Free Fiction ~ It’s All About The Cat

A woman is dead in her apartment. The only witness? A cat. This cozy mystery featuring Detective Shaw first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

 

It’s All About the Cat

By Shannon Hollinger

 

It’s clear that the cat is a narcissist. Detective Shaw watches the cat stare at its own reflection in the window, licking itself with long, self-indulgent strokes of the tongue. On the floor beneath the window ledge where the cat preens, a woman lays dead in a pool of her own blood. Tiny red paw prints cover the floor. One could almost fool themselves into thinking the cat had been distraught over the woman’s death. The missing flesh from the tip of her nose and the way the cat cavalierly ignores all the humans in the room, suggests otherwise.

“Bet you wish he could talk, don’t you?” a uniformed officer says, nudging the detective with his elbow.

“He?”

“It’s kind of hard not to notice.”

Detective Shaw turns toward the uniform, nose wrinkled in distaste.

Mistaking Shaw’s reaction, he says, “You must be a dog person.”

“Bird, actually.”

“Oh! You’re the one with the parrot. I’ve heard about him. The Professor.”

“Gilligan.”

“I’m Sam.”

“The parrot. His name is Gilligan.”

“Oh, right. I suppose that makes more sense.”

Detective Shaw nods as the crime scene technician gathers her samples and flashes him a thumb up. He squats next to the corpse, his eyes inspecting the body from head to toe.

“So, if it was you lying here, Gilligan would tell us what happened and who did it, right?”

Shaw squints over his shoulder like an annoying gnat is buzzing in his ear.

“Hey, Petie? This guy’s the detective that has the parrot.”

“No kidding? I’ve heard about him. Skipper, right?”

“No, Gilligan.”

“Not that, I know the bird’s name, dummy. I meant him. Detective Skipper, right?”

Shaw sighs. Standing, he claps his hands together and says, “I’d like to thank everyone for your help, but now it’s time to clear the scene.”

“What about Percival?”

“Who?” Shaw spins to face the cop called Petie.

“Percival? The cat.”

“Oh. If you want to wait around until we’re done here, you can take him with you until we notify next of kin if you want.”

“Really? Thanks, Detective Skipper.”

Shaw closes his eyes, counting until he hears the door shut. When he opens them, he finds the crime scene tech, Shirley, regarding him with sympathy as she tries not to laugh.

“Have you processed the cat yet?”

“Nope. Want to pin him down for me?”

Shaw glances at the cat. Percival yawns, his cat mouth opening impossibly wide, the gaping maw lined with tiny, razored fangs.

“I’ll pass.”

“Oh, come on. You two are going to have to become friends. You might as well get it over with now.”

“What do you mean?”

They stand staring at the cat. Reaching a hand up to his shoulder, Shirley gives it a squeeze. She looks up at him from the corner of her eyes, and says, “It’s not just the nose. Look at the left hand.”

Shaw follows her suggestion, his gaze zeroing in on the left hand, tucked tight against the body. His pulse quickens as he registers the bone protruding from the bloody stump of the ring finger.

“There’s no telling what he may have eaten. That cat is evidence. He’s going home with you tonight.”

“The hell. Why can’t you take him?”

“Can’t. Husband’s allergic.”

“Well, then your husband can stay with me.”

Shirley laughs, gives him a grin, then says, “Bet you wish you had a partner right about now, huh?” Shouldering her collection kit, she gathers her evidence bags.

“Where are you going?”

            “I’ve got to get these samples to the lab to process.”

            “But what about the cat?”

            “I lied. I processed him while the M.E. was clearing the body.”

            “But, wait. You can’t leave.”

            “I’ll tell you what. I’ll break the bad news to poor Petie. Now, you gentlemen have a good night together, alright?”

            He can hear her laughing long after the door shuts behind her.

*****

            “I’m sorry.”

            Another seed pelts the back of his head.

            “I said, I’m sorry.”

            A corn kernel grazes his ear as it zooms by.

            “Gilligan.”

            Feathers rustle as he turns to face the parrot.

            “I’ve locked him in the bathroom, what more do you want from me?”

            The bird rolls its pale eyes at him.

            “You want to join him?”

            Gilligan’s head cocks to the side. He shuffles on his perch, turning his back on Shaw.

