am sure it does to other writers out there who invest time in establishing the background of their stories and characters. Most of my work – both fiction and nonfiction – takes place in Maryland in the United States. As such, I’ve created some rather elaborate settings based closely on the places I frequent.

And sometimes, those places and stories overlap.

In 2013, as I was establishing the plot line of Fossil Five, I created a fictitious town called Jacob’s Landing. I took great care in establishing the town’s proximity to Chesapeake Bay, the tributaries that trickled through the small parcel of land, and the incidents and events that defined its less-than desirable history. In it, I created a few stories that happened under “Fait’s Five Bridges.”

The next year, I started a new novel called Sail Away, also set in the town of Jacob’s Landing. I began to see the benefits of creating a strong setting where multiple stories could be created. I learned this from Stephen King who used his own fictitious Castle Rock town as a backdrop for many of his works of horror.

Fast forward to 2019, and I am working on a new Christmas story for my holiday anthology. In this story, “A Christmas Story in Jacob’s Landing,” I not only use the setting that I have relied on for previous works, I am now having my main characters from this short work bump into some of the characters from my previous works, including Fossil Five.

I find it a delicious challenge to keep the “rules” of previous stories straight while creating new works of fiction within that VW-imagined world. I don’t want to write anything that is going to undermine or discredit what has already been published. It’s like inserting new pieces into a jigsaw puzzle that has already been completed.

This is one of the most basic rules I learned long ago with creating fantasy or science fiction; if you are going to create an imaginary world, you are in charge of creating boundaries and staying within them for the entire work. Whenever you are developing multiple works from the same setting, you must continue to adhere to those boundaries and not conflict with anything already created in that world.

It’s tough, but it’s fun.

Here is the drafted opening of my new Christmas story, due to come out just before the holidays.

“A Christmas Story In Jacob’s Landing”
by Rus VanWestervelt, Draft 1

Chapter 1:
1 December

None of this was what he imagined – or hoped – it might be. 

Travis stood outside the cabin, leaning against the wet railing that was now warped, a twisting 2 x 6 board that had never been properly sealed. He could feel the moisture in the wood seep through the bulky cableknit sweater as he shifted his arms, and he stared through the bare deciduous trees at the Chesapeake Bay’s brackish waters. They were choppy, and the strong winds brought a swirling mix of scents from the bay and the woods between them: an aromatic touch of fresh, sweet sap tainted with the decaying odors of the detritus on the forest floor. 

It conjured the memorable scent of a peculiar perfume that he longed to forget. It was, in fact, the reason he was here, nearly 100 miles away from his home in Baltimore County, close to the Pennsylvania line. 

He was here to forget.

He played with the paper crane in his hand, folding the wings again and again as he watched a pair of egrets standing still in the water, waiting for their next meal to swim by. 

Even here, on the western shores of Chesapeake Bay in the small town of Jacob’s Landing, he could not escape her. 

Inside the cabin, his phone began to ring. 

He threw the paper crane over the deck railing and watched it sputter its way to the ground, landing on a twig, its beak buried under a damp oak leaf. Pushing away from the railing, he went inside, the warm air of the fire greeting him immediately. 

“This is Travis,” he said, answering the call.

“I know you are probably surrounded by a bunch of unopened moving boxes,” the voice said on the other end. It was his editor at the Jacob Herald, Stanley, who was also good college friend of his father. “I’ve got a gun-control rally that’s starting under the Bridges. My go-to for these kinds of events has got up and went. Any chance you can pick it up? It’s a hell of a first assignment to introduce you to Jacob.”

Travis moved closer to the fire, hearing him chuckle on the other end of the line.

“Not wasting a moment, are you? Everything my dad said about you is dead-on right.”

“Did he also say that I was the more talented, the most handsome, and the quickest to land a date back when were at St. Mary’s?”

Now it was Travis’ time to laugh. “He said that you would say all that, so I guess you are right.”

“I love that man,” said Stanley.

“Don’t we all.” Travis cleared his throat. “Do you need pictures too? Or do you have a photog already assigned?”

“If you accept the job, then the photographer has been assigned. You.”

Travis stepped closer to the fire. He just could not warm up. “I accept, but it will take me a few minutes to find the box where my camera is buried.”

“Take your time,” said Stanley. “Rally starts at 4. Find Morgan Carter. She’s your main contact. Sweet girl that is born and bred Jacob. She’ll have all the answers – and a few good save-the-world quotes that will spark a little traction online, I’m sure.”

