When Disaster Strikes: What Writers Can Glean From Harvey, Irma & Maria

To keep a healthy perspective on my problems, I often tell myself, “You’re doing just fine if you can drink the tap water without getting sick.” For the past ten days, my neighbors in Naples, Florida haven’t had that luxury. Hurricane Irma left them with a boil water order and a host of other problems most of us don’t encounter in modern-day America.

Evem though I evacuated (and am still evacuated) my position as the president of our condo association has kept me quite busy and given me new understanding of what happens to society when simple things like sewer systems break down.

If you are a writer, film maker, or other type of storyteller, and you are writing a sorry that includes a major disaster, a post-apocalyptic, or a dystopian story, studying the aftermath of Harvey, Irma, and Maria can help you add conflict and realism to your project. I’ve listed a few things below that I would never have thought to include in these types of stories until Irma hit Naples.

Loss of power means more than just no air conditioning, refrigeration, or cooking. Irma toom out 96% of Naples’s power. This didn’t just include residences. It included water plants, sewage systems, gas stations, basically everything. No power meant no ability to process credit cards. The gas pumps, well didn’t. Lift stations that move the sewage from homes to the sewage plant stopped working. Unprepared residents had no way to get food or drinkable water. People stood in gas lines at the few open stations for four hours for days, and if they didn’t have cash, they couldn’t buy. In your disaster stories, think about what might happen to the sewage after only a few days of no power, especially if it gets flooded. (Hint: it starts coming out the manholes. It also spreads disease.)

Water, Non-perishable food, and gas are the hottest commodities. My friends stood in line for four hours for gas, two hours just for ice, and the same for water. (Municipalities need electricity to get water to homes. No electric, no water.) Fights broke out over gas. Deputies had to direct traffic in the gas lines and maintain a presence and to keep order. Grocery stores lost their perishable items and sold out of their non-perishable items before the storm even hit. In your stories, focus on these things. Obtaining food and water to survive will be your characters’ greatest source of conflict and tension.

The smell. Stagnate water. Broken sewer systems. Dead animals. People who can’t shower. If you have ever been backpacking, you might be familiar with that sweaty/dirty/smokey backpacking funk smell that sticks to everything. Find someone who served time in the military to give you a better idea of what happens when people can’t shower. (Thanks to Jerry Phillips for giving me this idea.) Including these details can enrich your stories.

Inescapable, oppressive heat and humidity transforms humanity. The calm after a stores is just that: calm. No wind. No breeze. And heat. Wet heat. It drives the sanity out of people. I watched friends on Facebook go from excitement that they survived to despair only a few days later and back to thankful elation once their power returned. The homeowners in my condo literally changed personalities once the AC came back on. If your characters are exposed to heat and humidity with no escape, they will become grumpier than a hungry person in a Snickers commercial. If they are elderly or small children, they could also die, which happened.

When food, water, and gas are scarce, remember that someone has guns. I’m not making a political statement. I’m stating the facts. If guns exist at all in your story, then someone has guns. Your job as the author is to figure out who has the guns and how they intend to use them. Who is armed? Just the law enforcement and National Guard? Does your setting include gangs? Do your residents arm themselves? If you think gunviolence is bad now, imagine what might happen to a community when necessities for life become scarce or non-existent. Thank goodness our law enforcement kept a strong presence near gas stations and grocery stores. Whoever has the guns will have the power to control these items. 

Looting will happen. Enough said on that, but take it a step further. People didn’t just take items from stores and empty homes. They took necessary items from occupied homes. One of our friends had his generator stollen from his house while it was plugged in and working. Another one of my friends heard people outside his house trying to steal his generator. (He has a concealed carry license, and was able to defend his property. See, whoever has the guns…) One business had filled its fleet of vans with gas in preparation before the storm. When they arrived after the storm, someone had siphoned all of the gas from the vans. Make sure to include these types of events in your stories.

Compromised communication will  aid in society’s breakdown. On friend told me the scariest part of Irma happened in the few days after the storm when they had no idea what was going on. Irma took out cell phone towers, the internet, phone lines, and  mail service. Our society has moved away from radios to Pandora and Spotify, which don’t work if the internet is down. Even if you have a radio, the radio stations need electricity too. When 96% of your county is without power, there’s a good chance you ain’t getting radio. When people don’t know what is going on, fear takes over. They start imagining the worst: the worst of what might happen and the worst of others. They will falsely accuse their neighbors. They will suspect foul play where it doesn’t exist. Use lack of communication to mess with your characters perceptions. It will create conflict, which turns pages.

Fear and despair are powerful enemies. They make us do dumb stuff on an ordinary day. What do you think will happen if you take away a whole city’s food, water, shelter, and gas? How will your characters behave? I can honestly tell you I don’t know what I would do if my child was starving. Would I follow the law? I would like to think so, but fear and hunger can make people do things they would never do in ordinary circumstances.

