Fear Thy Neighbor – Episode 5

In this episode of “The Man Next Door”, Billy receives a warning to stay away from the old man, and discovers the old man’s horrible secret.

The hedge is the central device in the tale, and while growing up formed an intimidating barrier between our house and the man next door. It was extremely thick, about ten feet high, and extended all the way from the back yard to the front of the house next door.

Of course, the transformation described in the story never actually took place, but it took place in my mind. And isn’t that where all the fun stuff happens anyway?

I hope you enjoy Episode 5!

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The next week workmen came to the house next door in a battered pick up truck filled with sacks of peat moss and tanks of insecticide. Billy stopped on his way to the bus stop to watch them strap the chrome tanks on to their backs like scuba divers. Reluctantly he decided he would risk treading on to the old man’s property to talk with them.

He had to tug on one of the men’s legs to get his attention. Finally the man turned off his sprayer and pushed his goggles up to his brow.

“What do you want, kid?” he asked, his jaws furiously working a stick of gum.

“Do you know the man that lives here?”

“No, kid. Never even met him. Don’t want to either.” The man looked back at the house and then back again to Billy nervously, his eyes filled with fear.

“You his new neighbor?” he asked.

“Yup,” replied Billy.

“Well, I better warn you. One of the guys saw him once when he looked down into one of the basement windows. He thinks the old man has some sort of disease. He said he was real old-looking, older than he thought anyone should be, and he was hard and twisted like tree branches, and had long green fingers like blades of grass. Take it from me, kid, the old man is a freak. If you’re smart, you’ll stay away from him.”

The man looked around nervously once again, then slid his goggles down over his eyes and went back to work.

Billy turned away and ran to the bus stop, his heart racing in his chest as the voice of the workman played back in his head: stay away from him, stay away from him, stay away…

Billy snapped awake. At first he thought it was the wind that had awakened him, because the sound had that particular crooning quality the wind sometimes gets when it blows through narrow spaces. Then Billy heard the feeling behind the sound, and he was sure that the sound was coming from something alive.  Billy pulled the covers up to his chin, and he could hear his heart beating in the near silence like a drum.

Cautiously Billy rose from his bed and moved toward the window. He expected to see the nightmare creatures of his dream silhouetted in the distant trees by a fat moon.

But the scene was not from Billy’s dream.

Tonight’s moon was a slim crescent, and nothing but leaves hung on the distant trees.

The sound came again, a whimpering sigh rising in the night, and Billy looked down to the hedge. The old man stood below, his inhuman features evident even in the darkness. He was gnarled and bent, like the workman had described. His eyes were green like unripe tomatoes; his long weedy hair and slender fingers the same color. Green, the green of growing things; just as the rest of him was dark brown, the color of earth and of wood. He was pouring the rich peat moss over his body, moaning softly like a cat.

Billy watched the dark christening from above, spellbound and unable to look away. He did not know how much time was passing, only that the old man was changing…changing into something.

The old man grew wilder, his cries now more like those of a predator, and his eyes pulsed with a fevered frequency.

Billy watched, knowing that he should get his parents, should prove to them that he was right about the old man next door. But something was about to happen, and Billy couldn’t miss it. The old man unwound his sinuous limbs from the sack of peat moss and let it fall at his feet. He became still and quiet. Then, with great effort, he lifted one stumpy leg and took a step into the hedge. The hedge parted and allowed him entrance. There was a grating creak like the sound branches make in a storm when the other leg moved forward.

Billy watched in fascination as leg became root and arms became branch. The old man uttered a sigh of final release, like the contented sigh of the dead, and Billy knew that the old man and the hedge were now one. Billy watched for several minutes more as the old man’s form slowly disappeared into the tangle of branches. Soon only his eyes could be seen, two hovering emerald fireflies trapped in a green bottle.

Please stay, Billy wished to himself, please don’t disappear. I’ve got to show mom and dad I’m right.

But then the old man’s eyes winked out like the eyes of a jack-o-lantern, and there was only a hedge sighing in the breeze left behind for evidence.

Fear Thy Neighbor – Part 4

In this episode of “The Man Next Door”, the Middletons connect with their neighbors the Thomases, and Billy once again brings up the strange man next door…

The Man Next Door – Episode 4

Billy brought the old man up at breakfast the next morning.

“Did you guys ever notice that the man next door never comes out of his house?” asked Billy tentatively with a mouth full of Frosted Flakes.

