Leah and Dottie

Ballet Olympia, SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker enters her dorm room at Wellesley College and sets her backpack onto a chair. It’s her freshman year, and her roommate, Heather, is visiting family for several days, so Leah’s looking forward to having the room to herself for a long weekend. Leah’s average height, with shoulder-length auburn hair, and steel-blue eyes. She’s wearing her usual attire of baggie warmup shorts, New Balance sneakers, and an oversized MIT sweatshirt. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She drops her keys onto the nightstand and takes a package of red Solo cups from the top drawer, removes one cup, and replaces the rest. From behind the nightstand, she takes out a bottle of Merlot she bought at a package store in Boston which never checks ID, unscrews the top, and pours half a cup. 

Leah’s from Atlanta, and Wellesley is her first time living away from her family. She continued to live in her family’s home in Buckhead after the family moved to Lawrenceville just before the start of her senior year at Pace Academy, but Leah doesn’t count that, since her father, Paxton, was there off and on throughout the week. Leah had objected to the long commute, and both her parents deemed her responsible enough to go it alone for the remaining time before graduation. Since Paxton still had business in town during the week, he would stay at the house evenings when he needed to be at the office early. Leah viewed it as an opportunity to get closer to her father, with whom she’d always had a tense and distant relationship. Unfortunately, the best they managed was a sort of détente, where they’d exchange a few words going or coming, or, a bit of conversation if Paxton happened to be around in the living room while Leah was working on a school assignment. 

She sits on her bed, takes a sip of wine, and picks up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, a gift from Marla Prentice, an instructor in one of Leah’s core Humanities classes, and with whom Leah’s been spending a lot of time lately. Starting her second week at school, Leah found herself involved in a rather passionate relationship with Marla, which started nearly the moment she entered class, and fell under Marla’s scrutiny. After class, Marla made a point of striking up a conversation with Leah. Marla’s a few inches taller than Leah, and several years older, with a trim, athletic build, and jet black hair, that’s very long, and which she wears in dreads. She always wears short, dark dresses, over tights in various colors, with clogs. Her complexion gives Leah the impression that Marla’s of mixed race, though Leah can’t tell which races went into the mix. Marla’s very economical in the facts she shares about herself. She speaks and moves with a frenetic energy, which Leah finds infectious. They ran into one another a short while later, on a smoke break before lunch, and Marla invited Leah to join her for a bite. They ended up back at Marla’s apartment, just off campus, where things got very heated very quickly. Over the next week, their afternoon dalliances progressed into an intense physical relationship, which surprised Leah, as she’s never before entertained ideas of being involved with another woman. 

The situation excites and troubles Leah, who finds the intimacy thrilling, but wonders what it all means. Throughout high school, she had the usual teen relationships, occasional dates with guys she knew from math class or science club, who’d take her out after school, or sometimes evenings, often with other computer geeks like her, and she had a number of girls she spent time with in school and out, or with whom she played on the lacrosse or softball teams, but she’d never entertained the thought of having a sexual relationship with any of them, male or female, nor could she recall ever having crushes on any of her female teachers, regardless of how attractive they’d been. It worries her that she could be so unaware of such an important aspect of her personality, and wonders what else she might have missed. A few days into the relationship, Leah decided she needed advice from someone more worldly.

She has a great relationship with her mother, Melinda, but she’s not sure how her mother will react to Leah potentially being a lesbian, so, for advice, she decided to sound out her aunt Margaret on the matter. Since childhood, Margaret has been an important influence on Leah, second only to Melinda, with whom Margaret’s been friends since college. Like Leah, Margaret is a first-born daughter, who’s two years older than Paxton, and it was Margaret who introduced Paxton to Melinda when Leah’s mother was still in college. Melinda had traveled to Atlanta from Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Agnes Scott, with the intention of being a teacher, but instead met and married Paxton Walker. As she was getting started back at school, she discovered she was pregnant with Leah, and put her dreams of teaching on hold. Leah has always harbored a bit of guilt, knowing that she prevented her mother from finishing school, but Melinda’s always maintained a cheerful and upbeat attitude about it, telling Leah she’ll head back to school once Alyssa, Leah’s baby sister, who’s twelve years younger, is out of the house. 

Leah phoned Margaret and wasted little time in getting to the point. 

“Margaret, have you ever been with another woman?” Leah asked. 

“In what sense do you mean that?” Margaret said, a bit of discomfort evident in her voice. 

“Seriously?” Leah said. “What sense do you think?”

“Oh,” Margaret said. “Well, if that’s what you mean, then no.”

“Have you thought about it?” Leah said.

“Hmm, let me guess,” Margaret said, “you’re asking because you’ve either thought about it, or—”

“No, I’m way beyond thinking about it, at this point,” Leah said.

“I see. Well. Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes,” Leah said.

“Then what’s the problem?” Margaret asked. “If you had a good time, where’s the harm?”

“But what does it mean?” Leah said.

“Why does it have to mean something?” Margaret said.

“I guess it doesn’t have to,” Leah said. “It just usually does.”

“Look, you didn’t go blind and you weren’t struck by lightning were you?” Margaret asked

“Not yet.”

“Then, we can assume the universe is okay with it,” Margaret said.

“I don’t know if I’m okay with it,” Leah said, “I mean, I like her, but I don’t think either of us is interested in a real relationship.”

“Is it ongoing?” Margaret asked.

“As of right now, it is,” Leah said.

“Then go with it,” Margaret said. “See where it leads. I’ve never found myself in this situation, so I don’t know how I’d respond. You went away to college to learn, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, part of that is learning about yourself,” Margaret said. “You have an excellent opportunity to explore who you are without the glare of your family judging your every move. Take advantage of that.”