Hope is a better weapon than a gun. People in Naples knew the electric company was doing everything possible to restore power. The county and city communicated using Facebook and Twitter.  Evacuees coming home texted friends and posted pictures of the electric trucks coming to help. Naples residents were given hope, which is part of the reason they didn’t need to worry about guns. Only time will tell how Puerto Rico will hold up when they are being told that they won’t have power for 6 months. If you have put your characters in a hopeless situation, prepare to write the fallout.

If your story includes a mega-disaster, try to research real disasters. Read the personal articles. Look at pictures. The more specifics from life you can include, the more real your story will feel. 

How about you? Do you have any concepts about disasters to add to this list?

Update since first posting: I’ve heard from many of you and I need to add a free things to this list:

Medical care required electricity. Thanks to Carol for reminding me of this. Naples was able to get power back to its hospitals without any news worthy incident, but Puerto Rico is going to have some major problems. Hospitals need electricity, not just for lighting, but for all the machines. Some monitor; some keep people alive. Hospitals have generators, but if you have a post apocalyptic story, a lot of people will pass away at the hospital once the gas disappears. Regarding monitoring, I would have died in childbirth without the machines that monitored my baby’ s heartbeat, so keep that in mind. Many people hooked up to machines that keep them alive would struggle as well. Don’t forget the effect of no AC on the elderly and sick. In Miami, 8 nursing home residents died from over heating.

People are traumatized. Their emotions will be fragile, and emotional breakdowns will occur. Tempers will flare. The stress will cause people to be unable to perform regular tasks easily. 

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Things You Might Not Know Know About Floridians Evacuating Irma…

At 11:15am today two women, a mother and daughter, stood in the middle of the meat section in Sylva, NC’s Wal-Mart, staring at a smart phone. Concern and worry clouded their faces. The mother kept scrolling down the screen. The daughter wiped a tear out of her eyes. Suddenly, both ladies smiled.

“It’s moved west,” said the mother.

The daughter pumped her fist in the air and wiped away another tear. “It’s down to a Cat 3!”

This behavior might seem strange on the surface until you find out these women have evaluated Hurricane Irma. 

I’m the daughter in this story.  I live in Naples, FL, which lies directly in the path of Hurricane Irma. I fled Irma on Wednesday, September 6th with my husband, daughter, and dog. My mom and I were searching a website for the 11:00 hurricane update to find out which path Hurricane Irma was taking.

Many of you have been so generous, giving those of us in Irma’s path a place to stay. A warning, however, You might notice us act a bit odd at seemingly random times, possibly with mood swings and spacey looks. Please remember, we’re putting up a brave front, but we are cracking on the inside.

I thought I might share a few things we’re experiencing to give you a better understanding of our behavior. Trust me, you aren’t getting the full story on our social media posts.

  • Many of us have been questing for water and gas since Monday, September 4th. I couldn’t find water in Target or Publix (our awesome grocery chain) two days before we evacuated. It’s now Saturday night, and some Floridians started their evacuation today. That’s six days some have spent scouring Facebook and twitter posts for information on where to find water, gas, and other essentials. 
  • Many of us have worked non-stop preparing our homes. We’re physically exhausted. I’m fortunate. I live in a second floor condo that’s basically a concrete bunker, and I can’t board it up. Others, however, have been nailing plywood (or custom hurricane shutters) to windows for the past few days, and many have had to search for plywood. Many have been trimming trees, packing valuables, and moving furniture and computers away from windows.
  • Some of us haven’t slept in over 24 hours. Several of my friends literally took off the moment they secured their homes, only to spend 10 to 12 hours in bumper to bumper traffic. Some of us have endured the drive with screaming babies and/or whining pets. We are exhausted.
  • We’ve all left someone behind. It might be a family member who refused or couldn’t leave or a close friend, but we each have several people we know stayed in harm’s way. I’ve got a mother-in-law and father-in-law who evacuated to Orlando, a sister and her family who finally left Naples for The Villages (near Orlando), and a sister who was supposed to be safe near Tampa. If we keep checking our phones, we aren’t trying to be rude; we’re making sure our loved ones are okay.
  • We need tv/internet access at 5:00, 8:00, 11:00, & 2:00 (both am & pm if we are awake). The Weather Channel and other news outlets update Irma’s projected track and wind speeds during these times. The Irma gets to Florida, the more important these updates become. Please don’t take it personally if we have to check our phones or the tv to hear the next update.
  • We can’t control what happens during these next few days. Information is our only form of control. Some of us will cling to it in an OCD way. Just a warning.
  • Our financial future is uncertain. Florida is a tourist state. Tourism season starts in October. This hurricane is about to destroy all our infrastructure right before our tourist season. Some of us are just finishing up a financially lean summer, and we honestly don’t know if we are going to get through this.
  • We don’t know when we will be able to go home or what we are going home to. We don’t want to inconvenience you or overstay our welcome, but we also don’t know what Irma is going to leave us with. A massive storm surge could wipe out most of my hometown. I don’t know when they will get power back up. As of the 11:00pm update, Naples is no longer in the center of the cone of probability (aka cone of terror). These unknowns are dancing around in our heads, even as we laugh and joke with everyone.
  • Some of us could lose everything. My condo is in a storm surge zone and today they put Naples in the 12 feet catsgory. One of our cars is still there. I’m expecting we will lose it in the surge. Others have one-story homes in the storm surge zones, and they might lose their homes and everything in them. Many of us don’t know if we will still have jobs when this passes. I look at my 2-year-old daughter and wonder if we will be able to provide for her after this. It’s weighing on me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The biggest stress is the not knowing.
  • We couldn’t do this without you. We Floridians try to be self-sufficient. We don’t want to put anyone out. We don’t want to clog your roads and interrupt your lives. We can’t tell you how grateful we are to you, and some of us will never be able to fully repay you. We are in your debt, and we won’t forget it. We might be stressing over how to repay you for your hospitality, but we don’t want to show it.

