A Dark Art (short story)

This one didn’t scream. I was kinda disappointed, you know? I had set the scene perfectly, just as I outlined yesterday. A sumptuous bed of blonde hay spread across the hard ground of the barn. I’m not sure she appreciated my efforts to keep her skirts clean though. Ungrateful wench. I didn’t bother sprinkling the lavender this time. I loved the amethyst tones, but the perfume was wasted when darker aromas permeated the space.

Shame I couldn’t control the weather. The bright, clear blue skies and blazing sunshine didn’t suit the mood and tone of the scene that I was aspiring to. Some dramatic thunderclouds would have been the consummate touch. Oh, a few stray drops of rain to leak down one perfect cheek! Perhaps I shall take some creative liberty with those. I admit though, I did particularly like the dust mites that danced in the rays of light that wormed their way through the holes in the tin roof. I wonder if I can recreate those with the sense of movement they deserve.

I’ve already processed the film. The photos are hanging in wet sheets in the darkroom. Gorgeous, if I do say so myself. I experimented a little more with some of the manual settings this time, trying to get the right depth of field as well as good level of exposure. I had one where just a single blowfly was in focus. The perfection of it makes me quite quivery. I’ll have to double-check the settings I used so I can duplicate the effect. It was the 50mm f/1.4 I think. I know the photo is just a guide to the canvas I shall create, but I am an artist. It gives me great satisfaction to create art in multiple mediums. Perhaps I should even rouse myself to write a poem, a tantalising ode?

I have kept some souvenirs aside. A few stalks of hay, some strands of hair… They shall meld with my oils and bring my masterpiece to life. Or to death, if you’ll pardon the expression.

I confess, I am getting restless waiting for the photos to dry. Time lags, and I can almost hear the wood borer clicking away the seconds. How utterly dreary. I shall ruminate on my next victim to pass the time. I’m tempted to step outside my comfort zone and experiment with a male this time. It would be a challenge, and lord knows I need one after the silent accusations that this morning’s glazed eyes gave. Dear god, I hope they don’t haunt my sleep. What a terrible thought. No, some good hearty yelling that will fade to a hoarse scratchiness. And groans, I want some deep, masculine groans. That’s it, I’m decided. And oh! Perhaps in the field this time. With the tractor as a backdrop. Yes, I’m a genius.

A small scene…

“I am so sick of sex,” I muttered as I trudged up the front steps of our ranch house.

“What?”

The incredulous exclamation had me spinning around to face my husband.

“I must’ve heard you wrong, I could have sworn you said…” He shook his head.

“I’m sick of sex,” I repeated with a smile.

His confusion was amusing, but I loved that he never even started making wild assumptions or accusations.

“I don’t…” He frowned at me, looking utterly adorable. “But we…” He heaved a big sigh and gestured wildly with his hands. “Why?”

I had to laugh, and tripped back down the stairs to wrap my arms around his waist. “It’s spring. It seems like every animal on this place has got spring fever. Every time I turn around, there’s something having sex.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “I even saw Bart and Daisy getting it on in the hayshed.” I giggled at the look on his face, his eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline. “I’m just sick of it. It seems like everyone except me is having sex, and I’m sick of it.”

“I’m not having sex,” he drawled.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “I should jolly well hope not, if I’m not.”

“Well,” he paused suggestively. “We could solve both our problems. I have it on good authority that the hayshed is mighty comfortable.”

I giggled. “All that prickly hay? We have a perfectly good bed upstairs.” I grabbed his hand, and turned and started back up the stairs, tugging him along behind me. He quickly caught up and we practically raced for the bedroom.

The Search For Inspiration

Silvanna coughed and spluttered as she climbed out of the picture, dripping water all over her antique wooden desk. The other muses, some working hard at their own desks, others chatting, all turned to the back of the room to stare at her. Silvanna flopped down on top of the picture in the puddle of water she had created, just catching her breath for a moment, before dragging herself to the edge of the desk. She sat with her legs dangling over the edge and slumped her shoulders.

“What’s up?” asked Shayla, one of the other muses. One dark, perfectly arched eyebrow rose as she eyed the sodden orange dress Silvanna wore. “Is that…saltwater? You do know you’ve ruined the silk, right?”