“Perfect. Thanks, Margaret.”

“Anytime, sweetie,” Margaret said. “Let me know how things turn out.”

Leah leans back on her bed and resumes reading the book. She manages about five pages when her reading is interrupted by the sound of someone pounding insistently on the door. An unfamiliar voice follows the first round of pounding. “Open this door, you bitch!”

The pounding resumes.

Leah puts down the book and cautiously approaches the door.

“Who is it?” she says.

“I said open this door,” the voice says, “I’m going to kick your ass, you slut.”

Whoever’s outside sounds drunk. 

Leah looks at Heather’s bed, then says, “Are you here to kick the ass of a brunette or a redhead? Cause the brunette isn’t here.”

There’s a long pause, before, “Kind of reddish brown. Not a brunette.”

“Perfect,” Leah says to herself.

She considers calling campus security, but decides against it. As the next round of pounding begins, she quickly pulls open the door. A young woman, about Leah’s age and height, with curly, dirty blonde hair, and wearing a short, polka dotted dress and slip-on sneakers, comes tumbling into the room. She falls to her hands and knees and seems somewhat confused. Leah takes the opportunity to grab her roommate’s umbrella, which she brandishes as a weapon.

“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Leah says to the woman. “Apart from what you’ve already stated.”

“I said I’m going to kick your ass, you bitch,” the woman says as she struggles to get her footing and rise. She looks up at Leah, then says, “Yeah. You.” She looks around for something to hold onto. At last, she pulls herself up on a table and stands up straight, but swaying, as she confronts Leah. She’s wearing a slight amount of makeup, but it’s gotten splotchy from crying. Leah holds the umbrella in front of her as she speaks. 

“Okay, I gather that you’re pissed about something,” Leah says. “Why don’t we start with your name. Who are you?”

“I’m Dottie,” the woman says. “Dorothy, actually, but most people call me Dottie.”

“Okay — ah — Dottie,” Leah says, still brandishing the umbrella. “I’m Leah — or do you already know that?”

“How the hell should I know what your name is?” Dottie says.

“You showed up at my door wanting to beat me up,” Leah says, “I assume you’d know my name. What’s this about?”

“It’s about Marla,” Dottie says. 

“Marla Prentice? What about her?”

Dottie begins to reply, but suddenly throws her hand over her mouth and starts to heave. Leah hurriedly points to the bathroom. Dottie quickly stumbles in and kicks the door closed. Leah can hear her vomiting. She puts down the umbrella and sits on her bed until she hears the sounds subside. At last, the toilet flushes, followed by the sound of water running in the sink. This goes on for several minutes before Dottie returns to the room, far more subdued than when she left. Leah motions to Heather’s bed and Dottie sits.

“Let’s start over, shall we?” Leah says. “You want to kick my ass and it has something to do with Marla.”

“You stole her from me,” Dottie says. “She won’t return my calls. Then I saw you with her at our coffee shop.”

“Coffee shop?” Leah says. “You mean Sandusky’s? I took her there.”

“You did?” Dottie says. “She said it was our special place.”

“Yeah, she sort of told me the same thing after our first visit,” Leah says. “When did you start seeing her?”

“Right after classes started,” Dottie says. “About a month after I got here.”

“So did I,” Leah says. An idea occurs to her. “Did she take you to The Jewel of the Nile?”

Dottie nods. “The night we first—”

Leah holds up her hand. “Same here.”

“Why aren’t you upset?” Dottie says. “I just confirmed I’ve been sleeping with Marla. That doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really,” Leah says. “I haven’t figured out exactly what our relationship is yet. I take it you feel a bit more committed?”

“I haven’t felt this way before,” Dottie says. “I was all ready to tell my family I’m gay and she ditches me. Told me I’m getting too serious. I figured there was someone else, so I followed her. That’s where I saw you.”

“Meaning you must have followed me here,” Leah says. 

“Yesterday,” Dottie says. “It took me all afternoon to get up the courage to come over.”

“Speaking of which,” Leah says. “How much did you drink?”

“Bottle, bottle and a half,” Dottie says. She notices the book and points to it. “I suppose she gave you that.”

“She did.”

“I gave it to her,” Dottie says. 

Leah picks it up and looks at the spine. “You’re DG? She said it was on the book when she bought it.”

Dottie nods. “Dorothy Gage.”

“Isn’t that the person in The Wizard of Oz?” Leah says. 

“Oh, that’s original,” Dottie says. “Her name is Dorothy Gale. Don’t change the subject.”

“What makes you think I stole Marla from you?” Leah says. “Sounds to me like she’s been leading us both on.”

“Yeah, it’s starting to look that way,” Dottie says. “There’s this girl in my English Lit class who said she had an affair with Marla last year. I didn’t want to believe her, but then I saw the two of you together.”

“Why didn’t you confront Marla?” Leah says. 

“I tried, but she’s not at her apartment,” Dottie says. 

Leah shakes her head. “She’s never there on the weekend. Hmm. This makes me wonder where she goes.”

Dottie looks down. “Would you mind if I just lie down for a minute or two?” 

“You’re not going to throw up again are you? I doubt Heather would like that, and I don’t feel like cleaning up after you.”

“God, I hope not,” Dottie replies. She lies on her side, and pulls her knees up, crossing her arms in front of her.

“I suppose you can kick my ass when you wake up,” Leah says.

“Maybe,” Dottie says as she drifts off.