Hopefully, this might explain why your Floridian houseguests might be acting weird. Despite our moods, we love you. Thank you so much to everyone hosting an evacuating family. You’ve helped save lives. We hope we can do the same for you.

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Writing: Catching What the Muse Flings at You

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but ideas rarely come to me when I’m sitting peacefully at my desk and can write them down in organized fashion. No, no, nooooo… My muse prefers to toss ideas my way when I’m in the middle of something else, usually without access to pen and paper. (Yes, I prefer this old-fashioned method for taking notes. I still remeber the day (pre-smartphone) when I went running around Walt Disney’s Polynesian Hotel looking for something to write with as a scene unfolded in my head. Ended up buying a Minnie Mouse notepad, but I was able to write it down. If you’re a writer, you know that when your characters start taking, you’ve got precious little time to record what they are doing.) 

This month, I’m blogging on writing tools, and I’ve decided to share a few “writer’s life hacks” that helped me record and organize my ideas even if I’m nowhere near a pen and paper. As long as you already own a smartphone or tablet, all of these (except one) are free.

Writer’s hack 1: Put MS Word on your smartphone. I’m not sure about androids, but MS Word is free if you have an iPhone or iPad with at least iOS 7. I use Dropbox (more on that next) to store my writing manuscripts and notes. I can pull up any Word document on my my phone and work on it. I can also start a new manuscript on my iPhone when the ideas strike. Working on huge novels I nearly impossible, but short stories or just taking notes from brainstorming work well.

Writer’s Hack 2: Use DropBox (or any other form of google docs/cloud storage). As mentioned earlier, I keep my writing files in Dropbox. I can access them on my smartphone, tablet, and any computer with internet access. Better yet, the original documents are stored in my hard drive. DropBox acts as a backup that I can access anywhere.

Writer’s Hack 3: Your smartphone’s Notes app. I’m not as familiar with Androids, but iPhones come equipt with the Notes app. It’s really simple. Open app. Click the Add Note symbol. Write note. Close app. I use Notes dying those times when I don’t have internet access,  but I need to get that scene in my head written down somewhere. (A little celeb tip: you can also type out a paragraph, take a screen shot, and use that as an Instagram post…)

Writer’s Hack 4: Evernote. Evernote is marketed more towards businesses, but it has great applications for writers. Evernote lets you organize your notes and ideas into notebooks. When you get an idea for a novel that is three books in the cue (my cue is huge!), you can add a note into that future novel’s notebook. You can access your Evernote account through a computer or your smartphone/tablet. My favorite part about Evernote: if I’m doing research on my computer, I can clip an entire webpage into a notebook. I keep all my web research for novels on Evernote. I also save random articles that might come in handy for hard to research topics, such as steampunk technology into Evernote. Evernote has a few downsides, however. The free version only allows you to upload a certain amount of data per month. Also, unlike Dropbox, all your notes are saved in Evernote’s system instead of your computer, meaning they can do what they please with it. When they bought Pentultimate, they literally deleted most of my notes, and I lost half of my ideas for The Elysian Chronicles Book 3. (You’ll notice I don’t have Pentultimate listed here. I’m still furious.) 

Note: I started using Evernote before I could put Word on my phone and access everything with Dropbox. Now, I mainly use Evernote to capture web data, and I’m using Word the rest of the time.

Writer’s Hack 5: Aqua Notes. For some reason, most of my ideas occur in the shower, probably because it’s the only time I actually relax enough to pay attention to the muse. Before I discovered Aqua Notes, I would think up wonderful patches of dialogue and scenes, but I’d lose them by the time I could write them down. Then I discovered Aqua Notes: a notepad with waterproof paper–I kid you not! It has suction cups, so it sticks to the shower wall (as does the included pencil), and the individual papers stick to the tile as well, meaning I can use both sides. Aqua Notes have saved my writing life quite a few times. Note: these actually cost money, but if you are a shower thinker, they are worth it. 

