Monthly Archives: April 2015

Writing Excuses 10.7 — another character

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Showing my work again…thanks Austin Kleon!

Aaand the Writing Excuses assignments keep on coming! In this exercise we were supposed to take one of the characters from Exercise 10.5, find a secondary character in that character’s scene, and rewrite the same scene from the secondary character’s point of view. I chose the musician who appeared during Angela’s dead drop mission.

As Leif scrolled to the next song on his iPad, he glanced at the top of the screen. Already 12:48. If the courier was going to appear today, it better be soon. The next busker was supposed to start playing at 1. He could put his guitar away last, leaving its case open for a last-minute delivery, but that would be unnatural. A pain in the ass, really. He’d wait a bit longer. He mopped his sweating forehead, shoved his bandana into his back pocket, and strummed the opening to “Margaritaville.”

The majority of Saturday shoppers paid him no attention at all. He played on one side of the market’s central aisle. Folding chairs for listeners were arranged on the opposite side. It was a shitty setup. The only people in the audience area were those who really needed to sit—old people, some using walkers or canes, the occasional heavily pregnant woman. That was his audience, pretending to listen because it was polite.

They were loving the Jimmy Buffett, though. Since most of the audience seemed to be at least 50, he played a lot of oldies. It was the least he could do. None of his original stuff, of course. This suburban French market just wasn’t the place for it. Besides, what if they hated it, started walking away, pushing their walkers as fast as they could? He got enough rejection from the serious venues he tried to book; he didn’t need it from people who were only killing time.

Some of the more able-bodied market-goers looked apologetic as they interrupted the sight lines between him and his “audience,” but that didn’t stop them from passing.

“Margaritaville” was over. He should pack up, but he couldn’t leave until he was sure he’d given the courier every opportunity to make the drop. He started shilling, surveying the crowd as he did so. That’s when he saw a small Latina. Her left arm was scrolled in shades of pink, gold, and green from wrist to shoulder. The intricate leaf-and-branch design incorporated rosebuds and butterflies. The right side of her neck sported a beautiful pink lotus blossom.

Karen had said the courier would easily spot him because of his long-regretted, self-inflicted tattoo. She hadn’t given a reason, but it was obvious. The arriving woman knew ink.

What she didn’t seem to know was that his guitar case was her intended target. Her eyes were red and she wore a dazed look, due either to drugs or a lot of crying. Now that he got a good look at her, she seemed barely functional. Her steps dragged, as if she had to remind herself to walk. If only he could ask her for the package, but Karen had been clear. He couldn’t talk to the courier at all.

He could play, though, and sing. Let her know she was in the right place. If he knew her favorite song, he’d play that. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a mind-reader. He only had one shot, an old Mexican standard. “Bésame Mucho.” He hadn’t played it for a while, but he used to do a kick-ass version of it. It might confuse the pasty-white market patrons, but it was just one song. They’d get over it. He plucked the intro.

The tattooed Latina stopped in her tracks and looked straight at him. Karen might flip, but he winked—the smallest wink he could manage. She took it the wrong way, shrinking even further into her own skin. Had he blown it? Oh, well, he was committed now. He pushed her apparent revulsion from his thoughts and began to sing.

As always, the music filled him. His eyes drifted closed. He felt a presence and opened his eyes in time to see her drop a folded bill into his open guitar case. He tried to give the nod every busker knew, the subtle thanks for a donation, but she was already retreating the way she had come.

He skipped the instrumental bridge and repeat, fading out to create a quick ending. It was 12:55, anyway. Time to stop before his replacement complained to the market manager.

He scooped coins and bills out of the guitar case, cramming them into his front hip pockets. Damn, his jeans were tight. His belly flapped over his belt. He looked like hell. No wonder the woman had flinched at his song choice. Any decent-looking female would be creeped out if someone like him seemed to be coming on to her.

Screw it. If she’d brought what Karen promised, Leif would soon be swimming in women. He trundled his guitar, CDs, and extra mic stand to his truck and loaded up. Before climbing in, he emptied his pockets onto the driver seat and found the dollar bill he was looking for, the only one that was taped closed. Using the small blade of his Swiss army knife, he cut the tape. Inside, he found a long yellow post-it note covered with grouped letters that formed no recognizable words, interrupted in a few spots by numbers. The numbers would let him know which pages of The Magic Mountain would unlock his coded message to reveal its actual meaning.

