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Phelps, Jr. Update

He’s back.

Haven’t seen this summer’s primary amphibian for a few weeks, but tonight he was enjoying the cool, late-night breeze by paddling in the dogs’ water bowl on the patio. Either he’s returned from mysterious toad perambulations or we caught him by going out for the bedtime stroll a few minutes early.

He’s grown larger. No doubt he’s thriving on a luscious diet of June bugs. He’s not remotely a Jumbo–no toad obesity yet. But he’s taller and fuller. Instead of floating spreadeagled on the bottom of the bowl as before, he was sitting up with his head above the water.

I always keep two outdoor bowls of water side by side although my dogs seldom drink at the same time. One of my dogs was lapping away, ignoring Junior’s perky pose in the adjacent bowl. Even when I took the garden trowel and gently nudged Junior to vacate, his wet splodging about provoked no more than a Scottish look with no pause in lapping.

(You know a Scottie is getting old when former prey hops right past the beard and jutting eyebrows and no terrier fizz ignites whatsoever.)

My aim was to herd Junior off the patio, but he escaped me by diving for cover beneath the wrought-iron fern stand. I let him be. No doubt the moment we all trooped indoors, he slipped back into the water bowl to finish his swim.

Ah, summer. When even the toads have it easy.

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Critters: Part IV

And now for the final installment in my animal saga. The last notable denizen to move onto my property since March is a bird that chose to nest in my ornamental cherry tree. I noticed it only because a) it’s not a mockingbird, the variety most often seen in my backyard, b) it’s very large, and c) it chose to nest in a tree barely adequate for the task.

I am an avid, though casual birdwatcher. I love having songbirds in my yard, and two homes ago I was fortunate to live where enormous shade trees supported an ample variety of cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, doves, wrens, finches, orioles, and hummingbirds. I made my office in the den at the back of the house and had a wall of large windows overlooking the backyard and patio. Wrens nested each year in my Boston fern, and the cardinals would come precisely at noon each day to feed. If their feeder was empty, they would peck my window glass and fuss at me. I fed generously, supplying the cardinals with black sunflower seeds, the jays with striped sunflower seeds and peanuts, the doves with cracked corn, the finches with Nijer thistle, and the hummingbirds with nectar.

Of course, the squirrels learned how to pull the top off the cardinals’ feeder and would hang upside down while filling their cheek pouches to bursting. I watched the woodpecker court his new lady friend by bringing her to the feeder and selecting the best nuts to feed to her, one by one. There was the day of the hummingbird battle, witnessed through my kitchen window, in which a small green-throated hummer struck his larger, teal-blue opponent such a fierce blow to the head that the blue hummer fell to the grass and lay stunned. I thought he was dead, but after several minutes he roused and flew off.

The doves cooed and grew fatter, making their small heads seem even more absurd. And the obese tan-and-white field mice benefited from all the spills and dropped seeds.

However, my current home is in one of those newish subdivisions carved from raw prairie ground. It has developed slowly. So although I’ve lived here nine years, new streets are still being cut at the back of the development, and the cedar thickets providing habitat for varmints of all types, including coyotes, continue to be forced back. The ground is hard red clay–the kind you make bricks from. Tree roots can’t penetrate it and rope across the top of the lawn instead. (If the tree lives at all.) Required by the HOA to plant and maintain at least two trees on each property, neighbors exhibit varying degrees of success in each small yard. Scrawny saplings, staked and cabled to protect them from the unceasing wind, offer next to no appeal to songbirds. They wear water bags, like unbuttoned cardigans slung around a girl’s shoulders, and still they die or–at best–grow stunted.

When I moved here, I found a few sparrows and house finches, mockingbirds, and an occasional red-winged blackbird. The sparrows sit and twitter in my rose bushes. The mockingbirds nest in the shrubbery. And I saw no cardinals at all until last year, when one flitted shyly in and out of my yard. This year, there are more of redbirds. They come cautiously to sample the bits of hulled sunflowers placed in a saucer for them on the flowerbed wall. They remain unsure and do not stay long. There is no arrogant pecking on my windows … yet.

Last summer, eagles flew over my house regularly, soaring on the wind currents, but they have not come back this year. That’s probably due to the new streets cutting down more of the wild thicket to the west. (The coyotes no longer howl and yodel in the night, making me shiver while I wait on the patio for the dogs to finish their late-evening perambulations.) The mockingbirds sing but that’s all. The doves that sit on rooftops do little cooing. Instead, they utter raucous cries that are harsh and discordant.

