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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

HOW CAN TWO AUTHORS BE BETTER THAN ONE?

How can two lawyers be better than one?

Taking advantage of the synergy of different talents and experience.

            When we do book-signing events and school programs for students, we often get questions like:  What’s it like writing together as co-authors?  Do each of you write specific chapters?  Do you brainstorm together first, and then decide who writes what?  And if in writing the story, there is a major shift in plot, how does the one writer know whether or not to go with the change?
We enjoy bouncing ideas
off our readers.
So far, we have enjoyed working together as co-authors.  As brothers, we get along well, and have a healthy level of mutual self-respect, so we can freely share ideas and challenge each other without worrying too much about egos.  Each of us has had a career in law, and as lawyers, we were constantly dealing with other lawyers, who often had overblown egos.  When we came together as writers, we had already had much experience in working around another person’s ego while still getting the job done.
In addition, we grew up just a few years apart in a very large family, and then, we each went on to have large families of our own.  While there is not much room for any over-sized egos in a large family, there are certain qualities, like peace-making and courtesy that are highly prized.  Both of us have been extensively trained in the qualities of kindness.  Finally, we both have strong-willed wives, and if we can work jointly with them in a close, personal family relationship, then we can certainly work jointly as brothers in the less intense environment of storytelling.
We have found our differences in personality and experience to be a distinct advantage and are more creative when we’re bouncing ideas off each other and discussing a broad story line, but we brainstorm only in a general way.  We actually write separately, and then confer later on what we have been doing, including any plot shifts.  Though we sometimes disagree on wording, there is usually some friendly give and take as we consider alternatives, then we quickly agree on the final wording.  We both appreciate the different perspective and skills the other brings to the joint writing process.
We are very different in how we approach the creation of a new story.  Andy used to be a planner (a habit that came from writing as a lawyer), but in fiction writing, he no longer likes to plan ahead.  He likes to develop his characters, and then let them take the story wherever it is going to go—he likes to be surprised.  On the other hand, I am definitely still a planner.  I am always making lists and outlines, not only for the current story, but for future stories as well.  In addition to our young adult horror series, we also have written the first two books in a young adult science-fiction series.  Separately, Andy is working on a literary fiction novel about an old lawyer dying from cancer, a story close to his heart.
Andy doesn’t like having other people around him when he is writing, especially when he is creating new material.  There is no real reason for this, just sometimes people bug him.  I have to organize my surrounding work environment.  Once everything around me is in order, then I can detach from the real world and write in the strange, new worlds of my mind.
If Andy hits a tough spot in the story development, it is almost always because of outside distractions.  If he can get rid of the confusion and noise around him, he can keep writing.  He does best when he can find large blocks of undisturbed time.  If I hit a tough spot, I don’t try to force it.  I stop, leave the house, pick up some fast food (Chipotle is always good), and then I can come back refreshed and ready to move the story forward.  I find that fresh ideas come naturally when I am eating.
We both find that once we start telling a horror or sci-fi story, the bounds of the story are limited only by our combined creativity and imagination, and that no matter how mature we might be in the real world, we are both still just kids in our worlds of horror and fantasy.  It is hard to get better than that.

Friday, May 8, 2015

FAVORITE BEDTIME STORIES

Why do we like scary?

Learning to be storytellers from Mom.

            In our young-adult horror series, Dimensions in Death, our protagonists fight for their lives in a battle with monsters that seem to come from nowhere around an old, abandoned mansion in Trona, California, an actual, small, mining town located on the Searles Valley dry-lake bed in a desolate region of the Mojave Desert, near Death Valley, and in fact, death is a good description of the environment.  Very few kinds of plant or animal life can survive there, let alone grow naturally, and many of those that can grow there are deadly.           
Welcome to Searles Valley --
Andy takes in the view.
            Trona is a real town and the desert environment around Searles Valley is the perfect stage for this kind of horror story.  While the events of the tale are limited only by our imaginations, the location of each event is firmly anchored in the reality of what is Trona and its Mojave Desert location.
Trona Cemetery in foreground with
Searles Valley Chemical Plant
seen in the background.
            Both Berk and I grew up in Trona (and later in Ridgecrest, located 25 miles west), and we knew the area well, but we still return there on occasion to make sure our descriptions of the local geography are accurate.  All natural landmarks (and some unnatural landmarks) described in the books actually exist, and their descriptions add to the bleakness of the story.  A desolate landscape is a great backdrop for the giant, marauding, alien predators that are preying on the townsfolk and visitors of Trona.
             In addition, we have researched some far-out theories of astro-physics, so that Mojave Green can answer the questions raised in Pitch Green, and also, so that Fatal Green can answer other questions raised in both of the prior books.  But remember, this is not a science fiction series.
            The tale is fast-paced horror, suspense and mystery thriller, based on pseudo-science, rather than magic and mysticism.  In the end, everything our heroes encounter must have some kind of plausible explanation for what is going on and for where the monsters are coming from.  And, there must be some way for the protagonists to defend themselves, fight back, and maybe in the end, prevail.
            Both of us have always enjoyed hearing and telling good scary stories.  It was a basic part of our growing up experience.  We don’t remember a time when we weren’t telling spine-chilling tales.  We vividly recall lying awake for hours as small children after hearing a horrifying saga told right at bed time, leaving us thinking that every creaking noise, every whisper of wind, was the latest monster coming to eat us alive.
            Once, as children, we heard some mysterious thing scratching on the window screen of our bedroom, which was an extra room, shared by three brothers, built on the back of the house.  All of us dived under the beds, screaming for help.  Turns out, it was our mom—we should have known.  She was bringing clothes in from the line and stopped to pick up a stick to reach up and scrape across our window screen.  She was full of surprises, and we grew up thinking all moms were like that.
            Mom was always thinking of new ways to scare her own children, or anyone else for that matter.  Once, when still a newlywed, she snuck up the basement stairs of Grandma Washburn’s old house and flung open the kitchen door, shouting “BOO!” startling her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and two-year-old niece.  Grandma was not fond of such hijinks.  Pointing an accusing finger at our mother, Grandma exclaimed, “Clara!  For shame! For shame!”  By the time our father got there to see what was going on, everyone in the room was in tears.  He thought someone in the family had died.
            That did not cure Mom though.  She had a talent for scaring anyone and everyone.  One Halloween when I was in junior high, an older brother and sister, Allen and Linda, received permission to throw a big Halloween party for their high school friends.  The culmination of the party, its climax, was a scary story told by Mom.  She said she woke up about 2:00 am, and the story just came to her as she lie there in bed.
            At the party, Mom sat on the fireplace hearth in the front room.  About twenty teens sat on the floor around her feet.  The lights were off.  Only a few rays from an outside streetlight found their way into the room through the window curtains and drapes.
            Telling the story in a hushed, grim voice, Mom spoke as if she were sounding a deadly-serious warning.  Soon, some girls started to whimper.  The boys were “obviously” too brave to complain, but at one point, an older boy suddenly got up and left the room, not to come back until the story was over.
            As Mom talked, Allen crept around the outside of the house to an unlocked front-room window.  When Mom reached the zenith of horror in the story, Allen opened the window and climbed into the house.  He was wearing a full-head mask, colored with glow marks along the dark-red gore painted on the distorted face.
            The screaming and crying was glorious.  Even some guys screamed and tried to run away.
            That was, without a doubt, one of the best Halloweens EVER!
            You could say our love for scary stories is nothing more or less than a chromosomal phenomenon.  However we came by our fascination for horror stories, we love them still and hope to keep telling them for a long, long time to come.  If Mom were still here, she would be so proud.

