Tag Archives: true story

How I Survived “__?__NADO”

by Coco Ihle

“What IS that?” I said out loud, as a flicker of movement outside my office window caught my eye. Something was moving in the middle of my backyard. The grass hadn’t been mowed for almost a week and it had grown a lot since torrential rains had been pummeling the neighborhood for most of that time.

My desk is against the window and I stood leaning over toward the glass, to get a closer look. I could see something black, but the grass was too high to make out what it was. Since I live in a nature preserve, I’ve learned to expect all sorts of wildlife during the years I’ve lived in this area of Florida, but this was a real puzzle. It wasn’t big enough or the right color to be an armadillo or possum or any of the larger animals I’ve seen. It moved again. Maybe it was an injured bird.

My vantage point was too low and the bottom half of the window was screened, which made visibility difficult, so I decided my step ladder might help. I set it up alongside my desk, got up on the third step with one foot, straddled the desk and placed my other foot over on the window sill so I could look down on whatever it was. I still couldn’t see well enough. I got down, went into my living room and grabbed my opera glasses, went back to my office and back up the ladder.

While I was trying to focus the binoculars, the phone rang. I glanced over my desk and my caller ID said it was my son, Rob. I climbed down and answered. Before he could say anything, I started telling him what I was doing, and he started chuckling. He said he was picturing me straddled over my desk looking out the window and it was just too funny. I was glad he couldn’t see a video of me then.

Anyway, I asked him what I should do. He suggested I go out and look. Duh. But, I didn’t know what it was! Maybe it was a snake or something equally creepy. I climbed back up the ladder to look some more, all the while answering Rob’s questions. “How big is it? What does it look like? Is it still moving?” I didn’t know. By the time I got my opera glasses focused again, whatever it was, wasn’t where it had been. Eeeek!

I finally spotted it closer to the house. What the heck was it? It was slithering through the grass. My heart was really pumping at this point. My son suggested I get a large container and capture it. Easy for him to say! He lives forty minutes from me and he was safe and sound in his house. But he had planted the seed. I had to find out. I told him I’d call him back.

Gathering my courage, I went into the kitchen, found a large plastic mixing bowl with a snap-on lid and went out the patio door, all the while telling myself I could do this. I tried to get a grip on my pounding heart and heavy breathing. I certainly didn’t want to pass out now and have that thing, whatever it was, crawl on me! Cautiously, I crept along, searching, and finally spotted it around the side of the house, deep in the wet grass. It still wasn’t recognizable. By this time, my imagination had me one hair short of terrified, but despite that, I crept closer.

When I got about a yard away, I leaned forward as far as I dared, without losing my balance, and teetered above it on one foot. I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was a catfish! A catfish in my yard? Seriously?! It was about a foot long. I could see its whiskers. I’m not a fisherperson, so I didn’t know if they bite or have poisonous barbs or something, so I decided to try scooping it up into the bowl and taking it to the pond at the end of the street, two houses away.

I’m glad there wasn’t any video of this endeavor, either! You see, I have this problem. All my life I’ve never been able to scream. When something scares me and I open my mouth, a weird guttural sound comes out. It’s nothing like a scream. It’s a low pitched, breathy “Auuuuunnh!” After a couple of those sounds sort of slipped out during a lot of writhing and slithering, I finally was able to get him in the bowl and snap on the lid. Shouting, “Eeeeuuuuww!” all the way, I ran down the street to the pond, tore open the lid and threw my arms in that direction. He flew up in the air, arced downward and splashed into the water. Then off he went, swimming as fast as he could.

Exhausted, I called Rob back and described my ordeal, which sent him into gales of laughter. He kept saying, “Stop, stop!” I could picture him grasping his side in laughter-pain. When he finally calmed down, he said he could just see me “screaming” and dancing around with arms flailing, trying to get the catfish into the bowl and then running like a maniac to get to the pond to release it.

By this time, my heartbeat was getting close to the normal range and I could almost breathe without panting. Through his chuckles, Rob said, “Just think, Mom, you saved a fish’s life! What an original fish story.”

With a weak smile, I answered in my defense, “Well, at least my story is true.”

***

Coco Ihle is the author of SHE HAD TO KNOW, an atmospheric, traditional mystery set mainly in Scotland.
Join her here each 11th of the month.

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Arc of Truth

Jay DuretBy Jay Duret

 

I am a liar.

I write fiction, that’s the job description.