Silvanna grumbled, but nodded. “I can’t find any inspiration,” she sighed. She kicked her feet, drumming them against the wood below her, aware that the room around her had gone deathly silent.

“Start from the beginning,” Rosa advised, fluttering over to sit near Silvanna, but managing to avoid the damp patches. “What are the requirements?”

“Short story, choice of picture inspirations.” Silvanna sighed again, and didn’t miss Rosa rolling her eyes at the melodramatic sound.

“Show us the pictures.”

Silvanna plucked the pictures from the desk behind her, struggling a little with their unwieldy size, then scattered them on the floor so all the muses could see them. She almost smirked when Farryn shrieked and danced to avoid being sprayed by the last of the water droplets. Her beautiful white silk dress still looked good as new of course.

“Oh, I’ve seen these pictures before!” exclaimed Elliece. “My human had to enter this contest last year. I found inspiration in the cherry blossom picture. You didn’t find anything there?”

“Nope.”

“I’ve seen these pictures before too,” said Kamali. She flashed her feathery golden wings and came to stand behind Silvanna. “Aren’t these for the Once Upon A Time contest?”

Silvanna nodded and tilted her head to look up. “Yeah.”

“My human is working on a story for that contest right now,” commented Shayla. “She asked for inspiration ages ago, and I found some in that picture of the stone circle with the purple lightning. I went for a sci fi horror thing, because she wanted to enter another contest at the same time.”

Kamali frowned down at Silvanna and demanded, “Doesn’t it close in less than 24 hours?” There was a sharp intake of breath from the other muses.

“Yes,” whispered Silvanna, her lower lip trembling.

“Are you serious right now?” asked Alvina from across the room, her kohl-rimmed eyes wide. “Your human has less than 24 hours left to write a short story and you haven’t even given her any inspiration? Woah.”

Silvanna narrowed her eyes, but knew she couldn’t really defend herself.

“Tell us what you’ve done so far,” advised Rosa.

“Yeah, we’ll all help.” Elliece smiled.

“Okay. So I had eleven pictures. I’ve been in them all. I felt sure I’d find something in that one of the owl,” she said, gesturing to a picture of an Eastern Screech Owl camouflaged against a tree trunk. “I left the aquathlon one until last, which is why I’m all wet, but…” She shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing.”

“Are there certain requirements?” asked Rosa. “Genre?”

“Any genre,” replied Silvanna, shivering as a small orange butterfly settled on her shoulder. “Has to be minimum two thousand words, maximum three thousand. Rating has to be 18+ or lower.”

“Two thousand words in less than 24 hours?” squeaked Alvina.

Silvanna rolled her eyes. “The length is pretty irrelevant when I don’t even have an idea for her.”

Kimali looked around the room, then settled her dark gaze back on Silvanna. “If we’re going to do this, we’ll have to do it as a team. And fast. Farryn, grab a whiteboard marker and make notes on the board. The rest of you, take one picture each and start brainstorming.” She looked around the room, counting under her breath. “Cancel that, without Silvanna there are eleven of us and eleven pictures, so just leave the marker there, Farryn. Elliece and Shayla, make sure you don’t go for the same picture that you used for inspiration last time, or there could be issues for Silvanna’s human if we end up with ideas that are too similar. Silvanna, you can make the notes. As soon as you get the inkling of an idea, yell out and we’ll see if we can take it all the way to a decent plot.” She shook her head, her blonde hair swinging. “Your human is going to need all the help she can get.”

One by one, the muses disappeared into the various pictures, leaving Silvanna all alone in the room. She took a moment to dry herself off, then fluttered over to the large whiteboard that dominated one wall.

Blank white space, her favourite starting point. She loved the possibilities that lay within the white nothingness of an empty notebook, a clean slate…a blank whiteboard. Anything could happen. She groaned aloud at her own thoughts. “It’s not much use having screeds of possibilities when you can’t think of a single one to write on the stupid page!” She threw the marker across the room, finding satisfaction in watching it bounce off a desk, until she realized she’d have to go and pick it up. She grumbled all the way there and back, the small butterfly her only audience, but fell silent as the muses started to return.

