Archive for the ‘Short Fiction’ Category

Toos of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

That’s the dream, right? Pack the bags and fuck off to some far-away place for an indulgent period of time to write, research, absorb your surroundings, and write some more.

If you’re like me, and I expect many of you are, you rarely get further than the closest convenient coffeehouse or bar.

But still the dream persists. We hold onto that “What if?” We Google the hell out of that dream destination. We scribble notes for that dream project that we would tackle if only time, money, and life permitted.

So, inspired by a conversation this weekend with a fellow writer, here’s my list of Top 5 dream writing vacation destinations and what I’d work on while I was there.

Mexico City

I’ve heard nightmare stories about Mexico City for years. Mostly by people who watched the movie Man on Fire or have a view colored by their interpretation of crime statistics filtered third hand through other people. Is there crime in Mexico City? Of course. There’s crime everywhere. And it’s a huge city with some extreme disparity of wealth from neighborhood to neighborhood.

But it’s also beautiful city rich with art, culture, and history. A good friend visited there recently and every photo she posted made me want to visit more. Ok, maybe not every photo. I’m still not sure about the consumption of chile-roasted grasshoppers, though I hear they’re delicious. I just can’t wrap my taste buds around that yet.

But a month to wander around, hit the museums and libraries, the markets and cafes–that would be incredible.

I have a short story I want to do about a couple of occult “problem solvers” who themselves happen to be dead. It was inspired by a drawing that same travelling friend did. I’d also really love to write some early Gato Loco stories, maybe a novel, that take place during the beginning of his vigilante career. And I can’t imagine a better way to capture that spirit than some full immersion.

Paris

I’ll admit, I didn’t really see the appeal of Paris until a few years ago.

Ok. So I was wrong.

A month hanging out on the Left Bank, living on black coffee and pastry at outdoor cafes with a notebook on my table? Yeah, that’s pretty much perfect. Give me a camera to capture the buildings, the streets, the flow of the city, and I’ll be in heaven.

I’ve been thinking of writing a series of short mystery stories featuring Jean-Paul Sartre, one of my dad’s heroes. I picture him and Simone de Beauvoir in post-war Paris solving mysteries. Tie that in with some Existentialism and the atmosphere of the city at that time and it practically writes itself. Though I’d really want to soak up as much of that Paris atmosphere–and coffee–that I could before I undertake that kind of endeavor.

New England

I’ve never been to New England. Odd that I’ve been drawn to setting stories there in the last several years. Maybe my brain is trying to tell me something.

On top of setting Cobalt City there just south of Boston in the crook of Cape Cod, I’ve also got a (languishing) punk rock fable called Winter Lullaby set in the fictional western Connecticut town of Devil’s Gap, and the ostensibly YA project Tastes Like Teen Spirit about a young cannibal who falls in love with a serial killer in Pluto Falls, New Hampshire. Also fictional.

But give me a month, preferably October, to pack up a rental and drive from town to town on back roads, stopping where I need, writing where I can, making myself sick on red leaves, apple pie, and maple syrup, and I promise you, I’ll find those fictional towns.

Fez, Morocco

I’ve been wanting to go to Morocco for decades. I want to go to Fez, the high mountain city that happens to be home to one of the world’s oldest universities, in particular. I’ve been fascinated by the Almoravid period, in particular (1040-1147), for much of that time.

Though I’d want to incorporate much of my month there into a big, optimistic sci-fi novel, mostly I’d want to write non-fiction. Essays about the use of public space in Moroccan culture, and studies of urban design. So, lots of time sipping mint tea at cafes (you see a theme by now, I expect), and walking the narrow streets. Taking language classes in the afternoon, maybe even a camel tour out into the Atlas mountains to see a little bit of the countryside.

As for that sci-fi novel, it’s going to take place in three locations. One is near orbit, so that’s out of the travel plans. The part that takes place in Morocco involves a former NASA astronaut, the last American to go to space, who is finding a late-in-life career as a consultant to a pan-African space program that is building an orbital launch platform in an international race to send a manned mission to Mars. He gets caught up in the intrigue and politics of the mission, very much a stranger in a strange land.

But I feel I need to have that experience to do it justice.

As for the third part of the book…

Cameroon

I’ll be honest. I don’t know how I landed on Cameroon when I was looking at African countries near the Equator to set the other third of this book. Something about the country just grabbed my imagination. I’ve decided the launch platform for the space agency is located there, and one of the three main characters is a mid-level security supervisor for the site who begins to suspect a plot to sabotage the program. And when he is attacked and left for dead, he figures out someone on the inside, higher up on the chain of command, is part of the conspiracy.

Of all the five travel destinations, this one is the biggest wild-card. I don’t know much about Cameroon. In fact, one of the deciding factors might have been their national basketball or soccer team snagging my innate love of underdog sports teams. But I’ve been wanting to visit Africa for a long time, and it’s a huge continent with even more huge cultural diversity. At some point, you just have to roll those dice and open yourself up to the experience.

That is, if I ever get the resources to do any of these writing vacations.

In the meantime, there’s always the coffeehouse across the street.

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

On May 16th, Meerkat Press will release their eagerly awaited superhero anthology Behind the Mask. (It’s available for pre-order now and the advance reviews have been great and the table of contents boasts some exciting names.)

This is particularly relevant to me because my Cobalt City story “Madjack” happens to be between those pages–a fact I couldn’t possibly be happier about. It’s particularly joyous for me, because the concept of Madjack has been kicking around in my cranium in some capacity since late 1991. And I can pinpoint it with that much accuracy because the two initial inspirations were Marvel’s Captain Britain with a costume that was more Jack of Clubs and less flag and… wait for it… Freddie Mercury.

The original Madjack was a British man with a terminal illness who could hold off death but only as long as he remained in his transformed Madjack self. Which he did for a while because he feared what would happen to him after his death. But when the time came, he accepted fate and sacrificed himself so the team could live.

Yes. The martyr trope. Such anguish. Much wow. What can I say? I was 22 and Queen’s “Show Must Go On” devastated me.

And I thought that was it. But still the idea of a Madjack–not a person so much as a concept that was passed down, a symbol of something unknown–it stuck with me on some level.

Fifteen years later, I was living in Seattle and part of a writing group that tried to turn out fresh material every other week. Somehow, Madjack resurfaced. But this time, the story centered on young man from a wealthy family in Hong Kong whose industrialist father dies under mysterious circumstances. Forced to return home from the states, he begins to uncover that his father might have been, much to everyone’s surprise, the superhero known as Madjack. And what’s more, his father wasn’t even from “around here,” and it was up to this young man to pick up his father’s mantle and legacy to avenge him.

