“The House” in Unusual Suspects
Edited by Dana Stabenow. ISBN-10: 0441016375
|“On May 20, as part of her Artist of the Year Profile Performance, Laurie R. King will perform the high-wire writing act she calls Writer’s Improv: writing a short story, bringing it into being before your very eyes, based on prompts submitted earlier by members of the public and received by Laurie minutes before she begins to write. The story will be a fantasy-mystery set in south Santa Cruz County, with its main character someone connected to a middle school or junior high school (student, staff, or family member of one or the other).
As the story is being written, refresh this page periodically to view added text each time Laurie saves the document.”
On May 20, 2006, I was named Artist of the Year for the county that has been my home for 35 years, on California’s central coast. I had been asked earlier in the year, and accepted with great pleasure. When I inquired what, if any, responsibilities came along with this honor—thinking that I might be asked to judge a writing contest, or speak to every single school-age English class—it turned out there weren’t really any responsibilities, although for the most part, those so named had given some kind of public performance. Perhaps I’d like to do a reading, or talk about writing..?
Now, I can talk about writing in my sleep, and suspect that at times I do. I talk about my new book when I’m on tour, I talk about writing in general to groups, I talk to libraries and students and budding writers, and those formats are all very well and good. However, for this I wanted to do something different, something more festive and creative and challenging, something celebrating the particular art form that I practice.
So I offered to write. As in, to sit and produce words. In public. Or sit and not produce words, if that was how the day went, because sometimes staring blankly into space is a thing that writers do as well. And perhaps not literally in public, with actual people staring over my shoulders—that might prove a little too distracting.
Writer’s improv. And to make it more interesting, to ensure that I didn’t have the entire thing written in my head before I sat down on the day, we invited people to contribute prompts, telling them that if one of theirs was chosen, they’d be thanked and get a copy of the book the story eventually appeared in.
The idea was to present a clear demonstration of the entire writing process, from the moment the idea drops into a writer’s head, through the production of a first draft and the rewrite process, to its actual publication. After the improv, I would give a talk about what I had done; once the story was finished, I would comment on the process. That promised commentary is what you’re reading now.
I will admit that I cheated somewhat: I decided beforehand that whatever I wrote would take place in the vicinity of a wonderful old, utterly derelict historic house in Watsonville that had recently been taken over for renovation. The house (you can see it here) is smack beside Highway One and survived not only that project, but two major earthquakes, the general ravages of time, and the plans of developers; every time I go past it, it catches my imagination…
So on that Saturday morning in May, I sat down in a secluded board room with my laptop, a cup of coffee, and the printed-out prompts, and started writing. Each time I hit “save,” another section of text would appear on a screen downstairs in the Simpkin Center, as well as on screens across the country for those logged on.
I ended up with about 2800 words before my brain started to fizzle and I could feel the story beginning to wander, warning me that I needed to think about it before going further. But since I’d only promised a partial story then and there, and since I had been typing steadily for two hours, I called it a halt and went downstairs to talk about the process to the people gathered there.
It was both startling and funny to find the room full of people staring intently at a screen displaying words that I’d typed half a minute before. I think it was even more startling for them to have me pop up in front of them, as if the machinery had conjured me out of thin air.
We talked about the process, then moved to a panel discussion on “The Mystery of Writing” with poet Morton Marcus and local author James Houston. All in all, it was an interesting experience, and turned out not only usable material, but a nice little story when eventually I finished it.
That wasn’t for a while. A few months later, while “The House” was still incomplete, Dana Stabenow asked me if I might do a short story for her collection entitled Unusual Suspects—not mysteries, necessarily, but containing a touch of the supernatural. Now, I don’t write a lot of short stories—I find it takes as much energy to create the miniature world of their six or ten thousand words as it does to create a novel’s universe of 150,000 words. However, I realized that supernatural was precisely the direction the plot had been heading on its own, so I said yes. And because this was about middle-school aged kids, it would also fit into a collection that I’ve been slowly building, a cycle of connected stories that revolves around life in a Central Coast middle school.
I shall warn you, however, that what follows here is only a third of “The House.” If you find it frustrating to read an unfinished tale, and if you do not have Unusual Suspects at hand, I suggest you wait until you do.