But in March, I noticed a peculiar reddish-brown bird sitting on the backyard fence. It was spotted and large, with a long tail. A mutant mockingbird? No, definitely not. I watched it flick its tail up and down before it flew into the fragile branches of my cherry tree. This tree–planted as a mere whip when I moved here–has grown slowly, slowly, slowly to a height of perhaps eight or nine feet. Its top spreads maybe five feet wide. It did not bloom for the first three years after planting. Finally, it began to open a few delicate pink buds as dainty as a baby’s ear. This year, thanks to the balky spring and fluctuating temperatures, only a few blossoms opened. And there, making the entire treetop sway alarmingly, was this large bird and her nest.

I decided she must be a thrush. I haven’t been outside enough to hear her sing. After all, I’ve been busy fending off the unsavory newcomers. I don’t know if Mrs. Thrush eats insects or will come to a feeder, but I suspect the former. Even so, she’s more than welcome. I hope she’ll stay, and if she migrates, I hope she’ll return.

 

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Critters: Part III

In this chronicle of what’s moved into my house and yard since March, I want to move now to a happier tale. Not everything that happens in my household is a disaster. So in this post I want to describe the young toad that’s managed to charm me this year.

My yard always has toads. In fact, it’s even equipped with a cute toad house that was a very kind gift.

I used to flinch and jump during my first summer here, shying from plump toads that hopped from the evening shadows across my sidewalk. Initially their presence excited my Scotties to fever intensity. There was a spell of determined toad hunting, resulting in the excavation of the backyard sprinkler system and a great deal of spitting and mouth foaming until two stubborn dogs learned not to bite their prey and not to dig up Mama’s expensive sprinklers. Since then, the dogs have become indifferent to our amphibian wildlife. And while last year there was some temporary investigation into what was living between the dog house and the patio’s brick wall, once we discovered that it was only Jumbo–surely the largest, fattest, most obese toad I had ever seen–Jumbo hunting ceased. (Incidentally, Jumbo cannot fit through the doorway of the toad house.)

This year, ever since spring temperatures warmed up, I’ve noticed that the dogs no longer want to drink from their outside water bowls. Because they’re outdoors a great deal, I make sure they always have water in the shade. Two large, deep bowls are kept filled on the patio by the back door. Indoors, there is one small stainless steel bowl. And while normally they prefer to drink outside, this spring they have marched past the outdoor bowls to drink inside. I am constantly replenishing that inadequate metal bowl. They gulp down its contents like they’re dying of thirst.

I was puzzled by this at first, and then recently when I took the dogs outside for their bedtime stroll, I found a toad in the bottom of a bowl, submerged completely beneath the water.

Using a garden trowel, I fished him out and bumped his backside gently to send him hopping off the patio and onto the grass. The next night, there he was again, taking his evening bath.

Small wonder the dogs did not want to drink the water he’d been swimming in.

This toad is small as amphibians in my yard go. I am calling him Phelps Jr. No doubt, once the June bugs come out, he will feast well under my patio windows and grow rotund.

Meanwhile, he’s a smart toad. After several dipping sessions with the trowel, he’s learned to take his bath earlier in the evening, before we troop outside at bedtime. I no longer catch him in the water. Instead, I see a very small puddle on the dry cement next to the bowl. It makes me smile every time.

And I go inside to fill the utility room water bowl yet again.

toad1Given that the evening patio lighting is too low to get a real photo of Phelps Jr. floating at his leisure, I’ll share this old photograph of my rubber toad instead.

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Critters: Part II

As someone who rarely takes a vacation–and it’s always a visit-my-relatives type of trip, not a lie-on-a-beach-under-palm-fronds excursion–I feel a bit hard done by this year. My absence was brief, but critters moved in with no waste of time. Squirrels were bad enough, but there was much worse to come. Forget the Chinese zodiac. I’m dubbing 2018 the Year of the Ant.

I’m hardly alone with this problem. Everyone in my community is busy fending off these determined, industrious little creatures. Walk in any local store selling ant poisons, and you’ll find gaps on the shelves where the very product you most want is sold out. Mention ants in any conversation, and everyone has an invasion story to share. They are everywhere. They are legion. They are taking over.