And honestly, I never finished writing the story. Never got more than a few thousand words into it. Something was missing.

That’s the thing with what I call “junk drawer” stories. They’re often little more than neat concepts or characters looking for something else to make them complete.

I thought I had that something just a few years later when my love of early David Bowie sparked with the Madjack idea. What if, just what if Ziggy Stardust really HAD been an alien who came to Earth and became a musician? What if his own daughter didn’t really know if it was true or not? A musician in her own right, trying to forge some kind of her own path in the shadow of her exponentially more famous father, what was her story? It’s worth noting that at this point, Madjack moved away from the normal superhero tropes of “person with super strength and force fields and flight” and into something more complicated–“person with extreme empathy and projective empathy, with the other powers stepped down to take a back seat.”

I even plotted out a full novel I’d intended to write for NaNoWriMo in 2015. Called Throne of Stars, it was going to involve the new Madjack hiring John Gallows to act as her bodyguard during a week long period of shows in Cobalt City while she figured her shit out and processed her father’s death (and the followup attack of the aliens who killed him in the first place.) Think the movie The Bodyguard, but with a teleporter with self-esteem problems in the Kevin Costner role.

The problem is, I still couldn’t find the damn hook, and it was bugging the hell out of me. But I figured I could put it back in the junk drawer and let it rattle around a little bit longer. There was no pressing reason I had to write it now, right?

Then January 10th, 2016.

I was back in Durango, staying with my mom and helping my son move when I heard David Bowie died. I was a wreck for a couple of months. And let’s face it. 2016 was a brutal goddamned year.

I got talking with a few of the other Cobalt City authors, and we started kicking around the idea of writing stories about rock and roll set in the city. And I knew I had something with Madjack. I needed to do something with her. I had a few false starts, but something was missing. There was an emotional core that was missing, and I couldn’t find it.

So I went on a drive. No destination in mind, I just packed up my laptop, put a few CDs in the car stereo, and took off in a northerly direction. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of your head and letting things happen. It certainly was in this case.

I don’t honestly know how many times I had to hear this particular song before it clicked, but suddenly it did. I listened to it again and things started falling into place. I kept listening to the song as I raced to the nearest place with coffee and an electrical outlet. And in doing so, I figured out the heart of the story. I posted up in a Starbucks in some anonymous mall off the interstate and dropped down the first half of the story. The next two days, I wrote the rest of that first draft and sent it out to a friend for another opinion.

I loved the hell out of it, but didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, what to do with a superhero story where no one is fighting crime? Who wants a superhero story about a person dealing with their complicated family life and questions of identity?

Then Behind the Mask showed up on my radar, looking for stories of superheroes on their downtime. It was perfect timing. Weirdly perfect timing.

So now Madjack is almost out in the world and I can hardly wait for you to read it and the other incredible stories in Behind the Mask. I think you’ll enjoy. Madjack will even play a part in the Cobalt City novel I’m currently in the middle of. Her journey is just beginning.

Oh, and the song that provided the final spark? I borrowed my protagonist’s name from it.

Gato Loco + Shadow

The devil rides tonight!

I don’t know how other authors do it, but at least in my case, it’s uncommon for a character to leap fully-formed from brain to paper. I find that often times the character comes together in bits and pieces until they’re ready to be seen. And even then, they can continue to evolve over time. For me, it’s one of the most compelling things about writing.

So, let’s take a look at Gato Loco.

Gato Loco began not as Gato Loco, but as Manuel de la Vega, a swashbuckling hero created for a 7th Sea RPG somewhere around 1999-2000. Inspired by the character Richard St Vier from Ellen Kushner’s fantastic novel Swordspoint, he was driven to be the best swordsman around. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I highly suggest it. Courtly manners, dashing swordplay, and a fabulous gay protagonist. The game only lasted a few sessions before personalities caused it implode, but during that brief run, Manuel did get the chance to mask up to conceal his identity. Making an improvised mask from a bit of curtain, he proclaimed himself el grande pantalones. Yes. The swashbuckler known as The Big Pants.

It should be pointed out, my Spanish at the time was pretty much non-existent.

I liked something about his personality enough that when I ran an even shorter term superhero game on the Paladium superhero RPG, I brought him back. This time many of the familiar elements of the character were present: black leather cycling suit, cat-head helmet, sleek motor cycle, nimble, and a little bit psychic. Much of this visualization was inspired by the look of Kaneda in the manga/movie Akira. Swap out his red costume for black, slap on a helmet, and you’re there. He even had the iconic giant laser gun known from the end of the movie. However, he wasn’t even called Gato Loco yet. Instead, he used the name Krazy Kat.

In 2002, Green Ronin released the Mutants & Mastermind RPG, and a distillation of Manuel de la Vega surfaced again in a game run for my kids and girl friend (and then wife) over the summer. This time, I dropped the laser, added the familiar stage-field generator force fields, and adopted the name Gato Loco (both because Krazy Kat was a cartoon cat and at this time the character of Wild Kat was being added to the setting). This game which came to be known as the Mysterious Five also saw the creation of the Tesla Twins, Mister Grey, the Society of Evil Geniuses (including Kara Sparx, Lumien, and Nicodemus Candledark).

It then spun out into a big blow-out one-shot game that saw the Icons leave Earth, followed by a massive extra-dimensional invasion that allowed me to bring most of the core of the next iteration of the game. This was the longest run period of Gato Loco as a character, even though he’d largely been side-lined to a support character in favor of Mister Grey. During this period, the Protectorate took shape and I started taking writing seriously again.

Part of that was writing the Gato Loco story “Masks.” While an early story, it helped solidify the shape of Gato Loco as a fiction character, and the shape of the Cobalt City universe as a something other than a game setting. Encouraged by Kathleen, Wild Kat’s creator, I undertook writing a novel for the first time in my adult life. I chose to write a Cobalt City novel, the book that became Cobalt City Blues. In it, I told an epic story that was logistically impossible to run as a game–too many solo elements. It had been written for fun. Just something to share among the players in the game. And not only did it give me a chance to tell a big chunk of Gato Loco story, it brought back the giant cutting laser not seen since the old Paladium game–though this time it was wielded by the panda Snowflake. And the chemistry between Manuel and Snowflake was undeniable.