Friday, May 1, 2015

FAVORITE HORROR STORIES

What are some of your favorite childhood books?

Learning to be a storyteller.

1950s Mom & Dad
Picture taken by first child.

 
As a child, Andy loved Dr. Seuss.  Later, A Collection of Short Stories, by O. Henry was a favorite, and as a teenager, he was fascinated with The Illustrated Man, by Bradbury.  Growing up, Berk was on the lookout for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and as he got into junior high and older, he was always searching for new and interesting sci-fi writers.  In addition, as youth, we read all kinds of mystery and horror, including stories published by Alfred Hitchcock, with titles like, Stories My Mother Never Told Me.  We loved those scary stories, and in fact, our mother did tell us some of the best scary stories.
Pitch Green and Mojave Green are the first two books in The Dimensions in Death young-adult horror series.  The first book is based on a scary story we told as kids.  The general outline for the novel-length version of our first book came together late "one dark and stormy night" in November of 2010.  We were attending a writer’s conference in Manhattan.  As we rode the subway from one end-of-the-line stop across town to the opposite end-of-the-line stop, and then back again, we mapped out the basic elements that we needed to expand the childhood story into a full-length novel.
Andy wrote the first rough draft, then Berk took it over to edit and expand the tale.  In writing the first book, the ground work was laid for many sequels and prequels in a young adult horror series.
            The second book, Mojave Green, is a continuation of the first story, but that part of the story has no history.  It was written new from scratch.  Same with the third book, Fatal Green, due out later this year.  Each book combines horror, suspense and mystery, moving forward as our protagonists fight for their lives in a battle with a monstrous evil presence, hiding in the old, deserted Searles Mansion in a small mining town, Trona, California, the perfect setting for a horror series.
            While there actually was once a Searles Mansion, built in 1888, not far from Boston, MA, that mansion is now long gone and has nothing to do with our tale’s mansion in Trona.  The original childhood story had a mansion in it and that is the source of our Searles Mansion, named after John Searles, an actual Nineteenth Century Death Valley prospector.
1970s Mom & Dad
With their first grandchild.
            Trona is a real mining town, located in Searles Valley, not far from Death Valley, but there is no actual mansion in Trona.  In high school, we explored the hundreds of square miles of isolated desert and high-mountain country around Trona.  Those experiences provide a location and backdrop for the events in The Dimensions in Death series.
            We have always been story tellers, first to siblings, then to our children, and now to our grandkids.  Scary stories are a family specialty.  We can’t count the number of times Mom scared us witless with her scary stories.  A few years ago, Berk started writing a young-adult science fiction series, so when Andy also tried his hand at writing fiction, it didn’t take long for us to come together as The Brothers Washburn (as in The Brothers Grimm) on a new young-adult horror series.  Mom would be so proud.  We have also written the first two books in an unrelated young-adult science fiction series.
We both find that once we start telling a horror or sci-fi story, the bounds of the story are limited only by our combined creativity and imagination, and that no matter how mature we get in the real world, we are both still starry-eyed kids in our worlds of horror and fantasy.

Friday, April 24, 2015

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS OF SUSPENSE AND MYSTERY

Telling a compelling (thrilling) Young Adult story.

What is Young Adult horror?

You're not even safe
in your own bed!
            Our first two books in The Dimensions in Death series, Pitch Green and Mojave Green, are the start of what our publisher has labeled as “young adult horror.”  The tale is based on a scary story we told as kids to our siblings and friends (and sometimes to strangers and non-friends).  These two books combine terror, suspense and mystery, moving at a breathtaking pace as our protagonists fight for their lives, battling a monstrous evil presence hiding in and around an old, deserted mansion in Trona, California, a small mining town, located near Death Valley in a desolate region of the Mojave Desert.
            While our series is labeled “young adult horror” (and this is because our story is an all-age appropriate tale about life-and-death encounters with unearthly monsters), we are not completely comfortable with our placement in that genre.  First, we rely more on suspense and mystery (more like a thriller), rather than blood and gore (no gratuitous violence), to tell our scary story.  Second, our monsters are justified by logical principles of theoretical science, not mysticism and magic.  But, we are not science fiction either, so we are left with the horror label for lack of a more exact category.
Fortunately, most teens grow out of
the zombie phase.
            In truth, we’re not sure what our genre is, but we do know what we like.  Both in the books we write as well as in the books we read, we like a fast-moving, compelling story of mystery, suspense and terror about unusual characters with an imaginative plot for a young adult audience, meaning it hits home for teens.  The higher the stakes the better, and life-or-death stakes are pretty high.  As with any reader, youth readers must be courted with conflict and entrapped by suspense.
            A young reader wants to be immersed in a world of new beginnings and exciting transitions, a world where anything is possible and hope is a guiding star.  A world of despair, overwhelmed by failed dreams and missed opportunities, is for an older, more-jaded audience.  A young adult plot says we don’t give up, we will find a way to succeed because life is about happiness, is worth the sacrifices we make, and will bring a happy ending in the long run.  That is the kind of book that we like to read as well as write.
            Here are a few of the young adult books by other authors that we have liked:

(1)        The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
            Two young people (a girl and a guy in love) are caught up in a fascinating world of conflicting types of magic, existing on the edge of the actual world we live in, where they are placed involuntarily into a situation that requires one to die at the hand of the other by a hidden power and mysterious rules that neither completely understands. The real magic is that they figure out how to play the game by their own rules. The brooding sense of danger and dark mystery continually pulls the reader along.