Leah continues reading while Dottie sleeps. She’s still asleep when Leah goes to bed. The following morning, Dottie is awake and very embarrassed by her behavior. Leah treats Dottie to breakfast at the nearest cafe, and they have a long talk, where they discover a lot of common interests. Leah is fluent in most of the European languages, owing to her family’s many visits to the continent as she was growing up, and she’s pleased to learn Dottie is as well. They switch to speaking German to keep people from eavesdropping on them as they decide what to do about Marla. By the time they part ways, they’ve developed a plan of action. 

A few days later, Leah is sitting with Marla at the coffee shop. They’re discussing The Handmaid’s Tale. 

“Take that lesson to heart,” Marla tells her. “Men are not to be trusted.”

“They certainly didn’t come off very well in the book,” Leah says. 

“Have you read any of Dworkin’s work?” Marla says.

“Andrea Dworkin? I’ve heard of her.”

Marla suddenly focuses on something over Leah’s shoulder and shakes her head. “I don’t believe this.”

“What is it?” Leah says. She looks to see Dottie seated at the lunch counter, wearing dark glasses, situated where she has a good view of Leah and Marla. 

“Nothing,” Marla says. “Just this student who’s been giving me a hard time over a grade.” Marla rises. “Excuse me just a minute.”

She goes over and confronts Dottie in low tones. While she’s gone, Leah slides over and picks up Marla’s bag. She checks to be sure Marla isn’t looking, then she pulls out Marla’s wallet and checks her driver’s license and credit cards. Finished, she replaces the wallet, and puts the bag back where it was. She moves back to her chair, and makes an okay sign to Dottie, who abruptly breaks off her argument with Marla, gathers her things, and storms out. 

“I’m really sorry about that,” Marla says when she returns to the table. “I failed her on a test and she’s been stalking me ever since.”

“Not a problem,” Leah says. “Say, where do you disappear to on the weekends?”

“Where did this come from all of a sudden?” Marla says.

“I’m just curious,” Leah says. “I figured you must be sneaking off to some cozy little bed and breakfast to write and might want some company.”

Marla laughs. “Trust me, if I was, you’d be the first one I’d call.” She reaches over and places her hand on Leah’s. “I’m free for the next hour. Want to swing by my place?”

“I’d love to,” Leah says, “but I have a midterm in chemistry coming up. I’ll take a rain check, though.”

“You’re on,” Marla says. They talk for a few minutes before Leah insists she needs to go. Marla walks her to the door and they part with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then head off in different directions. Leah walks about half a block, then checks to be sure Marla is far enough away, then ducks down a side street and circles back to the rear of the coffee shop, where she finds Dottie seated on the back deck. Leah sits with her.

“Anything?” Dottie says.

Leah shakes her head. “Her license has her campus address. But it did have a different name, Marla Rogan.”

“Rogan?” Dottie says. “That kind of takes some of the luster off.”

Leah leans forward and says confidentially, “Know anyone who works for the university? If I can get on the computer network, I can probably hack into payroll and find out where they’re mailing her checks.”

“Actually, I do,” Dottie says, “and she spends a lot of time away from her desk.” She rises. “Come on.”

Several hours later, they’re back at Leah’s dorm room with new information.

“Shrewsbury,” Dottie says. “Figures she’d live someplace called Shrewsbury.”

“She’s also listed as Mrs. Marla Rogan in payroll,” Leah says. 

“I can’t believe you got in so easily,” Dottie says. “How’d you know Barb’s password?”

“I didn’t,” Leah says. “I took the chance she used ‘password’ and it worked.”

“So, what next?”

Leah grins. “Marla has classes all morning. How about a trip to Shrewsbury?”

Dottie laughs. “So, I wonder what the husband of the ultimate feminist looks like?”

“Only one way to find out,” Leah says. 

The following morning they hop into Leah’s Karmann Ghia, which Margaret loaned her as she headed off to college, and drove to the address in Shrewsbury, where Marla’s paychecks are being sent. Parked out in front of the brownstone, Dottie says, “You think this is a good idea?”

“Probably not, but I don’t see a lot of options,” Leah replies. “If we just ignore her, she’ll keep doing this.”

“I mean, rather than the dumping part, I did have a good time,” Dottie says.

“Same here,” Leah says. “But she’s taking advantage of impressionable girls when they’re least equipped to handle it.”

“Right,” Dottie says. “We’re just taking a stand. That’s all.”

“Right,” Leah says. She holds up her hand and Dottie grips it and nods.

“Let’s do this,” Dottie says.

They get out and walk up to the door. Dottie rings the bell. A few moments later, a child can be heard yelling, followed by the locks being unlocked. A thin man, probably just under six feet tall, with short blonde hair and tanned, leathery skin, opens the door.

“Yes?” he says. “How may I help you?”

He speaks with the precise phrasing that’s reminisent of someone who’s first language isn’t English, but Leah cannot detect any recognizable accent.

“Hi,” she says, “are you Mr. Rogan?”

“I’m Lance Rogan, yes,” the man says. 

“I’m Dorothy,” Dottie says, “this is Leah. We’re — ah — friends of Marla’s.”

“Ah, yes,” Lance says. “Marla’s not here currently. I believe she’s teaching today.”

“We know,” Leah says. We’re not here to speak with her.”

“More to speak about her,” Dottie adds.

“I don’t understand,” Lance says. He opens the outer security door. “Please come in.”

As they enter, Leah notes a black woman, wearing a uniform and holding the hand of a small boy.

“Nina, would you take Alexander to the play room?” Lance says to her. 

“Of course, Mr. Rogan,” Nina says in what sounds, to Leah, like a Jamaican accent. 

