The Boy in the Rubble

I’m posting the pivotal chapter in my current novel, The Fire Within. I’d appreciate your feedback either through email or in the comments section below. This is the moment where the main character’s life takes a dramatic turn, which sets the stage for all that is to come.

“Stop the Humvee!” Bobby yelled at the driver who crept slowly along the road north of Baghdad.

“What the hell, Flash!? No!” the driver yelled back. “We’re in fucking no-man’s land here. I’m not stopping!” The driver surveyed the area around them quickly, but no one appeared to be lurking in the endless desert that engulfed them.

“There’s something out there in the wreckage! Stop the fucking vehicle now!” Bobby screamed becoming increasingly irritated.

“What is it?” another Ranger asked.

“It looks like a kid and he’s still alive. I can see movement.”

The Ranger, Todd Blevins, also known as Black because of his coal black hair, peered through the window of the Humvee following Bobby’s line of sight. A single wall wavered in the steamy desert heat smoldering among the ruins of the bombed out building. The acrid smell of war mixed with human waste and flesh permeated the air. Black crinkled his nose and squinted at the horizon trying to confirm a visual.

“I can’t see it,” Black said.

“It’s nothing. We can’t stop. Not here,” the driver said impatiently. The driver was Sergeant Sam Baker. Everyone called him Twitch for his preternatural edginess. Bobby wondered how Twitch ever made it through Ranger school.

Twitch’s emphatic nervousness aggravated Bobby. He knew what he saw. They were at war, but they were still human. They had an obligation to preserve human life where possible, especially when it involved children. Bobby thought of his nephews and nieces and how precious they were. He couldn’t imagine leaving a child out in this blazing heat to die alone. No one was around to help him, at least no one that was visible from the Humvee.

“Stop the damn vehicle, Twitch, or I’m fucking jumping out myself!” Bobby yelled.

Black touched his arm as if to hold Bobby back, but the contact was more to calm him down rather than hold him back. Bobby’s threat troubled him, but he trusted the young soldier’s instincts because they’d been right time and again.

“Wait I see it!” Corporal Mike Anderson said as he peered out the passenger window from the front. “Over there next to the wall. You can see his head moving. He watching us.”

Bobby relaxed a little. Mike had been one of his best friends since Ranger school. He always had his back. He trusted Mike, loved him like the brother he never had.

As if on cue, Black caught sight of the young boy at that moment. He pulled rank. “Twitch, stop the vehicle!”

Twitch considered arguing but thought better of it. Instead, he sighed heavily and slowly came to a stop. Black radioed the Humvee behind them to let the men know what was happening. They confirmed that they saw the boy, too.

“Drive to the right so we can get closer. I don’t want to have to walk too far without cover,” Black ordered. Twitch complied but he shook his head slightly and tightened his lips across his face as he did so. Disagreement contorted his face. He slowly guided the vehicle right as it bounced on the broken roadway. The passengers grabbed handles near the doors to maintain their upright positions. Twitch mumbled something unintelligible.

“Eagle 2, we’re going to pull up right here. Mike and Flash are going to get out and assess the situation,” Black talked into his radio. “Stay back and hold your position.”

“We’ll cover, sir,” one of the men in the other Humvee said.

Bobby looked at Black and then to Twitch who shook his head slightly.

“This is fucking crazy. All for some little shit who could be waiting to kill us,” Twitch said. Disdain dripped from his voice. “This could be a fucking trap. They don’t care about life here.”

“It looks like a little boy from here. I doubt he’s dangerous,” Bobby returned.

“You never know. What the hell happened here? Did we bomb this area?” Twitch asked.

“I don’t think so,” Black said. “It may have been some infighting.”

Twitch came to a stop at the closest point along the road to the child who lay about a hundred feet to the right of the Humvee. The tailing vehicle stopped well behind the lead.

Black looked at Bobby. “Alright, Flash, Mike, let’s check it out. Be careful but move as fast as possible. We’re only supposed to be patrolling the area, not conducting humanitarian missions. If I tell you to get back to the vehicle, you get back ASAP.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bobby said as he tapped Mike on the shoulder in the seat in front of him. “You ready?”

“Let’s do this,” Mike replied.

