Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Lumberjack and the Rat Queen

I am in the murky middle of a new middle-grade novel at the moment, and grasping at any excuse to avoid making the difficult decisions I need to make to crawl forward out of the murk. That means a lot of Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, crossword puzzles, and cooking. Yesterday I made posole, and managed to use about several pots and pans, the blender, the food processor, the Instant Pot, and a host of utensils. It was good. It probably would have been just as good if I'd simply thrown all the ingredients in a pot, set it on low, and walked away. But I succeeded in avoiding writing for about three hours.

When I finally got back to the heinous task of dealing with plot issues, I began by looking for things to delete, because deleting is easier than leteing. I found a lot, and shortened the manuscript by a good twenty pages, giving me a daily word count of negative bazillion.

One of the sections I deleted was a fairy tale. There will be several short fairy tales in the novel, each of them moving the story forward—or so I hope. But this particular tale turned out to be too dark and violent for the book I want to write. 

But not too dark for my blog! Here it is:


The Lumberjack and the Rat Queen
A Litvanian Fairy Tale

Once upon a time a lumberjack chopped down a tree and it fell on a young wood rat, killing it instantly. The lumberjack felt bad about the rat, but there was nothing to be done, so he continued working. Later that day, as he rested upon a fresh stump, he was approached by the Queen of the Rats.
“You have killed my grandchild,” the Rat Queen said.
“I am sorry,” said the lumberjack. 
“It is not enough to be sorry, therefore I curse you.”
“But I did not intend it!” objected the lumberjack.
“I curse you nonetheless! I take away your conscience!”
“My conscience?” The lumberjack thought for a moment. “How is that such a bad thing? My conscience has plagued me all my life. If truly gone it be, then I say good riddance!”
The Rat Queen laughed and scampered off.
That night, the lumberjack told his wife what had happened.
The wife, a thin, sinewy woman with a lengthy nose and a poor complexion, asked, “What was the nature of her curse?”
“She said she would take away my conscience.”
The wife thought for a moment, then said, “Is that so bad? Your conscience has held you back from many opportunities. For example, our neighbor’s bull sometimes grazes near the edge of the forest. If you were to lure him into the trees we would have beef for a year, and no one would be the wiser.”
“But it is not our bull!” said the lumberjack.
The wife shrugged. “Perhaps you still have your conscience after all.”
The next day, the lumberjack was chopping logs into firewood near the edge of the forest when he saw his neighbor’s bull nearby. He approached the bull slowly, for bulls are moody creatures, and spoke to it softly. He held out the apple he planned to eat for lunch. The bull snorted and followed as the lumberjack backed into the forest. As soon as they were beneath the trees, the lumberjack swung his ax and slew the hapless beast.
That night he and his wife enjoyed thick, bloody steaks with their turnips and kale. By morning he had salted and packed the rest of the beef in barrels, while his neighbor remained mystified as to what had become of his prized bull.
“Does your conscience bother you now?” the lumberjack’s wife asked.
“Not at all!” said the lumberjack.
“Nor does mine,” she said, “for I too have met the Rat Queen. Last spring I caught one of her rat children in the coop making off with a hen’s egg. I killed it with a pitchfork. The queen visited me that very night.”
“Then neither one of us has a conscience!” the man exclaimed.
A few days later, the lumberjack hauled a load of firewood to town to sell. Because it was mid-summer, he found few customers.
“Master Grocer!” he called to the grocer from his cart. “I know you have not enough firewood for the coming winter. Allow me to sell you a rick. A mere seven coppers!”
The grocer looked askance at the wagon piled with freshly cut logs. 
“I need no wood until winter,” he said.
“It will cost you more then!”
“Then I will have to pay more. In any case, your firewood is green. You should set it out for a season to dry.”
The grocer went back into his shop. As the lumberjack brooded on whom to approach next, the grocer’s daughter, a fresh-faced lass with golden hair, stepped out of the shop. The lumberjack had always thought her lovely. 
“You are the most beautiful girl in all the parish,” he said to her. “Come with me. I would take you for a ride through the forest.”
“You?” The grocer’s daughter laughed incredulously. “You are old, and your hands are rough, and you are married.” With that, she flounced back inside.
The lumberjack finally sold two ricks to the blacksmith, but only after reducing his price to four coppers per rick. He rode home with his cart still mostly full, brooding. He imagined the grocer’s daughter sitting beside him. How unfair it was that he should be married to a scrawny, long-nosed woman such as his wife. Did he not deserve better?
At home, his dark mood deepened as his wife berated him for selling so little wood. When he could stand it no more he struck her on the cheek. To his surprise, she took up a kitchen knife and came at him. He slapped the knife aside and struck her again, and again and again until she moved no more.
The lumberjack dragged her to the shed and chopped her body to pieces and stuffed her in a barrel and covered her with salt. He set the barrel beside the barrels of beef filled with his neighbor’s prize bull. He then emptied the wood from his cart and drove to town. The grocer, he knew, lived in the rooms behind his shop. The lumberjack took his ax and broke down the door. He slew the grocer and the grocer’s wife, tied up the daughter, and threw her in the back of his cart.
As he rode out of town, several citizens chased him down. The girl was saved and the lumberjack was dragged of to the side of the road. They cut off his hands and feet and rolled him into the ditch.
As he lay there bleeding, the Rat Queen happened by. She saw the lumberjack bleeding his last drops of blood, and she laughed.
“How can you laugh?” the man said. “I am dying, and you are to blame!”
“Lumberjack, you are correct,” the Rat Queen said with a smile. “I will return to you that which was taken.”
And with that, the lumberjack’s conscience returned, and he left this world filled with shame and remorse.

