Burning Trash in the Backyard

burning trash

If only the creditors would go away this easily.

One of the great things about writing is how it makes you take a careful look at what things you choose to do and why–and what reason you give yourself for why. So part of burning some trash this afternoon was the usual catharsis, but also gave me an insight into why it would make sense to want to burn certain things, or just anything at all: the sheer physicality of transforming paper into smoke is overwhelming. It also gave me a few good jumping-off points for stories:

1. A detail in a story where a witness can’t remember what the fleeing suspect looked like at all; but when the wind shifts and she catches the breeze from something else, she remembers he smelled just like he’d been standing next to a campfire. Only quite a bit later do D/M associate this with the neighbor who was burning trash in his yard.

2. Someone who enjoys burning trash in the backyard, and since the body is missing, the cops wonder if he might have burnt it. So they turn his life upside down and find something else horrible that ruins him (0r ruins someone else he’s covering for) but no trace of the missing girl.

3. He did burn her there. Or someone else burnt it there, and left him to be convicted.

4. In a fantasy series, a type of nature magic where the wise woman clears a small plot of ground, then burns certain rare items on that ground for a prescribed period. Then, she douses it with some special oil, all while chanting. In that soil can now grow some sort of magically augmented plant.

“Drink Pixie” Commentary

I kind of ran out of drama there towards the end. The story centers around character: Claire the perfect ice queen. She’s not really an ice queen: she’s very superficially warm and friendly, which is what makes her a great posh waitress. But nobody ever gets very far with her. She has moved to Atlanta and made a lovely, classy life for herself; so when Donna, who’s trashy and a liar, makes her way into Claire’s life, Claire is at first torn, between a human connection and the potential threat to her classiness Donna represents, then angry because Donna turns out to be a grifter/blackmailer.

There’s another reason, down deep: Claire is jealous of Donna for being pregnant. Maybe Claire can’t get pregnant, or maybe she did and gave a child up for adoption long ago. So when Claire finds out that Donna’s not pregnant, and is faking it because it’s making rich Bruce want to marry her and take care of her… no, it’s just not a strong enough motivation for murder. It’s motivation in that Claire figures out that if Donna is going to fake being pregnant, she’s going to mess up Claire’s life, too. But why is Donna faking the pregnancy, if once she meets Alex she decides she wants to trade up? It’s just too complicated, so that detail needs to come out. Or maybe it’s Elle who lies, and who tells Alex that Donna’s not pregnant because she figures it will make Alex think twice about taking up with her. This adds additional pathos to the story because Claire (offscreen) can confront Donna: “y0u’re a big old liar and you’re going to mess with MY life, too,” and then Donna hotly denies it, and a fight starts and Claire takes her down more or less by accident.

Or a still better angle: Claire, when she came to the city lo these many years ago. left behind a husband and a kid in the rural hellhole. She just walked out one day. The kid, or the husband, is ugly or disabled or somehow problematic. Claire is still technically married: she can’t ask for a divorce because she doesn’t want her old life to track her down. Claire’s not her real name, either. So it makes more sense to have Donna show up at the restaurant without having got back in touch with Claire beforehand. Claire is confronted with decompartmentalization at work, which is what makes her so upset.

Now the conflict makes more sense: Donna has money, in the form of Bruce–and more, if she can trade up to Alex. And that’s what Donna wants, is entry into Claire’s classy world, in order to find a better-looking, wealthier sugar daddy. Claire a) knows Donna can’t pull it off, b) doesn’t want her classy friends finding out just what trash she used to be, and c) doesn’t want the husband tracking her down, for a host of reasons: she owes him child support, he’s just an embarrassing redneck, whatever. So Claire is mad because Donna busted into her life, she’s worried because she doesn’t want her old life catching up with her, and then when she hears (from Alex) Elle’s lie that Donna isn’t really pregnant, she realizes that with Donna around, she’s always going to be under a threat.