“Please have a seat in here,” Lance says, directing the women to the living room. “Can I offer you something to drink?”

“Water would be great,” Dottie says, to which Leah nods.

Leah and Dottie sit on the couch. A moment later, Lance returns with a pitcher and two glasses on a tray which he sets on the coffee table in front of them. He takes a seat in a leather chair facing them. 

“Now, how may I help you ladies?” he says. “You say this is about Marla?”

Leah and Dottie look at one another and Leah says, “Mr. Rogan, there’s probably no easy way to say this, but Dorothy and I have been — involved with Marla.”

Lance continues to look at them displaying no emotion. “I see. Why have you brought this information to me? Are you here for money?”

“Oh, no. No. Nothing like that,” Dottie says.

Leah slides to the edge of the couch. “She’s right. We’re here because we feel we’ve been taken advantage of and we wanted to let you know.”

“Please, tell me your stories,” Lance says.

First Dottie, then Leah tells Lance about their relationships with Marla. Throughout both stories, his expression does not change, nor does he display any reaction, other than to occasionally nod. When Leah finishes her story, they sit for a long moment in silence.

Finally, Lance says, “What is it you wish me to do about this? That is, if you are certain you’re not here for money.”

“We don’t exactly know,” Leah says. “To be honest, we didn’t really think this part through very well before coming here.”

“I see,” Lance says with the hint of a smile. “Well, I do not wish to share intimate details of my marriage, since I know nothing about either of you. However I will say that I am aware Marla has certain needs that I’m not able to address. If you have been harmed in any way I apologize.” He rises. “I’ll have a talk with her when she gets in this evening, and we’ll decide together how best to handle this situation.”

He motions toward the door. Leah and Dottie rise and follow him back to the front door.

“I trust you will be making no further trips to visit us?” he says.

Leah and Dottie look at one another.

“Definitely not,” Dottie says. Leah concurs.

“Very good,” Lance says. “I will appreciate your continued discretion on this matter, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Leah says.

“You ladies have an nice afternoon,” Lance says as he lets them out.

Back in the car, Dottie says, “What just happened in there?”

“I have no idea,” Leah says. “Let’s get lunch somewhere.”

“You’re on.”

The following day, when Leah shows up for her Humanities class, Marla isn’t there. The instructor filling in for her explains that Marla has taken a leave of absence for “family reasons”. Neither Leah, nor Dottie, see or hear from her again.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Dottie says as she and Leah are lying on the bed in her dorm room. “You think she’s okay?”

“Hard to tell,” Leah says. “That’s an odd family.”

“We make a pretty good team,” Dottie says. “I have this feeling you and I are going to get into lots of trouble together.”

“I think you’re right,” Leah says. “Still planning on telling your famly you’re gay?”

“Nah, I’ve gone back to questioning,” Dottie says. “Why limit myself? My family can figure it out on their own.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Leah says.

“Hey,” Dottie says, sitting up. “What do you think about getting an apartment?”

“Now?”

“No,” Dottie says, “over the summer. You know, just stick around Boston instead of going home.”

“Summer’s a long way off,” Leah says.

“I know. But it doesn’t hurt to plan,” Dottie says. “If we strike at the right time, we could get a great deal.”

“Oh, trust me, I know real estate,” Leah says. “My father’s the man who gave Atlanta its suburban sprawl.”

“Good to know,” Dottie says.

From that point on, not a day goes by that they don’t spend time together. As summer comes along, they move off campus into a nice apartment. 

Atlanta Stories Available August 1


Coming soon! Atlanta Stories: Fables of the New South. Eight stories about people coming to Atlanta to reinvent themselves. Stories include:

  1. Mockingbird 
  2. Journey From Night
  3. A Debt to Pay
  4. Dead Man’s Hat
  5. Remains 
  6. Bare-Assed Messiah 
  7. Atomic Punk
  8. Phoenix 

Release date: August 1.

Available at online bookstores and direct from the author. 

Killing Babies

As one develops as a writer, one becomes aware of the painful reality that not everything one writes, no matter how well-crafted or heartfelt, will see the light of day. In many cases, favorite phrases or passages must be sacrificed for the overall good of the piece. Improving the quality of the writing doesn’t make excising them any easier though. In some ways, the process is akin to killing a well-loved child.

A writer has just crafted the perfect paragraph, one that beautifully sums up the character and situation, all the while being witty, insightful, and concise and try as one might, it can’t be worked into the context of the story in progress. I once crafted this opening paragraph:

Aaron Slaughter was appropriately named. He was born bad and grew up mean and never did a kind turn for anyone, from the moment the doctor slapped him on the butt to the day they strapped him in the electric chair and put forty thousand volts through him. I was there that day, and while I’m not normally the sort of person to enjoy watching another human being die, I made an exception in Aaron’s case. See, I’m the man who put him there.

As happy as I am with the paragraph, I have never found a use for it in anything I’ve written.

What’s worse than being unable to use good material is having to remove it after fitting it into a work. Editing is actually where the real work of writing begins. Few writers are able to set words onto paper exactly the way they will eventually be finalized. I tend to be an organic writer and once I get into a work, the words flow with no rhyme or reason. Editing is crucial to my process, because when I’m writing, my only concern is getting the thoughts into words. As the work grows, a pattern begins to emerge and I can start rearranging paragraphs, adding and deleting lines until the piece says what I want in the way I want it said. Along the way, lots of favorite lines and phrases get cast aside.