(2)        The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
            A likeable, young scoundrel, who is badly treated and whose life seems to be jerked this way and that at the mercy of an international war and corrupt queens and kings, proves that he is capable of not only dictating his own destiny, but also the destiny of large kingdoms and powerful political leaders. The sudden plot twists and ongoing surprises about the protagonist’s true character carries the reader forward.

(3)        The Maze Runner by James Dashner
            Appearing suddenly in an artificial testing environment, like a rat in a maze, with no memory of how he got there, our young hero must figure out how to escape the trap while being subjected to the tension of lost memories and threatening peer pressure as well as a sense of danger arising from a life and death threat not totally understood, yet the youth out smarts his captors and rewrites the rules of the test.  The overpowering tension and suspense of unanswered questions together with the courage of the protagonist pulls the reader through the story.

(4)        The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

            A young boy, who has been trapped his whole life in a graveyard for his own protection and has been raised by the dead, falls in love with a girl from the outside world and must face the evil forces that would destroy him if he is ever going to find a way out of the world of the dead and into the world of the living, where he can finally have a real life for himself.  This is a fresh story with unexpected conflicts, providing the suspense that keeps the reader going to the end.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

SMOLDERING INSPIRATIONS

How do you get new story ideas?

Sometimes the best ideas are the old ones.

            Berk and I have been asked many times to say what inspired us to write our first book, Pitch Green, our scary young-adult novel about two teenagers hunted by a fearsome creature that lives in an immense and bizarre old mansion, located in the teens' desolate, desert hometown.  This is a hard question.  Where does inspiration come from?  I sometimes feel that the most inspiring thing I come across anymore is a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies, accompanied by a tall glass of cold milk.
            Not the stuff of novels, scary or otherwise.  We have reached this point in our lives where we have seen and done, well, not it all, but all of it that we have wanted to see and do.  It is not so much that we are beyond inspiration, but that the new ideas have started to recycle, so they’re not really new anymore.  Everything comes now with a sense of déjà vu.  Totally out-of-the-box inspiration has moved on to influence younger, better-looking people than us.
We first told the story of the
Green Rat in this house in
Whittier, California
            Perhaps that is the secret of Pitch Green.  The initial late-night, scary story was first told by us as small children while we were living in Whittier, California, in a tiny residential neighborhood that is completely surrounded by the Rose Hills Memorial Park, one of the largest commercial cemeteries in the world.  Later, our family moved to Trona, California, a little mining town, deep in the Mojave Desert.  There the tale took on a new life of its own.  Trona is the town of our youthful adventures.  We grew up on the doorstep of Death Valley, and as we tell the story now, it takes place in the Searles Mansion in Trona.
           Variations of the story have been told by us in about every conceivable situation.  We told it at church activities and on scout outings, even on dates.  We told it to our friends, girlfriends, siblings and cousins.  To be fair, we weren't above telling it to complete strangers and even to people we didn’t like.  We told it around campfires, on road trips and in school classes when we could get away with it.  This was a story we loved to tell.  And, we loved to use it to scare the crap out of anyone who would listen.
            So, while inspiration may evade us now in our white-hair days, we were able reach back (way freaking back) to those days of yore (I think it is a federal law that says you are not allowed to have “days of yore” until you reach at least 50 years of age) when inspiration was an everyday event--back when inspiration came in a box of cereal; when inspiration needed only a blue sky dotted with puffy, white clouds; when inspiration was always just around the corner.  Inspiration was found then in the last book I read, in the latest episode of Star Trek or Lost in Space, or in the simple smile of the pretty girl next door.  Oh, to be so easily inspired again!
            But, I wax sickenly philosophic.  Sorry.  I guess we really were inspired to write that first book in the Dimensions in Death series, but it just so happens that the inspiration came to us a very long time ago--over fifty years ago.  It has been sitting, smoldering inside us, waiting to burst into flame when we were all done growing up (if that’s possible), when we could look back and see more clearly.  Some things do get better with age.  In a way, that is kind of inspiring in and of itself.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A GUIDE THROUGH THE WILDERNESS

Why are publicists super cool?

Finding your way home.

Jolly Fish Press
            I do not remember ever being lost.  In my youth, I roamed the trackless wastes of the Mojave Desert, but those wastelands weren't trackless to me. No matter what new byway my friends and I explored, I always knew how to get back to where we started.  I have an accurate sense of general directions, north, south, east and west.  More importantly, I think visually, so as our old truck or dune buggy bumped and jarred over the rugged terrain, pictures of the landscape were continuously stored in my brain—a looming joshua tree or mesquite bush, a scraggly rock formation, a twist in the road, a set of animal tracks.  All were duly recorded as pictures that my mind could easily recall later for orientation and reference purposes.
When we had explored as much as we wanted, shot through our ammo, eaten all our Hostess cherry pies, gotten as dirty as possible, and generally had a great time, my mind pictures guided us unerringly home. I easily distinguished between old roads previously traveled and new roads not yet explored.  I always knew which fork in the road to take, which direction to go.
Unfortunately, when I signed a three-book contract for the Dimensions in Death series with Jolly Fish Press, those homing skills did not cross over into the untamed wilderness of social networking and book promotion.  I had entered into an alien world with landmarks and signposts that I didn’t see, or when I did, I didn’t understand.  Up to that point, I might have glanced once or twice at my wife's Facebook page and heard the words “Twitter” and “Blog,” but I did not think those things would ever be part of my world.
Green Death Hangs Heavy
Suddenly, I was in a new land with unfamiliar terrain, and I was lost.  I could not visualize the road, or how all the roads connected with each other, or even which way was up or down, let alone north or south.  While there were many crisscrossing, bumpy roads in this new wilderness, there was no need for a rifle with lots of ammo or a box of dynamite, and though a Hostess cherry pie still helped smooth the adventure when the going got rough, I was woefully ignorant of the real weaponry needed in this strange, alien wilderness.
             Enter Chris Loke and Zach Power, publicists for Jolly Fish Press, and I discovered how cool a publicist could be for newbie authors like Andy and me.  In what I know now were tentative first steps, the JFP Publicity Group helped us set up our Facebook and Twitter accounts, gave us a logo from the JFP design department, and directed us toward Blogspot.  As we took our first tentative steps down these strange roads, they stayed near to coach us in our new adventure and warn us of the dangers along the way.  Whenever we began to fear that we were lost, they were always there to gently calm us with the wise counsel, "If you don't understand it, just Google it."  JFP Publicity has been a faithful and trustworthy guide through a dangerous and wild country.
            So, what are publicists good for?  In our experience, the publicist is a fountain of clear water in the desert, a source of invaluable information, expertise, innovation, encouragement and a nudge (sometimes a shove) when necessary.  By forming a Facebook group binding the Jolly Fish Press authors and management together, JFP created another avenue for encouragement, blowing off steam, sharing information and ideas, and supporting each other.  Of course, behind the scenes, JFP is also doing groundwork which we only occasionally glimpse in the news we get of media contracts, contest information, publishing sub-contacts, as well as overseas, film and TV contacts, and much more.
            When it comes to promoting our books, Andy and I don't pretend to be savvy or to understand where all the social media paths might lead.  But from what JFP tells us, we’re on a path that will allow us to keep writing books.  That's all we care about.  Thanks, JFP Publicists!  You’re super cool!