“Billy—” his father began.

“I think he’s evil. Maybe a vampire or something, maybe that’s why he always keeps his shades down.”

“Billy, we’ve been through this. That man is our neighbor, and as eccentric as he may or may not be, I will not have you saying such things about him,” said Billy’s father, glaring down at him from over the newspaper.

 “What does eccentric mean?” asked Billy.

“It’s another word for weird, dear,” said Mrs.Thomas.

“Sharon!”

“Well, I’m sorry Charles, but that’s what it means!”

“Okay, okay. That was a poor choice of words. What I mean to say is that whatever our neighbors do is their business, as long as they’re not breaking the law.”

“Is blood sucking against the law?” asked Billy.

Mr. Thomas threw down his paper in disgust and held his head in his hands for several moments. Mrs. Thomas was biting her lip, trying hard not to crack up.

Mr. Thomas looked at her with hostility then turned back to Billy.

“Let me put it this way, champ. Do you want people coming into our house and watching the way that we live?” Billy shook his head in negation. “Of course you don’t. And they don’t want us watching them, understand?”

Billy nodded.

“Good. Gotta go, champ,” said Mr. Thomas, wiping his mouth with a napkin and throwing on his suit jacket. He pecked his wife on the cheek and a second later was out the door.

“You do understand what your father is trying to tell you, don’t you honey?” asked Billy’s mother.

“Sure, mom,” answered Billy.

But Billy didn’t understand, and that morning on the way to the bus stop he was more careful than ever to stay away from the house next door.

That night the Thomases were invited to dinner by the Middletons, an older couple on the same block.

Billy wasn’t looking forward to the dinner. His father had mentioned that the Middletons were retired, and although Billy didn’t know exactly what that meant he knew it had something to do with them being old. Besides, going to dinner would mean he would have to wear his nice clothes that always made his neck itch around the collar. His mom would probably even make him take a bath.

Billy turned out to be pleasantly surprised by the Middletons. Although they were old, they had a comfortable air about themselves that was very infectious, and Billy had been thrilled to learn that Mr. Middleton had flown a B-17 in World War II.

The dinner was delicious, and Billy concentrated on the juicy strips of roast beef and the heaping mound of mashed potatoes on his plate while the adults engaged in conversation.

Finally, as the plates were being cleared for dessert, Billy could no longer contain himself.

“Mr. Middleton, do you know anything about the old man that lives next door to us?”

Billy’s mother gasped and his father sternly mouthed “No” at him from across the table.

“Now, now, no reason to be hard on the boy. He’s asking a perfectly legitimate question. Your neighbor—Judd Brown’s his name, by the way—is the sort of man who raises eyebrows. The way he keeps himself locked up in that house as if he were dead makes one wonder how he passes his days.”

“I think he’s a vampire,” quipped Billy.

“Well, now, that certainly would explain a few things,” chuckled Mr. Middleton. “He used to be a friendly enough fellow when we moved here. He was a night watchman at some museum downtown, so he would spend most of the daylight hours sleeping. He and his wife went their separate ways a long time ago, but he had a daughter who came by once or twice to see him.” Mr. Middleton shook his head slowly.

“Even back then—that was around 1965, you understand—he seemed old. Real old. I can’t imagine him now. Must be in a wretched state, poor fellow. Some of the other old timers in the neighborhood have suggested that he may have as many as a 110 years on him, but when you get to be their age you tend to get your facts all mixed up.”

Billy stared at Mr. Middleton with shocked concern.

“Now don’t you go worrying about me, Billy,” said Mr. Middleton laughing deeply, “I still have all of my functions.”

“How does he get his food?” asked Mr. Thomas.

“It’s delivered, I suppose. I’ve seen people over there mowing the lawn, so I know he’s still alive and kicking.”

“I saw him in the window,” chimed Billy.

“That so?” asked Mr. Middleton. “What did he look like?”

“He had glowing green eyes, and—”

“Billy, remember our discussion,” boomed Mr. Thomas.

“Go easy on the boy,” said Mr. Middleton. “I’m sure old Judd was quite a sight.” Mr. Middleton paused before going on. “Strange thing is the attention he gives to that hedge of his. People come over once a month to take care of it, you know, lay some new soil over the roots and such. Strange thing is, I don’t recall ever having seen it trimmed. It’s as if the hedge maintains itself.”

“Perhaps it’s a certain species that only grows to a certain height?” suggested Mrs. Thomas.

