Real or Not Real? Location, location, location!

Hello my friends. Welcome back!

Lately I’ve been thinking about locations. Why? Well, I live in southern California and recently I’ve decided that the weather is bi-polar. Yep. I’ve taken to wearing tank tops with a coat just so I’m prepared for any eventuality. Being on the coast, we have such a thing called “May Gray” and “June Gloom.” It’s a time of year where we get a cloudy maritime layer of yuck over the city for the better part of the day and the sweet Cali sun will bust through. This year the weather seems to be flip-flopping a bit more than usual and I find I have to change my clothing at least once a day to follow suit.

Annoying sometimes as a resident. Intriguing as a Writer.

This got me thinking about all the books I’ve read that were based on real cities and places. I really love it when authors do this. The fact that I could board a plane to Forks, Washington or Manhattan, New York and follow the steps of the character; see the sights they saw and ate where they ate is very appealing. There’s a kind of grounding in reality with this kind of setting. Blue sky. Green grass. Neon lights. Yapping dogs. It’s comforting and familiar and it makes me that much more connected to the book.

I’ve set my “Silver Sun” story partly in my own city. I love being able to share a walk down Main Street with my readers and describe the smell of Thai food mixing with the pizza place across the street. I can include real live people (with permission of course) that I’ve talked to, like my favorite postal worker and my cat’s veterinarian. Not to mention its kind of cheating. There’s no need to make up a city and people to interact with. They’re already pre-set for the writing!

It definitely has appeal for a writer (and a resident in my case. I’m lucky to live in my little paradise.) Even less than desirable cities and neighborhoods can make intriguing stories. “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton comes to mind and “A Child called It” by Dave Pelzer We just wouldn’t necessarily want to GO to those places. They’re tangible locations you could put  a pin in on a map though.

Then again you can also change reality and still base it on earthly locations. A melding of the two. There’s a whole genre that has explored this phenomenon and it’s called “Fiction” with sub-genres such as Paranormal, Science Fiction, and Magical Realism. A certain percentage of the story is based on earth with cities and people who resemble reality but might have portals to other worlds or have mythical creatures walking among the humans.

I think that would be a really awesome reality to live in. This kind of setting is where I base a lot of my stories in. There’s so much freedom! To be able to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge and then rebuild it with super advanced alien technology or step through a mirror and end up in another realm is appealing to imagine, not to mention write. You can choose how much science and how much fantasy are included in your story although you run the risk of getting those ultra fussy critics that demand facts to support your werewolf metamorphosis theory.  (My husband is one of these *ROLLS EYES*)

And then there is, in my opinion, the hardest kind of setting to write. Let’s sing about it Jasmine!

~”A whollee neewww worrlllddddd! A dazzling place I never knew!”~

Sorry. There’s your ear worm for the week. But it’s true. Writing an entirely new world is a daunting task. I’ve read quite a few Epic fantasy sagas that are so rich in politics and language and lore I wonder how they ever found the time to FINISH it. “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien, “Symphony of Ages” by Elizabeth Haydon and “The Belgariad/Mallorean” series by David Eddings. So much work and thought and love went into each one of these stories. But even these are still roughly based on reality.

Creme de la Creme? Science Fiction writing. How about we take all this up to the stars? I don’t read much Science Fiction because it’s not my cup of tea but I greatly admire authors who write this genre. This is completely new territory that they literally build from scratch. So little is known about space and what IS known barely makes sense to the professionals who study it much less curious writers. However, this, in its own way, gives complete freedom to the author to write whatever they want; even more so than fantasy writers.

Advanced technology. Brand new races of people. New threats and planets and galaxies born from their imagination. New problems and conflicts and malfunctions. New issues with politics and marriage and bearing children. All off the surface of the earth into the last frontier. How amazing is that?!

