Free Short Fiction ~ A Campfire Tale

A Campfire Tale first appeared in issue 18 of Dark Moon Digest Magazine. It was also chosen for the Best Horror Shorts 2015 anthology.

 

a campfire tale cover

“Tell us a story Aunt Fran,” Lilly-Anne suggested.

“Yeah, Aunt Fran, please,” the other children chimed in.

Aunt Fran gave them each an apprising look. The sun was fading fast past the horizon, the last of the golden rays casting long shadows about the campgrounds. She looked over at her siblings, across the site with their spouses starting a large bonfire which they no doubt planned to drink by until all the wood was burnt and alcohol consumed, leaving her to watch their spawn.

“OK,” Aunt Fran conceded. “What kind of a story do you want?”

“A ghost story,” Lilly-Anne said.

“No, a scary ghost story,” Samantha said.

“How about I tell you a true-life horror story?” Aunt Fran asked. The children eagerly edged closer to the small campfire, their marshmallows abandoned in hopes of a good tale.

“Yeah, right,” Frankie said. “As if.”

Frankie, being eleven, was at the age where he was convinced he was too old and cool for any kid stuff. Aunt Fran remembered his father, Jeff, being the same way at that age too.

“Honestly,” Aunt Fran promised. “I’ll tell you about the most horrible, terrifying thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Frankie rolled his eyes but moved closer on his roughhewn log.

“Well,” Aunt Fran began, “When your parents and I were younger, our parents used to take us camping. Not like this.” She gestured around. “Not a picnic where you stay late, then drive home. No, they used to drive us way out into the woods, hours past civilization to the most secluded spots they could find, and that’s where we’d pitch our tents for the night.”

“Our parents would stay in one tent, and all us kids would stay in another. My parents would put a padlock on the zipper of our tent. They said it was to keep the bears out, but we all knew it was to keep us from sneaking out and roaming around the woods at night, which, given the opportunity, we would have done.”

“I was seven the year they drove us way out to the wilds of Canada to go camping. It was summertime, but I remember it still being so cold that you could see your breath in the air. They had zipped us up in our tent for the night, me and your parents, and we huddled together for warmth and fell asleep.”

“This is stupid,” Frankie interrupted.

The other children hushed him and returned their rapt attention to Aunt Fran.

“The thing about being in the woods,” Aunt Fran told them, “is that even though it’s quiet, it’s not.” She held up a hand to stop any questions, a signal that she would explain. “There are no noises from civilization in the woods, no sirens or car horns or barking dogs or blaring TVs. That’s why people go camping, for the peace and quiet. Only it’s not quiet. There are little noises everywhere. An animal chewing. A bug buzzing. Twigs cracking, branches bending, the wind blowing. And when you’re a little kid, it’s really quite spooky.”

“I was the last of us to fall asleep that night. I remember listening to the sounds of the woods, imagining every type of creepy crawly that might be prowling around in the dark on the other side of the thin fabric of the tent. Finally, I focused on everyone’s breathing, as one by one my brothers and sisters fell into the easy rhythm of sleep. It made me feel safe, knowing they were there with me, and eventually the thoughts of bears and wolves and snakes that I attributed all the noises to fell away and I joined them in sleep.”

“To this day I don’t know what woke me that night. I was sleeping soundly, and then I awakened suddenly in a complete fright.”

The children clustered closer, anticipating the good part of the story.

“I laid still, on my back, unable to see anything in the pitch dark, listening to the noises around me. For once there was silence outside. All I could hear was my siblings’ breathing, but something didn’t sound right. Not how it had before. Someone was breathing too hard, and, well . . . anyway. My heart was racing and the hairs on my arms were standing straight out. I was trying to lie still, to pretend to still be sleeping, but I was going crazy, being so afraid and not knowing why.”

“So, I whispered into the dark to my sister. I was so scared to make a sound. The first two times I tried nothing came out, but I worked up my nerve, and I called her name. I put the words out there into the night. But she didn’t answer.”

Aunt Fran looked around at the children, who were hanging on her every word. “I was terrified to move, frozen with fear. It took everything I had to move my fingers, inch by inch through the dark until I found her hand. I took her small, cold hand in mine and squeezed, trying to wake her up. But she didn’t respond. I squeezed again and again, but nothing.”