“No, I’ve seen it up close,” stated Mr. Middleton.

“It’s your run-of-the-mill hedge all right, and it should be a big tangled mess by now, unless that crazy old geezer is going out there to cut it at midnight.”

“Honestly, George!” declared Martha Middleton.

George shrugged and everyone laughed, breaking the ghostly silence that had hung over the table as George talked about Judd Brown.

Martha Middleton retreated to the kitchen, and soon emerged with generous slices of apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream. It was clear that the two families had become fast friends, and before the night was through the four adults had finished off a bottle of champagne.

Shortly before midnight the families bid one another good night and the Thomases walked through the cool summer night toward home.

Billy watched the moths congregate around the streetlights, waiting for the scolding that was bound to come for bringing up the old man next door, but somehow they reached their house and the scolding never came. That night as Billy drifted off to sleep he thought maybe, just maybe, they are starting to believe me.

Fear Thy Neighbor – Part 3

In this episode of “The Man Next Door”, Billy has a terrible dream foreshadowing the events to come.

Enjoy!

The Man Next Door – Episode 3

The next day was Monday and Billy’s first day at his new school. He had no time to think about the strange old man with the cool green eyes (although he walked on the other side of the street on his way to the bus stop to avoid walking in front of the old man’s house).

By Wednesday he had assembled a small group of friends at school, including Steve Atkins, whom he considered to be his new best friend. Things were going well for Billy’s parents as well. His dad had been assigned a big case at the new law firm he now worked for, and had even managed to find a tennis partner. His mother enjoyed her new teaching job at the local community college, and was thrilled by her students’ willingness to learn and generally warm attitude. In fact, the first week in their new house was the perfect picture of suburban bliss.

Then Billy had the dream.

It was a Sunday night, and the breeze had picked up outside so that it covered the noise of the crickets. Billy had been tossing and turning restlessly, unable to sleep because his parents had allowed him to stay up with them and watch the movie Jaws. He couldn’t stop thinking about the poor captain, how Jaws had bit him right in half so that blood had filled his mouth. Finally he drifted off into slumber.

Billy imagined that part of the reason the dream was so terrible was that at first he didn’t know if he was awake or dreaming.

In the dream he walked over to the window that looked out over the hedge and the house next door. The moon was round and fat in the sky, what Billy knew was called a full moon, and in the tall distant trees that delineated the woods at the bottom of the street huge, hunched-over bird-creatures waited on the branches. There was no breeze, but from somewhere down below the sound of rustling leaves could be heard.

Billy looked down and saw with horror that the hedge was growing, towering upwards into the night in a tangle of vines and branches. It wasn’t growing straight up, but toward Billy. There was something underneath the hedge, some hidden form that grew and stretched right along with it.

It was then that Billy noticed the eyes, cool and green, pulsing like emeralds as they rose swiftly with the branches right toward him. Soon he could make out the rest of the old man, where his legs joined the wood at the bottom of the hedge, where his fingers stretched forth into sinuous appendages.

Silently the windows shattered. Billy screamed, but screamed silently. The hedge clutched him with its cold, oaken grasp, lifting Billy high into the night, lifting him high as an offering for the bird-creatures that no longer waited by the woods but which were spiraling downward to him, talons outstretched…

Fear Thy Neighbor – Part 2

Due to the positive feedback and interest I’ve received on Episode 1, I’ve decided to rush out Episode 2 for your enjoyment.

In this episode the protagonist Billy Thomas gets his first glimpse of the man next door.

Enjoy!

The Man Next Door – Episode 2

Billy Thomas sighed in exasperation and set down the heavy box he had been carrying on the floor.

“I’m bushed,” he declared simply, sprawling out on the carpet.

“C’mon, champ. There are only a few more,” said Mr. Thomas with a wink.

“Geez. I never knew we had so much stuff before we moved.”

“C’mon sport. We’ll get these last few then break for some Big Macs. What do you say?”

“Great!” exclaimed Billy, his eyes sparkling up at his dad as he bounded up and down with excitement.

They walked out together to the truck.

“Damn!” exclaimed Sharon Thomas, bending down in her loose work jeans to pick up the broken pieces of china that littered the driveway.

“Relax, honey,” said Mr. Thomas as he ambled down the walk, “It’s nothing some crazy glue won’t fix.”

“Charles Thomas! How can you say such a thing! Don’t you know that this set came from my mother?”