I certainly don’t have the fortitude or the will to create something out of nothing. Yet. Baby steps. But deciding where you’re going to base your story changes the whole tone of it. The setting really IS its own character. Probably the most important side character ever. World building gives the reader a frame of reference to where everything is happening to the main characters and paints the canvas of your mind with color and feeling. Don’t treat it like the background that it is. Make sure you can engage all five senses when you’re writing and have your characters interact with their surroundings frequently.

Keep it real. Or fantastical ;D Your choice!

Enjoy and keep plodding.

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The Runaways meet the South #3

(Excerpt from a WIP. Pregnant and heart broken, Merry has run away from everything she knows, packing into a truck and just driving, full of anger and betrayal and shame. She picked up a stowaway, a non-speaking little boy whom she named Caleb and now they travel together under the guise of mother and son.) 

“You’ve got the be kidding me!” Merry muttered savagely, pulling over to the side of the road when her truck started to waft smoke from under the hood. She’d been driving in a half daze, lulled by the heat and unremarkable landscape. 6 months on the road and all the trees and mountains and desert looked the same. She hadn’t been paying attention to the temperature gauge and looked at it in alarm now as the needle was straight up on the “H”.

She berated herself internally then guided the vehicle onto a stretch of dirt and killed the engine, wincing at the hissing sounds. She made sure Caleb was sleeping soundly in the passenger seat before popping the hood and going to look at the damage. The front end was pouring out white smoke from the radiator. When she waved it away she noticed a large crack right on the top near the cap. She checked the overflow tank, which was still full.
“Oh perfect. Radiator and water pump. That’s fucking GREAT.”
Merry left the hood up to clear the smoke and cool the engine and returned to the shade of the truck. She pulled out her bank book and looked at the sadly diminished numbers. She could easily cover the cost if she took a portion out of her savings account but she had a feeling her accounts were still being watched. Bryce had resources everywhere. Last thing she wanted was for someone to swoop in and “rescue” her. If the repairs were less than $600 then she could travel for another month with minimal discomfort. Of course, she thought wryly, it’s getting damn hard to sleep in the truck these days. She looked down at her huge belly, feeling the kid roll around.
She had two months, more or less, before it came out. She wouldn’t be able to afford a hotel room for all three of them while she was recuperating from labor and the truck wasn’t big enough to travel with three. Merry ran a frustrated hand through her choppy dark brown hair and blew a slow breath outward. It was time to do some serious thinking. She might have to get a part-time job somewhere and live in the truck until she could get up enough money to afford a little place. But where? She couldn’t just put a pin on the map and say ‘THERE is good’. And who would watch Caleb that she could trust? NO ONE. Briefly she thought about contacting Kana and bunking with her in New York but she shuddered and quickly dismissed the idea. Too much impending drama there and Merry needed quiet. The image of long blonde hair and a regal, gentle smile brought a pang to Merry’s chest.
“NO,” she said aloud.

Aurelia wasn’t the answer either. That was like walking into the a she devil’s lair and serving herself up on a platter for crucification. The woman looked like an angel but her mouth cut like razors. With what Merry had put everyone through she would be fleshy ribbons in 5 seconds flat. But the pain of missing her burned like a brand in Merry’s heart. Aurelia was the mother she COULD of had if… certain things didn’t happen. And then of course, remembering Aurelia made Merry think of Aurelia’s son and she really was in no position to have a crying fit. There was time to miss him later, when her car wasn’t exploding. She needed to FOCUS.
She looked up when a loud truck rumbled by, slowing to ease into a parallel position beside her. Her muscles tensed and her hand twitched toward the pepper spray she carried in the door cubby. She hadn’t had any run-ins with the paparazzi since she left the last major city she made the mistake of rolling into but she never knew who would recognize her. Of course, there was nothing she could do with a busted car but she could protect herself and Caleb if she needed to.
The truck pulled up to her and the passenger’s side window was rolled down, the driver leaning over to shout at her.
“Y’all right there Miss?”
Merry struggled to be polite and gracious. She didn’t know where she was or where to call for a tow truck and that made her frustrated so she had to put on her best friendly Mask. Assume the best until there was proof otherwise. She pulled the small bottle of spray and put it into her pants pocket before wrenching open the door again.
“My radiator cracked,” she said, sliding down from the truck seat and waddling over to talk through the window, squinting in the sunlight.