            “Like I don’t have enough on my plate.”

            Detective Shaw returns to his notes, trying to recover his train of thought. The victim was a single white female, early forties, worked as a CPA for one of the larger local accounting firms. According to her neighbors she was quiet, kept to herself. No one could remember her ever having any visitors over. She lived in the coveted top floor apartment in a building with narrow halls and narrower walls, so their assessment on that front was probably accurate.

            Her coworkers, who had reported her missing, considered her a hard worker, thorough, dependable, but couldn’t remember her ever mentioning any family, friends, or significant other.

            The apartment had been beyond neat; every item had its place; every place was a neatly labeled container of some sort. Nothing appeared to have been taken. She didn’t own a car. She had no debts or vices that he could detect. As far as he could tell, the victim and her life had been completely unremarkable save for the fact that she had bought the apartment building before moving in, and that she was murdered.

            A scratching against the bathroom door is immediately followed by an angry shriek from Gilligan. Shaw walks to the bathroom and cracks the door open. Percival sits staring up at him, fluffy tail curled neatly around his paws. If Shaw didn’t know better, he’d say the cat was smirking. Opening the door a little wider, he sees the shredded roll of toilet paper, a puddle of yellow using the grout between the tile as a flood channel, and a pile of brown on his bath mat.

            He shuts the door with a sigh. How could he have forgotten the litter box? Grabbing a wad of paper towels from the kitchen, he wonders how such a small creature could hold so much mess, then freezes as he’s struck by another thought. He hadn’t brought any food or the cat’s water dish, either.

            Sinking down onto one of the kitchen chairs, he goes over the apartment in his mind, mentally revisiting each room. For the life of him, he can’t recall seeing any of the accoutrements that one would expect to accompany cat ownership. Even his own place bore traces of Gilligan in every room, and the parrot spent most of his time in a cage, albeit with an open door.

            Rummaging through his cupboards, Detective Shaw finds an out of date can of tuna, which he dumps onto a paper plate. Filling a bowl with water, he presents both to the cat, hoping to not incur any additional wrath. Bagging the evidence, he shoves the bathmat in a trash bag and gives the floor a quick cleaning before returning to his desk.

*****

            Shaw arrives at the station early the next morning, and he’s already made two stops. The first was the apartment building of his crime scene, where he had hung a poster displaying the very best of his limited arts and crafts skills. The second was a pet store, where he spent a ridiculous amount of money purchasing cat food and a litter box, and though he’d never admit it, a cat bed and a few toys.

            After leaving several baggies of ‘evidence’ on Shirley’s desk, he heads over to the Medical Examiner’s Office to check on his victim. Entering the autopsy suite, he finds Doc Hastings working over the deceased on the examination table.

            “Morning, Doc.”

            “Detective Shaw! Heard you have yourself a new roommate.”

            “Don’t people have anything better to talk about?”

            “Good news travels fast.”

            “I think your definition of good differs from mine.”

            Hastings smirks.

            “Do you have anything that would help with, oh, I don’t know, the case?”

            “You’re no fun today.”

            “I’m no fun every day.”

            “True.” Returning his attention to the body, Hastings says. “The findings on your victim are pretty cut and dried. She suffered from a single stab wound to the chest. The left ventricle was severed. It’s likely she was immediately incapacitated. Would have been unconscious as she bled out.”

            “What can you tell me about the weapon.”

            “I took a cast of the wound for you, but I feel fairly confident that you’re looking for a pair of scissors.”

            “Really? You ever work a case where scissors were used in a pre-mediated act?”

            “I’ve actually never worked one where scissors were used in a murder. I had one where a lady was running and tripped and stabbed herself once.”

            “That actually happens?”

            “Apparently.”

            “Hmm. Any defensive wounds?”

            “Not even a scratch. Poor gal never saw it coming.”

            “That’s consistent with the theory I’m working.”

            “Care to share?”

            “Not really.”

            “Ouch. At least tell me about the decedent. Who was she? The cranky spinster? A crazy cat lady?”

            “I don’t think either would really apply.”

            “But she had a cat.”

            “Maybe. Maybe not.”

            Placing the victim’s liver on the scale, Hastings spoke the weight into his Dictaphone, giving Shaw a dirty look over the top of his glasses. “Why are you being so difficult today? Are you missing the cat?”