Cobalt City Blues ended up became something enduring. Much to my surprise.

Then in November 2005, in the middle of some huge life changes, I decided to undertake National Novel Writing Month. That month, I wrote Greetings from Buena Rosa. Taking part a year after the dissolution of the Protectorate, it was yet another evolution of Manuel de la Vega. Crippled by the events that led to the end of the Protectorate, he hadn’t been Gato Loco for a year. Forced out of retirement to help a cousin in a Mexican border town, it focused on Manuel as a detective looking for his place in the world rather than the grim specter of Cobalt City. It and the subsequent book allowed me to kind of go back to his roots as a cycle racer and detective, travelling around the country with Snowflake.

And now, I’m evolving him yet again: back in Cobalt City, legs and spine damaged beyond the point where he can wear the Gato Loco suit, he’s busy training his replacement and figuring out what’s next. Gato Loco may not ride anymore, but Manuel de la Vega goes on.

I look forward to exploring that in future stories on my Patreon.

If you’re not a subscriber yet, you might want to look into it. I expect to have a new Manuel de la Vega story posted sometime in June.

 

Ampersand
We have a parade that runs through the heart of my neighborhood every summer. For some, it’s a source of joy. For others, not so much. I got caught in it a few years ago and made the comment “Hell is a parade,” and a friend who is much smarter than me said I should write that story.

So I did. It is short. It is brutal. It is the meanest thing I’ve ever written.

And since that parade descends upon my neighborhood again this evening, it seemed only fitting to share it with the world.

Warning for language and violence. So kiddies, have your parents read it first.


(more…)

The Dark of the Year

Posted: December 29, 2015 in Anthologies, Novels, Short Fiction
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Time is never on our side.

It seems like it’s been a year since we’ve done this. It was, in point of fact, almost a year, since I sat here and looked back at the year that was and the year to come. The dark of the year provides a good opportunity for perspective, like standing on a high peak, the world spread out around you.

I had hoped we’d make progress as a nation in confronting systemic racism and a murderous (and unjust) criminal justice system. Instead, it appears to be getting even worse, black and brown men, women, children gunned down by police, arrested for no cause, left to die. Coupled with bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia digging in like a stubborn tick, 2015 has been a challenging, and for far too many, a deadly year.

America, get your shit together. You can do better. You NEED to.

Ok. I’m getting off the soap box. That’s not why y’all come here anyway. Let’s take stock of the personal and professional milestones of the year that was 2015.

I had planned on finishing Rooks and Ravens and publishing the latest Cobalt City novel both of which happened, though the title changed on the later project to Ties that Bind. But Rooks is not ready for submission yet, and though Ties sold a handful (literally, a handful, as in less than 5) of copies, I have no reason to believe anyone has read it. Not that I can blame them, really. I love the book, but the subject matter is bleak, and the desire for escapism in the bleak year that was 2015 makes a lot of sense. I did not touch the novella trilogy at all until a week ago, so I’m kind of beating myself up over that. I wrote only one new short story, “The Last Real Man” which was published in the fantastic Selfies from the End of the World anthology. And instead of writing a new Cobalt City book in November, I wrote my first full horror novel, the haunted house story The Lictonwood. Time will tell if anything will come of that.

The biggest writing news in the last year was that Ink Calls to Ink, which I was afraid I’d eventually have to self-publish, was picked up and published by CHBB Publishing in July to rave reviews. It has made for an interesting year in which I learned a lot about marketing and promotion. And people seem to love the book, so I feel vindicated there.

The less sunny writing news from 2015 is that I spent a lot of time feeling like I was spinning my wheels as a writer. There were a lot of false starts, a lot of abandoned projects. I spent too many days in the last year feeling like a fraud–even a few where I contemplated giving up on writing entirely. It didn’t last. It never does. But it was a rough year. I had two novels and one novella that started off in a blaze of excitement die before they found their legs. I might be able to go back and resurrect one or two of them. I don’t know.

Other sad news was the untimely death of my favorite local karaoke bar. Though it was reborn newer, slicker, and cleaner (with better food), the community that had grown up there has largely scattered. The drinks are more expensive, the bar stools aren’t held together with duct tape, and the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” vibe is gone. I still do karaoke at the new location, but it’s been a rough transition. I miss my karaoke family.

Looking forward into 2016, I’m starting off the year driving my son back to Colorado before he flies to Florida for a great new job opportunity. Our schedules made it difficult for us to see each other when he was here, but I still loved having him in Seattle. It’s our loss, but it’s Florida’s, and his, gain.

Other hot-ticket calendar items include Norwescon 39 over Easter weekend. I put together the Horror track for them in 2015 and it went well enough that I was invited to come back and do it again. I’m thrilled with the lineup of panels and panelists. That weekend is going to be outstanding.

As for writing, I’m still doing it. Finishing something in November put a bit of a fire in me. I’m letting The Lictonwood sit for a few months before giving it a hard second draft. Then it’s off to beta readers and a third draft before I submit. At this point, at least, I think it’s an entirely marketable horror novel. I guess we’ll see what the beta readers think. While it sits and rests, I’m writing A Winter Lullaby, which is less urban fantasy than it is rock ‘n roll fable. I’m making good progress and hope to have the first draft done by end of February. I’ve also dug out the novella, the first part of the Shadows of Architecture. I think there’s life in it. I’m giving it one more edit pass and then sending it around. Time permitting, I’ll write the other two parts, and if no one bites on the novella, I will combine it all into a novel. Like motherfucking Voltron. I’m sure another novel lies in wait for next November, maybe even sooner. Time will tell what shape that takes.

I have no plans for short stories at the moment. But I do have four out making the rounds now. My short fiction has been hard to slot into a category or genre lately, so it’s been more difficult to sell. I’ll still write it if the story is there, but it’s taking up far less of my focus these days, and that’s okay.

Finally, the last new thing I’m writing is comedy. Yeah. You heard me right. I’ve been flirting with the idea of trying my hand at stand-up comedy since World Fantasy in Toronto a few years back. But I never followed through. Turns out one of my friends from karaoke also has the comedy bug, so we’re going to workshop a few things, put together a tight set, and try our hands at open mic somewhere in Seattle.

Because if we need anything in our lives right now, it might be a little bit of light, joy, and humor.

See you in 2016.

Taksara abides

Taksara abides

A continuation of the Drawlloween experiment. A short piece from what was originally an art prompt, each individual piece no more than 500 words. Fun-size, if you will.

