The Stone Soup Novelist

I have a great idea for a novel. You know what would make it even better?…

Chapter 1 – Specter of the Black Veil

Below is a draft chapter from a mystery novel, tentatively titled Specter of the Black Veil: A Cape Fear Mystery. In the comments below, I’d appreciate your feedback. What did you like? What would you change? What do you think should happen next?

Chapter 1

The story starts over Summer break, after my sophomore year in high school. My brother and I are relaxing at the local Barnes & Noble after a long day at our summer jobs; me at the Vintage Emporium, restoring old electrical appliances, and Trevor at the Grindhouse Cafe. Trevor – he’s an intellectual – is making fun of the books in the goth-girl-and-sparkly-vampire section.

He picks one up and flips to a random page. “Look at this,” he he starts quoting a passage. “‘Albert gazed deeply into her eyes. “You couldn’t know what it’s like to feel a love that lasts to the end of time,” he said. “Yes,” said Cymbeline, “I could.”’ People pay for this.”

“Yeah.” I’m reading comics – a compilation of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing – so I’m not really paying attention.

“Actual money!”

“Uh huh.”

“Troy, it depresses me that the youth of America responds to this kind of shallow, substanceless melodrama. What does it say about the future of this country that people our age are reading this stuff instead of Dickens or Melville?

“Hmm.”

“It’s not that I’m against melodrama per se. I mean, Shakespeare’s full of that sort of thing. But with this kind of literature – to abuse the term – there’s no notion of transcendence, no asking of the eternal questions, just meaningless stimulus – sex and violence and emotion. You can draw a direct line from this stuff to the tragedies in today’s headlines.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“You know, the Founding Fathers read Juvenal and Cicero when they were “tweens” and our generation reads werewolf romances well into the extended adolescence that we call college. We’re just doomed.”

“Mmm. Sure.”

“During the lull after end-of-grade tests, I spoke to Mr. Wellstone about my concerns. He quoted me a passage from Plato:

“’The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.’

“I think his point was that people always think things are getting worse because the present can’t live up to an idealized past. It made me wonder, though: maybe things really have been going downhill for that long.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Plus, the Plato quote, which he presented to me as genuine, turned out to be apocryphal, reinforcing my fears about the decaying quality of our educational system.”

“I bet.”

“Are you hearing any of this?”

“Yeah, you should cancel your subscription to The New Criterion, it’s just depressing you.”

“Ready to get some coffee?” asks Trevor.

“You just got off work at a cafe.” He stares as if waiting for me to make my point. “Glass of water for me,” I say. I’ve been saving my money. “Um, are you bringing that to the table?” He’s still holding Languishing Allure: Book 3 in the Black Talisman Series. A guy and girl with that book between them in the coffee shop at Barnes & Noble – no big deal. Two guys – maybe there’s a reasonable heterosexual explanation, but who would listen?

“Oh . . . Yes, I don’t think I’ve mocked it as thoroughly as I could. It’s been a half-hearted effort at best and I feel that the material deserves my full attention.”

“You know, the people who write these books do pretty well for themselves. We couldn’t do what they do.”

“Yes,” he says, doing his Cymbeline voice again, “we could.”

We riff on that book for the rest of the evening. Trevor flips to a passage, reads it out, I make a joke, then we wind up critiquing the story, pointing out what the author could have done to make it better. While Trevor’s driving home, we’re joking about writing our own bestselling YA paranormal romance novel, and coming up with better plot twists – “No, no, get this: the uncle is a ghost. The heroine is the only one who could see him the whole time! Hah!”

In three weeks, we have our first draft. I dunno, we were having fun. Trevor’s the wordsmith in the family, but with my more pedestrian tastes, I feel that I’ve helped keep the story grounded in the realities of the market. And we do plan to publish. My brother’s qualms about contributing to the decline of Western Civilization were no match for the tag team of my mercenary streak and his yearnings as a frustrated artist.

In terms of coming up with the plot and the incidentals, we have an advantage, too. There was a distant relative of ours – second uncle twice removed kind of a thing – who hung out with a crackpot paranormal researcher named Carnacki back at the turn of the 20th Century.

William Faith Dodgson was the name of our relative. Our dad has his memoirs, or part of them anyway. Dodgson’s manuscript has all kinds of crazy stuff he got from Carnacki about dark powers that can manifest themselves in different ways. Carnacki had a whole taxonomy of the spirit world worked out, and he claimed to have first-hand evidence for all of it, like one time he was trapped in a room with this giant disembodied ear or something. He even had his own patented ghost protection device, an Electric Pentacle that he said could protect him from malevolent powers, and he knew that it worked because “a psychic medium placed within the circuit of the current was found to be completely unable to communicate with the other world.” This was a running joke in our family. Once I had a science fair project go completely pear-shaped on me, got a C-, and Trevor cheered me up by saying “Yes, but a psychic medium placed within it is completely unable to communicate with the other world.”