Kamali emerged first, from the picture of the thunderstorm and the stone circle. “Okay, here goes.” She gestured to Silvanna to start taking notes. “Stone circle could be celtic. Think of Stonehenge. Or there are other stone circles on little islands offshore of Scotland. Celtic witches? Some pagan ritual? What about giants who created the stone circle?” She talked rapidly, ignoring the squeak of the marker against the whiteboard as Silvanna tried to keep up. “The thunderstorm could be Thor, god of thunder, having a tantrum. The clouds look purple – could be a sci fi story set on another world. What sort of alien being could live there?” She paused for a moment, thinking. “Um, there was the sea too – a journey nearly at an end, only to be thwarted by a thunderstorm.” She raised her hands, palms to the ceiling. “That’s all I’ve got.”

When Silvanna turned around, she saw several other muses had also returned. She shook her hand to loosen the muscles and pointed to Elliece. “Go.”

“Okay, I did the aquathlon one. Your character has recovered from an injury that led everyone to say she’d never walk again, and she overcomes all her obstacles to compete? A father who doesn’t have custody of his child steals him from the chaotic beach scene? Your character is a photojournalist, looking for her first big break? A mother watches in horror as her child drowns? Ooh, a tsunami comes in to shore, chaos ensues!” She grinned, and watched as Silvanna jotted down the notes.

“Next!” called Silvanna, opening and closing her hand into a fist to try and relax the muscles. She had noticed that Elliece had emerged from the spray of the aquathlon photo without a single drop of water on her. No, it was only ever Silvanna who got dirty, wet, or tore her dress. Typical.

Alvina piped up next. “Cherry blossoms. First thing, obviously, Japan and Asia. Possibly a love story. Could be a multicultural love story. A historical love story? They could be Japanese royalty. Um…”

“The Emperor and Empress,” added Rosa.

“Yes, exactly.” Alvina flashed Rosa a grateful smile. “It could be someone on the search for a special Ming vase, or perhaps tracing the origins of a family heirloom. What about a soldier, going back to the fields of battle where he once fought? Um, looking for a woman he only has a single snapshot photo of?” The other muses sighed at the romanticism. “I could keep going, but I’ll see if someone else sparks your interest. You can come back to me if need be.”

Silvanna nodded, scribbling furiously.

“The owl-“

“Wait!” pleaded Silvanna. “Just let me finish… Okay, go.”

“The owl obviously lends itself to fantasy and mythology,” started Farryn, rubbing her hands together. Everyone knew fantasy was her favourite genre. “You could tell a fantasy tale from the viewpoint of the owl, watching unseen over everything. The owl could be a familiar for a witch or magician. A spy. He could provide guidance. The character could go on an epic journey to seek wisdom or answers from the owl. There could be a hunt on, and only the main character can find the owl, camouflaged against the tree. The hunt could be specifically for the owl, as a kind of challenge. Ah, a challenge to complete a course of study or something. The owl might not be a real owl, it might have morphed into an owl for a certain purpose. It might have been cursed to remain as an owl for doing something naughty or by someone evil.” She paused, watching the words fill up the whiteboard. “I suppose you could do some sort of animal story – the life of an owl, raising its chicks or something.” She shrugged.

“Okay, my turn,” said Fawn. “I had the picture of the fisherman.” She bounced in place while she waiting for a signal to start.

“Calm down,” suggested Kimali, only to receive a flick on the nose from Fawn who giggled at Kimali’s affronted expression.

“Yup, ready,” Silvanna said, feeling like she should be panting, except she was only writing notes, not running a marathon.

“The fisherman made me think of the ‘one that got away’,” said Fawn. “You could have a sort of ‘boy who cried wolf’ theme where the fisherman is always telling tales of the one that got away, and when he finally sees something amazing, no one believes him. Or you could set it in a small fishing village, maybe the people are starving and relying on the food from the sea. Maybe he has a magic fishing net. Maybe he pulls in a bottle from the sea with a message inside.”

“Oh, I love that idea!” Alvina clapped her hands together, her eyes shining. “A message in a bottle! Who could it be for? Who wrote it? What does it say? How exciting!”

Silvanna smiled at her enthusiasm. “Anything else?”

Alvina narrowed her eyes. “What, that doesn’t work for you?”

Silvanna shrugged in reply.