This was where things began to take a strange turn for me, where the daily exercises became something different.

Parts 6-10 follow.

Enjoy.


6 – Pumpkin

The key, his dad taught him before he could walk, was to be fast. Create the image of what you want to carve and hold onto it. Burn it into your mind. The triangle eyes. Goofy, toothless smile. Visualize and when you can draw it with your eyes closed, it’s time for the knife.

Not before.

Once it came time to cut, it was all fast strokes. No hesitation.

That’s why he was the best.

It was his favorite time of year. The sound of leaves under foot. The smell of the changing season. He missed the farm where he grew up, the harvest festivals. And everywhere, pumpkins.

He sat in the dark, fingers rubbing a groove in the black wood of the knife’s grip as he concentrated until his head hurt. The vision was perfect. The knife felt sure in his small hand. All he needed was a pumpkin.

He heard the jingle of keys in the hallway outside. The neighbor lady was finally home. His grandmother who had taken him in after the accident with his parents called her a “filthy hoor” but he didn’t really know what it meant. He figured it had something to do with her late hours. It was already past 2. His grandma had been asleep for hours already, breath heavy with her medicine.

The keys rattled in the lock.

Silent as a statue behind the arm of the sofa, he waited. The front door swung open, casting a silhouette of his neighbor across the floor in the hallway light. She stepped in and closed the door, not even bothering with the lights.

That was fine. He didn’t need light to carve the pumpkin. He was almost on top of her when she turned on the lamp and saw him, just shy of four feet in Sesame Street Underoos, blank face, wicked knife in his little hand. They both froze for a second before she started screaming. And then he moved, slashing a smile through her blue dress with deep, sure strokes.

7 – Haunted House

As haunted houses went, Mark Obiyashi had seen a lot worse. Wind howled through the windowless frames in the wall, a yawning abyss of darkness beyond. The lights flickered and swayed. Somewhere, deeper within the house, someone was sobbing, but he’d already checked those rooms and confirmed that he was alone.

“You sure this is the place?” Grandfather Yoshi said.

Well, alone except for the ghost of his grandfather, his near-constant companion for most of his life. But despite being a ghost himself, the former soldier was crap at picking up on others of his kind. He didn’t have the gift. Not like Mark. Otherwise he would have seen the matched set of tormented dead that had just appeared, cowering against the near wall.

They were both in pajamas, he in wide-lapel flannel, she in an ankle-length cotton nightshirt, sleeveless. Both of them bore the wounds that killed them, the by-now familiar knife wounds in their abdomens. The husband also had deep knife wounds across his bleeding palms, indicating he might have woken up and tried to block the blade. Husband and wife also had carved pumpkins worn over their dead faces.

“That’s a new one,” Mark muttered under his breath.

“You found the first ones?” Yoshi said. He sounded skeptical.

He ignored his grandfather and edged closer to the new ghosts. “I’m here to help,” he said calmly, palms out. He could feel the ectoplasm in the room, curling around his fingers like warm taffy. It was that same tenuous trail of ectoplasm which had led him here from his apartment, from the Screaming Woman. “You knew them. Whoever did this to you, you know them.”

The wife lowered her pumpkin head, shook it in denial. Mark figured she had likely been dead before she woke so she hadn’t seen the attack anyway. The husband whispered something. A single word slipping between pumpkin teeth.

“Trevor.”

“Who is Trevor?” Mark said, hoping the name might jar something loose in the wife as well.

“He’s just a boy,” the woman said.

Was just a boy, Mark figured. If Trevor was still alive at this point he’d be well into adulthood. The Screaming Woman had been sometime in the mid-80’s. These two, sometime before that. It had been a good thirty years. That was one hell of a head start, but at least he had a name now. With that and an approximate year, he could fill in the details. Not impossible, but difficult.

But if Mark was going to put Screaming Woman to rest, he had to try.

8 – Zombie

Jerry shuffled into the kitchen in the same jeans and t-shirt he had passed out on the den sofa wearing. He blinked against the morning sun streaming in the sliding glass door, searching for bacon, the scent of which had roused him in the first place.

“Bacon?” He mumbled to Wendy who was setting out plates on the kitchen table.

“In the oven,” she said. “And I’ll make eggs just as soon as you get back from the Millers.”

“The Millers?”

“You still owe them an apology for last night. I’d tell you to shower because you look like a damn zombie, but they love Halloween so, maybe that works to your benefit.”

He dimly remembered disrupting their backyard party. He smacked at the stank-mouth he woke up with and wondered how much of that had come from trying to kiss or maybe bite their big Golden Retriever, Michael. “I’ll be back,” he mumbled.

Slippers retrieved, he crossed the dewy front lawn to the Miller’s split-level tract home. They’d already gone all-out decorating for Halloween, despite it being two weeks away. Decorative pumpkins, some real, some plastic, littered the lawn. The man of the house was already up, sitting on the front porch with a cup of coffee next to him. A pumpkin sat on his lap. As Jerry approached, he saw Trevor Miller raise a wicked looking carving knife to the orange flesh of the pumpkin. He felt like he was interrupting something sacred, and his heart caught in his throat.

“Jerry,” Trevor said calmly.

“Hey, Trev. So, I screwed up last night. I went off my meds and…”

“This about the barbeque?”

“Yeah. I made an ass of myself and I’m so sorry.”

Trevor shrugged. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Jerry. His face was a void of emotion. “It’s not a problem, Jerry. No harm done.”

It was a huge relief. Or it should have felt like one. The way Trevor watched him still made Jerry nervous. The Millers had only been neighbors for about a year. And it wasn’t like they were close. “Great, Trevor. That’s great.”

The knife slipped effortlessly into the orange flesh of the pumpkin and Trevor smiled, eyes closing slightly. “I’ll be seeing you, Jerry. Happy Halloween.”

Jerry headed back home with more urgency in his step than before.

9 – Eyeball

The lights flickered on in the underground garage, though the big man didn’t need them to see. He was used to being a lot further underground than this. But his companion was still a creature of the light, though he had high hopes for her. He led her to a high shelf at the back of the space, their heels clicking and echoing off the perpetually damp concrete. He’d tried to do something about the moisture, but even Hell’s contractors had limitations. The miracle workers largely went to the other place.

“This is surprisingly serial killer of you,” the woman at his side said, voice tinged with respect. She stepped closer to the shelf overburdened with small boxes and jars. Some of the jars held dry items. A finger here, an insect husk there. Some contained objects in liquid, only a few of which were identifiable. She pointed to one wide, jar full of pale green liquid with thick shapes floating within. “What’s this?”

