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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Stinky Writing: Using All Five Senses (Including Smell)

Writers often draw their readers into the imaginary world they've created through the use of descriptive language.  They do this by using sensory details, which should include all five of the senses:  sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.  I always thought that I had a tendency to focus solely on visual details, but in the past year I've realized something else.  I am obsessed with smells.

A description of the scent that wafts from a nearby bakery is included in the first paragraph of my contemporary YA novel, "The French Impressionist."  I discuss smell (or odors) quite often in my historical YA novel "The Digger," about a young boy who works digging up the recently dead to sell to medical schools.  And, in chapter one I include details regarding the odiferous properties of the slums where my protagonist is trapped in my latest historical "work in progress," (WIP,) which I call:  "Kenna's Close."

Hmmm...I suppose I am a bit obsessed with what my nose knows.

A while ago, a friend wrote about the use of sensory details in writing, as a prompt on her blog.  I wanted to try to include descriptions of all five senses in a writing exercise.  This is what I came up with:


“Bet you’re too scared to go in there.”

Addison’s words stung.  They rattled around in my brain and would pop up to hit me, hard, like those stupid brown grasshoppers that plonked against my legs as I crossed the dry grass out back.  All through breakfast my brother had whispered “coward,” so Mom wouldn’t hear.  I showed him a big mouthful of mushy, sugary, Fruit Loops to show I didn’t care, but I did.  He knew it.  Finally, when Mom left for work, I stuck my chin out and snuck out back to crawl through a gap in the fence that separates our house from the old Milford place.  If my big brother wasn’t too scared to go inside the town’s “haunted house,” I wouldn’t be either.  After all, I was nine years old.  I was too old to be scared.

The rusted knob rattled under my grasp but finally turned with a screech, like the old house was protesting against the intrusion.  The door opened toward me with a soft groan.   I felt like the house was breathing out its hot, stale breath all over me.  Old houses have a smell to them, and this place was no exception.  The odor of rotting wood and something almost sweet, like a summer garden filled with dying flowers, filled my nose and mouth, and I swear I tasted it.  Chewed on it.  I spat and shoved the neck of my Captain America t-shirt over my mouth and nose so all I could smell was the scent of Downey fabric softener and my own sweat.  Then, before I could change my mind, I hurtled inside, mega-fast, before ninety-seven year-old Mrs. Compton across the street could spy me through her lace curtains and call the cops.

This house was alive. 

 It creaked, it moaned, it popped and crackled, like Mrs. Compton when she tries to stand up in church.  What were all those sounds?  Was someone else in here?  After being out in the bright mid-summer sun, I was blind in this old, dim cave of a place.  My heart nearly pounded itself out of my chest, but after I blinked a few thousand times, I could finally see.  There was no one but me.  In fact, there wasn’t much at all to look at.  A front room with a low ceiling, an empty fireplace, pale circles and squares where pictures must have once hung on faded wallpaper that was printed with sickly-looking yellow roses.  Dust-covered floorboards displayed a set of footprints that led away from where I stood, on out into a hallway, where I spied a set of stairs.

“You gotta wave to me from THAT window,” Addison had told me with a sneer.  “If you don’t, I’ll know you’re chicken.”

The steps shivered under my bare feet.  I bounced up and down a bit to test them out, but they held my weight, so I crept upward, fast as I dared.  The treads were covered with threadbare carpet that may have been green at one time.  The carpet felt so gritty under my feet it was like walking on dirt.   Breathing harder, I got to the top where there was a small landing, and then another hallway stretched out in front of me.  Two doors on the left, one to my right, and one down at the end.  That was the room I needed to enter; the one that faced the back of our house and our kitchen window.  It’s where I’d find THAT window, the one where Addison insists he sees a face staring out sometimes, like a pale smudge on a sheet of black paper, at night when everyone else is asleep.

The knob was shiny.  I didn’t know why, but that kinda struck me as funny.  Everything else in this house is dusty or rusty, faded and ancient, but that doorknob was brand new. 

I swallowed and could still taste Fruit Loops.  

“Go on, Cam!  Get it over with!” I mumbled to myself, my mouth still muffled inside the neck of my shirt.  The hot, still air in this place was getting to me.  I wanted to leave as fast as I could and get back to the air-conditioned safety of my own room.  A trickle of sweat rolled down the side of my face, leaving a salty, itchy trail on my cheek.  Finally, pulling my shirt away from my face, I turned the knob and opened the door.

Then, I screamed and ran, blindly, stumbling my way down the stairs, through the front room and out onto the front porch. 

That was no empty room.


Well, that was fun.  :-)  As I was writing, I realized that I still tended to focus quite a bit on the visual properties of something, and then on the smell.  Old houses do have a particular odor, and true to my nature, I included descriptions of smell.

My new goal is to remember to include other sensory characteristics, including, in particular, touch and sound, when I write.  But I'll never forget to include how something smells, because for me, smell is where it's at.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Joys of Rejection (Note Sarcasm)

Rejection hurts.  We all know that!  We are rejected in many ways throughout our lives.  Ever develop a huge crush on someone, only to find out that the object of your affection was about as attracted to you as they might be to a jellyfish, a random pebble on the street, or a blob of mustard on your shirt?

Ever work extra hard on a school assignment, forgoing favorite TV shows or hanging out with friends because you were so determined to excel, then find you'd earned a nice, bland B grade?  Or a C?

Have you ever spent months working on the rough draft of a novel, then many more months revising, revising, revising?  And then, after that, have you ever spent perhaps more than a year attending writing conferences and workshops, and had writing group friends read and give feedback and suggestions, then continue to make even more changes to your manuscript?

THEN,  have you ever spent about eighteen months sending query letter after query letter to literary agents, hoping and praying that one of them would see something worthwhile in your novel, and maybe, just MAYBE want to represent you?  Only to receive rejection after rejection after rejection....

I have, and it's painful!  Why?  Because when a writer sends out queries, she is sending out the results of countless hours of effort, but not only that.  When I send out my work,  I am sharing a piece of my soul.  I'm not exaggerating, here!  Your novel, no matter how short or long, comes from somewhere deep inside, and when you put it on display for others to read, you are in a way baring your soul to the world.  It's like you've taken a metaphorical knife, sliced off a bit of the very essence of your being, and stuck it on a platter with a sprig of parsley.  You are vulnerable, because you are asking for something that you created, something that is entwined about your heart, to be weighed and judged. And therefore, you are opening yourself up to rejection.

Why do I keep doing this?  Today, I'm not so sure.  The last polite "no thanks" from an agent hurt.  It hurt because she loved my initial query letter and the concept of my novel.  She went so far as to say "I really liked what I've read so far" when she asked to read my entire manuscript.  This was the first request for a full manuscript I'd ever received and I was finally starting to feel hopeful.

But, of course, you know the result.  After a while, I got the "thanks but no thanks" email.  And, the dreaded "not connecting enough with the writing" phrase that I have started to see often whilst spending my time querying agents, to my great chagrin.  I realize that at some point I may have to let the dream of publishing this particular novel go.  And that hurts worse than a root canal, because I love my characters and my novel.  I feel like I have something important to say, and that others might feel that way, too.

Oh, well.  Dealing with rejection is character-building, right?  And, in case anyone was wondering, I haven't only written one novel.  I've written several, and have spent countless more hours revising these as well.  So, if I don't find an agent who wants to help poor Rosemary see the light of day, maybe they'll want to help one of my other characters join the world of published fiction.