Obviously, when all else fails, pull out that pen and paper you keep with you for emergencies…

What about you? How do you capture the ideas your muse flings at you?

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Kill Your Productivity With These Simple Steps

Read on to discover the secrets of a master time-waster…

I would love to give advice about being productive and reaching your maximum potential, but I also want to continue looking in the mirror without thinking hypocrite. I’m a full time mother, part-time accountant, and on top of that I’m trying to compose two separate fantasy novel series and a YouTube series. I’m always looking for ways to put what little time I have to best use. I’ve tried several productivity methods and apps (can anyone here say pomodoro?), and none have helped. I have, however, discovered a plethora of ways to totally eliminate any chance of making my time count. 

If you, like me, are trying to juggle your lofty creative dreams with your job and family, and you’re looking for ways to seriously hinder your chances of success, check out these top time sucks and productivity killers that I’ve not only discovered but also fallen victim to:

Spend too much time on social media. There’s nothing quite like that numb feeling you get while mindlessly scrolling down posts looking for a funny superhero meme or taking that 243rd online Hogwarts sorting test to really keep yourself from finishing that novel… (I’m Gryfindor, btw…)

Master Angry Birds, Candy Crush, or (pick your smartphone game). Oh the thrill of knocking aside those pigs or bursting that piece of chocolate! Or the tension of repeating a level over and over (and over) because you are soooooo close to winning it. (I’ve since deleted all games except for Sudoku off my phone, btw. Of course, now I’m paying more attention to Apple News and Facebook…)

Religiously follow or binge watch a television show/s. Netflix murders future projects. Nuff said.

Become an ardent sports fan. The more times a week your team plays, the better for your productivity woahs. (Here’s looking at you Major League Baseball.) While you’re cheering for your Yankees or your Cowboys, be sure to join at least one fantasy league and spend half of your free time researching stats.

Set impossible goals. Go big or go home. If you can’t meet your goals, let the fear of failure paralyze you instead of readjusting your goals to work with your schedule. 

Don’t work your plan. If you have set reasonable goals, be sure to spend hours planning out each minute detail. Then, drop the whole thing in a week because… (See any of the above.)

Overschedule yourself. Say yes to everything. Let those things interfere with your set aside work (writing, art, etc.) time. It all sounds so fun, and you will broaden and stretch yourself. Like butter. Over too much bread. (Geek points to those of you who caught that reference.)

Have a baby… Nuff said.

How about you? What totally interferes with your productivity?

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Free Eclipse Short Story: “Spliced”

eclipse

Never look directly at an eclipse. It might damage more than just your eyes…

Since we’re celebrating an eclipse today, I decided to post a short story that has been floating around in my head for a few years. I think I channeled M. Night Shymalan on this one. Feel free to read, enjoy, and share!

Spliced

M. B. Weston

Never look directly at an eclipse. It might damage more than just your eyes. This thought and sickening regret that accompanied it always swirled around my head each time I entered the Mabry Psychiatric Hospital to visit my younger sister. Selena looked directly into a total eclipse eight years ago. It destroyed her and nearly broke me.

The sharp tapping of my heels against the dated terrazzo floors echoed down the sterile white asylum hall in steady rhythm. The muscles in my right hip started to ache, and jabbing pain gnawed at my right temple. The accident that caused them occurred five years ago today. My body remembered it more than I wanted to. The day after the accident, they locked Selena away in this awful place. I never argued with their decision. Something, either Selena’s mind or her body, already imprisoned her. Moving her here simply changed her living quarters.

My husband, Mark, noticed me favoring my right side and stepped closer to me. He and I both suspected something psychosomatic caused at least part of my pain. Too often, it occurred when something triggered thoughts about her. I grasped his hand, letting him bear some of my weight, as we approached the door to her room. I forced my emotions into an imaginary box in a hidden part of my mind. Without that silly box, I would have cracked long ago the same way my mom did. Unfortunately, since the eclipse I had forced my feelings into that box so often that they sometimes stayed there.

We reached her door. I took a deep breath, gathering my strength, as Mark opened it. The door’s creak rippled from my heart to my stomach. Just once, I wanted to have a normal conversation with my only living blood relative.

Mark’s protective hand led me inside. Selena sat in a reclining chair next to the window, involved in an intense conversation. The little girl who used to insist on keeping her appearance immaculate now sat disheveled with her messy, raven-colored hair and misaligned bathrobe. Lack of sun turned her face ashen, almost translucent, making her childhood freckles disappear.