“Pickles,” the big man said. “This place in Brooklyn makes them. They’re out of this world. I always keep a jar handy.” He made a sound of discovery and retrieved a jar from high on the shelf. “Here. This is what I was looking for.”

She took the offered jar. It was small, like something you’d use to store gourmet jelly. A single eye floated within, the iris cornflower blue. “Who did this belong to?”

“A guy in Kansas who saw too much,” the big man said. “He made me a deal, and I got the eye when he died. If you’re going to work for me, you’ll need it.”

She held the eye up to her own eye, amused how it seemed to track the big man. Doubly amused with how even a disembodied eye could look scared. “I’m still not entirely sure what you want me for.”

“There’s this kid named Mark Obiyashi. He sees ghosts. It looks like he’s going to stick his stupid nose in something I’ve been setting up for thirty years. If I deal with it myself, I tip my hand.”

“So, Hell subcontracts?”

He smiled big and bright. “You my girl, May? You have the drive, the juju to stop a deadspeaker?”

“I’m your girl, sir.”

10 – Alien

Mark put the five lollipops on the gas station counter and fished cash out of his Velcro black and white checkerboard wallet. The candy stared up at him, the multi-colored alien faces seemingly indifferent to their eventual fate. He unwrapped one of the cinnamon flavored ones while the clerk counted back change.

Grandfather Yoshi was waiting by the front door, and easily kept up as Mark dropped his longboard to skate back towards home. “How many do you think he killed?”

Mark was reluctant to give concrete numbers without counting the ghosts himself. An hour in the library with the assistance of a recently deceased reference librarian had given him a chilling estimate, however. “At least nine,” he said.

But he knew the real total was likely more. The most recent body had been found six years ago in Ohio and had been dead for a few more years before that. It was only fate that it got discovered at all. Over time, Trevor had gotten good at hiding his activities. After killing his parents and then a year later Jackie, the woman currently haunting his apartment, he’d gone to a psychiatric facility. He’d been released late November, 1995, theoretically cured. The second of November, 1996, another body turned up, torso carved like a jack o’lantern, but he was already long gone.

“It’s possible the Ohio murder was the last one,” Mark said around the cinnamon flavored alien head sucker. “It was nine years ago, and no more bodies have been found. So maybe he died. Or maybe he hides them better. But the fact that these ghosts are still out there looking for closure, I’m thinking he’s still alive.”

“So what now?”

“Now?” Mark kicked down the street. “Now we find as many of his ghosts as we can. We bring them home. And fast. Because Halloween is right around the corner.”

My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

A challenge appeared on Tumblr a few weeks ago. Drawlloween. Intended as an artist prompt, to draw a little something from each of the 31 daily prompts through the month of October. I love Halloween. I consider October Halloween month. And while I do art on occasion, that’s way too ambitious for my limited skills. So I decided to undertake the challenge as a writing exercise–a short piece, each under 500 words, for each prompt.

As things often do, it became something… else.

I’ll be re-publishing them in blocks of 5 throughout the month here.


1 – Ghost

The blood curdling sounds of someone being stabbed to death in the next room woke Mark from pleasant dreams about the ocean. He blinked in the direction of his bedside clock. 2:25. Right on schedule. The Screaming Girl was back.

With a groan, he rolled out of the narrow bed and shuffled through his discarded clothes to the door. He fumbled with the light switch on the brick wall next to him, illuminating the single space that served as living room, dining room, and kitchen in his small Bronx walk-up.

Screaming Girl stood in a pool of phantasmal blood wearing a party dress circa 1985 with the shoulder pads to prove it. The dress was pale blue except for the front where a knife had carved up her abdomen like a Halloween pumpkin leaving the ragged remains slick and red-black. There was no assailant present as they’d had something like a three decade head start. Screaming Girl’s head was tilted back, mouth hung wide like a Cottonmouth snake in anguish, a scream that would shake the windows if the windows were psychically sensitive cascading out of it.

“Hey!” Mark said a bit too loudly, causing the scream to strangle off as she looked at him, momentarily confused. “I have classes tomorrow morning. Could you maybe not?”

“You can see me?” Screaming Girl said.

She always said that, every night since he moved in a week ago. Ghosts, man. Memory span like a chronic pot smoker. Absent-minded sacks full or rage and pain. “Yes. I can see you. I can hear you too. “

“Oh.” She looked confused. She looked at Mark then down at the killing wounds she’d been carrying ever since someone gutted her in her living room. “I’m dead.”

“Yeah. Are we done for the night?”

“I suppose,” she said. “Sorry.”

Screaming Girl faded out, taking the phantasmal gore of her murder with her.

Could be worse. At least she wasn’t like the poltergeist in that place in Denver that broke all his shit before he could move out. With a sigh, he turned out the light and returned to his bedroom.

Grandfather Yoshi was waiting for him, staring out the window at the still unfamiliar neighborhood, the yellow street lights showing through his wispy form. He was still wearing the military uniform he had been buried in one fine April morning, 1944. “Can you believe some people?”

2 – Devil

The bullets stopped—hovered in the air in a suddenly crystalline moment. He counted four: one that would surely miss, while three flew true. The one mere inches from his face was the most troubling as, like the bullets, Grant was also frozen in place.

He felt a chill that prickled the skin on the back of his neck mere seconds before he heard the voice. “Freaks you out a bit, doesn’t it.” A dapperly dressed, thick-set man stepped nimble as a baby dear into his vision, avoiding the rivers of blood on the off-white linoleum floor. Not fat. No, he’d never call this strange man with the sharpened smile fat. Thick.

“What’s going on?”

The stranger looked around as if for the first time, eyes mockingly wide. “Well, Grant, what’s going on is that you walked into this clinic, guns blazing, wounded eight women and killed five more. That’s what’s going on.”

“I was doing God’s work.”

The smile did not falter, but the eyes turned hard, like the big man wished he was biting the head off a chicken with those perfect white choppers. His voice was cold as he tapped out a cigarette and lit it with the tip of one finger. “So you said at the time. But I’m afraid you were mistaken. I’m the one here who’s doing God’s work.”

Grant found that being frozen such as he was, he couldn’t even void his bladder, though his instincts to do so were strong indeed. “Are you an angel?”

“Not so much. Needed room to stretch my wings, so I moved out of dad’s place. Moved downtown, if you know what I mean.”

