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.

6.2 Not Without… Adam

Not Without…

What can a creative person, a writer, not do without? I would have said pants but pants are optional; I only wear them out of mundane perfunctory obligation. Jodi once sent me a second-hand pair of trackies while I was on long service leave to write.

What can I not do without?

My Music

I am a metal head of old. I am nostalgic for the days of my long hair, when it was REALLY LONG. Once I was introduced to someone who upon finding out I played drums said, “Looks like one.” I am a “meat and potatoes” drummer; plain and simple.

Music is my meditation and prayer for peace, for anger, for contemplation, for melancholy, for sorrow, for confusion, for nostalgia, for hope.

My current binge genre is post-rock, which is instrumental music ranging from intimate and ethereal to heavy and loud, and simple to progressive. Often in the same piece of music. I like music that forms a narrative, and post-rock does this for me. My current home-town heroes of the post-rock scene here in Sydney are sleepmakeswaves, We Lost The Sea and Meniscus. The new album from We Lost the Sea is getting a regular listen because it is a piece of artistic majesty. I was in the crowd for We Lost The Sea gig and it was a spiritual experience.

The music acts a filter to bring me focus and clarity; to provide a soundtrack for a scene; to prompt a mood or vibe. I listen to heavy metal in a similar way because I can filter the vocals out, make them another instrument in the mix rather than get caught up in the lyrical narrative happening. I will get caught up sometimes in a song and listen to the lyrics to understand the power of that moment and to find the words to express the power of the emotion of the scene I am writing.

And a set of noise cancelling headphones are a blessing.

My Doubt, My Insecurities, My Fears, My Faith

I have made creativity a central part of my life because I believe in its philosophy as a physical, spiritual, emotional, mental, intellectual and emotional act. I teach because I believe in the power of relationship. There is tremendous power in sharing creative acts. Connection through, and via, art, establishes relationships.

Since my early teens I wanted to write because I loved how I was moved by the stories I read. I wanted to be Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Julian from The Famous Five, Obelisk and Tintin, The Phantom and any number of participants in war stories, fantasy epics, sci-fi embroilments. I wanted to use language to explore the power of figurative language to engage and to teach through the power of parable and analogy.

And I live with the uncertainty and doubt and fear that I am completely and utterly rubbish at this writing gig. I am afraid that one day I will wake up and the creativity will not be there. That I will not be able to write, or to draw, or to play drums, or to read. I will be the emperor standing naked in front of the people, exposed as nothing. At least I won’t be wearing pants.

Yet…

I persist. I pursue. I proceed.

This is faith.

I create what I can, when I can, how I can. The doubt and insecurity and fear never truly leave. They are a pebble in my shoe. Irritating and leading to blisters but nonetheless a reminder I am moving forward.

My Network

The JAR Collective is a gestalt entity of three people. We live in different cities, in different countries. We share similar (and different) aims and visions in regard to writing and the creative arts. And we work brilliantly together. We encourage, support, share, laugh, cry, whinge, swear, question, answer, and write together.

We are divergent, differentiated, maybe even debonaire.

We kick each other up the bum as motivation.

We hold each other’s hands when times are tough, and the candle doesn’t push back the darkness.

We hold a space for each other.

We celebrate the victories together, from the insignificant to the momentous.

We champion each other.

And I could not do it without their support.

Find your tribe. Find your people. Cherish and love them. Support and encourage them.

 

Lastly, not without doughnuts. I can’t do without doughnuts.

6.1 Not Without…

Every writer has essential traveling partners to assist them on the journey: a favourite beverage, pen, notebook, playlist or perhaps something more esoteric. Here are my top three ‘not withouts’.

MY HEALTH

her blood was
red like summer roses
fragrant and in bud

is this the thread that binds me to you
wherever you go

Written on the Body #10 (Jodi Cleghorn)

 

In 2002, I studied medical anthropology and did a major essay on the experience of chronic pain. One of the source materials was a book called The Absent Body by Drew Leder, and his chapter ‘The Dys-appearing Body’ was an eye-opener. For the first time I thought deeply about ‘body as a silent invisible vehicle’ (this was long before ‘body as temple’) and how it is only when we are sick or injured the body ‘dys-appears’. The year previous I had spent more than six months unable to walk. While my ankle and foot eventually healed, it changed forever the way I walked (less of those long sassy strides…plus a mortal fear of walking on grass). The experience of being in my body, in the world, was forever altered.  Leder’s work has persistently called me back into reviewing my relationship with my body, through the lens of physical change and illness.

For the last decade, I’ve been at varying places along the tired-exhausted spectrum—from mildly to completely incapable of functioning.

Even when my son was older and I stopped burning the candle at both ends with eMergent, some level of fatigue became my norm. Over the last decade, fatigue has ridden shotgun with many of my physical and mental health challenges: depression, anxiety, chronic pain and insomnia. I simply got used to not being full of energy and put it down to something that would go away if I mindfully managed the other core issues or was finally spat out the other side of these spiritual upgrades. Like a continually lowering affect (depression/anxiety), I learned to accommodate and habituate to persistently diminishing physical energy. As it lowered, I adjusted and adjusted and adjusted, while at the same time being hyperaware that without my body in strong, healthy functioning order, there was no way I could do the things I wanted to do: the priority of which was always writing. I believed if I kept trying to manage my mental health and chronic physical issues, the fatigue would eventually right itself.

Then it didn’t. In fact, it crashed in the most spectacular of ways over the course of a month, and I have spent the last few weeks rethinking what I know about cause and effect.

