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Writing

Special Collections

The job ad said NOTHING about canoes. Librarian needed, experience with cataloguing and customer service. I’d never heard of the research institute whose library I was taking over, but they offered a good salary and it wasn’t in Texas.

The problem was, most of the collection wasn’t books. I was curating an enormous collection of, well. Bottles. Packets. Mysterious containers of all sorts. They were all labeled, yes, but in faded, spidery, near-illegible handwriting. The founder of the institute, Ernest Albertine, well. He was eccentric, I suppose, because he was also ridiculously wealthy. Otherwise? Well.

  • Powdered unicorn horn: opaque cobalt jar, shelf 43, cupboard 8. (Rattles when shaken.)
  • Fragments of the True Cross: linen packet, shelf 1, cupboard 17. (Extensive provenance.)
  • Fragments of the fake cross: assorted linen packets, shelves 2 thru 8, cupboard 17. (Each packet with extensive provenance, and catalogued individually.)
  • Cephalosaur baculum: wooden box, shelf 12, cabinet 8.
  • Scent of extinct roses: set of six vials tied together with red silk ribbon, cabinet 11. (I did not open one, much as I wanted to.)

And so on, and on, and. I had all the equipment I needed: computer, camera, state-of-the-aat digital collections management software. Even a couple of student interns who came in several afternoons a week to photograph the packages and the labels. I was including both in the item metadata. Eventually the digital catalog would be made available to researchers, and then I’d need more of my reference desk skills than my cataloging chops.

I jammed a hat onto my head to keep the mosquitoes off of my buzzed hair, and crawled unsteadily into the front of the canoe, holding onto the sides. Dr. Eric Albertine, Ernest’s great-grandson and my boss, had the grace not to laugh as he pushed the boat away from the shore and climbed in the back. Stern. Whatever. Being that rich meant you had good manners and a perfect haircut, apparently. I wondered if his barber would cut my hair. Some barbers didn’t cut women’s hair, but I’d rather go to a barber than a stylist, unless I wanted color.

The canoe rocked a bit, snapping me out of my hair musings. I reflexively grabbed the sides, then relaxed when I realized it was just Dr. Albertine paddling. “Sorry, sir, I’ve never been in a canoe before.”

“Well, I’ll make sure you have some time to practice, then. You’ll be traveling back and forth to the island on your own in no time.”

I peered ahead of us, where a proper Victorian folly rose: a small island, with an attractively fake Classical ruin. “I still don’t understand why the collections are split into two parts. Why not store everything at the main institute building?”

Eric was silent for a minute or two. “We’ve always kept Special Collections on the island. It’s much safer this way. Despite the folly, there’s a quite solid building there, and the things in the collection can’t cross water.”

They’re paying me a lot. They’re paying me a lot. They’re paying me a lot. The institute could be as weird as it wanted, as long as it was solvent. I didn’t ask any more questions until we had walked up the path to the modern-looking concrete bunker roofed in solar panels. My institute badge unlocked the door, and the lights came on automatically as I followed Dr. Albertine inside.

The reception desk was empty, and we let ourselves in through a serious-looking security door. Instead of the mismatched wooden cabinets and odd steamer trunks of the main institute collection, this storage area had neat rows of drawers of different sizes, a few shelves of ancient-looking books behind glass, and actual typed labels on everything.

“This material will be much easier to catalog,” Dr. Albertine said as we walked up and down the rows, “but I wanted to start you on the oldest material right away, so I could find a replacement quickly if you were not suited to the job. But I am very pleased with your progress, and how quickly you’ve adjusted to working at the Institute.” When he said it, “institute” was always capitalized.

“Thank you, sir. I’m enjoying the challenge. This is nothing like the collections I’ve worked with previously.”

“No, nothing like this exists anywhere.” We stopped in front of a even more serious door, reinforced with a grid of iron bars. “You’ll need to take notes on paper and bring them back to your office. Despite the lights, computer equipment doesn’t work reliably on the island. We’re too close to the Doorway.” Like “institute,” “doorway” was clearly capitalized.

“You’re the boss,” I replied, distracted by something moving off to the side. “Oh, sorry, Dr. Albertine. I didn’t mean…”

“Of course you did – as long as I pay you, you’ll humor me.” I probably looked as sheepish as I felt, but he was right. Eric Albertine could be as eccentric as Ernest Albertine, and as long as I was getting paid and enjoying the work, I’d stay. Something was definitely moving in that corner, but every time I turned to look at it, there was nothing there.

Dr. Albertine glanced back. “Ignore it. As long as there’s no tentacles, it’s probably fine. But don’t take anything out of this room without permission. He turned to the iron door. “Your badge won’t let you into this door. Once you’re properly trained, you’ll be given access. Your duties will eventually include staffing the reference desk here at least two days a month.”

I looked around, wondering just who might need librarian assistance on an uninhabited island. Dr. Albertine pulled a sword from the umbrella stand by the door. I took a step back. Maybe this wasn’t such an interesting job after all.