So what tips D/M off is the neatness of the crime. Someone calls Donna: this turns out to have been from someone who is a regular patron of the restaurant. Two hours later, Donna is dead in some very neat way: no blood. But Donna’s a slob. D/M keep confronting Claire with evidence about her past, but she won’t budge; until she finds out that Donna really wasn’t not pregnant. Then her nostrils flare again.

Short Story Concept: “The Drink Pixie”

There are two men in this story (Alex and Bruce) and three women (Claire, Donna and Elle). Claire is a waitress at the sort of posh Atlanta restaurant I never go to. She is thirty, petite, lovely, extremely professional and never gives in to the many attempts by her loyal clients to find out anything at all about her personal life. Alex is one of these clients: he’s a Silver Fox type who usually dates women Claire’s age but who shows up at the restaurant with Elle this particular night. Elle is older and classier than Alex’s usual type: she quizzes Alex about Claire and Alex is forced to reveal that he really doesn’t know that much about her. Claire recommends a new wine to Alex, who chooses it.

Halfway through dinner, a very sheepish Claire asks a tiny favor: her childhood friend Donna and Donna’s new husband Bruce have come to the restaurant, and Donna has revealed that she’s a few months pregnant. Could Claire possibly ask Alex for two drams of wine? Alex, being the expansive sort he is, insists on buying Bruce and Claire a whole bottle and inviting them to his and Elle’s table for dessert. Donna is Claire’s age but harder-rode and much more femmy; Bruce is close to Alex’s age and notably unattractive, though well-heeled. Alex likes people and he and Bruce have some random thing in common: hockey fans or whatever. Alex also clearly finds Donna attractive. Elle is bemused by all this; Claire is extremely discomfited, especially when Donna alludes to the fact that she knew Claire way back when. This scene is told from Elle’s POV.

A week later, Alex is back, this time without Elle. Claire is back to perfect pixie mode, but in the meantime, the other four have gone out again. Alex has found out something else about Claire, who grew up with Donna in some backwoods hellhole. Claire is so upset that her nostrils involuntarily flare; Alex realizes he’s gone too far and backpedals, but now Claire is pure robot. He leaves her a huge tip. This scene is told from Claire’s POV.

Ten days or so after this, Diana and Mustapha come to Alex’s office and show him a picture of Donna, who has been beaten to death with a cane or similar object. They know he talked to Donna two nights before, for quite a while. Alex says that he doesn’t like to kiss and tell, but Donna was trying to get him to start an affair with her, and that he was tempted enough to make out with her before, but this call was him explaining that he just didn’t feel comfortable with someone else’s wife. He’s horrified about the murder but being the smart guy that he is, he figures they must have excluded Bruce as the suspect if they’re talking to him. This scene is told from Diana’s POV.

Now an interview with Bruce, who is distraught. He is in Donna’s bedroom in their shared house. It is notably a pigsty: Donna is one of those people who leaves a trail of chaos behind her. They confront him with the fact that her death nets him a million dollars. He asks why he would want to kill his child? Mustapha’s POV.

Next D/M talk to Claire in her flat, which is perfectly neat and harmonious, a little glass booth in the sky. Claire is unfailingly polite and doesn’t try to flirt. She says that yes, they were old friends and had recently got back in touch, and Bruce had grown on her a little, and she was very excited about her friend’s pregnancy. Who would kill a pregnant woman? They ask her for an alibi. Claire does horse dressage at the poshest club around: this is where all the considerable money she makes goes. She was there for most of the critical period. This scene is told from Mustapha’s POV.

Now Elle, who says she knows Donna wasn’t actually pregnant. Donna forgot to flush and there was a tampon in the bowl. She was a little jealous of Donna, because Alex clearly fancied her, but she told Alex that Donna wasn’t pregnant and smart Alex got suspicious and dumped Donna. Diana’s POV.

Now an old posh Southern lady at the horse club. Of course Claire was there that night, though she seemed unusually frazzled. All the ladies love Claire: she’s so classy! Oh, goodness: the dead woman was here just the other day, came to see Claire, who wasn’t there yet, then when Claire did show up, and Donna was about to sit down to tea with some of the ladies, and Claire got visibly upset and dragged Donna out. All this was about twelve hours before Donna died. More of a third person omniscient POV.