I'll get over my disappointment, and as usual, I'll forge ahead.  I'll continue to write and try to make my work better and better.

But I'll do it tomorrow.  Today, only for today, I'm going to indulge in a mini pity party.  Don't worry if you hear me screaming "Mulder!!!" or:   "Scullyyyyy!!" if you pass by my house.  I'm just drowning my sorrows in a bucket of hot fudge while watching a few classic episodes of the X-Files. The cure for all ills.

Write on!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Kenna Seeks Her Revenge: AKA Here We Go Again, it's Nanowrimo Time!

Here I go again, thinking I can write historical novels.  I love research, and have no problem spending time perusing library shelves, doing Google searches or watching YouTube videos about 17th century women's fashions, Cromwell and the Puritans, or King Charles II and his many, many mistresses.  (Loser).  I've learned fascinating historical tidbits:  in the 1600's, men began to wear those long, curly, heinously unattractive wigs, thanks to King Louis XIV, who wanted to hide his shiny bald head.   The word "etiquette," meaning rules for proper behavior, comes from tiny signs ('etiquettes' in French) placed about the gardens of Versailles, reminding people to mind their manners, which included keeping off the grass, not trampling the flowers and picking up one's garbage.  Midwives wore read cloaks and had to swear an oath that they weren't practicing witchcraft. Doctors used to wear these long, birdish-looking leather masks with beak-like protrusions that were filled with aromatic herbs.  They did this to avoid catching the Bubonic Plague when treating victims of the horrible disease.  

Fun stuff!  My biggest problem?  The lingo of the time.  How did people communicate with one another who lived, say, in the poorest slums of Edinburgh, Scotland in the mid 1600's?  Is there a textbook somewhere?  

Google searches yield interesting and fun slang terms and sayings, but it's hard to know whether or not such words were in use more than 300 years ago.  I considered contacting some linguistics professor some where, who, perhaps, specializes in this kind of thing.  I can imagine the phone conversation now:  "I'm an unpublished, unknown wannabe writer who needs to find out how people used to speak and what slang terms they used in Scotland in the mid 1600's.  Can you help me?"  Hmm....  I haven't taken that particular route, yet.  

Well, I decided to take the plunge, anyway, thanks to the fact that November is "National Novel Writing Month," or "nanowrimo" for short.  This time of year just seems to lend itself well to parking yourself in front of your laptop and typing away, while the wind howls outside and you can sip all the hot chocolate or peppermint tea you'd like, while writing fake, historically inaccurate dialogue that makes you cringe.

So, here's my first chapter.  Kenna comes from a well-off family, but after the death of her sister, she finds herself trapped in what she calls "The Close," a warren of narrow passages and alleys between tall tenement buildings in the heart of Edinburgh, Scotland.  As you can tell from the opening paragraph, she's ticked and plans her revenge.  :-)

And, if anyone has any suggestions or comments about that whole 17th century "genuine Scottish lingo" issue, feel free to comment!


by Rebecca Bischoff


If I find Oliver, I will plunge my knife into his heart.  I won’t trifle with powders or potions, the method he surely used to murder his wife.  I will not allow myself the luxury of watching him die by inches, as pain fills his wretched soul.  What I have learned in this filthy place echoing with the squeal of rats and moans of the starving is that I will only have one chance.  One blow, no more.  I must not falter. 

I only want to see Oliver’s life breath leave his body.  Then my sister is avenged.

Annie murmurs and fidgets in her sleep.  I place a hand on her forehead, and my light touch is enough.  She quiets and her breathing slows.  This child, with eyes that are pools of clear water and a tangle of hair that hangs over her round face like a matted curtain, clung to me the moment she saw me.  I could not bear to push her away.  Not in a place like this.  Here, Annie cannot survive without me. 

Yet, it’s not likely I myself will survive this place much longer.  The Close is my prison, and has been these past few days.  If I am to live, and if I am to have my revenge, I must find a way out.

Dawn approaches.  I can tell by the feel in the air.  Light doesn’t truly penetrate here in the Close, except for a few brief moments at midday when the sun is directly overhead, but early morning there is a gradual lessening of the darkness, as though someone has pushed aside a curtain that covers a filthy window and allowed a few weak rays to filter inside a room. 

Careful not to disturb Annie, I rise from my bed, and nearly laugh aloud that I could think of it as such.  My bed is no more than a worn spot on the cobbles, a tiny space of sorts between two buildings and behind a rotten barrel left there long ago.  It is where this child and I huddle at night.  It is a refuge, away from prying eyes, out of reach of the slops thrown at all hours from the upper windows.  Hidden we must remain, especially at night, when The Watchman wanders up and down, up and down, his footsteps interminable, echoing.  He must not find us.  

Stretching aching bones, I feel my shoulders sag at memories which never cease torment me when I arise.   I remember no dreams.  Yet I must sleep in snatches during my exhausted stupor each long night as I huddle with the child and clutch the knife inside my pocket, not willing to let it go for a moment.  I suppose this is when I see visions of the past, for these thoughts hurt me so each time I awaken.  Feather beds.  Clean linens that smell of lavender.  Plentiful food.  A hot fire.  .
I take a deep breath and wrinkle my nose at the smells that invade my being.  I’m not yet used to the stench here.  Our latrine at home never smelled this bad.  Mrs. Harris kept it clean by pouring lime into it each week.  Drains carried away slops and kitchen scraps from the main house to the river.  Our home smelled of herbs and rushes scattered on the floors, which were swept away each night and replaced each morning.

The Close smells of human waste and the shells of those who were left where they died.  The Body Men have not been sent in.  Cries for help are ignored.

“Kenna?” Annie says.  She sounds startled.

“Hush,” I whisper, turning back to kneel beside her.  “I’m here.”

“Hungry,” she says.  Her voice is not plaintive.  She knows as well as I that hunger is our faithful companion.  Its claws never let go. 

“Let’s go, then,” I say, helping her to her feet.  She clutches her doll and smiles at me, and I force my face into what I hope is a cheerful expression.  I adjust my dress, tightening the laces of the bodice and scratching at my sweaty, dirty skin.  My hair must look much as Annie’s does, though I’ve tried to keep it braided and off my face.

We ease past the barrel and pick our way into the street.  All is quiet, except for the squalling of the babe from somewhere a few stories above our heads.  The little one cries most of the time.  I’ve grown used to the sound.  Annie cradles her doll, a few scraps of fabric fallen from a clothesline high above that I’d wrapped around a bit of wood, and shushes it.   My heart turns over for a moment.  Where is her family?  No one I have asked claims her, nor do they know from whence she came.  It is as though this child, like me, does not belong in the Close.  Yet, I cannot care for her.  I can hardly care for myself.  I must find her family, or someone to take her in.
Hearing footsteps approach, I pull Annie to my side and sweep into a doorway.  Unfortunately, someone else was there before us.

“Shove off,” a rough voice grunts, and a hard fist punches me in the side.  Gasping for air, I back away, trying to apologize but unable to form words.

Annie whimpers as we move off, stumbling along uneven cobbles.  I turn back, straining to see who approaches in the pale darkness of early morning.
A doorway opens and flickering light allows me a glimpse of the pitted face of Mr. Shaw, the baker.  He is not one I’d wish to encounter alone.  He saw me, the second day after my arrival here. Faint after nearly a day with no food, I'd snatched a loaf from the window when his back was turned.  I am certain he knows what I did.