 “All the more reason not to worry about it,” said Mr. Thomas throwing Billy a wink.

Billy covered his mouth to hold in the giggles that threatened to spill out of it.

“Honestly, Charles, that’s a truly horrible thing to say! Especially in front of Billy!”

“All right, all right, I apologize. It was just a joke. You knew I was only kidding, didn’t you Bill?”

Billy nodded and covered his mouth again to stifle another eruption of giggles.

Soon they were all laughing, and then guffawing wildly, their heads spinning with heat and exhaustion.

Charles Thomas was the first to sober up. “Okay, okay, party’s over. Let’s finish this up so we can eat.”

They all moved around to the back of the truck where five or six boxes rested on the driveway.

Charles Thomas bent down and picked up a box that had been crudely labeled BILLY’S PLAYSTATION.

“Okay, Bill, this is your Playstation. Think you can handle it?”

“Yeah!” said Billy enthusiastically, wrapping his arms affectionately around the box as if it were a family pet.

Billy stepped up the slope of the front lawn toward the sidewalk. Once inside the house he set down the box on the floor of the living room with the others. His scrawny, twelve-year old arms were aching from the labor and he didn’t want to move any more boxes, so he walked out to the lawn to look for bugs. He bent down and spied a caterpillar winding its way up a lean blade of grass.

Billy felt something on his back. At first he thought that he had been stung, but then he realized that the sensation was primarily one of coldness, as if he had been struck by an ice cube shot from a wrist rocket. Instinctively he whipped his head around.

Over the hedge that separated their lawn and the house next door, a face peered down at him from a second story window. The face seemed incredibly old to Billy, even older than his grandfather’s face had looked just before he had passed away. There was something about the eyes; they were of such an intense green, a solid green with no pupil, and they were looking directly at him. It gave Billy the creeps.

Then a long, contorted thing (Billy figured it had to be an arm) reached out in front of the face and drew down the shades.

Billy stood completely still for several moments.

Then he rushed down to his parents.

“Mom! Dad! Did you see it?” he yelled.

Charles Thomas looked up in alarm and tripped over his own feet. He and the box he had been carrying spilled to the ground and several issues of Playboy slid out on to the grass.

“Gosh!” said Billy in amazement.

Two hands immediately closed down over his eyes.

“Charles, you pick those up immediately! I hardly think the neighbors will consider your nudy magazines proper lawn decorations!”

“Yes, dear,” grumbled Charles quickly stuffing the magazines back into the box.

Billy’s mother removed her hands from his eyes and spun him around.

“Now what is it that has got you so excited?”

 “The old man next door,” stammered Billy, “he was looking at me. It was creepy!”

“Listen, Billy, that man next door is our neighbor and I don’t think he’d appreciate being called old, even if it’s true.”

“But—”

“Your mother’s right, Bill,” said Mr. Thomas sternly, “remember how me and your mother had to work to get into this neighborhood.”

“Yeah, but—”

“No buts, champ. Understood?”

“Yeah,” said Billy glumly.

“Good. Then let’s eat. The rest of the stuff can wait.”

They piled into their Dodge Caravan that they had driven down to the house the day before. Soon the talk turned to fries, hamburgers and milkshakes, but Billy couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.

Finally he turned around to look at the old man’s house as they turned the corner but only the house stared back at him, shuttered tightly from the outside.

Fear Thy Neighbor – Part 1

I am excited to share one of my favorite stories I’ve written, “The Man Next Door”.  

This series of blog posts will include episodes from my story “The Man Next Door” coming out 2022 in my collection The Dark Harvest. Each month, my blog post will reveal the story in a sequential manner.  I’ll provide some background describing what inspired me to write the story and parts of my personal background that surface in the narrative.

In this first blog post, the story takes place in my childhood home in College Park Woods.  Street names and other references have been changed, but locals could recognize some of the landmarks.

As an adult, I understand that many common factors (separation, the passing of a loved one, a pursuit of a private lifestyle, etc.) can result in someone living alone, but my childhood mind was not so forgiving. “The Man Next Door” was inspired by an old man living next door to our house. Because he lived alone, my childhood imagination ran wild and attributed supernatural aspects to this otherwise normal human being. The large hedge featured in the story was present during my youth and contributed much to my childhood imagination which inspired the events that unfold in this story.

You now have some insight into what inspired “The Man Next Door” which I hope provides a focal point for my idea that evolved into this story. 

Please enjoy Episode 1!