            “What?”

            “Nothing. So, we’re thinking it wasn’t premeditated. Do you concur?”

            “I do.”

            “Which means it was either a crime of opportunity or passion.”

            “There are other options.”

            “Such as?”

            “An accident.”

“Is that what you think this was?”

            “No, not entirely.”

            “Are you trying to crush my last nerve?”

            “I am not.”

            “Then say something useful. Or interesting. Either will do.” He dictates the weight and appearance of the kidneys, then peers at Shaw over his glasses once more. “You may begin.”

            Crossing his arms, Shaw leans against the empty dissection table behind him, the metal cold through the thin fabric of his slacks. “We agree that the crime was not planned.”

            “Correct.”

            “And the victim doesn’t have any defensive wounds, which would support that she didn’t see the attack coming.”

            “Tell me something I don’t know.”

            “The cat belongs to the killer.”

            “Wait. What?” Hastings stops, arms frozen in the act of running the bowel.

            “There were no signs that the cat belonged in the apartment. No water dish, no food, no cat box. Nothing.”

            “Now, that is interesting.”

            Shaw nods. “I think the cat belongs to one of the other tenants in the building. I think the cat followed his owner upstairs when they went to talk to the victim and got left behind when the killer panicked after committing the crime.”

            “So, what are the other tenants in the building like?”

            “They’re all women.”

            “Ah, so it’s the killer who’s the crazy cat lady, not the victim. What are you thinking for motive?”

            “I haven’t a clue.”

            “Then, for your sake, Detective, I hope your theory pans out.”

            Detective Shaw’s phone sounds the Jaws theme from his coat pocket. He glances at the screen, then heads towards the door. “With any luck, this’ll be my proof.”

            Shaw waits for the doors to swing shut behind him before answering.

            “Hello.”

            “Um, yes, I think you found my cat.”

            The voice on the other end of the line is that of an older female. He quickly matches it to one of the faces he saw while interviewing the neighbors the day before.

            “I just may have. Can you describe the cat for me?”

            An irritated sigh is followed by a beat of silence. “Really.”

            “Well . . .”

            “If you insist. He’s a Siamese, blue eyes, tan and chocolate fur, has a collar with the name Percival on it.”

            “Yep, that’s the cat I found.”

            “When can you return him?”

            “When would be convenient for you?”

            Another sigh, like he’s being difficult. “I’d like him returned as soon as possible.”

            “Well, I’m at work, but if I left now, I could pick the cat up and be there within an hour if that would work for you?”

            “I suppose it’ll have to, won’t it?”

            “And what’s the address?”

            “What kind of question is that? You put the flyer up, don’t you remember?”

            “I put flyers up in several buildings in the area, ma’am,” Shaw lied. “I found the cat out by my trash cans. I wasn’t sure which building the cat may have come from.”

            “My Percival never would have gone outside on his own. There’s no reward, you know.”

            “I’m not interested in a reward, ma’am, I just want to return the cat to his rightful owner.”

            “Hmf. Well, it took you long enough. He’s been gone almost three days already.”

            “The address, ma’am.”

            “82 Elm, #3. I’ll expect you within the hour.”

            Pocketing the phone, Shaw pokes his head back into the autopsy suite and asks, “Hey, Doc. You got a time of death for me, yet?”

            “Myofilament decomposition would place death between 60 to 75 hours.”

            “Perfect, Doc, thanks. Gotta run.”

            “Yeah, yeah. You detectives are all the same. You only want me for my . . .” Finding himself alone, Doc Hastings sighs, returning his attention to the task at hand.

*****

            The door opens, revealing a sturdy looking woman in her sixties, a scowl below her glasses, frown lines in heavily creased folds above them.

            “Where’s my cat?”

            Shaw flashes his badge. “I’m Detective Shaw, ma’am. We spoke yesterday about your neighbor.” He gestures with his eyes to the apartment above them.

            “I told you everything I have to say. I’m busy.”

            “Waiting for Percival?”

            Her face scrunches, eyes narrowed, lips puckered. “What do you know about that?”

            “You called me earlier. I made the flyer.” Hearing a snicker from further down the hallway, Shaw clears his throat loudly. “I’m the one who found your cat.”