His shop is at the opposite end of the Close, nearly a mile away.  He’s carrying what appears to be a heavy parcel in his arms, and his eyes dart about as though he fears something.  I know the look; I see it in the faces of everyone here.  I suppose I wear that expression most of the time as well. 

The door closes and Shaw passes us by as we back away and press ourselves to the side of the building.  He pays us no mind and I’m about to move on but at that moment, a hand seizes my foot and I cry out.  Looking down, I see that someone has reached out from between the bars of a low window.  I stumble and barely keep my footing, as two hands now have a tight grip on my ankle.

Don’t be alarmed, pretty lass.  Fancy coming down here to give me a bit of company?  I’ll share my ale with you.”

Let me be,” I blurt, tugging and straining in vain against the ever-tightening grip.  Annie begins to cry.

“Use your blade, girl,” a familiar rough voice grunts.  The person from the doorway who hit me!  Why should he wish to assist us?  Yet, with a gasp of relief, I remember my knife.  I’ve not yet had occasion to use it, but circumstances appear to warrant its use, and quick.

The hands release me the moment I begin to slash at the clutching fingers.  Howls emit from the low window as I hurry Annie away from the spot. 

“Best to stay on t’other side from now on when you pass by here,” the voice says.  “And keep your knife at the ready.”

“Thanks,” I manage to breathe.  Annie clings to my side and I try to comfort her best as I can while still clutching my knife, wary of my so-called protector, the one who punched me only moments before.  I pray he can’t see how I tremble head to foot.

“You’ve naught to eat I warrant?  That child is like to blow away in a gust of wind,” the man says.  “Come.”  

He returns to his doorway and I hear the scrape and click of a key turning in a lock.  I remain where I am, unsure, but Annie tugs at my skirts, and my stomach is as empty as the old, long abandoned chapel at the end of the street, so reluctantly, I follow.

Inside, the man lights a taper and sets it on a low wooden table.  He shuffles to another room and I look about me, keeping one hand on the knife and another on Annie’s shoulder, ready to flee at any moment.  No telling what my protector really wants.  It’s what I’ve learned in the Close these past few days.  Trust no one.

The room is bare and worn.  The stone walls weep with moisture and cold seeps through to my bones.  I’ve yet to see a fire here, though I know everyone must feel the chill as I do.  Winter will be upon us soon.  We must not remain here when the snows come.  How will we survive then, out in the street?

“Sit,” the man grunts, as he shuffles back into the room carrying a trencher of bread and cheese.  My mouth waters at the sight.  With a cry, Annie darts over and seizes a bit of bread, stuffing it into her mouth.

“Easy, little mouse,” the man chuckles.  “Go slow or it will like as not come back out.  I know that kind of hunger.”

“Do you,” I venture to ask, reaching with a shaky hand for a bit of cheese.  I wolf it down in a manner that I know would have shocked my genteel sister, so proper and dignified.  Pushing away the memory of her face, I reach for another piece.

“Aye,” the man says.   Then he takes his own bit of bread and sits, ignoring us as he munches. 

I study the man by the light of the candle.  Close-cropped white hair caps his skull like a pile of fine, ashy snow.  Lined and rough, his face is much like that of everyone around here, and yet there is something in his bearing that seems…proud?  Happy?  No, that cannot be!  Not here!  Yet, the man’s thin shoulders are not bowed, though it is apparent he has lived long years.  He is not worn down by the poverty and despair that cows so many who live here.  His face, though crinkled as a shriveled potato and red with cold, is calm.  No darkness clouds his countenance.  Instead, his eyes, peering out as they do from between folds of ancient skin, glow a startling, sapphire blue. 

I do not understand this.  People here are…angry.  Angry and poorer than the dirt beneath their feet.

I used to come here; well, I correct myself as I seize another bit of bread, I used to come to the head of the street at the entrance to the Close.  It was up the hill near Shaw’s bakery, where I would go with my sister Cinaed to hand out food from the baskets Mrs. Harris would prepare on Sundays.  We were proud to say that we fed the poor.  I used to shrink from the grabbing, dirt-encrusted fingers that reached for the pitiful offerings we so officiously gave. 

Now, my own filthy hands are grateful for any bit of food they can find.

A wheezy chuckle interrupts my musings.

“You dinnae belong here,” the man says, dipping his head at me.

“How do you know?” I say, keeping my fingers curled about the knife that rests in my lap.

“I know who you are, Poisoner.  We all do.  You’re that lass what murdered her sister up in New Town.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

Index Cards, Glue Sticks, and Google Earth: My Eclectic Creative Process

I’ve loved books all my life, and about seven years ago, I decided that I wanted to move from being solely a reader to trying my hand at writing.  So, I signed up for an online class and began to write short stories and articles.  Then, not long after I began the class, I decided that I wanted to write a novel.  It was a crazy, kind of half-embarrassed, secret desire that I’d kept hidden for a long time.  I wanted to be a “Writer,” and a real Writer, with a capital W, was in my mind someone who wrote novels.

So, I started.  And I stopped.  Then, in a month or so, I started again.  And I stopped.  And so it went, for about a year.

At that point, I began to worry that I’d convinced myself to do something that was simply beyond my capacities.  Who was I to think that I could write a book?  But I kept trying.  I ended up taking a one-day workshop at a local community college where the instructor, a published author, shared some of her techniques that helped her plan her novels.  She had this silly-sounding suggestion about novel writing.  You start with an idea, and start to brainstorm from there.  Using  a pile of index cards, you write down an idea for a single scene on each card.  Then, once you’ve come up with all you can think of at the moment, you organize your cards   Voila!  Instant novel outline!

Yeah, right, I though.  But I gave it a try.  And, presto, change-o, a la peanut butter sandwiches, it worked for me!  Ideas that had been percolating and simmering in my brain for a while gelled and I was able to write down a whole bunch of genuine scenes and/or action sequences that somehow worked with my original story idea.  I added cards for possible characters and character names, and used cards to list setting ideas for various scenes as well.  I taped them onto the wall next to the computer.  My husband thought I was weird.  But I got my first novel written.  An entire draft of a novel!  Thirty-three chapters!  59,000 words.  I was thrilled.

I won’t go into great detail as to how I revised this novel.  That would take far too long.  Suffice it to say that my novel-writing habit was born.   A few other tricks have worked well and stuck with me.  I’m a very visual person, who likes to imagine what her characters look like, brainstorm random things like what they might carry in their pockets or what their favorite food is, and I also love to scrapbook.  So, I now create “binders” for each novel I write.  I search free photo sites and find pics of people whom I think most match what my characters look like in my head, and create my own fake book covers.  Enter the glue sticks!  (Acid free, of course). 


I use copious quantities of index cards and sticky notes to keep track of where my story is heading or new ideas that pop into my brain, and use the binder to keep all of my notes and research.  Then, when my draft is done, I print the book out in tiny font and put that into the binder as well.  That printed draft is a revision tool I use to help me fix what needs a’fixin’, y’all.  I read my work out loud and take notes for changes I want to make.  I love my binders!

I’ve also developed a new, odd research habit when I write.  I like to choose a setting and use Google Earth to view satellite images of the actual place.  Weird, I know, and I feel a bit like a virtual peeping Tom, but it works well for me.  Even if I’m writing a historical novel, I still Google the place where my story occurs and take “screen shots,” capturing images of the layout of the landscape.  That way, I know that my main character will soon hit foothills and then tall mountains if he heads south when trying to escape, how far the ocean might be from another main character’s front door, or whether or not the view from the house will likely be of a thick forest, red-tiled rooftops, or a whole lot of desert.