“Okay,” Juliana said, looking up from where she was tidying the photos into a neat pile. “I had the Taiwanese people with their traditional face paintings. You could have them painting themselves for war. A fight to the death. For honour? For a girl? For the safety of the womenfolk? Um, you could have them preparing for a performance, where one of them catches the eye of a woman in the audience and knows somehow that she’s his soulmate. You could have a photojournalist doing a documentary on them, but somehow danger stalks him or her, forcing them to take refuge with or from the villagers. A time travel story, going back in time to the traditional days?” She pursed her lips as she thought. “This was a tough one for me.”

Silvanna looked at the words she had written up and frowned. Juliana was dissatisfied with all those ideas? Silvanna hadn’t even come up with a single one. She closed her eyes for a moment, but the next muse started talking, and she quickly took the lid off the marker again.

“I had the lady carrying water in Myanmar,” said Tigerlily. “It was a tricky one. I thought you could do something like Jack and the beanstalk with magic beans that need watering. Um, a small child sent to get water who gets into trouble. Maybe they’re rescued by a dolphin or a hippocampus or something.”

“A what?” The query came from several voices at once.

“A mythical creature, half horse, half sea creature.”

“Ooh, that sounds cool,” commented Farryn. “A hippocampus. I must remember that.”

“A c, not a k,” Tigerlily advised Silvanna who had misspelled the word on the whiteboard.

“Whatever, we know what it means.”

“There could be some sort of biological weapon of war that has poisoned the water. Or something like that Chernobyl disaster. Mutant fish?” Tigerlily cracked her knuckles as she kept talking, ignoring the looks of disgust a few of the muses sent her. “You could do some sort of religious thing where the people are saved from salvation by their god. You could have her fetching water for her daughter who is deathly ill and some handsome Western doctor is going to save her.” She made a few faces before declaring that she was out of ideas.

Flora looked up from where she was painting her nails at her desk. “My turn?” At the nods from the other muses, she capped the purple polish and set it aside, waving her fingers in the air to dry them. “I had the cheetahs on the safari vehicle. Clearly you could have some sort of gory tourist drama where the cats drag them from their vehicle and eat them. You could have a honeymooning couple just to heighten the emotion.” She laughed at the horrified expressions on some of the faces around her. “Okay, what about a young boy who communes with the wild cheetahs, to the point where he can pet them. Everyone is in awe. Or maybe a comedy about a modern day Noah trying desperately to collect two animals of every kind for his ark, but it proving to be a lot more difficult and dangerous than the simple request makes it sound.”

“Ha ha, I like that one!” laughed Rosa. “That one sounds fun.”

Flora grinned. “Or you could do something from the point of view of the cheetahs, maybe they’re disgruntled at the intruders or they’ve set each other a challenge or dare to get something from the tourists to show their bravery or something.”

Silvanna nodded as she wrote, the letters much larger than when she’d first started writing. Her notes were no longer neat and tidy, but her hand was cramping and it was getting harder to keep up with the dictation.

Marelle waited patiently until Silvanna was ready, then started talking, her quiet voice going at a nice slow pace. “The child in my picture is the son of reindeer herders. Of course I thought a Christmas story would be perfect. The people who have to work for Santa? Looking after the reindeer and making sure they’re in tip top shape for their Christmas Eve run? Or maybe he tries to turn one of the real reindeer into Rudolph. Maybe the reindeer are in secret and he watches in amazement as they all disappear on Christmas Eve to go and help Santa, and he follows them. Or something goes wrong on the reindeer farm and there are no reindeer ready to help Santa and this young boy has to save Christmas? Really, the possibilities are endless.”

“I’d love to read any of those stories,” smiled Alvina. “I love feel-good Christmas children’s stories!”

“Me too,” replied Marelle.

Rosa tapped the chewed end of her pencil against the edge of the desk she was perched on, as she waited for Silvanna to be ready. “I had the picture of the tribal woman painted up for a ceremony. You could follow a young girl who was participating for the first time – her nervousness, her anticipation, that sort of thing. You could retell an ancient myth or legend, or even better, make one up. Maybe a child asks why the sky is blue or why their skin is dark or something simple like that and create a myth or legend to explain it.”

“That’s a really good idea,” said Kamali, approval clear in her voice.

Silvanna nodded, then gestured for Rosa to continue.

“You could have a love story where the village girl is preparing for her wedding ceremony. It could be an arranged marriage. Maybe the love of her life asks for the opportunity to fight for her hand.”