“I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to wake anyone else up, afraid they would think I was being silly, just their dumb little sister. I felt that if only I could see, could look around for a moment, I’d feel better. I had stolen a lighter from Jeff, your dad,” she pointed to Frankie, “earlier that day. I could feel it in my pocket, heavy with the weight of the guilt of stolen goods. I moved my hand, ever so slowly, fearful of making any movement fast enough to be detected in the gloom where God knows what lurked, until I had my hand in my pocket. I wrapped the lighter in my sweaty palm and began the painfully slow process of bringing it up.”

“I don’t know if it took minutes or hours, but it seemed like an eternity. Finally, I had it, in my hand, right up by my face. I was so scared to light it. To discover what it was that was in the tent with me, concealed by the dark, making me feel so frightened. But then I rolled my thumb on the lighter, the flint sparked, the fluid lit, and I could see.”

Aunt Fran paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. The children gathered even closer, clutching at each other, waiting for the moment when the adult yells “Boo” and they all got to scream and laugh.

“What did you see?” Lilly-Anne asked, biting her nails.

“I saw,” Aunt Fran said. “I saw my sister Georgia.” Her voice faltered.

“Georgia?”

“Yes, Georgia,” Aunt Fran snapped. “There used to be seven of us, but I’m sure your parents never told you that.” She closed her eyes for a moment, lost in the memory. When she opened them again, she had regained her composure. “I saw my little, baby sister Georgia, laying there in the dark beside me. Her eyes were open,” Aunt Fran recalled. “Those beautiful gray eyes. They were open, but they weren’t blinking.”

The children shifted uncomfortably, feeling awkward. They exchanged nervous glances.

“I screamed. I screamed like I have never screamed before or since. Everyone woke up. Our parents came running over with a flashlight, opened the tent, and then they saw too.” Fran sniffed and wiped at her eyes. “My mother scooped me up and carried me out of the tent. She made the other kids come with her. But not before I saw. Not before I knew.”

“What did she die of?” Frankie asked, curiosity overcoming his need to be aloof.

“My parents said it was just one of those things. Like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. That it was just her time.”

“Why did you tell us this?” Samantha asked.

“Because that wasn’t the truth. I saw with my own eyes, the bruises around her neck. Someone had strangled her. We were locked in that tent. No one could get in or out. One of your parents killed her.”

The kids recoiled in shock. One of the younger ones started crying.

“That’s bull,” Frankie challenged.

“Believe what you want, but it’s the truth,” Aunt Fran said. “If you don’t believe me, tell your parents you met a little girl named Georgia with curly blonde hair and pale gray eyes and see how they react.”

“Who . . . who do you think did it?” Lilly-Anne whispered.

“I wish I knew for sure.” Aunt Fran swallowed hard. “At first I thought it was your dad,” she said, pointing at Frankie. “I thought he may have believed that Georgia was the one who stole his lighter. But to be honest, it could have been any one of them. Your mom, or your mom, or your dad, or yours.” She pointed at each of the children in turn. “They all have anger issues, I’m sure you’ve seen that. All I know for sure is that one of your parents killed my baby sister.”

Aunt Fran rose from her seat by the campfire. “I’ve got to go. It was nice seeing you all. You guys be good. And be careful,” she added as an afterthought over her shoulder. She exchanged distant waves with the adults as she made her hasty exit, forcing a smile to her lips before she got in her car.

The thought that none of their kids would sleep that night, or possible ever look at them the same way again, provided her with little solace. She started the engine and backed slowly out of her parking spot. She would never forgive her siblings. Not any of them. She drove down the narrow dirt road that led back to the highway. One of them had killed her little sister, making her the youngest. If Georgia was still alive, she’d be the one stuck living at home, caring for their invalid parents, not Fran.

The children were silent until the taillights from Aunt Fran’s car were swallowed by the darkness. “Do you think she was telling the truth?” Lilly-Anne asked, eyes wide with fright.

Samantha picked up a photograph from the spot where Aunt Fran had been sitting. It was faded, well-worn with time and use. She looked at it closely. “I think maybe she was,” she said in a hushed tone, showing the picture to the others. The image was of their grandparents, much younger but still recognizable. Before them stood seven children, the smallest of which was a young girl with blonde curls.

“What do we do?” Lilly-Anne asked. She looked at the younger children, feeling suddenly burdened with the task of their safety.

“Sleep in shifts and watch each other’s backs,” Frankie said, taking the photo from Samantha. He balled it up and threw it in the fire. “And never say a word of this to any of them.”