He looked back at me, then down at the blade. “This is just precautionary. It’s a bad idea to go in unarmed, and a steel blade is the best choice.” He looked at me again, eyebrow raised. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever studied fencing?”

He pulled the door open, and I followed him through. It looked like a moderately nice hotel foyer, with comfortable chairs and small tables arranged around area rugs, even a reception desk. Where the hall into the hotel proper would be, though, was… nothing, a featureless black surface. Not a wall, not a window, not a door, just emptiness. I stopped short, staring. I’d never seen anything like that. Dr. Albertine watched me carefully, probably to see if I’d freak out or something. No, but I was intrigued. I walked closer, trying to figure out how the illusion was done. That light-absorbing paint, maybe.

Dr. Albertine kept a bit ahead of me as I walked, and a step to my right. An irridescent flash, and he shoved me back as a tentacle lashed out of the blackness. He slipped while dodging it himself, and it swung over his head, then came back the other way. I grabbed a vase off of the nearest table, silk flowers scattering, and hurled it at the base of the tentacle-thing. The vase bounced off the tentacle, then shattered on the floor, sending glass shards flying. The tentacle lurched and withdrew, scattering drops of greenish blood from where the shards had hit it. Or would that be ichor?

Dr. Albertine lifted himself off the floor. “Nicely done,” he said. “You’ll have to apologize later, but he really shouldn’t have been snooping around. I’m sure he will see that, certainly by the time you’re able to come back on your own. And it could have been something dangerous. That’s why we carry swords, after all. I’m pleased to see that you react well under pressure, even though this should have been a simple orientation.”

I mulled over what I’d seen as we walked to the canoe. How much of the collection was real? All of it, maybe. “So,” Dr. Albertine began. “Canoe practice, and fencing lessons. You’re an excellent librarian, but working the reference desk in fairyland requires some additional skills.” He looked down at me. “Unless you’re planning to quit now?”

“No, this is even more interesting a challenge than I expected. I’d like to continue.”

He smiled. “You’d better call me Eric.”


The game:

I solicit prompts on Twitter, then write a flash piece using all of them, as quickly as possible, and post it online immediately. Usually these are very short flash pieces; this time I got a bit carried away.

Prompts:

@schlowlibrary – a non-stereotypical librarian.
@evilrooster – the scent of extinct roses.
@MarissaLingen – a canoe.
@scribofelidae and @outseide – you know what you did.

Walking to Mordor

Look at this! My name, in some excellent company.

Uncanny 25 Cover

I have an essay in the Nov/Dec issue (25) of Uncanny Magazine, out today. The second half of this issue will be posted online on December 6. I’ll let you know!

I submitted this essay to Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, and it was rejected with editorial comment, “We can’t take this for DPDSF, because it’s not science fiction. Can we publish it in a later issue?”

BEST REJECTION, and I replied instantly.

So here it is.

And frankly, I’m terrified. This essay, about cancer and medicine and recovery, is the most personal thing I’ve ever published, and I’m terrified about people reading it. But it’s out in the world now.

I’ll be under the bed.

#SFWApro

By Stone

It has already appeared in the Fireside quarterly print, and monthly e-magazine, but today my flash story, “By Stone, by Sea, by Flower, by Thorn,” is available to everyone!

“By Stone” is my tenth sale, and my fifth pro sale. Given how little time I spend writing, that’s pretty good, even if it’s taken me eight years to get to ten stories.

I’m very proud of this story; it’s clear to me that I’ve gotten better over the past eight years.

Fireside logo and pull quote from story: “The first man who bought me for shards of bright silver had foul breath and beat me when he wished. He died in his stocking feet, alone and in agony. I burned his bed.”

It’s an angry little story about the value of long-term planning.

#SFWApro

Just Another Woman in Love

150 word story #9 for 2017.


“Hello, world!”
“Hello, rainstorm!”
“Hello, mud!”

I held down my skirt as the wind tweaked it, and maneuvered around the holographic ads floating nearby, even though it meant walking into a puddle sheened over with oil. I loved puddles.

I loved the ads too. I still didn’t want to walk through them, even if they were intangible, but I loved them.

“Hello, traffic!”

I stopped to let a truck pass, spraying me with mud and water. I loved being wet.

I breathed in, and out, and in again. I loved the faint medicinal smell of the air. It wasn’t always like that, but the megacorps set it up.

I walked through a bevy of ads. I loved the way they whispered in my ear as they dissolved around me.

Do you remember the days before we loved everything? Most people don’t seem to recall, but I do.

I love it.


Random wikipedia prompt

Habitat

There’s only so much we can do. Conservation funding is hard to find. There are so many other ways to spend money, ways that have quicker results, or more immediate impact. Infrastructure, education, tax cuts.

We use what we can get to create reserves, save important sites from development. We put up barriers to protect the organisms we’re trying to save, to keep them in and keep poachers out. Resource extraction is a big problem. Miners are always trying to sneak in, and plant collectors. It doesn’t matter how out of the way the reserve is, we have to keep rangers onsite.

