Monday, November 17, 2014

Mystery novel

Here's a peak at the first scene of my mystery novel. It's set close to my hometown in Northern Wisconsin, and I'm trying to create a slightly-awkward but entertaining and strong female lead. Let me know your thoughts.

Chapter 1
I screamed when the eight-legged monster jumped from the shelving above the oven, missing my head by inches and my scrambled eggs by even less. Fortunately, I quickly recovered and beat the spider to a pulp with my trusty old hiking boots. I shoved the dirty brown boot back in its place near the door before returning to the stove top and giving the eggs another stir with the spatula. One more joy of living in my parents’ not-so-well insulated log cabin: bugs around every corner and crevice, preparing for attack. I was at least 72% certain that the bugs in this little four-room building had a personal vendetta against me from day one, and, after only two weeks here, they were winning. It was me (Jordan Nimsby) vs. the Evil Bug Bastards (or EBB for short).
            Yes, that’s correct; my parents gave me a boy’s name, but I’ve grown used to it, to say the least. My friends used to call me “Nimsby” in high school, probably just because they thought it sounded funny. Now, however, most of them call me Jordy, partially because I’m a huge Cheesehead and #87, Jordy Nelson, is one of my favorites. Seriously, don’t come over during a Packer game, unless you’re bringing fresh cheese curds or kolatchze to share. You may laugh, but we don’t jest about our cheese and European baked goods here in Northern Wisconsin.
            I shoveled the scrambled eggs onto a slightly-chipped plate and moved to sit in one of the two dusty armchairs that face the large double-hung windows in the “living area”. I call it the living “area” because it’s technically just an extension of the kitchen. The kitchen and living room combo are basically a narrow, 6’ by 14’ room with a refrigerator, maple-stained cabinets, sink, and oven on the kitchen end and the armchairs and a bookcase on the other end. In between the “kitchen” and “living” sections is a narrow hallway containing doors that lead to the tiny bathroom, a bedroom, and another room that could technically be used for a bedroom, but is just a storage area for me at the moment, since I’ve just recently moved into the cabin. My parents still have an old wooden bunk bed in that room, leftover from when my younger sister and I were kids. A few other awkward touches, such as the duck-patterned wall paper in the bathroom, and the Northwoods-themed animal decorations in the bedrooms, make me feel like I’ve somehow gotten trapped inside my childhood vacations.
            I finished the eggs and had a hankering for toast, but I tragically haven’t had a chance yet to buy a toaster, so I substituted the toast with the amazing nectar of the gods, AKA black coffee. I had no shortage of mugs to choose from and selected a “Coffee is the name of my other lover” slogan printed on a hot pink background.
            “Hah- as if there was another man in my life,” I laughed and winked at my coffee cup. You can judge me; it is an unnatural relationship that I have with this mouth-watering beverage that makes life worth living.
            Carefully filling the mug to the brim, I made my way back to the cozier armchair (I swear the one on the left was missing some stuffing in the cushion). I settled in with a sigh. Then, I breathed in the delicious Mocha Nut aroma of the flavored brew, letting the air slowly out of my lungs.
            Today would begin the first day of my new job, and I had some thinking to do. In fact, I had a lot of thinking to do, seeing as I had basically taken a ginormous leap backwards in the job and life department as of late. You see, I wasn’t always a single, 27-year-old living in my parents’ old cabin. I used to be successful. Haha. Okay, you caught me; I used to be relatively successful, in comparison to someone greatly unsuccessful. I have tried for years to convince myself that it isn’t my fault, however. I had good intentions, I swear!
            After graduating from Loyola University in Chicago with a BS in Criminal Justice, I became a private investigator. It had always been my dream job, and it’s why I went to school in the city to study the field. However, after five very unsuccessful years, I had little to show for it. I’d been working with a firm in downtown Chicago, certain that I was on my way up, even though I’d been relegated to a desk position for my first four years, doing little more than secretarial work no matter how hard I worked to try to prove myself. When I finally saw the opportunity to advance, I was quickly passed over for some freshly-graduated, tough-looking guy who “knew the neighborhood better”. As if. And even if he did, so what? Being from the area wasn’t exactly part of the job description, and I made the mistake of pointing that little fact out to my boss. Of course, I did also add, “Now, if this guy knows the criminals in the area, then he’d have an advantage over me.”