The Man Next Door

The bright yellow Ryder truck threaded its way through the quiet suburban streets of Sun Terrace. It was an early Sunday morning in late August and most of the members of the quiet community still slept. Somewhere a lawn mower droned its way through the morning, causing some of the residents who wished to forget about the chores of the approaching day roll over and pull their covers close.

The Ryder truck pulled into the drive at 9202 Thacker Way. The occupants of the truck, a couple and a young boy, bounded out of the high seats. They were thankful that the long ride was over and spent a moment stretching their limbs and warming in the sun. The woman went up the walk to the front door of the house while the little boy and the man went to the back of the truck to roll up the truck’s heavy back door and unfurl the built-in loading ramp. The man winced at the loud sound the ramp made as it slid out on its rollers and looked around at the neighboring houses with embarrassment. The unloading was hard work, especially for the little boy, but their moods were light despite the strain on their bodies and the sweat that was called forth by the humid morning.

They were oblivious to the gnarled old man who watched them from a second-story window, and his deep-set eyes which pulsed green with a vegetable brilliancy.

Bloody Snowshoes

I live in Northern Virginia, about 45 minutes from Washington, D.C. The last few weeks we’ve endured endless gray days and nights, punctuated by snow and ice storms. As I write this it is a balmy 29 degrees Fahrenheit, although for once the sun is shining.

The wintry weather has turned my thoughts to one of my great interests – horror movies. Specially, horror movies set in extremely cold climates. Everybody has seen The Shining, and while watching a maniacal Jack Nicolson bust down a bathroom door with an axe never really gets old, I wanted to visit a few other movies set in extreme conditions that may have received less recognition, but are worthy of viewing on a cold winter’s eve all the same.

I’ve picked three of my favorites, but there are many more that fall into this fascinating subcategory I’m dubbing simply as “winter horror movies” (for example, a notable omission is John Carpenter’s The Thing). For each of the films referenced below I’ve provided the IMDB link so you can learn more about these films if they pique your interest.

So, without further delay, let’s leave some bloody tracks in the snow…

Storm of the Century

Storm of the Century, inspired by a Stephen King screenplay of the same name, takes place on Little Tall Island, Maine. As the residents are preparing for a huge snowstorm, a mysterious stranger named Andre Linoge (played by Colm Feore) arrives on the island. Linoge is soon apprehended and held in the local police station after murdering a local woman named Martha Clarendon. However, Linoge is no mortal man, and remains in jail only as long as it suits his purposes. Projecting himself into the thoughts and dreams of the townspeople, Linoge soon drives the townspeople to murder and suicide. It quickly becomes clear that Linoge is more than he seems, and his repeated message of GIVE ME WHAT I WANT AND I’LL GO AWAY is soon taken seriously by the locals, who convene a town meeting to decide whether or not to give in to Linoge’s demands. There is even a brilliant suggestion that Linoge was behind the disappearance of the missing colonists of Roanoke, Virginia in the early 1600s. As is always the case with King’s work, there is much more to the story, so follow the link below to learn more.

IMDB Link for Storm of the Century

30 Days of Night

30 Days of Night takes place in the small town of Barrow, Alaska. Barrow is inside of the Arctic circle and endures a period during the winter months where the sun is not seen for thirty days. This sets the perfect scenario for an ancient tribe of vampires that descend upon the town, taking full advantage of the month of perpetual darkness. After the initial onslaught, which involves destroying the town’s telecommunications and power centers, the movie becomes a game of cat and mouse between the vampires and a handful of survivors led by the town’s sheriff (played by Josh Hartnett). Ironically, it is the power of the sun that ultimately is harnessed and turned against the invading vampires.

Follow the link below to learn more.

IMDB Link for 30 Days of Night

Whiteout

Ok – I’m going to get some heat (no pun intended) on this one. Whiteout is not technically a horror film. IMDB classifies it as Crime, Mystery and Action. But sometimes the lines between horror and suspense blur, and as suspense goes Whiteout is a good one.

Whiteout follows US Marshall Carrie Stetko (played by Kate Beckinsale) during her assignment at a research base in Antarctica. It is getting close to the end of the season, and the base is shutting down and Carrie and the other residents are planning to catch the plane home instead of “wintering through” the cold season. Carrie’s plans are suddenly changed when a pilot observes a body left out on the ice mass. Risking missing the last plane home, Carrie accompanies the pilot and the medical doctor assigned to the base out to examine the remains. It soon becomes evident that foul play was involved in the death, driving Carrie to winter through to solve the case. A complex story unfolds going back to a Soviet cargo plane lost in a storm back in 1957.