“I do not like these stories,” Annie said. “I do not like the way they end.”
“Some are better than others,” Miz Ozols agreed.
“Was the lumberjack glad to have his conscience back?”
“I rather doubt it. It was his final punishment.”
“That is very sad.”
Miz Ozols shrugged. “It is Litvanian,” she said. “In Litvania we tell sad tales.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Edgars

Otherwood is a finalist for the Edgar Alan Poe Award in the “juvenile” category. The other finalists are Denis Ever After by Tony Abbott, Zap! by Martha Freeman, Ra the Mighty: Cat Detective by A.B. Greenfield, Winterhouse by Ben Guterson, Charlie & Frog: A Mystery by Karen Kane, and Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon.

Mary and Pete at the Edgar Awards, 1991
I have a long history with the Edgar Awards. I joined the Mystery Writers of America back in 1990 after making my first short story sale to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I attended the annual Edgar Awards banquet that year with Mary Logue, who was a judge in the Best Novel category (Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke won). I had never been in the company of so many published writers. It was a magical evening. I was fanboying to the max.

A really good book!
Six years later I was at the banquet again, this time as a finalist in the YA category for Mr. Was, and as a judge in the Juvenile category (Looking for Jamie Bridger by Nancy Springer won). That was fun too, even though Mr. Was did not win.

My next Edgar banquet was in 2007, when Snatched, a middle grade novel I wrote with Mary Logue, was nominated in the Juvenile category. That was the year Stephen King stepped on Mary’s dress, a moment she will always treasure. We didn't win, but we got a bobblehead.


This year I probably won’t be attending the banquet. I mean, unless somebody else wants to pay for my flight and hotel. Otherwood probably won’t win, but you never know. I haven’t read the other finalists yet. If they all suck, I have a chance, but I very much doubt that is the case. Either way, I’m honored and delighted to have Otherwood included on the list.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why “Creep” isn’t on the ROAD TRIPPED Playlist

“Creep,” Radiohead’s first single, was the song that inspired me to begin the novel that became Road Tripped.

Released in 1992, “Creep” was a huge hit, and was consequently grossly overplayed. For casual listeners, it defined Radiohead. Musically, it is not as interesting and complex as their later work, and for many years they refused to perform it. Nevertheless, it is a seminal work, and will remain forever in my top twenty-five pop tunes. Maybe even in my top ten. The lyrics are brilliant and perfect—they speak to every young person who has felt shy, awkward, unattractive, and worthless—in short, nearly all adolescents and, at times, most adults.

When Thom Yorke sings, “I want you to notice, when I’m not around,” you hear a character who is so unsure of himself he can’t even imagine saying, “I want you to miss me.” He can hardly imagine a reality in which she, the object of his fascination, knows he exists.

Back in August of 2013, I began work on a novel about a stalker—a teen boy who becomes obsessed by an ex-girlfriend. The working title was “Creep.” I was thinking about the Radiohead song, and about Scott Spencer’s novel Endless Love, a book that made a big impression on me when I read it thirty-odd years ago. But as often happens, the story I set out to tell was not the one I ended up telling.

Stiggy Gabel, my “stalker,” began as a rather one-dimensional character. As his backstory grew and sent out tendrils, he became less monomaniacal, more complex, more sympathetic, more human. The story became less about his obsession and more about depression, loss, the grieving process, and things we think and do to stay sane when the world feels broken. The stalking element almost disappeared. The title changed from “Creep” to “Crock,” and finally to “Road Tripped.”

Road Tripped has a playlist from Stiggy’s recently deceased father’s iPod, which he carries with him on his solo road trip. The songs I selected relate to Stiggy’s journey, and I was strongly tempted to include “Creep” among them, since it was important to the genesis of the story. But other songs by, Concrete Blond, Pixies, Amy Winehouse, and others seemed to me deeper and less “mono.” Radiohead didn’t make the cut.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Writing with Music

I often listen to a particular playlist while writing a novel. I don’t listen while I’m actively writing; I listen between sessions, while imagining what comes next. Usually a collection of songs that feel right for the story. Sometimes it’s a particular album. Side One of Miles Davis’s “Jack Johnson” got me through How to Steal a Car. Sometimes it’s just one song, over and over—when I wrote Rag Man back in 1999, I listened to K.D. Lang’s “Infinite and Unforseen” hundreds of times. It kept me focused on the moody ending I was pursuing.
Click for Playlist

In the novel Road Tripped, Stiggy Gabel leaves home with only his late father’s iPod for company. His dad, he discovers, had peculiar taste in music, ranging from Bach to Babymetal, from Snoop Dogg to Tammy Wynette. Some of the song titles serve as chapter headings. I assembled a bunch of them on Spotify. Here’s a link.

About half of the songs came off my own iPod. Stiggy’s dad is solely responsible for the rest. Spotify refused to load a few of them—not sure why. I’m new to Spotify. Maybe I’ll figure it out by the time the book is released (May 14).