These techniques may or may not work for you, but they have for me.  I’ve now written and extensively revised three novels, have somewhat non-extensively revised a fourth, and am in the middle of writing a fifth book.  (I don’t count an incomplete draft that was meant to be a parody of Wuthering Heights.  Luckily, I realized that I needed to jump from that sinking ship). 

I remain, as of yet, a “pre-published” author.  (Insert smiley face here).  But I continue to send out queries to agents, and so far have two agents who have requested to read the full manuscript of one of my books.  Who knows?  Maybe my binders, my scrapbooking and my fanatical use of glue sticks will one day result in seeing one of my books on a bookstore shelf. 

Or not. But I’ll still keep writing.  The index card and glue stick industries depend on me.



Friday, July 25, 2014

She's My Daughter, Not My BFF

I love books and so does my eleven year old daughter.  Over the past few years I’ve introduced her to many of my favorites and am always thrilled when she loves a story that’s dear to me.  When she was younger, I loved to read Winnie the Pooh out loud and see her smile.  As she grew older, she graduated to the Harry Potter series and the Chronicles of Narnia.  She loves these books and I’m so glad she does.
But all is not well for us in Literature Land.  I love historical novels, she hates them.  Immensely.  Why?  “They’re boring.”  So much for getting her to read “The Island of the Blue Dolphins,” or “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” books that shaped my childhood.  Sniff.   Even worse, my daughter loves a series of books called “Warriors,” about clans of cats living in the forest who are constantly at war with each other.  Yes, this series truly exists, and it’s popular.  Do I like those books?  Well….not so much. 

This used to bother me, until I realized something.  There’s a fine line between sharing what you love with your child and trying to make your child into a little “Mini Me.”  No matter how hard we might try to make them exactly like us, our children have their own minds and unique personalities, and won’t like everything their parents do.  Odd, I know.
So, lately I’ve noticed that other parents seem to be trying to do exactly what I was trying to do with my daughter.  Examples? 

Sure, but keep in mind these are generalizations, gleaned from many online posts I’ve seen lately, not based on any specific person.  Really.  J

“My 2  year-old just loves to watch "The Lord of the Rings."  It’s his favorite movie, and he can’t even say the title yet.  It’s so cute.”

Cute, maybe.  But even if he really DOES love that movie, is it something he SHOULD be watching at his age? 
“Here’s little Ewan with his Dad, heading out for another Civil War reenactment.  Doesn’t he look precious in his costume?

Precious, yes.  Happy?  No.

Or:  “My 8 year old daughter and I loved all the Twilight books and now we can’t wait to see "Breaking Dawn" together.”

Um…ew.  Again, is that a movie your 8 year old really should be seeing?  Even if she WANTS to see it?

I’m old enough that the term “BFF” (best friends forever) was not an entry in the Dictionary of Modern Slang  when I was a child.  I was introduced to that term by my daughter who has her own BFF’s, all girls her age.  At times, my daughter and her BFF’s laugh at things that are completely incomprehensible to me.  And they often laugh at me.  This is exactly as it should be. 


Because I’m the Mom.  My daughter is not a perfect copy of me.  She’s her own person AND she needs time to grow up and mature at a pace that is right for her, not in a fast forward mode forced upon her by parents who want to be “buddies” with their kids.

So, sometimes my daughter and I do fun things together.  We cuddle and giggle while we watch another of Studio C’s hilarious takes on Harry Potter.  Then, there are times when she slams the door and pouts when I remind her that she hasn’t practiced piano yet or finished all of her homework. 

I love her, but she’s not my BFF.  And that’s okay with me.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Write What You Know...Yeah, Right!

I hear “write what you know” all the time.  I hear it quite often from people who don’t write at all but who want to share their opinions with me and this is typically Advice Snippet Number One they share when imparting their wisdom.  I’ve heard this phrase on TV and I know I’ve likely read it many times on writing blogs, articles, and in the many books on writing that are out there.  Know what?  It’s always bugged me, but I couldn’t figure out why until recently, thanks to Pinterest.  Yes, Pinterest.  Yes, I’m on there.  A lot.  But anyway…

A writer friend recently pinned this quote:  “I want to be very clear about this:  if you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems.    Writers write from empathy.”  Nikki Giovanni

Yes!!  That’s it!!!  I felt pretty silly that I didn’t figure this one out before.  Maybe I never “got it” because I spend too much time on Pinterest looking up the Next Greatest Recipe for cheesy chicken enchiladas that will make my life complete, but I’d never been able to move past the guilt-ridden, slightly embarrassed feeling that I was a terrible fraud for not “Writing What I Know.”   I set novels in cities I’ve never been to and in time periods I’ve not personally experienced, and I write characters who are nothing like me.  (Thank goodness.)  Well, all I can say is after reading the above quote, the way I write and the things I write began to make much more sense to me. 

Writers write from empathy.  Of course they do!!  Does Nicholas Sparks know what it’s like to be a woman in love?  Does Stephen King know what it’s like to be a vicious killer?  Does Stephanie Meyer know what it’s like to be a sparkly vampire?  Does Alan Bradley know what it’s like to be a snarky, precocious eleven-year old girl genius?  Does Suzanne Collins know what it’s like to shoot another human being with a bow and arrow?  I truly hope not, on all counts.

What these and all writers understand is the human condition.  They know love in its many forms.  They know fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, the threat of violence.  They understand what it’s like to have dreams that are unfulfilled and still sought after, the desire for acceptance.  They understand hope.

I can now breathe a sigh of relief and go right on creating characters who don’t live where I live, look like me or have the same opinions.  Even better, I can make up a new world if I want to, or write about a place I’ve always wanted to go.   Why?  Because I’m a human being and I can create an entire universe using my imagination and my ability to empathize with others. 

So…it’s okay for me to Google 17th century Japanese samurai, the city of Nice, France, advances in nanotechnology, or late 19th century body-snatching practices for something I’m writing.  It’s okay for me, a soft-spoken woman, to create characters who are loud-mouthed and obnoxious.  It’s okay for me to create male, female, white or black (or whatever race I want them to be) characters.  It’s okay for me to write about people who lived millennia ago or eons in the future.  It’s okay because I’ve give myself permission to create them.  It’s okay because I’m a writer, and writers don’t have to “write what they know.”

I feel validated.  Yay for Pinterest!


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Quirky Southern Characters...Y'all.

I don't mind MG or YA books set in the American South.  Truly.  But, well, I lately I began to grow a little tired of them.  The catfish is deep fried, the weather is hot and muggy, and Billy Bob is goin' fishin', while his Mamma Mizz MaryLou Boudreaux is headin' on down to the Piggly Wiggly with her curlers still in her hair.  A slow, lazy river is sure to be nearby, with a picturesque steamboat chugging along, or everyone will be heading to the track for the races (horse races, Nascar, weiner dog races, etc.)  Sooner or later, a hurricane will blow in.

Now, the South is a great place for a novel's setting.  It almost becomes another character itself in the book.  Take: "To Kill a Mockingbird," for example, or "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ©."  But at this point in my life, after having read many, many books, (and hoping to read many more), all the "quirky Southern stereotypes" began to get to me.  Book after book, they all seemed to be the same. 