END

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Letter To My Possible Future Literary Agent

Dear Possible Future Literary Agent,

There are some things you should probably know about me.

I love words. I love reading. I love writing. I write for myself but also because I hope to entertain people and help them to escape the reality of life from time to time. Awards are good, I have nothing against them, but I have no desire to win a Pulitzer. If you’re looking for the next Toni Morrison, it probably won’t be me.

Image result for cheeseI’ll listen to what you say, because I’m well aware that I don’t know everything, but there are some things I do that you might not like. Sometimes I get bound by the bonds of alliteration. I can’t stand the way a properly executed em-dash looks, so I use spaces around it. And I like to do things in a series of three for emphasis. Why? Why? Why? I don’t quite know, but if you tell me to stop, I will try.

I’ll need to know your favorite treat, because I believe in celebrating everything, and if you give a Shannon a contract, she’s going to want to send you a cookie food. I’m not going to assume it’s chocolate, and hope you’ll do likewise. I enjoy chocolate like most people, but sometimes the sugar doesn’t make me feel so great, plus my husband will probably eat most of it before I get a chance.Image result for cheese

But don’t worry, because I also like cheese. Said husband likes cheese, too, but I believe I can eat more cheese quicker than him, plus, I’ll take the best cheese, the tastiest one, and put it in the hidden part of the refrigerator, the secret vortex that keeps things hidden from the husband’s eyes. There’s a reason our vegetable drawer is always full – so no one can see what’s at the back.

But, if a treat for you is hot yoga, I can arrange that too. I understand that while it may not be my thing, it might be yours. I have nothing against hot yoga, it’s just that it’s hot. And sweaty. And sweaty leads to stinky. Then you’re in a room full of hot, sweaty, stinky people, and the teacher wants you to move around and stuff, which means you’ve got to breathe. Deeply. If you’re into all that, it’s cool. But I’ll stick with the cheese, please.

Image result for cheeseYou should also know that I’m not afraid of hard work, and I won’t give up. I’m not just saying that. I’ve got proof.

I get out of bed every day, even the days meant for staying in bed, like rainy Sundays when I’m in the middle of a book I don’t want to put down. On those days it’s mainly because a girl’s gotta eat, and said husband is willing to exist on things he can dip into mustard and salsa (with a side of cheese) if it allows him to maintain his claim that he can’t cook. That, and I’d have to get out of bed to open the window for the delivery driver, anyways, so I might as well just stay out of bed.

Also . . . I know SO many ways to dispose of a body, which makes me the ideal person to be that friend everyone should have on hand. Unless that offends you. Then you can be that bastion of levelheaded wisdom friend for me. We don’t even have to be friends if you don’t want. I’m not very social, anyways. You’ll probably have to do most of the work. So, I’ll let you decide.Image result for cheese

My point is, I’m well aware that I need you more than you need me. Everyone and their uncle’s a writer. Not everyone and only some uncles are agents. I’ll do my best to make you proud. And if you’re having a hard day and feeling blue, I’ll do my best to cheer you up with a song I create just for you. (Actually, I might re-appropriate one of the ones I sing to my dogs, but I’ll change the name to yours and throw in a couple of other details to make sure you feel special.)

My songs, by the way, are delightful, engaging and entertaining. (There’s that three thing again!) And you’d like more tempting, tasty tidbits about me? (Score once more for alliteration! Do you see what you’re missing out on?!?!)

I love horror movies and have a tendency to laugh at the worst parts. I bar-tended through seven years of college, and not just how most college students bar-tend, but professionally, so I could cater all your lunches with acquisitions editors and make them super strong drinks that taste like candy. And what else . . . oh, yeah. I like cheese.

Most Sincerely,

Shannon

 

 

 

 

Fieldwork For Fiction

Write what you know. It’s common advice for writers. But how does it apply to you and your writing?

I recently overheard a fantasy writer remark that they couldn’t “write what they know” because they “create worlds and make things up”. I get what they’re saying, but I don’t really agree with it, because all fiction writers make stuff up, right? And beyond that, all people, writers or not, know and recognize certain things.

I walk hundreds of miles a year. I’ve walked over mountains, through swamps, across beaches and scrubland and pine forests and oak woods and grassy plains . . . and plenty of habitats inbetween.