Removing material does not mean the material is bad, just as rejection of a manuscript or play doesn’t mean the writing is lousy. It simply means the material does not work with the piece as a whole. I wrote an entire section for my novel The Long-Timers in which the main character was brought before the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, which did not make it into the finished work. When I reworked the novel into A Tale of Two Sisters, however, I found a place for the material again. Oftentimes, material that doesn’t fit in one work, may be just what’s lacking in another.

As writers, we learn to maintain journals or files of ideas and phrases which may someday make it into a story or play. Carrying around miniature computers in our pockets makes this task easier. I like to retain text files of everything I remove from a story or play, since I may find a use for it somewhere else, and since Acrobat allows for editing marks, I’m now able to preserve drafts of works in progress. In some cases, I’ve taken bits and pieces of excised material to fill out or enhance a different work, or borrowed scenes from one play to use in another.

Still, cutting scenes or paragraphs from a work isn’t easy. “They’re my babies,” a writer might say. “I can’t kill them!” If one is to evolve as a writer, however, it’s a skill one must master. At one time, a publisher would pair an author with an editor who would take on the harsh process of excising passages, but with independent authors publishing their own work, a professional editor is often a luxury one simply cannot afford. It becomes the writer’s responsibility to make the necessary cuts.

Obviously, no one will be seriously harmed if a novel, story, or play is a few hundred words shorter than the author initially conceived it. The goal is always to convey the most ideas with the fewest words. As authors, we must continually strive to improve the craft and say what we mean as succinctly as possible, even if it means killing a few of our babies.

Freedom and Consequence Now Available for Kindle

freedom_and_consequences_cover_lo_resFreedom and Consequence is now available in Kindle format! Fifteen stories about people facing difficult choices or dealing with the consequences of choices made. Just as every action has a reaction, every decision has a consequence. How will these people deal with those consequences.

Available in paperback, Kindle, and as a Kindle Matchbook selection!

Now We’re Cooking

Note: This is a rough draft of a story in progress.

The knife cut cleanly, swiftly. The slice was nearly perfect. All was in readiness, as it should be. Nothing could go wrong, not at this point. Henry had no words. He was silent. What else could he say? There would be no rest for him, not just yet.

Sheila was waiting. He knew that. She’d finished already and had been waiting a while. Nothing he could do about that now.

The day was blue, cool, with a sweet scent in the air. Henry could detect it — perhaps flowers, or blooming trees. It was spring. A snippet of song kept going through his mind. “Oh father of the four winds fill my sails.”

He wielded the knife with precision. Perfectly balanced, it sliced cleanly though the meat, creating a thin, tasty morsel on the carving board. Soon he’d enjoy it but not now. Now was about the preparation. The fulfillment would come later.

The occasion was the county fair. Neither had been before, but they’d long heard of the competition. This was not some local yokel event, though. It drew the best of the best, chefs and bakers from all across the region, people well-skilled in their craft. For two unknowns, without reputations behind them, it was almost unheard of to even be considered, yet here they were.

Henry had been cooking most of his life. His mother had no daughters so she instilled in him the lessons she’d learned from her mother and grandmother. He had been a keen student, and mastered every recipe. Soon, the student exceeded the teacher, and he was trying out new combinations of spices and herbs. After a while, she just let him do the cooking when he was around. It just made more sense. When he discovered he could actually make a living at cooking, it was like a dream come true.

Baking was another matter, something Henry had not mastered. Cakes and cookies were not his domain. That’s where Sheila came in. She knew her way around pastries and muffins, yeast, flour, cinnamon and the like. Again, they complimented one another in these skills. Henry the master chef, Sheila the extraordinary baker.

She had won him over with her raspberry tarts. The key lime pie wasn’t bad either but it was the tarts that sealed the deal for him. He wasn’t even a fan of raspberries, but the way she prepared them made all the difference.

The room was abuzz. Probably forty or fifty of the best cooks and more than three hundred spectators. This was the big time, or as close as either had come to the big time. They were pretty sure they were in over their heads, but neither cared. They were here, that’s all that mattered.

Sheila knew as well as anyone what needed to be done. She was very efficient in her own way. Not meticulous like Henry, but thorough. She made a good match for his intensity. They were from different neighborhoods in Cordele but didn’t meet until their families had come to Atlanta and had moved across the street from one another when both were just toddlers. Neither could remember their home town, other than just a few vague flashes of a playground or the sound of a train whistle off in the distance. Neither were certain what prompted their families to come to the city, but they were both glad it had happened. Otherwise, they might never have met.

The show was under a large tent, like a circus without elephants or clowns. Inside, there was a festive atmosphere, but with an undercurrent of seriousness. They’d have an hour to work their magic, then it was up to the judges. Once all was done, the crowd could partake.

Dinner for three hundred? Not a problem, Henry thought.

First course, appetizers, second, soup, then the entree, and at last, dessert. They’d planned, measured, argued over every element until it was nearly perfect, or as close as they could come. There would be no room for missteps.

He wasn’t there just for him, but for her too. If they failed, they failed together.

First prize was the cup. Second prize was a plaque. Third place was a ribbon. At best, they hoped for honorable mention, which was a write up in the local paper, which was, at least, an acknowledgement that they’d been there, done the best they could. There were no fifth prizes. If they were lucky, they’d get a photo with the judges, who were all cooking superstars. If not, maybe they could at least make the front row in the group photo.

The front-runners were from Gainesville, owners of their own restaurant. The husband, the chef, was flashy and theatrical. He kept juggling his utensils, tapping out a beat and encouraging the audience to clap along. He put on a good show of confidence. Henry secretly hoped he’s nick his finger or accidentally pour his shrimp on the floor.

Now was not a time for flashy shows. Leave those to the ones who lacked confidence in their culinary skills.

