The fiction writer has no such life preserver. It begins with a blank page. BLANK. Nothing. And from this nothingness we must somehow create believable characters living out a story readers -- a goodly number -- care about.
You have to be a writer of fiction to truly understand how very difficult this is. In fact, there are times it seems impossible. (Which is why, when some dumbass says, Oh, you got Street X in town X wrong we should all be thankful writers do not have lightning bolts at their disposal. REALLY? Street X in town X was the focus of the fucking -- er, darned -- book for you???!!!)
But I digress.
I am especially conscious of both the delicacy and sheer power of this creative act -- the ability to write fiction -- as I work on The Boy With the Painful Tattoo. Because however long you stall, however much you prepare, ultimately it comes down to you and a blank page.
You search for the first line. What will it be? How does this journey begin?
“Come with me, Kit,” J.X. urged.
So today, as you may have gathered, I am sharing a snippet of The Boy With the Painful Tattoo. The release date is October 5th, and ready or not, that's what's happening. The truth is, I am never ready to write anything. How can you prepare for that terrifying blankness when you let go and let yourself fall?
It doesn't work like that. Oh, I prepare, yes. I research, I study, I do my prep. Ultimately the writer has to let go and trust to whatever it is that makes stories happen. The subconscious? No, writing is definitely a conscious and fully informed process. And yet it is also being spirited away by the momentum of the story. Letting the story unfold, letting the characters speak -- and act.
Anyway, because this particular story begins with -- Whaaaaa???? -- sex, we must skip ahead for our excerpt.
I heard it then too. A businesslike rapping on the picture windows a few feet from us. A female voice yoo-hooing.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The knocking was coming from one of the large bay windows along the side of the house. I could see a small person of indeterminate sex dressed in baggy clothes and one of those broad, straw coolie hats some elderly folks -- and outright eccentrics -- use for gardening. At first glance it appeared that one of the garden gnomes from next door had come to life. And had something to say about it.
Mid-scramble for our clothes, J.X. and I exchanged horrified glances. He looked so stricken that I started to laugh, even as I dragged my jeans on.
“Who the hell is that?” J.X. protested again, which struck me as still funnier.
“No way.” He said doubtfully, “You think?”
“Well…no.” I climbed awkwardly -- it’s not easy to go from pleasurable arousal to alarmed action in thirty seconds flat -- over one of the many crates marked books. I half tripped over a rolled Persian carpet, clattered into a set of fireplace rack and accessories, and finally stumbled over to the window seat. I struggled with the catch on the window and managed to raise the sash a foot or so.
The spring morning scents of honeysuckle and freshly mown grass wafted in.
“Good morning!” the gnome greeted me. She had one of those fluting, high voices that brought to mind Sunday school teachers and curators at the most macabre exhibits at the
. A voice like an ice pick through
your left eye socket. “Welcome to the neighborhood. So sorry to disturb you on
your first morning, but the movers must have broken one of the sprinkler heads
along your front walk.” Tower of London
As I seemed to be missing the point, she said kindly, “Water is shooting up like a geyser out there.”
She was probably in her sixties, but unlike my former mentor Anna Hitchcock, no effort here had been made to stave off the ravages of time. Not that she looked ravaged. Beneath the wide brim of her hat I could just make out twinkling blue eyes in a round and rosy face.
“Hell,” I said. “Okay. Thanks for letting us know.” Not twenty-four hours in the new place and it was already falling down around our ears. I hate to say I told you so --well, no. Actually, I kind of like to say I told you so. I couldn’t wait to tell J.X. I told you so!
She offered a small but capable hand. “Emmaline Bloodworth. I’m on your left.”
Proof of my distraction, I actually glanced to my left. “You are? Are you?”
“I live in the house to your left.” She was still offering a doll-sized hand, and I leaned down to take it. She shook hands firmly.
“Christopher Holmes.” I released her, started to retreat, but by then J.X. was behind me so I backed my ass firmly into his crotch, which pretty much illustrated the current state of affairs in
“Ooof,” J.X. steadied us both with his hands on my hips.
The most alarming part was my body’s instinctive reaction to the feel of his still-partial erection through both his jeans and my own. That level of awareness, of desire, of -- oh God -- of need was not normal, not natural. Not for me.
“Hello there,” Emmaline greeted him. “We keep missing each other, but I’ve seen you coming and going this past week.”
More going than coming. I didn’t say that, obviously.
J.X. joined me in the open window and shook hands with Emmaline. “J.X. Moriarity. Kit and I are --”
“We’ve got a broken sprinkler,” I interrupted.
“I heard. I’ll take a look.”
“No. You’ve got a plane to catch. I’ll deal with it. But before I turn off the water, were you going to take a shower?”