Travis bristled as he started opening boxes, looking for his camera gear. 

“I don’t have any cares about the online chatter,” he chuffed. “No time for that.”

“That’s our bread and butter, son. Deny that, and we lose our advertising.”

He pulled a well-loved Nikon D300 camera from a box, and put his eye up to the viewfinder. 

“When do you want the story?” asked Travis.

“8:30 tonight if you can. I’d like to include it in our 10 p.m. online edition.”

“800 words?”

“Make it 600. Not too many book readers here in Jacob.”

Travis hung up the phone and scrolled through the last few pictures on the camera’s memory card. It was of their last trip together to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. when the leaves were at their autumnal peak.

“Jesus.”

He selected them all and then deleted the batch. Just to be sure they were gone, he formatted the card. 

Travis turned and walked out on to the deck, still clutching the old camera as if it were an extension of his right hand. He aimed at the two egrets, still waiting ever-patiently for food, when he fired off a few shots of the birds in mid-strike. 

He studied one of the pictures on the camera’s display panel, zooming into the egret’s beak and the squirming fish. “Looks like the striped killifish are still running,” he said aloud, saving the image. 

No, nothing was as he had thought that it might be, and that was okay. He turned off the camera, grabbed his notebook and keys, and headed out the door to meet a woman named Morgan under the Fait’s Five Bridges.

7.2 A Glimpse at “We Are But Ghosts On Film”

In the course of writing Post Marked Pipers’ Reach, Jodi and I wrote a series of unrelated stories for a Form and Genre Challenge. Unbeknownst to me, the titular character, Charlotte McKay, was in fact Ella-Louise. Charlotte McKay was the name Ella-Louise used when working undercover.

The short stories “What I Left to Forget” and “The Photographer’s Concerto” explored the relationship between Charlotte and Jakob, the guitarist for an up-an-coming grunge band, Soul Monkey Momento, who were set to explode in Australia and overseas. I had no idea I was writing stories that were connected to the wider world of Piper’s Reach at the time.

There is a mention of Jakob and the band in the letters between Ella-Louise and Jude, but the focal point for me in creating a new story was when Ella-Louise returned to Melbourne with the hope of catching up with members of Soul Monkey Momento. I had the two short stories, and the connection between Charlotte and Jakob, yet I was interested in what had happened to the rest of the band since the death of Jakob, and Charlotte’s sudden reappearance, particularly as it affected the drummer, Mitch.

Charlotte McKay was a separate entity to Ella-Louise, another incarnation of who she was, and I wanted to explore the impact of her life on another person. Who are we in the gaps and silences of life? Is there redemption in asking for forgiveness? Or condemnation? Can you make amends for a past that was of your making, and not of your own making? Can you be forgiven for what you did? Do you want forgiveness?

I’ve written the novella and am now in the process of rereading, editing and rewriting for submission.

WE ARE BUT GHOSTS ON FILM

CHAPTER 3

Mitch sits behind the kit and plays the song Jakob wrote for Charlotte. She sings it with fragile tenacity and the years peel back. There is the sound of heartbreak in her voice, not the passionate declaration of adoring lust. This was a song wrought out of intense passion and sung with desperate longing. And it was beautiful. It is still beautiful.

Flip the record and the B-side is another single; a cover song or an alternate take. This is the A-side: Jakob died and Charlotte disappeared. The B-side is a gap of fifteen years, three bands, and one heartbreaking event ago. And yet she is here, on stage, singing the same song.

The crowd erupts, witness to a moment they believed they would never see again.

Josh yells over the adoring crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, CHARLOTTE MCKAY!”

Eyes focused downward, she waves to the crowd who respond in ecstasy.

Mitch yellS after her. “Charlotte.”

She turns, hand still grasping the microphone.

“Hang around, will you?”

She nods, caught under the gaze of the spotlights, and smiles but Mitch doubts she will stick around to the end of the set. He watches her drop off the stage, pick up her camera and slip in the shadows between the stage and the barrier. During the rest of the set he keeps an eye out for her but does not see her.

The remainder of the set plays out as planned, held together by the moment of remembered bliss, yet even as the house lights come up and the sound guy starts playing Tears For Fears, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” they begin to forget. Her presence as illusory as shadow; a by-line in a gig review a week later no one will read, as the only proof she ever existed.