On the other hand, if you enjoy a Saturday-serial adventure and don’t mind waiting to find out what happens, by all means read ahead. And for those interested in the editorial process, my comments on the completion and rewrite are at the end.
“All I’m saying, is that names are important. You know, if you’re Bruce or[i] something you’re really stuck with that, like, forever.”
We were outside the[ii] house, looking at it. Which felt stupid but, you know, going inside, that wasn’t something you did without thinking.
And there was a lot to look at. [iii]The house was probably the oldest building in the area, maybe in the whole county, and it had been standing there in its field, falling to pieces, for longer than anyone could remember. My Granddad said that it had been haunted when he was a kid, and that was like a hundred years ago, because he died when I was a little kid and he was really old then.
[iv]The house had been built back when houses had what they call gingerbread (there’s another name I don’t know what it means), all kinds of trim and towers and windows. And it wasn’t haunted, exactly, just weird. Which is why we were talking about names.
It was called the Weildman House, anyway that’s what the paper called it when they had articles about the people trying to restore it, and that’s the name on the old photographs in the local museum where they drag us every couple of years. [v] Except that maybe there was a typo, or maybe it was only logical, that one letter changed it and gave it a name.
Bee shook her head, disagreeing with me like usual. “That place would be weird even if it had been called the Smith Place, or Casa Thingumy. Weirdman comes from the place, the place’s vibes don’t come from it.”
Bee[vi] uses words like “vibes,” words I never hear except from my mother, who never recovered from the Sixties. Bee uses lots of words no one else knows, except maybe me, only I never use them in the open, and she does.
Can you guess we’re the geek squad at [vii]school? Can you guess who is still hanging around the computer lab when the last bus pulls out of the driveway?
Yeah: Bee, and me, I’m Brad, and AJ always, and the Tim twins sometimes if they don’t have music lessons or something. And some others, but mostly us.[viii]
And right now[ix], Bee and AJ and I were sitting just inside the bushes that grow in a square around Weirdman House (what was, once upon a time when actual people lived in the place, a garden—sometimes one of the wild bushes bursts into flower, and you suddenly realize that it’s a rose or a daffodil or something [x]and not some California version of the Amazon.) AJ had brought food, I’d brought drinks, and Bee had brought herself.
“So why Weirdman?” AJ asked. He had a mouth full of some disgusting candy called Snapquick[xi], he always brought gross food but never seemed to gain an ounce.
“You don’t know the story?” Bee asked.
“Which one?” I commented.
“Is there more than one?”
“I know three,” I said, which was an exaggeration, but not much. “You tell the one you know.”
“Well, the place has been deserted, like forever,” she began. “The last Weildman just disappeared in the Fifties or something. The mail piled up, the dog began to howl, finally somebody called the cops and asked them to check up on the old lady. And they never found her.”
“Yeah they did,” I told her. “She had the Alzheimer’s and she wandered off, and they found her down in Monterey and put her in a home.”
“That’s what my mom says.”
“Yeah, but your mom probably wants to reassure little Braddy so he doesn’t have bad dreams.”
I would have punched Bee then if she’d been a boy, but she wasn’t, and besides, she hit harder than most boys. And she was probably right, anyway. My mom was always trying to keep what she called my imagination under control. Maybe all single mothers did that, trying to do two jobs at once.[xii]
Anyway, there we were, and there was Weirdman House looking at us looking at it.[xiii]
“You want to go in?” AJ asked.
“Nah, not right now,” I said. “It’s nicer out here.”
“How do you know?”
“I been in there,” I told him. “Lots of times.”
“Twice,” Bee said. Really, I was going to hit her. Except I wouldn’t, because her father did and there was no way I was going to be like him in her life, no way at all.
“So let’s make it three times,” I said loudly, and I stood up and walked towards the house.
Weirdman House was just plain weird. It sat by itself out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of fields no one farmed even though this was farming land, surrounded by roads that didn’t seem to have any view of it. Mom and I were about the closest neighbors, half a mile away, and the fact that I’d only been inside the place twice tells you something about its, well, its vibes.
I’m not a nervous kind of a person. I read a lot, sure, but my imagination pretty much shuts off when it’s on its own, unlike AJ who lives in a dream most of the time. And so a few weeks after we’d moved in, one day when Mom was off shopping or something, I wandered down the road and sort of pushed my way in through what had once been the front gate.