The body is an amazing ecosystem. After years of persistently ignoring the gentle (and let’s be honest, not so gentle nudges), it fired an unmissable shot across the bow—I thought I was having a heart attack, and finally I took myself off to the doctor to discover (gratefully) my heart was fine. My ferritin and iron stores, on the other hand, were the lowest my doctor had seen in a patient. “Spectacularly low,” she said to me. “No wonder you feel so rotten.”

This is the start of a new deepening into my body and my relationship with it, and how to be more responsibly* responsive to what it is telling me. Because as I have discovered (I’m actually breaking my ‘no work’ rule to pen this), without this most fundamental level of health and wellness, there is no writing. There’s no anything. In fact, I was hurtling toward something far more significant and life altering than a temporary health crisis.

Without my health—this fundamental foundational wellness—there is no spark, no life force, no impetus to create, be brave, take risks…much less what is needed in reserve to finish what I start.

Writers birth characters and create their lives—we are givers of life. This a sacred transference of life force. Without an overflowing reserve of that essential life force, there is nothing but ever deepening and eroding levels of dead, hardened, creative earth and zero energy to even try to chip into it, much less till, plant, care and prepare it for a coming harvest.

MY SOVEREIGNTY

my life is not my own
I shall have to haggle
over my reality

an ordinary miracle
to believe in the obvious
surprise
deepening, quickening
loving the shell laid out
before me

I’ve been sitting in
my memories
changing

no longer the crude lever
of passion
beginning from a fixed perspective

Written on the Body #2 – Jodi Cleghorn

 

In 2007, I was talked into doing NaNoWriMo for the first time by two amazing women I was completing The Artist’s Way with. My son was 3 ½ at the time, yet to start kindergarten; while I was a SAHM, I was also doing the equivalent of a full-time job for the homebirth association here in Brisbane as a volunteer. The allure of NaNo arrived at a time in my life when there was no space for anything new—let alone a 50K manuscript. I had done nothing more than scribble a few thousand words here and there for the previous three months, and 50K felt like a marathon when I’d only just learned to walk with maybe a few dance steps when I was really brave.

But I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to see if I was up to the task. I sat down and explained what I wanted to do with my partner and son, and we made a deal: if the clothes were laundered every week and dinner appeared every night, then I could ‘clock off being Mum’ at 8:30 to sit and write. It was the first time I had specifically asked for something just for me. It turned out to be the best thing I could have done at the start of my writing career.

They held up their end of the deal. I held up mine. Despite all manner of trials and tribulations (including taking my partner to emergency with a suspected heart attack two days before the end of NaNo), I crossed (crawled/staggered?) over the 50K mark on the final day. It was a minor triumph in writing: a pretty average draft and story idea which I never returned to for completion. However, it was a major triumph for me as a writer. It cemented within my family dynamic the importance of writing, and while my family have felt abandoned at times, they have never begrudged my creativity and have always made space for me within it. No one has ever dared suggest that maybe it is getting in the way or that I should give it up (if we discount my MIL in the early days who was adamant it was getting in the way of taking ‘proper care’ of my family).

That first NaNo showed me writing and the mundane could be complimentary to each other (and we all laugh that when I am in full writing swing, the domestic landscape is a far more organised affair than usual because cooking and pegging clothes on the line are essential thinking spaces for me). It showed me that ‘writer’ was not mutually exclusive to other parts of my life.

Writing is the one aspect of the last 12 years which has been absolutely non-negotiable. It has given me something important enough to learn how to create boundaries and stick to them. It has given me a barometer for what is healthy and what is detrimental in my life, i.e., anyone or anything impeding my ability to write nor misaligned with my creative pursuits. (My former boyfriend managed to find a loop hole in the ‘limited shelf-life’ for the non-aligned…and I let him. I’ve learned the hard way, detrimental is detrimental—period!)

 

MY EARBUDS

unreconstructed as I am
I’d rather walk through the damp
outer layers of movement
when movement indicates life
and life
had a hole that let the rain in
because my love for myself
let the rain in
to make something
entirely new
by the fire

Written on the Body #10 – Jodi Cleghorn

 

Stephen King talks about two types of doors in his book On Writing. There is the metaphysical door—you write with the door closed and edit with the door open. Then there is the more obvious physical door; the one to the room you write in that you shut to the world as a psychological prompt to the self to say: right, now it’s time to write. Plus, it is usually an effective way to signal to others ‘do not disturb’ (but for anyone with experience of small children, they will know a door is only a momentary obstacle to your full attention, even in the toilet).

For years I yearned for a door. If I was still writing letters to Santa for Christmas, a door would have been the top of my list for years. My at-home writing space was in a weird alcove corner of our writing room, and my away-from-home space was often a loud and crowded indoor playground. My earphones/buds became my doors. Nothing has changed, even though I now have a writing room, and it’s been years since I last graced Lollipops Indoor Play Centre.

My earbuds are essential. All the best playlists in the world or access to favourite writing music on a fully charged phone are useless without something to listen to it with. I have arrived at my favourite cafe, more times than I care to admit, to discover they’ve been left behind, destroying a much anticipated writing session. I have two pairs now in an attempt to avoid this happening.

I’ll push them in even if I am at home and everything is quiet. They are like my essential Pavlovian prompt ‘now, write’; who am I to argue with classical conditioning at its best?

 

*Please please please—if you have been experiencing persistent, long-term fatigue/exhaustion or generally low physical functioning without a known contributing condition, please see your doctor. It is not normal. We are here to thrive, not merely survive. The world needs us right now. Our vitality. Our equanimity in a world thrown into extremes of polarity. And as always, our words as beacons of hope in a pervading darkness.