I wish we could do more than just set aside a planet or two. That doesn’t seem to be enough to keep these humans from destroying themselves through overpopulation and pollution. I keep asking for more funds, a bigger area.

But there’s only so much we can do.


I haven’t been writing much if any fiction, as you can tell from the radio silence here. I’m trying to get back on the horse, but the nonfiction I’ve been writing seems to be coloring my outlook.

The random Wikipedia prompt didn’t help any.

Geordie

Back to the flash-writing project (#7 for 2017). Today’s prompt is a 19th-c coal mining song from Newcastle, Geordie Black. There are a couple of recorded versions, including this one by Ian Campbell Folk Group.


They say young men can’t imagine being old, but I can’t either imagine being young. There was never a time when my bones didn’t ache, when I slept at night, when I could hear a young lady whispering in my ear, when I had a young lady or two who wanted to whisper in my ear.

There was never a time when I went down in the mine.

This town mines, or cooks and cleans for those that do. I can’t cook, so I must have mined. This town can’t imagine anything more. I look around; all the young men have coal dust for skin. I look around; there are no old men. Young men descend, day after day. They come out old, or not at all. They leave themselves in the mine, bit by bit, swapping self for coal.

I do not recall the mine, but it remembers me.

Hit

Sirisha slid on beaded black evening gloves, concealing the tattoos that wrapped her forearms. If Devudu noticed the intricate traceries, he would never allow her close enough to kill him. The slithery scarlet fabric of her dress plunged here and swooped there, concealing as much as it bared. Sirisha twirled, ensuring her knives were among the items concealed. The blades were brightly polished, but insufficiently formal for tonight. A clutch held only her forged invitation to the gala and a lipstick that matched her gown. Everything else she might require was hidden on her body.

The gallery was packed with people enjoying the champagne and pretending to enjoy the exhibits. Devudu was the pivot around which the crowd flowed, each person hoping for a moment of his attention. Sirisha too desired a moment, a timespan as thin as a blade. She eased her way into the eddy, eager to work.


150-word flash #6 for 2017.
Random Wikipedia prompt

The Ponies

“I wanna play the ponies.”

I turned to face the little man following me around the room. “I already told you that you can’t. Whining won’t help.”

“I was on my way to the track. I’m gonna win big, you know. I always do. You’re costing me huge amounts of money.”

I looked at the threadbare knees of his suit, at his scuffed shoes. “Sure you are.”

I slid into the shuttle command seat, ignoring his grab for my arm.

“I was meeting my friends, they’ll be looking for me.”

“No, Arthur Daniel Jameson, you weren’t. You were going to the track alone, where you were going to lose all your money and have a heart attack. Now sit down and shut up.” Jameson sat, ashen. He might have had that heart attack on the spot, if I hadn’t already fixed it. Couldn’t have my pony keeling over just yet.


Back at it, with another random Wikipedia prompt.

Writing numbers roundup

Data! My favorite thing…

My first short story submission was in 2009.

Since then I have submitted 18 stories a total of 66 times, and sold 9 of them, 4 for SFWA professional rates. I’ve never finished more than 3 stories in a calendar year, made more than 15 submissions, or sold more than 2 stories. I sold 4 stories on their first submission, but my most popular story took 8 tries, though it has now been both podcast and translated.

In 2016, I finished 2 stories, made 7 submissions, had 2 stories sold in previous years appear in print, and sold 1 story.

My intent for 2017 is to finish 4 stories, completely revise 2 others, and to make at least 20 submissions, although I’d also like to work on a novel, and have several nonfiction projects in the works.

Here are the titles and first lines of four of those stories:

Crossing the Water: A sparrow landed on the road, deceived by its placid surface.

The Dirt of Denela: Loredana Ney’s troubles ended here, up against a red-tinged crater wall, with the dirt of Denela under her fingernails and poison coating her throat.

Spindle, Apple, Thorn: The air smelled of dust and ozone.

Learning to be Terrestrial: I clutched my full mug of coffee, the memory of warmth enough to keep my hands wrapped around a cooling cup.

#SFWApro

Negotiation

Liza pushed her way to the door as the train rolled through the airlock into San Vital, even though it wouldn’t unlock until the pressure washer finished. Dust got into everything regardless, but rinsing the train at least meant there was less of it. She looked back. No sign of the guy who’d been tailing her, a known runner for the anti-alien Progressives. Liza knew better than to touch her pocket. Either the packet was there or it wasn’t; nothing she could do right now except attract attention.

She slipped out the door the instant it slid open, muttering apologies to the people she shoved past. Her steady walk toward the Pratt Avenue exit barely faltered when the man fell into step alongside. She glanced around for a cop. “Officer, I’m smuggling alien artifacts and this guy is following me.” Yeah, no.

Liza looked up at him. “Let’s talk.”

What a prompt: the 1969 Manitoba election.
You will see some inspiration from that article, maybe, but only in the vaguest sense