When I asked my lawn man recently for suggestions, he reeled back two steps and proclaimed, “You’re the fifteenth customer to ask me that question this week!”

For this installment of my critter saga, let me go back to March. The week before Spring Break, when I was stumbling groggily through the house at daybreak, assuring myself that there were only three more teaching days to endure if I could Just. Hang. On., I entered my guest bathroom to use the shower. It had been a week since I had ventured in there, but I like to keep the plumbing in use. I bent over the shower/tub combo to pull the On lever. Along with the water, a golf-ball-sized wad of black ants shot from the end of the faucet, and this cluster of crawlies separated to spread across the bottom of the tub.

Screaming, I sloshed water all around, sluicing ants down the drain. Finally, when none were in sight, I gingerly stepped into the tub and showered. Needless to say, shaken and definitely stirred, I arrived late to work.

That night, I ventured into the bathroom armed with Terro ant bait–the borax-based glop my mother swore by. No ants in sight. I left a bait in there anyway and decided the weird experience was over.

How little did I know.

Upon my return two weeks later, I again turned on the guest tub faucet. This time, a tennis-ball-sized wad of ants shot into my tub. A black horde of them spread across the white enamel. Suddenly they were crawling everywhere … on the shower curtain, along the top of the tub, on the chrome faucet.

I was beyond screaming. Pausing only to notice that my Terro bait held not a single ant, I shut off water, slammed the door, and fled. On the opposite side of the house, in the master bathroom, I stared at my bleary reflection in the mirror while listening to the squirrels tap-dancing above my head.

How are they getting in? Why the bathroom? Are they after water? Why aren’t they attracted to the ant bait? How did they get inside the faucet? Does that mean I have a leaking water pipe under my slab foundation? Have they invaded my plumbing? There must be a colony beneath my house.

Jackhammers! Concrete saws! Dust! Noise! Chaos! Money!

With visions of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions and billions and zillions of small black ants marching back and forth through all the pipes, I headed to campus. Needless to say, my mind was not on student inquiries about dealing with plot holes. My lunch break was spent frantically running an Internet search on local houses for sale.

With varmints in the attic and ants in the bathroom, I was ready to depart permanently.

Now, sure, every summer there are ants. And usually during the heat of July and August, a few make their way somehow into the utility room, where they venture about 24 inches from the corner of the base cabinets toward the dog food bowl. But they never actually crawl inside the bowl. They don’t swarm the countertop where the sacks of dog food are kept. They keep to a very small area, and although I would label them a nuisance they are hardly pestilence and plague.

However, the minute creatures in the guest bathroom were a different species. They were not polite. They were not restrained. They were a pulsating, crashing, overwhelming invasion worthy of an early Spielberg film. Only if they had been enormous and mutant sized–like the gigantic ants in the 1950s film, THEM–could they have been worse.

Each time I peeked in the room, there were more. On the walls. On the ceiling. On the tile. Along the baseboards. Still filling the tub by coming and coming and coming. Why they didn’t march the full length of that bathroom and spill into the hallway, I don’t know. There was nothing to stop them but their own inexplicable agenda.

I set out an entire package of Terro ant baits, to no avail. I steeled myself and stood in the pesticide aisle of Home Depot, reading every package of every poisonous product on the shelf. There was a time, a few years ago, when I couldn’t have walked down that aisle without getting ill. Now I had a short window of time where I could tolerate the toxic stench of combined chemicals. I bought something that promised to kill the queen. Kill sounded good.

Die, baby, die! It’s not personal, mind you, but if you come in my house, you’re going down.

Except her workers refused to take the bait, let alone carry it home to mama.

A resourceful friend, appealed to with much wailing and cries of woe, researched “safe” alternative solutions and came up with a formula of vinegar, water, and peppermint oil. She tried it in her kitchen, since it was okay for her cats to be around, and assured me that it worked.

Although I knew I was beyond the mint oil and cucumber peel stage of repelling a few antennaed explorers, I buzzed off to the store and invested in oil of peppermint. When concentrated to an essential oil, that stuff is potent. My air passages are still clear. I counted drops and mixed stuff like a medieval herbalist in ye olde apothecary shoppe, and went forth to do battle with a squirt bottle.

Well, it does work.

Sort of.

