Flash Fiction

Flash Fiction

Striving to keep my writing on an upward spiral, I’ve found that writing ‘flash fiction’ is an excellent exercise. I describe it as a story in half a nutshell. My flash fiction stories tend to be no more than 1,500 words which some pundits classify as a ‘micro-story’ (if you’re into labels). The story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, not just a rambling conglomeration of thoughts or emotions. Anything goes and to me their value is in helping learn how to more effectively use words by carving away the extraneous. It’s also a lot of fun! Here’s one of my stories called Dust Bunny.

Dust Bunny
(Flash Fiction by Will Ottinger)

The real estate agent, a tall Pilates blond in a tailored navy suit, unlocks the front door in the fading light and steps inside the foyer. Calculating I’m dressed well enough to buy, she’s gushed about the house since we stepped from her car. She has to see I’m perspiring heavily but keeps the smile in place, most likely suppressing her fear my trendy neighbors won’t appreciate me as an addition to weekend cocktail parties.
“I normally wouldn’t allow this,” she sighs benevolently, “but since you lived here as a boy, I understand.” Tolerance bestowed on me she taps a manicured fingernail on the entry table. “Leave the key here in the morning. And remake the bed. It’s a model home and we prefer everything to be… you know, neat.” She means the sheets will have to be changed, but forces a smile and closes the door, sealing me inside.
Childhood, they say, is the cradle of all terror. I don’t mean being frightened by dogs or bullies. Terror is the fear of things you can’t touch.
I’m thirty-nine years old and was seven when we moved into the house. Funny how the years diminish most memories and deny the past. But something made me the exception. After we moved away, I smelled my nightmares on my worst nights.
They say you can’t go home, but I’ve done it. I’ve come back to hell.
Like the entire transitional neighborhood, the house’s exterior is gentrified, a cutesy starter for newlyweds and downsizers. Several surrounding houses disappeared, but this one survived. Not that carpenters or painters would have disturbed the boarder. Hell, they never heard it scuttle across wooden floors, or listened to the wetness seep from ancient nostrils. How could they? They were gone when night descended.
My mother didn’t want the house with its hundred years of peeling wood, musty carpet and dark corners, but the house was cheap, abandoned, the previous owner’s furniture still in place for reasons I never understood until it was too late. My mother knew better than to argue with my father and we moved in, commandeering ruined furniture complete with deep gouges, peculiar odors and soiled fabric rotting from the inside.
As a boy the first thing I’d noticed were the faded walls, scabbed and patched, the plaster drinking up an odd color of paint that reminded me of crushed toadstools. Did former families huddle in the wounded room waiting for daylight, venting their terror on the ruined furniture and walls? Or did they finally just sit numbly in chairs like my mother and father, far from my bedroom, filling ashtrays with guilt and bent cigarettes, trying to fathom what shared the house with their son.
I glance at the key on the table and suppress the urge to bolt after the woman. Instead, I look at the smooth new drywall, smelling varnish and fresh plaster. The late afternoon sunlight appears lethargic, piped through a leaded window at the top of the wooden stairs as though the sun itself was anxious to flee the night.
I am mad to come back, I think, my awareness mounting as my ears endure the high-pitched wail of silence. But if I’m honest, I have to do this. My last company walked away from me the previous week. Like the others, management didn’t value catatonic states and late arrivals, attributing them to alcohol or a mental flaw that embarrassed the suits and clients. My last two wives eventually agreed and discovered other diversions.
But tonight, I will sleep in the belly of my madness and defeat it. A child cannot live forever in an adult, and therapists claim confrontation is good for the soul, a therapeutic bandage for the past.
I gaze up the stairs toward the second floor. Will the fourth step still protest my weight after all the renovation? I climb, relieved when the board is solid, mute. The stairwell reeks of paint and sawn wood. At the top the new window of yellows and greens tolerates the fading sunlight as dusk surrenders to the approaching night. I flip the light switch. Nothing. Not surprising, I think. Houses aren’t shown at night.
I’d always counted the steps from the top of the stairs to my bedroom. Fifteen steps, maybe twelve on adult legs. My old bedroom waits behind a new bone-white door. The door grates open with a metallic squeal and I stop, hemmed in by the molding. Why would a new door protest my entry?
A child’s furniture clutters the small room, shiny additions for innocent lookers. Faint moonlight illuminates a narrow bed covered by a suffocating duvet that beckons from the center of the room. Feeling slightly ridiculous, I quickly undress and slip beneath the thick coverlet, pulling it to my chin as the ceiling slides from gray to black like a heavy lid being closed.
I will mend my broken world and cast off a boy’s memories. Warm and contented, I allow the room’s silence to mock my nightmares. An old house made new with nothing…
The first sound is a leathery rustling. I squeeze my eyes shut. The noise stops and I laugh uneasily. The oldest infantile cliché – monsters under the bed. More likely renovation and new structural supports, or a self-fulfilling imagination. There are no —
The next sound is moist as something primal shifts on the hardwood floor. The dank breath is rotten, ancient with decay and malice. Unable to stop myself, I do something I never dared as a child: I lean over the bedside, place my hand on the floor and peer beneath the bed.
Two malevolent golden eyes stare at me. Squatting close to the floor on clawed appendages, the bloated flesh heaves and grunts, and I scream as a scaly tentacle sinks its talons into my wrist. My grip on the wooden bedframe fails and I slide onto the cold floor, screaming. No one hears my choked cry of surrender as the oily feeler drags me beneath the bed.
***
The blond real estate agent unlocks the front door and smugly ushers the family into the house. “Best buy on the block,” she gushes.
Her high heel steps on something. Annoyed, she stoops and picks up the door key, then cocks her head, listening. No noise, no note, nothing to indicate the sweaty man’s presence or gratitude. She gathers herself and rearranges her smile.
“It’s a charmer,” she coos to the husband and wife and little boy. “Clean and safe.” She smiles down at the seven-year old.
“Not even a dust bunny under the bed.”

