The Christmas Train – Flash Fiction for the Holidays

I first wrote this post for The Great Noveling Adventure blog, and it was originally published on December 18, 2013. 

This was my entry for our Christmas flash fiction contest, and my first attempt at writing flash fiction. Using one of five given pictures, we had to create a Christmas-themed story in 1000 words or less.


 

I’ve always struggled with writing prompt exercises, so I wasn’t sure how well this would go. Although this was definitely challenging, I ended up having a lot of fun writing this story, despite the morose tone. I found my mind dwelling on the heartache of this season and how we can feel our losses most intensely during this time of year. Bombarded with images of happy people and family-togetherness could be unbearable for some. That’s where this story came from, deep within the macabre recesses of my mind.

I hope you enjoy it!

 

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THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN

The happiest day of my life was with Flynn.

“Meet me in the square by the holiday village,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s a surprise,” he said. “Wait and see.” I heard him chuckle before he hung up, unable to restrain his excitement.

I was terrible at waiting, so I rushed through the streets filled with Christmas. I spotted him among the twinkling lights, smiling with his whole face. I raced across the space separating us. He caught me in a crushing hug, the smell of cinnamon clung to his clothes. I wondered for a moment where he’d been.

“Have you been baking?” I rubbed my cold nose against his. He laughed and then set me down gently, keeping a hold of my hand.

“I’ll never tell.” He held his other hand behind him. “Ready to take a ride?”

“Where? Is that the surprise? Show me, show me!” I reached behind his back. He laughed some more and I could feel it rumbling through his body. He fought to keep me from grabbing his hand. Finally he gave in and offered up the prize. Two tickets for the Christmas train. I squealed and hugged him even tighter.

“I thought we could visit St. Nick, maybe tell him what we want most,” he said. Flynn knew I hadn’t had much of a traditional family upbringing, no special Christmas traditions, no big family gatherings. Mostly because my parents were too tired from working a million jobs just to keep that leaky roof over our heads. Flynn wanted to give me something I’d missed out on, a piece of childhood magic.

We strolled through the different holiday scenes, with me gripping our tickets to keep them safe. I felt so happy and light. The smiling children, all bundled up with their bright cheeks glowing. The smell of hot cider.

Lights.

Trees.

Snow.

Was there snow?

I don’t remember. I wish I’d paid more attention to the details. I do remember riding the Christmas train, swaying back and forth as it trundled down the track, Flynn holding me close as we stared out the windows. I never wanted the train to stop. I remember kissing Flynn after we arrived at the North Pole station. Soft, welcoming lips. Cold breath puffing out between us in little clouds. Flynn’s ice blue eyes exploring my face. He was searching for something.

Did he not find it?

Is that why he’s gone?

I received a letter the day after he left us. Nothing about why or about how he’d miss me, just a heart-breaking poem about trees. Solitary and untouched in a wood never traveled. An ache in my side dug a sharp pang of loss deep into my soul and crept over to my heart, plunging it into an ice bath of separateness. Aloneness.

Alone.

He left me alone.

I tried to recapture the sense of magic he shared with me that day. I put up a tree; it only reminded me of him. His uncontainable spirit couldn’t handle this world. How was I supposed to go on without him? I stripped off the glass balls, breaking branches and smearing my hands with resin. I smashed every single one on the pristine ceramic tile.

Pop. Pop. Pop!

Like melodic tinkling explosions; the sound that killed Christmas. He was everywhere I turned, and nowhere at the same time.

This year, Christmas has lost all its color, it’s meaning. The lights don’t illuminate me. The food has lost its taste. I never walk down that road anymore. Afraid his ghost will brush the wind against my lips, an ephemeral kiss empty of substance, and bring on an aching I can’t overcome.

The holiday smells of pine and cider and cinnamon enrage me.

Strangers smile.

“Merry Christmas,” they say in passing.

I restrain myself from punching them in the face. From screaming at them, “How can you be happy when Flynn is gone?”

I blame them for not knowing him and for making him disappear.

He was my joy.

He is gone.

A couple oblivious to my despair, races towards each other in unbridled ecstasy. The handsome young man catches his lover in strong, hopeful arms and raises her up into a familiar crushing hug. It’s too much. How can they flaunt their happiness in front of me? Can’t they feel my pain rolling off me like angry tidal waves?

I cannot endure another day.

I write my own letter, a poem about the ocean and it’s vast emptiness. I make a final trek back to the scene of our happiest time and tuck the poem deep inside the boughs of the enormous spruce tree, all covered in lights. Maybe someone will find it. Maybe someone will understand.