A place like that, you’d think a thousand teenagers a week would find their way inside, older kids with bottles and girlfriends, younger kids with cigarettes, all sorts with things to hide. But even though the doors didn’t look very sturdy and I could see one of the windows open from where I stood, it didn’t look to me like anyone had broken in.
But I did. Well, not break in, [xiv]just sort of sidle around the place for a while until a way in kind of appeared.
That sounds nuts, I know. And I suppose what happened was that I hung out long enough to get used to the looks of the place, and noticed that there was a small door [xv]just set into the side of one wall. But what it felt like at the time, and ever since then, was that the house decided to show me a door[xvi].
Not to get all Stephen King on you, but it should have been crazy creepy, that feeling. I mean, a house inviting you in is a house with teeth. But again, it just didn’t FEEL like that. What it felt like was a big, lonely place that decided I wasn’t about to set it on fire, so it tugged back a kind of mental curtain and showed me how to get inside.
[xvii]That first time, I didn’t go in very far. The door I’d found led into this strange boxy space that took me a while to figure out was a storage place for firewood, next to a fireplace big enough to roast an ox in, or a pig anyway. The room with the fireplace had been the living room, I guess, and wasn’t in bad shape, considering. The windows were covered with spiderwebs, of course, and there was so much dust on the floor that my feet left tracks, but the wallpaper was still mostly up, only a few corners peeling away, and the fancy chandelier overhead looked all in one piece. Which, considering this is earthquake country, was just about amazing.
That first day I walked through the living room and found a sort of library next door, although the shelves only had a few books on them and they were so thick with dust even I didn’t want to pick them up. There was another room further on that had the remnants of curtains on the windows, although you couldn’t tell what color they had been, and I thought that if I so much as touched them, they would fall to pieces.
I followed my tracks back and found the kitchen, which looked like something from the museum in town, and was about to go into the next room when I heard something from outside.
I went over to the window, and heard it again: My mother’s voice, a long way off, calling my name.
I scrambled back to the living room, and found the wood-box, but it took me a while to locate the latch [xviii]for the door I’d found. I guess I was sort of panicky, because I knew Mom would have a cow if she found out I’d been in here, and I hadn’t expected her to be home for a couple of hours yet, so that’s why my hands were sort of fumbly and I couldn’t find the latch. It was so hard to find, I had this weird feeling that the house didn’t want me to go and was hiding it, but as soon as I thought that, my fingertips found the piece of metal, and the door opened.
I made sure to push the door shut[xix], and ran across the wild garden to the place I’d gotten in. When I looked back, the door was hidden again, its seams in the shadow of some of that elaborate trim.
Mom was on the road, halfway between our house and the Weirdman place, her back to me. I ran hard, circling around this sort of warehouse that stands near the main road, so when she finally saw me, she’d think I was coming from there and not the house.
She gave me hell for poking around the warehouse, made me promise never to go there again, and took a while to settle down.
Because the really weird[xx] thing? She’d been gone for two hours, and she’d been looking for me more than an hour after that, and in that whole time, I’d found a door and walked through four rooms.
The second time I went inside the house was about six months later. The first time it had been summer vacation, when we’d first moved here, and then school started and at first it was awful like usual, and then I made friends with AJ[xxi] and then Bee found us, and the Kim twins, and it was okay. But the house was just sort of…there, in the back of my head, and so during the Christmas vacation when AJ was off seeing his family in Mexico and Bee was off someplace in Europe (her father’s the manager of a bank, which explains a whole lot about why he gets away with what he gets away with) and Mom was working all the hours she could at her temp job at the mall, I found myself standing at the gate again, looking for the wood-box door.
No one had been inside since I’d been there in July. My footprints wandered up and down, and no others. But the house was dim now, since it was winter and the sky was cloudy, so I couldn’t tell if there were older footprints, just mine.
I stood in the living room, looking at that humongous fireplace and trying to imagine what it would look like with a fire in it. The thing was about six feet across, plenty of room for me to lie down and stretch my arms out without touching the bricks. You could put whole trees in it. And the heat from it—that would make it impossible to sit nearby, wouldn’t it?
I tried to picture the family, maybe three ladies with needlework and a bearded man, and oil lamps maybe on the walls. What would you do, without TV or video games? Books, sure, but how many hours a day could you read?