You have to directly blast a particular ant and make a drenched type of target acquisition. No doubt the ant drowns in diluted vinegar. Ascetic acid versus formic acid. And the air smells like Christmas.

However, this solution was not enough to stop the ever-marching horde.

When I was a child, one of my favorite films was a 1954 Charleton Heston movie called THE NAKED JUNGLE. Set in South America, it dealt with army ants invading the jungle and destroying Heston’s plantation. The ants ate everything in their path, including people. They were like tiny piranha on feet. Little did I know, as I sprawled on the living room carpet, drinking in the terror of screaming actors, that one day I also would be facing an alien army of my own. At least, in my real world my crawlies haven’t been biters. I don’t have to worry about waking up with ants munching on my eyeballs.

I noticed my swarm was marching into the tub from beneath the handle plate and no longer spewing from the end of the faucet. That allayed my fear of plumbing pipes with holes. But now I knew they were living in at least one wall of my house. I threw my usual rule of no pesticides in the house to the four winds and brought home a gallon of ant killer. Any multi-legged creature found in my home was going to perish.

A friend removed the wall plate and filled the cavity with borax and vinegar and pesticide while I wore my respirator mask and stayed at the opposite end of the house. It’s a wonder the mixture didn’t set off a chemical reaction like mixing baking soda and vinegar. But nothing foamed, and ants died. The wall plate was replaced. The ventilation fan was left running for hours. I stayed far away until the fumes dissipated and it was safe for me to breathe.

Were the ants gone? Not at all. They poured in around the window instead. They died on contact with the pesticide residue, but still they came. Call this room the Ant Alamo. I felt I was down to my last bullet. In a surge of what psychologists call “battle madness,” I strapped on my respirator mask one windy midnight, grabbed the gallon jug of Home Defense killer spray, and circled my house in the darkness like a demented fiend, hosing down the windowsills and foundation despite gusts that blew the stuff hither and yon.

Thank you, wind of the prairie. The pesticide blew away, and stopped nothing.

More friends offered more suggestions. Gels and potions and unguents and enchantments. The lawn guy begged me to let him know if I found anything that would work. I lurked in Lowe’s pesticide aisle, listening to the conversation of strangers discussing how to remove their thresholds to spray ants beneath door frames.

Finally, when I stopped searching Realtor ads despite teetering on the verge of barking madness, the battle turned. I stood outside the south side of my house, bleakly staring at the ants crawling along my sidewalks, my foundation, my walls, my windows, and even in and out through tiny gaps in my brick mortar. My handyman was repairing the soffit screen torn open by the squirrel squatters, and when that was finished, I asked him to caulk the outside of the shower window which was too high for me to reach.

It has helped.

No longer do they march up and down the bathroom wall tile. The last time I checked, the ones on the ceiling are dead and need sweeping down. No doubt the invasion has moved on to another wall cavity and another room. Or, in the mysterious way of ants, they have left.

A few ants of a different species wander across my computer desk. Last night, I kept flicking a wanderer off the monitor screen. Someone that I usually call friend could not wait to tell me about the so-called “crazy ants” from South America that eat electronics and circuitry.

Do I need to know this? Haven’t I trauma enough?

One childhood Christmas, I was given an ant farm by my parents. It was probably chosen by my father, always keen to provide me with educational toys. And I’ll admit it was fascinating to watch my little colony of carpenter-ant sized ants tunneling through the white sand in their glass enclosure. My mother, less enthusiastic about my pets since she’d grown up in the desert southwest among fire ants, admonished me daily not to let them escape. Each day, I carefully opened the small stopper on top and sprinkled ant food, then closed the stopper. Each night, my mother asked me if I’d closed it, and I always answered yes and showed her I had. Then came the day when I arrived home from school and found the stopper open. My ants were gone. Mom was horrified. She hunted those ants high and low, but they were never seen again. Where did they go?

Wherever it was, I wish these bathtub ants would follow them.

Here’s a day’s supply, all dead. Huzzah.

 

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Critters: Part I

I have often said that distractions are one of the biggest challenges writers face in planning, writing, and finishing a manuscript. Life is messy and could care less about book deadlines. People, pets, family, random strangers, and Mother Nature are all lurking out there, ready to knock us off course when we least expect it.