Of the three movies, Whiteout makes you feel the cold most keenly, and the unusual conditions in Antarctica that result in a blinding whiteout. Although not truly horror, the killer that presents themselves as a mysterious figure in a hooded coat and ski mask is as menacing as the killer in Urban Legend that dressed in a similar fashion.

And at the end of the day, is there anything scarier than a killer wielding an ice axe?

IMDB Link for Whiteout

So, there you have it, three movies fit for a long winter’s night. Make sure to put some extra logs on the fire as these movies were brilliantly designed to chill you to the bone.

Giving Back: An Interview with Author Ed Ehlers of Max & Tucker Adventures

For this month’s post, I interviewed good friend and children’s book author Ed Ehlers.  It seems appropriate in this season of giving and hope to talk about books that literally give back to society, not just by their positive message, but also by directly giving back a share of the proceeds to wildlife and animal rescue organizations.

Hopefully by the end of the interview, you’ll come to agree with the Max & Tucker motto – “Those that we save really save us”.

INTERVIEW

Did you ever imagine you would become a children’s author?

I imagined being an astronaut, a transformer, a Viking, wait, I was a Viking but that’s another story.  However, never a children’s author.  I’ve always enjoyed reading, writing, and even, editing but it was always more for personal enjoyment.  Although, I’ve always enjoyed children’s books – my all-time favorite is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

The Max & Tucker Adventures are based on true life experiences.  Could you summarize one of the real-world experiences that inspired one of the books?

Yes, both books are based on actual events.  Deer Oh Deer is the story of how Max & Tucker helped rescue a deer.  Lily & Lucy is the story of how Max & Tucker helped rescue two puppies.  We, Max, Tucker, and I, had been headed to woods like most weekend mornings when we spied two puppies on the dirt road ahead of us.  We stopped and I got out to approach the puppies.  The little black one ran up to me right away, she was so starved for human attention.  The little white one wanted nothing to do with me.  She would dart off into the woods as I approached her only to remerge 50 feet down the road.  Eventually, I had to let Max & Tucker help catch her.  It took two hours, three humans, and Max & Tucker to catch one little puppy. With the help of our friend, Uncle Peter, we fostered the puppies which we named Lily & Lucy.  I’ll leave it there, so I don’t spoil the ending.

One of the messages you, Max & Tucker share with your audiences “Just act! Imagine the story you will inspire!”  Could you describe what that means?

Everyday each of us is presented with multiple opportunities to act.  So often, we let these chances pass us by.  Whether it is helping a neighbor, aiding a stranger, saving an animal, or just smiling at a passerby, there are untold occasions for us to act.  The incredible thing about acting is that it is like the proverbial pebble in the proverbial pond. You cast your pebble and you know not what ripples are sent forth.  Taking action is the same; that smile, that wave, that reaffirming comment can ripple through the lives of others and may change their whole day, their whole life.  One small action can set you on a whole new trajectory.  Stopping to help two puppies can lead to a children’s book series which help thousands of animals and humans in need. Just act! Imagine the story you will inspire!

A portion of the proceeds from your book sales goes to Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation and the Wildlife Rescue League.  Could you provide information on how others could support these causes?

You can do a lot. You can adopt a dog, foster a cat, be a pet taxi, become a wildlife rehabilitator, answer the wildlife helpline, or donate.  But the simplest thing you can do is share – share a post on your Instagram, share a story on Facebook, share a video on TikTok.  Getting the word out is easy and free.  You want to make a difference? Instead of sharing a picture of your latest cappuccino, share a photo of a seasoned dog needing a home.  Commit to sharing one post a week about animal rescue.  You will make a difference in thousands of lives, both animal and human.  Find out more at lostdogrescue.org and wildliferescueleague.org.

You and Max & Tucker often “take your show on the road” and visit schools, libraries, assisted living facilities, adult day care facilities and more.  Is there one particularly touching story you can share with us from these visits?

We’ve had the honor and privilege to be invited to so many venues.  Every time a person smiles at the sight of Max & Tucker is special but there is one that gets me every time.  We were at an assisted living facility sharing Max & Tucker’s stories.  The residents had varying levels of mobility and communication.  One resident was wheelchair bound and was non-verbal.  It was difficult to see if she was enjoying the story.  At the conclusion, Max & Tucker went to the residents who were less mobile and as we approached this resident, she reached down to pet Tucker, leaned further over and hugged Tucker.  She held him for several minutes and when she sat back up, she had tears in her eyes and a huge smile.  The attendant later explained that that was the most movement this resident had done in many months and the first smile in a long time.