Now Claire, one more time. D/M try to rattle her, but she’s a perfect pixie–until they bring up that Alex, upon being threatened about having lied by omission to the police, admitted that he told her Donna wasn’t really pregnant. She claims to have told Bruce, but they know Bruce didn’t know: he wasn’t a good enough actor. But even this doesn’t rattle her much, nor does the recap of what the cops know. Claire remains calm, perhaps hinting that what might have happened might have been self-defense.

Short Story, “The Vacuum Princess”

Near the beginning of this story, Diana and Mustapha are confronting a suspect:

Mustapha slapped a folder on the table. “Jessica Kilgore.”

“I’m sorry? Who’s she?”

“Don’t play dumb with us, Mr. Henderson.”

“I’m… not.”

Mustapha flipped open the folder, to show a black and white photo of a younger Henderson standing next to a much younger woman, both of them in black suits, surrounded by other mourners. “Right there, Mr. Henderson.”

“Oh. That bitch. Hunh. I don’t know if I ever knew her last name.” He looked up at them, unconcerned. “Tell me something horrible happened to her.”

[He gives them an alibi] “What happened to her?”

Diana said, “She was murdered, sir.”

Henderson sat back, toyed with his napkin. “I really ought to feel bad. I haven’t seen her since 2002. No, that’s not true: I was at… the Dogwood Festival? One of those. Saw her in the crowd, I turned away. Two years ago, maybe three. I didn’t kill her; I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about her.”

“Her friends were real clear, Mr. Henderson: she’d told four different people that if she were to end up dead, we needed to come talk to you.”

“Really? How recently?”

Diana tapped on her phone. “You took her aside at a party in 2006 or 2007 and told her in great detail about how you were watching her, and that you were going to kidnap her and bury her alive in a state park.”

Henderson looked back and forth between Diana and Mustapha, twice, his face carefully neutral. Finally, “She had a real talent for embellishing her stories. Did she suffer, when she was killed?”

Diana began, “Mr. Henderson, that’s–”

“No, Detective, it is important. Because if she didn’t suffer, I didn’t kill her. I would want her to know full well what was coming and why.” He tossed the napkin into the salad bowl. “That woman, through depraved indifference, bears the responsibility for the entirely preventable death of one of my best friends.  She cut Justine off, she drained the life from her, and then she left her to die when she knew Justine was badly injured. All so she could find a new victim on the dance floor at Eddie’s Attic. Do you know what happened to that woman?” This time, Henderson couldn’t suppress his grin. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. Go look it up.”

So this story sets up a nice conflict. A woman is murdered; there is a man who believed he had good reason to dislike her and made this public. Naturally, the question is going to be did he kill her, and most likely, the answer will be “no,” because it’s more dramatic for there to be somebody else who knew about his enmity for her and decided to kill her for some other reason and frame him for it. The scene will end with Diana as asking Henderson what he has to say about the baseball bat that was found at the crime scene with his fingerprints on it. Henderson has no answer other than to urge them to call his attorney.

But the problem is, it’s the wrong conflict. The central conflict in this story is Henderson’s anger at Jessica Kilgore for whatever it was that caused the death of his friend Justine. So by eliminating Kilgore from the story right away, all of the primary conflict is pushed to the margins of the story. It therefore requires another victim. Kilgore has a new lover – let’s make it a man, this time – who ends up on the floor of their shared house, bludgeoned with a baseball bat bearing Henderson’s fingerprints. This way, Kilgore can plausibly argue that Henderson killed her lover to make her suffer, and Henderson can point the police in the direction of Kilgore’s other dead lovers and make the case that she is framing him because of his well-known grudge against her.

This means I have to rewrite most of the beginning of the story, but frankly, this is par for the course. If you’re going to have a decade-long conflict as the centerpiece of a story, it’s more compelling dramatically to have both of the parties to the conflict able to speak within the story.