I step out in front of the Christmas train.

Bright lights, pain, blood, and snow.

This time there is definitely snow.

Natalie C. Parker – The Art of Critique and Madcap Retreats – Author Interview

I met Natalie while attending her Critique Camp a few years ago. She really helped me learn how to dig deeper with my critiquing skills. I am now able to be more specific with my suggestions, and tie them in to direct examples from the manuscript instead of making vague statements like, “the pacing is too slow” or “I can’t identify with this character”.

Natalie’s suggestions for my own manuscript pages were insightful and direct. She really knows her stuff. And such a delight to work with!

This year, she was one of our first guests for SCBWI OK’s monthly Twitter chat, #okscbwichat. Natalie talked about the art of critique. She so was fantastic. (You can read the Storify version of that chat here.)

Before we get to the interview, let’s learn about Natalie’s debut novel:

Beware the WildBEWARE THE WILD written by Natalie C. Parker

Published by: Harper Teen

Release Date: October 21, 2014

Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, Paranormal

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Plot Summary:

It’s an oppressively hot and sticky morning in May when Sterling and her brother, Phin, have an argument that compels him to run into the town swamp — the one that strikes fear in all the residents of Sticks, Louisiana. Phin doesn’t return. Instead, a girl named Lenora May climbs out, and now Sterling is the only person in Sticks who remembers her brother ever existed.

Sterling needs to figure out what the swamp’s done with her beloved brother and how Lenora May is connected to his disappearance — and loner boy Heath Durham might be the only one who can help her. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

So fantastic! Natalie infuses her story with a thick layer of bayou atmosphere and local folklore that sets a fantastic stage for this eerie tale. It took me no time at all to care for Sterling, the main character, and I never got tired of the language. Such a fantastic read from beginning to end. I couldn’t put it down.

The Interview

NCP1hires_crop-195x300Valerie Lawson: You provide many fantastic services for your fellow writers – Critique Camp, Agented Author Hookups, and your latest project, Madcap Retreats – what inspired you to take on these projects? What can you tell us about them?

Natalie Parker: The writing community has been so supportive of my journey that anytime I find a way to give something back, I try to make it happen. That’s how each of the services you listed above came to be — I saw a need and decided I could do something about it.

We are told over and over again to find critique partners, but figuring out how to be a critique partner is a skill that can take years to develop. Critique Camp is a 2-week online course meant to help writers hone their analytical skills.

The Agented Author Hook-up is just that. I have a public application form for writers who are in that weird in-between space of having an agent and no sales. It’s a truly strange time in a writer’s life. When I have 10(ish) names, I connect a group and send them off to form a new, small, supportive community.

Ah, and Madcap Retreats. Well, frankly, I love writing retreats and my career would not have advanced quite as quickly without them. So much of the writing process is and needs to be solitary, but we also need places were we can come together and pool our wisdom about both the craft and the business. That’s what I’m doing with Madcap — creating space for writers to meet, network, and grow.

VL: I honestly wouldn’t have thought about an awkward growing stage. Who would, really, until you’re in it? We’re all so focused on getting to that agented level. So wonderful that you did. 

Putting together a writing retreat sounds like a monumental 

Actual location for upcoming Madcap Retreat event - workshop with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy.
Actual location for upcoming Madcap Retreat  – workshop with authors Jennifer Mathieu and Julie Murphy, “More Than a Beach Read”.

undertaking, where do you start?

NP: I start with the goal of the retreat. If it’s going to be loosely structure (mostly free writing time with a few group activities), then I go for a house with a beautiful view; if it’s going to be highly structure (mostly content-driven activities with a little free time), then I go for maximum comfort in the working spaces.

VL: That’s really smart. You’ll get the most productivity and enjoyment out of your environment either way.

Tell us about the road that led to your working with social scientists studying climate change. How do you balance this work with your writing? Has this career impacted your work as an author?

NP: That was sort of an accident…. I was restless in my job and cruising through openings at my same institution. The climate change job wasn’t advertised as such, but as a research administration position. When I interviewed for it and heard the kind of work they’d be doing, I knew I was in the right place.

Balancing that kind of career with a writing career has been difficult. The thing that’s been the hardest to learn is that one of them has to move more slowly and for all the usual reasons, that’s the writing for me. But I love all of my work and I want to love all of my work so slow is okay with me.

VL: Dealing with the slow pace of the publishing world is always challenging. It’s good that you’ve been able to accept that element.