Grant sized the big man up. It wasn’t exactly how he had pictured the Devil. “You’re here to take me to Hell? After everything I’ve done in God’s name?”

The mirth returned to the Devil’s face. “Buddy, it’s because of what you’ve done in His name that Heaven doesn’t want you. To be honest, I don’t want you either. You’re kind of a sad and petty asshole, and I’d rather not have to see you around. It would depress me.”

Grant was confused. “So, I get to live?”

The Devil’s laugh boomed. “No. You get to wander forever, burdened by all the pain you’ve caused. Invisible. Intangible. Forgotten. Now fuck off.”

With a puff of brimstone, time resumed.

3 – Goblin

The bars were long empty, the beleaguered cocktail waitresses and bartenders settling into cracked leatherette booths of all-night diners for a post-work dinner while their former customers staggered home or slept it off in their cars before attempting the drive on foggy Karlsburg streets.

And then there was Henry and Amy, leaning against each other for support as they snuck noisily into the dark playground of Nathan Hale Elementary. “You sure this is a good idea?” Henry asked, “Won’t the police have a problem with us being here after dark?”

“No one comes in here after dark,” Amy said. “Not after the dun dun DUN incident.” She punctuated her dramatics by turning and walking clumsily backward, making a spooky hands at her companion. She overestimated her ability to navigate backwards in her current condition and was sent sprawling on her ass in the shredded rubber chips around the slide with a yelp.

Henry looked a shade more sober than before as he looked around, eyes wide. “Wait, this is the school they say is haunted? The one where they found that body a few years ago?”

“Five years ago. And it’s not haunted,” Amy said, waiving off the help to stand that Henry, in his fear, wasn’t bothering to offer. She used the slide’s corrugated metal later as a brace and struggled to her feet. “Haunting are ghosts. No ghosts here. At least I don’t think there are any ghosts here. Never heard of any when I went here.”

Henry decided there was safety in numbers and edged closer to Amy next to the bulk of the old metal slide. “You went here? I thought you said you moved here from Boston.”

“I went to Boston for college, but I grew up here.” Amy waved her arms wide. Her voice took on a note of melancholy. “I grew up right here. You know, they say this city’s name is derived from the word kobold.”

His attention was split between Amy and the deep darkness of the unfamiliar space. He could swear he heard skittering footsteps on the surrounding asphalt. “Kobold? What’s a kobold?”

“Goblins. Like toddlers gone horribly wrong. Big, black eyes. Big scabby ears. Smile that looks like a rusted hacksaw.” Amy grabbed ahold of his hand as if for safety and he squeezed it reassuringly. “They don’t like the light. And they’re always hungry.”

Through the alcohol haze, he felt the cold touch of a handcuff around his wrist. He tried to pull away in shock to find the other end attached to the sturdy frame of the slide. Amy stepped out of arm’s reach. She seemed more sober than before. “Stop fucking around. This isn’t funny.”

But she wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, her eyes searching the dark playground, arms wide, inviting. “I brought you another offering,” she shouted. “Five more years! That was our deal!”

Henry was sure there was movement in the shadows now. And they were hungry.

4 – Vampire

The jangling bells of the princess phone next to the bed woke her well before her alarm, before even the sun had cracked the horizon. In that transition from drowsy to full wakefulness, she dropped the receiver on her face trying to answer it, a whine of “Ow” before her mumbled “Hello?”

“Jackie, it’s Hamilton. Sorry I woke you but I needed to talk to someone before the end.”

Jackie sat up in bed, heart racing. She hadn’t spoken to Hamilton since he’d broken her heart two weeks ago, but she hadn’t stopped loving him. “Before what’s over? Ham? Are you about to do something stupid?”

“Things are moving too fast,” he said. “The world, I mean. The world is moving too fast. There was a time I thought I could keep up, but ’85 has been a weird year for me.”

“Baby, what are you talking about?”

“There are things I haven’t been completely honest about. When I said I was born in New York in ’59, I meant York. In England. And I meant 1659.”

Jackie opened her mouth to try and talk sense into him, but suddenly a lot of the things that had caused stress in their relationship started to make sense. The objections that formed in her brain came out as a simple, “Huh. Vampire?”

“Yeah. Sorry. I wanted to be honest with you, and I guess better late than never.”

Now that she knew the truth, she wondered if there was a way to start over, a way to make things work. Sure, he was a creature of darkness, but he was a lot better than all the other guys she had dated. “It’s okay, Ham. We can make this work. You want to come over? I can keep the blinds down.”

Hamilton was quiet on the other end of the phone. She thought she could hear the hiss of truck brakes in the background. “Love you, Jackie. Had to call and tell you that. I’ve been feeling lost and afraid for a long time and you’ve been a bright spot in the dark. And I want to see the sun again.”

Fear chased the last of the sleep from her blood. “Where are you?”

“The park where we met, near the bench with a great view of the sunrise.”

She hung up and threw on clothes. The park was only six blocks away and panic gave her feet wings. But it wasn’t enough. The sun was fully up by the time she reached the park, the bench with the view, and the glass phone booth. A block of wood braced the door closed from the inside.

And on the floor, a fine, gray dusting of ash.

5 – Werewolf

The back door was ajar, though he would have burst through if it hadn’t been. It would take more than a sliding glass door to stop a mighty werewolf! He knocked over the trashcan just inside the door. A discarded milk carton and soggy filter full of coffee grounds toppled out onto the linoleum. He howled, staggered into the center of the kitchen and howled again.

A woman’s voice from the next room. “Jerry?”

He stopped in his tracks, teeth barred.

His wife entered the kitchen with a rolled up copy of Marie Claire. “Jerry! The Millers called. What the hell has gotten into you?”

“Get away, Wendy! I’m a werewolf!” He growled at her, menacingly.

She sighed. “No, Jerry. No you’re not.”

Jerry lunged for her only to be smacked on the nose with the magazine. He backed down with a whimper. “I’m the Alpha.”

“You’re an idiot who doesn’t realize he’s not a kid anymore, who took three hits of acid you got from hell knows where, and then decided to crash our neighbor’s barbeque, crap on their lawn, and bite their Golden Retriever.”

“He was a Beta…” Jerry started only to be whacked into silence with a few more blows from the magazine.

“You’re going to sleep this off on the sofa in the den,” she said, pointing a manicured index finger at him. “Then you’re going to take a shower and go apologize to the Millers. I’m not moving because of you again.”