Both men opened the doors to the Humvee and stepped out cautiously. They said nothing but panned the perimeter around them. Other than the burned out building before them, there was nothing but sand, endless and relentless. The smoldering building, or what remained of it, provided the only contrast to the blindingly hot sand against the muted, unhappy blue sky. The pollution made everything appear dingy, and the heat made everything reek like rot, human or otherwise. Bobby could feel the sun searing his helmet. Sweat trickled down his back, but it was too warm to chill him.

Bobby’s heart pounded in his chest. He’d never gotten used to these situations. He was four months into his six-month deployment, but it never got easier for him. The same tense nervousness that filled every nook and cranny of his body now had shook him for much of his deployment. He couldn’t even use the latrine without feeling unease, dread. Something, it seemed, lurked around every corner. Something bad.

“You want me to lead?” Mike asked.

“I got it.” Bobby took one tentative step forward and then another. He could hear the rattle of the weapons from the guys in the other Humvee off in the distance. They stood around the vehicle and surveyed the surroundings carefully. The sun and sand stared back at all of them nonplussed.

Mike and Bobby closed the distance between the Humvee and the boy quickly. Before Bobby even reached the child, he knew the boy was no threat. He couldn’t have been more than four years old. He was scrawny with toothpick legs that were exposed beneath his torn pants. Both legs were scratched and scarred badly, and he could see that the boy’s knees were misaligned in an unnatural way. His shirt was missing and he had a bloody wound near his right shoulder that exposed muscle and bone. His body was covered in scrapes in bruises and he looked dazed beneath a wad of thick, wavy dark hair. He was soaked in the thin black smoke that stifled the air around him. Fear filled his eyes when he caught sight of Bobby coming toward him. He groaned and whined in the same instant as he tried to turn away, but the pain in his shoulder and legs pinned him to the ground like a tiny bear clamped in the throes of a vicious trap.

“It’s okay…it’s okay,” Bobby assured him as he bent down on one knee beside the boy. The boy shrieked meekly, but Bobby held up his hands as if to say he meant no harm. The boy tried to scamper away, but he simply shuffled his feet. He’d lost a lot of blood. Bobby felt a pang of agony rise in his heart. He doubted the boy would make it; they were too late. War had not made death any easier for Bobby. He’d seen plenty is his four months on the ground, but it had simply forced him to stare it in the eyes, not accept it or become numb to it.

He swung his rifle behind him so that only the strap showed across his uniform. He could feel the weight of it on his shoulder, but he hoped the boy would feel less scared if the weapon wasn’t poised between them. He bent down next to the boy to get a closer look, and the boy started when Bobby touched his shoulder. His dark eyes were wide and frightened. They darted between Bobby and Mike. He whimpered ever so slightly as if he were trying to be quiet to avoid being noticed.

“How’s he look?” Mike asked. Mike stood erect behind Bobby panning the area with his gun before him. If this was an ambush, Mike would be prepared. He signaled an okay to the Humvees. Black returned the gesture.

“He’s lost a lot of blood. We need to get him to the hospital.”

“You think he’ll make it?”

“I don’t know. He has a deep shoulder laceration and his legs appear broken.”

The boy whimpered again, but he didn’t try to escape.

“We’ll have to put him in Eagle 2. They have the room.”

“I know.” Mike turned his head toward his radio and pressed the button. “Eagle 2 we’re bringing the kid to you.” He let go of the button and the radio cackled as if it resisted the idea.

“Okay, hurry up. There’s an unknown vehicle approaching from the west. We just put visuals on it. It doesn’t look friendly,” Sergeant Matthews replied anxiously. Matthews was a fourth generation Army veteran with sharp instincts and a brusque manner. He was not a man the soldiers ignored.

Bobby surveyed the area around the child. The building or home had collapsed on itself and part of it had burned. He couldn’t see anyone else around. He stood up to get a better look.

“What’s wrong?” Mike asked.

“Where are his parents?”

“They must have been killed or captured when whatever happened here went down.”

“We need to find his mother.”

Mike shook his head. “Didn’t you hear what Matthews said? There’s an enemy vehicle approaching. We need to move.”

“We can’t separate this boy from his mother.”

“She’s not here! If she is, she’s dead.”

“You don’t know that. She could be trapped in there,” Bobby said nodding toward the collapsed building.

“We don’t have time. Get the boy and let’s move!”

Bobby stood up with the boy at his feet. The boy stared at him and closed his eyes slowly as if he was giving in to it all. Bobby watched his chest for a moment to make sure he was still breathing and then he stepped away from him toward the building.