I couldn’t picture it, not very well, so I turned to walk out of the room, when out of the corner of my eyes a flame suddenly leaped up in that cold fireplace, and I heard a sort of creaking noise that reminded me of my grandmother’s rocking chair.
But when I whipped around to see, there was nothing, and no sound.
The same thing happened in the kitchen, when I had finished looking in the empty cabinets and started to walk out the door: a sudden feeling of warmth at my back, a gust of frying onion and some spice in the air, and the briefest snatch of conversation tickling my ears.[xxii]
Then it was gone, and the stove was empty and rusting, the air still and stale.
The third time the ghostly voices came, I ran.
And then today, with AJ and Bee, in the sunshine, during spring break.
Maybe the house wouldn’t show us the door, I thought.
But it did. The outline was right there, tucked under the edge of the peeling paint of the trim. You could even see the dent in the ground underneath it, where I’d hit when I came crashing out last December. I could feel my heart beginning to speed up, just remembering.
“This is your door?” Bee asked. I jumped when she spoke, because I’d been so wrapped up in myself.
“Yeah. We don’t have to go in.”
“I think we do,” she said. “If we don’t, this is going to bug you forever.”
“I think it’s going to bug me forever even if we do,” I told her, trying to joke, but she just gave me that look and stuck her fingers under the edge.
The door hesitated, then gave way[xxiii]. She pulled it open, and we looked in: a box, lined with metal, nothing more. She crawled up, I boosted AJ, and followed.
We found nothing that day, although we got all the way through the house, a lot more than I’d managed on my own. Most of the rooms were empty, though there were bedframes in a couple of the upstairs rooms, and one mattress that was a condo for mice. I began to calm down, and decided that whatever I’d seen that time, it had been my imagination. Nothing else.
I was standing in the middle of the living room again, the empty and silent living room, when AJ said, “It’s getting dark, and I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” I said, but when I looked at the window, it was true, the entire day had gone. It felt like a couple of hours, but when we dropped from the doorway, the sun was low and the air cold.
“You didn’t see anything this time, did you?” Bee asked me as we clawed our way out through the bushes.
“Maybe there was too much activity, with three of us.”
“Maybe there was nothing there the first time.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “There’s a reason this place is called what it is. And the place does feel strange.”
This is why I like Bee: she makes me feel like there are two of us in the world. “You felt it, too?”
“Sure. And like you said, time in there seems to move really fast. I’d have sworn it wasn’t even lunch time.”
“But it doesn’t make sense.”
“Expectations don’t make sense. When people die, where does there energy go? When a house holds a family and the family disappears, what does the house think?[xxiv]”
“There’s a video game,” AJ piped up. I’d more or less forgotten he was there, which is about usual for AJ. “It’s got this device like a projector that sends characters from the game out into the real world.”[xxv]
“That was a movie,” Bee said.
“Yeah, but it was a game too. You could call up people out of history and use them in real time, or anyway the game’s real time. Like if you were having a war and you needed Alexander the Great or something, you could troll through history and snag him. Maybe that’s what Brad did, snagged the Weirdmans and put them in the house for a second.”
“Weildmans,” she said.
“Whatever. But I mean, people don’t just go away when they die, do they? It doesn’t make sense. It’s like when you accidentally dump something on your computer, it’s there, if you know how to find it. Same with live people, don’t you think?”
“Stands to reason,” Bee said.
“Man,” I said, “it’s really late. You guys finished your projects yet?[xxvi]”
“I told my parents I was working on it here,” AJ said.
“Well, we better get on it.”
“What insane teacher assigns middle school kids a paper on toxic plants[xxvii]?” Bee muttered.
“I think the idea is so we avoid them, not so we use them,” I said.
The weekend went by, and the following week, and the next Saturday we found ourselves back in the jungly garden.
That time, we met the Weird Man.
[to be continued…]
[ii] “Weirdman” added to get the name of the house in earlier.
[iii] Description added.
[iv] This paragraph was incorporated with the above, so as to have the description circle back to the idea of “weird.”
[v] Once I had the end of the story, I went back and introduced the link between Bee and the historical museum here at the beginning.