He cowered, eyes down, tracing lines in the damp coffee grounds on the floor next to him. “Yes dear.”

“Now clean up your mess,” she said, returning to her book club in the other room. “And get your shit together, Jerry. Or I’m buying a gun with some goddamned silver bullets.”

Time is never on our side.

Time is never on our side.

It was a pretty typical Saturday morning writing group–some writing, some socializing, some knocking ideas around. In discussing how some town names are more common than others, a story idea was born.

Well, less an idea and more of a seed. A McGuffin.

And when it was suggested that I write that story, sooner rather than later, I might have snapped a little. I got…defensive. Like, weirdly defensive.

This morning, I figured out why while doing bookkeeping. Not balancing my check book or doing my personal taxes. No, the kind of bookkeeping that is an essential part of being a working author. The care and feeding of creative projects kind of bookkeeping.

Once I broke it all down, I could see why I cracked.

As it stands now, midway through February I have on my docket:

  • My urban fantasy novel Ink Calls to Ink which has been looking for a home for over 2 years now.
  • The pulp sci-fi novel from a few years ago that I recently did a rewrite on that needs one more pass before I send it out into the world.
  • The orphaned urban fantasy/horror novella I wrote last year that was intended to be part of a trilogy. I’ve done two strong passes of rewrites. Now I’m wrestling with whether I want to sell as a novella trilogy or write the other two parts and combine them into a single novel.
  • The first part of the epic fantasy Ravensgate triptych, Rooks and Ravens, which got a solid second draft that wrapped up a month ago. It needs one more edit pass before I consider sending it out, but I might want to find beta readers for it first.
  • The new Cobalt City novel, Thicker than Water that I wrote last fall. I did a second pass on it earlier this month, but will need to do another close pass and need to get an editor to look at it prior to the planned September release. On top of that, I want to get copies out for early reviews, etc. And I need to get the cover and other promotional material ready for it.
  • The SECOND part of the Ravenstage triptych, Redemption of the Yellow Wolf is now halfway through the first draft. It’s what I’ve been spending my time on in the last week. After nothing but editing the previous two months, it feels nice to write again.

Now, keep in mind that Norwescon is coming up the first week of April. I’ll be running the Horror track which includes moderating a panel or three, so I want to do some prep for that. Two weeks after that, I’ve got a writing retreat on the books, so that will help balance things out a bit, otherwise I might be crying right now.

Time is never on our side. There are 168 hours in a week. Once you take out the hours spent at the day jobbery (including time too and from) and sleep, there’s about 50-55 hours in which to cram in everything else. Some of that will be eaten up by basic adulting stuff: minimally some housecleaning, eating, interacting with people that keep you from stepping in front of a speeding bus, and at least a little bit of down-time.

I used to try to write every day. Every. Single. Day.

It was a recipe for burnout. At least for me.

Now, I still carry my notebooks around with me everywhere. I’m constantly jotting down notes for existing projects or ideas for future projects. Sometimes I get scene set pieces. Sometimes I get dialogue. I’m making an effort to do something creative every day. But I can go days without opening up my work in progress documents.

I’m fond of saying that if you try to find time to write, you’ll never find it. Something else will always soak up those hours. You have to make time.

Currently, I spend most of Saturday, from around 8am, sometimes until as late as 6pm, working on my writing. I also write on Sundays, every-other week from around noon until 5pm or so. (I run a D&D game on alternating Sundays, so I set aside those afternoons to get the game prepped and ready for my players). I have a writing group that meets every Thursday for a few hours, and if I’m feeling in the zone I can get a solid 2-4 hours of writing in then. I also have the option of a writing group on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays that I hit when I have the time.

That gives me somewhere around 12 hours of writing time on a sub-optimal week, and around 25 on a really ambitious week. When I’m in the zone, I can write pretty fast. And editing, well, it takes the time it requires, and that varies depending on a lot of factors.

I still don’t have enough time. I’ll never really have enough time. But finding more comes with sacrifices I’m not comfortable making. Day jobbery and commute is kind of non-negotiable because bills have to be paid. I have some flex with sleep, but that’s no long-term fix unless I’m wiling to sacrifice my health and sanity. And there’s only so much I can cut social time before those relationships suffer, and the relationships I have now are too valuable to let atrophy.

So no, I’m not going to write that story right now. I’m not going to write that story soon, even. Because I don’t know what the story is yet. But the seed is there, notated with crisp block lettering in my Field Notes notebook in purple ink. And if the seed takes root, we’ll see. Until then, I have books to work on.

Onward Ho Into 2015!

Posted: December 31, 2014 in Novels, Random Geekery, Short Fiction
The devil rides tonight!

The devil rides tonight!

Well, it’s the end of the year again, and you know what that means. Yep. Buckle up, me hearties! It’s time for yet another look back at the year that was and some hints about the year to come.

On a personal front, my daughter got married in August, meaning I got to wear a rented tuxedo in St. Louis at the end of August. The wedding was lovely. St. Louis had some charm. Their pizza is a cautionary tale.

Oh, and something else was happening in St. Louis around that time, namely the systemic racism of our institutions. While the underlying situation wasn’t exactly new to the people who had to navigate it daily, for most of white America, it was like Nosforatu had been dragged out into the midday sun, killed a few people, then skittered back into the sewers to fester. A lot of people wanted to deny what they were seeing, rationalize it away. And then there were the allies who started laying in supplies of wooden stakes and holy water to kill this fucking beast. I was gratified to see many of my friends on the side of justice, calling for an end to brutality at the hands of police and complicity of the legal system. I was disheartened by those who remained silent, or worse, tried to justify the murders of citizens.

2014 was a year for exposing vampires: racism, sexism, transphobia, economic oppression, the ugliest aspects of nationalism…

I hope that 2015 is the year that we drive the stake through the heart of some of these blights, leave it staked out in the sun to wither in its ugliness for all to see. Maybe 2015 will be the year that no reasonable person will start a sentence, “But not all…”

The rest of my travel was an interesting mix of planned and last-minute. World Horror in Portland in May of 2014 was a blast. I always love going to Portland. And then about a week or so after returning from St. Louis, I had the chance to go on a writing retreat to Port Townsend for several days. It was a short-notice sort of affair, and it was exactly the kind of “vacation” my writing needed. The year was capped off with a post-Christmas trip back to Portland with my partner-in-crime to introduce her around, hit up Powell’s, Pok Pok, and some wineries. We even added in a stop at the Doug Fir and Salt & Straw, so it was a great way to end the year.