Silvanna jotted down the notes, then turned to Shayla with her eyebrows raised. “Go.”

“I had the image of a lady playing the piano on a street in New Zealand in front of a sea or harbour or something.” Shayla absently shuffled the cards she held as she talked. “There was a young girl sitting on the wall. You could write about the woman and the songs she’s singing. A lament to the girl’s father who is lost away at sea.”

“You lot are all hopeless romantics,” laughed Flora.

“You could have some gentleman hear the siren call…” Shayla laughed at the exaggerated expression on Flora’s face.

“Hush!” Everyone turned to Kamali who turned serious eyes on Silvanna. “You’re too late.”

“Too late? But I’ve still got…” Silvanna looked around for a clock.

“She’s already written the story,” explained Kamali.

“Without me? Without her muse? She can’t do that!” wailed Silvanna.

“Listen to this.” Kamali cleared her throat, then started reading from a piece of paper she held. “Silvanna coughed and spluttered as she climbed out of the picture, dripping water all over her antique wooden desk. The other muses, some working hard at their own desks, others chatting, all turned to the back of the room to stare at her.”

“Ohh…” breathed Silvanna. “She’s written about me!”

Kamali grinned. “All of us. You know, I think I kind of like this human of yours

A figurative language exercise

Finally, I was safe. I savoured the refreshingly cool taste of freedom. The realisation that I could relax, could be myself for a short time, was sweet. I lay back, my aches and pains cushioned by a bed of clover and dandelions. The night reached out a warm hand to stroke my forehead and far above me a multitude of stars winked and flirted.

Damn, I was tired. Tired of running. Tired of hiding. Tired of pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I closed my eyes and tried to let some of the night’s serenity soak in, but as much as my body wanted to sleep, my mind wouldn’t stop whirring. Scenes replayed like old B grade movies. Conversations whispered. But there was no point dwelling on the past. I had to make plans. My very survival depending on me being prepared, being one step ahead. I had to take this moment to decide what to do next.

I looked up and wondered if the wise old moon held the answers I needed. “What should I do?” My whisper floated away and even though I knew it was my own imagination, the answer came back to me.
“Relax. Your body needs the break. You don’t know when you’ll get another opportunity, so take the moment and rest.”

The moon smiled serenely down at me, dressed in gossamer folds of wispy clouds. How could I take advice from someone dressed in their night clothes? I snorted, then fought the urge to giggle, punch drunk with exhaustion. She was right though. I needed to sleep.

Tropes

I’ve finally had a chance today to go through my emails today and I’m checking out the books recommended to me by the sites that send me ebook deals.  It made me think about the tropes that I do and don’t like to read.

I should clarify, I read romance novels almost exclusively.  I occasionally read fantasy or science fiction novels, but mostly romance.  Within romance though, I read in a wide variety of sub-genres.  It’s just that I demand my happy ending, and romance is the only genre that will guarantee that for me.

So, tropes.  I’m no expert on tropes, so I Googled some.  Here are the ones I have strong(ish) feelings about:

  • Anti-hero.  Aw, come on, we all love reformed bad boys, right?  😛  My husband was a hard drinking, fast driving, tattooed loud mouth when I met him, who was lucky not to have been behind bars.  Who’d have guessed he was also super sweet and romantic, and very good with babies?  Ha ha!  So yeah, I guess I like these ones.  He’s still tattooed and still loud, by the way.
  • Athlete.  I hate heroes who are sports stars.  Ugh.  No thanks.  It’s worse too when it’s an American sport that I’m totally clueless about.
  • Consanguinity.  No, no, no.  Stepbrothers and stepsisters, stepfathers and stepdaughters (it was this trope that actually led me to write this post in the first place), etc.  No.  No, no, no.  And while I don’t mind menage stories, I hate it when they involves siblings, for the same reason.  Or worse, twins.  Ack.  Nope.
  • Danger.  I’ve seen this written elsewhere on the net as ‘Heroine in danger’ or ‘Heroine needs rescuing’, etc.  It doesn’t matter to me if it’s the hero or the heroine (and I don’t just read m/f books, so gender sterotyping is a bit redundant anyway), but danger definitely adds spice to the mix.  I’ve said before that I don’t care how much torture my characters have to go through, as long as they’re guaranteed a happy ending.  I guess, I like to believe that no matter how hard life gets, it’s all going to work out in the end.  This is the extreme version of that.  Maya Banks does this trope really well, to the point that it’s become a kind of cliche in her books, but that’s beside the point.
    Whispers in the Dark (KGI, #4) Whispers In The Dark was a brilliant example of this trope.  Both the hero and the heroine go through some fairly extreme ordeals over the course of the book, and it’s a fantastic read.
  • Disguise.  I know it’s silly, but I really like the ones where girls dress up as guys and win over the hero as a male first.  I don’t know why I like them.  Maybe because I was a tomboy and often mistaken as a boy even well into my teens (I think I was 17 the last time it happened).
    Morganna (The Brocade Collection Book 4) by [Ivie, Jackie] Morganna by Jackie Ivie is one of the best books I’ve read with this trope, and I especially love how the hero falls for her while still thinking she was a boy.  He is attracted to her while he thought she was a male (and even kisses her, thinking her a man), instead of respecting or befriending her and then being attracted once her gender was revealed.  For a historical romance, that’s pretty cutting edge.  I was very impressed.
  • Fated mates.  This can work really well, but only if the author avoids the instalove pitfall of death.  Ugh.  I hate instalove.  If the match is fated, and they fight it, but eventually realise all the great things about each other and slowly fall for each other despite themselves, it can be a great read.  But no instalove!
  • Impairments.  This is probably very un-PC of me to say, but I love these.  I actually did a Writing.com site newsletter on this topic. Both physical and mental disabilities, so long as the characters are equal.  I read one where I felt the character with the mental disability was not in any way equal to the other main character, and there was a HUGE power disadvantage.  It felt…kind of pedophilic.  Ugh, no thanks.
    The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie (Mackenzies Series Book 1) by [Ashley, Jennifer]
    Song for Sophia (A Rougemont Novel Book 1) by [Densley, Moriah] The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie by Jennifer Ashley and Song For Sophia by Moriah Densley both have great male heroes who have Asperger’s Syndrome.  Both are excellent reads.  I’m sure Cole from Jaime Reese’s A Restored Man is on the spectrum too.  It’s never said, but I think his inability to know what is appropriate for a particular conversation or situation is a good indication.
    Never Seduce a Scot: The Montgomerys and Armstrongs by [Banks, Maya] Moon Craving (A Children of the Moon Novel Book 2) by [Monroe, Lucy] Never Seduce A Scot by Maya Banks features a fantastic heroine who is deaf.  That’s a great book too.  Moon Craving by Lucy Monroe features a deaf heroine as well, and I’ve re-read that book a number of times too.
    Speechless by [Fielding, Kim]Love Comes Silently (Senses Series Book 1) by [Grey, Andrew]Love Comes in Darkness (Senses Series Book 2) by [Grey, Andrew]I’ve read some great m/m books that use this trope too.  Speechless by Kim Fielding features a hero with aphasia which I’ve read multiple times.  And there’s Andrew Grey’s Senses series too which is built around the trope.  It’s starts with Love Comes Silently, with a mute hero, then Love Comes In Darkness, with a blind hero.  I enjoyed both those books (but warning, they’re tear-jerkers).  There are six books in the series, but the first two are my favourites.
  • Military.  I used to really enjoy these, and Maya Banks’ KGI series is a great example of this done well, but having now worked for two ex-military bosses, I no longer see military guys as a romantic ideal.  Nope.  And what’s more, I will no longer be recommending that my son signs up for the military.  The military changes you, and now I think it’s not for the better.
  • Second chances.  I’m not a fan of this one.  If it didn’t work out the first time, it wasn’t meant to be.  Not to say it can’t be done well, but you’ll have to have something really special to tempt me.
  • Time travel.  I’ve read books where this trope has been done really well, and I’ve really enjoyed them, but I’m always leery of them.  It’s so easy to turn this into a sad ‘been there, done that, got the t shirt’ cliche.
  • Ugly duckling.  I really enjoy these ones, regardless of which character is the ugly duckling and why.  Probably I enjoy them because I have pretty low self-esteem when it comes to my physical appearance, but never mind.

What are some tropes that you like or dislike?  They don’t have to be romance ones.