I am fine with the undeniable fact that I will go to my grave as a liar, but I have noticed that some of my colleagues squirm under the label. They don’t want to lie for a living; they get queasy when describing what they write as “fiction”, the very word a declaration of mendaciousness. They believe, as I do, that lying can be a way to truth, sometimes the only way. But they want that idea to be more than just a line in a graduate student’s paper or an aphorism attributed to Hemingway. (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” “You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.”)

Because we live in an age where each of us can create our own narrative, some writers have cast off from the fiction pier and are floating into waters closer to the shore that has been called, forever, by the bad name “non-fiction”. The problem is, despite its bad label, non-fiction is a real thing. There is an underlying school of craft – we call it journalism – that has rules and boundaries. A fiction writer can’t simply declare that he or she has landed on the shores of non-fiction and proceed to take up shop there; doing that would subject the writer to the rules and regulations governing the craft of non-fiction, a weighty commitment, particularly for those who love fiction precisely for the freedom it offers from overbearing regulation.

But that doesn’t end the matter. For those floating in the waters between fiction and non-fiction, new possibilities are arising, and I do not mean Creative Non Fiction. CNF, according to Lee Gutkind editor of the magazine Creative Non-Fiction, is subject to the same rules of reporting that govern journalism. The “creative” in CNF does not mean creating facts; it means telling the story with some of the tools of fiction – pacing, suspense, flashbacks, etc. A good piece of CNF is no less required to be grounded in actuality than a piece of straight up reporting. As Gutkind puts it:

“Creative” doesn’t mean … that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

When writers ignore Gutkind’s maxim, disaster can follow. Truth in labeling is the way of American commerce, why should it be different in writing than in, say, soup packaging? I like this quote about the writer of A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club Selection that became a best seller before The Smoking Gun outed the book’s many fabrications:

James Frey wants us to believe that he is a tough but sensitive bad-boy writer with a drug problem. The truth is, he’s a sensitive but boyish bad writer with a truth problem[1].

No, calling fiction CNF will not solve the writer’s dilemma. Fortunately in this, as in so many things, writers can borrow from another art form: movies. With the bigger budgets and the legions of people involved in making a movie – they have producers, best boys, gaffers! They have lawyers on the creative team! – no wonder motion pictures have fished these waters better than solitary writers tapping their keyboards in lonely scows and leaky rowboats. The movie industry has created a finely gauged explanation of the territory between fiction and non-fiction and that can serve as an excellent guide for writers.

The foundation of movies – perhaps other than documentaries – is to have  extremely good looking actors and actresses pleasingly stand in for the sad sacks whose stories are being related (All the President’s Men – I mean, really, Robert Redford is a beat reporter?). Given that foundation, it is hard to say that any movie is actually “true” – but a movie will frequently self identify as A True Story. That’s a wonderful phrase and frankly might be just the perfect oxymoron to serve any writer in need of a forgiving description of their work. Yet if the body of CNF proves anything, it is that non-fiction can be told as a story and therefore A True Story may not be quite as oxymoronic as one might have supposed. No, further nuance is needed.

Based on a True Story – here is a category that gives a writer some freedom! Nothing in it says that lying is involved – the writer is telling truth! – it is just that the truth the writer is telling is devolved from an underlying truth;  it is an expression of that truth, just not exactly the literal truth that might be found in the Palace of Truth and Justice. True, but not true in the pedestrian sense a member of the public might have otherwise expected. Understood properly, BTS is a branch of metaphysics.

So much of fiction is BTS that the category – by itself – solves the problem for most writers. But for writers that paddle even further from the banks of non-fiction, the movie industry offers an even more flexible concept: Inspired by a True Story. This one is a winner. Short of flat out fantasy, what fiction doesn’t fall under the category of ITS? And how could any reader complain if that little bit of disclosure were to be appended to the description of a book marketed as fiction? How could the writer be called out? As far as I can see, the best approach for one bent on attacking the description would be to say that a dreary work was not inspired. That would seem easier to prove in a court of law or public opinion than the proposition that somewhere – anywhere – there wasn’t some true story that the writer’s tale sprang from. Yes, Inspired By A True Story does the job: it will lend almost any piece of fiction a fine patina of truthfulness.