Selena continued her conversation, immune to our presence. “Thank you, Nurse Snyder,” she said. She flashed a lopsided smile—the one I often remembered her giving me when she wanted to get out of doing something.

If Nurse Snyder was actually in the room, I would have giggled at Selena’s cute manipulative tactic. The room was empty, however, except for me and Mark—and Selena, of course, but I suspected she wasn’t actually here today.

After the eclipse, Selena consistently held conversations with unseen people. She even insisted that a little boy had moved into the house with us. “He likes the swing out back,” she often said. Her visions stretched beyond just people. Three months before we put her at Mabry’s, she claimed “the ground swallowed up” a house a few blocks away from us. The convincing detail and intensity Selena poured into her one-sided conversations and stories would frighten most people. Mark grew used to it. I usually kept myself in android-mode: calm, unaffected, emotionless.

Selena’s grey-blue eyes, once bright like cobalt, gazed at the wall next to her bed. I hated the wall. She had drawn a few pictures on it, usually of our old house with tree and the swing. She also written the word eclips, without the e, across it. The little girl who once placed first in the statewide spelling bee couldn’t even spell eclipse, even though I had corrected her several times.

Eclipse. I hate the word. My hometown of Seffner, FL fell directly in the United States’ last total eclipse’s path of totality. I was seventeen at the time. Selena was eight. We huddled next to Mom in the county park along with the hundreds of others waiting to experience the rare phenomena. We somehow kept little Selena corralled for two hours as we watched the moon pass in front of the sun.

“Honey, don’t look directly at it,” my mom kept saying. “You’ll burn your eyes. Use your glasses.”

“I can’t use them, Mommy,” she said. “They aggravate the cut on my nose.”

Selena used to be so bright. What eight-year-old used the term aggravate? She was also stubborn and refused to heed Mom’s pleas.

The noisy crowd around us quieted as the moon closed in on the sun. The sky darkened, much as it does at twilight. Selena ignored it and instead ran around the two of us, chasing a bee.

“Selena, stop!” I snapped. “I don’t want to use my pen.” I was, and still am, deathly allergic to bee stings, and I carried my EpiPen everywhere. I had no desire to miss the eclipse because my sister angered one of the little buzzers.

My mom nudged my arm. “Jan, it’s happening.” The sky continued to darken into night. The confused crickets even began their evening chirps. The vibrant reds and purples of sunset that usually stick to the west surrounded the horizon.

We took off our eclipse glasses just as the black moon cloaked the sun. The sun’s pulsing orange glow surrounded it. Darkness enveloped us, and I saw actual stars in the night-like sky.

A nearby buzz like a jolt of electricity took me by surprise. I looked down and saw my normally wiggly sister standing motionless, her arms straight, stuck to her sides. “Selena,” I said.

She remained rigid. Her usually vivacious, expressive blue eyes stayed locked on the moon and sun in a dead gaze. I nudged her shoulder. It felt like I was trying to push a statue. No one else noticed. Even after the moon started to pass away from the sun, my sister’s body remained stiff.

Night disappeared. Light returned. The awed crowd turned rambunctious once again. I looked down. Selena blinked a few times, as though she had come out of a trance. She looked around the park.

“Where did they go?” she whispered.

At the time, I thought the question odd. No one had left the park.

Panic transformed her little voice. “Mommy!” she screamed. “Jan!”

“We’re here,” we both said.

I took her hand in mine. She wriggled out of my grip and raced down the sidewalk crying out for both of us.

We chased her down, and it took us ten minutes to convince her we were standing right next to her.

For the next three years, she drifted in and out of reality. Sometimes the episodes lasted only minutes. Other times, we waited days. The helplessness of hearing my baby sister screaming my name in panic, refusing to believe I stood next to her wrenched out a part of me with each instance. I chose to turn it off. I stopped crying a year after she entered Mabry’s.

Selena, now sixteen, should have been in high school. Instead she remained locked inside an institution staring at her wall art. She touched an undecorated part of the wall. She seemed to trace unseen letters with her finger. I already knew what they would spell. E-C-L-I-P-S. No E. “Splice,” she said. I never knew why, but every so often, she would point to one of the misspelled eclips’s on her wall and say that word instead.

She continued to stare at the wall with no knowledge of our presence.

I sat next to her and touched her arm. I spoke with a soft, smooth voice. “Selena?” Frightening her out of a trance created horrible consequences.

Selena blinked a few times and turned to me. Her eyes focused on mine. “You keep changing your hair.”

“What do you mean I changed my hair?” I asked, glad she finally noticed us. For years, I kept my chestnut-colored hair long and usually wore it in a ponytail.

“It was short when you visited yesterday.” She moved her hands across her lower neckline to illustrate my hair length.

I spent all of yesterday at work but kept that to myself. When I contradicted her, she would launch into such horrendous detail about my clothing and what I said when I supposedly visited that I often doubted my own memories. Even Mark didn’t know that I more than once wondered if I was actually the crazy one.