The characters would have: 
1.  an unusual name
2.  an unusual job or life situation
3.  unusual problems
4.  some kind of bizarre neurological tic, resulting in the excessive use of the word:  "y'all" and     clever, quaint, yet wise sayings
5.  hot, muggy weather-related difficulties

Enter a writer named Sheila Turnage.  I'd not heard of her books, but my eleven year old handed me the MG novel: "Three Times Lucky," and said, "You'll love this one, Mom."  I took a quick glance at it.  It's set in the American South, in a tiny, dare I say "quirky" town in North Carolina.  The town is Tupelo Landing.  Population:  128 (minus 1 for murder).

A warning light flashed in my brain. 

The main character is a girl named Moses LoBeau, or "Mo," for short. 

The warning bells began to sound, along with the flashing lights.

Mo has a best friend, Dale (Earnhardt Johnson III), is in love with Dale's big brother, ahem, Lavender, and lives with her unusual family, consisting of "The Colonel," and Miss Lana, who have unofficially adopted her ever since she washed up onshore as an infant after a hurricane.  Hence the name Moses.  Hence, my desire the throw the book as far from me as I could, as the Red Alert signal now screamed inside my head.

But I trust my daughter.  She loved the book, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Well, shut my mouth and slather me in molasses!

The book was fantastic.  And yes, it had all of those annoying "Southerific characteristics" that I tend to grow bored with, but Mo's voice is fun, silly, sassy and sweet, clever and authentic.  She becomes entangled in a murder since her friend Dale is the main suspect and decides to solve the mystery herself.  Thus the "Desperado Detective Agency" is formed by Dale and Mo, an eleven-year old girl or "rising sixth grader" as she calls herself. 

I guess I learned something.  I may decide that I'm "done" with a particular genre, and I kind of consider the "strong sassy Southern girl" type to be a genre in and of itself.  However, the wonderful thing about books is that sooner or later, something comes along that will make you change your mind.  Ms. Turnage is a great writer who makes every word count, and I loved her story. 

I will eat my words.  Y'all.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How a Writer who Doesn't Officially Exist Turned Me into a Crazed, Pinterest Party Mom

Erin Hunter does not exist.  I’m glad, because if she did, I’d probably hate her.  Hate is a strong word, I know, but as a wannabe author who has yet to have her first novel published, I cringe at the sight of entire library shelves full of books by a single author.  Now, I’m not talking about any author, big-name or otherwise, who has been writing for fifteen or twenty years or more.  I expect that within that length of time, any writer worth his or her weight in printer ink and cheap copy paper will have had the chance to churn out a volume or two.  John Grisham?  No bad feelings, there.  But I’m talking about Erin Hunter, who, starting in 2003, has written a semi-sized truck-load of books within a relatively short period of a few years.   Knowing what I do about how slow-going things can be in the publishing world, I couldn’t help feeling more than a little put out.  I mean, how the heck does any writer manage to publish a total of 53 novels, 16 manga, 6 “Field Guides” and 8 eBooks within a measly eleven years???

Well, in the case of Erin Hunter, I found I didn’t have to feel quite so intimidated.  Erin Hunter is the pen name of not one, but four writers who mainly live in England.  These four women, along with an editor, churn out the uber-popular “Warriors” series that initially caused me such angst. 

Whew.  Boy, was I relieved to learn that Erin was a fake!  Why?  First of all, because my daughter loves Erin’s (aka “her” x 4) books.  Second:  I secretly enjoy reading “Erin’s” books myself.  That’s why!    

Okay, so these books are about cats.  That’s right.  Warrior cats.  Laugh all you want.  I know I did the first time my then 3rd-grader brought her first Warriors book home.  In “Into the Wild,” Rusty the house cat leaves his comfortable home and joins with a “clan” of cats who live in the forest and becomes a warrior like the rest of them.  He ends up earning his “warrior name,” (Fireheart) and eventually ends up ruling his clan as leader, becoming Firestar.  Hoo boy.   Well, as cringe-worthy as this may sound, it’s really not all that bad.  Throughout the series, you meet many well-developed characters in the form of rather human-like “warrior kitties” as I like to call them.  These kitties tell stories about courage, survival, betrayal, trust, loyalty, good and evil, and learning to believe in yourself.  You even get a few not overly gag-inducing love stories that ring true.  And, there are more than enough fight scenes for any reader who craves action. 

All I can say is that the books are well-written, and they’re written by someone(ahem, plural) with an obvious affinity for nature, all things feline, a love of mythology and an interest in the spiritual beliefs of early cultures who prayed to their ancestors and sought direction from the stars.  If your child wants to give the books a try, the Warriors series just might be what gets him or her hooked on reading.

Here’s where my life turned all Pinterest-y. 

My fifth-grader is still hooked on her beloved warrior kitty cats.  I swore I’d never do it, but…I did.  I turned into the crazy, Pinterest Party Mom who planned her child’s birthday bash with a theme, down to the last detail.  Hence, the “fresh kill pile,” the “moon pool water,” (which won’t make sense unless you’ve read the books), the strawberry mice, the goldfish and the pile of “bones,” along with the cake decorated with warrior cat clan symbols.  Wow.  I’m so embarrassed.

But my daughter loved it.  And I love her, which is why I did all this in the first place.  And I don’t hate Erin Hunter, as much as I’d like to, since she’s four writers, (plus editor), not one. 

All this got me to thinking.  Why not a party for myself, or my husband, based on some of our favorite books?  Next year, I’m voting for Harry Potter-themed party.  Bring on the butterbeer! 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Emotion vs. Action Plots and Why Sandra Bullock Rocks!

I don’t go to sci fi movies armed with a wad of tissues, ready for the waterworks the way I do when I watch the latest tear-jerker screen adaptation of a Jane Austen novel.  I basically assume that my dignity will be intact when I leave the theatre after watching a good intergalactic shootout.  Aliens?  Light sabers?  Pass the popcorn, please.  No Kleenex for me, thanks.

Then, I heard that a sci-fi film had scored ten (!!) Oscar nominations, including nods for music, special effects, best actress and best picture.  Those involved in making this film walked away with seven of those little golden statues.  This was, according to the perky Hollywood entertainment reporter, a Very Big Deal because usually, sci-fi films are scorned by the Oscars.  The film is “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. 

Now, I’d heard of it, but had never even considered watching it, because, well, it stars George Clooney.  I won’t go into my many and rather childish reasons; I’m simply stating this fact in order to explain why I never intended to see that film.  Ever.  But, my curiosity was peeked.   I mean, special effects in movies are pretty spectacular all around, now, thanks to how everything is computer generated.  So these effects, I thought, had to be outstanding.  Presence of “The Clooney” or no, I decided to watch the film.

The effects were, in fact, amazing.  The action was relentless and nail-biting, and lo and behold, (spoiler alert), Clooney’s character dies.  Oh, yeah!  But something even greater happened.  The writing was fantastic in this film!  Not only were we, the viewers, taken on quite an adrenaline ride, but we were given a solid, substantial emotional plot via Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, a woman struggling with the loss of her only child.  While the action intensified and the stakes grew higher and higher, Sandra’s character struggled not only in a physical sense, but in emotional and psychological ways as well as she was forced to confront her grief.   And as events came to their climax, the emotional plot came to fruition.  Sniff.  I scrambled for my tissue box. 

So well done!  As someone who has enjoyed many sci-fi movies in my day, and who has also been forced to watch quite a few “B grade” action movies, I was impressed.  The filmmakers did something that I’ve been trying to do in my own writing.  I try to weave elements of the emotional growth of my characters into the action of the story, so that I demonstrate how they grow and change, based on not only events but their reactions to those events and their choices.  For gifted writers, that may be easy, but for me, it’s not. 