Friday, April 3, 2015

THE CHALLENGE OF WRITING MOJAVE GREEN.

Keeping the Story Plot Invigorated and Surprising.

Cooking the sequel in a pressure cooker.

            We’re all familiar with sophomoric sequels. The author makes a great start in the first book, but then the story just coasts along with no inspiration or energy in the second book. While we all hope that the second book will be at least as good as the first, we know it must cover new territory, and there is always a risk the author will lose his or her way. The challenge is to not just keep the story alive, but to keep it growing in surprising, unanticipated, and even exciting ways.
The Brothers Washburn
with the owner of
Red Rock Books
Ridgecrest, California
            Pitch Green and Mojave Green are the first two books in the Dimensions in Death young-adult horror series.  Based on a scary story we told as kids to siblings and friends, these books combine horror, suspense and mystery in a fast-paced battle with a monstrous evil presence, hiding in an old, deserted mansion in a small mining town, located in a desolate part of the Mojave Desert near Death Valley.
            The mansion was built almost a hundred years ago by an eccentric genius, who got funding and specifications from a clandestine source of ancient knowledge and wealth. One night the genius was mysteriously slaughtered, and ever after, children and other defenseless animals in Trona and the surrounding desert have been disappearing without a trace on a regular basis.
Hot off the press.
            In the first book, Pitch Green, we meet two teenagers, Camm and Cal, who are destined by wit, pluck and luck (not always good) to become the balancing force against the unearthly predator, who calls the mansion home. Our heroes are hurled from one scene of horror to the next. Though their intentions are good, they don’t understand what they face. By the end of the first book, a door has been left open to predations on an even grander scale.
            In the second book, Mojave Green, a call from her best friend, Cal, brings news Camm had hoped never to hear. Children are again disappearing from Trona. Has the unnatural creature they killed last year returned to life or has the ancient Searles Mansion spawned a new menace? Ignoring dire warnings from federal agents, the pair take a road trip home with unsuspecting school friends in tow and discover the situation has gotten worse. With monstrous predators seemingly coming out of nowhere, enigmatic forces tear the friends apart, pulling Cal into another world, where his chances of survival are slim.
Just 25 miles from
Trona, California
            Finally coming to terms with her feelings for Cal, Camm desperately seeks help where she can, even from the dead, but can a rogue agent and other misfits help her uncover the long-lost secrets needed to rescue Cal and stop inter-dimensional attacks?
            The government will be no help. Federal agents on the case do everything they can to catch Camm and stop her. The destiny of her own world may lie solely in Camm’s young hands.
            Writing the second book was a different experience for us as co-authors than was the first. The first book was based on a childhood story that we had been telling for years, and the basic plot elements already existed. The second book is a brand new story that has never existed before. It was created from scratch in the last couple years. As co-authors, we had to agree on a whole new plot.
            In both books, we were under pressure to make the story as thrilling as possible. We didn’t think in terms of one story being better than the other, just different, but we are definitely excited with the new direction taken by the Mojave Green story. Our fans can expect a faster moving, broader ranging story in the second book, which introduces new characters and covers more territory, both in terms of the desert geography as well as in the depth of the character emotions.
            In addition to the careful research of applicable desert geography, which we try to describe as accurately as possible, we had to do in-depth research of basic principles of astro-physics and relativity theory since Mojave Green answers many of the questions of seemingly supernatural happenings raised in the first book, while at the same time raising new questions of its own. But remember, this is not a science fiction series. It is horror based on scientific principles, rather than on magic and mysticism.
Young-Adult genre is
all-age appropriate
            Some of our favorite scenes in book two take place as Camm and Cal confront the new predators spawned by the collapse of the guardian systems that were originally built into the Searles Mansion to protect the residents of planet Earth. In solving life-and-death mysteries, our heroes find that mundane pieces of furniture, like an old grandfather’s clock, take on roles of life-saving significance.
            Some of our favorite moments in writing and selling the Dimensions in Death books have come as we are able to interact with a few of our fans at book signings and other author events. Initially, we thought that writing a cohesive, compelling story would be the hardest part of the book-selling business. But, when we started trying to find an agent or publisher, who would take our manuscript, we decided that getting published was the hardest part of the business.
            After sending out more than 150 query letters, we found a great publisher, Jolly Fish Press, and began the process of trying to sell our books. Now, we’re sure that building a fan base is the hardest part of the business. It’s a good thing it is also the most rewarding part.
            As we get ready for the third book in our series, Fatal Green, to come out later in 2015, we’re excited not just for the saga to continue, but also for the opportunity to continue learning and growing in a new business, in a dynamically changing industry, in a world with disappearing boundaries and in a universe limited only by one’s own imagination. It doesn’t get better than this!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

DON’T LOOK UNDER THE BED !

Why is thrilling and spooky better without graphic blood and gore?

The best kind of scary is not explicit, but is left to the imagination.