The team to worry about was the couple from Savannah. They seemed too cool, too sure of themselves. It wasn’t what they said, it was how they didn’t say it that told Henry all he needed to know. They’d be the team to beat.

The team from Savannah was different. The man was the baker and the woman the chef. It happened that way sometimes. There weren’t any hard and fast rules, just a fundamental knowledge of how to cook.

Then it was done. It was finished. There was nothing else left to be said or done. It was over. Whatever happened now was out of their hands. They’d done the best they could. Henry always found, in times like these, it was best to put it all out of his head and not think of it further. No need to worry, otherwise, he’d just drive himself crazy. Everything was plated. Now all that was left was to wait.

Henry and Sheila found themselves in a waiting room with the couple from Savannah, Paul and Ruth. Turns out they were nice folks, a brother and sister, who’d grown up cooking together. Ruth, didn’t much care for the chef from Gainesville either. She’d been up against him before and had not been particularly impressed then either.

Genealogy and Writing

Genealogy is a process akin to assembling a massive jigsaw puzzle that has pieces scattered across multiple locations and times, some of which cannot be found, and with no indication of the picture that’s to be assembled. The more pertinent facts one has the better, because that can help establish who an ancestor was, and why he or she was in a given place at a given time. Working on my family’s genealogy, I found it helpful to develop timelines on each individual, and doing so helped me sort out a number of people with similar names, who were born within a few years of one another. The basic process is to take every known fact relating to an individual, and place it in order by known dates, and in doing so, often times a fuller picture of the individual begins to form.

In writing fiction, whether prose or scripted drama, the author is creating facts out of the blue, but applying techniques similar to genealogical research can be helpful in crafting a story that works logically as well as emotionally. In writing my original work, The Long-Timers, on which my current series of novels is based, I found that creating timelines for the characters helped me anchor them within the historical periods they were living. Of course, my novel is a historical fantasy, so placing the characters in the proper historical context was vital to the story, but understanding the relationship of a character to his or her time is as important as creating the environment and the interactions with other characters that occur in the narrative.

The process of genealogy is to reconstruct the story of a family, so it’s important to know where they were and, if possible, why they were there. In the wake of the Revolutionary war, a lot of people moved from Virginia, North and South Carolina to Georgia. One reason for this was that Georgia opened up a lot of land through a series of treaties and military actions that displaced the Native Tribes that originally lived there, and started giving away the land for little or no money. Revolutionary veterans were given preferential treatment in the lotteries held to distribute the land, but anyone who was white, of age, eligible to vote, or the child of someone who’d fought in the Revolution was given a draw. The land in Georgia was parceled out in lots of 202 1/2 acres, quite an incentive for someone looking to relocate and start over, which led to a lot of migration into Georgia between 1790 and 1820. A number of my ancestral families, including the Lupos, Striblings, Peavys, Hintons, Smiths, and Carters moved to Georgia during this time period.

While creating a formal timeline on a character may not be the solution for every writing project, it’s never wrong to consider why a character behaves as he or she does in a certain situation, and often, the historical context can have a bearing on the reasons behind those actions. Knowing the external factors that may be influencing a character can provide valuable insight into what’s motivating the character. For instance, someone born and raised in Alabama during the 1960s is likely to have vastly different experiences than someone raised in Oklahoma during the 1880s. If the story is set in a particular point in history, then the events of that history will no doubt play a part in helping to shape the characters’ point of view. Knowing the character’s history, and how it shapes the character, adds richness to the story, and provides a logic to a character’s behavior, regardless of whether the character is working in concert with the events of history or against them. In the opening chapters of Catch 22, Yossarian’s actions seem crazy, but once the proper context in which these actions occur has been established, they make perfect sense.

In working on the history of my family in Virginia, I was faced with the lack of definitive records tying one generation to the preceding one between 1728 and 1779. My ancestor, James Lupo, made out his will in 1789, and a will recorded in 1779 established who his mother was, but no record identifies his father, or when he was born. Equally, there is no information on the ages of James’ sons and daughters, so developing timelines on them proved helpful in sorting this out. Below is an partial example of the timeline I worked up on my ancestor, William Lupo, which contained every known date he appeared in official records, and one or two instances where he wasn’t found in the records.

William Lupo of Johnston County, NC

1782: William Lupo is not listed on the Virginia state census of 1782, though James, James, Jr., Phillip and Laban Lupo are listed in Isle of Wight County.

1784: William Lupo purchased 100 acres of land from Joshua Hayls or Hails and his wife Amy, who are listed as living in Edgecombe County, NC.

1784: William appears on a tax list, recorded as owning 420 acres in Johnston County, NC, though no corresponding deeds have been found to account for all of this property.

1787: William appears on a state census enumeration with 1 male 21 or over, 2 males under 21, and 5 females in his household.

1787: William appears as a witness in a court case involving William Ward and John Rhodes, for which David Bell acted as security; William acted as security for the appearance of John Fields and John Dimont.

1789: William Lupo is listed as a son in the will of James Lupo of Isle of Wight County, VA (recorded September, 1790) but does not appear in court when the will is presented, or when land from the estate is sold.

1790: US Census of Johnston County, shows William’s household now has 2 males 16 or older, 2 males under 16, and 7 females.

In the absence of other information, I made the assumption that the individuals listed in his household in 1787 are William, his wife and their children. In general, births in Colonial America occurred every one and a half to two years. If these represented individual births, occurring 18-24 months apart, their earliest child was most likely born between 1775 and 1778, meaning William and his wife probably married between 1774 and 1777. Assuming William was at least 21 when he married, he would have been born 1753-56. This time period coincides with when James Lupo first showed up in deed records in Isle of Wight County, VA.