            Apparently, my boss didn’t deem that comment as productive as it was and I found myself without any job a few days later. While searching for a new job, I moved in with my aunt, who lives in a downtown condo. My student loans were piling up, and I certainly didn’t have enough in my savings account to cover the pricey rent of most Chicago apartments, even with the odd job here or there to supplement it. Fortunately, Aunt Melani works in some fashionable sales firm downtown and insisted that I only pay half of the electricity and internet bills. The rest was on her. It was nice living there when she wasn’t around, which was quite often. When she was around, my comfort level dropped immensely, as she’s a vegan hipster without a door on her bathroom who claims to be allergic to even the smell of meat. Fortunately for me, she was gone quite a bit due to the traveling aspect of her job, and I still, to this day, do not fully understand what it is that she does.
            Needless to say, it reached a point where I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere in the field or in my retirement account, so I ended up returning home…more or less. My parents live in Tomahawk, about an hour southwest of their cabin, and they had been talking about selling this old log home for years. They kept it up fairly well (if you don’t count those bitter insects and a thin layer of dust), but they just didn’t see the point of keeping it any longer. As my mother said, “It was so much more valuable when you and Cynthia were little. Then we would go up to the lake to swim and fish…we just don’t do that much anymore…”
(I know what you’re thinking- my sister’s name is Cynthia? Seriously, Mom and Dad, why did you give her the uber feminine name? Did I really look like a member of the male species when I was born? Sure, I was born bald, but throw me a bone here already. Sigh. I digress…)
            My parents wanted to sell the cabin, long story short, and I had just enough money saved up to offer them a reasonable price for it. At first, my mother felt bad about making me pay for the cabin, but my father reassured her that I was a “grown adult” and “more than fully capable” or spending my money on my own necessities. (Now, don’t ask me how someone can be “more than fully capable”; it seems to defy the realm of reality.) So, a short investment later, and I was back in the only-slightly-neglected cabin. I wasn’t terribly saddened to return back home, and honestly, the cabin is in fairly decent shape, maintaining some semblance of coziness. To the left of the large windows in the living area are the sliding glass doors that open up to a small patio with Loon Lake a short walk beyond. On the patio (where I really would be sitting, if it wasn’t so gloomy out, the clouds threatening to burst any moment), my father made me a lovely wooden table with four chairs. They’re stained the same color as the house, sort of a burnt oak, and they really add to the patio area, I must say. He carves and sells furniture for a living, so they look damn good, naturally.
            In my own sad attempt to bring my personality into the cabin, I have added a few knick-knacks here and there, like the sign that used to hang above my private investigator business in downtown Chicago, currently hanging over the bookshelf beside me. I’ve also added one of those cheesy wooden placards with the 1950’s-style woman picture and the words “Sarcasm: Now Served Daily!” to the wall in the kitchen. I’m not really a great decorating guru, never watched any of those HGTV shows, but I do try.
            As I took another sip of my coffee, my thoughts drifted back to my new job. Along with my move to Northern Wisconsin, I now had a new job as a barista at a locally-owned coffee shop/bookstore about eight miles up the road, on the outskirts of the quaint town of Eagle River. In a way, I was looking forward to the peace and quiet of this type of job, but I also felt a bit like a screw-up. I was supposed to have left the small town life behind and venture off into the wilds of the big city, and I did just that for several years. Unfortunately, chalk it up to bad luck, a bad economy, or both, my dream just didn’t last for long. Now, I was back into the jobs of the high school/college student crowd, at an age that was just slightly too old to actually desire those jobs. Still, I would be working with two of my favorite things, coffee and books, so I couldn’t whine for too long and loud about the opportunity, as unfulfilling as it likely would be. 
            An old high school friend of mine, Jenny, was the owner of the shop and, once she heard that I was back in the neighborhood, she was quick to offer me a position. “Nearly everybody has moved so far away!” she exclaimed at my “interview”, which basically amounted to a gossip-session reminiscent of high school days. Now Jenny was always a really sweet and cheery girl, but she was never known to be the brightest crayon in the carton, so I was a little surprised that she owned her own business. I suspected that maybe she’d changed a great deal since high school, but about two minutes into our interview, I realized that Jenny was still partially stuck in high school, as though the drama and gossip from that time were still enticing to her. “It’s so nice to see a familiar face from high school!” she had said at the start.
            And it went on like that from there. For every reasonable interview question, like, “What are your greatest strengths?” there were at least two or three tidbits of random gossip that I couldn’t care less about honestly, so that the interview went a little like this:
            Jenny: “Did you hear that Matt McDonalds is now the owner of a Fortune 500 Company? I mean, seriously, who could have seen that coming?”