“Keep it long,” Selena said. “Doesn’t look good short.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “How’s it going?”

Selena grabbed my hand and told me a story about a beautiful hawk that landed on a tree outside her window earlier in the morning. This was the little girl I remembered. This was my sister. The engaging, outgoing child who loved every part of life and lived to share it. Moments like these eclipsed the darker times, I told myself. They were rare—like an eclipse—but they helped block out my sister’s glaring illness.

Selena finished her story and squeezed my hand. Her grin faded. “Jan, why can’t you see me?”

The words stabbed me and threatened to break through my protective walls. They were the last words she screamed before the accident. I took her face in my hands. “I do see you, honey. I see you as often as I can.”

She shook her head. “Not yet.” She turned away from me and stared at the wall with catatonic eyes. “Not yet. Please see me, Jan.”

My hand pressed into my hip out of instinct. Her sweet, eleven-year-old voice yelling those words five years ago to the day still echoed in my mind. Memories of the accident took hold.

Back then, I studied nursing at USF. Mom and I took turns watching Selena between her work and my classes. I played caregiver that day, washing dishes in the house when I heard Selena shriek outside with the same, panicked yell she made when she couldn’t find us after the eclipse. “Jan! Jan!”

I raced outside, half-hoping to find her truly hurt instead of having an episode. “What is it?” I snapped.

She bolted past me toward the mailbox, waving her arms. “Jan!” She pointed to the swings. “The boy! The boy on the swings! He needs your pen!”

I remember huffing and rolling my eyes, tired of her episodes. I desperately wanted to let her deal with it on her own, except she headed toward the street. We lived at the bottom of one of the few hills in Seffner. Anyone driving over the hill wouldn’t see her until it was too late to stop.

I took off after her. “Selena get out of the road!”

Selena stood in the middle of the street waving her arms. “Jan! Please see me, please!”

I picked her up and tried to drag her out of harm’s way.

“Jan!”

“I’m right… here!” I gasped between her struggles free herself. When she was eight, I could control her. At eleven, she overpowered me and wrenched out of my grip.

A car horn blared. I pushed Selena out of the road and tried to escape the oncoming Toyota and the deafening screech of tires. It clipped my right side.

My right hip exploded. My head slammed against the car’s hood. I rolled on the ground. Each heartbeat sent shards of agony through my skull.

In my final consciousness moments, I watched Selena scramble off the ground.

“Jan!” She looked above me. Not at me. “The boy needs your pen! He’s by the swing!”

My vision blurred as Selena reached the swing. She stood in front of the tree, crying. She reached her hand out, touching an invisible person. “You can see me,” she whispered.

Selena faded from view as I blacked out.

A week later, I woke up in a hospital from a medically-induced coma. My mom informed me that she placed Selena at Mabry’s. I remember feeling relieved. The accident left me with a shattered hip and head trauma. I spent a year in rehab learning to walk again. We sold the house in Seffner and moved into a condo in Tampa to be closer to my sister. I tried to rid myself of all emotions after the accident. I might have completely turned robotic in attempt to shut out the pain, if I hadn’t met Mark my last year in college. He brought balance into my life and gave me a stable, neutral pillar to lean on. Mom never found solace. Two years after the accident, the strain broke her, and she died of a heart attack.

“Please see me, Jan.” Selena’s voice brought me back to the present.

I touched her shoulder. “I see you, honey.”

Selena never noticed my touch. She kept staring at the wall. “When will Jan see me?”

Mark touched my arm and nodded at the door. “Let’s go.” He seemed to know when to leave Selena to her episodes. Maybe never knowing her as a normal child helped him stay objective.

I nodded and stood up. One eclipse. She looked at one eclipse. And it destroyed our lives.

Mark placed a tender hand on my shoulder as we walked to the car. He gave me a hug. I savored the warm safety of his embrace. For a few moments, life felt normal. “You okay?” he asked.

I opened the passenger door, trying to keep up my thin façade of composure. “I don’t think I’ll ever be okay.”

He patted my head as I sat in the car. He walked over to the driver’s side and got in. “I need to drop off some papers at the Brandon office,” he said as he bucked his seatbelt. Mark worked in homeowners’ insurance, and his Tampa office had satellites throughout the area.

“Okay,” I mumbled. Brandon, another town in the Tampa area, lay a few miles away from Seffner. I dreaded returning anywhere near my old home, but I figured Brandon was far enough away to avoid any memories.

I stayed quiet during the drive, trying to forget about my sister for the moment.

“Things have been really crazy for insurance out here since that sinkhole three months ago,” Mark said.

“Sinkhole?” I usually ignored the news, and I must have missed anything about a sinkhole.

“Yeah. It swallowed up that one house near where you lived.”