“Shadows of Leonardo” Preview

The manuscript for my next novel is completed and now rests in my editor’s capable hands!

Shadows of Leonardo is the sequel to The Last Van Gogh and again features Adam Barrow as he seeks the truth about newly discovered drawings and a painting, purportedly the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

At a New York auction, an old man disrupts the bidding, claiming to have an ancient book proving one of the drawings was not rendered by da Vinci. Instructed by his wealthy mentor, Phillip Dansby, to bid on the drawing, Adam finds himself drawn into three murders, a new love interest and web of treachery. With hundreds of millions of dollars in the balance, the unexpected discovery of a World War Two mystery leads him into a web of deceit while his life hangs in the balance.

Here’s an excerpt:

    … The elderly man beside me jumped to his feet.
    “It is not the work of Leonardo da Vinci!”
    I reached for his arm as two guards started toward us.
    “You cannot do this,” he shouted. “This is not da Vinci!”
    One of the security men reached past me and grabbed the old man’s coat. A second burly guard edged down the row and jerked him from his chair.
    “You are wrong, all of you!”
    Chairs fell over. The auctioneer banged his gavel, his voice lost in the crowd noise. The guards hustled the old man from the room as employees rushed on stage to guard the da Vinci.
    I don’t know why I followed the trio out of the salesroom. If I missed the da Vinci, Dansby would most likely demand my head, but I didn’t like seeing elderly men roughly handled. Excusing myself as I pushed past people and caught up as the guards frog-marched him into the lobby. A staff member rushed ahead and opened an exit door.
    “Hey, hold on,” I shouted. “He’s with me.”
    The guards stopped and turned, their captive looking around in confusion. He sagged against them as I tried to ignore the fact both security men were armed. I walked to the largest one who tightened his grip, his prey in visible pain.
    “This is my uncle.” I carefully pulled away the guard’s hand. “He’s on medication for Tourette Syndrome.”
   Both of them looked at me without an inkling of what I just said. “It’s a disease. He can’t help what he says.” They reluctantly released him and I smoothed his coat sleeves, managing a smile at their hesitant benevolence.
    “I’ll make sure he gets home and won’t bother you again.”
    “The crazy old bastard needs to be locked away,” said the scrawnier of the two.
    “I’ll get him home,” I repeated, edging away.
    “Just get him the hell out of here.”
    “Thank you, officer.”
    I gently placed my hand on the old man’s back and ushered him toward the cloakroom where I handed over my claim check without looking back at the small crowd that had gathered.
    “What is this Tourette Syndrome?” asked my newest uncle.
    He no longer sounded like a Bellevue escapee.
    “Something you don’t have. It was all I could think of.”