The driver was a pleasant looking man with a short blonde hair cut and friendly light brown eyes that crinkled in the corners when he smiled at her. There were grease smudges on his clothes and hands.
“Aw hell. Sucks when that happens. Need some help?”
Nope, Merry though, the white smoke coming out of my car is dry ice. I’m totally fine. Idiot. She plastered on a smile and responded kindly.
“Yes, actually. I could use a tow to a mechanic’s shop. Do you have a number I can call?”
“You betcha. Happen to work for one. Lemme call the office.”
“Oh. That’s perfect!” and creepy, she added silently as the man pulled out a cell phone. Helluva coincidence.
From the corner of her eye she saw Caleb sit up and look around dazedly. She hurried over to reassure him everything was alright.
“Our truck broke,” she said. “A nice man is calling to have us towed to get it fixed.”
He blinked wide hazel eyes and gave one nod of understanding then started fishing around for a snack in the cooler by his feet. He pulled up the last string cheese and a half eaten baggie of Teddy Grahams. Merry bit her lip, admonishing herself for not stopping to resupply earlier. What was she thinking? How could she forget something that important? Is this what they called pregnant brain?
“We’ll get some real food in town, okay? Some burgers and fries or something.”
He shrugged and munched while Merry walked back over to the good Samaritan to await instructions. He was nodding and reading off the make and model of her truck into the phone.
“Your name, Miss?”
“Merry,” she said. “Neustrom.”
The lie made bile rise in her throat and brought tears to her eyes. It had been months since she’d had to use the name. She didn’t dare use her own; the fear of being discovered was that great. And her marriage certificate, although unsigned by a “real” judge, was proof enough for any ID needed. On paper at least, she was Neustrom. Wife of the man she would give the world to see again and never would. She hated having to use the name. It was a reminder of the life she could of had.
The baby kicked repeatedly, stretching her stomach awkwardly and making her gasp. It always did when she thought about Gaelyn. Goddamn hormones.
“About twenty minutes Miss Merry but I reckon we should get you into some shade and get some fluids in you instead of sticking round here. Is that a little one I see in the cab?”
“Yes. That’s Caleb, my son.”

That lie was not so hard to tell. She loved him like he’d always been hers and he was small enough in stature that people would believe she’d had him herself. It cast a somewhat promiscuis image on her, having a baby so young, but it was the easiest lie to reinforce.
“Y’all hungry then? We can grab something on the way to the office. I’m on my lunch break anyway.”
Getting into a car with a strange man sent every red flag off in Merry’s head and made her flesh crawl but what could she do? It was blazing hot and Caleb needed to eat some real food.
I can protect us, Merry decided. It would be easy to get away if I needed to.
“Food would be great um–” she paused, looking for a name tag.
“Will,” he said and grinned.
“Ah. Thanks Will. Sorry for all this.”