            Achieving scary is more of an art, than a science, especially since what is scary to one may be just dumb to another.  In the author’s book of fright, broad rules with general applications are few and far between.  While most formulas for fear quickly lose potency with age and use, there is an old proverb that is always sound advice:  There is more scare in the anticipation, than in the revelation.
It is always what we don't know
that is scariest!
            When a threat is left to the imagination, we all tend to imagine the worst, meaning our own personal version of the worst, and scary is a personal affair.  Very early in childhood, we are all introduced to scary.  We know so little about the world in general, but we don’t lack for imagination.  It is actually a miracle that we don’t scare ourselves to death before we can grow up.
            We grow up by learning the rules that govern the real world.  Whether those rules are actually correct is not relevant.  What’s important is that rules define the world, giving us a false sense of stability and certainty.  As adults, we don’t need to use our imaginations.  We already know the rules of reality.  But, when we allow our imaginations to wander, we find that scary is still there.  Nothing has changed, not really.
            Scary is child’s play—it has always been child’s play.  Some of the scariest games are the ones we played as children.  In telling scary stories, we just have to remember how to play those games again.
#
            Slowly, I pushed the door open, straining to see into the bedroom without actually stepping in.  The door opened wide, all the way to the sliding closet doors behind it.  I could see that both closet doors were closed, so I knew there was nothing immediately behind the door I was pushing, but I had no idea what might be waiting in the closet.  The hallway lights were off, but there was still enough light behind me to cast a black pillar across the room and onto the far wall.  Nervously, I crouched to minimize my dark shadow, knowing there were hidden eyes watching me, waiting for my next move.
Watchers are watching!
            I could feel those eyes heavy upon me, drilling holes through me.  I couldn’t see the watchers, but I knew they could see me.  Each one waited for me to carelessly stray too close, where I would be easy prey.  It was mandatory that I see or hear each one first, before I came within reach.  The sense of doom was palpable.  So many times, I had tried.  So many times, I had failed.
Reaching carefully around the corner into the room, I flipped the light switch, hoping a light might come on, but nothing happened.  Though it was hopeless, I flipped the switch a couple more times, thinking it might elicit a reaction from someone in the room--still nothing.  Except for a dim lamp, stuffed under a red sheet in a far corner, the room was dark and hidden in heavy shadows--nothing moved.  A blanket hung across the outside window, blocking all daylight.  Another blanket hung from the non-working ceiling light across to one end of the window blind, completely hiding one corner of the room.
Evil can see in the dark
This was a new configuration.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Dropping down to hands and knees, I tried to see under the beds, but blankets on both beds hung all the way to the floor.  Hoping to see underneath, I flipped up a corner of the blanket on the bed by the door, but it was too dark to see anything.  Holding my breath, I listened for any sound that might betray a nearby watcher, but heard nothing.
The first move had to be mine.  Standing, I leaned into the room.  Piles of blankets and pillows covered the bed to my right.  I decided not to go that way--who knew what was under those piles.
Sliding into the room with my back against the closet door, I kept a hand on its handle to prevent anyone from sliding it open from inside.  I stepped quickly to the middle of the wall on the other side.  Back to the wall, facing out, I watched for any movement, listened for any noise.  I was now close enough to the second bed that with a quick step, I could hop on top.  This bed had no blankets or pillows on it that might be hiding someone--it looked safe.  I stepped forward, getting ready to jump, but a hand suddenly shot out from under the bed, grabbing my ankle.  I yelped in surprise as I stumbled and fell.  Already, they had me, and I hadn’t seen it coming.
#
In a sudden rush, the tension was released.  I was safe once more.  Of course, I had never really been in danger--it had just felt that way.  And that was the fun of our small haunted house.
This was a game invented by our cousins, Sandra and Steven, fraternal twins.  When they came to our house, there was usually something scary going on, and one of our favorite games was “Haunted House.”  Because the grownups didn’t want us ransacking the entire house, it was really just a haunted bedroom, but that was all we needed to create some serious haunting.
The rules of the game were simple.  One kid was sent away to wait in the front room while all the other kids turned a bedroom into a haunted house.  When someone in the haunted house yelled, “Ready,” the designated victim would try to find (see or hear) all the monsters hidden around the room before one of them could grab the victim by surprise.  Everyone enjoyed the mystery and suspense of being the victim.  It was a challenge trying to anticipate where all the monsters would be hidden.  Sometimes a monster would be put in an obvious place to distract the victim from another monster carefully hidden nearby.
We all enjoyed being monsters too.  It took a lot of creativity to not do the same thing every time--there was no mystery or suspense in repeatedly doing the same thing.  In addition, a good haunted house required more than just mystery and suspense.  In order to be really scary, a good haunted house, or a good horror story, needs one or both of the following:  (1) a grave threat from a hidden source of danger, and/or (2) a warping or distortion of something that is normally familiar and friendly.
The victim in a haunted house (or the reader of a horror story) must feel a personal threat (either to him or herself directly or to a significant other, like the story’s main character).  The more significant the danger, the scarier the threat, with life and death threats being among the scariest.  A good horror story creates a bond between the reader and the character at risk, so the threat will hang heavy over the reader as it hangs heavy over the character in the story.
One way to make a hidden danger feel eminent, or to increase the sense of alarm, is to create a sense of revulsion through a warping or distortion of the familiar.  Few things are more fascinating, and at the same time more scary, than something familiar, even mundane, that has been horribly warped or distorted to the point of being painfully repulsive.  Even without feeling a direct personal threat to oneself, or a significant other, an encounter with a repulsive distortion of the familiar can elicit gut wrenching feelings of disgust and fear.  This has been done successfully with clowns, birds and even mothers.
When it comes to scary, a subtle presentation of a hidden danger coupled with a distortion of the familiar will beat a stream of blood and gore every time and will keep your readers (victims) coming back again and again.  Though you will need to be creative in building the mystery and suspense anew in each new story (even each new chapter), your readers will love you for it.  Good haunting!  Good horror!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER?

Are Two Storytellers Better Than One?