READERS’ FAVORITE AWARD

Readers’ Favorites:  5-Star Award & Bronze Medal

Reviewed by Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers’ Favorite 

Adam is a struggling art dealer in Chicago. His most recent show promises to bring him some luck and fame, but the artist, Vasily Sorokin, is murdered outside the gallery. To make matters worse, Vasily’s uncle is part of the Russian mob. Adam’s brother, Wes, shows up with some letters and an unlikely story that their father had smuggled an unknown Van Gogh painting, a rather large one, out of France at the beginning of the Second World War. A hidden and undocumented painting. Adam hesitates to believe it. Their father, after all, was a drunk and a con man. But, with people all around Adam being killed and the Russian mob boss interested in financing a search, Adam begins an adventure that reads like a James Bond exclusive. In the end, though, he wonders if this painting, or any work of art for that matter, is worth so many deaths.

Will Ottinger’s thriller mystery novel, The Last Van Gogh, takes the reader on an exciting adventure that spans two continents and two centuries. Written primarily in the first person, from Adam’s point of view, the author also incorporates multiple points of view in the third person, including the famed artist himself. The action-packed plot develops with rising tension and sporadic looks into Van Gogh’s troubled life from the artist’s perspective. The painting captures the attention of multiple evil powers and the plot thickens. The author uses powerful descriptive passages to set the scene and develop the characters with efficiency. Not only are the notations on Van Gogh credible and well researched, but the author has created a very plausible situation that will make the reader wonder what other missing masterpieces are hidden around the world. A fascinating read.

NEW AUDIO BOOK!

NEW AUDIO BOOK!

Amazon has just released “The Last Van Gogh” on audio books. Offered by Beacon Audio Books, the novel is read by movie, Broadway and television actor, James Thomas Werther. So, if you’re rather listen than read, pick up your copy on Amazon!

Doing Your Homework

Doing My Homework

No one I knew liked homework as a kid⸺and it’s still a pain for most authors of fiction.

As a reader, however, few things are more distracting than finding errors. A revolver that fires 11 shots – a Mustang convertible in 1950 – a shoulder holster worn under a shirt (!). These are actual bloopers that found their way into novels, speedbumps that disrupted the story in midstream.

No one’s perfect when it comes to mistakes but it’s distracting when an author “assumes.” Readers expect seamless flow. They look forward to entering another time and place, and errors disrupt that world. It’s the writer’s job not only to portray characters and emotions, but to base details on fact. Doing research can be boring and time-consuming but it sometimes brings unexpected rewards; a little-known fact can lead to subtle nuances or take the story in a new direction.

It was once a hassle to conduct research which meant trips to the library or archives. This was especially true when writing a novel dealing with a specific subject or stories set in the past. What were popular wines in 1930? When did automobiles become common transportation? What’s the weather like in Tuscany in November? When did Leonardo da Vinci die? The writer usually ended up with unwieldy stacks of 3X5 cards loaded with facts. Invariably, this meant trips back to the source for more information. Much of that grueling work has now gone by the board with advent of the Net⸺but even that’s fraught with challenges for the writer.