So, back to that “tear-jerker” comment I made previously.  Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice” is considered brilliant for so many reasons, including how well she demonstrates the emotional growth of her characters, woven throughout the action and events of her story.  Take Lizzie  Bennett 's and Mr. Darcy’s story and throw them into the future and the emotional elements of that story still ring true.  So, I have a suggestion.  Someone in Hollywood take note:  I want to see yet another remake of “Pride and Prejudice,” but this time, it takes place on a starship.  Mr. Darcy in space?  It could happen.  Just don’t cast George Clooney in this movie, please.  Unless his character dies.


Friday, March 14, 2014

How Much is Too Much Bling??

I love a mystery and YA writer named Alane Ferguson.  She’s a talented author, a fantastic storyteller and an all-around great human being.  She spoke a couple of years ago at a writing conference I attended in Boise, and I knew right then and there not only did I want to be able to write like her, I wanted to BE her.   Obsessive?  Yes.  Moving on…

I learned some great writing tips that day.  Tips for avoiding repetitious words, great ideas for successful revisions, and fun ways to brainstorm.  I also remember being warned that there is such a thing as “too much bling” in writing. 

“Bling?” You say?  What does that have to do with writing?

Picture any middle school or high school English class and what the students learn about the wonderful alchemy of language.  Similes and metaphors, and all kinds of powerful comparisons.  Alliteration, consonance, assonance and dissonance.   Think of contrasts, exaggerations or emphasis;  anything that turns prose from dry, crumbly textbook reading to a snappy, fun roller coaster ride of a read. 

Alane warned us that too much “bling” is essentially the overuse of any of these magical devices that writers use to make their writing rich and beautiful.  Too much of it actually takes away from the reading experience.  A writer could come across as pompous, or someone who is “trying too hard.”

I don’t think too much “writing bling” has ever been my problem.  I don’t usually attempt to write with a lot of bling, because when I do, hoo boy, do I regret it!  The so-called bling I write ends up looking like cheap dollar-store plastic baubles, in comparison to so many authors I read.  Their bling?  Compared to mine, theirs is more like the real-deal, 100-carat diamond “pretties” the Trumpmeister likes to use to decorate his latest trophy wife.

Now, back to Alane Ferguson and my obsessive nature!  One of Alane’s fun little tips and tricks was this:  take a handful of those little paint strips from your local “mega home DIY” store and use the manufacturers’ creative names for various shades of paint to help you come up with more vivid descriptions in your writing.  Perfect!  I thought.  Like I said, I can’t do bling.

Off to Home Depot I ran.  I happily depleted their supplies of paint strips and toddled off to my home office, where I spread the strips out and began searching for the perfect words to describe a character’s boring, non-descript blue eyes, or brown eyes, or a summer sky, or a wintry setting, etc.

I found the following:

For shades of blue:  Blueberry Pie Blue.  Blue Lagoon.  Azure Sky.  Aegean Blue.  Spring Melt.  Waterfall.  Mount Ranier. 

For shades of yellow to brown:  Egg Yolk.  Almond Butter.  Tahini.  Lunch Bag.

Um….okay.  So I tried.  “His eyes were blue as the Aegean Sea.”  Okay, not that bad.  If I were writing about a Greek character, or about a setting near the Aegean Sea, I can see how that could work.  But so many of the others?  “As he wept, his eyes were like Mount Ranier during a Spring Melt, smoky blue and just as wet.”  Whoa, that was bad!  Or, how about:  “His eyes were the color of a brown lunch bag, after it’s been crumpled and stained with blobs of mayo.”  Yeah, that’s a good one!  Not!

So I pretty much gave up on the “paint strip as writing aid” thing.  I put my rather large stash of paint sample strips to good use, though.  I find the worst ones and come up with the most awful comparisons I can think of and create birthday cards for my writing friends.  After all, why waste a good paint strip when it gives you such phrases as:  “Chasing Chocolate,” “Sliced Avocado,” and “Dried Oregano?”

Visit Alane Ferguson’s website at and check out her books.  In my opinion, she's got just the right amount of bling. :-)






Friday, February 21, 2014

How Creepy is Too Creepy?

I'll admit that I like "semi-scary" stuff on occasion when I read.  I don't like blood and gore, nor do I like something that's going to cause me nightmares, but I do like to be, shall I say, "startled" on occasion by reading a good Gothic story or a well-written mystery novel.  Hence, my first book was a YA paranormal novel.  Now, I'm attempting to write a historical novel that's about a rather gruesome subject; that of stealing bodies from their graves to sell to medical schools.  This was a common practice in the United States throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the East where medical schools abounded.  Students were sometimes required to "provide" their own cadavers for dissection and study, and fresh bodies were in demand but difficult to come by.  Only a very few bodies were legally allowed to be used by schools for study, including those of executed criminals and unclaimed corpses.  Schools often paid high prices for fresh cadavers and asked few, if any, questions as to where the bodies were procured. 

I've worried and wondered as I work on this.  Where is the line between "okay creepy" that maybe sends a few shivers down your spine and the "whoa, that was way too gross/disgusting/horrifying and now I'm going to have nightmares for the rest of my life" kind of scary?   Especially when the intended audience consists of kids?

I think that line is different for everyone.  That's why I worry.

Anyway, I've decided to post the first chapter of my current "work in progress," which I call:  "The Digger."  It takes place in Circleville, Ohio, in the late 1800's, and centers around a twelve year-old boy, Cap Cooper, who finds himself working along with his father, Noah, as a "resurrectionist," or one who steals bodies of the recently dead for profit.  Here goes, and feel free to tell me if it grosses you out!  I won't feel too bad, I promise!


By:  Rebecca Bischoff


Resurrecting the dead is hard work.

Cap heard his father’s words in his head as he hesitated, silent, feeling a throbbing inside his chest.   His heart felt as if it barely had room to move within him, much as Cap himself felt, squeezed inside a hole hardly bigger than he was.  The head of the coffin was inches away.  He couldn’t see it since there was no room for the shuttered lamp inside the tunnel they’d dug, but he could feel the splintery wood with his fingers.  He gulped a mouthful of damp air that smelled of dirt and decay.  Gripping his hammer more tightly, he began to work to open the thin wood of the pauper’s coffin.

“Hurry, boy,” hissed a voice from the entrance to the tunnel.  The ugly, guttural tones belonged to Lum, his father’s friend.  “He’ll make enough noise to wake the dead from here to New York City,” the man muttered.

Cap felt his stomach clench itself into a tiny, cold ball.  It always did whenever he heard Lum speak of him.  But a moment later he heard his father’s voice. 

"Cap can do it," Noah, answered.   “You'll see.  He’s smarter than most his age and as brave as any boy I’ve ever known.”

Hearing his father’s words brought a renewed sense of determination.  Cap continued his work, tapping the square head of the box to locate where the thin slabs of wood were nailed together.   Hearing the metallic ‘ping’ of metal on metal, he felt with his hands until he found the head of the nail, then worked to pry it loose.  A drop of sweat rolled down the side of his forehead as he continued, prying away the nails one by one.  Then, it was done.  Cap pulled away the small, square head of the wooden coffin and shoved it behind him.  He realized he was holding his breath.  Resurrecting the dead is also smelly work, and Cap dreaded that particular hazard to his family business more than any other.

“What did I tell you,” he heard his father murmur from the head of the tunnel, pride coloring the notes of his voice.