Since mid-March, when I blazed a path out of state to enjoy a vacation and recuperate from the stress of teaching scene structure to young, resistant minds, varmints of several types and varieties held a meeting and decided to focus on distracting me as much as possible. Some have been amusing; others, not so much.

In short, I have been wrangling critters. My mind has focused more on waging war in real life than in my fiction. And my work in progress has fallen behind schedule as a result. Steven Pressfield, author of THE WAR OF ART, would call this a sure sign that my manuscript is worthy of continuance, since so many factors have been hindering it. Let’s hope so!

Distraction #1:  Squirrels invaded the attic. Moved in. Set up a little family. Called it good.

I found myself suddenly hearing thumping and scratching noises above the ceiling, usually over the head of my bed. Awakening to this, aware that something was up there, and suspecting initially that a colony of mice had taken over, I veered from thoughts of How did they get in? Where is the hole? to How much does a pest company charge? to Who can I talk into sprinkling poison in the attic? to Will the poison’s off-gassing make me sick? to Should I move? to If a poisoned mouse staggers into the yard and my dogs find it, will they be poisoned as well? to Should I move? to Am I a wimp? to Of course I’m not moving!

As the crashing, thuds, gnawing, and romping grew daily louder, I couldn’t help but think of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Trapdoor.” A woman suddenly notices a door to her attic that’s never been there before. After her initial surprise, she convinces herself that it’s always been there. In a few days, she hears noises in the attic. She calls an exterminator. He goes up to investigate, but he never comes down. And finally, whatever is up there gets the protagonist.

Such stories should never be read by people with over-active imaginations. I had to take myself firmly in hand.

I was busy with work and writing. I procrastinated as long as possible. Given that the noises began at 8 a.m. and I left for work at that hour, I was mainly able to ignore the situation.

Then one day I found a tiny acorn in my lawn. It was partially chewed, and I knew that I had squirrels instead of mice. I don’t know who on my street has an oak tree. Only in the past few months have squirrels entered my subdivision at all. We are treeless, raw, new. We are not a good environment for tree dwellers. A few of the oldest houses have achieved normal-sized trees. Everyone else has saplings tied with stakes. However, since the winter there have been squirrel sightings. Like soldier ants, only slower, the squirrel invasion has been coming.

I picked up the acorn and laughed at it, and thought to myself that the bushy-tailed rodents were probably romping across my rooftop.

Not a problem! I like squirrels. I find them pretty and their antics amusing. I used to live in a historic area endowed with enormous pecan and oak trees. Squirrels swarmed everywhere and raided my bird feeders like gymnastic pirates. We co-existed just fine. Squirrels will give my dogs something to do, I thought.

Then the semester ended, and I sat down in the quiet peace of my home to read and evaluate student novel manuscripts. The noises bounced all over the attic. I couldn’t ignore them. And I knew I had been kidding myself. They weren’t on the roof. They were under it.

This time, when I raced around the house to check, I found their access hole. A broken screen to a soffit vent, right over the gate. How convenient for them.

How alarming for me.

I thought of chewed wires and a destroyed air conditioner. I thought of fires. I thought of having to hire electricians to rewire my house. I thought of my scrawny savings account that couldn’t cover such expensive repairs. Did my homeowner’s insurance cover squirrel damage?

It was time for reinforcements.

My handyman fixed the broken screen, and thumped around in the attic in an attempt to scare them out before he nailed the screen back in place. He is not a young man. I had visions of him perishing of heatstroke and/or falling through the ceiling. He managed to get down safely, but the squirrels hid in my fluffy insulation and went nowhere.

Now I had a new problem. Squirrels sealed in the attic.

“They should have left. Now they’ll die up there,” I declared.

“Yep,” agreed the handyman. “The heat’ll get ’em sure.”

He drove off, leaving me vacillating between murderous glee (a squirrel in the attic is like a weed; it has to be eliminated!) and compassion (poor things; I don’t want them to suffer).

I thought about dying squirrels and the stench to come. I called the pest control people. “Get them out!”

They told me what it would cost for their subcontractor trapper to come and get them out.

I reconsidered and drove to the ranch supply place to buy myself a trap. Yes, instead of writing a book or grading papers, I was standing in a store stacked with chicken feed, horse toys, and live-animal traps. There were two sizes in stock:  huge, tunnel-shaped contraptions designed for raccoons or foxes, and squirrel traps. I picked up the latter box, which announced the trap’s capacity for holding 15 squirrels.