“Don’t you worry your pretty head about it. It’s my job and my moral duty.”
Merry grabbed her purse and made sure Caleb had his back pack before putting the keys in the ignition and writing a note for the tow truck driver, giving him her personal contact information if he had any questions. She slid Caleb into the man’s truck first and took the passenger’s seat, buckling them up tightly. I can’t believe I’m trusting a stranger this much, Merry thought, watching the landscape blur through the window. He could kidnap us and kill us and no one would know or suspect. A little bubble of panic started to rise up in her gut and she tried to breathe through it quietly. Slowly, Caleb’s hand covered hers and stoked her fingers soothingly.
“You don’t have to worry Miss,” Will said, noticing her hands clutching her purse and her protective lean toward Caleb.“We got nice folks round here.”
She glanced at him and he gave her a reassuring smile. Did her mistrust of him come off that obvious?
“They don’t judge or nuthin’ and we take care of each other. My wife and I are on our second. First one was when were were 16.”
“Oh,” was all she said. He completely misinterpreted her anxiety which put her slightly more at ease.
“Where are we anyway?” she asked, trying to be polite to mask her awkwardness. It had been a long time since she had a prolonged conversation with anyone.
“You mean you don’t know?” he asked, surprised.
“I just picked a direction and drove,” she said, glad she could tell the truth for once.            “Camping mostly to save money.”
“That’s the best vacation I ever heard of. Warm fire and a blanket of stars is all ya need,” Will said jovially. “We’re in Tennessee Miss. Nicest little town you’d ever see.”
Jesus christ. I drove across the whole damn country in 6 months.
“Where’d you come from? I saw quite a haul in the back of your truck.”
“California.”
There was an impressed whistle. Will pulled into a fast food restaurant and waited in line with the other cars.
“That is one helluva road trip. Wish I could pick up and leave for a cross country trip sometimes. Mama Beth would love it. She’s a country girl all the way. Love her some fishing and buck huntin’.”
“I don’t fish or hunt. I’m not that raw. I still prefer my meat packaged in Styrofoam and cellophane,” she replied and Will chuckled, flashing his handsome grin again.
He pulled forward and Merry quickly relayed her order so he could repeat it into the speaker. She started to reach into her purse for some cash but a quick rebuke made her stop in surprise.
“Nu-uh! My momma would knock me into the floor if she let me take money from a lady for a meal.”
“No really, it’s nothing–”
“It’s done. I got this one.”
Merry quietly took the bags of food when Will passed them over, trying not to dwell on it. It was the oddest form of chivalry she’d encountered to date. She might have just stumbled into a tried and true back woods country town. God help her.
Merry handed Caleb his kids meal and like every other kid who had ever gotten one, immediately ripped open the bag to see what kind of toy he got. He showed her the action figurine and she nodded and smiled, saying the name to him. When she looked away, there were tears in her eyes. Four months ago he would have been terrified to even open the bag without her express permission. His independence and confidence were growing steadily under her care. Her heart swelled so big it crowded her throat. Why the hell was she crying so much? When did she become such a damn baby?
“Uh, Miss? You alright?” Will asked around a mouthful of fries, handing her a napkin.
“Yeah. It’s the little things that get me,” she said.
He nodded.
“Mama Beth cries at the drop of a hat. It’s the damnest thing cuz she can shoot a buck between the eyes at point blank range without blinking but kittens make her bawl her eyes out.”
Merry laughed shortly.
“Yeah that’s kinda the way of it. Glad it’s not just me being an idiot.”

Will gave her a sideways glance, eyebrow raised.
“Beggin’ yer pardon Miss but you could never be an idiot. I think you’re brave coming all the way out here alone with a little one and one on the way. That’s a special kind of brave right there.”
“Ha. Well…there are different types of idiots. Glad I can claim to be a brave one though.”

Nĭ Hăo Handsome #2

There is a man.

There are lots of men but this one stands out above the rest. Literally. He’s super tall. I have to crane my neck up to look at him but I don’t mind. It reduces the chance that my double chins will show. This man is such a man that I can hear him walking in a crowd. Yes I said hear. His stride is wide and each step is loud, bearing down on the ground with purpose in his designer loafers. But I don’t need to see or hear him to know he’s coming. I can feel his presence along my skin like a physical brush, even when he’s 50 yards away. I know exactly when he’s walking toward me and I can tell when he’s noticed me. My senses are honed to pinpoint his location, like a radar pinging a torpedo.

I try not to look but I look every damn time. I have to. It’s my addiction. I do it casually though from behind my sunglasses. Glance and then resolutely look away as if to say “Yes I recognize you but you’re not important enough to hold my attention”. As if. The man radiates confidence. He doesn’t need my blessing to exist. So I glance, sometimes from the corner of my eye as I read a book or play on my phone. If I stared, things would get creepy.