I’ve had wild boars run across the trail ten feet in front of me, seen a snake mating ball writhing in the grass, and wandered upon a ginormous alligator sunning across the path. I can describe the difference between sweat from stifling heat from that of frigid cold and that of fear. I can tell you that pines just below the timberline on a summer day in the mountains smell like Christmas. Or that the sulfuric stench of a river has briny undertones, while that of a swamp has a ‘meatier’ rotten egg odor.

While walking, I love taking photographs of interesting trees, but I can also use those different trees to help set the mood of a scene. A palm trees with spear-like projections stabbing into the air from it’s trunk, (the kind you can imagine mangled bodies impaled upon), is very different than a majestic oak with sun limned ferns growing atop a sweeping bow. I’ve seen trees with actual thorns, mangroves with spindly witch hands, and trees with gnarled limbs like knotted arthritic fingers.

 
Pay attention to all of your senses. What sounds do you hear when you go outside? Birds, insects, frogs? Traffic, sirens, jackhammers? What would you feel if those sounds suddenly stop and all you hear in the silence is your own heartbeat and the slosh of your spit as you swallow?

I guess my point is this – writing what you know isn’t just subjects you know about. It’s including sensory descriptions and emotions you can invoke, and for that, you have to get out and actively experience your life. Next time you’re at the mall, pay attention to how the smells change as you go from store to store. If you’re at a restaurant, pay attention to how the noise level varies throughout – is it louder at the bar, when you walk past the table with three kids under five, or near a group of rowdy friends?

I think most of us observe more than we realize during the course of our daily lives, and I know that, as a reader, when a writer includes something – no matter how mundane – that makes me remember an experience of my own, it draws me that much deeper into the story.

Only a small percentage of my fiction is set outdoors, but I do a lot of fieldwork to bring those scenes to life, and what I observe on the trail can apply to other fictional settings as well. (But don’t go seeking out a giant alligator so you can catalogue your body’s fear response 😬. Safety first!)

Writers – what fieldwork do you do for your fiction? And readers – what has an author done to really make you connect with a story?

(All pictures my own, most featured on my Instagram account

A Festival For Our Furry Friends

 

See the source image

There’s a lot of sad, depressing, and enraging news out there, but every once in a while, I stumble upon an article that makes me happy. Quite often said article is satirical or entirely BS. This one, I am thrilled to report, is not. So if you need a lift today, if edits or life or the weathers has you down, I present to you this: 

Source: In Nepal, There Is A Festival Every Year To Thanks Dogs For Being Our Friends

Transmutation (Because It Sounds Cooler Than Metamorphosis)

2020 is the end of an era. Literally. When I started this blog (almost 10 years ago), I knew that I wanted to write. I just wasn’t sure what.

Looking back through my archives, I see book reviews, hiking adventures, recipes, quotes, memes, writing advice . . . I was all over the place. But the important thing, the only thing, really, is that it got me putting words on the screen.

Behind the blog scenes, there were magazine articles, nonfiction stories, and a ton of short fiction created. And that is where I found my writing home – in the land of make believe.

Fast forward to the present. I’ve written dozens of short stories and have a stack of finished novel manuscripts. I’ve had an editor tell me no one would ever publish the story I submitted to him only to have it accepted the same month by Suspense Magazine. I’ve had agents ignore my queries, request my manuscripts, reject my manuscripts, refer me to a colleague who they felt the manuscript would be perfect for only to never hear from said colleague . . . and still, I write.

I’ve felt my skin thicken from tissue paper to paperboard. I’ve cried my way through the bad writing days, laughed my way through the good, and stopped myself from punching a wall countless times during edits.

It’s been a long, sometimes painful, often frustrating journey. A building an author platform as an adult mystery author, realizing that all of my novels had teenage characters and it was those characters who I most enjoyed writing, expanding my reading list and develoving an ABSOLUTE love affair with YA novels, realizing that at my core I am a YA author and whoops, now I have to start all over again kind of insanity.

So . . . here I am. This is my year, so stay tuned. I hope to have some big news for you coming soon.

Shannon Hollinger, Author

 

 

 

 

How To Tell If You’re Writing In Deep Point Of View | Writers In The Storm

Here’s a great article from the Writers In The Storm blog written by guest poster Lisa Hall Wilson. Deep Point Of View can be difficult to master, but it’s a great way to learn how to show versus tell, which will strengthen your writing and draw your readers deeper into your characters and story. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did!

https://writersinthestormblog.com/2019/11/how-to-tell-if-youre-writing-in-deep-point-of-view/

How to Write Tension and Twists by Karen S. Wiesner

Most of us have been there. It’s well past bedtime, our eyes are burning, we know we’re going to pay for it in the morning, but we just. Can’t. Stop. Reading.