Anyway, we were able to incorporate all of that into the story, which gave us a kind of a Strand magazine, top-hat and steam locomotive vibe that I think will distinguish us in the market. Our heroine, Ariadne, is a plucky but brooding early suffragette. The love interest is a lithe, dark-haired orphan with deep-set eyes and a terrible secret that will keep them forever apart – or will it? We chose Ireland for our setting, and there’s a spooky lighthouse and a crumbling castle and lots of lightning and apparitions and heaving bosoms.

I knew Trevor was serious about it when he started submitting the chapters to CritiqueCircle.com, a site where writers get together and review each others’ stories.  In order to get critiques, you critique other writers’ stories to build up credits, which Trevor has done, and now he’s using them up fast.

Trevor did the cover art in photoshop, based on my design. He wanted to do an oil painting, but I overruled him. We need his attention focused on the second draft, and anyway these book covers all have a certain style to them, which I thought I could imitate. It’s mostly black, with a full moon in the upper right. We used stock photos for the main characters. Center left, the face of Dominic (that’s the love interest) gazes longingly at Ariadne, slightly lower on the right, as she looks away, frightened. Over Dominic’s head, if you look really carefully, you can see on the cliffs in the background the tiny figure of a woman in a black veil. That’s the specter that haunts Dominic. I thought it came out really well.

Trevor already has an online publishing account. Freshman year, he’d finished his first novel and Dad gave him the OK to try his hand at self-publishing. The book was about a sensitive, misunderstood boy who goes on an emotional journey and learns about life along the way, and it got a lot of 5 star reviews, mostly from friends and relatives. That gave him the confidence to try a 5 day free give-away and email marketing campaign, which didn’t go so well. The book was savaged by reviewers on Amazon UK (who had all gotten the book for free, for crying out loud) as “unoriginal, unmoving, and unnecessary.” I mean, he was fifteen! Mom is incensed about it to this day. At the time, I heard her ask Dad if they could confine the next giveaway to a country “where we say those kinds of things behind your back like civilized people,” but I don’t think it’s fair to judge an entire culture based on one experience.

When it’s time for school to start again, we have our ISBN, our final proofs, our marketing plan, even our own imprint – ObsidianRose Press of Southport, NC. You just pay $10 and put what you want in the “Publisher” field on the online form – alakazam, you’re a small press. We’ve hit one snag, though. There is no way Trevor’s going to put his name on this book, and I don’t want to do that either. So using a pen name is an obvious choice, but what name, and whose picture should go with it? You need an author photo for your online profile if you’re going to be taken seriously, and photos can be identified.

First day of our Junior year – did I mention we’re twins? Not identical by any means. Trevor’s a huge lunk of a guy with dark wavy hair cut a respectable length and a movie star tan. I’m more slight of build, with hippie-length sandy blonde hair and skin that turns beet red in the sun. I was born one minute earlier, so it’s my job to look out for the little guy. Like I said, first day of our Junior year, we’re sitting in the corner of the cafeteria, talking in hushed voices about this author photo problem. Yards away, sitting empty, our usual seats next to our pals Schwartz and Kendrick seem to accuse us of being neglectful friends.

“I think you’re right for the part,” I say. “You’re more the dark, brooding, mysterious type.”

“No, I really see you as the author, Troy. There’s an otherworldly quality to you, with your long hair and pale complexion. Kind of elf-like. All of these paranormal romance authors have that.”

“Well, we can’t solve this with ‘Who looks more like a paranormal romance writer?’ since neither one of us looks like a paranormal romance writer, since they’re all girls.”

Just at that point, I mean right when I said the word “girls,” who walks by our table with her empty tray, but Theresa Van der Meer. It’s too much of a coincidence.

I look at Trevor and he looks at me. Trevor stands up. “Hey, Terry! Happy first day of school!”

She stops walking and looks confused. “Hmm?”

We know Terry Van der Meer from kindergarten. We were great pals at one point; hanging out at lunchtime, going to each other’s birthday parties. Terry and Trevor were kind of sweethearts, and I think they might have kissed once.

She switched to Theresa, I’m thinking maybe sixth or seventh grade, but I’m not sure, because we weren’t really close at that point. I spilled glue on her hair during art once in elementary school. Total accident, but we were using glitter, and that got in her hair too. Trevor started laughing, then I started laughing, then Terry ran out crying and I never got a chance to apologize.