The “swallowed up,” caught my attention. My sister began swearing something swallowed up the house down the street about three months before… I felt my heart pound in my chest. Selena insisted the house had disappeared three months before my accident.

“I need to see the house.”

“The sinkhole house?” asked Mark.

“No, not there.” I already knew which house the sinkhole took. “My house.” If the sinkhole occurred three months ago, then maybe today… My hands trembled.

Without a word, Mark flipped on the blinker and turned toward my old haunting grounds.

My fingers tingled and sweat escaped down my arms with each passing moment. Mark finally pulled onto my street. My hands continued to shake.

We took a turn and I finally saw it a few blocks away: my house. I noticed the backyard swing, and someone—a boy—swung on it.

My sister’s voice rang out in my memories. “The boy likes the swings.”

I unzipped my purse. Would I need what I still kept inside?

“Slow down.” I tried to keep my eyes on the child, but a truck passed between us and the house, impeding my view. After the truck left, I looked back at the swings. The child disappeared.

My heart slowed to a normal rate. My hands stilled. I felt silly for believing I might find something here that would unlock the reason for my sister’s illness.

Mark slowed down just as we reached the house. I took another glance at the swing. It swayed back and forth. I must not have imagined the boy. “Hold on,” I said. I stepped out of the car and watched for a few minutes. No boy. He must have run inside when the truck passed.

I zipped up my purse and let out a long sigh. I returned to the car. “I’ve seen enough. Let’s go.”

Mark nodded and stepped on the accelerator. Before we headed over the hill, I turned around and gave the house one last look.

That’s when I saw it: a blinding glint in the middle of the street. It reminded me of sunlight reflecting off a mirror. I took another glance at the road, and saw… something. The air above the road, directly where I saw the sun’s reflection, moved in a different pattern, kind of like the air rising off a hot roof—except it formed a shape. The shape of a little girl.

“Stop the car!” I unzipped my purse and grabbed my EpiPen as Mark slammed on the brakes. “Do you see it?”

“See what?” said Mark.

I had no time to explain the invisible girl in the middle of the road, seeable only when the sun reflected off her outline. I jumped out even as the car still moved. Another glimmer of light flashed, this time on the grass near the gate. A voice—low, yet audible—whispered in the wind. “Jan! The boy needs your pen!”

“Where is he?” I yelled as I ran to my old home.

“By the swing! He got stung!” I remembered her screaming that five years ago. Now I heard it again.

I raced to the swing. My hip screamed at me as my heels sank into the ground. I saw the child lying on the ground, a hedge hiding his body from the street. He wheezed, trying to breath. I noticed a bee’s fresh stinger imbedded in the center of a pink welt on his neck.

I jabbed my EpiPen into his thigh and screamed “Mark! Call 911!”

Mark hadn’t needed my instruction. He was already on the phone with dispatch.

I looked to my right. Something like bits of reflective dust broke up the sunlight hovered in the exact spot my sister stood five years ago today.

I finally understood Selena’s consistent misspelling of the word eclipse on her wall, and why she constantly read it as splice.

E-C-L-I-P-S

S-P-L-I-C-E

The eclipse spliced her soul. Part of her lived five years in the future, while the rest of her lived in the present.

The protective walls I had constructed for years cracked. My emotions broke their way out of their prison. A quiver started in my fingers and worked its way up to my arms and throat. I hid the crunched up face my mouth made when I cried with my hand. Warm, fresh tears escaped down my cheeks for the first time in years. I reached my hand out toward the glistening light, letting Selena in the past take my hand.

“I see you, honey.”

*****

If you enjoyed this, feel free to check out my two novels, A Prophecy Forgotten and Out of the Shadows.

 

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The Debt Women Owe Carrie Fisher

Today Carrie Fisher passed away, and I lost my childhood hero. I rarely blog twice in one day, and I never blog about celebrity deaths, but Carrie’s effect on my life and the lives of countless women needs to be honored and discussed.

My parents took me to the theater to see Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back when it first opened. I was four. All I remember was watching Darth Vader Force-choking Captain Needa to death and the other characters dragging his body offstage. By the time I was six, however, I was begging my babysitter to let me watch Star Wars (my generation’s official name for “A New Hope”) on our new, high-tech VCR. I grew up watching and rewatching Han, Luke, and Leia save the galaxy, and Star Wars became my favorite movie series.

I never truly realized how Carrie Fisher’s portrayal of Princess Leia shaped my generation’s view of women. I grew up thinking it was normal to watch a woman not only fighting in a rebellion, but actually leading it. I watched Princess Leia wield both a blaster and authority. For me, this was how the world worked. I never thought twice about how my gender might affect my carreer. I was going to go to college and become a lawyer and then maybe even the Attorney General. It never occurred to me that my gender would get in my way, and Princess Leia’s character developed part of that belief. (I ended up choosing writing as a career instead of law and politics. I got to keep my soul, and that worked out well.) The Force was strong in Luke and strong in Leia, and I never thought that odd. I wonder how many young girls of my generation grew up, as I did, believing in themselves without worrying about their gender because of the way Carrie Fisher played her role. I’m sure many boys my age grew up watching Star Wars and figured a woman in leadership was normal as well.