J.X. looked over his shoulder for a clock that was not there. He felt around his jeans pockets for his phone. Also not there.
Emmaline checked her wristwatch. “It’s .”
J.X. sucked in a breath. “I guess I’m not showering. Good thing it’s a short flight.”
“I can show you where to turn off the water,” Emmaline told me.
“Thanks. I’ll meet you out front.”
J.X. caught my arm as I moved away from the open window. “What if I throw some things in a bag for you? It’s just for the weekend. We can deal with this crap when we get back.”
“Now you’re talking crazy,” I scoffed. “If anything, this should indicate why we can’t both take off in the middle of moving in together.” I was smiling because he had to know I was right. I now had an excellent, irrefutable reason for not going with him. I pushed him toward the doorway and the curving, walnut staircase beyond. “Don’t miss that plane.”
He didn’t like it, but he didn’t have a choice. The clock was ticking. Somewhere. In a box we couldn’t find.
J.X. pounded up the stairs and I veered left and went out the carved walnut and glass double doors to the Corinthian porch.
The beauty of the front yard caught me by surprise. I’d been too tired to notice more than shadows and shapes when I’d arrived late the night before. Red brick walkways and short walls -- not counting the twelve foot vine-covered structure dividing our property from the house on the right -- coiled their way through low hedges and sculptured ornamental trees. The weathered stone and elegant greenery created a lush and pristine setting for the Victorian-Italianate house, set discreetly back from the street.
A nice neighborhood to have bad habits in, as
have said. Chandler
Emmaline unlatched the ornate iron gate and came through. “The main water shutoff valve is in the right over here, by the little cherry tree.”
“Hell. Heck. I don’t have a wat--” I broke off as she held up a long, steel valve control key. “Oh. Great.”
“This way. Come along, Christopher.” She bustled away down the brick path. I obediently followed in her wake. A butterfly swooped languidly past my nose, as though hired by the homeowner association to add ambiance. Did we have a homeowner association? I didn’t know. J.X. had pretty much been the driving force behind all this.
We found the water main, I pried the metal lid up, and Emmaline handed me the key like a good scrub nurse delivering the scalpel to the surgeon. I turned the meter valve counterclockwise. “I’ll pick up a couple of replacement sprinkler heads this morning.”
“It’s going to be nice having young people in the neighborhood again,” Emmaline said as I finished turning off the water.
At forty, I didn’t exactly think of myself as “young people,” but everything is relative I guess. I handed Emmaline the valve key back, and replaced the metal plate. I wiped my hands on my jeans and stood up.
Emmaline was filling me in on the other residents of
Chestnut Lane. The Tunnys -- “twin brothers
and old codgers,” according to our neighbor lady -- lived to the right of us
behind that formidable wall. Codgers they might be, but the wall almost
certainly predated them. The Salvatierras lived across the street to the left
of the walk-down parking lot. The house to their left was currently empty but
not for sale. The house to the right of the parking level was owned by Mr.
Lemon. Mr. Lemon was a retired history professor.
“Ah,” I said. I knew I should probably be paying closer attention to the Who’s Who. These people were going to be my neighbors for the next however long I -- we -- lived here, but somehow I felt more like a house-sitter than a new homeowner.
“Now don’t hesitate to call on me, if you need anything,” Emmaline said. “I hope you’ll be very happy here.”
I bade her adieu and headed for the black front steps of the stately porch. Sunlight gilded the sage-green balustrade and pillars, tipped the leaves of the hedges and flowering vines in gold. Honeysuckle grew in profusion everywhere, the sweet scent perfuming the warm morning.
Emmaline called something I couldn’t make out. I smiled, waved, and went through my new front doors.
Strangely, the house smelled both new and empty. Strangely because the place had been built in 1904 and was currently stacked to its skylight in boxes and two households’ worth of furnishings. From upstairs, I could hear footsteps walking back and forth. I listened for a moment then crossed the dark hardwood floor of the foyer and poked my head in the living room.
This was a large room painted a satiny, cheerful yellow with creamy decorative crown molding and corner pieces. The marble fireplace, one of four, was original to the house, as were the intricate etched glass and brass chandeliers. The house had lots of these beautiful little touches, from the tall pocket doors to the hand painted tiles in the bath and kitchen. And for three million dollars, there ought to be some beautiful little touches. I studied the stacks of boxes and furniture that had yet to be assigned their place in the new world order. I stared at the mattress before the fireplace. It was a mess of blankets and sheets. The blankets and blue and white sheets were J.X.’s. The mattress was mine. It was destined for the guest room upstairs. We had agreed -- or rather, I had agreed to J.X.’s suggestion that we start off fresh with a new bed and new mattress. They were supposed to be delivered that afternoon -- another reason why someone had to stay here. We couldn’t both go gallivanting off to parts unknown.