High School Terry (excuse me, Theresa) is a fairly withdrawn person. I don’t think it’s because of the glue incident. She’s got a few friends, and they qualify, I guess, as the Goth crowd of our high school. Terry is wearing black jeans, black halter top, black hair (not her natural brown), she has a nose ring and a little henna tattoo on her right arm. Put her in Chapel Hill, and she might be the treasurer of the Young Republicans for all you’d know, but in Southport, she’s about as far out as they come.

Uh oh, Trevor’s looking flustered. What’s he been saying?

“-So, that’s what we’ve been up to.” Terry’s just staring at him. “Anyway, so we were just talking about this thing we need help with, and remembering what a helpful person you always were, like back when Troy couldn’t pronounce his R’s and you sat with him every recess going ‘Trucks and trains. Trucks and Trains.’ Hah hah, remember that?”

She doesn’t respond, but she glances at me and back at Trevor. She’s gripping her tray defensively, like she’s ready to bash somebody and run for the exit if there are any glitter-glue-based shenanigans. I keep my hands in full view, hoping to reassure her.

Trevor’s blowing it. I need to step in and help. “There’s money in it,” I say.

Terry arches her eyebrow and her mouth goes diagonal. “Mmm,” she says.

Now Adele White is walking over. She’s this pale redheaded girl from Kansas that eats lunch with Terry. Trevor panics, I regret to say. He grabs a pen out of his pocket and scratches out a number on an unused napkin.  “Can’t talk about it here. Call my cell after school.” He hands her the napkin and she walks off with Adele, still looking at Trevor like he’s a squiggly blotch in her shower, and she she can’t make up her mind: hairball or spider.

********************

That afternoon, I’m riding home. There’s one car for the both of us and Trevor likes to drive. I’m more of a daydreamer. Also, haven’t gotten my license yet. I need to do that.

“That went well with Terry,” I say.

“Shut up.”

“I like how you didn’t creep her out or come off weird at all.”

“Shut up.”

“Basically, she heard, ‘Hi Terry. Please join our drug cartel. Call later to find out about our generous benefits package.’”

“You threw me off. Why did you offer her money?”

“We’re asking for a service. You pay photo models, right?”

Trevor’s phone rings. It was charging, so it’s sitting between us.

Trevor looks down. “Get it, Troy. It’s probably her.”

“I don’t like smart phones,” I say. “Anyway, she’s calling you.”

“I’m driving, you lackwit! I can’t talk on the phone and drive, there’s a law! Here, I’ll answer it for you, just talk.”

“Name-calling now,” I say, but I take the phone when he hands it to me. No need to be sullen. “Hello,” I say. “Speak your mind.”

Terry’s voice comes through the phone. “Umm . . . is this Trevor Knight?”

“This is Troy. My brother’s driving and he is an upstanding citizen, so I’m taking his calls now.”

“Okay. So, what’s this about?”

“Ah. Well, we’re glad you called. You see, we have a business venture and you seemed just the person to help us with it.”

“Eh, this is is weird.”

“No, your part would be a simple photo shoot and . . .”

“Okay, I’m hanging up now.”

“No, no, no! Listen, we just need an author photo.”

“Author photo?”

“Yes, we’ve written a book.”

“What kind of book?”

“An ebook.”

“That’s not a type of book, that’s a format.”

“Yes, well we’re self-publishing in ebook format, and we’d like to use your picture for the author photo.”

“Why?”

“You see, Terry, in our judgment, the market for our chosen genre will respond better to a female author.”

“What genre?”

“I don’t see that it . . .”

“Porn?”

“No!”

“Harlequin Romance?”

“Of course not, look . . .”

“One of those god-awful chick-vampire-soap-opera things?”

“I don’t see that it . . .”

“That’s it, isn’t it? Oh, my -” here she starts laughing, then there’s a loud bang and some shuffling around.

Trevor is giving me his What the??! look. “Keep your eyes on the road,” I say.

Terry’s voice comes back. “Sorry, ha ha,  I dropped the phone. Okay, te-he-he, I’m . . . ah . . . I can talk now.”

“Thanks.”

“So, why aren’t you doing doing POD?”

“What?”

“You said you were publishing in ebook format, why aren’t you doing print-on-demand, so people without eReaders can buy it too?”

I mouth “print on demand?” to Trevor, but he just shrugs. “Our budget is limited at this point,” I say.

“Print-on-demand doesn’t cost anything. You just have to format the text for printing, then they print off a copy of the book every time somebody orders it.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re familiar with the business, Terry.”

“Everybody knows this stuff now. I’ll do it, by the way.”

“You’ll what?”

“I’ll pose for your author photo. Just tell me when and where. I’ll do my own clothes and makeup.”

“That’s great!”

“Two hundred bucks.”

“What?!”

“That’s my fee. Two hundred dollars. Non-negotiable.”

“I think I mentioned our limited budget, Terry. I just don’t think that’s in our range right now.”