A Co-Writer Can Help You Tell Your Story

Please don’t get me wrong.  My brother doesn’t need a keeper, though sometimes my wife says that I do, but if he did need a keeper, he has a bunch of sisters who would be happy to take the job.  We grew up in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley.  Our father was a dentist, who had a practice in Trona, California, a small mining town.  He was the only dentist in town.  As the good citizens of Trona mined the minerals of Searles Valley, Dad mined their teeth.
When Andy and I went off to college, we left the desert, thinking never to look back.  We thought we were done with Trona, but couldn’t have been more wrong.  For 35 years, I was a business lawyer for international commercial finance companies in Ohio, Michigan and Colorado.  For 25 years, Andy was a trial practice lawyer, working in Southern California.  We have kept our law licenses current, but are now writing fiction full time.  Though some say that’s what we did as lawyers, this is different.
As lawyers, we were always solving other people’s problems.  After we each moved to Colorado, we talked about starting a business together where we only had to solve our own problems.  We both have many years of formal writing experience, and we have always been storytellers, first to siblings and friends, then to our children, and now to our grandkids, so writing fiction made sense.
The Brothers Washburn
Louisville, Colorado
A few years ago, I started writing a young-adult science fiction series, so when Andy also tried his hand at writing fiction, it didn’t take long for us to come together as The Brothers Washburn on a young-adult horror series.  Scary stories are a family specialty.  The tale is set in Trona, California, which is a perfect setting for a horror series.
Growing up, Andy loved A Collection of Short Stories, by O. Henry.  Later, Stories Your Mother Never Told You, by Alfred Hitchcock, was a favorite.  As a teenager, he was fascinated with The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury.  For my part, I was always on the lookout for anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs and always searching for new sci-fi authors.  It is no surprise, then, that we are currently writing both a YA horror series as well as a separate YA sci-fi series.  We find that once we start telling a horror or sci-fi story, the bounds of the story are limited only by our own imaginations.
Trona is located in
Searles Valley
As brothers, we get along well and have healthy levels of mutual self-respect.  We can freely share ideas and challenge each other without worrying about egos.  We are more creative when bouncing ideas off each other and discussing a general storyline, but we actually write separately, and then confer later on what we have been doing.  Sometimes we disagree on specific wording, and there is some friendly give and take as we consider alternatives, but then we agree quickly on the final wording.  We both appreciate the different perspective and skills the other brings to the joint process.
In key ways, we are different in how we approach a story.  Andy was a planner (a habit from writing like an lawyer), but in fiction, he no longer plans ahead.  He likes to develop his characters, and let them take the story wherever it is going.  On the other hand, I am definitely still a planner.  I make lists and outlines, not only for a current story, but for future stories too.
Andy doesn’t like having people around him when he is writing, especially when he is creating new material.  Sometimes people just bug him.  When I’m writing, I have to organize my surrounding environment.  Once everything is in order, I can detach from the world and write.
If Andy hits a tough spot in the story development, it is usually because of outside distractions.  If he can get rid of distractions, he can keep writing.  If I hit a tough spot, I don’t try to force it.  I stop, leave the house, and pick up some fast food where I can watch people.  I come back refreshed and ready to move the story forward.  I find that fresh ideas come naturally when I’m eating--Chipotle is always good.
Background research is important to us both in two areas:  theoretical science and local Trona geography.  First, the Dimensions in Death series is an ongoing horror story based on principals of science rather than on demons, devils or magical creatures.  An understanding of extremes in scientific theory is necessary and fun.  But, this series is not science fiction with a few scary scenes.  It is horror and suspense in a fast-pace narrative with a little science, by way of explanation, sprinkled on for spice, as the truth is gradually discovered by our heroes in the story.
Second, the local geography in the story plays a critical role in setting the mood of the tale.  Trona, California is a real place in this world located in a desolate region of the Mojave Desert by Death Valley, and we try to keep the scene settings as real and correct as possible.
The general outline for the first book, Pitch Green, came together one evening in November of 2010.  We were attending a writer’s seminar in Manhattan, listening to panel discussions by top literary agents.  As we rode the subway from one end-of-the-line stop across town to the opposite end-of-the-line stop, and then back again, we mapped out the basic elements we would need to expand a favorite childhood, scary story into a full-length novel.
Andy wrote a first rough draft, and then I took it over to edit and expand the tale.  In writing the first book, the ground work was laid for both the sequels and prequels in that series.
In Pitch Green, we meet two teenagers, Camm and Cal, who are destined by their wit, pluck and luck (not always good) to become the balancing force in this world against predators that keep showing up around an old mansion, which is something more than just a mansion.
Our heroes must make a stand against the mansion’s guardian, any unearthly visitors who might want to come through the mansion in search of easy prey, and the forces of the U.S. Federal Government, who are using the mansion to access unlimited natural resources.  Camm is the brains; Cal is the muscle, and together they make a formidable team when they decide to work together.  They are joined by an FBI agent, Special Agent Linda Allen, who is smart, resourceful and not intimidated by either those who are using or those who are protecting the mansion and its secrets.
Hurled from one scene of horror to the next, the protagonists barely have time to catch their breaths, let alone to comprehend what is really happening.  They do not understand the nature of what they face.  Though their intentions are good, by the end of the first book, they have left a dimensional doorway wide open and unguarded.  Pitch Green is the opening act in a long and complex tale in which Camm, Cal and Agent Allen will be intrepid explorers in the dimensions in death.

            The Brothers Washburn Author links:
Website:       www.thebrotherswashburn.com

            Social Media:
Blog:             http://www.thebrotherswashburn.blogspot.com
Twitter:         https://twitter.com/BrosWashburn

            Book Dealers:    see:  Pitch Green  or  Mojave Green
            Kindle Editions & paperbacks available on Amazon.com
Barnes and Noble:      http://www.barnesandnoble.com/
            Nook Books & paperbacks available on Barnesandnoble.com

Miscellaneous Dealers:    see:  Pitch Green  or  Mojave Green
                        http://www.booksamillion.com/
                        http://www.indiebound.org/
                        http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/
                        http://www.schulerbooks.com/
                        http://www.powells.com/