My imagination grabbed that and ran with it. Just how many squirrels were in my attic? I could have conducted a Google search to discover how many squirrels are typically in a litter, but time was wasting. I had a trap to set.

The process was simple. I positioned the trap–a flat wire cage about 30 inches square and six inches tall, equipped with entry doors and a release door in the top. This thing was designed somewhat like the Hotel California in that old Eagles song. Once you’re in, you can never leave.

I baited it with fat, prime pecans from my freezer and after much thought, a tuna-fish can of water.

The next morning, at 8 a.m., bam! Commotion, crashing, banging, rattling. Yessirree, I had me a squirrel.

Call me Trapper Deb.

I fetched my leather gardening gloves and climbed the attic stairs. As my head came even with the attic floor, I found myself eyeball-to-eyeball with my captive.

I had caught the mother squirrel.

She was huge, maybe twice the size of the OU campus squirrels I’ve become used to, with a fine pelt and a luxurious tail. Although the pest control people assured me squirrels were easy to handle because they were “skittish, and just hide at the far side of the trap,” this I immediately found to be untrue.

Mama was as fierce as the Queen in the movie Aliens. She was soaking wet from having splashed her way through the dish of water. Skittish was the last word in her vocabulary. She was feral. She was a wild creature. She was defending her young. And she aimed to get me if she could.

Every time I reached for the handle, she charged my hand. Having no desire to lose a finger to this snappish rodent, I cautiously determined that she couldn’t quite reach me. Even so, she remained on the warpath while I carefully lowered her from the attic.

I had laid my plans. Not wanting to haul her in my car, although I knew she needed to be taken a far distance before release, I had decided to carry her to the back of my subdivision where new streets had recently been cut. There was a pond there and trees.

It seemed easy to do. It wasn’t. She wouldn’t be still. She charged here and there, hissing and chattering at me. She lunged at me. She glared. She climbed back and forth. She tried to leap through the openings of the cage, skinning her nose in the process. The farther I walked, the heavier she and the trap became. The morning grew hot. I rested. Finally she rested. I walked. She lunged and fussed.

At last I reached the spot. I laid the trap down and waited until she’d zoomed to the far corner of the trap before gingerly opening the release door. She wouldn’t leave. She was so focused on glaring at me in full killer-squirrel mode that she didn’t realize she was free.

It was squirrel standoff.

Finally I circled the trap and stood on the opposite side. She rotated to keep her beady eyes on me. In doing so, she realized her head was free. In a flash of brown fur, she streaked across the grass to the trees and was gone from sight.

Did I take her picture? Duh, no. I was focused on the reality of the experience, instead of a virtual moment.

Sighing, I picked up my trap and trudged home. Mama was likely to beat me back, depending on the size of her babies. I set the trap again and waited.

Next morning, at 8 a.m., crashing, thundering banging, whumping. I had caught another squirrel.

Except I had two. Fine sassy fellows, larger than I expected. They were simply wild, not fierce warriors like their mama. Half-grown and plenty big enough to be weaned. Although they weren’t fighting me, they were crazy-active. One even got cute and hid for a moment under his tail. Even so, I decided I wasn’t quite up to the task of carrying them out of the attic.

My handyman fetched them down for me, and since he had a pickup we loaded them in the back and took them for a drive until we found a spot away from houses, with trees and water nearby. Then he opened the release door and shook them out.

I reset the trap once more, feeling confident that Trapper Deb could do the job. Pecans and water. Everything in place. The pest control people told me that if nothing came to the trap for a couple of days, I had them all. This time, I promised myself, I would take a picture.

The next morning at 8 a.m., silence.

I climbed the attic stairs. My trap stood empty. Yet all the bait was gone. Even the nuts inside the trap had been taken.

That was weird. How had the critter done it without getting caught?

Aha, I had a sneaky, wily squirrel.

I fetched more pecans and placed them carefully. I checked the water in the tuna-fish can. Everything was set.

Next morning, silence. I checked the trap. All the bait was there. And is still there, after several days of puzzled checking.

I’ve found no more broken screens. I’ve heard no more scratching and thumping overhead. I’ve smelled nothing amiss. All is quiet in the attic.

Except what ate the bait? Ray Bradbury, why oh why did you write “Trapdoor?”