She’s there. In the corner of the green room, tucked into a dingy sofa. Camera curled into her lap like a cat.

“Fuck me; Charlotte McKay,” said Mitch. There is a shift in the shadows, wrapping them around her shoulders again as if a spotlight was turned on her, suddenly the focus of attention from Mitch and the other members of the band. Always that shadow covering her heart in layer upon layer.

“Mitch.” From the sofa she stands and slips her arm around his waist, the other over his shoulder.

“Watch it. Bit sweaty.”

The embrace was familiar and awkward, like the distance of time made the pieces of the puzzle not fit correctly; edges mangled or new hollows carved out. There’s an apology in the embrace, and a longing for forgiveness.

Where to from here? Mitch wondered as he felt her embrace loosen and they stepped back from one another, afraid to cross the chasm without the certainty of an anchor point to pull himself up should they fall.

The phantom made real in a pair of dark jeans, boots and black t-shirt. And the camera strap straddling her neck as she cradled the camera like a child in the womb. She looked down, as if she were sizing up this older version of Mitch who was transposed over the younger incarnation.

As she stepped forward again into the gap, Mitch involuntarily moved to step back.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?”

“For just then. Making you step back. Afraid of who I am, what I might be. Sorry for turning up, unannounced. Sorry for disappearing.”

He ran his hand across the stubble on his face and wiped the sweat from the hollow of his neck before wiping it dry on the seat of his jeans. “Apology accepted.”

“Thank you.”

Across the deepest chasm Mitch took a step to embrace Charlotte. A moment for initiating reconciliation and remembrance. She raised her head from his chest. “You never kept a grudge?”

“No need to. It was never your fault.”

Mitch shifted his weight from one foot to the other and let Charlotte slip out of his arms and went to the table on the other side of the room. “Come on. Let’s get you a beer.”

“What are you not telling me?”

“I doubted you existed. You only existed in my memory because the photos you took are proof. Without the photos you’re a ghost; you’re even a ghost behind the camera.”

“You can’t prove I took them. Therefore, I don’t exist.” A slight smirk played at the edge of her lips as if the comment was both self-effacing and self-defeating. “If you don’t remember who took them, I don’t exist.”

“But I do remember. And I won’t forget. So, you do exist. Even if you’re not around.”

“Will you remember me when I’m gone?

“I never forgot. I will always remember.” Mitch twisted the cap off the bottle, tossed it loosely in his hand. “You’re always welcome here. Where are you staying?”

“Somewhere local.”

“Staying long?”

A shake of the head.

“You got time to come back and catch up tonight?”

“I can arrange something.”

“What’s your number and I’ll text you the address.”

“I’m not operating a phone at the moment.”

“Hang on.” Mitch steps out of the room and back to the stage, ferrets in his stick bag for a pen, grabs the scrunched set list from underneath his hi-hat stand and scribbles his address on the back.

Charlotte was where he had left her, the afterimage of a flash popping in his face. He hands her the set list.

“Just like old times,” she says.

7.1 A Glimpse at the Glass Marionette

Almost 2.5 years ago, Rus and I embarked on our most ambitious collaborative adventure to date. We called it The Glass Marionette, after becoming enamoured with Angela Meyers’ photo of a glass marionette on Instagram, when we were in the early stages of brainstorming and writing.

This month we are returning to the hallowed (hollowed?) narrative hallways to pick up where we left off…which turns out to be no mean feat given the breadth and craziness of the original idea.

Words as The Unsaid

‘Words As’ is our regular guest posting. We invite creatives of all ilks to respond to the prompt ‘words as’. This month we welcome Marion Taffe to the page to share her thoughts.

Welcome Marion.

WORDS AS THE UNSAID

Close your eyes
Make a wish
Don’t touch the bottom
Don’t wish out loud

(Or it won’t come true)

We are taught from a young age that there is mysterious power in the unsaid. But, those teachers also say, be careful what you wish for.

For the architect, lines on a page become a wall, a window, a roof. For the writer, rows of lines and circles on a page become words, stories, intentions. They can transfix us for hours and some stay for a lifetime. “What can that be but magic?” author Ilka Tampke (Skin, Songwoman) said at the recent Historical Novel Society Conference in Sydney.

Few would argue that when a character takes hold and runs across the page via your fingertips: it is a kind of magic.