Saturday, March 14, 2015

RIDIN' THE RAILS

Creating Props with Character

The Right Props Help You Tell Your Story

            We’re still talking about drawing clear word pictures by setting the stage in your story with the right props.  The best props have their own character or personality.  So far, I’ve talked about the roles that the Bell Family pickup and my own dune buggy played in my youthful adventures in the desert and mountains between Trona, California and Death Valley.
            During the summer before my senior year in high school, my family moved from Trona to Ridgecrest, California, 25 miles away, but still deep in the Mojave Desert.  Dad said that after the summer ended, I could drive back to Trona each day during the school year to finish high school there and graduate from Trona High, but in the meantime, all my old haunts and friends were gone for the summer with only dry, mountainous desert stretching between us.  I was left with every teen’s worst nightmare, making a new group of friends.
            Ridgecrest had almost 20,000 people then and was ten times bigger than Trona.  Meeting new people there, I soon realized that new opportunities for adventure had opened up.  As I shared stories of my Trona adventures with my new Ridgecrest friends, I wondered what we could do in the nearby China Lake area.  China Lake is a dry lake bed located in a Naval weapons testing zone, so we couldn’t actually go there, but there is lots of desert around it, open to the public and just begging to be explored.
Ford Truck by creativauy
at FreeImages.com
            I knew we’d think of something, and an idea was born one blistering-hot, summer afternoon.  Sweat painted thick, dark marks on my T-shirt as I dug a trench through cement-hard Mojave Desert caliche, hiding under a thin layer of sandy topsoil.  A new friend, Barry Edwards, and I had gotten summer jobs with a local landscaper.  Digging trenches for sprinkler systems was back-breaking work, but the hourly pay was good.
            The solution to our hunger for adventure came in the form of Barry’s old pickup truck.
            That day, as we chipped our way down the trench, one of the other workers cocked his head at Barry’s 1950-something Ford pickup.  “You know, if you’re truck is the right year, the axle width is the same width as the railroad tracks.  As long as you don’t try to steer, you can drive that truck on the rails.”
            That was it.  I looked at Barry.  “We should see if your truck fits.”  He smiled.
            Our workday started around 4 am to beat the heat and often ended around 3 or 4 pm. After work, we had the afternoon free, so we drove out into the desert on a dirt road that led to an isolated railroad crossing.  We didn’t want anyone watching, and this dirt crossing sloped gradually away from the tracks.
            I jumped out, directing as Barry maneuvered the truck back and forth in the intersection until it was perpendicular to the road, heading in the same direction as the rails.  With both hands waving, I guided him, shouting, “This way.  Now that way a little, good, good ... come straight,” until all four tires had rolled onto the tracks.  The middle of each tire sat perfectly on the middle of a rail.  Success!
            Hopping inside, I said, “Remember, we’re on rails now.  You can’t steer or you’ll drive us off the tracks.”  Barry nodded, holding both hands up, off the steering wheel.  Slowly, he pushed on the gas pedal until we were going about 20 miles an hour along the tracks.  The ride was so smooth, like gliding on air.  The tracks curved gradually, and then started up a hill.  We exchanged looks as the truck started to slow, but with more gas, we purred up that hill like the truck was flying.  The feeling was exhilarating.
            We were literally on a roll, and eventually got the truck up to 55 mph!  We didn’t dare go much faster for fear we’d jump the rails, so we just cruised along, windows rolled down, radio blasting, scrolling the wind with our hands and watching the jack rabbits jump out of the desert bushes that covered both sides of the ten-foot-high berm that formed the foundation of the rail bed.
            Barry peered through the windshield, then pointed ahead.  We could see the faint trace of another dirt road cutting across the line of our tracks--another railroad crossing.  We worried the tires might pop off the rails inside the intersection, but we sailed through no problem.  By the time the next intersection loomed in the distance, however, we decided we didn’t want to push our luck any further.
            “Better get the speed down if we’re getting off,” Barry said, taking his foot off the gas, letting us coast.  The brakes on Barry’s truck pulled to one side, so we didn’t dare brake.  At the next crossing we were going slow, so with a touch of the brake, Barry slipped us off the rails onto the dirt road.
            Next day at work, we both agreed, “Let’s do it again!”  We spent the rest of the workday talking about ways to upgrade our rail-riding experience.
            That afternoon, with just a couple quick stops along the way for supplies, we were back at our favorite isolated railroad crossing.  Once we were rolling along the tracks again, we positioned a large, flat rock against the gas pedal with one end lying on the driveshaft hump in the middle of the truck and the other end resting on the floor below the pedal.  By scooting the rock up or back against the gas pedal, we could steady the gas flow until we had leveled our speed out at about 35 to 40 mph.
            We then scrambled out the side windows, climbing along the slick metal to sit on top of the cab.  Our legs dangled down onto the windshield as we ate our picnic of Hostess pies and soda pop.  We had our .22 rifles loaded and in hand for the shooting gallery.  We hadn’t forgotten those jack rabbits.
Train Tunnel by adamr
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
            The breeze swept our hair back and the whole Mojave Desert stretched out on every side.  With no one working the gas, the pickup slowed down when we climbed hills and gained speed on the downward side, but otherwise drove itself.  After cruising and shooting at jack rabbits for half an hour or so, we noticed a tunnel looming up ahead.  Not thinking much about it, we rode inside.  Pitch blackness enveloped us.
            “Uh, I think we need lights,” Barry said, and inched over to climb carefully down into the cab and switch on the headlights.  Deep black stretched beyond the reach of our light beams with no end in sight.
            “So what happens if we see a train coming?” Barry asked.
            I shook my head in the dimness.  “Depends on which way the train is going, but there’s no way for us to get off the rails in here.”
            For a mile or more we rode through the tunnel, eyes and ears alert for the stabbing light and clicking sound of rails that would signal an approaching train.  Relieved, we finally saw the approaching daylight at the end of the tunnel.  Once we had barreled out into the open again, we agreed, “That was dumb.  We should check the train schedules before going through a tunnel.”
            Back in town, Barry got to work, talking with people, who worked for the railroad, getting an idea of who used the tracks and when.  Not a fail-proof plan, but good enough for our purposes.
            Our next question was, “Who do we want to invite along on the next trip?”
            We tried out several friends, and first responses were always the same.  “Are you kidding?”
            “No, we ride the rails.  It’s great.  Bring your .22 and chips or pop.  We’ll bring Hostess pies.”
            A slow smile would come with belief, telling us we had made another convert.  Not all wanted to brave the slippery path onto the cab, choosing instead to slide out the door and climb around into the back bed.  Either way, everyone enjoyed the ride, eating and shooting.  We traveled for miles with no one in the cab, no one driving.  The tunnel was always a thriller.  Fortunately, we never saw a train.
            The large, flat rock stayed permanently in Barry’s truck that summer—always ready anytime we wanted to put the truck into auto-pilot.  I don’t know when he finally threw it out, but I wish now we had thought to keep it.  After all, that rock was a special kind of prop, a non-standard part of the truck.
            Thanks to Barry’s Ford, with the right wheel gauge, I made friends in Ridgecrest that summer.
            In the Fall, my new friends went back to Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, and I went back to Trona High, but we stayed in touch.  I saw my new friends on weekends.  At the time, I was not aware of any rivalry between the two high schools.  They were in completely different worlds.  Trona was in a totally different league, too small to even show up as a blip on the Burroughs’ radar screen.
            To this day, I still have family and friends in Ridgecrest and Trona.  I go back to visit as often as possible, and as I drive along U.S. Route 395, I look over at the railroad tracks and think of the carefree hours spent perched on the outside of a driverless truck, just cruising, talking, shooting, munching, and ridin' the rails.
            It didn’t get better than that.