“Okay, well. Sorry we couldn’t work anything out. At least I got material for my blog.”

“Wait wait wait! What?! No!”

“Everything okay, there? Your brother didn’t wreck did he?”

“Listen, Terry, this is confidential. This is not something we want blogged!”

“I’d be willing to consider a confidentiality clause if you’re still interested in using me for your photo. Call me back tonight if you change your mind.” She hangs up.

Trevor’s looking at me, all petrified, with his mouth open. I almost tell him to watch the road again before I realize we’re parked in front of our house. “Blogged?” he says. “You – the last word you said, was that ‘blogged’?”

“Yes. She said she might blog about us writing a supernatural romance if we didn’t pay her two hundred dollars to do the author photo.”

Trevor bangs his head into the steering wheel and scrunches up his face like he used to do when Mom denied him a popsicle. “I can’t believe Terry of all people would do this,” he says. “She was such a nice little kid. When I’ve heard people talk about childlike faith, I’ve often thought of Terry as an example. There was a kind of altruism to her, a concern for other people that’s not  common in the very young, no matter what you might hear from sentimental adults. Well, people change. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, Troy. Unassuming, wide-eyed innocents like us get eaten alive out there.”

A thought occurs to me. “You know, the fact that we were trying to pose as a girl actually makes it more embarrassing.” Trevor cuts me a look. Not a welcome insight at this juncture. I get it.

“She has us over a barrel,” he says. “We’ve got to pay.”

“Looks that way,” say I. “How much do you have?”

“Nothing.”

“Spendthrift.” I’ve been saving up to buy a telescope. Not one of these cheapo Discovery Store deals. A Zhumell Z12 Dobsonian reflector with a laser collimator. A thing like that costs upwards of $700, and this is really going to set me back.

“Sorry Troy. First profits from our venture go to your Z12.” He means it too. Not a bad guy, my brother. We shake hands and head into the house. Us against the world.

********************

The next night, Terry comes over. We told Mom and Dad she was coming to study English, which, it being the second day of school, probably sounded fishy.

I will grant her this: Terry is taking her part seriously. She looks like the sort of person who would write about teenage love among the undead, or maybe a character from one of those books. Her hair is swooping down over her right eye, so she has to look sideways at everything. She has black lipstick, black eyelashes, and a burgundy shirt with a wide dracula collar.

When we bring Terry through the living room to say hi, Mom handles the surprise pretty well. “Hello Theresa. Haven’t you grown into a lovely young woman!” She last saw Terry wearing pigtails and Hello Kitty overalls. Aside from the whole hair-gluing controversy, we switched schools in fourth grade. Mom decided that the traditional school system was stifling our potential and moved us to a Montessori charter school where we could develop our powers of reason and imagination through spontaneous self-construction. We stayed through middle school, but after after one of my chemistry projects went horribly awry, Dad put his foot down and we came back to our base school our freshman year. There’s no Montessori high school in our area anyway. Heck, there was no Montessori middle school that year.

Anyway, Trevor and I have a makeshift studio set up in the bonus room. There’s an alcove with cream colored walls that will frame Terry’s dark hair, and I’ve set up lamps on either side, with lampshades the same color as the walls for diffuse light. I’ve borrowed Mom’s Nikon D300 for the occasion.

I direct Terry to the alcove. “Stand here please, Ms. Van der Meer. I’ll be the photographer, and my brother will do art direction.” I am frosty, but polite. Trevor and I are still steamed about the pseudo-blackmail aspects of this arrangement, but we can’t afford to offend her, given our position.

“Now, we’re going for a particular kind of expression here,” says Trevor. “Gloomy and sort of disappointed with the world.”

“Okay,” says Terry. What do you want me to do, glower?” She makes sad-angry eyes, like Snoopy pretending to be a vulture.

“No,” says Trevor. “That’s not it at all.”

“Don’t take too long,” I say. “You don’t want her getting sweaty and oily under those lights.”

“You want to be almost hostile,” says my brother, “but mysterious at the same time.”

“So kind of snarl at the camera?” Terry draws up her lip like Elvis Presley.

“No, no!” says Trevor. He’s getting animated. “That’s not right. You want to look sort of soulful and longing, but alienated. No, now you just look incredulous. No, that’s more of an exasperated look.”

“I wanted to mist you with the garden hose,” I say, “so you’d look all sultry and glistening.”

“That’s it!” says Trevor, but I’ve already snapped the picture. Got it in one take. The expression conveys just the combination of seething anger, contempt, and ennui that you want in your tormented artists.

We thank Terry and pay her for her time, reminding her about the non-disclosure clause of our verbal contract, and hinting at the possibility of further collaborations, should our venture prove successful.

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