 

 

 

 

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Rules of Magic: IV

Willful Writer is back at his keyboard. Although frustrated by his writing teacher’s lack of appreciation for his efforts, he’s determined to succeed by writing the best fantasy story e-v-e-r.

He creates entirely new characters–a heroine, Fran Fantastica, and her magical pink cat, Angora. Fran Fantastica is a popular fan-dancer summoned to the palace to perform for the king. She is given a tour of the throne room, dining hall, and treasury. Each time Fran admires something she sees, Angora’s pink fur lights up with a puff of smoke.

“What’s that for?” Fran’s guide asks.

Fran shrugs. “Nothing. Angora enjoys doing that.”

Puff! goes Angora, sending pink smoke wafting through the air. Poof!

After dinner, Fran dances for the king and his magician adviser Warlo Wizard. Both men enjoy her act immensely. The king applauds enthusiastically. Warlo sets sparks sparkling from his magician’s robe and wand.

“Wow!” he says to the king. “When she dropped her fan, I sure wish her pink cat hadn’t puffed all that pink smoke.”

“Amazing timing,” the king agrees. “What a shame.”

“Most decidedly a shame,” Warlo says.

And although Warlo’s fallen deeply in love with Fran, despite being allergic to cats–pink ones being particularly conducive to sneezes–he finds that the king has moved more quickly by proposing to Fran and offering to make her his queen.

Poof! from Angora in delight. Puff! Puff!

“Oh!” says Fran in astonishment. “I do. I will. I’d love to.”

“Blast!” mutters Warlo and sets his beard on fire before stalking from the throne room in a very bad temper.

“So there,” Willful Writer announces while typing THE END. “I have written something that incorporates plenty of magic from start to finish, with a heart-filled love story as a bonus. If Ms. Sagacious doesn’t like this one, I’ll quit writing.”

“Willful, you should quit writing,” Ms. Sagacious says.

“But why?” Willful asks, forgetting his vow. “I included a lot of magic. Angora–ha, ha–is charming.”

Ms. Sagacious doesn’t laugh. “You included the cat’s magic to what purpose? What are its consequences?”

“Well, Fran’s going to become a beautiful queen. And Warlo will shave off his beard and pine from unrequited love.” Willful thumps his chest proudly. “But all that will happen in the sequel.”

“What about the magic?”

“I didn’t forget that magic should have a price. I’ll include that in the sequel, too.”

“No sequel!” Ms. Sagacious shouts, growing red in the face. “What are the consequences of it now?”

Willful, bewildered, ponders the question a moment before he looks up. “She drops a larger fan?”

I have a feeling that Ms. Sagacious is about to demonstrate the consequences of a bad answer to Willful right now. Let’s leave him to his doom.

Under this fourth rule, magic–if present–must affect the plot. It shouldn’t be only part of the backdrop. It shouldn’t be random, like Angora’s puffs of pink smoke. Its use needs to bring results–whether that’s what is intended or it’s disastrously unexpected.

In Disney’s animated film, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty’s fairy guardians are preparing for her birthday party. They disagree on what color her dress should be, and in the course of their squabble, they forget they aren’t supposed to use magic. They fall into a duel of blue versus pink. Puffs of colored magical smoke rise from the cottage chimney and betray Beauty’s location to the evil fairy Maleficent. Thus, their use of magic has consequences–dangerous ones–to the story.

When writing about magic, the consequences or results may link to the price the user will pay or they may not. But they must connect to the plot by affecting what happens next.

Without that direct connection, magic is simply a prop that will fail to achieve its full dramatic potential and lose what makes it special.

 

 

 

 

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Magic: Part III

The third rule of magic that I’m addressing in this small series of posts requires that it be limited.

Now, the word limited, plus all its synonyms and all their meanings, nearly always raises a writer’s hackles.

Who wants to restrict us? Who dares to constrict us? Who presumes to hold us back, keep us in, lock doors, set boundaries, inhibit our freedom, and otherwise stand in the way of our imagination and creativity? Our wildest instinct is to fight this, and yet we must learn the writing principle behind this rule of limitation and how/why it works for us if only we’ll let it.

Willful Writer has decided that Ms. Sagacious is less than competent to teach writing. Disappointed by her unfavorable reactions to his two previous stories, he’s convinced himself that she doesn’t understand fantasy or high concept. Therefore, Willful has decided to write a saga so big, so fabulous, so amazing that it will knock her nylon socks off.