“Where are you going?”

“I have to look for his mother.”

“Flash! She’s fucking dead or otherwise she’d be right her with her kid. Come back here!” Mike shuffled in place and looked back at Black and Twitch. The radio burst to life.

“Mike, Flash! Let’s get the kid back to Eagle 2 now!”

Mike looked at Bobby and then back toward the Humvees as if he didn’t know what to do, but it was too late. Bobby had quickly made his way to the rubble and began looking through the gaps in the fallen walls. The place still smelled like scorched wood. Parts of the building were blackened and smoldering, but no flames burned.

“Flash! Let’s get the boy!”

Bobby ignored him and continued to scour the ruins for the boy’s mother.

The radio cackled and two voices came on at once muffled and intertwined into a confusing babble of words. Mike reached for the button to say something, but then Black’s voice came through loud and clear.

“We have an unknown vehicle approaching from the west about 500 yards away. We need you back to Eagle 1 ASAP. Do you copy?” Black’s voice boomed with anger.

“Flash!” Mike screamed. “Flash! We have to get the fuck out of here.”

Matthews came on the radio and Bobby could hear intermittent words, but they were mostly broken.

“Flash! Let’s go!” Mike yelled again.

Bobby took one more step under an angled wall out of Mike’s sight and then he saw her. The boy’s mother. She had to be his mother. She had the same angular features and piercing black eyes as the boy. Bobby wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t help but stare at her. Her hijab had been torn away from her head and her hair billowed beneath her lifeless body as if she were playfully lying on the ground. A large stone portion of the building had crushed her chest and obscured her from the shoulders down. Blood drained from her pale face and the horror still registered in her wide open eyes. She stared up as if praying for her son. Bobby closed his eyes and shook his head imperceptibly.

“God damn it, Flash!” an agitated Mike yelled. Bobby could no longer see Mike, but he knew the familiar scowl that Mike wore when he was upset.

Bobby mumbled a quick prayer and turned away. Mike stood a few yards behind him, tense and on his toes. He quickly returned to the boy and lifted him up into his arms. The child didn’t resist. He felt as light as the house cat his mother kept back at home.

“His mother’s dead,” Bobby said solemnly.

“I told you.”

“She was crushed.”

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” Mike ignored him as they closed the distance between the building and Eagle 2. The horror of it all was lost on Mike. He’d seen enough tragedy play out in his first few weeks on the ground that he had become numb to it all.

“God damn it, Flash! You’ve put us in a dangerous situation!” yelled Matthews as the two men approached. Another solider took the boy from Bobby and put him in the Humvee.

“I had to look for his mother!” Bobby yelled.

Matthews ignored him. “Let’s move!”

The men in Eagle 2 jumped into their Humvee as Bobby and Mike backed away and then ran to Eagle 1. Black’s greeting was no less enthusiastic.

“What the fuck were you doing out there, Flash!? You put us all in danger! I told you when I said ‘get back,’ you get the fuck back. Was I not clear?”

Before Bobby could respond, the radio interjected.

“Unknown vehicle still positioned about 500 yards to the south. There’s some activity outside the vehicle. Several men are milling around and watching us. They have weapons. Do you want to engage?”

Black paused and looked at Bobby before he looked back to Eagle 2.

“No, do not engage unless you are engaged first.”

The radio fell silent. Bobby imagined Matthews cursing Black and Bobby. Matthews always wanted to engage. He seemed all too happy to kill.

Bobby joined Mike in the Humvee and shut the flimsy door behind him.

“Let’s move!” Black said to Twitch. “Stay right and let’s see if the vehicle follows us.”

Twitch put the Humvee in gear and eased right on the rutted road.

“Eagle 1, where are you going?” Matthews said through the radio.

Black shook his head disdainfully before he pressed the button on his radio. “Let’s head east and circle back around toward the base. I want to see if they follow us. This could be an ambush.”

Bobby looked back at Eagle 1 still parked in the space it had been just moments earlier. Beyond that he could see the other vehicle in the distance. Those men still stood outside as if they were guarding the road to the west.

Mike surveyed the horizon with binoculars. He mumbled something to himself that Bobby didn’t quite understand.

“You see anything?” Black said to Mike.

“Not yet.”