You have several creative pursuits in addition to writing – where can folks find out about your other products and interests?

When you are in the woods as much as I am, you notice things.  As Max &Tucker chase squirrels, I would pick up litter and interesting rocks.  I noticed that some of the litter was historic, glass shards from the turn of the last century and that the rock could be quite beautiful.  So, I began making jewelry and art.  One line in particular is called Reinforced by CliftonStone which are one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry and art made from wire reinforced glass from the Women’s Minimum-Security Annex at the Lorton Reformatory.  A portion of the proceeds are donated to ThriveDC which offers programs assisting women to transition to life after prison, stronger than before. You can find Reinforced and other works at etsy.com/shop/cliftonstone and on Facebook at cliftonstoneva.

Finally, if there is one message you could give to the readers, about books or life in general, what would it be?

Make a SEA change.  “Sea Change” is an expression meaning a significant or substantial change; a major transformation; a metamorphosis.  By SEA, I mean Selflessness, Empathy, and Action.  Look beyond yourself.  Feel what others are feeling.  Act.  Your life, and more importantly the lives of others, can be transformed by day-to-day, common place deeds when done with selflessness and empathy.  Max & Tucker Adventures illustrate this beautifully.  We started with a simple trip to the woods, like most weekend mornings. It turned into a series of children’s books and activities which impact thousands of people and animals.

Tools of the Trade

Sometimes, in the midst of a variety of editing and writing assignments, I overlook the process of writing. It seems straightforward enough – simply place ink or pencil to paper, or hover hands over a keyboard, and begin.

With tunnel-like vision on the words themselves, I tend to forget all about if the tools I’m using – whether it be that worn out notebook or a shiny laptop – are the right tools for the job.

After all, the software world is buzzing about DevOps (the marriage of “Development” and “Operations”), the seamless integration between the development and deployment of software, so perhaps it was time to pay some attention to my own personal “WritingOps”.

Could changing how I write radically shake up my writing life just as DevOps shook up the technology sector?

And then I found just the spark I needed to light the fires of change – the Freewrite Traveler.

Dubbed by its creators as a “smart typewriter”, this ultra slim (12x5x1 inches) and ultra-lightweight (1.8lb) device may just revolutionize your writing habits. In addition to being portable, it has almost a week of battery life, a claim few laptops can make. Add to that a one-button upload to your free cloud account (postbox.getfreewrite.com) available to all customers, and you will quickly find the barriers (and excuses) for not writing quickly evaporating.

But what if you are finishing that historical romance novel in an isolated cabin in Maine? Fear not – the Freewrite Traveler provides enough internal storage for your drafts until you can reach the Internet.

Before I go any further, I should mention that I don’t receive any commissions from Astrohaus for selling Freewrite Travelers. Additionally, there are some downsides that might just prove too jarring for MS Word users. To start with, you better upgrade your spelling game, as the simple editor does not include spellcheck. Also, the file format of your drafts will be plain old text (.txt) files, so say goodbye to formatting features or writing your Shakespearean sonnets in that fancy Olde English font. Finally, the price of the Freewrite Traveler is not trivial – $429 based on the current website. You may also find the navigation within your document awkward (as I did) as it is based on old school arrow keys, or the E Ink screen simply too tiny to be usable inside of a novel-length manuscript.

My point is not that the Freewrite Traveler is for everybody. My point is that maybe we all need to shake up our WritingOps a bit. Maybe you are a visual person and you decide to install an erasable white board in your office for diagramming your plots. Or, maybe your aim is to perform more public readings, so you join your local Toastmasters chapter.

Whatever improves the efficiency of your WritingOps is worth the time invested, even if like the Japanese process improvement philosophy of Kaizen, they are small continuous improvements. It is worth it because as the small stickers that ship with the Freewrite Traveler state – Words are hard.

And before you ask – yes, this was written on my Freewrite Traveler.

The Glamorous Life?

When I was young, before I had written a word of fiction, I believed that all writers lived a glamorous life. Ernest Hemingway in particular seemed to embody this image – traveling on safari, sport fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, drinking whiskey as if he were a fish himself – doing almost everything except writing.