Speaking of Powell’s, this has been a great year for reading for me. I tend not to read as many books as many of my literary friends. This year I saw a significant uptick, including several books that I made me want to be a better writer. My reading highlights included (in no particular order):

  • Tim Powers–Three Days to Never
  • Max Gladstone–Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise
  • N.K. Jemisin–The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (If you haven’t read this, you’re missing out)
  • Jeff Vandermeer–the Area X trilogy (Annihilation in particular floored me)
  • Richard Kadrey–Devil Said Bang
  • Huey P. Newton–Revolutionary Suicide
  • David Grahme Shane–Urban Design Since 1945 – A Global Perspective

Now, as for writing, it was a mixed year.

For the first time in ages, I had only one short fiction sales this year. “Goat” which appeared in the superlative That Ain’t Right: Historical Accounts of the Miskatonic Valley, was accepted just a week into 2014 and that’s been it.

I got close to publication with a novella trilogy project I worked on middle of the year, including sending it out to beta-readers for feedback. But sadly that fell apart and I’m not entirely certain what to do with that project now. One plan is find a publisher for the original novella trilogy format, while another is to write the other two parts and turn it into a novel.

I also got close with a comic book project late in the year that, despite going nowhere, at least cut me a decent check for the work I’d done. I can’t complain about that.

As for Ink Calls to Ink, it continues to be floated around various places. I’m growing increasingly tempted to publish it myself.

As for the work I had planned to do in 2014, well, shit.

I had thought I’d finish Rooks and Ravens by the end of LAST January. Then it was decided to change the POV from 3rd to 1st person POV, which made the rewrite much more intensive. I’m still deep in the rewrites. Maybe I’ll finish those rewrites in the next few months. They’re my priority, so we’ll see what happens. Maybe then I can get back to Redemption of the Yellow Wolf and finish that draft in 2015.

I also put out my short fiction collection Dark but for the Stars, and re-released Dark Carnival and Chanson Noir as e-books.

In Cobalt City news, Cobalt City Los Muertos went live on schedule, and I’m very happy with it. It’s even gotten some good reviews. The next Cobalt City book, Thicker Than Water was written in November and I’ll get it rewritten, edited, and polished in time for a September release this year. Featuring three women POV characters, two of whom are Asian, it’s a good reflection of the diversity I want to see more of in the genre. Increasing visibility is a big theme for me in 2015.

That’s a bit of a hint of what I’m planning for 2015: creating the diversity I want to be seeing. If all goes as planned, I’ll finish several projects this year: Rooks and Ravens, Thicker than Water, the novella trilogy/novel, and Redemption of the Yellow Wolf. Only one of them features a cis hetero white dude as the hero. I’m not sure what I’ll be writing for next November’s Cobalt City NaNo, but I guess we’ll see what happens. While I’m at it, maybe I’ll find homes for some of my weird orphan stories, too.

If time and circumstance permits, I might resurrect the Anwat RPG sourcebook and re-tool it for D&D 5th edition. Stranger things have happened.

I figure maybe it’s best not to over-plan things.

On Writing Dialogue

Posted: December 17, 2014 in Novels, Short Fiction
Tools of the Trade

Tools of the Trade

“Shit. That’s not a job. That’s a hustle!”

I love writing dialogue. It is, arguably, one of the the more finely honed skills in my writer’s tool box. Being able to bring characters to life with natural, unforced conversations, just makes me happy.

The trick is to listen.

It’s that simple.

It’s that difficult.

We’re social creatures by nature. Even the most introverted of us deals with people occasionally. And in doing so, oftentimes certain aspects of our dialog degrades into shorthand and common phrases. I never used the word “totes” until I made a good friend who used it all the time. Until about a year ago, I never used the word “legit” the way I do now, but I picked that up from another friend. We influence each other, whether we like it or not.

If we rarely venture outside of that communication circle, it can be easy to forget that not everyone sounds like us. And different groups will have different cadence and even different words. It’s an entirely different song, and it helps inform who they are, and how they sound around their peers.

For that reason, you need the occasional field trip.

I suggest bringing a small, unobtrusive notebook and pen (Field Notes are my personal favorite–great size, so they can slid into just about any pocket, and a good grade of paper that takes ink well). Alternatively, if you have a good recorder on your phone, you can use it instead–I find mine particularly useful for capturing the rants of people talking to themselves on the bus. But whatever tools you take with you into the field are kind of secondary.

The key is to go somewhere people are talking and listen. Really listen. Be conscious of where you’re staking out, and who is clustered around the watering hole. A food court in the business core will score you all kinds of office drone conversations. The bar in a fancy hotel gets you different conversation than a dive bar down the street. The McDonald’s with the PlayPlace™ in the suburbs will likely get you a different kind of conversation than the McDonald’s at 3rd and Pine that a lot of locals point to as “everything that’s wrong with downtown Seattle,” because it feels unsafe.

For the record, I’ve never felt unsafe at that particular establishment. It’s one of my favorite places to get a quick meal and listen to people.

If you’re a commuter like I am, take the headphones out. There is almost always a conversation happening on the bus or train. Listen to the cadence. Listen to the sentence structure. Listen to word choice. Listen for repeated words, because you’ll hear them. People don’t speak in complete sentences all the time. Contractions abound. Don’t listen for specific content so much as the nature of the content. The details of their lives aren’t important, really. But sometimes context is. A person generally talks differently with a friend than they would with a stranger or authority figure.

You might have some reservations about this. Might think of it as eavesdropping. And it is, sort of. But to help cut through the sense of guilt, remember–your not listening for gossip or tidbits of what they’re talking about. You’re not writing about them. You’re listening to how they’re talking about what they’re talking about. Also, as long as you’re doing this in a public place and not being overly intrusive, the odds of them talking about anything really personal are next to zero.

Also, just like any good note taking from school, don’t write down everything. If you try and do that, you’ll be paying more attention to writing and trying to keep up. Instead, just pay attention. If something catches your ear, a sentence or two, jot it down as accurately as possible. Capture the pauses and inflections with punctuation and underlining. Heck. While you’re at it, take notes about the people–quirks or characteristics that help make people unique, whether they’re a one or two phrase visual hook or some kind of mannerism.

Eventually, you’ll get a better feel for how a wider range of people talk just by listening and paying attention. But be prepared to take notes (a general writing tip I follow whenever I can). That will help translate into more natural, and more diverse dialog. And that will make your writing better.