Black was anxious as he swiveled around the backseat of the Humvee looking for potential enemy combatants. They were on patrol trying to keep the area secure. They weren’t authorized to pursue enemies. Two Humvees with marginal weapons weren’t prepared for a full-scale engagement. Black radioed their base and relayed information to the command center.

“Sir, there’s a vehicle now approaching the east,” Mike said abruptly.

Black stopped talking and peered toward the east. He couldn’t see anything yet. “Where?” he asked.

“Over the horizon about a mile out.”

Black and Bobby squinted in that direction as the Humvee moved very slowly over the rutted road. Bobby didn’t see anything. He looked back to Eagle 2, which had just started moving into position behind their vehicle but remained 200 yards behind it.

Twitch turned to Black and said, “We should turn south toward the base.”

Black angled his head toward the radio clipped to his chest and spoke into it. “Matthews. Has that vehicle changed position?”

“No, it’s still there. It looks like the men are sitting on top of it. It appears they aren’t planning to come closer.”

Black sighed. “Turn south up ahead. Let’s get back to base.”

“Eagle 2 we’re heading back to base.”

“Got it. We’ll be right behind you,” Matthews said.

Twitch slowed to a stop at the turn in the road and eased the vehicle onto the smoother surface of the road heading south. Bobby stared out the window toward the west at Eagle 2 as it started moving again. He could see the other vehicle further in the distance. One of the men stood on top of the hood and peered at the convoy through binoculars as if he were studying their movement.

“The vehicle in the east has stopped,” Mike announced.

“Any sign of movement outside the vehicle?” Black asked.

“They’re outside now.”

“Any weapons?”

“Looks like they have only automatic rifles, no RPGs.”

“Let’s just get back to base,” Black mumbled.

Mike put down the binoculars and looked at the road ahead. Twitch hummed absently as he maneuvered the Humvee over a pocked portion of the road. The radio hissed and fumed in the silence as all four men sat tense in their seats trying to interpret what the enemy was doing. The area was supposed to be clear. Iraqi forces had long been pushed out by the ceaseless bombing.

Mike turned completely around in his seat and faced Bobby for the first time since they had returned to the vehicle. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You’ve been quiet.”

“Just thinking about the mother.”

The radio came to life suddenly and Matthews’ gargled voice filled the vehicle. “We have sight of vehicles coming from the north. Both have fixed weapons on top.”

“Fuck,” Black mumbled. He looked through the back of the vehicle but he could see nothing through the smudged window.

“Eagle 2 is still a ways back,” Bobby said to no one in particular as he peered out his side window. Mike was still turned toward the back facing Black and Bobby as if he was waiting for instructions. Their vehicle jolted and squeaked on the uneven road as Twitch slowed to navigate around a hole. Bobby started to say something to Mike who had a look of concern on his face.

The words had formed on his lips and his breath had lurched forward to propel them from his mouth, but in the instant he started to speak, a blinding blackness consumed the vehicle. A rush of intense heat surged upward and Bobby could feel the burning pain on his legs and chest. He felt the impact of the sand against his back but all he could see was darkness. His lungs burned and he couldn’t breathe. He felt like he was sucking in smoke. His mind raced as he struggled to find air. He gasped, but the pain was too much. It overwhelmed him and he lost consciousness.

Matthews saw the whole thing clearly from Eagle 2. His vehicle had closed the gap some with Eagle 1 after he saw the enemy combatants approaching from the north. He had just radioed Black and told him about the positions in the north. Matthews had told the driver to get closer and had the road not been so rutted they would have likely been on Eagle 1’s bumper by the time the IED had exploded.

The blast tore through the center of the Humvee ripping it in half in a fireball of an explosion. Matthews saw one of the Rangers fly from the vehicle and land in flames on the sand. The others remained in the burning carcass.

Without thinking, the driver stopped Eagle 2 and the three men bolted from the Humvee with their weapons at their side. Matthews hurriedly looked around to see if any of the other vehicles were approaching. None were.

“Eyes on the ground!” Matthews yelled to the other two soldiers. They didn’t need to step on any other IEDs. They crept toward the vehicle which burned rapidly. Matthews side-stepped it and rushed to the soldier who had been thrown from the vehicle.

He knew it was Flash the moment he approached the scorched body. He was unconscious and the legs of his pants still flickered with flames. Matthews batted the flames until they died away. The force that had flung him from the vehicle had rolled him in the sand extinguishing much of the fire that had consumed him after the explosion.