I’ve never admitted this out loud to anyone before. I know what they’d say.

“You’re happily married to a really great man Jackie. Why the hell would you go looking for some other piece of ass?”

Ah see but they don’t understand my infatuation! It’s not about getting something on the side. Not at all, even though he is some pretty scrumptious eye candy. No, what I’m mainly attracted to is his LIFE.

When I first heard about the new Chinese teacher at my daughter’s school, I was surprised. This crappy low-budget school can afford a Chinese teacher? And why Chinese? Most of the kids here already speak Spanish and English and I know all of three people who could actually speak Chinese. The rest of my acquaintances aren’t likely to fly to Hong Kong any time soon. So in the back of my mind I scoffed. Chinese. Really? But I kept my opinions to myself because learning a new language, no matter how unhelpful, is still knowledge.

The first day of the new Chinese class I asked my daughter how it went. And she started singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese.

“yī shan yī shan liàng jīng jīng, man tiān dū shì xiao xīng xīng…”

I shit you not. THE FIRST DAY. Well Mr. Mandarin, you’ve officially colored me impressed. And peaked my interest. I began looking for a little old Chinese man in the halls at school, curious as to why he chose here to work of all places, the lowest performing school in the district. Did he come here because he had no choice and needed whatever job he could take? Was he a generous soul looking to better the community by adding a little class to the establishment? Or did he really just love to teach kids about his culture and share in it with them? What a nice old man! I was suddenly glad he was here for the kids and my heart warmed toward him.

I was punched in the gut when one day, after school, my kid pointed out her miracle Chinese Teacher (whom I had been calling Mr. Mandarin this whole time since she could never remember his name).

“That’s Mr. Mandarin mama!” she shouted and ran over to a titan of a man who greeted her with a booming “Ni Hao!” I looked around. What, you mean he’s behind that behemoth? I blinked and let reality wash over me.

Oh. My. God.

HE WAS THE FURTHEST THING FROM A CUTE ELDERLY CHINESE MAN THAT A PERSON COULD GET!!

Tall. So tall! Tan skin as if he’d lived in the Santorini his whole life. Perfectly combed-over, thick, medium brown hair. Hazel eyes that showed crinkle lines at the corners from smiling a lot. Tasteful casual clothing. A serious face though. Intense. And then he spoke and it felt like he had a megaphone lodged in his throat. I was surprised my hair didn’t blow back from the wind of his voice.

“Ni Hao! Nice to meet you! I’m Mr. Bond!”

You have to give me some credit here. I didn’t ask if he was 007, although with his physique he could be. I did smile and shake his hand and introduce myself, desperately trying to hinge my metaphorical jaw back into place from where it had dropped on the ground.

It had been a very long time since I was physically aware of another man after marrying my husband. Not in a sexual way but everything in my body stood UP and LOOKED at this man. He was magnetic and his personality was a giant bubble surrounding him that made you notice he was there. A white hole (as opposed to a black hole) of a man. He pushed his energy OUT.

I observed everything and took detailed notes.

Firm hand shake. Warm hands. Softly musky cologne. Voice that sounded like a really intense surfer brah. He tended to elongate certain vowels and say “uhhhhh” a lot. A very intense, clipped surfer. He bit off every word, pronouncing it clearly. I suppose that was the Chinese coming through. I turned on auto-pilot as we spoke more, thanking him for coming to the school and telling him my kid was singing in Chinese all the time now. My mouth was moving but my brain was disengaged.

I was overwhelmed. I kept my first interaction brief because I was quickly becoming “tongue-tied high school geek” all over again. I had to save face. Especially when I realized I had MADE stuff for this man. At the beginning of the year I always write nice cards to my daughter’s teachers and principal, wishing them a good and successful year. I usually draw a silly picture on the front. He received one of these. He told me it was hanging in his class room and the thanked me for all my generous gifts.

Kill me. KILL ME! It gets worse!