Yet, the architect’s magic is not in the building of walls but the creation of spaces. Likewise, I’m discovering, a writer’s magic is as much in the unwritten as the written. Call it subtext. Call it ‘between the lines”. Call it space.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s June describes her life with Luke:

We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Indeed so much can be said in the unsaid: so much written with the unwritten.

It’s an invitation to the reader to unpack their own life, with all its colour and darkness.

So how do we do this?

If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

But first, I was reminded recently of the power of unsaid words in a short dark chapter of my childhood.

So let me tell you a story…

THE POWER OF WISHES

I had wished to be a mermaid. I had wished to fit in. I had wished to be put in the front row of our ballet troupe with the pretty petite girls, instead of the back row where I always seemed to find myself (and where I felt most comfortable).

None of these wishes had come true, despite me absolutely never touching the bottom of the cake.

But, one day, I made a different wish.

The words did not pass my lips but they were my words. They formed in my soul and felt weighty at the back of my mouth, each like a smooth river stone, unmoving beneath rushing, raging waters.

I was eight, maybe nine. What did I know of shaping and wielding darkness?

I had been dropped off late for my ballet recital. All the other girls were tu-tued, bunned, made-up, and waiting to shine. A parent left her daughter to help me get ready in the dressing room. She was not pleased.

Tuts and sighs came thick as she plastered my face with foundation, pushing hard as she swiped the stick of greasy eye colour over my lids. I tried not to cry.

“Where are your lashes?” she snapped at me.

My mother had raged when she’d read the letter from the ballet school informing that all girls must have false eyelashes for the performance.

“You’re a little girl and you have a perfectly good set of eyelashes,” she’d said.

I knew not to argue with Mum.

“Well?” the woman said.

“I forgot them,” I lied.

She took her frustration out on the mascara wand, stabbing it in and out of its bottle then jutting it at my eyes as she held my head with her other hand.

That was when I cursed her.

I hope something really bad happens to you.

Simple. To the point.

When tears tumbled down my rouged cheeks, taking muddy deposits of fresh mascara with them, she dabbed my face with tissues.

I ran-walked along the narrow corridors to the join the troupe in the green room.

We went on. We danced, my vision rimmed by black diamonds of tears and mascara clumps sparkling in stage lights.

People clapped. The parents were happy. The teachers were happy.

I felt a small part of the reason everyone was happy and that made me feel happy.

THE RIVER STONES RETURN

Once home, my mother tutted and sighed as she scrubbed ‘that muck’ off my face.

Life danced back to normal.

The curse I had shaped from my darkness meant nothing, I told myself.

No one knew of it. Well, except Jesus, I figured. I vowed to be good, say a lot of Hail Marys, be nice to my siblings and behave in church every Sunday forever.

I can’t remember how much time had passed – weeks, maybe months. Then one day, we got the news at ballet that the woman’s young son had died from an asthma attack.

The river stones returned, heavy in my stomach.

When Dad asked if I’d like to go to the boy’s funeral, I knew I could not. So, I spoke of the unspoken.

Dad’s response?

“That is why, Marion, you must never, ever wish ill of anyone.”

He was supposed to laugh a little, give me a hug and say, “this is not your fault.”

The stones remained.

I was too young to know that 500 years earlier, girls not much older than I would have been burned at the stake for admitting such a thing. And I was too indoctrinated into a world of saints and demons and sins and brimstone to want to acknowledge any evil power I may or may not have summoned.

MY CURSE

Now, as an adult, I am pretty sure (there is always a tug of doubt), that I did not cause the boy’s death.

Thinking of that mother, more than 35 years on, I imagine the spaces between the walls of her soul. The vastness of her agony, the emptiness her little boy left behind – his unspoken words, his unwritten stories. When I think of her, I feel the river stones again.

Perhaps that is my curse.

Would the memory have stayed, had I not spoken of it to my father?

Incidentally, this dark memory only returned recently when listening to the spellbinding writer Kate Forsyth (The Wild Girl, Bitter Greens). At the HNSA conference, she recounted a story of a curse she’d made as a child. The space in Kate’s story, drew forth my own memory, which I have  told you here.

Perhaps you shall now bring your own experiences?

So many things unsaid inside the stories within spaces within stories. I hope we never touch the bottom.

Image: Skitterphoto via Pexels

Marion Taffe was once a journalist, occasionally a dancer, always a dreamer. She loves stories, especially those with history, quirky metaphors and fish swimming upriver.