 Pitfalls 

Wikipedia is a good example. While providing information, Wikipedia material can be unsubstantiated or questionable at best. I know teachers who do not allow Wikipedia to be used for research since a surprising amount of data is posted to pursue an agenda or provide a forum for erroneous opinions. Exactly who posted the information many times is not indicated.

Writers dread discovering a post-publishing mistake or having a fact disputed by a knowledgeable reader. I try to avoid this by consulting reliable sites on the Net and falling back on standard references (like books!). I was fortunate in writing my first novel, A Season for Ravens. Since WW1 aviation has been a life-long interest, my shelves are overflowing with books and information on the subject. Conversely, The Savannah Betrayals was more of a challenge than I envisioned. Having grown up in Savannah, I ‘assumed’ I had the facts at hand. However, I quickly discovered that I knew little about the city in 1836: How it looked; how people lived; their dress; existing streets, buildings, squares; public attitudes about dueling; etc.

None of this is a plea for reader sympathy. Doing your homework is part of writing. Research simply guarantees both the story and characters include true-to-life details without those speedbumps.

WRITER CRITIQUE GROUPS

WHY A CRITIQUE GROUP?

While I’ve published three books and working on a fourth, I meet regularly with my critique group composed of other writers. Why submit myself to criticism? In my mind I’ll always remain someone who never stops learning the art of writing fiction.
Writing, I’ve found, is a learning process like any new endeavor. When I hear someone say, “I’m going to sit down someday and write a novel,” I wince because I started with the same mindset: just sit at a word processor and let words magically appear on the page. Like 99% of other writers, I soon learned acceptable good writing required a certain amount of research and study (the other 1% possess a gene denied the rest of us⸺meaning we admire them and hate their guts!). But for those like myself, learning a new skill meant reading books on writing, everything from how-to books to more esoteric works on rejection and writers’ block, all the while reading books by authors whom I admire.
In addition to digesting books on writing fiction, I consider critique groups an extremely valuable tool, especially for aspiring authors. Maybe the likes of Elizabeth George and Denis Lehane no longer see value in critique sessions, but most top-end writers have staffs and experienced editors to assist them. Me, I value the eyes and opinions of fellow writers.

A PERSONAL CHOICE

If you’re a writer, participating in a critique group comes down to personal choice. First, you should have some bark on you i.e., a willingness to listen and accept criticism. Some people thoroughly enjoy and benefit from them, while other writers won’t go near one. Find the right one for you even it means test-driving several until you feel comfortable. I suggest you seek out people who have at least a modicum of writing experience or have been published, and who write a genre you can relate to. Don’t be argumentative or overly sensitive to negative comments. After all, that’s one of the reasons why you’re there.
Participants do more than sit around, drink wine, and talk about writing. In effective groups, each writer passes around a written chapter of a work in progress (usually no more than ten pages), then reads it aloud. Members make notes, observations, and critical suggestions for improvement, discussing them before moving on to the next author. I don’t have to agree with every comment or criticism or word change. In the end, it’s a subjective judgment. After all, it’s my book and I ultimately decide what changes are germane and what I want to remain unchanged, but I try hard to put aside my ego and kill off poor word choices, confusing passages, or unclear writing.
Ultimately, the best thing about critique groups is interacting with other writers. It’s a catalyst that recharges my writing batteries, that validates what I’m doing. In most instances, I can’t wait to get back to the keyboard to incorporate perceptive observations that improve what ends up on the final pages.

Learn from the Best

One of my favorite authors is Howard Bahr, a writer who has taught literature and creative writing at Mississippi and Tennessee colleges and universities. He was curator of the William Faulkner house in Oxford, Mississippi for 20 years, served in the navy, and worked for railroads after his military service. Two of his novels, The Black Flower and Pelican Road, rank among my personal top 25 books. I’ve been fortunate to occasionally correspond with him, and knowing I was an aspiring writer, he sent me the following: “Uncle Howard’s Ten Commandments for his Students Wandering in the Wilderness.” I cannot recommend his writing strongly enough since he one of today’s most moving and sensitive authors.