Your first book, BEWARE THE WILD, was so delightfully creepy. I loved the spooky atmosphere the rural Louisiana setting provided, and the tale of vanishing and forgotten loved ones kept me up late reading to the end. What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid? Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

NP: I loved being afraid as a kid. But I think the scariest thing I every experienced was the movie Little Shop of Horrors. *shudders* It’s still deeply unsettling to me.

VL: That’s surprising. Some wouldn’t consider that a very scary movie. For me, I was traumatized by the movie version of Oliver! Some scene where he almost died? Really stuck with me when I was twelve. Guess it’s all about perspective.

Coming from a military family, you must have lived in many different places. Talk about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?

NP: We didn’t move as much as many military families. I was in Virginia for 12 years as a kid. Then, one day my mother made sushi and asked me how I’d feel about moving to Japan.

“Not great,” I answered, thinking surely she was just musing about the food.

“Well,” she said, and she said it very carefully. “Well, we are moving to Japan.”

So, the thing I hated most about it was moving there my freshman year of high school. But it’s where I met my best friend and partner, so I really can’t complain.

Also, once I got there, I loved EVERYTHING about it.

私は日本が大好き!

(Translation: I love Japan!)

VL: Ha! That would be quite a culture shock! So wonderful that you were able to embrace it.

Tell us a little about your teen years growing up. Like what was the worst job you ever had? Or what was the most embarrassing thing you experienced? Or what was the most memorable adventure you had with your friends?

NP: I should preface any stories I tell about my teen years with this: I am both a Sagittarius and a Gryffindor and I do not always make the safest choices.

But here is one.

Once, I was backpacking through Europe with my best friend and we were young college kids with no money. We were in Greece and we needed to get to Italy and to accomplish this feat required money. So we pooled our shrinking handful of coins and found a ship that would take us across the Adriatic Sea if we agreed to sleep on the deck out in the elements where the wind might sweep us overboard without anyone the wiser and we would be adopted by mermaids and never seen again…..

So, of course we did.

VL: OMG! I love that! Such great story fodder, and all because you just took a wild chance. 

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

NP: I’m sort of ridiculous about Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie. It’s gorgeous, complicated, genderqueer science fiction and I cannot WAIT to read the other two.

VL: I absolutely loved your debut novel, BEWARE THE WILD. Tell us Behold the Bones coverabout your latest book, BEHOLD THE BONES, the second book in the series. How does it differ from your first book?

Ah! Well, BEHOLD is a companion and switches narrators from Sterling to her best friend Candy who has an incredibly low tolerance for anything that looks even remotely like hogwash, so when ghosts appear in Sticks and everyone can see them except for her, she’s both frustrated beyond belief and determined to get to the bottom of things. It’s very much in conversation with BEWARE, but with a bit more bite.

VL: Ooh! Skeptic gets mixed up in the supernatural. And more bite? Yes, please!

What can you tell us about what you are currently working on? 

NP: Mostly Madcap Retreats. And I’ve just sold an anthology called Triangles: The Points of Love which will include 15 new stories from YA authors all featuring some variation/ complication/ exploration of the love triangle trope. All the juicy details are at this link😉

As for novels, I’m working on two young adult novels — one that deals with greek myth in the contemporary world, and one that’s set in my home stomping grounds of Gulfport, Mississippi.

VL: That all sounds exciting. I love a good anthology! And look at all of those great names! Should be interesting to see their different takes on the topic. 

Thanks so much for sharing with us, today. I look forward to your next book, and to spending some time at a Madcap Retreat in the future!

Learn more about Natalie C. Parker here.

Follow Natalie on Twitter here.

Follow Natalie on Tumblr here.

Learn more about Madcap Retreats here.

June #writemotivation Check In Number 3

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This month was quite the mixed bag as far as goal progress has been concerned.

To be honest, life has been throwing me some wicked curveballs lately, which has made just getting out of bed and taking a shower a major accomplishment. After another challenging week, I think I’m finally over the worst of it.

(* fingers crossed* and recognizing I’m totally tempting the fates by saying that.)

Here are my June goals:

1. Make word count goal of 2000 words five days each week. Nope. Total failure.

2. Complete requested project by the end of the month. Same. Not completed. Moving this to top priority – basically living, breathing this project – for next month.

3. Plan blog posts for the month and post weekly. COMPLETED! YAY! 

4. Read & review at least two books. Read total of seven books, and reviewed one. Overachieved on first part and I get partial credit on the other.