Friday, March 6, 2015

FIRST CAR

Setting The Stage

Drawing a Picture With Words

            From the beginning of my writing career, my wife Carolyn has been my working editor.  She pulls no punches and helps with so many things, like not switching character point of view, not losing reader momentum in backstory or subplot tangents, focusing the direction of character dialogue, and clearly setting the stage for key story events.  She is also good at reducing and simplifying my sentence and paragraph structures.
            She has always loved theater and thinks in terms of what the set (background, scenery and props) should look like.  Properly staging the story in crisp, clean wording helps the reader form a complete mental picture of what is happening, which keeps the reader oriented and engaged.
            Using the right props can make or break a key story event.  In addition, a good prop can be woven into the story to tie together a chain of events or people.  Certain props can even have their own character, almost a personality.  My first car was just a stripped-down dune buggy, an engine on a frame, but it still had lots of character, which contributed to the success of many of my teenage adventures.
            I got my first car because of someone else’s Christmas gift.  Gerald Rana and I played on the football team together throughout high school.  He was a hard-charging full back; I was a center.  One year, Gerald’s neighbor got an arc welding kit for Christmas and that very day, the neighbor pushed an old Pontiac into his front yard.
"Pontiac Straight-8" by User Bill Wrigley on en.wikipedia.
 Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A straight-8 engine in a still intact Pontiac.
            No one worried about the lawn; Trona had no lawns.  The alkaline soil killed any grass (and even most weeds) that tried to grow there.  With no lawn to worry about, the neighbor decided to use the space in front of his house to turn an old car (with a great engine) into a dune buggy.
            Cutting arc in hand, the neighbor dove in and stripped off the car body, even removing the dash board with all its gauges. Then he sliced right through the middle of the car, drive shaft and all, so that the car lay in two separate pieces.  Cutting all the way through the car again, but now just in front of the rear wheel assembly, he hauled the whole middle section of the car away to the dump.
dimasobko/123rf Stock Photo
Arc Welding a Steel Frame.
            He was energized!  Work continued for days in every spare moment.  He welded together the front and rear pieces of both the drive shaft and frame.  The car was now less than half its original length.
            The straight-8 engine, with its eight pistons in a row, took up half the length of the buggy.  Behind the engine on the shortened frame was just a bench seat with a gas tank tucked behind that.  The car ended there.  With no real weight to pull, that straight-8 knew no bounds.
            The next step in the plan was to weld on roll bars and side supports, but Gerald’s neighbor ran out of steam at that point.  The project sat idle for weeks.  All along, Gerald had been observing the project next door with interest, so one day his neighbor called him over.
            “Hey, Gerald.  You like this dune buggy?”
            “Sure,” Gerald said.  “It’s going to be great.”
            His neighbor chewed his lip.  “I think I’m done.  My wife is tired of this project and keeps reminding me that I’ve got other things I should be working on.”  He raised his eyebrows at Gerald.  “If you want it, I’ll sell you this buggy ‘as is’ for just my out-of-pocket costs.”
            “Yea?  How much you talkin’?”
            “Fourteen dollars.”
            While you couldn’t beat the price, I think Gerald realized there were going to be ongoing costs of upkeep, and it would be good to have a partner sharing those costs.  There were a number of guys he could have partnered with, but he chose me, and the next day in school, he approached me with a proposition.  He would let me in on the deal as a 50% owner if I paid half the price to his neighbor.
            This sounded like a sweet deal to me.  I was 14 or 15 years old at the time and crazy about cars.  Though I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, I had been driving (mostly off road) for some time.  The buggy had no lights or plates or anything else that was required by law for street use, but it was after all, just a dune buggy intended only for off-road use.  I figured I could sell the concept to my Dad on that basis.
            Early the next morning, when no one else was around, I approached Dad as he ate a solitary breakfast at the kitchen-bar counter.  “Hey, Dad.  Gerald Rana’s neighbor has a dune buggy for sale.  Gerald and I want to go in on it 50/50.  Can I buy half?”
            Dad looked at me closely as he chewed another bite.  I could see dollar signs flashing in his eyes and knew he was wondering how many hundreds of dollars this was going to cost him.
            “It won’t cost much,” I said encouragingly.
            Dad smiled and shook his head.  “How much?”
            “Fourteen bucks is the total cost.  If I pay seven dollars, I’ll be half owner.”
             Surprise flitted across his face, and he stopped chewing.  Then his grin widened.  I was prepared with a list of logical reasons why this purchase would make good sense, but without another question, he stood up, pulled his billfold out of his pants pocket and peeled off a five dollar bill and two ones.
            Handing the money to me he said, “Here you go.  Just don’t kill yourself.”
            I had a dune buggy (half a dune buggy), but to us, it was a car.  We couldn’t drive it much at night, without using flashlights, or drive it to school, but otherwise it had many practical uses.  Since the County Sherriff only came through Trona on Thursdays, most of the time we drove it all over town.
            It was an educational purchase as well.  I learned a lot about auto repair.  Whenever anything went wrong, we’d drive out to the city dump and rummage around in the abandoned cars for a new part.  We didn’t care if it came from a Pontiac or not.  We could make just about any part from any other make or model work in our Pontiac.  Once, the starter motor went bad.  We found one that didn’t look too corroded in a Ford and drilled new holes in the frame to make it fit into our Pontiac.  The buggy started up like a dream.  Already a Frankenstein creation, we constantly attached more miss-matched parts, always trying to make it run better (faster).
            The real joy was what that buggy could do.  And the freedom we enjoyed.  We drove all over the desert, exploring places a regular car could never go.  We did tear up a lot of old tires, but there were piles of replacements available at the dump, and we were always trading out the buggy’s tires in a constant tradeoff between better traction or greater speed.
            For a while, we were excited with a set of rear dual tires mounted on dual rims from an abandoned, flatbed truck, but in the end, we decided the duals slowed us down too much and went back to single rims.
            Sometimes, we considered the cost of getting a set of roll bars added to the frame, but we worried about the extra weight the bars would add to the buggy.  Long term, the only things we really missed were the gauges, especially the gas gauge and a speedometer.  We were always dipping a stick into the gas tank to see how much gas was left, and we never knew how fast we were going.
            Though we didn’t know our speed, we did know, in a drag race, we never had any trouble shutting down all the other buggies around town.  None of those new V8s could hold a candle to our straight-8, and with the right tires, we would leave the competition in the dust.
            Once when Gerald’s parents were out of town, he drove his Dad’s car behind me as I raced the buggy down the Trona-Wildrose Highway as fast as I could go.  We wanted to see what the buggy’s maximum speed could be on a paved highway, but in just a few miles on a straightaway stretch of road, Gerald’s car fell back quickly.  He wasn’t matching my speed, so I slowed, waiting for him to catch up.
            When he pulled up beside me in the opposite lane, I yelled, “What’s the matter?”
            “When you got past 120 mph, my Dad’s car couldn’t keep up anymore.  You were leaving me in the dust like I was standing still.”
            We never did find out what the buggy’s maximum speed was, and I never did tell my Dad about the speed test.  However, I am sure that buggy was the best $7 investment I’ve ever made, and to this day, I sometimes sit back, close my eyes and imagine that I’m flying through the desert behind a Pontiac straight-8 engine with the pedal to the metal and no cares in the world.
            That first car was a first love of a special kind, which takes on the magical characteristics of the best kind of prop found in any story, fiction or otherwise.  Whenever I think of setting the stage in a story with a powerful prop, I will always think of my first car in all its stripped-down glory, and then attribute the quirky characteristics needed to give my story’s key prop its own, one-of-a-kind personality—one that any reader could love.