Cap released air from his burning lungs.  He had to breathe.  Tucking his neckerchief around his mouth and nose, he breathed in through his mouth, trying not to think of anything but finishing his task and getting out of the tunnel.  Now was the real test.  Reaching behind him, he groped for the thick rope they’d brought along.  Bringing it around in front of him, he slowly stretched trembling fingers through the opening in the coffin.  After an eternal moment, where his body seemed to shake from head to toe, his fingertips touched a head of thick, soft hair.  Cap swallowed again, fighting against every impulse in him that wanted to wrench away his hand, scrabble backwards out of his makeshift tunnel and flee out into the open night air.

He remembered his father’s words when Noah first introduced his son to the “real” family business.  “The dead don’t mind, son, they’re dead,” his father told him.  “We’re doing this world a favor.  Doctors must know how we’re put together, now, don’t they?” 

Fighting against the violent tremors that now shook him all over, Cap brought the rope forward and worked it around the head and shoulders of the unresisting body, moving the rope under the arms.  The flesh of the corpse was soft, its limbs easy to move.  For all he knew, this person could simply be asleep.  Long braids tangled in his fingers. 

A woman! Cap realized.  God almighty, it’s a woman!

He couldn’t help picturing his mother, home in bed, sick with fever, swollen with another child that would probably be born too soon, like all the others.  His mother braided her hair when she went to bed.

Stop it, Cap! he told himself harshly.  Do your duty.  This isn’t Mamma!  Father needs your help and we need the money!

With renewed strength, Cap knotted the rope and gave the signal, a high-pitched whistle.  Grunting softly, the men outside the tunnel began to pull on their end of the rope, Cap helping as best he could as he scooted out backwards, his own hands clasping the rough woven fibers.  Slowly, inch by inch, the woman slipped out of her eternal rest, through the tunnel and into the black autumn night of the cemetery. 

Free from his narrow confinement, Cap stood and stretched stiff legs, gulping crisp air that smelled of rotting leaves.  The cloud-covered midnight sky that blanketed the sleeping cemetery was not quite so dark, he realized, as the thick blackness of the narrow trench beneath the soil from which he’d emerged.  Cap breathed out in a long stream as he gazed up at a tiny gap in the clouds that revealed a scattering of stars.  Though he still could not see much about him, those pinpoints of light, like a scattering of diamond dust in the sky, were a welcome, comforting sight. 

“Help us, boy!”  Lum hissed.  “Don’t stand there lollygagging up at them stars.  This job ain’t over, yet!”

Blinking, Cap stumbled over to assist his father and Lum as they lifted the slight form of the woman into the back of the waiting wagon.  Lum’s shuttered lantern was open only a fraction of an inch to allow the thinnest beam of light to show feebly through.  It was like a drop of golden light meant to illuminate an ocean of black ink around them, for all the good it did them.   But they needed the covering night.

“What did I tell you,” he heard his father say.  “Cap may be knee high to a milk stool, but he’s as full of grit as any boy twice his size.”

“Good thing they don’t pay us by the pound,” Lum muttered, chuckling, ignoring Noah’s statement about his son.  “This thing don’t hardly weigh no more than the trout I pulled out of the stream this morning.”

I did it, Cap thought, swiping at the sweat on his face, smearing dirt.  He thought he should feel something good.  A sense of triumph or achievement, like the day he’d pulled his first fish from the Scioto River, or perhaps when his teacher, Mr. Rankin, had said that Cap’s essay about the history of Circleville, Ohio, was the best in the whole school, even better than the older students’ work.

But Cap felt as if a weight were holding him down; making him heavy and weak.  He didn’t feel good.  Not at all.

“Ho there, boy, finish your work,” Lum said in his harsh whisper.  Cap turned around with a start.  Finish what?  Then he realized that Noah was already shoveling dirt back into the tunnel they’d created at Lum’s command.  Cap still thought that tunnel was a fool idea.  He scratched at a trickle of sweat that ran down his neck.  Why not simply dig in the already soft dirt directly above the coffin?  No one would notice that the recently disturbed soil had been dug into again.  Not that anyone cared in this town.  Most people called this part of Forest Cemetery the “pauper’s section”.  A graveyard for the poor.  The dead nobody cared about.  But Lum was about as hard as iron when it came to his ideas.  And he was the man in charge.

 “No, you dolt!” Lum hissed at the boy when Cap moved toward his father.  Lum grabbed Cap’s arm and steered him over to the wagon.  “Help me with this!  We don’t take the clothes, now do we?  That’s stealing!  Didn’t your Pa tell you nothing?”

Noah hurried over.  “I’ll do that,” he said.  “My boy will finish with the tunnel.  Wait for me to toss the clothing inside before you close it off,” he said to Cap as he handed him the shovel.  Cap took it gratefully.  He had forgotten.  The law said it was illegal to steal from the dead:  clothing, jewelry, anything that might have been buried with them.  But the law said nothing about stealing the bodies.  Bodies weren’t anyone’s property.

“Boy’s gotta learn some time,” Cap heard Lum say with his wheezy chuckle.  He could picture the sarcastic, all-knowing smirk on the older man’s face.  That’s the expression Lum always wore whenever he talked to Cap.  The boy hated that sardonic, mocking look, but more than anything, he hated Lum’s smile.  With his pointed, brown-and-yellow teeth, the man had the look of a bloated wolf when he grinned. 

“Who’s there?” someone shouted.  Cap dropped his shovel.

“Into the wagon, quick!” he heard his father hiss.  Cap turned to run, banging his foot on the blade of the shovel he’d just dropped.  Recovering quickly, he grabbed the wooden handle and hurtled in the direction of the wagon, now completely blind, since Lum had extinguished the tiny flame they’d been using to guide them.  He nearly missed the wagon but caught his ribs painfully on the corner of the box. 

“You there, stop!” the man’s voice shouted, much closer.

Cap felt a strong hand grab his arm and he was hoisted up into the back of the wagon, right on top of the dead woman.  He nearly cried out but was able to clamp his lips closed against the shriek that wanted to escape his lips.  He could imagine what Lum would say.  Scrabbling quickly he moved away from the slight, cold form and hunched down next to his father.  Up in the wagon box, Lum whipped the old horse, Hilda.  The ageing mare took off.

“Stop!”  The man shouted once more.  But good old Hilda was fast, despite her age.  Clouds parted to reveal a sliver of moon, which illuminated this portion of the cemetery with its small leaning markers, a few of stone but most of wood.  Trees nearly bare of leaves flashed by as they fled, bouncing up and down on the hard floor of the wagon box.  The woman’s body shifted and slid toward Cap, who did shriek this time as he shoved her away.

“Steady, son,” Noah murmured in Cap’s ear.   “It’s all right, now.  We’ll get away.  Lum knows every back alley and dirt track in this town.”  Noah paused and shifted until he was in a sitting position.  “Here, throw this over it,” he said.  Cap felt a heavy piece of rough cloth as it was shoved into his hands.  He quickly laid it over the woman’s form and scooted back until he was closer to his father again. 

Noah continued to speak, softly, into his son’s ear.  “Never knew there was a guard at Forest Cemetery.  Could be family, who knows?” 

Willing his heart to slow, Cap shifted himself until he was leaning back into his father’s strong arms, his feet in front of him, ready to kick away the woman’s body if it should slide in his direction again.  At the age of thirteen, he wanted to show his father that he was no longer a small child who clung to his mother’s skirts.  But right now, Noah’s arms felt good, wrapped as they were around his Cap’s thin frame. 