“Flash! Flash! Can you hear me?” He looked down at Bobby’s blackened face. He felt his neck for a pulse and could faintly feel one. He turned to the other two soldiers to yell for them to help him get Bobby back to their Humvee when he noticed Bobby’s legs.

From the knee down on both of his legs, the bone, muscle, and tissue had been shredded. His feet were completely gone and the dangling, burned flesh made Matthews want to wretch. He’d seen death before, many times, but something about the grotesque injury made feel sick. He winced in phantom pain.

Bobby moaned and his head rolled to the side away from Matthews.

“Flash!” Matthews said. He put his hands on Bobby’s face and pulled it toward him. “Stay with us, man! We’re going to get you out of here!” he yelled over the crackle and seething Humvee behind them. “Barnes! Mack! Get over here and help me get Flash to the vehicle!”

The other two soldiers stared at the burning Humvee helplessly entranced. Only the insistent screams of their commanding officer pulled them from the horror of the other three bodies entombed in the burning vehicle. One of the soldiers looked like he was still screaming as the flames reduced him to blackened bone. The other two were unrecognizable as human figures, blown to bits by a horrific explosion.

Barnes and Mack helped Matthews get Bobby back to the Humvee. Mack expertly guided the hulking vehicle back the way they had come as Barnes vigilantly watched the horizon for any advancing enemy vehicles. None came. They stayed put as if they were satisfied with the haul of their violence, content with three causalities and possibly a fourth if the one thrown from the vehicle didn’t make it.

Back at the base in the makeshift medical tent, the doctors worked frantically to save Bobby. He wavered in and out of consciousness as the chaos of people and machines whirred around him. He only remembered Matthew’s face hovering near his pleading for him to hang on. He felt Matthew’s rough hand around his and it reminded him of his grandfather, the war veteran who had died when he was just seven years old.

His grandfather bent down toward him and smiled his rare, but boisterous smile. His white hair waved in the wind, and he looked as alive as he was months before the heart attack claimed him.

“I’m proud of you, son. You’ve served your country. Now, hang in there. A good soldier never gives up,” his grandfather said.

“Papa…” Bobby muttered. “Papa…”

Bobby’s head lolled to one side and machines beeped in earnest. The tempo of the doctors increased and Matthews was pushed back as more doctors and nurses descended on the soldier.

“Is he going to make it?” Matthews asked fearful of the answer that he’d get.

“We need you to step outside, Sir,” one of the doctors said.

Matthews started to resist, but the doctor ignored him and grabbed the paddles next to the gurney. “Clear!” he yelled.

Bobby’s body jolted upward and Matthews turned away. He stepped outside and took a deep breath. Tears streamed down his face and he hurriedly wiped them away. He sat down on the ground next to the medical tent and prayed for his friend. Only God could save him now.

Inspiration Lacking

Sometimes, life gets in the way of writing rather than providing more fodder for the constantly-churning mind that turns everything into a story. Sometimes, I sit in my chair and I don’t feel like writing at all either because I’m distracted, disgusted, annoyed, or a little bit of everything except inspired. It’s hard to break through in those moments because the very thought of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard seems so anathema to anything else I’d rather be doing, but it’s important to let those few moments fade into the past and find inspiration on another day.

I’m fairly regimented in my writing habits. I sit in the chair for at least an hour every morning and write, but I don’t let my habits govern my work. I may write something entirely new on any given morning or I may edit work that is in progress. I find editing helps me get around those mornings when I’m not inspired, but I can only do so much editing before I’m ready to move onto something else.

If I still find myself at a loss during my writing time, I try listening to music or reading a book. Sometimes that helps me find inspiration, but if I still can’t break through, then I walk away. I don’t force it. There’s no reason to write insipid and uninspired prose because that does no one any good. There’s always tomorrow. There’s always another moment of incredible inspiration that makes me want to keep writing for a whole day, and when that happens, I’ll take advantage of it.


Stitch It All Together

When I wrote my first novel, I outlined it, and then, I sat down over the course of six months and wrote it sequentially from beginning to end. It just flowed out that way because I had a good sense of the story I wanted to create. My second novel came out in much the same way. When an idea enthralls me and I have a good sense of my direction, this approach probably makes the most sense (at least for me), but sometimes I’m not as clear on the direction in which I want to take a story, so I try a different approach.