I give gifts to all the teachers around Christmas time (I had yet to set eyes on Mr. Mandarin until after winter break) and that year I made everyone tote bags which I filled with movies and books and goodies to last them over the break. I gave him a really neat book on Dollar Bill Origami folding and a movie called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”. Because really, what do you get a man you don’t know as a gift?

“It was nice to meet you Mr. Man–Mr. Bond. Have a good day.”

He barked something in Chinese to my kid and then loped off in the opposite direction.

As I walked away from the Chinese speaking Titan, I looked inwardly at myself in horror. What had been a gift meant for a respected, elderly  Chinese man who might get a kick out of my selections were now sitting in the library of a man like THAT? Geezus.

From that day on, I had no choice but to notice him. I realized that he had been walking down the same hallway that my daughter’s classroom was on every afternoon since the beginning of the year. How did I miss that? Oh, right, because my nose was always stuck in a book. The day after we met, when I felt my hackles raise in awareness as he was walking down the hall, I saw him hesitate as he neared me, as if he wanted to talk.

YES!! I screamed.

NO!! GO AWAY!! My fearful side screamed louder.

Fearful won because he kept walking, giving me a wave and continuing on. Sigh of relief/disappointment. I was not myself with this man. He was too MUCH, too SMART, too strange. I did not understand my attraction to this loud, intense man. I do NOT get rattled by people, much by men. My whole schtik was to let everything roll off my back and be an amiable person, easy to get along with. Everyone was treated with warmth and welcoming. Facing Mr. Bond I de-evolved back into my awkward, blushing high school self and it completely embarrassed me.

Gawd.

It wasn’t until summer break rolled around and I was able to get some distance that I really began to understand my attraction.

During the rest of the school year I slyly quizzed a few of the teachers about the hot new mandarin teacher and they were more than happy to let me in on the scoop. Haha, such gossipers. I love school. He was, apparently married. I was genuinely happy to hear this fact. A man like that could make single ladies go mad if they knew he was single too. He had two kids, two boys, one of which was already in school. He spoke seven languages. Yep. His wife was Vietnamese so he spoke that with her at home and she knew Chinese as well. They were teaching their kids to speak both. They both knew English, of course. He grew up in France, apparently, and traveled to Germany at some point. I never knew what the seventh language was but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t be more impressed. Or jealous.

And there it is.

I, a housewife of seven years, a mom of two little girls, had never been farther than Utah. Before I had my family I had big dreams of traveling and racking up all kinds of memories before settling down. I wanted to study abroad and go volunteer somewhere in Africa. Get some culture and some experience under my belt.

A surprise pregnancy cut those dreams off permanently. So I continued to armchair travel. I read books and watched the Discover Channel, dreaming my traveling dreams in silence. Mr. Bond had lived the life I wanted. He got to fly to exotic places first, eat different food, stand in awe of history and beauty and then settle down. He even met his wife overseas and they are now able to share their combined experiences with their spawn. What do I have to give to my kids? The odd french phrase I remember from my High School french lessons.

My attraction to Mr. Bond was to his LIFE. I wanted memories of seeing Mount Fiji, not memories of pictures. I wanted to taste authentic ‘Pan au chocolat’ and sip ‘un tea citron’ under the Parisian sun.

Once I figured this out I was able to sever my attraction to him by sucking it up and embarrassing myself fully the next school year. I gave in to my bumbling high school geekery and presented him with a card that made him blush and (internally) roll his eyes. Don’t go there. It wasn’t naughty. But I noticed he had trouble receiving gifts from people, stumbling over his words and not making eye contact while thanking them, and mine was extra colorful and extra loud. It would disrupt the sharp austere and very Chinese class room with its rainbow throw up.

I never went back into the class room to see if it was hanging there. I didn’t dare. I’m free of him now but every now and then I’ll feel my hackles raise and I’ll unexpectedly make eye contact. Awkward but I can handle it now.

Mànzŏu, Mr. Mandarin and zhù nĭ hăoyùn!