While I give most of the credit to George Lucas for creating the character and the storyline, I must also give Carrie Fisher credit for her portrayal of Leia. She made Leia feel real. She made Leia’s accomplishments seem normal. She yelled things like “Into the garbage chute, flyboy!” and “Will someone get this big, walking carpet out of my way?” and made us all think she was awesome. Very few actresses could have pulled that off, yet she did it with grace, dignity, and a blaster that fired red killer lasers.

I honestly believe none of my writing, especially my character Gabriella, would anything like it is now without Star Wars or Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. I also believe that the way she gave Leia’s character legitimacy helped pave the way for my generation of women. 

We are indebted to Carrie. The best way to repay that debt is for each of us to finish Leia’s work and become whatever we want to be without a thought of our gender. I for one, and going to wipe away my tears and finish Book 3. What about you?

May the Force be with you, your highness.

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Writing When You Feel Overwhelmed: Hope for the Struggling Writer

How many of you have felt totally overwhelmed when you realized the amount of work it would actually take to complete your story?

I’m sitting here at Starbucks. I’m supposed to be writing the rough draft to Book 3 of The Elysian Chronicles, but I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. I’m trying to get my arms around the scope of this story, and I’ve discovered it’s much more complex than I originally planned. (Aren’t all novels, though?)

Here are a few things I’m struggling with:

  • I’m actually working with two plots that have to flow simultaneously. Two plots. One story. This means two story arcs. Each arc has to hit the plot points at the same time. Sounds easy to do, but I have to admit that working out the plots of Out of the Shadows (book 2) almost killed me. And then these two plots have to intertwine. Some things that happen on Earth are part of Elysia’s plot and vice versa. It’s like surgically putting Siamese twins. together instead of separating them.
  • Tommy’s character is chasing down clues to how he is supposed to save the world across Europe, while he’s being chased. I know the clues, but I’m not sure what the evil dudes on Earth are up to, nor do I know what anyone on the Elysian side of things is up to. I feel like I’m exploring the woods at night with only a small flashlight. I know I’m surrounded by so many amazing things, but I can only see what’s directly in front of me and a few silhouettes.
  • Davian is now king of Elysia, but I have to develop five years of backstory on how he takes back Elysia, which it turns out, is much more complex than a simple coronation. He’s got an entire bureaucratic infrastructure in place, but he doesn’t know who is good and who still follows Picante. I’m assuming several businesses would have been in Picante’s pocket as well, and I don’t know who they are yet.
  • I have to create 5 years of Earth’s backstory as well. Which is odd, because I’ve been writing the Earth sections and I haven’t felt the need for any backstory yet.
  • I made a stupid decision to bring a bunch of Norwegian trolls back to life. Now I have to corral the things and figure out what havoc they are going to wreak on Earth and how that havoc is going to affect Tommy (and Elysia). (A lesson to all writers: don’t bring trolls back to life.)
  • To be honest, I can’t “see” Elysia’s plot yet. I’ve been focusing on Earth, and Elysia’s stories are hiding from me. This is creating a bit of an issue with the whole intertwining thing.

I feel like I’m rushing through a draft and leaving out important stuff. I’m terrified I’m going to forget some of it. (This is why we all say copious notes. Because regular notes aren’t good enough in this situation.) I’m looking at the work cut out for me, and I keep thinking, “It’s too big. I’ll never get it done.”

How many of you have ever thought this?

Here’s the one thing I’ve discovered that helps me through these situations:

Keep writing.

I kid you not. I remember feeling this way when I first wrote A Prophecy Forgotten. I felt this way again with Out of the Shadows. I know this feeling intimately. I’ve experienced it before, and I know that I will overcome it just as I overcame it in the past. Each time I encounter these feelings, ignoring them becomes easier because I’ve succeeded before.

The first time I felt this, however, I had no idea if I could actually finish the novel. Many of you might be there, working on your first novel, and feeling this right now. I will be honest. The inadequate feelings nearly crippled me. It took writing despite those feelings and finishing the book for me to realize that I could overcome them. The only answer to dealing with self-doubt is proving yourself wrong.

If you are currently in the middle of writing a story and you’re struggling with its vast scope, please be encouraged. You can do this. Wading through your plot and characters and binding them together will be hard. I’m not going to sugarcoat that part. But you can do it. And doing it will give you the strength to do it again on your next project. Because you have more than one story inside you and those stories need to come out.

Just keep writing my friends!

Posted in M. B. Weston's Writing Diary, The World of Writing, The Writing Process | Tagged , , | 7 Comments