            Me: “McDonalds? You mean that kid with the funny glasses who always used to quote stock prices…uh, yes, ironically I do believe I saw that one coming.”
            Jenny: “Have you heard that Erika is having her third child now? And each one with a different father! Can you believe that?”
            Me: “Erika Sneider? The one who used to wear super short skirts with thongs and dated half the football team? Oh, yes, that’s mind-boggling…”
            Jenny: “And, oh-my-God, you won’t believe what happened to Tiny Tina Tinkerson. She gained, like, a bazillion pounds and ended up on one of those weight loss shows last year. She didn’t lose enough to win the competition, though, only like 19% of her body fat…”
            Me: “I do remember her having a fondness for baked goods at the senior picnic…”
            And so on and so forth until I began to seriously question working for her. However, when I found out that she’s really only there half the time (“So busy with my family now, you know, twin boys, can you believe it?”), and the fact that I really needed to make money somehow unless I didn’t want any utilities in my rustic cabin, I accepted the fact that I wasn’t in any position to refuse any kind of job at all, much less one that seemed relatively simple yet still managed to pay a few dollars above minimum wage.
            That brings me to today’s business: my first day on the job. The sensible part of me smiled at the thought that I would once again have a steady source of income. But another part of me (a part that demanded hungrily from the pit of my gut why I felt it was worth my time to study in college for four years just to throw that money down the drain) felt like kicking myself in the face (though I may need to do more stretches to manage that maneuver) as I drained my coffee cup and poured another serving into my sparkly metallic green travel mug. “I like my coffee like my men,” I joked to make myself feel less awful, “dark and covered in metallic green glitter.” I jest; I’ve never dated a man who wore glitter of any sort; I guessed the closest I ever came was Anthony Jespoal, who was an actor I dated in college. He had to wear make-up in most of his performances and actually didn’t seem to mind it.
            I stepped into my red Ford Taurus and rolled down the windows to let in the fresh morning air. The clouds seemed to be dissipating, so maybe it wouldn’t be too gloomy of an early June day after all. The sun was low in the sky, but that was probably because it was only 7am, and, despite the clouds, I could sense the promise of warmer weather to come. I was supposed to be at the coffee shop at 8am to start my first day of training, but I was giving myself plenty of time to arrive a bit early. I wanted to make sure that I was fully prepared, and that typically meant having at least three cups of coffee under my belt beforehand.
            The driveway to the cabin is a small gravel lane. I drove down it and pulled onto the also small, also gravel road that wound around the lake and led to several other cabins. I had a feeling that not many people actually traversed this road in the winter, so I was a little nervous about driving when the winter season rolled around, especially since I wasn’t even sure if they would bother trying to plow this road. However, I had plenty of time to wait on that; for now, it was the start of summer, and the gravel road was relatively busy by Northern Wisconsin standards; I actually saw two cars pass me on my way out to the highway.
            Turning onto the highway, I cranked up the local radio station, until I realized they were having a polka marathon. Quickly, I flipped the dial to some alternative rock station that just barely reached listeners up here in the far northern reaches of their coverage area. I rocked out with the windows down, a nice cool breeze in my curly brown hair, unnecessary sunglasses covering my hazel eyes, and my free hand cradling my travel mug of joe. Hearing an upbeat Of Monsters and Men tune come on the air, I tried to focus on the positives in my life. It was difficult, moving up here to the rural wilderness after the hustle and bustle of downtown Chicago, but it was also refreshing. For instance, consider the lovely fresh air that I was currently inhaling; it didn’t have even the slightest hint of car exhaust, pollution, or random smelly people. That was a lovely change of pace. And where in Chicago could my carpool possibly be the same distance in miles as the time it took to get there, for instance? Unheard of, but here, that 8 mile drive to the coffee shop could easily be managed in just over 8 minutes. I was fortunate to live within walking distance of just about anything when I lived in the Windy City, thanks to Aunt Melani and her condo, but if I ever tried to venture out of the city or to different parts of the city, oh, God help me. I hated driving in city traffic. Basically, my feeling about driving in Chicago was this: why would anyone want to sit completely still on a crowded 5-lane highway with absolute psychos cutting you off and flipping you off just so that they could sit completely still in another lane? Do you see what I mean? If not, take a drive around Chicago sometime, preferably on a Friday evening, and then you will soon understand.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Mother, Teacher, Writer- though not necessarily in that order...