            “Percival would never leave the building. He never goes anywhere without me. I’ve had him since he was a kitten. He follows me around like a puppy dog.”

            “That’s just what I suspected.”

            “It is?”

            “Yes. Which is why I have this warrant here granting me permission to search your apartment.”

            She snatches the paper from his outstretched hand, glaring at him as she skims the text.

            “This is ridiculous. You’re not coming in. You’re not welcomed.”

            Footsteps approach as Shaw says, “That piece of paper says I don’t need a welcome. Now, if you’ll step aside, ma’am.”

            “I most certainly will not!”

            Two uniformed officers step up, one at each of Shaw’s elbows.

            “You don’t understand,” she says. Her body deflates as Shaw squeezes past her into the apartment.

            “I understand enough,” Shaw says. “I understand that your cat, the one that follows you around like a dog, was found in the victim’s apartment upstairs. I understand that you’ve already put a call in to the property management company, requesting to move to the victim’s apartment. And,” Shaw says, pointing to a sheet of paper on the kitchen counter, “I understand that you have a piece of the victim’s mail in your possession. Ask Shirley to bag this, will you, boys.”

            “You don’t understand,” she repeats. “Look at that bill,” she gestures to the piece of stolen mail on the counter. “Look at what she pays. $60 in the middle of winter in Massachusetts. $60! Do you know what I pay? Closer to $300! I can’t keep paying that on my pension. What was I supposed to do? Keep letting her steal all my heat for free after she stole my apartment?”

            Shaw lifts an eyebrow.

            “My ability to get by on my retirement was based on living in that apartment with that heating bill. I started out on the ground floor of this place almost twenty years ago and have been working my way up since. When the last tenant was moved to a care home, somehow that witch swooped in and stole the apartment from me. Then, when I went up there to ask her to split the electric bill since I was paying for her heat, she refused. Threatened to have me evicted for stealing her mail.”

            “Got it!” Shirley came out of the bathroom, a pair of scissors held up triumphantly in one of her gloved hands. In the other, she held a cotton swab with a pink tip.

            “I didn’t mean to . . . I didn’t mean what happened. Honest. I was just so mad. When she refused to tell me how she finagled her way into the apartment that was rightfully mine . . .”

            “I’ve got the answer to that one,” Shaw says. “She actually had every right to the apartment.”

            He watches her face turn several shades of purple.

            “You see, she bought the building.” Without waiting for a response, Shaw gives the uniformed officers a nod and leaves, the click of the handcuffs following him out the door.

*****

            Detective Shaw struggles to unlock the door, maintaining a precarious grip on the bags he’s juggling. “Gilligan, I’m home.” Shaw sets the bags on the table, untwisting the noose one of the plastic handles has dug into his wrist. “Gilligan?”

            Entering the living room, the first thing he sees is the open bathroom door. The second is the empty birdcage.

            “Gilligan!”

            A halfhearted squawk carries from the couch. Shaw stares at the scene, sinking slowly into the armchair behind him. The cat opens his blue eyes just a slit and smirks at him, then stretches his back legs farther across the couch. Behind him, the parrot continues to groom the fur behind the cat’s ear with his beak. Pausing, he cocks his head at Shaw, whistles, and says, “Pretty kitty.”

            “Don’t be an enabler,” Shaw says. Covering his face with his hand, he can’t help peeking through his fingers. He grins.

END

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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

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/

4 Techniques to Fire Up Your Fiction | Donald Mass | Writer’s Digest

The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the SurfaceWhen it comes to writing tips and advice, Donald Maas is a master! It’s no secret that his book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, changed the way I viewed writing as a whole. I stumbled on this article he wrote for Writer’s Digest back in 2009 – an oldie but a goodie – and had to share!

Source: 4 Techniques to Fire Up Your Fiction | Writer’s Digest

Thursday’s Thoughts On Writing ~ Leveraging Fear

Since it’s Halloween, and I’ve been focusing on tension and suspense in my own writing, today has me thinking about fear, and how fear can be leveraged to increase tension, suspense, character development, and even setting in any genre of fiction.