This time, Willful promises himself, he’s going to reach for the stars and beyond to infinity. His newest protagonist, Wizard Warlord, can draw on the very energies of the cosmos. Wizard Warlord is a giant among other sorcerers. He can summon plasma bolts from the sun and fry enemies on the spot. No other character can withstand him. And not only is he all-powerful, but he is also possessed of a tender and forgiving heart. He is noble, self-sacrificing, and kind. Although he is certain to fry the puny villain Malicious Malton in a wizard-fire showdown, he intends to let Malicious Malton’s minions go free. This will prove how heroic and worthy he is.

Are you yawning yet?

You should be.

Willful’s story is going to last two pages, and most of the words he types will be description of the alley where the wizard battle will take place. Thinking he’s building anticipation by spinning things out, he lavishes minute attention on painting word pictures of the pavement, the buildings, the purple sky overhead, and the twittering of the birds in the trees at the end of the street. But at last, after much stalling and purple prose, he types the one-paragraph confrontation, showing Wizard Warlord strapping on his greaves and standing at the agreed dueling spot at the prearranged time. Wizard Warlord looks magnificent. He is charged with so much magical power that he glows in a nimbus of wizard fire. He is ready, ready, ready for the battle that can have only one outcome–his complete and total victory. Only, Malicious Malton doesn’t show. He isn’t there. Has he fled? Did he just stay home? After all, why bother to turn up? Oh, just imagine the joy that fills Wizard Warlord’s heart, for once again he has prevailed and won.

“Phooey!” says Ms. Sagacious, and slashes a line of red ink across Willful’s manuscript. “Too short! Too certain! No suspense! No hook! Nothing to hold reader interest.”

“But I’ve written flash fiction,” Willful protests. “It’s, like, over in a flash.”

“You have no story,” Ms. Sagacious insists.

Willful trudges out. Phooey, he thinks. She doesn’t understand my genius. My concept was so huge she missed it entirely.

Poor, bone-headed Willful. Once again, he has broken a rule of using magic in his fiction. He has refused to limit the magic his character draws on, and in doing so, he has created a sure-thing.

This is not only a suspense killer, but it leaves a plot nowhere to go. Magic without limitations, magic that can do anything and solve everything, leaves a story’s outcome absolutely dead certain. The story question is answered right away, leaving writers with nothing else to convey.

When we write fiction, the reason an antagonist is stronger than the hero or has the advantage over the hero is so that we can make the outcome uncertain. That, in turn, forces us to generate a longer story as our beleaguered hero tries one tactic after another with little to no success. Conflict, resistance, adversity, bad luck, betrayal, and trickery all play a role in blocking a hero’s easy path to success. That, in turn, pushes a protagonist into abandoning the easy path and stepping out of the box, taking bigger risks, leaving comfort zones behind, and embracing change in order to survive and win.

Magic that’s too powerful or too easy or carries no limitations at all is magic that unbalances a story and answers the question too soon. That destroys any suspense and does not entice readers to keep turning pages to see how it turns out.

That is why, in many stories, we see a confident character dealing with a spell that suddenly goes wrong, or meeting a terrifying, more-powerful mage that scorches her. It’s okay to jerk the magical rug out from beneath your fantasy characters, and in fact readers are hoping something terrible and unexpected will happen. Because when things go wrong for your protagonist, or when the unexpected flips her upside-down, the story has to move forward, and readers will be eager to find out what happens next.

On the other hand, if the antagonist is too powerful, possessing magic, spells, warding protections, and demonic assistance to the point that the hero has no chance whatsoever of prevailing, then why show up? Why not forfeit the contest, like Malicious Malton did, and just surrender? It’s not very heroic, granted, but it’s safer.

A story with a fateful situation, with an antagonistic force that’s unbeatable, is pointless. The hero is doomed before he starts. Cheering him on is futile. And readers don’t want to vicariously pretend to be a doomed character.

What readers want instead is a hero that only seems to be doomed. They want an antagonist that only seems to be unbeatable. Then they can experience the hero’s attempts, struggles, and hard-won victories with great enjoyment. A chance–no matter how small or risky–makes all the difference. And limiting the magic helps provide that chance.

 

 

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