[vi] For the same reason, I added “Bee is in love with the past, the clothes and the people and especially words like ‘vibes’” etc., and brought in the historical museum in this paragraph as well.
[vii] Clarify that this is “Henrietta Shore school,” using one of the prompts and adding a flavor of local history: Henrietta Shore was a long-time Central Coast resident beginning in the Thirties, a companion of Edward Weston and painter of human figures and still lifes. Her style shares characteristics of Georgia O’Keeffe.
[viii] Brad’s personal history goes here, that he’s a newcomer and how he met the others.
[ix] I changed “now” to a “cold-but-sunny February day” to set the events more clearly in time.
[x] I deleted the latter part of this sentence, because the comparison with the Amazon didn’t seem like a 13 year-old’s image, and because Brad’s style of speech often ends a sentence in “or something.”
[xi] One of the prompts received.
[xii] I didn’t think this sentence was too clear, so I changed it to, “Maybe all single mothers did that—when you were working two jobs at once, it was easiest if your kid was no trouble. So I tried.”
[xiii] With the way the story developed, I needed to make this more clearly a project the kids had a reason for pursuing, not just kids hanging around a derelict house.
[xiv] I changed this to, “Well, not break in, and not that day. I liked reading in the garden, and there was a tree with a nice comfortable low branch for reading, but one day I finished my book and just wandered around the place for a while until a way in kind of appeared.” It seemed that the process needed to be more gradual.
[xv] To clarify that the door was nearly invisible, I described it as more of a rectangular break in the siding—like a door one of my own houses had, leading into a metal-lined wood box.
[xvi] Or, “a way in.”
[xvii] I introduced a hesitation on the part of the house, the door sticking a bit before giving way. This gave Brad’s initial entrance a slight edge to it, and set it up for the later difficulties with the door.
[xviii] Instead of the latch, I changed this to the entire door being hard to open.
[xix] Instead of Brad pausing to shut the door, I changed this to “I tumbled out into the daylight and ran across the wild garden to the place I’d gotten in. When I turned to look back, I saw that I’d remembered to shut the door, which was hidden again, its seams in the shadow of some of the elaborate trim.” The house is hiding itself.
[xx] I changed this to “strange”—enough uses of “weird.”
[xxi] “AJ and then Bee” became “Bee and then AJ” when I realized this was not Brad’s story, it was Bee’s.
[xxii] Some small changes were made in this section: “the briefest snatch of conversation in the world” seemed more Brad, and a few lines later, “I ran, and I didn’t go back.”
[xxiii] I changed this to: “I opened my mouth to warn her that she’d need my pocketknife, but for her, the door gave way without a trace of hesitation.”
[xxiv] This needed to be a bit more developed, so I changed it to: “And think about it: When people die, where does their energy go? When a house is built to hold a family, and the family lives there for years, then one by one they disappear, what does the house think?”
[xxv] The prompt received here was, “The players can come out of the game using this device. It looks remarkably like a regular projector with a large lens, which plugs into the game consol. It allows the characters to come into the real world as real people.” This is not quite how I use it in “The House,” but that was the original prompt, which (as is the writer’s wont) got turned around in my mind.
[xxvi] Instead of different projects, the three of them are working on the Weildman House project. This was changed to, “You guys agree, that we do our group project on the Weirdman House?”
[xxvii] One of the prompts for school research projects was, “Toxic plants of the California Coast.”
As noted earlier, this is as far as the story got before my brain began to gasp for air on the morning of the improv. It was some time before I buckled down to finish it, and found an ending that suited both the beginning, and Dana’s requirements.
That statement alone should make it clear that I am not much of a planner in my writing. I rarely know where a story is going before I dive into it. Even for a novel, I generally know little more than who the major characters are, where it is set, what events it’s set around, and something of the flavor I want to preserve in it. For a piece this size, I know even less than that.
So, let’s start with the initial ideas for this story. As I said, I’d decided beforehand that the story would be set in or around a fictionalized version of the Redman House in Watsonville, and I knew that it would have some connection with a middle school. And that was about it.