As good as ITS is, it doesn’t quite work for me. I write many stories that are all or mostly dialogue. I have come to believe – for better or worse – that you can tell the reader all they need to know about the characters by what they say and they way they say it. Many of my stories have come to me by eavesdropping – one of those things, like lying, that are essential parts of a fiction writer’s trade. Often I will hear a conversation and later on, after I have played it through in my head a dozen times, I will put it down on paper and find that I have a story that – at least to my own taste – is of interest.

Yet this is where I run into trouble. An editor will read my piece and ask if I am submitting the story as Fiction or Non Fiction or CNF. (Indeed, Submittable usually requires a commitment to one of those categories right from the start.) I could cover myself with a judicious use of the key phrase Inspired By A True Story but that disclosure – broad as it may be – needs some adaptation to apply to my type of writing. For when you start with an eavesdropped conversation, you never know whether the event that is being discussed is actually true or not. You may have happened upon two bullshitters – whose conversation you may be reporting truthfully – but there is no true story beneath it. I needed a way to capture that nuance.

At first I tried to explain it – but many of my editors did not possess the forgiving span of attention that the nuance inherent in this thing requires. And then I had an inspiration. Why not handle it with a picture, a diagram, an illustration? That would save me explaining the details to editors too busy  to focus. And that is how I came to memorialize the Arc of Truth.

I am not much of an illustrator but I like the way the arrow on the dial moves between black and white with shades of grey in between. Not fifty of them, alas, but enough for these purposes:

Arc of Truth3

 

***

Jay Duret is a San Francisco based writer who blogs at www.jayduret.com. His first novel, Nine Digits, will be published by Second Wind Publishing this year. Visit the website: www.ninedigits.com. Jay welcomes feedback at jayduret@yahoo.com. Read his prior posts on the Second Wind blog:

Nom De Plume

Nom De Plume

Bridalplasty

Bridalplasty

Queen For A Day

Queen For A Day

Last Man Standing

Last Man Standing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] http://listverse.com/2010/03/06/top-10-infamous-fake-memoirs (retrieved July 23, 2014).

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The Hurrier I Go the Behinder I Get – by Coco Ihle

I’ve always thought I was organized and efficient, even anal, as some people say. Since my book was published last April, my skills in being organized, efficient and anal have obviously fallen by the wayside. With all the blogging, reading other blogs and leaving comments, reading articles recommended, going to conferences and conventions, and generally promoting said book, the days and months have whizzed by and now my house is a wreck, I’ve lost weight because I haven’t stopped long enough to eat proper meals, my guest room is piled with “book stuff” and I’m frustrated about not having enough time for myself. Is it just me?

Get this. The other day, a neighbor, Ron, from across the street came over and knocked on my door. He’s a former cop and sometimes asks to use my fax machine, so when I saw him standing there I expected him to make his usual request. Instead, he lowered his head a bit and looked up at me through bushy eyebrows in what I could only describe as a serious or even grave expression. I was instantly alarmed. My overactive imagination conjured up my forty-something year old son in a terrible gory accident or my grandson with a surf or skateboard wrapped around his head. Maybe my sister was hurt or my brother-in-law had another heart issue. Could Nellie, my ninety-six year old next-door neighbor have fallen again? Was she still alive?

The whole second that sped by before Ron opened his mouth was filled with agonizing thoughts of doom and gloom. I had already broken out in a cold sweat, my knees were rubbery, my hands visibly trembled and my heart rate was competing with Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee.

Ron stepped closer and said, “I’m the Christmas Police. It’s time to take down your Christmas tree.”

I was so surprised and relieved, I almost melted right there on the vestibule concrete, but then I saw the smirk on Ron’s face. I was torn between explaining why I haven’t yet had time enough to take the tree down and fighting the impulse to smack him in the nose.

The only thing I could think of was, “What can I say. I love Christmas.”

“Just saying.”  With that, he turned and went back across the street.

I closed the front door and muttered to myself, “As soon as I finish my taxes I’ll take down the tree and clean and straighten the house and prepare a good healthy meal and sit down and relax and…”

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A Buford Ghost

As a kiddo, was traveling with Mom (My own personal Auntie Mame) in GB, and staying in one of her favorite places, Burford, Oxfordshire. This is, BTW, 1961. She always stayed in black and white Tudor hotels if at all possible, and we entered the interior court of one, driving up in our green Morris wagon. It was filled to the roof with everything we owned.