Overall, a very wobbly start, but at least it was a start. I know I’ll do better next month, and I’m already planning out how.

How about you? Do you need help sticking to your goals?

If so, why not join us? Sign up for July #writemotivation is open now! Click here if you’d like to join in.

June #writemotivation Check In Number 2

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I missed checking in last week.

It was a tough one.

I decided to put my focus where it was needed the most and my kids won. They will always win. Without going into the gory, emotional details, let’s just say we are all the better for the detour, and move on to this week.

Here are my June goals:

1. Make word count goal of 2000 words five days each week. Needless to say, I am behind on my word count goal. I do plan to catch up as fast as I can. I hope I can do that this week.

2. Complete requested project by the end of the month. I revisited the area that inspired this project over the weekend and really got some great ideas. So excited about this book! While I do hope to finish soon, it may take a little longer than I planned. I will write as long as it takes to get this done well.

3. Plan blog posts for the month and post weekly. Posts are going well for both sites – better than I expected.

4. Read & review at least two books. First review already posted for SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater! I’ve read five books so far this month – GOAL HALF ACCOMPLISHED. Maybe I can post another review before the end of the month. Maybe.

How about you? How are you doing with your goals?

Shining a Light in Dark Places – a #writemotivation check in

Spring GrassAh, spring!

It’s only a few days in and already I feel your magic. The trees are budding, the days are warmer, there is more sunlight.

I love springtime.

You saved me from the dreariness of winter in the nick of time.

That’s why I couldn’t believe this story I heard on NPR about this village Rjukan, in Norway that spends half a year in darkness. People living in darkness on purpose.

What?

That country’s first cable car was built in the town for the sole purpose of transporting villagers up to the light for their health. (My first question would be, if you have to do something that drastic, why would you ever, ever live there?)

Finally, one of it’s residents had a brilliant idea (no pun intended) to shed some light on the matter. (Yes, he was an artist.) Many people thought the idea was crazy and a waste of money, but apparently those same people are the ones you’ll find now standing in the town square basking in the warm sun, transported down from above by the fantastic combination of art and engineering. Computer-controlled mirrors now reflect the sun’s light and beam it down to the grateful people below. Brilliant, right?

My point? Just when you think you’re stuck in six months of never-ending darkness, maybe step back and reevaluate your surroundings, your plight. There  could be another way to look at your situation that you just haven’t thought of. I don’t know, I just found it creative as hell and hopeful.  Human beings are amazing, sometimes.

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Now to check on my #writemotivation goals for the week:

  1. Make progress on new YA project (Pretty Vacant) including plotting out new story arc and starting on first draft with word count goal of 30K. Steady progress made. I’m closer to 18K than 30K, which isn’t bad. Might just make this goal.
  2. Submit first YA manuscript to at least 15 agents. I’m behind on this goal, but I do have some potential agents narrowed down. I feel confident that I can meet this goal by next week.
  3. Read at least 6 books this month. (I’m a little behind on my yearly reading goal already!) This one is going well. I have finished five books already. I’m currently TheGraveyardBook_Hardcover_1218248432reading Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. It has a great opening line: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” And this is accompanied by such an ominous illustration that the mood is perfectly set.
  4. Get back into exercise routine slowly – at least three times week. Meh progress. Two times. Next week comes the dreaded return of the elliptical. I know this helps me have more energy and helps me fight of the depression uglies, so do it I must.

Today I’m also posting over at The Great Noveling Adventure blog. I’m discussing craft books that have helped me stop totally sucking at making amateur mistakes and I’m looking for some more suggestions to stop making the even bigger mistakes. If you have a book on writing that you’ve found invaluable in your quest to be the best writer you can be, hop on over and share it with us.

Next weekend is the SCBWI OK spring conference! WOOHOO! I will be tweeting about the conference throughout the weekend at #SCBWIOK14 if you care to follow along. I will, of course, give you all the highlights and my favorite takeaways from the great speakers we have lined up in future posts, so stay tuned!

Hope you are taking command of your goals and bowing them to your will.

Keep writing!

Guest Blog Post Where I Talk About…Cooking?

No, you haven’t landed in an alternate universe.

And for God’s sake, stop laughing. On second thought, I’m no tyrant, laugh if you must. It is rather funny.

I was asked to contribute a guest post by the lovely Brandi Barnett for her virtual potluck series about soups. “Sure!” I said. I may not be a domestic goddess by any stretch of the imagination, but soup I can handle. So hop on over to her blog of wonder and see what’s cooking. No doubt you will be surprised.