Shouts died out quickly behind them.  Cap found he could breathe again.  As clouds scudded overhead, he caught brief glimpses of the town around him, revealed by the occasional weak flashes of moonlight.  They passed the Union Station, silent at this time of night, crossed onto the square in front of the City Hall, and headed past the short row of stately brick dwellings whose occupants slept soundly, safe in their warm beds.   Those who lived here were buried in style when they died.  No pauper’s graves for them.  

They moved on at a good pace, Hilda’s hooves making heavy ‘clip clop’ sounds as they drove over rough streets.   Cap was surprised to find that his eyes grew heavy.  His father’s arm was warm around his shoulders, and he leaned his head back.

“Almost there,” Lum called back softly over his shoulder.  “We’ll have to ditch the clothes before we bring her in.”

At this statement, Cap was suddenly wide awake.   They’d not had time to remove the woman’s clothing and leave it in the tunnel.  What would they do, now?

“Shove over a bit, son,” Noah said, groaning as he changed position.  “Ah, my old bones are stiff.”  Suddenly, Cap heard his father’s sharp intake of breath.  “What in the—”

The wagon shuddered to a halt as Lum grunted a soft “whoa,” and pulled sharply on the reins.  Cap lifted his head above the rim of the wagon box.  The area surrounding them was light enough for him to recognize where they were.  They were now parked in a narrow alleyway, one he recognized.  This alley was directly behind the court house.  Cap sometimes used it as a shortcut to school. 

The stink of rotting garbage was strong, despite the cold autumn air.  Up ahead, Cap could make out a doorway, brightly lit.  Noah had said that they’d leave the body at the agreed-upon location, making their presence known by using their secret knock: two short raps, a pause, and another two raps.  One who waited for the signal would open the doors.  And, Father had explained, all was to be done in complete darkness.  But now, the gaslights glowed.  Cap’s eyes grew wide as he recognized the building before his eyes.  The Round House?  Built at the start of the Civil War, the imposing eight-sided house squatted right behind the court house.  It was known to be long abandoned.  And rumored to be haunted.  Everyone said so.

“They’ve got the place lit up like Independence Day,” Lum muttered.  “What does he want us to do, waltz in there dragging the thing behind us for the entire world to see?”

“Who?” Cap whispered to his father.  But Noah didn’t respond. 

“I’ll look about and see what’s happening,” Noah said.  “Wait here,” he murmured to Cap. 

“I’m coming, too,” Lum growled.  “Stay here, boy,” he tossed back over his shoulder to Cap.  “Unless you’re too afeared to stay with that thing,” he added, with the ugly, wheezy chuckle.  Cap didn’t have to see Lum’s face to know the hated smile was in place.

Then, the two men were gone, scuttling like overgrown rats down the alley and around the corner of the tall brick Court House.  Cap was left alone with the body.

He scowled. 

He should have known.  It made sense that they would leave him here to watch over the “thing,” as Lum always called the bodies he and Noah procured, but he still didn’t like it.  More than anything, he hated Lum’s mockery, because the man was right.

Cap was scared.  He didn’t like sitting in the wagon bed, all alone at midnight, with the body of a dead woman inches away.  He could feel the tiny hairs standing at attention all along the back of his neck, and Cap had to fight the almost overwhelming desire to hurtle from the wagon and run full speed back home.

There was enough light for him to see the heavy canvas tarp he’d thrown over her.  It almost didn’t look as if there could be anything underneath.  Lum had been right about the woman hardly weighing more than a large fish.  Cap swallowed and willed himself to scoot closer to the body.  He did so, inching forward while he trembled from head to toe.

Lum isn’t right about everything, he told himself grimly, taking in a deep, shaky breath.    Lum was dead wrong about a lot of things, and Cap wasn’t about to let Lum know he truly was “afeared.”  He’d prove it.  He’d finish the job.  He’d take the woman’s clothing from her body so that they could dispose of it somewhere, and he’d show Lum, and his father, that he wasn’t afraid of anything.

Refusing to hesitate, Cap grabbed the tarp and whipped it back from the woman’s face.  Then, he shrieked again.   This time, he didn’t cry out in fear, but shock.  He knew this face.

This was no woman, but a girl.  Though coated with mud and leaves, the girl’s thick, golden hair gleamed in the light that came from the doorway up ahead.  Her oval face was serene, as if she truly were sleeping.   And Cap knew her.  Jessamyn Baker had sat across the aisle from him at school.  When the teacher wasn’t looking, Cap stole many sideways glances.  He loved how she chewed on the end of her pencil as she worked out arithmetic problems, her brow lightly furrowed, and how she knew most of the answers in geography and history even before Cap himself did.  Once, their paths had crossed in the cloak room and she’d smiled at him, her wide hazel eyes friendly but somehow shy at the same time.  Cap had nearly stopped breathing.

The weight he’d sensed earlier settled over the boy’s heart, solid and unyielding.  His eyes filled with tears.

            Jessamyn, buried in a pauper’s grave?  What of her family?  Cap realized how little he really knew about her.  He hadn’t even known she was ill.  Sure, Cap had missed the last week of school, home to help Mama while she was doing poorly, but Jessamyn had been fine when he’d last seen her.

Swiping away the moisture from his stinging eyes, Cap felt something tear apart inside him.  Here he was, ready to sell Jessamyn to some self-important doctors so they could cut her to pieces in front of a gaping crowd of pompous medical students. 

            “No,” Cap muttered, swallowing his tears.  Not this time.  Not even sure of what he planned do, Cap gently placed the tarp back over Jessamyn’s pale face and hopped up into the box of the wagon.  Nudging Hilda softly, he slowly began to back out of the alleyway, forming his plan as he went.

Cap knew that a few blocks to the west of the Court House there was an old Catholic church, St. Joseph’s, recently converted into an orphanage.  He’d leave Jessamyn there at the back door.  He hated to think of what the poor sisters would think when they found her, but he felt he had no choice.  Cap hoped that by the time her body was discovered and reburied, it would likely be too late for Lum and Noah to get any money for her.  If a “thing” went bad, which often happened during the hottest summer months, the medical colleges didn’t want it for dissection. 

Fingers of icy wind ruffled Cap’s dirt-filled hair as he drove, and his thoughts turned dark.  His was a fool’s errand.  It was autumn, and a cold one at that.  Odds were that the girl’s body wouldn’t turn bad before she was found.  She was yet mighty likely to end up on a table, sawn asunder and gawked at by a room full of strangers. 

            Cap swallowed hard and drove on.  He had to try.  He’d do this for her.  It was all he could do, now.  It didn’t take him long to find the alley that ran behind the old church.  Pulling to a stop in front of the back steps, he climbed out of the box and into the back of the wagon.  He wanted one more look at the girl’s face.

            She was serene as before, eerily beautiful in the dim moonlight.  Why can’t you be sleeping? Cap thought, wishing it with all his heart.  Then, without thinking, he reached down to touch her soft cheek.  As he did so, a brief sensation of warmth shot up his finger and traveled up his arm.  His eyes widened in shock.  Her flesh was warm?  Cap gasped and pulled his hand away.  Jessamyn’s eyelids seemed to flutter, a slight movement, no greater than the merest flicker, so slight that Cap though he must have dreamed it.  Then, nothing.

            Gaping, trembling, hardly daring to breathe, Cap reached down again and touched the girl’s soft cheek, then placed his palm on her forehead.   And then, something happened that he never expected.

            She opened her eyes.