 

There was no double available–some kind of mix-up–and after a bit of discussion, they put me upstairs on the 3rd floor which was right under the eaves in this venerable building. A narrow steep stairway went up, and they said they only put the young and spry under the roof. (Or, maybe, it wasn’t a mix-up, ’cause Mum had an old WW2 boyfriend in one of the villages nearby, but this only occurs to me in my grumpy old age.)

 

I was history mad, then as now, so I scouted around, really enjoying the feel of the place, the dark beams, the crooked walls, the off-kilter floors, the heavy dark antiques which filled the hallways and public rooms. All this carved blackened walnut “old” was new to me! Finally, after supper, I went up to bed to read.

 

The loo was down the hall, so I’d made a final trip before settling in for the night. There wasn’t much light up there, just enough to see clearly the beginning of that stairwell, and only two other guests were staying up on the floor with me.

 

My room was under the eaves, and the roof with black beams slanted over the bed, a formidable four-poster with carved grinning critters and splayed claw feet. Perhaps it was actually Elizabethan. If it wasn’t, it was making a credible effort. I remember the smell, too, of polish, of damp and of the ages since the place had been built. Clearly, the room wasn’t often used. I finally fell asleep listening to people coming and going, chatting on the floor below.

 

I awoke sometime in the night–and got up to go to the bathroom down the hall. It was very quiet now, and felt quite late. I opened the door and peeped out, because I didn’t have a bathrobe, just this flannel nightgown, and I didn’t want anyone to see me. It was now entirely dark in the corridor. The hall light, I thought, must have gone out. Then, just as I stepped out, hoping to find my way in the dark, I saw him: see-through, with just traces of color. The plume on his hat was red.

 

I knew enough English History to see he was a cavalier, very dashing, too, with long locks and trimmed beard which came to a nice Charles I point, slashed sleeves and a waist coat. No jacket, so I guess he would have considered himself nearly as undressed as I was. Well dressed, but not “richly arrayed,” is what I want to convey.

 

Now, FYI, this was not MY preferred PERIOD. No, at fifteen, I was an obsessive Ricardian, and it was only Late Medieval that charged my fantasies. I was just making do with all this Tudor and English Civil War stuff. If it wasn’t medieval, well, it was worth looking at and going “Wow! Since 1580!”  but it wasn’t the Absolute TOPS. TOPS was what we were planning to see the next day, Lord Lovell’s ruin of a manor on the Windrush.

 

The man put his hand on the hilt of his sword and spoke. I mean, I got the sense that his lips were moving, and I knew what he wanted to say, but there was no actual “hearing” involved. What he said was that he was an ancestor of mine, who had come here to raise a company for the King, and that he had been waiting a very long time for me. Another really odd thing, he was apparently up to his knees in the floor.

 

At this point, I got scared. I was cold–freezing! I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I turned to run, and then, suddenly there I was, alone, standing in the hallway. It was now lit, just as it had been when I went to bed. There I was, in my nightgown, in the hall, with that low-wattage dingy electric light dully illuminating the walls, and not a single thing, living or dead, was there with me.

 

Well, the next morning at breakfast, I told this entire tale to Mom. She got very excited, for she never sees things like that, and had always wanted such an experience. She was terribly interested in what the ghost had said, because she said she had “always” desperately longed for a Cavalier in the family. I remember saying something to the effect that “if only it had been a medieval ghost,” I would have been over the moon.

 

At this point, people at the other tables began looking at us, and, while we were eating our kippers, the owner arrived. He slung a chair over to our table and said, sotto voce, “Don’t–ah–please don’t–talk about that too loudly. I’m terribly sorry you were disturbed, but that fellow really is such a nuisance! We can hardly use the third floor–especially that back room! It’s really upsetting when summer comes and we need to be full up.” 

 

Asked to please describe the incident–to whisper to him–I did. The owner appeared quite disturbed, nodding. “Damn! He’s back again, then. We had him exorcised a few years ago, and it seemed to quiet things down for a time. You see him only from the knees up because a few years ago we put a new floor in over the original, which is what he’s still standing on. We call him “Charles” but really aren’t certain who he is.”

 

I have come to doubt very much my apparition was an ancestor. Some of our family did come from the Burford area, but were poor folk, probably weavers. Foot soldiers, if they fought for King Charles I, definitely not gentlemen. This particular specter probably uses that same line on all the teen-age girls he meets up there on that dark and spooky third floor!

 

Juliet Waldron (c) 2008
Author of Hand-Me-Down Bride, Coming soon from Second Wind Publishing

 

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