Image result for halloween movie release dateIf I were to ask, “What are you afraid of?” I’d probably get plenty of similar responses. For some, it’s serial killers, ax murderers, and bad people in general. For others, it’s disease, illness, or the loss of a loved one. Spiders, clowns, heights, and other phobias all have their places, and while all of these themes can be woven into any genre, what if you don’t want to focus on a specific fear, but instead invoke the feeling in general, because, let’s face it – sometimes people (and characters) – don’t know exactly what it is that they’re afraid of. 

See the source imageA general uneasiness of unknown cause can be crafted into scenes that create just as much tension as a character locked in a haunted house with Hannibal Lecter and a dozen sadistic, serial killing clowns.

The question is, how do you leverage fear without making it blatantly obvious?

Well, consider this – fear takes many forms and has many faces. At it’s most general, fear is anxiety. And anxiety isn’t always the enemy, especially when it’s felt by a character in a piece of fiction.

If I were to ask, “What makes you anxious?” would I get the same answer as when I asked what you were afraid of? Now what if I asked, “What makes you uneasy?”

Three different questions, all with different answers.

Image result for dr evilThis is how to subtly leverage fear in your writing. Pick a different emotion or feeling and develop it. Make it grow into something more. Something, dare we say, sinister.

How do you feel about isolation? Would being in an unsettling situation by yourself be more unnerving than if you were with others? How about if others were there, friends even, but there was no cell service, basically cutting you off from the rest of the population? Now, what if you were in a location that further isolated you, like an island?

It’s a popular trope, but a good example in that it’s a situation that can also be enjoyable. On an island with friends and no cell service, nothing to do but relax, unwind, and party? Sounds like torture, right?

But that’s the fun thing about fictional fear – taking paradise and making it pergatory. Best of luck!

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(Click here to check out the new look of www.ShannonHollinger.com)

 

 

Thursday’s Thoughts On Writing ~ The Pregame Show

With NaNoWrMo almost here, I decided to give some thought to the pregame show. Spoiler Alert – This isn’t about sports. And there’s nothing to actually watch. It also isn’t another plotter vs. pantser post. This is about what you write before you write (I’m going somewhere here, I promise).

comp book
Actual picture of my notebook. I use the clip to section off notes from previous works, and the tabs to separate the different works.

I am a pantser, which means I don’t create an outline before I write. More power to the writers who do, it just doesn’t work for me. When I start a new piece, sometimes all I have is the beginning. Or the ending. Sometimes the middle, but more often just an idea I’ve been kicking around that I think I can develop into 60-80,000 words that I hope will keep readers distracted from reality for a while.

I don’t outline because I like to see how things organically progress, like a social experiment where you drop a group of people into a situation and watch to see how they’ll react. But, since I’m more drawn to plot than character, I tend to not know who I’ll be playing with when I start. Which can make the stark white page with the blinking cursor looks kind of daunting at times.

So, while I don’t spend hours plotting out what will happen, I do engage in something called prewriting. That’s when I jot down notes, ideas, and general directions I could go in before I’ve made thousands of words worth of commitment to an idea I’ll later abandon. It lets me see possible names on paper, maybe a quick character sketch or two, locations to consider and some plot points I may want to visit along the way. Basically, it’s a brain dump.

Sometimes, I scratch the whole thing. Other times, I realize one of the characters I’m considering isn’t going to work in the story or with the other characters. It creates a launching point so I can quickly get some words on the blank page. And when I feel adrift in choppy waters, another quick brain dump is usually enough to bring my boat back to smooth sailing.

Pros: It takes all of five minutes, so if you don’t listen to a word of it you haven’t lost much time, and if it doesn’t work, simply try again. It gives you a rough direction if you’re feeling lost. It’s completely fluid – you can add or scratch notes at any time without having to restructure the whole thing.

Cons: It leaves a lot to chance and the writer’s ability to tell themselves a story on the fly as they’re typing. It does not provide the structure of allowing you to see the scene you’ll be writing on a given day. It does not write the story for you.

So, for all of you who don’t want to create a detailed outline of a book you haven’t written yet, but also don’t want to go in blind, I hope this helps! Best of luck to all the writers out there, both those who are and aren’t participating in this year’s NaNo!!!

(Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter for the latest updates, and visit me at http://www.shannonhollinger.com to check out the new look!)

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