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Writing Excuses 10.5 — Part 3

As in the two previous posts, a character I created is walking through a marketplace to perform a dead drop. This character is different from the characters in the last 2 posts. See if you can figure out the job, hobby, and emotional state.

Angela stepped off the bus and held her hand up to her forehead, surveying the French market through watery eyes. She blinked to clear her vision. A gray-haired woman jostled her as she exited the bus and  strode to the far end of the stalls. Angela would have shrugged had she possessed the energy. She could do worse than to follow.

Throngs filled the aisle that ran between the market stalls. In the noon sunlight the patrons’ casual clothing, the piles of produce, the stands of flowers—everything seemed too bright. Amid the murmur and chatter of voices she could make out the amplified sound of a man singing and strumming a guitar. She suffered the sweaty mass of cheery humans until she located him.

Past a display of leather goods, a blond walrus of a man sat on a tall stool. His guitar rested against his great belly, held in place by a diamond-patterned strap in neon yellow and green. He played some insipid old song which she’d heard before but couldn’t quite place, then swung into a patter about his CDs. The crowd started drifting off. He cut his spiel short and began to pluck the syncopated introduction to “Bésame Mucho.”

His playing was nearly as good as some she’d heard in the clubs. Despite herself, Angela felt her hips want to sway and her dragging steps to morph into the moves of a dance. She stopped, really looking at him for the first time, noting his faded jeans and ancient Eagles t-shirt. He was already watching her; his wink was barely discernible through the pouches of flesh sagging below his blue-green eyes. If she’d felt more like herself she would have either laughed at the man’s impudence, or glared. Had he thought it funny to launch into a Spanish song just because he’d noticed her deeply tanned skin, her dark eyes and hair? And Bésame Mucho? Kiss him a lot? No lo creo!

He half-closed his eyes and began singing. His accent was better than she would have expected. She looked at the CD racks on either side of his open guitar case, its deeper side scattered with bills and coins. Karen had said to leave her packet where “pájaro herido” played. The musicians in this market changed every couple of hours. Karen said she couldn’t confirm their exact schedule, so Angela didn’t even know if this man was the one she needed to find. Nothing about him suggested a broken bird. With his eyes closed, though, he seemed less threatening.

She moved closer. The muscles of the musician’s right forearm bunched and loosened as he played. A dark discoloration moved along with his muscles, and Angela tried to make sense of it. It was too dark and thin-edged to be a bruise. As she studied it, it resolved itself into a kind of design, and she realized what it must be. It looked like most of a bird, its wings spread.

Someone had inked this man, but done a poor job of it. What had they used, a sewing needle? There was a gap in the tail section, as if the artist—if the tattooer deserved that title—had pulled the skin taut rather than letting it lie naturally as he inked. Idiot. But it told Angela one thing. She had found her broken bird. She felt inside her purse for a folded, taped dollar bill. Inside this dollar was a post-it note with a combination of letters and numbers which meant nothing to Angela. She dropped the taped bill into the player’s open guitar case and looked for the quickest way out of the market.

Writing Excuses Assignment 10.5 — Part Deux

As in the previous post, a character I created is walking through a marketplace to perform a dead drop. This character is different from the character in my last post, but see if you can figure out the job, hobby, and emotional state.

Canvas-shaded stalls faced each other across an asphalt central aisle. Varied items, from baked goods and produce to jewelry and cutlery were on display. Mary Patrick strolled into this pedestrian thoroughfare, trying to look like any other Saturday shopper, with limited success. She drew many second glances and some smiles and nods. There were even a few guilty looks, with some people drawing aside as she passed. At least no one was openly disrespectful. That might have earned them what the kids called, “The Look.” She would resist that impulse. She mentally recited a “Glory Be” on one long breath.

A display of handmade paper drew her attention. Seeds and tiny dried shreds of petals flecked pebbled sheets or pale grey or ivory. She would have loved to dream up a project to use the paper on, but that wasn’t why she came.

She finally saw it—the stall Karen mentioned. Purses, pouches, eyeglass cases, and checkbook covers in light brown leather covered a display table or hung from racks. All were tooled in curling scrollwork. She discovered the wallets and flipped through them, bypassing bird, flower, and leaf designs. Finally she found the one she wanted. Less attractive than the others, it was covered mostly in a design of crudely drawn flames, except for the one corner that held a curling capital B.

An elderly man approached the leather dealer and began reminiscing about the leather work his father used to do. There would be no better time.