...or at least the order changes from day to day. Lately, I feel that Mother has surpassed my Writer persona, invading the time I'd typically spend blogging and writing novels in coffee shops, drinking too much caffeine and daydreaming about the next scene or character. Instead, my hours are spent changing diapers, nursing, rocking, and singing bizarre made-up songs in my far-from-melodic voice. When I do get a chance to go out for coffee, I find myself working on my online teaching job, so the Teacher persona now rules at coffee shops- jamming out emails, lesson planning, and grading, all the while rocking my son's carrier to hopefully lull him into a peaceful sleep for a moment or two.

This past week, the Teacher and Mother thirds have been bending under a lot of stress. The little dude and I both managed to pick up a cold, so we've regressed to sleepless nights and difficult feedings, not to mention dealing with a lot of mucus (the baby's, not mine...well, okay, both of ours, if I'm honest). In the teaching world, our virtual charter school has recently implemented a new website that allows for a lot of versatility for the students who work at home with their parents on paper curricula. It is a way for us to work with the students and parents on assignments that are unique to each individual student and to determine which standards they are meeting (ah, the beloved Common Core- I say this with no small amount of sarcasm, though I am discovering that there are some positive aspects to said standards…maybe…). However, no less than four mothers immediately freaked out about the new website, sending me what I can only refer to as angry mom hate mail. And a part of me (maybe in the Mother piece) understands where they are coming from- they like to do what they are used to, and they truly think believe that it is what’s best for their kids. They don’t want to change. They are too busy to change. Change is their enemy. And, for the most part, in our crazy world, that is very understandable.

Still, a part of me doesn’t understand their angst, because I believe that change is a necessity in life. Adults and children need it to get by, and you need to teach children to be able to adapt to it unless you wish to create a highly dysfunctional adult. Seeing these mothers angrily grit their teeth and deny their children this new opportunity, butting heads with teachers all the way, makes me sad. Being a teacher in modern America, I am, unfortunately, used to the idea that everyone from politicians to actors think they know more than I do when it comes to teaching kids, never mind the fact that I’ve gone to school for four years specifically studying English Education, spent another half-year in what basically amounted to an unpaid internship (ah, student teaching), and then taught three different grade levels for two years. If I were teaching in some other era, some other country, perhaps our new ideas would be accepted merely from the fact that we are teachers and want what is best for children. However, in the here and now, we are judged unworthy.

Still, as I digress from my teacher rant…I feel that Mother and Teacher do inevitably go together for me when it comes to opening students’ eyes to new innovations and opportunities. I like to think that I would be on the side of the parents who are gung-ho and ready to roll on this new program. I wish to be a mother who allows my children new opportunities, and I hope I am already doing so. In a way I think that all of these parts of me are deeply interconnected: Writer, Teacher, and Mother. I teach because I care about children, and I write because I care about learning, and as a mother, I understand more deeply the importance of both learning and writing for myself and for the future generations.

So I guess, in the end, it isn’t a matter of which comes first; all three personae blend together in a way I hadn’t previously considered, and perhaps that is for the best.