For my novel, The Long-Timers, the timeline I developed on the main character, Victoria Wells, began with her birth on the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation in June of 1838. This event is referenced several times throughout the novel, notably when Victoria learns her life span is different than that of an average person, and when she meets a kindred spirit on the occasion of her one hundredth birthday. I first included any historical events that would impact the characters, such as when her sister Amanda was transported to Australia in 1861, and since Victoria’s story was told in parallel to that of her sister Allison, I included notable events in both their lives.

Timeline for A Tale of Two Sisters (formerly The Long-Timers)

1834: Margaret Smythe marries Thomas Seely

1835: William “Billy” Seely born

1837: Thomas Seely killed in an accident at the docks

1837: Margaret meets Niles Gunnerson and has an affair with him

1838: Victoria born

1840: Amanda born

1846: Gunnerson returns

1848: Gunnerson dies

1848: Sarah born

1848: Margaret disposes of Sarah, and places Victoria and Amanda in an orphanage

1848: The Stepneys find and adopt Sarah, rename her Allison

1848: Margaret dies; Billy sent to a workhouse

The primary difference between the timeline for the novel and the family timeline is that the family timeline is more reliant on available documents, but many of the events described follow the typical events that occur in families, births, marriages and deaths, and most likely could be found in existing records, if they’d actually happened. England at the time of Victoria was already a heavily bureaucratic nation, where events such as births and deaths were noted, if not by the state, then certainly by the parish, whereas many of the official records from Colonial and post-Revolutionary America tended to be land and estate records, but these, too, can provide a rich source of documentation on a family, provided they can be found and include enough details.

Establishing timelines can also help sort out the logical sequence of events as they occur in a fictional piece, just as placing historical events connected to an ancestor in their proper sequence in history can help to separate fact from fiction in oft-told family legends. At separate times, my grandmother and one of my cousins related to me a story told to them by my great-grandmother, that when she came to the United States from Germany, she sailed into New York harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty. However, records relating to her immigration show she and her family arrived at the port of Baltimore, not New York, and, more importantly, my great-grandmother was born in 1863 and came to the United States when she was eight or nine, around 1872. The Statue of Liberty wasn’t completed until 1886, and construction on its pedestal did not begin until 1883, meaning there’s no way she could have seen it when she immigrated, even if had she entered the U.S. via New York.

By the time the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, my great-grandmother would have been an adult and married to my great-grandfather, so I’ve often wondered if, in fact, my great-grandparents traveled to New York to see the dedication of the Statue, and that somehow the story got mixed up with the story of her arrival. Otherwise, the best I can conclude is that she saw something upon her arrival that she equated with being in America — there is a prominent statue called Lady Baltimore at the courthouse downtown, where immigrants may have been processed — and over time, repeated retelling within the family caused it to morph into the Statue of Liberty, that being the most iconic image for immigrants in America. That the story doesn’t match the actual facts of her immigration doesn’t diminish the sense of what it must have been like for a young German girl to arrive in a new land full of anticipation, promise, and probably not a little dread. It’s a universal story, and knowing it can only enhance both the actual history of a family, as well as a fictional representation.

A Guide for Handling Assassins from the Future

Note: This article appears in an updated version in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.

While it cannot be definitively proven that the future has already happened, we can be certain that the future will arrive at some point, and with the phenomenal advances in technology seen throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, a day may well arrive when humans will discover ways to travel backward in time. For this reason, it is advisable that people in this day and age begin preparing for the possibility that at some point after time travel has been perfected, someone with a serious grievance against a person living in the current day, might undertake to dispatch an assassin or assassins to rid the timeline of this perceived threat. Certainly, important people, such as presidents, business leaders, and other celebrities are fair game, but average people should not rule out the impact they are having on the timeline. Actions have consequences, and one cannot know for certain what the ultimate outcome of his or her actions might be. A decision seemingly as harmless as the choice of one’s daily footwear could set off ripples throughout time that could lead to disastrous consequences for some unfortunate individual in the distant future, and for this reason, it’s best to be on one’s guard.

One should never assume he or she is not important enough to warrant the attention of some dystopian future regime seeking to erase one’s influence on history. As shown in the beloved holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, the loss of a single individual to history can have a profound and devastating impact on people with whom this individual has never even directly interacted. One may give money to a beggar some afternoon, which is enough to allow that individual to eat, thus surviving to another day, during which he or she saves another person who goes on to discover the cure for cancer. A popular urban legend tells us of a British soldier during World War I who took pity on a German corporal he found in his gun sight, sparing the man’s life, and taking him prisoner instead. This corporal went on to become chancellor of Germany, and initiated the Second World War. Humans are social beings and each interaction leads to further interaction, so the impact of a given life can cause ripples throughout society, affecting people far beyond the immediate scope of the individual’s attention.

Despite this, one should not attempt to trick fate by being the sort of person a futuristic antagonist would not want to erase from history. Just as Oedipus’ father tried to avert fate by sending his son away to die, only to have Oedipus return and carry out his preordained role, attempting to avoid a future outcome may, in fact, bring about the very outcome one is trying to avoid. One cannot be certain what will or won’t cause someone distress a hundred or more years from now, prompting that person to desire one’s removal from the timeline. The best advice is to live one’s life as one chooses, but always be mindful of the impact one’s actions are having, while remaining on the lookout for signs that someone in the future has taken umbrage with one’s actions. There’s no need to get discouraged, however, because even when being pursued by a futuristic assassin, one still has many advantages working in one’s favor.