Mary Patrick opened the monogrammed wallet and took the sealed silvery plastic sleeve from her pocket. A tube, flattened, and with a rolled edge, sat inside the plastic. It insinuated itself against her too-sensitive fingers and she shoved the packet into the wallet’s credit card section as fast as she could. She buried the wallet under a few others and turned away, walking fast. She passed at least three vendors before she  remembered she was supposed to be shopping, not chasing down someone to punish. She slowed to pass the last few stalls, but still nothing registered past the reddish haze that limned her vision.

Writing Excuses Assignment 10.5

In a previous post, I mentioned that Whitey, Tim, and a few other of my writing comrades from The Writing Journey had decided to take advantage of the fiction-writing master class that Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells are offering (for free!) via their Writing Excuses podcasts. Our group is a couple of months behind, so we’re just now getting to the second set of assignments, on creating characters. The idea was to use three of the characters we’d generated and have them walk through a marketplace to perform a dead drop. Apparently this is a common spy novel trope. While you write this scene for each character, you need to convey the character’s job, hobby, and emotional state without explicitly stating any of these things. I probably won’t subject you to all my assignments, but I found this one a lot of fun to do. Here’s one of my characters performing his dead drop:

Roscoe Lee spun the numbers on the lock and went towards the noise of the market. His bike was out of the way now, behind the train station. No one he knew would see it, especially not on a Saturday. Billy Czerwinski might get ideas if he saw Roscoe lock his bike, and Roscoe didn’t need that. Once he pulled off his next feat, Billy would finally recognize his superiority, but Roscoe didn’t want to deal with any noise from him before that happened.

First he had to do what that old black lady said. “Just put this handkerchief in a leather purse you’ll find at the French market. It will be decorated with hummingbirds and hydrangeas.”

She wouldn’t say any more than that. He had to go on the Internet to see what hydrangeas looked like. He just hoped no one spotted him putting a gay-looking lace handkerchief into a purse. Imagine what Billy Czerwinski would make of that.

He didn’t see used consoles or games anywhere, so the food was the only good thing about this market. There was kettle corn and…score! The bacon he smelled was from some stand that was giving out free samples. He snagged a handful, ignoring the glare from the girl behind the table and walked on, munching. He was wiping the grease off on his jeans when he saw Sister Mary Patrick. Christ! He ducked behind a booth that sold some kind of cloth stuff—scarves and like that—and craned his neck to watch her from his hiding spot.

She was at a stand full of leather purses. Just where he needed to go. What did she need with a purse anyway? He pulled back, considering.

“Young man!” said a fat woman. She wore glasses with a chain dangling from them, “Would you mind not touching my merchandise?”

“Sorry,” he mumbled.

She stared over the tops of her glasses until he backed away from her booth.

He wet his lips and snuck another peek at the purse stall. Thank God. Mary Puke-trick wasn’t there. Then he thought of something else, and turned his head back the way he’d come. Not there either. Was she really gone? He hoped so. He looked in every direction and didn’t spot her. Could she know he was coming, somehow? She might be hiding, even now. He moved slowly towards the leather stall swiveling his head as he went. His mouth felt like paper. No matter. As long as Mary Patrick didn’t catch him—and no one else he knew saw him either—he could drink after he finished the job.

Leather purses lay on a table or hung from hooks near it, seeming to mock him with their curlicued flowers, fruits, and birds. He was rifling through the purses when a voice startled him. “Robert! What a surprise! Are your parents here?

Crap.

“Hello Mrs. Yao. No, just me.”

“Really? What a big boy you’re getting to be, here all by yourself.”

She didn’t sound like she thought it was a good idea. That was all he needed, someone asking his parents what he was doing a mile from home without supervision. Inspiration struck.

“It’s kind of a secret, Mrs. Yao. Do you think my mother would like a purse?”

It worked. She got that “awww” look that women and girls sometimes got when they thought something was cute. “I’m sure she would. Well, you be careful. Head straight home after this.”

“I will.”

She left, pushing her granddaughter’s stroller. Roscoe turned back to the purses. He finally found the one the old lady had described. When no one was looking, he pulled the crumpled lace handkerchief from his back jeans pocket and crammed it into the purse. Then he took off for the water fountain and drank as much as he could before hopping back on his bike to ride home.

Of the three scenes I wrote, I think this is the one that best fulfills the assignment, though I won’t know for sure unless readers share their guesses about Roscoe’s job, hobby, and emotional state. Feel free to comment below!