For the next two novels, I wrote scenes based on my thoughts or mood on the morning I was writing and then I stitched them together into the book that resulted.  This approach takes more work, but it allows me to make progress in a book without getting stalled a particular place in the story. Sometimes, elements of the story don’t work initially, so I have to put them away and come back to them later when I’m clearer on the direction I want to take.

In the novel I just finished, I wrote the beginning and the end and then I filled in the rest of the story. This approach actually worked very well for me in this instance because I wrote the ending in my head before I even had the rest of the story, and the beginning set the tone for how the novel would unfold. With these two guideposts, I was able to fill in the middle one scene at a time.

Although I’m an outliner, I try not to marry myself to one approach. My outlines may be very vague or they may be more detailed. I may do all my research up front, or I may fill it in as I work through the story. The key, for me, is to maintain some forward progress in my writing. If I get too hung up on my process or my approach, my writing may stall. I have a ton of ideas and very little precious time to write (an hour each weekday is about it), so I have to keep my momentum going.

It was that very momentum that I lacked for so many years before I finally set my mind to the task of writing a novel. In the past I’d get hung up on the process and stop writing. I’d fret over the outline or the flow of the story. I’d let good scenes slip from my mind with nary a single word written on a page. Essentially, I’d get wrapped around the axle of trying to be a writer instead of just writing. Now, I just write, and that has done wonders for my output and my enjoyment of writing itself. It keeps me motivated no matter what book, short story, or scene I’m working on at any given moment.

If you’re struggling with completing your work or starting the process, just write anything, something. Put it on the screen or paper and let it go from there. Don’t get too hung up on the process. It will free you to be creative and, most importantly, productive. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned the past two years, and I hope it helps you.

Titles Matter

The title of a book may seem like such an insignificant part of the whole creation.  After all, it’s only a few words, while the book itself may contain 80,000 or more words.  How can one possibly judge a book by its cover, much less its title?  Surely, a reader will forgive an author for a poorly chosen title if the work itself is stellar.  Won’t she?

Maybe not.  Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird was originally titled Atticus, and while naming a book after such a heroic character is not necessarily a bad thing, the original title simply doesn’t capture the emotion and wide-ranging impact of the novel that the final one does.  Admittedly, a lot of the emotional impact of the To Kill a Mockingbird title is a result of the fact that book had such an enormous effect on American society and is widely read and accepted as a classic book, but titles set the tone of the novel and often convey the emotion of the book in a way that attracts readers and pulls them into the story.

I spend a lot of time fussing over the titles of my novels.  In fact, I often won’t start writing a novel until I’ve settled on the title because it sets the emotional compass for me and helps me stay focused on what I’m trying to convey in the story.  Sometimes, the title comes to me first and then I build a story around it.  Yes, it’s that important.

My first novel, The Vanishing, tells the story of a woman coming to terms with her husband’s battle with early-onset dementia.  She’s pushed to the breaking point and contemplates murder-suicide.  The title refers to her husband’s slow disappearance.  The man she describes in the first-person narrative is nothing like the man she married many years ago.  He simply vanished.  Slowly.  Right before her eyes.  I purposefully freighted the title with heavy emotion because the book is very poignant, and I believe it conveys the tragic nature of the story.  In this case, I had the title in mind from the very beginning, and as I wrote the book over the course of six months, it served as a guidepost that helped me keep the feel of the novel consistent and intense.  So yes, titles are very important.

I have a whole list of novel ideas and each and every one of them has a title associated with it.  The title may not be the one that ends up being typed on the first page of the manuscript, but most likely it will be.  I rarely change the title after I land on one that captures the essence of the book.  So far, it’s only happened once.  Originally, my second novel was titled My Friend and His Lover, a title that I never truly liked, but it was the working title throughout the time I was working on the manuscript.  After I finished the novel and re-read it a few times, I changed the title to All Things Certain.  The original title sounded too cheap and tabloid-like, which is definitely not the feel I wanted the novel to have.  The new title conveys the ironic fuzziness of the lines we draw in our lives, which is exactly what I was hoping to portray in the novel.