Ernest Hemingway on his boat (from Wikipedia)

Now that I  am older and wiser, I know that Hemingway wrote for hours each day, making him one of the more disciplined writers of his time.  But the larger-than-life Hemingway was a more appealing character to imagine, and therefore the one my younger self gravitated towards.

So, I am writing this post to the new breed of writers out there to let them know some of the disciplines they will find useful in their writing lives, and leaving the catching of Marlins to Salt Water Sportsman Magazine.

Marlin (from Wikipedia)

What Writing is Really Like…Computer Programming

Computer Programming is all about language and syntax, and so is writing.  I know something of this as programming is my day job.  I have often spent hours debugging some code, only to find that a misplaced semi-colon or comma was the culprit.  Writers also will find themselves laboring over the usage and placement of punctuation, understanding that punctuation in the wrong place can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

What Writing is Really Like…Project Management

Project Managers track task and project status, in addition to schedule, budget and other project elements.  As your writing career grows, you will quickly find yourself in need of a spreadsheet, database or other tool to know what you’ve submitted where, when to send a query letter, relevant contact information for publishers and publications, etc.  You will also need to track readings, book fairs, online interviews, etc. on your Outlook or Google calendar.  These demands will intensify as your writing becomes a fulltime occupation, and as you began to spend more time collaborating with others.

What Writing is Really Like…Marketing Executive

While the big publishing houses have marketing resources of their own, new writers trying to make a name for themselves in small independent presses will find themselves on their own to promote their work.  You will be faced with questions like which social media channels reach the biggest (or more importantly, the most relevant) reading audiences, and does it make sense to subscribe to marketing service to promote your books.  Additional considerations involve creating your own author’s website and blog, all of which may require you to acquire new skill sets. Your ability to effectively promote your work becomes even more critical if your work is self-published.

What Writing is Really Like…Accountant

While writing is an art and not a science, sooner or later you will be focused with financial decisions and issues related to your writing.  These may be simple decisions such as whether to enter a writing contest that charges a fee, or whether to hire an independent designer to design your author’s web site.  Other more complicated issues will involve reporting any book sale royalties on your income taxes or tracking the sales tax to be submitted from cash sales at a book fair.  And when you’re finally ready to take the leap and go fulltime, the big financial question:  how much will I have to make on my writing to make a living? 

What Writing is Really Like…Lawyer

Finally, you will be faced with legal issues during your writing career.  I’ll give you a real-life example.  Unbeknownst to me, a designer at one of the publishing companies used an image on my book cover that was copyrighted.  Several years later, I was contacted by the copyright holder demanding a correction, and I referred him to my publisher.  The publisher finally admitted the mistake, and at their expense, corrected the cover.  Other examples include understanding reprint rights for your previously published stories and interpreting contractual agreements with publishers when you begin to get your first professional sales of your stories and novels.

So, there you have it – instead of being glamorous, the above disciplines can be tedious, if not downright boring.  However, these skills will propel your writing career much further than your ability to bait a hook.

Summer’s Almost Gone…

Recently I listened to the Door’s mellow yet satisfying album Waiting for the Sun.

The track “Summer’s Almost Gone” particularly resonates with me this time of year, although probably not for the same reasons as it did for The Doors (interestingly enough, another track on the album is “Wintertime Love”, so the change of the seasons definitely influenced the band on this album).

For me, this is the time of year that I get jacked for Jack-o-Lanterns, giddy for gourds, and generally pumped for pumpkins.

I long for the that crisp feeling in the air, falling leaves, and fire pits, that season that the poet Keat’s described as “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.

This makes me wonder – how did something as innocuous as a mere fruit become an object of terror? Certainly stories like The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and movies like Pumpkinhead have helped solidify this gourd’s place in all things spooky, but where did the association between pumpkins and fear begin in the first place? One wonders.

Back to The Doors – near the end of the song, Morrison mournfully croons these lyrics: “When summer’s gone, where will we be?”

Well, by early October, the major cable networks (AMC, USA, etc.) will start running horror movies nonstop – classic movie franchises like Halloween (ironically, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, involves the Druids and Samhain, which I mention earlier in this post) and Friday the 13th (and yes, the excellent Pumpkinhead), as well as newer additions to the horror film lexicon like Scream and Urban Legend.

So my dearly departed Morrison, when summer’s gone, glued to the silver screen is where I’ll be!

Where you will find yourselves as we enter the dark half of the year?