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.

5.3 The Next Story – Rus

Every time I publish a piece of writing with a larger audience, one of the most common questions I hear is “What’s next?”

It’s a loaded question, for sure, especially with Fossil Five releasing to the world in a matter of days. Most people don’t really care about the behind-the-scenes writing I am doing on a daily — sometimes hourly — basis. What they really care about is what I plan on releasing to the public in the near future.

I have several in the running for the next six months. There’s the creative nonfiction piece about the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 and my research disputing the young mayor’s death being ruled a suicide. I firmly believe he was murdered, and I’m on a good track to prove it.

Then there’s the new novel idea about a small-town college that shuts down in the late sixties after a series of unsolved murders on campus. The abandoned college receives a financial windfall from an anonymous donor, and when it reopens for artists in 2020, the murders resume. The story follows several students who begin to unearth the secrets of the college’s bloody history, leading them to become the primary targets for the killer’s next victims.

I also have an inspiring series of essays in the works on living a more fulfilling life through authentic journaling.

The truth is, though, that the “next” story is whichever one rises from the myriad ideas, scribbles, and drafts that I have been collecting in my journals for the past 4 decades. In other words, when you sneak a peek behind the writer’s magical veil, there is no official “next story.”

In addition to the three titles that I listed above, I’m working on stories that matter the world to me, but may never see the light of day in my readers’ worlds.

These are just a few of the ideas ripped from my daybook’s pages. Some of them are developed more than others.

  • Sail Away– a novel about a time portal in the basement of a family’s house that leads to the late 18th century, where some of the individuals of yesteryear have come back to cross-populate the two worlds over a three-century period.
  • Daily Prompts of Inspiration- I have written and shared many hundreds of writing prompts to lift up, inspire, and encourage others. This would be a journal where each page begins with a new thought, and plenty of blank space to reflect.
  • Anthology of Ghost and Horror Stories- I have always loved the genre of terror, and over the years I have written enough short stories to put together an anthology of horror. It’s quite antithetical to my inspiring posts and essays; I guess that’s what makes them all the more interesting.
  • My Poetry- This is something that I have very, very rarely shared with anybody, even my closest writer-friends. I think this would take the most amount of courage. As vulnerable as I feel about my fiction, I keep my poetry very close to the vest. One day, that will change.
  • The Memoir of Rus- I thought about doing this when I turned 50 (my writer-friend Bernadette did this as a series of reflective pieces, and it resonated deeply with me), but it never happened. I don’t think I need a particular anniversary or milestone birthday to share these; I do think, though, that I need to finish and share these essays comprising a larger picture of me sooner than later.

And then, of course, there are the collaborative works with Jodi and Adam here at the JAR that are always in line to be “next.” The Glass Marionette with Jodi is ready to embark on an adventurous turn as we surrender the continuation of the plot to the universe. The JAR Story with Jodi and Adam is nearly complete and ready for the world to enjoy in 2020. I’m also teaming up with Adam on a new work of fiction that evolves around metaphysical labyrinths.

The “next story” has always been, and will always be, in the works. Writing is not sterile, clean, or tidy when it comes to finishing one project and then beginning another. As Fossil Five makes its debut in this world, it just opens space for the next story to rise, much like a newly discovered patch of light in a forest of competing stories. Which one will reach the light first? Fill the space with outstretched leaves soaking up the sun and the energy to be the next?

We shall see. For now, I give light to all my works, and see each of them as having an equal chance to be “next” for my readers. If anything, I know — as I hope my readers do as well — that I will never stop writing, or sharing, my stories with the world.

 

3.3 A Deeper Discipline

For those of us who hike, or garden, or take long bike rides, we are deeply aware that there are two types of hikers, gardeners, and cyclists.

The first type is in it for the destination, whether that be a summit 26 miles away, a synchronized garden that maximizes each hour of sunshine without taxing the soil too much from its neighboring plants, or the end of a century ride that takes you around some of this world’s greatest natural wonders.

These types have their head down and are focused on what awaits them at the end of the journey. They are immensely happy (and proud) of their accomplishment, as they should be. They talk about what they might do differently to shave off a few minutes, or maximize the oxygen for the snap peas. It’s all about destination, and they are proud of crossing that finish line, regardless of the form it might take.

The second type is in it for the journey. They meander through the woods, observing the different bird calls, the tracks on the trail, and the variations of vegetation to discern exactly what kind of wildlife are nibbling at its branches.

The gardener embraces the feel of the soil on his finger tips as he digs a hole for a new seedling. He might even talk to it, breathing a little security-blanket oxygen its way.

The cyclist knows she has until 8 p.m. to reach her destination, so she wanders through the small towns, talking to the locals about what makes their little communities so personable, so resistant to the buzz of the bigger cities around them.

In short, this second type savors every step of the journey, and when they finally reach their destination, they are rich in telling stories about what they experienced along the way. There is no talk of the next trip or what they could do differently. To them, they are too immersed in the now, holding on to the words they shared with once-strangers.

When it comes to writing and discipline, I’ve been a little of both, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

The first type of disciplined writers have deadlines; they are focused, and they “put butt in chair” when they are supposed to. They turn in their work with confidence that they wrote a good piece, but they equally allow a smile to linger, knowing they made their deadlines — their destination — on or ahead of schedule.

Head down, do the work, meet the deadline. All good.

The second type of disciplined writers, however, don’t really do any of the things the first type does, except make (most) of their deadlines (more on this a bit later). These creatives are highly disciplined, but they are also a little scary. Let me explain.

It takes great discipline as a writer, as a creative, to “let go” in the journey of writing or creating, where there is room to wander with the characters or the image to see where they (or it) will take you. You remain fully immersed, disciplined, and focused; getting to the destination, however, might take a little longer than anyone might have liked.

And to you, that’s just fine.

Being disciplined in our writing, our creating, does not necessarily have to have that “get the job done” mentality. There is great and wondrous discipline in staying immersed in your work, expending insurmountable amounts of energy with the characters, and seeing where they take you in the story.

Ultimately, it’s being mindful enough to strike that balance between the two.

I’ve done solo projects with each approach, and I’ve learned from these experiences that there is nothing black and white about discipline when you are creating.

When our heads are down, we’re missing the little nuances that lead us to greater discoveries; likewise, when we let go entirely to see where the characters take us, we often find ourselves too far away from where we began, and with little hope or direction of finding our way back on to the blazed path that leads us to our natural and eventual home.

Understanding the deeper significance of our discipline allows us to let go, play, but stay close to the trail that leads us to our story’s natural conclusion. We need to be aware of what type of discipline we use in our crafting, and when.

And, as important, we cannot allow one form to tell the other that it is the lazy way out, or the wrong approach, or the wrong time. It’s important to get to the end, but it’s equally important to be deeply mindful of the journey along the way.