What makes a book impossible to put down? What is it that draws us in and keeps us on the hook, addicting us to the pages like a drug? That’s the question – and I love seeking the answers.

For all my fellow writers out there, I read this article earlier and had to share it!

Source: How to Write Tension and Twists by Karen S. Wiesner

Thursday’s Thoughts On Writing ~ Getting Real About Rejection

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been rejected as a writer, but over the years it amounts to hundreds. Hundreds of times that my work, and by proxy, myself, was not good enough. Thanks to my Duotrope stats, I know I’ve been rejected by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine ten times, twice with a personalized letter of rejection from the editor. Thanks to QueryTracker, I know my last novel was rejected 14 times, 7 of those times by agents that requested the full manuscript. My current manuscript has already been rejected 8 times, once by one of the agents that requested the full.

Now let’s look at Churchill’s quote. Have I lost my enthusiasm? Honestly? At moments, yes, but for the most part, no. I love writing. Of the 8 rejections I’ve received on my current novel, two were personalized emails saying that while this particular novel wasn’t for them, my writing was strong, I have a good novel, and some agent is going to want it. Is that success? During my good moments, yes. During the others . . . not so much.

Usually, when I write a post, that’s it. I read it over for typos, then schedule it. Not this time. Not this post. This post found me in the dark place writers sometimes go, that nasty little spot somewhere between self-doubt and city razing rage. (I suspect Godzilla must have been an aspiring novelist.) The unhelpful, ranting parts of this post were deleted. Rewritten. Deleted again. Because I know the game. I choose to play the game. But that doesn’t mean I always like it.

Sometimes those near misses feel even harder than the outright rejections. It’s like getting the candy bar out of the wrapper and into your mouth, tasting its chocolately goodness against your tongue before having it cruelly yanked away. No chocolate for you. Just the hint of it, that’s all. It’s a special kind of torture (especially when put in terms of chocolate!).

Believe me when I say that I understand that rejection is part of the process. Even all those manuscripts that find agents and publishers and homes on the shelves of major bookstores still get rejected by readers and reviewers and people who pass them over for reasons as odd as the cover being the wrong color. There’s no escaping rejection, I get that.

Sometimes I stare at my computer screen, wishing I’d self-publish and offer my books for free on Amazon in exchange for constructive criticism from the readers. Wouldn’t that be a more proactive way of developing my craft than stacking another abandoned manuscript on the dusty pile growing in the corner? Sometimes I Google masochism words trying to find the perfect one to describe the torture situation. And sometimes, I type away lalala all smiles and grins and faith that it’ll work itself out simply because I’m writing, which is (in my opinion) the best of all superpowers and as far as evil villains go, rejection isn’t that bad.

On those dark days, though . . . send chocolate and puppy memes. And tequila. Lots and lots of tequila.

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(Don’t forget to check out the NEW www.shannonhollinger.com with its NEW look at its NEW host.)

Thursday’s Thoughts On Writing ~ Head Space And Mind Frames

Writing takes you inside your own mind. Like, deep inside, into the dark nooks and shadowed crannies where the wildest parts of your imagination are free to roam. It’s the place where monsters are created – both figuratively and literally.

As much as I love immersing myself in the land of make believe, in toiling over my craft and creating new works of fiction, I have to ask myself – what happens when you spend too much time in any dark place? Imagine a plant without sunlight. An animal penned in a small cage. A writer chained to their desk.

What do all these things have in common?

They don’t grow.

And a large part of writing, the biggest part, perhaps, is drawing on your experiences to infuse your work with connections that your readers can identify with. An experience or an emotion that they share with your character that makes them sit back, take notice, and invest themselves in the outcome of the story.

I totally understand needing to be in the right frame of mind to write, or having to clear your head space to work out how to successfully pull off that devious plot twist you’ve dreamt up, and I’m SO guilty of zoning out of a dinner conversation while planning the chapter I’ll write the next day, but every writer has to find a way to turn the facet off (and on) at will.

If you have trouble shutting down with your computer, try establishing a pre- and post-writing ritual. Something that you do every time you start and finish writing. Developing healthy writing habits can help prevent against both writers block and long, sleepless nights spent crafting the most perfect sentences that you’ll never remember.

Because it’s cold and lonely on the dark side of the moon.

 

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