Or even parts known.
I found my way to the kitchen--remodeled but still retaining vintage charm with the black and white parquet floors, beadboard cabinets, and hand painted ceramic tile backsplash. I saw that J.X. had found and plugged in his coffee maker. I made coffee and idly opened a few boxes, looked inside, and let the flaps fall closed again. Between the two of us there was a hell of a lot of junk here. And somehow when viewed inside a cardboard box, all my worldly possessions did look like junk.
More heavy footsteps overhead. What the hell was he doing up there? Pacing the floor?
I went over to the fridge -- J.X.’s was newer and bigger (some things never changed) so mine had been relegated to the basement -- and I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or not to see he hadn’t had time to do much more than pick up a carton of milk and a container of eggs.
He’d ordered Chinese takeout the night before, but I’d arrived too late and too tired for food. I was hungry now, but there wasn’t time to fix something before J.X. left, and somehow it seemed rude to start cooking breakfast he couldn’t eat.
How long before I stopped second-guessing my every impulse? Before I stopped feeling like a guest? Before I stopped --
No. Don’t go there.
I wasn’t regretting anything.
Anyway, it was too soon to know if I had anything to regret.
J.X. pounded down the staircase and breezed into the kitchen. He wore jeans and one of his ubiquitous white tailored shirts. Spotting the percolating coffee, he fell upon it like the wolf upon the fold. Or the wolf upon the barista. “Thank. God.” He found his mug in the sink, turned on the taps to rinse it, and of course there was a choking sound from the faucet which spit out a trickle of water.
“Here.” I unwrapped a mug from the half-unpacked box on the counter and handed it across.
“Thanks.” He poured in coffee, and glanced at me. “It doesn’t feel right leaving you to deal with all this.”
“It’s not a problem. I’m looking forward to exploring everything on m--”
“On your own?” he asked wryly.
I laughed. “It would be more fun with you.”
“It’s just a couple of days. I’ll be home Monday night.”
The phone rang forestalling my reply.
“Well, something works anyway,” J.X. said as I went to answer it.
“You want me to drive you to the airport?”
He shook his head. “I’ll take my car.”
I picked the phone up. “Hello?”
“Christopher,” came the not-so-dulcet, semi-British tones of my agent, Rachel. “You made it!”
“Don’t sound so surprised.”
“I didn’t think you’d go through with it.”
“Ha.” I winked at J.X. I’m not really much of a winker, so it had the reverse intended effect of making him pay closer attention. He sipped his coffee, watching me over the rim of the earthenware mug.
“Have you changed your mind about the conference?”
“What in our previous acquaintanceship would lead you to believe I’d change my mind about that?”
“The fact that you’re speaking to me from
“Aside from that.”
“Christopher, your career is in a delicately balanced position right now.”
I couldn’t hide my weariness. It leaked out in a long sigh. “When is it not?”
“You can’t afford to go off the grid again. We have to talk, really talk about your future, and it makes sense to do it at the conference.”
“Probably not. Since I won’t be there.”
She made an exasperated sound. I get that a lot from the women in my life. Not that there are a lot of women in my life.
“This is no time for a midlife crisis.”
“I agree. That was so last year.”
“Christopher! I’ve had an idea…” she burbled on, but half my attention was on J.X. who set his coffee cup in the sink and came over to me.
He said quietly, “Honey, I’ve got to go.”
I nodded politely, which was not the right response, as I could tell from the way his brows drew together. He leaned in, and I leaned in, and somehow the phone was in the way -- where did all that cord come from? -- our mouths latched on -- mostly. It was a fleeting kiss, tasting of coffee and toothpaste on his end, and coffee and exasperation on mine.
“I’ll call you when I get to the hotel,” he whispered.
“…dragon tattoo,” Rachel said.
“I am not getting a tattoo,” I said. “I’m still paying for that damn wardrobe you made me buy.” I nodded enthusiastically to J.X. so he could see I was listening to him.
“Have you heard a word I said?” Rachel demanded.
“I love you,” J.X. said.
“I heard you,” I said shortly.
Rachel’s silence and J.X.’s expression seemed equally taken aback.
“Love you too,” I said hastily to J.X.
He smiled uncertainly. My smile was equally doubtful.
“Christopher?” Rachel inquired. “Are you still there? Christopher?”
“I’m here,” I said automatically, as J.X. raised his hand in a final farewell and disappeared into the hall.
A few moments later, and from what felt like a long way away, I heard the front door close. This was followed by the distinct sound of a key turning in the lock.
So much for milestones and relationship markers. Love you too.
Love. You. Too.
Somehow I had intended the first time I managed to say the words to J.X. to be a little more… meaningful.
You can preorder from this page. And I hope you will do so.