Anyone else out there following along with these Writing Excuses podcasts? Posting your work? I’d love to see it…

A Valiant Woman

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Sister Mary Dominica Brennan, OP

Sister Mary Linda Tonellato preached at the Vigil Service for our Aunt Pat (aka “Sister Dominica”, “S’ter Minnie”, or simply “Sister”), who died on March 18, 2015.

Sister Mary Linda admitted to struggling with the scripture text she wanted to use as her basis—Proverbs 31:10. While the passage itself seemed apt, among the many interpretations of the text, she found it difficult to choose the one that seemed most fitting.

Was Sister Dominica “good”, or was she “worthy”? Those words felt too subjective and overused, making them devoid of meaning. “Strong”? Perhaps, but not physically, like Superman/Superwoman. “Capable” seemed less than the original writer intended. At first, Sister Mary Linda was drawn to “virtuous.” Then she saw a Scripture commentary that said “virtuous” as applied to a woman meant primarily a woman “chaste, celibate, maidenly, pure, and innocent.” When she consulted a thesaurus she found that there, too, the first 20% echoed the commentary. While Sister Dominica was chaste and celibate—she had taken vows to remain so—those were far from her greatest gifts. The adjective Sister Mary Linda finally settled on to describe our aunt was “valiant”.

Sister Mary Linda said she feared she might going into the minutiae of her word choice issues at too great a length. Then she recalled the vigorous debates she and our aunt would have over the exact meanings of words. This brought a knowing laugh from the many assembled mourners, both lay and religious.

Family memories

I like the idea of Sister arguing with someone. It’s easy to think only of how compassionate and loving a person is, once you lose her, and how wonderful her sense of humor. I didn’t think, at first, about how talented, intelligent, and spirited she also was. Among the memorabilia on display in the visitation room was a yellowed telegram. She received it in 1955 upon winning a scholarship to Fontbonne College. Underneath the telegram was a piece of note-paper bearing the short message: “Thank you for the offer but must decline. Sudden change of plans.”

The sudden change of plans referred to her realization she could no longer deny the strong vocation she felt to enter the Dominican order. Her decision worked out well, both for her and for the Springfield Dominicans. She served two terms as Prioress General of the order before going on to receive her degree in canon law and serving as vice-chancellor and then chancellor for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

As we drove to Sister’s visitation and funeral in Springfield, BK fiddled with the radio, trying to find something we could stand to listen to in an area where we knew nothing of the local offerings. He finally found a public radio station, which is usually safe—no risk of Rush Limbaugh.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto came on. It took me back decades, to an afternoon Sister came to visit her parents—our grandparents—while my parents, brother, sister, and I were also there. Since I was the oldest sibling, and had just started taking piano lessons, I was allowed to sit with the adults in the living room and listen to her play that piece. It was the first time I had any notion that someone I knew could make music that sounded “real”—like music you might hear coming from a record album or the radio.

Memories from her community

“Last Friday I was listening to StoryCorp on NPR. I heard a man tell his son that babies are born with their fists closed because they are holding all their gifts they have to give the world in their hands. As we sisters sat with Sr. Mary Dominica in her final hours, I was aware of the fact that her hands were wide open and relaxed. She had given her gifts to all of us lucky enough to be in her life…

She came into this world with so many gifts clutched in her little fists. She had blessed our congregation and her family and friends with her many gifts – a keen mind, a witty sense of humor, a compassionate gaze from those dark brown eyes. She who shared them so generously left the world last Wednesday afternoon with hands wide open, her journey complete, welcomed into God’s loving arms.

Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.”

—from the remarks of Sr. Beth Wrenn, OP

 “Sr. Dominica was an extraordinarily talented and intelligent person in whose presence I never felt inadequate by comparison because she had the remarkable gift of helping the common person to feel confident and competent.”

—Sr. Mary Judine, OP

Sister’s last wish, for those she loved

I wish you enough

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.

I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun all the more.

I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive.

I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger.

I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.

I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.

I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good-bye.

They say it takes a minute to find special persons, an hour to appreciate them, a day to love them, but an entire life to forget them.

So to you my Sisters, my dear family members and my friends, you will never be forgotten. I will speak to the Lord about you often. May the years ahead be filled with enduring faith, hope and peace.

I love you and I wish you enough!

—Sister Mary Dominica Brennan, OP