  1. Thou shalt not be afraid, neither shalt thou be daunted.
  2. Thou shalt take chances.
  3. Thou shalt study the world about thee: he who hath ears, let him hear; he who hath eyes, let him see.
  4. Thou shalt steal liberally from thy neighbors, godly and ungodly alike, and from thy friends and kinsmen: their stories, their sayings, their manner of speech and dress.
  5. Howbeit, thou shalt not steal from thy fellow artists, unless they giveth thee the green light.
  6. Keep holy the writing time, for it is sacred and belongs to thee alone and no other. Likewise, the talent, a precious gift from Providence.
  7. Thou shalt create a world out of the firmament, and lo, it shall be peopled with men and women, with beasts of the field and birds of the air, with trees and houses and gardens with taverns and funeral parlors and automobiles – with all good things that Providence hath shown thee. And thou shalt sublimate this world so that even the most common thing is robed in wonder and light. And this world shalt be real so the reader looketh thereon and say unto thee: Behold, I am with thee, even unto the end of this thou hast made.
  8. And out of the dust of the earth shalt thou create them: men, women, drunks and dope-fiends, tree-huggers and cheerleaders, suckling babes (though not too many), the infirm and the insane, the evil and the good, the ugly and the beautiful, and thou shalt love them all, even as the Good God loves his own. This thou shalt do so that, by the power of thine own love, the Reader will love them too, and say unto thee: I care about these who thou hast made, no matter how humble, for thou hast exalted them.
  9. Remember thou comest not to bring peace, but to stir up the hearts of men with conflict. Thou shalt create all manner of chaos and trouble, for without these, there can be no story.
  10. Honor thy reader.

History Buff?

Stay alert for a great upcoming HBO miniseries by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg based on the marvelous non-fiction book, “Masters of the Air” by Donald I. Miller.  This new series will take you along with 8th Air Force B-17’s over Germany during World War where losses exceeded those of the entire U.S. Marine Corps during the war. 

If you enjoyed “Band of Brothers,” this series will be offered with the same scale and production values, following a cast of characters as they struggle to complete 25 missions. Filmed on location in Great Britain with enhanced modern visuals that take you on missions inside and outside the bombers, the officers’ and enlisted men’s personal experiences are woven into a part of history that’s almost unbelievable.  

If you like history that reads like fiction, you might also want to check out Donald Miller’s book.   Spielberg’s and Hanks’ previous collaborations have shown they’re dedicated to accuracy and a finely-honed sense of drama. They’ve committed a huge cast, budget and resources to this marvelous project that’s tentatively scheduled for release sometime in 2020-2021. You shouldn’t miss it.

 

2019 Maxy Award Winner

I was fortunate to win this year’s 2019 Maxy Award for Best Mystery-Detective Novel (www.maxyaward.com). Books are chosen in eight categories with awards given to the winners and runners-up. It’s a special honor in that the award not only recognizes achievements in writing, but more importantly, most of the entry proceeds go to assist developmentally challenged children. Check them out and read how it all got started.

New News

My wife and I recently moved to Atlanta Georgia, our original stomping grounds (actually, we moved to Sandy Springs, a northern suburb of this beautiful city,).  Despite the endless hassles associated with moving, it’s good to be home although we’ll miss our Texas friends and I’ll especially miss my Houston critique group.

Coming back to Atlanta brings a strong sense of déjà vu since we’ve both been away for almost 30 (!) years.  Coming home to Georgia ends my corporate wandering that took me to St. Louis, Chicago, and Houston during that time. Each was a pleasure, unique in special ways with new friends, but returning to one’s native state definitely feels like coming home, bringing both of us closer to family and memories.

To top off my return, I’ve joined the Atlanta Writers Club, a 115-year old organization with almost 1,000 members.  I’m in the process of helping form a critique group, believing interaction with other writers is not only a distinct pleasure, but keeps the skills sharpened while helping newcomers with the pleasures and pain of writing.