My latest story idea emerged a couple of weeks ago on a trip to Arizona.  It didn’t take long for me to create the main character in a rags-to-riches story about a man who succumbs to the corrupting influences of power, but it did take me a while to find the perfect title to go with it.  I quickly scribbled down the elements of the story in my notebook, but I left the title blank.  I had to turn over ideas in my mind for a while before I landed on what I think is the perfect title, The Feast of the Fury.  Anyone who has ever made the trip from poor to well-off knows that the experience of being poor leaves a mark, a chip on the shoulder.  That chip smolders and burns in an undercurrent of anger that can easily consume you if you’re not careful.  That’s the essence of the title, and in the case of this novel, the main character allows himself to be overcome by the fury.

I’m sure many authors put the same level of effort in their titles as I do.  The next time you pick up a book, read the title carefully.  What does the title convey to you?  Does the book capture the essence of the title?  I think you’ll find that it does.

Vince Van

While driving the streets of Tucson, Arizona this past weekend, I ended up on a road just off of Interstate 10.  A mile or two east of the Interstate, the neighborhood went from gritty to absolutely rundown with abandoned houses baking in the early morning sun, which was already intense enough to send heat waves flickering off the blacktop.  At one corner stood a neglected home with busted windows, a pock-marked stucco exterior, and a ramshackle fence that only remained standing because the wind wasn’t blowing.  The house had definitely seen better days and looked as forlorn as any in the neighborhood.  Another thing struck me about the house:  it had a dilapidated trampoline in the front yard that suggested that the house had at one time been a home for happy kids.  After all, what kid is not happy when jumping on a trampoline.  A visceral sadness overcame me as I examined the house before the traffic light changed to green and I drove on.  Had I not been with my young son, I would have stopped and taken a picture of the house, not for keepsake purposes, but because it instantly inspired a story that is still fermenting in my mind.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been grasping at a story idea that had refused to take shape.  I have no idea how these stories make it into my mind.  My wife has asked me why I write some of the stories that I do.  I don’t have a good answer.  The characters just pop into my mind and it’s like I step into another persona.  When I write, I become the characters and the story just flows from my fingertips.  It sounds supernatural, superstitious, or whatnot, but I’m not that type of person.  I’m actually logical and practical except when I write fiction.  Anyway, this story keeps lurking beneath the surface of some opaque river in my mind and each time I would reach for it, it would dash deeper into the water away from me like some skittish fish, but the moment I saw this house, the story burst through the surface and landed in my lap.  Yes, a real fish story.

Vince Van.  Vince grew up in that house with his single mom, three brothers, and three sisters.  His mom struggled to provide for her family after her husband was killed in a rash of violence that pushed the neighborhood further into neglect, Vince, the oldest child, was forced to grow up quickly and provide for his brothers and sisters.  Despite these challenges Vince stayed in school and managed to work his way through college.  He started his own business and became moderately successful.  He set out to make a difference in his community after seeing first hand how poverty and neglect could ruin generations of lives.  He started a charity to help those in need and got involved in local politics to help his community.  His persona proved popular with voters and he attracted the attention of the state political machine, which recruited him for his minority support base.  Eventually, he rose to become governor of Arizona.

Vince had the most admirable intentions in the beginning.  He wanted nothing more than to help those in his community avoid the miserable childhood he had suffered himself.  His mother had raised him right.  She had always been his guiding light, and even after she passed away, her voice planted itself in the back of his mind and challenged him to do the right thing.  And he always did.  Vince didn’t want to disappoint his mother.

Yet, power has a way of corrupting even those with the best intentions, and at the beginning of the story that has unfolded so far, we find Vince standing before that dilapidated, abandoned home one last time before he reports to prison.  His mother’s voice is all but gone, squelched by disappointment, shock.  With tears in his eyes, he remembers the youthful lives of his brothers and sisters and the everyday struggles they faced, and he wonders aloud about what went wrong, the proverbial question.  What did go wrong?  How did Vince meet this fate?

Those are the questions I’m asking myself.  The outline of the story is not finished.  It could change a lot as I continue to turn it over in my mind, but this is how all stories begin for me.  I create a character and put a face on that character and the story fills in behind him or her.  It’s a slow process that gradually gains momentum until it just pours from my fingertips onto the electronic page.  I can’t really explain it, nor do I want to.  I’m just glad it happens.  I have more story ideas than I have time to write.  My enthusiasm for each and every one waxes and wans like the phases of the moon, but eventually, some of them make it onto the pages of a novel.  Will Vince Van be given life on those pages?  Stay tuned.