Two hours before sitting down to the improv, I was given fourteen submissions containing the following prompts for the story:
1. A first line
2. The name of a fictional middle school
3. The name and brief description of a fictional video game that a 13 year-old might play
4. A magical device from the imaginary video game—what it’s called, what it looks like, what it does
5. A middle school or junior high research topic
6. A favorite snack (no actual brand names)
7. Name of a favorite hangout (again, not a real one)
Some of the entries submitted all seven prompts, some only had three or four. Kathy de Wild of the Parks and Rec had gone over the submissions to make a short list, choosing several in each category that she thought might be fun, and those are what she gave to me that morning. I read them, mulled them over for a while, and sat down to write.
That, indeed, would not only be ‘high-wire writing,’ but one without a net.
The writing process
The 2800 words I produced on May 20 sat by themselves for a very long time, as family demands took up most of the following year. Eventually, however, Dana began to growl about deadlines, so I retrieved what I had written and tried to remember what I’d had in mind.
That, I couldn’t tell you. But what happened was that the now-cold story fragment was a fresh thing, and I could see the shape of an interesting continuation that might not be what I had originally intended on May 20th, but would work not only for Dana’s collection, but for the story itself. I wrote another 4400 words to bring the story to a close, starting with the interesting dynamic between the kids. I discovered that I was more concerned with the girl, Bee, than I was with the narrator, but then, that is best for a story that ends on a puzzling note, anyway. And as I wrote about Bee-through-Brad’s-eyes, I found a girl with depth and grit, so that as the sci-fi/fantasy elements of the story developed, her solidity kept it grounded: The reader is perplexed by the house, but cares about Bee.
Having found an ending for the story that didn’t fit too badly with its beginnings, I then went back to the earlier portion to make the necessary changes—changes that were, to my mind, the main point of the writing exercise. Anyone can write a first draft: it’s in the rewrite that the story comes alive. However, when I looked at the rewrite I had done, I was badly taken aback.
My writing tends to be mostly rewriting, probably since I am incapable of producing a sensible outline at the outset. This means that I spend around three months on the first draft of a novel, bringing it to some 350 typescript pages, then four or five months turning that rough draft into an object with a narrative arc, characters who live and breathe, sub-plots that emerge from and feed back into the central story line, and an underlying interest (the “theme” so beloved of writing tutors) that holds throughout. At that point, the novel has grown to around 450 or 500 pages, which makes for a published novel with a satisfying length of around 350 pages.
Someone whose mind can create around an outline probably doesn’t need to do that much rewriting. However, since I set off into a story with only the dimmest of ideas where I am going, and even those novels that begin with a laboriously constructed plan of attack tend to veer wildly astray before the third chapter, I depend on the back of my mind to keep track of what is happening, and what needs to happen next.
“The House” was produced under highly artificial conditions and in a stressful situation, and I expected it to require a major revamping, needing serious cuts and additions before it would serve as the beginning of the story. To my astonishment—and, frankly, dismay—this was not the case. The section of “The House” that I had pounded out with the world looking on, with little sense of what I was doing or where I was going, proved quite adequate as a foundation for the remainder. Other than tidying-up, and adding a few phrases here and there, those 2800 words stand pretty much as they first appeared.
Which makes it rather awkward, because my own central interest in the project, other than the challenge of writing under pressure and having a short story for Dana, was in how it would allow me to talk about the rewrite process. I’d intended that, as people had watched me write, so they could peek over my shoulder, as it were, at the rewrite. Instead of which, this makes me look as if I actually knew what I was doing from the beginning. Most deceptive.
However, the rewrite is far from nonexistent. Certainly, one can see that in this first draft, I had no idea how Bee’s troubled present and her abiding interest in old things would bond with the Weirdman House, the school project, her friendship with Brad, and the history museum—indeed, the center of the story itself. (And I’m not going into details here, so as not to spoil your read of the completed story.) It’s as if I were exploring the edges of a shape, not sure of its precise definition. Which is not a bad description of how I write.
Once I had an ending, however, I could go back and shift things slightly, dropping in small references that set the scene for later events—remember, it wasn’t until after this section was written that I was asked for a story with supernatural elements. One can only wonder what “The House” would have become had Dana not asked for such a tale.
The following are specific remarks about changes in the text. I haven’t remarked on absolutely every change, because the sprinkling of minor grammatical “tweaks” seemed not to require comment. And don’t worry, any references to changes required by the story’s ending have been worded so as to avoid spoilers.
I hope you read the complete story and that you find this commentary as interesting as it was for me.