First, take solace in the fact that it won’t be easy for someone from the future to pinpoint one’s location with any degree of accuracy, though social media is making it much easier for individuals to broadcast their whereabouts. We cannot be certain, though, how much of our current culture will still exist fifty to a hundred years from now. In just the span of the last twenty to thirty years, technology has rendered many permanent storage mediums obsolete, such as floppy discs and tape drives, making it all but impossible to retrieve data stored on them. Consider how difficult it is to garner details on someone living in the 1930s, even though records on individuals from that era still exist. As pervasive as the Internet can be, unless someone makes the effort to store and catalog specific types of data, the vast amount of information available constantly dilutes the stream of posts, photos, and videos. Only a fraction of items posted to YouTube become Internet sensations, and even one’s closest associates quickly lose track of the concert or theatrical review one posted to Facebook a few days ago. Still, the information exists, and an obsessive futuristic antagonist, hell bent on wrecking havoc on the timeline may well have the time, energy, and resources to pursue such goals.

One may also be comforted with the thought that superior technology may not be an advantage once an individual travels back into our time. An assassin traveling to the current day from some future date will no doubt be constrained by the limitations of our technology. For instance, if one of us were somehow transported to the Civil War era with an iPhone, not only would there be no way to charge it, but the network needed to communicate using it won’t exist, making it almost useless. Granted, technology from the future will, undoubtedly, be far advanced from ours, and the ability to establish a wireless network hub from a cellular phone already exists to some extent, but networks, and storage mediums needed to convey data and files would not be present, and it’s not likely any futuristic technology would be backward compatible.

Some may point out that the ability to send a time traveler to a specific place and time may be sketchy, but we should not be lulled into a false sense of security by our lack of knowledge as to how time travel might work. One should assume that a society capable of sending people backward in time would have worked out most of the kinks before offering it to the sort of people likely to want to alter the timeline. Still, we can assume that people won’t just be popping in from out of nowhere, regardless of who may be present to witness the arrival. The key element of sending an assassin from the future will be surprise, so someone just arriving in a flash of light is certain to cause a few alarms to go off. Given that it’s not likely a two-way portal will exist, at least until enough travelers have arrived to construct one, the time traveler will most likely require some sort of vehicle in which to travel, thus requiring a reliable hiding place for the equipment.

It is imperative that if one believes he or she is being pursued by a futuristic assassin, this information should not be shared with anyone. It’s not likely one’s friends or relatives would believe such a claim in the first place, and would attribute the claim to a joke, or perhaps mental illness. Equally so, one should not directly confront a suspected futuristic assassin, not least of which because it could lead to the individual hastening his or her plans to eradicate the target, but also because it is highly unlikely such an individual would freely admit to being an assassin from the future, and could use the accusation to call into question one’s mental state, leading to incarceration, making one much more easy to find and kill. The best course of action is to remain calm and look for tell tale signs to confirm one is, in fact, in the presence of someone from the future.

Be alert! Assassins from the future are nothing if not wily. It won’t be easy to trick one into showing his or her hand. Diligence is very important. Does this individual seem overly nostalgic for modern day cars, or buildings recently constructed, as though recalling them from memory? Has this individual shown little or no surprise over catastrophic events that have occurred, as though these events were anticipated? Does this person display far too much confidence in making predictions on current sporting events, as though the outcome is a foregone conclusion? The devil is in the details, and even the most astute futuristic assassin could have quirks which give away the game. Listen for odd turns of phrase, strange patterns of speech, or unfamiliarity with common cliches or sayings. Does this individual render a blank stare when confronted with the names or actions of well-known performers, or sports figures? Certainly, there are those in the current day who don’t follow the antics of the Real Housewives or denizens of the Jersey Shore, but enough unfamiliarity with common culture could be just the warning one needs to spot someone not from our time.

The question then arises of what do to if one suspects someone of being an assassin from the future. This is a very tricky proposition, since very few will believe such a claim, and would most likely be of no assistance in protecting oneself. It is important to remember, if an assassin has been dispatched from the future to take someone out, this individual will want to be discrete. It’s not likely such a person would zap someone with a laser, or otherwise employ technology not found in our time. Futuristic assassins must be resourceful, and will go out of their way to not draw attention to themselves. These factors can be used to one’s advantage. One strategy would be to somehow discretely convey to the individual that one is aware of his or her intentions, which may not avert the danger, but might cause the individual to strike out rashly, after which retaliatory measures would be justified.

A word of caution must be inserted here. One should not assume every individual one suspects of being from the future is here to cause one harm. Perhaps the individual has a personal reason for employing time travel, to right a wrong, or prevent some tragedy from happening. It’s entirely possible that the person one suspects of plotting against one’s life is merely here to take advantage of a fluctuation in the stock market, or get in on the ground floor of a lucrative business. Vigilance is the watch word here. If the suspected time traveler shows no particular interest in one’s day to day schedule, cannot be found hanging about one’s cubicle at work for no reason, or otherwise exhibits no overt concerns about one’s whereabouts or activities, it’s entirely likely this individual is simply enjoying the fruits of being able to visit different times and presents no immediate danger.

It is hoped that these simple guidelines will be of assistance to anyone suspecting incursions from generations yet to be. Many, if not most of us, may never have to deal with visitors from the future, but it pays to be ready just in case. We can’t count on every futuristic assassin being a relentless, unfeeling cyborg, or otherwise exhibiting signs easily detected. By observing these guidelines, one can be confident of remaining in the timeline, regardless of how persistent some futuristic denizen is to prevent it.